In the Arms of a Stranger
by Cindy T
This had not been a typical Friday night for Johnny, but he had to admit he had enjoyed himself. He stared into the glowing embers in the fireplace for another minute, and then carefully eased his way out of Roy’s favorite recliner. He didn’t want to wake Jennifer, who lay sound asleep in his arms despite her best intentions to stay awake until her parents got home. He stood up stiffly, and then carefully laid the three-year old on to her sleeping bag next to her brother.
Chris had already fallen asleep, after vowing to read in his sleeping bag with a flashlight all night long. They were, after all, "camping out," even if it was just in the Desoto’s living room. The evidence littered the room: popcorn on the floor, an empty bag of marshmallows on the hearth, and a fresh stain on the carpet where Johnny had tried to mop up Jennifer’s spilled hot chocolate. As Johnny tucked her in, he placed her favorite blanket against her cheek, just like she likes it, he thought fondly. He cautiously reached into Chris’ sleeping bag and retrieved the open library book about dinosaurs and the dimming flashlight.
Man, I love these kids. He had known Chris since he was a toddler, and Jennifer since the day she was born. He couldn’t imagine feeling a closer bond to any children, other than his own some day -- maybe. Roy is one lucky guy.
Johnny was cleaning up the "camping" mess when he heard the rattle of keys at the front door. He looked up at the clock and saw that it was almost midnight. He must have been asleep longer than he had realized. Oh ,well. He considered it a victory just to have both kids asleep when their parents got home! The mess, well…
"How was the big night out?" he whispered to Roy and Joanne as they quietly slipped into the house. The last thing they wanted to do was wake up the kids. Chris would sleep through anything, but Jennifer was a notoriously light sleeper.
"Our night was nearly perfect," Joanne said with a sidelong glance at Roy.
Roy shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and looked slightly uncomfortable. "Come on, Joanne, you don’t need to tell him."
"Johnny, your partner here must have checked his watch twenty times tonight, thinking we should call and check on you and the kids!"
Johnny smirked at Roy’s embarrassment. "Roy, I’m hurt," he said, trying to sound offended, but then he chuckled. "Tell me, who were you worried about, me or the kids? We had a great time ‘camping out,’ although I admit I had to talk Chris out of actually trying to pitch your tent in the living room. I’ll have you know that Jennifer is quite the little camper, too, not to be out-done by her big brother. I think he fell asleep before she did."
Joanne resumed, "Anyway, Johnny, I kept telling Roy that if you two trust each other with your lives everyday on the job, then we can certainly trust you to watch our two children for a few hours!"
Johnny laughed, and then became more serious. "To be honest with you, I don’t know how you ever let them out of your sight without going crazy. I watch them sleeping there and… well, you know." Johnny cleared his throat, surprised at the sudden onslaught of sentimentality. Changing the subject, he sheepishly looked at Joanne, "Um, I am sorry about the mess, Joanne – you don’t even want to see their bedrooms." Then he brightened. "The good news is that I think they might sleep in for you in the morning."
"Jenny’s usually up at the crack of dawn," Joanne mused, thinking how great, and strange, it would be to actually sleep in on a Saturday, or any day for that matter.
"Listen, I’m glad you two had a good time – for an old married couple. I’ll let you enjoy the rest of your evening now." Johnny grabbed his coat, wallet, and keys and headed toward the door. "See you in a couple days, partner. I’m going camping outside tomorrow."
Roy clapped him on the back, "Thanks again, Johnny. Enjoy the days off. See you next shift."
They watched their friend hop into his Land Rover and back out of the driveway. The taillights slowly disappeared down the street. Roy held his wife in a warm embrace, and let out a contented sigh. They hadn’t had a nice evening out, alone, in a long time. Together they gazed at their children sleeping peacefully. Neither needed to say a word.
Two uneventful days later found the partners back at work. Since it was Roy’s turn to cook, dinner was going to be something simple -- hamburgers. Roy noticed Johnny frowning in thought as he set the table. Johnny had seemed preoccupied at times during the day, but Roy had not pressed the issue. His years working with Johnny had taught Roy to back up a step when it came to Johnny’s "moods" and "cause of the day," for his own sanity. As close as the two partners were, Johnny’s temperament could be exhausting, to say the least. Roy knew that whatever was bothering the younger man would come out eventually, and that then he’d probably be wishing it hadn’t. His thoughts were prophetic.
Johnny set the last fork on the table, pulled a chair out, and sat down heavily. "Roy, I’ve been thinking…" John started, right as Chet entered the room.
"That is big news! Careful you don’t strain something," Chet quipped, not able to pass up such an open invitation for insult. "Good thing we have a paramedic around, just in case."
Johnny shot Chet a glare, then he directed his gaze back at a tired-looking Roy.
Oh boy, here it comes, Roy thought as he flipped the burgers over in the pan.
"Roy, you consider yourself a lucky man, right? I mean, you’re happily married, you have two terrific, healthy kids, you’ve got a great job, not to mention a great partner," he added with a crooked grin. "You consider yourself pretty lucky, don’t you?"
"Yeah…" Roy agreed skeptically, not sure where this newest topic of Johnny’s might head.
"Well," continued Johnny, "isn’t it funny that the word ‘lucky’ can mean different things depending on what you’re talking about?"
"I’m not sure what you’re getting at," Roy admitted, knowing he might regret making the admission.
"Think about it, Roy. The word ‘lucky’ can mean...well, ‘fortunate’ like you are – some might even say, ‘blessed,’ -- but the word can also imply that you’re just...well, ‘lucky.’ You know what I mean?"
Marco looked up from the magazine he was thumbing through and joined in, "You mean, ‘lucky’, like things in your life just happening by chance?"
"Exactly. That’s what I said. I mean, think about it, Roy. You can’t say it was just ‘luck’ that you married Joanne and had two great kids, but we still say you’re ‘lucky,’ right? You see what I mean?"
"Hmm, I never thought about it quite so much. Why the sudden interest in philosophy, Johnny?"
"Don’t sound so surprised. I’m a deep thinker, Roy. I’m a deep thinker."
Chet snorted. "Something sure is getting deep all right." He plopped down on the couch beside Henry and started petting the lethargic basset hound’s ears. "Isn’t that right, Henry?"
Marco stifled a laugh and Mike tried to hide his amusement behind the sports’ section of the newspaper. Marco got up and grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and joined Johnny at the table.
Johnny continued a little louder, ignoring Chet as much as possible. "In case anyone is interested -- I was just trying to decide if I’m lucky or not. Do I have good luck? Or do I have bad luck? Or does it even make any difference?"
Roy sighed. It was definitely going to be a long evening. He found himself almost wishing they would get another run. A cat up a tree would be perfect; just not a black cat… not with Johnny on a "luck" kick! He tried to pay attention.
"I don’t believe in luck, myself," Marco offered.
Captain Stanley entered the room to see how dinner was shaping up. "Ah, smells good, Roy." No secret ingredients, and not fish.
Roy took the opportunity to try to shift the focus over to the captain. "How ‘bout you, Cap? You’ve been in this business the longest… would you say Johnny is lucky or unlucky?"
"Yeah, Cap," Johnny interjected. "I’ve had more than my share of freak accidents, wouldn’t you say? But it’s not like I’m careless or anything --"
"Disaster magnet," Chet muttered under his breath.
