By Marty P.
Johnny and Roy walked slowly out
of Rampart's Emergency entrance toward the squad. After stowing their gear in
the compartments, Johnny latched them and turned to face his partner. “Roy, why
do these calls always get worse around the holidays?”
Roy stood in silence, thinking. “Johnny, I wish I knew. Then we could try to prevent them.” He watched Johnny climb into the cab and got into the driver's seat.
“Do you realize that's our third suicide attempt this week?” Johnny stared out the windshield. The night was still and silent. The gaudy neon signs decorated the roadway but Johnny was too lost in thought to notice. Roy drove without speaking. He needed to share something with Johnny soon but he knew this wasn't the time to bring it up. Johnny's voice interrupted his reverie. “And Thanksgiving was just last Thursday. Roy, that was just four days ago.”
“It's always discouraging when someone decides to take their own life.” Roy agreed as an oncoming car's high beam headlights made him blink to refocus. Neither man said anything for a few minutes.
“Roy, as paramedics we put in hours of training to save lives. When we arrive at the scene and revive a person and they look at me and say, 'why didn't you let me die?' I wonder.” The door of the station opened and Roy backed the squad into the equipment bay. Johnny reached for the door handle. “Is there something wrong with me?”
“I think you know the answer to that, Johnny.” Roy rubbed his hand across his forehead and lumbered toward the dorm.
Johnny went in the opposite direction toward the kitchen. “Want some coffee?”
Knowing his partner still needed to talk, Roy shook his weary head and followed him. He sank onto the leather couch and watched his energetic partner dart around the kitchen. A few minutes later Johnny poured the warm brew into a mug. “That hits the spot. Wonder if there's anything to eat around here?”
“I'm gonna go to bed now.” Roy told him as he rose from the sofa and straightened his stiff muscles. “We can talk about this more later.”
Johnny missed Roy's comments because he was rooting through the refrigerator. When the scent of coffee wore off, his hunger pangs lessened and his thoughts returned to the squad's last call. He put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. “Why do I feel so helpless?” He wondered aloud. His eyes closed and he nodded off. An hour later his arm slid off the table, waking him. He blinked and caught sight of the clock above the television, “2:35? Man, I need to get some sleep.” Stumbling into the dorm, he felt his way through the dark and crawled into bed.
Johnny heard rustling around him as Roy pulled back his covers and padded across the floor. “You get any sleep last night Johnny?”
Johnny rolled over. “ Yeah. But I didn't have any brainstorms.”
Roy noticed the dorm was empty at the moment. “Johnny, I need to tell you something.”
“It's about Christmas…” Roy sat down on his bed, facing his partner.
Johnny sat up with an excited look on his face. “Can I be Santa this year? I bought a bigger pillow to stuff around my waist!”
Roy sighed, Johnny was making this even harder. “Johnny, I'm afraid we won't be able to spend Christmas together.”
Johnny's face fell, and then brightened again. “Are you working an extra shift? We could do everything on Christmas Eve then!”
“I wish we could but Joanne's mother wants us to spend the week with her. We won't be home.”
Johnny sat there in silence. His disappointment filled the air. “You'll be gone the whole week?”
Roy had tried his best to talk Joanne out of the idea but her mother insisted they come. “Johnny, I'd rather spend Christmas here.”
“What am I gonna do?” Johnny looked so forlorn, sitting there like a homeless waif.
Just then Chet entered the room. “What's the matter, Johnny? Just find out there's no Santa Claus?”
Johnny's frustration exploded. “What do you care, Kelly?” His pillow rocketed through the air, hitting Chet in the chest. Chet started to make a smart remark but caught Roy shaking his head at him. He tossed the pillow to Roy and left the room.
“We'll get together anyway, Johnny. Wanna do it before Christmas, or after?” Roy set the pillow on Johnny's bed and waited patiently.
“Roy, it just won't be the same. I was really looking forward to this.” Johnny pursed his lips and sucked in a breath of air.
