"A REASON TO LIVE"
The news should have come from Shannon, but Dixie knew she couldn't let this go on another minute. Shannon would just have to understand. She stood up from the chair and reached out to him.
"Johnny... Johnny, look at me," Dixie gently cupped his chin in her hand, "You have it all wrong. The baby is yours. Shannon went back to Tennessee to tell Brian she wasn't going to marry him and to tell him she was pregnant. With your child, Johnny."
When she was sure he had understood her, she sat back down and waited patiently. It took a long time before he could say anything.
"My... mine? How...?"
"Well, if you don't know how...," she teased gently, trying to gauge his reaction.
Dixie looked for a smile and saw only shock.
"Johnny, are you all right?" she asked worriedly.
"Yeah. I can't quite believe it. I thought... I... I just need some time. Why didn't she tell me?"
Dixie hurried to explain again. “Shannon wanted to, but the doctors insisted she wait. But, you know, Johnny..., she did tell you. The night before they took you off the vent. She sat by your bed and held your hand and told you all about it. She told you a lot of things that night. I think maybe somewhere deep down inside you did hear her. You just don't remember."
Johnny was still trying to let reality sink in.
Dixie finally interrupted his silence. "Can I call Shannon and tell her you'll see her tomorrow?"
Johnny had to think about it, and at long last answered with some uncertainty.
"Sure. I guess."
Dixie frowned. Something was still not right.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon had fallen asleep early, and it had taken her a few minutes to wake up enough to answer the incessant ringing of the phone. She couldn’t believe what Dixie told her. Neither she nor Roy had any idea Johnny had overheard them. He'd completely misunderstood and had been miserable for almost two weeks because of it. She had known all along he should have been told the truth, but she had listened to the doctors and did what they asked. Shannon made up her mind to follow her own instincts from now on.
She assured Dixie she'd done the right thing by telling him and putting an end to his torment. Shannon couldn’t wait to talk to him. Dixie had made arrangements with the nurses on his floor to let her come early in the morning, long before normal visiting hours.
Shannon hardly slept all night and left for the hospital early. Johnny was already awake when she got there. He didn’t look angry or upset like before, but his greeting was far more restrained than she had hoped for. She refrained from kissing him and pulled the chair up close to the bed. He was watching her every move.
His silent observation made her nervous, but she had waited so long to tell him, she wasn’t going to waste another minute. "Johnny, I'm so sorry you had to find out this way. I didn't know you overheard us. I've wanted to tell you, but Dr. Brackett asked me to wait until you were stronger."
“I know.” There was little emotion in his measured response. “Dixie told me.”
A small voice in the back of her mind warned her to go slow, but she failed to listen to her own instincts again.
"Now that you know,” she said, her voice bubbling with exuberance, “what do you think?"
Johnny had thought it over a hundred times during the night and gave her the only answer he could come up with over and over again.
“I think it's a big mistake."
The air rushed from her lungs and she felt the sharp pang of disappointment that followed. Shannon was absolutely crushed by those words. Everyone had convinced her that Johnny would be thrilled, and she had allowed herself to believe them. She thought this would be the one thing that would give him all the reason he needed to get back on his feet as quickly as he could. Sitting back in the chair to let the shock of his response wear off a little, Shannon steeled her resolve to get through to him, and to let him know she wasn’t going to let the subject be dismissed so easily. Mistake or not, they were going to be parents.
Her voice was firm but gentle when she grasped his hand. "I thought so too when I first found out, Johnny. I was so confused, I didn't know what to do or what to think. But I've had plenty of time to think about it now, and I know it's not a mistake. You'll realize that too once you've had time to get used to the idea."
Johnny shook his head and pulled his hand away. "I don't think so. I can’t be a.... “
The door opened and a nurse came in carrying a breakfast tray. Shirley recognized Shannon and smiled at her, glad to see the two of them were having a quiet conversation.
“Time for breakfast, John,” she announced cheerily. “I sure hope you’re planning to eat this morning. You’re going to give our kitchen staff a worse complex than they already have if they find out you’ve refused yet another one of their tasty creations.”
Johnny grumbled, “Let me guess. Cream of Wheat. Again.”
Shirley chuckled at his obvious distaste for his diet. “Only the best for you, John. Let’s see if we can get these pillows situated here to make it easier for you.”
Food -- even this bland, sticky stuff -- sounded good. But, he wasn’t going to eat with Shannon in the room.
Shannon watched as Shirley tucked a napkin under his chin and removed the lid covering the bowl. She stood up and held out her hand and offered to take the bowl and spoon from the nurse. Neither one noticed the look of anger that filled his eyes.
