It happened on a Tuesday.
Willa and her sister, Paula took their children to the local aquarium during school vacation. The two older ones ran herd on the youngest as they watched sharks and stingrays. Paula recounted her latest adorable story about her little one's newest accomplishment while Willa listened with amused fondness. Willa's phone buzzed. In exasperation at the interruption, she dug it out of her purse, believing it to be her husband again asking for pictures. She already sent him some twice.
The readout on the face of her phone caused her to freeze.
“What is it?” Paula asked. “Naughty pictures from your husband?”
“No,” Willa answered distractedly. “He wouldn't. It's someone calling from Angie's phone.”
“Angie?” Paula repeated, startled. “As in our cousin Angie?”
Willa nodded slowly. “What do I do?”
“Are you afraid it's actually her on the line?” Paula teased.
“Yes!” Willa answered, agitated. The phone announced for the final time and then stopped.
“Maybe she'll leave a message from beyond the grave,” Paula speculated in an eerie voice. “Willa, save me.” Paula laughed when her sister smacked her on the arm. “You're into all that ghost stuff.”
“Ghosts appearing, yes,” Willa agreed grumpily. They shifted to follow their children to the penguins exhibit. “I know of ghosts talking to people in person or usually in dreams. Not calling on their old cell phone. Which by the way, should be disconnected, since they died ten years ago!”
“Did it occur to you the number could have been kept by someone in the family. Maybe that's who's calling you?”
“Logical,” Willa allowed. “Someone who knows me and my cell number? It's a stretch, but believable.”
Her phone vibrated again to let her know the caller left a message.
“Play it,” Paula encouraged. “I want to know who it is.”
“I don't,” Willa objected. “I'm still freaked out.”
“You really do think it's Angie!”
“I think someone could want me to think so. What if they set it up with recordings of her voice to make it sound like Angie? I've seen movies where they do that to make people think they're going crazy.”
“Two things,” Paula offered, holding up her first finger to emphasize. “One, you're already crazy. And two,” her second finger joined the first, “no one thinks about you that much to target you with such an elaborate prank.”
“You can always count on me for the bare naked truth. Now play the message!”
Willa reluctantly went to her voicemail box and queued up the thirty second message left by someone using Angie's number. She pressed the speaker icon and adjusted the volume so they could both hear. Then she pressed play.
“Hey, Will! What's up? I wanted to see if you'd have dinner tonight. I'll be in town. Let me know. Okay? Love you.”
Angie's voice, clear as a bell, smooth as glass, sounding as if she were actually just calling to set a dinner date. Willa shivered hard. Paula recoiled from the phone.
“What was that?” Paula whispered, shakily, visibly upset.
“That was what I was worried about,” Willa grouched, not too steady herself. “Someone wants to mess with me and they're using our dead cousin to do it.”
“That's sick,” Paula determined, swallowing hard.
“If it's just a prank, it's in seriously bad taste,” Willa agreed. “But if it's meant maliciously, the questions are simple. Who despises me enough to want to hurt me like this? And how would they get a hold of Angie's recorded voice?”
“Could she still be alive?” Paula speculated. Willa looked at her sideways.
“It was an open casket,” Willa reported, as Paula nudged her sister to follow the kids to the interactive starfish exhibit. “I was there, remember? She died. I guarantee it.”
“You know why I didn't go. After what she did to you, I had no reason to drive five hours to Connecticut to pretend sorrow over her. She betrayed you. She was already dead to me. I know you felt the same way.”
“To some degree,” Willa admitted, grudgingly. “But I missed her. When she died, I missed her more. Even though I knew I couldn't put myself through her betrayals anymore, there was always the chance she'd change. We could have gotten another try at being friends. Her death ended that.”
“You would have been friends with her again?” Paula asked in disappointment.
“Maybe,” Willa speculated. “I always hoped someday she'd change.”
“You're more forgiving than I,” Paula commented.
“Tolerance isn't the same as forgiveness, Paulie,” Willa explained. “I can put up with a lot. That doesn't mean I don't grudges.”
“What are you gonna do about this call?”
“I don't know,” Willa wondered. “Should I go to the police?”
“What are they going to do?” Paula demanded with a snort of dismissal. “They'll just treat it as a prank.”
Willa sighed. “Let's put this on hold and get our kids lunch.”
“Good idea, actually,” Paula concurred. “I think I just saw Kara trying to eat a starfish.”
On the drive home from the aquarium, Willa received the second call.
The temptation to answer it was strong, but they had all three kids in the car. That made it a very bad idea. She let the buzzing call go to voicemail. Paula glanced away from the road to look at her.
“What was that?” she asked, suspiciously.
“What you think it was,” Willa replied. “Should I try calling back when I get home?”
