Summary: The school bus accident has affected both Johnny and the bus driver in ways that may change their lives forever. Has the seasoned paramedic allowed this incident to push him over the edge? Away from career and friends? Johnny must come to terms with the loss of one young girl, or risk losing his way of life forever.
Genre: Medical Drama
Word Count: 11,900
One by one, the children walked slowly past the casket, each clutching a daisy or a pink carnation in their small hands. “Her favorite flower” a tearful mother whispered behind him. Emotion was tangible in the small brick church. Families with little children, older people quietly wiping their eyes with crumpled tissues, a woman who appeared to be a teacher sitting with a group of young girls . . . Johnny wished for a Kleenex of his own as he struggled to keep his feelings in check. It was the boy in the wheelchair who put him over the top, and Johnny’s hands clenched on the wooden pew as he stood for the last hymn.
Ever so slowly the small white casket was wheeled down the main aisle and Johnny visibly flinched as it moved past him. He kept his head down, waiting for the congregation to file out through the large wooden doors before he finally moved from his seat. Then and only then did he notice a familiar woman still seated at the far side of the church. Eyes lowered, a large handkerchief was clutched between two hands while tears streamed down her face. Johnny wanted to step over to her, offer the understanding he knew was his to give, but the moment passed as she stood up and hurried out a side door.
Stepping into the bright sunlight, Johnny pulled keys out of his pocket as he headed toward his vehicle. Then, almost as if his feet had a plan of their own, he found himself turning to follow the group of mourners past the church and up a gentle grassy slope. Rows and rows of granite markers spread out before him, but his eyes were trained on the flower adorned casket now balanced over a fake piece of greenery. Johnny knew what lay beneath that piece of man-made grass and his throat tightened as he imagined the white box being lowered into its resting place. Why had he come here? He knew better. Knew that it went against everything he’d been taught. In his field, it was best to keep his distance from the victim. Don’t cross that line. Don’t get attached.
The priest’s words droned over the crowd, prayers and blessings to comfort the ones left behind. It was probably a beautiful service, but all Johnny could focus on were the quiet sobs of a mother whose child had been taken from her too soon. As the pallbearers filed past the casket one last time, each pausing to lay their pink boutonnieres on the gleaming white lid, Johnny knew it was time to go. Still, he stayed, feet rooted to the ground, eyes focused on the scene before him. Only after the last of the family had walked back to the church did he finally move. And then it wasn’t to follow the crowd. Instead, he found himself next to the grave; one hand reaching forward, fingertips barely resting on the gleaming surface of the small white casket.
Johnny swung around, hands stiff by his side as if he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But the low voice didn’t belong to the person he expected. Instead, the woman he’d recognized in the church was standing before him. Her expression probably mirrored his. Sad, resigned, full of regret . . . and tears streamed from her eyes as she spoke again.
“Yes, I came. Just like you, Mr. Gage.”
“I couldn’t stay away.”
“Neither could I.”
Johnny turned back as the woman stepped up beside him, both lost in thought as they stared at Sharon Peterson’s final resting place.
“I saw you working on her. I can tell you’re hurting. But you know none of this was your fault.”
Her words should’ve been balm to his sore spirit; they echoed words spoken by Roy, Captain Stanley and Dr. Brackett. But right now, the words seemed empty. Hollow. All Johnny could think of was blue eyes, blond hair, and small fingers resting inside his hand.
A small sniff brought Johnny’s mind back to the present and his caring nature kicked in.
“How are you doing?” He asked.
“Not so well. Can’t sleep. I keep seeing the car coming straight for her.”
The woman’s hands were shaking even as she twisted the white handkerchief between her fingers.
“It wasn’t your fault either, you know.” Johnny murmured. “I heard the bus horn, saw the Stop Arm was out.”
Johnny’s hand came up hesitantly then rested briefly on the woman’s hands.
“You did all you could.”
“I know. It’s just . . .”
“Yeah, I know. If only he’d stopped.”
The two stood there, staring at the casket, staring at the flowers. Each one willing the world to stop turning so they could go back a few days and change the outcome of a sunny school morning. But the birds continued to chirp in the trees around them, traffic hummed on a nearby street, two men moved towards the grave intent on finishing their duties, and Sharon Peterson still lay in the small white box before them.
“My husband’s waiting in the car. I guess I should go.”
“It was good to see you, Mrs. . .”
“Jenkins. Donna Jenkins.”
“Mrs. Jenkins. You take care of yourself.”
“You too, Mr. Gage.” She paused for a moment then laid her hand on his. “I’ll pray for you.”
The woman turned and made her way slowly down the slope while Johnny stared after her. ‘I’ll pray for you’ echoed in his mind as she disappeared from sight.
‘It’s not me she should pray for.’ Johnny mused as he stood there staring at the little grave. Then with a final glance, Johnny followed Mrs. Jenkins down the hill.
“You went to the funeral.”
It wasn’t an accusation as much as an observation, but Johnny resented it nonetheless.
“Yes I did.”
“You think that was a good idea?” Roy’s soft voice questioned.
“Wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t.”
“You know what Cap said-”
“Yeah I heard him. And you. And everyone else. And I went anyway.”
Johnny tossed his shoes in the locker and slammed the door. Silence followed the banging and he almost expected company, but the door to the apparatus bay remained closed. Roy’s sigh was the only sound as the minutes ticked by, and his friend’s restraint actually helped diffuse Johnny’s outburst. He wasn’t mad anyway, just . . just . .
“It’s okay.” Roy hesitated before adding: “I’m just worried about you.”
“Nothin’ to worry about. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
Johnny kept his eyes on the floor, hoping against hope that Roy would let it go. It wasn’t something he really wanted to talk about. Hell, he’d already talked to half the people he knew and none of their words had helped.
“You gonna be able to let it go now?”
And with that simple question, Roy set him off again. Johnny knew he was overreacting. Unfortunately, he couldn’t seem to help himself. Jumping up, he almost shouted at his friend.
“Sure, Roy! I’ll let it go! I won’t spend another minute thinking about how a little girl is laying in a pretty white casket. Lifeless. Cold. Gone forever. And all because some idiot couldn’t take time to stop for two minutes while innocent children got on a school bus. Hell yes, Roy. I’ll let it go.”
Headed for the door, two steps past his partner, Johnny felt Roy snag his arm and pull him around fast. Instinct had his fist up in the air but the look on Roy’s face stopped him short.
“Oh God. I’m sorry . . I’m sorry, Roy.”
Johnny took several steps back and sat down hard on the wooden bench. Dropping his head into his hands, he struggled for composure, realizing immediately that Roy’s hand had never left his arm. In fact, Roy was sitting beside him. It wasn’t until Johnny finally straightened up that his partner relaxed enough to release his hold.
“I don’t know why . . Roy, I’m sorry.”
