Chapter 10: Work, Blood, and Water.
I parked my pickup truck in the lot behind Station 51. I was pleased to see Cap's old Ford sedan already sitting in the lot—it would be easy to hand him my paperwork and talk about what was going on if he was already sitting in the office.
I approached the open door of the office he shared with the two captains from the other shift. The apparatus bay was empty, which meant I'd find only Captain Stanley in the office, since B-shift was obviously on a run. Cap was busy at his desk with some of his interminable paperwork, so I tapped on the door to get his attention.
"Mike! C'mon in."
I closed the door on my way in, and sat down across from Cap's desk.
"Here's your copy of the paperwork," I said, handing the form across the desk.
"Terrific! We're glad to have you back. Your sub was wearing me out with his macho bullshit." Cap shook his head. "Perfectly decent at his job, but just couldn't shut up. Went on and on and on about his awesome workouts at his terrific gym. This many pounds on the bench press, and that many pounds on the deadlift—and if I heard the words 'awesome' or 'huge' one more time, I was gonna smack him."
"I think I can manage to avoid those words."
"Good—because he got Chet saying 'awesome' too."
Cap looked over the paperwork. "No OT, huh?" He turned around and unlocked the filing cabinet behind him, and pulled out a folder—presumably my file—and set it on the desk in front of him.
"Not for a while. He wants me to be around people who'll keep an eye on me. For the stuff we talked about the other day. The weird rituals. And anything else that comes up."
"That's fine." Cap lowered his eyebrows slightly. "You worried about anything, in terms of the job?"
I shook my head. "To be honest, Cap, I think it'll be really good for me to get back to work. It's normal, you know? And really don't think I'll have any problems. I mean, no problems that I didn't have already."
He looked at me intently. "You wanna tell me about any of those problems you have already? You don't have to—just if you want to."
Since he was technically responsible for me, I thought it was fair to give him the basics. I sat silently for a few seconds while I thought about how to phrase it.
"Pretty much what's going on is that I get wound up about things, stuck on things. I overthink certain kinds of things—not work things; they're all straightforward and unambiguous. I get worried about things that aren't worth worrying about, and I get too perfectionistic sometimes, and that can get out of hand. It's all been going on for a long time. I guess I just didn't really realize how out of hand it was getting."
Cap nodded slowly. "Okay. I'll keep my eyes open. But if it's been going on for a long time, and I haven't seen it before, I don't know what I'd really be looking for."
I didn't really know, either. "I don't know either. Just, well, anything that seems weird or excessive, I guess. Probably a good way to put it would be … I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it now. Sorry—that doesn't help much," I said sheepishly.
"Well," Cap said slowly, "if you know it when you see it, maybe I'll know it when I see it. I'll for sure keep my eyes open." He opened the file on his his desk, and thumbed through it until he found the right place for the form I'd given him.
As I watched him with my file, I realized there was something I'd forgotten to take care of. Or maybe that I just hadn't wanted to think about taking care of.
"Would it be possible for me to change my emergency contacts, as long as you have that file out?"
"Sure." He found the appropriate page and passed it across to me.
I found the "emergency contacts" table on the "personal information" form. There were only two lines filled in—one for my parents, and one for my ex. I drew a single black line through the line that read "Larry Morrison—friend, housemate—(h) 555-5973, (w) 555-8749." I passed the form back to Cap. He looked at it, and frowned slightly. "Oh, your housemate moved out?"
"Yeah. He moved to Boston, a couple months ago, actually."
"Sorry to hear that—were you guys close?"
"Yeah." I needed to change the subject, badly. "So that's why I've been doing so much overtime—all the expenses of living on your own, you know?"
The conversation didn't go in the direction I was hoping it would. "No luck finding a new housemate?"
"Uh … I'm gonna try it on my own for a while. See how that goes." Please, please, please, no more questions, I begged silently.
Cap looked back at the form. "The department really wants you to have two emergency contacts. Is there anyone else we could call beside your parents?"
I thought about it for a second. "Sure." I filled in the line below the one I'd crossed out. 'Serena Villanueva—friend—555-1452.' My college friend, the woman I got to be friends with at UCLA, who I was able to talk with some after my ex moved out. She'd be fine with being an emergency contact—I'd check with her later just to be sure. I passed the form back to Cap.
He looked at the new entry. "Good," he said.
"Well, I guess I'll go make some coffee, since I can tell by the smell that the stuff in the pot now has been there for hours." That was my normal routine for arriving at work, and I wanted to stick with it.
"Sure thing—carry on."
I stood up to go. "Oh—by the way, who's subbing for Gage today?"
"Guy by the name of Dan Baker, who I don't know. He usually runs with Squad 47, which I think is up in your neck of the woods, right?"
