This is an alternate ending to the episode ‘To Buy Or Not To Buy’




When There's No One to Blame


Jill Hargan



            The world spun crazily, and John Gage had to shut his eyes against the streaks of color that danced before them.  Even in the dizzying gyration, his mind tried to sort the images out.  Red - red was the engine, sitting safely on the ground far below - too far.  Green - the trees that surrounded the brown patch of dirt underneath him.  Blue - that was the sky as he swung up to meet it briefly then twirled away in another direction.  And gray - there was entirely too much gray - that was the concrete pillars of the bridge as they flashed by too closely.


            Johnny knew what all the colors were, but they wouldn't stay in one place long enough for him to get oriented.  The growing sense of nausea watching them caused was only one more problem to deal with, and he didn't need any more problems at the moment.  For now, his only concern was the boy in his arms and how he was going to hold on to him.


            Though it had only been a few moments, it seemed to the dizzy paramedic that they had been spinning here for an eternity.  Already the muscles in Johnny's arms felt like they were being torn apart.  The kid, Peter, had passed out after his seizure had taken them both off the bridge before Johnny had been able to get a belt on him and was now dead weight.   Between the hundred plus pounds pulling at his arms and the drag at his waist from his own life line, Johnny felt like he was literally being ripped in half.  Add to that, the fact he was twirling like some crazed puppet on a string and he knew he was in a world of trouble.


            Amazed that his brain was still able to function, Johnny distantly heard his own voice shouting to Roy, telling his partner to drop him, and he wondered how he'd managed to think straight enough to say anything at all.  Roy's answer wavered in and out as the pendulum Johnny dangled from moved him close up then far away.  It was hard to hear, but he thought Roy said something about not being able to bring them up.  He didn't catch the rest, but whatever Roy wanted to do, it beat swinging here.


            "Just do something!" Johnny shouted, hearing the panic in his words as he felt the boy slip a little further from his grasp.  "I can't hang onto 'im!"


            It was odd.  Despite his senses being scrambled, Johnny could hear Roy's grunting efforts as his partner manned the line and worked heroically at lowering the weight that was much too heavy for one person.  Amidst the kaleidoscope of sensory input, Johnny managed one more thought - whose strength would hold out the longest, his or Roy's?


            An instant later that question no longer mattered.  Momentum carried the paramedic and the boy once more toward the bridge, this time slamming Johnny's right shoulder into the concrete.


            Everything happened at once.  A searing pain shot down his arm, but before Johnny could even cry out, it was replaced by a tingling numbness from his shoulder to his fingers.  All at once, he felt a tearing agony in his left arm as Peter's entire weight abruptly shifted.  A strangled scream filled Johnny's throat as he struggled valiantly to keep his grip, then, suddenly he was free from the weight as he failed in that fight.


            And Peter fell.


            Johnny's mouth opened, but no words came out.  No cry of protest, no shriek of denial.  He watched in mute horror as the fourteen year old boy fell to his death.


            Everything was silent now.  Even the pain in the paramedic's battered body was a distant thing, as if his mind couldn't deal with it at this moment.  The impact with the bridge had checked his insane spinning, and now he merely swung slightly at the end of the rope, both arms dangling uselessly as Roy slowly lowered him down.  Johnny was still too far away to hear what was going on below him, but he could see it clearly.


            He could see the boy's body sprawled on the ground, the guys moving around him, but unable to do anything to help.  He could see Peter's friend being restrained by the policeman who had first responded to the call, and watched as Scotty finally led the teen to his squad car, out of sight of his dead friend.  He saw when Cap at last covered the boy with one of the yellow blankets out of the squad.  It was that bright patch that held Johnny's focus as he gradually grew closer to the ground.  He couldn't take his eyes off of it, though his ears were picking up sounds now, bits and pieces of things that really didn't register.


            ... a little more, Roy... that's it ... coroner's on his way ... called his parents ... need a stokes over here, Mike ... hang in there, John, almost down ... watch that arm, Chet ... s'okay now, John, we've got ya...


            He was down.  Johnny felt his feet touch the earth momentarily before he was swept off them again to be laid gently on the ground.  Someone took his helmet off his head, but he couldn't say who.  He knew it was one of the guys, but he couldn't stop looking at the yellow blanket long enough to see who was doing what to him.  He knew he hurt.  Even though they were trying to be gentle, they couldn't help jostling him some as they undid his belt and lowered him down, and he heard a groan escape his lips.  It, too, was a distant thing, as if someone else had made the sound.


            John?  John, ya with us, pal?


            It was Cap's voice.  Johnny knew that, but he didn't answer - he couldn't.  The blanket held him mesmerized.  It had changed.  Crimson red now contrasted against the bright yellow as blood seeped out from under the thin covering.


            Did he hit his head?


            That was Chet - his voice speaking his concern loud and clear.  Still Johnny couldn't respond.


            Didn't look like it from here, but he may have.  Marco, go tell Roy to make it snappy.


            Right, Cap.


            Running feet faded away.




            What's wrong with him, Cap?


            John... John, can you hear me?


            A hand moved in front of his eyes, momentarily blocking his view.  Johnny blinked as it drew near then felt relieved when it left his field of vision clear.


            He's reactive at least.  Mike, let Rampart know what's going on.


            Right, Cap.  Rampart, this is Rescue 51...


            Johnny tuned out Mike's voice, and Morton's filtered response.  He couldn't find the energy to care right now.


            He heard the footsteps returning at a run.




            Even though it was Roy's controlled-panic voice, it was still somewhat comforting to hear his partner as he slid to a stop and knelt down.


            Johnny... talk to me, pal.  Tell me what's goin' on.


            He couldn't.  He didn't know why, but he couldn't find his voice.


            Roy continued talking to him, falling into his best soothing-paramedic tone as he began his assessment of Johnny's injuries.  Roy was gentle, causing slight pain only when he examined Johnny's arms and shoulders.  It wasn't until his partner parked himself at Johnny's head to talk to Rampart that Johnny was put out at all.  He couldn't see the yellow blanket now, and he frowned slightly.


            He wanted Roy to move, to get out of his way, but it would have required too much effort to ask.  He was fast falling into a strange lethargy.  The world around him was slowing down, and he was too tired to watch anymore.  With a long sigh, Johnny closed his eyes and shut out everything around him.


* * *


            Roy sat on the jump seat of the ambulance staring with concern at his unmoving partner.  The backboard and C-collar were precautionary since no one on the ground could tell for sure if Johnny had hit his head, but he wasn't presenting any signs of head trauma other than his lack of vocal response.  His eyes were still closed, but Roy was positive Johnny wasn't unconscious.


            The senior paramedic had done everything he'd been told; Brackett had suddenly been the one on the other end of the biophone.  Roy had spared one fleeting thought to wonder what had happened to Morton, but he didn't dwell on it.  It really didn't make a difference at this end.  There wasn't much Roy could do, except establish a precautionary IV and package Johnny for transport.  There hadn't been anything he could do for the kid.


            Leaning his head back against the jostling window, Roy sighed deeply and immediately regretted it.  A sharp pain lanced through his right rib cage.  He let his breath out cautiously, then waited a moment.  The pain subsided.


            Probably just bruised, he decided.  As the anchor for the life line, he'd been jerked into the pillar pretty hard - so hard that he'd had the wind knocked out of him, and it had been all he could do to hang onto the rope.  Roy's one thought had been to keep Johnny and the boy from both plunging to their deaths.  They hadn't been able to set up a good relay.  The girth of the pillars prevented more than a rudimentary mooring that, when put to the test, was not enough to keep the full weight off Roy.


            When it came down to it, Roy hadn't even seen most of what happened after the kid started his seizure.  His view had been blocked, and the weight on the rope had dragged at him so heavily that his only concern had been the slow, methodical playing out he'd been trying to control.  He'd heard Johnny call out to him, telling him to hurry.  The senior paramedic knew he would never be able to erase the sound of the fear in his partner's voice.  Johnny was in trouble and the only thing Roy could do to help was to keep the rope from slipping out of his hands.


            Automatically, Roy flexed his fingers.  They were stiff and sore, and a deep, red impression ran across them, but his gloves had protected them from worse damage.  And the block of concrete had protected him from the sight of Peter falling - a sight Johnny had seen only too clearly.


            Roy recalled vividly the feeling in the pit of his stomach the moment the weight on the rope lightened.  He knew immediately what had happened.  He hadn't needed to see it.  His heart sank as he suddenly had much more control of Johnny's life line.  There had been no sound from his partner, and all Roy could do was lower Johnny as quickly as possible down to the grisly scene that awaited them on the ground.


            Then Roy still had to make his way down, climbing carefully, cautiously finding each foot and hand hold - his mind screaming at him to hurry - Johnny would need him - Johnny shouldn't have to face the tragedy alone.  And then Marco was hollering - yelling for him to hustle, that Johnny was hurt.  Roy didn't even remember the rest of his descent.  All he knew was that he had to get down to the ground.


            The ambulance hit a pothole and bounced heavily, jarring Roy on the hard seat.  He grabbed his side and grimaced at the pain, but immediately forgot about it when he noticed Johnny's eyes were open.


            "Hey, there," Roy smiled down at his partner, glad to see him more aware.  "You gonna stay with me?"


            It took a moment for Johnny to make eye contact.  Unable to move his head, his gaze darted frantically around the interior of the ambulance, almost as if he were looking for something.  When he finally let his eyes meet Roy's, it was obvious he was on the verge of panic.


            Roy reached down and took hold of his friend's hand.  In spite of the injuries to his arms, Johnny's grip was strong.


            "It's okay, Johnny," Roy offered soothingly.  "You know the rules.  I had to strap you down.  You can probably tell your arms are injured, but I don't think there's any real problems with your neck or back."


            Johnny blinked once and seemed to relax a bit, but he didn't let go of Roy's hand.


            "Can ya talk to me, Junior?" Roy asked quietly.


            Johnny stared at him intently.  Roy couldn't read the emotion in the brown eyes, but the grip on his hand never loosened.


* * *


            The emergency room at Rampart General Hospital was normally a busy place, and some days bordered on barely organized chaos.  Dixie McCall, head nurse, prided herself on being able to handle even the worst situations with a calm professionalism, but there were times when it was hard not to react personally.  This was one of those times.


            Dixie was fond of all the paramedics who worked out of Rampart.  She knew injury was a risk of their job, but it always hit her hard when someone she cared about was brought in, especially these young men who risked their lives on a regular basis for a public who had wasted no time in taking the fledgling program for granted.  For the veteran nurse, even five years couldn't dim the admiration and respect she held for these underpaid, unappreciated public servants, who, in her eyes at least, were true heroes.


            Now, as she saw the bay doors swing open, and the gurney bearing John Gage wheeling down the hall, she felt that same knot in her stomach she got every time one of her "boys" was hurt.  She'd been filled in on what happened by Mike Morton, who was manning the base station.  Johnny's injuries were not life threatening, but Dixie knew the rescue had gone terribly wrong.  One look at Roy's face as he strode down the hall alongside his partner and Dixie knew this wasn't going to be an easy fix.


            She motioned them into Treatment three just as Kel appeared beside her.


            "Bring him on in, guys," Dr. Brackett ordered tersely as he walked in ahead of the attendants.


            Dixie held the door until everyone had entered.  Just as she went in and let the doors close she caught a glimpse of turnout coats and grim faces out in the hall, and she knew the engine crew had followed the squad in.


            She moved over to help with Johnny just as he was being transferred to the exam table.  The attendants did their job quickly then wheeled their gurney out the door.  Roy, however, never moved from his partner's side.  Dixie smiled inwardly at that as she quickly removed Johnny's shoes, sock and pants.  Roy seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to knowing when his presence was required and when Johnny would rather be alone.  Right now, apparently, Johnny needed his friend.


            She carefully monitored Johnny's vitals as Dr. Brackett did a thorough examination.  Kel was an excellent doctor, but sometimes let himself get so caught up in doing his job, that once in a while he had to be reminded to turn on his bedside manner.  Because of that, he'd earned himself a reputation of being brusque.  Watching him right now, however, Dixie saw no hint of that gruffness.  As Kel's hands did their work, he kept up a reassuring conversation with Johnny, pausing apologetically whenever his probing elicited a groan from the dark haired paramedic.


            "Everything looks good with your head and neck, John," Kel stated in a reassuring tone.  "But I'm going to order a skull and spinal series just to be on the safe side.  Then we can get you out of that collar.  I'm pretty certain you've got a proximal fracture of your right humerus.  The pictures will show us if your shoulder is involved at all."  He moved over to Johnny's left side.  "This one I'm not sure of.  Doesn't appear fractured, but you obviously wrenched it pretty good.  Might be some ligament damage.  We'll see what the film shows before we make any decisions on it."


            Other than his reactions to pain, Johnny hadn't made a sound during the entire time.  Finished with his initial exam, Kel glanced up, his face unreadable, but Dixie knew him well enough to recognize his concern.  She caught his eye and raised her eyebrows questioningly.  Kel merely shook his head, signaling that now wasn't the time to go into it.


            The treatment room doors opened as the X-ray technician wheeled the portable machine into the room.  Dr. Brackett moved over to speak to the man.  Dixie took that time to lay a reassuring hand on Johnny's forehead, brushing his bangs out of his eyes.


            "We'll be in the hall," she told him with a warm smile.  She took hold of Roy's arm, meaning to lead him outside, but stopped when Johnny became agitated, his hands scrabbling at the table, the parts of his body not strapped down moving restlessly.


            Before she had time to question Johnny's behavior, Roy stepped in ahead of her.  He took his partner's hand in his.


