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The Call - A Will Starr Short Story
The front window's pane was rimmed in feathery ice as she gazed out at the slowly falling flakes. Harold had always installed the storm windows in the fall, but her frail hands could not manage the chore, and Dale Jenkins, who farmed down the road, was so busy harvesting that she hated to ask him, although she knew he would have put all aside to accommodate her. He was a good neighbor.
They bought the farm after Harold came home from the war. He had flown B-17's over Germany, and had been wounded twice. Unlike many others, he put the horrors behind him, but he kept in touch with his crew and other pilots, and they had annual get-togethers, until Harold was the only one left. Now, he too was gone.
He also left all animosity toward his former enemies behind him, so when two town toughs began to rawhide an old German farmer, Harold intervened. "Mister Ackerman is a loyal American, boys, and the war is over, so you'd best leave him be. Besides, when the bullets were flying over there, I don't remember seeing either one of you heroes." That was the end of that.
One of his wounds had left him sterile, so he offered to let Maggie out of the engagement, but she responded in feigned anger, telling him that he was not getting off the hook that easily. They never had children.
The years flew by, and where some couples drifted apart, they grew closer and closer. The farm was a success, and they found time in the slow winter months to indulge Maggie's travel dreams. They visited some of the same places Harold had bombed all those years ago, and he was gratified to learn that the citizens now placed the blame on Hitler, where it belonged.
Harold also bought a small plane, and they flew all over the United States, seeing the grand things many citizens would never be able to see. Through it all, they remained the sort of lovers that authors struggle to write books about.
They had been married for sixty two years, when one day, he stood at the breakfast table, sipping his coffee. When she waved him to the chair beside her, he smiled and shook his head. "I can't sit, Maggie. I have a pain, way down low. Guess I'd better call on old Doc Massy. "Old" Doc Massy was at least thirty years Harold's junior, but he insisted on calling him old anyway. That was his wry sense of humor.
Doc Massy shook his head sadly, and less than a month later, Maggie buried the only man she had ever loved. He died in their marriage bed with Maggie at his side, and it was just the two of them, as always. His breathing became so shallow, that Maggie thought he might already be gone, but then he opened his eyes and looked around until he found her. She had to bend close to hear his weak whispers.
"I think I'll just hang around here, Mag, until you're ready to go too. I'll make my presence known somehow." His lips formed a small smile, and then he was gone. She thought about calling Greer's mortuary, but decided instead to simply wait until morning. She got up and shut down the house for the night, just as Harold had always done. Then she covered Harold up to his chin, and slid in beside her husband for the last time. His hand was already cool, but she held it anyway as she said her evening prayers alone, for the first time in sixty two years. Then she slept.
That was last February, and despite his promise to 'hang around', Harold was gone for good. She looked for him in the awakening of spring, and throughout the long summer, but no butterfly landed on her head, and no shaft of light peered though the storm clouds to find her. There were no mysteriously banging doors or echoing footsteps in the hall. There was nothing. Harold had failed to stay with her, the first promise he had ever broken, but she knew he was in the best of hands. She had great faith, and Harold had always been a man of God.
Now it was Christmas Eve, and the storm was intensifying, so she got out her oil lamps and candles, lighting one lamp, just in case the power went out. She carried in a bucket of split oak chunks, and lit a fire in the cast iron stove, also just in case. She peered through the window at the Jenkins' farm a mile up the road, but could see nothing but blowing snow. Then the power went out, and the faint ringing began.
At first, in the confusion of the power outage, she did not hear it. But after she lit the lamps and a few candles to push back the gloom, the ringing became noticeable. She was more curious than alarmed, because Harold had the old house phone removed after each of them got a cell phone and learned how to use them. The ringing was not her cell phone, which used the sounds of birds chirping in the rare event that someone called. It was more like a tinkling bell, yet not that either. And it was faint, as if it was far away. It was also vaguely familiar, but she could not place it.
Then it stopped.
Outside, the wind picked up to a low moan, as Maggie put a pan of soup on the wood stove to warm. She carried her lantern to the window and peered out. The snow was now so dense that she could not see the black walnut tree, scarcely fifteen feet away. She took her cell phone out of her pocket and examined it. She had no bars at all. The snow had blocked the signal, as usual. She pulled her shawl tighter and sat next to the warmth of the stove as the first cold fingers of fear gripped her spine. Then the ringing began again.
She listened more intently this time, and realized that it was one long ring followed by two short rings. She got up and began walking from room to room on the first floor. All but the parlor, her bath, and her bedroom were closed off for winter, so the other rooms were frigid in the sub-zero temperatures, and the doorknobs were freezing cold. She had just finished searching the first floor when the ringing ceased.
