The squad backed slowly into the bay of Station 51, and the two men sat quietly as the large overhead door closed before them. The sandy haired man turned to his partner, the disbelief apparent in his blue eyes. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yeah, Roy, I’m sure. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun? You’ve got to be kidding . . fun?”
Roy DeSoto shook his head as he reached for the door handle and let himself out. Heading for the kitchen, he called back over his shoulder. “I’ve gotta have some coffee to wake me up. I’m sure I must be dreaming. I thought you said fun. . .”
Smiling tiredly, John Gage pulled himself from the squad and followed his partner to the kitchen. He didn’t really know why his friend was making such a fuss. It really wasn’t such a big deal. Stepping up to the stove, the dark haired man grinned once more as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Turning slowly, he leaned back against the counter as he surveyed the room.
The men of Station 51 were settling in for what they all hoped was a quiet evening. The day had been a continuous string of short runs. Two trash fires, a cat in a tree, heart attack victim, wreck on the freeway and several false alarms had kept the crew running since the shift began. Chet sat in his customary place, underneath Henry. Marco was fiddling with the TV set while Cap and Mike sat at the table reading the evening paper.
Glancing at his partner, who was also leaning against the counter, Johnny tried once more to downplay his decision. “Really, Roy, it’ll be fine. Trust me okay? You know I’ll take care of everything.”
“I just can’t believe you agreed to do this. Joanne was crazy for even asking you. I told her we should just postpone the thing until some other time, but she didn’t want to disappoint Jennifer. But we really have to drive to San Diego tomorrow. According to her sister, Joanne’s mother should be fine, but you never know. She took quite a fall yesterday, and Jo really wants to see for herself that everything’s taken care of. But I still don’t understand why you would go along with this hair-brained idea--”
“Would you just give it a rest? I already told Joanne I’d do it, and I’ve only told you about two dozen times. So forget it already. Besides, how much trouble can a slumber party be? I mean really, Roy, it’s just a few of Jennifer’s little friends. And Chris will be there to help. It’ll be fun.”
Rolling his eyes upward, Roy shook his head, for what he felt, must’ve been the fiftieth time. “Fun? There’s that word again. Johnny, we’re not talking about six little girls here. In case you forgot, Jennifer turned twelve on her last birthday.”
There was a hint of disgust in Johnny’s voice when he answered. “Of course I haven’t forgot. What do you think I am, stupid or something?”
I’m not going to touch that one. “No, I don’t think you’re stupid, but you’ve evidently forgotten that the five friends she’s invited over are also twelve years old. And even more importantly, you’ve obviously forgotten what twelve-year-old girls act like. That’s not to mention how Chris will act with six girls in the house.”
“Well, I think I can handle the all night snacking, and a little giggling. And I can definitely handle Chris. Besides, it’s only one night. You worry too much, Pally.”
Watching his partner move towards the couch and sit down next to Chet, Roy shook his head in amazement. “Oh, Junior, you really don’t know, do you?”
His whispered comment went unnoticed by everyone except the two smiling men at the table.
The men had been asleep for one short hour when the klaxons sounded again. Jumping from their beds, the crew pulled on bunker pants and boots, then raced towards the squad and engine. Pulling out of the station and heading towards the warehouse fire, every one of the men prayed silently that the night schedule would not be a repeat of the afternoons. Unfortunately, those prayers were not answered.
It was almost seven o’clock when the two vehicles were parked back in their respective positions. Six tired firefighters dragged themselves into the locker room where they made a feeble attempt at cleaning up before their shift ended. Several cups of coffee later found them gathered around the kitchen table as B shift wandered in.
“Well, men, I guess we’re off for a couple days. You all have a good weekend.”
Johnny wondered at the shoulder slap he received from Cap, as his superior walked past him and out to the parking lot. The quick wink from Mike was further cause for confusion as the young paramedic gathered his things.
“What’s up with them?”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Guess everyone’s just a little punchy after this last shift.”
Roy nodded quickly as he covered a smile with a swipe of his hand. “Yep, you’re probably right, Partner.”
“Well, I’ll be seeing you, Roy. I’m going home and get some sleep.”
“What? What are you talking about, Johnny? You can’t go to bed now. You’re supposed to be at our place in about two hours. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. . . are you sure Joanne said 10:00? I mean, you’d still have plenty of time if you drove down this afternoon, wouldn’t you?”
“No, Joanne wants to get to her mother’s by early afternoon. The physical therapist is supposed to meet us there, and she doesn’t want to have to reschedule.”
“But what about you? Don’t you need some sleep?”
“Well, I’ll probably take a nap on the way. Joanne said she’d drive if I was too tired.”
“But, that’s not fair. .”
“Well, you’re the one who agreed to this, Junior, and it’s too late to back out now. That’s why I kept asking you yesterday, but you were insistent that this would be fun. So, go have some fun.”
The grin on Roy’s face seemed almost evil, in Johnny’s opinion. Everything Roy had said was true, yet the young man felt as if he’d just been caught in a net. The only problem was, there was no way out. Luckily, it wasn’t in his nature to either be suspicious or carry a grudge, so in true Gage fashion, he grinned his crooked grin and took off toward his Rover. “Oh, well, it’s only one night. See ya in a couple hours, Roy.”
Once again, Roy was left standing alone, shaking his head. The only thing different this time, there was no one around to hear his comment. “Oh, Junior, you really don’t know, do you?”
“Joanne, are you sure we should leave today? Maybe we could wait and go tomorrow, after Jennifer’s party. . .”
