Copyright is held by the author.
PIPER STOOD on the top of the Ferris wheel. Behind him, the moon cast its cold gaze upon his tinfoil crown.
“Come down,” shouted Popkin, “We should test out the parachute first.”
Either the wind carried away his comrade’s words, or Piper simply ignored them. In the next instant, he floated in that chrysalis of moonlight, and then plummeted into the zigzag network of rafters, down, breath-catchingly down, turning over and then straightening out, until a puff of wind caught him, held him like an outstretched hand and swung him out over Alligator Lake, where, painted with silver moonbeams, he wrestled out of the sopping cocoon of plastic bags, emerged without comment, and dragged the patchwork parachute after him.
“That was crazy,” commented Boil.
“Piper’s always been crazy,” whispered Ritz.
“What did it feel like?” asked Four-Eyes.
Shaking off rancid lake water, Piper unstrapped the contraption and searched among the crowd of gawkers. “Where’s my crown?” he asked. “Anyone seen my crown?”
Boil had seen it. In fact, Boil was wearing it. His egg-like complexion gleamed beneath the star-studded cap.
“Give me that, you pimply . . . moron!” Piper snatched the crown and reshaped it with wet hands, flung off the stray hairs, and placed it back upon his gleaming scalp. “Where’s Toad-Face?” he snapped.
“Toad-Face’s in the House of Mirrors,” Four-Eyes answered, “Trying to cure himself of hiccups.”
“Too much soda pop’ll do that to you!” Piper shoved a few younger boys aside. “He was supposed to syphon off another barrel of gas from the parking lot.”
“Oh, we’ve still got a few gallons left,” Four-Eyes muttered. “Enough to last a few hours.”
“How are we supposed to play gin rummy without any lights?”
“Moonlight’s pretty good tonight, but the generator should still have a couple hours left.”
The group dispersed. Someone handed out cold hot dogs. Activity blossomed in the dark, children wearing glow sticks munched on armloads of cotton candy. Kids in shiny, fake armor bottled fireflies, skipping from roof to roof, crossing Haunted House Lane and dangling from the rafters inside the Big Rocket, which leaned over the whole park like a toppled skyscraper. Adolescents skipped rocks and scampered through the trees noisily, hooting like wild animals.
Moonlight lit up the fog, which clung to phosphorescent graffiti. Ghostly clouds hung low over the tallest rides, masking their rickety pinnacles from below. Boys clambered through overgrown weeds, picking up twigs and slurping down slugs. Boys frantically banged out drum solos on trashcan lids, constructed haphazard nests out of Teddy bear stuffing and worn car tires. They frolicked and traded amongst each other, enacted wars and treaties, revolutions and raids, all between boredom and sleep.
Piper sat in the large cellophane tent, counting out decks of cards. Whenever the deck was short a card or two, he tossed it onto a heap of tinder. He spun around on the displaced bar stool, staring at his image in a glassy puddle. Somewhere close by, a generator cranked on. Birds flapped away, startled into flight. Four-Eyes sat down across from him, smacking bubblegum between his grimy teeth. From a threadbare backpack he produced trading cards, dice and glittering coins, plastic necklaces and candy bracelets.
“Is that all you could come up with?” Piper asked.
“Sorry, but it was short notice.”
“Fine. Just turn on the lights before the girls show up.”
Four-Eyes straightened his cracked spectacles, and scampered around the makeshift shelter.
A few girls arrived moments later, carrying sharpened hockey sticks, dressed to the nines in sequined furs, hubcaps and kitchen utensils, dramatic heels and one or two layers of Christmas wrapping paper.
“Piper,” the oldest one said. “Did you bring any cigarettes?”
The other girls waited outside the entrance with crossed arms.
Piper stared at her for a moment. Her mouth gleamed, either with lip-gloss or some sticky residue. “Toad-Face was supposed to.”
“Last time he smoked half of ’em while we played.”
“I’ll give him a cigar next time. That ought to cure him.”
“So where is that green-faced mound of pus?”
“Four-Eyes,” Piper said, “Go get him out of the Mirror Maze. We’ll all be old men by the time he figures it out.”
The girl narrowed her eyes at him.
“Old men and ladies,” he corrected himself.
Four-Eyes started off at a sprint, only slowing to a trot to dodge a runaway boxcar.
