FOR AN ENDLESS moment we just look into each other’s eyes. Bile rises in my throat. Probably in hers, too, because she swallows hard and her lips start to tremble. I reach out and caress her cheek. “No tears. Not tonight,” I whisper. “Let me remember you with a smile, Angelina McFarland.”
She sniffs and the corners of her mouth tilt up, yet it’s forced. Finding a hold on the net behind the crosspiece, she takes a cautious step toward me then flings her arms around my neck. I can’t let go of the net, or we’d both tumble to the ground. It doesn’t matter. I wrap my free arm around her waist and crush her to my chest. “I’ll miss you,” I breathe into her ear.
“Just don’t forget me, Jamie.”
“How could I ever?”
Against the skin on my neck I feel her tears. They break me. I reach for her chin and tilt her face up, brushing the wet trail on her cheek away with my thumb. Then I kiss her one last time. Only our lips touch for a long tender moment.
As she pulls away from me, I take off my hat and put it on her head. Now I get what I want—Angel’s honest smile.
Peter leads her to the very edge of the crosspiece where she turns around to face me. Her mien is brave, though her eyes are filled with sadness. Slowly closing them, she takes a deep breath. I swallow against the pain in my throat. Then she tips backward and falls.
Gripping the net to my right, I rush forward and desperately cry out her name. But it’s too late. Angel drops toward the sea beneath her. Her arms are stretched out at her sides and the skirt of her blue dress is flapping in the wind like it’s waving goodbye. The pirate hat flies off her head. Swaying sadly, it follows in the wake of her fall.
A moment later, the love of my endless life submerges in the ocean.
I pray that she gets where she longs to be.
THE WAVES CRASH together over Angel. There was a smile on her lips right before she dove backward into the ocean. I wonder if James saw it, too.
Against a coal-black night sky with only a few stars shining, he stands on the edge of the crosspiece, gazing down. The wind ruffles his fair hair about his face. Horror and sadness war in his eyes. My brother—devastated? This is new. Not only to me, I realize, but also to the rest of his filthy crew. Their heads tilted, they watch him standing there and mumble to each other. Smee’s brows, coppery like his shaggy hair, are knitted together as though he cares more than the others. I never thought him to be more than a mindless wingman to Hook. Now I find myself wondering if my brother actually has a real friend aboard the Jolly Roger.
Something comes to the surface of the sea and catches my attention. Light blue fabric. I draw in a sharp breath. By the rainbows of Neverland, it can’t be Angel’s body floating on the waves? Without another thought, I jump overboard and glide down to the dark water.
It’s not her body. It’s merely the dress she was wearing minutes ago. Our last plan seems to have worked. If Angel is gone and left the dress behind, chances are she made it back to her world.
I fish the gown out of the water and look up at James. His expression is hard. Unreadable. He turns and walks back to the mast in the middle of the crosspiece then starts descending. During our many battles in the past, I’ve seen him slide down on a rope, take a reckless jump, and slice through the sail with his dagger to drop to the deck. Tonight, he’s climbing down the net, taking one step at a time.
After grabbing the black pirate hat with the big feather that bobs sadly on the water, I return to the ship and wait at the bottom of the mast. The captain’s boots clack desolately on the floorboards as he steps down and turns to me. When I offer him the drenched dress and the hat, he slowly shakes his head.
I miss Angel. She was fun, she was different. She was pretty, and she smelled good. Still, when I look at Hook’s face now, I know my grief is nothing compared to his broken heart. His throat twitches as he swallows and unshed tears glisten in his eyes.
This is probably not the best time to mention that only little girls cry. When James dismisses us all with silence and walks to his quarters, quietly closing the door behind him, I hand the wet clothes to Smee and fly home.
WITH A GASP, I break through the surface of the cold sea. Shaking the water out of my hair, I pedal and twist in the water, the usual disappointment coming over me fast. A few feet away, the Jolly Roger sways gently on the waves in the fading afternoon light. Again, I didn’t make it. I couldn’t follow Angel to London. Neverland won’t let me go.
Smee throws a rope ladder down the ship’s side. As I climb over the railing, he only has a smirk to cheer me up. “How many times are you going to try this, James? Have thirty-eight jumps not been enough?”
They weren’t jumps, they were falls. The first time, I tried to do everything exactly how Angel had, and then thirty-seven variations of that stunt. I dropped backward, forward, head-first, stiff like a stick…I closed my eyes, grabbed a happy thought, grabbed a bad thought, a mean thought, no thought at all, but heck, the ocean keeps spitting me out right where I dive in each time. And after five weeks of dropping forty feet and smacking hard on the water, my bones ache like I’ve had an encounter with the ship’s bow. I need a break.
“You’re right,” I agree with Jack and slip into my boots, not caring about the wet leather pants or the drenched white linen shirt I wear. “Enough trial and error. Bring her back to shore.”
