The Will To Survive
* * * * * * * *
Johnny’s line was still busy. It had been for over an hour now, and Joanne thought that somewhat odd, when it occurred to her that maybe he had purposely taken the phone off the hook so he could get some rest. He had sounded very, very tired when he called this morning, and couldn’t hide the despondency in his voice, especially when he found out once again that Roy wasn’t available to talk to him.
She guessed he wasn’t coming for dinner after all. The kids would be disappointed. She was, too, but more worried, every bit of her intuition telling her something was terribly, horribly wrong. And, Roy... Roy seemed to be oblivious to her concern about his best friend.
She would never understand men, if she lived to be a hundred years old.
* * * * * * * *
The emergency room had been pretty quiet all morning, not really unusual for the middle of the week, but still a welcome break from the normally hectic atmosphere.
Dixie kept her eye out for Johnny. They hadn’t heard from him since he left early Sunday morning, and he was due to come in today for a checkup before returning to duty tomorrow.
She had been more than a little surprised when Roy showed up earlier this morning, and told her that he hadn’t talked to John once since they left the scene of the fire in the ambulance.
Brackett released Roy for duty, his knee didn’t seem to be bothering him, and he looked a lot better than he had just a few days ago. There was still evidence of dark circles under his eyes, but he assured the doctor that he was sleeping well, and felt fit and ready to go back to work. Brackett knew Roy would be straight with him, and it appeared that Roy was dealing with the situation with his usual calm, rational approach to things.
There was something about Roy’s manner that bothered Dixie, though. It was more than just his startling admission that he hadn’t talked to Johnny, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on exactly what it was.
It was just after lunchtime, and she was catching up on her paperwork at the base station, when she spotted Johnny coming toward her. Normally unflappable even under the most serious of circumstances, she nonetheless drew in a sharp breath at his appearance. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that wasn’t tucked in, and looked like he hadn’t shaved in days.... His hair wasn’t combed... well, more disheveled than normal... and he hadn’t removed his sunglasses. He seemed as unsteady on his feet now as he did when he left the other morning, maybe more so.
He stopped at the desk, and leaned against it. “Hey, Dix,” he said in a very quiet, shaky voice. “Is Dr. Early around? I’m here for my release for duty tomorrow.”
The fact he asked for Joe Early didn’t escape Dixie. Johnny knew that he was in for a lecture no matter which doctor he saw, it just wouldn’t be as bad coming from Early.
“No, Johnny, Joe is off today. I’m afraid you’re gonna have to see Kel.” Dixie informed him, hearing the groan, and seeing him lean a little harder against the desk for support.
She had never seen him look like this. She’d seen him injured, sick, worried, and depressed, all in the line of work-related incidents, but this was different. If she didn’t know him better, she’d say he looked downright scared and lonely, but that simply didn’t fit the John Gage she knew.
“Why don’t we get you into Treatment 3, and I’ll let Kel know you’re here.” She virtually had to pull Johnny into the room and force him to sit on the table. “Wait here, and he’ll be with you in just a minute.”
Dixie quickly found Kelly Brackett in his office, and let him know that Johnny was waiting for him. “Kel, something’s really got Johnny upset.... So, don’t be too hard on him until you find out what it is, okay?” It was her indomitable way of reminding him to think before he reacted.
In spite of her warning, he was still shocked at what he saw when he walked into the room. He could tell the initial silence was making John uncomfortable, so he cleared his throat and tried to find a way to ask how he was feeling, but all he could say was, “what the hell happened to you?”
John couldn’t deny the obvious. “I had a little too much to drink last night, Doc, but I’m feelin’ a lot better today, thanks.” There was a hard, defensive edge to his voice now. “I just want you to release me for duty tomorrow, and I’ll get out of your hair.”
Kel took a deep breath and gave John a critical once-over. “I’m not sure you’re in any shape to go back to work tomorrow. One look at you, and I think people are gonna refuse to let you treat them.”
Johnny growled back, “Well, I’m not going to work looking like this. And, I’m not going to have anything else to drink. I’m not stupid, you know. I’ve never had a drink the day before I go on shift, and I’m not going to start now. I’d never put my job, or my coworkers, or any patients in jeopardy that way.”
Kelly held up his hand. “Okay, okay, John, then let me just check you out and make sure that everything else is all right, then we’ll talk about signing that release.”
John didn’t want to talk to Brackett, or anyone else here at the hospital, he just wanted his release signed, and he wanted to leave. What he really needed was to talk to Roy, but by now, he was pretty angry with him, too. John was beginning to feel like he was all alone in this, and that Roy was trying to hide from him. None of it was making any sense, and it just made his head hurt worse, trying to figure it out.
Brackett couldn’t find anything physically wrong that would keep John from going back to work, but there was certainly some question about his mental and emotional status. Dixie’s words of caution came back to him, and he softened his tone a little, trying to diffuse a little of the anger in John’s demeanor.
“Johnny, do you want to talk about this... about what’s bothering you? We can go into my office, if you’d be more comfortable there.”
Deep down, he knew the offer was sincere, but still John shot him a dirty look. “Look, Doc, don’t tell me you haven’t ever had a drink or two after work to help you unwind from a tough day. That’s all I did last night, and there’s really no reason to talk about it.”
It was Brackett’s turn to get a defensive. “No, you look John. There’s a big difference between having a few drinks to unwind, and trying to crawl into the bottom of a bottle to drown your sorrows. And, from where I’m standing, it sure looks to me like that’s what you tried to do.”
“What I do on my own time is none of your business.” John was furious. Brackett had no idea what he was talking about, he had no idea what John had been going through.
“It is my business when what you do on your own time could affect what you do on the job, Johnny. I’m just trying to help you,” Brackett snapped, raising his voice.
Johnny shot back, “Then help me by signing that release so I can go back to work tomorrow. That’s all the help I need.”
Dixie came in the room to tell them to keep it down, and see if she could referee their argument; they could be heard in the hallway, all the way down to the lobby.
“All I’m trying to say is that some people use alcohol as a crutch, rather than dealing with their problems head-on, and I just want to make sure that’s not what you’re doing here.” Brackett was genuine in his concern for John Gage, but he didn’t seem to be getting that across by shouting at him.
“Some people? Like, my people? Is that what you’re saying? That we become drunks, rather than face....”
“Johnny!” Dixie's head whipped around, not quite believing her ears. “That’s not what Kel meant, and you know it!” She had no idea where that came from, and was so stunned, she didn’t know what else to say.
Brackett knew this was not Johnny talking now, or even the hangover. Dixie had been right -- something deeper, darker, was going on beneath the obvious.
“No, John. I meant some people, like firemen/paramedics, who suffer through a traumatic incident, and think they’re so damn tough that they don’t need to talk to anybody about their feelings.”
That kind of took the wind out of his sails, and Johnny dropped his head in silence, while everyone in the room gathered their composure.
“Doc, I’ve gotta go back to work tomorrow. I can’t stay in my apartment another day.” John’s voice was pleading. “I promise I’ll get cleaned up, and no one is gonna know any different.”
After a long, somber pause, Brackett relented. “I’ll release you, John, on one condition. That you talk to Roy, and to your captain. I saw Roy a little earlier today, and he seems to have a pretty good handle on this. I think maybe you could benefit from his advice on how to deal with what happened.”
Brackett had no idea how hard Johnny had tried to talk to Roy.
He’d promise anything to get back to work. “I’ll call him as soon as I get home. Joanne asked me over for dinner. Maybe I’ll go over there, and we can talk this out.”
Johnny heaved a sigh of relief when Dr. Brackett agreed. “I want you to talk to Captain Stanley, too, John. He’s been around this kind of thing a lot longer than you have, and I know he’ll help you all he can, too.”
They all walked out of the room together, and Dixie left to go back to the nurses station. Johnny apologized to Kel, and the two men shook hands.
Dixie was going to be tougher, he had made her really mad. As contritely as possible, he apologized to her, too. Johnny knew he was going to need all the friends he had -- they just didn’t know what had happened, and he hoped they wouldn’t have to find out -- it would only cause them to worry more. This was something he had to handle on his own.
She couldn’t stay mad at him. She knew he felt really bad about what he had said, and she wondered what had happened that made him so touchy. He couldn’t even bring himself to smile, and that really troubled her.
Placing her hand on his, she simply said, “John, be good to yourself.”
It seemed like the best advice she could offer him right now. He turned and left without another word. Kel came back to make some notes in a chart, neither one up to talking about what had just taken place.
Johnny hadn’t been gone more than few minutes, when Hank Stanley showed up, looking well-rested, declaring he was ready to go back to work.
* * * * * * * *
Normally when the shift returned after four days off, the day room and locker room was filled with animated conversation, as the guys caught up with each other’s news, and exchanged hello’s and good-bye’s with the departing shift.
This Thursday wasn’t like that at all. As A-shift waited for roll call, the men were quiet, almost acting as though they were strangers, who didn’t know what to talk about. Mike, Chet and Marco sat at the table, reading the morning newspaper, while John sat on the couch, drinking his coffee, staring into space. Roy was the last to arrive, already in uniform, walking in just as Stanley announced roll call.
