Sometimes bad news comes enclosed in such frightening packaging that, when unwrapped, it almost feels like good news. Such was the experience of a friend of mine this past week, who was woken by the insistent buzzing of a cellphone by her bed. Texts were arriving, one after the other, bzzz bzzz bzzz.
"We need to talk ASAP," said the first.
"It's urgent," said the second.
"I have to see you today, please," said the third.
My friend raised herself on an elbow and tried to gather her wits. The texts were coming from a woman she knew only casually. Their young teenage sons were pals; in fact, the other mother had taken both boys on a weekend trip to Rehoboth over the summer. Everyone had come back sunburned and happy; it had been "a pleasure having your son along," she and her husband had been told.
Since then, there had been no contact between the parents, and since the boys now went to different schools, they had not seen each other, either. What could be so urgent? Was someone in trouble? Had her son -- no, he wouldn't, surely -- posted something awful on Facebook?
The other woman answered her phone immediately, but she was harried and evasive.
"I can't talk now."
"What's up? You said it was urgent."
"I'm not going to talk about it on the phone. I need to see you in person."
"What --? Oh my goodness, OK, but, listen, you've got to tell me, does this have something to do with the boys?"
The woman's voice was curt, as if she had been the one woken by frantic texts before her alarm had gone off.
"The boys are fine."
"Then, what on earth --"
"Sorry. That's just going to have to be enough for you."
My friend hung up her phone with a feeling of dread pulsing along her limbs. She scarcely knew this woman, she didn't have the remotest idea what the problem could be and the peremptory tone the other woman had taken seemed to signal something ominous.
Her phone buzzed. It was another text.
"I will meet you at your house in ten minutes," it said.
Instantly, my friend's guilty anxiety was swept away by a gust of anger. Who was this person, that she should order her around, sending panicky, aggressive messages and then refusing to discuss their content?
And who was she, herself, that she should rearrange her morning on the high-handed command of a near-stranger? Swiftly, she texted back: "Out this morning, but home after noon."
She felt better as she pressed "send," only belatedly realizing that she had now guaranteed that she'd spend the better part of a beautiful autumn Monday in agonized suspense.
Hours passed. Her stomach gnawed and contracted with worry -- she had spun herself every possible horrific narrative -- and when the other woman's tires crunched up her long driveway, it brought a jolt of adrenaline.
"Well?" she said, when finally face to face with her tormentor. "What was so important that you could not even mention it over the phone? What has my son done?"
"It was both our sons," the woman said. "I didn't tell you at the time, but last summer at the beach, the boys took a six-pack of beer from the fridge."
My friend looked at her blankly. "Beer?"
"Yes," said the text-happy parent. "And they drank it."
This? This was the cause of a day soaked with sick apprehension? That two 14-year-olds had made off with a six-pack and consumed it? My friend did not condone what they'd done, of course; it was wrong and silly and the boy would be punished, but she could have laughed with relief.
"Thank you for this information," she said. It didn't seem worth making a fuss about the texts now; it was better to salvage the last of what had been a very pretty day.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.