September 19, 2002
Disclaimer: Emergency! and its characters belong to Universal Television and Mark VII Limited. I’m just borrowing them.
Thanks: To all the usual suspects--especially for the title conference!
Summary: What do you do when it happens to you? That’s what John Gage has to figure out.
“Geez, Gage, that's rough.”
“You need anything, you gimme a call, okay?”
“Man, what a lousy thing to have happen.”
“You gonna be all right?”
One by one John Gage’s friends and coworkers, their faces still lined with sweat and soot from fighting the blaze, came by to offer the stunned man their condolences. Johnny nodded, thanked them, shook their hands, said and did all the right things, while staring in disbelief at the pile of rubble that had once been his home.
What were the chances? It was the thought that kept running through his head. What were the chances that a guy would get called to a response at his own home, and that by the time they arrived it would already be too late? That all anyone would be able to do was protect the neighboring buildings, and make sure everyone was accounted for?
They were accounted for. He was grateful for that, anyway. They--his neighbors--were all safe. Even Mr. Piscitelli had gotten his three birds out.
At that thought Johnny turned around to look at the people huddled together on the other side of the parking lot, some with coats over their pajamas, some with blankets that he and Roy had provided. When they’d first arrived the two paramedics had been busy checking everyone out, counting heads, determining the whereabouts of the missing tenants. Lucy McMartin was visiting her sister in Sacramento. The Nelsons were camping in Yosemite. Old Mr. Hanson was in the hospital with another bad case of gout.
John Gage had been at work.
And as a result, he had nothing. Piscitelli had his birds. Larry and Annie Houseman, married less than a year, were clutching their wedding album between them. Mrs. Polski was wearing the ridiculous fur coat that she pulled out every time the temperature dipped below 65 degrees, and had her jewelry box in her hands. Everyone, it seemed, had had time to grab something of great meaning and save it.
Not Johnny. The quilt his grandmother had made was gone. The only two pictures he had of his late grandfather were gone. His diploma from the fire academy, and the three commendations he’d received over the years were gone. The picture Roy’s daughter had drawn him for his birthday was gone. His clothes, his dishes, his furniture, his books.
Everything was gone.
When Gage heard his name being called, he instantly realized it couldn’t have been the first time Roy had said it--the tone made that clear. He shook his head, and looked at his partner. “Yeah?”
“Where were ya? I must have called you half a dozen times.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Roy said kindly. “We’re ready to get out of here. Are you?”
Johnny looked at what was left of the building for a moment, then at his neighbors. He never really gave a whole lot of thought to what happened to the victims of a fire after the engines left before. But this time was different. Those people were him. “What about them?”
“The Red Cross is here. They’re taking them to that motel over on La Cienaga. They’ll be okay.”
“How about you?”
Would he be? “Yeah, Roy,” he promised. “I’ll be okay. I’m okay.”
“Do you want to go with them? They’re your friends, after all. Cap’s already offered to call in a replacement for you.”
John took in the sight of his apartment-mates once again. No, he didn't want to join them; didn't want to become another of the shocked and shivering victims in need of a helping hand.
“If it’s all the same to you, Roy, I want to stay on duty. Let’s go home.”
The station. He called it “home” all the time, because he always did think of it as his second home.
And now it was the only one he had.
+ + + + +
The faint sound of wake-up tones being signaled down the line from the radio in the apparatus bay woke Johnny up. He lay there with his eyes closed, waiting for the tones for station 51 to be played, and opened his eyes only when it didn't happen. He sat up and immediately noticed that he was alone. It was 6:30, and everyone else was already up. What the hell?
He stood, pulled on his bunker pants, and went in search of his friends. He was right outside the dayroom door when he was able to make out what was being said.
"What's he gonna do?" That was Marco.
"I don't know. He didn't say anything at all on the ride back, and then went straight to bed." Roy.
Johnny slumped against the wall with the realization that they were talking about him. He'd actually forgotten: managed to traverse the three minutes from waking to now in blissful ignorance. Funny how things like that happened.
Hank was speaking now. ". . . whatever we can. He's gonna need our support."
That was enough. Johnny stood up, squared himself, and walked into the room.
"You better check with dispatch, Cap," he said first. "The wakeup tones didn't go off in the dorm."
