Maybe here, she can help more people.
|"Stacey! You gotta help me! I'm freaking out right now." The answering machine broadcast my twin brother's panicked voice throughout my apartment, snapping me out of my slumber. And I was having such a lovely dream, too.
I glanced at my alarm clock. 6:00 AM? I'd be upset, but he probably did me a favor. I might even show up on time for my job today. Then again, ten minutes late equals ten minutes that I don't have to spend enduring the entitled taunts of supermarket slobs expecting a five-star bagging experience from a minimum-wage mind-numbed drone.
At least Jack gives me a purpose. He's a college student who's also working to pay his tuition. Based on the tone of his message, I'm guessing he has a final exam coming up. A huge introvert, he doesn't have many friends, so he relies on me to get him through stressful times. I don't mind, though. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. I know he's going to be wildly successful, and if I can help him get there, then I will.
I lurched my way to the phone, trying to wipe the sleep from my eyes. Now where did I put that stupid phone? I thought cordless phones would make life so much easier, so I ditched my wall-mounted corded phone. But at least with the corded phone, it was always where I expected it to be.
The phone rang again, scaring the grogginess right out of me. Why is the phone cuddling the cactus? Why would I leave the phone there? Actually, I don't want to know.
"Jack! What's going on?"
"I can't do it anymore! This final is too much."
"So were the other finals that you ended up acing."
"But what am I supposed to do? I can't keep doing this alone."
"You're not doing this alone. I'm right here with you." Well, not really. I can't exactly fly from Arizona to Massachusetts every time he has a meltdown, but I carry my pager and my coin purse wherever I go, so if he has an midday emergency, I can get to a payphone and work my magic.
"I know. I'm sorry. I gotta get to class, but I think I'm okay now." Most of these freakouts end pretty quickly. He just needs someone to listen to him. I'm good at that. In fact, sometimes I wish there were a way to make a living off of listening to Jack and helping him through his problems. Instead, I have to slog through the drudgery of striking buttons on a cash register.
* * * * *
"Paper or plastic?"
"Yes." Gee, thanks. What am I supposed to do with that answer?
Most customers don't want to deal with underpaid cashiers. The feeling is certainly mutual. I'm a social being. I want to have meaningful conversations with people, help them through their troubles, and show them their worth. I should've been a psychologist. A year ago, I borrowed a friend's psychology textbook and took the practice quizzes at the end of the chapters. I actually passed all the quizzes without even reading the book, but I can't put that on my college application. They didn't want a cashier with subpar high-school grades. I just need to find an entry-level job in the field. Then I can reapply with a resume that's worth something.
As hard as it can be to always be on call for Jack, I really wish he would call me right now. I'm stuck here, surrounded by hundreds of people who couldn't care less about me. To some, I'm merely a conduit facilitating the exchange of our goods for their money. To others, I'm the gatekeeper taking their hard-earned cash and dumping overpriced, overprocessed food on them. When Jack calls, however, it's because he wants to talk to me. He comes to me because he trusts me. We grew up together. He's practically my best friend. And few things feel greater than picking him up when life knocks him down.
At least I made it through my shift. I drove back home, popped a frozen dinner into the microwave, sat in my stiff, ragged couch, and turned on the TV. Let's see what's on...used cars...Senator Sex Scandal wants my vote...microwavable eggs? Eww! Wait, what's this?
"Do you feel like life is too much to handle? Do you feel like life is not worth living? Do you want to talk to someone about it? Then call us at the National Crisis Hotline. We're here all day, every day to listen. You're not alone. We're here for you. So call us if you need someone to turn to."
That's it. This is perfect! The National Crisis Hotline is exactly what I need. People throughout the country are struggling and just want someone to be there for them. I could be that person! I could have meaningful conversations and help people while at the same time getting the experience I need to get into college. I'm going to call them up and try to get a job there. I'm sure Jack will serve as quite the useful reference.
* * * * *
"We're so happy to have you on the National Crisis Hotline team, Stacey. Have you read the Game Plan Manual?" I read that thing at least three times. It seemed strange, though. It just gave us a list of questions to ask the callers, but it seemed to stop there.
"Yes, Zach, but I think I'm missing part of it. Where's the chapter on actually helping the callers?"
"Helping? We're not here to help. We're here to listen to them. They have to help themselves."
"But I thought..."
"Stacey, you have to understand that you're not a psychologist. Nothing personal, but we can't let you play therapist, or else we'd get in trouble."
"So what if they ask me something?"
"Did you read the manual?" Ugh. That sarcastic chaos of patronizing inquiries? I already told you I suffered through that dreck.
"Just ask more questions?" I think if I tried that with Jack, he'd lose his mind and do something drastic. I could never forgive myself if he did the unthinkable. Then again, I guess asking questions is better than nothing. At least I can be here to listen to my callers.
