By Jane L.
The heat was unbearable, flames growing closer, smoke thickening. Johnny pushed himself back against the wall, refusing to look down again. The ledge he was standing on was precarious at best, and the seasoned firefighter knew better than to tempt fate, or his resolve. He was a rescue man, well versed in climbing, comfortable and good at this craft. But that craft usually provided him with a rope and a safety belt. Out here, nine stories above the street, there was nothing standing between him and an early grave. Johnny knew better than to lean out and check the view again.
How the hell did a simple rescue go so bad? He had a few minutes to contemplate the situation. It wasn’t like there was anywhere for him to go, with the ledge ending at a corner three foot to his left, and the window spewing flames and smoke three feet to his right. And nothing in front of him but . . . Yes, maybe going over the call would keep his mind busy while he stood here waiting, wondering and worrying about Roy.
A relatively uneventful morning, he had spent most of it trading barbs with Chet and dodging water bombs. Seemed like the Phantom was on a rampage and as usual, Johnny was the target. But the dark-haired paramedic took it in stride. He managed to land a few zingers of his own over the course of the morning and only had to change his shirt once. Johnny would never admit it, but sometimes Chet’s pranks were a welcome relief to their stressful shifts, as long as the paramedic was in the right mood, of course.
By the time the tones went off, Johnny had managed to finish his chores and two jelly-filled donuts. That in addition to a dry shirt put him in a fairly decent mood. If he remembered correctly, he even had a smile on his face while directing Roy through the busy traffic toward the industrial district where there was a report of a man down. The frown came when he spotted the run-down building surrounded by warehouses and large storage containers.
“What do you think, Roy?”
“Yeah, call ‘em.”
Mic already in hand, Johnny wasted no time in calling for backup.
“LA, this is Squad 51. Request Engine 51 join us at our location.”
“10-4 Squad 51.”
Johnny slipped the mic back into place as they heard familiar tones over the speaker, followed by the dispatcher directing their co-workers to their address.
Roy parked the squad in front of the building and the two paramedics climbed out to stare at the darkened windows.
“He’s up there!”
A man hurried toward them, his ‘Security’ badge gleaming from the front of his uniform. Maybe twenty-three, the young man was nervous and out of breath as he pointed to the building above them.
“I know he’s still up there.”
“Calm down, sir.” Johnny instructed. “Where exactly is he and what happened?”
“Don’t know where, but somewhere in that building. Two men went in about half an hour ago.” The officer looked at his feet sheepishly. “I was busy with something else, so I hadn’t talked to them yet, but I was going to make them move on. Then I heard some hollering and the big guy came running out. That’s when I called you.”
“Did you call the police?” Roy questioned anxiously.
“Nah. No need for the police, I’m here.”
The paramedics shared a look of frustration even as Roy leaned back inside the squad to radio for police assistance. Johnny continued to question the young security guard.
“Did you see or hear anything else? What makes you think he’s in trouble and not just hiding in there?”
The young man looked up then down the street before finally making eye contact again.
“There was blood. On the man’s shirt. The one that ran out. That’s why I didn’t stop him, ‘cause you know, I’m not allowed to carry a gun.”
Johnny nodded, hoping his appreciation for that fact wasn’t too obvious.
“I went inside and hollered, but no one answered. I think he’s upstairs, but I didn’t go up to look. Thought it was better to call you. I’m not very good at first aid.”
“Okay. We’ll take care of it.”
Johnny patted the young man’s shoulder reassuringly as Roy shut the door of the squad.
“Let’s make a sweep first, Roy. No use packing equipment around if we don’t know where he is.”
“Okay, but no heroics. It’s at least five minutes before the police can get here.”
“Police? You called the police? But I told you, I’m here to guard this area.”
Wincing slightly, Johnny tried to disguise his frustration when he answered.
“You also said you don’t carry a gun. My partner just figured it might be a good idea to have the police standby in case we need them.”
“Oh, okay then. Just don’t want my boss to think I couldn’t handle things. It’s my first week, you know.”
Roy winked at Johnny as he headed up the steps, leaving Johnny to reiterate instructions.
“You wait here, okay? Make sure our captain and the police know that we’re inside doing a quick search.”
“Sure. Okay. I can do that. No problem.”
Halfway through the door, Johnny wondered if Junior Security Guard there would be looking for a new job by the end of the day.
Roy was already making a sweep of the left hall, so Johnny immediately turned to his right. It didn’t take long to determine that the old offices and vacant store rooms were uninhabited. Unlabeled boxes and containers filled the space, making Johnny wonder at the contents and hoping there was nothing flammable inside. Minutes later, the paramedics met at the bottom of the stairs.
