Ashley Cowger | from:English

Pan and Pirates

Hugh Furlong tells people that the single, snapshot moment that’s been burned into his brain to mark the end of his childhood was the moment he saw his brother Peter’s fist make contact with Albert Frank’s jaw. The moment he heard that soft thud and then the crack, as if something had been broken that could never be replaced. That moment, he says, meant more to him than when he punched Albert, too. Meant more than the phone call from Mrs. Frank, telling Peter and Hugh’s mom that Albert was in the hospital and guess who had put him there? More than Hugh’s three months in juvie—Peter’s stint was longer, a full year, because he was older and so, they said, should have known better—or the first few days back at school after, when the other kids in second grade and even the teachers all looked at Hugh different, like they didn’t know him anymore.

Hugh tells people that that was the moment, but it isn’t really true. Partly because there can’t just be one moment, can there? One single instant that is the definitive instant that draws the line between boy and man. But mostly because, even if there was a moment like that, for Hugh Furlong it would have happened before that fight. By that moment, by the time Peter’s fist smashed into Albert’s jaw, Hugh the boy was already gone.

During morning recess that day, Peter had told Hugh about the rumor that had been spreading around the school like an infectious disease and which Albert Frank had personally started. Peter had clasped onto Hugh’s elbow and looked him solemnly in the eyes when he told him, and that’s how Hugh knew it was something bad. He didn’t, otherwise, know what the word meant.

“What does it mean?” he asked Peter. “Something to do with eating insects, right?”

“Not exactly,” Peter said, but he apparently didn’t want to elaborate any further.

Hugh hadn’t known at the time about Peter’s dad—about what he had done to Peter when he thought nobody would catch them. If he had known, Hugh probably would have let it drop, but instead he asked Peter, “But it’s a insult, right?”

“Yes,” Peter said. His jaw tensed and his lips grew thin and taught. “It’s meant as an insult. And what are we going to do about it?”

Hugh asked his brother, “What would Pan do?” which was sort of their mantra. Words to live by. Their mom had told them once that if they ever needed help figuring out the right thing to do, they should just ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” When they discussed it later both boys agreed that whatever the answer to the question would be, it wasn’t likely to be very interesting or worth doing. “Besides,” Peter had added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to follow the footsteps of someone whose choices in life got him put to death by the government. I’m not saying he didn’t do the right things, but I’d rather do things that won’t get me killed, if you want to know the truth.” They decided that a much wiser and more pleasurable course of action would be to figure out what Peter Pan would do and then follow his actions exactly.

Peter Pan was Peter’s favorite book back then, for obvious reasons, and as a result, it was Hugh’s favorite book, too, though Hugh couldn’t actually read it yet, had to have Peter read it aloud to him. Peter said it had been his dad’s favorite book also, and that his dad had named him after Pan, although their mom said it wasn’t true. Said Peter was named after some soap opera star, but Peter didn’t believe it. Deep down inside he knew the truth. He was the boy who would never grow old. All of Hugh and Peter’s games revolved around the Pan characters in some way or another, and their favorite game, Pan and Pirates—their own makeshift version of cowboys and Indians—had even begun to catch on with some of the other kids at school.

“Well,” Peter said, “first of all Pan’d probably ambush Albert or something. And then he’d taunt him and make everyone laugh at him.”

Hugh nodded. “Pan’d probably call on somebody else to help him out.”

“I have an idea,” Peter said, and took off towards the boys’ room.

Hugh chased after him. When he got inside he had to pause, let his eyes adjust to the flickering fluorescent light. “What?” he asked Peter, and then again, “What?”

“Shh,” Peter said, and then walked down the line of stalls, kicking in the doors to make sure nobody else was there. When the last stall proved vacant, he walked back to the front of the bathroom, to the row of sinks and the mirror above them. “I know who we can get to help us.”

“Who?” Hugh asked.

Peter flicked off the lights.

Hugh’s heart began to throb. “Peter, who? I can’t see anything.”

“Give it a second. Your eyes’ll adjust,” Peter said.

And he was right, after a few seconds the grey forms inside the bathroom came into a shadowy focus. There were the stalls, and the mile long, filthy, cloth roll towel, hanging down from its metal container in a loose loop. There were the sinks and counter, and, above them, the mirror. Everything was cast in shades of grey but it was all visible now and that, at least, was something.

Hugh folded his arms. “Okay, but it’s still pretty dark.”

“I know,” Peter said. “But it has to be completely dark or else he won’t come.”

