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10K Illustration, Telephone

Time Out for the Living

February 2000
last modified January 13, 2008

by Amy R.

PG.   Set during Forever Knight's '93-'94 hiatus, over a year after "I Will Repay," almost a year after "Only the Lonely."  More disclaimers, citations and credits are in this fanfiction's endnote.


  

          Natalie lashed out at the snooze button on her alarm clock with one hand, and pulled her comforter up over her head with the other.  It can't possibly be time to get up yet, her closed eyes insisted to the ringing in her ears.

          No, her soft, warm bed offered at least another hourís sleep -- at least -- and if she burrowed deep enough under the covers, perhaps she could find her way back into that comfortable dream where her family was playing Scrabble on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the house on Hamilton street.  The funny thing was, in the dream, she and Richie were adults and her brother had just put some huge, Latinate legal term on a triple-word score.  She found nothing odd in Richie winning, but she had not been back to the Hamilton house since she was ten, when Nana came and took her and Richie away after the car crash that . . . the car crash . . . the car . . .

          *Brrring!*Brrring!*Brrring!*

          "Shut up, already," Natalie grumped as the sound drove the dream from her mind.  Groaning, she pushed back the blankets and swung her legs out into the chill air at the side of the bed.  "I'm up, see?"  The digital blue "PM" glowed beside her thumb as her fingers stretched toward the "off" button, and it dawned on her sleepy brain that the noise was not coming from the clock this time.

          It's the phone, she realized, even as she automatically groped for the receiver on her nightstand.  "Hello?"

          Silence.  Not a dial tone, not a broken line, but not a sound across the connection.

          "Hello?"

          Silence.

          Natalie choked.  Not again.  Please.

          Oh, this is so stupid, she reprimanded herself, attempting to stomp down the demoralizing anxieties that now leaped higher with every one of these calls.  She slowly hung up the telephone, then slid back under her blankets.  With deep, measured breaths, she calmed her pounding heart, but nothing could rein in her racing thoughts.  Even as she slipped inevitably back toward sleep, Natalie's anxious, puzzle-driven mind kept revolving the scenario on the borders of her consciousness, refusing to release her entirely to slumber.  "This is not a good way to begin the day," she whispered.

          In fact, it had not been a good way to begin the last twenty-some days.

          Or nights, as was the case on the pathologist's current scheduling rotation.

          Natalie had thought nothing of it at first.  She had not even remembered the incident from one night to the next.  Cases and corpses, paperwork and projects: all combined to banish it from her mind -- until the next time her home phone rang.  The caller never spoke and, for the first week, Natalie had simply assumed someone was mistakenly feeding her number into some sort of fax machine or modem.  Initially, the call would click off when she answered, giving way to the dial tone.  But the calls kept coming.  And the caller ceased clicking off.

          Every weekday evening, as she woke up and got ready for work, the call came.  That is, every evening she spent at home and not using her own modem, Natalie drowsily corrected herself, turning her head on her pillow.  The blips on her answering machine those nights she was out might be electrical surges, for all she knew, or telemarketers hanging up, and her always-erratic schedule helped keep the episodes on the periphery of her mind.  After all, a misdirected modem threatened no one, and no evidence supported the stalker scenarios her imagination dredged so morbidly from both legitimate cases and second-rate TV movies.

          And Roger Jamison was in prison, under psychiatric care, where he belonged.

          It must be a machine.  A living person would speak, the half-awake part of her mind insisted, or get bored.

          But more than one of her acquaintances failed to qualify as "living," and the calls kept coming.

          When the phone company admitted there was little it could do at this point but log the complaint, Natalie had considered simply not answering her home line, employing her machine to filter calls the way Nick did -- though she hated when people did that to her.  In any case, the experiment never lasted past the third ring.  She needed to answer her own phone, she had discovered, with a compulsion she could never have imagined before this string of ominous silences brought it to her attention.  Originally, she rationalized it as her sense of responsibility.  Her standing as a civil servant and member of the team obliged her to be available.  But work could as easily dial her beeper.  No, she needed her phone for herself, Natalie Lambert.  She needed that ring to proclaim someone wanting her, needing her, thinking about her.

