RETURN FROM THE PRESENCE
For months after the accident the experts all agreed. The explosion that shook the Carson Paper Company could be felt as far away as twenty-five miles. Seismologists thought it was a level-two earthquake, until they heard on the six o’clock news of the massive explosion. All that remained of the once prosperous business was a giant hole that was almost equal to Crater Lake.
Families, friends and relatives tried to reach those loved ones employed by the factory. Affected even more were the families and friends of the rescue and fire units who had responded to the calls.
Six fire fighters lost their lives and three hung in the balance between life and death.
At Rampart General Hospital, doctors and nurses scrambled to the aid of the three fire fighters who were battling against death. The waiting area was filled to overflowing with friends and relatives of the firemen. Off duty firemen also waited for word on their fellow brothers. Silent support was offered to the families of the injured men.
Joanne Desoto and Maggie Stanley stood quietly amongst the changing faces of the men and women who constantly stopped by to offer what help they could, either in moral support, or physical support.
Rose Gage stopped and looked around at the crowded room. She spotted Maggie and Joanne and hurried over to join them. She was immediately enveloped in a fierce three-way hug, each clinging tightly to the other. Tears flowed freely; comfort was offered, accepted and shared with no words ever being spoken.
Doctor Brackett walked to the waiting area. The news he had to give was not good. All three firemen were critical, but one was much worse. His facial muscles twitched, a sure sign he was not happy.
Joanne saw Doctor Brackett before the others. Her sudden, alert stillness brought total silence to the room. All eyes were watching him as he crossed the room to the three waiting women.
“There’s no easy way to say this, ladies. All three are in serious to critical condition. We are sending Hank and Johnny up to surgery now, but Roy won’t be sent until we can get him a bit more stabilized.” Dr. Brackett kept his eyes on Joanne Desoto as he spoke again, “Roy has the most injuries and is in the worst shape of all three men. He’s not responding to any spoken commands, and we can barely get him to respond to a sternal rub, but I think he will improve in the next hour. We will just have to wait and see. I wish I had better news for you.” All those in the room heard the worry in his voice.
The small group of men from Station 51 gathered around the women. Their silence during Brackett’s announcement had remained total.
Two gurneys passed the waiting room. Each one held a single occupant. Rose Gage and Maggie Stanley gave Joanne one final hug, then hurried to catch up with the gurneys as they entered the elevator. Joanne watched with tear filled eyes as the doors closed and she lost site of two of the best firemen, and friends she knew. She turned back to Doctor Brackett.
“I want to see him,” she said.
“Just for a few minutes. We are still running tests to find out the extent of his injuries. He’s unconscious, but it might help if you talk to him.” Bracket escorted her to the treatment room where Roy lay still and pale.
Joanne swallowed her fear and entered the room. She gasped at the sight of all the tubes and wires running from her husband’s still form.
“Oh, Roy!” Joanne said softly, tears choking her voice. “I love you! Please open your eyes and tell me you’ll be okay!” Roy lay unmoving.
In the waiting area the men of 51 stood around, waiting for someone to take charge and let them know something. Finally Mike Stoker, second in command, approached Dr. Brackett at the Emergency Room desk.
“Doc?” he asked, “What are Roy’s chances, for real?”
“I can’t say with any certainty, Mike, isn’t it?” Brackett said. Mike nodded. “At this point in time we are just trying to get him stable enough to take him to surgery and find the bleeding that is happening inside. He has bones broken in every part of his body, both lungs have been punctured and he has internal injuries I can only guess at. He also has a fractured skull that could be causing the majority of his problems, but again, until we get x-rays back, I can’t say.”
“Doc, is Roy going to die?” Chet had walked up, unnoticed. He was watching and listening to everything being said, done or not said. He watched the doctor’s body language and came to his own unique conclusions about his friend.
“I don’t know, Chet. I can’t make any promises. Medicine is not an exact science. So much can happen that we can’t explain. One person can be hurt like Roy, and live with no permanent damage, someone else can have lesser injuries and die.
“We just do all that can humanly be done, and leave the rest to the Big Boss.” Brackett turned and walked away.
“What’s he mean by all that?” Chet asked Mike.
“Stop and think about it, Chet. As humans, we can only know so much and be able to do so much. Once we reach our limit, someone, or something, has to take over.” Mike looked at the short curly haired Irishman.