“I’ll be glad to do this for you,” Shannon suggested, “It’ll be good practice for me when the baby comes.”
One look at his face and she knew that ill-timed, insensitive, but completely innocent remark had been a huge faux pas. The bowl flew across the room and the Cream of Wheat ended up decorating the wall and the floor.
Shirley sighed. Shannon left before Johnny had a chance to tell her to go.
* * * * * * * *
Roy and Shannon sat in the chairs in Kelly Brackett’s office opposite his desk. The last time they sat there... when they were told that Johnny had left instructions to be removed from life support... seemed ages ago. He’d fallen into a deep depression and refused to allow any visitors. In his own way, he was still refusing life support. Neither one of them had been permitted to see Johnny for a week. The doctors felt it was the best course of action for the time being. His mental attitude was gravely affecting his physical recovery, and they didn’t want anything... or anyone... pushing him over the precarious edge he was standing on.
They made quiet small talk while they waited, and Shannon shared her news with Roy. Thanks to someone pulling some strings on her behalf -- and Johnny’s -- Shannon had gotten a job with the LA County Parks and Recreation Department. She was going to be working in the main office until the baby came, then hoped to be able to work at one of the Regional parks when her maternity leave was up.
Roy was glad for her. Working would help pass the time, and help pay the bills. He knew Johnny’s disability check would barely cover his house payment. There was some talk of legal action on his behalf against the man who carelessly stored the drums of explosives in the warehouse and failed to report it, but it could take years before anything was settled with his insurance company. No one had even been able to talk to Johnny about it yet.
Shannon had just agreed to come for dinner the next evening. She was looking forward to seeing the kids, but not wanting to burden the DeSoto’s with her problems, she promised herself not to cry on Joanne’s shoulder. It was comforting to know it was there if it was needed.
They glanced over at the door in unison when they heard the knob turn. Dr. Brackett held the door open for the other man.
“Roy, it’s good to see you again. It’s been a while.” Roy stood up and shook Rick Wilson’s hand. “You must be Shannon Miller.” He clasped her hand warmly in both of his and insisted she stay seated. “John’s spoken of you fondly on many occasions.”
He caught the distraught look in her eyes and sought to reassure her. “I’m sure once we get him past the things that are troubling him right now, he will again.” She knew Johnny liked and trusted this man and hoped he could help. She sensed he had a way of being open and direct without being patronizing, and relaxed. Roy seemed at ease with him too.
Kelly Brackett offered him a chair, then sat down behind his desk. The doctor looked tired. He had just come from seeing Johnny, and felt as helpless as everyone else, and was as eager to hear what the chaplain had to say as Roy and Shannon were. Johnny needed help, and needed it now.
Rick Wilson drew in a deep breath and got right to the subject. “I guess you know that I’ve seen John a few times this last week. It’s been difficult to get him to talk to me, and I have to confess that he’s said very little. The only encouraging thing is that he hasn’t told me to get out. I hear he’s pretty good at that these days.” The chaplain took in the somber faces in the room.
“In my job, you need to learn to be good at reading between the lines. Putting what he has said to me together with the things I know about John from our past association, I think I can guess at what’s bothering him. I just haven’t figured out how to get through to him yet. I don’t know if we can come up with any solutions today, but at least you’ll have a better understanding of what’s going through his mind.” All eyes were on him, waiting for the explanation.
“I want you all to stop and think about the John Gage you knew before the accident. Here’s a man who’s spent his entire adult life walking into burning buildings, rappelling down cliffs, jumping out of helicopters... rescuing people, treating the injured, saving lives. To him, it isn’t just what he does for a living.... It’s the only life he’s known for the past ten years. Sometimes people like him get their whole identity wrapped up in their professions. It’s not a bad thing, especially when that profession is such a valuable, rewarding one. What is bad, though, is when they’re threatened with losing the ability to function in that profession any longer. They don’t see how they can have a life apart from it.”
“But,” Roy protested, “the doctors have told him it’s possible that he can go back to work. If losing his job is what’s bothering him, then why did he tell me he didn’t want to go back to work?”
“Maybe it’s a defense mechanism,” Brackett offered, “if he isn’t able to pass the physical and go back work, it’ll be easier to say he didn’t want to, than it will be to admit he couldn’t.”
“I know how Johnny feels about his job," Shannon spoke up, "part of me thinks he’d rather die than not be a firefighter.” Some of the old bitterness surfaced in her voice. “But, I don’t see what that has to do with refusing to see anyone.”
Rick Wilson nodded in sympathy. After Chet Kelly’s funeral, he and Johnny had talked at length about his relationship with Shannon, and Rick clearly understood her comment.