“We’re not changing our plans again, Roy. Everything’s arranged, and I’ve already called Mother. Johnny can handle this. You know he’s taken care of our kids before.”
“Yeah, but this time it isn’t just our kids. And, you know, we didn’t get any sleep last night. We were at a fire right up til the shift ended.”
Joanne shook her head in frustration as she gathered up the few remaining items to pack in her handbag. From the front walk she could hear the excited voices of her children as they escorted their “Uncle Johnny” into the house.
From Roy’s vantage point, he watched as his partner made his way slowly into the house. Both men were over-tired after their busy shift, and Johnny’s movements only confirmed his partner’s nagging suspicions that this party would be too much. But he realized there was no turning back now. The decision had been made. Johnny had accepted the responsibility, and Joanne was dead-set on going through with the plan. Roy was the only one who seemed to feel that the whole weekend would more than likely end up in disaster. Resigning himself to the inevitable, Roy turned to greet his friend.
Almost six hours had passed since Roy and Joanne left for San Diego. Johnny and the kids had spent most of that time doing their own thing. Johnny lay sprawled out on the living room couch, head back, left arm thrown up over his eyes. Unable to sleep, he felt certain that he did actually doze off a time or two. Unable to resist a tired sigh, he was grateful for at least a few moments of relative peace.
Maybe Roy was right, this could be more work than I imagined.
Upstairs, Jennifer had her radio blaring and occasionally Johnny could hear her belting out a popular song along with the artist. She’d been up and down the steps several dozen times as she readied the house for her big night. Snacks had been positioned on the kitchen counter; colas were chilling in the refrigerator. A stack of albums resided on the coffee table where they’d be within easy reach when her friends arrived.
Outside, Chris was playing a mean game of basketball with the neighbor boys. Johnny had been out to the driveway at least three times to remind the boys not to bounce the ball against the front of the house.
Moving his arm aside, Johnny turned his head slightly and glanced at the mantle clock.
4:28, guess we’d better grab a bite to eat before the crowd arrives.
Pulling himself tiredly from the couch, Johnny sat for a moment, head in hands. Finally realizing that the clock was still ticking, and his time was short, the weary fireman rose from his position and headed for the telephone. Completing his call, he summoned the kids. Once the three were settled at the kitchen table, Johnny sat down a brief set of rules. “Okay, guys, here’s the deal. I’ve ordered a pizza which should be delivered here in about twenty minutes.”
The chorused voices quieted at the sight of Johnny’s raised hand. ”Okay, I’m glad that met with your approval. Now, about this evening.”
“What’s the problem, Uncle Johnny? You said you didn’t mind that my girlfriends were coming over to stay. Are you changing your mind?”
“No, Jenny Bean,” Johnny answered, using the girl’s favorite nickname. “I just want to make sure that we all understand each other by setting a few ground rules.”
Jennifer shook her head unhappily. When she first learned that her “uncle” would be the adult in charge at her party, she screamed and danced about in delight. But as the day wore on, the young girl realized that her uncle was tired, thereby not showing his normally cheerful side. Now here he was talking about ‘rules.’
“Uncle Johnny . . . what kind of rules are you talking about? Mom’s the one who said I could have this slumber party, and she didn’t say anything about rules.”
From the other side of the table, an undeniably loud snicker was heard.
“Chris. . .” Johnny warned the teenager before a round of bickering between the siblings could ensue.
The group grew quiet again as Jennifer continued to watch her ‘uncle.’ “So, what did you mean, about the rules?”
“Oh, nothing too severe, Jen. Just some basics, like: no screaming in the house, especially after 11pm, no running up and down the stairs, no calling other friends on the phone, no food in the living room, or in the sleeping bags. . .you know, stuff like that.”
“But you know my room is upstairs, and since we’ll be sleeping in the living room, we’ll have to go back and forth to get things we need. And we promised Nancy and Becky that we’d call them later. They wanted to come, but their parents had other plans and wouldn’t let them. And why can’t we eat in the living room? Mom didn’t say we couldn’t.”
Her voice had risen several notches, and Jennifer’s frustration was evident. She was worried that her Uncle Johnny wouldn’t be the good sport she’d expected. Instead, he was sounding more and more like her dad.
Johnny watched the girl shifting nervously in her seat. He didn’t want to ruin the weekend for her; he just didn’t think he could put up with a lot of commotion. Jennifer made one more attempt for leniency. “Please, Uncle Johnny. We’ve been planning this for weeks. . .”
“I know you have, and I want you to have fun. I just want you to understand that your mom and dad have left me in charge, so that means you’ll have to follow my rules. It’s either that, or no party.”
Jennifer sat quietly, her mind running through every option open to her. There was almost a hint of a tear in her eye, as she thought about the restrictions being placed upon her party. Just as she opened her mouth to argue further, a thought suddenly occurred to the girl. Recalling a conversation she’d overhead recently between her parents, Jennifer instinctively knew without a doubt, that the rules would not be a problem. Her mother’s comment rang in her ears: You know Johnny, he never can be strict with those kids; he’s just like one of them, and truthfully, Roy, sometimes he almost seems like he’s your oldest son.
Smiling to herself, Jennifer suddenly knew that Johnny wouldn’t really stick to those rules of his, not if they were just having fun. Brushing her hand across her eyes in mock sadness, she finally turned to him and agreed. “Well, okay then, I guess we don’t have a choice. We’ll have to live with your rules, but the girls won’t like it.”
Johnny almost felt like a heel when the girl gave in, but he knew he’d made the right decision. The rules would only help to keep the group of girls in line.
