January 25, 2001
Note: Whenever I watch “The Greatest Rescues of Emergency!” I can’t shake the feeling, based on the almost wistful way John and Roy talked about him, that Chet had died in the line of duty. This is my take on how that tragic event might have played out for the rest of the guys. Yes, this is a character death warning! I’m told you might want to have some tissues nearby.
Mike Stoker backed the rig into its place and cut the engine. The silence that surrounded the men was deafening. He sighed, and started to take off his turnout coat. Captain Stanley slowly climbed from his perch, and headed straight into his office, closing the door behind him.
Mike and Marco slowly made their way into the day room. The two men reeked of smoke, and Marco’s face was streaked with soot and grime. Neither of them seemed to notice; seemed to care. They both sank into chairs, saying nothing.
After a moment, Cap joined them, and stood silently between his two men.
“Has he. . . ?” Mike finally asked.
“No. Not yet.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I talked to Roy. He said. . . .” Cap suddenly needed to stop as his emotions threatened to surface, and his voice got caught in his throat. “They’re gonna stay. Gonna wait. . . .”
Hank wandered over to the stove, and took down a coffee cup. He picked up the pot, finding it empty, and put it back down. He studied the stoneware mug in his hand for a moment, and then suddenly hurled it at the wall, watching it shatter into a million pieces on contact.
+ + + + +
It had been a routine structure fire, by all accounts; nothing particularly special. No one had been expecting this. The ceiling had come down, a burning beam pinning Chet Kelly by the chest. As his colleagues worked to get to him, and to get the debris off him, it had all kept burning.
When they’d gotten him free and outside the building, Hank had seen the look in his paramedics’ eyes. He’d seen the horror, the revulsion, there. He’d noticed how Roy was unable to look at Chet’s burned flesh, and therefore rarely moved his gaze from the man’s unblemished face. He’d seen the meaningful glances the two paramedics had exchanged when they thought no one was looking.
When he heard Roy on the biophone, saying “2nd and 3rd degree burns to approximately 75% of the body,” he’d known for sure.
Chet Kelly had been killed today.
He’d marveled at John and Roy, at how they worked furiously and efficiently, all-the-while keeping up a steady stream of reassuring banter for Chet, who remained conscious and in agony. The burns to Chet’s arms had been extensive. Too extensive to find a vein, so without seeking permission, John had moved to Chet’s unburned feet, and started an IV there. Anything to be able to provide morphine, anything to silence his friend’s pleas for help.
Mike and Marco had each taken a moment to stop by and speak to Chet. To tell him to hang in there. To tell him they’d see him later. They knew they wouldn’t. Mike had returned to his post at the engine’s controls, resting his forehead against them and idly fingering one of the dials for a long moment. Marco had stepped around the other side of the engine and sobbed. They knew; everyone knew.
After his man had been lifted onto the gurney, Hank had taken a deep breath and took his turn. “You’re a good man, Chet,” he’d choked out. “Take it easy, pal.”
The minute the ambulance had departed with his partner and gravely injured friend inside, John Gage had bent over and vomited where he stood.
+ + + + +
Mike stared at the shards of pottery that littered the floor, and looked up at his captain. Hank seemed a million miles away, so he stood and got a broom. Stoker opened the cabinet to get the dustpan, and the water stain on the inside of the door, the remnant of a long-ago premature detonation of one of Chet’s water bombs, stopped him.
He looked at the stain, traced its outline with his finger, then quietly closed the door, the pan forgotten.
He started to sweep the broken pieces into a pile, making an ever-smaller circle of the mess.
“We should go,” he heard Marco say to no one in particular.
+ + + + +
He hadn’t wanted to go. Cap had come to him, offered to cover the engine while he went over to say something to Chet. But Mike hadn’t wanted to, and declined the offer.
He’d known what Cap was asking him to do; he knew what it meant. And he didn’t want to.
But the look on Hank’s face had been bereft; pleading. Don’t do it for yourself, it said. Do it for me. Do it for Chet.
Marco was there. He had his hand on top of Chet’s head, rubbing it, petting him. Mike let his eyes travel down his fallen comrade’s body. It was covered in sterile sheets, and Gage was pouring saline over them. Bottle after bottle; every one they had. He ripped open an IV bag and kept pouring.
Mike had shuddered. Too much. The burns were too much.
He’d looked at Chet’s face again, and was surprised to find the man looking up at him. An oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth, but the look in Chet’s eyes said it all. He knew. Everyone knew.
“Hang in there, buddy,” Mike had said. He’d tried to smile, to be upbeat and confident. But he’d failed.
“Yeah,” Chet had agreed.
Marco had leaned in closer to Chet and whispered in his ear. Then he’d kissed his friend on the forehead, and Mike could take no more.
He’d quickly retreated to the safety of his engine.
+ + + + +
“Seriously, Cap,” Marco reiterated, standing quickly. “We should be there. With him. Why are we here?”
His question seemed to snap Hank out of his reverie, and he waited for the man to answer him.
