“This is the ambulance service. What is the medical emergency?”
“Can you send the police? We’re looking for my cousin.” The disembodied voice of a young man, not much older than 16, crackles in my ear.
It starts with any unexpected noise: the fire truck’s siren wailing through the neighborhood, or water sloshing around in a bathtub. It also happens when the phone rings unexpectedly in the afternoon. Or when I watch a suspenseful movie. First, I tense up. Then my fists ball up by my sides until my nails leave angry half-moons in my palms. Sweat trickles down my spine. My heart beats a feverish salsa rhythm that sends a wave of nausea to my throat. I gulp air by the mouthful, but still my lungs demand more. I clench my eyes shut to banish the images that insist on coming, but they invade my mind anyway, unbidden, a stop-motion horror animation replay projected in high definition behind my white-hot eyelids. I can only brace myself and ride the tidal wave—soul and psyche shattering into discordant fragments—until it mercifully ebbs and I emerge from the crushing surf in a state of complete exhaustion.
“Tell me what happened.”
“We found his clothes next to the pool.”
“Are you saying that you think your cousin might be in the pool?”
“Yeah.” The word bears the finality of a firing squad salvo.
“The ambulance is on its way. Do not go into the pool if it’s not safe. Stay on the line. Don’t hang up.” My fingers race across the computer keyboard, translating the catastrophe into an alphanumeric cipher devised to strip the array of human misfortunes of their emotional subjectivity.
I’m no longer able to sit or stand still. My arms and legs are overtaken by a generalized state of agitation. I try to quiet my nerves by watching marathon sessions of television series without really following story lines. The moving images and the vacuous dialogue are supposed to anchor the running stream of disconnected thoughts that assail my mind, but every few minutes I succumb to the compulsion to wash a plate, dust a table, or fold a sheet. Instead of merely pacing the floors I sweep them. Every day. The skin of my hands displays the jagged topography of sand dunes eroded by hours spent washing dishes and scrubbing the bathroom porcelain. On the up side, my apartment has never been cleaner.
“How old is your cousin?”
“Are you next to the pool now?”
“Can you see if your cousin is actually in the pool?”
“The water is dirty.”
A mental image of another swimming pool springs forth. The smell of chlorine stings my nostrils. I jump and my heel slips on the sleek tile. My limbs flail, kick, thrash and twist asynchronously, a frantic parody of a weightless contortionist. My chest burns. A strand of translucent bubbles bursts from my mouth. At last my foot strikes a hard surface. I push up and rise to the surface, coughing, gulping, breathing… I shake off the troubling memory.
An electrical hum arises from my middle section, rippling outward to my extremities. I can almost see yellow sparks surging from my fingertips. I’ve become a small animal, a fearful squirrel, startled by the mere twig snapping. All my senses twitch under the never-ending threat assessments of ordinary occurrences: the shrill summon of the doorbell, the curious demeanor of a passer-by, or the claustrophobic queue at the grocery store. I need to rehabilitate myself to my surroundings, like a battle-weary foot soldier returning from combat. The landscape of neighborhood streets takes on the aura of a hostile foreign war zone in which perilous encounters creep amid solitary parks and crowded places alike.
“What’s your cousin’s name?”
The caller utters a boy’s name, an intimate christening that conjures up a little boy’s face in limpid details.
“Are there other people with you?”
“I want you to call his name out loud, okay?”
“No. I mean, shout his name to see if he answers.”
I tune in to the background, expecting to hear a surge of activity, but instead an oppressive silence settles over the line. My fingers linger motionless over the keyboard.
The brain is an amazing organ. In the morning when my mind lingers in a limbo state between sleep and wakefulness, I’m propelled to a suburban backyard one Father’s Day afternoon. My psyche volunteers its own slew of pictorial details such as a child’s red t-shirt or a blade of grass pushing through the cracked cement next to an in-ground pool. My mind zooms in on the plump cheeks, a lock of black curls plastered across the forehead, a stream of brown liquid spilling out of bluish lips. But it’s the eyes, cloudy brown orbs gazing directly into the June sun, that strike me the most. When I zip back to reality I rub my temples, striving to scrub the scene off my mind, but my focused efforts only seem to crystallize the movie in my long-term memory. I wish I could rip it out with a scream.
“Are there adults with you?”
“My sister. She’s 25.”
“Ask her to fetch a neighbour. Now.”
“We did. Nobody’s home.”
An alarming thought gnaws at my insides. “How long ago did you find your cousin’s clothes by the pool?”
“Half an hour.”
I fold my arms over the anguish that has taken root in the pit of my stomach. I stay on the line because there’s nothing else I can do.
Weeks and months vanish in the recurring loop of a Groundhog Day nightmare. My living room seems odd, as if I stepped inside a stranger’s house. I survey the bookcases propped against the wall but I soon turn away, snubbing the hundred titles I don’t remember ever enjoying. I arrange the unread issues of my magazine subscription piling up on the coffee table—nine so far—the only tangible marker of the time that has passed. Words, written and spoken, are as light and meaningless as dandelions seeds scattered across a field. I love you, my partner of twenty years says, but his words flutter by without ever brushing my skin. I watch our entwined bodies from the bedroom ceiling and for a brief moment I wonder who this couple is. When I remember I feel as hollow and broken as a discarded egg shell.
I hear the fire engine’s siren howl in the background. A quintet of rubber-sole footsteps culminates in a splashing sound. My mind invokes a crystalline image of a fireman jumping in the murky water. I hold my breath but the silence hurts my ears more than any scream of agony ever did. I let myself believe in miracles. My heart booms in my chest. Once. Twice. Then the whoosh returns. Somehow I know the mass emerging from the water is heavier now than it was a few seconds ago.
“I got him,” a husky voice calls.
As threatening as my days have become I loathe evenings when, following the downward arc of the sun, a sheen of gloom descends on my apartment. When night comes I abandon the restlessness that takes hold of my body during the day—quivering, pacing, scouring—trusting that the exhaustion will induce a coma offering the mere glimpse of relief. But at night the dreams come. Vivid dreams woven like a Dali canvass in which I am forced to witness surreal compositions of doom and dread. Lucid dreams made even more disturbing from the chemical interaction of prescribed antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs I’m ashamed to take. I bob in and out of sleep, finally emerging a few minutes before sunrise disoriented and drenched in sweat.
When I hear the sound of a wet, hollow breath being forced into a child’s mouth, I hang up the phone. “They got him,” I say out loud, though to no one in particular. My hands quiver. I glance around and I’m almost surprised to find myself sitting at my post in the communications center. My knees buckle. I remove my headset and walk out the room on unsteady legs, the sound of a breath being forced into a lifeless body echoing in my ears.
I think Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people nor is it the fiery pit we were led to believe. Hell is a dim-lit den adorned with yellowed wallpaper and a leather armchair from which we torment ourselves by entertaining thousands of alternate outcomes that will never be. I run my hands along the bare walls, seeking an impossible way out of the incessant re-enactment of an ordinary poolside tragedy. I clench my teeth. It starts with any unexpected noise: a fire truck’s siren wailing through the neighborhood or water sloshing around in a bathtub.
Chantal Bourbon has worked as an emergency medical dispatcher in order to support her pesky writing habit. When she’s not making jam or planning tea time menus, she’s editing her first novel. She lives in Montreal.