“Let’s go back to the picture of John before this happened. He’s a pretty independent guy, and from what he’s told me about his past, I’d say he always has been. Then overnight, he’s become as helpless... if I may say... as a baby. You love him and see his pain and want to help. There’s nothing wrong with that. In his eyes, though, it’s humiliating to be so incapacitated. He sees it as being weak and vulnerable that he can’t do anything for himself, and has to ask someone else to do even the most simple of things for him-- to turn him over in bed, to scratch an itch, to get him a drink of water, to feed him. It’s hard enough to ask a stranger to do those things, but to have to ask his friends -- particularly you, Roy and Shannon -- is devastating to his self-esteem. You can call it foolish pride if you want, but in his mind, it's anything but that. Being so helpless is foreign to him and he doesn't know how to cope with it. Think about how that must make him feel."
Rick allowed them a moment to put themselves in Johnny's place before continuing, and finally answered Shannon’s question. "I believe it's hard for John to deal with the fact that he has no control over any part of his life right now, except to decide who he does and doesn’t see.”
Roy and Shannon exchanged a long look before Roy spoke up. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t see this is only temporary. Six months from now....”
Rick held up his hand to interrupt him. “John can’t see six months down the road right now, Roy. He’s laying in bed, worrying whether he's going to be able make it through the next six hours before his next pain medication. Don't you see..., just getting through one day right now is a tremendous challenge for him.”
Shannon slumped back in her chair and frowned in frustration. She’d been so hurt and felt so shut out, she’d forgotten just how much pain Johnny had been dealing with. She wanted nothing more than to help ease his suffering, but he wouldn’t let her come near him. “But if he’d just try... he’d be all right, wouldn’t he Dr. Brackett? He could go back to work if he wanted to?”
Brackett scratched the back of his head and swiveled in his chair, contemplating his answer. “I’ve always been pretty confident at predicting a full recovery for Johnny every time he’s been injured. This time, I do believe he'll recover, but it’s very possible that he won’t recover in time. The Department only allows one year, and time is already ticking away. Maybe we all need to accept that fact before we can help Johnny face it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage him to try.... But, I don’t think we should give him any false hopes either.”
There was a lull in the conversation before Shannon asked the question that had been weighing heavily on her mind all week.
“Is that why he doesn’t want the baby?" Shannon's voice was breaking with emotion. "If he can’t go back to being a firefighter, he doesn’t want to be a father either?”
“Shannon, I don’t know... I don't think it’s that he doesn’t want the baby,” Rick answered quietly, “I think he’s scared. Since he can’t see his own life six months down the road, it must frighten him to think that he won’t be able to provide for a family. We all know there are other things John can do to earn a living, but like I said earlier, he identifies so strongly with being a fire fighter, he can’t see that he has options. All he can see is that he’s about to have a family that he didn’t plan on, and he has no idea how to deal with that in his current circumstance.”
Now she understood why the doctors didn’t want him to know. She was happy about being pregnant and she was eager for Johnny to share in her excitement, but all she had done was scare him, and make him push her away.
“So, what do we do now?” Roy asked, hoping someone had come up with an answer that he couldn’t seem to find.
I think I may know something that could help.” All eyes were now trained on Kelly Brackett. “If what you’ve said is true -- and I believe it is -- then we need to find some way to give Johnny something he can do for himself. He needs to find ways to take control of the simple things. He isn’t as helpless as he thinks. We’ve made the mistake of feeling sorry for him and going along with that by doing everything for him. Unfortunately, we can’t just go in and say “you do this now.” He’s going to have to discover it on his own. But, maybe there's a way we can provide the opportunity.”
“I'm not sure what you have in mind,” Rick cautioned, “but I agree that somewhere along the line, John’s going to need to find his own reason to want to help himself. Until then, there’s nothing any one can do.”
Roy smiled a little, even though he wasn’t sure they’d accomplished anything. He looked at Rick Wilson. “You got all that by reading between the lines? I’ve known Johnny for seven years now and I’ve never even been able to come close to figuring out what’s on his mind most of the time.”
Shannon laughed along with them, although she realized how true Roy’s words were. She'd been intimate with Johnny since she was nineteen. She was pregnant with his child. Even though they’d always had a strong connection, and not just physically, she felt as though she knew him even less than the men in this room did. She wondered just how strong their relationship really was outside the bedroom. Shannon longed to find out, if only Johnny would give them a chance.
All this and parenthood too. No wonder Johnny was scared.
So was she.
* * * * * * * *
Sometimes the answers we seek come in the most unexpected ways.
“Hey, mi amigo.”
Johnny surprised himself. He was actually glad to hear a voice that didn’t belong to one of the doctors or nurses or hospital orderlies. He lifted his elbow off his eyes and saw an old friend poking his head around the door, looking unsure whether he was welcome or not.
