Today’s story comes to us from guest author Shannon Clark. Shannon is a graduate of the Fairfield University’s MFA program, specializing in Fiction and Publishing. While in school, she received the Fairfield Literary Fellowship for strong fiction concepts, believable dialogue, and unique writing style. She was also the publishing manager of Fairfield’s Mason’s Road Literary Magazine, and the managing editor for the Poetry in the Schools chapbook.
I’m only telling you this because you won’t be able to tell anyone else. Because when you are done reading this, everything you read will be a fading memory. You won’t remember every little detail, every little letter, every feeling that made you think. And that’s a good thing, for me, because what I’m about to tell you is top secret. You can’t tell anyone. In fact, if you think you might, you should throw this paper away. If you think you can keep this secret, if you think I can trust you, read the next sentence.
Neverland is real…and it tried to kill me.
Can you believe it? I never thought about death coming for me in an imaginary place, let alone finding the imaginary place of all places, but I found Neverland! Anyone can find it; you just have to look for the darkest, coldest, most unimportant spot in your room, where your missing socks go to live and your imaginary friend from kindergarten went to hide after you stopped talking to him. It’s the place where your eyes never follow, where you don’t play, the place you ignore when your mom tells you to clean your room. It’s cold because heat never settles there. The darkness is so deep, the light can’t touch it. It’s a void, filled with the memories of your nightmares, where the clowns, and the spiders, and the guy with the hunting knife go to sleep after they terrorize you.
I crawled into this void, following a trail of black light and emerged into nothingness. That’s the entrance to Neverland. It’s not a star and there is no morning. The space is frigid, like the inside of a tomb that’s been closed up for years and the only thing you can hear is your heartbeat, a steady drumming in your ears. I expected to find others there; I couldn’t be the only one to make it to Neverland, but I was alone. Or I thought I was.
A red light started to pulse in the distance. With every blink, I saw the illumination of a doorway and a hand hovering above the light. I ran for it. I ran for the light, hoping it meant an escape from the nothingness of Neverland’s doorway. But when I saw what was attached to the hand, I wondered if the void was a better place to stay.
“Who are you?” I asked the creature. It raised the light, which was a small, round lantern, and held it over my head. Pitch black eyes stared down at me, void of all color.
“I’m Tinkerbell,” she hissed through needle-like teeth, reminding me of a shark before it opens its jaws to catch its prey. Her skin was pale like snow, highlighted with hints of purple. Her nose was small, pointed over a lipless smile, with small ridges between her eyes that reminded me of a Vulcan from Star Trek. She didn’t have hair, not like the Tink I grew up with. Instead, her skin cut away into a point at the back of her head, a swirling curve making its way down her skull only to disappear behind large double-pointed ears with holes in the lobes. Deep groves in her forehead replaced her eyebrows and hairline and small black barbs took the place of her eyelashes.
“If you’re Tinkerbell, where are your wings?”
She touched a grotesque fingernail to my cheek. “A child plucked them from my back years ago and put them in a jar. I have no idea where my wings have gone, but I can show you where I’ve been. I’ve been all around, up and down, here and there. Follow me, little boy, and I’ll show you why children stay.”
We left the void and entered a forest. Fog rolled in from every corner, making it hard to breathe. Tinkerbell hobbled forward on her goat-hoofed feet, careful of the fallen logs and roots threatening to take us beneath the black sand. Again, the only sounds around us were ourselves, our feet and heartbeats creating a melody of the lost, but there was a feeling that the trees spoke in emotion, giving off feelings of sadness, of abandonment, of loneliness. I chose to leave my worries with them in hopes of excitement beyond the woods.
There’s a sea beyond the trees, so deep and so dark, the blue was carried away. It was on its sandless shores I encountered a Lost Boy. He stood knee-deep in the water, staring at the lone pirate ship off the shore. I joined him, leaving Tinkerbell behind, and watched the ship rock.
“That’s Hook’s ship,” he said. “That’s Hook’s ship.”
“Why is it so close to shore?”
“Because a ship sinks when its crew departs.” He turned to face me. “A ship sinks when the magic sleeps.”
You know the stories of the Lost Boys. I don’t have to tell you how he came to be there. I can tell you that the magic starts to run out. He was old, a walking corpse with skin as thin as paper and bones attempting to press their way through his skin. He drew his hand across his forehead to wipe away the salt from the sea wind and swirls of dust slid away from his skin, leaving behind holes. He’d lost the skin on his fingers. The muscles had withered away years ago. I’d never seen bones up close. They’re shinny, like cut diamonds, dirtied at the tips.
“You can never die in Neverland,” he told me, “but when the magic runs out, so does the clock.” He smiled a row of rotted teeth. “I should’ve stayed in my bed. I should’ve stayed in my bed.”
