Grace sat in the waiting room, wringing her hands in front of her, occasionally throwing a prayer to the heavens.
Please let him be okay.
She glanced up as a tall figure walked inside, the hospital room, glancing around until their eyes met.
“Have you heard anythin’?” asked his gruff voice. She shook her head, and allowed the individual to pull her to her feet, wrapping his arms around her.
“Judd’s got a skull thicker than most, you ought to know that. He certainly did when we were growin’ up as kids.”
“I know that Jeff. Thanks for comin’, I do appreciate it,” said Grace, giving him a watery smile.
“It’s not every day your little brother survives an ammonium nitrate explosion, you know? Jamie and Jack reckon they’ll be here tomorrow, they’re just making sure Megan and Ellie are good with the kids. I was closest, and I knew Dad wasn’t in town. Someone needs to sit with you and keep your pretty head together,” replied Jeff easily.
“Jefferson Ryder, I hope you didn’t leave your poor pregnant wife home alone to drive here from Dallas. She’s due any day now!” reprimanded Grace.
“Her sister is with her as well as her Mom, and if I have to go then I will. You’re family too Gracie, we couldn’t just let you sit here and wait by yourself,” explained Jeff. Gracie sat down, and Jeff folded himself onto the chair next to her, nearly as tall as Judd. Height was definitely a dominant gene in the Ryder family, with all four brothers well over six foot tall, as well as kind, caring hearts bigger than themselves.
“I don’t think he even knows that we lost everyone,” said Grace quietly.
“No one else made it out?” Grace shook her head.
“All of them, just gone, because of some stupid mistake by a security guard on night shift, and because no one at the plant bothered to put up the correct signs to say what was being stored there. If we’d just had a little more information, maybe… maybe I could have saved them all sooner,” admitted Grace softly.
“We’re a family of first responders Gracie, we know what we’re walking into when we go to work each day. We signed up for this because we want to help people, to save people, to save lives. If Mom were around, she’d say the same thing. Ryder boys are bombproof, we can withstand most things, and we all just want to help. There’s a reason why we’re all fire fighters, and it’s not just because we make the uniform look good,” joked Jeff. Grace smiled at her brother in law, before a doctor walked into the waiting room, glancing at a chart before calling out Judd’s name. Grace stood up, Jeff beside her, and followed the doctor down a set of winding corridors, stopping outside a single room.
“First of all, I want you to know that he’s alive. He made it through surgery quite well considering the extent of the damage. He is in an induced coma to allow his injuries some time to heal, and we’re looking at bringing him out of that later this week. We anticipate he’ll be back to full strength in three to four months, physically at least,” explained the doctor patiently.
“Physically?” repeated Jeff. The doctor sighed.
“With injuries like this, and the loss experienced, he may require further mental support and therapy to make sure he’s coping with this appropriately rather than bottling it up, which will cause other issues. I’m aware he wouldn’t know that the rest of his team didn’t make it, and he’s going to take some time to come to terms with that. We’re also not sure what deficits he might struggle with, but we will know more once he’s out of the coma and we start testing. I’m sorry I don’t have more information for you,” apologised the doctor. Grace laid a gentle hand on his arm, face warm and genuine.
“No, thank you so much for saving him. Can… can we go in and see him?” she asked, unsure.
“Of course, you’re welcome to. If you have any other questions, just get a nurse to page me and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” replied the doctor. He nodded at Grace and Jeff before swishing past them, presumably on to other patients.
“Momma always said that Ryder boys are indestructible,” said Jeff. Grace took a steadying deep breath before stepping into the hospital room. Judd’s tall frame just fit on the bed, an oxygen mask on his face, IV line in his hand. He was swathed in gauze patches, bandages, evidence of betadine and stitches, his head bundled up in dressings, covering the evidence of the brain surgery he’d had earlier in the evening. He was pale, chest barely rising, and Grace’s hand fluttered to her mouth.
“Oh, God, Judd,” she whispered. She glanced at Jeff, eyes full with unshed tears, before taking a tentative step forward, taking Judd’s hand in hers, gently holding it.
“He’s strong Gracie, he’ll pull through this,” said Jeff quietly. He moved to the end of the bed, holding Judd’s ankles in his hand and looking up at his younger brother, looking younger in sleep than he did when awake.
“I don’t know if I should stay with him for the night,” fretted Grace.
“Why don’t you let him know you love him, and we’ll drop a note with the nurses, get them to call us as soon as he wakes up, and then we can come back. You don’t live far from here, and you need your sleep too, otherwise you’ll end up in here and be of no use to Judd,” added Jeff. Grace nodded, and leaned in to kiss her husband on the forehead, a gentle hand on his cheek.
“Don’t you go dying on me Judson Ryder,” she whispered. She pulled away, and followed Jeff out of the hospital. The early morning sunlight was weak, filtering through the clouds, and Grace squinted as Jeff led her to his truck.
“I drove my car here,” she said feebly.