“We gotta wait,” Cap started in a stunned whisper. “For a replacement.”
Marco shook his head vigorously. “No, Cap, NO!” He released his death-grip on the table’s edge, and walked around it toward his superior. “I’m not working today! Not any more!” he shouted angrily. “I can’t!”
He stopped just shy of too close to his captain, and let his shoulders slump in resignation.
“He’s my best friend, Cap.”
+ + + + +
“Chet, it’s gonna be all right,” Marco had told his friend ineffectually. “Everything’s gonna be all right.”
He’d looked up and his eyes had met Johnny’s. There was a hint of disapproval there, but Gage said nothing, opting instead to turn his attention back to treating Chet’s wounds.
“It hurts, Marco” Chet had gasped through his oxygen mask. “It hurts a lot.”
“I know. I know, mi amigacho.”
He’d wanted to hold his hand, wanted Chet to feel him. Wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone. But there was nowhere on his hands to hold. Nowhere that wasn’t black or blistering with horrid burns.
“God, it HURTS!” he’d wailed.
“Chet, settle down now,” John had said sternly. “I know it hurts. We’re working on it, okay? Not much longer.” Gage had leaned over Chet’s face, and looked at him intently, almost fiercely. It was a strange thought, but it had seemed to Marco as if he was trying to give their friend some of his strength. Then he’d confirmed it. “You be strong,” Johnny had commanded. “You hear me?”
Chet had nodded, and fell silent.
Unable to hold on to anything, Marco had taken to stroking Chet’s hair. He was petting him like a dog almost, but it was the only thing he could think to do. The only way he knew for Chet to feel him there, and he’d wanted his friend to know he was there. It was important to him.
Then Mike came over. For a second Marco had thought the engineer was going to pass out. He’d looked at the shroud covering Chet’s burns, and he’d paled. He knew the same thing Marco did, the same thing Johnny and Roy knew. The same thing Chet knew.
It was too much.
He’d looked at Chet for a long moment, and Chet had stared back. Mike’s a man of few words, so his “hang in there,” had meant a lot more than just that, and everyone knew it.
The ambulance had arrived, and soon the gurney would be by his friend’s side. It was almost time. So Marco had leaned in close, and whispered in his ear.
“You are my best friend, Chet Kelly,” he’d told him. “Mi mejor amigo. Te amo.”
I love you.
He’d kissed him then, on the forehead. Kissed him goodbye. When he’d looked up Mike was gone and Johnny and Roy, positioned as they were on either side of Chet, were staring over each other’s shoulders, at points far off in the distance. Their faces were masks of intensity--they were fighting to keep it together.
And then Marco had done the only thing he could do. He’d run away.
He hadn’t wanted his best friend to see him cry. Like John had said, it was time for Chet to be strong. It was time for them all to be strong.
Mi mejor amigo.
+ + + + +
“Yeah, pal, you’re right,” Hank said after the longest minute in Marco’s life. “Let’s go.”
Mike looked up from his sweeping, his eyes wide--almost with panic. “Should we?” he asked. “Can we?”
“I’ll call headquarters.” Cap headed back to his office to make the call.
Marco gave Mike a long, knowing look. “You don’t have to, you know,” he offered kindly. “He’d understand.”
Mike shook his head and carefully propped the broom up against the wall. “I’ll go.”
So they left--left their duty and left their station, with a broken mug still littering the floor.
When they entered the emergency room the three men found Gage leaning against the wall in the hallway. His arms were hanging limply at his sides, and he was staring up at the ceiling.
“John?” Cap asked.
Gage’s head lowered and he looked at the men, able to read the question on their faces. He shook his head. “Not yet,” he told them. “Roy’s in with him. I needed. . . .” he paused a long moment. “I needed a break.”
“Can I go in?” Marco asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. Go ahead. Treatment 4.” He used his chin to motion to the door across the hall.
Marco went to the door and rested his hand on it for a moment, almost as if he was feeling for fire on the other side. Then he took a deep breath and pushed his way through.
“Ummm,” Mike said quietly. “I’ll be right back,” and he fled around the corner, leaving John and Hank alone.
Johnny leaned over and rested his hands on his slightly-bent knees. He was looking at the floor when he told Cap, “Roy called his sister in Santa Barbara. She’s gonna call his folks. She’s on her way.”
Hank sighed with relief at having been spared a responsibility that usually came with his position. “I should have done that,” he said finally.
“It’s okay. Chet. . . .” Gage had to stop, the name seeming to catch him by surprise. “He asked Roy to. In the ambulance.”
Hank nodded, and watched John take a deep breath and wrap his arms tightly around his midsection. “You okay?” he asked. “You feeling okay?”
Johnny remembered what had happened to him at the scene, and looked at his captain with a weary, mirthless, and slightly apologetic smile. “Yeah, Cap,” he sighed. “I’m okay.”
+ + + + +
Johnny hadn’t been in on the rescue. So the first time he’d seen the extent of the burns was when Chet had been deposited on the blanket in front of him. The minute he’d seen it his stomach had turned over, and the bile had risen all the way to the back of his throat before he’d managed to push it back. He didn’t have time for that. He had work to do.
