"Mom! Dad! Look, a plane!"
Joanne DeSoto peeked over the edge of her paperback. Her five-year-old son Chris stood fifteen feet away at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, jumping up and down as he pointed south along the coast. Three-year-old Michelle, busy digging a hole in the sand, didn't even look up. Both kids needed suntan lotion, Chris's swim trunks had started a slow slide down his legs and Michelle had lost one of her hair ribbons. At least the beach wasn't crowded this Tuesday afternoon and no one could see what a neglectful mother Joanne had become.
"See it?" Chris yelled.
"I see it!" Joanne barely glanced at the silver speck in the sky. Since their arrival at Santa Monica that morning, Chris had spotted at least ten planes descending to land at LAX. She wished they'd erected the beach umbrella and spread their Mexican blankets on the other side of the pier, where the Ferris Wheel, carousel and buildings blocked the view.
"Does Daddy see it?" Chris asked. "Dad! You see it?"
Joanne's husband Roy lifted his head and cracked open an eyelid. "Yes, I see it. Thanks."
He dropped his head back on a folded towel and went back to dozing. Joanne put her romance novel aside and rolled on her side to study Roy in profile. She pursed her lips at the livid bruise around his right eye and the scrapes on his cheek. Someone had hurt her husband, and she still felt angry about it.
"A guy went into insulin shock," Roy had explained when he'd come home from work the previous morning. "Hypoglycemia. That's when there's not enough sugar in the blood. It can make someone disoriented or sometimes a little violent."
Joanne had never heard of hypoglycemia. Then again, before Roy became a paramedic, she'd never heard of defibrillators, hematomas or peritonitis, either. But ever since he'd joined the program two years earlier, little bits of medical jargon had steadily crept into their home like dust bunnies sneaking under closed doors.
"He didn't know what he was doing." Roy shrugged off her concern. "It's no big deal. Dr. Brackett said just put some ice on it."
When Roy had been new to the job, she'd had to adjust to him coming home from work exhausted and reeking of smoke. From other firemen's wives, Joanne had learned some of the hazards the men faced in the course of a normal day. Smoke inhalation. Toxic chemical explosions. Collapsing floors and roofs. When Roy spoke of becoming a paramedic, she'd hoped he would be a step removed from danger. But no. Now he came home exhausted, reeking of smoke, sporting odd injuries and bearing mysterious stains that didn't always come out of his uniform.
"You're staring," Roy murmured, his voice only a little louder than the waves and sounds of the children.
"No, I'm not." Joanne picked up her book but didn't resume reading. She studied her husband's body, starting with his dark blond hair, moving down to his flat stomach and ending with his big square feet. He had come to their marriage bed with only one scar, a line under his right knee from an old bicycle accident. Since then he'd picked up two more, and the calluses on his hands never softened. Sometimes, when they made love, Joanne surreptitiously searched him for more evidence of the dangerous profession he'd chosen. He was strong and kind and smart, and he could be taken from her in an instant. How could she live without him, this man she loved? How would she, a twenty-eight-year-old housewife with no college education, raise two children on her own?
He turned his head and looked at her. Such nice blue eyes. Even in elementary school, his eyes had been beautiful.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I don't think I put the hamburger out to defrost," she said. "The kids are going to be hungry when we get home."
"Spaghetti's just as good."
Joanne reached across and brushed a spot of sand from his chin. "We should pick up some fresh bread on the way home."
Meaningless words. Idle chit-chat to hide her anger at the hypoglycemic man and her annoyance at the fact that everyone - the other firemen, the staff at Rampart - had known Roy had been hurt, however slightly, long before she did. And where had Johnny been during the fracas? She hadn't asked, but she wanted to know. She liked John Gage, but sometimes wondered if Roy wouldn't be better off partnered with a different paramedic, a married man who understood caution and let the police handle crazy people with low blood sugar.
She and Roy had almost quarreled about Johnny that very morning. Roy had wanted to invite him along on the trip to the beach. The kids loved their so-called 'uncle,' and Roy thought Johnny might like to get out of his small apartment or take a break from chasing nurses.
"Roy, you've been promising the kids this trip for a week," Joanne had said. "Just the four of us. The family."
"But Jo, Johnny's kind of like family," Roy protested.
Joanne didn't necessarily agree with that. Blood relatives, in-laws and even crazy cousin Harry were family. She didn't always like them, but they were bound to each other for the rest of their lives. Partners, on the other hand, were assigned by the fire department and might be here today, gone tomorrow. Besides, Roy spent enough time with Johnny as it was. And maybe she still blamed him, just a little bit, for Roy's decision to not take a promotion to Engineer but instead stay with the paramedic program.
