The Will To Survive
“I was standin’ all alone against the world outside…”
“In Wilderness lies the hope of the world -
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
The galling harness of civilization drops off,
and the wounds heal ere we are aware.”
~ John Muir ~
The words of the inscription, painstakingly etched by hand, long ago, into the rough, wooden plaque that hung above the entrance to the wilderness station, touched him to the very depths of his soul. Johnny stood rooted there, shivering slightly in the chilly fog that shrouded the high country meadows at the dawning of a new day. He solemnly contemplated the prophetic message, feeling as though someone had foreseen his arrival, and hung the plaque there just for him... as though that someone had been able to look deep into his heart and feel his pain; someone who understood his need to exorcise the demons that had plagued his nightmares for weeks. Someone who had surmised his mission, his reason for coming alone to this beautiful, rugged land, and was reaching out to let him know that, here, he could find the peace he so desperately sought.
As the gray morning mist began to slowly melt away under the stealthy approach of sunrise, his spirit, too, lifted slightly, having found some measure of comfort in those words, which served to remind him that there had been others who had traveled this same solitary path, and had found their redemption in the vast expanse of wilderness that lay before him.
The image of that moment, captured by his memory as clearly as those images he had captured with his camera, now seemed to have occurred a lifetime ago, but, in truth, it had been only yesterday morning.
That which had begun as a journey to find solace for his ravaged psyche, had suddenly become a battle for something so much more.
“...you were searchin’ for a place to hide.”
“To all that come to this happy place: Welcome !”
~ Walt Disney ~
Oblivious to his surroundings, he had been completely lost in thought, when he became aware of the insistent tugging on his pant leg. His reverie broken, he let his eyes slowly drift down into the beaming, upturned face of his wide-eyed little girl, on her very first visit to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” She had spotted a half-dozen of her favorite storybook characters, strolling about the street in front of them, shaking hands, and posing for pictures. She really wanted to rush over to them, and hug them like the other kids were doing; but she was too shy to let go of her father’s comforting hand, yet too awestruck to tell him what she wanted.
A tender smile playing on his lips, he gave the tiny hand a gentle squeeze, and led her in the direction of her favorite character. They stopped, and he released her hand from his, reaching up to softly stroke her long, baby-fine hair, silently encouraging her to continue on her own. She hesitated only a moment, flashed him an adoring smile, and dashed straight into the outstretched arms of none other than Donald Duck himself. She broke into uncontrollable giggles when he pretended to swallow her head in his open beak, and began to squeal in delight for her daddy to come save her!
For just the briefest second, Roy felt the all too-familiar ache that had pervasively invaded his heart so often over the past several weeks.
From a short distance away, Joanne had observed her husband’s changing expressions, and as his eyes betrayed this last thought, she came up behind him, and leaned gently over his shoulder, whispering in his ear, reassuring him that everything would be okay.
Roy sighed the sigh of a lucky man. Sometimes he thought that his wife knew him better than he knew himself -- her supportive understanding reminded him of his many blessings, and he realized how truly fortunate he was to have this day with his family.
Wrapping one arm securely around Joanne’s waist, and tousling Chris’ hair with his other hand, he laughed out loud at the look on his daughter’s face, as she clutched her favorite Disney character in that ferocious kind of hug that only a four-year old can give. For Roy, this one moment in time was absolutely priceless.
He consciously recorded it, then tucked it away in his memory for safekeeping
P A R T -- O N E
Excerpt taken from a local newspaper four weeks earlier:
“...three Los Angeles County firemen were blown off an extension ladder following a gas explosion while they were fighting a two-alarm house fire that claimed the life of a four-year-old girl. In addition to the men blown from the ladder, all from Station 24, five other firemen were also taken to area hospitals, and soon released after treatment. Two of the five collapsed from exhaustion as a result of their unsuccessful efforts to rescue the girl.
Three other children were saved when their father dropped them from a second-story window into the arms of two neighbors early in the morning of May 16.
Firemen reported that when the first apparatus arrived, flames filled the lower floor of the two-story, 10-room home. The children’s mother was screaming in the yard, and her husband was dropping the surviving children to the neighbors. Flame and smoke prevented the father from reaching his other daughter in a back bedroom.
The fire was discovered by the two neighbors, who were awakened by the smoke. One of them stopped a passing driver, who phoned the fire department, while the other made a futile attempt to run up the back stairs through flames and smoke.
The interior was burning so furiously that fire fighters could not enter the house for about 20 minutes. The fire apparently started in the rear of the house, it was reported....”
* * * * * * * *
The shift had been unusually quiet and uneventful throughout the day, and the crew had finally settled lazily into their bunks, shortly after returning from a brief run that had called them out at nine-thirty that evening. Whether it was due to the lack of physical activity during the day, or if it was just out of sheer boredom, Johnny wasn’t sure, but he found himself unable to sleep, unable even to find a comfortable position. Giving up on punching his pillow, and tossing and turning, he sat up on the edge of his bed, running his hands through his hair, trying to decide if he should get up before he woke someone else, or just try one more time to will himself to fall asleep.
