You take pride in being the grounded Darling.
Wendy is clearly the one “in charge,” and she pretends that these notions are one and the same, but they’re not. Yes: Wendy coordinates the household chores; she oversees your and Michael’s daily wardrobe choices; she declares how you’ll spend your evenings when Mum’s escaped to the theatre and Father has locked himself in his study.
But Wendy is also a hoarder of dreams – bright, smoldering things that she only shares when the three of you drift toward sleep in the dark. Sometimes, there in the nursery, you can’t help but wonder what that might feel like. To own something so dazzling. To feed it, flame it, stoke it from all sides like she does, until it builds into a fire too real to ignore.
But that isn’t you.
Bright things are dangerous, after all. Better to be careful. Staring at the sun will make you go blind, as Gram always says. Shiny things can bring tears. Singing too loud can bring terrible fortune. You’re the only one who doesn’t take Gram with a grain of salt, because you appreciate her superstitions for what they are. Wisdom culled through the ages for staying safe. A code for keeping your feet on the ground. An antidote for Wendy. Because unlike your sister, you’ve paid attention, and “dreams” are just prescriptions for discontent. You’re the only one who catches Mum singing to the mirror when she thinks she’s alone. You’re the only one who’s seemed to notice the light gone from Father’s eyes. No, you must accept reality. No dreams. No risks. No disappointment.
So then why are you still standing here, mesmerized, watching him?
There’s something eerie about him, there’s no denying that: this boy who has appeared on the other side of the nursery’s open window. At first, you’d taken him for one of Wendy’s admirers from university, determined to prove his love through a late-night serenade.
But that isn’t right. You shake the sleep off you like water, and finally pinpoint what’s so strange about him.
It’s his face. His features appear to shift, so that if someone asked you to describe the boy, or better yet attempt a portrait, you’d begin drawing in circles, unable to anchor to anything specific. Except maybe his eyes. And it’s clear this boy is the opposite of careful. He dangles on the windowsill so casually, so fearlessly, he nearly convinces you that there’s a fire escape below this particular window of the nursery.
There isn’t. You know there isn’t. But instead of checking, you silently count three sets of three. Because if you check, everything you’ve spent a lifetime meticulously measuring, combating and warding off might very well fall off the shelves all at once, tear down walls, fling open doors.
“I have something to show you,” the boy whispers.
Across the room Wendy sighs and turns over in her bed. You mumble rabbit rabbit rabbit to compel her into falling back to sleep immediately.
The boy smiles. “Do you want to see?”
“John?” Wendy murmurs. The rustling of sheets, the patter of two feet hitting the floor. “John, wait – what’s going on?”
You close your eyes and mumble a curse.
“John?” Wendy, more panicked now. “Who is that? There’s no fire escape there! We need to get Father. Right now.”
But you don’t move.
“John, I mean it, back away!” Wendy dashes across the room, nudges you aside, reaches for the top of the window. She makes a big show of pulling down the large pane herself, huffing in her nightgown. She nearly takes off your fingers.
Now there’s a thick pane of glass between you and the boy.
Until he does something — the boy reaches out and touches the pane between you. You watch the glass kaleidoscopically shift, pucker, glimmer. Somehow, this window has now become a mirror. You see yourself reflected, your features overlaid perfectly onto the boy’s shifting face.
You stare at yourself.
Something’s happening. Something you’d be more comfortable ignoring. But before you can smother it, the thought rises, a floating echo, ballooning, bubbling. For the first time, you let yourself really wonder:
What would it feel like?
What would it really feel like to be on the other side?
The boy nods. “Now or Never!” he shouts through the glass.
And then you hear it too — the sounds of “Now or Never” crescendo like a chorus behind you: Michael stumbling out of bed. Wendy careening into the hall. Her shouts; the spaniels’ frenzied barking; Father’s heavy click-clack footsteps at the bottom of the stairs. You know this is over once Father reaches the nursery. You know if you see him, the mirror will transform back to glass.
Before thinking it through, you lurch and wrap your fingers around the windowpane. They shake and fumble and trip over the wood, finally finally finally shove it open, and the cool night air twirls inside again.
From the hallway, Wendy shrieks and cries out, “JOHN!”
“John, please!” Michael’s voice is fever pitch. “This isn’t like you!”
But they only make you more sure. Because you want to leave John. You have for a long time haven’t you? John and all his rituals and counting and crossing and signs, leave them all right here on the windowsill. The echo inside is so loud now—
The boy must hear it too, because he grins again, reaches out his hand and waves you forward.
You heave yourself through the narrow window, limbs shaking. Shivering in your nightshirt. You try to sit on the frame, dangle outside it somehow, like he was. But the freezing wood sears your backside and you recoil into a crouch. A shuddering bird on the edge of a nest.
“Cold?” the boy cocks his head. “Or afraid?”
The real answer is both, but you say, “I’ll manage alright.”
“John, I mean it, get back inside!” Wendy sprints across the room, lunges for you, grabs the tail end of your nightshirt. She digs her feet into the base of the wall, trying to jerk you back to safety, reason, reality. No. You scramble forward, more purposefully now, flailing for the strange boy’s hand. But his fingers slip through yours, and there’s a sliver of an instant where you are falling before he catches you. The ground jumps, stumbling, spinning, hungry –
Wendy stumbles to pull you back. She still hasn’t let go, her grip ironclad on your shirt, her other hand firmly wrapped around Michael’s.
You’ve – you’ve taken your siblings right out with you, with you and the boy.
One long inky line spilling into the sky.
“John!” Wendy says, her voice hitched and small, body suspended, heart pounding a borrowed dream. “John, wha—this is impossible!”
But for once, tonight, there is no impossible. Just like there’s no longer Gram in your head. No warnings or rituals. No counting. No code. Right now there is only you and the boy and the night and the ground still three stories below. And in a surge, you feel the true gut-punch whirl of what’s happening: the plunge of your stomach. The head-sinking dizziness. The wind slinky like silk around your limbs as you all swim across the night toward Big Ben’s shimmering spire.
The boy grips your hand. “Are you ready?”
This close, you finally settle into his face. Take it in all at once. It’s a nice one. Kind. Full of potential. The boy’s eyes look like tiny stars, but otherwise, he’s someone you could meet on the street. Someone you’ve met, even.
He could be you.
Beside you, Wendy and Michael peer around and gasp. All wide eyes. Staccato laughter.
She’s going to reframe this all. You know she will. She pulled you, of course, because “John would never.” Most people like Wendy more than John. “John?” you sometimes overhear them say with that twinge, that up-ticked tone of dismissal. “He’s just so . . . restrained. Cautious (boring).”
“John is forgettable.”
It doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Because you’ve reached straight through the night and wrapped your hand around its heart. It’s yours now, smoldering, bright and dangerous.
You close your eyes, taking in its warmth as the wind billows and lifts you higher.
Perhaps you’ll scrape the stars.
Perhaps you’ll touch the other side of the moon.
Perhaps you’ll never land.
Lee Kelly is the author of the novels City of Savages and A Criminal Magic, as well as co-author of the forthcoming novel All Will Be Revealed(2023). She has contributed to Tor.com, Orca, Writer’s Digest and other venues, and is currently pursuing her MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her family in New Jersey.
Artwork: Rob Woodcox