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The Dispatcher
 


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The Dispatcher


  The Dispatcher

  Ryan David Jahn

  Ryan David Jahn

  The Dispatcher

  If you do not love me I shall not be loved

  If I do not love you I shall not love.

  Samuel Beckett

  What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.

  Friedrich Nietzsche

  ONE

  Ian Hunt is less than an hour from the end of his shift when he gets the call from his dead daughter. It’s been over seven years since he last heard her voice, and she was a different person back then, a seven-year-old girl with pudgy hands and a missing front tooth and green eyes that could break your heart if she wanted them to, so at first he doesn’t know it’s her.

  But it is.

  He’s sitting in the dispatch office in the Bulls Mouth, Texas, police station on Crouch Avenue, which, as usual, he’s got to himself, though he’s sure if he were to poke his head into the front room he’d see Chief Davis leaning back in his chair with his feet up on his desk and his Stetson tipped down over his eyes. An ancient swamp cooler rattles away in the window to his left, dripping water onto the moldy carpet beneath it, though the July heat doesn’t seem much intimidated by its efforts. Sweat rolls down the side of his face and he tilts his head sideways and rubs the trickle away on the shoulder of his uniform shirt. He clicks through a game of solitaire on the computer-assisted dispatch system on the desk in front of him. If folks in town knew this was how he spent ninety-five percent of his time they’d shit.

  But Bulls Mouth just isn’t a big town. Three thousand people if you count everyone in the surrounding area, including the end-timers, revelators,snake-handlers,speed-cookers, dropouts, and junkies, and he supposes you have to count them. Bulls Mouth PD handles their calls.

  Despite being the very definition of a small town, Bulls Mouth is the second largest city in Tonkawa County, making up a quarter of its population.

  He picks up his coffee mug and takes a swallow of the cold slop within. Grimaces as it goes down, but still takes a second swallow. He must drink three pots of Folgers a day, pouring one cup after another down his throat as he clicks through his hundred games of solitaire.

  He’s just setting down the cup when the call comes in from a pay phone on Main Street, just north of Flatland Avenue. Probably a prank call. In this day of cell phones, calls from pay phones almost always are. Fuck-off punk high-schoolers trying to chase away midsummer boredom with a little trouble. Growing up in Venice Beach, California, he did the same thing, so he can’t really hold it against them.

  ‘Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?’ he says into his headset, fingers hovering over a black keyboard, ready to punch in information.

  ‘Please help me!’

  The voice belongs to either a girl or a woman, it’s impossible to tell which, and it is trembling with panic and out of breath. The girl/woman is gasping into the receiver, which is crackling in his ear like there’s a heavy wind, and high-pitched squeaks escape the back of her throat. If it’s a prank call the person on the other end of the line is the best pretender he’s ever dealt with.

  ‘Please, ma’am, try to remain calm, and tell me what the problem is.’

  ‘He’s coming after me. He’s-’

  ‘What’s your name and who’s coming after you?’

  ‘My name is Sarah. Wait, no. No. My name is Maggie, Maggie Hunt, and the man who’s. . I was. . he’s. . he’s-’

  As soon as he hears the name, Maggie Hunt, Ian’s lips go numb, and like a low note plucked on a taut metal cord running through his middle, a strange vibration ripples through him. Nausea in F-sharp minor.

  He swallows.

  ‘Maggie?’ He inhales through his nostrils and exhales through his mouth in a long trembling sigh. ‘Maggie,’ he says, ‘it’s Daddy.’

  The funeral was in May, two months ago now. At first he didn’t want to have it. He thought it an absurd and ritualistic way of burying a past that was still, and is still, very much alive, and you don’t bury something when its heart is still beating. But finally Debbie convinced him that she needed it done. She needed closure. Her shrink, whom she drove all the way to Houston to visit, thought she did, anyway. So they had the funeral and people came and Pastor Warden stood and spoke platitudes while behind him lay a small and empty coffin.

