Summary: Johnny is running late for work when he ends up stuck behind a school bus. The resulting situation reminds him of how the simplest of choices or decisions can change a person’s life, and he’s left wondering: if only . . .
Genre: Medical Drama
Word Count: 4836
The bus driver turned the corner, and continued on her morning route. Watching closely as she stopped to pick up each of her charges, the woman was amazed at how many cars ignored the Stop Arm and swing out around the bus to pass illegally. She knew deep in her heart that this was a dangerous situation, and had mentioned it to her supervisor repeatedly.
Of course, her supervisor knew all too well how dangerous the situation was. They all did. ‘Someday, a child will be seriously hurt or killed,’ she thought to herself as she deactivated the Stop Arm, and put the bus back into motion.
The flustered driver glanced at his watch as he drove towards Station 51, his single groan of displeasure a confirmation of how late he really was.
“Cap’s gonna kill me.”
Pushing his hair out of the way, Johnny spent several seconds struggling with his choice of routes; then turned the Rover down an apparently deserted, neighborhood street.
“Okay, we’ll try the shortcut today.”
The quiet avenue was lined with trees, the neighborhood neat and trim. Johnny enjoyed driving this way occasionally, and it would shave several minutes off his time, ‘if’’ he didn’t get caught behind the morning bus.
Thumping his hand on the steering wheel, Johnny almost growled in frustration. There in front of him was the dreaded yellow vehicle.
It seemed like everything had gone wrong this morning, and now this. The only thing the dark haired paramedic could find to be grateful for was the fact that he’d dressed in his uniform at home. At least he wouldn’t have to take time to change, before receiving his ‘chewing out’ from Captain Stanley.
Slowing down as he reached the brightly colored bus, Johnny couldn’t deny that there was a basic human impulse to simply speed around the offending obstacle. After all, the kids usually entered from the bus stop on the right side of the street. But he knew there was always the possibility that some youngster would dart across the street at the last minute, and taking that chance was a risk he wasn’t willing to take. The Rover pulled to a stop, and Johnny slumped slightly in his seat, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited impatiently for the school bus to move on.
Mrs. Jenkins breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the white vehicle pull to a stop behind her bus. There were no vehicles moving on the street before her, leaving the woman free to watch the children as they boarded for the ride to school. Their noisy chatter filled the air, and the driver smiled as she realized it was Friday. The kids were always more excited on a Friday morning; everyone ready for the weekend and a break from routine.
“Good Morning, Mrs. Jenkins.”
“Good Morning, Billy. Where are the Petersons? Have you seen them this morning?”
“No Ma’am. But they should be here. Matt and I have a Science project we have to present today.”
Donna Jenkins hesitated for a moment, her hand resting on the door handle, as she glanced across the street. The Peterson children were usually on time, and she wondered what might have happened to delay them. Their mother had always sent word with one of the other families if they were going to be out of town, or if the children were sick. Contemplating whether she should wait for several minutes, the driver realized the car behind her was still waiting to continue on its way. Ever conscious of the other motorists, she pulled the lever and slowly started to close the door. The Petersons would have to find another way to school this morning.
The ‘Stop Arm’ was still in place when she saw the car speeding towards them. It was obvious that the blue sedan was going too fast for the quiet neighborhood, and even more apparent that he wouldn’t be stopping, even with the familiar red octagon protruding from the bus. And then, out of the corner of her eye, Mrs. Jenkins saw something that caused her to freeze in her seat. Three children were running towards the street, intent on reaching the waiting bus, completely unaware of the danger. After all, weren’t the cars supposed to stop when the bus was loading and unloading? These innocent children were putting their trust into a safety system that wasn’t really safe. And all she could do was watch.
The next few seconds seemed to play out in slow motion, and for years to come, Mrs. Jenkins would recall the scene with horrifying clarity. The loud bus horn would forever resound in her memory; the only thing she’d been able to do in an effort to stop the inevitable. Her regret would always be the knowledge that it hadn’t been enough.
Fingers still drumming on the steering wheel, the anxious man watched as the children stepped into the bus.
“Come on, come on. . .I’m late!”
Glancing down at his watch, Johnny groaned again, frowning at the time. His co-workers were probably already receiving their shift assignments, and it was no secret which chore he’d be working on today. Realizing that he’d probably have to deal with Chet’s gloating for the rest of the shift was not helping his mood.
The blare of a horn interrupted his thoughts and Johnny looked up, his brown eyes widening at the sight before him. Three children were running across the street towards the bus when a car flew past the ‘Stop Arm’ and into their midst. Their young bodies were no match for the large machine, and the children were left behind, scattered about the ground like rag dolls as the car careened down the street.
