Paramedics were sometimes the worst patients. Paramedics, firefighters, doctors, and cops. Those usually in charge of helping others did not take easily to allowing others to help them, even someone like her, a physical therapist who only wanted to help them get better faster.
And then on top of that were the warnings she’d gotten from various nurses in Rampart, oddly enough not just the young and lovely ones, but even some of the more motherly types. This paramedic-firefighter was a terrible flirt, chasing and charming anything in a skirt almost as if he couldn’t help himself. She knew the type, too well. And so she’d gone to meet him completely forewarned.
But John Gage wasn’t at all like she’d expected.
Oh, sure, at the beginning he’d laid it on so thick, she could have shoveled it, a mix of awkward and smooth that, Mary had to admit, had a certain appeal. There was certainly something charismatic about him, like a little boy who thought he could get away with anything with his innocent smile. But she didn’t need another little boy in her life, and she’d shaken her head, rolled her eyes, and rebuffed him, laughing about it in private. He was cute when he pouted, just like her young nephew.
And then she’d arrived for his next therapy session, and found a man in place of the boy.
It didn’t take long to find out the broadcast he was watching so intently was live coverage of a fire, one his station had responded to. That was also something Mary knew, how close firefighters and cops were to those they worked with. You couldn’t face together what they did each day, depend on each other as they had to, and see what each other was made of so often without very close bonds forming. As a therapist, she knew that and took advantage of it, involving patients’ colleagues in the healing process whenever and however she could. It always sped things up. She knew it, even if she didn’t completely understand it.
But this—this taut worry was new to her. Mary could only stand back and watch, more than a little concerned, her changed patient.
John seemed to have forgotten all about his broken leg and other injuries, leaning forward in bed with rapt attention to the television. He didn’t even seem aware of her being there, straining to catch any word of how the fire was progressing, a far cry from the charmer she’d encountered so far. When they mentioned injuries, she could see his fingers dig into the blankets, the knuckles blanching at the ferocity of his grip. The other hand ran through his hair, tousling it, not that he would have cared. Nothing seemed to matter anymore but the words of the news reporter.
This was her slick, childlike patient?
It was only when they announced the injured firefighters had been rescued and were on their way to Rampart that Gage finally turned away from the television. His face was grim, his eyes far older than she’d ever seen them.
“I need to be there when they come in.”
It was all he said, but she wasn’t about to argue. Mary nodded and immediately went to find a wheelchair.
There was one by the nurses’ station, and she took the handles, trying not to meet any of the nurses’ eyes. It would be against the rules, of course, letting a patient get up before the doctor said he could, let alone taking him out to the emergency floor entrance where he’d only get in the way of the incoming casualties. Then again, a therapist’s job was to help her patients get well, and John Gage would not be well until he saw for his own eyes that his friends and colleagues were safe.
Returning to the room, she almost ran into Dixie McCall in the hallway, and stifled a grimace at the rotten luck. The head nurse stared at her, then at the wheelchair. Great. Mary opened her mouth to offer an explanation, she wasn’t sure what yet. And then Dixie suddenly gave her a small smile and a wink, before going around her and down the hall.
Mary blinked after her a moment, wondering what had just happened, when she realized that of all the people who had warned her about John Gage, Nurse McCall, who perhaps knew him best on the staff, conspicuously hadn’t been one of them. So, she wasn’t the only one who knew his secret. Smiling to herself, Mary pushed the room door open and wheeled the chair inside.
He made the shift without complaint, although she knew the leg and the stitches from his recent surgery had to be complaining loudly. His hair was curling from perspiration by the time he was settled in the chair, tension in the lines of his face and pain darkening his eyes, and Mary momentarily reconsidered what they were doing. But she couldn’t help remembering how he’d looked at her minutes before, the grim, drawn expression that didn’t seem to belong to his face, and she knew the tension wasn’t all from physical pain. Pausing only to grab a blanket off the bed to tuck around him, she pointed them both out the room and down the hall to the emergency room entrance.
The ambulances had made good time—they were just bringing in the first casualty as she and John got there. It was a stocky, Latin-looking man with a mustache she could see under the oxygen mask. John strained to get closer, and she maneuvered the wheelchair until he was near enough to touch the man on the stretcher as he passed by. There was blood and white gauze on his forehead, but even as he was wheeled past them, he lifted his head and gave John a cheerful wave before disappearing into one of the treatment rooms. She saw Gage’s shoulders sag a little from relief, and then the next man was brought in.
This one was on his feet and firmly in the grip of another mustachioed, soot-covered firefighter, who dragged him along with a look of martyrdom. Little wonder, as the patient seemed to be giving the firefighter a lecture on something, even as he stopped to give the occasional hoarse cough. The firefighter also instantly brightened as he spotted Gage, and hurried his charge over to the wheelchair.
“Hey, Johnny, how’s it going?”
“All right, Chet. How ’bout yourself?” Still that sober voice.
“I’m fine, just bringing your replacement in to be checked over.” Sarcasm dripped from the word replacement. “He an’ Marco and Roy were trapped for a little while. Everyone’s okay, just some smoke and bruises.”
Johnny wasn’t relaxing. “What about Roy?”
Chet glanced over his shoulder. “They were right behind us…Here they come.”
And another stretcher appeared, this one bearing a strawberry-blond also wearing an oxygen mask. His eyes were shut, head rolling loosely at each jolt of the stretcher wheels.
John sat so taut, Mary half-expected him to get up and walk over to his friend, broken leg or not.
Chet reached out and patted John on the shoulder, real sympathy in his eyes despite his confident tone. “They said he’s gonna be fine.” A laugh, one she had the impression was usually far heartier. “You know Roy.” And then he was leading the other man off, even as that one opened his mouth to address Gage. Neither Chet nor John took any notice of him. Mary doubted her patient was noticing anything at that moment besides the man coming in on the stretcher.
