Part One of Three:
"Now there's a cheerful holiday sound," Johnny Gage grumbled, "the sound of broken glass being swept off the pavement." He gestured toward the pile of glass, plastic, and chrome that Chet Kelly and Marco Lopez were busily clearing out of the middle of the intersection. "Roy, do you realize this is our 9th traffic accident in the past two shifts?"
"Well, we should be thankful this one was only bumps and bruises," his partner, Roy DeSoto, responded, stooping to help Johnny pick up a few stray pieces of gauze that were threatening to blow away. "It could have been a lot worse when you consider the fact that there were three vehicles involved."
"Yes, but that's my point, Roy. Don't you see? This accident was completely unnecessary. If people weren't so stressed-out and in such a hurry… I mean, there is no excuse for running a red light like that."
"We don't know for sure that’s what happened."
"Of course that's what happened!" Johnny responded adamantly. "Didn't you hear all that yelling and screaming going on? Where's their holiday spirit? What about taking time out of your busy day to do something caring for someone? Hold the door open, give to the needy, love thy neighbor? I'll tell ya’ Roy, it just makes no sense to me…"
"Are you through?" Roy stared at Johnny, amazed at how the most trivial thing could set him off.
"Ranting?" Johnny replied with an air of indignation. "I am NOT ranting! You're the one who's been a grouch all day."
"And that's exactly my point. You just don't understand." Roy turned and headed towards the squad, with Johnny on his heels, jogging to catch up.
"I don't understand...why’ve you been a grouch all day?" Johnny pressed.
"You simply don't understand the pressures of the holiday season, Johnny. You keep talking ‘spirit’, but what I am getting at home right now has nothing to do with spirit. I said one little thing to Joanne about being too busy to get the lights up this weekend and she just flew right off the handle. Accused me of never doing enough, can you believe that? I just don't understand what she wants, sometimes. Then she had the nerve to call me a scrooge, after she came back, that is."
"Came back in the house. Never mind. I just know that I'm not a scrooge."
"Well," Johnny said as he climbed into the squad and shut the door, "just because she thinks you're a scrooge doesn't mean you have to take it out on me." He reflected on the situation for a moment. "You know what you need to do, Roy? You need to put yourself in others' shoes for a while. Get into the spirit of the season. Look at those who are less fortunate than you…like me, for instance. I love being single, but it's not all it's cracked up to be this time of year, you know. Think of the people who would give anything to be in your situation. I'm sure there are many people out there who just need companionship…people who are alone, needy, or have no place to go…"
Gracie Stevenson sat in her worn but comfortable upholstered rocker, watching the world pass by outside her window. She wore her best housecoat and her pink fluffy slippers, just as she had every morning for months, it seemed. She absently stroked her cat, eliciting a happy mew and a contented purr. Maybe she'd get a Christmas card in the mail today. Well, maybe not. Maybe Christmas carolers would stop by tonight. One could hope. She heard the scanner on the lamp table squawk to life, but it was nothing important; not to her. Not yet. She took a sip of her lukewarm Earl Grey tea, careful not to spill.
"Shouldn't be too long now, Max," her voice crackled. "That didn't sound too serious. Didn't even have to follow up with a trip to Rampart. Better go comb my hair and put some lipstick on. Don't want those boys thinking I'm gettin' sloppy in my old age." She carefully placed her companion on the cushion, and slowly made her way to the bathroom, turning up the volume on the scanner as she passed by.
Gracie looked in the mirror at the cloud of white that had replaced her once-luxurious auburn curls. She sighed deeply at the wrinkled face in the glass.
Where are you in there, Gracie?
She jumped slightly as the strong and familiar voice of youth issued from the scanner. An almost impish smile formed on her lips as she heard the words she had been waiting for.
"Squad 51, available."
Johnny shut his door and quickly made his way around the back end of the squad. He followed Roy into the day room and plopped down in the nearest chair.
"Man, I'm just saying that we all gotta look just a little harder. I bet this 'stressing' out over the season would be a lot better if we..." Johnny continued, running his hand through his hair.
"Can it, Gage," Chet groused as he and the rest of the engine crew filed into the room. "You don't know what you're talking about!"
"Geez, is everyone playing the part of Scrooge today?" Johnny shook his head and leaned onto the table with his elbows. "All I'm saying is that we need to do something...anything...to keep us in the Christmas spirit and make someone else's holiday a little nicer."
Roy watched the familiar banter between Johnny and Chet as he leaned by the counter nursing his cup of coffee.
"Well, Gage, what we need is for the people in this county to pay attention to their driving! I've lost count on the number of traffic accidents today!" replied Chet.
"Yea, yea, Chet, but that's not what I'm talking about..." Johnny sighed.
"Look, gentlemen, let's do this. How 'bout we all think of ways we could help someone else out this Christmas. I don't know, maybe we could pick an idea and make it part of our community participation?" Captain Stanley suggested during Johnny's pause.
"Good deal, Cap, that's great!" Johnny exclaimed. He grinned at Chet and grabbed the pad of paper and pencil from the table. "Now, let's see, where should we start..."
*Squad 51, woman down, 354 Rose Street; three, five, four, Rose street, cross street Harris. Time out, 15:42*
Johnny and Roy moved swiftly to their places while Hank responded.
"Squad 51, KMG-365."
The paramedic team tightened their helmets and prepared to meet the challenge of their next response.
Gracie carefully placed the phone receiver back in its cradle and gently eased Max down from her lap. Her fingers worked at one of the daisies on her afghan and she looked down at her hands – so white and wrinkled, like an old piece of parchment. She sighed, remembering how strong her hands used to be how fast she was in her day. She could finish more pairs of moccasins than anyone else at the factory in a single day. Now she could barely hold a pen long enough to finish the crossword.
She looked at the clock on the wall in the hallway. She knew it would be about 12 minutes, give or take a minute, until they arrived. What would she tell them this time? She hadn’t even decided yet. She just knew that she couldn’t wait to see them again, especially the dark-haired one. He was so much like Arthur in so many ways. That was so long ago…
"Well, I wonder what it is this time?" Johnny said as he and Roy pulled out of the station. "Maybe her cat has a hairball."
