"Roll call in five!" called Captain Hank Stanley.
Roy glanced worriedly toward the door and then toward Johnny's closed locker. Where are you, Johnny? I know you hate working on Halloween, but . . .
He sighed and closed his own locker preparing to head to the apparatus bay for line up. Roy only managed two steps when the door swung open, and Johnny Gage slowly and stiffly entered the locker room.
Roy gaped at this partner's appearance. The other paramedic's face was very pale and haggard with dark circles ringing his red-rimmed eyes. An angry looking purple bruise graced his forehead; all the more distinctive given his marked pallor.
"Hey, Johnny, you okay? What happened to your forehead?"
Johnny gave the blond-haired man a weak grin. He resisted the urge to tell Roy what his last two days off had been like. They had been bizarre and worrisome, and Johnny was sure Roy wouldn't believe him anyway.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just didn't sleep much last night."
"What about that bruise?"
"Umm, it's nothin'. I walked into a door this morning. Listen, I'm gonna change and I'll be right out. Tell Cap I'm sorry."
"Uh, okay. Are you sure . . ." Roy hesitated for a moment, certain that there was more to the story. However, seeing the grim look on the other man's face, he turned and left the room.
Captain Stanley frowned mightily when he noticed Gage's absence from roll call. He immediately skewered DeSoto with a look.
"He's changing, Cap. He said to tell you he's sorry."
If anything, Stanley's frown deepened as he began making some announcements. Several minutes later, he saw Gage shuffle into place in line. Cap started to throw Johnny a dirty look, but it rapidly changed to one of concern when he noticed how ill the youngest member of his crew looked. He finished roll call by handing out the daily duty assignments. As was expected, he assigned Gage to latrine duty for being late. Before dismissing the men, he asked Johnny if he was all right.
"I'm fine, Cap. Just didn't sleep well last night."
With a conspiratorial look at Roy, a broad hint for him to keep an eye on his partner, Hank dismissed his crew to attend to their duties.
The two paramedics headed first for the squad to take inventory and calibrate the biophone. Roy eyed his partner carefully. Man, he looks so miserable.
"Johnny, are sure you're okay?"
His partner didn't answer.
Finally, the dark-haired man sighed heavily and said, "I'm okay. I guess. It's just . . . you see
. . . oh, never mind . . . you wouldn't believe me . . ."
As he was speaking, Johnny finished what he was doing and drifted out of the room, leaving behind a very puzzled friend.
No calls summoned the crew of Station 51 so chores were finished relatively quickly. Out of habit, everyone gathered at the table to enjoy some much-needed coffee. Everyone, that is, except for Johnny.
Roy's worry finally overrode all else, and he went to search for his errant partner. He was not prepared for what he found. Johnny was standing in the latrine with his back flat against the wall staring into space. The cleaning supplies were strewn about his feet. Blood flowed in rivulets down Johnny's arms and slowly dripped off the tips of his fingers. On the wall above his head, written in what was most likely Johnny's blood, were the words "YOU CANNOT ESCAPE".
Rushing to his partner's side, Roy quickly assessed his injuries. Angry red slashes and what appeared to be bite marks, many of them still welling with blood, were visible along both of Johnny's arms. His pale complexion from earlier had now turned ashen.
"Johnny, what happened?"
The dark-haired paramedic remained utterly still and mute.
Roy reached out and touched the other man's shoulder. The contact broke him from his stupor. The senior paramedic caught him as his knees began to buckle and eased him to the floor.
"R-r-oy. It . . . it followed me here. It wants me so bad." Gage's eyes had a funny glazed look about them.
The blond-haired paramedic looked quizzically at his partner and then around the room.
"What? Look, Johnny, I think we need to get you to Rampart."
"Umm . . . uh . . . okay."
His partner's immediate agreement to go to Rampart alarmed Roy greatly. Normally, Johnny would try to argue, cajole, or whine his way out of a trip to the hospital.
"All right, Junior, let me get some help in here." Roy re-opened the door and summoned the rest of the men for help.
Cap arrived first, followed by the others who had stopped to get the equipment off the squad as Roy had instructed. They were all stunned by both their fellow firefighter's appearance and the words written on the wall.
