Weaponry and savage children crowded shoulder to shoulder in the room beneath the massive tree. The air here festered, reeking of blood and damp earth.
Jake crouched over the body on the cot below him, his back in knots, a needle pinched between bloody fingers. The kid’s arm stuck out from his body at scarecrow angles. Blood and pus soaked what ragged clothing he retained, his skin parted in a dozen drooling, grinning mouths. Jake picked the biggest grin -- the one from sternum to hip -- and started to sew.
Over in the far corner, another kid gave up the ghost and croaked. Jake couldn’t see it from where he sat, but he must have, because two of the older boys finally got off their fat asses to toss him into the pile with the rest.
“We need a wheelbarrow for this,” the taller one snapped. “If anybody thinks I’m carrying these shitheads out one by one with them leaking all over the place, they’ve got another thing coming.”
The second snorted. He wiped his hands on his pants and pulled out a beat-up pack of cigarettes. “Stop being such a girl about it. God. It’s not like they’re still kicking or anything.”
“Yeah, well. It’s a long goddamned walk to the beach, that’s all I’m saying.” And then, spotting the smokes, “Hey, gimme one of those, would ya?”
The kid on the cot under him twisted suddenly, startling Jake into screwing up a stitch. “I want Mother,” the kid whimpered. “Where is Mother?”
“Shut up,” Jake grunted, but another four stitches later and almost lucid, the kid started up again.
“Where’s Mother?” he demanded. “I want my mother!”
And that was it. Across the room, the boss flashed to his feet and heaved a table stacked with gold and bloodied knives into the wall.
“Shut your face, whine-baby!” he snarled, fist clenched around the dagger he’d been sharpening, his hair and face still streaked with gore. “I’ll find another in the morning. Not like this one was any good, anyway.”
Then he threw back his head, his hands on his hips, and laughed.
Jake woke in a cold sweat, staring at the ceiling. His hands felt slick and clammy beneath the covers and he wrenched them out, surprised to squint through the darkness and find them clean.
He’d had these dreams for as long as he could remember, always with the same swell of panic and an unreachable itch beneath his skin. But they’d been getting worse lately. Bloodier. He’d woke shaking nearly every day this week, dogged by the afterimage of tiny, broken bodies and the inescapable feeling he knew them.
Ridiculous, he told himself, and forced the bile down.
He had to get to work.
Five hours later, when Bud finally wandered into the Game Place, took one look around and immediately called off for lunch, Jake clocked out with him. He didn’t particularly like Bud, but anything beat counting dust-motes on PS3 games.
They bought hotdogs from the Third Street vendor and made their way to the park around the corner, kicking browning clots of sodden leaves down the sidewalk with every step. Jake caught himself limping -- barely noon and already his bad leg ached. Probably the bite in the wind.
Of course, the children didn’t seem to notice. They tore along the shaggy grass and into sandboxes, charged through piles of leaves and clung upside-down from the monkey bars, throwing pebbles at each other. One little boy ran from the fountain and back, spitting water at a group of girls who squealed each time and pelted him with sodden leaves.
Bud snorted, dropping down onto a warped and graying bench. “Remember when you were that age?”
Roaring, one of the girls threw herself from the monkey bars to chase after her sister. Slowly, easing out his leg, Jake sat down beside him. He took a bite, but tasted only copper. “Do you?” he asked.
Bud grinned. He draped an arm over the back of the bench and tore into his hotdog with gusto, dribbling condiments down his wrist. “I was a real terror. Don’t know how my parents put up with me.”
Out in the grass, a group of children searched for sticks to better bludgeon each other with. Jake jogged his knee, trying to work out the ache. He didn’t remember much before fourteen. There’d been the old house on Governor, he almost remembered that. At least, he remembered moving. But before…
Jake’s vision hazed black. The stench of offal in syrup sunlight engulfed him, burned his eyes, slithered down his throat and stuck. His ears rang. Wind scoured his face raw. He fell -- was falling -- twisting through the air, flying, dying, colors wrenching past in implausible streaks of fantasy and pain and --
A squad of tricycles rolled past, piloted by cheerful, pudgy monsters. No entrails. No heights. Jake sucked in a shaky breath and hoped Bud didn’t notice. “I was never that young,” he said.
“Oh, come on. You’ve got to have a story somewhere.”
Jake shrugged. An ocean churned in his stomach. “High school.”
Bud laughed and leaned back, heedless of the splinters. “Oh shit, high school. Don’t even get me started on high school.”
Rain sleeted down in curtains, cutting them to the bone as they crouched in the clouds. Slowly, they advanced, crawling in the corners between lightning strikes, peering through gaps at the ship tossing in the waves below.
The boss roared and thrust his sword into the sky. His legion threw the call back, wild with rage and bloodlust, swarms of mottled children streaking from the clouds. Cannon fire blackened the already tarnished air. Somewhere, the boson bellowed orders, barely heard over the wailing and gunshots. Broken bodies slipped from the back of the wind, crashing down into the waves. The mermaids dragged them all under -- dead or bleeding -- and picked the water clean.
