The Lonely Whisper

A fictional short story by Cynthia Seer.

Emma brushed her shoulder length brown hair from her face as she browsed each item on the store shelf. An old pipe sat propped against an equally old lighter that reminded her of the period movies her Nanna used to watch. Some beautiful yet helpless girl in a big poofy dress seemed to always be gliding across Nanna’s television screen each time Emma stopped by. A dapper man twice the girl’s age would no doubt be following close behind with a pipe in one hand, hoping to benefit from the young lady’s daddy issues and large dowry. It might have seemed an odd choice for Emma to go antiques shopping as a way of remembering her grandmother but this felt just as natural as breathing to Emma.

This was her Nanna’s first heavenly birthday and antiques shopping is exactly what they would’ve been doing if she were still here with Emma. They sometimes didn’t even buy anything. Nanna would point out pieces that she recognized and recount an experience she had with said item. Some of Emma’s best memories were antiques shopping with her Nanna. They’d been doing it since she was a girl. Every now and then, they would stumble upon something that Nanna just had to have because it reminded her of her parents or some special time in her life. Because of this, Nanna’s house tended to be filled with antiques. Emma had always loved to go there. Unfortunately, the house and most of the things in it were sold off shortly after Nanna’s passing last year. Emma enjoyed walking through these old stores, looking for things that reminded her of Nanna.

There was a beautifully maintained Raggedy Andy doll in a doll sized rocking chair just past the old pipe that brought Emma right back to her childhood. She smiled widely as she slowly passed it, thinking of the one that had been in Nanna’s library room for all the grand kids to play with. She might have bought it, too, if Raggedy Andy hadn’t been ruined for her by Ed and Lorraine Warren and their stories of a possessed doll just like it. Toy cars and trains were displayed next to the doll, the kind that were made completely of metal. They just don’t make toys like they used to, Emma thought. Then, she realized she’s a mid twenty something woman going antiquing by herself on a Saturday afternoon while making note of the superior quality of older toys. She chuckled out loud. If Nanna could see her right now, she would laugh, too.

Turning down the next isle, Emma found herself face to face with an old rotary phone. Most people her age wouldn’t have encountered one of those in their childhood but Emma had fond memories of the one her Nanna kept in the hallway of her home. Emma used it throughout her childhood to call home or her friends. It was even a similar dirty beige color. Emma put a finger in the number seven opening of the round dial and pulled the number to the metal stopper as if she were calling home to ask mom for some night clothes. The shop’s slightly dusty and aged smell added to the memory and a single tear formed in the corner of Emma’s eye. She felt like she could pick up the receiver just then and hear Nanna’s voice, as if Emma were a ten year old girl again.

Before she knew it, Emma was picking the phone up and turning it over to search for a price. Nanna would definitely have called this a ‘rare find’ that ‘needed’ to come home with her. Priced at fifty dollars, Emma decided she was willing to pay that for the phone and carried it lovingly in her arms as she finished walking the isles of the small shop. She felt sure her Nanna might have protested the price and declared that back in her day, a phone like that was no more than fifteen dollars at the local department store. They would’ve had a spirited discussion about the rising cost of living and she would’ve talked of being the first family on her street to own a television when she was a child.

By the time Emma reached the cashier of Bygone Treasures, her eyes were watery and her cheeks were slightly flushed.

“Find something you like?” the kind sounding older woman said through a knowing smile. The woman looked as though she needed no answer to her question so Emma simply smiled back in response. This lady probably saw this sort of reaction all the time, Emma reasoned. Embarrassing herself further with a reply choked with emotion didn’t seem necessary.

“That’ll be thirty five dollars, dear.” the old woman said.

“I think it said fifty on the sticker.” Emma corrected, not wanting to take advantage of the woman.

“It does indeed,” she said, “but we give a discount for tears of joy.”

Emma could no longer hold back her tears. She didn’t fully sob but several tears fell, in contrast to her words which refused to escape her lips. She nodded a humble thank you while pulling a tissue from her purse along with her wallet. The woman, who was several decades her senior, smiled and acknowledged her gratitude.

