Jack and I took our written civil service tests the other day. We both aced them. It was a pretty tough test, but after 50 years of taking tests, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Jack’s just smart. He always aces tests. He got his paramedic certification faster than anyone else I know of.
Only forty-five out of three hundred or so applicants did well enough on the written exam to get as far as the physical exam.
A short pale guy in his early fifties with a perpetual smile named Dave ran us through our paces for the physical tests. He had arms as big around as my thighs. He told us only twenty of us forty-five would be chosen for the academy, based on our performance. The exam had several parts, carrying a heavy weight up a ladder, running up ten flights of stairs in a fire tower and back down again, running an obstacle course, and something called a “rescue relay.”
Dave watched the whole thing, nodding encouragingly. There were a few people who couldn’t make it up the ladder with the hundred pound weight, and more who couldn’t run all the way up the stairs. Dave patted them on the back. “It’s okay. Most people can’t complete this course. No shame in trying your best. By passing the written exam, you’ve earned the right to come back and try again one more time in the next six months. Spend some time at the gym, and when you feel like you’re ready, give me a call.” He gave them his card and sent them on their way. We were down to forty.
Jack struggled with the weight on the ladder. It was damn near as big as he was, but he set his jaw stubbornly and made it. The run up and down stairs was a breeze for him. Jack runs marathons in the hill country. For fun. He runs five or six miles every day when he gets up just to shake out the cobwebs.
I made it okay, but my thighs told me about it for days afterward.
The obstacle course was next.
There were a couple of big football frat boys fresh off the UT campus, a huge blond guy and a black guy with shoulders as wide as an axe handle, who seemed to think Jack and I didn’t belong. They were determined to make sure misfits like us didn’t make it into their new club.
The black guy with the shoulders “accidentally” bumped into Jack on the obstacle course, and laughed when he stumbled. Jack’s kind of a small guy. He has such an air of cheerful competence that most folks have the good sense to let him be. These boys weren’t real big on good sense, though.
I heard Jack grunt as he stumbled to one knee.
Jack got right back up and kept going.
I slowed down to get in between the jerks and Jack so they couldn’t mess with him anymore.
That made the big blond guy laugh. He gave Jack crap about hiding behind a girl as he left us in his dust on a field of tires that we both had difficulty navigating. Jack’s jaw tightened. He told me not to wait on him. But I wasn’t going to leave him behind where they could pick on him again.
We caught up with the football boys at a high obstacle wall that was just the first of six similar walls. I gave Jack a boost over, then jumped each wall in one clean leap. There was an open run after that. Jack’s fast, so we pulled way ahead of the jerks while they struggled to get over the walls. That made their laughter die.
As the last person finished the obstacle course, I noticed we were down to thirty-eight. Two more folks couldn’t finish the course. That meant that nearly half of us would be eliminated in the last event.
I stayed in between those two frat boys and Jack as we moved as a group to the parking lot next to the fire station. That just made them crowd my personal space instead of Jack’s. The leering looks and off-color jokes made Jack look as pissed off as I felt.
I had to restrain myself from slapping the smirk off those smart mouths. Jack is a lot more cool-headed than me generally, but I don’t think he’d have tried to stop me.
Dave’s cheerful pale blue eyes watched it all, but he didn’t say anything.
He explained to us that the last test was called the “rescue relay.” Each of us needed to choose a partner. The first person had to run to the end of the parking lot, pick up a two hundred pound punching bag, roughly the size and shape of a large man, and run back with it over a shoulder. The partner then had to run the bag back to the other end of the lot, drop it, and sprint back.
Dave stood there with a stopwatch. “You’ll be graded both on individual run times, and team run times.”
We all paired up. Jack and I were a team, of course. The two football frat boys teamed up, of course. Everyone else paired up as they chose. While the first team ran the relay, the rest of us were left to mill around aimlessly in the parking lot until it was our turn.
I felt very conscious that this was essentially, a job interview. I’d already blown interviews at nearly every emergency service in town. If I wanted to be an EMT again, this was the only real chance I had left.
Consequently, I didn’t smack the big blond college boy, even when he goosed me in the ass while we were waiting.
Jack growled, and started toward the jerk. He’s a very patient man, but Jack is still a man. And messing with his woman was waaay out of line.
