Disclaimer: None of them belong to me, they belong to Mark VII and Universal. But I’m sure grateful for the chance to write about and enjoy the guys again.
“Man, Roy, am I ever beat,” mumbled Johnny as he rubbed his gritty, aching eyes. His arms felt as heavy as lead, and he dropped them limply into his lap. Good thing I’m not driving the squad.
“Yeah, partner, I hear ya,” came the equally mumbled reply.
Through his half-closed eyes, Johnny quietly observed his partner’s pale, drawn face. The white-knuckled grip he had on the steering wheel was a good indication that Roy was just as exhausted as Johnny, if not more so.
Finally, the two emergency vehicles arrived back at the station. Engine 51 slowly backed into the apparatus bay, closely followed by the squad. Once parked, the doors opened fully revealing the haggard and grimy set of men. Their exits from their respective vehicles held none of their usual grace and coordination.
It had been a tough fire to knock down. A warehouse full of a variety of furniture, most of it not flame retardant, had burned hot and long. The intense heat had forced back even the most intrepid firefighters. Fortunately, there were no people in the building, and there had been only minor injuries to the firemen. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes, but nothing more. Yet, it had taken its toll on the men of 51. This fire, called out just as they were getting ready to sit down to dinner, and on top of an already busy shift, had pushed them all to the brink of both exhaustion and starvation.
“Marco,” suggested Captain Stanley, “once you’re cleaned up, why don’t you reheat your famous chili so we can all sit down and eat before hitting the sack.”
“Sure thing, Cap,” said Marco as he shuffled his way to the shower.
The others drifted slowly into the day room, groaning a bit as they tried to work out the kinks in their sore muscles.
Despite their weariness, the firemen showered in record time, as they looked forward to easing their grumbling stomachs. Mike was the last man to straggle out to the kitchen table and sit down. Marco was just bringing the pot of re-warmed chili to the table to ladle up into the waiting bowls.
“You guys are gonna love this chili,” exclaimed Marco with a grin, “I made a new recipe using my grandmother’s special seasonings and these different peppers—Ancho and Serrano, with just a touch of Habanero. I hope it’s not too hot.”
Greedily, the crew dug in, barely waiting for Marco to take his seat. They stopped after only a couple of bites. Johnny glanced first at Roy and then at the others at the table. Each man, in turn, had the same queer expression on his face. Almost simultaneously, they all reached for their glasses of milk and drank heartily.
After easing the strange burning in his mouth and throat, Johnny murmured, “Ahh, gee, Marco, it’s a bit hotter than normal, and there’s this weird taste . . .” Johnny let his comment trail off as he took in Marco’s crestfallen expression.
“Um, never mind.”
Everyone turned their attention back to their bowls and resumed eating, determined to quell their hunger despite the odd spiciness of the concoction. The bowls emptied and Marco graciously offered seconds.
“NO!,” came the unified response.
Ever diplomatic, Stanley spoke up quickly.
“Let’s give B shift something to look forward to. I think it would be a good idea if we all just go to sleep while we can. In fact, let’s just rinse the dishes for now and we’ll finish them up in the morning.”
The men rose, quickly accomplished their tasks, and headed for the dorm. Sighs of pleasure echoed throughout as each tired man settled in his bunk.
“G’night, Roy,” muttered Johnny, as he flung his left arm over his eyes.
“’Night, Junior,” replied Roy around a huge yawn.
The men were asleep as soon as their heads it their pillows. They were in for a long night.
Station 51 rolled up to the structure fire to find dark, charcoal-colored smoke roiling from the myriad broken windows at the front of the building. Mean orange-red tongues of fire were busy licking away up and around the window frames. The building itself looked dark, and somehow evil, as it crouched defiantly on its plot of land. Johnny’s first glimpse of the building brought a chill to the back of his neck. Gage shook off his feeling of unease and jumped from the squad. He and Roy quickly donned their air tanks and masks and followed Marco and Chet to the entrance of the building.
The two firefighters entered the building first to begin knocking down the flames as Roy and Johnny slipped in to search for victims. The dense marbled smoke hampered vision while considerable debris on the floor made navigation difficult. Armed with flashlights, each paramedic headed in a different direction ready to chalk doors as they cleared rooms.
