In the billows of the white skirts, I saw Cinderella. Aurora lied in the soft buttery curls arranged over the suddenly bare shoulders. The lips painted red spoke of nothing but Snow White, the breadcrumbs clinging to the hands reminded me that I was no more a woman than Gretel.
That night, I was a living, breathing fairy tale, pruned to perfection for the devouring of the public. But in the murky gray-blue waters of my eyes in the looking glass, I saw nothing but Hook.
"Wendy - Oh, dear, they never do listen. Up!" My mother was much more of a queen than I, her back straight, hair swept up regally on her head, full bosom heaving in and out of her bodice as her anxiety mounted. It should be her night. But she would reside in the shadows, smiling, placing her hand in the paws of men who would never meet her face.
"Come, darling, we don't have much time." She drew me up with the tenderness of an innocent first kiss. "You will not be able to fasten your dress if this isn't tighter. I told them this."
My eyes drifted shut as she brought me to to the bedpost. "Mother, I'm not used to wearing them, and they know that too. I cannot faint!"
"You also cannot have your back out for all of London to see," she muttered as she started yanking the stays tighter with more strength than her small hands should've possessed. "I know it hurts, lamb. That's the cost of it all."
I whispered, "Of what?" She always spoke of these costs, these sacrifices, these duties that must take place. When would I be old enough for her to give these monsters names?
"The cost of being a woman," came her soft reply as she gave a particularly mighty yank to constrict my body enough. "The price is high and the tangible rewards are few, but it is a burden that you may share with your aunts and cousins and sisters, blood or not. We have a kindred spirit that men do not find amongst themselves."
Her words didn't stick in my mind as she floated toward the dresser. "Wendy," she began again. "I could never count how many times I prayed for a girl. With how many brothers your father has, I knew the boys wouldn't trouble us, someone to pass along the family name." She returned with a dark velvet box. "But I yearned for a daughter, and I knew that my heart would never be satisfied with only scratched knees and torn breeches and toy soldiers. You, my angel, with your petticoats and hair ribbons and creative mind and tender heart is what makes this life rewarding."
Such confessions never came from my mother's mouth, and she always kept it in perfect check. Yet here she was, spilling her heart's desires as she clasped a heavy and cold sapphire necklace around my throat. "You are supposed to wear family jewelry tonight." She paused to press a kiss against my powdered cheek. "We are not wealthy no matter the airs your father puts on, but this is one thing of value I may give you."
"It's beautiful," I whispered even though I cursed the weight on my chest.
"Come, we could go on like this forever." She forced a smile onto her lovely face, untouched by grueling time and the smog of London. "I am sure that Charles is waiting for you."
Charles, a respectable boy who didn't have anyone richer to escort to the debutante ball. Charles, the boy who dipped the ends of my braids in his inkwell when my mind caught on Neverland for too long. Charles, the boy who kissed me on the lips as if he was stealing something precious and he would be slapped on the wrist with a ruler after. Why would he think that he wasn't the first to snatch it?
"Mother, I - "
She stopped me before I could say anything more. "Hush. I understand. This is something you must do. I was presented this way, as well as your grandmother, her mother, and her mother before her. It is simply the way it is. Now, you can decide to hold your chin up high and be the radiant girl I love so, or you can sulk in the corner, mourning boys who never grew into men."
Goosebumps prickled my arms at her words. How many times had she denied my longing for understanding in front of father, assured me that it was nothing more than childish dreams as she petted my head? "So you do believe?"
"I don't just believe, I know," she told me, her eyes growing distant as they watched mine, always through the mirror. "But you are finally a woman, my Wendy bird. That's what we're celebrating tonight."
My chest tightened at the nickname that I hadn't heard since the boys outgrew our adventures. The adventures that I clung to while I was supposed to be a grown-up. "Mother, I'm not ready," I whispered. "I'm not ready to be a wife, to be a mother."
