By David Karp
You could feel the end of winter approaching. There were no thunderous blades of cutting wind that would make the shutters on the windows open and close; open and close, crashing like broken cymbals. The puffs and puffs that made up the heavy jackets on the sidewalk grew thinner and thinner by the day, with some afternoons that only required a hoodie. The nights still had a nip to them, but I noticed more and more people resuming their nightly walks, now that the worst of the winter was behind.
I always kept a movie on in the background the nights I volunteered. Nothing too scary though, because I’d feel weird watching something absurdly violent or bloody while I was on duty for such a thing as a helpline. Something light-hearted; funny would do.
I usually got about seven or eight calls, which were spread over the hours of seven to about three in the morning. The witching hour. The shifts were a little long, but it was the one night during the week that I would allow myself a break to watch T.V.. I had so much to do during the week for my regular day job, and at nights I either came home and passed right out, spent some time with friends, or worked on an article or two of content to send to my friend. He founded a small, local lifestyle publication that printed bi-weely, and I’d try to write three articles a pop. Usually about a new bar I checked out over the weekend or an opinion piece on whatever it was I was reading at the time. No big bucks, but some fun pocket change.
And on Thursdays, I would dedicate my night to the Shield, our local buddy phone system.
It was exactly what it sounds like. If you found yourself walking down a dark and lonely street on the way home from your bus stop or a bar in Morristown, you could call 533-888-HELP. One of the volunteers, which included yours truly, would pick up, and we would ask for your name, address, description of yourself, an emergency contact or two, and, you know, basically stay on the phone with you until you stepped into your doorway; safe and sound.
Most of the callers happened to be women, and I would say close to half of them had…a little tremble in their voice, the paranoia from both too much T.V. and the reality of a very screwed up, unjust world where women seem to always be at risk.
There happened to be a few women that had gone missing in Morristown over the last decade; none ever found. There had been investigation after investigation, but they could never find the victims nor any perpetrator, though the one connection they did find was that their paths home always seemed to include Mendham Road, a long, dark road that started on the edge of town where a few of the local bars were. After that, a good stretch of the road was basically all woods and no streetlights. Small side streets would be sprinkled here and there; homes of some of the locals who decided to walk back after having a few too many.
The cops always combed the area well after a disappearance, and, still, no one was ever found…dead, alive or drunk in a ditch. No, these were mysteries without conclusions, people wiped of their existence, and questions that could never be answered.
This was one of the inspirations for my friend, Alex, to start this hotline for the town. One of her best friends, Jillian Meyers, was one of the vanished. In fact, she was the last one to disappear.
Three years ago, one night in the middle of spring.
Gone, into thin air.
She was last seen at the Well, one of the dive bars on the edge of town that was always packed no matter what night you went on. She was spotted on the security camera leaving around 1:15 A.M. and walked down Mendham Road. Her walk through the dark would only last about ten minutes until she got to her own side street, which was lit not too far in, and she’d be home in no time. It was a walk she made most weekends.
But one weekend and three years later, she still hadn’t come home.
It took Alex a long time to get over that, and a year later she started the Shield. It wasn’t a big operation by any means, but it was another step to keeping our community safe. Two years later, and we were twenty-two volunteers strong, not including Alex who still does a shift every week, even when she’s out of town.
I like it and I like what they stand for.
Little things that create something better.
It was five minutes before midnight and I had only gotten two calls so far. One around nine and the other around a quarter past eleven. None of them were panic calls, but more just people being on the safe side. Both women made it home safely unthreatened, which made me feel thankful and relieved, because panic calls were never fun to go through.
Only once in my six months volunteering had there been anything crazy. That one time though, thankfully, the woman on the other end was on a well-lit street. An angry boyfriend who she had just broken up with followed her from the bar and stopped her on the street, yelling at her and telling her to get in the car. I connected her to the police immediately (Shield provides us with burner phones for our operations with two lines available and the police on speed dial). I stayed on the line with her through the whole ordeal, though she seemed to handle herself very well, threatening him with mace during most of the call. I heard the sirens rush in on the other end and they handled it from there. It was a night that I was both thankful to be able to help and drained from the emotions of the situation.
