Title: Last Call
Word count: 4342 words
Summary: Arlen works as a 9-11 dispatcher until a particularly distressing phone call changes his life forever.
Notes: This story was written in response to a few uncredited dispatcher stories that were circulating online a year ago. I can’t imagine the emotional difficulties of having a job that revolves around the distress and tragedy of others. I wanted to explore the trauma of the worst case scenario, how the brain might try to cope–or protect–itself from the damage.
Thursdays were Arlen’s Sundays. Tuesdays were his Saturdays. He preferred Thursdays, because work hadn’t had enough time to make his hands shake and his shoulders tense. Wednesdays were relatively quiet days, anyway. He took calls about flat tires and drivers stranded on the westbound highway who couldn’t remember the last mile marker. Sometimes there were small kitchen fires, and no one was crying but no one was sure how to put out a stove fire, either. There were noise complaints because it was 9:05 and little Elizabeth was supposed to be asleep thirty-five minutes ago but instead she’s crying and between her and the bass from the college kid’s music downstairs, the caller can’t even hear the television.
Weekends were rarely as quiet, but Arlen spent Thursdays trying not to think about the impending weekend. Weekends weren’t always emergencies either, but there were more calls and fewer experienced operators who had used their seniority to snag less stressful shifts as soon as they had been able. There were girlfriends who called 911 to report their boyfriends for theft, and then forgot to hang up before shouting “See? I told you I’d do it! You’d better get your shit together or I–” and little kids who had just learned the number for 911 and were calling because their big brothers wouldn’t let them have the remote.
And sometimes, there were real calls–and they always threw everyone for a loop, because everyone was so used to expecting the non-emergencies. Bar fights and angry ex-boyfriends driving off in a flurry of squealing tires and shouts to stop, still drunk on jaegerbombs. A woman once, crying into the phone, trying to explain through her sobs that there had been a bottle in her yard that exploded. She hadn’t put it there. It killed her dog. The calls that had no words on the other line, just crying and a shout and a click as the line disconnected. They didn’t happen often, but they always seemed to happen on weekends. When he finally got home, he would crack a beer. He would spend Tuesday trying to forget the weekend, drowning it out with television marathons and beer and a pizza, if it had been particularly stressful. When Chloe got home, they would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch a movie in silence. She never asked questions.
On Thursdays, Arlen slept until noon. Chloe would wake him up with a kiss on the cheek, tell him that there was food in the fridge and goodbye. He would fall back asleep before she had closed the bedroom door, even though she always opened the blinds before she left. He had gotten home just as the sun was rising.
He woke when he became restless, not when his eyes stopped itching with exhaustion. That never quite went away these days. Instead, he shuffled bare-foot and boxer-clad into the living room, where the noises from outside seemed louder even while the house itself felt quieter, emptier, bigger. He flipped on the television to drown out the sound of the neighbor’s weed-whacker, but he wasn’t sure that the noon news report was a better option. He didn’t change the channel. Instead, he continued his barefooted shuffle into the kitchen, scratching his neck and yawning wide. He needed to shave today. Chloe hated scruffiness.
“Food, food, food, food, food…” He muttered, opening cabinet doors with a flick of his fingers as he passed. Nothing looked interesting–or at least, nothing looked interesting that was ready to eat out of the packaging. Arlen left a trail of open doors in his wake. If Chloe were home, she would follow behind him, gently shutting each door so that none slammed, guiding him towards what he wanted even if though he didn’t know what that was yet. She was good at anticipating him.
“Food in the fridge,” he said, with the tone of one reciting something from memory. He pulled open the fridge door, expecting, but he was disappointed.
There was only milk, eggs of questionable age, and a jar of pickles. He didn’t know why there was a jar of pickles. He shut the fridge door, and grimaced at the squelching of the door meeting the seal. He would never get used to that sound.
Maybe she had told him there was no food in the fridge. Maybe that was what he remembered her saying.
He glanced at his cell phone, lying on the peninsula that separated the kitchen from the dining room that was a dining room only in name, because haphazard piles of paper and envelopes–opened and unopened–occupied all available table space. He was trying to decide if it was a pizza day. Or maybe Chinese food, a little treat. He rarely ate Chinese food because Chloe hated it; she insisted the MSG was going to poison them. He wasn’t entirely sure she knew what MSG was, or what it stood for, but he didn’t say that. Giving up Chinese food didn’t seem like all that big of a deal.
