We called ourselves The Lost. There was no mending our breaks; even I, timeless, didn’t know where the horrors began. Who remembers the early days of childhood? All we had was darkness; everything in our world was smoke. Despair smells like this: sweet, cloying, close, and never-ending. Only the broken shards of sunlight on the floor filtering through the cracks in worn floorboards let us know the time was passing, day waning into night. In the shifting, dim world of the room below the tavern, the men we served were trapped in prisons of their own- lying on the floor or sitting on their red cushions, they’d be away in opium dreams, their bodies left behind, tossed any which way like foul-smelling luggage. They weren’t really our jailers, though.
He was: Master Hooke. We just called him the Master. He wasn’t always here-some days, he’d lock us in, and wander the streets with his cart, honing blades and mending metal, a front for his real, hidden trade. Smuggling trade. He traded in secrets, he traded in opium, and other things: lives. He had taken us from lanes where we played, from prams while our nannies were too busy chatting with their friends to hear a sharp wail, abruptly cut off.
The rift between what might have been and what actually is sounds like a single child’s cry, and is a vast chasm, too wide to cross. I think about them sometimes: my lost family. I dream of climbing in the windows of the safe, comfortable homes, searching for the right home. I’ll fly on silent feet, unseen, through attics and cracks in the wainscoting; through every firelit living room, past the sleeping children in their nurseries, until I find them. They’ll take my shadow self and sew it to the real-boy me, who has perhaps been living with them all along; then I’ll be flesh and color again, warm and alive.
When the Master went to bed, when all grew quiet and we had nothing but our thoughts, the terror set in. Even I felt it clutching my throat like a crocodile that wouldn’t let go. My fear was for them. It always will be. Thinking of how we were all trapped here in this dark place, my heart would pound so fast, I would have to tell the other kids stories so they wouldn’t hear it. Stories brought sanity. Tales of sunlight and kids like us playing games in the park, cookies and tea…the dreams I spun had no danger and no end. We needed those stories. We huddled together for warmth, the smell of terror as familiar as the sound of our breathing. As I told the stories I could feel them shift against me in unison, the ocean sound of their breath a soothing backdrop. Over the months, my stories began to take the shape of the sea. The sea, far away from our shadowy world with the jobs that were a waking nightmare.
Why don’t you get more comfortable? This might take awhile. I’ve not told anyone this before; it was so very long ago.
We served as errand boys, pipe boys, and scrubbers- that’s what we called the littlest kids, the kids who had to clean up the customers who had been in their dreams for too long, or tell the Master when it was time to clear away the bodies of the ones who had died.
We were taught how to take the lumps of precious, amber-colored stuff around and hold it over a flame just right, a luminous, glowing jewel skewered on the end of a pin. Sweet, dreaming, death-road. Taught how to ignore the pleading from men who could not afford any more, who watched the opium shrinking with panicked eyes, counting the dreams they had left.
Yes, the Master had come into our lives one day and ripped us away from our families. All except Belle, who was probably born in the Opium den, or traded very early by a father who could not afford to buy his dreams in any other way.
Belle, pretty Belle, lost in a dream- Tinker’s daughter. That’s all she would say: “I’m the Tinker’s daughter.” Then she’d laugh her musical, lilting laugh and say “Tinker Belle, Tinker Belle.” She spoke in riddles and rhymes, when she spoke at all. Pretty, fragile Belle, smallest of us all; shining Belle who grew silent- not a word will she speak now. Belle, Belle. Pretty Belle, lost in a dream. Belle had been brought up on the stuff- opium. She just wasn’t there anymore. We tried to protect her, but she followed the Master like his shadow, flitting around him, no matter how harshly he cursed her away.
The Lost. I made it up; I thought if we had a name and a purpose, we could survive. Together, we could be stronger. It began so long ago, you see. Before telephones. Before they put our pictures on milk cartons and somehow guessed our name: 1-800-The-Lost. I was mighty chuffed when I first started seeing that, let me tell you. I knew then that I could never stop my work, because there were people out there who understood. There were helpers somewhere.
We couldn’t fend off the beatings, but we could hold the broken one afterward. We could talk at night in the basement, a ring of dirty, pale faces lit by a single candle stub. Our words and stories were balm, and gradually the eyes around me in the flickering light reflected a new thing: hope.
