Grin and Bear It
As Johnny winced – again – as he took a bite of his sandwich, Roy looked over at him. “Haven’t you made that appointment yet?” he asked in exasperation.
“What appointment?” Johnny replied round a mouthful of food.
“Geez, Gage, even I know what appointment Roy means,” Chet interjected. “The appointment to get your permanent crowns fitted!”
Making a face, Johnny took another bite and winced again. This time, he chewed and swallowed before speaking. “I have to wait until Brackett gives me the okay,” he explained. “He doesn’t want me to strain my jaw until its ready.” After the weeks of living with his jaws wired together, he was in no hurry to do anything that might strain his newly healed face. He took another huge bite. He still had a few pounds to make up and he was perpetually hungry at the best of times.
“Have you seen Brackett to ask him about it?” Cap enquired.
“Not yet,” Johnny mumbled and shoved more food into his mouth.
It was an exercise in revolted fascination for the other men to watch Johnny eat. His table manners were deplorable, unless reminded by someone not to talk with his mouth full, and although all firefighters chowed down and ate quickly, Johnny was like a human vacuum cleaner. Roy sometimes wondered if his partner chewed at all.
“Why not?” Marco asked. “I thought you’d want to get your teeth fixed as soon as possible, given they seem to be so uncomfortable.”
Looking at his plate, Johnny mumbled something about Brackett letting him know when he would see him. Nobody bought that for a minute. Johnny saw Dr Brackett almost every day he was working and had had plenty of opportunity to ask him to take a quick look. There was something else going on here.
Before they could ask any further, the tones went off, calling the squad out to a rescue. The paramedics pushed away from the table, both of them stuffing the last of their sandwiches into their mouths as they did so. Cap rose and went to the mic to acknowledge the call and handed Roy the address slip. Roy was still chewing and Johnny offering directions around some food as they pulled out.
Smiling, Cap went back to his lunch.
The call turned out to be an easy run that didn’t require transportation to the hospital. The gentleman in question had banged his nose on the handle of the garden spade while wrestling with a particularly recalcitrant bush he was trying to uproot. The abrupt gush of blood had scared the living daylights out of his wife, who had called the fire department. By the time the paramedics arrived, the bleeding had stopped and the wife was looking very embarrassed.
While that kind of call was annoying, both paramedics assured the lady that she had done the right thing. There was no way that she could have known initially that her husband’s injury was superficial. The man signed the form refusing further treatment and the paramedics called themselves back into service.
As they drove back to the station, Roy glanced at Johnny. His partner was gazing into the distance, silent for a change. “So why haven’t you spoken to Brackett yet?” Roy asked quietly.
There was a sigh from across the cab and Johnny shrugged before glancing across. “I just haven’t,” he replied defensively.
“Come on, Johnny, don’t give me that,” Roy chided. “This is me. What’s the real reason?”
There was a long silence. Several times, Roy looked over, wondering if Johnny was going to ignore the question, or if he was angry that Roy was pushing. It didn’t seem to be the case though. It looked as though Johnny was struggling to find the words. “Its... well... um ... you see...”
Raising a quizzical eyebrow, Roy forbore to say that he didn’t see anything. He knew that Johnny often couldn’t get a complete sentence out when he was struggling to get to grips with an idea or his feelings. Waiting usually opened the dam gates.
He was rewarded for his patience a few moments later. “Roy, do you like going to the dentist?” Johnny blurted.
That wasn’t quite what Roy had been expecting to hear and it took a moment for him to change mental gears. “I don’t mind going,” Roy replied, sensing that this wasn’t what Johnny wanted to hear. “I can think of things I’d rather do, but I don’t like toothache, either.”
“I’ve never liked going,” Johnny declared. “I hated it when I was a kid and I hate it now.” He sighed deeply. “The dentist we had on the rez when I was a kid was a real butcher,” he went on. “He hated us Indians and we hated him right back. He never quite gave you enough local when he was filling your teeth and he was pretty heavy-handed when taking them out. I was lucky, ‘cos I’ve got pretty good teeth. I’ve never needed a lot of work done to them.”
“That sounds grim,” Roy agreed.
“After I moved to LA to live with my aunt, my wisdom teeth started coming through. They were impacted and partially erupted and who knows all what,” Johnny went on. He rubbed a hand over his face. “That summer was a complete nightmare. They planned to take them out in two goes, left ones first and then the right. But it wasn’t as easy as that. Oh no! The dentist practically had to kneel on my chest to get the right leverage to get the bottom tooth out and by then, I was bleeding like a stuck pig.” He massaged his jaw thoughtfully. “I had to have stitches. And it seemed that each tooth was worse than the one before.” A genuine shudder ran through his slender body. “Roy, I really don’t like the dentist.” He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants leg. “And what I went through getting my jaw wired...” He swallowed hard. “I just ... just ... don’t know if ... if I can ... can go through ... more work ... on my teeth.”
There it was out. He had said it. Johnny turned his head to the open window and gulped in air to stop himself throwing up. Talking about it was bad enough; he genuinely didn’t know if he would be able to go to the dentist to get the necessary work done.
It was something Roy had never thought about before. He knew there were people with dental phobias, but he had never met anyone who had one. Or not that he was aware of. Joanne dealt with taking the children to the dentist most times, but neither of them seemed to mind. There again, they had inherited good strong teeth from both their parents and hadn’t had to have any teeth removed. There was the possibility that they might need to get braces in later years, which would involve teeth removal, but Roy liked the family dentist and assumed that he could be as good at removing teeth as he was at everything else.
“Do you like your dentist?” he asked at length, feeling helpless. He had no idea how to resolve this.
“He’s all right, I guess,” Johnny replied. “Although he’s so old, he’s due to retire any minute.” He sighed. “And to be truthful, Roy, I don’t think I would trust him to do delicate work like I need. He’s pretty shaky these days and I know his policy is to pull teeth rather than try to save them with caps or veneers or whatever you get.”
“Then we need to find you another dentist,” Roy declared. “Perhaps Dr Brackett can recommend someone.”
“Mm,” came the unenthusiastic reply.
“And perhaps he can give you some Valium to help you, too,” Roy suggested, having had a brain waggle.
