Chapter 1: Johnny

I knew I was in trouble long before I hit the ground. Before I even started falling, actually, I already knew something was wrong. I just didn't have any idea how it happened, though.

I mean, I was just going up a ladder, for cryin' out loud. Sure, I had a pike pole in one hand, but I was sliding it up the rail as I went, never letting go. Three points of contact with the ladder at all times, just like they taught us at the academy. Just like I'd done a thousand times in the last nine months.

But suddenly, most of the way up to the second floor—bam. My feet just weren't on the rungs any more, and my hands lost their grip on the rails at the same time. Actually, the "bam" part didn't come till a few seconds later, when I found myself layin' in the grass, stunned but not actually knocked out, lookin' up at the tall wooden ladder.

"Probie's down!" someone shouted. Boots appeared in my field of vision.

"You okay, Gage?"

Eric Brainard, who was supposed to follow me up the ladder to work on ripping the ceiling down in the upstairs room I'd been headed to, towered over me.

I took a quick inventory. Everything moved that was s'posta move, and nothing did that wasn't. My ass would have a terrific bruise later, and my pride was already pretty much history.

"Yeah." I sat up and tried to collect myself. "Yeah. No major damage."

"What the fuck?" Brainard said. "Falling off a ladder? You were going up, speedy as always, and then—bam! What the hell happened?"

I shook my head. "I have absolutely no idea," I admitted. "It was like, all of a sudden, I didn't know where my hands and feet were any more."

"And last shift—the thing with dropping the saw?"

I winced. "Yeah, that was pretty bad. Lucky the chain brake was still on."

Brainard shook his head. "Man, you better hope Cap is in a good mood today. 'Cause you know I gotta tell 'im about this."

"Yeah," I said glumly. "C'mon; let's go get that ceiling down before it flares up again."

~!~!~!~

I was dreading what I knew was coming when we got back to the station. Brainard didn't help any, either.

"Waaaait for it …" he said under his breath, as the truck backed into the station and the engineer shut the engine off.

I was waiting.

"Probie! In my office!" Captain Sharp bellowed.

Shit. I followed Cap into his tiny office.

"Siddown," he ordered.

I sat down, as ordered, and winced as my bruised hindquarters hit the wooden seat.

"What the fuck?" he said, getting straight to the point as usual. "This is the second shift in a row that you did some clumsy thing or another. When you first started, I thought you'd be one of the best probies I ever had. But now? Hell, Gage; you're nine months through your probie year and I don't even know what the hell is happening." He narrowed his eyes at me. "You're not working another job on the side, are you? Showing up for shifts on no sleep?"

"Nossir." And I wasn't. I was tired all the time anyhow, though, so I might as well have been. Woulda helped with the rent.

"Then what the fuck?" he repeated.

I didn't have a great answer, so I just repeated what I'd said to Brainard. "It just kinda seemed like all of a sudden I couldn't tell where my hands and feet were. Or maybe they weren't doing what I thought. I dunno."

Sharp squinted at me again. "You don't look sick, or hurt—which is a miracle, 'cause Brainard said you actually bounced when you hit the ground. But I want you to get checked out by the department doc—today. Now, in fact."

"But I—"

"Now!" Cap said. "What's with this 'but I' bullshit? You know better than that. Now scram—you're off for the rest of the shift. I'll call HQ and tell 'em to squeeze you in with the doc today."

"Yessir," I said. No point in arguing. I went to my locker to grab a couple things, since I probably wasn't going to be back for the rest of the shift. Brainard saw me there, and his jaw dropped.

"He canned you? Just for that?"

"Huh?" I guess it musta looked like I was cleaning out my locker. "Naw. He's just sending me down to see the doc at HQ. Just to make sure there's nothing wrong with me or anything."

"Oh," Brainard said. "I guess that makes sense. Well, I hope there isn't."

"Yeah, me too."

~!~!~!~

I sat in the waiting room for a long time, until someone finally called my name.

"Gage?"

I jumped up, and winced as something shifted and cracked. Hip? Back? I couldn't even tell. I followed the doc back to the exam room. I remembered him—he gave me a real hard time at my new recruit physical—didn't believe I was telling the truth about my age. I had my driver's license, my birth certificate, my high school diploma, my childhood immunization records—the works. He finally didn't have a choice but to believe that I was actually over eighteen. Otherwise, I passed with flying colors. I hoped he didn't remember me—maybe he'd seen enough new recruits in the year since he and I last crossed paths that he'd forgotten all about me.

"So you're what, all of nineteen now?" he asked, reading through my chart.

"And a half," I added, before I realized how childish that sounded. "I mean, I'll be twenty in a couple months."

"And your captain sent you here because …"

I was confused. "Uh, didn't he say? I dropped a saw last shift, and then today, I fell off a ladder—mosta the way up to the second floor. He wants to know why I got so clumsy all of a sudden."

"All right," the doc said. "Calm down. I just wanted to hear it in your own words." He looked me over. "Anything else going on that strikes you as unusual?"

I thought about what Cap had asked about me maybe moonlighting. "I'm pretty tired all the time, even though I think I get plenty of sleep. And sometimes I wake up, with pains in my legs," I admitted. Great. It was probably gonna turn out to be a brain tumor, or leg cancer, or something like that.

"Stand up for me, will you?"

