The whispers fly home at dusk, rushing to the castle. They flow through windows and holes in the ceiling and the spaces between collapsed walls, eager to share what they’ve learned since their last gathering. Millions in number, they swish through cold, stone corridors that are damp and crumbling with moss serving as mortar. They converge on the great central hall and find perches on the walls, tucking themselves into gaps in the stone.
The whispers fill up the room until their quiet murmurs grow into a swell of sound that causes a flock of nesting rooks to take flight, cawing their confusion to each other as they search for a new place to roost. Then the whispers finally relieve themselves of their burdens, relating their best news in low, human voices, a world’s worth of secrets spilled into the night.
One whisper, tucked away in the highest, most dilapidated corner of the room, remains silent, withholding its findings. The others take no notice, intent on collecting the scraps of humanity and assembling them into a picture of the world comprised solely of its softly spoken confidences. This whisper listens, absorbing the weight of the others’ secrets until it is filled to bursting and the room begins to fall silent, the others having shared all their information. The picture is, as always, incomplete, the pieces awkwardly fitted, and the whispers draw no conclusion tonight. Soon they begin to leave the way they’ve come, divested of their loads, ready to pick up new ones. The project is never finished.
The whisper in the corner slips through a crack in the wall and whisks away into the night, heavy with collected words and phrases that it is eager to share with its new friend. It flies over the winking lights of towns, the darkness of dense forests, and the blackness of an ocean until it reaches a certain apartment in a certain city. The building is four stories high with several boarded-up windows. A streetlight out front flickers erratically, buzzing like an electric insect. The whisper enters the apartment through a second-story window that has been left open a crack despite the chill of a fall that is slowly turning to winter. It comes to rest on the shoulder of a boy sleeping on a threadbare sofa. The boy sighs, snuggling deeper under his blanket. The whisper absorbs his sigh, then breathes it out, a sigh of its own, and rests.
The whisper met the boy by accident, picking up on a murmur while exiting a room where a local lawmaker had just whispered his frustration with a new bill. The man’s conscience was weighed by the fact that the bill would help people like him while hurting people like the woman to whom he spoke. The woman lit a cigarette and ran her other hand through the bleached-blonde waves of her hair, and the room fell silent for a moment as the man drifted off into a doze. She would let him sleep until she finished her cigarette, the whisper knew from other visits to the room, and then she would put on her robe, wake him, and escort him to the front door. The whisper was unlikely to collect any more valuable information. It slipped through the space between the bottom of the bedroom door and the carpet and was on its way to the front of the apartment when it caught a few faint words coming from the sofa. The whisper was drawing the sounds into itself instinctively before it even comprehended their meaning.
“And then the ninjas fell off the cliff and the pterodactyl swooped down and grabbed one and ripped his head off, and then the apatosaurus told the pterodactyl to stop because killing is bad, but the pterodactyl didn’t listen and the apatosaurus got mad and stomped on the ground. . .”
The whisper had unconsciously moved closer to the voice. It had never heard secrets like this before. They were coming from a small boy lying on the sofa, almost completely hidden by a throw blanket. The whisper eagerly absorbed the fascinating sounds. But then the bedroom door opened, and the boy cut himself off mid-sentence, shrinking back into the cushions. The woman led the lawmaker to the door, her loosely-belted robe gaping as she kissed him goodnight. She walked into the living room and stood over the boy, who didn’t stir. She sighed and brushed the boy’s hair away from his face. Then she went into the bathroom, and soon the sound of running water filled the apartment. The whisper hovered near the boy for several minutes, but he didn’t resume his tale, and the whisper reluctantly slipped out the front door.
It returned the next night, however, having spent the day thinking about the story when it should have been accruing new information, turning the boy’s words over and over inside itself while secrets flew by uncaught. The boy was in the same place he had been the night before, curled up on the sofa, his eyes tightly shut. There were noises coming from the bedroom, but nothing the whisper needed to concern itself with. The whisper waited for the boy to continue the story, to tell what happened to the ninjas and the dinosaurs, but the boy didn’t speak. The whisper examined him from every angle, growing more and more frustrated. It could feel accumulated murmurs, mumbles, and mutters roiling around inside until finally, one rose to the surface, and the whisper spoke. “The apatosaurus got mad and stomped on the ground, and the cliff crumbled—” it said, a perfect recreation of the boy’s words from the previous night.