“I can’t do that!” protested Johnny indignantly. “Do you know how hard it was to tell you about this? Do you know what a wimp this makes me sound? Afraid to go to the dentist? He’ll laugh in my face.”
“No he won’t.” Roy wished he hadn’t said anything now. The last thing he had wanted to provoke was a Gage rant. “Johnny, phobias are a recognized medical condition.”
“Yeah and just wait until you tell Chet about it,” Johnny pointed out. “I’ll be finding teeth everywhere for the rest of my life!”
“I’m not going to tell Chet,” Roy shot back, as indignant as Johnny had been a few moments earlier. “I know what’s he’s like, too! Give me some credit here.”
“Sorry,” Johnny sulked, slumping back into the corner of the cab. He let out another sigh. “What am I going to do, Roy?”
“We’ll sort it out, Junior, I promise,” soothed Roy.
Back at the station, Roy went into the dorm and rang Joanne to ask her if she would find out if their dentist would take Johnny on as a patient. His hopes in that respect were dashed immediately. “Our dentist doesn’t deal with caps and crowns,” she informed him. “And the partner that did has moved somewhere else. I know there’s an orthodontist connected to the practice, but it’s an ordinary dentist that Johnny needs, isn’t it? Oh dear.” She sighed and Roy wondered what it was with people sighing at him today. “Do you want me to ask around?”
“Yes and keep it quiet, please,” Roy begged.
“Roy, this is me,” Joanne retorted. “I know Johnny and Chet, too, remember. I’ll do some asking around.”
Hanging up the phone, Roy went to find Johnny. His partner was sitting disconsolately on the picnic table out at the back of the station, watching the traffic whizzing past on the 405. It had been a quiet day and all the chores had been done long ago. Glancing furtively around, Roy double checked that they were alone. “How’re you feeling now?” he asked.
“I’m not ill!” Johnny flared. He, too, looked around. “I guess I’m just a wimp.”
“No you’re not!” Roy found himself feeling annoyed. “Geez, Junior, if I had had those things done to me, I’d feel like you do, too! Listen!” He grabbed Johnny’s arm – gently – and made his partner look at him. “Those doctors were far too rough on you. There was no need to treat you the way they did.”
“I guess,” Johnny allowed, but he sounded anything but convinced. The whole episode was something he would rather forget, if he could. Unfortunately for Johnny, the complaints made on his behalf to Mercy Hospital, where he had initially been treated for the broken jaw, had resulted in a huge furor, with the board being suspended, sacked and new people being put in place. The whole thing was all over the media again, and despite Barney’s care, Johnny’s name had been dragged into it and the whole thing of the assaults and crooked judges was currently enjoying a revival in all the papers. It didn’t make forgetting any easier – in fact, it made it impossible.
“Hey,” Roy chided him softly. “Don’t go beating yourself up. Take it one step at a time and remember; I’m here.”
“Thanks, Roy,” Johnny whispered and blinked away the betraying tears.
Just after midnight, the station was toned out to a large accident on a construction site. A new section of freeway that was being built had suffered a partial collapse and several of the workers were trapped beneath a mountain of debris.
It was backbreaking work under the uncertain light cast by the construction crew’s spotlights. Cap called for light trucks, but the difficulty was access for them. By the time they arrived, the first casualty had been carried to safety, dying only moments later. It was heartrending and sobering work, and although everyone tried to keep hoping, they knew there was a good chance that the rest of the victims would be in the same condition.
Dawn had broken by the time the last body was extracted. A couple of firefighters from another station had suffered injuries from further collapses, but they were the only ones. All the construction workers had died at the scene.
Trudging back to the squad, Roy found Johnny perched on the back bumper. He had his turnout coat across his lap and his head was hanging with exhaustion. Too weary to speak, Roy simply slumped down beside him. There was nothing they could say. It had been a hideous scene and all Roy wanted to do now was sleep. He ignored the little voice that told him he would be seeing this night in his dreams for a long time to come.
Weary footsteps approached them and Roy forced himself to look up. Cap, as covered with dust and dirt and grime as they were, leaned against the squad. “Let’s get back to the barn,” he said. “This is a crime scene now.” He gave both his paramedics a sharp look. They had been in the thick of things all evening. “Are you both all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Roy replied for them both. “Just tired.”
After another searching look, Cap nodded and headed over to the engine. Roy stood up wearily and shrugged off his turnout coat. “Let’s go,” he suggested hoarsely. He extended a hand to tug his equally weary partner to his feet.
Glancing over at Roy, Johnny saw the lines of fatigue in his friend’s face. “You want me to drive?” he offered, although he felt completely beat. As it often did when he was tired, his jaw ached slightly.
“Nah, I’m fine,” Roy assured him. He stowed his coat and climbed into the cab, drawing a deep breath before starting the engine. They drove in silence, each man going over the incident in his mind, trying to see if there was something else they could have done that would have changed the outcome. There was nothing.
Fortunately, traffic was light at that time of the morning. They arrived back at the station in time to hear the wake up tones going off. There was no point in trying to go to bed. B shift would be in shortly, with any luck, and they could all go home and sleep. They climbed out of their respective vehicles and Marco headed to the kitchen to put on some coffee. The others followed him and flopped bonelessly into chairs around the table. No one spoke. The coffee seemed to take ages to percolate and at one point, Mike got up and went to see if the paper had arrived. It was there and he spread the different sections on the table for the others to take their choices. But nobody wanted to read; they all just sat there.
They were just finishing up the coffee when B shift started coming in. All of them could see that it had been a rough shift. Cap went off with B shift’s captain to update him and the other men headed to the locker room in dribs and drabs as their replacements came in. It was a relief to be heading towards home.
Late in the afternoon, Roy rang Johnny to see how he was doing. The younger man sounded more relaxed and rested. “All I’ve done is sleep all day,” Johnny explained.
“How’s your mouth?” Roy asked, knowing that it sometimes ached when Johnny was over tired.
“Fine,” Johnny replied, shortly, wishing Roy would stop bringing the subject up. He could feel his hands starting to get clammy already.
“I’m not trying to push you here,” Roy explained. “But Joanne has found the name of a couple of dentists when you’re ready for them, okay?”
“I’m sorry, Roy,” Johnny sighed. “Tell Joanne thanks. I’ll get those names from her soon, I promise.”
