Speaking with Doc had gummed up my thoughts and left me feeling guilty. I knew I wouldn’t sleep and wanted nothing more than to disappear into Neverland, so I veered off the path and made my way to Siren Rock, which jutted over Smugglers Cove. The breeze ruffled my hair and I looked to the waves, hoping to spy mermaids gathering the pieces of the moon that fell on the water and carrying them down to light their deep-sea grottos. And when that didn’t work, I pretended that I was Cutlass Kit, a fearless pirate captured by an enemy fleet, stripped of my ship and treasure and marooned on a cursed island ruled by a powerful wizard. To win my freedom, I must outsmart him: devise some potion of my own to weaken the enchantments he cast over me, build myself a coracle and take my chances on the sea . . . But it was no good. The story wouldn’t have me.
Instead, my thoughts turned back to those limbo months when Doc and I inhabited the island like a pair of ghosts in the wake of my parents’ deaths. Seaside daisies withered beneath the cloud of grief that loomed low over the rocks. Its toxic rains polluted the waters, snuffing the fairies’ lights and driving away the mermaids and selkies. The island witch packed up her potions and disappeared into the night on a branch of Norfolk Island pine, and even the bravest of pirates said a prayer for the damned and turned their ships about when the lighthouse came in sight. The Learmonth Curse had returned, starving Neverland of its magic.
I’d spent my days sitting on Siren Rock with my father’s old oilskin clutched tight around me, reading aloud selected passages from Kingdom by the Sea, as though they were incantations capable of restoring lost enchantments, and watched, listless, as boatloads of tradespeople and building materials arrived on the island and the frame of the Restricted Ward rose stark and skeletal against the sky. At night, unable to sleep, I climbed from my balcony and walked between the pillars and beams. Or else, I lay on the concrete foundation, so cold and smooth beneath my hands, and stared up at the stars – those ancient echoes of long dead suns – and felt the hollow at my core expand.
Doc too, had wandered the island at night. He lay beside me and told me stories. Real ones. About the faraway places he’d visited in his travels – places I’d once longed to see for myself. And he taught me how to navigate by the constellations, so I could always find my way home. But his words ran over me like water, not sinking in. Then, when dawn reached her pale fingers between the clouds, he walked me back to the house where we sat by the fire with mugs of hot chocolate that tasted strange and finally brought me sleep.
Back then, there was only one place on the island where magic still dwelled, a place so secret that, far as I knew, not even Dad had explored it. If I was lucky, it might still grant me passage back into that long lost kingdom by the sea. It wasn’t an ideal night for a visit. The air was cool, and the water would doubtless be freezing, but I would have to brave it. I pulled off my jumper and T-shirt and slipped out of my shorts, securing them with a rock so the wind wouldn’t carry them away. The night ran its chill fingers over my skin. I closed my eyes and opened my arms wide to the dark, then stepped back to give myself a run-up for the dive.
I stumbled, startled, and scanned the rocks. ‘Who goes there?’ When there was no further movement, I added, ‘If you come out now, I won’t tell Doc.’
A figure stepped from the shadows on the sand below, hands raised in mock surrender, and turned his face towards me. Dark, mussed hair, sharp features, a familiar quickness in his movements. For a second I thought it was my father and my heart fumbled a beat. Then the moonlight caught him fully.
‘Rohan? What the scuppers are you doing here?’
He smiled through the dark. ‘I might ask you the same question, Kit.’
‘It’s my island, I can go where I like.’
‘In the dead of night when Doc isn’t around to catch you, sure.’ He turned serious. ‘Were you really going to jump just now?’
I glared down at him and crossed my arms over my stomach, wishing he’d had the decency to call out before I stripped down to my bikini. ‘Don’t be morbid. I was only going for a dip.’
‘Wait there. Someone’ll hear us if we keep shouting at each other.’ He clambered up to join me and sat on the rock with his legs dangling over the edge. I dropped down beside him.
‘Smugglers Cove is out of bounds,’ I said. ‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘Why? Is it dangerous?’ he teased.
I gave him a hard look. ‘It’s mine.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Yours?’