            "It's okay," he told his friend.  "We're just gonna step out for a minute so they can take the pictures.  You wouldn't want us to glow in the dark now, would ya?"


            Roy's tone was light and seemed just what Johnny needed.  The younger man's dark eyes shone with a gratitude Dixie had no trouble reading.


            "Let's go, people," Kel announced, and herded them out of the room.


            It took another moment for Roy to let go of Johnny's hand, then they walked out into the hallway...


            ...and into a barrage of questions.


            After a few moments of confusion, Dr. Brackett finally held up his hands for quiet.  All four firemen settled into a grudging silence, their faces still troubled.


            "Okay, guys, I know you're worried," Kel began.  "Right now we're taking care of Johnny's physical injuries.  His right arm's probably fractured, his left... well, if he's torn the ligaments in his shoulder, he may require surgery to repair them.  Basically, he's looking at a few months recovery time."


            "But why isn't he talking?" Chet burst out at Brackett's first pause.  "I mean... that just ain't Gage."


            "What about that, Doc?" Captain Stanley asked.  "From where we were, it sure didn't look like he hit his head or anything."


            Kel shook his head.  "I don't think he did either.  There was no sign of any kind of head trauma."


            "Then why..."


            The doctor held up his hand again to forestall the question.  "I don't have any answers for you yet.  You're just going to have to be patient.  Once John's X-rays are done, and we can make him more comfortable, I'm going to have Joe Early come in and do a neurological check on him."


            "But you don't think he'll find anything," Roy at last spoke up, his tone even, but his face pensive.


            Kel shook his head slowly.  "No, I don't think so.  I think Johnny's inability to speak is stemming more from a psychological cause than a physical one."


            "Are you saying Gage is crazy?" Chet blurted out again, his eyes wide.  He ignored the glares he got from his shift mates.  Dixie knew that even though Chet may not have expressed himself very delicately, his concern was genuine.


            Kel's mouth twitched slightly as he considered how to answer.  "I didn't say that," he finally replied.  "Look fellas, I'm not an expert in this field, but I do know people react very differently to traumatic situations.  From all you've told me, what happened out in the field today was pretty horrific."  Five heads nodded in silent agreement.  "I feel strongly that Johnny is just responding to that... shutting down for a while so he can process the experience."


            "So what do we do?" Roy asked quietly.


             Kel gave them all a slight smile meant to reassure.  "We take it one day at a time.  Once we get him settled in a room, I'm going to give him something to help him sleep.  Who knows, maybe in the morning he'll be his old self again."


            "What if he's not?" Chet challenged, still not willing to be pacified.


            "Then we play it by ear... give John a few days.  If he's not better after that... well, then maybe we'll need to bring in someone else."


            "You mean a psychiatrist?" Stoker spoke up from the back of the group.


            Kel gave a grudging nod.  "Possibly.  But, let's not jump the gun, guys.  Johnny may just surprise us and be up and bouncing off the walls tomorrow."


            Dixie watched as each man digested Kel's words.  They didn't look completely satisfied, but at least they were somewhat appeased.  Captain Stanley shook the doctor's hand, had a few words for Roy, then led his men outside.  They were still on duty, but Dixie knew they would be back when they were off, keeping a vigil for their friend.  She turned to Roy.


            "What about you?  You free to hang around?"


            "For now."  Roy smiled and held up the HT.  "Cap's gonna call me if he can get someone to finish the shift for both me and Johnny.  If not... well, I'd still have to wait for a new partner anyway.  I might as well do it here."


            Just then the door opened and the technician wheeled the machine out.


            "I need those films STAT," Dr. Brackett ordered tersely.  The man nodded and hurried off.


* * *


            Johnny lay on the exam table, staring up at the stark white ceiling.  Things had come into a little better focus.  He knew he was at Rampart and that everyone seemed very concerned about him, but he hadn't gone very far past that.  Thankfully, the C-collar and backboard were gone.  He hated the feeling of being so completely restrained.  He could move his head and neck more freely, though once he'd suffered through the orthopedist's visit, and having his right arm, from shoulder to wrist, encased in plaster and bound to his torso, he wasn't a whole lot better off.  At least they'd left his other arm alone for now, though he knew he was probably in for some surgery.  Both of them still hurt like hell, and Johnny wished they would at least get him into a more comfortable bed.


            Then Dr. Early showed up.  Johnny tried his best to cooperate as the kindly neurologist put him through his paces.  In the doc's slow, methodical way, he examined Johnny's eyes and ears.  He checked the reflexes in his legs and feet.  Johnny performed all the required tasks - moving this and that and looking up, down, and every which way.  He'd had several neuro checks before and he knew the drill.


            Finished with that part, the white haired doctor pulled up a stool and sat down at eye level with his patient.  He smiled and patted the paramedic's hand reassuringly.


            "I just want to ask you some questions, Johnny," he said, then chuckled.  "You should know them by now."  His eyes were caring and concerned as he started at the top of the list.


            "Can you tell me your name?"


            John Gage.


            But the words hadn't come out.  He felt stupid laying there gaping like a fish, so he shut his mouth.  Dr. Early frowned slightly and repeated the question. 

Again, Johnny tried to answer, but it was as if his voice wasn't there.


            What's happening?  What's wrong with me?


            He tried again, the panic he felt threatened to overpower him.


            I know my name.  Doc, I wanna answer, but I can't.  What's happening?


            His agitation must have been apparent, for Dr. Early patted his leg lightly.


            "It's okay, Johnny, don't worry.  It's okay."


            No it's not, Doc. Something's going on here.  Tell me what's wrong with me.


            But the older doctor had turned away and was unable to see the questions in Johnny's eyes.


            "I'll want to do an CAT scan," he said to Dr. Brackett.  "Just to rule out any possible neurological connections, but I'm fairly certain there won't be any."  He returned his attention to the injured paramedic.


            "Johnny, just try and relax.  We're going to figure everything out.  I'm going to ask you a few more questions, but you can just nod yes or no."  He offered another encouraging smile.


            Johnny swallowed, trying to fight the fear that had seized him, when he suddenly felt someone take his hand.  He glanced at his other side to see Roy standing there, silently offering his support.  Johnny gripped his partner's hand tightly and focused on what Dr. Early was saying.


            "Do you know your name?"


            Johnny nodded, and the neurologist smiled.


            "Good.  Did you hit your head at all in the accident?"


            Johnny shook his head emphatically.  He knew he hadn't hit his head.


            "That's good, too.  I guess that's all for now."  He walked away from the exam table and spoke quietly to Brackett.


            Johnny watched the two men confer and wished they were talking loud enough for him to hear.  He hated that they were talking about him, but not to him.  There were a lot of things he wanted to know, mostly what the hell had happened to his voice.  But Dr. Early left the room without another word.


            Johnny lay there feeling totally helpless.  His arms were killing him and he decided to stop trying to respond to questions.  It was too frightening to open his mouth and have nothing come out.  He had a sudden flash of recall - could hear Chet distinctly telling him his mouth wasn't connected to his brain, and didn't know whether to laugh or cry.


            They must have finally finished with him, for Dixie was suddenly there with a shot of Demerol, taking away the last of the pain and making him comfortably drowsy.  He didn't know how much longer it took, but at last he was lifted up off the table onto a gurney for the trip upstairs.


            "Okay, Johnny," Dixie's voice floated into his groggy senses.  "We're going to get you settled in for the night."


            He felt himself moving and watched the faces go by until he saw Roy's.  Something half-forgotten suddenly pushed itself into his drugged awareness.  He grabbed at Dixie's hand, wincing at the movement in his left shoulder.  But it worked.  The gurney stopped.


            "What's wrong?"  Dixie's face bent closer.


            Johnny stared hard into her eyes, then let go of her hand and pointed at Roy.  His partner appeared confused at his gesture.


            "Roy's going along with you," Dixie assured him, mistakenly assuming he was worried Roy wouldn't be allowed to accompany him.


            Johnny shook his head.  It was hard to think with the drugs taking hold of him.


            "What's the hold up?"


            Brackett's voice sounded hollow to John's ears.


            "Johnny doesn't want to go yet," Roy explained, his voice sounding fuzzy too.  "He's trying to tell us something."


            It took a great deal of effort for Johnny to focus.  His body, lulled by the drugs, wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, but this was too important, and he fought to make them understand.  Knowing he wouldn't feel much pain right now, he managed to lift his left arm and lay his hand on his ribs.  He made a slight motion against them, then dragged his arm away and again pointed at Roy.


            It was quiet for a time, and he feared they still hadn't figured it out, when suddenly Dixie smiled knowingly and moved over to stand next to Roy.


            "So, Mr. DeSoto, you want to let the doctor examine your ribs?"


            Roy's eyebrows climbed high as Brackett came over to investigate.


            "Were you hurt, Roy?" he asked.  "We only thought..."


            Roy shook his head, his face red.  "It's nothing.  Just some bruises.  I was the anchor and when they went over..."  He shot Johnny a scrutinizing glance.  "I thought you had your eyes closed."


            Johnny gave him a smile made lazy with the pain killers.


            "Come on, Roy," Brackett ordered.  "We'll get you checked out.  I guess we tend to forget there's always somebody on the other end of the rope."


            Johnny watched as the doctor opened the door.  Roy started to follow reluctantly, but he paused and turned to wag his finger at his partner.  "I'll get you for this," he warned with a smile.


            Johnny offered up a lopsided grin, satisfied that Roy would be taken care of.  He closed his eye and gave into the bliss of sleep.


* * *


            Roy sat on the side of the exam table, buttoning up his shirt.  The tape around his rib cage had eased the twinges of pain that had started getting worse once he'd admitted to everyone that he might have been injured.


            "Well, the good news is we can't see any fractures," Brackett informed him, from where he stood studying Roy's X-rays.  "Just some deep bruising.  Although I'm sure they hurt as much as if they were cracked."


            Roy shook his head and gingerly slid off the table.  "Not so much now," he stated.


            Brackett gave him a tight smile.  "I'll give you a prescription for an anti-inflammatory... and a pain killer, you might have a bit of trouble getting comfortable when you sleep.  You should probably take your next shift off, just to give them a chance to heal."


            "Guess I should let Cap know," Roy said quietly.  He chuckled wryly.  "He's gonna chew on me some though, for not telling him I was hurt."


            Brackett's smile grew a little wider.  "He's a captain.  Chewing on his men is his job."


            Roy laughed, then winced.  "I should know better than that," he admitted ruefully, holding his hand at his side.  After a moment, he grew more serious.  "So you think Johnny will sleep through the night?"


            Brackett nodded soberly.  "That's what I'm hoping.  I want him to get a good night's sleep.  Dr. Murphy will do the shoulder repair tomorrow if Johnny's up for it.  The sooner he gets those ligaments reattached, the faster they'll heal."


            Roy pondered that information; it wasn't really what he'd meant.  He knew his partner's physical injuries would heal given enough time.  He met Brackett's eyes and realized the doctor was well aware what he'd been asking about.


            "It's like I told the rest of the guys, Roy.  We just have to wait and see."


            "That's easy to say, Doc," Roy allowed, "But it's hard not to worry.  I keep wondering what Johnny's going through... what he's feeling and thinking.  I mean... at first he was kind of out of it, but later... in the ambulance, he... well he seemed kind of scared... like he didn't know what was happening to him.  I don't think he even realized he couldn't talk until Dr. Early started asking him questions."


            "He was in shock, Roy.  It's natural for him to experience some disorientation.  I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't really remember the accident right now.  What we have to hope for is that his mind will heal along with his body."


            Roy's mouth twisted thoughtfully.  "I sure hope you're right," he replied."  He made an effort to lift his mood.  "Well, I'll get back to the station and fill them in.  Then I'll go home and let Joanne know what's going on.  Call me if anything..."


            "Believe me, Roy, I will."


            Roy opened the door and started to leave, but he paused and turned back to the doctor.  Before he could even open his mouth, however, Brackett beat him to the punch.


            "He's up in Orthopedics, room 412.  But he's probably asleep."


            Roy smiled his thanks.  "I won't stay long," he promised.


* * *


            Johnny tried desperately to cling to the rope, but his sweat-soaked hands couldn't keep their grip.  He slid lower and lower, all the while swinging wildly over a surging sea of yellow.  He wasn't exactly sure what it was that spread out below him, but he knew with a firm certainty if he fell into it he would die.  He reached up, trying to get a better hold, but he slid several more feet towards the end of his lifeline.


            He tried to call to Roy, but he couldn't make any sound, even though he kept opening his mouth.  He knew if he could only call Roy's name, his partner would haul him to safety.  It was up to him to let Roy know he needed help, but he couldn't get the words to come out.


            His hands slipped a little more - a few feet closer to that billowing, yellow sea.  Even as frightened as he was, he couldn't take his eyes off of it.  Its churning motion held him mesmerized.  And then he ran out of rope and he was falling into the suffocating brightness of the yellow void.


            His mind screamed for help, but his voice was still silent.  He struggled to find a way out, but there was no where to go.  If he could only call out, cry for help, but nothing happened.


            And then suddenly everything began to turn from yellow to crimson, cutting a stark contrast in the ocean of brightness.  Johnny suddenly found he could run and he tried to flee from the onrush of the red tide.  But no matter how fast he went, he couldn't get away from it.  It came at him, faster and faster, until it finally loomed over him, threatening to engulf him completely.


            There was nothing he could do.  He threw himself down, covered his head and waited to be swallowed up.  Two words kept playing over and over in his head.


            I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry...


            And the red wave came crashing down on him.


