Thanks to Janet!
Johnny Gage woke up with a splitting headache. "Damn," he muttered to himself. What did he do last night? He almost closed his eyes to go back to sleep when the roar of the fire and the outside alarms spun heated blood throughout his body. Get up now, his brain screamed at him.
He raised himself and looked for the others. The victims. There were four of them in a heap in the middle of the wooden floor. He had found them on the second floor of the burning building and herded them down the steps like skittish horses in a burning barn. He looked back at the staircase and saw that it was in a pile of blackened and burning debris. Part of it was probably what knocked him flat.
He scrambled over to the first victim and was about to call to Roy on his HT when he heard a groaning noise. Not like a victim in pain noise. The 'oh-damn-I'm-in-a-lot-of-trouble-and-the-floor-is-about-to-give-way' groaning. He had a split second to decide his fate.
Jump for safety or stick with the victims.
He stuck. He flung himself on the nearest victim, a little girl, and held on as the groaning boards gave way and plunged them down a hole that was almost seven foot wide.
Then the lights went out again.
Outside was a controlled pandemonium as it usually was at any fire. The captain yelling, the pinging of hoses and gages, hissing of water, the sirens and lights. But everyone knew where to be and what was going on at all times. Well, except for Roy.
"Hey, Cap? Have you seen Johnny? He was behind me on our way out, but I haven't seen him yet."
Their captain turned at the question and frowned. "I saw you when you came out, Roy. There was no one behind you."
Roy turned to look back at the doorway. "But, I was sure . . . he was right behind me."
The captain laid a hand on Roy's shoulder. "Where did you see him last?"
"We were on the second floor. My tank was low and Johnny said to go and that he'd be behind me. That's the last --"
His sentence was cut off as the three story wood building behind them gave a huge groan and collapsed inward, showering the firemen with sparks.
Roy's eyes went from dazed and confused to panicked and frightened in two seconds flat. Only his captain's hand on his shoulder kept him from running back to the burning, hissing building remains.
"Everyone all right?" called the captain to the working crews. Men from his engine that were dragging the hoses and the Ladder 14 crew that had joined them to help check out the second and third story windows for survivors. "Everyone out?"
Positive answers greeted the question leaving the captain to turn back to Roy. "You're sure he was on the second with you? Did you hear anything? Any victims?"
Roy ran a hand over his face and hair, his helmet in his other hand. "No, no. I would have stayed up there if I'd heard anything. Johnny said go and I went."
"We'll, don't worry, pal. We'll find him."
"I sure hope so," answered Roy. "I should have looked behind me to make sure he was coming. I never should have left."
The captain's grip only tightened on his shoulder.
Johnny woke up the second time with an even bigger headache. But he was a little more orientated and went immediately to the victims. Well, as immediately as crawling over and around a pile of rubble could allow.
His heart dropped at what he found in the rubble that surrounded him.
There were no medications, no supplies and no way out. But he did have his HT.
"Captain, do you read?"
There was static and Johnny fiddled with the antenna, moved to a slightly different location and tried again.
"Gage? Where are you?"
He felt a momentary relief. The captain would help him get out of here.
"I think I'm in the basement. The floor gave way on the first level," he paused and looked over his victims again. "Is Roy there with the biophone?"
"Sure, pal. You need him?"
"Yeah, put him on. I got some victims to report to Rampart."
"Hey, Junior, I thought you were right behind me? You all right?"
Johnny sighed. "I was, Pally. I heard a voice and went back. Sorry." He took in another breath and found his tank was empty. He pulled off his headgear. "I'm fine but I've got four victims down here. Victim 1 looks like a 27 year old female who appears to have been killed on impact with the floor. Victim 2 is a male in his middle thirties, also dead and buried in debris. Victim 3 is an approximately 8 year old female with a compound fracture to her right forearm and a knot the size of an egg on her forehead. Her breath is shallow and fast and probably won't get better without oxygen. Smoke is starting to filter through the debris."
When no more info was incoming, Roy frowned. "Johnny, I thought you said there were four victims?"
The HT came on and there was a slight hesitation. "10-4, four victims. I can not locate fourth victim at this time."
"How's your oxygen?"
There was another hesitation. "It's out, Roy. I just took it off."
The captain took over the radio as Roy called into Rampart with what little information they had. "Hey, pal, you see if you can find that fourth victim and help out that little girl. Call us back if the debris starts to shift or move. We'll try to get to you as soon as we can."
"O.K., Cap. I'll see what I can do down here."