Marco was quietly listening to the conversation between Mike and Chet. Unknown to the other men, he carried a Rosary hidden the pocket of his turnout coat. While the two men were talking he was fingering the amethyst beads, repeating a prayer he had learned as a child.
In Operating Rooms two and three, two men lay on the cold tables, ready to receive the life saving surgery they both so desperately needed. In treatment room one, Roy Desoto lay quiet and still, oblivious to the fate of his friends.
Roy felt the ground tremble just before the blast threw him across the room where he and his partner, Johnny Gage, were trying to extricate a victim.
“Look out!” he heard someone call. Roy felt himself slam into a hard, unforgiving object. He felt his head hit the wall and heard bones as they cracked and broke in his side. Suddenly a massive weight landed on him. The collapsing wall buried him under a pile of debris consisting of concrete, drywall and wood. His last coherent thought was of Johnny and Captain Stanley. He saw them go down under the same debris that now covered him.
Roy floated along in a sea of quiet. A soft breeze caressed his cheeks and sent playful fingers tangling through his hair. He smiled. He felt the warmth of the sun on his upturned face, and he blinked against the brightness. All about him was silence.
Roy sat up and looked around. He was sitting in a lawn chair on the deck in his back yard. For a minute he was puzzled, but quickly shrugged off the feeling of unease.
“I wonder where Joanne and the kids went?” he thought. “Maybe she left a note in the kitchen.”
Roy entered the house, noticing only peripherally that he made no sound as he walked, and the silent way the screen door closed. He walked through the house. The strange silence was beginning to make his ears hurt.
He walked to the front room of the house. The front door was standing open. The uneasy feeling he had felt earlier returned.
“Strange, Joanne would never leave the door open if she had left.” He started to close the door, but stopped in surprise.
His neighborhood was gone. A deep darkness was before him. He felt someone calling him from the darkness. He tried to turn and run, but found his house was no longer around him. He stared around himself. He was now standing on a vast empty plain.
“Joanne!” he called. “Johnny! Chris, Jenny?” His voice did not carry, but fell flat in the empty air. A chill crawled up his spine and surrounded him with cold tendrils of fear. He called out over and over again, but each time only silence answered him.
A sound, soft and elusive, reached his ears. He froze in mid cry and listened with all his might, but the sound was not repeated.
Joanne stood next to the treatment bed where Roy lay. She kept up a steady stream of conversation, even when the nurses started to prepare him for surgery.
Suddenly Roy’s muscles started twitching, then his eyes fluttered. No sound came from him. Joanne looked up at the nurse, a question in her eyes.
“Involuntary muscle spasms,” the nurse told her. “Sometimes it happens when a person is in a deep coma.”
Joanne sighed. She began to talk to Roy again. She told him about her day. She spoke about how excited Chris and Jenny were when they returned from the field trip the school had taken them on. She moved with the gurney, talking continuously. Once at the door of the O.R. she was stopped. A nurse, who gently pointed down the hall said, “You can watch if you want through the window, or wait down the hall.”
“Thank you,” Joanne said. She watched until Roy disappeared through the second doorway into the operating room.
Hank Stanley lay still and quiet. He could hear voices talking. A warm hand slid into his cold one, sharing its warmth. He smiled. He recognized the touch of his wife.
“Hank? Honey, it’s me, Maggie. Can you hear me?” Maggie saw the brief smile as it passed across her husband’s face. She sighed in relief.
Hank opened his eyes slowly, blinking to bring them into focus on his wife. “Hello, beautiful,” he said, with a voice still rough from smoke inhalation.
Maggie’s smile widened. She held her husband’s cold hand against her breast.
“I love you, Hank Stanley!” she told him fiercely.
“I love you, too!” he answered, then slipped into a peaceful, healing slumber.
Rose Gage heard Maggie and Hank. She smiled, happy that one had regained consciousness, if only briefly. Rose carefully brushed a stray lock of hair from Johnny’s face.
“He looks like an angel,” she thought.
Johnny twitched violently. His face contorted with pain and a strangled cry escaped his lips. The bed rocked with the violent motion he made. Rose called for a nurse, and explained what had happened.