“It’s easy to see this old phone means a lot to you. I know you’ll cherish it more than the last owner. Can you believe I found it in a dumpster down the road? People have no respect for antiques these days.” the old woman said. Emma appreciated the woman’s attempt to calm her with small talk, especially since it was working. The lump in her throat began to shrink and she managed to agree with the woman’s assessment of people these days. Her Nanna was fond of using that phrase so Emma felt right at home.

“It really takes me back to my grandmother’s house and the rotary phone she had in her living room hallway.” Emma finally managed to say. “It was even a similar color. I’m glad you rescued it from the trash.”

The woman smiled at her as she said, “It was meant to be, wasn’t it?” Emma took the plastic bag with her rotary phone wrapped in paper and smiled back at the woman. Nanna would’ve liked her, Emma thought.

Even though there were more antique stores on this strip of the town square, Emma decided it was time to head home. As much as this experience had been a positive one, she still felt exhausted by the release of emotions and wanted to veg out in front of the TV for a bit. Maybe she’d watch The Red Shoes staring Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook, one of Nanna’s favorite movies. This was Nanna’s birthday, after all. A day to remember all of the good times they’d had together.

Emma walked in the front door and went straight to the corner hutch of her living room. She knew just the spot she wanted this old rotary phone to live in. It looked great on that shelf in the corner of the room, almost like it was on display in a museum. The hutch was lit so each shelf had its own light source, which accented the phone perfectly. There was no need to worry about wires connecting to the phone, either, since she didn’t intend to ever actually use it. She didn’t even have any cords for it, anyway. It was just the base and its corded receiver. Quite the relic in her very modern looking apartment. Nanna would’ve chuckled at that.

Standing over a large kettle while popping popcorn on her stove top, Emma was once again reminded of her Nanna. But this time it was because her grandpa would always pop popcorn on Sunday afternoons for them to enjoy while watching movies or playing card games. It wasn’t just her Nanna that she missed, although Grandpa had left them many years before. She liked to imagine that he’d been waiting for Nanna all this time and, now that they’re together again, they are happily watching over her from where ever it is that people go when they die. Although Emma wasn’t very religious, her grandparents were. Where ever they ended up, heaven or otherwise, she at least hoped they were together. She chose to believe they were.

The popping sound of the corn in her pot had grown to a constant roar now that the oil was nice and hot. Strangely, Emma could’ve sworn for a moment that she heard an old ringtone go off in the background, just below all of that popping. She stilled herself for a moment and listened but didn’t hear it again. It didn’t sound like her smartphone’s ringtone. The popping must’ve played a trick on her ears. That had to be it, she thought. After all, she’d only heard it once.

By the time she’d convinced herself that no phone had rang, her popcorn was done and it was time for salt and butter flakes. She tossed everything in a giant metal bowl and made herself a smaller bowl to eat from on the couch. The Red Shoes was already waiting on the TV, paused at the beginning scene. With her bowl of popcorn in her lap and a root beer on the coffee table coaster, Emma settled in and pressed play. The movie filled her with all the childlike wonder she’d felt as a kid watching it for the first time. Ballerinas danced across the screen and drama played out between the characters. Even though she’d seen it a hundred times, the movie still pulled tears from her eyes toward the end. She breathed deeply and blotted her eyes as the ending credits rolled.

The world was dark outside her window now. Dinner time was upon her but she didn’t feel much like eating. Still, she made herself eat a turkey sandwich and drink some water. Nanna would’ve warned her against letting popcorn and soda sit in her belly without any real food to go with it. Of course, Grandpa would’ve asked if she wanted neapolitan ice cream to go with it. She loved and missed them dearly. It felt good to spend a day remembering them.

Emma had work in the morning so she got a quick shower and headed to bed. Her alarm would go off at six am sharp and it wouldn’t care if she went to bed at a decent hour or not. Her work wouldn’t care about that, either. Those checking and savings accounts weren’t going to open themselves, you know. People liked their personal banker to be bright eyed and bushy tailed, or so her branch manager always reminded them. The woman meant well and she wasn’t necessarily a mean woman but she was strict and didn’t take kindly to tardy employees.