Contorting his body, Jake dodged through the mire of smoke and drenching rain, snaking between the cannon fire, clothing stuck fast to his body and war paint streaking down his face.
He leveled his sword as he reached the sails, streamlining his body. Down, he plummeted towards the grinning, garish faces, all of them ancient, weather lined and warped with hatred.
Someone screamed. The mermaids lifted sharpened teeth and sang.
Lost to momentum, Jake twisted the air with his knees and speared a pirate through the chest. The man hit the deck with a gurgle, blood beading his lips, clutching at his stomach.
Behind him, the captain’s silhouette gashed the night sky like an obelisk. He stepped forward, swatted a boy out of the air like offering wine, and entrails splattered the deck.
The ocean ground its teeth. Mermaids laughed.
Jake readied his sword, cold to his bones.
Com’on, you bastard, he thought. Tick tock.
The captain raised his remaining hand. A flintlock glinted in the moonlight, streaked with rain. Impossibly, it fired.
Jake soared backwards, wrenching up and away, throwing himself into the sky for the clouds to catch. He hurt -- he burned -- and his happy thought evaporated, cannon smoke over the water.
He tumbled from the sky, down, down into the churning water. The ocean swallowed him. Icy water filled his lungs with stone. He hurt -- and then he didn’t. Mermaids wailed in the darkness around him. He heard only his heartbeat.
And throbbing. Throbbing…
Jake woke. At first, the silence startled him. He lay still in the mass of tangled bed sheets, staring at his perfectly ordinary ceiling as the fan continued on its lazy circles. His body belonged to a stranger -- someone cold and huge and terrifying, immovable as stone.
The first few groping fingers of morning light crept across the duvet. Jake felt its warmth on the back of his clammy, outstretched hand and squeezed his eyes shut.
He couldn’t keep this up. He needed… a doctor, maybe -- some shrink in a sterile oatmeal office who’d wrap him up a neat little package of crazy pills to go. These dreams, these sudden fits of copper vertigo -- he might as well be some kind of bitter, geriatric Lost Boy.
Jake froze down to his bones. His gut knotted. He tasted copper.
No, he thought. Of course not. No. That’d be crazy.
Except, he couldn’t remember his childhood. Only searing fragments of flight and color and pain.
When he closed the Game Place the next day, Jake walked the three blocks to the bookstore and came home with Peter Pan tucked in a brown paper bag beneath his arm. He got as far as the coffee table before reality caught up with him again.
He couldn’t remember his childhood, he had bad dreams -- it didn’t mean anything. People like him filled the streets. This book couldn’t tell him anything. It was just that -- a book -- and one written for children.
So then, what was he afraid of?
Jake upended the bag and the book tumbled out onto his couch cushions. Entirely unremarkable. Just another trade paperback. A clean, redheaded child grinned out at him from the cover. His stomach churned. Jake sat down to read.
He read through the night and into the morning again.
And he could hear it.
He knew the sound of cannon fire and it lit ice down his spine. He knew the screams, the curses, the rhythmic pounding of sea shanties low on the water. He knew the pitch and timbre of the boy’s voice, and the book said, “to die will be an awfully big adventure,” but Jake knew the words were wrong.
His skin crawled. It didn’t make any sense. This was it. There were only these words. How could they be wrong?
But he knew -- he knew it in his gut. He could hear it, plain as day, the rough child’s voice growling, “Death is a fucking magnificent adventure,” because he’d done it before. He’d done it before and come back. Because there always had to be a Peter. That’s what he’d told them. Before the mermaids, back when…
That hadn’t happened. It wasn’t in the story.
Jake put the book down and stood. He picked up the phone. His mother answered on the fourth ring.
They talked about this and that and nothing in particular for a while. Eventually, Jake asked, “What was I like as a kid?”
The line went quiet.
He could hear her breathing on the other end like it hurt her. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Anything. A story from when I was a kid. A snowman, a first day of school, or -- ”
“You can’t? I don’t understand.” He hesitated, staring at the couch, at nothing. “Are you okay, Mom?”
A small metal clank -- his mother abandoning her glasses on the table. “I’m fine.”
A new fear nested in the pit of his chest. “Then there has to be something. There has to be. At the house on Governor, Mom, something.”
“There isn’t,” she said. And then, “You disappeared, Jake.”
His bad leg buckled. Jake sat down hard on the edge of the couch. “Mom?”
“You disappeared. June 13, 1968. I put you to bed that night and the next morning you were gone. The window was open, but you couldn’t have climbed down and anyway, the police didn’t find anything under the window. No fall, no footprints. Nothing,” she said, her voice like a door closing. “You just disappeared.”
Jake swallowed the stone in his throat. Then swallowed, and swallowed again.
“Mom, I was born in ’70,” he said at last. “Are you… okay? Have you talked to Dad about this?”
“June 13, 1968,” she insisted without a pause, without hesitation. “August of ’70 they closed the case. You were presumed dead.”
His mother thought he’d died two years before he’d even been born.
