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Johnny hummed along with the tune on radio, a tired grin turning up one corner of his mouth. It was after 6:00 p.m. now, and the station he was listening to was playing Christmas carols continuously. Johnny didn’t mind. He’d always enjoyed this time of year as a kid, at least until his parents had died in a house fire when he was fourteen.* His aunt had tried to make Christmas special for him after she’d taken him back to California to live with her, but those first few Christmases had been hard...
Who was he kidding, Christmas had been a holiday he’d tried his best to ignore...at least until he’d become Roy’s partner almost three years ago, and the older man and his family had ‘adopted’ him. Gone were the days when Johnny would work as much overtime during the holidays as the Department allowed. Now he spent most of the major holidays, as well as family milestones such as birthdays and school plays, with the DeSotos as well.
His life had changed so much in the years since he’d teamed up with Roy. Oh, he’d made some good friends over the years—Drew Burke and his wife, Pam, came to mind immediately, although there had been others—but he’d never had a “best friend” until he’d met Roy. They’d hit it off almost since the day he’d walked into the office at headquarters Roy had been using for inquiries about the fledgling Paramedic program, and by the time their training at Rampart had wrapped up, Roy had already decided that he’d wanted Johnny to be his partner at the newly opened Station 51—not that Johnny’d had any objections to the idea...
The grin on Johnny’s face grew wider. Roy’s kids had taken to him right away, and the moniker of “Uncle Johnny” was born fairly quickly. He loved Chris and Jennifer DeSoto as if they were his own children, and it moved his heart beyond words whenever he thought about the fact that they felt the very same way about him. Roy and Joanne were going to kill him when they saw what ‘Santa’ had brought their kids this year, courtesy of their Uncle Johnny. Oh, well...he was their Uncle, after all—he had a reputation to maintain.
Now Joanne had been a tougher nut to crack.** She’d taken an instant dislike to him, the reasons for which Johnny could not understand...at least not until after she’d had a change of heart during his stay with them while he was recuperating from the Koki Fever virus. The grin slipped a bit from his face as he remembered how uncomfortable a time that had been for him... It had seemed as though everything he said or did caused her to get angry with him. It wasn’t until he’d rousted her and the kids out of bed and out of the house one night when the next door neighbors’ house was on fire, and was injured after going into the burning building to rescue them as well, that she’d begun to have a change of heart. She’d confessed her jealousy of his growing friendship with Roy and apologized for her negative attitude toward him...and they’d both agreed to wipe the slate clean and start all over.
The smile returned. Now he’d come to think of both her and Roy as the sister and brother he’d never had, and he couldn’t imagine his life without the entire DeSoto family in it...
The opening strains of Elvis Presley’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas filled the Land Rover, and Johnny began to hum along.
He was heading back to Los Angeles after visiting with his aunt in the nursing home in Ojai. It was her first Christmas there—she’d suffered a stroke in early summer and was unable to live on her own anymore. It hadn’t been an easy visit...her memory and cognitive functions having declined noticeably since before her stroke. Her motor skills had declined as well, and it had taken all of Johnny’s will power not to help her feed herself. He’d made that mistake once, when she was first moved into the facility and she didn’t like it, and had made her displeasure known loud and clear. So he’d sat there with his hands twitching in his lap, and his heart weeping in sadness for the loss of the woman she once had been.
She’d rallied after dinner, though, and they shared a quiet evening together until visiting hours were over and she’d begun to doze on and off in her wheelchair. But before he’d left, she had looked at him with clear eyes and a full heart, kissing him on the cheek and wishing him a Merry Christmas. It had heartened him then because, at that moment, he could sense in her a peace and acceptance of the new circumstances in her life that he’d never sensed in her before. And that had been the best gift in the world she could have given him this Christmas. Her sense of peace had soothed his own wounded spirit, and he’d walked out of her room with a greater sense of serenity than he could have ever hoped for that night.
He’d stayed later than he’d planned, however, when one of the nurses had asked for his help moving some last minute boxes of decorations for the dining room from the storage room in order to surprise the residents with them on Christmas morning. She was a rather pretty CNA, and he’d hung around a while to help her with some of the decorating.
It was dark now, and the temperature was starting to drop. He’d told Roy he’d stop by if he didn’t get home too late, but now it looked like he wouldn’t get there in time to say goodnight to the kids. He let out a disappointed sigh. He still had to go back to his place to pick up the presents he’d bought and bring them with him so that Roy could get them under the tree for the kids to find in the morning, but he might still be able to get there in time to help his friend assemble any last minute gifts.
A sudden loud explosion startled him from his musings as the Rover lurched and veered sharply to the right and onto the shoulder. Johnny tightened his grip as he fought with the steering wheel, trying to bring the vehicle back into his lane, but turning the wheel suddenly seemed to require a herculean effort and he couldn’t prevent the Rover from leaving the pavement. The vehicle bucked and bounced through the thick underbrush, tossing Johnny helplessly to and fro—only his lap belt keeping him in his seat.
