The Halloween Carnival

By Jane

“Hey, Roy. What time are we meeting tomorrow?” Johnny questioned as they parked the squad after their final run of the day.

“Why don’t you come over about 5:00 for dinner and we’ll leave after that,”

“Sounds great,” Johnny grinned as he headed towards the locker room. “I’m glad we were able to trade shifts with Dwyer and Peters.”

“Yea, Jennifer has talked about nothing else since you agreed to go with us. Don’t know how I would’ve explained it if we both didn’t show up.”

The two friends laughed at the imagined vision of Jennifer sporting her famous pout.

“See ya tomorrow,” the partners chorused as they drove away.

**********

Chris and Jennifer were dressed and ready when Johnny pulled his Rover into the DeSoto’s driveway on All Hallow’s Eve. As he shut his door and walked towards the house, Johnny was greeted in the middle of the front yard by two very excited children.

“Hey, Jenny Bean,” laughed Johnny as he twirled the Barbie look-alike around in a circle.

“Uncle Johnny,” the little girl squealed with delight. Johnny set the breathless Jennifer down.

“Hi, Chris. How’s it going?” The paramedic stretched a cautious arm across the young Hunchback as they walked toward the house. “Cool costume. Did your mom make it?”

Chris nodded as they made their way up the steps.

Roy was standing quietly in the doorway where he’d enjoyed the familiar greeting his partner enacted with his children.

“Uncle Johnny, I think you messed up my costume” Jennifer reprimanded quietly as she smoothed the silky pink skirt of her outfit. Her little lips were pulled together in a frown that Roy recognized as only a partial rebuke. She never could truly find fault with her Uncle Johnny and Roy knew that his partner would always be special to his young daughter.

“Hi, partner.” Roy grinned as the animated group gathered in the living room. “Thanks for helping out tonight.”

“Hi, Roy,” nodded Johnny quietly. “How’s Joanne? Is she feeling any better?”

Roy started to answer when a weak voice interrupted from the couch.

“Joanne’s going to be fine, just fine,” the voice whispered.

“Joanne, what are you doing out of bed?” gasped Johnny. His paramedic side kicked in as watched he with a worried look. “Didn’t the doctor tell you to take it easy?”

Roy laughed aloud as he witnessed the transformation of the carefree young man to the serious, dedicated paramedic known as John Gage. Joanne nodded carefully at her husband’s partner and best friend.

“I’m going to be fine, Johnny,” she assured this man who had come to be like a brother to her. “The doctor said I could sit up for a little while as long as I take it easy.”

Johnny reached out to take her hand as she settled back against the cushions. “You’re not going to be here alone this evening, are you?”

“My mother’s coming over in a little while to stay with Joanne and pass out the candy to the trick-or-treaters,” Roy answered for his wife. “Come on, let’s give her a little peace and quiet,” he murmured as he watched his wife relax and close her eyes. “She’s had a long week.”

“I’ll say!” agreed Johnny as he followed Roy and the kids into the dining room. “Sure glad the doc says she’s getting better. Still can’t believe she’s had pneumonia all this time and didn’t even say anything.”

Roy nodded his head in agreement, still overwhelmed himself at how well his wife had hidden her illness from him, and herself. Always a busy, energetic woman, Joanne had continued with her hectic schedule long after a recent cold had proceeded to bronchitis and worse. Roy had already given his wife several stern lectures regarding her foolish behavior, and was prepared to deliver another when Joanne was feeling better. He never wanted to live through another scare like she’d put him through the past few days. Coming home from work to find his wife sick with a high fever and unable to breathe was an experience he could do without. But, she was going to be fine and he mentally reassured himself that her temperature, pulse and breathing were all back in the normal range where they belonged. She just needed to rest now and regain her strength.

Johnny, Chris and Jennifer had gathered around the table and were quietly watching Roy as he stood in the middle of the kitchen with hands at his sides. “Hey, Dad.” Johnny stage whispered in deference of the resting Joanne. “What’s for dinner anyway?”

Roy grinned as he looked up to see three pairs of eyes tracking his every move. “Pizza! We’re eating pizza,” he answered as he pulled a couple pizzas from the oven where they’d been kept warm. “Let’s eat!”

There was little talk around the table as everyone quickly consumed their dinner. Chris and Jennifer were anxious to get started on the evening’s festivities, while Roy and Johnny were doing their best to keep voices low so as not to disturb Joanne who was quietly watching TV.

As Johnny helped Roy clean up in the kitchen, the doorbell rang and Jenny ran to open it.

“Grandma!” Jennifer hugged the older woman before she’d even made it through the doorway. “You’re so nice to take care of Mommy so we can go trick-or-treating.”

Mrs. DeSoto returned the girl’s embrace and then hurried over to her daughter-in-law’s side.

“Joanne, dear,” she murmured. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better. But I’m here to take care of you, dear, so you just tell me what you need, and I’ll be the one to get it for you.”

Roy’s mother immediately took charge and fairly pushed Roy, Johnny and the children towards the door. “You all get going now,” she admonished. “Go out and have some fun while Joanne gets some rest.”

Roy bent to kiss his wife’s cheek then turned to give his mother a warm hug. “Thanks Mom” he whispered in her ear as she squeezed her son. “We’ll be back early.”

“Oh no you won’t, Roy DeSoto. It’s Friday night and Halloween to boot. You take those kids out and enjoy. I’ll be right here with Joanne and she’ll be fine. Now go! Off with you!” she laughed as the children grabbed their bags and headed for the door. Johnny was right behind them, laughing to himself at how efficiently Mrs. DeSoto handled his partner. If only Cap could make him move that fast. Johnny wondered to himself with a grin.

**********

The small group moved slowly down the street for some neighborly trick-or-treating.

“So, Roy, what’s the plan for tonight?” questioned Johnny as Chris and Jennifer made their way to yet another door for the sugary loot, which represented this unusual holiday.

“Well, the kids are still planning on the school carnival, If it’s ok with you” answered Roy.

Johnny nodded as he watched the children returning with more candy. “I told you partner, I’m game for anything. I’m just here to help.”

“Hey John, I really appreciate this,” said Roy in a quiet voice. “The kids have been pretty scared with Joanne sick and all. They’re not used to seeing her so incapacitated and we really wanted them to have some fun tonight. I could’ve taken them alone, but they really wanted you to come along.” Johnny was surprised at Roy’s thanks.

“Hey, Pally, you know I’m here for you and your family whenever you need me,” he stated. “Besides, this is something I haven’t gotten to do in a long time! Trick-or-treating used to be one of my favorite sports,” Johnny said with a sly grin.

Roy couldn’t suppress his laughter. The look on his partner’s face was just too much and he slapped Johnny’s back in relief. “You’re too much Junior” said Roy as he wiped his eyes, “and you’re just what we needed tonight.”

