The phone rings, and he looks at the clock on the table next to the television in surprise. It is after 11:30 at night, and he was not expecting any calls. He turns the TV down, and picks up the handset.
"Hello?" Silence greets him. He speaks again, louder. "Hello?"
A voice, hesitant, "Hi...this is Sarah."
It's one of his students, his favorite. "Hi Sarah. What's up?"
She speaks slowly, her voice shaking. "I...think...I think I'm going to...kill myself."
His blood goes cold. Stunned, he pauses a moment. "Sarah, hang on a sec. Take a deep breath. Can you tell me what's wrong?"
He can hear her teeth chattering. 'I just...I just...can't...I can't do it anymore. It hurts so much." Her voice cracks.
"Sarah, where are you?" His voice is firm, but kind and concerned.
"I'm...in a phone booth. Down the street from my house." Her voice so soft he can hardly hear, she asks "Can you come?"
His mind racing, he thinks only for a split second. "Yeah, I'll come. You wait right there. Are you at the store down the road from your house?"
"Yes," she whispers.
"Okay. WAIT THERE. Don't go anywhere. Don't do anything until I get there. Promise me." Silence. "Sarah?"
She hiccups, then takes a long, shuddery breath. "Yeah?" she sniffles.
"Okay." Her voice is very soft.
"I want you to hang up now, and sit down in front of the store. Okay?"
"Good. I'll be right there."
He hears her crying distantly as she hangs up, and with pounding heart grabs his jacket, locks the door, and races to his car. He lives only ten minutes away. Desperately, he hopes he's not too late. Tearing out of the driveway, he turns down the road.
She sits with her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking back and forth on the cold concrete. Tears stream silently down her face. "Please let him come, please let him come," she chants softly. The package of razor blades is wrapped tightly in her fist, the cardboard crushed slightly by the force of her grip. She is shivering violently, and it makes the bottle of aspirin in her pocket rattle ominously. "Please let him come," she says again, and pulls her worn coat more tightly around her thin body, burying her face in the collar.
He pulls into the deserted parking lot and his headlights pass over the small figure sitting against the concrete pillar. His breath whooshes out of him in a tremendous sigh of relief; he hadn't realized he'd been holding it. Quickly, he parks the car and walks to her. She raises her head, and her eyes stare up at him, a haunted expression on her face. Her face twists as she recognizes him, and the tears come fast. He kneels next to her, and silently holds out his arms. She falls into them, and breaks down, sobbing. He hugs her tight, and she buries her face in his shoulder and cries.
"I didn't think you'd come..." she says thickly through her sobs. Her body is shaking, he can feel the shivers run all through her slender frame. His heart aches for the small girl.
"Shhhhh," he says, softly, patting her back. "Shhhhh. Everything will be all right." Her arms clutch him tight, as though afraid to let go. Gently, he picks her up and carries her to his car. "Come on. We're going to get you some help." He sets her in the passenger seat, closes the door, and walks around to get in. He closes the door and starts the engine, then turns to her. The interior light illuminates her face, and he can see her clearly for the first time. A frown darkens his face as he sees the deep bruise around her eye, dark and angry against her pale skin. He reaches over and tilts her head gently to get a better look.
"Sarah..." his voice is low. She bows her head. "Did your father do that to you?" He knows what the answer will be. She has told him before about the problems she's been having at home since her mother left. She nods, so slightly that he almost misses it, and begins to cry again. Ashamed, she covers her eyes with her fists. He rests his hand on her shoulder gently. Words don't exist to express what he wants to say. After a moment he puts the car in gear and pulls out of the parking lot.
They ride in silence for a while. She leans against the window, exhausted. Her tears have stopped, but her eyes remain haunted. He glances over at her.
"You know I have to take you to the hospital, right?"
She nods, her expression weary, but doesn't look at him.
"Sarah? Look at me a minute."
She raises her eyes slowly.
"I want to help you," he says softly.
Her eyes gaze deep into his, and she knows he's sincere. Without speaking, she reaches over and takes his hand. Uncurling her fist, she places the package of razor blades in his palm, then closes his fingers around them. He glances at them, then back up at her. Slowly, he rolls down the window. With a flick of his wrist, he flings the razor blades out into the night, then closes the window. He reaches over and grasps her hand, holding it tightly. They ride in silence the rest of the way to the hospital.
* * *
They pull into the parking lot of the emergency room and he parks the car, the turns to look at her. She gazes back at him, her lower lip between her teeth, the fear all too plain on her face. He smiles gently.
She nods her head, slowly. His heart feels like it’s tearing in his chest. She’s so brave... so small, and so frightened, but so very brave. She drops her eyes, staring at her hands which are clenched in her lap. He can see her shaking.
“I’m...scared...” her voice cracks, and a violent shiver racks her frame.
“I know, sweetheart.” He gets out, and walks around the car. She watches him. Her eyes are huge. He opens her door and holds out his hand. With a sigh, she pulls her coat around her, then rises and takes his hand. He leads her through the brightly-lit lot and into the huge glass doors underneath the bright red “emergency” sign.
* * *
She sits quietly in the hard-backed chair while he speaks with the nurse at the desk. After a few minutes, he comes back over and stands next to her, his hands in his pockets. They wait in silence. She stares at the floor, tension evident in her entire body. He wishes he knew what to say, what to do, but all he knows is just to stand next to her and wait.
After a while, a white-coated doctor comes over to them. “You’re Sarah?” he asks. She says nothing. The doctor glances at him, and he nods. “Okay, Sarah, we’re going to admit you to our psychiatric unit.” His voice is gentle. “We’ll take care of you. I know you’re scared, but there‘s nothing to worry about.” A nurse comes over. She wears brightly-patterned scrubs covered in pictures of teddy bears. She consults with the doctor for a moment. The doctor then turns back to them and says “Sarah, this is Nurse Andrews. I’d like you to go with her, okay?” With that, the doctor bustles off, and the nurse looks down at her.
“Come on, honey,” Nurse Andrews says. Sarah rises slowly, then turns to look at him. Tears are running down her face again. He smiles softly at her. Suddenly, she grabs him in a fierce hug. He holds her for a moment, then looks her in the eyes.
“It’s going to be okay, Sarah. I promise.” She looks up at him, her emotions naked in her eyes. “You call me if you need me, okay? Even if you just want to talk.” He ruffles her hair gently. She turns to the nurse, who puts a gentle arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” she says, and leads her away. Partway down the hall, Sarah glances back to where he stands. He raises a hand and waves at her. She offers him a tiny, sad smile, then turns and walks on.
* * *
He walks in the door of his apartment and drops his jacket, too tired to bother hanging it up. He turns off the overhead light and sinks onto the couch wearily. He leans back and the tears finally come, coursing down his cheeks. He lets them flow as he sits in darkness, illuminated only by the ambient light from the streetlight outside his window.