His unexpected detour came to an abrupt halt when the Rover slammed into something hard and unyielding and Johnny’s world exploded into one of pain and darkness.
Roy maneuvered the wrench around the back wheel of the new Huffy bicycle for his son, working on tightening the central nut. He stopped in mid-turn, leaning back and wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. He glanced down at his watch for what seemed like the umpteenth time and sighed. Nine-forty p.m. Where the heck was Johnny?
He knew his partner had gone up to Ojai to spend Christmas Eve with this aunt, but he could tell that Johnny had not really been looking forward to it. The younger man was very sensitive, and although he did his best to try and hide it behind a happy-go-lucky attitude, Roy knew that the idea of spending this Christmas, the first with his only living relative now confined to a nursing home, with her had been upsetting to him. Not that he didn’t visit her fairly often. Roy knew Johnny went up there at least once a month to see her, but it was obvious to Roy, from the few times Johnny had come straight to his house after one of these visits, that his friend always returned a bit saddened. Roy would do the only thing he could think of to cheer up his partner—he’d make sure that his kids were on hand...and underfoot...to distract him. By the time Johnny was ready to leave for the night, he was usually back to his old cheery self once more.
He heard the basement door open behind him and Joanne descend the stairs. A moment later his wife’s warm arms wrapped around him. “Hey, Sweetheart, how’s it coming?”
Roy turned to face her, planting a kiss on her nose. “Not too bad. I’m almost finished. But I still need to put Jenny’s Barbie’s Townhouse together. I was hoping Johnny’d be here by now to help...”
“Well, he did say he might not make it. Maybe he just wasn’t up to coming over,” Joanne suggested. “You know how rough the idea of his aunt having to spend Christmas in the nursing home has been for him.”
“I know... That’s kinda why I was hoping he’d show up tonight, so that we could distract him a bit. I was going to ask him to spend the night with us, too, so that he’d be here when the kids opened their gifts in the morning,” Roy explained as he turned away from her and faced the workbench again.
“Well, it’s still early. He might just be running a little late. Have you tried calling him to see if he’s home yet?”
“I did when you took the kids up to bed. There was no answer.”
Joanne shrugged, laying a hand on his shoulder in support. “Well, try him again. You know he won’t call here now—he’d be afraid of waking the kids.”
That brought a small smile to his face. That would be just like Johnny—always putting others before himself. “How’d you get to be so smart?”
“I was born smart…that’s why I married such a smart man,” she replied with a casual air, as if the answer was obvious—or at least it would be to anyone with brains in their head.
Roy nodded his head. “You certainly did. You go on back upstairs and I’ll be up to use the phone in a minute. I just want to finish tightening this nut…”
“Oh, I’m not going to touch that one with a ten foot pole,” she said with a laugh, turning to go back upstairs.
“Smart woman,” he mumbled to her retreating figure, his smile growing wider.
He finished tightening the nut on the bicycle wheel, his gaze lingering on the shiny metal. He’d called Johnny a nut once…and it had driven his partner into a snit for an entire shift when he’d found out about it. But Johnny, being Johnny, had let it go quickly once Roy had explained what he’d meant by the comment.
“You’re a nut, but you’re a friendly kind of nut...”
But all he could do now was hope that his friendly nut of a partner was finally home as he put the wrench down and made his way upstairs to the phone.
A low moan from somewhere far away caught his attention as he floated in the hazy darkness. He had no idea how long he’d been there, anchorless and aimlessly drifting. The sound came again, closer this time, and he watched disinterestedly as the world around him coalesced into blurry images of light and shadow. It took several moments for him to comprehend that what he was seeing was indeed reality.
And when the next moan came, he finally realized that he was its source as he became aware of the pain he was experiencing in various parts of his body.
He slowly tried to turn his head, hoping to make more sense out of what he was seeing, but the movement sent the world into a tailspin, and he stopped abruptly, squeezing his eyes shut and swallowing repeatedly as he tried to keep the contents of his stomach where it belonged. When he opened them again the world had righted itself on its axis once more and his vision had cleared enough so that he could at least hazard a guess at what was outside his windshield.
I’m in a forest? He wondered briefly as he attempted to turn his head again. He appeared to be in a car...and that car seemed to be deep in the bush. It was when he looked forward again that he realized the front end of the vehicle rested squarely against the trunk of a tree. Why am I camping in a car?
He felt something wet dripping down the left side of his face. That was strange...he hadn’t noticed the rain before. But when he tried to raise his left hand to wipe the rain away, pain ripped through him and he let out a gasping cry.
His eyes squeezed tightly shut again.
He panted his way through it until he was once again able to open his eyes, then lowered them to look for what had hurt him so badly. He found his left arm was wedged between his chest and the steering wheel.
He shivered slightly from the dampness of the night air, not bothering to stifle the low moan the movement produced. Then with his right hand he reached across his chest to try and wipe the rain off his face. He winced as he made contact with his forehead. My head hurts...
He wiped the wetness on his hand away on the leg of his pants, then thought that it was kind of odd that the rain was only wetting the one side of his face. The window must be open...
