Authors: Brianna Shrum
Tags: #General Fiction
The closer he got to Kensington Gardens (and the further he got from home), the eerier and darker the night became, until he was hugging his jacket around himself tighter than he thought possible, and was very much regretting his choice of rebellion. The Gardens were just up ahead, though, and it seemed silly to turn around now. His footsteps echoed as he drew closer to the Gardens, sounds running together as he quickened his pace. He thought that maybe he would simply step inside Kensington's perimeter, so that he could say he'd gone today, and then turn straight around and go back home. When he reached the edge, however, he found that that was not what he wanted to do. He wanted, more than
anything, to venture into the greenery and sit for a while by himself, pretending his father was there with him.
He took a deep breath, made his way farther in, and stopped by the pond in the center of the garden. He looked out over it for a moment, stretching and quietly watching the mist rise from the water. Blades of grass wrapped themselves around the boy's calves and he fell back into them, relishing the soft feel of the lawn on his neck and back, the distinct smell of water in the air. He lay there for quite some time, not allowing himself to cry, and, to his surprise, not really needing to. Crying was a crutch, the reaction of a child, and James fancied himself to be transforming into a man already.
A brilliant man
, his father had said.
A man a hundred times that of his father
He didn't believe he would really be all that, but it felt good to play the words in his head over and over. Besides, being near the body of water made the dream feel all the more real. Like he was just waiting, waiting to sail out on a grand adventure. It wasn't a pond; it was the sea. And he wasn't a schoolboy; he was a sailor. Perhaps a pirate, even. Sometimes he pretended that that was what his father
did on his missions at seaâpirated, had marvelous adventures. He hoped he'd accompany him someday and find out. He began to feel glad that he had made this foolish decision as the silent, private minutes stretched on.
“Are you lost, boy?”
A voice, smooth and commanding, but young, sliced through the quiet and jerked him into a sudden panic. James leapt straight from lying on his back to standing on unsteady feet, and he adjusted his little cap nervously.
“Stay back!” he shouted, stepping slowly backward.
The person in front of him hopped easily toward him until James could make out his features. He relaxed a
bit when he saw that the hopping person was not much older than he, fourteen or fifteen at most. His little smile was disarming, and he looked rather like an elfâsharp features, laughing eyes, ears that almost
back at the water.
Even his clothes made him look as though he'd just popped out of a tree. Moss draped about him, hanging lazily over his shoulders, leaves of all sorts of shapes and colors inexpertly stitched together, wrapping around his thighs and torso.
“Did I frighten you?” the intruder asked, laughing.
“No, of course not.”
James bristled and stood taller, desiring to look more mature than he was, especially in front of this peculiar boy, who gave James the distinct, odd impression of being older and younger all at once.
The lake behind the boy glimmered and pulsed, and James swore it hadn't been doing so before, which was entirely strange, and made him feel that perhaps he was overly tired or going mad. One or the other.
“You're lying, I think. I'm sure you nearly jumped out of your skin,” the other boy crowed.
James scoffed and raised his chin. “Well, I think I've had quite enough of this. I was just going home.”
The other boy stopped laughing, then, and furrowed his brow. “So you aren't lost?”
“Not at all. Being here was quite intentional. Are
“Yes,” said the boy, raising his eyebrows, “but I know exactly where I am.”
James frowned and then rolled his eyes. “Who are you anyway?”
“Peter,” said the boy, a near-laugh in his voice. The sort that made James feel absurd for not knowing who Peter was already. “Peter Pan. Who are you?
“James Hook,” James said, trying unsuccessfully to match Peter's mocking tone.
“That's a funny name,” Peter said, wrinkling his nose.
“No funnier than Pan.”
Peter squinted, considering. “Yes, it is.” Then, he turned around and darted off, lightly illuminating the trees and the grass wherever his feet landed.
James blinked hard and shook his head until the glowing had worn off, and regarded Peter for a second, part of him wanting to go home, the other part wanting desperately to follow the strange boy further into the park. He chewed on his cheek, gaze darting from the boy back to the edge of Kensington Gardens, and the comfortable, boring familiarity of home. In the end, the desperate half of him won out. James darted off in the direction of his new companion.
“What are you doing in Kensington in the middle of the night, Peter Pan?” James asked, running, stumbling in an attempt to catch up to him.
“Nothing. Just chatting with the fairies, looking for Lost Boys. It seems you're not one of them.”
“Fairies?” He slowed to a stop beside Peter. He set his hands on his knees and leaned over, self-consciously trying to catch his breath. “What are you going on about?”
