I wake up to jumbled thoughts and images, echoes of my own screaming jarring my brain. My vision begins blurring only to snap sharply back into focus as I groan and sit up.
The first thing I register is the fact that I am lying on the ground. Though I immediately know that it is the ground, it is unfamiliar to me. The soil is soft, almost spring-like, cushioning me as I shift my legs that seem to have been haphazardly thrown before me and look around, wincing when I jostle bruised limbs too much.
There are trees everywhere, in every bizarre shade of green. The atmosphere seems smoky, giving the greenery an almost iridescent filter. As I let my head fall back and foggily examine the tops of the trees, I can see the sky is just barely visible-- a bleak gray color that has no sun, no clouds, no birds, no sign of anything to tell me that I'm not alone, wherever I am.
I let my head droop back down to a more comfortable position and my sight falls to my hands, my fingers covered in the soft dirt, and notice that somehow a clump of my hair has been torn out. It lay next to me in a heap, stained red with blood where it was yanked out of my scalp.
I know, distantly, that I should be crying, shaking, screaming, something, but all I can really think is that the warm blood I can feel on my face is beginning to dry and the weather is much more mild than I remember. A small breeze accompanies that thought, much more gentle than the winds I'm used to in Kansas, where one gust could blow you away with a solid promise to never return you back home. The leaves begin to whisper in a language I don't recognize and I have to fight off unconsciousness for a few moments more.
You must be in shock, I tell mentally tell myself, though I know it is much more than that. My hair, lying in a pile large enough to where I know I should be frightened, swims in and out of focus as another haze comes over my head once more and I am almost unconscious again. The trees are still continuing to whisper secrets, but this time I can understand what they are saying, and it is something about the drugs in my system making me an almost useless waste of a human lying on the forrest floor.
But in a few moments I realize that they actually are whispers, from a small group of people standing some distance away from me, looking as though I'm an animal they don't want to frighten off. Through the cloudy vision, I can only see that they are all different shapes and sizes, and all very unkempt and dirty. I don't think they are wearing shoes.
A small form breaks away from the rest and takes a few steps toward me. I immediately size her up as best as I can: small, very small, knobby knees, covered in dirt, and matted mousy hair on top of her head. Her eyes shine through the dirt surrounding her face, however, and I can see in them that she is bright; she twitches, almost unknowingly, like an animal continually on the lookout for predators. She is wearing what I think was once a dress, now a dirty brown dingy parody of one, ripped and torn and hanging from her skeletal frame.
It is only then that I realize that she is speaking to me. I focus through the fuzziness to see what she is saying.
"We aren't supposed to be helping you," she repeats, quietly, "but they've already all woken up and headed toward the Manor; you're the last one."
I merely stare at this girl. Is she homeless? Does she live in these woods? Where is her mother? Her father? As I look once more at the group of people she broke away from, I realize that they are all just as filthy, just as forlorn looking as she. "Who are you?" I ask, using my voice for what seems like the first time in years. It comes out as a croak, but I can tell she understands me.
The girl holds her chin high, like an adult when asked that question, though she can't be more than 10. "We," she says, her voice firm enough to break through the layers of haze that the drugs in me have produced, "are the Lost Boys."
I fall backward onto my elbows at those words. What could she be saying? What could she possibly be implying?
"And you," she says, "have been chosen to go to the Manor, but you and I both know that they can't let all of the girls they've picked in. You have to make it before the others do."
Then, it hits me. I cannot help but think of my mother, lifting the rose that had found itself onto my pillow one night, months before this one, with shaky fingers. "You must lock the windows," she said, voice grave, "you must never let anyone in. Do you understand, Morgan?"
The story that I had grown up hearing was simple, a fable meant to frighten and intrigue children before they fell asleep. It was the story of Peter Pan.
There was originally Peter and his first Wife, Wendy. And they were set to live forever, happy in Neverland, with the few boys that ran away with them, the original Lost Boys. But Wendy and Peter both wanted a legacy of their own, a child to carry on after them. And, somehow, Peter managed to obtain the one thing for he and his Wife that soon after turned to be the one thing that ensued chaos for hundreds of years now.
And now, each new Peter will die after one hundred years on the throne to Neverland. They each choose a Bride and after every wedding the newly-dubbed Wife bears a child-- never a girl-- to become the next Peter.
The process was fine at first, great even, but then one century the newest heir and most cruel heir, Peter II, grew tired of his Wife. He had her killed and demanded another, one that he could truly love. The Lost Boys went out and brought viable girls from the other realm, where, now seeing it as more of a game, the heir demanded that they fight for his attention and love.
They did, and eventually only one remained: his new Wife. This was the start of a tradition that, according to the bedtime stories, was still upheld to this day.