Neither one noticed the devilish grin that young Chris DeSoto was now wearing.
Five of Jennifer’s girlfriends arrived promptly at 6:30. Each guest brought her own sleeping bag, and within a short time, the living room was a sea of bags, pillows and various girlish articles. The house was already busy with chattering voices, radio blaring and girls racing up and down the stairs. Johnny realized, abruptly, that he would soon have to escape to the upstairs or outside, if he wanted any peace. Looking about, he also recognized that the only other ‘man’ in the house, had disappeared. Moving quickly to the kitchen, he was surprised to find it empty. After searching several other rooms, he soon found the young DeSoto in the garage, rummaging through his father’s tool chest. “Chris, what in the world are you doing out here?”
“Nothing? Then come back inside. I could use a little support from you, okay?”
Chris nodded in agreement as a new thought dawned on him. Maybe Uncle Johnny would be a staunch supporter of his new plan. Deciding that the best thing to do would be to watch and wait, he closed the lid of the toolbox and followed Johnny into the house.
The girls were already gathered around the counter, munching on popcorn, chips and dip. Johnny wondered briefly if it would’ve been easier to have a revolving door placed on the refrigerator, considering how many times the thing had been opened and closed. The weary man glanced at his watch, surprised to see that only an hour had passed since the party began. “Chris, let’s let these ladies have a little privacy. What do you say we play some catch out back?”
The boy’s quick nod was all the answer Johnny needed, and the two beat a hasty retreat to the yard. Jennifer grinned from her spot at the table where the girls were taking turns painting each other’s fingernails.
“Oh, Jennifer, your uncle is sooo cute.”
“Yeah, Jen, why didn’t you tell us what a hunk he is?”
The other girls giggled at Cindy and Melissa’s remarks. Susie took the conversation one step further, causing the group to dissolve in riotous laughter. “Hey, I wish he was my boyfriend.”
Chris and Johnny soon tired of their game of catch and plopped down in the grass to rest. Soon, Chris was moving about the yard, carefully reaching now and again to quickly catch something in his hand.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing much. Just catching some bugs.”
“What are you planning to do, scare the girls or something?”
As soon as it was out of his mouth, Johnny knew he’d just caught the boy in the act. The sheepish grin gave Chris away and the boy turned slowly to face his ‘uncle.’
“Awww, maybe just a little.”
“Chris. . .”
The boy turned as if to release his prey, but Johnny didn’t notice when the young man quickly clamped his hand shut again. “I’m going inside now.”
“Alright, Chris, I’ll be in, in a few minutes.”
Looking up at the evening sky, Johnny let his head roll back on his shoulders as he breathed a low sigh. The quiet of the yard was in sharp contrast to the giggling and laughing from indoors. He almost dozed as he lay quietly in the grass, but his reverie was suddenly interrupted by the shrieks from the house.
Jumping up, Johnny raced towards the doorway only to be met by several girls charging into him. As he stumbled backwards, he lost his footing and fell to the deck, his right hip striking the edge of the wooden bench. Gasping at the flash of pain, he pulled himself up as the girls ran past him. He quickly realized that one of them was holding her hand over her mouth in an obvious attempt to hold something back. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he guided her down the steps and towards a flowerbed, just in time. Heaving convulsively, the young girl began to cry as she realized the very good-looking man behind her was holding her head while she lost her stomach next to a rose bush. Finally re-gaining control, she gratefully accepted his handkerchief and wiped her mouth.
”Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Now, what happened in there?”
By this time, Jennifer was standing behind them, and in an excited voice, broke in and told the story. “Uncle Johnny, we were eating and Chris brought bugs into the kitchen! He held them up by their wings and then swallowed one! He dangled one in front of Melissa, and tried to get Cindy to eat one! He knows Cindy is scared of bugs.”
“Come out here, please.”
Within a matter of seconds, Chris had joined the group on the deck, totally relaxed and at ease. “What’s up?”
Johnny shook his head at the obvious comparison, but shoved down his frustration as he faced his oldest charge. “What were you doing?”
“Nothin’ much, just talkin’ to the girls.”
“What were you talking about?”
Realizing he was getting nowhere with this line of questioning, Johnny decided to try something different. “Eaten any bugs lately, Chris?”
A series of gagging noises and coughs were his answer as the boy turned red in the face. His struggle to keep from laughing, combined with the fact that Johnny had nailed him in front of the girls, caused him to lose control. Finally unable to contain himself any longer, Chris broke out into full- scale laughter. “You should’ve seen them, Uncle Johnny. They were choking and crying, I thought they were going to puke right in front of me. It was great!”
His face controlled in an un-amused smirk, Johnny felt his insides heaving with laughter. He had to admit that it was pretty funny to see six young girls screaming their lungs out over a few bugs. But then he remembered Jennifer’s description of Chris holding a bug up for all to see, just before he whisked it into his mouth. Add that to the memory of a young girl near a flowerbed, Johnny decided the whole thing wasn’t that funny.
“Why don’t you spend a little time in your room, Chris. I think the girls have had enough of your company for awhile.”
The boy turned and headed for his room, snickering wildly at the girls in passing. Johnny continued to shake his head as the girls returned to their party, and he slowly dropped to a chaise lounge. Rubbing his sore hip, he wondered at the energy these kids had. Looking at his watch, he was dismayed to see it was only 8:30.
Relaxing once more on the deck, Johnny was startled by the soft voice next to him. “Uncle Johnny. Can we go swimming now?”
