It was a few minutes after 8 on a Saturday night, and my husband and I were watching a TV sitcom when the phone rang. At first there was no response to my "hello." After several tries I was about to hang up when a small voice said, "I needed to talk."
For a moment I wondered whether my grandson was playing a joke, but this wasn't the cheerful, piping voice of my special 5-year-old. This child spoke hesitantly, the tone so low that it was difficult to hear.
Almost Hung Up
Annoyed because the call seemed senseless and Nell Carter's raucous delivery of lines was amusing my husband, I was tempted to break the connection. But the caller was a child, not some salesperson intruding on our privacy. To brush him off would not be easy for me so, reluctantly, I asked his name.
"Kevin." The reply was barely audible.
"How old are you, Kevin?"
He told me he was 7. When I asked where he went to school and where he lived, he mentioned a small town near the county line. Since I was slightly curious and had lost the thread of the TV story, I asked why he called.
"I'm afraid. I want to talk to someone."
"What are you afraid of? Are you alone in the house?"
"My dad is here."
"Then why are you afraid?"
"Because." His voice grew higher and he sounded close to tears.
"But why didn't you call someone you know? Why did you call here?" I was confused and had no idea how to handle this.
"I just dialed the telephone," he replied.
My husband wanted to know what was going on and who was on the phone. I motioned for him to turn down the volume and shrugged off his questions. I had no answers, only a growing apprehension.
"You're not afraid of your father are you, Kevin?"
I wondered if I was feeding him lines, but I knew of no script to follow, no time-tested procedure when some undefined threat comes without warning from nowhere.
Kevin started to cry. His words were halting with many pauses. He told me he was afraid of his father, that he was afraid to go to a neighbor, that his mother was gone.
Small Boy With Big Trouble
It did not occur to me to doubt the honesty of the call. This was not some precocious kid breaking the monotony of a dull evening by telephoning strangers. This was a small boy with big trouble, and I didn't know what I could do.
I urged him to give me his phone number or his address but he said he couldn't, that he was afraid. He told me he had been beaten earlier that night and that he hurt too much to go to bed.
At this, I pleaded with him to let me call someone with authority, someone who can help him.
"Would they come here? Would they take me away?"
I told him that I didn't really know but that it was possible and he became frantic, repeating over and over that he was afraid.
Something to Go On
By now I was crying too, desperate to find out where he lived. At last he mentioned a street, a major boulevard lined with apartment houses. It was something to go on, but not much. He would not give me an address. I tried another approach.
"You must talk to your teacher or the school nurse about this, Kevin. Will you?"
He made a sound that could have meant anything at all.
"What is your father's name, Kevin?"
There was a long silence before he answered with a common surname.
Struggling for calm, trying to give the impression of a strength I did not feel, I asked him to hang up and told him I would do my best to help him.
Slamming the Door
He said he couldn't stand much more, a child's voice delivering an adult assessment of unbearable circumstance. Fearful that I might break down and destroy the illusion I hoped to create, I told him again to hang up the phone.
When I heard the click at the other end of the line I felt as though I had slammed the door on an innocent caught in a chamber of horrors. It is not a good feeling.
I telephoned the police department in Kevin's town. Able to give the street and the father's last name, I thought it might be enough to pinpoint a location--if Kevin had not misled me.
The dispatcher wanted to know what school the boy attended, and I realized he had not told me.
"If he calls back," she said, "try to get his address or telephone number."
For the second time I explained that he dialed the phone at random, that he reached us by chance, that he almost surely would not, could not call back.
The dispatcher took my name and address and phone number, told me the police would be in touch if additional information was needed. Not that I had any to give.
Haunting Memory Lingers
A month has passed, and I have heard no more, which is what I expected.
The thought of Kevin haunts me. I give him a face. I wish he had dialed another number, found a listener who knew the right words, a listener of more use than I.
At night sometimes I lie awake and wonder how I could have convinced him that no one could help him if they could not find him.
I think of him out there somewhere, a small victim who called out for help that never came. He's 7 years old.