By K Hanna Korossy
She’d been eight years old, and her name was Cindy.
Roy DeSoto, paramedic, miracle worker, and mere human, sat in the shadows of a neighboring building and deliberately avoided watching the dying fire in 255 Vine. The firefighters had it well under control now, but the building was gutted, with a dozen people at Rampart for smoke inhalation and minor injuries. And one fatality: a little girl named Cindy, who’d died in his arms.
Roy hated nighttime residential fires with a passion. The darkness already made rescues more difficult—even with the light the fire provided, they were still at a disadvantage. But far worse was the fact that residences tended to be occupied at night, and that people tended to be asleep or disoriented. It made injuries and fatalities much likelier, and that meant it was Roy’s enemy. Still part of their job, of course, but he didn’t have to like it, didn’t even have to accept it. He absently turned the melted plastic barrette in his fingers, cringing at the sound of burning brick falling behind him. No, he didn’t accept it, not that night.
It wasn’t his way to brood—Johnny Gage, his partner, did that far better than he. But Johnny hadn’t been there when he’d found Cindy. It had been a chaotic night, and the last time he’d seen the younger man, Gage had been busy with a large woman who’d decided she wasn’t going to wait for the paramedics to get to her. She’d jumped out the window and startled a year’s growth out of Johnny when she’d grabbed his hand and hung on to him as he hung on to the truck ladder. It had taken two other firefighters to help Johnny haul her up, but Roy hadn’t stuck around to watch, knowing all the woman needed was a little O2 and a lot of calming down. Gage could do that fine by himself. DeSoto himself had gone for a last sweep of the building. And that was when he’d found Cindy under her bed, already nearly gone.
The other responding paramedics had ridden in with the victims and the firefighters didn’t need help with the fire anymore. Roy supposed he should go see where Johnny was, start packing up the gear and going back to the station, but…not yet. He wasn’t quite ready to again face a world where eight-year-old little girls died.
Shuffling steps sounded behind him, but Roy wasn’t startled. You eventually developed a sixth sense about your partner, a lifesaver sometimes in the middle of blinding smoke and flames, and he didn’t need to look to see that Johnny had stepped into the dim alcove.
“Roy? Hey, I’ve been lookin’ for you everywhere.” Gage sounded as tired and ragged as Roy felt.
He snorted softly, eyes still on the barrette. “I’ve been right here.”
“Yeah…” More soft sounds of movement, then a raspy sigh as Johnny sank down on something that creaked. “Some night, huh?”
“Cap says another half-an-hour should do it.”
He didn’t bother answering.
A long pause. Then, more quietly, “I saw the little girl. There was nothing else you coulda done, Roy.”
“Her name was Cindy,” he whispered.
“Oh, man…” A rough sigh from his partner. “If we’d have found her before, we might have missed somebody else, you know that.”
He did—there was only so much they could humanly do. But it didn’t make the failures easier.
Another pause. “I talked to her folks.”
That almost interested him enough to look up, except he wasn’t ready to look anybody in the eye yet, not even Johnny. “Yeah?” he asked.
“They’re real nice folks, got another little girl, too. She’s keeping ‘em busy, keeping their mind offa what happened.”
That wouldn’t last long, Roy was certain of that. The loss of a child was one of the worst kinds of pain—he felt the edge of it in occasional nightmares of losing one of his kids. Only another parent could really understand that, no matter how well Johnny meant. No matter how many other children you had, there would never be a substitute for the one you’d lost.
Gage wasn’t done yet. “They wanted me to tell you how…glad they were you were there with her. It helped that she wasn’t alone.”
When she died, Roy finished. He could still hear her small, smoke-choked voice, telling him her name and age, and then nothing more.
“Roy.” Johnny was starting to sound pained. “We can’t save ‘em all.”
That finally penetrated, and he glanced up sharply. “If we can’t save a little girl, what good is any of it?”