“Who won’t come? Peter, what’s going on?”

“Look into the mirror,” Peter said in a solemn tone.

Hugh did, and a vague version of himself stared back. “Okay.”

“What do you see?”

“I see myself.”

“Really look,” Peter said.

Hugh leaned in further toward the glass and squinted. “I see myself, Peter. Just myself.”

Peter sighed. “I’m going to tell you a story. About the evil pirate in the land of the mirrors.”

“The land of the mirrors.” Hugh had meant it to sound skeptical, but it came out with a touch of awe.

“His name is Angus,” Peter said. “Angus D. Firebelly. The D stands for Devilish. What happened was Angus was doing his thing, you know: raping and pillaging, and cooking and eating small children.”

“Yick.”

“And Captain Jaz. Hook, none other, felt threatened, because Angus was a much better pirate than he and it is commonly believed that Angus could have killed Pan like that,” Peter snapped, “if he ever set his mind to it.”

“How come I’ve never heard of him before?” Hugh asked.

“Well he isn’t in the book or anything. J. M. Barrie left that part out because it was too scary.”

“How come you know about him then?”

“Because. I met Angus right here in this very bathroom. He told me his whole story. About how Jaz. and his pirates ambushed him. They killed off his entire crew and then did a magical incantation to trap him forever in the land of the mirrors. He’s been trapped in there for ages. He can only come out whenever someone recites the right words, and even then he can only stay out for a short period of time. But what havoc he can wreak in that short period.”

“You called him out before?” Hugh asked.

“No,” Peter said. “I never had reason to. He tried to get me to, though. Told me he would do all kinds of favors for me if I just let him out for a little while. But I wasn’t sure because he’s got such a reputation and he is the evilest of all the pirates.”

Hugh took a deep breath and looked more closely at the mirror. He could make out his and Peter’s images well enough, but behind them was a spray of indistinguishable figures. Leaning against the back wall was what may be a mop, but may be something more—a tall and slender pirate—and in the darkened, shady mirror, the long, looping cloth roll towel looked almost human, too.

“Peter,” Hugh said, and his voice came out shaky and small. “I don’t want to play this game.” He turned to walk over to the door, but Peter put a hand on his shoulder. Peter’s fingers felt icy, like the darkness around them had penetrated deep inside him. When Hugh looked back at Peter, he could almost believe that it had. That there was something in the shadows that had possessed his brother. There was something in the shadows and it was coming, now, for Hugh.

“But Hugh,” Peter said, “it isn’t a game.”

Hugh looked back at the towel and the mop in the mirror. “If he’s a evil pirate, how can we know he won’t kill us instead of Albert? Or kill all three of us?”

Peter shook his head. “That’s just the thing, isn’t it? We can’t be. But you know, Pan says that to die would be a very great adventure.”

Hugh stepped up to the counter and braced himself against the edge. “What do we do?”

“Look into your reflection, Hugh. Look hard.”

Hugh stared into the mirror. The whites of his eyes caught what little light there was in the room, and they seemed to be glowing.

“Keep staring at your own reflection as I say the magical words.”

“Then what will happen?”

“You’ll notice him slowly materializing over your image. And don’t be afraid, Hugh. He’s scary looking, but I won’t let him out of the mirror until he promises to help us with Albert.”

Hugh’s forehead was beginning to sweat and he reached up with his forearm to swipe it clean.

“Are you looking hard into your reflection?” Peter asked.

“Yes.”

“Angus,” Peter said. “Oh hear our solemn plea. Angus Develish Firebelly, come to us from beyond.”

Hugh stared into the glowing whites of his reflection’s eyes. The image seemed to shimmer and morph in front of him, the darkness edged in around the contours of his face but when he looked from the eyes to the edges around his reflection’s face, he saw that nothing had changed. Hugh looked back at the eyes. He thought for a second that they flashed a different color, but in the darkness it was so hard to tell. His stomach was cold and the hair on his arms and legs stood on end. He wanted to ask Peter to stop, please stop. Angus was on his way; Hugh could feel it in the air, in his stomach, in his blood. Angus would soon overtake Hugh’s reflection and Hugh didn’t want to watch it happen, to watch his own face transform into something unfamiliar.

“Angus Develish Firebelly,” Peter chanted. His voice was so low it almost sounded like a growl and it seemed to come not from his body, but from his soul. “Angus Develish Firebelly,” he said, a little louder. “Angus!” he yelled. “Develish! Firebelly!”