But it wasn’t. Frowning, he slowly raised his right hand up in front of his face, squinting in the darkness to try and clear his fuzzy vision. Not rain... Blood...
With a deep sigh that brought even more pain from his sore ribs, he dropped his hand to the top button of the sweater he wore, fumbling with it until he managed to get it undone, and then worked on the next two until they were both open as well. Reaching down, he slowly gripped his left arm by the wrist and began the agonizing movement to slip the injured limb into his sweater, using it as a makeshift sling. Stars burst across his vision, still visible against his tightly closed eyelids, and the heavy panting began again. Overwhelmed, he felt his stomach begin to contract and violently force its contents out the same way they came in.
His cry was cut off abruptly as he leaned to the right and threw up. Pain assaulted him from every side, and he felt himself teetering on the edge of a black abyss for what seemed like an eternity before he had the strength to inch his way back onto firmer ground.
He leaned back weakly against the seat, trying to regain his breath. As the sweat dried on his skin, the chill sent a wave of shivers through him and he lacked the strength to stifle another moan. He tried for several minutes to re-button the two top buttons of his sweater to give his broken arm more support, but his clumsy fingers just couldn’t seem to manage it and he finally gave up.
Those same fingers eventually moved to the clasp of his lap belt and, after a couple of tries, managed to undo the restraint.
Getting the driver’s side door open was another matter entirely.
It took him nearly fifteen minutes to get out of the car, up the wooded incline and back to the road. He stood there, gazing dazedly first in one direction and then in the other, recognizing nothing. Where am I?
There was no one around to answer his question.
He gazed back up the dark road once more then, for no reason in particular, turned to his right and began walking in the opposite direction.
Joanne had been in bed for quite a while by the time Roy finally slipped between the covers. He’d tried to keep his movements as gentle as possible, even though she usually slept like a log, but this night the first movement of the bed woke her. She turned to look at him groggily. “Wha’ timezit?”
He sighed. “It’s after 11:30. Go back to sleep, Hon.”
While his wife may have been groggy, she was still with it enough to ask, “Did you get a hold of Johnny?”
Roy lay staring up at the ceiling. “I tried again just before I came upstairs... No one answered the phone.”
She blinked a few times before answering. “Well, maybe he had some car trouble or something. You know Johnny... I’m sure he’s just fine.”
Yeah, I know Johnny... That’s why I’m worried. “You’re probably right...”
She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek before settling back down under the covers. “I’m sure he’ll show up bright and early in the morning with a smile on his face and way too many presents for the kids...”
He hoped she was right. When he considered how cheap his best friend usually was when it came to parting with even a dime of his money for most things, no matter how many times Roy’d try to convince the man not to go overboard when it came to his kids, Johnny would just grin and go right on spending.
He wouldn’t mind his partner showing up on his doorstep right now with his arms overflowing with presents for the kids, though, and he wouldn’t even complain about being rousted out of bed at nearly midnight.
Joanne yawned into the silence. “He’s a big boy, Roy... I’m sure he’s just fine. Now stop being a worry wart and get some sleep. The kids are gonna be up early in the morning.” She rolled back over and promptly followed her own advice.
Try as he might, Roy couldn’t bring himself to follow suit for quite some time.
He could have been walking for hours... He could have been walking for days... His feet seemed to be strangely disconnected from his aching body, and they just kept trudging along on the shoulder of the road. The rest of him had no choice but to follow.
I’ll be home for Christmas...
The words came from the ether, the voice vaguely familiar. He didn’t know why they seemed to be so important that they kept repeating in his mind over and over again.
“Look what Santa brought me!” In his mind’s eye he caught a glimpse of a small girl, her curly blonde hair askew in her excitement, running toward him in her pajamas and robe, but as quickly as it came, the image was gone.
He raised his eyes from the road, squinting at the hazy lights of the city off in the distance. His feet stumbled to a halt. The sight looked both familiar...and unfamiliar...to him at the same time.
The sound of a car pulling up beside him startled him, and he stumbled backward a step as the driver rolled down the passenger-side window. “Hey, buddy, need a lift?”
He blinked slowly in confusion, staring dazedly at the man in the car then back up at the lights off in the distance. His head was pounding...
The silence went on for few moments longer before the stranger spoke again. “Hey, pal, are you okay?”
Another image, this time of a man with reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes, passed swiftly through his mind. “Thanks for not taking no for an answer, Pally.” “Anytime, Junior. Anytime.”
He blinked again and reality coalesced around him once more. “Yeah... No... No thanks.”
The driver shrugged. “Suit yourself. Merry Christmas!”
He rolled up the window and drove off.
He said it was Christmas... He was supposed to be somewhere for Christmas...wasn’t he?
I’ll be home for Christmas...
You can count on me...
There was someplace he was supposed to be... and someone was counting on him to be there...
There was only one problem... He couldn’t seem to remember who it was who was waiting for him...or even where he was supposed to go.
