The clock said 2022 hours when the phone rang. It said 2022 hours when the screaming could be heard before the phone was even to the dispatcher’s ear. The hair on the back of her neck stood up and the briefest flash of sorrow crossed her mind. It's not my emergency. She recited the mantra. It gave her comfort.
The scream was more animal than human, the feral quality of it brought her pulse leaping before she even knew what was happening. What she did know, before she even said the words "Emergency dispatch,” was that death was on the other end of the line. It was in the tonal quality of the pitch. The thing horror movies never get right. There is no acting that can generate the truth of the noise that comes from a person when they see their loved one dead.
Or worse, when they are watching them die.
“Hello, emergency dispatch? Can you hear me?" She said again, trying to be heard over the noise. There were no coherent words at first, just the primal response of a person knowing they need help but are unable to fathom a way to get it. She pressed the phone to her ear more tightly, listening. “Emergency dispatch can you hear me?” She might have said it five times or ten, but it finally got through to the other end. There was a pause, slight, but there, enough to say, "emergency dispatch can you hear me?"
The voice on the phone said, "He's dead, he's dead oh god he's dead." Her voice rose again, her breath sucked into her lungs.
She knew the best way to get information from someone in hysteria was to try and get them to focus on something else. To answer a simple question. "Ma'am you're address shows 560 Ocean Road is that right?"
"Yes, oh it fell, oh Jesus please..." Screaming, perhaps the word no, or fell, maybe the words. the wall, something about a pool, then the word rock. Indistinct and disjointed, him, I can't. Lift. There was a shuffling sound and then a slow groan. A whimper. The sounds of someone retching.
Nothing made a lot of sense. She strained to hear anything that could help responders know what they were walking into. Having little information she gave out what she could and hoped it was enough. "Units respond, 560 Ocean Road caller on the line screaming, possibly subject in a pool or on a wall and has fallen."
Someone on the phone was trying to talk to her, but she couldn't understand the dispatchers’ words. Her brain had stopped working. She could only see the thing in front of her. She stood with the phone pressed to her ear but she could only see this thing she did not want to see. Oddly she couldn't fathom it; the enormity of what it meant, as if her brain had rejected it. Rejected everything until there was just a buzzing blankness. She could feel the phone in her hand, and she could hear something in the phone, but words weren't making any sense. There was no language. A minute, a second, an hour, there was no time. Until finally the words, repeated many times broke through the barrier of muteness, the words penetrated the shock to finally be heard.
"Can you hear me? Hello can you hear me? Can you hear me? Ma'am I need you to say yes. Can you hear me? If you can't speak can you press a button on the phone, or tap it twice. Can you hear me?" Come on lady help me help you.
She tried to unglue her lips which were somehow stuck together. Finally they tore open enough to huff out, "ya-yes."
"Okay good, is someone in the pool?"
The voice was barely a whisper. "Yes"
"Okay can you get them out?"
"No, it's gone, it...it..."
She could hear guttural breathing, straining to bring in oxygen. "Tell me what that means, gone?"
Heavy breathing, ramping up to scream. "Okay you're doing good, can you tell me your name?" Get her to focus on a thing she can answer.
"Kate, breathe right now. I need you to breathe so I can help you okay. Breathe with me right now, breathe in." She breathed in a great whoosh of air so Kate could hear it. Kate's breath wasn't as big as it should have been, but at least she was focusing. "Okay breathe out. Good, one more time."
They breathed together and Kate could feel something click. She needed to tell them about him. That was it! That was why she had the phone. "The pool wall caved in! Oh God, oh the pool..."
"Kate listen." Keep her focused. "Okay the pool wall caved in, is someone in there?"
Reduced now to small whimpers. "Yes."
"Is there water in the pool?"
"No, we were fix..fa...." smaller sobs, incoherent words. "He was, an we just I am we he, can't I...."
"Kate breathe. You were what?"
"Fix...fixing it and..." The crashing sound of horror echoed inside her head. Was she screaming or was that just in her mind?
It clicked. It made sense now. Don't hear the scream, don't hear the pain, focus on the task at hand. Get her help. "Okay you were working on the pool and the wall collapsed? Is someone trapped under the wall?"
"Yes." Crashing in again, the image of the rock falling. Yes, that was it! That was the thing she needed to tell people and she needed help and, "OH GOD YES PLEASE OH GOD PLEEAASE." Kate felt her heart ripping. He was in there...Oh he was in there and...
Screaming. A deep wail of sorrow. Get her to focus. "Kate," she said sharply, "I need you to listen, okay I need you to focus on my questions. Where is the person that was in the pool? How deep is that part of the pool?" Her tone was that of a mother speaking to her child.