Her license was next to his phone. It looked worse for wear, darkened by hands and the strange dirt that seemed to form in coat pockets and women’s handbags. But it was still legible, and didn’t expire for another year. Her hair was still long in the picture, thick dark hair twisted into a braid and draped over her left shoulder, thin lips painted a flirty red although they were not smiling, dark eyes staring into the camera. It was a strange likeness of her. Whenever Arlen thought of Chloe, he thought of her smile. She did not seem herself without it.
He really ought to bring her license to her, he thought. She shouldn’t be driving around without it.
His quest for food forgotten, woken up by the sudden need to do something, he turned back towards the bedroom with more energy than he’d had just minutes before. Chloe’s side of the room was pristine, with all of her clothes off the floor and everything in its proper place. Her side of the covers were even tucked under the mattress, despite Arlen’s sleepy attempts to free them. But it took him several minutes to find something clean amidst the piles of laundry, books, receipts, water bottles, and discarded deodorant sticks on his own side of the bedroom. He pulled on jeans, socks, and a clean-enough t-shirt and stuck his feet into a pair of faded checkered slip-ons that had survived since junior year of high school, to Chloe’s eternal frustration. He rarely wore them except to do yard work, these days. It was probably the only reason she didn’t toss them while he slept or was at work.
The car started on the second attempt. It was another relic from another era. The gold paint was dull and chipping in spots, especially on the rear bumper. The tires were bald (an act of negligence on Arlen’s part, not the car’s fault, and one he intended to rectify before the first snow in a couple of months). The engine wheezed when he went uphill and over 50 miles per hour. The radio connection was poor and made the car sound haunted, which Arlen thought was entirely possible. Chloe drove the new car, the nice car, the safe car. It was dark blue, her favorite color, and Arlen worried a lot less about that car than Chloe did about his.
The body creaked as the car rolled in reverse out of the drive way. He had to spin the wheel twice, hurriedly with a practiced motion, to turn into the road. It was a gorgeous day. He freed his sunglasses from the visor, unfolded them one-handed by using the wheel to pry the arms open, and slid them onto the bridge of his nose as the car rolled towards the stop sign at the end of his road. He rolled the window down to tempt the breeze, and drove the rest of the way into the center of town with one arm draped out the window and his haunted radio playing something unrecognizable through the static, and he thought it was a beautiful day for a day off. Maybe when Chloe got out of work, he would surprise her with a picnic in the backyard.
The optometrist’s office where Chloe worked as an optician reminded Arlen, strangely, of a shopping mall. Dr. Keeler’s Family Optical Care was its own building in the shopping district, flanked on both sides by clothing boutiques. But the main entrance was around back, facing a large parking lot. He parked there, in the back corner even though he only intended to be a minute. Arlen patted his pocket to make sure he had remembered to grab the license before stepping out of the car.
Inside the main doors was an atrium with large black tiles and a matching fountain. Each wall had two doors one could go through. The doors opposite the entrance were marked STAIRS and there was an elevator alongside them. He had never seen anyone step inside once, but he assumed there was office space above. To the left was the optometrist and a door marked STAFF ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT and the door had a keypad locking system. A matching door was on the right, along with the entrance to Custom-Eyes, the optical shop in which his Chloe worked. He had rolled his eyes at the pun when she had first told him where she worked.
He pushed through the customer door into Custom-Eyes. There were three women and two men working, clad in sensible shoes and nice black pants and colored shirts that looked out of place in the clean, bright lighting of the optical shop. None of them were Chloe.
“Oh, hello.” one of the women said. Arlen didn’t recognize her. She must have been new. “What can we–”
“Arlen.” When one of the men said his name, it sounded more like a statement than a question, but Connor hadn’t been able to mask the surprise in his voice. The Ar– was sharp, like a sound caught in his throat. Arlen barely noticed. Connor had always been a doughy, skittish sort of individual. He jumped whenever Arlen offered him a hand to shake. He half-rose from his chair.
