“Pudding,” said Stunky, licking his lips. “Blood pudding, with the greasy crunchy bits around the edges.”
Myrtle groaned. After a minute, she said, “Cheese.”
“Cheese?” asked Stunky. “Just cheese?”
“Just cheese nuthin’,” hissed Myrtle. “All melty over a slice of bread, or on a cracker, or—or—anything. How long has it been since you had cheese?”
Stunky didn’t answer. There was no cheese in Neverland, as there were no cows. There was plenty of blood, but nobody ever thought to make pudding out of it. Possibly no one knew how.
It was all very well to go away in the night with an elfin boy with laughing eyes who taught you how to fly, and promised that you’d never have to grown up, but it turned out that grown-ups had a great deal to do with meals arriving regularly and on time. To get food, you had to beg it off the Indians or steal it from the pirates, and as a result, nearly everyone was hungry all the time, except perhaps Pan.
It almost hadn’t been that way. A farm boy named Albert had come with Pan one night, a stolid presence who’d come along only because his little sister had been intent on going off with the wild boy. He had borrowed seed from the Indians and begun a garden, silently hoeing with a broken sword blade tied to a broomstick and bringing buckets of water up from the spring.
And when the plants were knee high and the tomatoes were throwing out round green balls and every Lost Boy was drooling at the thought of a real meal, something other than fish (oh god, they were so sick of fish) Pan had one of his wild moods and set the whole thing on fire.
“Vegetables!” he cried, hovering over the plants, which didn’t burn well but which stomped and flattened beautifully. “We don’t eat vegetables! Yuck! That’s grown-up stuff!”
Albert, still stolid and wordless, picked up his makeshift hoe and went for Pan’s throat.
Stunky could have told him how it would end. Pan was wicked fast and even if he hadn’t been, he had the fairies. The little brutes had put Albert’s eyes out with their knitting-needle swords before he’d gotten five feet. Pan had stabbed him a few times, mostly as an afterthought, and then thrown the body off a cliff, and that was the end of organized agriculture in Neverland.
They lived mostly on bird’s eggs and nestlings when they could get them. And fish. Always fish. One of the Indians had showed Stunky how to salt a fish with the rough, impure salt that dried on the rocks. You had to scrape it off with a knife and it didn’t work very well, but it was better than nothing. The fish took longer to rot, anyhow.
“I’d kill for a bit of cheese,” said Myrtle, and sighed.
“Sure,” said Stunky, stirring the pot of boiling water than contained the evening’s fish and a couple of hunks of coconut, “but who would you kill?”
Myrtle lifted her head and looked across the room, if you could call the ruined cargo hold of a wrecked ship a “room.”
Pan was lounging on a makeshift throne of old nets and packing crates, regaling some of the younger Lost Boys with tales of wild battles against the pirates. Two fairies squatted on either shoulder, casting their rotting swamp-gas light across his cheekbones, and a third crouched on the back of the throne. It scanned the room ceaselessly, wings twitching like the ears of a sleeping dog.
Stunky elbowed her. “Stop looking!” he hissed, and Myrtle dropped her head obediently. “You want ‘em to think you’re watching ‘em?”
“Doesn’t matter,” muttered Myrtle, poking at the fire. “Can’t imagine it’ll be much longer for me anyway.”
Stunky gulped. It was hard to tell how old anyone was in Neverland. There were no birthdays, since Pan refused to acknowledge that anybody was getting older. Still, Myrtle thought she was about sixteen, and Stunky was only a year or two younger.
If you were a boy, you could sometimes hold out a little longer if you shaved in private. If you were a girl, though, there wasn’t anything anybody could do. Starvation kept most of them alive into their late teens, but sooner or later…well, as soon as Pan smelled blood on a girl, it was over.
You didn’t grow up in Neverland. You didn’t get a chance.
“You c’d go to the Indians,” said Stunky, keeping his voice so low that Myrtle had to lean in to hear him. His breath stirred the greasy strings of her hair. (Soap was another grown-up thing that Pan wanted no truck with. The Lost Boys did their best with plain water and sand, those few that worried about it at all.) “If’n you stay out of his sight long enough, he forgets you.”
Myrtle twitched a shoulder. She could feel the fairy’s eyes moving over her, like the touch of insect feet scuttling over her skin. The Indians were decent people, and they’d hide a Lost Boy if they could, but there was only so much they could do against Pan. Albert had said they called him the Young Wendigo, but Albert was dead and none of the remaining Lost Boys were quite sure what that meant.
Besides, there’d been that…incident…with the chief’s daughter. The pirates had tried to get to her in time, but…well…
Now, the pirates would take you if you could get to the ship, but the fairies watched the beaches all the time. And Benji, who wasn’t quite right in the head, swore up and down that Pan had changed in front of him once, into a great lord of crocodiles, a monster twenty feet long with teeth like an ivory bear trap.
“Just tore his skin right off and fell into the water,” Benji had wailed, curled up into a ball under a tree root and worrying at his scalp with his nails. “Just right off! And his mouth was open and those little fairies were walking in and out of his mouth and pickin’ at his teeth, I swear, I swear…”
Well. Everybody knew Benji was crazy. Pan had the fairies poke and pinch at him, sometimes, until he started to scream and threw one of his wobblers and bit his own fingers bloody. You couldn’t trust Benji.
But it was true that there was a crocodile that prowled the waters of the cove, and sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn’t.
It was also true that Pan himself never looked hungry. But you tried not to think about that.
You tried not to think about a lot of things.
Myrtle knew it wouldn’t be long. Even on the wretched diet they’d scraped together, things had been happening. Her face looked different, when she stared at it in the tidepools, and her ragged clothes gaped open in places where they used to lace shut.
She had to do something, but she didn’t know what to do. Her body kept getting older. But she kept waiting.
She though perhaps she was hoping that something would happen, in this terrible timeless place where nothing was ever allowed to happen.
She kept hoping she’d find a way home.
Sometimes when she was nearly asleep, she used to pray or dream—maybe a little of both—that there would be a tap on the hold of the ruined ship, right by her ear, and a boy would come for her, as a boy had once before.
In her prayer, he looked a lot like her dead brother Albert. There was nothing fey or wild about him. His hands were broad and callused and his shoulders were stooped from the weight of responsibility.
He didn’t promise her anything. When she looked into his eyes, the only thing she was sure of was that he knew she existed. And alive or dead, he would remember her.
He didn’t fly. In the dream, he left heavy footprints in the sand. He just reached out and took her hand and pulled her up, out of this nightmare, into adulthood.
Author’s Note: This story first appeared on the blog at Red Wombat Studio, under the name Ursula Vernon. It is included in the Toad Words anthology.