It was in the park I met him, one summer day when my Dad and I were fighting (again) and I left (again), slamming the door behind me after realizing I wouldn’t be winning (again), and took the tube to Kensington Gardens, where sometimes you can meet interesting people if the timing and other magical aspects of the world are right. When I was angry, which is what I’d been most of the time since my mum left a couple of years ago, I’d always go to the gardens. Back when I was little, she used to tell me that fairies lived there, that the flowers in the beds were actually their disguises. I never believed her, really—and after she left I thought of that as just another example of her tendency to lie—but by the time the sun went down that day, I’d see hundreds of them. Fairies, that is. And him too. Peter.
He wasn’t what I expected, though I hadn’t really gone to the gardens expecting to see him in the first place. And anyway, what can you truly expect from someone you thought was a character out of a story adults read to children?
That’s what my mum used to do. She’d read to me from this one book about Peter. Not the famous one with Wendy and Neverland, but the one where Peter was first introduced, The Little White Bird. That was back when she still wanted to be part of our family. That was back before she met Marcus the Carcass Splitter, owner of the absurdly posh butcher shop called Chop Chop over in Camden Town. That was back before she left my dad and me behind for bloody fat–marbled sides of beef.
In the stories my mum used to read, Peter always seemed like a perpetual ten–year–old, but the Peter who stood in front of me that day, admiring his own statue (which looked like the little kid version of him) seemed more round my age. Fifteen or sixteen. Reddish–brown hair sticking up like he’d just pulled his head off a pillow. Wearing this costume of a leaf–covered vest and soft leather pants. And boots, too, up to the tops of his calves.
I didn’t realize who he was right away. I thought he was just another nutter, or someone really into cosplay, or maybe just this huge fan of Peter Pan who’d gotten a bit carried away. But none of that put me off him. He was exactly the sort of person I’d hoped I’d come across. Someone lost, someone looking for something that might Change Things.
I’d been there for about twenty minutes before he showed up, but no one really interesting had come by. Just mums and dads with kids, tourists clicking the camera buttons on their phones. So I’d kept my hands in my pockets and kept walking, hoping someone right would eventually meet my eyes. The world seemed to conspire against me that day, though, and I began to worry I’d end up back at our flat feeling the same way I had when I left.
Then suddenly he was just there, standing next to the Peter statue like he’d been beamed down to earth from his alien world past the first star on the left and straight on until morning. And for the first full minute after he materialized, all he did was stand there and stare at that statue of himself like he was looking up at Christ on the cross or something.
“You like him?” I finally said, grinning as I interrupted him pondering the statue like someone absorbed in one of their own selfies. I lifted my chin in the direction of the statue and chuckled a little, trying to put him at ease, but he only turned to me with this squint in his eye and said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been that little.”
I couldn’t stop myself from snorting. Clearly the kid was messing with me. But when his face didn’t budge, I squinted back and said, “You lose your way from the hospital or something?”
“This was the spot,” he said, utterly serious, and pointed at the stump–like pedestal the bronze Peter statue stood on, which had these stone fairies etched into its base, fanning their wings as they looked up at him like some kind of god. “This was the spot where I landed after I flew out my window and the bird Solomon told me I was more human than I thought, and that humans can’t fly. And because he said that, I fell and landed. Right here.”
“Are you for real?” I asked, and he just blinked and nodded like, of course. I nodded back, just once, thinking, Right, this is going to be interesting. Even if the kid was a complete liar or just out of his mind in general, or maybe doing performance art of some kind, I liked that he believed in what he was trying to sell me.
“I had a boat too,” he said, “right over there,” and he pointed toward a group of trees that lined the river. “I used to stash it there when I came across the Serpentine from the island where Solomon’s bird friends built me the boat from mud and twigs.”
“Come on,” I said, “Let’s have a look then.”
“At the boat?” he said, raising his eyebrows.
I nodded and smiled, encouraging him to keep the game going. Of course he’d back down after I pushed for proof, I figured, because there really wasn’t any. “Yeah,” I said. “The boat. Let’s go for a sail in it, why don’t we?”
