I started my first day at the station after it had finally fallen back into obscurity. This was just fine by me. I had dreamed of being police since I was six, and traded my skirts for my brothers blue jeans which just barely resembled my father’s uniform. It really does run in the blood, that sense of justice. The determination. The drive to make things better than they are now however you can.
Being hired as a dispatcher at the small station gave me such a sense of accomplishment. And the fact that the floodlights that had been thrown on the Stoddard Police Department had fled in search of newer news made it even even sweeter. No one who lives here wants their town defined by tragedy. Most of us at least knew of little Katie Dunn and her mother and many of us were close to the family. Once the photos of her torn and twisted body reached the media it was as if the entire town and everyone in it was defined by this darkness. Sadness. Loss. Unspeakable wrath.
Stoddard is more than that. I’m more than that. And once accepted the position, I knew I could finally make a difference in my own small way.
I had volunteered on and off for a year before my predecessor left the position abruptly. So I was almost entirely trained and ready to take the reins on my first day. I received an hour or two of training, mostly review, and hopped on the radio, checking in with each squad car in turn. Once the initial check-ins were completed, and the slow breeze from the window began to lull my by playing across my neck, I shot up to organize my new desk. It would not be ideal to fall asleep on my first day. It would likely end with Calvert giving my a Sharpie mustache, his mouth agape in dumb amusement. I had the pleasure of seeing his handiwork on interns the previous year, and would not wear his craft proudly.
I pulled envelopes from the wooden organizers build into the desk, sorted them, cleaned up the log books, adjusted my computer and radio, and generally applied some sense of order to the chaos left by my predecessor. It was then that I saw the red telephone.
On a deeply set pull-out shelf beneath the filing slots was a red telephone that looked like it had been teleported from the 1980’s. Not only was it in perfect condition, but a quick check confirmed that it was hard wired and functional. Apparently this had not been upgraded to the digital service now used throughout the station. I wondered for a time if this was a way for the officers to phone their partners at home without it being logged and recording by the digital system.
I took lunch in the break room with the captain who looked thrilled as I sat across from him. I wasn’t surprised at his overt reaction. I’m no knockout or anything, but the stories about Abe were fairly pervasive. Let’s just say that he had the reputation of one, though of advanced age, had a burgeoning and still mounting appreciation for women. It was just as well known that he was, at his core, a gentleman. And his exuberance toward the opposite gender fell on the side of charm, rather than creepiness or pushiness.
We had exchanged a few pleasantries before I popped the question. “So what’s with the red phone?”
Abe put his sandwich down, and tried to meet my eye line. It was several long seconds before he replied.
“Listen Victoria. Don’t worry about it. Don’t answer it, don’t use it, don’t even think about it. Forget it’s there. O’Conner takes care of that. If it rings, it rings for him. So leave it alone.”
His eyes had begun to tear immediately, but he quickly wrested his reaction towards strict control. I knew better than to question him. His eyes told the important part of the story, even if his words had not. I asked and got and answer. Just leave it.
And leave it, I did. For several months. I remember the first time it rang. In fact my ankle is still aching from the fall I took when it did. The noise was loud and cutting enough to launch me from my chair. But more than that. That sound was final. A conclusion. An end.
O’Connor stepped right over me, ankle in hand on the white linoleum, and took the call. At the time I had laughed at the idea of a one-armed man jumping over a woman with a broken ankle. O’Conner had lost his hand on duty twenty years ago, but had remained as a desk-jockey. I respected him greatly, he was a lifer.
I pulled myself back up into my seat and saw the consternation on his face as he stood perfectly still with that garish red cradle against his ear.
“West.” He said quietly and placed the handset back down on it’s base.
