One night, not more than a week after Wendy had been moved into her new room, she went downstairs to get a glass of milk. On the way back to her room, she thought she heard Michael’s voice coming from her parents’ bedroom. At the sound, Wendy dropped her glass with a quiet thud on the carpet and sprinted on tiptoe to her parents’ door. She pressed her ear against it and heard her mother say, “My sweet boys.”
And then she heard John’s voice. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, but it was him. It was John and Michael, just inside the door.
Wendy had shoved the door open only to find the room dark. Moonlight from the open window spilled over her mother’s sleeping form. She was lying on her side, light brown hair gathered in loops on her pillow, one hand resting above her head. Her delicate fingers looked like they were reaching for something.
Confused, Wendy looked around. She’d heard her brothers, but they weren’t there. She checked behind the door, but there was no one. Wendy carefully walked up to her mother’s side.
Her eyes were closed, her lashes splayed across the dark circles under her eyes. Her lips parted and she said, the ring in her voice already starting to ebb, “Please come back . . .”
That was when Wendy discovered her mom was talking to her missing brothers in her sleep. She must have imagined her brothers’ voices. It was nothing but the murmuring of her mother, in some state between sleep and wakefulness, speaking to people who weren’t there, and who might never come back.
When Mr. Darling came home, he had found Wendy at the top of the stairs. She was crying, the neck of her nightshirt dark and damp with tears, as she tried to soak up the spilled milk with a rag.
Without a word, her father gently took the rag from her hand, picked her up, and carried her to her new bed. He flicked on the string of fairy lights and rubbed her back until the hiccups went away and, from sheer exhaustion, she fell asleep.
Now, Wendy let herself slide to the floor. Her cheeks were wet and her nose ran onto the hand she pressed over her mouth.
Eventually, her mother had stopped talking in her sleep. She hadn’t done it in years, but now it was happening again. Wendy let herself take a gasp of air before she pulled her knees in and tucked her head down.
“Sleep, my darlings,” her mother’s gentle voice came from the other side of the door. And then everything was silent, except for Wendy, who remained huddled on the floor, trying to force down the lump in her throat.
Wendy was sweating profusely and her head throbbed. She needed fresh air. She needed to get out of the house, away from her mother’s words and the clawing feeling of being trapped.
Wendy pushed herself up from the floor, ran down the stairs and through the kitchen. She jerked back the sliding glass door and flew into the backyard.
Adrenaline coursed through her veins and pounded in her chest. Chains rattled as she shoved aside the swings and ducked under the abandoned swing set. She felt like she was trapped in a nightmare. All of the secrets and haunted memories she’d tried to outrun were catching up to her.
Wendy ran, and her feet were ready to carry her away, to take her anywhere else, to escape, but she had led herself to a dead end.
Her scrambling only took her a short distance until the faded, dilapidated fence corralled her in and she found herself face-to-face with the woods. The sun had just set, giving everything, even the bright green trees, an orange glow.
If she were braver, she would jump the small fence and keep running. But she couldn’t bring herself to step into those woods.
Wendy doubled over, bracing her elbows on her thighs as she stared down at her dirty bare feet, gasping for breath. The smell of pine trees and heavy summer air filled her lungs. Maybe she should go back to Jordan’s house. Leave her parents a note and just stay the night there. Maybe being near Jordan would settle her nerves and keep back all the memories creeping out of the woods.
Maybe, if she could just suck it up and get herself together, her thoughts wouldn’t spiral out of control. She could feel herself deteriorating under that sense of impending doom, inescapable fear, and a tiredness no amount of sleep could fix.
Her head shot up.
There he stood as if he’d just materialized from the fallen leaves on the ground.
His eyes were impossible to evade and trapped her immediately. They were such an impossible shade of blue. The bright, cosmic flecks were no trick of the fluorescent lights in the hospital. She could see them clear as day now.
He perched on the fence, one leg extended down. His bare foot hovered just above the ground. It was the stance of someone trying not to scare off a bird.
“Wendy, why are you crying?” he asked gently. That voice was so familiar, like she’d known it her entire life.
She wanted to believe it was him, but her body reacted like he was dangerous. A wild animal, something that belonged in the woods she was so afraid of.
Wendy blinked away her blurry vision. A scream for help welled up in her lungs but couldn’t escape. Her arms were heavy and useless at her sides.
Peter jumped to the ground, a landing so light that she didn’t even hear it, though a loud roar was rising in her ears. He held out his hands at his sides, palms forward in surrender.
Wendy took a step back. “No, stop,” was all she could muster.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his brilliant eyes searching her face. That crease between his eyebrows was back.
Wendy made a strangled noise that was something between a laugh and a cry. This wasn’t happening. She had to get out of here. He couldn’t be Peter Pan. He was a stranger with too many connections to her nightmares.
What if the detectives were right? What if he had been with her during those missing six months?
He stepped closer.
“Please, don’t.” Her feet tripped over each other as she tried to take another step back. He was right in front of her now. Wendy turned to run, only to collide with something hard. The last thing she remembered before it all went black was the clanking of swings and arms catching her.