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A brisk chill swept through the open patio doors as thirty year old Joanne DeSoto checked her watch. 8:45 A.M.
Her husband Roy should be home in another half hour and she hoped he wouldn’t be too tired to watch the kids so she could finish her Christmas shopping.
She smiled to herself as she thought of the gift she’d planned for her husband. A new play was opening at the Next Stage Theatre and Roy had made it clear that he’d like to see it.
Joanne had been saving money and planning for a special weekend for the two of them for the last six weeks. A quiet dinner, show tickets, cozy hotel room and a nice bottle of champagne.
She had to run by the theatre and pick up the tickets before the box office closed at noon for the Holidays.
Joanne returned to washing her dishes while she waited for Roy. She’d start his breakfast soon so it would be ready when he arrived home.
A loud wail from her daughter Jennifer broke her reverie. Joanne quickly dried her hands and headed up the stairs. She pushed open the door to her daughter’s room to find her ten year old son Chris teasing his younger sister by holding her favorite stuffed animal out of her reach.
The stuffed bear had been a gift from her ‘Uncle Johnny’…Roy’s back then, very young partner and Jen’s second favorite man in the world… He’d given it to her on her very first Christmas.
“What is going on in here?” Jo questioned in annoyance as her hands landed on her hips.
Jen’s lower lip quivered and her teary blue eyes lifted to her mother. “Chris won’t give me Boo Bear,” Jen whimpered.
“Christopher?” Jo asked.
“She hid my matchbox cars and she won’t tell me where they are.”
Jo sighed. “Jennifer, give Chris back his cars. Chris… Give Jen Boo.”
“Yes ma’am,” Chris groaned as he handed the toy to his sister.
Jen gave her mother a sheepish glance before she pulled her drawer open. “Here." she added grumpily.
“OH YECH mom…She had em in her underwear drawer,” Chris whined.
Jen giggled as Jo rolled her eyes. “Oh for Heaven’s sake Chris…They’re clean,” she snapped. “And if you two don’t stop fighting, Santa will not be stopping here tonight,” She threatened as she turned and left the room.
The two had been squabbling for two days now since school had let out for the Holidays and Jo was getting a bit frustrated.
She was halfway down the stairs when she heard a knock on her door. Jo sighed hoping it wasn’t going to be one of those days.
She ran the last few steps and crossed the living room to yank open the door. Her next door neighbor Debbie stood there holding her two year old son Brett. “Hi Deb,” Jo greeted, her blue eyes full of curiosity about why the woman was there so early in the morning.
“Jo…I’m sorry to bother you this early but I’m really stuck. I’m supposed to pick up Sam at the airport in an hour and my car won’t start. Can you give me a ride?” She asked, looking desperate.
Jo felt her heart sink and almost groaned aloud at her request. She really HAD to pick up those tickets before noon and there was no way she could make it to LAX and back by then, but Debbie had come through for her so many times when she’d needed her to watch the kids in a pinch when Johnny or Roy had been injured…She owed her.
What could she do? She didn’t want to not have the tickets for Christmas morning, but she couldn’t really say no either. Jo suddenly smiled…She had an idea and she knew he'd never say no. “Sure Deb…I just need to make a quick phone call.”
“Oh thanks a million Jo…I really appreciate this,” she said in relief as she came inside and set her son on the floor. He toddled off to explore while Joanne picked up the phone and dialed.
“Station 51, Captain Stanley speaking,” Hanks voice replied a moment later.
Jo breathed a sigh of relief they hadn’t all left yet. “Hello Hank…It’s Joanne DeSoto.”
“Oh hi Jo…Roy isn’t here right now. He and John got an early morning run. I can leave him a message though.”
“Oh no that’s okay. It was really Johnny I wanted to talk to.”
“Um…Can you ask him to please stop at the Next Stage Theatre on his way home…It’s the one on La Brea…I bought tickets for Man of La Mancha and I have to pick them up by noon today but a friend of mine needs a ride so I can’t get them myself. Tell him they’re paid for and under my name so all he has to do is pick them up.”
“Sure Jo…I’m sure John won’t mind doing that for you.”
She hung up, smiling in relief as she went to the foot of the stairs. “Kids…Come on down…We need to give Debbie a ride,” she called up.
Jen appeared at the top of the stairs and started down. Chris followed a moment later. His shirt was soaked and he held a handful of his matchbox cars.
“Chris!” She snapped in exasperation. “What have you been doing?” he asked as he came down the stairs with the dripping cars.
“Moo…om,” he whined plaintively. “I had to wash em.”
Joanne rolled her eyes in aggravation as she took the cars from him and set them on the counter. Deb was watching her curiously. Jo shook her head. “Jen hid them in her underwear drawer,” she explained she snatched a small towel from the drawer and tossed it to her ten year old son.
Debbie giggled in understanding as Jo hustled her two toward the living room. Debbie went to get her own but gasped in dismay as the toddler knocked a vase of flowers over spilling the carnations and water all over the carpet.
“Oh Brett nooo,” Debbie moaned as she shot an apologetic look at Joanne. The older woman sighed and threw her a ‘what are you gonna do’ shrug. She quickly ran to the laundry room and returned a moment later with a towel and dabbed at the wet stain on the floor for a minute while Deb gathered the scattered plants and returned them to the vase.
“I’ll get it better when I get home,’ she said tightly as they headed out the door. It was definitely going to be one of those days…Hopefully it wouldn’t get any worse, she prayed silently.
Joanne and Debbie seat belted the kids in the back and drove away. A few minutes later they hit the 405 Freeway toward LAX. Deb’s husband Sam had been away for two weeks and she talked excitedly about her husband’s return and how much she missed him.
Jo smiled tolerantly as her friend talked on and on. She knew how she felt…She missed Roy on those rare occasions when he got nailed for a double shift and when he went off with Johnny for long weekends too.
Jo noted that the traffic up ahead was slowing and began to brake. A moment later they’d joined the other hundred or so cars ahead of them that were now at a standstill.
Joanne ran her hand through her auburn hair in frustration…It was gonna be a long day.
“I’m sorry Jo,” Deb said sheepishly.
“It’s okay,” she sighed, glad now that she’d asked Johnny to pick up those tickets for her. The thought flickered through her mind that she hadn’t told Hank to tell him that they were a gift for Roy. It was too late now but she was sure John would figure that out on his own…After all it was Christmas Eve. She inched forward along with all the others as the minutes ticked by.
Jo was just coming to a stop on the highway as Roy and Johnny were pulling away from Rampart. The early morning car accident had generated several injuries and had kept the pair busy along with two other squads for over two hours.
The multiple injuries had the ER at Rampart overtaxed and both paramedics had been pressed into service by Dr. Kelly Brackett and Dr. Joe Early. Forty minutes later things had finally settled down enough for them to head back to the station.
“So are you coming back to the house with me this morning junior?” Roy asked his younger partner. “I’ve got a list as long as your arm that Jo wants done before tomorrow,” he said with a grimace.
“No man…Still got some errands to run and a few last minute gifts to buy.”
“Don’t spoil the kids,” Roy said with a frown.
Johnny grinned. “I can’t help it Roy. I keep seeing more stuff they’d like.”
“At the rate you’re going, you’ll buy out the toy store,” Roy grumbled. John grinned…He couldn’t help himself, he loved Roy’s two kids like they were his own…The whole family in fact. Except for his Aunt Rose, they were the only family he had…At least that he’d claim. Roy smiled back at him. “But you’ll be over later right? Jo and the kids are expecting you for dinner and to spend the night.”
John grinned. “I’ll be there pally,” he teased. “It’ll be the first Christmas I’ve spent with you that I haven’t been sick or injured or in a c collar,” he finished with a laugh.
“Shhh,” Roy warned. “Don’t jinx yourself.”
John gave him his impish Gage giggle which brought another smile to his older partners face. Johnny was so special to him. He was his best friend and had been like a younger brother to Roy almost from the beginning of their partnership. John was as dear to his heart as a member of his own family.
They’d had a few issues the last few months and their bond had been stretched to its limit but had held firm in the end. They still had some ground to recover from the misunderstanding with Chris and Roy and a run in with a crazy young woman who’d almost killed Johnny but their friendship was thankfully back on track, mostly because of a therapy program that Roy had learned to help his young partner.
Johnny had been resistant at first but had come around and now they both looked forward to the hour long sessions when John would be comfortable enough to open up and tell them about his past. Some of it was heartbreaking but the fact that he could talk about it with Roy said a lot about the level their bond had come to and the blonde paramedic was grateful. He couldn’t imagine his life without Johnny in it.
They arrived back at the station a short time later. Roy parked the squad and climbed out. C shifts senior paramedic Tom Mendhelson came from the day room to meet him. Roy handed him the keys before turning to John. “I’m going to change, you comin Junior?”
“I’ll be a few minutes…I’m not going straight home and I want a cup of coffee.”
“Okay…See ya for lunch then?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” John assured him as Roy headed for the locker room.
Hank heard their voices from his office as he finished up some last minute paperwork. He heard John tell Roy he was going for coffee so he didn’t rush.
He finished up a short time later and picked up Jo’s message. He stepped into the kitchen and saw Johnny sitting with Mendhelson and his partner Alex Diaz, telling them about the car crash they’d just dealt with. The three shook their heads in disbelief that there had been no casualties from the mess.
“John?” Hank said, gaining their attention and interrupting the conversation.
“Yeah Cap?” He replied, looking up at his superior.
“Joanne called while you were out.”
“Everything okay?” The younger man questioned worriedly, wondering if Roy were still here so he could catch him if it was something important.
“Everything’s fine,” he reassured the sable haired paramedic. “She just had to drive a friend somewhere and she wanted you to stop and pick up some tickets at the theatre for her.”
John grinned, thinking that Roy’s ‘to do’ list was already too long and she didn’t want to add to it. His dark eyes twinkled mischievously at his older friend’s predicament. He glanced at the C shift Paramedics. “Jo’s got him on the run today,” he teased as he turned back to Hank and nodded. “Sure Cap,” he replied agreeably. “Which theatre?”
“The Next Stage,” he answered, reading the note. “It’s the one on La Brea.”
John took a final swig of his coffee before climbing to his feet. “Oh yeah…Roy’s been talking about seeing that for the last couple of weeks. He musta convinced Jo to go. Guess I better get going then…I got my own list of things to do.”
The others tossed him a wave as he headed to the locker room to change. He pushed the door open, prepared to tease his friend over the upcoming morning Jo had prepared for him but Roy was already gone. Ah well…He’d have to wait until later to give a hard time for having to do his extra ‘chores’ for him.
John changed quickly and left the station. It only took a few minutes to arrive at the theatre. The pretty blonde girl behind the counter gave him a bright smile as she handed over the tickets.
“Enjoy the show,” she said sweetly.
John tossed her the infamous lopsided Gage grin. “Oh these aren’t for me,” he informed her. “They’re for my partner and his wife. She just asked me to pick them up for her cuz they were both too busy.”
The girl smiled again. “Well…If YOU’D like to see it, I have an extra ticket,” she offered hopefully.
John leaned a little closer. “For what day?” He asked, his voice taking on a seductive tone.
“December twenty ninth,” she replied.
John thought for a minute. “I’m off that day.”
“Oh good,” she replied. “Should I meet you here at seven?”
“How about dinner first?” He offered.
“That would be great,” she said as she picked up a slip of paper and jotted down her address. She handed it over to him. He gave it a glance before he shoved it in his pocket. “My name is Shannon,” she said with a sparkle in her blue eyes as she held out her hand to John.
He shook it. “Mine’s John…John Gage,” he replied. “I’m a paramedic with LA County.”
“Far out,” the girl answered with a giggle.
John smiled at her and the girl sighed as she lost herself in the soulful brown eyes. “I’ll pick you up at five on the twenty ninth then,” he said softly as he tossed her a brief wave and turned away. He chuckled to himself as the door swung closed behind him. Yup those eyes and that grin still worked like a charm. He needed to thank Joanne for this.
Joanne and Debbie continued to creep along the 405. Jo glanced at her watch for what she was sure was the hundredth time. They’d been stuck in this mess for over an hour now.
They were all hot and tired and the smell of exhaust wafting in the open windows was giving Jo a headache but closing the windows made the car like a sauna.
Deb’s son Brett was wailing in the back seat and from the odor was most likely in need of a diaper change but they were unable to get off the road to accomplish that at the moment.
“MOM,” Chris suddenly yelled in annoyance. “Jen won’t leave me alone,” he complained.