Hanging up the phone, Johnny gazed blindly out of the window. He knew that putting off going would only make things worse in the long run, but the fear that gripped his gut every time he thought about going to the dentist made him feel like he was going to throw up.
But he would have to do something – his teeth hurt.
At the start of their next shift, Roy eyed Johnny closely as they changed. His partner didn’t seem to be particularly down, which was good. A rescue like the last one they had was enough to make anyone depressed, especially someone like Johnny, who took it all so personally. It also didn’t appear as though Johnny’s mouth was bothering him, which was good. There were no betraying dark circles under Johnny’s eyes and he looked as though he was rested. It was all a plus as far as Roy was concerned.
Sensing Roy looking him over, Johnny glanced at him and flashed a half-smile. “I’m fine, dad,” he jibed and they both laughed. “Seriously, how are you?” Johnny asked. He felt slightly guilty for neglecting his partner for the last couple of days. Usually after a bad rescue, they would talk, even if only briefly, a couple of times, but Johnny had avoided answering the phone the previous day by staying outside.
“I’m fine,” Roy replied, waving Johnny’s concerns away.
“Roll call!” Cap hollered and they made their way to the bay and took their places in the lineup.
As he looked the men over, Cap was pleased to see that they all looked like they had had a good rest during their days off. There was always the chance that one of them might get called for an overtime shift, especially the paramedics, but that didn’t seem to be the case this time. Smiling, he dealt quickly with the few notices he had and issued the chores. The men were dismissed, put their hats away and headed off to do the things they’d been assigned to. Roy and Johnny went to do their morning calibrations and checks on their equipment. Cap followed them.
“You guys all right?” he asked, knowing that quite often, one or both of them would find cuts and bruises after a big rescue. They wouldn’t always mention it, either, particularly Johnny.
“Yeah, fine,” Roy replied. He had the biophone out, ready to make the morning call to Rampart.
“Yep, fine,” Johnny echoed. He was squatting on the floor, checking the drug box. He glanced up and smiled.
“Need any supplies?” Cap wondered, lingering for a few moments. Anything to put off the dreaded paperwork.
“Nope, we’re good,” Johnny responded and closed the box, clicking the lid shut and hefting it back into the compartment. A frown crossed his face. “Are you okay, Cap? Do you need anything?”
For a moment, Cap contemplated what he would say, enjoying seeing the worry growing in his paramedics’ eyes. “Yeah, I need something,” he agreed. He bit the inside of his lip as Johnny shot Roy a panicky look. “I need a secretary.” He patted Johnny on the shoulder as he laughed and retreated into his office.
For a moment, Johnny couldn’t make up his mind if he was hacked off or amused. He shot another glance at Roy and his partner dissolved into laughter. After a moment, Johnny copied him. “What must we have looked like?” he mused as they headed off for coffee before starting their chores.
“Well, I don’t know about me but you...” Roy began.
After he finished in the dorm, Johnny went into the locker room and had a quick look around. It was empty, so he went to his locker and grabbed a couple of over-the-counter painkillers and swallowed them with a mouthful of water from the tap. While not an ideal solution, the painkillers were working nicely and Johnny thought perhaps his teeth were sore because he had been clenching his jaw so much at that last rescue. Once the muscles had relaxed again, the ache would vanish.
The tones sounded, sending the squad out to a ‘woman down’ call at a shopping mall. They were met by the security guards who led them over to the base of an escalator, where the woman was still seated half on and half off it. Fortunately, it wasn’t moving any longer.
“Hi there, my name’s John. I’m a paramedic. What happened?” Johnny asked, as he knelt beside her. It seemed pretty obvious and he heard a couple of murmurs to that effect from the crowd that were gathered around watching. Johnny was always surprised by the people who felt the need to look at an accident. However, in this case, Johnny’s question was designed to get the victim to talk to him so he could assess her condition. She had clearly taken a blow to the head and he needed to know how serious it was.
“I caught my heel as I was trying to get off,” the woman explained, wiping away tears. “I fell and banged my head. My hair got caught and I’ve hurt my ankle.”
“Just take it easy,” Johnny soothed her. “We’ll get you out. What’s your name?”
“Victoria,” she sniffed. “Victoria Jeffry.” She was leaning over to one side, with her waist length hair caught under the lip of metal that signified the end of the escalator, where it started the loop to return to the top.
“I’m just going to take some vitals here, ma’am and then I’ll look at your hair and ankle.” Johnny tried a smile, but she was too distraught to respond. He didn’t blame her. He wrapped the BP cuff round her arm.
Victoria’s vitals were a little high, but given the situation, that wasn’t altogether surprising. Johnny told Roy, who got on the line to Rampart while Johnny carefully stepped behind their victim to see what he could do about freeing her hair. Cutting it was the obvious solution, but given the length it was, he suspected she wouldn’t be too happy about that. Gingerly, he slid his fingers under the lip of metal.
There was very little room for him to feel anything. Her hair was clearly tangled in the metal mesh of the escalator, but he knew that. Sliding his hand out, he looked at the metal plate. It was held down with industrial strength screws. He knew they wouldn’t carry a big enough screwdriver to move them and doubted that the mall management would be willing to unscrew it when the hair could simply be cut. There was one other thing he could try before suggesting either of those things. “Ma’am, I’m going to try and pull your hair free. I’ll be a careful as I can. If I hurt you, tell me and I’ll stop at once.”
“All right,” Victoria sniffed. “Please hurry, this is sore.”
“I know,” Johnny soothed. He slid his fingers back under the metal plate and started to gently tug on the strands that he could reach. A few came free more easily than he had expected and his hand jammed against the sharp under edge of the plate.
“Yeow!” Victoria screeched and grabbed for his wrist. “Stop!”
“Sorry,” Johnny murmured contritely. He glanced down at his hand and saw the blood across the knuckles. He wanted to shout ‘yeow’ too, but didn’t feel it would be appropriate. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I think we’re going to have to cut it.”
“Just cut it then!” she cried. “Get me out of here.”
Reaching for his scissors, Johnny exchanged glances with Roy. The older man had put a cardboard splint on Victoria’s ankle, although he didn’t think it was broken, and had summoned an ambulance. He cast a meaningful glance at Johnny’s hand and hid a smile. Johnny would be having that looked at when he got to Rampart.