Roy barely nodded his head, but it was enough to let Johnny know that he’d been forgiven. He wouldn’t have thrown a punch anyway, they both knew that, but it helped to have it acknowledged. The fact that Roy was still silent helped too. Johnny knew there was more coming, but appreciated the fact that his friend wasn’t pushing too hard. Much later, he wondered if the tones hadn’t gone off, if they’d have talked it out right then and there. If maybe . . But the tones did sound, and the two paramedics jumped up and headed for the squad.
Captain Stanley was already in the bay writing down the address and responding to the dispatcher. He didn’t say a word as he handed the slip through the window, but Johnny didn’t miss the questioning look his superior exchanged with Roy. It should’ve aggravated him, but it didn’t. He knew they were worried about him. Hell, truth be told, he was worried about himself. He was letting this little girl’s death get to him. Cardinal rule number one, and he was breaking it big time.
“Which way, Johnny?”
Roy’s voice brought him back and Johnny quickly double-checked the map in his hand and detailed the directions. For the moment, it was business as usual.
Johnny stepped out of the treatment room, head down and hands clenched. Roy followed with Dr. Brackett, the three men standing quietly by the door.
“There wasn’t anything else you could do.” The doctor offered quietly.
“Yeah.” Roy mumbled.
Johnny was silent for a moment, and then with a low guttural moan, he broke from the two and almost sprinted down the hall. Roy and Kel watched as Johnny rounded the corner heading for the parking lot.
“He’s not doing any better, is he?” Kel asked.
“No, and this isn’t going to help. Losing a child on a call is always tough, but it’s only been a couple weeks since that little girl . . well, I think this might be too much.”
“I tried to talk to him. Even gave him a couple references of counselors so that he could talk to someone more neutral. But he didn’t seem very receptive.”
“I know. He won’t listen to me or Captain Stanley either.”
“Dixie said she’s reached out to him several times and he’s put her off too.”
“Johnny’s always been so strong. He’s usually the one who helps everyone else when it comes to these situations.” But this time, it’s like he’s lost. I know he’s not sleeping well, and he won’t talk to anyone: most of the time at the station he just keeps to himself. I just don’t know what else to say to him.”
“You know Roy, sometimes it seems like a very thin line when it comes to control. And some of the strongest men find themselves losnig that control when pushed too far. I just hope that Johnny doesn’t cross that line.”
“Me too, Doc. Me too.”
Roy reached out and Kel promptly reciprocated. They shook hands warmly, as if silently conveying a promise to mutually watch over their friend.
“I’d better catch up with him. See ya later.”
Watching the paramedic make his way down the hall, Kel wasn’t surprised to find Dixie suddenly at his elbow.
“Lisa said you lost the little boy?”
“Yeah, we did. Poor kid didn’t really have a chance but the guys tried hard.”
“This isn’t going to help Johnny’s frame-of-mind.”
“No Dix, it isn’t. And I’m worried about him.”
“I am too, Kel. More than you know.”
Kel patted Dixie on the shoulder as he turned towards his office. If only Johnny could allow himself to lean on his friends, maybe he’d keep from crossing that line.
“STOP!” Johnny surged forward in an effort to stop the children, to halt their progress or protect them from the impending crash. Instead, he found himself wrapped up in blankets and sheets that entangled his arms and legs bringing ‘him’ to an abrupt stop.
Again, it had happened again. Johnny sat up and stared around the room, trying to confirm that he was really in his room and not on a street watching small children die.
Rubbing his eyes, then neck, Johnny struggled to get his racing heart back to a normal rhythm. Then in a burst of frustrated energy, he sprang from the bed to pace back and forth, his angry words almost as entangled as his bedding had been.
When his energy was finally spent, Johnny dropped back onto the bed, dropping his head into his hands. He knew it wasn’t manly, but he felt like weeping, his emotions that overwhelming.
“Get yourself under control, Gage!” He muttered to himself.
But the sound of his voice only caused a renewed sense of inner angst. Johnny was a seasoned rescue man, and he recognized all the signs of someone who was spiraling out of control. But like most people, it was easier to help someone else then to help yourself. For one brief second, Johnny had the desire to call his partner. And if not for the 3:05 that shone from his clock radio, he might have done it. But the moment and impulse passed and with a groan, Johnny got up and headed for the kitchen. Maybe a glass of milk and a late-night movie, if he could find one, would help pass the time. It was for damn sure he wasn’t going back to sleep tonight.
“Roy, is Johnny okay?”
“Just wondering. This is the third time he’s walked the kids home from the bus-stop on his day off.”
Joanne stepped away from the living room window as Roy slowly folded the newspaper he’d been reading. Neither had time to continue the conversation given the hurried footsteps and happy voices heralding their children’s return from school. The front door flung open as 6 year old Jennifer bounded in, her happy voice filling the room.
“Mommy, we’re home! Guess who was walking right by the corner when our bus stopped!”
Joanne laid a quieting hand on her daughter’s arm as she smiled warmly at their guest.
“I bet it was your Uncle Johnny.”
“You guessed right. He was right there, so he said he’d walk us home, just like the other day!”
“He told you not to say anything, dummy!”
“Chris, don’t call your sister names.”
“Well, she is.”
“Christopher, you heard your mother.”
Johnny had been quiet but now was stepping backwards in an obvious effort to escape the situation. He was clearly uncomfortable, and Roy could easily read the emotional story playing across his partner’s face.
“Hey, you guys have a good afternoon. I’m going to take off.”
The younger man turned on his heel and strode off down the driveway, immediately halting the harmless argument as the DeSoto family watched in surprise
“Uncle Johnny, don’t go!”
“I have some errands to run, Jen, I’ll come back when I have more time to play.”
Tears pooled in the young girl’s eyes and she turned angrily on her brother.
“See what you did? Now Uncle Johnny won’t visit us anymore. With a hiccupping kind of cry, the little girl turned and raced inside the house.
“What did I do?” Chris cried. “I just told her Uncle Johnny said not to tell.”
Roy laid a firm hand on his son’s shoulder, prompted to expound on the name-calling part of the conversation. But his eyes were following his friend as he turned from the driveway onto the sidewalk. Roy was caught between dealing with his sad little girl, his surprisingly sullen young boy, or his worrisome partner who was already halfway down the block.
“Go, Roy. I’ll deal with Jen and Chris.” Joanne urged quietly.
He didn’t need any other encouragement and was already at a sprint when he reached the sidewalk. But when he reached Johnny’s side, there was no sense of welcome. In fact, glancing sideways at his friend, he was surprised at the similarity between Johnny and Chris’s expressions. Sullen was a good description.
“Where ya going in such a hurry?”
“Got some errands to run.”
“On a Friday afternoon?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Shouldn’t have bothered ya.”
“You’re never a bother, Johnny. You know you’re always welcome.”
His partner didn’t acknowledge or answer, but continued to walk, his Land Rover now visible ahead. Roy wasn’t giving up, but found himself struggling to find the right words. He knew this had something to do with the young girl’s death a few weeks ago. Hell, it had everything to do with it. But once again Roy was at a loss as how to help his friend.
