IF I ONLY HAD A BRAIN
By Jill Hargan
"Hold still, Johnny."
"All right, all right."
If there was anything worse than having to stand in one place and let a woman stick pins in you, John Gage couldn't think right now of what that might be. He let go an impatient breath and fought the urge to scratch his suddenly itchy nose.
"What? All I did was breathe."
He heard Joanne heave as big a sigh as he just had, and he knew she was exasperated with him.
"Okay. I won't breathe," he vowed with dramatic resignation.
"It should only be a few more minutes," Joanne promised around the pins she held in her mouth. "I just have to do the legs."
He felt himself blush as Joanne started tugging at his inseam, his mind suddenly conjuring up memories of school shopping with his mother barging into the changing area and checking his pants to make sure he had "plenty of room."
"Uh, really, Joanne, the legs feel just fine and, um..."
"It's okay," Joanne assured him without glancing up from what she was doing. "I'll only be a second."
He fell silent, just wishing this whole thing was over with. His nose was still itching something fierce, but he didn't dare take the chance to try and relieve it, not considering where Joanne's hands were at the moment. He wondered again why he let himself get talked into these things.
"Uncle Johnny, you're gonna look great!" Johnny turned his head to see the "reason" he was here. Eight year old Jennifer DeSoto had bounced into the room wearing a hundred watt smile that was meant for only him.
"You think so-oo?" His voice squeaked an entire octave higher than normal as his movements caused Joanne's hand to brush a sensitive part of his anatomy.
"Sorry, Johnny," Joanne mumbled. Her head was bowed, but by the shaking of her shoulders, Johnny could tell she was laughing.
"I'm glad you think it's so funny." He glared at his partner's wife, starting to lose what little patience he had left. "What if you'd stuck me with one of those daggers you call pins?" He crossed his arms over his chest indignantly, but the need to be careful made him lose most of the effect he was aiming for. He frowned when Joanne still didn't stop what she was doing. She obviously didn't appreciate the near miss she'd made with such sharp objects. "Aren't you done yet? Roy can't possibly be that much bigger than I am."
Joanne actually snorted with laughter, and Johnny rolled his eyes at his poor choice of words.
"That's not what I meant," he said in a loud whisper, concerned that Jenny might be listening.
"What exactly did you mean?"
Johnny flushed even brighter. He hadn't realized Roy had walked into the room. "Uh... nothing, man, I was just..." He lifted his hand to his chest in an automatic gesture, then stopped abruptly when he heard Joanne's hiss of annoyance. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Roy chuckled and hobbled over to sit down on the couch, where he had a front row seat for the rest of the fitting.
Johnny found it even harder to stand still now that his partner was watching. He was positive he could feel every pin Joanne had put into the fabric and his damn nose was still itching.
"I swear, John Gage, you fidget more than the kids."
Joanne very rarely got mad at him, and her words stung a little, especially since Johnny felt he'd tried his best to be cooperative. Roy's snicker didn't help his mood any either.
"Geeze, I'm sorry. I've only been standing here for an hour," he burst out.
It was quiet in the room for a moment, then Jennifer's worried voice broke the tension and made him instantly regret his flare of temper.
"Are you mad, Uncle Johnny? You're still going trick or treating with me like you promised, aren't you?" She came over and took hold of his arm.
Johnny knew if he looked down at her he was had, but he couldn't help himself. He glanced at the little girl, saw the hint of tears in her big blue eyes and just had to smile.
"Of course I'm going with you," he assured her. He was relieved to see the happiness return to her face, but he wasn't quite ready to let Joanne off the hook for the seemingly endless torment she'd put him through to take in the costume that had originally been intended for Roy. "If your mom ever gets done torturing me," he added emphatically.
Joanne sat back on her heels, took the pins out of her mouth and shook her head. "Fine!" she breathed out, plainly perturbed. "Go ahead and take it off. I'll just guess the rest."
Johnny grinned in triumph and made a beeline to the bathroom where he'd left his clothes.
"Be careful of the pins!" he heard Joanne call after him as he shut the door and started to pull the shirt off.
"Yeow!" he yelped. "Now she tells me," he groused to himself as he felt at least three different pins sticking into his arm pits. He slowed his movements and finished taking off the costume top. Then, with exaggerated caution, he peeled the pants off, wondering if Roy had gone through this much abuse originally and if his partner knew how much delight his wife took in inflicting pain.
As he pulled on his own, suddenly very comfortable clothes, he thought back to yesterday, when he'd come over meaning to see if Roy needed any help with the yard work and had walked into a near tragedy.
Roy had twisted his ankle pretty badly their last shift during a seemingly routine run. Johnny still wasn't clear exactly what had happened, but between an old lady's cluttered garden, a very large dog and an ill timed sprinkler system, Roy had ended up at Rampart, unable to walk without a great deal of pain. X-rays had confirmed there was no break, and Morton had told Roy to go home and stay off his feet.
To Johnny, it seemed like Morton's equivalent of take two aspirin and call me in the morning, and he'd been ready to give the resident a piece of his mind, but Roy had stopped him with a pained look and a weary request to just take him back to the station so he could go home.
Dwyer had covered for Roy the rest of the shift, so Johnny had no complaints on that score. Feeling bad for his partner, the dark haired paramedic had headed over to the DeSoto's that morning after he'd gotten off work.
He'd walked in to find Jennifer in tears. Joanne was trying hard to make the little girl listen to reason and Roy just sat on the couch, his leg propped up on the coffee table, looking miserable. Always one to try and help, Johnny had left himself wide open for what happened next.
"Jennifer, you know Daddy didn't hurt his foot on purpose."
"But now we can't go," the little girl sobbed. "He can't be the Scarecrow if he can't walk."
"I know, sweetheart, but you guys can go next year."
"Next yee-aar?" Jenny's wails increased in volume at the prospect of waiting such a horribly long time.
"Hey," Johnny interjected, hating to see Jenny in such obvious distress. "What's wrong with my best girl?"
All three DeSotos turned toward Johnny, obviously unaware until then that he was there. Jennifer rushed to throw her arms around him and bury her face in his stomach.
"Oh, Uncle Johnny, it's just awful," she cried.
"What is?" he asked, stooping down to be on eye level with the child.
Jenny pulled back a bit and wiped at her nose. Johnny cast a quick glance down and realized his shirt had already served as a tissue for her. Trying not to grimace, he returned his attention to the distraught girl.
"Daddy was s'posed to take me trick or treating this year. Chris is goin' to a dumb ol' party and Mom's helping with that and now Daddy's foot hurts and he can't go with me and we already have the costumes made and I was gonna be Dorothy and Daddy was s'posed to be the Scarecrow 'cause he's the one Dorothy likes the best and now he can't, 'cause he can't walk and now I can't go trick or treating..."
"Whoa, whoa..." Johnny cautioned, trying to catch his breath after the nonstop explanation, and really only understanding the last part. He quirked an eyebrow at Jenny. "Now let me get this straight... all this cryin' and carrying on is just because you need somebody to take you trick or treating?"