It took only seconds for Johnny’s to cut the hair free. He did it as close to the metal plate as possible, although he had no idea how much hair was under there, but he guessed the closer to the plate he cut it, the easier it would be to tidy it up later. Victoria was able to sit up straight and wiped away more tears of relief at that.
Although technically, Victoria didn’t require a paramedic to go in with her, since she didn’t need an IV, Roy decided to send Johnny in anyway. It was one way to get him into the hospital to get his hand looked at and perhaps Brackett would be there and could look at Johnny’s mouth, too. Then they could see about getting Johnny to a dentist.
Unhappily, Johnny agreed. Arguing would have been unprofessional and Cap would insist that he get his hand looked at, although it wasn’t anything serious. Feeling like he was heading to his doom, Johnny climbed into the back and settled himself on the seat. From somewhere, he found a semblance of a smile for his patient.
At first, Johnny thought he might manage to escape unseen. Dr Early took charge of his patient, thanking Johnny for the vitals update, but this wasn’t a difficult case. After an x-ray, the young lady would be on her way. Johnny slunk out of the treatment room, but Roy had arrived by then and was talking to Dixie. For a moment, Johnny’s fear was so real he could taste it and he debated just going outside and getting into the squad. They couldn’t make him come back inside. He wasn’t really hurt after all... But then he sighed. They could make him come back in. Taking a deep breath, he joined his partner.
“Dr Morton can take a look at your hand, Johnny,” Dixie told him. “Kel’s busy.”
The relief was overwhelming. Although Johnny found Morton’s bedside manner even worse than Brackett’s, today he didn’t complain. If Brackett was busy, he wouldn’t have to have him peering at his teeth. Brackett had been quite adamant that only he could clear Johnny for dental work. Perhaps fate was on his side after all.
“What did you do this time?” Morton asked as Johnny came into the room.
“I just scraped my knuckles, doc,” Johnny told him sullenly. “It’s fine. Doesn’t even hurt.”
“Hmm,” Morton said, as he looked at Johnny’s hand. “Doesn’t hurt, huh?”
“Well, a bit,” Johnny admitted. He knew it would be hurting a whole lot more if he hadn’t had the painkillers earlier. “But it’s nothing serious.”
Feeling all around, Morton glanced up at Johnny now and then as he squeezed and pushed the grazed knuckles, but there was very little reaction. “Looks like you’re right,” he agreed at last. “I’ll give it a wash and put a couple of band aids on it. Just make sure you keep it clean.” He put some antiseptic in a bowl of water and dunked Johnny’s hand into it. It stung mightily for a few moments and Johnny thought of some choice words that he didn’t repeat. However, before too long, he was patched up and they were on their way.
Dr Brackett was standing by Dixie’s desk, looking at a chart.
He glanced up and smiled at the paramedics. “You got a moment, Doc?” Roy asked, grabbing Johnny firmly by the arm.
“Sure,” Brackett replied agreeably. “But hasn’t Johnny just seen Mike? Surely you don’t need a second opinion?”
“Not for his hand, but you still have to sign off on his dental work,” Roy reminded him.
“Oh, of course. It slipped my mind,” Brackett apologized. “Come on, John and I’ll have a look now.”
“Doc...” Johnny started, but he got no further. Brackett headed into the nearest treatment room and Johnny was left with no option but to follow. He shot Roy a murderous glare and went in, his heart rate increasing with every step he took.
The exam was mercifully brief, but no less traumatic for that. Images from his stay at Mercy General assaulted him the whole time and he had to sit on his hands to stop them shaking. The residual ache in his jaw started up again. “They look fine, Johnny,” Brackett assured him. “You can get those teeth fixed, but advise your dentist to go gently.” He looked more closely at his paramedic, who had his head down, gently supporting his jaw. “Is your jaw aching?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. He didn’t want to say how much it was aching.
“It’s still early days for the muscles healing,” Brackett sympathized. “Here.” He went over to a cabinet and took out some pills. “Take these just now and again before you go to the dentist. That should help. Ordinary, over-the-counter stuff will deal with it after that. And you’re safe to work with those, too. They won’t make you drowsy.”
“Thanks,” Johnny replied gratefully. Brackett had no idea how much he had just helped Johnny out. Perhaps the visit had been worth it.
The pills Brackett gave him helped a lot. Johnny made sure that he kept up with his over the counter stuff over the next few days and it worked beautifully. However, on his next shift, it wasn’t as easy to keep to regular times and the pain began to creep back. It wasn’t too bad, and Johnny reckoned that he could just grin and bear it. He’d had worse pain after all.
It was a particularly busy shift, with the squad on multiple runs alone as well as with the engine. They had two major fires to contend with as well with several serious casualties and one fatality. The alarm for the second fire had sounded at 2am and it was long after shift change before they were back at the barn.
By then, Johnny’s mouth was screaming in pain. He hadn’t had the chance to take anything for hours. He blamed his exhaustion for it, too. Pain was always worse when you were tired. He forced a weary smile at Roy, who decided to go home and shower, and bid him sleep well. He was going to shower at the station and take something before driving home. That way, all he had to do was fall into bed when he did get home.
It seemed like a great plan. He hadn’t counted on Chet getting to the shower before him and spending what seemed like an inordinate amount of time in there, singing very loudly and very off-key. Fortunately, Johnny didn’t think he knew the song that was being murdered, because if he had known it, he would have undoubtedly been put off it for life. As it was, it sounded rather like the sounds a cat makes when it gets stepped on accidentally. Discordant was something of an understatement.
Whether it was due to Chet’s singing, the pain or simple tiredness, Johnny didn’t feel the shower did him as much good as he had expected. He drove home with his teeth still throbbing fiercely. He found some codeine in his medicine cabinet and took that before falling into bed. He fell asleep quite quickly.
A huge bang from outside jerked him from sleep only about an hour later. At first, Johnny thought there’d been an accident nearby, but the sound of the rain and a subsequent rumble of thunder directly overheard corrected that assumption. The squall didn’t last long, but it took his last chance of sleep away.
The pain in his teeth was constant and excruciating. Even the codeine didn’t help, reducing the pain to merely agonizing. Still, Johnny thought he could tough it out and it would go away by morning. He was just over tired, which was true. Everything was worse when you were tired. He continued to lie in bed, hoping that he would fall asleep again, but he didn’t.