Roy had peeled off his air mask and the partners made eye contact for the first time. No words were needed. They knew.
John had gotten the oxygen. “Really made a mess out of it this time, huh?” Chet managed to say. He didn’t know how he’d done it, but Johnny smiled at him as he fitted the mask on his face.
“You just like to make us earn our keep,” he’d said. “You relax.”
“Best . . . team . . . ” Chet had sputtered, his breaths painful and labored. “ . . . in the business.”
Johnny stopped what he’d been doing and looked at his friend for a moment. That may be, but it wasn’t going to help him now. It was just too much.
“You know it,” he’d finally said before setting back to work.
Marco had come, looking stricken. When he arrived, Chet had let his guard down, and confessed to Lopez how much pain he was in. And Johnny had realized he probably had no idea of the depth of the two men’s friendship.
When John had implored Chet to be strong, he was really talking to himself, and he knew it. Don’t be sick. It had been a mantra constantly running through his head as he worked. Don’t be sick. Mike had come and gone.
Roy had set up the biophone and was calling it in. There were no veins for the ordered IV’s, so Johnny had moved to Chet’s feet. The man needed morphine. It was the only thing they could do for him--they could take away his pain. Johnny had needed to do that more than anything.
Quickly--both too quickly, and not quickly enough--the ambulance had arrived. John had looked at Roy, his eyes begging. Please, he’d silently implored. You go. I can’t.
“I’ll ride in with him,” Roy had said quietly, understanding.
The minute the ambulance had left, John was able to surrender the war he’d been waging with his stomach, and he vomited where he stood.
It was just too much.
+ + + + +
John and Hank heard the door open, and looked to see Roy coming out. He crossed the hallway somberly. “Shouldn’t be too much longer,” he said. “His breathing’s getting really bad.”
Johnny nodded, his eyes not focussed on anything. “I’ll go back in.” He dropped his head, went across the hall and disappeared inside the room.
“Is he awake?” Hank asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Nah,” Roy said quietly. “Not really. We. . . . they gave him a lot of morphine.”
“Good, good. That’s good.” Hank wasn’t sure which he thought was good--that his man wasn’t in pain, or that he wasn’t awake to know what was happening to him. Probably both.
“I’m, ummm, I want to go in for a minute. Mike’s around here somewhere. Can you find him?”
“Check the chapel,” the captain advised. Mike kept his private life, including his beliefs, to himself. Hank wasn’t sure if Roy would even know to check there.
Roy nodded again. There was nothing to say.
Before he went through the door, Hank looked back at his paramedic. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for calling Kathleen for me.”
Roy shrugged. “Chet asked me to.”
+ + + + +
The ambulance ride had been the longest and worst of Roy’s life. He’d have given anything not to be there, but he’d seen the look in Johnny’s eyes. Knew he wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Someone had to do it. And Roy knew. He knew he was the steady one, the consummate professional. It was his duty, his lot in life. He’d cursed himself for being the dependable one.
“Roy.” Chet’s voice had been barely audible, hidden amongst the wail of the siren, and the hiss of the oxygen.
“You’ll call my sister?”
Him? Oh, God, why him? “Yeah, sure Chet. I’ll call her.” He’d cursed himself for being the one people could count on.
“Tell her.” Chet had needed to stop, needed to let the oxygen fill his lungs again before he could continue. “Tell her to tell mom I love her.”
Roy’d had to look away. He’d needed to be strong; he knew Chet needed that from him right then. He’d cursed himself for being the strong one.
“I will, I’ll tell her. Don’t worry, Chet. I’ll tell her.”
“Roy?” His voice had been nothing more than the barest of whispers by then, and Roy had to lean in close to hear. “I’m scared.”
Roy had sat up straight, and looked toward the back of the ambulance, wishing he was anywhere on earth but there. He’d squeezed his eyes closed tight, and felt one tear betray him and escape, sliding down his cheek. Me too, Chet, he’d thought. I am too. And he’d cursed himself for his inability to stay strong.
He’d flicked the tear away, and finally summoned the resolve to look at his friend again. “Don’t be scared,” he’d whispered back, unable to keep the emotion from his voice. “It’s gonna be all right.”
Only it wasn’t.
+ + + + +
Roy and Mike, who had been in the chapel lighting a candle, rounded the corner. They found Hank standing facing the wall, the top of his head leaning against it. Johnny was crouched down low against the opposite wall, his face buried in his hands. The two men instantly knew.
It was over.
Gage must have heard their approach, and looked up. He locked his eyes, glistening with unshed tears, with his partner’s and nodded. Confirmation.
John used the wall to push himself up. “Just now,” he said quietly, feeling the tears fall down his cheeks, and impatiently swatting them away with the back of his hand. Hank heard his voice and turned around to face his men. He’d do his crying later--in private.
“At least,” he started. “At least he didn’t suffer long.”