"There's no problem, John. We were all up early, and I figured you could use the sleep, so I called in and asked Sam to skip them. How're you feeling, pal?"
Gage looked at the faces staring earnestly at him. To the man, they looked sad, upset, sympathetic.
"You didn't have to do that," he told his captain, quickly turning toward the coffeepot. "I'm fine." He poured himself a cup, pausing for a moment to let the soothing warmth of the liquid seep into his hands through the mug before taking a sip.
"I already called Joanne," Roy was telling him. "You'll come home with me and stay in our den until you're back on your feet. It's all settled."
Back on his feet? Had he been knocked off them? And why hadn't anyone consulted him? Is that what they'd been doing all morning? Sitting there deciding his future, without so much as asking what he wanted? He felt the indignant anger rising in his chest, but got a grip on it before he opened his mouth. They were just trying to help, he knew. And he did need some place to crash while he found a new apartment. Roy's was as good a place as any. He took another sip of coffee, letting the mug act as a shield while he finished regaining his composure.
"Thanks, Roy," he ended up saying. "Appreciate it."
He put the mug on the counter, and went to get dressed.
+ + + + +
Johnny stared into his locker and chuckled ruefully as he stared at the contents, which constituted his entire wardrobe now. They weren't even his favorite jeans. If only he'd thrown the laundry in the back of the Rover before coming to work like he'd planned to do--thinking he'd do his laundry on the way home after his shift--then he'd have most of his clothes still. But he'd forgotten, and now they were gone.
The door opened, and even without looking, John knew it was Roy. His partner sat down on the bench, in front of his own locker, and next to his friend.
"You sleep okay?" Roy asked. Odd question.
"Yeah, slept fine. Like a rock, actually." That was the truth. "Why? Didn't you?"
DeSoto leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees heavily. "No, not really. I . . . ." He paused and looked up at Gage. "I'm sorry this happened to you."
Johnny turned his attention back to his locker and pulled his uniform shirt out with a shrug. "It's not like it doesn't happen to people all the time, Roy," he pointed out. "We know that better'n anyone."
"Yeah, but it's different when it happens to you . . . or to someone you know."
John was pulling on his pants now. "Why's that?"
Roy shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe because I know what you lost."
It was a shitty thing to say; John knew that the minute it left his mouth. But how could Roy know? John didn't even know himself.
+ + + + +
Johnny pulled his Rover in front of the DeSoto home and sighed. The remainder of the morning had been quiet; he'd spent most of it outside sitting on the picnic table, and thankfully he'd been left alone. During shift-change the speed of the department grapevine was made evident, as every member of B-shift arrived already knowing what had happened, and brimming with sympathy.
He glanced to his right, at the shopping bag of clothes sitting on the seat, a "donation" from paramedics Charlie Dwyer and Nelson Torres. They'd apparently rifled their closets for old stuff before coming in to work. Beside the fact that Torres was at least three inches shorter than John, and Charlie was 20 pounds heavier, the very idea of wearing someone else's clothes made his skin crawl. He got out of the truck, and left the bag there.
He'd have to do some shopping.
+ + + + +
"Oh Johnny, you poor thing! I'm so sorry!" Gage wrapped his arms around Joanne lightly, in a vague approximation of a hug.
How long would it be like this? How long would people act like he'd just lost a close family member, and not just a bunch of furniture? He didn't have the first idea how to react, what to say. He didn't want to have to say anything, as a matter of fact.
Why wasn't he more upset? When would he stop feeling numb?
"Hey, at least no one got hurt," he told his friend's wife. That seemed to appease her, and she released him.
"I've got the sleeper pulled out and all made up for you," she told him. "And I moved some coats out of the hall closet so you'd have some place to hang your clothes." As soon as she said it, Jo stopped. "Oh," she said apologetically, realizing that he had no clothes to hang. "Right." After a second she smiled brightly. "We'll just have to go shopping!" she decided.
+ + + + +
At first John wasn't sure what woke him. He stretched, wincing as his left shoulder blade protested the injustice of having a sofa bed spring poking into it all night.