“It’s probably fallen apart by now,” he said, shaking his head in resignation. And I thought, Here it comes. “But if it’s anywhere,” he said as he turned again toward the copse of trees by the river, “it would be there.” He looked over his shoulder at me then and said, “You do believe me, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “Why wouldn’t I?” And hearing that, he seemed to brighten a bit, to stand up straighter, and then he grinned like a fool.
“Let’s go then!” he said, suddenly sounding like a little kid calling out the start of a surprise race, and then he turned to sprint in the direction of the tree line. “Beat you there!”
Nutter, I thought, shaking my head as I watched him go. Utter nutter. But I ran off a second later, laughing a little because I’d gone this far with him already, running to look for a non–existent boat made out of twigs and mud. I figured it was better than being at home pretending like my dad and I weren’t ready to commit acts of immense violence upon each other.
When I caught up to him down by the banks of the Serpentine, he was standing half–bent over, looking at something. And when I came to a stop beside him, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
A nest. A big nest. A human–sized nest, really, had been pulled up on the bank of the river. It was covered with moss and some fallen branches and a few vines that had grown around it over time, camouflaging it from ordinary passersby. Peter looked up with a glint in his eye. “I told you,” he said. “I told you it’d be here if it was anywhere. Get in.”
“Are you mad?” I said. “That boat’s not big enough for both of us. We’ll go down like the bloody Titanic.”
He laughed like he thought I’d told a joke, slapped one of his thighs like he was doing a pantomime play of Peter Pan, and suddenly I started to wonder if maybe one of those was actually going on in the park that day and he’d somehow escaped from the venue, gone off the rails, threw the script over his shoulder, and this group of children were just then sitting in a semi–circle somewhere asking their mums when Peter was going to come back and finish the story.
“You’re funny,” he said. “I like that. Not everyone can tell a proper joke.” Then he cleared away the branches and vines and pushed the boat out into the water, wading next to it. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “Come on already.”
I waited for him to get in the boat, which bobbed on top of the water even after it held his weight inside it. There was barely room in there for me, but he held his hand out anyway, curled his fingers inward a couple of times. I thought about those fingers for a second, the way they might feel on my skin, and shivered.
“It isn’t going to work with both of us in there,” I said. I put my hands in my pockets and looked back toward the Peter statue, ready to run. The light was starting to turn this greyish–purple color, as if whole hours had burned away in the last five minutes, and the grounds looked incredibly empty where just seconds before hordes of people had been milling.
Then I heard a clang, clang, clang sound coming from all sides of the park, and Peter whispered in the most alarmed way, “It’s Lock–out Time. We must hurry.”
“Are you saying we’ve been locked in?”
“No,” said Peter. “I’m saying humans have been locked out. Hurry. The fairies will be coming soon, and you’re not a baby. They like human babies, but not grown–ups.”
“I have a mobile with me,” I said, and fished my phone out. But when I started tapping on the keypad, I got nothing. No numbers. No bars. No anything. ”What the?” I said, tapping and tapping.
“There’s no time for whatever that is,” said Peter. “Hurry. Get in.”
So I stashed my phone in my pocket and waded out into the water—because what else could I do, really—and climbed into that nest of a boat to squeeze in beside him.
It was a pretty messed up idea, but my life was pretty messed up right then. I didn’t want to go home to my dad and have to apologize for the argument we’d had earlier, during which I’d called him the biggest wanker in the world, and then proceeded to tell him how I wished he and my mum had never had me. Sitting in a nest–like boat seemed somehow more preferable.
Peter didn’t say much as we floated down the Serpentine. He just slipped a small garden spade from between two branches in the nest and held it up in the air, where it gleamed under the moonlight. I blinked a few times, then gasped as I realized the moon was already out and shining down on the spade and on the rippling water. “My old paddle,” said Peter, waving it around like a sword.
“It’s a garden spade,” I pointed out.
“I know that,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I just didn’t know it back then, when I was only seven days old.”
“You paddled down the Serpentine in this nest with a garden implement when you were seven days old?” I said, blinking over and over. I couldn’t manage to keep the scorn out of my voice, or the roll out of my eyes.
Peter nodded. “I also used it to bury the children.”
My throat constricted, hearing that, and the sudden urge to throw myself overboard came on me. “You buried children?”
“The ones who got lost,” Peter replied like this was quite normal.
