Val always dreaded the bus ride home. It was the late bus, the last chance for anyone with reason to stay after school hours, so it took a long, meandering route. Val's stop was far along the journey, which meant she had to endure her peers for far too long. It wouldn't have been so bad if the ride didn't come so soon after each meeting of the Otherworld Club. Moving from the wild freedom of being Valora to the treacherous embarrassment of being Val brought her almost physical pain. Still, she wouldn't trade the club for anything. If a bit of extra irritation was the price she had to pay to live her other life, she would gladly pay it. The ride was no easier for that devotion, though.
There was an unusually large crowd waiting for the bus today. Val kept her eyes down and held her duffel tight to her side; she didn't want anyone jostling it. Even without looking, she could feel the stares. She wished she could be as brave as Stephen. He wore a cloak, for crying out loud, and never seemed to care that others looked at him strangely. Val wasn't anywhere near that odd, but she was just far enough outside the norm to be noticed. Being noticed had consequences.
"Jeez, do you bring all your books home with you?" Now it would start. Val clutched the strap of her bag tighter.
"Nah," another voice said. "That would take too long to unpack. She just brings her locker." A chorus of laughs erupted, and every one stung. She just had to ignore them. Valora wouldn't care what these morons said, so why should she?
Someone poked her in the arm, and Val flinched away. "Wow," said another faceless bully. "I thought for sure she'd tip over." They laughed again, but now the sound was drowned out by the loud growl of an engine as the bus finally arrived. The door opened, and the mob surged forward. Weighed down by her burden and far smaller than most, Val was shoved aside. By the time she made it to the door, most of the other kids were already in and seated. Getting on the bus was tricky; the narrow door and aisle was hard to navigate with a big duffel bag. Val had to swing the bag in front of her and edge sideways, hoping for a seat that wasn't too far back. Sometimes she was lucky enough to get a spot in the front, but today the extra bodies forced her a little more than halfway down the length of the bus. Each step seemed to take forever, and all the while she could feel everyone watching her, judging her. Elbows jostled her duffel as it passed, and more than once she felt a casually extended foot try to trip her up. Those tricks didn't work as often now that she was ready for them. Finally she found an empty seat and slid in, hauling the bag in after her. The mountain of green canvas made a wall beside her, protecting her a little from her tormentors. Even so, there were a lot of people on the bus, and Val's stop was far away. It was going to be a long ride.
Val ignored the whisper, and kept her eyes on the scenery rolling by outside the window. Only Gregory and Stephen ever really wanted to talk to her. Well, Stephen, anyway. Anyone else whispering near her was either trying to get someone else's attention, or just setting her up for a joke at her expense. It had happened so many times that watching trees go by was far more interesting.
"Psst!" the voice said again. It came from the seat behind her. She couldn't tell who it was, beyond that it was a boy. Val tended to look at the floor a lot, so she hadn't actually noticed who was sitting there. Whoever he was, he was persistent. "Hey. Knock knock."
That was definitely a setup. Still, it wasn't one she'd heard before. Val continued to ignore the boy, but couldn't help wondering what he was trying for. Something insulting, surely, but what?
The whisper came again, still too quite for anyone else to hear over the rattling of the bus. "Knock knock, I said. And that's when you say, Who's there?" The boy paused. "Yeah, just like that, only with two more words. So then I say, Yogurt."
Val was having trouble staying quiet. She wanted to turn and see who it was, but that might draw attention to herself. She kept her head down and said nothing.
"It's fine," the boy whispered. "I've got this. So you say, Yogurt who? And then!" There was a short, dramatic pause. "Then I say, Yogurt to get a doorbell!" It was so ridiculous, so completely pointless, that it was all Val could do to keep from laughing. She turned her head to the window and smiled out at the scrolling driveways. "Yeah, I know," the boy said. "Pretty lame. It used to be my favorite, though. Okay, your turn."
There had to be a catch. Nothing else made sense. Then again, the joke was about as nonsensical as it could possibly be, so maybe the normal rules had stopped applying for now. Val took a breath, and decided to chance it. "Knock knock," she whispered, barely able to hear it herself.
The boy had heard, at least. "Who's there?" he said.
"No, to whom," Val replied. Great, a grammar joke. Nothing overcame a nerdy reputation better than grammar jokes. She was surprised, and not a little relieved, to hear a soft chuckle from behind her.
