Peter, at 9, was really far too old to be encouraging his younger cousins to get out of bed and creep down to the first floor to get the rest of his dinner. He had been fed small portions because - again - he’d been bullied and called fat at school. Though he didn’t particularly mind being called that, Tinkerbell - his imaginary wolf - would get furious and attack the boys, to protect him. Of course, the blame always fell on Peter. He’d come home, punished by the school for getting into such a brutal fight, somehow he always went too far, never thought things through, and his parents would say “oh, poor Peter, if you only were like the other boys,” and so they’d put him on another diet and whisper about new medications to control his impulses.
And he’d lay in bed hungry and staring at his drawings pasted to the wall, imagining his belly filling up with the food he'd drawn.
But when his cousins were there, Tinkerbell would nudge her she-wolf nose against his cheek, against his hand, whimpering slightly. It was a chance for an adventure.
And he’d hold on to her fur and head downstairs, forgetting to tell his cousins which steps creaked and where the rug stopped, so they would trip or be scared, and he'd laugh, and promise to keep them safe, giving them ice cream.
Peter, at 19, was far too old to be afraid of giving a speech in class, holding his cardboard with his silly little comics trying to explain the mystery of the unsolved mathematics at work in magic squares. He'd glare at his friends, his mind would swim, his hands would tingle, his tongue went numb, and words repeated in his head, about what a slacker he was, how ugly he was, how much of a coward. But Tinkerbell’s head would rest on his lap, and she’d tell him about her imaginary friend - a beautiful mermaid she imagined she’d found in a lake and raised - tell him how the mermaid, Tiger Lily, had swam today and found a frog. Tell him how Tiger Lily had wondered if they could make a fire, tell him how Tiger Lily thought he was great, and he didn’t believe in TInkerbell’s friend, but he listened.
He was great! His little comics were amazingly drawn, and look at all the emotions he managed to convey in one simple drawing!
And he’d get up and give his speech, smiling the whole time, charming his class and whatever new friends he had this week.
Peter, at 29, was far too old to consider his volunteer job at the animal shelter to be “a career,” said his parents. “You don't even have a stable job, because you just up and leave to where ever you want, when the mood strikes you. Spraying turtles with water, feeding rabbits and walking dogs can not be a career. Why did you never graduate university?”
They were his parents words, or his - he knew ok, he knew they were right. But - but Tinkerbell never cared about that. So he'd remember not to, and to enjoy her playing with the dogs, sniffing at the pigeons, and telling the stories where she imagined Tiger Lily rescuing the turtles and making them a nest.
Peter, still 29, was far too young to be losing his mother, far too young to see her big blue eyes - exactly like his - look beyond him, was far too young to feel her hand stop stroking his brown hair - exactly like hers -, was far too young to feel her heart - exactly like his - stop beating.
He was far too old to call for Tinkerbell and hold her around the neck, smell her fur, and tell her what had happened. He was far too old to listen to Tink talk about mermaids and seashells and starfish.
Peter, now 35, had finally finished with business school and he worked hard - and unsuccessfully - to try to lose some weight. His father respected him, his father’s friends vied to hire him, but when he’d get a new account, he wanted to call for Tink. Despite the years of not calling for her, he knew she’d be excited about the numbers and tell him how she liked his morning jogs in the park, even if he was listening to business news instead of enjoying it, and he knew she’d imagine that Tiger Lily disapproved of him not eating enough fish and helping yet another oil company.
But that was the past, and this was his new life, and this was the right way to live.
Still, tonight, in his workout sweats, he bought some Christmas fudge, and ate it guiltily in the empty kitchen of his condo, calculating the calories he’d have to burn, and was it dark chocolate and could he somehow make this ok, maybe it had omega 3 - and he realized he’d bitten it into the shape of a wolf.
He threw it away and immediately laid down, and tried to sleep, staring at the bare walls, trying to think about the new accounts, instead of thinking about her.
He shut his eyes. It was her, of course.
“Peter, I need your help.”
His father had told him to ignore the voice when he heard it, told him to do push ups if he ever felt like responding to her. But she never had. After the first time she'd been rejected, she'd never tried speaking to him again.
Her voice. Her voice.
“Peter, please, it’s about Tiger Lily.”
“Tiger Lily is not real!” he said, unable to hold back. “Even to you she’s not real!”
