I dont remember when I first met Whistle, but she and I went galloping along the edge of the bluff behind my house every evening without fail. In the winter the snow crunched beneath our boots; in the summer the mud squelched and mosquitoes droned, and we squashed the pests in our quick hands and dared each other to eat them. No matter what the season, spectacular sunsets saturated the sky and the satisfying scent of friendship filled our lungs with every breath.
Once, as we were playing hide-and-seek in the untamed shrubs at the top of the bluff behind my house, I tried to charge straight through a thorn bush and received the wrath of the prickly plant. By the time I tore myself free from the needle-lined branches, angry red lines rose like ridges on my bare arms. Bright blood leaked through the deepest few and splattered my shirt.
Whistle! I called. I was six, and for a first-grader convinced of the worlds general geniality, there is nothing more terrifying than discovering that the local flora is not as friendly as you assumed. I need a band-aid! Whistle had already chosen her hiding place and was nowhere to be seen. I bit my lip to hold back a threatening trickle of tears.
Then Whistle emerged from behind a nearby shrub and sprinted to my side. She tromped through the same thorn bush that had inflicted me with so much pain, ignoring the hot red scratches that it raked across her bare legs, and offered me her bandanna to mop up the tributaries of blood. Then walked me home for what seemed like miles and miles, but it only took a few minutes. By the time we reached my house, my cheerfulness had nearly returned. Everything always seemed better with Whistle at my side.
That rosebush had no reason to attack me, I grumbled.
Well make sure it doesnt happen again, she assured me. As long as Im around, I wont let anything happen to you.
I looked up at her and saw the truth of this statement in her eyes. She was not much older than me, but birthdays are heavier the younger you are. No doubt of Whistles valor dared present itself in my mind. She was Whistle. She was always there. The two of us together could tackle any spiny old rosebush.
Our escapades never grew old, and a moment spent with Whistle never proved dull. In autumn we gathered piles of dazzlingly colored leaves into heaps and thrashed about in them for hours without wearying. When the first snowflakes sneakily migrated from the sky to the earth, I never felt the discomfort of the cold as long as Whistle and I adventured together.
When enough of the puffy precipitation had fallen, I greeted Whistle one evening with architectural aspirations. Lets build a snowman, I said.
Whistle explained that snowman building wasnt so much the job of an architect as of a sculptor. But she approved of the proposal, so we set to work rolling snowballs the size of small elephants at the rim of the bluff and piling them on top of each other.
It was hard work, but our efforts resulted in magnificence no artist could match. Our snowman towered six inches taller than Whistle and more than four times as wide, with stout sticks for arms and bits of gravel wed scraped from my frozen driveway arranged into a hideous face.
Its pretty scary-looking, Whistle said. I hope it turns out to be a good guy, otherwise well have to destroy it.
I looked into the snowmans face, and unbelievable as this may sound the snowmans pebble eye winked. Did you see that? I gasped.
What? Whistle asked, but before I could answer, the snowmans right arm twitched upward and flapped in a small wave.
Whistle screamed. Run, Laurie! she yelled, and we scrambled for my house, tracking snow into the mudroom and flinging soaked hats and mittens onto the floor. My mom met us with a mug of hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie, and when I begged her for a second cookie for Whistle, she relented and added another to the plate. Whistle and I ate in the kitchen under an anxious hush, and then we wandered back outside and approached the edge of the bluff to see what had become of the snowman.
It wasnt there.
I stood mouth-open yet unable to speak. All my words had fallen out.
Whistle shivered up against me. Look, tracks, she said.
We followed the tracks down the bluff. They formed a winding, churned-up valley in which we sat and slid down the steep slope. We got to the bottom and struggled to our feet through the knee-deep drifts atop the frozen lake.
Our snowman stood at the end of the tracks not twenty feet away. Its face had rearranged into something even more unsightly than before, and as we watched it twitched a twiggy hand in a minute salute.
Its alive, I squeaked.
Whistle, always the brave one, did not allow terror to chase her voice into lofty octaves. Weve got to kill it, she said.
I knew this was true. You dont let a monster of your own construction run rampant over the earth not unless you crave catastrophe. I knew all about Frankenstein and his creation. But that snowman suddenly looked ten times bigger than it had when first built. No way we can kill that thing, I said.
Anythings possible with superior weaponry, Whistle said, and the firmness in her voice made me swallow all objections.
We ran back to my house and dug two aluminum baseball bats from where theyd lain dormant under a pile of cobwebs since fall. The weight in my hand did much to ease my fear, but not nearly as much as Whistles presence beside me as we again made the tumble down the bluff.
Whered it go? Whistle asked.
