“Move your eyes to the three o’clock position, please, outside the green light, into the darkness. Do you see?”
“Yes,” he mumbled. His tongue felt a little heavy, sleepy. It wasn’t bad-
“Good. Now repeat after me: I have no shadow.”
“Don’t want to.”
“You must.” the voice held a crack in it now, like the sound of a hand slapping water. Peter flinched.
“You chose this, Peter.”
“Didn’t. Sez you.”
“Yes, you came in one day, and may I tell you, you were a much more appealing specimen than you are in at this present moment.” The sound of papers shuffling. A Susurration, Peter’s mind supplied. He liked that word. A throat cleared. How many of them were there?
He sat in a hard chair, his chin resting on the velvet edge of a black box open on one side. He looked into it- why, it’s just like a theatre, he thought, and chuckled softly. A theatre for his head only.
“I’m not sure what’s so amusing, Peter, would you care to share it with us?”
Peter rolled his eyes. The inside of the box was black, save for a bright circle of light across from his eyes. Today the color they’d chosen was green. It wasn’t unpleasant to look into, so that was a relief, at least.
How long had he been here?
Oh. They had asked him a question. “Theatre, sir.”
“Hm. Okay. Are your eyes in the 3 o’clock position?”
Repeat after me, Peter. “I have no shadow.”
“I have no shadow.”
“I am the best there is, there is no one like me.”
“Feels so stupid.”
“PETER!” cracked the voice. Slap of hand on water. “Say it. Now.”
“I’m the best there is, there’s no one like me.” Peter’s cheeks heated. God, this was so dorky. He shifted. His chair creaked. Cheap jerks.
The voice took on a soothing tone. “I need to crow.”
“Oh my Gosh,” said Peter,
then a hand actually slapped the table beside him, and he jumped, his chin jostling the velvet.
“Okay. I need to…crow. God.”
They continued like this until Peter stopped fighting, and let himself slip into the soothing space of no-space. His chin was comfortable on the velvet. The green light was soothing in his eyes. If the words meant nothing and he just shaped what the man said, he could sort of sleep. They had him move his eyes to the 9 o’clock position, and that was a bit of a pain, but then he could settle in again and relax.
“I have no shadow. I’m the best there is. I’ve got to crow. I can fly.”
It didn’t matter, did it? Just stupid stuff. Theatre, that’s all.
At night, he slept on a small cot in a room that contained only the cot and himself. He could gaze up through a window set very high in the cinderblock wall, and through the lattice of bars, he could see the blue-black night sky, and the stars winking gently at him. Sometimes, there was a moon – oh, she was golden bright! And those nights, it was a little harder to sleep.
That’s all he wanted, in every bone – sleep. Sleep.
It was only on moonlit nights he would have been able to see that his shadow was disappearing. But he was asleep, so he never saw it. Then, one day, (on his fourteenth birthday, as it happened, but he didn’t know that-) it disappeared.
The words slipped easily off his tongue now. They felt good, actually. He noticed that the people in the room seemed happy when he enjoyed the words. Sang them, crowed them, even.
“Good, Peter, very good.” there was a smile in the voice. He liked that much better than the slap of hand on water sound of anger. But he hadn’t heard that in … he wasn’t sure how long.
Time didn’t really mean anything.
He was sure he must have eaten, and …you know, used the toilet.. but he couldn’t remember.
He couldn’t remember what he looked like. Was that important?
All that mattered was that the movements in the room behind and around him while he sat in the chair were pleased. He could hear their breathing; he could imagine their smiling. He started to get more elaborate. It was a theatre for his head, after all-
He imagined them, one day, handing him an award.
“You’re the best there is, Peter, there’s no one like you.” People clapped and cheered for him, in his visions. He couldn’t see their faces, but that didn’t matter at all. The award mattered – it was solid and heavy in his hands.
“I can fly,” he said, happily.
He didn’t notice when he got bigger, or the chair got smaller.
He didn’t notice when his voice deepened.
He noticed when they were pleased, and he noticed when the very air around him held the hush of disappointment.
But he was the best there is, he’d rail in his head, they couldn’t possibly be disappointed in HIM.
One day, on the day everything changed, they simply turned him out. “Good job, Peter, it’s time for us to move on to the next.”
“What…wha?” He had been so enjoying his new rhyme, “I can fly, I’m the best/ so much better than the rest, I can fight/ I can’t grow/ ’cause I have no shadow!”
“We’re done with you, Peter. Go to work.”
and the man, whom he could now see for the first time wore a grey suit and had grey hair and grey eyes and a tired, thin smile, shut the door in a wall and that was that.
Peter stood outside.
Eventually, he found his way into the world. That’s another story.
Eventually, he found Wendy – many wendys, if we’re being honest.
“Wendy, tell me I’m the best,” he would plead, tears gleaming in his eyes.
But when one Wendy started to wonder where his shadow was, or why he seemed to be looking through her, never into her eyes, or why he behaved as though he was continually standing on a stage somewhere, waiting, straining his ears for applause, or why he was so impatient with her, or anything to do with her, his behavior snappish and cruel, sometimes, as if he was frantic for her to be silent, because he might miss the sound of the applause –
he’d drop her and find another Wendy. But he had to keep tabs on all the Wendys, as they were strange beings whose hearts, once worn out, would regenerate slowly over time.
Delicious. What he needed the most. Those hearts.
His only requirement was that he had to find ones who were still trapped in childhood too, somehow. Ones who dreamed, or believed, or maybe didn’t feel confident, and the girls who had kind hearts.
“Wendy, tell me I am a hero.”
He knew the time would come when he’d have to make his way back to the building, and pay the men so they’d find young him – at a very young age- and gather him up, and take him to their treatment center.
He wanted that treatment. He was glad for it. It was incredible, being the most amazing – pan- in the world, and being able to fly, and knowing you were the best. Even if it did get a little lonely, as everyone was inferior, and anyway, they all seemed to live outside that velvet box in his head,
it was still the best thing in the world. The very best.
He knew he’d have to go back soon. His time was almost up.
He had to make sure, you see-
that he would never, never grow up.