“Swimming? I didn’t know you planned on swimming. Isn’t it pretty late to start that now?”
“No. This is the best time. It’s dark, and the stars are out. When the pool lights are on, it looks real neat out here. And Daddy never minds if it’s on a weekend, as long as we don’t get too loud and bother the neighbors. Besides, Mrs. Nelson isn’t home today, and she’s the one who complains the most.”
Jennifer stood next to Johnny’s chair, her hands clenched in quiet supplication. He looked at her closely; fully aware of how excited she was about the whole evening, and remembering his earlier comments to Roy.
“Okay, Jen, I guess it’s alright. But I want you to keep the noise down, and be careful. No running around the deck or diving in. You know the pool rules. And if you girls don’t follow them, everyone will be out.”
A ringing chorus of voices from behind his chair startled him. Glancing back, he realized the group of girls had been waiting breathlessly for his answer. Johnny’s crooked grin grew wider at the sight of the excited girls racing back to the house for their suits and towels. He was glad to see them having a good time.
Guess I’d better let Chris off the hook. He might as well join me down here anyway, his stereo is loud enough for the whole neighborhood, and it’s getting late.
The water around the pool appeared almost as deep as the water in the pool, but the girls were having a great time. They’d been splashing and playing for over an hour, and as Johnny checked his watch once more, he realized it was time to call them in. Relaxing on the deck, he took another drink of his cola, wishing for a beer instead. But he was aware of his status as the only adult supervision, and he took his duty seriously. The ringing of the phone broke into his thoughts and he gently pushed himself from the lounge chair and opened the screen door. Grabbing the phone, he stepped back into the doorway so he could keep an eye on the pool. “Hello.”
“Hi, Junior, how’s it going?”
“Hi, Roy, it’s going great. Jennifer is having a good time.”
“What’s all the noise?”
“Oh, the girls are all in the pool.”
At the other end of the line, there was a brief pause as Roy consulted his watch. “They’re swimming at this hour?”
“Yeah, Jennifer said you don’t usually mind, if it’s on a weekend.”
“Well, yes, that’s true, but it is getting pretty late.”
“I know, Roy, and I was just about to call them in. Hey, everything’s fine here, don’t worry.”
“Yeah, okay. Well, I was just curious.”
From the corner of his eye, Johnny noticed a figure emerging from the shadows of the house. Squatting quickly near a faucet, the person appeared to be working diligently at some task in front of him. Continuing to watch the boy, it was several minutes before Johnny brought himself back to the conversation. “Oh, okay, Roy. Well you take care now. Gotta go. Bye.”
“Johnny. Johnny, I wanted to tell . . .”
Roy realized he was speaking into a dead line, and he slowly hung up the receiver, a look of frustration on his face.
Joanne watched her husband closely. “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know. He was fine, and then all of a sudden, he said goodbye and hung up.”
“Did everything sound okay, there?”
“Yeah, I guess so. The girls were still swimming, but he said they were about to come in. I didn’t get a chance to tell him about our plans, though.”
“So, he doesn’t know that we’re coming home late?”
“No. I told you, I didn’t get a chance to tell him.”
Staring at the phone for another minute, Roy finally replaced the receiver and turned towards his wife. “Guess we’ll just have to call back in the morning.”
Back at the DeSotos’ house, Johnny had hung up rather abruptly, still fully focused on the figure near the house. Realizing there would be fireworks in short order, he moved quietly to put a damper on the proceedings. Unfortunately, the darkened yard was not in his favor. As Johnny moved across the deck towards the opposite set of steps, he failed to see the plants Joanne had hung there. His forehead cracking against the plastic pot, Johnny reeled for a moment before catching a hold of the railing. Pausing for several minutes in an attempt to clear his head, he scrubbed his face with his hand in frustration. He was slowly losing his normally cheerful attitude, and even began to wonder silently if the Phantom wasn’t helping out the DeSoto children this evening.
“Christopher Roy, I’m going to get you!”
Jennifer’s voice was raised above the screaming of her friends, and the din reached Johnny’s ears just as he remembered his earlier quest. Gazing across the broad lawn, he realized his young suspect had already made it into position, and was even now, spraying Jennifer’s guests with ice-cold water from the hose.
The young DeSoto lowered his weapon of choice as his surrogate uncle walked towards him. He knew from the sound of Johnny’s voice, that he wasn’t really in trouble. In fact, there was almost a sound of laughter hidden there as the older man reached his side.
“I think we’ve had enough pranks around here for one evening.”
Pulling the hose from the boy’s hands, Johnny turned back towards the house. What he didn’t realize was that the boy had kinked the hose in an effort to stop the water flow while they talked. As Chris released his hold, the icy water sprayed up, directly into Johnny’s face. The wild dance of the hose vs. Johnny was a pure thrill for Chris. It was only a matter of seconds before he’d managed to turn off the water, but Johnny was drenched. Any earlier sign of humor was now gone.
“Bed, Chris. Now!”
The boy hurried inside, laughter still echoing from him as he closed the door behind him.
Dropping the hose into place, Johnny wiped his eyes once more, then made his way towards the pool. The noise level had risen several notches, and he wondered why the neighbors hadn’t called yet. “Girls. Girls! You need to quiet down. It’s after 11:00.”
“But, Uncle Johnny, we’re freezing now, and we don’t have any towels.”
“What do you mean? I thought you all brought towels out with you.”
“We did, but Chris got them wet with the hose.”