The paramedic was already out of the Rover and running towards them when he heard the crunching sound of metal on metal. Looking over his shoulder, he could see the blue sedan melded together with a brown station wagon that had been parked along the sidewalk. But his steps never faltered as he ran on to the children lying in the street.
Reaching the boy first, Johnny knelt beside him, feeling for a pulse. It was there, faint and weak, but there. The bus driver was already in the street, children streaming from the bus behind her, as she hurried towards the paramedic. Looking up, he called out to her firmly.
“Keep those kids back! Use your radio, and call for help. We need a squad and an ambulance!”
The driver stood still for only a moment, but even that was too long in Johnny’s opinion. These children needed help now.”
“Please, Ma’am, I need you to call the fire department, now! Please, hurry!!”
He was relieved when she turned smartly on her heels and hurried back towards the bus, calling to her young charges as she went. The group disappeared around the front of the large vehicle just as a man and several women rushed up to the scene.
“Can we help?”
“Yes, I need blankets or towels, anything to keep them warm.”
The first woman was already running back towards her house, while the others waited patiently for the fireman’s instructions. It was evident to the onlookers that the young man knew what he was doing, and no one questioned that he would take charge. Seconds later, Johnny had left the injured boy in another woman’s care after sending the man to check on the injured motorist. Moving on to the youngest child, the paramedic quickly checked her pulse and respirations. Conscious and alert, she seemed ready to get up and run towards her sister, but he held her firmly in place. Only the softness of his voice belied the emotions he was struggling to control.
“Lay still, young lady. We don’t want you jumping up and hurting yourself, now do we?”
“But my sister . . Sharon.”
“It’s okay, you stay here with this nice lady, and I’ll go check on your sister.”
The girl seemed to quiet a bit as she was covered by a warm blanket. After cautioning the woman what to watch for, the paramedic hurried to the last victim. As he reached the girl’s side, it suddenly felt as if his heart clenched in fear.
Dropping to his knees, he grasped the blond-haired girl by the wrist, watching the tiny movements on his watch as he counted the fading beats beneath his fingers. Johnny didn’t have to check for respirations, it was obvious they were almost non-existent. Blood pooled behind the young girl’s head, and her eyes seemed to stare searchingly up into the sky. As he knelt by her side, the paramedic in him knew that there was little hope for the girl, but somewhere inside him another emotion took over, drowning out that realistic knowledge.
Bending over her still form, Johnny murmured quietly, reassuring her with every word that she would be alright. Checking the girl carefully, he took mental notes of broken bones and possible internal injuries, storing the information away until a squad arrived with a bio-phone to transfer the details to Rampart. And then there was nothing more he could do. Tucking a blanket around her shoulders, he watched as her face paled. The square towel that he had placed beneath her head was already stained a bright red, and still there was no response to his pleas.
“Where are you guys? Hurry up!”
“Don’t worry, they’ll be here.”
The faint voice that answered his demanding comment startled Johnny into silence. He clasped the youngster’s hand in his and stared down into her blue eyes. Those eyes, that only moments before had stared unseeingly past him, were now focused on his face, a smile playing around the edges of her mouth.
“Sharon? Is your name, Sharon?”
“Yes. . .”
“Well, hi Sharon. My name’s Johnny Gage.”
“Hi . . Johnny.”
“Sharon, I need to know, do you hurt anywhere?”
“No. . I don’t hurt at all. I’m just kinda sleepy.”
It was a struggle to keep his tone light, but the young paramedic did his best.
“Well, young lady, I’d rather you didn’t take a nap right now. Why don’t you tell me what grade you’re in?”
His breath caught in his throat for just an instant as the paramedic realized how innocent this all seemed, as if he’d just met one of Jennifer DeSoto’s girlfriends, and was engaging in some light conversation. But this young girl wasn’t visiting a friend, and probably never would again. Shaking his head, as if to clear it of such an offending notion, Johnny realized the youngster was watching him through eyes only half-opened.
“Are you alright, Johnny?”
A crooked smile, forced but bright, lit his face as he leaned back over the child.
“Of course, I’m alright. Just wondering what’s taking my friends so long to get here.”
“I told you, they’ll be here. Besides, I don’t hurt anywhere.”
The girl’s blue eyes reminded him again of Roy’s daughter, and he almost looked away. But there was something about her gaze that seemed to hold his focus. Her voice weaker with every word, Sharon spoke once more, as she softly squeezed his hand.