I nodded. "Yep. My house in in Station 47's district." I paused, and took a leap. "I was thinking, now that I have my place to myself, maybe I would have everyone over. I know it's way out of the way, but still."
"That'd be great, Mike. Let me know, and I'll try to be there."
"I was thinking, maybe I'd hold off till Gage was out of the hospital."
"That'd be nice. Say, he said you guys have been talking a lot. That's great."
"Yeah—he's pretty discouraged right now, Cap. I was thinking, when he gets out, we all oughta kind of watch out for him. You know, till he gets back to work. And especially when he first gets home."
"Good thought. He won't be able to drive for quite a while, either. Not even if he drove an automatic transmission, since it's his right leg." Cap made a note on a pad on his desktop. "I'll bring it up at roll call."
"Great. So, I guess I'll go make that coffee. See you at roll call."
The morning and early afternoon were pretty mundane. We got a few of our usual types of calls—alarm activations, a small kitchen fire that the homeowner had put out with an extinguisher by the time we got there, and a rescue call where they thought they'd need manpower for extrication, but didn't. Marco was chef for the day, and was planning a Mexican-style macaroni and cheese with a couple side dishes for dinner. We cleaned up after lunch, and had a quick run to a dumpster fire. We were getting ready to look over some plans for some new buildings in our district, when our tones dropped.
"Station 51, motor vehicle accident with injuries and entrapment. 1453 East Freemont, cross street Delaware. 1-4-5-3 East Freemont. Time out: 1912."
We raced to the scene—well, made good time without risking causing another accident—and were there in just over five minutes.
It was a three-vehicle accident—your classic scenario where someone loses control of their vehicle, and runs off the road, and while he's out of control, causes two other cars to crash into each other. Someone's tank had ruptured, so there was gas all over the place. Luckily, there was a hydrant across the road from the main part of the scene, so I charged up the reel line for Marco and connected up with the hydrant while he ran off the booster tank.
After a few minutes, Cap trotted over. Marco was rolling up the reel line. The booster tank gauge was reading full, so I figured I would be done at the pump panel shortly.
"Mike, when the tank's full, I need you to give Roy a hand at one of the cars, okay, pal? He'll need a backboard, and another set of hands to get this guy onto it. Chet and Marco are with Baker at the other car."
"Sure thing. Tank's almost full, so I'll shut down here and be right over with a backboard."
When the tank was full, I closed the tank fill valve, throttled the engine down, and took the engine out of pump gear. I grabbed the backboard, and trotted over to the sedan that Roy and Cap were working on. There was only one person in the car—the driver—and Roy was in the car putting a cervical collar on the victim, from the back seat, while Cap was just finishing cutting open the driver's-side door. Baker, Chet and Marco already had their victim backboarded and on the grass.
"Mike, I need you to get in the car with Roy. The dash is pushed forward pretty far, and there's just no way I'm gonna be able to fit in there."
"Sure thing, Cap." Sometimes, Cap's height worked against him, and this was one of those times.
I squeezed into the front seat, next to the unconscious driver.
"What's the scoop, Roy?"
"Guy's vitals aren't looking so great. We've gotta get him out now."
I knew the routine for rapid extrication—since we didn't know whether he had spinal injuries, we had to assume he did, and keep his spine as straight as possible as we slid him onto the backboard. My job, from the passenger's seat, would be to manage his hips and legs. Cap would be in charge of the torso. A bystander had been drafted by Cap to hold the head end of the backboard while we extricated the victim. Roy, who was in charge of keeping the patient's neck from moving, would call all our movements.
"Okay," said Roy. "On three, we'll turn him to his right, and Mike, you'll get his legs straight. Deep laceration to and probable fracture of the left lower leg, so be as careful as you can there."
"Got it," I said. Great. A deep laceration meant blood, for sure. Oh well. Nothing to be done.
Cap slid the foot end of the backboard under the victim's rear, and I crammed myself as far down into the footwell as I could. I grasped both pants cuffs with my right hand—I could feel warm moisture as I did so—and grabbed the waistband of the man's trousers with the other hand.
Roy began his count. "One, two, three!" I swung the man's feet up to the passenger's side of the seat, turning him at the hips at the same time, in one smooth movement. Cap took over holding the man's head, and he did the next count.
"Lower him down on three. One, two, three." We all worked together to lower him onto the part of the backboard that was under him already.
"Okay," Cap said to the man holding the head end of the backboard. "Next step is that we slide him up the board towards your end. You got it securely? It's gonna get heavy."
"I got it," the man said.
"All right, boys. On three, we'll slide him up. One, two, three." Working together, we slid him smoothly up the board, keeping his spine absolutely straight. I held onto the foot end of the backboard, and eased it out of the car. The four of us carried the backboard over to the tree lawn, where Roy had his equipment set up and waiting on the sidewalk. We set the man down, and got out of Roy's way.