I scanned the area, squinting through sharp setting sun, and pointed a few hundred feet north. It moved its trying to run away.
Indeed the snowman had migrated. Fortunately, it didnt possess legs and its progress proved paltry. Whistle and I caught up with it easily and held our weapons before us with courage to match that of medieval knights.
On three, Whistle instructed. I gave a curt nod. One two three!
We threw ourselves at the snowy statue, bats flailing and chunks of snow flying around us. Looking back, its a miracle we didnt knock out each others brains.
I got an arm! I yelled as the stick slammed the snow.
Good going, Laurie let me get the head! Whistle wound up a mighty swing and let her bat fly wham! and the monsters head exploded like a cold white firework. My whoops rang across the wide lake and echoed off the western mountains.
If there was a heart in that snowmans body it mustve been as pale and frozen as the snowball that housed it, because we didnt notice it as we pounded the rest of that beast to chilled powder.
After a few weeks had passed, when the snowman incident ceased to scare us and instead was fondly remembered as a great adventure, I met Whistle on that same bluff one cold winter evening. A few stars had broken through the sky, although the heavens had not yet deepened to black from a blanket of blue. Twirled orange tendrils poked and waved from across the water, dyeing the faraway mountains the color of lemonade.
Do you know how to ice skate? Whistle asked as we admired the sky.
I shook my head, and Whistle led me down toward the water. Only it hadnt been water for months; the frigid air had transformed the lake into a sheet of ice as though by magic. Thick and brushed by a layer of windswept snow, it was the slipperiest surface Id ever walked upon.
Look, this is better than ice skating! Whistle exclaimed. And with a running start, she slid on the heels of her boots across the ice, laughing with hysterical glee and sending white flakes flying in her wake.
I joined her and together we glided across the ice, going farther with each attempt. Breath that had been frozen only minutes before warmed in our throats and my hair grew damp and soupy warm beneath my hat.
You see those mountains? Whistle asked, pointing to the thin band of yellow in the distance. By now pink and purple had joined the orange in lighting up the western sky. Theyre pretty far away, dont you think?
Sure, I said, squinting at the aloof peaks.
I bet we can slide all the way to the mountains, Whistle said. We can slide all that way and touch the sunset!
What does the sunset feel like? I asked.
She took a moment to consider. Like a warm bath, she said. It feels like youre washing yourself with warm cocoa. And if you lick it, it tastes like cotton candy.
The thought of warm cocoa and cotton candy was more than enough to convince me to try to reach the distant dusk. I clasped Whistles mittened hand in mine and we took a running start. With the air whipping past our faces and the cold shooing us along we flew down that sheet of ice.
Eventually our momentum diminished, but we just took another running start and took off again. Miles and miles we covered in each burst. The mountains grew closer and home loomed farther away.
We must have traveled at least an hour when Whistle produced two muffins from nowhere and offered one to me. It was warm, sending steam swirling through the winter air, and was heavy with cinnamon. I shoved a chunk into my mouth and kept sliding.
By now the sunset had matured, sending warmer, more definite colors seeping across the horizon. The red light reflected off Whistles oxygenated face. Think we can make it? I asked, panting.
For sure, she said. Another two hours and well be licking that purple streak, all buttery with strands of yellow.
My mouth watered at the thought. I knew then with certainty that the sunset was the most beautiful thing Id ever seen. I was seven years old now, and in my seemingly substantial life I had wanted many things paintbrushes, light-up sneakers, chocolate, pets. But never had a desire ever grabbed me as achingly as my thirst for the sunset did then.
Yet even as I yearned, my spirits sank. Two hours? I said. I need to get home for dinner.
Whistle looked at the sunset. Her hat had fallen back, loosing frays of hair over her face, and I knew her well enough to read that she wanted that sunset as badly as I did. She huffed out a cloudy breath. Okay, she said. The sunset will be back tomorrow well get it then. Meet me at the bluff at five?
Okay, I said. I was tired from running, but my grin broke through my sweaty face. Pull me back?
She held out her arms. I rushed behind her and grabbed her hands, and she sprinted toward home with me gliding behind her. When she started to tire I let go and surged up beside her, and we ran-slid, ran-slid across the ice. My heart pounded so hard in my chest and the air hit my starving lungs so painfully that I was sure it was the closest to dead Id ever been. But I was even surer that Id never been so alive.
We scrambled up the bluff with aching legs and sopping mittens. Whistle walked me home, both of us panting and brushing the snow off our legs. Tomorrow at five, Whistle said in front of my door.
Ill be there, I said. I promise.
