The thing that gave me the greatest trouble, in sitting down to write this story for you, was trying to decide where to begin. It's rude to make assumptions, of course, but I hope you'll at least understand if I assume you know the Adventure, which started the night that Nana barked at the window. But this Adventure takes place in 1925, some fifteen years later, which leaves us a good number of years to account for, and we've only so much time.
There's the day the Darlings got their car. It's worth mentioning because it's the cause of a good deal, indirectly, like how she came to go to France, and if she hadn't gone to France she certainly wouldn't have forgotten. Wendy's driving made her a favorite among her brothers and her cousin, and caused Aunt Millicent to declare her utter desperation of Wendy twelve times in one week, which was a family record, but she discovered that letting Slightly beg a ride with Wendy was vastly preferable to the alternative, which was that Slightly and various of the Darling boys would attempt to drive on their own, and only Nana's lying down heroically before the car prevented certain disaster.
There's the day Wendy decided that, since boys were stupid enough to fall out of their prams, they must certainly be stupid enough to fall out of ambulances, for she'd seen no evidence that they got cleverer with age, and so she went off to make sure her brothers, and lots of other boys as well (and they were always boys, in her mind, always), didn't get away from her, because she might think of them as boys, but Peter never would, and it would break her heart to think of them making it all that way, even in the condition they were, only to have Peter enforce the rules of the Neverland. "This isn't the fastest way I've ever traveled, you know. I used to be able to fly," she'd tell them, and the whole story would come out, right up to the tale of how she came to be in France.
Perhaps when the story really gets going, you'll be wondering where the rest of her brothers are, so maybe we should begin with the day in 1916, when the first letter arrived at Number 14. It was from Guillemont—well, strictly speaking, it was from Hounslow, where the records were kept, but the news was from Guillemont. It was followed by one from Ginchy, and one from Beaumont-Hamel, and finally one from Soissons. They were in regards to Messrs. Castor Peter, Nibs Peter, Pollux Peter, and Curly Peter Darling (they had chosen their own middle names, of course; John and Michael spent several months after the Adventure in a state of annoyance that their parents had already saddled them with two perfectly acceptable middle names of their own).
Having established how Wendy's driving figured in the process, you must also know that when Wendy came home, she didn't drive anymore—much. She startled too quickly in a car, couldn't stop noting every detail of the wheel under her gloved hands (the cleanness of the gloves themselves!), the smells of the day, every twig that stretched out a little further than its fellows from a hedge beside her. She couldn't stop thinking of how different all of these things were, now, back in England, and feeling ashamed, somehow, for noticing, for being grateful.
But then, sometimes there were days when she took the car and drove around all the empty roads she could find, not looking at anything in particular. She didn't like doing it, really, that wasn't the word for it, but it seemed necessary, something that she must do.
So it was, too, with her stories. Her diaries and letters from France—she couldn't bear to look at them (except, like driving, when the spells of obligation would come over her). And most of her stories were in there, too, of course, because that was what had got them all through it, what had got her through it, what she had done to keep everyone in the ambulance calm when the world was being blown to bits around them. "My brothers are out there, you know, and it's the silliest thing—even now, they only want me to tell them stories. Would you like to hear one, too?"
They always did, and she always had one to tell. Maybe that's why, when she got back to England, she had so much trouble with the adventure stories—maybe she'd just used them all up on the boys over there.
The funny thing was, she thought she had got too old for pretending, but in France, she learned an entirely new kind of pretending altogether. Whenever she'd say that, to the boys she was driving—in her voice, every time, there was a peculiar lifting note. There's a deliberate lightness that one gets to one's voice when when one is damn well determined not to let the world see what a terrible time this is for it to decide to get blown to bits, and Wendy, without knowing, was learning that tone quite well. What it's saying, if you listen, is we MUST pretend, and I think the secret of it is that if you can pretend you don't care that the world is being blown to bits around you, well, you still won't win, but at least you might lose on your own terms. The trick, you see, isn't in the pretending—it's in the knowing you're pretending, and pretending all the harder because of that.
But when it was all over, and she was back in England, with the sun was shining and the world other than mud and wire, they all found, in their own ways, that it's hard to stop pretending.
It was Father and Mother who submitted some of the letters she'd written home. She would have been angry at them, and also grateful, except for the flu. It struck mere days after the magazine's first issue arrived (sent all the way from New York), and by the time the next issue arrived, a month later, Mother had put her mourning weeds back on and Wendy was left with a pocketwatch, gratitude, and more guilt to add to her load of it, because if she had only listened to them and sent the letters out earlier, maybe Father would have got to see more of them in print.
Wendy's brothers married, for the most part. Michael went to New York for school, having grown ever quieter after the war, looking inward and talking to relatives on Father's side, who'd gone over to America some time earlier. Wendy followed him not long after, to the place where her story had come from. She still wrote stories, of a sort, even if they weren't adventures.
And now, I think, our story can really start gathering speed, just like the train Wendy got onto one day, bound for Florida and a lovely new hotel there, where all her brothers were descending. She nearly missed the train; it was a nasty, sleety day, and you know what traffic in New York City is at the best of times, and she nearly came to even worse disaster when the heel of her shoe gave out.
Someone caught her.
The porter left her to her berth as the train hurled itself, ever more steadily, out of the city, and Wendy began stripping off her awful winter coat and dress immediately—they were bad enough at the best of times, but with the mood she'd been put in by this, oh, who wanted the grim things clinging to her? Clad only in her slip, she grabbed one of the towels by her little basin, and tried to keep from losing her balance with the rocking of the car, but she barely noticed the motion. Wendy felt nearly weightless with this, with a story that, for the first time in years, didn't seem to weigh her down. Not only on the same train, but he'd be at the same hotel in Florida, too? Oh, she'd have weeks of stories from this.