Johnny picked his way carefully over to the north corridor. The smoke lessened a bit as he went along. The first two rooms were devoid of both furniture and people. Gage advanced to the next room and, finding it equally empty except for some junk on the floor, was about to leave when he thought he detected movement in the corner. Making his way toward that spot he glanced around. Nothing! He moved closer. Still nothing! Thinking now that he had imagined it all, Johnny made one last sweep along the concrete wall with his flashlight. Then he saw them. Spiders! Not hundreds, but thousands of spiders pouring out of an inky black hole in the wall. The black, brown, and gray bodies writhed and collided in their rush to exit the hole. Johnny gasped and closed his eyes, certain he was imagining the sight before him. When he opened his eyes again, they were still there. Ever more of them streaming without end from the concrete and now crossing the floor—right toward him. This time instead of a gasp, it was a yell. As he yelled, he took a couple of steps back only to trip over the garbage on the floor. Johnny fell hard, knocking his mask aside. Anxiously, the paramedic tried to come to his feet but couldn’t find purchase in the mess. In seconds, Johnny could feel the spiders climbing over him. He frantically tried to brush them off, but there were too many. They were finding gaps in his turnout gear and sliding seamlessly under his clothes. Johnny continued to yell and slap at his body, feeling the squish of the spiders he was smashing. But, he made no progress, there were just too many. They reached his face. They crawled over his cheeks and eyes and scurried up into his hair. Despite his determination to keep his mouth closed, he was unable to hold back a yell at a particularly vicious bite. He felt them tumble into his mouth.
Johnny rolled over gagging slightly as he desperately swiped at his mouth to clear out the spiders. Gradually, he realized there was nothing there. It was all a nightmare. With this discovery also came the awareness of a deep burning, and clearly recognizable, pain in his chest. He had a massive case of heartburn. Since he knew that falling asleep again was unlikely at this point, Johnny quietly pulled on his turnout pants and headed to the kitchen for a hefty glass of milk.
All the men, excluding Captain Stanley, were seated at the table indulging in a rare mid-afternoon snack when the tones sounded.
“Station 51, Engine 10, structure fire, 32218 Westmoreland, cross street Culver. That’s 3-2-2-1-8 Westmoreland, cross street Culver. Time out 1402.”
The captain bounded from his office to acknowledge the run as the firemen of A shift hurriedly pushed back their chairs and scrambled for the apparatus bay.
When the Engine and Squad arrived at the scene 12 minutes later, Mike’s heart lurched when he saw the sign on the front of the building. It read, “Rick’s Reptile and Snake Emporium. Come In and See Amazing Animals from Around the World.”
His first thought was about how much he really hated snakes. That fear had begun long ago in childhood with an unfortunate incident with his brother’s pet snake, Lulu. In the intervening years, bizarre encounters with snakes during station calls had only increased that fear.
Engine 10’s men were already working on the fire at the back of the building. Just as Captain Stanley was about to issue orders to his own men, a disheveled and grimy man came running up to him.
“Please, please, you have to save them. Please!,” he pleaded piteously.
“Save who, sir? Are there people in there?” Captain Stanley queried, instantly going on the alert.
“No. No. Not people,” the breathless man answered, “My snakes and reptiles. You have to save them. Please don’t let them die!” He lapsed into a fit of coughing.
Stanley considered the situation and, noticing that Engine 10 had the flames contained to the back of the store, he called his men close.
“Roy, check out this gentlemen here. The rest of you go check the front of the building. If it looks safe, see if you can rescue his animals.”
At this edict, Mike’s heart filled with dread. “Uh, Cap, don’t you need me out here?”
Hank glanced at Mike in surprise, unaccustomed to the usually quiet firefighter actually questioning his orders.
“Mike, that was an order. The more hands we have, the faster it will go,” came the stern reply.
Biting back a groan, Mike donned his gear and followed Gage into the store. The large room was moderately smoky, but not overly hot. But, the sight that greeted him made him long to turn around and run. There was row after row of glass aquariums, each one housing two or more scaly reptiles or slithering snakes. Stoker swallowed hard behind his mask. He heard Gage mutter that they should hurry up. Chet and Marco went to the left while Johnny and Mike went to the right. Each pair grabbed an aquarium and hauled it out the door. They repeated this procedure several more times, and Mike was just starting to unwind slightly when he and Johnny reached yet again for an aquarium. Just as they moved it from its perch, he felt it start to slip from his grasp. The hapless engineer tried desperately to maintain his grip, but failed. Stoker watched in horror as the glass shattered and disgorged it contents—two large, mean looking snakes. Mike watched in terror as one of the two snakes headed straight for him. The petrified fireman couldn’t seem to make his feet move to run away. He looked on helplessly as the snake twisted right up and over his ankle, gliding its way inexorably up his leg. Twisting and squeezing, the snake continued to make its way up Mike’s body.
“Uh, guys, I could use a little help here.”
