By STP (STPteach@aol.com)
It was a mess.
The two patrolmen from the black and white as well as Vince, who was on motorcycle patrol that day, were trying to get information from the witnesses that crowded the area. Unfortunately, they weren't getting too far. Apparently everyone heard the crash, but no one actually saw it.
The small, two-door, green 1971 Gremlin was about one third shorter than it should have been. The back of the car was literally crushed, seemingly into its front seats. The bumper and hood of the large, yellow Cadillac nestled into the little niche it had carved out for itself when it hit the small economy car. Officer Delvaney checked on the driver of the caddy, while Officer Porter helped the female driver of the Gremlin.
The Station 51 squad and engine pulled only minutes after the location was called in. Captain Stanley, and Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto checked in with the officers on the scene.
"The driver of the caddy is dead. Porter reported the woman was out of the car," explained Vince as Johnny began removing the necessary equipment to treat the remaining victim. Roy was already at the woman's side taking her vitals. Captain Stanley began assessing the situation and giving directions to his crew so they could best extricate the cars from the site as quickly and safely as possible.
"It was the damnedest thing," Vince continued, "she just kept muttering something over and over again, but we couldn't make any sense out of it."
"What was she saying?" asked Johnny as he lifted the biophone out of the squad's compartment. He handed a medical supply box to Vince and then carried the biophone and a second kit over to where Roy was working on the victim. He knelt down to set up communications with Rampart.
"Something like 'carry'...she just kept saying 'carry' over and over again. We kept asking her what she needed to carry out of the car, but she never answered us. Then she collapsed and we laid her out down here," Vince explained.
Roy stated the vitals for John who wrote them down on a notepad in order to keep them straight when he called into Rampart. "What was that BP again, Roy?"
"70 over 50. She may be bleeding internally, Johnny."
Johnny nodded his agreement and connected with Rampart. When Joe Early answered, John shared the data and waited for directions. "Start an IV of D5W and transport as soon as possible."
Johnny repeated the directions back to confirm and then began setting up the IV. As soon as the victim started receiving fluids, she began to moan.
"Miss, Miss?" called out Roy. "Miss, what's your name?"
The only response was a low moan of pain, so Roy tried again. "Miss, can you tell me your name? You've been in a car accident. You're going to Rampart Hospital where they can help you."
Just when Roy thought there was no hope of getting a coherent response from her, the woman began to whimper and repeat the cryptic word over and over again, "Carry. Carry."
"Carry, what? Ma'am, please, help us understand," Johnny said a little more urgently. He had a feeling the word meant something important, but he wasn't sure what.
"My__, my b_, baby, Carrie," she cried out.
"Baby? There's a baby in the car?" Johnny responded incredulously. "Hey, Vince, didn't anyone check the car out for other victims?"
"Other victims?" Vince echoed. "I assume so, but Porter and Delvaney were the first two on the scene. Hey, Porter, Delvaney! Did you check the car out for other victims?"
"What other victims?" Delvaney called out. "All I saw was the woman and the dead driver."
A sudden moan cut through the air again. "Carrie, my baby, Carrie.
Please, help my baby."
"Oh, shit!" John muttered as he quickly rose.
"Johnny! Turnout coat and gloves!" Roy admonished.
Johnny nodded, knowing immediately what Roy was suggesting. If he had to break any windows to get into the rear, at least he'd be protected from the glass.
He walked over to the car and tried to peer into the back seat, or rather what was left of the back seat. It appeared to be totally pushed into the front seat, with the huge Cadillac's front end seemingly fitting into the rear of the Gremlin like a perfect jigsaw puzzle. Johnny couldn't imagine anyone surviving that, but he certainly wasn't going to assume anything until he found a body.
He tried pulling the driver's side door open, but it was either locked or no longer aligned properly, either way it wouldn't budge. He then walked around to the passenger side and tried to open that door, but it too was either locked or out of whack and wouldn't open. John asked for Vince's billy club and used it to break the rear window on the passenger's side. If the door was locked, Johnny could now reach in and unlock it.
The door was opened, but the access was no better. The rear seat was barely visible. He crawled into the front driver's side seat and reached over to open the driver's side door. Next, he leaned and reached over the seat into the back with his left hand to try and determine if the baby was stuck between the seats on the floor of the car.
"Vince! Vince! Tell Chet to bring over the jaws; I think I feel her!" he cried out anxiously. Johnny feared what they would find when the jaws opened up the area. He got up and out of the car momentarily, and pulled off his turnout jacket; it kept pulling each time he had tried to reach over into the back. He feared it might hamper his ability to reach the child. He left the gloves on since there was glass fragments all over the interior of the car.
Chet was over to the site within moments and began working from the driver's side to separate the front from its rear seats. This allowed Johnny to remain in the passenger's side and keep as close of an eye as possible on the situation; Johnny hoped to prevent the baby from being harmed any further.
Meanwhile, the engine was hooked up to the Caddy so that it could be pulled apart from the Gremlin. Chet finished his job with the jaws and stepped back from the car so the engine could begin pulling the Cadillac off of the smaller car. At the instant Johnny caught his first glimpse of the baby girl that had been wedged under the rear seat, the engine pulled the Cadillac apart from the rear of the Gremlin.
As the firefighters quietly congratulated themselves on getting the larger car in the clear, Johnny called for a stokes. Chet nodded and as he ran to get the requested equipment, there was a sudden, unexpected explosion from the Gremlin's rear. Johnny quickly leaned over and reached with his gloved left hand to pull the baby up and out from the floor of the car.
"What the hell?!" called out Captain Stanley. "Marco, hose her down, quick!" Marco Lopez responded immediately and was soon saturating the car with water.
Roy did his best to comfort the mother, but all the while felt ready to jump out of his skin to go and check on his partner. Knowing Johnny like he did, if there was a child to be saved he wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice his own safety.
Meanwhile, Vince had been thrown clear of the site when the explosion hit. Johnny was straddled across the top of the front passenger's seat. His left arm dangled down in the rear of the car, pawing the area below him as he searched desperately for the baby. He thought he felt her head and sought for a decent grasp of the baby. Meanwhile his right arm and hand firmly held onto the other side of the front seat for stability. When he finally was able to get a solid hold on the child, he was too busy pulling the baby out of harm's way to notice flames engulfing his own left forearm, shoulder, and side.
Miraculously, they were able to get out of the car before it was totally engulfed in flames. Vince had quickly recovered and was immediately at the paramedic's side. Johnny handed the child to him and said, "Get her to Roy, she's burned." Vince acted without question.
Johnny was momentarily dazed but still took the time to stoop down and pick up his turnout coat. Cap would kill him if he knew he'd taken it off yet again in the middle of a rescue, so he gingerly slipped it back on. He walked toward his partner hugging his affected left arm close to his body. Captain Stanley saw Johnny from a distance but was able to see that his young paramedic looked dazed. He instantly called out, "You okay, Pal?"
"I'm fine," John said automatically. "Gotta help Roy; I think the baby was burned a little."
The baby in fact got burned a lot, on the back of her neck, shoulders and back. Given everyone's anxiousness to see to the child, John's assurances that he was fine were taken at face value and his injuries went unnoticed. He pulled out a blanket and saline that would cover the baby's burnt areas and protect the skin from immediate infection. Johnny managed to do all of this one-handed, as he maintained a more protective posture.
As Roy and John worked on the baby, Captain Stanley offered comfort to the mother. "These guys are the best, Miss. If anyone can help your baby, it's them."
"Rampart, this is Squad 51. We have a second victim," said Johnny. No one noticed that his voice took on a monotone cadence, and that he was beginning to show signs of shock. Everyone was focused on the child.