Giddily, she had a go at her hair, toweling it off and smiling at herself in the mirror. But look how much more quickly I'm presentable, Aunt, she thought, and heard the sweetness of her voice as she answered Aunt Millicent's endless despair about that terrible boy's haircut she'd inflicted on herself. She shivered, and the truth is the cold probably played some part of it, but it was also the memory, fresh as hot crusty bread, of the encounter. She was composing the tale already, with all the glee one has in relating a good adventure—how the heel of her shoe, worn out, one can only suppose, from the endless quests for stories worthy of my readers, or maybe just as much in need of a holiday as I—gave out. She had just time to swear before someone caught her, and then, just before she went—splat—smashed to bits on the damp, chilly stone of the train station floor, who should rescue your faithful Flapper Jill but a dark and handsome—no, she thought, that wasn't quite enough—dark and sinister and devastatingly handsome fellow, one whose notoriety in our fair city is matched only by the tales of his charm.
A bit much, she thought, but that was what they paid her for, after all. Wendy couldn't stop grinning at herself as she pulled something not soaked through from her suitcase and kicked the damp, cold wool even further into the corner. Miami! And her brothers, and Slightly and Lady Finch, and John's little ones—and Rick, of course, who, if she wasn't mistaken, was waiting for her somewhere on this train even now, probably wondering if she'd made it at all, so she had better stop daydreaming and make herself decent, and find him before she missed lunch.
She found Rick in the cafe car, all lanky coltish lines, tucked up against the table. His jacket was off, slung over the back of his seat, but he was still wearing his hat, perched saucily over his beer-foam curls. He caught her eye and beamed, bright as May, like always, over the silver and the fresh, crisp tablecloth. It was a little like being on a boat as she made her way through the car, learning how to rock and trying not to grab hold of every seat she passed, but at last she slid into the seat opposite him, fairly bubbling with her tale. "Rick, you're never going to guess, it's the most—I was late, the damned cabs, you know how they are—and the heel on my shoe broke, and it was no good in the rain anyway—"
"Oh, well, you're here now," he said. "Don't worry, they say the shops at the hotel are some of the best in the state." Rick's father knew an awful lot about land and hotels, and while his son had shown only a mild interest in learning about that end of things, he spent with a puppyish energy. Wendy had already been forced to shout him down about a boat when she mentioned that she liked sailing—she'd been fairly certain it was the champagne talking at the time, because the vessel in question was the Olympic, but you never quite knew with Rick.
She frowned at him now. "What?" They seemed, already, to have reached the edge of the rain; the shock of sunlight beaming through the window, together with her confusion, set her to blinking, before she understood, and blushed, and held a hand up to shield her eyes. "Oh, heavens, no, that's not what I meant at all. You know I don't want you to—never mind, Rick, that's not the important thing. I wouldn't have made it if I hadn't had help—and you'll never guess from who."
"Of course I will," he said, and grinned. "Hey, millions of people in the world, I could probably get it eventually. I just don't feel like it, and besides, things always sound better when you say 'em. Come on, who was it?"
Wendy leaned in a little closer, as though someone might be listening in. "Gentleman Jim."
Rick blinked his long, dark lashes at her. "What, the boxer?"
"Of course not, he'd be ancient. Masseria's Gentleman Jim—you know, Masseria, Joe the Boss. His one-handed man?"
"I knew that. I was only joking." He said it in the tone that meant he'd been doing no such thing, and had completely forgotten. Wendy hid her smile behind the menu as he rushed on. "Why do they call him that, anyway? You'd think the hand would be easier as a trademark."
"Not necessarily," Wendy said. "My brother—you know, Michael, I've told you about him, he's studying up in Washington Heights, couldn't get away for the trip—he's still got both his hands, but his left arm's nearly useless, like my brother John's leg—well, it's not so uncommon, you know. At least, not in England." There was another pause, this one not quite so easy, or at least not for her. Rick, at least, had got to Europe; her last boyfriend had still been at Fort Benning when the Armistice was signed. Her stomach seemed to lurch, thinking of it, although that might have just been the train, and she set to steaming hard ahead herself. "That's another thing, I'd no idea he was English. I'd heard the stories, of course; they say he's very neat about it, ever so polite about killing you, and simply charming if you meet him in person, and that was all true, although I admit there was no killing. And do you know, he told me it was true, that he'd been at Eton?"
Wendy shook her head. "It's a school, and—oh, never mind. Just take my word for it, it explains the nickname and then some. It'll make a grand column, that's for certain, so I've got my first week back off my mind, at least."
"Oh, come on now, Wendy, don't tell me you're breaking your promise already." Rick grinned. "No worrying about the paper, remember? No stories for a few weeks. Here," he said, and his hand dashed out, quick as a flash, over her coffee. "Something to take your mind off of things." She laughed at his nimbleness, and stirred her coffee quickly, to try and fan away the smell of whiskey, although of course no one would think of saying a word to Rick about it.
"All right," she agreed, picking up her cup. But behind him, she caught another glance, and when she raised her cup in a little mock toast to Rick, to her promise—nothing but fun for the next three weeks—though she tried her hardest to focus on Rick as he told her about the party he'd been at last night, she couldn't help noticing that Gentleman Jim raised his own coffee back, his face so deathly serious she knew he was trying to make her laugh, and she tried, very hard, to focus all her attention on her coffee and on Rick, which was easier when Rick slid his ankle against hers under the long, fine linen covering the table, but not as much easier as she might've hoped.
Wendy, she told herself, as she pushed against his foot with her own—not hard enough to really make him stop, just hard enough to let him know she knew what he was about, and she'd give as good as she got—I think you've got quite enough adventure in store for the next couple of weeks already.
That, as I suspect you may have guessed, would prove something of an understatement.
Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. The bearded man who doesn't know any story to tell his children was once John.
Wendy and Rick's arrival at the hotel was met with all due celebration from her siblings, John's wife, their children, Slightly, and Lady Finch—"Miranda, Wendy, please, don't be ridiculous."
"That's right, Wendy, no need for ceremony with me and Rand." Slightly hugged her tighter and kissed her far less neatly than his wife had.
"Don't call me that, darling," said his wife, pressing a mojito into Wendy's hand without batting an eyelash.
The story of her encounter at the train station, and followed by her actually, discreetly as possible, indicating the gentleman in question, caused further raptures. As I said, it had been awhile since she tried her hand at fairy stories or adventures, but not for nothing was Flapper Jill one of the most widely-read columnists in New York. The stories she told, with Rick pointing out now and then that she ought to tell them of this or that, took them all the way through embraces, and being shown to their room, and (after a brief intermission to change) lunch, until Beatrice took George and Milly back down to the ocean, and Rick and the Finches went off to make the first of the trip's marks on the shops. Wendy found herself in John's suite, able to settle in one place at last, and she kicked off her shoes as she sat down on the arm of one of the chairs. "Really, John," she said, as he fretted about Beatrice, "if George and Milly haven't run her to death by now, I don't think a wander along the seashore will do the job."