"Sure he is," she conceded, electing not to argue the point. "But the kids and I have missed you. Today should be just the four of us."
He'd reluctantly agreed, and Joanne savored the minor victory. She didn't even argue when Roy put his paramedic study guide in the beach bag for some 'light reading.' But he'd been quiet on the drive to Santa Monica and she wondered if she'd pressed too hard. Firemen did look on themselves as brothers of a sort, and Johnny was Roy's closest friend. Sometimes, when Roy couldn't unwind, Johnny would come over and they'd sit out in the back yard drinking beer or tossing horseshoes late into the night. From her window she'd hear them talking about sports, cars or politics, but never about fires or injuries. That always puzzled her. Whenever she had something bothersome on her mind, she talked it over in the minutest detail with her mother or sisters. Roy and Johnny did the exact opposite.
Chris's excited shout broke into her thoughts. "Mom, look! A police car!"
Joanne glanced over at the pier. A police car had driven out toward the fishing shacks and arcade games. Chris liked all sorts of vehicles - planes, cars, trucks and, of course, fire engines. "I see it, honey. Why don't you help your sister dig that hole?"
When she turned back to Roy, she saw he had gone back to dozing. The poor man was still exhausted from his last shift. She thought it criminal that firemen couldn't even be guaranteed a good night's rest while on duty. Her brother Mike, an airline pilot, benefited from the strict rules on how many hours sleep he had to get between flights. Roy could work all day long on one fire, and spend all night battling another. Or sometimes the engine would just sit in the station all day, the other guys playing cards or watching TV while Roy and Johnny raced all over the county like crazy people.
"Momma, pee-pee," Michelle said, toddling up from her spot in the sand. She had Joanne's own dark hair, but the same fair complexion and blue eyes as her father. The little girl tugged on her bathing suit. "I got to pee-pee. Can I go in the water?"
"No, you can't go pee in the water. Hold on." Joanne gathered Chris up and walked both kids to the restrooms. When they returned to the umbrella, Roy had started to snore. She slathered more suntan lotion on the children and then waded with them into the surf, where they splashed each other with cold seawater and piled wet sand into a makeshift castle.
"How come Daddy's sleeping?" Chris asked.
"Because he's tired," Joanne said. "He works very hard."
Chris finished digging the castle moat and let the tide run into it. "I'm going to be a fireman when I grow up."
"Me, too." Michelle gave her mother a sweet smile and started to pick her nose.
"Don't do that," Joanne said, brushing Michelle's index finger away. To Chris she said, "You've got plenty of time to decide, honey. Maybe you'll own your own hardware store like grandpa, or be an airplane pilot like Uncle Mike."
Chris shook his head. He could look very serious at times, just like his father. "I want to put fires out and help people."
Joanne let her thoughts wander as the waves swirled around her legs and hips. She had met Roy when they were nine years old and in the fourth grade together. What had he wanted to be then? A fireman, policeman, pilot? A carpenter like his own father? When they started dating at Norwalk High School, he'd talked about being a teacher. He'd gone to community college for two years, studying history and English, but the money had run out and he'd gone to Vietnam. A lot of boys from their school had gone to Vietnam. Some had never come back.
A little chill ran through her. She could have lost Roy before they'd ever had the chance to build a real life together. What exactly was it about her husband that made him risk his life for the sake of others?
"Momma, I'm thirsty," Michelle complained a few minutes later.
Joanne had brought a thermos of water and fruit juice frozen in Tupperware cups. She and Michelle trekked back to the blankets to fetch the refreshments. They found Roy lying on his stomach and flipping through pages filled with graphic drawings of human anatomy. He smiled at them.
"Hey, lucky me. Two beautiful women just happen to stroll by on this deserted beach."
Michelle clambered onto her father's back. "We builded a castle."
Careful not to dislodge his daughter, Roy rolled over, sat up and scooted her into his lap. "Did it have a dragon? Or a princess?"
"I'm the princess," Michelle announced, making Joanne laugh.
"You certainly are." She handed her daughter a cup of water.
Michelle drank thirstily and asked, "Daddy's boo-boo hurt bad?"
Roy touched the side of his face. "Not really, Your Majesty." But he glanced uneasily at Joanne, as if she'd somehow put their daughter up to the questioning.