Johnny once again communicated the data Roy fed him. The baby was definitely shocky, but she was alive, which was something of a miracle given the crushed, burnt condition of the car.
Rampart followed up with instructions of how to treat the burns for the immediate time being and to start an IV of Ringers to treat the shock and increase the child's fluid intake. "And transport as soon as possible, Squad 51."
Johnny managed to repeat all of the directions and signed off with the standard '10-4, Squad 51.' However, when it was time for him to stand up and assist Roy in getting the two victims into the ambulance, Johnny tried but immediately stumbled.
The captain instinctively reached out and grabbed, as circumstance would have it, Johnny's left arm to offer support. That was immediately met with a cry of pain from the paramedic, and when Johnny pulled back out of self-preservation he quickly fell back to the ground.
"Johnny? What's wrong?" asked Hank anxiously. He hadn't noticed any injuries to his paramedic; of course he hadn't been looking for any either. Johnny's coat fell open, and Hank's stomach did summersaults. "Oh, sweet Jesus," he murmured, "How the hell did we miss this?
"Roy!" the cap called out in a panic. "Roy, hurry! Johnny's hurt!"
After loading the two victims into the ambulance, Roy ran to see what his captain was shouting about.
"Roy, I didn't know. I'm sorry, he said he was fine. Damn it, he said he was fine," Hank berated himself.
The captain had already pulled off Johnny's turncoat. Upon taking a perfunctory look at his partner's injuries, Roy asked in frustration, "Damn it Johnny, why didn't you say something?" He was prepared to admonish him some more, but Roy realized it would have fallen on deaf ears. Johnny was semi-conscious and quickly going into shock. Roy quickly pulled out some more saline blankets and covered up the affected areas. He told Hank to keep pouring the bottles of saline over the blanket to keep the area moist.
Roy reestablished communications with Rampart and explained the situation. Roy was instructed to wrap him up in saline blankets and start an IV with Ringers. Luckily, the second ambulance that had been called for the victim of the Cadillac was still on the scene.
Chet volunteered to ride in with Johnny, while Marco would drive in the squad. Hank Stanley wisely knew that Roy was going to be useless to them the rest of the shift and told Marco to bring the squad back to the station. He decided to stand down the station for the next couple of hours or until they were given assurances that Gage was out of danger.
Eight Months Later
"Well, today's the big day, eh, Roy?" asked Chet with little attempt to hide his own excitement.
"Yeah, today's the day. Finally. If I had to spend one more minute with Brice, I think I'd be modeling the latest in straightjackets," replied Roy with an anxious laugh.
Johnny Gage was returning to active duty. After three skin graft operations and months of physical therapy, Johnny was medically cleared and deemed fit for active duty.
It had been a long, arduous affair. It was made a bit easier because
Johnny had taken Roy's advice that fateful day and wore the heavy-duty gloves to protect his hands. The gloves not only protected him from shards of glass, but from the flames as well. The resulting therapy did not entail the tedious sessions that would have required Gage to relearn fine motor movements.
But Gage had worked hard in physical therapy to regain his strength in order to qualify for active duty. He had to prove he was capable of lifting the heavy hoses as well as any victim, no matter their size or weight, in need of rescue. Gage also had to prove one other very important thing, more to himself than to his superiors.
That he wasn't afraid.
First, he'd been afraid of the surgeries and the resulting pain. Then, it was fear of the therapy and the pain he'd have to face head on during and after the sessions. Of course, he had felt constant fear of not meeting the requirements for recertification both as a fireman and as a paramedic.
Then when it was obvious he'd have no problem meeting the physical requirements, Johnny began to live with the constant feeling of dread of having to face his first fire. He knew it was only natural to be afraid after being severely burned, but it scared the hell out of him just the same.
Of course, there was more to his apprehension than just facing a fire. He knew at some point all of his colleagues were going to get a look at what the explosion did to him, and he wasn't sure if he was ever going to be ready to face that scene. He was afraid of the reaction he'd get from the others when they finally saw the results of the accident.
Though Roy had been at his side during the beginning of his treatment and was more than aware of the severity of his injuries, Johnny saw his partner's unmistakable attempts at keeping his reactions to his burns as neutral as possible. The disgust to Johnny's mind, was undeniably evident on Roy's face, just as was his own repulsion each and every time he took a look at himself in the mirror.
Dealing with the burns and the resulting pain and scars was more challenging than Johnny had anticipated, but he refused to let his friends at the station know just how hard it was for him. He couldn't. He knew if he let on just how terrified he really felt about coming back to work, it would be that much more difficult for them to trust him to carry out his duties during a call.
Johnny didn't want them to worry about him being able to cover their backs, nor did he want them to worry about having to constantly cover his. If they were too busy worrying about him, their minds couldn't possibly be on the job at hand.
No, Johnny had to keep all of his fears, worries, and concerns to himself. It was for that reason that Johnny had slowly but surely distanced himself from his friends. When they came over to visit him while he was recuperating, he was glad to see them but felt it important for him to always be in control. They talked about what he wanted to talk about; they saw what he wanted them to see, which in the case of Johnny's scars wasn't much. John had a dozen new long-sleeved tee shirts that kept his disfigurement in hiding. Johnny worked hard at maintaining a casual attitude about the burn scars, and apparently he succeeded in making the men believe that they didn't bother him.
In fact, after the first couple of months, they stopped asking about them. They figured Johnny was totally okay in dealing with the burns.
Roy was the only one of the men who actually saw the burned areas in the beginning. Of course when he was first brought into the emergency room at Rampart and then the burn unit, Roy was right at Johnny's side. Johnny was too far out of it to make any decisions, so as the emergency contact, Roy was privy to his partner and friend's medical condition. Roy was more than aware of the severity of the situation.
But as time went on and Johnny was more in control of his own treatment, Johnny allowed Roy to see less and less of his deformity. After a time, Roy began to feel everything was going well with his friend. As many times as Roy asked him how he was handling the stress of the surgeries and the resulting therapy, John would tell him it was all a piece of cake.
Even though Roy didn't always totally buy the upbeat responses Johnny had insisted were the truth, Roy knew how private his friend could be.
He'd always hated having to rely on people whenever he was injured, so this time was no exception. Roy figured he would always be there for his partner, but the time had come to back off and give John a little space.
Johnny had never shut his comrades out of his life completely; he'd still spoken with them amicably when they called. He'd even socialized a bit during his convalescence, such as when he'd gone to Roy's house for a barbecue or two.
But soon for every one invitation he'd accepted, he'd declined two, and three, and then five. When his friends naturally became overly concerned, John forced himself to become sociable to ease their worries and in turn get them off of his back.
Wherever the social event had taken place, however, Johnny always managed to stay in the background. He'd come out occasionally for a quick-witted retort to stave off the 'Mother Hen' clucking of Roy, but then returned quickly to his wallflower status. And though his antics seemed to placate everyone, it never really eased Johnny's own fears.
Each and every time his partner tried to initiate a dialogue on how he was feeling, John said just enough to let Roy know he was doing what the doctor had ordered and that he was coping. But John refused to admit to Roy how much physical and emotional pain he was really in.
Johnny felt he would have to learn to live with the physical pain. On the other hand, the emotional trauma of living with a disfigurement was something he simply wanted to suppress. He wouldn't allow himself to appear weak to his friends, his partner, but most especially, to himself.
Johnny felt if he were ever going to feel like an equal partner again, he had to make sure that Roy had complete and total trust in him. But if John were to ever admit the truth, or even a small part of it, he feared Roy would never feel like he could fully depend on him.
