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Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Thanks Ginger for the quote. This is another quote challenge. If it strikes an idea for you then take it and run with it.
The Fire Engine
“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut
The sun glinted brightly off the shiny red truck as it made its slow, slumberous progress down the street. A multitude of people paved the way, standing shoulder to shoulder, some gaily waving flags or calling out to friends and neighbors they hadn’t seen in a while. Babies and young children perched atop their parent’s shoulders squealed in delight. They pointed chubby little fingers then pounded said parent’s head, making sure the procession that marched before their eyes was duly noted and appreciated.
A gentle breeze, heavily laden with the sweet scent of fried onions and sausage wafted into the confines of the small truck. Inhaling deeply, Johnny Gage smiled as his stomach rumbled. “Do ya smell that, Roy? When we’re done here, I know where I’m going first,” he stated happily, his mouth watering.
Roy cast a sideways glance at his partner and friend then shook his head. Truth be told, he was rather envious of his partner’s high metabolism. “Junior, do you ever not think of food?” he said with a laugh.
“Of course I think of things other than food,” he said as his toe tapped to the beat of the marching band that was trying desperately to play and march to the same rhythm ahead of them. “Why just this morning I was pondering the economic ramifications of the crisis in the middle east,” he stated indignantly.
Roy’s jaw dropped open as he half-turned in his seat. His partner never ceased to amaze him. Over the last two years, he’d come to the conclusion that behind the jocular façade his partner presented to the world, was a man who held a depth of emotions and many layers to him. Catching a mischievous glint to his partner’s eye, his brow rose inquisitively, “You were?” he questioned.
“Alright, alright, I admit I was just worrying bout how high gas prices were gonna get,” he admitted sheepishly. A broad grin spread across his face, “Ya gotta admit it sounded deep,” he giggled.
A bark of laughter erupted out of Roy, “Sometimes Junior, you are too much,” he responded as he shook his head.
Turning back to the throngs along the side of the road, Johnny lifted his arm and slowly waved. The squad came to a halt and he glanced out the windshield. Band mothers darted back and forth among the rows squirting water into the mouths of hot, thirsty kids.
He looked back out the side window, waiting to move again. Grinning broadly at the excitement that shone like a beacon from the children, guiding the squad along the way. A feeling of pride swelled in his heart as his eyes roamed up and down the path.
His eyes locked on to a little girl dressed in a brightly colored sundress. She half-hid behind her father’s legs, her eyes darting up and down the street. The look of fear that shone from her eyes transported him back to a time when another set of eyes watched in trepidation the procession of the red engines...
He gingerly leaned against the side of the building at the mouth of the alley, the weal marks on his back and buttocks protesting the stance. From this vantage point, he hoped he was safely hidden in shadow. Through the clumps of dark hair that flopped across his forehead, he watched as people walked in front of him, somewhat obscuring his view.
His eyes darted up and down the street, praying that he wouldn’t catch sight of his foster parents. His body was tense ready to dart away if he did. He knew he shouldn’t have risked it to come, but he had felt a morbid fascination pull him every step of the way. This would be the first time he had seen a fire truck since that fateful day a little over a year ago when his kind and gentle old life had been ripped from him to be replaced by a harsher, uglier new one.
As his anxiety over the fear of discovery skyrocketed, his determination to stay grounded itself more firmly. After all, what more could happen that wasn’t already being done. His “stepdad”, as Ed insisted he be called, had already showed him his displeasure this morning when he had asked for a glass of milk.
“Milk? What do you think this is…some kind of hotel?” he had grumbled in derision.
Johnny quaked at the malicious sneer on his face. He could still smell the alcohol rolling off him in waves and cursed himself for not paying more attention before he had asked. Mutely he stood, trying to think of a suitable answer to calm him back down. His heart felt like it was about to pound out of his chest. A movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to flinch.
Smiling in satisfaction Ed lowered his arm as he said, “Until you can pay for your own milk, you can have water.”
Nodding his head Johnny walked silently over to the counter and climbed up. Relieved that he wasn’t going to be hit, he opened the cupboard and reached for a glass. Hands still shaking, the glass slipped and crashed on the counter below breaking into a thousand shards of heartbreak and suffering. Fearful eyes looked into enraged bloodshot blue ones as Ed reached for his belt…
“Hey breed…what are you doing here…lurking.”
So lost in thought was he, that he had almost squealed like a pig when the mean words were uttered followed by a sharp shove to the shoulder. Painfully, he caught and righted himself before he fell to the ground. Seeing the evil glint in Tommy Maddox’s eyes, he berated himself for not paying more attention. His eyes traveled beyond Tommy to the five smirking boys who made up Tommy’s usual posse. He gulped and a bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. His mouth felt as dry as a desert as he opened it make some sort of reply. “I…I…”
Tommy’s grin widened at the fear he saw in the large, dark eyes. Sensing that the half-breed was trying to hide in the shadows from something, he gave a knowing nod to his friends. Eager to put him in his place, his friends spread out and formed a semi-circle around the little runt. “We’re gonna change your name to lurker. How’d ya like that you stupid moron?” Tommy jeered.