          The sound of her phone's ring had always been an invitation.  These prank calls were twisting it into a jeer.

          Natalie supposed she could confide in Nick but, even asleep, she winced at the thought of running to him with what ought to be such a petty concern.  He might misunderstand and think she needed him to solve it for her, and under which heading of their convoluted relationship would that then fall?  Doctor, co-worker, friend, human . . . woman?  It's probably just a mis-dialing machine, she told herself again, turning restlessly against her mattress.  Nick has enough problems of his own.

          More specifically, she admitted on the far side of waking, Nick had withdrawn more and more since the lingerie-models case, wrapping himself in a forbidding introspection.  Until he decided to talk about whatever absorbed him so morosely, she feared triggering a painful reaction by wading in brandishing the minor annoyances of mortal life.  No, she could not tell him.  And if not him, then no one on the force.  How would he feel if she went to another cop?  And what would they think if she did -- even Schanke or the Captain?  Would they suppose her a coward?  Paranoid?  Hysterical?

          Not recovered from being trapped by psychopath Roger Jamison?

          *Breeeg!*Breeeg!*Breeeg!*

          Natalie's head snapped up, her sleepy river of free-associating concerns suddenly dammed and deeply buried by her alarm-clock's shriek.  It really was the clock this time.  Her initial hit of the snooze button had returned to haunt her.  Switching off the alarm and standing up, Natalie cast a longing glance at her pillow, only to discover that something furry and feline had already rolled into her spot.  Lucky Sidney.

          In the shower, Natalie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall under the hot spray.  She could easily fall asleep again here, just sliding down into the tub and letting the warm vapor enfold her like a fuzzy blanket fresh from the dryer.  After all, the troubled sleep from which she had just been torn had begun barely three hours before.  She had worked last night -- the Driscoll hunting-rifle accident -- and then spent most of the day alone in her lab, running preliminary tests on a new steroid-like substance called lydovuterine.  She had a theory . . . but she had completely lost track of time, and now needed nothing as much as sleep.  Sighing, Natalie pushed the thought away.  She had to go to work.  Reluctantly turning her back to the water, Natalie raised her arms over her head, ran her hands through her hair to make sure the thick mass was wet through, then lathered in her shampoo.

          It's not as if they'd miss me at work today, the thought returned, and I have more unused vacation time than some entire departments.

          But it's not as if I'm sick, another thought retorted.  It's irresponsible and unprofessional to book off just because I stayed up all day.

          Debating internally, Natalie rinsed and wrung out her hair, then squeezed some snarl-fighting conditioner into her hand.  The strong apple scent startled her, and her eyes flew open.  It was a new bottle; the old formula had been floral.  Shaking her head forcefully, Natalie realized that the smell was the first sensation since leaving bed that she couldn't have supplied by sheer habit; had she sleepwalked through her shower?

          Just how responsible and professional can I be when I'm this tired?  the first thought returned to prompt.

          The second conceded the point and surrendered.  She would stay home.

          Her hair wrapped in a towel and the rest of her in a robe, Natalie headed for the phone on her desk in the corner of her living room.  Shivering, she flipped on a lamp as she passed the thermostat and entertained dark thoughts about the irony of the flaming-orange walls in the cool night air.  She dialed.

          "Medical Examiner's Division.  Grace Balthazar speaking," answered a cheery voice on the first ring.

          "Grace, this is Natalie.  I'm not coming in today."

          "Um, Nat . . ."

          "Unless you really need me.  You don't really, really need me today, do you?"

          "Natalie . . ."

          "I'm not sick, I admit.  I just need a 'mental-health day,' if you know what I mean . . ."

          "Doctor Lambert!" Grace demanded her attention.

          Natalie fell silent.

          "That's better.  Nat, you don't have to call in.  It's your day off -- tonight and tomorrow night.  Did you forget?"

          "Um . . ."  Oh, dear.  She had forgotten.  The schedule had been so unpredictable since Megan took her maternity leave and Josh moved to Montreal that, somehow, with so many of her nights off spent in the morgue researching Nick's condition, they had all run together in her mind.