I went inside, the spicy scent of pork chops jolting me to the realization that the muffin from Whistle had done nothing to sate my appetite. Mom flew at me with some tirade about staying out too late, fussing that my dinner was cold, but it tasted fine to me. It wasnt as succulent as my imaginings of the sunset, though.
The next day passed in a flurry of anticipation. By four Id already pulled on my coat and boots and went tromping around the house with unrestrained glee, almost able to feel the sunset slipping through my fingers.
Mom emerged from the laundry room, damp hands rubbing dark circles onto her sweatshirt. Laurie, stop being so rambunctious, she said. And take off your snow boots; youll track filth all over the carpet.
Im meeting Whistle at five to touch the sunset, I explained.
Mom shook her head, unreasonably irritated. Not until you clean your room you arent, she said. Make your bed, pick up your toys, dust the dresser, and vacuum the carpet. Then I want you to help me fold the laundry.
Joy transformed into a precipitate of dread and settled in the depths of my stomach. Even at age seven, I knew that this list of chores could never be accomplished in under an hour. But Mom, I protested, I promised Whistle!
Chores come first.
Even before promises?
Get to work, Mom said.
I threw my blankets over my bed and smoothed them somewhat, piled stuffed animals in my closet, and forced the door closed. I checked the time on my Disney alarm clock I had to leave soon if I didnt want to be late. Mom, Im going! I called. I raced for the door.
Mom stepped back out of the laundry room and caught my jacket sleeve. I didnt hear the vacuum, she said.
Please, Mom, I cant vacuum now, I explained. I need to be at the bluff. I need to get to the sunset. I promised Whistle!
Mom looked at me with that particular form of maternal displeasure meant to stop all arguments mid-flight. Laurie, she said, youre seven years old. Id expect you to know how to prioritize by now dont you know that household duties are more important than play dates with imaginary friends?
And she sent me back to my room.
I straightened and dusted the dresser, vacuumed the floor, and relayed piles of clothes from the laundry room to my closet. Mom had said it. She had said what Id refused to acknowledge for as long as I could remember. Whistle, my best probably my only friend was not real.
Thoughts swirled like eddying snowflakes in my mind. If I knew Whistle was imaginary, would our adventures still be the same? Would this concrete, colorless knowledge build a barrier between my friend and me that would prove impossible to breach, no matter how high our leaps? I tried to tell myself no. I tried to tell myself that Whistle and I had been friends too long to let such details deter us. The line between fact and fantasy was hazy at best, and Id skirt along one side and shed creep along the other until we found a gap large enough for one of us to squeeze through.
Chores done, throat constricted, I burst from the house and whipped to the bluff. I stared over the edge. The sunset threw its glow over the mountains, painting the snow and lighting the long path Whistle and I had planned to travel. Whistle! I yelled.
The snow sang silence in reply.
My pulse, through the stillness, pleaded without words. Please come, Whistle. I dont care if youre imaginary. I can still love you the same. We can still have adventures. We can still reach the sunset. Though I craned my eyes and hoped with my breath and muscles tight inside me, the bluff remained deserted.
Whistle! I yelled. Remember how you protected me when we were little? How you saved me from that rosebush last summer? How you assured me that as long as you were around, nothing would ever happen to me? Remember making snow angels right here where I stand? How that snowman we constructed came to life, and you commanded its vehement obliteration? Remember racing toward the sunset yesterday, you pulling me awhile when my legs grew too tired? Remember how we agreed to reach that sunset tonight? Remember how I promised Id be here?
Remember Laurie? Remember me?
Whistle! I yelled again, but my voice was tinny in the frosty air. I sank into the snow and watched the sun lower slowly into its bed behind the mountains. I sat there for hours, ignoring Moms calls that dinnertime had arrived. The snow was so much colder today, the bluffs emptiness so tangible. I did not stand up until the last streak of sunset melted into the black night sky.
Today, years later, I have a house on a bluff and walk its edge alone each evening. By now the childhood heartache has faded. But nothing can erase a friendship as strong as the one I shared with Whistle, not even the line that divides this world from one more magical.
Sometimes, for variety, I get up early and walk the bluff in the morning, and when I do I face east instead of west. As the sun peeks up, I think of God on the first day, watching times first sunrise color a newborn sky. I like to think that Whistle reached the sunset without me, that she plowed right through it and kept going with aims of circumnavigation, and one day shell run from the east and grab my hand and laugh her energetic laugh that still sometimes echoes in my ears. How was the sunset? Ill ask. How did it taste? Like cotton candy, shell say. And as warm as hot chocolate. Delicious, Ill say, and I wont hide my longing. It was, shell agree. But the sunrise is even better. Come on this way I want you to taste it, too.