Anyway, this particular night was the polar opposite. It seemed like the community was safe and sound, and the last call went smoothly, so I decided to turn on Flying Circus, relax on the couch, and text back and forth with my girlfriend.
I had just pressed start on the second episode, when my Shield phone rang, right at the stroke of midnight.
“This is Shield” I said, picking up after the second ring.
“Hey, my name’s Jessica. I’m literally four houses away from home and I know this might sound stupid, but I could of sworn I heard something rattling in the bushes” she declared with a shaky voice.
“There are no stupid calls, it’s totally fine! This is what we do.”
“Cool. Thank you.”
“I’m Preston. Can I ask you for some information for our records?” I asked, pulling a black and white composition notebook that was across from me on the couch closer. Record-keeping was still primal for us.
“It’s cool, I don’t think I need to. I’m two houses from my door, I’m just gonna sprint real quick…” she said. I heard the light tapping of sneakers on the concrete and the wind against the speaker of her phone.
About fifteen seconds later: “Home! Woo!”
“Thanks, again. I appreciate it. It’s easy to get spooked out here at night.”
“Oh, yeah. Glad I could be there for you. Can I just ask for a last name, at least? Record keeping shit.”
“Yeah, Katz. Jessie Katz. Or Jessica” she replied, catching her breath. I could hear her keys jingle as she unlocked the door.
“Jessie Katz it is! Thank you.”
The creaking of a door open. She was inside.
“Thanks again. Good night.”
I waited for her end to click off, and when it did, I shut my phone and put it next to me on the couch.
I opened up the notebook and made my way to the latest page that wasn’t filled with call info. Finally, I got to the end of my scribblings and started a new one under APRIL 2ND:
“Received Call: 12:00AM
Name: Jessica Ka-”
The ringtone startled me this time, dropping the pen from my fingertips. I turned to the phone on the couch and answered.
“This is Sheild.”
I could hear the bugs as they wandered outside the window in the night. I could hear the wind picking up just a little, slow dancing with chimes in the distance. I could hear a couple creaks from the walls around me in the living room, quietly echoing around me.
But I couldn’t hear a damn thing on the other line.
I looked at the number that had called on the tiny screen. It looked like it was the number Jessica had called me from.
“This is Sheild!” I repeated.
This time, a second later, I could faintly make out a deep, nasally breath on the other line that sounded like a mix of disappointment and amusement.
“Is this Jessica? I can’t really hear you, would you mind turning…”
“I know you can’t. I haven’t said anything.”
My eyes lowered in confusion. “Something wrong with your phone?”
“No.” A deep and relaxed breath. “I’m listening to your voice.”
I put down the phone for a second, looking around for answers that did not show themselves around me. Or maybe for shadows.
I brought the phone back to my ear. “Who are you looking for? This isn’t-”
“I know who you are…Preston”.
My heart rate took a sudden jump at the sound of my name. From a voice I was almost sure I had never heard before.
So I asked: “Do I know you?”
A pause. And then a light, catlike, breathy chuckle. “No. And I intend on keeping it that way. Like I have for ten years now.”
“What are you talking about, ten years…”
“You have a very warm voice. Most of your callers feel comfortable with you, I assume?”
I hesitated, not saying a word. Not breathing, as my adrenaline started filling every vein in my body, slowly but steady. That is, until…
“Jessica seemed to think so.” A pur, like a cat who had just found his prey. Excitement. “It’s hard when they walk into their doorways with that gleam in their eye. The portal into that safe space, one that’s walked through from the outside again and again and again. I’ve made it, they think to themselves…”
“…even if it’s just a tiny spark in their eye that shimmers like a distant star, you see it. But then, you think, that’s the last thing they’re going to feel. The dopamine of hope hits them, even when it isn’t valid seconds later. But, if I hit them on just the right spot, they will never even know it’s the end. They will never know the pain of having to accept the velocity of their fleeting, fleeting existence. There will be no suffering. No panic. No regrets or fear. Just that last hope…and then straight darkness. If that isn’t mercy, my dear boy, well…I don’t know what is.”