Another shiver ran through him, causing the ache in his arm and ribs to flare. He braced his good arm around his sore chest and slowly started walking toward the city lights once more.
They were sitting in the living room, torn wrapping paper strewn all around them as the kids excitedly played with their toys on Christmas morning. Joanne got up from the couch and began picking up the discarded paper.
Chris looked up from his new toy and asked, “Hey, Dad, when’s Uncle Johnny supposed to get here?”
Roy smiled at his son. “He should be here any time, Chris.”
“I hope Santa left some presents for us at Uncle Johnny’s house again this year...” Jennifer added, and Roy couldn’t tell if she was more eager to see her beloved uncle or to get her hands on more presents.
A knock on the door roused him from his musings. “I’ll be that’s Uncle Johnny now!” With a broad grin on his face, Roy got up and opened the door. But the smile drooped a bit when he saw Officer Vince Howard on the other side.
“Merry Christmas, Vince. What can I do for you?”
“Merry Christmas, Roy,” Vince returned, the expression on his face looking anything but merry. “Look, uh... I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news...”
Roy’s heart stared to pound.
“We found Johnny’s car early this morning... I’m afraid he was involved in a one-car accident while driving back to the city last night... I’m sorry, Roy... He’s gone...”
“No...” the harsh whisper was torn from his throat as Vince’s words sank in. Dead? Johnny was dead?
Roy bolted upright in bed, his heart pounding in his chest and the sound of his own blood roaring in his ears. It took several moments before reality reasserted itself over his mind and senses.
He ran a shaking hand through his hair, unknowingly spiking it in all directions. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table he saw that it was 3:20 a.m.
Joanne still slept soundly beside him.
Just a dream… Oh, God, it was just a dream…
He knew he wasn’t going to be able to fall back to sleep again anytime soon, so he slowly shifted his legs over the side of the bed until his feet touched the floor. He stood up and made his way out of the room and down the stairs.
His eyes fell on the telephone on the credenza as he reached the bottom, and he debated with himself whether or not to pick it up and dial Johnny’s number. Should he risk waking his friend up if he’d only gotten home sometime within the past few hours? Or should he just wait until he showed up at the house in another few hours?
Images from his nightmare floated through his mind again, along with the horrible feeling that had swept over him when Vince had said, “He’s gone, Roy…”
Roy picked up the phone and dialed.
Roy let it ring more than twenty times before finally hanging up.
“Where could he be?” Roy whispered anxiously to himself as he began to pace the length of the living room.
It wasn’t that he thought Johnny couldn’t take care of himself. He was one of the most independent and self-reliant people Roy knew…almost to his own detriment, as Johnny had a hard time asking for and accepting help from others when he needed it. He was a tough man to get to know, but luckily for Roy, he had somehow managed to breach Johnny’s defenses and get behind the walls he had erected around himself. It had taken some time and patience, on both of their parts, but now Roy was grateful that Johnny was more than just his partner, or his friend…or even his best friend.
Johnny had become like a brother to him—the brother he’d always longed for while growing up—and Roy could no longer imagine his life without him in it. Johnny was a part of his family now and, thankfully, his wife felt the same way.
And he couldn’t shake the feeling that this particular member of his family was in some kind of trouble.
He glanced once again at the phone on the credenza. Maybe he could get a hold of Vince and he could get his fellow officers to be on the lookout for Johnny’s Rover… It was worth a shot, anyway.
He practically ran back to the phone and dialed the number for the local police department.
I’ll be home for Christmas...
You can count on me...
The first stray rays of light were beginning to dawn over the horizon as he followed the winding sidewalks through the sleepy neighborhood.
He felt numb now, disconnected from his own body and everything around him...everything except those ten words that ran continuously through his brain. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore...not even the nearly overwhelming exhaustion that made every bench he passed look so inviting.
He stumbled slightly and paused for a moment to regain his balance, glancing around absently at the well-kept houses with their manicured lawns. A wisp of familiarity passed through him, feather-light in its touch.
I’ll be home for Christmas...
With the last shred of energy he had, he forced his legs to start moving again.
Roy had spent the rest of the night alternating between sitting on the couch staring at the Christmas tree and stalking around the living room trying to work off his excess anxiety, all the while struggling with the overwhelming desire to go out and look for Johnny himself. If it had been any other morning but Christmas he wouldn’t have even hesitated. But here he was, torn between abandoning his brother and abandoning his children.
He’d been dialing Johnny’s number every half-hour with no luck at all.
Dawn had risen over half an hour ago, and he knew it wouldn’t be much longer before his kids tore down the stairs, anxious to discover what Santa had left for them beneath the tree. He didn’t know which he wanted more, for the kids to stay asleep a little while longer, or for them to hurry and wake up so that they could open their presents and be done with it. But one thing he knew for sure was that, if he was still unable to reach Johnny by the time they finished, nothing on Earth would stop him from going out to look for him.
