Standing flush against the outside wall of Station 51’s back entrance, he peeked through the open bay doors to see if the coast was clear. Exhaling in relief, he hastened across the floor of the apparatus bay without detection.
Stopping short of the locker room door, he pressed his back against the wall. Tipping his head just enough to get a clear view of the room beyond, he smiled slightly at his good fortune. Slipping quietly inside the vacant room, he paused for a second, listening for any signs of life, hearing only the rapid beating of his own heart.
Moving swiftly, he hurried to his locker and slowly opened its door, mindful of the squeaky hinge that had developed over the last few shifts. Pleased with himself for his excellent job of maneuvering with stealth-like ease, he plucked the concealed package from the hidden confines of the jacket he was wearing. Shifting the clutter that had accumulated on the bottom of his locker, he cleared a space for the treasured parcel.
"Hey Gage! Whatcha’ hidin’?" The voice that boomed from behind jolted him backwards, nearly causing him to topple over the bench behind him.
"Geez, Chet! Don’t do that! Ya’ ‘bout gave me a heart attack!" Johnny yelled in shocked disgust. Chet Kelly stood directly behind him, mischievous eyes trying to capture the secret of Johnny’s latest attempt at subterfuge.
"Want me to call Roy in? Get Rampart on the line?" Chet inquired sarcastically.
"No!" Johnny barked. Quickly lowering his voice to a whisper, he pressed one finger against his lips. "I mean, no. Shhh…."
"What's the big secret?" Chet peered past Johnny and caught a glimpse of the sack only partially hidden on the locker floor. "The Toy Shoppe?" he asked in humored surprise. "What? You don’t want Roy to find out you bought yourself a new teddy bear?"
Still speaking in hushed tones, Johnny whispered angrily, "Lot you know, Chet! It’s not a bear, it’s a doll."
"A doll?" Chet nearly choked on his words. Only Gage would unwittingly offer the Phantom such weighty ammunition.
"Shhhhh!" shushed Johnny again, as he looked quickly from side to side to make sure no one had heard their ongoing conversation.
"Okay," Chet mimicked Johnny’s hushed tones, "a doll? Hate to tell you this, Gage, but that’s worse than a teddy bear."
"It isn’t MINE!" Johnny raised his voice again without thinking. Jerking his head slightly, he quickly scanned the area with nervous eyes to ensure that they were still alone. "It’s for Roy’s little girl!" he retorted in a loud whisper. "Christmas is only a week away, you know!" The DeSotos had become Johnny’s second family over the years, and he enjoyed buying presents for his partner’s kids. "It’s not just any doll either," Johnny went on to explain. "It’s that special one that Jennifer really wanted."
"You mean the one that Roy and Joanne thought was too expensive?" Chet was hoping for some useful ammunition.
"That’s why I’m getting it," Johnny rationalized. "I’ve got no one else to spend my money on. Besides Jennifer really wanted it, and if Roy knew...well, I just want it to be a surprise." Johnny shrugged his shoulders, hoping Chet would understand and keep quiet about his secret.
Chet slumped in disappointment as his favorite pastime of teasing Johnny appeared to be sidetracked for the moment. However, he took heart in the fact that it would most likely be a temporary situation.
"So what did you get Chris then?" Chet asked sincerely.
"Nothing!" Johnny frowned thoughtfully.
Chet chuckled, pleased that Gage never failed to disappoint. "Oh, that ought to impress the heck out of the kid!"
"Well, I’m gonna get him something!" Johnny defended himself hotly, then sighed dismally. "I just don’t know what." Sitting down on the bench in front of him, he draped his arms across his knees as he leaned forward. "I was thinking about maybe a firetruck," Johnny continued, nodding his head in deep thought.
"Oh, now there’s an original idea!" Chet scoffed, when suddenly his face lit up with an idea. "Hey! Why not get HIM the teddy bear?"
"Funny, Chet, real funny!" Johnny scowled.
"What’s funny?" Roy asked as he walked through the door and into the middle of the conversation. Johnny wheeled around at the sound of his partner’s voice, jumped up, and slammed the door to his locker…right on his finger.
"Ouch!" yelped Johnny. Snapping his hand free of the locker, he jumped backwards, vaulting himself over the bench immediately behind him. Flapping his arms like a windmill, Johnny fell into Chet before the unaware fireman could react.
As the two men plunged backwards onto the floor, the back of Chet’s head tipped an empty mop bucket that had been left sitting by the sinks. In a move that any gymnast would envy, the plastic bucket did a perfect flip, landing upside down on top of Chet’s head.
"Ohhhhh..." groaned both men, as they lay sprawled out on the floor. Johnny all but covered the top of a flattened Chet. Chet, with the bucket still perched over his head, reached up to fling away the unwanted hat.
Up until that point, Roy had stood in speechless wonder as he watched the clown act unfold before his eyes. Now moved to action, out of genuine concern, he rushed over to the fallen men.
"Are you guys alright?" he asked, kneeling next to the two men on the floor.
"NO!" answered Johnny as he struggled to push himself free. "I’m not alright!"
"Well, I WOULD be, Gage," Chet growled, "if you’d get your...."
Unable to contain himself any longer, Roy broke out into a fit of laughter which earned him two glaring looks from two sets of eyes. Forcing himself to pull himself together, he cleared his throat, then offered Johnny a hand and pulled him off his reluctant cushion.
Once Johnny was extricated from the tangle, Roy offered the same service to Chet. With both men in separate corners, Roy asked again, "Are you two alright?"
"You could have broken my back, Gage," groaned Chet. Turning and twisting, he stretched himself to work out the kinks.
"Your back? That’s nothin’, Kelly, I think I broke my finger," grumbled Johnny, as he closely examined his index finger.
Assured that Chet seemed to be none the worse for wear, Roy turned to Johnny. "Let me see," he ordered. When Johnny readily allowed his partner to check the alleged injury, Roy knew it couldn’t be very serious. Johnny’s normal M.O. was to complain about minor injuries, while dismissing the more serious ones. Still, Roy gave his partner the courtesy of trying to maintain a certain sense of professionalism before declaring Johnny’s finger fit for duty.