“Surely you know about fairies,” Peter said, that condescending chuckle back in his voice, too-large eyes lighting up, eyebrows drawn together. He may as well have laughed and pointed at James.
James's jaw twitched. He hated cockiness. It was horrid form. He particularly hated it when it was directed at him. He was compelled to answer Peter's question anyway, because, well, he couldn't figure why. Either way, he still wished to impress him. “Well, of course I've read about them in stories, but those are only for children.”
“And you aren't one?” said Peter, looking around, distractable, touching all the leaves and twigs in his reach.
“A what?” asked James.
“A children,” replied Peter, looking back at him.
James raised an eyebrow. Pan was certainly no Eton man. Somehow, that mattered less than it should've, as James found himself opening his mouth to say that of course he wasn't a “children.” Then an image of him several hours ago, blushing apple-red and struggling not to cry, flashed in his mind. He pursed his lips. Then, glumly: “I suppose I am a child.”
“Good.” Peter let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
“I don't see what's so good about it.”
“Well, I couldn't speak with you if you weren't a children.” He said this as though it were a given, as though no one associated with people who weren't children, of course.
James huffed and shook his head, black hair flying about, and tried to make some sort of sense of the situation. He wondered, for a moment, if throwing one's lot in with someone like this was a very obvious way to get oneself chopped up and splattered all over the front page of
The London Gazette
. Pan the Ripper. How would he even explain himself to St. Peter at the gate? “Yes, sir, I'm afraid I got myself rather murdered, following an obviously deranged fellow wearing the guts of a tree into the dark in the middle of the night.”
But there was some pull inside James that whispered at him to ignore the alarm bells. That no one ever got an adventure without giving up a little sense first.
So, against his better judgment, but in accordance with his adventuresome half, he followed Peter further and further into the park, past the pond, past the open, manicured grass, and into the trees. James had never been
this far back before, back where the tree branches were more fingery, the shadows more shadowy.
“Where are you going, Peter?”
“To see the fairies.”
“Well, that's foolishness,” said James, warning bells ringing louder and louder in his mind, but his legs disagreed, following Peter all the more quickly into the grove.
“I don't think so,” said Peter, and James huffed.
“It is, though.”
Peter stopped and stared at him, then cocked his head like James was the lunatic, and not him. “What's so foolish about it?”
James blinked several times in rapid succession. “I don't believe inâ”
All of a sudden, Peter barreled into him and clapped his hand over his mouth.
“Ssssshhhhhh.” James's eyes widened and he just stood there, frozen. “Don't say it. Never say it. When children say they don't believe, a fairy drops down somewhere, dead. And you
children, aren't you?”
James nodded fiercely.
“Then never say it, James Hook. Promise me.” He removed his hand from James's mouth.
Peter did an about face, expression shifting to a pleasant blank, then bounded off again, and James followed him and disappeared into the trees.
Suddenly, James stopped and stood completely still, mouth agape, staring into the leaves. He stumbled backward and his eyes darted back and forth, and a shocked smile spread across the whole width of his face. There were little lights flashing and bobbing about, darting in and out of the shadows. Peter hopped on his toes, and
they swarmed around him, glowing on his fingers, his nose, shining on wisps of his red-gold hair.
One or two came within a couple centimeters of James, and he forced himself to stay put, not to back away as his entire perception of the world shifted around him. He laughed brightly as the faint sound of tinkling bells echoed in his ears, and he spread out his arms and fingers.
Perhaps he was insane. Perhaps his companion was the mad one. But it didn't matter in that moment. For he was spending tonight among the fairies, and he was absolutely certain that he already wished to do it again.
OST NIGHTS AFTER THAT, FOUR IN THE COURSE
of a week to be exact, James found a way to meet Peter at Kensington Gardens. He learned how to avoid all the creaky spots on the stairs quite quickly, and always managed to make it home before his mother had had a chance to realize he was gone. Pregnant women tended to be oblivious to most things.
One particularly dark night at the week's end, James was lying on his back next to Peter, shadowed by the trees, lit by the fairies, when Peter asked him a question he never had before.
“How old are you, James?” Peter ran his fingers over the long blue-green grass between them, absently.
James rolled his head over to have a look at his companion. “I'll be thirteen tomorrow.”
Peter turned toward James and furrowed his brow. “You will?”
“Yes. Tomorrow's my birthday.”
“How awful,” Peter said, misery coating his words.
James sat up and frowned. “What do you mean,
?” Blood rushed to his cheeks, and he was glad for the shadow of the trees around them.
“You're growing up, of course,” said Peter, sitting up with James. Peter shook his head, clearly disappointed in something.