            Johnny's eyes shot open, and he gasped in a great gulp of air.  He was drenched in sweat, and it took a moment to remember where he was, but he finally recognized the medical equipment in the room.


            Rampart... I'm at Rampart... it was just a dream.  Probably the drugs.


            He relaxed a little and lay there trying to calm his breathing, waiting for his chest to stop heaving.  He was thankful he hadn't been hurt badly enough to be in ICU where he'd have been hooked up to all kinds of monitors.  He knew by the way his heart was racing every nurse on the floor would've been in here to check on him.  At least he wouldn't have to share this nightmare with anyone.  Nobody had to know.


* * *


            Roy sat in his recliner nursing the last of his coffee and only half listening to the morning news.  His ribs were still pretty sore.  Dr. Brackett had been right, it had been difficult to get comfortable last night.  Around midnight he'd finally resorted to the pain pills, and he'd been able to get some sleep, but the kids woke him up in their mad rush to get ready for school and after that he'd just gotten up to stay.


            Now they were gone, and the house was fairly quiet.  Joanne was upstairs straightening up and gathering dirty clothes for the day's round of laundry.  Roy was left to his own thoughts, and they kept taking him down paths full of questions.


            He kept thinking about Johnny - and about a dead 14 year old boy - and what he might have done differently to keep the events of yesterday from happening.  Could they have done things any other way?  Should they have left the kid alone?  Waited for the snorkel?  Should he have told Johnny to back off when the boy became agitated?  But they had no way of knowing when he might seize.  How could they have justified it if they'd stood around doing nothing, and the boy had fallen.


            But he'd fallen anyway, and he'd taken Johnny with him - in more ways than the obvious one.


            Roy flexed his hands, studying the tender impressions still there.  Could he have possibly gotten the rope under control - stopped it from spinning?  He had no doubt that if Johnny hadn't hit the bridge, he would have managed to hang onto Peter until they reached the ground.


            He let out a sigh, wincing a bit at the movement.  He knew he could sit here and beat himself up over it all, but it wouldn't help anybody.  There wasn't anything he could do now for the boy, but Roy would do all he could for his partner.


            He and Joanne were going to Rampart in about an hour.  Brackett had called first thing this morning.  Johnny's speech hadn't returned, but his surgery was on.  Roy wanted to be there.  He couldn't rid his mind of the image of Johnny in the ambulance - frightened and confused, unable to reach out, with either word or touch.  Roy didn't want that to happen again.  If Johnny could derive any comfort from Roy's presence, then he wanted to be sure his friend knew he was there, before the surgery and after.


            And there was something else Roy's mind kept dredging up - the memory of his last words to Johnny before they left on the run to the bridge.  He had been mad at his partner.  Mad, incensed, indignant - all those words to describe how he felt about Johnny buying the house out from under him.  That house - that stupid, idiotic house.  Because of it, he'd told his partner, his best friend, that he might never get over being angry at him.


            It was hard to believe how the whole thing had started.  Roy had only mentioned in passing that he was thinking about buying a house.  After that it had seemed like everyone he knew had an opinion on the subject, whether pro or con.  Johnny had been the loudest of all his supporters, egging him on to at least go and take a look.


            So he had.  Without even consulting Joanne, Roy had let Johnny talk him into going with Chet's realtor friend and looking at a house.  And what a house!  It had everything his family could need, would give them plenty of room, a workshop, a huge back yard, and it was the right price.  But Roy was a cautious soul.  He never jumped into anything without careful consideration.  He told the realtor he'd think about it, in a safely neutral tone.  He didn't want to appear too eager and spoil the deal.


            He'd talked to Joanne about it that night, had taken his two days off to weigh all the possibilities and had at last decided it was the right move for his family.  Then, when he'd called the broker, he'd discovered the house had been bought.  His wonderful, perfect house had slipped through his fingers.


            He was mad.  Mad at the realtor for not holding it for him, mad at the new owner for daring to buy his house, and mad at himself for waiting too long, for being too damn careful and not taking a risk one time in his life.


            Roy didn't ordinarily vent his problems at work, but that morning he had.  He'd been telling Chet all about what had happened when Johnny walked in, all smiles and full of good news.  After that, everything had gone down hill, fast.


            Johnny's good mood had winked out like a shooting star as soon as he knew why Roy was upset, and Roy's normally chatterbox partner suddenly couldn't find anything to say.  It had all come out then, and Roy couldn't remember ever being so angry with the junior half of their partnership.


            Johnny stammered out some lame excuses about just going out there to check it out for Roy, but the older paramedic wasn't ready to listen, and he wasn't feeling very forgiving.  Even when Johnny had tried to lighten the mood and tell him he would get over the whole thing, Roy had stubbornly refused to give an inch.


            The tones had sounded, ending the conversation, but later, after they'd lost the boy and Johnny was hurt, the thought had flashed across Roy's mind - what if?  What if he'd lost his hold on the line and Johnny had fallen too?  What if those words had been the last Johnny ever heard from him?  Could he have lived with that?  Was a house he had to be persuaded and cajoled into even considering worth a lifetime of regrets?


            No.  He would make a point as soon as things settled down to put things right with Johnny.  He only hoped Johnny could find a way to make himself all right.


            The image on the news brought Roy out of his reverie.  There was a picture of Peter Baker, obviously a school photo.  It moved into the corner of the screen, letting the viewer see the bridge.  Roy got up and turned up the volume to hear what was being said.


            Fourteen year old Peter Baker fell to his death yesterday from the Johnson Canyon Bridge.  The freshman at Narbonne High School was being tied off by rescue personnel when he apparently experienced an epileptic seizure.  Paramedics tried to restrain him, but the boy lost his balance.  According to a spokesman from the County Fire Department, the paramedic on the bridge with him was injured during the rescue attempt and was unable to hold onto the boy.  Services are scheduled to be held...


            The reporter went on to expound on the rise of gasoline prices expected for the summer.  Roy switched off the set.  That was it.  A few minutes coverage.  A boy was dead, and Johnny was hurt, but for the rest of the world there were more important things to worry about.


* * *


            Johnny opened his eyes and blinked in the bright morning sun.  The first thing he did was to try his voice.  He struggled to form a word, a sound - nothing.  He cleared his throat and tried again, with no results.  He swallowed hard, not wanting to think about what would happen if he never talked again.  The doctors so far had avoided bringing it up, but Johnny knew they were all worried.


            He tried to think about what he would say if he could talk for just one more minute.  What would he say, and who would he say it to?


            That's easy.  I'd tell Roy he could have the house.


            He meant it too.  He was sorry for making Roy mad and never meant to go behind his partner's back. Johnny guessed that would take up more than a minute.  He sighed heavily.  Even if he  could talk, he didn't think he could explain to Roy why he had impulsively bought that dumb house.


            How could he tell Roy without sounding stupid that he'd gotten so excited about the place for Roy and his family - how he could envision Chris and Jenny out in the yard and on the swing set under the trees.  How, all the extra room made him think of Joanne not having to complain about not having places to put things.  Johnny could see Roy tinkering in the workshop.  So many things about the place just called out for his partner's family, but Roy had seemed so... so uninterested.


            And so, Johnny had gone out there by himself - meaning only to have one more look, but somehow had found himself a homeowner.  But it hadn't been for himself.  Somehow Johnny had convinced himself that he was buying it for Roy - for sometime in the future when Roy would see that he really needed it.


            Then he'd come to work - in a great mood, ready to spring the surprise - but Roy had been so upset - so angry - so unlike the Roy he knew.  And suddenly all Johnny's logic seemed so... so flawed.  And Chet had been there, too.  How could Johnny even try and explain his actions with Kelly standing there, ready to turn everything Johnny said upside down and sideways.


            And so Johnny had stuttered and stammered and tried to apologize, but Roy wasn't having any of it.  There had been few times in their partnership when Roy was actually out and out angry with him, but this was definitely one of them.  Then the tones sounded and then - well, then everything had happened and Johnny never had the chance to resolve things with his friend.


            He sighed again.  Life was always full of what if's.  He couldn't go back and change the past, but he decided as soon as he could, he would try and make things all right again with his partner.


            Johnny glanced out the window at the clear blue sky and resolved not to let it get him down.  Today had to be a better day.  For starters, his arms didn't hurt as much.  The right one really didn't bother him at all, except for not being able to move it.  His left was still a bit sore, but nothing like it had been yesterday after the surgery.

            Johnny was still strapped up pretty good.  They had some kind of harness wrapped about his left shoulder and arm, effectively pinning it to his side.  So, though he had free use of his hand, he couldn't reach for anything.  But still, he knew he was on the mend.


            The other thing that gave Johnny hope for a good day was that he was hungry.  Yesterday, between the pain and the residual nausea from the anesthesia, he hadn't eaten much at all.  The guys had come and visited him throughout the day, but he hadn't really felt like company.  Johnny knew it was hard on them to try and visit when they could only hold a one way conversation, so none of them had stayed long.  He didn't blame them.  They'd tried to act normal, but he could tell it was a strain, and it was almost a relief when they'd left.


            Roy and Joanne had stayed longer, but it was a school night and the kids needed to be picked up from the neighbors in time for baths and bed.  They'd finally gone home around seven.  Johnny had slept some after that, but another nightmare jolted him awake around 3 a.m.  It had taken a while to get back to sleep, but in the light of the new day, the fear of the dream faded.


            His stomach growled, and the paramedic hoped that they'd bring breakfast around soon.  The fact he was looking forward to hospital food said a lot about just how long it had been since he'd eaten.  He could hear the clatter of the cart out in the hall, and he kept hopeful eyes on the door.  Before long, he was rewarded, and a pretty young nurse he didn't know carried in his tray.


            She was obviously in a hurry.  She swept into the room, plunked the plastic tray down onto his rolling table, pushed it up to his bed, then was out the door before Johnny even had a chance to glimpse the name on her tag.


            He stared after her for a moment, then turned his attention to his breakfast.  The main dish was covered with a plastic dome, but he thought he smelled scrambled eggs.  He sniffed again.  Bacon maybe.  He had a dish of fruit covered with Saran Wrap, a cup of coffee with a spill proof lid and a sealed container of juice.  Sealed!  It just occurred to him that everything had some kind of lid or covering on it, and he had absolutely no idea how he was going to eat it.


            Johnny stared at it for a long moment, flexing his fingers, moving his left hand as much as he could, but the food stayed temptingly out of reach.  He leaned forward, but the twinge in his tender shoulder halted him before he got very far.  Johnny lay back on his pillows, out of breath from the exertion and totally frustrated.


            Damn!  How in the hell does she think I'm gonna eat any of this?


            And then he remembered the call button.  Roy had made sure it was within his grasp last night before he left for the last time.  Silently thanking his friend for his foresight, Johnny pressed the button that would bring help.


            It seemed to take longer than he thought it should, but finally the same nurse popped her head into his room.


            "Yes, Mr. Gage?"  She sounded a bit put out that he'd called.  "What do you need?"


            Johnny tilted his head in the direction of his breakfast.


            What does it look like?  I need a little help here.


            The girl heaved a sigh of annoyance and moved all the way inside.  "There's nothing wrong with the food, Mr. Gage."  Her voice was heavy with disapproval.  "This isn't exactly a hotel, ya know.  This is nutritious and what your doctor ordered for you."


            The paramedic gazed at her helplessly, not knowing how to make her understand.  At this point he had no beef with the quality of the food, just the accessibility - or lack thereof.


            Okay, let's try this again, he thought desperately.  See if she can clue in.


            He moved his hands as much as he could to get her to notice how restrained he was.  He jerked his head at the tray again, this time a little impatiently.


            The young woman simply did not understand.  Overwhelmed with her duties and too new at her job to know better, she simply took his problem for the long-standing complaint about hospital food.  Rolling her eyes in exasperation, she grabbed the tray off the table.


            "All right then," she informed him primly.  "I'll just note on your chart you didn't want to eat it.  You can take it up with your doctor."


            With that, she rushed out of the room, taking the food with her.


            Johnny watched in disbelief as his breakfast disappeared.


             Wait!  Don't' take that!  Come Back!


            But the words were only in his head.  His mouth was open, but no sound came out.  He threw his head back against the pillow and ground his teeth in total frustration.


             Damn, damn, damn.  What do I do now?


* * *


            Roy strode into the Emergency Department at Rampart General.  He was eager to see if Johnny was feeling better today, but he always made a point to come in this way to say hi to Dixie or Carol, whomever was on duty.  Plus, he wanted to see Brackett before he went up to orthopedics.


            Roy was alone.  Joanne had been with him most of the time he was here yesterday, but she had PTA obligations today that kept her away, though she sent some of her fresh cinnamon rolls along in apology for her absence.  They planned to bring the whole family in this evening, if Johnny was up to it.  They'd already sat the kids down and tried to explain in a way they could understand that their Uncle Johnny wouldn't be talking much for a while.  Surprisingly, neither Chris nor Jennifer seemed to think it strange.  Maybe because kids could admit their fears more readily than adults, they could more easily understand a physical reaction to something scary.  In any case, Roy was anxious to see if his friend had made any progress in that area.


            He didn't see Dixie, so he figured Carol must be on today.  Roy never could keep up with the nurses schedules.  Johnny always had them figured out, but then Johnny had a vested interest in knowing which nurse was on duty when and not just from this department.  Johnny always seemed to know the rotations on every floor.  The only thing Roy knew was that Dixie's shifts usually coincided with their own.