When he received no response, Mike jerked his attention away from the snake long enough to look around for his fellow firefighters. Oddly enough, they were nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if they’d disappeared into thin air.
“What the heck? C-c-c-c’mon, guys, this isn’t funny.”
Mike’s attention was again drawn to the snake as its muscular yellow body now twisted past his waist. He pushed at the cylindrical, writhing body but his feeble attempts to free himself met with no success. The snake’s body maneuvered itself past his chest and speedily wound it way around his neck squeezing tighter with every turn.
Stoker came awake and quickly rolled over in his bunk struggling with the constriction threatening to choke him. He squinted down through the darkness fully expecting to see a big, yellow, and very muscular snake wound tightly around his body. But, it was only the stark white bed sheet diabolically twisted and wound around his upper body. With a sigh of disgust, he unwound the sheet and pushed it to the bottom of the bed. Mike quietly climbed out of bed. As he bent over to retrieve his pants, he felt the acid churning up from his stomach. Deciding that a hefty dose of antacid tablets sounded really good at the moment, he headed to the kitchen.
“Station 51, unknown type rescue, Skyliner Tower, 2002 Main St., West, cross street Cedar, that’s 2-0-0-2 Main St., West, cross street Cedar. Time out 2302.”
Roy groaned as he and Johnny raced for the squad. He had a bad feeling about this run. Maybe it was the storm raging with a vengeance outside or maybe he was just tired, but he couldn’t shake the uneasiness squeezing at his chest.
The paramedics pulled up to the building just ahead of the Engine and well ahead of the police. As they jumped from the Squad, they saw a bulky, sodden figure standing just outside the door gesturing wildly and yelling.
“Come on . . . come on . . . hurry up! She’s . . . up there on the roof, and I-I-I think she’s gonna jump.”
Roy and Johnny approached the distraught man.
“Sir, calm down just a second,” said Roy softly, “take a deep breath and tell us who’s up on the roof.”
Following Roy’s command, the man answered a bit more clearly, “I don’t know her name. She works in this building though because I’ve seen her. I’m one of the security guards for the Skyliner. I was doing my usual rounds when I noticed the door to the roof was ajar. I went up to have a look around . . . you know . . . just in case . . . and there she was just standing still as a statue near the ledge. I called out to her, but she didn’t so much as flinch. I really think she means to jump.”
“Cap, we may have a jumper here,” announced Roy as his superior briskly approached from behind him.
“Okay. Kelly, you go up to the roof with DeSoto and Gage. The rest of us will remain down here and coordinate with the police.”
The security guard quickly led the dripping trio to the elevators and then up a short stairwell to the roof. Just seconds after they exited onto the roof there came a tremendous crash of thunder, making everyone jump. Everyone, that is, except for the beautiful young blonde woman standing at the ledge staring into space. She seemed oblivious to everything including the drenching rain now redoubling its efforts to fall from the sky.
Johnny slowly approached the woman. Stopping just a few feet away, he called out just loud enough to be heard over the tempest.
There was no response.
“Miss, please, will you talk to me?” urged Johnny, “We’re from the fire department and we’re here to help you.”
Nothing. Not even a blink.
With an anxious glance at Roy, Johnny moved closer to the woman.
Roy’s breath hitched when he saw just how precariously close his friend now was to the edge of the building. Again, the uneasiness bit deep into his chest. He wanted desperately to call his partner back, but he knew Johnny would be deaf to all reasoning in his desire to save the woman.
The rain, combined with the wicked lightning and roaring thunder, lent a surreal quality to the unfolding events. Roy could see Johnny’s lips moving as he continued to talk calmly to the woman. Suddenly, the woman turned her head sharply to the right and looked directly at his partner. With a sad shake of her head, and without ever speaking a word, the beautiful blonde woman took the final step from the building. Roy watched in horror as his partner and best friend made a desperate lunge to save her, only to lose his footing on the rain slick roof. He was left teetering on the edge of blackness.
Roy sprinted in Johnny’s direction, reaching out to pull him to safety. He grabbed a piece of his partner’s jacket. For a split second he thought was going to succeed, but the rain was working against him, and he, too, slipped. Thrown off balance by Johnny’s weight and position, and unable secure purchase, they both plummeted into the darkness, Roy’s hands still entwined in Johnny’s jacket and an unvoiced scream in his throat . . .
Roy jerked awake with a violent start, his hands wrapped tightly around the bed sheet and clasped to his chest. A gasp rushed past his lips as he dealt with the lingering sensation of falling. He breathed deeply for a few moments until he regained his equilibrium and then swung his legs over the side of the bed. Disturbed by his tortuous dream, he slipped into some clothes and headed to the kitchen.