His tried to acknowledge me for a moment before eyes fall to the floor. The darkness behind his eyes. It was all encompassing. Regardless of the turmoil he had been through in life, O’Connor was never morose. He took what life dished him and returned the favor with a smile. With a genuine thankfulness. When new people visited the station we would all wait to hear which missing limb joke he would subtly worked into the conversation. It was always in the first few minutes of introduction, and always got everyone laughing. Immediately diffusing the inevitable tension of meeting someone with an obvious disability. At that moment though, I saw an unimaginable grief beneath the warm exterior. I saw the void behind his eyes, and the chill beneath his warmth. and felt it alongside him
This happened twice more over the following months. Each time O’Connor would answer the call, reply with a single word and hang up. Each time I made a special effort to deliver him some coffee, muffins, or another plant for his desk. I couldn’t bear to see him in pain like that. And for what? For what reason? And why did he insist on handling it alone instead of asking for help?
When the phone rang on O’Connor’s day off, I decided to find out. As always, the shrill noise cut through the quiet station like a scalpel. The headset was against my ear before I could even think and I checked my surroundings to make sure that no one saw what I was doing. My heart banged away like it was trying to pound through a door, and with each inhale the walls seems to close in around me.
Silence on the other line. Abundant, verdant silence. Then the noise. Like creaking compression. Like wood imploding into itself, screeching in agony at it’s self destruction. And then that little voice, small and young, but far from innocent.
“How many fingers?” The voice asked. I could picture my niece at this age, hands behind her back and smiling up at me. There was no smile in this voice.
“Two.” I blurted, overcome by the desire to end this immediately. The line disconnected immediately and I hung up.
“CHshhhht!” The radio jumped to life the moment I returned the handset. “Officer Injured, Fisher and Mount, east side abutment.”
I jumped into action directing paramedics and backup to their location. It was only when I visited the hospital later that evening that I got the full story from Officer Jerring himself. He had pulled over a black mustang for speeding on Fisher Road and had rested his hand on the driver’s door when asking for ID and registration. The man behind the wheel, acting perfectly relaxed, had taken up a knife and slashed at him before speeding off with Jerring’s pinkie and ring fingers in his lap.
When I arrived at the station the next morning, I saw that O’Connor had beat me there, and was sitting in my seat. He looked as though he had been crying. I could not determine if he was crying out of sadness or happiness. I’m still not sure.
“How many fingers?” He asked. I knew that he was not asking me how many, but if that is what I had been asked, and I nodded slowly.
He smiled, then held the bridge of his nose with his fingers. An awkward laugh left him and he struggled to center himself before meeting my stunned gaze.
“It’s yours now. The red phone. It was mine, but now it’s yours. You answered it. You must continue to answer it. To answer her.”
“I’ll just…. I’ll just keep quiet.” My voice felt feeble and broken. Frantic to claw my way from what this meant.
“No. You won’t. You can’t. It’s worse when you don’t answer. They told me when I started but I didn’t listen. I tried it too. I’m telling you now. You must listen. You will answer. You will choose. And you will live with it. It’s the best you can do. The only thing you can do.”
“What happened when you didn’t answer?”
His head fell into his left hand awkwardly and he remained silent for a time. Wiping his face he told me. “I decided not to answer the question on May 26th. The night that Katie’s body was found.”
His sobs shook his body as I stared down at him,. I understood his burden. It was the job that I had just accepted.
The world is pale today. Murky. The trees float jerkily past my car as it delivered me to the station. I don’t think I had managed to sleep for more than thirty minutes that night, before the damnable ringing sound would wake me. I would sit there quivering for an hour before attempting to lie back down. Each time my mind began to fold itself away into restful darkness, I would hear it ring again. Sharp and clear. As if it were right next to my bedside. The shrill noise seemed to come from all angles. Like that red beast was ringing from inside of me, demanding to be heeded in order to complete it’s sinister work.
Realizing that I could not stand to be woken like this one more time I gave up on sleep at around 3:30am. I arrived early today after hours of thinking, bathing, thinking, cooking breakfast, planning and re-examining my options.
