April Prelude

By Linda S. Barth


Inspired by the CABB Secrets of Central Park Challenge:

#12 The Charles B. Stover Bench


Late afternoon sunlight still warmed the granite bench where the girl sat, nestled in the smooth curve at one end of its sweeping length.  She sighed contentedly, then felt her lips curve in a smile both mischievous and satisfied. Skipping school, once again, had been risky but so worth it. She had desperately needed the respite of a day on her own, away from the ever-increasing pressures of well-intentioned teachers who expected so much from her, cherished friends whose emotional demands often overwhelmed her, and even her beloved father whose plans for her future were both exhilarating and exhausting.

It had been the right choice to give in to the intense longing to escape, 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 so that she might follow her father’s path into corporate law, just as he’d always wanted for her.

Yet, was it truly what she wanted for herself? That question had haunted her freshman year at a challenging private high school, but she was reluctant to examine it too closely.  She was only fourteen and there was still time to deal with it, 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 gone on that day in her favorite class. Her British literature teacher had recently introduced a unit of study on the works of Charles Dickens, one of the teenager’s favorite authors, and with a ripple of misgiving, she hoped she hadn’t made a mistake in deliberately missing the class.  Her teacher always seemed so insightful and eager to help. Maybe she should talk to her about the confusion and uncertainty that every thought of her academic future provoked with increasing intensity.

The girl shook her head, forcefully chasing the dilemma away from her thoughts once again, promising herself she would consider it some other time. It was all too exhausting, and today was supposed to be solely for her own quiet celebration of freedom.

The day had been perfect. She had wandered through Central Park for hours until at last finding herself in the secluded stillness of the Shakespeare Garden.  Earlier in the April afternoon the popular spot had been filled with people strolling along its paths, admiring the first flowers of spring, walking dogs eager to be outside again after a long cold winter, and trailing children who raced down the embankment savoring a few hours of freedom after school. But now the area was deserted, save for the girl who knew all too well that she should 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 last lingering rays of sunlight.  A cool breeze gently stirred her hair, and she could hear the hum of traffic and the occasional laughter of children like faint and distant music. The city trembled with energy all around her, but it was as if she were alone in an enchanted place, safe and serene.

She began to read, but her eyes grew heavy. As her head begun to dip gently toward her chest, her fingers relaxed and the book slid from her grasp, falling to the smooth stone pavement at her feet.  She drifted somewhere between wakefulness and slumber, drawn into the sweetness of a dream she would not be able to remember.

Several minutes later, the muffled thumping sound of an object being placed next to her on the bench drew her abruptly from the lovely illusion. Her eyes opened wide, and she was jarringly aware of the grey-misted darkness that had enveloped the park.  It was past time to be on her way toward the light and safety of her home.

Hurriedly, she reached for her book, which was no longer lying on the pavement at her feet but instead resting next to her.  And as she did, she was startledto see someone sitting almost in mirror image of herself at the opposite end of the curved bench. She froze, her heart racing as she stared at the silent figure. She felt her muscles tense, ready to run if he moved toward her; yet he too was frozen in place, as if a sculptor had carved him from the granite surface of the bench.  His immobility should have been reassuring, but it was not, for she knew everything could change in an instant.

How often had she been told never to go into the park alone, especially after dark? And now how foolish she'd been to ignore those warnings and potentially put herself in danger.

The serenity of her lovely spring day was spiraling downward into chaos. A rapid and wide-eyed scan of her surroundings confirmed her worst fears as she saw that there was no one else nearby who might help her if need be.  Save for the person who had appeared so unexpectedly and unnervingly while she had slept, she was entirely alone.

An innate sense of urban self-preservation, even in one whose adventures until today had been largely sheltered and innocent, provided a rush of strength and direction. Trying not to provoke any reaction from the stranger who was still seated, silent and unmoving, she quickly gathered her book and backpack, ready to rise from the bench and race down the path toward safety.

Yet before she could make another move, a voice as soft as smoke seemed to whisper to her. “Don’t be afraid.”

Her head jerked wildly as she stared again into the darkness behind her, but still no one else was there. “You’re safe,” the gentle voice continued. “Please don’t be afraid.”

There was something so vulnerable, so hopeful in the whispered voice, and the girl hesitated in confusion for it was not at all what she had expected. For a moment, she wondered if she were still asleep and that perhaps the voice was simply part of her dream, emerging from a creature of fantasy murmuring in her ear.

Then, she realized with shock that the whispered plea could only have come from the motionless figure seated several yards away on the bench. It couldn’t be, and yet there was no other possibility.

Another whisper only added to her confusion. “Please don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

She stared through the gathering darkness at the still, silent figure. Every bit of common sense she possessed screamed at her to run away, but somehow she could not leave, even while knowing that to linger might be a horrible mistake.