Hank Stanley startled when he heard his whispered name. The crew from C shift were out on a call, and he had come in early to make a proper dent in the never-ending paperwork associated with his position as captain.
There it was again. He glanced around in confusion. The station should be empty except for him and the dog. “And, Boot sure isn’t calling my name,” he thought with a chuckle.
This time the whisper was louder and somehow more menacing. A shiver danced down his spine.
“For Pete’s sake,” grumbled the captain to himself, “maybe it’s just one of my men arriving early.”
He rose and left his office to have a look around.
He walked swiftly to the locker area fully expecting to see someone from the A shift crew changing into uniform, but there was no one there. Hank turned and made a cursory inspection of the restroom and dorm but came up empty though he thought he saw just the merest glimpse of white out of the corner of his eye.
Instead of a whisper, it was a long, drawn out moan.
“Man, when did it get so blasted cold in here,” whispered Cap as shivers wracked his lanky frame. The temperature seemed to plummet 50 degrees in seconds. He headed through the door without looking back, never seeing the frost forming on the metal lockers.
Reaching the kitchen and rec room area, he decided this must be some stupid trick courtesy of the Phantom. Then the shrieking began.
Suddenly a bitter and impossible wind manifested itself and swirled relentlessly through the rooms, churning up papers, rattling dishes, and banging cupboard doors. Captain Hank Stanley stood frozen in shock observing the chaos around him. His mind kept repeating just one thought—this can’t be happening. He couldn’t seem to will his body to move until the moment he saw Henry being pushed across the floor by a wind that shouldn’t exist. Jarred from his stupor, he finally turned to run. As a cold, skeletal hand clamped down on his shoulder . . .
Captain Stanley’s eyes snapped open. Rolling over, he felt a bone deep chill as the dream refused to relinquish its ghostly grip. As he sat up, he tentatively reached for his right shoulder half afraid he’d feel the unyielding bones still clinging in a vice-like grip. The captain breathed a sigh of relief when his fingers encountered nothing but his own warm flesh.
The captain remained prone in his bunk for several minutes willing his tremors away. Eventually, strongly motivated by the slow burn assaulting his stomach, he also vacated the dorm.
Chet rubbed his hands together in delight as he put the finishing touches on the Phantom’s latest trick. He couldn’t wait for his favorite pigeon to get here. “Heh, heh, heh – this is gonna be good,” Chet whispered with a sinister chuckle.
He slipped away quietly to get a cup a cup of coffee and wait.
Fifteen minutes later, Roy joined him in the kitchen. “Hey, Chet, how are ya?,” he greeted.
“Oh, Roy, I am fine, fine, fine,” came the cheerful reply.
Alerted by this unusually bright salutation, Roy asked, “Uh, oh. Chet, what’s the Phantom up to now?”
Still grinning from ear to ear, all his fellow fireman said was, “Just sit back and enjoy, Roy. Just sit back and enjoy.”
Seconds later they heard Johnny’s cheerfully loud “good morning” as he entered the locker room to change. If possible, Chet’s grin got even bigger.
“CHET!” bellowed Johnny.
Roy raced to the locker area and pulled up short when he saw his partner. Chet sauntered in behind him.
Johnny stood there with his face and chest covered in smashed tomatoes. He was also soaking wet. Roy’s nose twitched when he caught the pungent scent of vinegar.
Chet couldn’t hold back a snicker. “Gee, Johnny, jump up and down a bit and you know what it feels like to be a tossed salad!”
Just then Captain Stanley announced roll call and a miserable John Gage headed for the apparatus bay. Stifling a grin, the Captain reprimanded Johnny for being out of uniform and ordered him to go shower. He then gave Chet latrine duty for a month.
A short while later the tones sounded.
“Station 51, child trapped, 92832 Twilight Blvd., cross street Marlett, that’s 9-2-8-3-2 Twilight Blvd., cross street Marlett. Time out 1302.”
The brave men rushed for their vehicles.
Once on scene, the child’s mother came running over with an exasperated look on her face.
“I’m so sorry I had to call you. This is amazingly ridiculous. It’s my son, Danny. He’s trapped under the porch.” As the would-be rescuers followed her, she explained further with a small smile. “Apparently, Danny is afraid of clowns and he thought he could hide from them under there,” she said as she pointed to the porch, “but, now he’s stuck on something and can’t get out.”
At the mention of clowns, Chet looked up swiftly and he felt the blood drain from his face.
“CLOWNS! What clowns?” he croaked fearfully.