“Jen,” Jo began with a sigh.
“I’m not doing anything mommy,” she whined.
“She’s touching me,” he argued.
Jo sighed once more and wiped the sweat from her forehead with a tissue.
“He’s touching me too,” she defended herself.
“Alright both of you stop it right now,” she snapped angrily. “Or I’LL be touching both of you. Just deal with it.”
“Brett won’t stop crying,” Chris complained.
“I KNOW,” she barked back.
Deb threw her a glance. “I’m so sorry Jo,” she apologized sincerely.
Jo tossed a tight smile back at her but looked more like a grimace. “It’s not your fault,” she mumbled between clenched teeth.
She blew out a breath and hoped she’d somehow be able to regain her Christmas Spirit when she got home or it was going to be a miserable night.
Half an hour later Joanne was feeling like an overheated candle melting into her seat but on the upside…Traffic seemed to finally begin to pick up speed. They were slowly filtered into another lane and managed to pass the source of the tie up.
There were several large pieces of construction equipment and concrete barriers blocking two lanes. Joanne rolled her eyes in irritation. Why would they do this on Christmas Eve of all days? She mused in annoyance.
She finally made it past and traffic began to move freely and pick up speed but sill it was after 11:00 AM before they made it to LAX. It was another few minutes to park and change Brett and then almost fifteen to find Sam.
She glanced at her watch as they climbed into the car for the return trip home… 12:08…It was a good thing she’d asked Johnny to pick up those tickets or her Christmas surprise would have been ruined.
Roy arrived home to find the house in total disarray. A Sink filled with cold, soapy water and half full of dirty breakfast dishes...A puddle of water drying on the living room carpet along with a wet towel sitting on the coffee table. A scattering of flower petals littered the floor.
Roy ran his hand through his blonde hair in confusion. It wasn’t like Jo to leave the house in this condition and he was a bit concerned that something had happened. He glanced around to see if she’d left a note to say where she’d gone but there was nothing.
He heaved a sigh and figured he’d help her out by finishing up before he started his own chores. He grabbed a dry towel and finished blotting up the wet stain before returning both of the now damp towels to the laundry room. He drained the sink and refilled it with hot water and washed the remaining dishes.
He scooped the still dripping matchbox cars from the counter, frowning as he carried them back up the stairs and into Chris’s room where he dropped them in the toy box. He glanced around his son’s room. The bed was unmade and his pajama’s lay on the floor.
He checked Jen’s room and his own. He scratched his head and wondered what had been so important that Joanne would have run out without setting the house to rights. It wasn’t like her.
He made the beds up and retreated back down the stairs. Now it was time to start on his own list of things to do. He needed to go buy the tree and set it up and get the decorations down from the shelf in the garage. He’d thought the kids would be here to help choose the tree and decorate it while Joanne finished shopping but he guessed he was on his own for now. He’d at least get it set up and put the lights on it and hope the children and Johnny arrived home in time to help with the rest.
Jo wanted him to go up in the attic for the big roaster pan she used for the Christmas turkey. Roy’s mom along with Eileen and Craig and their daughter Carey and Johnny would all be here.
The lawn needed to be mowed and the hedges trimmed. Man he wished John would have come home with him…He could use the help.
Roy grabbed the keys to his pickup truck and headed out the door. Maybe Jo would be home by the time he got back with the tree.
Roy returned home in less than an hour but Joanne and the kids still hadn’t returned. He was really starting to get worried. Joanne had made it clear that she had some errands to run and last minute shopping and had wanted Roy to watch the kids so what had happened that she’d taken them along instead?
He kept one eye on the clock as he set up the tree and strung the lights. It was just before 1:00 PM when he saw his partner’s land rover pull into the driveway.
Roy opened the door as Johnny came up the walk carrying a bag full of gifts. “Hey Junior,” he greeted as the young, sable haired man stepped inside.
“Hey Pally,” John returned with a grin as he came inside and set the bag down near the tree and frowned as he glanced around. “Wow…I’m kinda surprised the kids aren’t out here helping ya though,” he noted curiously.
“They’re not here.”
“Where are they?”
“I’d like to know that myself. Jo wanted me to keep them so she could finish her shopping for tomorrow.”
“So she’s not back yet?” Johnny questioned.
“Back from where?” Roy asked, looking perplexed that John seemed to know where his wife was while he was in the dark.
“She called the station this morning but you’d already left so she told cap to tell me to…” His explanation was cut off as both men saw Joanne’s gray station wagon pull into the driveway.
Roy and Johnny stepped outside as the doors opened. Chris and Jen jumped out and ran to greet their father as well as the man they’d long thought of as their uncle.
Sam climbed out a bit more slowly and went around to the back to claim his suitcases while Debbie unbuckled Brett and pulled him out of the back seat.
John scooped up Jen in a bear hug before swooping her over to her father who’d already greeted his son. Chris turned to wrap his arms around his uncle. John scruffed the blonde head affectionately.
Both men waited while the neighbors thanked a very frazzled and wilted looking Joanne and headed for home.
Jo walked tiredly toward the two men and the children. Her face was flushed and sweating and an irritated frown turned down the corners of her mouth.
“Hey babe,” Roy greeted as her blue eyes met his.
“Hi honey,” she returned, reaching up to kiss her husband first before turning to Johnny. “Hi John,” she said. Both men noted the lack of an endearment and wondered at her mood. She rarely called John by his given name.
“What happened to you?” Johnny asked before Roy could.
“You have no idea what kind of morning I’ve had,” she said tiredly.
“Yeah I saw the house,” Roy replied.
Jo threw him a narrow eyed glance trying to decide if he was complaining or stating a fact.
Roy saw the fire in her blue eyes and quickly put his hands up as if in surrender. “I was just worried cuz you never leave it like that,” he reassured her. Jo sighed and sheathed her claws.
Johnny giggled at how quickly Roy had waffled at the look until both of them glared at the younger man. “Ahem,” John cleared his throat and grew straight faced and serious. “That’s terrible Jo…I’m sorry you had such a bad morning,” he said, trying to look somber.
“I’m sure,” she replied drily, knowing John’s sense of humor and correctly reading the mischievous sparkle in the brown eyes despite the serious look. “And I still have to finish everything I couldn’t do this morning,” she growled.
John suddenly brightened. “Oh yeah…I almost forgot.” Both of his friends looked at him curiously. “Here’s one errand you won’t have to worry about,” he said eagerly as he dug the small envelope from his jacket pocket.
The words ‘Next Stage Theatre’ clearly emblazoned across the top and ‘Man of La Mancha’ beneath it.
Roy’s eyes widened in delight for a brief moment until Jo’s gasp of shocked horror made it clear John had just spilled the beans but John didn’t notice as he continued. “I should thank you for sending me after these…I met this really cute girl…”
Joanne’s mouth was tightening ominously and Roy blew out a breath as it became clear that he wasn’t supposed to have seen these until tomorrow. “Uh…Johnny?” He began warningly, but it was too late.
It was the last straw for Joanne’s already frayed nerves.
John glanced at his partner as he began to speak but his attention was quickly drawn back to his best friend’s wife as she snatched the tickets from the younger man. “Well I guess I need to thank you too,” she growled angrily. John looked at her in confusion at the snide tone of her voice but he didn’t have long to wait for her further explanation as she continued. “For ruining my Christmas,” she snapped irately.
“Wha…?” John began uncertainly. “I uh…,” he stammered to a halt as Jo kept going.
“Maybe you’d like to go upstairs and look in the closet so you can tell the kids what Santa brought for them too.”
“Jo!” Roy snapped.
John looked crushed at the spiteful tirade. “I…I’m sorry…No one said…I mean Cap didn’t tell…,” Johnny stuttered in confusion.
Joanne shot him a withering glare and stalked into the house, leaving her stunned husband and children staring after her in shock. Their eyes quickly turned to the now silent sable haired paramedic who stood tugging at his lower lip anxiously.
The wounded look in the dark eyes tore at Roy’s heart. He knew Jo was upset but it really wasn’t that big of a deal and probably had more to do with what had happened this morning but it was a sure bet his young friend didn’t understand that.
“Johnny…She didn’t mean it,” he said quickly. “Just let me talk to her…Stay put,” he directed as he headed into the house to speak to his upset wife.
John continued to worry his lower lip with his teeth. No one had told him that the tickets were a gift. He certainly hadn’t intended to spoil Joanne’s Holiday but how was he supposed to know?
“Oh wow,” Chris murmured in shock. Jen hadn’t understood anything except that her mother was angry with Uncle Johnny but Chris’ eyes had widened at the words. How could Johnny see what Santa had brought for him? Why would they be in the closet unless…?
His blue eyes turned up to look at his uncle and he recognized the hurt look in the dark eyes. He’d witnessed his mother playfully rebuke the younger man before as if she were his mom or big sister but he’d never seen her really mad at him before.
The chocolate colored eyes turned to the children and his face flushed crimson in embarrassment as he realized that they’d both witnessed their mom’s angry tirade. John licked his suddenly dry lips, looking thoroughly bewildered and distressed as his eyes shifted back toward the closed door in indecision.
“Um…I uh…Guess I should go,” he mumbled. “Um…Tell your mom…I uh,” John shrugged. “Tell her I’m sorry…I uh…I didn’t mean to ruin her Christmas okay?” He almost whispered.
“Uncle Johnny?” Chris began worriedly.
“It’s okay,” John interrupted. “I um…I guess…I mean tell your dad I’ll talk to him later,” he stuttered as he always did when he was upset and couldn’t get his thoughts to come together. “I uh...Still have some other stuff to do,” he finished softly.
“You’re coming back later right?” Chris asked anxiously, sure that his mom would be sorry for hurting Uncle Johnny’s feeling once she calmed down.
“I uh…I don’t know,” he mumbled as he turned and headed down the driveway.
“C’mon Jen,” Chris said quietly as they watched the dejected looking man walk away. They went inside.
Jo stood fuming in the kitchen as Roy came up behind her. Tears of frustration trickled down her cheeks.
“He didn’t mean any harm,” he said quietly.
“He spoiled my surprise,” she sniffled forlornly.
“Did you tell him they were a Christmas gift for me?”
“I didn’t talk to him…I spoke to Hank,” she admitted
“Well maybe Cap didn’t tell John that. He’d never have spoiled your surprise deliberately.”
“I forgot to tell Hank they were a gift.” Roy’s eyebrow arched questioningly. How would she expect Johnny to know if she hadn’t even told Hank? She saw it and bristled once again. “Oh come on Roy…John should have known that this close to Christmas,” she reasoned indignantly, throwing a teary glance at her husband.
Roy put his arms around her and pulled her against him. “This is Johnny babe…Someone raised celebrating our traditions might assume that’s what they were but Johnny wasn’t raised with all this subterfuge at Christmastime ya know? This is still a little new to him besides, I’ve been talking about wanting to see this play for over a week so it probably never occurred to him that I didn’t know about it.”
Joanne wiped at her eyes, knowing Roy was probably right. Johnny couldn’t have known and certainly wouldn’t have ruined her gift on purpose. “I’m sorry,” she sniffled, looking a little ashamed of herself now. “It’s just been such an awful morning and I’m hot and tired and I’ve been stuck in traffic in a hot car with three kids for three hours and…”
Roy gave her a squeeze. He understood completely. He’d barked at Johnny on more than one occasion himself when he was frustrated but his young partner was sensitive, especially when it came to Roy and Jo being upset with him. Johnny didn’t handle people’s anger well which stemmed from an abusive childhood.
John equated anger with rejection, pain and fear and while a stranger’s ire seldom bothered him, those closest to him could hurt him easily. Worse, John also had a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome and was often unable to sense other people’s moods or feelings so he often spoke very honestly and bluntly and had no idea what he’d said or done wrong to make them angry afterward.
But Roy knew he and his wife and children had changed that. They had become the young man’s family and the fear of losing them as he had so many others in his life was a worry that hovered over the young man’s heart…always and in this case had played out once again. John had been hurt by Jo’s anger and Roy needed her to make it right so his young friend would be okay.
“I know babe…,” Roy said gently. “But I’m sure John didn’t mean any harm and it’s only one more day till Christmas anyway.”
She nodded. “I know. I guess I should go apologize to him. Was he terribly hurt?” She asked guiltily.
Roy smiled. “Yeah but nothing he won’t forgive ya for most likely,” he said with a grin. She smiled back.
“Let’s go,” she said with a nod toward the door. She loved John so much and she felt terrible that she’d hurt this special young man she’d come to love like a young brother and sometime second son.
