Final Farewell

By Brad Meltzer

The first thing Sara did was hit the play button on the answering machine. That was her ritual: open the door, flip on the lights, and hit play on the machine. As the machine whirred to rewind, Sara took off her now-soaking-wet suit jacket.

“I told you it was going to rain,” her husband, Jared, teased, following her inside. “But did you listen? No. Did you follow my instructions? No. Did you heed my warning—”

“We get the picture, handsome,” Sara interrupted. A long, sagging curl of hair dangled angrily in front of her face. Jared took one look and stopped talking. He wasn’t that stupid.

The late rain was typical for the summer: warm, sticky, and completely unexpected. When she was little, Sara loved to run around in rain like this—her tongue wagging from her mouth, trying to catch every raindrop. Today, she didn’t stick out her tongue once.

As Jared took off his own jacket, the answering machine relayed it’s sole message. “Michelle, it’s me,” a man’s voice said. He sounded panicked and out of breath. “You better get to the hospital. It’s worse than we thought. They don’t expect her to last through the night. They’re only giving her until about eight o’clock, so it’s your last chance to see her. If you get this late, say a prayer for her.” And just like that, he was gone.

Sara looked up at her husband.

“Talk about your wrong numbers,” Jared said.

“It’s not funny. That sounded serious.”

“I wasn’t making a joke. I was just—”

“Do you think she’s dying?” Before Jared could answer, she added, “I mean, that’s how it sounded, didn’t it? It’s worse than they thought. She’s not going to last through the night. This woman’s never going to get the message. She’s never going to get to say goodbye.”

Jared knew that tone in his wife’s voice. Half a dozen years ago, Sara lost both of her parents in a car accident. The message from the hospital was left on the answering machine. And just like now, there was no chance for goodbye. “Honey, I know what you’re thinking, but you have to calm down. It may just be appendicitis or a—”

“He was terrified,” Sara interrupted. “You can hear it in his voice. We have to find her. I need to find Michelle.”

“Sara, you don’t have to find anyone. It’s just a wrong number. Besides, what’re you going to do—dial every number in the city until she turns up?”

“It’s easier that that—it was the last call on our machine.” Sara picked up the phone and hit “*69.” As a mechanical female voice relayed the number of their last incoming call, Sara grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down the number.

Jared couldn’t help but admire his wife’s ingenuity. “Not bad, Kojak. You’re on your way.”

Sara didn’t stop for the compliment. She could feel it in her stomach—already, the thought of this woman missing her last farewell was gnawing at her. She didn’t just want to help. She had to. Hanging up the phone, Sara dialed the new number. It rang once. Then it rang again. And again.

“He said he was leaving for the hospital,” Jared reminded her. “He’s probably already gone.”

After the fourth ring, an answering machine picked up. “This is Sean—I’m not here right now, so leave me a message.”

Unsure of what to say, Sara went with the obvious. “Hi, Sean. You don’t know me, but by mistake, you left a message for someone named Michelle on my answering machine. It sounded important, so I wanted to let you know to call her back. Hope that helps. Thanks.” Slowly, Sara returned the receiver to its cradle.

“It’s okay, honey,” Jared said. “That’s the best you can do.”

Sara shook her head. “It’s not enough. If she dies…something like this’ll haunt her forever.”

“I couldn’t tell.”

Ignoring the comment, she asked, “Now what time did he say they had until? Eight o’clock?” Sara looked down at her watch. It was already seven-fifteen. Gritting her teeth, she once again picked up the phone and dialed information. She couldn’t help herself—the man may’ve been a stranger, but that didn’t mask the fear his voice. Sean, whoever he was, was searching for help. And all he had found was Sara. Sara, who had missed her own goodbyes six years earlier. She decided it right there—that was going to be enough. History didn’t have to repeat itself. “I’m wondering if you can help me out,” Sara said to the operator. “I have a phone number and I need to know who it belongs to. Is it possible for you to look it up for me?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have the capability to do that,” the operator explained.

“Please,” Sara begged. “It’s an emergency. Someone’s life may depend on it.”

There was a pause on the other line. Sara knew she was being judged. Finally, the operator said, “Let me transfer you to a supervisor.”

Moments later, a woman with a deeper voice asked, “Can I help you?”