"Life doesn't wait for our readiness." Her eyes broke away from mine and she paced to collect my brand new shoes from their box. "You know how painful it was for your father to pay for all of this finery. Enjoy it tonight. You deserve it."
My body was foreign as I took in the ivory fabric, clinging to my slim waist and breasts propped up like centerpieces on a banquet table. I couldn't fathom the hours that some woman took to embroider such detail on a gown that people would only view for a few hours. "I wish I could wear this as a wedding gown, too. It seems so frivolous to put this away and never see it again."
"Ah, see, you are not a child anymore after all." My mother bent to one knee to slide the heeled slippers onto my feet as I took in the intricate swoops of her hair. "You will have another beautiful dress for that too." When she rose as regal as a queen, she brushed one more kiss against my forehead. "Come. Charles might be dead if we leave him with your father for too long."
I felt like a child playing dress up as I descended the staircase behind her. She floated, her neck like a swan, while I focused on not tripping. My schoolgirl skirts did not prepare me for this.
"There you are, Wendy. I thought you escaped out the window." Father's voice was cold as he placed a close-mouthed kiss against Mother's hand. "We shall be late if we don't leave now."
Mother's eyes found mine and gave me a knowing look I saw women exchange from the times I was young enough to notice it above my dolls' heads. But I'd never received it.
"You look beautiful." Charles's voice cracked a little when he offered me his arm. He was like grape cough syrup, and I tried to hide my grimace as I swallowed the sickly sweet words.
"Thank you." His dark brown hair was swept back and neatly parted for the occasion, but he looked as out of place in his suit as I did in my gown. We were mere children putting on airs of refinery, and I was sure that both of us would be longing for a pat on the head and a warm glass of milk before the night ended.
Mother filled the stale air in the carriage with pretty and trivial comments, and I tried not to notice how Charles's thigh pressed against mine with every jolt on the road.
After he tried to help me out onto the ground, Mother rested her hand on my arm one more time. "Remember, they are watching you." She smiled through her warning. "This is your chance to find a husband, a good man who will treat you well for all of your days." She stopped when Father took her arm. "I love you, Wendy."
"Stop babying the girl," he cut in as he strode toward the doors. "She's a woman now, and hopefully we'll finally have some young men knocking on our door."
My throat bobbed with a hard swallow at the comment. "I like you, Wendy," Charles offered. I wanted to punch him. "I don't think you're strange."
That's what counted as a compliment when you were Wendy Darling.
I couldn't formulate a response for him, and I could feel him wilting at my side as the night progressed. Each girl lovelier than the next, each smile tighter than the one before. I could scarcely take a full breath with the stays cutting into my ribs and I was weighing the consequences of pretending to faint so I could leave when my eyes caught on him.
Him. The face that blinked over me every night in my dreams. I would do nothing but sew on shadows for the rest of my life if it meant that I could have one more night with him. The figment of my imagination, the demon who branded me as odd from that first night onward. He hardly looked like himself, but I would recognize that face anywhere. Stubble coated the jaw that was once soft, the nose was longer, cheekbones stronger, shoulders so broad and legs arrestingly long. But those eyes, those eyes hadn't changed a bit.
"Peter." I didn't realize that the words escaped from my lips until Charles's head snapped toward me. "Peter!"
I glided toward him as if I was a woman possessed, my steps small beneath the pounds of skirts confining me, keeping me from him. "Peter!"
There was a flicker in his eyes when he pretended that he hadn't been looking at me the entire time. He was never good at feigning surprise.
In my dreams, he swept me up in his arms as if I was still small. He sprinkled pixie dust over my head and brought me crashing through the ceiling. Lately, those hands brushed over my lips and down my throat and found the place between my thighs that ached for him as much as my heart craved his companionship. The way he looked at me then made me feel the crushing guilt for every moment spent in agony, lusting over every bit of his body tanned from the sun.
But his face was pale.
And when I opened my arms, he snapped, "Wendy, what have you done to yourself?"