Down in the cellar where we met at night, we had found tunnels under the stones- tunnels where the opium was smuggled. It waited there in large chests; hunks of gleaming amber resin, waiting to take people away – it slept in blocks, to be scraped into pipes- sweet, lingering poison.
That night, the night I changed, the full moon was the color of bones. It slanted bright daggers into the room, through the broken floorboards of the room above, through the barred windows, making shadow-crosses on the floor.
Master Hooke grabbed me; his hard hand circled my entire upper arm, a stone vise. “So, you want to hold meetings in my cellar, boy?” he rasped. “Let us do so, then. Come along.” My feet slipped on the stairs and he lifted me up, my feet stumbling on wooden stairs and air. “Pete, you can fly,” he laughed, and threw me to the stone floor and filled me with smoke,
filled me with smoke -you can fly you can fly you can- he knew I was their hope, you see.
He filled me- filled me with other things- needles like crocodile teeth – I fought it; I fought him.
I fought until my arm became a sword, until the ground went away and I was flying,
I was on the sea. I could smell it, salty, bitter, the metal tang of rusting sword and sea. And blood. I was fighting, but I couldn’t see him any more. I heard his boots, and the slamming of the door.
No sound, just the shushing of the sea. Hushing in and out, and a tick tock; a loud, pounding tick tock.
Tick tock – it hurt; I was afraid.
crocodile? Clock. It slowed. I was safe. It was slower, it was going away.
I heard Belle scream, “No!”
Belle came out of her dream- I have never heard her sound like that.
Perhaps she heard the clock and it woke her up-
slower now, more slowly still, tick…tock; I waited for the next sound anxiously.
“Peter, it’s your heart – Peter!” Belle battered at the door, clawed until her nails were gone, fingers bleeding.
Then she got clever- think like Master Hooke- and she found the key.
She came to me, Belle, clear as the last light of the sun, a tiny golden fury breaking into my dream.
Belle screamed, “Peter,” and slapped me. My head flew to the side; I watched her from the ceiling. Couldn’t she see me flying up there? Didn’t she know I was discovering how to be never-ending? “Peter!” She slapped me again. “Listen to me. You will die. you must wake up- try. You have to fight.” She called me back to her, our dreaming Belle. She said, “Peter. Clap. Clap your hands.”
I saw my body’s hands twitch, but they didn’t move. How funny, she couldn’t see the real me up there by the ceiling. Look at me, Belle, look up here!
She kept crying, “Clap them. clap your hands. I will die unless you clap them. Save me, Peter.” How did she know? Could any of us have predicted? Pretty Belle, leading the way to Never never land. I fought then, I fought. The more I clapped, the more I woke up. I was a shadow now, though, and real-boy me was still dreaming with a silly smile on his face.
I was so busy looking at myself, I didn’t see- we never heard the Master’s silent feet. Belle, behind you. Belle, he’s behind you. She can’t hear me, now. I didn’t see him- just
-heard the blow. Heard it when – oh, Belle- a dull, wet smack; her head moved sharply to the right, golden hair flying in a last dance. She made a soft sound, her breath coming in as though she was going to speak, and her eyes went blank. Pretty Belle, never to age, her light gone out.
She saved me. She saved us, and still – still – when we meet in the cellar by candlelight, in the new faces of the newly lost, and the familiar faces of the ageless boys, I see her light. It’s hope – she gave us that.
I guide them out of this place, but I always return, because this is my task. Belle will never leave either – Master buried her in the cellar where the smuggling tunnels are. He took up the stones and buried her, then he put them back again – I don’t know where real-boy me went; I covered my eyes as he slowly put the heavy stones back again. Belle’s grave is marked with candle wax, and the ashes of my life that might have been. I mustn’t talk like this. They are depending on me.
Things have changed so much. The roads, the cars, the phones, and our name on milk cartons; but the look in the children’s eyes hasn’t changed. The way they gather close when I tell the stories hasn’t changed, either. I vow this: through the centuries, the children will come to Never never land when grown-ups fail to protect them. When grown-ups hurt them. I will always be waiting to bring the Lost children home.