The nurse quickly checked Johnny’s vitals, and all the equipment connecting him to life. She scribbled in his chart, then gave Rose an encouraging smile.
“It’s okay. Something in his neuro-system probably misfired and he reacted. He’ll be fine.”
“Thank you,” Rose told her. She leaned over Johnny and whispered in his ear, “You need to wake up, my beanpole!” She smiled at the memory of the hated nickname. “Johnny, Johnny, please wake up, please wake up! Johnny, Johnny, please wake up! I would like to speak with you!” Rose sang the ditty over and over again. She had used the song once before when Johnny was a child and had been knocked out by a baseball thrown wild during a game.
Johnny heard the familiar song as it sank down through the different layers of consciousness. He snuggled deeper into the down comforter his aunt had placed over him during the night. He tried to pretend he was still sleeping, but a giggle escaped, and his aunt heard. She reached out and poked a finger in his ribs, making him giggle even more.
Johnny gasped and forced his eyes open. He blinked, trying to clear his vision and focus on the person singing to him.
“Mom?” he said in confusion.
“No, Johnny, it’s Aunt Rose,” she told him as she leaned into his line of sight.
“Aunt Rose? Why are you in my apartment?” Johnny asked, still disoriented.
Rose smiled, “You’re at Rampart General Hospital, not home.”
Johnny remembered, then. He remembered the victim and the explosion. He remembered seeing Roy and Captain Stanley being buried under a mound of debris, and debris falling on him. His ears still rang with the sound of the explosion.
“Roy!” he called. Frantically he tried to leave the bed where he was laying. Rose pushed him back against the pillows as she kept telling him that everyone was safe and doing well. She hoped Roy was doing better. Johnny continued to struggle. He kept calling for his partner and his captain. He fought against her restraining hands, until Dr. Brackett suddenly appeared to help. A sharp pain shot up his arm and he began to relax.
“Roy?” he said again, before succumbing to the sedative and falling into a deep restless sleep.
Rose looked at the doctor who was frowning down at his patient. He sighed and wrote in Johnny’s chart, before realizing a pair of piercing brown eyes was watching him. “He’ll be fine for now. I was afraid this would happen when he woke up.”
“They are really close, aren’t they?” Rose did not expect an answer. “How is Roy, doctor?”
“Not good. Not good at all,” Dr. Bracket sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. “He’ll be out of surgery in a little while and will be here in recovery. I’ll have them place the two close together so next time Johnny wakes he can see his partner for himself.”
“Will that be wise? If Roy is not doing well…..” Rose left the question open as she watched Brackett.
“It may not be wise, but for Johnny’s sake, it will be right. We’ll be moving Johnny and Hank into regular rooms, shortly. They both seem to be doing well, with this one exception.” Brackett sighed again, then smiled at Rose and left the room.
Roy stood, waiting in the darkness. The sound had stopped. The darkness was changing. A light gray fog was drifting around him. Its cold, clammy fingers entwined around his legs, then climbed to his chest.
“Roy?” a voice called. “Roy, come to me. Join me in this place of peace.” A figure walked towards him. “It is pleasant here. There is no pain, or hunger.”
“Dad? Where am I? Why? How can you be here?” Roy watched in fascination as the figure continued to approach.
The figure smiled at him and beckoned for him to join in the walk. The smile did not reach the eyes of the figure. The eyes were dead, empty of anything resembling life. Suddenly Roy felt a tight cold grip on his arm. The touch was icy, and sapped the warmth from his body. Roy jerked away and ran, stumbling from the apparition before him.
“No! Get away!” Roy screamed. The apparition laughed, a cold hollow sound that echoed in the darkness.
The scene changed. Roy was standing on a desert plain. Saguaro cactus stood as silent sentinels in the desert, their bony fingers pointing towards the sky and distant mountains. A harsh wind howled around them, making Roy cover his ears from the sound.
A frightened wail pierced the howling wind. It sounded like a frightened child. He ran towards the sound and saw a child, pinned by some fallen boulders.
“It’s going to be alright,” Roy mummered to the child. “I’ll have to move some of these rocks to get you out.”
The child did not speak or cry out again, but watched Roy as he began the effort to move the debris. Roy looked deep into the eyes of the child. A calm feeling suffused him. A strong sense of confidence emanated from the child, giving Roy the strength he needed to move the large boulders.
