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Second Chances

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Second Chances

October 31, 2002

Disclaimer:  All things Emergency! belong to Mark VII and Universal Studios.

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*Squad 51, woman injured in fall. 2956 Ninth Avenue. 2-9-5-6 Ninth. Time out 14:22.*

The paramedics pulled up to the curb in front of a downtrodden house, with peeling paint and overgrown shrubs everywhere. Johnny had to stop himself before stepping on an obviously broken step, and turned around to warn Roy before he fell into the trap. He scowled disapprovingly, but didn’t actually say anything until he got to the door.

The screen door had holes in it, and was precariously close to coming off one of its hinges.

“Fire department!” Johnny yelled into the house.

“It’s open. Come in, please,” the woman’s voice came from within. The two men entered. “I’m in here,” she said.

John led the way into the shabby living room. Their victim was lying on the threadbare sofa, her left foot propped up on a thin, sorry excuse for a pillow.

She turned her head and looked at her rescuers, and her eyes locked with Johnny’s for a second. Then she broke the gaze. “I hurt my ankle,” she said, sounding a little flustered.

Roy looked at his partner, who wasn’t moving forward, but rather seemed stuck in place with a puzzled look on his face. Confused himself, he moved forward and knelt by the woman. “Well, let’s take a look for you. What happened?”

“I fell down the basement stairs, would you believe? I kinda hopped back up and called you.”

She stole another furtive glance at John, but then visibly forced herself to look away. No one noticed but Johnny himself.

“Johnny?” Roy called out. “You wanna get on the biophone?”

“Oh, uhhh, yeah, sure.” Gage moved to the coffee table in front of the sofa, and set up on the other side of it, as far from the woman as possible. He relayed the information Roy gave him, but took no part in the patient’s treatment whatsoever.

The wail of the approaching ambulance’s siren got the woman upset. “I. . . . I don’t want to go to the hospital!” she declared. “Can’t you just wrap it for me?”

Roy looked back at his partner, hoping he would speak up, since he was so much better at charming agitated patients into doing what was needed. But he was just looking at the biophone with a studied intensity. He clearly wasn’t going to say anything.

“I think it’s broken,” Roy told the woman. “You have to go to the hospital.”

“No, you don’t understand!” she cried out, even more upset now. “I . . . I can’t afford a hospital. I can’t go!”

Again Roy looked to his partner, imploring him to help out here. John also had a speech about Rampart being a public hospital, "so your tax dollars paid for it," that he’d worked out over time, and he was good at delivering it convincingly. “Johnny?” he beseeched.

The call of his name seemed to snap Gage out of a trance, and he looked up. “I’ll, uhhh, go direct the ambulance,” he said, and he got up and ran out of the house.

Shaking his head, Roy turned back to the woman. “Don’t you worry about that,” he soothed. “The hospital we’re taking you to is public. That means you pay for it with your taxes, so they’ll help you even if you can’t pay.” It wasn’t as good as Johnny’s, but it seemed to work.

John returned with the attendants, and soon the woman was packaged for transport. Roy didn’t even need to ask--he knew he’d be riding in the ambulance. He shot an annoyed look back at his partner, who was still standing in the middle of the living room, as he followed the gurney out the door.

Once everyone was gone, Johnny let out a nervous sigh, and looked at his surroundings.

“So this is how she’s been living,” he thought, running both hands through his thick black hair.

+ + + + +

Roy left the treatment room and approached Dixie at the desk.

“How is she?” the nurse asked.

“Doc Early agrees, her ankle is broken. They’re gonna take x-rays to see how bad. She might need surgery, though. She was really upset when he told her that. I don’t think she has much money.”

“Poor thing,” Dixie sympathized.

Roy nodded his agreement. “You seen Johnny?”

“Yeah, he walked by and went right into the doctor’s lounge. Didn’t even stop to say hello.” Dixie shrugged, acknowledging how odd that was.

Roy shook his head. “He was acting really strange on the rescue. I don’t know what’s bothering him this time.”

Dixie smiled knowingly. It wasn’t unusual for the temperamental half of this paramedic pair to behave oddly.

“Well, I better go see what’s going on,” DeSoto said with a somewhat resigned sigh.

“No need,” the nurse answered, nodding toward the lounge. Johnny was walking toward them purposefully.

“Dix,” he started as soon as he arrived. “That woman we just brought in. If she has any bills or anything that she can’t cover, I want you to have them sent to me.”

Roy and Dixie looked at him, their stunned mouths agape. Dix shook her head and started to smile. “I know you care about your patients, Johnny, but isn’t that taking things a bit far?”

Gage’s stone-cold, determined expression did not waver. “Will you just see to it, please?” he implored.

“Okay,” the nurse promised, chastised. “But can I ask why?”

“Yeah Johnny, what’s going on?” Roy added. “Why would you want to pay that woman’s expenses?”

“Because,” John started, but he had to stop and swallow hard. “Because that woman is my mother.”

He walked briskly away without another word, leaving Roy and Dixie to digest that bombshell. The nurse was the first to speak.

“I thought Johnny’s mother was dead?”

Roy nodded. “So did I. That’s what he told me. That’s what he told everyone.”

With that, DeSoto turned and ran after his partner.

+ + + + +

The ride back to the station was uncomfortably silent. Several times Roy had tried to get Johnny to explain what was going on, but every time a beseeching “Not now, Roy!” was Gage’s only response.

Finally the older paramedic gave up. As soon as he backed the truck into the station, John jumped out and ran out the open back door, into the parking lot. Roy got out slowly, almost dreading having to get his friend to tell him what was happening.

“Hey Roy, what’s with Gage? He almost ran me over!” Chet exclaimed as soon as the paramedic came around the back of the squad.

“Not now, Chet,” he dismissed. And he, too, went outside.

Johnny was shooting baskets furiously. Roy stood and watched silently as his friend missed shot after shot after shot. Following yet another one that bounced off the rim, John grabbed the rebound and hurled the ball at the wall of the station. Roy ducked instinctively, though the ball was nowhere near him as it careened off the wall and eventually came to a rest somewhere underneath Chet’s VW bus. The force of the throw had spun Johnny around and now he was standing with his back to his partner, breathing hard from the exertion.

DeSoto approached cautiously, stopping a safe distance behind the agitated man. “You done?” he asked.

Johnny turned around, scowling, and crossed to the picnic table, where he sat atop it with his feet on the bench. Sure the outburst was over, Roy followed and sat next to his friend.

“What’s going on?” he asked quietly.

John didn’t look up from the ground. “She’s my mother,” he said quietly, with a slight shrug.

“I thought your mother died when you were nine,” Roy stated.

“Well she didn’t, obviously,” Gage spat out, his voicing rising with emotion. “Though for all I knew she may as well have,” he added, his tone one of disgust.  "She took off one day and left me behind with my aunt and uncle."

“You never heard from her again?”

Johnny shook his head. “I think she sent birthday cards the first couple of years. Then nothing. Like I said, for all I knew she was dead.”

Roy was staggered by what he was learning. He’d always thought it a shame that John had never known his father and lost his mother when he was just a boy. But this--this was even worse.

“Is that why you told everyone she’d died?”

Johnny was practically shaking, the raging emotions he was feeling having a physical effect on him. He looked at his partner and saw the sympathy in his eyes.

“It’s easier, Roy,” he said, “to tell people your mother died than to admit she didn’t want you.”

“Johnny,” the older paramedic started, but Gage put up a cautionary hand.

“Save it, Roy. I’ve been going over this stuff in my head for 20 years. You don’t think I know why she left?”

He got up and walked away from his friend, leaving a completely stunned Roy in his wake.

+ + + + +

DeSoto tapped cautiously on the doorframe to Cap’s office. Hank Stanley looked up from his paperwork, and sat back in his chair upon seeing the paramedic.

“What can I do for you, Roy?” he asked.

The paramedic entered tentatively. “Umm, Cap, I think we might have a problem,” he said.

 “What’s up?”

Roy leaned heavily against the wall, and the captain motioned toward a chair, but DeSoto refused. “It’s Johnny,” he started. “Something happened on our last rescue to really upset him. I really think he should go home.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I think he should tell you that, I really do. It’s not for me to say. But he’s upset, Cap. Really upset.”

Hank stood, as if he was about to spring into action. “Does he want to go home?”