“I'm really sorry, Johnny. I'm not looking forward to spending Christmas with my mother-in-law.” Johnny saw Roy's sad eyes as he stood up to straighten his bed.
Johnny put his bare feet on the tile floor. “Roy, can we get together after Christmas and have a celebration?”
“I wouldn't have it any other way,” Roy replied as he watched his partner head toward the shower.
Several days later Johnny stood at the base station, waiting for Roy to appear. Thirty minutes earlier the tones had gone off at the station and Squad 51 rushed to a department store. A frantic mother stood over her three-year-old daughter who was choking on a candy cane. “She just got off Santa's lap and I went to ask the elf a question and she gagged.”
“When did this happen?” Roy asked the store manager as Johnny rolled the toddler over.
The distressed man looked at the wreath-decorated clock over Santa's head. “Not very long ago. I called right away.” He breathed a sigh of relief as Johnny removed the hard candy.
Johnny got the vital signs and reported them to Roy. “BP is 100/60. Pulse is 72 and respirations are 24.”
Roy opened the biocom. “Rampart. This is Squad 51. We have a three-year-old female who choked on hard candy. Obstruction has been removed.” He relayed the vital signs.
“51, monitor vital signs and transport as soon as possible.”
Dixie's approach brought Johnny back to the present. “Johnny, Roy should be out in a minute. The little girl's fine.”
Johnny stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Glad to hear that. Would have really ruined Christmas for the family if the outcome had been different.” A look of dismay crossed his face.
“Well, we can be thankful it turned out okay. I bet you're looking forward to Christmas.”
He rubbed his hand across jaw. “Not this year.”
“Really? I thought you always enjoyed Christmas.” Dixie looked at him with concern.
“Ever since Roy and I have been partners I've joined his family. That's not gonna work this year,” Johnny emitted a soft sigh.
“Johnny, you have a lot of friends. You'll be fine.” Dixie saw the light blink on the board in front of her and went to check on a patient.
“It won't be the same,” Johnny muttered to himself. “It just won't be the same.”
Several hours later they were called out on a run. Station 51. Unknown type rescue. 901 Highlander Street. Cross street Meramac Avenue. Time out 1422.
When the members of Station 51 pulled up to the scene and knocked on the door, a distraught high school girl yanked it open. “Hurry! It's Whitney.”
“What happened?” Roy asked as he followed the young lady down the hall.
“Whitney's my best friend. She wasn't at school today so I stopped to check on her.” She led them to a small bedroom. “I thought she was sleeping but when she wouldn't wake up I called the fire department.” The captain drew her out into the hall to give the paramedics more space to work.
“What's your name?” Captain Stanley put his hand on her shoulder.
“Darcy.” She turned to catch a glimpse of her friend as Chet came down the hall with more equipment.
Darcy's face was fearful. “Will she be okay? She's had a tough time. Her mom died a month ago and her dad's never home. He's always working.”
By now Roy had taken the vitals. “Blood pressure's 88/58. Her pulse is 114 and bounding and her respirations are 16 and shallow.” He slipped his flashlight out of his pocket to check her pupils.
“Rampart, this is Squad 51, how do you read?” Johnny jotted down the vitals Roy had given him.
“Loud and clear. Go ahead, 51,” Dr. Early replied.
“Rampart, we have a female, approximately sixteen years old. She's unconscious and her vitals are: pulse is 114 and bounding, respirations are 16 and shallow and her BP is 88/58.”
“Johnny, her pupils are equal but sluggish.” Roy unwrapped the tubing for the nasal cannula and adjusted the oxygen to four liters.
“51, sounds like a possible drug overdose. Bring in any bottles you locate, start an IV with D5W and transport as soon as possible.”
Johnny set the receiver down and checked around the room for any signs of medication. Seeing nothing, he went to the bathroom and returned with a plastic container. “She may have taken antidepressants,” he notified Rampart. Johnny went to find Darcy and held the bottle up in front of her. “Are these your friend's?”