Jennifer nodded solemnly, sniffling again. Johnny glanced over at Roy who was rubbing his forehead and looked like he had a terrible headache. Joanne was standing a few feet away and looked just plain worn out by the whole outburst. He grinned widely, feeling good that he could solve everybody's problems.
"Now, don't you worry, Jen," he soothed. "If you need a substitute trick or treat partner, I'll be happy to take you."
Jennifer's blue eyes widened in surprise and then delight. "You will?" she asked.
"You betcha," Johnny replied, then glanced over at Roy and Joanne. "As long as your folks think that's okay."
Jennifer turned to her parents. Johnny realized a little late that he'd put them in a fix if they didn't agree. Roy looked a little hesitant, but Joanne seemed absolutely relieved.
"You don't have to do that..." Roy began, but was cut off by his wife's enthusiastic response.
"Oh, Johnny, that would be so great. I didn't know what else to do. I can't back out on Mrs. Jefferson. She doesn't have anybody else to help her with the party."
Johnny's grin widened. He loved being the good guy.
"And you get to be the Scarecrow," Jennifer beamed.
"The what?" The grin faded slightly. He hadn't caught the part about dressing up.
"The Scarecrow," Jennifer explained. "I'm Dorothy and you're the Scarecrow. Mommy already made a costume for Daddy, so you can wear his."
"Costume?" he asked lamely. He glanced over at Roy for help, but his partner merely smiled at him, rather smugly Johnny felt.
"I'll have to take it in a bit," Joanne observed, eyeing Johnny's thin frame with a critical eye. The paramedic shifted his feet, uncomfortable with his partner's wife scrutinizing him so closely. "But it shouldn't be too hard. You guys are right around the same height."
"Gee, uh, I don't know about a costume..." Johnny hedged, but Jennifer was already hugging him again.
"This is gonna be so much fun."
"Yeah, fun. I feel like a voodoo doll." But he could never have turned Jennifer down. One thing he knew about himself, he was a sucker for chicks. It didn't matter if they were eight, eighteen or eighty. He zipped up his jeans and gingerly picked up the prickly costume.
It's only one night, he told himself resolutely. You can handle one night.
Johnny walked into the locker room, wondering who his partner was going to be while Roy was out. It should only be for a week or so, but Johnny still hoped it was somebody he could get along with.
Marco was just finishing getting dressed and Chet was sitting on the bench tying his shoes. The Irishman was whistling a tune that seemed oddly familiar. Johnny gave Kelly a quizzical look as he started unbuttoning his shirt.
"What's got you all chipper this morning?" he asked.
Chet gave Johnny his best "butter wouldn't melt" smile. "Do I have to have a reason to be in a good mood?" he asked innocently. He resumed whistling.
Johnny's eyes narrowed suspiciously. He glanced over at Marco, but didn't get any help there. The Hispanic firefighter merely gave him a shrug and left the locker room. The paramedic watched his co-worker leave, still hearing Chet's infernal tune.
I know that song. What is it? Damn, that's irritating.
He decided the best thing to do would be to ignore Kelly, and he reached out to open his locker.
Two things happened at the same time. He finally placed the song Chet was whistling, and he swung his locker door open and got pelted with a face full of straw.
"I could wile away the hours, conferrin' with the flowers, consultin' with the rain..." Chet's whistle had suddenly developed lyrics.
"Chet!" Johnny stood staring at the Irishman, not sure who he was madder at: Chet for his annoying pranks or Roy for obviously telling Kelly about Johnny's Halloween costume.
"What?" Chet gave Johnny an innocent stare. "Don't you like music?" He reached over and plucked a piece of straw out of Johnny's hair. "I could dance and be merry, life would be a dingaderry, if I only had a brain." Chet finished singing his song as he walked out of the locker room, the last notes followed up with a loud cackle.
Johnny heaved a long suffering sigh and brushed the straw off of his shirt. At least it was dry. He gave his head a shake, amazed at how much of the stuff fell to the floor. This was going to be a long shift. His only consolation was that Halloween was tomorrow night. Hopefully the novelty would wear off for the Phantom when the holiday was over.
He took off his shirt and hung it up, then paused, his face wrinkled in bewilderment.
What the hell's a dingaderry?
By the time Johnny got home the next morning, all he wanted to do was sleep. Chet had plagued him the entire shift, whistling and singing that damn song, with extra emphasis on the ending line, of course. Johnny's partner for the day was a rookie named Lyons and that had only added fuel to the fire for Kelly, who kept making jokes about courage that went over Lyons head, but succeeded all too well in annoying Johnny.
They'd been slow all day, which only made it worse. Finally, right after they'd settled down for a good night's sleep, the tones sounded, sending them out on a four alarm blaze that kept them up all night. Johnny and his partner had worked the hoses for several hours before they were pulled off the lines to treat a case of minor burns, then several firefighters suffering smoke inhalation. The last one had required a trip to Rampart and they didn't pull back into the barn until dawn. By then Johnny hadn't seen any sense in trying to go back to sleep. He'd showered and gone into the kitchen, meaning to have some milk, then spent the rest of the shift sweeping up another straw bomb that had gone off when he'd reached for a glass.
Now, he was home. He spent a moment trying to decide if he was more hungry or tired. When he realized he was too exhausted to decide, he went into his room and flopped onto his bed. He was asleep in minutes.
The ringing of the telephone penetrated his sleep fogged brain. Some part of him remembered it ringing earlier, but he hadn't been awake enough to answer it. Now, though, it managed to filter into his senses and he reached out an arm to fumble for the receiver, wanting mainly to stop the blasted thing from ringing. He dragged the receiver to the general vicinity of his ear.
"H'llo," he mumbled hoarsely. He'd eaten some smoke at the fire, too.
"Hi, Uncle Johnny. I'm glad you're home. I called earlier, but Mom said you might have to work overtime, so I wanted to just check."
Johnny half-listened to the ramblings for a moment, then lifted his head enough to glance at the clock. It was 9:30. He'd only been asleep for an hour.
"And so I just wanna be sure you'll be here on time tonight..."
"Jenny?" he croaked. It finally registered who was talking to him.
"Yeah, it's me. I was just checking to see if you were home, but Mom said not to call you too early, 'cause you might be asleep. So I waited 'til cartoons were over."
Johnny somehow managed not to groan into the phone.
"Don't worry, Jen," he assured the little girl. "I haven't forgotten."
"That's great. I'll see ya tonight. Bye, Uncle Johnny."
The phone clicked before Johnny could say anything else. He stared at the receiver for a moment, then reached over to hang it up. It took several tries before he got it back in place. Blowing out a loud breath, he let his head fall back to the pillow. He wasn't angry with Jenny. He knew she was just excited about Halloween. In a few more minutes he had drifted back to sleep.