“Oh,” said Danny’s mother, “there’s a birthday party in the backyard and the theme is clowns. There’s probably ten or so clowns back there doing a show.”
At that precise moment Chet heard raucous singing and turned his head, just in time to see a whole gaggle of clowns approach from around the corner of the house. They were all white-faced, big-haired, and red-nosed. Their multi-colored clothing billowed and whipped in the breeze and gay balloons bobbed above their heads.
Chester B, quite thoroughly terrified at the group before him, screamed and ran for his life.
Chet came to as he hit the floor. For a moment, he stared at the ceiling wondering what had happened. Suddenly he remembered the dream and realized he had rolled right out of his bunk.
The station’s biggest jokester moaned slightly as he sat up and felt his cheeks heat with embarrassment. Man, what would the guys think if they knew the Phantom was afraid of clowns. Chet shuddered at the thought. He sure hoped they never found out. It was certainly something he’d never admit to. Slowly, he pulled on his turnout pants and shuffled toward the kitchen for a drink.
As Chet entered the kitchen, he was surprised to find most of the rest of the crew already seated at the table. All were looking decidedly grumpy. Mike pulled out an empty chair and got up to retrieve a glass. He sat back down and placed the glass on the table.
Conversation resumed as Chet sat down.
“Man, that chili did something to my mind,” groused Mike.
“Yeah, not to mention the heartburn,” threw in Johnny with a grimace.
The consummate peacemaker, Roy tried to smooth the waters, “Well, Marco was only trying a new recipe. It’s not like . . .” He fumbled to a stop when that comment earned him four very intense glares.
“The worst part is,” complained Chet, glancing around the table, “Marco’s still asleep. That chili didn’t affect him at all!”
The five disgruntled men all turned their attention back to their tall glasses of milk.
Meanwhile back in the dorm . . .
Marco sighed deeply, overcome with grief and despair as he stood and stared at the building. He had been standing there for a good ten minutes as the people ebbed and flowed around him. Occasionally, he heard snatches of whispered conversations as they passed.
“. . . can’t believe they’re . . .”
“. . . just . . . doesn’t seem possible . . .”
“. . . understand how . . . all five . . .”
“ . . . poisoning . . .”
Marco hung his head in shame. This was all his fault. By rights, he shouldn’t even be here which was why he couldn’t seem to make his feet carry him into the building.
The bells began to toll. Marco knew it was now or never. His feet leaden, the burdened firefighter slowly moved up the steps. And into the church. To face the five gleaming coffins that held the bodies of his five fellow firefighters and, more importantly, his friends. The very men he had killed – when he fed them that damned batch of poisonous chili . . .
Marco woke up awash in terror. He was thoroughly distressed, his thoughts muddled and utterly confused. His friends—they were—dead. No—wait—it was just a dream. Just a dream. He stood up and looked around to assure himself that his co-workers were indeed safely asleep in their beds. Only they weren’t. The dorm was empty. “Dios,” he thought, “maybe it wasn’t a dream.”
Too scared to even take the time to dress, he ran from the dorm in is underwear, desperate to find his friends.
The five firemen seated at the table looked up in shock when Marco bounded into the kitchen. They stared in amusement at his attire, or lack thereof. Johnny opened his mouth to comment, but Marco did something that took them all by surprise.
“You’re all right. You’re all right.” He said these words repeatedly, as he went around the table hugging each man in turn and making them squirm in their seats.
“Marco, what the heck . . .”, started Captain Stanley.
“I – I - I had a dream, Cap. I dreamed that I killed you all with my chili.”
Each man suddenly grimaced as they remembered their own vivid nightmares.
With a huge sigh and a half smile, Captain Stanley said, “Uh, yeah. Marco, about that chili . . . next time, buddy, stick with your old recipe, okay? No more special seasonings.”
He looked briefly at the still weary men seated at the table and announced, “I think we should all try to get some more rest, don’t you? Let’s go back . . .”
He was cut off by the sound of the tones.
“Station 51, Station 10, Battalion 8. Structure fire. 4606 Stevenson Industrial Parkway, cross street, Baird. That’s 4-6-0-6 Stevenson Industrial Parkway, cross street Baird. Time out. 3:05”
With a round of groans, the crew of Station 51 rushed to answer the call, their hope for a good night’s sleep fading away to nothing.
I would like to say thank you to my family and friends, who seem to think I’m crazy for doing this, but who support me anyway. I dedicate this particular story to my Dad who passed away in September. Thanks for being proud of me, Dad.
I’d also like to thank Emergency Universe for the beta read.