• Katie MacLean

What the Whispers Ask of Us

*This Short Story was written for Round 2 of the 2020 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. It placed third in its heat. The prompt specified that the story must feature a romantic comedy, inexperience, and a heckler*

You can read my Round 1 submission here

You can’t wear that, hissed the voice, it’s too short, too low cut, too red. The voice was her mother’s. The matriarch was not present in the room with her, as she contemplated herself in the mirror. The whispers that heckled her echoed in her own mind, imitating those she most feared disappointing.

He’ll be there, whispered Sam’s voice, her oldest and dearest friend, this is your last chance.

. . .

Sam spoke of the man at the conference. They had been seated next to one another at the panel on racial diversity in leadership. They had rolled their eyes and scoffed in unison as the host, a deposed Prime Minister, declared themselves an ally to diversity, announcing, “Why I for one love black women! I find they’re usually so much prettier than white ladies!” It had taken every ounce of her composure to stifle her laughter at the ridiculousness of the statement. The effort became nearly impossible when the man had caught her eye, the disbelief written on his face mirroring her own.

He caught up with her after the panel, asking her thoughts and listening carefully as she shared them. He nodded, considering, and then extended his hand. “I’m Tom,” he indicated the nametag swinging from the lanyard around his neck, “I’m one of the delegates from here at the host university. You?”

“Jennifer,” she replied, returning his handshake, “I’m from one of the schools out west.”

He smiled brightly at her, confident and friendly. He was the same height as her, and she could see the warmth of the smile reach the dark brown eyes behind his glasses. “You know, we are meant to pair-up for the scavenger hunt activity this afternoon. I don’t have a partner yet if you’d like to join me?”

Pathetic, whispered her mother, when we talked about stepping out of your comfort zone and flying across the country to attend a conference on leadership, you had meant to bring a friend. But now you are here. Alone. Without backup. Talking to a strange man.

I’m taking risks and meeting new people, I’m not alone, I’m making friends, she decided. “I would love to!” she responded, offering him her phone to add his contact details. “It starts just after lunch, right? I can meet you in the foyer?”

“Sure,” he nodded, “or, if you prefer, I heard that the lunch they are offering here is just going to be cold sandwiches, I could show you some better spots for hot food around campus? Your own personal tour?”

Is he flirting? Is he like this with everyone? Does he just pity you? Sam’s voice hissed. Back home, Jennifer spent her time in classes, with her friends, or with her cat. It wasn’t that she was socially inept, she loved a board game night as much as the next girl, it was just that the politics of flirting and dating were a foreign language to her and now, in this strange place with this strange man, she didn’t have any answers.

“There is a Donaire place across the street with this massive spinning meat stick in the window. Everyone here has gotten food poisoning and thrown it up at least once, it’s basically a right of passage to eat it,” he prompted, “there’s also a burger place if you’re looking for a safer option.”

Whatever his intentions are, it doesn’t matter. Alone in a foreign city, she could use a friend.

“Sure,” she gave him a cautious smile, “I would love to try your meat stick.”

He smirked at her, and it took a second for her to register the full meaning of her words. Her entire face, right to the tips of her ears, turned tomato red.

Harlot, chided her mother.

Awkward, groaned Sam.

Freudian slip? asked her therapist.

She sputtered apologies, wishing desperately that she was anywhere but here. Tom only laughed and waved her explanations aside, offering her his arm as he led the way to lunch.

. . .

In her hotel room now, Jennifer is planning what to wear to the evening social, an improv show followed by drinks at a local patio. She had never been to this sort of conference before and hadn’t known what to expect for a dress code, so she had brought a small assortment of skirts, dresses, pantsuits, and jeans in hopes that she would be prepared. Now she felt overwhelmed by choices. She wanted to fit in with the other delegates and avoid drawing attention to herself.

No, corrected Sam’s voice, you do want to draw attention. Specifically, one person’s attention.

She shook her head to clear it, but the incessant heckler was right, she wanted to see Tom again, and she wanted him to notice her.

Why? asked the echo of her therapist, you live a nation apart. After tonight, you’re boarding a plane and going home.

She conceded to the voice. After tonight she would never see Tom again. But she didn’t care. She felt drawn to him like a fly to honey. She only hoped it wasn’t a trap.

She decided to wear the red dress.

This will only lead to pain, warns her mother, is this really who you want to be your first? After all this time?

She arrived at the Improv show just as the theatre doors opened, allowing the delegates to find seats. She scanned the crowd looking for Tom. She didn’t know what he would be wearing, so she searched for his black hair and broad back. Like a compass, her body turned, and she spotted him, telling a story to a laughing group, his face and hands animated. She had no way of knowing if these were old friends or strangers he’d met moments ago.

He noticed her watching him and nodded his head in greeting, never pausing his story.

It’s a rejection, concluded her mother, silly to think he would wait for you with his real friends available.