Focus she says you need to focus Kate, oh what did she ask? "Um, I don't know, um deep it's um, the place where we dive."
"Okay so the deep end. Listen you're going to hear me talking to the people coming to help okay, just stay with me." Kate could hear the woman telling the fire and rescue people what she'd said; that a person was in the deep end of the pool, that the pool was empty, that the pool had caved in. Then she was back, the calm voice that was making this nightmare both bearable and more real at the same time. She didn't want to talk about it. She needed to move, she needed to walk, to pace, to get down under there. HE was under there. Adrenaline was taking over. He wasn't speaking. His leg, it wasn't moving and rest of him was under the rock that used to be the top of the grotto. And if she could just lift it...was the scream only in her mind or was that why her throat hurt so much?
"Kate, you should hear sirens any second now okay, I want you to tell me when you can hear them. But until then can you see the person?"
Can you get to him?"
"Okay can you get to him and tell me if he's breathing?"
"Yes." I don’t want to do this I don’t want to do this please this isn’t real please this isn’t real I don’t want to. There was the sound of scrambling. Heavy chuffing breaths. Then, "Um, he's, I can't tell"
"Can you see his face?"
"No just his leg."
Oh God. Okay ask something else, keep her talking. Make her feel like she's doing something. "Are his legs moving?"
Whimpering, "nah-oh-no- nuh, no."
"Pinch his leg, see if he flinches."
Kate did as instructed. "No."
She wondered, how it possible that the smallest of words held an entire world of pain inside it? "Okay Kate, I know this is hard, but can you tell me what you see?"
"Just his leg, just his leg, and then...he's, he's just.." The space a of minute is terrible when you know the thing that is going to be said. "He's just crushed under it."
"Kate, I want you to climb back out of there okay?" Get her out of there, she doesn't need to keep looking at that.
"I can't leave him." Kate cried into the phone, "I'm alone here. I can't leave him. I can't...I need somebody to help me? Are you coming?" She was sobbing now, holding the phone with both hands, needing to feel a connection.
"Kate, I'm right here. I'm with you and I’m not leaving you okay. My responders are all coming. They will help you. I’m staying here with you okay?" She listened while Kate cried. Reduced to resigned sadness. The loss of hope. She could feel her own eyes fill. She looked out toward the windows. beyond the dark reflection of her office the western sky was dazzling. Sunset was glowing along the horizon, blackening the trees, turning the blue sky a blaze of orange. Such an odd moment. Time moving while it felt perfectly still. “Kate where are you now? Are you still in the pool?”
“Yes, I can’t, I can’t I don’t know what to do.”
“I know, and I know how terrible this is, but I promise they’re coming, and they’re not far away.”
The voice on the phone was soft. Just talking. Telling her where the responders were. Making her feel so much less alone. "I couldn't help him." Kate whimpered to the person listening. She needed to make sure the person on the phone knew she tried, but she couldn't lift the rock and then he was...oh he was..."I can't lift it, I tried, but I can't, it's..."
"I know, Kate, you tried, you tried. I'm sorry. Kate the responders are pulling in your driveway though okay, and I need you to show them where he is."
Kate's next question, cut so deeply it left what she knew would be a permanent scar. It was asked with both hope and defeat. Knowing the truth, but wanting the lie. "Can they save him?
Tell the lie to get her to do what you need her to do. "I don't know Kate. They'll try okay. Tell me when you see them okay?" She closed her eyes to fight the sadness.
"I see them." There was resignation in Kate's voice, the knowledge that had been protected by the screams was sinking in. He was dead.
"Okay Kate they're going to help you now okay?"
Then the phone line was dead. There was no more sound. No crying, no screaming. She closed her eyes and let her head fall into her hands. The fan at her station whirred it's lulling sound. She sat, wondering how long it had been. An hour? A minute? As if to answer her the clock blinked over. 2034. Twelve minutes? It seemed eternally longer.
Her supervisor came to stand by her. "First time you’ve taken an in progress death?”
"Yup." She let her neck stretch out and the tension she'd been holding in her shoulders made itself known with small snaps. She rubbed her ear, it hurt from pressings the phone so close, trying to hear beyond the screaming. Her eyes felt grainy with unshed tears. She swallowed thickly, hoping it went unnoticed.
"It gets easier," her supervisor looked out the window, "but that first death call stays with you. You did really good though, you got all the information, you gave it out. You did good."
She nodded, gaining comfort in the knowledge of a job well done. There was little time to dwell on it. The phone was ringing. "Emergency dispatch what's your emergency?"