Ring Once

I’d never been good in storms, but I was even worse in hospitals, so when the choice came to go visit Nana, my ma’s mother, or stay home and brave the thunder and lightning on my own, I only hesitated for a moment before making my decision.

“You sure you don’t want to come, Hannah?” Ma asked, hovering uncertainly in the doorway leading to the garage.

Dad was already out in the car waiting for her.

“Yeah,” I said.

I didn’t add that this was my attempt at facing my fear of thunderstorms head on. I was thirteen already; it was time to stop being such a baby. Besides, I’d have Thaddeus, our five year old Lhasa Apso, with me. It wasn’t like I’d be totally alone.

“Ok, we have our beepers if you need to reach us,” Ma shifted the large photo album in her arms and continued to linger. “We’ll only be a couple of hours.”

Behind her, the garage door creaked open and the car started, Dad’s signal that he was getting impatient.

“I’ll go with you next time. Tell Nana I said hi.”

Ma planted another quick kiss on my head and checked just one more time that I was sure I wanted to stay home before finally leaving. I watched my parents pull out of the driveway from the living room window, trying to ignore the fat, angry clouds gathering overhead, and, once they were out of sight, grabbed Thaddeus and went to my room to read.

The storm broke only moments later.

The first peal of thunder had my little dog pressed against my side. The second had him shivering so hard that my whole bed vibrated. I cuddled him close and whispered soothingly to him, hoping that he didn’t notice how I jumped with every rumble or flash of white lightning, and tried to distract both of us by reading aloud.

It worked for a while; I was so focused on the story that the howling wind and pounding rain became background noise. Thaddeus continued to shake, but between keeping his face buried in my side and (I like to think) the sound of my voice, it became more intermittent, only occurring when thunder actually rolled. I had thought we could ride out the whole storm together that way.

A particularly bright flash of lightning followed by the immediate and sharp crack of thunder, however, proved me wrong.

I squealed, Thaddeus whined, and we both bolted from my room, leaving my book face down and forgotten on the bed.

“I was hungry anyway,” I grumbled, trying to save face as we hurried down the steps towards the kitchen.

I turned on every light on the way down. It made me feel better, less alone, less like Mother Nature was going to burst through my windows. Thaddeus stuck close to my feet while I went from the pantry to the fridge and then back again, trying to decide what I wanted to snack on.

The phone ringing shrilly from its place on the wall beside the fridge made my heart skip a beat.

It rang just once and then went silent.

I swallowed hard and looked down to Thaddeus, like he was the one who had been startled, and said, “It’s just the phone, it’s ok.”

He licked his lips and wagged his tail once in response. I knew he just wanted a bite of cheese (there was no storm big enough to make him not want cheese), but I took it to mean he agreed that we were fine. It had probably just been a misdial or something and the person had hung up when they realized they made a mistake.

I put together a little plate of tortilla chips and cheese, some of which went to Thaddeus, and stuck it in the microwave to melt. Once it was done, we took our snack and went to the living room to watch cartoons at a high enough volume to block out the storm.

A few minutes after we’d sat down, the phone on the living room table rang.

A little less on edge this time, I reached for it and plucked the receiver from its cradle.

“Hel-” I started to say, but was cut off by the dial tone.

I frowned and set the phone back down. Maybe the storm was messing with the lines or something. I thought I remembered Dad saying that that could happen when the weather got bad.

“Nothing to be scared of,” I said to Thaddeus.

He draped himself across my lap, his eyes fixed on my nachos. I giggled and, bleeding heart that I was, gave him one. When a gust of wind rattled the nearby windows, we huddled closer together and I turned up the TV even more.

We made it part way through an episode of my show before the phone went off again. This time, I only sat up slightly to look at it.

It stayed quiet after that single ring.

I tried to dismiss it like I had before, but a line of goosepimples had started to creep up the back of my neck and I rubbed it roughly. Don’t be a baby, I repeated to myself a few times, it’s just the phone. I tried to pay attention to the TV again, but every few seconds, I’d find my eyes slipping back to the phone.

The next time it rang, about ten minutes later, the lights overhead flickered.

Just once, another single ring, and then silence.

Outside, the storm continued to batter the house and the lights dimmed again before coming back on fully. My heart was pounding in my chest and I suddenly had the urge to use the restroom. I gave Thaddeus a quick pat and leapt off the couch to run down the hall to the bathroom.