Always skeptical, Smee cuts me a sidelong glance from his place by the lowest mast. “What are you going to do?”
“Have a chat with the fairies.”
He saunters over and gives me my hat before tucking his hands into the pockets of his black pants. “Cap’n, why did you let the girl go, if you can’t be without her?”
Yeah, why again? I shrug, my lips compressed. However, the truth is I’d rather be without Angel than see her crying for her family for the rest of her life and know that I’m the only one who could have changed that. “Sending her back was the right thing to do.”
“And you do the right thing since when?” the familiar voice of a boy mocks me from behind. I spin around and face Peter Pan. Legs spread in a wide stance that is so characteristic of the fifteen-year-old, he has his fists placed on his hips and flashes a white-toothed grin from under a triangle leather hat that clashes with his grasshopper-green shirt.
“Did you come to play pirate, little brother?” I snarl, snatching the hat from his head and tossing it over to Fin Flannigan, its rightful owner who’s scrubbing the decks with Scowlin’ Scabb and Whalefluke.
I haven’t seen Peter since the night he helped me send Angel back, and I don’t complain about it. We worked together for a good cause. It didn’t make us friends or bring us any closer than we were before. The only difference—I decided he deserves a break for helping Angel and I’m not trying to kill him…for now, anyway.
Peter drags a hand through his light brown hair, setting it back to its usual windblown look. “I came to ask if you’re still right in your mind.”
“Oh.” Surprise overrides my annoyance. “And what brings on that question?”
He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out my father’s pocket watch.
Instantly, my interest in having Peter aboard returns. “You opened the chest?” I drawl.
He imitates my innocence. “It seems so.” Then his features turn hard. “Now tell me what this shit is and why you’ve been after it.”
For a stunned minute, I stare at his face. “You really have no idea, do you?”
Peter jerks his hand away before I can reach for the watch. I catch a glimpse of the long scar marring his upper right arm. An old wound that was my doing. Regret is a nasty sting in my chest that I don’t care for, so I shove the memory away. Peter flies a few meters backward and stands on the railing across the deck. I know better than to chase him. Instead, I head for the bridge and climb the stairs, feigning nonchalance. “Did you open it?”
“The watch? Yes.”
“And what does it say on the inside of the lid?”
“J.B.H.” His voice is nearer. My plan worked. Peter is following me.
I glance over my shoulder and see him hovering behind. “Right. J.B.H. James. Bartholomew. Hook.”
Flying over my head, Peter lands in front of me, blocking my way to the helm. “This is yours?”
Although my mother named me after my father, she spared me his middle name. I roll my eyes at Peter’s lack of noticing the obvious and drawl, “Yes, Peter. It’s mine.”
If nothing else, my wry look and heavy sarcasm get him on the right track. “It’s father’s pocket watch,” he says, the spirit gone from his voice.
“Look who’s a genius.” At my push, he steps aside. Wrapping my fingers around the wheel’s handles, I steer the Jolly Roger toward Neverland. Only the sun’s top curve still peeks above the horizon, its light blinding me. I squint and glance over my shoulder at Peter. “Can I have it now?”
He quirks his brows. “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t care what you think. Give me the watch.”
As I spin around, Peter jumps back to safety. “Nuh-uh!” He waggles his finger at me, gliding out of my reach.
Yeah, it would have been too easy. I heave a sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. “Listen, Peter. Since you’re only a pain in my ass again, why don’t you just flitter back to the jungle?” Without looking at him, I wave my hand dismissively in the air. “Stick with those guys who can actually stand you.” And stay out of my sight, for God’s sake. I have more pressing matters than breaking that stupid spell anyway. I must find a way out of Neverland and follow Angel.
During the past few days one thing has become clearer and clearer to me: I can’t be without her. I didn’t even take the time to retrieve my treasure from the cave in the rocks north of Mermaid Lagoon. The good thing is Peter doesn’t know that I know where it is, so for now it’s safe out there.
“Ah, the girl’s gone and you’re back in your eternally miserable mood,” Peter says. “How could I ever, even for a minute, think that something had actually changed?”
Pressing my lips together, I give him a tight smile and shrug.
“However, I can’t do that,” he tells me then.
“You can’t do what?”
“Go back to the jungle.”
“Why the hell can’t you?”
Peter lands on the railing, sits down cross-legged, and props his elbows on his knees, resting his chin in his cupped hands. “It’s boring there.”
“What the f—” A sudden realization strikes and I rock with laughter. “You damn little bastard. You miss her!”
“Who?” he snaps. Yeah right. The way he tenses and his cheeks turn pink proves he knows exactly who I mean, and that I was right.
“You only came here because you wanted to see if I found a way to bring Angel back.” My laughing ebbs off. “You knew I was trying.”