The ground beneath me starts to feel as though it will cave in, but I fight my hardest to get past that feeling and I am thrown violently back into my reality. I snap my attention to the Lost Boys in front of me, my head clear of any fuzz for the moment.
"What are you saying?" I just barely manage to choke out. "I'm fighting to be someone's Wife?"
The little girl kicks something at her feet: a velvet bag, a navy hue. "This is for you," she says. "You have to get to the Manor before something out here kills you first. Go," she urges when I still do not make an attempt to move.
What seems like the next second, I am up and running-- not before grabbing the pile of hair next to me on the ground and shoving it into my pocket. I delve deeper into the trees, not stopping until I am absolutely gasping for air and my legs begin to shake. I collapse by the base of a large tree, cradle the ball of hair in my hands and begin to sob. I can hear nothing but the sound of my hiccuping breath in this dense forest, and wonder idly if I'm merely having a very bad, very vivid dream. I decide to open the velvet bag and rifle through it in order to distract myself some.
I furrow my brow as I pull out a canteen of water, a map, and an intricately scrawled letter of some sort. After I drink from the canteen until it is dry, I return to the letter, my fingers leaving tracks of dirt where they disturb the crisp white parchment.
Welcome! it reads. We are honored to tell you that you have been selected to participate in the traditional Choosing Ceremony. We think that you would make an excellent candidate for a Bride, maybe even a Wife, and hope that you will continue to work with us in helping deliberate which one of you will be the next Wife. In order to start your testing, you must arrive to The Manor before sunrise this very evening. Good luck, and enjoy!
The reality of this entire situation finally settles within me and I am now so scared that I drop the invitation and scoot away from it. So it's true, I have to compete against other kidnapped girls in order to become the next Wife to a man I've never met. I am almost sick, but the horrid headache that has overpowered me once the drugs have left my system mixed with the lack of food I've had helps me to overcome it. I stare at the white paper sitting a few feet away from me in the dirt and want to curl up and sleep until my head stops screaming in agony.
My attention shifts to the pile of hair that I have abandoned nearby and I move myself toward it, picking at it until I find the strand that stands out the most: a shiny, bright, almost silver strand among the layers of blonde. I pull it out of the pile and realize that it is not hair, but in fact a silver strand of metal-- a necklace, adorned with a small pink gemstone, maybe the size of the pad of my pinky finger. Without thinking twice, I clasp it around my neck and make to stand.
I know that my only chance of survival in this world rests within making it to the Manor before sunset. I crane my neck toward the sky and try to gauge the color. Still the same gray hue it was before, giving me absolutely no sense of time.
I begin to trek through the woods at a slower pace now, knowing that I need to think critically about finding the Manor rather than blindly thrashing through the woods. I pulled the map out of the velvet bag, but there was no indication telling me where exactly I was in these trees, making it nothing more than a useless piece of paper.
Soon, however, I stumble across a river and begin to follow it. I know that the river, at least, will lead me somewhere.
After what seems like hours, I notice what can only be the sound of pursuit. It wasn't careful, but clumsy and loud. When it gets to be near, I whirl toward the source of the noise and see a girl following me.
She is blonde, like me, with a similar body type. In fact, she looks so much like me that I have to shake my head, afraid that the drugs are still working their way through my system. As she nears me though, I begin to notice differences: her eyes are brown where mine are blue, and her nose is a different shape. She looks as terrified and confused as I probably do, leading me to believe that she is in the exact same situation as me.
And then she lunges for me.
I am knocked backwards onto the earth, the breath ripped painfully from my lungs. I am still for a moment, too stunned to move. But the girl is clawing at me, feral. Her nails find purchase along my cheek and I feel my flesh strip away, blood welling from the fresh wound.
I snap out of my daze and shove her off of me, bringing the back of my hand up to my face. I spring to my feet before she can lunge again, and she stands as well, facing me down.
"I'm not here to hurt you!" I cry, sharper than I'd intended. "We can help each other."
The girl merely shakes her head. "You know there can only be one," she says quietly, so quietly that I have to lean forward to hear her.
But by the time I register her words, it's already too late. I know what she means now: we look so much alike; no way would they allow too girls so similar to be entered into the Manor alive. By the time it all clicks into place, however, she has shoved me backwards.
I hit the cold water of the river behind me, too shocked to make any sound of distress. My heart freezes in my chest and I instinctually suck in for air, only to gain lungs full of water instead.
I break the surface of the water and cough out the water inside of me, only to have a fresh current pull me back under. The pull is too strong for me to fight against, but I manage to kick back to the surface-- all to no avail. I choke out a scream as I see the ledge of the waterfall that I am about to plummet down.
I know I am dead.