Everyone picked up on the immediate tension between Johnny and Roy, taking them all by surprise. Roy seemed relaxed and casual enough with the rest of them, while Johnny was edgy and moody, and even Chet knew this was not a day to mess with him.
Stanley had talked to Brackett yesterday, and while nothing personal about John was discussed, the doctor felt he had every right to explain his concern about Johnny’s emotional state, and suggest that Stanley keep an eye on Johnny, just to make sure nothing interfered with his job.
While not trying to wish for a run, the captain knew that it might be the best thing for all of them right now -- something to break the tension, to get their minds off what was in the past, and get
on with doing their jobs.
He didn’t have to wait long, and the calls were pretty constant all day. Some of the tension had eased, and the usual banter had returned by afternoon. John kept to himself, but other than that, everything seemed to be fine with him. He and Roy had handled their calls without problems, but it didn’t escape anyone’s attention that the two of them had refrained from engaging in any personal conversations.
The afternoon brought a run for a heart-attack victim. They almost lost the man at the scene, but managed to get him back, and finally got him stabilized enough to transport. Johnny rode in the ambulance, and followed him into the treatment room, staying to assist the doctors, and to gather the squad’s equipment.
Leaving orders for the blood work and other tests he wanted run, Brackett followed John out the door.
“Johnny, you did a good job with that man in there. He probably has you to thank for saving his life.” Kel looked carefully at John. “How are you holding up?”
Johnny wasn’t paying attention to Brackett, instead staring at the nurses station, where Roy was chatting with Dixie.
“I’m doin’ fine. He’s the one you oughta’ be worried about.”
Brackett followed the direction of John’s stare, and saw only the same Roy he always saw, relaxed, smiling, and apparently sharing a small joke with Dixie.
“Roy looks fine to me, Johnny.”
“That’s the problem, Doc, that’s the problem.” Johnny caught the perplexed look on Brackett’s face, and walked away, muttering under his breath, “never mind.”
Dixie sensed something was wrong the second Johnny walked up. Roy’s whole attitude changed, and he picked up the supplies, mumbling that he would be in the squad and left, never even looking in Johnny’s direction.
“Johnny, what’s that all about? You two aren’t having an argument, are you?” There wasn’t an answer. “Johnny...?”
“Huh? Oh, no, Dix. No argument. We’re not having an argument. We’re not having anything at all.” He put down his coffee cup. “See ya’ later, Dixie.”
This whole thing just got stranger and stranger, and Dixie wondered to herself what else was going to happen, and how it would all end.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny had his first full-blown nightmare at the station that night. Rushing by with frightening speed, every scene flashed in stark detail in front of him, each memory more vivid than it had been in reality.
The fire, the little girl, the mother’s screams. Johnny and Roy standing there, watching their fellow paramedics desperately attempt to resuscitate her, and failing. The mother attacking Roy, pounding his chest with her fists, blaming him for not getting her little girl out in time. Johnny getting decked by a neighbor, when he tried to pull the woman away from Roy. The angry accusations, the insults, then, the funeral, the mother’s hostility, the ugly phone calls.
And at some point in the nightmare, Roy had turned his back and walked away, leaving Johnny alone to deal with the hurt and the guilt.
“Gage!” Someone was shaking him. “Gage, wake up! You’re just having a dream. Come on, John.... WAKE UP”
Fighting to get away from the images, and the voices screaming inside his head, Johnny's eyes shot open -- he cringed in the darkness, struggling to free himself from the hand digging into his shoulder. The hand pulled away, and the voice grew quieter... a familiar voice... as his consciousness returned him to the present, his eyes adjusted to the dark, and relief washed over him, as he recognized Chet kneeling beside him, a look of genuine concern on his face.
They’d all had their share of nightmares, but this had held him tighter in it's grip than any Chet had ever witnessed. Chet often thought that maybe because Johnny was always the first one in, and the last one out, in the ugly situations, he suffered more frequently from sleeplessness and nightmares than the rest of them.
The intensity of this one had startled Chet from a deep sleep, and Johnny's reaction to him, when he tried to wake him, had frightened Chet. He knew that Johnny had taken the death of that little girl really hard, but there had been nothing more any of them could have done; he didn't understand why Johnny couldn't let go of this one.
He waited and watched, wanting to make sure John was okay, before leaving his side.
Johnny was shaking all over, and breathed deeply, to try to calm himself. He threw his arm over his eyes, shielding himself from Chet's questioning stare. He finally swallowed, managing to find his voice. It came out all wrong, angry and defensive.
“You can go back to bed now, Kelly. I’m okay.”
Chet stood up to leave. He had only wanted to help, and he was annoyed at being ordered away.
“Yeah, well, next time Gage, keep it down a little, will ya’? The rest of us need to get some sleep around here.”
He went back to his bunk, and lay awake while he listened to Johnny’s breathing slowly return to normal. When the room was still again, he heard John shift in his bed.
“Anytime, Johnny. Anytime.”
Roy’s turnouts and boots were gone, and his bunk was empty. It stayed empty the rest of the night. Laying awake in his bunk, Captain Stanley knew what he had to do.
* * * * * * * *
They had a day off, and were back on duty on Saturday. This time, there was more of the normal camaraderie, as the men filtered in for the start of their shift. Johnny was a little more talkative in the locker room than he had been the other day, but he still looked pretty stressed. The others knew he had been sensitive about the nightmare the other night, and everyone carefully avoided the subject. Roy was pouring himself a cup of coffee, when the rest of them walked into the day room. Johnny headed for the stove, while the others hung back just slightly, curious to see what was going on between these two.
“Mornin’, Roy.” Johnny held out his cup.
“Mornin’, John.” Roy poured the coffee.
Chet could remember hearing Roy refer to his partner as John, outside of work, only once before. It had always been Johnny. Everyone had expected the two of them to be drawn closer together by their experience, but the opposite was happening, and it was making their coworkers nervous.
“Hey, John, a buddy of mine said he saw you at headquarters yesterday.” Chet thought maybe a little teasing would bring him around. “You weren’t there bothering the Chief with another one of your harebrained schemes, were you?” He didn’t get the hoped-for rise out of Gage, actually John looked a little spooked by it.
“Uh... no... I... uh... had to go to personnel about... some personal business.”
Stanley walked in just then, about to announce roll call. “Anything I need to know about, John?” he asked, having overheard the last part of the conversation.
“Well, no... yeah... I just changed my home phone number, and wanted to make sure they got my records changed right away.” He pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to Stanley. “You’ll need to change it here, too. Uh..., Cap, it’s an unlisted number now.”
“What’s the matter, Gage, too many chicks calling you all the time?” Chet was still trying to get under Johnny’s skin... he wanted his pigeon back, then everything would be normal again.
John just gave him a blank stare. Not even a "shut-up, Chet."
Stanley was trying to put two-and-two together. After roll call, he asked Johnny to come into his office, with an over-the-shoulder scowl that told the others eavesdropping was not permitted.
Watching him pace around the room, fidgeting with some of the papers on top of the file cabinet, Stanley finally ordered him to take a seat.
“John, sit. Please.”
Johnny sat down on the edge of the chair -- he had that kind of “caught-with-a-hand-in-the-cookie-jar” look on his face, and if Stanley hadn’t been so concerned, he would have laughed out loud.
“John, I couldn’t help but notice that you practically jumped out of your skin every time the phone rang last shift. Now, you’ve changed to an unlisted number at home. You wanna tell me what’s going on?”
Johnny lowered his eyes and shook his head no.
This was more than a personal problem, or Stanley would have dropped it. “Tell me, John, did you go to that girl’s funeral the other day?” Johnny’s silence told him all he needed to know.
“I had a feeling you weren’t going to listen to me. Did you go alone?” This time he got a barely perceptible nod, but nothing more.
“How bad was it?”
This time Johnny looked him straight in the eyes. “I only went because... I honestly just wanted to tell them how sorry I was. I... I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I got. They were still blaming us. How could they do that, Cap? We didn’t start that fire, and God knows, we all did everything we could to get her out of there. How far do they expect us to go? We can’t walk through fire, and we sure as hell can’t walk through solid doors with deadbolts on them.”
He was getting mad now, and pacing around the room, again.
“Why would anyone even have a lock like that on a kid’s bedroom door, anyway? That kid never had a chance, she was dead before we even got there. I just don’t know what more we could have done, except to die in there along with her.”
The knowledge of how close they had come to doing just that, rattled him enough to calm him down, and he took a seat again. In spite of what he had just said, John still had doubts about whether he could have done more, gotten to her faster....
Hank Stanley knew exactly how he felt. He’d had a similar experience himself many years ago, and he kicked himself for not trying harder to talk Johnny out of going to the funeral. This was a tough lesson to learn, especially for someone who cared so much. They sat in silence for another minute.
“The phone calls started as soon as I got home.”
Stanley’s stomach turned. This was worse than he thought.
“I finally filed a police report Wednesday night. They said there isn’t much they can do. Just suggested that I get an unlisted number. They told me that most of the time, these people just make threats, but never act on them. I didn’t get any calls last night, so hopefully, that will put an end to it.”
Johnny was glad he had told his captain -- his burden was a little lighter for it. And maybe, his captain could find a way to get the other guys to cut him some slack, without telling them what was going on.