Easily persuading himself that sleep was simply not going to come without some assistance, he made his way into the kitchen to rummage through the refrigerator, scrounging for something good to munch on. He settled on a snack of milk and cookies... his usual favorite... then pondered turning on the television, but thought better of it, concluding he should maybe try to take another stab at grabbing some shuteye.
Before returning to the dorm, he paused briefly in the apparatus bay -- leaning against the squad, he let his mind drift a little to thoughts of what he was planning to do on his upcoming days off... all the while, subconsciously marveling at the incredible stillness that enveloped the station in the middle of the night.
That was the problem, he decided... it was just too quiet.
The thought no sooner flickered across his mind, than Johnny cursed softly under his breath.
Damn it, Gage, that’s a sure way to guarantee something major’s gonna happen....
Regretting the thought, he silently slipped back into the dorm, pushing aside his fireman’s superstitions, and settled in for what he hoped would be the rest of the night.
Maybe there was something to this superstition thing after all.
He had just nodded off, when the station lights kicked on simultaneously with the tones, the raucous sounds ricocheting off the thick brick walls, bringing each of the crew instantly to his feet. The squad, followed immediately by the engine, was out the door in under a minute, called out on a second alarm assignment for a structure fire.
The first captain on the scene had quickly assessed the situation, and immediately radioed Dispatch for the second alarm response, and requested several ambulances. The structure was well involved, and already surrounded by the fervent activity of the first responders, by the time 51s arrived on the scene.
The fire had engulfed the first floor of the old house more rapidly than anyone could have imagined, raging with a fierceness that horrified the neighbors, who had been awakened in the darkness of their bedrooms by the seemingly never-ending wailing of sirens, stumbling from their homes, in their pajamas and their robes, to watch in grim fascination.
To the inexperienced onlooker, the scene might have appeared totally chaotic, but the veteran fire fighting units were functioning like a well-oiled machine, rapidly positioning their equipment and laying lines to protect the exposures, while attempting to attack the flames racing throughout the rapidly deteriorating residence.
“Lord, will you look at that,” Johnny uttered breathlessly to Roy, as the squad pulled around the corner, giving them their first glimpse of the broiling inferno that was vigorously devouring the house.
Their unspoken thoughts were one at that point... heaven help us if there’s anyone still in there.
Heaven would seemingly fail them that night.
* * * * * * * *
The first units to arrive on the scene had encountered a dramatic escape-in-progress, with the apparent owner of the house frantically dropping his children from a second story window into the waiting arms of some of the neighbors. The upstairs room was filled with smoke, black and thick as soot, the heat was overpowering, and the panic-stricken man was doing the only thing he could think of to keep his children from the fiery jaws of certain death.
Squad 24 had arrived before 51s, and their paramedics were already treating the children, who had miraculously sustained only minor injuries. Several other firemen were attempting to restrain and calm the hysterical mother, as others raced to grab a ladder to reach the open upstairs windows, from which the father had disappeared.
The battalion chief summoned Stanley and his paramedics.
“Hank, we’ve still got a man and a little girl upstairs, somewhere. We think that after he made sure he got those three kids out of the house, he went back in for his other daughter.”
They all looked up at the window, and mentally prepared for the perilous task at hand.
The chief continued, gesturing toward the house, “We’ll be sending some men up the ladder there, just in case he’s still in that room…but from what we’ve been told, the little girl was asleep in a bedroom in the back of the house, and we don’t think he could have gotten to her from this part of the house. We’re going to need you and your men to go in from the west side, and see if you can locate her.”
“Chief, just how long have they been up there?” Roy asked in concern, his eyes squinting, as he watched the steady upward progress of the flames.
The chief wore a grave expression when he answered. “About 20 minutes. We haven’t been able to get into the house yet, but it looks like we’ve finally got it beat back just enough to give it a try now. I can’t guarantee you much time, but we’ll give you enough cover to get in and out.... Just make it quick.”
Stanley mustered his crew and issued terse, rapid instructions, quickly mobilizing the rescue effort, laying out their exit options should anything go wrong. De Soto and Gage would go in first to try to locate the little girl -- Stanley, Kelly and Lopez would follow to support them. Several men from 82s were there to steady the ladders.
“Okay, men, are we ready?” Stanley knew replies weren’t necessary.
Masks readied, gloves on, forcible entry tools in hand, hose thrown over the shoulder... without wasting precious seconds, they scurried up the ladder, one behind the other.
Johnny and Roy stepped through the already shattered windows into a bedroom. The smoke was dense, but the door to the hallway was closed, and the open windows had helped to vent the room just enough to allow limited visibility. They could see enough to know that they were obviously in a little boy’s bedroom, and that it appeared to be empty. After checking the closet and under the bed, assured... yet a little disappointed... that no one was hiding there, Roy pointed to the door that would lead to the hallway, and Johnny nodded in acknowledgment.
Pulling one glove off, Roy felt for the heat through the door, and put his other hand out quickly to warn Johnny away.
As Stanley climbed in through the window, Roy shouted to him, “Cap, we’re gonna need a line in here before we can get into the hallway. The door’s really hot....”