"Disaster magnet? What’s that supposed to mean, Kelly?" Johnny was indignant. He took a deep breath, regained some composure, and then he turned his attention back to his captain. "Like I was saying, Cap, am I unlucky because I’ve had a few accidents? I mean, the rattlesnake, the hit-and-run, the cave-in, and the monkey virus… Need I go on?" Exasperated, he added, "And I’m not even 30 yet! Wouldn’t you call that bad luck?"
Cap opened his mouth to respond, but Johnny cut him off as he continued his one-man debate.
"Or, am I really a lucky guy – because I’ve survived all those accidents without any permanent damage? Well, true, I don’t have a spleen any more, but… I’m mean, the doctors always tell me how ‘lucky’ I am. You know, ‘Nine lives’ and all that."
Captain Stanley waited a few seconds this time before attempting to speak. "You want to know what I think? I think ‘luck’ is just an expression. I like to think life isn’t based on luck, John."
"That’s all I’m trying to figure out," John conceded, sounding slightly defeated.
Chet couldn’t resist the chance for a dig, "I’ll tell you what kind of luck Gage, there, has. DUMB luck!"
Johnny gave Chet his infamous "pained" look, and the words, "Shut up, Chet!" died on his lips as Mike Stoker surprised everyone with actual commentary.
"I don’t think luck has anything to do with it, Johnny. Maybe everything happens for a reason, and sets off a chain reaction we never see." All the guys stared at him. Suddenly self-conscious, he concluded, "Just a thought," and he went back to reading the newspaper.
Marco nodded, and then added, "I know I couldn’t do this job if I thought we all depended on luck." He absently fingered the St. Christopher medal he wore on the chain around his neck.
Johnny opened his mouth to make another point when the klaxons sounded. He helped Roy shut off all the burners as they listened.
"Station 51, Station 36, Engine 110. Structure fire. 2114 Edgemont. 2-1-1-4 Edgemont. Cross street, Pearson, time out seventeen-fifty-seven."
Cap calmly responded, "Station 51, KMG 365."
Station 51 arrived at the scene first. Smoke hung in the air as they entered the residential neighborhood. Neighbors were beginning to gather across the street from the burning home, exchanging worried looks. An orange glow was occasionally visible behind the smoke that billowed out of a broken window in the daylight basement.
As the engine rolled to a stop, an elderly man rushed up, waving his arms and shouting hysterically, "My neighbors -- I think they’re still in there! I called when I looked out and saw all the smoke coming out the laundry room window, and nobody has seen them come out."
Captain Stanley confidently issued assignments to his crew. "Masks and tanks. Kelly and Lopez – grab an inch and a half and go inside and cover that northeast corner of the lower level. Gage, Desoto, over here! We have possible victims." He turned to the anxious man. "Sir, do you live next door?"
"Yes! Right there." He pointed to the house on the corner. "I saw Scott and Cheri go in a couple hours ago, and their car is still in the driveway! They must still be in there! I don’t see them anywhere," the man panted, obviously very distressed. "They’ve been through so much… you’ve got to get them out of there! Things were finally getting better… You’ve got to help them. Please hurry!"
"Okay, sir, we’re sending in some men. I want you to try to calm down. Is it just the two of them?"
"Oh ,God… and maybe their niece! She’s over there all the time… just a kid! I saw her over there earlier. I don’t know! Please," he pleaded.
The captain placed his hand on the man’s shoulder reassuringly and guided him away from the engine. "We’ll do everything we can, sir. Now, please go across the street and wait over there, where you’ll be safe. We’ll do everything we can."
Reluctantly, the man crossed the street and joined the other neighbors who had gathered to watch, their shock and concern evident.
Hank turned his attention to the two paramedics. "You guys go in through the front door and make a quick sweep, starting with the lower level. We could have two, possibly three, victims. One might be a child – their niece. Kelly and Lopez are in there and they’ll buy you as much time as they can, but you know these older homes can go fast. Go." He then updated L.A. "L.A., Engine 51. We have a two-story split-level dwelling, heavy smoke showing. Engine 110, hit the hydrant at the corner of Pearson and Edgemont and supply Engine 51. Engine 36, what is your status?"
Johnny and Roy finished securing their air packs, tightened the chinstraps on their helmets, and headed in the front door. They went down the half flight of stairs to the daylight basement of the split-level home. They systematically checked each room, starting in the back. They were relieved when they didn’t find any victims in the back rooms where the fire had started, and they worked their way forward. Thick, black smoke made it difficult to see up the hall. They negotiated the way upstairs and again started methodically searching the back rooms. The invasive smoke billowed up through the vents.
Outside, a bewildered couple approached the scene, their eyes wide with disbelief and alarm as they stared at their fire devouring their home. The woman looked about seven months pregnant, and she stood with her mouth open, her eyes fixed on the sight before her.
Without thinking, the man started to sprint toward the front door. "Oh, my God…. our house!" He heard his wife shout his name, and he stopped when he felt Captain Stanley’s firm grip on his arm.
"Whoa, there, let us do our work. Are you the owners of the house?"
The man’s face conveyed a mixture of emotions: helplessness, anger, shock. He struggled as the reality sunk in, his response delayed, "We used to be," he answered, stunned.
"Is there anyone in the house?" the captain demanded.
"Just the two of us," the man echoed, pulling his wife closer, protectively. Tears streamed down her face.
"We had just finished the baby’s room. What on earth happened? How could this happen?" the woman asked, dazed.
"We probably won’t know for a while." Cap asked again, "You’re absolutely sure there was no one inside the home, correct? Your neighbor mentioned a niece?"
"No. We just walked her home. We weren’t even gone that long! We all came outside when we heard the sirens. I can’t believe this. Everything is gone. Everything."
"Be glad you’re both safe." Captain Stanley held his radio up and issued a new set of commands.
Roy heard the handi-talkie squawk to life. He listened as Cap’s voice came across. "Interior crews, Engine 51, evacuate the structure. Repeat: Evacuate the structure. Engine 110, sound evacuation signal. Kelly and Lopez head out, and cover the east corner." Their priority now was containment; they needed to prevent the spread of the fire to the neighboring homes.
Johnny lifted his head at Roy's call. He couldn’t make out the details of his partner’s muffled words under the mask, but after working together so many years, Roy’s body language was clear as he waved that they were being called out. Johnny knew not to question the order; it meant that either the people had been found or the house had become dangerously unstable. They heard the engines sound three long blasts signaling the evacuation. Roy headed down the short flight of stairs, and Johnny started to follow him out.
As Johnny walked toward the stairway, he saw the floor begin to sag. Come on…two more yards. Despite his best efforts to defy the laws of physics, the spongy floor disintegrated under his feet. He toppled backwards, his air tank slamming into his back as it hung up momentarily on the flooring, knocking the wind out of him. As he slipped through the hole further, the ragged boards scraped against the left side of his neck, then his jaw, shoving his air mask painfully up and to the side. He grabbed at the edges of the rent in the floor desperately, hoping to pull himself back up, but it merely slowed his rapid descent through the weakened floor. He felt a sickening snap in his right leg as he landed, then the explosion of pain left him drowning in blackness.
Chet and Marco worked their way forward, through the oppressive smoke toward the stairway to the front entry, exiting right behind Roy. Visibility was practically zero. They wouldn’t know until later that Johnny lay helpless just a few yards away, as the house continued to burn.
Roy cleared the building and headed over to his captain to shift his role from paramedic to firefighter. He saw Chet and Marco come out and head around the side of the house, but no Johnny. Roy spun around, checking the area for any sign of Johnny. He felt a sudden wave of panic.