Stanley let out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding all this time. He never would have guessed it would come to this. Firemen put their lives on the line for the public day in and day out, and this is the thanks they get. John was right, there wasn’t anything more they could have done to save that girl, yet some sicko took it upon himself to harass the one man who tried harder, and cared more, than any other stranger would have.
Watching John, Stanley reflected that while the fire had claimed the life of that little girl, and changed her family’s life forever, it had also left another victim in it’s wake.
“Did you tell someone at headquarters about this?” inquired Stanley.
“Yeah, the police gave me a copy of the report to give them. It’s just like the police said, there’s not much anyone can do, unless that person decides to harass me or threaten me in person in front of witnesses. Personally, I don’t think he’s got the guts....”
“You did the right thing, you know, John.” Stanley thought about how many times he had heard John and Roy tell people that they were, “just doing their jobs,” but nobody’s job ever called for them to go through something like this.
“Have you told Roy about this yet?”
Just then, the tones sounded -- the squad had a run, and John jumped up to leave, actually relieved he didn’t have to continue the conversation. He had no idea how to explain why he and Roy weren’t speaking to each other, because he had no idea why himself.
* * * * * * * *
Joanne wasn’t sure what she should do. On the surface, Roy seemed to be his normal self, but there were plenty of signs that something was wrong. He often got up in the middle of the night, and she would find him asleep, sometimes in Jennifer’s room, sometimes on the couch downstairs. He told her it was because he was having a little trouble staying asleep, and he didn’t want to disturb her. Joanne was sure that he had been avoiding Johnny, too, and wondered if they had talked at work, because Roy sure wasn’t talking to her.
No, that wasn’t quite right. They talked all the time, he just wasn’t talking to her. There was a difference.
Johnny hadn’t called the house for several days, either, and she was worried about him. Roy had said that he was fine, and hadn’t been hurt badly enough to miss a shift either. Any time she or the kids mentioned Johnny’s name, Roy had changed the subject.
If anyone, besides herself, would know what was going on with Roy, it would be Johnny. She had to talk to him before they got off shift tomorrow, she just needed to figure out a way to call the station to do it, without Roy finding out.
* * * * * * * *
As the squad backed into the station, Johnny hopped out before Roy had even put it in park. The strained silence was killing him, and he was actually looking forward to talking to Chet, desperate for some conversation, even if it ended up in one of their ridiculous arguments.
When they walked into the day room, the others were sitting around the table, talking to a Department Captain that they didn’t immediately recognize. Out of habit, John poured two cups of coffee, and handed one to Roy, who had come into the room behind him.
“You guys weren’t gone very long,” Stanley said, “any problem?”
Roy answered, “Just a woman hyperventilating after a little argument. We got her calmed down, and suggested she call her family doctor.”
“Roy, John, I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine, Rick Wilson. Rick, these are our two paramedics, Roy DeSoto and John Gage.”
Stanley watched as they shook hands, and sat down at the table. He hoped this would go well, and tried to be as casual as possible.
“Rick and I go way back. We first met not too long after I joined the department. His wife and mine have been friends since then too.”
John looked at their visitor, and realized who... or what... he was, and shot a withering look of suspicion at his captain.
An uneasy silence filled the room, as the others took notice of Johnny’s reaction.
Except for Roy, who asked, “So what brings you by here today, Chaplain?”
“The battalion chief talked to me about the fire you were called out on the other day, and asked if I would stop in, and see how everyone was holding up. From the sound of it, things got pretty bad out there for some of you. I’m here to offer my services to any of you who might feel like talking about it, either as a group, or privately.”
When there was no response, he realized that he may have implied 51s had been singled out by the chief for this visit, and quickly corrected that impression.
“Actually, I’m planning to visit several of the stations that responded to that fire. As a matter of fact, I stopped in at 24s before coming here.”
Rick looked at the men, and saw pretty much what Hank had predicted. Gage was already looking uncomfortable, squirming a little in his chair, unconsciously drumming his fingers on the table.
Marco was the first to speak up. “You know, Chaplain, I’ve already talked about this with my priest a couple of times, and it’s been a real help to me. To talk about it with someone, I mean.”
“That’s good, Marco. I know it’s hard sometimes to confide in someone, but it can really help sort things out.”
Rick glanced around the table to see if anyone else had anything to say. Chet and Mike had a few questions, but in general seemed to have no problems that they needed to mention, at least not in front of the others.
“How are the guys at 24s doing?” Roy asked. “I know they were in the middle of things; I heard some of them got hurt when the gas line blew.”
“They’re all back at work, too, and seem to be okay, other than some bumps and bruises. The paramedics talked to me alone for a while, but I think they’re doing pretty well under the circumstances.”
Once again, the awkward silence hung heavy in the air. As Rick stood to leave, he pulled some cards from his pocket, and handed one to each man.
“If any of you ever feel like talking -- about anything at all -- you can reach me at my office. My home number is on the card, too, and you can call anytime, day or night.”
As if on cue, the tones sounded for the squad. Rick watched as Roy tucked the card into his shirt pocket, as he slid his chair away from the table; the card he had handed to Johnny lay on the table still, beside the half-empty cup of coffee.
* * * * * * * *
Several shifts went by, and things settled into a routine again... different from before, though. Johnny didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but he was still struggling with the nightmares, so most nights A-shift was on duty, he spent awake in the rec room, watching TV. It wasn’t unusual for him not to sleep, so most of the guys just accepted it as his normal behavior.
Stanley asked Johnny several times if he had gotten any more phone calls, but they seemed to have stopped after he changed his phone number. John put up a pretty good front most of the time, but Stanley could tell something was still bothering him. The more questions were asked, the more withdrawn and quiet he would become, so Stanley finally decided to let things ride a while longer.
None of them could understand what had happened between Roy and Johnny. They still worked well together, and there was no visible indication of an argument or anger between them, so Stanley had no real reason to step in. The close friendship they had shared for years seemed to have vanished overnight. Whatever had destroyed that relationship, had also begun to dismantle the “family” atmosphere at the station. Stanley had reached a dead end trying to figure out how to put things back together, the way they used to be. No one was happy, and they yearned for the day the Phantom would return.
* * * * * * * *
Rick Wilson looked up at the clock on the wall, and realized his next appointment was due any minute. He started to straighten up some of the paperwork that cluttered his desk, and thought about his upcoming visitor. Rick was glad that at least one of them had finally taken the initiative to call him. They had talked on the phone a number of times in the past week, and he was looking forward to getting to know him better. He found himself already liking this man a lot, and hoped that he’d be able to do something to help.
Right on time, there was a soft knock on the door.
Exchanging pleasantries and making themselves comfortable, Rick decided to open things up with a rather direct question.
“Tell me, do you believe in God?”
Surprisingly there was no hesitation in the reply, but it wasn’t what he expected. Most men answered yes, no, or maybe, but not this one.
“Is that important?”
“Only in the sense that I don’t want to spend the next hour talking to you about how God moves in mysterious ways, and about God’s plan for each of us on earth... if you don’t exactly buy into that theory, you know?” His eyes had a hint of humor behind them. “Otherwise, no, it’s not.”
That put him at ease, thinking that he would be able to trust this man.
“I can only sort of answer that question for you. You see, I grew up on an Indian reservation -- not far from here in distance, but a world away -- if you know what I mean. When I was a little kid, we would attend Mass every Sunday morning, without fail. Then, on Sunday nights, some of us would sit around and listen to the tribal elders tell stories about the old ways, and the old beliefs. My parents didn’t push me in either direction, though. I sort of grew up with one foot in both worlds, and they just wanted me to be able to make my own choices when I grew up. I remember spending a lot of time being confused about which was right, though. It was pretty heady stuff for a little kid.”
Rick was fascinated. As a chaplain, his counseling was all nondenominational, but his training didn’t extend to Native American history or beliefs, and he had no knowledge of reservation life or religion.
“Some things happened when I got older, and I left the reservation to go to high school in the city, and I don’t go back often. But that’s a whole different story. Anyway, I’m sorry if this isn’t the answer you were hoping for, but I decided a long time ago that my personal beliefs would be a private matter, and that’s how I want them to stay. That’s why I asked if it was important... I mean, important that you know whether or not I believe in God, and if it makes a difference in talking about why I’m here.”
Wilson had nothing but respect for this young man.
“John, the only thing that’s important is that you know what you believe... and it sounds like you do... and no, it doesn’t make any difference whether I know or not. I’m just here to listen and give you whatever advice I can. If you’re ready to start, so am I. Just remember that everything you tell me will be kept in the strictest of confidence.”
They talked nonstop for almost two hours, as Johnny told him everything that had happened since the morning of the fire. Rick had counseled many firemen over the years for all different reasons. Each man and his situation had been unique, some only needed a little help, others a lot. He wasn’t quite sure where to start with Johnny.
John had suffered so much anguish in such a short period of time -- from the death of the little girl, to the death threats against his own life, to the apparent death of his friendship with Roy. If anybody ever had the right to be troubled, it was this man. Lesser men would have crumbled under the strain, and he was amazed that John Gage had managed to keep it together at all. Hank had been right to be concerned about him, but so wrong in his assessment of John’s inner strength and fortitude.