He left me in the water, floating away on the sea currents and disappearing beneath the grey depths. In his wake, a trail of black light led me to a small boat. Curiosity took its hold on me. I jumped in and took hold of the lone oar left behind. Tinkerbell stayed on the shore, her red lantern swaying like a pendulum, lighting up the moonless shore. I rowed with all my strength towards the ship, wondering what I would come across once I arrived. The closer I got, the louder the shouts of the crew became. I didn’t have to ask to come aboard. The second I was shouldered up to its rotted planks, a rope ladder was thrown down to me.
“Come aboard, lad! The mermaids will snatch you up!”
I climbed my way up and threw myself over the edge of the ship. I landed in a pile of skulls, scraping my hand against broken bone. I staggered to my feet and dusted off my pajamas, only to lose my focus when Hook appeared in front of me. I expected a Dustin Hoffman type Hook and found a creature from the black lagoon. He had fins for fingers, long warping gills bisecting his chest, and a face as smooth as a shell. His forehead gave way to seaweed, seawater dripping down his face, depositing salt into an oversized mouth, harboring rows of serrated teeth. A lone fish was stuck in the corner of his jaw, its tail fluttering in an attempt to release itself from his teeth.
“Welcome aboard, lad! You best watch yourself. Mermaids circle these waters and are looking for a meal.”
I shook his hand and my fingers came away with sticky slime. “I thought mermaids were nice.”
He shook his head and pointed over the edge of the ship. “They are vicious, disgusting creatures looking to feed their beastly bellies. I’ve lost many men to their song. Tonight, I’ll rise the victor, just like I did with that foul crocodile!” He pulled on a rope hanging off his belt and showed me the shrunken head of a crocodile. “Nothing defeats a pirate!”
The crew and I were thrown off our feet, landing hard against the deck as hundreds of drums thundered around our heads. I attempted to cover my head and hide myself against the mast but a pirate with crab claws for hands pulled me to my feet and forced me to stand to Hook’s right. Over the side of the ship, I saw hundreds of tails in the water, slamming up against the side of the ships, creating holes in the already rotting wood.
“There they are, lad!” Hook yelled. “Ready the cannons!”
I stared at the mermaids, unable to understand why Hook found them grotesque creatures. Each lady was as beautiful as the next. Some had curls of raven hair that seemed to flow for miles while others darted past, hair as cool as ice making me shiver. They belonged on magazines, on tv, or on some billboard to showcase their gorgeous faces. Even with the bubbling waves, churning from the multitude of tails, I could see their ice blue eyes and cherry lips.
The ship rocked again and I was thrown forward. I tripped and stumbled into the pile of skulls. Unable to get my footing, my hand slipped on the edge and I fell backwards. I plummeted into the sea, narrowly avoiding the thrashing tails of the mermaids, and found myself surrounded by the same darkness I encountered at Neverland’s door.
I’ve known fear. I remember the chills, and the shakes, and the choking feeling when you can’t get a word out. Real fear is not being able to scream, not being able to make a sound. If you can scream, you’re just scared. There’s a difference. In that water, I found fear. And that was where Neverland tried to kill me.
Lights started to appear, one by one, until the grey depths were as clear as day. The beauty of the mermaids gave way to their true nature. Their bellies, so very unlike our own, were the heads of anglerfish. Their breasts were large round eyes, their ribs malformed, sharp teeth jutted outwards, dripping with black sea water. Tongues as long as my leg slithered through those teeth, reaching towards me for a taste. I flailed, trying to hold my breath, trying to swim away, trying to escape, but they surrounded me. If Neverland was a dream, I prayed for the nightmare to end.
I shut my eyes and opened my mouth in a soundless scream as the closest mermaid rushed me, but the bite never came. The water disappeared. The booms of the overhead cannons silenced. When I opened my eyes, I was back in the void, back at Neverland’s doorway. Tinkerbell stood in front of me, her red lantern lighting the way. She was smiling, her body swaying in time to a beat in her mind.
“Where are they?” I screamed, turning in circles, looking for the monsters.
She laughed, a skipping record of chords and broken glass. “Monsters never leave,” she said. “Monsters live inside us all.”
I backpedaled, praying for the safety of freedom, for my bedroom where I could forget the dark place that was Neverland. In my haste, Tinkerbell’s voice echoed through the darkness. “Children play where the monsters live. Come back again soon. I’ll be waiting.”
I’m sure she’s waiting for me to return to Neverland, but I’ll never go. After hearing my story, I wonder if you’ll be as curious as I was, or if this will help sway you from your curiosity. I’m sure some of you will venture out, look for that dark void, and maybe, you’ll bag a mermaid and join Hook and his crew on a high sea adventure. Maybe some of you are interested in surviving death and you’ll become a new Lost Boy or Girl. Maybe you won’t mind that the magic runs out, but I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t help you decide. Neverland is your choice.
I’ll stick to my dreams and pray the darkness stays put.