Almost an hour had passed since Johnny and the Desotos had started on their trek. The bags were overflowing with candy and other assorted goodies. Once more, Chris was pleading with his father. “Come on, Dad!” he cried. “Jennifer’s got enough candy and I really want to get over to the carnival. I told the guys I’d meet them half an hour ago.”

Johnny grinned at Roy over Christopher’s head. “Yea, Dad, come on. We can’t have Chris miss an important date with his buddies” he teased.

Roy nodded in assent as he called after Jennifer. “Last house, honey. Then we’ll head over to the carnival before your brother’s social life is totally destroyed.”

Roy ran his hand through his son’s hair as the boy looked up at him, relief and appreciation shining bright in his eyes. “Thanks, Dad. You’re the greatest!”

**********

Roy pulled up in front of an older wooden structure.

“What’s this?” questioned Johnny as he looked at the gathering crowd at the front steps.

“Yea, doesn’t look real good, does it?” answered Roy. The men sat quietly for a few minutes as they surveyed the site before them.

“Isn’t the carnival held at the school?” continued Johnny.

“Usually it is, but this year they’re remodeling the gym and this is the only other place large enough to handle the crowd,” Roy supplied. “I guess if it wasn’t such an important fundraiser, they would have skipped it this year, but Joanne says the PTA has to go ahead with the carnival, although nobody was very happy about the location.”

Johnny nodded his head in agreement as they got out of the car and joined the group of parents and children waiting to enter the building. As they moved inside, he looked around and could see the results of many hours spent by parents and children alike. Orange and black streamers hung from every imaginable spot in the building. Booths lined each side of the hall and numerous games and events were already in progress.

Chris and Jennifer had already spotted their friends and classmates and clamored for permission to move freely about the hall and enjoy the festivities. Roy handed each of his children a few dollars and instructed them to meet at the food booth in half an hour.

“Food?” asked Johnny as the kids ran towards the games. “It’s not like you to be ready for food after that pizza dinner we just had,” he grinned.

Roy nodded as the noise level seemed to raise another notch. “Not planning to eat, partner. Just wanted to keep track of them and that’s the best meeting place. Besides, it’s quieter back there.”

With that, Roy moved off through the crowd and Johnny followed him closely. Occasionally the men were stopped; usually by a parent or teacher inquiring about Joanne and how she was feeling. But eventually they completed their journey to arrive at an area roped off with more crepe paper. Best of all, small tables and chairs were placed there and Roy immediately sat down. Johnny watched his friend carefully and began to realize how tired his partner really was.

“This has been a hell of a week for you, hasn’t it Pally?” murmured Johnny.

Roy nodded his assent as he settled into the plastic chair to wait. “Yea Junior, this was one week I could’ve done without! I’m just glad she’s going to be ok, you know?”

Johnny nodded his head and then looked out across the crowd again. The two men sat quietly as the noise and activity of the carnival swelled around them. Johnny was surprised at the amount of decorations the school had spent time and money on. Along with the miles of crepe streamers, there were paper cutouts of every imaginable Halloween figure: pumpkins, bats, ghosts, black cats, witches and more. At every booth was a lighted jack-o-lantern and paper cloths covered every game table.

“This place is a regular fire trap if ever I saw one” Johnny mumbled. He wasn’t aware that he had spoken out loud until he realized that Roy was agreeing with him.

“You’re right, Junior. I sure don’t like the way they’ve set this up. There’s too many people and not enough exits in this old building. Joanne said that a group of parents tried to change the location, but they just couldn’t find anything on such short notice. But this whole setup makes me uneasy.”

The two firemen turned their attention once more to the crowd and lost themselves in thought.

**********

“Dad, Uncle Johnny! This is great!” chorused the two children as they met the adults at the appointed time.

“Glad you’re having fun, kids,” answered Roy with a smile. “Anyone interested in something cold to drink?” The appreciative glances moved Roy to hurry towards the drink counter.

Returning to the table Roy overheard his excited “Barbie” interrogating his partner. “Uncle Johnny, can’t we go now? Aren’t you ready to play some games? I have some friends who want to meet you and we can have our drinks later.”

Roy handed out the soft drinks as he frowned slightly at Jennifer. “Why don’t we finish the drinks now, honey, since Dad went to all this work.”

Jennifer grinned as she accepted the root beer her father handed her. “Ok, Dad. But Uncle Johnny, can you drink fast?”

Johnny grinned as he answered affectionately “Sure, Jenny Bean, I think I can do that? Let’s just sit here a few minutes while we drink these soft drinks your dad brought, then we’ll be on our way for an evening of fun!”

Grinning broadly, Roy and Johnny’s eyes met briefly across the table as Jennifer bounced enthusiastically on her chair.

With drinks finished and plans for meeting later in place, Johnny took Jennifer’s hand as they strolled away. Roy admonished his son as the two stood watching. “Chris, you stay in the building like we discussed, ok?”

“Oh, Dad. But some of the guys are going outside to play, why can’t I?”

Roy shook his head as he fixed a stern glance upon his son. “We’ve already talked about this Chris and you are to stay in the building. Alright, son?”

Chris nodded his head glumly and walked towards the crowd with his head hanging, but Roy noticed a change in the boy’s gait as he recognized Tommy Simmons hollering and waving at him. Satisfied that his son would follow his instructions, even if it be a bit unwillingly, Roy moved towards the back of the hall where a payphone was located.

**********

The brightly decorated hall was alive with phantoms, ghosts and witches. Add to that the clamorous sounds of the lively crowd and Johnny’s head began to throb. But he loved it.

How many years since I’ve been in this kind of crowd? Johnny mused to himself. The DeSotos were like family to him and he loved spending time with Roy’s kids. But other than attending a few ball games that Chris played in, Johnny had not been involved in their school activities. Jennifer led him happily through the multitude of costumed children and harried parents until they reached a small booth in the corner of the hall.

Black sheeting hung from a metal framework that surrounded a group of tables. A crooked sign spelling out ‘Jail’ hung over the opening.

“What’s this, Jen?” asked Johnny warily.

“It’s the jail, Uncle Johnny. This is the best part of the carnival,” giggled the little girl. She quickly handed a quarter to the ‘jailer’ who stood by grinning. “Ya gotta go in now, Uncle Johnny, and ya can’t come out til they say so.”

Jennifer waved a hand behind her as she darted over to where three little girls stood waiting. He could see her nodding towards him and laughing with the other girls as he stepped reluctantly through the opening. Inside he was met with three equally somber faces.

“Hi, guys.” Johnny ventured. “What are ya in for?” His three fellow ‘cellmates’ broke into grins as they introduced themselves to each other.

