Christmas Eve: Brenda sees the light

No calls or radio traffic on Christmas Eve. For radio dispatcher Brenda Fontanot, sitting alone at the console in the Elias County Sheriff’s Department, that was just fine.

Hey, she thought, no calls, no traffic, means no domestic trouble, nobody with too much Christmas Cheer, no accidents on the roads, in spite of the new snow. Suits me OK; I’ll take boring. I’ll be going home at 11.

Brenda was only in her 30s, but was the senior dispatcher at the department. She had agreed to work second shift Christmas Eve so the younger dispatchers could all spend it with their families. Of course, that meant going home late to her own family — Charlie, her husband; Christopher, 10; and Heather, 8.

Her mind wandered home as she sat in the silent room … Charlie would have had a popper or two in honor of the day by this time — but he never let it get out of hand. The kids would be hyper — hey, it’s Christmas Eve! She could almost hear their dad telling them, “Now, kids, you’ve got to go to bed and to sleep, or Santa won’t come! Your mom will be in to kiss you good-night as soon as she gets home.”

Brenda looked up at the clock. Why, it was 10:30 already! She couldn’t believe the time had passed this fast. I’ll be going home in just half an hour! she thought.

Rrringgg! went the phone — the first call in two hours.  “Well, now it starts — in my last half hour,” thought Brenda as she grabbed the receiver. “Sheriff’s department, Fontanot.”

Brenda listened intently to the caller, asked a few pertinent questions, then promised to send an officer quickly. She keyed her mike and said, “42 to 429.” Officer Jody Harrison was working the roads by himself, and, ever the eager beaver, the young officer answered almost as quickly as the words were out of her mouth.

“429, we’ve got a report of a young couple with a baby stranded in a broken-down vehicle on Highway 35, four miles east of Centerville. Signal 8 to the scene and see what assistance they need.”

“10-4, I’m en route,” Jody barked. She heard his siren activate even as his mike was keyed. He was the youngest and most junior officer on the department, full of ginger, ready to drive through hell in a gasoline overcoat if necessary to be a good officer. Brenda smiled to herself. “I didn’t say, ‘Emergency,’ Jody,” she said aloud. But  everyone liked the naive, gung-ho Jody.

Brenda wrote the call down on the radio log. Almost before she finished, the phone rang again. Just like a ketchup bottle — first none’ll come, then a lottle, she thought. “Sheriff’s department, Fontanot.”

“Brenda, this is Peggy.” It was Peggy Harding, her 11 p.m. relief. Brenda’s heart sank; she suspected what was coming.

“Brenda, I’m sick — I’ve got the flu or something. Been throwing up and everything.” Brenda restrained herself to keep from snorting out loud. Flu, hell; you’re shit-faced drunk, she thought. Couldn’t resist the Christmas Cheer, could you? Peggy never met a bottle she didn’t like, and it wasn’t the first time she had welshed out on Brenda when Peggy’s third shift was about to start.

Brenda took a deep breath, let it out slowly, struggled not to blurt out what she was thinking. Then she said, “So you’re not going to make it in — is that what you’re saying, Peggy?”

“Uh — gee, Brenda, I hate to do this to you, but I just don’t think I could cut it tonight.  If you can pull this one for me, I’ll sure owe you one, hon.”

Make that two or three, thought Brenda angrily. But aloud, she said, “OK, Peggy, take care of yourself and get well.”

“You’re a pal, kid. Merry Christmas.”

This was too much for Brenda, who banged down the phone. Merry Christmas in the radio room, Brenda, she thought.

Brenda called Charlie’s cell phone. He picked up on the second ring. “Hello, hon.”

“Hi, sweetie. Afraid I’ve got some bad news. Peggy called in ‘sick’ so I’ll have to pull her shift too.”

Charlie gasped in disbelief. “Are you serious? The kids are all wired; they’ll never get to sleep unless you’re here to kiss ’em good-night! You mean you have to sit in that damn radio room all Christmas Eve because that drunken slut let you down again?!”

“I agreed to do it, Charlie. You know good and well I’d have rather had three root canals tonight, but the radio has to be covered.”