"No, of course not," John said, but there was something else, she could practically smell it, so she just looked at him and waited, while he made himself busy at the sideboard, where they'd already unpacked the ever-important libations. "It's only that—well, she's a little—"
"Trouble on the crossing?" Wendy asked. "I was sick as a dog the first day or so, even on that grand liner."
"No, actually," John said, brightening. "She was like an old sailor, she and the children both. No, no, it's not that she's ill, precisely, but she's in—well, her condition at the moment, it's a bit—"
"Oh, John!" Wendy understood, and she felt her face split with a smile. Everything went a little brighter, like the foggy days that burn up to be as golden and balmy as you could ever dream, at the news. She hugged him, and he hemmed and coughed but put his arms around her, as well. For a moment, even, he truly hugged her, lifted her a little with the force of it, so that her toes merely scraped the carpet—and when she let go, if she thought about it, her feet settled back into the carpet a little more slowly than was normal. (She didn't think about it, of course, which may be why it happened.) He was blushing, but she thought he looked a little lighter, too. "That's wonderful, John, give her my best. Is there anything I can get you as a gift?"
"Ah, I was hoping you might—" A few more coughs, and she saw, as he made his way over to the sideboard, how the hand on his cane was white at the knuckles. "You see, the children, they've—well, they've got quite tired of the Fairy Books by now, they say they're boring—"
"Oh, you didn't give them those?" Wendy felt her lip curl. "They're beastly things, John, really. Especially for those two."
"Yes, but Grimm is so—"
"Grim?" Wendy asked, and beamed at John as he glowered at her. He looked a little less tense, at least. "Honestly, John, what's the matter?"
"They're sweet children, you know, though, Wendy, and they like fairies, I only thought—"
"Well, so was I a sweet child, and so did I like fairies!" Wendy retorted. "Now, what's this got to do with me, besides how excited I shall be to have a new little one of yours to spoil?"
"It's just that—well, they've quite gone through all their books," John said. His voice had none of that careful jollity anymore, as he set the glass, ever so gently, back on the table. He sounded leaden, like the fog before it gives way to sun, when you can't possibly imagine the sky existing because the fog is pressing about you that close; the only thing you're certain of is the mud beneath your feet. His hand was shaking as he poured, she saw, and he drank heavily before he went on. "They want me to tell them stories, now. And I find that I can't—I don't recall any."
Wendy went over to him and took the G&T he offered her, and only said, after she'd drunk deeply, "I know the feeling."
"Look," John said, busying himself at the sideboard, that false cheer of his back in place, "it was just a thought—don't worry about it if it would be too much trouble for you, of course, I know how busy you are these days."
"Don't be stupid," she said. Her smile was real, just as real as it had been when he first told her the news, and she kissed his cheek, then took another long draught of her drink. "Maybe I'll try a few out on them this afternoon, in fact."
"I say, that would be splendid," John said. "They get terribly bored; that's how I end up being told off by half the other parents in the neighborhood. Every time Slightly and Lady Finch have us out to the country I live in terror that they'll find their way into the hunting tack, and the pistols from there. And I suppose if one of your gangsters is lurking about I've got plenty to worry about now, as well—so much for a holiday." He was scowling again, but it was the sort of scowl he got with the children, because he was so used to having to pretend he was Not Happy With The Little Beasts, and all concerned (especially the children) knew that it was only a smile in fancy dress.
"I don't think they're in the business of kidnapping, particularly, John," Wendy said.
John just snorted, taking a sip of his own drink and picking his cane back up again, following her across the room to sit out on the balcony. "It's not them I'd be worried for."
Supper passed as bright and warm as their initial arrival and reunion, as bright and warm as the evening outside with its reddening sun, as bright and warm as the chandeliers above and the glowing sherbet-hued paper on the walls. Wendy kissed her niece and nephew goodnight afterwards, and embraced their mother, but John stayed downstairs as the windows turned blue, then gray, then (save for a lamp here or there, and the stars glittering over the sea) black. The crowds ebbed and flowed and the band struck up—Rick asked her first, of course, and they had a few lovely dances, but then, as she slid back into her seat, Wendy saw everyone at the table look past her, and she looked up to see him standing there, the dark figure who had haunted so many stories at the paper, the blue-eyed gentleman who had helped her catch her train.
"Oh!" she cried, standing again as he took her hand in his. "I never did get to thank you properly, you know—I'd've been completely doomed without your rescue back in New York, never would've made it down here, to say nothing of getting my brains dashed out all over the station floor. This is my family—"
"Would you think me impossibly rude, Miss Darling," he said, smiling, over her hand, "if I asked whether we might hold the introductions, at least until the dance is over? That is, if you know how to tango—but from what I've read, I daresay it's practically an insult to ask."
Wendy laughed, but she blushed, as well, felt a rush of heat from her chest through her shoulders and up to her cheeks, although that might've just been the contents of the flask she and Rick had slipped into their drinks, or the rush of dancing, to begin with. "I do, yes," she said. "And since you're taking such care to at least nod to the proper way of doing this, perhaps you'll clarify whether you're asking?"
"Dear me," he cried, "I haven't, properly, have I? Will you do me the honor, then?"
"Of course," she said. She saw Rick scowl a little, and felt annoyed by it—he'd had her for several numbers already, for heaven's sake, and she was here with him in the first place, what more assurance did he need?—so she made a joke of the whole thing, turning her smile on him as she took the fellow's left hand in her own, pretending not to notice the emptiness at his right wrist. "Really now, Rick," she said, "it's the least I could do—I wouldn't be here for you to get jealous of if it weren't for him, after all, you know."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Rick said, reddening, and as Slightly and Miranda began to joke about the whole thing as well, she let Gentleman Jim lead her onto the floor.
"What should I call you?" she had time to ask, as the violins began to weep like the wind. "If I'm going to introduce you."