Roy and Joanne came into the living room where Chris and Jen were sitting quietly for the first time that day. Jen was engrossed in a cartoon but Chris’ arms were folded over his chest and an angry sulk had his mouth set in a tight line.
Roy glanced around curiously while Jo’s attention was caught by her son’s obviously irritated look.
“Where’s Johnny?” Roy asked, looking a little put out that the kids may have left him standing outside by himself.
“He left,” Chris said shooting his mother an angry look.
Jo’s eyes closed in despair and she blew out a breath, disgusted with herself and already knowing she’d hurt her young friends feelings.
“What do you mean he left?” Roy said heading for the door. “I told him to wait.”
“His feelings were hurt,” Chris said looking at his mother again. His anger softened a bit at the sight of her tear streaked face. “He said to tell you he was sorry he ruined your Christmas and he’d talk to you later,” he added, looking toward his dad.
Roy opened the door, hoping his young friend would still be outside but the Rover was gone. “Dammit,” he mumbled unhappily.
“I’m sorry honey,” Jo said contritely.
“I thought we were supposed to be careful what we said to Uncle Johnny,” Chris reminded his mother with his father’s lift to his eyebrow. Chris remembered his parents ire when he’d hurt his Uncle by telling a lie a few months ago.
“Chris,” Roy warned softly, knowing Jo already felt horrible.
“No…No he’s right,” Jo said quietly. “You’re right,” she added turning to her son. “I was upset about this morning and I took my anger out on Johnny and that wasn’t fair. He didn’t know the tickets were a gift and he didn’t deserve what I said to him and I’ll apologize when he gets here tonight.”
Chris relented a bit more at her admission. “He said he didn’t know if he was coming back or not tonight,” he informed them.
“Oh no…Roy?” She questioned worriedly.
“I’ll call him in a while…Give him a chance to get home and settle down some.” He smiled gently at his wife. “He’ll understand Jo…It’ll be fine,” he assured her softly.
John tossed his keys on the counter as he came inside. He flopped down on the couch and rubbed his hand over his face in frustration. Wow…Joanne was really mad at him this time. He certainly hadn’t intended to spoil her Christmas and he felt really bad but how should he know she’d wanted them for a gift?
He sighed and stared out the sliding glass doors absently. He’d bet Jo wouldn’t want him showing up tonight that was for sure or tomorrow either. John felt his heart turn a slight flip at the idea that the woman he considered to be his sister and sometime surrogate mother was so angry at him.
John didn’t like it when people were angry with him. For him anger meant rejection, pain and fear. He’d lived it too many times and he didn’t want to lose this family he’d become a part of.
He didn’t know what to do to make it right. He’d apologized but she obviously hadn’t accepted it as she’d snapped the tickets from his hand and stalked off. He knew Roy wasn’t angry with him but it would make for a real uncomfortable time tomorrow if she was still mad at him.
John rubbed his hand over his face and glanced at the phone. Maybe he should call and cancel for tomorrow. Just give Jo a chance to cool down before he apologized again.
He didn’t want Roy to be upset with him though and he always got uptight when he thought John was just gonna spend a holiday alone. His older partner took his role as big brother very seriously…At least he used to, he mused unhappily. He’d need a good reason not to go but then again…Maybe Jo would just tell Roy to call him and tell him to stay home anyway.
The ringing of the phone interrupted his ponderings. He threw a glance at it wondered if it was Roy. Only one way to find out he guessed. He picked up the phone.
“John Gage,” he said quietly, dreading the sound of his partner’s voice on the other end.
“Hey Johnny…This is Mark Smyth over at 45’s,” a desperate sounding voice answered.
“Yeah Mark…What’s up?” The young, dark haired paramedic asked.
“My wife went into early labor and I need a replacement so I can go to the hospital,” he said almost pleadingly. “I know you probably have plans but man…I need help.”
Well…This was certainly the solution to the problem with having a good excuse. “Sure Mark...My plans kinda fell through so it won’t be a problem,” he assured him, sounding depressed.
“Thanks Gage…you’re a lifesaver.”
“Yeah…Sure,” he mumbled. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
John hung up a blew out a breath, knowing Roy would be really unhappy with him for canceling tonight but maybe if Joanne got over being mad he could stop by tomorrow and at least wish them a Merry Christmas.
He picked up the phone and began dialing.
Joanne had gone upstairs to take a quick shower before she headed out to finish her shopping. If Roy couldn’t get Johnny to come back, she planned on stopping by his apartment to apologize in person. She wouldn’t let her bad mood hurt the young fire fighter any more than it already had.
Roy had gone out to the shed to bring in some last minute decorations and the kids were perched on the sofa watching television. Roy figured by the time he got that done, John should have had enough time to have realize that Joanne was just having a bad day and she would never have snapped at him like that if it hadn’t been for the morning of stress she’d already been put through.
Chris was engrossed in a Christmas cartoon when the phone rang. He glanced around and realized that neither parent was anywhere in sight so he slid off the couch and went to answer it.
“DeSoto residence,” he answered properly.
“Chris…It’s Uncle Johnny,” the voice on the other end identified himself, sounding relieved.
John was…He’d been nervous about calling for fear Joanne would answer and tell him he wasn’t wanted tonight which would have broken his heart or that Roy would answer and broken a portion of his anatomy a bit lower than that when he told him he’d be working instead of coming over tonight as planned.
This was better, He’d just give the message to Chris and be gone before Roy found out and he wouldn’t have to talk to either of them right now. He knew it was a bit cowardly but his heart was already hurting and he didn’t want to add to it. He’d spent every Holiday alone or at least not celebrating it since he was a child…It was only the last few years since he’d met Roy that that had changed.
John knew he’d be fine…At least with the crew of 45’s, he wouldn’t be all alone.
“Hi Uncle Johnny,” the ten year old replied, happy at hearing the sound of his dad’s best friends voice.
“Um Chris…I uh…I…Well…I got called in to work for someone this afternoon…For one of the guys at 45 so um…Can you tell your Mom and Dad that I can’t come tonight okay?”
“But Uncle Johnny…You have to…Mom said she’s…”
“Look Chris…I can’t come okay…Just tell them what I said,” John ordered, sounding depressed.
“Are you coming tomorrow?” Chris asked quietly.
“I…I don’t know,” John replied softly. “We’ll see.”
“Okay,” Chris answered in disappointment.
The phone clicked and John was gone. Chris hung up the phone and sighed. He knew Uncle Johnny was still hurt, he could hear it in his voice. The young blonde looked up as his father came in with a stack of boxes and strings of lights.
The look on Chris’ face raised an immediate red flag for Roy. The older man glanced at the stairs as Jo came down, freshly dressed and ready to head out shopping.
“What’s wrong Chris?” Roy asked, returning his gaze toward his son.
“Uncle Johnny just called.”
Joanne froze in mid stride. “What did he say?” She asked before Roy could.
“He said he wasn’t coming tonight.”
Chris nodded. “He said he got called into work.”
Roy dialed John’s number while Joanne stood close to hear the conversation. He looked to his son as the phone began to ring at the other end. “Did he say anything else?”
“He said he didn’t know if he was coming tomorrow either,” he replied quietly, looking at his mother who now stood feeling like a total monster for treating Johnny that way. Lord knew she knew how sensitive the young man really was and why. She should have known how upset he’d be after her angry explosion.
The phone continued to ring without an answer and Roy finally gave it up and set the phone down. “If he’s already agreed to work for someone then I guess there’s nothing we can do except try and talk to him tomorrow,” he finally said, looking disappointed.
“I’m sorry honey,” Jo murmured contritely.
“It’ll be okay. You know you can wrap Johnny around your little finger. You tell him you’re sorry and how much you love him and he’ll forgive you for anything,” Roy teased her, trying to sound positive.
She nodded but her blue eyes still reflected her sorrow. She’d hurt John’s feelings a couple of times before and he’d always forgiven her but still…She’d really gone off on him this time and worse…She’d had this conversation with her own husband for doing the same thing not too long ago after he’d hurt John’s feelings.
They all needed to remember how special this young man had become to them but more importantly, they needed to remember the hurt and pain John had already lived through in his short life…The feeling of abandonment from his parents and the loneliness of being an outcast by his mother’s family who’d been left to raise their troubled half Indian nephew. The pain and abuse they’d heaped on him in their anger at being left to raise him. Anger from those closest to him, only exacerbated those raw and painful memories and Jo had just scraped them open once again.
“I’ll buy him his favorite desert for tomorrow,” she promised Roy. “Vanilla Ice Cream with crushed strawberries and whipped cream,” she added.
Roy half smiled, still looking a bit forlorn. “He’ll like that,” he agreed.
John arrived at station 45 a short time later. Mark Smyth gave him a grateful handshake. “Thanks Gage…I mean it.”
“It’s okay…Go be with your wife,” he said, nodding his head toward the door.
The other man grinned from ear to ear. “Yeah…Hey…By tomorrow I’ll be a dad,” he said proudly.
One of his crewmates, Jesse Oldham was just coming into the small kitchen and he smirked at Johnny. “A Christmas baby…We’ll never hear the end of it…He’ll be bragging about this for years…Tidings of joy and all that.”
John tried to smile but it fell a bit flat. “For some people anyway,” he mumbled as he slid into a chair.
Smyth cast John a curious look at the depressed demeanor but he didn’t have time to stay and dwell on it. His wife was waiting. He smacked Gage off the back. “Thanks again,” He said as he ran for the door.
Oldham threw his crewmate a wink. “Good luck man,” he shouted after him. He went and poured himself a cup of coffee, tossing a glance at John as he sat slouched at the table with his head propped on his fist. He poured a second cup and brought it to the table to set in front of the younger man.
“You look like you could use this,” he said lightly.
“Thanks,” John mumbled as he picked up the cup.
“I’m kinda surprised you agreed to work.” John’s dark eyebrow lifted curiously. “I just mean you’re usually with DeSoto and his family aren’t ya?” John looked surprised that the man knew that.
“Yeah,” he agreed with a shrug.
Oldham grinned. “C’mon Gage…Every guy in the department knows Roy treats ya like his kid brother.”
John flushed in embarrassment at that and while it normally would have made him happy that Roy felt that way…Right now he was afraid it might be about to change if Jo didn’t forgive him.
“So why are ya here?”
“Smyth needed someone and I was available,” he said evasively as the rest of the crew trooped into the kitchen. John breathed a sigh of relief as he stood to greet the Captain of 45’s C Shift.
“Captain Hamilton,” John said snapping to attention briefly before he reached out to shake the man’s hand.
“Welcome Gage, glad to have you. I’ll need ya on the engine but we’re always grateful to have an extra paramedic on the crew.”
“Thank you sir,” John replied.
“Cap,” he corrected. “You know everyone else?”
John’s dark eyes swept the crew...Hal McCormick, Engineer Pete Bass, Paramedics Jay Cameron and Bob Belliveau. “Yes sir,” John said with a nod of his sable head.
“Good…Hope we have a quiet day but I’m kinda surprised to see you here.”
John sighed. “Yes sir…Well…My plans kinda fell through at the last minute and Smyth sounded a bit desperate so..,” John trailed off hoping to forestall any more questions.
The others chuckled. “Yeah…He’d already called six other people,” Jesse admitted.
John gave them a half hearted grin. “Glad I could help then,” he said quietly.
The others exchanged a grin at the depressed tone but they didn’t have a chance to comment on it as the Station Control unit began to tone.
“Station 45…Battalion 14…Station 10…Station 51…Explosion in the parking garage…2170 Olivia…2-1-7-0 Olivia…Cross street Vernon…Time out 13:47.”
The crew rose quickly and ran for their respective vehicles as Hamilton stepped to the podium. “Station 45…KMG-359.”
A moment later the rigs began to roll.
Jack Brady wended his way through the streets of LA. His truck full of paint and chemicals for the renovations taking place in a new high rise was his last delivery of the day and then he’d be off for the rest of the afternoon. He glanced at his watch and smiled. 1:30…He could still make it home in time to see his daughters play if he hurried.
He glanced up at the traffic light up ahead. It was green and he accelerated to try and make it through. He saw the car barreling toward him at the last minute and cut the wheel hard to the right.
The vehicle ran up on the sidewalk and Jack heard the scrap of the undercarriage across the concrete walk before he regained control and brought the vehicle back onto the roadway. He looked in his rearview at the blue car that had almost hit him and shook his head as it continued on.
