Stef winced as her hair was pulled back into a bun. Getting her hair ready for ballet was so different than getting ready to go shopping – shopping hair was this relaxed, serene experience where it was just all about her mother loving Stephanie. Ballet, on the other hand, was about her mother pushing Stephanie, challenging Stephanie, and wanting her to be better.
Shopping hair almost let Stef exist – she was always faced away and it was Stef’s hair as much as Stephanie’s. Ballet was all about Stephanie though. Ballet was where Stef was completely, one-hundred-and-ten-percent no-way-man unacceptable. Stef belong in ballet as much as Bart Simpson.
Her mother twisted her hair into a bun, covered it with a white net, then tied a thick ribbon around the whole package, leaving her feeling like her whole scalp was going to pull away from her head at any point.
She was careful not to whimper though – she’d learned that lesson ages ago. Making sad noises of any kind meant that she was being an Ungrateful Little Child who was Very Problematic and who should Appreciate What She Is Given. A little bit of pain was better than a yelling lecture.
Finally, her mother released her hair, and she let go of the breath she was holding.
Mother walked away, probably to get her purse ready or something, and she went to find her shoes.
Ballet was one of those time were sneakers were allowed – her feet were allowed to be comfortable before and after, which made up for all the exercises she had to put them through. Sneakers were awesome, even if they were stupid princessy and pink.
The car ride was silent and the lesson sucked – even if she only got hit with the whip once, and the ride back was just as silent.
Her father came home for dinner, and had a new necklace for her mother. They talked at their end of the table, and didn’t notice as she ignored her vegetables.
When the plates had been cleared, and dessert brought out, her mother started talking about their day. She wanted to slid down on her chair and hide under the table, but that never ended well. She stabbed her fork into the gateau and prayed her mother would just talk about the two hours they’d spent in the shoe shop, and not her.
Ballet did come up though, and she leaned forward to listen a little so she’d know when to react, and say what Stephanie was supposed to say.
Her mother talked about the other dancer’s mums, and how the other girls were doing. How all the other girls were doing better. How some of them had been given private extra lessons because they were so good. How they might become professional ballerinas.
Her father slowly turned to look at her, and she gulped. He stared into her, and she felt like he could see her brain. Stephanie never fooled her father, or if she did, he hated her as much as he hated Stef. No. Everyone hated Stef more.
‘You haven’t been practicing enough.’
He looked away, and the ugly, dark feeling in her chest disappeared.
The conversation went back to golf, and to the Very Interesting things that had happened.
She quickly finished with her cake, politely excused herself, then went back to her room and closed the door.
It was too late to play with Princess Stef and Queen Charlie – ballet always made her too tired to bother with uncovering the secret dolls. She went to the way-too-small bookcase and stared at the collection of books – mostly, thankfully, they were about horses. Even if they had some girly stuff about boys and clothes, there were at least wonderfully stinky horses as well.
She ran her fingers across them, then looked to the picture books on the bottom shelf – the fancy ones or ones that were heirlooms that her parents hadn’t bothered to throw out. That, or they were just making her keep them until they had another kid and then the picture books would go into her little brother or sister’s room.
They talked about it sometimes when they thought she wasn’t listening. Talked about it in a way that made it seem like they loved kids.
Her father sounded like a real person when he as alone with her mother. He used the voice that meant he wasn’t glaring, wasn’t mad, wasn’t going to yell. He sounded like a nice person.
He was nice to her mother, he was nice to the rest of the family, and he was nice to the people he worked with.
It was only Stef that made him not nice.
She grabbed one of the pony books from the shelf and wedged herself into the small space between the bookcase and the wall – there was a little footstool there, so it was somewhere they’d set up for her to sit, but it felt almost secret at the same time.
She turned the pages of the book without reading it.
They only hated her cause she was wrong.
Stef was wrong and needed to die. Like a dog with rabies or a sick horse in the old days. Like a germ-ridden toy thrown into a fire.
She was wrong.
She threw the book onto the floor, then dove into the pile of picture books. They were too young for her, but the pictures were still lovely. And one of them was magic, and she wasn’t too old for magic.
It was magic to be used sparingly, and it was magic that didn’t seem real.
She found the copy of Peter Pan near the bottom of the pile – near the bottom was the safest place to hide it, books at the top were too obvious, at the very very bottom might seem like she was trying to hide it, but near the bottom just made it seem unimportant and forgotten about.
She flipped through the book, and read several sentences under her breath, then closed it, rested it on her knees, and waited.
Sometimes he appeared before she’d finished reading, sometimes he took ages. The times when he took ages were the times were it seemed stupid to believe in magic, that maybe he was just the unreal kind of imaginary friend that stupid younger kids had.
She held her breath, and waited.
The pony book lifted up off the ground, and Hook appeared as he put it back on the shelf. ‘You know better than to leave you books sitting around, dear one.’
She stared at the carpet.
His hook wrapped around one of her wrists, and his hand took hold of her other hand. ‘Dear one, what’s wrong?’
‘It’s not a good idea to lie to your Captain.’ He sat on the floor beside her, and dropped his magnificent hat to the carpet. ‘Whatever it is, you can tell me.’
The carpet turned to wood beneath her hands, and the walls melted away to show the sea around the Jolly Roger. She jumped to her feet, and ran to what had been her window seat, and was now the edge of the ship, and looked out to see the last of the real world fading, hidden behind an endless sea under a zillion stars. Some of the stars weren’t stars though, and fairies dipped and dived overhead – content, for once, just to be pretty lights, rather than to tinkle and throw tiny rocks.
‘I’m bad,’ she said, taking in a deep breath of Neverland air.