Johnny’s eyes darted as he vainly looked for a route of escape. The only way he could go was back toward the street. He was torn with indecision as to what to do. If he got really lucky, he may be able to break through and he knew if he did, they’d never catch him with as fast as he could run. The only problem to this line of thinking announced itself loudly as his muscles flexed in anticipation. On the other hand, if he went toward the street, he could maybe lose himself in the crowd; the crowd that held his foster parents. The decision was taken forcefully out of his hands. He was propelled backwards a few feet before he stumbled to a halt.
“Lurker…what’s a matter lurker..” sneered Tommy as his friends grinned victoriously and closed ranks.
Johnny panicked when he realized he was almost to the edge of the sidewalk. His eyes darted up the street and he sighed in relief when he didn’t recognize anyone. Panic gave him courage he never knew he had. “Just leave me alone,” he stated firmly as he stood and squared his shoulders.
The grin melted off Tommy’s face. He took a menacing step forward, “Why you little idiot,” he roared as he and two of his friends reached at the same time and gave the little runt a hard shove.
The force of the shove propelled Johnny backwards several steps.
He stumbled back before his foot fell off the edge of the sidewalk, his balance wavered as his momentum kept propelling him backwards. He felt himself start to fall and twisted around to catch himself. His knees and hands painfully made contact with the road as his momentum abruptly came to a halt. Bowing his head, he tried to stifle the groan that wanted to bubble past his lips. Stunned, he was frozen in place as pain lanced through his body.
The squeal of air brakes and a low rumbled huff brought his head up and to the side and face to face with the shiny metal grille of a bright red fire engine. It was so big. His heart pounded and he panted as his body crumpled over sideways, visions of the accident assaulting his brain…
The lurid red light that flashed, throwing the horrific scene of chaos and death into a red haze that matched the blood that had gushed down his mom’s face. The rumbling hum that sounded like a swarm of thousands of bees as it reverberated clear through the bones of his chest. The reek of diesel fuel that made his nose twitch and put a bitter taste in his mouth…
He flinched, startled as a big calloused hand reached down and rested on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw a pair of warm hazel eyes surrounded by laugh lines and a kindly smile.
“Are you alright son?” he questioned the waiflike little boy gently. From his perch in the engine he’d witnessed the whole scene, including the way the bullies had scattered like mice as soon as they were done. He knew who the little boy was. There was no recognition in the boy’s eyes, but he’d directed the scene where the boy lost his parents and he’d even snuck into the hospital and held the little boy for a while hoping to offer some form of comfort. He also knew who he now lived with, and he felt for him.
Trying to push down the panic that wanted to make him run screaming like a little girl, he looked down at his battered palms. His eyes watered and he tried to blink tears away. His palms stung and burned and he felt the warm slide of blood as it trickled down to his wrists. He darted a quick look up and saw the fireman had crouched down and was watching him intently. Embarrassed, he stated, “I…I’m okay.” He tried to rise, but was held in place by the hand on his shoulder. He looked back up into the gentle face.
Watery brown eyes looked at him in terror and his hand felt his body trembling. “How bout you come on the engine with me while I check you out, son?” He asked keeping his voice as soft and gentle as possible.
Johnny’s eyes widened and his stomach churned as he imagined climbing into the big rig. He didn’t even notice at first the warm hand that gently rubbed his back. At the questioning look on the fireman’s face, he managed to spit out, “I…I don…don’t think th…that’s such a good idea.” The gentle rumbling of a deep laugh and the hand on his back soothed his jangling nerves somewhat.
“I promise…it’ll be okay,” he reassured as he put his arms around the boy’s tiny waist and lifted him up. Long, gangly limbs instinctively wrapped around him and he had to fight not to shake his head at how little the boy weighed. He knew the boy was in his son’s class at school and therefore in the second grade and he also knew his son weighed probably close to fifteen pounds more. He opened the door and lifted him up.
Johnny thought he would pass out when the fireman first picked him up. It seemed like so long since anyone had held him like this and it felt kind of good. He looked at the face of the fireman and saw the warm, kind smile and he slowly relaxed. Next thing he knew, he felt himself being lifted up and into another pair of large hands.
“C’mon up here where the big boys play,” said a deeper voice jovially.
Wincing at the stinging sensation that traveled up and down his back, he turned and saw the fireman behind the wheel. A bright red, bushy mustache framed the wide grin that suffused his whole face with a look of merriment while sky blue eyes sparkled with a warmth and an inner glow. This new fireman settled him in the middle of the seat. At his ‘you okay’ he nodded and the first fireman climbed up and settled next to him.