“Give it up!” he heard a voice say.
“No!” he grunted as he strained against the rock.
The wind roared louder and pushed against him harder. Pebbles and pieces of cactus were flung at him and the child. A sudden tingling along his arms alerted him to electricity in the area. Roy looked up and saw large black thunderclouds approaching. Lightening was striking the ground at intervals. The storm was heading straight towards him and the child. Roy flung himself across the child, trying to protect him from the lightening.
Roy felt the jolt as the lightening struck him. He felt it travel through his body and pass into the ground under his body. He prayed the child would be safe.
“Give it up!” he heard again.
“Never!” he answered.
“Nurse!” Joanne cried, as Roy writhed on the bed. His face was contorted in agony. His breathing became ragged, and a gray hue colored his face.
“Dixie! Dr. Brackett!” Joanne called in a panic. “Someone! Help me!”
Doctor Brackett and Dixie burst into the ICU recovery room. Brackett saw what was happening and began to bark out orders.
“Five cc’s of epinephram! Get that crash cart in here!” Brackett looked up and saw Joanne watching with horrified eyes as the staff worked on her husband.
“Dix!” Brackett said, motioning with his head towards Joanne.
“Come on, Joanne. Let’s go to the lounge and get some coffee. Dr. Brackett will let you know what happened as soon as he can.” Dixie placed an arm across Joanne’s resisting shoulders. She let Dixie lead her from the room.
“Oh, Dixie! I’m so frightened!” Joanne said as they walked to the lounge. Tears were running freely from her eyes.
Maggie Stanley saw Joanne and Dixie enter the lounge. She saw Joanne’s white, and tear-streaked face, and hurried to join her friend.
Not long after Joanne and Maggie had finished their coffee, Rose Gage walked in and poured a cup for herself. “How’s Roy? I heard the page.”
Maggie had an arm around Joanne’s shoulders. She looked at Rose over their friends bowed head and shook her head. Rose reached out and hugged Joanne again.
“We’re here for you, sweetie. You aren’t alone!” Rose wiped the new tears from her cheeks, then told them that Johnny had awakened and was asking about Roy.
Roy sensed the storm’s passing. He looked around and saw the lightening dance across the desert floor as it moved away. He rose from his kneeling position over the child. He started to mummer reassurances when he noticed the child was gone. The calm he had felt earlier remained lodged in his soul. He searched the area for the child; knowing in his heart it was a futile effort.
Darkness was falling. The sun sent blood red streaks across the sky. He shuddered as the words from an old country song crossed his mind:
WITH HORSES SNORTING FIRE……WHEN THEY RIDE ON HEAR THEIR CRY!
He had no idea why those words suddenly played through his mind. A sound overhead carried his gaze skyward. He flinched, fully expecting to see a herd of ghost cows and cowboys passing by.
An eagle soared on outspread wings, riding the warm currents of air as they left the desert floor. The eagle cried again. Roy thought he heard his partner’s voice calling. He followed the eagle’s path as it dipped and soared. Suddenly the eagle dived earthward. It cried again, long and sorrowfully. Roy was almost positive he had heard Johnny’s voice overlaying that of the eagle’s cry.
The scenery began to change once more. The desert landscape faded and was replaced with a small room, lighted from an unknown source. Roy stood in front of a door. He could hear sounds of laughter coming through the wood. “Children!” he thought excitedly. He reached for the door, but was brought up short by the voice he had heard earlier.
“No! Don’t open the door! You will not return if you open that door!” Roy whirled to face the voice, but only empty air was behind and around him. “Passing through that door will bring only pain!” the voice cried in desperation.
“Who are you?” Roy demanded. “Where are you? Show yourself!”
Coldness crept up Roy’s legs and entered his chest. An ice-cold hand squeezed his heart, making pain lance through him. Fatigue made him want to lay down and sleep. The voice encouraged him to lie down.
“Yes! Sleep. Peace, will come, pain will go. No more troubles, sorrows or woes. Safe is how you will be, forever more to be set free!”
The rhythm of the voice lulled him towards the darkness. His head bowed, resting his chin on his chest. The cold increased. A false warmth began to creep into his arms and legs, and he began to sink into the depth of despair, knowing where he was headed.
