March 10, 2002
They belong to Mark VII Limited and Universal Television, not me.
Thanks: To Laurel for the encouragement, to Susan for the encouragement and a couple of good ideas, to Kenda for the encouragement, close beta, and the TITLE! And to Peggy for everything. I certainly know I can write a story without her, but I can’t imagine why I’d want to!
Summary: Johnny is stunned by some unexpected bad news, which he tries to deal with on his own.
"Well I must say, Johnny, I half expected you not to show up. Have a seat." Kel patted the treatment table with his hand, and Gage hopped up.
"I'm telling you, Doc, it's nothing. Just some irritation from the fire at the plastics warehouse last shift." He coughed again, and began to unbutton his shirt in anticipation of the doctor's inevitable request.
"You're probably right, but you've been coughing for days now. How do you feel otherwise?"
"Perfectly fine. I'm telling you," he was cut off by the doctor, who raised a cautionary hand has he put his stethoscope on Johnny's chest.
"Take a deep breath for me."
Gage did, and coughed again, eliciting a frown from Kel. "Have you brought anything up when you cough?" Johnny shook his head. "No shortness of breath, or wheezing or anything like that?"
"Nope, nothing. Just the cough."
The doctor moved the stethoscope, and repeated the order. "Again." After doing it several more times, front and back, Brackett pulled the stethoscope from his ears. "Well, everything sounds fine, Johnny," he admitted. "Let me check your throat. Is it sore?" the paramedic just shook his head again.
After doing that, and taking a throat culture, the physician stepped back, crossed his arms, and furrowed his brow. "I want a chest x-ray."
"Awww, come on, Doc!"
Brackett grinned slightly. "Humor me, John. It's a slow morning."
+ + + + +
The x-ray taken, Gage was sitting impatiently on the treatment table, swinging his legs back and forth like a child would do. He looked up when the door opened, and grinned when he saw Dixie enter the room.
"How are you feeling, Johnny?" She put an envelope on the cart next to the light box on the wall.
"I'm fine, Dix, totally fine. That my x-ray?"
"Sure is. Kel should be back in a few minutes to take a look at it, then I'm sure you'll be on your way."
"Good. I promised Roy I'd help him paint their sun porch today. If I don't get out of here soon, he'll probably have it done by the time I get there."
Dixie smiled. "And this would be a bad thing?"
Gage let out a laugh. "Nah, I guess it wouldn't be, would it."
At that moment the door swung open and Brackett breezed into the room. "Okay, let's get you out of here, Johnny." He flipped the light on, and stuck the x-ray onto the box.
The doctor's reaction was almost immediate. Though he couldn't see his face, Johnny saw the man's posture stiffen, and then Kel moved in, to study the image more closely. He pulled the x-ray down, held it close to his face and up to the ceiling light, then put it back up on the light box.
Johnny felt a chill run up his spine, and the hairs on his arms started to tingle. When he felt Dixie's hand rest on top of his own, he knew he wasn't just imagining things.
"Doc. . . ?" he ventured apprehensively.
Kel shook his head and turned to face his patient. "It's probably nothing more than a shadow. We'll repeat the x-ray, and take a couple more views. Just to be safe."
Gage shivered once. "Yeah, okay," he agreed.
+ + + + +
Kel hurried up to the nurse's station, and before he could even ask, Dixie handed him the envelope. But rather than take them into the treatment room, the doctor turned toward his office. Dixie quickly found someone to cover the desk and followed. She didn't even knock, entering the room just as he was putting the first picture up on the wall.
"You didn't think it was just a shadow, did you?" she asked.
He didn't even turn around. "No, no I didn't. And this just confirms it."
"He has a tumor?" the nurse asked incredulously.
"Or a fungal infection, maybe early TB; any number of things. It's hard to tell from this."
"What are you going to do?"
Kel pulled the image down and turned. "Well, first thing we have to do is tell Johnny."
+ + + + +
John tried as hard as he could to pay attention to what Dr. Brackett was saying. But somehow he couldn't quite get past those first words. A "spot," he'd called it. On the upper lobe of his right lung. The other words drifted past.
Could be anything. Scar tissue. Infection. TB.
Try not to be alarmed until we know what it is.
Take some more tests here. Draw blood, sputum sample.
Refer you to a pulmonologist.
The last words hit home just as Dr. Brackett was repeating them. "John? You okay?"
The paramedic shook his head in an attempt to clear it. "Yeah, yeah, I guess so. So what do I do now?"
Dixie smiled sympathetically at the confirmation that Johnny really hadn't been processing what was being said.
"Dixie's will draw some blood, and take a sputum sample," Brackett said as he was opening a drawer. He came back with a little plastic object in his hand. He unwrapped it as he spoke, and poked the tines into Johnny's upper arm, "and that's a TB test, though I don't recall you being exposed to TB."
John shook his head. "I wasn't. I haven't been."
"You may not have even known it," Dix said kindly as she tightened the tourniquet around his arm.
In no time the samples were collected, and Dr. Brackett was standing in front of his patient. "We should have all the results by tomorrow, and I'll show your x-rays to Dr. Miller. He's a lung specialist. I'll give you a call tomorrow, okay?"
Johnny was still stunned. It was all happening so fast; too fast. He shook his head.
"No, Doc, it's not okay. I don't get it. I just don't get it. I'm only 28 years old! I don't smoke. . . ."
"And that's precisely why you have every reason to think it's nothing serious. Think back, Johnny. You have had no other symptoms?"
Gage thought, and ended up shaking his head again. "No, I've been feeling really good."
"No fatigue, weakness?" Another head-shake. "How's your appetite been?"
That actually elicited a slight embarrassed grin. "Normal, for me," Johnny said.
"No chest pain, discomfort of any kind, malaise. Nothing."
The paramedic just kept shaking his head through the questioning. "Nothing, Doc. Just the cough." As if on cue, he coughed again.
"You haven't coughed up any blood?”
"NO!" Now Johnny was getting annoyed. "I keep telling you. I feel fine. That's why I don't get it."
"We'll get it figured out, John, I promise."
"So I can just leave now?"
"Don't see why not," the doctor allowed. "I'll call you tomorrow with the results of these tests, and I'll let you know if Dr. Miller wants to see you. I imagine he will." Brackett patted his paramedic on the thigh paternally before he left. "Try not to worry," he said on his way out.
"Easy for him to say," John mumbled as the door closed, but Dixie heard him.
"I'm going to go call Roy," she said.
"NO!" Johnny jumped off the table, still buttoning his shirt. "Don't, Dix, please. I don’t want him to know. I don't want anyone to know. Not yet, anyway. Not till I know what to tell them."
"Are you sure, Johnny? Roy's your friend. He'll want to know; he'll want to help."
"I. . . . I’ll tell him. But it's too soon. Let me get used to the idea first. Promise me, Dix, that you won't tell anyone."
The nurse looked at Johnny for a long moment. "Okay, if that's what you want. But I think you are making a mistake."
"No I'm not." John pulled off the cotton ball that Dix had taped into place over the site where she'd drawn blood, and tossed it in the trash before escaping the confines of the small room.
Once he was safely outside the building, Gage collapsed against the wall and took huge gulping breaths of air. What the hell was going on? How did this happen? He ran both hands through his hair before bending over and resting his hands on his knees, still trying to breathe deeply and calm himself. He didn't even hear the ambulance and squad back into place in front of him until the voice of Charlie Peters, one of the paramedics on Squad 8, was talking to him.
"Whatsamatter, Gage? Can't get enough of this place when you're on duty, you gotta visit on your day off?" His tone was teasing.
Johnny looked up blankly and started to walk toward his car without a word.
"What's with him?" the paramedic asked.
Dixie, outside to supervise the transfer of 8's patient into the hospital, watched her friend depart, with a concerned frown and a shake of her head. But she kept her word, and didn't say a thing. "Treatment two, boys," she instructed the paramedics, stealing one last glance toward Gage as she went back through the ER doors.
+ + + + +
John actually made the turn for home before he remembered the sun porch and Roy. He pulled over and slammed his fists on the steering wheel in frustration. The last thing he wanted to do was see Roy, or anyone, right now. He just wanted to go home, pull the blinds closed, and sit in the dark to contemplate what he'd just learned.
But Roy knew Johnny had gone to the hospital after their shift; knew Brackett had insisted on checking him out. If he didn't show up at the DeSoto's, if he went home and called with some lame excuse, Roy would know something was up.
So what was he gonna do?
It didn’t take long to decide. He realized quickly enough that he couldn’t keep this from Roy. From the other guys, sure, until he knew more. But Roy? No way. He had to tell him, and tell him now. But if he played it right, he could probably downplay it; not worry them too much.
He turned the Rover around, and headed to his friend's house. While he drove, he psyched himself up as best he could, and forced a positive outlook on himself for when he told his partner the news. By the time he was ringing their bell, he had a phony smile plastered on his face.
"Hey, Jo," he greeted Roy's wife as he swept into the living room after she'd opened the door. "Sorry I'm late. Hope Roy left something for me to do!"
"Are you kidding?" the woman asked with a laugh, "he's barely got the windows taped off. Roy said you had to go to the doctor, Johnny; are you okay?"
"Umm, well, actually, I need to,” he stopped speaking as Joanne suddenly raced into the kitchen.
“DAMN!” she shouted. “ROY! It’s the dishwasher again!”
John stood in the middle of the living room and watched his partner come in from the sun porch, wiping paint off his hands. “Hey, Johnny,” he greeted as he passed. He entered the kitchen, and in short order Joanne came back in and ran upstairs.
In a minute she came back down, carrying her purse, and sporting a little lipstick. “I have to run. I have a conference at school about Chris. He’s been getting in trouble again, fighting with that Perkins boy.”
Johnny watched her go, his resolve to tell his friends the news seeming to chase her out the door.
A moment later Roy came into the living room. “Something gets stuck in the dishwasher, and it overflows. We really need to get it fixed, but,” he shrugged, “it’s not in this month’s budget. Maybe next month. Did Joanne leave?”
Johnny glanced back toward the front door. “Uhh, yeah, just now.” He’d witnessed these types of domestic scenes countless times at the DeSoto’s. But he’d never really paid attention before, never noticed that the daily life of a family was filled with all sorts of stresses and problems. What right did he have to add to them?
“What did Doctor Brackett say?” Roy asked.
Here it was. Decision time. What was he going to say?
“Nuthin. I’m fine. Just some irritation.” He’d done it. He’d lied. And it hadn’t even been all that difficult.
"Yup." Johnny shed his coat and dropped it on a chair. "Let's get to work."
+ + + + +
Johnny was indulging in precisely what he’d wanted to do the day before: sitting in his darkened apartment and brooding. After his last-second impulse not to tell Roy, being there yesterday had been pure torture. Roy had tried to start conversations: about work, about the Dodgers, about all sorts of stuff. But Gage couldn’t get into it, and his mood had progressively deteriorated as the day went on. He’d responded to his friend’s questions, and then let the threads of conversation die as quickly as he could. Finally Roy had given up. Even the color Joanne had chosen for the small room--a light but cheerful yellow--had depressed him.
Not until the kids had gotten home from school had his mood actually brightened a bit--it was impossible to stay somber around them. And seeing them all together, happy and content, laughing at the dinner table while teasing Jennifer about the Bay City Rollers posters that had recently started sprouting up on her walls, had all served to reinforce John’s feeling that this wasn’t the time to say anything. But his decision had been cemented when the dinner conversation turned serious, and Roy had a heart-to-heart with his son about the boy’s problems with the playground bully at school.
“You’ve got to learn how to control yourself, Chris,” the father had counseled. “You can’t just go off half-cocked whenever something or someone is bothering you. Try to take care of it reasonably, sensibly. Don’t make a bigger deal out of something than it has to be.”
Sitting there listening, Johnny had felt as if Roy was speaking to him. He became convinced that he shouldn’t make a big deal out of this for his friends. Not unless or until he absolutely had to. He’d left shortly after dinner, and had been sitting in his darkened living room ever since.
He jumped when the ringing of the phone broke into the quiet, but he answered on the first ring. He knew it could have been anyone, really--even Roy. But he thought it would be Brackett, and he was right.
“How are you doing, Johnny?” was the man’s first question.