His heart began to return to a normal rhythm after a moment as he drove on. He didn’t notice the gas that dripped steadily onto his super heated manifold under his truck. Each drop creating a small spark. Fumes began to seep from the hole in the gas tank but were kept from igniting by the breeze created by the moving vehicle.
Jack turned into the parking garage next to the high rise and pulled to a stop near a center column close to the elevators. He opened the door and started to step out just as another drop hit the pipe…The fumes had gathered long enough for them to ignite.
Jack was flung away from his truck as the gas tank suddenly exploded. He felt the shrapnel that hit his body along with a blast of heat and flame.
He slapped at his clothing and rolled on the ground until the flames were squelched but pain was now catching up with him as his burned back and hands made their presence felt. He turned his head to see his truck in flames and knew he had to get away before the contents of the vehicle went up as well.
Jack dragged himself further away as choking black smoke roiled around him. There seemed to be a change in the air just before the vehicle exploded.
Concrete columns began to crumble and the level above began to sag. Jack realized he was about to be crushed and rolled under the nearest car. He didn’t have time to even shout a warning to anyone else who may have been in the structure as the next layer started to come down.
Jack felt the vehicle over him shift as concrete chunks rained down upon it. The cars parked on that level tumbled down to join those on the first and then the level above as the structure continued to disintegrate, collapsing in on itself like a house of cards.
Soon the horrendous sound of metal on metal and metal on concrete finally stopped. Dust and smoke filled the air as other cars began to burn. Jack could only guess at how many other people might have been caught in its demise.
He hurt all over and pain was washing over him but all he could do was pray that help would come. Blackness edged in around his consciousness and Jack slipped into darkness.
The engines began to arrive almost simultaneously and soon after hoses began to crisscross the chaotic scene. Smoke billowed from the structure…Half of which was collapsed in layers upon those below it…The other half standing with jagged abutments and rebar rods still jutting from the ragged edges.
Battalion Chief Hayes stepped down from engine 10 and waited as the Captains from the other responding stations hurried toward him and they quickly began to confer on how best to approach this major catastrophe and wondering how many casualties they’d be dealing with as well as the safety of their men with such major structural damage.
John was already gearing up along with Jesse. Bob Belliveau and Jay Cameron were also pulling on their own turnouts before yanking the compartments of the squad open to set up a triage area. They’d be going in right behind Gage and Oldham.
Johnny finished hooking the clips of his turnout and reached to grab the hose, hauling it from the truck bed and running toward the burning structure. Jesse finished as well and quickly moved in behind to help him. The two men worked together and quickly joined the other crews battling the blaze.
John’s dark eyes turned to the crumbled and charred building, wondering how many people may be trapped inside and feeling frustrated that he was relegated to the outside with the hose crew instead of doing what he was trained to do.
One man made his way toward the chief. “I’m the guard for the parking garage, he informed him. “I was at the entrance when I heard the first explosion. I just barely got away before it all started coming down.”
“Are you alright?” Hayes asked.
“Can you tell me how many people were in there?”
The guard’s eyes narrowed speculatively. “The place was half full. Maybe two hundred cars but I don’t know how many people might have been in there. I know a lot of the offices were letting their employees leave early, that’s why it was so empty but there is a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor.”
Hayes blew out a frustrated breath. “Do you have any idea what exploded?” He asked, looking at the odd colored smoke.
The guard shook his head. “The last vehicle in was a big box truck but I don’t know what it was carrying or if that’s what blew up,” he answered.
Hayes nodded his head…There was a potential for dozens of casualties, maybe more. They were gonna need more help. “LA…Battalion 14. We need additional units dispatched to this location as well as ambulances. We have a parking garage collapse with approximately two hundred vehicles involved and an unknown amount of casualties.”
“10-4 Battalion 14,” Sam Lanier’s voice responded.
Hayes heard the additional tones. “We’re gonna need more paramedics,” he muttered as he watched the hectic scene unfold.
Several of his Captains nodded their head in agreement. Hamilton glanced toward him. “I’ve got Gage from 51’s working the lines on an overtime shift.”
“Get him in their Frank. He’s one of our best rescue men…I don’t want to waste him on the lines.”
Hamilton nodded and headed over to relieve John. He waved a man over from Engine 14. “Take over for Gage…We need him inside that mess,” he directed.
The man nodded and trotted over to John and Jesse. He tapped Johnny’s back to get his attention. John tossed him a glance over his shoulder. “I’m taking over,” he shouted above the roar of sirens, the crackling of flames and the grinding of shifting slabs of concrete as he pointed at Hamilton.
John nodded and turned the hose over to him as he headed back to his temporary Captain. “Sir?” He questioned intently.
“We’re gonna need you inside Gage…Grab your tank.”
“Yes sir,” Johnny agreed readily.
The crews attacked the flames from several different angles but so many vehicles were now burning on different layers of the debris that it was making it difficult to access them.
John shrugged his SCBA in place before grabbing a coil of rope and a pry bar and heading toward the structure with Belliveau and Cameron right behind him. Several other crews were doing the same including the C shift from station 51.
The three men searched for an access to the inner layers of crumbled stone and metal but were stopped at every turn by wall of concrete, crushed cars and rubble.
They spread out to search for a way in…Johnny finally found a narrow aperture and knelt to shine the light into it. About ten feet further on the tight tunnel seemed to open up a bit. He could see the tires of cars just in front of the flashlight’s beam.
“Belliveau…Cameron,” he shouted, catching the attention of the other two men. They ran to join him.
“Whattcha got Johnny?” Jay asked.
“I can get in here I think,” John said pointing at the hole.
“Yeah…You and Cam can maybe,” Bob said, paling slightly at the sight of the confining space. “Some of us aren’t built like a string bean,” he reminded them looking down at his slightly paunchy belly.
John grinned. “Call Captain Hamilton…Tell him to send the crews over with a portapower and the jaws and you ‘potato’s’ can try and clear some of this debris while the string beans slip inside and start triaging,” the younger man teased. “It widens about ten feet in,” he informed Cam.
“Let’s give it a try Gage” Jay agreed, knowing that every wasted moment was narrowing the chances of survival for anyone who had made it through the initial collapse.
John nodded and slipped off his air tank before tying the safety line around his waist.
“Uh Johnny…You’re gonna need that,” Belliveau noted, knowing DeSoto would make their lives hell if they let his young partner go in without his tank. He glanced around at the heavy reddish colored smoke.
“Won’t fit,” John shot back. “You can tie it to the rope and I’ll pull it in with Cam’s and then he can follow.”
Jay nodded his agreement with the plan. John handed him his SCBA before sliding effortlessly into the space and disappearing inside while Cam fed out the rope.
Belliveau shook his head as he raised the HT to his lips. It was no small wonder Roy was losing the hair from his head with Gage for a partner. “Engine 45…HT 45…We’re on the west side of the structure. We’ve found a way in but it’s a real narrow space. Gage is already inside and Cameron is following but we’re gonna need some more man power to clear this a bit more so we can get some more men and equipment inside and the victim’s out.”
“10-4 HT 45…Help’s on the way.”
John slid through the narrow tunnel and pulled himself clear at the other end. He shone the light around before standing up carefully to avoid slamming his head into anything in the tight quarters.
Smoke was thick and heavy in the air and John coughed as he breathed in the first lungful. He turned and began to pull the SCBA’s through the narrow tunnel. They popped free and he quickly untied them. He was shrugging into his own as Cam pulled himself free from the opening.
“Wow…What do you suppose that is?” Jay asked worriedly as he quickly donned his own gear.
“Chemical definitely,” John’s muffled voice came from behind the mask. “Don’t know what kind but we better make this quick. Anyone breathing this could be in serious trouble real fast.”
The two men began to move into the bowels of the collapse. “HELLO…?” John shouted. “Can anyone hear me?”
They stopped to listen. “Help me,” a weak, thready voice came back to them.
“Where’d that come from?” Cam asked, shining his light around.
“That way,” Johnny said with certainty as they began to scramble their way over and under the debris clogging the way and stopping periodically to check the crushed vehicles they came upon. Thankfully they’d been empty…At least so far.
John and Jay alternately walked, slid and crawled their way through the debris, trying to find the source of the cry for help. Cameron made a large yellow X on each vehicle they checked and passed by to let anyone who followed know they were clear.
They finally located the source. A young woman lay pinned inside the wreckage of her car. It appeared that she’d been leaning inside the back seat when the first level had collapsed, crushing the car and trapping her inside.
“Ma’am?” Johnny called, reaching through the smashed front window to grasp her wrist and check for a pulse.
“Hmmm,” she moaned softly.
“Can you hear me?” He questioned again as he shone the flashlight in her face. Blood streaked from a deep gash at the hairline…Her blonde hair was matted with it. Tiny nicks decorated her cheeks and chin with pin points of glistening crimson.
“Mmmm…Dauuu….er,” she slurred.
“What?” Johnny questioned.
“My Baa…aby,” she whimpered again.
John’s dark eyes widened as they searched the car in the beam of the flashlight. It finally came to rest on an infant’s car seat. “Oh man,” John muttered in dismay. He always hated it when children were involved. He backed out of the car.
“What have we got?” Jay asked.
“I’ve got two victims…,” he told Cam. “One’s a baby…The other is her mom. We need to get some help in here. I can’t get the mom out without the jaws. I’m gonna try to get the baby out now.”
“Right…I’ll radio Cap and let him know,” he promised as he glanced around. “Hey look, he said giving John’s sleeve a light slap and pointing.
John sighed in relief and turned back to the car as the two men spotted the beams of other searchers flashlights. “Over here,” he yelled waving the flashlight like a beacon.
He heard the acknowledging shouts of the other rescue men who were slowly making their way toward them through the rubble.
“We need the jaws and a porta power,” Cam yelled.
“Got it,” one replied.
“How’s it coming back there?” Jay asked.
“They’re asking for more man power but they’re getting that hole widened and shored up so they can get more of us in here.”
“Great…This could take awhile,” Jay agreed as they finally managed to get close enough to set up. It wasn’t easy. The thick, black smoke making it difficult to see and the oppressive heat had them all sweating heavily in a matter of minutes. The crushed metal and concrete made it a tight maze and nearly impossible to maneuver around but they continued to set up as Johnny began to wiggle his way into the front compartment of the vehicle.
It was a tight squeeze and John was forced to discard the air tank in order to make it. Cam frowned. “Johnny…You don’t need to be breathin that man,” he added.
John coughed but continued his forward progress disregarding the older man’s rebuke. “Can’t make it any other way,” he informed him. The sable haired paramedic slid his slender frame over the seat, casting a glance at the mom. She was still groaning softly but he needed to get to the baby.
He finally managed to reach the tiny girl. His fingers touched the tiny wrist and he breathed a sigh of relief that the child began to wail at his first contact.
“Nothing wrong with those lungs is there?” He said with a chuckle as he pulled the straps loose. He quickly ran his hands over the little body before he lifted her out of the seat. He wiggled his way back out of the car.
Several of the others slapped him off the back with grins before moving on to continue to search while Cam and Suarez from station 10 worked with the jaws to pry the frame of the car apart to get the mom out.
“I’m gonna take her…,” John stopped to cough before continuing. “Take her out and hand her over to Belliveau…,” he wheezed. “I’ll be right back.” He placed the mask over the baby’s face and headed back the way they’d come in.
By the time he arrived they had the whole widened enough for him to get the infant into Belliveau’s waiting hands. “I’ll take good care of her Gage,” he promised as the younger man threw him a grateful smile and turned back…There were more people who needed him.
John returned just as they were starting to free the woman. The paramedics could hear the hiss of steam from above as their crewmates attacked the flames still shooting from the structure as dozens of cars burned between the layers.
John knelt next to Cam while several men went to check out some of the other vehicles. Johnny could almost feel the sudden change in the air just as another exploding gas tank rocked the already damaged structure.
The others dove for cover and John leaned over the victim to protect her as the debris around them shifted and pieces of concrete and metal shrapnel rained down around them.
“Aargh,” Johnny groaned as something struck his right shoulder and the back of his head. His helmet protected him from the worst of it but it still hurt enough to bring a burst of dancing lights before his eyes for a moment.
The dust flew and the smoke billowed once more but at least the shifting of concrete columns and twisted metal had stopped. Johnny sat up slowly, shaking off the dizziness. He felt a trickle of warmth on the back of his neck and he hoped it was merely sweat but he didn’t have time to worry about that right now.
He rolled his shoulder a bit to try and loosen the sore muscle and then shone the flashlight about as he heard the sound of his friends moving around him.
