Preparing for a meal before a search for their missing man, the men of station fifty-one's A shift gathered at the Desoto's for food sent over by Mama Lopez. When Chet sat down at the wooden kitchen table, Jenny looked deeply into his eyes.
"Daddy said you have bags under your eyes, Mr. Chet but Cap said you have a full set of luggage."
"Yeah, well that's good, cutie pie 'cause when we find Johnny we're gonna have a huge vacation and I'm going to need those bags." Chet tickled Jenny until she too gave a small, sad smile.
The truth was, no one had slept well for days. Between Mama Lopez, Joanne and Cap's wife Emily though, everyone was forced into rest breaks. Strength needed to be kept up for the gruelling searches. The worst part was that tomorrow John's shift mates were expected at work.
"Roy, I've called in Brice to cover for Johnny, do you want me to have Dwyer cover for you?" asked Cap.
"Ah, I need a moment to think about that, Cap," Roy stated. It would be unpaid leave that he couldn't afford but it didn't feel right for the world to be ready to continue as if nothing happened, as if the world hadn't swallowed his best friend and refused to cough him up.
"Look, Roy, we could share your duties at the station allowing you to sleep when you're not on a call and when your shift is over and if you've been able to get any rest, you could join the search on your off time, " Mike Stoker stated.
"Yeah, we're all going to be on search teams when we're not on duty," vowed Marco.
The offers and sentiments spoke volumes about the family that the A shift had become. Johnny was their brother. They would find him, one way or the other and deal with the results when it happened. Roy took them up on their offer.
As Joanne cut up the coffee cake with Emily Stanley in the kitchen she showed the older woman the picture of Johnny that would appear on the posters.
"He looks so young in this picture," Mrs Stanley mused.
Joanne cleared her throat, finding it hard not to blurt out that Johnny was only twenty-one years old. Heck, Joanne's own brother was twenty one years old and was still in school studying to be an architect and lived at home with their parents, not knowing how to cook for himself or anything and here was Johnny fending for himself for years and out there alone. It sure explained why Johnny still loved Saturday morning cartoons with Chris and Jen and the way he annoyed Roy just enough to keep him on his toes.
"He does. Marco's sisters and Mike's wife are coming over shortly to help hang pictures around town and shops along the way up on the canyon."
"That's great. The ladies in my bridge club that Johnny and Roy taught first aid are going to organize a bake sale to help pay for the printer's bills and canteen supplies for searchers now that L.A. county has officially scaled back the search. Why old Martha Blacklock wanted to go up and search for that boy herself when she heard he was missing."
This brought a smile to Joanne's face. Martha Blacklock was eighty-five years old.
"It's no secret that Johnny and Roy are favourites among the ladies. In fact, when Dwyer and Brice showed up once to speak about fire safety in the home they were nearly booed," Mrs Stanley revealed.
"Roy says Johnny always hates those demonstrations. Says it takes him a month to get the lipstick off his collar from always being the resuscitation dummy."
The ladies of the bridge club showed up to pick up photos of John and have a meeting about their plans. Over coffee and cake they mapped out territories and shared stories of the many grand daughters that the women tried to set Johnny up with, the way he could eat so many of their home baked goods and still stay rail thin and what a fine boy he was. It was all too much like a wake to Roy and he was glad when the well-meaning ladies left to do their important work.
Brett sat in Nina and Andy's living room watching the late movie. Nina joked that they'd owe Brett a week in the Caribbean for his extra hours but Brett hated to admit the young man was growing on him and he wanted to be here to help him. He hadn't intended on staying all night but Nina was worried about the young man in their care, as there had been little change in his memory or condition in three days.
A glance at the clock told him it was time to wake his young charge for a check up. He was purposely fairly loud upon entering the darkened room to see if the kid would wake up on his own. He didn't. Brett turned the light on, noting that the patient didn't so much as flinch. He stood in the doorway watching the rise and fall of his chest that was slightly strained and hitched at times.
"Chet? Time to wake up, buddy. Need to check you out," Brett called while gently touching the boy's shoulder.
John woke but his eyelids were too heavy to open so he lay there listening instead, frantically thinking.
Where am I? Chet? Chet … The name rang a bell.