“Hey, Marco. Come on in. What are you doin’ here?”
Marco walked over and held out a bandaged hand. “I just came in with the guys in the squad to have the doctor take a look at my hand. It’s nothing serious. Just a little first degree burn. Got too close to the fire, you know?”
“I’m glad you stopped by. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Johnny hesitated. “Have I?”
Marco nervously cast his eyes down at a spot on the floor. “No, I haven’t been by to see you since... your accident. I’m sorry for staying away, John.”
“It’s not a problem, Marco. I haven’t exactly been the best of company for a long time.” Johnny had begun to wish he hadn’t been so obstinate about having visitors; he missed talking to his friends, and now no one bothered to come around.
“So I hear...,” Marco looked solemnly at Johnny. He was so thin. “...Cap and Roy still talk a couple times a week.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they do. How is Cap anyway?” Johnny remembered Hank Stanley had come to visit a few times, but not recently.
“He’s doing fine. He’ll be glad to know I stopped in to see you. You know, Johnny, it’s been hard for him. There’s times when I think he’ll never get over what happened to Chet. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it either. Then, having this happen to you so soon after.... Well, it’s just been really hard.” Marco looked at Johnny and saw that he understood.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny said sadly, “I miss him too.”
Marco struggled to maintain his composure. “You know, John, you have a lot of friends in the department that wanna help you. I don’t understand why you won’t let them.”
“It’s not that easy, Marco. Besides, I don’t see anyone standing in line to trade places with me.” There was no bitterness in Johnny's voice, just emptiness.
“That’d be asking a lot, I suppose.” Marco looked at his watch. “Hey, I gotta go. The guys are probably waiting for me in the squad. We need to get back to the station.”
Johnny looked genuinely disappointed.
“I’ll come back real soon if you want.”
“I think I’d like that, Marco. You take care of that hand. And tell Cap I said hi.” Johnny laid his head back and closed his eyes, already feeling the loneliness creep back.
Marco pulled the door open, then hesitated, and looked at Johnny again.
“Come to think of it, my friend...,” he said somewhat sadly, “I do know one person who’d gladly trade places with you. It’d be the Phantom’s best trick yet, don’t you think?”
He walked quietly out the door, leaving Johnny alone to think that over.
* * * * * * * *
Kelly Brackett stood in the hallway, talking with one of the nurses getting ready to go off duty. He was surprised to hear her say that Johnny had been quieter and more cooperative in the last twenty-fours than he’d been at any other time in the last three weeks. He hoped that was a good sign; if it was, then his visit today would be well-timed.
Johnny was sleeping, but lazily opened his eyes as soon as he heard the doctor approach the bed. Brackett was pleased to see Johnny offer him a weak smile... weak, but a smile nonetheless.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been by for a few days, Johnny. Things have been pretty hectic downstairs lately.” Brackett was looking over the chart the nurse gave him. “I see you’ve finally decided to start eating again? That’s good.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said slowly, “it tastes really bad though. Looks even worse. All that ground up stuff they call food. I’d kill just to be able to smell a hamburger right now. I don’t suppose...?”
Brackett shook his head. “I think you know you wouldn’t be able to handle digesting that just yet. I’ll see if maybe we can find something that’ll appeal to you.” He smiled as he made a note on the chart to order a vanilla milkshake for him this afternoon. He didn’t think Johnny would turn that down, and if his system could handle it, it’d be a good way for him to start putting on some badly needed weight.
By the time the doctor looked up from the chart, Johnny appeared to be dozing again. They had him on Demerol now, instead of morphine. Still a powerful pain killer and potentially addictive, it at least allowed him to function more easily both mentally and physically. Brackett noted that he’d had a recent dose, accounting for his current drowsiness. The door opened and Brackett signaled her into the room, then gently roused Johnny again.
“Johnny, there’s someone here I’d like you to meet. Do you think you can wake up and stay with us for a while?” They chatted for a minute, giving him time to come around.
“Sorry, Doc," he mumbled, "still sleepin' a lot. Nothin’ else to do.” Johnny finally noticed there was another person in the room.
“John, I’d like you to meet Miss Jermain. She’s brand new to Rampart’s physical therapy department, and I thought maybe you’d be a good candidate to be one of her first patients.” Brackett stepped aside a bit, and she extended her hand to Johnny.
“I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Gage. Is it all right if I call you John? We’ll be spending quite a bit of time together in the next few weeks, and I think it’ll be easier if we can call each other by our first names. I’m Jill, by the way.” Brackett had given her the rundown on what had happened to Johnny, and filled her in on his rocky road to recovery. She watched closely for his reaction.