Mike looked puzzled at that. “But. . . . But his family didn’t get here. He didn’t have his family around him.”
Marco had opened the treatment room door and joined them in time to hear Mike’s sentence. The soot, still on his face, was now lined with the dried tracks of tears.
“Sure he did, Mike,” he said with a sad smile. “We were here.”
The day after dawned bright and sunny, another beautiful day in Southern California.
Mike had gotten up early for a day off, but there was something he needed to do. He dressed quickly, and left his apartment.
When he arrived at the station, the doors were up and the men of B shift all seemed to be there, though it was an hour before their shift technically started. Mike wondered if they’d arrived last night.
“Mike?” Captain Elliott asked when he saw the man quietly enter the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought,” the engineer paused, suddenly unsure why he was there. “I thought I’d help. You know, out front.”
The captain nodded sadly. “You don’t need to do that. We’ll take care of it.”
“I know. I want to. . . . I. . . ,” the quiet man stammered. “I need to. For Chet.” He looked at his shoes for a long moment before looking up again. “If someone gets the ladder, I’ll go get the bunting.”
“Sure thing, Mike,” Elliott said sympathetically, nodding to the closest man to do as asked.
Stoker made his way into the locker room and opened the door to the rarely-used storage closet there. He saw the bales of black cloth on the top shelf, and reached up to touch the fabric. It had only been hung over the doors to the station once before.
Sighing with resolve, Mike pulled the first roll down.
“Let me help you with that,” came the voice of Stu Mikulak, his fellow engineer, from behind him. Mike turned and handed him the fabric, allowing his gratitude to show in his eyes.
“How are you guys holding up?” Stu asked.
They were holding up; Mike was sure of that. Whatever his shift mates were doing this morning, they were holding up. How they were doing it, he had no idea. But he knew they would.
“We’ll be okay.”
+ + + + +
On a day like today Johnny would normally be outside--at the beach, in the hills, even just washing his car. Anything to enjoy the sunshine. But not this day. Today he took no heed of the weather. He sat on the edge of his sofa, the polish on the table in front of him, the rag in his hand scrubbing furiously at his badge.
The phone rang, not for the first time this morning. He knew who it would be. It would be a buddy of his from the department, maybe someone from 8’s, where he often pulled overtime, or a fellow paramedic. He knew how it worked. One guy would call another: “Did you hear?” That one would call another: “I heard that. . . .” And he’d call yet another: “No, I heard something else.” A telephone tree of speculation until the call reached a guy who knew someone who’d actually been there. He’d been part of that chain of calls plenty of times. Only this time John was the guy who’d been there.
He stopped his polishing and stared at the phone until the ringing stopped. Only then did he resume his task with a single-minded intensity.
Soon the badge sparkled like it had on the proudest day of his life, the day it had been given to him. He held it up in the sunlight, angling it until the light shone off every edge and surface.
Satisfied, he wiped his hands on the rag, picked up the small black band, and fitted it in place across the silver. How long would that remain, he wondered? A week? A month? Six months? A year? When would the period of mourning be over, and who would decide?
It didn’t matter. He knew the surface under that stripe would forever be tarnished by the memory of its placement there.
Sighing, Johnny carefully placed the badge on the table.
He still had to do his shoes.
+ + + + +
When Roy had woken, it had taken him a couple of minutes to remember. He’d actually smiled at the obviously beautiful day before the memory had flooded back to him.
A noise at the doorway caught his attention. His newly teenage daughter was standing there, her face streaked with tears.
“Mommy told us,” she said shakily. She hadn’t called Joanne ‘mommy’ in well over a year. “Is it really true?”
Roy sat up, and pulled his tee shirt, which in sleep had ridden up his back, down. “Yeah,” he said, his voice devoid of emotion. “It’s true sweetheart.” His daughter stared at him, trying to will disbelief to her face, but failing. “C’mere.”
The girl came to him, crawling over Joanne’s side of the bed until she was in his arms. Once there, she started crying anew. He held her tightly, perhaps a little too tightly, and stroked her long strawberry blonde hair.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” he soothed. “It’s gonna be okay.” He hugged her as she cried for both of them. “It’s gonna be okay.”
After his daughter had cried herself out, she remained in his embrace, and Roy marveled at that. She’d recently entered the phase where a peck on the cheek from her dad was just cause for an exasperated sigh and eye-roll. Yet here she was, holding him tight just like she’d done as a young child.
She adjusted herself in his arms so she could look at him.
“Daddy?” she asked. “Am I a terrible person if I tell you the first thing I thought was that I was glad it wasn’t you?”
The admission was like a blow to his solar plexus. Roy pulled the girl tightly to his breast and fought to keep the tears at bay.
“No, sweetie,” he whispered to her. “You’re not.”
He was glad, too.
+ + + + +
The morning was a busy one for Hank. In between fielding calls from the likes of his fellow captains and his grown children, he’d had calls to make--to his battalion chief, to headquarters. He’d have to go in and give an incident report, he knew, but they’d kindly told him to take his time.
