The young girl woke to find a boy staring at her from the window. His face hovered at the edge of the light, his eyes just above the ledge. Behind him was darkness.
She burst up from the bed, breathing in big gulps of air as if she was surfacing from some great depth.
“Who are you?” she said when she caught her breath.
The boy did not answer, but vaulted up onto the window sill and crouched, bird-like. His auburn hair was speckled by bits of leaves and twigs, as if he had climbed through a bush to get there. His clothes were tattered, patched with leaves and vines and strips of cracked leather.
This strange boy sat staring at her, his head cocked, eyebrows arched, as if he was waiting for something. He was young, she thought, but his face was darkened by a fleeting shadow of time. When she tried to pin down his age, it slipped through her grasp and scampered off. He could have been about her age, or 15, or 20. Perhaps even older.
“Who are you?” she asked again.
“Someone here to help,” he said, his voice was quiet, even sad.
“Help me do what?” She looked around the room, uneasy. “Where did my mom and dad go?”
“They’re still in your room,” he said.
“But this is my room.”
“Yes and no,” he said. He sat on the sill, his arms wrapped around his legs, pulling them tight to his chest. His movements were stiff and methodical, like an old, worn-out fighter.
“I don’t see them,” she said. They’re not in here.” She felt her face beginning to flush.
“You’ll see them when you’re ready.”
“Ready to understand,” he said. “It’s better this way.” He cocked his head at her again. “How old are you, girl?”
“I’m 9,” she said, pulling her shoulders back, her head up.
“The little ones…”
“I’m not little.”
“…The really little ones, I don’t think they ever truly understand,” he said. The girl wasn’t sure if he was even speaking to her anymore. “That usually makes it easier.”
The girl shook her head at this strange boy. “How did you get up to my window? Did you climb a tree?” She could not see a tree, and she couldn’t remember there being one. It had been such a long time since she’d been able to go to the window.
“I flew,” he said.
The girl laughed. “You can’t fly.”
Accepting the challenge, he floated up from the window sill, his legs still pulled tight to his chest. He hovered there for a few seconds, then settled back on his perch with a momentary smirk.
The girl’s eyes widened. “Do that again.”
“Soon enough,” he said.
The girl looked again at the boy, his clothes, the leaves in his hair. She drew in a sharp, surprised breath.
“Are you really him?” she said.
“Hello, Peter,” she said, her grin wide.
“Do you know my name?”
“No. I don’t ask anymore.”
“Oh,” she said, her face crunched in confusion. “Are you here to take me to Neverland?”
“Where else do you go? London?”
“No, not there.”
“I don’t remember anywhere else in your stories.”
“It’s there,” he said, turning to look out the window. “No one ever remembers it. Especially not the mothers and fathers. They don’t want to. Not before leaving their children in the dark.” He let out a long, quiet breath as, past him, the girl could see the soft glow of lights. She hadn’t noticed them there before. A few more twinkled on as she watched.
“Is that her?” She smiled. “Are those—”
“Those aren’t fairy lights,” he said quietly. If the room had still been filled with the hum and buzz of machines, she never would have heard him.
The sudden realization startled and scared her like the electric pain of a bee sting. The silence. It had been weeks, maybe longer, since she’d heard silence. There were no monitors beeping, no alarms at the nurses’ station, no quiet crying in the hall.
She looked up at Peter, his eyes fastened on her. She could feel the sharp pricks of tears building behind her eyes.
“When are my mom and dad coming back?” Her voice was watery.
“They’re not the ones that left,” he said.
She could feel the tears now burning to the surface. She could taste ash at the back of her throat.
“No,” she said.
As the tears scalded over, she could see the boy just sitting, watching her. And through some thin membrane, some placental shroud, she could see herself as he could: a thin, wrecked girl lying in bed, her mother clutching her as if she was trying to crack open the small, graying body, tears dropping onto the girl’s smooth scalp.
Her father was slumped in a chair near the bed, his hand on her thin thigh, his wet face flushed and swollen. This was a grief she had never seen on him, and it was ill-fitting, like wet clothes. He leaned his head on the bed as if the weight of his thoughts was too heavy. She watched his shoulders silently heave and remembered how he had tried to carry her on them long after she had grown too big.
She looked up at the boy. He nodded. “Do you see?” he said.
She collapsed back into the bed, her hands covering her eyes, too late to shield them.
“No. No. No,” she said until it became a low, throbbing chant. The boy did not move from his perch. He’d tried, many times, to comfort them at this moment, but had given up long ago. Now he just sat and watched as deep, dark sobs crashed through her like black waves during a storm.
He thought of so many other lost boys and girls like this, so many they ran together like rain drops becoming a river. He drew his thin legs into his chest, ducked his head into the shelter of his knees, and waited for it to pass.
