DISCLAIMER: Contrary to popular belief, I am not the Easter Bunny.
Marco Lopez came into the locker room to start his shift and found A-shift's two paramedics already there, sitting side by side on the bench in front of their lockers. Roy was buttoning his shirt and Johnny was tying his shoes. At first Marco barely glanced at them, but then he did a double take.
Johnny looked up, his expression wary. "Yeah?"
The Latino firefighter sputtered with laughter. "Oh my God! That thing's enormous! Is it even going to fit under your helmet?"
Johnny sighed elaborately and shot his partner a world-weary look. "Yes, Marco, it will fit under my helmet. Any other brilliant questions?"
Marco was already half out of the room again, looking for someone to share the joke with. "Mike! Hey, Mike! Come in here and look at Johnny!"
Mike Stoker, their engineer, came in the room. He looked at Johnny and his eyes grew wide. "Good grief, Gage! That thing's huge! Are you gonna be able to get your helmet on?"
Johnny rolled his eyes and gave Mike a tight little smile. "Yes, Mike, I can get my helmet on."
Captain Hank Stanley strolled in with a cup of coffee. "What's all the commotion in here?" He caught site of Johnny just as he took a sip of coffee and snorted the hot liquid out his nose. Coughing, he grabbed a towel to wipe his face. When he caught his breath he said, "Gage? Oh my God! That thing's enormous! Will it even fit under your helmet?" Before Johnny could answer that question yet again, Cap glanced over at Roy, sitting straight-faced beside his partner, quietly getting ready for their shift. "Roy? Did you see your partner?"
"Yeah, I saw him," Roy admitted, giving Johnny barely a glance.
"But . . . don't you have anything to say about it?"
"Well," Roy considered the question while Johnny watched him warily. "It's not something I would have expected him to choose, but they're very popular right now and I'm sure we'll all get used to it in time."
"Well, yeah, but," Cap shook his head helplessly. "You don't seem very surprised to see it."
"Oh, I'd already seen it," Roy admitted. "Johnny was over at the house last night."
***Flashback to the previous night at the DeSoto residence.***
Johnny waited in the shadow of the trees on Roy's front lawn until the spring night had deepened enough to cast the yard and porch in impenetrable shadows. He took a deep breath, crossed the grass and climbed the three steps up to the door. He started to knock, then hesitated a moment and unscrewed the bulb in the porch light before rapping his knuckles on the door. He didn't use the doorbell because the DeSotos had a custom bell that sounded the Station 51 call tones and every time he heard it he had a wild urge to run out and jump in his car.
After a few seconds light footsteps approached the door and he heard the light switch clicking up and down. The porch remained dark. The door opened cautiously, still on a chain, and Joanne DeSoto's "hello" was wary.
"Jo? It's me. Hey, I need to talk to Roy for a second. Could you have him step out here?"
"Oh, Johnny! Hi, honey, come on in. Roy's in the living room. I wonder what could be wrong with this porch light!" She unhooked the chain and pulled open the door.
"I didn't want to disturb you. I mean . . . could you just have him come out here for a second?"
"Don't be silly. You're not disturbing us. And Roy's tired. I've been keeping him real busy all day. Come in!"
Reluctantly, Johnny edged past her into the dark hallway and moved uncertainly past the stairs, towards the open doorways that led into the rest of the house. "Busy?" he asked. "Now, Jo, if you're talking about anything but yard work, I really don't wanna know, ya know?"
She had stepped out and was fiddling with the light. "Oh, it was just the bulb loose. Silly! I just mean yard work. What do you think I want him to rest now for?" Laughing, she flipped the light on and then off, satisfied, and turned back to the house just in time to catch Johnny standing in silhouette against the lighted kitchen door. He was sporting an Afro that was roughly the size of the planet Jupiter. Leaning against the wall for support, Joanne put a hand to her mouth and screamed like a B-movie queen.
From the living room there came a series of thumps and bangings as Roy jumped up, fell over an ottoman, stepped on a toy car and hopped his way frantically into the hall. He hobbled out into the hallway and froze, staring at Johnny in shock as Joanne's shriek turned into a high, hysterical peal of laughter.
Johnny waited for Roy to start laughing too, but the older paramedic just stood staring at him, transfixed. Finally Johnny waved his hand in front of Roy's face, getting no response, then snapped his fingers, making his partner jump.
"Go ahead and laugh," he said. "That's why I came over here, to give you a chance to get it out of your system tonight, before we go on duty tomorrow."
"Okay," Roy said, and slid down the nearest wall until he was sitting on the hall floor giggling like a little boy.
Light footsteps sounded in the upstairs hall and down the stairs as the DeSoto children appeared in their pajamas. Seven-year-old Christopher's eyes widened when he saw Johnny.
"Oh, cool! Hey, Dad, can I --"
"Hey, Mom, can I --"
"Aw, man!" He kicked his foot against the steps in disgust and went back up to bed muttering to himself. "This place is stupid. I never get to do anything fun! It's not fair . . . ."
Joanne was leaning against a plant stand for support, legs crossed, laughing too hard to hold herself up. Five-year-old Jenny looked from one parent to another and raised her chin indignantly. "I think you're mean! I LIKE Uncle Johnny's hair!"
Giving Roy and Joanne a smug look, Johnny went over to stand next to the staircase, so that she was just slightly above him. "Thank you, sweetheart!"
Jenny beamed at him. "I'm gonna name it Karl!" she announced.
Johnny's smile faltered. Joanne choked on her laughter and Roy had tears running down his face.
Jenny wound her fingers in Johnny's hair.
"Hi, Karl!" she said. "Whatcha doin?" Then she answered for 'Karl', smiling and speaking through her clenched teeth in a high-pitched voice, trying not to move her lips while she opened and closed her hand like she was making a sock puppet talk. "Oh, I'm just hanging around on Johnny's head. What are you doing, Jenny?" And then, as herself again, "oh, I'm just standing here talking to you."
Joanne raised one arm, pointed her finger up the stairs and choked out the word "bed".
"Okay," Jenny said cheerfully. "'Night Mommy and Daddy! 'Night Uncle Johnny. 'Night Karl." She patted Johnny's hair, then leaned over the railing to drop a light kiss on the top of his head and trotted back up the stairs.