As Marco and Chet followed Stanley in, and readied the hose, Stanley pulled the HT and radioed Stoker to charge the line. As soon as the nozzle was focused on the doorway, Johnny and Roy flattened themselves against the wall beside the door, Johnny now in position to reach out and carefully open it, Chet and Marco ready with the hose.
“Ready?” he shouted, bracing for whatever was on the other side.
Just as he opened the door, a violent explosion ripped its way through the house, the shock waves instantly slamming everyone in the room flat on their backs. The utilities had been cut off as soon as the first units had arrived, but gas remaining in the lines to the hot water heater had ignited from the intensity of the heat. On the other side of the house, 24s crew had just extracted the father, unconscious but alive, and as the last three of their crew were on the way down, the tremendous force of the explosion propelled them off the ladder, plunging them to the ground below.
Although stunned and shaken by the blast, Chet and Marco managed to hang onto the hose, and struggled to their feet to direct the stream into the flames outside the door. Hank shifted onto his hands and knees, but stayed down, as he tried to shake off the dizziness and nausea that besieged his every move.
Roy rolled onto his side, grunting and clutching a throbbing knee with his right hand, reaching out to find Johnny’s shoulder with his left. “Johnny, are you all right?” he shouted through his mask.
Wordlessly, Johnny sat up, and after a quick mental inventory, nodded his head somewhat hesitantly. He felt a sharp pain in his back where he had landed on his air tank, but he knew there was no time to worry about that right now.
“I’m okay, Roy. You okay?” he asked, looking around to make sure the others were back on their feet. Captain Stanley was moving, but obviously not in good shape.
Roy responded with a hesitant nod of his own, pointing to the doorway. “Johnny, let’s get going. We don’t have much time....”
The water was doing its’ job and, at least temporarily, Chet and Marco had managed to force back the encroaching flames from the narrow hallway.
The paramedics carefully crawled out, acutely aware that the further they got from that room, the more precarious their chance of escape became, if things went sour before they could locate the girl and get out. There were two doors on the other side of the hallway, both of them closed. Not sure which one, if either, could be her bedroom, they chose to split up and each take a room.
As Johnny crawled further down the hall, Roy stopped at the first door, and once again felt for heat before attempting to enter the room... the door was warm... but not hot enough to indicate there was fire on the other side. Roy turned the handle, and with his fingertips, pushed the door open just a crack, pulling away against the wall and ducking his head down... just in case. Trying to calm his hammering heart, and almost choking on his relief, he found himself looking into a small bathroom. Entering and quickly pulling back the shower curtain to check the bathtub, he found no one, and hastily backed out into the hallway again.
The smoke was so thick he was unable to see more than a few inches in front of him, and he almost crawled over Johnny’s legs before he realized they were there. John hadn’t been able to open the other door yet, and was on the floor, straining to plant his feet against the opposite wall, leaning in, and ramming his shoulder against the door in a futile attempt to force it open.
“Roy, give me a hand here,” he panted, sucking hard, draining his air supply. “I think there’s something blocking the door... or it’s locked from the inside... I... I can’t get it... open!”
“I’m gonna get the prybar from the other room. I’ll be right back,” Roy shouted in return.
He groped his way back to the first bedroom, and found Captain Stanley sitting with his head resting on his pulled-up knees, his arms wrapped around his midsection; while in the hallway, Chet and Marco continued the battle to keep the fire away from them. It looked to Roy like they were losing ground.
“Cap! Cap! Are you all right?” Roy asked in alarm, shaking him gently.
Stanley was still trying to catch his breath. “Yeah, Roy, I’m fine. Just had the wind knocked out of me. The battalion chief radioed that... 24s got the father out.... Have you found the girl yet?”
“We think maybe she’s in the room just down the hall, but we can’t get the door open. I came back to get the pry bar. Cap, you should get outta here. Can you get down the ladder okay?”
Stanley nodded his head. He didn’t want to leave until they were all ready to go, but knowing he would be more of a hindrance than a help, he had called for assistance, briefing the men down below on their situation. He assured Roy help was already on the way up the ladder, and motioned him to go back to help John.
He tapped on the invisible watch on his wrist to remind Roy that time was short.
Roy gripped the prybar, and with a final glance back at his captain, once again crawled into the smoke-filled hallway.
Time was running out... in more ways than one... their air supply was being rapidly consumed, as they sucked in air in short, rapid, panting breaths. By the time he reached Johnny, Roy could tell that his partner was struggling to stay focused. The heat was almost unbearable; the smoke oppressive and suffocating, streaming sweat was stinging their eyes, and drenching their bodies under the heavy turnouts -- exhaustion was setting in, but neither one would dream of giving up until they found the little girl.
Their final reserve of adrenaline kicked in, as they threw everything they had left into breaking down the door. It took almost 30 seconds -- an eternity under these circumstances -- to finally pry the door open. As they burst in, they found the room choked with dense smoke. Maneuvering ever so cautiously, virtually blind as they moved around the room, Roy and Johnny bumped into the bed at the same time. Roy gave a quick push down on the mattress -- knowing it’s lack of recoil indicated that there was something, or someone on the bed.
“Johnny, she’s here!” His voice was barely more than a hoarse croak now.
