CABB’s 2019

April 12th Challenge

Secrets of Central Park

april prelude

by Linda S Barth

Inspired by the Charles B. Stover Bench

 

Late afternoon sunlight lingered on the granite bench where the girl relaxed, nestled in the smooth curve at one end of its sweeping length. She sighed contentedly. Skipping school had been risky but so worth it. She had desperately needed the respite of a day on her own, away from well-intentioned teachers who sometimes expected too much from her, cherished friends full of exhausting emotional needs, even her beloved father and his exhilarating yet intimidating plans for her future.

It had been the right choice to yield to that intense longing, to be serene and alone with little more than her own thoughts for just one day. But she knew she could not enjoy this indulgence too often or she would never get into Radcliffe, her mother’s alma mater, let alone Columbia Law School where she would follow her father’s path into corporate law, just as he’d always wanted for her.

But what did she want? That question had haunted her freshman year at a top-tier private high school, yet she’d been reluctant to consider it too closely. She was only fourteen and there was still time to deal with those things, or at least that was what she continued to tell herself.

Glancing down at the oversized paperback book in her lap, she wondered what had happened that day in her favorite class. The British literature teacher had recently introduced a unit of study on the works of Charles Dickens, one of her favorite authors. Maybe she shouldn’t have missed the class. Maybe this had been a mistake.

She shook her head hard. One day wasn’t going to make a huge difference, right? And besides, she needed those moments of freedom more than she needed anything else. All the confusion and uncertainty about her future could wait. It certainly wasn’t going to disappear, as much as she might wish it would, and she’d consider it some other time. Today had been her own quiet rebellion, and she was not about to let doubts and misgivings ruin its final moments.

The day had been perfect. She had wandered through Central Park for hours, at last finding herself in the secluded stillness of the Shakespeare Garden. Earlier in the April sunshine, the popular spot had been filled with people strolling along its paths, savoring the sight of freshly blooming flowers, walking dogs eager to frolic outside after a long snowy winter, calling after their children who raced down the embankment delighting in an hour of after-school freedom. But now the area was deserted, and she knew all too well she must leave before darkness fell, as it did so swiftly in the early days of spring. Yet she lingered, unwilling to give up the last few moments of the solitary day that had helped renew her spirits.

From her spot on the bench, she looked out toward the newborn daffodils scattered on the sloping hillside below, their petals glistening softly in the waning rays of sunlight. A cool breeze gently stirred her hair, and she could hear the hum of traffic and the occasional shouts of children in a faint and distant refrain. The city trembled with energy all around her, but it was as if she were alone in an enchanted place, safe and serene.

She opened her book and began to read, but her eyelids fluttered and grew heavy. Barely aware that her head had dipped gently toward her chest, her fingers relaxed, and the book slid from her grasp, falling to the smooth stone pavement at her feet. She wanted to reach for it, but instead drifted somewhere between wakefulness and slumber, drawn into the sweetness of a dream she would not long remember.

A muffled thump drew her from the lovely illusion, its magic disappearing as she opened her eyes. Grey-misted darkness had enveloped the park, and she shivered slightly as she sat up and stretched. It was past time to be on her way toward the light and safety of home. Hurriedly, she reached for her book, but it was no longer lying on the pavement at her feet and instead rested next to her on the bench.

But how… As if by instinct, the girl’s gaze shifted to the far end of the curved bench. A silent figure sat there, nearly a mirror image of herself, waiting, watching. Her heart skipped a beat, then raced as her muscles tensed, ready to run if he moved toward her. Yet he too seemed frozen in place, as if a sculptor had carved him from the granite surface. His immobility should have been reassuring, but it was not. She knew that in an instant, everything could change.

How often had she been told to never go into the park alone, especially after dark? How could she have been so foolish? The serenity of her lovely spring day spiraled downward toward chaos. A rapid and wide-eyed scan of her surroundings confirmed her worst fears. There was no one nearby who could help her if she needed to be rescued. Save for the person who had appeared so unexpectedly and unnervingly while she’d slept, she was entirely alone.

She forced herself to take slow, even breaths, but ripples of anger washed through her. Nothing – and no one – was going to ruin her day! She’d lived her whole life in the city, and even for someone whose adventures had been largely sheltered and innocent, there existed an innate sense of urban self-protection. She knew what she had to do. Trying not to provoke any reaction from the stranger, she quickly grabbed her book and backpack, and rose from the bench, ready to race down the path toward safety.

Before she could take a single step, a voice as soft as smoke whispered to her. “Don’t be afraid.”

Gasping, she stared into the darkness enveloping the farthest reaches of the bench. But as much as she wanted to flee, she found she could not.

“You’re safe.” The gentle voice drifted toward her. “Please don’t be afraid.”