“I’m just popping in for a minute,” Arlen said, raising a hand to keep Connor where he was. After an uneasy moment, during which Connor looked at him a little too hard for Arlen’s liking, Connor settled back into his chair. He gripped the arms of the chair too hard. “I need to drop something off for Chloe.” He pulled the license out of his pocket with two fingers and held it up for display. “She forgot this.”
“Chloe–” Connor broke off, looking to one of the women for help.
“Chloe isn’t here, Arlen.” The woman who spoke was Hadley. Arlen remembered because he had never heard the name before he’d met her, and he kept calling her Haley. She hadn’t corrected him, but Chloe had been mortified. Hadley had dark skin and a warm voice. She got brunch with Chloe, along with some other coworkers, every other Saturday. If he wasn’t at work, Arlen drove Chloe there and picked her up because Chloe always had two mimosas too many. She would giggle when she took him by the elbow, and the entire drive home he would hold her hand so that it wouldn’t find his thigh, or he would never get back to sleep before his shift.
He didn’t remember her expression so serious, though. Maybe, although there were no clients now, it had been a busy morning. He knew the feeling.
“Got it, thanks. I’ll drop it off with Mark.”
“Connor,” Hadley said in warning, but Arlen didn’t know why.
He had already turned back the way he had come and allowed the door to swing shut behind him. Across the atrium, Dr. Keeler’s reception area made it hard to remember that one was in a doctor’s office. TA large rectangular, beige accent rug patterned with overlapping crimson, brown, and black circles protected the dark, hardwood floors from the accent coffee tables, arm chairs, and faux leather black couches that were just worn enough and in enough numbers to betray the illusion of a comfortable modern living room. Abstract art that Arlen supposed matched the rug, although he never had had an eye for that sort of thing, decorated the wall except for beside the reception window, which had a cork board littered with policies, insurance information, and other technicalities.
Mark had the phone to his ear, but he didn’t look surprised to see Arlen. He supposed someone from across the atrium had called to let him know Arlen was coming. Mark’s lips moved, and his brows knit together, but the glass of the sliding window was thick and made it difficult to know what was being said. When he hung up, he stood and leaned over his desk to open the window.
“What’s up, Arlen?” Mark had a deep, slow voice that had a calming effect on everyone. He had come over for dinner once or twice, and sometimes they talked sports when they were in the same room together, but they didn’t have a single team in common. It was a shame, really. He liked Mark.
“I have something for Chloe.”
“Chloe isn’t here.”
“I know. I mean, Hadley told me. She’s at lunch. But she forgot her license on the counter.”
“She’s not at lunch,” Mark said, frowning.
“Okay.” Arlen was frowning now, too. He held the license out to Mark, but Mark didn’t take it. “Can you just get that to her when she’s back from whatever she’s doing? It’s not a big deal. But she shouldn’t be driving without it on her.” He tried to smile. Mark’s expression was unsettling him. “The law, you know?”
“I can’t give it to her, Arlen.”
He was starting to get annoyed. “Why not?”
“She’s not here.”
“I get that,” Arlen said impatiently. “But when she gets back.”
“She’s not coming back.”
Arlen hesitated, blinking slowly. He was trying to understand Mark’s expression, the tension in his voice. “Did she like… quit?” He wondered if there had been an argument. Chloe wasn’t the sort to fight, but she could be stubborn when she didn’t like something she heard or saw. It was possible that something might have happened, even though Arlen couldn’t imagine what it was. She never had a bad story about work, never an unpleasant word about a coworker. Sometimes it made it harder for him to go to work, as much as he knew he needed to. Someone needed to do his job; there was no reason it shouldn’t be him. But sometimes it was hard.
“Is that Arlen I hear?”
“Yes, Dr. Keeler.” Mark was still looking at him. His expression was unreadable. It was starting to piss Arlen off. Mark still hadn’t answered his question.
“Did she quit?”
“No,” Mark said this time. “No, she didn’t quit.”
“Then what happened?” Because she wasn’t fired. They would never fire her. No one in their right mind would let go of Chloe. She was the hardest working person he had ever met.