"Cap, you got the wrong bunk … I'm so tired, can someone else clean the latrine?"
The words puzzled Brett but his job was to wake the boy and check his responses so he tried again with a bit more volume and authority.
"Chet Stoker, open your eyes for me."
Gage opened his eyes, squinting at the light, gasping in fear and trying to sit up, forgetting momentarily that it wasn't a good idea. Brett wanted to ask who Cap was but Dr. Bridgewater warned everyone to let memories come as they did with no pressure.
"Easy kid, I just need you awake, you don't have to get up and salute," Brett said, a small smile on his face, gently pushing him back down.
Gage's eyes darted around the room. Something definitely wasn't right, but though he tried to figure out what that something was, he failed. He raked his hand over his face as if trying to scrub away the fog in his brain, ignoring the flare of pain in his collarbones. He remembered Brett.
Brett joked about cold stethoscopes as he placed the instrument on Gage's chest, feeling the young man flinch and knowing it wasn't just the shock of the cold. Damn it, definite rattle starting in his left lung. Of course there was no way for Brett to know of Gage's propensity for getting pneumonia from chest injuries.
"Okay, Chet, follow my penlight with your eyes without turning your head, okay?"
Gage bit back a scream as the light bypassed his retinas straight into his head. He did as best as he could to follow the light, blinking rapidly as his eyes watered.
"Y … yes."
Brett took notes in a small notebook. He noted dilated pupils, low blood pressure and possible fluid on his left lung, along with some other numbers, all of which Gage understood very well.
"Hold this under your tongue," instructed Brett as he shook a thermometer and placed it in the young man's mouth.
"N g'ting pneumonia, right?" Gage slurred from the sides of his mouth.
"Yeah, I'm afraid so, kid, but in the morning Doc will probably prescribe some antibiotics for you to stave it off if he can. Now, quit talking so I can get a reading."
The warning was friendly and put Gage at ease. It sounded familiar somehow and again a pair of reassuring blue eyes came to his mind.
"102.4. Too high." A hand was applied to Gage's forehead. "I'm going to give you something for the fever. It'll also help with the pain. Doc said you could have some pain relievers if you passed the neuro check and you did. Still have a concussion but you woke and oriented yourself which is saying something."
Gage's eyes slipped closed again but a soft voice called to him.
"Hey, Chet, you have to stay awake long enough to take your meds, pal."
The water felt good on his fiery throat but the pills really wanted to take up permanent residency somewhere near his tonsils. After he finally swallowed, Brett shined the light into his mouth instructing him to say ahhh. Brett shook his head and made another notation in his little book.
"Go back to sleep. It's the best thing for you right now." Brett slipped from the room shutting off the light. He decided not to go sleep tonight in light of the fever his patient developed.
In the morning, stiffness took up residence in every part of John's body. After forcing down a little bit of oatmeal at the insistence of Brett to line his stomach for his meds, Andy helped Gage to the car for his appointment with Doctor Bridgewater.
"Chet Stoker, the doctor will see you now," a pretty young nurse called.
Gage looked up long enough to notice the pretty nurse but didn't budge.
"Chet, they called you, dear." Nina nudged him gently.
"Oh!" Damn, why did I give them that name?
Nina really looked like she wanted to come into the exam room with him but she restrained herself. After all, he wasn't her son, and he was a full-grown man … maybe.
The sway on the way to the exam room didn't go unnoticed by Doctor Bridgewater.
"Doc, here's Brett's notes from last night. He examined Chet every hour."
"Thanks, Nina. I'll let you know how our mystery man is holding up soon."
Gage was tall enough to shuffle onto the exam table. A nurse helped him take his borrowed shirt off noticing how he wrapped his arms protectively around himself as well as he could with his injured collarbones.
"Cold? I could get you a gown?"
Gage didn't know what was worse, sitting here half naked now that he was wide awake and could appreciate the awkwardness of that or enduring one of those backless wonders that were pretty much made of paper anyway and didn't provide any warmth at all.
Doctor Bridgewater had seen worse injuries in the course of his career, but only in inpatients. His patient's torso was mottled in blues and greens with angry red wounds in the middle of the bruises where the rocks had smashed into him on the cliff. Bridgewater was glad he was retiring soon. Decisions like the one to let this very injured young man leave the hospital were better left to the young doctors coming in, he felt. Regret had plagued the old Doc for nights and after taking Gage's temperature it rooted itself firmly.
