by Josh Rountree


Peter Morningstar arrives to escort Veronica to the far side of whenever wearing the magic coat they nicked from Lady Jenna's pirate lover when they were both still children.  Peter hasn't lost a day of his youth and he tells Veronica he forgot to grow up.  How neat is that?


*     *     *


Veronica knows more about growing up than we do, but she hasn't forgotten about popsicle swordfights.  Remember those?  You always wielded the grape, but Veronica preferred the less traditional sour apple for her weapon.  You’d circle and slash, opening sticky purple and green wounds on each others arms.  Then Peter would drop from the treetops or burrow up from the earth and disarm you both with his silver tongue.  At least that’s what Veronica says happened.


You never saw Peter, never even believed in him.


Not until later.


But Veronica’s belief in the kid must have been enough to sustain him because they’d have long conversations about the time they shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific and had to live on bugs and coconuts for a month while dodging cannibals, or the horde of stampeding apes that had trashed Lady Jenna’s parlor right before Veronica’s mother’s second wedding reception, the ones they’d eventually trained, outfitted with tutus and sold off to the circus.  They used the proceeds to buy bubble gum.  And on darker days, when gray storm clouds chased them inside, they’d huddle in long shadows and whisper about Veronica’s father and what it must feel like to choke on mustard in a trench in France.  They could never quite figure out how a person could die from mustard but Veronica’s father certainly had.  Regardless, she always refused to eat French fries out of spite.  And who could blame her?


*     *     *


Peter takes Veronica’s hand and you feel it too, the rasp of her worn flesh against your palm and the too frail bones beneath.  How kind of Peter to let you share.  There’s no family doting on her, just a bothered nurse who smells like menthol cigarettes and a doctor who looks barely beyond his teens scribbling on a clipboard with a leaky pen.  Ink smears and he scratches out what he’s written.


No one notices the skinny kid with the freckles and golden hair.  He’s protected by the magic coat.  It looks like simple gray wool with tarnished brass buttons but when Captain Stag was drunk he’d tell stories about how it was made from the gathered skins of all his vanquished foes and how it could make you invisible, make you fly, deflect weapon blows, and bring you back from the dead.  You and Veronica never believed more than half of what that old man said. 


Lady Jenna had poor taste in companions.


The doctor glances at the clock and Peter slips the pen from his hand.  He doesn’t seem to notice, just walks out of the room and the nurse follows, her shoes squeaking on the tiles.  Peter writes HELLO QUEEN VERONICA in the air in drippy inky letters.  Veronica doesn’t open her eyes, but she smiles and she speaks.


“You’ve come again, have you Peter.”


“Of course,” he says, still clinging to her hand. “It’s been boring without you.  I stuck matches between Grandma Corker’s toes while she was dozing on the back porch.  Still had a half shelled sack of peas in her lap and when she jumped up yelping they spilled out all over the ground and Stag’s alligators snapped them all up.  Lord, she was angry.  Wish you’d have been there to help me hide from her.  You always had an eye for good hidey holes.”


“You always gave us cause to need them.”


Peter holds Veronica’s hand in silence as the sun passes away and the only light left is the dull glow of hospital machinery.  Tubes and lights and hoses surround the death bed like remnants of Her Majesty’s Brass Battalion, though with admittedly less stench and scalding steam.  You were not there when Peter and Veronica battled on the shores of the Sapphire Sea but you’ve heard their tales so many times you envision yourself as part of them.  To this day there is still a question as to whether Peter’s automa-squid army prevailed or if it was Queen Veronica’s forces that won the day, so you decide not to bring it up.  In the end it didn’t matter anyway.  Lipsy toppled the churn of ice cream that was supposed to go to the winner and licked it clean while they were busy fighting over it.  It’s still a sore subject.


“Has autumn arrived yet?” asks Veronica.


“Nope, not even one yellow leaf,” says Peter.  “It’s always summer.”


“Peter.  You know I don’t really care for summer.”


*     *     *


One image that will never leave you, no matter how diligently you work to scrub it from your memory: the play of moonlight against the surface of the lake, as viewed from below by a soon to be corpse.  You’ve mercifully forgotten if it was Peter or if it was Veronica that suggested the midnight hunt for lemur bones.  After all, lemur bones only reveal themselves in the dead of a summer night and then only to children who’ve made a blood pact never to reveal their location, and even then they can only be found among falls of stone that hang like hammers waiting to fall against the glass surface of an enchanted lake.  That’s common knowledge.


Less common knowledge was the fact that you never learned to swim, and that falls of rock tend to shift and fall again when pressed by the bare feet of little children.


Lesson learned.