My hands felt strange—I looked down at them. They were completely covered with blood—dripping, in fact. I instantly felt nauseous and faint at the same time. I dropped to my knees, in the tree lawn, and heaved my guts out, right into the perfectly positioned storm drain. Nice. Right in front of a bunch of gawking bystanders. Great PR, Stoker. Just great.
Cap noticed. Of course. He hauled me up—not unkindly, just quickly—and steered me over to the engine, where he sat me down on the running board. He grabbed a bucket, and opened the purge valve by the intake to fill the bucket with water. He set the bucket of water next to me, took my hands, which I was staring at blankly, and dunked them in the water.
"C'mon, pal. Wash those hands off."
I snapped out of it, and started scrubbing the blood of my hands in the bucket. I could see the water turning pink, and my gorge rose again. I gagged, but didn't throw up.
"Hang on," said Cap. He dumped the water down the gutter, and refilled the bucket. I repeated the scrubbing, and this time the water didn't turn pink. I took my hands out, and they looked fine. I could feel my stomach settling.
"You okay, Mike?" Cap looked at me carefully.
He kept looking at me, like he was trying to decide something.
"Honest, Cap. It's nothing new, remember? This has happened before—a couple times a year." I grabbed my canteen, which I kept stashed in a compartment under my seat, and rinsed my mouth out and spat into the gutter. "I'm fine. Really."
He nodded. "Okay. Don't break anything down here, yet—we'll need the reel line to wash the scene down after the towing company gets rid of the cars."
Three tow trucks were waiting behind the engine. Cap and I surveyed the scene, moved a few large or sharp pieces of debris out of the way, and waved the tow trucks through. I picked up all the extrication equipment, checked it all to make sure it was good for our next run, and loaded each piece of equipment into its appropriate compartment.
One ambulance, and then the second, exited the scene. The tow trucks soon had the cars ready to go, with any large parts that had come off tucked inside the vehicles. Except for the car that had gone off the road and hit a tree—probably the car whose driver would be at fault for the accident, though the sheriff's deputy who was talking with various witnesses would sort that out—the cars looked totaled.
Once the cars were gone, Chet took the squad over to Rampart, while Marco and Cap and I swept up broken glass and smaller car parts, and sprayed the scene down one more time with the reel line. I topped the engine's booster tank off, broke down the supply line, and Marco and I loaded the supply hose back onto the truck while Cap was giving some details to the deputy. It was just starting to get dark—and I realized I was starving. Losing the last of my lunch probably didn't help with that.
When I was getting ready to back the engine into the apparatus bay, I could see from the corner of my eye that Cap was looking down towards my feet, just to see my little ritual. I didn't disappoint him. Right foot on brake, left on clutch, tap tap tap, shift into reverse, and then I backed her up. Flawlessly.
Marco went to the kitchen and threw the mac and cheese into the oven, and then came back and got started hosing the engine down. I'd join him in a minute, but there was something I had to take care of first.
I headed through the bathroom, and into the locker area. I grabbed my toiletries bag, and took my nail brush out of it. I could still see some blood crusted around the edges of my fingernails, and that simply wouldn't do. I took the brush to a sink, ran the hot water, and soaped the brush up. I scrubbed, and scrubbed, rinsing every so often to check the results. After a couple minutes, my hands looked better, but still didn't feel quite right. I rinsed, resoaped, and scrubbed some more.
I jumped, and looked into the mirror to see who was behind me. Cap.
"Uh, yeah. Why?" I asked, confused.
"You've been in here almost fifteen minutes."
I turned off the water, and rinsed my hands and the brush.
"Let me see," Cap said.
I showed him my hands. He looked at them carefully, and looked back up at me.
"There's no more blood. You know that."
"But … but …"
"But what, Mike?" Cap said gently. "You had blood on your hands, and you washed it off. It's gone. That's all. There's nothing wrong."
My heart started pounding. I could feel the caveman brain taking over, telling me to be afraid, even though there was nothing to fear.
I looked at my hands, really carefully. I looked again. They were red, but not with blood—probably just because I'd been scrubbing them for over ten minutes straight. The blood was gone, and I didn't need to worry about it. I tried one of the things Pritchard had suggested towards the end of our last session, when we'd actually started talking about some ways to work on anxiety. I thought about someplace I felt calm—sitting on my deck with a cup of coffee, on the morning of a day off. I could feel my heartbeat slowing, and was able to slow my breathing down. I told the caveman to shut the hell up and get the hell out of my head—I was busy.
"You're right. There's nothing wrong at all."