Behind them, they could hear frantic shouts erupt from the hallway, calling them out. The floor was about to go.
Johnny blindly tore back the blanket, plucked up the unmoving form, then quickly retraced his steps out of the room, with the small child wrapped securely in his arms. Unexpectedly, the pain in Roy’s knee flared again, and he was forced to slowly hobble out behind his partner.
Having quickly made his way back to the first bedroom, Johnny passed the limp form of the little girl through the window to one of the waiting paramedics, then came back to help Roy ease out onto the other ladder. The adrenaline high faded away, and he felt his knees begin to weaken and buckle. Chet and Marco dropped the hose, no longer able to keep the flames at bay, and raced for the window, pulling Johnny out onto the ladder with them.
No sooner had they reached the ground, when everyone began shouting, and scrambling away from the house -- the walls shuddered and groaned, as the supports finally succumbed to the fire, and the house began to collapse in a final thunderous roar.
* * * * * * * *
After everyone else was taken care of, the weary paramedics from Station 24 treated Johnny and Roy at the scene…they were exhausted, dehydrated, and in mild shock... the rescue effort, followed by the emotional scene that had almost gotten out of hand, had taken a heavy toll on them, physically and mentally. IVs of normal saline were ordered to begin fluid replenishment, then they were transported, non-code R.
Silence, punctuated only by occasional coughs, permeated the ambulance, as it made it’s way through the darkened streets of the city toward Rampart Hospital.
Though both were awake, neither one spoke, their memories assaulted by the image of the grieving mother as she held her daughter’s body, her anguished screams still reverberating in their minds.
* * * * * * *
“Johnny, can you wake up for me now?” The familiar voice kept trying to coax him out of his profound slumber, but he didn’t want to wake up just yet. The voice persisted, stronger now, and at last, he gave in, opening his eyes to see Dixie standing beside him.
Wincing in discomfort, he rolled into a sitting position. “Hey, Dix, how long have I been asleep?” he asked, his voice still hoarse, and tinged with fatigue.
“About 2 hours... when we came back in with your x-ray results and couldn’t rouse you, Kel decided it would be best to let you get some rest. You were de... you were really out cold.”
She had started to say, “dead to the world," but under the circumstances, her common sense thankfully prevailed. Dixie studied his face, and wondered how well he was going to handle the next few days.
“How’re you feelin?”
“Like I just got in the way of a freight train.” His entire body ached, his head was pounding, and his mouth was parched. He wanted nothing more than a drink of water and to be left alone, so he could go back to sleep.
“Well, your x-rays came back negative. Nothing’s broken, but your back is going to be a little stiff and sore for a while. We’re going to release you now, but first I need to let Kel know you’re awake. He wants to talk to you for a few minutes before you leave.”
As she left the room, she glanced back in his direction, and started to say something, but decided it could wait. There would be plenty of time... and need... for words of comfort later on.
When Brackett entered the room, he found Johnny bent over at the sink, washing his face. He stepped up quietly and handed him a small towel, then stood back and watched while John buried his face in the towel, taking a deep breath, exhaling slowly.
“Dixie told me you were up.... So, how are you feeling, John?” There was concern written all over the doctor’s face.
“I’m doin’ okay... just a little sore and tired.” A sudden cough made him flinch, but he waved Brackett away. “My back hurts a little, is all.” He sat back down on the bed, not wanting Brackett to notice he wasn’t all that steady on his feet.
“Johnny, I don’t think we need to keep you here any longer. I understand your shift is off for the next four days, so if you take it easy and get plenty of rest these next few days, you should be able to go back to work without missing a shift. If you’re not feeling a lot better in the next few days, though, I want you back in here, understand?”
John nodded tiredly.
“In any case, I’ll want you to come by the day before you go back to work, for a quick check, and I’ll sign your release for duty.”
“Okay... uh... Doc, what about the other guys... are they okay?” John hadn’t even thought about them until just now.
“Chet and Marco were here for just a little while, but they checked out okay. We sent them home with the same orders -- plenty of rest and fluids. Roy was in about the same shape as you are, but he had twisted his knee, and it was a little swollen. If he stays off it the next couple of days, he should be as good as new pretty quick. Joanne picked him up and took him home about a half hour ago.”
Brackett noticed a small frown form on John’s forehead. He had been a little surprised himself that Roy had left without checking on Johnny, but then again, Roy was exhausted and probably not thinking clearly -- just anxious to go home and get some sleep.
“Roy..., uh..., went home already?” John asked, trying to hide his disappointment. “Hmm. He’s okay?”
“Like I said, he needs to stay off his feet for a few days, but he’ll be fine. John, Captain Stanley is still here, though. We thought maybe he suffered a concussion, and we wanted to keep an eye on him for a while. He seems to be doing better, so we’re releasing him now, too. His wife’s on the way in to pick him up, and he said they’d give you a ride if you want. He’s waiting for you in the lobby waiting room right now.”
Johnny slowly slid off the bed and stumbled slightly. Once again, he waved off Brackett, as Kel reached out to help him. “Really, I’m okay.... Just give me a minute.”
“One last thing, and I’ll let you go.”