He heard the Cap speak into his radio, "Engine 36, bring up another inch-and-a-half and assist Engine 51's crew." He turned to Roy, "Desoto, you and Gage grab an inch-and-a-half and join Lopez and Kelly on that east side. The fire has broken through to the second floor and it’s moving forward. Desoto, where’s Gage?"
"Cap, he hasn’t come out yet. He was right behind me." Roy instinctively started toward the house to go after his partner.
"DESOTO! Hold it, pal!" Cap shouted.
"Roy, Squad 36 is just pulling up. Let me get you some help or they’ll be in there looking for two downed paramedics. The whole second floor has gotten involved."
Roy stared at the house with sick dread, willing Johnny to come out. Come on, partner. Come on...
Johnny felt a soft cool hand touch his face lightly. He gradually came back to awareness, and tried to make sense of his situation, but his foggy mind wouldn’t cooperate. I’ll just rest here a little longer, he told himself. He allowed himself to drift.
The small hand patted his face again. "Uhn… wha..." he groaned, wishing he would stop spinning. Johnny forced his eyes open slightly, and reality started creeping back. With awareness came the pain. His back and leg felt like they were on fire, and each breath brought fresh agony. Ribs again… figures, dammit. He could hear nothing but the roar of the fire… or was the roar coming from inside his head? It would just be easier to let go… rest… He felt the pat on his face a third time and realized that his eyes had closed. Don’t do this, Gage, he thought, concentrating on the touch of the hand. He blinked his heavy eyelids slowly, and focused on the face that hovered inches from his own. He began to cough as the acrid smoke assaulted his throat and nose. He automatically repositioned his air mask and then stared at the most beautiful face he had ever seen in his life.
Deep brown eyes peered into his, and a small child’s voice innocently asked, "Are you a real fireman? I found your fire hat." She smiled at him proudly, her eyes twinkling, quite oblivious to the looming threat of the fire. "It was on the floor." She placed the large helmet on her head and pointed to the floor. "Right there!"
John struggled to sit up, disjointed details of his situation coming back to him, but his oxygen tank held him down. In a panic, he surveyed the room, spotting the dim hole in the ceiling above him through the billowing black smoke. He realized the fire had gotten into the space between the two floors.
Typical, he thought, remembering his fall, if there’s a hole to be made, my foot is right there volunteering… Man, I’ve got to get us out of here. Roy had the handi-talkie, so Johnny couldn’t radio for help. He suddenly realized that he didn’t know for sure if Roy had made it out.
Frustrated and in pain, his confused mind raced. He realized the extreme danger that both he and this little girl were in. She can’t be more than three...about Jennifer’s age. John fought the blackness at the edge of his vision, which threatened to take over his senses. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind. Get her out of here, his mind screamed.
The little girl sat on her knees at Johnny’s side. Her hands rested on his turnout coat, and she continued to stare at him, strangely unhurt and unafraid. She didn’t even seem affected by the smoke.
"Do you drive the fire truck?" she asked expectantly. Her high-pitched voice helped him focus on what he had to do.
Johnny concentrated. Although it was painful to breathe already, he pulled his air mask off so the little girl could hear him better. The smoke immediately stung his nose and throat with a vengeance. "My name’s…Johnny… I am a real…. fire fighter… going to get you…out of here. What’s --" He stopped short and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the pain in his leg as it started to spasm. Oh, man… Breathe… He inhaled more of the oxygen mixture from his mask, which helped. "What’s your name… sweetheart?"
"Katie." She watched him. "You have an owie," she commented, gently touching the blood on the left side of his jaw.
"Don’t you… worry… about that… honey." He didn’t have the strength to sit up with the heavy air-pack strapped to him, so after taking another breath of the clean air from the mask, he laboriously eased his way out of his bulky coat, leaving it and the air tank under him. A wave of nausea coursed through him as more stabbing pain ripped through his body. He gasped, which brought on painful coughing. The smoke was getting thicker, and it burned his throat. He concentrated on the tunnel vision that threatened to close in on him, determined not to lose consciousness. He motioned her over so that he could give her some air, but she ignored him and stood up, holding the helmet on her head with both hands.
"Come play with me!" Katie called as she scampered to the doorway and disappeared around the corner, into the smoky blackness of the hall. "Come play!"
Johnny’s heart pounded. He tried to call out to her, to call her back, but his voice was nothing more than a wheeze.
"Come on, Johnny!"
The sound of Katie’s voice helped him fight his exhaustion and pain, but also fueled the rising fear he was trying to suppress. Hold it together, Gage… You can lose it later. He could feel his heart racing, his breath coming in shorter gasps. Breathe. Johnny tried to call out to her one more time but the attempt just triggered uncontrollable coughing. He realized Katie couldn’t possibly hear him and that he would have to go after her. He closed his eyes momentarily, steeling himself to move, knowing it was now or never. He took a few more breaths of air from his mask. A little straight O2 would be real nice about now. He could see an orange glow through the hole above, and flames taunted him. The fire was winning. He knew the rest of the ceiling wouldn’t hold forever. Now or never is right.
Johnny gritted his teeth and eventually got his fingertips around an edge of the doorframe. With a much-needed surge of adrenaline, he inched his way out of the room, pushing with his good leg. It felt like his other leg was being torn off. He could feel himself dripping with sweat, his breaths coming in gasps mixed with coughing. Keep going… keep going. Finally in the hallway, he leaned against the wall, readying himself to go just a little farther. His mind became fully absorbed with the task of locating the little girl. Just get her out of here in one piece, Gage.
Katie’s voice drove him. "Come to my room! See my toys!" she beckoned, her voice somehow floating over the chaos around him. Johnny heard a groan from above, followed by a thunderous noise, and Johnny felt himself propelled across the hall as the room behind him practically exploded with the force of the upper level crashing down.
The room he had just exited was gone. His whole body shook from the exertion and the knowledge that he had missed being crushed by mere seconds. He felt, rather than saw, a doorway to his right, and he clung to the frame. He bit into his lip as he struggled to pull himself to a sitting position in the doorway. Tears of pain mixed with his sweat as he tried to force the pain back. His hand came in contact with something metal. Relief washed over him briefly when he saw his helmet, and heard Katie’s voice closer. He blinked the sweat from his eyes and squinted through the murky haze. He saw her half way between the door and the window of her bedroom, playing with a soft blue and green stuffed rabbit. If I can just get over to that window…
"Honey… " he rasped, coughing.
She jumped up happily and approached him. "Want to play with my rabbit? See? He can dance," she sang sweetly as she demonstrated, swinging her toy by his arms.
Johnny produced a wan smile, which disappeared as his world went in to slow motion. The roar in his ears intensified and his field of vision constricted rapidly. His body was shutting down, and he realized he wasn’t going to stay conscious long enough to make any difference.
This little angel wasn’t going to survive.
His energy reserves were gone. His luck had run out. He leaned his back against the wall, trying to steady himself as the room spun wildly. He was going to fail her. In a final effort, Johnny blindly reached out and pulled the little girl close as he slowly sank the rest of the way to the floor. He instinctively curled up around her, hoping to at least protect her with his body and provide her some small feeling of comfort. Even in his own terror, his heart ached at the thought of her feeling scared. Johnny felt her snuggle into his arms… just like Jennifer… He choked back a sob as he placed his helmet back on her head, and then he surrendered to the merciful darkness -- not hearing the voices urgently calling his name.