Johnny opened his mouth, and Roy frowned, realizing suddenly how pale his partner looked just as Gage faltered. And whatever he’d been about to say was replaced by a moan of deep pain.
Roy dropped the barrette and was on his feet in an instant. “Johnny? What’s wrong?”
The answer came through clenched teeth. “My shoulder…”
The switch back to paramedic was as automatic as his worry. He took in at a glance the sweat he could see now glistening on the younger man’s face, as well as his now-wavering posture, one hand clasped onto the other arm. And as Roy looked more closely, still reluctant to touch, he realized there was something off about the line of the left shoulder, the arm Johnny was holding on to as if afraid of moving it…
“You dislocated your shoulder?” he asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you—“ At Johnny’s continuing grimace, he held his tongue and crouched down in front of Gage. “Let me see,” he ordered gently.
Johnny managed to pry his fingers loose from the injured arm, though his teeth were clearly gritted as he did so. Roy levered himself up and examined the distended joint as best he could through the turnout coat, then, as lightly as possible, probed the area with his fingers.
Johnny arched away from him with a pained hiss, and Roy immediately drew back, reaching out a hand to grasp Gage’s good arm in case he was about to fall over. “Sorry, sorry,” he murmured. Johnny shuddered once but steadied himself, breathing hard and gripping his hurting arm again with a white-knuckled grasp. The dark eyes were shining with pain, but none of the accusation Roy often saw in victims he had to hurt in order to help.
“Lousy…timing, huh?” Johnny managed.
“You should have had this taken care of instead of wandering all over the place,” Roy scolded kindly, knowing exactly why Johnny had been “wandering.” He switched tracks. “Was it that woman?” he asked, not needing to elaborate—he should have figured then that so much weight jerking a person’s arm, especially a smaller, more wiry person like Gage, would probably dislocate or cause some other sort of injury to the limb. Johnny hadn’t said a word, though, had probably tended to the woman first, then, finding out about Roy’s victim, come in search of him. And then had even sat down to comfort Roy first. Talk about humbling.
Johnny gave him a jerky nod, looking more ashen by the second, and Roy abruptly realized how close his partner was to passing out. So much for going for the drug box or biophone—dislocated shoulders were excruciating and got worse the longer they were untreated. It spoke of Johnny’s determination that he’d gotten that far.
“Let’s get you sitting on the ground, huh?” Roy offered, wrapping one arm around his unresisting partner’s ribcage and helping him ease down to the pavement. At least there’d be no chance of him hurting himself worse by falling off the fire escape ladder he’d been perched on. The pain would get worse before it got better, and Johnny already looked like he was barely hanging on. Roy again cursed his partner’s stubbornness for putting Roy’s well-being before his own.
Then again, wasn’t that what being a paramedic was all about?
Once he got Johnny settled, he stared into the younger man’s eyes. “You know this is gonna hurt,” he said softly.
Johnny somehow managed
a wan smile. “’S already hurting—go ahead an’ do it.” His head fell back against
the fire escape ladder. “You ever play that game…where you’d rather be than
here? Used to play it when we were kids…”
“Yeah?” Roy asked absently, recognizing an attempt at self-distraction when he saw one. And a sign of fear. He stole a moment to squeeze Johnny’s good shoulder, watching his partner’s throat bob in response.
“Yeah.” The word trembled, steadied. “Know what I always said? Ice fishing—I wan’ed to be ice fishing.”
“Ice fishing.” Roy edged up against the injured man’s good side to brace him.
“Yeah…sounds kinda neat, just you an’ the ice…an’ the fish…”
“You hate the cold, remember?” DeSoto very carefully took hold of the injured shoulder in one hand and the arm in the other.
Johnny flinched, eyes shutting, but he kept on talking. “I know, I just…thought it’d be different…Someplace…t’get away—”
Roy pulled without warning, smooth and hard, and felt the joint slide back into place. And Johnny convulse, crying out before going limp, his chin dropping to his chest and his body sagging against Roy.
