Up on the House Top
John Gage practically bounced into the locker room, whistling 'Jingle Bells' no less.
"You're in a good mood," his partner observed.
"You know it man!" He slapped Roy on the back in greeting and flung open his locker. "You remember the cute girl who fainted out at the mall last shift? Denise? The one who was working at Santa's village?"
DeSoto nodded. "It's hard to forget an elf with low blood sugar. What about her?"
Stripping off his denim shirt, Johnny began changing into his uniform. "Well, I happened to be at the mall last night doing some Christmas shopping and I ran into her."
"Gee, there's a coincidence," Roy said dryly.
Gage ignored him and launched into a long rambling tale that involved a dropped package, a child with a candy cane stuck in his hair and a disgruntled head elf named Irving. "And so she invited me to go to the party with her. I didn't get home until three o'clock this morning," he concluded victoriously. "Isn't that great, man?"
When there was no response, Johnny glanced up to see the other man sitting on the bench, half dressed and staring wistfully at a photo in his wallet. "You didn't hear a word I said, did you?" he accused.
"Huh?" Roy looked up, momentarily confused. "Oh, um, sorry. I was just thinking."
Johnny plopped down on the bench beside his partner and peered at the photo in Roy's hands. "Cute," he said with a smile. Jennifer DeSoto sat on the lap of a department store Santa, flashing a gap toothed grin at the camera. "Was that last year?"
"You gonna take her to see Santa this year? Cause, hey, we could take her to the mall and Denise ."
"She doesn't believe in Santa," Roy said regretfully. "She told us the other day."
"But she's only seven," Gage protested.
"I know," Roy sighed. "She's growing up too fast. I was hoping she'd believe for a couple more years. But she heard some older kids talking at school and, well," he shrugged his shoulders helplessly, "what can you do?" Rising from the bench, he tucked the wallet in his hip pocket and reached for his uniform shirt. "Roll call in ten," he observed. "Better get a move on."
It was a busy shift. It seemed like they all were this close to the holidays. Something about the approach of Christmas made people a little crazy. In spite of the hectic pace, Johnny couldn't get Jennifer DeSoto out of his mind. There was just something fundamentally wrong about a seven-year-old not believing in Santa Claus. He remembered how exciting Christmas had been back in the days when he'd believed. Laboriously writing a letter and mailing if off, the envelope addressed simply: Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska. Helping his mother bake a batch of cookies especially for Santa. Everyone knew you had to leave milk and cookies for Santa. And that double chocolate chip was his favorite. Coincidentally, they'd been his father's favorite too. He remembered lying in bed with his brother Dave on Christmas Eve, both of them too excited to sleep. They huddled under the blankets, whispering and giggling, vowing that this year they weren't going to fall asleep until they heard the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof.
And one year, the year he was seven in fact, they had. It must have been close to midnight. Dave had been asleep and snoring softly for some time. Johnny was staring at the ceiling, willing himself to stay awake. The first scraping sound had been so soft he'd almost missed it. Then it came again, a little louder. He'd frantically elbowed Dave in the ribs and the two of them had laid there, eyes wide with awe. A thump, then footsteps right over their heads. Then, faintly, the sound of sleigh bells. It was Santa!
Johnny closed the lid of the drug box with a decisive snap and stowed it in the squad. He strode from the engine bay in search of his partner. "Hey, Roy!" he called excitedly. "I have a great idea!"
"I'm not sure this is such a great idea." Roy looked up at the roof, then down at Johnny, then back up at the roof. "There's just so much that could go wrong."
"You worry too much," Gage chided, settling the ladder carefully against the eaves of the DeSoto's ranch-style house. "I told you how my grandfather did it for me when I was seven, right? Well, he was in his sixties and there was six inches of snow on the roof. Besides, I do stuff like this for a living. I'll be fine. Now, where are those sleigh bells?"
Roy heaved a sigh of resignation and handed him the canvas tote bag. "Please be careful," he admonished.
Johnny peered into the bag, making sure the bells were securely wrapped in an old towel. Wouldn't do to have them jingle too soon. "I'll be fine," he repeated firmly, slinging the bag over his shoulder and reaching for the ladder.
