When the phone rings at seven o’clock on Tuesday night, I think it’s odd but I don’t worry. You save that for the calls that come in the middle of the night, the ones that wake you in a panic and surely mean someone has died. Normally I don’t even answer our landline—a relic from my high school days, so basic it doesn’t even have a display screen. Ben thinks we should cancel the service, as no one calls us on it except telemarketers, my mother every so often, and my best friend, Kate, though generally by accident because she has an irrational fear of updating her contacts list.
Deciding it must be a telemarketer as Mom is at her bridge club night and I just spoke with Kate an hour ago, I continue chopping peppers for the fajitas and wait for the answering machine—circa the same year as the phone—to pick up.
“Hannah? Are you there?” The voice is strained, uncertain but familiar.
Tripping over the puppy, asleep in the middle of the kitchen floor, I wipe my hands on the thighs of my jeans and grab the phone.
“Hello? David?” The puppy, awake now, nips at my leg, her high-pitched attempt at a growl more amusing than annoying. “Get off, Clover!” I whisper, trying to sound like the leader the dog obedience instructor told me I need to be. Clover ignores me, continuing her assault on the hem of my jeans. I look over at Ben for help, but he’s reading his tablet on the couch, oblivious to it all.
“Hannah—” David says my name again, but this time in a rush. As if he’s been holding his breath and is only just allowed to let it out. I gently shake Clover off my leg and throw a treat from my back pocket toward the couch. She promptly chases it before jumping up and snuggling her tiny, fluffy white body against Ben while she crunches the biscuit. He rubs her head, murmuring,
“Good girl,” and I place my hand over the mouthpiece. “Remember who feeds you,” I say to her before speaking into the phone again.
“David, hey. When are you and Kate getting here? My impatient and apparently ravenous husband has already eaten most of the guacamole.” I glance at Ben, and he smiles before leaning forward to grab his cell off the ottoman, which was buried under a few magazines and stuffed dog toys. He frowns at the display screen and when he looks back at me his face is creased with concern. A ribbon of anxiety wraps around my chest as I think of my cell phone, forgotten upstairs on the bathroom vanity. I tap my baby finger against the curved plastic of the handset, not liking how my insides feel. “Wait, how did you get this number?”
Ben stands quickly, Clover tumbling off his lap.
It’s then I realize David isn’t responding because he’s crying. Suddenly I hear a lot of other noises, too. Beeping, like an incessant alarm clock. A garbled voice over a loudspeaker. The sounds of busy people, doing important things.
“David, where are you?”
Ben is beside me now, showing me his phone’s display. A string of missed calls from David.
“Hannah… I’m at the hospital… I don’t know what happened… Everything was fine, and then she just…”
“What’s wrong?” My heart pumps furiously. “Is it one of the girls?” Kate must be panicking, which is likely why David was calling instead of her. The ribbon of anxiety winds tighter.
And with his answer, I see the moment my life changes.
14 MONTHS EARLIER
I checked my cell again, the fifteenth time in the last five minutes.
“Call me,” I told David. “I want to make sure this is working.”
“It’s working,” David said, cutting up strawberries and bananas into small pieces. Even though our girls were eleven and seven, David, a paramedic, still insisted on their food being bite-size to prevent choking.
David licked strawberry juice off his fingers and looked up at me. “Give her time, Katie. It’s barely six o’clock.”
“I know, but I had such a good feeling this time. And if it were good news, she would have called by now, right? Right?”
David scraped the fruit into the girls’ bowls, then placed them on the table beside their dinners—barbecue chicken drumsticks, with carrot and cucumber sticks. “Ava! Josie! Dinner!” he hollered up the stairs before coming back to the kitchen.
“If it’s good news, maybe she and Ben are celebrating by themselves first,” he said. “And if it’s bad news? Maybe she’s not ready to talk about it.”
The girls came bounding into the kitchen. “What’s for dinner?” Ava, our eldest, asked.
“Chicken and veggies,” I said, pouring two glasses of milk and handing them to Ava. I topped up my glass of wine and handed David a beer. He wasn’t back on shift until the morning, which meant we could have a relaxed dinner after the girls went to bed and binge watch Netflix.
“I don’t like chicken,” Josie said, scrunching up her nose.
“Yes, you do,” David replied, pushing her chair closer to the table after she sat down. She protested by shoving the plate farther away.
“I don’t!” Josie crossed her arms over her chest, and I tried to hide my smile behind my wineglass. She looked just like David when she was mad, her dirty-blond eyebrows knitting together in a stern V shape.
“Since when, jelly bean?” I sat across from her at the table and nudged her plate back, taking a sip of my wine. Josie was my sweet and spicy kid—one moment snuggling contentedly, the next slamming doors and declaring life unfair and utterly disappointing. She was named after my grandmother Josephine, who had been a midwife during the war and who, according to family legend, was not a woman to mess with. I had only vague memories of Grandma Josephine, her death coming a day after my sixth birthday. But I do remember she always carried those red-and-white-swirled peppermints in the bottom of her purse, usually stuck to old pieces of tissue, that she drank a shot of whiskey every morning in her tea and that she suffered from frequent migraine headaches—something I had unfortunately inherited.
“Ever since she watched Chicken Run at Gram’s,” Ava said, biting into her drumstick with enthusiasm. While Josie was my loud and emotional child, Ava had always been more even-keeled, like David, and usually had her nose in a book. But she had a wicked sense of humor—which I liked to take credit for—and was quite skilled at pushing her sister’s buttons.
Sensing an opportunity to do just that, Ava ripped her teeth through a large chunk of skin and meat and chewed loudly as she leaned closer to Josie, making smacking noises with her lips. I shot Ava a warning glance, then got up and made Josie a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich, cutting the crusts off—which I knew I had to stop doing one day soon. Placing it on her plate and taking the drumstick for myself, I avoided David’s stare. We had argued just last night about how quick I was to offer options if the girls didn’t eat what was put in front of them.
Nibbling the drumstick, I looked back at my phone.
“Kate, she’s okay.” David swallowed the last dregs in his beer bottle. He got up to grab another and stopped to kiss the top of my head before sitting back at the table with me.
But I knew she wasn’t. Hannah had been my best friend for twenty-five years, and I knew her better than anyone else.