Just talking about it, and bringing everything out into the open, had been a step in the right direction, but there was a long way to go, with a lot of obstacles to overcome, before the nightmares would come to an end, and the healing would begin.
Rick promised Johnny he would be there every step of the way, and encouraged him to open up to his friends as well. They needed to understand what he had been going through, and if they were the friends John thought they were, they would be there to support him.
They talked for a while specifically about Roy, and decided that something different, something more complicated, was going on there, and that Johnny was going to have to put everything else in perspective before he could deal with the issue of their lost friendship.
* * * * * * * *
Captain Stanley noticed a small, subtle change in John during the last few shifts, and was hopeful that he was turning the corner, and getting on with his life. John had relaxed, and began talking more with Marco and Mike. Stanley had even witnessed, from a distance, a long, quiet conversation between Johnny and Chet, something he didn’t think was possible, even in the best of times. There was still no reconciliation with Roy, but Stanley noticed that Johnny was less nervous around him than he had been a few weeks ago. The Phantom had even put in a brief appearance, and to everyone’s delight and relief, John had taken the prank in stride.
A-shift had four-days off again, and ready to celebrate the start of summer, each of the guys had made special plans that they were looking forward to.
As usual, John spent the night on the couch in the rec room, and being first up, had a fresh pot of coffee brewing, when Stanley stumbled in. The delicious aroma had drifted all the way through the apparatus bay into the dorm, and drew the men like a magnet. He poured the first cup for himself, knowing the rest of the crew would be right behind him. In less than an hour, providing the tones didn’t sound, they’d be on their way to four days of relaxation and fun.
The morning was still cool and clear, so Stanley took his coffee cup with him, and stepped out the side door of the rec room to enjoy the fresh air. Hearing a noise, he walked around the corner, and spotted Johnny moving some things around in the back of his Rover. He strolled over to the parking lot, calling out a good morning to John, trying not to startle him.
John turned around for a second. “Hey, Cap, mornin’.”
“Looks like you’re going camping?”
“Yeah, I have a friend who’s a ranger with the park service up in Yosemite. I’ve been trying to get up there for a long time for a visit, and this just seemed like a good time to go.”
“You plan to do some hiking while you’re there?” Stanley asked, noticing a big backpack, a sleeping bag, and some hiking boots in the back.
“Well, I’m just going to spend tonight at my friend’s place, catching up on old times, then I’m going to take a little overnight backpacking trip on my own. I’m taking my camera along with me to try and get some good scenery shots while I’m out there. I’m hoping it’s not too crowded yet... it still gets pretty cold up that high at night, and the trail I’m planning to take is a little too strenuous for most people.”
“You’re going alone?” Stanley knew Johnny was an experienced hiker, but it sounded a little dangerous to him to be alone in the wilderness.
Johnny laughed a little. “My friend knows which trail I’m taking, and is expecting me back on Tuesday night. I’ll drive home Wednesday, and be back at work on Thursday. Don’t worry, Cap, I’ve got it covered.”
The trip would probably do Johnny a lot of good -- he always did seem to find some sort of peace in nature, and Stanley knew the photos would be spectacular. They tended to reflect John’s own unique perspective on the world.
“So, Cap, you... uh... going anywhere?”
“Some friends of ours are taking their boat up to Castaic Lake, and we’re going along for a couple of days. When we get back, my wife’s leaving to go back east to visit her sister for a week -- I’m taking her to the airport Wednesday night. She’s got a late flight out of LAX.
“Bachelor for a whole week, huh?” Johnny smiled, then turned back to finish packing the Rover.
“Yeah, she goes every year, so I kind of look forward to some time alone.” Hank watched carefully to see if what he said next would draw any reaction from John.
“I guess Roy is taking his kids to Disneyland on Wednesday, now that Chris is out of school for the summer.”
Johnny pulled himself out of the Rover, assured he had everything he needed, so he could leave right from the station this morning. He sat down on the tailgate, and wiped his hands on his T-shirt.
“Yeah, the kids have been planning on this for a month, now. This is Jen’s first time there, and she’s so excited, I doubt she’s gonna get much sleep the next few days. Chris keeps trying to pretend it’s no big deal, but I think he’s more excited than he’s letting on.”
Stanley was puzzled that Johnny would know about this -- he sure hadn’t seen any sign that he and Roy were talking to each other these days. “So, I take it you’ve been over to Roy’s house recently?”
Johnny thought maybe he shouldn’t have said anything, but he’d already opened the door.
“I’ve seen Joanne and the kids a couple of times. Not when Roy’s around, though.”
Stanley sighed. “John, when are you two gonna get over this, and get back to being friends again? Don’t you think you should just put this all behind you, like Roy has, and talk to him again? It’s really been hard on all of us, seeing you tear yourself apart over this for so long, knowing that you’ve let this problem... whatever it is... come between the two of you.”
Something in Johnny snapped, and his eyes flashed in anger.
“Cap, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about! I am the one dealing with this, not Roy! I’m the one who’s been talking to Rick Wilson, trying to find a way to move on with things, and put an end to my nightmares! Don’t you think it’s a little strange that none of this has bothered Roy? He hasn’t put it behind him -- he’s in total denial that anything ever happened, and he’s the one with the problem... he’s the one that won’t talk to me. And you know why? Because he knows that I DO want to talk about it with him... I have since the day it happened…but he’s afraid to face it. He’s the one who sleeps on the couch at night at home, so Joanne doesn’t hear his nightmares, he’s the one who sits up all night in Jennifer’s room, watching her sleep, he’s the one that won’t even talk to his wife or anyone else about what happened at that fire.”
The look on Stanley’s face brought an abrupt halt to the tirade. Not only had he yelled at his captain, he told him things that Joanne had shared with him in confidence. He had promised not to say anything to anyone, and now he had said way too much.
“Cap, look, I’m sorry. Just forget I said any of that... I guess I lost my head for a second.” John looked miserable.
“No, John, maybe I’m the one that owes you an apology. We’ve all been so concerned about you because we can see what this has done to you. But Roy’s been so... so Roy... that it never occurred to me that he could have a problem, too.”
Stanley was seeing things in a whole new light.
“Please don’t say anything. I promised Jo, and I’m afraid if Roy finds out she’s been talking to me, he’ll be really upset with her. I’m still not sure what’s happened between us, but I don’t really think that Roy has turned his back on our friendship -- it’s just that if he talks to me, he’s got to face some things he’d rather not right now. Guilt can do some really funny things to a person.”
Even if he did claim to understand what was wrong between them, Stanley could tell that Johnny still felt hurt and betrayed by his friend’s actions.
“John, you have my word that nothing you said out here will go any further than this parking lot.” Changing the subject, he added, “I honestly hope you have a good trip.”
“Well, it’s about time I did something other than hang around here, worrying about getting any more calls or letters.” Johnny hadn’t meant to let that slip, either.
“You’ve been getting more calls? Letters, too? He knows where you live? Good God, John, why didn’t you say anything?” Now it was Stanley’s turn to be angry.
Johnny shrugged. “The police know, headquarters knows.” He turned back to the Rover, rather than face his captain’s anger and disappointment.
Stanley knew the last thing Johhny needed now was for his friends to be upset with him, so he softened his tone. “But, John... you don’t have to go through this all by yourself, you know.”
“I... I don’t see the point in worrying anyone else. Nothing’s really happened so far, and it’s been a month now, so I don’t think this guy is planning anything, he’s just getting his kicks, thinking he’s scaring me. I just won’t let it get to me, and eventually, he’ll give up and go away. If he doesn’t, maybe he’ll just do something stupid, and the cops’ll get him.”
"By stupid, you mean try to hurt you?”
“Cap, I’m so tired of this whole thing, that it would almost be a relief if something happened. Anyway, I’m just going away for four days to try to forget all about it.”
“I hope you can do that, John. Sounds like you deserve a break. Just don’t break anything, like your bones, while you’re out there.” Somehow, the joke didn’t seem very funny.
Rolling his eyes skyward, Stanley shoved his hands in his pants pocket. He hoped someone up there would grant this man some peace, if only for a little while.
* * * * * * * *
The drive from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park would take a little less than 6 hours, depending on traffic, and on how diligent the CHP was at patrolling the old highway. The mostly divided, four-lane highway was dominated by trucks, most of them hauling produce both north and south, to the more populated areas of the state. Johnny deftly maneuvered the Rover around the slower-moving ones, frustrated when he would get caught behind one truck trying to pass another -- like two snails jockeying for position -- while traffic backed up behind them.
He reminded himself -- often -- that he was taking this trip to relax, and tried to slow down, thinking hard about his final destination, and getting there in one piece.
Johnny had been to Yosemite, which drew millions of visitors from around the world, a number of times, and, like most people who came, found it to be one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen. The sights of Half Dome and El Capitan, and a hundred other images in the park, had been immortalized in stunning black and white portraits by America’s premier landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, who often said that he found his creative center in Yosemite.
John Muir, whose name is synonymous with the creation of the national park, had written, “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life... as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures....”
Driving up from LA, though, you’d never guess something so inspiring could be found at the end of something so boring.