Jenny called three more times before Joanne finally caught her at it and warned her sternly to leave Uncle Johnny alone. By the time Johnny had listened to Joanne's profuse and lengthy apology, and was able to hang up again, it was nearly eleven o'clock, and his understanding attitude toward Roy's daughter had being tried severely. He buried his head under his pillow and hoped he could at least get in one good uninterrupted hour.
When the phone rang again Johnny screamed into his mattress, then threw his pillow across the room. Tossing the covers back, he picked up the phone, trying his best to sound happy.
"Hi, Jen. I'm really excited about tonight. I can't wait to see you in your dress. I'll be there right on time to pick you up."
There was silence on the other end for a moment, then an angry woman's voice came through loud and clear.
"John Gage, you lousy creep. You said you had to cancel our date so you could help your partner. Well, you've got some nerve and if you think I'm going to hang around waiting for you while you go out with some other girl, you're got another think coming. Don't ever call me again."
The phone went dead in his hand. Johnny blinked at it in confusion for long moment and then it suddenly dawned on him.
"Rhonda?" Oh, damn, it was Rhonda. She thinks I'm two timing her.
He thought about calling her back and explaining, but considering the tone of her voice, he didn't hold out much hope she would listen to him. He hung up the phone despondently and sat on the edge of his bed, debating whether or not to get up and just forget any kind of sleep or to try one more time. He glanced at the clock. It wasn't noon yet. He could still catch an hour or two. He didn't have to be at Roy's house until five. In the end, gravity won, and he fell back onto the bed, throwing his arm over his eyes and sighing heavily. Even just an hour would help.
The next time the ringing found its way into his brain, Johnny swore he was going to pull it from the wall. He sat up and snatched the receiver.
"What?" he rasped angrily.
"Hey, Johnny... you okay?"
"Yeah," came his partner's concerned voice. "Joanne asked me to call and see if you were still planning on coming over. Jen's getting a little anxious."
Johnny shot a glance at the clock. It was five thirty. "Shit!" he exclaimed as he jumped out of bed, then realized he'd shouted that in his partner's ear. "Uh, sorry, Roy. Hey, I'm on my way, okay."
But Roy's worry genes had kicked in. "You okay? You sound congested."
"I'm fine," Johnny replied emphatically. "Just a little smoke is all."
"If you're not feeling good, you don't have to do this," Roy advised him.
There was a voice in Johnny's head that urged him to take the out his partner was offering, and the paramedic wondered if those little cartoon shoulder devils were real things. He didn't bother looking. He couldn't disappoint Jennifer, not this close to Halloween.
"Nah, I'm okay," he told Roy. "Just over slept. Tell Jenny I'll be there in a jiffy."
"Okay." His partner didn't sound entirely convinced, but Johnny chalked that up to Roy just being Roy. He hung up the phone and made a dash to get dressed. His stomach growled loudly, reminding him he hadn't eaten since last night, but he ignored it. Joanne would have something good for dinner and he'd just scrounge over there.
The fact that the only thing he smelled as he walked into the DeSoto house was burning candles and jack o' lanterns gave him a little concern, but that was pushed to the background as Jennifer rushed up to give him a big hug and then grabbed his arm to pull him into the living room.
"C'mon, Uncle Johnny. You gotta get ready."
"Okay, I'm coming," he laughed. He didn't remember ever being this excited about Halloween. "Hey, Jenny Bean, you look beautiful."
The eight year old blushed a pretty pink at the compliment. She was dressed in a blue and white checked dress with a white blouse underneath. Her blonde hair was done up in braids with bows and she was wearing red tennis shoes. Ruby slippers, Johnny assumed. She was also wearing some of her mother's make up. Her lips were extra rosy and she had a fair amount of blush on her cheeks.
"Oh, Johnny, you're here. Good." Joanne came into the living room, carrying the Scarecrow costume. "Go ahead and put this on. Then I'll do your face."
"My face?" Johnny frowned. No one had said anything about makeup.
"You hafta look like the Scarecrow," Jennifer reasoned. "Otherwise you'll just look like Uncle Johnny wearin' a costume."
Johnny didn't see anything wrong with that. "Uh... where's Roy?' he asked, stalling for time. Maybe if they were very late, Joanne wouldn't have time to fuss with him.
"He's out on the deck helping Chris with some last minute pumpkin carving," Joanne informed him.
Johnny was still looking for something to distract Joanne from thoughts of makeup. "Don't you guys still have to eat dinner or something?" he asked hopefully.
Joanne shook her head. "We ate early tonight. Just some hot dogs. Chris is having pizza at his party."
"Oh." Johnny's hopes for a good meal crashed, but he tried not to let it show on his face.
Joanne brushed at her hair in a frazzled gesture. "I really need you to hustle a little," she pleaded. "Chris and I are supposed to be at the Jefferson's in twenty minutes."
"Yeah, Uncle Johnny, hurr-eeee."
Johnny took in Jennifer's plaintive face and Joanne's already tired demeanor and figured he wasn't going to get out of it without a major scene. He repressed his sigh of resignation, took the costume from Joanne and headed for the bathroom to change.
When he pulled on the pants, he wondered for a moment if Joanne had given him the wrong costume. They were as baggy as they'd been when he first tried them on. He pulled the drawstring tighter, then put the shirt on. It hung loose on him, too. In fact, the only thing different about it from before was that Joanne had attached straw to the wrists and ankles, and the dried out stuff was poking him something fierce. He stuck his head out the bathroom door.
"Joanne?" he called tentatively.
"Right here," she called and hurried over from where she was loading cupcakes into a cardboard box. "Come on out. Let me see."
He stepped out, clutching at his pants. 'Uh... Jo... I thought you took these things in."
"I never found the time to do it," she apologized. "And scarecrows are supposed to be baggy anyway."
"Yeah, but..." He gestured to his waist, where the pants had slipped to his hips. He was grateful the shirt was long and hung over them.
"Just pull the string tighter," was Joanne only suggestion. "Oh, and I have a rope to go around your shirt at the waist."
"You mean after all that time I let you use me as a pin cushion..." He let his voice trail off at the chagrined look on the woman's face.
"I'm sorry, Johnny," she apologized contritely. "You just wouldn't believe all the stuff there was to do to get ready and I..." She paused, and for a moment Johnny thought she was actually going to cry.
"Hey, don't worry," he assured her with a lopsided grin. "The costume's fine. I guess I never thought much about all the work that goes into Halloween. I just always bought a bunch of candy and gave it out."
"Wait'll you have kids," Joanne warned with a wan smile. She wiped her hands off on a towel. "Now, let's get your make up on."
Johnny managed to keep from rolling his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was to add to Joanne's stress. After all, he was supposed to be helping out, not causing trouble. He followed her to the bathroom, hitching up his pants the entire way.
She had him sit down on the closed toilet seat. "Here," she said and handed him a hood to put over his head.
It had a circle cut out for his face. Grimacing, Johnny slipped it on, not liking the way it closed off his ears. If Joanne saw his expression, she chose to ignore it. She picked up one of her make up kits and started in. Johnny cast a sideways glance at the array of cosmetics she had out and he wondered how he was ever going to clean all this junk off his face.
