Brown Bagging It
At Fire Station 51 the day was winding down. Autumn's early dark settled over Carson, California as the six firefighters lounged in the dayroom, lights off, watching an old movie on television. The movie paused at a cliffhanger and gave way, temporarily, to a man who couldn't believe he ate the whole thing. Marco Lopez stilled suddenly, tilted his head and asked, "Did you hear that?"
John Gage leaned over and turned the sound down on the TV and the men listened intently. Presently it came again -- the rattling, rustling sound of a paper bag being moved. Together they turned to peer into the dim kitchen, to where a lone paper bag sat in the middle of the big dining table.
"Sounds like our mouse is back," Cap observed. "Go get it, Kelly, and toss it outside."
"Me?" Chet Kelly squawked indignantly. "Why me? Why do I always have to do all the dirty work? Why not Gage or Mikey or DeSoto?"
"Because your beloved leader asked you to," Cap answered, unperturbed.
Scowling and muttering, Chet rose and crept up on the bag. It was just an ordinary paper bag, he saw. The side nearest him was plain, but the other side bore the logo of Fred's Supermarket. There was a grease stain near the bottom in the shape of a deformed three-leaf clover and a small tear coming down 3/4 of an inch on the left side.
Chet took a deep breath and snatched up the bag, intending to run for the door and dump the mouse outside. Instead he froze and looked into the bag in bewilderment.
"No way!" Marco came over to look for himself. "If it's empty, what was making it move like that?"
"It's possessed," John Gage grinned.
"The window's open," Roy DeSoto pointed out reasonably. "There must have been a breeze through the kitchen."
"I didn't feel any breeze," Chet argued nervously.
"What was in that bag, anyway?" Cap asked.
"It just had the chicken in it that I cooked for supper," Chet replied.
"Well, then," Mike said, "there's your answer. It's the chicken's ghost. That chicken's coming back to haunt you, Chet."
"That's fitting," Johnny laughed. "'Cause it's sure coming back to haunt me." He thumped his chest with his fist and belched.
"That was very elegant," Roy told him.
"Thanks. I aim to please."
"Hardy-har-har," Chet snorted, dropping the bag back on the table. "Can we go back to the movie now?"
They settled back in front of the television, but no sooner had the commercials ended than Chet was out of his seat and staring into the kitchen. "Did you hear that? It's doing it again!"
"So?" Marco asked. "Roy's right. It's probably just the wind."
"Yeah," Roy spoke up. "Come on, Chet. Sit down. You're blocking the screen here. This is a good part, too."
Chet scowled at them, but resumed his seat. His shiftmates quickly lost themselves in the movie, but Chet couldn't stop looking over his shoulder, staring at the bag sitting alone in the middle of the table. Two or three times he was sure he heard a soft rustling and once he thought, though he couldn't be certain, that he saw it move. Finally, unable to stand it any more, he jumped up, went in and picked up the bag, folded it and stuffed it into a drawer.
"There!" he said with some satisfaction as he came back to sit down again. "That had ought to keep it quiet."
By and by the movie ended. Cap and Mike left the day room headed for the office and the engine respectively. Marco settled back to see what was coming on next and Roy and Johnny made a joint phone call to Roy's wife to ask her what she knew about a young single woman who'd just moved in up the street from them. Chet rose and stretched and headed for the latrine. He was just outside the door when he heard a familiar rustling sound. With his heart in his throat he went through.
Sitting on the counter in front of the mirror was a familiar brown paper bag. Chet backed up and fought the urge to hyperventilate. So it was a paper bag. Someone left a paper bag there. Big deal. It couldn't possibly be the same paper bag. He'd put that other one away in the drawer himself. Cautiously he approached it. It was just an ordinary brown paper bag. The side closest to him was plain but the other side bore the logo of Fred's Supermarket. There was a grease stain near the bottom shaped like a deformed, three-leaf clover and a 3/4-inch tear coming down the left side.