“You must be Jennifer DeSoto’s Uncle Johnny,” said one of the men as they shook hands. A slight nod of his head was Johnny’s reply. “Bob Wilson.” The big man continued. “Lisa Wilson is my daughter and Jennifer’s best friend. We’ve been hearing about you all week.”

The men conversed quietly for a few minutes until the ‘jailer’ let in another unsuspecting parent along with two giggling children.

“Any chance of us getting out on parole?” Bob questioned. Their ‘jailer’ nodded with a smile as he held back the black material and the men gained their freedom.

Reaching Jennifer’s side in a matter of seconds, Johnny swiftly grabbed his small charge and began to tickle her mercilessly.

“Don’t you ever do that again, Miss DeSoto!” Johnny chastised.

Jennifer found her voice as the tickling subsided. Looking meekly up at her Uncle Johnny, Jennifer caught her breath. “I’m sorry, but us girls planned this a long time ago!”

The other men grinned at each other as the group disbanded. Jennifer grabbed Johnny’s hand as they walked away. “You aren’t really mad at me, are you Uncle Johnny?” Jennifer’s worried glance brought a rush of warmth to Johnny’s heart.

“No way, Jenny Bean! At least, I won’t be unless you send me in there again!”

**********

“Ok, Mom.” Roy spoke into the receiver. “Just wanted to check on her.”

Roy mumbled his goodbyes with a grin as he hung up the receiver. He knew he was being a little over protective, but his normally healthy wife had given him quite a scare the past week, and he wasn’t going to feel guilty for making sure she was following the doctor’s orders. He realized with a start, that his mother was probably watching Joanne with the same diligence, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he headed back towards the main hall.

Scanning the crowd for his family, Roy spotted Chris chatting with a group of friends by the door. He watched his son for a few minutes, reassured that Chris was indeed obeying his orders. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust his son to be on his own, it was more the idea of such a large crowd of people and what can happen to children who were unsupervised. Roy realized that his son was growing up and he would have to make allowances for new behaviors, but tonight wasn’t the night.

Continuing his visual search, Roy suddenly caught site of his daughter holding on to a small fishing pole while Johnny helped her unhook a tiny prize from the end of the string. He watched them a moment and suddenly realized how glad he was that Johnny had come along. His partner was just what he and the kids needed and Roy grinned as he remembered the earlier fun of trick-or-treating.

“Roy! Good to see ya, man!” An unexpected slap on the back accompanied the voice and Roy turned to greet his friend.

“Hey, Walt! How are you?”

He was genuinely glad to spend a few minutes visiting with Walt and some of the other fathers Roy knew from school. The men continued their conversation while occasionally looking about for their respective children. Suddenly, in the midst of a discussion over basketball season and the new coach, Roy realized that he hadn’t seen Chris for a while. He shook his head as he scanned the throng of people and confirmed that Chris was nowhere in sight.

“Excuse me,” muttered Roy as he moved towards the door. “I have a young man to locate.”

Walt shook his head and grinned as the conversation continued. “Good luck, Roy.”

***********

Johnny was surprised to find he was enjoying his evening with the DeSotos. Even though he hadn’t seen much of Roy and Christopher in the past hour, Jennifer had kept him busy playing games and meeting new people. Seemed like almost everyone they saw just had to be introduced to her ‘Uncle Johnny.’ They were making their way around the hall for another try at Jennifer’s favorite game, as she was convinced she would win the stuffed dog of her dreams, if only she could hit all three of those balloons with those silly darts.

Johnny stopped abruptly as a feeling of dread overcame him. The crowd was suddenly quiet and he pulled Jennifer close to his side as she whimpered softly.

And then they were moving! Everyone! A swarm of human bodies, pushing towards the exits as one. Where only moments before were colored lights and hanging decorations, there was now a mass of smoke and flame.

**********

Roy felt himself being propelled toward the open doorway before he even grasped the seriousness of the situation. “Fire!” He could hear the screams of panic emanating from the hall but he was helpless to escape the multitude as they pushed forward. His mind screamed for Jennifer, Chris and Johnny but his long years of training kept his outward appearance calm.

“Take it easy, slow down! Let’s not panic now. Move carefully towards the door and watch out for the kids!” Roy continued his litany of instructions to the people around him, but their hysteria was growing.

Stumbling forward, Roy attempted to move out of their path. If only he could get turned around and move back into the building, he could find his family and maybe help others who might be injured. But he had no choice, the people continued to surge forward and out, bumping into, stumbling over and stepping on top of anyone in their path. Roy grabbed a woman’s arm as she started to fall and was able to pull her up and forward as the panic increased. The popping sounds of the fire grew as the flames consumed the paper decorations and dry wood of the hall. There was no stopping it now and Roy knew there was little chance that everyone would make it safely out.

***********

Johnny clutched Jennifer close to his side as he fought the terrified crowd. He knew there wasn’t time for everyone to make it through the two doorways. There were just too many people. Looking around for any other type of exit, Johnny frowned as the lights began to flicker and then go out. Bending down, he scooped the now whimpering girl into his arms.

“It’s ok, Jenny Bean. We’re going to be alright.”

“I want my daddy!” Jennifer moaned. “Take me to my daddy.”

Johnny nodded wordlessly, looking again for some avenue of escape. The crowd was milling about as people continued to scream and cry. The paramedic was fully aware that they were making no progress and it was up to him to do something and quickly.

Pushing and stumbling his way through the mob, Jennifer held tightly to his chest, Johnny moved towards the side of the hall. The crackling and popping of the fire was growing louder and the smoke was thick around them. It was getting harder to see but occasional flashes of light drew Johnny forward. He knew instinctively that the lights were headlights seen through the windows, but he couldn’t seem to locate an opening.

Suddenly, Johnny was propelled forward as a terrified man pushed past him. Cursing loudly, he fell over one of the many tables lining the hall, deftly turning his body to the side in order to protect Jennifer. The left side of his body screamed in pain as the young paramedic shook himself in an attempt to clear his head. Quickly pulling himself into a kneeling position, Johnny carefully checked the now crying Jennifer. “Are you alright, honey? Are you hurt anywhere?”

“No,” came the weak response, followed by a brief coughing spell. “I’m ok, but my arm does hurts a little.”

Gently probing the little girl’s arm, Johnny knew that her wrist must have been broken in the fall, but there was no time to treat the child here. He had to find a way to get her out. As he knelt beside his partner’s daughter, Johnny looked around him and instantly realized there was a window above him, high above him. How will I ever get Jennifer up there?