He chuckled as she tightened her hold on his left hand, stretching one leg behind her experimentally—it was all well and good to do the dances that were all arms and ankles, but you never knew, with a tango, whether your dress would allow you to move, really move, or not. "James will do, I think, and I thank you, Miss Darling, for not using that horrid nickname."
She had more to say, banter that wanted to well out of her like a burbling spring, teasing comments, but then the quiet weeping of the violins got caught up by the rest of the band, became songs and sobs. The world, in that moment, narrowed only to the music and the warmth of movement, with only the hard, shining wood of the floor to hold her up. The emptiness at the end of his sleeve was easy to forget, in the tango—his right arm crooked neatly about her waist, and when she held onto one of his hands at all, clinging like she would drown without the help, it was the left.
Dancing, and the tango especially, was almost the exact opposite of her dreams about flying. She felt heavy when she did it, gloriously so. She forgot that, usually, though, until she had someone really good at it, someone who seemed to understand the delicious heaviness.
"You're quite good," she said, when they were done and the world appeared around them again, settling back in after standing around at the door waiting for a break in the conversation, at which point it could slip into the room without causing any awkwardness. It wasn't what she wanted to say, she realized as soon as it was out, but she wasn't sure what she did want to say, so it would have to do.
He blinked at her, those bright eyes focusing on her once more. She knew the feeling. "I might say the same, Miss—"
"Darling," she said, and shook her head, waiting for the last of the band's weeping to fade from her mind. "Oh, I meant to introduce you—"
"Another time, perhaps," he said, with a glance across the room, where Rick was still looking annoyed. "I do hope, Miss Darling, I haven't got you into trouble."
Wendy snorted at this. "I'm quite capable of getting myself into trouble," she said, but then, curiously, something else slipped out. "As you well know."
He laughed, himself, escorting her off the floor, and then seemed struck by the fact that he had done, just as she was. "Yes," he said, and the strangeness of the moment, the curiosity that passed between them, did more to sober her than any number of deep breaths might have. "Well," he added, "your shoes seem to be holding up quite well this time, at least."
"Yes!" she said, grateful to him for recalling. That must be it. What else could it be? "Yes, I brought a few extra pairs. Anyway—do take me up on it another time; I plan to hold you to it."
He touched his brow, and then he was gone, and she was left feeling thoroughly messy, but in a far more pleasant way than she'd felt in a long time.
"I say," Slightly said, when she found her way back to the table at last, "d'you know, Wendy—I know the fellow, don't you? The club, maybe." Wendy laughed at the image in her head, of that ridiculous tie Slightly and his fellows wore sometimes under those blue eyes. The laughter, as it does, steadied her.
"No, I know him, too," John said sharply, but then he frowned, and his voice grew distant again as he stared at his cane. "I think I do, at any rate," he said.
"The wolf," Milly whispered to her brother, but their mother scolded them that they mustn't say such things out loud, it was very rude, and Wendy tried to bite down her own laughter, drank deeply to refresh herself, for the dance had left her flushed and panting and thrilled.
"That was something," Rick said, sliding into the seat beside her with fresh mojitos.
"It's beautiful, the tango," Wendy said, ignoring the look he'd been giving them just moments before. "So different from most dances, heavier, if you see—sad, almost."
"You looked pretty happy," Rick said, tucking a lock of hair back behind Wendy's ear and leaning in to kiss her cheek. "Lucky thing you were so pretty to watch, or I might be sad," he added, smiling at her and raising his glass. "Maybe you can teach me."
"That sounds lovely," Wendy said, raising her own glass and drinking deep. The lightness of the lime and mint danced wildly, pulled ever down by the sweet, hot strength of the rum. When she was finished, she felt more refreshed and thirstier than ever, and the slide of Rick's hand over her knee made her feel the very same way.
And what of the other party in all of this? Well, first of all, we should probably settle the matter of how even to refer to him. You'll have guessed, I'm sure, the true identity of the infamous man by now, the true reason why Wendy and her brothers are so sure they recognize him. Should we warn them off? I think that with the exception of Rick, none of them would thank us for that, not even Mrs. Darling back in England. It doesn't matter what he was going by, really, these days. He barely knew, himself. It didn't matter much to him, except insofar as he knew it wasn't the name he'd had for some time.
The truth is, there wasn't anything particularly sinister in the man's fascination with Wendy—well, except insofar as anything he ever did was sinister. But he cleaned up well, these days, in his dark suit and hat, hair pushed back but not slicked the way Wendy's brothers wore it, or her boyfriends, so perhaps "sinister" isn't quite the word we want, either. Certainly it's not the one Wendy would choose, except as a joke, as a touch of laughter in a column.
You have certainly noticed, in life, that memory has a way of getting confused. So it was with Wendy and her brothers. So it was, too, with the man who had, once, signed himself Jas. Hook; the difference was that he, and Wendy sometimes, knew it. And it was this that drew them to one another, this that compelled him to stay on at the hotel for longer than may really have been wise (it had seemed prudent to leave New York for a few weeks, at least, but another city, especially another in America, may not have been the cleverest course).
What I mean to say is that everything that was swirling about in Wendy's heart, all the curiosity and confusion and strange mottled memories, foggy as the windows in the hotel got some morning, so that one could make out bright splashes of shape or color—all of this swirled about inside of him, as well. And both of them, as it happened, had felt the loss of memory for quite some time.
Besides, she was a pretty creature, and a fine dancer, and—perhaps most striking of all—quite a storyteller. If she was entranced, well, so was he. I think, however, that this would be a far less interesting story if they were to admit it just yet, so we'll raise the curtain again, on the beach, only a day or so later.
Wendy could feel James watching her, now and then, throughout her time there. For all the size of the place, you still ran into the same people of an evening, after awhile, danced with the same fellows. But she found she was always aware of him, like he was a warm fire on a winter's day, so that you couldn't not know where he was.
Maybe that's why she threw the twist in the way she did. She was sitting on the sand with Milly and George, telling them the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It was one of her favorites, now; it hadn't been, when all she knew was Perrault's version, but then she'd grown up a bit, and read more, and she'd come to love it. And she knew he'd walked past them twice now, down the beach and back. She'd smiled at him as he passed, and the children had whispered as he'd gone—George and Milly, who loved everyone, and yet seemed subdued by James! John must have been talking in front of them, frightening them with stories of murder and mayhem in New York.
