July 16, 2003
Alarmed


Wednesday morning 4:57 a.m.

The phone is ringing in the kitchen.

Instantly wrenched from sleep -- and from another one of those weird exhausting dreams that have me wandering around in a vast unfamiliar shopping mall, looking for the fire exits -- my immediate first thought is Kacie.  I'm not sure why. I haven't heard from her in nearly a month, since she came to stay with us for those four days in June. In the weeks since she went home, there has been no communication from her whatsoever: no phone calls, no voicemail messages, no postcards, no 'Yes I'm still breathing' e-mails. I know she's alive: I dial her voicemail number every morning and listen to her recorded greeting, which she changes daily. (Although I stopped leaving the pathetic 'Please call your mother'' messages the fourth or fifth day after she went home.) But that's OK. That's just the way it is between the two of us these days. I'm sure I'll hear from her again, just before I fly up to TicTac next month ... or just before Christmas, or just before her birthday next spring, or just after she runs off and elopes with a forty-seven year old unemployed auto mechanic. In the meantime, there is no reason to believe that she's in any sort of trouble.

Then again, there is no reason to believe that she isn't.

I lay there in bed, holding my breath, counting the rings. One ... two ... three.  After five rings it will go to the machine, and then I'll be able to hear who's calling. At that point I can decide whether I need to crawl out of bed and answer it or not. If it's Kacie, obviously, I'll be out of bed like a flash.

Four rings.

On the other hand, maybe it's David's brother Chris, calling us from the hospital. He had the first of his eye surgeries yesterday. Maybe he woke up early this morning, disturbed by all of those strange unsettling early-morning-hospital noises, and he couldn't fall back to sleep, and now he has decided to take a chance and see if either one of us is awake yet. I glance over at David, slumbering like a midwinter grizzly beside me. Why is it that the sound of a ringing phone never wakes him up? Why is it always me pulling middle-of-the-night phone duty around here? This strikes me as distinctly unfair: for a moment, I consider poking him in the ribs and rousing him, just for spite. But he looks so sweet and oblivious laying there ... eyelids fluttering, lips puckered, drooling into his pillow without a care in the world.  I don't have the heart to disturb him. (Unless it really does turn out to be his brother calling from the hospital, in which case I'll have no choice.)

Five rings.

I don't suppose it could be either Jaymi or Kyle calling, could it? Jaymi works a nine-to-five office job, just like I do ... and I know she undergoes a lot of elaborate, time-intensive morning beauty rituals, just like I do ... but even so, I don't believe she gets up quite this early. And Kyle is in the middle of his last *real* summer vacation -- the gap between his junior and senior years in high school. He won't be awake for another twelve hours, at least.  (Unless he decides to sleep late today, in which case he'll be getting up right about the time I'm getting home from work.) Maybe it's my mother calling from TicTac with some sort of critical family emergency that can't wait. Or David's mother with the same. Or my boss, calling to say that they don't really need me in the office today, so why don't I take the day off, with pay, and get caught up on my laundry?

Six rings ... seven rings ...

Hold the phone. I sit straight up in bed. SEVEN rings? What the heck happened to our answering machine?? We have it programmed to answer all calls after the fifth ring, I swear we do: I checked the settings myself, just last weekend. And then I remember: David dumping his cup of coffee on the keyboard yesterday morning ... stopping at Office Max, after work, to buy a replacement ... turning off the power strip for a few minutes last night while we installed the new keyboard. Obviously, shutting off the power strip also shut off power to the answering machine. I don't think either one of us remembered to turn the machine back on before we went to bed. In other words: the &*$# phone is going to keep ringing until the person on the other end hangs up,  or until somebody gets up and answers it. And since I am the only *somebody* in this particular bed who happens to be awake, it looks like it's going to have to be me.

Sigh.

I crawl out of bed and tiptoe out to the kitchen, gently lifting the ringing phone from its cradle on top of the computer hutch. 

"Hello?" I whisper.

Please don't let this be bad news, I'm thinking. Please don't let anybody be sick or dead or in jail or married. At first there is no sound at all on the other end -- nothing but a hollow metallic silence, like I've just been patched through to Jupiter -- and then I am suddenly assaulted by a shrill electronic shriek in my ear.

It's a fax machine.

Disgusted, I punch the disconnect button. This is precisely why I allow the machine to pick up these middle-of-the-night/early-morning wake-up calls: nine times out of ten it turns out to be something stoopid, like a wrong number, or a heavy breather, or an automated telemarketer ... or a goddamn fax machine. Then again, nobody is sick or dead or in jail or married. It could be worse. I glance at the clock on the living room bookcase: it's now exactly five a.m. I can either crawl back into bed and procrastinate for another twenty minutes, or I can suck it up and get my day rolling a few minutes earlier than usual. For a moment I'm torn: another twenty minutes in my warm snuggly comfortable bed would be heaven. But then the automatic coffeemaker snaps to life, across the kitchen ... surely a cosmic sign that it's time to start my day. With a sigh, I replace the phone in the cradle, pour myself a cup of coffee and head for the shower.

But not before I turn on the answering machine. Just in case.



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