***********

Roy lurched down the steps as the mob of terrified partygoers propelled him forward. The cool, brisk air of fall greeted him but it’s welcome respite was only temporary. The view before the paramedic was pure chaos. Events were taking place with blinding speed, yet Roy seemed to see it all in slow motion. As he moved across the parking lot, the school principal ran towards him, arms waving wildly. “Mr. DeSoto! Roy! We need your help.”

Roy nodded as he looked back towards the building. The flames were clearly visible on the roof and smoke was pouring from the burning structure. He knew there was nothing he could do to help those inside, but he could help the victims who lay about him on the ground. Quickly assessing the situation, Roy was surprised to realize that the blaze was advancing so rapidly the fire department had not even arrived yet.

Victims of the fire surrounded him, their moans and cries increasing with each passing minute. Roy was dismayed at the realization that he could offer no real help. Their pain was intense but he had nothing to offer in the way of treatment, yet he continued to move amongst them, trying to give what little assistance he could.

“Dad!”

Roy froze in place as he recognized the familiar voice behind him. Turning quickly as he stood, Roy was greeted with a bear hug from his son. Tears filled his eyes as he clung tightly to Chris. “Are you ok, son?”

The boy nodded his head slightly as he continued to cry on his father’s shoulder. Roy pulled back slightly as he carefully checked over his son. Chris blinked back tears.

“Dad, where’s Jennifer and Uncle Johnny?” Roy’s blank stare was his only answer. “Dad! We gotta find ‘em.”

The paramedic shook his head sadly. “No, son. We can’t get back in through the crowd. We have to trust Johnny to take care of her.” Roy held tightly to his son as the young boy struggled against him.

Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass could be heard over the roar of the fire and Roy’s eyes immediately found the source. He found himself racing towards the building, having realized instantly that the man in the window was his partner.

The look on Johnny’s face was one that Roy would never forget. He recognized the stark fear and desperation in the younger paramedic’s eyes and realized that Johnny was making a final heroic effort to flee the blaze. In a matter of seconds, Roy stood underneath the opening and Johnny was leaning out, Jennifer clasped firmly in his hands.

“Catch her, Roy!” Johnny choked out as he swung her away from the window and down into her father’s waiting arms.

The feel of his daughter safe in his embrace was almost more than Roy could imagine. He hugged her to his chest as he dropped to the ground and wordlessly rocked his small child as only a parent can. She whimpered softly and the sound brought Roy instantly into paramedic mode. Laying her gently on the ground, he checked over her for burns or other trauma and listened carefully to her hacking cough. He knew she was suffering from smoke inhalation and Jennifer’s hand hung at an odd angle. Jennifer’s raspy voice whispered softly but insistently.

“Uncle Johnny? Where’s Uncle Johnny?”

Roy looked back at the open window where his partner had stood only seconds ago and realized suddenly that a line of people stood below the ragged opening. In quick succession, other small bodies were being lowered from above and the senior paramedic understood immediately what his partner had implemented.

“Stay here, you two,” Roy instructed as he moved towards the rescue effort. “I’m going to help Uncle Johnny and I want you to wait right there for the paramedics.”

**********

Sirens filled the air as the fire department arrived and within minutes the crew of Station 51 were at work. Wasting no time, Captain Stanley took command of his crew. “Marco, Chet! Take and inch and a half and go in the main doors. LA, this is Engine 51, respond additional companies to this site. We have a fully engulfed building with multiple victims. We need at least two additional squads and five ambulances.”

“10-4, 51.”

Charlie Dwyer and Tom Peters looked up as Hank Stanley moved towards them. Dwyer spoke first. “Cap, we’re going to need a lot of help here.”

“On it’s way, Charlie. I just ordered up two more squads and ambulances are on their way.

Peters placed an oxygen mask on the patient’s face and turned to the next victim. “That might not be enough Cap, we’re going to have to set up some kind of triage here.”

Captain Stanley nodded and grabbed his radio again.

Inside the building, the smoke was growing thicker and the heat from the fire was intense. Lungs burning with each breath, Johnny never hesitated in his efforts. As soon as Jennifer had been safely lowered into Roy’s arms, the young paramedic had turned toward the crowd. “Over here! Bring the children over here! There’s a way out!”

Standing now on the chair which moments before had been used to break the window, he watched as the people nearest him stopped and stared. Almost instantly a child was pushed into his arms and the race began. In quick succession he delivered countless frightened children into the waiting arms of people below. Occasionally he caught sight of his partner in the line, but more often he placed the victims into arms of strangers.

“No one is a stranger tonight,” he mumbled as he passed yet another child through the shattered window. “We’re a team.” Johnny’s only wish now was to see the arrival of a more familiar team, the one from Station 51.

Roy was able to see his partner’s face each time Johnny swung a child out of the window and he knew that none of them could last much longer in the inferno. Their eyes met once, and Roy was shaken again at the depth of despair reflected in his partner’s eyes. Breaking glass from other windows alerted Roy to other rescue attempts but he stayed where he was. Minutes later Roy sensed a feeling of relief as he realized that the people escaping were no longer children. That meant that the youngsters were out, at least those in this area.

The additional engine companies arrived with surprising speed and firemen quickly filled the area. Recognizing his boss standing a few feet away, Roy called out to him. “Cap! Cap we need some help over here!”

Surprised to see his senior paramedic among the crowd, Hank realized this must have been the Halloween celebration the two men were attending with the DeSoto children. “Roy, are you okay, man?”

“Cap, I’m fine and the kids will be ok. But Johnny’s still in there.”

Turning towards the building, the two men watched as streams of water fought the blaze a short distance from the open window frame. One more victim narrowly escaped the advancing flames when a strange series of noises erupted above them. The two men held their breath as a loud crash was heard from inside the building but the fire continued to rage. Peering intently at the empty window, Roy felt as if all the air in his body had escaped with his agonizing scream. “Johnny!”

***********

Hank Stanley stopped for a moment to watch the progress of the struggle to control the blaze. Firemen from various companies worked together as one team, the Battalion Chief directing the fight from his post next to the ladder truck. Hoses crisscrossed the parking lot delivering streams of water toward the unceasing blaze. A hand suddenly grabbed his elbow as he started to move closer to the engine and Hank turned to face one half of his paramedic team. “Roy, shouldn’t you be with your kids?”

“Cap, let me go in.”

Placing a hand on Roy’s shoulder, the Captain shook his head. “Marco and Chet are already inside along with some of 36’s. They’ll find him.”

Roy pulled away from Hank as he grabbed a SCBA from the truck. “I have to help get Johnny out of there.”

Without answering, Hank nodded silently, knowing the bond his paramedics shared and how important it was for Roy to help look for his friend.

Struggling into a turnout coat and the SCBA, Roy fumbled with the straps, cursing quietly. Completing his task, Roy looked up to see Cap watching him closely. “We’ll find him, Cap.” With that, Roy sprinted towards the building and up the steps.