            He passed the admitting desk and quickened his pace when he noticed Dr. Brackett over by the elevators, talking to a couple of men.  They were easily identifiable as news people from the camera hoisted on the taller man's shoulder.  As Roy watched, Brackett made a dismissive gesture, and the men walked reluctantly away.  As the doctor turned toward the elevators, Roy trotted over to join him.


            "Hey, Doc," Roy greeted.  "What was that all about?" he asked curiously.


            Brackett scowled.  "Reporters," he grumbled.  "They wanted to interview Johnny.  A follow up to the Peter Baker story."


            Roy panicked at the thought of the press getting wind of Johnny's problems.  It must have showed on his face, for Brackett held up a calming hand.


            "Relax.  I didn't give them any particulars.  I just told them he wasn't up to it at this time."


            "Thanks, Doc," Roy said in relief.  "Cap said he was going to kind of gloss over... that problem on the report until we see what happens.  Anything new this morning?" he asked hopefully.


            Brackett's face took on a pensive look.  "Nothing good, I'm afraid."


            The doors opened and they both stepped inside.  Since they were alone, he continued his report.


            "Still no speech, and I just got a call from the charge nurse.  Apparently, your partner is refusing to eat."


            Roy's eyes widened in surprise.  "That doesn't sound like Johnny.  I mean, yeah, he complains about the food here, but unless he's unconscious, he usually manages to wolf down everything you guys serve him.  You think it's connected to his... well, to whatever's keeping him from talking?"


            Brackett shook his head.  "It's hard to say.  It might be depression setting in.  I'm on my way to see him now.  Hopefully we'll find out what's bothering him."


            Roy glanced at his watch.  It was nearly 1:00.  He'd purposely waited to visit to give Johnny a chance to sleep as much as he wanted.  He knew his partner hadn't felt good yesterday after the surgery and was hoping another night's sleep might make a difference.  Now Roy wondered if he should have come sooner.


            The elevator stopped and the doors opened.  Roy followed Brackett out onto the Orthopedics floor.  As they walked down the hall, Roy studied the doctor's face.  He looked like he still had something on his mind.  Roy took hold of his arm and stopped them both.


            "What is it, Doc?"


            Roy knew Kelly Brackett didn't go in much for waltzing around a subject.  He wouldn't waste any time on platitudes.


            "I'm worried," the older man stated honestly.  "I think it's time we called in a specialist."


            "You mean the shrink?"


            Brackett sighed.  "Yeah, the shrink."  He gave Roy a wry smile.  "Psychiatry isn't voodoo."


            "I know," Roy conceded, shrugging self-consciously.  "It's just hard to get past certain images."


            Now Brackett chuckled.  "The couch?"  He furrowed his brows and assumed a bad German accent.  "Vatch de vatch?"  He shook his head.  "It's a lot different today," he concluded in his normal voice.


            "I know," Roy acknowledged.  "And if you think that's what Johnny needs, I guess I'll go along with it.  You have somebody in mind?"


            He nodded.  "Unfortunately, my first choice is out of the country for the next month or so, but there's a new doctor on staff, Brad Wilts.  He comes very highly recommended.  I sent him Johnny's chart to review.  He's agreed to come down and meet with him a little later today."


            "And then what?" Roy pressed.  "Will he know how to get Johnny to start talking again?"


            Dr. Brackett put a hand on Roy's shoulder.  "Let's wait and see what he says."


            They started walking again and in a moment were at Johnny's room.  The door was open, and they stopped at the entrance.  Brackett reached up to rap his knuckles on the wood to announce their arrival, but he paused, his hand still in mid air.  Roy wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but the pitiful sight before him certainly wasn't it.


            Johnny was sitting on the bed, bent forward as far as he could go.  His arms were both bound to his side, but his left forearm was free to move somewhat, and right now it was trying desperately to reach for the lunch tray that sat tantalizingly just out of his reach.  As they watched, Johnny scooted down the bed, his face grimacing at the pain it caused, but even as his grasping fingers tried to clutch at the tray, the movement pushed the rolling table away just enough to take the food out of his reach again.  Johnny's face contorted in a mixture of pain and frustration, and he lay back on the bed in defeat.  Roy had seen enough.


            "Johnny!"  He rushed to the side of the bed, pulling the table up close as he came.


            His partner opened his eyes in surprise and then his whole face took on a look of such relief that Roy suddenly wanted to find the idiot responsible for this and knock him through a wall.  Instead, he settled for lifting the cover off the lunch, meaning to help Johnny eat.  He soon discovered that what had once been a semi-tempting hot turkey sandwich was now cold - the bread stale, the gravy congealed.  He felt the unopened carton of milk - Johnny's drink of choice.  It was room temperature.  Obviously, Johnny had been trying to get at it for some time.


            Usually slow to anger, Roy could feel it churning inside him.  Trying hard to maintain control, he turned to his injured friend.  "Is this what happened at breakfast too?"


            Johnny had managed to situate himself back on the pillows.  He nodded slowly and, for a moment, Roy thought his friend might cry.  Instead, he merely closed his eyes again, this time, Roy knew, from the humiliation of not even being able to feed himself.  Roy turned to Brackett, but the doctor was already out the door.  Somebody's head was going to roll, but at the moment, Roy didn't care.  How dense could you be not to realize a man with two injured arms might need some help with his meal?


            Hoping that in Brackett's tirade somewhere would be the orders for a new lunch tray, Roy pulled out the paper sack with Joanne's rolls.  It still felt warm.  He shoved the table with the ruined lunch out of the way.


            "Here, Johnny," he offered, as he broke a small piece off and held it out.  "This will help tide you over."


            Johnny took the bite, not quite meeting Roy's eyes, but Roy could tell it was appreciated.  He fed his helpless friend the entire roll before he ventured to say anything.


            "It's not your fault, ya know," Roy said quietly, digging out the second bun.  "Somebody should have known."


            Johnny didn't react.  Roy decided there wasn't much else he could say right now, so he kept quiet and continued feeding his partner the rest of the second roll.  When he was done, Roy got up  and stepped into the bathroom to wash his gooey hands.  It occurred to him that Johnny was probably sticky as well.  He didn't know how he could wash his friend's face for him without embarrassing Johnny more than he already was.  He finally decided to just do it quickly, like it was no big deal.  He grabbed a wash rag, wet it and walked back to Johnny's bedside.


            "Looks like I made a mess here," he said lightly as he wiped the sugary residue off Johnny's lips and chin.


            Johnny didn't look happy, but he didn't turn away.  When Roy finished he set the rag down on the tray, out of Johnny's sight.  He glanced at his watch, wondering how long it would take to get something more substantial up here.


            Just then there was a sound at the door.  Roy turned and saw a young nurse coming in with a new tray.  As she grew closer, he could see her eyes were red, as if she'd been crying, but he couldn't dredge up much sympathy for her.  If she was going to make it in her job, she'd have to learn from this mistake.  She'd also have to develop a thick skin to handle irate doctors.


            She removed the old tray and set the new one down on the table, then seemed unsure whether to move it around to the other side, since Roy was in her way.


            "I'll take care of it," he told her, trying to keep his tone neutral.  He shifted and reached for the table, pulling it to sit across the bed.  He had no intention of making Johnny suffer through being fed by this woman.


            "I... I just wanted to apologize to Mr. Gage.  I didn't know... well, I only thought his one arm was hurt and I..."  She seemed to run out of steam, and she stood there, wringing her hands, uncertain whether to stay or go.


            Roy was about to dismiss her, but he suddenly noticed a smile had replaced her remorseful expression.  Surprised, he turned to see the matching one on his partner's face.  His left hand was giving her a thumbs up signal.


            "Thanks, Mr. Gage," she beamed.  "I'm glad you're not too mad at me.  I'll go now and let you eat."  She left without another word.


            Roy gave Johnny an incredulous look.  "You're way too nice," he informed his friend as he held out a forkful of mashed potatoes.  "She deserved to be fired for what she did."


            Johnny took the bite and gave his head a negative shake.  As Roy continued feeding his partner, he studied him in silence, wondering why he was surprised.  Johnny just wasn't the type to hold grudges or stay mad for long.  If he was, then Chet Kelly would have been a dead man years ago.  Roy could almost hear Johnny's voice telling him the poor girl had already been chewed out by Brackett, what good would it do for him to be mad at her too?  She knew she'd goofed up.  No point in rubbing it in.  Roy let a wistful smile play on his face, wishing he could hear Johnny explain it to him as only Johnny could.


            Just as they were finishing with lunch, Dr. Brackett returned.  His face showed no sign of the wrath he must have unleashed on the hapless nurse, but both paramedics had seen him in his full glory, and were glad they hadn't been on the receiving end of his temper.  As they shared an amused glance, Roy suddenly found himself agreeing with his partner about not heaping more grief on the young woman.


            Brackett noticed the empty plates and nodded in satisfaction.  "I see you got your lunch.  So Miss Browning was in here?"


            "Yeah, she was here," Roy answered.  "She felt pretty bad," he added, suddenly coming to her defense.


            "She should," Brackett grumbled.  "Apparently there was some mis-communication during the shift change.  It certainly won't happen again, Johnny," he promised.  He moved to the bedside and did a quick check on Johnny's arm.  "The incision looks good," he pronounced.  "Dr. Murphy will be in later to check you out.  You should only have to wear that harness for a few days."


            Johnny inclined his head towards the bulky plaster.  Brackett chuckled.


            "I'm afraid you're stuck with that a while longer.  In a few weeks you may be able to switch to a more modified cast... give you a little more use of your hand."


            Johnny nodded and lay back against the pillows.  He looked tired.  Roy glanced up at the doctor and saw he'd noticed it too.

            "I'm going to go now," Brackett said.  "Try and get some rest."  He paused a moment and his  jaw tightened slightly, a sign he was debating how to broach a subject.  "Johnny... " he began slowly.  "There's another doctor I've asked to stop by... just to talk to you.  Dr. Wilts..."


            Brackett paused and Roy stepped in.


            "He's a psychiatrist, Johnny," he said quietly.


            Johnny's eyebrows raised slightly.  His gaze moved from Roy to Dr. Brackett then back to Roy.  He nodded slowly, giving his consent.


            Brackett gave them both a slight smile.  "Good.  I've got to finish my rounds.  Get some rest, John," he repeated.  He gave a slight motion for Roy to step outside, then left the room.


            Roy stared after him for a moment, then turned when he felt a tap on his hand.  Johnny was pointing at the door.


            "You saw that, huh?"


            Johnny nodded, then smiled to let Roy know he was okay with it.


            "I better go talk to him... see what he wants.  You all right for now?"  After another nod from his partner, Roy followed Brackett out the door.


            He found the doctor at the nurses' station making notes in Johnny's chart.  He flipped it closed when Roy approached.


            "He's doing fine... physically," he began without preamble.  "Dr. Murphy will probably okay him to be released tomorrow or the next day.  He'll need to come by for some follow-ups and in a few days start physical therapy... at least on his left arm."


            Roy waited, knowing there was more the doc wanted to tell him.


            "Frankly, Roy, I'm a little concerned about him going home alone.  With both arms out of commission, and without the ability to communicate..."


            "I've got it covered, Doc," Roy broke in.  "Jo's already got the guest room set up for him.  He can stay with us as long as he needs to.  Johnny knows that.  He's got an open invitation."


            Doctor Brackett looked relieved.  "I'm glad to hear it.  I didn't want to assume, but Johnny's going to need a lot of help... especially at first, plus getting back and forth for physical therapy... and whatever schedule Dr. Wilts may set up."


            "Don't worry.  We'll just work around the kids' school schedules.  The year's almost done anyway. Plus, when I'm off, I can run him around."


            Brackett gave him a pat on shoulder.  "Johnny's got a good friend in you," he stated.


            "It goes both ways, Doc," Roy assured him.  "He's been there plenty of times for us."


            "Dr. Brackett?"


            A deep voice turned them both.  Roy found himself looking up at a tall, lean, well-dressed man in his early fifties.  He carried a file in his left hand.  His right he held extended.


            Dr. Brackett reached to shake the man's hand.  "Dr. Wilts.  It's nice to see you again."  He turned to introduce Roy.  "This is Roy DeSoto."


            Roy held out his hand.  It seemed to him that the doctor hesitated a moment before he returned the gesture, but he chalked it up to his imagination.


            "Nice to meet ya, Doc," he greeted warmly.


            "And you are involved in this case how...?"


            This time Roy was positive there was an arrogant tone in the man's voice, but Brackett stepped in before he could say anything.


            "Roy is Johnny's partner.  They're both paramedics and work out of our base here at Rampart.  It's in the file I sent."


            The new doctor allowed a slight smile to cross his features, but to Roy it seemed forced.


            "Oh yes, another paramedic."


            Roy felt his hackles rise at the definite slur he heard in the word paramedic.  It had been a long time since he'd encountered outright disapproval from a doctor, and it caught him off-guard.  Once again, though, Brackett acted before anything came of it.


            "What's your opinion of our patient?" he inquired, his tone carefully professional.


            The psychiatrist cast a look at Roy before he answered.  "You want to discuss it here?"  The implication was obvious.  He had no desire to talk shop in front of a layman.


            "Roy and his family will be deeply involved in Johnny's care and recuperation," Brackett stated evenly.  "He needs to know what's going on."


            The man shrugged and opened the file.  "I reviewed the circumstances involving his accident... the bungled rescue..."


            "Bungled?"  Roy's voice rose an octave in indignation.  "Bungled?" he repeated.  "Nobody  bungled anything."


            "Roy," Brackett lay a restraining hand on Roy's shoulder.  "I'm sure Dr. Wilts wasn't implying anyone did anything wrong."


