Disclaimer: The characters of Emergency! belong to Mark VII
Productions and Universal Studios.
Thanks Peggy and Donna for giving it the once over. Always appreciated!
Summary: "Night and Day" come together and find they're more alike than even they might have thought.
More Alike than Unalike
By Susan Proto (STPteacher2@netscape.net)
It was a lousy run.
The fire started in the mini shopping center, in the kitchen of the Chinese take-out place. It spread quickly, first to the stationary store on its right and then to the record shop on its left. But it was what was on the end of the center that caught us all by surprise.
The Little Apple Tree Preschool.
Chet and Marco worked as hard as I've ever seen them as they hosed down the entrance for Roy and Johnny. They managed to get seventeen of the children out and three of the teachers. That was amazing, given how hot the fire was. It was the two teachers and six children that they couldn't get out alive that stayed on everyone's mind.
After the cleanup detail we practically crawled back into the station, and now we're just sitting in the kitchen drinking our coffee and trying to get our bearings. The voices are kept to practically a whisper at the moment, but I know this will change within the next fifteen minutes or so. I'm ready for it, but I don't know if anyone else is.
This was a tough one, and we're all going to need some extra time to work through it. Some of us will need some extra slack, but I don't know if the rest of the guys will be up to granting it. I hope so. I hope so for all of our sakes.
"Roy, there's got to be something done about the fire safety standards for private nursery schools. You know that's true!"
"Yeah, Johnny, you know you're preaching to the choir here, don't you?"
I watch the two men walk in; well, Roy walks in, while Johnny practically explodes into the kitchen. I notice Chet look up with disdain; his quiet time to decompress has been summarily taken away from him, and I think he's more ticked off than usual. I notice that even Marco, normally so even tempered, wears an expression of mild annoyance.
"Can't you hold it down for just once in your life, Gage?" asks Chet.
"Oh, cripes, what's your problem?" retorts Johnny.
"It was nice and quiet in here just two minutes ago, and then you walk in shooting your mouth off!" he responds, and then Chet turns and asks Roy, "How the hell do you stand it?"
"I'm used to it."
"Used to it?" Johnny practically squeaks in exasperation. "What do you mean used to it? Used to what?"
"Your constant droning on, and on, and on over utter and complete nonsense," explains Chet.
"It's not nonsense, damn it! It's important," Johnny insists. "Those kids shouldn't have died, and they wouldn't have if that facility were better equipped with safety devices. There's no way we should have had to pull out eight dead bodies from that nursery school!"
"Shut up, Johnny. Just shut up about it already!" Chet demands.
"Hey, Pal," says the Captain quietly, "it might not be a bad idea to drop the subject for now. How about it?"
"But Cap __."
"Hey, Johnny, why don't you go change your shirt?" suggests Marco, ever the negotiator.
I see John look down at his shirt, which is drenched with sweat and soot. He looks as if he's ready to dismiss Marco's suggestion, but Roy cuts him off before he can say a word and simply says, "That's a good idea, Junior. I'll go with you." Roy gently grasps Johnny's elbow and leads him back to the dorms.
"Cap, if he opens his mouth up one more time, I'm gonna put a sock in it!" cries out Chet.
"Take it easy, Kelly. There's plenty of times when you've driven Gage nuts, so give it a rest," responds the cap.
"But not when something like this happens. C'mon!" he tries to make his case and looks around the room for sympathetic faces. "I mean, doesn't he have any respect for anything? We just pulled all those little kids from an inferno, and all he can think to do is rant on and on about fire codes and safety features? What the hell is wrong with him? Even you have to be ready to throttle him, right?" Kelly says looking straight at me. He then turns to our shift-mates and with an expression that claims to have an original idea, says, "I mean, why can't he be more like Mike?"
For some reason no one finds that as funny as I do, so no one laughs. I smile a little.
Then I say something that really makes everyone's jaws to drop to the floor.
"You know, I think Gage and I are a lot more alike than unalike." I stand up to get another cup of coffee and watch as Roy returns to the kitchen, without his partner.
"Oooh, did you lose him, Roy?" asks Chet, smirking.
"Kelly! That's enough," demands Cap.
Roy smiles slightly. He's used to the repartee between Gage and Kelly and has never taken it real seriously. Of course when Gage returns to the kitchen and resumes his blustering, even Roy has enough.
"Hey, Johnny, don't you think it might be time to give it a bit of a rest?"
"Oh, et tu, Roy?"