Johnny just stood there and waited for the hilarity to subside. Finally Joanne pulled herself upright and headed for the stairs herself. "Now I gotta go change my underwear!" she said.
"That's too much information, Jo!" Johnny growled.
"Seriously," she said. "I'm not as young as I used to be. I've had two children. Next time give me a pantyliner warning!" As she trotted past him up the stairs she patted the top of his head lightly. "'Night Karl!" she giggled, and was gone.
Now that it was just the two paramedics in the hall, Johnny scowled down at his best friend. "If you pass out from lack of oxygen, I'm not gonna give you CPR," he warned.
"Maybe Karl will," Roy giggled. Glancing up, he caught Johnny's frown and attempted to compose himself. "Sorry," he said. "I'm sorry! Sorry. Just . . . not expecting . . . caught me by surprise . . . didn't mean to . . . to . . . why an Afro, Johnny?"
Johnny glared at him. "You think I wanted this monstrosity? You think I'd seriously do something like this of my own free will?"
"But, then . . .?"
"Chet and I had a bet --" Johnny began. Instantly Roy lost all traces of laughter and he gazed at Johnny with genuine sympathy.
"You had to get an Afro because you lost a bet to CHET? Oh, man! That's rough!"
"No, now! Just listen. Chet and I -- together -- had a bet with Martin and Landers on B-shift. If we'd won," Johnny's gaze went into the distance and he grinned faintly as he thought about it. "Man, it woulda been really cool if we'd won." Abruptly the grin vanished and was replaced with a scowl. "But we didn't! We lost! So I had to get an Afro and wear it to work tomorrow so they can see it when they come in the day after. And then I can get it cut, and believe me, I am!"
Roy pulled himself up to stand and crossed his arms. "But, now, wait a minute," he demanded, an edge of annoyance creeping into his voice. "If you and Chet BOTH lost the bet, how come you're the one paying it back?"
"Oh, Chet has to pay it too," Johnny reassured him.
"How? Chet already has an Afro."
Johnny grinned suddenly, a broad and evil grin. "HAD an Afro, Roy. What you mean to say is that Chet HAD an Afro."
"So . . . what? He had to cut his hair? Shave his head?"
"For starters . . . ."
***End of flashback***
"All I can say is, I hope like heck we don't get an inspection today!" Cap shook his head in bemusement.
"If we do, the chief'll just tell me to get a haircut," Johnny predicted. "He tells me that all the time anyway."
"If he tells you to get a haircut," Mike grinned, "look surprised and say, 'but I just did!'"
While they were laughing the kitchen door banged and Marco darted across the bay. "Hey, Chet! Come look at -- Chet? Why are you dressed like that? What's going on?"
"Shut up, Marco. Shut up and go away and leave me alone!"
"But why are you wearing that? What's going on?"
"Go AWAY and leave me ALONE!" Chet's footsteps stomped towards them. Cap and Mike watched the door expectantly while Johnny waited with a huge grin and Roy rubbed a hand under his nose and tried to hide the fact that he was snickering.
Chet slouched into the locker room, not looking at anyone. He was already dressed in his uniform, but he was wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck sweater under his shirt, a hooded sweatshirt over his shirt, a stocking mask under the hood and a pair of heavy work gloves.
"Chet? Is there a problem?"
"No, Cap. No problem. Why?" The stocky fireman wouldn't meet his captain's eyes.
"Oh, I was just wondering why you're wearing all that?"
"All THAT," Cap said, poking a finger at Chet's stomach.
"It's just my uniform, Cap."
"I'm not talking about the uniform. I'm talking about all the other stuff underneath and on top of the uniform. You know it's all going to have to come off before roll call, pal."
"But, Cap! I'm cold!" Chet whined.
"Cold?" Mike echoed. "How can you be cold? It's in the upper seventies!"
"But, can't I just wear it today? Just for this one shift?"
"Uh uh," Cap said.
"Uh uh. Come on, get out of that costume. Time to face the music and let us see what you're hiding."
"Please?" He caught sight of Johnny then and tried to deflect everyone's attention. "Hey! Look at Gage! Ha ha! Check out that hairdo!"
"We already saw Gage," Marco said. "Now we want to see what you're hiding under all those clothes."
"Kelly! Come on!" Cap's voice was beginning to take on an edge. "You're out of uniform. Now don't make me tell you again."
"Okay, fine." With a great show of reluctance, Chet pushed back the hood and pulled off the ski mask. His head was smooth shaven, his curly black hair and thick eyebrows gone. Only his moustache remained, looking larger than ever. "There! Happy now?"
He started to turn away and Cap caught him by the hood of his sweatshirt. "Forgetting something?"
Resentfully, Chet pulled off the sweatshirt and tossed it down on a nearby bench.
"Okay," Cap said, "now the gloves and sweater. Come on, let's see."
Chet yanked his gloves off, unbuttoned his uniform shirt and pulled it off and tugged the turtleneck over his head. Johnny leaned over helpfully and pulled Chet's t-shirt up to expose his back and stomach now, like his arms, as devoid of hair as was his head. Chet slapped at Johnny's hands, trying ineffectually to chase him away.
"What about your legs?" Johnny asked, leaning over and trying to tug up Chet's right pants leg. "Did you shave your legs, too?"
"Get away from me!" Chet said, balancing on his left leg and shaking his right in an effort to dislodge Johnny as if he were a clump of mud stuck to his shoe. "Go ON! Get your nose out of my pants!"
All six firemen froze.
"That," Chet said, "that . . . it . . . didn't come out like I meant it to."
"Man," Marco laughed. "I've heard the expression 'nervous as a shaved monkey' before, but I never thought I'd actually SEE a shaved monkey!"
"Oh, very funny, Marco."
"The important question," Johnny said, "is did you get it ALL shaved off?
"No, Gage. Actually, I think I missed some hair on my ass. But I've got a razor in my locker if you wanna get that for me."
Johnny backed away laughing, hands raised. "Oh, that's okay! If B-shift wants you THAT well shaved, they can do it themselves."
"That's what I'm saying!" Chet agreed belligerently.
"B-shift?" Cap asked. "Excuse me, did I miss something? What has B-shift got to do with Chet's new, er, for lack of a better word, hairstyle?"
"Johnny and Chet had a bet with a couple of guys on B-shift," Roy explained. "They lost, so Johnny had to get an Afro and Chet had to shave all his body hair except his mustache."