Jennifer held up several towels, thoroughly soaked. Shaking his head in frustration, Johnny instantly regretted the action. He realized the dull pain was now developing into a full-blown headache, thanks in part to one hanging flowerpot. “Alright, everyone head for the house. There are dry towels in the bathroom. You can dry off in there, then get ready for bed, okay?”
Looking about the pool, he realized there was definitely going to be some cleanup required, and he had a good idea who’d be in charge of that particular duty. For now, he simply flipped off the pool light and latched the gate firmly behind him. Then he followed the shivering girls into the house.
All six girls hurried into the bathroom together, dripping suits leaving a path of water behind. Johnny slammed the screen door and thought for a moment that he might’ve broken it, but the frame held and he heaved a sigh of relief. This evening was definitely not turning out the way he expected, and he wondered briefly if that’s what Roy had been trying to warn him about the day before. The hollering down the hall stopped his current train of thought, and he hurried to the bathroom for another round of “What’s wrong?”
The pounding was growing louder, and as Johnny reached the bathroom door, he realized that all the noise was coming from inside the small room.
“Jennifer. What’s going on in there?”
“Uncle Johnny! Help us. We can’t get out of here.”
“What d’ya mean, you can’t get out? Just unlock the door and come out.”
Johnny stood at the door, waiting impatiently, but there was no response for several minutes. Only the turning of the knob and muttered comments from inside, informed him that the girls were, indeed, trying to get out.
“I’m trying, but it won’t work. It doesn’t look like it’s locked, but I can’t get the door to open. We’re trapped in here!”
The last words were almost yelled out in frustration, and Johnny realized that several screams echoed Jennifer’s answer. “Okay, sweetheart, just calm down. All of you calm down. I’ll get you out of there in a minute.”
Staring intently at the door, Johnny struggled for an answer. He knew the girls inside were cold and wet, fairly upset from the sound of it. But he also knew they were safe. Looking carefully at the lock, he could tell that besides being rather old, it had also been tampered with. Several scratch marks, possibly the result of a screwdriver or some other tool
The toolbox in the garage . . .
Six girls were stretched out on their sleeping bags, bowls of popcorn and bottles of soda sitting close by. Johnny casually looked around the group, satisfied that everyone was okay. He noticed, of course, that one of his ‘rules’ was being blatantly ignored, but he didn’t have the heart, or the energy to bring it up. So what if they got food inside their sleeping bags. He wasn’t going to clean it up. Grabbing a soda for himself, the tired paramedic made his way slowly up the stairs. Stopping mid-way, he leaned over the banister and called softly to the group below. ”You girls keep it down, now. It’s after midnight and we all need some sleep.”
“Night, Uncle Johnny.”
An echoing chorus whispered softly.
After midnight, well there goes another ‘rule’ . . .
Grinning silently, he continued his journey towards a soft bed, and some much needed sleep. Stopping for a moment at the doorway of Chris’s bedroom, Johnny peered inside. The lamp had been turned off, but movement on the bed confirmed his suspicions. The boy was still awake. Continuing to stand at the door, the young man finally gave in and broke the silence. “Good-night, Uncle Johnny. And, umm. . I’m sorry about the door.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll talk about that some more in the morning.”
“Oh. . okay.”
Johnny couldn’t help grinning to himself again as he finally opened the door to the spare bedroom. He knew Chris hadn’t meant to do anything really bad; he was just a normal teenage boy, trying to bother his younger sister. Actually, Johnny was pretty sure that the Phantom would not only be impressed, but rather proud of such a protégé. That is, if he ever told him . . .
A shrill scream rent the air, and Johnny lunged from the bed and raced toward the stairs. The hallway was dark and he grabbed at the light switch, but there was no response. Running full tilt down the steps, he suddenly found himself grabbing for the handrail as another scream was heard. His feet missed the step entirely, and Johnny stumbled the remaining few feet to the bottom of the stairs. Pulling himself up, he hobbled into the living room where one lone flashlight illuminated the group. The girls were gathered about the single beam, hands to their mouths. Six pairs of eyes met his, several reflecting the fear he’d heard in their screams. Reaching once more for a light switch, Johnny cursed under his breath when he found there was no electricity. “What’s going on in here?”
Several giggles and one girl in tears were his only answer. Finally, Jennifer spoke up as she realized her ‘uncle’s’ good humor was being taxed to its limit.
“We were telling ghost stories, but we had the light on in the kitchen so no one would be too afraid. Then when we got to a really scary part, the light went out and Melissa couldn’t get any of the lights to go on. When Lisa felt something move by her sleeping bag, Rachel got really frightened . .”
“And that’s what all the screaming was about?”
“Well, it was pretty scary! Especially when Susie thought there was someone else in the house. She was sure she saw a man standing by the patio door.”
Shaking his head in frustration, Johnny hobbled over to the group and reached down to grasp the flashlight. Then he moved back through the kitchen and into the laundry room where he found the electrical panel. He flipped open the small metal door and glanced at the breakers for only a second before he found the switch in question. He clicked the little black switch into place and slammed the door. “Chris! Where are you?”
There was no response, and the exasperated man decided to let it go for now. Knowing he would settle up with the oldest ‘kid’ later, John moved back into the living room and returned the borrowed flashlight. Glancing at the mantel clock, he was surprised to see it was only two in the morning.
I only slept about 45 minutes. No wonder I’m still so tired.
Looking down at his disheveled state, Johnny did have one grateful thought.
At least I remembered to bring sweatpants to sleep in.
“Okay, girls, everything’s fine now. The lights are back on, and I’ll be getting Chris rounded up in a minute. Why don’t you all try to get some sleep?”
