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Coming of Age Fantasy Suspense

Peter is very serious about becoming your forever friend, but you don’t know this yet. You don’t even know what it means.

In the beginning, you stand at the edge of your aunt’s walkway with your suitcase in hand, squinting against the sun. A friend of your father’s drives away in his pickup. Exhaust fumes linger above the asphalt like a black ghost, encumbered by humidity. Aunt Wendy appears on the front porch, urging you to come indoors where there’s air-conditioning and sweet tea.

“Aryan,” she calls.

She’s one of those people, the ones who call you by the name you’re born with, not the name you prefer. From the few visits over the years, you remember her as kind and absentminded, head often tilted to one side as if receiving telepathic signals from another planet. Your father spoke of her as one might speak of a three-legged puppy too sweet to forsake. She is now your legal guardian.

Your parents perished in a housefire and you should have, too, but your mother pushed you from a window before the flames engulfed her. You tumbled out, wingless, down into a firefighter’s waiting arms. You would have never made the leap otherwise, wouldn’t have left your parents behind. The authorities contacted your closest relatives. They commended you for being brave. You don’t feel brave. You feel cried out, exhausted, numb. It will be months before you no longer wake from nightmares, drenched in sweat, feeling the imprint of fingers branding your flesh, hearing the cackling fire claim her.

“Come in, child,” Aunt Wendy urges. “It’s a thousand degrees out here!”

Not a thousand, but maybe a hundred. Out here is a quirky neighborhood, each house a battered eyesore of peeling paint and flimsy shingles and rickety porches. Each lot is its own, encircled by a low fence and peppered with flowerbeds erupting in fiery colors despite neglect. Grass overruns sidewalks, wildflowers rear from cracks. The air is palpable with the fragrance of peaches and the buzz of insects, a far cry from the sewage and honking cars you’re used to. Sweat beads down your face like tears. Humidity is as stifling as grief.

You turn and wave to indicate that you’ve heard her. Aunt Wendy ducks inside as you head up the walkway, wheeling along your salvaged possessions. One hand clutches the suitcase’s handle. Your other arm hangs at your side.

Halfway to the porch, your shadow waves.

You swivel to look behind you. A man washes his car a few houses away; a teenager walks her dog further down the street. There’s nobody nearby. Your hand still clutches the sweaty plastic handle. With the other, you rub your eyes and stare at your shadow, the stretched-out silhouette of a twelve-year-old boy extending from your toes.

His hand releases the suitcase and waves again.

Maybe you’ve lost your mind along with your parents. Maybe the magic in all the books you’ve devoured exists in the humid heart of Dixie. Maybe it’s the heat. Does it matter? It’s hard to be scared on a sun-soaked afternoon.

And really, what is there to be afraid of?

Once you release the suitcase’s handle and wave back, your shadow jigs and claps his hands. Though he moves of his own accord, at least one foot is always connected to yours. He points to the house, as if your paths weren’t already aligned. He falls in step as you walk, mimicking you again as a shadow should.

A kernel of happiness has burrowed inside you by the time you lug your suitcase up the porch steps. You used to have an imaginary friend, as many only children do. Lucas kept you company while your parents were busy and real-world friends went on vacation, though it felt right to let Lucas fade away a few years ago. It’d be nice to have a new friend here.

Even if he, too, is imaginary.

. . .

In the days that follow, you help Aunt Wendy around the house, weeding the lawn, mopping floors, washing dishes. She doesn’t ask you to. You do these things to prove you’re not a liability. Your father’s older sister is a smoky-haired, rail-thin spinster. She mixes things in her head sometimes, calling you by your father’s name, Michael. Perhaps you’d be with Uncle John if he weren’t serving his country overseas.

Aunt Wendy doesn’t have your mother’s instinct for reading your mind or your father’s humor for diffusing your darkness. But her skin smells of lavender soap and her clothes of naphthalene pellets, a somehow soothing combination. She tucks you into bed at night though you’re too old for it, and bought a secondhand waffle-maker to make you breakfast. She participates in book clubs and quilting contests and bridge games with “the girls.” When she’s away, you play with your Gameboy or read. You’ve had years of practice entertaining yourself.

You curl up in a lawn chair one afternoon, immersed in a book. When you decide you’re thirsty, you look up and there he is, a boy’s silhouette perched on a chair’s shadow, saluting you. You wave back shyly.

Is it a good book? a voice asks.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe tumbles from your hands.

Your shadow raises his arms as cowboys do in movies to show they’re unarmed. Don’t be afraid. The voice is not quite in your head, but not quite in your ears. I thought you would’ve gotten used to me by now.

You lean down to pick up the book, keeping an eye on your shadow. “What are you?” A shiver ripples through you. If worlds fit in wardrobes, why shouldn’t shadows take on lives of their own? “Are you… part of me?”

The voice snorts. You’re you and I’m me. Also, you’re not just imagining me, if that’s what’s eating you.

“Are you a ghost?”

