A/N: I just couldn't resist bringing Dr. Pritchard back.
Disclaimer: The show doesn't belong to me. I just take the characters out for a spin, profit-free, and put 'em back how I found 'em.
Some Things To Work On
Chapter 1: Office
I didn't want to be there—but that was probably no secret.
"Come on in," he said. "Have a seat anywhere you like."
I looked around—it looked more like a living room than an office. A clean, orderly, masculine living room, but with no personal effects in it whatsoever. I guess I wasn't really sure what I'd expected, but it wasn't this. And he wanted me to pick where to sit? Great. That was probably some kind of test. The couch was no good—what if he sat next to me? I took a seat in an armchair—that looked safe enough.
"The first thing I like to ask people," he continued, "is what they prefer to be called. If you want me to call you Mr. Stoker, that's fine. If you want me to call you Michael, that's fine too. Or any other name you prefer."
"Mike," I said automatically. "What do I call you?" I surprised myself by asking.
"Some people prefer to call me Bill, because that makes this feel less like a medical experience. Which it's not. I'm a medical doctor, so I can prescribe medication if needed, but what we're mostly going to be doing here is talking. But if you prefer to call me Dr. Pritchard, that's fine as well. Whatever makes you most comfortable."
"Okay," I answered vaguely. To be honest, I probably wasn't going to call him anything. Calling somebody by their first name kind of feels personal to me. I never minded what people call me, but if I call someone by their name, that's different, for some reason. And I didn't really think I could get away with my firehouse strategy of calling the guys by their last names.
He looked at me, and for a second I thought he was going to call me on my evasion, start in with the questions. Ask me why I didn't answer him. But he just let it go, and I'm pretty sure he did it on purpose. To set me at ease.
It worked, a little bit. But I knew the real fun would start soon.
Don't get me wrong—I wasn't gonna try to sabotage his efforts. I knew I needed help—I mean, that thing the other day really freaked me out. And if that kind of thing keeps happening, I won't be able to do my job. And if I can't do my job, where am I? Nowhere, that's where.
Nobody, that's who.
So when he started in with the obvious first question, I didn't try to pull any funny stuff.
"Mike, I'd like you to tell me what brings you here today. Of course I know your Captain sent you here, and I have his report on what happened yesterday. But what I'd like to hear is what I can help you with."
Of course I was ready with an answer to that question.
"I freaked out. I panicked. Luckily it didn't endanger lives, but it could have. So it can't keep happening, if I want to keep my job. Which I do."
Crap. That didn't really come out the way I wanted it to. He wrote something down. Great.
"As I said, I have Captain Stanley's report, but I'd like to hear your description of what happened. Just to make sure we're all on the same page."
I was ready for that one, too.
"It was a routine call—a fire in a garage. We got there fast, there was a hydrant right in front of the house, and the garage was detached from the house—all best-case scenarios. I put the engine in pump gear—no problem. I hit the hydrant while Chet and Marco stretched a line to the garage—no problem. But as soon as they called for water, as soon as they got near that garage, I just froze. I knew exactly what I needed to do—that wasn't the problem. I had my hand on the control for that line, ready to pull, but I was completely frozen. I couldn't move."
Dr. Pritchard nodded. "Okay—then what happened?"
"Uh, Captain Stanley asked me if I was okay, and I couldn't even say anything. He asked me again, and then he just took my hand off the control and worked the pump himself. I … don't even think Chet and Marco noticed anything was wrong."
"Then what did you do?"
"I, uh, I guess I just stood there. I don't know, really. I couldn't really hear anything that was going on—it was like there was this rushing sound in my ears. The engine's really loud, but I couldn't even hear that." I didn't like the next part of the story, but I figured he wouldn't let me stop there.
"And after the fire got put out—then what?"
"Uh, there wouldn't really be much overhaul to do in a job like that. There was nothing to salvage, and it was a really small building, and so the guys just made sure there were no hot spots that could rekindle in the walls or the roof, and then we were done." I revised that last part. "They were done. Because I couldn't do a damned thing."
"Were you still frozen, as you put it, after the fire was out?"
"No," I admitted. "But Cap sat me down by the pump panel and told me to stay put. I could see the other two, Chet and Marco, looking back to see what was going on when Cap went to help with the overhaul and I didn't. Overhaul didn't take long, since the place was so small. Cap wouldn't let me help pack the hose up again, or anything. He just made me sit there. I felt like an idiot."
"And then you went back to the station, correct?"