James furrowed his brow. He'd always feared he was rather too young to be hanging around with a boy so much older and more interesting than he as Peter. Of course, when he was young he was too young, but now that he was old, he was too old. “I don't understand,” he said. Growing up was something everyone did, whether Peter wished it or not.
“It seems a terrible thing to have to grow up. To have to be a man.” Peter shuddered at that last word, and stared away into the stars as the fairies lit the darkness around him.
“I don't know about that. I'm rather looking forward to it.”
Peter leapt nimbly to a standing position and looked at James with horror in his eyes. “Are you mad? Why ever would anyone want to grow up?”
James shrunk back, ears burning. He had never considered this question. Growing up was something he'd wished to do for as long as he could remember, so he'd never had reason to consider why. He just always had. “Well, I, um, I should like to think it would be a wonderful thing to be a man. To have myself a wife and children and to explore the world and conquer the sea. ”
Peter looked at him, then, as though he'd never seen him before. A long shadow fell over the little wood, and James hugged his jacket around him.
“That's all nonsense. Being a man means you're trapped forever. I'll never be a man. I always want to be a little boy and to have fun.” He nodded decisively, a lock of stick-straight hair flapping down over his eyes.
James laughed and hoisted himself up from the dew-sprinkled ground, sending a smattering of fairies flying all about. “Well, that's all well and good, but you've got to grow up someday, Peter. We all have.”
“That isn't true.”
“Yes, it is. Just look at yourself. You're half a grown-up already. You're at least an inch taller than I am and your voice is going to get all low and rumbly any time now. How old are you, anyway?”
“I'm not sure,” Peter said, waving his hand and rolling his eyes.
James shook his head, used to Peter's particular brand of peculiarity by now.
“Anyway,” Peter continued, hands on his hips, “I'm hardly âhalf a grown up.' I'm a boy, and I'll always be.”
James scoffed and focused on the fairies bobbing overhead, making the green oak leaves glisten.
“You think I'm joking?”
James snickered and fingered a purple flower in one of the beds nearest him. “I think you're daft.”
Peter narrowed his eyes and peered at James, a half-smile quirking his mouth. “I can prove it to you, you know.”
“Oh, can you?”
“Yes, I can. I'll take you there. To a place where you never have to grow up.”
“Sounds brilliant,” James said, sarcasm dripping from his lips.
Peter dug his fists into his sides at this, cleared his throat loudly, then his feet left the ground, and he began to float, until he was nearly three feet in the air. James sprang up, breath fleeing him, and stumbled backward. “Whâwhat are youâwhat isâ¦?”
“Oh, this?” Peter asked, resting his chin on a massive tree branch. He grinned, clearly terribly proud of himself. “I do it all the time in Neverland.”
“It can't be true.” It wasn't. James blinked hard once, twice, a third time. Each time he opened his eyes, he was faced with a flying, grinning Peter Pan. James considered the very real possibility that he was perhaps a nutter. Yes,
James would be spending his thirteenth birthday in the loony bin, which was rather unfortunate.
“Well, it is,” said Peter. The fairies clouded around his head, and James simply stood there on the ground, staring up, cool air dampening his curls of hair.
A probing sort of fear burrowed into James's chest when the reality of it all hit him. He could barely breathe for a moment as he watched the boy before him very clearly floating and flying about. It was no stranger than seeing a real live fairy, really. But it had taken him days to come to terms with the existence of those little beasties alone. However would he possibly work out the science of a
boy? He sat in the grass, knees suddenly too weak to support him.
After several minutes in which James was nearly catatonic and Peter was doing backflips and zig-zags and all manner of other acrobatics (because simply floating wasn't impressive enough in its own right), James stirred. “Neverland, you say?” he whispered.
“Neverland. Where you never, never have to grow up.”
“Where is it?” he asked, feeling extremely foolish and extremely curious all at once.
Peter pointed up at the sparkling sky, to something James couldn't see. He wondered if it was due to the clouds overhead, or the spider web of branches, or his own incompetence. “Second to the right and straight on 'til morning.”
James stared up at the stars, lips just slightly parted in a deluded, lazy state of wonder. “Is it a good place?” he said, still lost in the blackness, wondering which star was the second to the right. “I mean to say, is it somewhere a boy should like to live? Or at least to visit?”
“Of course!” Peter shouted. “Full of fairies and mermaids and adventures and pirates.”
“Pirates?” James exclaimed, gaze jerking back down to meet Peter's. It was on this last point that Peter had him. Pirates were, after all, the boy's only childhood tendency.
“Oh yes. The
. Full of bumbling, stupid, grown-up pirates. I've killed at least a dozen of them.”