Johnny was his normal competent self on the job, patient and compassionate with every victim and confident with his abilities on a rescue. But after a run or during his down-time, when there was time to think, Johnny brooded. He was short-tempered, irritable and sometimes Roy suspected his friend was almost close to tears. That was not the norm for his stalwart friend. Yet it was an example of the emotional pit that every rescue man was aware of. All it took was one rescue gone bad to push a man to the edge; the brink of a despair that was hard to get back from. Roy knew it. Cap knew it. Johnny surely did too, but he wasn’t willing to talk to anyone, and so far nothing had happened at work to require Cap forcing the issue. Although given their last conversation, Roy knew that their leader was about to pull rank and push Johnny to get help anyway. Roy was the one who kept working on using the calm approach, letting his friend grieve and hopefully come to grips with the situation in his own time. Unfortunately, his tactic didn’t seem to be working.
Johnny had unlocked the Rover and was already climbing in when Roy shook himself out of his musing enough to try again. With one hand on the open door, he mentally sent up a quick prayer that he would say the right thing.
“Come back with me, Johnny. Have some dinner with us and spend the evening. It would do you good.”
“Nah, thanks anyway. Too much to do. Some other time.”
He tried to pull his door closed, but this time, Roy held firm.
“John, please. Come back. The kids . . we . . just come back, okay? Let us help you. Spend some time and-”
“No, Roy. No. It’s no good. I want to, but-.” Johnny stopped, and for one long emotion-filled minute, Roy thought his friend would let it all out. But the moment passed. “I can’t. Some other time. Maybe.”
And with that, Johnny wrenched the door out of Roy’s grasp and slammed it shut. Then turning the key, his Rover roared to life and Johnny pulled away from his friend. Roy didn’t move. Almost didn’t breathe. This was so uncharacteristic for his friend. No long rants. No quiet discussions where he confided all. This was Johnny building walls and running away. The thought came unbidden as Roy watched his friend drive down the street and around the corner, out of sight. How far would Johnny run? And when would he stop?
Johnny closed his locker door and headed for the engine bay. He was glad to be dressed and ready before the others came in. He wasn’t ready to talk, and he sure didn’t want to field any more questions or sympathetic looks. It was easier to be one step ahead of the crowd. Although he had a nagging thought that maybe he was trying to stay ahead of himself. Johnny instinctively knew that he wasn’t handling things well, but for some reason, he just couldn’t seem to stop and face things. It wasn’t normal for him. Then again, in this line of work, what was normal?
With a fresh pot of coffee on and the morning paper in hand, Johnny sat down for a few minutes of uninterrupted peace. The engine and squad were still out from a previous run, so other than Captain Stanley working in his office, the station was empty and quiet. Or so he thought.
His partner grabbed a cup and poured it full of hot coffee then pulled out a chair.
Johnny, for his part, pretended to be absorbed in an article about Humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean. Roy evidently wasn’t fooled.
“What did you do this weekend?”
“Nothing at all? Weather was beautiful. I figured you’d be out riding, or maybe hiking somewhere.”
“Nope. Just stayed close to home.”
Johnny dropped his head a little lower behind the newspaper. He sure didn’t want Roy to see his expression. They didn’t call him a lousy poker-player for nothing. He couldn’t pull a bluff with the way his face always gave him away. And he for damn sure didn’t want to talk about his weekend for fear of giving away where he really went. Deflect. That was the ticket.
“What did you and the kids do? Did they get their trip to the zoo as planned?”
Roy bit, or at least he seemed to.
“Yeah, we went. Had a great time, although Jennifer insisted that Uncle Johnny promised he’d come along this time.”
“Well, I guess I owe her one.”
“Yeah.” There was a long pause. “Hey, Johnny, I’ve been thinking, and I wonder if you’d want to go fishing with me on our next break. I think-.”
Johnny’s moan was followed by the crumpled paper being slammed on the table. Quickly pushing his chair back, the young paramedic almost fled from the room. Roy stared in disbelief, unable to wrap his mind around the bizarre response. Any other time he’d be prompted to holler out a ‘if you didn’t want to go fishing just say so’ barb, but something prompted him to stay silent. At the same time, he knew it was time to quit beating around the bush and face Johnny. With precise and quiet motions, Roy pushed Johnny’s chair back in place then pulled the paper into some kind of order. As he was folding it, a headline on page two caught his eye. There in bold print the words “Young Boy Killed by Speeding Driver” brought instant understanding to Johnny’s rude and unusual behavior.
“The hits just keep on coming, don’t they Junior?”
Roy smoothed the paper into place then exited the day room, anxious to see where his partner had made off to. It didn’t take much searching to find him stretched out on his bunk. This time, Roy didn’t hesitate.
“Johnny, we need to talk.”
If he was expecting a fight, he didn’t get it. Instead, the slow and quiet but steady voice of calm and reason answered honestly.
“Why Johnny? Why is this one so much worse? We’ve been on hundreds of calls, and we’ve lost children before. What makes Sharon’s death so much harder than all the other times? You know that we can’t save everyone, that’s just not possible. So why have you let this one get to you?”
Johnny was startled by Roy’s words and had to fight the urge to jump up, yell, or holler at his friend . . . yes this one “got” to him. But Roy was his partner and best friend. He deserved an answer, even if it felt weak; even if Johnny had a hard time choking those words out.
“Because, Roy, this time I was there. I saw it happen. I witnessed the ‘accident’ if you can call it that. I was sitting in my car frustrated that the school bus in the road was going to make me late for work, and the next minute I’m watching children maimed and killed. And I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it.” Johnny hesitated, trying to regain control. “Then there’s the ‘why’ that driver passed the bus. Who knows, maybe Sharon died and her brother is paralyzed because that guy had the same feelings I did. He didn’t want to be late, so he just kept going. I don’t know. It’s just . . . it’s just too much to think about. But Roy, that’s all I do anymore, think about it.”
The two men were silent, Roy trying to understand the depth of Johnny’s emotional state, and Johnny trying to find a reason not to jump up and run out of the station. It was Roy that finally broke the silence.
“What can I do?”
“There has to be something, John. You can’t keep going on like this. I understand how hard this is for you, but none of this was your fault.”
“I know that, Roy. And I know it’s not about fault. It’s just . . it’s just about failure. My failure to help. To save her.” Johnny slowly sat up, his hands clenched in front of him. “If I can’t help an innocent child like that, then what am I doing here? And what’s wrong with the people in this world that they put their own selfish schedule in front of the safety of their neighbors? And if it is just about selfishness, then why do I want to live like this? Why does anyone?”
Roy reached out and clasped his friend’s shoulder in an effort to relay his strength. He hoped it helped.
“Because we’re only human, Johnny. And humans make mistakes. Lots of them. Most of us do the best we can. Some don’t try that hard. But you do. And you make a difference. Every time you’re out there on a call. Every time you comfort a scared child or a worried parent you’re making a difference. You’re helping. But we aren’t gods. We can’t save everyone. And sometimes it’s going to hurt. That doesn’t mean our hard work isn’t worth the effort. It just means we can only do our best.”