“What’s your name, son?” asked the first fireman, trying to get the boy to relax and talk.
“J...Johnny,” he replied timidly.
“Well now Johnny, my name is Dave but most everyone knows me as Cap,” said the first fireman. He pointed to the man behind the wheel and said, “And this is Jerry, but we call him Red. I’m sure you can figure out why.” He chuckled genially.
“P..pleased to meet y…you,” he stuttered. With a final huff, the engine started moving ponderously down the parade route.
Cap looked behind Johnny’s shoulder. “Hey Jonesy, hand me the first aid kit.”
Johnny swiveled around in surprise. He hadn’t even realized there were two men sitting in the jump seats behind him. One of them was skinny with white blond hair and the other was the biggest man Johnny thought he’d ever seen.
The one who was apparently Jonesy reached down and handed Cap the kit. He had the white blonde hair. He sketched Johnny a quick wave and gave a broad wink. “Welcome to the club, kid. You can be our new boot,” he said kindly.
At Johnny’s puzzled stare, the final fireman piped in, “Don’t listen to him, Johnny. A boot is a new recruit, someone who’s just out of fire academy and still learning the trade. Jonesy here has a long time to go before he’s a real fireman,” he said teasingly. “By the way, my name’s Harry but everyone knows me as Tiny, cause I’m anything but,” he offered as he laughed at his own joke.
Johnny wasn’t sure what to make of all these friendly men. Most of the people he was around anymore were either angry or drunk or just didn’t care. He felt someone grip his wrist and his head swiveled back.
“Johnny, I’m sorry but this is probably gonna sting like crazy,” said Cap, a look of sympathy in his kind eyes.
The other fireman started talking and asking him questions, trying to keep him distracted. Before he could answer even one of them, Cap poured something over his hand. He sucked in a sharp breath as his hand felt like it burst into flame. His eyes watered as the burning traveled up into his arm. He bit back a groan and blinked away the tears.
“Well Johnny, you must be quite the man. I’ve seen grown men, reduced to crying when we’ve had to do this to them. I’m sorry, but I really can’t put a Band-Aid on this.”
At Cap’s words, he swallowed the lump that was in his throat and perked up. He’d never been called a man before. A sense of pride lit in his heart.
Cap picked up his other hand. “You ready for the next one?” he questioned gently. At Johnny’s nod, he repeated the process then cleaned out his knees the same way. His heart broke that he had caused pain to the little boy, but he knew it had to be done. When all was said and done, he scruffed the boy’s head gently. “You were very brave,” he stated. He passed the kit back to Jonesy, then pulled Johnny up into his lap and wrapped his arms around him.
Johnny smiled broadly. “Really?” he questioned as he snuggled into Cap.
“Uh huh. You were brave enough that when you’re older, you could be a fireman.”
His heart felt like it was going to burst with pride. He sat up straighter, a goofy grin plastered across his face. He looked out of the large windshield and felt a sense of comfort wrapped in the large man’s arms. It was the first time since going into foster care that he’d felt secure.
Looking out into the sea of faces, he even had the courage to wave to the crowd. He joked back and forth with Cap and the guys and before he knew it, it was time to go back home. As Cap pulled him down off the engine, the grin slipped from his face.
Cap’s heart broke knowing it was time to send Johnny back home to the mean drunk who had taken him in. He squatted down so they were eye to eye and cupped his chin in his hand. “Johnny, thanks for coming with us. You come down to the station to visit us anytime.”
Johnny grinned and nodded as Cap and the others each gave him a pat on the head. He walked a few steps then turned and waved. His feet felt like they barely touched the ground the whole way home. When he got there, no one was home. He quickly went into the barn and finished his chores.
By the time his foster parents did show up, they were too drunk to even notice the scraped hands and knees. His dreams that night were of big red shiny fire trucks and firemen who gave aid and comfort. And from that moment on, every time he saw a fire truck, his heart would swell with pride.
Eventually, things got bad enough and he worked up enough courage that he went down to the station to visit with the guys. It was the first of many such trips. He would walk in and they’d immediately take him into the fold. Joking and telling stories as they showed him how to shine and polish the engine…
He came back to the present with a start and looked the little girl straight in the eye. She was watching him intently. He winked and gave his best Gage grin.
A tentative smile crossed her face and the fear in her eyes was replaced with joy. The squad started to move and he sketched a quick wave. Her arm lifted hesitantly in a small wave then she tugged on her father’s hand. When her father looked down at her, she smiled and pointed at Johnny then waved.
Roy watched the play of emotions passing swiftly across his partner’s face. He gazed in satisfaction out of the windshield and said, “You know, Junior. I just read a quote from that author, Kurt Vonnegut. He said, ‘I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine’.” Looking out into the crowd, he smiled broadly and said, “It’s days like this that it’s good to be a fireman.”
Johnny smiled softly then looked out at the crowd. “You have no idea, Pally. No idea.”
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