***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Christina Henry
Once I was young, and young forever and always, until I wasn’t. Once I loved a boy called Peter Pan.
Peter will tell you that this story isn’t the truth, but Peter lies. I loved him, we all loved him, but he lies, for Peter wants always to be that shining sun that we all revolve around. He’ll do anything to be that sun.
Peter will say I’m a villain, that I wronged him, that I never was his friend.
But I told you already. Peter lies.
This is what really happened.
Sometimes I dreamed of blood. The blood on my hands and the empty eyes in a white-and-grey face. It wasn’t my blood, or blood I’d spilled—though there was plenty of that to go around. It was her blood, and I didn’t know who she was.
Her eyes were dead and blue and her hands were thrown out, like she was reaching for someone, like she was reaching for me before that great slash was put in her throat. I didn’t know why. I didn’t even rightly know whether it was a dream, or something that happened in the Other Place, before I went away with Peter.
If that girl was real it must have happened there, because there were no girls on the island except the mermaids, and they didn’t really count, being half fish.
Still, every night I dreamed of flashing silver and flowing red, and sometimes it startled me out of sleep and sometimes it didn’t. That night I had the dream same as usual, but something else woke me.
I’d heard a sound, a sound that was maybe a cry or moan or a bird squawking out in the night of the forest. It was hard to tell when you heard something while you were sleeping. It was like the noise came from a far-off mountain.
I wasn’t sorry to leave the dream. No matter how many times Peter told me to forget it, my mind returned over and over again to the same place: to the place where she was dead and her eyes asked something of me, though I didn’t know what that something might be.
I came awake all at once the way I usually did, for if you don’t sleep light in the forest you might open your eyes to find something sharp-jawed biting your legs off. Our tree was hidden and protected, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t danger. There was always danger on the island.
The piles of sleeping boys huddled under their animal skins on the dirt floor. Light filtered in from the moon through the holes we’d cut like windows in the tree hollow—me and Peter had done it, long ago. Outside there was a steady buzz, the hum of the Many-Eyed in the plains carrying across the forest.
“It’s just Charlie,” Peter said dismissively from above.
He was curved into one of the holes, his body loose-limbed and careless, looking out over the forest. In his hands he held a small knife and a piece of wood that he was whittling. The blade flashed in the moonlight, dancing over the surface of the wood. His skin was all silver in that light and his eyes deep pools of shadow, and he seemed to be part of the tree and the moon and the wind that whispered through the tall grass outside.
Peter didn’t sleep much, and when he did it was just a quick nap. He would not waste a bit of his life in slumber, even though his life was already longer than most, and he hated the way the rest of us succumbed, dropping like biting flies in the summer heat while he pestered us for one more game.
I rose and tiptoed carefully over the other boys until I found Charlie. He was balled up in a knotted tree root like a baby in a cradle, and he was barely older than a baby at that. His face was covered in sweat that glittered like jewels, like a pirate’s treasure in the moonlight. He moaned, shifting restlessly in his sleep.
Young ones sometimes had a hard time adjusting when they first came over. Charlie was five, much younger than I had been when Peter had taken me, much younger than any boy he’d ever brought to the island before.
I bent and scooped the smaller boy from the tree root, holding him to my heart. Charlie kicked out once, then settled.
“You’re no help to him, you know,” Peter warned, watching me shuffle to and fro with Charlie in my arms. “Stop babying.”
“He’s too little,” I hissed. “I told you he was.”
I don’t know why I bothered, because there isn’t a point in saying things Peter won’t listen to anyhow.
Peter usually chose boys who were about the same age I was when he picked me—around eight or nine. Peter liked that age, for boys were old enough to have the spirit of rebellion and the will to follow it. By then a boy would have gotten a good taste of adulthood—through work or schooling, depending on his class—enough to know that he didn’t want to spend his days toiling at figures or in the fields or fetching water for some rich man.
The last time we went looking for new boys, Peter had spied this tiny one wandering through the piles of filth in the alleys. He declared that the child would be a splendid little playmate, and I argued that he would have been much better off in a home for orphans. Naturally, Peter won. He wanted the boy and Peter got what he wanted—always.