“I dunno. He doesn’t know I’m talking to you.”

“Well, maybe I should talk to him?”

“Not now, Cap. Can you just give him a little time?”

The captain shook his head. “Then why’d you come in here, pal, if you don’t want me to do anything?”

Roy shook his head. “I don’t exactly know. I just thought you should know something’s wrong. Johnny’ll tell you, I think. I don’t think he can keep this to himself.”

+ + + + +

It took less than half an hour for Johnny to show up in the office doorway, just as his partner had predicted he would. "I know Roy was in here talking about me," he said without preamble. "How much did he tell you?"

"Just that something about that last run bothered you," Hank replied, gesturing for Gage to come in and take a seat. "And that he was worried about you."

"I'm okay."

"You sure about that?" Hank asked. "You look a little shaky to me. Anything you want to talk about?"

Haltingly, Johnny told the captain what had happened on the run and what his reaction had been. "I was shook up at first," he admitted. "And I guess I could've handled it better instead of dumping everything in Roy's lap. But it was a shock seeing her after all this time."

"I imagine it was," Hank said kindly. "Would've knocked anyone for a loop. Look, John, I can find someone to finish our your shift if you want to take off and …"

"No," he interrupted hastily. "No, there's no need for that. I'm fine."

"It's no trouble. Dwyer's always on the look out for overtime since the twins were born."

"There's no need for that," Johnny repeated stubbornly. "I'm okay to work, Cap, honest."

"But your mother's been injured, John. Don't you want to be with her?"

"Be with her?" Johnny asked incredulously. "She wasn't with me when I had the chicken pox in fourth grade. She wasn't with me when I was fifteen and had to have my appendix out. She wasn't with me when I was laid up after I got hit by that car or when I was maybe dying from that virus. She was never with me when I needed her! Why the hell would I want to be with her now?"

"John …"

"No!" Gage cut the captain off before he even began. "She got along fine without me all these years," he said bitterly. "She can get along fine without me now."

"Okay, okay," Hank placated. "I'm not trying to tell you what to do, John. I was just offering to get a replacement for you if you wanted to leave. If you'd rather stay at work that's fine."

"I know." Johnny slumped back in the chair tiredly. "Sorry, Cap. Didn't mean to jump down your throat like that. I know you meant well, but I'd just as soon stay here, okay?"

Hank nodded his agreement. "All right. But the offer still stands if you change your mind."

"I won't. But thanks."

Roy was in the squad bay doing a bad job of pretending to restock the trauma box. He glanced up when Johnny emerged from Cap's office, met his partner's eyes briefly, and then looked away.

"You shouldn't have gone to Cap like that," Johnny said darkly as he passed by on his way to the locker room. "Now he's gonna be watching me like a hawk the rest of the shift."

"I was worried about you," Roy said simply.

"Well, there's no need. I admit I was a little freaked out at first but it's over and I'm fine now. I just want to forget it ever happened, okay?"

"Forget it?" Roy stared at him in disbelief as he walked away. "You see your mother for the first time in decades and you just want to forget it? That's nuts, Johnny. You can't just forget that she's your mother."

Gage paused at entrance of the dorm room. "Why not?" he bit out savagely, glancing over his shoulder at Roy. " She didn't have any trouble forgetting it all these years." He pushed through the door and disappeared inside, effectively ending the conversation.

+ + + + +

Cap was waiting for them as they climbed out of the squad.

"John, did you talk to Dixie?" he asked.

"Dix?" Gage shook his head. "No, the patient wanted to go to Harbor General where his regular doctor is. Brackett okayed it so we weren't at Rampart. Why?"

"She called here looking for you right after you got toned out. Wanted me to be sure and give you a message in case she didn't see you." Cap thrust a scrap of paper into Johnny's hand as he spoke.

Perplexed, Johnny stared down at the note. Mom in surgery. Call Dixie ASAP. "Great," he muttered unhappily, pushing his hair off his forehead with his free hand. Surgery meant massive hospital bills. Thousands of dollars that he didn't have and was going to have to find somewhere. She hadn't stuck around long enough to pay for his braces. And now he was going to be working extra shifts for years to cover her medical expenses. This day just kept getting better and better, he thought bitterly.

"You can use the phone in my office," Hank offered.

"Thanks, Cap, but that won't be necessary." He crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it into the trashcan as he headed for the day room calling out, "Is there any supper left? I'm starved."

Roy cast a troubled glance at the captain.

"I know," Hank sighed. "He's gonna have to deal with this sooner or later but if we force him it's just going to drive him away. And I have a feeling he'll  need his friends whether he wants to admit it or not."

+ + + + +

Roy picked up the phone on the second ring. "Station 51, Roy DeSoto speaking."

"Oh, good, it's you. Hi, Roy," Dixie said on the other end of the line. "Is your partner around?"

"Hi, Dix," Roy greeted, turning to look at Johnny, whose head shot up upon learning who was on the line. He started shaking it vigorously. "Sure, he's right here," DeSoto finished, ignoring his friend's protests. He held the phone out.

"I don't have anything to talk to her about," Johnny spat out.

"Well, you tell her that," the older man insisted, again thrusting the phone in John's direction.

Johnny stood from his place at the table, shoving his chair back with great force. "Thanks a lot," he said derisively as he snatched the phone from his partner's hand.

"Dix," he greeted coldly.

"Nice to talk to you, too, Johnny," the woman responded sarcastically. "I just thought you'd like to know that your mom came through surgery just fine."

"Well you thought wrong."

"Johnny. . . ."

"And one other thing," the paramedic added angrily. "She's not my mom." He said the word with all the contempt he could muster. "I don't have a mom." With that he slammed the phone down and charged from the room.

"Wow," Chet mused from his place on the sofa. "What was that all about? I thought Gage's mom was dead?"

Roy and Cap looked at each other for only a second before silently coming to the mutual decision that they had to tell the rest of the guys.

"So did I," Roy started. "But it turns out she's not."

+ + + + +

"She's hurt and he won't see her? Man, that's cold," Chet decided once Roy and Cap had finished filling the men in.

"Wait a minute, that's not fair," Roy immediately came to his friend's defense. "Don't forget this woman walked out on his life when he was just a kid."

"Yeah, Chet, give him a break. He probably just needs a little time to come around," Marco agreed.

No one had seen Johnny lurking in the doorway, listening. Not until he spoke. "She had 20 years to 'come around,' Marco, and she didn't. So how much time do I get?"

"But Johnny, she's your mother, and she's got no money and she's hurt. She needs someone," Chet argued.

"Maybe she should have thought of that before she left. I'm gonna take care of her hospital bills but I am not gonna go sit by her bedside like a devoted son."

+ + + + +

The rest of the shift had been quiet, which only allowed the tension in the station to build to nearly unbearable levels. Johnny steered clear of everyone, and for the most part, they were glad of it. Only Roy became more and more unnerved by his partner's behavior.

"So," the blond man started as they were changing to go home. "You gonna go see her?"

Johnny gave him a sour look in response. "No," he let out. "Will you just leave it alone?"  He grabbed his jacket and left without another word.

Roy finished dressing slowly. He couldn't leave it alone. He just couldn't. He'd only spent about half an hour with the woman, it was true. And he'd had no idea who she was at the time. But she'd seemed kind, and proud, and considerate.

She'd seemed a lot like her son.

DeSoto finished dressing then called his wife, telling her he had a stop to make on the way home, but he'd be there soon.

It wasn't long before he was standing outside her room. Ruth Maguire was the name on the chart outside the door. It was a name that meant nothing. Johnny had never mentioned his mother's name.

Standing there he experienced some serious second thoughts. What was he doing? Interfering? Butting in where he was neither wanted nor needed? Probably. And Johnny would probably kill him if he knew, too. But all he could think about was his friend's anger. Sure, it was justified. He didn't blame Johnny a bit for that. But at the same time he knew it had to be eating John up inside--that it couldn't be good for anyone, but especially someone as emotional as his partner.

Maybe, he thought, just maybe if he talked to this woman, and found out why she'd done it. Where she'd gone and why she'd left her son . . . . Maybe then he could tell Johnny and help his friend let it go.

It was worth a shot, Roy decided, so he quietly rapped on the door with a knuckle.

"Come in."

Roy pushed open the door and stuck his head in. The woman smiled brightly upon seeing him, so he entered. Then he watched as the smile faded--no doubt because she realized he was alone.