“Anything, I just want to go home and get some sleep.” Johnny sure didn’t want any other advice right now, and was hoping Brackett didn’t feel the need to “talk.” He would deal with what happened in his own time, and in his own way. After he got some more sleep.
“Johnny, I expect you’ll be sleeping a lot the next couple of days. It’s only natural after what you’ve been through. I want you to be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, every time you get up. The IV helped, but you need to continue to replenish the fluids you lost, and the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll feel better.”
John stared at him blankly. He waited for the rest of the lecture, relieved when it didn’t come.
“You’re the boss, doc,” John assured him, his speech slurring slightly. “Water it is, don’t worry,”
Brackett watched Johnny make his way slowly out of the room, calling out to him as he opened the door, “Johnny, if you need to talk....”
John didn’t even stop as he pushed through the door on his way to the waiting room.
A few minutes later, Kel stopped by the nurses station to talk to Dixie. He followed her gaze down the hallway to the lobby, where Johnny and Stanley were standing, facing each other, obviously deep in conversation. Their heads were bowed, and Captain Stanley’s hand rested on Johnny’s shoulder in an almost fatherly gesture.
Dixie’s heart went out to her friends, knowing that facing the next few days was going to be difficult for all of them.
“You know, Kel, sometimes I don’t think we give these guys enough credit for what they do... the risks they take, and the horrible things they encounter on the job…things that would make most people turn and run the other direction.”
Brackett nodded in agreement. “You’re right, Dix, but they’re professionals, trained for this kind of thing, and Lord knows, probably more used to it than we could begin to know.”
“Maybe..., but don’t you ever wonder how it affects them, personally?” she asked. No amount of training can possibly prepare you for witnessing the tragic death of a child. “Sure, we always see their professional side, but there must be times....”
* * * * * * * *
Johnny asked the Stanley’s to take him home -- he would pick up his car and belongings at the station later, since he didn’t intend to do anything for the next 48-hours, except sleep. Thanking the captain and his wife for the ride, convincing them that he was fine, Johnny wearily trudged up the stairs to his apartment. He was glad that he had thought to call his landlady before leaving the hospital -- she had already unlocked the door for him and left, so he was able to enter without having to explain his appearance. She would have asked a million questions, and he was in no mood for that, no matter how well intentioned she might be.
As he shut the door behind him, he leaned back heavily against it; closing his eyes, he let a groan escape, feeling the lurking fatigue start to overwhelm his body and mind once again. He knew that if he sat down now, he wouldn’t move again for hours. Every muscle and joint in his body ached... the odor of the acrid smoke from the house fire still clung to his clothes and hair, and the combination of the smell of the smoke, sweat, and hospital antiseptic was making him nauseous.
Summoning what little reserve of strength he still possessed, John pushed away from the front door, and headed for the shower. Pausing outside his bedroom, he was almost lured instead to his bed, sensing it beckoning to him to slide under the covers, and relinquish himself to the release that sleep would bring.
Literally forcing himself to keep going, he staggered into the bathroom.
Reaching into the shower stall, fumbling for, then weakly grasping the faucet handle, he managed to gradually twist it until the water finally surged at full force. While waiting for the water to heat, he slowly pulled his soiled T-shirt over his head, the exertion of every movement further straining his battered and bruised muscles, causing a sharp intake of breath, his injured back protesting against the abuse.
As a slight wave of dizziness overtook him, the room began to revolve around him in slow-motion, and his knees weakened, his vision graying. Determined not to give in to the powerful sensation, Johnny braced his hands on the edge of the sink, and leaned his weight heavily on his trembling arms; closing his eyes, slowing his breathing, he dropped his chin to his chest.
By the time he forced his eyelids open again, the room had stopped moving. The steam rising from the shower had filled the small room, fogging the mirror, so that he could no longer see his unshaven, haggard reflection in it. Sighing deeply, he finished peeling off the rest of his clothes, then stepped under the pulsating rush of hot water, and stood there, welcoming the warmth that spilled over his head, and flowed in rivers down his neck and shoulders. The force of the water began to massage away some of the stiffness, and as he felt the tightly-coiled tension that had racked his body begin to unwind, the dizziness returned, stronger than before.
Leaning his throbbing shoulder, pressing his bruised cheek and swollen black eye, against the cool tiles of the shower wall to steady himself, he once again gingerly squeezed his eyes closed, in an attempt to combat the onrushing nausea.
Without warning, the chilling memories of early morning tragedy, which he had successfully managed to suppress since waking up in the hospital, crept into the shower with him, choking his breath and seizing his heartbeat, the savage onslaught sending him slowly spiraling downward into the depths of despair.
Johnny painfully straightened up under the shower again, allowing the water to flow through his hair and down his back... then turned to lean forward again, lifting his face to the spray, water spilling into his open mouth, dripping off his chin, while his mind furiously sought a way to wash away the guilt along with the dirt and grime... sought desperately to wash away the images... images that steadfastly refused to disappear.
He felt himself descending into darkness, and jerked his head away from the spray, seeking escape from the powerful grip of the images, but he had no where to run, as the shower walls continued to close in around him. The mother’s tortured, grief-stricken screams for her lost child filled his head, and haunted his soul.