“Lost?” I said, thinking maybe I should have just gone back home and apologized after all.
“Yes,” said Peter. “They’d either get lost on their way to their mothers after hatching, or on their way back when they decided they wanted to be birds again instead of humans.”
“Okay, this has gone on long enough,” I said, and tried to wriggle away from him, to put some space between our bodies. But the nest–boat was too small. Our shoulders were pressed together, his right knee knocked against my left, and he rested one elbow on my chest as he held the spade up over my head like it was bloody Excalibur. If he hadn’t been acting like such a little kid, which was a huge turn–off, I might have slid my hand under his tunic to see if he were up for it.
“No,” he said. “We haven’t gone far enough to reach the island yet.” Then he turned to the side and dipped the spade into the dark water and began to paddle.
I didn’t know what to do other than sit there and grill myself for being so flipping stupid. What had I been thinking? My dad would be wondering where I was. He might have even called my mum to ask if I’d shown up there, which would never happen, but if he was worried enough, he’d phone her. When I got home—if Peter didn’t turn out to be a bloody serial killer and I did get to go home—my dad would annihilate me for running off again, which is something I’d been doing for the past year, whenever we had a row. I hated this idea I had right then, as I drifted in the nest–boat, this idea that the last thing I might ever hear my dad say was, “Colin, I’m sorry, but shouting at me and running off to who knows where isn’t going to bring your mum home. She has a new home now, much as you don’t like it.”
She’d left when I was thirteen, right after she gave my dad her parting words. Jonathan Crowe, she had told him, you are all mouth and no trousers. Then she picked up the bags she’d packed before my dad got home from cabbying and walked out the door. Didn’t look back, not even to catch my eye. She’d already been seeing Marcus the Carcass Splitter behind our backs for several months already. Had kept it a secret. She went to stay with Marcus then, and after the divorce, she got remarried within a few weeks, like we’d never meant anything.
I wanted to hate her. A lot. I did hate her, actually. But I couldn’t keep hating her so hard forever, my dad kept saying. So I tried to forgive her instead. And sometimes I’d get to this place where I’d want to be around her again, because I missed her voice as she talked back to the wankers who populated her favorite talk shows on the telly, and I missed the sound of her whistling as she made us tea. And then, when she’d call or email to see how I was doing, I’d be decent enough to her, which was a mistake because then she got the idea that it was time to have me over for dinner with her and Marcus. I tried that a few times, but it never worked out. As soon as I’d knock on their door and she answered, saying, “Colin, my love!” and Marcus would come to stand behind her, all smarmy and grinning over her shoulder, I’d start hating her all over again.
It was because of what she’d said before she left—not to my dad, but to me, even though she didn’t mean for me to hear—it was because of what she said that I couldn’t forgive her.
The boat knocked against land and Peter rolled against me, which was perfect timing, actually, because I’d been getting worked up thinking about my mum. His body rolling against mine was a good remedy for anger, and I put my hands around his waist and winked. “We’re here,” he said, his stupidly smiling face so close to my own I could have kissed him. Instead I asked where here was. “Home,” said Peter. “The place we all come from.”
“Let’s make it quick then,” I said, losing interest since he wasn’t showing any in my hands being on him. “I really need to be going.”
Peter furrowed his brow. “You won’t be going anywhere until morning when they open the gates,” he said. When I gave him a look to pierce that stupid smile of his, he pulled back and said, “Well, maybe Solomon can help you. Maybe you can fly out. If you can remember how to fly, that is.”
“I can’t remember how to fly,” I said, “because I’ve never flown before.”
“Oh, but you have,” said Peter. “Back when you were a bird.”
I sighed instead of cursing. It was useless trying to reason with him. He was a character from a children’s story. He was a child himself, trapped in a teenager’s body.
We pulled the boat ashore to the cries of what sounded like a million night birds being disturbed, honking and chirping and cheeping or shrieking at our sudden presence. But when Peter lifted his hands and spread his fingers, they all fell silent. “Hello again!” he shouted into the blackness.
And all of the birds in unison said, “Peter!”