Roy shot Johnny a look. "Johnny, what about that holiday spirit you were just babbling on and on about? You know, helping the needy and all that…"
"This woman has called in an emergency our past three shifts, Roy! She is tying us up! You’ve got to talk to her."
"No, I believe it’s your turn," Roy said with as much seriousness as he could muster given the apparent hopelessness of the situation. "I think she would listen more to you. She seems to fancy you."
"Man…" Johnny emitted a deep sigh then stared out the window for a moment.
"She needs something to do, that’s all."
"And what do you suggest?" Johnny asked.
Roy gave his partner a long and measured look as they pulled into the narrow driveway of Gracie’s small white clapboard house. "Bowling, perhaps?"
"I liked you better a few minutes ago when you were just being a scrooge," Johnny replied.
Inside the house, Gracie lay sprawled on the dingy green carpet gasping for air. Max sat nearby on the top on the small TV set, pausing from his indifference only long enough to offer a lazy blink of his green eyes.
She felt awful about putting on such an act. Even the cat wasn’t buying it, but he knew her well, too well. He knew she needed to talk to someone who cared.
There was a pounding on the door, followed by the sound of Johnny’s voice. "Fire department!"
Gracie heaved a sigh and did her best to sound pitiful. "It’s open…Hurry. I c-can’t breathe."
Roy raised his eyebrows as he met Johnny’s eyes. He nodded for Johnny to go through the door first. The sound of someone struggling to breathe led them to the living room. There they found Gracie lying on the floor with her hand on her chest
Johnny immediately set the oxygen canister on the floor next to Gracie’s head. "You’re gonna be okay," he began to soothe, "We’re here now." He placed the oxygen over her face and gently lifted her head to secure the elastic band around the back.
Roy moved over to the opposite side and began to check her vitals. He shook his head slightly when the woman’s pulse and blood pressure turned out to be in the normal range. Her respirations were fast, but that could be faked. As he reached up to check her pupils, he noticed that Gracie’s eyes never left Johnny’s face. Her expression was wistful.
"Pulse and BP are normal," Roy informed Johnny, giving his partner a steady look. He nodded toward their patient, knowing that Johnny would understand what he meant.
Nodding back reluctantly, Johnny looked back down at the elderly woman. She was still staring up at him but she seemed to be breathing easier. "Gracie, how are you feeling now?" he asked.
The housecoat-clad woman smiled and replied, her voice muffled through the mask. "Better…I’m feeling better. I was just walking across the room and suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath. I-I didn’t know what else to do but to call you."
"Okay, now, just take it easy." Johnny looked up to see Roy giving him a small smirk at his reluctance to start the lecture. Johnny frowned back and took a deep breath. "Uh, Gracie, everything checks out all right. I don’t think you need to go to the hospital." He stopped when a look of sadness passed over the woman’s face. "Look, we understand that you are here all alone. But when you call us out here when you don’t really need us, it keeps us from being able to go where we really are needed."
Roy nodded encouragingly as Johnny met his eyes again. It was hard to tell lonely people that they shouldn’t fake an emergency just to get attention. In their career as paramedics, they had seen too many elderly people who felt abandoned and had nothing left to look forward to in their lives.
"I’m sorry," Gracie’s eyes began to fill with tears. She lowered her eyes.
Roy took pity on Johnny, seeing how guilty Johnny looked after Gracie’s reaction. "Is there someone we can call for you?" he asked, trying to smooth things over.
Gracie shook her head. "No, my children live too far away and would be at work anyway. I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about me." She began to sit up. Johnny put his arm around her neck and shoulders to lend support. She took off the oxygen mask and handed it back. "I’m fine now. I’ll just go lie down and rest a bit." She reached up and patted Johnny on the cheek. Roy saw a faraway look in her eyes as her expression softened. She allowed the two men to help her to her feet.
"You take care now, Gracie," Johnny said gently. "Call us if you really need us."
The paramedics picked up their equipment and headed for the door. As soon as the front door closed, Johnny let out a loud breath. "Man, I don’t ever want to do that again!"
"You did what had to be done," Roy replied, leading the way back to the squad.
"Yeah, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. It must be so awful to be all alone, especially with Christmas almost here."
Roy nodded in agreement, wishing he knew a solution to the problem.
After replacing the equipment into the bay compartments, they climbed into the squad. As Roy pulled into the street, neither of them saw Gracie watching them from the window.
"Roy, there must be something we can do to help her loneliness," Johnny told him.
"Maybe there is," Roy replied.
"She can't keep calling in false alarms, and I want to help her...I just don't know how," Johnny said.
"I know how you feel. I'll try to think of something," Roy answered.
'Squad 51, are you available?" the dispatcher asked.
"Squad 51, 10-4," Johnny replied.
*Squad 51, woman in labor. 213 Rampart Ave. 213 Rampart Ave. Cross street 7th.*
"Squad 51 10-4. KMG 365," Johnny said as Roy turned on the lights and sirens. They soon pulled up in front of a large, gray house with a nice little garden on the side.
"Fire Department!" Roy called when they reached the door.
"It's open!" Stacie yelled in between contractions.
Roy turned the doorknob but the door didn't open. He tried again – nothing. "Ma’am, the door won't open."
"It just sticks sometimes, push it real hard. For Heaven's sake, would you please hurry!"
Roy put the drug box down, turned the knob again and pushed. At first the door held, but just as he shifted his weight on it to push away and try again, it popped open. Trying to catch his balance, Roy tripped over the drug box and clumsily fell through the door and onto the floor. He looked up to see their victim laying a few feet from him.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Do you usually make such a graceful entrance?"
Roy pulled himself up, embarrassed, as Johnny shoved the drug box through the doorway with his foot. "No, ma’am, not usually." He moved over to her, noticing that she was reclining across the body of a man lying behind her. "Johnny." Roy pointed to the man as Johnny set the equipment down.
The lady indicated the man. "Oh, don't pay no mind to him. That's just my husband. He fainted. Big, strong, man. Right. He's nothing but a big sap. We were on our way to the hospital, my water broke, and boom, down he went. I'm the one in pain here and he faints." She elbowed her husband. "I figured that since I wasn't going anywhere until someone arrived, I'd make some use of him."