"C'mon, Junior, it's just that everyone's wrung out and tired. That run was tough on all of us," he explains in a reasonable tone. Problem is, Johnny's not in any kind of state of mind to be reasonable, only no one but me sees that.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry my discussion of something that is relevant and important is wreaking havoc with all of your delicate constitutions. Fine, I won't discuss it anymore!"
The rest of the guys breathe a sigh of relief as they look forward to a few minutes of quiet and down time. Hopefully the next run will be a lot less stressful. I watch as Roy and Marco take a look at the newspaper and Chet gets up to wash the coffee pot and put up a fresh pot. The cap excuses himself to do some paper work, while I__, I watch Gage.
It never ceases to amaze me that what comes so easily to me, is so damned difficult for Gage. He's going to burst at the seams if he doesn't speak soon. He wants to speak, but he knows he'll be shot down if he does. He begins to bounce a little, side to side on his feet.
Moments later, he begins to pace between the kitchen table and the fridge. Finally, he starts to mumble under his breath and when Marco asks him casually, "What did you say?" Johnny chomps at the opportunity to ask if he thinks it might be a good idea for someone to write a letter to the fire chief?
Before Marco can even answer him, Johnny starts spouting off on all of the points he could make in a letter to the chief. He continues to check those ideas off on his fingers, when suddenly Chet flies out of his chair and leaps toward Johnny.
Somehow I find myself in between the two men, my goal being to try and separate them before Cap comes back into the kitchen, but unfortunately I don't quite make it.
"For crying out loud, Chet __," Cap begins.
"__I don't care, Cap. Why the hell can't Gage allow the rest of us to deal with this, quietly, in our own way? All he seems to care about are fire codes; forget about the kids that died. Well, that doesn't mean the rest of us feel that way. I'm sorry, but I just want some peace and quiet, so I can deal with what happened."
Though the guys don't realize it, they're nodding their heads slightly in agreement with Kelly's words. I suddenly wonder if I'm doing it, too. Then I look over at Gage and I see how cutting Chet's words are to him. They must feel like knives slicing right through his belly.
The others don't understand that this _is_ Gage's way of dealing with the grief. Well, I suppose Roy does. He knows his partner better than any of us. But anyone who has a clue about John Gage realizes the man wouldn't know how to _not_ give a damn. But Kelly's words and everyone's tacit agreement throws Johnny for a loop. He's become like a caged animal that's searching desperately for an escape when suddenly his eyes meet mine.
We lock gazes momentarily and then, as if he knows he can't hide the truth from someone who knows, he runs. Johnny runs before anyone even realizes he's gone.
I allow a few moments to pass before I follow him into the bay area. He's pulling out the equipment, checking it, and then rechecking it yet again. He's talking to himself, and his face is really flushed. I'm not sure if he realizes he's not alone, but when I make my presence known, he startles.
"You going to piss and moan about my lack of compassion, too?" he asks after he catches his breath. He's angry.
He stands there, finally stilling his perpetual motion, and then quietly asks, "Why not?"
"Because. You're hurting as much as the rest of us. You just deal with it differently."
He nods his head up and down just enough so I realize he's agreeing with me, but he then stops suddenly and without looking up at me asks, "How do you know that?"
I smile; I can't help it. He looks at me and I can tell he's unsure as to whether I'm making fun of him or not; I'm not, of course, and I tell him as much.
"Mike, it doesn't matter," he says forlornly. "Go back inside."
"It matters, John."
He stares at me for a moment and I have the feeling he's unsure of what to say next. It's almost as if it was the first time someone ever told him that _he_ mattered. He opens his mouth in an attempt to speak, but no words come out.
I figure I have to take this as my cue to reassure him, though to be honest I'm not quite sure how to do that. I mean, I know the guy can get on our nerves every now and then, but it's not like he means to drive us nuts. He just doesn't know when to draw the line. I suppose that's where I can start.
"You just talk too much," I say. Well, that's inspiring.
"Yeah, and you don't talk at all," he replies. Touché, Mr. Gage.
"It's the way I learned to deal with things." I pause and look away for a moment. I realize that I've kind of opened a door that I'm not too sure I want either one of us to go through. Johnny doesn't say a word, but one look at his face and I know I have to follow through on this.
"I was an army brat," I say matter-of-factly. His expression is one of surprise so I continue. "My father was career army, but his position had us transferring to a new base every couple of years. One time we moved three times in eighteen months."