"So? What’s the prognosis, Doc?" Chet looked on with bemused interest.
"Well," mused Roy, "he may never play the fiddle again."
Amid the chuckles from Roy and Chet, Johnny jerked his hand back and scowled at his partner. "Oh, you two are just a laugh a minute!"
"You never did tell me what the joke was when I first walked in," Roy reminded the two men.
"The joke," Johnny explained sarcastically, "is that you and Chet think you’re actually funny."
Opening his locker door just far enough to retrieve a uniform for the day, Johnny glanced out of the corner of his eye to make sure Roy‘s view was blocked. Before he closed it again, he took great care to ensure his finger was safely out of harm’s way. "I’m changing in there," he stated flatly as he pointed through the doorway leading to the dorm, "where the company’s better."
The distinct sound of laughter followed his retreat.
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Johnny lingered in the dorm after changing. Days that started out like this generally got worse as they went, and he was in no hurry to further this day along. To his way of thinking, the longer he stayed hidden, the longer it would be before he had to face Chet’s harassment. He needn’t have worried. The tones sounded minutes later, sending the paramedic team on a medical run.
The rest of the day turned out to be a busy one for both engine and squad. When they weren’t on a run together, the squad was out by itself on a medical emergency. Lunch turned into a quick stop for burgers, and it looked as if supper would follow suit. The squad was returning from a follow-up to Rampart when the radio squawked yet again for the two paramedics to join the engine on the outskirts of town.
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The squad kicked up dust as it skidded to a stop on the dirt road just behind Engine 51. Cap and the men jumped down from the engine seconds before Johnny and Roy hopped out of the squad’s cab.
"Oh please," screamed a woman from a distance when she saw the men. "My baby fell down that hole! Please help him!" Captain Stanley ran over to the woman, who was standing near an old boarded-up water well.
"Calm down now. What’s the problem?" he asked, resting his hand on the woman’s shoulder.
"It’s my baby! He fell down the well! PLEASE HELP HIM!" screamed the woman.
Roy trotted over to where Cap was trying to calm the distraught woman, and had heard the woman’s pleas. "Yes, Ma’am, we will. Now how old is he?" Roy asked.
"He’s six, and he must be terrified," sobbed the woman.
"What’s his name, Mrs…?" Johnny asked when he caught up.
"Kruse, Madelyn Kruse, and his name is Samson, Samson Blue actually, but we call him Blue," she sobbed again, then shouted towards the well again. "BLUE! Hold on, Sweetie. Help is here!" She turned to the men and pleaded with them, "Please, please hurry, he could be hurt!"
"Don’t you worry about a thing, Mrs. Kruse. We’ll get Blue out safe and sound." Johnny flashed a confident smile for the woman’s sake, all the while thinking that ‘Blue’ was a strange name to call a kid. Running back to the squad for a safety belt and rope, he passed Marco Lopez and Chet carrying the ladder from the engine. Meanwhile, Roy crept as close to the edge of the well as he dared, and Cap led Mrs. Kruse a safe distance away from the rescue operations.
"BLUE?" Roy called down. "Can you hear me, son?" Roy paused for a moment, listening intently for a response. Ready to shout down to the youngster a second time, he froze when he heard a crying whimper. "We’ll be right down to get you. Just hold on." Turning around in response to Johnny’s returning footsteps, he spoke softly, "I can hear him, Johnny, but he’s not answering. Could be because he’s just scared, or…."
Nodding his head in acknowledgement to his partner’s unspoken fears, Johnny strapped the belt around his waist and looped the rope securely. Distrusting the dirt sides of the old water well, Roy and Marco laid the ladder across the four foot opening and anchored themselves on either side to secure it. Johnny crawled across the ladder until he was positioned in the center of the opening. Feeding the long end of line through the rungs, Chet and Cap were joined by Mike Stoker as they grabbed the other end and braced themselves for Johnny’s descent.
"Take up the slack," Johnny instructed. Nodding his head when the rope felt secure, he lifted himself off the side of the ladder and began the gradual trip down the dark hole. The penlight in his mouth became the only illumination in the inky darkness.
"See anything?" Roy yelled down to Johnny.
Grabbing the penlight from his mouth with one hand, Johnny yelled back up to his partner. "Not yet… just keep lowering!"
A minute later, Johnny’s feet touched the bottom of the dry well. "Okay, stop!" he yelled up. Grabbing the bigger flashlight from his belt, he fumbled with the switch. Just as the beam of light flashed on, something sharp raked against the back of his leg. Topside, all personnel froze as a resounding scream found its way to the group of waiting rescuers and one overwrought mother.
"BLUE! Oh my God, my BABY! What’s happened?" she screamed at the group of men.
"Johnny, are you all right?" Roy called down the hole anxiously.
From the depths of the well, Johnny’s voice filtered upwards, "Pull me up!"
"Do you have the child?" Roy called back.
"Just pull me UP!" Johnny yelled back, irritation evident in his voice.
Wasting no time, the three men worked in unison to pull up the rescuer with his victim. When Johnny emerged from the hole, clutching his victim tightly to his chest, the distraught mother ran up to them.
"BLUE! MY BABY!" she cried in utter relief, snatching her beloved from Johnny’s arms.
"BLUE?" Roy stared at his partner in disbelief.
"Blue…." Johnny shook dust from his hair and brushed loose dirt from his arms.
The rest of the men stood dumbstruck as the woman caressed Blue, her 6-year-old, silver-blue miniature schnauzer.
<*> <*> <*> <*> <*> E! <*> <*> <*> <*> <*>
Water droplets still trickling from his hair, Johnny felt refreshed after a quick shower, though the soapy water had stung the back of his calf where Blue had scratched through his pants leg. Grabbing a tube of ointment, Johnny smoothed the soothing cream over the red marks. After changing into a clean uniform, he grabbed his soiled clothes from the bench and rummaged through the bottom of his locker in search of an empty bag in which to deposit the dirty uniform.