“Am I?” I step toward him and give him a push he didn’t expect. Knocked backward off the railing of my ship, he drops a few feet but steadies himself in the air quickly and shoots back up. I brace my hands on the railing so we’re eye to eye. “Then tell me why you suddenly prefer to hang out with me of all people, when you could surround yourself with your crazy bear-friends and the sparkling pixie instead.”
Peter holds my challenging stare for a couple of seconds then flies around me and stands behind the wheel, turning it gently and correcting our course toward the island. “Do I need a reason?”
He doesn’t look at me. So much trust is tempting. I could skewer him from the back. Or behead him. My fingers close around the handle of the sword attached to my belt. It would only take a swipe of my arm—
The devil knows why I don’t do it. My teeth clenched, I loosen my grip on the sword and shove Peter away from the helm to take over, keeping the Jolly Roger close and parallel to the shore a little outside the port. Brant Skyler drops anchor and, together with Fin Flannigan, he extends the gangplank.
My glance skates across the decks in search of my first mate. Jack sits across from Gurglin’ Doug, a barrel placed between them, their elbows propped on top of the barrel and their faces red like cooked crabs as they arm wrestle. The crew is surrounding them and the men bark their support.
“Smee!” I shout across the length of the ship, dragging his attention away from Gurglin’ Doug who, in that moment, wins the battle. At my beckoning, Smee rises from the low stool and meets me by the gangplank.
“Because of you, I lost my dinner to Doug in a wager,” he snarls at my face. “So this better be important.”
“It is. I need your help with something.”
“Not the fairies!” He lifts his hands, palms out, and takes a defensive step backward.
The way those wood women turn my men into whining wimps makes me chuckle. “No. It’s not them. Not yet. I need to get something first.”
I can’t go to the fairies empty-handed. It was a full moon last night and I still owe them the bathwater of a toddler for the answers they gave me last time—the ones we needed to send Angel home. What the hell are they brewing with bathwater? Their list of ingredients for their crazy potions gets weirder by the day.
“Fine.” Appeased, Smee lets go of a sigh through one side of his mouth. “But just so you know, I’m eating your ration of food tonight.”
I roll my eyes, not contradicting him.
“Where are you going?” Peter asks, still gliding above my head like a freaking seagull as I fetch my cape from where it hangs over the railing.
“Running an errand,” I growl. “And since I can’t seem to get rid of you, you may as well come with us. Be useful, for once.”
Smee’s footsteps sound behind me on the gangplank as we walk down to land. Peter, of course, prefers to fly. As we near the evening buzz on Main Street, I stop and tilt my head up. “By Davie Jones’ locker, would you get your feet down on the ground, Peter Pan! I’m not walking to town with you hovering above us like a fuckin’ bird!”
Scowling, he sinks to the street and falls in step with us as we head on. “So what exactly is it you need?” he wants to know. “A new frock for the vain captain?”
Ignoring his taunt, I tell them about the bathwater for the fairies and my plan to get some. “Women tend to bathe their children in the evening, right? It’s almost dark so it’s the best chance we have. One of us distracts the mother, the others get the water.”
Smee casts me a wry look. “And how are we to take the water away? Cup it with our hands and carry it all the way through the forest?”
“Good question.” I stop and pivot, searching for a jar. Down by the pub, several men dressed in tatters laugh and sing. Loaded to the gunwales, they are leaning against each other for support. One of them carries an almost empty rum bottle. That’s all I need.
Heading toward them with my first mate and Peter following, I slow down and join in the drunk men’s laughter. I lean my arm on one booze buddy’s shoulder and say in equally slurred speech, “What ye got goin’, man?”
“Jus’ a li’l celebratin’ with me friends,” the man answers. “Me wife kick’ me out like a mangy dog las’ nigh’!” His breath is foul and thick with rum, his shirt torn and stained with the remains of a greasy meal. Any good woman would kick him out at first chance.
When he squeezes his blood-shot eyes closed and lifts the rum bottle in salute, I take it from him and slip it under my cape. He doesn’t even notice, so I suppose there’s no need for excuses and head on with Jack and Peter who are waiting a few steps away.
As we turn into an alley a little later, we all peek through the windows lining the street. Some of them have drawn curtains and it’s impossible to tell what’s going on behind. They aren’t the kind of house we’re going to enter.
Peter is the first to call, “Here’s what we need!”
Smee and I join him by a two-story house with crumbling yellow plaster. It has a Venetian balcony on the second floor, and the door stands ajar. In a rundown kitchen on the ground floor, there’s a slim woman with braided black hair and wrapped in a simple gray dress. She’s bathing a toddler in a small metal tub that stands on the kitchen table.
“All right. Here’s what we do,” I begin. “Peter, you fly up to the balcony. Get inside and make some noise to draw the woman’s attention. Smee, you and I will climb through the kitchen window and scoop up some water once she’s gone.”