“What did you find out?” was the paramedic’s response.
Kel sighed slightly. “Nothing, John. All the cultures and tests we took came back negative.”
“Is that good?”
“To a degree, yes. It’s an indication that whatever it is, it’s still localized to the lung.”
“But it doesn’t tell you what it is.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
It was Johnny’s turn to sigh. “So what do we do?”
“Well, I showed your x-rays to Dr. Miller, as I said I would, and he does want to see you. When do you work next?”
“Okay, then, I’ll arrange for you to see him first thing day after tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to. . . should I . . . .” Johnny wasn’t sure what he was trying to say. “I can call out if I have to,” he finally blurted out.
“There’s no need for that,” the doctor promised. “Not unless you want to. If you feel you’re too upset to work, then call out, and I’ll make the appointment for tomorrow. Dr. Miller will fit you in whenever, as a favor to me. It’s up to you.”
John thought for a minute. His nerves were frayed, he could think of nothing else, he hadn’t slept; he was a nervous wreck, there was no doubt about that. He wanted to find out as soon as possible . . . and at the same time, he didn’t.
But he didn’t want to arouse suspicion at work, either. And it was this fact that prompted his decision. “No if it can wait, I want to go to work.”
“It can wait.”
Gage ran his hand through his hair. “Okay, thanks Doc.” Even he could hear the tremor in his voice, and he hated it.
“Are you going to be okay?” Brackett asked his patient.
“Yeah,” the paramedic promised. “Sure.” He didn’t sound convincing.
“I want you to stay positive, Johnny. There’s no cause for alarm yet.”
“Sure there is. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And with that Johnny hung up on the man. He wasn’t mad at Brackett for the silly platitudes; he knew he was only trying to help. But it didn’t. He knew there was cause for alarm--plenty of cause. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him that; and a doctor telling him there was no cause was just plain lying.
+ + + + +
Kel replaced the phone with a heavy sigh.
“What’d Johnny say?” Dixie asked. She’d been listening in on the doctor’s end of the conversation.
“It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. I’m worried about him.”
“I am, too,” the nurse agreed. “Did you know he made me promise not to say anything to Roy?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Dix nodded. “He said he didn’t want anyone to know--yet, anyway. You haven’t told anyone, have you?”
Brackett shook his head. “I can’t do that, Dix. You know that.”
“I know, but Johnny’s family. I thought maybe you’d mentioned it to Joe or Mike.”
“Well he was pretty adamant. He doesn’t want anyone to know. I think it’s a mistake, but what can we do?”
“We can abide by his wishes,” Brackett said.
+ + + + +
Gage arrived for work early. He’d spent most of the night trying to decide if it was better to get to the station before his shiftmates, or late, with only seconds to spare. He couldn’t decide which would make it less likely for his friends to suspect something was wrong, or ask a question he didn’t know how to answer. In the end it was the fact that he was wide awake with no chance of sleep at 4:30 in the morning that prompted him to be early.
He was completely dressed half an hour before shift-change, but he didn’t leave the locker room. He just sat there, staring blankly into the recesses of his locker. He didn’t want to go into the day room--that would mean being friendly and jovial with the guys from C shift. It was going to be hard enough to act normal around his own shift; he wasn’t sure he’d have the energy to do it with these guys, too.
“Wow, stop the presses, Gage is early!” Johnny looked up to see Harry Martin, C-Shift’s engineer, come in.
“I’m not always late,” John protested with a faint smile.
“No, but you’re never early!” Martin washed his hands and turned to leave. “Come on into the day room, Johnny. Ramirez just made a new pot of coffee, and I don’t know what he puts in there, but it’s good!”
Johnny smiled, then turned back to his locker. “In a minute,” he said, starting to rummage around in the mess on the locker’s floor. “I’m looking for something.” Another lie.
“Okay, but I’m not saving you any!”
The man left, and John collapsed with relief. Good God, how was he going to do this? How was he going to get through a 24-hour shift pretending nothing was wrong when EVERYTHING was wrong?
He just was, he decided after a minute. He had no other choice. He sat up straight, and started to clean his locker. If he was busy, maybe people would leave him alone. Wouldn’t get suspicious.
It was just his luck that Chet was the first of his shift to arrive.
“What happened, Gage, get thrown out of your apartment?” Johnny just shot the man a sour look in response. “Oooh, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed!” Kelly chided.
“Chet,” Gage warned, “not today. Please.”
“Geez,” the fireman muttered, but he did shut up, much to John’s relief. Mike and Roy arrived, and seemed content with nothing more than an exchange of greetings. But then Chet spoke up again.
“Watch out for Gage today, Roy,” he teased. “I think he got dumped again or something.”
Before he knew what he was doing, or could stop himself, John had shot to his feet. “Chet, you don’t know what you are talking about. I asked you once already. Please, please leave me alone today.” He was practically shouting, and definitely begging. He didn’t care.
He stepped over the bench, and shoved the locker room door open, practically smacking a startled Captain Stanley in the face. He gave his boss an apologetic look as he passed, and fled into the apparatus bay.
Stanley entered the room, all the while looking back in his fleeing paramedic’s direction. “What was that all about?” he asked. He looked right at Chet.
“Don’t look at me!” Chet protested, the picture of innocence. “I didn’t do anything!”
“But you said something,” Stoker said quietly.
“Oh?” the captain asked. “What was that?”
“Nothing, Cap, honest! I was just teasing him a little about being so early. I didn’t do anything!”
The captain turned his attention to his other paramedic. “Any idea what’s eating your partner, Roy?”
“Nope, Cap. He hasn’t said anything to me. I’ll talk to him, though.”
“Good,” Hank said. “Let me know if there’s a problem.” He turned his attention toward his erstwhile fireman. “And Chet, cut Johnny some slack today, got it?”
+ + + + +
Roy found Johnny in the parking lot, sitting on the bumper of his Rover. He wandered over, and when Gage didn’t say anything, he sat down next to him.
“What was that in the locker room?” he asked simply.
Johnny shook his head. He was disgusted with himself. This was exactly what he’d wanted to avoid. Exactly what he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do. He promised himself he’d act normal, and that had been anything but normal.
“I dunno. Sometimes he’s just too much, you know?” He couldn’t even look at Roy.
“I know. But you never let him get under your skin.”
Johnny shrugged. “Guess I do now,” he said simply.
“Is there something you want to talk about?”
Gage let his body slump against the grill of his car and sighed. Was there ever.
“No,” he finally said. “I’m fine. Chet’s probably right. I just got up on the wrong side of the bed.” He stood and forced a grin. “Come on, I’m on time for a change--I don’t want to still miss roll call!”
+ + + + +
After his outburst in the locker room, the guys did leave Johnny alone. And for his part, the paramedic kept to himself pretty much, doing his chores quickly and efficiently, and staying out of the typical station banter. In fact, he spent most of his free time lying on his bunk in the dorm, staring at the ceiling.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep this up indefinitely. It was torture for him, and not too pleasant for his friends, either, he was sure. But hopefully it would only be today. Hopefully he’d have some sort of answers after his appointment with the lung guy tomorrow.
“There you are, pal.”
John looked up to find his captain walking toward him. The man took a seat on Roy’s bunk.
Man, he hated that question. “Yeah, Cap. I just have a lot on my mind, that’s all.” He wasn’t lying about that, anyway.
“Anything I can help you with?”
Gage shook his head. “Nah. Not yet anyway. I’ll be okay.”
The captain clapped his hands together in a familiar nervous habit. “Glad to hear it. But when I can help, you be sure to find me, okay?” John nodded. “And in the mean time, how’s about trying to lighten up around the guys? You’re kinda bringing everyone down with you.”
The paramedic forced yet another smile. “Sure Cap, sorry. I’ll try.”
As the man left, John sighed. He’d try, but there was no way in hell.
+ + + + +
It took all morning, but shortly before lunch the paramedics were called out on their first run of the day, necessitating a follow up to the hospital. John let Roy go in the ambulance, and actually took his time following in the squad.
Suddenly that place, Rampart, seemed sinister to him. Nothing good happened in there. It was the place you went and got bad news. Where out of nowhere everything changed in a split second. And it was the place where the two people who knew would be waiting for him. And he didn’t want to face them. Didn’t know if he could face them, especially in front of Roy.
But he didn’t have a choice, so he parked the squad and trudged through the doors. Roy was waiting at the desk with Dixie. The nurse lifted her head to watch his approach, a warm smile on her face.
“Hi Johnny. Nice to see you.”
The greeting seemed a bit off to John, but the tone was normal, and Roy seemed none the wiser, so he relaxed a tiny bit. “Hey, Dix,” he greeted.
“What took you so long?” his partner asked.
“Got stuck behind a garbage truck for five blocks, would you believe it?” As soon as the tall tale left his lips Johnny wanted to groan in dismay. No, he wouldn’t believe it. No one should believe it. It was ridiculous.
But Roy said nothing. Whether he bought it, or knew it was nonsense and chose not to say anything, Gage had no way of knowing.
“Johnny. Can I talk to you for a second?”
The sound of Kelly Brackett’s voice behind him sent a chill of alarm up John’s spine. He looked up quickly, and his eyes instantly met Dixie’s. Her expression was questioning, and she nodded slightly toward Roy, who was still unaware that something was amiss. She was asking if Roy knew. He shook his head slightly, urgently, and then spun around, putting his back to his partner in a move of self-preservation. “Yeah, sure, Doc. What’s up?” He tried to make his voice as casual as possible.
Brackett was standing by the door to treatment room one. He pushed it open and held it before he spoke. “Why don’t we talk in here?”
Shit. Shit shit shit. Damn him. What was he gonna do now? How would he explain this to Roy? And what if Roy followed? He couldn’t risk that; couldn’t look at his partner for fear Roy would interpret that as an invitation. So he just walked toward the doctor and went into the room.
“Doc!!” he implored as soon as the door was closed behind them.
“Calm down, Johnny. Just tell Roy I wanted to check on your cough. Dixie is probably telling him that right now. How is it, by the way?”
“It’s better, actually. I think. To be honest, I haven’t been paying too much attention to it. Kinda had other things on my mind.”
The doctor nodded appreciatively. “I bet,” he said. Then he reached out and pushed John’s sleeve up. “I really just wanted to get a look at your TB test.” He inspected the spot for just a second. “No reaction.”
“No. That’s good, right?”
“It eliminates one possibility,” the doctor said.
“Which is bad.”
“You want TB?” Kel asked incredulously.
John shrugged. “At least I’d know what it is, and what to do about it,” he admitted with a hint of bitterness in his tone. He took a step toward the door. “That it?”
“That’s it.” Johnny had his hand on the door and was about to pull it open when the doctor suddenly started to speak again.
“John, I think you should tell Roy,” he blurted out. “There’s no way you can hide this from him. Not for long, anyway.” The paramedic let go of the handle and closed his eyes wearily. “And,” the doctor continued, “no one should go through something like this alone.”
Gage didn’t turn to face the physician. “I appreciate your concern, Doc, I do. But I’ll be okay. I don’t want to drag him into this; he has enough on his plate with his family and stuff. Maybe he will have to know eventually. If so, I'll tell him--when the time’s right. But it’s not right. Not now, anyway.” At that he did lock eyes with Kel. “And you can’t say anything,” he reminded him.
“No, I can’t,” Brackett admitted. “And I won’t, you have my word. But I’ll go on record as saying I think you’re making a mistake.”
Johnny grinned dispiritedly. “Wouldn’t be my first one. I gotta go.” He actually did start to pull the door open, and had to stop when, again, Brackett spoke.
“Do you want me to try and arrange to be with you tomorrow morning for your appointment with Dr. Miller?”
The door closed. Johnny didn’t know what to make of this offer. On the one hand it was damn nice of the doctor. On the other, it was alarming--what did Brackett expect John to learn the next day, if he was so adamant that the paramedic shouldn’t be alone?
Whatever it was, Gage knew he didn’t want to hear it in front of anyone. Brackett would find out soon enough--he was his doctor, after all. He didn’t need to watch John getting the bad news, too.
Johnny didn’t need anyone seeing that.
“Thanks, Doc, but no,” he said emphatically. “I’ll be okay.”