Roy saw John nodding in agreement that the man had only fainted. He also caught John's amusement at the woman's attitude as he opened the biophone to contact Rampart. "Ma’am, how far apart are the contractions?"
"I don't know and I don't care." Her voice rose exponentially and her face wrinkled.
"Owwwww!! Ohhhh. OUCH!!" She reached out, grabbed the front of Roy's shirt, along with a hand full of chest hair and pulled him to her. "I WANT TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL! NOW!"
Roy let out a whimper as he tried to unclench the fingers that tethered him to the woman.
Johnny came to his partners rescue. "Hey, hey, Ma'am, you have to calm down now. Okay? Calm down. We'll get you to the hospital as soon as we can." He reached to help Roy pry off her hand.
"NO!" the woman screamed, twisting her grip tighter. "NOW!"
"Ma’am, let go!" both Roy and John insisted in unison.
Just then, her husband began to stir beneath her. She released Roy, who promptly fell backwards. She twisted as far as she could and began hitting her lesser half. "You! I hate you! If you'd been even a fraction of a real man, I would have been at the hospital right now." She tried to scoot across the floor after her husband as he moved away from her attack.
Roy rubbed his chest and contacted Rampart, happy to let John attempt to control the furious woman.
"Ma’am, please." Johnny tried to hold her still. "You have to calm down." He watched her relax as the contraction eased, and began checking her vital signs.
Her husband worked his way cautiously over to his wife. "Honey? Are you okay?"
She glared at him. "No, you idiot. My body is being torn apart! If you ever TOUCH me again, ever..." Her face contorted again. "Oh, no!" She screamed as the pain built.
Roy had just finished giving Rampart her vitals when she began screaming again. He helped Johnny set up the necessary equipment for delivery.
Johnny ducked his head to hide a smile when Roy backed away from the woman as her contraction peaked. One apprehensive look from his partner was enough for Johnny to understand that he would be handling this delivery.
As the contraction eased, the woman's husband took her hand. "Stacie, honey, I'm here! It's gonna be all right...I love you! I..." his eyes widened suddenly. Johnny could see that his wife was putting a death grip on the man as the next contraction started.
"You're doing fine...just fine," Johnny encouraged the struggling woman. "Push as hard as you can!"
Stacie groaned loudly as she strained to push the baby from her body. Then she relaxed, panting from her efforts. Another contraction followed seconds later.
"Okay, push, Stacie. Push hard!" Johnny saw the baby's head begin to emerge. "That's it. It's coming. Keep pushing."
A moment later the baby's head was free. During the next contraction, Johnny was able to grasp the shoulders. Stacie gave one final push, and the baby was born. He looked up at Stacie. "It's a boy!" he announced, as he placed the baby in the blanket Roy had ready.
"Let me see!" Stacie demanded. She let go of her husband's hand to reach up. Johnny saw him grasp his hand by the wrist.
Johnny looked at Roy who also saw the husband's reaction. Roy moved over to the man. "Here, let me take a look at that." He gently moved the fingers around but stopped when the man gasped. "I think you may have a broken bone in your hand," he said. "We better get it splinted."
Johnny carefully handed the baby to his mother and began to prepare her and the child for transport. He almost laughed out loud as he caught Roy unconsciously rubbing his chest, while splinting the new father's hand.
There was one last task to be completed before transport. Johnny pulled out a package from the OB kit. "In honor of this time of year, your son is going to arrive at the hospital in style!" he grinned. As he spoke, Johnny removed a red blanket and stocking cap from the wrapper.
Stacie laughed in delight. "Oh, how adorable!" she beamed. "Ted, did you see this?"
Ted smiled and nodded gamely at his wife while Roy finished with the splint.
Moments later, mother and child were loaded into the ambulance. The father was directed to the front seat. Johnny climbed into the back. Roy was still rubbing his chest. "You know, you better have that checked out when we get to Rampart," he teased. Roy threw him a sarcastic look and shut the door.
"Dix, you should have seen it. She just reached out and..." John stopped speaking, but the grin never wavered when Head Nurse Dixie McCall glanced over his shoulder and put a hand over her own smile. John turned to see Roy standing behind him with his arms crossed and a disapproving look on his face.
"Oh, come on, Roy. You have to admit it was funny."
Roy went over to pour himself a cup of coffee. "No, I don't. You would think so. It wasn't your chest hair that was getting pulled out." He unconsciously rubbed the spot where Stacie had grabbed, glaring at Dixie when an uncharacteristic snort came out from behind her hand. Roy turned in a way that said that he was going to ignore them and concentrate on his coffee fix.
"Grouch!" John teased. Just then, he saw Dr. Kelly Brackett coming out of a treatment room. "Doc. Hey, Doc." He trotted up to the doctor and walked with him back to the nurse’s desk. "You got a minute?"
"Maybe. What seems to be the problem?" Dr. Brackett put a chart away.
"Well, on our last run, Roy had a bit of a run in with a pregnant lady. Got him pretty good. I think he needs to be checked out."
"Johnny!" Roy pushed away from the desk.
"Roy! You were in a lot of pain and you're still rubbing your chest."
Dr. Brackett saw Dixie smile behind Roy. He didn't know what the story was, but he was willing to go along. "Is that true, Roy?"
"No!" Panic filled Roy's voice.
"Yes!" John tried to be serious. "Doc, I think she took some skin right off his chest. I really think he should be looked at."
Brackett took a moment to look decisive. "Roy, why don't you come into the treatment room and let me have a look at you?"
"No, look, Doc, I'm fine. It was nothing, really." Roy's look to John vowed revenge.
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" Brackett took Roy's arm and practically dragged him to the treatment room.
"What seems to be the problem, Kel?" Joe Early came up to them.
"Could be serious, Joe. Apparently, Roy here was mauled by a pregnant woman."
"Come on, Doc!" Roy protested. "I was not! She just grabbed a bit of chest hair. It's nothing."
"We'll see." Brackett winked at Joe, who took Roy's other arm and between the two of them pushed Roy to the doors.