Roy pointed to the area where the stairs and upper hall had been, where he had last seen Johnny. Shit… A shadow of guilt passed over Roy. The area was unrecognizable. The upper landing was demolished and the remaining beams were fully engulfed in flames. They had no inside access to what was left of the upper floor. Roy fought his growing sense of dread. Come on Johnny, where are you? He shone his light down to the lower level, where Johnny might have fallen or lay buried. Roy tried to push that thought from his mind.
The paramedics worked their way down the precarious half flight of stairs and examined the remains of the room and doorway that had been under the upper hall. Shining his light at the devastation, Roy’s jaw clenched, and he froze momentarily, seeing a piece of blackened turnout coat protruding from the wreckage. He pointed to the pool of dark liquid near the doorframe and followed the gruesome trail further into the house. Roy could feel his heart pounding in his chest. At least Johnny wasn’t buried there.
One step behind Roy, Snyder glanced at the coat, and the blood. Only Gage… he thought with a knot in his stomach, convinced anyone else would have been a corpse by now. That’s a hell of a lot of blood for a guy who’s not dead…
They followed the spilled blood across the hall to a bedroom. Roy entered the room first almost tripping over his partner. He lay curled up on his sidejust inside the doorway, deathly still, his helmet on the floor next to him. "Got him! Johnny!!" He instinctively felt for a carotid pulse. Thank God. He quickly placed his air mask on his friend as he yelled, " Help me get him out of here!"
Snyder broke the glass in the window with Johnny’s helmet. Brice quickly ran over with the backboard and shoved it through the opening, then knocked the rest of the glass out and covered the remaining shards with a thick blanket. Roy and Snyder expertly log rolled and secured their comrade onto the backboard slid him out to Brice and Cap, who had raced over to assist. Once they got Johnny out, they quickly moved him out of the collapse zone as gently as possible, not knowing what injuries he had sustained.
Roy yanked his mask off and shrugged out of his tank. Brice sprinted over with the trauma box and oxygen. Snyder placed a non-rebreather over Johnny’s mouth and nose to deliver pure oxygen. He listened to Johnny’s respirations while Roy prepared to get Johnny’s bleeding under control. They knew from the amount of blood soaking his pants, his pallor, and his rapid heart rate that shock was setting in.
Brice gently placed a cervical collar on Johnny. The oxygen had begun to rouse Johnny slightly. He lifted one hand toward his face and wrapped his other arm protectively against his ribs. He groaned and began to grow agitated. Snyder spoke quietly to Roy, "Get up here where he can see you. See if you can calm him down."
Roy motioned for Brice to take over the work of getting to Johnny’s leg, and he moved up by Snyder. "Johnny? Johnny, can you hear me?" Roy called.
Johnny pushed the mask off his face, and tried to sit up, grabbing the front of Roy’s shirt and pulling. "Jennifer...Roy, I…" he rasped weakly. He began to cough violently.
"Back down, pal" Roy instructed in the calmest voice he could muster, and he attempted to gently place the mask back over Johnny’s mouth and nose.
"Roy… did you… I… I had her…"
"Johnny, it’s okay. Everybody’s out. Listen, we need to check you out and get your vitals." Johnny shook his head weakly from side to side in protest. "You gotta keep this mask on, buddy. Johnny, Brice needs to get to your leg." Roy was actually glad Brice was there. He knew the arrogant young man was a damn fine paramedic even if he lacked a personality.
Roy glanced over as Brice skillfully cut through the blood-soaked turnout pants, and both men grimaced at the ugly compound fracture. Snyder’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the extent the leg injury. He had seen the amount of blood left in the basement. How did he ever get out of that room? Damn.
"Good Lord…" Cap muttered.
Brice worked quickly to control the bleeding where the bones had torn through Johnny’s skin. The pressure elicited a guttural sound from Johnny, and he started to shake. Once the bleeding was under control, they would be able to stabilize the leg, which would help reduce the spasms.
Roy and Snyder continued their survey of Johnny’s condition, with Roy taking the lead. "Johnny, tell us where else you hurt."
Roy felt for his long-time friend and partner. "Where else do you hurt, Johnny? You gotta help us out."
"M’ back… ribs…throat burns… Roy -- did you… get Jennifer...?"
Roy reassured Johnny as well as he could, knowing that he was disoriented. "Jennifer is just fine, Johnny. Joanne’s with her." To Snyder he quietly murmured, "He’s definitely shocky. " Snyder nodded back.
Roy checked Johnny’s ribs as gently as he could, but still elicited a gasp and a defensive reaction, followed by more painful coughing. "Sorry ‘bout that, Johnny. I won’t do it again." He noticed the lacerations and swelling under the left side of Johnny’s neck and jaw, and remembered that Johnny hadn’t had his helmet on when they found him. "How’s your head?"
Johnny moaned something unintelligible, so Roy felt for contusions while Snyder spoke to the hospital.
"Rampart, this is Squad 36."
"Go ahead 36." Dixie’s voice issued from the box.
"Rampart, we have a male firefighter, age 29, who has suffered an apparent fall in a house fire. He was unconscious when he was extricated, and is now semi-conscious. He has a compound fracture of the left tibia and fibula and has lost a considerable amount of blood. We are attempting to control the bleeding and are preparing to stabilize the leg. We have taken full spinal precautions. He is also suffering from smoke inhalation. We have him on 100% O2. Victim is in severe pain, with reports of pain in his throat, ribs, and back, in addition to the leg. He has superficial lacerations on his left mandible. Pulse is 120 and thready. Respirations are 30. B.P. is 86 over 50. Victim is diaphoretic and shocky. He has been agitated and confused, and has lost consciousness twice."
"36, stand by."
The voice switched to that of Dr. Brackett. "Squad 36, start two IVs of Ringer’s Lactate, wide open, and set up a cardiac monitor."
Snyder set up the heart monitor while Roy started the IVs.
"Rampart, victim’s pupils are equal and reactive." He paused, and then added, "Rampart, be advised that the victim is paramedic John Gage." The hospital had Johnny’s blood type and history on file, and he and Roy both knew Johnny would need blood products as soon as possible.
"Squad 36, administer 2 milligrams morphine IV, continue with O2, and stabilize that leg. Continue to monitor vitals on route, and transport as soon as possible. Transport as soon as possible."
"2 milligrams MS IV, continue O2. We have stabilized the leg. We’ll monitor vitals en route, and transport as soon as possible. Squad 36, 10-4."
Both Roy and Snyder rode in with Johnny. The fluids were beginning to do their job; Johnny’s blood pressure came up slightly, though it was still low. His respirations were holding, but he was developing stridor as his airway began to constrict, inflamed by all the smoke he had inhaled. Roy and Snyder both know it would probably get worse before it got better. They needed to get him to Rampart fast.
It was terrifying seeing Johnny so still, but Roy also knew that when he came around more, the pain would be severe, despite the morphine. It was going to be a rough ride. As if on cue, Johnny began to stir, then his body jerked as a spasm of pain flashed through him.
"Aw man… Roy?" Johnny wheezed, under the air mask. He tried to lift his hands up to push it off, but the two paramedics gently restrained him so he wouldn’t pull out his IVs. Johnny looked around, trying to orient himself.
"Where’s Katie? Did you get Katie? Roy?"
Roy couldn’t make out what Johnny was trying to say. "Johnny, don’t try to talk. Just take it easy, okay?" Johnny tried again to speak again, but he couldn’t make himself understood. Roy shook his head in confusion, which Johnny took to be the worst news.
"No…" he moaned, as he fought back a cry. A single tear rolled down his cheek. "Katie…." The name faded on his lips as everything went black.
