Brian had heard it, but he wasn’t ready yet to acknowledge that he had. His head was laid comfortably in his pillow, it was even still cool against his skin, just as he liked it. He was bundled warmly and comfortably in his blankets on a cold December night. His cat, Tobey, positioned snuggly on his arm. He had heard his phone trying to pull him away from this bliss, he just wasn’t ready to do anything about it.
His phone, of course, had other plans.
Brian was on-call tonight, which meant that if his phone was going off, it was important. That didn’t make the idea of picking it up and dealing with whatever awaited him any more appealing. He was just hoping for a quiet night for once.
He couldn’t ignore the thing forever, and if he missed the call, whatever happened would be his fault. Brian rolled over in his sheets, and Tobey leapt from the bed in response to his movement. Brian had trouble falling asleep without that cat, and now he was a bit irritated. Brian grabbed his phone and winced from the bright light of the screen that ignited his room, effectively blinding him for a moment. When his vision became clear, Brian could see the time stamped on his phone.
11:00 P.M., it read. Not a good sign. That was the precise time that the overnight shift at the Community Crisis Center began. It was a little too early for one of the crisis line operators to need his help with something. Which meant there was only one reason he would be getting a call right now. Brian checked to see who had been trying to get his attention.
The call was from John, his boss. Just as he had feared. Yet, even more reason not to keep him waiting. Brian answered the call and held his phone up to his ear.
“Hello?” He said, his voice groggy from having been rested for the last few hours.
Jesus, Brian, finally. Why didn’t you pick up sooner? What if there had been a real emergency? John’s voice came from the other end of the line.
“I was sleeping,” Brian said with a yawn, “Is there an emergency?”
A touch of sarcasm in his tone, which John wouldn’t appreciate. Brian was too tired to care.
Sort of. The operator who was supposed to cover the overnight called off. Something about car trouble. They can’t make it in. That means –
“I know what it means,” Brian interrupted him.
But he wished he didn’t. He wished he didn’t have to do what he had to do now. It seemed this sort of thing happened far too often these days. The newer crisis line operators were much flakier than when Brian had started in this job. Back then, covering an overnight was an event. Brian and some of his friends would often schedule them together, so that they could all hang out, chat, and even play games between calls. Now, operators were stretched so thin that there was a limit to just one operator per overnight. This was of course, in an effort to ensure every overnight shift was covered. However, that meant that if someone called off, the On-Call person had to come in and cover the shift. Unfortunately for Brian, he was On-Call tonight. He was On-Call most nights.
Well then, you know what you have to do, John said.
“Are you sure this is good for my hours?” Brian attempted to argue, “This will be the fourth overnight this month I have had to cover. You’re going to have to pay me time and a half. We are strapped for cash as it is.”
Someone has to answer the phones, Brian. If we have to pay you time and a half, then we have to pay you time and a half, John dismissed.
Brian said nothing, just silently wishing to himself that this wasn’t happening again. But he knew that it had. It had happened far too often, and Brian was quite familiar with how this felt. A sensation of utter defeat and disgust. Pure hopelessness, like his hands were tied together with cement, or his feet became one with the floor. He wanted to fight it, but there was nothing he could do.
Hurry up and get over there. The evening shift is waiting for you so they can go home.
Brian hung up on him without another word. He took a deep breath in an attempt to calm his steadily growing frustration with his situation. No matter how upset he was about it, that wasn’t going to change anything now. He slipped out of bed.
Brian hadn’t bothered changing out of his pajama pants, throwing on only a coat and a pair of boots to protect him from the snow and cold weather on his journey to and from his car and into the call center.
It was a particularly dark December night, but as luck would have it, it was at least not snowing in addition to the white coat that already painted the streets and sidewalks. As Brian approached the parking lot of the ancient building that housed the call center, he felt a bit more discouraged. Something inside him was screaming and insistent that he did not have it within himself to handle calls tonight. It was a terrible feeling, but one about which he could do little. Brian simply hoped it would pass and not impact his ability to help his callers.
Brian parked his car and shut off the engine. Instantly, he could feel how cold it was outside, which meant that the call center was likely frigid as well. Just another thing for him to not be looking forward to. Brian sat in his car seat for a moment before going inside, trying to compose himself for what lay in store. Ahead of him was the old Madison McDonough Memorial Building. A very long time ago, the building had been built to honor the founder of their little town. Madison McDonough had died a very long time ago, but his building stood to this day. If you would call this standing. Today, the building housed a few major community non-profits and social services, including the Community Crisis Center. They couldn’t afford much maintenance to be done in terms of upkeep, but Brian supposed that fostered some sort of solidarity among the organizations that called the building home.
The McDonough Memorial Building was almost as dark as the night sky set behind it, illuminated only by the lights from within. In the darkness, the building’s windows looked not unlike a giant pair of ominous, glowing orange eyes. Brian knew however, that the building had a lot of character and personality. In fact, he had many very fond memories inside that building, and there was certainly a soft spot in his heart for it. Creepiness was just a facet of that character and personality.
Brian got out of his car, and before going upstairs to the call center, he made a point to check all the doors and ensure they were locked. The McDonough Memorial building wasn’t exactly in the nicest of neighborhoods, and the old locks on the doors didn’t always latch when they were supposed to.
As Brian rounded the building, he checked his watch. 11:30 P.M. He was running late, and while the evening crew likely understood Brian would be a little late as he hadn’t anticipated needing to work tonight, he was starting to push it a bit.
Brian locked his car doors and went inside.
“How has the night been?” Brian asked the evening crew as they logged out of their stations.
“Quiet,” Was the only answer they would give.
They weren’t much for words and carried an ever so anxious energy about them. Brian realized this was in part due to their lack of experience. Most of them were new, because they often staffed the evening shift with the newer operators, as the shift was of the slowest in call volume.
As they packed up their stuff, Brian felt an ache in his heart for them. He remembered a time when he had been as ambitious as they were, a few years ago. He had been lucky enough to be on an evening shift with some of the best people he had ever known. They always left the call center with the sounds of laughter echoing down the hallway as they made plans for when they were going to work together next. As the evening shift left tonight, they didn’t say a word. Brian wondered if they even knew each other’s names.
Brian let it go, because he had a lot of work to do to get set up. Once he’d logged into his station, he started a fresh pot of the worst coffee in Madison. Then he draped his headset over his ears and positioned the microphone in front of his mouth.
He could hear the coffee brewing behind him, starting to smell that odor of the cheap coffee filling the room. Not that that was unusual. In fact, the call center usually smelled like coffee. Years of pots brewing in the corner had stained the old rug on the floor and the ancient currents over the windows. Both really needed to be replaced, but probably never would be. An unnecessary expense.
As Brian attempted to make himself comfortable, he heard the footsteps of the evening crew as they left the building. Then, he heard nothing, nothing at all. The building drew to an unsettling silence as it emptied of everyone except Brian. He was alone, cold, and uncomfortable. But that was how things were at the Community Crisis Center now.
Brian logged into his computer and turned on his headset. Then he waited, but the first call of the night wouldn’t take long to arrive.