An Imaginary Thing
Vera was only seven when she heard the word for the first time and when, for the first time, she said it aloud.
The two events happened back-to-back. Vera sat on a black rubber swing at the school playground, letting the heat of the afternoon bake into her skin. Behind her, there was a small ditch that separated the school playground from the apartment parking lot next door. At the bottom, a tall bush bloomed with green leaves and cast a small umbrella of shade over Vera’s brother and his friends as they huddled together, whispering the secrets that Vera wanted to hear.
Vera half-heartedly pushed her body back and forth. She worried that the rustle of the chains would drown out the secrets shared behind her back or that a creak of the rubber seat would give her away. She kept her feet in their small white tennis shoes dragging firmly through the woodchips, watching her toes make paths through the dirt with each arc of the swing.
Behind her, the older children were whispering quietly, but like most whispered conversations, it did not stay quiet long. Annie was a brown-haired girl with a shower of freckles across her face who always came prepared with new secrets; she did most of the whispering now. Vera heard the voice of her older brother, Teddy, interrupting and growing louder as Annie talked. Lauren sat across from both of them, and Vera could hear her occasional puffs of distress as Annie talked. Lauren would withhold judgment until Teddy gasped in shock, and then try to gasp even louder. The conversation was bound from the start to be a trifecta of overreaction, and Vera knew she would find out something new.
Whatever secret it was that Annie told, the response was magnificent. A cry punctuated the chattering playground as Teddy shouted at Annie, “No way!” All the other kids on the playground turned to look, but Teddy and Lauren leaned in to whisper again, and the windless day seemed to dampen everyone else’s interest. Soon the other children turned and went back again to what they were doing, sprinting off individually and then flocking back together in a violent game of chase.
The reactions behind the swings grew louder again. Vera heard Teddy gasp in disbelief. That was his response to everything—to secrets, to being grounded, to finding $5 in the grocery store parking lot: disbelief. Lauren was indignant, raising her voice righteously. “I ought to know,” she yelled, jumping up. Vera heard her huff up the incline and past the other swings, running back onto the playground with everyone else.
That was when, from behind her, Vera first heard it—the word. Her brother, who always pumped their house full of emotion and drama, had never said anything like this before. Vera heard the word in her brother’s voice, and Annie gasped.
“There, I said it,” Teddy responded. Annie squealed and ran away, excited to have this as her next secret to share across the playground.
Turning around, Vera saw Teddy still sitting there in the shade of the bush, throwing twigs at the grass. He noticed Vera for the first time. His face flashed fear—of being caught, of being told on, of being wrong, Vera did not know—before sinking into a superior smirk. He stood up and ran off, joining the cluster of boys weaving together and apart across the playground, like a group full of geese in the azure sky.
Vera sat on the swing, mulling over the word in her mind. She had heard it before, but it wasn’t a word to her then, just a pile of sounds that meant nothing. Now, it pounded in her brain, thudding to the pace of her swing as she started pumping her feet forward and back.
Released from her eavesdropping, Vera was swinging as it was meant to be done. At the height of one arc, she felt the word desperately trying to escape, to slip out her lips and into the world. To be shouted, she thought, but she recoiled at the muddle of children within hearing distance on the playground spread out in front of her.
She watched her white shoes on the way up, the school building slip back into view on the way down, and the word still pounded at her lips. Finally, on her next pass at the highest point of the pendulum, when she could lift her eyes and see only sky, with a smear of white clouds in the distance, she parted her lips and let the word slip out. Barely a whisper, it slid over her tongue, out her lips and into the air.
It moved in front of her and caught a drift of small breeze going past, the word growing a head and wings and a tail, fiery red and full of thunder. Hovering before her, Vera trembled to see it, fully spread over her view of the playground, the woodchips, the children, and the sky. The word beat at the air, a blood-orange skin crooked with joints at the wings, unlike any shapes she had seen before. She thought of her brother’s lizard, a Saturday cartoon about a dragon, and the skeleton in the science room all at once. But then the moment was gone. The swing, suspended for its usual instant, caught gravity and sailed back through the U-shape, and the word, with a heavy beat of its wings, took off over the playground.
The other children saw it and froze. Teddy stood atop the silver metal slide, waiting to go down next. He saw the word flap past and felt the breeze from its wings lift his hair. Below the slide, Annie shivered and screamed. The children playing soccer in the farthest field began running toward the word, toward Vera on her swing. But the word sailed into the distance, faster than they could see. It disappeared beyond the school, the trees, the houses across the street; and the teachers, talking in a cluster near the school door, turned to look at the commotion a moment too late.
They were deaf to the words that they did not understand—like monsters and flying and wings—so they ended recess early and would laugh later at the hysteria of children, using this as an example of what it means to grow up and mature. Adults don’t get hysterical over imaginary things.
Story by Natalie Mills