My name is Gordon Whitfield. I'm a substitute teacher. I work in a good school district in one of the nicest Baltimore suburbs. I'm thirty-one years old. I like my job. I'm unmarried. I believe in Torrag Bokhn.
I'd been subbing in a few different schools around the Baltimore area for several years before Harriet Richardson got into the car accident. Classic hit and run. Some son of a bitch ran a red light in front of the elementary school where she worked. She was crossing the street. The driver wasn't going that fast, but Harriet was in her 60's, and the impact was enough to break her pelvic bone. I didn't see it happen, but I hear that after she flipped over the hood of the car and landed on the pavement, the driver just kept going. They never caught him.
As grim as this may sound, Harriet's misfortune was my big break. I got my first regular teaching job, filling in for her for six months while she recovered from her injuries. It was a 4th grade American Government class. About twenty students. Most of them couldn't fake an interest in politics or history even if they tried, but at that age I suppose you can't exactly blame them. I tried to come up with assignments that they would find more engaging than the typical curriculum. Whenever possible, I abandoned the lecture format in favor of group activities. I'd ask them to pretend they were the founding fathers and write their own constitution and bill of rights, things like that. This approach hit a snag, however.
There was one boy who refused to collaborate with his classmates. He was a skinny freckled kid named Elliot. Never raised his hand, never opened his mouth, never caused any trouble. Except when I assigned group activities. He'd just sit there sullenly, looking at the other boys and girls working together with fear and distrust mingling on his pale, freckled face. He constantly scribbled in a small spiral notebook that very rarely left his hands.
The only time I ever saw Elliot exhibit any signs of normal childhood happiness was during recess, when he got to be alone. He'd wander around the edge of the playground, near the trees. Sometimes looking at the sky, sometimes spinning aimlessly around as though he were in a self-induced trance, sometimes talking animatedly to himself. Maybe that's not how most kids spend their free time, but I could relate to it. I was a lonely kid too, once.
In my line of work, it's all too easy to ignore kids like Elliot and just focus on the obvious problem cases (like Danny, who kept pouring glue in the hair of any girl who sat in front of him no matter how many times we sent him to the principal's office). But Elliot's issues stood out to me above all others. There was something about him that I found vaguely upsetting, a general aura of melancholy and hopelessness. It was more than just antisocial behavior. He actually seemed afraid of human contact.
I spoke with Jennifer Baldwin, the school guidance counselor, about Elliot on only one occasion. She politely informed me that she'd already met with Elliot and found nothing wrong with him, and that she had more urgent priorities than helping to cure one boy of his shyness.
I knew there was more to it than that, but as a temp teacher I was in a difficult position. I didn't have any real authority. And it's not as though Elliot was coming to class with cuts or bruises. He didn't lash out at his classmates or any of his teachers. He never cried. Still, I was afraid that there was something terrible happening to him beneath the surface, something sinister moving invisibly behind the scenes. I take no satisfaction in the knowledge that I was right.
We'd moved on to the segment of the curriculum where the kids are supposed to learn about the presidential election process. I could tell that they were all tired of hearing about the electoral college, and frankly, I was tired of talking about it. So I decided to mix things up a little.
I told them to go home and write a short handwritten essay describing their best friend, and what qualities make them a good person. I made no attempt to connect this to the material. My idea was that we'd spend the next day's class compiling a list of all the best character traits a person can possess, and from that, design the ideal presidential candidate. Most of my students filled about half a page. Some of them only wrote a few sentences.
Elliot wrote six pages.
His essay was titled "My Friend, Torrag Bokhn." In it, he described his relationship with a friendly creature who lived in the attic of his house. Elliot explained that Torrag Bokhn was his best friend because he always kept him company, he never lied to him, and he knew a lot of fun games. Torrag Bokhn was especially talented at hide and seek, because you could never hide from him forever, and when it was his turn to hide, you could never find him. Elliot closed by saying that he and Torrag Bokhn were best friends because they were only friends with each other, nobody else.
On the back of the sixth page, he drew this picture.
I had no idea what to do. Obviously the essay wasn't supposed to be about an imaginary friend, and I should have marked it down on that basis. Yet I could never in good conscience give a bad grade to a 4th grader who wrote a six page essay by hand. I spent more than an hour at home that night, rereading Elliot's essay, a pile of other students' assignments neglected on top of my desk. Finally I gave him an A- and wrote "Very creative!" at the top of the first page. I felt like a failure.
However, I took some comfort in the knowledge that parent-teacher conferences were only a few weeks away, and I would soon get a chance to talk to Elliot's mother and father and share my concerns with them. I found myself practicing what I'd say to them at odd moments of the day. When I was showering in the morning, or driving to work, or falling asleep in my bed, my mind would drift to Elliot and Torrag Bokhn, and I'd tweak the wording of my rehearsed speech for parent-teacher conference night. "Elliot seems lonely... have you ever considered sending him to summer camp... has he ever told you about his best friend?"
Torrag Bokhn. That name perturbed me more than anything else. I've always said that children are more inventive than we give them credit for, but that still didn't sound like the kind of name a child would invent. I began to wonder if he'd heard it somewhere. Google searches yielded nothing. I even lost sleep once trying to rearrange the letters in the imaginary creature's name, to see if there was some kind of hidden message. But something told me that "torn hog bark" wasn't the answer to this mystery.