"Luckily," Wendy said, "Little Red Riding Hood saw the glint of eyes in the water, and heard the tinkling of bells. At least," she added, grinning at her niece and nephew ferociously, "She thought she was lucky. But you see, she didn't know much of mermaids, not like I do, and I will tell you now, they're not the sweet creatures the stories will make them out to be. 'Perhaps you could help me,' said Little Red Riding Hood. 'I've taken a wrong turning, you see.'"
Milly gave a shriek of protest, and even solemn George looked worried, now, as Wendy told them about how the mermaids promised Little Red Riding Hood that they had just the map she needed, to find her way to her poor, ailing Grandmama's house, only she must come with them first. "They spoke so sweetly, and with such mermaid magic, that she would have been lost entirely if it hadn't been for one thing."
"What's that?" Milly asked.
"The wolf?" George asked. "He saved her, didn't he, to gobble her up himself!"
"Don't be stupid," Milly said, "the wolf doesn't eat her 'till she gets to her grandmother's house."
"It was a wolf, sort of," Wendy said. She couldn't say, still, quite why she did it, where the sudden twist came from, but she found she liked it, liked the way the story was squirming like a snake out of her hands. "Only these wolves didn't have fur—it was pirates."
Her niece and nephew were looking suitably shocked and enthralled, their identical brown eyes, the same as John's and Mother's, wide, when the bell rang half-past. "And that," she told them, smiling, "is where, I'm afraid, we must leave it for tonight, my dears, for if I wait any longer I won't be a fit sight for the supper-table at all, and neither will you, for which your parents should have me turned away directly the next time I try to visit."
It felt silly, when she wrote it down, back in her room, what she could remember of the tale. She sipped at a glass of wine and got up to walk around the room and check her things for dinner, and then came back to jot off a few more lines and try not to feel too ridiculous about it, Little Red Riding Hood and her mermaids and pirates, and then have another few sips of wine, and then have a look to see if she'd remembered that pair of earrings, it'd look so splendid with this dress. When it came, she was grateful for the interruption.
"Wendy?" She was still half-dressed, her robe hanging open over her slip, letting her hair dry as she heard Rick come into her room. She slapped the notebook closed and leaned around the doorway to the bathroom to smile at him. She felt like a cat, all lazy contentment; it had been longer than she could think since she'd felt like this, felt so comfortable and cozy.
"Nearly ready," she lied out of habit, but he just kissed her, his mouth curving into a smile against hers, and stood behind her while she remembered something and opened the notebook again, to dash off one more quick line. "D'you know, George and Milly say there's a ghost they've been hearing about?" she asked. "It might make an interesting story, don't you think?"
"Very," he agreed, and, satisfied she'd captured everything she needed and then some, she closed the notebook again—for good this time, and reached for her lipstick instead, smiling at his reflection in the mirror. He leaned down to rest his chin on top of her head, and she replaced the lipstick, her smile, lazy and warm, growing even larger.
Rick was all lightness and sweets, even when they were being ferocious about it, with brick under her back and his warm, soft hand rucking up her skirt. It was what she liked about him, generally, and Jack before him, and Danny before him. She sighed as he leaned down and wrapped his arms around her waist, his hands gliding over the silk of her slip, and it was a happy sigh. From the corner of her eye, as he kissed her, she saw that they made a rather pretty little tableau, with the warm light beside the mirror casting butterly over them, and the impossible indigo of the evening through the window peeking through the cracks their bodies made when they parted. Even as his hands drifted up to her breasts, his thumbs running over her nipples, there was something almost homely about the picture they made.
It was what she liked about all of them, and it was something she liked now—but still, she found she couldn't summon much more than a sweet amusement at the sight of them. She had to bite down a smile, even, at the idea of this being something so sweet looking, so, well, innocent—
But the trouble with trying to bite down on your own amusement when you're kissing is that sometimes you miss. It was so with Wendy, now, but Rick didn't mind when her teeth closed, briefly, on his tongue. His hands tightened on her breasts for a moment, and he gave a low hum—he'd never growl, of course, nothing so doggish, but you got the feeling the sound he made might have started life distantly related to a growl, and that no matter how hard it tried to distance itself from that branch of the family, there was still a similarity in their noses, much to its eternal chagrin.
The odd thing was—she tried it again, and found that he made a similar sound, that his short, clean nails slid over her nipples, so that she made a low little sound of her own—the odd thing was that with that little bit of something new to weigh her down, Wendy found that she felt lighter than ever. Her feet barely seemed to scrape the thick, deep carpet, bright green as moss, as she rose from her seat and dragged Rick over to the bed. "We'll be late," he murmured against her mouth, and she silenced him by sliding her hand further down, dragging her nails over the tightness at the front of his trousers. He gasped, and kissed her again, and she tugged him down on top of her, glad of the weight, because she almost felt as though she might float off.
It can be hard to think straight at times like that, of course, and if I'm being honest there wasn't nearly so much grace about the process after that first bite as even my meager skill has suggested. I mention this to explain why it might not be so strange that sometime in the middle of all of this, Wendy found herself thinking about the sounds Rick had made, the ones that were distantly related to growls, because from there it wasn't such a long distance to Little Red Riding Hood and her sea-wolves.
And then, this dark and devastating figure turned his flashing eyes on her once more—Little Red Riding Hood held tight to her sword, ready to fight as fiercely as her grandmother, Cinderella, before her—but the pirate shocked her.
"You see, my dear," he said, "I can't recall who I am, myself."
Well, you may imagine that Little Red Riding Hood was shocked by this—but not in the way you might expect her to be. For you see, when she thought about it, she suffered from the very same affliction, and as, cautiously and with swords ever at the ready, the ferocious creatures began to talk, they found that both of them could recall little of the time before.
That was the first thing that threw Wendy, though we will see that it would not be the only shock she had. "Before—" And she found that she didn't know, either. "Before—"
"Before they forgot how to fly?" asked Milly.
Wendy stared at her niece then, for she felt just the same way she'd anticipated feeling when she fell at the train station—as though she'd been dashed, splat, against something hard and damp and chilly. For you see, she realized without even thinking of it that yes, of course, that was precisely what had happened in the magical kingdom. "Yes," she said, and went on with her story, though it had started to feel different, now, like those times back in England, when she must get in the car and drive without seeing anything. "Yes," she said again, and took a drink before she continued.