Highway 99 splits off the newer, faster I-5 around Bakersfield, and from there, the drive passes through the beginning of the agricultural heart of California. Only this is not the picturesque family farmland of the Midwest one might envision -- this is industrial agriculture, a major force in California’s economic structure.
Johnny had driven this route before, and rarely paid much attention to the scenery -- if you could call it that -- but this time, he was trying his best to focus on the sights around him, and not let his mind wander, or think about everything that had happened in four short weeks.
He tried to identify the different crops that grew in the fields that stretched for miles on either side of the road -- olive trees, vineyards, almond trees, an rare corn field, cotton, more vineyards, walnut trees, the occasional dairy farms that were huge operations, with thousands of cows, more vineyards.
The landscape was dotted with small towns that had grown up alongside the highway, temporary homes to California’s migrant farm workers, pit stops for those traveling off the Interstate -- towns proudly boasting of being the “raisin capital” or “artichoke capital” of the world.
He lost count of the number of truck stops, small airports, heavy equipment yards, and grain silos he encountered between the towns and the fields.
Scenic.... Definitely not... but, interesting, in a very different way, when one takes a closer look.
Despite his attention to the passing landscape, Johnny figured that he must have let his mind wander after all... the last song he remembered hearing on the radio was a rock 'n roll song, but somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno, it had been replaced by some twangy, wannabe-country singer, and it was irritating the hell out of him. He absently popped a Jackson Browne tape into his newly-installed cassette player, and was soon lost in thought again, the irony of the appropriateness of the words of the song, "Running on Empty," completely lost on him.
The time, and the miles, passed far more quickly than he realized, reaching the turnoff to the smaller highway that lead east to the Park, just after one o’clock....
Johnny stopped to stretch his legs, and fill up his gas tank before heading on. The warm sunshine and clean air felt good; he finally allowed himself to unwind a little, and look forward to the next few days.
The scenery began to change rapidly, as the road slowly gained in elevation. Grazing land, sparsely littered with trees, gave way to gently rolling hills, and the trees, mostly oaks, became thicker. He watched as an eagle, floating effortlessly through the sky overhead, gracefully landed on a dead oak by the side of the road, surveying its domain. Rounding a bend in the road, Johnny blinked his eyes at the sudden sight of the early afternoon sunlight dancing off the rushing waters of the Merced River. Climbing a little higher, pine trees suddenly appeared, the soft aroma filling his senses, relaxing as he began to leave his troubles behind him.
He hoped lunch would be waiting when he got to the cabin. He was famished, and burgers and a beer would be a perfect end to a long drive.
His first genuine smile in four weeks broke across his face, as he crossed the Park boundary and checked his directions one last time.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon hadn’t seen Johnny in almost two years, not since she had moved north to work in Yosemite. They had stayed in touch, and she had begged him to come visit many times, but he never seemed to be able to fit it into his schedule. So she was surprised when he had called two weeks ago, out-of-the-blue, and said he was planning a short backpacking trip in the park, and asked if he’d be able to stop in to see her.
Just like the first time she had run into him, literally run into him, she was acting like a school girl again, nervous and anxious, awaiting his arrival.
He had just turned 20 when they met the first time. She had enrolled in some classes at the community college, and was on her way out of the library when, not paying attention to where she was going, she bumped into him, dropping her books like some junior high girl who had just spotted the coolest guy in school. She was totally embarrassed, but he immediately put her at ease, as he helped her pick them up. He was so cute, and his grin and laughter had won her heart right then and there.
A part of her heart would always belong to Johnny. He had been her first, and though she was pretty sure she wasn’t his, her time with him had been so very special.
It hadn’t take long for her to discover that his heart belonged to the Fire Department, and had since he graduated from high school two years earlier. She understood his passion for his work -- she too, had plans for a career --to become a Park Ranger and work for the National Park Service as soon as she completed her two years of college -- dreaming of life in the outdoors, and the opportunity to move around the country.
She hadn’t told Johnny yet, but she would be leaving California at the end of the summer season to move to a job in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. She was delighted that she would be able to see him one more time before she left.
She often wondered what would have happened back then, if Johnny hadn’t been so married to his dreams....
Standing on the porch steps, she spotted his beloved Rover coming up the road to the secluded group of cabins, home to the park staff, that were nestled among the pines.
It had been two long years, and she wondered if he had changed.
* * * * * * * *
As Johnny finally approached the small dirt road that would lead to the cabin, he smiled again, recalling the first time he had met Shannon. She was only 19, classy, self-assured, and already drop-dead gorgeous. He always thought she could have been a model, gracing the covers of those fashion magazines. She was almost 5’9”, and possessed the most beautiful pair of legs he’d ever seen -- the memory of those legs wrapped around him had kept him warm many a night. Her hair was long and full, a dark chestnut brown that glowed with a hint of red in the sunlight; her eyes a striking emerald green, always full of mischief and laughter.
She was one of the few girls he’d ever known that despised makeup, one of those rare beauties who was fortunate enough to never need it. He didn’t think she was even aware of how beautiful she was. Her favorite manner of dress was khaki shorts and T-shirts, she detested wearing shoes, and always had her hair pulled back in a simple pony tail. She loved the outdoors, and they had spent many weekends hiking, exploring, and sharing a sleeping bag under the stars, in the forest campgrounds above LA.
They had been great friends, and great lovers. She was a free spirit, and neither one of them was looking for a permanent relationship -- they both had plans for their lives that didn’t include anything as serious as that. It had made it easier when they both moved on with their lives, and their jobs. Even though they had seen very little of each other over the last few years, they had stayed in touch with one another, and remained close.
Johnny sometimes wondered if things might have turned out differently , if she hadn’t been so intent on her career.
He was a little nervous about seeing her again, and wondered if she was still the same.
* * * * * * * *
As soon as she saw him drive up the road, she flew off the small porch, and launched herself into his arms the minute he stepped out of the Rover.
So much for being nervous.
Getting past all the questions about the drive up, and talking about how long it had been since they’d seen each other, and how good they were looking, Shannon grabbed Johnny by the hand, dragging him toward her cabin.
“I know what a food connoisseur you are, Johnny,” she teased, “hope you don’t mind hamburgers and a beer for lunch.”
She hadn’t changed, nor had she forgotten.
She lived in one of the small, cozy little cabins that sat back from the road, with a small creek running behind it, full of cold water from the melting snows in the higher elevations. She already had the charcoal in the barbecue lit, and in no time they were enjoying lunch, their conversation punctuated with laughter, as they recalled some of the times they had shared, and some of the trouble they had gotten into.
It was late afternoon, when the position of the sun made Shannon look at her watch, and take notice of the time.
“Oh, my gosh, Johnny. I’m supposed to be at the park office in the Valley in ten minutes. There’s a real short meeting I’ve got to go to.... Do you want to come with me, or do you want to wait here? It shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
Johnny was tired from his long drive, and decided to stay where he was.
“I think I’ll just stay here, maybe take a short walk upstream, and work the kinks out of my legs. I’ll be here when you get back.”
“Okay, just don’t wander too far and get lost.... I don’t wanna have to come looking for you like I did that one time....” They both laughed at the memory of a long-forgotten hiking trip that had narrowly avoided ending in disaster.
“By the way, to make up for the cheap lunch I just served you, I thought I’d splurge for dinner and bring home a pizza.”
Johnny laughed -- she still remembered his favorite foods.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon came back about an hour later to an empty cabin. First putting the pizza in the oven, she went looking for John, spotting him sitting, cross-legged, by the creek, and saw that he didn’t notice her return. About to call out to him, she hesitated, and stood on the back porch, watching him instead.
She wondered if he realized how much he had changed since they first met. He had lost his boyish good-looks, which always made him appear younger than he was, his face now more mature, and definitely more handsome. She liked the hair -- longer, untamed and unruly -- kind of like Johnny himself. Definitely not a regulation haircut... Johnny always did push the envelope when it came to conventional thinking... but she thought it was really sexy on him.
He had picked up some small stones, and was tossing them into the water, the muscles on his arms rippling under his rolled-up shirt sleeves. Johnny was trim and slender as always, and he still had those arms. Shannon sighed heavily, as she remembered how good it always felt to lay in their tender embrace.
In spite of the jokes and laughter they shared as they reminisced this afternoon, she had noticed something else that concerned her. If eyes were truly the window to the soul, Johnny’s had revealed an emptiness that she had never seen there before. Even now, as she watched him in the growing dusk, she could see that he was in another world, looking just a little lonely, a little lost.
He turned to walk back toward the house, and she ducked back inside so that he wouldn’t see her standing there, spying on him.
“Hey, pizza’s ready,” she called as soon as his footsteps sounded on the porch. They grabbed the pizza and some Pepsi’s, and headed back outside to the picnic table. They continued to talk well into the evening, Johnny asking lots of questions about her job, and being really excited for her when she told him about moving to Colorado. She hoped he’d come visit there, too, and they could go skiing in the Rockies.
She noticed that when he talked about his job, it was in general terms, and always managed to avoid answering her specific questions about being a paramedic. He spoke about the guys at the station, whom she had met once or twice before moving here, and about the doctors and nurses at Rampart. Not once did he mention Roy.
