I don’t 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
“Whistle!” I called. I was six, and for a first-grader convinced
of the world’s 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.
“We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she assured me. “As
long as I’m around, I won’t 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 Whistle’s valor dared present itself in my mind. She was
Whistle. She was always there. The two of us together could tackle any spiny
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. “Let’s build a snowman,” I
Whistle explained that snowman building wasn’t 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
we’d scraped from my frozen driveway arranged into a hideous face.
“It’s pretty scary-looking,” Whistle said. “I hope it turns
out to be a good guy, otherwise we’ll have to destroy it.”
I looked into the snowman’s face, and – unbelievable as this
may sound – the snowman’s pebble eye winked.
“Did you see that?” I gasped.
“What?” Whistle asked, but before I could answer, the
snowman’s 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 wasn’t there.
I stood mouth-open yet unable to speak. All my words had
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.
“It’s alive,” I squeaked.
Whistle, always the brave one, did not allow terror to chase
her voice into lofty octaves. “We’ve got to kill it,” she said.
I knew this was true. You don’t 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,”
“Anything’s 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 they’d 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 Whistle’s
presence beside me as we again made the tumble down the bluff.
“Where’d it go?” Whistle asked.
I scanned the area, squinting through sharp setting sun, and
pointed a few hundred feet north. “It moved – it’s trying to run away.”
Indeed the snowman had migrated. Fortunately, it didn’t
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
“On three,” Whistle instructed. I gave a curt nod. “One…
We threw ourselves at the snowy statue, bats flailing and
chunks of snow flying around us. Looking back, it’s a miracle we didn’t knock
out each other’s 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 monster’s 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 snowman’s body it must’ve been
as pale and frozen as the snowball that housed it, because we didn’t 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
I shook my head, and Whistle led me down toward the water. Only
it hadn’t 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 I’d 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. “They’re pretty far away, don’t you
“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 you’re 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 Whistle’s
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 Whistle’s
oxygenated face. “Think we can make it?” I asked, panting.
“For sure,” she said. “Another two hours and we’ll 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 I’d 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 – we’ll 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 I’d ever been. But
I was even surer that I’d 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.
“I’ll 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 wasn’t as succulent as my
imaginings of the sunset, though.
The next day passed in a flurry of anticipation. By four I’d
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; you’ll track filth all over the carpet.”
“I’m meeting Whistle at five to touch the sunset,” I
Mom shook her head, unreasonably irritated. “Not until you
clean your room you aren’t,” 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
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
“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 didn’t want to be
late. “Mom, I’m going!” I called. I raced for the door.
Mom stepped back out of the laundry room and caught my jacket
sleeve. “I didn’t hear the vacuum,” she said.
“Please, Mom, I can’t 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, “you’re
seven years old. I’d expect you to know how to prioritize by now – don’t you
know that household duties are more important than play dates with imaginary
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 I’d 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 I’d skirt along one side and she’d 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 don’t care if you’re 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
“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
I’d 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 Mom’s calls that
dinnertime had arrived. The snow was so much colder today, the bluff’s
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 time’s 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 she’ll run from the east and grab my hand and laugh her energetic laugh
that still sometimes echoes in my ears.
“How was the sunset?” I’ll ask. “How did it taste?”
“Like cotton candy,” she’ll say. “And as warm as hot
“Delicious,” I’ll say, and I won’t hide my longing.
“It was,” she’ll agree. “But the sunrise is even better. Come
on – this way – I want you to taste it, too.”