          "You do get them occasionally, you know," Grace teased lightly.  "And yes, I'm sure Doctor Christopher can cover today's shift alone.  Everything's still slow.  You know how this late-winter weather is, God willing, discouraging random street crime, but not so cold that we have frozen homeless folks coming in.  And how long has it been since you've had any sort of real time off, anyway, always volunteering for Knight and Schanke's cases, as if you don't have a load beyond Stonetree's precinct and a life outside this lab --"

          "Grace," Natalie objected.

          "Your business," Grace allowed.  "Now, I've got to run and catch Tomomei to confirm some reports before the last of the shift changes.  You have a good day, and don't dare come in here for forty-eight hours, because we'll all just send you right home."

          "Thanks, Grace," Natalie said sincerely, hanging up the phone.  Slightly stunned, she stepped around the corner into the kitchen, deactivated the timer on her coffee maker and cast a jaded eye on the accumulation of dishes in the sink.  If she were going to have two days off in a row, she supposed, she really ought to wash up.

          But tomorrow would be soon enough.

          Natalie turned out the light, returned to her bedroom and crawled back into bed beside Sidney.  Lying still, she concentrated on falling asleep, determinedly shutting out waking worries until they finally surrendered her to her dreams.

          And in her dreams, Natalie was home again, in a home which had never quite been.  Yes, these people -- Mom, Dad, Richie -- and these things -- the old orange carpet, formica-topped table, cork lamp -- were everything that still meant home to Natalie, but she knew she did not belong in this picture.

          "So how are my granddaughter and her mother, Richie?" asked Anna Lambert, impossibly.  A drunk driver had killed her and her husband a decade before their son even met the girl who eventually became his wife.  Natalie stared at her mother straightening a few Scrabble pieces across the kitchen table, a woman younger than she was now, with brown hair still free of gray and a face unlined by years never lived.  Natalie felt a crashing wave of guilt, as if she had done something unconscionable in growing up -- in consuming those precious years, as if it were a zero-sum equation.

          "Good, Mom," answered Richie, fourteen months dead.  Toying with the spoon in his tomato soup and looking regretfully at an empty saltine wrapper next to the game board, he offered, "Sara's teaching her own class, finally -- no more subbing -- and Amy is all excited about her first choir concert.  Hey, Nat, are you going to eat the other half of your sandwich?"

          "What?  Uh, no, I guess not.  Help yourself."  Suddenly a participant rather than a detached observer, it was as if Natalie had fallen into the ocean and found herself to be a fish.  What had she been thinking before?  She couldn't remember.  Looking down at her Scrabble letters, she found only consonants.  Typical.  "Isn't it somebody's turn?"

          "It's yours, Nat," her father told her, gesturing to the empty rack in front of him.  "You're the only one who can go."

          Natalie looked at the board, then at her letters.  She shrugged.  "I pass.  I can't go."

          "You have to, dear," Natalie's mom said.  "You're the only one who can."

          "But I can't make a word.  I have to pass."

          "You can't, sis," Richie said earnestly, his boyish smile suddenly solemn, the weighty expression of the Crown Prosecutor with life, death and justice riding on his words.  "You've been passing every round for a long time now.  You can't keep passing forever.  There are places to go, if you'll just see them, but the longer you wait, the fewer remain.  Don't wait for time to force your hand, Nat!  You have to make a move.  You're the only one who can."

          "No!  I can't!  I won't!" Natalie objected frantically.  That her panicked desperation was completely disproportionate with the ostensible subject of conversation did not occur to her.  "It's too hard!  Nothing fits!"  She pushed back her chair, leapt to her feet, and . . .

          . . . woke, her eyes open, her heart pounding too rapidly against her chest, and Sidney yowling for his supper from the pillow next to her head at the top of his not-so-tiny lungs.  "Torturer," Natalie said, as her mind fluttered between the fast-fading dream and her increasingly noticeable pet.  She briefly considered hiding under the covers until he went away, but sat up instead.  Sidney ceased his complaints and hopped down as Natalie stood and made sure the towel-turban around her hair had not come loose.  He trotted quickly to the bedroom door and then looked over his shoulder, clearly waiting for her to accompany him.