Johnny was still a little groggy. “Yeah. No. I mean, I’m... call me Johnny.” He shook her hand, but had a puzzled look on his face. “No offense, but I don’t think I’m ready for physical therapy yet. Am I? I can’t even move in this cast.”
“On the contrary, John... Johnny.... You’re going to need to start exercising your upper body to get some strength back in your arms and shoulders before you’re going to be able to stand up on crutches. And they’re probably not going to send you home until you can do that. I figure if we work at it, we can have you out of here in two or three weeks at the most.”
More alert now, he looked at Brackett. “I can go home?” His voice was full of apprehension, but the look on his face was priceless.
“You didn’t think we’d keep you here forever, did you?” Brackett teased lightly, “Like Jill says, if you work at it, I don’t see any reason why not.”
“But.... How?” They had Johnny’s full concentration now.
“Well,” Jill explained, “the first thing we’re going to do is give you a set of dumbbells that you can use to start exercising your arms. We’ll start out with some lightweight ones and leave them here so you can use them as often as you feel up to it. We’ll gradually exchange them for heavier ones when you’re ready to move on. We’re also going to put a bar over the bed here that you can use to raise yourself up.... Sort of like doing pull-ups.”
Brackett watched the interaction between the two and knew instantly that he’d made the right decision. In just these few minutes, they’d managed to give Johnny something he desperately needed -- participation in his own recovery. He listened as Jill continued to explain to John how he’d be given a different bed that would allow him to get in and out of it while still in the body cast, and how she’d teach him to get around on crutches.
“...That’s one thing you don’t have to show me,” he was saying, “I’ve used ‘em a time or two in my life.”
“Good....” After all she’d been told about his behavior lately, she was relieved to find he was so willing to get started. “...Although this’ll be a little trickier than getting around with a cast on just one leg, but I think you’ll be able to handle it.” Her own confidence was already having a positive effect on his.
He looked at Brackett again. “Two weeks?”
“That’s mostly up to you and Jill.” While this was definitely the right decision, Brackett knew he was going to have to make sure Johnny took it slow and easy. “Johnny, you’re going to have to start eating regularly and put back some of that weight you’ve lost. I know how anxious you’re going to be to get out of here -- but I don’t want you pushing yourself too hard. Your bones are still healing, and you’re going to find yourself hurting even more than you already are from the exercises. You’re going to be surprised at how exhausting even lifting a lightweight pair of dumbbells is going to be. Jill here will be keeping a close eye on you, and if she thinks you’re overdoing it, she’s going to let me know. And I won't let you go home until I'm sure you know how to follow the rules.”
For the first time in weeks, Johnny looked hopeful. In his mind, he had resigned himself to being in the hospital forever, and the thought now that he could be home in just two weeks seemed impossible. His first impulse was to call Shannon and share the news... but he wasn’t sure if she’d even be speaking to him.
Brackett and Jill both noticed the look that clouded his face and worried for a minute he’d changed his mind.
“Johnny? Are you okay with this?” Jill tried to get him to make eye contact with her again.
Still thinking about Shannon, he focused his attention on the conversation again. “When do we start?”
“Is tomorrow morning soon enough?” she asked. “I thought maybe while they got your new bed all set up, we’d take you outside for a little while to get some fresh air. I don’t know about you, but being cooped up in a hospital room all day isn’t my idea of fun. You up for a short excursion to the great outdoors?”
Johnny had been completely won over. Brackett couldn’t wait to share the good news with everyone.
Jill reached out to shake his hand again. “Well, Johnny, I have some other patients to go meet. I’ll see you about ten tomorrow morning. Just one thing.... The whole trip outdoors is off if I find out you haven’t eaten every bit of food they put in front of you between now and then.” She scrunched up her nose to let him know she knew how awful that was going to be, and made him laugh. He hadn’t laughed in such a long time. It felt really good.
She and Brackett started to leave together, but Johnny asked the doctor to stay for another minute. Jill waved good-bye and left.
“She’s good, isn’t she?”
“Yeah.” Johnny had his mind on other things already. “Um. Doc.... I... um... I’d rather you didn’t tell anybody about this just yet. In case... in case I can’t do it. Let me try it for a while? And, no visitors still. Please.”
“Not even Shannon or Roy?”
Johnny thought it over in silence. “No, not yet.”
Brackett knew Johnny had more at stake here than his physical recovery, and hoped he’d be willing to open the door and let his friends back in. Thanks to Rick Wilson’s insight though, he understood about Johnny’s fear of failure in front of them, and didn’t press the issue. This was one area he’d have to let Johnny continue to have control over for the time being.
