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Authors: Zoe Barton

Always Neverland

BOOK: Always Neverland
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Always Neverland

Zoe Barton


To Morin,

who would have made

a great Wendy girl



Chapter 1.
Tree Shopping Is Canceled

didn't recognize Tinker Bell when I first saw her.

It wasn't completely my fault. It's not like I got a very good look.

At the time, I stood at the tippy top of a stepladder, trying to reach the second highest shelf in the upstairs hallway closet. That was where we kept the Christmas ornaments and all the lights. Exactly what we needed on the first day of winter vacation.

My motives were perfectly innocent, but when something thunked behind me, I
jumped about a foot and a half.

“Whoa,” I muttered, steadying myself and turning to look.

A golden light pressed against the window, no bigger than my fist. At first, I thought it was just a car headlight or something, but then it
a little.

I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but the light was gone. Suspicious, I started down the ladder.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to peek outside. Dad walked into the hallway, tugging his tie into place. “What are you up to, Ashley?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Getting the ornaments before we go pick out the tree.”

Mom's voice came from their bedroom. “Richard, if she's trying to peek at the presents, stop her, will you?”

The word
pushed that golden light out of my thoughts. I whirled back to the closet. On the
top shelf, behind Dad's fancy Polaroid camera, I caught a glimpse of silver wrapping paper patterned with green wreaths and realized something very important.

was where Mom had hidden the presents.

If I just had two more seconds alone, I would've found them myself. And what kid
investigate less than a week before Christmas?

“You heard her,” Dad said, tousling my hair. “Hop down.”

I clambered down the rest of the steps, thinking fast. I'm an expert at talking my way out of trouble, after all.

Then I cleared my throat and said, loudly enough for Mom to hear in the next room, “The Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights clearly states, ‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an

I had been invoking the Bill of Rights in family disputes since a US history unit in third grade. It usually worked.

Folding up the stepladder, Dad laughed, just like he always did.

But Mom was usually harder to convince. She's a lawyer, so she had a lot more practice arguing than my father (he's a botany professor).

In a wry voice, she called, “You'll have to forgive us for being so suspicious, Ashley Gwendolyn Delaney. We
caught you searching the house for presents before. Every Christmas since you could walk, actually.”

Okay, so maybe history wasn't helping my case, but it
bug me that I got in trouble the one time I wasn't really doing anything. “But I
just trying to get the ornaments,” I protested, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Relax, Ashley—you're not going to be punished,” Mom said, which was a huge relief.

Then Mom came out of her room and leaned against the door frame. She wore a velvety green dress with her nice pearls, a sheer golden shawl, and high heels; and she looked even prettier than usual. But it definitely didn't look like the kind of outfit she'd wear to go Christmas tree shopping.

“Why are you so dressed up?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“Holiday parties. First, cocktails with the other professors in your dad's department. In”—Mom checked her watch—“yikes!—fifteen minutes.”

“Then your mom's firm has a party a little later,” Dad added.

They'd forgotten.

All my plans for picking out the biggest, greenest, fullest, most beautiful Christmas tree in the whole town completely fell to pieces, and my parents didn't even notice.

I didn't give up that easily though. When Mom slipped back inside her room, heading toward the mirror above her dresser, I followed her. “But you said that we were going to get a Christmas tree tonight. You promised.”

Pausing to put on an earring, Mom smiled the way she does when she thinks I'm exaggerating. “Really? When did I do that?—Richard, you might want to hide that ladder, just in case Ashley's tempted to look again while we're gone.”

“Good idea.” Dad began carrying the stepladder downstairs.

“Last year,” I reminded her as she looked into the mirror, concentrating on applying her lipstick. “When we waited to get a tree until Christmas Eve, and there were only two scrawny ones left in the lot. You said that this year, we would get one as soon as school let out for Christmas. That's today.”

Mom's face fell. She
remember. “Oh, sweetie—”

“You promised
when I reminded you at Thanksgiving,” I said, a lump in my throat. My whole evening—my whole
was ruined.

“Ashley, I'm so sorry. I completely mixed up the dates.”

She meant it, so I tried to be as understanding as I could. “It's okay. As long as we can go first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Well,” Mom said uncomfortably, “I have to go to work tomorrow.”

“On Saturday?” It was hard to believe that she had stuff to do on the
before Christmas.

Mom nodded. “And Sunday. And Monday too, actually. I would get your dad to take you, but—”

“Finals to grade. Due first thing Tuesday,” Dad called up the stairs. “Sorry, sweetheart.”

“Looks like we'll have to go tree shopping on Tuesday afternoon,” Mom said.

I couldn't believe this. I waited
month for school to let out for Christmas, and when the day finally came, my parents couldn't even spare
one hour
from work to go tree shopping. “But that'll be the day before Christmas Eve,” I said. “All the good trees will probably be gone.

“There's really nothing I can do,” Mom said apologetically.

It was hard to believe
too. Miserable, I just looked hard at the mirror—the family portrait taped to the glass, the anniversary card Dad gave Mom wedged in the frame, and the wooden whistle hanging from the corner on a piece of twine.

“Please, don't make that face, honey,” Mom said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “We just have a really big case coming up, right after the holidays.”

I would have tried to argue a little longer, but below us, the doorbell rang.

“Babysitter's here!” Dad said, jogging to the front door.

“Oh no! Where's my clutch?” Mom said, rushing back to her closet and digging through the purses on the shelf.

“Who is it?” I asked.

The front door squealed open, and Dad said, “Hello, Megan!”

Wrinkling my nose, I trudged down the stairs. Megan was one of Dad's students. She was okay, I guess, but she wasn't the most fun babysitter ever. Or the most talkative. She usually paid more attention to the TV than to me.

