On Monday morning, the day after the incident at the Surfrider and the second day of a three-day shift, Colt turned himself inside out with the rest of the 88’s during the physical training hour. He and Moose were in the midst of their weekly sit-up contest. Colt was just over six feet tall, thin and wiry and had great endurance. The problem was that Moose was bigger and stronger and built like a pro football wide receiver. Colt hadn’t won the challenge in the five weeks since he’d joined the B-Shift. Each week, he tried with new determination. Each week, Moose was still crunching away after Colt was exhausted.
“You lose again, pussy,” Moose said. He stood up and wiped the sweat from his face. Looming over Colt, his 6’ 3” body looked like a telephone pole on steroids.
“Damn,” Colt groaned, “I’m done.” He rolled over, forehead on the cement, waiting for his stomach muscles to stop cramping.
Brian poured half a bottle of water on Colt’s back. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with young people these days,” he said. “You’re such weaklings.”
“OK guys, turnout gear and SCBA’s.” Captain Ames came out the back of the equipment room. “We’re gonna work on air management.” He rolled a tractor-sized tire partway down the street behind the station.
Colt groaned again. “Can I test mine here on the cement?” Full gear and the SCBA—self contained breathing apparatus—weighed 65 pounds. For this drill, they had to run down the street in full gear, carrying sledgehammers, stop, pound on the tractor tire several times, run back and repeat the process until their air was gone. Colt stood up and went into the station to get his turnouts.
While they suited up, Captain Ames joined Colt and said, “You can’t practice this enough. You’ve got to know breathing control and how much air you have.”
“I know, I know,” Colt said, waving him away.
Captain Ames persisted. “You’d be surprised how many experienced firefighters make mistakes. There’s air in the tank for maybe 13 minutes going into a structure and 13 minutes coming out. If you get stuck in a fully involved fire with 6 minutes of air, you’re in deep shit and you may not even know it. You have to monitor your air gauge.”
Colt knew the various tricks like skip-breathing to save oxygen, but as he ran back and forth on the street, swinging the hammer, his respiration increased. He was having trouble breathing and was gulping air. His lungs were on fire. As he slowed down, Captain Ames, Brian and Moose ran past him at full speed. If he were climbing a smoky stairwell in a burning building, lugging tools and extra air bottles, he would be in trouble. Colt checked the time. Only eight minutes had passed; something was wrong. He felt light-headed, staggered to a stop, loosened the straps on his mask, yanked it off and sat down on the curb, sucking deep breaths of fresh air.
While Moose and Brian continued their workout, Captain Ames came over to Colt. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“I can’t breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out.”
“Oh yeah?” Captain Ames stared at Colt, with a smirk on his face. “What a surprise. Did you check your air valve?”
“No, you didn’t. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Your valve is halfway shut.”
“Yeah. It is. I know, because I tightened it and you didn’t check it. That’s a rookie’s mistake.”
Colt took the tank off his back, laid it on the ground and checked the valve. Captain Ames was right. He turned it three revolutions to the left to open a full flow. He looked up and shook his head.
“Finish your workout, Einstein,” Captain Ames said.
After inserting fresh air tanks in the SCBA’s and leaving their gear in the engine bay, the crew gathered in the kitchen to cool down, rehydrate and eat breakfast. The station, number 88 of 187 fire stations in Los Angeles County, was one of the smallest. It was tucked in behind a shopping center off Pacific Coast Highway in the heart of Malibu. The kitchen was a walk-in closet. When the men sat at the table, they could lean their chairs back against the stove and dishwasher on one side and the refrigerator and cupboards on the other.
Colt shoveled oatmeal into his mouth. He paused for a moment and said, “Someone took it home.”
“Took what home?” Captain Ames said, washing down a handful of vitamins with black coffee.
“You still thinking about the foot?” Brian said.
“Forget it,” Moose said. He took alternate bites of sections of an orange and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Colt finished his oatmeal and reached for a donut. “One of the sheriff’s deputies told me people sometimes steal severed limbs. It’s a crime, aggravated mayhem, but people do it.”
Captain Ames leafed through the morning’s incoming e-mail from Command and Control while he drank his coffee. “Are they investigating?” he asked.
“The Sheriff’s Department?” Colt said, and shook his head. “No. Low priority. The deputy said it would be a wild goose chase. Of course, if I found out who took it, I could always make a citizen’s arrest.”
“A citizen’s arrest?” Moose said. “Gimme a break. What TV shows have you been watching?” He dripped purple globs of jelly on the table.
Colt looked at him. “That’s disgusting. Why don’t you eat something healthy, like a donut?”