The air was getting chilly, but neither one wanted to go inside yet, enjoying each other’s company, surrounded by the stillness of the star-filled night.
Talk turned to his reason for coming here... the two-day backpacking trip in the high country. Shannon wished she could go with him, but this was the start of the busy tourist season, and just getting today off had been hard enough. She sensed that this was more than just a hike for Johnny anyway, and that he needed to be alone. She would be waiting for him when he came back on Tuesday night, hoping then he could share some of what was troubling him.
Shannon went inside to make some coffee; after putting it on the stove, she decided to light the logs in the fireplace to ward off the evening chill. She smiled at the thought of how romantic the night could be, snuggled up in front of the fireplace in the arms of the first man she ever loved. Maybe the only man.
Carrying the coffee outside, she found Johnny asleep in the lounge chair.
“Well, Johnny,” she said softly, “it looks like you’ve forgotten how to show a girl a good time.”
She felt a twinge of guilt at that thought. He was obviously deeply troubled by something, and had come here to lose himself, not in her arms, but in the arms of Mother Nature. It was irrational, she knew, but she felt a pang of jealousy.
She stood leaning against the railing, with her back to him, listening to the sound of the water drifting through the night, watching the stars, wishing that she could somehow help Johnny through this time.
Deep in thought, Shannon hadn’t heard him stir, and was startled to realize he was standing behind her. She felt him untie the ribbon that held her pony tail, letting her long hair fall down around her shoulders. She shivered as his hands rested first on her shoulders, then slid slowly down her arms, toward her waist. He wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her gently to him, burying his face in her hair. She felt his arms tremble, and his warm breath on her neck.
She turned in his arms to face him, and saw the unspoken pain and the passion, the loneliness and the longing, in his eyes. Her fingertips gently traced his cheeks, then his lips, then pushed his hair back from his forehead, their lips finally meeting in hesitant, feather-soft kisses.
This was a very different John Gage from the one she used to know so well. She understood now what he needed from her. It wasn’t talk, it wasn’t questions, it certainly wasn’t the playful romp in bed that she had been envisioning since he had first called two weeks ago.
He needed to connect with something in his past, from a time that had been full of innocence and fun, a time before the pain of growing up, and seeing the world for what it was, had taken over. He needed a friend. She could be that for him. She would do anything for him. Pulling him closer, she whispered his name, their bodies melting, as they united in a deep, achingly passionate kiss.
Gently breaking the embrace, she took him by the hand and led him into the little cabin, now softly illuminated by the glow of the logs on the fire, and closed and locked the door, shutting out the outside world, if only for the night.
* * * * * * * *
The smell of coffee taunted her, but it was still dark outside, and she pulled a pillow over her face, hoping to make the smell go away. It was way too early for even an outdoors girl like herself to be up.
She could hear him moving around, trying to be quiet, but not quite succeeding. She knew he wanted to be at the permit station in Tuolumne Meadows before sunrise, eager to start his little adventure in the wilderness.
Shannon had hoped he would stay a little longer, and felt the jealousy return when she saw him dressed and ready to leave. He stopped in the doorway with a cup of coffee in his hand. One thing sure hadn’t changed, and that was his heart-stopping grin.
“Sorry to wake you, but I really need to get going.” His face turned serious. “Shannon, when I get back, I’d like to talk to you about why I’m here. I’m just not ready to talk about it right now... I hope being out there with Mother Nature will help me sort it all out.”
“Just one night, and you’re already dumping me for another woman?” she grumbled, peeking out again from underneath the pillow.
She had to laugh at the look on his face, and his stumbling reply... “there’s... no other woman....”
If Johnny had one quality that could drive a person absolutely crazy, yet was totally endearing, it was his ability to be so perceptive, almost philosophical one minute, and genuinely clueless the next. She had found this trait was not uncommon among the male of the species, but she had always thought that Johnny wrote the book on how to do it. After spending less than 24-hours with him, she was convinced that he was responsible for keeping the book updated as well.
Not exactly sure what she meant, he walked over to the bed, and gave her a long, tantalizing, kiss good-bye. She moaned, and tried to pull him back into bed with her... just for a few minutes…but he resisted the temptation, and left with the promise he’d be back by nine o’clock Tuesday night.
* * * * * * * *
Rick Wilson and Hank Stanley sat by the edge of the lake, enjoying the warm evening. The weather had gone from gloomy to glorious in the last few weeks, and it appeared that summer had truly arrived. Of course, summer in Southern California was a long affair -- one was never really certain when it actually began or ended. The passage of time was marked more in terms of events and holidays, than in the seasons, which never really noticeably changed, they just kind of flowed from cool to warm to hot, and back to cool again.
Hank wished that he could have turned back the hands of time by about four weeks, and that somehow, things would have turned out differently. Everything that Johnny had said to Rick was held in confidence, and as much as Hank would have liked to known what they talked about, he knew that any questions about it were off-limits.
They did talk about Roy, though, and Hank came to better understand that perhaps he was hurting as much, or more than Johnny had been, but because everyone expected him to be “the rock,” and the one to deal with his personal issues quietly, and away from the job, he hadn’t been able to express his grief, or his doubts and guilt. Johnny’s open verbalization of those feelings must have scared Roy, making it impossible for him to face his partner, for fear he would give in to his own emotions in front of him.
They also talked about the threats that had been made against Johnny. This was police and department business, and as his superior, Hank was aware of some of what had been going on. He wasn’t aware that Johnny had received more than... just threatening mail…whoever it was that was harassing him, had started sending him pictures of little Jessica Jackson, with more letters full of racial slurs and ugly threats. It made him sick to his stomach to know what Gage was going through, knowing that Johnny was keeping much of this bottled up inside.
“Why Johnny, do you think?” Hank asked. “He wasn’t the only one.... Hell, there were so many firemen at the scene that morning, I don’t even know who all was there.”
Rick knew the police were working on a list of people who had been at the church that day. “It’s probably because he was the only one that went to the funeral. Whoever this person is, must have seen him there, and found out who he was.”
“Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” Hank wondered out loud. “The only one who cared enough.... The only one of us with the courage to go and pay his respects, and say how sorry he was... and this is what he gets in return.”
Hank felt a twinge of guilt, usually Roy’s domain, but someone had to take over in his absence.
“I should have gone with him when he asked.”
* * * * * * * *
The drive from Yosemite Valley up to Tuolumne Meadows took about an hour. As the road rose in elevation from 4000 feet to over 9000 feet, the landscape changed with each bend in the road. Sunrise would arrive about the same time as he would at the permit station, where he would leave the Rover overnight, and set out on a 2-day round trip hike to Young Lakes. Because he was here during the week, and still early in summer, he expected to have the trail and campground at the lake pretty much to himself.
The roads had only been open for a couple of weeks, and there was still plenty of evidence of the heavy winter snows that had fallen this year, the last one in early May, just over a month ago. The daytime temperatures were warming into the 70s, but nighttime temperatures, especially in the extremely high altitudes, dropped below freezing still. Thunderstorms were known to strike hard, without warning, and the streams, swollen with the icy waters from melting snows, were difficult to cross.
Johnny had come well prepared for all the possibilities, and after checking in and picking up his permit, he started out on his quest to find whatever it was that he was seeking.
The first part of his hike was fairly easy, taking him through the meadows and past Soda Springs. The trail wound through a forest of small lodgepole pines, then descended to a ford of the first of many creeks he would cross. Beyond the creek, the trail ascended and crossed a broad expanse of boulder-strewn, grass-pocketed sheet granite; from the open spot, he stopped to take some pictures of the view of the steeple-like spires of the Cathedral Range. The trail continued upward, across another creek, winding through a shady pine forest, that in just another month would be carpeted with a colorful display of flowers. He paused near the ridge top, where there was another break in the forest, permitting glimpses of the whole Cathedral Range, and began taking more photos of the magnificent scenery before him.
The hike was moderately strenuous, and the air thin, making his lungs work hard, as he moved along in silence. He reached the lakes before nightfall, and decided to set up camp on the north shore of lower Young Lake. He was glad to see that he was, indeed, all alone as he had hoped.
He was treated to a fiery show at sunset, choosing to sit by the edge of the lake and watch, leaving his camera for another time, as the flames of color blazing across the sky deepened from orange to red to magenta. When the sun finally slipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped dramatically. He made a small campfire, and sat close to it as he ate his dinner. Tired from his trek, but not ready to turn in, Johnny pulled on his jacket over his wool sweater, and sat by the fire, enjoying the stillness of the moonlit night.
He thought about all he had seen today, knowing that his photographs, while good, could never begin to convey all the incredible beauty and splendor of this place. He wished for a moment that Roy could have shared this experience, and hoped that he, too, would find a way to forgive himself, and be at peace again.
Not to be outdone by Shannon, Mother Nature worked her own kind of magic on Johnny. Up here, the stars, mostly unseen in the skies above Los Angeles, burned brighter... thousands of them... here they were closer, more intimate, as they stood in contrast to the blackness of the night. She had surrounded him in her glory, and quietly wove her way into his heart and soul.
Sitting there, his campfire the only light for miles, he felt small and insignificant against the backdrop of the majestic scenery, yet glad to be a part of a world that could offer up such incredible perfection, and evoke such inspiration and hope in the human heart.