With a cry of horror Chet flung himself from the room and ran through the station hollering. "It's after us! It's alive! Run for your lives!"
The rest of the guys ignored him. Cap was closed in his office, Mike was polishing the already-gleaming engine, and Marco was engrossed in the news. Roy and Johnny were off the phone and bickering.
"But you've seen her. If you say she's not a dog, she's not a dog. I'm willing to take your word for it. After all, you're not dead. You just don't have any charisma."
"You know, you're really making points fast here, Junior. I just don't think it's a good idea."
"But why not?"
"I know you! If we set you up with this woman and you strike out you're gonna get mad at me."
"You will! You always do! And I'm tired of getting blamed for your miserable love life."
Chet grabbed them each by a shoulder and shook them. "Will you stop goofing off and listen to me? We're being stalked by a demonic paper bag!"
The two paramedics turned to face him, shoulder to shoulder, instantly putting aside their difference of opinion to face the rest of the world, as they always did, together.
"Are you out of your ever-loving mind?" Roy asked.
Johnny snorted. "He doesn't have a mind to be out of!"
"Ha ha!" Chet said. "That's very funny, Gage. Let's just see you laugh while you're being murdered in your sleep tonight!"
"By a paper bag?"
"A demonic paper bag!"
"How does a paper bag murder someone?" Johnny asked his partner. "Even a demonic paper bag?"
"Beats me. I suppose it could, um, creep up and rustle at you. Now if it was a plastic bag . . . ."
Cap came in. "What on earth is going on in here? I can hardly hear myself think! Say, have any of you seen the form I need to requisition requisition forms?"
Mike stuck his head in the room. "Isn't there one on the bottom of your clipboard?"
"I think there is. What's all the yelling about?"
Marco looked up from the sofa. "Chet thinks we're all going to be murdered by a demonic paper bag."
"A demonic paper bag," Cap repeated. Five firemen stood, expressionless, looking at Chet.
"Okay, fine!" he said. "You think I'm making it up? Come in here and I'll show you!" He led the way to the latrine and pointed out the paper bag sitting on the counter. "There! See that? Now what do you have to say? Hmmm?"
Five firemen stood, expressionless, looking at the paper bag. "It's a paper bag," Roy said finally.
"Not just A paper bag! THE paper bag! The same bag that was sitting on the table rustling all by itself! The SAME bag that I folded up and put in a drawer in the kitchen not twenty minutes ago! See? NOW what do you have to say?"
They thought about it for a few seconds and then Roy snickered. "I get it. When you folded it up you only pretended to put it in the drawer. None of us were paying that much attention, so you stuffed it under your shirt and now you've set it in here to make us think . . . what? That it's possessed? A haunted paper bag?"
Johnny snorted. "Geez, Chet! Even for The Phantom that's pretty lame."
"The Phantom" was Chet's imaginary friend, the one he blamed for all the ill-considered practical jokes he liked to play. The Phantom had been over-active lately and the rest of the guys were getting tired of water bombs in their lockers and flour in their sheets.
"But I didn't do it! It wasn't me!"
"Say," Chet looked around at them, suddenly suspicious, "maybe one of YOU is playing a prank on ME!"
Roy crossed his arms and stood, flat-footed, solid and reasonable in front of the excitable young fireman. "How?"
"Well . . . " Chet considered it. "AHA! Cap and Mike BOTH left the room as soon as the movie ended."
"Left the room, yeah. But I thought you said you put the bag in one of the kitchen drawers?"
"And did either of them go anywhere near the kitchen drawers?"
"Uh . . . no."
"Did anyone besides you go anywhere near the kitchen drawers?"
"Well . . . noooooo."
"So the only person who could have taken the bag out of the drawer and put it in the latrine is you. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Cogito ergo sum."
"After this therefore because of this?" Johnny asked. "I think therefore I am?"
Roy shrugged. "It's the only Latin I know."
"Oh, well. In that case . . . . So, when are you and Joanne going to have me over to dinner?"