"Treatment room two," Dixie directed as the gurney burst through the double doors at the end of the emergency room. She worked hard to control her emotions as she caught her first glimpse of the battered patient coming in. Her concern deepened as she noticed the fear on Roy’s face.
Roy watched nervously as the medical team transferred Johnny to an exam table. He and Snyder hung the IV bags on the poles and then backed out of the way so the team could get to work. Snyder stepped out into the hall, after giving Roy a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Roy felt removed from reality, as if he were watching a training film rather than living the nightmare. None of it seemed real. He observed the scene with detached fascination, unable to fully accept the fact that the "patient" in front of him was his best friend. Dixie hung a bag of packed red blood cells while Dr. Brackett checked Johnny’s airway for burns and then inserted an endotracheal tube and hooked him up to a ventilator. As is from far away, Roy heard Dr. Brackett barking orders and requesting tests, his stress over treating an injured friend causing his voice to sound harsher than he intended: "X-rays of chest and leg… Solu-Medrol… blood transfusions… a complete set of electrolytes… CBC with differential, ABG, carbon monoxide level…" The words became disjointed – "on-call orthopedic surgeon" – "vascular specialist…" The voices were gradually drowned out by a buzzing noise, and the lights dimmed. Roy started to sweat profusely as the room became uncomfortably warm.
Too late, Roy realized he was passing out. One of the orderlies happened to look up and notice that the color had completely drained from Roy’s face, and that the man looked nauseated. He had seen the look before, but he hadn’t expected it from the experienced paramedic. He reached Roy’s side just in time to ease him down the wall to the floor.
Roy came to with a start. Someone said his name, snapping him back to the present. He discovered that he was lying down on an exam table in a treatment room, with his feet elevated. A nurse was taking his blood pressure while Dr. Early spoke gently. "Take it easy, Roy. Give yourself a minute. Are you feeling a little better now?"
"I feel so stupid. Doc, how’s Johnny? How long was I out?"
"Don’t feel stupid. It happens to the best of them. You’ve only been out a few minutes, so there’s not a whole lot I can tell you that you don’t already know. I’ve had someone call Joanne. I want you to rest in here until she arrives. When was the last time you had anything to eat or drink, Roy?"
Roy’s delayed response was answer enough.
"That’s what I thought. That’s probably part of the reason you checked out in there. I’ll have someone bring up something for you. When you feel ready, you can sit up real slowly and drink some water." He handed Roy a glass. "I’ll let you know when Johnny’s X-rays and lab results start coming in. Is there anything more you can tell us about what happened to him? It might be helpful."
Roy took a deep breath and sat up slowly. "We know he fell through the floor to a basement, with his air tank on. I’d guess he landed on his feet then fell back on his tank. We don’t know if anything fell on him or not, but his coat and air tank were buried under half of the second floor." Roy shuddered, remembering.
The doctor listened patiently.
Roy again visualized the scenario that he had been playing out over and over again in his mind. "He got out of his coat and tank, somehow, before the ceiling came down. Snyder and I followed blood across the hall, and we found him just inside another room, unconscious." Roy paused briefly, staring at the floor, and then he looked straight at Dr. Early. "Doc, how did he ever get out of that room? He had a compound fracture, for God’s sake. He must have dragged himself. Geez, Johnny." He had to look away.
Dr. Early shook his head in dismay. "Shock and adrenaline can do amazing things to the human body, Roy. They can save you...or cripple you...or kill you. Try to take it easy, Roy; you know Johnny’s in good hands now. It looks like you got him out in time. We’ll keep you informed."
Roy smiled weakly and nodded as he lay back down. The water had helped, but he was still physically and emotionally exhausted. Against his will, his eyes eventually closed and he slept.
On a different level of existence, Johnny hovered at the edge of consciousness. He was aware of time passing, and voices floated by occasionally, but the words didn’t have any meaning. He felt a deep sense of sadness and despair, but he couldn’t remember why.
Roy’s eyes flew open when Joanne entered his room. He sat up before he was fully awake. She took one look at his scared, haggard, soot-streaked face, and she held him, tears streaming silently down her face. "I saw Dr. Early in the hall, and he told me about Johnny. He said you collapsed. Are you okay?"
Roy nodded, "I wasn’t exactly the pillar of professionalism, that’s for sure." He looked at his wife, and wiped soot from her face. I must really look bad.
Suddenly he remembered something he hadn’t told Dr. Early. "Joanne, when Johnny started coming around he kept calling for Jennifer. He sounded really upset, and blamed himself for something."
"Our Jennifer? You’re sure?"
"He kept apologizing, saying he had her, and he was sorry. He kept asking if I got her. I know he was disoriented, but it was still really chilling. The kids don’t know anything, do they?"
"No, honey. They were sound asleep when I got the call. Suzanne came over; she’ll sleep on the couch and get Chris off to school in the morning if we’re not there yet. She said I could pick Jenny up any time tomorrow at her house."
Roy hugged her again and held tight. She was his lifeline. Johnny was right. I am a lucky man.
Joanne spotted the tray with an untouched sandwich. "Looks like someone wants you to eat something, Roy."
Roy jumped up as Dixie entered the room. "What?"
With typical Dixie composure, she said, "Well, they’re still getting him stabilized for surgery, Roy. His airway doesn’t look too bad right now. His blood pressure has come up, heart rate has stabilized, carbon monoxide levels are coming down, but his oxygen is still a bit low. That’s going to need to come up before they can put him under. He has three cracked ribs, and you already know his leg is going to need some work. How are you holding up now?"
Roy smiled weakly. "Better than the last time you saw me."
"Joanne, please see that he eats that sandwich. He about gave me a heart attack when he went down. I’ll be sure you know when Johnny heads up to surgery."
As soon as Johnny was stable enough for surgery, the medical team whisked him up to the operating room to repair the damage to his leg. Roy watched his friend being wheeled down the hall toward the elevator. It just benchmarked the start of another long wait. He felt a strange emptiness as the elevators doors closed, and somehow the lounge seemed quieter and lonelier.
Surgery of any kind carried risks, and although Johnny had stabilized, Roy knew he wasn't out of the woods yet. His first concern was his friend's survival, but he also began to wonder how much damage Johnny's leg had sustained. "Joanne, did you know he dragged himself out of the room where he fell? Can you imagine what that must have felt like? Do know what will happen if there’s too much tissue damage? His career will be over." After a long pause, he quietly added, "I feel like I let him down."
Joanne squeezed his arm in support. "You saved his life. You know that deep down inside. I love you."
"I love you, too. I'm glad you're here."
They sat together in silence, dozing off from time to time, counting the hours. Waiting.
Roy was jolted from his light sleep when Dixie gently touched his arm. "Sorry to startle you, Roy. I knew you and Joanne would want to know Johnny is in recovery now; he made it through surgery just fine. The surgeons gave him a positive prognosis on that leg. All things considered, his muscles and veins weren’t in too bad of shape."
Roy rubbed his face in an effort to wake up more fully. He felt tremendous relief wash over him. Johnny would have hated a long-term desk assignment; he probably would have quit the department. "Thanks, Dixie. How’s his throat? When can I see him?"
"Roy, he’ll be in recovery at least 3 hours. Johnny won’t be up to any visitors for some time. He’s going to be heavily sedated, and Dr. Brackett plans to leave him intubated for a couple days so he can recuperate a little and reduce the strain on his body. You know how insidious airway inflammation can be. Why don’t you go on home and get cleaned up and get some rest. You still smell like that fire." She smiled reassuringly, "I’ll make sure someone calls you if anything changes. I promise." To Joanne she silently mouthed the words, "Take him home."