Several muttered responses, and some faint rustling were his only answers. He could tell Jennifer was working to calm her frightened friend, so he moved slowly to the stairs. Stopping at the bottom step, he leaned over to check his ankle, then changed his course. A quick stop was needed in the kitchen . . for a bag of ice.
Sunshine filtered through the window as Johnny opened his eyes later that morning. He struggled for a moment to understand where he was. When the memories came flooding back into his tired brain, the exhausted man flopped back against the pillow, his left arm thrown up over his eyes. Listening carefully for any sounds below, he was relieved to find that the house was still quiet.
Should be quiet around here, after last night. Besides, it’s only 8:00 and I don’t think they settled down til after 3.
Johnny allowed his eyes to close for a moment as he contemplated his upcoming conversation with a certain young man. He knew the boy had just been playing around, but he also wanted Chris to know that he needed to respect his ‘uncle’s’ authority. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel the laughter bubbling up inside when he recalled finding an old hat and trench coat shoved into the hallway cupboard. It was sheer luck that allowed him to find it; the door had been shut quickly and didn’t latch, so when Johnny made his way down the hall the night before, he’d seen the suspicious articles. At least he knew for sure that there had been no other ‘man’ in the house. . .
It seemed like only moments later when he heard the giggling erupt from the living room below. Checking the clock, Johnny realized he’d fallen asleep again, as it was now almost 9:30.
Okay, okay, time to get up and see what these girls are up to. Besides, it’s probably almost time for their folks to be picking them up.
Stopping briefly to change from his sweatpants to jeans, Johnny tucked a clean t-shirt inside his waistband as he headed down the stairs. His progress was halting at best. He felt the various aches and pains the previous evening’s antics had awarded him; his ankle was still swollen, his hip bruised and sore, and without looking, he was sure there must be a goose egg the size of that fabled golden one on his forehead. Johnny vaguely recalled the funny looks and winks he’d received from the other fireman as they headed home after the previous shift. He wondered what they’d have to say about his current condition.
As he moved down the stairway, Johnny could tell the laughter had taken on a new tone, and suddenly he noticed some new sounds. A muffled ‘thumping’ noise was followed by uncontrollable giggling; followed by more ‘thumping’ and ‘giggling.’ Drawing closer to the rowdy group, he stopped in his tracks, startled by the vision before him. Suddenly, he felt a ‘whoosh’ of air just seconds before the ‘thumping’ noise smacked him right, square on the side of the head. The startled man lost his balance for a moment, able to right himself just in time to catch a falling lamp that he had bumped into.
“What are you girls doing?”
All-out laughter was his answer, and it took several minutes before one of the girls could control herself enough to speak. Johnny rolled his eyes discreetly when he realized the girl was Susie, the girl who’d been following him around the night before.
“Ohhh, Johnny, haven’t you ever had a pillow fight? They’re lots of fun.”
Another ‘thump’ caught him in the back, and the man knew he’d had enough. It was time for this insane partying to be over. His normally jovial personality was being replaced by a pessimistic, grumpy attitude, and his low growl of an answer was startling to all of them, but most of all, Jennifer.
“Let’s get some breakfast.”
After a cup of coffee and several slices of buttered toast, Johnny had to admit he was feeling better about the whole thing. He knew he needed to make it up to Jennifer, for the surly way he’d been acting. She had been looking forward to this party for weeks, and he was sure the whole thing was a failure, due in large part, to his presence.
Working quickly to make amends, Johnny cooked a huge breakfast, making several different dishes in an attempt to satisfy everyone’s appetite. When Chris finally joined the group an hour later, his appearance was disheveled at best. Wondering briefly about what kind of mischief the kid had been in to, Johnny dropped a plate full of food before the boy and urged him to eat up. “Remember, Chris, you’re going to have some work to do this morning . .”
Nodding glumly, the boy ate slowly, dreading the list of chores he was sure his ‘uncle’ had made up for him. He’d been around Johnny long enough to know that the man was a hard worker. There were times at the Gage ranch, when the boy didn’t think he’d ever get finished with chores. But there the chores were interesting, and even fun. Here at home, chores were just that, chores. The only thing that kept him from being totally depressed was the memory of the previous evening. He knew he had some great stories to tell his friends at school on Monday.
It was almost noon, and still the house was filled with excited voices. The man in charge felt that the day was never going to end. After a huge breakfast, another pillow fight, and a songfest that included each one singing along to the radio at full volume, Johnny was almost relieved that they’d settled in to use the phone, even if it wasn’t acceptable on his list of rules.
At first he assumed they were calling their parents to arrange rides, but he soon realized the red faces and laughter were being caused by something else. Unable to ignore the situation, he managed to overhear one conversation, which immediately came to a halt when he stepped up to the phone. “What’s going on, here?”
“What? Nothing . .”
Susie’s startled gasp was replaced by a syrupy smile.
“Oh, Johnny, I was just talking to my friend. She knows a boy who likes Jennifer, and we were just trying to arrange a meeting.”
“Well, I think you’ve been on the phone long enough, so let’s call it quits after this call, okay?”
“Okay, Johnny, whatever you say.”
Wondering briefly how a girl that young could act so old, Johnny stepped outside to enjoy the morning sun. He leaned against the railing for several minutes, only turning when Jennifer stepped up beside him. “Are you okay, Uncle Johnny?”
“Yeah, Jen, I’m fine. Just tired.”
“Are you sure? It looks like you’ve been limping. And what happened to your forehead? Did you hit something?”