Darcy stammered, “I don't think so.” She read the label. “No, they were her mom's. Are you saying Whitney tried to kill herself?”
Johnny went back to assist while the captain answered Darcy's question. “Miss, right now they're just trying to help Whitney.”
The ambulance arrived and Johnny rode in with the teenage girl. When Dr. Early assured him he was no longer needed, Johnny went to find Roy. When he couldn't locate him in the corridor he tapped on the lounge door and peeked his head in. Roy wasn't there but Dixie sat at the table, cradling a cup of coffee. Johnny went to the coffee dispenser and filled a mug. “Dixie, isn't there something the hospital could do to prevent suicides?”
“Johnny, we do all we can. But we can't live people's lives for them.” She reached for her coffee cup, took a swallow and continued. “You might want to talk to Millie Eastman.”
“Millie?” Johnny searched for the reason the name sounded familiar.
“Millie Eastman. You and Roy brought her in about a year ago. She was the head nurse here at Rampart.”
“Now I remember. She tried to commit suicide. How's she doing?”
“As far as I know, very well. She's working at a suicide prevention center. Why don't you give her a call?” Dixie rose and went to the nurses' station. After flipping through the Rolodex, she jotted down the number and gave it to Johnny, who had followed her out of the lounge. “She could probably answer many of your questions.”
The following day Johnny debated about whether or not to call the number Dixie had given him. One moment it sounded like a wonderful idea but the next he felt he was becoming too involved. Finally, he put the number next to the phone and dialed it.
“Suicide hotline, may I help you?” a man's voice crackled over the airwaves.
Johnny felt embarrassed. “Uh, I'm not calling cause I'm considering suicide. I wanted to get in touch with Millie.”
“Lemme see if she's in today. Can I tell her who's calling?” The man on the other end waited patiently.
Johnny cleared his throat. “It's John. John Gage.”
“Promise me you won't hang up?” The trained volunteer verified. After Johnny assured him there was silence. A moment later he heard Millie's voice.
“Hi, John. What can I do for you?”
Johnny took the plunge. “You may not remember me, but I work as a paramedic with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.”
Her voice changed. “You were one of the men who brought me to Rampart when I tried to commit suicide, aren't you?”
She chuckled, “Just call me Millie, John.”
“I'm not quite sure how to ask this but I was hoping you could tell me why depression is worse for people at the holidays. It seems like we have so many calls for suicides between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
“John? I get off in about fifteen minutes. Could we meet somewhere for coffee and talk about this?” She mentioned a small diner not too far from Johnny's address.
“That sounds fine. I'll be there.”
He parallel parked across the street from the mom and pop restaurant and entered. A coconut cake sat under a glass lid, and he could see a row of pies on a shelf behind the counter. He looked for a worn, older woman but didn't see anyone fitting that description. As he dragged a metal chair across the linoleum a vibrant lady with a winning smile waved at him. “John?”
“I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you.” He sat down, thankful when the waitress bustled over with a coffeepot. After she'd filled his cup, he ordered a piece of cherry pie and she left.
“I don't think you've seen me since I left the hospital,” Millie said, making him comfortable. “Now, how can I help you?”
Johnny took a swallow of coffee. “As I mentioned to you on the phone, I've been wondering why suicides rise during the holidays.”
Millie leaned back in her chair and looked across at him. “John, while the holiday season is a time for joy and glad tidings for many, those who are experiencing depression often feel a deeper sadness and isolation. They feel overwhelmed with hopelessness and suicide seems like the best option to many of them.”
Johnny's pie arrived and he took a large bite. When it was nearly gone, he continued the conversation. “Isn't there anything that can be done?”
“Depression isn't a clear cut disease like appendicitis. There are many reasons for it and treatments vary case by case. But loneliness and isolation can intensify the depression.”
Johnny put down his fork. “Is there some way to get people involved in life?”