An all-too-familiar howl brought the rest of the crew running into the locker room to find Johnny holding his clothes in one hand and a rumpled fur hide in the other.
"CHET!" Johnny yelled at the only person he knew was capable of pulling a prank of this nature.
"Hey, Gage!" Chet spat out between laughs. "You know what happened the last time you tried to bring a new ‘mascot’ into the station. I don’t think Henry would appreciate it either."
"Not funny, Kelly!" Johnny glowered, as he flung the hide through the air, hitting Chet square in the face. Tossing his clothes in the bottom of his locker in aggravation, Johnny made a quick exit. The ‘Phantom’ doubled over in laughter, clutching the fur close to his chest.
Once in the apparatus bay, Johnny grimaced at the memory of the 'mascot' to which Chet had referred.One of the first runs he and Roy had as new paramedics with Station 51 involved a young woman and her Yorkshire Terrier. The victim, Paula Slayton, had to be hospitalized and was worried sick about her prize puppy. Being the kind hearted soul that he is, Johnny had promised to care for ‘Bonnie’, to keep her out of a shelter. Unfortunately, the whiny puppy had not been appreciated by the men of his shift. After sharing a couple of sleepless nights in the camper with his unexpected ward, Johnny, along with the rest of the crew, had been relieved when Paula had come to reclaim her little bundle of fur.
The memory of those sleepless nights mingled with thoughts from his latest rescue. With the two matters fusing together in Johnny’s mind, he could find no humor in Chet’s prank. Looking for something to take his mind off his troubles, Johnny rummaged in the storage closet until he found what he was looking for and set to work.
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Roy went in search of his partner, only to find him still stewing over Chet’s latest prank. Not realizing that he had an audience, Johnny swore revenge as he polished the squad vigorously.
"One of these days, Chet is gonna go too far with me, and then he'll be sorry," Johnny muttered angrily to himself as he rubbed harder and harder against the red steel of the squad’s exterior. "How does he come up with these stupid pranks, anyway? I mean, who ever heard of putting a FUR in somebody's locker anyway? A FUR! There's nothing funny about that. And where did he get that fur anyway?"
Johnny froze in mid-swipe of the rag, as he thought about what he had just said. "Hey, where DID he get that fur? We just got back from that run 30 minutes ago. What kind of a guy just happens to have a fur lying around in his locker?"
Resuming his polishing with a vengeance, Johnny scowled as he continued to ramble, "A guy who likes to pull stupid pranks on his co-workers, that's who. Especially when I'M the co-worker. Well, I'm getting just a little bit tired of...."
"You know, Johnny, you might want to leave some of the paint," Roy suggested lightly.
"What?" Johnny snapped back, jumping at the unexpected intrusion into his thoughts.
"I said…" Roy repeated, "you might want to leave some paint on the squad."
Johnny slammed the rag onto the hood of the squad and turned to his partner. "Why does he…why does he do that to me anyway?" he demanded to know. "What did I ever do to him? I can’t even open my own locker anymore without ducking or having to search it first. And why doesn’t he pick on you, or Marco, or Mike, or Cap…well, okay, I know why he doesn’t pick on Cap, but why does he pick on me all the time? Sometimes I swear that guy doesn’t have a humane bone in his body. Next time HE goes down the hole to find nothing but some lady’s dog!"
"Look, Johnny," Roy tried to reason, "first of all, you know Chet’s got a big heart when it counts, and as far as his picking on you…well…if you didn’t make it so easy on him, he might find a new pigeon."
"Yeah," Johnny sighed, "and the sun might shine at midnight. I tell you, Roy, one of these…." The tones drowned out his rant as the station was called out for a drowning accident.
**Station 51, possible drowning, 3849 Rosedale Drive...3-8-4-9 Rosedale...Timeout: 17:10**
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When the engine and squad pulled up to the private home, Johnny and Roy grabbed their equipment and followed Cap and Chet to the back of the house. Expecting to find a drowning victim as reported, the four men instead found a group of teens gathered around the edge of the pool laughing and ribbing each other.
"What’s going on here?" Captain Stanley bellowed loudly, silencing their shenanigans. The group of teens spun their heads and gawked at the sight of the four firemen and the equipment they were carrying.
"Oh, I guess we forgot to call back. I’m sorry," one of the young women in the group spoke up apologetically. "It’s nothing, really."
"We had a report of a drowning victim." Cap took a quick survey of the group and failed to see a victim in their midst.
"Oh it was just all a big mistake," the girl explained, "or rather, a joke!" She turned to glare at the young man at the focus of their little group.
"I’m okay, guys, really, it was just a joke, to get…." The boy squirmed uncomfortably under the fire captain’s scrutiny.
"To get what?" Cap demanded.
"To get…get…Julia’s attention," the boy stuttered with a fair amount of embarrassment as he glanced at the pretty girl by his side. "I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously and call it in, really I didn’t!"
Roy, Johnny, and Chet stood quietly by the edge of the pool, deciding that it was in their best interest to let their captain take charge of the situation. Captain Stanley started his lecture on the repercussions of calling in false alarms, and suggested that the teens disband their little party. As Captain Stanley doled out his ‘advice’, the other three firemen took in the scene, grateful that they were not on the receiving end of one of Cap’s lectures.
Johnny shifted the heavy defibrillator from one hand to the other. Nudging Roy and nodding to Chet, he quietly indicated it was time to vacate the premises. It was obvious that there was no victim at this little pool party and he couldn’t see the point in standing around.
To Cap’s satisfaction, the teens' faces reflected the desired looks of fear in response to his detailed description of the consequences of the unlawful act they had committed. Finished with his monologue, Cap smiled satisfactorily as the teens scattered under his watchful eye. One of the boys, embarrassed and eager to escape after Cap’s lecture, accidentally bumped into Roy just as the unsuspecting paramedic leaned over to retrieve the heavy equipment he had set by his feet.