“I think I understand, and I won’t say anything. I just hope you don’t keep them waiting too long. Believe it or not, emotionally they’re having just as hard a time with all this as you are. They’re worried about you, Johnny. Especially Shannon.” Brackett started to say something about the baby on the way, but thought better of it at the last second.
“I know. I’ve got some things to work out first.” Johnny yawned and blinked his eyes tiredly. “If you don’t mind... I think... I’m going to sleep on it for a while.”
Brackett quietly retreated from the room, feeling certain they’d just cleared the first hurdle successfully, wondering how many more might lie ahead.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon fumbled with the keys in the door, almost dropping the heavy sack full of groceries in the process. The phone was ringing, and she just knew whoever it was would hang up as soon as she picked it up. It was one of those Murphy’s Law things.
She got the door open and pulled the keys out of the lock, and with a quick backward flick of the foot, slammed it closed behind her. She had almost made it to the kitchen counter when she heard the rip of paper and felt the brown bag slip from her grasp just as she picked up the phone with her other hand. As predicted, there was silence on the other end. Shannon stood there, holding the phone down at her side, all the tired frustration of her long day getting in one last dig, as she watched a single grapefruit roll slowly across the polished wood floor into the den. She didn’t know if she wanted to laugh or cry. Or both.
The distraction almost caused her to slam the phone down, but she realized at the last moment that there had been silence on the other end. Not a dial tone. She put the phone back to her ear and listened.
“Johnny? Is that you?” Shannon knew it was. Her heart began to beat a little faster when he didn’t answer right away. She silently prayed he wouldn’t hang up.
“It’s me... I.... I called to see how you’re doing.” He was hesitant, unsure if she’d even talk to him.
Shannon willed herself to stay calm, knowing she couldn’t blow this chance to finally talk to him. “I’m doing fine. Everything here is fine.” Not so fine, but he didn’t need to know that. “Johnny, is something wrong? Are you okay?”
“Nothin’s wrong. I’m doing better. Still sleepin’ a lot. Not much else I can do right now.” He fell silent, not sure what to say next.
Leaving the groceries in a pile on the floor, Shannon carried the phone to the couch and sat down wearily. “You’re doing better? I’m glad to hear that.” She thought they sounded like two strangers talking for the first time. It was awkward. Putting her feet up on the coffee table, she leaned her head back and took a deep breath while she waited for him to say something else.
“I... um... Shannon? I’m sorry.”
“I know. So am I, Johnny.”
"I know. I've missed you."
"No more than I've missed you. Will you let me come see you?"
"Shannon, I'm not ready to see you. Not yet. I'm sorry."
She couldn't keep the disappointment out of her voice at first. "Johnny, I... I... no, it's okay. I can wait until you're ready. It's what I do."
Shannon cursed to herself. Some day she'd have to learn to think before speaking. Engage the brain before putting the mouth in gear.
He actually laughed. "You do it better than most. Waiting. Well, most of the time anyway."
She heaved a huge sigh of relief that he could joke about it, and relaxed.
"How... how's the baby?"
Placing her hand across her stomach, she smiled. Only four months pregnant and she already loved the feeling. "He's getting a little bigger every day. Unfortunately, so am I. The doctor says everything is going well. I just get really tired and seem to end up going to bed early every night. There's not much else to do anyway. It's kind of lonely without you here."
"Even though there's all sorts of people coming and going all day, it's lonely here too." He didn't want to talk about that tonight and changed the subject. "Is Jack behaving himself?" Johnny hadn't thought about his dog in weeks.
"I think he misses you a lot. He sleeps on the floor beside your bed every night and goes through the whole house in the morning looking for you. But we've gotten to be pretty good friends, and he keeps me company in the evenings. We curl up on the couch and watch TV together." Jack was sitting there now, waiting impatiently for her to scratch behind his ears.
"Are you trying to make me jealous?" he joked wryly.
Shannon laughed out loud. "I'd say we're both pretty pathetic if we're talking about me trying to make you jealous by sleeping on the couch with a dog."
"Well, as pathetic as it sounds, I wouldn't mind having someone curled up next to me tonight. Might be kinda uncomfortable next to this stupid cast though."
"Johnny..., I'd be there in an hour if you wanted. And I wouldn't care about the cast."
"Not... not yet. Give me a little more time. I wanna see you. I'm just not ready. But... Shannon?"
"I'm here, Johnny."
"Can I call you again tomorrow night? I'm really tired and ready to go to sleep now. But I want to talk some more before we see each other. It... it feels good just to talk to you again."
"I'll be here." She paused, then added, "Waiting for you."
"Goodnight, Johnny. I love you."
She heard the click of the phone, not knowing if he'd heard her or not.