“Everyone alright?” He questioned, wincing a bit as his head throbbed out a rhythm
There were several affirming responses just as the HT crackled to life. “Rescue crew this is Hayes…Everyone alright in there?” He asked worriedly.
“We’re still checking Chief,” Cam replied.
Another voice suddenly called out. “Meyer’s down.” John thought the voice belonged to Alonso from Battalion 14 but he couldn’t be sure.
“I got her Cam…Go help them out,” John said as he began to examine the woman for injuries and get her vital signs.
The sandy brown haired paramedic nodded his head and went to help the fallen paramedic.
“Damn it,” another voice groaned.
“What is it?” John asked worriedly.
“He’s dead Johnny,” Cam said dispiritedly.
“Oh man,” the younger man mumbled.
Jay raised the HT to his lips… “Chief…This is Cameron…We have a code F.”
Outside Hayes closed his eyes in a moment of sorrow. He desperately hated to hear those words and he hated what he was about to say as well. “I’m sorry to hear that...Get back to work…We’ll get him out after.”
Inside, the others nodded in agreement. There was nothing they could do for their fallen comrade at this point but there were possibly live victims and they had to come first.
Roy finally dusted his hands and slumped down in his recliner. He’d finished all of Joanne’s ‘honey do’ list and it appeared that it was just in time too as the front door opened and Jo came in with an armload of grocery bags and plastic department store sacks hanging from her arms.
He quickly got back up and went to help her, taking the heavy grocery bags from her hands.
“Thanks,” she breathed out gratefully. “The stores were crazy,” she muttered with a shake of her head. She glanced around and smiled. “The house looks great though Honey,” she added.
“Thanks babe,” he replied following her into the kitchen.
“Where are the kids?”
“Pouting in their rooms,” he said quietly.
“Because Johnny isn’t coming tonight?” She questioned hesitantly, already knowing the answer.
“You didn’t hear from him then?” She asked unhappily, before tugging at her lower lip with her teeth.
Roy shook his head. “No…”
“I’m so sorry honey,” she murmured sadly. “I was just so stressed and…”
“I know babe…,” he interrupted. “Johnny will understand too…I just need to get him over here so you can tell him.”
She nodded. She glanced up as the kids came down the stairs. Guilt swelled…She hated to see her children look so woebegone on Christmas Eve.
“Chris…Jen,” she said somberly. “I’m really sorry I hurt Uncle Johnny’s feelings and he isn’t here right now but I promise…I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and tell him how sorry I am for snapping at him like that and ask him to come over okay?”
“Okay mom,” Chris said, still looking unhappy. “I’m sorry we were so bad today and made you mad,” he said feeling guilty himself that he’d been part of his mom’s angry mood.
Jen’s lower lip trembled but she nodded her head. “Me too,” she mumbled in agreement with Chris’ apology.
“Come here,” she invited holding her arms wide as the two almost catapulted into them. “We were all hot and stressed okay.”
They nodded and Roy smiled at his family but a frown suddenly crossed his features. Part of his family was missing and it wouldn’t be right until Johnny was here and a part of the scene taking place before him.
He suddenly had an uncomfortable feeling and the lines between his eyes deepened even more. He didn’t know why but he was suddenly very worried about Johnny…That the missing scene would be forever missing.
He forced the thought from his mind… ‘Get a grip DeSoto,’ he mused to himself angrily. ‘Johnny’ll be fine.’
The children and Roy went to watch the television while Joanne started dinner and then carried the packages upstairs to finish her wrapping. The meatloaf should be done about the time she was.
The kids were watching cartoons and Roy let his eyes close for a few minutes while he listened to the antics of Charlie Brown and his friends at Christmas. He knew Johnny’s feelings had been badly hurt and he could only hope his friends forgiving nature would rise up once again when Jo apologized.
The hurt look in his friend’s eyes never failed to tug at his older partner’s heart. He’d be sure to call him first thing in the morning to get him over here and if necessary he’d drive over and drag him home. He drifted off a minute later.
Roy had no idea how long he’d been dozing when he heard Jo gasp in horror. “Oh my Lord,” she breathed softly.
Roy jerked awake and sat up. “What is it babe?”
“Look…,” she said pointing at the TV.
He looked to the TV where a news anchor man was announcing breaking news.
“An explosion and fire has ripped through this downtown Los Angeles parking garage,” he was saying. “The structure collapsed and there are dozens of people possibly trapped beneath the rubble. Fire crews are working desperately to extinguish the flames and already…Some of the LA County Rescue teams have gone inside the damaged structure to try and locate any possible survivors. There have already been several victims removed and a secondary explosion occurred just minutes ago.”
“Oh my God,” Roy murmured as his attention became riveted to the television. He wondered if he should go down there to help.
The camera panned the scene and Roy recognized the Engine from his own station quickly. C Shift…Diaz and Mendhelson…Station 10…Meyer and Suarez. Battalion 14… Alonso and Roper and Station 45…Belliveau and Cameron. Good men…All of them. He’d worked with several of them when Johnny had been out sick or injured.
Chris suddenly sat up and a worried frown crossed his features. He turned concerned blue eyes toward his father.
“What is it Chris?” He asked, feeling a sudden chill sweep over him. Jo threw him a curious glance as she noted the shudder.
“That’s the station Uncle Johnny’s working at,” he whispered as he pointed at the TV.
Two sets of blue eyes flashed back to the set in time to see a group of firemen carrying a victim from the structure.
They continued to watch the screen…Dinner forgotten for the moment. Where was Johnny in all that mess, Roy wondered? Was he on the engine or working rescue? Roy’s heart thudded in his chest as he watched… He had no idea that the other three people in the room were worried about the same thing.
Roy desperately wanted to go and help his partner but he was off duty and it was Christmas Eve…Johnny was a damn good fire fighter and excellent paramedic he’d be okay, he assured himself. Then why did he have this feeling of dread washing over him? He mused silently.
Because as good as he was…He couldn’t control the circumstances. None of them could and Roy knew that as well. The blue eyes continued to scan the scene, hoping against hope that John was safely outside the structure on one of the lines.
They’d been watching for over two hours and almost a dozen victims had been carried from the scene. Roy had to wonder how many more. He had no idea that his young partner was wondering the same thing at that very moment.
Suddenly another explosion rocked the building…Jo sat in frozen horror and Roy catapulted out of his chair as the rubble shifted and once again began to topple in on itself.
His heart pounded wildly and he knew…He didn’t know how but he knew… Johnny was inside.
John wiped the sweat from his brow with his left arm. His right shoulder still felt a bit stiff and his head was pounding mercilessly. He reached back to touch the lump that had formed and his fingers encountered the sticky feel of drying blood. ‘Great…’ He blew out a breath and glanced around at his fellow paramedics. They were as tired as he was so he wasn’t about to let a small bump and a cut take him out of the action.
He’d already discarded his third SCBA. The alarm had sounded three times now and replacement tanks had been brought in. He was waiting for another. The smoke was a bit lighter now and the crews had been making their way toward the center of the structure where the first explosion had most likely originated.
Many victims had already been evacuated and fortunately the living outnumbered the dead. That was some comfort to the exhausted, filthy and sweating rescuers still inside.
Comfort and Joy, Johnny mused silently. It’s what he should have been experiencing right now but he wasn’t feeling much of that today between this and the hurt he’d felt when Joanne had ripped his head off this morning had pretty much squashed the Christmas Spirit.
He watched several crews move off with more and coughed harshly as the chemical smoke made his nose and throat burn. It wasn’t as strong as it had been earlier but it was definitely still present.
John heard the sound of a grating wheeze and turned his head, trying to pinpoint the location.
“HELLO,” he shouted.
A ragged voice responded. “Help me,” it rasped.
John moved toward it…The remains of large truck still smoldered and the chemical smell grew quite strong as he drew nearer.
A motion from under a half crushed car suddenly caught his attention. A hand flopped from under it. “Oh man,” John muttered as he hurried toward the man trapped beneath.
Bleary gray eyes looked up at him as John knelt next the vehicle and peered under with the help of his flashlight. “Help me,” the voice almost gurgled.
John could only imagine how bad this guys throat felt having been breathing this smoke for almost two hours now. The gray eyes were reddened and irritated from the fumes but he’d been aware enough to pull his shirt over his nose and mouth to filter the worst of the fumes.
“My names John Gage…I’m an LA County paramedic,” he told him. “I’m gonna get ya out pal. What’s your name?” He asked causally as he grasped his wrist to get a pulse.
“Jack,” he rasped. “Jack Brady.”
“Okay Jack…You just relax.” John coughed again and then continued. “I’m gonna check you out here alright?” The man nodded weakly as John crawled under the car with him. “You’ve got some nasty burns on your hands,” he noted. “And your back,” he added as the light continued to move over the man’s body.
“Caugh on fire when my truck blew up,” he mumbled painfully.
“It was your truck?” John questioned. The man nodded. “What were you hauling?”
“Paint and mineral spirits and stuff,” he replied weakly.
“Great,” John said drily with another cough. His head continued to pound in unison with every sputter but at least the bleeding appeared to have stopped. Where the heck was Cam with that air tank anyway, he wondered to himself. “Well…you look like the burns and the smoke may be the worst of your problems…,” John informed him as he smiled reassuringly. The man’s sandy eyebrow lifted curiously. “No broken bones,” he added at the look.
“Thas a relief,” he slurred tiredly.
“I’m gonna try and pull you out of there so we can get you out of here.”
“Okay,” he agreed eagerly. That’s all Jack had been wanting all day.
“This might hurt a bit,” he warned him.
“Don’t care…just get me out,” he whispered.
“Alright…here we go,” Johnny replied as he swung himself around and grasped the man’s shoulders. He tugged experimentally to be sure Jack wasn’t still hung up on anything. He moved forward freely and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. He pulled, feeling a twinge in his right shoulder but he didn’t stop. He pulled the man free and began to do a better examination on his victim now that he was out from under the confining space.
He saw Cameron and Belliveau making their way toward him with a new air tank. “Well thank God,” John muttered to himself.
“What have you got John?” Cam asked as they approached him.
“Glad they got the hole widened enough so you could join us Bob,” John quipped smartly before turning back to Cam.
“Yeah Gage...They held the best back in reserve for when you guys wore out,” he shot back.”Besides…I’ve been doing the tough stuff outside.”
John grinned as he took a puff of air from the new tank. “He’s the driver of the truck that exploded and started all this. He’s got some bad burns on his back and hands and some shrapnel abrasions but no broken bones. He was hauling paint and chemicals so you may want to warn the Chief to evacuate anyone too close.” He pulled in another breath of fresh air, feeling a bit woozy now. He wasn’t sure if it was from the nearness of the fumes or the head injury or a combination of both.
“The Chief already did that.”
John nodded. “Let’s get him outta here then.”
The other two men helped Jack to his feet…Each one taking an arm around their shoulders. Both of them knew John had been inside without a break since the beginning and they wanted to get him outside for or a much needed rest and some water.
“C’mon John…You need a break too,” Cam said.
John shook his head… “Maybe more people,” he argued tiredly.
“Grab your tank and follow us out,” Bob said with a raised brow, the tone was no longer sounding like a request.
“But…,” John began to argue.
“You gonna make me make it an order?” The older man questioned, reminding Johnny of his own partner.
John flushed as Cam laughed. “No,” he mumbled in defeat.
“DeSoto will kill me if I let anything happen to you so let’s move.”
Johnny didn’t believe that right at the moment since he’d managed to totally ruin Roy’s Christmas. Even if he wasn’t mad at John himself, Jo being angry and upset certainly wouldn’t make Roy too happy on Christmas morning.
“I’ll check you out outside,” The older man added.
John’s head snapped up. “I don’t need to be checked out,” he argued.
Bob looked at him in disbelief. “Ya know Gage…It’s a wonder Roy has a hair left on his head with you for a partner.” John stared at him in hurt surprise. “You do this to him all the time too?” He questioned.
“What?” Johnny asked in confusion.
“I’m a paramedic too John…You think I can’t hear the rasp in your voice…See the pain in your eyes?”
“You’ve been favoring your shoulder since that last explosion,” Cam told him.
“It’s not that bad,” John mumbled.
“Bad enough and if we’d had the man power I’d have had the Chief pull you out sooner but we needed you in here,” Cam replied.
“Don’t make me call Roy,” Bob added threateningly.
John paled at that…He didn’t want to ruin the rest of the family’s holiday by getting hurt and having them have to haul Roy down to Rampart as John’s next of kin. He nodded. “Alright,” he said yielding.