“Sweetheart?” Joanne questioned softly as she came down the stairs. “What are you doing up so early? The kids won’t be up for a little while yet...” She stopped when she got her first good look at his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Johnny’s still not answering his phone, and I’ve been trying to reach him since 3:30 this morning...” he explained to her, his voice full of concern.
The expression on his wife’s face changed as it began to sink in just how worried he was. It wasn’t long before she became worried as well. “Where do you think he could be? Could he have stayed in Ojai overnight? Or maybe his car broke down on the way home and he’s waiting for it to be fixed?”
“I spoke to Vince about three hours ago,” he informed her, resisting the urge to pace again, “and he’s going to have any patrol cars on the roads between here and Ojai keep an eye out for him.”
Joanne reached out and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Well, the kids should be up any minute now. We’ll open the gifts and then you can go out and look for that wayward brother of yours.”
He wrapped his arms around her and drew her closer to him, thankful yet again that he’d married such a wonderful woman. “Thanks, Babe... I love you.”
She arched backward so that their gazes would meet. “I love you, too, Honey.” She leaned forward and captured his mouth with hers.
Roy returned the kiss gratefully.
The sudden ringing of the telephone startled them both, and they nervously broke their embrace. Roy reached out and snagged the receiver before the second ring. “Johnny?” he gasped breathlessly.
“No, Roy. It’s Vince. Look, uh... I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news...”
Roy’s heart stared pounding as the vision of his dream ran rampant through his thoughts, the blood rushing in his ears so loudly that he barely heard the rest of what the officer was saying. He felt his knees go weak.
Oh, God, please.... No...
“Roy, did you hear me?” Vince demanded into the silence.
“W-what?” Roy rasped as he struggled to return his attention on the voice at the other end of the line.
“It looks like the Rover blew a tire and went off the road. Another officer found it in the bush up against a tree about 20 miles outside of town. He reported evidence that the driver had been injured, but the vehicle was empty. They’re getting ready to launch a search for him now...”
Roy was distracted by the sudden sound of a soft thump on his front door. It can’t be the paperboy—he barely gets the paper onto the driveway...
Apparently Joanne heard it, too, because she said, “I’ll get it...”
An odd sensation rose up in his gut, and without knowing why, he reached out with his free hand to grab her arm. “No, I’ll get it. Vince, hang on a second, alright? Someone’s at the door...”
He handed the phone to his wife and went to the door, not really understanding why his heart had suddenly begun pounding again. He turned the knob and started open it slowly, peering around the edge cautiously because he was still unsure of what...or who...was on the other side.
His mouth dropped open in shock when his eyes finally registered what it was.
Roy yanked the door open completely to get a better look at his partner. Johnny stood there, leaning wearily against the door frame, dried blood caked on the left side of his face from a large gash at his temple and his left arm tucked awkwardly into his sweater, which was spotted with dried blood as well. There was a smear of something dark on the upper thigh of his right pant leg.
But the thing that worried him most of all was the vague, dazed look on his friend’s face.
He reached out for his partner’s arm, wanting to lend his support to Johnny’s obviously flagging strength, and didn’t fail to notice the wince that crossed the younger man’s face as he wrapped an arm around Johnny’s waist. Roy could feel him shivering from the cold. “Come on, Junior, let’s get you inside...where it’s warm.”
He led his partner inside and kicked the door closed behind him. “Jo, tell Vince Johnny’s here, and to respond a squad and an ambulance.”
Roy could hear his wife talking in the background, but paid no attention as he slowly led Johnny over to the couch. “Johnny, can you tell me what happened?”
He gently turned Johnny around so that he could sit him on the couch, but before he could actually get him down, Johnny raised brown eyes to meet his, the expression deep within them one that Roy would likely never forget.
“Christmas... Made it...” Johnny mumbled softly before finally collapsing into Roy’s arms.
Roy gently lowered him down to the sofa, raising his legs and covering him with the afghan that was folded neatly on the arm. Then he gazed down at the unconscious man with a relieved smile, his heart filled with affection. “Yeah, little brother... You finally made it.”
The sound of a siren off in the distance and the sensation of movement roused him from the darkness. His head was pounding and the movement was making him nauseous. He opened his eyes to find himself staring up at a vaguely familiar face.
“Welcome back, Junior.”
Junior... Junior... He blinked owlishly at the man above him, struggling to make the connection. Junior... Pally. He knew this man...
“Roy...” he slurred softly.
Roy smiled warmly at him, giving him a gentle pat on his shoulder. “That’s right, Johnny. How are you feeling?”
Johnny thought about that for a moment as the sound of another voice quietly filled the hospital in on his condition. “Head hurs.... sick.”
Roy frowned. “You feel like you’re gonna be sick?”
Johnny closed his eyes wearily. “No...juss real nauseous.”
“Okay, you just take it easy. We’ll be at Rampart in a few minutes and they’ll give you something for the pain.”
Roy gently nudged his shoulder. “Hey, now... Don’t go away—stay here with me, Johnny... Do you remember what happened?”
He was exhausted, but Johnny forced his eyes open again. He tried to make sense of the jumble of images in his mind. “....Rover... home f’r Chrissmas... countin’ on me...”