Looking back now, Johnny wished they would’ve went back for their air tanks, but at the time there was no sign or smell of smoke, no evidence that a fire was burning anywhere inside. That sixth sense that firefighters rely on hadn’t kicked in, so the two men followed protocol and continued their search. “Hindsight is 20/20” popped into Johnny’s tired brain. Sometimes he wished there was a way to spin it around, but then that would require a crystal ball which wouldn’t be viable in a fire truck. Johnny shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Even out here on this narrow ledge, the fresh air wasn’t enough to cut the effects of the thick smoke now billowing up around him. He was getting punchy.
The paramedics had quickly checked the second, third and fourth floors with no luck. There was no one in sight, merely more boxes and barrels, each one more suspicious looking than the last.
“Roy, I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Me too, Junior.”
“What d’ya want to do?”
Little time was wasted on Roy’s answer. Johnny knew the score anyway. They were told a victim was in the building. No fire or smoke was evident. Their first responsibility was to the citizen who needed their help, and until they were certain that every effort had been made to find that person, they couldn’t turn back.
“Make it quick.”
Roy’s tone was taught, filled with a sense of urgency, but he headed up the next flight of stairs with Johnny right on his heels.
The fifth, sixth and seven floors revealed similar results. There was evidence of prior visitors, paper and food containers, even a ragged blanket tossed in a corner, but nothing to prove that anyone had been there recently. Johnny continued to question the viability of their informant, but until they’d cleared every one of the twelve stories, they had a job to do.
It was when they hit the eight floor that the partners got real nervous. Something didn’t smell right, yet in the absence of smoke or flames they didn’t have reason to abandon the search. Staring mutely at each other as they caught their breath, Roy was the first to visibly relax at the sound of sirens from below. He immediately thumbed the HT to update their captain while Johnny started down the first hall. By the time he’d cleared the four rooms on his side of the stairs, Roy had finished the transmission and was searching his end of the floor, and for the first time, the partners split up. It was a decision that was to leave Johnny wondering about his partner’s safety.
The ninth floor was as deserted as the first eight, but Johnny diligently searched his side of the building. He’d just finished his inspection of the last room at the back corner of the building when the floor literally erupted beneath him. Slammed back against the wall then forward, Johnny found himself face down on the broken linoleum. It took several minutes before Johnny was clear on what had happened, and by that time flames were shooting up from what was left of the floor. Struggling to his feet, Johnny put one hand to his head as he hollered for his partner.
His cry was lost in the roar of the fire. Whatever had been stored in those questionable boxes and containers was clearly toxic; the caustic smoke irrefutable evidence. Eyes streaming, lungs aching for clean air, Johnny stumbled along the wall until he reached a window. The glass was gone, shattered into razor sharp shavings which lay in a sparkling array on the pavement ninety feet below. From this window, there was no sign of help. The engine was parked on the street out front and from here, all Johnny could see were rooftops of other warehouses and older buildings left unattended.
Another explosion tore through the building leaving Johnny on his knees, dazed from the concussion. The floor was starting to disintegrate around the edges of the hole, evidence of the heat below. Pushing himself up, Johnny was grateful for the protection of his turnout coat, but wishing he’d worn his gloves. Glass from the window was now imbedded in his hands, streaks of red liberally covering his sleeves. Managing to stand, Johnny found that he’d run out of options. There was no way out of the room, and if he stayed here, he’d be dead in minutes from the heat, the smoke or the inevitable fall through the crumbling floor. With no more thought than the desire to live, Johnny turned and crawled out the window. Clawing for purchase using hands slick with blood, the paramedic managed to stand up and inch away from the window. There were no hand-holds here on the ninth floor ledge, no stairs to the roof, and no visible means of escape. He was trapped. As trapped as he was within the room he’d just left.
There was no sense of time after that. Johnny wasn’t sure if it had been five minutes or an hour. He prayed to whatever gods might be watching over them that Roy had been clear of the blast. But hurt, trapped or safe on the ground, Johnny had no way of knowing, and no way of helping either. He was a pawn in a deadly game, one it looked like he wouldn’t see the end of.
Coughing into his sleeve, Johnny strove to keep his balance. No longer able to see much for the smoke billowing out around him, it was only a matter of time before he became disoriented or worse. Leaning back against the building, Johnny added a prayer for himself to the steady litany in his head. If it was going to be over, let it be quick.
Wondering again about his partner, Johnny struggled to stay calm. What if Roy had been caught in the explosion? What if he was lying somewhere below, burnt and helpless? What would Joanne and the kids do?
The familiar voice from above made Johnny jerk in surprise.
“Roy? What the-”
Suddenly dangling in front of him was a safety belt attached to a rope. Trying to peer up but unable to see clearly, Johnny heard another voice.
“Hurry, John. Get the belt on!”
Not needing to be told twice, Johnny reached out carefully and snagged the belt on the first try. It took several attempts, though, before his bloodied fingers could manage the belt but finally he had it safely secured around him.