Chewing his lip, DeSoto settled the arm carefully into Johnny’s lap before arranging the lanky body more comfortably against him and tilting his partner’s head against his own shoulder. The too-long hair was damp with sweat, and he swept it out of Gage’s eyes. Pulse and respiration followed, and he was relieved to find both slowing. Taking advantage of the injured man’s unconsciousness, he also checked the arm over, making sure there were no other injuries he’d missed. Nothing but the swollen shoulder, which thanks to Johnny’s stupid, thoughtful delay, would probably require several days of rest in a sling.
What good is any of it?—his own words came back to haunt him. What good was all their knowledge, all their equipment and medicines, all their efforts if people died anyway? Maybe the answer was moments like this, when medicine had reached its limits and simple caring took over. Relieving a child’s fear and not letting her die alone. Being there for your partner when he was hurt, physically or emotionally. Roy rubbed wearily at his grainy, wet eyes. Providing the comfort no drug could give.
Johnny stirred against him, and Roy pulled himself together, patting the damp cheek encouragingly. “Rise and shine.” His voice was almost steady again.
It took effort to rouse, but Gage first blinked a few times, then lifted his head a little and, seeing Roy, tried a smile. The lines of strain were still there, and Roy’s voice softened.
“You had me a little worried there—how’re you feeling?”
“You’re almost ‘s…bad as Morton,” Johnny murmured, which was more of an answer than it sounded to be. He was already trying to stand up, a little clumsy in his efforts, but moving fairly well to Roy’s clinical eye.
“Take it slow,” he said, one hand enough to make Johnny stop, and he leaned tiredly against Roy again as DeSoto finished his treatment.
With no equipment handy, he slipped his jacket off and worked it onto Gage’s shoulders, tying the arms together in front in an attempt to immobilize the bad arm. His own turnout coat might have worked better, but he’d left it back in the squad and this would do temporarily. Johnny had managed to pick his head up, a little wobbly, and then pulled away from Roy, using the fire escape behind him as support. His cheeks were a little bit red with embarrassment, but he gave his partner an honest smile. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Roy answered. Climbing to his feet, he got an arm around Gage and helped him also rise, steadying him again as he staggered. “You doin’ okay?”
“I think I’ll live. Might even earn me some sympathy points with the girls.” His attempt at humor didn’t quite come off--he was still trying to find his balance, a little unsure on his feet, but Roy had no intention of letting go.
They hadn’t gotten far before Johnny spoke up again.
“Say, uh, Roy, you think Brackett’s gonna get on my case for not getting my shoulder fixed right away?”
“Probably,” he answered without hesitation.
“Well, maybe I could go see him tomorrow. You know, when the swelling’s gone down some.”
Roy tried not to grin. “I don’t think so.”
“Aw, c’mon—“ Johnny suddenly swayed again. Roy merely stopped and tightened his grip, letting the dizziness pass. Gage gulped, color slowly returning to his cheeks. “Okay, maybe that’s not such a hot idea.”
Roy shook his head, moving them both deliberately, if more slowly, in the direction of the squad again. “How ‘bout we tell him the truth—you were helping someone.”
Johnny looked hard at him, concern evident even in his haggard expression. “Hey, yeah, that’s right. And, uh, how’s the patient doing?”
Roy thought about that for a moment. “Let’s just say he won’t be goin’ ice fishing any time soon,” he finally said with a hint of a smile.
“Well…that’s good. That’s good. I’m glad.”
And he would be, even more than Roy was. For good or bad, that caring was why they both were there. Without it, they’d be…well, Brice with all his rules and procedures.
Smothering a grin, Roy helped his partner into the squad, then went back to get the equipment box out of its compartment. And paused to look at the smoldering building for a moment. He would mourn her, and he wouldn’t forget. But he also wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
Decisively closing the compartment door, Roy turned and hurried back to his waiting partner.
*Click above to send K Hanna Korossy feedback
Guest Dispatchers Stories by K Hanna Korossy