He pulled the door open quickly and fled before Brackett had a chance to catch him again.
+ + + + +
Kel approached the nurse’s station with a shake of his head.
“How’d it go?” Dix asked.
“It didn’t,” the doctor admitted. “He won’t tell Roy. Won’t tell anyone. I ended up offering to go with him tomorrow to see Dr. Miller.”
“What did he say?”
Brackett snorted incredulously. “What do you think he said? He said no.”
Dixie slammed the charts in her hand down in frustration. “It’s not right, Kel. It’s just not right.”
“No, probably not. But that’s the way he wants it.”
“I don’t just mean that part. The whole thing isn’t right. Johnny’s so young and vital. This shouldn’t be happening to him. He’s never smoked a cigarette in his life, I bet.”
Brackett nodded. “Probably not. But his profession puts him at risk, Dix. Who knows what sorts of things he’s breathed in over the years. Not to mention asbestos exposure--we're only just beginning to understand the dangers of that stuff. And he’s been exposed to radiation, too. Don’t forget that.”
The nurse frowned and shook her head. “I don’t care about that. It may well explain how it could be happening to him. But it still doesn’t make it right.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Kel agreed. “But when is it? Besides, you’re getting ahead of yourself here. We don’t know anything yet, really.”
“I guess not. But whatever it is, it can’t be good.” Dixie thought for a minute, then pulled out the nursing schedule. “Maybe Betty can stay a little late,” she mumbled to herself.
“What are you doing, Dix?”
“Trying to figure out how I can be free tomorrow morning. Johnny doesn’t want us to tell anyone, so we won’t. But that doesn’t mean he has to go through this by himself.”
Brackett put his hand on top of the schedule, covering it. “No, Dix, don’t. Leave him alone. If he wanted someone to be with him, he’d make arrangements for it. Don’t force him.”
Dixie’s brow furrowed into a deep scowl. “You men and your stupid pride,” she declared.
+ + + + +
Roy lay in bed and listened to his partner toss and turn. Half a dozen times he wanted to say something, to ask his partner if he was all right. But he'd already asked, more than once, and Johnny had put him off. He just had to accept that whatever it was, Gage just wasn't ready to tell him.
When John finally rose, put on his bunker pants, and left the dorm, Roy followed. He found him out back again, leaning against the wall of the station, and staring up at the sky.
Roy stood and watched his friend silently for a long moment. He wanted to see what Johnny would do; see if he would say anything. But he didn't--he didn't even seem to be aware of Roy's presence.
"You know," DeSoto started quietly. He waited for a reaction from John, and continued when he noticed the man glance toward him silently. "You're going to tell me eventually. Why not just get it out of the way now?"
John turned his gaze from the sky to his partner. "I would, Roy, but I just can't. I'm sorry."
"I don't think I've ever seen you this upset before."
Gage smiled, but Roy could tell that it wasn't genuine. It didn't reach his eyes. "I'll be okay," he told his friend. "Always am."
"Is it a girl, Johnny?"
A mirthless laugh was Roy's answer. "I wish," the troubled man said. "I wish that's all it was."
Roy was getting more anxious all the time, and an uneasiness settled into his gut. This wasn't the way Johnny normally reacted to problems. Whatever it was, Roy was more convinced than ever that it was big. But big by whose standards? He doubted his were the same as his partner's.
"So tell me what it is, Johnny," he implored. "What's the matter?"
Gage stood up away from the wall. "That's the whole problem, Roy. I don't know. I don't know what's the matter."
He turned and went back inside, leaving Roy more confused than ever.
+ + + + +
Gage was pacing. But he couldn't help himself. Dr. Miller had examined him, and sent him for still more x-rays, and now he was told to wait. The exam room was tiny--so small that John could cover the width in two paces. But he shortened his gait in order to make it three.
He was startled by a knock on the door. "Yeah?" he asked.
An attractive young woman popped her head in. "Oh, good, you're already dressed. Dr. Miller would like to see you in his office."
Johnny wiped his sweaty palms on the thighs of his jeans, and followed the woman down the hall.
The doctor's office was ten times the size of the other room, with a large window looking over the parking lot. It was furnished rather sparsely, though with nice stuff. But there were no touches: nothing to personalize the place, to identify it as belonging to someone specific. This didn't really surprise the paramedic, given the first impression he'd gotten of the guy while he'd performed his examination.
The other thing the office was, was vacant. "He'll be right in," the girl promised before she left him.
John went to the window and looked down. He found his car, just because he could, then turned his back to the view. It was at that moment that the door opened, and Dr. Miller entered.
"Have a seat, Mr. Gage," the man said.
Johnny rankled at the physician's no-nonsense demeanor, but did as asked. He faced the doctor, but said nothing as the man took a seat behind his desk. John couldn't help thinking that Dr. Brackett, gruff as he could be, would have sat closer--on the edge of his desk, maybe--in order to deliver bad news.
"There's no doubt there's a lesion on the upper lobe of your right lung," the man stated simply.
Johnny swallowed hard and remained mute. Here we go.
"I'd estimate it to be about two centimeters." The doctor held up his hand and showed the size between two fingers. "That's fairly sizable, but it doesn't allow us to rule out anything based on size."
"Based on the x-ray images themselves, I also cannot rule anything out. These types of masses are virtually impossible to properly diagnose without a biopsy."
John's mouth was dry, and he suddenly felt just the slightest bit lightheaded. "Oh . . .okay," he managed to sputter. "How do you do that?"
“I wanted the additional x-rays to try and determine if I could reach the lesion with a bronchoscope. I believe I can. You know about bronchoscopy?”
Yes, dammit, he knew about it. But that wasn’t fair. He didn’t want this guy to get out of explaining stuff just because Johnny had some medical training. “A little,” he decided to say. “I’ve seen one. But I don’t know how it works.”
Dr. Miller proceeded to explain the procedure with all the tact and sensitivity of a medical textbook. John followed along, cringing at the notion of having anesthetic sprayed down his throat, of being sedated, of having a tube stuck into his lungs.
“As for obtaining the biopsy sample, we can either flush the area with saline and recollect it, testing what we collect for malignant cells; we can use a brush to remove some cells from the mass, or we can snip out a tiny sample to test for malignancy.”
Mass, lesion, tumor, biopsy, malignancy. It was suddenly clear that there was one word absolutely no one had used.
“Doc, do you think I have cancer?” Johnny blurted out. It was a blunt question, but this was a blunt guy. And Johnny needed to know--needed to hear someone say it.
“You may, yes.”
John left the office sure that his world had just ended.
+ + + + +
“Oh, Jesus, Carl, you said WHAT?” Kel Brackett was raving at his colleague by now. But the pulmonologist remained maddeningly composed, sitting behind his desk.
“He asked a straight question. I gave him a straight answer.”
“Oh bullshit! You gave him HALF of a straight answer.”
“I did not tell him he had cancer.”
Kel snorted in disgust. “You may as well have. I know John Gage; know him well. And I think I know exactly how he’s reacting to the news you gave him, the way you gave it to him.”
“Look, Kel,” Miller said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his desk--his only indication that he might be getting upset, “I deal with cancer patients on a daily basis. It is my experience that the truth is the way to go. Be straight with them.”
“But you’re forgetting one important thing,” the ER physician spat out. “Johnny is NOT a cancer patient. Not yet, anyway. Don’t treat him like one until you know for sure. There’s a chance that lesion is benign, and you pretty much pulled that hope right out from underneath him.”
Dr. Miller sat back in his chair. “Fair enough. I’ll be more careful next time.”
Brackett settled down as well. “I appreciate that, Carl. I just hope it’s not too late.”
+ + + + +
Johnny was tying his shoes when Roy entered the locker room. He looked up, but didn't say anything.
"I tried calling you yesterday. A couple of times. Where were you?"
John knew this. He'd listened to the rings, and then the messages his friends had left. Roy, twice. Dixie, once. Brackett, three times. Even Chet had called. His phone had rung all day; he’d never answered it.
“Ohhhkayyy,” Roy drew out, making no effort to hide his annoyance.
Johnny sighed. He was doing it again, and he’d sworn that he wouldn’t. He’d promised himself that it had been the not knowing that was responsible for his foul mood. Now he knew, more or less. It was what it was; there was no point in taking it out on his friends.
“Sorry,” he told his partner. “I went to the beach.” He shook his head. He didn’t understand why he was even lying about stuff he didn’t have to now. He hated it. Hated himself for doing it. But he kept at it. Soon he wouldn’t be able to tell the lies from the truth any more.
They didn’t even get roll call started before they got their first call. Car over the cliff. The squad and engine rolled, arriving quickly at the scene. It wasn’t exactly a cliff; more like a very steep hill. Roy went to get the safety belts and lines, and was shocked to see his partner sliding down the slope with no protective equipment at all.
Cap ran to the edge of the hill. “Gage, what the HELL are you doing?” he shouted down.
Gage ignored the admonishment. “We got two victims, Cap,” he shouted up. “We’re gonna need two stokes.”
The captain looked toward his other paramedic. Roy had put on his belt, and was securing lines to the bumper of the engine. “Go on down, Roy, and bring that partner of yours his belt.”
DeSoto did go down, and handed the belt to John. “Better put that on. Cap’s really frosted at you.”
Johnny took the belt with a shrug. “The man looks like he has a broken femur. The woman, possible concussion and broken arm.”
With the help of Marco and Chet, the two victims were soon topside and loaded into the ambulance. Again, Johnny let Roy ride in. He was packing away their equipment when Cap came up to him.
“What was that, John? You know better.”
Again, Johnny shrugged. “It wasn’t that steep,” he offered as explanation.
Cap shook his head and walked away.
+ + + + +
Gage backed the squad into place at Rampart, and for a second he seriously considered staying in the vehicle until Roy came back out. There was no rule that said he had to go in there; that he had to face Brackett and Dix.
Because, of course, surely they knew by now.
Nevertheless, Johnny entered the hospital. Dixie was at her desk, and Roy was nowhere to be seen. The nurse looked up and smiled at him. It was a sympathetic smile, and Johnny instantly hated it. He didn’t greet her.
“He’s in the lounge, waiting for you. I convinced him to go sit down while he waited so you could talk to Kel. He’s waiting for you in his office.”
“I don’t need to talk to him,” John protested.
Dix came around the desk and hooked her arm around his. “Oh yes you do,” she answered, and delivered him to the office.
“Sit down, Johnny.”
“I’ll stand.” John leaned against the wall next to the door, and crossed his arms on his chest. Brackett got up from behind his desk and came around, leaning back against it, in front of his patient. Johnny couldn’t help but grin, just a little. It was exactly how he’d predicted this doctor would behave.
“Dr. Miller told me what he told you.”
“And I’m telling you he was way out of line.”
Johnny arched an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
“There is a good chance this lesion is benign. I don’t think he made that clear to you.”
“No, no he didn’t. And I bet he didn’t for good reason,” Gage countered.
Brackett shook his head and sighed. “I knew you’d react this way.”
John snorted with derisive laughter. “And what way is that?”
“I get the feeling that you are already writing your epitaph here. But please, Johnny, just wait until after your bronchoscopy. Give yourself a chance. You don’t know if you have a malignancy yet.”
Johnny had had enough. “A malignancy? What is WRONG with you people? How come no one says the word? Why won’t you say it? Because saying it might somehow be acknowledging the truth? Well let me spare you the trouble.” He took a deep breath, squared himself, and looked his doctor in the eye.
“I have cancer.”
He turned and grabbed the door handle, and had pulled it open about six inches when it was shoved closed with an incredible force, ripping the handle from John’s grip. He turned angrily to find himself face-to-face with Dr. Brackett.
“You might have cancer. But more importantly, you might NOT. And that’s what I don’t want you to lose sight of.”
“That’s just semantics, Doc,” Johnny said. He pulled the door open again, and was relieved when the doctor let him go.
+ + + + +
Roy pulled up to the stoplight and eased to a halt. He looked over at his partner, and found him with his elbow on the windowsill, resting his chin in his hand and staring out the side window. But not staring at anything; just staring.
“You okay, Johnny?” It was only the tenth time he’d asked; or at least it felt that way.
Gage took his arm down and looked at his friend. He looked at him for a long moment. “Roy,” he started quietly.
