“You don’t have to fix any of the callers’ problems; you just pass
I nodded. “Got it.”
“Okay, babe. I’ll leave you to it. I’m going out back to have a smoke.”
Smiling through gritted teeth, I tried to ignore the acrid stench of cigarettes that permeated his clothes. Philip Heaven could spend the whole evening toasting his lungs in the alley if it meant I wouldn’t have to listen to him call me “babe” one more time in that gravelly, know-it-all voice. I’d handle every incoming call to the Heaven House Helpline if I had to. I mean, how hard could it be?
“Take your time,” I said, aligning my list of referral numbers with the edge of the blotter and lacing my fingers together on top of the cheap laminate desktop. I glanced hopefully at the multi-line phone.
“Thanks, babe.” He pointed his finger at me and made a gun-cocking sound with his tongue.
Yuck. Thank God, the phone rang. I reached to answer it.
After I referred a nice-but-scared-sounding lady to the next AA meeting in the basement of the Cadyville Catholic Church, the phone was silent for several minutes. The whooshing of tires across wet pavement on the street outside filtered into the spacious old building where I sat, a comfortable, lulling sound. I’d worked my way to forty-two across on the Seattle Times Tuesday crossword only to puzzle over a six-letter word for an exclamation of annoyance when the phone rang again. This time I gave a run-away boy an 800 number he could use to find a safe place to stay down in Seattle. I was pretty satisfied with the whole volunteer gig after that one and picked up the next call, feeling helpful as all get-out.
“I have the knife against my wrist. It shines in the light. And it’s cold. I bet this thing is so sharp I won’t even feel it slice through my skin.”
I struggled to remember what I was supposed to say, but Philip’s meager training hadn’t prepared me for anything like this. Where was he? He couldn’t still be working on that cigarette, could he? After all, I hadn’t really meant that about him hanging out in the alley all night. It was my first night manning the Helpline at Heaven House, and Philip Heaven was supposed to be mentoring me. Sheesh.
So I said the only thing I could think of: “Wait!”
“Why should I wait? I’ve been waiting my whole life to die.”
Oh, brother. A philosopher. And a melodramatic one at that. “So have I,” I said.
I looked at the caller ID, so I could jot it down on the call sheet. It read Private Call. Great.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to die, too,” I said.
Yeah. Right along with all us other mortals.
Hush, Sophie Mae. He may be a moron, but he sounds pretty serious.
“But I’m not going to die today. And not tomorrow, either, at least not if I get a vote in the matter,” I said.
“And neither should you. What’s your name?”
“It’s … just call me Allen.”
“Okay, Allen, listen, I’m going to—”
“What’s my what?”
“Allen, I need you to write down a number. This is someone who knows how to help you.”
“I don’t want another number. I want to talk to you. Tell me your name.”
“Sorry, it’s against—”
“I told you mine.”
No, you didn’t, I thought, but stopped myself before I said it out loud. Just call me Allen? That’s not how you tell someone your name, for Pete’s sake.
“Call me Jane.”
“No! I want your real name. Tell me.”
An icky feeling crawled up my spine. I put some steel in my voice. “Allen, take down this number: 555-2962. There’s someone there who’s trained in how to help you deal with your suicidal thoughts.”
“You’re trying to foist me off on someone else? All I want to know is who I’m dealing with.”
My resolve wavered. It was against the rules of Heaven House to give out our names to the people who called the Helpline. For that matter, I shouldn’t still be talking to this guy. Volunteers were armed with a long list of experts who dealt with all sorts of different problems, from teenaged runaways to unplanned pregnancy, depression to spousal abuse, alcoholism to … suicide. If Philip had been honest enough to list Heaven House as a Help Referral Line in the phone book maybe this guy wouldn’t be so angry about having to call someone else.
Still. There was something about him that gave me the creeps.
“I’m not going to tell you my real name. That’s against the rules here. I’m here to help you find someone to talk to. Are you going to let me do that?”
“No! All I want to know is who—”
A finger came down on the disconnect button. I went from staring stupidly at the phone to staring stupidly up at Philip. His cousin, Jude Carmichael, stood slightly behind him. I hadn’t heard either of them come in.
“Should you have done that?” I finally managed.
“I could hear him yelling. He’s a crank,” Philip said.
I licked my lips, ambivalent about the intense relief I felt at the timely rescue. “But what if he really needed help?”