"Hello, Miz Maguire," he started.

"Ruth," the woman corrected.

"Right. I, uhhh," suddenly Roy had no idea what to say, or how to get on the subject that had brought him here. "I just thought I'd stop in and see how you're doing."

"The doctors seem to think I'll be just fine. Thank you for all your help yesterday."

"Just doing our, umm, my job," Roy corrected quickly.

Ruth smiled wanly. "He didn't come with you?" she asked.

With that question she confirmed to Roy that she knew. A little part of him had been wondering if maybe she hadn't recognized Johnny at all.

"Johnny?" he questioned. The woman nodded. "Uhh, no, not this time. He uhhh, had some things to do."

One side of Ruth's mouth turned upward in a small, subdued imitation of her son's wide lopsided grin. "Your name's Roy, isn't it? Do you mind if I call you Roy?" She continued only after he shook his head. "It's okay. I don't blame him. I wouldn't want to see me, either, if I were him."

DeSoto shifted uncomfortably in his place. "I wasn't even sure you'd recognized him," he admitted.

"Of course I recognized him. Immediately. I'd know him anywhere, even after all these years."

Roy nodded mutely. He had no idea how to ask the question. But in the end, he didn't have to.

"So are you and John friends?" the injured woman asked.

"Yeah," Roy nodded. "Real good friends."

"So that means one of two things," she decided, but didn't immediately elaborate.

"How's that?" Roy was forced to ask.

"Either you're here to yell at me for doing something so horrible to your friend all those years ago, or you're here to find out why on earth I'd do such a thing."

The paramedic let out a surprised breath. She'd said it for him! "Ummm, why," he finally answered. "I came to find out why."

"It's a long story, Roy. Why don't you sit down?" She only continued once he had.

"I was fifteen when I got pregnant with John. Just a kid myself. His father was nineteen, a construction worker, one of those types who move from job to job and never look back. That's exactly what he did when I told him. Never looked back. And when my father found out, that was it. He threw me out, Roy. I ended up living on my sister Maxine's sofa. She's seven years older than me, and was already married with a kid of her own at the time."

"Aunt Max," Roy interjected, recognizing the name of the woman he'd met several times.

Ruth nodded. "Right. Her place was small, and her family was growing, but still she took me in. And we tried to make it work, we really did. But I was just a kid myself, a kid with a kid. She, Maxine, was a stay at home mom herself, so after John was born I dropped out of high school and got a job in a factory, trying to help out with the expenses, and Maxine looked after him." She stopped for a minute and shook her head.

"At first I thought it was working. That it would work. But as John got older, I don't know. I would look at him and realize I was having no effect on his life at all. I'd named him John, but I hated 'Johnny.' But that's what Maxine called him, and that's what he became. I'd try to give him things, spoil him a little, and he wouldn't let me, saying that 'Aunt Max would disapprove.' I'd try to discipline him, and he'd look to her."

"I suppose," she continued with a heavy sigh, "I suppose I should have put my foot down. I suppose I should have asserted my will as his mother. Hell, I suppose I should have moved out of Maxine's home so that she couldn't influence my child like that any more.

"But I couldn't do it. As he got older, I saw what a bright, open, loving little boy he was, and I knew it was because of my sister, not me. I wasn't mad at her for loving my son like her own. I wasn't mad at him for loving her like a mom. I was glad they had each other, and I knew there was no way I could ever do as good a job with him as she was. After a while, I realized that I was in the way. I was confusing him, pulling him in the wrong direction in my misguided attempts to be a 'parent.'

"So I left."

Silence hung thickly in the air for a long moment while Roy digested what he'd just learned. More than anything, he wished Johnny had been sitting next to him, hearing it as well. If only he knew why she'd left. He had to know.

"Why didn't you tell him this?" he finally asked.

Ruth shook her head. "He was a little boy, it wouldn't have made any sense to him then."

"Eventually it would have," Roy asserted. "It would now."

"Maybe," the woman allowed. "But maybe not. I thought then that it was best to just make a clean break. Get out of his life and let him get on with it. And I still don't think that was the wrong decision. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life, Roy. But it was the right thing to do."

"But how can you know that for sure?"

"Let me ask you a question. Is John, my son, a good man?"

"Yeah," Roy answered immediately. "The best."

"That's how I know."

+ + + + +

"Here you go," Maxine Owens placed a sweating glass of iced tea in front of her nephew.

"Thanks," Johnny accepted the cold drink with a grateful smile. He'd spent the last hour helping weed her flowerbeds and the work had left him hot and thirsty. He tipped his head back, draining half the glass in one long swallow.

"So what's on your mind, Johnny?" Maxine asked, pouring her own glass and settling across the kitchen table from him.

"It's that obvious, huh?"

"It is to me," she said simply. "And lately, with your job and your social life, I can't get you home to visit unless I bribe you with a home cooked meal. So for you to show up in the middle of the week and volunteer to help me with yard work … well, I know it's gotta be something big."

"Hey, I’m not that bad!" Johnny protested.

Maxine didn't say a word; she just raised an eyebrow at him.

"Oh, okay," he said sheepishly. "I am that bad. I mean to visit more often, honestly. It's just that I'm busy and …"

"I know, I know." She smiled and patted his arm. "It's just a mother's prerogative to give her children grief once in a while. Now, quit stalling and tell me what's got you so riled up."

"I, um … I saw," John's throat was suddenly dry and tight and he took another long swallow of his tea before continuing. "Yesterday I saw my, um, my mother." The word felt strange on his tongue, especially sitting across the table from the woman who was his mother in every way that counted. "She's back," he plunged on resolutely. "She's living in LA." He glanced up at his aunt and was surprised to find her face flushed and her mouth compressed in a tight, angry line.

"Damn her," she hissed. "She promised me she'd leave you alone."

Johnny stared at his aunt, stunned. "She promised you? You've talked to her? You knew she was here?!"

Maxine nodded. "She's been back in the city for almost a year now."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Johnny demanded.

"Because I thought it would upset you ... which it has.  Because I didn't trust her to stick around and I couldn't stand to see you hurt when she left you again."

"You still should've told me," he insisted, hurt and angry that she'd kept something so important from him. "I'm not eight years old anymore. I'm a grown man. It should've been my decision whether I wanted to see her or not. You had no right …"

"I had every right!" Maxine shouted. "I'm your mother and I had every right to try and protect you."

"No you're not! I wish you were, but you're NOT. That woman is, and that's why you should have told me!"

She recoiled as if she'd been slapped and her dark eyes filled with tears.

Johnny instantly regretted the cutting words and reached across the table to clasp her hands in his. "Aunt Max," he said, voice full of contrition, "I didn't mean it."

She snatched her hands away as if his touch burned. "I think you should leave now, Johnny."

"Aunt Max, please don't," he beseeched, rising from his chair and going to her side. "I'm sorry. I swear I didn't mean it." He tried to embrace her but she pushed his arms away.

"I can't do this," she said, swiping at her eyes with a shaky hand. "Not now. Please just go."

"Aunt Max, please don't …"

"Johnny, just go!" She was weeping openly now. "This is still my house and I'm still your mother … whether you want to admit it or not … and I'm asking you to leave!"

"All right," he said reluctantly. "But we're gonna have to talk about this eventually."

She nodded her agreement but said nothing.

Johnny wrapped his arms around her shoulders and gave her a quick, fierce hug despite her protestations. "I love you, Aunt Max," he said quietly, pressing a kiss on her damp cheek. And then, unhappily, he left the house where he'd grown up.

+ + + + +

Roy came in from mowing the lawn, and called his wife’s name as he washed his hands in the kitchen sink. “Did you call Johnny?” he asked after she answered.

“No,” Joanne replied, coming up from the basement with a basket full of laundry. “I haven’t had a chance. Why don’t you do it? I need to put these things away.” She started to leave the kitchen, but her husband stopped her with his words.

“No, honey, you have to do it.”

The woman dropped the laundry basket on the counter and turned to face her husband full-on. “Did you two have an argument about something?” she asked perceptively.

“No, not really,” Roy answered, squirming slightly. But then he changed his mind. He hadn’t told her anything yet, and didn’t really know if he should. He’d violated his partner’s trust enough for one day. When Joanne found out, Johnny had to be the one to tell her--or his partner at least had to be there. “Okay, maybe a little. I’m not sure,” he confessed. “I just want to talk to him, and he might be mad at me, and you know he can never say no to you!”