            "I'm sorry if I chose the wrong word," the man offered coolly.  "I was just going over the facts as I was given them.  The boy did die, did he not?"


            Roy couldn't trust himself to speak, so he merely nodded curtly.


            "Well, that's all I meant.  The rescue ended badly, no matter who's to blame."


            Maybe it was because the day had started so badly, but Roy felt an intense dislike for this so-called specialist settle into his gut, and he clamped his jaw shut tightly to keep from telling the man what he could do with himself.  He wondered how the hell Brackett thought this jerk could help Johnny.


            "I believe Mr. Gage is suffering from hysterical muteness."  He turned to Roy and explained in a condescending voice.  "A psychological response to a traumatic experience."


            "No shit," Roy murmured under his breath, but Brackett shot him a look that told him he at least had heard him.


            "I'd like to see Mr. Gage," Dr. Wilts continued without pause, though he did give Roy a glance before he added, "Alone."


            "Certainly."  Brackett held out his hand to show his colleague the way.


            Wilts gave Roy one more look, then the two doctors walked down the hall.


            Roy let out a loud breath after they were gone.  He sure hoped that guy was a better doctor than he was a human being.


* * *


             Johnny lay in his bed, his arms supported on both sides by extra pillows.  He wasn't asleep, rather just drifting in and out of different states of awareness.  It was a comfortable feeling.


            After his exertion over lunch, his left arm had started aching some, so he'd been given a mild pain killer - nothing too heavy.  He didn't like the groggy feeling that so often came with the stronger medications.


            His nurse couldn't do enough for him.  He knew Roy didn't understand why he wasn't angry with her, but it was really very simple.  He'd let Brackett be the bad guy and now she thought of Johnny as a kind, forgiving soul, and she was going out of her way to be sure he had everything he needed.  He let a lazy smile play across his features.  He didn't know why married men had so much trouble understanding women.


            There was a tap at his door, and he opened his eyes to find a new visitor - a very well-dressed visitor.  It wasn't his ortho, Dr. Murphy, so he figured it must be the shrink Bracket had told him about.  He sighed.  This wasn't something he was looking forward to.  The man walked in, pulled up a chair and sat near the foot of the bed.


            "Mr. Gage, my name is Dr. Wilts.  Dr. Brackett said he told you I'd be dropping by."


            Johnny nodded and the man gave him a tight smile.  "Before we get started, I'd like to tell you a little about how I work with my patients.  Some of my colleagues are hand holders.  They pat your back and give you Kleenex and encourage you to cry on their shoulders."  He shook his head disparagingly.  "I don't believe that's very productive.  I want my patients to face their problems... own up to them.  The only way to overcome something that's troubling you is to get it out in the open.  Sound good to you?"


            He looked at Johnny expectantly, as if waiting for an answer.  After a moment, Johnny nodded again, not sure what else to do.  He wasn't certain he was going to enjoy sessions with this guy, but if Brackett had faith in him, what else could he do but go along.


            "That's just fine," Dr. Wilts continued, looking at the chart again.  "The first thing I need to know is how much you remember about what happened."  He fixed his gaze on Johnny again.  "Do  you remember the incident?"


            Johnny nodded slowly.  It was the first time anyone had come right out and asked him, and he wasn't sure he wanted to dwell on it.

            "Fine," the doctor murmured.  "That tells us you're not repressing the experience and makes my job much easier.  We both know you dropped the boy, and he died.  Simple, no excuses."


            Johnny frowned at the blunt words.  He knew he'd dropped Peter, but to actually hear someone say it out loud was disconcerting.  This guy made it sound like he'd done it on purpose and it was something he'd have to learn to get over - as if Peter could ever get over being dead.


            The doctor shifted in the hard, plastic chair and re-crossed his legs.  "This is our game plan.  Dr. Brackett tells me you'll be going home in the next day or two.  Once you are, call my office, and we'll set up a schedule of appointments.  I'd like to see you twice a week to start.  We can adjust it once we see where we are."


            He closed the file and stood.  "The main thing to remember here is that you will start talking when you want to badly enough, so it's important that you not rely on other forms of communication.  Don't give in to the temptation to write things down for people.  It's a bad habit to form.  Speaking has to be the only way you can communicate.  That is very important if we're to be successful.  Is that clear?"


            Once more Johnny managed to nod his head.


            The man headed for the door.  "It was nice talking with you, Mr. Gage.  Don't forget to give the office a call and get your appointments set up."  He paused a moment, then an almost smug look appeared on his face.  "How dense of me," he chuckled.  "Of course,  you can't call.  Maybe you can have that other fireman do it for you.  I didn't mean to embarrass you, but perhaps you should consider it incentive."  He gave Johnny a quick smile and left the room.


            Johnny watched him go, wondering at the sudden feeling of depression that washed over him.


* * *


              Rick Dunbar slammed his bedroom door closed and flopped face first onto his bed.  Being fourteen really sucked.  Old enough that you couldn't get away with stuff anymore, but not old enough to do anything important.  Right now, he would have given anything to be able to drive somewhere, anywhere, to get away from here.


            His mother wanted him to go to the funeral, but he'd refused.  They'd gotten into a big fight and his dad had finally ordered him to go get dressed.  Not having much choice, he'd stomped upstairs in forced obedience.


            He didn't understand them.  When Pete had been alive they could never say anything good about him.  His dad considered Pete retarded and Rick's mother was always afraid her son's friend would have a seizure in the middle of her living room.  Rick shook his head in disgust.  How could two educated people be so uninformed?  And now, to act like they cared.  It was all too much for Rick to take.


            He slammed his fist into his pillow.  Why didn't they understand?  Couldn't they see that Pete's funeral was the last place on the entire earth he wanted to be?


            He turned over and stared up at the ceiling.  He recalled the hurt on his mother's face when he'd told her he didn't want to go.  Wasn't Peter his best friend?  Didn't Rick want to honor his memory?  Wouldn't the Bakers be hurt if he didn't show up?


            Rick snorted his disgust.  Of course Pete was his friend.  He was the best buddy a guy could have asked for.  Rick had always been something of a loner.  He wasn't a jock, and while he got okay grades, he didn't fit in with the brainy crowd either.  Then Pete moved into the neighborhood.  Because of his epilepsy, he'd always been an outcast.  The two boys met at the comic book store and had been friends ever since.  With each other to pal around with, all the other things didn't matter so much.  That's why it hurt so bad and why he couldn't go to the funeral.  Did his mom think Mr. and Mrs. Baker would actually want the guy who killed their son to show his face at the church?


            Rick screwed his eyes shut tight.  It would never have happened if he hadn't dared Pete to make the climb.  Rick knew his friend was extra sensitive about appearing a coward.  Of course he would respond to a dare the way he did.


            Why did I do that?  Why was I so stupid?


            Rick turned and buried his head deep into his pillow, trying not to see again in his mind the sight of his friend sitting so scared up on the bridge - the fireman trying to get hold of him - both of them swinging from the rope and then Pete falling - falling like he was in slow motion.


            The rest of it was more confusing.  The policeman had kept him from seeing much after Peter first hit the ground.  He wouldn't let him go to his friend, no matter how much he struggled.  He finally pushed Rick into the back of the squad car where he couldn't see anything except the flurry of activity around the injured fireman.


            After that, it seemed like he'd been forgotten.  No one came to see him - to tell him Pete was dead.  He knew that anyway.  An ambulance came and went.  A big, black station wagon pulled in.  More police showed up, one of them had Pete's parents in the car.


            Rick's mind could still hear Mrs. Baker's screams at what they showed her.  He'd expected her at least to come over and yell at him - to blame him for her son's death.  But she didn't come.  No one did.


            Until, after what seemed like forever, he saw his dad's car pull up.  His father walked over to him slowly, like he was an old man.  He didn't say anything, just motioned for him to come along.  A police officer opened the door, and Rick got out of he car.  His dad never said a word to him the whole drive home.


            It had been like that in his house for the last three days - silent.  And Rick knew it was his fault.  The fight he'd had just now with his mom was the most either of his parents had said to him in all that time.  He figured they were ashamed - didn't know what to say to their son, the killer.  And now they were going to make him go to the funeral and see more people who hated him.


            Rick got up off the bed.  He couldn't go.  He just couldn't.  He wanted Pete to be able to have a nice funeral - to let his family have this time without seeing Rick's face there to remind them.  He moved to the window and slowly opened it.  With a quick glance to the door, he slipped out onto the roof .  It was very easy after that to make his way down the pepper tree and run quickly down the street.


            He wasn't sure where he was going at first.  Then he had a curious thought.  He remembered the fireman.  That guy had risked his own life to try and save Rick's best friend, and had been injured in the attempt.  Rick figured he owed the guy something, even if it was just his thanks.


            He searched his memories of that morning, trying to remember if anyone had mentioned where the fireman had been taken.  Rick had been in the squad car most of the time, but he did remember one of the other firemen talking on that orange radio thing to Rampart.


            Rick smiled.  He knew what Rampart was.  His grandmother had been there last year for an operation on her hip.  It wasn't very far from here.  He could hop the bus easy.


            In a little less than an hour, Rick found himself wandering into the emergency room at Rampart General.  He had no idea how you went about trying to find someone in a hospital, but he knew the fireman was brought here in an ambulance.  Chances were he came through this place first.


            It was a little overwhelming.  Most of the chairs were filled with people in varying degrees of misery.  White clad doctors and nurses swept past him without stopping.  He moved up against a wall out of the way and stood there for some time, wondering what to do next.


            "Are you waiting for someone?" a kind voice inquired.


            Rick turned to see a nurse, blond and just a bit older than his mother.  She was smiling at him.


            "Uh... I was just wondering..."  He paused, trying to find the words to say what he wanted.  "I'm looking for a fireman.  He got hurt the other day trying to help my friend and... well, I wanted to tell him thanks."


            The woman looked thoughtful.  "A fireman, huh?  Do you know his name?"

            Rick shook his head in disappointment.  "Nah.  I never heard what it was."  He suddenly brightened.  "But his truck had number 51 on it.  Does that help any?"

            Now the nurses's eyes grew troubled and Rick wondered if he'd done something wrong.  "Well, I know the young man you're talking about.  Unfortunately, you just missed him.  He checked out a few minutes ago."


            Rick's face fell.  "Oh," he murmured.  "I guess that means he's okay, though?" he asked hopefully.


            "He will be," the woman told him.  "In time, he will be."


            "Good," Rick said softly, wondering why the woman seemed sad.  He made no move to go.  He felt the nurse's hand on his shoulder and lifted his head.  She was smiling at him again.


            "Tell ya what, why don't you write him a note, and I'll make sure he gets it.  Will that be all right?"


            Rick thought it over.  It wasn't what he wanted, but it was better than nothing.  "Sure.  I can do that.  Uh... do you have any paper I could borrow?"


            In short order, he was seated at a small table in a lounge with paper and pen in hand.  He sat there for a few moments chewing on the pen cap, wondering what to say.  Then, he started writing.


 * * *


            Johnny sat in the passenger side of Roy's station wagon, staring morosely out the window at the passing scenery, and trying to figure out when he'd lost control of his life.


            It wasn't that he minded staying at Roy's house for a while.  Even though his first choice would have been to go home, he was realistic enough to know that wasn't very practical, at least until he could use his arms again.  What bothered him was that nobody even thought to ask his opinion.  Brackett, Early, Murphy, and even Roy stood around in his room discussing his release as if he wasn't even there.


            He wanted to scream, yell, stand on his head... anything to make them at least turn around and include him in the conversation.  Hell, he couldn't even throw anything at them.  Even his attentive young nurse had stood there and paid more attention to the doctors than to the patient she'd doted on for the last few days.


            And then they were done.  They had his future all wrapped up for him.  Only then did Roy seem to notice he wasn't very happy.  His partner had quizzed him for several minutes, but without being able to explain it to him, Johnny was left to sit and sulk while everyone busied themselves with his discharge.


            He watched with disinterest as Roy gathered up his uniform pants, shoes and socks.  He didn't see his shirt so he figured it got sacrificed in his initial exam, either by Roy or Brackett, he didn't remember.  Dixie came in with an envelope containing his more personal belongings - his badge and name tag, wallet, keys, loose change - whatever he'd had in his pockets when he'd been brought in.


            Then Roy helped him get dressed in the clothes he'd retrieved from Johnny's apartment.  He flushed scarlet while Roy held out a pair of boxers for him to step into, but his partner was quick and had them settled on his hips in no time.  The pants were no problem, except for the embarrassment of having someone else zip and button them.  The shirt had to just drape over his shoulders, making him glad it was nearly summer, and he didn't have to worry about being cold.


            With a final farewell to Dix and the doctors, Johnny found himself wheeled out the door and loaded into the DeSoto family car.  As they drove away from Rampart, Johnny watched with an empty feeling as the hospital disappeared from sight.


            During the drive, Roy did his best to keep up a one way dialogue, but about half way there he ran out of steam and the rest of the trip was silent.  It was only when they turned onto Roy's street that he spoke again.


            Johnny knew it wasn't easy for his partner to share deep emotion.  Roy kept things inside, went along day after day in his quiet way, keeping most of his feelings to himself.  But Johnny also knew his friend felt things strongly, even if he didn't always express himself.  Now, as Roy talked, Johnny pulled himself out of his self-pitying haze to listen.


            "Johnny," Roy began hesitantly.  "I know this is hard for you.  I can't pretend to really understand how you're feeling right now..."  Roy paused, drummed his fingers against the steering wheel nervously.  "I just want to make things as easy as possible for you.  Don't feel bad or embarrassed about asking for help... from any of us."