Roy braced the ladder for him and watched anxiously as Johnny climbed up onto the roof. "I'll be back out in twenty minutes to help you down" he told the younger man.
Gage nodded and gestured toward the front of the house impatiently. "Get in there," he hissed, "or she's gonna hear you."
"Okay, okay." Roy pointed at his partner, a stern expression on his face. "You. Be. Careful."
"Good night, sweetie," Roy kissed his daughter on the forehead and pulled the covers up firmly under her chin. "Hurry up and get to sleep now or Santa won't come."
Jennifer screwed up her face indignantly. "Daddy, I already tol' you I know there's no Santa. I'm not a little kid anymore, you know. You don't have to pretend."
"Who's pretending?" Roy protested. "Maybe I still believe in Santa Claus."
"Daddy," Jennifer's voice was ripe with disapproval. "There's no Santa. Angie Peterson said so and she oughta know. She's in the third grade!"
"Well, no disrespect to Angie Peterson," Roy chuckled, "but if it's okay with you, I think I'll just wait and see if Santa shows up, okay?"
"Okay." Jennifer snuggled into her pillow and closed her eyes. "But he's not gonna come. Don't forget my nightlight," she added sleepily as Roy headed for the door.
He snapped on the tiny lamp with the bright pink Barbie shade and slipped quietly from the room.
Joanne was lurking in the hallway, a wide smile on her face. "She's going to be so excited," she whispered.
"If Johnny doesn't fall off the roof and kill himself."
"Roy!" Joanne swatted his arm and dragged him away from their daughter's doorway. The hall was dark and by peering around the corner, they could see into Jennifer's room without her seeing them.
Christopher poked his tousled head out of his bedroom door, pointed toward the ceiling and cast an enquiring glance at his parents.
Joanne nodded and gestured for Chris to join them. At twelve, Christopher hadn't believed in Santa for several years and knew all about their secret plans. "Did he start yet?" he whispered, when he'd reached his mother's side.
"Any minute now."
They were far enough away from Jen's room that they couldn't hear Johnny but they knew the minute he started making noise. Jennifer's head jerked up off the pillow. She froze, listening intently and then sat bolt upright in bed, her blue eyes wide as saucers. Chris clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud while Roy and Joanne exchanged a smile. "I hate to admit it," Roy murmured, "but Johnny really did have a good idea for once."
Jennifer sat motionless, eyes fixed on the ceiling, her mouth forming a perfect 'O'. Joanne sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. Roy reached for her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. He understood exactly how she felt. There was nothing in the world like seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child.
Suddenly, Jennifer's whole body jerked in surprise. Her eyes grew impossibly wider and she shrieked, "Daddy! Daddy! Santa just fell off the roof!"
Roy was frantic as he rounded the corner of the house with Christopher hot on his heels. "Johnny!" he gasped as he spotted his partner sprawled in an untidy heap amongst the bougainvilleas.
"Is he dead?" Chris asked fearfully.
"No, he's not dead," Roy barked. He fervently hoped he wasn't lying to his son.
"Uhhh," As if on cue, Gage groaned and began to stir.
"Don't move," Roy cautioned, dropping to his knees beside the fallen man. "You could have a spinal injury."
Johnny's eyelids flickered open and he peered fuzzily up at his partner. "Roy? What are you doing on the roof?"
"I'm not on the roof, Junior. Problem is, neither are you. You fell off." Roy ran his hands carefully over his friend's body, checking for injuries.
Johnny hissed and jerked away when the probing hands reached his left shoulder. "Oh man! I think it's dislocated!"
"I think you're right," Roy agreed, his voice rough with concern. "Do you have pain anywhere else? Your neck? Your back?"
"No. I think I'm okay." Johnny raised his head and looked around cautiously. "Bushes musta broke my fall."
Roy turned to Chris, who hovered anxiously at his elbow. "Go inside and tell your mom to call an ambulance."
"No!" Johnny protested. "I don't need an ambulance. Just help me up and drive me over to Rampart."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
"No ambulance," Gage insisted. "It's Christmas Eve. It'll scare the kids in the neighborhood half to death."
"I'll call the station. Call in a still alarm. They'll come in without lights or sirens."