And now that he’d got him, Peter had no use for him. It wasn’t any fun to play with someone too small to fight and roughhouse with the bigger boys. Charlie couldn’t keep up when Peter trekked us through the forest on an adventure, either. More than once I’d suspected Peter of trying to leave Charlie somewhere so the little boy might get eaten, and then Peter would be free of the trouble of him. But I kept one eye on Charlie (though Peter didn’t like it), and as long as I watched out for him and carried him home there wasn’t much Peter could do about it but complain. Which he did.
“You should have left him by the crocodile pool,” Peter said. “Then his crying wouldn’t wake you up.”
I said nothing, because it wasn’t worth my breath. Peter never lost an argument—and not because he wasn’t wrong; he was, and pretty often too—but because he never got tired. He’d keep coming back at you no matter how right you were until you threw up your hands and let him win just so you’d have some peace.
Peter didn’t say anything else and I went on walking Charlie until his breathing told me he was properly asleep again. I tried to replace the boy in the pile of skins he’d been sleeping in, but he whimpered as soon as I tried to put him down. Peter sniggered.
“You’ll be up all night with him, walking him like a mama with her babe,” Peter said.
“What would you know about it?” I said, as I rubbed Charlie’s back again to get him to settle. “There’s never been a mama here, and you don’t remember yours.”
“I’ve seen them at it,” Peter said. “In the Other Place. The little babies wail and the mamas walk to and fro and shush and jiggle them just like you’re doing now. And sometimes the babies quiet and sometimes they don’t and when they don’t the mamas will cry and cry themselves because those little wailing things won’t shut it. I don’t know why they don’t just put those babies under a blanket until they stop. It’s not as though they can’t make more.”
He didn’t mean it, not really. At least, I didn’t think he meant it. To Peter all children were replaceable (except himself). When he lost one here on the island he would go to the Other Place and get a new one, preferably an unwanted one, because then the boy didn’t miss the Other Place so much and he was happy to be here and to do what Peter wanted.
Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.
After a while I sat and leaned against the bark of the tree, humming a quiet tune that I learned once, long ago, before Peter, before this island. I didn’t know who had taught me that song, but it had stayed in my head all these long years. The song irritated Peter, and he told me to shut it, but I sang until Charlie’s breath grew soft and quiet and even, his chest rising and falling in time with mine.
I stared out the window, past Peter, to the untouchable moon. The moon was always full here, always looming like a watchful eye.
Two staring eyes. Small hands covered in blood.
I pushed the dream away. It did me no good to remember it. That was what Peter always said.
I had been with Peter longer than I’d been in the Other Place, longer than I could count, anyway. The seasons did not pass here and the days had no meaning. I would be here forever. I would never grow up.
Peter’s whittling knife danced in that white light until the moon disappeared behind my closed eyes.
I was smaller then, and Peter was big and brave and wonderful. He said, “Come away and we’ll have adventures and be friends always,” and I put my hand in his and he smiled and that smile went into my heart and stayed there.
We ran through the streets of the city where I lived, and Peter was so swift and silent I could hardly believe it. He ran like the wind was part of him and his feet barely touched the ground and I thought, watching him run in the dark, that he might take off and fly and take me with him. It would be lovely to fly away from the city and into the stars, for the city was dark and dirty and full of big people who would grab at you if you were small and say, “Here, now, what’s all this?” and cuff you around the head just because they could and they would take your bread and your apples and leave you with your insides all twisted up and then throw you back in the mud and laugh and laugh.
But Peter said he would take me away from all that; he was taking me to a place where there was all the food you could eat and no one would hit you and there was no one to tell you what to do and when to do it and to get out of the way and go sleep in the trash where you belong. He said that on his island you could sleep in the trees and taste the salt from the sea on the air and there was treasure and fun all day long.
I wanted to go there. I couldn’t wait to go there. But I was scared about getting on a ship to go to the island. I’d never been on a ship before, but I’d seen them in the port. Peter might not like me if I told him I was scared so I didn’t say anything, but I was certain that once we got out to sea a monster would come and break the ship into a thousand pieces and we would fall, fall, fall to the far bottom of the water and never be seen again.