Jake didn’t know what to say. On the other end of the line, he heard his mother laugh -- a quiet, forlorn chuckle.
“I know, sweetheart,” she said. “I know what it sounds like. I’ve never said a word of it to anyone because of it. Not even your father. But you can ask him. We both know. Jake… June 13, 1978, you walked out of the woods like you hadn’t been gone a day and just stood in the yard. Just stood there, staring at the house like you didn’t know what it was.”
Her breath caught. She stopped and started again. “You hadn’t aged a day, Jake. Not a single day.”
“That’s impossible. It didn’t happen,” Jake said. “It couldn’t have -- ”
“When your father came out of the house, you ran,” she insisted. “We searched and searched, but we couldn’t find you. Not so much as a sign and we couldn’t call the police again. How could we?”
“Mom, what are you saying? I’m here.” Alone in his house, Jake stood, clutching the phone like a lifeline. “I’m right here. I couldn’t have disappeared.”
“Oh, you came back. Each time, a little older. The fifth time, you stayed.”
Another approaching bomb whistled down the line, but he couldn’t bear to listen. “The fifth time? Assuming any of this is possible, where was I in between? Roaming the woods? Living on mushrooms and grubs?”
“You’re adopted, Jake,” she said. “As far as the government’s concerned, you’re not our son anymore.”
Jake’s thoughts tangled on each other and hung there, stuck. It couldn’t be possible. But when he cast back, searching for any memories of the old house on Governor that didn’t involve leaving it, he found only a single, tangible instant of rage, encased in amber. Gunpowder seared his sinuses. His muscles bunched in old autopilot, body bracing for a fall and for a split second, Jake stared down the barrel of a long since discharged gun.
“I can’t be adopted,” he insisted hollowly. “I look just like you.”
“Sweetheart,” his mother said, “the government doesn’t have a filing system for what happened to you.”
“But ten years, mom? I’d have been, what -- sixteen, seventeen? It’s impossible.”
“You have the old photo albums,” she said. “Look at the dates.”
And then, gently, she hung up.
Jake climbed up into the attic, stooping between the odds and ends jutting from the dust beneath the eaves. Opening every box that read 304 Governor in his mother’s careful hand, he found decrepit toys he’d once loved and broken, but could not remember. He found faded letters, dated before he was born. He found a blue baby quilt his grandmother had sewn. And finally, in the last box, a jumble of old photo albums. Shifting them out in a stack, Jake unearthed the oldest book and braced it against his chest to open.
A dozen pictures of a smiling little boy peeked up at him, utterly unremarkable in the light of the single bare attic bulb. The photos looked old, certainly, with the faded sepia tint of all pictures from the seventies. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing like a missing decade.
His mother was sick, Jake told himself, feeling sick and scared. She’d be seventy-six in the spring. Sometimes it happened like that.
Still, he pulled a picture out from the stiff plastic protector. In it, he looked about four, a grinning ghost in a pile of leaves. The back read: Jake, Halloween ’65.
Jake’s blood ran cold. He dropped the photo album on the top of the stack, pulling out picture after picture with both hands. They all told the same, impossible story.
A baby swathed in a blue blanket, ’61. A toddler with a red fire engine train set, ’62. A swarthy little monster in a tiny suit, ’63. Triumphant in swimming trunks and a decoder ring, ’64… Picture after picture, all the way up to June, 1968.
The next picture was still of him, looking little older than the one previous, labeled simply, Jake 1978.
He stared at the two photos side by side, looking for something, some proof either his mother had lost it or he had. The pictures had been taken with different cameras -- one an Instamatic, the other a Polaroid -- but the children therein were identical.
Except, looking closer, Jake found the boy in the right bore a multitude of scars swimming boy did not. An old wound puckered the skin of his right shoulder, just visible, and the look in his eyes…
The look in his eyes was the look of a soldier who hadn’t made it home.
Numb, Jake slipped the pictures back behind the plastic. He closed the book and started to return it to the box when a paper fell out.
His birth certificate. 1961.
Typos. Typos and mistakes.
But when he opened the book to return the bad birth certificate, he flipped out of habit to a page with paper already in it. An ocean roared beneath his feet. Jake stared at the page, fingers gone numb.
His death certificate was still there when he retrieved the book from the floor.
Jake sat in the early-morning dark with his laptop balanced on his knees, scrolling through three million flavors of insanity. He had to explain whatever the hell this was -- sickness or scheme or some kind of time-warp -- but nothing fit.
Until, on accident, Jake stumbled on a news article -- a scan of a crumpled up clipping from August of ’77.
Feral Child Found, the title read, and under that, a picture.
Jake knew him.
He knew that face, those cold and vicious eyes. A trapped animal behind freshly shorn hair. And they’d scrubbed his skin for the picture -- they must have -- but the boy looked filthy and Jake knew why. He knew if he saw the man today, he’d find the same mottled, leaf-litter hue.
Because he had it, too.
The dirt wasn’t on the skin. Not anymore. The dirt was in the blood.