"Roy, please don't. I'm okay. Really. I just need to go get this shoulder popped back into place and I'll be fine."
DeSoto stared into his partner's pleading eyes for a moment. "Okay," he acquiesced. "But I'm doing it against my better judgment." Turning to his son, he instructed, "You stay here with Uncle Johnny while I go get the car keys and tell Mom what's going on. Don't let him try to get up by himself."
"I'll take good care of him," Christopher replied earnestly, moving to kneel beside Johnny.
"Santa's dead!" Jennifer's mournful wail was audible the minute Roy burst through the front door.
He found Joanne sitting in Jen's bed, rocking the sobbing child in her lap. "No, honey, Santa's not dead. And even if he was hurt, Daddy's a paramedic and he'd take good care of him."
"He is dead! He is! I heard him fall."
Stepping into the room, Roy tried to reassure his daughter. "Santa is going to be just fine."
Both heads snapped up at the sound of his voice. "He's not dead?" Jennifer quavered as Joanne raised her eyebrows in a silent question.
"No, sweetie, he's not dead. He's just banged up a little bit. I'm going to take him over to Rampart so the doctors can make him all better."
"Will he still be able to deliver presents?"
"Of course he will."
"Are you sure?" Jennifer sniffled and wiped her dripping nose on the back of her hand.
"Can I come to the hospital with you?"
"No, sweetie, you have to stay here."
"But I wanna go!" The girl's face crumpled and she began sobbing again. "I wanna see Santa! I can hold his hand and tell him not to be scared if he hasta have a shot!" she wailed.
"Daddy will do all that," Joanne soothed, rubbing the weeping child's back. Her eyes met Roy's over Jennifer's bowed head. "Won't you, Daddy?"
"Of course, I will," Roy hastened to assure her. He hated to leave Jennifer in this state but while he was trying to comfort his child, his partner was lying in the bushes with a dislocated shoulder. Roy pointed to his watch and cast Joanne a meaningful look.
"Go," she mouthed silently.
Roy slipped from the room. As he gathered his keys and a few things he thought would make the ride to the hospital more comfortable for Johnny, he heard Joanne trying to console Jen.
"Sweetheart, you can't go. Santa's very fat and Daddy's car is very small. There wouldn't be any room for you."
Johnny was lying right where Roy had left him, flat on his back in the shrubbery. "How you doing, pal?"
"I've been better," Gage admitted. "Man, this shoulder really hurts."
"Well, let's see if we can do something about that. You want to try sitting up?"
It wasn't as easy as it sounded. Even the slightest movement sent a bolt of white-hot agony through Johnny's shoulder. "I can't do it," he groaned, after the third aborted attempt. "It hurts too much." He sagged back against the damp ground, clutching his left arm, holding it tightly against his ribcage and fighting back a wave of nausea.
Roy bent over him, his forehead wrinkled with lines of concern. "Sure you don't want me to call in a still alarm?"
"No. No just just give me a minute," Johnny gasped. "Lemme catch my breath. One more try, okay?"
"Okay, but then I'm calling the station."
Gage wearily nodded his agreement. When the pain had ebbed from torturous to merely agonizing, he got a firm grip on his left arm with his right hand and announced, "Okay, let's do this." Roy carefully slipped an arm under Johnny's back. Chris did the same thing on the other side. "Let us do the work this time, junior. You just try to brace that shoulder, okay?"
Johnny nodded and tightened his grip.
"Okay, Chris, you ready? On the count of three. One -- two -- three."
Johnny bit his lip until it bled to keep from screaming, but it worked. He was sitting upright, propped carefully against the wall of the house. "Oh, fuck," he moaned, allowing his head to loll against the rough stucco. "Pardon my French, Chris."
"That's okay," the boy blushed a bit and leaned in close to whisper. "Dad said it the other day when he hit his thumb with a hammer. He tried to tell me he said fudge but I know better."
Roy shot his son a baleful look and reached for the armload of supplies he'd carried from the house. "Let's get you ready to travel, pal." With the skill born of years of working as a paramedic, Roy quickly constructed a shoulder immobilizer out of an old bed sheet. He tore off one long strip for a sling, carefully threading it into place and tying it behind Johnny's neck. A second, even longer strip went around the injured man's chest, binding his arm securely to his side. "How's that? Better?"