So unfortunately the real talk, the heart to heart dialogue of what was really going on with one John Roderick Gage, was left unsaid. And through no fault of anyone's, Johnny managed to accomplish what he'd set out to do. Before anyone had realized it, he'd become more and more like a friendly acquaintance over the last few months to the men of Station 51.
And sadly, it happened before anyone knew to look.
"Hey, hey! Look what the wind decided to blow in!" called out Chet. "Nice of you to show up, Gage. And you're actually on time, too."
Johnny smiled at the good-natured teasing of his friendly adversary.
"Yeah, well, I knew you couldn't stand being away from me any longer,
Chet, so here I am," he replied.
"Welcome back, Pal. We've missed you," responded Captain Stanley, and then he turned to Roy and said, "Some of us more than others."
"Aw, don't let Roy fool ya. He just couldn't stand having to be partnered with Brice another day. He said so himself just before, didn't ya, Roy?" Chet retorted.
"Yeah, well, it is nice to have things get back to normal," Roy admitted. "Welcome back, Junior."
"Thanks," Johnny replied softly.
And that should have been the first indication that something was wrong. John had never been terribly thrilled with the nickname of 'Junior,' and always commented as such when Roy called him that, especially in front of his fellow firefighters. Today, nary an eyebrow was raised, much less an objection.
The reason? Johnny was too busy trying to remember what 'normal' was. It had been 8 long months since anything in his life was even remotely normal, and he wondered if it was possible to ever feel normal again.
"Okay, men, roll call is in ten minutes," the captain reminded.
"Well, seeing as I'm all ready, while some of us aren't even dressed,
I'm going to go in and get a cup of coffee," said Johnny.
As Roy and the others finished changing into their uniforms, something niggled at Roy over what had transpired, but he couldn't identify exactly what was bothering him.
But that should have been the second indication that all was not well.
As Roy buttoned up his light blue, short sleeve uniform shirt and observed Chet and Marco doing the same, he should have noticed that
Johnny came dressed in his long sleeved jacket, with no intentions of removing it.
The temperature that May morning was already a balmy, 83 degrees.
The paramedic team came in with their latest patient, a young woman who'd fainted in the dressing room of a local maternity shop. She was terribly embarrassed, but thankfully not harmed in any way. However, the doctors at Rampart thought it wise to have her ride in, and after a thorough examination, both baby and mother-to-be were doing just fine and right on schedule.
Roy suggested that they refill their supplies while there and Johnny concurred. They walked over to the nurse's station and saw Dixie in her usual position of trying to juggle ten responsibilities at once. As she put the phone down and after she directed an orderly to bring a piece of equipment into Room 3, the head nurse smiled and greeted the duo. "Hi Guys, what can I do for you today?"
"Just here for a refill, Dix," responded Roy.
"Okay, let's see what you need," she replied as she proffered her hand for the supply list.
As Dixie helped replenish the needed materials, she looked over at the surprisingly quiet John Gage and asked, "How ya doin', Johnny?"
"Me?" he replied, almost with a note of surprise in his voice. Since his return, John had taken to becoming almost as quiet as Mike Stoker so conversations had become decidedly one-sided. The guys had started to initiate discussions with him less and less.
"Yes, you," Dixie replied with a little exasperation of her own. "How many Johnny's are standing here at the moment?" she said in a light-hearted teasing tone. Of course, there was one thing that could always get his attention, and Dixie had just the ingredient to do that.
"Have you met Marisa yet?" she asked with a bit of a leer.
"Marisa?" he echoed.
"Is that the gal with the really nice auburn hair?" interjected Roy.
"Yep," confirmed Dixie.
"She's a beautiful gal," responded Roy, who had picked up on what Dixie was trying to do.
"Yes, she is," Dixie agreed with a smile, "Didn't think _you_ would have been the one to notice though, Roy."
"Dixie, I may be married, but I'm not dead," he replied laughing.
Both Dixie and Roy looked at John for the expected reaction, but both were disappointed to see absolutely no affect at all. All she could think to herself was, 'What the hell is going on with you, John Gage?'
"John, did you hear us? Marisa. New nurse. Young. Beautiful. Unmarried and available. And did I mention, beautiful?"
"Um, uh-huh, Dixie. That's nice. I'm sure she is," he replied evenly.
Just as Dixie was about to give him 'what for,' the ER doors to the bay sprang open with a multiple gunshot wound. Dixie had to abandon her amateur 'advice to the lovelorn' role and return to being Head Nurse.
Normally, Dixie would have followed through on that conversation with
John, but the ER had only become busier throughout her shift. Dixie figured that Roy would see to getting to the bottom of Johnny's problem. He was always able to get to the heart of the trouble.
And in fact, Roy did try. While they were riding back to the station house, he casually asked Johnny when was the last time he'd gone on a date.
"Don't remember," he replied tonelessly.
"Well, have you gone out since you've been back to work?" asked Roy, wondering what he'd have to do get his partner out of the perpetual funk that he seemed to have fallen into.
"Sure, I've been out," he said without further explanation, and then in a classic Johnny stall tactic asked, "Are you hungry, Roy? 'Cause I sure could use a little something to eat. I mean I'm so damned hungry I could eat a bear."
Roy had learned to never get between his partner and a meal. Even if it meant being diverted from a subject that really, really needed to be talked about.
He got through his first major fire without a misstep. He'd managed well in a several prior minor incidents, since the fires were small enough that they were all able to easily cover for him, though it was never necessary. Johnny had also handled himself well on the emergency squad calls as well, even the MVA that was remarkably similar to the scenario of several months before.
However he'd yet to prove himself on a big one until that day. The guys on A Shift breathed a communal sigh of relief, out of Johnny's earshot of course, but all were definitely happy to see their co-worker was ready and able to hold his own.
The fact that Johnny faced the flames in a state of mortal terror went unnoticed. John Gage had an infamous reputation when it came to his equipment, helmet, and turnout coat. It seemed he was always losing something because he'd dropped it, or it wasn't strapped on properly, or he'd left something unbuckled.
But not that time; not at that scene. Johnny's coat was buckled up to the collar and his helmet was firmly strapped into place. As the flames' heat threatened to tickle his face, Johnny couldn't help but wonder what he would do if the fire lapped even a little bit closer. He'd been standing inside the warehouse with the hose for a long time. He was almost at the point of breaking away, but just as that moment approached, he was relieved by some of the guys from Station 18.
He headed back toward 51's engine to get further instructions from Cap. That was when everyone started congratulating him for doing a great job. Prior to his accident, Johnny would have enjoyed the attention, but now he only felt embarrassed and unworthy of it. Accolades were to be reserved for heroes, not for those who merely survived.
When they all returned to the station, the guys went into the locker room to strip down and call out turns for the showers. "I've got first dibs, you guys. In fact me and Gage should have first dibs, since we were covering your asses from the get go," announced Chet.
"No, it's okay," Johnny intervened quickly. "I'll wait. I'm not exactly ready to get wet again," he said as he looked down at his perspired through uniform.
"Gage, are you crazy? C'mon, Man, get in there while the gettin' is good! No one's arguing with me for a change," Chet admonished lightly.
"No, I appreciate it, Chet, but I really just want to sit here for a little bit, okay?" Everyone else felt too grubby and uncomfortable to argue with the paramedic. Chet chalked it up to the guy's need to decompress from his first real test.
Roy tried to get his partner to talk; he wondered if he were really okay, but Johnny kept insisting he was fine and just wanted to 'savor the moment.' It was just like John to say something like that, so Roy figured his partner needed to take a few minutes to gather his wits. Johnny was famous for his tirades and getting things off of his chest, so Roy figured if something were bothering his partner, he'd hear about it soon enough.