“Johnny? Got it?”
“Yeah.” He croaked.
Clearly he wasn’t being heard from three stories up as the anxious voice called again.
“Johnny! Tug the line if you’re ready.”
That was an even tougher request to comply with. He’d barely managed to buckle the belt with his cut and bleeding hands and was barely able to grip the rope now. But Johnny wanted off this ledge in the worst way. With a deep breath, and trying to keep from coughing, Johnny let out the loudest call he could manage.
Immediately there was a tug on the rope and he was being pulled from the relative safety of the ledge. Inch by inch Johnny was raised toward the roof, but like a weight on a pendulum, he was slowly swinging back and forth. He tried to help, after all he was a rescue man and well-versed in climbing procedures. But with hands that wouldn’t work, and lungs that were quickly fading in productivity, Johnny found himself reduced to the position he hated most. Victim
Smoke followed him up, making it hard to see but even worse, harder to breathe. It seemed like hours before the rooftop was visible and by the time Johnny reached the edge, his eyes as well as lungs were burning from the effects. It was all he could do to stay focused on getting to the top and was surprised at the flood of emotions hitting him when Cap and Roy finally reached out to pull him up to safety.
His voice was faint even to his ears, and followed immediately by a bout of coughing.
“Easy Johnny, we got ya.”
Hands worked quickly to unbuckle the belt and then he was being moved. The metal edges of the stokes rose up around him and more voices echoed over his head, but suddenly they seemed far away, as if at the end of a very long tunnel. Looking up, past the worried faces, Johnny could see blue sky streaked with grey which slowly turned black.
“So how did you get me down?”
“By the time we got you up to the roof, the ladder truck was set up so we took you down from the front of the building.”
“What about the fire?”
“It was a bad one. We were lucky to get you off there when we did. Still don’t know how you managed to escape that blast.”
“And the guy we were looking for?”
“He was already gone. Cap said the man was knifed; probably dead before we even got there.”
“You two can talk about this later, can’t you?” Dixie interrupted. “This young man has a date with room 402 and a good long nap.”
“Ah c’mon Dix, it’s just a little bump on the head. I don’t need to stay here.”
Dixie didn’t try to hide her wink at Roy. Johnny started to roll his eyes, then thought better of it. His head did kinda hurt.
“A little bump. You have a concussion, mister, and that’s serious in my book. Not to mention your lungs. Kel said they sounded awful and he’s out scheduling breathing treatments right now. And we aren’t even mentioning those hands. It’s not like you’re going to be able to do much for a few days.”
Johnny started to protest but stopped when he caught sight of Roy’s face. There was something there, concern, worry, maybe even some left-over fear. Whatever instigated the look, Johnny instinctively backed off.
“I guess sleeping here tonight won’t be too bad, if you promise not to wake me up every hour.”
From across the room Roy’s thin smile was reassuring, even though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“I’ll be back as soon as I have your moving papers in order.” Dixie patted Johnny’s arm as she moved an emesis bowl closer to the exam table. “This is just in case, but you stay put, okay?”
It was Dixie’s turn to grin as she headed for the hall. But Johnny had a feeling that she left more for the purpose of giving the two men a little privacy, rather than checking on his room.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. My head hurts a little, but mostly I’m just tired.”
Roy fiddled with the IV tubing that snaked from the bag to Johnny’s arm.
Hands stilled then dropped to his side, and Johnny suddenly knew what was eating at his partner.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I took too much time on the radio.”
“And probably saved your life.”
“You don’t know that.”
Silence grew between the two until Johnny muttered quietly.
“It still wasn’t your fault.”
Johnny watched his partner for a moment before he played his last card.
“Look at it this way, Roy. If you’d been up there with me, you wouldn’t have been able to get Cap and the guys over to me in time. So if we hadn’t been separated, I might not have made it.”
Silence filled the room, broken only by Johnny’s scratchy voice.
This time when Johnny closed his eyes, it was to the sight of a more relaxed Roy leaning against the counter, arms crossed but expression unguarded. It was a relief.
Within minutes Johnny was drowsy, grateful that he didn’t need the bowl Dixie left, and even somewhat grateful that he didn’t have to endure a car ride home. Sleep sounded good about now.
“Hey, Roy?” He mumbled. “Whatever happened to that security guard?”
“Oh, well, I think he turned in his badge.”
“Yeah, Vince made some comment about the kid being responsible for all the confusion, and I think he got worried about facing his boss.”
“Hmmm . . . facing his boss would’ve been easy.”
“What?” Roy questioned the half-dozing Johnny.
“Sure. His boss would be nothing compared to facing the Phantom.”
Roy’s laughter was accompanied by Johnny’s soft snore.
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September Picture 2012 Stories by Jane L