Shannon rested on the couch for a long time, daydreaming about the past. Tonight had reminded her of the way it was when they'd first met and started dating. It had been really hard to get together. She had a full schedule of classes and worked part time in her father's sporting goods store, and still lived at home with her dad. Johnny had his odd work schedule, and on his days off, was in special training classes, preparing to become a rescue man. They'd spent hours laying in their respective beds, talking on the phone well into the small hours of the morning. It had been a good way to get to know each other and discover that they had a lot of things in common, because when they were in the same room together, their intense physical attraction seemed to preclude any thought of conversation.
Each for their own reasons -- and in spite of that attraction -- they had held out for months before they slept together. Until that night, they spent hours redefining the art of kissing... on the couch at his place, in the back seat of his car, in the movie theater, anywhere.... They'd both taken a lot of cold showers in those days.
A warm glow spread across her face as she recalled their first time.... Johnny had been the perfect lover then, and always. She had never slept with another man before or after him, knowing from the moment she had laid eyes on him he was the only one she'd ever want. Shannon longed to be with him now. She wanted him to come home so they could find a way to live their lives together, not just as on-again, off-again lovers, but as a real family.
She slept soundly in his bed that night, dreaming of the time he'd make love to her again and she'd fall asleep afterwards, safely wrapped in his arms.
Unfortunately, dreams don't always come true as quickly as we'd like.
* * * * * * * *
It had been a great day. Except for that one pesky thing that kept nagging at her as she restlessly tossed and turned in bed.
Johnny had called every evening for the last eight days. Some nights they talked longer than others, depending on how tired he was and how recently he'd taken pain medication. Shannon had picked up some clues about reading between the lines from her own private sessions with Captain Wilson. Johnny carefully kept to "safe" subjects -- asking about her day or recalling some small shared event from their past. He never mentioned his job, the accident, or what had happened between them the day of his promotion. He always asked how she was feeling, but they never really talked about the baby.
Rick had suggested that maybe Johnny was trying to find a way to reconnect with her... to find a way to trust her again. Shannon knew that would never happen until they were able to talk openly about the very things he was avoiding now. Each night, she waited for Johnny to say she could visit, but each night she hung up the phone, disappointed he was still keeping her at arm's length.
Until last night.
He had asked if she would come see him. Shannon was overjoyed, and the timing was perfect. She had an appointment in the morning, and would go directly to Rampart after that.
She closed her eyes and snuggled deeper under the blanket, replaying the entire visit, trying to figure out what was bothering her....
He was sleeping when she got there, and missed her teary-eyed sigh of relief at not only finally seeing him, but seeing that he looked so good. Although still in the cast, he appeared more peaceful and rested than she'd seen him look since the accident. His face wasn't quite so thin, nor was it so pale any longer. The IVs were gone, and though the backs of his hands and his arms still bore many dark bruises from the untold number of needles that had drawn blood and inserted IVs, they too looked stronger.
Her eyes traveled around room, taking in the differences from the last time she'd been here, weeks ago now. He was in a different bed, and was sleeping with it at a slight incline. It looked like it had the ability to be raised and lowered. There was a pull bar over the top of the bed, and dumbbells on the table next to him. Johnny hadn't mentioned a word that anything was going on, but she could see that whatever it was, it was a good thing.
Unable to resist any longer, she bent over and kissed him lightly on the lips, then stood back and watched while he stirred slowly from his slumber. In spite of the awful plaster mold that encased half his body, they shared a long, wordless embrace in each other's arms.
Shannon was delighted to be able to sit on the bed with him instead of having to sit in that god awful visitor chair again. They each had big news to share, and laughed when they both started to talk at once.
"Johnny, you look wonderful." Gesturing around the room while still keeping her eyes on him, she added, "what's all this?"
"Just a few things to help me pass the time of day. I'm trying to get some strength back in my arms." He grinned at her look of curiosity. "They say I can't go home until I can get around on crutches on my own."
She gripped his hand hard, not even noticing she made him wince. "Are you saying you're coming home soon? When? Oh, Johnny, this is great! Are they taking the cast off? When?"
He pulled his hand from hers and rubbed the back of it, not really minding. One more little pain didn't amount to a hill of beans in his repertoire these days.
"You sound like you've been hanging around Jennifer too much," he teased, "one question at a time, please."
"Unless you want that hand squeezed some more, Gage, you'll tell me everything, and you'll tell me now." She was smiling, but he knew she wasn't above doing it either to get him to talk.
He waited until she calmed down a little before explaining. "First, no, they're not taking the cast off yet. Not exactly. They're going to put a different one on, but it's going to be lighter and I can get around easier. They've already let me practice at getting in and out of bed, and it looks like maybe I'll get a shot at those crutches in another day or two."