“The suicide prevention center is trying a new program. It's called 'Share the Day.' It's still a work in progress but our kickoff will be at an orphanage near the community center. It will be an opportunity for people to get out and spend time with other people.” Millie dabbed the corner of her mouth with her napkin and put it on the table. “Are you busy on December 20 th?”
He saw an invisible calendar in front of him. “No, not this year.”
“Would you like to join us?” Millie opened her purse, removed a flyer, and handed it to Johnny.
He read. 'Got a few hours? The Fifth Street Orphanage needs your help. Come string popcorn and sing carols with the children. For more information call 555-7428.'
“What time does it start?” Johnny folded up the flyer and tucked it in his shirt. Then he scraped the cherry filling off his plate, savoring the final bite.
“Come at 2:00 and stay as long as you'd like.”
“Yeah, I'd like to come.” He paused while the waitress brought the check. “Millie, Roy and I just took a teenager to Rampart yesterday. I sorta have the feeling helping other people is what she needs. Is there some way she could find out about this?”
“I'll talk to Dixie and she'll see to it.” Millie saw the time. “Oh my, I need to go!”
Johnny stood up when Millie did and he held the door for her.
December 20th arrived sooner than Johnny expected. He rose that morning, eager to talk over an idea with Roy and then he realized that he was gone. His body language changed as he slumped over, pattered out to the kitchen and yanked out a box of dry cereal. With a glum face he drug the milk carton out of his nearly empty refrigerator and smothered the corn flakes. Grabbing a spoon, he sank onto a chair he didn't usually use. A crumpling sound got his attention and he pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out from under him. It was the announcement for the event Millie'd told him about. He noticed the sun reflecting off the soda can he'd left sitting on the counter and smiled. Suddenly energized, he wolfed down his breakfast and whistled 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' while he showered. As he shaved, he recognized how much he wanted to accomplish before the afternoon. His apartment was a mess and he felt like bringing some Christmas cheer into it. He gathered his trash and shoved it in the dumpster as he made his way to the Land Rover.
The crowds shopping nearly made him do an about face but he found a parking space near a lot with fresh trees and the scent of pines filled his nostrils. Visions of the wilderness and camping trips traveled through his brain. At last he stopped in front of a five foot Scotch Pine and twirled it slowly. Satisfied, he paid for it and tied it to the top of his car. When he arrived at home it hit him. He had no tree stand, ornaments or lights. He dug up a bucket, filled it with water and found a spot in the corner where the tree could lean against the wall. The tree looked pathetic and barren. His enthusiasm clanged to a shrieking halt. He picked up a tattered issue of National Geographic and leafed through an article on Mardi Gras but the revelry pictured failed to spark his spirit. He slapped the magazine down on his coffee table and wandered out to the kitchen to graze. Then he saw it, again. 'Share the Day' invited him to spend time with other people. Why not? He'd just mope around at home.
Before he could change his mind he was unlocking the Land Rover's door and on his way to the orphanage. As he parked he saw that the building was decked for the season. Poinsettias graced the doorway and a cheery pine wreath with a red velvet bow hung from the door. Hanging in the front window was a sign reading. 'Welcome.' As Johnny studied it he saw it used to say 'Welkum' but someone had doctored it so it was spelled correctly. Grinning, Johnny loped to the front door and with a spring in his step he lifted the doorknocker when the knob turned. “Hi, I'm Stella. C'mon in.”
Johnny felt the friendly atmosphere of the orphanage. A scent of warming cider with cinnamon added a festive fragrance to the facility. He heard the murmur of excited voices as she led him toward a large room. “Ya think people will come and see us?” Johnny heard a young voice ask hopefully.
Stella stood aside so Johnny could peer into the room. Sheet music was strewn on the spinet piano bench. Spools of thread and bowls of popcorn sat atop several end tables. Loose kernels dotted the floor, showing sampling had already occurred. Opened newspapers hid a rickety card table. A corner of it held construction paper, scissors, glue and silver and gold glitter. As he entered the room a crowd of ebullient children swooped toward him like a flock of birds dive-bombing from a tree, nearly toppling him. He felt tugging as more than one pair of hands tried to lay claim to him. “Wanna eat pobcorn?” a small boy suggested.