*     *     *


Veronica was still very young when she shoved her magic to the back of her sock drawer to jostle among banshee teeth, poison apples and other oddments from adventures that no longer seemed worth remembering.  And she folded Peter up like one of Grandma Corker’s afghans and slid him into a drawer too, right beside the threadbare Navaho blanket that Chief Yellowhair had given her for safekeeping, the one with the last great village of the People woven into its creation, waiting to be released by the teardrops of one truly honest man.

Lipsy yipped and tugged at Peter’s folds but Veronica shooed the pup away, pressed the wrinkles from Peter’s skin with her fingertips then closed the drawer.


*     *     *


You weren’t invited to Veronica’s wedding but you came all the same.  She ignored you, but that’s understandable.  A bride has a million things to contend with on her wedding day. 


There’s little time for reminiscing about hiding out from vampire bats in tree house forts or how difficult it is to find saddles for giant salamanders, what with the way they burn right through most of them.  Still, it was a nice wedding, as weddings go.


The new husband missed the Great War but he was just young enough when the next one came around.  Veronica had given birth to Jimmy Junior by that time, and though she didn’t know it yet, we knew that Leslie Ann was already in her belly, plotting and planning on how to escape from the troll cave so she could find her sword and get back to ridding the countryside of boggarts and green faced witches.


Veronica was sitting in the parlor in the house that had been Lady Jenna’s before her death, reading a telegram with some very bad news when she finally decided to acknowledge Peter again.  She didn’t remove him from the dresser where she’d stored him but he was there nonetheless and you were there and you remember those glassy eyes and the clatter of Jimmy Junior’s fire engine as he raced it around her ankles.


Peter held out his hand but she shied away from it, pulled Jimmy from his play and into her lap.


“You have suffered a tragedy.” said Peter.


“Not the first one,” she said.  “And likely not the last.  I know why you’re here.  Don’t think I don’t see you haunting my every step.  I hear your whispers every day, and if you love me at all you’ll keep them to yourself.  I don’t want to hear about all the fun you’re having with Lipsy or Lady Jenna and her damned old pirate or any of them.  My place is right here in this house, in this world.”


“Don’t be stupid,” said Peter, grinning.  “It’s easy enough to come along.  Remember the old chant?  Twice up the hill, then back down the valley.  Travel on foot or saddle up Sally.  Close one eye and—"


“I know I can go!” said Veronica.  Jimmy was struggling to get free from her grip and whining for his truck.  “I don’t want to go.”


“Suit yourself,” said Peter, then disappeared in a huff.


He confided to you later that Veronica was just a stupid girl and he didn’t want her to come back and play with him anyway because all the really neat ideas for adventuring were his and it was a lot of work dragging her around and pulling her out of scrapes in the first place.


You just nodded and nibbled on one of the honeycombs Peter had nicked from the bee people.  You knew he was just trying to sound tough.  He wanted Veronica to come back even more than you did, and you wanted it a lot.


Besides, he was wrong.  It was Veronica who always thought up the best adventures.


*     *     *


Peter Morningstar has spent years trying to coax Veronica to join you on the far side of whenever but she is stubborn in her desire to persevere.  It is one thing of many that you love about her.


But it is her time to go.  You don’t need Peter to tell you that.  And if she doesn’t go with you she’ll go to some other place and there’s no hope of finding her after that.


She’s still holding Peter’s hand.  That’s a good sign.


“We can make it autumn if you like,” says Peter.  “I’m sure we could.  We can hunt Mr. Giant Pumpkin Head again, or toss rotten apples through the windows of the old Prater house and see if we can wake up whatever that thing is he has chained up in the attic.  If you come, I’ll even eat one of those caramel covered apples you like to make, and you know how much I hate apples.”


“I don’t make those anymore.”


“Well, you could.”


“Are there many children there?”


“Loads of children!  Almost nothing but.”


“Is it where all children go?”


“Not all of them.”


“Then how can I know I’m going to the right place?”


*     *     *


We know where children go when they leave the world, don’t we?  We know all the places they choose to hide out and ride the slow decay of the universe toward its inevitable end.  And though the place we’ve chosen is just about the neatest place a kid could conceive, not every child is so lucky.  Not every child has an imagination like you and Veronica and certainly not like Peter.  Not every child is even old enough to choose for itself.


*     *     *


You never understood why Veronica would only speak to Peter from the depths of grief, particularly since Peter is more interested in wringing the most possible fun out of every living second than in wasting one of those seconds to mourn for a lost husband.  Or a lost child.


Peter was wearing a King’s crown tipped merrily to the side and a red velvet cloak with leopard skin lining when he took form in Veronica’s bedroom.  He tapped his scepter on the bed three times, hoping to rouse her from beneath the sheets that clung to her feverish body in wet clumps, hugging her like the funeral shroud that we all knew she longed for.