But even after everyone had finished showering, Johnny remained seated in his soiled uniform.
It was only when the last firefighter had changed into a fresh uniform and headed out to the kitchen for a bite to eat, that Johnny made his way into the shower room. He carried in with him not only his towels but also his clothes and skin cream. He locked the door.
As he stripped down, Johnny tried to avert his eyes from the large mirrored wall, but as was often the case with a bad car wreck, you can't help but stare. His eyes surveyed the mottled skin on his upper arm and shoulder. He looked at the ugly scars and couldn't help but remember the awful treatment he went through to get his body to this point.
The first thing he remembered from the accident was the NG tube being inserted. Though he wasn't fully conscious, he did remember the sensation of the tube going down his nose and throat. He'd actually welcomed it as a diversion from the excruciating pain he'd felt on his left side. It had hurt so much; he remembered whimpering but he was too out of it to know for sure if anyone actually heard him.
Of course there'd been little time for comforting. Everyone had been working so fast and furious to connect him to IV tubes, a catheter, and monitors just to keep him alive. The burns were bad enough, but the possibility of infection complicating his condition was overwhelming.
He remembered feeling blissfully out of it for the first couple of days but after that Johnny had discovered that morphine was a wonderful thing. Johnny remembered how he'd wished to be kept on a continuous dosage of it, particularly when 'DeBrides of Frankenstein', as he so aptly nicknamed them, came to treat his burns. Johnny had dubbed the nurses that since it was they who were given the thankless task of debriding his skin. They'd taken tweezers and scissors to cut away the dead skin to prepare it for grafts. It was an arduous process.
He remembered it had hurt so damned much.
It was also painful and demoralizing to be reminded of how badly he was burned. The nurses were actually good people, and Johnny made sure they knew it was nothing personal, but he was always very happy to see the Frankenstein squad leave his room.
Even now he still touched the bumpy reminders of the skin grafts with tentativeness. He began to trace the length of the scars from under his arm to his waist as he raised his left arm straight up; he smiled at that accomplishment. Not 8 months ago that was an impossible task. Months of therapy sessions paid off, and here he was back at work.
Now, if he could just stop being so ashamed.
He stepped into the shower and gingerly ran his fingers over the scarred tissue that was now his skin. He still imagined that it belonged to someone else's body, but the reality of it was proven to him each and every time that he looked at his reflection.
He stepped out of the shower, dried off, and wrapped the towel around his waist. He opened up the tube of creme that he continued to use to moisturize the burn area to keep the skin from drying out and becoming too taut. As he rubbed the white cream over the splotchy, blemished skin he remembered what summer days were once like. Though he was always thin and never what anyone would consider an Adonis, he was in good shape. Thin, wiry, and he always had a helluva tan given his naturally dark, Native American complexion. He'd never been embarrassed to be seen, unlike now.
Unlike now. The angry red scars were far from faded and were still, even after 8 months, frightening reminders of what he lost. He looked in the mirror and tried to remember all of the platitudes people had said that were supposed to make him feel better...
'It could have been worse.'
'At least your face wasn't burned.'
'Life goes on.'
'You could have died.'
"You could have died," he whispered aloud through gritted teeth. "You should have died!" he cried out and threw the tube of cream angrily at the mirror.
Moments later he heard a voice at the door. "Johnny?" the voice called as anxious fists banged away at the door. "Johnny, you okay?"
"I'm fine, Roy," he called back, as he worked hard to control his breathing, "I'll be out in a minute."
"Okay, as long as you're okay," his partner replied in a much calmer tone.
Johnny took an extra moment to catch his breath and then picked up the tube. It was a prescription cream and too damned expensive to waste.
He worked to steady his breathing and then rinsed his hands and face.
Finally, he finished dressing by putting on a long sleeved tee shirt and then his short-sleeved uniform shirt on top of that.
By the time he was done, everyone was finished with dinner and in the dayroom watching the television.
"Hey, Pal, aren't ya gonna be a little warm with those long sleeves on?
It's hotter than hell in here," Hank commented and then muttered, "Damn energy crisis."
"Nah, I'm fine, Cap," Johnny replied.
"Gage, it's like 90 degrees in here. You're making me hotter just looking at ya, so just take the damn long sleeves off," chided Chet in frustration.
"I have to protect myself from sunburn," Johnny replied tentatively.
"Um, Gage, it's going on 8:00 at night. How much of a sunburn do you expect to get from the table lamps?" groused Chet.
"Look, I'm fine, Chet, but thanks for thinking of me," he said civilly.
"Listen Pal, Chet's actually right," Cap said amicably. "It is awfully warm in here, so why don't __."
"Okay! I'll take the damn shirt off!" he shouted at his captain and stomped out of the room. He went into the dorm area and angrily pulled off his uniform shirt and then the long sleeved shirt. He threw it down on the bed, stood bare-chested, and worked to calm down.
Suddenly, he froze.
"You okay, Johnny?" asked Roy softly.
"I'm fine, Roy. You don't have to constantly check on me, you know?" He didn't move an inch; he didn't breathe. Johnny kept his left side out of Roy's line of vision.
"Yeah, I know. Just habit, I guess." John sensed Roy standing there for several seconds more, debating with himself whether to pursue the conversation or not. Finally, much to Johnny's relief, Roy left the dorm to return to the Day Room.
Johnny let out a deep breath. He put on his blue uniform shirt and slowly buttoned it up. The sleeves were short, but certainly offered a little more coverage than an ordinary tee shirt. Johnny looked at his left arm; the less severe burns were on his forearm where the skin showed, but there was still nothing pretty about them. John drew another deep breath and returned to his colleagues.
When he entered Johnny sensed the guys were working hard to not look at John's arm, but of course the first place their eyes gravitated towards was the scarred tissue. John managed to look everywhere but at the men.
Finally, Mike cleared his throat and said, "There's a couple of hotdogs left over in the pan, Johnny. Sorry, but I think someone finished the last of the beans." Stoker glared at Chet.
"Hey, don't look at me like that. He had the chance to get in on first dibs, and he chose not to. Ain't my fault if he wasn't there to get his fair share of the meal," Chet grumbled.
"'S okay, Chet. I'm not that hungry anyway," said John.
Only Roy's head shot up at his partner's reaction. He wondered why no one noticed.
Johnny rarely picked a fight with Chester B. anymore.
"Johnny, you know Joanne will have my head on a platter if you don't show up for our July 4th picnic. Please!" pleaded Roy. It had been a while since Johnny had been to Roy's house for a visit, and his kids as well as his wife, were insistent that he make sure Johnny put in an appearance at their annual 4th of July bash.
Johnny tried to decline. He knew from past experience what Independence Day celebrations were like at the DeSoto residence, but he also knew that he couldn't keep making excuses to avoid socializing with everyone.
"Sure, Roy, I'll be there," he answered resignedly though he hid it with a pasted on smile.
"Great! Joanne will be thrilled, and now I can get her off my back!" Roy said exuberantly.
In fact, he seemed so gleeful, that it roused Johnny's suspicions.
"Um, Roy, I know it's been a while since I've seen Jo and the kids, but still, you seem more relieved than happy that I'm coming. What gives?"
Roy blushed because he knew he'd been snagged. Roy may not have been able to read Johnny Gage as well as he used to, but Johnny sure could read Roy like an open book. "Well, um__," he hesitated. Roy knew from past experience that Johnny never took too well to Jo's endeavors, but even Roy thought it was a good idea this time.
"Oh, Roy, no," Johnny began, suddenly realizing what the problem was. "Please tell me Joanne's not setting me up with someone. Please." The last was a whispered plea, but heartfelt nonetheless.