“No, make a star with me!” A blonde lassie, wearing a white blouse with a red pinafore, plucked his sleeve, and tried to coax him to join her.
A girl with curly black hair and a pink dress made of dotted Swiss, ran her fingers over the piano keys. “You know Jingle Bells?”
“Hey, did ya bring us presents?” A freckle-faced lad with rumpled blue jeans and a plaid shirt put his hands on his hips and looked Johnny in the eye.
Stella intervened. “Matthew! That's rude. Now let's give him a minute to decide.”
Johnny knelt in front of the boy. “I'm sorry, Matthew. I didn't know I was supposed to.” He glanced beyond the children and saw other adults.
Millie gave him a smile as she walked toward him to shake his hand. “Matthew asked me the same question. Guess we didn't think of that aspect when we planned this event. Hopefully, he'll have such a good time that he'll forget all about gifts.”
Johnny saw several people in their sixties and seventies and then he noticed two teenage girls. They looked vaguely familiar. It was the girl he and Roy had brought in and her friend. Stella returned to his side with a blank nametag and a marker. “We thought this would make it easier for everyone to get to know each other.”
He scrawled his name, tore off the backing and slapped it on the left side of his brown shirt. When he looked up the teenagers were facing him. “Hi, I'm Darcy and this is my friend Whitney. Thank you for coming and helping her.”
Whitney looked self-conscious and Johnny got the impression that Darcy had to beg her to come. He replied in a gentle voice. “You're welcome.” He rubbed his hands together. “Hey! Anyone wanna string popcorn?”
“Me! Me! Me!” A chorus of voices reverberated around the room. A few seconds later Johnny was seated on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn perched on his lap while several children handed him kernels simultaneously. “Take mine! No, it's my turn!” Johnny took it in stride, trying to give each one a turn. The string grew slowly but the bottom of the bowl appeared in no time.
His attention was distracted when he heard a female say, “That's beautiful. Would you like to put glitter on it?” He stole a glance and saw Whitney opening the glue. Next to her was a little girl he hadn't noticed before; she was holding a piece of construction paper. He didn't recognize the shape. It wasn't a star, or a circle or a triangle but he could see she was pleased with it and Whitney wasn't about to squelch her creativity. Darcy sat a few feet away from her friend. A girl was seated comfortably on her lap while she read The Littlest Angel.
“Hey mister, wanna cookie?” Matthew slapped him on the knee to get his attention.
Johnny chuckled when he read his nametag, mAtTheW. He took his hand and found himself standing in front of a table laden with treats. Both he and Matthew tried one of each. “You eat almost as much as I do!” Matthew said with a giggle.
“Johnny?” Millie tapped on his shoulder, interrupting his conversation with Matthew. “How's it going?”
“I'm enjoying myself.” He saw the small clusters of adults and children around the room. “How do you think it's going?”
She smiled. “Very well. Children are contagious, aren't they? It's hard not to feel enthusiastic around them.” Her eyes lit on Whitney and Darcy. “I'm glad to see they heard about our event. I better go mingle.” With a brief wave she went to check on an older man who looked like he was having trouble understanding a child.
Johnny saw Whitney sitting in a corner with the same little girl she'd been with earlier. She was brushing her hair and styling it. The child chattered happily and Whitney looked relaxed and at least for a moment, at peace with herself.
Matthew, who had claimed Johnny as “his friend,” grabbed his hand. “I make the bestest paper chains. Everyone says so, wanna help?” Johnny was dragged over to the card table and pulled duty cutting strips of black and yellow paper. Matthew's philosophy was everyone used red and green. “I can point to the tree and say I did those,” he declared proudly. A half hour later Johnny's sleeves were festooned with glue and glitter. Let's do some more!” Matthew dug in with eagerness.