“Meanwhile babies die. Little girls never grow up.” Johnny dropped his head so that his next words were barely discernible. “I can’t do this anymore, Roy. I’m sorry. I just don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Roy’s stomach dropped. Every fear that had lingered in his heart came forward in a rush. He’d had a feeling this was where they were headed, and every night he’d talked with Joanne, trying to convince himself that Johnny would pull out of this funk. But here it was. The decision. The final word that changed all of their lives. He wanted to shout and curse, he wanted to throw something. But the respect he felt for his friend was too strong. He couldn’t let his own personal feelings be the focus today. This was about Johnny and what he wanted in his life. Roy instinctively knew that he had to stand quiet but strong and be the support his friend deserved.
“Are you sure?” Roy finally whispered. “Are you really sure?”
It was a long time before Johnny answered, and his words gave Roy a minimal feeling of hope.
“No. I’m not. I love my job. What I do.”
That hope was dashed in the next moment, and Roy didn’t have the heart to imagine Johnny’s decision would change.
“But Roy, I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t watch any other children die because I’m not good enough or strong enough or fast enough to help them.”
Silence stretched between them, until Roy found the strength to ask one more question.
“Johnny, will this really help? Leaving your job, the guys, everything you’ve worked for? Will it really make things any better?”
The question was sincere and Johnny seemed to give it consideration, but his misery was apparent in his answer.
“I honestly don’t know, Roy. But I do know, I’m sure, I can’t go on this way.”
Roy had all the arguments in mind: the fact that Johnny had already saved many lives, the fact that he was highly trained, competent and needed. The fact that his feelings of inadequacy were normal after such a traumatic event and that time would help heal the wound. But Roy knew that he’d already used all these arguments and more. That Cap had said many if not all of the same things. And he also knew that Johnny would’ve used the same explanations if their roles were reversed. None of that mattered. Right now Johnny was reacting only to emotions, and sadly, he wasn’t allowing rational thinking to play a part in his decision. So Roy did the only thing he could do. He squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and softly asked: “so what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to give Cap my resignation. Effective immediately.”
Roy’s intake of breath wasn’t lost on Johnny, but the younger man had already steeled himself to his friend’s response. This wasn’t a decision made overnight. It had been coming ever since that morning he pulled up behind a yellow school bus.
“I hope you understand, Roy. It’s not about you, or us, or anything else. You’ve been the best partner a guy could ever want. It’s just me. I can’t sleep at night. I can’t stay focused. I just can’t do this anymore.”
The two men faced each other, a world of unsaid words between them, yet a true understanding that bridged the unspoken. The mutual respect was strong. They didn’t agree on this point, but they didn’t have to.
“I’m going to go talk to Cap.”
“Are you . . are you staying in LA?”
There was a long pause as Johnny stared at the floor but he finally managed a quiet answer.
The door swung closed behind him leaving Roy alone in the dorm. His heart hurt for his friend, and for his lost partner. And for himself.
The rest of that day was a blur for John Gage.
Cap reluctantly accepted his decision after spending almost an hour talking, pleading, almost begging Johnny to reconsider. He pulled out all the stops, but Johnny wouldn’t be swayed. There was his locker to clean out and goodbyes to be said, but Johnny did his best to keep them brief. He wasn’t up to anything emotional and was grateful that the guys seemed to understand. Even Chet refrained from his normal banter. It was a relief when his replacement finally pulled into the parking lot and within minutes Johnny was headed for his Rover. The last goodbye could’ve been the hardest, but the klaxons took that moment to ring and he was off the hook. Roy’s raised hand was the only goodbye they managed and Johnny felt a sense of relief that he would be spared that emotional mark. The strangest moment was when he drove out the parking lot to the street. He sat at the curb waiting for the Squad and Engine to move past him as they headed out on their call. And for one brief instant Johnny had the feeling that he was abandoning his partner and best friend. They had watched each other’s backs for too many years to ignore the fact that he’d suddenly left Roy to rely and trust someone else. It was the darkest point of his already bleak morning.
There was nothing else to focus on now that he’d cut ties with his Station 51 family. Chores were done automatically leaving Johnny with a lot of alone time to think. At one point, he found himself standing in front of the refrigerator, a second beer tempting him from within. He clearly remembered an epiphany type moment when he knew that was the wrong road to start on and the beleaguered man slammed the door with a vengeance. There was another long period where he lounged in his recliner, going over every detail of that fateful day along with pulling up memories of every fun exchange he’d shared with Roy and his family. It was an emotional merry-go-round that he’d stepped on and Johnny didn’t know how to jump off.
Johnny didn’t remember making the next decision, picking up his keys or even driving away from his ranch. But he was fully aware of where he was going when he took the last right hand turn into the cemetery. This was becoming a habit. And it wasn’t one he liked. But here he was, again.
Leaning against a nearby tree, Johnny let his mind drift as he studied the wilted flowers and mangled sod covering the new grave. How long before the scar on this small piece of earth would be healed, before nature restored the wound to its previous state? And what about the people who were left to mourn? How would this child’s mother ever heal? Or her father or siblings? Would nature restore them to their previous state? In some dark recess of his mind, Johnny knew there would be a restoration of sorts. But it wouldn’t be the same. There would always be that missing piece in their lives, the empty chair, the hole in their family picture where little Sharon used to be.
The sun was low in the sky when he realized he wasn’t alone. The sound of a soft voice calling his name seemed almost other-worldly, and Johnny looked around suspiciously. But the woman that was walking slowly towards him was not unfamiliar. It took only a few moments for him to know that another injured soul was walking the same path as he was.
“Mrs. . . Jenkins, right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
The silence that stretched between the two was comfortable. They were both here for the same purpose which seemed to spawn a strange bond. Yet Johnny felt the need to leave as the woman joined him near the tree. He nodded and started to move away when she reached out to touch his arm.
“Please. Don’t leave.”
Johnny had a strange urge to bolt from the spot. Yet his personality coupled with years of training forced him to stay. He couldn’t find his voice to speak, though, fearful that she would want to talk about Sharon, something he didn’t think he could bear. She surprised him.
“Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“I’m sorry. I know that’s a rather personal question.”
The woman dropped her gaze to stare at the grass beneath her feet.
“I can’t sleep. I have the same dream every night. I can’t think of anything but that day. My mistakes. My failure.” The woman hesitated, but Johnny remained quiet. When she spoke again, her voice was almost inaudible. “I quit my job yesterday.”
“What? You did? Why?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to. I love my job, and the children. I planned to drive that bus until I retired. But I just can’t do it anymore. It’s too much.”
“I’m sorry.” Johnny struggled to find the right words, while all he could think of was how close her explanation was to his own. “You seemed to be so natural with the kids. That must have been a difficult decision. But I understand.” He paused before entrusting her with his news. “I quit my job this morning.”