Peter tugged me along and I was getting tired and he said, “Come on, Jamie, just a little more and we’ll be there,” and I wanted to make him happy so he would smile at me again, so I ran and tried to be as fast and quiet as he.
I thought we would go to the docks, but Peter was taking us away from there and I tugged on his hand and said, “Aren’t we going to a ship?”
And Peter laughed and said, “Why would we go to a ship, silly?” But he said it in a way that didn’t hurt and didn’t make me feel stupid—more like he had a secret and was laughing because he was going to share it with me soon.
We went away from the city, far away from the place where I slept, and I didn’t know where we were or if I would ever find my way home again, and then I remembered I didn’t want to go home anymore because home is where they hit you and you sleep in the dirty straw and she screams and screams and screams . . .
The scream was still in my ears when I was roused by Peter’s cock-crow just as the sun emerged over the mountains. His cry and her scream twisted together into one sound and then the scream faded away as my eyes opened and I saw him perched in the window.
He had ginger hair that was always dirty, for he hated to bathe, and was dressed in a shirt and leggings made from deerskin, the hide grown soft and white with age.
His feet were bare and filthy, the toenails broken and torn from scampering over rocks and through trees. Peter was silhouetted in the window, legs wide apart, hands on hips, crowing with great vigor.
My eyes had opened immediately, accustomed to Peter’s morning antics. Several of the newer boys groaned and covered their heads with their arms.
Charlie blinked sleepy blue eyes at me. “Get up now, Jamie?”
“Aye,” I said gently. I placed the younger boy on his feet and rose, stretching. I felt somehow taller today than yesterday—not a lot, just a smidge. It seemed my hands were closer to the roof of the hollow than before. I didn’t have much time to trouble about it, though, for Peter’s next words shook it from my mind.
Peter clapped his hands together. “We’ve a raid today!”
“What for?” I asked, not troubling to keep my annoyance hidden.
I didn’t think this was the time for a raid. We’d only brought the last six boys over a few days before. Most of them were not even close to ready.
“The pirates need raiding, of course!” Peter said, like he was giving the boys a huge pile of sweets.
Nod and Fog, the twins, cried, “Hurrah!”
They were both whippet-lean and strong with it, little ropey muscles on their arms and legs, matching shocks of blond hair darkened by their mutual dislike of washing. I’d never been able to tell if they hated to wash because Peter did or because they liked feeling the bugs in their hair.
Nod and Fog had been on the island longest except me, and raiding the pirates was their second-favorite game after Battle. There was nothing the twins liked better than an excuse to shed blood.
A long time ago Fog had taken down a wolf with only a sharpened rock, a feat that Peter so heartily approved of that he made Fog King of the Tree for a week. Fog made a kind of band for his head out of the tail and attached the wolf’s ears to it, and turned the rest of the skin into fur leggings. He’d briefly contemplated a cape, but dismissed it as too awkward for fighting.
Not to be outdone by his brother, Nod had promptly gone out and slaughtered one of the big cats that prowled in the mountains on the west side of the island. Now he wore the cat’s yellow ears and yellow furred leggings, and was still inclined to complain that Peter hadn’t made him the King of the Tree.
Some of the other boys tried to copy Nod and Fog, and got eaten by a cat for their trouble. And when we lost a boy we would go collect a new one from the Other Place, for Peter had particular ideas about how many boys should be about him at all times.
There were fifteen of us in all, including Peter and me. We lost a few every year to Battle, and to the raids, and some to illness or animals. Ambro had died coughing up blood, and now Del was looking thin and white. Soon he would start coughing too, and then Peter would send him outside to sleep.
Peter had complained incessantly about the noise when Ambro was dying, as if the boy could have prevented it. And if he could have stopped it, he would have, for we all loved Peter, even when he was cruel. His approval was hungrily sought, and his derision cut sharper than the blade of a pirate’s sword.
Peter hopped down from the window, landing lightly on his feet despite the height. Sometimes I thought that Peter couldn’t be hurt, and that was why he didn’t bother so much when others were, for he couldn’t understand their pain. And Peter was bound to the island in some way that the others weren’t. He understood the land, and it understood him. That was why I had grown a bit and Peter hadn’t.