The old Doc sighed.
"Chet, you should be in a hospital on IV fluids and complete bed rest."
"M' fine, Gage murmured." Chet … Chet. I know that name! Who is he?
But he wasn't. Pneumonia was a real threat at this point.
Gage tried to stifle a cough and sit up straighter, causing him to gasp in agony but he remained firm in his oath to leave should they try to call a transport ambulance to a hospital.
Bridgwater noted that at least the concussion was subsiding, the knot on Gage's head was somewhat smaller and he was able to focus on the fingers that waved back and forth before his face but the doctor was still troubled by the slow, uncertain answers given by his young patient when asked about the date and his age.
John flinched when Bridgewater gently pried the lid of his eye down to have a peak inside. The bruising on his cheek and around his left eye socket was still very tender.
"Is-is it still there?" Gage asked sarcastically.
"No, my brain. Feels like part of it fell out."
"Let me check over here," Bridgewater said chuckling lightly and moving on to check Gage's ear.
Bridgewater tugged John's earlobe resulting in the same kind of pain that he felt in his cheekbones. John was definitely not impressed with the poking and prodding but he knew what was next by heart and it scared him somehow.
Bridgewater looked in his nose and down his throat and pressed here and there along his ribcage and abdomen.
"When did you have your spleen removed?"
John unconsciously looked down to see the fine scar. He had no memory of this but just looking at it caused a spike of pain in his shoulders and surgical spot and even his leg. He hid his reaction as well as he could but the old doctor didn't miss it.
Bridgewater stepped from the room, leaving his nurse to finish helping Johnny get ready to leave.
"Nina, Andy, how are you holding up with your new guest?"
"Hiring Brett to stay the night didn't help Nina sleep," Andy teased. Nina got up six times to check on the young man."
"Did not!" Nina playfully slapped Andy on the shoulder. I ah, had to … Besides, Andy, if you knew I was up, that means you were up too."
Andy didn't bother to deny that something about the boy had grabbed him and made him care.
"Yeah, well, I figured Brett might need a hand or something," he said sheepishly.
Gage was quiet on the way back to the ranch. His head was killing him despite the strong pain medication and the confusion swimming around in his brain was almost unbearable. Something was coming back to him but not knowing what it was only produced more fuzzy thoughts and made him tired. He'd known since yesterday that something wasn't right, that a chunk of his memory was missing but how much or how long he wasn't sure. Finding out the real date today didn't help matters. He couldn't account for four years and the math it took to figure out that he was twenty-one years old somehow relieved and scared him at the same time. He wouldn't have to run anymore. But all he had to account for the last four years was borrowed clothes and no idea where he belonged.
Gage knew he'd have to tell his rescuers his real name soon. With that came the realization that according to the doctor he'd been injured three days ago. Three days and as far as he knew, no one was looking for him. Fear took hold of him as he tried to overcome the hopelessness this brought into focus. Was he still a drifter, no one looking for him? Well, he was found wandering around a highway, wounded, alone … still alone.
John decided to spend one more night with Nina and Andy, not that he had a choice with how tired and sore he was but he didn't want to intrude any more than he had to.
After a restless sleep in the afternoon, Nina sat by her sick houseguest while he slowly and reluctantly ate some soup. When he put the spoon down with a wince at the pinch at his collarbones she checked the time and gave him some more medicine and a wide-eyed Gage found himself sipping broth from a spoon held by Nina. Pink shaded his cheeks, standing out vividly against the pallor but he accepted the spoonfuls until the broth was gone. His eyes drooped and warm blankets fell across his body up to his shoulders and a hand brushed against his forehead before the door closed lightly and sleep claimed him.
He walked tall down a corridor, a sheaf of papers in hands that tried not to show nervousness. He wore a uniform that felt ten times too big as he clunked into a room where a faceless man sat, waiting to interview him.
What do you feel you have to offer the citizens of L.A. If you are accepted into 110?
