Wendy Darling put down her uncapped pen and sighed. When she had put in as a grader for a course on the history of the fairy tale, she had naively anticipated – oh, she didn't know what. That she would get to share her love of fairy stories with younger students? That it would be like childhood again, John and Michael as her captive audience, until they'd grown too anxious about their encroaching masculinity to want to hear stories from a girl? Usually, she was more levelheaded than that. Usually, she could remember that grading was generally unromantic work, more likely to depress than elate her. But – she supposed that, this once, she'd allowed herself to be ruled by hope. And look where that had gotten her.
Wendy had turned twenty-three some months ago, when spring had just been peering round the corners of things. Now, as winter began to sap the brilliant vitality of autumn, she felt about sixty. And what did she have to show for all that age? Half of her MA, a cold flat within walking distance of the college, lonely now that her old dog was dead. Shelves and shelves of books, with more stacked beside them, all carefully sorted and catalogued. A heap of dispiriting student essays to mark. She didn't hear from her brothers often – they were absorbed in their own pursuits, she guessed. Her father didn't know how to talk to her anymore, now that she wasn't a little girl. Her mother kept dropping oblique hints about parties, dating, weddings – all the paraphernalia of heterosexuality, which stubbornly refused to become attractive to her.
Her mother asked her, exasperated, what she was waiting for. Wendy couldn't answer. She didn't know herself.
The bell on the cafe door jangled as it was thrown open, letting in a gust of cold winter air. Wendy pulled her sweater closer around her shoulders, regretting that she hadn't worn a scarf. Four or five boys – young men, really – tumbled into the warmth. “But don't you see that Gaddafi's death opens up whole new possibilities? The retribution of the oppressed, yeah?” said one, moving his hands in short sharp expressive gestures as he spoke; his narrow face looked almost pinched with excitement.
“That's utter bollocks and you know it,” said another, broader and darker-complected than his friend, with a pleasant sort of boom in his tone. “Beating and sodomizing war criminals doesn't get us anywhere except the gutter.”
“It gets us one less war criminal,” said a third, “and leaves Libya free from domination. But it won't last.” He sat, gesturing with an arrogantly commanding hand to his mates, who all obediently assumed their seats around him. Wendy surreptitiously craned her head to get a look at this third speaker's face; his voice had been – powerful, and somehow thrilling, a tenor light as stardust but strong as steel, and sharp. She glimpsed a wild fall of bright curling hair; a curve of a red, smirking, elegant lip; a dimple; a flashing dark eye that might be hazel, or green. He looked about her own age, or maybe a little younger. No older, certainly. There was something in the lines of his form that absolutely forbade her from thinking him a grown man.
The fourth boy, who had gone up to the counter instead of sitting down, returned with a clutch of clinking beer bottles. It was cheap stuff, Wendy observed; frowning a little, she took note of the time. Too early in the afternoon to drink, or so she'd been taught. The boys passed the drinks around, taking up space with a blithe carelessness, continuing their political debate in expansive tones. The other boys hotly bickered their points, but the blond one stayed aloof, just watching and listening. But when he spoke, the others listened.
They sounded like radicals. They were certainly hedonists. But when Wendy packed up her papers and headed off to her evening seminar, she couldn't help looking back longingly at them, or wishing that she didn't have to leave.
She did not let herself become aware of her reasons for returning to that cafe with such frequency over the next week. If she had done so, she would have had to give herself a lecture on silliness, and stopped the practice. If she didn't, she could go and wait and watch and tell herself that it was just because she was busy, and liked getting out of the house once and a while. A change in scenery helped her get through the monotonies of marking, reading, researching, writing that occupied so much of her time. Somehow, Edwardian spiritualism seemed dowdy and dull to her now. But every time the bell rang and the door opened, she looked up, always expectant.
It wasn't until Thursday that she saw him again, and the bell was of no help to her there; he was already present when she came in. Her heart leaped violently when she saw him, curled up in an overstuffed armchair with a ratty muffler wrapped around his neck. His face was pale, and he looked tired. As silently as she could, she took a nearby table and spread her papers out – but she spent more time watching him that afternoon than she did working. His eyes were green, she saw, and his boyish face was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. She felt dizzy and saturated with his mere presence.
He had nearly fallen asleep in his chair when a striking black girl came rushing up to him, her tiny body almost vibrating with energy. “Peter!” she said, swooping down over him and shaking him awake. “There you are – fancy falling asleep here! This is what you get for not coming home at night.” She moved like a bird, like a dancer, small and graceful and swift. Her bleach-blonde hair was cut into a short shaggy bob, and piercings gleamed at her ears, nose, and eyebrows. Her green jacket was worn, but chic – fashionable and flattering in the way that Wendy's clothes never seemed to be.
The boy – Peter – stirred, mumbling, “Bell? That you?”
“Of course it is,” the girl said. “You haven't gone and made yourself sick, have you? No fever?”
He shook his head, smiled up at her. Wendy noticed that his teeth were small, like little pearls inlaid along his lips.