He saw a frown of confusion cross his partner’s face, but he was too tired to keep his eyes open any longer. The world faded into the background as darkness stole over him.
Roy sat on the stool in Treatment Room 3, watching his partner silently as he dozed obliviously on the exam table. X-rays had already been taken, medications administered and diagnoses determined. Twelve stitches on his forehead, a concussion, a fractured left radius and ulna, bruised ribs, mild hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion. I can’t believe he walked more than 20 miles during the night to get to my house... The only thing left to be settled in Roy’s mind was... Why?
Both he and Doctor Brackett had tried to get an answer out of the younger man, but nothing Johnny was saying made any sense. He’d been lightly sedated while his arm was set, and they were waiting for his temperature to return to normal before moving him upstairs.
Johnny shifted in his sleep, letting out a soft groan of annoyance at the disturbance, and Roy approached him as he opened his eyes. “Feeling any better?”
Johnny appeared to take stock of his various aches and pains before replying, “Better than I was a few hours ago.”
Roy took advantage of the opening. “Johnny, can you tell me what happened to you last night?”
Johnny was silent for so long that Roy didn’t think he would answer at all. Roy supposed it didn’t really matter—what did matter was that he was here now and would be fine. He was just about to tell him that when his friend quietly responded.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas...”
Roy frowned. Johnny had said that before, but he didn’t understand what he meant by it, so he asked, “What do you mean, Johnny?”
His partner sighed. “That was the Christmas carol playing on the radio when the Rover went off the road. When I came to, I really couldn’t remember anything...not who I was, or where I was... Nothin’. Nothing except the phrase ‘I’ll be home for Christmas; you can count on me....’ It just kept runnin’ through my mind over and over.” He paused for a moment, and his voice was even quieter when he continued. “I knew there was someplace I had to be...someone who was counting on me to be there... I just couldn’t remember who... So I got out of the car and just started walkin’.”
Roy began to understand, and felt a lump forming in his throat when he realized that, even though he’d been injured and alone, their friendship was strong enough that Johnny knew he could turn to him for help...even when he couldn’t even remember him.
“I had no idea how long I’d been walkin’,” Johnny continued, “or how far I had left to go... Some guy stopped and offered me a lift...but I had no idea where to tell him to take me...so I just kept walkin’. Eventually I made it to your place.” Johnny’s gaze met his once more. “It looked vaguely familiar, but even as I walked up to your front door I had no idea why I was really there....”
Roy held his gaze for a long moment, reading in his best friend’s eyes the lack of surprise that he’d somehow managed to find his way back to Roy’s, and the truth the lyrics of that famous carol held for him. Home... to his loved ones...
Brackett chose that moment to return and check up on his patient, and their silent communication was broken. Seeing that Johnny was awake, he said, “So how are you feeling now, Johnny?”
“Fine, Doc...” he replied, although all three of them knew he was not. “So when can I get out of here?”
Brackett shook his head. “Not today, I’m afraid—we’ll be admitting you as soon as your temperature returns to normal,” he said as he withdrew a thermometer from his pocket “...which is what I’m here to find out.”
But his partner was having none of it. “Aw, come on, Doc, it’s Christmas! Nobody wants to be in the hospital on Christmas!”
“Johnny, you came in here hypothermic and concussed. I think it’s best to err on the side of caution here—”
Johnny cut him off. “But Doc—”
The younger man was gearing up for an argument, which was something Roy realized he didn’t really need right now. Besides, after Johnny’s explanation, Roy understood why he really didn’t want to remain in the hospital this Christmas. “Doc,” this time it was Roy who cut Johnny off, “he’ll be coming back to my house. He can rest there just as easily as he can here, and I can keep an eye on him and check his neurological responses. Besides,” Roy checked his watch, “the accident happened about twelve hours ago now anyway, so I think it would be okay—just this once—to bend the rules a bit...”
“Yeah!” Johnny agreed with a sharp nod of his head. He didn’t quite manage to conceal the wince that the movement produced.
The doctor stared at Roy for a moment then popped the thermometer into Johnny’s mouth. No one said a word as he went over to the small counter near the medicine cabinet and jotted down some notes, but Roy shared a look with his partner, and then gave him an encouraging wink. When the right amount of time had passed, Brackett returned and withdrew the glass tube from his patient’s mouth, reading the results aloud. “Ninety-eight point six on the nose.” He met Roy’s gaze once again then, rolling his eyes in submission, went back to the medicine cabinet and withdrew a small bottle of pills. Returning, he handed them to Roy. “Give him these once every four hours if the pain gets too bad.”
A wide grin broke out on Roy’s face. “Yes, sir.”
“And I want neuro checks every three to four hours for the rest of the day and during the night as well.”
Roy could see Johnny open his mouth to protest from the corner of his eye, so he reached out a hand and gripped his good arm, giving it a silencing squeeze. “Yes, sir.”
“If he starts vomiting excessively, experiences increased dizziness, becomes dazed or confused, or if his temperature goes above 100, bring him back in.”