DeSoto shifted in anticipation. Finally, finally, he was going to find out what was happening with his partner.
“You ever think about,” at that moment a car horn coming from behind startled them both. The light had turned green.
Roy hit the gas, and they started to move. “Think about what?” he asked as casually as he could.
When John didn’t answer immediately, Roy glanced over. Gage had resumed his earlier posture, and was staring outside again. The moment was gone.
“About what?” he asked again.
“Nothing, never mind.”
The older paramedic sighed in frustration. But they were almost back at the station anyway. “This conversation isn’t over, Johnny,” he promised.
+ + + + +
It was the worst kind of fire: one of those old wooden buildings that had been converted into several apartments. You didn’t know where one unit began or the next one ended, and there were any number of odd turns and small places to get lost. Add to that the heat and the dense smoke, and Roy and Johnny were in a hellhole.
They’d swept the fourth floor, which had taken far longer than they’d anticipated, and were making their way, door to door, through the third when their HT squawked to life. Roy answered, put the radio up to his ear and listened, then responded.
When he turned around, he was surprised that Johnny wasn’t standing next to him, where he should have been. But after a second he appeared through the door they’d been standing next to. He’d obviously decided to check it out while Roy was talking to Cap.
“We’re being pulled out!” he shouted at his partner. “Cap says we’ve got a patient! And besides, we’re almost out of air!”
Johnny nodded. Roy turned and headed toward the stairwell. Johnny clapped him once on the back, an indication that he was right behind.
As they walked they hit a narrow hallway that they hadn’t checked. Johnny paused, thought for half a second about stopping Roy, but didn’t. He left his partner, and went to check the hallway alone.
As Roy reached the bottom of the stairs the first alarm on his air tank went off. He turned to comment to his partner about their perfect timing, but he wasn’t there. The paramedic took the stairs three at a time up to the second floor, but John was nowhere to be seen. Roy knew that if he kept going up, he’d run out of air and they’d end up needing to rescue both of them. So he raced out of the building.
“CAP!” he screamed as soon as he’d ripped the air mask off his face. “Johnny’s still in there!”
“What?” the incredulous captain asked.
“He was right behind me. I got to the bottom of the stairs and he wasn’t there. I went back up to the second floor landing, but he wasn’t there, either. He must still be up on the third floor.”
“You sure he got my order to pull out?”
“I’m sure, Cap. He started to follow me out. I’m sure of it.”
“Well then what the hell is he doing?”
Roy was starting to replace his air tank. “I dunno, Cap. I want to go back in after him.”
“No, Roy, you’re needed out here. Chet’s got something in his eye, and it looks like Nestor from 45s may have a sprained ankle. I’ll send someone in.” He turned and shouted. “MARCO!”
+ + + + +
The second alarm on his tank went off, signaling that he was out of air, and John knew he had to get out now. He raced back to the stairs, his ability to remember floor plans by feel serving him well. He couldn’t breathe, there was no air, but he knew that he didn’t want to remove his mask and breathe in the smoke, either. So he held his breath, and raced down the stairs.
By the time he reached the bottom his lungs were screaming for oxygen, and he knew he was about to pass out. Desperation forced him to yank the mask from his face, and he was greeted with a lungful of acrid smoke instead of the fresh air he craved. He stumbled forward, found the door with his hands, and literally fell through it.
Much to his shock, hands caught him. “I GOT HIM!” a voice screamed. It was Marco, he thought.
“Come on, John, I gotcha,” the voice told him. He still couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get his lungs full of air, but he was able to stumble along with his friend.
“Put him down here.” It was Roy.
Then he was sitting. Hands were removing his SCBA and turnout coat. An oxygen mask, a blessed oxygen mask, was fitted around his face and set to full blast. He gulped the air as quickly as he could.
“Calm down, Johnny. You’re okay.” Roy again.
By the time his partner was fitting the BP cuff around his arm, his head had pretty much cleared. He tried to push the cuff away. “I’m okay, Roy. I’m okay.”
“I know,” Roy allowed. But he inflated it anyway, and Johnny sighed.
+ + + + +
“OWWWWW! DIX!” Johnny protested from under his oxygen mask.
“Hold still,” the nurse admonished. She held his wrist in her vice-like grip and hit her mark, withdrawing the ordered arterial blood. She pulled the needle and quickly covered the spot with gauze, then picked up Johnny’s other hand, and put it over the bandage. “Hold pressure on that,” she instructed.
“I want to repeat the arterial blood gasses in an hour,” Brackett instructed.
“I have to stay?”
“For a little while.”
Kel made eye contact with Dixie, and she immediately understood what he was asking. “Come on, Roy,” she said cheerily, “no sense in you standing around in here. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
She led the other paramedic out the door, and the second it closed Brackett turned to face Gage. “What the hell were you doing, trying to kill yourself?”
John was taken aback. Normally that question was rhetorical, and an exaggeration. But it didn’t look or sound like the doctor was joking.
“Ahhh, geez, Doc!” he protested. “I . . . I just . . .” He had to pause. What HAD he been doing? Why HAD he stayed in the building?
He honestly didn’t know.
“I just lost track of time in there,” he lied. “That’s all. Honest.”
“Well, I put a call in to Dr. Miller. What you may have done is caused your bronchoscopy to be postponed. Is that what you wanted to do? Prolong this? Because you may have.”
The phone rang, and Johnny listened as one doctor described his bonehead move to another.
Had he? Had he been trying to hurt himself, without even realizing it? No, he wouldn’t even let himself consider it.
Brackett ended the call and came over to John. He removed the oxygen. “Miller thinks it will be okay, since you didn’t take in much smoke. He says if your repeat ABG on room air is fine, he’ll go ahead as planned tomorrow.”
“So you just relax here, and we’ll be back in an hour.”
+ + + + +
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, Dixie,” Roy said into his coffee cup, not even trying to hide the worry from his voice. “He won’t talk to me, and now this is twice today that he’s been really reckless at work.” He looked up at the nurse. “But he won’t tell me anything.”
Dix’s heart broke for the man in front of her, and she almost--almost--told him what was happening. As far as she was concerned, John was being a fool. And it just wasn’t fair to Roy to keep him in the dark like this.
But she couldn’t tell him, and she knew it.
“Keep at him, Roy,” she encouraged. “Don’t give up on him. Make him tell you if you have to.” The nurse suddenly realized her tone might reveal that she knew something, so she hastily added, “whatever it is, get it out of him.”
+ + + + +
Johnny slid slowly into the seat of the squad. He could feel Roy’s concerned gaze on his back, so he repressed the urge to cough, and waited until his partner had closed his door and was walking around the back of the truck to rub his sore wrists. He laid his head back wearily. He was so damn tired.
He flinched when Roy pulled his door shut, and he waited for the inevitable start of the engine, but it didn’t come.
“You have to tell me what’s going on, Johnny,” he heard his partner say quietly.
John opened his eyes and looked to his left. He expected to find Roy staring at him. Expected him to be angry, even. But he wasn’t. He was looking straight ahead, and his voice was more worried and upset than angry. He actually sounded almost as tired as Johnny felt. Gage turned his head, and matched Roy’s forward gaze.
“Roy,” he started quietly, “you ever think about dying?”
“What?” That wasn’t what he was expecting.
“Dying. When, how, what it’ll feel like. You know.”
“What are you talking about, Johnny?”
“I never really did before,” John continued. It was as if he was speaking to himself. “Funny, huh? A guy doing what we do, and never thinking about biting it.”
There was an awkward pause, and Roy suddenly felt a pressing need to fill it. “I, uhhh, I don’t think we can think about it, Johnny. If we do, we wouldn’t go to work in the morning.”
“So you never thought about it either?”
“I wouldn’t say never. With Jo and the kids, it’s crossed my mind sometimes. You know, wanting to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I guess that makes it different, huh.” Of course it did. A family made all the difference.
Roy was scrambling for a reason for this discussion. “Did something happen in that building, Johnny? Something you’re not telling me?”
“Nah, Roy, not really. I just . . . I dunno. I guess I always just figured it would happen on the job, that’s all.”
+ + + + +
“Gage, how are you feeling?” Cap had to fight very hard to keep his fury in check.
“He checked out fine, Cap,” Roy confirmed.
“Good,” the captain spat out, “then I’d like to speak to you in my office, John. NOW.”
Johnny figured he’d be in for it, and he solemnly passed his superior, and entered the office. He wasn’t expecting the door to be slammed.
“What the HELL happened out there today?” Stanley raged. He didn’t even sit, or offer John a seat, choosing instead to stand and tower over the paramedic.
Johnny shrugged. “There was a part of the floor we didn’t check,” he said.
Hank turned his back on his paramedic in disgust, but after a second spun back. “Did I, or did I not, order you to evacuate the building?” John didn’t respond at first. “WELL?”
“Yeah, you did,” Gage admitted.
“Was there any part of that order that was unclear to you? Did Roy fail to pass it along to you?”
“No, sir,” Johnny interjected quickly. “Roy told me. It wasn’t Roy. He didn’t do anything, Cap.”
“I know that. It was you, and only you. And it was the second time today you pulled a stunt like that. Did you know I was sending Marco in after you? If you hadn’t come out when you did, I would have had to send someone in AFTER YOU! For no reason at all, other than because you screwed up!”
Johnny dropped his head and studied his shoes. He hadn’t thought about that; hadn’t considered that his actions had put others at risk. God, what was his problem? How could he do that? For a second he was tempted to tell Cap everything, as a way of explaining how he could have been so thoughtless. So selfish. So stupid.
But he just couldn’t.
“It won’t happen again,” he promised feebly.
“DAMN STRAIGHT IT WON’T!” Cap was still seething, but with that outburst, he seemed to calm a bit. He stared silently at Gage until the paramedic became uncomfortable under the scrutiny, and looked away.
“Look, John,” Cap finally said, his voice calmer. “I know something’s been eating at you lately, pal. But if whatever it is means you can’t keep your head in the game, then it makes you a liability to yourself and to the rest of us, and I want you to go home.”
It was a fair request, Gage knew. Could he keep it together? He’d been doing a shitty job of it so far. But he didn’t want to go home. He’d go insane staring at the four walls of his apartment all the time. He couldn’t do that.
“No Cap, I can stay. It won’t happen again. That’s a promise.”
Cap nodded silently. “You can go,” he said, slumping into his chair.
Johnny reached the door and turned back before he left. “I am sorry, Cap,” he said.
He was sorry about so many things.
+ + + + +
“How about breakfast?” Roy asked as he was putting on his shirt.
Their shift was over. On the one night Johnny had wished to be kept busy all night long, there hadn’t been a single call. Not one. He’d had nothing to do but wander the station in the middle of the night while his colleagues had slept. He didn’t sleep any more, and he couldn’t eat--food and drink being forbidden for twelve hours before his test.
But it didn’t matter. His stomach was a bundle of knots from the nerves. The thought of food made him queasy.
“Can’t. I have an appointment.”
“Oh yeah? Where?” John could tell that Roy was trying to sound casual, but he knew his partner too well. He knew what he really was doing was prying. Not that he could blame him, though, given how he’d been behaving.
“It’s not important.”
“What about tomorrow? It’s Saturday, and the kids would love to see you.”
“Can’t, I’m busy. Sorry.”
Johnny fled the room before Roy could ask another question.
+ + + + +
When he entered the waiting room John was surprised to find Dixie sitting there. “It’s gonna be hours, Dix,” he chided her. They’d wanted him to spend the night in the hospital, but he’d begged to be able to go home. Finally it was decided that after recovering for a few hours they’d let him go, provided someone could drive him home and get him settled. That someone proved to be Dixie, who’d immediately volunteered.
“I know,” the woman smiled, “but I’m on my lunch break.”
“At nine in the morning?”
Dix shrugged. “One of the perks of being in charge. I just wanted to pop in and see how you’re doing. You look tired, Johnny. Didn’t you get any sleep?”
Gage shrugged. “Some,” he lied.
“Bet you’re hungry, though!”
Johnny wanted to appreciate Dixie’s efforts to be chipper and upbeat, but the fact was her demeanor totally grated on his nerves. It wasn’t helping at all. “Nah, not really,” he finally answered. “Look, Dix, you don’t have to stay here with me.”