He composed himself, willing his mouth to refrain from stuttering. What did he, John Gage, nobody, have to offer? Why did this have to be the first question the guy would ask? He took a deep breath to answer …
"Chet, hey man, wake up. My mom made supper and she really wants you eat."
Gage cracked his eyes open. At least this time he had the good sense not to be confused by being called Chet.
"Oh, George, right?"
"Yeah, that's really good, you remembered."
Gage looked toward the window. It was dark.
"Mom wants you to come to the living room to eat. Doc says you should get up and move around just a bit to help clear your lungs and keep your circulation up."
George looped his arms around Gage's shoulders and helped him to the living room.
"Thanks," Gage said, ashamed of his weakness.
"Not a problem." George disappeared into the kitchen returning with a plate full of chicken and vegetables already cut into small pieces. The family soon emerged from the kitchen with their own plates. Brett and his wife were also there.
"Chet, this is my wife, Stephanie," Brett said as Stephanie nodded toward the young man propped up on pillows on the couch.
A pitcher of ice tea and one of milk were poured. Flashes of imagery in his mind had Gage not paying any attention when he was asked what he wanted to drink.
A large, open room with a wooden table with several chairs around it, table set but abandoned with still-clean dishes on it. A dog dozed on a couch off to the left. Echoes of happy banter filled his ears with conversation that he couldn't quite make out. He was comfortable with the memory if that was what this was.
His glass filled with milk. Nina figured it would be good for the young man's bones so she didn't try to give him the option of iced tea or milk when he failed to answer the first time.
George sat next to John and placed a long straw into his milk.
"There, now you won't have to try to pick it up with those bandaged hands."
Gage was relieved and embarrassed to find a tablespoon on his plate. There was no way he'd be able to stab the food with a fork to get it to his mouth right now. He wasn't very hungry but he wanted to stop the look of concern on Nina's face every time she peaked at him when she thought he wasn't looking. He ate all of the vegetables and a quarter of his chicken. The conversation centred mainly on the grape harvest and the plans that Brett and Stephanie made for the upcoming weekend away.
"Are you sure that you can handle three kids for an entire weekend?" Stephanie asked Nina.
"Oh it'll be great to have little ones in the house again," Nina smiled.
"George, I saw Lucy at the Co-op. She said you two had a great time at the barn dance."
George blushed and ducked his head so Andy saved him by changing the subject yet again.
"So, do you follow any sports, Chet?" Ah, sports, always a good bet, that or the weather and the weather wouldn't do.
Gage thought about it for a second. "No, sir." He looked at his hands willing himself not to fidget. He tried to look Andy in the eyes. There was an air of authority in the man.
Andy talked about baseball and the three other men in the room had a very animated conversation about statistics and trades. Gage enjoyed the banter. It was familiar, comforting even.
Soon Gage found himself being led to the guest bedroom. He didn't know when he'd fallen asleep. Brett stood over him, taking his vials.
"One for the road, humor an old medic," Brett smiled. Gage obediently held the thermometer under his tongue.
Hm, temp's still a bit too high, but better Brett mumbled to himself. He let himself quietly out of the room as the young man fell asleep.
"He's resting comfortably enough tonight. I'll check on him in the morning when I drop the kids off. Be sure to wake him in four hours for his antibiotics and get him to drink something even if he doesn't want to otherwise Doc'll have no choice but to get him admitted to a hospital."
"Thanks, Brett. We'll take good care of him. I just wish I knew where he's from. I really wanted to call the hospitals and police to report Chet Stoker was here in case his family was looking for him but he seems so scared and something tells me he'd bolt and end up worse than if he was with them," Nina said.
"Supposing he even has a family," Andy told her. "We can come up with a thousand scenarios for the young man in there but until he remembers and if he wants us to know, we just won't know what his story is."
"I guess you're right," Nina said, picking up empty plates and mugs as her guests prepared to leave to start packing for their weekend away.
Saturday dawned clear and bright. Roy hadn't slept and lay quietly beside Joanne looking toward the window. Right about now if all was right in the world, his partner would be camping up in the mountains and would come back on shift on Monday raving about the views and fresh air and trying to recruit Roy and the others to join him next time.