A name rose unbidden in his mind like a swamp bubble -- Cricket -- and a sudden, piercing fear struck Jake behind the breastbone.
He couldn’t remember his own name.
Jake, he told himself. I’m Jake.
But the eyes of the black-and-white photo stared through him. “Jake?” his memory whispered. “What the hell kind of a name is Jake? Com’on. That’s not your real name. What’s your real name?”
Jake’s stomach clenched. Ice rattled down his spine. He knew that voice -- the match to the picture -- achingly familiar and old, and he knew that voice. His best friend, his brother in arms, closer than kin, and never one without the other. Cricket. Crick. He’d have died without Crick. A hundred times over. He had Jake’s back and Jake had his and…
No. He couldn’t have. It was just a book. Just a kid’s story. Sure, it was kind of cheerfully brutal for all that, but he hadn’t lived it. Whatever he was imagining, it was only that. A story. A fantasy. This hadn’t happened. It couldn’t have. None of this had happened.
“Come on, Jake,” he whispered to himself, shaking all over. “Get ahold of yourself.”
Cog, something fierce and dark hissed from the far corner of his mind. I am Cog.
Shaking, Jake turned the laptop off.
Staggering blind, Jake got into his car. He drove through the night, without knowing what or where he wanted, into the unsafe side of morning, until he found himself in the little suburb where he and his -- pirates; all grown-ups are pirates -- parents used to live, parked across the street from the old house. The windows were dark. No one at home.
Jake climbed out of the car and crossed the street. He sidled along the neighbor’s fence and across the new owner’s patio. The yard sloped away upward, off into the woods, and Jake followed it, his hand in his coat pocket. Over and over, his fingers frayed the edge of the paper that bore his name and the date of his death carved out by a typewriter with a bad ribbon. Dead before he’d ever been born.
Or rather, lost.
Jake ran. He bolted into the woods, his knee screaming with every step, but he barely noticed, tearing through the trees, vague familiarity gnawing at his back, dogging him onward.
Here, instinct whispered. Here.
And then, suddenly, with piercing clarity, instinct screamed Stop!
Jake threw himself backwards. He landed hard at the foot of a locus tree, his foot just shy of a rusted bear trap, buried in years of rotted leaves.
Slowly, Jake sucked in a breath through his teeth. He couldn’t have seen the trap. Even from here, within reaching distance of the metal trigger, he could barely see the jagged rows of metal teeth poking through the debris. But looking around, Jake sat on the cold, hard-packed earth and knew with impossible certainty where each trap and trip-wire lay. The whole of the woods slept strewn with traps. Old and forgotten, something indiscernible in the map of the leaves told him most were intact and unoccupied.
Only, he shouldn’t know they were there. He had no way of knowing… unless he’d put them there. Slowly, Jake’s eyes rose from the snarl of twisted tree roots.
And he saw it.
Trees. Just trees, he knew. But something wrenched him like a hook in the belly, shimmering between the gnarled, groping limbs and oceans of leaves -- a tangible strangeness, an infinite possibility. Jake knew in his gut -- second to the right and straight on -- he stood at the edge of the abyss. And the abyss was waiting.
Without thinking, his knee once again forgotten, Jake scrambled to his feet and bolted. He didn’t mean to, any more than he’d meant to drive here in the middle of the night when he should have been on his way home, but suddenly he knew -- he knew -- and his body wasn’t his own. He had to get out.
Sprinting, Jake scrambled through the yard, under the dying leaves of the cherry tree and across the street. Unfamiliar beasts hunched along the dark strip of earth, metal teeth bared above the weeds and litter -- and no, not this again, no. Cars, Jake, cars. And this one, his.
He thought of the boy in the newspaper with the dirt in his blood.
Jake opened the door and got in.
He didn’t go home. He called in sick from the interstate and turned off his phone, tossing it somewhere into the back seat. No music, no phone, he sat hidden in the safe dark of the car, illuminated only by the lights of the few cars that passed him, alone with his psychosis. He drove for hours, and when the shakes started and his left arm cramped, he pulled into the parking lot of a battered motel.
Jake ignored the moldy carpet around the check-in desk and the pervasive, dirty clean scent of chlorine. He paid for a fraying room at the far end of the strip with the wad of cash only desperate men carried and locked himself inside, shoving the one chair with all its legs intact under the handle.
And he stripped.
Jake stood naked in the dirty fully length mirrors that upholstered the wall, staring at his scars. The puckered skin of his left shoulder shone sick in the uneasy light of the lamp behind him. Once upon a time, he’d been burned by a pot of boiling water he’d tipped from the stove when he’d been too young to remember. His father had told him that
Except scars without stories raked his body. Bullet wounds and knife gashes. A place where the muscle hadn’t ever quite grown back -- tomahawk; ambush at the bone cave. A pockmarked patch of his leg that hurt when it rained -- grape shot; wrong cloud cover for an aerial. Damage littered his body, a litany of cuts and scrapes and old gashes he’d never thought about as anything other than childhood mishaps from a past he couldn’t remember.