Jude, his coat collar still turned up around his ears, shuffled his feet and looked at the floor. In the brief time I’d known him, I’d noticed that he did that a lot. When he spoke, I leaned closer so I could hear his soft voice.
“Then he should have taken it. You don’t have to put up with abuse, Sophie Mae. Philip should have told you. Sometimes people call in just to call in. They’re lonely.” He shuffled his feet again. I had the feeling he knew about lonely. “Or they’re weirdos. Like this guy. His next call will probably be heavy breathing and obscene language. He’s just bored.”
“Well, he better not call back here, then.”
Philip bent toward me. “Tell you what, babe. It’s your first night. Your shift’s almost over. Go ahead home.” “You sure?” “Yeah. It’s fine. My boy here can start his overnight shift early.” “That okay with you?” I asked Jude, since Philip hadn’t
Jude shrugged and tried a smile. “Sure. I forward the calls to my cell and keep it on my night stand. It hardly ever rings.” He pulled a phone out of his pocket and started pushing buttons on the one on the desk.
“I hope that guy didn’t scare you off,” Philip said.
“No, I’ll be back,” I said. “Friday, right?”
So that was volunteer work, I thought as I drove home a little after nine. Not that Heaven House was likely to be the best example. Philip Heaven, grandson of the famous, or more accurately, infamous, Nathaniel Heaven, had started Heaven House in Cadyville over a year ago. Funded with money granted to the project by the foundation created after the old man’s death, it was a nonprofit organization devoted to the community of Cadyville. What that meant in practical terms was yet to be seen.
So far there was the helpline and a bunch of empty rooms. Philip had programs planned for teens and the elderly, for job training, for low-cost childcare and helping the housebound, and even for the environment. It was a vague hodgepodge of good intentions. I’d heard several months before that he’d brought in his cousin to help, but from what I could tell they needed more help than Jude could provide.
The name was misleading, too, as most people assumed it was a religious organization. But Nathaniel had been a died-in-the-wool agnostic, and while the foundation didn’t actually ban reli-gious activities altogether, it was clear in the informational packet provided to volunteers that the board would not grant funding to any activity that wasn’t open to people of any and all denominations or belief systems.
I pulled to the curb in front of the house I shared with Meghan Bly and her eleven-year-old daughter, Erin. Jumping out of my little Toyota pickup, I ran up the sidewalk. Rain spattered down for the twentieth day in a row, and the temperature hovered around forty-two degrees—typical weather in the Pacific Northwest in February. The damp air smelled of rotting leaves and wood smoke.
In the foyer I shook like a dog, scattering the stray drops I hadn’t managed to avoid in my mad dash from the street. I waved at Meghan as I passed the doorway to the kitchen on my way to the stairs, breathing in the scent of freshly baked bread.
“Back in a sec,” I called over my shoulder and climbed to the second floor.
Meghan’s daughter sat in bed, wedged in on one side by a stuffed platypus and on the other by a big purple hippo. Brodie, Erin’s aging Pembroke Welsh Corgi, lay on his back, legs splayed open as he slept by her feet. His right eye cracked open so he could peer at me up-side down, then squeezed shut again. A textbook lay open on Erin’s lap, and she looked up from scribbling on loose-leaf notepaper when I spoke. Her elfin features held pure disgust.
“I hate math. I hate algebra, I hate geometry, and I plan on hating trigonometry and calculus as well.” She squinted blue-gray eyes at me and shook her head of dark curls for emphasis.
“Trig? When do you start that?” Could be next week for all I knew. She was in an advanced class and last year had blown by everything I’d retained from my English major’s admittedly pitiful math education. But trig? In the fifth grade?
“And proofs. I hate proofs, too.”
I had no idea what proofs were. I went in and looked at what she was working on. Drawn on the wide-ruled paper was a y-axis. And an x-axis. Lines connected some of the points in the grid. I still had no idea what proofs were.
“Looks like a graph,” I said. “What are you supposed to be proving?”
The look she gave me was full of pity.
“Okay. Well, I’m going to change my clothes and go talk to your mom. So, er, g’night.”
She sighed. “Goodnight, Sophie Mae.”
I smiled to myself as I went down the hallway to my room and changed into my flannel pjs. Erin was a drama queen. It would only get worse as she morphed from tween to teen, but at heart she was such a great kid I knew she’d make it through okay.
I just hoped Meghan and I made it through okay, too.