NEVER AGAIN • by Michael T Schaper

So, she’s out for the night with her gal pals when she runs into Peter. On the street, just walking past.

It’s been years — many years — since they last saw each other. A lot of water’s flowed under the bridge. How people change. He recognises her straight away, of course. It’s hard not to: anyone who knows her, or even knows of her, always recognises her immediately. But he’s a different story.

“You sure you want to be alone with that guy?” one of her girlfriends asks, looking at Peter warily. He’s a mess, close to derelict. The clothes are old and tattered, worn away and as much in need of a wash as the man himself.

“I’ll be fine,” she assures her posse of girlfriends, who are all dolled up for a big night out and ready to party. She’d rather be with them, too, but she can’t ignore an old friend. “Go on, I’ll catch up in a minute.” They nod, relieved to be out of his awkward company, and hurry on to the bar down the road.

Time hasn’t been kind to Peter, that’s for sure. He doesn’t look very good; it seems that he’s been sleeping rough on the streets, and she can barely understand what he has to say. She wonders if he’s been drinking. The cute little face has been made gaunt, and there’s a nasty scar now running down the left side of his face.

“It’s great to see you, Tink,” he eventually declares.

They try to make small talk, although he finds it hard to do so. Do you still hear from Wendy? Not really, although she does phone just every once in a while. The captain? Of course not. And the boys — well, they’re scattered around. Some decided, like they both had, to leave home and make their way in the big wide world; others are still there. Occasionally she has trouble answering his questions. It was all so long ago, it sometimes now feels like a dream to her.

The young man — no, really more a boy — she remembers seems long gone, replaced by this caricature, unshaven, with a pronounced limp in one leg and some distinctly unappealing seeping boils on his arm.

They stand there, awkwardly, for a few minutes. Then, just as she decides it’s time to go, she remembers her responsibilities and ushers him aside. “The Law of Co-incident Attraction,” she says, “means that I owe you three wishes.” The rules of the old land still hold sway over them both, even here. She looks at him and says, “Mind if I suggest the first one?”

He shrugs, a little perplexed. He doesn’t seem to have that good a sense of what’s happening around him. And he smells, she notices. In fact, she wonders how he’s managed to make it this far: living here, a real fish out of water.

So, she makes a suggestion, which he agrees to and, as per the rules, utters out loud.

She blinks, twitches her nose. The street around them shimmies for a moment, dissolves, and then reforms. They’re still standing in the same place, but now the smell is gone, because the old tatty clothes have vanished. In their place, he’s wearing a lovely clean set of gear.

Good work, she thinks, pleased with herself. Maybe that’ll help motivate him, shake him out of his stupor. This guy has so many things not working for him, she notes, that choosing just three things is like picking from a groaning smorgasbord table.

But he still seems a little lost, so next she suggests doing something to improve his appearance. It takes him a long time to think it through — obviously his cognitive skills aren’t working too well, either, these days — before he utters out loud that he wants the scar gone. Or at least that’s what she thinks he says.

Again, the street disappears temporarily and then reconstitutes itself. There’s Peter, sans scar, looking much better now and a little happier. Her heart lifts; after all, it’s her job to make people happy.

“Final wish?” she asks. Time to get this done and then rejoin her girlfriends for their big night out.

He doesn’t hesitate anymore, and states out loud his choice.

She furrows her brow. Did she hear right? She shrugs – it’s not her choice, and the champagne is probably getting warm by now – then blinks and nose twitches for the last time.

The world shimmies for a third and final occasion, and then they’re left standing in a paddock. It’s a bright sunny day, and there are some contented-looking cows chewing the cud nearby, under the shade of a windmill. A couple walk by, one of them wearing a pair of clogs, and speaking in a language it takes her a little while to understand.

Peter lets out an anguished cry. “Not there?” he wails.”I wanted to go to — ”

She cuts him short. “No, it’s not home. We’re in Holland, aren’t we? But it’s what you asked for.”

Tink looks at him one last time before she heads back to her party. “Personally, I would have asked for that lisp to be cured first, before thinking about going to Neverland.”

Michael T Schaper is currently based in Australia’s “bush capital”, Canberra, where he spends a lot of time fruitlessly looking for some surf. He is also an adjunct professor with Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, and a keen reader of flash fiction in all its many forms.

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