But you see, there was a story she had heard—that there was someone they could ask, only they must find him first, and he was some way away, where the sea turned into a river, and then gave way to land. "We must get to—"
She paused again, trying to think of a suitable name for the source of the answers. Once again, it was the children who helped her—George this time. "Kensington Gardens," he informed her. His sister considered this, looking at him from under the brim of her hat, and then looked back at Wendy, nodding: of course he was right, now that she thought of it.
"Kensington Gardens," Wendy repeated, and nodded as well; it did feel right, that was just the trouble. It was a rightness like tugging at a tooth you've worried until it's ready to fall, when even though it was just a touch, barely a twist, even though it was right that it should slip out, you're still not quite ready for the snap when it does. She wrapped the tale up for the time being, leaving the unlikely partners on the verge of adventure and promising she'd tell them more soon, and kissed her niece and nephew on their brows, and then made her way to the beach.
She had a book in her pocket, about pirates in the Keys, and she thought about throwing it into the ocean, but ultimately she only sat down in the sand and reminded herself of how silly she was being, and watched the waves until she stopped thinking of flying.
But the stories didn't go away. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the children, but there was something that kept her thinking of them, even silly ones, with fairies and pirates and mermaids in their houses under the sea, with the bells on the doors that tinkled when they went to bed.
She began to slip away more often, to wander the beach or to sit with her notebook or to stare at the cars, but whatever she did, she did it all on her own. She was trying to avoid any sight of James, at least until she'd managed to get everything sorted out—what everything was, she couldn't have said for certain, but she knew the ghost Milly and George talked about now and then, the one she tried to ask them about when she felt brave enough, had something to do with it, and she still had to think of more twists for the story, and really, she couldn't be expected to keep track of everything at once. The long and short of it is that it wasn't hard for her to slip away and wind through the massive halls of the hotel, to click across gleaming marble floors and mix a bit of rum into her juice, until finally she just happened to end up at the telegraph room. Then, of course, since she was here anyway, she might as well dash a quick note off to London, asking someone if they'd look into something for her.
It will make a good story,
after all, she told herself, looking the note over once more. She handed it back to the operator, nodding and fishing in her pockets for a tip. A ghost in Kensington Gardens, in the river—such a perfect little picture of how bloody wrong everything was these days, wasn't it? Cozy and sweet and terrible. Some little boy, no doubt, from the war, who couldn't quite find his way home from France.
The furious tattoo of the telegraph startled her as she walked away. Wendy slipped a hand into her pocket and gave the flask there a quick shake. Reassured by the weight that there was still a good bit of rum inside, she saw her way to finding something to mix it with.
One particularly memorable night, she sat and scribbled at her notebook for hours straight, though she'd only meant to make a note or two before she went to bed. She didn’t think anything of how she shifted in her seat; her posture would always change as she was writing, according as she was tired or needed a little something to keep her going etc. She hardly noticed it, in fact, until she realized just how good she felt about what she was writing, just how—well, happy. Her angle had changed while she was working; her arms were straighter, as though she’d grown a few extra inches, maybe. A few of the folks around the office wrote standing up, so maybe she'd, well, risen in her seat while she was writing? That had never happened before, but, then, she’d never had so much fun writing something before, either. She felt giddy with it, almost weightless, as though she’d just floated up into the air, as though she might just keep on floating, and have to hang onto the typewriter to keep herself from just floating away entirely.
Well, heavens, no wonder she was feeling so silly, she thought, when she realized that the light had begun to creep through the window. It was already morning. She hadn't worked through the night since…
Since Amiens, of course, and with that realization she seemed to thud back down to earth. Wendy looked at the story, and then she sighed, and shoved it all into a drawer and went to get a bit of sleep before she had to meet the others for lunch. Slightly took one look at her and said he wished one of the boys from the club was here, his man had the best cure for nights like that you'd ever find, the drink was a miracle—she smiled, and settled into lunch with no more than a cursory protest of her innocence, because to say that she'd been up half the night writing...it seemed silly, but more than that, it seemed like something fragile, like a bubble she would burst by talking about it. She wanted to watch it shimmer just a little longer.
It was here that James found her, and he fell in with them easily as they went down to the beach, and even Rick didn't look too annoyed by his presence, for once—although, curiously, something inside of the man took that even harder. Much to the chagrin of the children, she fell asleep, stretched out in the sun, but they were pleased enough when Rick presented them with gifts of wooden swords. He'd even remembered one for Milly, which was something in his favor, but it wasn't long before the man in their company quite despaired of their technique, and, begging George's pardon, borrowed his sword and laid onto Rick. The spectacle set the children to screeching and laughing, set their hearts to racing and their hands to clapping, such that when Wendy woke, she had the most beautiful, frightening moment of recognition she had ever known. Once she realized where she was, of course, she gritted her teeth and clenched her fists and rose, asking Milly for her sword.
"No, leave him to me," Rick said, affecting a delightfully theatrical voice, but she only laughed. Her hair whipped around like Milly's, in the sunlight, as she whirled on James, but he stepped back and raised his hands in surrender, because after all, he was a gentleman, and she a lady.
"You see," she said to the children, "the Wolf knows he is no match for Little Red Riding Hood." She tossed Milly her sword, and she caught it with all the deadly grace of her fairy-tale ancestress. Then, leaving her audience breathless, she excused herself for a bit of air. First it was Rick who caught up to her, and walked with her for awhile, his hand tucked in hers and their kisses warm, but even he turned back, and you may have gathered by the fact that I'm still telling the story to begin with that someone else caught her next, and indeed you have probably already guessed who it was, but I quite like what's coming next, so I hope you'll indulge me in reading along.
"Naturally," James said, "were you a man I should have run you through." The woman was fascinating and all, as we have established, but he did have his pride, too.
Wendy laughed, and sat down in the sand. It must be a long way to look up, and the sun was dazzling; he couldn't imagine how she could see anything, but she beamed at him anyway before crossing her legs and settling a little further into the sand. "Were I a man," she began—was it the sun that caused that color to her cheeks? "Were I a man," she said again, "I don't think that you'd be here." He noticed that the way that her mouth shook at its corners, and realized that she was trying not to smile, and if he were not lost before, he certainly would have been now.