Then he heard the whispering, right outside the door. He couldn't make out the words, but the voices were unmistakably those of Chris and Jennifer, and they were arguing. Probably about who had to knock on the door. Johnny had no idea what Roy and Joanne had told the kids about what happened, but whatever it was, it seemed to have the effect of making them nervous around him, afraid of what to say. And his mood the previous day hadn’t helped matters in the least. They were only eight and six, and Johnny knew they didn’t understand. But he just hadn’t been able to fake it for their sake. So they’d remained sullen and detached--much like he had been.
He listened to the whispering some more, sighed, and considered telling them he was up. But he'd forgotten to get some pajamas or sweats during his brief shopping trip the day before, so he was only wearing his shorts.
Instead he got up and briefly considered putting on one of the three new pairs of jeans he'd purchased. But there was nothing worse than wearing new jeans. You had to wash them first. As he pulled on his worn pair, he decided he'd make a run to the laundromat today.
He opened the door with a forced smile, and greeted the kids. It wasn’t their fault, what happened. He had to try and make them feel a little more comfortable. This was their home, after all, and he was a guest.
“Breakfast’s ready,” Chris informed him, all the while staring at the floor and scuffing the carpet with his sneakered toe.
“Great. Thanks. Let’s eat.” Jennifer brightened considerably at his forced joviality, but John could tell Chris wasn’t buying it. Oh well, one out of two was better than nothing. He let the girl drag him into the kitchen.
He sat down at the kitchen table, the smell of bacon frying making his stomach grumble, though he didn't actually feel hungry. Roy handed him a cup of coffee, which he took silently, though gratefully.
Next thing he knew, Roy was handing him the paper.
"What's this?" he asked.
"The Saturday paper is always the one with all the real estate listings. Thought maybe you'd want to get to work on finding a new place."
"Not that we're trying to get rid of you, Johnny!" Joanne chimed in from her place at the stove. "Not at all; we love having you here."
Gage didn't quite believe that.
"Have you thought about maybe buying a place this time?" Roy asked as he sat down next to his partner. "They have some great programs for first-time homebuyers, you know. You don't need as much of a down payment as you might think."
Had he thought about it? Thirty-six hours ago he'd had a perfectly fine place to live. Why would he have thought about it? Once again Johnny felt himself getting angry, but he stopped his urge to snap at his friend. He pretended to read the apartment listings instead, and left the question unanswered. He could feel the tension, sense the look exchanged between husband and wife, but they didn't say anything, either.
"We're all going over to the park at noon for Chris's Little League game," Joanne finally told him as she placed a plate of eggs and bacon in front of her guest. "Why don't you join us?"
Normally he'd have said yes. Normally, there was a good chance he'd have met them there anyway, leaving from his own home. He enjoyed the kids and the competition, and teaching Jennifer about the game. For some reason she listened when he told her, but couldn't be interested when her own father tried. Normally he'd have thought it was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But nothing was normal any more, and today it was the last thing he wanted to do.
"Thanks," he said as he bit into a piece of bacon he didn't really want. "But I've got some stuff I need to do. I need to take my new clothes to the laundromat and give 'em a wash."
"Oh, don't be silly, Johnny!" Joanne exclaimed. "Just give them to me. I'll wash them for you!"
"No, no, I can do it myself," he protested. God, he didn't want her washing his clothes.
Another silent look was exchanged between Roy and Jo before she answered. "Well, okay, if you want to. But don't go to the laundromat. You're more than welcome to use the washer and dryer in the basement. What is the saying? 'Mi casa es su casa.'"
No, it wasn't. And that, Johnny knew, was the problem.
+ + + + +
Gage pulled his truck into the parking lot and stared at the rubble for a long time. The south wall of the building still stood, but that was all. The rest was just a pile of debris: charred beams, heaps of ash and muck, pipes that had been melted and twisted into grotesque shapes by the heat of the fire.
And to think, he used to believe that the power of flames was awesome: an admirable foe. Now . . . now that it was his life still reeking of ash and smoke, he didn’t think that any more.
He got out of the car and approached the ruins.
“Oh, Johnny, what are we going to do?”
The paramedic turned to see Mrs. Polski standing just to the right of his Rover. He hadn’t even noticed her. He grinned slightly and approached the old woman. “How are you doing, Mrs. Polski?” He purposefully didn’t answer her question.