The Captain moved to lean against the rail beside her. ‘What fool told you that?’
She poked the side of her head, and he gave her a nod, his black curls bouncing. ‘The worst enemies we can have are the ones we can’t threaten with the point of a sword, or frighten with the boom of a cannon.’
‘Am I allowed to be a pirate if I’m still bad?’
‘You are always welcome to be a pirate, there’s always room for one more on my ship.’
She grabbed at his hook, and tugged on it, lifting it to let it catch the starlight. The starlight and the fairylight shone on the silver, then shattered, tiny pieces of light dropping to the wooden rail. She picked up the small pieces of light and tossed them overboard, where they floated in the water, becoming even brighter when the moon shone on them. After a moment, the mermaids appeared, and threaded the pieces of light through their hair, and swam away, laughing.
‘If- If I can be a pirate,’ she said, digging her nails into the wood. ‘Can I be other things?’
‘Would you fancy sailing to another port? I have a map that will take us to-‘
‘Things that aren’t pirates. Or- Or am I stuck, and this is the only thing I can be, other than a girl?’
He light his pipe. ‘You can be whatever you wish to be. You could be a scholar, a wizard or a scientist. You could dance or ride or paint. You could even be someone like me, dear one.’
‘But if I was a Captain too, we’d have to fight.’
He blew smoke rings. ‘What do you want to be, Stef?’
‘When- When we have an adventure,’ she said, catching more starlight. ‘It’s easy to pretend I don’t have to go home.’
She reached a hand out past the edge of the boat, and felt the window in her room. It made him a little sad when she did this, when she found the hard edges of Neverland – sometimes they were impossible to find, like when they played in the grounds of the mansion, then Neverland seemed to have no borders, but when she was somewhere familiar, the edges were always there. It didn’t matter, knowing how magic worked just meant it was easier to work.
She rolled the starlight in her hands, thinning it out like a roll of clay, and tied a loose knot to turn it into a bracelet.
The Captain tilted his hook, then crumbled starlight into her hair.
She threw her arms around him, and buried her face in his coat. ‘I want to be Stephanie all the time.’
He knelt in front of her, his hand on her arm. ‘What?’
‘I want to be Stephanie all the time! I don’t want to be Stef anymore!’ Tears leaked down her face. ‘I can’t be her. No one likes her. I don’t even like her, cause- Cause she’s stupid! Cause she makes everyone mad! Cause no one likes her so I shouldn’t!’ He hugged her, and she cried harder. ‘Please? Please?!’
He found a huge, lace-edged handkerchief in one of his pockets, pressed it into her hand, then led her to two big soft piles of rope that made good seats.
‘I can make you a pirate. I can make you a Captain. I could find some fairy dust and let you fly if you wish. I can’t help you do anything that you don’t really want to do.’
‘But I’m asking! Please! She’s a stupid Nigel-no-friends! Butbutbut, I can be Stephanie instead. More people like her. I just have to stop being Stef. She’s stupid.’
‘She’s the smartest member of my crew.’
He opened his coat and pulled out a small, leather-bound book and a fancy pen. He flipped it open to a page in the middle, and there were math problems. She stared at them, the answers coming to her mind before he even handed her the pen.
‘But smart is stupid,’ she said, scratching down the answer anyway.
‘You don’t really believe that.’
‘Stephanie likes ballet and dresses and shopping, and mum loves her! Not all the time, but more than she loves Stef!’ She turned the page and worked on the next set of problems. ‘Stef likes learning and reading and smart stuff, and no one likes her liking that!’ She closed the book, trapping the pen inside. ‘Stephanie could make friends if she tried, if she would just talk about girly stuff with the other girls. Stef has to hide in the library and read the books that everyone ignores. I don’t understand all the words, but that’s why they have the dictionary!’ She ripped out one of the pages of solved problems and began to tear the piece of paper into smaller and smaller squares. ‘I got pushed into mud when I told Patricia that Ariel dies at the end of the Little Mermaid! And- And when I tried to talk about Doctor Moreau, they called me Doctor Moron for a week!’
She pulled the starlight bracelet from her wrist, and saw the edges of Neverland fading back to her bedroom, though fairies still buzzed as multi-coloured points of light in the canopy above her bed.
‘Can you help me, Captain?’
‘I’m here to help you, dear one, not to make your life worse.’
‘It can’t get any worse,’ she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
‘Things can always get worse, dear one.’
‘But they hate me! They hate Stef and they think I’m bad!’
‘And grown-ups are so very often wrong.’
Her arms shook. ‘I don’t want to be Stef anymore! Being Stef hurts!’
The door flew open, and her father stood there. ‘You’re making a lot of noise, Stephanie.’
Her voice froze for a moment. ‘Sorry, father.’
‘Just sit quietly,’ he said in the voice that wasn’t yelling, but was just as bad. ‘Play with your dolls and keep your mouth shut. You’re disturbing your mother.’
He slammed the door shut.
She crammed herself back into the corner with the footstool, and brought her knees back up to her chest.
Talking was bad. Talking made people mad. Talking reminded people that you existed, and no one wanted to be reminded that Stef existed.
She looked up at Hook, and pressed a finger to her lips. ‘He listens at the door,’ she said in a voice as loud as she dared.
Hook crouched in front of her bookcase and pulled out the oversized collection of fairy tales. He placed the book on top of the book case, lifted her up, sat on the footstool, then settled her into his lap, his big coat making his lap as comfortable as a cushion.
She looked to the door, imagining her father still out there, and shushed him again as he asked which story she wanted.
He smiled. ‘Stories are very quiet,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
She looked at the door again. ‘Ok, maybe just one.’
He opened the book with his hook, and began to read.