Johnny battled to maintain his grip on reality, refusing to surrender, forcing the gruesome illusions to finally release their hold on him. An unfathomable fatigue slowly embraced his mind and body, replacing the nightmare with exhaustion so complete, he was barely able to move.
He would not even recall later how he managed to pull himself out of the shower, and stumble his way to his bedroom.
* * * * * * * *
Joanne was clearing the breakfast dishes from the kitchen table, when she paused, listening for the sound again. She hadn’t expected Roy to be awake already -- they had only been home from the hospital for a few hours, and he had been so exhausted, she expected him to sleep all day. She had arranged for Chris and Jennifer to spend the day with the neighbor’s family, so he could sleep, undisturbed, for as long as he needed.
The details of what had happened earlier this morning were still a little sketchy, all she knew about what happened at the fire, she learned from Dixie. Roy had fallen asleep in the car during the ride home, and had been awake only long enough to get into the house and crawl into bed.
Firemen’s wives were fortunately patient women, and Joanne knew they would talk when he was ready.
She thought she heard Roy talking to someone -- perhaps he had called Johnny to see if he was feeling okay. They had left the hospital so quickly this morning, and hadn’t tried to see him, but with Dixie’s assurance that he was sleeping, and that he would be fine.
She tiptoed upstairs, and found Roy sound asleep. Puzzled, she decided she must have just imagined that she had heard him.
* * * * * * * *
It was still daylight when he awoke, according to the clock by his bed, it was 3:00, but he had no idea what day it was. He lay in bed, trying to figure it out. He remembered he had come home early Sunday morning, and had fallen asleep after showering. Johnny vaguely remembered getting up a few times since then, but not much else.
Laying there, gingerly stretching his aching muscles, he was suddenly overcome with desire, a long-denied craving consuming his body.
Coffee. He needed coffee. He needed coffee now. The very thought of it was all it took to haul himself out of bed.
Shit, I MUST be getting old if I wake up in bed, fantasizing about how good it would feel to wrap my hands around a hot, steamy..., he groaned in disbelief..., cup of coffee!
Pulling on a T-shirt and shorts, he headed for the kitchen, making a detour to open the front door and retrieve the newspaper. There were two papers laying there, Sunday’s and Monday’s, so he supposed then that it must be Monday, and quickly doing the math, he figured he had been mostly asleep for the better part of 30 hours. No wonder he needed coffee. He felt a little better about that now... maybe it didn’t have anything to do with age, just a nasty caffeine habit.
He still hurt like hell, but at least his brain was partially functioning again -- a few cups of strong, black coffee would restore the rest of it to working order.
It struck him as funny how long it took to make a pot of coffee when you needed it so badly, as he waited rather impatiently for it to finish.
Finally, Johnny had his coffee, not even taking the time to savor it, as he downed first one cup, then another.
Feeling better, he took his third cup with him into the living room, and sat down on the couch to look over the papers, to see what he had missed out on the last two days. Sunday’s sports section revealed the Dodgers had won on the road on Saturday, and were scheduled for a double-header for Sunday.
He went to check today’s sports page to see how they had fared, before reading the rest of the news, but he never got that far. Staring at him was a photo on the bottom of the front page of a house fire, with three firemen laying on the ground at the bottom of a ladder, accompanied by an article describing the tragic incident that had occurred in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Strangely detached, Johnny read the article as though he was learning about the fire for the first time. It wasn’t until he reached the part about the little girl…her name was Jessica…that he began to feel his stomach twist into knots, and his heart catch in his throat.
He literally jumped when the phone rang, and he had to take a few seconds to quiet his nerves before he answered it. He immediately recognized his captain’s voice.
“John..., did I wake you?” inquired Stanley.
John’s voice sounded a little shaky when he spoke. “No, Cap, I’ve been up for a little while.... Had to have some coffee.... Just looking at the paper....” His voice drifted off.
Stanley knew they had all been through a lot, and was calling each of his crew to see how they were doing. He was most concerned about Johnny and Roy -- besides the injuries and the exhaustion they had suffered, he knew the loss of the child, coupled with the undeserved verbal and physical attack they had endured that night, had left them badly shaken emotionally.
Never one to dance around a subject, though, he tried to question John as diplomatically as he could.
“How are you feeling, John?” There was momentary silence on the other end.
“I’m okay, Cap. Kinda sore still, but I slept pretty good…all in all, I’m doin’ okay. How are you feeling? I seem to remember you got kinda knocked around a bit yourself.”
John really did want to know how his boss was, but he also very much wanted to direct the conversation away from himself.
“Same as you, got a lot sleep and I’m feeling a lot better. Still a little headache, but nothing like it was. I talked to Chet and Marco, and they’re both doing fine. I couldn’t get hold of Roy, though…have you had a chance to talk to him yet?”
Actually, Stanley had talked to Joanne, who had said that Roy was also feeling better, but that he was asleep and she didn’t want to disturb him. Johnny was Hank’s last phone call.
“No, Cap, this is the first I’ve been awake since I got home, and I haven’t called anybody yet. I’ll give him a call a little later. Um...,” there was a pause, and Hank waited for Johnny to continue.
