(Originally published in On Spec #81, Summer 2010)
The stars winked in conspiratorial excitement as the two travelers flew by, borne on nighttime winds. Far below, the lights of London blazed with the unrelenting life of the city, broken only by the dark ribbon of the Thames. Every year London grew larger, stretching arms of concrete and wire into the green fields that encircled it, but the central areas stayed much the same, held in place by the weight of the past. And the travelers had eyes only for the familiar, disregarding with casual indifference the changes wrought by time.
The streets slipped by, shadowed and quiet, until a well-known roof came into view. The bay window on the top floor jittered and then swung open, hinges protesting quietly. In blew the evening breeze, carrying a dancing litter of leaves, and with it came two figures.
One flitted about, casting an unpredictable light over the room, expressing through movement her irritation with this journey. The other alit on the floor with the fleet and careless grace of the young. Ignoring his companion's vexation, he planted his hands on his hips and looked around.
The high, vaulted ceiling with its chipped and peeling frieze of vines, the lined expanse of the old wooden floor, the bay window he had come through so many times before -- these were sights he took for granted, not so much trusting they would be there as assuming it, never giving the matter any thought at all, for in his mind, everything waited on him and did not change when he went away. Of course things had changed, more than once, but he forgot those times more swiftly than dawn forgot the night.
So he told himself, as he looked about, that there had only ever been the one bed, against the left-hand wall, and that the echoing space of the remaining area was quite as it should be. No embers glowed in the dusty fireplace (but after all, the spring air was warm) and no nightlight broke the darkness (but they always yawned themselves to sleep when he came).
On bare and sun-browned feet, he crept over to the bed, a kiss tucked into one hand.
He was an imaginative boy, capable of creating feasts upon which he would glut himself, feasts composed of airy nothings finer than any cook's delicacies. By the power of his imagination, he shaped the world around him, and so he came to this room entirely confident of finding what he expected.
With a chill quite unlike any he had forgotten, he found the bed empty.
His companion was still darting around, investigating the half-open drawers of the dresser and the clothes spilling from them, the clutter strewn across the dresser-top, the pictures pinned to the walls.
"Tink," said the boy, confused, "there's no one here."
Her twinkling response was equal parts satisfaction and resentment, for however pleased she was to find their target missing, she did not like coming all this way to find it.
He went to the window, questioning, for the first time, whether he had come to the wrong place. But the window was familiar, and the fireplace behind him, and outside was the street; this house was number fourteen, and this room its nursery.
He turned back, but the bed was still empty.
In the light spilling in from the street, he could just make out some things in the room. The covers on the bed were rumpled, as if the occupant had left them for a moment, or as if no one had bothered to make them in the morning. The pictures on the walls were not painted and framed, but rather simple sheets of paper stuck up with tape and small pins, and they showed dark, angry people in dark, angry scenes. The clothes held little color, lit by the hovering, flittering light of Tink above, but they gleamed with many bits of metal. Nowhere did he see a nightlight, or toys, or any of the things he associated with this place.
"Tink," the boy said again, "I don't understand."
The fairy might have responded, but they both jerked into wary postures at the sound of a footstep on the stair. No doubt the walker was doing his best to be quiet, but the staircase was very old indeed, and besides, the boy and the fairy spent their days evading Indians and pirates. Tink dove into the dark fabrics of the dresser, and the boy hid behind a stack of boxes in the corner.
The nursery door swung open to admit a small, shadowy figure who slipped through and shut it with stealth and care. At first the only visible detail of the figure was short hair, standing up in stiff little spikes, but as he noticed the window was open and went to shut it, the light from the streets illuminated his face and showed him to be not a boy at all, but a girl.
Perhaps this sight caused the boy to twitch behind the boxes, or perhaps the topmost box decided to help matters along on its own, for it toppled to the floor with an astonishing crash.
Boy and girl alike jumped in surprise, but it was the girl who spoke first, staring at the intruder thus revealed.
"Who the hell are you?" she demanded.
These were not the words he had expected of her, though of course he was not crying, and so it would have been odd of her to ask why he was doing so. But he felt a dislocation at her harsh question, crystallizing his heretofore vague sensation that something was badly out of joint.
"Hullo, Wendy," he said tentatively, trying to put matters back as they should be.
"Look, fucker -- did you climb in through the window? Because I'm gonna call the police. They'll throw you in jail. I'll tell them you came up here to molest me --" and then her words cut off, for the boy came forward, into the moonlight, and she saw how young he was.
"My name is Peter Pan," he said.
She stared at him for a long, uncomfortable moment, not saying anything. Then she gave a bark of laughter that didn't sound amused at all. "Pull the other one."
