Until Morning
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I was ten years old the night I met Peter Pan. That evening, parents had found out I was falling behind in school on every scale that teachers measure. (I didn’t talk to other kids, didn’t participate in class, and was passing by the skin of my teeth, spending my free period reading the same book over and over instead of working harder.) My parents scolded me; I needed to apply myself, my mother said, and become a responsible adult one day. “Grow up,” said my father. When they asked if I understood, I sat quiet for a moment. “Do you understand?” Mother repeated, her voice sharp.

“What if I don’t want to grow up?”

My voice was small, but the effect was explosive. The scolding turned to yelling; I was being immature and disrespectful and I needed to get out of my head before I threw my life away. I was spending too much time reading things that were getting to my impressionable brain.
I was still, head down, teary eyes locked to the floor. I saw my father open my backpack and rifle around its contents until finding what he was looking for: my favorite book, a copy of Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. “You need to gain some sense,” he sneered, “which means this,” he held up my book, “is going away.”

He took it outside, saying something returning garbage to garbage, and I was sent to bed to think about how I’d been behaving. I didn’t, of course; my head was flooded with saltwater, and each time I thought the waters calmed, a memory of the evening came back like a sudden wave and I was dragged away again.

Hours passed like this, and before I knew it, the light from my window faded, and my parent’s footsteps ceased. I felt the soothing numbness that comes after tears, and with the delicate precision of a surgeon I slowly sat up, crept to the open window, and climbed out.
I left the window open every night so that Peter Pan or one of the fairies could fly in to meet me if they wanted to, but in practice I always went out looking for them instead. It made sense, I figured. Spring nights were a prettier place to make friends than a bedroom. I tiptoed across the front lawn to the cool cement of the sidewalk, opening the garbage bin we kept at the curb. With the street lamp’s help, I peered down into the bin and saw…nothing.

The bin was empty. What did that mean? Had Father gotten rid of my book? Had the garbage truck come early and taken it away forever? I felt so tossed-up inside I worried I was going to cry again. It’s at that moment that something odd caught my ear; a melodic sound I’d never heard in the neighborhood, coming from the other side of our house. My curiosity overtaking me, I crossed the side yard, feeling small sticks and bark and briefly wishing I’d thought to bring shoes, and faced the forest behind our house.

My parents didn’t agree with my calling it a forest: it was more just a clump of trees feeding off the pond back there, they’d said. They didn’t bother going there, feeling too big for such pretty little things, I’d supposed. I had no such inhibitions, and carefully made my way into the trees, following the music until I was several steps in, and then I stopped; there it was. There he was.

He was a boy, a cheerful boy dressed in leaves, playing a pan flute, the source of a sweet melody. The wind sang with him! The water sang too. Even the blades of grass plucked a tune for him. Everything fit perfectly, like a puzzle finally finished after hours of hard work. It made me want to close my eyes and dream, or dance, or claim a stick as my sword and go on an adventure. Then I heard something more.


All around the boy, tiny pools of light appeared, weaving down from the treetops. They began playing, dancing, singing, for his melody. Their notes were short, their pattern simple, yet they added sparkling life to the piece.

He piped a few more notes, and a wave rose up from the pond, and, as if conducting the musicians, began to sway and turn, shimmering in the moonlight. Merpeople laughed and flicked their tails to the moonlight, sending thousands of rainbow droplets across the sky. The wind sang a soaring descant that swayed the trees and grass, both of which played low, humming notes as the boy danced and his notes danced with him.
Then the boy turned to me, smiling, as if he’d known I was there the whole time. He waved to me, and I grinned. Then something amazing happened. I began singing with them.

It was beautiful, a tune I felt like I had heard my whole life, like I heard it in my dreams and had forgotten when I woke up. My voice harmonized with the rest of the music, adding to the intricate beauty of it all. Our song rose to the heavens, dancing with the crescent moon, which smiled in return. The stars shone brighter, their light rising their tune into a crescendo. We sang and danced with the rising sun, bathing our little orchestra in pinks and blues and oranges. My heart soared with the morning’s light.