A sound penetrated the quiet. Roy raised his head, but the voice encouraged him to ignore the sound. He began to struggle against the sapping cold. The despondency he felt began to melt away the more he struggled. He pushed himself into an upright position and listened hard for the sound to repeat itself. There! He heard it again. It was the sound of childish laughter.
“NO!” the voice cried in his head. “You belong to us! You can not leave!”
“Leave me alone!” Roy cried and made a final lunge towards the door. The cold hand grasped his ankles and began to pull on him. Roy struggled and kicked. The door opened and a hand reached out to him. He stretched to it and felt the warmth pass through him. The ice-cold hand left his ankles.
A shriek echoed in Roy’s mind, “NO! NO! No!” The sound faded. Roy looked up into the eyes of a child.
Dr. Brackett struggled to keep Roy’s heart going. He called for the respirator, sodium bicarbonate and the defibrillator. Convulsions wracked the man’s body. He twisted and turned, making the treatment difficult. Doctor Brackett feared the worst.
“500 cc’s atropine!” Brackett barked. Dixie jumped to get the needed medication. She moved the defibrillator into position. Brackett inserted the needle and injected the medication.
“Nothing!” he said. “Defibrillate, 400 watts!” he called.
“Clear!” Mike Morton announced as the machine’s whine reached its limit. Brackett released the charge.
Roy’s body jumped as the charge flowed through his body. “Again!” Brackett barked.
“Clear!” Mike called again. Again Brackett set the charge loose.
“Flat line!” Mike Morton cried. He climbed on the edge of the gurney and began CPR.
Twice more Brackett shocked his patient. When there was no reaction he stepped back and looked at those around him. He wiped the sweat from his brow and sadly pocketed his stethoscope. He tilted his head back, blinking rapidly to clear his eyes. He looked at the clock on the wall and sadly said to those in the room,
“Time of death, Two-twenty one p.m. July 30, 1974.”
Dixie tried to choke back a sob, but failed. Brackett reached out and folded her into his arms, trying to comfort her. She returned the hug, then pushed away as all eyes were watching them.
“Go on They’ll be waiting,” she said softly.
Several children pulled Roy through the door. Their faces were lighted with laughter. He grinned at them and sat up. One little blond haired girl wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.
“Will you come play with us?” she asked.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Here, of course,” said an older child, using the logic only a child could understand. “I don’t think you are supposed to be here, though. You came in the wrong way.”
“What do you mean?” Roy asked him.
The child shook his head. An adult walked over to the children and saw Roy sitting in the grass. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the man. Quickly she chased the children away, then knelt in front of him.
“Who are you? How come you to this place?” she asked.
“My name’s Roy Desoto. I came through a door. Where am I?” he answered her.
“You are obviously someplace you are not supposed to be. Come with me. I will take you to the Master.” She stood and walked away. Roy scrambled to follow her.
He gazed around him as they walked. Green grass covered the ground. Dark green trees lined the walkway that was covered in gravel. A gentle breeze played around them, soft fingers lacing through his hair. He saw butterflies dancing in the air, landing on bright flowers that dotted the landscape.
They entered a clearing where the trees stood in a circle. “This reminds me of the Giant’s Dance,” Roy thought as he looked around.
“We have come unto Your Presence,” the woman said to the still air. Roy looked around, puzzled. He could not see anyone in the clearing but himself and her.
Suddenly Roy felt another Presence in the clearing. The feeling of peace grew inside him as he stood. The Presence surrounded him, suffocating in its intensity. Just as quickly, though, the feeling eased. He felt himself enfolded in warm, loving arms and a sweet smelling breeze filled his nostrils. He drew in deep breaths of the air, wanting to fill himself with its fragrance.
A deep rolling thunder filled the air. Roy looked around fearfully, expecting to see dark clouds on the horizon, but instead the sun shone brighter and the breeze increased. Roy felt himself lifted gently. A butterfly brushed his cheek before soaring away to land on a flower that had suddenly appeared. He felt his eyes closing. The beauty that surrounded him faded from his vision as he slipped into a deep, healing slumber.
Dixie began to prepare the body of Roy Desoto for transport downstairs. She had refused to let anyone else do the final job. He had been a great friend and she wanted to be with him as long as possible.