"Yeah, man. Thanks. A nice shot of morphine would be even better yet though."
"Junior, if I had any, I'd give it to you. Cause now comes the hard part. We gotta get you on your feet and into the car."
Johnny eyed the twenty or so feet of lawn that separated him from Roy's sports car. "Oh, man," he groaned. "This is NOT gonna be fun."
It wasn't. In fact, it was pure unadulterated hell. But with a lot of help from the DeSotos, he made it. Easing carefully into the seat, Johnny pulled his longs legs in after him and struggled to find a comfortable position. After a moment he concluded that such a thing didn't exist, at least not with
a dislocated shoulder, and gave up. He laid his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes in resignation.
"Here, let's try this." Roy slipped a sofa cushion he'd brought onto Johnny's lap, supporting his arm. "Does that help?"
"Yeah, a little. Good idea. Can we go now? I really need something for this pain."
Roy squeezed his uninjured shoulder sympathetically. "You got it." He sent Christopher back to the house and slipped into the driver's seat. "I told Chris to have Joanne call ahead and let 'em know we're coming. With a little luck, they'll have a wheelchair and some morphine waiting for you at the front door."
"Well, it's dislocated, all right." Mike Morton was far too cheerful for someone working in a busy emergency room on Christmas Eve.
If Johnny had been able to move, he'd have clocked him one. As it was, all he could do was roll his eyes and mutter, "Tell me something I don't already know."
Morton held the x-rays he was carrying up to the overhead light. "See here? Typical anterior dislocation. I can just pop it back into place and have you fixed up in no time."
Johnny glanced briefly at the x-rays. "Ouch." No wonder it hurt so much. The top of his humerus was at least four inches from where it was supposed to be. "The sooner the better, Doc," he sighed. "And I hope you're planning on giving me something stronger for the pain before you 'just pop it back into place'. That shot of MS you gave me barely even took the edge of it."
"Don't you worry, my friend, I'm gonna take good care of you," Morton assured him merrily. "I'll have the nurse start an IV, give you some Valium and some more morphine. Thirty minutes from now you'll be feeling no pain."
Morton was true to his word. By the time half an hour had passed, Johnny was slumped on a gurney almost asleep. "This stuff is great," he informed Roy seriously. "I'm gonna get some of this stuff and take it every day."
"That might not be such a good idea," Roy responded with a grin. His partner was wasted.
Dr. Morton returned a few moments later. "How's our patient?"
"He's pretty far gone," Roy replied.
"Good. Then let's get this over with. You wanna help?"
"Sure. Glad to."
They hoisted Johnny into an upright position. He yelped and frowned at them drowsily. "Hey, I was tryin' to sleep."
"Sorry to interrupt your nap," Morton chuckled. "But I thought maybe I'd put that shoulder of yours back into place."
"Oh, well, okay then. But I'll just catch a few zzz's while you do it." Johnny started to lie back down.
"Not so fast!" Morton pulled him back into a seated position. "You gotta sit up for this, Gage. It'll only take a couple minutes and the you can sleep, okay?"
"Oh, all right," he sounded more like a grumpy two-year old than a grown man, but he sat still.
Morton plucked two clean sheets off the linen cart and tossed one to Roy. "You've done this before, haven't you?"
"Couple of times," DeSoto acknowledged.
"Great." Morton wrapped one sheet around the middle of Johnny's chest. Roy stepped behind his friend and grabbed the ends of the sheet. Morton then carefully cut away the makeshift sling and lifted the injured arm away from Johnny's body. He wrapped the second sheet around the crook of the elbow, and positioned it at a right angle.
"Ow," Gage protested sleepily.
"Be done in a minute," Morton reassured him. "Now, Johnny, Roy's gonna pull on the sheet around your chest to provide some resistance while I use this sheet to pull your shoulder back into place. All you need to do is sit still and try to relax, okay? Can you do that?"
"Will my shoulder stop hurting?"
"Then I can do that."