Emma’s mind drifted to her grandparents home, entering through the back door like she had a thousand times before. Each step into the house was still as vivid as when she was just a girl, yelling for her Nanna as soon as she cleared the doorway and then running toward the loving voice answering her. Before long, she was dreaming, about what – she wasn’t sure. It was likely some childhood adventure in Nanna and Grandpa’s home but Emma wasn’t particularly skilled at remembering her dreams.

A noise woke her abruptly and she reached for her phone, assuming it was her alarm. When the sound pierced the silence again, she actually picked up her phone instead of blindly poking it to turn off the alarm. Surely, she must’ve missed the snooze button on her smartphone. But, no. Her phone hadn’t gone off. It read one minute after three in the morning. Odd. The sound rang out again and Emma sat bolt upright in bed. It was a phone. An old phone. The clanging ring echoed for a moment after it stopped, like the bell needed a moment to stop vibrating from the hammer striking it. For a moment, she’d forgotten all about her ‘rare find’ from the antiques store and couldn’t imagine where the sound might be coming from. Another ring shook the night and she realized there was only one item in her apartment that could make that particular noise. But it wasn’t hooked up. Hesitantly, she climbed out of bed and threw on her robe. Ring. How long had it been ringing at this point? Every ring caused her to jump, even though she knew another was likely coming. Rounding the corner and entering her living room, she was actually looking at the phone when it rang this time. She could faintly make out the vibration the ringing mechanism caused each time it sounded. It literally shook as it rang. There was no mistaking it.

Maybe she was still dreaming, she reasoned. Sleep walking wasn’t something she had experience with but maybe this was a case of sleep walking. Could you hallucinate while sleep walking, she wondered? Another ring. How long was it going to do that?

“Should I answer it?” Emma said out loud. It rang again and seemed even louder than the previous rings as if it were answering her question. Yes, you should answer me, the phone was insisting. She moved closer to answer the damn thing, even though that made absolutely no sense.

“Hello?” she whispered into the receiver, her hand shaking a little.

“Hello.” something whispered back. She nearly dropped the phone. The pure shock of hearing an answer was almost enough to send her running back to her bed like a child who’s afraid of the dark. “Please don’t hang up.” it said, as if it knew she wanted to flee.

“Who is this?” she stammered.

“I’m lonely. I just wanted to talk to someone.” it said, still in a whisper that foiled any hope she had of recognizing a voice.

“I won’t talk to you if you don’t tell me who you are.” Emma demanded.

“I don’t know. I’m just lonely. Won’t you talk to me?” it replied.

“How did you get this phone to work?” she asked, sounding panicked as she picked up the phone with her free hand to confirm it wasn’t attached to anything. It wasn’t. No cords. No wires. Just holes where those things should’ve been. Emma was dumbfounded but still holding the receiver up to her head for some reason.

“You seem like such a kind person. Are you a kind person?” the whisper asked.

“This isn’t happening. I’m hanging up.” she said, unable to comprehend anything the whisper was saying to her.

“Stay still.” the whisper said. It somehow managed to sound demanding even though it was a mere whisper. She stopped in mid motion and raised the receiver back up to her ear. A dizzy feeling overtook her for a moment and she thought she might fall over.

“I’m lonely and I want company. Do you want company?” it asked.

“I do.” she said, sounding a bit dreamy and distant. She knew she wanted to go back to her room, back to her warm and safe bed, but somehow couldn’t make her legs move. She still held the phone in one hand with the receiver in the other and sat down right where she stood. She didn’t know why. It just seemed like a good thing to do right in that moment.

“We can be friends. We can never be lonely again. Would you like that?” the whisper asked. Each hushed syllable pierced her mind ever so gently, digging slowly into her psyche like static from a television after all the channels have stopped their broadcasts.

“I think so.” she answered. Emma was struggling to keep focused on what was happening. The more it whispered to her, the more she wanted it to whisper to her. Nanna’s voice interrupted her jumbled thoughts and echoed clearly in her mind.

“Sweetheart. Hang up the phone.” Nanna’s voice said. She didn’t sound angry but she did sound as if she were giving Emma sound life advice, as if they’d been talking and this was what Nanna thought she should do about a problem she was having.