The boy’s eyes flew open, and he looked around wildly. “Who said that?” he hissed.
“Who said that?” the whisper repeated. Then, dredging the store of whispers it had gathered since the last meeting for something it could use to identify itself, it said, “Shh, not so loud,” in the voice of a woman speaking to an inebriated companion at the back corner of Flanagan’s Pub. As the words left it, the whisper felt a small twinge at the idea of the wasted words, released before they could be put to use for the project.
The boy’s head whipped around, looking for the source of the new voice. “I’m already whispering,” he said.
“—whispering,” the whisper repeated happily. It was having fun, it realized a bit guiltily. Its brethren would be horrified at the waste of precious whispers on the boy, but the whisper needed to hear more of the story, to know what happened in the end.
“What do you want?” The boy seemed frightened, and the whisper searched for something to reassure him.
“It’s okay, no one’s going to hurt you,” it murmured. The woman who had spoken those words to a child had accompanied them with a circular motion of her hand on the girl’s back. The boy’s back was pressed against the sofa, and the whisper had no hands, so it settled for rubbing itself against the boy’s shoulder and neck as it had once seen a cat do.
The boy giggled and said, “Hey, that tickles!” But he seemed to relax a little, and the whisper nuzzled him again, settling against the warm skin of his neck. The boy reached up a hand and tentatively stroked the whisper, then cupped his hands around the shape and held it up at eye level, the small form fitting in one of the boy’s palms. “Why can’t I see you?”
The whisper couldn’t come up with an answer to this one. “That’s just the way it is, hon,” it murmured.
Then the whisper searched itself and emitted a new phrase, this one a mutter from the Foxhole, a few blocks over from Flanagan’s: “Tell me a story, Jim, and maybe we can work something out.”
“My name isn’t Jim.”
The whisper ignored him. “I want a story,” it prompted, a girl-child’s muted plea.
“Okay,” the boy said, and the whisper left his hand to tuck itself against the boy’s side. “The cliff crumbled,” he began hesitantly, “and the apatosaurus started falling down, but the pterodactyl swooped up and pushed him back away from the edge.” He started speeding up, getting back into the rhythm of his story. “And the apatosaurus said, ‘Thanks, I’m sorry I yelled at you before,’ and the pterodactyl said, ‘That’s okay.’ And then a ninja snuck up behind them. . .”
The whisper soaked up the story, feeling the tale’s presence as a pleasant glow twining its way around the other sounds it held. It became so absorbed that it forgot to leave to listen to the latest gossip shared by the CEO in the bedroom.
Weeks later, the whisper still cannot tear itself away from the lure of the boy’s story. It returns night after night, eagerly absorbing each installment of the tale. The whisper has even begun to accompany the boy during the day, going with him to the park, the grocery store, school. Today is Monday, a school day, and the whisper is excited. It loves school, so full of children telling each other secrets and teachers gossiping. It had never been to school before it met the boy. Its downtown domain is comprised of a few darkened parking lots where money is exchanged for powder or pills, several smoky bars where rumblings of discontent occasionally flare up into brief disturbances, and a block of old, falling-down tenements where prostitutes are the indifferent recipients of upper-class pillow talk. School is part of another whisper’s territory, and the whisper must be careful not to be noticed by it during the other whisper’s patrols of the hallways and classrooms.
The whisper is vibrating with joy as the boy steps off the school bus and approaches the school building, the two of them being jostled by other students as the boy climbs the front stairs. The whisper clings to his shoulder and searches the crowd for signs of secrets being told: bowed heads, hands held up to ears, wary glances at passersby.
The boy’s teacher is harsh on whisperers in his third grade class, so the whisper leaves the boy at the door to his classroom and spends most of the school day zipping around the building adding to its repertoire wherever it can, always on the lookout for the school’s whisper. Luckily, the other whisper has a row of houses, a convenience store, a fast food restaurant, and a business complex to visit as well, so it generally only spends a couple hours at the school and the whisper is usually able to avoid it without much difficulty.