The next two days passed by slowly. Someone from 51's sat with Johnny every moment it was allowed. They knew Johnny was out of it and wouldn’t remember, but each man from the crew needed to be there for him. He was one of them; it was Brotherhood.
By mid-morning of the third day, Dr. Brackett allowed Johnny to wake up so they could safely take him off the ventilator.
Johnny awoke very gradually. Eventually his eyes explored the room and settled on Roy, recognition dawning on him progressively.
"Glad to have you back," Roy ventured tentatively.
Johnny started to speak, but his throat felt raw. He laid his head back and closed his eyes.
Roy picked up the plastic cup that was on the stand. "Want some ice?"
Johnny nodded. "The fire," he croaked, looking at Roy for confirmation.
"Yeah. Do you remember much?"
"Enough," was all Johnny offered. He avoided eye contact with Roy. "The little girl?" he whispered.
"What little girl, Johnny?"
Johnny couldn’t deal with this yet. If Roy didn’t know about the little girl, then she hadn’t made it out. "Never mind." He closed his eyes again, trying to will himself back to oblivion, but the pain in his head and the haunting memories wouldn’t allow it. He couldn’t face the images – much less talk to anyone, even Roy, about his failure. "I’m really tired, Roy," his hoarse voice rasped. He winced as he shifted slightly in the bed.
Roy leaped up. "Here," he offered, "do you want this higher?"
"Doesn’t matter," Johnny whispered without emotion.
"I’ll let you get some sleep, then. I gotta call the station any way, let them know you’re finally awake."
"I don’t really feel like visitors, Roy."
"I don’t blame you. I’ll try to hold them off, but it won’t be easy," Roy added with an uneasy smile. Something didn’t feel right about the way Johnny was acting. Roy tried to tell himself it was probably just the lingering results of the sedation. "I’ll stop by later. Get some more rest."
Roy thought that by mid-afternoon, Johnny might ready for another visit. He entered the room with hope.
"Hey, pal. Ya feelin’ any better?"
"Fine," Johnny lied, his voice still very hoarse.
Roy noticed Johnny’s flat effect and downcast eyes. "You were in bad shape in there, you know. We were all pretty worried. I think it even rattled Brice."
"More of Gage’s Bad Luck, I guess," Johnny said bitterly.
"Oh, I don’t know. Sounds like Gage’s Good Luck, too. Most people would be dead, going through what you did."
"Maybe I should be," Johnny answered in a whisper, turning away.
Roy was speechless – hoping at first to see that it was a feeble attempt at humor. All that came out was, "Huh?" When Johnny didn’t respond, he felt his blood run cold. "That’s a strong statement," he said nervously. He could feel the anxiety emanating from his friend, and he didn’t know what to say. This was not the Johnny Gage he knew. What happened in there? Roy was well aware that depression could follow a major trauma like Johnny had been through, but this seemed to run deep, and it had him scared. "Hey, why don’t I call Dr. Brackett, if he’s still here, and have him check you out."
"I just wanna sleep, and forget."
"Forget? What’s goin’ on, Johnny? You’ve got a really good prognosis. They say your leg ought to heal just fine, with some physical therapy. Is it the pain? They can give you something for the pain. Let me call the doc." Roy stood and turned toward the door. He stopped when Johnny spoke.
"The victim, Roy. The little girl. Katie. I know she’s dead, Roy." Johnny’s ragged voice was barely above a whisper.
Roy turned around slowly, "What victim, Johnny? Cap called us out. The house was clear."
"Cap was wrong."
Johnny stared into space, his face becoming flushed as he fought to keep his emotions in check. "There was a little girl in the fire, Roy. And if you don’t know that, then she’s dead. It must have been their niece. God, Roy – how am I going to live with this?" He swallowed hard, a lump in his already ravaged throat. He sounded as if his heart had broken.
"A little girl? Geez, Johnny, we didn’t know. I don’t get it." He needed to talk to Cap, but he sure couldn’t leave Johnny right now. He had been in close contact with the crew over the phone, and had seen each one of them at the hospital over the last few days. Nobody had mentioned recovering a body. The papers hadn’t mentioned any victim except Johnny. What the hell is going on? He sat down, silent, letting Johnny control the conversation--or end it. He knew he just had to be there for Johnny.
Johnny’s gravelly voice was despondent. "She was Jennifer’s age, Roy…" His voice cracked with emotion, "She’s the only reason I even got out of there alive, and I just let her slip away." He had never felt such utter hopelessness.
"I wish I knew what to say, Johnny." Truer words were never spoken.
Finally Johnny looked Roy in the face. "Don’t you get it, Roy? I fell through the ceiling and laid there, too out of it to even care. I just let go, I hurt so bad. The little girl… Katie… she couldn’t have been more than about three… she woke me up, Roy. She wanted me to come play with her, and she ran off to another room. I had her in my arms, Roy. I put my helmet on her. I had her. I know I tried, but I failed. I did try… it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get her out." His eyes filled with unreleased tears. "What if it had been Jennifer? I feel like… I feel like --" but the words couldn’t be spoken out loud. I feel like I killed a baby.
Roy felt the instinctive need to defend Johnny. He moved closer to his friend, his voice calm but firm. "You’ve got to know you did all you could do. My God, Johnny, you went after her with a broken leg. Johnny, you… you almost died in there." He looked at Johnny, but he saw that his words were falling on deaf ears. "I’m finding Brackett."
While Dr. Brackett examined Johnny, Roy went over to the nurses’ station to call Captain Stanley. He had called when they had taken Johnny off the ventilator, but now he needed to find out about this little girl. He was relieved when Cap answered the phone.
"Hi ,Cap, it’s Roy. Yeah, uh, Johnny’s voice is sounding a little better. The doc’s in there right now, checkin’ him out."
Cap quickly relayed the information to the crew, who had gathered around the phone for the update. "That’s good news, Roy. Keep us posted, okay, pal? And let us know when Johnny’s ready for some visitors."
"Uh – Cap? Do you know anything about a victim?"
"A victim? What are you talking about? At the Edgemont fire? There weren’t any victims except Johnny."
"What about the Andersons’ niece -- the three-year old, Cap? Johnny said he had her when he finally passed out, but she was gone when we got to him. We didn’t even know to look for her, then you called us out and the whole house went up. Cap, I’ve never seen Johnny like this. He’s taking this really hard."
"Roy, the Andersons’ niece wasn’t in the house. They had just walked her home. Nobody was in there except Johnny."
Roy let out a long breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding. "Oh, boy." Roy’s mind raced. What had gone on in that house?
"Tell me more, Roy. We may need to follow up on this." The Andersons had seemed genuine enough, but there was always the possibility of foul play, however remote the chance.
Roy hadn’t noticed the young couple that had approached the nurses’ station to ask about an injured paramedic. He paused, collecting his thoughts, reviewing what Johnny had told him. "From what Johnny told me, he passed out right when he fell through the floor. That’s when his leg snapped." Roy stared at the floor, picturing the events and trying to reconcile bits of the story. He continued, "He said a little three-year-old girl named Katie woke him up. She talked to him a few minutes then told him to come play with her. She ran down the hall and disappeared, calling Johnny to come play with her."
Cap said nothing, listening intently, shaking his head, the story not matching the facts, as he knew them.
