I lost my shoes and stockings somewhere in the endless journey that started as I followed Blackie over a terrain of dirt, rocks, and tree roots. He spat the entire time, until I asked him why. Then he hocked a big one and said, very authoritatively for a nine year old, 'Mucus problems.'
He led me up and down and over damn near everything on the island. By the end of it, we had gone so deep into the queer trees that I no longer knew how to get back to the beach. But, I decided that didn't really matter, did it, when I had no idea how to get from the beach to the Serpentine and then back home. It didn't matter, not to know where I was, when no one knew where Charley was. Perhaps, I thought, not even Charley.
Blackie started to talk to me, warn me a bit. "My names not really Blackie. I don't really like the name Blackie. D'you? I think it's dull."
"Oh, extremely," I said without thinking as I struggled to keep up. London and my well ordered home had not prepared me for a long jaunt across a jungle.
"Yeah. It aint the worst, though. When I came, there was a boy named Fiddle-Faddle. Can you believe it?" Only when Blackie said it, it sounded like 'Kin yeh buleevet?' His accent made him special, different from most of the people I had ever met. "Fiddle-Faddle. And all because he marched up to Peter and said 'My name is Alan Terrence Fenwick-Pryce, how do you do.' Then Peter got angry, because he hates for people to have longer names then him. So he started to mimic him, Fenwick-Pryce, a'cause he had the most hoity toity way of speakin'. Worse than you, even. So he hadda be called Fiddle-Faddle for the rest of his whole damn life."
"What's your real name, then?"
"Bernard Black. Bernie. A lot of the boys come young you know, too young to know their names, and Peter names them. But then there's a few, like us, and we get named to. To put us in our place."
"Is Peter a tyrant, then?"
"No, not at all! He's the best, the best of all, I swear. He's the best there is at everything, at keeping out pirates and catchin' rabbits and raising the Lost Boys and—he's good at everything, and he's boss. That's how it goes here, and you better not mess with it, a'cause we'll beat you up pretty bad." In Blackie's accent, it sounded like 'beatya up pity bud.'
"Will he let me stay?"
"Ain't no place for you to go, 'cept the pirates. And not nobody wants to go there."
"A'cause they're pirates, and they ain't no good." He spat again, this time in seeming disgust. "Peter hates pirates."
"Me too," I said, and then I spat, rather pathetically. Blackie just grinned and led me deeper and deeper. When I thought I couldn't go another step, that's when Blackie changed direction and, with practiced ease, started grabbing at odd tree branches and sometimes, it seemed, turned himself over midair and snatching impossibly high branches. It took everything I had to keep following him.
We stopped climbing when it started to get dark. I could tell immediately we were there. It was a fortress in the sky, a magnificent, towering house made of driftwood and leaves and tree branches. Sea glass and pretty rocks filled every possible crack, and a rough door was made from the side of what I guessed was a wrecked ship. It had a bunch of planks nailed over it, on which phrases like 'KEEP OWT! NO GURLS! NO PEYERATES!' were written in big, black, smudgy letters.
Blackie grinned at me, and I noticed for the first time that he was missing two of his front teeth.
"Welcome to the Tree Fort."
There was a bell, like the kind they have on ships to signify the end of watches. A long, knotted, dirty string was tied to it, and at the end of the string was a root that vaugely resembled a spoon. Blackie grabbed up the root and started beating on the bell and yelling at the top of his lungs.
"LOST BOYS, LOST BOYS, WE GOT A NEW 'UN! LOST BOYS, LOST BOYS, C'MERE!"
One of the planks slid to the side and a small brown eye peeked out.
"Peter ain't here, so's ya gotta say the password," the little boy lisped. "Peter says that if we was to let someone in who din't say the password, he could be a pirate or an Injun or an, uhm—"
"An enemy of the state," an older voice said. A bespectacled face appeared next to the little boy.
"So, say the password and you can come in. It's the same password as always," the little boy said, and then he yelped as an unseen Lost Boy thumped him on the head.