“No. No. It’s okay. I’ll be good as new after a good night’s sleep. I’ll be heading home as soon as your folks get here, which should be in a couple hours. By the way, when are your friend’s parents coming to pick up the girls?”
”Oh, they’re not coming til at least 3:00. Didn’t mom tell you?”
“No, we didn’t talk about that part. Well, alright, I guess I can stand it that much longer.”
“Hmm? What did you say?”
“Nothing, Jen. I was just thinking. Just didn’t realize your mom and dad would be home before the girls leave.”
Back inside the house, Susie continued her whispered telephone conversation. “Yeah, he’s really cute. Jennifer says he’s not really her uncle, just a friend of her father’s. But he’s a lot better looking than Mr. DeSoto. What? Yeah, I could probably get a picture. I brought my camera . . . okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
Roy picked up the phone once again, and dialed his home number. The steady beeping on the other end was really beginning to irritate him. Checking his watch, he realized he’d been trying to call his partner for almost two hours now, and he didn’t have much longer. If they were going to be home by evening, they’d have to get started soon. Slapping the receiver into its cradle, Roy mumbled under his breath once more, as he went looking for Joanne.
Checking over the kitchen, Johnny was impressed with the cleaning job young Chris had performed. Even though he knew the boy had resented some of the chores he’d been assigned, Chris hadn’t complained, but worked hard at each and every job.
Cleaning up around the pool, working on the bathroom lock, washing dishes and even straightening the garage had been a small price to pay for his ‘uncle’s’ silence. Chris knew that if he behaved, Johnny would skip telling Roy about the many ‘pranks’ his son had played on the girls. Tossing the last tool in the toolbox, Chris closed the lid and pushed the box back into place.
There. Done. And I still have an hour to spare. Mom and Dad won’t be back til 2:00.
Chris wandered into the house, intent on finding something fun to do.
Johnny found himself on the chaise lounge once more. The warmth of the sun had lulled him to sleep, and he woke with a start at the whispering around him. “What’s going on, now?”
“We just wanted to ask you a favor. . .”
Scrubbing his face tiredly, Johnny pulled himself to a sitting position and eyed the young girls cautiously. “What kind of favor?”
“Oh, nothing bad. We just wanted to know if we could have our picture taken with you. Sort of a remembrance of Jenny’s first big slumber party.”
Grinning broadly, Johnny quickly agreed to the plan, and called out for Chris to come and help. Immediately, the girls began to rearrange the patio furniture in an effort to place the chairs ‘just right’ so that the sun’s glare would not interfere with their photograph. Slowly giving in to the humor of the situation, Johnny continued to watch from the sidelines; happy to see the girls interested in something that didn’t involve screaming.
“Okay, Johnny, come sit right here.”
Moving to obey, the paramedic took the proffered seat and settled in to wait. He knew from experience, at least the last 24 hours experience, that this event might take awhile, but he was content to wait it out. At least it wasn’t necessary to chase anyone up or down the stairs. The minutes ticked by, and Johnny soon found himself struggling to stay awake. Finally, Susie called her friends to their places as she readied her mother’s camera, and instructed Chris on how to use it. Then she promptly placed herself right next to Johnny. The laughter, however, was contagious, and even Johnny had to admit the informal photo session was sort of fun. Even Chris seemed to be getting into the act.
It wasn’t until the last picture had been taken that Johnny’s luck turned against him once more. He was pulling himself from the deck chair, when one of the girls jumped up and lifted her chair in order to carry it back to its place. Not seeing the paramedic bent over in front of her, she swung the hard plastic seat up and directly into his shoulder. Already off balance, the chair catching him unaware, the man went down hard, his head striking the deck with a distinct thud.
From a distance, Johnny could hear a buzzing sound, and he struggled upward to reach it. The buzzing gradually turned into whispering, and he finally recognized the worried voices of six girls and one teenage boy.
“Uncle Johnny. Are you alright?”
Chris was staring at him intently, a cold, wet towel clasped in his hands. He reached down and placed the cloth on the injured man’s neck.
“Uh, yeah, thanks Chris.”
Johnny pulled himself slowly into a sitting position, his head pounding and shoulder screaming with pain. Realizing that the group about him was very quiet, the paramedic managed a weak grin and a flip remark. “Well, if I knew this was how quiet you could be, I’d have gotten hurt a lot earlier.”
His humor was met with relieved smiles and several weak laughs.
“You had us worried, Uncle Johnny. Chris was just about to call someone.”
Realizing how frightening it must’ve been, Johnny hurried to pull himself up and show the kids he was really okay. “Well, I’m fine, now. And I’m glad you didn’t call anyone. I just had the wind knocked out of me for a minute. Why don’t you all go find something to do for a little while? Your parents should be here before long.”
Jennifer was the last to leave. She stood quietly next to her ‘uncle’ and tried to find the words to tell him how she felt. “Uncle Johnny - -I just wanted to say thank-you. This has been the best party ever, and I’ll always remember how great you’ve been to us.”
Johnny was surprised to hear that Jennifer counted her party as a success, and her heartfelt words were touching. But what really got to him, were the warm hug and kiss that accompanied her words. He had a feeling that even at 12, this girl knew he’d do anything for her.
Johnny could hardly contain his excitement when the doorbell rang at 3:00. Susie’s parents were the first to arrive, and he couldn’t understand how such a shy and unassuming woman could be the parent of such a loud and precocious daughter.