"That must have been hard."
"Yeah. Impossible to make friends, ya know?" Johnny nods knowingly, and waits patiently for me to continue. So I do. "And if I did make one, he never came over to play or anything."
"That old saying, 'Children are to be seen and not heard' was my father's rule. It was enough that I was a child in his house; another would make noise, would ruin the equilibrium of his carefully balanced world."
John looks at me momentarily before he speaks. "Go ahead. Ask," I encourage. I figure I opened this can of worms, the least I can do is take it to its necessary conclusion.
"What about your mom?"
"Mom didn't talk much. She wanted to be June Cleaver, but my father wasn't exactly Ward." A small smile forms on Johnny's mouth at that comment.
"You get to see that movie "The Great Santini" yet?" I ask.
"The one with DeNiro?" he asks. When I nod, John says, "Yeah. I saw it."
"My father was exactly like DeNiro's character. The man wanted perfection and unless I could give it to him, he didn't want to hear from me. So, I learned to not let him hear from me. Saved me a lot of grief.
"Funny," I murmur almost to myself, "I remember it was like the first week of kindergarten and my mom came to pick me up. Miss Gale, my teacher, told her she had a question. You know what she wanted to know?"
Gage shakes his head; I've got me a pretty good audience here. I could probably start whistling Dixie and he'd be mesmerized...then again maybe not. "She asked Mom if I could talk."
I chuckle a little, since that was Mom's reaction. "Mom said that of course I spoke." I remember how helpless the teacher looked. "Miss Gale asked, 'When?'" I sit down next to Gage on the running board of the squad. I remember that day so vividly. I remember Mom looking at me, as if to reassure herself that the teacher was the crazy one, not the two of us.
"Mom couldn't answer her. She looked and looked at me, but I don't think she could pinpoint the last time she heard me string more than a few words together." Now that I think of it, Gage must be pretty amazed at the number of sentences I've strung together today.
"Yeah, well given how often you throw your two cents in around here, I bet your mom had to think real hard," he says as if reading my mind.
I smile at this; he's right. "It was easier. If I kept quiet, I couldn't get into trouble. It's how I learned to deal with crises. To avoid my father's wrath I maintained silence."
"And all I remember is the noise," Gage murmurs in response, seemingly without thinking.
He looks up at me, surprised. I don't think he even realizes he's spoken aloud, but he has.
I press him, "Tell me about the noise."
He looks down, and sighs deeply. I know he'd rather talk about anything else but this, yet I also know Gage has a strong sense of fairness. If I spill my guts, then he spills his.
"My dad owned a ranch for a while after he married my mom. I was born pretty soon after he'd bought it. Only trouble was there was more money going out than was coming in, and the fact that my mom was an Indian didn't exactly encourage people to do business with my dad.
"It got so bad that he had to sell the ranch and we had to move in with relatives. I guess I was around five at the time. I was supposed to start school, but when Dad's family wouldn't take us in, we ended up staying with Mom's on the reservation."
"What was that like?" I ask out of curiosity.
"Let's just say we didn't live under the best of conditions." He says this with a forced laugh; I press him for more information.
"Crowded. There was something like twelve of us in two rooms. Ya see, Dad's family would have nothing to do with us, and they told us out right. Mom's family, well the Indian tradition, is that you take care of your own. Even if you don't want them around, you don't turn family away."
That's a kind of noble thought, and I say as much. Johnny's reaction is a weary laugh. "Yeah, well, noble or not, it never did feel like home." I remain quiet, silently urging him to continue, and he does. "My father's family wanted nothing to do with us; I remember we'd gone to see them before we went to the reservation, and when my grandfather opened the door, all he said was, 'What the hell are you doing here?' and he slammed the door in our faces.
"When we went to the res, well, let's just say we weren't received with open arms there either. There were so many of us crammed into the small unit, that we pretty much had to fight for a space of our own. I was one of the youngest, so I didn't get my way very often. Actually, I never got my way, at least when my mom wasn't home.
"I used to have to throw a temper tantrum before someone would give me something to eat, can you believe it?" Somehow, I believe it.
"Mom was one of the few that had skills which enabled her to work off the res. She was a clerk in a feed store relatively nearby; it's actually where she'd met my father. Anyway, she sometimes had to work long hours, and on those days, it was pretty rough. No one was around to pay me any attention, so I pretty much ran wild and did what I wanted. If I wanted food, I'd pester everyone till I got it.