Aren’t ghosts invisible? Your shadow raises his hands to his head, thumbs wedged into his curly hair like the stubs of antler horns. He wiggles his outstretched fingers until you giggle. Can’t you see me?

“Yes...” Sort of.

I don’t have to be just like you to be real. Don’t listen to grownups. They don’t know everything. His voice sounds suddenly small and hurt, making your face flush. As a scrawny dark-skinned child, you know how it feels to be unseen, underestimated, less than. But kids believe in magic—most kids, anyway. The special ones. Do you mind me in your shadow?

“No, of course not.” You’re polite, but you’re also afraid he might feel insulted and disappear. “My name’s Aryan, but my friends call me Ari.”

Your shadow sits up straighter. I’m Peter. His voice becomes boyish again, colored with enthusiasm.

Clouds blot out the sun and, one by one, purge the yard of shadows. Your shadow fades.

See you later, Ari. Peter’s voice is dismissive, as if he’s bored now that you can’t see him. Perhaps because you’re paying attention this time, you feel an absence when he goes, as if someone’s intense stare has been averted from you.

Aunt Wendy calls from the window that dinner’s ready and you head inside, shadowless but smiling. After the meal, after sunset, you both retire to the living room, where she kicks up her feet to work on a quilt and you browse her bookshelves until your fingers tap the spine of a small photo album.

Your aunt, you discover with surprise, was beautiful. The album chronicles her childhood: a chubby cherub who grew into a slender teenager with curly crimson hair and star-bright eyes, a constellation of freckles scattered across her face like pixie dust, her smile as soft and sweet as rose petals. There are photos of her alone and with other little girls. With your father and uncle, Michael and John. With her parents, George and Mary. With their giant newfoundland puppy. Of a tween Wendy with a cigarette dangling from her lips and a teenage boy by her side.

He’s slim, fair-haired, pointy-chinned, perhaps two or three years older than your twelve-year-old self. Always smiling, though it’s not the sort of smile that makes you want to reciprocate. He is slightly blurry in all the photos, as if caught always in motion, even with his hands clasped around Wendy. Even so, his eyes—when they look at the camera—blaze with a clarity that makes you feel he’s right there, alive and merely trapped within a frame, staring with both mirth and menace.

The photos end there, oddly, as if the lives of those photographed did, too.

“Who’s this?” you ask, pointing out the boy.

Aunt Wendy’s eyes narrow at the photograph before she looks away, out of the window and into the night. She sits in silence for so long you wonder if you should quietly close the album and disappear from the room.

“I don’t remember,” she says. “I think I loved him.”

The album has visibly upset her; you put it away and don’t touch it again.

. . .

The next morning, while she’s making the two of you waffles in the kitchen and you’re squeezing fresh oranges, Aunt Wendy asks you if you like basketball.

“Sure,” you say. It’s an understatement. You love it.

“There’s a basketball court in the park two blocks over.” She extracts the waffles and sets them on two cracked porcelain plates, covering them with dollops of syrup. “Lots of kids hang out there, Aryan. Perhaps you would like to go play? You could make some friends before the school year begins.”

Peter has been company enough, but he’s not the kind of friend you can sit with at the lunch table or trade notes with during class. And you do miss playing basketball. You scarf down your waffles and drink every drop of your juice, then kiss Aunt Wendy’s wrinkled cheek and shove your feet into your sneakers.

Though it’s still early morning, a golden egg of sun sizzles in the blue skillet of sky. By the time you reach the park, you’re sweating. There are at least a dozen boys and a couple of girls, four kids running up and down the cracked asphalt in pursuit of the ball, the rest sitting or standing beneath the magnolia trees flanking the court.

You peer through the chain-link fence before mustering the courage to enter the gate. Some of the kids glance over, a couple of them whispering behind their hands while looking you up and down. Nobody waves you over. But the dribbling of the ball and the swish of the hoop entice you. When the game finishes and the teams regroup, you come closer.

“Hey. Can I play?” Your voice comes out squeakier than you anticipated, but it catches their attention.

The boys pause to look at you. One offers a tiny smile, but all of them glance over to the tallest among them: a thickset blond boy with a bulldog’s jaw and poison-ivy-green eyes. He towers over you by at least a head and a half. When someone tosses him the ball, he grabs it and glares because he’s already decided to hate you.

“Who invited the brown monkey?” he sneers.

There are sniggers. You stiffen.

Your parents raised you in an immigrant neighborhood, but they couldn’t shield you forever. Two years ago, a white man called your mother a brown monkey—and many other things—in a corner grocery store. She’d taken the last watermelon before he’d gotten to it, then refused to give it up when he tried to wrestle it from her. She yelled when he started shaking her, and still refused to stand down. You began kicking the man’s shins. The owner rushed forward and yanked the man away, roughing him up before tossing him out. Your mother’s hands trembled so much that she dropped the watermelon, but the owner didn’t charge for it.