It was the island that kept us all young, though some of us wouldn’t stay that way. Some of the boys, for reasons none of us could comprehend, grew up like normal. It didn’t happen too often, for Peter was pretty good at choosing the right sort of character for the island, and I think that had something to do with it, the desire to stay a boy and do boy things for always.
But when Peter noticed the boy turning into a man, that boy was cast out, no looking back, no second chances. Those boys ended up in the pirate camp if they made it across the island alive, and became unrecognizable bearded faces, no longer our little friends.
I reckoned I’d been about eight, same as Nod and Fog, when Peter found me. I’d be long dead if I’d stayed in the Other Place, for one or two hundred seasons had passed. I wasn’t sure exactly how many because it’s easy to lose track if you don’t pay attention. I looked about twelve, a few years older than I was when I arrived.
Nod and Fog, too, had grown a bit. Peter had started out eleven, and had stayed eleven. There wasn’t a part of him not exactly the same as it had been when he took me from the Other Place so long ago, his first friend and companion.
Sometimes I worried, just a little, that I would grow up and be sent to the pirate camp. Peter always cuffed my ear when I said things like this.
“You’ll never grow up, you fool. I brought you here so you wouldn’t.”
But I was getting a little older just the same, and Nod and Fog too. We lost too many of the other boys to tell if only the three of us felt the minute creep of age. Sometimes at night, when the nightmare clung to me, I wondered if Peter’s assurances that I would never grow up were only assurances that I would die before such a thing happened. I wondered if that were better, to die before I became something withered and grey and not wanted.
Our leader crouched on the ground with a stick and drew a quick map of the island, and then a detail of the pirate camp. Our tree was in the very center of the forest and in the very center of the island. The forest cut through the middle of a mountain range on the east side. It crossed the whole middle of the island and emptied out to the ocean on the east side, and a sheltered lagoon on the west.
In the northwest part were the plains in which the Many-Eyed lived. We didn’t go there if we could help it.
If you went straight south from our tree, you would run into the crocodile pond and then the swamp. The swamp became a green marshy place that met the ocean.
The southwest corner of the island was mostly big sand dunes, giant things that took a long time to climb up and then down again. Past the dunes was a sandy beach, the only one where we could safely play and collect coconuts. On the northern side of this beach, hidden by the forest that wrapped around it, was the mermaid lagoon.
The pirates had staked out the beach on the north end of the island, near the cove just where the border of the plains and the mountains met. There was no beach on the east side at all, only sheer rock face from the mountains and a towering cliff where the forest ran up to the sea.
The boys crowded around Peter. I had no need to. I knew the island by heart, better than anyone except Peter. I’d been over every root and rock and plant, crept around every wild thing, seen all the mermaids a hundred times over and pulled away from the snap of a crocodile’s jaws more than once. I didn’t like having a raid so soon, but I knew my part if one was to happen.
Charlie stayed with me, one of his little hands safely buried inside mine. He stuck his other thumb in his mouth, not interested in the map or what might happen next.
I sighed softly. What would I do with Charlie in a raid? It was a certainty that he wouldn’t be able to defend himself, and I half suspected Peter of devising this trip just to get rid of the smaller boy.
Most of the new boys seemed unsure as they collected around Peter, except for a big one called Nip. He was almost as tall as me, and I was easily the tallest boy there. Nip had the look of a boy who liked to be the strongest and the fastest, and he’d been eyeing me since he’d arrived. I knew Nip would pick a fight soon. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to do Nip serious harm when it happened.
There wasn’t any malice about this; I didn’t wish the boy any more harm than he wished me. But I was the best fighter. Peter knew it. All the boys who’d been around longer knew it. Even the pirates knew it, and that’s why they tried their damnedest to kill me every time there was a raid. I’d learned not to take it to heart.
The pirate camp was about a two-day walk from the tree, depending on how fast you could hurry along a pack of boys, and though Peter made it sound like an adventure to the new boys, I knew well enough that there was as much work as play. There would be supplies to gather and carry. The Many-Eyed patrolled through the plains we had to cross. To top it off, the pirates might not even be in port. This time of year they were often away raiding themselves, stealing gold from galleons at sea and crying girls from cities they burned.