“Why would you do that?” Paula demanded worriedly. “What if she answers? What are you going to say? 'Who is this?' We both know what that answer will be. Don't engage this psycho.”
“If it's just her recorded voice, then they won't be able to answer every question,” Willa argued. “They can't have a preprogrammed response for everything I say.”
“At least do it on speaker with Clive there,” Paula insisted. “Your husband won't let anyone mess with you.”
“That's a good idea,” Willa said with a nod.
“Ask her why she did what she did with your ex-husband all those years ago,” Paula suggested snidely, aware of little ears within hearing. “I'll bet there's no preprogrammed response for that one.”
“Oh, I'm sure the generic, 'I'm sorry' fits for someone who's trying to play me. But I really don't care why. Even though I hated him, he was still my husband. I was faithful. He should have been, too. She never should have even thought of doing what she did. That's not something a person can explain away.”
“No, it's not,” Paula agreed gently. “I didn't mean for it to sound that way.”
“It's not you,” Willa excused in frustration. “This brings up so many mixed memories for me.”
Paula nodded with understanding and sympathy.
For the remainder of the drive, they discussed other subjects, but the call nagged at Willa until she felt worn down when they arrived home. Her daughter went straight to bed and Willa cornered her husband, explaining what happened. She played the eerie first message for him and then played the second for them both.
“Look, Will, I get it. It's been a long time since we've talked. You might not want to see me. But I'm going through a lot right now. I don't know if you heard, but Rick died. He overdosed on something. I just need a friend.”
Willa stared at her phone. “It's her tone, her cadence. I don't know how they managed it. I have to call my mom.”
“Why?” Clive asked lightly. “You gonna tell her Angie's alive?”
“No. I need to find out if Rick really o.d.'ed. This is getting really specific.”
Willa dialed her mother and the woman picked up right away. After the typical greetings, Willa asked about Rick.
“Oh, yeah,” her mom answered. “Did I forget to tell you? He died from a drug overdose. He struggled his whole life and drugs finally took him. It's pretty horrible. They had the funeral in Wisconsin, so it's not like we could go or anything. I guess I didn't really think it would be a very big deal to you. You weren't close. For you, it was always Angie.”
“How did you learn about it?” her mom wondered. “Did Patty call you too?”
“No, a friend of Angie's told me,” Willa exaggerated. “It was just out of the blue.”
“Oh, okay then. How's my princess?”
“Great. I saw all three of your princesses today. We went to the aquarium and now I have to but my daughter a small shark as a pet.”
“What?!” her mother shrieked.
“I'm kidding, Mom. They had a really fun time and Isabella brought home a stuffed shark.”
Willa spoke to her mom for a few more minutes before she finally wished her goodnight.
“So is it true?” Clive asked as soon as she was off the phone. He drew his attention away from his video game to look at his wife. “Is the guy really dead?”
“Yes, exactly like the voicemail said,” Willa confirmed. “I think I should call the number back.”
“Why?” Clive questioned. “You know it's a hoax.”
“If I agree to meet them, maybe I can find out who's behind this,” Willa ventured. “I have to try.”
“You're not going alone,” he stated.
“I figured as much. I'm gonna put the call on speaker. You can jump in if you feel you need to.”
“You're doing this now?” he inquired surprised.
“I need to get it over with,” she explained.
Willa put the phone on speaker and hit the number for Angie. It dialed and rang.
“Willa!” Angie's voice came across the line. “Thank you so much for calling me back. I wasn't sure you would.”
“Well, I would've picked up earlier, Ang, but...” Willa paused and then blurted, “...you're dead, honey.”
“Don't say things like that,” Angie's voice pleaded with hurt. “I know what I did was unforgivable and I don't expect you to want me back in your life. I just need you right now.”
“Okay,” Willa said slowly. “How do I go about meeting a ghost, Ang? Can you explain that to me?”
“Just, come to Haptown's tomorrow at five for dinner and drinks. I only want to talk.”
“Where will you be sitting?” Willa pressed.
“At the bar,” Angie's voice promised. “Do you need a rundown of what I'll be wearing, too?” There was a bit of humor in the tone.”
“I won't be able to see you anyway, since you're dead, Angie,” Willa asserted again. “But I'll come. I'm bringing Clive as well.”
“Oh,” the voice sounded disappointed. “Can he sit a few chairs away so we can girl talk for a little while?”
“We'll worry about it tomorrow,” Willa answered wryly. “I have no idea how you think this is going to work. I'll wait fifteen minutes for you, Ang. That's it. When I still can't see your ghostly form, I'm going home. Or, hey, Clive and I will have dinner together in a booth.”
“I swear, I'll be there,” Angie's voice promised. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Sure.” Willa ended the call and looked at her husband. “What did you think?”
“That's a person,” he said bluntly, “There's no way those are choreographed responses. Someone was speaking to you in Angie's voice. I don't know if it's a voice changer or an imitator, but that was a person.”