Johnny turned back to the wreck in the basement. He really didn't want to leave the little girl, but he needed to know if the fourth victim was alive. He carefully positioned the unconscious girl, aware of the chances of a spinal injury. Then he pulled off his tank and let it drop. He could make his way through the rubble quicker without it.
It took him almost five minutes to find the fourth victim. The woman was buried under a huge slab of flooring. He tried to reach her for a pulse, but couldn't reach her neck or wrist. When he shifted position, he saw a sight that he never got used to.
Her brain matter was covering the floor.
He keyed his HT. "Roy, I found victim number four. Female, around 42 years of age. Dead by floor collapse. The top of her head is gone."
"10-4, Junior. So that's three Code F's?"
"10-4, Roy. Three Code F's."
"How's your air?"
Johnny looked around to see the tendrils of white smoke that slithered along the ceiling getting lower and lower. "O.K. for now. But I think we'll be sucking smoke pretty soon."
He slowly made his way back to the little girl. She was still in the same position that he had left her in except that her bright blue eyes were now open.
He took off his gloves and laid a hand on her forehead. "No, Sweetheart. My name is Johnny and I'm with the Fire Department. Can you tell me where you hurt?"
The little girl's eyes stayed unfocused. "Daddy?"
Johnny looked back at the dead men. He wondered briefly which one was her father.
"Honey, I need to fix your arm. It's going to hurt some, but it will feel better after I'm done. O.K.?"
The girl hazily turned her head toward his voice. "O.K., Daddy."
He winced when she called him daddy. Obviously she was disoriented with a possible concussion. The huge bump on her head would indicate that. "Honey, I need you to keep your head as still as possible, all right? Be still as a little mouse."
"All right, Daddy."
Using his tightly rolled gloves he carefully placed one on each side of her right forearm. He took off his belt and cinched the arm to her ribs. He put a finger under the belt to make sure it wasn't so tight as to cut off her breathing. He didn't even attempt to correct the fracture, afraid he might do more damage than good. He'd leave that to the doctors at Rampart.
He was beginning to get concerned. She had only whimpered slightly when he had touched her arm. That was a procedure that would have made most grown men scream out loud without Morphine.
"HT 51 to Squad 51."
"Victim 3, the 8 year old female, is showing signs of concussion with disorientation. There is no indication of blood or fluid in her ears or nose at this time."
"10-4, HT 51."
"Daddy, are you there? I can't see you too good. Are we at home?"
He placed his hand back on her forehead to keep it still. "You're going to be fine, Honey. We've got people coming to help us soon."
She rolled her eyes as if to see her surroundings. "Daddy, where are we?"
"We're in the basement. We had a little accident. But you're going to be O.K."
He shifted closer to her and into her line of sight. "Can you see me?" He waived his free hand in front of her eyes.
"Not too good. Is it dark in here?"
His heart did a little flip and he took his hand from her forehead. Was it from the blow or swelling of the brain? Maybe a bleeder in her head? He shuddered. He had no supplies with him, nothing to treat her injuries with.
"Yes, Honey, it's dark in here. But it's all right. I'm here with you."
Her body suddenly shivered and her teeth chattered loud enough for Johnny to hear it. "Are you cold?"
"Yes, Daddy. Why is it so cold in the basement? It's not cold in the basement when we come down."
He immediately took off his turn-out coat and covered her with it. "You can use my coat, Sweetheart. Is that better?"
She tried to do as he had asked and stay as still as she could. "Yes," she said lowly.
"Does your head hurt, Honey?"
"Do you hurt anywhere else?"
She rolled her eyes again. "My arm . . . ," she tried to look down in its direction. "I think . . . that it hurts a little."
She looked like she was trying to concentrate. "I don't know, I feel kind of prickly." Her face lit up suddenly. "You know, like when I went to the dentist and he gave me that shot and I couldn't feel my lips and they were all tingly."
His heart flipped again. Paralysis? Shock or trauma to her spinal cord? He suddenly felt like the debris was closing in on him, cutting off his air.
"Honey, I need to go to the stairs for a moment. But I'll be right back. You just stay still, OK?"
"OK, Daddy. But hurry, I don't like the dark."
He moved out of her hearing distance and keyed his HT again. "Roy?"
"Yeah, Junior, what's going on?"
"Victim number 3 is complaining of decreased vision and a tingling numbness in her body. Possible paralysis or shock/trauma to her spinal cord. She's also going into shock. I'm going to need a back board when you get to us along with the drug box. She's going to need an I.V. Has Rampart given permission for an I.V. yet?"