Moose held up a piece of the orange. “You know,” he said, “I think you’re suffering from Sexual Dependence Transference. The medical term is SDT.”
“What?” Colt said.
“You and your girlfriend break up and two weeks later you’re obsessing about some girl involved in an accident. Someone you don’t even know. If that’s not SDT, I don’t know what is.”
“I’ve heard of an STD, but never SDT,” Brian said.
“That’s because I just made it up,” Moose said. He walked around the table, locked one arm around Colt’s head and ground his knuckles hard against Colt’s scalp.
“Hey!” Colt squirmed.
“Forget about yesterday and find yourself a new girlfriend. You need to get laid,” Moose said.
“Speaking of getting laid,” Captain Ames said, “did you get a look at that chick with the tattoos at the Surfrider? In the tank top and shorts? I’m on the radio calling AirSquad about a life and death situation and I’m thinking about what she looks like with her clothes off.”
“I thought when you’re over 30 you lose interest in sex,” Moose said.
“How about the guy standing next to her?” Colt said, rubbing his head. “At the beach, in the summer, its 80 degrees and he’s dressed from head to toe in black. How come there’s so many weirdos in Malibu? No one ever dressed like that in Wyoming.”
“The foot’ll turn up,” Brian said. “In the next couple of days, someone’ll drive over it in the parking lot and have a heart attack. We’ll be called back.”
Moose made another sandwich and washed it down with Gatorade. He wiped the jelly off the table, looked at the clock, stood up and said, “I’m gonna go check the engine.”
Colt, Brian and Captain Ames remained at the table.
“I just filled out your four-week review,” Brian said to Colt.
“I’m going down on Thursday to meet with Nurse Sandy,” Colt said.
Nurse Sandy was Colt’s field coordinator at the Paramedic Training Institute. She supervised the new paramedics and conducted two face-to-face reviews during their 20-shift internships in the field. She was a no-nonsense woman who had been around forever. She had the power to extend an internship, or even terminate it. She was fair, but tough, and had chewed a second asshole in more than one newbie. Colt was nervous about the upcoming meeting.
“Don’t worry,” Brian said, “I gave you pretty good marks.”
“You’re doing great on the skills, but you’re still a little stressed.”
“I’m still getting used to being responsible for whether a person lives or dies,” Colt said. “What if I screw up and make a mistake? What if I forget to do something? There’s so much to remember.” Colt got up, filled his coffee mug and looked out at PCH through one of the small windows in the kitchen. “Like yesterday. That girl, Bibi, was lying on the pavement and her foot’s cut off. There’s no one with her and she’s looking at me with those deep blue eyes. So I tell her everything’s gonna be OK. Then we can’t find her foot.”
“That’s what I mean. You’re a little stressed,” Brian said.
“You do everything you can,” Captain Ames said, “but if you can’t pull it off, it’s not your fault. You can’t perform miracles. You’re gonna lose some people.”
“Don’t second-guess yourself,” Brian said. “Don’t get emotionally involved with your patients. If you start asking ‘what if,’ it never stops. You have to wall it off. You understand what I’m saying?”
Colt nodded. “I guess so. I just don’t want to let anyone down.”
“You’re gonna see stuff on a day-to-day basis that most people don’t see in their lifetimes,” Captain Ames said. “It’ll start coming back at you in your dreams if you let it. It’ll tear you apart. When I had paramedic training, we spent a week at County Hospital. All the homeless people came to the ER for treatment. They had everything you can imagine. The pediatric cases were the worst. I remember one little girl, she couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. She comes in with her crack-head mother. They’re both filthy and they stink. The kid had live maggots in an open sore on her leg. They were eating her flesh. I couldn’t think about anything else for a week. That’s when I realized if I let it get to me, I would never make it.”
“Thanks for sharing that over breakfast,” Colt said.
“Let’s get to work,” Captain Ames said.
Monday was a slow day for 88’s—there was only one serious incident, late in the morning. Brian and Colt responded to an accident in which a motorcycle tried to pass an SUV and clipped the side view mirror. The old Harley flipped over and the rider went down hard. The bike, low rider bars twisted, lay in pieces on the highway. The gas tank, painted with a yellow and red flame design, had ripped away from the frame and left a trail of fuel as it tumbled over toward the center divider.
Colt and Brian arrived and went to work. The rider lay in the middle of the right hand traffic lane, moaning in pain. He had severe road rash and raw flesh showed through the shredded leather on the right side of his body. He also had an exposed fracture on his right leg and half a dozen Sheriffs’ deputies were already on the scene, stopping northbound traffic, standing over the injured rider, interviewing the shaken driver of the SUV and clearing the biggest pieces of metal debris off the pavement.