He wasn't sure what she meant by that, but took refuge in the manners he had learned from fairy ceremonies. Offering her a grand and courteous bow, he said, "What is your name?"
"It sure as hell isn't Wendy," the girl said. "Whoever you're looking for, shithead, she isn't here. Why don't you jump out the window and go find her?" The girl's hand was stuffed into one pocket of her dark, metal-studded clothes, as if she held something tightly in one fist. Peter doubted it was a kiss.
She certainly was not Wendy. A part of his mind remembered, in a swift passage that would not allow him to dwell on it, that Wendy had grown up and gotten married and then . . . gone away. But there had been another Wendy, or rather Jane, the daughter of the first Wendy. And then Margaret, who was Jane's daughter, for the girls did not stay in the Neverland, where they would be safe from ever growing up. But they came to the Neverland for spring-cleaning every year.
Every year that Peter remembered to come for them.
"Are you Margaret?" he asked. She did not look much like Margaret, but changes happened -- though never to him.
"Like I'm going to give you my name! You've got about five seconds to leave before I start screaming."
Peter came forward a few steps more. "Don't you know me?" he asked, and a plaintive note entered his voice -- an injured note. He could imagine many things, but not insignificance. Not for himself. "I've come to take you to the Nev --"
His words dissolved into an outraged howl as the girl brought her hand out of her pocket and sprayed something in his face. The sensation was like nothing Peter had ever felt, not even when a skunk drenched him one time. His eyes watered and burned. This boy, who had fought pirates and Indians and crocodiles without showing a trace of fear, stumbled blind and crying about the room, until the glittering light of Tinker Bell flew to the window and called for him there. Away they flashed, through the air and up into the nighttime sky, leaving the nursery and its occupant behind.
Angie threw off her clothes as quick as she could and dove into bed. Not a moment too soon; she heard footsteps on the stairs, and then her father burst in, turning on the light and flooding the room with brightness.
"What's going on?" he cried, looking about. "Angie, what on earth --"
"There was someone at the window," she said, and pointed where it still hung open. "I saw someone, I swear, climbing in. But I yelled and he went away."
Her father rushed to the window and looked out, but by then there was nothing to see: just a light weaving erratically through the sky, to which he paid no attention.
"Are you sure?" he asked, turning back to his daughter. "It didn't sound like your voice. Was this one of your friends? Were you out again tonight?"
"No, I swear! I don't know who he was. Some kind of burglar, probably. He woke me up."
Angie's father searched the entire house, making sure nothing was missing, and scoured the tiny grounds as well. But he found no sign of the intruder, and when the window was securely latched again -- this time with a box wedged against it -- he left his daughter alone.
She tried to go to sleep, but dawn came tapping on her window before slumber did.
The alley behind the Indian take-away stank of curry, but it was out of sight of the street, where a passing copper might notice a clutch of kids not in school. The owner knew they were back there, but he wouldn't report them; he knew Angie could always tell the police about the business he conducted out his back door.
Angie's mate Josh took a deep drag out of the joint they were passing around and said, "Angie, chill out, would you? Singh ain't gonna report us."
She jerked her gaze away from the sky, and they all stared at her. She hadn't told them about the intruder; the truth was too weird, and too unnerving to lie around convincingly. The impossibility of it hovered in her mind, getting in the way of her thoughts.
"What if --" she began, voicing by accident the things she didn't want to say. Angie checked herself sharply, looking from Josh to Ollie to Dan. They'd think she was mad, or making shit up.
But she had started; she had to say something. "What if you could go anywhere?" she asked. "Blow off this shit, and just run away, or fly --" Hell. "Anywhere. Where would you go?"
"Glasgow," Ollie said instantly, nodding his pierced head decisively. "My brother's got a job there, fixing cars, souping them up for street racing. I'd go do that, too."
Dan, leaning back against the concrete wall, snorted in derision. "Why work, man? I'd go to Amsterdam, get high, never come down."
They promptly started an argument about the relative merits of Glasgow and Amsterdam, until Angie hissed at them to keep their voices down. She wished she had never asked. It was a dumb question, born of uncertainty and midnight confusion. But as the argument petered out, she realized Josh had never answered, and despite herself she looked at him.
He was sitting quietly, fiddling with the joint. Feeling their eyes on him, he shrugged. "I dunno," he said, and passed the joint to Dan. "Nowhere, I suppose. What would I go somewhere else for? I've got what I want, right here."
He set the other boys to arguing again, but not Angie. Her gaze crept, against her will, back to the sky.
But there was no one there.