Roy continued, not noticing the emotionally distraught couple hanging on his every word. "I don’t know how, but Johnny got his tank off and dragged himself after her. He said as soon as he got through the door, the ceiling came down." Roy paused again. "Cap, Snyder and I saw his tank; it was buried. Johnny said he found the little girl in her bedroom, and put his helmet on her and held her, knowing he wasn’t going to make it out. The little girl wasn’t there when we found him; just Johnny and his helmet." Roy’s voice was full of emotion, "Cap, Johnny held her, fully expecting to die in there."
There was no sound on the other end.
Johnny’s reaction after they got him out started to make sense. "Remember how he was upset and confused, and kept asking about Jennifer? Cap – you think he just hallucinated the whole thing?"
A quiet voice broke the silence. "We’re the Andersons." Roy’s head whipped around.
The man continued, "We had a three-year old daughter named Katie." His voice was filled with long-felt grief. Then, with a hushed voice, he added, "We lost her to leukemia two years ago."
Roy’s voice took on an odd tone. "Uh, Cap? I gotta go." He slowly hung up the phone, staring at the couple, totally stunned. Their staggering words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Finally Roy regained some semblance of professionalism and gestured toward the lounge. "Please – let’s go have a seat."
Roy studied the woman’s face as she wiped away tears, processing what she had heard. She sat down and nodded gratefully. There was more uncomfortable silence, and then Roy cleared his throat nervously and introduced himself. "I’m Roy Desoto, and I’m a paramedic with the LA County Fire Department. My partner is the man who as injured. Are you all right, Ma’am?"
"Cheri, please. This is my husband Scott. We’re just trying to make sense of this. It’s almost too much… to take in."
Scott spoke like he was in a dream. "We hadn’t heard anything about the fireman who was injured in our house – or what used to be our house. We’ve been following the news stories but hadn’t heard anything today. We were going crazy wondering how he was doing, so we called the hospital. We wanted to thank him in person, you know, for putting his life on the line checking for us. You too," he indicated to Roy. "All they’d tell us was that he had been upgraded to serious condition. We wanted to drop this note off for him." His eyes welled up with tears again, and he clenched his jaw shut, unable to continue.
Seeing her husband’s pain, his wife took over, "Did he really say he saw a little girl named Katie? In our house?"
Roy nodded. "Yeah, he did. And you say Katie was your daughter?"
The grief on their faces confirmed it.
"Listen, I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you two to deal with. My wife and I have two small children. I also need to let you know that right now my best friend is in that room over there, torturing himself, because he thinks he failed to protect a child who, somehow, got him to drag himself across your hall, which saved his life. I can’t make sense of this, but I need to let him know that nobody died in that fire."
Cheri looked at her husband through tears. "Scott, I need to talk to him. I need to know," she whispered. "She was there. Katie was there. He saw her."
Scott faced Roy, and with a very shaky voice, he said, "Go talk to your partner."
Dr. Brackett had just finished writing in Johnny’s chart and he met Roy in the doorway. He motioned for Roy to join him in the hall. "Roy, Johnny’s having some complications."
"You don’t know the half of it, Doc," Roy agreed under his breath.
The doctor’s eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Did Johnny say anything to you about a little girl?"
The doctor crossed his arms as he considered the question. "No, but something certainly has him down, and I don’t think it’s just the pain, although I know he’s in a considerable amount of that, too, even though he won’t admit to it. Because of that splenectomy he had a couple years ago, you know his immune system is somewhat compromised. Normally that isn’t a problem. We put him on preventative antibiotics after his surgery, his most recent blood work shows he’s fighting an infection. I’ve changed his antibiotics and just had a nurse give him a fairly potent painkiller because his blood pressure and temperature are both up. Not a lot, but I don’t like the direction this is headed. I don’t think he’s giving us an accurate read on how he’s feeling. Johnny Gage is usually a fighter, but this time he acts like he doesn’t even care. Now what’s this about a little girl?"
"Well, right before I called you, Johnny told me a little girl died in the fire because he couldn’t get her out." Roy wasn’t sure how to proceed.
Doctor Brackett let out a low whistle. "That explains his demeanor. Something tells me there’s more to this story. Go on."
Roy paused, not sure how much he should divulge without talking to Johnny first. "Doc, Johnny’s description of the little girl is really vivid. He really believes she was there. But there was no victim in that fire. I was just on my way in to tell him."
The doctor looked relieved and hopeful. "That wouldn’t be the first time somebody experienced delusions in a crisis. Well, let’s hope that sets his mind at ease. He needs all his energy devoted to getting well. Keep me posted, Roy."
"You too, Doc. Thanks."
Roy entered Johnny’s room quietly, trying to figure out how to lead in to what he had to say. Johnny turned his head to Roy slowly, a far-away look in his eyes. He looked so tired. "Hey," he said without emotion. "You’re not back to tell me everything is going to be fine, are you? I don’t have the energy for a pep talk."
"No. Actually, I think things are already fine," Roy said seriously.
Johnny looked back up at the ceiling, not having the desire or will to debate.
"I have some good news for you." He took a deep breath. "Johnny, I don’t really know how to say this. I know I sure can’t explain it. Um…nobody was hurt in that fire except for you. The Andersons’ niece was at her own home during the fire. Katie…"
Johnny sat up slightly, wincing at the sudden surge in pain. "Roy, if Katie’s not their niece, then who is she? And how did she get out? Katie’s really okay, Roy? How…" he stopped when he saw Roy’s face. "What is it you’re not telling me, Roy?"
"Johnny, this may be hard to hear, and even harder to make sense of. Katie’s parents are out in the lounge"
Dixie walked in, picking up Johnny’s chart. "Everything okay in here? Those pain meds doing you any good yet?" She looked at the two men, who were obviously in the middle of something important. "Uh, Johnny? Roy?"
Roy didn’t take his eyes off Johnny. Both ignored Dixie, practically oblivious that she was even in the room. Dixie listened as Roy continued, and she automatically started checking Johnny’s blood pressure.
"Johnny, the Anderson’s told me that Katie… was their three-year old daughter."
"Was? Roy… what are you trying to tell me? This is supposed to help?"
"Johnny, their daughter Katie died of leukemia two years ago."
Johnny and Dixie both just stared at Roy, their mouths open in disbelief.
"Do you know what you’re saying, Roy? She was there; I had her in my arms."
"Johnny, I know I don’t understand it, but nobody died in that fire. I know you beat the odds, and it looks like you had help. The details I guess you have to just take on faith."
Dixie frowned at the blood pressure reading. It was higher than it should have been, but at this point it could be due to emotional or physical causes. She knew the pain medicine should have kicked in by now. "Johnny, I’m going to kick Roy out of here for a little while. I want you to try and get a little rest." She gently patted his arm.
"Yeah, Dix," he agreed, but his mind was a million miles away.
Cheri Anderson entered the room quietly and sat down, studying the dark-haired man who lay recovering in the bed before her. She had stayed out as long as she could. She and Scott had discussed it over the last few hours, and they decided it might be less intimidating if only one of them talked to him. Part of her felt like she was intruding. He was a stranger. But he had made a connection with her daughter. This man had seen Katie. Why him? Why Katie?
Her eyes rested on his cast, and she thought about what he had gone through. They had told her he suffered smoke inhalation and cracked ribs, and the nasty bruise and scrape along his jaw was another visual reminder of his trauma. My daughter saved this man. She knew it with certainty now, although it could not be explained.