“Go to your kitchen, friend.” the whisper instructed. “Go to your kitchen and we can talk more.” Why, Emma thought. But even as she was wondering why she should go to her kitchen, her body was standing and her legs were following the whispered instructions.

“Hang up the phone, Dear.” Nanna’s voice repeated but more insistent now. Emma stopped a few steps short of the kitchen’s threshold. The whispered voice in the phone didn’t like that.

“Go into your kitchen and pick up the pairing knife.” it said. No, it demanded. There was still little substance to the whispered sound but the demand was definitely there. She felt it deep in her gut.

“Emma,” her Nanna’s voice began, “put down the phone.” Although Nanna still sounded calm, she seemed to be insisting a bit more now. Emma twitched slightly as her mind tried to choose a voice to listen to. A headache was developing but she wasn’t aware of the pain just yet, only that something was hurting in her.

“Touch the knife.” the whisper said in a long, drawn out hiss this time. It practically pulled Emma to the counter where the knives were all neatly stuck in their knife block. “Take it into your hand.” it said. Emma put the phone on the counter while still holding the receiver to her ear with the other hand and did as instructed. The dull nightlight in the corner of the kitchen glinted faintly off the blade as she blankly looked down at it.

“Run the blade down your arm, Emma.” the breathy whisper said. Emma started to hold the tip to her arm when Nanna’s voice rang out. She didn’t sound panicked or angry, just demanding but in her always loving voice.

“Now dear, you know Grandpa and I love you very much but we have to go now.” Nanna said.

Grandpa’s deep voice reached through the phone and right into her, causing her to gasp. “It’s time to hang up this phone, baby.” he said. “Hang up this phone and throw it away.” Grandpa finished.

The whisper gave another command but Emma barely heard it. She blinked and realized her eyes hurt, probably from lack of blinking. Her head definitely hurt, like she’d been smacked by a two by four. She lowered the handset of the phone and looked down at the knife in her hand, very confused as to why she was holding it. Then, just as loudly as when she’d had the phone up to her ear, she heard Nanna’s voice in her head.

“That’s a good girl. Hang it up and put it outside, Dear.” her Nanna said. Emma stumbled back a step and then slammed the receiver down on the phone in front of her. The knife made a clank as she nearly dropped it onto the counter and scooped up the phone. Her head was pounding as she stammered outside and threw the phone onto the grass next to her apartment door. She wasn’t even sure why she needed to leave it there but she knew she did need to leave it there.

“We love you, Baby.” Grandpa said.

“Rest now, sweetheart. You’re my favorite person, you know.” Nanna’s sweet voice said, a little softer now. Emma was overcome with emotion. She knew something had just happened and that her grandparents had been there but she was having trouble putting the pieces together. As soon as she got to her bed, she curled up under the covers and went to sleep. No dreams. Just deep sleep. Rest, as Nanna had said.

Emma’s alarm went off and she was surprised to find her phone unplugged from her charger and in a different spot on her table than it normally was. A flood of memories came back to her in a flash and she almost screamed. Had someone called her on that antique phone? Was it her grandparents? No, she thought. It wasn’t them but they were there somehow. She could still smell her Nanna’s perfume. She darted out of her room and into the living room, hoping to see the phone sitting in its rightful place but somehow knowing that she wouldn’t. Even though the realization that the phone was gone should’ve been shocking, it wasn’t. She knew where it was. Passing the kitchen with a knife still sitting out on the counter, Emma swung open the door to her apartment and saw the old rotary phone laying in the grass a few feet away.

Hesitantly, she picked up the phone by its base letting the receiver dangle by its cord as she rushed across the small parking lot toward the complex’s dumpsters. She didn’t care how crazy she must’ve looked or that she was barely dressed in her lacy nightgown. She had to get that phone as far away from her as she could. She sincerely hoped she never heard that echoing ring of a rotary phone ever again.

That whole day was spent in a daze of thinking about the terrible whisper and then remembering her grandparents voices. It had sounded as if they were standing in the room with her. And Nanna’s floral perfume. It lingered in her apartment for days. She’d actually been really sad when she finally couldn’t smell the spring wildflowers scent any longer. That was okay, though. Hearing their voices and feeling their love was something she knew would never fade for as long as she lived.


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