Zach walked me over to my station. It looks like a trough. A buffet line of people sat in their chairs in a sardine-like manner. Granted, we all have headsets, but as I took my seat, I wished I'd brought a sack of deodorant sticks - not for me, mind you.
My phone rang! Time for me to strut my stuff. This caller needs me. I'm gonna give it my all!
"National Crisis Hotline, this is Stacey! Thank you so much for calling. What can I do for you?"
"Hey, uhh...I'm...kind of feeling trapped."
"Why are you feeling trapped?" So far, so good! I'm starting off with a reasonable question.
"I mean...my job. I'm trapped in my job?"
"How are you trapped in your job?" Normally I'd remind Jack that everything will be okay and that I'm here for him, but I have to stick to my questions-only strategy.
"Well...I can't...I mean, they won't promote me. They don't even know I'm there."
"Why do you think they don't know you're there?" Probably because nobody ever says anything to him when he shows up in the morning.
"Umm...I just walk in, and nobody even says 'good morning' or something. Like, why should I even stay there?"
"Well, you gotta-" Oh, wait: questions only. "Why do you question whether you should stay there?" Okay, if I said that to Jack, I'd slap myself.
"I guess...I don't know...maybe...alright...I should go. Uh...thanks, I guess."
And then he hung up. Is that really how it's supposed to go? I could've helped him if this company would just let me. I help Jack all the time. I know what I'm doing. Just let me try!
I don't blame him, though. He didn't want to talk to me; he wanted to talk to someone who would help him, and I'm simply not allowed to do that. I just hope he's alright.
* * * * *
"How can you stand this?" I asked the lady sitting next to me.
"It's a job."
"But don't you want to help these callers?"
"I did, but the company won't let me. So I just ask the questions until they hang up on me." Is that what I'm going to become? A mind-numbed drone?
The phone rang again. Oh, well. Back to the grind.
"National Crisis Hotline, this is Stacey." I'm supposed to be able to hear my own voice through the headset, but all I heard was this bored, cranky lady with no energy. I could hardly recognize myself. Is that what I sound like when I've given up?
"Hey, uh...this is J- er, Craig."
"What do you want, Craig?"
"I just failed my final and they're gonna kick me out of college."
"And why would they do that?." Oh, gosh, please tell me I didn't just ask that. At least let him think I actually care. I do, but it's so frustrating to only be able to ask questions.
"I just told you! I failed my final! I'm freaking out right now! I tried calling my sister but she won't pick up. Help me!"
"Why do you-" Wait a minute. I stood up, reached down into my pocket to grab my pager and pulled out a shattered mess of wires. I must have broke it when I squished up against these people. Oh, no...was that...
"Jack? Is that you? Hello? Hello!" Did he hang up? Where did he go?
"Stacey!" I turned around and saw Zach running toward me.
"What happened? Where did he go?"
"We saw you stand up so we transferred the call. You can't interrupt the call like that."
"Who has the call? Where's Jack?"
"Someone else is taking the call. Don't worry about it. Just keep in mind that you need to finish-"
"Listen to me! Where is Jack!?"
"Wait, wasn't his name Craig? Do you know this guy?"
"He's my brother! I have to help him!"
"Oh, no, you can't be listening to people you know. It's not safe when you're emotionally involved- where are you going?"
"To call my brother!" I shouted as I ran back home. Jack needs me - NOW!
* * * * *
I shoulder-charged the door, blasting it off its hinges and sending it flying into the apartment with a loud crash. The landlord can keep my deposit - I'd rather have Jack. I ran to the phone and furiously mashed his number, but it just kept ringing. I called again, but it just kept ringing.
I looked around, wondering what to do, and spotted the flashing light on my answering machine. I walked over with dread. I almost didn't want to listen to the message. A part of me kept saying, "if you don't listen to it, it never happened." I pushed the button, but I knew what would happen. My stomach dropped to the floor as the message started playing.
"Stacey...I tried calling you. I failed my final. I'm gonna get kicked out of college. I tried calling this hotline, but they kept questioning me. I just needed someone to tell me everything would be alright. I'm sorry, Stacey. I'm sorry for everything."
"Stacey!" I turned around, expecting to see some tenant wondering what that loud explosion was. But it was Jack! Or at least it looked like him. He was deathly pale and slightly transparent.
"Jack? Is that you? But...how?"
"I couldn't leave without saying goodbye to you."
"Goodbye? You mean, you're a..." I never believed they existed, but this one is staring right at me.
"It's okay. I just wanted you to know how much I love you."
"I'll see you soon," I said to Jack as I grabbed a knife from my kitchen.