After what seemed like forever, Joanne finally stood back and smiled. "I think that just about does it," she announced, but stopped him before he could turn and look in the mirror. "Wait. You need the full effect."
"You mean there's more?" he asked incredulously.
Joanne merely gave him a look, then picked up a few more pieces of his costume. She tied a loose piece of rope around the hood and collar that covered his shirt, then handed him gloves to put on and another piece of rope for his waist. "Fix your pants the way you want them first," she advised.
Johnny lifted his shirt and pulled the drawstring in as far as it would go, then tied it in a good, solid knot. He didn't want to be redoing this all night long. After he was satisfied and let the shirt drop again, he pulled the rope around his waist and tied it as well.
"I feel like I'm getting ready to go over a cliff," he teased.
"Very funny," Joanne replied as she picked up a pointed hat with a floppy brim and plopped it onto his head. "There you go, Mr. Gage. One authentic Wizard of Oz Scarecrow."
Johnny finally turned to see the results and had to blink at his reflection. He didn't recognize the face that stared back at him. Most of his dark hair was hidden by the hood. Only a fringe of his bangs peaked out in the front. His nose was blacked, his mouth had lines extending upward with little stitch marks on them. His eyebrows were peaked in the middle and his cheeks were nearly as rosy as Jennifer's. Put that with the costume, and he had to admit, Joanne had outdone herself. For the first time in three days, he was starting to think he might just enjoy this.
"That's pretty good," he remarked with a smile made larger with the makeup.
"I'm glad you like it," Joanne replied. She laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry about all the hoops I made you jump through getting this thing done."
Johnny's smile grew bigger. "That's okay, Jo," he assured her. "And I'm sorry I was being a pain in the butt."
Joanne laughed and then prodded him out into the hall. "Let's go show Jennifer. If she hasn't left without you, that is."
As they once more entered the living room, Jennifer rushed to throw her arms around Johnny in excited delight.
"Oh, Uncle Johnny. You're a great scarecrow!" she told him excitedly. She stepped back and looked him over completely. "You're skinnier than Daddy."
Assuming that was a compliment, at least as far as scarecrow attributes, Johnny smiled graciously. "Thank you, Dor-o-thy," he grinned, trying for his best Ray Bolger imitation. He crooked his arm for Jenny to take. "Are you ready to hit the yellow brick road?"
Jenny giggled and grabbed her trick or treat basket.
"Wait, wait!" Joanne held up her hand to stop them. "I want to take a picture. Roy! Chris! Come in here a minute. You have to see them."
Johnny just couldn't help rolling his eyes this time. And he felt the blush rise up his face as Roy limped in from the deck, sporting an ear to ear grin.
"Don't you say a word," Johnny warned as Roy opened his mouth to comment.
Roy raised innocent eyebrows. "Wouldn't dream of it," he replied. "Hey, you're doing us a big favor."
"You mean I'm doing you a big favor," Johnny pointed out.
"Hey, Uncle Johnny. That looks pretty good," Chris commented as he came in from outside, a huge carved pumpkin in his arms.
"Thanks, Chris." Johnny noticed the boy's jeans and t-shirt and frowned slightly. "Where's your costume?"
Chris gave a scoffing laugh. "Only babies and nerds dress up," he announced as he walked past Johnny and Jennifer and headed to the kitchen.
Johnny stood staring after the boy for a long moment, then he glanced down at himself. "Babies and nerds, huh?" he murmured.
Jenny tugged at his arm and he glanced at her. "Don't listen to Chris," she told him adamantly. "Him and his friends think they're so cool. But they're just dumb."
"Here we go," Joanne called as she breezed back into the living room with the camera. "Smile, you two."
Johnny managed to paste a smile on his face so Joanne could snap a couple of shots. Then she rushed over to plant a kiss on Jenny's head.
"Be good," she reminded her daughter. "Do what Uncle Johnny says."
"I will, Mommy," Jenny promised as Joanne rushed out of the room again.
"Are you ready?" Johnny asked the little girl.
Jenny started to nod, then her mouth opened in a gesture of dismay. "I almost forgot." She ran out the patio door. Before Johnny could ask what was wrong, Jennifer returned with the DeSoto family dog on a leash. Rags, a nondescript mutt they'd rescued from the pound four years ago, was wearing a big blue bow.
"Jennifer," Roy spoke up. "I thought Mommy told you not to take Rags trick or treating."
The little girl shook her head. "She said it was up to Uncle Johnny. If he didn't mind taking Rags, it was okay." She turned her hopeful face to Johnny.
Johnny gazed at the dog. "Why does Rags need to come?" he asked, not thrilled with the idea.
"He's Toto," Jenny explained matter-of-factly.
Johnny narrowed his eyes at the animal who came to Jennifer's knees. "I thought Toto fit in Dorothy's basket," he reasoned. "Rags is a little big to..."
"But he's pretending," Jenny persisted.
"Jen," Roy broke in. "Why don't you leave Rags home."
Jenny's face fell with disappointment and she heaved a sigh that wormed its way into Johnny's heart. He'd come this far, what would it matter to take the damn dog?
"Go ahead and bring him," he relented. "Just be sure and hang onto his leash."
"Really? Thanks, Uncle Johnny, you're the best."
"You're sure about this?" Roy questioned.
Johnny just nodded. "Sure, why not?" He held out his hand for Jenny. "C'mon Dorothy, we're missing some prime candy time."
Jenny giggled and grabbed up her basket, tugged on Rags' leash and followed Johnny out the door.
Roy stood at the front door and watched his partner, his daughter and his dog disappear down the sidewalk. Part of him regretted that he didn't get to go with Jenny, but only a small part. He didn't necessarily mind taking the kids trick or treating, but the thought of dressing up hadn't exactly thrilled him. He didn't even remember when he'd agreed to this whole thing. Somehow the women in his family came up with the idea and Roy had been caught up in their plans. His sprained ankle and the fact that Johnny could never say no to Jennifer, worked together to allow Roy to spend this evening relaxing. He had his own plans to sit on the porch for an hour or so until the candy was all passed out, then he would settle in for a night where he could watch what he wanted on the television. Chris and Joanne would be out late and even when Jenny came home, she would be so much into her stash of candy, that she would probably hide out in her room for the rest of the evening.
"Have they gone already?" Joanne asked as she brought a box out of the kitchen. She was on her way to the car.
"Yeah. Dorothy, the Scarecrow and Toto are all on their way down the Yellow Brick Road."
"Toto?" Joanne's shoulders slumped. "She didn't con Johnny into taking the dog?"
"Uh... yeah, I guess she did." Roy regarded her curiously. "She said you told her if it was okay with Johnny, Rags could go with them."
Joanne shook her head. "That's not exactly what I told her. I said I didn't think Johnny would want to be bothered looking out for both her and the dog."