“Oh, I just don’t know. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. Everything is gone! All of my things that Stanley, God rest his soul, brought over from the old country. It’s all gone!” She started to weep, and Johnny found himself putting his arm around the woman.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t home,” he heard himself saying. “I might have been able to do something.” That thought hadn’t actually crossed his mind until that very second, as he was saying it. Would he have been able to do something? By the looks of what was left, he knew the answer was “no.” But still. . . . .
“Oh, don’t be silly young man,” the Polish lady admonished. “What you might have done was get yourself hurt! That’s what we have to keep telling ourselves, isn’t it? No one was hurt. Look at our building. And no one was hurt. That’s a miracle, if you ask me.”
John nodded. The fire had been fast moving; it was amazing that everyone had gotten out safely. He knew that.
But for some reason, that knowledge gave him little comfort.
+ + + + +
Johnny entered Roy’s house through the kitchen door, and was immediately greeted by Joanne, folding his laundry at the kitchen table. He’d left the clothes in the washer, and figured he’d be home in time to get them in the dryer before Chris’ game was over. But he hadn’t planned on going by his apartment--or what was left of it, anyway.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry, Joanne,” he said, quickly grabbing his clothes, both folded and unfolded, from the woman. Jo was stunned, and released her hold on one of his shirts as John snatched it away.
“It’s no trouble, Johnny, really! I do laundry for four people already. What’s one more? You’re our guest. I’m happy to do it.”
“No, no I’m not!” John heard himself saying, his voice getting more urgent and loud with each word. “I’m not a guest! At least I don’t want to be! Let me . . . .” He took a deep breath, calming only a little. “Please, Jo,” he pleaded. “Please don’t take care of me. I can take care of myself. Let me take care of myself.”
And with those words, he fled to his room--only it wasn’t his room. It was someone’s den.
+ + + + +
It only took about two minutes for Gage to become filled with remorse for his outburst. He had no idea what had gotten into him. Hell, he had no idea why he was saying half the things he was saying lately. But he did know that Joanne DeSoto hadn’t deserved that, and he owed her an apology.
He left the clothes where he’d dropped them on the sofa bed, and headed back to the kitchen to apologize. But he was still in the dining room when he heard Roy and Jo whispering--loudly.
“He just needs some time to figure out what to do,” Roy was saying.
“I know that, Roy,” Joanne responded, “and I’m not unsympathetic. But we have the kids to think about, too. What if he snaps at them like that? They’re already uncomfortable having him around when he’s in this funk.”
“It’s not just a ‘funk,’ Joanne! He lost his home. Everything he owned is gone! Imagine what that must be like!”
“I know, honey, but,”
“No ‘buts,’ Jo. Johnny’s our friend. He’s been there for us more times than we could count, and now he needs us. And we’re going to be there for him, for as long as he needs us, understand?”
Johnny had heard enough. He crept back into the den and started folding the rest of his clothes. He appreciated Roy’s words, he really did. But Joanne was right, too. He was intruding, making them all uncomfortable.
He had to get out of there.
+ + + + +
The first thing Johnny did the next morning, upon arrival at work, was find Marco. He’d spent most of the previous night weighing a motel against asking Marco if he could stay with him for a couple of days, and decided on his friend, mostly for practical reasons.
After all, he’d need money to replace his stuff, and motels cost money.
"Sure, Johnny, no problem," Marco told him. "But you mind if I ask what's wrong with staying at Roy's?"
Johnny fidgeted uneasily. "I dunno, Marco," he said, "I'm just not comfortable. I stick out there; I'm getting in the way, making Joanne have to do even more work. I just don't want to intrude any more, that's all."
Marco smiled knowingly. "Well, don't worry. In my family, no one gets in the way. The more the merrier. In fact, my mother still has my brother Carlos' room all set up, and he's out in the Pacific somewhere on some submarine. You can sleep in there."
Visions of upending and upsetting another family instantly leapt to John's mind, and he got nervous. "But I thought you had your own place?"
Marco chuckled. "I do. Right downstairs. I live in the apartment in my mom's basement. And my sister and her family live next door, and my aunt's across the street, and three of my cousins are around the corner. It's a regular zoo most of the time. Don't worry, Johnny," the Hispanic man finished with a jovial pat to his friend's shoulder, "you'll be right at home."
