by Rica Lewis
Bedtime is 8:30, too early for girls our age. We are 12 and 14, in bunk beds and matching pajamas – flannel nightgowns with itchy lace collars and ruffled sleeves. Boys aren’t supposed to call but no one told them this, so one boy does. The phone rings just after my older sister reaches down from the top bunk and jams Mr. Ted in my face.
‘There’s more of this if you snore tonight,’ she warns.
A tuft of musty doll hair in my mouth, I manage a muffled squeal that does not alert my mother.
The room is black as a hole, save for a stripe of light that spreads out under the door and three robotic red numbers blazing on the alarm clock: 9:02. When the phone rings, we stiffen, suck our breath back in as if the force of it could potentially dilute the sound. I can’t see my sister, but I know her neck is craned like mine. We are fishing rods, bending our bodies toward the noise. No one ever calls this late.
It was Steven, Mom tells us the next day – my sister’s freshman crush. I am so stunned the cornflakes fly out of my mouth. Soggy brown bits stick to the formica table.
‘You’re disgusting,’ my sister says, followed by, ‘What did you tell him, Mom?’ In a tone that indicates the gravity of the situation. My mother wields an incredible amount of power in this moment, so much so that she actually seems taller standing beneath the flickering fluorescent ballast. Mom folds a towel three ways, smooths out the cotton with one hand. Time stretches out as my sister awaits her fate. I care but I don’t. I mean I do but I can’t let her know. I throw her a smirk, spoon more cornflakes into my mouth and open it wide, let my tongue drop so the milk-soaked mush slides down. Then I slurp it back in. She turns her head. My sister is devastated. Too distraught even to slap me.
‘Well, boys shouldn’t be calling so late, if at all,’ Mom starts. ‘I told him you were showering.’ She smiles, cherry shade of Maybelline glimmers against her teeth. ‘I wasn’t going to embarrass you.’
The phone rings again the next night – 8:56 this time. I am drifting into sleep when I hear the sound from the other room. I see the phone in my mind, a wall-mounted brick with a two-short cord that requires speaking in code to friends while your father side-eyes you from the sofa. Yes, that’s the one, you are forced to say when Sue Nelson finally names the boy in your head.
The phone rings a second time and I hear my sister whimper from the top bunk. It’s subtle, like the ever-so-faint twitch of a fawn in the blaze of headlights. We tilt our ears toward the sound and sit upright, straight as tombstones.
‘Lots of homework,’ Mom tells the caller. ‘Yes, she is a smart girl.’ Then, ‘Yes. Goodnight.’
In the morning there is a lecture at the breakfast table. We are too young for boys. That’s the gist. My sister is instructed to tell Steven not to call.
‘Or your father will tell him for you,’ Mom says.
But my sister doesn’t tell him because he doesn’t show up for school.
‘I waited by his locker,’ she says, two fingernails in her teeth. She is explaining to the room more than me, eyes fixed on a snow mound outside our bedroom window.
‘If he calls tonight, you’re screwed,’ I say. And I care but I don’t. I walk away so as not to let her think that I do.
Night again. We watch the red digits in the dark. Stare for awhile and it all blurs together like time itself. At first we breathe softly and only shimmy an arm, a leg, a hip when it starts to tingle. We devote our whole selves to this task of listening, of mindfully repelling the call and the animal in wait, the beast of adolescent humiliation. But by 9:05, the phone has not rung and I am punching my pillow into a well-balanced lump. My mouth has dropped open and throat sounds have begun to escape. My sister flings a hand over the side rail of the bunk bed. She surrenders too.
The next day Mom spreads out The Daily Herald. At first it’s just ink on paper. Other people’s stories. And then Mom looks at us with pleading eyes, so we sit. She takes my sister’s hand and we read: Couple Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide. Police are investigating. The photo shows Steven’s house. Squad cars outside, angled in every direction in front of the tiny brick ranch. We learn that while he and his 6-year-old sister were sleeping, his father allegedly shot his mother with a rifle then blew his own head off around midnight.
Over the next few days, the rumors swirl at school. Steven and his sister have gone to live with an aunt in Montana.
At night we lie in our beds, thrashing in the dark room. It doesn’t matter what the clock says. The red numbers blur together like time itself, and the phone does not ring. My sister thinks of Steven – I know she does. I care but I don’t. Mom said we’re too young for boys anyway.
Rica Lewis is a senior staff writer for an award-winning magazine in Florida. Her essays have appeared on Ellipses Zine, The Sunlight Press, Elephant Journal, Motherwell, Open Thought Vortex, MUTHA and elsewhere. She’s currently penning a memoir on single motherhood, post divorce.