            Johnny glanced at Roy, wondering if his partner had any clue as to how much help that offer would entail - at least until his left arm was freed from the harness.  He couldn't eat, drink, dress himself... hell, he could hardly go to the bathroom without help.  He even had to walk carefully since he had no way to keep himself from falling if he was jostled or lost his balance.


            Roy pulled into his driveway and killed the engine.  He turned to face Johnny.


            "It'll be okay, Junior," he promised.  "We'll all get through it together."


            There was such assurance in Roy's voice that, for the first time all day, Johnny felt his spirits lift.  He even managed to smile, the only way he could think of to acknowledge Roy's offer of support.


            Roy got out and came around to open the passenger side.  As he helped Johnny get out of the car, the door to the house flew open and Chris and Jennifer rushed out to greet them.


            "Dad! Uncle Johnny!"


            There was a whirl of hugs and greetings, though it didn't take long for Johnny to realize both kids must have been warned ahead of time to be gentle with him.  Chris hesitated a moment before he settled for a brief arm around Johnny's waist.  Jenny hugged him just as carefully, but wasn't content with just that.  She studied him for a moment, paying particular attention to his arms.


            "Do they both hurt?" she finally asked him.


            Johnny glanced down at his immobilized arms, knowing right away what she wanted.  He wiggled the fingers on his casted arm.


            She understood him at once and took hold of three of his fingers, ready to lead him up the walkway.


            "Go easy, Jen," Roy cautioned as he grabbed Johnny's bag from the back seat.


            "I will, Daddy," Jennifer promised with eight year old solemnity.


            Johnny had to smile at the seriousness with which his favorite little girl undertook her charge.  She guided him slowly, then when they reached the steps, she stopped to be sure he was able to take them on his own.


            I can walk, Jenny Bean, he longed to tell her, the urge to tweak her nose overwhelming.  But he had to settle for squeezing her hand and when she glanced up, flashing her a grateful smile.


            "Mom has your room all ready," she told him knowingly.  "Dad went and got some of your clothes and stuff so it's all here for you... even your underwear."  She giggled a little at that and Johnny couldn't help but join her, surprising himself with the sound that came out of his throat.


            I can still laugh.  Then why can't I talk?


            Joanne chose that moment to join them.  She held the door open, and as he passed, she reached out to embrace him, ending with a playful tousle of his shaggy, dark hair.


            "I'm glad you're here, Johnny," she welcomed.  "Consider this home for as long as you need us."


            Johnny had to swallow the lump in his throat, wondering what he'd ever done to deserve such good friends.


            "Okay, okay," Roy called from behind the traffic jam at the door.  "Let's move this party inside," he laughed.


            The rest of the day went smoothly.  As Jennifer had told him, his things were already here.  He'd stayed in the small guest room a few times before so it didn't feel strange to him.  There were even extra pillows on the bed to help him sleep more comfortably.  It looked like Joanne had outdone herself to make sure he would be at ease.


            He spent most of the afternoon sitting on the deck.  He wanted to be sure and stay out of the way, but here he could watch the kids play in their dough boy pool or on the swing set he and Roy had spent Christmas Eve three years ago putting up.  And Roy and Joanne were in and out enough to visit with him without tripping over him.  He even managed to doze off a little, lulled to sleep by the June sun and the sound of children laughing.


            He jerked awake when Roy placed a hand on his shoulder.


            "Sorry, Johnny.  I didn't mean to startle you.  Jo's got dinner on the table."


            Johnny let out a shaky breath, not wanting to let Roy know he'd been in the middle of another nightmare.  He gave a nod and let Roy help him to his feet.  He followed his partner reluctantly into the dining room, not sure he wanted the kids to witness him having to be fed like a baby.  By the time they reached the table, he was practically dragging his feet.  Roy couldn't help but notice.


            "Don't worry," he said.  "The kids understand that you can't use your hands."


            They may understand, Johnny thought ruefully.  But that's a long way from watching it happen.  With nothing else to do, he sat down at the table.  Jenny took the chair next to him with Chris across and Roy and Joanne on each end.  Chris said a quick grace and then food began to be passed.


            Roy knew Johnny's likes and dislikes well enough that he didn't have to ask what he wanted on his plate.  The pork chops and cheesy potatoes looked delicious, though having Roy cut up his meat took a bit of the edge off his appetite.  He could see Chris trying hard not to watch what his dad was doing.  As Roy speared a piece of meat and held it out for him, Johnny ducked his head in chagrin.


            "Daddy," Jennifer piped up.  "Can I help Uncle Johnny?  I'm right next to him."


            "Jennifer," Joanne cautioned in a firm tone, but Johnny wasn't upset.


            He met Joanne's eyes and shook his head, telling her not to be mad.  He then turned to Jenny and grinned his approval.  Bless you, Jenny.  How could such a little girl be so wise?


            "You sure you're okay with that?" Roy asked, his voice dubious.


            Johnny nodded vigorously.  Somehow it would be easier this way than having Roy do it.  This could be a game, whereas with Roy, there was no getting around what was happening.  Roy handed Johnny's fork over to his daughter, and she set about feeding her favorite uncle with a delight that was hard to ignore.  Soon, what to Johnny had loomed a dreaded ordeal, turned into a lighthearted event.


* * *


            Joanne walked with Johnny down the sixth floor hallway that led to the office of Dr. Brad Wilts.  She could tell already that the man beside her wasn't happy with the prospect of seeing the psychiatrist.  But she really couldn't blame him.  No one liked to admit they had problems they couldn't handle, least of all men like Johnny and Roy, who spent most of their lives helping others.  Joanne was aware of how hard the last few days had been on Johnny.  Having to rely on others for nearly all his personal needs had taken its toll on him, even though that help came from dear friends.  Now he had to have his innermost thoughts and feelings dissected by a total stranger.


            Roy had told Joanne everything that had happened at the bridge with the Baker boy.  She'd seen what losing him had done to Roy, and she could only imagine what Johnny must be going through.  They saw so much tragedy in their jobs, it was a wonder more of them didn't experience these kinds of problems.  She only hoped this doctor held the key to unlock Johnny's silence.


            There were no patients on this floor, for it had been redone several years ago to hold offices for some of the doctors who held privileges at Rampart.  The old nurses station was now an information desk.  Joanne didn't think they'd meet anyone she knew here, though Johnny might be acquainted with some of the doctors.  She was totally surprised to suddenly hear someone call his name excitedly.  She was even more surprised when they turned to see a young, attractive nurse heading their way.


            "Johnny... Johnny Gage, were you going to just walk right on by without even saying hello?" the petite brunette scolded as she met up with them.


            Joanne could almost hear the groan that came from her husband's partner, and she could have sworn he sidled up closer to her, as if asking for her help.  But the young woman was oblivious to his body language.  She put on a little pout as she reached out to lay a hand on his chest.


            "I heard you were hurt."  She gave him a once over that was more than mere clinical interest.  "Poor baby."  She cast a look at Joanne, obviously waiting to be introduced.  When that didn't happen, she jumped right in.  "Who's your friend?"  Her voice was now not quite so perky and Joanne knew she was waiting to find out if she had reason to be jealous.  Obviously she was the girl Roy had called Johnny's "new nurse of the week."


            Joanne wracked her brains, trying to come up this girl's name.  Was it Janine... Janice...?  She knew she had never met her, though from what Roy reported, Johnny had wanted to end the relationship a few weeks ago.  It appeared that, true to their young friend's nature, he hadn't been able to communicate his intentions very well to the young woman in question.  Joanne knew guessing the wrong name would be worse than not knowing it at all, so she gave up and held out her hand cordially.


            "Hi.  I'm Joanne DeSoto."  Joanne had just enough mischief in her soul to wait a beat or two before she added, "I'm Roy's know, Johnny's partner?  And you are?"


            "Jeannie," she supplied, then her face brightened.  "Ohhhh, Sure... Johnny's talked about Roy..."


            The fact that she left Joanne's name off was no accident, Joanne was sure of that.  She decided she didn't like this girl very much.  She also wondered, not for the first time, why Johnny wasted his time with this kind, only to question why the relationships never lasted.


            "Gee, Johnny," Jeannie was continuing to fondle him, ignoring Joanne now that she was no threat.  "I have a few days off... why don't you come home with me... let me take care of you..."


            Joanne might have laughed if Johnny hadn't looked so miserable.  She took pity on him and stepped in.


            "Johnny's staying with us for a while," she informed her sweetly.


            "Well, Johnny's a big boy," the woman stated with a suggestive smile Joanne didn't even want to know about.  "He can decide for himself."  She turned her smile on Johnny, confident of the outcome.  "C'mon, Johnny," Jeannie prodded, a little less confident.  "Tell her you want to stay with me."


            Johnny stared at her helplessly, then over at Joanne in a silent plea.  Joanne couldn't let him suffer anymore.


            "Johnny's got a really bad case of laryngitis, so he can't talk right now," she explained.  She reached up and removed the woman's hand from him.  "The doctor says he needs complete rest and quiet.  Since he's already set up with us, it would be too much strain on him to move."  She cast an obvious glance at her watch.  "Gee, we're late for his doctor's appointment.  We have to run now.  It was really nice meeting you, Jeannie."


            Joanne smiled, waved her hand and led Johnny down the hall.  She only hoped the nurse was too indignant to realize whose office they were headed for.  She almost laughed at the look on the woman's face, until she looked at Johnny.  His head was down, and she could see he was highly embarrassed.  She wisely remained silent.


            They reached the door and she held it open for him.  He stood there a moment, the working of his jaw telling her just how keyed up he was.  She took hold of his right fingers and squeezed lightly.


            "I'll be right here when you're done," she reminded him, indicating the small waiting room.


            The slight smile he returned was such a faint echo of his usual exuberant grin that Joanne's heart ached for him.  Before she could say anything else, he extricated his fingers and walked into the office.


* * *


            "Good afternoon, Mr. Gage.  Won't you be seated?"


            Johnny glanced around for a comfortable place to sit, but found only the one straight-backed chair on the opposite side of Wilts' desk.  With no other choice, he carefully lowered himself down.  The doctor reseated himself in his own, cushy looking desk chair and started in at once.


            "Now, Mr. Gage, we have a lot of work ahead of us, and I believe in pitching right in.  No sense wasting a lot of time on small talk."


            Johnny blinked, wondering if the man was even aware of what he'd said.  Probably not, judging from the way he was acting.


            Wilts opened up Johnny's file, then pulled several pictures out from a manila envelope that was stuck inside.  He stared at the photos for a time, then set them aside.  He folded his hand together and placed them on his desk, then launched into a 15 minutes lecture on the many different causes of hysterical muteness.


            Johnny listened politely, though more than a little bored.  For a guy who doesn't want to waste time, you're sure doing a heck of a job.  He tried harder to pay attention when it seemed the doctor was at last coming to something that pertained to Johnny.


            "Now, assuming that your muteness is because of something you did or saw, then you, and you alone, will have to effect the cure.  I can only facilitate your recovery.  If you remember what I told you in your hospital room, you are the one who will determine when you talk again.  No one else.  You have to want to talk.  Talking has to be your number one priority.  I can't stress enough how important it is not to use any other means of communicating, especially writing.  That one is far too easy to give into, but I warn you... if you do, you may very well endanger your ability to fully recover.  Do I make myself perfectly clear?"


            Johnny nodded once, feeling very much like a truant in the principal's office.


            "Good.  As long as we're both working towards the same goal, we'll make progress."  He glanced at the file again.  "Now, we need to talk about the accident.  That is most likely what caused your problem... when you dropped the boy."


            Johnny flinched at his casual use of the word dropped.  He made it sound like they were discussing his grandmother's favorite vase.


            The doctor noticed his reaction and paused.  He studied Johnny intently.  "Is there a problem with that, Mr. Gage?  Isn't that how it happened?  You dropped him and he fell... " He paused and consulted his file again.  "Ah, yes, he fell some 200 feet to his death."  He leaned back in his chair.  "Do you accept the blame for this?"


            Johnny shifted uneasily.  So far the rescue and its tragic results occupied a small place in his mind - lurking there, but not pestering him to probe the memory too deeply.  He knew the facts - knew his part - that was as far as he'd ever gone.  The only thing that had brought the events to the front of his mind had been the short note Dixie had delivered to him yesterday.  It was from Pete's friend and Johnny had it memorized.


            To the fireman on the bridge,

I just want to say thanks for all you did to try and save Pete.  He was my best friend and I'm sorry you got hurt.  Pete was a good guy.  He deserved a better friend than me.  I thought you should know that.




            It was a strange message.  Johnny had vague memories of the other boy at the scene, but he couldn't put a face to him.  It sounded like the kid was mixed up about a lot of things, but he supposed losing your best friend would do that to a person.  Wilts voice interrupted his musing.


            "I want you to think about it," Wilts was saying again.  "This is the key.  Until you face up to what you did... to the mistake you made that cost a young boy his life, we won't get anywhere.  You have to think about it... relive it until you know every little detail.  Think about it..."


            Johnny closed his eyes, trying to do what the doctor asked.


            Think about it... think about it... The mistake I made... the mistake I made...


            He could see it... it played out in his mind like watching a movie.  He was there, but he was detached... like he was watching it happen to someone else...


            Johnny was straddling the concrete bracing, scooting closer and closer to the frightened boy.  He could feel the wind blowing through his hair... he had the life belt in his hand... was so close now...  He could hear Peter's rapid breathing... hyperventilating with fear.  He could hear the boy's terrified voice...


            Stay away from me... you'll make me fall.


            He spoke, trying to calm the youngster.