"Ah ha!" Cap nodded, half smiling. "So THAT explains it."
"Yeah," Johnny said. "I know it's pretty wild, but it's just for one shift. After B-shift comes in and sees it in the morning, I'm gonna go get it trimmed. Actually, I think I'm gonna get a crew cut. That ought to make the chief real happy."
"It's not fair!" Chet griped. "Gage only has to look stupid for one shift. It's gonna take weeks for all my hair to grow back. And I'm COLD! No wonder chicks are freezing all the time. They don't have any body hair!" He'd put his uniform shirt back on and buttoned it and now he grabbed his jacket from his locker and huddled into it.
"It's your own fault, Chet," Johnny told him unsympathetically. To the others, he explained. "Originally, they wanted the bet to be that I'd get an Afro and Chet would shave his mustache, but he didn't want to take a chance on that so instead he made the bet that he'd shave everything BUT his mustache."
Cap just shook his head as the others snickered. "Okay, you twits, let's line up for roll call."
As they filed out to the bay he followed them, but he hung back a moment in the empty locker room and looked up at the ceiling.
"Big Guy," he said, "if you're listening up there, please, I'm BEGGING you, PLEASE! Just don't let us get an inspection today!"
* * * *
The tones sounded. "Squad 51 in place of squad 10, man trapped in a machine at the amusement park. 1462 Holiday Drive. Cross street Oak Lawn. Time out 0947."
Captain Stanley responded to the radio while Roy and Johnny jumped into the squad and fastened their helmets, Johnny having to shove his down a little harder than usual. Frizzy hair squooshed out from under the brim and the bulk of his Afro pushed his helmet up, drawing the strap tight beneath his chin.
Cap handed the call slip in the window, Roy passed it over to Johnny and they pulled out, sirens screaming, into mid-morning traffic.
"What amusement park is that, do you suppose?" Johnny asked. The address was outside their normal response area.
"I think right now it's called Bunnyland."
"Yeah. It's all holiday-themed. After every holiday they take a couple of days, switch all the signs and the cars on the rides and stuff and change over to the next holiday."
"You ever been there? Is it any good?"
Roy shrugged. "Jo and I took the kids last year when it was Santa's Workshop. It's ok, I guess, for little kids. Jenny was scared of Frosty the Snowman and Chris got sick on the Snowstorm ride."
They reached the entrance to the amusement park and drove between two pillars shaped like rabbit ears, under a huge sign that read BUNNYLAND. A man in a park security jumpsuit flagged them down and led them between a Ferris wheel (with basket-shaped cars) and a merry-go-round (with rabbits and chickens instead of horses) towards a large complex in the center of the park.
A sign over the complex read BASKET WORKS, and it was basically an arcade. Park workers in bright clothing ran food and games concessions and sold souvenirs while, behind and above them, a complicated conveyor belt system carried plastic eggs through a series of stations where they were filled with candy and toys and then showered with or immersed in various dyes. The park worker led them to an unobtrusive door at one end and showed them through.
Inside the basket works the light and color and music gave way to industrial practicality. A catwalk ran around the back of the arcade, giving access to the conveyor belt mechanisms. A storage system on the opposite wall held bins of stuffed animals and toys and the floor was taken up with huge, steaming vats. An altercation was taking place at the other end of the catwalk. "I fixed you, you rascally rabbit!" a voice cried out.
Roy turned to the park worker who was guiding them. "What's going on?"
The park worker -- his nametag read "Bob" -- said, "The Spring Chicken stuffed the Easter Bunny's ears and tail into the clockwork on the back of the giant cotton candy machine."
Roy and Johnny shared a look. Silently they wondered why and silently they agreed not to ask.
"So it's just the suit that's caught?" Johnny clarified. "Not the man himself?" They pushed their way between costumed hordes to find a man in a rabbit suit standing flush against the bank of machinery at the end. His rabbit ears were wound between two gears above his head and his feet barely touched the metal surface of the catwalk, suggesting he was suffering a massive wedgie.
"No, it's the suit," Bob agreed. "We couldn't get it loose with him in it and we can't get him out because the zipper's on the back of the suit."
"Can't we just cut the costume?" Roy asked.
Bob looked unhappy. "Management would really rather we didn't," he said. "These costumes cost a fortune. This particular Easter Bunny design is one of our trademarks and they have to be specially made. And with Easter tomorrow, there'd be no time to get a replacement costume before the big parade."
"Well, we can't promise anything, but we'll do our best," Roy reassured him. "If it comes down to the costume or the man inside, though, the rabbit suit will have to go."
Johnny pulled on a pair of heavy gloves and moved in to get a closer look. As he did he shot Roy a glance that said, 'I'm gonna regret this, but oh, well.'
"So," he said, "just how exactly did this happen, anyway."
At the back of the crowd a giant rooster struggled against the two smaller ducks that were trying to hold him back. "He's a dirty, lousy, double-dealing little rodent!"
The Easter Bunny muttered something under his breath.
"Oh, no! Don't try to deny it!" the Spring Chicken squawked. "I know good and well you've been bouncing on my birdie, Bunny!"
"Oh, for God's sake, Ralph," the Easter Rabbit sounded disgusted. "Everybody in Southern California's been bouncing on your chick. They don't call her the Bluebird of Happiness for nothing."
"Liar! Liar! You're lying through your buck teeth!"
"I'm not. But, hey! Don't take it so personally. It's only because I'm the Easter Bunny. See, your birdie's got a star complex. She always goes after the lead actor."
"You're lying!" The Spring Chicken put his wings over his earholes. "I'm not listening! I'm not listening!"
"It's true. The Pumpkin King, Tom Turkey, Santa Claus, Cupid . . . ."
"Oh, right! And next I suppose you're going to tell me she had a fling with King Brian of the Leprechauns?" the chicken sneered.
A short actor in a fluffy baby chick suit piped up, "aye! She was always after me lucky charms!"
At that the rooster broke loose from the ducks and flung himself at the trapped rabbit. The Easter Bunny raised a huge foot and kicked out mightily but he swung on his trapped cotton tail, missed the Spring Chicken and caught Roy square in the chest, sending him backwards over the railing and into a vat of dark, steaming liquid.