Sara quickly relayed the story. She told her about the man. And the message. And the fear in his voice. The operator fell silent. Again, Sara felt the weight of judgment. Eventually, the operator said, “Give me the number and I’ll see what I can do.” A minute later, she added, “The number is registered to a Sean Taylor. I’m not sure if that helps you, but—”

“Okay,” Sara interrupted. She was getting close and her heart was racing. The message was left for Michelle. If she was lucky, they’d be related. That was the only way it would work. She mouthed a silent prayer to herself, then added, “I need one more thing: I’m looking for the number of someone named Michelle Taylor.”

While the operator searched, Sara checked her watch. Forty minutes to go. Finally, the operator said, “I’ve got six of them, but there’s one here that’s close. Your number ends with 6120; a Michelle Taylor at 435 West 127th Street, Apartment 1G, ends with 6210.”

“That’s it—I’ll take it.” Sara quickly hung up and dialed Michelle’s number. Busy signal. She hung up and tried again. Still busy.

“Relax,” Jared said. Maybe she’s on the—”

“What if she’s not? They’re running out of time,” Sara said, raising her voice. “For all we know, the other person’s already dead.” She picked up the phone and pressed “0.” “I’d like to make an emergency breakthrough.” Thirty seconds later, Sara said, “What do you mean it’s off the hook? Are you sure?” Feeling the sweat that started to coat puddle in her hands, Sara put down the phone and darted for the door.

“Where’re you going?” Jared asked.

“I have to tell her. She needs to know.”

“Are you nuts? There’s no reason to—”

“It’s their last chance, Jared! What if it’s her sister who’s in the hospital? Or her daughter? Or her mother?”

That’s all Sara had to say. It was just as Jared had thought: after what happened to Sara’s own parents, she wasn’t going to let it happen to someone else. Not if she could prevent it. Good-byes meant too much. Jared once again looked at his wife. The tears were already welling in her eyes. “Do you want me to come?” he asked.

“No—you stay here and keep trying her number. If you get through, give her the news.” In a flash, Sara was gone.

Within five minutes, Sara was in a cab, racing toward 127th Street. Another glance at her watch. Almost seven-thirty. And it’d take fifteen minutes to get there. Time was running out. “Can we go any faster?” she said to the driver. “It’s important.” As the taxi cut through the scalding night air, Sara thought about Michelle and what she was going to say to her. Hi, you have to get to the hospital. Hi, your relative only has about fifteen more minutes to live. Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m about to give you the worst news of your life. Lost in her thoughts, Sara didn’t even notice that the taxi had come to a stop.

“You sure you’re okay in this neighborhood?” the driver asked, looking around at the dilapidated houses that dotted the block.

Sara stuffed a twenty dollar bill in his hand and got out of the cab. One last glance at her watch. Twelve minutes to go. Sara ran up the front walk toward the beat-up, old tenement. At full speed, she headed straight for 1G. Standing in front of the door, she took a deep breath. This was it. But just as Sara was about to ring the doorbell, the door flew open. An older black woman with warm eyes stared straight at her. “You’re Sara, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, how’d you—”

“Just got off the phone with your husband. He told me the whole story. That was real nice of you to come up here.” The woman stepped out of the apartment and locked the door. “I don’t mean to run, but I’ve got to get to the hospital.”

“No, I understand,” Sara stuttered. “I’m sorry about your—”

“Ain’t nothing to be sorry about! I may’ve missed the birth, but that doesn’t mean I’m missing the baby!

“Excuse me?”

“She’s not dying, girl—she’s living! Five pounds, seven ounces. Call me grandma!”

A wide smile flushed Sara’s face. “So the woman in the hospital—she’s your daughter?”

“My one and only!” The woman ran down the hallway. “They’ve had her flat on her back for the past month.”

“Tell her congratulations,” Sara said, waving goodbye.

The woman stopped and turned around. “Don’t you want to come?”

Sara’s smile went wider. “You sure?”

She grabbed Sara by the wrist and dragged her along. “Don’t give me that nonsense—you didn’t come all this way not to see this baby. Besides, we gotta think of a name. Something good, too. Something classy. Like Sara.

As they ran to the street, Sara noticed that it was starting to rain. Just like before: warm, sticky, and unexpected. The first thing she did was stick out her tongue.

© Brad Meltzer