"What's the point in tellin' 'em that, Cub? Now he don't even hafta guess!"
"Aw, stuff it, Sweets, he knew it anyway!"
"What if he's a Tom Poster?" the boy roared back.
"It's imposter, dumb-head!"
"Don't call me dumb-head, mud for brains!"
"Blackie, say the password, quick, Sweets is hitting me!"
Blackie knocked on the door three times, then spat on his hand and pressed it against the door.
"If I say a word 'gainst this utmost secret and special brotherhood may all my parts fall off," he said solemly, and waited as the planks all slid back into place and there was a great scuffle behind the door trying to pull the door open.
"Fiddle-Faddle read it in a book," Blackie explained, and the door suddenly fell in to the dimly lit tree fort.
The lights showed four boys, all pushing, shoving, biting and yelling for Blackie's attention and yelling their side of the story. They continued to yell and fight as Blackie shoved his way into the room, leading me toward a battered barrel that seemed to be acting as a table.
The littlest boy was the first to stop yelling and take notice of me. He was a cute thing, barely older than my littlest brother, Johnnie, but with a thick layer of grime all over his body. He had gotten his hands on some sort of war paint and his hands were coated with a vivid green paint, along with matching palm prints on his cheeks and the sleeves of his tattered shirt, as if he had slammed his hands in the paint and then hugged himself. He had the cutest pair of front teeth I had ever seen, with a slight gap to them. His hair was the straightest, blondest hair I had ever seen, and his brown eyes looked like my father's hunting hound, Blue's, puppies eyes. He was adorable.
"Look, we've a new friend!" he yelled excitedly, and the other boys all ceased their fighting to gape at me. Even without my shoes and stockings and my muddy feet and I could tell, by putting a hand to my hair, that the oil Mamselle put on it had worn off in the climate and it was curly as ever and full of leaves and twigs, even with all those things I still looked like a little lord compared to them. I saw one of them, or perhaps a shadow, run up and nimbly disappear, so quickly I thought I had imagined it.
"Who's the toff?" one of the boys asked after a moment, jolting me out of my imaginings. He spat with every word he said, for he had a large wad of taffy shoved in one cheek.
"This's Kit. He's the latest." Blackie was rummaging through a shelf that seemed to hold large boxes of necessities, and he pulled out an apple and tossed it to me.
The littlest boy was shrieking with laughter. "But he's not a baby! He wouldn't even fit in a pram, would he, Blackie?"
"Not yer conventional pram, no, but there's several ways to fall outta a pram, eh?" Blackie touseled the boys hair and hoisted him in the air, placing him onto his shoulders. "This is Cubby. Cub, say hello to Kit."
The boy, who was still giggling, waved a grubby hand shyly and said "Hello to Kit," which set him of on another set of giggles.
He reminded me a little of Charley, when Charley was that age, so I swept into one of the awfully formal bows I'd seen Father give to his business partners. He laughed so hard he tumbled off of Blackie's shoulders and straight into my arms.
"Oof! You're a heavy one, aren't you?"
"I'm not heavy, I'm five!"
"Good for you." I placed his down and caught eyes with the taffy chewer. He sneered at me, then extended a hand and spat into it.
"Sweets," he grunted, and it took me a moment to realize he wasn't demanding toffee, but introducing himself. I shook his hand gingerly, for his spit was vaugely pink and sticky from the candy in his mouth, and he chuckled nastily.
The other boy I had seen through the door, the one with the glasses, came forward next. I was slightly surprised because I had only seen a glimpse of one glassses lens, and they looked in good repair, so I had assumed he was another new arrival. However, what I saw before me was another boy, slightly taller than me, with the wildest, most tangled red hair I had ever seen. He had little green hand prints on his shoulders, so I assumed Cubby had caught him with his dirty hands. He had no shirt, only a pair of long, baggy shorts. His glasses consisted of a pair of glasses with one good lens and one shattered lens, so he squinted at everything, and the glasses were held to his head by a tattered piece of twine.