There was a great flurry of activity then, and I tried to stand behind him and not call attention to myself because honestly, I wanted to pretend this was all a dream, that I was really asleep at the base of the Peter Pan statue in the park. But the birds, unfortunately, wouldn’t let me be. They kept circling round and landing, cocking their heads at me and asking Peter things like, “Who’s this then, Peter? Another of your lost boys?”
“I’m not lost,” I said, getting a bit tetchy. “I’ve just been locked in.”
“Lost,” one of the birds said. A thrush, I think. I shot it a look and it ruffled its feathers.
“Where’s Solomon?” Peter asked once they’d all quieted.
“With the eggs, of course,” said one of the birds. “He’s got a very long list of expectations to fill, as usual.”
“Come on, then,” said Peter, looking at me. “Solomon will know what to do with you.”
“I don’t need anything done with me,” I said.
“You need to get out, you said, right now, you said. Right?”
“Well, then,” said Peter. “Solomon will know if that’s possible.”
We walked to the center of the island, where one particular tree grew taller than the others, and underneath it were rows of nests where birds sat on top of their eggs. Some of the birds grew startled at our approach and sent up a flurry of caws, then flew off into the night, leaving their eggs behind, some of which began to tremble. Cracks ran through several of them, beaks pierced through the openings, and suddenly there were these baby birds shrugging off flakes of shell like dogs shake off water. The baby birds looked back and forth between Peter and me as if one of us must be their mother. Then a gravelly voice boomed down from the canopy of the tallest tree. The voice shouted a series of numbers and street names, some of which I recognized, one in particular an address just round the corner from my mum and Marcus’s flat. As the addresses were listed, the baby birds stretched out their wings, one after the other, and flew into the night sky like sparks from a bonfire.
“What—“ I said. But I didn’t really know how to follow through with that question.
“They’re going to their mothers,” said Peter.
“Their mothers are here,” I said, looking at the empty nests where they’d been before we’d scared them. “Well, they were here, at any rate.”
“They’re going to their human mothers,” said Peter. “You did it once, too. Don’t look so horrified!”
Just then a stiff wind blew our hair back and a large crow circled the air above. After it landed between our feet, the crow looked up and said, “Peter, my Betwixt and Between, you’ve returned to us. And you’ve brought a friend, I see.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Peter said. “I meant it to just be me, Solomon. Why are you still in charge here anyway? Last time I saw you, you said you had your eye on a tree over in the figs and planned to retire.”
“My stocking of savings was stolen!” cried Solomon. “A hundred and eighty crumbs! Thirty–four nuts! Sixteen crusts! A pen–wiper and a bootlace! Everything gone! Everything! I couldn’t retire after that. I’ve had to stay on!”
“That’s terrible,” said Peter, shaking his head in commiseration.
“It is,” said Solomon, nodding. “Such is the way of the world, these days. A bird must work until his life expires. All of the mothers encourage their hatchlings to become human babies because of it, of course. Now for you, then. Why are you here?”
“I just came to see if everything was still the same,” said Peter. “I suppose I was missing the place a bit.”
“Caught in the webs of nostalgia?” Solomon said, chuckling. He flew up and landed on Peter’s shoulder, so that he could look him straight in the eye. Peter crooked his head to the side to make room for him. “You’ve grown quite a bit since last we saw you. I didn’t think you’d ever be able to grow up like a normal human child.”
“Up there,” said Peter as he looked up at the sky, “it’s possible. Not like a normal human would grow, of course. Much slower. But at least I’m not a baby any longer.”
Solomon turned to look where Peter was looking. So did I. And just then a star winked at us as if it had noticed us staring. “Even I haven’t flown that far before,” said Solomon. “It’s quite wonderful to think of it, it is.”
“It is a wonderful thought, isn’t it?” said Peter. Then he turned back to Solomon and said, “My friend here needs to get out tonight. Can you help him?”
“Can he fly?” Solomon asked, looking at me past the bridge of Peter’s slightly freckled nose.
“Of course not,” said Peter. “Have you lost your marbles? He’s human.”
“Quite human,” said Solomon, as if that were something you wouldn’t want to be, really. “Quite human, indeed. But you relearned how to fly despite being part human, Peter.”
“I can’t fly,” I said, interrupting them. “Really, I can’t. And I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn how to as early as tomorrow morning.”