In the end I was most comforted by a question that a very perceptive and thoughtful person had posted online. They asked what would have happened if I had answered “none” to the question. The caller had asked “How many fingers”, and so if I had answered “none” then Officer Jerring would likely still have his two missing digits. The idea gripped me. I just needed to be quick. Thoughtful and clever, but quick. By the time I was getting into the car, I had convinced myself that I could avoid any further tragedy if I simply played it smart.
Though I was exhausted when I sat at my desk, I busied myself immediately. brewing coffee, cleaning up, organizing mail. Anything I could do to keep my eyes off of that crimson form tucked into the shadows of the desk. The instinctive part of my mind told me that looking at it directly was to invite it in. I tried to ignore it’s existence. The idea of it, the knowledge of it’s impending alert, grew in my mind just as fiercely as my eyes darted past it’s recessed home.
Then it rang.
Jumping from the chair I steadied both of my hands on the desk before me. I shot a look left, then right. No one else had arrived quite yet and the only officer on duty was out doing his rounds past the local banks. There was only me and the phone. Ringing again, so soon. My mind rebelled. There was no way that this could happen every day. It just wasn’t possible. I would have noticed it when I was an intern last year. I knew that I had to answer it. It was my duty now. I had taken this burden from O’Connor and could not ever risk putting it back on that sweet man’s shoulders again.
The receiver felt frigid against my ear. The chill sent numbing waves through my head, enhancing the deep ache behind my tired eyes.
The same small voice spoke over the din of groaning and snapping sounds on the line.
“Brains or Brawn?” The note of that little girl’s voice was playful but serious. Alongside her impish glee was the clear expectation of an answer.
I fought the exhaustion. Think. Think! Fucking think! I shrieked at myself. It only took a moment for the adrenaline to overtake my system and get my mind racing towards the answer. And just like that I had it. It was so simple in retrospect, just as that person had pointed out online.
My ear began to scream out in pain as I realized how hard I was pressing the phone to my head, my fingers gripping it as if it were a life preserver, waiting for the silence to end. For my answer to be accepted. And it did. The call disconnected, and the question was answered.
I fought to feel relieved. My plan had worked right? Nothing, I had chosen nothing. And whatever rules of this game, they must be firm. There was no point in playing a rigged game. Right?
Relief never fully arrived, but the hours did pass. Employees came in and out. Donuts and coffee were incrementally depleted. The sun made its journey from one window to another. Each hour that passed without tragedy built upon the previous, until some baseline of cautious optimism began to settle inside me as the sun set in the west.
My mind had circled back and forth all day. It had worked, I told myself. But there was another voice in the conversation too. It’s the voice that asked “How do you know?”. “Would you know if you just killed a complete stranger?” I told myself that I would have picked it up on the scanner. That an ambulance would certainly have been called by this late hour. The voice asked how I knew it would only affect someone in Stoddard County? How would I know if someone silently died, or was injured alone at home? Or in another county or even another country.
There were too many questions. I didn’t understand the rules and that was a problem. It appeared that I was safe. I let myself believe it. But I also decided that I needed to silence that other voice at the first opportunity. Tomorrow morning I would bring Starbucks and ask O’Connor to sit with me over breakfast. I would get as much information as I could in one shot and never being it up again. One rip of the bandaid. I couldn’t bear to ask any more of O’Connor than that. I couldn’t bear to see that sadness in his eyes again.
It’s a miracle that I got home without killing myself last night. I must have nodded off at the wheel five or six times and on one occasion jerked the wheel sharply to avoid a hospital gurney loitering in the middle of the road. Luckily I arrived home before another hallucination sent me careening into a ditch.
With the application of a hot bath and self talk that I had the power to manage this situation and that I would confirm it with O’Connor first thing tomorrow, I fell into a deep sleep. I won’t say that I slept soundly through the night, but I did sleep deeply enough to feel moderately rested this morning.