On the bed, the girl cried. She cried like her mother and like her father, for them and for herself. She cried for all she had done and all she would never do. She cried for the friends she played with and for her backyard in summertime and for the boy she would have met and for the little ones that would have followed, the picture of her life erased and the crumbs brushed from the page. She cried until every part of her future cracked and fell away, like dried mud flaking from her skin.
And the boy waited.
A long time after she stopped crying, she sat up. “It happened,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Mom said they wouldn’t let it happen.”
“Sometimes they promise what they want to be the truth,” he said.
She seemed startled, as if she had forgotten he was there. “How are you going to help me?” she said.
“When he made me, he gave me this job.”
“‘There were odd stories about him, as that when children died, he went part of the way with them so that they should not be frightened,’” he recited. He looked out the window again. She noticed more lights off in the distance.
“I don’t think he knew what he was doing,” he said, facing her again, his face flushed. “I don’t think he understood how sometimes what we create can be so powerful it can change things, how it can last forever. How it can go on and on.”
The girl thought she saw him blink back tears and she looked away. “What will happen to my mom and dad?” She was staring at the spot where she had last seen her father. “Are they going to be ok?”
“Yes,” he said. “And no.”
“What about me?”
“You have to come with me,” he said. “When you’re ready.”
“Where?” said the girl, her eyes widened.
The boy just looked at her.
“What if I don’t want to go?” she said. “I could go with you. I could come. I could learn to fight, I used to get in fights when I was little, but I stopped. I never hit anybody, not really, but I could learn. I could fly and I could help you. I could–”
“You can’t,” he snapped. He looked down, his face flushed. His voice softened. “But where you’re going, that will be an awfully big adventure.” He tried to smile at her. “Big enough.”
The hospital bed creaked underneath the girl as she pulled up her blanket and buried her face in it. He knew she was crying again, but it was weak and quiet. He knew this would pass soon, and it did.
Her eyes were wet and red as she looked him over, all dirty hair and faded, tattered green clothes, shadows pulling at his edges. “I thought you would be different,” she said. “You seemed different in the stories.”
He wanted to tell her that he had been different. He had been that boy in the stories. Once upon a time, he had been a child full of adventure and mischief so weightless that every movement felt like flying. Sometimes he could still be that boy, but so much of the time now that never-ending boy would flit away like a shadow stuck on with soap. He wanted to tell her that one day she would no longer match the stories they told about her, either. Already, without them even realizing, that’s what she was now: a story. They would know soon that they would need this story girl, this girl of light and eternal childhood and she would fill in their dark places. And he could tell her that this story girl would change through the creeping, endless years and become more beautiful and more intelligent and more perfect until they created in this story girl the person they were sure their lost girl would have become if she had just been given the time and they would forget the parts they needed to forget and create the parts they needed to create and the lost girl would be consumed by the story girl. And this lost girl would become like him: a rough draft of a favorite bedtime story. He wanted to tell her that she was lucky, though, that she would never have to listen outside a dark window to her story being told and not recognize herself. He wanted to tell her all of this, but he just said “I am.”
The girl worked her way to the edge of the bed and dangled her feet over the side, sliding off the bed until her feet touched the cold linoleum. She stared at her legs as if she did not trust them, as if she expected them to betray her as they once had, but she did not fall. “I think I forgot how this felt,” she said, still holding tight to the edge of the bed behind her. She looked around the room. He saw what she was hoping to see, but knew she no longer could. Just enough to understand, that’s all they were given, he thought.
“OK,” she said, and stepped toward him.
He hopped down from the window and stood in front of her. He held out his hand. In his palm was a thimble-sized mound of fine dust that glimmered like crushed pearls. He puffed into his hand and the dust flew around her, floating down and sticking to her like a coating of frost.
She closed her eyes, a smile played across her face like light on water, and she began to float. “I’m doing it,” she said.
He reached out and took her hand and as they flew slowly out the window, she looked behind her at the room she was afraid she would never leave. She trailed just after him as they flew up and into the darkness.
After they’d flown for quite some time, to a point where she could see nothing but stars, he pulled her to a stop and hovered in front of her.
“This is it,” he said, “Halfway.”
“Where do I go now?”
“There.” He pointed to a soft red glow, just over the horizon.
He watched as she looked off into the darkness. He could see her wavering.
“You did well,” he said. “Better than most.”
“Thank you,” she said. She looked between the horizon and the boy. “Maybe he did know,” she said. “When he imagined you, maybe he did know what he was doing.”
Before he could reply, she flew away. He floated forward, his hands in front of him, until he touched the barrier that only he could ever see. He rested his forehead against it as he watched her grow smaller, his palms pressed into it, but it did not yield and he knew it never would.
Long after she had disappeared over the horizon, he turned and flew back the way he had come, back to the beginning.
Below him, he could see her window, now black and closed. Dotting the night around it there were others, always others, their lights piercing the darkness, windows open, calling him to come in.