To my way of thinking this was not a smart idea. Not only did I have Charlie to worry over, but the new boys were untried. We didn’t even know whether half of them could fight at all, much less against grown men who made their living by the blade.
And Del might not make it. I could already imagine the boy sicking out puddles of blood on the way, blood that would attract the Many-Eyed to us when we took the path that bordered their lands. It was risky plan, probably wasteful. Even saying that all the boys made it to the pirate camp, it was unlikely all would make it back. We never did come back with same numbers that we left with.
I let Charlie go with a reassuring grin. The little one gave me a half smile in return when I told him to stay where he was put. I sidled around to Peter, who energetically slashed at the ground, making marks to indicate who would go where in the pirate camp. I had to try, though nothing was likely to come of it.
“I don’t think—” I began under my breath.
“Don’t think,” Peter said sharply.
Some of the boys snickered, and I narrowed my eyes at each face in the circle. One by one their gazes fell away, except Nip, who stared insolently at me until I growled. Nip dropped his eyes to the ground, a red flush climbing his cheeks. I answered to no one but Peter, and the sooner the new ones learned that, the better.
“I know what you want,” Peter said, his green eyes bright and intent on his drawing. “Stop babying.”
“It’s not babying to wait till they’re ready,” I said.
“Stop babying,” Peter repeated.
And that was that. Peter had spoken, and we would all do as he wished. It was his island. He had invited us there, had promised us we would be young and happy forever.
So we were. Unless we got sick, or died, or were taken by the pirates. And it was of no nevermind to Peter if we did. The boys were just playmates to help him pass the time, though none of them knew this. They all thought they were special in his eyes, while the only one who was special was me. Peter had picked me first, had kept me at his right hand for so many years. But even I had no power to make Peter do what he did not want.
Peter wanted a raid. We would have a raid.
I stuffed my hands under the waist of my deerskin pants and hooked my thumbs over the edge. I listened to Peter’s plans with half an ear. I had heard it all before, and I knew what I would have to do anyway. I always fought the first mate.
I’d killed most of them, and the ones who lived carried my mark. I cut off the right hand of all my victims, living and dead, so they would know who I was, and remember. I always used their own swords to do this, for I carried only a dagger, and I thought it hurt them more if I used their weapon.
Peter always fought the Captain. There had been a few Captains over the years, although this new one had been about for quite a while. I didn’t think Peter tried very hard in a fight sometimes. He seemed to like taunting the Captain better than killing him.
After a bit Peter stood up and dusted his hands. “Go and get something to eat, boys. Then, after, we’ll get on to our mission.”
Most of the boys filed out of the small notch that served as both entrance to and exit from the tree. The tree was enormous and completely hollow inside, large enough to fit thirty boys lying side by side on the ground. The roots twisted up along the floor, making chairs and beds for those who wanted them, though most nested in piles of skins.
The new boys still wore the clothes that they had when they came from the Other Place, and the rest of us wore a mishmash of animal skins and clothes we’d stolen from the pirate camp. I had a red coat buttoned over my chest, taken from one of the Captains a long, long time ago, when he’d foolishly left it hanging on a washing line. It was too big in the body and I’d had to cut the sleeves and the tails a bit, but it was mine.
For a while Peter was inclined to be jealous of this, for it was a good prize, and to wheedle and imply that I ought to give it to him, but I wouldn’t. I’d seen it before he had and snatched it off the line while he was looking for something shiny to take, as always. He just couldn’t bear to think I’d beaten him at anything. Then he decided the coat was a stupid thing and that it looked foolish on me because it was so big, but I knew he wanted it.
Charlie waited where I had left him, until I went to him and gave him a nudge with my knee to follow the others outside.
The little boy looked up at me with grave eyes and spoke around the thumb in his mouth. “Are you coming?”
“In a minute,” I said, and patted Charlie’s shoulder. “Go on, now.”
I wanted a word with Peter away from the others. When I turned back Peter had his arms crossed and watched the twins with mild interest.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
Peter shrugged. “What is it ever about? They like to hit one another.”
Nod and Fog rolled on the ground, each punching the other in the face as hard as possible. One of the twins—it was hard to tell who was who when they were tangled up and rolling in the dirt—was bleeding, and the blood dribbled and splashed away from their flying bodies.