Johnny leapt to the rail in a panic. Roy had surfaced spluttering and Johnny offered him his gloved hand and pulled him back onto the catwalk. He looked around at the park employees, shocked and subdued now. "Water!" he demanded. "I need cold water!"
Someone handed him a hose and he turned it on his partner, still trying to get answers from park personnel. "What's in that vat? Is it toxic? How hot is it? C'mon! Somebody! Bob! Answer me! How hot is that liquid there?"
"Uh, uh," Bob stuttered, "about, I think, about 150? Between 140 and 160."
"Okay, now, is it toxic? What is it? Somebody answer me! What's in that vat?"
A dancing jelly bean raised her hand like she was in grade school and Johnny looked to her expectantly.
"Robin's egg blue?" she said.
Johnny looked at his glove. It was blue. He looked down at the stream of water running away past his feet. It was blue. Slowly he turned to look at his partner.
His partner was blue.
* * * *
"Okay, now, hold that gauze for me. You know the routine."
Roy pressed down on the wad of gauze on his elbow. Johnny stood at his shoulder and watched proprietarily as Dr. Kelly Brackett removed the IV he had started in his partner's arm.
"You see?" Roy said. "I told you I didn't need an IV."
"Wise patients never say 'I told you so' to their doctor," Brackett scolded gently. "Neither do wise paramedics."
Roy's mouth twisted. "Sorry."
Brackett patted him on the shoulder kindly. "That's ok. You've had a rough day. I can understand if you're feeling a little blue."
Roy groaned. "Doc, please! Do you know how many times I've heard that? Already!"
The doctor just grinned at him. "I don't think you're burned too badly. Mostly like a mild sunburn, though it's hard to tell by looking at you. It doesn't hurt too much, though?"
"Nah, just a little where the skin is tender. You know? Like the inside of my elbows." He glared pointedly at his partner.
"Don't look at me," Johnny said. "Doc said you needed an IV. Where did you want me to stick it? Don't answer that!"
"But the important point," Joe Early was leaning against a cabinet in the corner listening. "The important point is, what happened to the Easter Bunny?"
"Oh, that. Well, right after Roy went into the dye vat, engine 10 finally showed up. They took the cotton candy machine apart and got the rabbit loose. The Spring Chicken got fired and the Bluebird of Happiness hit on Roy. Seems the blue dye turned her on."
Roy just looked at the ceiling and sighed.
"You're writing this down?" Johnny asked, seeing Dr. Early jotting notes on a prescription pad.
"I want to make sure I've got it all straight when I tell it to all the little kids up in pediatrics."
Roy looked at him in disbelief. "You're going to tell a bunch of little kids that the Spring Chicken assaulted the Easter Bunny because the Bluebird of Happiness is a slut?"
"Well," Joe smiled, "I may gloss over the details slightly. I am going to tell them that the Easter Bunny got his cotton tail caught in the cotton candy machine and when two of our paramedics went to Bunnyland to rescue him he mistook one of them for a giant egg and dyed him blue."
They laughed at his summary and then Johnny punched Roy lightly in the shoulder. "You think Little Boy Blue here is gonna be okay, though?" he asked, ignoring his partner's scowl at the new nickname.
"I think so," Brackett said. "I just want to get a look at the lab report on that dye sample you brought in."
A young nurse came in the door with a large envelope.
"That must be it now," the doctor told them. "Hang on a second."
He and Joe went over to take the envelope and consult on its contents. Behind them, Roy spoke quietly to Johnny. "You know, this isn't gonna be so bad," he said optimistically. "After all, we've got bleach at the station. I'll bleach out my hair and my face and hands and arms as much as possible. Then, tomorrow, when I get home, I'll just take a bath in the stuff."
The doctors came back over. "This doesn't look too bad," Brackett said. "Just keep an eye out for any late-developing symptoms and if you run into any problems get back here. Okay?"
The paramedics agreed and started to leave. As they reached the door, though, Brackett stopped them.
"Incidentally, one of the ingredients in that dye was ammonia, so don't go getting any ideas about bleaching it out!"
* * * *
Halfway down the hall Johnny suddenly ducked into the men's room, pulling Roy in after him.
"Roy! There's nurses out there!"
"Yeah. And . . .?"
"They're gonna see my hair!"
"Kinda hard to miss," Roy agreed. Being flattened under a helmet had not had the slightest effect on Johnny's Afro. The second he removed the head gear it sprang back into life. Though he hadn't mentioned it to Johnny, Roy had involuntarily imagined "Karl", in the little voice Jenny had given him, going "ta daa!"
"So what am I gonna DO?"
"About WHAT? About the nurses! Roy! They're gonna see my HAIR!"
"My hair is blue," Roy said flatly. "My toes are blue. Everything in between is blue. I'm sorry, Junior, but you're not getting a lot of sympathy here."
"Yeah, but," Johnny scowled and waved a hand dismissively. "You're already married. If Joanne was gonna dump you for looking stupid, she'd have left a long time ago."
"My entire future social life is on the line here! The nurses see me with this on my head, I'm never gonna get a date again! Roy! What should I DO?"
Roy sighed and counted to ten. "Johnny, listen. It's gonna be fine."
"Yeah, but . . ."
"No! Really! Women like a man that makes them laugh. Go on out there and introduce them to Karl. Explain about the bet. You know what they'll think? They'll think, 'hey! That Johnny Gage is a real fun guy. And what a good sport!' And then, when you get your hair cut the way you want it again, they'll be standing in line waiting to go out with you."
"Bah!" Johnny turned away with a dismissive scowl, but then glanced back. "You think?"
"Yeah, I think!"
Johnny reached for the door, then hesitated. "You don't think they'll think anything weird about me because of my hair?"
"I think they'll think a lot weirder things about both of us if we spend the entire day hiding in this men's room!"
"Oh, whatever!" Johnny snorted. He pulled the door open, and Roy followed him back into the hall. Almost immediately a pair of young nursing students spied them.
"Oh, my gosh! Look at you guys! What HAPPENED?"
Johnny gave them his best grin. "We-ell, I lost a bet on a basketball game and my partner here got attacked by the Easter Bunny."
The girls both turned to Roy. "You got attacked by the EASTER BUNNY? No! Seriously. What really happened?"
Roy grinned, rueful. "There was a guy in a rabbit suit, and some dye, and . . . it's a long story."
"That's so cool!" one said.