Roy didn’t even have to look this time to know his partner was going to protest, so he quickly squeezed his arm again. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now get out of my E.R.,” Brackett finished with a huff before stalking to the door, which he yanked open with more force than was necessary. He turned back at the last moment. “Oh, and one more thing...” The dark scowl on his face disappeared in the blink of an eye and was replaced with a smile. “Merry Christmas, fellas.”
“Merry Christmas, Doc,” both he and Johnny answered simultaneously, wearing matching grins.
Johnny realized he must have fallen asleep on the way home to Roy’s house, because the next thing he knew they were parked in his driveway and he was nudging him awake. “We’re here, Johnny.”
He looked at the closed front door of the house he’d come to think of as his second home. Well, after the events of the past fifteen hours, maybe not just my second home...
Johnny looked down at his hands folded in his lap as a wave of guilt washed over him. “I’m sorry, Roy...”
Roy pulled the keys from the ignition and turned to look at him. “For what?”
He indicated the house with his good hand. “For making you miss Christmas morning with your family.”
Roy sighed. “Look, Johnny, let’s get something straight, alright?” he said as he shifted in his seat to better face him. “You are a part of my family, too, and I was exactly where I needed to be this morning. Besides,” he added as he reached out and popped the seatbelt latch for him. “We didn’t miss anything.”
And with that Roy was opening his door and getting out of the car.
Johnny frowned. He knew for a fact that the DeSoto children—as well as nearly all children around the globe—were ‘up at ‘em’ early this special morning, the excitement and anticipation too much for them to handle. He snorted softly. I oughta know—I used to be one of ‘em. So he didn’t understand how it was possible that his partner hadn’t missed Christmas with his kids.
He didn’t wait for Roy to open the door for him, which he knew his friend would do for him if given the chance, but opened the door and climbed out himself....a little too enthusiastically, unfortunately, as it rejuvenated the percussion jam session going on inside his head. He did his best to ignore it. Closing the car door he said, “What do you mean, ‘we didn’t miss anything?’”
Roy smirked at him and turned toward the house. “You’ll see.”
Johnny fell into step behind him as they walked through the front door. Joanne was waiting for them on the other side. She gave Roy a quick kiss, and then turned her attention to him.
“Merry Christmas, Johnny,” she embraced him gently, mindful of his injuries, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek as well. Pulling back, she gave him a critical once-over. “Oh, look at you, Sweetheart. You must be tired...and hungry. Come into the kitchen and I’ll fix you something to eat...”
She practically dragged him into the kitchen, where the kids were sitting at the table, apparently waiting for him.
Johnny winced at their boisterous greeting and braced himself for their usual welcoming antics, but instead of launching themselves at him like they normally did, they ran up to him and stopped. Jennifer wrapped her arms around his legs for a hug and Chris grabbed at his good hand, giving it a tight squeeze. Roy had apparently found some time to make some phone calls, because it was obvious they’d been warned ahead of time to be careful because their Uncle Johnny had a ‘boo-boo.’
“Merry Christmas, Munchkins!”
“Merry Christmas, Uncle Johnny,” Jennifer returned as she squeezed his legs then let him go. She reached up and pointed a finger at his casted arm nestled in a sling. “Does it hurt?”
Chris, who still had him by the hand, led him to the table and the three of them sat down. “Can I sign your cast, Uncle Johnny?” he asked excitedly.
“No, Princess,” Johnny reassured Jenny. “The doctor gave me some medicine and made it all better.” Then he turned to Chris and said, “Yes, Chris, you can sign my cast, but later, okay?”
“Yes,” Joanne agreed as she set a plate of sandwiches down on the table. “Later. Right now, I want the two of you to help me set the table for lunch.”
Roy finally joined them just as the last fixings for the meal were placed on the table, and the entire family enjoyed a light lunch. Johnny felt himself relax and let go of the last of the tension his little misadventure last night had caused him.
The kids had no sooner polished off the last of their milk when they began getting excited once more. “Presents, Mom?” Jennifer asked.
“Yeah,” Chris agreed, bouncing in his seat. “Can we open our gifts now, Dad?!”
Johnny felt his jaw drop open in amazement. It was nearly 1:00 p.m. “You mean you haven’t opened your presents yet?”
“No, Uncle Johnny,” Chris said with a shake of his head. “We were waiting for you and Dad to come home.”
It was suddenly hard for Johnny to swallow past the lump in his throat. He glanced at his partner to find Roy grinning at him. Then, with a wink, he got up from the table and said to his children, “Well then, what are we waiting for? Come on, let’s go see what Santa brought us this year!”
Johnny followed them back to the living room, his eyes widening at all the gifts piled beneath the tree, including the ones that he’d bought for the DeSoto family. Johnny shot his friend a look, and Roy meandered over casually, so as not to draw attention to himself, and explained, “You fell asleep in the car almost before we pulled out of Rampart’s parking lot, and I knew you’d want the kids to be able to open the gifts you’d bought for them this morning with the rest of them, so I stopped by your place and loaded them all up on our way home.”