"Geez, Gage, what have you done to yourself now?" joked Chet, earning him a fierce glare from the captain.
The paramedic checked his partner's vitals noting with a slight frown that his blood pressure was reading low. He then loosely bandaged the worst of the cuts and turned to the waiting biophone, grateful that one of the men had set it up.
"Cap, I want to take him to Rampart to get checked out. Can you call for an ambulance?"
Before Stanley could respond, Gage intervened with a resounding "no".
"No ambulance. Please. Let me ride over in the squad."
The senior partner mentally debated the decision for a moment before agreeing, but only if Rampart agreed as well.
He apprised Dr. Brackett of the situation and garnered the doctor's approval to transport by squad. Then he and Mike gently helped the dark-haired man to his feet and guided him to the waiting vehicle. Hank, Marco, and Chet quickly stowed the equipment.
"Roy, I'll stand down the squad until we know what's up with John. If I need to call in a replacement, let me know."
The blond half of Stanley's paramedic team nodded before driving off.
The drive over to Rampart was silent. When they arrived, Roy helped his partner
into the emergency room where Kelly Brackett and Dixie McCall greeted them.
"Hey, guys, we're ready for you in Treatment Room 3," stated Dixie.
Once in the treatment room, Johnny dazedly climbed onto the exam table and laid down wincing when his back touched the surface of the table. He hadn't spoken a word since refusing the ambulance.
While Dixie obtained a new set of vitals, Brackett started with some questions for the silent paramedic.
"So, Johnny, can you tell me what happened?"
Gage gazed dispiritedly at the doctor without answering.
"Johnny, can you tell me what happened?" this was more of a command now than a question.
The doctor was puzzled by the man's reticence. He normally would be talking a mile a minute.
Hoping for a little help, Kel glanced at Roy who shook his head. "I wasn't in the room."
Brackett eyed the bump on Johnny's forehead. Maybe he has more of a concussion than I suspected. The doctor quickly checked his patient's pupil reaction with his penlight. The exam showed a slight sluggishness.
Realizing that he wasn't going to get an answer now, Dr. Brackett removed the bloodied bandages from Johnny's arms involuntarily wincing as the raw, red injuries were revealed. A couple of the deeper wounds were still seeping blood.
"Well, my friend, it looks like you need quite a few stitches. And I think you have a slight concussion." As he spoke, Brackett squeezed Johnny's shoulder in consolation and was surprised to hear a hiss of pain. He swiftly unbuttoned and pushed aside Gage's light blue uniform shirt.
"What the . . . Roy, did you see this," exclaimed the doctor.
Gage's entire chest was criss-crossed with the same type of scratches and bites as well as bruises. Some of the scratches extended over his shoulders.
"Johnny, sit up for me."
Brackett removed the uniform shirt and viewed his back. It was in the same condition as his chest. The newly discovered wounds looked to be a day or two old but were nevertheless still painful.
Shocked, Roy could only stare at his injured partner.
"Dix, let's get these new wounds cleaned. Get a suture tray ready for me. And then, Johnny, we are going to have a talk."
Gage sighed and again leaned back. He kept his eyes closed mostly to hide his fear as long as he could.
A short time later the doctor was finished with his handiwork. Dixie whisked away the used instruments.
"Okay, Johnny. Now . . . tell me how this happened."
Brackett's stern countenance and implacable tone strongly indicated he would not put up with any evasion attempts on Gage's part.
The slender man gazed sorrowfully at the doctor.
"You aren't going to believe me."
The paramedic's eyes flicked to Roy and then back to the doctor.
"It followed me to work."
Johnny absently raised an arm to run a hand through his hair, wincing when he felt the pull on his stitches. Sighing, he tried again.
"This started two days ago in my apartment. There's something after me. It calls itself a Soul Stealer, and it's after mine. It did this." Johnny made a feeble gesture with his hand.
"Johnny . . ."
Gage continued on as if Brackett hadn't spoken.
"It told me it would have my soul by midnight on Halloween. Today. It gains strength through torturing me. In the end, it will kill me."