The college jerk’s broad-shouldered buddy closed ranks with him. The two big frat boys clearly intended to intimidate the little Asian guy.
The thing is, Jack doesn’t intimidate.
Jack had been studying Krav Maga with Tamara for months. Jack getting beat up was the opposite of the likely scenario. I would have felt sorry for the idiots who made him mad if they weren’t acting like such assholes. I just hoped Jack didn’t bring his taser. Things could get really ugly really fast.
“Jack,” I put a hand on his shoulder. “These guys aren’t worth it. We need this job.” I nudged him and rolled my eyes toward Dave, watching another team run the rescue relay.
Jack’s eyes darted to Dave, then back to the frat jerk. Jack’s lips tightened until they disappeared, but he stepped back. “Keep your hands to yourself,” he said.
The big guy snorted. “Like you’re going to do anything about it.”
Jack smiled a cold smile with no teeth showing. “Maybe I’ll just let her do something about it.”
Me? Um, what could I do without getting us in trouble? Jack grinned wide at me and touched his tongue to his teeth. Aaah. The light bulb went off.
I grinned at the frat guy, and did something I’d never done before. I deliberately popped out my fangs in front of someone, and let the anger boil in me, so I knew my eyes would go red enough to glow through my dark glasses.
The swaggering, blond big man on campus blanched and took a step back. His dark, broad-shouldered buddy stepped behind him.
Jack extended an arm to me and I took it. We walked off arm-in-arm to the other side of the waiting crowd, leaving those two behind.
Dave’s sparkling eyes were on us when I turned around. A smile played on his lips. I wasn’t sure if he saw what happened and approved, or if it was just his usual cheerfulness.
The rescue relay was tough. Four people couldn’t do it at all. Two people couldn’t get the bag up to their shoulders, and two only managed to stagger about half way across the parking lot under the weight before dropping it and giving up. That left thirty-four. Fourteen people were going to be eliminated, even if they completed the test, because their times weren’t good enough. We not only had to finish, we had to finish fast.
Dave told the folks who couldn’t finish the same thing he told the folks who couldn’t complete the earlier challenges. “It’s okay. You can try again.” But they were done for the day, test failed.
I wasn’t sure what would happen to their teammates who completed the course, but would have no team score. Dave didn’t ask them to leave at least.
The football guys went. They both aced the relay. High fives and chest bumps ensued ad nauseum.
Dave nodded and smiled. “Excellent time.”
We were next. I knew this test would be a breeze for me, but the hardest challenge of all for Jack.
“Maybe you should team with someone else,” Jack said.
“Not a chance,” I told him. “You can do it.”
Jack and I decided that letting me run first would give us the best chance of a good team time. If I ran like crazy, all Jack would have to do was complete the challenge.
Dave said go and I ran, practically tearing up chunks of asphalt with every stride.
My super duper hearing heard the muttering behind me. “Goddam supes. Not fair for regular guys to have to compete with freaks.”
I broke stride a little. The comment hit me like a slug in the gut.
Jack’s voice muttered softly, “You’re right, Dee. They’re not worth it.” He knew I’d hear him.
I threw that bag over my shoulder, spun and ran back. I barely noticed the weight difference. I turned over a semi truck once, with some help.
Instead of throwing the weight down on the ground when I got back like everyone else had, I carefully transferred it to Jack’s shoulder, saving him the difficult task of lifting it from the ground. It cost me on my individual time, but would speed up both Jack’s time, and our team time, assuming Jack made it. Which he would. I’d never seen Jack give up.
I glanced at Dave to make sure transferring the weight was allowed.
Dave’s pale blue eyes sparkled with almost laughter and he nodded encouragingly.
Apparently, it was allowed. No one else had thought to sacrifice a few seconds of their own individual time to help their team time.
Loud protests came from the football boys. “Hey!” “That’s not fair!”
Dave chuckled. “You’re just irritated you didn’t think of it.”
Dave clicked the watch as the weight was transferred to end my time and start Jack’s. “If you were a normal, that would be a new record,” he told me.
A wave of fear hit my belly. Was he going to disqualify me because I was a supe?
“We keep different records for normals and supes.” He patted my shoulder. “We’ve got a speedster in the fourteenth precinct who can run it in half your time.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll just have to get faster then.” Competitive? Me? Nah.