“I think you should go, Arlen,” Dr. Keeler said quietly. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” His voice was rising now. He didn’t notice, but Mark strained up and Dr. Keeler casually rested her hand on the phone in its cradle. “Looking out for my wife?”
“Every day,” Mark said. “You’ve been here every day. Yesterday it was lunch. The day before it was her phone.”
“Then talk to her about it. I’m not the one–”
“Arlen,” Mark said tersely.
“Chloe never struck me as absent-minded,” Dr. Keeler said, her voice still barely above a whisper in contrast to Arlen’s. He didn’t know what to say to that. His lungs swelled. He didn’t know why he wanted to scream.
“You gotta stop.” said Mark. “Go home, Arlen.”
Dr. Keeler’s fingers curled around the phone. He heard the dial tone as she lifted it out of its cradle.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“Arlen? Is that you, Arlen?”
“Don’t. Don’t.” Arlen was screaming. He didn’t realize he was screaming. He only knew that he had spoken, and that his throat felt raw. The license was no longer in his hand, but on the other side of the window. He couldn’t see where it landed. The phone was no longer in its cradle, but dangling near the ground from its cord, out of Arlen’s sight. Dr. Keeler’s hand was now curled into her chest, not hurt but startled. Her eyes were wide, blue and too pale. She was staring at him. He wanted to reach his fingers out and force them closed.
“I’m sorry, Arlen. I truly am. I’m so sorry,” Dr. Keeler whispered. Her eyes were still wide and pale.
He had never described Chloe’s eyes as pale, but suddenly he remembered them as such. He didn’t know why Dr. Keeler was apologizing. Had the phone been ringing? She shouldn’t be apologizing for taking a call. That was her job.
Or rather, it was Mark’s job, but Mark was standing in front of Dr. Keeler now, his stance oddly protective as though he thought Arlen meant to hurt her. He kept telling Arlen to leave. Arlen had always liked Mark.
The dial tone became a busy signal. The phone still dangled from its cord.
“Arlen… Arlen… There’s someone… Someone’s at the back door.”
Josh, the operator at the station to Arlen’s right, looked over at him. Arlen didn’t know why. Maybe the fact that Arlen wasn’t speaking when it was his job to speak–to talk the caller through their fear and to safety. He saw Arlen’s address on the screen. There was a hand on Arlen’s shoulder at one point, although he didn’t know whose. These were all details that the police shared with him after. He only remembered her voice, a whisper as pale as her eyes. They didn’t close them before he came to identify the body.
“Arlen, what do I do?”
“The front door. Is it safe to go out the front door?”
She didn’t speak for a moment, when she did, her voice sounded strangled. She was trying not to cry. Chloe didn’t cry. This was a very important detail. He told the police the same thing, over and over and over. Chloe didn’t cry.
“Someone’s trying the knob.”
“The bedroom, Chloe. I’m sending a police officer to your location now.”
“Stay on the phone, Chloe. I’ll be here as long as you stay on the phone.”
Someone asked him a question. He thought it was Mark. But he didn’t want to talk to Mark right now. He didn’t understand what happened between Chloe and the office, but he didn’t think it was right that they talk to him this way. They could at least tell him what happened. She was his fucking wife.
“Are you feeling alright, Arlen,” Dr. Keeler asked. She had a voice that was high and soft, like a child’s, even when she was speaking at regular volume. She looked less afraid now. More like she was trying to coax a feral cat out from behind the dumpster.
Mark was less kind. His voice was still deep and soft, but it was no longer warm. It felt like falling backwards into dark water. He tried to catch himself, but something was pulling him farther and farther down. He was choking. He gasped, but there was no air for his lungs to take in.
“Do you know what day it is,” Mark asked. Impatient. Had he been asked this question already?
“Sorry,” Arlen said. “Thursday.”
“No, Arlen,” Dr. Keeler said sadly. He could barely hear her. Too many other sounds were competing for his attention. Breaking glass. Snapping hinges. Screams. Clicks. Grunts. Sobs. Gasps. Thuds. Creaking floors.
Arlen’s throat ached.
“You should go home,” Mark said. The impatience had faded. He sounded tired. Arlen was tired too. He felt like he could sleep for a week, but he had work the next day.