John held the treatment room doors open for them. He smiled evilly and wagged his eyebrows at his partner as the three went inside. He then waved to Dixie before following.
"Doc. This really isn't necessary. There's nothing wrong with me," Roy protested when the doctors blocked his way out the door. He looked around for another escape route, but knew that there was only one way out. His ears turned red when he realized there was a nurse setting up the room. She stopped what she was doing to watch what was happening.
"Take your shirt off, Roy, and get up on the table." Brackett nudged Roy toward the exam table.
"Doc!" Roy pleaded, but by this time knew he wasn't going anywhere. He threw another death stare at his grinning partner and slowly got on the table. "Fine, get it over with."
"Well, that's better." Dr. Brackett turned to the nurse. "Nurse Lauren, would you mind taking his vitals?"
"Yes, Doctor." She bit her lip to keep the smile from her face as she grabbed the BP cuff and stood next to Roy.
"Really, Doc." Roy jumped when the cold cuff went around his arm. "This really isn't..."
"Shhh!" Brackett cut him off and leaned in to inspect the 'damage'. "Uh-huh...Joe, you want to come and take a look at this?"
"Oh, for crying out loud." Roy rolled his eyes.
Joe came around and probed the reddish spot on Roy’s chest. "Oh, yes. Look at that. There's definitely been some trauma there. What do you suggest?"
"Well." Dr. Brackett folded his arms. "Hair follicles can be a tricky thing. And there are distinct scratch marks that could become infected. I think some ointment will do for now but what about next time? He might not be so lucky. How do we keep this from happening again?"
Dr. Early smiled. "You know, The only way I can think of to prevent this from happening again would be to shave him." He turned to the nurse. "Nurse Lauren, how are you with a razor?"
The nurse reached into an upper cabinet and pulled out a straight edge razor. "Top of the class." Her eyes traveled over Roy as she advanced.
Roy jumped of the table. "Not while I'm still breathing!"
John was the first to break into full laughter, followed by the rest.
"Okay, okay, Roy." Dr. Brackett wiped his eyes. "Sit back up on the table."
Roy reluctantly got back onto the exam table, watching to make sure Nurse Lauren retreated with the blade.
"Nurse?" Dr. Early still held his stomach. "How about just some ointment?"
She nodded and pulled out a tube of antiseptic ointment. Roy watched her warily as she squeezed some on her finger.
Nurse Lauren smiled at him charmingly. "This shouldn't hurt a bit."
Johnny slipped out into the hall while Roy underwent ‘treatment’, barely stifling another laugh. He grabbed two cups of coffee, and waited for Roy to emerge from the room. He began to grow impatient as his own coffee slowly disappeared.
"Wonder what's taking so long in there? His coffee's gettin' cold."
Dixie just shrugged her shoulders and continued to fiddle with the nurses' schedule for the week of Christmas that she was revising for the fifth time. A very red-faced Roy finally burst from the treatment room, still buttoning his shirt, ignoring the poorly hidden smiles of the doctors and Dixie. Johnny waved him over.
"Here, Roy, have a cup of coffee. You look like you need one."
Roy looked at Johnny skeptically, taking the cup. "Why ‘The Look’?" Johnny stood leaning against the counter, trying to look nonchalant, while Dixie carefully avoided eye contact. Coffee did sound good, so Roy took a big gulp from the cup, keeping an eye on his overly innocent-looking partner. It was all Roy could do to swallow the tepid liquid. "Cold! This coffee is cold! Why didn't you tell me?"
Johnny glanced surreptitiously at Dixie and winked, then leaned forward toward Roy. He spoke with an air of confidence. "It’ll put hair on your chest."
Johnny had to trot to keep up with Roy as he sped down the hall toward the exit. "Aw, c'mon, Roy! It was a joke! A joke! Listen, I’m sorry! Are you going to be mad at me for the rest of the day?"
Roy slowed his pace just long enough to direct a quick glare at Johnny as he continued toward the exit.
"Okay...fine! Just be that way!" Johnny scowled, waving his hand dramatically.
"You know...you are just too much. Too much. It isn’t enough that I’m already stressed, and then I get attacked by a pregnant woman, and then...with that nurse...that whole ointment fiasco...well...then you just add insult to injury. You’re too much!"
As Roy backed out of the parking space, Johnny tried to make amends. "Oh, lighten up, Roy! You know, it could be a lot worse. How would you like to be that guy with the broken hand? Man, she must have one heck of a grip."
Roy snorted, "She did. Trust me." He sighed heavily in resignation. "And where’d you get the idea about cold coffee putting hair on your chest, anyway? Hasn’t exactly worked for you!"
Johnny raised an eyebrow and looked at Roy critically. "Ointment fiasco?"
Roy was still absentmindedly rubbing at his chest as the two hungry paramedics walked into the dayroom. Johnny gave Roy’s hand a swat, knocking it away. "Quit that, would ya;? You’re gonna make it worse. And you don’t want Chet to find out, do you?"
"Don’t want Chet to find out what?" Chet was clad in a red apron and had a potholder in his hand. "You guys have another interesting run?"
"Just a nice happy delivery," Roy said, smiling. "A boy."
"Yeah, nothing like a birth to get Roy into the holiday spirit, and what a spirited mother that was! Wasn’t she, Roy?" Johnny was already on his way to the coffeepot and missed the look that Roy shot him.
Roy rubbed at his chest and made his way over to the stove, taken in by the aroma that was lingering in the air. "Chet, that smells great, what are we having for lunch?" Roy asked, continuing to rub at the same spot just above his shirt collar.
"What you smell," Marco said from the couch, "is potatoes. Not just any potatoes, potatoes...Au Gratin…"
"Mmmm. Man, am I hungry!" Johnny opened the oven and peered inside. "Potatoes Au Gratin for lunch?"
"Yes," Chet said. "And what you don’t smell yet is this." Chet pulled a large ham from a shopping bag. It’s still warm, we just have to heat it for a few minutes."
"Wow," Roy said, continuing to rub, "What’s the occasion?"
"No occasion, it’s just been a while since we’ve had a big lunch around here." Chet reached down to get a pan out of the cupboard, his eyes never leaving Roy. "Got a problem there with your chest, Roy?"