“No! Oh Mr. Gage, but you were so good with the children. You took charge that day and kept everyone calm. You knew what to do and had people organized to help you. I saw you talking to Sharon, and I can’t help but think you comforted her just by being there.”
“It wasn’t enough. I should’ve done more.” Johnny paused” “Like you, I don’t sleep, but when I do I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming of a seven-year-old girl that will never get to be eight. And during the day I can’t focus on my job, on the people that depend on me or need my help. So on top of everything else, I have been living in fear that I might hurt someone else because I am so distracted. It was just too much so I made the only decision I could. I had to quit before things got any worse.”
They stood like that for a while, sharing the knowledge that they were feeling the same things, fighting the same demons. But that shared identity didn’t change the fact that they were helpless to fix the damage that had been done. As the sun sank lower in the sky, Johnny felt again the urge to get away from this place. So with one last lingering look at the wilting flowers, he turned to go. But Mrs. Jenkins wasn’t through.
“Have you been by to see them?”
“What? No. No, I haven’t. I don’t know them . . have no reason to. No, I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“You should go see them. Mrs. Peterson mentioned to one of the other teachers that she wanted to see you.”
“Me? She wants to see me?”
“Yes. I’m not sure why. But maybe it would help you.”
“What about you? If they want me to visit, wouldn’t they want to see you too? Have you already been to see them?”
“Oh my goodness, no. They don’t need to see me. What a horrible reminder that would be.”
Johnny suddenly stopped his fidgeting. There was something here. Something he couldn’t quite grasp or explain, but intuitively understood. This caring woman was reaching out to help him, yet she deflected the minute he focused on her. It suddenly hit him that they had been brought together for a reason and he shouldn’t ignore the opportunity. So John Gage, stoic fireman and part Native American took his cues from the universe and forced himself to step outside of his self-doubt and grief.
“Mrs. Jenkins, I think they’re reminded all the time of what they’ve lost. And their boy, with all his new problems, could also be a reminder. You, my dear lady, have nothing to feel bad about. You didn’t cause the accident and you definitely shouldn’t hold any guilt for what happened to those children. You are as innocent as they were.”
“As innocent as you are, John Gage.”
Silence stretched between them until Johnny finally answered softly.
“It’s not the same. I have the knowledge and the skills. I should’ve done more.”
“You did all you could. Sometimes we just can’t change fate.”
Dusk stretched out around them and Johnny knew he had to go. He appreciated the woman’s attempt to reassure him, and she was simply saying the same things that Roy said, but they didn’t apply here. These people meant well, but they just didn’t understand.
“I have to get going, Mrs. Jenkins. You take care.”
Johnny didn’t wait for her reply, but strode away from the gravesite as if Sharon herself might reach out and grab him. For all the time he’d felt drawn to visit here, there was no explaining his sudden new desire to get as far away as possible from this place. Down the gentle slope and across the parking lot, Johnny hurried, pausing only to put his key in the lock. So when a gentle hand grasped his arm, he almost hollered in surprise.
“Please, Mr. Gage, please wait.”
“No Mrs. Jenkins, I have to go now.”
“Then take this with you.”
The sad looking woman tucked a small white paper in his hand. He didn’t have the nerve to look at what she’d written there, he only wanted to escape. So this normally respectful young man didn’t say a word in response, but simply jumped into his vehicle and fired up the engine, almost squealing the tires in his haste to get away. He was five miles down the road before he managed to get his breathing under control, and only then did he realize he was still clutching that small slip of paper. Johnny started to roll the window down, intent on gracing the wind with whatever message the woman left him. But at the last minute, he jammed it into his pocket instead. There was no explaining the sudden shift, but Johnny didn’t take time to analyze it. Instead, he pushed the accelerator down as he raced towards home.
Giving up his life as a fireman/paramedic wasn’t the perfect answer Johnny thought it would be. The anxiety, stress and regret still walked with him daily, and plagued him during the night. Tossing and turning through the dark hours was wearing him down. But on the other hand, there was no one to notice. He’d successfully managed to push everyone away, even Roy. Of course, he knew that his best friend wouldn’t stay away for long, but at least he’d stopped the daily phone calls. The problem was, without work to distract him or friends to bolster him up, Johnny was left with nothing but time on his hands. And time alone was definitely not helping.
It had been almost two weeks since he walked away from Mrs. Jenkins at the cemetery. Johnny had thought about her several times, but had always managed to push away her thoughtful words. He regretted not helping her more, but denied any possibility that she was right in regards to his situation. Of course he knew that the accident wasn’t his fault, and he knew that even with a doctor on site that little Sharon may well have passed anyway . . but the feeling of helplessness had become overwhelming and Johnny couldn’t seem to get past the loss. He knew he should talk to someone, and had all the resources to do so. Even Dr. Brackett had called him to offer his help, and Dixie had pestered him almost as much as Roy.
Leaning back in his recliner, Johnny took another sip of his beer and wondered what he could find to do today. His morning chores were done and the day stretched before him. He stared at the television set for a few minutes, but didn’t have the energy or inclination to get up and turn it on. Instead, he stared out the window, watching the light play through the trees, listening to the birds and wondered about the universe. Johnny wasn’t sure how long he drifted in that state, but it was definitely stopped by the sound of a car door slamming.
“Uncle Johnny, Uncle Johnny!”
The high pitched happy voice of Jennifer DeSoto brought Johnny out of his chair. His first instinct was to hurry to the door. His second impulse was to hide. Shaking his head, Johnny chose a path somewhere in the middle and moved slowly into the kitchen where he could watch from the window.
Roy was just getting out of the car, his expression guarded. Johnny had a hunch that this visit wasn’t his friend’s idea. But in an effort to put a good spin on things for Jennifer’s sake, he tried to overlook the intrusion and welcome the excited little girl who had already run up the porch steps and was knocking on the door.
“Uncle Johnny, are you in there?”
Johnny grinned in spite of himself. No matter the pain, how could you not respond to this free spirited bundle of love?
“I’m here.” He answered with a forced sense of cheer. “Hang on while I unlock the door.”
“Why do you have the door locked, Uncle Johnny? You never have before. Don’t you go outside anymore?”
There was a sad look of worried confusion on the child’s face when he opened the door, but Johnny ignored it and squatted down to greet her.
“Of course I got outside, Jen. I must’ve just locked it by mistake.”
With that bit of information, Jennifer’s smile returned and she lunged into Johnny’s arms.
“I’ve missed you soooo much,” she whispered in his ear loudly. “Can daddy and I come to visit you now?”
“Sure thing, you come right in.”
Johnny knew that his fake lightheartedness was not lost on Roy. His friend knew him too well and was clearly seeing through the façade. But his love for this pint-sized little girl overrode everything else.
“So, what brought you to my ranch today?”
“Mommy?” Johnny looked back at the car, half-expecting Joanne to exit at the last minute.
