by Marty P.
Roy and Johnny parked at the strip mall to grocery shop. The huge sign plastered in the window declared ‘Triple Coupons!’ and the lot was packed. At last, Roy sighted a place three stores down, in front of Ben Franklin. While Roy examined his list, Johnny gazed at the display of Halloween costumes: witches, princesses, ghouls, skeletons, pirates, The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man and characters he didn’t recognize. It reminded him of what happened in fourth grade. For some reason, peer pressure started to hit him at that age. On top of that three guys in his class took great pleasure in making his life miserable. He never had figured out why. The school he attended then made a big deal about Halloween. What was the name of that school?
“I’m glad Joanne sews,” Roy’s voice interrupted Johnny’s reminiscence.
“Did you notice all those outfits for the kids to wear on the 31st? They cost a fortune!”
“They looked kinda cheap to me.” Johnny retorted sharply.
Roy gave him a sidelong glance but decided not to pursue Johnny’s remark. He had a feeling his partner would get short with him. “Joanne always comes up with such creative costumes for the kids to wear they can hardly wait to see what she makes.”
Johnny didn’t answer; he was still thinking about a past Halloween as they walked through the automatic door. He bumped into a woman’s shopping cart as he followed Roy down the produce aisle. “Sorry,” he mumbled as she gave him an unforgiving look. That year he wanted to be a cowboy. He had a plaid shirt and blue jeans but he needed a cowboy hat, boots and a holster. He badgered his family until his dad refused to hear the topic.
He tagged after Roy and saw a bin with peanuts. Who was it that discovered all those uses for peanuts? Carver, George Washington Carver. That was the school’s name. No, wait. It sounded like that, Garver. Garver Elementary School. He never had heard what Garver did that was so important.
“Johnny, I need pickles.” Roy nudged him toward the aisle with canned and bottled goods.
He trotted down to grab a jar and then saw the variety. “What kind ya need, Roy?” he shouted. The ladies near him shook their heads, causing the curlers hidden under their scarves to give them an oddly swaying appearance.
Roy softened his tone and called down to him, “Dill. What other kind is there?”
Johnny picked the closest one and joined him, “Well, there’s sweet and bread and butter. I never heard of those before!”
“It was a rhetorical question, Johnny.” Roy ticked the pickles off his list and went to see if the butcher had the meat he needed, leaving Johnny standing near a pyramid of toilet paper.
He leaned against it, causing a cascade. Embarrassed, he began to picking up the packages that lay on the floor. White, why couldn’t it have been white? It was October 30th and his class was having a Halloween party. Johnny made one final attempt, perhaps if he asked for only a holster and hat. “Everybody else will have cool costumes,” he said after swallowing the food in his mouth.
His father exploded, “Johnny! How many times do I hafta tell you we are NOT going to buy you anything so you can dress up like a cowboy tomorrow.
“But Dad,” Johnny uttered, dropping peas off his fork.
“We are not spending a single penny on any costume!” His father frowned as a pea rolled next to his plate.
“But,” the look his father gave him made his mouth snap shut.
His mother smiled at her son, “Why don’t you go as a ghost?”
Johnny weighed his options. Go in regular clothes or stay disguised under a bed sheet. At least they couldn’t see his face. With reluctance, he accepted the offer. Little did he know the only sheet available was threadbare and a dingy gray. His face fell when his mother put it over his head the following morning to see where to put the eyeholes. He started complaining until he saw her look of dismay. She knew his image of a ghost and what she had for him to wear had a huge chasm between them. “I’m sorry Johnny. I’ll make it up to you someday.”
Even at the age of nine he was a tall, skinny kid. The sheet just met the floor after she adjusted its position. “There, I think that’ll do.”
As he took it off, he saw a ragged corner. His mother grew sad, “Remember Sam?”
Johnny furrowed his brow; they’d taken in a homeless puppy. His mom always had a soft spot for the underdog, no pun intended. Sam was a sweet, friendly hound who chewed everything in sight. The sheet was a victim of her teething. He and his mom kept hiding the evidence of Sam’s destruction until the dog chewed his father’s work shoes. They were made of leather but Sam chomped through them and his dad made them get rid of the dog. That was three years ago. Since then he knew better than to ask for another canine.