She hadn’t told your father about the incident, just as she didn’t tell him about the parents who took their kids elsewhere once they discovered Dr. Darling (M.D., Pediatrician of the Year) was Dr. Aaliyah Hafeez-Darling (which made her: Muslim Dark-Skinned, Foreigner We Should Fear). Any hint of prejudice crazed Michael Darling; nobody dared to insult his family in his presence. His Irish paleness and tallness served as a physical shield around your brownness, but Dad wasn’t always around.

He certainly wasn’t now.

The kids staring back at you are white and black pawns, and there’s no square for the middling skin of an Arab boy. You understand now as a tremor shudders through you: it hadn’t been fear that caused your mother’s shaking hands to drop the watermelon. It was anger. You’re scrawny for your age, but you make up for it in speed and agility—both on the courts and off them. Blood whooshes in your ears like a war drum.

“I’m not a monkey,” you say. “I just want to play basketball.”

I wanna play basketball,” the tall boy mocks in a sing-song voice that sounds nothing like yours. He holds the ball with one meaty hand and smacks it repeatedly with the other one to forecast his intentions. The remaining boys ring around the two of you. “Too bad. Monkeys don’t play basketball. Not on my court. Not with my ball.”

He’s too big. Too popular. Everything inside you pleads run, but the memory of your mother clutching that watermelon tethers you in place. “Screw you,” you say. “I’ll bring my own ball.”

“Leave him alone, Timmy,” a girl’s voice yells from the sidelines.

Timmy moves fast. You don’t realize he’s thrown the ball until it rams into your face and crushes your nose. The force of the throw flings you off. Your back hits against the asphalt and you lie there, stunned by the double blow. When you wipe at your face, your fingers come away crimson and wet.

“Little terrorists don’t play in my court!” Timmy howls above you.

There’s a cry of dismay from the sidelines but no one rushes to your defense. Timmy stands, a smirking Goliath, dribbling the ball he’s retrieved as you stumble to your feet. The rest of his team surrounds you. If you try to flee, they’ll catch you. If you linger, they’ll watch Timmy beat you to a pulp.

From the corner of your eye, you spot movement.

The sun is to your left, throwing down shadows in sharp contrast, stretching you both out into larger-than-life caricatures. Even so, you’ll never reach Timmy’s height, never be his match.

Or maybe you will.

You stare for a heartbeat, awed. It’s like watching the Karate Kid’s shadow perform a choreography of flailing fists and feet. Suddenly your own hands and legs move, too, as if jerked by a puppeteer, movements you’ve never rehearsed, motions that overwhelm you as you momentarily become your shadow’s shadow. It takes seconds to knock the ball from Timmy’s hands and floor him with a series of kicks and punches that shock you both.

You taste triumph. You hope he hurts. You hope he fears the “terrorist” before him.

“Stop!” Timmy curls into the fetal position, hands shielding his body, his whines so pitiful you can imagine a tail between his legs. “Stop hurting me!”

His voice breaks through whatever possesses you. You stop. It takes a second—only a second, so no one else notices—before your shadow stops, too, subjugating itself to you. Timmy’s tears drip from his face and darken the asphalt. Anger drains from you, leaving you with a sense of emptiness tinged with shame.

You stare at the other boys, wondering if they’ll want a turn and if your shadow will still have your back. They back away, avoiding your gaze. None look at Timmy, much less help him. Perhaps they don’t like him as much as you thought.

Only one, the redheaded boy who’d offered you a smile before, meets your eyes. “Come play with us tomorrow if you still want to.”

“There’s a water fountain over there,” another boy pipes up. “You should wash your face. Do you need a doctor?”

You shake your head and turn to walk toward the fountain, wiping your bloody nose on your sleeve. The pain of contact makes you wince. Is it broken? Aunt Wendy might know, but you don’t want to upset her. You’re not sure what’ll gut her more, your face or the fight.

By the time you rinse your face and look up, you’re surrounded. The pack of wolves has morphed into a family of golden retrievers. One boy offers you his water bottle. Another hands you his towel so you can stem the blood. A mousy-haired girl taps your shoulder and beckons. “My dad’s clinic is in walking distance. He’ll make sure your nose is okay.”

You follow her, the sun warming your back and blood drying on the towel. The kids who don’t disperse join you, traipsing along like a tribe of lost boys. Stretching from your feet, your shadow leads the way. 

October 24, 2022 10:17

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7 comments

C. A. Janke
18:24 Nov 03, 2022

This is such a sweet and at the same time heartbreaking story! I was really moved when Ari found a group of friends by the end who had his back and cared for him. What a wonderfully imagined idea for the future of the children from Peter Pan! Beautifully written!

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Charlie Murphy
03:10 Nov 01, 2022

Great characters!

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Angeliki P
08:39 Nov 02, 2022

Thank you, Charlie!

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Amar Zabarah
18:07 Oct 30, 2022

I always love your writing. 👏🏽👏🏽

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Angeliki P
07:08 Oct 31, 2022

Thanks for the support, Amaroo! <3

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Rabab Zaidi
10:45 Oct 30, 2022

Loved it !

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Angeliki P
14:25 Oct 30, 2022

Thank you! :)

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