          "You're a spoiled, prima donna, old regime, tyrannical feline," Natalie said as she followed him into the kitchen.  "I hope you know that."

          The grey cat meowed complacently.  Smiling fondly, Natalie rinsed and refilled his water bowl, poured food into his dish, and then sat down on the linoleum.  "So this is what the world looks like from the kitchen floor, eh, Sids?" she asked, leaning back against the refrigerator door and noting that she needed to sweep under the table soon.  Sidney, nose-deep in kibble, ignored her.

          Closing her eyes, Natalie tried to catch the tail of her dream, but it had already fled to wherever dreams spend their days and left little by which to track it.  Something threatening, dislocating, hideously final . . . about tomato soup . . . and Scrabble?

          Yeah, right.  So much for dreams.

          Shaking it off, Natalie surprised herself with the discovery that she was no longer tired.  Well-rested, yes, that's what one calls this feeling, she thought dryly, unable to recall her last personal encounter with it.  Before opening her eyes and lifting them to her microwave's clock, she realized she had not turned on any lights to feed Sidney.  Phones and alarms she handled in the dark, but cat food . . . 11:04 a.m.?

          It can't be, she thought incredulously, but the light peeking in around the edges of her drapes insisted that the day had indeed turned on toward noon.  Rising, Natalie activated the coffee maker, slipped a bagel in the toaster and then went to pull the curtain cords.  With her back to the icy glass, she looked around her living room, watching the vague clutter turn into a fair mess under the penetrating light of the sun.  Shaking her head on her way back to her bedroom, Natalie wondered what about daylight was so much less forgiving than soft-white bulbs.

          While her coffee-maker dripped and toaster-oven toasted, Natalie changed her robe and towel for jeans and an old U of T sweatshirt, then switched on her computer.  Pulling her still-damp hair into a pony-tail while she waited for the system to boot up and then connect to her email account, she wondered whether the Driscoll ballistics had come in yet, and whether they matched her prediction.  She wondered whether that guy at Johns Hopkins had responded to her inquiry about his research into rare, blood-borne pathogens.  And she expected to receive a note from the lawyer in a case for which she was serving as an expert witness.  She hoped . . . .

          Nothing.  No messages at all.  Not even a well-intentioned copy of that dratted "'Good Times' Virus Warning" hoax.

          Shutting down the connection, she called in to the voice-mail system at work.  No messages there, either.

          Sourly, Natalie wondered if Grace -- or Doctor Christopher -- were intercepting her calls.

          Instantly apologetic, Natalie dismissed that thought.  Fine, she told herself; so what if no one wants to talk to me?  Today, she was home; why yank work here through the phone line?  As Grace had said, how long had it been since she'd had real time off, anyway, with no emergencies, no interruptions?  Not to mention no vampiric crises?  She should be grateful for this unusual dearth of demands on her time!  But she was not.

          In fact, she was disconcerted and edgy.

          Firmly turning her back on the devices that had disappointed her, Natalie returned to her kitchen, spread cheese on her bagel and poured her coffee.

          Sidney, suddenly appearing under her feet, meowed plaintively.  With skill born of long practice, Natalie avoided tripping over him as she carried her brunch out to the couch.  "This is not cat food, Sids, and, believe it or not, you are a cat."

          Sidney snorted condescendingly and leaped up into the armchair across from her.

          "I take back what I said about waking me up, by the way.  You're the most generous cat in all the world for letting me sleep in so late.  So what should we do with our day off now that we have it?" Natalie asked, devouring her bagel between remarks.  "You're the one with all the practice in this department."

          The cat began licking his paws.