Brian immobilized the biker’s neck with a C-collar while Colt checked his vitals and started an IV. When they were certain he was stabilized, Brian put a splint on the injured leg. Colt began to cut off the bloody clothes. They didn’t even try to remove the carbon fiber reinforced motorcycle boots.
“Don’t ruin my leathers,” the biker said between grunts of pain.
“Sorry man, they’re already ruined,” Colt said, and continued to cut. “Just take it easy, we’re gonna fix you up and get you to the hospital.” Colt looked at the biker. He saw pain in the dark brown eyes, and maybe a little fear, but not death. Colt knew he would survive the crash.
“What about my bike?”
“The Sheriff’s Department will take care of it,” Brian said.
When Colt removed the biker’s shirt, he saw the flesh scraped away from shoulder to hip. The man had a large belly and a mat of black hair grew over an eagle tattoo on his chest. Colt thought again of the stunning girl with the tattoos standing in the Surfrider parking lot.
Within twenty minutes, they had the injured biker in the LifeLine ambulance and on his way to the ER. Brian filled out the run report while Colt replaced their gear in the squad. They stood around for a few minutes, made small talk with the Sheriff’s deputies and then headed back to 88’s. In the squad, Brian radioed the station, then said, “The guy’s lucky he didn’t end up under the rear wheel of that SUV.”
Colt wasn’t listening. “I googled the name Bibi,” he said. “It’s a French name, it means ‘a lady’.”
“Well, the lady was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens.”
“I’m gonna go see her.”
“I’m going over to the hospital to see her.”
“No, you’re not. No way.” Brian glared at Colt. “Drop it. You don’t even know her. Did you hear anything we said this morning? You can’t get involved in this stuff.”
Colt stared out the windshield, avoiding Brian’s gaze.
“Don’t be so damn stubborn Colt, it’ll only lead to trouble. As your preceptor, I’m telling you not to go. Our job is to rescue and stabilize injured people and send them on to the hospital. It stops there. That’s it. You don’t owe anyone more than that. If they make it, fine. If not, that’s the way it is.” Brian honked at a car making a left hand turn in front of the squad and swore under his breath. “You’re not supposed to look into the eyes of an accident victim and start to care. Got it? End of discussion. I can still change your four-week evaluation report.”
Colt kept thinking about Bibi and was quiet during the remainder of the shift. When it was over, he left the station without saying anything and drove to the California University Hospital on the west side of Los Angeles. He parked his pickup near the emergency entrance, placed his Fire/Paramedic sign on the dashboard and went through the double doors to the ER. Two Los Angeles City Fire paramedics preceded him, rolling a woman in on a gurney. Colt glanced at her face. Her eyes were closed. The eyes always bothered him. Colt preferred that the injured be unconscious. Even if they couldn’t speak, when their eyes were open, they pleaded for help, like his father had done.
The hospital was a modern facility. The ER was spotless. Compared with the two trauma centers where Colt had done his clinical training, both of which were crowded and chaotic and where patients spent a lot of wall time in the halls waiting for an examination room, this was spacious, almost luxurious. Colt walked in past the sign with instructions printed in 12 languages.
Paramedics and EMT’s from various fire departments and ambulance services stood talking, drinking coffee and filling out endless forms.
Two LAPD officers watched over a man with a gunshot wound, handcuffed to a gurney. Colt heard a doctor tell them, “When the bullet hit his femur, it must have fragmented. He’s got holes in his stomach and intestines.”
From one of the examination rooms, Colt heard a woman cry out. Someone said, “Lay back, honey, we’re gonna give you some medicine to make the pain go away.”
A surgical team wheeled a critical patient, hooked up to several IV’s and bleeding from the face and neck, down the hall.
Doctors moved from room to room, wearing gloves and masks.
Nurses consulted computer screens.
The phones rang.
The automatic doors opened with a hiss, and new patients were wheeled in.
Colt was already beginning to recognize many of the paramedics and some of the hospital staff. He approached one of the nurses, a muscular black man. “We sent a girl in yesterday from Malibu,” Colt said. “Around 3:30 by AirSquad. Maybe 22 or 23. Severed foot.”
“And?” the nurse asked.
“And I wanted to check on her.”
The nurse raised his eyebrows. “I can’t tell you anything, you know that.”
“C’mon man,” Colt insisted.
“You know the HIPAA rules. I could get canned.”
“We couldn’t find her foot. I want to tell her we tried.”
The nurse scratched the stubble on his cheek and lowered his voice. “You didn’t get this from me, Bro.”