            Peter, just take it easy.  I want you to stay calm.


            I can't let go.  You don't understand... I'm gonna fall.


            The boy was sobbing with fear now and still Johnny scooted closer, trying to get to him and secure him before he began to seize.


            It's gonna be all right.  It's gonna be fine.


            The soothing words came easily... smoothly.  He believed them.  Hadn't he done this kind of thing hundreds of times?  All he had to do was get the belt on the kid.  He moved closer and closer, could hear the slight rhythm to the boy's sobs now... was afraid of what that might mean.


            See, I'm gonna get ya down real easy.  I've got a belt here...


            That's when the boy lost it.  Johnny had no choice but to grab him with both arms and try and restrain him.  He tried again to calm him, but it was too late.  He did what he always did in a time of crisis - he turned to Roy for help.  He remembered calling out, like there was anything his partner could do to save him from this disaster.


            Roy, he's gone into a seizure!


            And then they'd gone over the side.  For an instant, Johnny thought they were both dead, but the jerk of his lifeline told him differently.  They had a chance... they might just make it...


            Johnny opened his eyes.  He could feel his heart racing.  His fingers were clenched tightly, and he tried to slow his rapid breathing.


            From across the desk, Dr. Wilts sat watching him, his face expressionless.  "I can see you remember it," he said evenly, "But do you accept it?  Do you accept what you did?"


            What did I do?  I did what I had to... didn't I?  Cap said to go get him... he was gonna seize before the snorkel could get there.  Should we have waited?  Did I move too fast?  I know he was scared... but I was sure I could get the belt on him.


            Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder.  He glanced up to find Dr. Wilts beside him, a smile on his face.


            "You seem troubled.  That's good, actually."


            Johnny gave him a curious look and Wilts chuckled.


            "I know that may sound strange, but unless we bring up troubling issues, you won't be able to deal with them."  He patted Johnny's shoulder.  "But don't worry too much.  If you don't think you can handle it on your own, I can always prescribe something to help you cope.  Many of my patients find it beneficial."


            Johnny shook his head.  No drugs. I don't wanna be doped up.


            Wilts' smile faded a bit.  "Really, Mr. Gage, I think I have just a bit more medical knowledge than you do, even if you are a para-medic."


            Johnny just continued to shake his head. I don't need pills, Doc, I need to talk.  You think Valium's gonna make my voice work?


            Now Wilts was definitely not happy.  "We'll wait and see," he stated.  He stuck the script in Johnny's file and glanced at his watch.  "Time is up for today, Mr. Gage.  I think we've laid some groundwork.  You keep thinking about this until your next appointment."


            It was a dismissal.  Johnny got awkwardly to his feet, without any offer of help from the doctor.  He didn't care.  He was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to worry about a lack of concern from someone else.  His mind was still working over what had happened in Wilts' office, his actions on the bridge, trying to figure out what he did wrong and why the boy fell.  As he walked out the door, he didn't even notice Joanne getting up from her chair.


* * *


            "Johnny!  Johnny, wait!"


            Joanne rushed after him, but as she stepped into the hall she could see he hadn't gone far.  He was leaning against a wall, scowling darkly.  He seemed okay for now, and she was concerned about  what had happened to upset him.  She knew he couldn't answer her, so she turned to the only person who could.


            She walked back into the psychiatrist's office and saw Dr. Wilts conferring with his secretary.  He glanced up as she approached, and she could see he didn't know who she was.


            "May I help you?" he inquired blandly.


            "I'm Joanne DeSoto," she introduced herself.  He still didn't seem able to place her, so she continued.  "My husband is Johnny... Mr. Gage's partner.  I brought him here today."


            The doctor's eyebrows lifted as he put the pieces together.  "Ah, yes... the fireman's wife."


            Joanne could almost feel the aspersion put into the word "fireman," but she squelched  her own reaction in order to find out what she needed.


            "I was just wondering... well, Johnny seems very upset, and I..."


            "Mrs. DeSoto," Dr. Wilts interrupted smoothly.  "Before you go any further, you need to understand first of all, I do not discuss a patient's care with non-family members."


            Joanne felt her anger rising in her throat.  "You need to understand, Doctor, that Roy and I are Johnny's family.  He has no one else nearby.  And I just wanted to know what's going on with him... so we know how to help him."


            Dr. Wilts' face took on an impatient look that further infuriated Joanne.  "The courts do not have a definition for being like a family member.  Furthermore, my treatment methods are far too complex for a fireman, or his wife, to understand."  He paused for a moment, then his face changed and he was suddenly smiling at her.  He reached into a file and pulled out a prescription.


            "Of course, if you really want to be helpful, you can get this filled.  Mr. Gage forgot to take it with him."


            Joanne took the paper and looked at it.  "Does Johnny really need medication?" she asked dubiously.


            Wilts' irritation returned.  "Mrs. DeSoto, are you going to question my medical judgment?  I think I am better qualified to judge what Mr. Gage needs to work through his problems.  No one can help him... except myself, of course.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have another appointment."


            With that, he walked away, leaving Joanne to stare open-mouthed after him.  When she finally recovered enough to move, she darted a glance at the secretary.  The woman shrugged an oblique apology.  Too outraged to trust herself to say anything, she simply shoved the prescription into her purse and walked out the door.


            She stopped before she went very far.  She had to calm herself down before she joined Johnny.  Her mind recalled something Roy had said about the doctor's lack of tact, but now she realized he'd grossly understated it.  The man was horrid.  She didn't know what kind of psychiatrist he was, but, judging from Johnny's demeanor, she didn't have much faith in his ability in that regard either.  She wondered how they were going to get through the next few weeks.


            She took a deep, cleansing breath, hoping it worked better at calming her agitation than it ever did in taking away the pain of labor.  She repeated it, feeling a little more in control, then walked over to where Johnny still stood.


            She stopped when she reached his side.  He was staring down at the floor, his face dark and unreadable and hadn't seemed to notice her arrival.  She glanced back down the hall and wondered if each visit here would result in this much turmoil.  She certainly hoped not, or she'd be joining Johnny in his therapy sessions.


            The image of both of them on twin couches dispelled her mood and she reached out to touch Johnny's hand.  He finally lifted his head and let his eyes meet hers.  She dug down and found a warm smile to give him.


* * *


            Roy lay next to Joanne, his hand running absently up and down her arm.  The bruising in his ribs had finally healed completely, and he could lie on his side without any complaint.  The night was warm and a soft breeze breathed in through the open window.  He liked this time of night, when the house was quiet, the kids were safe and asleep in their rooms.  This was his and Jo's time - when they could talk about things that mattered, or things that didn't - when they could make love or just lie here together, content in each other's company.


            This past few weeks had been hectic.  Johnny had settled into the guest room, and his rounds of doctor visits and therapy sessions had kept them hopping.  Joanne had done most of the chauffeuring, but Roy's schedule had allowed him to take over a couple of times.


            It seemed strange to have Johnny here, but not to hear him.  Even though Roy thought the world of his partner, the younger man's mouth had a tendency to run away with him.  Johnny chattered when he was happy, ranted when he was angry and absolutely babbled when he was nervous or unsure of himself.  Roy had actually thanked the sore throat gods the few times Johnny had developed laryngitis.  A few hours respite was welcome.  Day after day of this enforced silence though was unnerving.


            Things seemed to be going along all right.  His family had adjusted their routine without a problem.  Chris and Jenny were ecstatic to have Uncle Johnny here on an extended basis and talked to him freely, without any hint of self-consciousness.  Jenny especially would sit and have lengthy, one-way conversations with her captive audience until Roy or Joanne would get after her to stop pestering him.  Johnny himself never seemed to mind.  In fact, he seemed more up when she was keeping him occupied.


            Most of the time, Johnny did his best to stay out of their way.  He'd sit outside on the deck watching the kids play or stay in his room watching the small TV they'd put in there for him.  At first, he hadn't been able to do much, but once he finally got the harness off, freeing at least one arm, his spirits raised some, allowing him to take care of himself more and even help Joanne out a bit around the house.  But though Roy didn't think there was anything to be concerned about, Joanne was worried.


            She'd told him this evening that Johnny seemed down.  When he'd first arrived, though he didn't talk, he at least would laugh with the kids.  That had stopped.  His appetite was off, and he stayed to himself more.  Joanne was certain Johnny was having nightmares.  He didn't look like he was sleeping well, and two nights ago she'd gotten up with Jenny and could hear him moaning in his sleep.  She also felt he was worse after his sessions with Dr. Wilts.  Jo didn't care for the man at all.  Roy agreed with her there, but he'd had a long talk with Dr. Brackett, who'd assured him again of the man's credentials.


            Roy took his wife's opinions seriously.  Jo was an incredible observer and usually picked up on people's behaviors much quicker than he did.  And because he'd gone back to work, she'd been around Johnny more than he had.  But though he trusted her judgment, he wasn't sure what to do about it.


            "Can't sleep, huh?" came Joanne's drowsy voice.  She reached up and lay a hand over his.


            Roy sighed.  "Just thinking too much, I guess."


            She propped herself up on one elbow so she could see his face.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart.  I shouldn't have dumped so much on you this late at night."


            He gave her a smile and reached up to tuck a stray strand of dark hair behind her ear.  "It's not your fault.  I'm glad you told me.  I'm just trying to figure out what the next step is."


            "Well, if it was any doctor but the high and mighty Dr. Wilts, I'd say we should have a talk with him... let him know what we think."


            Roy chuckled in sympathy.  He'd only had the one encounter with the psychiatrist, but it had left a bad taste in his mouth.  Joanne had had more interaction with him, and he didn't envy her that.


            "Don't laugh, Roy," she scolded.  "The man's impossible!"  Her pretty face scowled darkly.  "I know some doctors are naturally better at people skills... but you'd think a psychiatrist would be one of them.  Isn't that their job... working with people?"


            Roy shrugged.  He couldn't argue, since he agreed with her.  All he could do was fall back on what he'd been told.  "Brackett keeps telling me Wilts gets results.  That's what matters in the long run... not whether we like the guy, but if he can help Johnny."


            Joanne lay back on her pillow, still not convinced.  "Johnny doesn't like him either."


            Now it was Roy's turn to prop himself up.  "How do you know that?" he asked curiously.


            Joanne was quiet a moment.  "I don't know how to pin it down exactly," she finally said thoughtfully.  "He just gets... tense, I guess.  He's not like that when we're just going in to see Hal for PT... and that hurts him... a lot.  It's like he can handle the pain, no problem, but just the thought of seeing Wilts... it's like he pulls inside himself and won't let anybody in."


            Roy knew she was probably right, but he still felt they had to trust Brackett on this.  "Maybe he doesn't like it because Wilts is making him remember the accident.  It's probably upsetting for him.  I mean, that's the whole reason he's not talking, isn't it?"


            "I don't know, Roy," Joanne sighed.  "It's just frustrating not to be able to do anything to help him.  Do you think he might need those pills Wilts prescribed?"


            "No!"  Roy's reaction was automatic.  He knew he was being stubborn about this, but he felt as strongly about it as the day Joanne had first shown him the prescription Wilts had given her to fill.  He had nothing against the responsible use of drug therapy.  As a paramedic he had seen first hand the many therapeutic uses of medications.  But he'd also seen too much mis-use and abuse.  He didn't pretend to be a psychiatrist, but he was positive Johnny didn't need to be put on a drug regime.  He just didn't think they'd reached that point yet.


            He met Joanne's eyes and smiled sheepishly.


            "Sorry, Jo, I just don't think that's the way we need to go."  What he hadn't told Joanne was how strongly Johnny had reacted when Roy asked him about the prescription.  Although his partner couldn't tell him exactly what the problem was, Roy didn't have any trouble figuring out that Johnny didn't want to take the pills, and his behavior thus far hadn't given Roy cause to push the issue.


            He reached out, and Joanne came into his arms, pillowing her head on his chest.  One of the things he loved about her was her concern for those she loved and that had long ago encompassed his partner.  She liked all the guys on their shift, but Johnny she'd drawn into their family circle.


            "All we can do is hang in there with him," Roy soothed, as he held her close.  "We hafta have faith that Johnny can pull himself outta this."


            Joanne reached up and kissed him tenderly, then rolled over onto her side, pulling his arm with her.  He took the hint and spooned up against her, falling asleep with the fresh scent of her hair in his nostrils.


* * *


            It was a nightmare – he knew it, even as it unfolded.  He had them so often now that he recognized them as they were happening.  But that didn't take away the terror - make it any less frightening.  In fact, his awareness only made it worse, for he couldn't help but wonder if there would come a time he wouldn't wake up - that the dream would take over and become his reality.


            It wasn't always the same dream.  Each night it would change - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  Tonight, he was walking down a long, dark alley.  The wind whipped at his hair and clothes, making it hard to make any progress.


            He had to get to the end - to the glowing patch of yellow that waited for him there.  He could see it - so bright it almost glowed.  It pulled at him, drawing him on relentlessly.  He didn't want to see it, but he had no choice.  He had no will of his own.  His body moved of its own volition, struggling to take him to a place he had no desire to go.


            On and on he trudged.  His legs were like lead - each step growing harder and harder.  The wind screamed at him now, trying to hold him back, but he had to keep going.


            As he grew slowly closer to the end of the alley, the yellow began to take shape.  It was a blanket - like the ones they used in rescues.  It covered something - something he didn't want to see.  As he reached it at last, he stood and stared down at it.


            Suddenly, in the middle of the yellow, a patch of red appeared.  It grew slowly, spreading until it reached the edges of the blanket.  Johnny glanced down and could see the stream of red seeping out from under the blanket, reaching out towards his feet.