          "Well, that is one idea.  The place certainly needs some cleaning, and it would be nice to do laundry of my own free will rather than because the alternative is wearing scrubs."  Natalie took another drink of her coffee, then set it on the end-table.  She could fill her afternoon with chores, of course, or she could fill it with a full-scale imitation of Sidney, eating, sleeping, bathing and watching movies -- or, interpreted another way, going to the gym -- but, as she groped for a third option, she developed a disturbing suspicion that she had none.  Oh, sure, a tower of photocopied articles from various medical journals teetered threateningly on her desk, but she wanted something other than work -- for the city of Toronto or for Nick.  She did do things other than work, didn't she?

          Didn't she?

          Swallowing the last of her bagel, Natalie stood and investigated her shelves.  Plethora of medical texts and journals, check.  Respectable selection on cat care, check.  Miscellaneous movies videotaped off cable, check.  Bric-a-brac dumped on her at various birthdays, graduations and holidays, check.  For goodness sakes, was that it?

          Pathetically-scanty compact-disc collection, check.  Easy to explain that one, though, as she had only given in to this latest fad a few months ago.  Her cassette player had remained more than adequate for her needs as far as she was concerned, until her lack of technological sophistication had so scandalized Nick that he talked her into buying one of the new machines.  Once she agreed, his concept of the natural order had assumed requisitioning the top-of-the-line from some anonymous catalogue with insured delivery.  She, however, had managed to drag him along to an appliance store with late hours, making him listen to the salesman, refuse the warranty without resorting to vampiric hypnotism, stand in line with her and not buy anything from the impulse racks.  A small but cherished victory uniting Nick and the everyday world.  If only she could do as much for his physical situation as his cultural one, she mused; if only he would just stay off the blood!

          Natalie's eye fell on the shelves below the CD player, full of popular and not-so-popular contemporary novels.  See, she told herself smugly, I do non-work stuff.  I read fiction.  Sitting in front of them, Natalie blew off some dust and began sorting through the books, looking for one she had forgotten or, better yet, never gotten around to reading in the first place.  There was actually a surprising number of the latter, and she blushed slightly.  Where had these all come from?  Where had all the time gone?  A hardback by Emily Weiss turned up among the unread volumes and Natalie eagerly pulled it down into her lap.  Opening to the blurb inside the dust-jacket, she found the crisp end-page inscribed in her sister-in-law's neat handwriting:

To Natalie,
Merry Christmas 1991!
Love,
Richard, Sara and Amy

          1991.  Richie's last Christmas.  Two winters ago, now.  Richie had died in autumn.  Her favorite season -- so reliable, so logical -- had hardly been lucky for him.  Certainly, not appropriate for him, white knight of the summer kingdom.  Natalie underlined her brother's name with her index finger, and the appearance of wet tears on the page startled her.  Snapping the volume shut, she replaced it on the shelf, still unread.

          Recoiling from the books, Natalie retreated to the couch and stared at the shelf holding the Weiss novel, pulling a pillow into her lap as a buffer between her and the rest of the world.  I shouldn't be crying, she told herself.  There was no reason to be crying.  She did not even feel sad.  So what do I feel? she demanded.  What's wrong with me?  I get a day off, don't know what to do with it and, oh, by the way, my brother is still dead?

          Demanding solid answers only poked holes in the few intangible ones on which she had been standing.  She missed Richie.  And she was so very, very sorry that she had put him through the vampire's Hell on earth.

          And she wanted to kill him again herself for leaving her behind.

          She sat still for a long, long time, staring not through her eyes, but behind them, at memories retained and dreams forgotten.  She had been someone else, the little girl in the house on Hamilton street.  She had been someone else, before her parents had died and Nana had had to take in Natalie and her brother.  The wide, safe world had narrowed, thundered and struck, and the child Natalie had changed to survive.  But Richie, only Richie, had come through both worlds with her.

          Now, though, she had to go on into this new world without him and, somewhere just beyond her grasp, she could already feel herself turning into a person other than who she had been before he died, someone he would never know, someone she would not have become had he lived.

          Maybe someone she did not want to be.

          The sound of a car alarm jolted Natalie free from the grip of her reflections and sent her to the window.  Below, in the noon-day light, a postal truck waited patiently for an opening into the flow of traffic and a man on a ladder across the street knocked sparkling icesickles from his eaves.