He’d do it later.
The hardest call had been the night before. He’d called Chet’s parents back east. They’d actually thanked him--for being good to their son, for being with him when he died.
He wasn’t worthy of their thanks.
Sensing his need to be alone, his wife had gone out some time ago. The calls completed, Hank wandered aimlessly from room to room, randomly touching things, straightening pictures on the wall, anything.
Eventually his restlessness led him out into his back yard. He stopped in the middle of the expanse of lawn, and looked up, letting the sun warm his face. God, it was a beautiful day.
A day one of his men hadn’t lived to see dawn.
Hank Stanley sat down in the grass, and finally let the tears come.
+ + + + +
Marco squinted through the sunlight pouring in the window, and willed the plane to unload. A numbness seemed to have settled over him some time the night before, when he’d been sitting with Chet’s sister Kathy and talking about the funeral.
He’d offered to pick the Kellys up at the airport before he’d even realized what he was doing. But he hadn’t been able to renege, no matter how much he may have wanted to.
So now he stood, pacing the terminal, waiting. Marco liked Chet’s parents, and they liked him. It was right that he be there, he knew.
The door opened, and people from the plane started to flood the room. He looked left, he looked right--everywhere he looked, he saw happy reunions. Hugs and kisses and squeals, and it suddenly made him angry.
Don’t you know? he wanted scream at them. My best friend died yesterday!
Finally, the Kellys came through the door, the last ones off. And as quickly as it had risen, his anger melted away. They didn’t see him at first, and he saw how old, how weary, how profoundly sad they looked. Their eyes flitted around the room, nervously looking for a familiar face.
Mrs. Kelly, already cloaked in the black of a grieving mother, saw him first. Their eyes met, and she burst into tears. Marco rushed forward and wrapped his arms protectively around the woman. It was all he could do for Chet now.
Mi mejor amigo.
The third day brought the men of A shift back together, in the DeSoto living room. It was a familiar scene, Cap standing before his men, explaining a situation and assigning duties and responsibilities. Only this time it wasn't for a drill, it was for a funeral.
The men said nothing. Gage was bonelessly sprawled in an armchair, his leg carelessly swung over its arm. He looked straight ahead, never making eye contact with anyone. Stoker was sitting on the sofa next to DeSoto. He was staring at his hands, idly rubbing the calluses on the ball of his left palm. Roy was practically sitting at attention, his eyes never wavering from Hank’s face. And Marco, sitting opposite Johnny in the other armchair, looked. . . . well, a little lost. It was the only word that applied. On the table in front of the men sat a platter of sandwiches, placed there by Roy’s wife before she’d given them their privacy. It was untouched. To a man, they looked exhausted, Cap noted. He wondered how much sleep they’d gotten in the two days since Chet’s death
"Since the cemetery is adjacent to Saint Mary's, Chet's parents have requested that any departmental procession take place before the Mass as opposed to between the Mass and the interment, and headquarters has agreed,” Hank realized he found comfort in once again leading his men, despite the occasion. “Consequently, the procession will begin at the funeral home, proceed past the station, and on to the church--about two miles in all. There’s a large parking lot across the street from the funeral home where the trucks will muster."
His eyes moved from man to man as he continued to speak. Still, only Roy met his gaze, but Hank had no doubt that the other men were paying close attention.
“There will be honor guard from every county in California, of that we are sure. There may be commitments from Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, even Oregon, who knows. The union, in conjunction with the department, will take care of all those details, and it will all be set by Wednesday.”
Wednesday. Two days hence. The day.
“What do we do?” Mike asked it so quietly, the question was nothing more than a whisper. But every man heard it. Johnny shifted uncomfortably, Marco dropped his chin to his chest, and Roy snapped his attention to the new speaker.
“I’m getting to that,” Hank said with a sigh. He walked away from his men for a moment, and brought a straight back chair in from the dining room. He placed it where he had been standing, facing his men, and sat down.
“The engine will bear the coffin, of course. And if you’re up for it, Mike, I’d like you to drive it in the procession.”
Stoker nodded. “I’d be honored, Cap.”
“Good. I knew you’d say that.” He turned his attention to Roy. “You’ll follow in the squad?” he asked. Roy nodded as well.
“I’ll ride with Mike, and John, you can ride with Roy.”
“What about me, Cap?”
Hank turned in his chair so he was facing Lopez straight-on. “Well, pal, Chet left some instructions.” This came as no surprise to the men--most of them, as matters of pragmatism, had done the same. “He asked that you. . . .” Cap’s emotions started to betray him, and he had to pause. It was still almost surreal, what was happening; what they were talking about. He kept having these sudden flashes, unbidden moments where he couldn’t believe it. He gave his head a shake to clear it of these thoughts, and continued, looking Marco in the eye. “Look, Marco, he wants you remain with his family. Stay with them, ride with them.” No one seemed to notice his accidental use of the present tense.
