The crowds had already started to gather. It was good they had come early. Lee spread their blanket and Caroline unloaded the cooler.
“No, not the cupcakes, they’re for dessert. Eat your sandwich first. Don’t fill up on potato chips.”
Alan danced around the blanket with his sandwich, singing, “I won’t grow up; I don’t want to go to school; Just to learn to be a parent; And recite a silly rule–”
“That’s ‘learn to be a parrot’!” his older brother Mark corrected him scornfully, “You know, like the bird!”
“Careful, don’t run into people,” Caroline cautioned, uncomfortably aware of a bulldog-faced woman next to them, heavily enthroned in her camp chair and looking askance at Alan, her own children quietly and obediently seated on a quilt in front of her.
“Alan, let’s go and look at the gardens,” Caroline suggested, conducting him safely away down the curbed sidewalk beyond the stage area. Flagstone paths wound between ornamental trees and hedges. Coreopsis and bee balm, delphinium and phlox, wave after wave of carefully tended flower beds opened onto a little court with fountains plashing, wrought iron benches, playful statues of fawns and cupids. Alan ran along the paths squealing with delight. Caroline couldn’t bring herself to scold him. Let him run. When he balanced on the edge of the fountain, she murmured, half-hearted, “Don’t fall in.”
“I won’t!” Alan cried, nearly doing exactly that as he bent over to splash a hand in the water. He had a nasty bruise on his forehead from last night. Caroline frowned. She had been in the middle of mucking out the kitchen after a day of making meals, snacks, and a batch of brownies for the PTO. She had loaded the dishwasher and emptied bits of disgusting debris from the drain in the sink. Not the glamorous life she had once enjoyed. Somebody has to do it, Caroline had been thinking. Somebody has to be the mother. Then she heard the loud thump and howl from upstairs.
“That would be Alan,” Lee guessed, looking up from the piles of papers on the kitchen table. “Trying to fly.”
“I’m on it.” Caroline thudded up the stairs. “Finish your grading.”
“Let me know when they’re tucked in and I’ll come up and read to them. We’ve got one last chapter of Peter Pan.”
The children were so excited about this outing, a play in the park, one of the few treats they could afford. Thank goodness the weather had cooperated. They couldn’t have asked for a nicer day.
A vendor wheeling a cart full of balloons, toy horns and plastic pirate paraphernalia caught Alan’s attention. “Mama, can I have a sword?” he cried, rushing up to the fellow pushing the cart.
“Arrr, matey!” the vendor said, perfectly in character with a pirate kerchief around his head and an eye-patch.
Caroline felt in her pockets without much hope. “I’m afraid I didn’t bring my purse,” she said. “This is all I’ve got.” She pulled out some loose change.
“Shiver me timbers!” the vendor cried with a wink. “Why, that’s just enough for a bottle of genuine High Seas bubbles!”
It was the cheapest thing on the cart, and even so she was a dime short. But the vendor let it pass.
“Here, now, matey,” he said, bending over to give the little bottle of bubbles to Alan, who was still looking wistfully at the sword, “These are a special formula, from the Island of Mermaids. There’s magic in ‘em!”
“Magic?” Alan echoed skeptically.
“Arrr, would an old salt like me lie to ye? Try ‘em and see! Watch ‘em close in the sunlight and see all the colors!”
Alan took out the wand and blew. A streamer of iridescent orbs poured out in abundance, taking to the air.
“It’s true!” Alan cried. “Mama, look!”
They seemed like ordinary bubbles to her, but the vendor grinned at her. “Believing is seeing,” he said.
All the way back to the blanket Alan was happily blowing bubbles. They sailed on the breeze like round, polychrome fairies. Alan eagerly chased after them. Other children came like stray bubbles themselves to join in the game, clapping and laughing and then running away again. Adults watched and smiled. There was a kind of magic in the delight a commonplace thing like bubbles could evoke.
The speakers near the stage crackled. Caroline and Alan fell breathlessly onto the blanket. Alan showed off his prize to his father. “They’re magic bubbles!” he confided. “They turn special colors, and make people happy!” Lee nodded sagely.
And then the band began playing the familiar theme.
Never Never Land.
The children were drawn into it, mesmerized. When the flying part came, they whispered and pointed. “There’s the wires!”
“When did they hook the wires to the harness? I didn’t see them do it!”
“You were distracted by the dancing,” Lee said.
“Wow! Look at them! I’d love to do that!”
The pirates came cavorting on stage. Caroline observed them with a mildly detached, generously critical eye. Couldn’t really compare with Broadway, of course. Cathy Rigby’s Pan had been superb, and Paul Schoeffler’s Hook had been among the best. She loved a good villain–one with class, style and humor. Like Hook, the pirate, with his elegant clothes, fiendish grin, black curls and mustache. Handsome and ruthless. Clever and dangerous. Like the men she had always dated, until Lee came along. Lee, who was so completely different. Lee, for whom she had given up everything.
The children laughed at the antics of the pirates. Well choreographed, she thought, some genuine talent. An amusing Smee. But for her the real test would be–
Hook. He swept onto the stage grandly, looking completely the part. Caroline listened to him deliver his lines, watched his gestures, evaluating him. Not at all a bad Hook. Adequate enough for her to enjoy the performance. But not perfect. Never quite perfect.
Alan wriggled into Caroline’s lap. Her leg was asleep by the time intermission came.
“Can we have an ice cream, please?” both boys begged.
“Sure,” Lee said. “I’ll take you to the concession stand. Coming, Carrie?”
“Maybe in a minute,” she said. “My leg’s all pins and needles.”
She tried standing up to get the circulation going. Perhaps she should walk around a bit, she thought. Perhaps to the gardens and back. It would be pleasant to be on her own. On her own, without a child to mind. She could walk where she wished, her thoughts free.
Once she was safely surrounded by flowers, she took off her sandals to feel the cool smoothness of the flagstones on her bare feet. Feeling wonderfully indulgent, she carefully climbed up and balanced on the edge of the fountain, then dipped a toe in the cold water.
The voice startled her so badly that she nearly fell in. Swaying slightly on the narrow edge of the fountain, Caroline turned to see who it was, prepared to be embarrassed. Instead, she was shocked.
“My god,” she breathed.
It was he.
At first she thought it must be the actor from the play, taking a stroll between acts. But it wasn’t. The actor in the play was adequate. The character who stood before her was tall and grand and absolutely perfect. From his plumed hat to his cuffed, polished black boots, the scarlet coat trimmed with gold braid and brass buttons, the white lace cuffs of his shirt hanging from the sleeves, black leather belt with the sword hanging from it, and his face with the wickedly arched black brows, curling mustache and neat black beard, and the long, glossy, sable curls of his hair. And of course, from the end of his right arm, that shining curve of silver.
“Captain Hook,” she breathed.
“At your service,” he replied with a gallant bow, sweeping off his hat. His long curls nearly touched the flagstones.
She was hallucinating. She had to be. Or dreaming. There had to be an explanation. She closed her eyes tightly and shook her head.
The Captain laughed, deep and full and throaty. “You can’t make me go away like that! I’m quite real, you see.”
“You can’t be,” she replied. “You can’t possibly be.”
“Oh, but I am.” He strode over to her, holding out his hand to help her down from the edge of the fountain. She hesitated, then accepted the gesture. His hand did indeed feel absolutely solid, hard and somewhat callused, but smooth at the fingertips. His fingernails were clean, neatly trimmed. She let go gingerly as soon as her feet were firmly on the ground.
“What do you want?” she asked, putting on her sandals.
“I’ve come to invite you to accompany me,” he replied.
“Why, to Never Land, of course,” he replied with a broad grin that revealed several gold teeth. His voice was cultured and smooth, with just a trace of a British accent.
“You can’t be serious!” Caroline exclaimed.
“Oh, but I am!” he said. “Never Land isn’t just for children, you know. Adults live there, too. Adults such as myself. I am very much grown up, as you can see.”
He began to stroll casually around the fountain. “I didn’t fly here, of course. Adults don’t fly. That is for children. I have my own ways. Far more sophisticated ways, that don’t involve ” he paused and said distastefully, “Fairy dust.” He reached up with his hook to catch and pull down a branch of the tree, inspected it idly and released it. “It does, however, involve belief.” He fixed her with his dark, piercing eyes. “You do believe in me, don’t you?”
“At the present moment, I don’t have much choice,” Caroline replied. He was manifestly present and there was no way she could convince herself otherwise. How it could be happening was quite another thing.
“Excellent,” he said, and resumed strolling.
“Captain,” she said uneasily, “This is a marvel and an honor to be sure, but I’m afraid I can’t go with you. The show will be starting again shortly, and my husband and children will be expecting me–”
“Piffle,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hook. “It is of no consequence.”
“It most certainly is–” she began to protest, but he cut her off.
“Time,” he said emphatically, “is of no consequence. “Merely step through this hedge and time will cease to exist.”
She frowned skeptically. There was no break in the hedge; the branches of the shrubbery were pressed densely together. “How?” she asked.
He gestured impatiently. “Come, come. Look and see for yourself.”
It was like an optical illusion. When she got close enough, she began to see clearly an overlap in the hedge which she could walk around and through. The Captain grinned. “There, you see? Come.”
He put his arm around her, gently but firmly conducting her through. She was uncomfortably aware of the hook, wickedly sharp, curving around her shoulder. The hedge made a short corridor, then turned abruptly again.
And suddenly, they were, most assuredly, no longer in the Park. Or anywhere near it. A grassy slope descended to a broad stretch of beach with a dock out over the waters of a bay. Steep bluffs rose up on either side, and beyond was the blue of the ocean. Anchored at the dock was, of course, the Jolly Roger, flying the flag of the skull and cross bones.
“I don’t believe this!” Caroline exclaimed.
“No, no, no,” the Captain corrected her with a waggle of his finger. “Mustn’t ever say that.”
“But things like this just can’t happen!”
“Obviously,” he chuckled, “you are mistaken. Come, let me show you my ship.”
The sky was an unreal azure and the cliffs had a strange crystalline quality that seemed to reflect the sky. The sun glistened on the water of the bay and she could hear the lap of the waves against the dock, and the gentle, rhythmic thump of the ship against its mooring. It was surreally beautiful, yet had the feel of reality. The salty breeze brushed against her cheek and she could taste its tang. She could hear the swish of her companion’s clothing and the call of sea gulls wheeling over the bay.
“Ah, Never Land!” the Captain said with relish. “A marvelous place, is it not? Time means nothing. One can never grow old. And were you to step back through that hedge, those on the other side would never know you had gone at all!” They reached the dock, and his boots clomped on the wood. Her sandals made a lighter slap.
“This way, my dear,” he said, guiding her up the gangplank. “I’ll wager you’ve never been on a pirate ship before.
“Smee!” He barked the name so loudly it made her jump. A short, bespectacled figure in a striped shirt and pants with the legs rolled up to the knee came panting up from below deck. “Aye, Captain!”
“Smee, this is Mistress Caroline,” the Captain introduced.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss,” Smee replied. His voice was coarse and heavily accented. He spoke politely, but was clearly surprised and alarmed by Caroline’s presence. Sidling over and cupping his hand over his mouth, he hissed to the Captain in a voice meant not to be overheard, “A lady, sir? On board our ship?”
The Captain casually hooked Smee under the chin, causing the poor fellow’s eyes to bulge with discomfort. “You aren’t questioning me, are you Smee?” he asked breezily. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“Oh, no Sir,” Smee squeaked, “Never, Sir!”
“I thought not,” Hook said, releasing him. “Summon the men.”
Smee produced a small, silver whistle from his pocket and blew on it vigorously, splitting the air with a shrill blast. In response, pirates came scrambling down the rigging and thundering up from below to assemble themselves in ragged formation on the deck. They stared in rude, bug-eyed astonishment at Caroline.
“Men,” the Captain announced, “This is Mistress Caroline. Mind your manners, please, if you have any, which I doubt. Caroline, may I present to you the most wretched collection of fetid rodents any captain ever had the misfortune to accumulate on one ship. Revolting, aren’t they?”
She gazed over the assemblage of unwashed, unshaven, and no doubt completely unprincipled ruffians, and she really in all honesty could not dispute Hook’s evaluation of them. “I’m sure they must have some redeeming qualities,” she murmured.
“None, I assure you. Save perhaps one. Play, you dogs!”
“What tempo, sir?” asked Smee.
“Let’s see. A tarantella? No, something more modern.” He tapped the curve of his hook against his chin and eyed Caroline thoughtfully. “What would make our guest feel at home? Rock and Roll, perhaps?”
Smee choked. “No, sir, please, not that!”
Hook’s eyes narrowed cunningly. “Fear not, Smee. I perceive that our Mistress Caroline wouldn’t favor that at all. No, not at all. She has been there, done that, eh?” He began walking around her, his boots making a measured click on the boards. “No, I believe our Mistress Caroline is of a much more sophisticated mind. We must beguile her with something different, something she has not done before. A waltz!” he concluded, taking her hand. “But a lively one!”
“What?” she exclaimed in consternation, “You want me to dance with you?”
“And you shall dance exquisitely.” He spun her around as the pirates began to play on instruments produced as if out of thin air.
“But I’ve never waltzed before in my life!”
Suddenly she was in motion. The uncomfortable feeling of his hook against the small of her back was forgotten when she realized in amazement that her feet seemed to know exactly what to do. The Captain swept her around the deck at a brisk pace, and yet she didn’t stumble in the slightest. “This is amazing!” she cried.
“All you need to do is believe you can do it,” he said.
“But I didn’t believe!”
“Ah!” he replied, “but I did!”
She laughed aloud, absurdly delighted.
“I’d advise you never to try this with any of the crew,” he said, twirling her around. “You wouldn’t want to get this close to any of them. Filthy buggers, all of them. Smell like rancid sweat and fish. I, on the other hand, am a man of culture. I bathe. In spite of those who have accused me of being a dirty, filthy scoundrel–a stinking codfish, I’ve even heard–my personal habits are impeccable, I assure you.”
Indeed, he smelled of cloves and ginger, oranges and opium. He was exotic and fascinating. “And why are you telling me all this?” she asked. “For that matter, why have you brought me here?”
“Why, it’s quite simple,” he replied, “I want you to be my mistress.”
“What!” she choked, starting to pull away, but he held on to her firmly, refusing to let her break out of the dance.
“I get so tired of the inane prattle of whores!” he said. “And I certainly can’t expect to have an intellectual exchange with any of that knuckle-dragging, nose-picking, gaggle of baboons I have for a crew. Even Mr. Smee, who actually possesses some sort of pudding between the ears which might be considered a brain, is an idiot. I desire a companion, someone who appreciates a good wine and a fine cheese. It’s dreadful when I board and scuttle an upscale merchant ship. No one appreciates the booty but me!”
“Why you? Well, I heard rumors that you were the daring sort, an adventurous, fearless lady with intelligence and courage, not terribly picky about moral behavior, in other words, the sort who might be equal to a dashing, desirable, but thoroughly unscrupulous and disreputable fellow such as myself.”
“All right, perhaps, but that was me fifteen years ago. You’re a bit late, Captain!”
“As I said before,” he purred, spinning her around, “Time means nothing here.”
He stopped her, and she found herself staring at a woman, a reflection of herself in a mirror, and the shock was nearly as great as any other she’d received so far on this adventure.
This was not the overweight housewife with no make-up going grey at the temples that had confronted her in the mirror that morning. “I haven’t looked like that for years,” she breathed.
“In Never Land, we may grow up, but we don’t grow old,” he said. He gave her a moment to absorb the implications of it, then took her in his arms again.
“Captain,” Caroline said, “Let us be perfectly honest.”
“Hmm, a bit of a stretch for me, but I’ll take a crack at it.”
“Are you proposing that I stay with you? Travel with you on your ship? Share your bunk?”
“I expect you’ll have your own bunk,” he replied. “A man does like his privacy, after all. But we could visit.” He grinned at her wickedly.
“And how long do you think this would last?” she said skeptically. “You don’t strike me as the steadfast, faithful type.”
“How well you know me! Ah, but you would excuse my occasional indiscretions, as I would excuse yours.”
“But your indiscretions include such things as murder, plunder, kidnapping, and arson. I may not have led a blamelessly moral life, but I don’t believe I’d care to be a part of all that.”
“My dear creature, you needn’t be if you don’t wish to. Don’t you see? That would be the beauty of it! Two independent souls, each of us living our lives however we choose, yet sharing our adventures at the end of the day. I can, of course, spare you the more grisly details of my adventures if you find they upset you.”
Caroline frowned at him doubtfully. “You don’t seem the type to treat a woman as an equal.”
“Bah! Nonsense! You aren’t even in my league!”
“Ah-ha!” she cried.
“The comparison is irrelevant!” he snorted. “Apples and oranges! Why, men and woman aren’t even of the same species as far as I am concerned. But one can have a splendid relationship with someone of a different species. I once had a parrot that I absolutely adored. Alas, she was eaten by that damned crocodile.”
“So I am to replace your parrot?”
“Hardly,” he replied with a roguish smile. “There are a great many things you can do that a parrot can’t. And besides, her vocabulary was woefully limited and largely obscene.”
He had waltzed her up to the prow of the ship. Here he stopped, and the music fell silent. “Think of it,” he said, gesturing grandly out towards the open ocean. “The mistress of Captain James Hook! A life of luxury! No more chores, no more drudgery; the crew would serve you as they serve me. You would be free to pass your time in leisure, doing whatever you liked. And what adventures we shall have, sailing the seas to exotic lands! Excitement! Danger! Romance! A legend in itself!”
“Just like Blackbeard.”
“My dear, your cynicism cuts me to the quick. Just say yes and we shall be off.”
“What if I say no?” Caroline challenged him.
“We’re off, anyway,” he said blithely. “Smee! Prepare to weigh anchor and set sail!”
“Wait a minute!” Caroline cried. “What if I don’t want to go?”
“You’ll change your mind!” the Captain said, releasing her and heading back down to the main deck.
“But, this is kidnapping!” she shouted after him.
“You’ll get over it,” he replied cheerfully over his shoulder. “You simply adore me, I can tell!”
Caroline stood there for a moment, too astonished to protest further. Then a slow smile crept across her lips. He was right, of course. She watched him as he stood on the deck, bellowing abusively at his crew. He was quite marvelous. Above her, the sails filled and the ship began to turn. She leaned her elbows on the rail, feeling the rise and fall of the prow in the surf. Glancing back, she saw that Hook was watching her, grinning broadly. She returned his grin. Mistress of a pirate captain. What could be more exciting and romantic? Salt spray wet her cheeks as she leaned into the wind, laughing aloud.
They were almost out of the harbor when Caroline’s rational faculties managed to catch up with her exhilaration.
This simply wasn’t right.
Caroline remembered with a pang of guilt that she had a husband and two children waiting for her beyond the hedge. Oh, but what harm to have a bit of an adventure? She had been so very good and faithful. Didn’t she deserve a vacation? Besides, they need never know. She would come back, pass through the hedge, and it would be as if she had never left. It would all be her delicious secret.
But wait. Never Land didn’t work that way. When Peter Pan left with Wendy, Michael, and John, their mother missed them and grieved terribly. After their return, Wendy aged in Peter’s absence. When Peter came back for her, she was ever so much more than twenty. Time did pass! Hook had deliberately lied to her!
Well, why wouldn’t he? He was an unmitigated cad with neither scruples nor principles and was quite proud of it.
Caroline thought with a sinking heart of her children, of bright, mischievous Alan, of precocious and affectionate Mark. And she thought of Lee, whom she loved and admired so deeply. Damn the romance and adventure! How could she leave a man like Lee for Hook, who wouldn’t think twice about cutting her throat if it proved more convenient that keeping her? What an idiot she was!
And what a fine pickle she was in. How the devil was she to get back? She couldn’t swim to the dock. And obviously it would be a waste of time to ask nicely if the pirates would turn the ship around. What was going to become of her? What would they think, back home? Caroline had simply walked off and disappeared without a trace. It happened, people disappearing like that and no one ever finding out what became of them. Did they all walk through a hedge into Never Land? Were they lured by the promise of adventure and eternal youth? How many of Hook’s wretched crew were procured in that way?
Caroline’s face hardened. This wasn’t about Lee or the kids anymore. It was about her. It was about being more than just a grown-up. The world was filled with grown-up people who would give anything to find that way through the hedge into Never Land, leaving home and family and responsibility behind. Not children playing games, but adults playing pirate–or playing the mistress of the pirate ship. How many others had Hook seduced and abandoned with gleeful indifference, sure he could always find more?
Not me! Caroline thought fiercely. Damn that Hook! What was she going to do? She couldn’t just fly back to the shore, even in Never Land. Adults didn’t fly, Hook said so.
But why should she believe Hook? Never mind the old liar, then. What did she believe? Ah, the answer to that was simple. She had always believed in herself.
All right then. I believe I can fly!
Her feet remained firmly planted on the planks of the deck. Well, perhaps it isn’t that easy, she thought. There had to be something else.
Why, happy thoughts, of course! Lee, Alan, Mark, and home, with its dishes that needed washing and its gardens that needed weeding, and the cobwebs in the corners and the dog that needed feeding, and the little socks discarded from cute little bare feet running outside in the puddles (“You’ll catch cold!”), and oh yes! sitting together, the boys finally in bed (so sweet when they’re asleep) sharing a drink on the back steps on a summer night with the man she loved, the father of her children, exhausted and content with each other and the moment.
Caroline found herself rising from the deck.
She noticed several of the pirates frozen in their duties, staring at her, murmuring among themselves and pointing.
Caroline closed her eyes tight, thinking of Alan and his bubbles, laughing through the park releasing clouds of sparkling spheres.
“Caroline! What are you doing?” The Captain was looking up at her from the deck down below with his hand and hook on his hips, and he didn’t sound pleased. Distracted from her thoughts, she felt herself floating down.
Coming home from shopping, coming down with a cold, Mark greeting her at the door and saying, “I forgot my math book at school, so I can’t do my homework, but I took care of the laundry and put it all away and cleaned the rug where the dog threw up. Here, can I help with that?”
She soared upwards.
“Caroline!” Hook shouted. “Come back down here this instant!”
“I don’t believe I will!”
“If you leave me now, you’ve lost your chance!” he threatened her desperately. “You’ll never see me again!”
I’m counting on it, she thought as she began to circle lazily above him, high out of his reach. She noticed Smee staring up at her in awe, with perhaps just the slightest smile of secret, malicious glee at witnessing the almighty Hook bested by a mere woman.
“Damn it,” the Captain cried, stamping his foot, “We were going to have such fun!”
“Good bye, Captain!” she sang.
Picturing Lee’s face, and the bracelet he gave her for Mother’s Day, she flew over the waves back toward the shore. As she settled lightly on the grass, she gazed at the pirate ship, far out in the bay, silhouetted by the setting sun. It probably would have been great fun, Caroline thought. But I promised I’d help Mark with his science fair project, and they’re counting on me to sort books for the library book sale, and the dog is due for a vet appointment. Oh, and there’s that tear on the couch that needs mending, and I should see about taking the boys to visit their grandmother….
Leaving the gathering shadows of Never Land behind, Caroline’s cheerful list-making guided her unerringly through the hedge and back home.