"Hey, I've met this one," Roy tried to explain. "She's real nice, Johnny. And she's pretty. And she's down to earth; I think you two would really hit it off."
"Roy__," he began, but paused momentarily to consciously unclench his teeth. Then, in as calm a voice as he could manage, Johnny said, "Would you tell Joanne that I appreciate her wanting to set me up with one of her friends, but that I'd really rather she didn't. Please. It's not necessary anymore, and I just don't want to put anyone in an awkward position, okay? Now I'm coming to the damn barbecue; please don't make me regret accepting the invitation."
Roy watched his partner turn and walk away. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his partner that angry, or have that anger directed at him. Though Johnny had always fussed about being set up, he'd
always accepted the situation in the good-hearted way it was intended.
Joanne was always trying to find the perfect girl for Johnny simply because she was so fond of the man. She wanted nothing more than to see him as happy as she and Roy were.
Trouble was, Johnny had stopped seeing himself as ever being a part of a happy couple.
The music was blaring from the stereo speakers, so it was a good thing
Roy and Joanne invited all of the immediate neighbors to their July 4th Barbecue. Everyone looked forward to it each year; the DeSotos went all out and provided everyone with plenty of food, beer, and soda. Everyone from A Shift was at the party along with their wives or dates.
The only one who arrived stag was Johnny, and Joanne assumed it was because he knew she'd invited Sandy Kelsey to the party. When Johnny arrived, she immediately greeted him with a cold beer and a hug.
"Hi there, stranger!" Jo welcomed. "It's about time you got here! The party's been in full swing for a couple of hours already. You're usually the first one here, not the last," she admonished.
"I know, and I'm sorry. I got hung up running a few errands," he lied smoothly. In actuality, Johnny waited purposely to be one of the last arrivals, so that he wouldn't have to endure the party for any longer than absolutely necessary. It was also his hope that Jo's friend would have left by then.
No such luck.
"Sandy! Sandy, would you come here? There's someone I'd like you to meet."
A tall, attractive brunette walked over wearing tan shorts, which showed off her long legs, and navy blue tank top. She was barefoot, and her shorts and shirt were dotted with moisture.
"Hi," she said, shaking some of the water off.
"I see the kids talked you into running through the sprinkler with them," Jo chuckled.
"Yes, they did. Your two can be very persuasive, Joanne." Sandy then turned, smiled, and introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Sandy Kelsey, and you must be the famous John Gage Jo has been trying to set me up with for the last two months."
John blushed with embarrassment and stood speechless. He was definitely out of practice.
Thankfully, Sandy recognized the problem and quietly said, "It's nice to finally meet you."
"Um, thanks. It's nice to meet you, too," he responded nervously.
"John, let me take your jacket and then you two can go get yourselves some food!" Jo practically ordered.
"Oh, thanks Jo, but I'm okay," he said.
"Oh, but Johnny, it's got to be close to 95 degrees out today. Aren't you warm?" Joanne asked with concern.
"Hey, I know, but ya can't be too careful with sunburn, right?" he responded with a forced casualness. He then hurriedly said, "I could use a burger, okay?" He turned to walk towards the barbecue and neither of the women was sure if he meant for Sandy to follow him. Finally, Jo literally pushed her friend in the direction that John walked and then moved on to play hostess to all of her friends.
Sandy met up with him as he began putting some ketchup and relish on the burger. "So, are you the kind that likes your burgers dead or mooing?" she asked lightly.
John smiled at her attempt at small talk and said, "Mooing."
"Me, too, though my mother still insists upon serving them to me well-done when I'm over at her place for a barbecue. Hell, she serves it to me well-done when she's over at _my_ place for a barbecue," she chuckled.
John looked at her and sighed inwardly. Joanne was right. He and Sandy could easily hit it off, and at one time he wouldn't have hesitated to take the plunge and ask her out on a date. Unfortunately, times had changed, and that was no longer a reality in John's mind. He felt he had to end it before it even got started.
Suddenly, John was thrown off balance. He looked down and realized he was 'attacked' by two smaller versions of Roy and Joanne. Chris, blonde like his dad, and Jennifer, brunette like her mom, surrounded him in a giant bear hug.
"Hey you guys," Johnny greeted, grateful for the diversion from Sandy. "Long time no see."
"Hi, Uncle Johnny!" Chris returned the greeting enthusiastically. "C'mon! Ya gotta come now, before it gets dark and Daddy turns it off."
"Come where?" Johnny asked, though he knew he was only attempting to stall. It was a DeSoto Family Barbecue tradition that Johnny had to avoid at all costs.
"The sp'inkler, Uncle Johnny!" answered Jennifer immediately in her sweet five year old voice.
"C'mon, Uncle Johnny! You got here so late this year, I thought you was going to miss it!" urged eight year old Chris.
"Yeah, well, guys, I think I'm gonna pass this year. I didn't bring a change of clothes and besides, I just don't feel like getting wet right now," Johnny explained.
"Oh, Uncle Johnny, please?" begged Jennifer.
"I'm sorry, Jenny Bean, but I'm really gonna have to beg off," he said with a little more conviction.
"Aw, Uncle Johnny," the children whined in unison.
"Look, I said, no! Can't you understand what 'no' means?" Johnny yelled angrily.
Sandy looked on in horror and wondered what it was exactly that Joanne thought she would see in John Gage. The children had actually jumped back, as if they'd both been slapped. Johnny appeared stricken too, though everyone's eyes were now on the distraught children.
Johnny had never before raised his voice to the kids, never in all the times he'd been to their house or they'd been to his. Johnny was horrified that he yelled at them, but his reaction was understandable considering what they were asking him to do. It wasn't business as usual; he couldn't simply strip down to a pair of borrowed shorts and go running through the sprinklers like he had during barbecues past.
The children would have taken one look at his scarred body and gone screaming in the other direction. Johnny couldn't bear to frighten the children even if it meant he had to disappoint them.
"Damn it, Gage," admonished Chet, who had wandered over at the commotion, "what the heck has gotten into you? You've changed man, you've changed a lot."
"Yeah, Chester B., I suppose I have."
"Do you have any idea of what kind of an asshole you just were?" Chet asked angrily. "I mean, those are Roy's kids you just screamed at. You've really changed, Johnny. Think I want the old Gage back," Chet grumbled with annoyance as he turned his back on him.
"Yeah, Chet, me too," he whispered in reply and then promptly left the DeSoto's home without another word to anyone.
Johnny returned to the station along with the rest of A Shift a couple of days after the debacle at the DeSoto's home. There was a time when someone would have called Johnny to find out what the hell his outburst was all about. Roy actually tried a couple of times, but Johnny cut him off the first time he called and then was never at home the other times he'd phoned.
The guys didn't intentionally give John the cold, they simply chose not to bring up the barbecue and without that to discuss there wasn't much else to talk about. Roy was never much to initiate discussions about feelings in the first place; that was always Johnny's domain, and if Johnny didn't feel the need to bring it up, Roy certainly wouldn't.
There was a time Chet would have teased Johnny about his latest conquest, or better yet, his lack thereof, but it was obvious Johnny hadn't been out on a date in a while, so what was the point?
The klaxons were blissfully silent that morning, and that meant there was more time to hang around the station. Once the assigned chores for the day were completed, and the logbooks were updated, the guys found themselves sitting in the dayroom chatting away. In the beginning they tried to include Johnny in the conversation, but it was too no avail. He remained mute and unreceptive to their dialogue. Finally, they just ignored him.
They'd just finished eating a lunch of sandwiches and chips when they heard the bell ring to the front door of the station. Marco got up to see who was there. Moments later, he returned and said, "Um, Johnny? You have a couple of visitors."