Or he'd be closing the sale on his ranch, thought Roy sadly. Roy got up and went downstairs to start coffee. As he passed Chris' room he noticed that Jenny had crawled in with her brother sometime during the night. She did that when she was worried about something or it was storming. He paused for a minute before heading to the kitchen.
Cap and the guys would be coming to pick him up in an hour to resume the search. Police could say what they wanted, as far as the men of fifty-one were concerned this was still an active rescue search. They didn't know Johnny like his shift mates did. Despite all the teasing and the antics of John Gage, he was a level-headed paramedic and a great friend.
Joanne padded into the kitchen yawning. Sleep had been broken for her too.
"Well this is a nice surprise," she said as Roy handed her a cup of coffee.
"You're welcome, but you should have slept for another hour at least."
"Can't, we're going to expand the poster campaign today. We're going outside of L.A. County. The lady's group covered Carson and L.A. yesterday."
"You're amazing," Roy said quietly.
"We'll find him, Roy."
"Yeah … of course."
Chris and Jen got up just before Roy headed out the door with the guys.
"Dad, tell Uncle Johnny hi for me when you find him, okay?"
That hurt. Roy turned to his daughter, putting on the best smile he could muster from the depths of waning hope in his stomach.
"You know I will, princess."
Roy hoped to talk to Cap alone sometime today but Chet and Marco rode along with them. He wasn't sure how he was going to tell Cap about Johnny's real age if it came to that. He tried hard not to let it get to him that John never said a word about his past or his age to him in the time they'd been partners. John wanted him to be a part of his life, that much was obvious or he wouldn't have asked him to come look at the ranch with him. Roy guessed if he had a secret as big as John's it would be hard to find a way to tell it too and the consequences enormous.
"John's picture appeared on the local late news last night," commented Cap.
"Yeah, they're going to show it every broadcast," Roy replied."
"I heard it went national," Marco said. "My sister out in Montana said she saw it this morning on their news too.
"Oh no," Roy said accidentally out loud which seemed to puzzle the other men who looked at him strangely.
"Care to share with the class?" Chet asked in his oh-so-annoying way.
Roy took in a deep breath. It would only be a matter of time before someone from the reservation John grew up on in Montana to see his picture and hear the age given with said picture and no doubt alert the media that John was in fact only twenty one, not twenty five like all the newscasts were saying. It was now or never. John's friends deserved to know first.
When the car pulled over the four men sat silently for a minute staring at the spot where John's shirt was found three days ago. The area had been searched many times over but the men knew that finding someone in that kind of brush could require several sweeps and each fought off the fears that John was dead already.
"We'll find him, Roy," Chet said, putting his hand on the paramedic's shoulder echoing what Roy himself had said to his own son only an hour ago. Chet wasn't mistaken that it was on his mind but he shoved that down and stopped the guys from going off for a minute.
"Cap, uh, I need to talk to you all." Roy relied on Cap to silently call for attention. When Mike pulled up he seemed to know instinctively that something important was about to be revealed.
Roy pulled a picture of John out of his pocket hoping that it would say a thousand words and he could cut down on his explanation. The guys passed the picture around unable to stop the momentary happy banter and light teasing of how young John looked in it and how little he'd changed since high school.
Roy accepted the picture back and looked down at it trying not to feel guilty about what he was about to do, trying to find permission for betrayal of a secret that could cost John his job. Roy considered cancelling his announcement and taking Cap aside to tell him first but deep down he knew that by tonight the story of the underage paramedic would make national news and everyone had to be ready.
"When I was going through John's things looking for a picture of him out of uniform, I found this," Roy explained holding up the picture again. "But I also found something else."
A fierce protectiveness came over Roy and he wanted to warn the men, especially Chet from making any disparaging remarks about John once the secret was revealed.
"Johnny faked his I.D. to enter the L.A. County Fire Department four years ago. He was seventeen years old when he became a boot over at 110's and nineteen when we joined fifty-one together. I didn't know."
Roy's eyes came up in challenge but the stunned men said nothing so he went on. "He had a hard life. I'm not prepared to tell you the details I found out. John'll have to tell you himself if … when we find him. He didn't tell me … I don't know everything. He just didn't tell me … I didn't know he was just a kid."
Chet whistled and looked about to say something. Cap shot him a look that clearly said shut up but Chet as usual missed it.