"Watch out!" Chet called out as he saw Roy waver. Johnny and Cap wheeled around at Chet’s warning, just in time to see Chet reach behind Roy to push him away from the edge of pool. Too late, Chet realized he was too close to the edge of the pool himself, and lost his balance as he stumbled backwards. Arms flailing helplessly, Chet plunged backwards, and landed in the pool with a mighty splash.
"You all right?" a shocked Roy asked the sputtering man in the water.
"Yeah," Chet spat pool water out of his mouth. "Just wet."
"Uh, Chet?" Johnny smirked, "you coming back with us, or staying here for a little dip?"
"Gage!" Cap reprimanded Johnny even as he smiled, "help him out."
"Do I have to?" Johnny answered with a laugh.
"GAGE!" Cap repeated.
Clearing his throat, Johnny acknowledged his captain’s orders, reserving his smile for Chet as he sat on his haunches by the edge of the pool to lend a hand. Chet paddled over to the side where Johnny was waiting for him. Trying to ignore the wide grin on Johnny’s face, Chet reached for the outstretched hand.
"I’d have thrown you a life preserver, Chet, but I’m fresh out," Johnny chuckled. Hoisting his drenched comrade from the pool, Johnny couldn’t resist one last lick. "You know, Chet, the ‘wet look’ just isn’t you."
"Stow it, Gage!" Chet warned the laughing paramedic as he sloshed off to the engine.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders, his face a picture of wide-eyed innocence. Turning to pick up the biophone, he noticed Roy was still nearby, watching the whole little scenario.
"What?" Johnny asked in all sincerity, not quite sure how to interpret the expression on Roy’s face.
Roy just shook his head as he turned to follow Chet, leaving Johnny and his grin to trail after his two co-workers as they headed back to the squad.
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The squad and engine rolled back to quarters at the same time. Despite himself, Roy was still smiling over Chet’s little swim when the still-damp fireman dismounted from the engine. Mainly, he was thankful that he had been spared the usual dunk in the pool; and Johnny…well, as often as he had been the object of the Phantom’s merciless teasing, the dark-haired paramedic had enjoyed the show even more than the rest of the guys, much to Chet’s dismay.
As Chet headed to the locker room, he stopped abruptly and turned to Gage, just as Johnny was about to open his mouth.
"Stow it, Gage!" Chet warned Johnny for the second time.
Johnny glanced over at Roy with a mischievous look in his eyes, then turned back to Chet. "What?" he asked, feigning innocence. Roy just shook his head. He knew it was killing his partner not to tease Chet.
"Let’s just go get some coffee," Roy urged. He was hoping to keep Johnny away from Chet long enough to let the man get into a dry uniform. Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny followed behind Roy and the others. Several minutes later, Chet joined them in the break room wearing a dry uniform, and ready for a hot cup of coffee.
"Great," moaned Chet, tipping the empty pot upside down. "Who took the last cup of coffee?" He scanned the room looking for the guilty party, noticing that all eyes were on Johnny, who froze in mid-sip. "GAGE!"
"Well, what’d you want me to do? Skip MY cup of coffee, just so YOU could have some?" Johnny defended himself. Making a face, he extended his coffee cup towards Chet. "Here, if you want it so bad, take it."
"Not after YOU drank out of it!" Chet protested.
"Oh for Pete’s sake!" Johnny sat the cup down in disgust, sloshing drips of black liquid in the process. "I’m gonna go check supplies!" As the paramedic stormed out of the break room, Roy tried to call after him to remind him that they’d already checked their supplies, but Johnny was not listening. Following Johnny’s lead, Mike and Marco excused themselves, leaving Roy alone with Chet.
"Well, I guess you think this whole pool thing is pretty funny, too!" Chet accused his last remaining co-worker. When Roy failed to respond, Chet conceded with a wry grin, "Well, I guess it IS pretty funny at that! But don’t you DARE tell Gage I said that!"
"My lips are sealed," Roy promised, holding three fingers in a mock Boy Scout salute. "Uh, Chet, I think you forgot something when you changed."
"What? Did I forget my pants or something?" he laughed, looking down at his uniform. When Roy patted his own shirt, Chet did a double take. "My BADGE! Man, Roy, thanks a million! I left it on my other shirt." Chet literally ran through the door, hoping to retrieve the missing item before Cap noticed he was badge-less, once again.
Hearing yet another anguished cry from the area of the locker room a minute later, Roy nearly crashed into Marco and Johnny when he ran out into the bay to check out the latest disturbance. Before they got as far as the locker room, Chet came flying out the door, screaming Johnny’s name.
"THIS WAS MY LAST DRY UNIFORM, GAGE!" Chet shrieked in full-scale fury. The front of his uniform was freshly bathed from the obvious results of a well-placed waterbomb.
Once again, all eyes fell on a smiling Johnny as he held up his hands in mock surrender. "It wasn’t me!" he swore in his own defense.
"No one else would DO something this lame, Gage!" Chet accused.
"What’s going on here?" The commotion had pulled Cap out of his office. Now facing a wet Chet, and four smiling firemen, he instinctively knew the ‘boys’ were up to their old tricks.
"Gage here put a waterbomb in my locker, Cap, just because he thinks I put that fur hide in HIS locker this morning!" Chet charged, pointing a menacing finger at the grinning paramedic.
"I didn’t do anything!" Johnny continued, denying any part in this latest caper.
"What fur hide?" Cap questioned, wondering if he really wanted to know the answer to that question.
Chet’s mouth clamped shut so fast the others could almost hear his teeth click together. "Ah, um, someone just played a joke, Cap," Chet tried to explain. Meanwhile, Johnny folded his arms against his chest, looking mighty pleased with the direction of the current conversation.
"So, you’re telling me, you can pull a prank on Gage, but he’s not allowed to retaliate?" Cap put Chet on the spot. Johnny’s face broke into an even wider grin as he raised his eyebrows in Chet’s direction, waiting for an answer. Chet frowned, knowing it would do no good to try to refute the charges, in light of the Phantom’s reputation. "Okay then. Marco, can Chet borrow a dry shirt from you? Kelly, go change. And Gage…." Johnny whipped his head around, surprised that he was being included in the apparent reprimand. "Go clean up the mess from that waterbomb," Cap ordered.