At recess, the whisper rejoins the boy on the playground, perching in his hair. The boy holds court in the far corner of the yard, regaling his small audience of five first and second graders with the tale he had told the whisper the previous night, this time varying his tone to build tension and adding extravagant hand gestures. “The allosaurus snuck through the jungle and spied on the ninjas, and there was one girl ninja who it decided to eat, but the pterodactyl and the apatosaurus figured it out and ran to stop him.”
A girl stops him. “What was the girl ninja’s name?” she asks.
The boy thinks for a moment, his forehead wrinkling. “Lucy,” he decides. Then he continues with the story. “But on their way to save Lucy, the pterodactyl got his wing stuck on a branch and it took a long time for the apatosaurus to help him get free, and when they got to the ninjas’ camp, she was gone and lots of the ninjas were dead.” He pauses, then adds, “There was blood everywhere, and lots of the ninjas’ heads were bitten off,” to the acclaim of the boys and the pretended disgust of the girls.
A whistle signals the end of recess, and the children reluctantly disperse to line up with their respective classes. “I’ll have more tomorrow,” the boy promises, grinning shyly.
That night the whisper returns to the apartment after a brief visit to each of its other assigned locations, having picked up a few things at the Foxhole and a few at the parking lot of the all-night diner on 32nd Avenue. It used to relish the work, darting from person to person at the merest hint that a whisper might be about to emerge from barely-parted lips. It almost never lost one. Now it does only the most cursory of collections, gathering just a few hisses and mutters at random before moving on to the next place, anxious to get back to the apartment in time for that night’s installment of the story. The boy has begun to wait for the whisper to return, but sometimes he is asleep by the time it arrives and the frustrated whisper misses a piece, unable to absorb the tale in the more strongly spoken form of the boy’s recess retellings. It hears the words, understands them, but is unable to possess them, to wrap them around itself and turn them over again and again, making them its own.
When the whisper enters through the window, the boy is curled into a ball on the sofa, eyes squeezed tightly shut and fists clenched. His barely-voiced words are tripping along so quickly the whisper can hardly make them out. “One ninja went up to the pterodactyl and the apatosaurus and said, ‘These other ninjas are scared and they want to give up and go home, but I want to help you rescue Lucy.’ And so the apatosaurus told the ninja he could climb onto his back if he promised not to stab him with his sword, and they followed the allosaurus’s trail for days and days but couldn’t catch him.”
Concerned, the whisper flutters around the boy, settling briefly at his head, his shoulder, his wrist, and then around again to different spots. The boy ignores it, continuing his intense concentration on the story. “Then the pterodactyl started flying away from the ninja and the apatosaurus, and he found the allosaurus’s camp. The allosaurus was building a giant fire to cook her on and talking about how delicious she would taste. The allosaurus was stupid and hadn’t tied Lucy up or anything, and she wanted to escape, but she was worried about what the allosaurus would do to the other ninjas if she got away.”
The bedroom door opens, and, as always, the sound of the boy’s voice ceases, but the whisper notices that his lips are still moving, soundlessly forming the words of the story. A man’s booming laughter comes from the doorway. “I’ll be seeing you again soon, Lucy,” the teacher says. He walks into the living room whistling, coat draped over a shoulder. He stops at the sofa and the boy’s eyes squeeze shut more tightly, the movement of his lips unceasing. The teacher ruffles the boy’s hair affectionately. “See you tomorrow morning, Sport. Don’t forget your homework.” He leaves the apartment, shutting the door behind himself, and the whisper hears the sound of muffled crying coming from the bedroom. “Good job, Patrick,” the whisper says soothingly, recalling some words of the school librarian’s. “That was really good.” Then, drawn by the quiet noises it can hear the boy’s mother making, it enters the bedroom.
She is sitting on the edge of the bed, naked, sobbing into a pillow clutched against her chest. After a few minutes, she takes a couple deep, shaky breaths, her crying slowing, and reaches for an oversized blue T-shirt hanging on the back of a chair.
The whisper follows her as she pads into the living room. She is no longer crying, but her face is still red and swollen with tears. She sits on the sofa next to the boy, and he sits up and leans against her. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” the boy says.
They are silent for a few moments, then the boy looks up at his mother. “Will you tell me a story?”