Johnny shook his head in amused appreciation. “Thanks, Roy.”
“Come on, Dad!” Chris called to them impatiently. “We’re gonna hand out the gifts now.”
Joanne and Roy sat on the couch and Johnny took a seat on the recliner, while both kids were on their hands and knees in front of the tree, handing out presents to their proper recipients. Once they were all given out the free-for-all began. Torn wrapping paper was tossed here and there as gift after gift was opened and admired. Chris nearly flipped over his new bike as well as the skateboard he’d received from Uncle Johnny, and Jennifer was eagerly planning on what new Barbie accessories she would add to her doll’s new townhouse while hugging the Mrs. Beasley doll her uncle had given her tightly.
Joanne and Roy made quick work of collecting all the discarded wrapping paper and stuffing it into two large trash bags, while Johnny sat and watched, soaking it all in. Roy turned to him and said, “You really should go and sack out for a while before supper, Johnny.”
Johnny sighed at his friend’s ‘mother hen’ routine but, in all honesty, he still felt tired. Only it felt more to him like a good kind of tired now. “Sure. Can I grab a cup of coffee first?”
Roy appeared to be amused by his not-so-subtle stalling tactics. “Sure, Junior. I’ll join you.”
The three adults moved to the kitchen and Roy poured them their coffee while Joanne began working on preparing the dinner meal.
“You’re really not gonna do those neural checks on me that Brackett ordered, are you?”
“Well,” Roy began, “it’ll be about time for your next check when you wake up for dinner, but I may have to wake you up at least once during the night...”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Roy,” Johnny immediately protested, “all I’ve got is a bad headache. You don’t have to wake me up tonight! I’ll be fine...”
“Johnny, you know he’s gonna ask me when he sees me tomorrow at work... And I can’t exactly lie to the man—he’s my boss.”
Johnny couldn’t tell if his partner was teasing him or not. If he was, then he’d have to find some way to get even. But if he wasn’t...
“Besides, Johnny,” Joanne interjected, “it’ll give Roy some peace of mind. He was up half the night worrying over you... Weren’t you, Honey?”
Johnny turned and shared a knowing look with his best friend. Never one to let a good opportunity pass by, a crooked grin found its way to his lips. “Really? You were worried about me?”
Roy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like I’d worry over a bad toothache.”
Joanne ignored him. “So I really think you ought to humor him and let him wake you up tonight. What do you say?”
Johnny sighed. Well, teasing or not, he supposed he could suffer through one neural check. After all, they were letting him spend the night...and Joanne was cooking this great meal for him... “Oh, alright...”
He caught Roy hiding a grin behind his coffee mug.
“Good,” Joanne said with a sharp nod. “Now if both of my men will get out of my kitchen, I’ll be able to get some work done around here... unless you want to have sandwiches again tonight...”
Johnny held up both arms in surrender, although it only took a moment for Roy to gently force his casted arm back down to his side again. “Okay, okay! We’re going!” Then he leaned toward Roy conspiratorially and said in a loud whisper, “Sheesh, women...”
“I heard that!”
Grinning, they took their coffees and sat down at the dining room table, watching the kids play with their new toys. “I called Cap before coming into the kitchen for lunch,” Roy told him. “He said he’d take care of everything and that he’d call you tomorrow and that he hoped you feel better soon.”
Silence reigned for a minute or two, but the Johnny found he couldn’t resist the temptation. “So you were worried about me, huh?” he asked, teasing his best friend.
“Apparently with good reason,” Roy replied, falling easily into the banter.
“Well,” Johnny said with a shrug of his good shoulder, “like they say, ‘It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.’”
They heard Joanne begin to hum Christmas carols in the kitchen.
“Funny, I don’t remember volunteering for it,” Roy observed.
Johnny took another sip of his coffee. “Oh, you didn’t volunteer—you were elected.”
Roy turned to him out of curiosity. “I was? By who?”
“You should consider it an honor, Roy. You were elected by the three most important people of all.”
“There are four men at the station, Junior.”
“No, Roy, not the guys! Even more important than them.”
“Joanne and the kids?”
Johnny mulled that one over. “Well, I guess they are three very important people...but they’re not the ones, either.”
“Me, Myself and I!”
Roy snorted and finished off his cup of coffee just as the melodic sounds of Silent Night began drifting in from the kitchen. They sat quietly for a while, listening, while the happy sound of the kids playing in the living room provided a harmonious accompaniment to Joanne’s gentle humming. Johnny glanced over at his partner and smiled at the expression of contentment on his face. That same feeling of peace slowly began to fill his heart as well.
And when the pleasant sound of I’ll Be Home for Christmas followed, Roy turned his head to meet his gaze, and Johnny knew his best friend...his brother...was thinking the exact same thing as he was.
Yes, Johnny was home for Christmas, and the reality was so much better than any dream of it could have ever been.
* From my story “While You Were Sleeping...”
** From my story “Realizations”
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