Roy put his arm around his wife's shoulder. Joanne leaned into him for a moment, taking a short break from the hectic demands of her day.
"I think we have to face the fact that our daughter is an expert manipulator," he said with a chuckle.
"At least as far as her Uncle Johnny is concerned," Joanne agreed. She glanced at her watch and gave a small groan of dismay. "We're running late." She straightened up. "Chris!"
"Yeah, Mom, I'm coming." Chris rushed up behind them.
"Did you put everything in the car like I asked?"
"Okay, let's get going then."
"Wait, Mom. I gotta get Dad ready."
Roy turned to see his son's grinning face.
"What are you talking about?" he asked in apprehension.
"Chris, we don't have the time," Joanne informed him.
"Sure we do," Chris replied. "It'll only take a sec."
"What will only take a sec?" Roy demanded.
"Your costume," Chris answered, holding up a bundle of white rags. "You can't be the only one not celebrating Halloween."
"My what?" Roy saw the excited gleam in his son's eyes and sighed, saying goodbye to his nice relaxing evening.
Johnny watched Jenny skipping happily up the walk to yet another ghostly decorated house, amazed at all her energy. He was absolutely dragging. The straw in his costume had rubbed his wrists raw, and the pants had begun to sag at his waist, in spite of his best knots, and walking was now a challenge to keep from tripping over his own feet.
The first part of the evening had actually been fun. They'd gotten a lot of ooh's and aah's over their outfits, making Jenny ecstatic. But as the night wore on and parents were tiring of answering their doors, the grownup enthusiasm was waning. With all the kids on the streets and all the new houses to explore, Rags had gotten too excited to take up to people's doors, so Johnny started staying at the sidewalk dog sitting, while Jenny went up and knocked.
As Jenny happily shouted trick or treat, Johnny glanced at his watch. They'd been at this for an hour and a half, and Roy's daughter had more candy in her basket than she could probably eat in a month. He yawned and wondered how much longer they would have to keep doing this. Maybe he could convince the little girl to call it a night.
"That was a good one," Jenny exclaimed as she came back down the driveway. "They gave me three tootsie pops."
"That's great," Johnny answered, trying to sound enthusiastic.
Jenny regarded him with concern. "What's wrong, Uncle Johnny?"
"Nuthin', Jen," he said with a smile. His stomach growled just then, providing him with an excuse. "Guess I'm just hungry. I missed dinner tonight."
Jenny's worried face relaxed and she held out her basket. "I have lots of candy. You can have some if you're hungry."
Candy was not what he needed right now. His mind conjured up a mouth watering image of a juicy steak, with a baked potato smothered in sour cream and chives, but since that wasn't likely to materialize any time soon, he picked through the basket and settled on some peanut M & M's.
Peanuts have protein, he told himself and tore open the minuscule bag.
"Thanks, Jen. Is it time to head home yet?" he asked hopefully, popping a handful of the candies into his mouth.
Jenny's face took on a look of dismay. "Oh, no," she answered fervently. "We still have the whole next block to do."
The candy stuck a little on the way down as Johnny managed to smile. "That's great," he told her, trying his best to sound enthusiastic. He reached into Jenny's basket and grabbed a big handful of candy, wondering if he imaged hard enough it might taste like a baked potato.
As they turned the corner they came up behind a trio of little girls in pony tails and poodle skirts. Jenny screamed in delight and ran up to the children she obviously knew.
"Lindy, Janie, Kristy!"
"Hi, Jenny!" the girls squealed excitedly. All four kids began talking at once, comparing costumes and candy.
Johnny leaned tiredly against a low fence, waiting for them to finish. Three women, he could only assume were the girls' mothers walked up to him.
"Where's Roy?" one of them asked curiously. She was short and a little on the plump side.
"Yeah, I thought Joanne roped him into playing Scarecrow for Jenny," another laughed. This one had a narrow face.
Johnny smiled lamely. "He twisted his ankle. I'm a last minute sub."
The third woman, the prettiest of them, smiled her understanding. "You must be Uncle Johnny," she declared.
Her voice was warm and low, and Johnny suddenly stood up a little straighter. She was medium height, with brown hair hanging past her shoulders. His eyes automatically found her left hand and he didn't see a wedding ring there. His spirits lifted dramatically. Tonight might be looking up.
"Yeah, I'm Unc... uh, I'm John... John Gage." He smiled brightly. "I'm, uh... I'm Roy's partner."
"We know," the plump woman chuckled. "Jenny talks about you all the time."
"Yeah," the narrow faced woman agreed. "And from everything she says, I'm surprised you're not the one with the twisted ankle."
Johnny's grin faded just a bit. What the hell's that supposed to mean? he wondered.
"Now, Grace," the pretty woman chided. "Joanne says all firemen get hurt on the job sometimes, not just Mr. Gage, here." She turned her eyes back to Johnny and he saw a look on her face that he didn't know how to interpret.
"Yeah, well... we try our best not to," he murmured defensively.
Geeze, what's Roy's family been tellin' people about me?
"Well, it looks like the girls want to get going," plump lady interrupted. "Jenny's more than welcome to join up with us." She gestured to her friends. "This is Grace and Becky. My name's Evelyn."
"Nice to meet you," Johnny mumbled. As they started walking again, he made sure he wound up next to the pretty woman with the nice smile. "Um... Becky, right?" She nodded. "So.. Becky, uh, which one is yours?" He gestured toward the girls.
"Lindy. She's wearing the red skirt."
Johnny shot a brief glance at the kids, picking out the short girl with reddish hair. He wondered if Becky was divorced, but didn't know quite how to ask. She solved that problem for him.
"She's my niece," the woman volunteered, her smile softening. "My sister's life is kinda unsettled right now, so Lindy stays with me a lot."
"Oh?" Johnny found himself grinning at his good fortune, then hastily wiped the smile from his face. "Ohhh... that's too bad... about your sister, I mean," he stammered, knowing he probably sounded like an idiot.
"Thanks," Becky replied, apparently not offended, and Johnny was encouraged enough to keep talking.
"So, um... so you don't have, uh, any kids of your own?"
Becky flashed him an understanding smile. "No, I don't." she told him. "I'm not married. I'm a legal secretary and I live by myself... most of the time. Does that answer all your questions?" she laughed, but it was a kind sound, not scoffing.
Johnny found himself grinning widely. "Sure does," he replied with a slightly embarrassed laugh of his own. "And saves time, too."
As they slowly made their way down the block, Johnny learned that Becky liked horses, hated her boss, was an okay bowler but would rather play tennis, had grown up in Arizona and moved to Los Angeles ten years ago. Johnny listened in fascination as she told him all about herself, and found himself answering willingly when she inquired about his interests. His only regret was that they weren't alone. Every time they stopped at a house so the girls could trek up to the door, the other two women would butt into their conversation. But that was a small inconvenience to the paramedic's way of thinking. It wasn't often that he hit it off so quickly with such a good looking woman. He realized he wasn't nearly as tired as he'd been only moments before and he knew he couldn't credit it all to the handfuls of candy he'd grabbed from Jennifer's basket.