“Aye,” Smee replies and Peter nods. While he flies upward, I take the cork of the rum bottle between my teeth and pull. It comes out with a squeak. Spitting it to the side, I wash down the mouthful of rum that was still left. “You couldn’t have shared that bit?” Smee scoffs.
Sharing isn’t in me. I answer with the parody of a smile and down the last drop. My first mate rolls his eyes. Then we hear the sound of glass breaking inside the house.
“Melina?” the woman shouts over her shoulder.
“That wasn’t me, mother!” a girl’s voice replies. “It came from upstairs!”
“Come in here and watch your brother while I take a look.”
When a girl, seven years old or less, walks into the kitchen, the woman dries her hands on her apron and hurries out of the room. That wasn’t part of my plan. Well, there shouldn’t be any trouble in dealing with a child. The moment she turns her back on the window, I crack it open and cautiously slide it up until Smee and I can duck through. We’re standing right behind her when the little boy’s attention focuses on us and, of course, the girl notices. She spins around. Her face turns pale like the stone floor.
- Holding her stare, I place my forefinger over my lips. “Shh.”
Yeah, like she really would… The child sucks in a lungful of air then screams as if I’d used my sword to threaten her. On second thought, it might have been the better way to go about this. It only takes a couple of seconds for the mother to rush back downstairs and into the kitchen, making the room uncomfortably crowded.
It’s my hat she seems to focus on first, then her gaze lands on Jack next to me. Horror flashes in her eyes. “Melina! Run! Get help!”
The kid turns on the spot and dashes out of the room.
Smee steps in front of me, placating the woman with his palms out. “Please, be quiet, lass! We only need a little of the water.”
Now her jaw drops, but she recovers in the blink of an eye. “The hell you do! Get out of my house!” She grabs a vase from the counter and throws it at Smee who dodges it, putting me in the line of fire. Luckily, I catch the vase, fumbling with it before placing it on the end of the counter.
“Listen,” I start. That’s all I get out before she fetches a broom out of nowhere and smacks Jack hard on the head. His yelp echoes in the room as he protects his head from a second hit. Jumping out of the wench’s reach, I circle the table and dip the empty rum bottle into the tub. The boy starts crying.
No more than an inch of water flows through the bottle’s mouth before I feel the hard knock of the broom across my back. Whirling about with the bottle in my hand, I curse. “Damn, lady! That hurts!”
“I’ll show you what hurts, you drunken bastards!” She comes after us with her broom once more, chasing us around the kitchen. My hat tears off my head as I run, and there’s no time to find it.
Ducking her blows, Smee and I fight our way to the window and jump outside. Peter hovers in the street, eyes wide. “What the hell did you two do?”
“Move!” I shout at him as I drop from the windowsill and land on Smee. Getting to my feet, I try to run, but my cape nearly chokes me. The mad woman holds a fistful of the fabric in her bony hand.
She leans out of the window, her black braid dangling from her nape. “Take that, you bloody bastard!” Pain explodes in my head as the broom comes down on me again. Fighting against the dizziness, I pull at the strings of my cape until they come loose and I can flee, leaving the cloak behind.
An odd adrenaline rush makes me laugh as Smee grabs my sleeve and hauls me down the street with him. I cut a glance over my shoulder just as a potted plant comes flying at us. I duck and it crashes in the alley, pieces of the shattered clay exploding all around us.
The window is forcefully pulled down and behind it the curtains rush together. At the corner, we stop and I stoop over, bracing my hands on my knees, panting, the bottle still in one hand. “Sink me, that was more of an adventure than I thought we’d get.”
Still gliding above our heads, Peter laughs. “You two want to be pirates? You don’t even stand a chance against a woman with a broom!”
Smee grimaces. “He does have a point.”
I don’t know what comes over me when I grab Peter’s ankle, pull him down to my side, wrap my arm around his neck, and rub my knuckles on his scalp. “We wouldn’t have had to fight a wench with a broom if you’d done a better job of distracting her in the first place, little brother.” This is the first time in our lives that Peter and I actually share a laugh. It’s weird. A comfortable kind of weird.
“Let go, Hook! You smell like a codfish!” he yells at me between hiccups of laughter. Yet when I ease my hold on him, he accepts my arm on his shoulders for another brotherly moment.
Out of Peter’s view, Smee lifts an amused brow at me. I let go of my brother and adjust my collar. A moment later, noise behind us draws my attention as a door opens. It comes from the house with the crumbled yellow plaster. The slim lady’s unholy curses drift to us as my hat and cape soar out and land on the cobblestoned alley. The door bangs shut.
We wait another minute at the corner until we’re sure the coast is clear, then I hurry to pick up my things.
“So, are you going to bring that to the fairies tonight?” Peter asks.