Joanne put her hand on her hips and assessed her husband sternly. “Are you going to tell me what the heck is going on here?”

Her husband gave her his most pleading smile. “Please, Jo, just call him and ask him over for dinner. I’ll barbecue, and you’ll find out everything.”

The woman threw her hands up in disgust, but moved toward the phone.

+ + + + +

Johnny slowed his car before approaching the DeSotos' driveway. He knew why he’d been invited. He knew why Roy wanted him to come over; knew what he wanted to talk about. And he also knew why he’d used his wife to get him there. If John had still refused Joanne’s invitation, Roy probably would have had Jennifer call next. It was an annoying hold his partner had over him, but not one he could actually do anything about. “You’re a sucker for a pretty girl,” Roy always told him, and it was true, dammit. Even married ones and 8-year-olds.

He slammed the door to his Rover a little too hard, and made his way to the front door. He knocked on the screen door and entered immediately.

“Hi Johnny!” Joanne shouted from the kitchen. “I’m back here!”

Gage plastered a grin on his face and walked through the living and dining rooms. Joanne was washing lettuce in the sink, so he came up beside her and gave her a friendly peck on the cheek as a greeting.

“Roy’s outside lighting the grill,” she told him.

“Uh huh,” John acknowledged. But he didn’t leave, instead choosing to stay by Jo’s side, turning around to lean casually against the counter that abutted the sink. He crossed his arms on his chest.

Joanne looked at him for a second, seemingly puzzled that he hadn’t immediately left. “You want something to drink?” she asked.

“Nope,” he answered. “Where’re the kids?”

Joanne started ripping the lettuce and placing the pieces in a colander. Johnny snagged a piece and ate it, eliciting a smile from the woman.

“Oh, you know summer evenings. They’re out there somewhere.” She looked at her watch. “But they’d better be back soon! I told them dinner would be at six!” She paused a minute. “Why don’t you go out and see if Roy needs a hand? You know he’s murder on hot dogs.”

Johnny grinned wryly. That was the truth. But he wasn’t in any hurry to talk to Roy, to be honest. “Can I give you a hand?” he asked instead, putting slightly too much emphasis on the word “you.”

Joanne dropped the head of lettuce in the sink and grabbed a dishcloth to wipe her hands.

“Okay, Johnny, what is going on between you and my husband?”

Gage was surprised. He figured Roy had told his wife the minute he’d gotten home that morning. He wouldn’t have blamed him. He’d have done the same.

“Roy didn’t tell you?”

Joanne shook her head, so Johnny stood up and paced away from the woman. He turned to face her once he was on the other side of the kitchen. He wasn’t quite sure how to tell her, or what to say, but he knew he could tell this woman everything.

+ + + + +

The night was quiet, the kids asleep, and the three adults were sitting silently on the back porch. The subject hadn’t come up yet, largely because the kids had kept Johnny occupied right up until they were sent to bed.

It was only a matter of time, though, and Joanne decided to be the one to get the ball rolling.

“So Johnny told me about his mother,” she told her husband, her tone only slightly accusatory.

“Yeah,” Roy said quietly. He’d figured as much.

“Isn’t that why you got me here?” John’s tone was definitely more accusing than Jo’s. “So why don’t you say what’s on your mind? I’m sure something is.”

Roy shifted uncomfortably. He almost felt as if he was being ganged-up on. He sat up and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “I just thought maybe if you talked about it a little, I dunno, that you’d stop being so mad at her or something.”

“Why do you give a damn how I feel about her? It’s not really any of your business, is it?”

“Really, Roy,” Joanne interjected. “John has every reason to be angry with that woman! Look at what she did! Johnny was Jennifer’s age, for God’s sake! Just imagine walking out on Jennifer! You’d never be able to do that. How could she do such a thing? How could anyone do such a thing?”

Both men were taken aback by the woman’s sudden outburst. For that matter, so was Joanne herself. Roy had risen defensively as she’d spoken, and found himself literally cornered on the deck by the time she was done.

“Because she loved him,” he blurted out.

Now John was standing. “WHAT?” he shouted. He lowered his voice, realizing he was outside, but his fury remained evident. “What do you know about her or why she did what she did?”

“I, uhhh,” Roy looked at the angry, intense eyes of his wife and best friend. He’d been right to feel ganged-up on. “I went to see her this morning,” he finally admitted meekly.

He suddenly felt like it was the dumbest thing he possibly could have done. Despite the dim patio lights, Roy could easily see the look of rage, hurt, and betrayal on Johnny’s face. Gage’s mouth opened as if he was going to say something, but nothing came out. Instead he just turned and walked away, down the stairs, and around toward the front of the house where his car was parked.

“What the hell were you thinking, Roy? JOHNNY is your friend! How could you do that to him?” Joanne hissed before chasing the other man.

“Johnny! Wait!” she shouted when it became apparent she wouldn’t catch him before he got in the car. He stopped at the opened car door, but didn’t get in.

“Please, Johnny, don’t go,” she implored when she reached her friend. He just looked at her, still seething.

“Look,” the woman offered. “I can’t believe he did that, either. If he’d asked me I’d have told him not to. I understand exactly how you must feel . . . .” John arched an incredulous eyebrow, but remained silent, so she continued undaunted. “But what’s the harm in hearing him out? You’ve got to work with him day after tomorrow. You’re gonna have to work this out, so better here than at the station.”

She made sense about that, but Johnny didn’t think he could face Roy right now; he was too upset. His mind was reeling, trying to come up with one reason why his friend would do this to him.

“Johnny?” came a rather timid voice from the corner of the house. “Please, hear me out,” Roy begged.

John closed his door slowly and purposefully. “I don’t know what you could possibly say to explain what you did,” he said, the quiet of his tone doing nothing to hide the venom in his voice.

Roy approached. “I knew this was tearing you up inside, no matter what you said. It would anyone. So I thought if I talked to her, got her side of the story, maybe I could help you.”

Johnny cut him off there. “HELP me?” he cried out. “You thought seeing that woman, after what she did, would HELP me? Hell, you even sound like you’re taking her side, too! I thought you were my friend!”

He pulled his car door open, but Roy pushed it shut. “I am your friend. I can’t believe you’d even question that. But geezus, Johnny, everyone does things they aren’t proud of. That they’d change if they could. Everyone deserves a second chance. A chance to make amends.”

Johnny just stared at Roy for a long moment, his mouth agape. Finally he pulled the door open, jumped in, and drove away so quickly the DeSotos had to jump back out of the way.

Once the car was gone and the quiet of the evening had returned, Joanne looked at her husband. “Oh, Roy, how could you?” she asked angrily. Then she went inside.

+ + + + +

Roy had no idea how long he’d been sitting alone on the front steps to his house. He kept going over it in his head, and wondering how he’d managed to screw things up so badly. But he kept coming to the decision that he hadn’t. Not really. If only Johnny would listen to him, hear what he had to say--what Ruth had to say--then he was sure his partner wouldn’t be so upset. Not at him, and not at his mother.

But if that was true, why was Joanne not speaking to him, either?

He heard the door open, and soon felt his wife’s presence on the step behind him, but he didn’t say anything. He figured she came out because she had something to say, so he was going to let her.

“You know,” she started, “you had no business getting in the middle of this.” Her voice was no longer angry.

“I was just trying to help,” he offered meekly.

Jo moved down until she was sitting next to her husband. “And what made you think you could help?”

Roy looked at her incredulously. “What do you mean? Johnny’s my best friend!”

The woman nodded. “I know that, honey, but what do you know about what he’s feeling, what he needs, what will help him? You have a mother who loved you, raised you, doted on you, and still does. What do you know about being abandoned? About what that must possibly feel like?”

He just shrugged, so Joanne continued. “Can’t you see how Johnny would interpret what you did as a betrayal? That woman betrayed him, Roy, in the most horrible way imaginable. And then he finds out that his best friend is seeking her out, hearing her out. You should be listening to Johnny now. Not her.”

“But he wouldn’t talk to me about it!” It was a feeble argument. Roy knew it the moment it left his mouth.