“I’m Jake Green,” he whispered to himself.
His scars whispered differently.
And quietly, sick in the pit of his soul, Jake remembered.
Each scar, each lost boy he’d buried, each wound he’d stitched, Jake remembered with sudden, blistering clarity. He remembered the sound of sobbing, of distorted laughter trapped in bubbles of time. Impossibly green grass carpeted memories of shovels and fairies and marbles.
Too calm, too quiet, Jake dressed. He opened his laptop and sitting in the middle of the starchy coverlet, he pulled up the newspaper article again.
It gave him the name of a police officer, a hospital. He searched them both, came up with another article. The feral child adopted. The feral child institutionalized.
The new article gave him a name.
Jake swallowed and swallowed again. His heart clenched and shuddered in his throat, heavy and too-sharp. Not a very common name, Montegan. When he typed it into the search engine, he got another picture.
Crick -- his best damn friend, his brother in arms -- but older, half a stranger, half memory.
Around him, the room swam. He couldn’t breathe. The walls bowed in and down. Jake made it to the bathroom in time to lose his stomach in the toilet.
He wasn’t insane -- it’d happened. He’d made it out. They’d both made it out. Him and Cricket. They’d survived. They’d survived.
Heaving, choking, Jake curled in the cold, tiled corner of the bathroom and sobbed.
The front desk of Lorraine Psych looked like a hideous mismatch of hospital and attic. Worn gray carpet covered the waiting area, wafting floral disinfectant with every step Jake took towards the receptionist desk. Out of date magazines and glum little books cluttered tables already crowded with half-finished puzzles and Sudoku. Navigating between chairs so thickly upholstered they looked like mushrooms, Jake pushed aside the waxy leaves of an enormous house-plant and smiled at the secretary.
He asked to see Derek. He expected questions, a look, something, but the receptionist only nodded and smiled. “Derek Montegan? He doesn’t get many visitors. Let me just check and see if he’s okay with company today. Why don’t you have a seat while you wait?”
And that was it. Jake nodded. He touched the paper in his pocket, tracing the ridges of his name, and chose a seat with his back to the wall where he could watch every entrance. He felt eyes burning his skin. Felt an old metal hook in his gut, pulling him home.
After fifteen minutes, the secretary called him back, smiled like a spotlight and gave him an orderly to show him the way. The orderly seemed friendly enough, though she matched the walls so well she might have been made of mud. They talked on the way, hallways upon hallways, of weather and, “So how do you know Derek?”
“We were friends as kids,” he said and something must have warned her in his voice because the orderly let it drop.
Eventually, she deposited him in front of room 32, spun a quick brief on protocol and finished with, “Derek doesn’t have a high tolerance for guests. The boss says I can only give you thirty minutes. Is that okay?”
Jake nodded. Forced a smile. “Fine,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Great. I’ll be down the hall if you need me.” She reached past him to knock and without waiting for an answer, pushed open the door. “Just yell.”
A slim man sat curled up in the arm of a chair, a lump of a living thing in the softest room he’d ever seen in his life. The man didn’t look up. He didn’t acknowledge Jake at all. Behind him, the orderly closed the door and padded away.
Jake’s stomach twisted. “Cricket?” he ventured.
The man’s head snapped up. His face looked familiar, but warped -- a distorted too-big mockery of his childhood companion. “Who the fuck are you?” he snarled, his eyes narrowing -- one blue, one brown.
Or no, both blue. Just, the left pupil couldn’t contract anymore. Not since the fight at the cove. Jake had forgotten. Now, the force of memory almost took him off his feet.
“Jake,” he said, and his voice cracked. “But Jake’s not a real name. You called me Cog.”
The man’s eyes widened. Shock shattered him. His shoulders fell. “Oh shit,” he breathed. “Shit.” Then he laughed, amazed and hopeful and full of old hurt. “You grew up.”
“You, too,” he managed. And then, “Fuck, Crick. You’re alive.”
“Yeah, funny how that works.” Crick grinned. He looked like himself when he smiled. “How’d you find me?”
“Internet.” Jake glanced over his shoulder, but found no shadow in the door. “I didn’t remember. Thought I was going crazy. Had these nightmares, you know? But now…” A tremor of anxiety coursed through him, then determination, and the last wall of resistance between reality and madness shattered. “I remember Neverland.”
Crick flinched, but when he looked up, his eyes were clear and dark. “How’d you get out?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said. Only then, it occurred to him, he did.
He remembered running through the trees with the stench of salt and rotting fish raw stuck to his skin, Pan’s shadow dogging him. He remembered falling, fingers stuck together with pine sap, scrambling into the thatch of twisted, fallen limbs and tangled thorns that marked the borders of the witch’s home. And then down, through the bleary eye of a half cave, wet earth a welcome home, hidden in the dark breast of the forest.
“The tunnel veil,” he answered finally. “I think the witch got me through. How’d you do it? Boss sent us looking, but we never found your tracks.”
A muscle twitched in Cricket’s jaw. “Mermaids.”