Still somewhat stunned, John only nodded. Now what had he gotten himself into?
+ + + + +
"Really, Mrs. Lopez, I'm full!"
"Nonsense, young man, look at you! You're skin and bones! Marco, why haven't you brought Juan over for dinner before? He needs some fattening up!"
Marco chuckled and winked at his guest. "What'd I tell you? Mama will take good care of you!"
Gage sighed, but said nothing, his anxiety rising with each breath. After a second, he stood quickly, startling his hosts. But he had to get out of there. Now. "I . . . I . . . ," he stammered, "I think I'm gonna go out and get some air. I'll be back in a few minutes."
As he pushed his way through the screen door into the Lopez back yard, John didn't have any problem imagining the stunned looks being exchanged by the people he'd just left in his wake. But he was feeling claustrophobic. Smothered. Like the walls were closing in on him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
God, was this how everyone this happened to felt? Angry one second, frustrated the next, despairing the next, and eventually back at angry? The really hard part was trying not to take it out on the people who were only trying to help. And that's what was putting him in a back yard in East L.A. at 8pm on a Monday night.
"You okay, Johnny?" The paramedic turned to find Marco standing on the top of the porch steps.
"Yeah, Marco, I'm fine. Sorry about that. I just . . . ." He didn't finish the thought, because he didn't know what to say; how to explain.
"It's okay," Marco started as he descended the steps. "Mama can be a little overbearing. I'm used to it, so I forget. But as long as you are here, she's gonna treat you just like one of her sons. It's a compliment."
Gage chuckled. "I know, Marco, she didn't do anything. It's me." Johnny turned away from his friend, and looked pensively up at the sky, which was just changing from dusk to darkness. "It's me."
"Don't worry," Lopez promised with a pat to John's shoulder. "Tomorrow my Uncle Javier will be up from San Diego, and mama's having everyone over for supper. There'll be so many people here, she won't have time to dote on you!"
Great, Johnny thought. Just great.
+ + + + +
"A fireman's house burned down!?!??" For some reason Uncle Javier found this particularly funny, coming back to it several times as he held court before his extended family, all joined together to see him as if he lived a thousand miles away, not a little over a hundred.
John sat quietly in the corner, faking a grin when attention was turned his way, and trying really hard not to blow his stack. He'd spent all of the morning and half of the afternoon looking at apartments, but the places he could afford were dumps, and the places he liked, he couldn't afford. He was stuck. Stuck here, in a place he didn't belong, playing the butt of some joke that he didn't think was funny at all.
After a few more minutes of suffering in silence, John got up and left the house again--through the kitchen, hoping to buy himself some time before anyone noticed he was gone. But the house was so crowded with people laughing and talking, he doubted anyone would miss him for a good long time.
This wasn't working, either.
+ + + + +
John was tying his boots, grateful to be back at work, at the station, where at least he knew he belonged, knew what to do, knew what was expected of him.
"Hey, Johnny," Chet greeted as he swept into the room. John groaned inwardly, and hoped Kelly wouldn't start anything. He wasn't in the mood. He honestly didn't think he'd ever be in the mood again.
The fireman didn't go to his locker, didn't go to the sink or the toilet. He sat down on the bench right next to Gage.
"Not today, Chet," the paramedic warned.
"Not working out at Marco's, huh?" Kelly remarked. But there was no mirth or teasing in his voice.
Johnny looked up warily. "Why? What'd he say?"
Chet shrugged. "Nothing, really. Just that you're miserable, that's all."
Gage stood and slammed his locker shut. "Well, I am. But that's not Marco's fault." He turned around and leaned against the now-closed door. "You don't know of any apartments out there, do you?"
"Nope. But my place has two bedrooms. The other one's full of junk, but there's a bed in there. Yours if you want it."
Johnny was dumbstruck. Chet?? Chet? Was he out of his mind? They'd kill each other in a matter of hours.
Or would they? Chet was right. It wasn't working at Marco's, and he really couldn't afford a long stay in even the seediest of motels. And Mike's place was out, because his wife had just had a baby. And no way would he stay with Cap, even if he offered, which John knew he wouldn't. He didn't have a whole lot of options.
"Umm, I'll think about it. Thanks."