The woman smiled again. “And I can’t; I have to get back to work soon. But I will stay until they take you in and get you started, okay?”
The door opened and a nurse stuck her head out. “Mr. Gage? You can come in now,” she instructed. John knew he hadn’t answered his friend yet, so he looked at Dix and shrugged, leaving it up to her. She followed him inside.
The nurse handed Johnny a hospital gown, and directed him to a small changing room. “We need you to strip to your underwear and put this on,” she instructed. Johnny did, and was quickly back out in the hall, where he was led into the room.
It looked almost like an operating room, complete with heart monitor and respirator and a narrow table in the middle covered in a stark white sheet. The actual scope was lying on a tray at the head of the bed.
“First we’re going to give you a shot of atropine and Demerol,” the nurse informed him. So why don’t you lie down and get comfortable.” She wasn’t unpleasant, there wasn’t anything gruff about her bedside manner, but just like the doctor she worked for, this woman was all business.
“Can’t I sit up for a while?” Johnny asked. He knew he’d have to wait for the shot to take effect, and then wait some more while the topical anesthetic that they’d spray down his throat did the same.
The nurse looked surprised, as if no one had ever made this request before. “Well, I don’t know,” she ventured.
“It’s okay,” Dix suddenly chimed in. “I’ll stay with him until you return. He won’t fall out of bed or anything.”
“Oh, okay!” the woman replied with a smile. “In that case!” She procured the hypodermic and pinched the deltoid muscle on John’s upper arm. “This will make you drowsy,” she promised, “so you’ll probably want to lay down in a little while anyway.” She administered the injection. “You relax and we’ll be back in about 15 minutes to start an IV on you.”
The minutes passed slowly, and silently. John did get drowsy, but he steadfastly remained upright. Dixie stayed, but to her credit didn’t force any conversation. She was just there.
That is, until the doctor arrived and told her she had to go. “My shift is over at three, Johnny,” was the last thing she told him before departing. “The deal is you’ll rest here until then, and I’ll take you home. Okay?”
“Okay, Dix, and thanks.”
+ + + + +
When he woke up the room was completely dark. For a minute he didn’t know where he was, or why, but in no time the realization came crashing back. But why was it dark? What time was it? How long had he been there?
John sat up at the edge of his bed, and had to stop to get his breath. His throat was killing him, his stomach was queasy, and he felt more than a little lightheaded. What had happened? He realized that he had very little memory of what had gone on. The last thing he really remembered was gagging on the disgusting taste of the lidocaine that had been sprayed down his throat. It was a taste that lingered in his mouth even still and he’d have loved to spit it out, but his mouth was too dry.
Where was Dixie? Where were his clothes? Where was the light switch? The questions came easily to his sleep- and medication-addled brain, but the answers were stubbornly elusive. He was just sitting there, propping himself up with his arms, trying to decide what to do, when the door opened.
He looked up, and had to squint at the bright light shining in through the door before he could make out the outline of a nurse in the doorway. “You’re awake!” she greeted him.
“Uhh,” it was the first time he’d tried to speak, and it didn’t seem to be working. He swallowed, trying to generate some saliva to soothe his throat, and was only marginally successful. “Uh huh,” he finally managed to croak out. “What time is it?” His voice was hoarse and barely more than a whisper.
The woman flipped on the overhead light as she entered, and again Johnny found himself squinting. “It’s 10:30,” she told him. “You fell fast asleep after your test, and Dr. Miller and Dr. Brackett both decided it would be best to just let you sleep. Is your throat sore?”
10:30 at night? That meant. . . . Gage did the calculation. That meant he’d probably been asleep for ten hours or more. And yet he was still exhausted.
He suddenly realized that he’d not answered the nurse’s question. “Yeah, yeah it is. Where’s,” again he had to stop and swallow before continuing. “Where’s Dixie McCall? She was gonna take me home.”
The girl laughed. “She was here, Mr. Gage. She waited until, oh, 7:30 or 8. Finally Dr. Brackett convinced her to go home. There was no waking you up!”
Johnny scrubbed his face with his hands. This was just great. Now what was he gonna do? “Where are my clothes? I need to go home.”
“Oh I don’t think so! It’s too late to release you now, and even if it wasn’t, there’s no one here to take you home. You just climb back into bed, and I’ll go and get some ice for your throat.”
She left him then, and John tried to assess his options. They were few, he realized. Rather than go back to bed, he got up and slowly made his way into the bathroom. He studied his face in the mirror; his lips were dried and cracked, and his jaw ached terribly. Nevertheless, he opened his mouth and flexed it, checking the joints, and then peered down his throat. There was no visual evidence of what he’d gone through, of what had gone down there.
The paramedic took a second to slump against the sink at the sound of Brackett’s voice, but then he stood up and left the bathroom.
“How are you feeling?” the doctor asked.
Johnny cleared his throat with a wince. “Throat hurts,” he reported as he again sat on the edge of his bed.
“That’s normal,” Kel replied, crossing his arms on his chest.
The nurse entered with a cup of ice and a pitcher of water. Gage gratefully accepted both, and the relief they brought. He could finally talk again. His voice was still a hoarse croak, but it was easier.
“How’d it go?” he asked simply. He knew Brackett would know.
“The procedure went fine, John,” Kel started. “As you can see, there were no complications or side effects, aside from perhaps a little sensitivity to the sedation.” He grinned at that, but continued; “though I suspect that had more to do with the patient than the drugs.”
“What,” John was frustrated. That wasn’t what he’d been asking. “What about the results? What’d he find?”
Brackett actually sat on the bed beside Johnny, instantly alarming him. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to reach the lesion. He tried for an hour, John, but couldn’t get there. He did a lavage anyway, but we don’t expect to find anything from that.”
“So what does that mean? We’re back at square one?” John couldn’t believe it. He’d gone through this for _nothing_?
“Pretty much, yes. We’re no closer to arriving at a definitive diagnosis than we were this morning.”
Gage slumped forward, and covered his face with his hands for a moment. “I don’t believe this, Doc. I felt fine a week ago. Perfect. Just a little cough, that’s all. And then out of nowhere this happens, and now I feel like crap! And you still don’t know what’s wrong?”
“Johnny,” the physician started, and John could see the man getting slightly indignant. “We’re doing the best that we can. It’s just.”
Gage stopped him with a wave of his hand. “I know, I know, Doc. I didn’t mean it. It’s just,” he paused. “I’m frustrated, that’s all. And a little . . . a little . . . .”
He couldn’t finish the thought. He was scared. Terrified. Petrified. Take your pick.
“I know, Johnny,” Kel confirmed. There was no need to say it out loud.
“Can I go home?”
“You could, but there’s no way to get you there. It’s already after 11, why don’t you just sleep here and I’ll drive you home in the morning.”
“I don’t want to stay!”
“Well I’m on until 7. I won’t let you call Dixie back here--she spent enough time here today; I think she made out the ER nursing schedule for the next six months while she waited for you to wake up. And we’re the only ones who know you’re even here. If you want to go now, then call Roy. I’m sure he’ll be happy to come and get you.”
Johnny scowled at his doctor. He was licked, and he knew it. “Okay,” he acquiesced, “but you’ll drive me home in the morning?”
“Be happy to.” Brackett thought the conversation was over, and stood to leave. But he was wrong.
“Doc, what comes next?”
Kel sat again. “I was talking to Carl, Dr. Miller, about that this afternoon. There’s a new type of x-ray available, called a CT scanner. UCLA has one, and Miller is a Fellow there. I want to send you over there for a needle biopsy. Here we’d use the fluoroscope to guide the needle, and we have pretty good success with it. But with this new scan, the chances of missing the tumor are greatly reduced.”
Johnny nodded. “When?”
“Whenever you’re ready, John. It’s up to you.”
“I’m working Sunday. How about Monday?”
Brackett grinned. “I’ll set it up.” He got up to leave, and remembered one more thing.
“Oh, and John? That cough that started this whole thing? Unrelated. Dr. Miller noted some minor chemical irritation of your bronchi, just like you predicted.”
+ + + + +
When Johnny arrived at work on Sunday morning he still wasn’t sure how to explain his hoarse, scratchy voice. The soreness was much better, but he still had a pretty bad case of laryngitis.
“What happened to your voice?” a concerned Roy asked as soon as John tried to speak.
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Woke up this way.”
In a flash Roy had his penlight out of his pocket. “Lemme look. Is it sore?”
Gage swatted the light away. “No, it’s not sore. I’m just a little hoarse.”
At roll call it was no different. “What happened to you?” Cap asked.
“Lost my voice.”
The captain turned his attention to Roy. “Did you take a look?”
“No one needs to take a look, Cap!” and exasperated Johnny declared. “It’s just a little laryngitis. I’ll stay off the radio, and I’ll be fine!”
“Okay pal, if you say so.”
One thing Johnny noticed was that with everyone focusing on his voice, they weren’t wondering what else was bugging him. And he had an excuse to keep to himself.
It was a blessing in disguise.
+ + + + +
“Hey, Dixie, are there any doctors available?”
The nurse smiled until she saw the look of alarm on Gage’s face. “Sure, Roy, why?” she asked hesitantly.
“It’s Johnny. Notice how quiet he is? He woke up this morning with laryngitis. I was thinking maybe someone could take a second to look down his throat.”
John could see the reproachful look on the nurse’s face. “Do you have a sore throat, Johnny?” she asked. Her voice oozed false concern.
“No, I don’t,” the paramedic croaked out, while shooting a lethal look toward his partner. “I’m fine.”
“I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to have someone take a look,” DeSoto added.
“Nooo,” Dix drew out. “I suppose not. Let me see who I can find.”
She walked away and went straight into treatment two, where she knew Kel Brackett was working. He was putting a bandage on a forearm he’d just sutured, and was about to send the patient on his way. The nurse waited until he did so before speaking.
“You won’t believe this,” she said first.
“Roy is outside, worried about his partner, who ‘woke up’ with laryngitis this morning, and hoping someone could take a look. He still hasn’t told him!”
The corner of Brackett’s mouth twitched in displeasure. “Send Johnny in here. And see if you can occupy Roy. If you can’t, we’ll just have to play it out, I suppose.”
“This is ridiculous,” Dixie muttered as she left, and Brackett was inclined to agree.
“Dr. Brackett’s waiting for you in two,” the nurse told John as she returned to her desk. She sported a sickly-sweet and completely disingenuous smile, and Gage was sure she was making Roy suspicious.
He rolled his eyes and headed toward the room. He could feel Roy following, but didn’t know what to do about it, until he again heard Dix speak up. “Oh no you don’t, Roy. I’ve been waiting for someone to buy me a cup of coffee all morning. We’ll be in the lounge, Johnny!” And then his partner was gone.
“Sorry, Doc,” the paramedic said as soon as he entered the treatment room.
“Johnny, this is getting completely out of hand. I don’t understand why you haven’t told Roy what’s going on. I suppose that is your prerogative, but not when it means drawing Dixie and me into your deception.”
“I know, I know. I . . . .” John didn’t know what to say, really. He wanted to tell Roy ten times every day, and twice that many when they were working. He’d tell himself that this would be the time, and then Roy would tell him about his mother-in-law troubles, or about the leak in the garage, or how proud he’d been at Chris’s Little League game, and he wouldn’t be able to do it. “I just can’t tell him yet, Doc,” he finally admitted.
“Why, Johnny? I've told you from the beginning that you should have the help and support of your friends during this time. It’ll help you.”
“I have you and Dix,” he said with a grateful smile.
“Yes, you do. But I’m not just talking about rides home, Johnny. There’s more to this than that, and I think you know it.”
The smile left John’s face. “I know that, Doctor Brackett,” he said with complete seriousness. “Believe me, I know that. And that’s exactly why I can’t tell anyone.” He looked at his watch to predicate his departure. “We really need to get back on duty. Thanks again, Doc.”
“Wait a minute Johnny,” Brackett called out as Gage was about to leave. “I said I was going to take a look at your throat, and I intend to do exactly that. Get over here.”
+ + + + +
“Gage, phone.” Mike held the receiver out toward the paramedic.
“Who is it?”
Stoker scowled and shrugged. He hadn’t asked.