She washed his face and body then covered him with the sheet left for such occasions. She paused before covering his face. A tear ran from the corner of her eye to her chin and dripped onto the still face lying peacefully before her. She reached out to brush the drop away when something caught her attention. She stared at him, watching closely. Finally deciding she was seeing only what she wanted most to see, she placed the sheet over his face.
A strange feeling kept niggling at her. She uncovered Roy’s face again and looked at him. Something just was not right, but she could not place what it was that was bothering her. She finished the preparations and started to leave the room. She paused once again, unsure what was bothering her. She walked out the door and started towards the nurse’s desk when she stopped. Her eyes widened as a sudden realization finally made itself known.
“Carol, get Dr. Brackett back in here. STAT!” she called to the nurse at the desk. She ran back to the room and uncovered Roy’s face. She stared, hard, at him.
Joanne stood and watched as Doctor Brackett approached the small group of people in the waiting lounge. His head was bowed, his shoulders were slumped in defeat. He rubbed a hand across his tired face, a muscle twitched irritatingly.
Doctor Brackett stopped as he tried to gather his thoughts. He saw the people waiting to hear his news. He felt terrible, and he knew it showed in his countenance. He sighed, tired to his very soul. Sadness made him irritable. He took a deep breath, then approached those waiting for him.
Joanne stood, pale and silent. She knew what the doctor was going to say even before he reached them. His face and body language said it all, but she had to hear the words. A hand was laid on her shoulder, offering support, regardless of the news. She reached up and grasped the hand, looking into the eyes of Mike Stoker.
Doctor Brackett saw the gesture. He was glad she would have such a close-knit group to support her in the coming days and weeks.
“I’m sorry,” he said to her. “We did all we could for him. The injuries were just too severe. His body couldn’t handle all that was thrown at him.” He did not know what else to say. He was too close to the situation, too involved, and it was tearing him apart. Roy had been his friend and confidant in many ways. He was the stoic one of the partnership that had lasted for so long. He always came between himself and Johnny Gage when a disagreement arose.
Joanne stood, composed and pale. Her hands were folded into a tight knot, held stiffly in front of her. She drew a deep breath before saying, “Can I go say good-bye to him?”
“They are preparing him for you. He should be ready for you to see in just a few minutes. Joanne,……” Brackett stopped, choking over his words. He fanned his hands in a gesture long known to convey frustration and futility at expressing strong emotions. “I’m sorry,” he said and walked away.
“Dr. Brackett,” Joanne called to the retreating doctor, “wait.” She went to him and wrapped her arms around him. “I know you did all you could for him. Thank you.”
Doctor Brackett quickly returned the hug, then left the group standing quietly in the waiting room.
The hospital intercom blared to life, “DR. BRACKETT TO ICU 315, STAT!……..DR. BRACKETT TO ICU 315, STAT!”
Everyone froze. Joanne looked at Mike, afraid. What could have happened to call the doctor back to Roy’s room?
“Madre Dios!” Marco said softly. Chet stared at his friend.
“What is it, Marco?” Chet asked.
Marco just stood, staring into space. He crossed himself before answering, “What if he’s not dead?”
Chet, Mike and Joanne looked at Marco in astonishment. Hope flared in Joanne’s heart, but quickly died again. She shook her head at the man.
“No, Dr. Brackett said he died. They did all they could for him. Doctors just don’t make those kind of mistakes!”
“Joanne?” Dixie called, as she walked towards the group. She had tears rolling down her cheeks. Quickly she sniffed and rubbed her cheeks dry. “I need you to come with me. Dr. Brackett said you would want to see Roy.”
Joanne nodded and followed Dixie to Roy’s room. She was surprised when Dixie stopped her from going in.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Dr. Brackett walked out of the room. He stopped in front of Joanne and Dixie. “Did you tell her?” he asked the head nurse.
“No, I was going to let you tell her. I can’t believe it myself.” Dixie smiled at Joanne. She reached out and gave the confused woman a tight hug.
Joanne looked to Doctor Brackett for clarification. “What? What’s happened?”
Dr. Brackett looked down at the floor. He was trying to hide a smile, but gave up when Joanne stomped her foot at him. “Talk to me!”
“Roy is alive, Joanne. We don’t know why, or how, but he is alive. And he is asking for you,” Brackett said to her.