"Johnny . . ."
"I know you don't believe me, Doc. I know it sounds crazy. But, it's true."
Unable to hold back his fear any longer, Johnny began to grow agitated.
"It attacks with its claws and teeth, and then laughs if I cry out in pain. It taunts me saying no one will care when I'm dead. With each attack, it steals a little more. Makes me a little weaker. I have no way to fight back."
"Okay, Johnny, calm down. Take a deep breath."
The young paramedic did so, attempting to still his slight trembling as well. He knew they didn't believe him. He barely believed it himself except that when he closed his eyes he could feel the cold, razor-like claws slicing into his body and the sharp prickling teeth that were worse than any needle Dixie had ever wielded. But, what chilled John Roderick Gage to bone was the voice. The evil whispering voice taunting him repeatedly that he was alone and unloved, a lost soul ripe for the picking.
Not wanting to upset Johnny any further by expressing disbelief, Brackett did not comment on any of the paramedic's statements.
"All right, Johnny, given that bump on your head, I'm going to admit you overnight for observation. While I'm arranging that, you just lay back and take it easy. Roy, I need to see you outside for a minute."
Brackett left but stood standing just outside the door. Seconds later, Roy also exited the room.
"Roy, has he been under an unusual amount of stress recently?"
"No, not that I know of. He seemed absolutely fine on our last shift. I didn't see him on our two days off though."
The doctor's mouth twitched a bit.
"Well, this story could be a side effect from the concussion though we don't usually see something like this when it's a mild one. But then head injuries can be unpredictable."
"Doc, what about the wounds on his arms, chest, and back. What made those?"
"I haven't determined that yet. Surely, you don't believe his story?"
Roy shifted uncomfortably and looked at the man standing before him. "I don't know, Doc. There's just something about this. Something that rings true to me. I can't explain it."
Brackett just shook his head. "I'm going to see about getting him admitted. Do you need to call the station?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I should do that."
The two men drifted away from the door. Regrettably, neither of them heard the muffled exclamation and then low groaning coming from Johnny's room.
Johnny knew seconds after the other men left the room that the entity had returned to torment him. The whispers echoed from every corner of the hospital room just as it had at his apartment. The wicked, spiteful invective assaulted Johnny's ears.
"How does it feel to be so unloved? Nobody cares. You are alone again. Just as you have always been."
"That's not true."
"Ah, but it is. Your family turned you away when you needed them the most, did they not?"
"I have friends. Friends who care for me."
"Do you really think they care? You are a FOOL. You mean absolutely nothing to them. They laugh at you behind your back."
"I don't . . . I don't believe it."
"I feed on pathetic souls such as yours. The more desolate the soul, the more strength I gain."
"Leave me alone." The protest was weak and whispered but it was the best the desperate young man could do.
"I cannot do that. This is far too much fun. You have presented quite a challenge. I congratulate you. Most of my victims give up long before now and beg me to end it. I am enjoying the destruction of your feeble physical body first before taking your very essence as sustenance."
Johnny felt pressure on his chest as if a heavy weight had been deposited there. The lanky paramedic wiggled slightly trying to dislodge the pressure, all to no avail. He was too weak from the previous attacks to have any effect on the invisible entity pinning him down. Suddenly, Johnny gasped in pain when he felt one of the stitches in his arm give way. It was followed by another and another. Bone chilling laughter resounded all around Johnny as the Soul Stealer played with his victim; much like a cat would with a hapless mouse. The popping of stitches continued up both of the young man's arms. Soon every last stitch Brackett had just put in would be ripped open and bleeding. Not content to re-open the old wounds, the creature joyfully inflicted new ones. Helpless, all Johnny could do was moan at the searing pain in his arms. Not yet satisfied, the entity caressed each of the fingers on the paramedic's left hand. Johnny howled when he felt the bone in his little finger snap.
Without warning the door to the treatment room smacked open.
