Pounding throb of diesel-belching locomotive. Michael hears co-workers passing around goodbyes. None are passed to him. The ground thrums beneath his feet as the last train car lumbers past. The gate rolls up. He walks toward the parking lot, remembering
…childhood. On the Island. Memories like trains take hours to stop, plowing their way through whatever’s on the tracks. Peter was a locomotive—whenever he got an idea in his head there was nothing stopping him, except sometimes Wendy, and she really had no idea.
The butterfly knife sits heavy in his jacket pocket leaning against his chest sending tiny electric tingles with every heartbeat
…Peter had taught him taught well the way to dodge and step in with the knife, how to pierce the skin and twist in the guts. The noise that pirate had made blowing his last tooth-rotten breath. That was living! Or was it? Nothing made sense any more. After crawling through the jungle for a year picking mushrooms from between his toes digging holes so officers could squat in comfort and shit prime steak. He’d wanted to be a LURP told them he was an expert with the knife he’d killed a pirate as a little kid a pirate bigger than his father though not so big as the one Peter’d got. What was his name again? It was so hard to remember them after you’d killed them. Hook, Peter’d killed the Hook big mean bastard with a British accent. But Michael had been more frightened of Peter the way his eyes would flash, like reflected firelight dripping blood. Now that was fear, almost naked clothed in leaves and carrying a sword. Teeth like sharpened pearls and his eyes yeah man those eyes were like nothing, haunting, like falling, feels like you’ll fall into those cold tiny stars foreveraway, into the gold and silver flecks flashing in a sea-green
…Harley sits by itself in a “no-parking” zone. There’s a ticket wedged between the headlight and the bars but he doesn’t touch it doesn’t even see it something like that’s just too small for him right now, not tonight.
Leather jacket creak as he swings into seat. Trying to be like Eastwood always ending up feeling like one of the guys Clint’s gonna shoot at the end of the picture. It was Peter it’d always been Peter. There was no escaping this memory, like a ghost, no way to get
…out in the jungle once just the two of them and some Redskins had surprised them. He’d only been on the island a short while so he threw himself to the ground by the fire and tried not to listen to the sounds of clashing steel and squeals like pig squeals as Peter did his deadly arabesque in the firelight. Then one last fall and silence, nothing but the hissing crackle of the fire. Peter’s face appeared suddenly leaping with devils from the flames, his lips parted in something that might have been a grin if it’d been daylight and blood wasn’t oozing from his hair.
Michael suddenly needed to pee.
“How’d you like that Michael? There were seven Redskins!” The smile faltered but for an instant only. Michael hadn’t counted, but there had been more than seven. A lot more.
“Yes, I like seven. Seven’s a fine number for such an awfully big adventure!”
“Say Michael it could be such an awfully big adventure, here. And I’m so hungry, Michael.”
“What do you want?”
“Yes…such an awfully big adventure. I don’t know why Wendy said no. I’m so hungry… Michael?”
“Here, give me your hand. Such an awfully big adventure. Just like here in the
…hey, you gonna move or what?”
Michael blinks, stares in front of him for a moment the past plays like a cheap porn flick projected on a sky-reality blue-screen. Then he blinks again. He’s been sitting at a green light fighting back Peter. He guns his bike through the intersection. The man who yelled at him keeps his car close, too close, leaning on the horn. Michael tries to think of other things the road or even that memory of Peter by the fire. But all he can hear is the horn filtering through thrumming blood.
He stops his bike. The car skids almost hits him. Asshole. His heartbeat remains steady but electric shocks from the knife to his heart begin. Now this is alive—like sticking your brain in a light socket, like that first red blush shooting up the needle when you find a vein. What would Peter do? Laugh? Kill? Fly away?
“What the hell’s wrong with you? You some kind of idiot?!”
Michael doesn’t move just opens his jacket like Clint, bares the chest. His right hand is twitching like a spider eager to sting.
The guy’s almost up to the bike. Michael feels Peter’s spirit his power throbbing up from the bike. Now he feels it all the jazz time to rock ‘n roll.
“Yeah I know, big tough guy on a Harley. Are you in there asshole?” The man taps him on the forehead.
Fast faster never fast enough his hand crosses his chest pulls out the knife. With a skill he’s acquired—it never came natural, like to Peter—he spins the two strips of metal into violence and presses its blade against the man’s upper lip, not piercing the skin but hard enough.
“Shut up.” His voice is angry, like Clint it says more than words a death’s head symbol with razor-wire teeth. But the words and the voice both lie. There’s a scared little boy on a motorcycle holding a knife. A car horn honks behind them Michael presses the tip until a tiny well of blood springs up around the blade. The man’s too frightened to move
…with Peter by the fire. Those teeth those eyes floating in the darkness a Cheshire nightmare. Naked sweaty skin and fear. He’d been terrified with Peter the rustling leaves beneath them even when he couldn’t see those teeth only feel them the horror that they might clamp down he couldn’t think of what they were doing or why only that Peter must never be contradicted Peter didn’t see the difference between the world and the mind but how he had learned that lesson
…later lying in the jungle holding his guts in strips of wood rammed beneath his fingernails screaming like a little girl begging them to kill him how they all seemed so small and powerful like Peter the whip and those wooden boxes under the ground where spiders and insects crawled over him in the blackness he’d eat them and imagine they were candy like
…in the home under the ground not eating for a week except Peter’s imaginary feasts and
…waking finally after being spewed out of hell to someone sticking something sharp in his arm why shouldn’t he attack when they tortured it didn’t matter if they’re the enemy or a doctor or teeth touching flesh if you can you strike back if you can’t you take it but if you can you lash out lash out lash out.