And then, slowly, our song quieted, the sea calmed, and the wind stilled, as the boy put his panpipes down, and I knew it had to come to an end.
He looked at me, eyes shining, and said, “We’ll meet here again. I promise. But for now, you need to go back.” I nodded, watching as he waved, began to walk away, then leapt into the sky, flying towards the rising sun. I was still watching until he became small as a speck of dust, until he disappeared altogether. Then I reluctantly turned and walked back home.

It’s been years since that night, now. In that time, I strived to pay more attention in class and, after much catching-up work, I graduated with flashing colors. I became more observant, better at finding out who I was supposed to be and falling into that role wherever I could. Getting out into “the real world” became easier with practice; nice, even. I found people and things that I wouldn’t have met keeping to myself, although even these interests were often considered to be immature or impractical, in which case I dropped them without complaint. (They were proud of me for understanding.) I still had my odd habits (my tendency to daydream, odd questions, and keeping my bedroom window open until someone called me out), but I was doing alright, they said. It was nice to see me mature a bit.

I snuck out every night I could get away with it, at first, but with no sign of Peter Pan and the fear of getting caught weighing heavier every time, my visits to the forest became more sporadic and eventually stopped. I was in highschool by then; time to not bother with those sorts of things, I said. Still, some part of me ached for the loss of it, and that loss weighed on me. This, I became sure, is why grown-ups aren’t able to fly. (So the stories said, at least. Silly things, stories.)

I’m graduating high school this year. My parents have already lined up the perfect college in order for me to get into the perfect career. I’ll be leaving home for the first time, a major step into my adult life. I’ve been smiling and nodding along, repeating my plans to all my classmates as we run into each other during lunch or after school gets out, but tonight I was alone in my room, and in the darkness, all my fears and doubts and frustrations were able to sneak out and swallow me whole.

I tossed fitfully on the mattress, hands clutching my head as it was swarmed with images of myself in a few months, a few years, exactly how I was supposed to be but so wrong in a way that I couldn’t say, that closed around my throat like a collar.

Finally, in the silence of that hour wrestling with myself, I once again admitted to myself my old sentiment: I don’t want to grow up. My meaning was different now: I want to become mature, responsible, considerate. I would never and could never be carefree and careless as childhood had been described in Peter Pan. But I wanted that freedom, that playfulness back. I didn’t want this weight pressing on my heart anymore.

And I don’t need to keep it, I realized then. Like storm clouds to thunder and lightning to rays of new sunlight, my mind shifted. I'll be going away next autumn; I’ll be in a new place worth exploring, among new people who won’t know me as I have been. I can start over, figure out how to be myself again. Go on adventures again. The weight lessened; not gone yet, but easier to bear.

As if by instinct, as though lessening that force gave me the freedom to move where I wished again, I got out of bed, opened the window, and stepped outside, my feet taking me where I knew they would, the forest’s branches a roof over my head once more.

In the past, I’d walk a few steps into the trees, stop where I’d seen Peter, and wait for a while, but perhaps in my time recalling everything up until this point, I’ve lost track of my steps, or perhaps my stride has simply gotten longer. Either way, now I find myself by the pond’s shore. The water is calm, but not quite still; the soft nightly breeze stirs it slightly. It is keeping itself awake, I believe. It is waiting, and it is ready.

The wind stirs for a moment, small but with great focus; I turn around and see leaves blown from a nearby tree, even though it’s not the season for it. They’re swept down to me and fix themselves to my clothing, as if the tank top and shorts I wore to bed aren’t quite right for the occasion, and despite my confusion I find myself agreeing. I look back up to the tree and see that, among the branches in a spot the patch of leaves had obscured, there is a book: mine, finally found. I reach up and carefully take it down, and watch as its pages unbind themselves, curling together and reforming into another familiar item. I turn the pan flute over in my hands, awestruck. Something light stirs in my chest, a familiar melody so sweet and strong I feel it could lift me into the air if I let it.

Ahead of me, past the trees, a shadow dances in the glow of the streetlight, and I know if I crept closer I could hear light footsteps and the shuffling of the bin by the sidewalk. The shadow stills for a few moments, then steps back. A small figure stands alone in the night, as lost as I remember. (For now, I know, but not forever.)

I smile, raise the flute to my lips, and begin to play.

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