Without realizing it, he had found the answers that he had come in search of, just as the inscription had said, and slept soundly, his spirit at rest, for the first time in many weeks.
* * * * * * * *
He awoke the next morning, relaxed, refreshed, and freezing his butt off. The sunrise was spectacular, captured in frame-after-frame of film. He lingered by the lake for a while, waiting for the sun, and the coffee, to warm him up enough to pack up, and head back to the trail.
The streams were difficult to cross, full of icy, rushing waters, but he didn’t mind getting a little wet today. He had dry clothes in the Rover, and he wouldn’t be spending this night outside in freezing temperatures. He smiled a little, thinking about the warm fireplace, and the cozy little cabin, and Shannon. No, he wouldn’t be cold tonight.
The trail was steep in places, as it descended back down the slopes toward the meadows. He almost slipped several times on the loose rocks, but managed to keep his feet under him. He stopped often to take more pictures -- yesterday’s shots had been filled with the panorama of the meadows and mountains -- today’s were more intimate portraits of the forest, and the creeks, and the snow-filled crevices that flanked the trail.
Stopping for a drink of water, and to rest a while, his eyes roamed over the smooth granite slopes, whose north and south exposures were still blanketed with snow. He sat up suddenly when he spotted two black dots moving across the white backdrop, and grabbed his camera and snapped on the telephoto lens. Sure enough, it was two bear cubs, playfully frolicking in the snow... surely under the watchful eye of Mama Bear…but he couldn’t spot her.
Although brown in color, these were California Black Bears, very common in Yosemite; the two cubs looked to be fairly young, and Johnny searched for a way to get a little closer to get a better angle with his camera.
Common sense, and a thorough knowledge of the rules about wandering off the trail, told him to stay put... but he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to get some shots of them... maybe even of the mother if she wandered into the area in search of her wayward cubs.
Scrambling around the boulders, he came to a ledge that gave him a clear view of them, and was close enough that the telephoto lens could zoom in on them, without his getting too close and scaring them off.
The rocks were soft and crumbled easily under his weight, so he made sure he didn’t get too close to the edge, finally finding a solid place to perch, and began to take his photos. He spent almost an hour and shot a whole roll of film, before the cubs finally lumbered away, out of sight. Mama must have called them.
He realized that he had been there longer than he thought, and needed to start back -- wanting to make sure he arrived at the permit station parking lot before dusk, and was on his way back to the valley before it got too dark.
Intent on collecting his camera equipment, he didn’t hear the sound until the last minute. Twisting around, as he stood quickly, to see who or what had come up behind him, he felt the rocks beneath his feet begin to slide.
* * * * * * * *
It was almost midnight, and the house was quiet and dark, save for the small desk lamp that barely lit the room. Roy was laying on the couch, with his head resting on the thickly padded arm, his eyes closed, but not in sleep. He heard a slight rustling sound, and opened his eyes to see Jennifer standing in front of him, wearing her Minnie Mouse nightgown, her arms tangled up in her favorite blanket.
“Daddy?” came the soft whisper, as she peeked in close, touching his cheek, to see if he was awake.
Roy swung his legs down to the floor, and picked her up and placed her on his lap, pulling her close as she laid her head on his shoulder, and snuggled in under his chin.
“Jennifer, what are you doing up in the middle of the night?” His voice was tender and soothing.
She rubbed her sleepy eyes and he felt her sigh softly. “I’m... not... sleepy,” she answered, with a little pout to her voice.
“Are you just excited about tomorrow, princess?”
“Yep, I’m gonna see Donald Duck and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and I’m gonna ride the big black horse on the merry-go-round -- it’s gotta be the black horse cuz Uncle Johnny says that’s his favorite color horse -- and I’m gonna buy a special sucker... a great big round one with lots of rainbow colors....” She sat up a little, her slender finger making circles in the air.
“And I’m gonna buy it with the money Uncle Johnny gave me and I’m not gonna open it so I can share it with him when he gets back from his trip to Yos... Yos... Yosmitty.”
She didn’t know why, but she felt her dad’s arms stiffen around her just slightly.
“You saw your Uncle Johnny?”
“He came over, but you weren’t home. So he didn’t stay too long. But he gave me an’ Chris some money to spend at Disneyland on whatever we wanted.”
She couldn’t remember if she wasn’t supposed to tell her dad about Uncle Johnny being here or not, so she added, “Mommy said it was all right.”
Joanne was standing in the doorway behind the couch, unseen by Roy or Jennifer. She held her breath for a minute, straining in the low light to see Roy’s reaction. When there didn’t seem to be much of one, she relaxed and continued to listen to the conversation between father and daughter.
Jennifer snuggled against her father again, and pulled her blanket up under her chin.
“Why aren’t you and Uncle Johnny friends anymore?”
Roy swallowed hard. “Who said we weren’t friends any more, Jen?”
“Well..., he never comes over any more, ‘cept when you’re not here, then he never stays very long. You never talk about him anymore neither. When I asked Uncle Johnny about it, he looked real sad. Are you sad, too, Daddy?”
Roy didn’t have to think twice about answering honestly, “Yes, sweetheart, I have been kind of sad, too.”
Joanne listened hard at the doorway. She had heard Jennifer ask Johnny the same question the other day, but he had taken her aside, and talked to her privately, so Joanne didn’t know what answers he had given to Jennifer’s questions. Silence filled the room for a long time, and Joanne thought maybe Jennifer had fallen asleep.
She heard a little sniffle, then more questions, spoken in earnest this time.
“Uncle Johnny said that something really bad happened, and that you couldn’t be his friend right now. Daddy, did Uncle Johnny do something bad to you?”
Roy closed his eyes, as he felt his heart twist in his chest. “No, Jen, Uncle Johnny didn’t do anything bad to me, or anyone else. Something bad just happened at work, and it made us both really sad.”
Jennifer was persistent in her pursuit of the bottom line.
“But, if he didn’t do anything bad, why are you mad at him?"
Kind of like his own little conscience whispering in his ear, she was asking him all the questions he’d been asking himself for weeks now.
“I don’t know, Jenny... I’m not mad at your Uncle Johnny.... It’s hard to explain....”
“Well, Uncle Johnny sort of ‘splained it to me. He told me that he’s still your best friend, and that he loves you no matter what. Kinda like you and Mommy tell me an’ Chris that after we’ve done something we weren’t supposed to. He said whenever you’re ready to be his friend again, he’d be there. I don’t know where there is, but I think maybe he meant here. Daddy, Uncle Johnny looked so sad, I thought he was gonna’ cry, so I put my arms around his neck and hugged him real, real, real hard. I think I made him feel all better when I did that. He gave me a big kiss and told me I was his favorite girl!”
Out of the mouths of babes..., tears trickled down Joanne’s cheeks. Bless you, Johnny Gage.
She quietly slipped back to their bedroom.
Roy couldn’t get his voice to go past the lump in his throat, as he embraced Jennifer tightly. He never wanted to let go of her, wishing that she could stay little forever, lying safe in his protective arms just like this. He could tell she was already growing up fast... even though she had asked her questions in childlike innocence, his little girl had sounded far older and wiser than her almost-five years just now. Certainly far wiser than her father had been lately.
Still not trusting himself to speak, Roy stood up, and playfully flung her over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and lugged his giggling little girl off to her bedroom.
He tucked her in, and kissed the top of her head, drinking in the sweetness of the lingering perfume of baby shampoo in her hair, as she snuggled against her pillow with her blanket under her cheek, her eyelids fluttering as Mr. Sandman began to work his magic.
As Roy tiptoed out of the room, she had one more really important question.
“Daddy, will you help me pick out just the right sucker tomorrow... you know, the kind Uncle Johnny would like best?”
She didn’t notice how his voice broke just a little when he replied.
“We’ll buy the biggest, best one they’ve got, sweetheart. I know just which one your Uncle Johnny would pick. Go to sleep now, or you’ll sleep through all the rides tomorrow.”
“Night, daddy. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Jennifer.”
* * * * * * * *
Disneyland was such a great place -- for kids of all ages -- just as advertised. They had stopped first at Main Street, so Jennifer could meet as many of her favorite characters as possible, finally dragging her away when Chris began to get anxious to move on. After all, he was a big kid now, and ready for the action and thrill of the rides and attractions. They had carefully planned how each ticket was going to be used, except for their last ‘E’ ticket -- they would save the best for last, and deciding what ride it would be used for, would come at the end of the day.
They were having a good time at their first destination, each of them thoroughly enjoying Adventureland, especially the Jungle Cruise. Jennifer thought the hippos, with their wiggling ears, and elephants lifting their trunks, looked suspiciously real, and clung to Roy's arm the whole ride. He held her tight, and covered her ears, when the shots were fired to ward off the attacking hippos. Chris made fun of her because she thought it was a real gun, and she stuck her tongue out at him.
Roy's favorite, Pirates of the Caribbean, was next up, and the kids sang along... yo ho yo ho, a pirate's life for me... with the animated sailors the whole ride. Determined to show Chris she wasn't afraid, Jennifer held her breath while their boat passed between the pirate ships, not even flinching at the roar of the cannons, as the ships fired upon each other. The trouble with big brothers was that they only noticed when you did something stupid, and she was disappointed that he had ignored her bravery. She stuck her tongue out at him again, just because.