"Yeah—and of course, Cap wouldn't let me drive. He drove back, and I had his seat. And needless to say, it was straight to his office when we were back in quarters."
"Was he angry?"
"What did you tell him?"
"Just what I told you—that I froze, and I didn't know why. And he asked me if I thought it would happen again, and I was honest—I said I didn't know."
Pritchard looked down at his notes. "There are two other members of your shift—the paramedics. Were they on this call? I didn't hear you mention them."
"No—they don't get called out for something small like that. I think they might've been on a run when we got back—yeah, they were, I remember now. The bay was empty when we got back."
"DeSoto, and Gage, right?"
I nodded. "Well, usually. Gage was out that day, so it was his sub. A guy from B-shift pulled a double, I think." Not much more to say about that, so I didn't say anything else. Why waste words?
Dr. Pritchard put his notebook and pen down next to him on the sofa. "What I'm hearing is that you froze on the job, and you don't know why, but it needs to not happen again. Is that right?"
"I think what we're going to need to do, first of all, is try to figure out why you froze. Because if we can figure that out, maybe we can find a way to prevent it from happening again."
"Fair enough," I said. And pretty damned obvious.
"Do you have any ideas about what might have caused you to freeze up?"
"Nope. Like I told you—I just froze, and there was that rushing sound, and that's it." Damn, I said that in kind of a testy way. Bet he noticed, too.
"All right," he said mildly. "Let's start working backwards, then. Did anything unusual happen earlier on that shift that might've been related?"
"No," I said. "It was only four hours into the shift. I think Gage and—" I paused, and revised. "DeSoto and Dwyer had a couple of runs, but the garage fire was our first one of the shift."
"How about the previous shift?" he asked.
"I remember that one—a whole lotta nothing. We got a bunch of alarm activations, like usual, and one MVA, and a couple junk calls, but I don't even think we stretched a line the whole shift." I shook my head. "Weird."
"Did the paramedics have any calls? Gage and DeSoto?"
I tried to remember. "Well, first of all, it was DeSoto and Brice. And I'm sure they did—they get more runs than we do, most days. But nothing I can remember them mentioning."
"I noticed," Dr. Pritchard said, "that you've mentioned several times that Gage was out, and that a sub was working in his place. But you haven't mentioned why he was out."
"Who, Gage? Yeah, he was out both those shifts. He had different subs both those days, though. It wasn't the same guy." My hands were hurting, suddenly. I looked down, and noticed that my fingernails had dug into the palms. I unclenched them—luckily nothing was bleeding, 'cause that would've been embarrassing. "It was a different guy subbing for him on each of those shifts."
"Why, Mike? Why was he out?"
Now why was I ready for all those other questions, but not this one? And what did he care, anyhow? But fair's fair—I oughta answer his questions. "He—" I cleared my throat. "He, uh, was taking some sick days."
Pritchard looked at me. "Was he sick?"
"No, he, uh … he … got hurt."
"On the job?" Pritchard asked.
"It's a risky business," I said. "I mean, we all know something could happen at any time."
"That's true," Pritchard said. He waited, like he was waiting for me to say something else. "Mike, I don't know if you noticed this, but I've asked you four times about why John Gage wasn't there that day, and four times, you avoided answering the question."
I looked back at him. "But I answered you. You asked me questions, and I answered you."
"You said something—that's true. But you didn't really answer the question. What I'd like you to do, now, is explain to me the exact reason that Gage wasn't at work for the two shifts we've talked about."
"I told you," I said. I was starting to get impatient with this guy. "He got hurt. He needed some time off."
"What I'd like you to tell me," Dr. Pritchard said, "is how he got hurt. What happened, exactly, that caused him to get hurt?"
All right. He wanted details? I could give him details.
"I didn't actually see it," I said.
He waited. I had a feeling he could wait all day. My hands were shaking—I guess I didn't really want to talk about it. But if he could wait all day, then there was no point in stalling. Why put either of us through that? So I told him what he wanted to know.
"I mean, I saw the building go—that was pretty hard to miss. Everyone but him was out. Chet and Roy had taken a patient out. Marco was flaking a hose to the front door, Cap was coordinating with the ladder company that just came in. But Johnny was still inside, finishing the primary search, when the building blew." I let out a long breath. "It was a gas leak—I guess I could've started from the beginning, make it possible to understand. The building was full of gas—it was apparently really, really heavy. I mean, I wasn't in there, so I don't know first hand—but the guys said later that they all had a bad feeling it was gonna go." I looked at him again, just to check to see if I'd said enough about what happened.