With everyone positioned to Morton's satisfaction, the doctor grabbed the ends of the sheet looped around Johnny's elbow and nodded to Roy. "Let's do it." He braced himself and pulled, a constant hard traction, while Roy pulled in counterpoint. Johnny winced but didn't say a word so Morton kept pulling. "Almost got it," he muttered as he felt a sliding movement. The ball of the humerus snapped back into its socket with an audible pop and Morton released the sheet, staggering back a step as he did so.
Johnny gazed at his shoulder in awe. "Hey! It's all better!" He raised his left arm and started to rotate it.
"No!" Morton grabbed the arm, pushing it down gently but firmly. "Don't even think about it, Gage!"
"But it's all better," he complained. "It doesn't hurt."
"And I'd like to keep it that way," the doctor responded dryly. "Keep an eye on him, Roy, while I call x-ray to come do a post-reduction film."
The x-ray confirmed that Johnny's humerus was back in its proper place so Morton conducted a careful exam, testing the patient's range of motion. "How's it feel?"
"Good. Doesn't hurt a bit. You're a miracle worker, Doc."
"Im gonna remind you of that when you're no longer stoned on pain meds." Morton lowered Johnny's arm and headed for the supply cabinet. "Let's pull that IV, get you in a proper shoulder immobilizer and then you can go back to making merry." As the doctor pulled the needle from the vein in Johnny's right hand he observed, "You know, you never did tell me how you, a fireman trained to climb around on house tops, manage to fall off the roof?"
"Dropped the sleigh bells and tripped over 'em," Johnny admitted sheepishly.
"Only you, Gage, only you." Morton laughed. "It was a nice thought but next year, I think you better leave the house tops to Santa." As he fitted Johnny's arm into the shoulder immobilizer, the doctor instructed, "I want you to wear this for two weeks." Johnny opened his mouth to protest but Morton held up a restraining hand. "No arguments. I know your shoulder feels better but that doesn't mean it is better. You did a lot of damage to the soft tissues and they need time to heal."
"Aw, man!" Johnny whined. "I won't be able to work or do anything with this stupid thing on!
"And that, 'Santa' is the point! You're not supposed to be doing anything until your shoulder heals. I want you to wear this thing day and night for the next two weeks. You can take it off to bathe and that's it. When the two weeks are up, go see your family doctor or come back here for a recheck, okay? Oh, and you can't be alone tonight with all those narcotics coursing through your veins." He glanced at Roy. "Can he stay with you?"
"Aw, man!" Johnny exclaimed again. "You sure know how to ruin a guy's holiday!"
"If you had big plans for the evening, Gage, you wouldn't have been up on DeSoto's roof," Morton pointed out. He finished strapping his reluctant patient into the immobilizer. It was the high tech version of Roy's bed sheet creation: a combination of a sling and a long nylon strap that effectively bound Johnny's arm to his side. "There we are. You shouldn't have any pain. That's the one good thing about this type of injury. The pain goes away as soon as you reduce the dislocation. I'll send a couple of Vicodin with you just in case, but you probably won't need them. Any questions?"
"Yeah. Can I go home now?"
"Hey, I'm always glad to see you go, Gage," Morton teased. "Give me five minutes to write your discharge instructions, okay?"
"Yeah, okay." Johnny's eyelids were starting to droop again and he sank back into his pillow with a weary sigh. "I think I'll just take a little nap in the meantime."
Once he was sure his partner was asleep, Roy slipped quietly from the treatment room and chased Dr. Morton down the hall. "Hey, Doc," he called, "I need a favor. It's about my daughter and, uh, Santa Claus." As Roy explained what he wanted, Morton grinned widely.
"Yeah, I can do that," he said, locating a blank ER admissions form and reaching for his pen.
Joanne and Chris were sitting in the kitchen sipping cocoa when Roy helped a very wobbly John Gage through the front door. "He's gonna be fine," he told his concerned family. "But he's doped to the gills and he needs to lay down. Chris, is it okay if Uncle Johnny sleeps in your room tonight?"
"Sure," the boy nodded agreeably. "I don't mind sacking out on the couch."
"Great. Thanks, son. Let me just get Sleeping Beauty tucked in and I'll be right back."
Roy practically poured Johnny into bed. He didn't even try getting his injured friend undressed, simply removed the man's boots and pulled the covers over him. When he returned to the kitchen, Joanne had a mug of cocoa waiting for him. DeSoto dropped into a chair and sipped the beverage gratefully. "What a night," he sighed. "How's Jen? Did you get her settled down?"
