When the telephone rings, Caitlin’s younger brother, Jeffie, flinches. Caitlin looks at her mother who glares at the TV sitcom on their old portable. The phone rings again, then three, four, five more times. By the sixth ring, Caitlin’s developing a stomach ache; her third this week.
“What if Grammie’s calling about her bad heart?” Jeffie says, his face scrunching with worry.
“She isn’t.” Their mother rakes her fingers through her short red hair. “Grammie knows she’s supposed to let it ring twice, then hang up and call again.”
On the eighth ring, Caitlin’s heart pounds while her mom stomps into the kitchen. Suddenly, she hears the receiver slam. Jeffie’s face reddens while Caitlin tries to focus on her homework.
Caitlin isn’t sure why she counts the rings, but she’s done so every evening for four days now. The calls usually start around seven, and go on and on until Mom is forced to answer. After she hangs up, the calls sometimes start again. It goes on like this until long after midnight.
In bed each night, Caitlin tries to ignore the rings by thinking about other things, but it doesn’t work. Instead, she spends hours wondering how long this will continue, and what kind of person would do this to her family.
Yesterday, Mom explained that a woman wants to talk to Dad. She said she doesn’t know what the woman wants, but Caitlin doesn’t believe her. Anyway, she can pretty well guess the reason. Some of her friends’ parents are divorced. She’s heard about dumb love affairs and unwanted step-parents who pretend they’re new when they were really there all along, ruining things. No way can she talk to Mom about it, though. That’d make it too real.
After the first call on Monday, Mom was so shocked she could barely talk. On Tuesday, the calls made her cry. By Wednesday she was really mad. Tonight, she just seems tired and nervous.
The phone rings again. Caitlin’s stomach starts to burn. Two rings, three, four.
“Caitlin,” her mother says, sounding shaky, “will you get it?”
Five. Caitlin swallows hard, then slowly stands. Six. She wishes they had call display, like her best friend has. Seven.
“Hello?” She deepens her voice, hoping to sound older than twelve.
“Is Ron there?” a woman asks.
“Do you know when he’ll be in?”
She hears a click.
Caitlin trudges into the living room and tries again to focus on her homework. Concentrating on anything except those calls has been hard. She can barely remember what she had for dinner, let alone what she learned at school today.
Caitlin’s struggling with a math question when it starts again.
Jeffie runs into the kitchen. “Stop bugging my mom!”
Hurrying after Mom, Caitlin finds the receiver dangling from the wall phone. Her brother is on the floor, sobbing.
“Oh, Jeffie.” Mom sits beside him. “It’ll be okay. She won’t bother us much longer, I promise.”
As she hugs Jeffie, Mom wipes her eyes.
Caitlin returns to the living room and orders herself to stay calm. She knows Mom’s told Dad about the calls. Why can’t he stop working the night shift long enough to tell that woman to stop calling, or drop dead, or whatever?
An hour passes before the phone rings again.
“Caitlin?” her mother calls from Jeffie’s bedroom.
Caitlin stares at herself in the bathroom mirror. If Grammie’s heart wasn’t so bad, they could unplug the phone. She could tell her friends to call before seven. Course, she’d have to give them a reason, and she’d rather die than do that.
Caitlin marches down the hallway. Her shoulders stiffen as she lifts the receiver. “Hello?”
A boy says, “Is Ron there?”
“No! Get lost.”
The boy mumbles something away from the receiver. Seconds later, he hangs up.
Caitlin hasn’t been asleep long when voices wake her. She hears her father speak, then her mother. They’re trying to argue quietly, but words like “how” and “she” erupt now and then.
Caitlin places her hand on her stomach and counts backward from a hundred. By the time she reaches the low eighties she’s mixed up and starting to drift off, until the sound of the doorbell startles her.
Scrambling out of bed, she hurries to her window. A small white car is parked in front of her house. Pressing her nose against the glass, she spots someone on the stoop to her left. When the porch light comes on, Caitlin sees a tall lady with long hair and glasses.
Caitlin opens her window and hears her father say, “What are you doing here?”
“I had no choice.”
“I told you, it’s over. I’m sorry, but you must leave me and my family alone.”
Caitlin’s cheeks burn. Was Mom hearing this?
“It’ll never be over.”
As the woman leans close to him and murmurs something, Caitlin grips the windowsill as she watches her father slump down onto the top step. Elbows on his knees, he hunches his shoulders just like Jeffie does when he sulks. The woman sits beside him, and keeps talking.
Taking long deep breaths, Caitlin counts to ten. Her back feels hot and her stomach flares with pain. She can’t hear what Dad’s saying, but when the woman smacks his face he winces. Part of Caitlin wants him to hit her back. Part of her hopes they hit each other until they’re both hurt. After the woman drives off, Caitlin’s father heads inside.
What if Dad changes his mind and decides he wants to be with her? They might have to move in with Grammie, away from her friends and school.
On rubbery legs, Caitlin returns to bed. She tells herself not to cry, but the tears come anyway. She counts the seconds until her parents start fighting again. It doesn’t take long.