Marco and Chet were surprised to see their crewmate as he entered the building. The blaze was slowly being brought under control, but the building was still filled with smoke. Straining to see in the murky interior, Roy made out the shapes of firemen as they worked. Some were holding hoses and directing the streams of water on the dying blaze. Others were gathering the victims and hurrying outside with them. In some cases there were signs of life, but others were covered in a way which left no doubt in Roy’s mind of the outcome of their final rescue. With renewed vigor, Roy moved toward his friends. “Have you seen Johnny?”

“No, Roy, but we were just about to check this south wall.”

“Ok, let’s go.”

The three men moved slowly forward as Marco manned the hose, dousing any remaining flames as they advanced towards the bank of windows. Roy knew there were windows on only one side of the building, and the opening where Johnny had stood was near the middle. It seemed like hours, but was only minutes before Roy stood next to a pile of debris. Working quickly but carefully, the men searched the area for any sign of their fallen crewmate.

“He’s here! Roy, I found him.”

The senior paramedic stumbled in his hurry to reach his partner’s side.

“Marco, is he . . .?” Roy couldn’t find the words to ask the question, fearing the answer. But Marco’s quick shake of the head caused him to sigh with relief.

“He’s got a pulse.”

Roy thumbed the HT as the other men began to remove the debris. “Cap. We found him, but we’re gonna need a stokes!”

Hank bowed his head briefly as he replied, “10-4, it’s on its way.”

Working carefully, the men had cleared most of the fallen ceiling by the time the stokes was brought in. The fire seemed to be under control except for a lingering battle between firemen and flames at the rear of the building. Smoke remained the biggest deterrent, and Roy was anxious to get Johnny the oxygen he needed. Kneeling beside his partner, Roy realized there was no time to work on him inside the building. “Chet, we’re gonna have to wrap and run!”

Moving quickly, Roy fastened a C collar around Johnny’s neck while Marco and Chet positioned the backboard at an angle next to him. Then working together, they rolled Johnny on his side and deftly slid the board beneath him. One of the other firemen stepped forward as they prepared to move the injured paramedic, and with surprising ease, they swiftly moved Johnny from the building.

The men were descending the front steps when suddenly a shout went up from behind the old hall. Moments later, a muffled explosion shook the structure and Chet looked back towards the renewed blaze. “Must’ve been those barrels in the back. Cap was worried about them.”

Roy paid no attention to the muttered comments of his crewmate. His mind was consumed with worry and fear for his partner. Johnny hadn’t moved since they’d found him and even without checking him thoroughly, Roy knew his partner was in trouble.

Hank Stanley met his men as they carefully lowered the stokes to the ground. He watched as Roy immediately took charge of Johnny’s care. The captain knew that Dwyer wasn’t far away if they needed to call on him, but most of the paramedics on the site had their hands full. Kneeling next to Roy, he opened the bio-phone and waited for further instructions. Glancing up for a moment, Roy realized how glad he was to see Hank there. “Cap, could you have one of the guys find my kids and see how they’re doing?”

“Chet, take a look over by Engine 36. There’s a triage area and I took them over there when Roy went in.”

“Sure, Cap, on my way.”

Roy’s thankful gaze was directed back towards his partner as he inflated the blood pressure cuff. “BP’s 130/92.” The captain lifted the bio-phone and contacted Rampart as Roy continued taking Johnny’s vitals. “Rampart, this is Rescue 51. We have a Code I, 31 year old paramedic who is unconscious. BP is 130/92, other vitals to follow.”

Handed the phone as he finished his initial examination, Roy relayed the additional information. “Rampart, patient has a possible concussion and is suffering from smoke inhalation. We’ve started him on oxygen. Other injuries include possible broken clavicle and ribs along with suspected internal bleeding. Also, Rampart, be advised, the patient is John Gage.”

On the other end of the line, Dr. Brackett winced as he realized one of his top paramedics was on the injured list. “10-4, 51. Start an IV with Ringers, continue oxygen and transport immediately.” Turning, he added, ”Dix, set up treatment room 3 and notify OR to standby.”

Dixie nodded as she hurried towards her desk. She sent up a silent prayer as she prepared once again for her their familiar patient. It always bothered her when a firemen or paramedic was injured on the job, but when that paramedic was none other than John Gage, well, that was another thing all together.

The stokes was lifted again and carefully moved to the waiting ambulance. Roy noted that Johnny had yet to move or even make a sound. This was not unusual with a head injury, but the length of time a patient remained comatose sometimes reflected the severity of the damage. Roy hoped fervently that this was not the case.

“Dad, Dad!”

Roy turned and enveloped his son in a strong embrace, then leaned down to lift his daughter into his arms. “Are you two ok?”

“Yes, Dad. We’re ok. Captain Stanley took good care of us.”

Roy nodded again at his captain. Being fully aware of how busy Hank Stanley had been, only made Roy appreciate more the extra attention his boss had given the children. “Cap, I’m going to take these two into Rampart with me, if that’s ok.”

“Sure, Roy. That’ll be fine, Pal. He’s gonna be ok, isn’t he?” Hank nodded towards the stretcher.

“I don’t know, Cap. He’s hurt pretty bad.” Roy looked down as he realized Jennifer had grabbed him a little tighter and was crying once again. Roy changed his tone and squeezed Jennifer tight before lifting her up into the waiting ambulance. “Yea, Cap. He’s gonna be fine. Come on, Chris, we need to hurry. We’ll call you later, Cap.”

Hank nodded as he helped Chris in and then shut the doors. Rapping twice in the familiar signal to the driver, Captain Stanley turned once more to the disaster before him. He’d started to tell Roy the rest of the crew would follow him to the hospital, but he knew they had a long night in front of them. There would be a lot more to do before this night was over. And it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

**********

Kelly Brackett was waiting at the Emergency Room door when the ambulance pulled in. The events in route left him no room for doubt regarding Johnny’s condition. Roy had kept in constant contact with the hospital as they brought his partner in and the news was not good. The rapidly falling blood pressure, lack of response to pain stimuli and his difficulty breathing all pointed to a very serious group of injuries. Kelly shook his head once again as Dix joined him in the corridor. “Gage sure does things in a big way, doesn’t he? Not just one serious injury, he’s gotta hit us with three or four.”

Dixie smiled gently as she patted his arm. “You know Johnny, he just loves to keep you hopping.”

The two friends grinned thinly at each other. Their concern for Johnny was heartfelt and they were anxious to get his treatment started.

“Carol, we’re going to need some help here!” Dixie realized immediately, that Roy’s children needed attending to, but Roy needed to stay with Johnny.