"Finally," Jo replied. "But it took forever. She eventually just wore herself out and fell asleep. It was really sweet of Johnny to try and do this for her but next year, I think we better leave the roof to Santa."
"Mike Morton said the same thing," Roy chuckled. "And speaking of Morton ." He fumbled in his shirt pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. "Read this."
Joanne accepted the paper and unfolded it curiously. It was the face sheet of an ER chart, filled in and signed by Dr. Morton. She skimmed over it, reading a line here and a line there out loud. "Patient's name Santa Claus address . North Pole next of kin Mrs. Claus reason for visit fell off roof diagnosis bumps and bruises treatment ice packs and lots of cookies " She raised shining eyes to her husband. "Oh, Roy, this is wonderful! Jennifer will love this! She'll be so relieved. Dr. Morton is so sweet!"
"He is," Roy agreed with a smile. "But don't spread it around. It'll tarnish his gruff and grumpy image."
By the time they'd finished their cocoa, hauled out the last of the gifts and filled the stockings, it was nearly two in the morning. Joanne left the kitchen in disarray, announcing that she was not doing dishes on Christmas Eve, and headed off for bed.
"I'll be there in a minute," Roy called softly. "I just want to check on the kids."
Chris was bunked down on the sofa, sound asleep. He'd had a busy night and Roy was proud of how well he'd handled himself during the crisis. Tucking the blanket more firmly under his son's chin, he unplugged the Christmas tree lights and headed down the hall. Jennifer was curled up in an impossibly small ball in the middle of her bed. She had one hand firmly buried in the bright yellow hair of her Missus Beasley doll and the other in her mouth. Seven years old and still sucking her thumb. Roy smiled, shook his head and dropped a kiss on her temple. He smoothed the wrinkles out of the ER form Morton had filled out for him and placed it on Jennifer's pillow where she'd be sure to see it when she woke up. Then he crossed the hall to Chris's room to check on his third and last 'child'.
Johnny was awake and peered up at Roy through drug-dazed eyes.
"Can't you sleep?" DeSoto asked. "Are you having pain?"
"Huh-uh. No pain. But sumthin' woke me up," Gage slurred. "Heard a noise."
"That was probably just me bringing the last of the presents up from the basement. Sorry if I disturbed you."
"No, wasn't you. 'Sup there," he pointed toward the ceiling.
"There's nothing up there, Junior," Roy whispered patiently. "Go back to sleep."
"Sounded like bells."
Roy smiled and shook his head, "That was before, Johnny. You were the one up on the roof with the bells, remember?"
"Not before. Now. I heard it, Roy," Johnny insisted sleepily. "Listen."
Roy cocked his head toward the ceiling and listened indulgently for a moment. "I don't hear a thing."
"Bells, Roy. I'm tellin' ya, I heard 'em."
"I don't think so, Johnny. I think that's just the morphine talking." He straightened his partner's rumpled blankets and rumpled his hair affectionately. "Try to sleep, okay?"
Johnny nodded, his eyes already drifting closed. "Yeah. 'Kay. Night, Roy."
"But I'm tellin' ya, I heard bells."
Roy chuckled and turned toward the door only to freeze in his tracks. What the hell? What was that? His eyes flew to the ceiling and he strained to hear.
Bells. Sleigh bells. "It's the bells Johnny dropped," he reasoned. "The wind is blowing them around up there." Only there was no wind. The night was calm. The sound came again. Definitely bells. "Johnny, did you hear that?" But Johnny was asleep.
"It's been a long day," Roy lectured himself. "I'm just tired. There's no way I'm hearing what I think I'm hearing. I need to go to bed." But he didn't. He just stood there and listened. The sound of bells reached him again. And then a series of thumps and scraping sounds almost like hooves? The deep bass rumble of a man laughing and, ever sofaintly, the words "Merry Christmas to all ".
It couldn't be! It just couldnt be!
But what if it was?
Roy stared at the ceiling, his blue eyes as wide as saucers. "Santa?"
Author's Notes: Thanks to Donna for the use of copyrighted materials. Happy Holidays, everyone!