Distress Call

          The street was empty. An abandoned toddler’s swing hung from a neighbor’s porch, reminding me of one of those fake nuclear towns, filled with accessories of life but no life itself. My grandma, who’d bought her beach house over thirty years ago, had already returned farther inland to her permanent home before the season’s last hurricane. My mom and I lived only twenty minutes from the beach, however, and after the hurricane passed, we drove together to assess the damage.
           The storage room under my grandma’s stilted house was dark and musty, covered with spider webs, the trashcan inside overturned from the hurricane’s flooding. I stepped forward after unlocking the door with the intention of flipping the trashcan back over.
           “Be careful,” my mom said.
            An uncertain noise came from somewhere in the neighborhood, a baby crying, or maybe a cat, and my mom and I stepped out of the storage room into sunlight and stared at each other, our confusion turning into panic as the noise sharpened in clarity into a woman’s plea for help. 
           “Daddy, no, no…Help me! Somebody help me!”
           The neighborhood’s emptiness gave this woman’s voice an eerie echo, like the ringing of a siren, a distress call bouncing between the shells of an abandoned town. “Help me! Somebody help me!” It was coming from a house near my grandma’s, and we were connected now, this woman and us, the only other people around.
          A man’s voice from inside the house: “Stop doing that!”
          The woman: “Daddy, no! Why?”
          She sounded confused more than anything, as if she didn’t understand what she’d done wrong to deserve her father’s aggression.
          “We have to do something,” I said, looking at my mom.
          I imagined the woman huddled on the floor inside, her forearm covering her face, preparing for another strike. The street remained empty. I would climb the stairs and knock on the door and tell the man to quit beating his daughter and hope he didn’t turn on me in response. But my mom stopped me from going over there, and for a moment we stared dumbly at the house while the woman pleaded for someone to rescue her, the closed windows and blinds not doing much to contain her screams. My mom wanted to shout back with the hopes of deterring the abuser, but that seemed like it might create more problems, and I told her so.
         “What should we do, then?” she asked.
         “I don’t know.”
         “Should we call 911?”
         “Yeah, we should, right?”
          I took out my phone. It seemed like the coward’s response, hiding behind my grandma’s storage room and hoping nothing too irreversible happened inside that house before the police arrived. But we didn’t know what else to do.
         “I’ll talk to them if you want,” my mom said. “Here, give me the phone. Is it calling?”
         “Hold on, press send. I didn’t press send yet.”
         “Hi, there’s a woman screaming for help,” my mom said, pacing under the house. “She’s saying, ‘Somebody help me, somebody help me.’ She’s inside a house, it’s the house near the intersection of…and she’s…yes…that’s it. Okay. Yes.” Within seconds we heard sirens. The dispatcher told my mom someone else must’ve already called.
          Two police cars parked. Then an ambulance. Then a fire truck. This was more than we’d expected for a domestic violence call. I didn’t see what happened next, but my mom did: a man emerged from inside the house to greet the police.
         “The gun’s on the floor,” the man said. “He shot himself.”
         The police officer told the man not to move.
         After the realization that someone had been shot, I suggested to my mom that we finish overturning the garbage can in the storage room instead of watching the situation unfold. My mind wasn’t keeping up. There was a gun. Maybe suicide, maybe not. Either way, we’d expected the police to save a life, not to find one already taken. We hadn’t considered the possibility that a death had already occurred, and what we’d heard wasn’t the sound of a woman being beaten but the grief of someone who couldn’t comprehend the corpse of her father. It would take a while for the gravity of this change to register, but even in that moment of incomprehension, I already felt the tone of the day shifting, the air that once smelled like the ocean filled with the more intimate smells of plough mud from the inlet. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know what had happened. But things had changed, and becoming a spectator, like a fan at a football game, struck me as an intrusion of privacy.
          Spider webs now seemed trivial, and I ignored my mom’s suggestion to wear gloves while turning over the garbage can in the storage room.
          “I’m going to call Grandma,” my mom said.
          “I think you should wait.”
          “Why?”
          “I just think it’s better to wait.”
          The daughter who’d screamed for help continued to cry from inside the house, not from sadness or grief but complete internal devastation—a growl, animalistic, the pain bubbling to the surface. It was raw and unguarded. I knew there was something fundamentally wrong about listening to a woman’s pain without being able to help, but I’d lived twenty-four years of a sheltered life, and the noises she made belonged to a side of humanity I’d never heard before.

*

          My mom and I returned the following day, after talking with neighbors, to adjust the thermostat in my grandma’s house in preparation for winter. The hurricane had mostly spared her house. The street looked normal, same as the previous day, nothing to suggest a woman had unexpectedly found her father dead. A neighbor told us the man on the porch who’d initially greeted the police was a friend of the woman, and her father, who lived in the house alone, had left a suicide note, claiming responsibility. He’d been disconnected from neighbors, none of whom suspected the depth of his depression.
          Usually my mom and I, whenever we visited my grandma’s house, liked to go inside to look at the childhood drawings on the refrigerator and sit at the counter where my sister and I used to eat fresh clams. It was a preserved memory there, somewhere I’d vacationed my entire life. But that day, after adjusting the thermostat, we left quickly. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t know the right words to say.

***
 



Nicholas White

Nicholas A. White earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC-Wilmington. His stories and essays have appeared in places such as Pembroke Magazine, Broad River Review, Hobart, and Prime Number Magazine, among others, with his most recent work in The Baltimore Review and Still: The Journal. He lives on the coast of North Carolina. For more information, visit www.nicholasawhite.com.