Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence and mature content.
For a few years in my early twenties, I worked at a 911 call center as a dispatcher. It was an easy job— a few months of training, and then all we had to do was get the right information out of the person on the call. After one of my worse migraines, my boss had discovered me in the back of the bookstore and called 911. I’d been unable to move, unable to open my eyes. Even in pitch blackness, brightness stabbed through my skull. The ambulance had taken me to the hospital and they’d been able to make it stop. I didn’t have a goal in life, nowhere I was heading towards. But after that, I thought maybe I could do something like that, something to help people. I didn’t have medical training, and I knew I’d be no good at it if I tried— but I could operate one of the phones.
I’d completed the training, the late night shifts, listened to people sobbing on the phone in pain. Looking back, I don’t know how I sat through hours and hours of those calls in the beginning. I don’t know how I made it through day after day of driving home in the dark. Maybe it was the reassurance that they would be getting the help they needed, that I was sending an ambulance to them, and after this, they’d be okay. I felt like I might actually be helping people— I felt like I might be making a difference.
I was twenty-four, and it was still sunny outside. There was a forecast of rain later in the evening, and I was hoping it would hold off until I was home. I’d finally wormed my way into the day-shifts, no longer disconnected and nocturnal. I’d just ended a call for a car crash and barely had a moment to breathe before the phone began to flash again, and on my headphones, I clicked “receive.”
“911, what’s your emergency?” My voice sounded foreign back then, even to me. It was that disconnected, inhuman voice— the one that didn’t feel emotions, that managed to hold it all together. The technique of keeping a calm voice was drilled into me during the training— you couldn’t panic the caller. You couldn’t scare them away.
On the other end of the call, all I could hear was panicked breathing. It sounded distant and echoed, like the phone was in a bathroom. I waited several seconds, then said, “Is someone there? Are you hurt?”
A moment of silence passed. Then, a soft, barely audible response: “He left,” she whispered quickly. I could hear her voice trembling. “He’s coming back, he’s going to kill me, oh my god, he’s going to—”
“Calm down,” I soothed, “can you tell me your name? Do you know where you are?”
“I’m Ophelia Duncan, I— I don’t know where I am, please tell my family I love them,” she whispered, a small cry leaving her throat as she tried to stay quiet.
“Ophelia—” I said calmly, “It’s going to be alright, we’re going to find—”
“He’s coming,” she whispered. I could tell she was barely holding back her tears. Through the phone came the sounds of heavy footsteps, shaking and powerful. It was as if I could feel the floor vibrating through my headphones. Her whispers turned to sobs as I heard a deep, angry voice call out, “Open the door Opi.”
“Don’t open the door Ophelia,” I urged, “stay with me, alright? We’re going to find a way to get you help, okay? Is there anywhere you can—”
She cut me off, barely managing to push her words out through her crying. “He’s white, brown hair, I’m 5’10” and I’m— I think I’m eye-level with his nose, I don’t know his height, but he’s, he’s really big and stocky, and this is his phone, I stole his phone, can you track the number? I’m gonna be dead by the time you’re here, I’m gonna be dead, oh my god—”
The deafening sound of splintering wood crackled over the line like static stabbing into my ears. I fought the urge to rip off my headphones at the noise and winced. Ophelia screamed. “Please, please no, please don’t—”
There was a loud skidding noise, and I could tell the phone had been knocked from her hand. She sobbed and then cried out, sounds of hits and kicks echoing inside the room. She grunted, then began to cough violently, gasping for air as she whimpered, “Please, please don’t do i—” The line went silent, such a loud silence it hurt my ears— the man had hung up.
I sat in shock for a moment before shooting up out of my desk, running to my supervisor. I know that somehow, I followed protocol. I gave all the information I had, and after the phone number was tracked, police and an ambulance were sent to the location. I don’t remember any of that though. The more I replayed the conversation in my head, the deeper her voice sunk into my ears, stabbed through my eardrums and buried itself in my brain.
“Nothing to do now, James,” my supervisor said. “The responders’ll take care of the rest. Might as well go home early and get some rest.”
I didn’t feel like I could drive though. Even hearing my last name felt distant, like it belonged to someone else, to something else entirely. Instead, I walked slowly to the break room and sunk down into one of the chairs. After fifteen minutes or hours, another dispatcher came in for a cup of coffee. I recognized him vaguely, though I didn’t remember his name— he’d helped with some of the training. He was older, with graying hair and a mastered blank expression. He seemed to do a double-take when he walked into the room and saw me.
“Thought you got sent home early,” he noted as he began to pour coffee into his cup.
“Couldn’t drive,” I murmured. I could still hear her voice. What did Ophelia look like? It wasn’t fair that I knew what he looked like, but I didn’t know anything about her but her name.
“Rough call, huh?” He commented, leaning back against the counter and bringing the cup to his lips with a vacant expression, not bothering to add anything to the coffee. He adjusted his green tie and tugged at the sleeves of his wrinkled button-up shirt as the A/C in the room kicked on, filling the silence with a faint whirring noise.
“Yeah, had my fair share of those before,” he continued. He took a sip of his coffee. “Had a little boy call when his mommy stopped breathing once. Cardiac arrest. She was dead before the ambulance left the hospital. Nasty stuff.” He shook his head and took another sip of coffee.
I glanced up at him suddenly. “Did you ever care?”
He didn’t seem offended by the question, even though I regretted it as soon as the words left my mouth. He seemed to ponder it for a moment, before he just shook his head. “Can’t care in this job. It’ll kill you. Too many calls, not enough happy endings. You just gotta stick with the script.” He raised the coffee to his lips again, then glanced down at his watch. “Well, that’s five minutes,” he said distastefully, then looked back up at me. “Let me know if you need a ride home. First call like that can be rough; not good on the mind to be alone, alright?”
He walked over to the sink and in one quick motion, splashed all the remaining coffee down the drain before setting the cup down firmly on the counter. “Tastes like shit,” he grimaced. And then he walked out the door, back to his desk.
I watched him leave, my emotions raw and red. How had he numbed himself to this? How was it possible for anyone to do that? I pushed myself unsteadily to my feet. I needed to leave.
On my way out, my supervisor stopped me. “Hey, James— just thought you might like to know. They got there and found the guy hanging from his living room ceiling. Suicide.”
My throat tightened. “And Ophelia?”
“Head bashed in on the bathtub,” he said, then patted me on the shoulder. “Take it easy tonight, yeah? And a piece of advice— never remember their names.” He patted me one more time, then pulled his arm back and walked away. I watched him go, his posture relaxed as he walked around to check on people. I felt nauseous.
I don’t remember how I got home. One minute, I was there, and the next, I was getting out of my car. I couldn’t stop hearing her voice. It was everywhere. I wished I could numb myself like they had, like everyone seemed to know how to do except me. I wished I could push it all away.
I still think about Ophelia sometimes. I wonder what her story was. I wonder how she got there. I wonder if that even matters— maybe her ending is all that mattered.
The very next day, I went in to work and I gave my two week’s notice. And for those final two weeks, the voices all sounded like her.
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