We watched the twins for a few moments longer. Peter would have let them bash about until they were both dead, but I didn’t want them breaking limbs just before a raid. Peter didn’t think about these things. He said that was why he had me, so I would think about them for him and save him the trouble.
Fog had snapped Nod’s wrist once, and though I had tried to set it with a piece of bark and some rope made from a twining plant, it hadn’t healed quite right. The wrist was just slightly off straight, and if you touched it where the break was, there was a knot of gnarled bone underneath.
Nod wasn’t bothered in the least by the break or the less-than-perfect healing, but he’d had a fever for several days after, and things had been touch-and-go. I watched over him during that time, made sure Nod got through. But if one of the twins broke another bone right before a raid, Peter wouldn’t let me stay behind to watch over him. I had my job to do, and nobody else would look after Charlie. We’d return to a corpse that used to be a twin, and I’d bury it with the others in the clearing in the woods.
I thought all of these things while the twins spun and pummeled. After a moment I stepped forward to break them up.
I heard Peter mutter, “Spoilsport,” but the other boy didn’t stop me. Maybe he, too, was thinking about the harm they might do each other. Or maybe he’d lost interest in watching them fight.
One of the twins had pinned the other’s arms with his knees and was pounding ferociously on his brother’s face. The latter had a broken nose, the source of the blood spattered about on the roots and dirt.
I hooked the attacking twin—I could see now it was Nod, by the yellow cat’s ears—under the neck of his leather vest and hauled him off Fog. Fog immediately jumped to his feet, tucked his head under like a goat and ran for his brother, head-butting him in the stomach.
Nod dangled from my hand with his toes just brushing the floor, and he let out a great whoosh of air as Fog’s head caught him just under the ribs.
“None of that now,” I said, tossing Nod to one side so I could catch Fog by the shoulders as he made another run at his twin.
“He took my best knife!” Fog shouted, his arms spinning like a windmill.
One of his hands caught me in the chin, just clipped me a bit. It wasn’t enough to hurt, not even close, but it set me off when I was already in a foul mood about Peter and the blasted raid.
“That’s enough,” I said, and hauled off a good one right in Fog’s mouth.
The smaller boy fell to his bottom on the ground, wiping blood from his lip.
Nod cackled at the sight of his brother chastised in the dust. I turned on the second boy, lifted him from where I had tossed him in the tangle of roots, and gave Nod the same treatment I’d given his twin.
The two of them sat side by side in the dirt, identical pairs of pale blue eyes staring up at me from blood- and muck-encrusted faces.
I heaved a deep breath, my hands clenched at my sides.
“Sorry, Jamie,” the twins chorused.
I pointed at Nod. “Give him his knife. He worked on that blade for days.”
“But . . .” Nod began, but stopped at the look on my face. Nod and Fog both knew better than to get on my wrong side.
Nod pulled the stone knife from under his vest and handed it to Fog, who tucked it lovingly into a leather sheath at his waist.
I jerked my head toward the notch. “Go eat something.”
They scampered to their feet, seemingly none the worse for wear. By the time they reached the notch, the argument had been forgotten, and Nod playfully punched Fog in the shoulder.
Peter chucked softly. “That’s why neither of them play against you in Battle.”
I took another deep breath, waiting for the red to recede, so that I wouldn’t turn on Peter.
For a moment I’d thought about pulling my own knife, the metal one I’d stolen from the pirates. Then I’d knock Peter to the ground, grab his jaw and squeeze it together until Peter’s tongue lolled out, and slice it off as neat as the edge of a pirate’s sail.
Then the mist drew back a bit, the crazed burning in my blood cooled, and Peter stood there, grinning, unharmed, unaware of what had passed in my mind.
It startled me, it surely did, for I loved Peter—at least most of the time—and spent the better portion of my life trying to make him smile at me the way he did when we first met.
“They try me sometimes,” I said, after a bit. I was returning to myself again, the Jamie I knew.
Peter slung his arm around my shoulder. “You’ll whip the new boys into shape. And we’ll have an excellent raid.”
“There should not be a raid at all,” I said, trying once more, though I knew it was in vain.