“And that person is going to show up tomorrow with some sort of agenda,” Willa surmised. “I have no idea what I did to deserve this.”
“Whoever it is, they know Angie. They know she had an affair with your ex-husband and it ruined what was a very close relationship between you two. Who has access to that information?”
“Her two living siblings. Maybe her dad. Her mom's dead. Her nieces and nephews, although why they would care I don't know. Her ex-husbands are both dead. There are her two daughters and a son. I don't know who else. She got around, you know that.”
“Would you recognize any of those people?” Clive wondered.
“Siblings, yes. Dad, probably. One niece and nephew, yes, but the other two, no. Her daughters, probably, but not her son. What if it's none of these?”
“Well, if it becomes a hassle, we involve the cops.”
“Paula said they won't do anything about it.”
“Maybe not,” Clive agreed. “But I think phone harassment is still a federal offense.”
“Okay,” Willa said, sighing. “You and me tomorrow. We'll see what we see.”
“And eat,” he slid in, silkily. “You promised me dinner.”
Five pm came fairly quickly the next day. Willa felt rather nervous. She had no idea what she expected to find, but some part of her thought she's see someone dressed up to look like Angie. It put butterflies in her stomach.
They arrived at the restaurant precisely on time in order to minimize their wait. They didn't wish to give their tormenter the satisfaction of seeing them sit and squirm a moment longer than they must. Willa led the way over to the bar and as she got closer, she slowed, catching sight of a recognizable head of blonde curls. She grabbed Clive's arm.
The woman must have sensed her, she turned around and smiled, rising from her bar stool. She motioned for the two of them to join her.
“Clive,” Willa pleaded in a choked voice.
“It's not her,” he answered. “It has to be one of her daughters.”
Willa took the final steps forward to stand beside the living embodiment of Angie's ghost and found herself enveloped in a warm embrace. It was a hug which stirred familiarity and Willa found herself hugging back.
“It's so good to see you,” the false Angie gushed. “It's been too long.”
“And you haven't aged a day,” Clive said snarkily from behind his wife. “In fact, being dead actually gives you a youthful appearance. So which are you? Terry or Grace?”
He threw out the daughters' names to garner some sort of reaction from the stranger, but it didn't phase her. The false Angie wrinkled her forehead the tiniest bit and said, “I'm Angie, Clive.”
She grabbed her purse from the bar and dug out her wallet. She pulled out her license and handed it to him. Willa peered over his shoulder as her read it. The information looked official. It confirmed who she said she was, her correct birthdate and year, and an address in Connecticut.
“No,” Willa stubbornly shook her head. “I went to your funeral. We went to your funeral. We saw your body. Angie is dead.”
The false Angie sighed. “Why do you have to make this so difficult?” she asked. “Why can't you just accept it's me?”
Willa had a strange moment of clarity. “You're Terry. You were devastated when your mom died. I tried to talk to you and you dismissed me. There were pictures of your mother and I all over the place. She must have spoken about me a lot. You probably hated me for showing up to her funeral like I did. I'll bet you thought I had a lot of nerve. Your mother was the one who caused the rift between us, not me.”
“She made a mistake,” Terry spat, unintentionally revealing herself. “You couldn't just forgive her and move on, after everything you'd been through together.”
“Everything,” Willa murmured, pleased to have uncovered the truth. “Like when we were eleven and she told everyone how I wet the bed. Or when we were sixteen, she told everyone at the religious school we attended I was a lesbian and I was almost expelled. Then, she came to live with me in California when I first got married and I walked in on her and my husband having foreplay. Or when she left California and stole my things and my credit card, charging hundreds of dollars worth of things. Is that what you meant?”
“She wouldn't do those things,” Terry hissed angrily, defensively.
“You knew her,” Willa said gently. “When she couldn't handle being a mom, she left you with your step-dad and moved in with a new boyfriend. She didn't even die with family at her side. She betrayed you in the end.”
Terry started to cry. “I found some of her diaries,” she confessed. “She loved you so much. She missed you everyday you were gone from her life. She tried to move on, but she needed you in her life and you ignored her.”
“Yes,” Willa admitted, laying a soothing hand on Terry's arm. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. Because the truth is, I loved her, too. Despite everything she did to me. I wanted her back. But she wasn't good for me. She hurt me too many times.”
Terry threw herself into Willa's arms and clung to her while her tears fell. She tried to compose herself. When she finally got a handle on her emotions, she backed away. “I'm sorry I tried to hurt you like this.”
“Have a seat, Terry,” Willa offered. “Let's a drink and some dinner. I'll tell you all the good things I knew about your mom.” She and Clive took stools next to Angie's daughter at the bar.
“Save room for dessert though. It's gonna be a long night.”
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