"So," the other one asked, "are you blue all the way down?"
Roy blushed purple. He caught Johnny, glaring at him behind the girls' backs.
"You know, I think, Johnny can tell you, you know, about, well, everything, well not EVERYTHING, but, you know and I, I, gotta go see, at the desk, you know, supplies and, and, we might need, you know, stuff and, whatnot, and, and . . . ." Stuttering out excuses, Roy beat a hasty retreat and the women turned their attention to Johnny.
Roy went over to the desk, where Dixie McCall was working on forms. She looked up and started to speak, but Roy put his hand over her mouth.
"Don't say it, Dix! Please don't say it! Everybody in the world has said it already!"
She tipped her head at him and gave him a smile so sweet it was poisonous. "Oh, but I haven't had my turn yet."
He sighed. "Okay, fine."
Mike Morton strolled up reading a chart. He glanced up at Roy. "Everything okay, DeSoto? You're looking a little blue." He dropped the chart in its slot, pulled another one and wandered away laughing quietly.
Dixie pursed her lips in annoyance and poked Roy in the stomach with one finger. "I still have a turn coming," she announced.
* * * *
When Johnny came out of the hospital he found Roy waiting in the passenger side of the squad. "You're letting me drive?"
"I figure, when you back the squad into the bay, the passenger door is closer to the shower than the driver door."
"Oh. Huh. And here I thought you were trying to make up to me for stealing all my nurses!"
"Stealing your nurses?" Roy squawked. "What stealing your nurses? I walked away. You were the one standing in the middle of the hall with fifteen women clustered around you."
"Yeah, and you know what they all wanted to talk about? You! They kept asking me if you were blue all the way down. I told them they'd have to ask your wife. Roy! None of them paid any attention to my hair!"
"Johnny! Twenty minutes ago you were hyperventilating because you were afraid they were going to pay attention to your hair. Now you're mad because they didn't?"
"Yeah, well . . . ."
"Well. I'm sorry, but it's not my fault!"
Johnny sighed. "I know. And I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you."
"Especially when you're already feeling blue."
* * * *
Roy was out of the squad and into the shower almost before the wheels stopped rolling. Johnny parked, then wandered into the kitchen where the engine crew was sitting around the table.
"The prodigal Afro returns!" Chet announced.
"Yeah, whatever." Johnny found a dime in his pocket, tossed it into the air and caught it, then deposited it in the payphone and dialed a number from memory.
"Jo? Hey, it's Johnny. No! No! Everything's okay. I was just wondering if you're busy right now. Well, we had a bit of a difficult run and its left Roy a little blue. I think it'd be a really good thing if you could bring the kids and come see him. You can? Great! Hey, bring a camera. Oh, and Joanne?" Johnny hesitated, then spoke quickly. "You're gonna need a pantyliner," he said, and hung up.
He wandered over to the corner, took an apple from the bowl there, polished it on his sleeve and took a big bite. Turning back to the kitchen, he found the other four men staring at him. He tucked the bite of apple into his cheek and spoke around it. "What?"
"Gage?" Cap was incredulous. "Did you just tell Roy's wife she needed a pantyliner?"
Letting his gaze shift to the side, Johnny thought about the question while he chewed his apple. Deciding to take the offensive, he swallowed the apple and said, "yeah. So?"
"So . . .?" Cap waved his hands helplessly.
"Hold that thought!" Johnny told him, suddenly struck by inspiration. He dug another dime out and went back to the phone. "Hello, Mrs. Wilson? It's Johnny Gage. Hey, is Charlie around? Yeah? Uh huh. Sure, I'll wait . . . . Charlie? Johnny. Hey, listen, do you still have that ukulele in your locker? Yeah? Can I borrow it? Yeah? No, I'll be careful. Great! Thanks! . . . Yeah, I got an Afro. Yup, it's huge. Chet?" Johnny glanced over his shoulder at Chet, who glared back at him. "Yeah, he looks like a ferret with a mustache. Well, he says he did. I'm not gonna strip search him to see! You guys can do that in the morning if you want to." He laughed. "No, I didn't think so. Okay then, see you in the morning. Thanks! 'Bye!"
He hung up, took another bite of apple and turned to lean against the wall.
"Gage," Cap demanded, "what is going on?"
Roy came in, looking down at his arm and speaking with entirely unwarranted optimism. "I think the color is starting to fade a little. You think?"
When the noise of the engine crew's reaction had died down and the two paramedics had told the story again Marco said, "you know what you two guys look like? You look like a publicity photo for a new Saturday morning children's show! Something like 'J and R Puffenstuff'."
"Yeah," Chet said, "it's no wonder Gage told your wife she needed a pantyliner."
"My wife?" Roy shot his partner a glare. "What does he mean, you told my wife? You called my wife?!?"
"No. Well, yeah. I'm sorry. Did you want it to be a surprise?"
"I wanted her to not find out about it!"
"Ah ha. And how were you planning for that to work, if you don't mind my asking."
"I don't know! I thought maybe I could find something that would take it off before morning."
"Uh huh. Sorry. Ain't gonna happen."
"You know," Roy said, "you could try being a little bit supportive of me. I've been supportive of you and," he waved his hand at his partner's head, "Karl."
"Shush," Johnny hissed.
"Karl?" Chet said. "Who's Karl?"
"Nobody, Chet. Shut up. Karl's nobody."
Chet came over and looked at Johnny with mock sympathy. "Is there something you need to tell us, Gage?"
"Yeah." Johnny leaned over so his face was inches from the shorter fireman's.
"Shut up Chet."
Mike was looking out the window in the kitchen door. "Roy, your wife's here."
Roy groaned and dropped into an armchair in the day room area. Johnny, Cap, Mike and Marco waited gleefully to see Joanne's reaction to her husband's new look and Chet took advantage of the distraction to disappear in the direction of Charlie Wilson's locker.
The back door opened and Joanne came in with Chris and Jenny. Jo was carrying a foil package, which she set on the kitchen table. "Hi, guys! We were making cupcakes for Easter so we thought we'd bring you some. So where's my guy gotten to?"
Johnny tipped his head in Roy's direction and Joanne started towards him, froze for a second, then threw up her hands and started screaming like a teeny bopper at a Beatles' concert.
"AAAAHHH! Ohmygod! Ha ha ha ha! AH ha ha ha HA ha!"
