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When the telephone woke her, Karen was dreaming... the soothing balm of her mother's voice, the fresh-scrubbed scent of her skin, the safe, enfolding warmth of her hand around Karen's. Though startled, she let go of the dream begrudgingly, preferring the death-cheating feel of her mother, who had passed away sixteen years prior, to the cumbersome dark of her bedroom, just a thought's breadth away.
The phone rang again.
And Karen sat up in darkness, aware of the dream taking a small, almost physical part of herself away with it -- there was a palpable tug in her chest. But the tug became a tightness as she realized the hour. A ringing phone at three A.M. usually meant, one of three things: a wrong number, a prank... or bad news.
Karen waited for it to ring again -- and during that interminable pause, the worst catastrophes she could imagine marched through her mind.
Was it her father? A wreck in that godforsaken pickup truck of his? But no... what would he be doing out at this hour? Besides, she had said good night to him over the phone not five hours before. Maybe Uncle Ike had finally died, his heart--
The phone rang again, its intrusion somehow more insistent this time. Karen's hand fluttered up to answer, it... then she thought of Cass -- her best friend, who had moved to Alberta a year ago. Was it Cass? The way she rodded around in that Camaro of hers...
Karen lifted the receiver in the middle of its fourth ring.
A crisp male voice said: "Is this Karen Lockhart?"
"Yes?" She had no idea who it was.
"This is Dr. Burkowitz calling, from the Civic Hospital in Ottawa."
Karen took a deepbreath and held it.
"We've got a donor for you, Karen. They're working on him now, up north in Sudbury. We expect to be ready at this end by about five o'clock... that's just over two hours from now. Can you make it?"
"Of course," Karen said, a dozen conflicting emotions snapping at her heart. "I'll have my father drive me down." She swallowed dryly. "Where do I go once I get there?"
"Go through admitting. Someone will meet you there."
"Do I need to bring anything?" she asked needlessly, trying to get a rein on the vertigo.
"Just your hope," the voice said.
"Who is it?" Karen asked, blurting the words. "The donor, I mean. I have to know who he is. How he..."
What was the word for the state the donor was in right now? "How he died."
"We'll tell you all we can when you get here."
"Thank you," Karen said softly. "Thank you."
"Goodbye, Karen," the voice said. Then there was only the dial tone.
She tried to find that hope as she dialed her father's number. For years she had dreamed of this moment, of this incredible chance. But when at last he came on the line and Karen explained what had happened, the only feeling she could clearly define was, fear.
She packed in a kind of reckless frenzy, going from closet to bureau and back again, stuffing into a suitcase items she would never really need. In her bedroom she knocked over the vanity stool with her knee, and when she hurried into her workroom to grab the manuscript she'd been working on, she elbowed one of her plants and it fell to the hardwood floor. The pot shattered with a dusty thud.
By the time she reached the front door her heart was a creature of fury, battering the cage of her chest. She waited there for the sound of her father's truck.
A quarter mile away, while Karen spoke with the doctor over the phone, Danny Dolan crept quietly down the stairs of his mother's farmhouse. The pattern of two long rings had awakened him, and now he lifted the receiver -- carefully, so as not to be overheard by the speakers. He was good at that; years of listening in on Karen's calls had made him good.
When he heard a man's voice, a coil of quick, jealous rage tightened like a clockspring in his brain. But then the guy identified himself as a doctor and gave his news, and Danny's rage withered into something dark and unmanning. Lightheaded, he stood hunched in the shadows at the base of the staircase and waited. When the line went dead, he replaced the handset in its cradle and felt his way out to the front vestibule, where a pair of patched coveralls hung from a hook behind the door. He grabbed them down, pulled them on, and thumped out barefoot onto the porch, letting the screen clap briskly in its frame behind him. He peered owl-eyed through the night toward Karen's wood-frame, a quarter mile west, but saw only dark against dark.
In the house the phone rang again, and a start slammed into Danny like a hammer, blow. She was calling her father...
And that meant it was true. He had not dreamed it.
Several times the pattern of three short rings repeated, and for a crazy moment Danny prayed Albert Lockhart wouldn't hear it -- he'd always been deaf as a post -- and that Karen would miss her chance.
But now the lights were on over at Albert's farmhouse, a half-mile beyond Karen's, and the phone had stopped ringing.
Danny leaped off the porch and tore down the lane, cutting into the field at the gate. His stride through the stubby spring grass was long, and he reached Karen's place in under a minute. From the willow at the edge of her property he had a clear, moon-sketched view of the house, which itself remained steeped in darkness.
He waited, his mind a whirlwind of dread.
Then Albert's pickup rattled into the yard and Karen appeared in the doorway, a suitcase clasped resolutely in one hand. She started down shakily, stumbled on the bottom step... then her father was there to help her.
They climbed into the truck and the truck sped away, its high beams knifing the night. Danny watched until the tail-lights faded to pinpricks, brightened briefly, and died. Then he turned and ran away.
The night swallowed him.
Copyright © 1989 by Sean Costello