"Hi, John," said the soft voice of the lovely, blonde haired woman. She was carrying a toddler of about 2 years, who upon seeing the dark haired paramedic, screeched with glee, "Donny! Donny!" She squirmed in her mother's arms until the woman was forced to put her down and watched as the little one practically pranced into John's welcoming arms.
"Hello Cookie Monster! What a nice surprise!" Johnny greeted the little girl with great affection and tenderness.
In fact, it was the most animated the guys had seen Johnny act in a very long time, and it kind of surprised them. They also wondered who were these two people who obviously had a very powerful effect on their friend, and when the hell were they coming back?
"Cookie Monster, you are looking good," Johnny said with obvious satisfaction. "So are you Barbara. To what do I owe this visit?"
"Well, it's Carrie's second birthday on Sunday, and Brian and I really want you to come share it with us. Please?" Barbara noted John's raised eyebrows and concerned expression and quickly added, "It's not going to be a big shindig, just my mom, sister and her husband. Brian's mom can't fly in this weekend, but she's going to make a trip in August. So, what do you say? Will you come?" asked Barbara hopefully.
John took only moments to consider his answer. "How can I not come to this little cookie monster's party?" he finally said as he ruffled her hair.
"Hot! Down! Want down, Donny!" As she wiggled her way out of Johnny's arms the firemen noticed her pulling at her lightweight sweater. It was warm in the kitchen and so it didn't surprise them that she'd want to remove the covering.
What they saw next, however, did surprise the crew, and it suddenly occurred to the men who this little girl and her mother were. The child wore a lightweight sundress, which exposed the burn scars all around the back of her neck, shoulders, and back. They all worked extra hard to suppress the gasps that threatened to escape from each of their mouths.
Johnny and his visitors exchanged small talk for a few more minutes when Barbara said she needed to get her little one home in time for an afternoon nap.
"To tell you the truth, Johnny, I'm not sure who needs it more. Her or me," she chuckled.
"Well, c'mon, I don't want either one of you to miss your beauty sleep. I'll walk you to the door." Barbara bid her good-byes to the firemen and allowed Johnny to escort her and baby Carrie out front.
"She's looking good, Barbara. The scars have faded a lot since I saw her last," Johnny said.
"Yes, but it's sometimes so hard. You know how hard it is to explain to a child that she can't play in the sun without protective covering? She's so fair skinned that I'm afraid to let her play outside for more than twenty minutes at a time."
"I know, but her skin will toughen up with time. And after she's done with all of the skin grafts, things will stabilize even more."
"I know, and I know that _you_ know. You've been a God-send, John Gage. I do hope you realize how much Brian and I appreciate all of your support these last few months," Barbara said gratefully.
"Hey, you've been there for me too, Barbara. Both you and Brian. You two understood more about what I was going through than anyone else I know, so_, well, it works both ways," Johnny confessed.
"Well, we'll see you on Sunday, right?"
"Wouldn't miss my Cookie Monster's birthday party for the world!
Come here Carrie, and let's get this pretty little sweater back on ya."
Whereas Barbara would have had a struggle on her hands to get Carrie's sweater on, Johnny dressed her effortlessly. Johnny still had the old
Gage charm; it just seemed to work only on fellow burn victims of late.
Johnny walked back toward the kitchen but stopped just short of the door when he heard an emotional discussion ensuing.
"That poor little girl. I can't imagine how she's going to live with that," remarked Marco.
"Yeah, poor kid. I mean, those scars were awful, weren't they? I mean, they looked just plain scary!" commented Chet in his usual melodramatic fashion.
"What's really scary is that those scars are probably better than the ones she had a few months ago. I mean, it's been over ten months since the car fire, so she's had some skin grafts by now," Roy, ever the paramedic, commented.
"Damn, it sure does make you respect the power of fire when you see those results," commented the normally quiet Mike.
"I pity that little girl," continued Chet, in his own morose fashion,
"I mean, how the hell is she gonna get through life looking like that?"
Johnny couldn't take anymore. He never did hear Hank, Roy, and the others shoot Chet down with his absurd idea that you can't get through life if you're not model perfect. Roy in fact became noticeably irritated. "Chet, are you forgetting something? Johnny was burned in that very same fire."
"Aw, c'mon, Roy. That's different and you know it. Johnny hasn't said boo about the accident."
"Yeah," Marco agreed, "I've never heard Johnny complain about anything, have you?"
The guys all murmured their agreements. Chet added, "He's okay with it; if he weren't you don't think we'd be hearing his bellyaching from morning to night about it? Nah, Johnny don't have the problems that little girl's probably gonna have."
Roy sat at the table and wondered if Chet were actually right about that. He certainly hoped so. They all wanted to believe it was so.
The day started out quietly. The men managed to get through their morning duties quickly and efficiently. Even Chet didn't complain about having latrine duty for the second shift in a row.
It seemed everyone sensed something was going down that day, something big. No one knew exactly when or what it was going to be, but every so often the men became so in sync with one another that it was as if they could sense when the next big event was going to occur.
By mid afternoon, the tension in the station was palpable, and when the klaxons finally sounded, the release of nervous energy was so thick it was difficult for the guys to even catch their breaths.
"Station 51, Station 29, Engine 10, Squad 15. Warehouse fire. 110
Hempstead Boulevard. Cross Street, Jackson Avenue. Time out: 22:48."
The squad led the way to the site of the fire, but the conversation both in the squad and on the engine was nil. The men had to concentrate on fully preparing themselves for this one; they all knew this was the big one they'd felt was coming all day long. There was always a sense of excitement, anticipation, and a healthy dose of fear on these kinds of calls. But they all knew they had to concentrate and back one another up; all of their lives were at stake.
The captains conferred and delegated the assignments to each of their men. DeSoto and Lopez were assigned the northern entrance while Gage and Kelly were assigned the western side. Stoker of course remained by the engine monitoring the water levels and the hose capacity and made sure everything was running as smoothly as possible. Captain Stanley supervised his men and continuously reevaluated their assignments to be sure their efforts were being put to best use.
Just as Stanley was about to discuss with the captain of Station 29 what effect the sudden change of wind direction would have, an older man came running up to the two men in charge and began speaking rapidly.
"Jeffreys, he's still in there. I don't see him anywhere, so he must not have made it out. Damn it, have you seen him? Walter Jeffreys? He's about my height, silver gray hair? He's one of our site managers, he was working today, I'm sure of it. I didn't see him come out though. I accounted for everyone else, but not Jeffreys! Damn it, where the hell is he? He can't still be in there, but I don't see him anywhere!"
"Okay, Sir, we'll go check it out. Where would he most likely be, Sir?
Sir?" Captain Stanley touched the distraught man's shoulder and watched him jump, startled. "Sorry, Sir, but do you have any idea where he'd most likely be?"
"Yeah, the west side of the building. That's where the new shipment of pesticides was being delivered. He'd be supervising the delivery."
"Pesticides?" echoed the captain. "What kind of pesticides?" he asked anxiously. He was concerned that his men might be exposed to something toxic and wanted to be prepared.
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure... I think it's something like DDT, but it's not supposed to be as harmful. But who the heck would really know, right? Look, ya gotta find Jeffreys, please!" the nervous man pleaded.
"Okay, Sir, we'll get right on it, but if at any time you see Mr. Jeffreys, will you please inform us immediately?" Captain Stanley said. When the older man nodded, Stanley picked up his HT and radioed Kelly and Gage.
"We've got a missing person, reportedly on your side of the building, men. Time to do a search of the west wing," he ordered, but then quickly added, "Listen you two. We've got a report that pesticides are
in that section of the warehouse, so be careful."