  But his words were as empty as the coffin was.

  People cried and sang hymns out of tune and dropped to their knees and bowed their heads and prayed. They looked at pictures of pretty little Maggie, from age zero to age seven-up to seven but never older-sitting in a high chair with cake on her face; walking for the first time; sitting before a blue background for her second-grade yearbook photo; sitting on the front step of their house at 44 Grapevine Circle with a bloody knee, a crash helmet on her head, and a wide, mischievous Cheshire grin on her face.

  If she were alive she would be turning fifteen in September.

  Ian was neither among the hymn singers nor the weepers. He sat silent in the last pew throughout it all. His back was straight, his fingers laced together, his hands resting in his lap. Though Bulls Mouth Baptist was hot, even in May, he did not move to wipe the sweat from his forehead nor that trickling down the side of his face. He sat there motionless, his mind a room without any furniture in it. He only moved when people began to walk up to him and offer their condolences. He shook their hands and said thank you and when someone tried to hug him he accepted their hugs, but he simply wanted to leave. He wanted to go home and be alone.

  After everyone else had come and gone Debbie walked over with Bill Finch. Bill was her new husband. He was also police, working out of the Tonkawa County Sheriff ’s Office in Bulls Mouth, just other side of the county jail from Bulls Mouth’s city police station, and a man who started many a jurisdictional argument with Chief Davis over even small issues the city always handled, which usually resulted in a yelling match between Davis and Sheriff Sizemore. Bill was one of only three county police regularly in Bulls Mouth. The main office was up in Mencken. The city PD handled most day-to-day policing on its own, and because of that all emergency calls in the area were filtered through Ian.

  Debbie hugged him and thanked him for agreeing to the funeral. He and Bill nodded stiff greetings at one another, but neither offered a hand to shake. Then they went their separate ways. Debbie and Bill headed to their house and their twins, now three, and their two dogs and their backyard with its above-ground swimming pool. Ian to his apartment on College Avenue and his buzzing refrigerator and his piles of regrets.

  ‘Daddy?’ Maggie says.

  ‘I–I’m here. . I’m right here,’ he says after a moment during which speaking seems impossible. Then he realizes he has a job to do: ‘Tell me where you are. Are you on Main Street?’

  Sometimes the location that comes up on the CAD system is incorrect. If someone is coming for his daughter he wants to make sure he’s sending a unit to the right place.

  ‘I don’t know. I need help.’

  ‘I know, Maggie. Help’s coming. But I need to know where you are. Do you see any street signs? Any store names?’

  There is a pause. It seems to stretch on forever. Continents sink into the empty space. Then: ‘Yeah. It’s Main Street. The Main Street shopping center.’

  Two months ago she was dead. Her headstone even now is planted in Hillside Cemetery just other side of Wallace Street. Row 17, plot 29. But there is no one in the earth beneath it. The person who in another world would be there is now standing in front of the Main Street shopping center with a telephone to her ear.

  And she must be alive because Ian can hear her breathing.

  ‘Good girl. The man who kidnapped you, what does he look like?’

  ‘He’s.
. he’s big,’ she says, ‘as big as you, maybe bigger, and he’s old. Like a grandpa. And balding. His head is shiny on top. And his nose, it’s. . it’s like all these broken veins and. . oh God, Daddy, he’s coming!’

  His heart is in his throat; he swallows it back so that he can get words out.

  ‘What are you wearing?’

  ‘What? He’s coming!’

  ‘What are you wearing, Mags?’

  ‘A dress. A blue dress with pink flowers.’

  ‘Do you know the man’s name?’

  ‘It’s H-’

  But that is all and that is it. That followed by a scream.

  Ian can hear the phone on the other end bang against something as it swings on its cord. It bangs again and again as it swings, the space between each percussive thump longer than the one before until the final thump does not arrive and the space is infinite.

  Maggie escapes only because of an open door.