“Hey, Ashley,” Megan said politely. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I mumbled. I knew that no one would appreciate me saying that my Christmas was ruined.

“Megan! So glad you're here!” Mom said, clacking down the stairs, a small gold purse in her hand.

“We're running a little late,” Dad told Megan with an apologetic grin as he shrugged on his jacket. “As always.”

“Ashley, come out to the car with us, please?” Mom said, grabbing her coat and dashing out the door. Dad followed her, and I followed him, shoving my hands deep into the pocket of my hoodie.

“Okay, Ashley,” Mom said as I came down the steps. “I have a compromise for you. On Tuesday, how about we all drive up to the mountains and find one of those Christmas tree farms?
certainly won't run out of good ones.”

“Then we'll make cookies. And eggnog,” Dad added.

Mom gave Dad a look, like this wasn't part of the original plan, but he pretended not to notice.

I couldn't help smiling. “Okay.”

“In the meantime, here's my iPod,” Mom said, pulling it out of her purse and pressing it into my hand. “I uploaded all of my favorite carols, so it should help you stay in the Christmas spirit. But please be careful with it.”

She almost never let me borrow it, even though she'd promised that I could have my own as soon as I turned twelve. The metal was cool against my skin. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Love you, Ashley.” She kissed the top of my head. “Give us a hug fast. We've really got to run.”

I hugged Dad good-bye. Then there was this weird noise, like crowing, on the other side of the backyard.

“Did you hear that?” Dad asked me, grinning. We both turned to look. But all we saw was the tree house and the woods behind it darkening in the twilight. “Think the neighbors bought a rooster?”

“Doubt it.” Mom stared into the woods too, a tiny smile on her face. “Ashley, maybe you should play outside for a while. Who knows? You might make a new friend.”

I snorted softly. She knew as well as I did that I would be the only kid on the street for the
break. Even Michael McKinley—my best friend—had already left town for the holidays.

Then Mom trotted down the driveway and climbed into the car. “Pizza's on its way. Be good for Megan. We'll be back as soon as we can. And just so you know, you
be in trouble if you peek at the presents again,” she added as Dad sat down beside her and turned the engine on.

Dad blew me a kiss and started to drive off, and Mom waved out the window while the car rolled down the hill.

Suddenly, I really didn't want them to go, and not just because of the tree. Half the fun of decorating for Christmas was having my parents at home and not distracted with work.

I know it was kind of stupid to feel this way, but I almost felt like crying. Being left behind with the babysitter wasn't the best start to my vacation.

Then I thought I heard a worried sort of tinkle, like the ring of a bicycle. I looked up, toward the noise; but as the car turned down the street, I heard a loud, wet pop, like a water balloon bursting,
, very distinctly, a boy's voice saying “

I glanced back. The red taillights of my parents' car disappeared around the bend.

“Hello?” I said, looking around. “Is anyone there?”

No one answered, but near the tree house, the bell sound rang out again, louder and clearer. I looked. That same golden light from earlier zigzagged among the branches and then hovered in space like a hummingbird.

“Hey!” I ran across the yard to investigate, but the light had disappeared.

Hoping to get another glimpse, I climbed up to the tree house. Nothing.

I took a seat, a little hidden behind the railing, and peeked past it, pretending that this was a stakeout. After a few minutes, I put on Mom's headphones to listen to some Christmas carols. I thought the little light might come back out, the way squirrels do if you're very still and they forget you're there.

I waited and waited.

The only lights I saw were the Christmas kind wrapped around the trees across the street. Even our neighbors, the McKinleys, were more ahead on their decorating than we were, and they had left town to go skiing over the break.

I wished they hadn't. I missed Michael. Whenever he came up to the tree house, we pretended it was a castle we had to defend from invaders, or a ship targeted by pirates, or a cabin deep in the wilderness, where bears clawed the garbage and wolves howled at the moon.

Unfortunately, it's not even half as much fun to pretend alone.

With Michael gone, and my parents working all day, it was going to be a
weekend waiting for Christmas to come.

I almost thought that if the whole vacation was going to be like this, then I couldn't wait for school to start again. At least
I had people to hang out with.

I shook myself. What was I thinking? Vacation was
better than school.

I just had to figure out some fun things to do until Tuesday. I started eyeing some of the evergreen trees in our backyard. If we didn't have a Christmas tree, I could always practice hanging lights and tinsel on a few firs outside.

Better yet, maybe I could cut down a little one and set it up in my bedroom. It couldn't be
hard to handle a saw.

I was still trying to figure out the best way to break into Dad's tool closet when the pizza guy drove up.

When I went inside, my hands were pink with cold, and Megan had already dished up a couple of cheesy slices, the grease pooling at the bottom of the plate.

I picked one up and sat down on the sofa, next to Megan.

She didn't say anything. She was too busy watching a boring made-for-TV movie, set during the holidays, where some bank robbers disguised themselves as Santa.

I sullenly picked at my pizza. It was Mom's favorite—half pepperoni and half pineapple with onions. I wondered why she had ordered it that way if she was just going to leave.

If Dad were eating with me, he would've traded my onions for his pepperoni.

Suddenly, I wished that my parents had taken me with them.
was how desperate I was.

This was turning out to be the worst vacation ever. Lonely

After another slice of pizza and about half an hour, I left my plate in the sink and headed for the door. But as soon as my hand touched the knob, Megan called, “Where are you going?”

“Outside to play.” I wanted to continue my stakeout at the tree house. I figured it would be easier to see the light in the dark.

BOOK: Always Neverland
3.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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