“And you think he will now, after this?” Joanne sighed loudly. “Roy, you betrayed him. It’s as simple as that. I know that’s not what you meant to do, and I think even Johnny knows that deep down. But it’s what you did. It was wrong.”

Roy stared out into the darkness for a long time. As usual, Joanne was right. “So what do I do now?” he finally asked.

He felt his wife’s hand on his shoulder. “You apologize, and hope he forgives you,” she answered gently. Then she leaned forward and rested her chin on his shoulder. “He will,” she promised. “I’m sure of it. He needs you.”

+ + + + +

"Johnny, please don't …" The slam of the receiver on the other end of the line was so loud Roy flinched. "…hang up," he finished lamely, addressing his words to the dial tone.

"Again?" Joanne asked sympathetically.

"Yeah." Roy hung up the phone and sank down at the kitchen table with a dispirited sigh.

"Boy, he is mad, isn't he?" Joanne patted her husband's arm. "How many times does that make now?"

"Counting last night? Four. I know he's upset but slamming the phone down in my ear over and over again like that is just plain childish. How are we supposed to resolve anything when he won't even talk to me?"

"Maybe you should go over there and try to talk to him in person," Jo suggested.

"I'll probably just get the door slammed in my face," Roy said with a wry smile. "But I guess it's worth a try."

+ + + + +

Roy arrived on his partner's doorstep expecting he'd have to bully his way inside. Instead, the door opened almost before he had a chance to knock and he was ushered into the apartment's tiny kitchen and handed a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee.

"Joanne called," Johnny said, answering Roy's unspoken question.

"And you didn't hang up on her?"

"I'm not pissed at her," John pointed out, sipping his own coffee.

Roy couldn't help but smile at that. "She read me the riot act after you left last night."

"Good."

"Look, I'm sorry if I stuck my nose in where it didn't belong. I should've stayed out of it."

"Yeah, you should have."

"But I really was just trying to help."

"By going to see her behind my back?" Johnny's voice rose to a near-shout. "Why the hell would you do that?"

"Because I was worried about you and I didn't know how to help. You clammed up and wouldn't talk to me and I thought if I got the story from her I'd know what to do next. And I guess I went partly because I felt a little sorry for her."

"She doesn't deserve your sympathy," Johnny said derisively.

"Maybe," Roy admitted. "Maybe not. But I felt sorry for her anyway. She seems kind of down on her luck … well, you saw that house she's living in and …"

"It's not my problem," Johnny said stubbornly.

"I'm not saying it is! I'm just saying … damn it, Johnny, I didn't come here to fight with you, okay? I said I was sorry. What else do you want from me?"

"I want you to mind your own business! I want you to stop trying to tell me how to live my life. You've got no right telling me what I should or shouldn't do about this. Not when you've spent your whole life with a mother who adores you!"

"Jo said pretty much the same thing," he admitted.

"Well, she's right!"

"Yeah, I guess she is."

"You KNOW she is," Johnny insisted.

An uneasy silence between them and both men spent it nursing their coffee and trying to collect their scattered thoughts. Johnny was the first to break the quiet.

"Look, Roy, I know you meant well. And I admit I do run to you with most of my problems so it probably was weird for you when I shut you out about this. But you can't help me this time. Not with this. It's too personal. I, um, I don't know what I'm gonna do," he confessed hesitantly. "But whatever it is, it has to be my decision. Can you understand that?"

"Yeah, I guess I can," Roy admitted. "I really am sorry, Johnny, and I promise I'll do my best to stay out of it from now on. But can I say one thing first?"

"Will you tell me anyway if I say no?" A hint of a smile played at the corner of the younger man's mouth.

"Probably."

"Go ahead then."

"You've got every right to be mad at your … at Ruth. She did a lousy thing. But after talking to her I honestly believe that she thought she was doing what was best for you. She was just a kid herself, Johnny," he pointed out. "And she made a terrible mistake. Look, I'm not condoning what she did and I'm not asking you to forgive her or welcome her back with open arms. But I really believe that talking to her, hearing her out, would be the best thing for both of you. It would give both of you a chance to say what was on your mind, maybe clear the air between you. And if you decide to go your separate ways afterwards, well, at least you'd have tried."

"She's the one who took off and never looked back!" Johnny said bitterly. "Why the hell should I be the one to try?"

"Because it was twenty years ago and you're a grown man, not an eight year old boy. Because I think she wants to make the first move but is afraid you'll reject her."

"The way she rejected me, you mean?"

"It must've felt that way to you back then, but I don't think she ever meant to reject you. Like I said before, I honestly believe she thought she was doing what was best for you."

"Maybe she did," he admitted grudgingly. "But she was wrong. And she still left. I can't just sweep that under the carpet and pretend it never happened."

"Of course you can't. Nobody expects you to. Johnny, listen, I said I'd speak my piece and then back off and I meant it. Just think about talking to her, okay? That's all I'm asking. Just think about it. Will you do that?"

Johnny didn't say anything for a long moment, just stared pensively into his coffee cup. Then he nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I'll think about it."

+ + + + +

Maxine took a deep breath and pushed the hospital room door open. She found her sister lying in bed, engrossed in a magazine. When the woman looked up, Max saw the look of happiness and excitement that crossed Ruth's face. Max felt it for a second, too--this was her sister, after all. But she couldn't show it. Her loyalties resided elsewhere now, with Johnny.

Ruth must have known that, because the look was fleeting. It passed, and the injured woman instantly became more guarded.

"Hi, Maxine," she greeted. "How'd you know I was here?"

The older sister entered the room, but didn't sit. "I didn't. I went to that place you're living to talk to you, and your neighbor told me they saw you being taken away in an ambulance." She purposefully didn't ask how she was.

"Oh. Thanks for coming."

"Don't thank me. I just want to know why you broke our deal. You promised to stay out of Johnny's life."

Ruth pushed herself up in bed. "I didn't go looking for him, if that's what you're thinking. Look at me. I fell down some stairs, and I needed some help. What does John do for a living? How do you think I just happened to see him again the same day I had an accident?" He tone was harsh and accusatory, but she didn't care. She couldn't believe her sister hadn't figured this out for herself. "I said I wouldn't contact him, and I haven't. But I had no control over this."

Maxine's expression softened somewhat. Of course, She should have made that connection immediately. But she'd been so angry she hadn't been thinking straight. She nodded her head in acknowledgement, her only apology.

"But in case you think you're in trouble here, Max, don't worry. John doesn't want anything to do with me."

"In trouble? What do you mean by that? Let me remind you, little sister, that I'm not the one who left and never looked back."

"It was for the best," Ruth said quietly.

"Was it? I'm sorry, but how would you know? You weren't the one here picking up the pieces."

"You wanted me to go. I know you did."

"I wanted you to let me raise Johnny with my own kids. I won't deny that. But did I want you to just disappear one day, never to be heard from again except for the occasional card or postcard, never from the same place twice? No, Ruth, I never wanted that. He wasn't a little baby who'd eventually forget, you know. He was almost nine years old! He remembered then, and he remembers now. You broke that boy's heart, and I didn't know what to tell him, how to explain what you did so it wouldn't hurt so much."

Ruth was stunned into silence. She'd spent the last 20 years convincing herself that Johnny had eventually forgotten all about her. He had a woman who'd loved and raised him like her own. He hadn't needed her. No, he hadn't.

"Do you know what he did?" Maxine continued. "He started telling people you were dead. All of his friends think you're dead, Ruth. Or at least they did until yesterday."

The woman in the bed started to shake her head incredulously. "But, but . . ." she stammered, "why would he do that?"

Max threw her hand up in disgust. "Don't you get it, Ruth? Don't you have any idea what you did to that boy by leaving him the way you did? He told people you were dead because he thinks it was his fault. That if he told them you'd abandoned him, they'd think it was because of something he did."

"That's crazy."

"Yeah, it's crazy all right. To you and to me and to any adult. But to an eight-year-old boy?"

At that moment the door opened, and Dixie McCall entered, carrying some magazines. "These are old, but maybe you haven't read them," she started before looking up and seeing that her patient had company. "Oh, hello!" she exclaimed. "It's been a long time, Maxine! And thank goodness for that!"

Max nodded to the nurse. "Nice to see you again, Dixie."

"You two know each other?" a confused Ruth questioned.