The two men acknowledged the orders and were relieved by two of Station 29's men. They returned to their respective trucks for rescue gear, strapped on their SCBAs, and grabbed flashlights. The men confirmed with the captain where they should start and moved back toward the entrance of the west side of the building.
Gage entered first with Kelly following. The smoke was quite thick and black, with the flames nipping at them from various corners and crevices in the building. Both men moved cautiously through the smoke-filled structure, and both men wondered if they were going to have any luck in finding the victim alive.
Suddenly Gage tripped over something and soon realized it was their victim's leg. Both Gage and Kelly began to set aside crates that had fallen on top of the victim in an attempt to free him. Finally, Gage picked the man up in a classic fireman's hold and began following Kelly's lead out of the building.
They were just about to step into the corridor that led out to the street level when another explosion pulled them apart. Kelly fell forward while the extra weight Gage carried caused him to actually topple backwards. They both felt themselves being covered with a fine mist. Their first thought was that the sprinkler system kicked in, but that of course made no sense, as the fire had been fully involved for almost thirty-five minutes. If the sprinkler system were working properly it would have been working well before this.
Several minutes passed and Gage felt himself becoming more and more lightheaded. He wasn't sure if he'd hit his head but assumed he must have to account for the dizziness. He tried to locate both Chet and the victim, but neither man was within his view. When John tried to get up wobbly legs forced him back down. He couldn't move at that point and was in too much of a stupor to care.
Some time had passed and just as he felt himself about ready to pass out, Gage felt himself being picked up. He hoped that whomever his rescuer was noticed where their victim had fallen, but John promptly passed out before he could check.
Chet had been found immediately and brought out quickly after the explosion. The captain had alerted Rampart with the possibility of his men being exposed to toxic chemicals and was directed to take extreme precautionary measures. As a result, Chet had been immediately stripped down to his boxers and was being hosed down.
Mr. Jeffreys was found soon after Chet and stripped down to his skivvies and hosed down at the same time he was being given oxygen. That last explosion was as a result of the last shipment of materials, a highly toxic chemical with enough letters in its name to account for the entire alphabet, coming into contact with the extreme heat.
Gage was the last to be brought out and as soon as he hit the fresh air he became more alert, but not coherent enough to realize what had to be done to prevent him from possibly being fatally poisoned. Craig Brice had come over to offer assistance, so Roy directed him to attend to
Chet to make sure he wasn't showing any symptoms of toxic poisoning.
Meanwhile, Roy helped Marco remove Johnny's turnout coat and gloves.
Next, Roy removed John's boots, and pants. Finally, they removed his blue uniform shirt and long-sleeved tee shirt. Marco began hosing down the paramedic while Roy helped to shift him into different positions so that any traces of the chemical could be washed away.
When Roy rolled him over to expose his left side, he heard his colleagues gasp. Roy realized though it had been a while since Johnny had allowed him to see his scars, he was at least aware of their severity. But the men of Station 51 were not given that opportunity.
They had no way of knowing just how much scar tissue covered Johnny's shoulder and left side. In all the months upon his return, Gage had never allowed them to see all of his burn scars.
And all at once, the men of Station 51 felt as if they'd been punched in the gut. Each of them tried to imagine how their friend could have survived those burns on his own, without letting on how bad they were. He had to have felt pain if not all the time, at least on occasion. He had to have felt, at the very least, discomfort from the over stretched skin.
Surely he'd felt some of the classic symptoms of shame and fear that came with the severity of the disfigurement, but he never once spoke of it aloud.
"Oh, Johnny, what the hell you must have been going through..." Marco whispered. Roy heard the others murmur similar words of frustration, of discomfort. Suddenly, upon hearing his co-workers sentiments, Roy felt as if he'd let his friend down; he of all people should have known how bad it probably was for his partner. He should have made himself more available, but Johnny rarely complained. He was coping okay, wasn't he?
Roy shuddered when he suddenly realized it had become so much easier to assume that Johnny was okay. If Johnny chose not to be a part of the station activities, that was Johnny's choice. It couldn't have been because he was feeling badly. If he chose not to attend any more of the family barbecues, that was also his choice. It couldn't have been because he was having trouble dealing with life at that moment.
Roy looked over his friend's disfigured body and knew for certain one thing: Johnny never chose to live with this. And he knew Johnny never wished for his friends to abandon him, though he seemed to let his friends off the hook by abandoning them first.
"Damn it, Junior, why couldn't you let me help you?" Roy whispered in grief for both his friend and their friendship.
"What the hell happened out there, Roy?" demanded Kelly Brackett as he huffed out of the treatment room.
"What do you mean? You heard the call, Doc, Johnny, Chet, and the civilian, Jeffreys, were exposed to some toxic chemical."
"Yeah, I got that, but what else happened. I just had to shoot your partner up with enough Valium to put an elephant out, he was hyperventilating so much," Brackett groused. "I've seen Gage become agitated, but this was beyond even Gage's limits. I want to know why."
"Well, what did he say?" asked Roy, at a loss. His partner was only semi-conscious just about the entire time they'd been hosing him down.
"He didn't say anything; he just started moaning and hyperventilating."
"Well, what the hell did _you_ say?" Roy asked in frustration.
Brackett was ready to give the paramedic some hell for being so contemptuous, but he checked himself just in time. Kelly realized he had been pretty uncivil himself.
"I gave him the usual neuro check. You know, the usual questions; What's today's date? Do you know where you are? Do you know what happened?"
"Oh, God," Roy murmured, and then to Brackett he asked, "And did he?"
"He's groggy and has a concussion, but his x-rays are clean. He knew he was at Rampart, but he wasn't sure of the day or what had happened."
"And you told him." Roy knew that had to be it, but he waited for
Brackett to acknowledge him.
"Yes, I told him."
"And that's when he freaked out on you, right?" When Kelly nodded, Roy sighed deeply. "Doc, um, you may not believe this, but he'd never let the guys see 'em before."
"Never let the guys see what?" Brackett was in the dark.
Several moments went by before Roy found his voice, but then he whispered, "The scars. They'd never seen the burn scars before."
"You're kidding?" Brackett responded incredulously but when he saw
Roy's expression, he said, "You're not kidding." And then it dawned on him what had happened to set John Gage's fragile ego to implode.
"He realized you had to strip him at the scene __," Brackett began.
"__So everyone got to see the scars he'd been so carefully hiding for the last three months," Roy concluded.
"I see," Brackett responded, and he did. The question was what could they do about it? "I hadn't realized Johnny had been so reticent about showing the scars to you."
"I guess none of us had. I mean, I'd seen them in the beginning, when he was first undergoing treatment and rehab, but only to an extent, ya know? But once he got back to work, it was like a forbidden topic. I mean, he never, ever talked about the accident. He always said he was doing fine.
"Damn it, Doc," Roy continued to vent, "I knew he had burns, and I knew they were bad. But I just figured Johnny was okay, you know, that he'd bounced back from this accident just like he bounced back from every other trauma he'd ever experienced. I didn't___," he choked, "I never thought __. God," moaned Roy, "I've been such an idiot."
"I think we've all been," replied Kelly in gloomy commiseration.
Roy sat quietly at his partner's bedside. He'd gone home the previous day, as Brackett was more than positive that John would be down for the count the entire night, and he was right. Roy waited impatiently for his partner to wake up, even though he knew the conversation that would ensue was not going to be an easy one for either man.
Finally, after Roy had leafed through the same outdated Woman's Day magazine for the fourth time, John opened his eyes. Without a word,
Johnny looked at his partner in wonder.
Johnny continued to stare.
"How ya feeling, Junior?"
"What are you doing here?" Johnny rasped.