"But, CAP!" Johnny started to protest.
"Yes, Sir…." Johnny threw a daggered look at Chet before brushing past him to the locker room.
"And Kelly…" Cap turned back to Chet. The slight smile forming on the Irishman’s lips had not gotten past his notice. "Not ONE word to Gage while you’re in there changing, is that understood?"
Wiping the growing smile off his face, Chet merely nodded his acknowledgment of his Captain’s order. Cap shook his head and rolled his eyes as he turned to reclaim the safety and solitude of his office. Why me? he thought to himself.
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Still steaming over the reprimand he felt he didn’t deserve, Johnny ignored Chet and Marco when they entered the locker room. Mop in hand, Johnny plunked it on the floor and began his cleanup detail. Marco found a dry shirt for his wet friend and left the two men to their own devices.
Peeling off a wet shirt for the second time this shift, Chet kept a watchful eye on Johnny and his mop. As he watched Johnny swish the mop from side to side, Chet realized he might have been a little hard on his favorite pigeon. Slipping into Marco’s dry shirt, he pondered the situation.
Okay, Chet, face it, he reasoned with himself, if Gage had taken that swim, you know you wouldn’t have let ‘him’ off the hook without a good ribbing. And...well, the Phantom would have loved planting that waterbomb in a certain paramedic’s locker...just for good measure, of course.
Though he would never verbally admit to it, Chet knew he couldn’t really blame Gage for finding humor in his dunking, or for the waterbomb. If he had been given a choice though, he would have preferred not to have been on the receiving end of either incident.
Remembering to grab his badge from his pool-dampened shirt, he fastened it securely in place on the one Marco had lent him. Promptly forgetting his captain’s express instruction regarding no conversation, Chet asked Johnny, "So, did you think of something yet?"
"What?" Johnny swung around at Chet’s unexpected question, suspicious of his intentions.
"Did you figure out what to get Chris for Christmas?" Chet clarified.
"Shhhh!" Johnny shushed, putting a finger to his lips. "Are you crazy? You want Roy to come in and hear you? What’s the matter with you?"
Lowering his voice to match Johnny's, Chet asked again, "Well? Did you?"
His anger sidetracked by the sudden change of topic, Johnny sighed and leaned an arm on top of the mop handle. "No...I didn’t."
"Well Gage, I’ve been thinking about your dilemma…." Chet started to say.
Johnny snorted, "I’ll bet you have…."
"No! Seriously, I’ve given it a lot of thought, trying to put myself in Chris’s shoes," Chet persisted.
"That’s a short trip," Johnny mumbled under his breath.
"Look, do you want to hear my idea or what?" Chet challenged as he buttoned up his dry shirt.
"Okay, Chet, lay it on me." Johnny resigned himself to the fact that Chet was going to tell him whether he wanted him to or not.
"Okay, picture this…one of those new TV video games!" The dark-haired Irishman smiled victoriously, quite pleased with himself for coming up with a solution to Johnny’s problem.
"A what?" Johnny asked skeptically.
"One of those TV video games. You know...you hook it up to your TV, and use these hand controls to play a game that’s right on the screen! I’ve seen them and they look really cool!" Chet smiled in satisfaction.
"Oh yeah, I remember hearing about them," Johnny answered thoughtfully. "What are they called again?"
"Um, let me think…I don’t remember what they’re called," Chet looked confused.
"Oh, you’re a big help alright!" Johnny scoffed.
"It’s right on the tip of my brain," Chet said.
"Then I am in trouble," Johnny laughed.
"Ontario…" Chet guessed.
"No, that’s in Canada!"
"Anthrax," Chet tried again.
"Oh, now that’s a great name for a kid’s game!" Johnny scoffed.
"Atari." A voice from behind startled them both. Johnny and Chet spun around to see Mike leaning against the doorjamb.
"That’s it!" Chet said excitedly. "Atari!"
"Wanna say it a louder, Kelly?" Johnny said between clenched teeth. "I don’t think they heard you out on the 405."
"Sorry," Chet apologized. "But, yeah, that’s it." Turning to Mike, he asked out of curiosity, "Say, Mike, how’d you know that name?"
"I pay attention to the commercials on TV," Mike answered simply, then walked back out of the locker room.
"Mike Stoker, Encyclopedia of Useless Information," Chet joked.
"Atari…" pondered Gage, "Wonder where I could get my hands on one of those things?"
"You even have to ask? You? The perennial Boy Wonder himself? Try walking into any toy store, Gage. You should know the best ones by now."
Before Johnny could think of a smart comeback to Chet’s remark, the engine was called out on a run, leaving Johnny alone in the locker room to consider Chet’s suggestion.
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A week later and Christmas was just around the corner, but Johnny was no closer to deciding what to get Roy’s son for Christmas. He had worked a couple of overtime shifts to fill in for various firemen who were busy with family gatherings, to save enough money to finish up his Christmas shopping. Each shift had kept the station busier than usual with the extra holiday traffic and shoppers, and Johnny was anxious for his regular shift to end, the last before the holiday.
At the end of a very long, busy day, Johnny took advantage of an unexpected lull and retreated to the dorm for a few minutes. Chet wandered into the dorm shortly after, finding a man who looked like he’d just lost his best friend.
"What’s the matter, Gage? Someone finally told you the truth about Santa Claus?" Chet teased.
"Shut up, Chet!" Johnny shot back, as he sat on the edge of his bed.
"Man, aren’t we sensitive today!"
"Well," Johnny started to explain his mood, though for the life of him, he didn’t know why he was explaining himself to Chet, of all people. "I called a couple of toy stores and found one that sells that game you were talking about."
"Great!" Chet exclaimed excitedly. Looking closer, he frowned at the apparent lack of enthusiasm from Johnny. "But shouldn’t you be a little bit happier with news like that?"
Johnny looked up at Chet with a frown, "They’re really expensive. I don’t know if I should spend that much. I mean, I only got Jennifer that doll, and that game’s even more expensive. How can I spend that much on one kid and not the other? Man, I don’t how Roy handles this kind of stuff."