"Oh, sure," Dix replied. "And we get reacquainted every time Johnny's a guest in our fine establishment. Don't we, Max?" she winked playfully at the older woman, who gave a strained smile in response. The nurse sensed the tension in the room, and quickly moved to leave. "I'll let you two catch up," she said as she turned toward the door.

"John's been in the hospital?" Ruth asked as soon as they were alone again, her voice filled with concern.

"Of course he has. His job is very dangerous, and he's been injured several times. Sometimes seriously." Maxine's voice wavered as she remembered those occasions. "A couple of times I thought. . . I thought we might lose him." After a second of reflection the woman caught herself and her demeanor became stern again. "Don't, Ruth. Stop it right now. Don't you pretend you care about him; not after all this time."

"I'm not pretending, Maxine. I never stopped caring about him. Not for one second."

"Well if that's true, you have a lousy way of showing it."

Ruth stared her sister down for a long moment, and then reached her decision. "I know I said I wouldn't try to contact John. But I want to see him. I need to see him. I need to explain."

"Over my dead body!" Max shouted. "He's my son, Ruth, mine. You made your decision a long time ago. Now you should just leave. And leave us alone! Why did you ever have to come back to LA in the first place?"

And with those words she ran from the room.

+ + + + +

“Hey, Gage, how’s your mom?”

John slammed his locker door and snarled, “Leave it alone, Chet. It’s bad enough I’ve got Roy on my back about this. I don’t need to hear it from you.” He stormed from the room without another word, nearly knocking his partner over as they passed in the doorway.

“Jeez, Roy, what’d you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’d you do to get Johnny all worked up? All I did was ask him about his mother and he nearly took my head off.”

“Just leave it alone, Chet,” Roy sighed, opening his locker and reaching for his uniform. “It’s none of our business.”

“But …”

“No, I mean it, leave it alone. Johnny needs to figure this out for himself.”

“Jeez, okay,” Chet mumbled. “Forget I said anything.” He looked at his watch and scrambled off the bench. “Better hurry up. Roll call in two minutes.”

+ + + + +

The morning chores behind him, John was just sitting on the bumper of his Rover. He had a lot on his mind and the normal everyday station banter was unbearable. So he fled to the relative peace of the parking lot, figuring it would be easier if he just steered clear of the guys for a while.

He was so lost in thought that he didn’t even notice Marco’s approach until the other man sat down next to him.

“Want to talk about it?” Lopez asked.

“Not you too,” John sighed.

“What do you mean? I just figured sometimes it’s better to talk your problems through than just sit and stew about them.”

Johnny was silent for a moment, then asked, “You have a big family, don’t you?”

“Sometimes I think maybe too big,” Lopez said with a laugh. “ I got my parents, three brothers, two sisters, eight nieces and nephews” he paused to actually count on his fingers, “ten aunts and uncles and so many cousins I need a cheat sheet at Christmas time. But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Johnny chuckled mirthlessly. “You’re lucky. All I ever knew was my aunt and uncle and my cousins.”

“What about your mom? She was there when you were a kid, wasn’t she? That’s what Roy told us the other day.”

“Yeah, I guess she was. But I was so young when she took off, I barely remember her.”

“Weren’t you eight? That’s old enough to remember something.”

“Maybe,” he admitted grudgingly. “But after she left it was easier to just forget her.” He paused and then a slight smile crossed his face. “ I do remember she used to take me for ice cream before dinner sometimes and we wouldn’t tell my aunt.”

Marco chuckled. “Sounds like you had some good times.”

“Yeah, I suppose. But so what? That was a lifetime ago.”

“I don’t know. I just can’t help thinking … you just said I was lucky having so many relatives. Don’t you think we fight and hurt one another? Of course, we do. But at the end of the day we still love each other. You can never have too much family, Johnny.”

+ + + + +

John left his patient in treatment room three, still slightly green from the bumpy helicopter ride.

“Hey, Dix,” he greeted as he reached the base station.

“Hey, Johnny.  Roy called in. He’s on his way and should be here to pick you up in about half-an-hour.”

“Thanks. In that case, I’ll go grab a cup of coffee.”

“Why don’t you get two?” Off Johnny’s puzzled expression she added, “Dinner’s not for hours and I bet your mom would like a cup right about now. She’s quite a caffeine addict, you know.”

“No, I don’t know,” Johnny said wearily. “Butt out, Dix, please.”

“It’s just a suggestion, Johnny. She wants to see you.”

The paramedic shook his head. “I’ll be in the lounge,” he said firmly, effectively ending the conversation.

“Okay,” Dixie agreed. “I’ll tell Roy where you are.”

Gage thanked the nurse and left the desk, headed for the lounge. But when he passed the elevator he found himself pausing. When the doors opened, as if they were summoned, he glanced back at his friend. Seeing her engrossed in a chart, he stepped aboard and pushed the button for his mother’s floor.

As he watched the numbers climb he wondered what the hell he was doing.

Back at the base station, Dix smiled as the elevator doors slid closed.

+ + + + +

By the time he reached her door, John was so nervous he had to stop and take a few deep breaths in an effort to calm down. Why he was he doing this? What did he want to say to her? What did he want to hear? He had no idea.

Nevertheless, he felt like he had to see her at least once if for no other reason than to be able to say he’d done it.

She was asleep. Part of John was relieved and part of him wanted to wake her up and get this over with--but he couldn’t do it.

Just like he had when he’d first seen her three days earlier, John felt a tightness in his chest. Though she was barely recognizable as the woman he remembered, he’d have known her anywhere. But this was his first chance to really look at her.

Though much younger than Maxine, she looked at least ten years older. Her once shiny black hair was now dull and liberally sprinkled with gray. Her face was lined and sallow, and she looked tired, even while deeply asleep. Anyone who looked at this woman would know she’d lived a hard life.

He couldn’t help but wonder, looking at her, what kind of life he’d have had if she’d taken him with her. Maybe, just maybe, what Roy told him was the truth.

Shaken by the notion, John turned to leave. He had his hand on the door, when he heard his mother moan. He turned to look, suddenly afraid he’d woken her up. Instead, he was stunned to see that she’d thrown her left arm over her eyes.

Just like he always did.

+ + + + +

He found Roy standing at the base station chatting with Dixie.

“How’d it go?” DeSoto asked simply.

“She was sleeping,” Johnny answered. “Let’s get going.”

Roy practically ran to catch his fleeing partner. When he climbed behind the wheel, he asked, “What were you going to say to her?”

“You know,” John admitted, “I have no idea. Maybe I was gonna let her do all the talking.”

+ + + + +

When they got back to the station, Cap was waiting in the apparatus bay. “Gage, you aunt called. Four times. You can use my office.”

Johnny nodded and headed reluctantly towards the phone. Aunt Max answered on the first ring.

“Can you come for breakfast in the morning?” she asked without preamble. “We need to talk.”

“I know,” he replied. “I’ll be there by 9:00.”

+ + + + +

The meal was strained and afterward John fled to the living room while his aunt washed the dishes. Finally, she joined him on the sofa and got right to the point.

“When you were ten, you asked if you could call me mom. Do you remember that?”

Johnny shook his head.

“Well, you did. And I told you no because you already had a mom. Now I wish I’d said yes.”

“Aunt Max, it doesn’t matter what I call you,” Johnny vowed. “I know you’re my mother. I never should’ve said what I said the other day and I’m sorry.”

“I know that, sweetie. And maybe I owe you an apology too. You probably had a right to know that she’d come back but I just couldn’t bear it if she broke your heart again. When she first left, you cried yourself to sleep for months.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“I’m glad, but I do. She took off and never looked back and I was left to pick up the pieces. I was left with the burden of raising a child and she …"

Johnny gasped, stung by the harshness of her words.

Maxine touched his cheek tenderly. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. You know that. I couldn't love you more if I'd given birth to you. But raising a child is hard work. You'll find that out when you have a family of your own some day. Being a parent is wonderful and rewarding but it's the most difficult thing you'll ever do. It's a lot of hard work and sacrifice and an enormous responsibility. And yes, sometimes, it can be a burden. Your mother wasn't willing to take the responsibility of raising you so she left me to do it for her. Uncle Walt and I were glad to do it, Johnny, because even then we loved you like our own child.