The line, and the wait, for the Haunted House was really long, and they decided to pass on it, Roy and Joanne agreeing that maybe it would be a little too scary for Jennifer. Apparantly they hadn't noticed her brave act either, but this time her tongue stayed put.
It was decided that they would have lunch before moving on to the next 'land' on the list, so they ordered hamburgers and cokes, and found an empty table under the shade of a small tree. Joanne noticed that Roy had seemed so much more like himself today, and was obviously enjoying the park as much as the kids. She watched him now, as he was laughing and joking with them, and wondered if his talk with Jennifer last night had something to do with his good mood.
The kids gobbled down their food, and were raring to go before she could even catch her breath. The ‘kids’ included Roy.
The four of them had spent the first two hours of the morning together, but Chris and Jennifer were now ready to part company, Chris wanting to explore Tom Sawyer's Island in Frontierland, and spend some time at the shooting arcades, making use of the money Uncle Johnny had given him. From there, he wanted to go Tomorrowland, and drive the cars at Autopia, and take the Submarine ride, to see the divers and the mermaids at the bottom of the ocean.
Jennifer, on the other hand, had decided, with her mom's help, that she wanted to zero in on Fantasyland. But her plans had changed, and she wanted Roy to take her; she cast her patented pleading, pouty look at her mom, blinking with eyes that begged her forgiveness for the switch. Joanne had looked forward to the mother-daughter time, as much as Roy had looked forward to spending time alone with Chris, but it seemed that Jennifer had sensed that she needed to be with her father today, and Joanne agreed without protest. Roy gave her a puzzled look, knowing Joanne didn't really enjoy the faster rides, but went along with the plan, when it appeared that Chris didn't especially care which parent went with him, just as long as he got to go where he wanted.
The two of them entered Fantasyland, hand-in-hand, through Sleeping Beauty's Castle, where Jennifer delighted in all the characters from her storybooks that came to life here, in the form of rides -- Snow White, Peter Pan, Dumbo, Mr. Toad, Pinocchio, and Storybook Land itself, with it's miniature villages and topiaries. Roy reminded her that they didn't have enough tickets to ride them all, and helped her make her final choices.
One of the great delights of Disneyland is that it allows grown-ups to see the world through the innocent eyes of their children, and act like children themselves, without feeling embarassed about it. As the afternoon went on, Roy happily rediscovered the magic that had been missing for so long. If he didn't know better, he could swear that Jennifer had known what she was doing all along.
About ready to meet up with Joanne and Chris for the final ride of the day, Jennifer suddenly stopped in her tracks, pulling on his hand. He saw her turn around in circles several times, a confused, anxious, look clouding her tired little face.
"Daddy, we didn't ride the merry-go-round. I promised Uncle Johnny I would ride a black horse, just for him." Her eyes were filling with tears.
Roy's heart was touched by his daughter's devotion to Johnny -- perhaps there was another lesson to be learned here. He knelt down to wipe away her tears with his thumbs, and picked her up, hugging her tightly.
Her entire face lit up when he carried her around the corner, and deposited her in the line to ride the merry-go-round. She spotted just the horse that she knew her Uncle Johnny would ride if he had been here, and crossed her fingers that no one got on it before she did. As soon as they were allowed on, she raced over to claim it, waiting for Roy to lift her up, waving him up on the one next to her. He hadn't ridden one of these in years, and found himself enjoying it as much as Jennifer did. He could almost picture his partner laughing at him -- not that Johnny wouldn't have been the first one on the ride if he had been here with them. In some ways, it felt to Roy like he was.
Sundown found them weary and tired, the adults grateful that they were finally down to the final E-ticket decision. Naturally, both kids wanted to use theirs on different rides. Chris really wanted to ride the Matterhorn, Jennifer had her heart set on It’s A Small World.
Chris began to whine. “Dad, I don’t wanna ride some sissy little kids’ ride. I wanna go on the Matterhorn. Jen thinks it’s too fast and scary, but I don’t see why I can’t go, just cause she’s a scaredy-cat.”
Jennifer’s lower lip was in a full pout. She wasn’t scared of anything, she just wanted to go and sing along with the ‘Small World’ song that she’d heard in the distance, off and on throughout the afternoon. It was her favorite song, and she wanted to go on that ride!
Roy and Joanne had already seen this coming, and agreed to split up again, so that each of the kids could finish their day the way they wanted. The kids were delighted to hear the plan, except Jennifer once again insisted that Roy take her on the ride, instead of Joanne, as agreed earlier.
“Daddy, pleeeezzzzzz?” she begged. How could he resist those eyes, that cunning smile?
Even though the two rides were fairly close to each other, the line for the Matterhorn Bobsleds was much longer, so they agreed to meet up at the Main Street gift shop when they were done. Joanne wasn’t too excited about riding a roller-coaster, but Jennifer had been so insistent that Roy go with her on this one last, special ride, that she gave in. Chris was happy he was going to ride the Matterhorn, and was actually pleased that his mom was going with him. As far as he was concerned, they'd had a great time together.
They could hear the song as they walked up, playing over and over again as they waited in line. As did most adults, Roy found the ride excruciatingly long, and by the time they were walking away, he thought if he never heard that song again, it would be too soon.
When they reached Main Street, they didn’t spot Joanne and Chris, so they decided to spend a few minutes looking through the huge gift shop... tourist trap... while waiting for them.
Roy felt Jennifer tugging on his hand, pulling him toward the counter.
“Look, Daddy, there’s the suckers Uncle Johnny told me about!” She spent several minutes looking over her choices. Pointing to a huge, colorful one on a wooden stick, she asked, “Do you think he’d like that one?”
Roy kind of doubted that Johnny really cared that much about which sucker she got, but it was important to Jennifer, and he could see her wrinkle up her nose, and furrow her brow as she tried to decide.
“Jennifer, I think your Uncle Johnny would love any one you picked out, but I happen to know that the one you’re pointing to is his favorite.”
The decision was made, and Jennifer carefully handed over the money that she had crumpled in her hand. She had kept it safe in her pocket all day, and was thoroughly pleased with her purchase.
They went outside, and sat down on a bench to wait for Joanne and Chris, who showed up just a few minutes later. Joanne looked a little green, but Chris launched into a round of excited chatter as he described the entire ride to his dad.
It was dark, and they had stayed far later than they had planned. Roy was back on shift tomorrow, and they decided it was time to leave the world of make-believe, and head back to the real world. They would come again another time, and stay later, to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade.
Jennifer practically fell asleep on Roy’s shoulder, as he carried her to the car.
Traffic was light, making getting out of the parking lot, and onto the streets fairly painless. Roy pulled into the intersection to make a left-hand turn, and waited for oncoming traffic to clear. He could hear Chris’ soft, slow breathing in the seat behind him, and knew he was already asleep. He heard Jennifer whisper to him, and he glanced over his right shoulder to see her curled up on the other side of the seat next to her brother. She had an impish little grin on her face, and she was clutching the sucker to her chest, singing very quietly, “it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small, small world.”
It had been a good day. As he watched her face, and listened to her sing, he decided that he would call Johnny when he got home, and find out how his had trip had gone. It was time they talked, and he hoped he hadn’t waited too long.
Roy never saw the headlights of the car coming through the red light on his left, as the sound of brakes squealing, and tires screeching, filled the night.
* * * * * * * *
His eyes snapped open as he bolted upright, his heart pounding with the sudden rush of adrenaline. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room, as he reoriented himself with the familiar surroundings. He relaxed -- only slightly -- when a quick glimpse at the clock on the living room wall revealed that a mere five minutes had passed since he had laid his head back on the couch and closed his eyes.
Rubbing the sweat from his palms on his pant legs, he reached for the phone, drawing a slow, deep breath to steady himself before dialing the number from memory once again. Ten rings…twenty rings…he lost count of the number, disappointed that there was still no answer. Sighing in almost overwhelming frustration, he slowly replaced the handset. Leaning forward slightly, he rested his elbows on his knees, gently cradling his aching forehead in his rough, calloused hands. Massaging his temples in an effort to relieve the tension, he allowed a soft groan of worry and despair to escape him, grateful for the fact there was no one else in the room to hear it.
He had gotten home late, and had been asleep for less than an hour when the phone rang, the clock beside his bed telling him it was only a little after one o’clock. His years as a fireman had trained him to be instantly alert, no matter the hour, no matter how little sleep he had gotten; but he had purposely hesitated before picking up the phone, intuitively knowing that calls in the middle of the night never brought good news.
Unable, unwilling to sleep, he nervously roamed throughout the house the rest of the night, waiting in vain, his concern mounting as each silent hour dragged by in agonizing slow motion.
He was exhausted, and daylight had yet to creep over the horizon.
Even if he could have managed it, sleep was now out of the question -- A-shift was due to go on duty in just under three hours. He would get dressed, and go in even earlier than normal; after all, there were other calls to be made, schedules to be rearranged, explanations to be given, and questions to be answered.
And then, at eight o’clock, Hank Stanley and his crew... minus one... would start another shift.
END OF PART ONE