"Sometimes," he mumbles, "I got more than I bargained for."
"What do you mean?" I ask quickly. I don't like the sound of this.
"Nothing, they'd just sometimes get annoyed with me bugging them all the time, that's all. It was always okay when Mom got home," he explains cryptically. "She'd always make sure I had something to eat, and then we'd sit and talk.
"No one else talked to me. They all spoke in their tribal tongue, but no one ever took the time to really teach me how to speak it; they used it as their secret language when they wanted to say something they didn't want me to hear. So all day long, I'd hear this strange noise. Kinda like white noise, ya know?" I nod, though I'm not really sure if I understand.
"I never felt as if I belonged there; they never allowed it," he offers. "Then when my mom died I just became..." his voice trails off, and I do not hear what is on his mind.
"John? What happened when your mom died?"
His expression becomes very thoughtful; I wonder momentarily if he's going to get all emotional on me, but he seems to keep himself in check.
"Mom was running to make the bus back to the res, only there was a real nasty storm that night. As she crossed the street, some guy in a big ol' Chevy started skidding and barreled right into her. She died on route to the hospital.
"That night my dad told me she died, and then he skipped out." John pauses and then says, as if it's the for the first time he's realizing it, "He left me."
"Must have made you pretty angry," I comment. Gage only shrugs. "You weren't angry?" I ask incredulously.
"Yeah, I guess so, but there wasn't anything I could do about it, so I lived with it."
"But how did your relatives deal with it?" I ask.
"They weren't gonna throw me out into the street, if that's what you mean. They wouldn't do that," he says defensively.
"But they weren't all that thrilled either," I comment.
"Well, would you be under those conditions? I mean, there were too many people living in too small of a space with too damned little money to support us. So, no, they weren't all that happy having me stay there."
I can't help but think about Gage as a little kid. I mean his mother dies, father leaves, and relatives don't really want him around. How the hell does he live with that? I'm thinking that maybe I didn't have it so bad growing up after all.
"How did you cope?" I ask.
John gets flustered at this and stands up and starts his pacing routine. I expect him to start going into one of his rants, too, but all he says is, "If I needed something, I asked for it. Sometimes I got it and sometimes I didn't."
"What happened when you didn't get something you needed, John?"
"I did what any kid would do. I whined," he says, and though I would have expected him to stop there he continues on and whispers, "and I begged, and I pleaded, until I finally got it or I got..."
"Gage?" I question gently. Obviously there's more uncharted territory to map out. "Or you got...what?"
"Oh, Uncle might have slapped me once or twice. No big deal."
I can't help it. I react quickly, and I must shock the hell out of Gage with the force of my voice. "NO BIG DEAL? John! You were a child! Someone hit you, and it's no big deal?"
Suddenly I feel a little afraid; I get the feeling I'm in way over my head. I mean, sure, I had it bad, but my dad never hit me. He never spoke to me if he could help it, but he damn well never hit me.
"John, it's never okay to hit a child. That's abuse; you _know_ that," I say more softly.
"Mike, it wasn't like that," he responds quickly. "The conditions we were living in were horrible, and I was just an obnoxious little kid who didn't even belong to them. I was sometimes the straw that broke the camel's back," he says trying to justify his childhood.
"If it were a camel's back that would be one thing, but it wasn't. It was you who got broken." He looks away from me at this point, and I think that maybe he's not going to be able to keep himself in check too much longer.
"We found those kids today," he begins in an eerily soft voice, "huddled all together in that little room of the nursery school. Their teachers were crammed in there, too. It was so crowded in there; it was nothing more than a utility closet and they were all crowded in there together.
"It felt like when I was a kid, and we were all jammed into one room. I slept on the floor. There was no room for me anywhere else; they couldn't fit another bed in the room and there were already three or four kids to a bed, so I slept on some blankets on the floor. Sometimes Uncle would come in and say good night to the kids, but never me. Auntie would come in, and after she kissed the other kids she'd sometimes say good night to me. That was nice."
My stomach lurches. His fondest memory is when his aunt would occasionally remember to say good night to him. I think I'm gonna be sick.
"It wasn't too easy for you growing up," I acknowledge. He shrugs his shoulders at this, but I continue. "Sounds to me like you had to fend for yourself."
He shrugs his shoulders at this too, but I can see he's thinking about it.
"You did too," John says to me. "You had to get through some tough times too, didn't you?