"After Ruth left, she kept in touch for a while. I got letters three or four times a year at first, asking how you were," Maxine continued. "Sometimes she'd talk about coming back to visit. But it never happened and as time passed, I knew it never would. I heard from her less and less and finally the letters stopped altogether. To tell you the truth, I was relieved because a part of me was always afraid she would come back and take you away and it would've killed us to lose you, Johnny.

"And then, nine or ten months ago, she called me out of the blue and told me she was back in LA. She asked a million questions about you, started hinting that she wanted to see you again. I invested a lifetime in loving you and taking care of you while she was off God knows where. And now that the hard part is over and you've turned out to be a wonderful young man she has the nerve to want to just breeze back into you life and pick up where she left off. I was furious and I let her know it. I told her I wouldn't stand for her hurting you again. I said, 'Ruth, you asked me to be his mother because you thought I'd do a better job of it than you. So now I'm asking you, as his mother, to leave him alone.' She didn't like it. She fought me at first but I stuck to my guns and she finally agreed to go along with my wishes. Can you understand why I did what I did, sweetie? Can you understand that I believe I was doing the right thing?"

"Maybe I was wrong," Maxine admitted reluctantly. "Maybe I should've told you. But you haven't even mentioned her in years. I didn't think you wanted to see her. And I remember how devastated you were when she left. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing you go through it again. And I couldn't bear the thought of her coming back and … " her voice quivered alarmingly, "and taking my place."

“She could never do that," Johnny said gently, squeezing his aunt's hands. “I won’t let her.”

+ + + + +

As John drove away, it was all perfectly clear; he knew what he had to do. He owed Aunt Max everything, most especially his loyalty. And if getting to know his mother again hurt the woman who’d raised him, then he just wouldn’t do it. What other choice did he have?

+ + + + +

Dixie knocked softly on the door before pushing it open. As it did every time she dropped in, Ruth’s face fell slightly as soon as she realized it wasn’t her son visiting.

“He’ll come, Ruth. If I know your boy, he’ll come.”

“I don’t know, Dixie, I’m beginning to wonder. If only I hadn’t been asleep yesterday.”

“That’s how I know,” the nurse promised. “He came once, he’ll come again. Just give him time.”

“I don’t have much time,” Maxine explained, “I’m going home tomorrow.”

Dix smiled as she formed a plan. “You’ll be needing a ride home,” she stated. “And I know just the person.”

+ + + + +
 
Johnny entered the apartment to a ringing phone. It was Dixie. “I just saw Ruth and she’s being released tomorrow. She’s worried about how she’s going to get home and I thought maybe you’d want to give her a ride.”

“I can’t, Dix, I’m sorry,” John said, meaning it.

“Are you busy?”

“No, I just can’t.” He wished she would just let it go.

“But I don’t understand, Johnny. Yesterday …”

“Was yesterday,” he cut her off. “Things have changed.”

“What do you mean? What happened?”

John contemplated whether to tell her for only a minute. He wanted to talk to someone, and since Dix knew his aunt she was as good a choice as any.
“It’s a long story. You must be busy.”

“What do you know about that?” Dixie said brightly. “Just so happens my lunch hour starts right now. So start talking.”

Johnny sighed loudly. “I can’t hurt her,” he said without elaboration.

“How on earth could you hurt her?” the nurse asked, misunderstanding.

“I’m talking about my aunt. It would hurt her too bad if I got to know Ruth.”

“Oh, Johnny!” Dix exclaimed. “You shouldn’t have to pick sides. And if Maxine is asking you to, then she’s wrong.”

“She didn’t ask,” Johnny explained. “She’d never do that. But I owe this to her and I’ve made up my mind.”

“You talked to Maxine,” Dixie surmised. “What did she say to make you think this was your only choice?”

Johnny took a deep breath and told her everything.

+ + + + +

In the weeks that followed, John kept his self-made promise and didn’t contact Ruth, but it wasn’t easy. He could tell that the guys at the station disapproved, but thankfully they kept their mouths shut. Only Joanne DeSoto seemed sure he was doing the right thing. But he wasn’t even sure himself.

He thought about her all the time; wondered how she was getting along, wondered if anyone was helping her while she recovered. At one point, he even looked her address up in the logbook, and drove by her house. He told himself it was because of the broken step he’d encountered on that day he’d first seen her. To his surprise, it had been repaired. But that didn’t stop the “visits.” Two or three times a week he’d turn down her street, and slowly pass her old, run-down house. If he was hoping for a glimpse of the woman, he never got it. He couldn’t even tell if she was at home.

On some level he knew his behavior meant he wanted to see her. But he couldn’t make himself do it, and his aunt’s behavior only reinforced his decision. She called him all the time now, saying she was “just checking in.” But she’d never done that before, so Johnny figured she was still worried about her place in his life.

If not for Dixie, he might have gone nuts by now. He’d come into Rampart on a run, and she’d mention his mother in passing--that her physical therapy was going well, or that her cast had been removed. Clearly, she had kept in touch, but after he’d explained his problem, she’d stopped pressuring him to do the right thing. She understood he was in a bind, and had promised to let him figure it out himself. But the news she provided about Ruth was appreciated.

+ + + + +

“Kel, how is he doing?” Dixie asked worriedly as soon the doctor left the treatment room where John lay.

Dr. Brackett scratched his jaw thoughtfully. “Too soon to tell, Dix. The x-rays were negative, and the EEG was normal, but he’s still showing no signs of regaining consciousness. We’re moving him upstairs now.”

“Should I call his family?” the nurse wondered aloud.

“Might not be a bad idea,” Kel advised.

The opening door caught their attention, and both watched as John was wheeled by. Once the elevator doors closed on him, Dix returned to her desk and picked up the phone. Maxine’s answering machine took the call. “Maxine, it’s Dixie McCall a Rampart Hospital,” she began, “There was a big fire this morning and Johnny took a bad fall. He’s here, and I think you’d better come down.” She pressed the button on the receiver and held it down for a second while she made her decision, then released it and made another call.

“Hello, Ruth . . . .”

+ + + + +

Roy rushed into the ER. “How’s Johnny?” he asked urgently. Several injuries at the scene had kept the paramedic away from his friend.

“They didn’t find anything but the head injury, but he’s still unconscious,” Dixie replied. “He’s already been moved upstairs to the Neuro unit.”

DeSoto looked at his watch and calculated. He was expected back at the scene immediately, but he decided he had a second to run upstairs. “What room?”

“417, but his mother is with him now.”

“His mother?” Roy asked incredulously. “Do you mean,”

“Ruth,” the nurse finished for him. “I called her.”

“Do you think you should have done that?”

“No matter what has happened in the past, Roy,” Dix explained, “she’s still his mother, and she had a right to know.”

“You’ll get no argument from me, but what about Max?”

“She wasn’t home, and I left a message.”

“She’s not going to like it.”

“Well, we’ll deal with that when we have to.”

“If you say so,” Roy said, silently hoping that he wasn’t around when the two women came face-to-face. “I’m going up to check on him before I have to get back.”

+ + + + +

“Hi, Ruth,” Roy said quietly as he entered the room. “How’s he doing?”

The woman looked up, and it was clear she’d been crying. “Oh, Roy, I don’t know. He looks so pale, so still.”

Roy smiled reassuringly. “Johnny’s tough. He always pulls through these things.”

Ruth shook her head. “I’ve been told he’s been hurt lots of times.”

“A few,” Roy allowed. He took a moment to look at his partner, and had to agree with Ruth. He didn’t look too good. “He’ll be okay,” he whispered, more to himself than to anyone else.

“It’s funny,” Ruth continued. “I haven’t seen him in decades; purposefully removed myself from his life. But here I sit, and none of that matters. He’s my son, Roy, and I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose him.” She chuckled ruefully at her words, finally adding, “even though I never had him in the first place.”

“Sure you did. He never stopped being your son--not for you, anyway.” He paused for a moment, then added, “and not for Johnny, either, I don’t think. He wants to see you. I just know it.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I do, Ruth. But I think he’s afraid.”

The two sat quietly for a moment, the silence getting increasingly awkward. Finally, Roy had to speak. “How’s that step holding up?” he asked.

“It’s good Roy, like new. I really appreciate you fixing that for me.”

“Well, I didn’t want you breaking your other ankle or anything.”

+ + + + +

Maxine rushed down the hall, her heart pounding. Dix’s message had been vague, and she hadn’t been able to find the woman upon her arrival. So she really had no idea what to expect when she pushed open the door.