"Have you over to dinner?"
"Yeah! So you can introduce me to whatsername, the new chick?"
"I'll call Jo and see what she says," Roy sighed. "You know she's gonna make fun of me for caving in to you."
"Yeah, I know," Johnny grinned. "Hey, try to make it tomorrow night. That way, if it doesn't work out, I'll have a whole day to plan how to get back at you for setting me up on a bad blind date."
Roy growled, thunked his head against the wall briefly and headed for the payphone in the kitchen. Johnny followed laughing. The other guys had already drifted away and Chet was left alone once more with the ever-so-subtly sinister paper bag.
He stood on tiptoe and tried to see inside, but the counter was just high enough that he couldn't do it without getting much closer than he was comfortable with. He reached out tentatively with one finger, then froze. In his mind's eye he could see the whole thing playing out, like a scene from one of the B horror movies he was addicted to. He would put one finger down inside the bag, just far enough to tip it up and see the bottom. But wait! What was this? Something would grab him! Something strong and evil. Something with claws.
Inexorably it would draw him screaming inside the now bloody and gory paper bag. His feet would be the last thing to disappear over the rim of the bag. It would rustle one last time and then it would be still. The blood and brains would be absorbed back into the paper, leaving only a small, greasy stain in the shape of a deformed three-leaf clover. Again it would appear to be nothing but an ordinary, harmless brown paper bag from Fred's Supermarket. Everything would be as it had been, but Chet would be gone.
Chet snuffled and dragged the back of his hand under his nose. He wondered if anyone would miss him when he'd been eaten.
Summoning up his every reserve of courage, Chet took a deep breath and reached one finger out to touch the bag. He put it down inside, just far enough to tip the bag up and see the bottom. Nothing grabbed him. There wasn't a tentacle in sight.
He didn't know whether he was relieved or disappointed.
He tipped the bag up and found it empty. Disgusted, he snatched it up, crumpled it into a wad and carried it out back to the garbage cans behind the station. He buried it under a mass of eggshells and coffee grounds and told himself that he was through fooling around with brown paper bags.
His mind at ease, he went into the kitchen. Roy was talking on the phone.
"Don't snicker at your husband, Joanne. Nice girls don't snicker at their husbands. It isn't kind . . . . Yeah, I know, but he just doesn't stop. Don't snicker!"
"Tell her to make meatloaf," Johnny instructed.
"I will not!" Roy said over his shoulder. He turned back to the phone, his attention caught by a question from the other end of the line. "Oh, that was Johnny. He wants to know if you'd make meatloaf . . . that's sweet of you. I'm sure he'll appreciate it." He turned back to glare at Johnny again. "She's gonna make meatloaf."
John Gage just grinned.
Chet edged around them and went for a drink of water, then left the room and returned to the latrine to get ready for bed. Two or three minutes later he came out again. He went to his locker, opened it and froze.
Sitting on the locker floor was a brown paper bag. The side nearest him was plain, but he knew without looking that the other side would carry the logo of Fred's Supermarket. There was a small grease stain near the bottom in the shape of a deformed three-leaf clover and a tear coming down 3/4 of an inch on the left side.
It's a gag, he told himself. One of the guys is doing it to try to bug me. That's it! Heck, they had all of three minutes. All they had to do was get the bag out of the trash . . . and brush off all the eggshells . . . and wash out the coffee grounds . . . and dry it out . . . and iron out the wrinkles . . . .
With a wild cry he flung himself from the locker room and ran screaming into the day room again. "It's alive! It's still alive! It's the Bag That Will Not Die!"
Marco had gone to get ready for bed himself, Cap was still shut in his office and Mike was out by the engine. Only the paramedics were nearby, in the kitchen. Roy was making a sandwich and Johnny was sitting at the table pestering him.
"I'm just saying it's not normal to eat at night. There must be something wrong with your metabolism or something."