“No, it can wait until the morning. Who knows what they’d turn me into if I knocked at their door after midnight?” I shudder at the thought.
“And you think they’ll tell you how to find Angel if you bring them the bathwater?”
“The bathwater is for an old debt. They probably won’t tell me shit. Not until I bring them a damn rainbow.”
Peter stops and stares at me. “A rainbow? From Neverland’s volcano?”
“That’s what Bre’Shun said she wants, yes.”
After a stunned second, a hearty laugh bursts from Pan’s chest. “Now, good luck with that one, brother.” With the fake salute of a sailor, he lifts in the air and zooms away across the star-dotted night sky.
It doesn’t escape me that he called me brother. A first.
IT’S ALMOST MIDNIGHT and I still can’t sleep. My fingers keep finding the red glass heart I’m wearing on a necklace. A secret gift from Paulina, my five-year-old sister. Although she swears she didn’t slip the chain around my neck when it appeared a few weeks ago, after she came crawling into my bed to escape nightmares one night, I’m sure it’s a piece of the treasure she keeps hidden in a small chest under her bed. Every free gift from her many Disney Princess magazines goes in there—if it’s not stamped, tattooed, clipped or hung on me, that is.
There’s really nothing special about the glass heart. And still, it has me thinking far too much, far too late into the night. Paulina and her twin Brittney Renae told me I fell off the balcony that night in late February—the evening before I found the heart around my neck. I must have hit my head pretty hard, because I don’t remember anything of that night. It’s a miracle I didn’t end up with any broken bones. The snow down in the garden and the sodden ground beneath must have cushioned my fall.
Restless, I push back my covers and swing my legs out of bed, turning on the light atop my nightstand. The floor is cold. A shiver races through me. Smoothing my nightdress, I pad barefoot to the mirror on my door. Do I look different since my fall? My hair is still raven-black and the tips tickle my jaw when I tilt my head. My eyes, too big and round for my face, flash the same hazel color as always. My appetite is usually meager, so my collarbones still stand out just enough to show I don’t care much for the exquisite meals served in this huge house. It’s been five weeks since the alleged fall. Nothing obvious has changed about me.
Still, I can feel it all the same.
Something is different.
Deep within me anchors a longing I can’t place. Like I’m somewhere far away and feeling homesick. That’s complete rubbish, because I’m in my room, in my house in London. I am home. Yet the longing gets worse each time I look at the heart pendant. Like right now.
My throat tightens. This is so weird. My lips start to tremble. I can’t stop it. My vision turns misty. I blink. And a lonely tear trails down my cheek.
Maybe it’s time to take off this necklace. I sniff and wipe my nose with the back of my hand, then reach behind my neck and open the clasp. The moment the glass heart comes off, it feels like a very heavy burden drops off my chest. Breathing doesn’t hurt any longer and I let go of a deep sigh.
Right then, a cold breeze wafts through the unlatched French door leading to my Victorian balcony and blows some sheets of paper from my desk. I spin around. The curtains, which have been drowsily hanging in their usual place all night, now dance in the wind.
This is all too crazy, and I blame it on my lack of sleep. I’ve never done well without enough rest. And rest is what I haven’t gotten these past few nights. Swallowing hard, I cross to the window and close it, banning the cold and the wind from my room. When I climb back into bed, something hard presses into my palm.
The red glass heart. I’m still holding it tight.
Shaking my head at myself, I scurry to my desk, pull out a drawer, and place the necklace in the far back. Then I pick up the papers from the floor, adjust them to a nice pile, and drop them on top of the heart. Out of sight, out of mind. Right?
I bang the drawer shut and go back to bed. Sleep comes fast this time.
A SHOCKWAVE rocks the Jolly Roger on the water, pulling me out of my sleep. In the blink of an eye, I sit upright in my bed, staring into darkness. The echo of a low thud sounds outside, one so loud it makes me think a part of Neverland has split off and dropped into the sea.
What the hell—
Getting out of bed, I forgo donning my shirt and boots and walk out on deck dressed only in my rough leather pants. Everything is quiet. We’re still anchored close to the seaport. The sails are curled in, and the crew is asleep in their quarters. Nobody so much as peeks outside. I couldn’t possibly be the only one who heard the noise. Could I?
My gaze skates out to the quiet sea. No wind, no waves, no sound whatsoever. Everything is too quiet. The thought that it only happened in my dreams takes up room in my mind. But how is that possible, when it felt so real? So final. I still bear the goosebumps from it.
Rubbing the chill from my arms, I walk back into my cabin and light a candle. It’s twenty minutes past midnight. That means I went to bed less than an hour ago. Ah no… Dragging my hands over my face, I sit on the edge of my bed, then slump backward and stare at the ceiling. Not another sleepless night. Recently, I’ve really had too many of them. As expected, however, the night wears on and sleep stays away.