"Kid's a hell of fireman," Chet said, his eyes strangely bright as he turned around and Desoto noted the swipe of his hand across his brow.
Marco muttered something sympathetically in Spanish while Mike's usual quiet demeanour seemed to falter as he too cursed under his breath.
Captain Stanley banged his hand on the car's roof looking at first angry but then softened into a worried frown.
"The public's gonna have a field day with this. Headquarters is gonna want someone's head …"
"I'm sorry, Cap," Desoto spoke for Gage.
"There's nothing to be sorry for. I'm just gonna find a way for them not to get John's head, even if it has to be mine instead. I won't be fired but John …"
Roy was bolstered by the show of support, especially from Chet. He wished John could see the reactions of his friends because once he was found; he was going to need all the support he could get.
Roy shouldered the pack of food while Marco and Chet carried medical gear and Cap carried extra blankets and the radio. They hiked for hours, sometimes calling their friend, sometimes listening for signs of life. There were none.
At noon when they paused for lunch the conversation invariably turned to Gage and if there were signs over the years that the young man was in fact just a kid. It was agreed, of course there were, only they all agreed that John would likely be young at heart for the rest of his life and if they didn't find him soon, that life would be short or over very soon. There were also murmurs of support for the man who was an exemplary fireman and paramedic despite his age.
As the sky darkened, the men were loath to leave the woods empty handed.
Joanne Desoto and Emily Stanley had supper ready for the men of A shift when they returned home. Roy was relieved that Joanne had been able to tell the women about John's true age as well before the news reporters would sniff out the story.
Emily Stanley sniffled on Hank's shoulder. "Oh, Hank, he's only a boy. He should be in college, not running into burning buildings or climbing down cliffs saving people."
Cap tilted Emily's head back just a bit so she was looking into his eyes.
"Saving people is John's true calling in life, Em. It meant so much to him that he, for whatever reason, threw himself into it body and spirit."
"I know but…"
Truth was, there wasn't a dry eye in the house but the men had all decided to choke off the lone tears in their beers rather than show them. Chet particularly looked in a bad way.
"Oh, man. I've … Um, the Phantom's been murder on Gage over the years. If I'd … If he'd known, you know…"
"He'd have acted the exact same way, Kelly and I as Captain would expect no less."
Chet smiled gratefully. It was obvious the young man meant a great deal more to him than he liked to let on.
"From now on, I'm gonna treat him more like a little brother," Chet vowed.
"If he's even around at fifty-one anymore when he's found," Mike said glumly.
No one could deny he had a point.
Everyone picked at their food and plans were slowly made to combat the press that would no doubt be starting a national scandal very soon. Cap was elected to call headquarters with a pre warning so someone from public relations could stem the flow of bad publicity about the paramedic service that being so very new stood a good chance of being disparaged by the situation.
George's friend Jay from college arrived early in the morning and was filled in quickly on the unexpected houseguest that was staying in the guest room he was supposed to occupy for a month. George took the luggage from his friend and plopped it on the extra bed that had been put into his room.
"Looks like we're roomies even here," George joked.
"I don't mind. You don't snore too badly," Jay said amiably. Jay was dark haired with blue eyes and smooth skin that looked like it had never seen facial hair. George had no doubt that his mom would take one look at Jay and compliment said skin and try to get George to shave off the goatee he was trying out that earned him the nickname Shaggy back at school.
"So, do you want to go horseback riding or go into town first and meet Lucy?"
"I hate to be a drag but I'm kinda tired from the flight. Do you mind if we just watch T.V. tonight, or you could go into town and I could just hang out here and read a book?"
"About the T.V. It's broken."
"Bad news. Let me take a look." Jay was taking a technology course and was a whiz at repairing old radios or T.V.'s or just about anything.
"My dad was hoping you'd say that," George said. He says the guy from the township over charges and arm and a leg and he's only got one arm and can't spare another."
"Well, I can't," said Andy stepping into the room and shaking hands with Jay. "It's good to meet you, Jay, George has told us a lot about you."
"I'll have that T.V. up and running in time for the game, sir," said Jay with a knowing smile. "George told me a few things about you as well."