A young mother handed him a package of toilet tissue. He thanked her and put it on the stack. Johnny knew he’d never hear the end of his “costume” but he knew his mother would want to hear about his day at school. She could always tell when he lied so with a heavy heart he went to school dressed as an underprivileged ghost. He was right; he could still hear the taunts of the boys echoing in his ears. But he’d made it through the day and gotten home to see his mother with scissors. She knew the humiliation he experienced. “Here, would you cut this sheet into rags for me?” He attacked the sheet to pay it back for the punishment it had given him throughout the day.
The following year Johnny feigned illness to stay home from school. His mother suspected his motives but let him remain at home. His dad wouldn’t let him go out that night though. It was a blessing in disguise. The guys he would’ve joined found a firecracker that was left over from the 4th of July. Billy James offered to light it. When it didn’t go off Billy approached it again. That’s when it exploded. The funeral home brought its ambulance and took him to the hospital. It was a miracle he lived but Billy’s sight was gone. Halloween lost its mystery, its thrill after that.
“Johnny, we don’t need toilet paper.” Roy said as he brought his butcher wrapped meat over to the cart. “You know? Chris would love to have you go trick or treating with us this year. He asked again last night.”
Johnny had refused the invitation for several years. Chris asked every time he saw Johnny now. His excitement was hard to resist. Maybe it was time to give this holiday another chance. “I’ll see.”
“Roy, why do kids like Halloween so much?” He glanced at the women’s magazines displayed at the checkout counter while they waited their turn, noticing the enticing food plastered on the covers.
Roy moved the basket forward. “I guess because it’s a time to pretend. Not only do you get to dress up but the day feels different, like everyone puts on a mask.”
“But kids get in trouble and cause trouble,” Johnny added.
Roy thought for a minute, “Yeah, that’s one aspect I’d like to eliminate. But for the most part it’s a time of fun.”
They paid for the groceries and returned to the station. Chet met them as they pulled in. “What’s for dinner, Roy?”
“I haven’t decided,” he told the fireman glibly as he put the bags on the counter. Before he could put away the food the squad was called out.
Johnny didn’t think anymore about the upcoming holiday for several days. Flicking the light off on his bedside table, he settled in to get some rest. The hum of the refrigerator played a symphony as he burrowed his head into the pillow. Just as he drifted off voices wafted through the air duct. “Honey, we just can’t afford it.” He heard the husband tell his wife. Johnny’s neighbors had moved into the apartment below a month ago. They seemed like nice folks, a couple with two children. He knew the husband lost his job several weeks ago.
“The kids will be so disappointed. Brian wanted to be The Pink Panther and Jamie had her heart set on being Isis.” A soft female voice spoke.
“I’m sorry, too. But we can barely afford food right now.” It grew silent but Johnny pondered the problem and came up with a solution. The following morning as he raced out the door he checked his wallet, and with a nod of satisfaction, he flashed out the door and drove to the station.
“Johnny, will you be joining Chris this year?” Roy asked as he pinned his badge on his uniform shirt.
Johnny hung up his plaid shirt and reached for his belt, “Yeah, I’d like to do that. What time?”
“Since we’re off-duty, how about 4:00? You could eat with us, too.” He grinned to himself, knowing Johnny would never refuse a dinner invitation.
Johnny patted his stomach, which rumbled with hunger. “I’ll be there!”
In the late afternoon the tones sounded, Squad 51. Injured child. 9382 Beck Avenue. Cross street Grand Avenue. Timeout 1622. The captain followed the paramedics out to the apparatus bay and jotted the address on the call slip, handing it to Roy. The rescue vehicle made a quick left and merged into traffic. “Go up two streets and turn right.” Johnny told his partner after checking the Thomas Guide. A few minutes later Roy pulled up to the curb and the two men gathered their equipment.