"Oh, he doesn’t, Gage," Chet smiled as he turned to leave, "that’s what wives are for."
Johnny nodded in head in agreement before falling back onto his bunk. For a minute, Chet almost felt sorry for the man and his problem. Maybe if he thought about it again, he could come up with another plan for Gage. After all, it was for Roy’s kids, it wasn’t as if he were trying to help Johnny….
Before he could formulate another thought on the subject, the tones reverberated through the station house...
**Station 51, Engine 110...Structure fire...38573 Touzelin Avenue...3-8-5-7-3 Touzelin....Timeout 20:31**
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Station 51 was first on the scene to a two-story house. Flames were visible as orange ribbons of fire flickered through side windows on the lower floor, lighting the night skies. Like a finely tuned machine, the men jumped from their vehicles and donned their air tanks, even before Captain Stanley had a chance to voice the order. On Cap’s instructions, Marco and Chet grabbed a hose to back up Roy and Johnny in their search for victims in the blazing home.
The two paramedics followed directly behind the hose as they entered the front door. Peering through the smoke and flames, they made a quick check of the main floor, declaring it clear. Only the first floor appeared to be involved, so Marco and Chet concentrated on knocking down the flames while the two paramedics ventured up the stairs.
Johnny and Roy eliminated each bedroom, one by one, and marked the doors as they finished their check. The fire below them was making the upper floor unstable and Roy wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Lifting his mask slightly, Roy called to Johnny at the other end of the hallway.
"Let’s get out of here," he yelled, motioning to Johnny that they were vacating the premises. Johnny nodded in agreement. Fully satisfied that the residents of house were not at home, they began their own evacuation.
As Roy started to make his way back down the smoky hallway, he pulled his foot back suddenly when he felt a small give in the floorboards in front of him. Turning back to warn Johnny to be on guard, he watched helplessly as his partner fell through another soft spot in the weakened flooring.
"Johnny!" Roy yelled out. Only the top half of Johnny’s twisted body was visible from the hole that appeared to have swallowed him. Grabbing the HT from his turnout pocket, Roy made a request for help on the second floor. Wanting to rush to Johnny’s side, Roy forced himself to make a slow-go of it across the unstable flooring. From his vantage point, he could tell that his partner was in obvious pain.
"Johnny, are you alright?" Roy asked as he quickly surveyed the situation. Lifting the HT again, he requested that the firefighters below them get a spray on his fallen partner to keep the flames at bay.
"No," Johnny gasped. "They’ve got it goin’ already. I can feel it. Just get me outta here!"
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With Engine 110 now at the scene, Marco and Chet were already on their way upstairs to assist the two men on the top floor when they heard Roy’s call for help on their own HT. Double-timing their ascent, they stopped in their tracks at the top of the stairs when Roy turned to yell at them, slowing their hasty advance.
"The floor’s going!" he shouted. "Watch your step."
The two firemen cautiously made their way over to Roy, and a very distressed and trapped Johnny. Roy was crouched low next to Johnny as he busily assessed his partner’s injuries.
"What the…?" Chet started to ask when Roy interrupted.
"He’s wedged in here pretty tight," Roy explained. "His leg may be broken and it might have gotten burned before they got the hose on him." Speaking to Johnny now, Roy half-explained, half-apologized, "We’re going to have to see if we can pull you out, Johnny. It’s going to hurt."
"It already hurts!" Johnny grunted. "Just do it!"
"Help me grab his arms," Roy directed to Chet and Marco. "Easy now…" The two firemen started to help Roy pull Johnny to safety when an anguished cry stopped their efforts.
"Don’t!" yelled Johnny. "Something’s jamming me in here."
"Chet, radio Cap and tell him we need help up here. We need rope and the K-12," Roy ordered again. Chet grabbed the HT and complied with Roy’s request while below them, a steady flow of water coursed over Johnny’s lower half, causing him to shiver from its cold stream.
Johnny groaned slightly and shuddered. Shaking his head, he looked up at the man who had stayed by his side. "Roy, this whole floor’s unstable. You gotta get outta here," he pleaded.
"We’ll all get out of here in a few minutes," Roy said calmly. "Just hang in there," he reassured him, "help’s on the way." Twisting his head towards the stairs, he wondered silently what was taking so long with the needed equipment. Glancing at Marco and Chet, he could tell that they, too, were concerned about the time they had left.
"Roy?" Johnny looked up at his partner with pained eyes.
"Yeah, Johnny?" Roy felt helpless as he waited.
"My airtank," Johnny uttered in short quick gasps, "it’s…pushing my chest against the boards…making it hard to breath…."
Roy tried to slip his hand between Johnny and the obstructing boards only to find no leeway between the two. "Johnny, we have to wait for the equipment. I think the tank’s the only thing holding you in right now. Just hang in there a little longer, okay?"
"Tell them…to hurry…" Johnny pleaded. All Roy could do for his partner at this point was nod in accordance. Checking Johnny’s vitals again, he noted that his respirations were indeed becoming more labored. He turned to Marco and Chet, who, up until now, had been quiet bystanders. Chet, never the patient type, decided to try to take matters into his own hands.
"Roy, maybe Marco and I can hold onto Johnny while you try to pull him up again," he suggested hopefully. Before Roy could respond with a negative, the men heard some commotion coming from the vicinity of the stairs.
Firemen Dave Winston and Bob Jones from 110’s came bounding up the stairs, carrying the saw and rope. The two men, having been apprised of the unstable flooring, gingerly made their way down the hallway to where the others were impatiently waiting.
"What took so long?" Chet asked, his voice showing a tone of annoyance.
"Chet..." Roy started when Dave waved him off. As a fireman, he understood that with situations like this, every minute took on a disproportionate measure. To Roy’s relief, Chet let the matter drop when the HT started to crackle in the fireman's hands.
"HT 51: Engine 51. The fire is under control, but we don’t know how stable the structure is. Advise to get out of there, ASAP."