Angie's father was at the kitchen table when she came home, hunched over the books that tallied their accounts. Columns and rows of tiny numbers in a tidy hand, with never a hint of the desperation behind them, the ever-present need to squeeze out just a little more: pay one more bill, hold off the creditors one more day. Angie hated the sight of him at the table, but she'd been hoping for it; Dad never had any attention to spare when he was doing the books.
"Hey Dad?" she called from the front hall.
She hesitated too long; if she'd asked her question quickly, like it was nothing important, her father would have answered without thinking. But she paused for a moment, long enough for him to surface from his dreary work and say, "Yes, Angie?"
If she said "nothing," it would just make him suspicious, and probably spark the questions she didn't want him asking, about why she hadn't been in school yet again. Where she'd been. What she'd been doing. Better to just say it now, before he got a chance.
"Where's Mum's old stuff?"
"Um. I don't know," he said vaguely; from his tone, he'd gone back to the numbers, and Angie breathed a sigh of relief. "Those boxes in your room, maybe."
Of course. Angie gritted her teeth. She was half-tempted to sleep on the sofa, so she never had to go upstairs again. But that was stupid. She went, clomping her heavy boots, up to the room that had once been the house's nursery.
She checked before going in, but the window was still closed, with the box in front of it.
Mum's box was at the bottom of a stack, and Angie was out of breath by the time she unearthed it. She dropped onto the floor, the boards creaking in elderly protest, and pulled on the cardboard flaps until the box came open.
The sketchbook was right on top, as if waiting for her, with its battered green cover so familiar from childhood. Angie eyed it like it was some unidentifiable creature that might or might not be safely dead, but finally she picked it up and opened it.
Dozens of images greeted her eyes. Wiggly outlines of an indeterminate island, changing its shape with every new drawing. Strange birds. Pirates, one with a hook for a hand. An enormous tree, and a ramshackle little house.
A boy, slender with youth and wild with energy, again and again. The sketches got better as they moved toward the back of the book, but he never had a face, not in any of them. Mum hadn't known what face to give him.
Angie laid the book down and gazed around the room that had been hers since she was little. Mum had insisted on it, just like she had insisted that Dad buy the house when Grandma Marge went into special care, even though they couldn't afford it. Angie still remembered the stories, recited to her like scripture when she was little.
Stories. Just stories.
But what if they weren't?
What if . . . .
The room blurred, its battered shape sliding, obscuring the flaws so badly in need of repair. For a moment, Angie could almost see what it had been, when night-lights burned to keep little children safe.
With the heel of her hand, she wiped away the tears that threatened, and the room solidified once more. She slammed the sketchbook shut and threw it back at the box, not bothering to see if it landed safely before heading for the door.
She gave vent to her feelings on the concrete wall of an abandoned laundrette. The spray paint raked across its surface, spewing out jagged, meaningless lines that weren't words, weren't art, weren't anything. The fumes filled her head and made her giddy.
Angie didn't bother to look in the direction of the shout; she knew what she would see, and looking would only slow her down. Stuffing the canister into her backpack, she took to her heels.
The copper gave chase. New on the job, Angie thought with cynical irritation. Still gets pissed about kids fucking up property. She veered down an alley, hoping to give the pig enough trouble that he'd give up.
No such luck; she heard the footsteps behind her still, the copper shouting for her to stop.
And then from above, she heard a voice crow out.
The triumphant sound, so often described to her, so out of place in the urban landscape of London, took her down like a rugby player. Angie tripped on a broken bit of concrete and went sprawling, ripping out the one good knee of her jeans, taking half the skin off her arm, slamming her chin on the ground. She gasped for air, and when her lungs were working again, she looked back.
The copper had stopped, too, and had his truncheon out, ready to strike the lithe figure between him and Angie. The boy who called himself Peter Pan stood boldly, feet planted wide, and there was a fucking sword in his hand. No wonder the truncheon was out.
"Get out of the --" she started to shout at the boy, but as she did so, a brilliant light swooped in and buzzed the rozzer's face. The man shouted and reeled back, swinging the truncheon and missing.
The boy did not miss. He leapt into the air, and it wasn't just a jump: he hovered. He flew forward, then struck with his sword.
Angie screamed again and lurched to her feet. The copper dodged, unsuccessfully; the blade didn't skewer him, but it cut deeply into his shoulder. He howled, and over the sound of his pain Angie shrieked, "You can't stab him, Jesus Christ, you can't kill a pig, are you mad?"
The copper tripped and fell to the pavement. Angie ran forward, not sure what she could do to help him, but she never got the chance to find out; wiry fingers grabbed her wrist, glittery dust showered over her, and then the boy dragged her upwards, into the sky.