After a trip to the township over, a new tube for the T.V. was procured and installed and a few loose parts tightened.
"Yes! Game night!" exclaimed Andy happily as the T.V. warmed up to black and white perfection.
"You know, it might be time to consider getting a new T.V." said George. "I hear there's a new fangled invention called Technicolor."
George laughed as his father blushed and denied being cheap.
"Truth is we don't watch much T.V. Life on the farm you know," George gestured to the vast expanse out the window.
Jay looked out and had to agree that the land was beautiful in a bountiful harvest with small barns and a grain and corn silo.
Gage cracked his eyes open to the sunlight streaming in through the windows. He momentarily forgot his pain, which slammed back into him the minute he tried to sit up. Feeling like his ribs were on fire, he sunk back down onto the pillows. He shifted, trying to get comfortable but it was useless. His mouth was dry but he managed to swallow his pride and call out for some help.
George entered the room immediately followed by Andy and the ever-curious Jay stood at the door ready to help too. He watched silently wincing as Andy helped the young man on the bed into a brace with pads on both collarbones.
Gage managed in the bathroom shooting a very vehement no, he did not need any help in there. Jay and George were outside waiting and helped him into the living room where Jay introduced himself and Andy went to get coffee for everyone.
"Seems our guest is a little better this morning," Andy told his wife who was in the kitchen making waffles and bacon.
"That's wonderful!" exclaimed Nina happily, peaking out the shutter-doors noting that the boy had a bit more color in his cheeks this morning.
"Yeah, and more good news, the T.V. is fixed. Always knew that Jay kid was a good egg."
"Jay told me that we should consider getting a new, color model soon as that tube isn't going to hold out in the old box for very long," Nina smiled.
"Always knew that kid was a rotten egg," Andy said with good humor.
"We have to take horses to the South Pasteur today, and you have to fix the tractor before you watch any T.V. young man." Nina raised her eyebrows at her husband.
"Yes, mom," Andy said, earning him a face-full of oven mitt and a playful smack on the arm.
They both gathered trays to take to the living room.
"You know, I could get used to eating in the living room."
"Well, don't, as soon as Chet is well enough to sit at the table, we will eat like a family again."
Andy placed a plate and a coffee in front of John and went to turn on the T.V.
"Oh no you don't, we talk during meals," Nina scolded.
Jay and George just shrugged and answered Nina's questions about college life and future plans.
Gage listened in silence as George and Jay animatedly talked about school sports and their very different curriculums. John had nothing to contribute to the conversation so he ate in silence managing to enjoy the taste of food for the first time since the accident.
As George talked about his medical curriculum, Gage found himself paying rapt attention and understanding a lot of what George was talking about. He drifted from the conversation momentarily, closing his eyes as the food in his stomach made him comfortably sleepy. George went on about airway insertions and I.V.'s and John began to hear a different voice in the back of his confused brain and images he just couldn't place in his reality.
He was nervous, the orange held a little too firmly in his hand squirting juice all over himself and … someone else, someone he should know. The orange was pried gently from his hand and a gentle chuckle and word of instruction was given as a needle plunged into the orange and was thrust back to him to try it again. The orange didn't seem to mind.
Next, his sleeve was rolled up and a small sting was felt in his bicep. 'Relax, trainee, it's only sterile water.'
The voice belonged to someone else Gage felt he should know but it wasn't comforting. He couldn't figure out who they were and the more he tried, the more strained he became and his head hurt.
As Jay and George led the young man back to his bed and gave him his meds, the T.V., which would have revealed all, remained off.
Roy took the night off at the not too subtle suggestion of Dr. Brackett. Night shift would have been hard after so many days of non-stop searching. The rest of the men of fifty-one reluctantly reported for duty, their minds on the search.
Roy sat with Joanne on the couch, neither knowing that their children were perched at the entrance to the living room listening to the late newscast when they should have been sleeping.
"Here it is, turn it up, Roy."
"Today marks a sad day for L.A. County Firemen. One of their own, twenty-five year old John Gage has been missing for three days. We go now to the site where the fireman was last seen. Bob, what can you tell us about the missing man?"
"Well, Judy, Mr. Gage is a Paramedic with the L.A. County Fire Department which is a program many still believe to be in its infancy and is far from being the perfected model citizens could expect by now of other government run services."