The next day when the boy hands in his homework before the start of class, the teacher says, “Hey, my reminder worked,” and winks. “Yeah,” the boy mumbles, looking down, before returning to his desk. For the rest of the morning, he avoids eye contact with the teacher, but when it’s time for the students to leave the classroom for lunch, the teacher restrains the boy with a hand on his shoulder, smiling at the curious faces of the other children as they pass out of the room. “Tell your mother I need to have another conference with her next week,” he murmurs, voice just low enough for the whisper to absorb it. The whisper has heard thousands of clandestine appointments made, but it is oddly reluctant to keep this one, feeling it as a slimy coil of words that seeps around the stored tale, partially obscuring the story’s brightness. The boy nods and walks to the cafeteria as quickly as he can without being scolded for running in the halls.
He doesn’t relax until he arrives at the corner of the schoolyard, sitting down with his back to a fenced corner. Soon, his audience is assembled and he resumes the story, going over the material he had whispered to himself the night before. Before long, however, he comes to the end of the part of the story the whisper had been able to hear, and his narration trails off. The children look at the boy expectantly, waiting for him to tell them what happens next. He is staring down at his lap, and the whisper, hovering near his twisting hands, realizes that he’s on the verge of tears. The first and second graders are growing discontent as the background babble and shrieks of their classmates filter back into their consciousnesses. They begin to fidget and look behind them at the playground structure where the other children are showing off on the monkey bars or daring each other to jump from swings or pretending to be pirates.
Alarmed, the whisper searches itself for something to tell the boy, some prompt that will allow him to continue. “The ninja,” it begins to whisper into the boy’s ear in his own voice. “—sneaking up behind me!” it continues in a teenaged girl’s hiss. “The allosaurus,” it says as the boy, then an uncomfortable young man muttering, “didn’t see nothing.” Haltingly at first, it assembles broken bits of speech, becoming faster and more confident as it continues, stringing together words and phrases from whispers it’s been hoarding for weeks now. “Lucy—saw him—was so happy—The ninja—stabbed him right in the chest, just missed his heart—The allosaurus—falling-down—Girl ninja—kicked him in the balls, you should have seen his face, it was hilarious—but he wasn’t—dead, you hear?—”
The whisper forgets about the other children until it notices them craning forward, listening. Then it stops abruptly, darting behind the boy where it clings to the back of his sweater, trembling. The sweater seems to be trembling too, but then the whisper realizes that the boy is shaking with laughter.
“What was that?” one of the boys asks, eyes wide.
“My invisible friend.”
“Cool,” a girl says. “My invisible friend is named Kristin. She’s a dolphin. Say hello, Kristin.” She listens intently for a moment. “She says she’s happy to meet everyone,” she informs the others.
The whisper comes out from behind the boy, apprehensive. It’s breaking almost all of the whispers’ rules, but it likes the children. “Hey,” it murmurs. Then the whistle sounds, and the children run off.
“Your story was awesome,” the boy tells the whisper.
It alights on his shoulder, swelling with pride. “Thanks, man.”
The whisper is late to the next meeting, and stars are winking into view in the sky above the castle as the whisper zips in through a window. It rushes through empty passages, hoping to reach the hall before its absence is noted. It had almost forgotten about the meeting, caught up in attempting to help the boy with his geography homework, a task made more complicated, but also more amusing, by the whisper’s communication limits. The boy had been helpless with giggles when the whisper remembered its appointment and rushed out of the apartment with the barest word of explanation. It arrives at the hall to find that all the secrets have already been spilled. The whispers are pushing the secrets around amongst themselves, piecing them together to find the most harmonious arrangement of phrases, the closest fit, the best representation of humanity. They group the collective findings of the whispers by area, content, speaker, and any other category that occurs to them as they work.
The gathered whispers take note of the newcomer and clear a path for it, emanating disapproval of its tardiness. They pause in their machinations in anticipation of its contribution. The whisper trembles as it advances to the middle of the hall’s floor, feeling the weight of its fellow whispers’ expectation. It searches through itself, encountering one treasured secret after another, billions of snatched moments and urgent utterances. Finally, it finds the boy’s story, full of adventure and bravery and friendship, and it remembers all the nights it stood watch over the boy while he created it. It considers releasing the story into the castle along with everything else, doing its duty and emptying itself for the project, and the idea fills it with panic.
The whispers have grown impatient and move restlessly, silently urging the whisper to have done with it and give them what it has so they can finish their night’s work. Maybe this time they’ll figure something out, they think, come up with some new insight that will finally allow them to understand.