I sat my Starbucks feast of coffee and cake pops on the conference room table and pulled up a chair, trying not to feel like I was a trapper waiting for my prey. An hour passed. Everyone had arrived. Except O’Connor. My leg became restless and I picked at the side of my fingers, glancing at the clock every few minutes now. I could feel the coffee tearing away at my stomach lining as the hour got later.
The captain jerked from his computer as I blasted into his office. He quickly settled into a more business like posture.
“Victoria, what can I do for you, dear?” Behind his kindness, I could see a touch of fear. There were questions he did not want from me. He was ready for business as usual, and nothing more.
“O’Connor did not come in this morning. Did he call?” I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible. Just one officer inquiring after another.
“He did.” The captain smiled now, relief showing in the corners of his mouth. “The man has not taken a vacation or sick day in over a decade. He called this morning and told me he wanted to spend the day with Suzie. Can’t begrudge a man for that. Especially after how hard he’s worked over the years. He deserves as break, don’t you think?”
I nodded in agreement. “Of course”.
“Well then, one other thing. Just wanted to let you know that Jerring is scheduled for his final surgery this afternoon around 1pm. If you’d like to visit him you’re free to take a few hours. In fact Calvert has already agreed to cover the radio for you. But listen.. If you don’t want to go, I would understand. We would all understand.”
That hung in the air for a moment, before I replied that I very much wanted to pay him a visit and bring him a little something. It was my fault. I had done this to the man. I had caused his injury, whether I liked to admit involvement or not. And I was surely not going to duck out of looking him in the eyes and sharing some sympathy. It was literally the least I could do.
So I arrived at the hospital to sit with him for a time before he went in. We didn’t talk much, but exchanged some pleasantries, a small gift I had bought for him on the way, and I stayed until they wheeled him away to the operating room.
I was headed back to the car when the shape of a man caught my eye at the other end of the hallway. There’s no mistaking that haircut. That square shave at the back of the neck, and cropped top that just announced to the world that the police have arrived. I turned and headed towards him to peek my head into the room he had just entered. I dropped my keys in a cacophonous clatter at the scene before me.
It was O’Conner. Some part of me knew it in the hallway, the moment I saw him from behind. He was bent over a hospital bed. Bent over Suzie, his wife of twenty five years, who lay silent before him, eyes open.
He turned at the noise I had made and his agitated eyes began to stream with tears as he recognized me. I rushed to hold him before he collapsed onto the floor, holding his back and stroking his hair.
“I…” there was nothing I could say.
Minutes passed before he wiped his face and spoke, still staring at the floor. “It’s a stroke. On her… on her spinal cord. They say she’s paralyzed. Permanently. And they think it affected her mind too. Her… It…. Their saying she’s brain dead.” His head fell back into his hands as his sobbing shook both of our bodies.
Paralyzed. Brain dead. Those words echoed through my mind. Brain dead. Brains. Paralyzed. Brawn. Brain dead and paralyzed. Neither brains nor Brawn. Neither.
Something happened inside me as I sat with them. The sadness. The guilt. It twisted and turned inside me, gaining momentum. Like that first gush of wind quickly becoming a storm. By the time we decided to part ways and I was back in my car, I was no longer sad. I was livid, raging, and determined. I would not let this madness continue. I didn’t fear making it worse anymore. There was nothing worse. Nothing worse than answering that call and destroying another life. Many other lives.
I’m ready now. Ready to fight. My next move is in motion and I will end this. I can promise you that.
And I’ve got a lead. I have a cousin who works for the phone company, who was very helpful in cutting through the red tape. I have an originating address for the calls. And I’m headed there now.
I understand now. Everything I’ve ever believed in has been a lie. A carefully crafted story to support the the decaying pylons holding our flawed conception of reality together. I’m speaking of good and evil. I’m speaking about what it takes to make a positive impact upon this world. And what you may have to become to do so. I had always thought that it was simple. That I could just be a good person. A person who works hard to do good in the world. If I was a person who improves the situations of the community, I could make a change. I know now that it takes much more than that. It takes a dark sacrifice to do good in this world.