She squinted into the gloomy darkness, flinching as the figure turned slightly toward her on the bench, but still she did not run. She could just barely see what appeared to be a teenage boy about her own age, rather than some hulking menace her imagination was quickly conjuring. But that realization was only marginally reassuring. He sat facing forward but curved slightly away from her, his face completely hidden by the oversized hood of his black jacket.

The whispered voice continued, soft and gentle. “You shouldn’t be alone in the park at night. There are things here that could harm you.”

She gasped. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” she blurted, her voice dry with fear.

For just a few seconds, he turned his head toward her, his face still lost in shadows. “I won’t,” he promised. “I would never hurt you.” He drew a deep breath and looked away from her again before continuing.  “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? This whole event was taking on the semblance of a fairy tale from one of her best-beloved childhood books.  She thought again that she should leave immediately, and she knew 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 a sigh. “It’s not the same for me.  I know what can happen in the city, and I can protect myself.”

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

The whispered response was shaded with resignation. “It’s different for me.”

The girl 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 muffled, even softer than a whisper. “It just…is.”  And then there was only silence.

She knew absolutely that she should walk away now, but still there was something holding her back. She waited and when he did not speak again, she continued.  “How can you do that with your voice? Why can I hear you from 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 anything like that.  This is the Whisper Bench.  You’ve never heard of it?”

“Never,” she replied. “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, but 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 to go on adventures with like that.”

 “We had some wonderful times together,” the boy told her.  “The memories are very special to me. I’ll never forget them.”

The girl found herself wishing he would tell her more about the exploits he and his brother had enjoyed, but again there was no sound at all from the opposite end of the bench.

The silence was stifling and unsettling. This is crazy, she told herself. Why am I doing this? She had begun to feel like Alice, tumbling through a dream world whose existence she had never imagined.

When the murmuring voice suddenly continued, it startled 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, grateful that he had spoken once again. “I guess it happened when I fell asleep. Did you pick it up for me?”

“Yes," the boy murmured. "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, leaning forward in her eagerness to reply. “I know exactly what you mean! I’ve always loved to read. In school, my British literature class is my favorite. Is it yours, too?”

He hesitated and then replied, “Yes, it is my favorite class, too, but I don’t actually go to school.”

“Oh, you’re so lucky! I go to Prescott Academy and it’s great 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, how do you take classes?”

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

 “Oh, do you mean you’re home-schooled? Or have you already graduated?” She paused for only a moment. “How old are you? Are you in college?”

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

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

He hesitated slightly before whispering his reply.  “I’m sixteen. 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 should ask him why. But before she could find a way to frame her words without the risk of hurting his feelings, he spoke to her once again.

“Do you like the book?”

“Yes, I love it,” she replied. “Dickens is one of my favorite authors.”

“Mine, too,” he answered. “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,” she told him. “It’s very sad and mysterious in parts, but I think everything will be resolved and some of the characters will have happy lives.  I’m dying to know how it all ends.”

“Don’t read ahead and spoil the ending,” 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, never knowing that to him her laughter sounded like lilting music. “Ok, I promise. And I guess I’d better get going now. My father will be really worried and I hate to do that to him.”

He paused for a moment and then replied, “Yes, you should go. But be careful.”

She wondered if he wished she would stay for just a little longer. “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 talking with you, too…But now you really must go.”

The girl turned away to gather her things. “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 end of the bench, all she could see was darkness. The boy had vanished, as if he’d never been there at all.

She sighed heavily, feeling more disappointed than she might have expected. That’s just great, she grumbled to herself. 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. That figures. He seemed different, special, but evidently not. Just a typical boy!

She rose to her feet and started to walk away down the smooth path that led out of the park.  But after only a few steps, she paused, unable and unwilling to let such a mysterious and enticing adventure end like this.  Everything about this unexpected encounter had beguiled her. It was kind of like one of those romantic movies, she told herself, a chance meeting between strangers that was somehow meant to be.

Smiling, she walked over to the spot on the bench 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 pages of her book. Her smile grew as she placed the book on the bench, hoping that he would find it there and think of her.

As she walked down the pathway to the park entrance, she did not know she was being watched from deep within the shadowy darkness of a nearby stand of trees. She hailed a passing cab, glancing back just once from behind its window’s smeary glass toward the park, toward the moment that was already becoming a precious memory.

After making sure 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 greater depths of the park. Minutes later, he neared the dim light thrown by a street lamp, yet he carefully stayed well within the darker shadows of the trees. There was just enough light for him to see a folded page of notebook paper protruding from the pages of the girl’s book. He carefully pulled the paper free and eagerly opened the note.

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 that proves I’ll keep my promise and not read ahead tonight to see how the story ends. I hope I see you again sometime.


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. He, too, was eager to learn how the story 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)