“You’ll have to stay overnight then,” said Solomon. “Peter can take care of you, I trust. He always took good care of the lost children he found in the park if they hadn’t already died before he found them.”
“Brilliant,” I said, and sighed as I turned to start trudging back down the path we’d taken. “Just brilliant.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Peter asked as he slid his garden spade through the water again, paddling us back up the Serpentine a bit later.
“I just want to go home,” I said. I was looking up at the stars, trying to not be angry and trying to not feel stupid for feeling like a kid about to cry because everything seemed so futile. Getting out of here seemed futile. My family seemed futile. I felt futile. I just wanted someone to hold onto, and Peter wasn’t the someone I’d hoped to find that evening.
“I know what it means to want to go home,” said Peter. “I flew out of my mother’s window when I was seven days old and when I tried to go back she’d already had another child. And even now, after making a home up there, I know what it feels like to miss other homes. Kensington Gardens was my first, you know, not up there. But you’ve been steam–out–the–ears and arms–folded like you’re a statue since I met you.” He paddled a couple more strokes, then looked at me, very shocked, as if he’d been startled. “Are you a statue from the gardens come to life?” he asked, as if that would explain my stiffness.
“What are you on about?” I said, snorting at the idea. “I’m not a bloody statue. Your head is broken.”
“No it’s not,” said Peter. “I’d know if I had a broken head. I lost my shadow once and I knew it when that happened, so I’d know if my head were broken as well.”
I rolled my eyes. “Enough,” I said, and slid a cupped hand into the water to help him paddle faster.
When we approached the spot we’d set off from though, Peter pulled his spade up and stopped paddling. “What’s wrong?” I asked, still scooping handfuls of water on my side of the nest–boat. I wasn’t giving up so easily.
“The fairies will be waiting for us,” Peter said gravely. “And they haven’t seen me in a long while. They may not recognize me. I’m not a child any longer. They may want to kill us.”
“Well, you more so than me. I should be okay if they do recognize me. They’re very adamant about keeping humans out of the gardens after Lock–out Time,” said Peter. “The only thing that saved me from them the first time I rowed up to their shore was that I was still a baby and all the women–fairies wanted to take care of me once they saw that. Even fairy women love human babies.”
I wanted to tell him love for babies is far too easy. My mum proved that. I wanted to tell him about how my mum didn’t give a shit about me after I wasn’t a baby and took off when she didn’t like who I was becoming. I wanted to say, “You know what? While my mum was telling off my dad in the next room, right before she left us, she told him it was probably because my dad was such a weakling wanker that his son had become a poof.” A poof. A bleeding poof is what she’d called me that day.
Thanks, Mum. Thanks a lot.
Being abandoned as a baby like Peter might have been easier than growing up with a mum who didn’t like who her baby boy grew up to be, like I did. But I didn’t put that thought to Peter. We didn’t need to compete about who’d had it worse, I figured. We could both feel like our early lives sucked and maybe we’d both gotten stuck in those places precisely because of how sucky they were.
Despite the fact that we’d stopped paddling, the boat continued to drift toward the riverbank, and as we grew closer, I began to see them. Little people with pointed ears and fanciful clothes of so many different colors came out of the shadows. Seeing that, I realized why my mum used to say they hid themselves away dressed as flowers. I smiled at that thought, then frowned in the next instant. I was thinking of her again, and thinking of her made me mad all over.
When the boat landed, bumping up against the bank and jolting me out of my thoughts, it turned out that the fairies didn’t try to kill us after all. Instead they sent up a great cheer as Peter leapt from the boat into their waiting arms, surrounding him like fireflies, their many wings all aflutter, covering him with kisses like a hero returned home from war.
After all the pomp and circumstance, though, it was mostly a disappointment, to be honest. Peter seemed to forget about me, and the fairies were so caught up in his return that they didn’t notice me in the slightest. They all moved off from the banks of the Serpentine together, back into the gardens, where they began to play music and pass tiny cups of wine down the lines of their tiny tables and dance and sing like it were a holiday party. One of them—their queen, I figured from all of the lining up and bowing that went on around her—gave Peter a set of pipes, which he started to play at her request, and then they all twirled along the garden paths together, drunk and laughing like idiots.