Peter stopped talking and Hugh kept staring at his reflection. It looked ghastly in the dim light, with its glowing eyes and murky edges. It lived in the shadows—this being, this beast—and though it still looked like Hugh, not Angus D. Firebelly, it was an evil other version of Hugh. It was sinister, mysterious, magical.

As Hugh stared into his reflection a thick silence filled the air. There was no sound but for his and Peter’s heavy breathing, and after a second even that faded into the background. The blood beat in Hugh’s ears and all he could hear for a moment was that thump, thump, thump. Hugh’s reflection’s teeth glinted and for a moment Hugh felt certain that the transformation was complete. He drew his top lip down over his teeth and watched as his reflection did the same. Not complete yet. But that face glaring back at him: it was hard. The skin didn’t look soft the way Hugh’s skin was soft. Where Hugh’s features were round and elastic, his reflection’s features appeared fixed, unyielding.

Hugh fought the urge to close his eyes. He felt certain that if he closed his eyes now, he would be locked forever in this state somewhere between boy and pirate. He focused hard on the eyes inside the mirror. Looked as intently as he had ever looked at anything.

And then nothing.

And then nothing.

And then the door creaked open, the light flicked back on. And then, a cool flood of relief.

The boys looked up at Mr. Harnsworth, the janitor, looking down at them. “What you gents doing in yere, eh?”

“Nothing,” Peter said quickly. “Just playing a game.”

Harnsworth jangled his enormous ring of keys on his belt loop. “Bell rang a’ready.”

“Sorry, sir. We didn’t hear it in here.”

Harnsworth motioned his head toward the door. “A’right. A’right. But get go’n, now.”

Peter and Hugh hurried out of the bathroom, looking down.

Years later, after the rumor and the fight and the consequences of both had receded deeply into the past, Hugh and Peter reunited after years of unintended separation to visit Peter’s dad’s funeral. Not because they loved him—they didn’t, they hadn’t even known the man—but because Peter felt compelled somehow, compelled was the only way he could describe it, and he needed Hugh to come along.

Hugh was thirty-five and Peter almost forty, and both men had been in and out of jail most of their lives for things like petty theft and drugs, and in Peter’s case, assault. They hadn’t actually seen each other in almost seven years, but when Peter called Hugh and told him that his dad had died—liver failure, apparently he was a drunk, Peter said—Hugh understood at once that there are certain bonds that cannot be untied, and brotherhood is one of them.

There was hardly anybody at the funeral, which seemed to comfort Peter. “I don’t know why,” he said, “but I think it would bother me if he had turned out to be Mr. Popularity or something, or if there were a bunch of other sons and daughters here.”

Hugh nodded. They sat in silence through the service as the pastor stumbled his way through generalized details about Peter’s father’s life. After the service, Peter and Hugh made their way up to the casket to take a look at the man who had done things to Peter that Peter couldn’t even remember. Neither Hugh nor Peter actually knew what Peter’s father had looked like in life, so they couldn’t say whether he looked just as he always had, like he was just sleeping, but they could say he didn’t look scary or imposing or mean or perverted, all descriptions their mother would have attached to him. He just looked small inside the giant pine box. Small and kind of helpless.

“So this is my dad,” Peter said, looking into the casket. “Was,” he corrected himself.

“I guess so,” Hugh said, and hesitantly put his arm around Peter, not sure whether his brother needed solace or not.

“Huh,” Peter said and shrugged. He looked over his shoulder at Hugh. “I’m not really sure what I thought would happen here. I guess I thought maybe I’d feel something. Thought maybe there’d be some kind of letting go.”

“Not so much?” Hugh asked.

Peter shook his head. “It’s just some guy’s funeral. Some guy I didn’t know.”

They went out for beers after, to catch up. They talked about old times, about Pan and Pirates and the days before that first stint in juvie. They talked, too, about Albert Frank, about the fight, and about whether or not there had to be a first time. After both brothers were good and drunk, Hugh asked Peter something he had been wanting to know for years. That day in front of the mirror, had Peter known that nothing would happen, Hugh wondered. Had he believed the story himself, or had he been trying to teach Hugh a lesson?

Peter didn’t know, he said, what Hugh was talking about. Had no memory of the day in question. Pirates and mirrors?

Must have just been some game they were playing. Must have just been a joke.

Hugh nodded and smiled, laughed and swigged his beer. Changed the subject and pretended to believe Peter, that it had all just been a game. That it had never meant anything at all.

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