Roy rang the doorbell. A few seconds later it swung open and a mother ushered them in and rushed to the foot of the stairs. “It’s Sarah!”
The men followed her; lying there was a girl who appeared to be eight or nine years old. She was wearing a ballerina costume and her left lower and upper arm were misshapen. Johnny checked the pupils on the unconscious child and found them slow to react. “I’ll get the oxygen,” he told Roy as he leapt over the drug box. Roy unwound the BP cuff and put it on her arm. As he reached for the stethoscope, the mother explained what happened.
“I just bought her this outfit. She wanted to be a ballet dancer for Halloween. She was so excited when I gave it to her that she put it on right away. She twirled and fell down the stairs.” She gulped and her bottom lip quivered for a moment, “Will she be all right?”
“We’ll give her the very best care,” Roy got her vitals while Johnny put an oxygen mask on her and then opened the biophone to contact the base station.
Rampart, this is County 51. How do you read?
Go ahead, 51.
Rampart, we have a female, 9 years old who suffered a fall. She has a fractured left arm and is unconscious. Pupils equal but sluggish. BP is 130/90, respirations are 16, and pulse is 72. We started her on 6 liters of O2.
51, start an IV with Normal Saline, immobilize fracture and transport as soon as possible.
10-4, Rampart. Johnny set down the receiver and reached for the IV kit. As Roy swabbed Sarah’s antecubital area, the ambulance arrived.
“I’ll go in with her,” Johnny announced, picking up the drug box and his helmet before he followed the stretcher.
On the ride in, Sarah came to. Johnny’s soothing voice calmed her. “You broke your arm and you’re on the way to the hospital. Do you remember what happened?”
“Yeah, I was a ballerina. Mommy just got my costume and it was beautiful. Now I can’t be one anymore!” A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Why not?” Johnny held her hand to comfort her.
She sniffed, “Whoever heard of a ballerina with a broken arm?”
“You could be the first one,” Johnny saw her grimace as the ambulance hit a bump.
“No, everyone would make fun of me. I told everyone I was gonna dress up as a ballerina for our Halloween party at school.” She turned her head away from him and he saw the entrance to Rampart come into sight. Before he could reply the attendants rolled the gurney out of the vehicle.
Johnny stayed by Sarah’s side until the X-ray technician came to take pictures. Then he joined Roy in the hall. “Doc? She needs surgery, doesn’t she?”
Dr. Early scratched his chin, “Yeah, it looks like it. I’ll ask Dixie to schedule it right now.”
“Ready to go, Johnny?” Roy picked up the restocked drug box and headed toward the door.
Johnny paused, “Let us know how she does, would ya?”
Dr. Early nodded and Johnny went out to join his partner. As he climbed into the squad, Roy turned the key in the ignition. Johnny leaned his elbow on the open window frame and thought. Roy didn’t break the silence.
When they arrived at the station, Johnny cleared his throat, “Roy? Have you ever…”
“We’ve been waiting for you!” Chet called from the kitchen.
The captain stood in front of the chalkboard. “Good. You’re back. We need to go over the drill with Stations 36, 127 and 10 we’re going to have on our next shift.” The crew sat down and concentrated on their responsibilities during the drill.
Chet leaned toward Johnny, “Whatcha doing on the 31st?”
“Kelly, you wanna embarrass Station 51 when you blow it during the drill?”
Chet straightened up, “No Cap. I was paying attention.” Captain Stanley rolled his eyes but knew the firefighter would refrain from talking until he finished or face latrine duty.
During dinner Johnny glanced at the quiet phone, wishing it would ring. The station was called out to a house fire just as they finished eating. No smoke or fire was found but to reassure the owner the captain had his men make a careful inspection after he discovered the man had lost all his belongings several years before when firefighters returned to the scene because they missed a fire in the wall.
Johnny put his turnout coat in the squad and slid onto the vinyl seat. “I’m gonna call the hospital when we get back.”
“Still thinking about the little girl we took in?”
“Yeah, she thought everyone would make fun of her at her Halloween party now that she broke her arm.”
“It’s important to kids her age.”
