Stay with Me

natchez-trace-parkway-bridge
The phone rang at 9:30pm.

Kelly uncapped her pen, flipped to a new page in her binder, and thumbed her headset.

“Hello.”

Nothing on the line but silence. Normal. A lot of people who called weren’t ready to talk. The fact that their fingers had dialed a strange number set off some kind of mental denial. Like they wanted to take it back, to hang up.

“I’m here. You can talk to me.”

Now she could make out something—heavy, labored breathing.

“Can you talk?”

The breathing hitched.

“It’s okay. Take your time.”

When the voice came, it sounded soft and garbled in her headset, like the throat and jaw muscles were trying to figure out how to coordinate.

“ . . . didn’t think . . . was going to make this call.”

“Why not?” She jotted down male, and waited a beat. When the voice didn’t respond, she tried again, “Why didn’t you think you would call?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“Are you alone right now?”

No response.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Paul,” he whispered.

“It’s nice to meet you, Paul. Is it okay if I keep talking with you?”

He mumbled something.

“Paul, did you take any drugs?”

His breathing evened out like a person drifting off to sleep.

“Paul, are you still with me? Can you say something?”

“No drugs.” It sounded like nuhdrukz.

She scribbled no drugs. “No drugs? Good! Good. What else can you tell me? Can you tell me what you’re doing?”

“Stars . . . so clear tonight.” His voice strengthened then dropped back to a mumble.

“You’re outside, Paul? Can you tell me where?”

“So clear . . .”

“Paul, where are you?”

His breathing juddered. He coughed. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Have you . . . have you ever lost someone close to you.”

She thought she had never heard such sadness and loneliness in a human voice. She rubbed her eyes. “No, Paul, I haven’t. No one close. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky.”

She heard a small sob—a sucking, wet sound.

“ . . . lost my wife and baby girl. Some kid was texting. Didn’t even touch the brakes . . .”

Another horrible sob.

“I just wanted to kiss them goodbye . . . but I didn’t even get to do that . . . I think I’ve been waiting to die ever since.”

Kelly’s pen hovered over her pad, shaking.

She cleared her throat. “Paul . . . I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry.” She sucked a breath, exhaled, told herself to focus. Find another track. “Do you have other family around?”

“Huh?” He sounded disoriented.

“Do you have family you’re close to?”

She could hear his slow breathing, the work it took for him to get the words out.

“ . . . only child . . . parents gone . . .”

Her pen scratched across the page. “When was that, Paul?”

Strained breathing in her ear.

“Paul, are you still there?”

“Mmm-hmm . . .”

“Are you falling asleep?”

“ . . . tired . . .”

“Paul, why are you tired? Are you sure you didn’t take anything?”

“ . . . so big . . .”

“What’s so big? Where are you?”

“ . . . Natchez . . . bridge.”

Icy fingers squeezed into her stomach. She knew the bridge—a picturesque tourist destination with a soaring double-arch spanning the 145′ drop to the ravine below. She swiveled to her computer, pounding the keys, firing off the message to the local police department.

“You’re at the bridge, Paul?”

“Mmm . . .”

“Paul, stay with me, okay? Stay on the phone with me.”

“Tell me a story . . . any story . . . doesn’t matter.”

She fumbled through a story from elementary—a school play; things went wrong; general mayhem ensued. Every few sentences she took a beat listening for the slow breathing, for anything. She could hear him—a monotonous undertone accompanying her.

“What’s your name?” he whispered.

That’s when she heard it. Sirens. Somewhere far away but coming through her headset.

Hurry up!

“Paul . . .”

And then his voice, clear, low. “You have a kind voice . . . wish I could’ve . . . had the chance to meet you.”

“My name’s Kelly, Paul! It’s Kelly, okay? You know me now. You know my name. And we can still meet.”

The sirens were close now.

“We can still meet, Paul, okay? Just don’t jump. Promise me you won’t jump!”

His breathing trailed away to nothingness. The sirens still howled in the distance, bleating and echoing in her headset but somehow getting no closer.

Hurry the hell up!! Why aren’t you there yet?!

“ . . . blue . . .”

“Blue what, Paul? What’s blue?”

A whimper. The sound of a small animal lying broken in the dirt.

“Paul, don’t do it! Please!” She slammed her fists on her desk helplessly again and again.

“Don’t do it!”

The messenger alert on her computer chirped.

“RESPONDING UNITS ARE REPORTING NO ONE ON THE BRIDGE. PLEASE CONFIRM LOCATION.”

“ . . . did . . . good job . . . Kelly . . .”

“REPEAT. NO ONE ON BRIDGE.”

And then she heard him—his voice far away, a whisper echoing in and out of the sirens, a voice so tired, so infinitely tired, finally succumbing to sleep.

“I already jumped.”

***

*Author’s note: When I was at the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge several weeks ago, I noticed a sign with the words “There is hope” and the number for a helpline. That–along with the short film “The Phone Call”–heavily influenced this story.

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