“Awake, Queen Veronica,” said Peter.  “Your chariot awaits.  With me, m’lady.  To the land beyond all others!”


“Leave me alone, Peter!”  Veronica said.


“We’ve come to rescue you from this vile place,” he said.  “This is no fit world for a queen.  Why, we’ve goblins to hunt and even now the hounds snap at their leashes.  What a merry chase it shall be!  We’ll dine on goblin steaks tonight, m’lady, or I’ll forswear my oath to the Realm and melt my crown into pennies.”


“This is not a game!” Veronica threw back the sheet and sat up in bed and you realized that she was naked and you couldn’t help but turn away.  But you still haven’t forgotten the sight of her.  Thin and see-through pale, hair clipped in a short shag and a patina of weariness that transformed her once sharp features into the image of a sickly creature that bore little resemblance to the girl you still pine for.  There was weariness in her bones and sickness in her soul, and her arms were crossed over her stomach as if feeling for the life that had grown there until just that morning.


Part of you still remembers the blood on the sheets and how some of it still clung to her legs, but only a small part.  Mostly you remember the sheer horror in her expression as she howled at Peter and the arrival of her mother and the doctor in response to her screams.  She stared right through them, refusing to take her eyes off Peter as he continued his campaign of luring her away from this hell to the place she was really supposed to be.


It was obvious that this world of hers was no place for someone as special as Veronica.  But no matter how badly you wanted her to come with you, you found yourself wishing that Peter would take the ridiculous crown off his head and just leave her alone.


*     *     *


“I’ve had enough death in my life to suit,” says Veronica.  Her eyes are still closed but she hasn’t let go of Peter’s hand yet.  I can tell he still thinks that’s a good sign.  Peter is nothing if not persistent.


“Ah, but this isn’t death!”


“Maybe not.  But it’s not life either, is it?”


“No, not life,” says Peter.  “But near enough.”


“You’re either alive or you’re not,” says Veronica.  “There’s no in between.”


*     *     *


You and Peter left her alone for a while, but something called you back.  When you arrived, she was having dark thoughts that you wish you weren’t privy to. They still give you nightmares.  Lady Jenna’s parlor was ice-box cold and each time Veronica exhaled it reminded you of that trip to the ice dragon’s cavern.  February wind buffeted the curtains through open windows that she’d simply not had the will to shut and her bare feet were blue against the hardwood floors.

She wore a dingy pattered dress pulled down to her ankles, legs apart so that the dress made a makeshift basket, and in that basket rested a gun.  She stared at it like she was waiting for it to take control and do for her what she didn’t quite have the nerve to do.  It wasn’t a fit and polished Martini-Henry like the one they’d seen H. Remington Hookstratten use to fell an elephant from five hundred paces, or a long barreled six shooter gleaming with high noon sunshine and eager for a fight.  It was a hard, ugly little thing that her husband had given her before going to war, just something to fend off burglars.  She’d never even shot it.


“Neat gun!” said Peter.  “Let’s play war.  You can be the good guys and I’ll be the Huns and we can pretend the war is somewhere other than France.”


You wanted nothing more than for Peter to stop talking but you didn’t have it in you to say anything.  It was so obvious to you that Veronica needed to leave her life behind.  Who wants to live in a world that can take your father, your husband, the baby in your belly and still have enough evil left to snatch away the only thing in your life worth living for with something as innocuous as a bottle cap?  Veronica’s mind was empty save for thoughts of the gun and images of Jimmy Junior turning as blue as her feet while she beat on his chest with both hands and his little fists and heels kicked at those same hardwood floors.  You did everything you could not to share that memory but it was no use.  You’d come along for this even though Peter had warned you to stay behind and now you were in the thick of it.


“Go away, Peter,” she said.


“You’ve got to come with me this time,” he said, looking downtrodden.  He’d thought for sure she’d come this time without argument.  Peter couldn’t imagine a reason she’d want to stay here and neither could you.


“I’m leaving,” she said.  “But I’m not going with you.”


The gun wasn’t in her lap any more and you knew exactly what she planned to do with it.  Peter didn’t seem to understand and he began rattling off a list of all the neat and wonderful things they’d do if only she’d take his hand and take her last breath and just give herself to the whenever.  He didn’t even stop talking when she pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger.

Lady Jenna’s prized mirror shattered into a million pieces.  You couldn’t believe she’d shot it.  It was the enchanted mirror that Captain Stag had brought back from the island of ghosts and if you knew who owned the mirror’s twin you could look into it and speak with whoever was on the other end.  They’d spent days at a time, staring into it and making funny faces, hoping someone would appear and tell them all about the ghost islands, even the stuff the Captain said was too scary for children.  But looking at it then, you noticed for the first time how tarnished and dented the old thing was.  Bits of glass clung to the frame like dragon teeth and it was evident that if the mirror had ever possessed any magic, it had fled long ago.