"Okay, that was pretty good," the boy said. "And it was new to me, and that's saying something. I know a ton of these stupid things. Okay, it's my turn. Let's see." While the boy thought, the bus slowed to a stop to let a few of the kids get off. The whisper didn't return until they had started moving again. "All right, I've got one. Three guys were walking down the street. Two of them walked into a bar. The other one ducked."
Val snorted, then struggled to stifle it. "That was terrible," she whispered.
The boy laughed too, though he also kept it quiet. "It worked, didn't it?" he said.
"That doesn't mean it's any good," Val said. "Maybe I just have bad taste."
"I hope you don't improve it, then, or I'll actually have to learn some good ones."
The bus slowed once again. This time, most of the remaining passengers left. Val gritted her teeth as the procession went by, trying to wait patiently for the bus to get back on its noisy way. The warning voice in her heart still told her to stay quiet. All the jokes she's ever heard on the bus before now had been at her expense. Was she so desperate for human contact that a few awful jokes could make her let down her guard?
They began moving again an eternity later. It was safe to talk again. Suddenly, Val realized that she didn't know what to say. It was her turn, after all. Her mind raced, but all the jokes she could think of were corny ones from when she was little and laughed at anything. Even when though her invisible companion was telling exactly those kinds of jokes, Val was too embarrassed to do the same. Unfortunately, that left her with nothing.
The voice broke in on her thoughts. "Okay, your turn."
In desperation, Val latched onto the first thing that came to mind. "All right. I've got another knock knock joke," she whispered. "It's a really good one, too."
"Knock knock," the boy said.
Val grinned to herself. Gotcha. "Who's there?"
For a moment there was only the rumble of the engine. Then the boy let out a single bark of laughter, a little too loud for Val's comfort. "Another one for the books!" he said, lowering his voice again. "I think we've got a pretty good act here. We could take this on the road."
"We're already on a road," Val said.
She heard another quiet chuckle. "Good point," the boy said. "We're not going to get much of an audience if we keep whispering, though."
Val's smile faded. It could be a trap. Whoever it was might want her to speak up, so she could make a fool of herself. Some of her natural shyness returned. "I think I'd rather not have an audience," she said.
"Why? What's wrong with making people laugh?" the boy asked.
"I do that enough. Without really trying."
"Ah." He left it at that for a while. Val was worried that she had scared him off. Maybe he'd finally realized that it was better not to associate with her. Just when Val had resigned herself to silence, the boy spoke again. "Maybe that'll change," he said. "In time."
Val shrugged. "Maybe. I won't hold my breath."
"You just have to get to know people," the boy went on. "We're not all bad."
"Oh?" Val said. "It's kind of hard to trust people when they constantly make fun of you. You're the first person I've ever actually talked to on this bus, and I don't even know your name."
Oddly, the boy laughed again. "True. But guess what?"
She couldn't resist. "What?"
"Again?" Val said. "All right, who's there?"
"Timed," he replied.
"Time to get off the bus." With a start, Val realized that they were slowing down, and that the houses outside were the familiar ones on her street. She got up, shoving her duffel out into the aisle to let her stand up fully. There weren't many kids left on the bus now. Even so, Val wasn't sure if she wanted to say goodbye; the conversation was still a secret. She looked toward the back, anyway, to at least get a glimpse of the odd jokester.
The seat behind her was empty.
It wasn't until the bus driver shouted back at her that Val realized she was staring at nothing. A few laughs followed her out of the bus from the remaining passengers, but her confusion overpowered her embarrassment. She walked up her empty driveway as the bus roared off. Her parents wouldn't be home until later, so for the time being she could think in peace. Once inside, Val lugged her bag to her room and set it down at the foot of her bed. She always looked forward to losing the weight of it at the end of the day, though she wouldn't dream of giving it up. The bag and what it held were the only truly solid things in her life, and right now she could use the reassurance. Val unzipped the duffel, and had her second shock of the day. There, on top of her notebooks, was an envelope. She drew it out slowly, and her heart stopped. It was addressed to "Lady Valora".
Val tore the envelope open in a rush. Something fluttered to the floor, but she ignored it. All that remained inside was a single piece of paper, folded once. It read:
Sorry to disappear so suddenly, but that's my way. I hope I did not offend. If you feel slighted,
please accept this token as an apology. We'll talk again soon.
Edric the Unseen
If the letter had been a bundle of gibberish, it couldn't have been more baffling to Val. She sat down heavily on her bed, staring at the note as if it would vanish. She read it again, then once more. Finally, she looked down at the tiny object that had fallen. On her carpet lay a small origami sculpture, a perfect miniature replica of a sword. Val dropped the note in horror.