I stood up, and adjusted my trousers at the waist, out of habit. He scanned me up and down, his eyes pausing at the gap between the hem of my pants and my duty boots.

"Boots off, and up on the scale, please," he said.

I followed his instructions. He adjusted the weights, but I couldn't see what they said, since he had me with my back to the scale, as he adjusted the height measuring thingy till it sat on top of my head.

"Okay, you can hop down, and strip to your shorts, please. I just want to look you over, and make sure nothing's broken from that fall."

"Just my pride," I said, as I stripped. "Unless you can break your ass. Which is where I landed."

He looked me over, mercifully making the inspection of my bruised rear quick. "Yep, you're gonna have some mighty interesting bruises in a few hours. Now I want to see you touch your toes, and hold it there," he said. I did so, and he traced his fingers down my backbone.

"All right," he said. "Let's see your arms out straight in front of you."

I followed his instructions, still not having a clue what he was looking for.

"Okay. You can get dressed." He made a couple notes in my chart as I put my uniform back on again.

"So what's the verdict, Doc?"

"The verdict, Mr. Gage, is that a year ago, you were five feet nine inches tall, and weighed a hundred and thirty pounds. This very second, your height is six feet and one half inch, and you weigh only five pounds more. It seems," he said, looking at me with raised eyebrows, "that you've had a bit of a growth spurt. Which could account for everything that's been going on."

"Uh," I said intelligently. "Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about," he said. "It happens. I'm just surprised you didn't notice. Look at your pants, for crying out loud."

I knew perfectly well my pants were too short. "I just thought they shrank, or something." I shook my head. "Geez. Three and a half inches? I guess I haven't really been paying attention."

"Or eating, it seems," he said.

"Aw, c'mon, Doc! I eat like a horse! Constantly! The guys at the station won't quit buggin' me about it either."

"Well," he said, "you're going to have to step it up a bit. Do you drink milk?"

"Not really," I said. "I thought it was kinda for kids."

"At least half a gallon of whole milk a day, Gage. And it's for kids because they're growing. Which is exactly what you're doing, apparently."

"Who'd'a thought," I said. "So is that why I'm so clumsy all of a sudden?"

"Probably. And your captain described you as 'a cross between a jackrabbit and a greyhound,' so I'd suggest maybe you should slow down to, say, human speed for a little while, as your brain gets used to where your hands and feet actually are, instead of where they used to be."

"Yeah. Okay."

"And when you're not on shift, try to sleep more. And eat a lot more."

I couldn't help thinking of my thin wallet. "I'll try." It would get a little thicker—not much, but a bit—in a couple months, when I finished my probie year. If I finished my probie year.

"Uh, Doc?"

"Uh huh?" he replied, as he scribbled something on a pad.

"You think I'm done?"

"Growing? Probably close to it," he said. "I want to see you back in three months, for a weight and height check. My guess is you might get another half inch or so, but your hands and feet look like they fit the rest of you pretty well. Speaking of which—you obviously need new uniform pants. Do your boots fit?"

I wiggled my toes. "Mostly," I said. They were darned tight, but I'd gotten used to it. And it didn't really matter, because we only get one set of boots a year anyhow, and I wasn't quite due yet.

"Which I take to mean 'no.' All right—these things happen. Don't worry about your uniform allowance—the department makes an exception in cases like these. I'll just give you this note—" he tore a page off the prescription pad he'd been scrawling on and handed it to me— "and you should be all set. Make sure to swap your turnout gear for a couple sizes up, too. I don't want to see you back here with burned wrists from a coat with sleeves that are too short."

"Nossir. Uh, what do I say to my Cap? He's none too pleased with me right now."

"Don't worry about him. I'll call him this afternoon after my last appointment. So, just to make sure we're clear: what do you need to do?"

"Eat more, sleep more. Slow down to human speed. Make sure my gear fits."

"Good. You were paying attention. You're so fidgety it's hard to tell if you're listening."

"Yeah, well, I guess that's why I'm a fireman and not, I dunno, an accountant or something. Never could sit still."

He laughed. "Well, Mr. Gage, I think you're going to be a fine fireman. Just finish growing, okay? I'll see you when you're twenty. You can make an appointment on your way out."

"Thanks, Doc. I mean it."

I walked out of the office, relieved that I had an answer. An embarrassing one, for sure. I couldn't quite figure how I'd missed the fact that I'd put on over three inches of height. And I wasn't exactly looking forward to more jokes about how I looked like I was fourteen. But I could live with it—I had, for the last nine months.

And really, from what I heard from some other guys, I was having a real easy probie year. A couple guys from my recruit class washed out in the first few months—but they were ones I didn't think shoulda passed the academy anyhow. And another couple guys had horror stories about how they were always the butt of some joke or another, and how they always got all the real dirty work all to themselves. I mean, sure, I got the grunt work, but that's all part of your job as a probie. I didn't really mind, and luckily nobody at the station seemed to be on a mission to make sure I minded.

So I'd slow down, and try to cram as much food in myself as I could—especially at the station, where sure, we all chipped in for meals, but there always seemed to be extra, like there wasn't usually in my own fridge. And I guessed I'd have to learn to like milk. Oh well. I'm young—there's plenty of time to develop new habits, right?

TBC

Next up: it's true, even Cap was a probie once.