I kept my distance. To be honest, I was relieved they had no interest in me, and I was also starting to get tired of dealing with Peter. There was something off about him. I mean, he was exactly as described in the books about him—always stoked for endless adventure—but I wasn’t so charmed as I’d been when I was little and his storybook life seemed like a thing I would have given anything to have. Now, being so close to him, I felt more like, I don’t know, like he had something wrong with him. He unnerved me.
I sat down at the base of the Peter statue instead of following after. Rested my back against the bronze stump, gathered my knees into my arms, checked my phone again. When it still showed nothing but a grey screen, dead as dead can be, I tilted my head back to look up at the stars wheeling above.
There it was, the first star on the right, winking at me, as if it were giving me an invitation to move there. I looked down though, stared at my untied shoelaces and thought about other things. Mum, mostly, even though I didn’t want to. She would have a good laugh if I ever told her about this evening.
Time passed. The color of the sky changed, lightening ever so slightly as morning made its way back. I didn’t sleep. I just sat there and tried to think about what I’d say to my dad when I was able to go home again. He’d murder me, for sure. I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. Curfew would be reinstated. I’d be living in my own personal dystopia. He’d probably even threaten to send me off to live with Mum and Marcus if I didn’t settle down.
A shadow fell over me at some point, and I looked up to find Peter standing above me, blocking out the stars, which were beginning to fade as the sky lightened. “You’ve made it,” he said. “You’ve spent a whole night in the gardens. Not many can say that. How do you feel?”
“How do I feel?” I said, and looked away. “I feel like an idiot.”
“You’re not an idiot,” said Peter. He knelt on his haunches then, so he could look at me straight on.
“I’m so fucked up,” I said, shaking my head.
“No,” said Peter, “you’re not.”
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“How do you figure?”
“I think too much. Mum always said so. Her and my aunt Donna. My aunt Donna once said that my personality would ruin me. It was at some kind of family thing, I forget which one, and my mum was still around, so I wasn’t able to say anything in return without getting a clout on the head by my dad for talking back. When we got home though, I asked my mum what aunt Donna had meant, and she said Donna didn’t have a way with words, that was for certain, but that she thought she meant I thought too much. And that it would do me no good in life to give things that kind of attention.”
“What do you think about that now?” Peter asked.
“I dunno,” I said, shaking my head. “I guess she was right. My aunt Donna, I mean. I think about things too much. I think about my mum more than I should. I think about her more than she deserves. I wonder sometimes, is she thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about her? And then I think, To hell with her. Stop caring, like she stopped caring about you.”
Peter stood again, put his hands on his hips and said, “I tried to go back to my mother once, but she’d already had another child and she’d forgotten about me mostly. I know how you feel.” He held his hand out then, and I looked at it for a moment, not sure what he wanted. It was far past the time to be looking for a rub. “You can come with me,” he said, and I blinked a little before asking where.
“Back to where I’ll be going,” was his answer.
I looked up into his eyes and knew where he was talking about. I knew from the books my mum had read where he’d be going, where I could go if I just took his hand and let him fly me away from all my problems. Mermaids and pirates and eternal childhood. All of that and some fairy dust lingering in the air like snowflakes after.
“No, thanks,” I said and sighed. I couldn’t leave my dad, no matter how hard we were fighting, and for better or for worse, I couldn’t leave my mum, even though what she’d said had flayed me and kept flaying me for these past two years. “I’ve got…I’ve got to get things right here, somehow,” I said, thinking I would probably go over to my mum’s place after the gates opened in a while, and I’d act really strange most likely, showing up out of the blue like that. But hopefully she’d make breakfast and maybe we could try to figure out how to talk to each other a little. “Maybe some other time though?” I offered.
Peter stared at me with those blank eyes of his—those eyes that could never get what human eyes understand as ours grow older and see more of the world, the good and the bad of it—and I shivered. No words passed between us after that, though we kept staring at each other like we were mirror images, or one of us a shadow come undone from the other, and we couldn’t or at least didn’t want to let go.
I almost reached out to him, but before I could, Peter turned away and transformed into a little white bird, which all of us are before we become human beings. And then he flew away, up into the pale morning sky studded with fading diamonds.
(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Deborah Stanish also interviews Christopher Barzak.)
© 2014 Christopher Barzak