And Jake knew better than to press it.
“Thought I was going crazy,” he said instead.
Crick snorted. “Well, you’re in the right place for it. Company’s somewhat lacking, but the golems’ll sneak you smokes if you’re good.”
With the ghost of a smile, Jake nodded. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he didn’t say anything. For a long moment, neither did Crick. They sat in silence, both of them eyeing the other’s bare arms, mapping old scars and piecing together the history they shared between their bodies.
At last, Crick looked up. “I didn’t want to leave you,” he said quietly. “You know that, right? Not to that mess. But with your arm, you couldn’t swim, and -- it was the only way open.”
The guilt in his voice hit Jake like a blow. And he remembered. He remembered an amber-trapped eternal summer, the pain in his shattered arm unbearable, and Cricket making him eat, making him move, telling him, “Walk it off, Cog, com’on. You walk far enough, eventually you’ll have to outpace it. It won’t kill you. I won’t let it. I promise.”
For twenty-odd years, he’d forgotten. How could he ever have forgotten?
Jake smiled, half pain, half vicious love. “Jesus, Crick. You couldn’t look after me forever. I had to grow up sometime.”
Crick smiled but his heart wasn’t in it. He leaned forward, looking like he wanted to touch but didn’t know how. “You got out okay though, right?”
“Yeah.” Jake held his eyes. “Yeah, I got out okay. My parents adopted me back.”
If he’d reached over and punched him, he couldn’t have shocked Crick more. “Your real folks?” he asked, and the words had the taste of something sacred.
“I wasn’t gone very long. Ten years.” Jake said. “You?”
“Forty-five.” Crick laughed, this time all teeth, and Jake could see the kid he used to be like looking at a picture. “Almost half a fucking century,” he added with that look in his eyes -- the one Jake never understood as a kid -- but now he knew. He got it.
It was the look of another soldier who never made it home.
“You feel it, too,” Jake said and Crick looked away. His hand clenched into a fist on the worn knee of his scrubs. The muscles in his jaw locked and released. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. Me, too.”
Jake eyed the door again. Then, quietly, “How do I get you out?”
Crick pursed his lips. “You don’t,” he said, but he curled his fingers -- pinky to thumb -- and like flicking a switch, Jake’s body stilled on old muscle memory.
A signal, he remembered only after he’d obeyed. They’re listening.
“Where are you staying, anyway?” Crick asked, his voice open and easy. The tilt of his head said look only at me. “You live ages from here.”
“Hunt what hunts you,” the boss used to say and Jake knew this game in his bones.
“I’ve got a room in the Cornerside motel for the week. I can’t remember the number half the time. One of these days I’m going to break into some crack dealer’s room. Four-something, I think,” he said, slipped out his key and left a twenty on the floor like a fallen leaf. “Oh. 3A.”
“Yeah, you’re fucked. I’ll look for your obit in the papers.” Crick laughed. Jake saw the fight in his eyes and he looked like the boy he used to be.
Then, the door opened. The orderly poked in her head. “Time’s up.”
Jake stood. Carefully, he nudged the twenty behind the leg of the bed, where she couldn’t see it from the door. “See you again, Derek,” he said sweetly, like talking to a kid.
Crick waggled the nub of his missing middle finger in Jake’s direction, same as when they were kids. “Fuck you.”
And doing his best not to laugh -- not to happy thought and fly -- Jake got the hell out.
For the first time in a long while, Jake felt absolutely in control. He waited in his motel room, watching the street through narrowed venetian blinds, and he felt like himself.
An old, familiar stranger haunted his skin and the loose, easy heft of his muscles. He knew this game like his own footsteps. He might be an old professional out of practice, but he knew Crick wasn’t. He’d come to Lorraine Psych straight out of Neverland, all the training and bloodshed fresh on his hands. He knew how to get out. He hadn’t left before only because he had nowhere to go.
At a tap on the window, Jake got up and opened the door. He found Crick leaning against the wall outside, flicking ash from his cigarette, wearing a baggy hoodie and jeans that almost fit.
Jake grinned and tossed Crick his car keys. “It’s the beater,” he said. “Gimme a minute.”
And ducking off into the little motel antechamber three rooms down, Jake threw his room key on the abandoned desk and followed Crick to the car.
They drove for hours back the way Jake had come, stopping at a motel only when the morning rush made traffic unbearable.
Once inside, Crick paced. He checked every vent, corner, drawer, outlet, dent in the wall -- everything. After that, he perched on the edge of the bed beside Jake’s outstretched legs -- a gargoyle in gray sweats -- and watching each and every channel he found on TV with the fascination of a child. But then, he would. He’d been born in 1920.
Neither of them spoke. The muted conversations of cable channels arguing with each other filled the silence. Lulled, Crick’s heat a steady pressure like a sword at his side, Jake slipped off to sleep.
If he dreamed, he didn’t remember it.
He woke near sunset to find Crick exactly as he’d left him, crouched in a little ball at the foot of the bed, changing channels. They drove off again soon after, breath frosting the windows as Jake’s heaters spluttered and complained, fresh drive-through wrappers cluttering the backseat. Back onto the interstate.