In the morning, my eyes burn like someone washed them out with rum, my head aches, and I’m in no mood to join my crew, who started working and shouting on deck with the first sunrays sparkling on the ocean’s surface.
With a stretch that helps my stiff limbs a little, I walk to the small table by the wall and pick up the white shirt hanging over the back of the chair. I could wear it today. Or…I could do what I’ve done every morning these past few weeks: breathe in what’s left of Angelina McFarland’s soft scent. She wore this shirt on her last night in Neverland, and I just can’t find it in my heart to let go of this final keepsake. No, I’m not going to wear it and ruin the last of Angel’s scent clinging to the fabric. Pressing the crumbled shirt to my lips, I squeeze my eyes shut and breathe a kiss into it. Then I drape it over the back of the chair once again and go to my closet to find another shirt to wear.
Black is the color that draws me today. The buttons of the well-worn shirt I choose slide easily through their holes. No sweet memories are connected with this garment. All the better. With my hat under my arm and the bottle of bathwater in my hand, I leave my quarters and head for the gangplank.
Smee falls in step beside me. “Off to see the fairies, Cap’n?”
I nod. “Take command until I’m back.”
The wooden board jolts under my jogging steps as a briny wind wafts into my face. I may not be bringing a rainbow this time, but with any luck Bre’Shun will be willing to barter more answers for something else.
Bypassing the sleepy town, I take a turn for the forest behind the port. Mushrooms and tiny wild flowers litter the mossy ground left and right of the narrow path leading deeper into the woods. High up in the brittle branches of an oak tree, a raven peeks down at me with beady eyes. It pushes out a single, hoarse croak, announcing that I’m about to enter the most bewitching part of Neverland.
Daylight struggles to break through the ever-thicker trees and bushes. It’s darker here than anywhere else on the island, and cold. The strange things is, instead of that raising the feeling of discomfort in me, like one would expect when walking through a forest that seems to have eyes and ears, a homey sensation fills me. This phenomenon surprises me each time I come here. It’s like the entire forest strives to bribe me into staying. And part of me wants to give in.
Another part of me, and it’s actually a much bigger part, urges me to hurry, get what I need, and leave again so I can continue searching for a way to get to Angel.
“Captain Hook,” a soft voice coos beside me.
I whirl about and face one of the fairy sisters with hair so fair and smooth it reminds me of silvery waterfalls. “Remona,” I say and acknowledge her with a nod.
“Bre’Shun will be delighted about your visit.” She purses her pale green lips and tilts her head. “Where’s the rainbow?”
“Remona, where are your good manners? He hardly stepped a foot into the forest,” a voice gently echoes all around us. “Welcome back to the empire of fairies, James.”
I spin on the spot to find the source of the voice, but I’m still alone with Remona. Or so it seems, until a butterfly with silky purple wings lowers to Remona’s open palm. Frowning at the tiny creature, I take a step closer. “Um…Bre?”
“Oh, James Hook, you silly boy.” An ice-cold hand lands on my shoulder and warm laughter chimes in my ear. “I am many things. A shapeshifter is certainly none of them.”
I pivot to my old friend while, from the corner of my eye, I see Remona closing her fingers around the butterfly, scrunching it in her fist. She lets the resulting dust run through her fingers. From each grain of the purple powder raining to the forest floor, another new butterfly is born, and together they flutter away through the specks of light beaming through the leaves and branches. Remona skips after them.
My jaw drops in fascination. Bre’Shun lifts my chin with one of her cold fingers and closes my mouth. Only now, my focus is truly on her and, as always, her beauty and unearthly appearance take my breath away. Her honey-golden locks are wound up to the top of her head today, with a few careless strands framing her pale face. Turquoise eyes pierce mine as she smoothes the bodice of her burgundy dress and smiles.
“I can’t smell a rainbow on you,” she says in a soft voice. “You didn’t find the time to collect one for me then?”
Grimacing, I rub the back of my neck. “Well, no. I was—”
“Busy.” She inclines her head, still friendly and in no way looking disappointed. “I understand.”
If I learned one thing from the fairies, it is that time is irrelevant to them. They know where they are going and it doesn’t matter in the least how long it takes them to get there. I wish I could say the same about myself.
Her gaze lowers to the rum label on the bottle in my hand. Quickly, I lift it and tell her with newfound enthusiasm, “I got your bathwater.”
“I can see that.” Her eyes grow bigger with joy. “Hopefully, you washed the rum out of the bottle before you filled it with water. Rum is a nasty addition to any potion. One never knows what side effects it causes.”
A traitorous heat rises to my neck. It’s probably best not to answer that.