“Hello, this is John Gage.” Johnny listened for a second, and then spoke again. “Okay, look, can you hang on for a second? I need to switch phones.” He held the receiver back toward Mike, silently asking him to hang up when he’d picked up in the other room. Mike nodded.
“Who is it, Johnny?” Roy asked before his partner could leave.
“No one,” Johnny answered hurriedly as he ran to the dorm.
He looked around quickly, saw that the room was empty, and picked up the phone. “GOT IT!” he yelled as best he could, and then listened for the ‘click’ of Mike hanging up before he spoke again. “Okay, thanks,” he told the woman on the line. “Can you start again?”
“Sure, Mr. Gage,” the pleasant voice said. “My name is Mindy, and I’m calling from the diagnostic radiology department at UCLA Medical Center. You have an appointment with us tomorrow morning at ten?” Her tone was as if she was scheduling a haircut.
“Uhhh, yeah, that’s right.”
“Well, I was just calling to confirm, and to give you some instructions.”
“Oh. What are they?” Johnny wasn’t sure he liked the sound of this.
“Nothing really major. You were told not to eat anything after midnight, correct?”
“Yeah,” Johnny sighed. “Again.” It’s not that he even wanted to eat, really--he'd probably lost weight in the last week if anything. It was just the matter of not being allowed that grated on him.
“Okay, good. And we have your blood work on file already, Rampart send that over today.” The woman was clearly reading a chart as she spoke. “Did Dr. Miller explain the possible complications of the procedure?”
He had, before releasing Johnny from Rampart after the bronchoscopy. Miller had gone through what would happen in excruciating, and dispassionate, detail. But Gage had found that he was getting used to the guy’s manner. Nevertheless, the mere mention of the word “complications” was enough to send a shockwave of nervousness through his system.
“Yeah, he did,” he croaked out.
“Okay,” the girl chirped on, “so you know that there is a possibility you will need to be admitted.”
“But Dr. Miller said. . . .” Johnny started; he’d said the chances of that were very remote.
“Oh, I know,” Mindy laughed. Johnny was glad she could take this so lightly. But then, she wasn’t going to be having a biopsy in the morning, was she? She continued, “it’ll be fine. But just in case, you should bring an overnight bag. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Oh. Okay.” John derived no comfort from that suggestion at all. “I will.”
“Your time in the scan room is scheduled to begin at ten, so you should be here by 9:15 if you can. Will that be a problem?”
“Uhh, no, it shouldn’t be.” As long as he took his toiletries from his locker, that was. He wouldn’t have time to run home to pack a bag. But he didn’t want to get into that with this woman. He just wanted her off the phone.
“Okay, great!” Johnny rolled his eyes. There was nothing ‘great’ about this. Nothing at all. “We’ll see you tomorrow. Do you have any questions?”
“Ummm, Dr. Miller will be there when I arrive?”
“He should be. Hard to tell with him, he’s always coming and going. If he’s not, he’ll be on his way. Anything else?”
“No, I guess that’s it.”
“Great,” the annoying girl repeated. “We’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
The woman hung up, and John did the same with a heavy sigh. He allowed himself a second to rest his elbows on the table and drop his head into his hands. He dreaded tomorrow probably more than any other day in his life. It was the day he would Find Out For Sure. Just a formality, he was sure, but still. Who in their right mind would actually want confirmation of something like this? He sometimes wondered if he wouldn’t be better off if Brackett had never taken that x-ray.
But that was stupid, he knew. That thing in his lung wasn’t going anywhere, and they would have found it sooner or later. And if that was the case, sooner had to be better, right?
Right. And what was done was done. Nothing he could do about it except keep going forward. So he sat up straight, pulled himself together, and left the dorm.
He didn’t see Chet standing by the door to the latrine.
+ + + + +
“How about this morning, Johnny?” Roy asked. “I bet I can get Joanne to make blueberry pancakes!” The paramedic was desperate to get some time with John away from the station so maybe he could really talk to him, and get him to open up about what had been bothering him this last week or so. And breakfast at his house after a shift was a good enticement, he knew.
Johnny looked at him with a weary grin, and Roy suddenly noticed how tired his partner looked. Was he still not sleeping?
“That sounds really good, Roy, but I can’t. Wish I could.” The dark-haired man stood and picked up a duffel bag that he kept stashed in his locker. It had stuff in it, but Roy had no idea what. “I’ll see ya in a couple of days,” he added, and he left.
Roy shook his head in defeat and started to button his shirt.
“Roy,” Chet asked from the other side of the room, “what’s wrong with Johnny?”
The paramedic looked at his friend and shrugged. “Wish I knew,” he admitted. “He’s not talking. To me, anyway.”
“Is he sick or something?”
“No, Dr. Brackett looked at his throat yesterday and said it was fine.”
“That’s not what I meant,” the fireman said enigmatically. But he didn’t continue immediately.
“Then what did you mean?” DeSoto finally asked.
“It’s just that I walked in on him in the dorm yesterday; he was on the phone. And I coulda sworn he was making a doctor’s appointment or something. He said something about a Dr. Miller, and that he’d see them tomorrow.” Chet shrugged. “I dunno.”
Roy sat down hard on the bench behind him. Was that it? Was he sick? The paramedic couldn’t accept that. Surely Johnny would have told him that. And he wouldn’t be able to work if he was sick. And Brackett had said his throat was fine, and before that his cough was fine.
It couldn’t be it. Chet must have misunderstood, that’s all.
+ + + + +
“Okay, Mr. Gage, I’m about ready to insert the biopsy needle. Are you ready?”
No, he wasn’t. And yes he was. He’d been lying in this enormous contraption of a machine for what seemed like hours, though he knew it wasn’t nearly that long. But his arms had been over his head for so long they were both falling asleep. And the walls of it were too close to his body, and more than once he’d thanked his lucky stars that he wasn’t claustrophobic. There was no way, he was sure, that someone who was would be able to stand this newfangled machine.
“Uhh, I guess,” he answered.
“Thanks to the local, you shouldn’t feel any pain, just pressure. I’ll start by making a small incision in the skin,” as he said it, the surgeon did it, and Johnny felt his skin give. But it didn’t hurt, as promised. “It is imperative that you do not move at all, Mr. Gage. We’ve done a good job of localizing the lesion, but if you move we’ll have to start all over again. Can you stay still?”
The way the physician asked the question annoyed Johnny. It was as if he was admonishing a small child in advance of him doing something bad. As if he was already sure Johnny would not be able to remain motionless. Why hadn’t he changed doctors again?
“Of course,” he answered, letting his annoyance show. “Just get on with it. My arms are asleep.”
And with that Dr. Miller proceeded. Johnny felt the pressure, and it was quite uncomfortable even if it wasn’t actually painful. But the paramedic remained silent and stoic, until it did hurt. Something happened, the needle hit a spot, and it sent a shooting pain through John’s chest, causing him to gasp. But he didn’t move.
Miller stopped. “Okay, Mr. Gage, I’m sorry about that. The needle has advanced beyond the depth of the local. The pain should be temporary. Calm down; breathe through your nose. Use the oxygen. I’ll wait.”
After a moment of deep breathing through the nasal cannula, the pain did dissipate. In the mean time the doctor had checked the position of the needle, and deemed it satisfactory. He advanced it slightly more, checked again, and decided it was time to remove a sample of the tumor.
Claiming he wanted to be sure to get a good sample, Dr. Miller retracted and re-advanced the needle two more times. By the time the whole thing was done, Johnny was miserable.
“I’ll need a chest x-ray,” he heard the doctor tell someone. Then he was talking to him. “We’ll need to watch you closely for several hours.”
Gage knew why--in case his lung collapsed. “Uh huh.”
+ + + + +
John was lying in his bed in the observation unit, trying to get comfortable. The right side of his chest ached, and the people at UCLA's idea of pain relief were a couple of Tylenol, which hadn’t kicked in yet. He kept shifting, and every time he did, it hurt more. Finally he gave up, and found the bed’s controls to sit himself up.
He was surprised when Dr. Miller came in. It had only been about an hour since they’d finished the test, only a few minutes since they'd taken the chest x-ray, and he hadn’t expected to see the doctor so soon.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Gage?” he asked.
“A little sore.” For some reason, Miller’s expression alarmed Gage. “Why? What’s the matter? What’d you find out?”
“The biopsy samples are in pathology now. We don’t know anything yet, and the complete biopsy won’t be finished for a couple of days. But I can tell you preliminarily that it looks like we didn’t miss the lesion. That’s good news.”
John nodded mutely.
“Can I take a listen?” the physician asked, pulling his stethoscope from its place around his neck. The paramedic sat up straight, and the doctor proceeded to listen to his right lung very carefully.
“Do I have a pneumothorax?” Johnny guessed. Collapsed lung was the most common side effect, after all.
The doctor stepped back from the bed before answering. “Maybe. The x-ray indicated that there might be a little bit of air in your chest cavity. Any pain?”
“Well, yeah, it’s sore where you went in. Doesn’t hurt to breathe, though.”
Miller nodded. “That’s good. I suspect what you have is what you’ll get. We’ll repeat the chest x-rays periodically, get a blood gas on you, and see.”
“If it doesn’t get worse, can I still go home this afternoon?”
“If it doesn’t get worse,” the doctor repeated, “I don’t see why not.”
+ + + + +
It didn’t get worse, and after five hours of observation, during most of which he managed to sleep, Johnny was sent home. The only problem was that Miller insisted he take the next shift off. “We invaded your chest cavity,” he’d admonished, “any strenuous activity before it has a chance to heal could cause bleeding, or a worsening of the pneumothorax.”
John had agreed and gone home, with an appointment to see Miller at Rampart in two days for another chest x-ray and the biopsy results, and instructions to call immediately if he felt any increased discomfort, or had difficulty breathing.
He hadn’t, and made it through the second day with no problem other than a little soreness, and stiff shoulders from holding his arms above his head for what had seemed like hours. He was even answering his phone, and had already assured Dixie he was doing okay when he got another call. Roy was inviting him to dinner. Again.
“I can’t, Roy, but thanks anyway.”
“We haven’t seen you in ages, Johnny.”
“What are you talking about? You see me at work all the time.”
Roy’s voice sounded perturbed. “That’s not what I mean. The kids miss you.”
John sort of chuckled at that. His partner always played the “kid card” when he wanted him to do something at the DeSoto home, knowing Gage was a sucker for those kids.
But Johnny wouldn’t let it work this time. “I can’t, Roy. I, ummm, I’m busy, if you know what I mean.” Gage spoke as provocatively as possible, hoping Roy would jump to his own conclusions about what he meant.
Because after all, his partner actually had no idea what he meant.
+ + + + +
“No, huh?” Joanne asked her husband as he hung up the phone.
“No,” Roy admitted with a heavy sigh. “He says he has a date. I just don’t know, Joanne. I’m worried about him. He hasn’t been over in what? Two weeks?”
“I think that’s about right,” Jo agreed. “Not since you painted the sun room, and even then he was late because he had that doctor’s appointment, and he didn’t even stay for dessert.” The woman stopped speaking, and thought for a moment. “Come to think of it,” she finally said, “he really didn’t seem like himself that day, either.”
“My God, Jo, you’re right!” Roy exclaimed. “He was quiet, seemed kinda down, didn’t he?” His wife nodded her agreement. The paramedic sat heavily in a kitchen chair. “What if Chet was right?” he mused aloud.
“Chet? Right about what?”
“He said yesterday morning after shift that he’d overheard Johnny on the phone making a doctor’s appointment. I just chalked it up to Chet being Chet, but what if what he heard was right? What if there’s something wrong? This whole thing started right after he saw Doctor Brackett that morning. I’m sure of it. And a couple of times when we were at the hospital Brackett saw Johnny, but I thought they were just talking, and . . .” He stopped, it all suddenly starting to come together. “And Dixie, Joanne. Dixie kept taking me to the lounge for coffee and stuff. What if she was getting rid of me?” Roy shook his head. “How could I have missed this?”
“Wait a minute honey,” Joanne said, trying to calm her increasingly agitated husband. “Don’t you think you’re jumping to conclusions here? If there were something wrong with Johnny, he’d tell us. He wouldn’t hide something like that.”