Johnny had been telling Becky all about the big fire last night and was just working up the nerve to ask her if she had plans for tomorrow, when everything happened at once. They passed a yard with a low, split rail fence, a cat hissed, Rags began a frenzied barking and lunged at the leash that Johnny held wrapped around his wrist.
With almost no warning, the paramedic felt his arm jerked nearly out of its socket and he was pulled into the fence. What little hope he might have had to retain his balance and get control of the dog, was ruined when he stepped on one of his baggy pant legs that were gathered at his feet. Johnny felt himself topple over the fence, something sharp tearing at his shin on the way down, to land with a thud, face first, on the front lawn.
He lay there for a moment, aware of two things: the grass was wet and the damn dog was licking his face. He didn't think he was hurt - well, maybe his leg hurt a little - and he pushed Rags away with a disgusted shove.
"Get away, you dumb dog," he muttered as he pushed himself up to a sitting position.
"Uncle Johnny, Uncle Johnny," Jennifer wailed as she ran around the fence and rushed to his side. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Jen... get Rags, okay?" He pushed himself up to a sitting position, aware the other girls and their mothers were standing at the fence watching him. The taller one was shaking her head, as if he'd just proven her right about something.
"Are you all right, John?"
He turned, startled to find Becky beside him. She must have followed Jennifer around the fence.
Damn, now she's gonna thing I really am a klutz!
"I'm okay," he said hastily, "I'm fine. I just... the dog kinda..."
He trailed off as he heard snickers from the other two women. Feeling his face flush hot, Johnny got awkwardly to his feet.
"You sure you're okay?"
Normally Johnny would have loved having a chick like this worried about him, but right now, all he wanted was to stop being the center of all this uncomfortable attention.
"I told you I'm fine," he snapped, sharper than he'd meant, but there was no taking it back.
Becky's face fell a bit, and she backed away as he got to his feet. His shin was throbbing and he could feel something wet trickling down it. He cast a quick glance, but in the dark, it was hard to see clearly. His pant leg looked torn, but that was all he could tell.
"You wanna go home?" Becky asked, her voice still kind even though he'd been rude to her. "We'll bring Jenny back to Roy and Joanne's for you."
Johnny sighed and shook his head. It was obvious that these people were friends with Roy and his family, but Johnny would never turn over Jennifer's care to someone without getting prior okay.
"Nah, that's okay," he said. "I'll stay with her." He shifted to try and see down the block. "There can't be that many houses left, can there?" he asked hopefully.
Becky gave a tight smile. "Don't bet on it," she told him.
Johnny sighed again, this time more inwardly. He was wet and cold now, and his leg hurt. He'd probably pissed off this beautiful woman and ruined any chance he had to wrangle a date. All he wanted to do was go home, take a shower, have something to eat and then go to sleep. As he headed toward the driveway, he felt someone take his hand. He glanced down and saw Jenny's worried face.
"I'm sorry about Rags," she told him contritely. "Should we go home now?"
"That's okay, Jenny Bean," he replied with a smile. He could never resist this kid. "We'll finish up. Go on and be with your friends."
"Thanks, Uncle Johnny, you're the best." She flashed him a grateful smile, right before she handed him the dog's leash and skipped off to rejoin the other girls. Becky waited a short moment, giving Johnny a look he couldn't fathom, then turned and followed her friends.
Johnny watched her for a moment, then glanced down at Rags. The dog stared back at him, happily wagging his tail.
"C'mon, Toto," he muttered and started after the rest of the group.
The next half hour seemed the longest of Johnny's life. By the time the kids declared they were done and the group split up, the paramedic was limping noticeably. He herded Jenny and the dog back down Roy's street and was never so glad to see anything as he was the DeSoto house.
The only lights were on the porch. Several grinning jack o' lanterns were sitting around Joanne's favorite rocking chair, where a large dummy wrapped in mummy rags stood guard over a large bowl of candy. Johnny shook his head as he thought about how lucky Roy had been tonight, sitting in his living room watching tv, probably with a full stomach.
Hell, Roy even got out of passing out candy.
They reached the porch, and as Johnny lifted his foot to take the first step up, he heard Jenny giggle. Turning to see what the little girl was laughing at, the paramedic only caught the dummy's movement out of the corner of his eye, but it was enough to startle him. He instinctively tried to back up and move in front of Jennifer to protect her, but his foot missed the step and he stumbled. He might have regained his balance, but Rags had somehow ended up behind him and Johnny tumbled over the dog to land heavily on his backside. The jolt to his tail bone was nothing compared to the pain that shot up his right wrist. He automatically cradled the injured hand. He didn't think it was broken, but he'd definitely twisted the hell out of it.
"Johnny? You okay?"
He could have sworn he heard Roy's voice from somewhere far away. He lifted his head and his eyes widened as he saw the mummy coming down the steps, one foot dragging slightly, tearing at the wrappings around his face. For an instant all those nights staying up with Chet watching cheesy horror movies flashed through the paramedic's mind. Then suddenly Roy's concerned face appeared from under the bandages.
"Are you all right? I didn't mean to scare you."
Johnny felt his shoulders sag with relief and his breathing slowed considerably. "Yeah," he answered, hoping he didn't sound as shaky as he felt. "You just surprised me is all."
Roy glanced down at his costume and shook his head. "This was Chris' idea," he explained wryly. "I think I've set the record for how many three year olds I've sent screaming into the night."
"Sounds like fun," Johnny snorted.
Roy gave him a curious look. "Doesn't sound like you had much fun either."
Johnny glanced over at Jenny, who was standing beside them, listening with interest. He gave her a big smile. "Nah, we had a great time, didn't we, Jenny?"
The little girl beamed. "We sure did," she gushed enthusiastically. "We found Lindy and Janie and Kristy, and we got soooo much candy, Daddy, and then Uncle Johnny..."
"Uh, Jen," Johnny interrupted before she could tell all. "Why don't you put poor Rags in the back yard. "I think he's had his fill of trick or treat."
"Okay." The little girl took the leash and skipped up the porch and into the house.
After she was gone, Roy reached out a hand. "Let me help you," he offered.
Johnny automatically started to extend his right hand, felt it twinge, and changed his mind. He stuck out his left for Roy to grab. As he was pulled to his feet, he felt the stab from his wounded shin and he ended up hopping on his one good foot, holding onto Roy for balance with his one good hand.
The older paramedic wasn't that stable either, but he managed to keep them both from falling. He got Johnny steady on his feet, then studied his partner with a critical eye. "You sure you're okay? Looks like you messed up your leg."
Johnny glanced down, but couldn't really see anything in this light. He gave a rueful chuckle. "I did that earlier. Had a disagreement with a fence."
Roy smiled as he began unwrap more of his mummy bandages. "Guess the fence won, huh?"
"You could say that."