“And I organised for one of the officers, Reyes, to take it home for you so you didn’t have to worry about it,” explained Jeff. He unlocked the truck, climbing into the driver’s side, waiting for Grace to get herself buckled in. She sat still for a moment, before bursting into tears, the stress of the previous night catching up with her. Jeff pulled a box of tissues from the backseat, passing them to Grace.
“I’m sorry, I just…” Grace dissolved into further sobs, and Jeff unbuckled his seatbelt so he could lean across and pull her close.
“It’s okay Gracie. None of us expected you to just hold it together, that’s why we’re all coming down. We wanted to be here for you, for Judd. God knows he’ll need it, he’s downright cranky when he’s not able to do what he wants, and he’s definitely going to need someone to help keep him in line so you get a break. The Ryder family is here for you Gracie, no matter what.”
“I don’t need your help Jeff, I am perfectly fine on my own!”
“I know that Judd, but humour your brother. You look like you can barely stand, and I’d hate for you to fall and damage that brain of yours further,” said Jeff easily, holding Judd’s elbow to support him through the door. Grace watched them from the kitchen, brewing coffee for the Ryder brothers and serving cake, a thank you for their help. Judd’s face was set in a scowl, part pain and part frustration that he was unable to be independent after six weeks in the hospital. Jamison followed behind them, in case Judd toppled back, and Jackson brought up the rear, carrying Judd’s duffel.
“I just… I hate feeling so weak. I just wanna be able to get out there on the truck again, but I can’t, and it’s killin’me,” muttered Judd. Jeff helped him sit on the lounge, Judd sucking in a breath as his joints complained loudly, muscles still sore and weak from so much time in bed. He lost his rosy complexion for a moment, turning white as his vision blurred.
“Judd? You okay brother?” asked Jamie, hunkering down in front of Judd, a gentle hand on his knee.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s okay, just a bit dizzy,” admitted Judd uneasily.
“Doc said to expect that, remember? You’ve had brain surgery and you’ve been through a trauma. You need to take time to heal,” said Grace quietly, crossing the room to sit next to her husband.
“Take time to heal? How do you think Colleen Parkland feels now that her husband is dead, and poor Mable is without a father? I don’t feel like I deserve the time to heal, not when everyone else lost so much,” exploded Judd.
“You lost them too Judd. They were like family to you, are like family to you. Just as much as Jamie, Jack and Jeff are your family, like I’m your family,” explained Grace, eyes shining with tears. “You’re allowed to grieve too Judd.” He swiped away hot, angry tears, sniffling as he refused to break down in front of his brothers and his wife.
“We’ve all lost people Judd, people we weren’t expectin’ to lose in the line of duty, and it’s hard. None of us will disagree with that, and we’re not gonna tell you it gets easier, because it doesn’t,” said Jack quietly, taking a seat on the nearby recliner.
“It does get easier to manage, but some days you’ll still find that something sets you off, a smell, sound, something someone says,” added Jamie, pushing himself upright to sit on the other side of his brother. Judd scrubbed his hand across his face, before leaning back, closing his eyes.
“I just keep askin’ myself, why did God let me live? I should have died out there with the crew, but yet, here I am.” Grace choked back a sob, still not sure how to help her husband, but determined to do whatever she could to help him through.
“Jamie and Jack are going to stick around for a while, help you out. I’d stay too, but Anna’s due any day now, and I really don’t want to face the wrath of her Mama if I’m not there for this baby,” said Jeff apologetically.
“No, I appreciate your help. All of you. Thank you,” said Judd, exhaustion starting to seep through him. Jack pushed himself upright, standing in front of Judd.
“Come on, let me help you to bed, and then we’ll clear out for a bit, let you rest.”
Hey, Engine 126! Fall back! Fall back! Fall back!
“Judd?” Grace sat up in bed, looking across at her husband, twitching in his sleep.
“Judd.” She laid a gentle hand on his arm, and he startled, sitting upright in a tangle of sheets and trying to stand, failing as his body hit the floor, hard.
“Gracie?” he asked, voice small and confused, breathless from the impact. She darted off the bed and around the side, Judd trapped in the mess of blankets, twisted uncomfortably.
“Judd, are you alright?”
“How… how did I end up down here?” he asked quietly. Grace picked up his phone from the bedside table, unlocking it swiftly and dialling Jamie’s number.
“Judd, it’s like, two in the morning. This better be good,” grumbled Jamie’s sleepy voice.
“It’s Grace. Judd’s fallen, I can’t get him up myself. Are you staying nearby?” she asked, stroking back Judd’s hair as tears started to pool in his eyes.
“Shit. Um, Jack’s closer tonight, I’m in Houston, checking in with Megan and the kids, had to do a couple of shift covers with my crew. Jack was going to stick around for a few days, and then I was coming back, so let me call him. We’ll get you help, okay Grace?”
“Thanks Jamie. I’m sorry for waking you,” she apologised.
“No trouble. We’ll get someone there soon.”
Grace ended the call, tossing the phone on the bedside table as she glanced down at Judd.
“You had a nightmare baby, that’s all. I startled you, and you tried to get up,” explained Grace.