The other two men started moving toward back toward the exit that had been cleared by the crews. John reached back to grab his tank and his flashlight and to pack up the drug box he’d been using when another explosion rocked the building.
Johnny was blown off his feet…His helmet slipped from his head and skidded away as he laid there feeling a little dazed at what had just happened. He heard the grating rumble and felt the shaking as the rubble began to shift once more.
Cracks began to appear in the concrete slabs above him and John knew. He had nowhere to go but he had to try. He scrambled backwards as fast as he could despite the shortness of breath and the ache in his shoulder and the relentless pounding of his head.
He pulled himself up against the wall and flattened against it. He heard the shout from Bob…
It was too late…Everything began to fall. John covered his head with his hands but it wasn’t enough to save him. Things crashed and fell all around him as he stood frozen against the wall. He never had time to cry out as something heavy hit his head and John’s world turned black.
He slid down the wall as tons of metal and concrete rained down around him. John couldn’t feel it anymore nor did he notice when it finally stopped.
“There’s been another explosion,” the news anchor said needlessly as if the viewing audience hadn’t already seen it themselves.
Roy didn’t wait…He turned and raced for the kitchen and grabbed the keys off the counter. “I’m going down there,” he said as he turned back.
“Why?” Jo asked.
“Johnny’s in there,” he said with certainty.
“I’m going with you,” Jo said, her face pale and her body trembling and never doubting for a minute that if Roy said John was in there then he most likely was. Somehow the two were bonded.
“What about the kids?”
“I’ll call Eileen.”
“No,” Chris’ voice came from behind them.
“What?” Roy questioned.
“I want to come too.”
“No Chris,” Roy began.
“I’m not a baby dad,” Chris interrupted. “It’s Christmas Eve and I want to be with my family right now and Uncle Johnny is part of it.”
At six, Jen didn’t understand a lot of what was happening but she somehow knew the man she loved most next to her dad was in trouble and needed them. “Me too,” she said quietly.
“Kids,” Jo began, not knowing what they’d find.
Roy stared into the determined blue eyes of his ten year old son. They never wavered.
“Let them come,” he said softly.
Jo stared at him in surprise. He nodded at her. “Alright,” she agreed, reading the look in his eyes. This might be the only chance they’d have to spend Christmas with their Uncle…Even if it was this way…Even if it was for the last time…They’d be able to say goodbye.
“Get your coats,” she said gently as she pulled the afghan from the back of the couch. The two children ran to do what they’d been told and soon they were on their way down town.
They arrived at the scene about twenty minutes later. The police stopped them almost a half a mile from the site but Roy recognized one of the officers. “Scotty…,” he called to young blonde patrolman.
He trotted toward the vehicle. “Hey Roy….What are you doing here?” He asked, looking past him to his wife and the children in the backseat.
“Johnny’s working this,” he said quietly.
Scotty’s eyes turned to collapsed structure. “Oh God…I’m sorry Roy.”
“I think he’s in that building…I want to go help them find him.”
“You really wanna do that?” He questioned gently.
“I have to do that,” he replied.
“What about…Uh…?” He gestured lamely to Jo and the kids.
“He’s part of their family too.”
“Yeah,” he agreed softly before turning to the other officer. “Let them through. He’s an off duty paramedic…He can help,” he explained.
The other officer moved the barricade and let the station wagon past. They pulled up at the curb a few hundred feet from the trucks and ambulances lining the road and Jo and the kids got their first look at a working scene.
“Oh my Lord,” she mumbled.
Chris’ eyes widened as he took it in and had it not been for the fact his Uncle Johnny might have been inside he would have felt that same adrenaline rush his father and his uncle did every time they responded to a call but right now…All he felt was dread.
“Stay here,” he ordered as he climbed from the car and trotted toward the command post. Hayes was conferring with two Captains Roy recognized as the C shift Captain from station 45 and 51...Captain Hamilton and Captain Hookrader.
They glanced up and saw him. Hookrader recognized him immediately but the other two took a moment longer as he was out of uniform. The look that crossed their faces caused Roy’s heart to pound fearfully.
“Roy…What are you doing here?” Hookrader asked gently.
“I saw this on the news. Johnny’s in there isn’t he,” he stated rather than asked.
A look of wonder crossed their faces. “How did you know that son?” Hookrader asked.
“Cap…You and everyone else in this department know how close John and I are…You know we can’t explain it but…”
“I know and yes Roy…John is in there,” he agreed softly.
“I want to go help find him.”
The eyes of the other three men drifted toward the car where Joanne and the children were now standing beside it watching them.
“You think this is a good idea for them to be here?” Hayes asked uncertainly.
“Johnny is a part of my family Chief…He’s my wife’s brother as well as mine in all but blood. My kids think of him as their uncle. Where else should they be right now?”
The man nodded his head.
“Go grab a turnout out of the engine Roy,” Hookrader said. “They’re in there trying to find him now. There’s an entrance on the west side. John found it,” he added with a small smile.
“I don’t doubt that for a minute Cap,” Roy said with a proud grin.
Consciousness slowly began to return. He knew it by the wave of pain that crashed over him as his dark lashes fluttered open. He tried to move but quickly stopped. A groan of misery slipped from between clenched teeth...feeling as if a percussion section had been set up in his head.
Stabs of pain assailed him from several directions. His head…But that had already been hurting…His right shoulder. Well…That wasn’t new either. His face felt as if it was on fire and he managed to lift his left hand up to touch his face. It came away bloody where pieces of concrete had cut or scraped his face.
He touched the sore spot just over his left ear…This was definitely a new injury and it only added to the drum playing ‘wipe out’ inside his head.
The rest seemed to be mostly strains and sprains but he didn’t think he’d broken anything. He tried to sit up but realized it was the wrong thing to do within seconds.
Nausea coiled in his stomach and John couldn’t stop it from climbing his esophagus. He managed to lean over before he lost the contents of his stomach.
His head throbbed mercilessly with every heave of his body and Johnny knew that the head injury was probably more serious than he’d thought. He needed help and he needed it soon.
He finally lay back against the wall and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He could almost hear his Aunt Rose in his head. “That’s what napkins are for John Roderick,” she’d scold whenever he’d done that.
John almost smiled at the memory. He’d never understood the need for it but he’d learned to use one anyway but there didn’t appear to one handy at the moment. She’d have to understand.
He was feeling a bit foggy and he coughed as he breathed in the dust and smoke that had been trapped in his small prison which only set his head to pounding miserably once more.
“Roy,” he moaned pitifully. “Help me,” he whispered as blackness crashed over him once more.
Roy found his way inside and located the others by the beams of their flashlights and the sound of pick axes and porta powers being used to chop, haul or lift the heavy debris from out of the way.
He crawled over, under and around the rubble and shook his head. Had they been having to deal with this during every rescue that had been going on all afternoon? They must have been exhausted by now but they were hard at work once more…This time for one of their own.
“Any sign of him yet?” He asked.
Bob glanced up and his face paled as he recognized DeSoto’s voice. “God Roy…What are you doing here?”
Jay looked just as wan. “You shouldn’t be here Roy.”
The blonde paramedic looked sick. “Have you already found him then?” He questioned anxiously.
“No man…,” Cam answered softly. “But Roy…This is right where he was when it all came down…Do you understand what I’m saying?” He questioned.
The blue eyes scanned the ton of debris and he nodded. “Yeah I understand…But he’s my brother…I have to help find him. Do you understand what I’M saying?”
Cam and Bob’s eyes both burned with tears and they nodded. “Yeah Roy…We do,” Bob finally answered as they joined the others.
Roy had been at it for some time when he’d have sworn he’d heard John’s voice. He almost looked over his shoulder. ‘Roy…Help me,’ it seemed to sigh and then it was gone.
“Johnny,” Roy whispered. He almost smiled. Somehow, He knew John was still alive…But for how long if they didn’t get this off him?
Roy attacked the pile with a vengeance. The others exchanged a glance at the frenzied activity.
“Roy what is it…Did you hear something?” They questioned anxiously.
“Yeah…Yeah but not the way you mean,” he replied.
Time passed slowly as Joanne leaned against the car. Chris stared at the ground silent and uncomplaining. Jennifer had fallen asleep in the backseat over an hour ago. She looked at her watch in the dim glow of the fire engines flashing red lights. It was after nine o’clock. They’d been standing here for over three hours now.
What was happening inside? Had they found any sign of her young friend…Her baby brother whose feelings she’d battered so carelessly this morning. Tears pooled in her eyes before slipping silently down her cheeks.
What if he was dead? She didn’t want to think it but she couldn’t keep the thought from running through her mind. What was last thing he’d ever heard her say? Hateful, spiteful words when he’d only been trying to help.
“Don’t cry mom,” Chris said quietly as he slid his arms around his mother’s waist. She hugged him against her.
“Maybe we can ask Santa to bring Uncle Johnny home,” she said trying to lighten the moment.
Chris threw her a look. “I don’t believe in Santa anymore mom," he said quietly. Jo’s eyebrow lifted in surprise.
“This afternoon when you told Uncle Johnny to go look in the closet to see what Santa had brought us.”
Jo looked forlorn. “I’m sorry I spoiled that for you Chris,” she said quietly.
“It’s okay, I’d rather know the truth anyway,” he added. “Uncle Johnny says to always be honest besides…I’d rather ask God to bring him home,” he said wisely.
Tears welled in Jo’s blue eyes once more as she hugged her son against her. “That’s a good idea,” she whispered.
“Why are you crying again mom?” He asked.
“I’m sorry baby,” she whispered against the blonde head. “I just feel so bad about hurting John’s feelings this afternoon.
“Uncle Johnny loves you mom…He’ll forgive you,” the boy said with certainty.
‘If he’s still alive,’ she thought miserably but she didn’t say it out loud. She didn’t have to…Chris was already thinking the same thing.
John’s own ragged coughing was what woke him the next time. The dark eyes fluttered open once more and he glanced around the pitch blackness. Fear roiled in his chest. Where was he? Was he blind? Why couldn’t he see anything? His head ached horribly and it was all he could do to lift it from the wall where he’d been resting it for the last three hours. Memory slowly began to seep into the foggy brain and he suddenly remembered where he was and what had happened.
He was trapped and injured. Were they looking for him or had they thought he’d been killed in the collapse. Would they leave him to help the living as they had Meyer not realizing that John was still here?
John thought of Roy and Jo and the kids. He hated the idea that the last memory they’d have of him was their ruined Christmas and their mom yelling at him for it. Tears burned behind the dark eyes.
He’d really wanted a chance to tell Jo how sorry he was and ask her to please forgive him but that might be a hope he’d never realize if they didn’t find him soon. John was having more and more difficulty breathing in the smoky, dust filled air and his head hurt. He wondered if the SCBA was still intact and close enough to reach.
He reached out his hand and felt around. It quickly encountered a slab of concrete to his left. He moved his foot and found and mangled pile of debris within inches of his feet. He finally raised his right arm…”Ahhh,” he moaned as pain shot through him. He continued on. His fingers bumped something hard and metal and he managed to close his hand over it.
The flashlight... John hit the switch and a weak beam of light glowed dimly in his tiny cocoon. John’s face paled even more if that was possible. The area that surrounded him was barely a three foot by three foot space. Only the fact that he’d been standing so close to the wall had saved him from being crushed under the pile of debris.
He looked up and realized that a huge concrete pillar had fallen and hit the wall just a few feet above his head and had been the only thing that staved off the rest from tumbling down on top of him.
John looked Heavenward once more…Only this time it was to offer up a prayer of thanks to God for watching over him yet again. He smiled at that thought but it quickly faded as a new one entered in. It could all be for naught if they didn’t find him soon. His thoughts were becoming a little more foggy and hard to hold onto and he knew this was a bad thing.
He suspected he was becoming dehydrated in the overly warm, cramped space and his breathing was starting to sound a bit ragged. To top it off he was getting drowsy and he knew he shouldn’t sleep with a head injury but he couldn’t help it…The dark eyes drifted closed as John lost the battle.
They’d been at it for over three hours now and they still hadn’t heard or seen any sign of John Gage. Hope was beginning to dwindle as time passed and Bob nodded toward Roy who was still digging in the debris…Throwing slabs of concrete aside.
Bob looked to Cam… “I think this is a recovery now, not a rescue…I’m gonna get him out of here…Keep looking okay…We need to find him… for Roy’s sake now,” he murmured sadly. Cam nodded as Bob moved to Roy’s side.