Kelly Brackett briskly stepped into the room to speak once more with his patient. Upon hearing Gage's yell, the words died on his lips as he absorbed the scene in front of him. Gage lay trembling on the exam table. His arms were again covered in blood. His right hand lay clenched at his side, and he was weakly tossing his head from side to side. Johnny's mouth was drawn in a tight line of pain. A fine, almost invisible, gossamer mist seemed to be floating just over Johnny's chest. The doctor, stunned by this unexpected sight, let the clipboard in his hands clatter to the floor. Quickly regaining his composure, he rushed to his patient's side.
Brackett placed his hand over Johnny's clenched right fist.
The mist slowly began to roil and curl in upon itself before finally disappearing completely. Brackett was sure he heard a hiss of displeasure echo in the room. Worried eyes gazed at Gage's arms in consternation. Nearly every stitch had been torn open. These wounds as well as the newly inflicted ones were bleeding profusely. Brackett's expression darkened even more when he noticed the odd angle of Johnny's little finger on his left hand.
The prone man emitted a low, pain-filled moan.
"Johnny, it's okay. It's gone now."
Brackett heard the treatment room door open behind him and the strangled gasp that followed.
He glanced over to see that Roy had returned.
"Doc, what the hell happened?"
"It attacked him again."
"What? But, I thought . . . I thought you didn't believe in Johnny's story."
"I didn't. Not until I just saw it with my own eyes." Brackett went on to describe what he had seen on entering the room a few minutes ago.
Their attention was pulled back to the man on the bed as he rolled on his side and lost his battle with his nauseous stomach.
"Roy, we need to get him treated. Will you get Dixie for me?"
The fair-haired paramedic did as asked and brought Dixie back into the treatment room. Like the two men, she was shocked by what she saw before her.
"Kel, what happened?"
"I'll explain later, Dix. Let's get him cleaned up and re-stitched. Oh, and I need a splint for his little finger." As he worked, Brackett related what he had seen to Dixie. Between the three of them, they tried to formulate a plan to fight for their friend's life. Johnny remained mysteriously silent throughout the conversation.
Soon, Roy left the room to make a critical telephone call.
A short while later, Johnny was finally settled into a room. DeSoto had made sure that someone remained by his partner's side every step of the way, not wanting to leave him alone and vulnerable to another attack. Exhausted from his ordeal, the dark-haired paramedic had eventually fallen into a light doze.
The man on the bed awoke and turned his head toward his partner. His eyes were slightly glassy from the pain medication, but he remained somewhat coherent. He shifted restlessly beneath the yellow blanket.
"Johnny, tell me what we can do to fight this thing."
"I don't know. Nothing. I'm nothing. It's right. You guys shouldn't . . ."
"Hey, c'mon, Junior. Don't talk like that."
"It's t-t-true. How could any of you care about an idiot like me? Look how much trouble I get into. My family had the right idea."
Roy was growing increasingly concerned about his partner's hopelessness. It was so unlike him not to fight back. This entity was playing with Johnny's mind in addition to torturing his body.
"It's not true! You know Joanne and I and the kids consider you part of the family. And, the rest of the guysCap, Mike, Marco, even Chetthey're all your friends, too, and they care about you. Cap even made special arrangements so they could all be here at the hospital if you need them. The people here at Rampartthey care."
"N-n-n-o. You all just tolerate me, like some pesky bug or something," Johnny sighed deeply, "It's okay. I understand. I know I'm not lovable. I never have been. I shouldn't have expected it to be different now."
Roy was startled to see a single tear track its way down Johnny's cheek before the man turned his head away and closed his eyes. There was so much about Gage's past that Roy didn't know, but he was sure that the entity was using it to further torment his friend. Realizing his arguments were having no effect, DeSoto decided it was time to call in some reinforcements. Before he could summon anyone, the senior paramedic felt a strange shift in the atmosphere of the room. Suddenly, Roy found it very difficult to move, as there was an odd pressure in the room. Helpless, he watched as a fine ivory mist appeared over the prone figure on the bed.
Johnny's eyes flew open when he felt the dreadfully cold touch of his tormentor.
"No . . . please . . . leave m-m-me alone." Some of the old Gage defiance finally reappeared. "I won't let you have it."
"You haven't given up yet? I tire of this game and want to end it. You are no longer entertaining."
The entity laughed in icy triumph.