Hunger eventually drove him to get up. He heated a can of soup, for the thought of trying to chew anything was horrifying. He turned on the TV but even his favorite shows couldn’t distract him and when he put on the news, his name was there again as the reporters told of another twist to the story. He really didn’t need reminded of that just now.
Going back to bed at 10, Johnny fell into a light doze, but he knew he wasn’t really quite asleep. The pain was constant and the codeine was making him feel a bit queasy – or was that the pain, too? He lay on his side, the blankets tucked up against his chin to give some additional warmth, too scared to move in case he made the pain somehow worse.
It was a very long night.
Morning found Johnny a complete wreck. The pain was constant and he had to admit that it wasn’t just going to go away on its own. He had to get to a dentist and it had to be today. It sounded easy, but it wasn’t. Terror had him sitting looking at the phone for an hour before he managed to ring Joanne and ask for the names of the dentists she had found for him.
At the first surgery he rang, the snooty receptionist told him that they weren’t taking on any new patients for the time being, but if it was a real emergency, she would ask her boss if he could be fitted in sometime in the next week.
“But I’m in agony!” he protested. “I need seen today.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not our policy,” she replied, not sounding in the least sorry.
Things did not improve with the next surgery he tried. “I’m sorry, the practice is closed for three weeks,” the answering machine told him cheerfully. He groaned.
By this point, Johnny was shaking. Phoning was almost as bad as actually turning up and having to explain everything was traumatic enough without having to do it several times. He tried the last number Joanne had given him.
“I’m really sorry, but we don’t have any space until Friday,” the receptionist said and she did actually sound as though she was sorry.
In despair, Johnny turned to the phone book. Again and again he was refused the care he needed so urgently. Finally, he rang a small practice not that far from his home. He knew the building by sight and it was small and shabby. It didn’t look the nicest of places, but he was desperate. He explained quickly and his heart sank when the receptionist told him she had only just started working there that day and would phone him back in a few minutes.
The few minutes ticked on into an hour and Johnny finally phoned them back. He got another receptionist this time. Johnny explained again, almost on the verge of tears and this time, he got the help he needed. “Come at 1pm,” he was told.
Wiping his sweaty hands on his jeans, Johnny rang Roy. “I’ll come with you,” Roy insisted.
“You don’t have to,” Johnny protested weakly.
“I know I don’t,” Roy agreed. “But I’m coming anyway.”
“Thanks,” Johnny whispered, for he wasn’t sure he would have been able to go alone.
Waiting was the worst thing. While Johnny knew rationally that his imagination was getting the better of him and he was unlikely to be subjected to the things his mind conjured up, he was far from feeling rational. But, since his last memory of having work done to his mouth was the ghastly time at Mercy, he could be forgiven for that.
Strapped to a bed, given only a local anesthetic, Johnny had had to endure work on both his broken teeth and broken jaw. The memory was enough to make anyone feel ill and combined with that was the recollection that he had been treated that way because everyone at the hospital had assumed that he was a convicted dangerous criminal.
“Come on,” Roy said gently, his hand on Johnny’s back. “Let’s go.” He had arrived barely half an hour after Johnny had rung him. Johnny wasn’t sure how he would ever manage to thank Roy for his support. He stumbled out to the car and got in, feeling as though he was going to the gallows.
The surgery looked as run down and shabby as Johnny remembered. He walked inside on legs that had no sensation in them and gave his name at the desk. The receptionist smiled. “I took your call, Mr. Gage. I’m Steph, your nurse for today. I understand you’re quite nervous?”
Her sympathetic manner all but reduced Johnny to tears. He nodded and cleared his throat, but no words would come.
“John had a very bad experience recently with a dentist after he broke his jaw,” Roy explained, stepping smoothly into the breach. “Very bad indeed. He’s been in pain for days with his teeth and needs to get them seen to. His jaw muscles are still a bit tender, which won’t help.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Steph told Johnny. “The dentist is very good with people who are nervous and I know he’ll do everything he can to help you relax. Won’t you have a seat? I have some forms you need to fill out. I assume you have dental insurance?”
Dumbly, Johnny nodded. His hands were shaking so much he doubted if he would be able to hold a pen, but Roy again came to his rescue, filling in the forms in a matter-of-fact manner that left no room for embarrassment. Johnny sat there and reminded himself to breathe.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to sit there for more than a few minutes. Steph came to collect him, smiling prettily. “You can come, too,” she said to Roy and Johnny was pathetically grateful when he followed.
Dimly, it occurred to Johnny that the interior of the surgery didn’t match the exterior. The carpets were new and obviously of some hard wearing mixture in a dark blue color. The walls were pale with an occasional large colorful picture of a flower. The waiting room had had fairly comfortable chairs in it, as well as a TV tuned to a news station. The surgery he was shown into was neatly laid out and gleaming.
“How do you do, Mr. Gage? I’m Dr Salim. Please, take a seat.” He gestured towards the dental chair. Looking at it, Johnny gulped and was almost sick on the spot. He found himself in the chair. “I’m just going to look, Mr. Gage,” Salim said, pulling on a pair of gloves. “Nothing more.” He looked into Johnny’s mouth for a moment, then leant back.
“It looks like a bit of the tooth in question has broken off,” he explained. “I’m going to numb your mouth to have a closer look. If at any point you need me to stop, just raise your left hand. All right?” Johnny nodded, his heart pounding so hard in his chest, he wondered that nobody else could hear it. “I’m afraid this is going to be the worst part. I’m sorry.”
Squeezing his eyes shut, Johnny opened his mouth to let the dentist inject the local. As the needle pierced his flesh, he was overwhelmed with flashbacks and couldn’t stop the whimper that escaped as the numbing agent went in.
“Try to relax, Mr. Gage,” Steph soothed. “Try to relax.”
“Almost done,” Salim assured him. “There!” He withdrew the needle and patted Johnny’s shoulder. “Well done. Why don’t you rinse?”
Opening his eyes, Johnny shakily sat up and located the cup of mouth rinse. He swilled and spat and a hand gave him a tissue to wipe his mouth. Raising his eyes, Johnny nodded his thanks to Roy. Still trembling uncontrollably, Johnny sank back into the seat.