Ignoring him, Roy put the top slice of bread on his sandwich. Before he could react Johnny picked it up and took a bite out of it. "Anyway," he said around a mouthful of purloined sandwich, "you put too much mustard on it."
Roy sighed and stoically started building another sandwich. Neither of them paid Chet the slightest attention. Chet looked around and found Boot, the company mascot, lying on the couch and looking at him with expressive brown eyes. Chet looked back. His eyes drooped, his eyebrows drooped, his mouth drooped, his mustache drooped. His entire body drooped.
"They don't even care," he told Boot mournfully. Boot regarded him impassively for a minute, then rolled over on his side, stretched elaborately, yawned and went to sleep.
"Fine," Chet said. "Thanks a lot, pal!"
He returned to the locker room, pausing at the engine to pick up a pry bar. Yanking his locker door open suddenly he beat the brown paper sack into submission. Then, dropping the pry bar and laughing with mad glee, he tore it into tiny pieces, not stopping until he was surrounded by tiny flecks of brown paper snow.
Breathing heavily, he looked up and found Roy and Johnny standing in the doorway, eating their sandwiches and watching him expressionlessly.
"Maybe the gag isn't that the bag is possessed," Roy said. "Maybe the gag is him acting like he's lost his mind."
Johnny snorted. "Maybe he isn't acting."
Chet nodded at them. "Go ahead. Yuk it up. There are forces in this world that small-minded people like you don't dare to dream of." He tipped his head back so he could look down his nose at them. Under his bushy eyebrows his eyes bugged out. His mustache bristled. "You'll never know what terrible fates I may have saved your miserable hides from."
One corner of Roy's mouth twitched upwards and he snickered. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Chet told him.
Johnny took another bite of sandwich and spoke around it. "Too much mustard, man! Why do you always gotta put too much mustard?"
"I like mustard. And I was making it for me!"
"Yeah, but you hadda know I was gonna steal it. So you shouldn't have put so much mustard on it. You gotta think ahead about things like that!"
Roy finished his own sandwich, licked his fingers and announced that he was going to bed. The two paramedics left and Chet got a broom, swept up the remains of the paper bag and went to bed himself with the feeling of a job well done.
In the dark, wee hours of morning the tones sounded. Chet jumped up with the rest of his stationmates, pulled on his turnouts and boots and took his place in the engine. As they sped through the night, lights flashing and siren going, he realized there was something alien down by his feet. Glancing down he found himself looking at a brown paper bag. The side nearest him was plain but the other side bore the logo of Fred's Supermarket. There was a small grease stain near the bottom in the shape of a deformed three-leaf clover and a tear coming down 3/4 of an inch on the left side.
Only a paralyzing terror kept Chet from flinging himself from the moving fire engine.
They pulled up in front of a blazing apartment building, the squad pulling in behind them. Several other engines were already on scene and Cap jumped down to talk to the captain of 45s, who was running things. Chet climbed carefully out of the engine, then reached back and snatched up the paper bag.
"You've made a fatal mistake this time!" he told it, shaking it menacingly. "NOTHING destroys like fire! Ha ha ha! AH ha ha ha ha!"
Glancing around, he caught a strange fireman looking at him oddly. Chet drew his mouth into a straight line, tucked the demonic paper bag under one arm and tightened the strap on his helmet.
The strange fireman wandered away, still looking warily over his shoulder at Chet. He bumped into Roy and Johnny, coming over from the squad. "That guy over there was yelling at a paper bag," he told them.
"Yeah," Johnny said. "He thinks it's possessed."
"He thinks it's possessed?"
"By the spirit of a chicken," Roy added.
"By the spirit of a chicken," the strange fireman echoed in bemusement. He blinked a couple of times and returned to the safety of his own company.
Cap turned away from his counterpart and issued orders. The two paramedics were sent in to do a quick victim sweep, looking particularly for an elderly woman in a wheelchair who lived on the top floor and who hadn't been seen outside yet. Chet and Marco pulled an inch and a half to cover them as best they could.