"Engine 51: HT 51. 10-4," Chet replied, relieved to be doing something at last. Tucking the HT deep into his turnout pocket, he took the rope from Dave and helped Roy secure it under Johnny’s arms.
"Grab the other end of the rope," Roy directed the men of 110’s.
Once Bob and Dave anchored themselves on the long end of the rope, Marco fired up the K-12. Chet knelt next to Johnny, with Roy on the other side.
"Ready?" Roy asked Johnny, who was uncharacteristically quiet through the preparations. Johnny merely nodded, unable to find the energy to reply.
"Let’s do it," ordered Roy.
Marco began to cut through the floorboards, mindful of the proximity of the victim trapped in its clutches. Minutes later, enough of the obstruction was cut away to lift Johnny to safety. In unison, Chet and Roy freed Johnny from the hole in the floor. Marco set the saw down on the floor and carefully wrapped his arms around Johnny’s legs as they were pulled free.
"Watch his legs," Roy instructed, "there may be burns and the right one might be broken." Marco nodded in acknowledgement, conscious of any possible injuries. Carefully, the three men laid Johnny on the floor of the hallway. The now-exposed hole served as a chimney for the floor below, with a stream of smoke from the waning fire wafting upward toward the men. As Roy untied the rope from around his partner, he knew that any necessary splinting would have to take place outside.
"Johnny…." he started to explain.
Johnny nodded his head, knowing instinctively what Roy was going to say before he said it. "Just get us out of here," Johnny interrupted, gritting his teeth for the painful ride to safety. Roy grabbed Johnny’s arm and wrapped it around his neck, with Chet following suit with the injured paramedic’s other arm.
As Roy and Chet hoisted Johnny to his feet and started down the hall, Marco followed closely behind, steadying the threesome, leaving the men from 110’s to gather their equipment. Quickly, but carefully, the group of firemen made their way out of the house.
Anticipating their needs, Cap met them at the squad, already having set up the biophone, drug box and trauma box. Roy and Chet laid Johnny on the blanket next to the squad and Roy began to assess the damage.
"Just as we thought, Johnny," Roy confirmed. "Looks like a break to the tibia. There’s some minor burns here too. How are your ribs?"
"Sore," Johnny groaned dismally. "Let’s just get out of here."
"You know the drill, Partner," Roy smiled to himself, relieved that his partner’s injuries seemed rather minor in comparison to the foul mood his injuries had conjured up. As quickly as possible, Roy got Johnny’s vitals, contacted Rampart and received clearance to administer MS. By the time the drug took effect, the ambulance had arrived at the scene, thanks to Cap’s earlier request when he had called in the Code I.
The relieving effects of the MS seemed to be working their magic by the time they loaded Johnny into the ambulance, as Roy climbed in after his partner. Chet slammed the back doors of the ambulance shut before jumping in the squad to follow them to the hospital.
Once the two partners were on their way, Roy again monitored Johnny’s vitals. Johnny grabbed hold of Roy’s wrist as it rested on his chest, and tilted his head slightly to catch sight of his partner. "Hey Roy?"
Roy leaned over his patient, concern in his face. "You okay? You feeling any pain yet?"
"No, no pain…but… I guess I’ll have to cancel on Christmas dinner," Johnny lamented.
"Well, don’t worry about that now," Roy tried to comfort him.
"Hey Roy?" Johnny repeated.
"Yeah, Johnny, I heard you," Roy reassured his partner.
"No…I mean…I never…oh never mind." Johnny laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. Even in his condition, the only thing he could think about was the fact that he hadn’t had a chance to get Chris a present yet.
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Christmas morning dawned on Rampart Hospital, finding Johnny in a decidedly glum mood. Yesterday’s paper in hand, he flipped through the pages, trying to forget what day it was and where he was spending it. Page after page recited holiday greetings, a painful reminder that he was missing his favorite holiday of the year. Giving up in disgust, he tossed the black-and-white annoyance to the end of the bed, landing it across his splinted leg. The slight burns he had sustained in the fire had delayed the inevitable casting, which also meant additional time for Johnny at Rampart.
His last-minute shopping had been slated for Christmas Eve, right after their shift was due to end. Christmas Day was to be have been spent at Roy’s house, complete with Joanne’s homemade cooking and the kids squealing over their presents. Instead, he was stuck in the hospital with his leg in a splint, and bruised ribs tightly wrapped. Raising his arms behind his head, he winced slightly. Lowering them again, he frowned as he pictured the doll for Jennifer still hidden in the bottom of his locker.
When Cap had visited earlier, he had tried to remind Johnny how lucky he had been for not falling all the way through that floor, and to look on the bright side. Johnny had half-heartedly attempted to take his captain’s advice, but his mood was anything but bright, and he was feeling less than lucky at the moment. So lost in thought was he, that he never noticed when the door to his room swung open.
"Hey, Johnny! How ya’ feelin’?" Roy was all smiles as he held up a brightly wrapped package in his hand.
His gloom temporarily forgotten, Johnny broke into a huge smile upon seeing his partner and friend. "Well, not so hot, till now…." When Johnny tried to pull himself up to sit, Roy hit the button at the end of the bed until it elevated to a comfortable height, eliciting a smile of thanks from the bedridden man.
"Well, I’m sorry I didn’t get here any earlier, and I can’t stay long right now, but I just wanted to come by, wish you a Merry Christmas, drop this gift off from the family, and say thanks." Roy handed him the present, which Johnny gratefully accepted.
"Well, thanks, but, um, what are you thanking me for?" Johnny asked, a little bewildered. Before Roy could explain, the door opened again as Chet popped into the room, interrupting their conversation.
"Hey, Johnny! Hi, Roy. Merry Christmas," Chet greeted them cheerfully.
"Just the man I wanted to see," Roy smiled. "I was just thanking Johnny here for the presents for the kids. And as long as I’m at it, I might as well thank you, too." Roy offered his hand in a handshake, which Chet returned, glancing at a very perplexed Johnny.
"Am I missing something here?" Johnny asked in sincere confusion.