The other parents followed soon after, and it was only 3:15 when the last guest departed. Heaving a rather loud sigh of relief, Johnny glanced at his watch again. He couldn’t understand where his partner could be. Roy had assured him that they’d be home by early afternoon. Joanne had promised to be content with a one day visit for now, with her husband’s promise that she could make a longer trip within the next few weeks. More than anything else, Johnny longed for a hot shower, and a long rest in his own bed.
Come on you two, get home. . .
Although he was becoming worried, Johnny was able to cover up his concern, and kept the kids focused on various activities around the house. Within a few hours, they’d returned the DeSoto home to its previous state of cleanliness, and Johnny knew that Joanne would never be the wiser….unless the kids decided to divulge their secrets.
The three were tired from both the party and the following cleanup. Johnny was especially weary after the previous ‘busy’ shift and almost no sleep for two nights in a row. Although worried about Roy and Joanne, by dinnertime, the trio had given in to the temptation, and were scattered about the living room, sleeping peacefully. Not even the click of the key in the door could arouse them.
As he stepped into his home, Roy almost hollered out a greeting, but Joanne’s warning hand on his shoulder caused him to stop abruptly. Looking into the darkened room, he was surprised to see his ‘three’ children. Chris was stretched out on the floor, a pillow tucked underneath his head. The gentle rhythm of his breathing assured his parents that he continued to sleep soundly. On the couch, Jennifer was curled up in a ball, her head tucked up against Johnny’s side. Their ‘oldest’ was sprawled out, his upper half on the couch, long legs extending over the coffee table, and his arm curved around Jen’s sleeping form.
Moving quietly into the room, Roy and Joanne stood together as they surveyed their family. Joanne was the first to notice the neat and tidy appearance of her home. It was much more than she expected. She knew full well, how harrowing a girl’s slumber party could be, especially with a teenage boy in the house.
“Look Roy, everything turned out fine. You didn’t need to waste all your time worrying.”
Wrapping his wife in a bear hug, Roy grinned down at the top of her head.
“Okay, smartie, you were right. Johnny handled everything, and there were no accidents or repercussions. Satisfied?”
“Well, I guess. But that wasn’t much of an apology, Roy DeSoto. You’ll have to make it up to me later. You know, I don’t like having you doubt my decisions.”
The two grinned at each other for a moment before Roy leaned down to kiss his wife. “Alright, I admit, I didn’t think this was a very good idea. So, I owe you a better apology. Do you trust me for it?”
A quiet giggle was his only answer.
On the couch, a tired man moaned softly as he recognized a familiar sound. This giggle was quiet, unlike the earlier ones, but it was unmistakably a giggle. Reaching up to cover his ears, Johnny moaned again as his hands brushed against his aching head. His eyes popped open as he realized they were no longer alone, and a third moan escaped when he moved his bruised hip.
Roy had been around his partner through enough accidents to recognize the obvious sound of pain in his friend’s moan. “Johnny, what’s wrong? Are you alright?”
“Roy? Yeah, Roy, I’m fine. How are you? Hey, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick.”
“We’re okay, just had some delays in San Diego. I tried to tell you about it last night, but you didn’t give me a chance. Then we tried to call this morning, but the line was busy for hours.”
Rolling his eyes, Johnny answered rather caustically. “Yeah, the girls had some calls to make. Sorry about last night, they were still in the pool and I needed to keep an eye on them.”
Realizing, suddenly, that his friends were, indeed, back home, Johnny jumped up from his seat. The only problem was, he’d forgotten how sore his ankle really was. Another moan emerged to join the growing number Roy had already noted.
“Hey, Junior, what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, Roy, nothing at all. I’m just tired. Glad you’re home all okay. Gotta run, though. Lots to do. Few chores I need to take care of at home. No, no. Don’t wake the kids; they’re tired. I’ll talk to them later. Just say goodbye for me.”
Roy and Joanne stared at each other in surprise as their friend quickly gathered up his duffel bag and jacket. It was only seconds before he was hurrying down the walk and to his Rover.
“Johnny, why don’t you stick around? We were going to get something for dinner, unless you’ve already eaten.”
”No, uh, no thanks, Roy. I’m not that hungry. Just need to get home.”
“Well, are you sure everything’s okay? It’s not like you to run off like this. Were there any problems last night?”
“No, nothing to speak of. Really, everything’s fine, Roy. It’s just that I have some things to do. I’ll talk to ya tomorrow.”
Realizing that there was no sense in stopping his partner, Roy gave up and thanked his friend instead. His thanks seemed to fall on deaf ears, however, as Johnny silently stowed his gear behind the seat. As the younger man turned back to face him, Roy almost thought he saw a look of pain on his face. “Are you sure you’re alright, Junior?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Pally.”
Joanne had followed them from the house, and stood next to Roy as they tried once again to thank their friend. Reaching up, she kissed Johnny on the cheek.
“We really appreciate all you did this weekend. We can’t thank you enough for staying here so I could be with my mom.”
“Hey, Joanne, no problem. I was glad to do it.” John grinned sheepishly.
“Yeah, honey, it’s like Johnny said, it was only one night.”
Clapping his friend on the shoulder, Roy was surprised to see the color drain from his partner’s face.
“What? What’s wrong? Was it something I said?”
Johnny didn’t even try to answer as he simply turned and climbed into his Rover. Starting the engine, he waved once as he backed out of the driveway, then he was gone.
Roy and Joanne stood, staring down the empty street, both at a loss for an explanation. Having been so relieved to find the kids safe and the house in one piece, Roy thought his comment had simply reflected his friend’s attitude. After all, it really was, only one night.
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