"Would you?" she asked, looking up at him, and she did smile this time, so that he could not help sinking onto the sand and kissing her.
She flew away with Peter in the frock she had woven from leaves and berries in the Neverland, and her one fear was that he might notice how short it had become; but he never noticed, he had so much to say about himself.
It ended, of course, but she should've seen that coming. The easiest way for it to happen would be to say that Rick saw them, but he didn't. It wasn't jealousy, or at least not in such a straightforward way. That was a part of it, there can be no question, but it was a deeper jealousy than what one usually thinks of when one thinks of it, a jealousy that Rick would've been hard-pressed to recognize as such. It wasn't the prospect of sharing Wendy's kisses with another man that so ate at him; it was her mind, and his helplessness to reach her, to do anything that might make her leave it be for more than a few hours at a time.
The way the ending began was this: there was the most spectacular view some miles down the way, and her brothers said that she was a hell of a driver, and Rick suggested that she should drive them. "I haven't driven since France," she told him, and it will make him sound like a beast to say he didn't hear the way she was, in that moment, all turned to glass, lovely and sparkling and far too brittle to touch, but you must not be too hard on him; he didn't know to listen for it in the first place.
"Oh, well, not enough traffic on the road to worry about that," he said, "you'll remember in seconds, Wendy, come on—"
"No, it's not that," she said, but she couldn't explain what it was, and the only person who was more upset by this in the shouting that followed than Rick was Wendy herself. As I've said, it must make him sound like a beast, and I meant to let you think of him as such, the selfish little creature, but I have to admit that he's not, in the end. He was just a boy, that was all. It was no tragedy of his that he couldn't understand, and who could wish it on him, that he might? But it made her feel all the more tragic, and she despised the feeling right down to her scarlet-varnished toenails, and it was hard not to mistake it for despising him, though of course she didn't. She never could despise boys like him, not really; they were like puppies, they knew no better.
The truth was that he despaired of her the same way Aunt Millicent did—so had Jack despaired of her, too, and so had Danny. Aunt Millicent, for all her fluttering bravado, never left; that was the difference.
When he left—he paid for the suite through 'till the end of the week, which was probably meant as a slap, but she couldn't find it in her to be stung by something so petty—she sat on the beach for awhile, weeping. It wasn't really for Rick that she wept, of course; it was for the utter hopelessness of all of them, and how few damned words she had for it. She didn't owe him a clean start, a fresh field for the sowing, and she knew that—but neither did he owe her the work of sowing the field she did have. She resented him asking her to leave it all behind, but the real pain of it was in how he couldn't trouble himself to walk with her as she did, or, more specifically, the realization that the burden of it all, the swirl of memory and mustard and mud and stories, damned stories, was such that she couldn't possibly ask another person to wait for her while she carried it.
But after awhile, she ran out of tears, and after a fitful nap, she dressed for dinner, and she hugged everyone at the table hard when she got down.
Miranda, bless her, led the way, ignoring the fact that Wendy came down alone, and when Wendy at last mentioned that Rick had decided to make his way back home, the worst that happened was that Slightly brightened and said he knew a few fellows at the club he'd be happy to see about introducing. Miranda patted him on the hand and changed the subject, and Wendy smiled across the room at James, then, with the mint and "what the hell" of the mojito fresh inside of her, pulled the chair beside her out a little. And it was as easy as that, really, for most of the meal, until George and Milly began to ask, again, about Little Red Riding Hood.
"Leave the poor creature eat, at least!" Beatrice said, shaking her head.
"But the pirates," Milly said, just as George cried "the ghost!"
"It's no trouble," Wendy said, laughing. "I'll tell you what," she informed her niece and nephew, "I'll finish Little Red Riding Hood this afternoon, I promise, but you must tell me more about the ghost, because then you'll be able to catch whatever I've got wrong. Do you know, I telegraphed a reporter friend in London and they couldn't tell me anything? I'm very much dependent on you two. They tell me," she said, for the benefit of the rest of the table, "that the ghost in Kensington Gardens is the only one who will be able to help Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf remember who they are."
"My," James said, "it seems storytelling must be a family talent. Does this ghost have a name, then?" He was the one who asked it, but as soon as he did, all the gathered Darlings of Wendy's generation realized they'd been wondering the same thing, and they also had the oddest feeling that they knew it, that they'd remember it in a moment if only...
That's why he was the one who thought to ask, probably—he'd had a good deal longer to realize that he'd never recall it on its own, and all this talk of a ghost, and Wendy's Little Red Riding Hood, itched at the man even more ferociously than it did the rest of them. Except, perhaps, for Wendy.
"Of course he has," George scowled.
"You see?" Wendy asked. "That's more than anyone in London could tell me. Maybe they should ask their nieces and nephews, instead. What's he called?"
"Peter," Milly said.
I shall not say that everyone at the table dropped their glasses or their knives or whatever they might have been holding, but I shall say that there was quite a lot of commotion around the table at her announcement, though neither George nor Milly took the least note of it.
It seems right that they should dance once more, doesn't it? That's not really where it began, but as we established some time ago (I've checked, and it's been hundreds of words already; can you imagine?), sometimes the hardest thing about a story is knowing where to begin it. I think what mattered was that they both loved the way dancing felt. It was another tango when he finally cut in on her nephew, whose mother was looking exhausted anyway, and the warmth between them now, the mysterious warmth, was nothing compared to this. Your body seems too heavy in the tango; even your hairs have a heft to them, and that's exactly as it should be. The strings wept through the massive space of the glittering ballroom, pounded brokenly at the windows, and yet Wendy felt less like weeping than she had at any time today.
When the dance ended, it was she who kissed him; no chaste peck on the mouth but a real kiss, with all the heartbreaking strain against gravity of the dance.
Her brothers cheered when they got back to the table, although John did it the same way he smiled at George and Milly's escapades, with that smile that liked nothing more than to dress itself in a frown's clothing. Before Beatrice could get them quite away, George and Milly informed James, with all due solemnity, that they would see to it he was run through if he behaved ill towards their aunt.
