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It is easy to pinpoint the minute when my friend Branwell began his silence. It was Wednesday, November 25, 2:43 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. It was there -- or, I guess you could say not there -- on the tape of the 911 call.
Operator: Epiphany 911. Hobson speaking.
Operator: Epiphany 911. Hobson. May I help you?
SILENCE. [Voices are heard in the background.]
Operator: Anyone there?
A woman's voice [screaming in the background]: Tell them. Tell them.
Operator: Ma'am, I can't hear you. [then louder] Please come to the phone.
A woman's voice [still in the background, but louder now]: Tell them. [then, screaming as the voice approaches] For God's sake, Branwell. [the voice gets louder] TELL THEM.
Operator: Please speak into the phone.
A woman's voice [heard more clearly]: TELL THEM. NOW, BRAN. TELL THEM NOW.
A woman's voice with a British accent [heard clearly]: Here! Take her! For God's sake, at least take her! [then, speaking directly into the phone] It's the baby. She won't wake up.
Operator: Stay on the phone.
British Accent [frightened]: The baby won't wake up.
Operator: Stay on the line. We're transferring you to Fire and Rescue.
Male Voice: Epiphany Fire and Rescue. Davidson. What is the nature of your emergency?
British Accent: The baby won't wake up.
Male Voice: What is your exact location?
British Accent: 198 Tower Hill Road. Help, please. It's the baby.
Male Voice: Help is on the way, ma'am. What happened?
British Accent: He dropped her. She won't wake up.
Male Voice: Is she having difficulty breathing?
British Accent [panicky now]: Yes. Her breathing is all strange.
Male Voice: How old is the baby, ma'am?
British Accent: Almost six months.
Male Voice: Is there a history of asthma or heart trouble?
British Accent: No, no. He dropped her, I tell you.
LOUD BANGING IS HEARD.
British Accent [into the phone]: They're here. Thank God. They're here. [then just before the connection is broken] For God's sake, Branwell, MOVE. Open the door.
The SILENCES were Branwell's. He is my friend.
The baby was Nicole -- called Nikki -- Branwell's half sister.
The British accent was Vivian Shawcurt, the baby-sitter.
In the ambulance en route to the hospital, Vivian sat up front with the driver, who was also a paramedic. He asked her what had happened. She told him that she had put the baby down for her afternoon nap and had gone to her room. After talking to a friend on the phone, she had started to read and must have dozed off. When the paramedic asked her what time that was, she had to confess that she did not know. The next thing she remembered being awakened by Branwell's screaming for her. Something was wrong with the baby. When she came into the nursery, she saw Branwell shaking Nikki, trying to get her to wake up. She guessed that the baby went unconscious when he dropped her. She started to do CPR and told Branwell to call 911. He did, but when the operator came on the line, he seemed paralyzed. He would not give her the information she needed. He would not speak at all.
Meanwhile the paramedic who rode with the baby in the ambulance was following the ABC's for resuscitation -- airway, breathing, and circulation. Once inside the trauma center at Clarion County Hospital, Nikki was put on a respirator and wrapped in blankets. It was important to keep her warm. A CAT scan was taken of her head, which showed that her injuries could cause her brain to swell. When the brain swells, it pushes against the skull, and that squeezes the blood vessels that supply the brain. If the supply of blood to the brain is pinched off, the brain cannot get oxygen, and it dies.
The doctor drilled a hole in Nikki's skull and put in a small tube -- no thicker than a strand of spaghetti -- to drain excess fluid from her brain to lower the pressure. Nikki did not open her eyes.
Later that afternoon, a police car arrived at 198 Tower Hill Road and took Branwell to the Clarion County Juvenile Behavioral Center. He said nothing. Nothing to the doctors. Nothing to his father, to his stepmother. Calling to Vivian was the last that Branwell had spoken. He had not uttered a sound since dialing 911.
Dr. Zamborska, Branwell's father, asked me to visit him at the Behavioral Center and see if I could get him to talk. I am Connor, Connor Kane, and -- except for the past six weeks or so -- Branwell and I had always been best friends.