Without warning, the paramedic's slender body rose from the bed. He was propelled across the room where he impacted against the wall with a sickening thud. Seeing stars, Johnny slowly crumpled to the ground.
With tremendous effort, Roy willed his body to move. In slow motion, he headed for the door, flung it open, and yelled for help. Behind him, he heard Johnny begin to choke. Turning back, he made his way toward his friend. As he approached, Roy could see that Johnny's face was red. The distressed man lay writhing on the floor. Ghostly fingers were bruising his partner's neck as the entity squeezed off his air supply.
The door to the room banged open as the rest of the A-shift crew rushed in, followed by Kelly Brackett, Dixie McCall, Joe Early, and even Mike Morton. Once across the threshold, they were all affected by the heavy, syrupy pressure in the room, impeding quick movement. Undeterred, they all made their way to Johnny's side.
Dr. Brackett reached out and touched Johnny hoping his touch would repel the entity as it had before. It had no effect. The Soul Stealer had gained considerable strength. Following his lead, hoping there was strength in numbers, each of the other people in the room reached out and placed a hand somewhere on Johnny's body.
Roy called out.
"You can't have him. He does have friends and many people who love him. We will not allow you to take his soul."
The white mist seemed to fade slightly but stubbornly maintained a ghostly chokehold on Gage. His face now had a bluish tinge.
"What makes you think this pitiful group of people can stop me?" Now the entity was disdainful and gloating, rejoicing in its victory.
Suddenly, another voice rang out with clarity and conviction.
"LET HIM GO," the command came from Chet's mouth, but it was definitely NOT Chet's voice.
This new voice continued on, "HIS WORK HERE ON EARTH IS NOT YET FINISHED. I HAVE CHOSEN HIM TO DO GREAT THINGS, AND I WILL NOT LET YOU INTERFERE. I HAVE CHOSEN ALL OF THE INDIVIDUALS IN THIS ROOM. THEY PERFORM MIRACLES FOR ME EVERY DAY. DO NOT TRY ANYTHING ELSE."
At these words, the white mist relinquished its hold on Johnny's neck, and with a scream of indignation and frustration, slowly faded away. On this Halloween, the Soul Stealer had been denied this chosen victim. Everyone in the room remained silent for a moment as they reflected on what they had just heard. A low cough from Gage finally snapped Brackett into action, and he began to issue orders to help Johnny.
Much later, the A-shift crew from Station 51 was gathered around Johnny's bed. Dixie and the doctors had been called away to deal with more Halloween madness. Gage was finally resting comfortably after his long and strange ordeal.
The dark-haired man gazed at those gathered around him with a bemused expression on his face. His eyes finally settled on his partner.
"Roy, did I . . . when I was . . . on the floor . . . did I hear correctly?" he rasped.
Roy glanced at the other men before answering. Each looked slightly shell-shocked, as did he.
"Um, yeah, . . . Junior, you heard the same thing we all did."
The corner of Johnny's mouth lifted ever so slightly.
"I always knew there was a reason . . ."
"What, Johnny? A reason?"
"A reason we do what we do, Roy. Just imagine . . ."
The men gathered around the bed nodded in unison, and they said as one, "Yeah, just imagine."
Johnny's expression grew serious once again, and he looked at Roy.
"Guys, I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what, Junior?"
"For not believing in all of you. For doubting. But, I do know one thing now . . ."
The young man's gravelly voice trailed off as he was overtaken by a huge yawn.
"What's that, partner?"
"I know that friends are an essential part of life. They can mean everything."
Johnny's eyelids began to droop.
The senior paramedic reached out and lightly patted his sleepy partner's shoulder.
"You're right, my friend. You are so right. Now, we're all gonna get outta here so you can rest. I'll see you tomorrow."
As they all left the room, Johnny drifted off to sleep with a slight grin on his face.
High in the corner of the room a fine gray mist formed. It lingered there for a moment, seething with unrequited need. A low, nearly inaudible, growl of disappointment filled the air. Deciding to search out a less protected, though undoubtedly unsatisfactory, bit of prey before midnight, the mist slowly and reluctantly faded away.
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