"You didn't fly," the boy said after he dropped her onto the grass in Kensington Gardens. He was rubbing his arm, looking offended at having had to drag her weight all the way there. "Don't you know to think happy thoughts?"
"Happy thoughts?" Angie could barely get the words out. "Who the fuck do you think you are?"
Confusion flitted across his face, ever so briefly. "You know who I am. I'm Peter Pan."
And he was. He crowed; he flew; he showed up in the nursery looking to take little girls to the Neverland. "What if" had become what was. The stories were real.
Angie staggered backward and leaned against a tree. "And you've come for me."
Peter brightened immediately. "Yes!"
The insufferable smile on his face did it -- the happy, thoughtless assumption that now everything was going the way he wanted, now everything was great.
So he was real. So what?
"Fuck you. I'm not going."
The flickering light zoomed up into Angie's face and made a melodious, glittering sound that somehow managed to be very rude.
Angie swatted at it with her hand. "Go away, you stupid -- you stupid fairy."
Peter was still staring at her, with the wounded puppy-dog look of a little boy. "But it's time for spring cleaning."
"Spring cleaning?" Angie stared back. "Spring fucking cleaning? You've got no clue, do you?"
He drew himself up with overstuffed pride. "Of course I do."
"No. You don't. My mother spent her whole life waiting for you. Going to sleep every night in that nursery, hoping she'd wake up to find you there. But you never came, did you? You were off in the Neverland, having fun, and you didn't think about her. You didn't even know she existed. I'm not Wendy, you stupid wanker, and I'm not Jane, and I'm not Margaret, either. You took her to the Neverland all of twice. She used to tell me about it, you know -- before we had to put her in a nursing home, one where they lock the doors and don't let you out. We kept finding her wandering the streets, muttering about .second to the right.' One time she was out all night, and when they found her just before dawn, she started crying, because they stopped her going straight on till morning."
Angie's breath was coming in great gulping heaves by the time she ran out of words. The tree was well behind her, and Peter had retreated before her advance. He had an odd expression on his face -- the expression of someone who sees guilt coming in search of him, and is trying desperately to pretend he doesn't notice it while edging very quickly in the other direction. "Time is different in the Neverland," he said, reluctantly, as if even admitting that was hard. "And I forget things."
"You forget people," Angie said. "We don't matter to you, do we? You just want someone to come and do your spring cleaning, and it doesn't matter if it's Grandma Marge or Jane or Wendy, because it isn't about us; it's about you."
"It's about adventure!" Peter protested. "Mermaids, and Indians, and pirates --"
Angie barked out a laugh. "Pirates? I can get those at the cinema. I don't need the Neverland. I'm not a kid anymore, and I'm not going to be your goddamned mother."
Off to the side, where neither of them was watching, the brilliant light of Tinker Bell sank to the ground, her wings motionless with shock.
There were tears inside Angie's heart, but the fury was stronger. It had fed for many years on her resentment, on the memory of her mother's hopeless patience and her grandmother's fanciful senility. It had been waiting for this day, even if Angie herself had never believed it would come. She knew too well the price of that belief.
"Go away, Peter," Angie said. "We don't want you anymore."
The window rattled, but quietly, as if it did not wish anyone to notice. The box holding it closed slipped away, sliding along the old floorboards polished by so many children's feet. The window blew open, and in came a slender boy, accompanied by a small light.
The light stayed away from the figure on the bed, feeling none too charitable, and perhaps fearful of waking her. The boy came forward on silent feet and looked down at the girl who lay there: the short, spiked hair, the piercings all along her ears, the mouth set hard even in sleep. Young, but not a child. She did not dream of the Neverland.
He went away a few steps, uncertainly, then sat down on the floor and began to sob.
"Boy, why are you crying?"
A pale figure had sat up in bed. Peter leapt up, wiping away his tears, and made her a courteous bow. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Wendy Moira Angela Darling. What's yours?"
"Peter Pan," he said.
He was an imaginative boy, capable of creating feasts upon which he would glut himself, feasts composed of airy nothings finer than any cook's delicacies. By the power of his imagination, he shaped the world around him, and perhaps he shaped this for himself, out of the memories that so often slipped his mind. Or perhaps this was a ghost, the last, faded remnants of the innocence each girl lost as she grew up and became a woman. She looked a little like Angie, a little like Margaret, a little like Jane . . . and a great deal like Wendy.
Together they flew out into the nighttime sky, with Tinker Bell coming spitefully along behind, and the window swung itself shut behind them, the box sliding back into place. Peter Pan took his last Wendy to the Neverland, not just for the spring cleaning but forever, and they never came back.