As soon as I had located the originating address of those calls I headed out. I had no idea what to expect and decided to reach out for some semblance of backup. I knew that the captain would try to talk me out of it. And there was no part of me that would further burden O’Connor. He had done his time at the red headset. And Jerring was still recovering I had only one remaining choice.
I pulled up to Calvert’s trailer near to sundown. I let myself in after his invitation was shouted from across the small room.
“Y’all ready then for me to help with yer secret problem?” He dropped himself back into his couch as he spoke, making no indication towards immediate action.
My eyes scanned the overflowing ashtrays, store bought and makeshift both, and spread of pizza boxes across his home to set upon the five empty Black & Tan cans spread out before him.
“You alright to drive?” I was fairly certain we would answer that question differently.
“Yeahsure. You called the taxi, so here we go.” He righted himself, correcting his trajectory several times on the way up.
Given the situation I felt better arriving at our destination with him, and in a cruiser. Somehow just the car made me feel safer, regardless of the lack of authority behind my half drunk off-duty partner. It was better than no partner, even with the price of his slurred banter on the way.
“You’ve arrived at your destination” rang out, but it took another minute to understand the robotic declaration. I could just make out what was a driveway, now overgrown with tall weeds and slowly being swallowed by the thicket surrounding it. Once I had spotted that, I noticed the overturned mailbox and the last two digits confirming that the GPS was in fact correct.
“Someone ain’t home. Dunno that you needed the backup, K.” Calvert got out of the car and accompanied me up the driveway.
A minute later we were both standing over the scorched ruins of a small cottage. There was almost nothing left aside from the charred detritus filling the basement, and the fallen power and phone lines snaking through the overgrowth.
“This can’t be.” I whispered to myself. Suddenly my face got warm, and then hot. I had to end this now. I could not show up at the office tomorrow and have that damned phone ring again. I needed answers, and I needed them immediately. My heart raced and my breath became faster, but more shallow. I could feel my mind expanding, spreading thin, and my knees began to weaken.
“Ah yeah! Six-twenty-nine Berks. I remember why it sounded familiar.” He leaned back with his palm resting on his belt buckle with a soft chuckle. “It’s the ol’ Sahler place.”
I put myself back together and turned, waiting for him to go on. He scratched at his stubble and started kicking at the dirt with his boots.
“And? What happened here?” My hands flew up, beckoning for his continuation.
“Oh yeah, you weren’t around for that. Huh, you were probly watchin’ Teletubbies and rollin’ around in one of those baby scooters.” His smile was not at all charming. “The little Sahler girl, Jenny Sahler, about fifteen years ago. She died in the fire. Damn near killed her Momma too. She managed to run in past the hose jockeys and right into the flames tryin’ to save ‘er. Took three of ’em to drag her back out.”
My mind raced. Those calls that came to me. They came from here. This address. Where a little girl had perished in a terrible house fire. It had to be related. This was no coincidence, as insane as any possible conclusion would need to be.
“She still in town? The mother?”
“Yeah. She does all the laundry in the park. Comes along every Saturday with her truck to collect it all, and make some extra cash. She’s down by Cuthbert, outside the old mill.”
He agreed to take me there immediately. I agreed to buy him another sixer on the way. And the covenant was in place.
The first thing that struck me about Sophia was likely the same thing that struck everyone when they had seen her for some time now. I don’t know how far down the burns started, but they ended in a narrow twisted shape on the left side of her head. Just cutting into the hair above what remained of her left ear.
She muttered something about “Po-lice” and waved us into her tiny kitchen. There were only 2 chairs and I sat myself before Calvert could take the one facing hers. He delegated himself to the couch which was fine by me. I waited a moment for her to light her cigarette and was a bit miffed when Calvert bummed one off of her as well.