Jack staggered under the bag that was more than his own body weight. He couldn’t run at all. He could barely stand. He walked as fast as he could manage, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other. Toward the end, he wobbled, staggering like a drunk, but he kept going. He let the bag drop gratefully when he finally stumbled to the other end of the parking lot. He took too panting breaths, then ran back like the wind.
Dave clicked the stopwatch as Jack ran past and collapsed, gasping for air. “Well done,” he said with a smile, but he said that to everyone who finished the test.
A couple of teams who ran after we ran did the transfer the weight instead of drop the weight thing to shave a bit off their team times.
Jack’s individual time was way low, but our team time was the second best, right after the obnoxious football players.
Dave announced, “The top five teams are accepted into the academy. In addition, the top five relay runners whose team time didn’t already qualify them, and the top five obstacle course runners who otherwise didn’t qualify.” He read off the names of the folks who were in. It included me and Jack. It also included the two college jerks. For everyone else, he told them the same thing. “You can try again once more. Just call me when you’re ready.”
Dave smiled at Jack and I. “You two qualified twice. Team relay time, and obstacle course time. Well done. You showed some excellent teamwork in both tests.”
That was it. We were in!
We had paying jobs again and we’d get to work together again.
I hugged Jack hard, careful not to hurt him.
Dave turned to the jerks. “You two qualified three times, team relay time, individual time, and obstacle course time.”
More nauseating fist bumping macho BS.
“However,” For the first time, Dave’s smile disappeared. “If you hadn’t done so well, I’d have disqualified you both. You now have one demerit on your records each. Three demerits before completing the ten week academy course and you will be out. No excuses.”
“What the heck?” “Disqualified? What for?” The two boys both looked outraged.
“Sexual harassment will get you fired. Fast.” Dave poked the blond guy in the chest with a finger, his neck arched to look up into the big boy’s face. “Touch another female firefighter or cadet inappropriately and you’ll be gone so fast your shoes will have to catch up later.” Dave’s normally cheerful voice had a nasty bite. “Do I make myself clear, cadet?”
The blond college boy swallowed hard, clearly terrified of the short man in his fifties. “Yes, sir.”
Dave transferred his finger to the broad-shouldered boy’s chest. “If I see you deliberately sabotage another firefighter or cadet again, you will find yourself out the door just as fast. Our lives depend on the people we work with. If a fellow firefighter stumbles, you catch him, if he can’t carry something, you grab an end and help. Clear?”
The dark-skinned boy cleared his throat before he spoke. “Crystal, sir.” He had the grace to duck his head in embarrassment. “Sorry.”
“This is your only warning. If you had already been on the payroll, you’d have been fired on the spot.” Dave added. “Dismissed. You start Monday morning, 7 AM sharp. Bring better attitudes.”
He grinned at us as the chastened boys left. “Don’t let them get to you. They’re just young. They don’t realize yet that the world doesn’t owe them anything. They’ll learn, or they’ll wash out.” He shrugged as if it didn’t matter one way or the other to him.
“Um, Dave, sir? You said three demerits and we’re out. How else can we get demerits?”
He chuckled. “Well, fighting is one thing. If either one of you had taken a swing at those boys who so richly deserved it, you’d both have demerits. If you’d done it after you were hired, you’d have been fired instantly. We can’t afford hot-heads in the ranks.”’
I swallowed. We dodged a big bullet. “Got that. No fighting. What else?”
Dave held up his hand and started listing on his fingers, “Misconduct, failing a test, missing a day of work, being late.” He shrugged. “Just show up every day on time, do your best and you’ll do fine. The toughest part is the tests. The learning pace is pretty intense. You have a test every Friday over the week’s material. If you fail one, you get a demerit, but you can take the test again the next week. If you still can’t pass it, you’re done.”
I looked at Jack. I felt defeated even though we’d just won a big victory.
Missing work. Being late.
Those were the things that got me fired from my last job. Those were the reasons no one else would hire me. As long as I kept helping the Protectors fight crime, there was no way in hell I could go ten weeks without being late or missing work.
Jack took my hand and squeezed it. “You can do it, Dee.”
That’s what he thinks. I am so screwed.