The whisper makes its decision. It shoots up to the center of the hall, projecting its defiance. The other whispers are shocked, shifting in confusion, unsure of the meaning of the whisper’s refusal. Silent questions roll through the hall, anxiety spreading from whisper to whisper.
Then the whisper speaks.
“You’re silly,” it says, a phrase taken from the girl with the imaginary dolphin friend. The words are soft, but they echo in the hall, rising above the soft susurration of the accumulated secrets.
The whispers settle back, believing this murmur to be acquiescence, the beginning of the usual outpouring of secrets. But instead of docilely floating to join with the other milling secrets, this one dissolves as it enters the air.
“This is dumb,” it continues.
Slowly, the whispers come to the realization that this whisper is doing the forbidden: it is using its whispers, wasting precious words, any one of which might be the key to the entire project.
“I quit, you hear me? I’m outta here.” The man who had hissed these words out of a car window in a parking lot, throwing a bag of white powder at the stunned associate who had awaited him, had proceeded to peel out of the lot and down the street. Following his example, the whisper begins to ascend, heading toward the roofless top of the hall to escape into the night. The whispers are still for a moment, stunned, then they launch into action, flowing off the walls and rising off the floor to surround the rebellious whisper.
The whispers push in on all sides, constricting movement in an apparent attempt to squeeze the whisper into oblivion. The whisper feels their combined will pressing against it, against its horde of beautiful words, and then, stunned, it feels one slip out. At first only a few mutters get through, gliding away to join the other secrets, but then it is as though the whisper is ripped open, a torrent of words blasting forth to fill the hall, more secrets than the castle has ever seen before, the accumulation of months’ worth of the world’s quiet speech in thousands of languages.
Desperate, the whisper holds onto the boy’s story, frantically clinging to the friendship of the pterodactyl and the apatosaurus, Lucy’s dilemma, and the determined ninja attempting to rescue her. Then that, too, is torn away, vanishing into the seething mass of whispers filling the hall and spilling out into the corridors.
The boy’s mother comes into the living room and sits on the edge of the sofa next to him. She is wearing the fancy nightclothes she never sleeps in, and her lipstick is freshly applied. “Did you finish your homework?” she asks. He nods. “Brush your teeth?” Another nod. “Good boy.” She pulls up the blanket and kisses his forehead, then wipes off the smudge of lipstick her kiss has left behind. “Sweet dreams.” She stands, but the boy grabs her hand before she can walk away. “I love you, Mom,” he says, drawing a startled smile from her.
“I love you too, sweetie,” she replies.
The boy takes a deep breath, gathering his courage. “Mom. . .” he begins, but is interrupted by the doorbell.
“Go to sleep now, hon,” she says, extracting her hand and using it to adjust her bodice.
It’s the teacher again, and the boy, usually so good at ignoring his mother’s nighttime visitors, can’t help but listen to every word that is spoken in the entryway.
“Hello, Lucy,” the teacher says.
“Come on in,” his mother says in the voice she reserves for these occasions, deep and languid. The door closes, and there’s no sound for a few moments. Then the teacher sighs, makes a low chuckle, and asks, “Is he asleep?”
“Yep,” his mother replies, leading the teacher to the bedroom, not allowing him to pause in the living room where the boy is on the sofa concentrating on breathing deeply and regularly.
“A shame,” the teacher says. “I would’ve liked to say hello.”
There is an uncomfortable edge to his mother’s laughter, and in that instant, the boy wants nothing more than to do to the teacher the things the whisper had described in the story. He wants to hurt the teacher, wants his mother to help. Together, they would kick and punch until the teacher promised to leave them alone forever.
Then the bedroom door is closed, and the voices are muffled. The boy’s hands are drawn into fists, his breathing too fast despite his effort to feign sleep. He wishes his friend were there to keep him company, to distract him by continuing the story. They have begun taking turns with the tale, and tonight is the whisper’s turn. It would only be fair to wait for his friend, but the whisper is gone tonight, and the boy’s mind wanders to the tail of the story, where Lucy and her ninja rescuer are running through the jungle with the allosaurus hot on their trail. . .