Michael turns the knife ninety degrees, blade up, and jerks. The man’s nose splits like tearing bread blood juts in hot streams. His hands fly to his face and he staggers back. Michael guns his engine and fucks off.
The road slides beneath him like a molten sky. He passes cars that get in the way, on whatever side’s convenient. One hand still clutches the knife though instinct has twirled it closed. Blood cakes on his hand his heart is on fire alive warm with that salty miasma of violence. This is how they taught him right from the beginning it’s survival of the cruellest no one ever gets a second shot hit first and hit hard and never let them catch your blind side.
Then he stops, stops suddenly a thought tearing through him.
He’d cut the guy in broad daylight with about a thousand witnesses. That was crazy it was irrational you never did anything if there were people watching. Hadn’t they taught him that in the jungle? You could torture people have as much ass as you wanted only never be seen Peter didn’t allow it and you never did anything Peter didn’t allow.
He’d done it like that because he knew he wouldn’t get caught. No one would catch him not after tonight. He’d be dead.
That was it then he’d said it had gone over the edge. The butterfly does a dance between his digits. He wipes the blade clean on his jeans snaps it closed mindlessly and shoves it back in his jacket. He takes a deep breath pops the clutch and works up to a legal speed. Can’t get caught not now not when they might be looking for him want him for the knife. No, he couldn’t take risks not now not if he wanted his chance tonight just one shot one chance he’s been waiting for this his whole life.
“Do you like Peter?”
“What kind of question is that, of course I like him.”
“But we haven’t seen him in so long.”
“He still talks to Wendy. Besides, he taught us to fly didn’t he?”
“I was wondering about that too, Jack, I really was. I was wondering if he did teach us to fly because I can’t do it anymore.”
“None of us can. Shit Michael, you were able to longer than the rest of us. But we’re growing up, and grown-ups can’t fly.”
“What’d you mean why? Because we’re growing up, that’s why. I just told you.”
“But I remember other things, things Peter taught.”
“Like knives, Jack, like sticking knives.”
“I can’t get it out of my head. Every time the teacher makes fun of me my hand goes looking for a sword.”
“That’s loony. You’re loony. It was only on the island Michael. None of it’s real here, it can’t work here. Go to sleep.”
Michael pulls the sheets up to his chin and stares through the darkness at the ceiling. It’d been real oh yes he knew that the way the blade sunk in that thick gurgle and the breath the way he’d twisted the blade in the pirate’s guts that’d been real oh yes like biting a live wire.
“Did you ever go out with Peter?”
“You gonna let me sleep if I answer, or do I have to give you a smack?”
“I’ll let you sleep…did you?”
“Yeah, lots of times.”
“Did anything ever happen?”
“Of course, stuff always happened with Peter.”
“But did anything ever happen with just the two of you?”
“What’d you mean?”
“I don’t know, just the two of you…alone.”
“Go to sleep Michael.”
“Go to sleep or I’ll come over there and thump you till you cry. You better believe I will.”
It’s hot, sticky. His t-shirt is pasted to his chest. The ugly fan does little more than swirl hot stagnant air around the room. Michael takes a drag on his cigarette then crushes it out. It’s even too hot to smoke.
But tonight, tonight will be cool. He gets up and staggers to the bathroom turns on the sink and splashes cold water on his face, down his chest. The shock from the water is electric, powerful like the nightmares. How long has its been since he’s slept through the night?
But tonight he’d be as cool as glass smooth as ice.
He hears a noise—someone at the door, trying the knob (but it’s too soon, Wendy said it would be later). With reflexes honed for years he moves through the living room like a cat grabs the knife from his coat pocket and plants himself behind the door. He should really be watching the window. The sound doesn’t repeat and after a few minutes of tensing up he relaxes and walks back to his bed.
It folds up into a couch if he wants to entertain but Michael has never put it up. He’d never entertained except sometimes to use the bed, and those guests never cared for pleasantries. Just give them the money and get it over with as cold as dead fish their eyes like a shark’s like black pearls like Peter’s like Peter everything comes back to the Pan and the Pan’s world those eyes those teeth and the fear like being a little kid again and no knife could make that feeling go away.
It would end tonight. All of it one way or the other it would end. He needs an ending like nothing in his life. Torture in the jungle had been nothing this empty life without friends or love this pit of self-loathing burning ulcers in his heart every agony he’d suffered on this miserable fucking planet couldn’t compare to that other life on the island when he’d lost everything. Later, out of fear-driven devotion, sticking that pirate his inhuman squeal, his shocked father’s look when Michael had said he was “not so big as the pirate I killed.” The whole world a stinking shithole and him stuck here with his wits and a butterfly knife. Will he be able to do it is he fast enough?
He thinks of all those years spent in misery making love to the knife dancing with it like a date at a dress-up ball, his hand making a sweaty mark on her back.
Yes, the Pan was fast. Maybe even magic. But he’d spent his life since that moment preparing for this one…
*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2
Reading Peter Pan & Wendy shaved ten years off my life. Never mind the feel-good Disney movies, the Pan is a dark spirit that traumatizes the children under its spell. Because the novel haunted me so, I needed to get it out of my system with a showdown between the Pan and one of his childhood victims, now grown up and living a life destroyed by the trauma he’d endured.