your family .
I think about my parents snug in their Luxury Berth, and Denny snug in his lab.
I think about the practice schedule I taped to the lid of the piano this morning, with lesson days filled in with yellow highlighter and self-imposed deadlines (memorize Bach; bring Chopin up to speed; play entire recital with eyes closed) circled in blue.
I think about the grocery money Mom left on top of the fridge, and the taped-up reminders to water the azaleas and take out the recycling.
I smile at Petra and shake my head.
“No thanks,” I say.
I spend the six-block walk planning which piece I’ll tackle first when I get home. But when I put my key in the front door, I can hear the telephone ringing inside.
And that’s when things get weird.
I drop the bags of leftovers on the floor and press the phone to my ear. It’s probably Petra calling to make sure I made it home safely, even though you can barely put in a pair of ear-buds in the time it takes to walk from Lukas’s house to mine. I roll my eyes, getting ready to deliver my nightly report on the state of the deadbolts.
But instead of Petra’s authoritative chirp, I hear a long, rasping garkle.
Great. It’s one of Dad’s clients.
“Byrd residence,” I say, this time in the drippy professional tone my dad prefers us to use in situations like this.
There’s another long pause. I hear someone coughing.
Finally, the old coot speaketh.
“I want to talk to Al.”
“Is this concerning a home health-care equipment rental issue?” I coo.
Silence. Then, “I said, is Al Byrd there?”
He sounds just like my grandpa Bob used to sound on the phone—suspicious, almost hostile, like he doesn’t quite trust that the person on the other end of the line is really who they claim to be and not an imposter.
“He’s busy at the moment. May I take a message?”
I pick up a pen and doodle on the message pad.
Caller: stick figure with a long, squiggly beard.
“May I ask who’s calling?” I say.
There’s another pause, as if my words are reaching him after a long delay.
“This is Doug Fieldgrass.”
I draw a row of tulips in the “Message” field. Then a swarm of bees. Taking detailed and accurate phone messages is a serious matter, as Mom and Dad reminded me about a million times before they left.
Doug Fieldgrass, whoever he is, clears his throat.
“Listen, this is Al Byrd’s number, right? Sukey’s old man?”
At the name Sukey, my attention snaps back to the phone. Sukey’s my sister. My dead sister. The one we never, ever talk about.
“Uh, yeah,” I stammer. “Yes. This is the right number.” I attempt to regain some of my well-practiced Telephone Poise. “May I ask what this is concerning?”
I’m just trying to keep myself from freaking out, but even I can hear how coldly impersonal those words sound, how carefully neutral the tone of voice. What am I doing? I stand up straight. My fingers tighten around the pen.
“Doug? You there? I’m Kiri. I’m Sukey’s sister.”
There’s a rustling, scratching noise like Doug just dropped the phone.
“Aw, hell,” I hear him mutter.
There’s a loud beep.
The line goes dead.
For one whole minute I stand there frozen with the phone in my hand, and in that minute I’m twelve again, called downstairs from my bedroom to hear the terrible news. I can smell the lasagna that was baking for dinner, hear the music I’d left playing upstairs, feel the shock of pain as sure and sudden as a yanked-out tooth before Mom and Dad had even said a word.
A trapped fly buzzes in the window and the fridge hums as it cycles on. I come to my senses and punch the call-return button. After two rings, there’s a muffled click .
“Lissen,” slurs Doug. “I ain’t going to call again. You want her stuff, you get yourself down here and take it. This place is shutting down soon, and I don’t have a lot of time.”
“What stuff?” I say, no longer trying to hide my agitation. “Who are you?”
He says a few words I can’t make out, something about Sukey’s things in a closet. I bite back my frustration. Freaking ENUNCIATE , dude . But I know if I snap, he’ll hang up again.
“Where are you?” I say, wrestling my voice into a strained semblance of patience.
He mumbles an address. I grab the message pad and scribble it down.
“Columbia? What’s the cross street?”
“I’ll wait outside the building,” he says, and hangs
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