I was in the middle of washing my hands when the lights went out and the bathroom was plunged into total darkness.

I whimpered and groped around for a towel to dry my hands and then for the handle. There were flashlights in the junk drawer in the kitchen, I knew. I just had to make my way down the hall to them. My trembling fingers closed on the doorknob and I started to pull it open at the same time the phone rang.

It echoed throughout the dark and the quiet one time.

I froze, too afraid to move forward. It was dumb, I knew it was dumb, but the high pitched trill of that phone was almost enough to have me bursting into tears. Why did it keep ringing? Who was it? What did they want?

It’s someone who knows I’m home alone, a panicked voice cried out in my head.

Thaddeus whined from the living room. He was alone and as scared as I was and I had to get to him. It was the only thing that got me moving again. I bit my lip, bowed my head, and charged down the hall to the kitchen. The junk drawer was thrown open and I felt around wildly until I found one of the flashlights that was kept there. I switched it on and followed its thin beam of light to the living room.

Lightning lit up the house around me for a second, quickly followed by a deep growl of thunder. I forced back a sob and, in a shaky squeak, called for Thaddeus. He whined again and I shined my flashlight around the room until I found him.

He was sitting at the foot of the table the phone was on, staring up at it.

As soon as the flashlight hit it, it rang again. Just once.

“Thaddeus!” I shouted as if I were afraid something was going to reach through the phone and grab him.

He continued to look up at it, his ears perked forward, and he whined again.

I darted across the room and knelt to pick him up when I heard something, a thump on the front porch right outside the door. My flashlight was on it instantly; just in time for the lock to start turning.

The door swung inward and I started to scream.

“Hannah! Hannah, calm down!”

It took me a moment to realize that the figures in the doorway, dripping wet and featureless in the shadows, were my parents. They’d had to come in through the front door since there was no power to open the garage. I dropped the flashlight on the floor and Thaddeus and I ran to them and I fell into my dad’s arms.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” He asked, and I looked up at them, ready to tell them all about the storm and the phone, but the words died in the back of my throat.

Their eyes were red and puffy and Ma’s face was twisted with an expression I’d only ever seen once before, after her dad’s accident three years prior. An ugly sinking feeling filled my whole body. For a moment, the strange calls were forgotten.

“Nana?” I managed to ask.

They hugged me tightly between them. It was all the answer I needed.

“She’d been real sick for a long time, baby girl,” Dad said so Ma wouldn’t have to. “We thought we’d have more time with her, but she suddenly got worse today and…we were with her in the end. That’s what matters.”

I wanted to say something nice to Ma, something that might have helped her feel even a tiny bit better, but my tongue had become thick and clumsy and all I could do was cling to her and cry in the doorway.

Behind me, the phone rang just once.

I stiffened and, to my surprise, so did my mom. I looked up at her and saw that she was staring over my head, right at the phone.

“It’s been doing that for a while,” I was now angry at whoever was playing the prank instead of scared. Ma didn’t need to be bothered right now!

“What, ringing?” Dad asked. He guided Ma the rest of the way into the house so we weren’t standing half in the storm and shut the door.

“Yeah, just on-”

“Just once,” Ma whispered in disbelief.

“How’d you know?” I asked, my eyes widening.

Ma crossed the dark living room and took a seat on the edge of the couch beside the phone. She never stopped looking at it.

“After I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time, I lived an hour away. I’d visit every other weekend and each time I left, Ma would ask me to call them to let them know I made it back to my apartment safely. I did it for a long time, until I met your dad,” Ma’s voice cracked and she ran her fingers down the receiver. “I’d let the phone ring just once to let them know all was well. She’d call back and let my phone ring once, too. She said it was to say got it, thank you, and I love you.”

Dad sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders and she took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Do you think…do you think it’s Nana?” I asked.

“It can’t be, honey,” Dad said gently.

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the phone rang again, just once. The same signal Ma had used for years to let her family know that she was safe. That she was home.

Ma and Dad exchanged a look.

“Abby,” Dad said as she reached for the phone.

“She rang once, George. Now it’s my turn,” she said with the ghost of a watery smile.

Instead of arguing, Dad took her hand and gave it a squeeze before releasing it so she could dial her mother’s phone number for the last time.

She held it up to her ear just long enough for it to ring once.

Just long enough to say got it. Thank you. I love you.

And after she hung up, the phone didn’t ring again.


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