“But Cap!” Marco started to protest. He knew it would mean being left out of any official duties as a firefighter. But as soon as the exclamation left his lips, Marco stopped. This was what Chet wanted him to do, so that was what he was gonna do. “Okay, okay,” he agreed.
Hank nodded. “That’s not all.” He swiveled all the way around until he was facing Johnny. He could see his presence register in Gage’s peripheral vision, but the paramedic did not turn his head to face him.
“John, Chet requested that you give his eulogy.”
His leg shot off the arm of the chair, and in a split second Johnny was sitting up straight and staring incredulously at Cap. “WHAT?”
“Kelly specified that he’d like you to eulogize him,” the captain repeated.
“That can’t be right, Cap!” John sputtered. “He musta meant Marco, or Roy, or you!”
“As his captain I will be speaking anyway. It’s no mistake. He wanted you. And I hope you’ll honor that request.” There was a tinge of his professional tone in Hank’s voice.
Johnny turned his attention from his captain to his partner, hoping Roy would come to his defense: would point out the many times John had faltered when called upon to speak in public; would remind the other men of his and Chet’s oftentimes contentious relationship.
But Roy just looked at him evenly for a second before saying, “You can do it, Johnny.”
Johnny slumped back in the chair and stared up at the ceiling. “Ohh, man!” he finally muttered, his only admission that he would. But it was understood.
Cap clapped his hands together once. “Good. Mike, Roy, John. . . . you and I will also act as pallbearers, along with Ruiz and McCarthy from B shift.” Marco started to protest, but Hank stopped him before he could start. “Stay with his family, Marco. It’s where you belong,”
Marco slumped back in his chair, and he looked across at Gage. The two men looked at each other dispiritedly, neither happy with the lots they had drawn.
“I think that’s about it for now,” Cap said. “I know you’ve all gotten condolence calls from the union, from headquarters, from the chaplain’s office, and who knows who else. But I want you to know, I’m available if any of you want to talk.” Silence met this offer, so Hank continued.
“I, or HQ, or the union will be in touch tomorrow about times and places for Wednesday, so do me a favor, and be sure to answer your phone.” He looked pointedly at Gage as he said this. Johnny kept his expression neutral and stared right back.
“Calling hours continue until 8 tonight at O’Reilly’s Funeral Home on Weston, in case you are interested. And I think that’s about it,” he said finally, letting out a long, relieved breath.
The awkwardness of the situation, and each man’s unease, soon broke them up. Marco left first, saying he wanted to check in on Chet’s mom at the wake. Mike and Hank soon followed, leaving Johnny as the final guest.
“What was Chet THINKING?” John exclaimed the minute Roy closed the front door on their captain.
Roy sat back down on the sofa. “I don’t know, Johnny, I don’t know.”
“I can’t do this, Roy! What do you say at a funeral?”
“You’ll think of something.”
“Yeah, right,” Gage said bitterly. “You know what this is, don’t you?”
“It’s the phantom’s last prank, that’s what it is. His last prank.”
Mike pulled his pickup into the parking lot behind the station. It was early again, but again he had a task to do. Both the front and back doors of the apparatus bay were thrown open, and the men of C shift were already hard at work polishing the engine and squad.
But today it was his engine. His responsibility. He was gonna make sure it was done right. He slipped into the locker room to hang his dress uniform up, then wandered back into the bay. The engine was pulled forward, out into the open, so the sun was glistening off her.
A beautiful day for a parade, Mike noted mirthlessly. Some parade.
“Need a hand?” he asked quietly. The men working on the engine stopped as one, and looked at Mike.
Carlo DeAngelo, who was working on the chrome along the back, smiled sadly. “Sure Mike,” he said sympathetically. “Can always use a hand.” He tossed his rag to the engineer, and went off to get a new one.
Mike caught it, and climbed up into the hose bed. Every inch of her was going to sparkle today.
When she was done, and brilliant, but before he got changed, Mike did one more thing. He went to the closet and found Chet’s spare turnout coat and boots. He placed the boots in front of Chet’s seat, and carefully, almost lovingly, laid the coat on the seat, folded so the name pointed out.
K E L L Y, it said, in faded stenciled letters.
+ + + + +
John cursed as he burned his finger again. Pam across the hall had volunteered to press his uniform for him when he’d asked to borrow the iron, but he’d refused the offer.
Best to keep busy, best to do these things yourself. He wanted to look his best, and he wanted to be responsible for it. He sucked on his fingertip until the pain subsided, then went back to work.
As he ironed, he kept running through the eulogy he’d slaved over for the last two days. He’d read it so many times he practically had it memorized. Yet each time he ran through it again, he had doubts. He questioned himself. He wondered what the hell he was doing.
Damn you, Kelly, he thought, not for the first time.
The jacket at last smooth enough to suit him, John laid it out on his dining table, and set to work replacing the pins. The 51s on the collar, the name tag, the paramedic pin.
He put that on last, taking extra care that it was perfectly straight on the coat, and that the black mourning band was equally straight on the pin.
He wanted it all to be perfect. It was important to him, and he wasn’t even sure why.