“Uh..., Cap, I saw the article in today’s paper about the fire... it says…it says the little girl’s funeral is tomorrow afternoon. I was thinking about going…you know, to pay my respects. Are you planning to go?”
Now it was John’s turn to hear silence on the other end.
Stanley finally spoke. “I thought about it…but I really don’t think it’s a good idea for any of us, especially not you and Roy, to go -- under the circumstances.”
“But, Cap,” John argued, “it seems like it’s the least we can do. You know, just to let them know how…how sorry we are for their... loss.” His voice trailed off softly, “It just seems like the least we can do.”
“John, I’ve been through this before,” said Stanley a little too forcefully, but he wanted Johnny to listen to his advice, “and I’m not so sure that the family wants to see any of us right now. They’re grieving, and they might see our being there as an intrusion on their privacy.”
This time, there was silence on both ends of the line as each man considered it. Stanley could almost hear the wheels turning in his head over the phone line, when Johnny finally spoke again.
“I don’t know, Cap. I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll talk to Roy, and see what he thinks. I don’t have to decide right now anyway. I’ll give it some more thought.”
Stanley knew Johnny’s heart was in the right place, but after what had happened that night, he really believed it would be better not to go. He wondered if John even remembered the scene with the mother and the neighbors, and hoped Gage would take his advice, and stay away.
“So, it looks like we’ll all be back on duty Thursday?” Johnny was definitely ready to change the subject, and Hank was glad to oblige.
“I guess the three of us…you, me and Roy…are gonna need to check in with Rampart on Wednesday sometime to get released, but it sounds like none of us are going to have to miss any time. All things considered, we’re pretty lucky.”
“Yeah..., lucky. That’s us.” Johnny sounded depressed.
“John, be sure to give Roy a call later -- let him know we talked, and if he needs anything, he can give me a call. I should be home for the most part. You too, John, if you need anything, call me.”
Eyeing his now-cold cup of coffee, Johnny thanked his captain, and hung up. He picked up the paper again, and reread the article.
* * * * * * * *
It was almost dinnertime, and Joanne was getting ready to call Roy and the kids in from the backyard, when the phone rang.
She answered with a cheery hello, and was pleased to hear it was Johnny. She had been worried about him, and Roy hadn’t really said anything to her about their conversation -- anyway she assumed they had spoken yesterday, when she thought she heard Roy talking on the upstairs phone.
“Johnny, how are you? We’re just about to eat dinner, do you want to come over and join us?” she offered, hoping he would come.
Roy hadn’t talked to her yet about what happened at the fire, and she thought maybe he would want to talk to Johnny about it, before he would tell her more. She only knew what Dixie had told her, and what she had read in the paper. The whole story, known only by those who were there, rarely found its way into print anyway.
“No, Jo..., but thanks. I really don’t feel up to going out right now. I’m still pretty tired and sore, and think I’ll just eat something here, and try and get some more sleep. Cap called a while ago.... I guess everyone is doin’ okay. I just wanted to talk to Roy for a minute, but I don’t want to interrupt your dinner.”
Joanne was instantly more than a little concerned. Johnny certainly didn’t sound like his usual self -- his voice sounded tired, and he seemed... well... kind of restrained. That was not a word normally used to describe Johnny Gage, and her feminine intuition told her something was seriously wrong. It struck her as odd, since Roy seemed perfectly fine; her curiosity was piqued, but she refrained from asking any personal questions.
“Well, if you’re sure you can’t come over tonight, maybe tomorrow? Just let me know anytime tomorrow… I’ll go get Roy for you now... he’s out in the backyard, playing with the kids.” She started to put the phone down, when she heard Johnny say something.
“...no, it’s okay. Just have Roy call me a little later, maybe after the kids go to bed. It’s really nothing important. And, Joanne, thanks for the invitation -- I’ll let you know about tomorrow…”
He hung up before she could say anything. The kids came bouncing into the house just then, and she shooed them off to the bathroom to wash their hands, while she finished putting dinner on the table. Roy came in a few minutes later, and washed his hands in the kitchen sink.
He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to him, planting a soft kiss on her lips. “Anything I can do to help?” he asked.
“Hmm..., you can go see what’s taking those kids so long. Dinner’ll be cold if they don’t get in here soon.” She pulled out of his embrace and looked deep into his eyes, looking for a hint of what might be going on inside. If there was anything, he was doing a good job of hiding it from her.
The kids came back in, arguing noisily over some small thing that had transpired during the day, but settling down as soon as they sat down at the table, their hunger winning out over any further disagreement. Not sure how long the truce would last, Roy and Joanne sat down to join them, hoping they would finish the meal in relative peace and quiet.
“Oh, by the way, Roy, Johnny just called.” Joanne told him as she dished up the vegetables onto the kids plates, ignoring how their noses crinkled up. “I invited him over for dinner, but he said he was too tired. So I asked him if he wanted to come tomorrow, and he said he’d let me know.”
“Did he say how he’s feeling?” Roy asked, passing the rolls to Jennifer, reminding her to take only one -- that kid would fill up on bread if they let her, and then complain she was too full to eat her vegetables.