"Yeah, we'll do it as soon as we get down there. Is she still disorientated?"
"Yes, she thinks I'm her father and that we're at home in the basement."
"Hang on, Junior. We're digging you out as fast as we can."
He stumbled back to the girl and sat down heavily beside her.
Then he suddenly realized that he didn't know her name.
"Sweetheart, what's your name?"
She suddenly giggled and it surprised him. "Daddy, you know my name!"
"Well, just humor your old man. His memory isn't as good as it used to be. What's your name?"
The girl considered that and giggled again. "It's Kirsten, Daddy. Kirsten O'Reily." She giggled again.
He smiled despite their current situation. "Yes, of course. It's Kirsten."
"Daddy, you said we had an accident. Is this going to keep me out of Mrs. Morris' play on Monday? I really want to be in it. It took me forever to learn my lines as the head angel. Do you think I'll be ready to be the angel by then, Daddy?"
He felt a lump come into his throat. "Yes, Honey. You can be an angel soon."
She went on chattering about the play and her teacher, Mrs. Morris. And as she chattered he continually checked her vitals and noticed that her abdomen was starting to get rigid.
She was bleeding from somewhere on the inside of her abdomen. The rigid abdomen along with the possible concussion and spinal trauma was not a good combination. Add shock into the mix and you had a very deadly situation.
Her chatter suddenly stopped and she whimpered slightly, her eyes rolling to the tops of their sockets. "Daddy, I don't feel so good. Can you hold my hand? That always makes me feel better."
He took up her left hand in his right. "I can do that, Sweetheart. Is that better?"
Her face darkened. "Yes, Daddy, but I can hardly feel your hand. Can you hold it tighter?"
He complied and they stayed silent for a few moments. It gave Johnny time to think and he shivered at what his mind conjured up for this very sick little girl's future.
She was slowly dying right in front of his eyes and he had no equipment.
Roy, get us the hell out of here. Don't make me watch her die!
"So what angel are you going to play in Mrs. Morris' play?" he suddenly asked as he eyed the swirling smoke.
She smiled. "The lead angel. The Angel of Hope. Susie wanted to be the lead, but Mrs. Morris said she would be better as the Angel of Forgiveness. She wasn't too happy."
"The Angel of Hope?"
"Yeah, I get to come out and tell all the other angels how that you can't have Love, Faith, Determination or Forgiveness without Hope." She smiled again. "I had to learn a lot of big words. Took me forever."
"Yeah, Hope is pretty important."
She grinned proudly. "My teacher says that it's what keeps us going to the future. She said we can all be what we want to be if we have Hope. Oh, and a little Determination, Love, Forgiveness and Faith."
As he held Kirsten's hand, he realized that it was getting colder and her complexion was getting pale. He rubbed it with his own hand to try to warm it up. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
She considered the question. "Well, you're an accountant. But you say I can be what I want, so I think I'll be a nurse. Maybe in some big hospital." She furrowed her brow and turned her unfocused eyes on him. "They need Hope there, don't they?"
"Yes, Honey, they really do need a lot of Hope in a hospital."
His eyes started to sting and he tried to blame it on the descending smoke. Kirsten's skin had gone paper white and he could clearly see her blue and purple veins under her skin. He wouldn't have time to lose her to the encroaching paralysis. The possible bleeding in the brain or the bleeding in her rigid abdomen would kill her first.
He gripped her hand a little tighter.
"You would be a great nurse, Kirsten. I know a nurse by the name of Dixie at Rampart Hospital. She'll take you on in a minute when you're old enough."
Her face lit up again. "Really, you know a nurse? Can I really be a nurse?"
"Yes. Do you like to help people?"
"Oh, yeah. I sometimes go by Nurse Curtis' office at school and help her. Mrs. Morris says that it broadens my . . . my, uh-"
"Oh, yeah. It broadens my horizons. I like helping out. Timmy came in the other day with a scraped knee and I held his hand while she put on the stingy stuff. He cried, but he's only five years old. I guess he could cry even if he was a boy." She squinted her eyes. "Daddy, do you ever cry?"
He placed his free hand on her forehead again and brushed back her blond hair. "Yes, Angel. I cry."
"Oh, I didn't think that Daddies could cry. Grandma said that you had to be strong after Mommy died. I didn't see you cry at her funeral, Daddy. But I cried a lot. Grandma said I could since I was little. She said leave the being strong to the adults."
"That's right, Honey. You leave the being strong to the adults for right now. But, you can cry all you want, even when you're older. It doesn't mean that you're not strong if you cry."