“Tootles got himself arrested,” the girl said. “Needs you to come post bail, talk down the pigs.”
Peter stretched lazily. “Again? What for this time?”
“Protesting government cuts in higher ed funding,” the girl said, rolling her pretty dark eyes. “You'd never know he cared by how often he goes to class. He planted a bomb outside an admin building.”
“Tootles is still trying to reform the system from within,” Peter said. “Idiot. Was Hook involved?”
At that name, Bell shuddered a little, as though the single syllable was horrible to her. “No,” she said. “We got lucky; just Bill Jukes out on his evening patrol. But Hook will hear about it sooner or later.”
“All right, I'll go and get him. But I haven't a car at present.”
Wendy would never know exactly what possessed her at that moment. Greatly daring, she stood, put on her friendliest smile, and said, “Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing – I've got a car, I can give you a lift if you like. It sounds like your friend needs the help.”
Bell's eyes narrowed. “Who the fuck are you?” she demanded, sudden hauteur inflecting every word.
Wendy quailed a little, but didn't back down. “My name is Wendy Darling – I'm a graduate student – I promise, I won't pry or be a bother or anything. Just a ride, no strings attached.”
Peter looked up at her from his armchair, and his smile grew broader in response to hers. Rising, he inclined his head ever so slightly. “Peter – this is my friend Bell. It's nice to meet you, Wendy Darling.”
She felt herself blush, and dropped her eyes away from his. Scrabbling up her papers willy-nilly, she slung her bag over her shoulder and headed out the door, Peter and Bell following behind her. She was hotly aware of his body, radiating heat and energy and passion, so close to hers in the front seat of her run-down old car. She was riveted by his mouth, his lips, the flash of his pearly teeth, as he calmly and masterfully navigated his way through the abuse and bureaucracy that awaited them at the police station.
Tootles was the helpful boy she'd seen a week ago in the cafe. His face was dirty, and there was blood crusted around one ear. Once they let him out of the cell he'd spent the night in, Peter introduced him to her as if they were in the most formal ballroom in the United Kingdom. “Sorry for being a fuckup, Peter,” he muttered.
“That's all right,” Peter replied. “You survived, and did your best, and didn't compromise yourself. Best anyone can do.”
“Not you,” Tootles said, looking down at his dirty shoes, dirty fingers.
Peter ignored this, instead looking intently at Wendy. “Tootles is tired,” he told her, “and, for that matter, I'm tired myself. If I ask you to bring us home, can I trust you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, twisting her hands together nervously.
“I have this place,” he said. “A safe haven, where we can do whatever the hell we need to and make some magic. If I bring you there – you have to swear not to give us away to the authorities.” Throwing her a quicksilver grin, he clarified: “No grownups allowed.”
Wendy, hesitating on a word, took stock. It was late. The sun was setting. She had a lecture to attend in the morning, and grades due in the next day. Had to run to the market – nothing in the house to eat. Laundry. Gas bill.
Peter standing there on the curb, wrapped in funny layers of old coats, with something delicious shining out of his green eyes, and something inexpressibly delightful lurking in the corners of his mouth. Bell, glaring at her, supporting the dirty and exhausted Tootles.
“All right,” she said. “I promise. Cross my heart.”
They drove out of Wendy's familiar haunts, down closer to the center of the city where bright fluorescent lights shimmered through the gathering dark, and horns honked, and vendors sold curry and meat pies and falafel on the curbs from kiosks with handpainted signs. They stopped, parked, climbed up to a third-story flat on a dingy ill-lit street. The door was painted sky blue, and huge cumulonimbus clouds surrounded the knob. "Welcome to Neverland," Peter said, not using a key, just opening the door. Wendy followed him in.
There were india-print curtains hanging over the windows, keeping out the dark – and the cold – with a barrier of brilliant saffron and sea green. Hanging lightbulbs, covered with old paper folded into screens, shed a dim and diffuse illumination through the large open room. Pounding urban-beat music throbbed through the air, low grinding tones swirling around the people and objects that filled the space. There was a propane stove on a tabletop in one corner, and a birch door on the left stood open to reveal a tiny w.c. Books were piled everywhere: Fanon, Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Hardt and Negri, stacks of printed zines. Most of the people in the room had been just sitting on the floor, but all scrambled to their feet as soon as Peter entered. Out of the corner of her eye, Wendy spied a rack of powders, liquids, bottles, and long strings that looked uncomfortably like fuses.
“Greetings, boys and girls,” Peter said. “Wendy's new. She helped us break Tootles out. Wendy, allow me to introduce Slightly, Nibs, Lili, Theo, and Angel.” He gestured, each in turn, to the pinch-faced and dark-complected boys she'd seen before, a gorgeous Polynesian woman with long black hair in a braid down her back, and a pair of fair-haired round-faced teenagers who were clearly siblings – twins, likely.
Lili unfolded herself. “Bring me back anything nice, Bell, baby?” she purred, and Bell went to tiptoes to kiss Lili's mouth. Wendy's breath caught.