“Actually, no he didn’t, Roy. But he sounded kind of quiet.... I can’t quite put my finger on it, but he didn’t sound like himself. He wanted to know if you’d call him later, said there was something he needed to talk to you about.”
When Roy didn’t answer, she looked at him questioningly. “Roy...?”
“Sure, Jo, I’ll call him after we finish eating. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, he’s probably just tired. We had a pretty rough call the oth....” Roy stopped when he realized everyone was looking at him expectantly. This was not something he was going to talk about, especially not in front of the kids.
“Well, anyway,” he finished, “I’m sure he’s fine. I’ll remind him about your dinner invitation when I call him.” He changed the conversation, and began talking about their plans to go to Disneyland next month, setting off a round of excited chatter as the kids started squabbling over which rides they were going on.
Joanne hoped he would talk to her later, after the kids were in bed. Maybe he would, after he talked to Johnny. She really wanted to know what had happened the other day, sensing that there was much more to the story than she had been told so far.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny had fallen asleep on the couch with the television on, and it was midnight when he woke up. He wasn’t sure if Roy hadn’t called, or he if had somehow slept through the phone ringing. Either way, it was too late to call him again tonight. It could wait until tomorrow morning.
* * * * * * * *
Joanne felt Roy get up out of bed, and heard him leave the room, even though it was obvious he was trying to be quiet and not wake her. He had been very subdued all evening, and had resisted all attempts to get him to talk to her about the fire. When she asked if he had called Johnny, he had mumbled something about not being able to get a hold of him, and that he’d call him again tomorrow.
It was two o’clock in the morning -- Roy had been gone about 30 minutes -- becoming concerned, she decided to get up, too, and see if he was all right. Walking down the hallway, she noticed the glow from the night light in Jennifer’s room peeking from underneath the door. Sure that she had turned it off after Jen had fallen asleep, Joanne cracked the door open to check on her daughter, and was surprised when she saw Roy sitting in the rocking chair across the room, watching Jennifer sleep. He didn’t notice Joanne’s presence, as she stood there, watching him, watching Jennifer.
A small shiver ran down her spine, but she decided not to intrude, backing out of the room and returning to their bed, she hoped he would come back soon.
* * * * * * * *
Johnny woke with a start. He had slept all night, but still felt like hell. His heart was beating a little fast, and he felt a little sweaty…a little shaky... he vaguely called having a dream…there had been a scream…was that what woke him up...? Shaking off the grogginess, he realized that his clock radio had gone off, and it was just the loud music that he must have heard.
His first thought was... God, not again... for coffee. Then, a shower. There was something about the shower that unnerved him a little, though, so he decided a short, cold one would do the trick.
Then, he would call Roy, and see if he would go with him this afternoon.
* * * * * * * *
Thinking maybe his captain had been right after all, John hesitated about going into the small church. No one had really taken notice of him, and now everyone else had already gone in, leaving him standing alone on the sidewalk, debating with himself over his next move. He wished he had listened to Hank, he wished even more that he could have talked to Roy before coming here today. By the time he had called the DeSoto house, Roy had already left to take the kids to school, and Joanne had said that he was going to be out running errands most of the day.
Joanne had picked up on Johnny’s disappointment, but he managed to cut the conversation short, without explaining what he needed, or talking about dinner tonight. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but was beginning to get the feeling that Roy was avoiding him. He just couldn’t understand why.
Remembering what he had told his captain the other day, about being here was the least he could do, he swallowed hard, and went inside. The seats were all taken…there were people crying softly, and others talking in hushed tones. John found a spot to stand at the back of the room, trying hard to blend in with the wall behind him, when everyone turned quiet, as the minister began to speak.
The service was over before he knew it, and he hadn’t heard a single word -- he had instead been reliving the events of that morning that had led to this sad day. Knowing now why he shouldn’t have come, he slipped his sunglasses on over his eyes, and waited for his opportunity to discreetly slip out unnoticed.
He had almost made his escape, when he heard the distraught voice shout out from the small group of people gathered a short distance away.
“You! What are you doing here?” The voice was full of the same anger that had been hurled at him and Roy, and every other firefighter within hearing distance, that terrible morning.
He could feel all the eyes in the room turn in his direction, as Jessica’s mother pointed an accusing finger directly at him. “Get out of here... you have no right to be here!” she screamed at him. “It’s your fault my baby is lying there…it should be you, not her.” She dissolved into tears, and as everyone rushed to comfort her, John stole out of the church before anything else could be said.
All he had wanted to do was to tell them how sorry he was. If he could have traded places with that little girl, he would have gladly done so. It had taken them so long to get into the house... to find her and get the door open... they had just been... too slow, too late.
Confused and overwhelmed with grief, he drove around in circles for a long time, in a daze, finally finding his way home. The phone was ringing when he stepped into his apartment, and he almost didn’t answer it. Thinking it must be Roy, he finally picked it up -- he needed to talk to him, he needed his help more than ever, in dealing with all this.
However, it was an unfamiliar voice, relaying a message that shocked John to his core. The line went dead, and Johnny’s hands were trembling so badly, he dropped the receiver. His world began to spin wildly out of control, and the walls closed in.