Johnny thought back to his childhood. “Yeah, it is.”
“Chris would probably…”
County 51. Woman having difficulty breathing. Ivy Rest Home. 3457 Olive. Cross street Maple. Timeout 1922.
The squad pulled into the fire lane in front of the nursing home. “Matilda was in the hospital with pneumonia several months ago. She almost didn’t make it.” The charge nurse led the way to the sick woman’s room where the paramedics discovered she was already on oxygen.
Johnny opened the drug box while Roy went to use the phone in the room. The nurse heard the zip of the Velcro as Johnny got the BP cuff ready. Both men were working like a well-oiled machine. Roy listened to her fluid-filled lungs while Johnny got the vital signs. BP’s 160/110; respirations are 32 and shallow and her pulse is 140 and thready. Roy notified the hospital and gave his report.
51, start an IV with Normal Saline TKO and transport as soon as possible. Continue to administer 8 liters O2.
While they got the woman ready to take to the hospital the ambulance arrived. As soon as they placed their charge in the hands of the ER staff, Johnny asked, “Could we run up to peds and find out how Sarah’s doing?”
Roy told dispatch they were available and the men went up to the Pediatric wing. Johnny recognized a nurse who’d transferred from ER to work with children. “Hi Amy. Can you tell me how Sarah’s doing? We brought her in earlier today with a badly broken arm.”
Amy looked through her charts. “She just got here. The doctor noticed some abnormalities with her blood work and wants to run a few tests. She’ll be here for several days.”
“You mean she’ll be in the hospital on Halloween?” Johnny’s voice conveyed his disappointment for her.
Amy smiled at him, “Is that your favorite holiday or something?”
“No, it just seems to be important to the kids.” An idea struck him. “Is the hospital doing anything for the kids on Halloween?”
Amy’s grin turned into a frown, “No. They’ll get a construction paper pumpkin on their dinner plates but that’s it. The administrator made budget cuts.”
“Would it be okay if I threw a party for them?” Johnny said with excitement.
“I’ll check with the head nurse and get back to you. The kids would love it.”
Reality struck, “Amy, how many kids are there right now?”
“Twelve. Better plan on a few more in case we get new admissions. I’ll let everyone know once it’s approved.”
Johnny left with an eager gallop in his step and nearly ran into Stephanie, one of the physical therapists. “Hi Steph, wanna come to a party on the 31st?”
Stephanie inhaled sharply, “John Gage! I told you I was dating Dwyer!”
Johnny put his hands up, “Lemme explain before you answer, please?” She calmed down. “You told me you used to do makeup for school plays when you were in high school, right?”
“That’s true. Where’s this going?” Stephanie gave Roy a look. He shrugged as he was in the dark as much as she was.
“I’m gonna throw a Halloween party for the kids in peds. If I brought that stuff they sell in stores for kids’ faces would you be willing to paint them?”
Stephanie paused, “I’d need to leave at 2:00 but I could do it before then.”
“I’ll have the party start at 1:30 then. Would that work?” Johnny still needed the go-ahead but why not make plans? He could always cancel them later.
Stephanie saw the time, “Sorry I have a patient waiting for me. Yeah I’ll see you in a few days.” She disappeared from sight.
Johnny rubbed his hands together. “This is gonna be great! Can you help, Roy?”
“Sorry, Johnny. As soon as Joanne found out I was off on Halloween I got recruited to help at Chris’ party. I’m a room mother…uh, room parent.”
Johnny hadn’t even heard what he said past ‘sorry, Johnny.’ He bounced out of the hospital and waved at Dixie.
“Did he just get a date?” Dixie asked the slower moving Roy.
Roy chuckled at her question, “No. He’s throwing a Halloween party for the kids in pediatrics. Gotta run.”
When Johnny got off duty the following morning he headed home. After gobbling breakfast he headed to Ben Franklin hoping they would have what he sought. He rifled through the remaining costumes and was relieved to discover both The Pink Panther and Isis for the children that lived below him. Then he added the face paint Stephanie would use to transform the kids. He tossed in some penny candy. When he saw a tiara, he placed it on his growing stack of purchases. Perhaps Sarah would be willing to become a princess or beauty queen instead of a ballerina. He brought his selections up to the register and pulled out his billfold to remove a ten-dollar bill as the clerk rang up the sale. “That’ll be $18.25.”