He left the locker room and found Roy about to enter on the other side of the door. Instead of going in, the older paramedic followed his partner into the bay. "Think about what?" Roy asked.
"Chet offered to let me stay with him tomorrow."
Roy shook his head incredulously. "Look, I understood when you said you didn't want to stay with me, and that was fine, really. But are you just going to bounce from one person to the next every three days? What are you going to do when you've worked your way through all your friends? What are you going to do, Johnny?"
Gage studied his partner for a second before answering honestly. "I don't know," he said simply. "I don't know."
+ + + + +
"Okay, here's the deal," Chet started as he unlocked his door. He picked up a key from the small table right by the entrance, and handed it to Johnny. "Your key," is all he said. He led Gage down the hall toward the bedrooms. "I'm a slob, and I like being a slob. I only clean up for my mom, and you ain't her. You don't like it, leave."
He opened the only closed door at the end of the narrow hallway and stepped inside. John followed. The room was a mess; boxes and junk were piled everywhere. Chet stepped up to the bed and started pushing stuff off of it and onto the far side. Soon he'd uncovered an afghan. "The sheets under there are clean, honest. Mom always washes 'em and puts 'em back before she leaves, and no one else ever sleeps in here."
Chet then left the room, and Gage followed, not saying a word. The bathroom was the next stop. "I like to shower first thing in the morning. I don't have a lot of hot water, so you're gonna have to shower at night. Don't like it, leave." He opened a cabinet, pulled out a set of towels, and handed them to John. "My mom uses these. The good ones. Don't mess 'em up."
He headed back toward the living room, and Johnny again followed. Soon they were in the kitchen. "You can take anything you find in here, so long as you replace it," Chet was saying. He started opening cabinets, and identifying the contents: glasses, dishes, pots. "I don't cook for myself, so I ain't cooking for you. You don't like it,"
"Leave," John finished for him.
Chet smiled and nodded. "Right. I'm gonna take a shower, and I have a date tonight, so you'll be on your own."
As Kelly walked away, John looked down at the towels in his hands, and actually smiled. No one waiting on him, no one watching his every move, no one caring when he came and went, what he ate and when.
This might work after all.
+ + + + +
Chet had left on his date hours ago. At first John had reveled in the solitude, had thrown his feet up on the coffee table and settled in to watch a ball game on TV. Finally he was alone, had some time to himself.
Time to think, it turned out--something he didn't really want to do.
It had started subtly. He'd gotten up to get a glass of soda, and paused at the cabinet when he realized he didn't own any glasses any more. He'd shaken the maudlin thought off, and went back to the living room. But when he sat down, the laundry list had continued.
He had no sofa, no coffee table, no TV.
But so what? his internal monologue had asked. He'd never been much into material possessions, so why was he bothered? His most prized possession was easily his car, and he still had that. Everything else? Well, those things could be replaced. So what was the problem?
It was the other stuff. Chet hadn't been lying when he said he was a slob; there was clutter on every shelf and surface. But it wasn’t just clutter. It was Chet's stuff, and it defined who he was--from the Kelly coat of arms plaque that hung on the wall, to the mustache trimmer sitting on the edge of the sink in the bathroom. Realizing that he didn't have anything like that any more was a sobering thought.
Gage got up and turned off the TV. He wasn't watching, and he didn't even know the score--or care, for that matter. He wandered aimlessly from place to place, just checking out the apartment without actually touching anything. Stuff, he kept telling himself. It's just stuff.
But it was Kelly's stuff, and it just reminded John that he didn't belong here, either. Fact was, he didn't belong anywhere any more. At least not two days out of every three.
What was he going to do?
He found himself at the doorway of Chet's room, looking in. This room, too, was a mess, all except for the neatly made bed, which looked totally out-of-place. The quilt there captured John's attention; it was clearly old, clearly a family heirloom. It looked nothing like the one his grandmother had made, but that didn't matter, it was still the same. It was, to Chet, what his grandmother's had been to him. John was sure of it. And his grandmother's was gone forever. That was the thing, he suddenly realized--the thing he would have saved if he'd had the chance. Only he hadn't.
John was suddenly aware of the tears running down his cheeks, and impatiently wiped them away with the back of his hand. He started to stop himself from giving in to the emotion, and rushed out onto Chet's balcony, thinking the fresh air would help.