Holding an IV bag in his teeth as he swiftly helped maneuver the injured man into a treatment room, Roy nodded gratefully at Dixie for her thoughtfulness. He knew she would make sure the children were alright until he could return for them.

“Roy, has he come to at all?”

“No, Doc. Still haven’t gotten any response from him, not even a moan. I’m getting worried.”

Brackett nodded as he clicked on his penlight and lifted Johnny’s eyelids. “Dix, I think we’re going to need Joe and I want an x-ray unit in here, stat. His BP’s leveled off and I want some pictures taken before we head up to surgery. Let’s start another IV and I want 3 units of blood ready in the OR. Looks like we have some internal bleeding here, and I want to be ready. We’re not going to wait here long.”

The treatment room was alive with activity. Nurses were coming and going as they performed various tests and surgery preparations. Roy suddenly realized he needed to check on Chris and Jennifer and he nodded to Dr. Brackett as he prepared to leave. “If you don’t need me, Doc, I’m going to go check on my kids.”

“Sure, Roy, we’ll let you know before we head up to surgery.”

Stopping briefly at the door, he looked back at his partner and was once more overwhelmed with feelings. All this, all these injuries, were a result of Johnny’s affection for Roy and his children.

Without a doubt, Roy knew that Johnny had suffered because of his love for Jennifer. Yet he also knew that Johnny had stayed long after Jennifer was safely out of the building. His partner’s dedication as a firefighter was unfailing and nothing or nobody could’ve made Johnny leave until the last person alive was safely rescued.

Blinking back tears of frustration, Roy watched his partner’s still form a moment longer. Be alright, Junior. We need you in our lives. Turning quickly, Roy left the room as the x-ray machine was wheeled in.

**********

Chris and Jennifer were sleeping soundly on the couch in Dr. Brackett’s office as Roy paced nervously in front of the window. He could see the first rays of light from the sunrise and wondered if Johnny would ever again enjoy this special time of day.

After treating the children’s minor burns and abrasions, Mike Morton had set Jennifer’s wrist and the cast shone white in the glow of the lamplight. Jennifer moved quietly in her sleep and Roy knew he needed to get them home and into their own beds, but he also needed to be here for his partner. Looking once again at the clock, he realized that Johnny had been in surgery for over four hours. He worried over the various complications that may have arisen and wondered how much longer his friend could hang on. A light knock on the door interrupted his self-appointed pathway and Roy glanced up to see Hank Stanley in the doorway.

“Roy, any news?”

Looking quietly at his sleeping children, Roy shook his head as he moved towards door. “No Cap, there’s been no word since I called you an hour ago. He’s still in surgery.”

Closing the door softly behind him, Roy leaned against the wall. “It’s taking longer than they expected and that can’t be good.”

Hank only nodded. He could think of no words that would relieve his friend’s fears. “Why don’t you take the kids home and get them settled. It’s been a terrible ordeal for them.”

Roy shook his head as he continued to stare at the squares on the floor below him. “I know I should, Cap, but I just can’t bring myself to leave here. I talked to Joanne on the phone a while ago and she understands. Mom wanted to drive over but I really think she should stay at home with Joanne. She’s still pretty weak, you know.”

“Then let me take them home for you. I’ll drop them off and make sure Joanne’s alright, then head back here. That ok with you, Pal?”

Once again, Roy was overwhelmed with emotion. Gazing down the hall as he struggled to find the right words to express his appreciation, Roy realized that the rest of ‘A’ shift had arrived and were just now settling into the lounge to wait. He knew the men cared about each other, but sometimes he was surprised to find how much like a family they really were.

Hank knew how upset Roy was and how close to the surface his emotions were. “It’s ok, Roy. He’s going to be alright. You stay here and I’ll take your kids home for you. I’ll just get Mike to give me a hand.” Captain Stanley moved away as Roy dropped his head in his hands.

Within minutes, Chris and Jennifer were being carried out the door towards home. Neither child was awake and Roy suspected they would remain asleep throughout the drive home and for some time to come. He stopped once more to breathe a heartfelt prayer of thanks. His children were safe. Johnny had helped see to that. Moving back into Dr. Brackett’s office, Roy reached for the phone. “Joanne, Cap’s bringing the kids home right now.”

“Are they really alright, Roy?”

“Yea, honey, they’re doing alright, just tired. Dr. Morton says Jennifer’s wrist will heal fine and she should have the cast off in about six weeks. She suffered some smoke inhalation but other than a lingering headache, she’s ok. Chris is fine, just a few cuts and bruises.”

“What about Johnny? Any word?”

“No. No word yet. The guys are here. Cap and Mike will come back after they drop the kids off. I’m going to stay here but you can reach me if you need to. Just call the number I gave you earlier. That rings right into Dixie at her desk and she’ll know where to find me. Ok?”

“Yea, ok. Try to get some rest, Roy. I know how upset you are, but you need to take care of yourself too. I love you.”

“Love you too, Joanne. And, honey, please let Mom help you out. I don’t want you overdoing it, and you know she just wants to help.”

“Alright, Roy. I’ll try. And please call me when you know more about Johnny.”

“I will. I’ll call you later. Bye, Joanne.”

“Bye.”

Roy slowly replaced the receiver and turned towards the door but had only taken a few steps before he was greeted by Dixie.

“He’s out of surgery Roy. Kel said to tell you he’d be down in about a half hour to talk to you. But he’s still hanging in there.”

It suddenly felt like all the air had been sucked from the room and Roy’s knees shook as he stumbled back towards the couch. Dixie took his elbow and guided him to the seat where he crumpled down, head in his hands. “Roy, it’s alright. He’s doing alright.”

“I know, Dix, it’s just, well, it’s just been a long night.”

Dixie wrapped an arm around his shoulder as the paramedic finally let the fear and worry of the evening overcome him. Not only the fear for Johnny, but also the fear he’d felt when that first whiff of smoke had reached him. The panic he’d felt when he couldn’t locate his children in the milling crowd. And finally the absolute terror he’d experienced when he realized that Jennifer was still inside the burning building with his partner and he had no way to help them escape. As Dixie held him, Roy finally gave in to all those feelings he’d kept buried throughout the evening and the sobs wracked his body. It was some time before he was able to pull himself together and he mumbled an apology to Dixie as he wiped his eyes.

“Roy DeSoto, if you apologize to me for being human, I’m going to hit you so hard, you’re going to want to cry for real. You’ve been through hell tonight, a hell no parent should ever have to go through. On top of that, you’ve witnessed your best friend experiencing some life threatening injuries. I’d be more upset with you if you hadn’t let those feelings out. Now, you lie back on this couch and relax for a few minutes until Kel comes in. And then, we’ll go down to the cafeteria and I’ll buy you a breakfast that you won’t forget.” Dixie grinned at Roy as he looked up at her in appreciation.

