The new guy joined the station halfway through the 118’s Thursday shift.
He radiated all the trademark enthusiasm of a firefighter fresh out of training but unlike the other recruits Hen had seen come and go, this kid kept the energy up the whole damn day.
When Hen finally got home after that shift, she found her wife on the couch surrounded by stacks of papers. Karen was scribbling away with a red pen in one hand and a generous glass of red wine in the other.
“Hey babe, how’s the grading?”
“I swear, the next time I pull the short straw for a CalTech guest lecture I’m negotiating for three more TAs. Maybe seven.”
“Mm, and you’d be worth every one.”
“And that’s a fact, baby. Here, finish off this Pinot for me or all these fools are getting zeros.” Karen hands off her glass and sets the papers aside. “Distract me from grad students who don’t understand the meaning of a page count limit. How’s the best crew in the county? I want good news only!”
“Let’s see. Tanika heard back from the allergist, she’s going lactose-free until further notice. Bobby brought a separate tupperware of vegan mozzarella for her.” Hen settled into the couch and pulled her wife’s feet into her lap, slippers and all. “Tommy says hi, apparently he’s got a date with a cute barista who works around the corner from his new station. We bet dishwashing duty on if our newbie would show up on time, he did.”
“Oh, a new challenger approaches! Tell me more about this probie.”
What would Karen want to know about Buck? When it came to updates on the 118, she had a strong preference for personal news instead of the work itself. Karen was always in the loop on the new recipes Bobby was trying out and Chim’s latest dating disasters.
“Probie goes by Buck. He’s off the walls energetic, practically bounced into the station. He ate a full two plates of Bobby’s spaghetti before the first call went off. He surfs in his free time. Apparently he’s really into the ocean. Like, ‘asked everyone and I mean everyone if they’ve ever seen cephalopods in the wild before’ really into the ocean. He talked for like 20 minutes about the California Lilliput Octopus. And the pictures are cute and all, but damn boy, take a breath.”
“Okay, that’s adorable. You should hoodwink him into being the chaperone for Denny’s aquarium trip in November!”
“Babe, I’m not sure if he’s the responsible type. He was at the top of his game with the rescues we did today, but I didn’t see him standing still once in the whole shift. Buck’s like a puppy. No way he could handle an outing with a bunch of seven year olds.”
“Please, we turned Chimney into a passable babysitter after a few trial and errors. I’ve got a good feeling about Buck. You know, someone with all that energy could be great with kids.”
Karen asks about Buck after every shift that week. It becomes a habit for Hen to take note of the chatter he lets loose, like that he’s saving up for a Rubicon or that his roommates all watch rugby.
He knows a decent amount of Spanish but it’s all mixed in with Peruvian slang and innuendos that’s more likely to derail a conversation than ease it. He’s decent at pool, better at Mario Kart. He comments on the weather report every morning, especially if it’s good for surfing conditions.
On the job, Buck was keeping up the team well enough. From his build, she expected him to rely on brute force but he had good spatial instincts. He’s got a knack for sorting out how to approach the weird rescues. The Maneuver sounded like something out of a wannabe action hero movie but it worked out well enough that Bobby mentioned it to the B shift, goofy name and all.
Her favorite story so far was from his first 24 hour shift, when he charmed a cranky toddler and then an even crankier teenager. After that call, the usual spring in his step escalated to this weird happy hop skip thing. Buck was good at helping kids, but Karen restrained herself from saying ‘I told you so.’
Their station is well past the toxic state it was when Hen started working, but probies still have to earn their place. They tease him about underestimating LA traffic and the one time his voice got all squeaky while trying to shout instructions to a crowd. And until further notice, Buck’s expected to take the seat in the truck with the most uncomfortable cushion and least legroom.
He’s already willing to volunteer for the dangerous and difficult stunts. That’s what strikes her the most, actually. It’s the pattern in the chaos. Buck’s officially made it through his first week and he’s still eager to be a part of every conversation, rescue, coffee run, impromptu singalong.
Like, Hen was mostly joking when she asked if anyone wanted to join her in restocking the ambulance, but here he was, cramming his six-foot something frame into the back corner.