+ + + + +
Marco turned the corner onto Chet’s street, and immediately saw the large black limousine sitting in front of the building. The sight started his heart racing, and he actually drove by, and nervously turned the corner at the next intersection.
He pulled over to the curb, and relaxed his grip on the steering wheel. That car was so big, so black, so imposing.
“Ahhh, amigo, what are you asking me to do?” he muttered aloud, leaning forward to rest his head on the wheel.
In the past few days he’d found himself talking to Chet a lot--and often aloud. His mother had even caught him one time.
“Who are you talking to, muchacho?” she’d asked.
He’d looked at her sheepishly, as if he was five years old and caught stealing from the cookie jar.
“Ummm, Chet,” he’d confessed. He’d never lied to his mama, and wouldn’t start now. “Stupid, huh?”
His mother approached him and cupped his cheek tenderly. “No, mi hijo,” she’d said, her voice soothing. “Because those we love are always with us.” She took her hand from his face and pointed to his heart with one finger. “Right here,” she told him. “He’s right here. Por siempre.”
Marco smiled at the memory of his mother’s words, and turned the car around. In no time he was knocking on Chet’s door.
“How handsome you look!” his best friend’s mother exclaimed as she answered the door. His own mama had said the same thing before he’d left.
She tried to stop them, Marco could tell, but the tears came again. And one more time Marco enveloped Chet’s mother in a protective hug. This is what Chet was asking him to do. And he’d do it. It was all he could do for Chet now.
The phrase came back to his mind, three words that had given him an odd sense of comfort these last days.
Mi mejor amigo.
+ + + + +
Roy adjusted his cap on his head for the tenth time, scrutinizing himself yet again. He should have gotten a haircut.
“Honey?” his wife asked gently from the doorway. “You ready? You’re going to be late.”
He looked at her blankly for a second before pulling the hat off his head and grabbing the gloves off the dresser. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
He passed his wife and went into the living room, where his children waited. Sixteen-year-old Chris was wearing his one good suit, dark gray, and a tie he’d borrowed from Roy. He was almost as tall as his dad now; almost a man. Jennifer, just thirteen, was wearing a navy blue dress with little pink flowers on it, and shoes with a small heel. Her first pair. Her hair was pulled back from her face with a ribbon, and Roy briefly wondered what kind of battle Joanne had waged to get the often rebellious girl to look like a proper young lady. If he’d asked the answer would have been none--the girl had chosen the outfit herself.
He stepped between his children and clasped his arms around their shoulders, hugging them, turning them, and leading them toward the door all at the same time. They followed his lead mutely, and once they were turned he pulled them close and planted a kiss on the top of each of their heads.
He was so lucky. His wife, his kids, this life. So very lucky.
“Let’s go,” he said.
+ + + + +
Hank found his crew immediately among the huge throng of firefighters. They were gathered between the engine and the squad, which were already in place on the street. The hose bed of the engine was filled with flowers, and the overflow had been piled on the back of the squad.
“Are we ready?” he asked, clasping his hands together in nervous anticipation.
“Are we?” Gage asked.
“Marco’s here with the family, everyone’s in position. I’d say we are.”
The three men nodded, summoned the other two pallbearers, and went inside the funeral home to bring Chet out for his final ride on Engine 51.
As they exited with their burden, the crowded street immediately fell silent. It was a silence that would bore deeply into each man; a silence born of respect for a fallen comrade; a silence full of sadness and unshed tears.
And a silence that continued throughout the slow, somber procession to the church. The only noise was that of the vehicle’s engines. As the line of trucks and men moved through the streets, people stopped in their tracks and watched.
Men removed their hats, people put their hands over their hearts. From his familiar spot in the passenger seat of the squad, Johnny watched the people go by, and listened to the silence.
“Geez,” he finally said.
“Yeah,” Roy agreed quietly.
When the procession turned the corner that brought Station 51 into view, Hank felt a tightness grip his chest. He hadn’t been back there since that day. The men of C shift were standing in the drive, still vigilant though they’d been stood down while their trucks were in use. Hank looked over at Mike, who quickly glanced back before turning his attention back to the road.
As the truck approached, the men at the station stood at attention and saluted.
Behind them, the black bunting fluttered ever so slightly, and the flags at half-mast unfurled a bit in the breeze.
+ + + + +
John sat in the pew staring at the program. He mentally ticked off each item as it happened, not paying the slightest bit of attention to the service itself. Each moment that passed ratcheted his anxiety level up, as it brought him closer to the time he would have to rise and go up on the podium. He stood with everyone else, but did not sing the hymn that preceded the eulogy. When the congregation in the packed church sat, Johnny didn’t. He pulled on the ends of his dress jacket, straightening it, took a deep breath, and walked to the front of the church.
You can do this, he silently vowed as his legs, seemingly of their own volition, moved him forward. The priest, sitting behind the lectern, gave him a reassuring smile. He tried to return it, but his nervousness made it difficult.
You can do this.