Roy pulled his hand quickly away and looked over at Johnny, who had his head in the refrigerator, whistling.
"Just a rash or something… I’ll be fine."
Johnny’s face emerged from the fridge with a grin that extended from ear to ear. "What is this??" He held up the half-gallon sized carton for all to see.
"I’d say that’s eggnog," came Mike Stoker’s droll reply.
"I KNOW it’s eggnog, but what’s the special occasion?"
"Well, Gage, Santa must have known how much you love eggnog and how much your disposition might benefit from a good deed or two." Chet grinned at Johnny with an evil twinkle in his eye.
Gracie sighed as she struggled to turn the handles on the old stainless steel can opener. Its once clean metal gears had long since been filled in with brownish gummy goo and she was amazed that it still even worked. After a moment or two, the smell of Beefaroni greeted her nostrils. Max wound his way around and inbetween her fuzzy pink, slippered feet, hoping that he could fool her into thinking that it was suppertime.
"No Max, it’s Gracie’s turn." She dumped the contents of the can into a pan and rummaged around in the drawer for a spoon. "Gracie needs a new can opener, Max. That old one is just not what it used to be. Now you go in to the other room and let me fix my meal."
Max continued to trail along behind Gracie as she turned the burner on and poured herself a glass of milk. He followed her as she spooned the contents of the pot into a plate and he followed her as she slowly made her way into the other room with her plate to watch "The Price Is Right".
"Oh, Max. Okay, I'll give you some. Now get down." Gracie got up, playfully pushing at her meowing pet, went to the kitchen, and put a small amount of beefaroni into Max's food dish. She petted the cat as it greedily ran up to its treat. She was so grateful for the company it provided. She'd considered getting another cat so Max could have a playmate. Maybe as a Christmas present to myself.
"So, what are we going to do for Christmas this year, Max?" She went to the sink and washed off her plate.
Max looked up upon hearing his name, licked his lips, meowed once, then stuck his face back into the food.
Gracie looked out the window over the sink. I wish the kids would come over for Christmas. I miss them so much, especially during the holidays. She dried her hands on a towel. They have their own families now, though, and it's such a long drive. She bent to pet Max again. "I hope they remember to call."
Max licked his bowl clean and looked at her hopefully.
"No, Max, It's all gone. No more." She picked the cat up and gave it a loving hug. "Besides you're getting fat." She affectionately patted Max's tummy.
Max meowed and squirmed around in her arms until she dropped him onto the floor. He followed her into the living room and waited for Gracie to sit in her recliner, before he jumped up onto her lap.
Gracie watched Max roam around twice on her lap before he settled into a ball and stared up at her. She stared back at him. It was a game they played; Max would always look away first. Once Max turned away and closed his eyes, she rested a hand on her best friend and finished watching the Price is Right.
After the show was over, she used switched off the television. She reclined her chair halfway back and reached to the end table next to her. Her hand hesitated as she was about to turn on the scanner.
A familiar sadness crept over her. She knew that she shouldn't call them unless there was an emergency. They had told her that many times, always very nicely.
She looked around at all the Christmas decorations that she'd put up.
I don't know why I take the time to put all this stuff up, no one is around to see it.
The tree twinkled merrily in the corner of the room. At night she'd turn out all the lights, put on some soft music, and remember Christmas' past that weren't filled with so much loneliness. Now, as she watched the sparkling light, her eyes clouded with tears. She'd once had so many friends, but they were all gone now. Her children, though she knew they loved her, had lives of their own.
Gracie looked down to see Max looking up to her. She petted him as he got up and climbed up her. He always seemed to know when she was sad.
Max stretched across Gracie's stomach and chest, then reached a small paw up to rest it on her cheek.
A small smile tugged at Gracie's lips, at the wonderful animal who cared about her so much. She held its paw in her hand and gave it a little kiss. Then she wiped her tears, reached over and turned on the scanner.
It had been a long, busy day and the men of 51s were dead tired. They dropped into their bunks like sacks of potatoes only to be awakened by the klaxons at the stroke of midnight. Fortunately, for the two paramedics, it was a rubbish fire. The engine roared out of the bay, leaving the two remaining men to try to get back to sleep. At least Roy was trying to get back to sleep. Johnny laid and stared at the ceiling, head propped on folded arms.
"Roy?" he whispered.
No sound or movement came from Roy’s bed.
"Roy?" he whispered louder. "You awake?"
"I was thinking..."
"Good, think about going back to sleep," Roy muttered and rolled over, turning his back on his partner.
"You were right," Johnny said, ignoring Roy’s comment.
"Good, now go to sleep," Roy said sleepily.
"No, not about that! About earlier..." Johnny said, "about Mrs. Stevenson...you know...Gracie. We should do something to try to help her."
"You’re right, Johnny," Roy agreed to Johnny’s delight. "I’ll sleep on it and get back to you in the morning."
"I was thinking about what you said about Jennifer a while back," Johnny continued.
Roy sighed. He knew from past experience that until Johnny told him his idea that sleep would not be possible. "Jennifer?"
"Yeah, remember when you told me how her class went to this nursing home to sing carols for the olds folks?" Johnny asked.
"Yeah," Roy said, still not knowing where his partner was headed with this line of conversation.
"Well, I was thinking, maybe we could do something in reverse."
"I don’t follow you..."
"Think about it, Roy...instead of kids going to old folks to make them feel better, maybe there’s a place where older folks can go to help some kids out." Johnny was on a roll and nothing was going to stop him. "There must be a school, or an orphanage, or even some kids’ center that could use some volunteer help. You get those older folks together with a bunch of kids who need some attention and everyone wins!" Johnny smiled at his brilliant idea.
"Sounds good, Johnny," Roy had to agree, "now sleep on it...REALLY!"
"Yeah, it just might work! Night, Roy..."
Gracie put the last batch of gingerbread cookies into the oven and smiled with satisfaction. She was 86, but she could still bake a great cookie. What she didn’t like to admit to herself was the fact that it was 11:40 PM and she was still up. Cooking helped her on nights like this, nights where she just didn’t want to go to bed, on those nights when she would just lie there. Memories would float into her mind like clouds drifting in on a clear day – they started out thin and hazy then get lower and thicker and darker until her mind was completely clouded over with memories of the past. Those nights were hardest of all. When she felt one coming on, she would stay in the kitchen, measuring and stirring until she could barely stand on her tired old feet anymore.