“I'm sorry, it's the children's bedtime.” Stella announced. The children gathered around her, begging to stay up longer.
Johnny caught sight of his watch. “8:00 p.m.? The time's just flown by!”
Matthew returned to his side. “You will come back, won't you?”
“Matthew! Don't be rude!” Stella raised her eyebrows at him, silencing any further supplications. She drew Johnny out into the hall before he could give Matthew an answer. “Johnny, if you're available on Christmas Eve would you consider playing “Santa?” Gus usually does it but he just had gall bladder surgery.”
“I'm very flattered but I don't have a suit.” Johnny informed her.
She moved toward a closet, “Oh, we have the costume. But it's really going to sag on you.”
Johnny remembered a recent purchase he'd made. “I have the perfect pillow to fill that out.”
“Well, why don't you take it with you?” She made sure the children were out of sight and then laid the hanger over his arm. As Johnny snuck out the door he heard her invite all the guests to return on Christmas Eve.
Johnny arrived home, tossing his jacket on the recliner as he went past. As he undressed, a stray piece of popcorn fell out of his pocket, causing a delighted look to cross his face.
The following morning he whisked into the station, almost running Chet over. “Gage! Where's the fire? I didn't hear the tones!”
“You go as slow as you want, Kelly. Course, you are usually going at the speed of a turtle!” As Johnny changed for the shift Charlie Dwyer, Roy's replacement, came in. Johnny gave him a friendly hello.
After Charlie left the room Chet shut his locker door and put his foot on the bench. “Johnny, you doing okay with Roy outta town? You could come over to my place on Christmas Eve if you want.”
Touched, Johnny patted him on the arm. “Thanks, Chet, but I'm gonna be busy.”
Chet's expression changed dramatically. “You gotta date? Is it that new nurse you've been talking about so much?”
“Nope and that's all I'm gonna say.” Johnny pointed his finger at Chet, sure an interrogation would occur. “And I mean it, so don't even try.” The paramedic tugged on his belt buckle and went to see if everyone else was in the dayroom.
Charlie and Johnny got several runs. They were discussing the child they'd rescued from a roof over lunch. “Tell me again why the kid was up there.” Chet asked as he opened the ketchup bottle.
“His sister told him there was no way Santa could come down the chimney and he went to check it out.” Johnny replied, shoving a handful of French fries in his mouth.
Hank Stanley leaned back in his chair. “Well, you should be glad he didn't get stuck in the chimney. That coulda been an all day rescue.”
“No kidding,” Johnny answered as the klaxons put the crew on the alert. Station 51. Unknown type rescue. 6723 ¼ South Beach. Apartment 22. Cross street Beach. Time out 1343.
Within seconds the kitchen was deserted and the doors rolled up as the emergency vehicles responded to the call. A neighbor was speaking to a police officer when they pulled up. “There was a sound. It mighta been a gunshot.”
Vince Coleman nodded grimly. “Do you know your neighbor?”
“He's about forty. No children. His wife died in a car crash in September.” She saw the paramedics go up the stairs with their gear.
Johnny tried the door; it was locked. “Stand back.” He took a running start and forced it open. The sight that met their eyes was one that would be difficult to erase from their memories. The victim lay lifeless on the floor. He had aimed the gun at his chest and fired. Charlie Dwyer checked for a carotid pulse but there was none. Johnny gently lowered his glazed eyelids as Chet came to the doorway.
“Need help?” When he saw the situation, his face fell, echoing the helpless feeling the paramedics had.
Johnny looked up, dazed for a moment. “Would ya get a blanket and tell Vince to notify the coroner?”
Engine 51 returned to quarters while Johnny and Charlie waited to give a report to the coroner. Johnny drove back to the station. “Man, that was a tough one.” He commented with a sigh as he slammed the squad door.
Charlie joined him. “Yeah. I wish he would've talked to someone before he gave up.”