“Well, daddy brought us in the car, Uncle Johnny. Can’t you see? But mommy’s the one who told us to come. She said you like her chicken casserole and it would be better than the hotdogs and chips you’re probably eating now.”
Jennifer looked up at him, her expression serious, her little hands placed on her hips in almost perfect imitation of her mother.
“Ohhh, I see. So the DeSoto women were worried about my health, huh?”
“Yes. Now, can we go see the horses?” She answered excitedly.
“I guess so. Is Chris with you?”
“No. He had a sleepover at Tommy’s house.”
“All right then, let’s go see the horses.”
“I’ll be out in a minute” Roy mumbled, “after I put the casserole in the refrigerator.”
Johnny tried to grin at his friend’s mock dejection, but he knew the smile never reached his lips.
“We’ll be down at the corral, Roy.”
Jennifer was waiting impatiently on the porch and grabbed Johnny’s hand as soon as he exited the house. She swung his hand as they walked down the path to Johnny’s barn and corral, chattering all the way. Johnny was silently relieved that he’d left several of the horses penned up making this visit easier. And shorter.
“Look, Smoke and Dakota are right by the fence.”
Jennifer dropped his hand as she skipped on ahead, stopping only at the fence line where she promptly crawled up to the second rung in order to reach her friends. Johnny quickly stepped up next to her, ready to support or even to catch her if needed. Grateful that he’d thought to grab several carrots before they walked down, he handed them over and watched patiently as she fed the animals. The scene was quiet and relaxing, a familiar setting shared with the DeSoto children. But this time he took no comfort in it.
“Can I ride?”
“Not today, princess.”
Johnny looked around, wondering what was taking Roy so long. He would welcome any diversion at this point. But with no sign of his friend, he finally decided to opt for the honest response.
“Your Uncle Johnny just isn’t up to it today, Jen.”
Jennifer didn’t answer, but turned on the fence until she was facing Johnny. Then with all the love and gentleness that a six-year-old could muster, she reached out and touched Johnny’s cheek. The tough fireman almost lost it.
“Is it because you’re so sad, Uncle Johnny?”
She waited patiently while studying his expression, leaving Johnny to think that he could only continue down the honest path. This girl, though small, seemed to carry the wisdom of a woman, and he knew he couldn’t fool her.
“Yes, Jen, it’s because I’m sad.”
“Because that little girl died?”
All the available oxygen seemed to disappear. Johnny knew the minutes dragged out while he struggled to answer.
“But you were right there when she went to heaven, weren’t you?”
God, this little girl was tearing him up.
“Yes, I was, Jen.”
“Did it hurt?”
Johnny wasn’t sure if she meant Susan hurt physically or he was hurt emotionally. He decided it didn’t matter. Either way, the answer was the same.
“And she didn’t get to say goodbye to her mommy or daddy?”
“No, Jen, she didn’t.”
“That’s sad.” Jennifer studied his face for several minutes before continuing. “If I died, Uncle Johnny, I would want my mommy and daddy to hold me while I said goodbye.”
Johnny couldn’t stop the tears that were trickling down his cheeks.
“I know you would, sweetheart. I think Sharon wanted that too.”
“Was that her name? Sharon?”
“Yes. She was about your age.”
Jennifer studied him as Johnny whisked the dampness from below his eyes. Then without warning, the small girl lunged off the fence into his arms.
“Don’t cry, Uncle Johnny. Sharon is happy in heaven now. And she got to be with you before she died. That must’ve made her feel good, ‘cause you’re so nice and you take good care of Chris and I when we come to visit. I bet she was happy that you were taking care of her, and I bet you even held her hand, too.”
Johnny couldn’t answer, but simply tucked his head onto the child’s shoulder and let the emotions flow through him. The loss, the regret, the anger, the questions of a creator that let bad things happen to innocent children. All the while, Jennifer DeSoto kept her arms tightly clenched around his neck, moving them only enough to occasionally pat him on the back. When he felt that he’d gained some control, Johnny pulled his head up and looked into the girl’s eyes. He realized that she had tears running down her face and with one fluid movement he dropped to a knee, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket while still holding her with his other arm. He held her close while wiping away her tears, then followed up by wiping his own.
“I’m sorry I made you sad, Uncle Johnny.”
“You didn’t, Jennifer. I was already sad. I’ve been sad for a long time.”
“Please don’t feel sad. I think God is taking good care of Sharon for her mommy and daddy. And Uncle Johnny?”
“If it’s okay, I think I could help daddy and mommy take care of you. Would that be alright?”
“I think that would be just great, Jen. But I will warn you, it might be a big job.”
“That’s okay. Mommy said I’m getting to be a big girl, so I think I can handle it.”
Her adult-like comment was the push Johnny needed, and he laughed out loud. It wasn’t long or hearty, but it was a laugh and it actually felt good. He grabbed Jennifer’s hand and pulled her to him.
“Let’s go find your daddy, okay?”
And with childlike innocence, Jennifer left behind the emotional exchange and happily charge towards the house. Johnny followed slowly behind, not surprised to see his best friend watching from the backyard. It was too soon, but someday, when things were better, he’d have to thank Roy for bringing this little angel to see him.
Johnny had finished a giant serving of Joanne’s casserole and took care of all the evening chores. But he couldn’t settle. The afternoon had been a roller-coaster of emotions and he still wasn’t sure where he’d land.
Looking for something to keep him busy, Johnny started gathering his dirty clothes. At least he could catch up on his laundry. There were several pairs of dirty jeans in the hamper, and he spied another in the bottom of his closet. Evidently he’d missed that pair somewhere along the way, so he added it to the basket and headed to the laundry room. Taking time to empty the pockets usually rewarded him with a few dollars and some odd change, but this time his heart froze as he pulled a small slip of paper from the pocket of that missing pair. Closing his eyes against the hurt this message might bring, John forced himself to open them as he unfolded the note.
Mrs. Peterson wants to see us, but I need your strength to help me make that visit.
Please call me at 555-800-1010
Mr. Gage, remember: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Call me. Donna Jenkins
Johnny stared at the paper, blinked, closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, then stared again. This note, waiting, all these days . . and then for him to find it today, after Jennifer was here.
Absently dumping soap into the machine and pressing the start button, Johnny numbly returned to his recliner. He sat in the darkening room, silence permeating the space but not his mind. In his head, he finally allowed everything to replay, from the time he pulled up behind the bus, to the time he talked with Sharon, to the time in the ambulance as he tried to bring her back, to the final minutes of her life in the ER. From there his memory took him through the long days at the station, through the funeral service and his many trips to the cemetery, to his resignation as a fireman/paramedic and finally his empty days here at the ranch. As the memories played and replayed in a kind of slow-motion kaleidoscope, there was one brief scene that he kept stopping on. His tired brain ignored it until suddenly a flash of recognition brought him out of the chair and onto his feet.