"Really? Even you, Daddy? Can you cry and still be strong?"
He felt like crying right now. That was one thing that he was certain of. "Yes, Kirsten. I can cry and still be strong." He rubbed her hand again. "And you know why? Because you're my Angel of Hope. I couldn't get through without Hope."
She smiled again. "I really like being the Angel of Hope. I hope I don't miss the play."
Her eyes suddenly turned down. "Daddy, my arm doesn't hurt anymore. Does that mean that I'm better now?"
The paralysis was getting worse. Please, God, don't make me watch her die!
"Yes, Honey. You'll be fine. There's nothing to be afraid of. I'm right here with you."
He gripped her hand like a lifeline, even though she probably could no longer feel the contact. He was almost willing her to live. "What's your lines in the play? Can you remember them?"
She was starting to gasp slightly when she drew in her breaths due to the smoke and the paralysis seizing up her lungs. "Oh, yes. I can remember them. You want to hear?"
"Yes, Sweetheart, tell me your lines in the play."
She began at the beginning and went through all of her lines as the Angel of Hope in Mrs. Morris' play. Every line hit him in the heart. When she was done, her gasping was louder and she seemed to have trouble breathing.
"Daddy? I don't feel so good. I can't breathe."
He could hear the first signs of panic in her voice.
"Don't worry. I'm here with you. Just close your eyes and think about your Grandma watching you at the play and how good you're going to be. Can you see it?"
"Yes," she gasped.
"We're both going to be there to watch you come out in your wings and robes and you'll be the prettiest angel there."
She gasped again. "Oh, Daddy, you always say I'm the prettiest."
"It's true. Really for true. You'll be the best angel. The very best." God he was losing it and she didn't have much longer.
Roy, where the hell are you? I can't do this alone.
He picked up his HT and didn't care if she was in hearing distance. There was no time. "Roy, where the hell are you guys? I need immediate transport!"
"We've hit a section of debris. It's a big pile, Junior. It'll take time to move out of the way," came back Roy's strained voice. "Anything else to report on the victim?"
Johnny was suddenly sick at the thought of calling her a victim. "Kirsten is getting worse. I don't know how much longer she can hold on. Her abdomen is rigid and I think she has a bleeder somewhere. Her numbness has progressed to--" His voice cracked on the end and he threw down the HT in anger and frustration without finishing his sentence.
He was here and she was here. Nothing else. Roy had confirmed it. There would be no rescue for the Angel of Hope.
He damned everything he had ever been taught as a paramedic about not moving a possible spinal injury victim. She was dying.
"Angel, can I hold you? You look cold."
She smiled through her gasping. "Yes . . . Daddy. Please hold . . . me."
He pulled her carefully into his lap keeping his coat wrapped around her and placed her head on his chest. Her left arm was resting limply in her lap; her right still strapped to her chest. "Is that good, Honey?"
She sighed. "I . . . always like it . . . when you hold me, Daddy. Grandma . . . says I'm getting too old to . . . sit in your lap."
"No, Honey. You'll never be too old to sit in my lap. Never be too old to cry when you're hurt or lose someone you love."
He rested his chin on her head and held on for dear life. The smoke was billowing around them and they both gasped it into their lungs.
"Daddy, I love you."
He was startled for a moment and then decided to do what his heart told him to do.
"I love you, too, Sweetheart."
They were quiet for a while and he heard her gasping grow worse. She was bellowing her lungs trying to draw in her life sustaining oxygen. He could feel her body tremble against him as her lungs shook her body. Her body was slowly shutting down from the shock and her injuries.
His lungs were burning as well and he tried to pull them lower to the floor to buy a little time.
"Mrs. Morris says . . . you should never lose Hope. Is that . . . right, Daddy?"
He couldn't help himself. All his training for detachment had fled. Tears tracked down his sooty face leaving gray paths behind. "Yes, Honey. Never lose Hope. You can't, remember? You're the Angel of Hope."
He could almost feel her smile in the smoky room. "That's right. I am the Angel of Hope. And then . . . I'll be a nurse like your friend at the hospital. And I can . . . keep you and Grandma . . . safe from what made Mommy . . . go to heaven."
He smiled back through his tears even though she couldn't see him. "That's right. You'll be the best help in the whole world. You'll always be there to keep a watch over us."
She gasped again. Then he heard a rattle deep in her chest and her eyes widened and then glazed over.
He shook her slightly and briefly considered CPR. He felt her neck for her pulse, but it was gone. He laid a hand on her abdomen and tried to feel for breath. There was none.