He reached his place, and turned to face the people, but found he couldn’t look at them. Instead he pulled his speech from his pocket, wincing at the cacophony unleashed as he unfolded it and laid it before himself. He stared at the words he had written, willing them to come to life for him, willing himself to deliver them, get this over with, and sit back down.
The palms of his gloves were getting drenched with sweat, and the hair on the back of his neck was standing on end. It seemed like an eternity before his mouth began to form words.
“Chet Kelly,” he began, but his voice cracked, and he had to stop to clear his throat. He put his hands on the lectern, and smoothed the paper. Without lifting his head he glanced out, and caught Roy’s gaze. His partner nodded to him, almost imperceptibly. He could do this.
He took a deep breath and started again. “Chet Kelly was an excellent firefighter, a good man, and a loyal friend.” As he spoke, much to his horror, John’s voice seemed to rise two octaves at least. He stopped, swallowed hard, and closed his eyes.
Man, Chet’s gonna ride me for weeks about this, he thought--and was instantly stunned by the realization. No, of course, he wouldn’t. Chet would never ride him about anything ever again.
And just like that, memories--things John had been holding at bay for five long days--came flooding back like a tidal wave, and he was powerless to stop them. He stared at the paper, the words losing focus, and saw Chet trying to get Henry into his dog house. Chet setting his new skis on fire. Chet challenging everyone to wrist-wrestling matches. Chet riding him about his latest girl troubles. And the water bombs. In the cabinets, over the doors, in his locker. All those water bombs.
He felt a hand on his arm as the smile brought by all those memories came to his lips, but he shook the priest off. He was okay; he knew what to do now. And he knew why Chet had chosen him.
John shook his head, and faced the congregation with a grin. “You know,” he said, “Kelly was all those things. But you know what he really was?” John let his eyes travel from face to face: Hank, Mike, Marco, Chet’s family, Roy. He knew what he was about to say was right. He hoped they did, too.
“Chet was a pain in the ass.”
The first reaction seemed to be stunned silence--but only for a fraction of a second. Then the laughter started. It began with those who knew Chet best, and spread from there.
John abandoned his prepared words, and spoke from the heart. He talked about the guy with a childlike penchant for bad practical jokes; the guy who would identify a weakness in you, and ride you about it until you begged for mercy. And he talked about the guy who couldn’t tell you how much he cared, but showed you in a hundred little ways--and then denied it. When he sat down again, Hank turned around in his seat directly in front of John to look at the paramedic and nod approvingly. Roy clapped him on the back, and Johnny sighed with relief and satisfaction.
If it had been the phantom’s last prank, John knew he’d gotten the last laugh.
+ + + + +
Kavanaugh’s Pub was wall-to-wall firefighters. Though the mood was loud and boisterous, there was one large booth in the back that was ominously quiet. The men of Station 51’s A shift were sitting there, each solemnly and silently nursing a beer.
Though offered another shift off, each man had agreed to return to work the next morning, their next scheduled shift. The ceremonial last call had been sounded for Chet with a somber finality some hours before. It was officially over now, and time to move on.
But they weren’t sure how.
A loud pounding on the bar silenced the room, and a space cleared around Carl O’Malley, a burly redheaded firefighter from 46’s. He raised his mug of beer.
“To our comrade, and my fellow Irishman, Chet Kelly,” he boomed. Then he looked at the booth, and straight at Gage, tilting his glass in the man’s direction.
“An excellent firefighter. A good man.” Johnny recognized his words, and looked up, warily meeting the man’s gaze.
“A loyal friend,” he continued, eyes locked with John’s. Then he smiled broadly before finishing.
“And one HUGE pain in the ass!”
The room erupted in laughter, cheers, and the clinking of glasses. All except for that booth.
“To Chet,” Captain Stanley said quietly, raising his glass.
“To Chet,” the four men agreed, and their glasses met in the middle. They each took a long drag on their beers and set them down.
“Remember,” Marco started tentatively, staring at his beer as he swirled it around in its glass. “Remember when Chet was on that health food kick?”
The men all smiled. They remembered.
“Yeah,” Roy agreed. “We had to get Morton to pound some sense into him.”
“Chet always did take things a little too far,” Hank said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, like when he thought he was a champion wrist-wrestler just because he could beat Marco,” John added with a wistful smile.
“And you!” Lopez added with mock indignation.
And so it began. They spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening remembering Chet, with more laughter than tears. And they left the bar promising that they’d see each other at work in the morning--grieving, sure, but resolute. They had a job to do, and it was time to move on.
Chet would have expected nothing less.
Author’s note: In all my years writing fan fic, I've always said “character death ain’t my thing.” I never thought I’d write it, yet here it is. So many people came through for me and were encouraging on this one, that I shouldn’t try to name you all for fear of leaving someone out, but here goes: Peggy, Kelly, Laurel, Linda, Kenda, Linda, Susan, thank you all. Writing this was like therapy, only a lot cheaper!
Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think. firstname.lastname@example.org
This is dedicated to my mom, who loved Emergency! too.
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