“The way I’m not?”
He covered his face with his sheet, and tried to count. 2, 9, 4 = 15.
He heard a lamp crash.
He was imagining it.
4, 3, 8 = 15.
He heard his kitchen sink faucet turn on.
He was imagining it.
The light in his room went on.
He was imagining it.
He sat up. The lamp was broken, the light was on.
Tinkerbell was real.
“Sorry I broke your lamp. It was actually an accident. Took me by surprise... I turned on the faucet to wet some cloth and clean the glass up.”
Peter stayed frozen for a minute, unable to breathe, terrified for a moment. Then he got down on his knees in front of her, and hesitated to touch her. Would she feel real again, the way she hadn't all these years? She'd been a translucent ghost in the corner of his eye, but right now, she seemed as real as the shining bits of broken lamp. “Tink. Tink, I -”
And she smiled with her eyes, and licked his face.
She was. She was really real. And he accepted this as if he'd always known it, as if it were a simple truth and he'd simply forgotten it for a moment.
“Come with me,” she said, and he followed her excitedly, caring little that his gray sweat pants, green hoodie and messy hair would horrify anyone in the building.
They walked to the large city park, “you should buy pretzels more often,” she said, “I always see you resisting the desire to.”
"Do you play with the leaves, Tink?"
"And smell the mud," she said, sniffing the ground, and under the dark canopy of fig tree leaves, they came upon the river.
“Tiger Lily decided to go back to the sea recently,” she said.
“What? Oh, Tink, she left you?”
And she cocked her head and said, “Her heart yearned for more. And I was glad to give it.”
Peter looked out into the river, distracted by the branches being dragged by the water.
"Peter, see the boats on the other side?" They were silent for a while, and then she said, “see, there, by the moon’s reflection? By that boat? Do you see the copper tail?”
He tried and tried, and gasped. Yes, there she was.
“She was captured out in the sea, and I’ve tried to liberate her, Peter, I have tried. But -”
“Tink, you could climb over it or swim to her. I know you could rescue her.”
“Not while you didn’t believe in me, Peter. I - I come from an imaginary world. I always exist, even if no one believes in me, because I believe I'm real. But, it makes me weaker. I was too weak to be able to change things, to move things. She was captured because- because I - and the fishermen who captured her - believe in her."
"And now you're able to rescue her because I - but what about the fishermen? I can see they're inside and awake."
"Yes," whined Tink, digging into the mud. "And they have weapons."
"Oh! Of course!" said Peter, jumping up onto a rock.
And so it was that a few hours later, she went into the water, swam to Tiger Lily, and bit the net till it was destroyed, while the fishermen were distracted by the sudden smoke bombs and sparklers coming through the windows into their boat, a laughing voice booming over a megaphone all the while.
He laughed and wanted to stay and watch them crawl out of their boat, disoriented and coughing, and even considered helping them start the boat and call the cops - how fun would that be - but after a few choice insults, he was bored and wanted to see the mermaid. So he ran to the other side of the river.
Where were they?
He went down, down, down, walked for a long time, and as dawn came, he wondered if he'd imagined it all. Had he really messed with that boat, making it incapable of moving now? Had he really seen a mermaid and a wolf? Or were his doubts right now were making them disappear?
But in the rose gold water, he saw Tiger Lily’s small arms hugging Tink around the neck, and he called out to them.
They swam to him, Tiger Lily showing off in the water for him, her long dark hair like seaweeds.
When she’d reached the shore, he bent down and shook her small hand.
And he entirely forgot he'd ever doubted her existence.
Peter, now 41, worked at the animal shelter. He’d sought out new animal associations to partner with - to save money and animals-, he’d found new ways to reach more people, boldly asked for certain ordinances to be passed to benefit the animals, and he’d handled the budget deftly enough that they would be able to open a low cost veterinary clinic within a couple of years.
Every day he played for hours with the animals, before and after work, and Tinkerbell would be right there with him. He’d cook amazing food and cover his walls with drawings and comics of the new animals he’d seen or the places he'd gone to, and he’d tell Tink and his new friends of the moment - whichever tired shelter worker he'd met that day -, all about it, and he’d dream and wonder about Tiger Lily and her wonderful adventures.
He didn’t need Tink or Tiger Lily in order to survive anymore, but he’d learned that letting himself love them and himself, was a good way to live.