“I understand,” Colt said, moving closer to him.
“She didn’t make it. Bled out and died on the helo. Cardiac arrest.”
“No.” Colt exhaled as though he had been punched in the stomach. Even though she was a complete stranger, Colt felt as though he knew her. He felt devastated. One minute she was enjoying a beautiful afternoon at the beach and the next minute some idiot hits a light pole, it cuts off her foot and she bleeds to death. No one deserved that.
“The body went to the morgue.” The nurse looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Last I heard, they hadn’t identified her.”
“Her first name was Bibi.” Colt remembered every detail of her pretty, tanned face, her ocean blue eyes and blond hair. He thought about the bleeding stump of her right leg. He hoped she had been unconscious on the AirSquad, but imagined her still awake, lying in the helicopter, terrified, surrounded by strangers and feeling her life draining away. Now her body was on a metal gurney in the basement of the L.A. County morgue. “What if someone’s sitting around, waiting for her to show up?” Colt said to the nurse. “What if they still think she’s alive?”
The nurse shrugged. “What if?”
“She must have a family or a boyfriend,” Colt said. Someone would eventually have to retrieve a bag from the Medical Examiner containing her blue CALIFORNIA T-shirt and white shorts spattered with blood.
Colt needed fresh air. He always entered through the back end of the ER and had never exited through the front of the hospital. “How do I get out of here?” he asked.
“Straight down this hall.” The nurse pointed. “You go through two sets of doors and come out in the front lobby by the elevators. Make a left.”
“Thanks, I owe you.” Colt clapped him on the shoulder.
He followed the nurse’s directions and exited the front of the hospital into a courtyard filled with benches and tables formed by the surrounding buildings. He sat down and checked his watch. It was almost 7:00 p.m. The warm September evening still had another hour of daylight. Visitors entered and exited the hospital. Groups of doctors in white jackets, some with stethoscopes in their side pockets and pagers clipped to their belts, sat around drinking coffee. Healthcare staff in blue gowns and surgical assistants in green scrubs sat at other tables, talking and eating. Some checked text messages. A patient in a hospital gown, accompanied by a nurse’s aide, pulled an aluminum rack with IV’s toward the entrance. Students with bags filled with books walked through the square, using it as a shortcut to other destinations.
Everyone was with someone, drawing strength from companionship. Colt sat alone. A strong gust of wind blew dust through the hospital courtyard, caught loose newspapers, empty cups and napkins and swirled them into the air.
Another dust devil from another time twisted toward Colt from the far side of a corral while he sat on a split rail fence and watched his father break a stallion.
“Damn you, you son of a bitch,” his father cursed at the horse. He pulled at the reins and gouged its flanks with his spurs. The horse reared up and threw him out of the saddle. It had happened before, but this time his father’s boot caught in the stirrup. He tried to kick free as the panicked animal dragged him across the dirt.
Colt was off the fence, running across the corral and screaming when the horse kicked his father on the side of the head. His foot came out of his boot and he fell to the ground. The stallion retreated to the fence at the far end of the corral, pawed the ground and watched. “Stay there, you fucker,”Colt screamed.
Colt knelt down and rolled his father onto his back. His eyes were open and he was still breathing, but his temple was caved in. The right side of his skull looked as though a sledgehammer had hit it. One ear hung by a strip of flesh. Blood oozed out. Colt touched his father’s head and looked at the red liquid on his fingers.
“Dad?” Tears welled up. “Dad?” A chill passed through Colt’s body. His father’s eyes were open. He moved his lips but made no sound. Colt left him lying on his back in the dirt and ran up to the house to call Fire and Rescue. It was a 20-minute trip out from Sheridan and he already knew his father wouldn’t survive. When he returned to the corral, his father, eyes still open, was dead.
“Can we share the table?”
The corral dissolved and Colt looked up at two nurses holding green plastic trays. “All yours,” he said. He stood up and ran his hands through his hair, as if to clear his head of the memories. Evening shadows stretched across the courtyard, climbing the buildings on the far side.
Colt walked out onto the campus, full of open plazas surrounded by brick and stone buildings. He had driven past California University and had brought patients into the ER, but he had never been on the campus. It went on forever. He followed the broad sidewalks past centers, halls and institutes surrounded by pine and eucalyptus. Jacaranda trees with delicate canopies of leaves grew on quadrangles of carefully manicured grass. Large black crows, perched in the trees, cried out. Gray squirrels ran across the ground in a final search for food before night set in. The sound of chimes from a clock tower, followed by seven low-pitched peals of the hour bell, echoed across the campus. Colt looked at his watch and found it was slow.