"You can get in and out of bed by yourself in that cast?" She was trying to picture how.
"You know, I said the same thing the first time they told me that. It takes me a while, and it's not graceful, but I can do it." He grew serious for a moment. "It's been hard work, but it feels really good to be able to do that on my own, Shannon."
This time she took his hand gently. "I'm sure it does, Johnny. Tell me the rest. When are you coming home?"
"It all depends on how long it takes me to handle using crutches. Maybe another five or six days. Just depends." He was grinning again.
"How much longer will it be before the cast comes off for good?" She still didn't quite see how he was going to do this at home.
"Just three more weeks. As long as I'm outta here, I think I can deal with it." Three weeks before he could take a shower. Three weeks before he could scratch all of those irritating itches under the cast that drove him up the wall. Three weeks to liberation. Of sorts.
Johnny explained that Dr. Brackett wanted to talk to both of them as it got closer to the time he could go home, and go over all the necessary arrangements, and answer all the questions they would have. Shannon was already worried about leaving him alone while she was at work, but knew better than to say anything about it now. They'd find a way to deal with that when the time came.
It was Shannon's turn to share her news. She only hoped Johnny would be as excited about it as she had been about his.
"Johnny, remember I told you I had a doctor's appointment today?"
"Nothing's wrong, is it? I'm sorry, I didn't even ask how you were doing."
"No, nothing's wrong. Everything's fine." She reached for her purse that lay at the bottom of the bed." I didn't actually see the doctor today. I had an ultrasound. They gave me the photograph... do you want to see?"
She pulled the little square black and white photo out of her purse and handed it to him. While he stared at it, she peeked over the top and pointed out the baby's head and an elbow and the legs.
"And, look...." She pointed to a spot on the photo and beamed happily. "It's a boy."
He lifted his eyes to meet hers. She couldn't tell what he was thinking by the look on his face, and she almost bit her lip, waiting for him to say something.
He put the photo down and reached up to pull her close to him. Her heart was beating in anticipation of the kiss they were about to share... she had waited so long for this moment....
"Oh, excuse me! I didn't mean to interrupt."
Shannon groaned and dropped her head. If it was possible to hate someone you've never met, Shannon hated this person with a passion. Nurses sure had lousy timing.
"Jill, hi! It's okay, come on in." Johnny's face lit up with a smile. "We were just... uh, we were just talking."
Shannon's mouth literally dropped open as she sat up straight. It's okay? She glared at him, but he didn't even notice. Who the heck was Jill? She turned around on the bed and forced herself to put on a polite smile.
"Hi, you must be Shannon. Johnny's told me all about you. I'm so sorry. I can see I interrupted something, and I'll get out of your way in a minute. I'm Jill. It's nice to meet you." She held out her hand to Shannon, who shook it, still somewhat upset that this woman had just barged into the room unannounced. And ruined everything.
"Jill's my physical therapist," Johnny added that fact for her clarification, "she's the one that's gonna get me on my feet and out of this place."
"It's nice to meet you too." Shannon returned the greeting as pleasantly as she could under the circumstances, wondering why Johnny hadn't told her all about Jill. She couldn't be more than twenty-four or twenty-five, with beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes, a tan that almost looked out of place in November, and a figure that Shannon would have envied even before she got pregnant. A nice smile and an outgoing personality. Brimming with self-confidence. Pretty, if you liked the type. Shannon definitely hated her.
"Um..., I need to see if Johnny can give these new weights a quick try. Do you mind? It'll only take a minute, and then you can go back to what you were doing before I rudely walked in." Jill smiled patiently at Shannon, and waited for her to get off the bed.
Shannon picked up the now forgotten photograph and slipped off the bed and stepped aside. True to her word, Jill only stayed for a few minutes while Johnny tested out the heavier dumbbells. Shannon watched and listened as Jill and Johnny discussed how many reps he'd do with them and how often he would exercise. Before she left, Jill told them both that she'd be back tomorrow -- with some crutches. Johnny was ecstatic.
Their moment was gone. Not to be recaptured today....
Shannon tossed and turned some more in bed before deciding to get up to see what was in the refrigerator. It was midnight and the house was chilly and dark and quiet. Shannon brought the milk and cookies back to the bedroom with her and climbed back into bed. She'd just finished the last Oreo when it came to her.
Jill had been nothing but professional in the way she talked to Johnny and in the way she touched him when she was helping him grip the weights. It wasn't that at all.
It was the look in Jill's eyes when she talked to him. Shannon knew all about that look.
It was the same one she had in hers the first time she ever saw him.