“If I stack those sideways, we could fit another box in?” She’s noticed Buck only offers his ideas up as a question. There’s the same hesitancy from when he first introduced himself to Cap. Honestly, it’s a refreshing switch up from the forceful bravado of colleagues she’s had before.
“Good looking out, Buck.” He breaks into a huge smile that she knows Karen would insist is cute as hell. “I think we’re finished here, dinner should be any minute.”
Their timing is perfect. Right when they reach the top of the stairs, Chim is bringing the bread bowl over to the table where everybody else is already seated.
“Captain, I can’t believe it! This is incredible!” Buck has showered Bobby with compliments at every single meal so far, before and after he even eats anything. Hen can tell he’s not being a kissass, he’s just that enthusiastic.
“Well, thank you. Now that everybody’s here, let’s ea─”
As soon as Bobby says those magic words, there’s a flurry of movement as the firefighters immediately dig in like starving teenagers. “This is my first time with this pesto recipe, I’ve been saving it to try out on you all. But if it’s a dud, there’s always next week.”
“I can’t wait. Really, I think this tradition is such an awesome part of this station! Maybe even my favorite. It’s like a family dinner.” Buck swivels his head back and forth to include the whole table in his excitement. “Pasta Thursdays! So cool. And since I started on Thursday, it’ll be like my anniversary. But not really my anniversary, because that’s for events that happen annually, so uh. I’ll have to look it up, there must be a word for the weekly traditions, right?”
Hen stops with her fork halfway to her mouth. The 118’s meals don’t happen with noticeable rhyme or reason. Sure, they’ve eaten together ever since Cap set the precedent but the food wasn’t influenced by the weekday or even the season. He decided to perfect his pumpkin pie recipe in the middle of March and that ordeal nearly exhausted Howie’s Market supply of canned pumpkin.
While Buck rambles on, she checks around to see if anybody else has noticed his mistaken assumption. Tanika chuckles but doesn’t look up from her plate. Most of the other firefighters were focused on eating. Chim was silently repeating ‘Pasta Thursdays?’ with his head tilted in confusion.
Then she sees Bobby.
He looks lost in a moment miles away. There’s heartbreak in his eyes, history he hasn’t let her into. Bobby is a good captain, good leader, obviously a very good cook. But he’s a bad liar. His poker face was nonexistent. Hen can see something start to fall apart inside him, and she clears her throat to catch his attention.
It’s hard to ask you good? with just her eyebrows, but he seems to get the gist. Bobby gives a small smile, and takes a deep breath to steel himself to speak up.
“You’re right, Pasta Thursdays is a… a special tradition.” Several heads turned up towards Bobby and Buck at that declaration.
“Super special! I don’t know anybody who does that.”
“Yeah, me either.” Chim says under his breath. She kicks him under the table.
“I think this pesto definitely belongs with Pasta Thursdays, right guys?” Hen lets a little bit of a glare into her look around the table this time, until everyone is nodding in agreement. “In fact, you should send it to me. I can get points with Karen for contributing to her vegetable chart. This will be a step up from the veggie noodles we’ve been sneaking into our little monster’s mac n’ cheese.”
The table turns back to casual conversation. But next to her, Buck’s demeanor dims. Geez, this meal is leading to all kinds of emotions.
“Something wrong, Buck?” She asks softly. He’s looking down and fidgeting with the food on his plate. It reminds her of Denny when he’s figuring out how to ask a question.
“No, just thinking. I was always terrible at eating my vegetables too,” he says sheepishly. “My sister convinced me that green beans would make me grow taller. Like Jack and the magic beanstalk, ‘you’ll sprout right up!’”
Chimney bursts into laughter. “Sprout, huh? That’s pretty funny. She was right, but you went a little overboard there, Paul Bunyan.”
In all of his chatter this week, she hasn’t heard Buck say a single word about parents or even his hometown. There was wistfulness in his voice when he told the story, sounding like a kid when he imitated his sister's advice. His height aside, Buck still has plenty of room to grow.
Hen’s gonna have to spend the next shift developing a resistance to his goofy face. She’ll keep him in line from here on out. Buck’s gonna have to earn the pats on the back that he’s so eager for, but she’ll back his play this time. Pasta Thursdays is a thing now, and she can’t wait to tell Karen.
“Who’s Paul Bunyan?”