The clock struck one AM.
Don got up to get his usual mid-shift cup of coffee, Margery was trying to explain to a belligerent drunk that no, he couldn’t have his toddler arrested for removing his diaper and smearing its contents across the TV, but she was happy to send a squad car over, and I was wrapping up a car accident call. It was the kind of call I preferred; an upset, but unharmed driver rear ended at a red light, no injuries, no need for an ambulance, just send some cops to write up a report.
The kind where everyone got to walk away at the end.
One of the first things I’d been told when I started working as an emergency dispatcher was that it was going to be a draining, sometimes soul crushing job, and if I didn’t have a thick skin and level head, I’d be better off looking elsewhere. I’d scoffed. I’d grown up rough, there was nothing that this job could throw at me that I wouldn’t be ready for.
That had been two years before, and every shift it seemed that it was trying to prove me wrong. The first time I listened to a mother screaming over her unbreathing infant, I’d had to take a long lunch and spent most of it crying in a closet. When a young man dialed in and told me, quite flatly, that he had slit his wrists and wanted me to know so we found his body instead of his family, I could barely think of what to say. An elderly man just wept into the phone until police and paramedics arrived. I listened in while he tearfully explained that his wife of forty years had passed beside him while they slept.
The hardest part, after a call ended, was that I often didn’t get to find out what happened. In my line of work, resolutions were rare and we could only hope for the best for all involved. Not that any of us got to dwell too long during the working hours; there was always another call, another crisis, a new worst day in someone’s life.
In a way, staying busy kept me sane.
I wrapped up my accident log and set myself to available again. Beside me, Margery was trying to patiently explain to her intoxicated caller that it really would be in his best interest to open the door to the knocking officers. Somehow, he wasn’t understanding why they might want to do a welfare check on his child.
We shared an eye roll and I heard the beep of an incoming call.
“911, what is your location?” I answered.
The line was quiet.
“911, caller are you there?”
Still no response.
“Caller, if you can, please tell me your location.”
I waited for thirty seconds, but there was only silence.
Heavy, shaky breathing cut me off. It was quick and muffled and utterly terrified.
I sat up straighter in my chair, my fingers poised over the keyboard. “Hello?”
“Please don’t hang up.” A girl whispered into the phone. Her voice was high and tight.
“I’m not going anywhere.” I said. I had never been so thankful as I was then for the mentors I’d had who’d taught me how to keep my voice calm and controlled. “Can you tell me your location?”
“I think I’m on…Coral Avenue? I don’t know, I don’t know!” She choked on a quiet cry.
“That’s ok.” I had already begun tracing the call. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“They might hear!”
“Only talk when you think you can. I’m going to stay on the phone with you for as long as this takes.”
She went quiet again and I strained to hear any background noise. There was a shuffling sound and then her heavy breathing again.
“I think they’re in the kitchen.” She said.
“Has someone broken in?”
“Is anyone else there with you?”
“No.” The girl’s voice trembled. “I’m visiting my aunt, but she’s at work.”
“Ok, sweetie, you’re doing so good. What’s your name?”
“That’s pretty. Mine’s Carlie. Can you tell me anything about your aunt’s house? Do you remember anything nearby like a store or school?”
Her nose whistled sharply with each panicked breath. I had to remind myself to keep my own breathing measured and even and not to match her pace. It was easy to get caught up in the rush of emotions.
“I think there’s a-a grocery store. Aunt Lina took me there.”
“Alright. Just keep breathing, Bree, you’re ok. How old are you?”
I could feel a cold sweat starting to bead across my forehead. I couldn’t imagine what this poor child was going through, how alone and trapped she must have felt. I gave myself a little shake to recollect my thoughts; I didn’t have the luxury of taking time to empathize.
“Can you tell me anything about the people in the house? Did you see them?”
“Not really.” She whimpered. “It was dark. I heard a window break and it woke me up.”
“That’s fine. Where are you?”
“In my aunt’s room. I’m under the bed with her phone.”
I tried to keep my typing quiet. I didn’t want to scare her any more with how much I was inputting or how quickly. I just wanted her to focus on my voice and, hopefully, be comforted by how soothing I thought I sounded.
“Smart. Can you hear where the people are now?”
There was a pause.
“I think they’re in the living room. It’s only down the hall. They’re coming closer!” She began to sob quietly in little, strangled hiccups. “Please help me!”
“The cops are coming, Bree, I just need you to hang in there with me, ok? You’re being so brave!”
I was sending out as much information as I could, praying it was enough, that they’d be able to find her. I kept waiting for the familiar wail of sirens growing in the distance, but it didn’t come.
There was a shuffling sound again, like she was moving the phone away from her ear, and then she was back on, whispering frantically. “I hear them! I hear them in the hall!”
“You can be quiet if you think they’ll hear you. I’m still going to be here.”
She let out an almost inaudible, breathy cry. Beyond it, I could hear voices, at least two, speaking in hushed tones. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, only that they were deep.
A door creaked open.
Bree’s breathing stopped. So did mine.
There was the shuffling of footsteps over carpet and the same voices, louder and clearer now.
“Look for any jewelry.” One said.
“No shit.” The other said.
My ears throbbed with the pounding of my heart. A prickly, panicked heat spread across my neck, into my chest and face, and I was afraid to move or speak. I wanted to comfort Bree, to remind her I was with her, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk them hearing me over the phone and finding her.
Bree didn’t make a sound. She wasn’t even breathing. The weight of our combined tension and helplessness draped heavily over me, almost smothering me. In the background, I could hear drawers being pulled open, things being pushed around, and the two voices moving around the room.
They’ll lose interest. They’re just looking for an easy score. I told myself. They’re going to move on any second.
Bree’s horrified shriek filled my headset.
“Shit!” One of the intruder’s shouted.
They’d found her.
“Help!” Bree cried.
There was a struggle. Bree’s screams, so terrified, so desperate, continued. It wasn’t like in the movies, where the girl goes on long and loudly; these were short bursts of harsh, bone chilling howls. A child’s pure terror.
“Carlie!” She was calling my name, begging me to somehow help. I clutched my head between my hands and squeezed my eyes shut. “Carlie!”
I could do nothing but sit there and listen.
There was a moment of erratic scuffling and then the line went dead.
I tried to call back again and again and again, but there was no answer.
I bit down on my knuckle to keep myself from crying out.
“Carlie?” My supervisor was standing beside me. She had a look on her face, one of horrible understanding that said, even if she didn’t know exactly what had just happened, she knew enough, and she put a hand on my shoulder. “Take your break early.”
I went out to my car and I screamed and I beat the steering wheel and I prayed to any god that might listen that someone had heard Bree’s screams and had gone to help. I crumpled in the driver’s seat and broke down into almost hysterical tears and all I could hear was Bree calling for me, begging me to save her.
By the time my break was over, I felt drained and sick and hollow. I sat back down at my desk, dabbed my eyes with a tissue from a box someone had left for me, and put my headset back on.
The line buzzed almost immediately.
“911, what is your location?”
The hardest part, after a call ends, is that I often don’t get to find out what happened. In my line of work, resolutions are rare and we can only hope for the best for all involved. We can’t dwell; there’s always another call, another crisis, a new worst day in someone’s life.
Staying busy is the only thing that keeps me sane.