"Mommy! Daddy's pretty!"
"Oh, cool! Hey, Dad! Can I--"
"Hey, Mom! Can I--"
"Hahaha" *gasp* "no. Hahaha!"
"Aw, man! I never get to do anything fun!"
Chris flopped onto the couch in a pout while both of Roy's womenfolk went over and climbed in his lap. Joanne fluffed his hair. "LOOK at you! What happened?"
"We got called out to Bunnyland and Roy got assaulted by the Easter Bunny." Johnny said.
Joanne peeked down Roy's shirt. "So, are you blue all the way down?"
"Yeah, Daddy," Jenny piped up. "Are your toes blue?"
"Yes, honey, my toes are blue too. And everything else in between," he added for his wife's benefit.
"This is so fun! You're like a big toy. I just want to take you home and play with you," she said, drawing a flurry of whistles and catcalls from the other firemen and causing her husband to blush purple.
"You guys just hang on a minute," Johnny told them. "I gotta go get something."
"Bye, Uncle Johnny!" Jenny piped up. "Bye Karl!"
Johnny ducked out of the room and pretended not to hear her. Marco asked, "Who's Karl?"
"Karl is Uncle Johnny's hair. I named him." Jenny grinned and adopted a southern drawl she'd heard on television. "He's mah fre-end."
Cap and Mike were sitting side by side at table, eyes closed, shoulders shaking. "We're going to get an inspection," Cap muttered. "You know that, don't you? Day like this, we're just bound to get an inspection!"
There was a loud crash from the locker room followed by a flurry of smaller crashes. Cap stood up and shouted. "All right in there? What happened?"
Chet wondered in. "Seems somebody filled Charlie Wilson's locker with ping pong balls," he said innocently.
Joanne, who was just getting her giggling under control, saw him and started hyperventilating. At the same time Jenny caught sight of him and began screaming in terror.
"Jenny! It's okay. It's just me!" He came over to try to reassure her and she climbed over Roy and did her best to wedge herself down between his back and the back of the chair, all the while shrieking in his ear.
"Chet! Come away from there. Can't you see you're scaring the poor kid?" Cap scolded.
"It's the evil Sluglord!" Jenny sobbed. "Save me Daddy! It's the evil Sluglord! He's going to cover us with the Slime of Doooooom."
"Jenny, stop!" Jo said. "You're going to hurt Daddy."
Roy reached back to pat her on the head. "It's okay, honey. It really is just Chet, okay? He only looks like the Evil Sluglord."
"The Evil Sluglord?" Marco asked.
"Saturday morning cartoons," Joanne told them. "Probably a reference only small children and their parents would get."
Johnny strolled in carrying Charlie Wilson's ukulele. "What's all the fuss?" he asked.
"Uncle Johnny! Karl! Save us! The Evil Sluglord is after me and Mommy and Daddy!"
"Who's Karl?" Chet demanded.
Johnny looked at Chet and his face lit with a huge smile. "Hey! He does look like the Evil Sluglord, doesn't he?"
"Small children and their parents," Mike muttered.
"Mmmm," Cap replied.
Johnny pulled an extra chair in from the kitchen, braced one foot on it and strummed the ukulele. "Okay, folks, now listen up! Roy, I believe you made some rash allegations earlier about me not being supportive enough? Well, just to prove you wrong, not only am I being supportive, but I wrote you a song!"
"Oh, no," Roy said. "Please no."
Ignoring him, Johnny strummed the ukulele and sang:
"A car wreck, an explosion or a smoke-filled room!
Construction workers stranded on a shaky boom!
In an emergenceeeeeey!
Give a shout and you'll seeeeeeeee!
I'll come running with myyyyy bluuuuuueeee partner!"
Roy tried to end it with applause but Johnny wasn't done.
"Oh, listen now, I'll tell you once, I'll tell you twice!
I wouldn't trade my pal for Wheeler, Kirk or Brice!
Just a-rollin' alooooong!
And a-singin' my sooooong!
I love ridin' with myyyy bluuuuuuueeeee partner!"
He finished with a strummed flurry and an elaborate bow.
Everyone applauded. Roy was grinning. "That was lovely. Thank you. Please don't sing it again!"
Johnny grinned, then looked speculatively at the ukulele. "You think Charlie'd mind if I took this thing to Rampart?"
"Well, dang." Then he brightened. "That's okay! I can sing a capella!"
Chet had slipped out to the men's room. Now he returned scowling. "I'm glad you think this is funny, Gage! Your blue partner went and got blue dye all over my nice clean shower!"
"Ah, geez, Chet! I'm sorry! I'll clean it." Roy started to get up but Chet waved him back into his seat.
"No, you stay out of it. You go in there, you'll just make it worse! I'll get it. I've got this great new, industrial-strength cleaner."
"Hey! No bleach!" Johnny reminded him.
"I know that! You told us that already. Sheesh, Gage! Can't you have a little faith in my intelligence?"
"Hmph. Very little!"
Chet pulled a big, plastic bottle from under the sink. "This stuff'll take off anything." He tugged on the cap but couldn't get it loose so he stuck it in his mouth and bit down on it.
"Don't do that!" Marco objected. "You'll swallow it and poison yourself. Don't you have any common sense? Give it here and I'll open it." He went over and tried to take the bottle. He got hold of the cap, but Chet wouldn't relinquish it.
"I know how to get a cap off a bottle, Marco. Give it back!"
Chet tugged and Marco tugged and suddenly the cap came off and a thick, greenish-white liquid splurted out and spattered a thick line of goo diagonally across Marco's face.
Immediately Johnny and Roy jumped up and went to him, hustling him over to the sink and bending him over so they could wash it off.
"Did it get in your eyes? Did you swallow any of it?" Roy demanded.
Marco shook his head, eyes and mouth closed tight as they washed it off.
"Does it burn?" Johnny asked, getting another head shake. "Read the label on that stuff, Chet. Does it say what's in there?"
"No, it doesn't say anything," Chet said.
"Is he going to be okay?" Cap asked.
"He should be," Roy said.
Johnny was looking down into the sink, frowning furiously. He caught Roy's eye and Roy followed his gaze. Great clumps of thick, black hair were swirling around the sink and down the drain.