Switching this man to speaker, I started fumbling a little with the phone, ready to use that other line to get the cops involved.
“I made sure to show Jessica as much mercy as I could give her. She didn’t even have time to feel the hit. The blood…well, I have my work cut out for me. But that just means it’s a job well done. She got it quick…oh, and I got it good. Everyone wins.” A moan, and then laughter that seemed like it surrounded me.
My head spun, my heart pounded, and my words were lost. Enough fucking around…9-1-…
“I imagine, by now, you are thinking of alerting the authorities. Are you not, Preston?”
I made a hard stop on the buttons. Stuck in a nightmare. I would be lucky if it were nothing more than a nightmare.
“So Alana…do you love her?”
My girlfriend. He knew who she was. How? How did he cover all his bases?
“Do you love her?” he repeated, just a little hint of impatience in his voice. “Answer me, please.”
I had nothing.
“I’m going to take your silence as a yes. In fact, your silence may be what saves her. And you. Not that the police won’t be involved in the morning, but I have a ritual for these things. So I give you my word, that if you as much as even type the number nine into your phone, I will gut her like a boar hanging for the slaughter right in front of you, and I will be sure to show absolutely no mercy. Do we understand each other?”
My blood was frozen by the cold of his words.
“I NEED TO HEAR SOMETHING FROM YOU, PRESTON” he barked, with the anger of a rabid dog.
“Yes.” I said out of sheer panic, almost not even registering my own voice.
There was silence. Silence everywhere. No wind; no creeks from the house; nothing but the static white noise of the TV on pause.
I jumped as he grunted and then laughed, manically and without reason. An inside joke with his own darkness.
It bounced all around the room, dripped from every crack, banged its fist on every open window. I felt my head drop down into the abyss of this never-ending night.
I need some hope. Please.
It stabbed and it stabbed. It pushed me closer to the couch. It unlocked tears from my eyes. It made everything choke me.
Finally, the laughing seemed to calm ever so slightly, so where at least he could form words.
“I’m sorry, Preston.. I’m sorry…you know how this has to end. I can’t afford to take a risk like that. Not after years and years of perfecting my art. My ritual.”
I peaked my head up in my own dark curiosity, the panic still with me in every cell.
“This call line has turned into a curse for you, you know. A few years ago, when your little operation didn’t exist, we probably would never cross paths. I’d just be a headline for you every few years. But… it does seem fate has made its choice. It is what it is. Nothing more. Nothing personal. But necessary. And I don’t know how much mercy I can afford you, considering you’ll be expecting something.”
For a second, as I lay lifeless on the couch, I accepted it. My own death. I could run, but I couldn’t run forever. Not from him. I couldn’t put the people I loved at risk. That would be a merciless life, if it didn’t end in death. Yes, I would wait. It would hurt for a minute. Maybe I would let him do it his way, where it would be over quick. I would shut my eyes and find my last comfort in the darkness until it would be nothing more than just that.
But that acceptance only lasted a couple seconds.
I wanted to live. I wanted to breathe, to be awake. To see a way out. To take flight to some unknown haven, until I was far enough away to call myself safe.
“Preston…are you ready?”
Almost in a trance, I felt my body shift. My feet dangled and touched the ground. My body lifted itself up as I felt the room around me again. I registered the TV in front of me, the notebook on the table with the calls I have gotten ever since I started…
trying to keep the world just a little safer.
I saw the phone that fell from my hand and onto the floor. I could see on the screen that the line had cut off.
I felt a pressure coming from behind me. An uncertainty. Looming.
And I slowly turned my body towards the front door down my hallway.
Three soft knocks.
Writing Exercise: “Starting With The News” by Chuck Wachtel