I met my stepdad when I was six years old. The first joke he ever told me: "I have blue hair, 'cuz it all blew away, you see?" I liked that one—the rest of his jokes, it took me awhile to understand. I remember him hurting my feelings a lot when I was little, because his sense of humor was dry and sarcastic. My little brain wasn't developed enough yet to get that he was being funny and loving in his own way. When I finally did get his jokes, his sense of humor became my sense of humor, and it was my turn to piss people off. Shit's contagious.
When the phone rang last Sunday at 4:26am, it was almost normal. My phone rings all the time at 4:30am for work. But it was my mother's name on the caller ID, and while there are days when the time zone difference between mom and me coupled with my work schedule (Hawaii is six hours behind, and I work nights) is too confusing for my mom, that's usually noon on a Tuesday when I am fast asleep and she's awake like an early-rising freak. It may have been 4:26am on a day when I actually got to sleep at night, but yes, I can do basic arithmetic in my sleep—10:30pm her time, and that meant she was drunk or something was wrong. Could be amusing, or it could be terrible.
"Karen?" she bawled. And I knew.
It was a shortcall. I'm not sure now what details she gave me then and what came later. She needed my st epsister's cell number. I gave it to her. We hung up, and I texted my boss. I texted my two closest friends. I went downstairs, being noisy on purpose. I went to the bathroom. I sat on the couch. Thought a little bit. And then I started to cry. Not trying to be quiet. My dad and stepmom woke up, and then I had to say it out loud, and then I cried harder, sobbing into my dad's chest. Mom called back. My stepsister wasn't answering mom's call. No surprise. So I said I'd call her. Did Mom want me to tell her? No.
But what if she asked me why I was telling her to do the thing she'd stopped doing two years ago? Maybe she wouldn't ask. Maybe the fact that it was nearly five in the morning was answer enough.
She answered, groggy. "You have to call my mom," I said.
And she asked the question, because it would be just bad writing if she hadn't—the main character must face a choice!
This is what I thought about in the space of a second: Dialing. I hate dialing when something is wrong. I hate being afraid and tired and trying to punch numbers or make my damn touchscreen work. I hate the way the world narrows to the tips of my uncooperative fingers.
"Your dad died," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Oh Jesus," she said. "Ok."
"Do you need the number? She's got a new cell since—um."
"No, she just called. I have it, I think."
"Ok, I love you."
I can't remember if she said she loves me back, not that it matters, because despite everything, I know she does. I hope that's enough for all the shit that comes next.