His mouth numbed quickly, although Johnny could still feel the pain from his sore tooth. After checking that Johnny was numb, Salim started working. He used the drill, working in short bursts, constantly asking Johnny if he was all right and not prolonging the procedure.
“I can still feel the tooth,” Johnny managed to mumble when Salim sat back.
“The nerve has obviously been touched by something,” Salim explained. “It isn’t exposed, or the pain would be worse. I know that’s hard to believe, but trust me. What I’m going to do is drill out the tooth and put in a dressing. We need to cap those teeth, but we won’t be doing that today. I’ll probably have to do a root canal on that tooth, but again, that isn’t something we’ll do today. I’ll take it slowly, Mr. Gage, don’t worry. And we’ll get rid of that pain for you. You probably won’t feel the benefit until tomorrow, but that’s because you’re tense and your jaw will be sore. Now, are you able to let me go on or do you want to rest a few more minutes?”
“Go on,” Johnny responded. “Let’s get it over with.”
All in all, it could have been worse. Even so, it was bad enough. There were twinges of pain and a couple of times Johnny couldn’t contain gasps of pain. At one point, Roy stepped forward and grasped Johnny’s hand. Unashamedly, Johnny clutched back. He was beyond pride. Salim checked regularly that Johnny was coping and always told him what was about to be done.
At length, it was over. It probably hadn’t lasted as long as Johnny thought it had, but it was more than long enough. Shakily, he sat up and rinsed his mouth. He felt like he had just fought a three alarm fire alone for several hours. He was absolutely exhausted.
“Make an appointment for a week and we’ll get that fixed for you,” Salim promised. “I hope it wasn’t too stressful for you.”
“Thank you,” Johnny croaked. “I’m sorry to have been such an idiot.”
“You’ve been nothing of the kind,” denied Salim kindly. “I’ve had worse patients that you in here.” He helped Johnny to his feet and Roy then put a hand under his arm. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Gage and I’ll see you in a week. Of course, if there are any more problems, don’t hesitate to call me.”
Thanking the dentist once more and feeling like a prize chump, Johnny tottered weakly out of the office and slumped into the passenger seat of Roy’s car. He was glad he wasn’t driving, as he doubted if he had the concentration to do so.
“Why don’t you lie down?” Roy suggested then they got back to Johnny’s. “I’ll waken you in about an hour or so, and that way you’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
“Sounds good,” Johnny agreed. He snuggled back into his bed, but although he dozed, he didn’t really fall asleep. The local was wearing off and his tooth and jaw were aching. He rose readily when Roy came through and found that Roy had made him something to eat and there were painkillers waiting for him. Embarrassed all over again by his friend’s kindness, Johnny wolfed the food down.
“How’re you feeling now?” Roy asked once he had finished.
“Much better, thank you.” Johnny blushed. “Roy, I don’t know how to thank you. Back there, I made such a fool of myself...”
“Johnny, you did what you had to do to get through it,” Roy interrupted gently. “I defy anyone to go through what you had done and not have problems afterwards. Lots of people are dental phobic.” He rose. “If you’re feeling okay, I’m going to head on home. But any problems and you phone me, okay?”
“Okay,” Johnny agreed. “Thanks again.” He rose and went to the door to see Roy out. When he was alone, Johnny slumped down on the couch. He couldn’t think of a time when he had felt so totally and utterly drained.
The only problem was he had to go back the following week.
After a good night’s sleep, Johnny woke the next morning and the pain in his jaw was gone. He bounced out of bed and into the shower, feeling like all was right with his world. He still couldn’t believe that he had made such a fool of himself the day before, but he was learning not to beat himself up over it. As long as the dentist took things slowly, Johnny thought he would be able to deal with it. He felt like that right up to the moment when he looked in the mirror to start shaving.
He looked like a chipmunk.
Okay, that was an exaggeration. He actually looked like half a chipmunk. His face was swollen along his jaw on one side and when Johnny poked the swelling experimentally, although what he thought might happen was anyone’s guess, he discovered that his jaw was also numb from part way along to the point of his chin on that side.
This was not good. This was not good at all. Johnny peered at himself, willing the swelling and numbness to go away. He ate breakfast, then went back to peer in the mirror some more. The swelling was still there. The numbness hadn’t improved. He had two choices.
He could grin and bear it.
Or he could admit there was a problem and go back to the dentist.
Sighing and feeling that everything was against him, he dialed the dentist’s number.
On the outside, Johnny appeared to be totally calm. He was actually feeling rather detached from his feelings in a fatalistic kind of way. He wasn’t surprised that he seemed to have an infection going and he wouldn’t be surprised if the tooth had to be pulled. If it was pulled, at least it would all be over with, even if it did leave an unwanted gap in his mouth.
As instructed, he went straight over. The pretty nurse, Steph, from the day before was there and she asked him to sit down for a few moments until the dentist was ready for him. There were another couple of people in the waiting room who eyed him suspiciously, but he ignored them. His heart rate had picked up, but he was still in control and that pleased him.
Dr Salim came out a moment later and took Johnny through to the surgery. Without being asked, Johnny sat into the chair. Salim snapped on gloves and looked into Johnny’s mouth gently. “You’ve got an infection,” he stated. “I had hoped to avoid that, but it happens. I could just remove the tooth for you now, but I’m sure I can save it with a root canal and cap. Either way, you’ll have to take antibiotics, and to be honest, I’m reluctant to just pull the tooth today. I could rupture the abscess and then we might run into more difficulties.” He looked at Johnny. “What do you want to do?”
“Just leave it,” Johnny responded. “It’s not sore.”
“That’s a good sign, actually,” Salim assured him. “And when Steph first told me that you had a numb jaw, I had a horrible feeling I might have damaged a nerve in there. But I haven’t. This is being caused by the pocket of infection in there.” He pulled his gloves off and dumped them in the bin. “Are you allergic to penicillin, Mr. Gage?”
“No,” Johnny replied. He felt almost light-headed with relief. No more treatment today.
“Here you are.” Salim handed him a script. “If you have any problems at all, get back to me. I don’t anticipate anything.”
“Am I all right to work tomorrow?” Johnny asked. “I’m a firefighter and work 24 hour shifts.”