"Don't dawdle," Cap told them. "Cap Miller says we're losing ground fast. It's only a matter of time until the whole structure comes down."
When they got inside, Chet still had the paper bag under his arm. Dragging the heavy hose, he and Marco followed the paramedics up to the top floor. On the fourth floor landing Chet paused. White-hot flames climbed up the wall on their right. He tossed the paper bag into the fire and pulled down his air mask to watch it. Bushy hair stuck out from beneath his helmet and his eyebrows and mustache bristled wildly. Firelight gleamed madly in his eyes.
"Burn, baby, burn!"
Cap Miller's voice sounded on the radio, calling for all persons to clear the fire immediately.
The paramedics were coming back down. Johnny cradled a tiny old woman in his arms and Roy was carrying her folded-up wheelchair. The woman was looking at Chet in horror as she and Johnny drew near to him.
"It's alright, ma'am!" Chet told her seriously. "You're safe now. The paper bag is gone."
The old lady whimpered and buried her face in Johnny's neck.
Johnny carried the woman outside and set her down gently on a blanket by the squad. She was unhurt, merely frightened by the fire and, now, frightened by Chet.
Johnny looked around. "Where's Roy?"
The burning building chose that moment to collapse. A look of stark horror crossed the younger paramedic's face and Chet and Marco tackled him as he tried to run back into the fire. He had spent the whole shift pestering and teasing his partner. Now he was ready to fight the entire department to go back into the flames and search for him.
Cap and Mike ran over to help.
"Roy!" Johnny screamed towards the fire. "ROY!"
As if in answer, Cap's radio crackled. "HT 51 to engine 51. Do you read me?"
With a relieved sigh, Cap answered. "This is engine 51. Where are you?"
"I'm in the back garden, Cap. I got turned around and came out the wrong door."
Johnny shook off Chet and Marco and stood up straight, hands on his hips, his expression a study in disgust. "That . . . twit!"
"We got a Code I back here," Roy continued. "One of the guys from 45s has a palm tree down on him. I don't think he's too bad, but I'm gonna need our gear and an ambulance and we're gonna need the saw to get the tree off him."
"10-4, Roy. Sit tight. We're on our way."
Johnny, and Marco took the medical gear, Cap and Chet carried the stokes and Mike, having shut down the pressure to their lines, brought the saw. They circled the burning building and found Roy half-squatting, half-kneeling in the back yard, next to a downed palm tree. The senior paramedic had tossed his helmet aside. His mask dangled in front of his chest and his turnout coat hung open. He held his victim's wrist in his right hand as he peered at his watch. Johnny stormed up to him and dropped the supplies he was carrying.
"Man! You scared me! I oughta kick your butt!"
Cap set up a powerful spotlight. In the sudden illumination Roy gave Johnny a puckish grin. "Thanks. Nice to know you care."
Johnny cuffed him on the back of the head. "Oh, shut up!"
He dropped down on the other side of their victim and snapped off a branch that was between him and the injured man. "Conroy! Geez! Is this your new hobby now? Lying around under trees at fire sites? Did you have so much fun last time you decided to do it again? What is it with you and trees, man?"
"I think he stands under them and dares them to fall on him," Roy said, setting up the biophone. "Rampart, this is rescue 51, do you read?"
Conroy clenched his teeth in pain and rolled his eyes. "Comedians! Just my luck I gotta get rescued by a bunch of comedians! Hey, Gage! See if you can get me something for the pain!"
Johnny shook his head once, tongue tucked into his cheek. "I don't think that's such a good idea," he said. Roy had just gotten an order for a shot of MS and was preparing it.
"Why not?" Conroy demanded.
"Well, if I remember right, the last time we gave you morphine you had a bad reaction to it."
"No I didn't!"
"Yeah, you did. You started singing! I just don't think I'm up to hearing you singing again."
"Comedians!" Conroy groaned again. He peered up at the tall, slender figure silhouetted above him, wearing a safety visor and holding a very big saw. "Who's on the saw," he asked.