But standing there, outside, all alone, in the dark, Gage didn't see any point in stopping himself. He sank into a patio chair, and let himself weep.
+ + + + +
He didn't cry for long, and was just beginning to pull himself together when Chet's voice came from behind him.
"Well, it's about time you got that out of your system," he said.
John figured he should get mad, but he just didn't have it in him. "How long have you been back?" he asked without turning his head to look at the other man.
"Long enough." Chet left the doorway, came around in front of Johnny, and leaned against the railing, facing his friend. "Feel any better?" he asked.
Gage pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. "Feelin' stupid," he admitted.
"Why? If what happened to you happened to me, I'd have done it a long time ago."
"You would not," John scoffed.
Kelly pulled over the other chair and sat down. "Damn straight I woulda. Hell, Gage, your home burned down. You lost everything."
"It's just stuff; things," Johnny argued, as much to himself as to the man in front of him.
"If that's true, then how come you're sitting out here cryin' like a girl?"
The paramedic chuckled mirthlessly. "Good question."
"Maybe cuz it wasn't just stuff? Things are important, Johnny, to everyone. They mean things, represent things. They're memories. It's okay to admit that they're important to you, too. It's okay to grieve for 'em."
"How would you know?"
"I'm a fireman. Seen it happen lots of time. Happens to everyone, you know."
John ran his hands through his hair and looked at Chet. "Guess I never paid attention."
"Sure you did, John," Kelly disagreed. "It's just that it's different when it happens to you, that's all."
"When did you get so smart?"
Chet laughed. "Always have been, my friend. And it's about time you noticed!"
Gage chuckled himself. But after a moment he stopped, then leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and staring down at the floor. "I don't know what to do," he admitted quietly.
The scrape of metal chair on cement patio signified that Chet had stood up. Then Johnny felt his friend's hand on his shoulder. "Sure you do. You'll pull yourself together, find a new place, get some new furniture, and start over. Start building some new memories."
Gage looked up at his friend, feeling like he was seeing the real Chet Kelly for the first time in his life. "Yeah?" he asked.
"Yeah," Kelly agreed. "And while you're doing that, you'll be paying half my rent. It's gonna be great!"
Johnny laughed out loud, and playfully shoved his friend out of the way so he could stand. He passed the other man on the way to the door, pausing before going through. "Thanks, Chet," he offered.
"You're welcome, Johnny."
+ + + + +
EPILOGUE: Four Weeks Later
Johnny leapt out of his Rover and ran back to the car that had pulled up to the curb behind him. "This is it. Isn't it great?" he asked Roy as the older man climbed out of the DeSoto family station wagon.
Roy looked at the building, which had clearly once been a very large, very posh, single-family home, and had now been converted into several apartments. It was great, and Roy told his partner so.
"I mean, my old place was nice and all," Gage enthused, "but this place? This place has real character!"
"That it does, Johnny, it looks real nice."
"Wait till you see inside," Gage continued, leading his friend up the path. "It's a little bit smaller than my old place, but that place was too big anyway." By now he'd reached the front door and was unlocking it. "There's only five apartments, too, two each on the first two floors, and one on the third. It'll be quiet when we're out all night on calls, and I want to come home and sleep!" The dark-haired man was taking the stairs two at a time, leading up to his apartment door. Roy had to rush to keep up. By the time he got to the top of the staircase, Johnny had his door unlocked.
"It's got a separate kitchen and dining room, so I'm gonna have to get a real table and chairs, I think."
Roy entered the apartment and smiled. It had hard wood floors, and molding at the ceiling. The living room was large, with an archway on the right that led to a dining room, and doors on the left that led to a bathroom and a bedroom. "It's nice, Johnny, really nice."
"Yeah, isn't it? It's great."
"How'd you end up finding it?"
"Remember Mrs. Polski? The old lady from my building with the fur coat?" Roy nodded with recognition. "She found it! She moved into one of the apartments on the first floor last week. When she found out the people in here were moving out, she called me."
"Well, that's lucky. I was afraid of what would happen if you and Chet lived together much longer!"
John chuckled. "You know, Roy," he admitted, "Chet Kelly's okay."