"How'd you get it?" Michelle asked.
"Daddy got a boo-boo helping somebody," Joanne explained. "Just like when you tried to help Miss Maisy get out of the toy box and banged your head."
Michelle nodded vigorously. "She was meowing loud."
Roy looked surprised. "When did that happen?"
Joanne blinked. Hadn't she told him? The bump had been impressive, but a little bit of ice and the consolation of listening to her favorite Sesame Street record had taken care of Michelle's tears. The swelling had gone down before nightfall.
"Not too long ago," Joanne said. "I thought I mentioned it. It was just a little bump."
Michelle pointed to a random spot on her head. "Right here."
Roy obligingly kissed the spot. "I'm glad it's all better. Jo, I wish you'd told me."
That goes both ways, she almost said, but held back. He didn't tell her everything that happened at work, and she didn't tell him everything that happened at home. Most of it was boring anyway - the milkman delivered the wrong order, the butcher ran out of the good pork, the neighbors had a quarrel at dinnertime. For five years she'd spent part of each week as a single parent, dealing with everything from skinned knees to diaper shortages to kitchen sinks that consistently clogged up.
"I'm sorry," she said, shrugging. "I didn't want to bother you. Besides, you see much worse things every day."
"Yeah." Roy kissed Michelle's head again. "But you guys come first."
Nice sentiments. Did he mean them? Of course he did. Joanne nearly flushed when she realized how selfish she'd been all morning. The man across from her worked hard at a job he enjoyed. He provided a good home for his family. They didn't have a lot of money, but they had what they needed. He was well-respected by his peers - even Captain Stanley had made a point of telling Joanne how much he liked working with Roy - and she knew he wasn't a reckless, careless idiot who plunged headfirst into dangerous situations. No matter how hard she wished he'd picked a safer occupation, he enjoyed what he did. Not everybody had that passion. Joanne's father hated the hardware business, and every Christmas her brother swore he'd quit the airline and open his own charter boat company.
"Dad, look!" Chris called. "A fire engine!"
Joanne turned and shaded her eyes against the sun. The engine had arrived without sirens, although the lights flashed and swirled. Not from station 51 - they were far from 51's district. She could see the men in their turnout gear despite the heat of the day, and the bob of their black helmets.
"No smoke," Roy observed with studied calm. "Probably a false alarm."
He hadn't moved from where he sat with Michelle on his lap, but Joanne could see his shoulders had inched up a fraction. A squad hadn't responded, but sometimes there were just too many calls and not enough paramedics.
"You should go see," she said.
"Nah," Roy said in an entirely unconvincing way. "I'm off-duty."
Joanne raised her eyebrows. "Go see."
He flashed her a smile, relocated Michelle to the blanket and scooped up his T-shirt and sandals. "Be right back," he said, and took off in at a jog across the sand.
"Where's Daddy going?" Chris asked.
The answer came freely and easily. "To see if someone needs help," she replied.
Roy was gone for only twenty minutes. When he came back, she had just tossed aside the twig she'd been using to draw in the damp sand.
"Mild heart attack," he said as he drew near. "Didn't even have to do CPR."
"I saw the ambulance arrive," Joanne said. "Good thing you were here."
He peered at what she'd etched below the high-tide mark. A giant heart, like the one he'd carved into the wet concrete near the football field the night of their senior prom. To her critical eye, she'd done a lopsided job of it - symmetry had never been her strong point - but she'd sketched it large enough to contain three words.
"'Joanne Loves Roy,'" he said, reading it aloud. He looked at it for a long moment, and she wondered what he was thinking. When Roy lifted his head, he had a shy smile on his face.
"That's a good thing," he said, "because Roy loves Joanne, too."
He took her into his arms and kissed her. She tasted the salt and sand of his mouth, the mouth that forced life back into so many lucky people. She ran her fingers through his hair, which was limp from sweat and heat, and felt a nudge against her thigh that wasn't limp at all.
"We should go home," Joanne murmured. "Put the kids down for a nap. Take a shower."
"Take a shower?" Roy asked.
"Together. And then get hot and sweaty again," Joanne added. She touched her cool hand gently to the warmth of his face and softly kissed the bruise to make it better. He pressed his lips against hers and for a moment all dangers vanished, all worries evaporated. She had her husband, she had her children, and they had a great life together. She would not ask for anything more.
A hand tugged on the hem of her bathing suit.
"Mom, Dad, look!" Chris yelled. "A plane!"
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