            He tried to step back, but he couldn't move.  He was frozen in place, forced to watch the crimson river as it crept closer and closer to him.  He didn't want it to touch him - knew if it touched him he would die.


            He tried with all his strength to lift his foot - to move it out of danger, but he had no power over his own body.  He began shaking his head, slowly at first, then more violently.  He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing would come - nothing at all.


            With one more colossal pull, his leg abruptly came free, sending him tumbling backwards...


            It took Johnny only a moment to realize he'd fallen out of bed.  He found himself tangled in his sheet.  His must have jarred his left shoulder somehow, for it ached a little and the back of his head was slightly sore from where he probably hit it on the edge of the desk.  He lay where he was, still trembling from the dream.


            It's over... it's over and you're still here.  You got through it again.


            "Johnny? You okay?"


            The hall light flicked on, and he could see Roy's silhouette in the doorway.  He squinted in the brightness of the light as his friend came into the room and squatted next to him.


            "It's all right, kids.  Go back to bed now."  Joanne's voice faded as she shooed Chris and Jenny back to their rooms.


            Damn, I woke up the whole house.  No wonder you hafta see a shrink, Gage, you can't even handle a stupid bad dream.


            He shifted, trying to free his legs of the sheet and sit upright.  He felt Roy's hands helping him.


            "C'mon, let's get you back to bed."


            A surge of anger shot through him at the parental tone in his partner's voice.  Roy hadn't done anything wrong, but Johnny suddenly felt smothered.  He jerked away from his friend's touch and managed to get himself perched on the edge of the bed.  He sat there for a moment, breathing heavily, and as suddenly as it had come, his anger left him.  His shoulders sagged, and he slowly lifted his head, afraid to meet Roy's eyes.


            I'm sorry, Roy...  please know that I'm sorry. I can't do anything right anymore.  That damn house... Peter... Please don't be mad at me, Roy.


            But Roy wasn't angry.  The only emotion Johnny could read on his partner's face was concern.  Roy got up from the floor and joined him on the edge of the bed.  He didn't say anything for a long time.  His hands rested on his knees, palms up, and Johnny watched him curiously as he flexed his fingers open and shut several times.  When Roy spoke at last, it was in a very quiet voice.


            "I wanna help you, Johnny, but I don't know how.  Joanne says you've been having these nightmares.  Maybe if you could tell me..."  He shifted so that Johnny could see the intensity in his blue eyes.  "If you could just find a way to tell me."


            Johnny felt his throat constrict and was suddenly afraid he was going to cry.


            I wanna tell ya, Roy... God, I wanna tell you so bad.


            He hadn't realized before just how much he needed to tell Roy.  But he couldn't.  Dr. Wilts kept drumming into his head that he just had to want to talk badly enough, but Johnny wasn't sure he believed him.  If what he said were true, then he and Roy would be talking up a blue streak right now.


            Roy suddenly brightened.  He leaned over and snatched paper and pen off the desk.  "Can you write about the dreams?" he asked hopefully.  "I know it's your left hand and all, but maybe it would help if you..."


            Johnny shook his head several times, trying to get Roy to forget that idea.


            No, I can't.  I can't do that.


            "But why not?" Roy argued and held out the items for Johnny to take.  "It's a start."


            Johnny pushed Roy's hand away as if what it held would burn him and scooted up to the head of the bed.


            Don't, Roy.  If I write it down, I won't get better.  Don't make me do that.


            "Johnny..."  Roy stared at him, obviously baffled at his reaction.


            "It's Wilts," came Joanne's voice from the doorway.


            Johnny glanced up, grateful for her return.


            "What are you talking about?" Roy asked in confusion.


            "Wilts told me in no uncertain terms that Johnny wasn't supposed to write anything for us."  Her tone was flat and Johnny couldn't tell if she was mad.  Roy, however, was easy to read.  He was absolutely dumbfounded.


            "But that's.... but..." Roy stammered.  "That's ridiculous!" he finally blurted out.


            "That's Wilts," Joanne concluded.  Johnny got the definite feeling she'd just proven a point, but he wasn't sure quite what.


            "Why didn't you tell me?" Roy demanded, an edge to his voice that made Johnny cringe.


            God, now Roy's mad, and they're gonna fight.  Please don't fight because of me.


            "Because I didn't agree with him," Joanne explained, her tone even.


            He watched the looks they exchanged, then jumped when he felt Roy's hand on his knee.


            "I'm sorry," he said simply.  "I didn't mean to upset you.  I didn't know you weren't..."


            Johnny shook his head to stop his friend's apology.  This was the last thing he wanted to have happen.


            It's my fault... I'm sorry for messin' everything up.  Don't be mad at Jo.


            He grabbed Roy's hand, squeezed it tightly, then pointed to Joanne, hoping Roy understood what he wanted.


            Roy glanced at his wife, then back at Johnny, his face unsure.  "I don't know what..."


            Johnny blew out a snort. Geeze, Pally, are you dense?


            He shoved Roy's shoulder with just enough force that his friend stood up off the bed.  Johnny pointed at Joanne, who by this time was laughing softly.  She walked over and took Roy's hand.


            "Well, I don't need a translation," she said and reached up to kiss Roy's cheek.  "I'm sorry.  I don't want to fight."


             Roy's fair face blushed red as he returned her kiss.  "I'm sorry, too."  He turned back to Johnny.  "Everything okay now?" he asked with a smile.


            Johnny smiled slightly and made a shooing motion with his hand.  They took the hint and left his room.  He breathed out shakily and lay back against the pillow.  A glance at the clock told him it was 4:15.  He didn't think he'd be getting much more sleep tonight.


* * *


            Rick walked down the street, hands shoved into his pockets, with no particular destination in mind.  He'd cut class - again.  It was finals week, but Rick didn't care.  His dad had already told him he'd have to go to summer school, so why bother with this last week of school?  Not that Rick was concerned about summer school either.  He'd just cut those classes, too.


            The shops that lined the old street were barely hanging on, their customers lost to the new mall built several miles away.  None of the owners were going to lose out on a possible sale by turning in the shuffling teenager.  They merely kept a wary eye on him in case he had other things on his mind besides spending money.


            He'd wandered into a couple of places - the old comic book store, the dingy bakery with its display of donuts that had been stale for hours - but he wasn't really interested in buying anything.  When he passed by the pawnshop, however, he stopped and stared into the barred windows.  On one shelf Rick could see about a dozen knives and beyond that several hand guns.


            They piqued his interest for a time, but he soon dismissed the idea.  He doubted the man would ever sell a gun to somebody his age, and even if he did, that wasn't the way Rick wanted to do it.  He had to pay for what he did to Pete, but that wasn't the way.  He moved on, headed over to the park where he would hang out until it was time to go home.


            Once there, he found a table under the shade of a tree and plopped down.  He dug through his backpack and pulled out the candy bar he's stashed there.  He also found his algebra notebook.  Most of the paper in it was blank.  He hadn't felt much like taking notes.


            He took a big bite out of the Snickers and then had an idea.  He reached back into his pack and found a pen.  He stared at the blank paper a moment.  This was probably dumb, but he felt sort of connected to that fireman.  He didn't know why.  Maybe because he'd been with Pete when he'd died.


            Dear Fireman,

            That's a dumb way to start a letter, he thought, shaking his head.  But the nurse had never told him the guy's name.

I don't know why I'm writing to you again.  I don't mean to bother you.  I just wanted to say thanks again for helping Pete.  The nurse at Rampart told me you were a paramedic and that you help people when they're hurt or sick.  That sounds like a great job.  I wish I could have helped Pete.  But I didn't.  I killed him.  He was my best friend and I made him climb that bridge.  That's not a very good friend, is it?

I've been trying to figure out how I can make that up to Pete.  I know he's dead, but I can't help feeling like I should do something to make it even.  I'm working on that.  Maybe I'll write to you again and let you know when I come up with something.

            Thanks for listening,



            He folded it over, feeling a bit better for having written it.  Now the question was how to get it where it was supposed to go.  Rick didn't want to go back to the hospital.  That nurse might wonder why he was sending more letters to a man he didn't know.  No, he would have to get it to the fire station.  He was pretty sure the guy's friends would take his mail to him.


            Another thought occurred to Rick.  How was going to address this?  He couldn't very well just write The Fireman on the Bridge.  He wracked his brain for a minute, then suddenly remembered all the newspaper articles he's seen about Pete's death.  He wondered if somewhere in one them, he might find mention of the injured fireman's name.


            He hopped on the bus and headed for the library.  It took him over an hour to comb through all the back issues of the paper.  He wondered if his Freshman English teacher could ever have imagined all those lessons on doing research for term papers would be put to this kind of use.  His efforts were at last rewarded when he found an entire article about the dangers of rescue work.  There he found the name he was looking for.  He pulled out his letter and crossed off Dear Fireman.  Above it, he wrote very neatly, Dear Mr. Gage.


            With a feeling of accomplishment, Rick set off to the nearest post office.  There he spent the last of his allowance on a pack of envelopes and some stamps.  He had to ask the clerk to help him find the address for station 51, but he finally was able to send his letter.


            As he walked out of the small building, he felt a lot better.


 * * *


            Roy walked into the day room and greeted Mike and Marco who were already sitting at the table sipping their first rounds of coffee for the day.  He poured himself a mug and joined them.  It was about ten minutes until roll call and both rigs were still out with C shift anyway.  It could be a while before they had to go out on a run.


            Chet came in tucking in his shirt, his badge in his hand.


            "Hey, guys, you'll never guess where I found it this time."  He noticed Roy and switched gears.  "How's Gage doing?"


            It was the same at the start of every shift.  Chet was always the first to inquire about Johnny.  Those two had the oddest relationship.  If Johnny were here, they'd be at each other all day long about something stupid, but whenever Johnny was hurt or sick, Chet was first in line to worry about him.  Well, second in line, he had to admit.  Worrying about Johnny had become a fine art for Roy.


            "Pretty much the same."  He addressed everyone, knowing the rest of the guys were just as interested.  "He seems kinda depressed," he continued as Chet sat down beside him.  "He's been having some pretty rough nights... bad dreams, ya know."


            "I've had some of those myself," Marco admitted with a shake of his head.  "Watchin' that kid fall..."  He left the rest unsaid.  All three of them had witnessed the boy's gruesome death and hadn't been able to do a thing but stand there while it happened.


            "Is there any way we can help?" Mike asked after a moment of awkward silence.


            "Yeah, Roy," Marco echoed.  "We want to do something."


            Roy shrugged helplessly.  "I dunno.  I'm still trying to think of something I can do.  We're kinda out of our depth here."


            Chet was finished fiddling with his badge.  He shook his curly head.  "Man, it's just so weird.  I mean, Gage without a voice.  It's just not natural.  Maybe if the Phantom visited him..."


            "Chet!"  Roy's voice was loud and firm.  "Don't even think about it."


            The stocky firefighter's face took on a hurt look.  "Hey, the Phantom would never hit Gage while he's down.  There's no fun for him in that.  I just meant maybe he needs some diversion... something to cheer him up."


            "Cheer who up?" Cap asked as he strolled in to join his men, his hands filled with the mail that had arrived the day before.  He was followed by Rod Hoskins, Roy's temporary partner.


            "Johnny," Roy answered bleakly.  "He's not making much progress."


            Cap turned a chair around and straddled it.  "What's his doctor say?" he inquired.


            It took all Roy's control to keep from rolling his eyes.  "Not much," he answered in a neutral voice, but couldn't help adding, "He doesn't offer a whole lot of information."


            "Would Johnny like some company?" Marco asked.  "We've held off... trying to give him some space, but maybe we could come over..."


            "Hey," Chet interrupted excitedly.  "You got it, buddy.  We could have a barbecue, you know, burgers, dogs, the whole thing.  Johnny loves that kinda stuff."


            "We'd take care of everything, Roy," Mike offered.  "You and Joanne wouldn't have to put it all together."


            "Whaddya think, Roy?" Cap asked.  "That sound like something he could handle?"


            "I don't know," Roy hedged.  He didn't think Johnny would be comfortable with a big shindig, but the guys were so eager to help, he didn't want to shoot them down.  "I guess it can't hurt to ask him."


            "Why don't you check with his doctor?" Hoskins put in.  He wasn't a real part of this shift, but he knew Gage and was interested in the whole situation.


            "Good idea," Cap agreed.  "How 'bout it, Roy?  Ask the doc if he thinks it would help.  Let us know if it's a go."


            Roy found himself nodding, even though the last thing he wanted to do was to seek out Dr. Wilts and try and have a conversation with him.


            "Great," Cap stated, as if it was all settled and done.  He slapped his hands on the table.  "Since that's all settled, maybe I can interest you gentlemen in going to work today.  There's still plenty to do until C shift gets back."


            As they got up to start the day, Cap handed Roy an envelope.


            "This came for Johnny yesterday," he said.


            "Is it from a chick?" Chet asked, butting into their conversation.


            Cap gave him a disgusted look.  "Now how would I know that, Kelly?"


            "C'mon, man, you smell it," the Irishman explained as if they were both dense.


            Roy took a tentative sniff and shook his head.  "Nope.  Just a plain ol' letter," he informed Chet, smiling at the disappointment on Kelly's face.


            As Chet walked away, muttering to himself about Gage needing to get back in circulation, Roy studied the writing on the front of the envelope.  It looked like the way Chris wrote sometimes, a cross between handwriting and printing.


            Wondering who it might be from, Roy stuck it in his locker.  He'd take it home at the end of their shift.



Part 2