Time crept by. The distances between cars lengthened until the radio played three songs between headlights.
“What’s the plan?” Crick asked after Exit 8.
Jake watched the road, eyes trapped in the swath his headlights cut through the muddy evening dark. “I don’t know.”
“So, what? We drive around looking for fairies?”
“No. Look, I know how to get in. There’s some kind of rift in the trees behind the house I grew up in. We can -- ” his head caught up with his mouth and Jake stopped short, closing his teeth around the unspoken words.
Crick glanced at him sidelong. He looked elfin in the half light, his eyes black like an animal’s. “It’s not home, Cog,” he said. “He’ll kill us if he can.”
Jake shook his head. “I know,” he muttered.
And he did. Of course it wasn’t home. It was hell. It was history. But where else did they belong? After what they’d seen and fought and killed and done -- after they’d stolen stars from the sky and lost bits of themselves at the ends of swords. More than human now, but less than magical, they didn’t belong anywhere. And sure, Neverland wasn’t home -- but now, when Jake thought of home, he thought of Crick. He thought of bloodshed and broken bones and an ancient room beneath an older tree, filled to bursting with tiny, broken bodies.
Wait. The Tree.
“The names in the Tree,” Jake realized. “We all carved our names in the tree. Every one of us, every lost boy down to the very first. That’s how it keeps us.”
Crick chewed the inside of his cheek, his eyes on the road. “Makes sense. We lost enough blood under that damned thing. Fuck, we put enough kids under it. Had to tear up the roots every time we went to bury another of ’em.”
“That’s where we’re going then. We have to get to the tree. Burn it down, carve our names off, something. If it doesn’t have our names, it can’t keep calling.”
“And then what?” Crick asked. “You go home? Back to the nine to five, wife and kids, no fight, no flight, no fun?”
“Fun?” Jake glared. “Cricket, I nearly lost my fucking arm.”
“Yeah, and I’m missing fingers. Boo hoo,” he shrugged. A passing car lit up the scar down his jaw like a spotlight. “Look, it was a mess, kid. It was bloody and fucked up and it hurt like a bitch, but you can’t tell me you didn’t love it once.”
Jake looked at him as long as he could before turning back to the road.
They’d all loved it. The freedom. The feral, vicious savagery. They’d hurt, they’d died, but they’d played. Sure, the island swelled with swallowed corpses, but they’d been cunning little monsters, ageless and perfect and real in a way reality could never match.
He’d loved it and it damn near destroyed him.
Time ticked by. Crick refused to look at him, staring out the car window at the passing trees and icy rain. Slowly, understanding dawned. “You’re not coming back.”
Crick shook his head. “No.”
“But… I don’t understand. Crick, I don’t get it. You lost forty-five years there.”
“Lost? No. I didn’t lose anything. Cog, I’m ninety. And yet, here we are, you looking like an old man and me barely more than nineteen. Pan was right. Enough fairy dust and you really do stop aging. I’ve got time to spare.” He smiled suddenly, a dark and bloody grin that spoke of things better left to rot in caves. “And I’m going to skewer that fucker.”
“Hook’s been trying for centuries.”
“No, he hasn’t. He’s terrified to find out that when it’s all over, in the end he was only ever an impotent figment of Pan’s imagination.” Crick glanced at him, still smiling; a promise, an invitation. “He can’t kill him. He’s too afraid to die.”
And Jake knew he was right. Crick knew the island. He knew the tunnels and the strategies, where they kept the food and where they pieced together the weaponry. He knew how to lead. With a crew, with a ship -- or hell, a fleet -- he’d own Neverland. There were only so many toddlers Pan could carry off, but there were always men looking for a fight.
Crick could stop it. He could kill Pan.
He could keep what happened to them from ever happening again.
“You don’t have to let the island eat you,” Jake whispered anyway. “Yeah, maybe you can kill Pan, sure. But then you’ll be a part of the story. You’ll be stuck. It’ll never let you go.”
Crick snorted. “And what would I do if I made it back, huh? Be an accountant? Go back to Cave Lorraine?”
And he was right. So Jake let it drop.
Pulling the car to a gravel-crunching halt across the street from the old house, Jake cut the engine and climbed out. Cold air seared his lungs. His knee throbbed. The road remained quiet. The street slept heavy, all lights dark.
“You okay?” Crick whispered and Jake nodded. Follow me, he gestured and they crossed the street into his old front yard and eased around the side of the house, scattering their shadows in the hedges that edged the property and up the hill.
Single file, they plunged into the woods and crept on, winding between old traps and tripwires and god only knew what else. Jake could just make out bits of logs with nails drilled through waiting every few dozen steps, spiked branches held taut at eye level, thorns planted where paths used to be. They carried on past them until they fell out of earshot from the street and the houses, down into the woods where a shiver of anticipation grew in the air and a pressure coiled around their shoulders, singing to their blood.