There was something so vulnerable, so hopeful in the muted phantom sound that the girl hesitated, wondering if she had only imagined its murmuring, soft and hushed, yet as clear as if the speaker had been standing next to her. The whispered plea could have only come from the motionless figure secluded several yards away. It seemed impossible, and yet there was no other explanation.

“Please don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

Every bit of common sense she possessed screamed at her to escape – now — but somehow she could not do so, even knowing she could well be making a horrible mistake. Instead, she sat on the edge of the bench and squinted into the gloom, flinching as the figure turned slightly toward her. It seemed to be a teenage boy about her own age, rather than the hulking menace her imagination had been conjuring. But that realization was only slightly reassuring.

She could feel him looking at her even though his face was hidden by the oversized hood of his black jacket. “You shouldn’t be alone in the park at night. There are things here that could harm you.”

She drew in a sharp breath. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me!” she blurted, her voice brittle with fear.

“I won’t!” he promised. “I would never hurt you.” He sighed and turned away from her again, his face still lost in shadows. “But there are others here sometimes at night, people who are cruel and can’t be trusted.”

As the girl watched the boy’s guarded movements and listened to his soft-spoken words, she became disturbingly aware that she should not be able to hear a whisper so clearly from several yards away. How could such a thing be possible? It was all so strange, so fanciful, like something from one of her best-loved childhood books. She’d become Alice, tumbling through a dream world that shouldn’t exist.

She knew she should leave immediately, but somehow she couldn’t, not yet. She took a deep breath to steady herself and turned slightly on the bench to face him more fully. “Then why are you out here alone if you know it’s so dangerous?”

The smoky voice drifted to her on the night’s breeze. “It’s not the same for me. I know what can happen in the city, and I can protect myself.”

The girl bristled. “Well, I know what can happen here, too, and maybe I can protect myself just as well as you can.”

“It’s different for me.”

She tilted her head toward him. “Why is it so different for you? Because you’re a boy and I’m just a girl?”

His response was even softer than a whisper. “It just…is.”  And then there was only silence.

She had to walk away now, but still there was something holding her back. She waited and when he did not speak again, she found herself searching for something to say that would draw another response from him. “How can you do that with your voice? Why can I hear you all the way over there when it sounds like you’re only whispering?”

“If you whisper, I can hear you, too, as clearly as if you were sitting right next to me. Go ahead – try it.”

She hesitated and then said as quietly as she could, “I think you’re just making this up and you’re really a ventriloquist or something.”

He laughed softly. “No, I’m not a ventriloquist or something. This is called the Whisper Bench. You’ve never heard of it?”

“Never! And I’ve lived in the city all my life.”

“So have I. My brother and I learned about the bench from an old friend of our father’s when we were just kids. He told us that the bench was designed so that two people could sit at opposite ends and whisper secrets to one another without anyone else hearing them. At first, we didn’t believe it, so we had to find out. We weren’t supposed to be exploring the park on our own, but we did it anyway and eventually we found the bench.”

There was a hint of sadness in her whispered reply as it floated toward him. “I’ve always wished I had a sister or brother, and we could do things together like that.”

“I understand,” the boy told her, and somehow she knew that he did. “We had some wonderful times together. The memories are very special to me. I’ll never forget them.”

She wished he would tell her more about the adventures he and his brother had enjoyed, but once again there was no sound at all from the shadows at the opposite end of the bench.

The silence became stifling and unsettling. This is crazy, she told herself. Why am I doing this? It has to stop! I have to go home!

But when the murmuring voice resumed, it startled and subdued her, and she shivered a little in her place on the bench. “Did you find your book? You dropped it by your feet.”

“Yes,” she replied, oddly grateful that he had spoken once again. “Did you pick it up for me?”

“I didn’t want to frighten you if you woke up, but I didn’t want you to lose it either. Books are valuable; they’re amazing. They can take you to other places, other times. You can go anywhere, be anyone or anything.”

She turned to face him more fully, her lingering trepidation disappearing in her eagerness to reply. “I know exactly what you mean! I’ve always loved to read. My British literature class is my favorite in school. Is it yours, too?”

He hesitated for so long that she felt a quiver of loss. Then, the soft, hushed tones drifted toward her again. “It is my favorite class, as well, but I don’t actually go to school.”

Her heart lightened, as if something precious had been returned to her. “Oh, you’re so lucky! I go to Prescott Academy and it’s a great school and all, but sometimes I get so tired of being cooped up inside, working all the time. But if you don’t go to school, where do you take classes?”

For a few moments, there was only silence once again, leaving her strangely adrift, until the murmured voice continued. “I do most of my studying now with my father and a few other kids.”

“Oh, then have you already graduated? How old are you?” She paused for only a moment, questions rippling from her in an increasing need to draw him closer. “Are you in college?”