The two men began hobbling up the steps onto the porch.
"Why don't you come on in for a while and I'll take a look at it," Roy suggested.
Johnny just shook his head. "I'm beat. I'm just gonna grab my stuff and go home."
Roy didn't look happy with that answer, but Johnny was too tired to get into it with him. He was certainly able to clean his own cuts and scrapes. He followed his partner into the house, meaning to change his clothes and beat a hasty retreat before Roy had a chance to play paramedic, but as they stepped into the living room and better lighting, his torn and bloody pant leg was there for the whole world to see. There was no way for Johnny to play it down and he soon found himself seated on the couch while Roy examined his wound.
"It's okay, Roy. I'm... ouch... I'm fine... ahhh.... don't do that! Can you just leave... OW!... me alone?"
Roy finally gave up trying to lift the elastic leg of Johnny's scarecrow outfit up over his bloodied shin. He got up and limped over to the side table and pulled a pair of scissors out of the drawer. He came back over to Johnny, his intentions clear.
"Joanne'll kill you if you cut this costume," Johnny warned.
Roy just shook his head and gestured to the long tear in it. "It's pretty much had it anyway," the blond paramedic reasoned. He cut the fabric all the way up to Johnny's knee and then pulled it gingerly away to reveal a nasty looking gash that ran from right above his ankle to just below his knee. It had bled quite a bit from the amount of dried blood on Johnny's leg and sock, and there was still some blood coming from it.
"Geeze, Junior," Roy observed in a very nonprofessional tone. "You're gonna need stitches." He glanced up and met Johnny's eyes. "Got any idea what did this?"
Johnny shrugged. "I dunno. Coulda been a nail. It was kinda dark."
"Guess you're in for a tetanus shot too."
Johnny shook his head stubbornly. "No way, man. I had a booster two months ago."
Roy looked like he wanted to argue, but he held his tongue. "I'll just let you take that up with Dixie," he replied with a smile.
Johnny groaned inwardly. Dixie would make him take a shot for sure. He sat still, well, as still as he could manage, while Roy bandaged up his shin then he stood, making sure the leg of his pants covered as much damage as it could in its battered condition.
"If you hang on a minute, I'll get Jen and we'll take you to Rampart," Roy stated as he shed the last of his mummy wrappings.
"Roy, now come on. I'm perfectly able to drive to Rampart," Johnny insisted. "Besides, you're not in any better shape yourself."
"Yeah, but at least I'm not bleeding," Roy pointed out.
"I'm not either... now," Johnny countered. "Look, there's no sense making Jenny sit around at the hospital. I'll be fine."
Roy chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then relented. "Okay, but be sure they look at your arm too," he instructed.
Johnny rolled his eyes, but knew his partner's mothering came from his care and concern. "I will, I will," he promised as he limped into the bathroom where he'd left his clothes. He didn't bother changing. He'd do that when he could get home and shower. He scooped up his belongings and headed back out the door. Roy followed along at a similar gimpy pace.
"Chet stopped by right after you left. He wanted to catch you in your costume."
"I'm glad I missed him," Johnny laughed, but Roy looked like there was something on his mind besides Chet's childish jokes.
"He told me you guys were out all night. Johnny, you should have told me. Jenny would've understood if you needed to stay home tonight."
Johnny shrugged off Roy's concern. "It's no big deal," he replied. "And you and I both know Jenny would never have forgiven either one of us if she missed Halloween."
Roy's rueful smile told Johnny his partner was aware of that fact. "Well, I just wanted to say thanks," Roy went on. "I appreciate all the trouble you went through."
"No problem, Roy... really."
He got out the door with only a few more reminders to get his arm looked at and to drive carefully. When he finally closed the door to the Rover, he sat for a moment, relishing the quiet, but his arm and leg really did hurt too much for him to sit for very long. Gearing himself up for an unpleasant couple of hours at Rampart, he started up his truck and backed out of the driveway.
"Did Uncle Johnny go home already?" Jenny asked.
Roy nodded. "Yes. He was tired and his leg hurt." He sat down on the couch and propped up his foot. His daughter sat down beside him and he wrapped an arm around her. "Did you have a good time?"
"I sure did," she told him. "That was really nice of Uncle Johnny to take me, even though he fell over the fence and made Lindy's Aunt Becky mad."
"He made her mad? How'd he do that?"
"When he fell he kinda yelled a little. After that she didn't walk with him anymore." Jenny looked thoughtful. "Maybe he didn't mean to yell. He didn't eat dinner tonight and he was hungry. Uncle Johnny gets cranky sometimes when he's hungry."
"He didn't eat any dinner?" The entire picture was becoming clear, and Roy was torn between concern and exasperation. Johnny knew better than to push himself like that, but Johnny wouldn't have wanted to disappoint Jennifer, and now Roy was beginning to feel guilt that his partner had done all this to help him out. He wondered if he would ever be able to return the favor, and then an idea began to form in his head.
"Hey, Jen? Do you have Lindy's phone number?"
Dixie McCall pushed through the door from Treatment Room 2 and heaved a weary sigh. Halloween always seemed to bring out the weirdos. They had already treated an assortment of alleged vampire bites, werewolf attacks and even one woman claiming she was possessed. Those bogus cases, along with the very real traumas that always seemed to accompany the one time of the year when parents let their children wander the busy streets unattended, combined to make the ER at Rampart General more hectic and harried than it already was.
The tired nurse walked up to the desk, hardly even aware what time it was. Technically her shift ended at 6:00, but had stayed late to allow a few of the working mothers to spend Halloween with their children. She took a moment to swallow some coffee, before Sharon walked up to set a stack of files in the in tray.
"Who's next?" Dixie asked the young nurse.
Sharon gestured over to the row of hard, plastic chairs that were still filled. "I think the scarecrow's been waiting the longest," she said. Then the old man in the Dracula cape."
Dixie glanced over the charts, her eyes automatically finding the presenting symptoms. Dracula had a stomach ache. The scarecrow seemed to have suffered multiple trauma.
"You take Bela Lagosi over there," she instructed. The young woman had a way with older patients. "I'll take the other one."
Dixie handed Sharon a chart, then tucked the other one under her arm as she made her way to the waiting area. The young man in the scarecrow outfit was sprawled in the chair, his head resting on one hand, his elbow propped on the arm. His right hand was tucked protectively against his stomach. His right leg had been bandaged by someone, but blood had begun to seep through. He probably should have been seen sooner, but on a night like this, people who didn't complain sometimes got overlooked.
"If you'll come with me, the doctor can see you now," she said politely, but got no response. Bending down, she peered under the brim of the floppy hat and saw that the young man was asleep. Dixie reached out and touched his arm. "Sorry to wake you, but if you'll just come with me..." She stopped, her mouth dropping open in astonished recognition when the scarecrow opened his eyes and lifted his head. Under the makeup, there was no mistaking those dark brown eyes.
"Hey, Dix," came the tired reply.