  If it weren’t for that door being left open she would never have tried to get out. Years of imprisonment have caused whatever hope she once felt to grow cold inside her, and now she does not feel it at all. She has not felt it for a very long time. She doesn’t know if it’s there anymore. Maybe it is: some small spark.

  Days and nights she spends in this miserable concrete-walled basement. She is alive but below ground all the same. Buried. Trapped in what she has always thought of as the Nightmare World. Trapped with its moist stink. Trapped with its seemingly living shadows. Trapped with nothing but her thoughts to keep her company.

  And sometimes Borden. She’d been here for several days when she first saw him. He was hiding in the shadows, a small, skinny boy in Chuck Taylors and Levis and a red button-up shirt tucked into his pants. He did not have the face of a boy, though. He had a shiny brown coat covering his face between forelock and muzzle and a black mane and shining black horse’s eyes and flaring nostrils and large square teeth. Maggie was afraid of him at first, but her loneliness was stronger than her fear. Now he is the only friend she has.

  He doesn’t talk about how he got here, and Maggie is the only one who knows he’s here at all. He hides when anyone opens the door at the top of the stairs, when anyone starts making their way down the wooden steps. Maggie does not hide. It would do no good. They know she’s here. They brought her here. Here to this horrible place. It is a small place, keeping you from the rest of the world. Keeping you from the sunlight and the grass and trees and playing with friends.

  The only way to remember that the rest of the world even exists is to look out a single rectangular window and see it. All you can do is look. It is too narrow for even a cat to crawl through. But the sun shines on Maggie in the morning and it is bright and warm on her skin. After noon the shadows begin to lay themselves out before her, growing long as the hour gets late. But mornings are hers.

  The window is partially covered by a few thatches of weeds growing from the ground right outside, and it is splattered with dirt. Her biggest fear is that the weeds will grow so thick that she will not be able to see outside at all, or stand in the light that cuts its way into the darkness for half the day every day. Most days. If the clouds are heavy all she gets is a hollow gray illumination that for some reason reminds her of having a cold. But this is summer and the sky is clear and the light is bright.

  Was bright.

  It is now after noon and, though it is still daytime, the sun is on the other side of the house and sinking toward the horizon.

  When the sun’s light cuts into the room she stands in it. She stands in it as long as possible, moving as the light moves across the floor, but the sun is gone so she is merely sitting on the mattress in the corner of the room with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. A book sits on the mattress beside her-sometimes Donald brings her books and even gives her lessons-but she does not feel like reading right now.

  ‘Borden?’ she says to the shadows, but there is no response.

  So she counts. One two three four five six seven eight. She likes to count. When she is not counting all sorts of terrible thoughts enter her mind and make her stomach feel sour. Even reading cannot always keep out the thoughts. But when she counts she can keep them out by filling her mind with numbers. Not at first: the small numbers are too easy, they don’t require full concentration, and bad thoughts can still snake their way into her mind between them. But once she counts high enough, two thousand twenty-three, two thousand twenty-four, the numbers are big enough to fill her head and nothing else can squeeze in. Everything goes quiet inside her and she does not feel afraid.

  She’s only up to three hundred and seventeen when Beatrice comes downstairs to collect her lunch plate. It is sitting empty on the small card table at which she usually eats her meals. Sometimes Borden will sit across from her while she eats and they’ll talk about things, though she can never really remember any of their conversations, and he has never eaten any of the food she has offered.

  Three hundred and-

  The door at the top of the stairs creaks open and Beatrice’s large frame fills the doorway. She flips a switch. A yellow bulb hanging from a brown wire in the middle of the basement comes to life. It chases away the shadows, filling the room with pale light. Maggie squints and watches Beatrice make her way down the stairs. First she steps down with her right foot, and then follows with her left, setting it next to the other. Once her feet are side by side again she pauses to breathe. Then she progresses once more with her right foot.