"Attaboy." Cap clapped me on the shoulder. I put my things back into my locker, under his watchful eye, and we returned to the rest of the station. Cap headed to the office, and I went to the kitchen to see if Marco needed a hand with dinner.
"There you are!" Marco said as I entered the kitchen. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd flushed yourself down the toilet or something."
"Sorry I left you to clean Big Red all on your own. I, uh, kinda got sidetracked."
"In the bathroom?" Marco shook his head. "Man, I don't even wanna know."
No, he really didn't, I agreed silently. "Need a hand with anything in here?"
"Nope—just about finished up. Broccoli's cookin' on the stove, and the mac and cheese is pretty much ready, so as soon as the others get back, we can eat."
"All right. I'll set the table." At least that was something I could do.
As I finished laying out plates and silverware, I heard the squad backing into the bay, and a minute later, Roy, Baker, and Chet came into the kitchen, Cap trailing close behind them.
"Man, that smells awesome!" Chet said. Cap winced at that last word.
"Perfect timing, gentlemen. Dig in," said Marco, as he put the casserole onto the trivet I'd set out on the table.
As usual, I had no trouble sleeping at the station. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. It seemed like only minutes later when the tones blasted us all awake.
"Station 51, Station 10, Truck 87, report of a smoke odor, third floor, 2159 Pinegrove, 2-1-5-9 Pinegrove, cross street Adams. Time out: 0318."
Okay, so it had been over five hours, not five minutes, I thought as I pulled my suspenders over my shoulders and fastened my pants. I gave the map a quick check to make sure the place was where I thought it was, and to see where the nearest hydrant was, because "report of a smoke odor" could mean anything from yesterday's burnt dinner to today's fully-developed room-and-contents fire, ready to spread upwards and outwards. I fired up the engine, and pulled out as soon as the door was fully open.
As we got closer to our destination, I was pretty sure we'd be dealing with something closer to my second example than the first. It was a still, humid night, and the odor of smoke—and not the pleasant smell of woodsmoke—hung in the air. As we pulled around the corner, we could see flames licking from a third-floor window in a large house. I stopped at the hydrant on the corner, and Marco hopped out and grabbed the hydrant bag, tossing it next to the hydrant before he returned to the engine to pull the end of the supply line off the hosebed. He wrapped the end around the hydrant, and gave me the sign to pull away.
I pulled the engine slowly past the building so Cap could get a good look at the three visible sides of the structure while he was on the radio giving dispatch a preliminary report.
"L.A., Engine 51. We have a three-story residential structure, with the third floor well involved. Send us a full second alarm assignment."
Station 10's engine was pulling up just as we parked. Two of their men hopped out and masked up, ready to start a search as soon as we had a line in the front door. Their aerial ladder took the space we'd left it, right in front of the building, as their engine prepared to supply them with water from the next hydrant.
Chet hopped down from his seat and started stretching a two-and-a-half to the front door. I parked the engine just past the house, and headed around the back to find the next set of couplings on the supply line. I pulled off maybe twenty-five more feet of supply line, and uncoupled the hose from what was left on the truck. I connected the line to the intake on the side of the engine by the pump panel, and looked down the block to where Marco was at the hydrant. I gave him the signal to open the hydrant. As soon as the water was flowing, he trotted back to the scene, joining Chet at the nozzle of the attack line. Chet gave me the signal to charge the line.
I turned to the pump panel, and throttled up the engine to get the pump's discharge pressure where I wanted it to be. I was ready to charge the line, so I—
It was the same line I'd frozen up on before. I'd have to use the same control. My heart was pounding, and my breathing was fast. But this time the caveman was right—there was danger. I should run away, or I should freeze and be ready to fight.
But I'm not a caveman. The caveman hadn't yet figured out how to start fires, let alone put out really big ones. But I had. I was smarter than the caveman, and I knew what to do.
For the second time that shift, I told the caveman to shut the hell up. Yeah, there was danger, but there'd be a whole hell of a lot more if I didn't do my job. So I put my hand straight onto the control to charge the line, and pulled.
I watched as the hose filled with water, changing from a useless, flat noodle to a powerful, lifesaving tool. The pair from 10s successfully forced the front door open just as the line finished charging. I had done my job, so now the men entering the building could do theirs. In our business, water is life. This time, I got the water where it needed to be, right on time. And I knew that the next time, and the time after that, I would do the same.
Sure—I still had plenty of work to do. But for the first time, I really believed what Dr. Pritchard had said—that I could do that work, make those changes, while I was doing my job. I believed it, because I'd just proven to myself, beyond a doubt, that my rational brain was just a little bit stronger than my caveman brain. And I knew that the harder I worked, the stronger my rational brain would get.
It might take a while, but I'd be fine.
A/N: Thanks for reading! I particularly thank those of you who took the time to comment.