"I'm here because once again my partner is in the hospital. Where the hell do you think I'd be?"
"Well, you won't have to worry anymore, Roy," he said so softly, that
Roy had to strain to hear him.
"Oh, and what's that supposed to mean, Pally?" he asked gently.
Johnny closed his eyes as he moved the covers up farther around his chest. He tried to hide behind the blanket, but he knew he wasn't succeeding. Johnny had little choice but to let Roy know what his plans were.
"I'm resigning. As soon as the cap comes to see me, I'll tell him, and then as soon as I get out of here, I'll hand in my official resignation." The entire time he spoke Johnny had his eyes closed, so he was unable to see the shocked expression on his partner's face. Therefore, the harsh words that came out of Roy's mouth were a complete surprise.
"What the hell are you thinking, Johnny?" Roy couldn't remember when he last felt this angry toward his partner. "Why the hell would you resign?"
"Why? Damn it, Roy, you _know_ why! You _saw_ why! How the hell can
I work with guys who are going to see me as a God damned freak?" he cried out.
"Johnny, the only person who sees you as a freak is you. You're still my partner, Junior."
"No, I don't think so, Roy," he answered mournfully. "Funny, Chet was actually right about something. A while back, I guess it was at the barbecue, he said I changed. I couldn't argue with him, Roy. I have changed. I'm not me anymore."
"You're right in a way. You have changed, but only because you _let_ the damn scars change you," Roy argued.
"Because I let them? Because _I_ let them?" he repeated with a fury neither man thought he was physically capable of at that moment. "For cripe's sake, Roy, I heard you and the guys talking the day Carrie came to visit with her mom; you were all totally repulsed by that little girl, and she was just a baby with scarring far less severe than mine. I know you guys felt revolted by her; how could you not be even more disgusted by me?" he cried out.
Roy wanted nothing more than to shake his partner and try to get him to understand. "Johnny, we were surprised by the baby's scarring. We weren't prepared for it, and if we'd made comments that were disparaging or negative about her, it wasn't meant as an insult. We were probably just trying to understand her situation.
When Roy saw his partner's eyes close in disbelief, he continued, "It's the truth, Junior. I think it had gotten to the point where everyone just kind of lost sight your situation. Think about it from the guys' points of view, just for a second. Johnny, you never complained. You never talked to us about any of it. For crying out loud, do you know how effectively you managed to shut us all out, to shut _me_ out? You did it so gradually, I don't think any of us even realized it had happened until yesterday."
"And everyone saw me. And everyone was repulsed and disgusted by the sight of me."
"NO! Not you, Johnny, never you!" At this point, Roy reached over with his left hand and grabbed John's right hand firmly. Next, with his right hand, he pulled John's left hand up and out over his blanket. Johnny tried to squirm away, but Roy held fast.
"You hid so well from us, so yeah, it did shock us a little." When Johnny rolled his eyes at that, Roy amended, "Okay, so maybe it shocked a couple of the guys a lot, but not me. I'd seen the damage already, remember? Granted, it had been a long time ago, but I knew you were burnt badly. So I _wasn't_ repulsed; none of the guys felt that way and certainly no one was disgusted by you.
"I guess," Roy added gently, "more than anything else, I felt fear and a lot of sadness. Fear that it could happen to me someday, sadness that it happened to you."
"Great, so now you're gonna pity me. I don't need your pity, Roy."
"And you're not gonna get it, Pally," Roy retorted angrily.
With that, John's head shot up. "Roy," he began wearily, "what do you want from me?"
"I want there to be trust between us again."
"How can you ever trust me again? How can any of the men feel like they can count on me. LOOK AT ME!" he screamed in frustration.
"I want to look at you, Johnny, but you stopped letting me. Don't you get it yet, Junior? We never _stopped_ trusting you. _I_ never stopped trusting you." Though tears threatened to fall, Roy managed to keep them at bay as he took a shaky breath. "The question isn't could we ever trust you, but rather, are you ever going to trust us again?"
Johnny looked at his partner and for a moment or two had to work hard at assimilating everything Roy had said to him, especially the last part.
And then Johnny knew what he had to do.
He gently flexed his wrists so Roy would remove his hands from his own.
He then, very tentatively, sat up and untied the hospital gown string at the nape of his neck. Finally, closing his eyes, John slowly pulled the gown and blanket down in front of him, exposing his burnt shoulder, arm, and left side.
Finally he opened his eyes and looked at his partner. It was time to start trusting again.
Johnny showed up before everyone else for the Labor Day Weekend
Barbecue Bash. He'd promised Roy he'd help him hose down the extra
chairs, which had been sitting and collecting dust since July 4th.
When he arrived, the children were slightly wary of him, particularly Jennifer, but as children usually are they were pretty quick to forgive.
In fact, given the fact that Johnny appeared in a short sleeved shirt, it was the first time that the children had been privy to their Uncle Johnny's scarred arm. Johnny was admittedly a little fearful of what their reaction might be, but he knew he had to deal with it sooner or later. He figured dealing with it before all the guests came was probably the wisest thing to do.
Jennifer was the first to notice. "Uncle Johnny? Is that your owie?"
"Yes, Jenny, it is," he responded gently.
"Does it hurt?" she asked with earnestness befitting someone well beyond her five years.
"It did at one time," he replied honestly, "but not too much anymore."
"Does it feel funny?" asked Chris, who'd finally decided to get in on the conversation.
"What do you mean? Does it feel funny to me or to you?" asked Johnny.
"Well, I guess, both?" asked Chris with a bit of morbid curiosity.
"Well, it feels a little funny to me, because it feels like my skin is bumpy like an alligator's but at the same time feels all stretched out, so it doesn't always feel like my skin." He looked first at Chris and then at Jennifer and said gently, "And I guess the only way to find out if it feels funny to you is for you guys to touch my arm and see for yourselves."
Johnny sat there nervously, while Roy and Joanne looked on from the doorway. All of the adults knew this could turn, very suddenly, very badly.
Jenny was the first to reach out and tentatively pat her Uncle Johnny's arm, which soon turned into a gentle stroking. Chris soon followed and finally, Chris declared, "I dunno, Uncle Johnny. I guess it just feels like..."
And Jennifer promptly completed her brother's thought for both of them,
"Yeah, that's what it feels like," agreed Chris. And both children promptly gave their Uncle Johnny a hug and a kiss and went back to their various activities before the guests arrived.
"And needless to say, this little gal has stolen my heart!" Johnny was explaining to Sandy Kelsey about little Carrie as she ran around with Chris and Jennifer in the backyard. Roy had invited Barbara and Brian Donovan as a surprise after learning how close they'd become to Johnny.
At first Johnny was somewhat reticent about admitting to Roy just how much of a role the Donovans played in his recovery. He thought Roy might be angry or even a little jealous. But in reality, Roy understood that the couple and their child provided a support and understanding he wasn't able to give. Roy was in fact grateful to the young family for being there for his friend.
Now, Sandy Kelsey was another story. She was very leery at first in allowing John Gage within ten feet of her, but after he begged for forgiveness on bended knee, and even offered to share his hotdog with her, she figured she had little to lose in getting reacquainted.
And besides, she'd really wanted to see that new Star Wars movie everyone was raving about, so tomorrow night was as good as any.
So when she said yes to the movie date, John couldn't help but think what a nice way to start and become more than just a friendly acquaintance.
End of Friendly Acquaintances
Special thanks to my wonderfully patient and knowledgeable betas, dee_ayy and Peggy. Thanks for taking the time to look it over not once but twice and share your knowledge about writing and the characters. Oh, and of course I shall always remember these pearls of wisdom..."You can never have too much angst!" How true, how true.
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