“You two okay?” Captain Stanley asked with compassion as they traipsed into the kitchen. “That kind of call stays with you.”
“I think so, Cap.” Johnny informed him, brushing his fingers through his hair.
Hank Stanley eyed them, “Well, don't bottle it up. I'm here if you need to talk and there are experts out there to help you too.”
“Thanks, Cap.” Charlie shoved his hands in his pants pockets and stared at the floor for a minute. “Johnny, we better go log the call.”
When there was a break in the late afternoon, Johnny went into the dorm and took out a card Millie had given him. He dialed the number, and heard her cheerful voice greet him.
“Millie, this is John Gage. Do you have a minute to talk?”
Millie glanced around the room at the center. Volunteers stood ready to answer the silent phones. Aware of his sullen voice she asked, “What's wrong?”
“We just had a really bad run. The man shot himself in the chest and we couldn't do anything for him.” Johnny closed his eyes to try to block out the sight that was entering his mind.
“Johnny, I'm really sorry. You know, women attempt suicide four times more often than men, but men are more likely to complete suicide.”
“Sometimes I feel so helpless.”
“I understand that Johnny. In this case you weren't able to help, but there will be many other times where you will make a difference.” Millie told him firmly. “I'm not making light of what happened to this man, but you can't focus only on him.”
Johnny tried to accept what she was saying, at the moment it was difficult. “I'll try.”
Millie saw someone motioning her to pick up the phone next to her. “Johnny, could I put you on hold for a minute?”
As Johnny waited, he mulled over what she'd mentioned. Soon, Millie's voice was back. “Johnny, do you remember a young lady named Whitney?”
“Yeah, I do. Is she all right?” Johnny gripped the phone, hoping Millie wasn't going to give him bad news.
“She's fine,” Millie assured him. “She was calling for my advice. She's trying to surprise her dad by decorating the house for Christmas. She's got all the stuff to decorate a tree but can't afford one.”
Johnny felt his burden lightening. “I can help her. I've got a tree but nothing to put on it!”
“Funny how that works out sometimes,” Millie chortled. “She's still on the line; I'll give her your good news and then have her call you.” Millie grew serious again. “And Johnny, if you feel the need to talk more about your last call, please don't hesitate to call.”
“Thanks, Millie. You've been a big help.” Johnny put the phone down and realizing he was hungry, went to the kitchen to see if there was anything to snack on. He discovered a box of graham crackers and poured a glass of milk to go with them. He'd just dipped the first cracker when the phone rang.
“Gage! Phone!” the captain shouted.
Johnny stuffed the soggy cracker in his mouth as he went to answer. “Hello?”
“Mr. Gage, this is Whitney. Miss Eastman said you might be able to help me.” Her voice faltered a bit and she sounded uncomfortable.
Johnny jumped in, trying to relieve her anxiety. “She mentioned you had a tree problem? I bought a tree and then realized I didn't have anything to put on it. It's sitting naked in my apartment. May I give it to you?”
“Are you sure? I don't want to cause any trouble.” Whitney didn't seem convinced.
Johnny saw Chet eyeing his milk but turned back to his conversation. “Whitney, you'd be doing me a favor! I'd be happy for you to take it off my hands.” He gave Chet a 'stay away from my food look.' Chet plucked a graham cracker out of the package and stuck it in Johnny's milk.
“Thank you very much! I'll give you my address.” Whitney recited it and Johnny wrote it down in his notebook.
As he tucked his green pen in his shirt pocket, Johnny said, “I'll have to bring it by tomorrow morning. I'm on duty until then.” She expressed her thanks again and he hung up the phone. He came toward Chet to give him a piece of his mind. “Keep your hands off my food!”
Chet guffawed, “So, how am I supposed to know it's yours? I didn't see a name written on it.” He took another graham cracker and crunched it as he went to find Marco.
After his shift ended Johnny took the tree over to Whitney and helped her plant it in a tree stand. As he turned to go she said wistfully, “Darcy and I are going back to the orphanage on Christmas Eve. I'm hoping my dad will go with us.”