"What does this have to do with finding Johnny!" Roy was already on his feet pacing angrily.
"Bob, is it true that this is not the first time the missing man has been injured or otherwise compromised on the job?"
"Indeed, Judy, this reporter has learned from reliable sources which I can't name that Gage is a loose canon seen by many as irresponsible and lacking the skills and maturity to perform the very life and death duties entrusted to him by the County."
A picture of Johnny appeared on the screen, the one that Roy had turned over to the news stations himself. And now the press was having a field day. There was no mention of the heroics Gage had employed to save the woman and her infant, no praise for the countless lives and property he'd saved, no word of the gentle soul who mourned the loss of every single patient they lost. And this was before they'd even found out Gage's age!
Before Joanne could stop him, Roy had his coat on and was heading out the door, keys jangling loudly in his hands.
"Go to bed," he snapped at his children, slamming the door only to open it back up and scoop Chris and Jen into his arms and apologize to Joanne.
He carried his children to their beds, kissed them both on the forehead and reminded them that things always got darker before the dawn. Jenny hugged him and said she forgived him. He didn't have the heart to correct her word, it was perfect for right now and so very needed.
He headed out again, closing the door softly. There would be doors to slam at the news station.
Without knocking, Roy barged into the newsroom, demanding to speak with the manager.
A short and stocky middle-aged woman with squeaky wedge shoes ushered him into her office as she dragged on a cigarette before squashing it out in an overflowing amber ashtray causing ash to plume up over the messy desk.
"What can I do for you?" she asked indifferently, his behaviour clearly not a surprise to the woman though he had yet to introduce himself.
"I'm John Gage's partner, Roy Desoto. I don't know whom you talked to about Gage but you got it all wrong. How dare you report that John's irresponsible. He's one of the best men I know."
Before Roy could stop his rant, using all his restraint not to stand up and tower menacingly at the woman before him, the outer office was once again filled with commotion.
"You will retract that statement or you will face defamation charges," came Hank Stanley's voice as footsteps grew louder coming toward the little smoky office Roy was in.
Within fifteen minutes, the small office was filled and overflowing with the men of fifty-one and at least fourteen other very fired up firemen. The parking lot was bathed in strobes of flashing red lights signifying that some squads and engines had showed up to protest, keeping themselves available to the citizens of L.A. County still of course, but sticking up for their friend.
The stout woman smiled sardonically as she pressed a call button on her desk.
"Rick, please take a camera outside and get a shot of our fine public servants using public property for their own agendas."
Rick walked down the hall to the exit doors, one hand on his very large camera, one over his head in genuine and very valid fear that he would be attacked.
Hank took charge with the captain of 110 who had been in the area returning from assisting at a fire to calm the men and file them from the building before the obviously scandal seeking newscasters would have any more dirt to fling.
Even as they pulled away, a hastily made up female reporter was shouting lies into her microphone. Mike couldn't help disobeying his Captain's orders to remain silent and retreat, there was a first time for everything and the quiet man knew this was it.
The reporter practically jumped out of her stilettos as Mike let the siren wail drowning out her venomous lies. The other squads and engines followed suit. The news would get out but Mike's anger was momentarily mollified.
Cap tapped Mike on the shoulder but said nothing. Mike let out a sigh of relief as he gladly accepted latrine duty for a week.
Roy's car seemed to drive itself to the station rather than home. He knew he should go home but he didn't want to take his foul mood out on Joanne or the kids.
Sometimes silent, sometimes loud, indignant solidarity took hold of the men as they sat at the table with cups of coffee.
"You'd think people would want to find a fireman who risked his life to save someone to be found safe and sound, that it would make a better story than a scandal about the service in general. I just don't get it," Chet fumed in frustration.
"Scandal sells, Chet, look at when Drew was killed by a car in the line of duty and instead of honouring his life a few news stations interviewed the woman he pulled over to ticket for speeding and disparaged his life's work. They made it look like it was Drew's fault that he got killed, not the person speeding or the person not paying attention."
"And now they're saying it's Gage's fault that he's …"
"Missing, Chet, just missing, not dead. We'll find him."