“Can’t you call somebody to come relieve you?”

“Are you kidding, Charlie? On Christmas Eve? I’m just not gonna do that. Honey, I know you’re really disappointed, and I sure am, too. But it’s just this once. I’ll see you a little after 7 a.m.”

Charlie sighed. “OK, sweetie; I’ll tell the kids you have to work late. Hope the night goes fast for you. Love ya.”

“Love you and the kids too, Charlie. See ya in a few hours.”

——

Jody Harrison raced through the night on the newly fallen snow. Eventually, up ahead, he saw a beat-up, heavily-used car stalled in the middle of the silent road.

“Hope they’ve not got frostbite already,” he said aloud as he stopped his patrol car and got out, slipping a little on the fresh snow. No night to be stranded on a rural road and not even able to turn on the heater.

The young officer shined his flashlight toward the car, into the windows. “Hey, folks, it’s the sheriff’s department! Are you folks OK?”

No answer. Jody stepped to the car, shined the light directly inside. No one was in the vehicle. He quickly checked the trunk; nothing there, either; not even a spare. These people must be really flat broke, he thought. Jody looked around the car — footprints, the tracks of a pickup truck. “Somebody’s already been here and gave them a lift,” he said to himself. He followed the tracks in the snow to a nearby country lane; they went up it.

Jody drove up the lane; a quarter of a mile farther he saw a farmhouse, a barn, outbuildings. The officer stopped his car, got out and approached the house where he could see lights glowing.

A grizzled, middle-aged man answered his knock. If you’d looked into a dictionary under “farmer,” you’d have seen his picture. “Sheriff’s department, sir; I’m looking for a young couple and a baby that we had a report were stranded out on 35.”

“My name’s Festvog,” the farmer said. “I think we’ve got the people you’re lookin’ for inside here. The missus and I were watching TV, and all of a sudden I just got this funny feelin’, like I ought to go out to the main road because somebody needed me there. So I went, found these folks, and brought ’em back here.”

He motioned Jody into the house. There by a warming wood stove sat a young, wiry man who looked like one who works with his hands. His wife, plump and serene-faced, sat nearby, holding a small baby wrapped in a blue blanket who was fussing to be fed.

“Sheriff’s department, sir. Are you folks OK?” asked Jody.

“Yeah, we are now, thanks to this gentleman,” the man said. “That old car just finally give out on us. It got us all the way from Detroit; we heard they was hiring down southwest of here. We’ve had a hard time ever since the plant where I worked closed.”

Jody nodded, satisfied that he had completed an investigation that turned out on a happy note — and on Christmas Eve. “Lucky you were able to use your cell phone to call for help,” he said. The man looked at him, surprised. “Cell phone? We don’t have no cell phone; it give out on us, too, last week.”

“Oh; well, maybe somebody else called you, Mr. Festvog, after seeing these folks out there.”

Festvog looked at him, bemused. “Son, I already told you I just got a feelin’ I should go out there. Guess we’re really behind the times, but we don’t have no phone here at the house, either.”

Jody gave each man a quizzical look, shook his head. This made no sense.

The young man was sitting, elbows on knees, staring off into space.

“I was one of the best workers at that plant,” he said. “They told me I was always reliable.”

“Except when you was drunk,” said his wife, with a mischievous smile.

He looked at her, annoyed. “That was only on the weekends. And who did I give the paycheck to every week?”

“Me,” she said, nodding her concession to his point. She held the bottle for the baby as he sucked it greedily.

The man started unlacing his work boots, ignoring Jody, who had one more thing to ask.

“Mister, I’ll have to make out a report on this since we got a call. What’s your name, please?”

The man glanced up, didn’t even pause in what he was doing. “Carpenter. Joe Carpenter.”

Jody wrote the name on the case report, then bid his good-byes, wishing all a Merry Christmas. He put the report on his clipboard in the patrol car, to be filled out later.

As he drove back down the lane onto 35, Jody thought, “That’s weird! He didn’t call them, because he couldn’t; they didn’t call us, because they couldn’t …” He shivered a little. “Really weird …”

——

Brenda sat before the console in the radio room, her head nodding, struggling to stay awake. No more phone calls had come in. Christmas Eve had become quiet again.