As he walked further, Colt passed students sitting on benches, walking, riding bicycles and coasting on skateboards. They were conversing, texting, listening to I-pods and talking on cell phones, all at the same time. He heard strange languages. Colt saw men with purple hair, ponytails and shaved heads. The female students wore everything from cut off shorts and high leather boots to jeans that looked like they were spray painted on their bodies. One girl who walked past him had a small silver rod anchored through holes pierced in the top and bottom of her ear.
So many of the students were Asian. CU looked like the United Nations, completely different from anything in Wyoming, which was 99 percent Caucasian and the remainder American Indian. Where did they come from? China? Japan? Korea? What other countries? Colt wondered how often they connected with families half way around the world. Did their parents know what they were studying, who they were dating, how they were feeling? Colt had no idea how a regular family worked.
As Colt continued on, a short, dark figure appeared, walking toward him on the sidewalk. A man, dressed in black, wearing dark glasses and a black hat, made his way along the sidewalk. Colt recognized him immediately—there was no doubt it was the person he saw standing in the parking lot at the Surfrider. He stepped aside. As the man walked past him, Colt saw white hair sticking out from under the hat. Colt waited a few seconds and started after him.
He trailed the man across the campus, trying to decide his next move. Colt tried to follow him without being detected. He closed the distance between them, fearful of losing the black figure in the impending darkness. They walked between buildings, across grass courtyards and down a sidewalk past a construction site. A forest of inch-thick black iron rebar grew from the cement foundations. Colt watched the figure in black cross in the middle of a street and followed him into a multi-story parking structure that covered a square block.
Inside, Colt looked in both directions. Rear bumpers and hoods of vehicles stretched in all directions, bathed in a metallic blue glow from sodium lights on the low ceiling. White arrows on the cement floor pointed in every direction—UP, DOWN, IN, EXIT, DO NOT ENTER. A group of vending machines created an island of contrasting fluorescent light near a stairwell at the center of the building. Colt heard the muffled sounds of automobile engines and tires squealing on cement. Somewhere the vibrations triggered the horn of a car alarm and the insistent sound bounced off the cement walls, echoing throughout the structure. At LEVEL 2-EXIT, Colt followed his quarry out over a row of sharp metal teeth embedded in the cement.
Standing in the street on the other side of the parking structure, Colt had no idea where he was. The sun was now gone and darkness was setting in. The man ascended a long steep flight of stairs and Colt followed him. When he reached the top, Colt saw the entrance to a modern glass and stainless steel building, unlike anything else he had seen on the campus. Letters over the entrance identified it as the Nano Research Center. The man stopped to remove his dark glasses, and in the glow from a nearby campus streetlight, searched for something in his pockets.
Colt made his move. “Hey,” Colt said. “Hey, you.”
The man looked up and stared at Colt.
Colt stared back. In the illumination of the streetlight, the man’s irises reflected red. His skin was pale. He had white hair.
“You talking to me?” the man asked.
For crissake, Colt thought, he’s an albino. No wonder he’s all buttoned up and wears dark glasses. “Yes. I wanna ask you something.”
“What are you, a campus cop?”
“No, I’m a paramedic. County Fire Department.”
“What d’you want? I’m late for work.”
“Were you at the Surfrider yesterday afternoon? At the beach? Didn’t I see you there?”
“The Surfrider? What about it?”
“We responded to a call. A girl lost her foot.”
“Oh yeah? Did she find it?” The albino had a nasty smile.
“This is no joke. There was an accident in the parking lot. Did you see anything?”
“Who said I was there?”
“I walked right past you.”
The albino stared at Colt. His strange eyes were unnerving. “So?”
“The girl’s foot was severed.” And we lost her, Colt wanted to add. “We couldn’t find it. Did you see anything?” Colt stepped toward the man.
The man stepped back. “Get out of my face.”
“Someone may have picked it up.”
“Not my problem. Why are you bothering me? I have to go to work.” He withdrew a white plastic card from his pocket.
A wave of anger swept through Colt. He wondered why the albino was so hostile. “Did you take her foot?”
The albino stopped and stared at Colt with his red eyes. He was small and Colt was tempted to grab him, lift him up and shake the crap out of him.
“So long fuckwit,” the albino said. He walked to the entrance of the Nano Research Center and inserted a white ID card. The doors swung open.
Colt walked toward the entrance and called after him, “You can’t keep it.”
Once inside, Colt saw the albino turn and flip him the bird.
Colt found his way back to his pickup in the hospital parking area. He was certain he knew who had Bibi’s foot.