He was also wheeled past in front of them, and she saw John’s hand half-rise, as if wanting to reach out and touch but being afraid to. His hand fell back into his lap.
And then, as if the other man had sensed him there, he opened his eyes, blinking a few times before spotting Gage. She could see his mouth turn up under the mask, and his hand lifted enough from the stretcher for his fingers to fan a wave.
John took a deep breath, rigidity leaving his body. And before she knew it, he’d taken hold of the chair’s wheels and was following the final stretcher into the treatment room.
Well, okay, he was on his own steam now, and she wasn’t, strictly speaking, responsible for him anymore, right? In fact, it would be smart to leave and pretend not to know anything about how the supposedly bedridden invalid had gotten out of his room and into one of the emergency treatment rooms.
But something made her go after him. Just making sure he and his friend would be all right, she told herself. It was the right thing to do, if she’d gone this far. She went in and parked herself in the far corner of the room, out of the staff’s way and, hopefully, notice.
Gage had no such compunctions, ending up beside the bed in the middle of the room, watching Doctor Brackett work and the patient’s response. It didn’t take much to see the doctor wasn’t at all surprised to have John there, nor seemed upset by it, even sharing with him what he found. At one point, Mary watched the young paramedic put a hand on the shoulder of the man—Roy?—patting it reassuringly. Roy also seemed to know he was there, occasionally angling upward for a glance at him.
It was Dixie who filled in the blank as she passed Mary on the way to the medicine cabinet by the wall, pausing as she noticed her, then following her gaze to the two men in the center of the room. She smiled slightly again, and simply said, “Partners,” before moving on.
Mary stayed long enough to hear Brackett affirm Roy would be all right, and then, knowing John would be also, and starting to feel somewhat invasive, she slipped out the door. There were others who needed her more than John Gage did just then. He seemed to have everything he needed already.
The therapy session had lasted longer than she’d expected; the middle-aged mother of three recovering from an unexpected stroke had been more determined than most of Mary’s patients and had insisted they go on for as long as possible. For all the depressions and discouragements of her job, she also saw more courage and love in a day than most people would in a year. It was what brought her back day after day.
Still, John Gage and his partner had stayed in the back of her mind, and she was curious to see how things were going. From what she’d seen, both men who’d been wheeled in would be admitted, if only overnight, and would probably be settled in rooms now. She didn’t even bother checking John’s room—she knew where she’d find her patient.
A quick check of the chart at the nurses’ station, and Mary headed toward the double room the two firefighters were sharing in the F&P ward.
She’d almost reached it when a loud voice she recognized all-too-well boomed from the open doorway. With an internal groan, Mary backpedaled to the nearby corner of the hallway. The last thing she wanted to do was run into Nurse Compton again, secretly dubbed “the Nazi Nurse” by John, to which she’d silently agreed. How the woman had gotten into nursing, Mary couldn’t fathom. Her loud, abrasive manner and open condescension to her patients could hardly have suited her less to the job, no matter how skilled she was. Nursing was about more than just knowing medicine.
Sure enough, Mary wasn’t surprised to see a dejected John Gage soon roll out of the room, clearly having been ejected. Didn’t Compton know anything about psychological healing and well-being? Mary stayed a minute longer to hear the rest of the nurse’s humiliating lecture to the occupants of the room, flinching at Compton dubbing of one of them as “Steve Stunning.” And then, fed-up and seeing red, she went in search of Nurse McCall.
She found the head nurse in the break room. Dixie took a look at her, frowned, and led her off into a private corner of the room.
Her answer was succinct. “Compton.”
Dixie sighed. “What’s she done now?”
“I can’t conduct a therapy session without that woman intruding! She interrupts, she bosses people around, she patronizes them…” Mary caught herself. She wasn’t a complainer by nature, quite able to take care of most problems herself. But it bothered her to see others mistreated. She took a breath. “John Gage is my patient, and I think it’s in his best interests to spend some time with his friends while they’re here. Nurse Compton seems to think otherwise—she just kicked Gage out of their room. Unless it interferes with their treatment or the hospital’s functioning, I don’t see why that’s necessary.”
“I see,” McCall said
calmly. “Did you discuss your concerns with Nurse Compton?”
Mary grimaced, flushing. It was a reasonable question. Trouble was, Compton wasn’t a reasonable woman. Mary wasn’t about to tell Dixie McCall that she’d been evicted from her patient’s room by the obnoxious nurse.
Dixie nodded, her expression wry. “All right. I’ll see what I can do. You’re right about Johnny and Roy—can’t keep the two of them apart, anyway,” she muttered the last. Putting down her half-full mug of coffee, no doubt used to not getting through a cup, she marched out the door.
Mary couldn’t help but follow and eavesdrop.
Dixie hadn’t become head nurse without a great deal of tact, and Mary wasn’t privy to her discussion with Compton. All she saw was the older nurse stride away more than a little unhappily, going in the opposite direction of the F&P ward.
And John Gage slip down the hall a minute later, sneaking as much as one could in a wheelchair. Spying Mary, he gave her a grin and a conspiratorial wink before rolling into the firefighters’ room. Back to being the kid…except for the genuine gratitude she’d seen in his eyes.
Even from the hall she could hear his excitement, warm and fond and playful all at once, and the welcome of his friends’ reply.
A lot of love, indeed.
She wouldn’t ruin his reputation. For all anyone would know from her, John Gage was the playful, flirtatious, puppy-eyed little boy so many others described him as being. There was certainly some truth to it, and he worked hard enough to keep that image.
But as for her, she knew better. And smiling to herself, Mary went back to work.
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Guest Dispatchers Stories by K Hanna Korossy