“Thanks, Dix, really. You’re wonderful, you know it?”

She grinned once more as she handed him a blanket from the closet. “Yea, I know, wonderful Dix. Now rest. Just like your nurse ordered.”

Roy did lie down, but he couldn’t relax. It seemed forever until Dr. Brackett came into the room.

**********

Roy’s first look at Johnny in the ICU was devastating. He’d seen his partner injured before, quite a few times in fact. But this time was different. Maybe because every time he thought of his partner, he flashed back to the sight of Johnny’s face as he looked at Roy from that burning building. As he sank wordlessly into the chair Dixie had placed beside the bed, Roy reached out for his partner’s hand and held it silently. There was so much he wanted to say but he couldn’t seem to get the words out of his mouth. He just sat there staring at his friend.

A hand grasped his shoulder and Roy looked up to see Dixie watching him intently. “He’s going to be alright, you know. Kel told you that everything looks good for a complete recovery.”

Roy thought back to the conversation in Dr. Brackett’s office a short time ago. Brackett had been very encouraging when he described Johnny’s injuries, but sitting here next to his partner, Roy didn’t feel as confident. The lingering coma was a result of the severe concussion Johnny received when pieces of the ceiling struck his head. He also suffered a broken collarbone and four broken ribs. Those broken ribs were responsible for the internal bleeding that had kept Johnny in surgery so long, and now, looking down at Johnny’s chest, Roy could see the drainage tube under the bandages covering his partner’s chest. So many consequences from one simple choice: Roy’s choice when he asked Johnny to join them on Halloween.

Dixie gave Roy’s shoulder another pat as she moved away to check Johnny’s vitals. Slowly writing the findings on her patient’s chart, she discreetly watched her second patient as she worked. Finally completing the task, Dixie stood once more behind the seated paramedic. “Talk to him, Roy. Kel told you there’s evidence that comatose patients are aware on some level. Talk to him. Bring him back to us. But don’t shut the rest of us out. We all care about him. And you.”

There was no answer to her plea and Dixie turned quietly to leave. Reaching the door, she stopped as she heard the quiet voice behind her. “I’ll try, Dix. I’ll try. And, Dix. . . thanks.”

“You’re welcome, Roy.”

**********

Throughout the day, the other crew took turns sitting with Roy at Johnny’s side. No amount of threats or pleading would convince Roy to leave his partner’s side for more than a few minutes at a time. Occasional calls home reassured Roy that Chris and Jennifer were doing well, though they were very worried about their Uncle Johnny.

Roy was doing what Dr. Brackett and Dixie had suggested. Though it was difficult at first, Roy had proceeded with his one sided conversations most of the day. He’d trail off when someone else came into the room, but as long as there was company, the conversation was worded so as to include Johnny as if he were awake. But still there was no response and Roy was looking forward to the meeting with Joe Early that Brackett had scheduled for later in the evening.

Hank had been sitting with Roy for awhile and was dismayed at the scene before him. Not only was his youngest paramedic still unresponsive, his senior paramedic was totally exhausted. “Roy, you’ve gotta take a break. Get yourself something to eat and take a little nap. I know they’ve told you to use Dr. Brackett’s office if you don’t want to go all the way home. Come on, man. We don’t need any more of these hospital beds filled with our paramedics.”

Roy shook his head slowly. “I’m ok, Cap. I need to be here.”

He looked into Hank’s eyes and pleaded silently for understanding. There was no way he could put into words his hidden fear that if he left his partner’s side, it might be for the last time.

Hank knew it was no use causing a scene. “I’ll bring you something from the cafeteria then. You have to keep your strength up.”

Roy nodded and turned back to watch Johnny.

**********

It was late afternoon when Johnny exhibited the first signs that he might be waking up. Moaning softly, the young paramedic moved his head from side to side as if he were looking for something or someone. Roy was instantly standing at his side, hands holding his shoulders gently. “Johnny. Johnny! It’s alright. You’re at Rampart and you’re going to be alright.”

The moaning stopped but was followed quickly with muttering that Roy couldn’t understand. He called for a nurse as he continued to hold his now distraught friend. “Johnny, you’re ok. You need to settle down or you’re going to hurt yourself. Johnny!”

Roy leaned closer in an effort to hear what Johnny was trying to say then stood quickly and shook his head as he realized what was happening. Stooping down once more, Roy spoke softly to his friend. “She’s ok, Johnny. Jennifer is alright. You saved her! You got my daughter out of there safely. She’s home with her mother, just waiting for you to wake up so she can come and visit her Uncle Johnny.”

Still clasping his partner’s hand tightly, Roy stood back a step as Dr. Brackett came into view.

“He’s awake, Doc,” breathed Roy anxiously. “But I’m not sure he’s really aware of anything yet.”

Dr. Brackett nodded as he pulled the small penlight from the pocket of his white coat. “Let’s take a look here. Johnny, can you hear me? We need you to wake up now and tell us how you’re feeling.” Kelly checked Johnny’s pupils and nodded reassuringly towards Roy. “Equal and reactive. Looking much better.”

After checking the chest tube and looking over the vital signs the nurse had charted, the doctor tried once more to get through to his patient. “John! You need to wake up now. There’s things for you to do and we need your help.”

Dr. Brackett’s words seemed to have opened a door for Johnny and he was suddenly gasping for air as he tried to sit up. Kelly turned to the nurse as he ordered a sedative, but he quickly halted the order as he noticed a change in Johnny’s behavior. Roy was finally getting through to him.

“Johnny, lay back down now. You’re going to hurt yourself. Everything’s ok. You’re safe.”

“Jen? Where’s Jennifer? I tried to get her out. Is she ok?”

The voice was raspy and thin, but Johnny finally seemed to be aware that Roy was talking to him and Brackett heaved a sigh of relief. It was the first positive step they’d seen since Johnny arrived at the hospital and the doctor nodded at Roy to continue.

“Jennifer is alright. She’s home resting and she’s going to be just fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yea, Junior, I’m sure. Now you need to calm down and get some rest.”

“Head hurts.”

“Yea, I bet it does. That hard head of yours couldn’t stop a ceiling from falling on you, but Dr. Brackett says it’s just a concussion. You ate a lot of smoke and broke a couple ribs, but you’re going to be alright. You just need to rest now.”

Roy watched closely as Johnny’s eyes closed then opened again. He carefully fingered the cannula resting in his nostrils, then looked up into his partner’s eyes.

“Roy? You ok? Where’s Chris and Jennifer?”

Once again, Roy assured the young paramedic that everyone was fine, but this time the brown eyes closed and did not reopen. Looking at Brackett, Roy was relieved to see a grin spread across the doctor’s face.