“The ninja and Lucy ran really fast,” he begins, “but then they got to a cliff and there was no way down and the allosaurus was almost there, and so the ninja turned around and said, ‘Stop!’ The allosaurus was about to bite Lucy’s arm off, but the ninja hit him and he backed off, and the ninja said, ‘Allosaurus, why do you want to eat Lucy?’ and the allosaurus said he didn’t know, she just looked good, and the ninja said, ‘You shouldn’t want to eat people,’ and then he told the allosaurus he would get him a hamburger, and the allosaurus said, ‘Okay, but I’ll hold Lucy hostage until you get back’. . .” As the boy continues speaking, his eyes drift closed, and soon his voice becomes faint and the story fades into a dream.
Hours later, the whisper floats listlessly in a darkened corner of the hall, its brethren still frantically sorting through more information than they have ever collected at once. It is empty, unable to unwind a whisper to voice. It thinks of the boy and his story, their story, and it mourns the loss of the dinosaurs and the ninjas. It mourns dozens of nights spent sitting on the boy’s shoulder while his soft murmurs fill the whisper with bright, exciting words that seem to counter the shadowed, hopeless murmurs it is meant to collect. It is the whisper’s turn to continue the tale, its borrowed phrases that are supposed to add onto the adventure tonight, and it doesn’t even have the wherewithal to tell the boy that he will have to continue alone. The room is overflowing with secrets, words that belonged to the whisper but are now watched over by diligent whisper guards that circle the perimeter, intent on protecting the secrets until they can be dispensed with at the end of the night.
The whisper cannot bear to contemplate its emptiness, so it turns its attention outward. The other whispers are overwhelmed by the influx of secrets that have been unleashed that night. They are frantically attempting to put together the secrets as though they are the pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle, grouping them first one way and then another, constantly shifting and shoving, considering one construction before disassembling it in favor of another. None of them looks quite right, and the pieces never seamlessly fit together.
The whispers are rushing in all directions, herding secrets in their wake, sometimes colliding in their haste to complete the next portrait of humanity, a task, the whisper now realizes, that will never be complete. The whispers can scour the world for its secrets, putting them all in one place and pushing them this way and that, but rather than becoming more clear over time, it only becomes more complex. The whispers set out to learn the secret of humanity, but their understanding has only become more muddled.
The whisper is struck by the futility, the complete lack of a point for it all, and its earlier words rebound within itself: “You’re silly,” it had said. “This is dumb.” It comes to the realization that it can quit if it wants to, but this ludicrous activity will continue without it, millions of beings wasting their lives on a project that will never progress.
A whisper hurtles past, pushing a mumble ahead of it, and the whisper is startled away from its corner and into the midst of the activity, buffeted on all sides by frenetically moving whispers. Unresisting, the whisper is propelled toward the center of the floor, the nucleus of the activity. It can hardly think in the midst of the commotion, and a single word bubbles up within it, crashing around and growing larger and larger until there doesn’t seem to be anything else.
“Stop!” it shouts.
All movement ceases.
Then all the whispers are diving for doorways, windows, and cracks in the walls, fleeing the castle in droves, leaving their accumulated gossip to fade into nothingness.
The whisper is too shocked to do anything about the fleeing throng of the other whispers, too stunned to move. It holds itself perfectly still in the exact center of the floor, savoring the memory of the sound. The word had been beautiful, perfect, spoken in a voice that seemed to combine all the whisper’s favorite voices: the firmness of the bartender at Flanagan’s, the gentleness of the school librarian, the youthful clarity of the boy. Looking deep inside itself, beyond the space where it used to hold secrets, the whisper finds a whole trove of words, every word it’s ever heard spoken, and not just whispers. There are proclamations and speeches, shrieks and exclamations, all waiting for it to use whenever it wants in any combination it chooses.
The whisper laughs, the rich sound echoing in every corner of the hall, then it stops to marvel at the sound of its laughter. Then it laughs again, and the joyous noise of its discovery is carried into the night.
The boy and the whisper sneak back into the school building at recess, leaving their disappointed audience to fend for themselves at the swing set and slide. The boy stands outside the not-quite-shut door to the classroom, the whisper on his shoulder, listening to the teacher’s pen scratch as he corrects the multiplication worksheets the class had completed that morning. The boy is shaking with nerves. The whisper presses itself against the boy’s skin in support. “I’m here,” it says into his ear, the inhuman voice strange and amazing to the boy after weeks of listening to disjointed, pilfered phrases. The boy’s trembling lessens but doesn’t cease. “Pretend you’re the ninja,” the whisper suggests, then pushes gently against the boy’s back. The boy takes a deep breath, thinking of his brave ninja facing down the allosaurus with Lucy at his back, and, determined, he pushes the door open, not bothering to knock.