“Sit down,” Piper said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
He batted at a fly as she took the stool across from him. Raucous shouts filtered in from outside, and the tent was sweltering. Her forehead glistened. Piper smelled perfume.
Before she spoke, she emptied a pouch of Pixie dust powdered sugar into her mouth.
“You didn’t bring any treasure,” Piper whined.
“You’re so far in the hole I don’t have to. Don’t worry, if you win anything I’m keeping tabs.”
“So, Princess,” he punched a mosquito as it lit on the deck of cards. “Did you figure out how to get into the Underground Railroad?”
“It’s still flooded. But it’s not like there’s going to be much we can use once the water dries up.”
“Still, it’s another ride.”
“You just don’t want to dismantle any of your own roller coasters.”
Piper shrugged, took a swig of warm ginger ale, and dealt out a hand.
“You’re the oldest one here besides me, Piper. We had a few wars in the beginning but I kept my girls as far away from your boys as I could. But some of them are wandering the park at night.”
“Wandering on our side? I thought we had an agreement.”
“It’s not like I can lock them up when I’m asleep.”
“Maybe I should let them join. I mean, they’re probably bored with what you make them do.”
“You and me have kept it peaceful for a while now. These poker games are a lot better than the old battles.”
“Whatever. I can’t keep all the girls on our side of the park forever, though. They’re just too curious.”
“Trust me, I know. I can barely tell these idiots what to do anymore. It’s like I got to keep proving I’m smarter.”
“That’s what I was about to say. I think it’s time we change things. Tonight I wanted to say goodbye.”
Piper froze. He met her glistening gaze. His heart throbbed like a sputtering generator. “What are you talking about?”
“Why don’t you come away with me, Piper?”
“The boys need me. Who’s going to stop them from blowing themselves up? Why do you want to leave all of a sudden, anyway?”
“Life isn’t just fun and games.”
“There’s a whole world outside Neverland Park. I’d like to see it.”
“Trust me. There’s nothing out there we don’t got here.”
“What happens when you run out of gas? What’ll you do then?”
“I know how to make a fire.”
“But the carnival rides won’t run without electricity. Or the cotton candy machines and arcade games.”
“We’ll just go get some gas from other parking lots. All the parking lots are full of cars, everywhere you go. There’s a big gas truck on the freeway too. I haven’t even touched it yet.”
“You’re wrong. You might think you found the only place you’ll ever need. But there’s millions of miles of wilderness out there. I’ve seen a few pictures and enough of your old movies to know. You can’t live on Ritz crackers and soda pop forever.”
“Who says I can’t? Plus, nobody knows what the world was really like before the grown-ups died. We were all too little to remember and you can’t trust the movies.”
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
“What does it matter? Why not stay? This is our home.”
“Because it’s a dream, Piper. Nothing but a long dream that’s bound to end.”
He flung his cards across the table. Brooding, he slurped from his crazy straw. Just then, Toad-Face burst into the tent, radiating an aura of cigarette smoke. “What were you doing in there, Toad?” Piper asked irritably.
Toad-Face answered with a hiccup. Sauntering over to their table, he set down a half-empty, crushed pack of cigarettes. Then, he winked and hiccupped violently.
“Have you tried hanging upside down?” Piper suggested. “Or the Haunted House?”
Toad-Face shrugged and hiccupped helplessly.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a fool. Go hold your breath somewhere else.”
At last Piper and Princess were alone again. The night air was full of raucous cicadas, but between them, he could feel a silence expanding.
“How ’bout you tell me the truth,” he said finally. “Did one of them die again?”
Princess shook her head. She gathered the cards on her side silently.
“So what’s this about? You trying to run away with me. I thought we were rivals.”
“We are more than just rivals, Piper.”
“Don’t talk about that time, Princess. You’re the one who said it was better if we pretended to be enemies. We have to set a good example.”
“We’re not really kids anymore. Not you and me.”
“Don’t act like you’ve been keeping track of days or years.”
“I don’t have to keep track. My body and mind are getting older. Maturer.”
“It hasn’t been that long. I knew we shouldn’t have got too close.” Piper swallowed the lump in his throat. Princess stared at him with glassy eyes.