Jennifer had asked him today if Sharon hurt before she died. And he had truthfully answered ‘yes.’ But that wasn’t right. Perhaps Sharon was in pain, but the young girl had answered that same question with a ‘no.’ Maybe she was past feeling the pain, but as he’d knelt beside her on the pavement, Sharon Peterson had assured John Gage that she didn’t hurt. What’s more, she’d given him a message. One that in his own sense of hurt, he’d failed to convey. The new sense of guilt that Johnny carried had nothing to do with the accident, but more self-recrimination for a job left undone. It was time to quit wallowing in his own despair and really think about someone else.
Glancing at the clock, John instinctively knew that the hour wasn’t too late. Quickly recovering the small slip of paper that had until a short time ago been lost, Johnny hurried to the telephone and dialed the number.
“Hello. Mrs. Jenkins? This is John Gage.”
Donna Jenkins and John Gage stood at the open door, bathed in the welcoming gaze of Sharon’s mother.
“Please, please come in. I’m so very glad you called me and were willing to come visit us. We are so grateful. Can I take your jacket? Get you something to drink? Coffee or tea?”
The woman was the essence of welcoming. She took their quiet answers and reluctant entry in stride as she ushered them into her living room. The sound of children’s laughter in the backyard made her smile apologetically as they all settled in their seats.
“I’m sorry for the noise. Kent is getting the kids settled out back and then he will join us. The physical therapist has been working with Matt, trying to build up his upper body strength so he can handle the wheelchair. So Kent has been building some obstacle courses in the backyard for Matt to practice on.”
“Oh that’s nice.” Mrs. Jenkins smiled.
“Good to hear.” Johnny offered. “How is your son doing?”
“He’s doing fairly well. It’s been very hard for him, losing Sharon, especially since he was the oldest. He feels like he should’ve protected her. But he’s been seeing a counselor and that is helping him come to terms with those feelings. Of course, he has a long way to go with accepting his paralysis, but he’s strong, and he has a great group of friends. That third grade class has been amazing with their support and acceptance. It’s funny, but helping him through this is helping us too.”
“He’s lucky to have you.” Johnny murmured.
“Yes he is,” Donna echoed.
Their quiet replies intertwined as the visitors tried to relax. It wasn’t easy, given what this family had been enduring. Yet here was the mother, amidst all her grief, trying to stay positive.
“Please, don’t be nervous. Kent and I are very happy that you’ve come to see us.”
“I’m sorry it’s taken so long for us to get here. I haven’t been working, but it seems that there’s always something to do at home.” Donna offered lamely.
“We were very sorry to hear that you’d given up your position as bus-driver. That’s part of why we wanted you to come by.” Mrs. Peterson answered.
Donna hung her head a little, as if embarrassed. It was as if these young parents had figured out some secret to getting on with life, and she’d been left out of.
“And you, Mr. Gage? We were told that you are no longer working for the fire department. Is that true?”
Unknowingly, Johnny suffered the same feeling of embarrassment as Donna when he hesitantly bobbed his head in the affirmative.
“That is such a waste, don’t you think? We heard how you were so helpful at the scene and even afterwards at the hospital. It’s been a comfort to us, knowing that someone knowledgeable and caring was with Sharon those last moments of her life. If it couldn’t be us, at least she was with someone who cared.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped in surprise. He would never have imagined the type of reception he was getting here today. Not that he expected any blame, for he was merely a player in the aftermath not the cause, yet he anticipated tears and anger, questions of why, or couldn’t you have done more? Instead, these parents were struggling to carry on, to lift themselves and their remaining children up and continue with their life. It was overwhelming and Johnny suddenly felt ashamed for the way he’d handled things since that horrible day. Where was his strength and perseverance? Where was his faith and trust in a god or spirit stronger than his own? The thoughts, unbidden, caused him to drop his head and remain silent.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to sound critical. We understand how hard this has been on everyone involved. Please, let me get you some coffee or tea. We really do want you to feel at home here.”
Donna managed “coffee please” and Johnny just nodded in agreement. Mrs. Peterson hurried out to the kitchen where her voice mingled with her husband’s.
“We shouldn’t be here.” Johnny finally whispered.
“No, John, I think we’re right where we’re supposed to be. After the story you told me about my note and your niece’s visit, I think this is exactly what we should be doing.” She laid her hand reassuringly on his arm. “But I’m not sure we’re going to help them as much as they will help us.”
Johnny looked at her in surprise, but at the same time, he impulsively agreed. Just being here already felt like a balm to his wounded spirit.
“Here we go.” Mrs. Peterson greeted as she returned with a tray including cups, saucers, cream and sugar. Mr. Peterson followed closely with a pot of coffee and a plate of cookies.
Johnny stood and shook hands with Mr. Peterson. The man had a sad look around his eyes but a smile on his lips.
“Thank you both for coming,” he offered.
The four adults sat silently with their coffee for only a moment before Johnny took the floor. He wasn’t sure the timing was right, but he knew that if he didn’t get his message out soon, he might never manage it. And it had been held too long already.
“Mrs. Peterson, there’s something that I should’ve told you a long time ago. I didn’t keep this message from you on purpose, but with everything that happened . . well, I’m just sorry for taking so long. No, please, let me get this out. When I first got to your daughter after the accident, she was able to talk. She reassured me that help was coming and then she told me that she wasn’t in any pain. But her last words to me were a message for you. Sharon specifically asked me to say: “please tell Mom it doesn’t hurt.”
The room was silent as the simple message sunk home. In her last moments, lying on the street next to a stranger, a little girl had been thinking of her mother and offered a few words of comfort. Johnny knew that those words would’ve been helpful in the past weeks as this family struggled with her loss, and he was ashamed again for his selfish sense of loss that caused him to forget her message. But the parents didn’t seem to focus on the tardy delivery. Instead, tears you. Thank you so very much, Mr. Gage. I will cherish her message.”
After a quick hug, she returned to her husband’s embrace as their emotions settled. When a few minutes had passed, Mr. Peterson addressed the visitors.
“The other reason my wife and I wanted you to stop by is that we have a favor to ask of you. We are friends with one of the state Assembly Members and after everything that happened to our children, he asked us to get involved in a state-wide campaign to improve safety awareness for school buses and crosswalks. There have been too many accidents the past several years and they are looking for ways to make people more aware of the importance of driving near children. It’s such an obvious thing that at first, Linda and I didn’t think it was necessary. But after reading some of the reports and statistics, we see that something more needs to be done. What we’d like to do is ask both of you to present your story of that day to the Assembly Member. It can be in private, but it is extremely important. Would you be willing to do that?”
Johnny and Donna sat silently on the couch, their untouched coffee cooling in the cups. They had spent so many weeks living with regret and self-recrimination for not being able to do more, each allowing those feelings to become paramount to the point of adversely affecting their lives. Now suddenly they were being presented with an opportunity to do something positive, something helpful. It was a lot to take in and the Petersons understood and were patient. Their path had been altered for life, and learning to live without one child and another disabled was almost unimaginable. But they were leaning on each other and working together each day. They didn’t want Sharon to be remembered in sadness, but with joy. If her death could be used to save someone else’s life, then they felt they had to try. All of this was unspoken, but the four adults seemed to sense the strong understanding and support in the room. It was not something easily explained, but they all felt it.