She yawned for the fifth time in 10 minutes and glanced at the Christmas tree in the corner, its lights gleaming and winking merrily. It was the only connection she had to the season right now; with no outside windows in the radio room, she couldn’t even watch the snow falling gently.

The tree shown with an unearthly beauty, its shape perfectly symmetrical, the star on top pointing straight up, as if proud to surmount such a majestic Christmas decoration. She and Peggy had decorated the tree a week before, chatting and giggling as they performed the chore at the end of Brenda’s shift and the start of Peggy’s. Peggy’s so nice when she’s not drinking, thought Brenda. Why does she drink so much … Why is she so unhappy …

A lone tear plopped down onto the leg of Brenda’s uniform pants. Christmas morning. The kids would probably be opening their Christmas presents by the time she got home. All night spent sitting alone at this lonely console. Her head nodded again, and her eyes grew heavy.

Suddenly the phone rang for the third time that evening. Brenda sat up with a start, and realized she had been dozing. She glanced at the digital clock on the console: 12:05 a.m.

“Sheriff’s department, Fontanot.”

“Hello! Let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas on Christmas Day!” said a jovial voice.

Brenda was a little surprised and flustered. “Why, thank you! Merry Christmas to you, too. Did you have something to report, or did you need to see an officer?”

“Oh, I just wanted to tell you that young couple with the baby won’t need your officer’s help after all. This time somebody took them in.”

“Why, that’s good,” answered Brenda. Then as what had been said sunk in, she suddenly sat up straight. “Just a minute! You’re not the person who called about them earlier. May I have your name, please?”

“Oh, I’m working tonight and I … get around a lot. Trust me — they’re OK now,” said the voice, ignoring her question.

Brenda began to feel very uneasy — but it was somehow a pleasant uneasiness. Almost like when … like when …

“I’ve got to be going now,” the jovial voice said. “Why, one other thing, Brenda — look at your Christmas tree. The star on the top is on crooked. If you don’t fix it, it might fall off!”

Brenda turned before she had time to think.  “Why, so it — Oh, my God!” she cried, jumping from her chair as the phone receiver hit the floor with a clatter. She could hear the voice roaring with laughter on the other end for a few seconds — then the line went dead.

Brenda was shaking now. She looked at the tree. The star had been as straight as a ramrod a few moments before. Now, just as the voice had said, it was whacker-jawed. Just like that. Her knees felt weak, and sweat trickled down from her armpits.

What’s happening? she thought. This started out as just a Christmas Eve on second shift. What on earth is going on?

Shakily, she retrieved the phone, placed it back on the hook. She carefully straightened the star. But then she began pacing the floor in the little room, back and forth. Something the voice had said was stuck in her mind, echoing eerily like a midnight Christmas bell in a distant church steeple.

And Brenda repeated it obsessively as she paced. “This time somebody took them in. This time somebody took them in …”

——

Jody Harrison drove back toward Centerville. Christmas lights beamed at him from many houses, their occupants sound asleep now, awaiting all the excitement of Christmas morning. He had pondered the events on 35 and at the farmhouse until his head ached — then finally tried to put them out of his mind. There didn’t seem to be a logical answer.

The young officer hadn’t radioed in to his dispatcher after leaving the Festvog farmhouse; he was on his way in anyway, and decided to just tell Brenda when he got there.

Arriving at the sheriff’s office, he parked the patrol car, hit the button on the locked door, and was buzzed through. He strode to the inside window of the radio room and peered in.

Brenda was sitting in her chair, her back to the window,  facing the little Christmas tree, and seemed to be gazing at it intently.

“Hey, Brenda, Merry Christmas!” called Jody through the glass. “Say, that young couple with the baby are OK. Somebody took them in.”

Brenda slowly swiveled around in her chair to face Jody. There was a look on her face he had never seen there before. A light seemed to radiate from her, her eyes gleamed like stars, and her features were composed in a heavenly peace.

A smile slowly began at her lips and spread up to her eyes as she gazed at Jody. And she said, simply: “I know.”

Copyright 2009, Wayne Engle

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