She wasn’t sure how the fire started; first, there was an odor, then a bright orange flame that leapt from the top of her stove and startled her. Her first instinct was to reach out and stifle the flame with her hand, which she did.
Pretty good reactions for an old gal, she thought to herself, as the flame suffocated and died. The guilty culprit was a potholder that she had left on a burner. She must’ve turned the burner on accidentally while reaching above the stove to get the ginger from the spice rack. Oh, Gracie, you can be so hopeless sometimes.
She didn’t realize that she had badly burned her hand until she looked down at her palm and saw the angry red blisters. She made her way to the phone and called the fire department. Those two young men would know what to do.
**Squad 51 woman down, 354 Rose Street; three, five, four, Rose street, cross street Harris. Time out 12:31**
Johnny and Roy had just fallen asleep when the Klaxons sounded. Johnny groaned and rolled over, muttering, "Gracie again."
He and Roy rolled out of their bunks and stepped into their turnout pants. The sound of shuffling feet followed them as they made their way towards the squad. The two men glanced briefly at one another as they climbed into the squad.
Roy rubbed his eyes and yawned as he put the key in the ignition. "I thought for sure I got her to understand that she couldn't keep calling us," Roy grumbled as he looked left then right, before pulling out into the street with the lights and siren blaring.
"Yeah," Johnny agreed, "but it’s not like her to call at this late hour."
"Yeah," Roy acknowledged, blinking his eyes to clear away the remnants of the twenty minutes of sleep he’d had since recovering from Johnny’s latest bright idea.
With a wet dishtowel wrapped around her burnt hand, Gracie stood waiting at the door when the squad turned into her narrow little driveway. She knew that her two favorite paramedics wouldn't be angry with her this time. This was an actual emergency.
She watched as Johnny went around to the side bay of the squad to reach for the oxygen. He was halfway to the house when Gracie spoke up, smiling through her pain. "I won’t be needing that. I’ve simply burned myself."
Roy and Johnny exchanged concerned looks at the sound of Gracie's voice and made their way to the tiny house.
"Hi, Mrs. Stevenson, it’s John Gage," Johnny called as he neared the house.
"Thank God, you’re here. I didn’t know what to do," Gracie winced softly from the pain in her hand.
"Everything will be all right," Johnny said in a soothing voice.
Roy helped Gracie to her recliner and looked at her hand. The smell of gingerbread, along with a burning smell filled the tiny house.
Gracie noticed Johnny’s quizzical look. It was hard for any facial expression of his to pass Gracie unnoticed. "My pot holder caught on fire and I used my hand to put it out," she stated simply.
"Ohhhh…Well, let me have a look." Johnny reached out to take Gracie’s hand while Roy stepped aside to allow Johnny to work his magic.
Five minutes later, Gracie’s hand was all bandaged up and Roy and Johnny were getting ready to go. Gracie had not stopped talking the whole time. "Say, you boys won’t leave without taking some of my gingerbread cookies, now…"
"Well, we…" Roy stammered.
"Sure thing!" Johnny responded with enthusiasm. "I love gingerbread cookies." Johnny gave his partner a look while the three of them walked into the cramped kitchen.
Gracie carefully lifted several gingerbread men from the baking sheet and wrapped them in wax paper. "Now, be careful, you don’t want their heads to fall off. Gingerbread is very fragile until it cools…" She handed the warm bundle of cookies to Johnny, causing Roy to make a face.
"Um, I think my partner might want a couple," Johnny said, unwrapping the wax paper and biting the head off the first cookie.
"No, really, I’m fine." Roy said, patting his stomach, "I prefer not to eat this late at night. Say, Gracie, do you really like to cook this much? I mean, it’s almost the middle of the night.’
"When you get to be my age, you’ll be up at midnight, too," she replied curtly. "I enjoy cooking."
"Well, you know, I have a daughter, Jennifer, who’s in second grade. We’re helping her class make gingerbread houses later on this week and we sure could use some help…"
Johnny stopped in mid-chew and looked over at his partner, a grin spreading across his face.
John and Roy walked down Gracie's walkway toward the squad. Roy seemed pleased with himself, while John had a frown on his face and was unusually quiet.
Roy put the med box in the side compartment. "You know, Johnny, that was a great idea you had about getting Gracie involved with the kids."
John gave Roy a grunt. Other than that, he ignored his partner.
"Did you see her face light up?" Roy waited for John to say something, but was rewarded with a glare. "Okay. What?"
"I can't believe you!" John pulled the passenger door open and got in.
Roy gave a confused look to his partner before going to the driver’s side and getting in. "Johnny, what are you talking about? I thought that's what you wanted. A way to get Gracie involved."
"Well, yeah, it was a great idea, inviting her to Jen's class."
"Then what's your problem?"
John's hands moved on in frustration. "Did you have to tell her I was going to be there, too? I mean, you know me and kids."
Roy started the truck and started down the road. "Johnny, you're great with kids. I know Jennifer will love to have you there."
"Roy. That’s different. You know how I feel about Jen, but a whole class full of kids. I just don't think..."
"What about that Christmas Spirit you were talking about? Just this morning you were telling me about how Christmas wasn't all it was cracked up to be, being single, and how lucky I was. Well, here's your chance to get a little taste of what being in 'my' situation is like, and be there for Gracie."
"What does me being there have to do with Gracie?"
"Come on, Johnny. Don't tell me you don't see how she looks at you."
"Roy, don't you think she's a little old..."
Roy waved his hand to cut him off. "All I'm saying is that for some reason she seems drawn to you. Maybe you remind her of someone."
John threw up his arms in resignation. "Fine, fine. I'll go to this class gingerbread...thing. Sheeesh."
"Now who's being a scrooge?"
"I am not being a scrooge."
"I'm not!" John pouted.
Roy glanced sideways at Johnny. It sure looked like he was pouting but decided not voice his opinion.