Taking the bottle away from me, Bre places one of her cold-as-heck hands on my back and steers me to the right, sweeping her other arm invitingly. There’s nothing in this forest that should really surprise me, and yet I take in a sharp breath when, out of thin air, her tiny white house with a straw roof and a white picket fence appears.
Together, we stroll through the front garden where daisies grow all over the place. The low wooden door forces me to stoop so as not to bang my head when walking through. From the outside, one would expect to find a room no bigger than a doghouse, but entering the home of a fairy is like walking into a palace. A pleasant scent of mint and coriander greets me in the familiar hall with a chessboard floor of black and white tiles.
Bre’Shun has me sit at the big round glass table. It’s the place where bargains are made.
“May I offer you a cup of tea, James Hook?” she says, steepling her fingers in front of her smile and lowering into the iron chair opposite me.
There’s no time to decide if I’m up for her mystic brew that will make me spot another piece of furniture inside this house at each sip, just like the last time I came here, with Angel. An elegant white porcelain cup on a saucer painted with tiny flowers appears on the table in front of me. Ignoring decency and conventions, I close my eyes and down the whole cup of tea at once. Full of expectations, I open my eyes again and…still, I’m surrounded by cold stone walls and a chessboard floor. Where’s the neat and cozy house of a fairy this hall should have turned into? I blink several times. Nothing changes.
“Is there something wrong with the tea?” I ask.
“Why, no. It’s peppermint tea. Known for its refreshing effect. What did you expect to happen when you drank it?” Her brows quirk. There’s an unmistakable edge of mockery in her voice. “That animals of the forest would storm the house and flitter about in here?” She laughs. And I feel stupid.
Fortunately, she changes the topic. “What can you do for me, James?”
“Obviously, not much. I don’t have the rainbow.” Leaning back in the chair, I fold my arms over my chest. “Still, I need some answers. And urgently.”
“Oh, don’t you say that, James. A rainbow isn’t everything. You have so much more to give.” She rises from her seat and sweeps her arm to the back of the hall, where a tall door appears. “Come.”
Never, in all the many times I have visited, have I ever gotten to peek into another room of this house. The iron legs of the chair scrape on the tiles as I shove back and stand. The glass table disappears the moment I circle it to follow Bre through the door that opened of its own accord.
With the first rays of warm light gracing my face, it’s clear we’re not walking into another room of the house, but outside again. And what’s more, we seem to be entering a totally different place than where we started inside the forest. This spot opens to the sky, no treetops blocking out the sun here.
There is a tremendous vegetable patch—actually several of them—with pebbled paths leading through the greenery. Farther back in the garden, a few tall trees stand like trolls, watching over us. Behind them…it’s dark. Nothing at all to see on either side of the garden. This is a spot of light in the middle of darkness. I whistle through my teeth.
Bre’Shun acknowledges my amazement with a beam of her own. She leads me to a stone fireplace beside the vegetable patch, close to the house, where a black cauldron bears some herbal-smelling soup. She stirs it several times, producing funny bubbles that explode on the surface. The color of the soup has me frowning. Because it has no color at all. It’s clear. Clearer than water. Even clearer than air. Suddenly I wonder how I can even see that it’s liquid. And then the bubbles… I shake my head.
“So you want to know why Neverland won’t let you go,” Bre’Shun states as if the question is tattooed on my forehead. Obviously, there’s nothing more to say, so I lift one eyebrow. Bre mirrors that move then smiles. “Would you allow me to cut a strand of your hair?”
If that brings me in any way closer to Angel, I don’t mind. “Go ahead.”
She produces scissors from a pocket of her dress, which I believe is nothing other than a big pleat she uses to cover her magic from me. She cuts the strand of my blond hair that constantly falls over my left eye. “Now, isn’t that better?”
I give her a disbelieving stare.
Her mouth curls up. Then she holds my hair over the soup until the ends catch fire. Letting go of the thin strand so it trickles into the potion, she says, “Neverland’s gates are closed. Peter Pan sealed them when he decided he wouldn’t grow up.”
“Fantastic. So because of the brat he used to be, I can’t get away?”
“So it seems.”
Frustrated to my bones, I rub my hands over my face. “What can I do to open the gates?”
Blatantly ignoring me, Bre skims some of the soup with a wooden ladle and sniffs the potion, closing her eyes. Next, she takes a tiny sip and swishes the liquid inside her mouth. “Too feminine,” she points out with knitted brows like I should have any clue as to what this means. Then she holds the ladle in front of my mouth. “Spit.”
I know better than to question a fairy and do as I’m told. Bre dips the ladle into the cauldron, stirs a few more times, and then tastes the soup again, cutting a distracted glance to the sky.
“Mm-hmm. Much better.” She samples another mouthful. “You know what would make this perfect?” Her tone is meaningful, almost a whisper. “The dirt of a sailor.” Quickly, she reaches for my hand and twists it, inspecting my palm. Her face turns sad in an instant. “Your hands are way too clean, James Hook.”