Roy's eyes widened and he and his partner exchanged a dismayed glance. Roy grabbed a dishtowel and held it to Marco's face, then turned him so he could look at him directly. Then he turned him so Johnny could see.
Marco opened his eyes cautiously and looked into Johnny's anxious face. "What's going on? Is everything okay?"
"Yeah. Well, no. Well, here's the deal." Johnny put his hands on Marco's shoulders to brace him, hesitated a minute and said, "Roy needs to tell you something."
He spun him around to face Roy. Roy shot Johnny a brief glare, then looked Marco in the eye. "You know how Chet said that stuff would remove anything? Well, he was right."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Your left eyebrow is gone."
"WHAT?!?" Marco slapped his left hand on his forehead, where his eyebrow should have been. Johnny tugged on his sleeve to get his attention and he spun back around to face the junior paramedic.
"And the right side of your mustache," Johnny added.
"WHAT?!?" He slapped his right hand on his right upper lip and ran off towards the locker room. They heard his footsteps running across the bay, then a slight pause, then, "AAAAUUUUGGHHH! CHET! I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!"
Marco ran back in, charged at Chet and started trying to hit him without taking his hands down from his face.
"Ow! Stop! It's not my fault! It's your fault too! Cap! Make him stop! He's got bony elbows!"
Cap was sitting at the table again with his hands over his face, muttering to himself. "We're gonna get an inspection. I just know we're gonna get an inspection!"
Joanne was curled up in a ball in Roy's abandoned chair, legs crossed, holding her sides. "Forget pantyliners," she gasped. "Next time I come to see you guys I'm just gonna wear a diaper and be done with it!
* * * *
"Dad?" Chris had been sitting on the couch, sullen throughout the general insanity. Now he spoke up hopefully.
"Can I at least grow a mustache?"
Roy grinned at the seven-year-old. "Absolutely!"
Chris' face lit up. "You mean it? Really?"
"Sure. Why not? Go right ahead!"
"Cool! Hey, Mom! Dad said I can grow a mustache!"
"Great!" Joanne dragged herself to her feet. "We'd better get home so you can get started on that. Besides, I want you to finish your homework before dinner time."
"But, Mo-om! It's Saturday!"
"Yeah, and if you do it now, you won't have to worry about it all day tomorrow. Besides, I need to leave before I give into temptation and drag your father off alone somewhere so I can ravish him."
Roy blushed purple again and Johnny, fiddling with the ukulele, snickered. Jenny was still behind Roy, hiding from Chet. Chet was in Cap's office, hiding from Marco. Marco was in the dorm with a pillow over his face, hiding from himself, and Mike had gone out to make sure no one was dripping blue dye or shedding on his engine.
Jenny popped up over Roy's shoulder. "What's ravish mean?"
"Remember when you cornered Bobby Jenkins by the toy box in preschool and kissed him and made him holler?" Joanne asked.
"Kind of like that, only more so."
Joanne gathered her children and left after giving her husband a lingering goodbye kiss and a hungry look. Johnny grinned at him.
"Somebody's gonna have a good day off tomorrow."
Roy blushed an even brighter purple and forbore to comment.
"I wouldn't trade my pal for Wheeler, Kirk or Brice," Johnny hummed to himself.
"But you would trade me for, say, Hanks or Dwyer or Bellingham?"
"No, now, Roy. I never said that. Sheesh! I only have two verses, is all." Johnny grinned suddenly and held up a finger to denote a sudden, brilliant idea. "I'll write some more!"
Roy held up a blue finger of his own. "Forget I said anything!"
The klaxon sounded. "Station 51! Possible explosion at the amusement park. 1462 Holiday Drive. Cross street Oak Lawn. Time out 1433."
"Oh, no!" Roy moaned as they raced for their vehicles. "Not Bunnyland again!"
* * * *
As before, the squad pulled in with minimum fanfare, but the engine was immediately mobbed by small children.
"Make the lights flash!"
"Oooh! A fire truck!"
"I wanna blow the horn! I wanna blow the horn!"
The engine crew, trying to climb down, found themselves trampled by small bodies climbing over them to get in Big Red. Mike didn't even make it out from under the wheel before he had a child in his lap bouncing up and down and pretending to steer and two more hanging over his shoulders.
"Kids," Cap shouted. "Guys! I'm sorry. We're on a response here. You can't be climbing on the engine."
"What happens if I turn this?"
"DON'T TURN THAT! Water in the hose! Somebody get -- thanks, Roy! KIDS! You are going to have to get down now!"
"Ding ding ding!"
"Look! I'm drivin'!"
Cap sighed. "Chester?"
Chet stood up and pulled off his helmet and turnout coat. "Aaarrrghh!"
"Aaaah! It's the evil Sluglord!"
"It's the Sluglord! Run!"
In ten seconds flat the engine was clear of small children. Cap closed his eyes for a second, shook his head and then looked for someone to give him some information.
A park employee ran over to them. His nametag said "Bob" and Cap wondered if this was Gage and DeSoto's "Bob" from earlier or just another generic "Bob". Whatever. He grabbed him. "Listen, we got a call about a possible explosion?"
"Yeah! It's the Spring Chicken again. He sneaked back in and booby trapped the Daffy Taffy machine. The bomb squad's already working on it. They said to have you guys stand by, just in case." He pointed towards the Basket Works and they saw police barricades and a line of heavily padded lawmen keeping people away from the Daffy Taffy counter.
While they were standing around watching the bomb squad probe the insides of the taffy machine a woman in a dainty bluebird suit came over and leaned against Roy's shoulder. "Hi, loverboy. You came back! Change your mind about tomorrow night?"
Roy's back stiffened. "Uh, no." He stepped back suddenly, causing her to fall in front of him and wind up leaning on his partner. "Johnny's single, though. Maybe you should ask him."
Johnny glared at Roy. "Uh, sorry," he told the bird. "I'm hanging out with Karl tomorrow. But, hey! Marco's single too!" He shoved her at Marco.
Marco, eyes wide with panic, slapped one hand over the left side of his forehead and one hand over the right side of his mouth and tried to duck away.
"Hi," he mumbled. "Pleased to meet you. Busy all week. Mike's not married!"
The Bluebird looked up at Mike, still sitting behind the wheel of the engine. He gave her a bland stare in return.
"You party?" she asked.
"You a swinger?"
"You wanna go out?"