"You mentioned what all your co-workers were doing when the building blew up, with one man still inside. I'm curious—what were you doing at the time?"
I frowned at him. "What was I doing?"
He nodded. "Yes—you."
"Well, I was at the pump panel, of course."
"No—the line was stretched to the front door, and the first thing you do after that is charge the line, even if you don't know if you're going to need it or not. And it seemed pretty likely we were gonna need it."
"So you were charging the line, from the pump panel."
I nodded. "Yep—that's how it's done. You run supply line from the hydrant to the intake on the engine, open the hydrant, open the intake so the pump can get water from the hydrant, and then you figure what discharge pressure you need for each line, and you set your pump discharge pressure to the highest of those, and then—" I paused. "You don't really want to know all that, do you."
"No. I want to know what you were physically doing, at the moment that the building blew."
I thought about it for a second. And then I realized what he was getting at, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I know, that's a lame metaphor, but bricks are heavy, damn it. I knew exactly what had happened, and I felt like I was going to puke. I put my forearms on my knees, and rested my head on my hands, and talked down to the floor.
"I, uh, had my hand on the control to charge the line. I was pulling it out when the building blew."
There. I said it. And I didn't actually puke. It took me a minute or two to get myself back together again, though.
"Let me tell you a theory I have," Dr. Pritchard said, after I finally picked my head up again. "I don't have a shred of scientific evidence to back this up, but I'd like to tell you this theory. I think that the human brain is somehow hard-wired to make us believe that when Event A is associated with Event B, there must be a causal relationship—particularly if Event B is highly significant in some way. And especially if Event B is traumatic in some way."
He let that sink in for a minute, and continued. "So our brains make us think that Event A caused Event B, even if the two events were completely unrelated. I think we do this even for mundane things. Say you wore a particular shirt when you went on a date, and that date went really well. That might become your lucky shirt, right?"
How the hell did he know about my lucky shirt? Oh. "That's just an example, right? I mean—something anyone might do."
He laughed. "That's just my favorite example, because I think it's one a lot of people can relate to."
"Oh. I was just wondering. So, a lot of people have lucky shirts?"
"Or something like that—some item of clothing, or some superstition about hair style, or aftershave, or anything that was associated with a significant event."
I felt a little dumb about my lucky shirt, which, come to think of it, hadn't been particularly lucky in quite a while anyhow, so I moved along. "So what you're saying is, maybe my brain thinks I somehow caused the explosion by opening that valve? Even though that's ridiculous?"
Dr. Pritchard nodded. "Yep. Even though it's completely impossible, I'll bet that's what your brain thinks. And on that topic—I think it's perfectly possible for our brains to think things that we're not even aware of."
I thought about that for a second. "So what you're saying is, my brain somehow connected the explosion where Gage got hurt, with the opening of that valve, and then the next time I did that same movement, I panicked?" That made perfect sense! That was it! Whew. That was easier than I thought. I just have to break that association, somehow—maybe handle the controls while I'm not under pressure some time—and I'll be fine. Back to work next shift, I'll bet.
"That's a start," said Dr. Pritchard. "But I think there's probably more to it than that. Don't you?"
I frowned at him. "What do you mean? It sounds perfectly simple to me—my brain somehow went haywire, thinking that every time I pull that control, something's gonna blow up."
"And someone's going to get hurt," he added.
Oh, yeah. That. "Okay," I said. "Maybe that, too." I honestly didn't know what else he was getting at. I figured he'd get around to telling me at some point, so I waited. I can do that too, Doc.
"How long have you been an engineer, Mike?" he asked, after a long pause.
Good—small talk. I could handle that. "Just over four years. I started at 51s when the station first opened—that was my first assignment as an engineer. I'd qualified six months earlier, but it took a while to get a permanent assignment."
"Four years," he said. "That's a pretty long time. And I noticed in Captain Stanley's report that the same men have been on the A-shift that entire time. That's fairly unusual, in a department this size."
I nodded. "Yeah—we're a pretty tight bunch. Kelly and Lopez were friends from the academy, and Gage and DeSoto knew each other from paramedic training. I guess DeSoto recruited Gage into the program, and helped train his class, or something like that."
"And in all that time, surely people have gotten banged around a bit. It's a dangerous job, as you said earlier."