"Oh, it’s nothing, Gage, really." Chet tried to downplay his role.
"No, no…" Roy continued. "I thought it was really nice of Chet to bring over your presents for the kids, considering you’re a little…busy. Jennifer just loved that doll and the bear, and Chris, well, he just went NUTS over that game! Really, Johnny, you’re too much sometimes. I can’t believe you got that for him."
"Yeah, me either," Johnny answered slowly, eyes on Chet, who was looking extremely uncomfortable under the scrutiny of Johnny’s gaze.
"Well, are you going to open your present?" Roy asked, oblivious of the looks that Johnny was shooting in Chet’s direction.
"Yeah, my present!" Johnny’s attention was temporarily sidetracked as he ripped opened the neatly wrapped gift. "Hey man, this is really cool!" Johnny lifted out a finely tooled leather belt and held it up for the two men to see.
"Well, I noticed your other one was getting a bit, well, worn," Roy explained.
"Yeah, it was. Thanks a lot," Johnny thanked his partner with a smile.
"Well, look, as much as I hate to, I’ve got to go. Joanne and the kids are waiting dinner for me. I’ll try to stop back later tonight, maybe even sneak some of Joanne’s Christmas dinner in to you," Roy offered.
"That’d be great!" Johnny perked up noticeably upon the mention of Joanne’s cooking.
"I gotta get going too, Johnny," Chet piped in. "Family stuff, you know."
"Yeah, okay you guys," Johnny smiled sadly, not wanting to be left alone just yet. "Thanks for stopping by. Um, hey Chet? Hang on a minute, will you?"
Roy paused by the door, looking back at Johnny and Chet with a curious eye. "Well, I’m off then. See you later, Johnny."
Johnny nodded his goodbye, then turned to Chet. Despite Johnny's earlier denial, he knew his partner was right when Roy had said that Chet had a good heart deep down. But this act of kindness surprised even Johnny.
"Well, I guess I need to thank you, too," Johnny said softly, as he scrutinized the man in front of him.
"Well, that’s sure nice, Gage, but for what?" Chet continued to play dumb.
"You know…." Johnny hinted. He felt a bit awkward expressing thanks to his frequent tormentor, but he was giving it his best shot and Chet wasn’t helping much.
"Well, all I did was deliver the goods," Chet shrugged.
"C’mon, Chet, you did more than that and you know it. And I promise, I’ll pay you back as soon as I get out of here," Johnny assured him.
"Pay me back? For delivering a couple of presents?" Chet sounded genuinely confused.
"No, for getting that game for Chris." Johnny was getting exasperated with Chet’s continual denial. Just like him to do a good deed, then refuse to admit it.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gage," Chet shook his head in all honesty.
"Look, I know you bought that game, so I’m gonna pay you back! I’m just trying to figure out how you can do something so lame like plant that stupid fur in my locker and then turn around and…."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Gage, but I didn’t do that either, and that pathetic attempt of yours to outmaneuver the Phantom was, well…pathetic."
"I never outmaneuvered the Phantom!" Johnny shouted without thinking out the implications of that statement.
"You’re telling me!" Chet chuckled.
Choosing to ignore Chet’s comment, Johnny repeated, "Well, I still owe you for that game."
"I’m tellin’ ya’, Gage, I never bought that game. Look, I was just as surprised when I was asked to get those things out of your locker and drop them off at Roy’s house. I thought you said you hadn’t gotten Chris anything!"
"Well, I…" Johnny stopped in mid-sentence when he finally caught what Chet was saying. "Wait a minute, who asked you to take them over to Roy’s in the first place?"
"He did," Chet answered, nodding towards the door. Johnny followed Chet’s gaze, to see yet another unexpected visitor.
"Hi, John, Chet. Merry Christmas." Mike smiled as he greeted his co-workers.
"You told Chet to take my things over to Roy’s?" Johnny asked incredulously. Mike froze in the open doorway with a guilty look stamped on his face.
"Well, yes," answered Mike, the master of small talk.
"Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight." Johnny pointed his finger at Mike as he began to add things up in his head. "You told Chet to take my things over to Roy’s, and Chet took them, only I never bought that game for Chris, or a bear for Jennifer, and Chet says he didn’t…."
"I didn’t," Chet interjected.
"So how’d they get in my locker?" Johnny demanded to know.
"Well," Mike confessed, "I knew you’d get around to buying that game sooner or later, and considering…." Mike glanced down at Johnny’s injured leg and smiled.
"Considering his present dilemma…." Chet threw in with a laugh, earning him glares from the other two men.
"Anyway," Mike continued, "I knew you’d end up getting it, so I just got it for you, put it in your locker and told Chet where to find the presents."
For once in his life, Johnny was at a loss for words. "I don’t know what to say," he admitted. Maybe Cap was right. I am a lucky man, lucky to have friends like these guys.
"How about 'thanks', Gage," Chet offered sarcastically.
"You would have done the same thing," Mike added, matter-of-factly.
Still a bit shell-shocked, Johnny looked over at Chet, then back to Mike. "Somehow that doesn’t sound like enough, but yeah, thanks Mike. I mean it, thanks a lot."
"Don’t mention it. Consider it my Christmas present to you," Mike said.
"Chet, I still owe you a 'thank you' too, for delivering those gifts to Roy’s house, but that STILL doesn’t excuse that stupid fur in my locker!"
"I’m tellin’ ya’, Gage, I didn’t do it!" Chet protested.
"Well, I never put that waterbomb in your locker, either!" Johnny professed right back at him.
"Well, if you didn’t, and I didn’t, then who…."
During this exchange, Mike had slowly started to back up towards the door. Chet, noticing Mike’s attempted retreat, called out to him.
"Stoker! Wait a minute!"
Johnny and Chet looked at each other, eyes widening as realization set in. In disbelief, the two men looked back at Mike. "YOU?" they shouted in unison.
Laying his finger aside of his nose, Mike spoke not a word. Then, with a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, and giving a nod he simply said:
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a Good NitE!"
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Christmas Stories Stories by Dianne Bay