There’s a sickness on our planet. A demon that floats into a person’s conscience and buries itself in their soul. It’s as inconspicuous as a thought as it slowly eats at a person’s morality until it warps the mind just enough that they appear normal. But they’re not normal. In fact, a close look will alert you to those who’ve been infected. If you’re really looking for it, a dead soul can’t be missed.
My eyes were opened years ago… age nine. I grew up surrounded by rot. The perverse gleam in their eyes still haunts me. As a child, I was prowled by those wicked smiles—smiles with an agenda. But the worst abuse was from the hands of my family because family doesn’t need to disguise their disease with a smile. They used me without a mask because they knew I had no choice. I had to stay. I had to put up with the bruises and broken bones. My body became the outlet for all their bitterness and regret and hate.
Even now, as the news channel drones on in the background, I can still detect the sickness. I roll my eyes as talk of war threatens the world again, the dramatic cries of people begging for freedom and their rights, and the familiar faces of missing children that continue to pop up numerous times throughout the day. All the reports sound as though they’re on repeat. And then sprinkled into the chaos of our melancholy world, the weather woman announces that today is going to be a beautiful day: sunny with a high of seventy-two.
How? How is sunshine going to reverse the damage? You’ve got cancer, but hey, at least it’s beautiful out. You’ve been locked in a cellar for ten years, but look at the bright side, at least the view from the smudged window four feet above your head is a good one.
I flick off the TV, exhausted from the repetition. While I should be devastated by everything that’s going on, I’ve, instead, grown numb to the tragedy. It’s too normal now and it’s hard to be surprised by normal. Especially when I feel so disconnected from it. It’s not my problem. What could I possibly do to help the heartbroken mother, or nourish the starving bellies scattered across the globe? It’s overwhelming.
This is why I’ve settled for helping children. They’re simpler to deal with and easier to please. They’re not broken yet. There’s still time to steer them away from growing up into monsters. Their hearts are soft and curious, and eager to dive into a world of imagination and adventure… and most importantly, safety. That’s what they’ll find here at Neverland—my one-of-a-kind toy store. It’s a complete contrast to my life working at a funeral home several years ago. I needed to escape that dark lifestyle filled with death and sadness, but it seems that even in the happiest of places, the dark still finds you.
Grabbing my lunch bag from under the counter, I flip the sign to ‘closed’ as I lock up my shop and head to the nearest park just a short walk away. The weather woman was correct; today is perfect. The breeze carries a slight chill, but the sun’s warmth clashes with it in the most pleasant way.
Laughter kisses my ears from the nearby playground and I shift on my park bench to watch as several children play. Most of them probably just met for the first time, but you’d never be able to tell. There’s no hesitancy in the friendship between children. It’s innocent and flawless. There are no ulterior motives, no manipulation.
Even as a smile touches my lips, I find a tightness squeeze at my chest. A yearning. A regretfulness for never having experienced such freedom.
I glance down at the sandwich in my hand and take a large bite, cheek bulging as my thoughts wander toward today’s tasks. I’ve hired a team of men skilled in carpentry to come build a ship along the Northwest corner of the shop. The wall itself is painted to look like a wall of waves, the ship emerging from deep inside of them. It will be the most extraordinary playground for young pirates. They’ll be able to man the sails and duck below deck if their minds conjure up such a scenario.
Thankfully, the construction is almost complete. In about an hour, the team will be arriving for some finishing touches. I smile inwardly just picturing the children who will come through my doors, giddy with excitement. Each year I try to add something new, something that will keep the children coming back, and you can’t have Neverland without a pirate ship.
Last year, I added the peach from James and the Giant Peach. It sits toward the back of the store, hidden amongst thick trees and massive, twisting vines. It’s the size of a truck, catching the attention of many curious minds and providing hours of entertainment. The children love slipping inside the small tunnel that leads them into the belly of the large peach, never exiting until their parents announce it’s time to leave.
Neverland is the dream world I always wished I’d known as a child, but my imagination had been broken. The magic couldn’t be found. So, I made it myself. Packed with every toy imaginable, Neverland is a child’s escape. It’s the one place that brings the charm to life. It allows children to feel as though they’re inside the magic.
Checking the time on my phone, I shove the last bite into my mouth and move to stand, but my attention snags on a figure in the distance. He’s propped against a tree, arms crossed in front of him as he scans the playground. A quiver of unease slips beneath my ribs and I find myself settling back into my seat. Kicking himself away from the tree, he moves closer to the playground, eyes unmoving from one little girl in particular who’s busy making ‘ice cream’ and serving it to her friend.
I feel a tug to intervene, but just as my fingers grab for my phone, he hollers her name.
“Time to go!” he demands, ice dripping from his words. There’s no compassion or warmth in his tone. “Peyton. Now!”
The girl drops her pine cone ice cream and scurries toward him, her shoulders straight and smile gone. The man doesn’t even wait for her before turning around and walking away. Her small legs struggle to keep up with his stride, but not once does he glance back at her until they reach a rusted Toyota Camry parked along the side of the road. I watch as he snags her upper arm, and none too gently shoves her into the backseat. I doubt she’s older than five, but she has no car seat or booster, and he doesn’t even take ten seconds to buckle her in.
If this is how he treats her in public, I can only imagine the horror that she’s endured in the privacy of her home. And all I can do is sit and watch. I have no proof that he’s ever harmed her. All I know is what I’ve witnessed today.
But there's another thing I'm nearly certain this man has: the sickness. The disease that turns a person’s blood to ice and their mind to tar. I can practically see the black swirling behind his eyes. An evil that’s very much alive and active.
He may have been an innocent child once, but he’s a monster now.