“Roy,” he said gently as he reached out to grab the younger man’s arm. The others all stopped as well. They’d been watching the blonde paramedic with aching hearts for too long. They all accepted the fact that Gage was most likely dead but they’d continued on for Roy.
“We need to get you outside now okay…Let the others continue on.”
Roy looked at him in shock. “No…No. Johnny’s still under this…I have to find him.”
“Roy…We’ll find him I promise…But you don’t need to see him…Not like this okay?”
“What are you saying?” Roy growled angrily as he tried to pull his arm free.
Bob hung on. “You know what I’m saying…What are the chances John is alive…Realistically Roy?”
“No…You don’t know Johnny.”
“I do know Johnny…He’s strong…He’s tough…He’s a great paramedic and rescue man and he was a hero in here today Roy…you should be proud of him…He went on for hours without flagging but not this time.”
“I’m always proud of him,” Roy shot back still trying to pull loose.
“Roy…Please. Go wait with your family…They’re gonna need you.”
“Please Roy go,” Alonso prompted. “We’ll find him…I promise.”
“Go Roy,” Cam gave him a light shove.
The others nodded and turned back to the task. Roy suddenly looked defeated. He sank down on a large slab of concrete and hung his head. Tears dripped onto his hands as they sat clasped, bleeding and limp in his lap.
John couldn’t be gone…He’d heard his voice…He was sure of it. But you haven’t heard it again for hours, another voice whispered.
Bob helped him up and led him from the building. Roy staggered slightly as he stepped into the chilly December air. He glanced around at the still active scene…A lone ambulance was still waiting…The bodies of those few unfortunates that hadn’t survived were being removed now…The search for other victims over with the exception of John Gage.
His blue eyes scanned the crowd of people still waiting to see the finish of this catastrophe. People waiting to see if the bodies removed were those of people they knew or loved.
He saw his wife waiting by the car…Her arms wrapped around her body as she huddled into her coat for warmth but she hadn’t given up. Chris had finally succumbed to sleep in the front seat.
She saw him coming and ran to meet him. “Did they find him?” She asked fearfully.
Roy shook his head. “No babe, he murmured tiredly.
“Then why…?” she began.
“They…Uh…They’ve given up on rescue Jo,” his voice was thick with grief. “They um...Don’t think he’s alive,” he said as he pulled Jo against him.
Tears rolled from Jo’s blue eyes and sobs caught her breath away. “This is all my fault,” she wept against his shoulder.
“No babe,” he soothed.
“Yes it is…He would have been at our house if I hadn’t yelled at him…”
“Johnny might have agreed to work anyway babe…You know what a big heart he has…had,” he corrected himself as his own tears trickled down his cheeks. “For someone in need,” he finished quietly as he wiped at his face.
“He wouldn’t…Even have been home to take…The call,” she hiccupped forlornly. How would she ever forgive herself for this? He hugged her close and held her for what seemed like an eternity.
It was sometime later and both of them looked up as Chief Hayes, Captain Hamilton and Captain Hookrader started walking toward them. Roy’s eyes held a look of sorrow…He suspected they’d found John and he didn’t want to hear this…He wanted to load Jo in the car and take his family home but he knew he had to stand there and be strong for them while they told him his little brother was dead and all he wanted to do was weep…To look into those mischievous dark eyes that twinkled with life…
“Chief,” Roy said anxiously.
“Roy,” Hayes replied somberly.
Bob, Cameron and the others continued their recovery efforts. Johnny was a good friend to most of them and they respected him both as a paramedic and a fire fighter. He’d been relentless today and he’d done the department proud. He deserved their efforts to find him and return him to his family.
They were sweating heavily and breathing hard but they never let up. Alonso’s shovel suddenly hit something and a hint of yellow showed through. “It’s an air tank,” Bob shouted to the others after shining his flashlight at the object.
“Johnny was holding that when the explosion happened.” Cam said in an even mixture of sorrow and relief. It meant they were close but none of them really wanted to find the body of the young paramedic they’d come to be very fond of.
“Let’s keep digging then,” Bob said in resignation. They continued on but it wasn’t for long.
Ropers shovel suddenly slammed into the rubble and the man almost fell over it as it sank deeply into the ground. “I’m through,” he shouted in excitement. They were almost there and relief was evident in their faces. It was almost over. They'd be facing two funerals of brother fire fighters but at least this part was almost over.
They continued for a few minutes until a rasping cough was heard. They all froze and glanced around at each other. “Who was that?” Bob asked urgently. They all shook their heads. “I don’t believe it,” Bob suddenly breathed out in shock. “JOHNNY…Can you hear me Gage?” He shouted.
There was no reply but another muffled, wheezy sounding cough. “He’s alive,” Cam said in disbelief.
“C’mon guys dig…Let’s give DeSoto and his family a Christmas gift he’ll always remember,” Bob yelled in delight.
Exhaustion and despair gave way to hope and renewed determination. It wasn’t long before they’d cleared a hole large enough for Alonso to slip through. The man was nearly as thin as Gage but not as tall.
He slid the top half of his body inside and shone the flashlight at the young paramedic. John was unconscious but his breaths were coming in raspy gasps. The young face was dirty and scratched and periodically tightened as if in pain.
“He’s banged up and he’s unconscious,” José called over his shoulder. “His breathing is pretty labored as well. We’ll need oxygen and a stokes to get him out.”
“Right...,” Roper called as he turned and began to make his way back out of the building.
He ran to the squad and grabbed the O2 and the stokes…laying the canister inside. He started back but stopped near his Captain and Chief Hayes. The men took in the equipment. The stokes they understood but the O2 tank? Dead men didn’t need O2.
They threw a glance toward Roy and his wife as they stood consoling each other for their mutual loss. “What have you got?”
“Chief…You’re not gonna believe this but…Gage is alive,” he said with a grin as he turned and ran.
Hayes’ mouth dropped open in shock before snapping shut and allowing a smile to curl his lips. He really shouldn’t be surprised. John Gage had been under him in his second year as a rescue man at Station 10 and he’d seen the boy’s tenacity even then at the tender age of twenty. Nope…He shouldn’t be surprised at all.
“Let’s go talk to DeSoto,” he said happily. “I think they could use some tidings of comfort and joy just about now,” he said to Hamilton and Hookrader.
Both men nodded and followed behind him as he made his way over to the DeSoto’s car.
Roy looked up and the pain in the blue eyes was raw and equally reflected in the eyes of his pretty wife. It was evident that Gage was well loved by this family which had been shown over and over through the years. Through some of the worst illnesses, injuries and situations the department had ever seen but their friendship had withstood the test and grown stronger. Hayes was glad to witness this moment…and happy to be the one to tell him it didn’t have to end here.
“Chief,” Roy said anxiously.
“Roy…,” the Chief replied somberly.
“Have they found him?” Roy asked hesitantly.
“Yes they have.”
Jo hiccupped brokenly as she held her hands clenched together and pressed against her lips to hold back the sobs.
Roy’s blue eyes closed in anguish but snapped open a second later as the Chief continued. “He’s alive Roy…”
“Oh my God,” Jo almost squealed.
Tears of joy welled in the blonde man’s eyes as Hayes finished. “This was a piece of good news I wanted to share and what better night for tidings of comfort and joy.”
Roy turned to Jo almost in disbelief as she flung herself into his arms. He lifted her clear off her feet in jubilant hug. “HE’S ALIVE JO…Quick…Wake the kids…They’ll wanna know.”
He spun back to Hayes. “When are they bringing him out?” Roy questioned anxiously.
“He’s pretty banged up Roy…He’s unconscious and having a little trouble breathing from the smoke and fumes but he’s alive and they’ll be bringing him out in a few minutes.”
Jo was shaking Chris awake. “What is it mom?” He murmured drowsily.
“Chris…They found Uncle Johnny.”
The ten year old sat up looking frightened. “Is he alright?”
“He will be baby…He’s hurt but they’ll make him better at Rampart.”
Chris flung his arms around his mom and hugged her tightly. She hugged him back.
Activity by the collapsed garage caught their attention. She disentangled herself from her son and opened the back door to scoop Jennifer up in her arms. Roy took her from his wife and the small family group made their way toward the group of men carrying their burden out.
The hole was much larger by the time Roper returned with the stokes. Alonso had already crawled inside with John. It was a tight squeeze and he was almost straddling the younger man.
“Gage… Can you hear me? Johnny?” There was no response from the dark haired paramedic. He felt for the pulse…It beat strongly beneath his fingers. “Strong but rapid pulse,” he called to the others.
“Get us a BP,” Belliveau told him as he handed him the cuff. Cam Leaned in with the flashlight and held it while he wrapped the cuff around John’s arm. He pumped it up… “100/60,” he announced a few seconds later.
Cam shone the flashlight over John’s bloody face. His fingers searched through the sweat matted dark hair. They quickly found the deep cuts on John’s head. “I’ve got a couple of head wounds here…He musta taken a good whack or two from the falling debris.”
Alonso was running his hands over John’s arms and legs. “No broken bones that I can find.”
“Skins dry to the touch…Respirations are rapid and his temps elevated a bit,” Cam finished.
“Dehydrated” Bob guessed as he helped Roper get the basket in position. “Let’s get him out…His family’s waiting.”
Alonso gently gripped John’s shoulders which brought a moan of pain from the young man. “Watch that shoulder man,” he instructed as he turned John’s body toward the opening.
Cam reached in and grasped the fallen paramedic under the arms and began to pull him through the opening as José pushed from within. Willing hands joined in to help lift John from his small shelter and gently lay him in the stokes. Bob slipped the O2 on him and tucked the blanket around him gently.
“Let’s move…We need to get Rampart on the line and get some fluids on board.” They lifted the basket gently and began the arduous task of getting Johnny out of the building.
They finally lifted, slid and crawled under the debris with their precious burden until they got him to the exit. Several slipped through and turned to grasp the stokes and guide it through the opening and then they moved quickly.
Cam ran ahead to get the Biophone. “Rampart base…This is squad 45.”
“Squad 45 this is Rampart, go ahead,” Came Kelly Brackett’s tired voice.
He like the others at Rampart emergency had been on duty since the collapse had occurred and the ER had been swamped with casualties. None had left as they’d been treating the injured until the late hours leading up till now and Kel had finally sent them home. Dixie was still there but was getting ready to leave as well until the call had come into the base station. She set her coat back down to listen as she picked up a pad and joined Kel by the radio.
“Rampart…We have a twenty six year old code I…He’s been trapped in a building collapse for almost four hours Rampart. He’s been breathing some chemical smoke…His breath sounds are rasping. He’s dehydrated and he’s sustained two separate head injuries and is unconscious at this time. His respirations are rapid and shallow…Pulse is 160…B/P 100/60. His skin is dry and his temp is slightly elevated. He has facial lacerations and is responsive to pain...Seems to have injured his right shoulder but no broken bones that we can find. We have him on 8 liters of O2”
“Hey junior,” a gentle voice intruded. Cam glanced up and was unsurprised to see Roy kneeling next to his partner. His pretty auburn haired wife stood holding their daughter while the boy…Jay thought his name was Chris…Stood watching anxiously. His blue eyes a mirror of his fathers and filled with the same emotions…Fear, worry and love. Roy’s fingers gently swept the matted, sable hair from his friend’s forehead as he spoke soothingly. Cam blinked rapidly to stop the sudden burn in his own eyes.
He was called back to his patient by Brackett’s voice. “45…Start an IV of Ringers…Wide open…Keep him on O2… I’m afraid I can’t give him anything for pain until we diagnose the severity of his head injury.”
Everyone of them had known that was coming but it still hurt to know John would be in pain if he woke and they’d be unable to help him.
“Monitor his vitals,” Brackett continued. “And transport as soon as possible.”
“10-4 Rampart,” Cam acknowledged the order grudgingly.
At the base station, Kel was thinking of turning the case over to Mike Morton and heading for home…He was exhausted and it was already after ten thirty. “Do we have an ID on the code I 45,” he asked tiredly as he waved toward Mike.
The young black intern headed toward him as the reply came back. “10-4 Rampart…Code I is John Gage.”
Kel and Dixie’s eyes both widened in surprise. John wasn’t supposed to be on duty today…Why wasn’t he at Roy’s as he usually was on Christmas Eve?
“Did you say John Gage?” He questioned again.
“10-4 Rampart,” Cam confirmed. He smiled to himself, knowing John and Roy held a special place in Brackett’s life, not only as paramedics but as personal friends.
“Get him in here now,” Brackett ordered. “Dixie call Roy…He’ll need to be here if any decisions have to be made.”