When Dr. Z called me, he reported that the pressure in Nikki's skull was dropping, and that was a good sign, but, he cautioned, she was still in a coma. She was in critical condition, and there was no way of knowing what the outcome would be.
I was not allowed to see Branwell until Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. On that first visit to the Behavioral Center and on all the visits that followed, I had to stop at a reception desk and sign in. There I would empty my pockets and, when I had my backpack with me, I would have to open it as well. If I had nothing that could cause harm to Branwell or could let him cause harm to someone else (I never did), I was allowed to put it all back and take it with me.
That first time the guard brought Branwell into the visitors' room, he looked awful. His hair was greasy and uncombed, and he was so pale that the orange jumpsuit he wore cast an apricot glow up from his chin just as his red hair seemed to cast the same eerie glow across his forehead. He shuffled as he walked toward me. I saw that his shoes had no laces. I guessed they had taken them from him.
Branwell is tall for his age -- I am not -- and when he sat across the table from me, I had to look up to make eye contact, which was not easy. His eyeglasses were so badly smudged that his blue eyes appeared almost gray. It was not at all like him to be uncombed and to have his glasses smeared like that. I guessed the smudges were to keep him from seeing out, just as his silence was to keep him from speaking out.
On that first awful, awkward visit, a uniformed guard stood leaning against the wall, watching us. There was no one else in the visitors' room, and I was the only one talking, so everything I said, every sound I made, seemed to echo off the walls. I felt so responsible for getting Branwell to talk that I asked him a bunch of dumb questions. Like: What happened? And: Was there anything he wanted to tell me? He, of course, didn't utter a sound. Zombielike, he slowly, slowly, slowly shook his head once, twice, three times. This was not the Branwell I knew, and yet, strangely, it was.
Dr. Zamborska had asked me to visit Bran because he figured that I probably knew Branwell better than anyone else in Epiphany -- except for himself. And because we had always seemed to have a lot to say to each other. We both loved to talk, but Branwell loved it more. He loved words. He had about five words for things that most people had only one word for, and could use four of five in a single sentence. Dr. Z probably figured that if anyone could get Bran to talk, it would be me. Talk was like the vitamins of our friendship: Large daily doses kept it healthy.
But when Dr. Z had asked me to visit Branwell, he didn't know that about six weeks before that 911 call something had changed between us. I didn't know what caused it, and I didn't exactly know how to describe it. We had not had a fight or even a quarrel, but ever since Monday, Columbus Day, October 12, something that had always been between us no longer was. We still walked to the school bus stop together, we still got off at the same stop, and we still talked. But Branwell never seemed to start a conversation anymore. He not only had less time for me, he also had less to say to me, which, in terms of our friendship, was pretty much the same thing. He seemed to have something hidden.
We had both turned thirteen within three weeks of each other, and at first I wondered if he was entering a new phase of development three weeks ahead of me. Was something happening to him that would happen to me three weeks later? Had he started to shave? I looked real close. He hadn't. (I was relieved.) Had he become a moody teenager, and would I become one in three more weeks? Three weeks passed, and I didn't. Then six weeks passed -- the six weeks between Columbus Day and that 911 call -- and I still had not caught the moodiness that was deepening in my friend. And I still did not know what was happening to Bran.
After that first strange, clouded visit, I decided that if I was going back (and I knew that I would), nothing good was going to come out of my visits unless I forgot about our estrangement, forgot about having an assignment from Dr. Z, and acted like the old friend I was.
* * *
Once on our way to the school bus stop in the days when Branwell was still starting conversations, he asked me a famous question: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" When he asked me, I couldn't answer and neither could he, but when I left him that first Friday of his long silence, I thought that Branwell could answer it. On that day and for all the days that followed when he made no sound, my friend Branwell was screaming on the inside. And no one heard.
So when Branwell at last broke his silence, I was there. I was the first to hear him speak. He spoke to me because even before I knew the details, I believed in him. I knew that Branwell did not hurt that baby.
I won't say what his first words were until I explain what I heard during the time he said nothing.
Copyright © 2000 by E. L. Konigsburg