"Ha!" he barked, with the strangest glint in his eye, one that only Wendy, Milly, George, and of course himself really understood. The children, as that morning on the beach with the swords, delighted to find in him a figure equal to the heroes they told stories of being. Wendy was not sure whether she loved him for pretending for their benefit, or whether she were starved for whatever he knew to make it not a pretend. "I've seen your technique with a sword; the best you might hope for is that I'll allow you a handicap, or else run you through with honor," and here he neglected the starching of his speech something dreadful, so that it came out in a distinctly piratical drawl.
"But we've got someone to teach us," Milly said, though she clung to her brother's hand as she said it, and Beatrice swept them off to bed at last, apologizing as she did, but John was staring after them, and at James, peering over his glasses at them and then wiping them off and then putting them on again, with the strangest look on his face: a real smile, this time, just the smallest hint of one.
Well, there wasn't much to do after that but to send all involved to bed, too—whatever that means for all of them. I think it's worth mentioning, too, that all three of the couples at the table made love that night. John waited outside the children's room, and then when his wife came out, he kissed her, and she kissed him too, and had to swallow her warm, rich laughter as they made their way to their room. John had dropped his cane, but his arms too pleased with their place about her waist for him to bother with it at first, and her ankles had got all stiff anyway, so their progress, slow and sweet as molasses, and nearly as dark now that the night-lights were lit, was of a rate that both found more than satisfactory. And Slightly and Miranda, for all their merry chatter and the way they might seem to talk past one another during the day—well, you may rest assured that it was a pattern for them, even, in its own way, a dance, something to weigh them down in just the same way as dancing might for a certain other couple in the group. Upstairs, in light of the merry teasing and the way they knew the path to each other's beds without looking, you could never accuse them of looking past one another.
So much for them, but what about the pair at the center of all of this, Little Red Riding Hood and her Wolf, Wendy Darling and James Hook? Well, they were quite thrilled by the discovery they made, that in each other's company, while the mysteries of their existences did not become less baffling—really, now, how realistic would that be, for a kiss to solve the entire problem?—they at least were transformed into something other than burdens, or else the bearers were not nearly so bothered by those burdens as they once were, knowing that there was someone else struggling alongside them with something similar.
"I hate to mention it," he said to her, when they were left alone at the table, "but you never did properly introduce me."
Wendy considered this, and realized she hadn't. "Oh," she said, "we all just knew you, somehow, didn't we? Of course," she added, as the thought caught her, tweaking her like a mischievous fairy, "you knew us, too, just as well."
She had him there. Somehow, they found their way upstairs, of course—I know the transition is a terribly clumsy one, but you see, neither of them could quite have said how it happened, just as they could not have said how it was that he washed up on some strange shore a few years back, and she could not have said quite how it was that she got her brothers, except that it was simply unbelievable. At the threshold of her room, at last, they came to rest. She hung onto him still; she had discovered already that the sounds he made when she bit down on his lips, or hauled him against her in the corner of a stairwell landing so that she could close her teeth on his earlobe, were true growls, and that she liked them even more than their polite little cousins she'd been acquainted with thanks to Rick. She looked forward to discovering as much as she could, to the notes she might dash off in her book tomorrow after a warm and weary night's sleep.
"I'm old enough to be your father," he murmured against her mouth. Wendy broke away for a moment and stared at him, her complete bafflement clear on her face as the fat smiling moon in the sky.
"But you're not my father, and anyway, I think it's a bit late to be worrying about that, don't you?" she asked.
She had a point.
She also, as you probably noticed, had a story, or the beginnings of one. When, at last—though really, it wasn't all that long at all, for you know how time can go by when you've got a story to tell—the end of the holiday came, the rest of the Darlings were quite delighted to find that James and Wendy were at the docks, too, although they didn't plan to catch a boat directly back to England. Somehow, they had a sense that they wouldn't find their answers the same way that the children would, but they quite looked forward to comparing stories. When she kissed them goodbye, Milly scowled fiercely and shook her sword at Wendy's companion, and though George resisted the urge to do the same, it was only because, for the moment, his own sword was still at his waist (twisted into his belt by himself, so that he'd not have to endure the humiliation of asking his mother for it should he have need of it), and he handed the extra, the one that Rick had held when he fought them on the beach, to Wendy. His face was solemn, and while Milly and James were busy cursing politely at one another (all involved had long ago convinced Beatrice and John not to bother herself with it, as long as the curses were directed only at pirates, who thoroughly deserved them, and agreed that they wouldn't bother trying to explain the matter to Milly's eponym) Wendy smiled at the sword, and thanked her nephew for it sincerely.
"You didn't finish the story," he told her.
"You're right, my love," she said, and took both their hands. "But you see, as I told you last night, I'm going to need some help with it. So we'll see one another again soon, and then you can tell me what you know, and I will tell you what I know. You will have to help me fill in the blanks, because I think you will have someone to tell you a good deal that I have missed."
"Like how to fly," George said, and Milly scoffed with all the easy confidence of her age, and cried that really, that was the easiest thing in the world.
Wendy's heart did not break then—it was broken already; she was a grown-up; heartbreak is a given. She felt the cracks as strongly as she ever had, though. She also knew what the children could not understand just yet: that the reason you can't fly anymore when you grow up is that you're using the magic already—it's what's holding all the pieces of your heart in place. But it's not gone, not at all, and to be the glue for the pieces of your broken heart is, in many ways, an even more beautiful use for the magic than flying.
She kissed the children once more, smiling a wet smile at them. But the damp was at least as much the spray of the sea as anything else: there was still so much to learn. The next kiss she enjoyed, with James's left hand curved around her hip and her left on his chin (her right still held the sword) was a very different kiss to the one she'd pressed on the cheeks and brows of her relatives. But it was every bit as delicious, in its own sharp-edged way.
"We have a boat to catch ourselves," he said at last. The wind was tugging at her skirts and his hand had closed about hers, and the rest of the Darlings were making their way up their own walk, waving and whistling all the while.
Wendy nipped at his lower lip, and thrilled at the falling sensation she got when he exhaled, hard, in such a way that one might, if one were listening very closely, hear a growl. "So we have," she said, and, as they broke apart at last, she hefted the wooden sword and smiled at it once more.