          Disturbed by the direction her thoughts had been taking, Natalie forced them aside.  If she didn't want to go there, she didn't have to!  She determined to shake this grim preoccupation by a brisk walk in the sunlight from her post box to the recycling bin.  Sitting around was making her morose, she decided as she gathered up her shoes, coat and keys.

          Natalie got the sun and the recycling bin got the junk mail, but her quick walk drew on into a prolonged pacing, around and around the block, and finally up her own stairs, as she read and re-read the one piece of substantive correspondence: an announcement from her landlords.  "If you attended the public meetings last year . . . planning commission . . . as you know . . . four-lane road . . . as stated in your lease . . ."

          The city was going to widen her street.  Her apartment would be torn down to make way.

          Natalie would have to move.

          Uck.

          She had known about the proposal, of course -- even attended one of the meetings -- but then the homicide at that cosmetics counter had revealed the vampire plastic surgeon experimenting on her patients and, what with one thing and another, Natalie had never gotten back into the process.  She vaguely remembered tossing the last few announcements from the planning commission, always figuring she would read the next one -- when she had more time.

          And now time had run out.

          Back at her own door, Natalie paused, seeing it anew in the shadow of its imminent destruction.  Inside, she slowly flipped on all her lights, one by one, illuminating every corner and every memory.  It might be her home, but it was someone else's building, someone else's road, and someone else had made the decisions which took her choices away.

          At least the municipal planning commission had asked her opinion this time, she thought.  Leaving their home after Mom and Dad died, she and Richie had not been asked by anyone.

          Entering the kitchen last, Natalie reached for the radio before the light-switch.  Songs, chat and commercials chased each other around the dial until she settled on something loud and 'eighties to fill her ears as chores filled her hands.  Not normally an aficionado of housework, Natalie was even less fond of being without a task.  Sitting around had made her morose before, so she would stay busy now.  She would move so fast and be so busy that the bleak introspection of the forenoon could never catch her again.

          Steadily retreating across her floor and finally out her windows, the sun's rays sank below the horizon as she pressed on through the dishes, swept the linoleum, dusted the shelves and even ate lunch while she did the laundry.  But jolted by the sudden need to relocate, no distraction proved sufficient to divert Natalie from her newly-conscious conviction that her life had begun to tumble out of her control again when Richie died.

          It would be exaggerating to say "nothing had gone right" since her little brother phoned her for a lift to the station that fatal night.  Nevertheless, winning the baseball game at the precinct picnic failed to counterbalance being taken hostage by a grenade-toting terrorist, or her last boyfriend turning out to be a serial killer happy to add her to his tally.  During the mayoral race, she nearly fell victim to a car bomb which destroyed her vehicle -- and then her candidate lost, to boot.  Not to mention the creepy phone calls.

          Or the vampires.

          And now she had to move so the city could run a lane through her kitchen.

          This kind of stuff just did not happen to most people.  At least, not all in the same lifetime.  And people generally could not commiserate across lifetimes -- practically-immortal lives excepted, perhaps.  But the hope that Nick might empathize with the intersection of bizarre, horrific and ironic in her past year isolated more than it liberated.  If she had no one in whom to confide except Nick, who still sometimes struggled with the most basic priorities of someone who would not be young forever . . . if she had no one but Nick . . . .

          Panic rose in the back of her mouth, sour and acidic.  Natalie had not allowed herself to realize how far she had withdrawn since Richie died.  She had always worked long, odd shifts, and more so since an undead corpse first rose from her autopsy table four years ago, but she had turned it into an excuse -- to herself.  Working with Nick to cure his vampirism, she had begun to adopt his hours, his limitations.  And since Richie died, she had kept herself busy, and busier, until all the times in which these thoughts might have caught up with her had been squeezed out and away, along with all the people who might have made her stop and think about her own life.

          Even Roger had noticed that she needed to get out more.  And he was psychotic.