“Normally I’d think you’re right. But he’s been acting so strange lately.”
“And another thing,” the undaunted wife continued, “if he was sick, how could he still be working? He’s been okay at work, hasn’t he?”
“Well,” Roy admitted, “yeah. Except that day he had laryngitis, yeah, he’s been okay.” He picked up the phone. “I’m still gonna call him.”
Joanne put her hand over her husband’s, and put the phone back in place. “He said he had a date, honey. Leave him alone. You can talk to him at work tomorrow.”
+ + + + +
It was late, almost nine at night, and John was staring at his phone. He needed to call Cap and tell him he wouldn’t be in the next day. But what to tell him?
It was tempting to just tell him everything. The next morning Gage would get the confirmation he’d been seeking for the last ten days, and then he’d have to tell Cap. A guy getting treatment for lung cancer couldn’t be a fireman. Johnny was sure of that.
But something still held him back. He didn’t want to tell Cap. Didn’t want to tell anyone until he heard the words himself. So he lied. Again.
“I dunno, Cap,” he told him. “Must be some sort of 24-hour stomach virus. Can’t keep anything down.”
“Sorry to hear it, pal.”
“I’ll be okay,” the paramedic promised. Another lie.
“Glad to hear it. But boy, John, with that cough and losing your voice and now your stomach, this hasn’t been your week, has it?”
Johnny actually chuckled at how unbelievably true those words were. It hadn’t been his week at all. And he was sure that, come morning, it was only going to get worse.
+ + + + +
"He's what?" an incredulous Roy DeSoto asked his captain. "What exactly did he say?"
"He said he wasn't feeling well. Some sort of stomach bug. Thanks, Dwyer, by the way, for agreeing to work a double."
"I don't believe this. He told me he," Roy suddenly realized what he was saying, and that he was dangerously close to getting his partner in serious trouble, so he stopped.
"What'd he tell you, pal?" Cap asked curiously.
"Nothing, Cap, nothing. I just talked to him yesterday afternoon, and he didn't say anything to me. That's all."
"Well, these things can come up on you rather suddenly, can't they?"
"Yeah, they can."
The minute roll call was over Roy headed toward the dorm and called Johnny. He had to find out what was going on, and if what he was thinking was crazy, or was right.
There was no answer.
+ + + + +
John entered Rampart through the front doors, rather than the more familiar ER entrance. He didn't want to run into anyone he knew, if he could help it. He especially didn't want to see Brackett or Dixie. He'd gotten used to brushing off people who didn't know, but those two. . . . He couldn't stand the pity. And even though he knew he'd probably have to get used to the sympathetic looks and condolences, he'd put it off as long as possible.
The repeat x-ray only took a minute, and the tech developed it while John waited, so he could bring it up to Dr. Miller's with him. The news was good--the guy told him he didn't see air any more, and Johnny knew that most of the guys in x-ray could read films as well as any doctor.
Of course, that "spot," as Brackett had annoyingly labeled it on day one, was still there. Johnny didn't need any help finding that.
As he left the radiology department with x-ray in-hand, he was confronted in the waiting area by Dixie, arms crossed on her chest and looking perturbed.
John matched her mood, and tried to walk past. "Hey, Dix," he said, hoping he'd be able to make a clean escape.
He should have known better. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked him. She sounded like she was scolding a child, and Johnny couldn't help feeling he'd been getting altogether too much of that attitude lately.
"Got an appointment with Miller," he said, making another unsuccessful attempt to get away from his friend.
"Not for almost an hour, Johnny. Did you honestly think you could make an appointment in my hospital without me knowing about it?" The woman literally clucked with disapproval, but then the stern look on her face melted away into a smile. "Come on. Let's get some coffee. You've got time."
Thankfully, Dix didn't try to take him to the ER doctor's lounge, opting instead for the nearly deserted cafeteria.
"How have you been doing?" the nurse asked as soon as they sat down.
"Eh," Johnny deflected. "Not too bad." Dixie scowled, so Johnny amended his answer. "And not too great."
"You look tired."
Gage shrugged. "I've been sleeping okay these last couple of nights. It's weird, but I've kinda gotten used to it, you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean." She paused a minute before continuing. "How'd the biopsy go? The board is lobbying to get one of those scanners over here. We'll see."
"You claustrophobic?" John asked with a slight grin. "Cuz if you are, you're in big trouble. Picture spending an hour in a pipe. It's like that."
"But they say the pictures they produce are amazing."
"I wouldn't know, I didn't see them."
The nurse nodded. "You're here to get the results," she said simply.
Gage tried to keep the flash of worry from running across his face. He could tell from his friend's concerned expression that he'd failed. "Yeah," he admitted. It came out as almost a whisper.
"Do you want company? Someone for moral support?" The small talk and banter was over; Dixie had gotten to the point.
"No, Dix, but thanks."
The nurse shook her head. "You still haven't told anyone, have you?"
"Why not, Johnny? This is crazy. No matter what you find out upstairs, some course of action will need to be taken. People will need to be told. Did you think you could keep this a secret forever?" The woman was clearly upset.
"No, no, I didn't think that," Johnny said apologetically. He truly was sorry for the stress he'd put on Dixie and Dr. Brackett as a result of the way he'd handled this.
"I don't know, Dix," he finally said, his voice filled with resignation. "It didn't seem like the right time at first. So I thought I'd wait and find out exactly what was going on before I told anyone. And then it went on and on." He allowed another slight smile and shook his head. "I never thought it would drag on this long. Honest."
"Well, that's true, this has taken longer than expected," the nurse allowed. "But Johnny, you shouldn't go in to see Dr. Miller alone. I feel strongly about this. Whether it's good news or bad, you should have someone with you. This isn't something you should hear alone. I can get Betty to cover the desk for me."
Johnny had started shaking his head "no" the minute Dix had started. By the time she was done, he was shaking it vigorously.
"No, Dix, no. You don't get it. Even if I'd told everyone everything I wouldn't want anyone with me today." It was Johnny's turn to get upset; he had to make her understand this, but he wasn’t all that sure he understood it himself. "I wouldn't want anyone with me when . . . when I find out. I couldn't. . . . I can't." He gave up in frustration with a disgusted wave of his hand. “Oh, I don’t know how to explain it.”
“I do,” Dixie ventured, and Johnny looked at her expectantly. “It’s pride, Johnny. Stupid male pride. And it’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with leaning on your friends a little during hard times.”
“I’ve done that plenty of times,” Gage protested.
“What? When you’re laid up from an injury at work? Sure, you let people do some shopping for you, or drive you to doctor’s appointments. But that’s not what I’m talking about and you know it.”
Johnny let out a mirthless laugh.
“You sound just like Dr. Brackett.”
Dixie smiled. “Well, Dr. Brackett is a wise man. You should listen to him.”
“Except,” Johnny said with a slight smile, “when he said it I thought he sounded just like you. And now I know I was right.”
“I’m just worried about you, Johnny.”
“I know. And I appreciate it.” Johnny nervously checked his watch. “I should get upstairs.”
“Are you sure you won’t let me come with you?”
“I’m sure, Dix.”
The nurse sighed. “Okay. But promise me you’ll come downstairs and let me and Kel know what the results were.”
“I can’t promise that.” Dix started to protest, but Johnny stopped her. “But I’ll let Dr. Miller tell you. Heck, Brackett probably already knows by now.”
“I don’t think so, Johnny.”
The paramedic stood. “Doesn’t matter,” he decided aloud. “I gotta go.”
Dixie stood, too. “Walk me back to the ER?”
“What if one of the guys, what if Roy is there? I better not.”
“You’ll be able to see if he is long before we get down the hall. If someone’s there, I’ll let you run and hide. Don’t you worry.” She had a teasing grin on her face. “Come on.”
+ + + + +
Dixie had secretly been hoping someone would be in the ER when they got there, but the area was maddeningly free of paramedics. She’d put Johnny in the elevator, holding up her crossed fingers for him as the door closed. He’d smiled, but looked totally resigned to the notion that the news would be bad.
As luck would have it, just as she turned around she saw Roy bringing in a patient at the other end of the hallway. Betty seemed to have it well in-hand, so Dixie returned to her post at the base station.
“Hey, Dix,” Roy greeted her as soon as he’d delivered his victim to Morton. “Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, Roy, what’s on your mind?”
“I want you to tell me what’s going on with Johnny.”
The nurse was startled. Dumbstruck. This wasn’t what she’d been expecting at all. “What. . . ,” she had to force herself to keep from stammering in shock. “What are you talking about?”
“All those meetings Johnny kept having with Doctor Brackett, while you,” he stressed the word a bit menacingly, “dragged me off to get coffee. And you encouraging me to force Johnny to talk. You knew something then, didn’t you? He started acting strange right after he saw Doctor Brackett for that cough. Something’s the matter with him, isn’t it? Is he sick?”
The nurse’s mind was reeling; she had no idea what to say. She couldn’t deny it, he was absolutely right. But at the same time, she couldn’t divulge Johnny’s medical condition, no matter how much she wanted to. More than anything, she wished Kel would show up at that moment, so she could defer to him.
“I don’t know what to say, Roy,” she admitted honestly. “I can’t say anything. You know that.” She knew that even by saying that much she was, in effect, confirming the worried paramedic’s suspicions.
She watched in dismay as Roy made that very connection, and his face fell with concern. “Wow,” he admitted. “I was kinda hoping you would tell me I was out of my mind.”
Dixie shook her head sadly. “You’re not.”
“Umm, where. . . .” Roy stopped after a second, appearing to recollect his thoughts. “Johnny didn’t come in today. Do you know where he is? I tried to call him, but he wasn’t home.”
The ER nurse looked at the elevator doors for a long moment, wishing they’d open and Johnny would be on the other side so Roy would have the answer to his question, but knowing they wouldn’t. Then she had an idea.
“Roy,” she started. “When you came in, you saw Johnny get on that elevator, didn’t you?”
“Huh?” Roy asked. “I didn’t,” but Dix cut him off.
“DIDN’T you?” she stressed with a conspiratorial grin. “Because if you did, I suppose I could tell you which floor he got off.”
A slow smile crept across DeSoto’s face. “Yeah, Dix, I saw him. Any idea where he got off?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. That would be the eighth floor.”
Roy headed toward the elevator and pushed the call button before turning back. “Dr. Miller’s office?” he asked.
Once more, Dixie was stunned by how much Roy knew. “How did you?” she started, but stopped because the doors had opened and Roy was getting in.
“I’ll tell ya later. Thanks, Dix,” he said as the doors closed.
The nurse watched the numbers climb on the elevator’s floor indicator, and hoped that some day Johnny would forgive her for what she’d just done.
+ + + + +
As the elevator rose, Roy realized that he had no idea where on the eighth floor this Dr. Miller's office was. He wasn't even entirely sure what was on the floor--he'd never been up there before.
His answer came the minute the door opened, and he was greeted by the sign. Surgical Oncology.
Johnny had cancer?
The door started to close, so he quickly jumped out. But he never took his eyes off the sign. He physically shook himself. No way. It couldn't be that. He'd figured out it was something, but not that.
No wonder Johnny'd been acting so strange. But why hadn’t he _told_ anyone?
"Can I help you?" Roy's reverie was interrupted by the voice of a woman, a nurse, who was looking at him inquisitively. "You look lost," she said kindly.
"Oh, no, not really. I'm trying to find my friend . . . . Do you know where Dr. Miller's office is?"
"That depends. Which Dr. Miller? There's Dr. Nathan Miller, he's in gynecology in the east wing,"
Roy stopped her. "No, no, it's a guy; My friend. He's a man."
"Oh," the woman chuckled. "Then you probably are looking for Carl Miller. He's a thoracic surgeon. Mostly lungs. His office is down there," she said, pointing through the doors that led to the west wing. "I think it's 812, but the name's on the door."
"Uhhh, okay. Thanks."
The woman walked off, and Roy was left to digest yet another piece of information.
Lung cancer? No way. Johnny didn't even smoke.
In short order the paramedic roused himself and decided he'd been kept in the dark long enough. There was only one way to find out what exactly was going on with his partner, and he purposefully went in search of Carl Miller's office.
