I worked for the Crisis Hotline in Phoenix for a little over four years. For a while all I did was field calls, like the other operators. But then I started realizing that some of these people were calling from only a few blocks away from me. So I started driving out to see them in person. It’s just so much easier to calm a person with your presence, rather than reason alone over the phone.
Potential suicides, bad-trips on different kinds of drugs, volatile reactions to things like breakups and divorces — Caitlin, my partner, would get their addresses and send me to their houses. Some of them said I was kind of like a spontaneous superhero, or a rent-a-friend. Despite whatever issues I was having at the time, I would level myself out on the drive and show up ready for anything.
Well, almost anything.
It was Thanksgiving and I was just about to sit down to dinner with my girlfriend’s family. My phone rang, and she shot me daggers from across the table. I apologized and stepped away, just to tell Caitlin that she would have to find someone else.
“I’m so sorry,” Caitlin said as soon as I picked up. “I’m not calling to ask you to field anything, I just need a little advice about what to do with this boy.”
I asked how old he was. I’ve never been able to turn away from a child in need, maybe because of my own dysfunctional childhood. From experience, I know that a kid is not going to be calling some stranger for help unless his parents don’t give a shit about him. I guess I was always trying to help fill that void in others that I had known growing up.
“He’s 13,” she said. “But, really, I don’t know if I should be calling you, or the police. Or an ambulance or… what.”
This was the most distressed I had ever heard Caitlin sound. Meanwhile, I could still feel Sara staring daggers into the back of my neck. It was almost our one year anniversary and I promised I would finally do a holiday with her family. After finding excuses for every other time they wanted me to visit, she had finally backed me into a corner where I had to meet them.
It’s weird, I know, but I don’t like being intimate with people unless they need my help. I guess I get intimidated pretty easily. But when someone is at the end of their rope, or going through some serious turmoil, then they can’t frighten me. I know that I am the one with an upper hand, so it’s easier for me to get along with them. And kids are never intimidating in the first place.
“He said he really needs to talk to you, because he’s done something bad,” Caitlin continued. “He asked for you by name, James. He said that you will be able to make him feel better about it.”
Shit, that’s weird. “He probably just heard of me from one of his friends or something,” I offered. “I take most of my calls in the same area of the city.”
“Maybe that’s it,” she said. I could tell she wasn’t convinced. “But it’s Thanksgiving.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. I could feel Sarah deflating, without having to look behind me. While the rest of her family went on talking, she would be hanging on to my conversation. “He’s a kid…. I have to take it.”
Caitlin gave me the adress and I wrote it down on a napkin. It sounded familiar for some reason. 1342 Summer Ave. I wondered where had I heard that before? But before I could question it further, Sarah was whispering viciously.
“Do you even care about me or my family?”
“He’s just a kid, I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Before she could snap back, I announced to the table that I had to take a call. I shook her father’s hand, gave her mother a hug and was out the door into the crisp night air. As I started up my car I wondered what I was even getting into. “He’s done something bad,” Caitlin had said. How bad?
The streets were clear, so it was only about a 10 minute drive. When I pulled up in front of the house, I found the boy standing on the curb, watching me with deft, brown eyes. He looked so much like how I used to look when I was his age. He was in his pajamas and slippers.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” I said to him as I got out. “Where are your parents? Why are you in pajamas?”
He looked at me quietly before pointing towards the open front door of his house. There was no noise coming from inside.
“I’m here to help you,” I said. The thought of meeting with his parents at the same time was a little troubling. I wasn’t in the mood to immerse myself in a full-blown family quarrel. “Are your parents home?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice as quiet as a whisper. “But they’re dead.”
“Dead?” I blurted out. “What are you doing calling me if they’re dead? We need to get an ambulance here. Were they murdered? Should I call the police?”
Still silent, the boy simply put his hand on my phone and lowered it before I could finish dialing. He was shaking his head side to side, telling me no. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. His hand was cold and clammy as it closed over mine, tugging as he led me through the lawn towards the front door.
A million reasons to protest were flooding through my mind at once, yet none of them found voice. I felt as though I was wading waist-deep into a dream, each step bringing the waterline of reality higher and higher until we stepped into his house. Suddenly, I was submerged. Entranced.
I remembered that two-person couch against the wall, with the Kool-Aid stains on the armrest. I remembered those watercolor paintings hanging on the walls that led out of the living room. My mother had painted them. They were purple and tan and red, flowing together like a desert sunset. Still farther, I remembered that bedroom door, leading into my parents’ room. It was always closed, and always silent.
But now it too stood open. I had no idea where I was, but it felt like home; it smelled like home. Until I stepped through the door. The boy had pulled me in a little farther before dropping my hand and pointing at the large bed.
Blood was dripping from the comforter. Its sheets were twisted beneath the bodies like red flames, thrashed in a last struggle, just like the bent angles of their legs. I suddenly felt small, like I could barely see over the side of their bed again. Just like that day…but I hadn’t remembered. Not until now. It seized me like a phantom and flooded my mind with a white hot light. I remembered holding the knife and I remembered the hate and all of the anger of years suppressed until that one moment of cathartic, intense release.
“They didn’t want me,” I said to the boy. I felt suddenly desperate to explain myself. “They didn’t want each other. They were never happy. They were never satisfied with anything in life and all they did was fight and hit each other…hit me.”
The boy shook his head again in silence. His eyes were moist and small tears were forming in them. Unthinking, I took him by the shoulders and shook him violently. Even his shirt felt freezing cold to the touch.
“Don’t be sad!” I yelled in his whimpering face. “It’s not your fault! They wanted. They made -”
I broke off, suddenly aware of a movement in the bed. Letting go of the boy’s shoulders, I rose to see a stranger standing up. He was an old man with a big belly, wearing only underwear.
“What the hell?” he gasped, almost falling back into bed. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Pulse still racing, I found the blood missing from the bed. The bodies were gone. It was just a normal room, ill lit and furnished completely different from how I remembered.
“I’m calling the cops,” he stammered. “Get out of my house.”
I was conscious again, as if snapping awake from a long dream. I apologized to him, several times. I think I even bowed a couple times as I backpedalled out of his room. Down the hallway, there were no watercolor paintings. The living room was decorated completely different, but the house was the same.
The man slammed the door shut behind me as my feet met the wet grass outside. I was back in reality, but the memory remained. No, it could not have been a memory. My parents were killed by a burglar. That’s what I told the cops, that’s what I told the psychiatrist. Everyone believed me… everyone.
I was almost back to my car, overwhelmed with the memories, when I was approached by a boy with red hair and freckles.
“I was the one who called for you,” he said. “You pulled up in the house right next to mine.”
I looked at him, suddenly exhausted. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and tried calling Caitlin, but it said the number was disconnected. I never understood that, even to this day. She could call me anytime she wanted, but when I tried calling her, it never worked.
“Okay,” I said. “I can’t say no to helping a kid.”
“I’ll show you where it happened,” he said, leading me towards the park on the opposite side of the dark street. “Over here.”
And I remembered walking behind him as we went through the dirt path, wondering why he wasn’t leaving any footprints in the sand.
That’s when I thought to myself, this is the last time I take a call for the Crisis Hotline.