“Yes.” Donna finally whispered. “I can tell about it. But only if it’s in private. I don’t think I could go through all of that in front of a crowd.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jenkins. We are very grateful that you are willing. Mr. Gage?”
“I feel the same. I’m willing to do something in Sharon’s name. Just tell me when.”
“Thank you. Thank you both so very much.”
Mr. Peterson smiled down on his wife, giving her another gentle hug.
“There’s one more thing. We don’t know a lot about your circumstances, and it’s not our place to judge either of you. We feel the pain of Sharon’s loss every day, but we didn’t have to witness it like you did. Still, it doesn’t seem right that you have each walked away from such important professions. Mrs. Jenkins, the school and parents have nothing but the highest of praise for you. The children need you back on your bus. I’m sure it’s not easy, but would you please reconsider your decision? We wouldn’t want Sharon to be the cause of other children losing you in their lives. And you, Mr. Gage, we have discovered that you are one of the first paramedics in LA County with a distinguished record as a rescue man. There are so many people who have benefited from your care, including our daughter. Please, please don’t let her tragedy be yours.”
No one spoke, the room completely silent as the visitors reflected on this mother’s tearful plea. Johnny couldn’t even discern how he felt, so mixed were his feelings: surprise, anger, defeat, regret, resentment, sadness. . . The list was long. Donna Jenkins simply felt numb, tears trickling down her cheeks. But the moment was soon broken by happy cries as a young girl burst into the room.
“Mommy, Matt needs more cookies.”
Each member of the startled group smiled as Kent Peterson rose to deal with his young daughter.
“That sounds like a very urgent problem.”
The young girl laughed then suddenly stopped, her eyes fixed on Johnny. With childlike assurance, she walked across the room to stop in front of him.
“I remember you. You’re the fireman that helped us, aren’t you?”
Johnny managed to nod, his heart in his throat as he recognized the little girl he’d met so briefly at the accident. The child was probably five or maybe six, innocent enough to speak her mind without hesitation. So he wasn’t surprised when she reached out her hand to touch his.
“You were so nice to me, and my brother and sister. Thank you for helping us.”
He wasn’t sure how much more of this emotional ride he could take and Johnny dropped his gaze to the floor. Almost immediately the girl encircled his neck with her small arms for a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Don’t be sad Mr. Fireman.”
With that impulsive action completed, the child broke away and returned to her father.
“Can we please have more cookies Daddy? Matt said to tell you that he is very hungry.”
Mr. Peterson took her hand, said goodbye to his guest then exited the room with his daughter as Donna stood and thanked Mrs. Peterson for the visit. Johnny mumbled his thanks as well as the pair moved toward the door. But just before they left, Linda Peterson made her last plea.
“Please think about what we said. You are both so valuable in your fields of service. My husband and I are so grateful that you were there that day, and that you’ve agreed to help our cause. But please think about continuing that legacy in your work as well.”
The two women hugged briefly and Johnny grasped the mother’s hand warmly, and then the meeting was over. But as they walked to their respective cars, Donna Jenkins and John Gage had a feeling that their lives had just been altered. Again.
The bus driver turned the corner, and continued on her morning route. At every stop she watched protectively as her charges moved towards the bus, making sure that no cars could miss the Stop Arm and illegally pass. She knew what a dangerous situation this was and how sadly it could end, but with each stop, she watched the traffic carefully, cautioned the children on the bus and said a prayer that they would all stay safe.
The first week had been the hardest, but each day was starting to get a little easier. Donna knew that the fear would never fully go away, but she also knew that the Petersons were right. They simply stated the same arguments that her husband, family, co-workers and most of her friends had already used. But their insistence that she go carry on in Sharon’s memory was the final push she needed to face her fears and return to work. The hugs she received from many of her small riders were the final confirmation that she’d made the right decision.
While waiting for one of the students to cross in front of her, Donna looked in her rearview mirror, surprised to see a familiar white vehicle waiting patiently behind the bus. Her heart lifted and a smile spread across her face as she recognized the driver. Sliding her window open, Donna managed a half-wave to the fireman behind her and was rewarded with his hearty wave back.
Door closed, ‘Stop-Arm’ in, Donna Jenkins put the bus in gear and headed on down the street. It was going to be a good day.
Johnny had fully intended to be at the station early. But as is often said: ‘the best laid plans.’ Everything had gone wrong this morning. The tipped over grain bucket, a hot water tank on the fritz and crazy traffic made him late rather than early. When he came to the familiar short-cut, Johnny struggled with the choice before finally taking the turn. It just proved how far he’d come in the last few weeks, and once again, he was grateful for his friends and the counselor Dr. Brackett had recommended. Mostly he was thankful for Sharon’s parents. After their initial plea there were a number of phone calls and discussions that confirmed what he already knew. He needed to face the pain and move on. Roy had tried to tell him from the very start. Hell, everyone had. But he’d let himself wallow in the agony to the point of almost losing everything he loved.
Now, here he was, on his way back to reclaim his life. He’d had dinner at the Desoto’s and a picnic for the guys at his ranch. He’d attended every session the counselor had recommended and though he knew the ache might always be there, he could remember Sharon without feeling like a failure. Next week he would be meeting with Donna Jenkins and the Assembly Member to share his memories of the day Sharon was killed. At least that would be doing something positive. But most important, today would be his first day back at Station 51. He would always be grateful for the understanding of his captain and the chief for allowing him to be reinstated in his old position.
Pulling into his parking spot, Johnny grabbed his duffle bag and jumped from his Rover, grateful again that he’d dressed in his uniform at home. Sprinting towards the back door, he was stopped short by a whistle from the open bay. Roy was standing just inside the large opening, a full grin on his face.
“Slow down, Junior. Cap’s stuck on the phone so we’re starting with chores first while we wait for the engine to come back from an early run.”
“Whew. That saves my butt.”
“Figured you’d be grateful. What happened?”
“What didn’t happen? Lakota kicked over the grain barrel so I had to clean that up. Hot water heater has finally made its last cup of hot water. And the traffic was unbelievable. Had to take the short-cut or I still wouldn’t be here.”
Roy’s grin faded to a frown as he studied Johnny.
“Yep, Pally. Doing fine. Even got a wave from a nice lady bus driver.”
Johnny slapped Roy on the back as he headed past him towards the locker room. He smiled warmly as he heard Roy’s quiet: “welcome back Partner!”
To those who asked for a sequel to “If Only . .” thanks for your patience! It only took me 19 years to finish it. Liberties were taken with the portrayal of a church and cemetery located next to each other. Probably not so common in LA, but hope readers won’t mind the minor tweaking for this story.
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