“Please . . tell Mom . . it doesn’t hurt. . .”
Her eyes slid closed with those last words, and the faint pulse beneath Johnny’s fingers was suddenly gone.
Mrs. Jenkins dropped the radio’s microphone as she hurried back outside. The children were upset and scared, but one of the mothers had offered to stay with them while she checked on the Peterson children. It was a close-knit neighborhood, and it wasn’t taking long for the families to rush to the accident site. Donna could only hope that Mrs. Peterson would have someone with her when she found out that a car had hit all three of her children.
Rounding the corner of the bus, the driver was shocked at the devastation before her. She hadn’t really seen clearly the first time, as the children had been crying and that young fireman hollering at her. But now, now she could see for herself just how bad it really was. And the terrible sight before her was worse than anything she could have imagined. This was far worse than anything either her or her supervisor had worried about.
Three young bodies lay injured on the ground, and down the street, a man was slumped across the steering wheel of his car. It felt as if she’d walked thirty miles by the time Mrs. Jenkins had dragged herself to the boy’s side. His color was pale; his body at an awkward angle and the driver suspected that the boy was suffering from some kind of spinal injury. The woman kneeling at his side was whispering reassuringly to him, but he seemed not to notice, as if already lost to this world. Crossing herself quickly, Mrs. Jenkins prayed that it wouldn’t be true.
She walked on and passed little Lisa Peterson without even stopping. The young girl was awake and talking to another parent who’d just arrived, and though injured, the child seemed to be speaking coherently. It was the sight of the third child that kept the bus driver moving forward.
The young fireman was bent over the girl, performing CPR. Intent on his job, the man didn’t seem to be aware that she was standing there as he continued to breathe for his patient. Alternating breaths and heart compressions, he worked frantically to save the child, and once again, all the driver could do was watch. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she gazed at the tragic scene, and she suddenly realized that this stranger, this young man breathing air into a little girl’s lungs, was shedding tears of his own.
Roy glanced at his watch again, wondering and worrying about his missing partner. He’d already called the ranch several times, and had even placed a call to Johnny’s neighbor. The man had assured him that he’d seen the Rover pull out some time ago, plenty of time, in fact, to get to the station. So where was he?
At first it was evident that Cap was frustrated with the missing man, mumbling something about latrine duty for a year. But after the shift had started, and roll call completed, their leader’s frustration had turned towards concern. It wasn’t like Johnny to just not show up. If he was sick, or there was a problem, he would’ve called in. Even though the junior paramedic could be irritating at times, there was never a question about the man’s integrity or sense of responsibility.
Returning the bio-phone to its place in the squad, Roy slammed the door, and headed towards the Dayroom. But the sudden noise of the klaxons changed his route and he ran towards the driver’s side of the squad instead. Climbing into his seat, he glanced over to the passenger side as Dwyer joined him.
“Thanks for sticking around.”
“No problem. But your partner owes me one.” He quipped lightly.
The men shared a quick glance, and then waited for Captain Stanley to hand Roy the call slip. Minutes later they were on the road, headed for the accident scene.
“Looks like a bad one.”
“Yeah, always is when there’re kids involved.”
The accident site was less than ten minutes from the station, and in the cab of Big Red, the men were silent for the most part. Each man dreaded accidents that involved children. There was just something tragic about seeing an innocent youth injured – or worst yet, dying.
As the engine rolled to a stop in front of the school bus, Captain Stanley stepped down and hurried towards a group of people crowded around the victims. He could see that Roy and Charlie were already gathering their supplies from the squad, Marco and Chet rushing over to assist them. The distraught driver had met Hank near the front of the bus and was walking beside him now, her voice shaking as she attempted to explain the details of the accident. But the man who held his attention was his missing paramedic.
Johnny was working frantically over the still form of a young girl, and Hank could already tell the situation was serious. He knew his youngest paramedic well enough to recognize the tension visible in the man’s body. Relieved as he was to know that Gage was alright, he also felt a growing level of concern over what the young man must have been dealing with.
“What’ve you got, John?”
Captain Stanley was still waiting for an answer to his question when Roy reached the group.
Setting the equipment on the ground, Roy knelt down beside his partner while he opened the bio-phone. One look at Johnny’s face gave him all the information he needed, yet he repeated Cap’s question anyway.