You just caught him at the wrong time, Sam reassured.

Why are you always alone? Does it even bother you, standing alone in a theatre full of people? If it doesn’t, what kind of spinster does that make you? asked her therapist.

Jennifer didn’t have an answer. She just turned and went into the theatre alone, taking a seat at the end of an already full row.

A group of people entered and slid into the row behind her. “Hey,” Tom breathed into her neck, “I thought you were going to save me a seat?”

Jennifer spun to see him sitting directly behind her, his group of friends from the lobby filling the rest of the row. “Oh, I didn’t realize, I didn’t think,” she started, heat rising in her face, scanning the theatre for any two remaining seats together. There were none.

He waved his hand as though the gesture erased the entire incident. “Don’t worry about it,” he placates her, “I ran into some friends of mine on the organizing committee anyway.” He introduced her to those companions of his that were within earshot. “You’ll come out for a drink with us after, right?” Jen nodded that she would.

The show starts, but she is barely paying attention. She is focusing on making the back of her head look attractive to the man sitting behind her. This is a tall order. Mirrors show only her face, not the back of her head, so she doesn’t know what she has to work with. She’s not even sure if there are any muscles back there that she can control to change the appearance. She settles on keeping her posture straight, crossing her feet and tucking them under her chair in what she hopes is a dainty position. When the crowd laughs, she throws her head back uproariously, to make it clear just how much fun she’s having.

The next time a joke is told, she throws her head back in her pantomime of enjoyment and feels it connect with something hard. A grunt sounds behind her, and she turns to inspect. Tom had been sitting as tight to her chair as the space allowed, and now a steady trail of blood was pouring from his nose. He excuses himself to his friends and exists the theatre, Jennifer running doggedly after him.

Clumsy, chastises her mother.

You’ve ruined everything, moans Sam.

How would you define ‘self-sabotage’? asks her therapist.

In the lobby, her words are frantic, offering him apologies, a tissue, ice, an ambulance. He only chuckles and assures her that he’s had a broken nose before, a volleyball accident, and this is certainly not broken.

“Look,” he says, taking his hand away from his face, “I think the blood is already stopping.”

“At least let me get you cleaned up,” she insists, pulling him into the bathroom and gently wiping his face. Their bodies are close as she gingerly dabs at the bloodstains. She leans in, their lips barely a breath away.

“Shall we get that drink?” he whispers. She nods.

Three grapefruit coolers and a tequila shot later; they arrive at his apartment. Tom pulls off his shirt and tosses it into a hamper. Jennifer gapes at his bare chest, at his confidence and his immodesty.

“What?” he asks, “I can’t exactly woo you when I’m covered in my own blood.”

Careful, warns her mother, men only want one thing.

Just get it over with, sighs Sam, you’ve waited long enough.

What do the words ‘loss of innocence’ mean to you, asks her therapist.

“Would you like to come upstairs?” asks Tom. Jennifer hesitates, then nods, the taste of grapefruit still at the back of her throat.

It dawns on Jennifer that she has never seen anyone’s genitals but her own. She laughs aloud at the thought. Tom mocks hurt, covering himself, indignant that she could laugh at him when he is so vulnerable.

She explains her amusement, her inexperience, that she wants to.

“Are you sure?” he asks, his brown eyes searching her blue ones, “We can stop now. We could watch TV, or I could take you back to the hotel. No pressure at all.”

Slut, hisses her mother.

Finally, whispers Sam.

Will you ever be able to live with yourself? asks her therapist.

“Yes,” she tells him, “I’m sure, on one condition. You promise to call me after.”

He agrees, and they dissolve into kisses.

. . .

It’s been three months since the conference. Jennifer thinks about Tom often, the hecklers in her mind warping her memory of the events to fit their twisted narratives.

He took advantage of you, consoles her mother, and now he gets to hide far away from any consequences.

It was fate, reassures Sam, it was love at first sight. Even if only for one night, it was meant to be.

You were alone before; you’ll be alone after. This shouldn’t bother you. So why does it bother you? asks her therapist.

Jennifer doesn’t know what she believes. She can’t bear to tell the echoes’ namesakes about Tom. The fear of disappointment and judgement stays her tongue.

Her phone rings. The caller display reads TOM – SCAVENGER HUNT PARTNER, and she nearly drops the phone in surprise. He’s never called before, and she’d forgotten she had the number. Tentatively, she answers.

Tom tells her that he’ll be moving to her city in a few weeks, he’d gotten a summer job there as a tree planter. He wants to know if she wants to meet-up. Some apologies need to be said, Tom explains. Never before had he entertained a one-night stand, and he hadn’t cared for it. He caught feelings too easily. He’d like to know if she’d like to try going on a few dates to see if they would like to pursue something real.

Jennifer’s lips form the word “Yes,” but only one concrete thought forms in her head - he promised he’d call, and he did.

For once, the hecklers have no comment.

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