“If you feel up to it, I don’t see why not,” Salim replied. “See you at your next appointment.”
Feeling lighter at heart, Johnny headed to the nearest pharmacy to fill the prescription and went home to rest some more.
When he woke the next morning, Johnny felt wiped out. Knowing that antibiotics could do that, he dragged himself out of bed, knowing that it was better to keep going and take his mind off himself, rather than lie about at home feeling sorry for himself. He felt better after a shower and headed off to work.
“Dang, Gage, you look rough,” Chet commented as he went into the locker room. “What’d you do to your face this time?”
“Shut up Chet,” Johnny retorted, changing his clothes. “I’ve got a dental abscess, if you must know.”
“Are you okay to work, pal?” Cap asked.
“The dentist said I was, Cap,” he replied honestly. “I just don’t look so good.”
“That’s an understatement,” Chet jibed.
“Shut up, Chet,” Roy and Cap chorused.
The shift was a long one. Johnny was completely professional on runs and rested as much as he could in between, but he was feeling more and more drained. He sloped off to bed early and was in a deep sleep when the others filed in. They were fortunate and got to sleep undisturbed all night, but when the tones went off, Johnny felt as tired as he had the night before.
As he slumped at the table over a cup of coffee, Johnny could feel Roy looking at him. He summoned a wan smile. “It’s just the antibiotics, Roy,” he mumbled. “And I’ve taken them all like I should.”
“I know you did,” Roy agreed. “Go home and get some more sleep.”
“Don’t worry, I plan to,” Johnny yawned. He poked experimentally at his jaw. It was still numb and still swollen but at least the tooth wasn’t sore. It was clearly just going to take a couple of days for the antibiotics to kick in properly.
When he arrived home, Johnny once again fell into bed. He was asleep in moments, although he thought he probably should have done some chores first. But with a mental shrug as he snuggled under the covers, he knew the chores would still be waiting for him when he woke a couple of hours later.
It was late afternoon at the DeSoto household. Roy had spent the day doing yard chores and he was gulping down a cold soda when Joanne came out onto the deck. “Roy, I’ve been trying to phone Johnny and ask him over for dinner,” she said in a worried tone. “He’s not answering his phone.”
“Well, it’s a nice day,” Roy replied, looking up at the clear blue sky above him and wiping sweat off his brow. “He’s probably outside doing something.”
“Maybe,” Joanne murmured doubtfully. “But if he’s as wiped out as you said, surely he should just be taking it easy?”
“This is Johnny we’re talking about,” Roy reminded her. “The human jumping bean? The man who can wear our children out without using up any energy?” But despite the teasing comments, a niggle of worry entered his mind.
“I know,” Joanne agreed doubtfully. “But, Roy...” She paused. A frown crossed her forehead. “I’m worried, honey.”
“I’ll go over and check on him and bring him back for dinner,” Roy told her. “I’ll just wash up first.” He put down the can of soda and was gone within ten minutes.
As Joanne watched him leave, she tried to convince herself that the anxiety she felt was just her imagination getting the better of her. But somehow she knew it wasn’t.
There was no sign of life at Johnny’s place. The door was locked, but his Rover was parked outside. Roy knocked on the door, but there was no answer. His own anxiety ratcheted up by Joanne’s concern, Roy fished out his keys and let himself in.
The house was still and quiet and slightly untidy. It was nothing out of the ordinary, with a couple of magazines lying on the floor and a mug in the sink. While Johnny kept his ranch house nice, he also didn’t want to live in a show place. His house was a home.
There was no response to his call, so Roy went on towards the bedroom, his foreboding growing with every step. The bedroom was dark and warm and Roy could hear Johnny’s breathing. “Johnny?”
Again, there was no response. Alarmed now, for Johnny was a light sleeper under normal circumstances, Roy strode across the room. His partner lay twisted in the blankets, his flushed swollen face the only part of him visible. Roy put his hand gently on Johnny’s forehead and found what he had expected but hoped not to find. His partner was burning up with fever.
Lifting the bedside phone, Roy immediately called for a squad and ambulance. He stripped the covers off Johnny and went to the bathroom and soaked a washcloth he found there. Returning, he sat on the edge of the bed and began to smooth the cool, wet cloth over Johnny’s face and torso.
After a few minutes of this treatment, Johnny began to stir, clutching feebly at the blankets as he shivered violently. His eyes finally opened and he gazed blearily at Roy. “Wha... you... doin’... here?” he mumbled.
“You didn’t answer your phone,” Roy told him. “We were worried.”
“Don’ feel too good,” Johnny muttered. “M’cold.”
“I know you think so, but you’re not,” Roy soothed. “I’ve got a squad coming.”
“Oh,” sighed Johnny. He was too exhausted to put up any kind of fight. And the way he felt right now, perhaps it would be good to go to Rampart so he could feel a bit better. “I think I’m sick,” he concluded. He wiped feebly at his chin, for it felt a bit like he was drooling, although he wasn’t.
“I think so, too,” Roy smiled. At least Johnny was coherent. He quickly phoned Joanne and updated her, and by then the squad had arrived. They contacted Rampart, started an IV and packaged Johnny up for transport. He was on his way within 20 minutes.
It was a concerned Dr Brackett who was waiting for Johnny to arrive. He had been supposed to be off that night, but another ER doctor had called in sick and Brackett’s name was top of the list. It was one of the lesser joys of being head of the ER.
The paramedic with Johnny flashed a smile at Brackett as they arrived. “He’s more coherent now he’s got some fluid on board,” Johnson reported. “Vitals are BP 110/70, respirations 20 and pulse 100. His auxiliary temp is 102o.”
“Thanks,” Brackett nodded, knowing that he could almost certainly add another degree onto Johnny’s reported temperature. He leaned over the stretcher as Johnson left. “How are you doing, Johnny?”
“I’m cold,” Johnny replied. He felt absolutely ghastly, too. He shivered. “Where’s Roy?”
“He’ll be here in a minute,” Brackett soothed. “Can you tell me what’s been happening? Why is your face so swollen? Did something happen at work?”