“That’s the spirit,” said Peter, emboldened by Veronica’s actions.  He dropped into a crouch and adjusted the helmet that had appeared on his head.  “I’ll get you back, Yankee scum!  You’ll never take this trench!”


When Veronica dropped her gun and fell from her chair, you naturally assumed she was playing dead, felled by imaginary Hun bullets.  But when she didn’t respond to Peter’s antics, when finally Peter frowned and faded back into nothing, you were left alone with her and you know that something else had happened.


Veronica had left her world, and she’d gone where you couldn’t find her.


*     *     *


Veronica was still there physically and you remained by her side even when Peter wasn’t in the mood to keep her company.  Her doctors said she was sick but whatever she had wasn’t like any of the diseases you could recall.  Veronica couldn’t be cured this time by a liberal application of peanut butter to the forehead or a piping bowl of chicken soup laced with giggle berries.  Veronica’s brain was sick, and never in any of your games had you imagined a brain doctor.


She spent more years in that same room with those same caretakers than you can even count, and you can count to eleventy million and one.  But you can count the number of times Peter came to see her during that time on one grubby hand.


Peter claimed that sometimes he could see her in your world, but never for more than a single second before she faded back into whatever enchanted bog or ancient forest he’d been playing in.  He said she was a little girl again, and he was almost certain she was smiling.  You never saw her there, but then you spent most of your time with the real Veronica.  Still, you hoped it really was her.   You liked the idea of Veronica turning the tables on Peter, secretly hiding out and spying on him just like he’d been spying on her for so many years.


Veronica grew very old, and though she began to resemble many of the witches that she’d vanquished in her youth, you knew she was still a force for good.  You tried some half remembered chants and a few horrible looking potions, hoping one of them would stop her from aging, but it was useless.


Veronica was old, and even Peter couldn’t change that.


*     *     *


Queen Veronica has forgotten many, many things in her life.  But she has never forgotten Peter.  And she has never forgotten you.


*     *     *


Veronica lets go of Peter’s hand and you know she’s going to refuse him again.


“You are worse than the devil, Peter Morningstar.  And I will listen to no more of your temptations.”


Her words break your heart as surely as they do Peter’s.  Her time has come, whether she’s ready for it or not, and she’s just chosen eternity without either of you.  Veronica has signaled and end to the games, and you have little choice but to grant her wish.  You slip your arms free from Peter Morningstar, that old familiar costume that’s ready made for horseplay and grand adventure, the one that’s starting to feel a little tight and if it were a jacket or a pair of pants you’d have already picked out a new one long ago.  Peter pools around your ankles and you step free, not bothering to fold him because you know he won’t be there long.  Another child will come along, and Peter will fit that child perfectly and away they’ll go to the tops of Nepalese mountains in search of snow monsters, and to the center of the earth to mine fire jewels for the Stone Prince’s crown.


But these are pursuits for the very young.


For the first time that day, Veronica opens her eyes.  She sees you, puts her hands together and smiles.  “There you are.  Finally.”


“Yes, here I am.”


“We have places to go together.”


“Yes, I think maybe we do.”


She takes both of your hands, and for the first time she’s the one inside your head.  She sees Lady Jenna sipping iced tea on her great wraparound porch and Lipsy gnawing at the cuff of Captain Stag’s frilly shirt as he snores away in a hammock strung between two straining cedars.  Granny Corker chases brownies out from under the front steps with a broom, shoos them back to the howling forest.  A storm of autumn leaves pours from the sky, and as the low fat sun falls gently into twilight, the shadows grow claws and make one last attempt to keep you both there.  But you are too quick for shadows.


In the background, barely visible so late in the day is a freckle faced golden haired boy who can’t entirely hide his smile, no matter how much he’d like to.  He waves, and you wave back.


“Tell them goodbye,” you say.


“I already have,” she says.


And then you follow Queen Veronica, like you always have, into the spilling folds of the universe.  Creation is limitless, and so are the places where children go to hide when they leave their lives but have no guides to lead them though the whenever.  You will search these places, one by one, and you will find the true desires of Veronica’s heart.  The heart of a little girl, the heart of a woman in love, the heart of a mother.


I envy you, little one.


Because, you know, Veronica always thinks up the best adventures.



About the Author:

Josh Rountree's short fiction has appeared in a variety of of magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony 6, and The Lone Star Stories Reader.  His first short fiction collection Can't Buy Me Faded Love is now available from Wheatland Press.  Visit for the full scoop.



Story © 2008 Josh Rountree. Print by Francis Donkin, 1911.