Phone Voice

You will oversleep, wake up disoriented in a too-quiet house. At first, you will only remember the dream, that scraping feeling of trying to scream but not making any sound. You will try to drag the details into your conscious brain, but they will evaporate as you become aware of the mattress springs pressing into your back, your cold toes where you kicked off the comforter, your stiff left knee. You will slip your feet into your green fuzzy slippers, wrap yourself in the thick fleece robe you found marked down at TJ Maxx last spring. You will draw a few long breaths, tell yourself to calm down, it was only a dream. But you won’t be able to shake that feeling.

Before you have your coffee or wash your face, you will pause at the closed door to your nephew’s room. You will rap your knuckles on the wood door; the sound will jackhammer through the house until the silence swallows it. There will be no answer.

You will turn the doorknob, push the door open an inch, two inches. You will peer bit by bit into the empty room. You will hope he’s at school but know that it’s just as likely he’s skipping again. His room will be a mess, as usual, and you will take comfort in the piles of dirty t-shirts and socks, the empty bag of Doritos, the Mountain Dew bottles, the comic books strewn across the floor.

You will almost close his door. You will almost keep moving, but you won’t. You will hover in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob. Your dream will return in physical sensations—chest tightening, breath quickening, palms growing damp—and nudge you into his room.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will spot the corner of a slim black notebook poking from beneath his pillow. It may as well be a black hole the way it pulls you into it. You will sink onto his rumpled bed and hold the notebook in your hands, which will tremble a little, the way they did nearly seventeen years ago when your sister let you hold him for the first time and you had no idea what to do, how to protect him. When you thought she had figured things out, that the tiny bundled creature you held had changed her.

You will open it to a dog-eared page in the middle. Once you know he’s safe, you will stop reading, put it back where you found it, move on with your day. This is your job now, you’ll tell yourself. You need to know what he’s up to, where he goes when he’s not at school. His handwriting will stretch across the page in spider webs of black ink. You will read. And read.

You will wonder if you are back in the dream.

Eventually, you will close the journal and place it carefully on his pillow. You will walk around his room, stepping carefully over the teenage debris. Once. Twice. You will search for Bunny Bear, the stuffed teddy bear with inexplicable bunny ears you sewed back on years ago when he accidentally cut them off. The one stuffed animal left over from his mother’s. Your sister was never much of a seamstress. You will not find Bunny Bear.

You will read the journal a second time. You will decide you owe him that much. You will not sit on his bed this time; you will read standing, one hand clamped over your mouth. After the second time, your stomach will twist and your throat will burn, but you will not vomit. Not yet.

You will open his closet and stare at the hard black guitar case. You have never heard him play guitar. The gold metal clasps will chill your fingertips, but your hands will not shake. When you see the gun, you will know what you must do.

You will walk to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea with lemon so your voice won’t crack when you call 911. You will use the old land line, because your cheek sometimes hits buttons on your iPhone and this is not the time to accidentally start playing YouTube videos. You will dial 911. You will sip your tea and it will turn to acid in your throat.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control. You’re not someone they can mess with. You will imagine the operator sipping cold coffee from a lipstick-stained styrofoam cup, sick of fielding calls from toddlers with distracted parents and senile old people who can’t remember that their caregivers aren’t murderers. Your phone voice will wake her up. It’s a teacher voice, a go-ahead-and-try-me voice, a tough-love-chocolate-covered-firecracker voice. Your phone voice will make her pay attention.

With this voice, you will tell her about your nephew’s notebook. You will not hesitate to claim him as your nephew, although you will ache somewhere deep inside when you say his name. You will tell her that he is planning a school shooting, that he has a large black gun hidden in a guitar case in his closet. Your phone voice will begin to splinter and you will have to pause, close your eyes, think of Bunny Bear, take a gulp of tea and let it burn your throat. The 911 operator will ask for your address. She will tell you she is sending an officer to your house.

You will thank her, hang up the phone, and vomit into the sink. Then you will brush your teeth, wash your face, tie your hair back into a neat ponytail at the base of your skull. You will not want to relinquish the comfort of your robe, but you will make yourself hang it in your bedroom closet. You will pull on your black wool sweater, the one your sister hated because she thought it made you look pale and too serious, and some sensible slacks, ones with no wrinkles or missing buttons.

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control.

You will not just sit and wait. You will walk through the kitchen, living room, bathroom. You will open linen closets and cupboards, peek under couches and chairs. You will wonder where else he has hidden weapons. You will make your bed, put away the folded laundry in the plastic white basket in the corner. You will pause in the doorway to your nephew’s room, but you won’t go back in. Not until the police arrive. You will pace the short, dark hallway until you can’t stand it anymore, then you will open all the curtains in the house, let daylight come screaming in. You will not hide from the old man next door or that nosy woman across the street. Let them gossip. Let them see the police. Let them say what they will. Let them see you do the right thing for once.

When the doorbell rings, you will invite the police in. You will thank them for coming, in your phone voice, even though you are not on the phone. You will not smile. You will not stare at the guns in their holsters or the ice in their eyes. You will keep your hands and voice steady as you lead them to his room. You will offer them tea, coffee, water, but they will say no, thank you. They will only be interested in the evidence.

They will take the journal. The younger one will whistle, long and low, when he sees the gun, which they will also take. They will take your nephew, too, later, straight from school. They will question you, and you will do your best to answer, until finally your voice will fail. They will shake your hand and call you a hero, tell the newspapers that you saved a school full of children. Without your voice, you won’t tell anyone that you didn’t do it for those children. You won’t tell anyone that since you couldn’t save your sister, you had to save her son. To save him, at least, from becoming a murderer.


Lindsay Rutherford lives and writes in Edmonds, WA. She is a student at the Writers Studio, has an MA in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Doctorate of physical therapy from Temple University. When she is not writing or chasing after her two children, she works as a physical therapist at a local hospital. Her work has appeared in Medical Literary Messenger, Poplorish, and WA129+.