"Yeah, Johnny, I know."
Their conversation was interrupted by a car horn blaring from the street. "What the. . . ?" John wondered aloud.
Roy smiled knowingly. "Why don't you go see what it is," the light-haired man advised.
Gage went into his bedroom to look out the window, and almost immediately came running through again, and out the door. Roy followed at a much more leisurely pace.
"What are you guys doing here?" Johnny asked as soon as he got outside. Standing in his new front yard was the rest of the guys, in front of a good-sized rental truck.
"Came to see the new place, pal," Hank answered. "Hear it's real nice."
John smiled widely. "It is! It's great. Come on inside!"
Cap gestured toward the truck. "Why don't we bring something up with us?" he asked. Gage gave him a puzzled look, so the captain continued. "Why don't you take a look."
Marco released the catch, and lifted the door to the truck as John approached. The paramedic looked inside, and was astonished. There was a sofa, and a desk, and what looked like a couple of bookcases, and a bunch of other stuff. "What the. . . ?" he asked again.
Cap came up behind him, and clamped his hand on John's shoulder. "Well, we figured you could use a few things. So we all went through our basements and stuff, and pulled together some castoffs. Just to get you started."
Gage turned his back on the truck, and looked at his friends' smiling faces. "Are you kidding me?" he asked incredulously. "You did this for me?"
"Sure," Marco said. "There's an old kitchen table and some chairs in there from my mom. They need some paint, but they're in pretty good shape."
"The sofa is the one you probably saw in my den, John," Hank added. "We just got a new one; it was delivered two weeks ago."
Gage turned to look at the piece of furniture. "It's nicer than mine was, that's for sure," he mumbled.
"I lost my office to the baby," Mike told him, "so that big old desk is from me."
"And the bookcases are from our house, Johnny," Roy said. "We used those before we had the built-ins put in. I always figured they'd end up in Jen's room, but she doesn't need them. Not yet, anyway."
"I'll give 'em back when she does, Roy," a stunned John Gage promised. "Honest."
"Don’t' worry about it," DeSoto promised. "They're pretty ugly. She'd probably hate them anyway!"
"Okay, enough chat, fellas," Hank interrupted, "let's get this thing unloaded!"
+ + + + +
Johnny stood in the middle of his new home, and shook his head in awe. He figured he'd have to start with a bed, and buy stuff little by little as his finances allowed. But now, just like that, he had an almost fully furnished place. There was even a plant, sent by Hank's wife, who insisted that a house wasn't a home until it had a plant.
He turned to a noise at the door, and saw Marco and Chet coming in, each carrying a box. "I didn't have any furniture to throw in," Chet explained, "but I have way more dishes than I need. Marco hefted his box up a bit, to indicate that's what he was carrying, as he took it straight to the kitchen. "And this," Kelly dropped his box at John's feet with an unceremonious thud, "is some sheets and blankets and stuff, and a few towels."
John knelt down and pulled the box open. Sitting on top were the 'good towels' he'd been using at Chet's for the better part of a month. He picked one up and looked up at his friend, who remained standing. "I'll give 'em back as soon as I get some of my own, okay?" he offered.
"Nope. Keep 'em. My mom will give me new ones at Christmas. She always does."
John moved the towels aside, and sitting underneath them was a quilt. John pulled it out, and soon realized it was the quilt; the one from Chet's bed. He stood, and tried to hand it back to Kelly. "Chet, I can't accept this," he claimed.
Chet pushed it back at Johnny. "That thing? Sure you can."
"But it's old, it's got to be a family heirloom! I can't!"
The Irishman was shaking his head. "Where’d you get that idea? I got that at some thrift store when I moved to L.A.!"
John started to chuckle. "I thought," he started, but then stopped, and shook his head. "I don't know what I thought. I had a quilt. My grandmother made it when I was a baby. When I saw this one at your place, I figured it held memories for you, like mine did for me."
"Nope," Chet answered with a shake of his head. "But maybe this one will hold some for you in the future."
A cry of "PIZZA!" from the door startled both men, and they watched as Roy and Mike entered the apartment, one carrying a large pepperoni, and the other with a couple of six-packs.
John tightened his grip on the quilt and smiled. "It already does, Chet," he said. "It already does."
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