Geez, he's worse than Jennifer when she gets mad. Roy envisioned Jennifer's pout when she stood with her arms folded across her chest and stamped her foot when something didn't go her way.
Roy backed the squad back in the bay. The engine was out on a run. They headed back into the dorm to get some sleep.
"Ya’ know, Roy, I've been thinkin'." Johnny looked at Roy as he dressed to get back into bed.
Oh no, here we go again, Roy groaned as he climbed into bed. "What"? Roy was almost afraid to hear Johnny's rant.
"This might not be so bad, after all. I mean, what harm could it do to help out at Jen's school, plus give Gracie something to do with herself. I think we can handle something as simple as gingerbread cookies. It's not like it's an every day thing for us anyway. Maybe we can get Gracie involved in helping out other ways in the school. That way she won't be taking time to make calls for no reason because she's lonely. Yeah, hey Roy, maybe you could talk to Jen's teacher and see if there's a way to get Gracie involved, like helping in the lunch room, or maybe reading to the kids in the library"! Johnny rambled on.
"Will you shut up?" Roy yawned. "Morning comes all too soon"!
"Now who's being a scrooge?" Johnny flung his arm over his eyes and let out a huge self-satisfied sigh.
The quiet in the station didn't last very long. Half an hour later, the men from the engine came clopping into the dorm.
Marco tried to whisper, but he was annoyed. "Chet! You're tracking mud all over the floor!"
Chet wasn't quite as considerate. He didn't bother to lower his voice. "So what, Marco? It'll dry."
"Yeah, but I just stepped in it so now I have to clean off before I can get into bed. You should have at least cleaned your shoes off."
Chet smirked as he watched Johnny roll over and put the pillow over his head to try to block out the noise. Roy unknowingly copied his partner.
Chet yelled to Marco as he went to the washroom to clean his feet off. "Oh, will you quit complaining? It'll dry."
John threw the pillow from his head and sat up. "Chet, can't you see we're trying to get some sleep?"
"Oh, well excuse me. ‘Captain’ Gage has spoken." Chet dismissed the compliant with a wave of his hand.
"He's not the only one," Cap said as he came into the room and got undressed.
John scowled. In the dim lighting, he couldn't be sure, but the wave that Chet made with his hand looked an awful lot like a salute.
"Idiot," Johnny mumbled as he flopped back down on his bed and pulled the covers up to his chest with a long sigh.
Johnny could still make out shuffling in the room. The rest of the guys climbed into bed, but at least it was quiet now, so he closed his eyes. Just has he was drifting off to sleep again, a wet, clumpy glob smacked him in the face. He quickly wiped at it and spit something his mouth. He recognized what it was once he had it in his hand.
He jumped from the bed and whipped the glob of mud back at its owner. The light on the desk next to the captain's bed came on, illuminating the room. Captain Stanley stood in the middle of the room glaring at Chet and John. "Will you twits knock it off! People are trying to sleep!"
Johnny stood at the foot of Chet's bed. Mud was smeared on his face and spattered on part of his undershirt. "Cap! Look at..."
Hank held up his hand. "Gage, go get cleaned up." He waited for Johnny to disappear into the locker room before going to stand next to Chet's bed. "Chet."
"Yeah, Cap?" The voice was muffled from the blankets that Chet had pulled over his head.
"Come out from there."
Chet slowly poked his head out from under the covers and looked around the room to be sure that John wasn't waiting to ambush him. His gaze finally fell on his captain.
"Kelly, I want you to get a mop and clean up this mess. Now! And I don't want to hear a word out of you. Do you understand?"
"Not one word." Hank looked over to Roy. Roy had turned back to watch the show, but still had his pillow over his head and was peeking out from under it. Hank was sure that he heard a snort from under the pillow before Roy pulled the pillow completely over his face. He waddled back to his bed, hearing a smothered chucked from Mike's part of the room. "And, Kelly, don't forget to turn off the light when you're done."
As Hank climbed back into his warm bed, Johnny came back into the dorm. He had on a clean undershirt and his face was red from washing the mud off.
Johnny threw a nasty look at his tormentor.
Chet was about to say something when Hank's voice boomed through the room. "Not one word, Kelly! Go to bed John."
Johnny ignored the face Chet made as he crawled into bed and pulled the covers up. He looked over to Roy only to find his partner facing the wall and burrowed completely under the bedding.
Not a bad idea, he thought as he pulled the cover over his head to block out the light from the table lamp.
Chet took his boots out to the back of the station and cleaned them off before coming back to the dorm with the mop. He began to mop, but when he got to the goopy clumps of mud, he looked around the room. When he was sure no one was looking, he scooped up the mush and dropped it into Johnny's boots.
Santa has something special for your stocking, Gage. He went back to his mopping, with a smile and a happy Christmas song running through his head.
The next morning, as everyone began to wake up, Johnny pulled his boots on and felt the muck.
"Ah Chet! I'm going to get you!" Johnny yelled in an angry voice.
"What happened?" Cap asked.
"Chet went and put mud in my boots. I'm going to clean it up," Johnny explained as he walked into the bathroom. Just wait Chet. You'll get yours, Johnny thought as he began to scrub.
About 15 minutes later, Johnny joined the rest of them in the kitchen. They were just starting to eat when the alarm sounded.
Not Gracie again, Roy thought as they listened.
*Squad 51, Heart attack. 2121 Notch St. – 2-1-2-1 Notch St. Cross street, Harris. Time out: 7:10*
"Squad 51, 10-4. KMG 365," Capt. Stanley said as the squad left.
"Man, just fifteen more minutes and our shift would’ve been over with," Johnny grumbled as the squad pulled out of Station 51. "I didn’t even get a donuu…" The word hung in the air for a moment before being swallowed up in a huge yawn. Johnny leaned his head back and made a noise that resembled the sound of a cow moose in heat.
"Count your blessings,"" Roy responded, stifling a yawn of his own. "At least we got more sleep than the engine company."
"Hey, where are we at, anyway?" Roy asked.
Johnny got out the map, squinting as the morning sunlight reflected off the white pages. "Looks like this is in the same neighborhood where Gracie lives…"
"Well, I guess we can just close our eyes and let the squad get there on its own…"
Johnny looked over at Roy, contemplating a comeback, but only managed a wan smile. He put the map back into the glove compartment. "You serious about letting her come help out at Jen’s school?"