“Not at work,” Johnny mumbled. He wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep and wake up when this whole nightmare was over. “I went to the dentist ‘cos my tooth hurt,” he explained, not wanting to go into the details of how traumatic that whole thing had been. “I musta got an infection. I got antibiotics, but I didn’t feel too good at work yesterday. Not really sure what happened today,” he admitted. “The last thing I remember is going to bed. Then Roy was there.”
“All right.” Brackett patted the paramedic’s shoulder. “I’ll track Roy down and see what he can tell me. I’ll be right back.” He ordered some blood tests and then headed out into the corridor, looking for Roy and found him a few minutes later trotting into the department.
“Doc! How’s Johnny?”
“He’s pretty sick,” Brackett admitted. “Come on in with me and tell me what’s going on.” He led the way into the treatment room. As they walked, Roy sketched in the outline of Johnny’s dental visit, skipping over his partner’s sheer terror. There was no need to tell the world and his dog about that. While it was nothing to be ashamed of, Roy knew that Johnny didn’t want everyone to know.
“It sounds like the antibiotic he was prescribed hasn’t been hitting the bugs,” Brackett mused. “Do you have it, Roy?”
“Here.” Roy took the bottle of pills from his pocket. “He took them religiously, Doc. I know he took one this morning, but I don’t think he’s had any more today. I’m pretty sure he’s been sleeping all day.”
Looking at the label, Brackett shrugged. “I doubt those missed pills would have made a lot of difference,” he admitted. “Either the dosage isn’t strong enough or it’s simply the wrong type of antibiotic for the bug that Johnny has, or a combination of both. The dentist might not be used to dealing with patients who have no spleen and not realize that the risk of infection is greater and John’s ability to fight it off is weaker.” He walked over to the table and gently shook Johnny awake. “Johnny, I’m going to take an x-ray of your skull to look at your teeth. Hopefully by then some of the bloods should be back. But you’re going to be here for a few days on IV antibiotics.”
“I took my pills,” Johnny protested weakly.
“Yes, I know,” Brackett smiled sympathetically. “But you need something a lot stronger.” He glanced at Roy. “Why don’t you visit with Roy till x-ray gets here and then he can come back and keep you company until we get you settled into a room? After that, you can go back to sleep and he can go home.”
Although the only thing he was wanted to do was sleep, Johnny nodded. If it would make him feel better, he thought he could handle that. He forced his eyes open and hoped Roy would do all the talking.
“He was asleep when I left, Cap,” Roy concluded. “But he’s going to be in Rampart for several days and then off a couple more days after that.”
“I should have sent him home,” Cap lamented. “I didn’t think he looked all that good, even allowing for how swollen his jaw was.”
“He wasn’t feeling particularly ill, Cap,” Roy protested. “He was just wrung out from the antibiotics. You know how that feels. But the bugs just managed to get ahead of him. Dr Brackett says the antibiotics simply weren’t strong enough, since Johnny hasn’t got a spleen.”
A sigh travelled clearly over the phone lines. Since Johnny had been hit by that car, he had had cold after cold, illness after illness and it wasn’t fair. The car driver hadn’t even gone to jail; he had been fined and banned from driving for three months and made to take refresher driving lessons. Within six months, the man would have ‘paid his debt to society’, but Johnny would have to put up with this for the rest of his life. Cap was still angry about the whole situation, even though Johnny seemed to have made some sort of peace with it all.
“I know,” Roy agreed. “We all feel like that.” While they all knew life wasn’t fair, it seemed particularly unfair to the A shift of Station 51.
“Keep me updated, Roy,” Cap requested. “I’ll go in to see him tomorrow, all things being equal.” That translated to ‘if Johnny is up to visitors and I don’t come down with something catching in the meantime’. It was amazing the subtext that you could put into sentences.
As Roy hung up the phone, Joanne handed him a beer. The evening was well advanced. The children were in bed and Roy had been kindly pushed out by the nursing staff. He had phoned the others from the crew, concluding with Cap, who had been out the first time Roy had phoned. “You need to relax, honey,” she told him and sat down beside him on the couch and leaned against his shoulder.
“I am relaxing now,” Roy replied. “Johnny’s in the best place and everyone knows who should know. There’s nothing more I can do tonight.”
“Except pray,” Joanne concluded.
The stronger, strain specific heavy-duty antibiotics that Johnny was receiving intravenously were a mixed blessing. They were certainly killing the bugs, but they also had side effects – namely dreadful diarrhea. For the first 24 hours, Johnny was in no condition to have visitors and he felt awful. After that, he improved slightly and the drugs the doctors gave him for the diarrhea brought it under control and they were able to keep him hydrated more easily. By the third day, his white blood count was dropping nicely, his jaw was visibly less swollen and he had feeling back in most of it. He was up to receiving his first visitors that day.
After five days of IV antibiotics, Johnny was declared over the infection, although there was still a small area of numbness along his chin, but he only noticed it when he touched it. Dr Brackett assured him that it would go in a few more days.
It would be another few weeks before Johnny could even think of going back to work and only then if Dr Brackett okayed it. He had lost some weight that he would need to make up and Brackett also wanted to see him after his dental appointment, just to be on the safe side. He had missed the original appointment and Dr Salim had been most upset when he heard that the infection had got out of control.
“How do you feel about going back, after all this happened?” Roy asked, after tentatively telling Johnny the date that had been set for his next appointment.
For a moment, Johnny thought about it. “I hope I’ll be all right,” he responded finally. “I’m never going to be happy going to the dentist, Roy and there may be some times when I am going to be in as bad a state as I was the other week. I think I just have to accept that. I’ve always been scared of the dentist for as long as I can remember and that’s not something that’s going to go away overnight, if at all, after all these years.” He sighed and wiped a hand down his face. “I may have to ask you to help me again,” he went on. “But Dr Salim is a good guy. As long as it’s him I’m seeing, I think I might be all right. And as I said to you before, I’ve got pretty good teeth. Once these ones are fixed, hopefully it’ll be a long time before I have to have anything else done.”
“I hope so, too,” Roy said. “And I’ll come with you any time you ask.”
“Thanks, Roy. I mean it. Thanks for everything.”
Four days later, Johnny went alone, still scared, and had his teeth capped. Still shaking all over once it was done, he drove home, stripped off his sweaty clothes and had a long, hot shower. Fully dressed again, he picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
“I did it,” he declared proudly.
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