“I ever come back without a treat?” Bell said. “I've got enough to share, tonight.” Reaching into her messenger bag, she pulled out a sheet of paper, brightly printed in little perforated squares.
“Aw, Bell, you're the best,” Nibs said, slurred and expansive.
“Food first,” Peter decided, “and then dessert. You in, Wendy?” His smile was positively blinding.
She stammered, “I – I don't know – I've never -”
“I'll take care of you,” he said, voice pitched low and intimate so that it send little flutterings of heat racing down her veins. “I want to pay you back. You took a risk on helping us. Not everyone would do that. Do you want to?”
She didn't know, before she opened her mouth, that she was going to say “Yes.” But then she did, and meant it with her whole heart and body and being.
Theo made a stirfry, mixed vegetables and pressed tempeh in soy sauce, and they all sat and ate with chopsticks and forks and their fingers. Slightly was also a student, studying political science, and Wendy found herself jawing over the processes and persons of her education with a loose, free mouth, gossiping over and criticizing and dismissing the fusty outdated parts of her department. It felt amazing to speak those words, to admit that she sometimes thought faculty members were full of it, that she sometimes resented the demands her students made on her. Tootles, who was in education, sympathized a great deal.
“That's why I dropped out,” Lili said, listening in. “I realized I was never going to get anything done playing by the rules. As soon as I knew that I wanted to work helping women on the street, I knew university wasn't going to be any damn use.”
“I don't know about that,” Tootles said staunchly.
“Virginia Woolf argues that we have to use the system, no matter how corrupt it is,” Wendy said, inwardly amazed at how loud and confident she sounded. “In Three Guineas.”
Tootles turned to look up. “What do you think, Peter?”
Peter looked like a sun-god, his dark golden hair curling in the steam and heat of their meal. “I don't care to tell anyone else what to do,” he said, every atom arrogant, every centimeter cocksure, every particle inexpressibly vital and gorgeous and radiant, “but I'm not playing anyone's games. Working in any kind of system means compromising yourself, and that's bullshite. You do what you know is right, what you know you should be doing. No one who tries to control you is ever going to have your best interests at heart."
Wendy's heart beat with excitement as he spoke, but on reflection she wasn't quite sure she agreed with him. The music changed; the sound of a Hammond organ wavered around them, a male voice singing in French about a doll who said no, no, no, no. Bell waved the sheet of LSD tabs. “You ready to head down the rabbit hole?” she said.
Wendy only took one tab, so she started slow. But after an hour she was beginning to feel decidedly strange: the air around her was turning lazy iridescent colors, sound waves pulsing through it and then breaking over her.
She was following Peter back through the flat, through the kitchen into a little dark warm bedroom, the bed piled high with odd afghans and quilts and comforters. Peter was unpinning her hair, and when her curls fell down around her ears, her neck, her shoulders, she found herself fascinated by the play of light along each chestnut curve. Peter wound one round a finger.
He kissed her mouth; it was like youth, it was like joy. She was lying on his bed, on her back, completely naked, feeling the play of space above and around her, little breezes between her toes, between her thighs, her own heartbeat like a throb in her fingertips and mouth and behind her eyes. Peter kneeling, golden and glowing, bare from the waist up, his beautiful lithe torso like a painting or a dream. His tongue was inside her, penetrating her. He swiped it over her clit, and she spasmed and moaned in her arms.
He was naked, too; he rolled on the condom without her even having to ask for it, and she fell in love with him right then and there. It had been a long time for her. She'd been too busy for love. With his body filling hers, his hands playing over her skin, his breath hot and damp against her neck, she felt like a live wire, like a contained explosion, like a supernova. Every centimeter of her was alive to feeling. Every particle of her was alive to him.
“Peter,” she gasped as she came for the third time, “Oh Peter, it was you.” But they fell asleep before she could explain what she meant, languorous and spent and intertwined.
When Wendy woke up, she was sober, and chilled, and alone in Peter's bed. Barefoot, tiptoeing, feeling more than a little like Bluebeard's wife about to open the bloody chamber, she crept out into the flat. The morning sunlight shone in brightly; all was still and silent. She poked around into corners, tripped over an empty winebottle, found Tootles sleeping sitting up in a corner. “Tootles?” she whispered, not sure if she should wake him. “Tootles?”
He woke with a smile. “Hullo, Wendy,” he said. “Peter went early this morning. Don't ever know when he'll be back.”
She nodded, felt numb, gathered up her things, let herself out. Found her car – parking ticket on the windshield – and drove home in silence.
She remembered being in love the night before, remembered him loving her, remembered how everything had gone to fairy dust around her at his touch. Flying high, Wendy, she thought. Take care you don't fly too close to the sun.
If she went back to the cafe, would he come back for her? Did she even want him to? She didn't know.
But as she dressed and packed for lecture, she felt a broad sunny lightness breaking over her, like a dawn, like a birth. As she walked to the university, Wendy wasn't at all sure she wasn't flying still.