I couldn't argue with him, I did. When my father passed away, it was the first time I ever felt relaxed. Of course, then I felt all guilty for being glad my father died. It was a regular catch-22.
"Yeah. We both did," I say. I wasn't about to make this a pissing contest over who had the tougher childhood, though I really do think John would win, hands down. Then I say something that even surprises me.
"You know, sometimes we carry these things around and don't even know they're still bothering us. Might help to talk about it with someone, ya know?" John looks at me warily. I think I'd be looking at me the same way.
"Yeah..." he begins, "I guess there's something to that. I just talked to you, and I do feel better."
I nod, but we both know I mean more than this. "Sometimes people need more than just a friend." He looks startled at this. "Someone who knows about how to deal with this kind of stuff."
John has this faraway look on his face and then says something that takes me by surprise. "You think of me as your friend?"
"Well, yeah, don't you?" I ask, wondering where this came from.
"I__, I always wanted to," he hesitates, "but I was never sure if I could. Face it Mike, you've never been overly approachable or demonstrative."
I have to smile at this. He's right of course. I've never given him any reason to think our relationship went beyond being shift-mates. "You're my friend, John," I assure him and then add, "Hope you feel the same."
"Okay," he says, and then with a smile, adds, "That's nice. Thank-you."
Well, now that we get that squared away, there's still the little matter I've brought up that Gage is so deftly ignoring. "What about the other thing?" I remind.
"You're talking about a shrink, aren't you?" he asks. I nod slightly, and he just shakes his head. "I don't want to talk to no shrink. There's nothing to tell; nothing that would change what happened to me."
"You're right, nothing can change the past. But Johnny," I pause and wait for him to really look at me, "it could change what's happening to you now."
I know he understands what I'm talking about, but I'm not sure he's ready to accept the fact that his childhood abuse, (and it was abuse damn it, whether he admits it or not,) is causing him to behave in ways now that he might otherwise want to change. I kind of hold my breath until he responds.
"I don't think I can do it, go to a shrink, I mean." When I ask why not, he says so softly that I almost don't hear him, "Scared."
"Scared of what you'll find out, or scared of what you already know?"
"I guess, both."
I nod at this and then tell him something that I've never expected to admit to anyone. "I know the feeling." When he looks at me I almost laugh at the shocked expression he's sporting. "Hey, I've considered counseling, just to sort out some feelings I've had about my dad. And my mom, too, I guess."
John nods his acceptance of this and asks, "You ever think of going to one of those group therapy sessions where people just talk and kind of compare notes? I don't know if I could handle a one-on-one, but maybe if you want to go check out one of those group things, I'd maybe, like think about going with you, Mike."
I nod. Well, I'm the one who opened up this can of worms, so I suppose it would be pretty crappy of me to seal it up. "Yeah, we could do that. I'll do some checking around and let you know."
"You're not gonna tell Cap are you? Oh, God, and not the guys, right?" he asks anxiously.
"No. We can handle this on our own time." I consider something for a moment and then pose it to John. "What about Roy? You think you might want to say something to him? I know how tight you are with him, so if you do, it's okay with me."
Johnny smiles as he shakes his head slightly. "Maybe after we've gone to a couple of __," he hesitates as if he's not sure he wants to admit out loud he's even considering going to therapy sessions. "_Meetings," he finally says, "but for now, I think I'd like to keep this just between us. But, Mike?" he asks. I look at him questioningly, and he says earnestly, "Thanks."
"Okay," I say, smiling a real smile for the first time all day. I notice Johnny's wearing one too. "Ready to face the world again?" He nods and the two of us walk back into the kitchen.
"Hey, look what the wind blew back in!" calls out Chet. "You gonna start again, Gage? 'Cause if you are, you can just blow right back out again."
"No, I'm not gonna start again," he says evenly. "Sorry about before, I had some stuff on my mind and __." He stops and looks at me. I nod a little encouragement and he says, "__It was the only way I knew how to get it off my chest. I'm sorry if I got you guys upset. I'll try not to let that happen again."
"Right, Gage not ranting and raving and making the rest of nuts is like_, like Stoker suddenly talking a mile a minute," razzes Chet.
"Yeah, well, ya never know, Chester B.," I say unexpectedly, causing Chet to startle ever so slightly. "Ya never know what a little talking can do for you."
I look at Gage and we exchange a knowing grin which makes Chet look more confused than ever. I guess Gage and I have both found a new friend today, never realizing just how alike we were all along.
End of More Alike than Unalike
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