          Rising from where she had been folding clean laundry on the coffee table, Natalie walked slowly to the phone on her desk.  She needed someone -- right now -- to reassure her she was more than a civil servant for Toronto, major domo for Sidney and research staff for Nick.  She needed that desperately.  Fighting a sudden wave of isolation and helplessness reeking of her adolescence under her grandmother's roof, Natalie found herself almost unable to reach out, for fear no one would listen.

          After all, she thought, I was less than receptive around the time of Richie's "funeral."  His vampirism had occupied her mind then, and, later, the unshareable guilt which leavened her own grief.  Plunging into her work, she had politely but relentlessly lost touch with almost everyone.  She had even made up some vague excuse for skipping the Luces' annual New Year's party when Cindy called to inquire if she had received the invitation in the mail.  Would anyone want to hear from her?  They would be gracious, of course, tolerant, but . . . .

          Shaking her head at the injustice she recognized in the fear she still could not help but feel, Natalie ran her finger down the venerable list of numbers taped to the wall above the phone, the dot-matrix print-out faded by sun and time.  Lora, Cindy and Dave, Sherrie, Josh and Linda, Michael . . . Richie and Sara.  Were the numbers even still accurate?  And if so, would anyone be home from work?  Natalie glanced at the VCR's clock: dinnertime.  All the adults who worked outside their homes would be trickling back, and the parents would be feeding their kids.  Natalie hated to interrupt, but she really needed someone to . . . .

          She simply needed someone.  That was all.

          That was everything.

          Trying Lora first, she got voice-mail.  Natalie hung up with the beep.  Normally, she would leave a message but, right now, the machine left her feeling more alone than ever.  Cindy and Dave's recording triggered a similar sensation, but Natalie managed to reply to the Luces' message with who she was and that she would call some other time.

          Third try's the charm.  Or the straw to break the camel's back.

          "Lambert residence," came a little girl's voice on the other end of the line.  "Amy speaking."

          "Hey," Natalie gasped with a relief she hoped her niece could not hear, stretching the extra-long phone-cord to the center of the living room.  "What'ch'a doing, kiddo?"  She settled on the couch, looking past her reflection in the dark window.

          "Aunt Nat?"

          Natalie sighed.  Was that incredulity she heard?  "Yeah, it's me."

          "Hi!  Do you want me to go get Mom?  She's changing clothes," Amy informed her.  "Are you coming to the concert?"

          "What concert?"

          "Mine," Amy answered, as if that explained everything.  After a moment, she clarified, apparently worried that Aunt Nat might misunderstand.  "Not just me, you know.  The whole choir.  Do you want to come?"

          "I would be happy to," Natalie committed, fighting an impulse to duck or delay.  I'm not like that, she reprimanded herself; I don't want to be like that.  "When is this concert?"

          "Tonight."

          "Um, okay," Natalie processed that information.  "Maybe I'd better talk to your mom after all, kiddo.  I'll need directions."

          "Sure," Amy said.  "Hold on." Natalie immediately heard the receiver hit a table, feet run down a hall, and a voice loudly repeat the conversation for Sara's benefit.  Waiting for her sister-in-law to come on the line, Natalie walked back to her desk and located a pen and pad of post-it notes.

          After a moment, Sara picked up the phone.  "Nat?"

          "Hi.  What's this I hear about a concert?"

          "Oh, Amy wanted to invite you!  But I thought you'd be working, and would feel badly that you couldn't come, so I promised her we would invite you over to hear the tape as soon as you had some time off."  Sara paused.  "Is everything all right?"

          "Everything's fine," Natalie said.  It was not entirely true, but held as far as Sara could mean her question to go.  "I just . . . have the night off.  It was kind of a surprise to me, too, and I thought I'd call and see what you guys were up to."

          "Well, we were just on our way out the door to grab some fast food before the concert.  It's the children's choir from our church.  Amy, honey, would you go get my purse from the hall?" Sara waited a moment, presumably for her daughter to get out of ear-shot, and Natalie could hear a new smile in the always-sweet voice when Sara continued.  "It's really just a practice to which the parents are particularly invited, Nat.  Their only actual 'concert' is at Christmas, but Amy wasn't old enough to join until last month, so she's very excited about it."