Crick recognized the change before Jake did and grabbed the collar of his coat to stop him. Together, they crouched. The weight of ancient, accumulated imagination struck them full in the face like a blast from the oven, rushing past them in a wave of fairy-touched color. The trees shifted from autumn brows to an impossibly golden hue, tinged in rubies and emeralds and lazurite blues. Twisting and twining, they groped up into a star washed sky, different in a way that didn’t feel different at all, everything wild and warped.
Together Cricket and Jake stooped and walked forward, second to the right and straight on, into a misty, moonlit forest.
Jake held his breath. The world washed over him. He was here.
He was home.
This was it. All of it -- everything he’d felt, everything he feared and wanted and hunted and fled. It all lived here, backlit by memories and bloodshed. Jake looked at Crick and his friend’s face -- his double, his twin, his brother in arms -- betrayed the same conflict of hate and furious, blinding love.
Together, they ran. They ran for miles, dodging back and forth through lakes of moss and tender ferns to confuse the path. Only when they heard children laughing in the distance did they stop to catch their breath. Where the mountains broke over the trees they could see the flickering flames of a bonfire lapping at the sky.
Jake heaved and coughed, half laughing, half dying, his heart pounding like a mad bird in his chest. “I’d forgotten about those,” he whispered when he had air enough to speak.
Crick grinned. “I missed them.”
Steadying his breathing, Jake pulled himself upright and looked around, judging his location by the distance of the mountain. The Tree couldn’t be far from here. With any luck, most of the boys were leagues off, wailing around that fire, but before he could start off in that direction, Crick gestured him back with a click and a whistle and jerked his head westward.
“Wait,” he whispered. “This way.”
Jake followed, mindful of any shadows that tailed them too close. After a quarter mile, maybe more, Crick stopped and thrust his fist into the high knot of a twisted old stump, burnt out by lightening or fairies or one of the dozen fire breathers skulking through these woods. Deep inside the burnt out husk, gears began to turn. Crude, mechanized roots uncoiled from the remnants of the real tree, wrenching themselves out of the earth.
Breathing stale fairy dust and the scent of old oil, Jake touched one of the mechanical limbs that had failed to move. He recognized the coarse cleverness of the clockwork, knew how the gears worked and where the fairy dust fed down through the oil distribution. He’d built it. One of his oldest toys.
Jake had wanted to find his childhood. Well, here it was.
Reaching into the open maw of the cache, they armed themselves to the teeth. Most of them Jake did not remember, save for the last -- a dagger carved with his name.
It barely fit in his palm anymore, the red hilt worn smooth and grooved by a child’s hands. But Jake smiled anyway, felt like laughing -- felt like crowing -- and he wanted to say something, but the words never came. Jake felt Crick’s heat like a wall against his side, comforting and final.
“You sure?” he asked at last.
Crick met his eyes. “Yeah.”
With a nod and a quick twist of fingers, Jake flashed their old cantrip for good luck, a fierce pride swelling in his gut. He’d fight no more after tonight. He had returned for only one last campaign -- to steal his name from the tree. He didn’t want a war; he wanted to sleep. Neverland couldn’t keep him.
But Crick belonged here. And maybe he could even kill the bastard. Or hell, keep killing him if that’s what it took, as long as it took. Maybe he’d save the never ending stream of lost and battered children. Maybe he’d change everything.
It was about time Neverland had a new captain.
Grinning like the best kind of monster, Crick reached forward and grabbed Jake up in a bone-crushing hug. Then, without a word, without a sound, he disappeared into the trees, towards the ocean.
Holding a dead child’s dagger, Jake watched him go. And he walked, sidling through traps and old pains and patches where sheer possibility hung like dew in the air.
Though it hurt -- though it seared Jake down to his bones -- Neverland still felt like home.
And then, at last, he came upon the Tree.
Jake stepped into the clearing, craning his neck up at the vast, silvered elm. Massive and terrible, name upon name of all the boys who’d ever lost their way tattooed its naked, twisted body, all the way on and on, up as far as the eye could see, clutching at the stars. Names of the dead. Names of those barely living. The heart-tree beat. As long as Jake’s name remained in the bark, it would always call him home.
Clenching his hand, feeling the jutting corners of his name press into his palm, Jake heard the sound of the ocean singing in the distance and over that -- low and elated -- the rictus owl croon that had been Cricket’s signal once upon a time.
Ignoring his bad knee, the ache in his arm, Jake climbed. The names carved in over names, over names -- a thousand ancient histories -- provided toe holds enough to scale it. He climbed until he reached the branch stretched out over the clearing like a last goodbye. And there, in a crook between tree and branch, rested his name.
Jake stabbed his knife into the wood, into three tiny letters, and carved himself free.
He climbed down, singing his own owl. Finished, he told Crick through the distance. Finally. And when he reached the ground, Jake turned his back on the heart-tree and walked the way he’d come, grinning a vicious grin.
“Come and get me now,” he whispered. “Tick fucking tock.”
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Crystal Lynn Hilbert. All rights reserved.