Judd’s brow furrowed in confusion, then pain as he exhaled, muscles screaming at him for being contorted. “Oh.”
“It’s alright, Jack should be here soon, and he’s going to help me move you and get you untangled. It was either that or call 9-1-1, and I really don’t think you want Michelle seeing you like this.”
Judd shook his head, regretting it as stars popped up in front of his eyes. “No thank you ma’am.”
“I’m sorry you were having a nightmare,” Grace apologised quietly. She heard a key in the front door, unlocking quietly.
“Judd? Grace? You alright?” called Jack’s voice.
“In the bedroom!”
Jack appeared in the doorway, taking in the sight of his brother hog tied by blankets, and stifled the urge to giggle as Judd’s pain filled eyes locked with his.
“Alright, let’s get you untangled, come on.” Jack and Grace worked in tandem, unravelling the twisted mess, freeing Judd a few moments later. Jack helped him stand, legs weak and shaky before helping him back up on the bed. Judd groaned as his legs cramped, the muscles seizing after being held in such an awkward position, still not mobile enough to avoid the painful spasms. “Okay big guy, we’ll get you set. Grace, you grab his pain medication, and I’ll get the cream, see if we can rub down some of these knots in his legs.”
Grace dashed away, Jack lumbering into the bathroom and returning with a tube of muscle rub. He squeezed some onto his fingertips, before digging them into Judd’s tightened calf muscles, Judd muttering profanities under his breath as he tried to twist away. Grace came back into the room, a glass of water and pills in her hand, and wordlessly handed them to Judd, watching as he swallowed them before setting the glass on the bedside table.
“Fuck Jackson, that hurts,” he gritted out.
“I know, but you’ll thank me later when you can sleep because your legs aren’t cramped up. When do you start PT?”
“Next week, Monday morning. I need to get back up and moving, so I can go get my job back,” answered Judd. He felt the muscles relax under Jack’s skilled fingers, and sighed in relief.
Judd’s reply was sleepy and slow, eyes drifting closed on their own accord. “Much better, thank you.”
“All good Juddy. Get some sleep. Call me if you need anythin’.”
“They’re bringin’ in a new captain.”
“They couldn’t leave the station unattended for so long Judd, you know that. It’s been nearly five months already, and the other houses are showing signs of operational stress, having to cover the 126 precinct. The 121 is already callin’ in other firefighters from Houston and Dallas to help cover, and the 132 is nearly at breakin’ point,” explained Grace.
“But it feels too soon.”
“That’s why they’re bringing in someone new. He’s a captain at the 252 in New York, and he had to rebuild his house after 9/11. He’s got experience in this Judd, he knows what he’s doing.”
Judd felt the anger rise in the back of his throat, wanting to snap at his wife. “So they just dump some city slicker in here to ‘fix up the house’, and make it acceptable that we lost a whole crew? That’s hardly fair, ain’t it? Some people are still grievin’ the loss of the 126, no need to make it worse by bringin’ in some stranger who don’t know better.” Grace rubbed her temples, feeling a headache coming on, before sighing, collecting her thoughts.
“No, Judd, I don’t think it’s that. Radford has a point though; you can’t just let the firehouse sit empty forever, and people need to see that fire fighters are resilient, that they can pull through tragedy like this and support each other, to learn from what happened. I think it’s a good idea, Travis County needs to start dealing with their grief and moving on.”
“I’m dealing with it, okay? I’m perfectly fine the way I am. I’m almost finished my PT, I’ve gotten the all clear from the brain doctor, and that’s fine by me. I don’t need no shrink to tell me whether I’m good to be on a truck or not,” snarled Judd. Grace stood up, dropping her magazine on the table and leaving the room. “Where you going?”
“To bed Judson. I know how you feel about this, you’ve told me numerous times, and I don’t feel the need to sit here and listen to it again when I’ve got a headache.” Grace trudged to the bedroom, slamming the bedroom door behind her, leaving Judd in the loungeroom feeling sorry for himself.
After an hour of quiet contemplation, Judd knocked on the bedroom door, pushing it open when there was no response heard.
“Gracie? I’m sorry for snappin’,” he said softly.
Grace rolled over to face the door, eyes filled with tears. “You keep doing that Judd. I’m trying real hard to understand what’s going on in your head, but it’s getting harder. I had to listen to that call as well, you know? I had to listen to you shoutin’ for the 126 to fall back, and then after the explosion all I could hear was your laboured breathing, wondering if this breath was going to be your last, and it was terrifyin.”
“I had no idea baby,” admitted Judd quietly. He crossed the room to lay on the bed with Grace, pulling her tiny frame into his arms, holding her close as she dissolved into tears on his chest. He’d never realised how much Grace had been affected by the loss of the 126, too wrapped up in his own recovery and emotions to address. He kissed the top of her head before sitting up, pulling the blankets over the pair of them.
“I don’t want to lose you too Judd,” Grace whispered into his chest.
“You won’t lose me Gracie. I’ll always be here.”