"Of course I’m serious. Don’t you think it sounds like the perfect solution?"
"I did until you volunteered me…"
Roy looked over at his partner and smiled. Johnny Gage, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, crawl down narrow tunnels, afraid of a few school children…"Well, I think it will be good for you to be around some kids over the holidays."
"Listen, Roy, I think I am the best judge of what is good for me. Remember the time…"
"Yeah, I remember all the times," Roy cut in, "That’s what scares me…"
They pulled off the boulevard and onto a narrow tarred road, then turned onto three more side streets before coming to a stop at 2121 Notch Street.
Gracie had just finished breakfast. She put the remainder of the milk from her cereal down on the floor for Max, knowing he wouldn’t mind working around the few Cheerios that were still bobbing around.
Bending over was never a problem; it was straightening up that she didn’t like. A soft moan escaped her lips as she worked herself back into an upright position and reached for her cane. She didn’t really need the cane, of course. She held onto it merely for sentimental reasons. It was hand-carved from a piece of sturdy Ash. It had knots in all the right places and had been worn smooth from years of use.
It had been Arthur’s walking stick. Back in the days when they had hiked up every mountain in Southern California…
Oh Gracie, don’t go getting all sentimental again. It does you no good.
She made her way over to the sink and opened the curtains, barely noticing the bright sunlight that flooded in. She did enjoy the simplicity of her morning routine. Every morning it was the same thing; make the coffee, have her cereal, feed Max, open the curtain so that Edna would know she was still alive, then draw an "X" through the previous date on the calendar. This was something she did mostly to keep track of the days. It was so hard to remember otherwise whether it had been a week, a month, or a day that had passed.
She picked up the pen with her once sturdy hand and carefully drew and an "X" through December 19th. So close to Christmas…so close and yet so far.
Sighing again, she made her way into the living room and turned on the scanner. It was always very slow this time of morning, but she appreciated knowing what was going on, anyway. She had just settled into her chair; Max knitted merrily away at her housecoat when she heard Squad 51 dispatched to 2121 Notch Street.
Oh Dear God, no…
Her hand flew to her mouth and she absentmindedly pushed Max from her lap.
Gracie rung her hands, not knowing what to do. 2121 Notch...Edna...
The two women had become fast friends when Edna had first moved into the house just behind hers. They looked out for each other, even though they rarely got together in person anymore. Still, there was comfort in knowing that the other was just a stone’s throw away.
Max meowed loudly at the disruption. Gracie crossed her arms tightly across her chest and clenched her fists.
"Oh, Max," she cried softly.
In the next instance, she knew what she had to do.
Gracie stood quickly, gathered her housecoat around her, and hustled out the back door to Edna’s.
Even before Gracie entered the house, she could hear Johnny’s calming voice drifting through the open door.
"Take it easy, now," she heard him say, "everything will be just fine."
Gracie wiped the tear that rolled down her cheek and relaxed knowing that her young paramedic was on the job. She stepped gingerly into Edna’s living room where she could watch without getting in their way. She dared not breathe so as not to disturb the work in progress. Roy was on the biophone while Johnny relayed Edna’s vitals. They placed pads on Edna, ever so discreetly, and transmitted a strip to Rampart. Gracie took note of the way that Johnny moved – so fluid, so self-assured, just like Arthur...
Roy was the first to realize that they had an audience.
Johnny wheeled around to see Gracie standing in her housecoat with her eyes wide and close to tears.
"Gracie?" Edna’s weak voice floated upward.
"Yes, dear," Gracie soothed from afar, "it’s me..." She stood firm, not moving a muscle. Poor Edna did not need an old lady getting in these young men’s way.
"Would you like to come talk to her?" Johnny asked. "It might help calm her."
Gracie almost shook her head no, but found she could not refuse his request. She knelt by her dear friend and cupped her hand protectively in both of hers. "I’m here, Edna. You just listen to these two young men. They know what to do to help you."
"Ambulance is here, Roy," Johnny informed his partner when he heard the sirens wind down to a low whir outside the house. He helped the attendants lift Edna onto the gurney while Roy gathered their equipment.
Gracie watched as they lifted Edna’s gurney into the ambulance. A wave of loneliness overwhelmed her. Edna was the one person who cared whether she even existed and now...
"Would you like to ride along?" Roy asked.
Gracie startled. She had been so preoccupied with her own selfish thoughts that she was ashamed of herself. She turned to watch Johnny step into the back of the ambulance in one agile move. She turned to Roy, wanting to ask the question, but afraid of the answer.
"She’ll be just fine," Roy assured her, sensing the unasked query. "You can ride up front, if you want."
"Yes...yes," Gracie answered when she gathered her senses. "I would like that."
With Roy’s help, she climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance. She felt secure knowing that Johnny Gage was riding along in the back.
The sounds of the siren made it difficult for Gracie to hear what was being said in the back section of the ambulance, but she was sure that Johnny was doing everything possible to help her dearest friend, Edna.
She fought back tears, thinking about the possibility of losing yet another loved one – seemed at her age, more and more of her family and friends were leaving her behind and traveling on to their final resting place.
There were days when she wished she could join them – and put an end to the loneliness. It wasn't that she was really needed by anybody. It seemed that with her health growing steadily worse, she wasn't of much use – not like the days when she could keep up with the best of them helping at the church and around her community.
Glancing back, she saw Johnny checking Edna's blood pressure. She saw him give her friend a warm, reassuring smile and a gentle pat on the arm.
"Don't you worry, Ma'am, John Gage is one of the best – your friend is in good hands back there," the ambulance driver commented.
"Oh my...I know that!" Gracie responded, smiling proudly. "He such a wonderful boy – so much like my..."
Her words were cut short by the driver's shout. "HOLD ON!"
The impact of a force slamming against the back half of the ambulance
propelled her small frame forward. In the seconds that followed, Gracie
was only slightly aware of her own screams mixing with the grating crunch
of metal and shattering sounds of glass breaking.
Continued in Part Two: