There was once a girl who couldn’t sleep very well, so she spent many nights sitting by the window and staring up at the stars. No matter where she was, even if she couldn’t see the stars with her naked eyes, she could still stare up at them because she had a special pair of starglasses that let her see the stars at night whenever she wanted. This is how she learned to count. How she learned to name things. To keep track of things. She counted the stars the way you’d count out seeds to plant flowers. Counted them the way you would gold coins in a treasure chest or jelly beans in a jar. She tried to spread them out across the universe as evenly as possible so she could get a good look at every single one of them. But when the wind blew the stars swayed, and when the wind blew harder the stars moved with it, and constellations formed that all at once perplexed, fascinated and annoyed her. She thought the wind only toyed with leaves and twigs and earthly things. She didn’t know it could reach so high into the sky as to roll the stars around the universe like marbles. That the same wind that ruffled her hair ruffled the stars. She didn’t know that the stars were actually blazing birds, or burning ships sailing across a black sea. She didn’t know that the stars liked playing connect-the-dots, or that they needed to move and be moved as much as any restless soul does. And she didn’t know that the wind was an old friend, and that the stars were all madly in love with each other, and that this old friend had always been wildly in love with her. She didn’t know any of this. But how could she? She was always too busy counting.
I decide I want to be a Lost Girl, so on a cool summer night I leave the window wide open for Peter Pan. When my side of the world is finally fast asleep—and I am only half that—he flies in through my bedroom window. I see his shadow before I see him and wonder how it is that it is so visible even in the dark. I reach over and turn on the bedside lamp and his shadow is now somehow strangely less visible. I throw off the covers to reveal that I am all dressed up and ready to go. He doesn’t say anything. He simply does a quick glance around the room, looks me once in the eyes, and then turns his back and faces the window he came in through. He reaches his hand straight out behind him for me to take. Before we leave he says only one thing.
“Turn off all the lights.”
In Neverland I am a Lost Girl and my eyes turn a deeper shade of green. The trees are taller and stronger here. Their roots are wicked and play tricks on us in the night, but somehow no one ever twists an ankle. And there are always fireflies, but we are not allowed to catch them. Because even if you are here to be lost, sometimes you need something to help guide your way through the dark woods.
There are mostly Lost Boys here, but I meet another Lost Girl who reminds me of every girl I have ever known and loved and called a friend. She is somehow the embodiment of them all. She has her smile, her laugh, her sense of humor, her dancing feet, her big beating heart, her poor posture, her bravery but also her fear. And I can’t help but wonder if I am the same thing to her, an embodiment of all the girls she has ever known and loved and called a friend. I never ask her though, because I also never explain that to me she has dozens of names and faces. She is the one who introduces me to the others. Everyone here has different reasons for being lost, for wishing to be lost. I stay here for a while. I breathe in midnight blue air and sleep in warm patches of sunlight. My eyes grow even more accustomed to the bright and dark colors of the earth and even when it’s cold my hands and feet are always warm. They tell me that is a good sign. I don’t even have to look for anything anymore, because that is the privilege of being a Lost Girl. When you’re the one who is lost, you don’t have to waste your time looking for things. You just get lost, and the fireflies always find you.
But one day my eyes start to water and sting, and when I rub them they only sting more. And my friend, the girl who is every girl to me, tells me that thorns are starting to grow in place of my eyes. That this is a bad sign, and asks me what I’ve done? What did I do… I don’t know what I did.
That night we are sitting at the top of a small green hill, combing the grass with our fingers when she notices something funny. A new star? One of our fireflies? (No, our fireflies aren’t allowed outside of Neverland.)
“What is that?” she asks.
I follow her pointing finger until my eyes fall upon a distant shining light. I stare at it. It looks so familiar. Why does it look so familiar? I squint; it’s actually getting harder to see now, but soon it hits me. That isn’t a star at all. It’s the light I left on when Peter Pan told me not to. It’s the light I left on so that I could find my way back home.
“That’s not a star…” I explain.
“You’re going to be in so much trouble!” she panics: I’m going to be in so much trouble. I don’t completely trust in being Lost. Peter Pan will send me away. Not home, but away.
“You have to leave,” she insists. “Before he finds out it’s you.”
Then she takes my hand and leads me through tunnels I do not remember seeing. Because my eyesight is fading. Because if I don’t get out soon everything will go black. And then everything does go black, but only because I am asleep, and then seconds later I am awake and in my bed again. And when I open my eyes I see that my bedside lamp is on. And beside the bedside lamp is a single firefly buzzing around in circles, and just for a moment I swear that in its light I see every girl I have ever known and loved and called a friend.
She is born on the highest mountain peak in the world, just below a burning red star. When she is old enough to know the names of things, but still young enough to imagine things as they aren’t, she looks up into the night sky and sees the star as if she is seeing it for the first time. She mistakes it for candy. No, she swears it’s candy. She can’t believe she’s never realized it before. But now she can’t stop thinking about it. Her mouth waters for it. She eats nothing and survives only on red candy-star dreams. And she can’t stop wondering; What does it taste like? Does it taste like cherries? Like strawberries or raspberries? Dried cranberries or goji berries? Maybe a berry she’s never heard of before? She wonders if it’s poisonous. Or maybe it tastes like blood. And maybe blood is just a hot, sticky-sweet syrup. Maybe the inside of that candy-star is a sweet sparkling wine. Maybe it’s coated with red sugar dust, or cinnamon. She can’t stop thinking about it. She has to know, has to. So one night while everyone is fast asleep, she sneaks out into the darkness and jumps and reaches, and reaches and jumps, until she is finally able to wrap her fist around her candy-star and bring it down to earth. It burns her hand on the way down. She tolerates it, barely thinks anything of the fact that candy doesn’t burn, shouldn’t burn. All she can think of is the sweetness. All she can do is heed her own desire. So she brings it to her lips, slowly parting them; her teeth ache with longing. Her tongue tingles, her fingertips too. The star is smaller than her palm but larger than the coins she trades for sugar and spice. She bites into it, thinking that this will be the moment where every juicy red apple, licorice and sucking candy pales in comparison. She thinks about it so much and so hard that she doesn’t even remember to chew slowly, or savor, and before she knows it she’s swallowed her red candy-star and can’t for the life of her tell you what it tasted like. All she knows is that it burned on the way down, somehow got stuck in her heart and giving it a sort of erratic beat and glow. So maybe she didn’t get the thrill of the taste like she wanted, but she now has a glowing red candy-star heart to show for it and maybe one day she’ll be able to take it out, break it apart like peppermint bark, and share it with the world.
She took a wrong turn somewhere and found herself at the door to a funhouse. The kind full of wonky mirrors and doors beckoning to be opened. There was no sign that said to enter at your own peril. or to not enter at all. So she took that as a sign to simply go ahead and enter. The lights flickered weakly to life the moment she stepped inside, like fire flies on their last breath. When the door closed behind her she heard a soft click. It was subtle but undeniable, and she knew there was no turning back. This house was larger on the inside than it was on the outside—the kind of thing she probably should have expected. It was full of long, narrow corridors, flanked on both sides by numberless rooms full of nightmares and wonders. The very same that always appeared in her dreams—rooms full of messy beds, abandoned playthings and unswept floors. The odd thing was, though, that these rooms had no doors. It made her a bit uneasy, to think of all the things that could enter and leave at leisure. Of all the hands that could reach out and grab her. The hallways were slightly crooked, the carpet a faded forest green and the floors uneven. As she made her way up one way and then down another she could feel the tug of something sinister pulling her farther and farther down the line. Her heart rang like a warning bell inside her chest, but Curiosity was her middle name and she just couldn’t leave until she’d seen what was inside every room. Even though she knew the last room at the end of the hall—the only one with a door—would be her Last. Somehow she also knew that the room at the end of every hall was one and the same, and that it was just the House’s way of having a little fun. Of giving false hope. The illusion of choice. The promise of something evil behind Door #1 but perhaps something good behind Door #2. She peaked inside each room as she went, holding her breath so as not to disturb any grumpy monsters or sleeping dust bunnies. Everything had once been lived in, played with, loved. Everything was now forsaken, forgotten, uncared for. Everything now had that faint mocking gleam of ice cream, sunshine and sparkling delight, but everything was now too dusty to inhale or savor. Every color of every wall, rug and blanket was now just an echo of how bright things used to be. But even so, she could still feel it—how good things had once been. How pink, yellow, green, blue and white things had been—so clean and ready for life. How everyone had laughed, how the piano had played, the tea and sugar stirred, and the stories passed along a neat little conveyor belt of timeless imagination. She probably could have made a home out of any one of these rooms—if she had really wanted. But she just kept moving along, poking her head through each doorless doorway until she realized something odd. She wasn’t getting any closer to the Last Room at the end of the hall. It was almost as if the hallway was playing a trick on her, extending itself into infinity as she kept accepting its crooked invitation. She stopped dead in her tracks and looked. Stared as hard as she could as far down as she could. And it was as if, the door was there but then it wasn’t, and the lights were on but then they weren’t, and the house was laughing but then it wasn’t; and it was like she wasn’t dreaming—but then it was like she was.
The King told her to “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”, so that’s exactly what she did. Or tried to do. But at the time she didn’t realize it was a maze, and also a spiral. She thought it was just a straight line, a circle, or a diamond. Any kind of shape at all that was just one path. One dimension. Where you couldn’t get lost tracing its straightforward line. Where there were only two directions: forward and backward. Ahead and behind. This way and that. She didn’t realize it was a lush green maze. A beautiful spiraling staircase. She didn’t realize that it wasn’t all lush and green either though. She didn’t know that in some places the roses were dying. That in others people had never smelled or heard of a rose before. And in others still, that they were illegal for their thorns. She thought that when the King said “end” and “stop” that there would only be one End, one Stop. But there were many Ends, which meant many Beginnings too. And there were many Stops along the way. Some of those stops actually were to smell the roses, but the majority of them were not.
She stopped for many things. Some she wanted and some she did not. She stopped for sweets and poison, for fond memories and nightmares. She stopped for refreshments, naps and lectures. She stopped to lose some and to win some. To live out a dream and come back down to earth. She stopped for balloons and sailboats and gardens. For bridges, fountains, sculptures and birds nesting in strange places. She stopped for a swim and she stopped to drown. For the Moon and its best friend the Sun and all of Saturn’s moons and rings. To pass a note to a friend, to light a candle and accidentally burn everything to the ground, to proofread, to run away, to apologize. She stopped for ice palaces and stone fortresses. For trolls, witches, beggars, giants, ghosts and wise old men. She stopped for pennies, wishes, bad jokes and sarcasm. For spring and summer, for melting snowmen and baking gingerbread men. She stopped and started so many times that she began to wonder if she was actually a train, or a never-ending book—if it was another End or Beginning that would be coming up next. And then she stopped and realized that they were very much the same thing.
So she turned to the King and stomped her foot, accusing him of trickery. But the King just winked and said to her one of her favorite things in the world:
“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.”
(“And you are no exception.”)
And so for now, for a while anyway, she was satisfied with that.
It’s a late night train ride home and I’m pretending to listen to music. But really my phone died an hour ago, and I’m just listening to the silence between the steel tracks. And to the stories between the silence. The ones left behind by lovers and losers, old men with nowhere to go and women wishing for a better home. Stories too heavy to carry up concrete steps and out into the tainted city air breathed by angels, demons and pigeons alike. Stories left behind in sadness, relief or bitterness. I think about leaving my own story behind but there’s still so much more that needs to happen. Leaving it behind now would be careless. And lazy. It hardly weighs more than a tiny pebble full of air. I could fit a hundred copies into my pocket, that’s how light and thin and young it is. That’s how much further it has to go. So I turn back to the music that’s not really playing instead—until a girl gets on the train.
She looks about my age and like she’s scheduled to fall off the cliff of Functionally Drunk any moment now. I can smell it on her like perfume gone wrong when she collapses next to me; a slinky who’s lost its bounce and rainbow coloring. She’s all rusty and silver now. No, not silver. Grey. Like a whisky bottle full of rain but you drink it anyway because who cares. Or you drank everything else. Or you don’t even notice the difference anymore. I might notice though. One of them might feed my soul, the other one might kill me.
I think about moving but that would be rude. She might notice. Drunk people are unpredictable people. And unpredictable people either love you a lot or hate you even more. Especially girls. So I stay where I am, and just keep playing make believe with my headphones.
“I saw a ghost once.”
I could pretend not to hear her. I could pretend to be listening to the loudest rock music in the world. But I’m already taking out my earbuds and turning my head.
“What?” I ask.
“Well, not me. M-my baby sister… we were in the kitchen. She kept telling me not to be scared. ’Don’t be scared’,” she says in a soft baby voice. “’Don’t be scared, Abby.’ K-kept… looking over there. Like she could see something! I didn’t see anything!”
I’m already wishing she had boarded a different car. Because I don’t do well with ghost stories. Because there has to be someone else on this train who lives for them. Because I don’t want to take this story to bed with me. But she’s looking at me with this need in her eyes that I so dearly recognize. This need to be heard and believed. And I don’t know what else. Saved? Reassured? Absolved?
She’s doing that thing people do when they’re trying so desperately to shut down and dig themselves a hole, while also reaching up and out for help, releasing a thousand tears in the process. Like a thousand tiny bats finally given permission by the setting sun to burst from their cave. Like she’s being pulled in both directions, and doesn’t know where it’s safer to go. Into the earth or into the sky. So she sort of just stays where she is, bobbing miserably like a rotten red apple.
“I didn’t see anything!” she swears. “If I had seen something… I would’ve… I didn’t see anything!” she cries. Like I don’t believe her. Like I’m about to accuse her of something.
“Oh. O-okay.” I’m feeling so uneasy but so glued to my seat. “So… what happened?”
“She disappeared, the next day.” Her head and voice both droop into a wilted whisper.
“Who? The ghost?”
“N-no…” She looks up at me again. Begging me with her eyes to connect the dots that she’s probably so tired of carrying everywhere with her. Of connecting, disconnecting, then reconnecting again every day. There’s probably hundreds of thousands of them. So heavy in her pockets. They probably weigh a ton.
“Oh.” I say, completely stunned. “Your—. And you think—.“ I can’t even get the words out of my mouth, it’s so sad. It’s all suddenly so sadly unbelievable and unexplainable. I don’t want to believe it. But I do. For some reason I do. And before I know it I’m riding the train with her to her stop. And she’s asking me if I believe her and I’m nodding my head yes. Then she’s asking if I believe her baby sister. And somehow I know that believing her isn’t nearly as important as believing in her baby sister. So I’m nodding my head again, yes. And I’m taking some of those heavy dots from her pockets and placing them in mine. I feel them knocking against my pebble full of air, and it almost bursts. And even though I don’t know the whole story, and even though it’s so unfinished—and even though I know I should be more skeptical about these things—when I get off the train I carry it up the stairs with me. I take it out into the tainted city air where it can breathe with the rest of us. And then once I’m home, I take it reluctantly to bed.
Do you know the story of Goldilocks? Do you know she spent most of her waking hours trying to find something that felt just right? Do you know that by the end of her life, her fingertips were both so burnt and so frost bitten that—had this not been a fairytale—everyone would say that both existing simultaneously on the same spot of skin is impossible. Do you know that she searched for light when there was too much darkness? All consuming and bittersweet. And that she craved the darkness when there was too much light? All warm and bright and inviting. Do you know that she was never satisfied? And that this dissatisfaction shriveled up her heart until she finally died of what the doctors called Rotted Heart. Do you know that Goldilocks lived more in the past, and more in the future, than she ever did in the present moment?
The Present Moment was a stranger to her. A peculiar lanky fellow that lurked in the shadows with a gold tipped cane. The Present Moment had so much trouble keeping himself afoot. And when he limped to her door and knocked, it never felt quite right. Goldilocks would send him away, always running back to the familiar embrace of the past, or propelling herself into the waiting arms of the future. Because this present moment was never what she wanted it to be. It was just a thin slice of crusty old bread in between a thick slice of gooey nostalgia and an even thicker, gooier slice of possibility.
Do you know that Goldilocks ate ice cream that was either melted into a pink soup, or frozen into a block of ice? Do you know that her tea was always too hot or too cold, and that by the end of her life there were more shattered teacups on the kitchen floor than there were grey hairs on her head. And that’s only because Goldilocks could never get her hair to look just right. She never had a perfect hair day. It was either too frizzy or too flat. Too long or too short. Too limp or too curly. And so by the end of her life she had ripped out more hairs from her head than there are stars in the sky.
Do you know that Goldilocks was actually an escaped mental patient, or at least that’s what everyone at her funeral said. And that when she broke into the cottage of The Three Bears she was really just hoping to be eaten alive. Because it would give her peace of mind. Because she didn’t know where else to find it. Goldilocks would never have to make another decision again. Would never have to feel the pull of desire and the push of regret. Nor the dizzying extremes of a pendulum that never stopped swinging. She would never have to feel too young or too old. Too pretty or too ugly. Too eager or too apathetic. Too kind or too mean. She could just rest in the earth while the flowers bloomed above her. But she never smelled quite right to the bears, and so they never bothered sinking their teeth into her.
It’s not that Goldilocks actually liked being this way. In fact, Goldilocks had tried very hard to change. To be different, happier, calmer, cooler, more put together. In the beginning, she had tried very hard. But almost every time she had invited The Present Moment to supper, he would only stay a little while. He would lean his cane against the table, but never quite moved his hand away from it. He would cross his good leg over his bad—as if he was truly settling in—only to uncross and cross them three dozen times before dessert was served. That is, if he even stayed long enough for dessert. It was only now and then that Goldilocks actually had his full and undivided attention. But even then his eyes wandered. His ears perked up at sounds that weren’t there. His fingers tapped relentlessly, impatiently, on the table. And he never even took off his coat. And so Goldilocks stopped inviting him for supper, because if she couldn’t learn how to live in the present moment from The Present himself, then she couldn’t learn it from anyone.