Cheri’s mind wandered. Before their daughter’s diagnosis of cancer, she and her husband had firmly believed that everything in life, good or bad, happened for a reason. They were not overly religious, but they had strong beliefs, nonetheless. Then came Katie’s leukemia… they could deal with that; they just knew that with modern medicine she would beat it. They could not allow themselves to believe anything else. Their feisty little two-year-old faced her illness like she faced life: undaunted. Her spirit was carefree, like a child’s should be – full of love and delight and running barefoot in the grass.
As they watched Katie’s condition deteriorate, they began to question their convictions. Then the inconceivable happened.
Her death shook them to the core of their souls. They stopped living, unable to accept the loss of their precious child. They could not forgive Life for what they had been dealt. Their lives would never be the same. They longed to know that she had died for a reason – it seemed everyone they tried to talk to insisted that she had. But it had ripped their hearts out, leaving a hole. They vowed they would never have any more children. The stakes were simply too high.
Over time, they began to trust the world a little more. They let in a little hope. Eventually they could watch children play in the park. They could talk about her, some. Their grief never went away, and it never even lessened – but it did become less crippling. Terrified, they decided to have a baby. They were ready to experience joy again, even knowing the risks. Katie was worth it.
Cheri was so lost in her painful reverie that she jumped when she heard the man begin to stir. This man saw Katie. He talked to her. What am I going to say to him?
Johnny sensed someone in the room as he awakened. His eyes moved to the chair and he saw her. He felt groggy from the pain medication, and he blinked hard to try to wake up more fully. He studied her face, which seemed familiar, but he knew he had never met her before.
"You're her mother, aren’t you?" Johnny said quietly, watching her. He felt his heart start to beat faster. This is too bizarre.
"Yes. Please, can you tell me…" She didn’t even know what to ask. She just felt a need to make some sort of connection with this man. She had to.
"She was beautiful," he answered, closing his eyes, picturing Katie’s sweet face. For the first time, he could think about her without devastating guilt. He felt himself start to relax a little. "I was in bad shape and I had blacked out. She woke me up and kept patting my face and talking to me until I got my air tank off." Johnny chuckled, and looked at Cheri. "She wanted to know if I drove the fire truck."
"She loved sirens," Cheri remembered.
Johnny closed his eyes again. "Then she took off into the smoke and just kept calling me down the hall until I managed to get out of that room. I don’t know how. Then most of your upstairs came down right where I’d left my tank. I would have been crushed." Cheri hung on his every word. "If I hadn’t seen her, and if she hadn’t kept calling me, I’d be dead. She was in the room across the hall playing. Still talking to me. I couldn’t make it to the window, so I put my helmet on her and tried to keep her safe, but…" In a voice no more than a whisper, he added, "…I thought…" Johnny fought the lump in his throat and blinked quickly.
Cheri tentatively reached out and gently placed her hand on his arm. "You held her in your arms." Cheri’s heart ached at the thought, and tears ran down her cheeks.
"I thought I did, Ma’am. But now I’m thinking she was the one holding me."
Roy had finally gone home for dinner and he got to spend a few minutes with his own kids. He had always loved being a dad, but tonight he felt more fortunate. While the kids went to wash up, he tried to fill Joanne in on the incredible story. As she wiped away a stray tear from her face, Roy got an idea.
"Joanne, how do you feel about bringing the kids to the hospital to see Johnny for a few minutes?"
Joanne’s answer could hardly be heard over the cheers and pleas from the youngest Desotos. "How long have you two been there?" Then to Roy she added, "They’ll never let them in, will they?"
"They will if I talk to the right people first," Roy assured her.
"Then, I think it’s a good idea. You heard him kids, go put on your shoes."
"And get my blankie," Jennifer yelled back, as she ran to her room. "And the picture I drew Uncle Johnny…"
At the hospital, Roy found Dr. Early preparing to leave, and asked him for special permission to let the kids in briefly to see Johnny.
Joe nodded smiled with understanding. "Sounds like it’s just what the doctor ordered. I’ll let his nurse know, so you don’t get lambasted."
"Thanks a lot, Doc."
"Sure thing, Roy. Let me know how it goes."
Roy nodded, then headed down to Johnny’s room. Johnny was awake from having his blood drawn again when Roy entered.
"More needles," Johnny sighed.
Roy thought he looked and sounded better than he had earlier. "How ‘re ya feeling?"
"Better. Really. I still feel like I got blown up, but at least I’m startin’ to feel like they put me back together."
Roy started to relax. This sounded more like Johnny. You up to some visitors?"
"I can’t guarantee I’ll stay awake for very long. They gave me more pain meds about 10 minutes ago to help me sleep. Who is it?"
"Joanne, and two half-size Desotos who are worried about Uncle Johnny."
Johnny brightened visibly, despite the dulling effects of the painkillers. "Bring ‘em on in."
Chris and Jennifer entered the room quietly, as instructed. Jennifer handed Johnny the crayon drawing she had made for him and whispered, "This is to help you get better."
"I feel better already, sweetheart. Thank you."
Chris informed Johnny, "Mom said not to touch anything, not to ask you about the little girl, and to talk like we’re in a library or we’ll get kicked out."
Johnny started to laugh and then winced at the twinge in his side. He looked up at a very red-faced Joanne.
"I’m sorry, Johnny, Roy and I were talking and we didn’t know the Dynamic Duo were listening. I’m really sorry." Roy just shook his head in resignation.
"I think you’re doing a fine job, Chris," Johnny assured the eight-year-old.
Jenny piped up, "I’m doing a fine job, too, Uncle Johnny."
"Yes, you are, Jennifer," Johnny agreed.
Chris asked Johnny to tell him all about the fire and to describe all his broken bones and stitches in detail, so he could tell his friends at school the next day. When Johnny had finished his story, in an abbreviated "Gage" fashion, Chris was duly impressed. "That is so cool…" His mother elbowed him. "I mean bad. Really bad. The guys aren’t gonna believe it."
Jennifer’s eyelids were beginning to droop, so Roy picked her up and held her. "Uncle Johnny?" she asked sleepily.
Johnny was fading fast himself. "Yeah, Jen?"
"When you are all better, will you come do inside-camping with us again?"
"I sure will, honey," he slurred.
"Tell Uncle Johnny goodnight, guys, we need to let him sleep," Joanne instructed.
"Hey, Uncle John," said Chris, "We’re staying up later than you this time! 'Night."
"Good night, Uncle Johnny," said a sweet high voice.
"Good night, Jennifer. Be good." His eyes were closing.
When Joanne and the kids had filed out, Roy took a moment to speak to Johnny alone. "You still awake?"
"Yeah, but I’m startin’ to float."
"You talked with the Andersons?"
"Just Cheri. We had a good talk, I guess. It’s really weird, you know? I think we’re both ready to move on and know that Katie’s okay." He hesitated, and then continued, "You remember all that talk about luck the other day?"
"How could I forget?"
"Well, now I know I don’t need to know. Cap was right. Life isn’t based on luck. Katie was there, Roy. That whole thing was real." He was feeling no pain now.
"I know, Junior. I know." Roy watched Johnny’s eyes close as he began to fall asleep.
"Roy?" Johnny drawled.
"Don’t call me that."
Roy laughed. "Just checking your reflexes. I think you are going to be okay."
Author's note: Thanks to my Beta Readers, Mary (aka Maryilee), and Keith Pelletier, and to Patricia Embury for answering some specific medical questions. Another thanks to MJ for editing and originally posting my first Fanfic! Special thanks to Audrey for giving this story a new home! Thank you all!
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