?” said James, head cocked. The words felt more familiar on his tongue than they should have. And James felt a slippery, wriggling sort of disquiet in his gut at the term, but he couldn't recall why. Like the reasons were grey and blurry and he couldn't quite grasp them.
“Yes,” said Peter, and James ignored his gut, worrying instead about the obvious disapproval in Peter's voice.
“Yes, of course. I thought I'd misheard.” He shifted uncomfortably, wringing his hands. “You say you killed them?” James's face wrinkled into deep, concerned folds.
Peter rolled his eyes. “Pirates, James Hook. It's not the same as killing regular folk.”
James chewed his cheek and thought. Peter
rather older than him, and he seemed to know a great deal about things James knew approximately nothing about. Perhaps pirate-killing was one of them. “Killing, though? I don't think I could kill a person, even if that person was a pirate.”
Especially if that person was a pirate
, thought James, but he figured it wouldn't be wise to admit aloud.
“Well, I'd never trust you to kill a pirate anyway. There's too much London on you.”
James recoiled, not sure what that meant, but quite certain it had been an insult. “Well, I hardly thinkâ”
“Like it or don't. It's how we do.” Peter waved his hand and leaned up against the nearest tree, flicking little fairies off in every direction.
James frowned, trying very hard to focus on his morals. He knew Eton men had to have codes against killing. But every time his mind got close to refusing the venture,
his heart got all twisted and distracted by the flying and Peter's sparkling smile and the fairies.
“Is it somewhere you can come back from?” he said.
“Of course. I was born in London, you know. I go back and forth as I please.”
James raised an eyebrow, and took a step toward Peter. “Born here? In London?”
Peter looked past James's shoulder, over to the beginning of the pond. “Grew up right here in Kensington Gardens with the fairies. 'Til I decided to stop, that is.”
'Til he decided to stop
. James bit his lip. He wondered if it was really all that easy, deciding to stop. For the first time, James wondered if growing up was really something he wished to do.
“That's when I dreamt up Neverland. Been flying here and there whenever I please ever since.”
James considered this boy and his offer and his promises of flight and pirates and adventure for what felt like an age, but it was more likely no longer than a minute.
“And you could take me there? To Neverland?”
Peter regarded him carefully, pinching his chin and piercing through him with those mesmerizing green eyes. “Perhaps.”
The early morning started to become a sort of chalky grey-black and James rose to his feet, though he found they were stuck to the ground. He was torn between staying in Kensington Park like he wanted and going home, like he ought.
“I've got to go, Peter.”
“Well, go, then. But I'm going home tomorrow. Find me or not.”
With that, Peter flitted away and James trudged to his house, head filled with fantasy and foolishness. His brain was so full of clutter and distraction that he barely even knew when he was through his bedroom door and
crawling under the covers. Somewhere between sleep and waking, he could think of nothing but this mysterious magical place where boys stayed boys forever and battled pirates and frolicked with fairies and swam with mermaids. Eventually, slumber overtook him.
IS LAST THOUGHT BEFORE WAKING, AS IT NEARLY
always was of late, was of his pirate ship filled with ruffiansâa man with a golden tooth, a fat one with a quiet little smile, another with orange hair, a big one with tattoos. And a grand room for him, filled with golden goblets of things he most certainly was not allowed to drink.
His first thought after waking, however, was of an entirely different variety. He awoke wondering if it were possible to change his black curls of hair to red-gold, straight ones. That was foolish, he figured, and so he resolved not to consider it at all. Thus, his second thought was not of Peter. It was unintelligible, but pleased, as the smell of baking cake filled every corner of the house. He padded down the stairs in his nightgown and into the dining room, where his mother was putting the finishing touches on a cake he couldn't believe she had made. She beamed when she saw him.
“Happy birthday, James!” His mother set the pretty cake down before him.
His cake-related happy mood dissolved.
what? Awful? Wonderful?
He couldn't puzzle out how he felt about it anymore. But his mother didn't seem to notice the rather forlorn look on his face. His mood did brighten a bit when he came to the realization that, since it was his birthday, his mother was allowing
him to have cake for breakfast. That was certainly a spot of luck. So, he found a reason to smile and ate his birthday cake and pretended that it didn't mean he was a year older, a year closer to manhood. Before, he would've thought this a good thing, but now, well, Peter wouldn't talk to him if he wasn't a children.
For the rest of the day, James was distracted and conflicted. On the one hand, Neverland sounded like an awfully grand place to live, and Peter made being a little boy sound like the best way to be. On the other hand, James really did want to grow up and become a man and do all the sorts of things men did. He desperately wished he didn't have to make the decision tonight.