“Yeah, I actually do wash. Sorry.”
Not in the least stung by my sarcasm, she slaps her fist into her open palm. “Too bad.”
Too bad for me, because I won’t get more answers, or too bad for her, because I failed to make this potion taste more manly?
“Is there a way to open the gates of Neverland?” I ask to bring her back to my problems and away from hers.
“Of course there is.” She cocks her head, giving me an eerily long once-over. From the vegetable patch beside her, she picks a lettuce leaf and rubs it hard and fast over my forearm. My skin turns red and starts itching. However, in the expectation of help, I hold still. Bre’Shun sniffs the leaf after half a minute, then rubs it some more on my arm, and finally dumps it into the soup. “You have to get Peter to break the spell,” she says matter-of-factly and tries a mouthful of the soup once more, obviously pleased with the result. “Or kill him,” she adds then, with not the least bit of remorse in her voice. She turns to smile at me. “Your call.”
I freeze on the spot. The fairies are a little…special…and sometimes just don’t act as one would expect them to, but this is hardcore, even for Bre’Shun. “I’m not going to kill my little brother.”
“Why not? You’ve been after his life for nearly as long as you can remember.”
“But what?” She lifts a brow at me.
“Things have changed.”
“Have they? Or have you, James Hook?” Her laugh sounds like dripping water in a jungle. She skims some of the cooking potion and pours it into a watering can that’s already half full with water. Picking the can up, she loops her other arm through mine and leads me away from the steaming cauldron.
On our walk through her garden, small tags tied on twigs stuck into the ground at each different patch catch my attention. Beckon beans. Pleasure berries. Carrots of terror. Apart from having answers to every possible question, the fairy sisters are also known for their crazy potions and wondrous fruits. So this must be where they grow it all.
Bre’Shun walks with me to the back of the light-suffused place, where a young tree grows in the shadows of others. It only reaches to my belly button and bears just three juicy leaves.
“This is the tree of wishes.” She waters its roots from the can she brought. Instantly, the tiny tree shoots up a couple of feet, and then a few more.
“Sink me, what was that?”
Bre beams. “You have some very healthy spittle, James Hook.”
“I did that?”
“Oh yes.” She brushes my arm. “Trees grow best when they have a man to rule them.”
I don’t understand one word, and I don’t want to either. What intrigues me more is what this tree can do. “Tree of wishes, you said? Is that a random name you gave it, or is there a deeper meaning?”
Putting down the watering can, Bre stems her fists to her slim waist and tilts her head. “What do you think, James? That I take a sip of creativity juice every morning and then give common plants exotic names?”
At her wry look, I gulp and shake my head.
“This little fellow here will soon carry fruit. With the potion you just helped me hone, it might happen within the next month…instead of the usual ten years we have to wait on a new tree.” She turns and starts to walk back toward the house. “Bring the can,” she tells me over her shoulder. I hurry to follow her and hear more about the tree. “Once the fruits are ripe and a person eats one, they can make a wish. But beware, wishes are tricky. Remona ate a fruit a hundred and ten years ago. She wished she wouldn’t have to work around the house or help me in the garden for a decade.”
“Did she get that wish fulfilled?”
“Oh yes, she did.” Bre’s face scrunches up. “She caught a nasty disease that bound her to bed for ten years. Good thing she didn’t wish for a century…”
This is totally weird and yet so fascinating. I’m thinking about the wish I would make if given the chance. I sure would word it right, avoiding all possible side effects.
“It won’t help you find Angel,” Bre states dryly, dashing all my hopes in a millisecond. “I told you what you have to do first. And then bring me a rainbow. You shall be able to find her then.”
Taking off my hat, I run my hand through my hair. “This is impossible. How can I ever catch a rainbow?”
“Nothing is impossible, James Hook. You only have to do it.” Bre’Shun leads me through the high hall in the tiny house back to the front door. Before we exit together, I glimpse a fluffy brown rabbit with hanging ears and a trembling little tail sitting in the corner. A fox is lying on the stony windowsill. The tea? I’ll never get used to this place.
By the gate in the picket fence, the fairy squeezes my hand as she says goodbye. Another ice-cold shiver zooms through my limbs, and I lick my lips, which feel cold and numb. They may have turned blue from what I can tell. Slipping my hand out of hers, I turn and start to walk away.
Bre’Shun’s voice follows me. “Get him to break the spell, Jamie, and you are free to go.”
If only it was that simple. I slide a glance over my shoulder. Her gaze is on me, friendly yet intense. Mystical. It raises a bad feeling inside me. “There’s more, isn’t there?” I say in a low voice as I stop walking.
Bre inclines her head and rubs her arms as if she’s feeling the cold she emits for the first time herself. “Dear boy, there’s always more.”
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