The Headache

Virginia glanced at her alarm clock as she fumbled for the phone. 2:55 AM. "Virginia! What took you so damn long? You let the phone ring six times!"

Mother always knew how many times the phone rang. She knew how many steps it was from the table to the stove, how many seconds it took for the TV to warm up, and how many cracks there were in the sidewalk between her house and the bus stop.

"Virginia! Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, Mother. I'm sorry. I was asleep."

Mother didn't need much sleep. She claimed insomnia ran in the family. Grandma Lou had done most of her sleeping in the late afternoon and Uncle Frank swore three hours a night was more than enough for him. Daddy had complained about the hours Mother kept for as long as Virginia could remember, but this was the first time she had called in the middle of the night.

"Virginia, you have to come over."

"Now?"

"Yes now! My head is throbbing. You've got to bring me some aspirin."

"Where's Daddy?"

Dial tone.

Virginia rushed to the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Aspirin. I know I've got aspirin. She caught a glimpse of her reflection as she slammed the cabinet door. My hair's a mess. I should comb it. Brush my teeth. No. There's no time. Mother needs me.

She stuffed the aspirin bottle in her purse, threw her raincoat over her pajamas and ran barefoot down the driveway. Ten, fifteen minutes max. There won't be any traffic. I'll run the red lights.

As she turned onto Main Street, an ambulance whined in the distance. It got louder. Closer. My God, they're going to Mother's. The siren faded as she turned onto Elm. Someone else's mother. Not mine. Not this time.

She ran her tire over the curb as she pulled up to Mother's house. Leave it where it is. No time to back up. It's all right. No one will notice. The front door's locked. Go around back. Hurry. She's waiting. Virginia checked her watch. Only eight minutes. Mother likes to time things. She'll see how fast I got here. Mother will know.

She jerked the storm door open and dashed into the dark family room. "Mother, where are you?"

Silence.

She looked in the kitchen. The faucet was dripping. Her parents had discussed the faucet many times over the years. Mother said she could hear the dripping no matter where she was in the house. Daddy repaired the faucet when Virginia was in the fifth grade. Mother said he made it worse.

"Daddy?"

Virginia's feet didn't make a sound as she crossed the cold linoleum floor. Mother's sewing room. The living room. The den.

Empty.

The dining room. Mother and Daddy glared at each other from opposite ends of the long mahogany table, a full bottle of aspirin like a tiny nuclear warhead exactly half-way between them.