She sat back down by the stove and looked at her only concession to Christmas. Years before, Harold had bought her a small, porcelain tree that was lit up from the inside by an electric bulb. There were hundreds of small, colored glass bulbs illuminated by the bulb inside the tree. It was dark now that the power was out, but it was beautiful, nonetheless. This was her first Christmas without Harold, who loved the holiday, and that was the sole reason she had put it up. For the first time in her life, she was not in the mood.
She dished her soup from the pot and sat by the stove again. Outside, the storm was now shrieking, and she could hear the windows rattling. The soup tasted good, and it warmed her. As she emptied the bowl, the ringing began again.
The second floor was also closed off, but Maggie was now more curious than cold, so she opened the door to the dark staircase and began to climb.
The ringing was now louder, but seemed to come from no particular direction, so she walked the hall, opening one door after another to no avail. At last, she stood at the door leading to the attic, the one place she had always feared to go. The stair was narrow, steep, and dark. Harold had taken her up there once, but it was cluttered with musty old relics, so she never returned. He loved old antiques, but she did not. Now, she was an old antique. The thought made her smile.
The ringing stopped again.
Maggie put more wood in the stove, enjoying the heat. She fetched more from the pile in the mud room, and stacked it by the wall. She had plenty to last her until morning, and enough in the mud room to last a week. The ringing began again, but she ignored it. She was not about to climb into the dark attic in the middle of a blizzard on some fool's quest.
She sat and reflected on the past while the storm raged outside. Harold had been eighty seven when he passed and she was now eighty five. They had never been rich and they had never had children, but still, it had been the best of lives, with the lasting love and devotion so many today were unable to find. They had worked at love. They had worked hard.
The ringing began again, but she ignored it again. At last, she dozed off.
The chill woke her, and she put more wood in the stove. In the attic, the ringing began again, but this time it seemed louder and more insistent. At last, curiosity overcame her fear and she ascended the stairs once more. She hesitated at the door to the attic for a moment, but finally opened it and peered up in the darkness. She began to climb the cold, creaking stairs.
She hung the lantern on the hook at the top of the stairs and used both hands to lift the trapdoor. She was rewarded with falling dust and a blast of cold air. Above her head, she could hear the wind rattling on the tin roof. They had always enjoyed the sound of summer rain on that metal roof, but now, it sounded menacing.
The ringing was now loud, and as she lifted the lantern to have a look, she realized why the sound was oddly familiar. It was emanating from the old crank telephone that was on the kitchen wall when they first bought the farm, and the one long ring followed by two short rings was their old party line ring, telling them that a call was for them. However she could plainly see that the frayed old wires were not connected to anything, so how could it be ringing? She sat on an old chair and stared at the phone sitting on the dusty table in front of her. At last, she reached for the earpiece, and put it to her ear.
"Hello Maggie, my love."
The voice was beautifully melodic, like a fine violin or a golden wind instrument. It was the voice of a heavenly being, perhaps an angel.
But she knew instantly it was Harold. She was speechless.
"Are you there, Maggie? I've been calling all night!"
The cold and storm were forgotten. "Yes, yes, I'm here! Harold? Is that really you?"
"We can call anyone we want, Maggie, but it is just so beautiful and serene here, most folks don't want anything to do with the former life. The joy is beyond belief."
"The only Earthly joy I had that came close to this paradise was loving you, Maggie, so I decided to call you tonight. We celebrate the birth and life of Christ here every day and eternally, but I thought this would be a good day to tell you that the best part is still ahead of you and that you and I will soon be together for all time."
She nodded, tears streaming down her face.
"I miss you so, Harold."
The voice grew gentle and soft. "I knew you held me even after I was gone that night, Maggie. I will hold you the same gentle way when it's your time, and then I will present you to the Prince. I must go now, but you and I will be together forever when the time has come. I love you, Maggie."
"I love you too, Harold." The line was dead.
Maggie picked up the lantern and started to leave. Then she hesitated, and picked up the old telephone too, placing it under her arm. Carefully, she descended the stairs.
For a long time, she sat by the warm fire, her hand idly caressing the old phone standing beside her on the floor. She smiled through her tears as the storm raged outside. She was finally at peace with herself and the world.
At last, the fire died down, and she became chilled. She rose to put more wood on the fire and then hesitated. Slowly, she put the wood back on the pile and sat back down. Smiling, she began to rock and hum Harold's favorite hymn.
The two men gazed solemnly down at the small, still figure who seemed to be napping in her rocking chair. Only the telltale blue of her skin revealed the truth.
"Can't figure it out Sheriff. She had plenty of wood to hand, so maybe she had a heart attack or something."
The sheriff's deputy nodded, his breath plainly visible in the frigid air. "Hard to say, Dale. It was near forty below last night, so maybe she just got too cold to function. It's still barely above zero."
Dale Jenkins shifted his feet. "I guess I should have checked in on her earlier, but I couldn't see twenty feet in front of me for the snow last night. Say, what is that thing beside her?"
"It's one of those old crank phones. Maybe she was going to burn it for heat. Hell, it probably hasn't worked in sixty years."