"Mike Stoker," Roy told him. He'd already administered the MS, his touch so light that Conroy didn't even notice. Now he was laying out the splints they would need when the tree had been dealt with.
"Mike Stoker," Conroy echoed a little nervously. "Good man, Mike Stoker. Uh, hey, Mike! About last time . . . you know I was only joking when I said that about your wife, right?"
Mike flipped up the visor and looked down at Conroy with absolutely no expression whatsoever. Holding his gaze, he fired up the saw. Conroy closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and tipped his head back. "Oh, man!"
A sharp nod brought Mike's visor back down over his eyes. He moved in and made two deft cuts through the palm tree and now they had only to toss a small length of trunk aside to free the fallen firefighter. They made short work of getting him splinted and into the stokes, then they gathered up their gear and carried him back around the building to the waiting ambulance.
The building collapse had done much to extinguish the fire and the third alarm, including 51, was being released. Cap sent Chet and Marco to walk the water out of their hose and start re-packing it while he and Mike helped load Conroy into the ambulance. Johnny climbed in with him but before they closed the back doors Roy looked out into the street and groaned.
"Cap, look!" Johnny leaned around to see and immediately started grousing himself while Cap got on the radio.
"LA, engine 51. Please inform the police at our incident that we have a solid line of cars blocking in our ambulance."
While they waited for the situation to be resolved, Cap and Mike edged closer to Roy, standing beside the open ambulance door. Marco glanced up and saw them. He spoke to Chet, drawing his attention and keeping his back to their shiftmates.
"So," Cap ventured to Roy, "you're gonna be following the ambulance in, then?"
"Yeah, we generally do it like that."
"Gonna go right by the station."
"The road runs that way," the senior paramedic agreed laconically.
Cap glanced over at Chet and Marco and found their attention focused on a girl in her mid-teens who was standing across the street watching the fire, unselfconscious in a baby-doll nightgown. The other three firemen followed Cap's gaze and for a moment, conversation forgotten, they all stared.
Cap thought, if that was my daughter I'd drag her in the house and put some clothes on her! And then I'd lock her in the closet until she was thirty!
Johnny thought, oh, man! She's hot!
Marco thought, oh man! She's hot!
Roy thought, if that was my daughter I'd . . . oh my God! Maybe I AM dead!
Cap, having the least compelling thoughts, came back to himself first. He nudged Roy to get his attention and spoke quietly. "So, you know where I've got the bags stashed?"
"Bottom right hand drawer in your desk?"
"Right. Who's got the paper to make the rustling sound with?"
"I think Marco still has it."
Mike dipped one hand into the pocket of his turnout and came up with a plastic sandwich bag, which he surreptitiously slipped to Roy. Roy tucked it into his own pocket. It contained a small can of oil and a fragment of sponge shaped like a deformed three-leaf clover. Johnny, leaning out to grab the ambulance door and pull it closed, paused for a moment.
"Don't forget the tear! Three quarters of an inch. On the left side!"
"Please! I'm a professional!"
"Says the guy who can't find his way out of a burning building." Johnny slammed the ambulance door before Roy could reply and the other three moved apart.
Inside the ambulance, Johnny turned to Conroy and took another set of vitals as the ambulance finally began to move slowly towards Rampart. Conroy was feeling the effects of the morphine.
"Heave-ho! And up she rises! Heave-ho! And up she rises! Heave-ho and up she rises earl-lie in the morrrrr-ning!"
"Don't sing," Johnny told him.
"But I wanna sing. I like to sing!"
"Well, don't sing anyway. Tell you what, I'll make you a deal. If you can refrain from singing, I'll tell you a story."
"Is it a good story?"
"Oh, it's a great story!"
"What's it called?"
"It's called 'The Firestation's Revenge' or --" Johnny paused for dramatic effect, "'How to Bag a Phantom'!"
October Picture Stories Stories by E!lf