Joanne heard the words, saw the expressions and fainted. Doctor Brackett caught her before she hit the floor.
“Get a gurney, Dixie, and some smelling salts. I’m afraid we just gave Joanne a sensory overload.”
Two orderlies rolled a gurney down the hall to where the two medical personnel were waiting. Brackett gently placed Joanne on it and rolled it into the room next door to Roy’s. He popped the ammonia caplet and waved it under Joanne’s nose. She regained consciousness immediately.
“He’s alive? Roy’s alive!” she began to cry again. Dixie held the weeping woman.
“Come on, now. Roy wants to see you. We can’t have him thinking we’ve been mistreating you. Splash some water on your face.” Dixie helped Joanne from the gurney. She handed her a towel to dry her face and hands, then led her to Roy’s room.
Roy lay in the bed, pale, but very much alert. He smiled at his wife when she entered the room. She dashed to his side and began to weep once more.
“Oh, Roy!” was all she could say.
NINE MONTHS LATER
Johnny sauntered into the locker room. He peeked through the glass door, checking to see if his partner was within. Seeing the room was empty, he quickly slipped in and opened Roy’s locker. He placed two small packages in the floor of the locker and quickly closed the door. He was changing his shirt when Chet walked in.
“Morning!” Chet said, glancing at the smiling paramedic. He carefully opened his locker, not sure what to expect.
“What’s the matter, Chet? Guilty conscience?” Johnny asked.
“Uh, no, just being a little careful. Why are you so happy?” he asked.
“Well, my partner’s back, the sun’s shining, and I’ve got you spooked!” Johnny laughed as he left the room.
Chet shook his head, then once again checked his locker for any hidden wires or other possible booby traps.
“Roll call, five minutes!” Captain Stanley called.
Chet flung his street clothes into his locker and quickly dressed in his uniform. He had to do a frantic search before he found his badge pinned on a dirty shirt at the bottom of his locker. He scrambled to join the men waiting in the apparatus bay.
“Nice of you to join us, Chet,” the Captain said with a grin.
Chet rolled his eyes, “Yeah, I know. I get latrine duty, again.”
Everyone laughed at him.
The day passed quietly for the men. The squad was called out several times on small minor rescues. Roy and Johnny did not talk about the last nine months. They had spent much of their free time together, enjoying each others’ company. Roy had told Joanne and Johnny his experience. They had agreed that it would be best not to mention it to the others.
The engine crew was called out to a rubbish fire early in the afternoon. Roy and Johnny had just returned from a rescue involving two kids who were reacting violently to something they had eaten. One had thrown up on Roy.
“I’m going to go change. Pour me a cup of coffee, would ya?” he asked.
“Sure, Pally. Not a problem. You do smell a bit ripe.” Johnny grinned and watched as Roy entered the locker room to change. He waited a few minutes before joining his best friend.
Roy was standing in front of his locker holding the small leather pouch and framed photograph Johnny had placed in his locker. He looked up and smiled as Johnny walked in.
“Thank you,” he simply said. “I take it this is a medicine bag?”
Johnny nodded and explained, “It has some tokens in it from your experience. I found them during my last camping trip. You don’t have to carry it with you all the time. I know you don’t believe in the medicine it can bring you, but it helped me come to understand what you experienced.”
Roy hefted the little bag in his hand. Its lightweight felt good lying in his palm. He slipped the bag into the pocket of his pants. It goes with me where I go from now on,” he said.
They heard the engine return to the bay. Chet walked in on the two and immediately began to whine about the trash fire. Roy and Johnny grinned at each other. Roy placed the framed photograph back in his locker and swung the door closed. He and Johnny left the room.
Roy’s locker did not close all the way. Chet, ever curious, opened the locker just enough to peer at the photo. He picked it up and studied it.
Johnny had managed to capture the flight of an eagle, wings outspread, soaring on the warm drafts from the desert floor. Chet peered closer. In the hazy depth of the picture he could barely make out the form of someone walking along a trail. The meaning of the picture eluded him, as did the inscription in the lower right hand corner.
To my Best Friend, Partner and Brother
Your journey into the Afterlife was brief,
But your return from THE PRESENCE
Was a gift only HE could give.
Chet quietly replaced the photograph and firmly closed the locker. He was surprised to find tears had fallen from his eyes.