My phone is ringing.
In the morning.
The phone keeps ringing. Or not ringing really—the Monk song I have programmed is what’s playing, and the notes, the beat, sound sort of sad, sort of mournful, against the bleak-black December night. I groan and fumble around in the sheets. I like to be prepared, so I sleep with my phone beneath my pillow just in case someone calls. No one ever does, of course.
Except for now.
More fumbling, but my fingers find the phone at last. I slide it out and hold it in front of my face. My eyes are bleary and my brain slow, but what I’m seeing on the touch screen finally registers:
“Hello?” I say.
Nothing. I hear nothing.
“Who is this?”
No response, but I press the phone closer to my ear. No one speaks, but I hear something. I do. Short feral bursts of noise. Organic. Like a faint sobbing.
“Hey,” I say, a little louder than before. I want to make sure that I’m heard. “I know you’re there. Who’re you trying to reach?”
Still no answer, and nothing keeps happening, the way nothing sometimes does. The phone line remains open, and I remain listening. The human sounds fade. They’re replaced by a howling wind. The muffled blare of a horn.
I lay my head against my pillow and look up at the ceiling, shadowy and dark. Outside the house, rain falls softly. This is December in California. The phone beeps that its battery is low, but I don’t move. Instead I close my eyes, and on the backs of my lids, I picture places where the wind might be blowing.
The ragged edge of the world.
I still don’t move.
I fall asleep with the phone against my ear.
* * *
“Jamie,” Angie says to me at breakfast the next morning. “We thought you should hear it from us first.”
“Hear what, Mom?” I ask. I call Angie Mom because that’s what she likes and because it’s so rarely the thought that counts. That’s dishonest on my part, I know, but if I had to pick one quality to define me, it’s this—I can’t stand to hurt other people’s feelings. Not saying what I mean is sometimes the best way I know how to be kind.
From the other side of the kitchen, Angie’s husband Malcolm straightens his silk tie and pours coffee into his stainless-steel travel mug. He only drinks the organic free trade stuff, which is expensive as hell, but, hey, Malcolm can definitely afford it. He even grinds the beans at home. Like it’s some kind of virtue.
“It’s your sister,” he says.
I stiffen. “My sister?”
“What about her?”
“She’s been released.”
My hands go ice-cold the way they always do when I’m taken by surprise.
This is not a good thing.
“Are you okay?” Angie asks as my fork clatters to the hardwood floor. Maple syrup dots the front of my T-shirt and jeans on the way down.
“But I thought—”
“We thought the same thing.” Malcolm fits the lid just right onto his mug. Click. He hasn’t noticed my hands yet. They’re completely numb now and useless. I look down at my food, cut-up whole-grain waffles that I can no longer eat, and sort of jam my arms into my lap. It can take hours to get feeling back, a whole day even—some kind of nerve thing that even the big-shot doctors down at Stanford can’t figure out after years of rigorous and invasive testing. I shake my head and try to keep breathing. This is so not what I needed.
Not when I have a full day of classes, including AP physics and digital arts.
Not when I play piano in the school jazz band and we have our winter performance tonight at the civic auditorium in downtown Danville.
Not when Jenny Lacouture and I are supposed to hang out together at lunch and I’ve been trying for weeks to get up the nerve to ask her out on a real date.
Just not … not Cate.
My throat goes dry.
Is she the one who called last night?
“She wasn’t supposed to get out until June,” I say, and I instantly regret my tone. This isn’t Angie and Malcolm’s fault. This is not what they want, either. God knows.
“Your hands,” Angie says. “I’ll call your doctor.”
“No, don’t. Please. I can do that myself.”
Her lips tighten to a line. “I’ll get your gloves, then.”
I give what I hope is a grateful nod, and as Angie hustles from the room, there’s still a spring in her step. Taking care of me is what she does best.
I turn and look back at Malcolm. His gray hair. His stoic face. That damn silk tie.
“She got out early,” he says, and I can sense he feels just as helpless as I do. “Two weeks ago. Good behavior or overcrowding or something.”
“Why didn’t someone tell us?”
“Cate’s nineteen now. No one has to tell us anything.”
“Then how’d you find out?”
Angie sweeps back in. She’s preceded by the smell of gardenias, which is the perfume she always wears and the one that always gives me a headache. She’s waving a pair of my dumb gloves around, but there’s a look that passes between her and Malcolm—one forged from wide eyes and knowing nods. It’s the one they share when they think I can’t handle things and the one that means they’re keeping secrets. I feel the urge to call them on it, to demand an answer, but I don’t want to upset them, either. Not upsetting people is sort of the modus operandi around here.
After Cate, it’s a welcome change.
“Where is she?” I ask.
“Far away,” Angie says. She picks up my left hand and forces on the first leather shearling-lined glove. My fingers bend every which way with the effort. It’s sort of sickening to watch, but I let her do it. Everyone says heat is good for circulation, only I’ve never been able to tell that it helps any.
“Far away,” I echo, as Angie straightens up and brushes hair from my eyes. It used to be blond, my hair, but now it’s aged into the same light brown as hers. Like a chameleon’s trick—familial camouflage.
“She’s got no reason to come back here, James. None. We’ve seen the last of her.”
I nod again. This is a sentiment I’d like to believe, but I don’t. There are things I know about my sister that no one else does. Bad things. Things I can’t say. Not without hurting Angie and Malcolm or causing them grief, and I don’t have it in me to do that. So instead, I lift my chin and smile warmly at my adoptive parents. This is good, reassuring. My actions send the message that I’m fine, totally fine.
I’m not fine, of course. Not even close.
But like I said, it’s so rarely the thought that counts.
Copyright © 2014 by Stephanie Kuehn
STEPHANIE KUEHN is the William C. Morris award-winning author of CHARM & STRANGE, and holds degrees in linguistics and sport psychology, and is currently working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their three children, and a joyful abundance of pets. When she’s not writing, she’s running. Or reading. Or dreaming.