          "You're on your way out, and I'm across town.  If I left more or less immediately, could I make it?"

          "Um, I think so," Sara replied, giving directions for the annex behind her church.  "And if you can," she concluded, "be sure to come in on the Berry Street side and, afterward, exit to Nathaniel Lane.  It's a tight little lot without much room to pass."

          "In from Berry," Natalie added to the post-it on which she had been scribbling.  "Got it.  Tell Amy I'm looking forward to seeing -- hearing -- her, okay?"

          "Okay.  We'll see you there, then."

          Natalie was just about to hang up in the silence following her sister-in-law's statement when Sara's voice came through again and Natalie had to pull the receiver back to her ear.

          "Nat--alie?" Sara said, apparently trying to bridge a break in her voice by completing the nickname.

          "Yeah?"

          "I am so glad to hear from you," Sara whispered.  "I am so, so glad you called."

          "Me, too," Natalie said.  "Me, too."  Only when she hung up did she realize she was crying, informed by the sight of tears which had rolled onto her fingers as she clutched the receiver to her cheek.  Staring at the little liquid crystals on her hand, Natalie began to laugh.  The tears were water, not blood or dust.  She was alive, neither undead nor dead.  She had been issued an invitation back to the world, and she intended to accept.

          Then the phone rang.

          Automatically, she picked it up.  "Hello?"

          Silence.

          No.  Not this again, Natalie thought, slipping back toward the helpless isolation which had been smothering her life, unacknowledged.  No!

          "Hello?"

          Silence.

          She had a place to go, people to meet.  She could not afford to waste time on this, whoever or whatever it was.  Still, she hung on.  She was not going to hang up first this time.  She was not going to let it win.  She was not going to run or hide any more.

          "Hello?"

          "Hello?" The young male voice projected over a fuzzy background of noise.  "Is this Natalie Lambert?"

          "Who are you?"

          "Brian, from Bond-Railway ChargeCard.  Is this Natalie Lambert?"

          That's my credit-card company, she realized, stunned.  "Have you been calling this number other nights?" she demanded.  "With long silences or quick hang-ups?"

          "Uh, well, ma'am, this number is in our automatic-dial system.  It calls, waits for an answer, and then transfers you to an operator.  If, um, no one here is available to speak to you, it terminates the connection and calls again another time."

          "You mean your machine has been making hang-up calls because you're understaffed?!"  Tidal waves of hostility and relief broke simultaneously against opposite shores in her mind.  She felt giddy.  And livid.  "Do you have any idea what it's like to be on the receiving end of your system?" Natalie challenged in clipped tones.  "It's been calling for weeks, and it's getting scary."

          "Uh, hmnh."  Brian from ChargeCard sounded flustered.  "I apologize, and, uh, I will inform my manager immediately to remove this number from our system.  It can take, um, up to two weeks for the entry to clear, though, sometimes, so if you get any more of these calls during that period, just hang up and don't worry about it."

          "Right.  Thank you."  Natalie hung up.  Then she sank to the floor.  Shaking, she pressed her cheek to the rug.

          It was over.  It was all over.  And it was okay.  It was just the stupid credit-card company.  She honestly did not know whether she was laughing or crying.  At the calls.  For herself.

          Sidney poked at her back with his paws, then brushed against her.  He meowed as if to inquire what she thought she was doing on his rug, and did she need any help doing it.  Sitting up and drawing her cat into her arms, Natalie began to laugh for certain.  All at once, it occurred to her that she had forgotten to ask what the calls had been about in the first place.

          "You wouldn't have forgotten, would you, Sids?" she asked, scratching behind his ears as she laughed.  "You would have nailed that Brian person but good.  Yeah."  Sidney began to purr, and Natalie's laughter shattered into giggles.

          The confining worries might well come back but, for the moment, she suddenly felt so free and strong that she hardly knew what to do with herself.  Luckily, she already had a plan.

          Depositing the cat on the couch, Natalie grabbed her coat and purse and headed for the door.  "I'll be back later, Sidney.  I've got a family to see, and a life to get living."

  

END

  

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