Breathless from the exertion of performing CPR, Johnny should have been relieved to turn his job over to Mike Stoker, who was already kneeling next to the young victim, but it took Roy’s hand on his shoulder before the younger paramedic released his patient to the hands of the engineer. Only then did he respond to Roy’s question, and the nominal information he passed on was relayed in a quiet monotone. Nodding briefly, the older man tried to ignore the unusual behavior of his partner; there would be time enough later to deal with that. Right now there was an injured child who required their full attention.
Several minutes passed before Mike sat back on his heels, the girl back with them again, though Roy couldn’t help wondering for how long. He glanced over at Johnny who was hunched over the bio-phone, tersely relaying information between the accident scene and Rampart. Although his partner was as professional as always, Johnny’s eyes remained focused on the girl’s face, a fact that wasn’t missed by Roy or any of his other shift mates.
Station 51’s ‘A’ shift worked flawlessly together, and within a short time, IV’s had been started on all the patients, and the youngest child had been positioned in the ambulance. Charlie Dwyer was working carefully to supervise the placement of the boy onto a backboard, strapping his motionless arms and legs to its surface. But Roy was more concerned with the blond-haired patient before him. Her vitals, though never good, were plummeting again and he was anxious to get her to Rampart as soon as possible.
The senior paramedic spared a quick glance toward the car that had caused all the damage, relieved to see that someone had finally covered the still form with a yellow blanket. It was sad that the man who caused all this tragedy had to die, but Roy felt even more sorrow for the parents of the children lying in the street. The mother was already at the scene, supported by several friends as she stood on the sidewalk, sobbing in despair. Captain Stanley had just informed them that Mrs. Peterson would not be riding in the ambulance; her husband had been called and was on his way. Even from this distance, Roy could hear the distraught woman muttering over and over: “I should have driven them today . . .”
As the last gurney was moved into place, Roy stepped forward to assist the ambulance attendants, but Johnny was already there, carefully readying the child for transport. It wasn’t until the child was on the gurney and placed in the ambulance that he realized his partner’s intent, but Charlie quickly solved his dilemma.
“Why don’t you go in with them, Roy? I’ll follow in the squad.”
Sharing a look of understanding, Roy passed his temporary partner and climbed into the ambulance. As he waited for the doors to be closed, he took one last look back at the scene. The bus driver was tearfully relaying her story to a policeman, while the remaining children stared out of the school bus windows, their faces clearly portraying the shock and fear they must be feeling. For a moment, the father in him craved the feel of his own children in his arms, the reassurance that they, at least, were not part of this horrible tragedy. Then suddenly, the doors were slammed shut, and two thumps on the back sent the ambulance on its way.
That was when he noticed the hands; long tan fingers encircling small pale ones. Roy couldn’t help staring, fully aware that his partner had once more stepped out of his professional role.
The coroner was on site by the time the tow truck arrived, the police department already marking lines on the pavement, noting the length of the skid marks and taking statements from witnesses. Captain Stanley was relieved that their part in the incident was over and he notified dispatch that Engine 51 was returning to the station.
As he walked toward his men, Hank couldn’t help but wonder how the accident would affect the children who had witnessed it, or the bus driver who couldn’t prevent it. For that matter, how would it affect his paramedic? Johnny was used to seeing much worse, but this time was different, this time he’d watched it happen, unable to stop the carnage.
Chet was voicing the same sentiments when Cap joined his men seconds later. The Irishman’s worried frown belayed his genuine concern for their youngest member, a fact Hank was sure he’d deny if questioned later.
“We’re done here, men. Chet, you drive Johnny’s Rover back to the station.”
The men dispersed quietly, each one caught up in their own thoughts. As they passed the bus, the sight of the red octagon protruding from its side didn’t escape their attention. If only the driver of the blue sedan had taken time to follow its directions . . .
The Rover’s engine came to life, but Chet sat silently in the driver’s seat for a moment. He looked at the large yellow vehicle before him, the ‘Stop Arm’ clearly visible from his vantage point. The red stains on the pavement clearly marked where the children had fallen, and he wondered what Johnny had been thinking when it all happened.
Putting the vehicle into gear, the fireman pulled slowly away from the scene.
Dr. Kelly Brackett ran alongside the gurney, asking questions and barking directions as the attendants maneuvered the contraption through the hallway. Balanced on the side, his feet angled on the struts below, John Gage worked frantically, his hands positioned over the girl’s chest as he tried to bring her back once more.
The stretcher disappeared inside the Treatment Room, the door swinging closed behind them, effectively separating that group from the next one hurrying down the hall. It took only a short time for Roy and Charlie to bring in the remaining two children, turning them over to Dr. Early and Dr. Morton’s care before meeting at the nurse’s station. There was no sign of Dixie, but that was not unusual under the circumstances. With three patients just from their call alone, it was understandable that the head nurse would be busy.