One night, I dreamed that I was a little kid again, running around my backyard. I was throwing a paper airplane into the air and then running to catch it before it hit the ground. As I ran, I tripped over my shoelaces and fell, skinning my knee on a rock. I starting blinking back tears, but before I could even cry for help, a hand reached out to help me to my feet. Without thinking, I grabbed the hand. It was very large, and surprisingly cold to the touch. The skin of its palm felt callused and hard. Suddenly, its long fingers closed around my wrist, tight enough to hurt me. I looked up at the thing that was grabbing me, and when I saw its face, I woke up screaming.
The pieces of the dream scattered after I woke up. A lot of the details are hazy to me now. I didn't sleep again that night. I drove to the school that morning with a strange mixture of feelings churning in my stomach. I was exhausted, but I also felt strangely electrified. This might sound ridiculous, but I felt as though I'd survived an attack on my life.
As the days passed and parent-teacher conferences loomed closer, Elliot became even more withdrawn. You could actually see him retreating deeper into himself, his eyes getting sadder, the color leaking from his skin. On an otherwise uneventful Friday afternoon, he caused a disturbance in class. My back was to my students, I was writing something on the chalkboard. Danny (the aforementioned glue maniac) tried to steal Elliot's notebook off his desk. Elliot started shrieking. The sound was blood curdling. I whirled around. I'd never seen Elliot's eyes widen like that. He looked absolutely terrified.
"Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!"
Surprisingly enough, Danny did give it back. I think he was just as alarmed as everyone else. As soon as the notebook had been returned to him, Elliot immediately began ripping out its pages and stuffing them into his mouth. I intervened, pulling the notebook away from him again, and Elliot started to cry. He wasn't throwing a childish tantrum. He was choking back sobs, as though he'd lost one of his parents, or a beloved pet. I dismissed class early and told Danny and Elliot to stay behind.
Danny was obviously pretty shaken up. I asked him why he thought it was okay to bully Elliot and take his things. He said that he'd heard Elliot whispering during class, as he scribbled in his notebook, and he just wanted to see what he was writing. Elliot had stopped crying by this point. He started directly ahead. There was a thin red papercut on his lower lip.
I sent Danny to the principal's office. As the door swung closed behind him, I suddenly realized that this was the first time Elliot and I had ever been alone. The room was very quiet.
I told Elliot that I was sorry for taking his notebook from him, but that it wasn't healthy or normal to eat paper. He nodded, refusing to maintain eye contact with me. I talked for a few minutes about how he was obviously a very bright and creative boy, because he had so many things to write about. I told him that I wished he was more willing to share his writing with the rest of us. I said that it might help him make friends.
As I talked, Elliot began glancing nervously out the window. A bell rang somewhere and kids streamed out through the school doors onto the playground.
"It's recess," Elliot said. "Can I go?"
These were the first words he'd spoken aloud to me. I wasn't going to let them be the last.
"I'm afraid not, Elliot," I said. "Not until we figure this out."
Elliot was clearly fighting back panic. I could tell that he was trying to avoid another fit, trying to appear calm, but it wasn't working.
"Please," he said. "I have to meet someone. My friend is waiting for me."
A cloud must have passed over the sun when he said that, because the room became perceptibly darker. I cleared my throat.
"Your friend, Torrag Bokhn?" I said.
"He doesn't like it when you say his name." the boy whimpered.
"Elliot," I said, trying to choose my words carefully. "Torrag Bokhn isn't real. You made him up. He's imaginary. You know that, don't you?"
"Stop it," Elliot stammered. "He's going to be mad at me."
"Why would your best friend be mad at you?" I asked.
"Because I told you about him," Elliot said. "He told me never to tell anyone."
That was all I needed to hear.
I took Elliot to the guidance counselor's office. He walked slowly down the hallway, dragging his feet like a condemned man on his way to be executed. I watched as Jennifer looked through what was left of Elliot's notebook, a look of growing concern clouding her face. I listened as Elliot told her all about Torrag Bokhn, his best friend who was also a monster. Torrag Bokhn, who played with him, who made him laugh, who no one else could see. Torrag Bokhn, who scared him, who hurt him, who told him to keep their friendship a secret.
I was certain that I understood what was happening. I was listening to a confused, frightened child confess that he had been a victim of abuse. His mind had twisted the painful reality into a more manageable fantasy for a long time, but now the truth was coming out. I knew that I'd helped him. I knew that I'd solved the mystery. I take no satisfaction in admitting that I was wrong.
Elliot didn't come to class the following Monday. That night, I saw his distraught parents being interviewed on a local news channel. He'd disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. There was no evidence of a break-in, no evidence of a struggle. The police had no suspects. The search went on for weeks. The school started having "indoor recess." Flyers with Elliot's face began appearing all over town, stapled to trees and utility poles. Everywhere I went, I saw him. I quit my job two months ahead of schedule.
I have those goddamn dreams almost every night, now. Sometimes I'm a kid again, sometimes I'm an adult. Sometimes I'm playing in a dark attic, sometimes I'm lost in the woods. Sometimes Elliot is there, watching me from a distance, holding his notebook to his chest. Sometimes I'm alone. All of the details change. Except for one.
Every time I see Torrag Bokhn's face, I wake up screaming.