“So that’s what this is about, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Maybe it was meant to be. I’ve been thinking a lot, Piper, and maybe we could make it work on our own.”
“On our own!” He stood. Chucked a handful of cards at the flapping tent wall. “I see what you’ve done now!”
“What I’ve done?!” Princess stood. She was a half-inch taller than him. “Don’t act like it’s my fault.”
“All right. It’s both our faults. So you think it’s better to disappear, let these chumps figure it out on their own? We both know we can’t feed anymore mouths with our current supplies.”
“I swear to you Piper, we have to! We absolutely have to leave.”
“I know.” He turned to face the opaque tarp, stroking his bare chin contemplatively. “What about the Underground Railroad?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“We can have it live there. You can feed it with your . . . you know.”
“Piper . . .”
“The tunnel’s gonna probably be dried out in a couple months.”
“No, Piper. I’m going to leave.”
“You can’t leave. Whose gonna deal with all those girls? They won’t listen to me.”
“You either deal with my girls or you come with me.”
He staggered back a step. “I don’t get any time to think about it?” He reached for a candy bracelet and snapped off a mouthful. Princess lit up one of the cigarettes.
“Wait,” Piper said. “Put it out.”
“The pack says something about not smoking when you . . . you know.”
“You’re not going to make me go alone, are you, Piper?” A tear slid down her cheek as she flicked the cigarette away.
“We should have stayed rivals.” His hands were trembling. Poking a finger through the tent flap, Piper glanced out at the park.
Toad-Face was allowing another boy to smack him repeatedly with a flat board. The board cracked him in the back and the sound of his hiccups could be heard 30 feet away. Two other kids carried torches toward the pond. Pretty soon the jousting tournament would begin. He could already hear the drums.
“There’s lots more supplies on the outside,” Princess whispered. “We’re going to need them.”
“You don’t know that.”
Piper regarded her, felt his heart beating savagely. “You know what would happen to them if we left, right?”
“We were all meant to grow up Piper. Things can’t stay as they are forever.”
“They’re my brothers. And you’re like . . .”
“I’m not your sister.”
“I meant, you’re my rival.”
“I’m leaving tonight.”
“What? Why so soon?”
“Rumors are already spreading.”
“I’ve already thought it through. I’m stopping by your secret base tonight after lights out. You better be ready to go.”
Princess left him there, speechless. He was alone in the tent.
Four-Eyes walked in a few minutes later, glanced at the cards on the floor and grinned. “Did you win?”
“I lost,” Piper said.
They named the child Pip.
The mansion on the lake was worlds away from Neverland Park. It snowed in the winter and a big, white river ran through the woods next to the windmill.
When the baby was a little older, Piper decided, maybe he’d go back to check on the park. Princess was against the idea.
Big Girl called him from the far room. She was two years older than Princess and had four children. He carried Pip to the metal bleachers and handed him over to Princess. She wore a pink dress and had cut her hair short. Forty kids lined up in the sand and on the benches to await the paddleboat race.
Piper climbed into his swan-shaped boat and tested the pedals. Smoke rose up from the barbecue pit and the sound of pigs and goats could be heard in the distance. Twilight blossomed over the mountains. The sky was empty and clear.
As he thrust out into the water and heard the cheer of the kids, his heart fluttered and he had to laugh. He wondered if Neverland Park about the old crew: Four-Eyes, and that useless Toad-Face.
After his first lap around the lake he was winded. Pot-Belly waved to him. Parking and tagging his comrade in, he watched the swan-boat retreat and join the races, maintaining third place.
Piper sat next to Princess. Rubbed Pip’s hairy head affectionately and said, “I wonder what the old chumps would say if they could see me now.”
Princess smiled. “They’re all grown up, just like us.” She sighed. “I’ve been thinking we should take a trip somewhere. Like maybe to the beach. Billy Bozo knows where the closest one is.”
“It’s probably best to stay at home. Pip’s still too small.”
“You’re just worried. You’d spend your whole life pacing back and forth in one spot if you could. There’s a whole great big world out there. We’ll never even see the tiniest part of it.”
“Maybe I’m just not as crazy as you. Maybe when Pip’s as old as me and I’m an old person. Maybe then I’ll get so bored I’ll just have to do what you say.”
“I guess we’ll never stop being rivals, will we?”