‘When Doc started bringing Lost Ones here, I made him promise that we would keep some places private – this is our home, after all.’ I pressed my feet to the cool stone, and hugged my knees to my chest. ‘Dad and I used to play pirates on this beach. It was our spot. I come here sometimes when I can’t sleep.’ I pointed to the flat corridor between the waves. ‘Also, there’s a rip.’
‘The nights are hard,’ Rohan said quietly. I could feel the heat coming off him.
‘They get easier.’
‘And yet, here you are.’
‘I have idiopathic insomnia – the kind that doesn’t go away. It starts when you’re a kid, so I don’t know any different.’ This wasn’t strictly true. Doc is the highfunctioning insomniac of the family. I’ve been visited by night terrors and bad dreams for as long as I can remember and always hated bedtime. But I didn’t know Rohan well enough to get into that.
‘Sleep always felt like a refuge on the mainland,’ Rohan said. ‘Even after Milly died. But the island is like another world. During the day, it’s fine. We’re busy. But at night, it’s just me and my thoughts in this unfamiliar place and home seems very far away.’
I had a sudden desire to reach out to him – warm his hand in mine and let him know that he didn’t have to sit up through these long nights alone. ‘You can always ask Doc for a Goodnight Kiss.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘A what?’
‘A sleeping pill,’ I translated.
‘The last thing I want is more meds. All those chemicals.’ He made a face. ‘I just wish I could be somewhere else for a while.’
I wanted to ask what Doc was dosing him with, but he’d snuck out to escape all that. Instead, I looked down to the beach below and tried to see it without seventeen summers of games, picnics and swimming lessons, all coloured by Dad’s stories. If you were blind to the mermaids who swam beneath the waves and the fairies who made their homes amid the rocks, and if you didn’t believe that the next moonless night would bring a pirate ship laden with loot and rum, it was a bleak view – a lonely scrap of sand shrinking by the hour before a dark, unending sea.
Rohan had followed my gaze, but his eyes were glassy – his broodiness deepening to something more dangerous, and I thought about the assumption he’d made when he’d first seen me: that I’d come here to jump.
‘Did you mean what you said in Group the other day? That you wish you could take Milly’s place.’
He was quiet for a moment. ‘I didn’t come out here to hurt myself.’
‘Because it wouldn’t achieve anything,’ I said, parroting him. ‘But the nights are hard.’
‘Yeah. They are.’ His voice was barely a whisper.
We both stared down at the water and I ghosted my fingers over the scabbed wound at my wrist, still tender to the touch. ‘I could show you Neverland.’
‘Aren’t we already there?’
‘If you’re having trouble sleeping, you’re stuck on Learmonth Island.’
He looked confused. ‘Is this another drug thing?’
‘No. It’s a use-your-imagination thing.’ I considered how to explain. ‘Why think of yourself as sick, or me as an orphan, or both of us being here because we can’t cope on the mainland, when instead you could believe that we’d run away to an enchanted island where there are no parents and no rules? Where we can stay up as late as we like and have grand adventures. Where there are mermaids, pirates and sea monsters, and the only adults are a wicked witch and the notorious Captain James Hook – our archenemy who marked me with a terrible scar.’ I shifted to show Rohan the scar by my hip, then pointed to the Restricted Ward. ‘Who holds our fellow Lost Ones captive, and upon whom we must wreak a terrible vengeance?’
The beginnings of a grin cracked the hard set of his lips. ‘And how would I get to this magical place?’
‘First, you have to swear you won’t tell anyone. And you have to trust me. The passage there is fraught with danger, and the first time can be scary.’
With a great show of solemnity, he locked his pinkie finger with mine.
‘Good. Now take off your clothes. We’re going swimming.’
His face fell. ‘It’ll be freezing! Are you insane?’
‘Certifiably. Do you want to see the real Neverland or not?’
‘Yes, but it must be a ten-metre drop to the water. And there are rocks.’
‘I’m hearing a lot of doubt and very little trust, Rohan.’ I stood up and made my way to the back of the rock to give myself room to jump. I felt Rohan’s eyes on my body, his gaze like a camera zooming in to linger on certain details. I tried not to let it distract me. Instead, I focused on the water, vast and glittering beneath the moon. ‘Step one: take a leap of faith.’ I ran and launched myself off the rock, thrilling at the rush of air against my skin and the gathering speed of the fall before the shock of cold sea closed over me.