He laid her down flat and tried to do CPR on her. He breathed for her until he was light-headed and compressed her chest for what seemed like forever.
In the end, there was nothing. No response.
She was gone.
He coughed deeply from the smoke and from the exertion of the CPR. Johnny picked her back up and held her again. "Didn't I say you'd be an angel soon? I'll be sure that your Grandma and your teacher know how much you loved them. Oh, and the nurse too. You'd have made a great nurse. I could see the calling in your eyes. You would have helped anyone who needed it. I hope you find your Mommy and Daddy where you are now and help watch over your Grandma. And maybe even look in on Dixie at the hospital if you have time. I'm sure Dixie would like that."
He was rocking her slack body back and forth, his tears still tracking his face with lighter streaks. His breaths were coming in racking coughs and black tinged mucus was running from his nose. He didn't notice even notice.
She was so young and she was gone. And all he had done was watch.
That's how Roy and the others found him moments later when they finally broke through to the smoky basement.
"Hey, Junior, are you O.K.?" asked Roy as he knelt by Johnny and the girl on the rocky floor. He placed the oxygen and backboard on the debris as he took in the scene. He could tell it was too late for the little girl.
Johnny looked up, his face a mask of anguish. "I watched her die, Roy. I couldn't do anything. I didn't have anything here."
Roy reached out a hand and placed it on his partner's arm as comfort. "Come on, we need to get you out of here. We'll send someone else down for body retrieval." He tried to pull Johnny to his feet, away from the body. He knew how bad it could be to lose a victim in a situation like this and helpless to help. And Johnny had been too long without clean oxygen in his lungs and had blood on his forehead.
Johnny shook his head quickly and brushed him off. "No, she goes up with me."
Everyone was silent as Johnny emerged from the building carrying the limp 8 year old blond girl. He gently laid her on the ground in his turn-out coat and placed a hand over her heart. "I'm so sorry, Angel. I'm sorry I couldn't get you to your play on Monday." He leaned over and placed a kiss on her forehead. "No matter what, you'll always be my Angel of Hope. I won't forget to tell them for you."
Watching the coroner take the body away from the site was like having a knife placed in his heart. He got up from the ground and swayed from pure exhaustion and lack of oxygen. He was both mentally and physically drained.
"Johnny, I think you need to go to the hospital," said Roy quietly.
Johnny turned to him with clouded eyes. "Why?"
Roy gently took him by his right arm and pulled him to the waiting ambulance. "You're bleeding from your forehead and you breathed in a lot of smoke. You need to let them check you out at Rampart, partner."
Johnny wasn't thinking. He let Roy take over that duty for him and he felt an oxygen mask being placed over his face. His forehead stung as Roy cleaned it lightly and placed a bandage over the small cut.
He didn't pay attention as he was placed on the gurney and Roy tried to administer the usual verbal tests for a concussion as the ambulance raced to Rampart. The oxygen mask stayed firmly in place and his eyes blankly stared at the metal ceiling. Roy finally gave up and started treating him for shock.
His body was in the ambulance with Roy, but his heart was still in a smoky basement with a little blond girl telling him about her play on Monday.
When he was finally released from Rampart after his recovery, he stopped by to see Dixie who was working on her endless paperwork.
"Well, hey, Johnny. Are you feeling better today?"
He closed his eyes briefly. Just looking at her uniform was a reminder of Kirsten and her hope to be a nurse someday.
"Yes, I just wanted you to know I put in a good word for you with a very special person. And I told her to check in on you from time to time. I think you'll be in good hands."
And without any explanation, he turned and walked out of Rampart leaving a very puzzled nurse behind him.
During the next few days, he tracked down Kirsten's Grandma, teacher and nurse friend. He explained a few things to them. He made it very clear that they were on her mind when she peacefully passed and how important each of them had been to her.
He was invited to the funeral and he cried during the service.
Yeah, Kirsten, you can cry and still be strong.
He went back three months later to lay some Baby's Breath on her grave when he saw that she now had a headstone.
He silently read it and smiled through his tears at the words near the bottom of the white marble.
'Our Little Angel of Hope
That Watches Over Us All'
He nodded silently and then looked up at the clear blue sky. "I hope you're looking down right now, Angel."
He left the cemetery and drove back home. His shift was tomorrow and he needed to get some sleep.
It was a peaceful sleep as nearby to Johnny there was a girlish giggle and the flutter of wings as a certain paramedic was watched over by a pair of playful bright blue eyes.