"What are you doing here? Dressed like that?" She glanced at his chart again, chagrined that she'd never bothered to read the name on the form. She shifted her gaze to his leg. "What did you do to yourself? And why didn't you let me know you were here?"
She realized by his glassy stare that he wasn't keeping up with her barrage of questions. She reached down and took his good arm to help him up.
"Come on, let's get you taken care of."
She helped Johnny get to his feet, wondering if she would ever get the whole story of how one of her favorite paramedics ended up here in full Halloween getup. They made it about half way to the treatment room when the nurse felt Johnny suddenly lean heavily against her. She turned and grabbed hold of him.
"Johnny? You okay?"
He tried to smile and only partly succeeded. "Yeah, just a little light headed," he told her right before he stumbled against her.
"Uh huh," Dixie snorted. "Only a little."
She gestured at a passing orderly and together they helped Johnny into the treatment room and up onto the exam table. She helped his remove the oversized hat and hood. He used his good hand to rub roughly through his shaggy hair.
"Ugh, I hated that thing," he muttered, as he lay back on the table. Dixie noticed the way he guarded his right wrist, but her biggest concern at the moment was his leg. She moved the tattered fabric aside and carefully lifted the bandage that covered the wound.
"Roy do this?" she asked conversationally.
"Yeah," Johnny replied, his voice muffled by the arm he'd thrown over his face.
"Aw, I tangled with a fence. Not sure what cut me." He gave her a short account of his evening, which Dixie suspected wasn't the entire story, but she didn't push for more.
She took note of how much blood was on the bandage and wrote it down on the chart. The wound was nasty looking and would need stitches, but Johnny couldn't have lost enough blood from it to be passing out on her. She regarded the prone paramedic. He looked exhausted, even under the scarecrow makeup. She knew 51 had been out on a fire most of last night. She'd seen Johnny and his partner come through Rampart just as she'd come on shift this morning and they'd looked pretty haggard then. She narrowed her eyes, wondering how much sleep the man had gotten since then.
"You been to bed at all since you got off work?" she asked.
Johnny lifted his arm enough to peer at her with one eye. "Of course," he answered, though he sounded on the defensive. Dixie raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "I got enough," the paramedic insisted. "At least five hours... well, maybe more like three," he finally admitted.
As head nurse she worked closely with all the paramedics, and Dixie had developed an affection for the young men in the program. It wasn't quite maternal. Most of the time it was more big sisterly. But sometimes, like now, she readily assumed the role of the irate mother, especially when she felt the paramedic in question deserved a little chewing out for doing something dumb.
"And just how do you expect to function on that little sleep?" she asked sternly. "Especially after working a fire all night?"
Johnny lifted his head and opened his mouth to argue with her, when a loud gurgle filled the room. Johnny let his head fall back in embarrassment and Dixie planted her hands on her hips.
"And just when did you eat last?"
"I had dinner," came the petulant answer, making the paramedic sound like a three year old.
Dixie wasn't fooled by his quick reply. She felt her foot tapping impatiently. "Johnny...."
"Well, I did," he told her, propping himself up on his good elbow. "Last night." He flashed her a crooked grin that might have worked with a student nurse, but had no effect on somebody who knew Johnny as well as she did.
"Last night? John Gage, what do you use for a brain? I swear..."
"Dix, if I had a brain, I never would have..." Johnny paused, glanced down at himself as if only now remembering what he was dressed like. Then he started laughing.
Dixie couldn't help but join him, their entire conversation suddenly becoming ludicrous. Dixie shook her head and patted his shoulder.
"Okay, I'll leave you alone. Looks like you've been through enough tonight without me badgering you."
Johnny gave her a very sincere smile. "Thanks, Dix."
"Dr. Donaldson will be in to check you out. He'll probably want some picture of that wrist." She pointed a finger at the hapless young man. "But when he's through, you go home and eat something. I mean it."
"I will," Johnny promised wearily.
Dr. Kent Donaldson entered the treatment room at that moment and began his exam. Dixie had overcome her initial dislike of the young intern, but he still wasn't one of her favorite doctors to work with. She gave Johnny's hand a comforting squeeze, then left the room when a second nurse came in to assist.
She was back at her station filling in charts when a pretty young woman stopped at the counter.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for John Gage," she said hopefully.
"He's still in with the doctor," Dixie told her. "Are you a friend of John's?"
The woman smiled uncertainly. "Well, yeah, I mean, I hope so. We just met tonight. I didn't realize Johnny had hurt himself that badly, then Roy called... Roy DeSoto. He said Johnny was here, so I..."
Dixie held up her hand and the young woman trailed off, her face flushed with embarrassment.
"Johnny's not hurt badly," she assured the girl. "He just needs some stitching up." Dixie smiled, thinking that if Roy sent this woman down here, Johnny could probably use some help in this area. "And maybe a little TLC," she added. "He had a pretty rough night last night and I don't think he's had much sleep or anything to eat in a while."
The girl's eyes widened in concern. "He told me about the fire. I didn't realize he hadn't..."
Just then, the door to the treatment room opened and Johnny came out, his leg bandaged and his arm in a sling. The make up on his face was smudged and Dixie wondered if the paramedic even remembered he had it on. Johnny's eyes met Dixie's briefly then fixed upon the younger woman and a smile lit up his face as he limped over.
"Becky! What are you doing here?"
"Roy called me. He told me what happened."
As the woman began to apologize and linked her arm with Johnny's good one, Dixie made a judicious retreat. By the time she returned from the supply room, the couple had disappeared from the ER.
As they made their way out the ER double doors, both Johnny and Becky had apologized several times for any harsh words and misunderstandings. Johnny was encouraged that Becky hadn't let go of his arm yet. That was always a good sign, but there was still the awkward moment to come when they would have to go separate ways to their cars.
As they reached the parking lot, Johnny slowed, not sure what to do, then felt Becky pull on his arm.
"C'mon, let me take you home. You shouldn't be driving with that leg."
"Oh, well, it's not... uh, I mean... I could..." Johnny stopped when he saw the look on her face. "Uh, maybe you're right." He exaggerated his limp just a bit as they headed toward Becky's car.
"That nurse said you need to eat. I can whip up a pretty mean omelette."
Johnny smiled and screwed up his courage. "Well, maybe if we just get a burger or somethin' tonight, you, uh, you can make me that omelette in the morning."
It was quiet for a moment and the paramedic was afraid he'd pushed too far. Then Becky squeezed his arm. "That sounds good to me."
As they reached her car and climbed inside, Johnny had to fight to keep from grinning like a Cheshire cat. He silently thanked his partner. As far as he was concerned Roy had just paid him back big time for taking Jen out tonight. Things were definitely looking up for Johnny. It looked like maybe he'd suffered through all the tricks and was more than ready for the treats of Halloween.
Muchas, muchas gracias goes out to Jean for brainstorming this with me from the very beginning, when all I had was a title and a costume. Thanks for all the fun ideas and for sending all the inspirational photos to keep the muse interested.