“It’ll be a lark,” Peter said, and he nudged me toward the notch in the tree.
Outside a few boys scampered in the clearing around our tree, chasing and tagging one another. Some of them had plucked the fruit from the trees and stacked it in a pile. Del showed the new boys how to peel the skin from the orange-yellow fruit before eating it.
“The outside bit, that’ll make you sick if you eat it. But the inside is nice and sweet,” Del said, holding the fruit up to his lips and biting into it. Juice spilled over his chin. The sticky yellow stuff stood out against his white skin, like a warning.
I paused, my hand on the trunk of the tree. Peter emerged beside me and followed my gaze.
“Del won’t last much longer,” I said. “He won’t last a raid—that’s for certain.”
Peter shrugged. “If he’s sick he can stay behind. Better he coughs out that muck when I’m not here. I don’t want to listen to it.”
This was more or less what I expected, but I felt a surge of that same strange anger I’d felt a few moments before. It made me speak when I would have held my tongue.
“What if I was the one sicking out my lungs?” I said. I felt the temper perilously close to the surface, lurking just underneath my skin, hot and wild. “Would you leave me behind?”
Peter looked at me, just the faintest of questions in his eyes. “You never get sick, Jamie. All the time you’ve been here you’ve never had so much as a sniffle.”
“But what if I was?” I persisted.
I wasn’t sure whether I should be angry with Peter or not. There was no harm in his feelings. Peter would like it if Del was alive, but it wouldn’t bother him if Del wasn’t. He didn’t wish the other boy harm.
“You won’t be,” Peter said, and he ran off to join the running boys. They were practicing swordplay with sticks now, jabbing and slashing at one another with the long branches that fell from the fruit trees.
I stared after him, felt that familiar mix of love and worship and frustration that I often felt with Peter. You couldn’t change him. He didn’t want to be changed. That was why Peter lived on the island in the first place.
I crossed to the circle of boys gathered around the pile of fruit. Most of the lads were fine, but Charlie struggled with the small stone knife that one of the older boys had lent him.
I knelt beside him on one knee, took the unpeeled fruit from Charlie’s little hand.
“Like this, see?” I said, making quick work of it and handing it back to Charlie.
The smaller boy looked up at me with shining eyes as he bit into the fruit. “’S good,” he said.
I ruffled Charlie’s hair, yellow-white in the sunlight. He was like a little duckling with his head all covered in fuzz, a little duckling who’d follow behind me and expect me to keep him safe. There was nothing to be done about it now. I would just have to make sure to keep him with me until the smaller boy got bigger, or smarter.
I stood and called Nod and Fog to me. The twins were busy beating at each other with sticks, but they quit as soon as they heard my voice, coming to attention before me like soldiers.
“Take Kit and Harry and check the traps,” I said.
We’d need the meat while crossing the island. Some to eat, and some for the things we might meet on the way. I didn’t like the way the Many-Eyed had been acting lately. They were bolder than they’d ever been before.
“’Kay,” the twins said.
“And take the new boy, Nip, with you,” I said.
Nip looked like he might be working up the gumption to come at me, and I was not in the mood for fighting just then. Best if the other lad were busy.
Nod and Fog collected the others, including an obviously reluctant Nip, and disappeared into the trees. I looked up at the sky, calculated they would be back by midday.
I rounded up the other boys and set them to tasks—cleaning and collecting the knives and bows, rigging up carrying pouches for food, laying out strips of fruit to dry in the sun. Peter frowned when he realized all his playmates had been taken from him for chores.
“What’s the idea?” he said.
“You want a raid, don’t you?” I said, turning away so he wouldn’t see the gleam of satisfaction in my eye. If he wanted his raid he could have all that came with it, including the work.
“Aye,” Peter said.
“Then there’s work to be done.”
“Not for me,” Peter said. He planted himself defiantly in the shade of a fruit tree and took out the piece of wood he’d whittled at the night before, one he’d turned into a little flute. He whistled, watching me from the corner of his green eyes.
I gave Peter my back, and went about my business. Peter watched me closely, though I pretended not to notice, watched me as a mother might watch over her child, or a wolf might watch something that was between it and its prey.