But the biggest shock was who was already sitting by Johnny’s bedside.

“What are you doing here?” she spat out at her sister.

Ruth looked surprised. “What do you mean? I have every right to be here.”

“I don’t have time for that now,” the older woman argued. “I want you out of here.”

Ruth stood. “I’m won’t leave. Not until I know he’s okay.”

Max realized that she didn’t even know the extent of his injuries, and there was nothing outwardly visible when she looked at John. But clearly Ruth knew.

“Do you know what happened?” she asked, keeping a sharp edge on her tone.

“I don’t know exactly,” Ruth admitted, “just that he fell and hit his head. Nurse McCall said that he has a concussion. That’s why he’s unconscious.”

“Thank you,” Max said curtly, “now please leave.”

Ruth sighed. “We can do this all day, Max,” she said, “but I’m not leaving, not unless John wakes up and tells me to. So just let it go.”

Max glared at her sister. “He will, you know. He will want you to go.”

“What makes you so sure?” Ruth challenged.

Maxine’s mouth fell open. The fact was, she wasn’t sure, and that was why she had to get this woman out of there. “Look, Ruth,” she started more gently, trying a different approach, “If you leave now, I promise that I’ll call later and let you know how he’s doing. I can’t deal with you now. I know we have things to work out, but this isn’t the place or the time.”

“I think it’s the perfect time,” Ruth said quietly. “I want to thank you, Maxine.”

“What?”

“When Nurse McCall called me, my heart stopped for a second. And sitting here, watching him and waiting, all I’ve been able to do is think. I’ve missed so much, Max. It doesn’t matter what it was, a little boy’s scraped knee, or something like this,” she gestured toward her son, still lying motionless in bed, “when John needed me, I wasn’t there. I know that. But you were, and I want to thank you. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Max shook her head dispiritedly. “You still don’t get it, do you? You don’t owe me anything, Ruth. You gave me a gift; you gave me another son. I just wish you’d realize that he’s mine now, and he has been for a long, long time.”

“I know that,” Ruth admitted. “I’ve always known that. I don’t want to take him away from you. I just want to get to know my son.”

Her anger long gone, Max wandered to the window and watched the cars going by on the street below. “If that’s what he decides he wants, I won’t stand in his way,” the woman decided aloud. She turned to face her sister once more. “But please, Ruth, not here and not now. Johnny’s hurt, and when he wakes up, I don’t want him to be upset. Please, I’m begging, please leave.”

Ruth studied her sister for a long moment, realizing that she had a point. “Okay,” she agreed. “I’ll leave. But please call me when he wakes up.”

“I will,” Max promised, and she slumped bonelessly into a chair as soon as her sister left the room.

+ + + + +

A slight noise woke Max from her catnap. She’d been sitting next to Johnny for hours, just waiting, and silently imploring him to wake up. Doctors had come and gone, the midday sun was already nearing the horizon, and there had been no change. But when she opened her eyes this time, someone was looking back at her.

“Oh, Johnny,” she cried, leaping to her feet, “you’re awake!”

“Mmmm,” John groaned. “What happened?”

“You hit your head, but you’re going to be okay.”

“’splains the headache,” the paramedic mumbled. “Roy okay?”

“He’s fine,” Max told him with a smile. “He’s been worried about you. We all have been.”

“Must’ve been bad if you’re here.”

“Well,” Maxine told him, “you’ve been unconscious for half a day.”

“Oh,” Johnny said tonelessly. “I’m tired.”

“Don’t go to sleep,” the woman warned. “Let me go get the doctor first.”

John nodded slightly, and she left the room.

+ + + + +

Returning from the nurse’s station, Max noticed her sister sitting in a hard plastic chair, right outside John’s room. “When did you come back?” she asked.

“I didn’t leave,” Ruth explained as she stood up. “You asked me to leave the room, but I couldn’t leave altogether until I knew he was okay. Is he?”

“He just woke up. The doctor will be here in a minute.”

Ruth breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God,” she exclaimed, slumping against the wall. “I’ve been so worried,” she added, surprised to find that she was tearing up.

“I know,” Maxine said gently. “So was I.”

Doctor Early arrived at that moment, and Maxine followed him in the room. Ruth actually felt that she could have followed without angering her sister, but she didn’t. They had time now, and for the first time she was confidant things would work out.

+ + + + +

It was 20 minutes later when Max and the doctor left the room. Dr. Early walked away, unaware of whom Ruth was, but the woman stopped. “The doctor says he’ll be fine. A couple of days in the hospital, a little while recovering at home, and he’ll be good as new.”

“ don't know how do you do this, Maxine,” Ruth wondered. “How can you stand the worry?”

Max actually smiled. “It’s just what mothers do,” she said, “and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Ruth nodded. “I wish I’d had the courage to try. But it’s too late for that now,” she confessed. “I know I can never be his mother, but if you’ll let me, I’d like to try and be his friend.”

Maxine reached out and rested her hand on her sister’s arm. “You know, I think I could live with that.”

+ + + + +

"Aunt Max, will you stop it? I'm fine!" Johnny swatted his aunt's hands away as she tried, once again, to straighten the blankets that covered his lap. While he admittedly had felt somewhat groggy for most of the 18 hours since he'd woken up, now he was feeling pretty good, and the woman's constant fussing was getting on his nerves.

"Sorry," the woman offered contritely, sitting back in her chair and folding her hands on her lap.

"You've got to stop hovering, you know," the paramedic advised.

"I know, sweetie, but you gave me quite a scare, that's all. I just want to make sure you're all right."

"I am. All right, that is," John promised. "But I wasn't just talking about here. I was talking about all the phone calls and stuff before I got hurt. I'm not a little kid any more, and you've got to trust me." Gage paused for a moment to consider whether or not he was up for the conversation he was broaching, but he decided he was. "I'm not going to contact her," he continued, "not unless you say it's okay."

Maxine had leaned forward as he was speaking. "It is okay, honey," she said, somewhat meek and unconvincing though it was.

"What?"

"I've been thinking," Maxine went on, "a lot. And I've talked to Ruth."

"You what?" Johnny was stunned. "Max, I thought you didn't want anything to do with her! I thought you didn't want me to have anything to do with her!"

The woman stood and walked to the window, keeping her back to John as she spoke. "I know, Johnny, and that's what I thought I wanted, too. But I think . . . ." She paused for a long moment before continuing. "I think I might have been wrong." At this point she turned and leaned against the windowsill, watching her son for his reaction.

John was stunned. "Wrong? About what?"

Max shrugged. "About you, about Ruth, about everything." She approached the bed, and sat on it beside John. "You said it yourself, honey. You're not a little kid any more. I think I forget that sometimes; I look at you and sometimes I still see that little boy. But you're a grown man, able to make your own decisions and your own mistakes if that's what they prove to be. I think I've done a pretty good job of letting you be your own man, if I do say so myself," she smiled when she saw that John had nodded is agreement, "so it's just not fair for me to try and tell you what to do now." She took a deep breath and finished. "So if you want to see Ruth, and get to know her better, you have my blessing."

"Seriously?" Johnny couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Seriously," Maxine said solemnly. "As long," she couldn't help adding, "as you never forget who your real mother is."

John pulled Maxine into a tight hug. "I could never forget that," he vowed. "Never."

+ + + + +

Ruth paced anxiously outside Johnny’s hospital room. Every time the elevator doors opened, she took a step in that direction, hoping it was Maxine. Finally, her sister arrived. “Ready?” the older sibling asked.

Ruth took a deep breath. “I think so.” She wiped her sweaty palms on the front of her floral dress. “I’m actually nervous!” she admitted.

Maxine smiled “Don’t be. We did a lot of talking yesterday. He wants to see you.”

“Even after everything I did to him?”

“One thing you’ll soon learn about Johnny,” Max counseled, “is that he’s probably the most forgiving person in the world. It’ll be okay. I promise.”

Ruth nodded her head and took another cleansing breath. “Then let’s go.”

Max went first, poking her head in the door. “Up for some visitors?” she asked.

Ruth heard his “Sure” from outside, and when her sister pushed the door all the way open, she took her first tentative steps back into her son's life.

John was sitting up in bed. He looked her squarely in the eye, and smiled the same open, loving smile as the little boy she’d left behind.

“Hi, Ruth. Come on in.”

THE END.