+ + + + +
Johnny was sitting nervously in the waiting room, trying to quell his urge to jump up and pace in the small room. He knew Dr. Miller's receptionist Sandy--he'd talked to her so many times over the past two weeks that they were on a first-name basis--wouldn't mind if he literally climbed the walls, but he still didn’t want to disturb her. So he stayed in his place.
“He should be here in a few minutes, Johnny,” the young woman told him with a warm smile, apparently able to read his uneasiness from the way he was fidgeting.
“Uhh, I know. You told me. Thanks.” John leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, taking a moment to study the carpet between his feet.
He was still looking downward when he heard the door opening. He resisted the urge to jump to his feet in anticipation of it being the doctor, and instead just looked up. He was not expecting what he saw.
Gage was on his feet in an instant. “Roy! What are you . . . how did you . . . ? What are you doing here?”
Roy moved toward him, and spoke in low, though urgent, tones. “Me? Geez, Johnny, why didn’t you tell me? Are you okay?”
“How did you know where I am?” Johnny asked, though he had a good idea, and after the talk they’d just had, he was mad. “Dixie told you,” he decided for himself.
“No, she didn’t,” Roy protested, still whispering and glancing over at Sandy, who was trying not to listen. He took hold of Johnny’s arm, and sat him back down, taking the next chair for himself. “I figured it out on my own, more or less. HOW could you not tell me? What’s going on?”
“It’s none of your business, Roy!” Johnny snapped--and he instantly regretted it. He was mad--at Dixie and most of all at himself. But he wasn’t mad at his partner.
He regretted it even more when Roy sprang up and started to shout. “How DARE you say that!” he yelled, casting one sideways glance at the receptionist, but forging ahead anyway. “You’re my partner. My best friend. You’re like family, Johnny. And you’re seeing an oncologist. An oncologist, for God’s sake, and you think that’s none of my business? Why would you think such a thing? How could you?”
Johnny buried his head in his hands. How could he have, indeed? What had he been thinking? At that moment he couldn’t even remember any more. The only thing he was sure of was that he couldn’t have made a bigger mess of this whole thing if he’d tried.
When he looked up Roy was sitting next to him again. He made eye contact with Sandy, and she grinned sympathetically before pretending to read a paper on her desk. She’d probably seen and heard much worse than this before, John realized sadly.
When Johnny looked at his partner finally, he was surprised that he didn’t see anger in Roy’s eyes. A second ago he’d been raving, with good cause. But now he looked. . . . John didn’t know. He couldn’t place it.
“Look, Roy,” he started calmly. Almost too calmly. “I didn’t think . . . .” He stopped. That wasn’t what he wanted to say. “I didn’t want. . . .” He stopped himself again. Roy was shaking his head. “I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out.
“We should talk about all that later,” Roy advised. He was calm now; back to himself. “I don’t even know what’s going on.”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t really know,” he admitted. “They did a biopsy on Monday. I’m here for the results.”
“Biopsy of what? Do you have. . . .” Gage almost smiled at the realization that Roy couldn't say the word, either--just like everyone else.
“Cancer? Do I have cancer?" Johnny amazed himself at how easily he could say the word no one else wanted to. "Yeah, probably. In my lung. Brackett saw something on my x-ray. Remember that cough I had two weeks ago?”
“Probably?” Roy asked hopefully. “So there’s a chance you don’t?”
“I guess so. But the doctor seemed to think I did. And he should know.”
Roy sat in stunned silence, and John just watched him. He didn’t know what to say, and he was betting neither did Roy.
But both men were granted a reprieve when Dr. Miller swept into the room. “Mr. Gage,” he greeted. “Give me two minutes and come on in,” he instructed as he went into his office, snatching John's x-ray on his way by the reception desk.
Gage stood. “I gotta,” he glanced at the office door then back at Roy. “I gotta go in.”
Roy nodded, and rose also. “I’ll go with you,” he offered.
Johnny closed his eyes and slumped his shoulders in dismay. This was precisely the moment he wanted--needed--to face alone. “No, Roy,” he said, shaking his head. “Please. I have to do this by myself. I’ll tell you what I find out. I’ll tell you everything, I promise.” He looked again at the door. “But I hafta go in there alone.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, nodding his head emphatically. “I’m sure.”
“Okay. But I’ll stay here and wait . . . as long as we don’t get a run, that is. Is that all right?”
Gage smiled. “Yeah, I’d like that. Thanks.”
Roy sat back down and Johnny turned toward the office, knowing that his entire future depended on what he found out on the other side of the door.
And he walked through alone.
+ + + + +
“Have a seat,” Carl Miller offered. Johnny was confused. The doctor wasn’t his normal, all-business self. He seemed almost . . . upbeat.
The paramedic sat, and was stunned when Miller came around from behind the desk to lean on its front, closer to John than he’d ever been during their many consultations. Then the man smiled. Widely.
“Benign,” he said simply. “It was entirely benign, John.”
Johnny literally felt for a second as if someone had pushed all the air out of his lungs. “Wha . . . WHAT?”
The doctor chuckled. “You heard me. Two of the three biopsy sites yielded good tumor samples. Pathology looked at every damn cell, and found no malignancy. None.”
The paramedic could not believe what he was hearing. “But I was so sure,” he sputtered. “You seemed so sure!”
“I probably shouldn’t have been so blunt with you in our earlier meetings, and for that I apologize,” Miller admitted. He stood and returned to his familiar place sitting behind his desk. “But the size of the lesion, your not insignificant risk factors, the other results--if asked to give odds, I would have said there was a 75 to 80 percent chance the lesion was malignant.” He grinned again. “I love it when I’m wrong.”
Johnny let out a laugh. “YOU do? So do I!” He was feeling giddy, euphoric. He didn’t want to sit still, didn’t know what to do with himself. He jumped to his feet and turned his back on the doctor. Two weeks ago he’d had his whole life pulled out from under him in a second. And now, just as quickly, it seemed as if it was being given back.
He turned back to face the specialist. “So that’s it? I’m okay? I’m fine?”
Miller’s happy expression tempered itself. “Well, yes and no. There’s still the matter of that tumor. It is there, after all, even if it isn’t cancerous.”
Johnny’s expression became similarly more serious, and he sat back down. “Do you still have to take it out?”
“No,” Dr. Miller said simply before continuing. “Not necessarily. You have two options here. Right now it’s asymptomatic. We can leave it alone and take regular x-rays, and maybe slide you back into the CT scanner at UCLA from time to time, and watch the growth of it. If it remains as-is you can live a perfectly normal, long, healthy life without giving it a second thought.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“If it starts to grow or change, or starts to cause you problems, we can take it out--which is your second option. We can just get it over with, surgically remove it now before it can cause any problems, and put this whole thing behind you once and for all.”
"But it might never cause any problems."
It hadn’t taken much to get Johnny’s mind reeling again. He couldn’t process this, and didn’t know what to say, really. “So what would you do?” he asked, hoping for some guidance.
“I’m a surgeon, John,” Miller said with a smile. It wasn’t lost on the paramedic that all of a sudden the doctor was using his first name. “That should tell you my inclination right there. But it’s up to you. I would be perfectly content with either course of action. Lung surgery is no small deal, I know that. If you don’t want to do it, that’s perfectly understandable, and it’s fine with me. Let’s just be thankful that you have the choice, huh?” The man stood and came around the desk. “But it’s not something you have to decide now. You have time. Go home, think about it, talk to your family, and call if you have any questions.”
Johnny stood up, understanding that their meeting was over, and anxious to get out so he could talk to Roy. He thanked the doctor profusely, and left the office. But Roy was nowhere to be seen.
"He asked me to tell you he had a run," Sandy told him.
"Oh," the paramedic said, slightly crestfallen. But it didn't last long. He'd just see Roy later.
"Congratulations, Johnny," the receptionist said quietly.
Gage looked at her, surprised. "You know?"
"Sure," she let on. "I took the call from the pathology lab. It's good news."
John smiled. "Yeah, it is. Thanks." He paused for a moment, then plastered a mock-angry expression on his face. "You mean you let me sit there, going crazy, and you didn't say anything?"
Sandy shrugged with an innocent smile. She knew he was teasing. "I couldn't! Dr. Miller woulda fired me if I did!" Her expression turned more serious. "It's not that often he gets to deliver really good news like that, you know."
John hadn't thought of that. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He reached the door and turned back. "Thanks for everything Sandy," he said.
"Any time, Johnny. Call me any time. You know how to reach me," the woman added with a smile.
John was halfway down the hall before he realized that the girl had just invited him to ask her out. He chuckled at the realization. Maybe he would call her. Maybe he would.
+ + + + +
As the elevator descended down to the ER floor, Johnny was surprised to realize he was nervous. It was all good news, and yet he was actually nervous about delivering it to Dixie and, maybe, Brackett. It didn't make any sense to him.
The door opened, and as he exited he was immediately met by a penetrating look from Dix, though she remained at her post behind her desk. He approached, trying to keep his expression neutral, but he couldn't do it. As soon as he was next to her, he broke out into a huge grin.
"It's all benign, Dix," he said, almost whispering for fear someone would overhear. He didn't quite understand why he was still being secretive about it, either, yet here he was.
The paramedic's thoughts were interrupted by the realization that he was being hugged. Dixie had wrapped her arms around him and was squeezing, so he moved his arms as well and made it a proper hug. It felt good.
"Oh, Johnny, thank God! I'm so happy for you. I'm so relieved," the nurse was exclaiming.
John quickly became embarrassed by the display, and stepped out of her embrace. "Yeah, me too."
"What's going on here?" Mike Morton asked as he approached. He'd obviously seen the embrace.
Johnny made eye contact with Dixie. He wasn't sure he wanted to tell the doctor. And Dixie seemed to understand.
"Johnny just got some really good news, that's all," she said.
"Oh. Glad to hear it." Mike was never one to pry, and John was glad he wasn't starting now. "Shouldn't you be on duty?" he asked.
"Well, yeah. I wasn't feeling so hot this morning. But I'm a whole lot better now."
Dixie laughed, and the physician obviously knew there was something more to it. "What am I missing here?"
John grinned. "Dixie can tell you all about it." He looked at the nurse and asked, "Where's Brackett?"
"He's in his office. Waiting for you, I'd bet."
"Okay, I'll go talk to him." John started down the hall but then turned back. "Hey, Dix, has Roy called in?"
"No, Johnny. They were called out, but haven't called anything in. Must not be serious."
"Okay. But if he does come in, don't tell him, okay? I want to."
Dixie crossed her heart with her finger. "I promise."
John again started on his way to Dr. Brackett's office, but once more stopped and turned. "Oh and Dix?" he asked, only continuing his statement when he had her attention. "I haven't forgotten what you did this morning."
The nurse batted her eyelashes innocently. "Who me? I have no idea what you are talking about."
The paramedic grinned again. "Yeah, right," he said incredulously. "Anyway, thanks."
"Any time, Johnny, any time."
+ + + + +
"So what do you think I should do? What would you do?"
Brackett studied John's face for a moment, and marveled at how different--and better--the young man looked from the last time he'd seen him a few days earlier. He hadn't really allowed himself to notice how the weight of this scare had been affecting the paramedic. But that's exactly how John looked now: like an enormous weight had been removed from his shoulders.
Kel realized that he sort of felt the same way.
"It's up to you, Johnny, really. There are pros and cons with each approach." He knew John would ask, so he immediately elaborated. "Removing it now is major surgery, with all of its accompanying risks and whatnot. But you know what those are. Leaving it lets you resume your normal life immediately."
"So you think I should forget about it."
Brackett chuckled. "That's not what I said, and there's no way you could 'forget' about it. You'd have to be very diligent about follow-ups. And in the end you may have to have it removed somewhere down the line anyway."
"So why prolong the inevitable? I should have it taken out now."
He chortled again. "That's not what I said either. Some benign tumors never grow. It could stay exactly the way it is right now, forever. Or, it could grow, or worse. There's no way to know for sure." The doctor leaned forward on his desk. "You need to decide what's best for you, and no one can decide for you. But you have time. There's no hurry any more."
He watched as Johnny relaxed back into his chair. "Yeah, I have time. That's what Dr. Miller said, too." He face broke into a wide grin. "It's a nice feeling."
+ + + + +