"That's Bug Eye—"
"Call me Bug," the boy said, shaking my hand and wrinkling his own nose as he realized that Sweets had shook before him. "Urgh, Sweets, you've slobbered everywhere and it's all sticky!" he whined, running over and wiping his hand onto Sweet's shirt. Sweets bellowed and the two immediately started to tussle. Cubby jumped back into my arms, cheering for whoever seemed to be winning at the time and whistling through his adorable teeth. Sweets managed to push Bug into Blackie, and Blackie growled and threw Bug back at Sweets. At first I was a little horrified. They were going at each other viciously and the whole tree fort was shaking with their efforts. I clutched at Cubby to make sure he didn't leap into the fray, as I was sure a boy of his small stature would be trampled. He turned and grinned at me.
"Blackie's always best at play fighting, int you Blackie!"
Blackie let out a triumphant whoop as an answer, and Bug and Sweets seemed to declare a sort of truce.
"He's not best, I am!" the two yelled in a playful, angry unison, and they both jumped Blackie. Cubby let out a fierce Indian war cry and leapt from my hands to the top of the pile, and I finally saw it for what it was: a game.
I smiled, a little hesitantly, and I sat down on a gnarled old tree bump that grew out of the floor in the perfect place to be head of the table. I watched carefully, making sure Cubby didn't get in over his head, but then I was simply content to look at my new surroundings.
Eveerything was the tree. The chairs, the walls, little bits of greenery that dropped down like a canopy to form the roof. These boys had wished for a home, and it seemed the tree had provided. There was a little rope ladder dangling from a man-made hole in the ceiling, and I went to it slowly and yelled, still staring at the hole, where it led.
"To the—aghhh, Sweets, don't put toffee in my hair, you bugger! It leds up to the roof, Kit—Bugs, get off Cubby, I don't think he can breathe – why else would his face be bright red, stupid?—Where you'll sleep, probabl—Sweets, don't you dare throw those sodding little jawbreakerss at me, I'll crack your head in two, you sod!"
Figuring that I would probably be safer up there anyway, I pulled myself up onto the ladder and quickly climbed to the top.
Once, when I was very small, Father and Mama had taken Greory, Georgie, and I (Charley was too little and the very littles hadn't even been born yet) on a boat that took you round the Thames at night. I don't remember much of it (save that Georgie got boat sick all over Papa's umbrella), but I remember thinking the stars seemed closer there than they had ever seemed anywhere.
I remember my Papa lifting me into the air and saying 'Aren't they beautiful, Christopher? Stars are magical, you know. And sometimes, if you wish hard enough, they come down to you and lift you up into their arms and take you round the whole world. What an adventure, eh, Christopher?' and I remember my little hand reaching, stretching, as I wished with all my heart for the stars to come. I jumped up and down the whole rest of the trip, hoping that the star would pick me to take into it's wonderful arms. Stars would have a special warmth, I knew, like silver sunshine and electricity tingling all up and down you, in a good way.
That's what the stars in Neverland are like.
I had quite forgotten, at this point, the shadow that had fled the room or the fact I had originally seen four boys in the room. I was so busy looking at the stars to notice that a boy had crept up behind me, and when he tapped me on the shoulder I jumped so high I felt as though I could grab the stars. I made a feeble effort at concealing my shock and I squinted at the boy in front of me.
He was tall, that much I could tell. Tall and lanky, but his shoulders seemed odd, lumpy somehow. He had the longest hair I had ever seen on a boy, like a pirate running in a pigtail down his back. His faced was hidden in shadow, and he hadn't yet said a word.
"So," he whispered, and there was something not quite right about his voice, something off, but he kept talking and I pushed that thought aside for a moment; "So," he repeated, and he licked his lips.
"So what?" I demanded, rather braver than I felt.
"So," the boy said at last, squinting at me as much as I was at him. "I suppose you're to replace me now, aren't you?"