“Mrs. Sahler. I wanted to ask you about your daughter. You’re former home”. I had decided to get straight to the point.
“First off I’m not no Missus. Not for a long time and never again. And second, that wasn’t no home. Not for me, or for Jenny. Wasn’t nothing but a hospice.”
“What happened there? How did the fire start?”
“Ha, Po-lice is asking me now. And all this time you been telling me. Po-lice says there was electrical issue. Don’t you know your own story. That’s how they closed the case.” A sneer crept toward her left eye.
“So they said it was an electrical fire. What do you say?”
“I don’t say nothing. I know. Terry Haster, God curse his name. He did it. Never wanted her. Stopped wanting me a long time before he tried to burn us both to the ground. It was only a week since I caught him with that waitress that he did it. Meant to take me out at the same time, but I was out back in the woods. Crying over that sonofabitch. Bastard never came home before eight o’clock before, too busy getting shit hammered down at Ralph’s. But he came home real early that day. On time and on task.” She turned and spat in the sink.
We sat in silence for a time as I let that all sink in. This woman was clearly convinced that her ex-husband had set the fire. That Jenny had been killed by her own father.
“Jenny knows it too.” She muttered under her breath.
She couldn’t seem to meet my eyeline and we spent almost a full minute in silence. But I was not giving up that easily. I could feel that I was onto something here. That I would be able to assemble what I’ve learned and figure out how to stop this once and for all, as soon as I could get to a quiet space to think. As long as I learned what this woman did not want to tell me.
“Do you talk to her, Miss Sahler?”
“All mothers of dead children must, I imagine. But not over the phone.” She hammered her cigarette like it was a judge’s gavel, and quickly stood.
We parted pleasantly. Calvert was uncharacteristically silent through most of the trip giving me enough time to analyze what I had learned, come to a conclusion and decide upon a course of action. A course of action? Is that what I’m calling murder?
We pulled up to his darkened trailer and he continued to sit quietly. I started to get worried about him, his smart mouth had never stopped for this long in my experience.
“This is about that red phone ain’t it?” He watched the passing headlights play off of the glove box.
I confirmed it, and he replied. “I don’t know what your up to. But I do know that Terry is up at Saint Agnes in the ICU right now. My pop knows him. He just had another heart attack.”
Our eyes only met for a moment before he was slamming the car door behind him. I was right. I knew what was happening here, and Calvert knew it too. Underneath that clueless huckster act, he saw things. And what he saw was what I knew. It also meant that my “course of action” was the correct one.
It’s an unfair world, and we live in unfair times. The most difficult job I can think of is to try to make this world a better place. Because I know what it costs now. I now that there is no moderate healing possible. The darkness that some are able to call upon is a cancer. That cancer must be cut, and the one who does the cutting pays a hefty price.
I swept into the station and told Susan she could take a ten minute cigarette break. I didn’t have to twist her arm. I lifted the crimson phone and hit *69. I had to look up how to do this on my phone before arriving. This code redials the last caller’s number.
The line clicked into place after a single ring and I heard the creaking snapping noises in the background which I now identified as timbers and two-by-fours self destructing in the blaze of intense and intentional fire.
This time I spoke first. “What time?” I asked.
There was a brief pause before that small fragile yet monstrous voice replied. “Midnight”. It said. And the line went dead.
And so midnight it was. At midnight I would stand up and make this world a better place. Not by dedicating my time and energy to a cause. Not by taking the high road and giving others an example of how to live well. But by sinking to the depths of the real world and using the dark tools that were available to rid us of an infection. To cut it from the flesh of society. Cleanly and fully.
It did not take a scalpel to remove this cancer. It only took a pillow. One hospital pillow pressed to the face of Terry Haster, lying supine in his hospital bed. Terry Haster who killed his own daughter to free himself from responsibility. Who tried to murder his wife along with her. Who would spread his cancer through this world with every breath he took. Until I felt his last beneath my righteous hands.