“I'll see you there then.” He left her building and got into the Land Rover. Sure would be nice if Santa had something to give out on Christmas Eve. He drove home, weighing his options. With a sigh, he realized his budget was stretched to the max. Visions of presenting large boxes filled with exciting gifts evaporated. I should be able to do something! At last he snapped his fingers, changed his route and parked at a nearby grocery. His eyes lit on the candy cane display. He did some mental calculations, trying to determine how many he needed. He checked his finances, grinned and took six boxes off the shelf.
Before he knew it, Christmas Eve arrived. Johnny was half-dressed; the pants had twice as much material as he needed but the manufacturer had inserted heavy-duty elastic so he felt sure the pillow would stay in position. His feet adjusted to the stiff boots as he shrugged into the fur-trimmed coat. The noise of the phone interrupted his progress.
“Johnny! Just wanted to see how you're doing!” A familiar voice greeted him.
Johnny smiled. “Hi Roy. How's it going with your mother-in-law?”
“Let's just say I'll be glad to get home.” Roy stated. “Wanna tell me how things are with you?”
Johnny saw the time. “Roy, I'd love to but I need to be somewhere real soon.”
“We'll have you over when we get back. The kids wish you were here with us.” Roy's voice indicated he wouldn't mind having Johnny there either.
“I'll look forward to it. Tell everyone Merry Christmas for me, would ya? Bye, Roy!” He hung up before Roy could say any more.
Johnny returned to the task at hand. He stuffed the pillow into position and then decided it would be difficult to drive. So he chucked it and then set it by the door so he wouldn't forget it. He fastened the coat and put the beard, mustache, eyebrows and cap on top of the pillow. Satisfied that he was ready for the moment, he grabbed his wallet, the candy canes and the rest of his suit and jogged out to his car. After he tossed everything onto the front seat he made his way to the orphanage, stopping a block away he completed his transformation and even practiced saying. “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Stella was on the lookout for him when he rolled up. She darted out of the building and led him to a closet with cleaning supplies. “Believe me! They'll never look for you in here. We're almost ready! I'll be right back!” Her excitement was evident as she closed the door.
Johnny leaned against the shelving and looked in the red bag she'd handed him as she left. He peered in, happy to see gaily-wrapped gifts. He added the candy canes, hoping he had enough for everyone. The door opened and Stella beamed at him. “We're all set!”
As Johnny entered the same room he'd seen several days ago, the small children surrounded him crying. “Santa! You're here!”
Never having played St. Nick before, Johnny's mind replayed old holiday films to emulate the famous man. Lowering his voice he said loudly, “Boys and girls, have you been good this year?” Not waiting for their reply he reached into his pack and extracted the first gift. ”Suzy, you wanna come see Santa?” His smile made his beard rise as he saw the girl Whitney had spent time with shyly approach him. “Here ya go.”
A few minutes later only one box remained in the bag, he knelt down. “Look what Santa has for you Matthew!”
“You're not Santa. I remember you! You're Jo-” Matthew blurted out, recognizing him.
“Shhhh! Don't spoil it for the others!” Matthew saw heads pop up and said no more.
Johnny looked around the room at the adults. Darcy stood next to Whitney. With a flourish, Johnny gave each of them a striped confection. “He came. My dad came,” Whitney told him softly.
“I'm glad.” Johnny patted her on the shoulder and saw Millie motioning him over.
“Did Santa bring me anything?” she teased.
He handed her a candy cane. “Well, I have this.” His face grew shocked when she pulled his face close to hers and kissed him on the cheek. “What's that for?”
“Why, Johnny, didn't you see the mistletoe hanging there?” She laughed at his confusion and then he slipped his arm around her.
“Thanks for inviting me to 'Share the Day.'” he whispered.
“Thank you for helping make it a success. It looks like we'll be scheduling many, many more.”
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Christmas Stories Stories by Marty P.