"Sure, there've been some things, here and there. Like one time were were at this abandoned hospital that some firebugs had torched—they didn't do a very good job of it, actually, so the fire was under control in minutes—but then when we were all searching for two of the kids, Kelly got caught in a collapse. Broke his shoulder blade, which I didn't even know you could do."
"That wasn't during a fire, though, was it."
"Nope—fire was under control already. I was searching with another team, in a different room."
"Any other notable injuries?"
"Oh, sure—plenty. Let's see …" I thought back to the first year. "Oh—here's a weird one. Gage and DeSoto both got zapped with radiation when there was a fire in a lab."
"But it was the radiation that was the problem, right? Not the fire?"
"Right—that fire was out, too. But there was a guy trapped in a room with all sorts of radioactive shit—I guess Gage got the worst of it. He doesn't have any kids yet, so we're all hoping that all turns out okay for him."
"Others?" Pritchard queried. "What I'm really looking for is accidents or injuries that happened during a fire. Not when the fire was already out."
I had to think about that. I thought out loud, just so there wouldn't be any more questions than there had to be. "There was that monkey virus that Gage got, and then Gage got bit by a snake, and—huh—he landed in a patch of cactus—man, I never noticed before, but it's always him, isn't it. Weird."
"Any fire-related incidents?" Pritchard prodded.
"Nope," I said. "Not at this assignment. Which is weird, when you think about it, because we are the fire department. At my last assignment, though, at Station 14, before I was an engineer, we nearly lost a guy when he fell through the roof while he was venting it. I was inside doing a primary search, at that point—I didn't see it happen. But I was on the team that got him out." I shook my head. "Man, that one really sucked. But he made it. We got him out, and got the fire out, and he made it."
"Tell me a little more about the building explosion last week," Dr. Pritchard suggested. "It sounds like it was quite a different incident than the other times anyone's gotten hurt on your shift."
I didn't really want to think about the rest of that day. But he was right—it was different.
"Okay," I said warily. "What else do you want to know?"
"One thing I'd like to hear about is how your shift-mate managed to survive that explosion. How did he get out of the building?"
I could answer that. "Cap and Marco went in. Roy had been pretty sure that Johnny was coming down the stairs, so they were going to look around the stairs. I guess—I guess everybody knew if they didn't find him soon, there wasn't much hope."
"Why was that?"
"Because the whole building—every floor—was fully involved, all at once. Fires don't usually work that way—they usually start in one place in a building, and then spread. But with a gas explosion like that, it was the whole building, all at once. Mind you, the fire hadn't had a chance to become fully developed, yet, so he still had a chance—but only a couple minutes. Because after a couple minutes, any space with enough oxygen in it would flash over, and you don't survive that. You just don't."
"What was your job, at that point?"
"Me? I was on the engine. I'd charged the line, and Roy and Chet ran it into the building—really just to cover Cap and Marco a bit. That was no situation for an interior attack—no way, no how. But our guy was in there, so we had to try—at least try—to get him out before the whole place flashed over. And I could hardly believe it, but they did it—they got him out in like a minute."
"So, let me see if I have this right. Your captain, along with Lopez, went in to look for Gage. DeSoto and Kelly were backing them up, also inside. And you were at the engine."
My heart was thumping. I really didn't like this part of the story. "Yep—good old Mike the Engineer, standing by his engine, running the pump. Safe and sound."
"That's significant, isn't it."
"You said, 'safe and sound.' I think you're pretty keenly aware of the fact that your position as Engineer keeps you out of harm's way."
"It does," I admitted.
"And in this particular case—and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's highly unusual for the Captain to go inside, unless a battalion chief is there—but in this case, all five of your shift-mates were inside the building."
"You're right," I said. I cleared my throat. "That doesn't usually happen."
Pritchard looked at me again, and drummed his fingers on his notebook. "I've worked with quite a few engineers over the years, Mike, and one thing comes up over and over. People want to be engineers, because it's a promotion—better money, for one thing—and also because it's safer. You've paid your dues, probably for many years, and then you get promoted to a position where you can look forward to less arduous physical work, less danger, and a better paycheck. But then—when you're faced with a situation like the one you just described, I'm imagining that you probably feel pretty powerless. And maybe a bit guilty, too. Am I ringing any bells for you, here?"
"Yeah," I said, hoarsely. "Yeah. Powerless. That's exactly what it was. I couldn't do a fucking thing, Doc. Not a thing. I had no control over anything except the pressure in that hand line. And you know what? I really, really, really hated that."