The teacher is surprised to see him. “Why aren’t you at recess?” he asks.
“I wanted to talk to you,” the boy says as he approaches the desk, the whisper a reassuring weight on his shoulder.
The teacher raises his eyebrows. “Oh?”
The boy takes a deep breath and laces his fingers together to stop them from trembling. “Stop coming to my house,” he says. “I don’t want you to, and neither does my mom.”
The teacher smiles. “Have you spoken to your mother about this? Because I think you’ll find that her opinion is, perhaps, different from what you think it is.”
“No,” the boy says, as firmly as he imagines the ninja would speak when dealing with an adversary. “She hates you.”
The teacher stops smiling. “Nevertheless,” he says in the flat tone he uses to suppress disagreement in class, “I think you should discuss this with your mother before we talk again.”
“No,” he insists, growing angry at the teacher’s easy dismissal. “You need to promise not to come to my house anymore, or I’m going to tell on you.”
The teacher laughs, a short, harsh bark that infuriates the boy even further. “If you ‘tell on me,’ your mother will get into just as much trouble as I do, and you’ll be taken away from her. You’ll probably never see her again. You don’t want that, do you?”
“It might be fun to live with someone else,” he says, putting a hand behind his back and crossing his fingers. He has thought this through and realizes that the teacher needs to believe that he will tell no matter what.
The teacher rises from his chair and comes around the desk toward him. “Come now,” he says, attempting another smile. “You don’t really want to tell on me. How about I make sure you always get to be team captain in gym?” he says, naming the position most coveted by the students.
He reaches for the boy’s shoulder as if to give him a reassuring pat, and the boy dances back out of arm’s length. The teacher lunges, but the boy is too quick, and he’s in the doorway before the teacher can catch him. The whisper emits a low humming noise, which the boy realizes is a growl. He reaches up to touch the whisper with a calming hand, appreciating the sentiment but conveying that he has the situation under control. “If you try to hurt me,” the boy says, returning his full attention to the teacher, “I won’t even have to tell on you for coming to my house. I can just tell on you for that.”
The teacher looks horrified, and the whisper makes a satisfied huff. “No no no!” the teacher says. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, I just want you to understand. . .” He trails off and abruptly falls into the nearest chair, looking absurd in the child-size seat.
“Promise,” the boy demands. “Promise you won’t ever come to my house again.”
“Fine,” the teacher snaps. “I promise.”
“Cross your heart,” the boy says.
For a moment, the teacher looks like he’s going to get up out of the chair and come after the boy despite his promise, and the boy prepares to dash down the hallway toward the principal’s office. Then, looking like he’s just eaten a piece of sour candy, the teacher growls, “Cross my heart.”
The boy starts to leave the classroom and head back to the playground, but stops at the doorway and turns back. “Thank you,” he says solemnly, to the whisper’s exasperation. Then he grins and runs down the hallway at top speed, momentarily forgetting the rule about not running in the school building.
“. . .So the allosaurus learned not to eat people–”
“Or dinosaurs!” a girl adds.
“Or dinosaurs,” the boy agrees. “And he promised to only eat hamburgers from then on. And the ninja and Lucy decided to build a house in the jungle so they could stay with the apatosaurus and the pterodactyl, and they never saw the allosaurus again. The end.”
The audience claps enthusiastically, and the boy bows, beaming.
“That was the best story I’ve ever heard,” the whisper says from his accustomed perch on the boy’s shoulder.
“Will you start another one?” one of the boys asks, and the other children chime in with their agreement.
“No,” he says, “but I bet my friend would tell us one.” He sits down with the others and waits for the story to begin.
“Ah-hem,” the whisper starts, and the children giggle. Then it begins to speak, its voice floating through the air to twine comfortably around the attentive listeners. As it tells its story, the whisper catches a hint of movement. Another whisper peeks from around the side of one of the girls. The flow of its words doesn’t change, but gradually, the whisper lowers its voice.