She nodded and picked up the phone. It rang and rang and went unanswered. She hung up as Kel raised a questioning eyebrow. “No answer Kel.”
“Great…Maybe they had to go somewhere for Christmas and that’s why Johnny was working.”
“They didn’t mention it to me yesterday,” Dixie replied with a shrug. “I thought John was going to be with his family like he usually is.”
“Guess we’ll find out when he gets here,” he said as he turned to Mike. “Never mind Mike…I’ll handle this one,” he said, tiredness forgotten.
“I’ll set up in three,” Dixie said as she pushed the door open and slipped inside.
“Let’s get him on the gurney,” Bob said as he and Roper moved to lift the young man from the stokes.
Roy brushed him aside. “I’ve got him,” he said, the tone brooking no argument. The blonde paramedic knelt next to his partner and sat him up, sliding his left arm behind his back and letting John’s head rest against his shoulder before he slid his right under his knees and lifted his friend into his arms.
The others smiled at the proprietary gesture but stepped back to let Roy lay him gently on the stretcher. Joanne leaned down to kiss the young man’s forehead tenderly. Roy smiled. “We’ll follow you in,” he said as they tightened the straps over Johnny and lifted him into the ambulance.
“We’ll see you there Roy.”
Hookrader slapped Roy on the back as he turned to go back to the car. “I’ll call Hank and let him know what happened Roy.”
“Thanks Cap,” Roy said with a nod.
They rushed Johnny into treatment room three fifteen minutes later. Kel, Dixie and Carol were waiting. The attendants made the quick transfer from gurney to table and retreated.
Cam quickly hooked John into the rooms oxygen supply. Brackett wasted no time in moving to start examining the young paramedic. “Dix…Is the portable on its way down here?” He questioned.
The pretty blonde nurse nodded. “Right outside.”
“Good…Let’s get a full skull series,” he ordered without breaking from the exam. His practiced fingers moving over John’s arms and legs…Pressing his belly lightly and feeling along his ribs. His hand slid behind John’s neck and down to his shoulders eliciting a groan of pain but the dark eyes remained obstinately closed.
“Help me roll him,” he requested as he heard the door open behind him. The two nurses began to log roll John to left side and suddenly two larger, stronger hands joined theirs. They glanced up in surprise to see Roy standing next to Kel. They got him on his side long enough for Kel to examine the deeply bruised area across John’s Scapula. The quick assessment was sufficient for Kel to determine that it probably wasn’t broken but he’d have them X Ray it just to be sure.
“What are you doing here Roy?” He asked as he checked the cuts that were dotting John’s face.
“What do you mean? Johnny’s here…Where else would I be?”
“I meant how did you know he was here? Dix tried to call you and…”
“I saw the explosion on TV…I knew Johnny was working with one of the engine companies that was on the scene…I just knew he was in trouble so…,” he shrugged. “I went down there.”
“I see,” Kel said as if he understood and in a way he did. He’d seen these two communicate silently too many times over the years to doubt Roy’s feelings about his ‘little brother.’
“Let’s step out and let X-Ray do their job and then we’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with,” Kel suggested as he waved them toward the door.
Roy gave John’s hand a gentle squeeze as he leaned down close the sable head. “I’ll be right outside Junior okay?” He reassured his unconscious friend.
They stepped outside as Malcolm came in with his machine. “I want a full skull series, chest X-Ray and his right shoulder,” he instructed. The young radiologist nodded in confirmation.
They stepped outside to find Joanne waiting with a very tired Jennifer and a worried Chris. “How is he?” She questioned anxiously.
“He’s dehydrated and he’s got a couple of contusions and bruises and mostly likely a nasty concussion. He’s also got a few rales in his lungs that’ll require a few breathing treatments to sort out but all in all…I’d say he’ll be fine in a few days.”
Jo blew out a relieved breath and Chris grinned. “See mom…I told you asking God to bring him home would be better than asking Santa.”
The others grinned as Jo hugged her son against her. “Yes you did Chris and you were right,” she agreed in relief. “Has he woken up?” She asked hopefully, desperately wanting to talk to her ‘baby brother’ and tell him how sorry she was for hurting his feelings earlier.
“Not yet Jo,” Roy said quietly.
Her blue eyes shot to Brackett. He saw the worried look. “Relax Jo…He took a couple of good whacks on the head not to mention all the smoke and chemical fumes he breathed or the fact that he’d been working to rescue dozens of other people for five or six hours previous to all that but I’ll know better when I see the X-Rays.”
She nodded but she really wanted to go and be with her ‘boy’ right now. “This was my fault…I’d really like to see him,” she said hesitantly.
“You dropped a parking garage on his head Joanne?” Dixie asked with a raised brow. Chris giggled.
Jo sighed. “No...Of course not but I bit his head off this morning for doing me a favor and I hurt his feelings. He wouldn’t even have been in there if he’d been at home with us tonight where he should have been.”
“And a lot more people might not have made it if Johnny and his expertise hadn’t been available,” Kel reminded her. “He’s one of the best paramedics we’ve ever trained and he was needed in there.”
Jo sighed in defeat. “I guess,” she agreed softly but she wasn’t convinced.
“You must be rubbing off on her Roy,” Dixie teased. “Either that or misplaced guilt just runs in the family.”
Roy flushed a bit but he grinned and nodded in affirmation.
The dark haired doctor turned to Carol. “See if you can find an aide to watch the children for a moment…Joanne needs to talk to our young friend in there.”
Carol smiled and nodded and took Jennifer from her mom. Chris threw a longing look at the closed door.
“We’ll let you see your uncle Johnny before you leave Chris,” Dixie promised.
“Thank you Miss McCall,” he said, brightening considerably.
“Yeah…Thanks Dix,” Roy agreed, scruffing his sons blonde head affectionately.
Malcolm opened the door and backed his machine out. “I want those stat,” Kel told him.
The young man nodded and trundled his machine up the hall. The others filed into the exam room where John remained in unconscious repose.
Kel did a brief check while Dixie began to take his vitals. Roy and Joanne moved to either side of the exam table. “Hey junior,” Roy spoke quietly. “Can you wake up for us now?” He requested as the back of his fingers swept the dark hair back from the bruised forehead.
John was floating peacefully in pain free darkness but he suddenly sensed that he was no longer alone. He felt cool fingers brush over his warm brow…It was a touch he knew well. Roy…Roy was here.
He struggled to fight his way free of the dim murkiness surrounding him and return to consciousness but as the darkness began to fade, pain flooded through his brain…He moaned softly…His breaths coming in short pants…A whimper slipped from his lips and tried to retreat but another voice called to him softly… There was pain in the voice…And something warm and wet dripped on his hand. She was crying. It hurt but he had to try and force his eyes open…to tell her how sorry he was for ruining her Christmas.
John’s long lashes fluttered against his cheek bones briefly and a small moan escaped from his lips. “That’s it junior…Come on,” Roy prompted.
John began to pant in what was obvious pain and a small whimper slipped free. The eyelids once again tried to remain closed. Jo took his other hand and squeezed it gently.
“C’mon baby,” she pleaded softly. “I need you to wake up sweetheart.” There was no response. “Please Johnny,” she said as tears slipped freely down her cheeks. “Please baby…Open your eyes. I need to tell you how sorry I am for yelling at you this morning,” she said as she lifted his hand to her cheek.
The lids fluttered once more. “That’s it Johnny…You can do it,” Roy pressed.
“C’mon baby,” Jo urged him, kissing his fingers as the dark eyes finally made a reappearance.
“That’s my boy,” Jo said as she leaned down to kiss his cheek gently.
“J…Jo,” he wheezed tiredly before they shifted to Roy who smiled down at him from the other side. “Rrrroy,” he managed. The chocolate brown orbs were filled with pain. “Mmmm,” he moaned softly.
“Johnny…You took a couple of nasty hits on the head. Do you remember?” Roy asked.
“Ye…eah,” he slurred. “Trap…ped.”
“That’s right…The others dug you out. You’re at Rampart and you’re gonna be fine,” Roy assured him as his fingers brushed the sable hair back. John’s fingers tightened around his for a moment before they swiveled back to Joanne.
“Sor…ry,” he murmured. “Spoil Chr..stmas for you.”
Jo’s eyes teared up once more…The idea that she’d hurt him so bad that that was all he was worried about after being hurt so badly himself. “No baby…I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong... I did,” she assured him. “You couldn’t possibly have known those were a gift…I’d just had such a bad morning and I took it out on you…I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?”
John felt such a sense of relief. He still had his family…Jo wasn’t mad anymore, though deep in his heart he’d known she loved him but still…It had hurt.
“Yeah Jo,” he said tiredly.
“Thank you baby,” she said as she kissed him again. “I love you sweetheart,” she added as she stood up.
“Love ya too,” he murmured.
They all smiled. “You had us pretty worried for a while junior,” Roy said as he squeezed John’s hand. “We thought we’d lost ya.”
“Me too,” he said tiredly, drawing more grins.
“I was never so relieved to hear two little words.”
John frowned and licked his dry lips. Roy grabbed a cup of water and held the straw for him to sip. John smiled his thanks. “What words?”
“He’s alive,” Roy said quietly. “They were most definitely tidings of comfort and joy…That’s what Hayes called them,” the blonde paramedic teased.
John smiled tiredly as the door opened and Malcolm came in to hand Brackett the X-Rays. He popped them in the reader. “Well…The good news is you didn’t break anything, not even that hard head,” Kel kidded with a grin. “The bad news is you do have a concussion and a pretty deep bruise on your right scapula. That’s gonna hurt for a few days. I’ll immobilize your arm for a day or two but you probably won’t even need therapy.”
“Kay,” John breathed out tiredly.
“I’m gonna keep you overnight for observation John.”
The younger man nodded…He hurt too much to argue even though he was unhappy about having to spend Christmas in the hospital.
Roy patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry junior…We’ll bring Christmas to you.”
“You don’t hafta,” John mumbled.
“Of course we do…We can’t have a family Christmas if one of the family is missing can we?” Jo asked.
John smiled… “Guess not.”
“That’s right…So you go to sleep and we’ll see what Santa brings you tonight okay?” Jo teased as she brushed her fingers over his cheek.
“Kay,” he murmured as the dark eyes closed.
“We’ll get him in a room so he can sleep…You should go home and do the same. Johnny will be fine.”
The couple nodded and gave their young friend a final pat on the hand before they turned and went to collect the children to head for home as soon as Chris had a moment to see that Uncle Johnny was okay …They’d be back in the morning to spend Christmas with their brother.
Johnny woke the next morning to the sound of laughter and the crackle of Christmas wrapping paper.
The dark eyes drifted open and a smile curled his lips as the DeSoto family along with Harriet and Eileen, Craig and Carey made themselves comfortable in the chairs Kelly Brackett had ordered brought in. He and Dixie leaned against the door frame watching as they set up a small four foot tree and piled the presents under it.
“Like I said junior,” Roy said coming over to the bed to give John a scruff of his dark hair. “We’ll bring Christmas to you.”
“Thanks,” he murmured softly. “All of you,” he added, knowing it was useless to argue.
Chris came to his side. “Merry Christmas Uncle Johnny,” he said reaching up to hug his father’s best friend.
“Merry Christmas Buddy,” he replied, scooting over to let Jennifer climb up beside him.
She hugged him tightly. Johnny winced but didn’t protest the embrace. “Merry Christmas Princess.
She kissed him on the cheek. “Merry Christmas Uncle Johnny.”
He greeted Harriet and Eileen and shook Craig’s hand a bit awkwardly with his left. “Thank you for coming but you know…”
“Don’t say it junior,” Roy warned.
John grinned as Jo came and sat next to him. “I brought you vanilla ice cream and crushed strawberries with whipped cream.”
John looked about the room…His head was pounding and his shoulder ached. His chest felt a bit tight but he didn’t care…He had his family and It was going to be a great Christmas after all.
“Yeah…Why not,” he agreed.
“I love you baby.”
“I love you too…Merry Christmas Jo.”
“Merry Christmas sweetheart.”
The End and a very Merry Christmas to all of you. I hope you enjoy the gift.
This is dedicated to a couple of friends who shared a journey to the theatre in September. This ones for you. Merry Christmas.
Posted to Site 12/23/12
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The Characters of Emergency do not belong to me. They are the property of Universal Studios and Mark VII Limited. No copyright infringement is intended or monetary gain made. I merely like to toy with them and return them to their proper owner in good working order. The characters of Emergency belong to Universal and Mark VII but this story itself however, is the property of the author.
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