  ‘How are you, Sarah?’ she says once she gets to the bottom of the stairs.

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘Good.’

  Maggie says nothing.

  ‘Do you want me to brush your hair for a while before I do the dishes?’

  ‘ No.’

  ‘Do you want to brush my hair?’

  ‘ No.’

  ‘Are you feeling okay?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Okay.’

  Beatrice walks to the card table and collects the empty plate. It is white with blue flowers and vines decorating its edge. Maggie hates it.

  ‘You ate all your food.’

  ‘Yes, ma’am. Thank you.’

  ‘I wish you wouldn’t call me ma’am.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘I wish you would call me Momma.’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘You always say okay, but you never do it.’

  ‘I’m sorry.’

  ‘Okay.’

  Beatrice turns around and heads back up the stairs. When she reaches the landing she pulls open the door and turns to face Maggie again.

  ‘We’re having meatloaf for dinner. With lots of grated carrots, like you like.’

  Then she flips off the light, steps through the door, and pulls it closed. But Maggie does not hear the click of it latching, nor does she hear the sound of the deadbolt sliding into place. She sits and waits and listens, but she hears nothing.

  After a moment she gets to her feet and pads barefoot to the bottom of the stairs. She looks up to the top of them. A sliver of light cutting its way into the darkness between the door and the wall. The steps at the top are visible in the light, rounded and worn smooth by shoes sliding up and down them, a few rusty nail heads jutting up.

  ‘Borden,’ she says. ‘Borden, it’s open.’

  Something within her shifts. A long eclipse of the sun ends and light comes into her.

  Even before she knows what she’s doing, even before instinct becomes thought, her heart begins to thump and her mouth goes dry. Her hands form fists on either side of her. The fists grip the fabric of her dress tight within them. She steps up, her bare feet moving one at a time from the cold smooth concrete floor of the basement to a warmer textured surface. The grain of the wood feels good beneath her feet, alive somehow, more part of the outside world than anything else down here.

  She takes another step up, gently rolling the ball of her foot onto the wo
od and then putting her weight upon it and pushing herself up. The step does not moan in protest as it would were Beatrice putting her weight upon it. It accepts Maggie silently. The only sounds she can hear at all: the muffled vibrations of the television coming through the walls and the rhythmic sound of her heart beating in her chest and ears and temples.

  She takes another step-oh, God, don’t let it make any noise-and that is followed by yet another.

  By the time she reaches the top of the stairs her palms feel itchy and her throat constricted. Her breath wheezes into and out of her through a throat like a kinked garden hose.

  She swallows.

  Then grabs the doorknob. It is cool to the touch and smooth. She pulls. The sliver of light cutting its way into the basement becomes a block of light splashing door-shaped against the wall to her left. The shadow of her arm in relief against the wall.

  On the other side of the door she can see scarred green linoleum flooring, dark cabinets, a laminated kitchen counter piled with filthy dishes. The oven is ancient, and while it once must have been white it is now splattered with all manner of food. The window above the sink is water-spotted. The ceiling is fly-specked.

  A cockroach scrambles from a stack of plates piled like porcelain pancakes and runs across the counter toward the sink, into which it disappears.

  To her left she can hear the television and though she can neither see nor hear them she knows Henry and Beatrice are in there. But then she does hear them. She hears one of them.

  The floor creaks just the other side of the wall.

  She pulls back from the door and eases it shut but for a crack and continues to peer out to the kitchen. Her breath catches in her throat. Her eyes are wide and feel very dry, but she is afraid to blink. Beatrice enters the kitchen. Maggie’s muscles tighten and lock her motionless.

  The woman scratches between her legs through the fabric of her dress as she walks to the stainless steel sink. She turns on the faucet. Pipes rattle and moan. The faucet spits a wad of rusted water, and then flows orange for a moment before going clear. Soon the water is steaming, fogging the window above the sink despite the heat outside.

 
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