“$18.25?” Johnny’s voice echoed in shock. “Roy wasn’t kidding that these cost a fortune,” he said to himself as he handed her a $20.00 bill. “Could you give me my change in nickels?” The cashier shrugged and counted out his money. Johnny took the sack she handed him and went to the entrance. He’d spied the machines next to the gumball machine. They contained plastic capsules with treasures: everything from whistles to rubber snakes to “diamond” rings. He inserted the coins, turned the dial and soon had a growing collection of items to add to previous acquisitions. He didn’t want any disappointed children who couldn’t eat candy.
When he returned home he propped the costumes outside his neighbors’ door. He’d labeled the bag, ‘For Jamie and Brian.’ He felt a little like Santa but the ringing of his phone made him dart to his apartment. “Hi Johnny. Just wanted you to know it’s okay for you to have a party tomorrow. Nurse Carruthers wants you to keep it short so the kids don’t get too tired. She suggested 1:30 to 2:30.”
“Thanks, Amy. That’ll be fine.” He hung up the phone and spent the rest of the day helping a friend shingle his roof.
Johnny overslept the following morning. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized he wasn’t late for work. As he pattered to the kitchen sink, he peered out the window to check the weather and noticed two costumed children heading for school. With a smile, he took his milk out of the fridge and poured it on his cold cereal. He went through a stack of mail and straightened a stack of newspapers. Soon it was time to head to the hospital. He gathered the makeup, tiara, candy and trinkets and dumped them on the front seat as he got into his Land Rover.
There was an aura of excitement on the ward as Johnny saw Stephanie. He handed her the greasepaint and they went in to see the children. Soon each of the kids had a new identity. There were bunnies and cats and pirates and a boy with a gruesome face. Johnny placed the tiara on Sarah’s head and Stephanie put lipstick and blush on her. Johnny went to retrieve the bag of goodies he’d left at the nurses’ station.
He turned around and went to her side, “What is it sweetheart?”
“Where’s YOUR costume?” Sarah took in his blue jeans and plaid shirt.
Johnny was speechless, “Uh…this is it. I’m a…farmer or a cowboy.”
Sarah shook her head with vigor, “No you’re not. You’ve gotta wear a costume, too.”
Johnny didn’t want to disappoint the child but the last thing on his mind had been him dressing up. He left the room, nearly running into Dixie. “Hi, Johnny. I’m on break and just came up to see if you needed a hand.” She saw him run his fingers through his hair, a signal to her that things weren’t going well. “What’s the matter?”
“I need to find a costume.”
“I could conjure up a lab coat and stethoscope for you and you could go as a doctor,” Dixie offered.
Johnny shook his head, “No. Somehow I don’t think they’d be excited to see me dressed as a doctor.”
Dixie went to the linen closet and glanced at the shelves. At the back of the bottom shelf she spotted a neglected sheet. It was threadbare and faded to a soft gray. “What about this? You could go as a…”
“Ghost.” Much to her surprise, he smiled. “Dixie, if I put it on would you cut the eyeholes?”
A few minutes later she accompanied the disguised paramedic into the children’s room. He was met with hoots of laughter. None of them seemed to mind that the sheet came only as far as his knees. The candy and prizes were distributed to the kids and Nurse Carruthers came in promptly at 2:30 to end the party.
Johnny left with a broad grin on his face and exited through the Emergency Entrance. “Well hi Johnny. Looks like your party went very well.” Dixie said as she saw him.
He held the sheet out to her. “It did. Thanks for the threads. Do you want this back?”
“No, it’s yours now.” She watched him head toward a trashcan but then he paused. Johnny stuck it under his arm carried it out to his car.
“If Chris wants me to wear a costume later, I’m all set.” He said to himself as he put it on the seat next to him.
Happy. . .
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