Anne clicks the receiver down. It is 1993, and she is working the kid’s help hotline.
“Wow. Some kids really have a hard time,” she keeps her hand on the phone, and her eyes too. Her husband Don has been watching her for the last five minutes, facing her across the kitchen island. Her toes wrap around the wooden spindle of the stool. She leans forward taking a breath, arms on the cool white bar-top. “I can’t even believe…”
An hour earlier she and Don had finished eating dinner and while he set the dishes aside to wash and dry, she took her position in front of the phone to begin her evening work. Sometimes a call came through right away. Sometimes radio silence.
“Everything ok,” Don asks.
When Anne was younger her father used to make things out of wood. A bird-house, a tree-swing, and little things. There was never enough for him to do, her mother would say, to keep him occupied when he was off line-work at the plant. She never took much interest in learning his trade, and he never cared to inspire. It was a practise of passing time, methodically and with great emotional effort, the kind of work only a daughter could feel the weight of, in a man who refused to apologize. Prying himself off the Chesterfield to grumble into the basement, grab some tools, cut some pieces into whatever shapes, and wander out onto the patio to glue them together. She remembers the roughness atop the roof of a bird house, a real roofing tile, shackled to the top of some plywood, for the real birds.
“Let’s hang it,” he said to her one Sunday morning. “Right over here,” he said and guided her twelve year old mess of bed-head out to the middle of the garden. He gave the house to her to hold onto while he propped open a small step ladder shakily beneath the first branch of the mature tree. He looked up at the branch then into the sun, squinting and shading his face as he measured the reach. The feet of the ladder wobbled beneath him.
“Can you please set that ladder flatter,” she complained. “It’s going to fall.”
“You’re not helping,” he replied, and took a step back as the legs rocked beneath him. “Give it to me.”
“You’re going to fall,” Anne said. As she tippy toed higher to fit the rope into his hand, he hurdled a huge sneeze towards her, driving her back. “Screw this,” she screamed, dropping the house into the dirt, and cowered quickly back inside.
“Hun?” Don asked her, as he stood and came around behind her. Anne put her face in her hands and cried.
“She – ” Anne tried. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Don squeezed her.
The call came at ten to eight, the last portion of her hotline coverage. A girl’s voice, small and heavy with exasperated tears, saying words Anne couldn’t understand. Anne made it her process to begin these conversations with a slow and constant voice, pacing her own breath so the caller would maybe match her own.
When Anne was five she witnessed her father throw a vice grip at his washing machine. The big metal thing ricocheted the washer button fiercely from the machine and twirled it straight into her mother’s cheek, slashing a gash that bled – a lot. Her father stood stunned, drunk. He swayed quickly over to her mother’s side with a cloth from his table, one that was dirty with grease and fragments of dust and wood shavings. “Here,” he said, and proceeded to walk out of the room and up the stairs. The many things she saw.
When she was eighteen she left home and vowed never to marry a man that drank. Her first date with Don consisted of a long drive from town to the middle of nowhere, where he lit a small fire and held her tighter and warmer and called her beautiful like the stars, and she fell in love. They got married a year later, and had twins that were five now.
“She said,” Anne continued to tell Don. “She said, it was her birthday tonight, it was her birthday party.”
Don slid the phone back on the counter, and Anne turned to face him.
“Her dad put his…his penis on her cake.”
“Jesus,” said Don.
“Yeah, she said her mom threw boiling water from the tea kettle on him, and chased him out of the house.”
“I’m sorry Anne – that’s awful.”
They shook their heads. She explained that her page had triggered a high priority alert to authorities because of immediate danger to the girl and her younger brother who was also evidently there hiding with her in her bathroom. After a long while, Anne mused “I wish I’d never knew that was real.”
“Shitty things happen every day,” said Don. “It’s hard sometimes to believe them. I mean, you can’t make some of this up.” They stared at each other. “Is she going to be ok?”
“She’s going to be okay,” Anne replied. “The police had just arrived so she said goodbye on the phone, I hope they treat her right.” They stared at each other a moment. “Child services will definitely get involved.”
“Do they take the kids away now?” asked Don.
“Maybe. For this one. I don’t know.”
Anne had started answering the hotline because she wanted to help kids suffering what she had gone through. Her calls mostly consisted of sad-day calls, that ended in great conversations. She learned names and stories of all ages, teenaged boys who wanted to end their lives, young girls with eating disorders, kids whose parents were abusive. Some were just checking it out to see if anyone could replace the love that their parents hadn’t given them at that particular moment, most of whom would forget they’d ever made the call as they healed and moved along in life. At that juncture she’d listen and advise and help them turn the vision of their lives into something positive they could change and mould – that they were good, but bad was done to them. They often thanked her at the end.
“I know the address,” said Anne suddenly.
“The building, the big brown one on the corner there by the grocery plaza, she told me she could see the lights of the pizza store. You know the one.”
Don and Anne hopped into the car, and Anne drove them ten minutes down towards the plaza. The minutes on the drive passed like each second was alive with purpose. Focus.
“Is this against practise,” Don asked.
When they arrived they saw an undercover car parked at the corner. Anne pulled in to the spot facing it. They waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, they watched as another cruiser pulled in, the lights flashing for a second before parking and two officers got out, went inside.
Emerging ten minutes later was the small girl and her brother tucked under her wing. Two little birds, real, sheltering each other under a hap-hazard roof that was life built by angry men, by men who refused to apologize.
Anne squeezed Don’s hand as the little pair were seated in the back of the cruiser.