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
You never saw Peter,
never even believed in him.
Not until later.
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?
* * *
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
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.”
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.
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.
* * *
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
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.”
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
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
Besides, he was
wrong. It was Veronica who always thought up the best
* * *
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
“Well, you could.”
“Are there many
“Loads of children!
Almost nothing but.”
“Is it where all
“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.
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
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
“Ah, but this isn’t
“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
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
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,”
“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
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
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
“Yes, I think maybe
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,”
“I already have,”
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
Because, you know,
Veronica always thinks up the best adventures.