"You're not any fun at all, are you?"
Chet loomed up in front of her. "Hey, Babe! I'm a hard partying swinger!"
She looked him over. "You look like a big, naked rat. With a mustache."
"Well, uh, I . . . ."
"I get off at five tomorrow. Be here."
Cap was standing with his helmet in his hand, talking to Bob when the bomb squad men around the taffy machine started running and waving their hands.
"Get back! Get back! It's gonna blow!"
The six firemen, Bob and the Bluebird of Happiness all ducked down against the engine. There was a moment's silence, then a loud pop and lavender goo flew up from the taffy machine and tumbled through the air towards them. It turned and spun, sailing up and up in a high arc and then back down in a trajectory that landed it directly on top of Cap's head.
He reflexively batted his hand at his head, but he had his helmet in his hand so the result was to squish the substance down under his helmet. He immediately pulled the helmet away, or tried to, but the goo had grabbed hold of it and was stuck to both the helmet and his head. He got the helmet about six inches above his head and the taffy chose that instant to set solid. He tried tugging it off, but it only pulled against his scalp. Then he tried putting the helmet back on to at least hide the stuff until he could get back to the station and wash it out, but the candy was too stiff and wouldn't let the helmet go back down. He was left with his helmet perched six inches above his head and at a jaunty angle atop a mound of shiny, lavender taffy.
"Cap!" Roy ran over to him in a panic. "Are you all right? Did it burn you? How hard did you get hit?"
"It's okay," he reassured his senior paramedic. "It's not hot at all. I think it must have cooled down flying through the air. It was barely warm, and it didn't hit me that hard. I haven't got a concussion, if that's what you're thinking. I only have one little problem with this."
"Oh? What's that?"
Cap fisted his hands in Roy's turnout coat and shouted in his face. "I LOOK LIKE A DR. SEUSS CHARACTER!"
Roy blanched and Cap forced himself to calm down and patted the other man on the shoulder. "Sorry. SORRY! Don't mean to yell. I'm just a tiny little bit stressed."
"I know. I know. But . . . really, you're okay?"
"Yes, I'm okay. And I just want you to know that I really appreciate your calm, caring, professional approach to this situation."
Roy looked at him, puzzled. "How else would I react?"
"Oh, I don't know." Cap looked at Johnny, Chet and Marco rolling on the tarmac and laughing so hard they could barely breathe. Even Mike was sitting in the engine grinning.
"Hey," Roy said. "I'm blue. I figure I got no room to cast stones."
"Well, I appreciate it anyway. Look, can you see if you can help me pry this thing off?"
Roy got hold of the helmet and did his best to pull it free, but all it did was tug painfully at Cap's scalp. "Sorry, Cap. It's not gonna come off. But don't worry. We can get it off at the station."
"You sure of that?"
"Sure. It's just cooked syrup with some flavorings, basically. I'll use the kitchen shears to cut your helmet free and trim away as much of the candy as I can. Then you can probably just wash it out with shampoo and good, hot water. If that doesn't work, we'll try peanut butter. That works for bubble gum, it'll probably work for taffy."
"Okay. Thanks, Pal!" He looked around for some other authority and found the crime scene photographers standing back a few feet, laughing hysterically and taking pictures of him and his crew. "I'm gonna take that to mean you don't need us anymore," he said, and gestured to his men. "Come on, people! Load 'em up!"
* * * *
They parked the engine and squad back in their usual places and gathered between them to talk.
"Could this day get any weirder?" Cap asked.
"Well, maybe," Chet said. "You know that inspection you've been worrying about all day?" He was looking out the open bay door and they all turned to watch the chief's car pull in and park in front of the office.
"Quick! Get your hats! Line up! And . . . try to look normal!" Grabbing his own hat, he slapped it on, forgetting, for the moment, his predicament. The hat landed on top of his helmet. He thought about snatching it off again, but by that time McConnikee was coming in the door and there was no time to do anything but stand at attention and look stupid.
"I really liked being a fire captain," he moaned under his breath.
The chief came to a halt beside Captain Stanley. Cap saluted him and the chief returned the gesture, studying his fire captain. Hank Stanley was wearing two hats, his dress hat, tilted slightly to the right and perched atop his helmet, which was tilted slightly to the left and perched atop a slick mound of shiny, lavender goo. He wore a nervous smile and was visibly perspiring.
Turning to his left, the chief took one step and halted before Marco Lopez. Though standing at attention also, Marco was trying to unobtrusively cover the left side of his forehead and the right side of his mouth. McConnikee gave him a slight nod and took another step.
Chet Kelly was always a small man, but the loss of all his body hair made him appear even smaller, like a wet cat. With no hair to hold it up, his hat sat down on his ears, the brim resting on the bridge of his nose and completely hiding his eyes. The top of the hat bulged outward, following the contours of his skull. He looked like an animated mustache in a firefighter's uniform.
Another step. Gage, on the other hand, had so much hair that his hat didn't come anywhere near touching his actual head. He gave the chief a nervous grin. "Hi. Uh, hair. Yeah. His name is Karl. I'm getting him cut tomorrow, though."
The chief nodded faintly and took another step. He took in Roy's appearance: The blue skin, the blue hair, the blue fingernails, the blue shirt, the blue pants. If he stood against a blue wall, he'd be invisible. Roy only pressed his lips together and didn't say anything.
Finally, McConnikee came to Mike Stoker, standing at the end of the line. He looked him up and down and spoke.
"Sideburns are getting a little long, Michael. Might want to see about getting a trim."
"Yes, sir! Sorry, sir. I'll get it taken care of."
"Good man. At ease, men. That'll be all. Have a nice day!"
He got back in his car and drove away, leaving them standing stunned in front of the apparatus bay.
"He already knew," Cap said in a hollow voice. "He must have already heard about everything and he just wanted to see for himself before he decided what action to take. We're dead!"
* * * *
Three blocks away, Chief McConnikee pulled into an empty lot and dialed a number on his car phone. As a matter of fact, Cap was right. He HAD heard about their misadventures and he DID want to see for himself. Now that he had, he'd decided on his course of action.
"Hey, Barney? McConnikee. Remember what we were talking about earlier? Yeah? Well, I'll bet you fifty bucks my 51s had a weirder shift than any station in your division . . . ."
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Easter Stories Stories by E!lf