“Yeah,” Arlen said. The word struggled to come out. No wanted to fill its place, but he didn’t understand why. “Yeah.”
Arlen turned. Two officers stood in the doorway, clad in the district khaki and frowning with concern.
“I know you,” one of them said. “How’re you holding up?”
“You should go home,” Mark repeated. “You look tired, Arlen.”
“Why don’t I walk you out,” the same officer offered. “My partner’s just got to have a word with the doctor. Let’s get some sunshine.”
“I know,” the officer said. His tone was sympathetic, but he didn’t give Arlen the chance to finish his thought. He took Arlen by the elbow–Chloe used to do that because she thought holding hands was too sweaty, liked that their footsteps synched up when they linked elbows, used to bake when she was sad, used to clean when she was angry, couldn’t fold a fitted sheet, tossed away all of the flat sheets, couldn’t order clothes or furniture online–and led him outside. He had only been inside a few minutes, he thought, but the shadows had already begun to travel across the parking lot. His car was no longer in the shade. For some reason, this made him feel very tired.
“I could sleep for a week,” Arlen said.
“Might not be a bad idea then, some R&R. Sounds like your body needs it.”
“I’ve got work tomorrow.”
“When was the last time you went to work?”
“Yesterday,” Arlen said. “I always work Wednesdays.”
The officer was quiet for a moment. “Sure you didn’t already sleep that week,” he asked, trying to joke. But he was giving Arlen a long look out of the corner of his eyes that Arlen couldn’t interpret. He had eyes like Chloe’s. They could have been siblings. Or maybe cousins. The chin was passable, but the nose was all wrong.
“What do you mean?”
The officer didn’t answer right away. Medoff, according to his badge.
“It’s Monday, my friend.”
“That’s not right,” Arlen said stubbornly, but he could feel the scream rising in his throat again. No. No. No. No. No. No.
“I’m sorry about your wife,” the officer said. “My old partner is the officer who responded to the scene. He’s on leave right now. Last I heard, you should be too.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. What’s to understand?” Medoff looked sad. He clapped Arlen on the shoulder, left his hand there for a moment. “Go home. Eat a solid meal. Go to sleep. In the morning, shave. Call someone. I’ll give you a number. Someone to talk to. Take care of yourself. She’d want you to.”
“I don’t understand,” Arlen said again, except he felt like he did, and that was worse.
Medoff sighed and dropped his hand from Arlen’s shoulder as the doors opened behind them. His partner came out, looking at Arlen with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion that made Arlen angry. He raised his chin defiantly. Medoff noticed.
“Look, here’s my card. And here.” He pulled a pen out of his back pocket and scribbled a number on the back. “Is that number I promised you. Promise you’ll call it. Or me. We want to help you, my friend. That’s our job.”
“That’s my job,” Arlen said, and he didn’t know why his eyes suddenly burned.
“Right. I remember. You’re the one who got the call. I’m sorry.”
Arlen? Arlen, they’re inside, aren’t they? Oh my god, they’re inside. Oh my god. Arlen? Arlen? What’s going to happen? Arlen, come home. Please come home. Please come home.
“I don’t want to go home,” he heard himself saying.
“I know,” the second officer said. Arlen couldn’t read the man’s badge. His eyes were suddenly having trouble focusing. “But you can’t stay here, okay? The folks inside, they’re going to take care of that license for you. Get it where it needs to go. But you can’t come around here anymore, alright?”
“But what if Chloe needs something?”
The officers looked at each other for a long moment before Medoff said, “Take care of yourself. Remember that number.”
He knew, then, that he was being dismissed. They didn’t tell him to leave, but they stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the doors from Arlen’s view. He turned clumsily on his heel and went back to the car. He should’ve grabbed a coffee before he came out here to bring Chloe her license. He fumbled with his keys before finally reaching into the still-open window to unlock his car. He dropped ungracefully into the driver’s seat. Hand on his chest, he closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the seat while he caught his breath. The business card was still in his hand. He’d already forgotten about it.
“Arlen, Arlen, Arlen, please come home, please come, please, someone come, they’re inside, they’re inside, oh my god oh my god oh my go–Arlen, Arlen help, Arlen, ARLEN!”
He whispered, “On my way.”
He turned the key.