Fidgeting nervously, Roy wondered if Johnny was still in the Treatment Room, and seconds later he had the answer when one of the nurses exited. Through the opening, he could see his partner standing quietly, eyes glued to the drama that was unfolding there. From his position at the counter, the senior paramedic could see a nurse slowly pull a white sheet over the little girl’s face, and then the door drifted closed again.
The two waiting paramedics watched the door expectantly, but it was several minutes before anyone else emerged from the room, and this time the door was swung open with a vengeance they weren’t expecting.
Not heeding Dr. Brackett’s voice behind him, the dark-haired man strode purposefully through the opening and down the hall, never looking left or right as he quickly left the confines of the hospital. The distraught man did not notice his friend move to follow him; wasn’t aware of Roy’s presence even when he slammed his fist into the side of the squad. Not until Johnny heard the quiet voice by his shoulder did he realize his best friend was there to lend his support.
“Here, let me look at your hand.”
“Damn it, Roy, she didn’t have to die!”
“No. No, she didn’t.”
Dark eyes met blue as the friends stared sadly at each other. Roy could see that Johnny was doing his best to control his anger, but standing in the busy Emergency Entrance was not the best place to deal with his emotions. Pulling open the door of the squad, he motioned for his partner to climb in then quickly moved around to the driver’s side. Minutes later, Dwyer climbed in, verifying what Roy had assumed earlier, that his temporary partner had been watching from inside the hospital entrance.
There was no conversation as the squad left Rampart and headed back to the station. In the middle of the cab, Johnny sat frozen in silence, his mind playing over and over the events of the morning. The one thing that stood out in his memory was the feel of slim fingers held firmly in his hand; that simple contact one he hoped to never forget. He prayed that someday, the warmth of that connection would help him forget the terrible vision of a blond-haired girl being flung off the hood of a car, her body falling to the ground, broken and bleeding.
“Such a waste. . .”
Not realizing he’d spoken aloud, Johnny was startled when Roy reached over and squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. He wasn’t ready to talk about it yet, and he suddenly found himself feeling grateful for his friends who seemed to instinctively understand.
Mrs. Jenkins pulled the door closed and slowly walked away from her bus. The meeting with her supervisor had been an emotional one for both of them. After all, hadn’t they discussed, many times, what could happen if drivers were not careful? And today, they were finally facing the situation they’d been dreading. One child dead and two others injured. What more could she have done? Nothing. And the experienced driver knew it. But the realization didn’t lessen the heartache she felt. It was something she knew she’d never truly get over.
The remainder of the day was relatively quiet at Station 51, the only call since noon was a trash fire that took the engine crew out for several hours. The two paramedics were relaxing in the Dayroom, thankful for the slow shift. Dwyer had offered to relieve Gage, but Captain Stanley had agreed with his senior paramedic’s assessment; Johnny would do better keeping busy, than going home to sit alone.
“I was just wondering . . .”
Laying down the paper he’d been only half reading; Roy studied Johnny’s profile as the young man hesitated.
“What is it, Johnny?”
“Well, I was thinking that . . well, tomorrow being Saturday, maybe Chris and Jen would want to come out to the ranch after we get off. They could spend the day; we could do a little riding or hiking. You and Joanne could come out later for a barbeque. What d’ya think? Would that be okay?”
It took several minutes for Roy to get his voice under control, but even then it shook slightly when he answered, a fact that seemed to be lost on his partner, who was staring intently across the room.
“Sure, Junior, that sounds great. Why don’t you call the kids and invite them.”
Watching his partner slowly cross the room to the payphone and place the call, Roy was relieved when the younger man finally seemed to relax a bit. It was obvious that young Jennifer had already accepted and was questioning what they would do, what she should bring, and so on. The similarity between ‘Sharon’ and his daughter had not been lost on the older man, and he sensed that in some way, Jennifer would be the one who helped Johnny through the tragedy he’d witnessed. A part of him wanted to smile in relief, yet another part of him wanted to cry out in anguish.
Johnny was right. The whole thing had been a waste. The driver had been in such a hurry that he couldn’t stop for two minutes to let the children board their bus safely. Instead, he disregarded the safety of others, ending his own life and that of a child, as well as leaving one young boy paralyzed for life. How many other children would it take before drivers came to understand that their time was not the only thing that could be lost? What would it take to make people understand? If only . . .
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