“He’s ok, Roy. Vitals look good and he’s recognized us. I think he’s going to be up and around before we know it.”

“Thanks, Doc. Thanks for everything.”

“Your welcome, Roy. Nothing’s too good for our star patient.”

The two men smiled briefly as the young man between them slept.

***********

The next time Johnny woke up, Roy was nowhere in site, but he immediately recognized Hank sitting next to his bed. “Cap. What happened to Roy? And where’s Chris and Jennifer? Is everyone ok?”

Hank was startled by the change in Johnny’s voice, but quickly realized it was the effects of the smoke inhalation. “Roy’s down in the cafeteria, John. Dixie insisted he had to get something to eat, so she took him down there herself while on break. He should be back here anytime. As for the kids, they’re fine, John. You saved Jennifer by passing her out the window to Roy. Don’t you remember, Pal?”

“Not really, Cap. Just little bits of it, like walking through the booths and helping Jennifer play the games. I think there was smoke, but that’s really all I remember. Did everyone else get out alright? No one else got hurt, did they?”

Hank shook his head slowly. He wasn’t sure how to answer this question. Dr. Brackett had been hesitant in allowing them to tell John the whole story. He felt that Johnny should be given time to remember the events themselves. Now Johnny was already asking those difficult questions. As he started to answer, Roy stepped forward from the doorway where he’d been listening.

“Hi there, Junior. It’s about time you woke up, again. How are you feeling?”

“I’m ok. The other people, Roy, was anyone else hurt?”

The question hung in the air between them, yet no one wanted to answer. Finally, Roy decided the best thing was to be honest with his friend. He knew from past experience that no information for Johnny was worse than some information. When his partner was short on facts, it was almost a sure certainty that his imagination would come up with something far worse than the truth. With a tired sigh, Roy pulled a chair up and sat next to his captain. The two men spent the next quarter hour relaying the sad statistics to their friend.

Twelve people had lost their lives in that horrible fire. At least twenty more had been sent to hospitals for burns and various other injuries. Only six of those remained in the hospital and all were expected to make full recoveries.

“It could’ve been a lot worse, Johnny.”

“Yea, I know, Cap. But it should never have happened.”

The men nodded, knowingly. They had already discussed the various fines and lawsuits the owner of the building was sure to receive. The place was obviously not safe and yet they rented their establishment for large functions. But no fine or lawsuit, no monetary settlement would ever bring back the loved ones lost that Halloween night.

Roy and Hank watched quietly as their young friend drifted back to sleep, but this time they were relieved. Although it was obvious that Johnny had been in a lot of discomfort, he recognized his friends and was aware of his surroundings. Roy knew that it would take some time for the injuries to heal, but his partner was going to be alright.

Recognizing the sigh of relief from the older paramedic, Hank knew the time was right. “Ok, Pal. You’ve talked to him and you know he’s going to be fine. So now it’s time to take care of your self. You head home to Joanne and the kids. I’ll be here when he wakes up again and the guys will be showing up soon. It’s time you let us take our turn.”

“Ok, Cap. You win. I’m leaving. But just for a while. I’ll be back. And when he wakes up, you’d better tell him so.”

Hank grinned widely at Roy as he slowly left the room. Yes, he’d be back. Nothing they could do would stop him, and maybe that’s the way it should be. The two friends were always there for each other and that’s why they made such a good team.

***********

“Roy, you didn’t have to come all the way over here to pick me up.”

“Yea, sure, Junior. You could’ve just hopped in the Rover and drove right over, banged up shoulder and all.”

Johnny grinned back at Roy as the older man helped him put on a jacket. His partner was right, of course. He was feeling much better and was extremely happy to be back in his own apartment. But there were some things he wasn’t ready to tackle yet, and driving was one of them. “Do you think there’ll be many people there?”

Roy nodded silently as he tried to imagine what the memorial service would be like. The school administration had waited to organize this gathering after the twelve funerals were held. Now the survivors, family and friends would come together once more to remember those lost and show their appreciation for all who had helped to save others.

Johnny had no idea that he would be one of those singled out. His actions that fateful night were just a result of his many years of training as a firefighter and he was grateful that he’d been able to find a way to help. But Roy felt differently, he knew that if not for his partner, there would’ve been many more funerals to attend, including one for Jennifer. Just thinking about it brought a tightness to Roy’s chest. “Let’s get going, Johnny. Joanne and the kids are planning to meet us there and we don’t want to be late.”

The drive over was quiet as the paramedics relived the events of that Halloween night. As they pulled into the parking lot, Johnny caught his first sight of the building since the fire. His breath caught in his throat at the devastation before him. “We’re lucky anyone made it out of there alive, Roy.”

Turning off the ignition, Roy nodded his head as he looked at his partner. There was something he had to say, needed to say to Johnny, but he still hadn’t gotten the words quite right. But looking at him now, he knew the time had come. The problem was in figuring out how to say what was in his heart. “Johnny, I need to, uh, I want to. . .”

“What is it, Roy, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. I, well, I just want to tell you how much I appreciate what you did. You know, taking care of Jennifer that night, making sure she got out ok. There’s just no way I . . we, I mean Joanne and me, can tell you how much that means to us. I don’t know what we’d have done if we lost Jennifer or Chris. I just needed to tell you, well, thank you!”

Johnny watched his friend as Roy looked across the parking lot. He could see Joanne and the kids waiting patiently next to Joanne’s station wagon. Looking back at his partner, Johnny knew what Roy was trying to thank him for. It was for his family.

But they were Johnny’s family, too. He was a part of the DeSoto family and what happened to them, happened to him. But more than that, he loved them. And he knew there was nothing, short of death, that could’ve stopped him from protecting Jennifer. He understood why it was so hard for Roy to talk about. The feelings these men had for each other were deep, but they were there. And that was all that mattered. They didn’t need to talk about it. And as Roy looked up at Johnny the both knew that enough had been said between them.

“You’re welcome, Pally. You’re welcome.”

As they left the vehicle and walked towards the waiting DeSoto family, Jennifer left her mother’s side and raced towards the men. “Daddy, Uncle Johnny! You’re finally here. I’m so glad we’re all together.”

Walking between them, each of her hands held firmly by the two men she loved most, Jennifer looked up to see them smiling warmly at each other.

“I’m glad we’re all together, too, Jen,” Johnny said as he gave the little girl’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m glad we’re all together, too.”

And with that final declaration, the DeSoto family and John Gage entered the memorial service together, all the while recalling the good things, and the bad things, that had happened at the Halloween Carnival.

*****The End*****

Special thanks to Kenda for the beta read, to Judy for answering some of my medical questions, but most importantly to Kenda and Audrey for their encouragement. You both helped make my first E! fic a great experience.

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