He laughed softly. “You ask a lot of questions.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “I know. I get that a lot. But you can learn quite a bit by asking questions. So…”

He hesitated slightly before whispering his reply. “I turned seventeen in January. I guess you could say I’ve graduated, but no, I’m not going to college.”

She could hear an undercurrent of resignation in his voice and wondered if she’d inadvertently hurt him. Maybe his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. Maybe he didn’t get a scholarship he needed. Maybe it was something else. But before she could find a way to frame her next words without the risk of causing him any pain, he spoke to her again.

“Do you like the book?” He nodded toward the volume still clutched in her hands.

“Yes, I love it! I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but I know it’s going to be amazing. Dickens is one of my favorite authors.”

“Mine, too, but I haven’t read that one yet.”  Anticipating her next question, he added, “I saw the title when I put it back on the bench for you.”

“It’s a wonderful story. Our teacher said it’s incredibly sad and mysterious in parts, but I think everything will be resolved, and some of the characters will have a happy life. I’m dying to know how it all ends.”

“Don’t read ahead and spoil it,” he admonished. “I’ve done that before and was sorry for it. And in a way, it’s disrespectful to the writer. You should read the story the way it was intended to be read. Let it evolve and reveal itself as the writer meant for it to happen.”

She tilted her head, considering his response. “I’ve never thought about it like that, but I suppose you’re right.”

“Then promise you won’t go home and skip to the ending tonight.”

She laughed lightly. “Ok, I promise.”

As the darkness deepened around them, she knew she had to leave. “And I guess I’d better get going now. My father must be really worried about me, and I hate to do that to him.”

He hesitated for a moment. “Yes, you should go. But be careful.”

She wondered if he wished she would stay, but she knew she couldn’t. “I’ve enjoyed talking with you,” she offered. “Or maybe I should say whispering with you. Thank you for telling me about the bench.”

She could hear the smile in his voice. “I enjoyed whispering with you, too…But now you really must go home.”

The girl turned away to make certain she wasn’t leaving anything behind. “Maybe I’ll see you again sometime in the park,” she suggested, a trace of hope warming her soft voice. “Do you think that could happen?”

The only reply was silence, and when she looked back toward the far end of the bench, all she could see was darkness and shadows. The boy had vanished, as if he’d never been there at all.

She sighed heavily, feeling more disappointed than she might have expected to be. “That’s just great,” she grumbled aloud. “He could have walked me out of the park if he was so worried about my safety. Instead, he just leaves. He didn’t even say good-bye! Typical! He seemed different, special, but evidently he’s not. He’s just another boy!”

She rose to her feet and started to walk away down the smooth pathway that led toward the street. But after only a few steps, she paused, unable and unwilling to let such a mysterious and enticing adventure end in disappointment. Everything about this unexpected encounter beguiled her. It had seemed as if she’d stepped into the pages of a fanciful book, had become part of the tale of a seemingly chance meeting between strangers that in time and in truth would be seen for what it truly was. Something meant to be.

Turning back, she walked quickly to where the boy had sat. She tore a sheet of paper from the notebook in her backpack and scribbled a few words on it before folding and securing it within the book’s pages. She smiled as she placed the book on the bench. Maybe he would come back and find it there. Maybe he would smile, too, as he thought of her.

The girl walked down the pathway to the park entrance and hailed a passing cab. She glanced back just once through its window’s smeary glass toward the park and the moment and the magic. Its memory settled into a secret place in her heart, as her mind slowly and inexorably resumed its trajectory back toward the life she’d managed to elude for one special day.

After assuring himself the girl was safely on her way home, the boy quickly retraced his steps to the bench and retrieved the book he had watched her leave for him. Then he hurried into the depths of the park. He carefully stayed within the darker shadows of the trees, but when he neared the dim light of a streetlamp, he paused, his heart beating rapidly. There was just enough light for him to notice a folded page of notebook paper protruding from the pages of the girl’s book. He pulled it out and eagerly opened it.

You said you hadn’t read this book, so I’m leaving it for you. I can’t get another copy until I’m back at school tomorrow, so this proves I’ll keep my promise and not read ahead to see how the story ends tonight. I hope I see you again sometime.

Catherine

And by the way, you never told me your name.

The boy’s unique mouth curved in a smile as he gazed back in the direction from which he’d traveled. Catherine, he whispered in a voice full of wonder that he was unable and unwilling to suppress. Catherine… My name is Vincent.

His stride was strong and graceful as he raced homeward. A story had begun and he, too, was eager to see how it would end.

 

***

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

(Charles Dickens – final lines of Great Expectations)

1 Comment

  1. Linda you portrayed their meeting as teenagers very beautifully, such interest in each other and emerging trust, their casual conversation, shared interests, and finally her wonderful gift to him.
    I really love it, you described it so believably, and the realization that they met earlier, in their youth, is amazing:)❤

    Reply

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