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Please, Protect Your Piece of Neverland
His crappy alarm clock was supposed to wake him up at six in the morning of August tenth, but, unfortunately, the hour hand stopped in the early hours again. Instead, he was roused by the noisy breakfast-table debate of the Stephen brothers next door:
“Here, I found him! I won!” The older brother cried, rapping his cereal bowl with a metal spoon. “You owe me twenty bucks now!”
“Fine.” The younger responded reluctantly, unconvinced. “He ruined Mayflower’s prestige anyway.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t the most beloved quarterback in Philly Eagle’s history more than qualified for the Fête?”
“I mean, yeah. But what about his latest drug abuse, drunk driving three months ago, and the rumors about him having an affair?”
“You see, being a good person is not a rigid criterion for success and fame.”
“Then what are the ‘rigid criteria,’ brother?”
“Luck, I guess.”
The conversation made him immediately break free from the flimsy covering twining on his body and rush down the stairs of his apartment to the news kiosk by the street in his pajamas. Among the commuting crowd—all in almost identical suites and with expressionless countenance—of the seven o’clock Los Angeles, he was unique, in a comical manner, like a clown escaped from a circus troupe. Despite that, he caught the eyes of nobody. Perhaps the city had never been short on clowns. He threw a few coins into the glass jar, snatched the newspaper from the old booth owner, and began perusing the guest list for his name. His recklessness didn’t frighten the old woman: he was the most loyal customer of her news kiosk for the past thirty years, only for this particular day annually.
As one of the first secondary education institutions established in Massachusetts in 1721, his alma mater’s name spoke for itself: the Mayflower High School, carrying over the Pilgrim’s mission of nurturing the nation’s future for generations. A hundred and twenty-three Olympic medals, eighty Nobel Prizes, Fifty-one Oscars, Forty-eight Grammys, and thirty-six Pulitzers placed the school at the pinnacle of its kind. Along with the splendid statistics, the academy was famed for its long-standing tradition of hosting a feast, named the John Winthrop Fête after the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, for a hundred of its outstanding alumni on its August twenty-first anniversary. The value of the meal lies not in its Michelin-level food but in the recognition of one’s accomplishment as a past member of the Mayflower community. It’s one of the most reputable awards in the states, without an award. Each year, all those nominated for the Fête will only be notified through newspaper announcements on August tenth, another “Mayflower thing” observed since the 1800s.
His usually washed-out blue pupils were as concentrated as a glossy sapphire when he was skimming through the Fête’s nomination on the front page of the newspaper, muttering those listed big names. The sheen in his eyes turned dimmer as he moved down the roster, which eventually faded when he reached the end. He lifted his sight from the newspaper and started staring at the kiosk owner dully, an expression similar to that when he arrived. The old woman groaned—she was so accustomed to this lifeless look on his face but had prayed to see something new every August. For the thirtieth time, she knew, he was not invited.
Who would have imagined that such an unkempt individual in his nightwear was once a member of the Mayflower? As a man in his forties, he was nowhere near the image of a typical eminent Mayflower graduate, nor was he close to the Mayflower student stereotype as a teenager. Like all others, he had in hand one of those “career goals” to cope with tedious yet frequent inquiries like “What do you want to be in the future?” Yet, his goal was rather an odd one with “little ambition.” Unlike those expected “Mayflower-style” answers like “being a NASA rocket engineer,” “being one of the Forbes World’s Billionaires,” or “being an NBA star”—answers that are aspiring and grandiose enough to earn praise and satisfactory looks from adults—he aimed to be a screenwriter, “What’s so good about being a screenwriter?” The one preoccupied the most was his mother, who was unemployed after divorcing his unfaithful father but still donated all her savings to Mayflower to get him a spot. She was on the edge of being unable to support the family financially, and counting on her investment to allow her son to go to Mayflower, which she saw as the first crucial step leading to his sequential success in life, to pay off. The latter’s intention of being a screenwriter certainly stifled her plan at its first stage. After sensing the possibility of his Mayflower tuition being thrown into the ocean like a needle, failing to stir the slightest ripple, she began to placate herself that his dream was merely an empty talk of an impulsive teen and that he would reconsider his career in a more serious manner when applying to universities.
Although it shouldn’t be surprising to her when he submitted his college application, selecting literature as his prospective major without conferring with her, they still broke into a fierce wrangle. She reprimanded him for wasting his Mayflower advantage on pursuing screenwriting and swore to pay for neither his toll nor college fees. Yet these verbal threats would never daunt a vigorous and rebellious youth like him, who requested a tuition loan and planned to discharge it with a ten-dollar hourly cashier job at the coffee shop in the community. He deemed it his first ideal occupation to earn a decent proportion of his tuition and escape his mom’s spittle simultaneously. But how could a daily income of a few dozen dollars enable him to clear his college tuition of several tenths of thousands? Luckily, his mother, despite being engulfed by wrath, could do this simple mathematic calculation. She secretly settled the debt and bought him a train ticket to California.
On the day of his departure, she drove him to the depot of the county. They were so taciturn that a stranger would assume he called a ride-hailing service. Upon arrival at the platform, he quickly snatched the backpack she handed over, almost like a robber with a guilty conscience, and sprinted toward his carriage without any reluctance. And at that very moment, her irritation vanished and was replaced by gushing tears, turning herself into a part of the conventional farewelling crowd, unnoticed.
During his first four years of college in Cali, he immersed himself in composition, fabricating one fantasy after another, but none of them were able to secure him a stable job as a screenwriter after he stepped away from campus. He engaged in a myriad of short-term occupations — typist, staff of advertising agencies, and salesman, none of which were relevant to screenwriting — maybe he was simply under pressure from his merciless landlady to disburse rent on time, or perhaps he could not readily admit his failure in this wager with his mom.
Still, he attributed his initial failure in the job market to the insufficient attractiveness of his movie scripts. At least, that was what the adults used to inculcate during his time in Mayflower: “The one that studies more painstakingly receives a higher score.” Hence, for an extended period, he overdrew himself in the dull routine of withstanding his fastidious boss during the day while writing endlessly at night. His colleagues were often astounded by his overly docile and apologetic character, using him as the cathartic outlet for the oppression they endured from the higher-ups. To him, though, all these adversaries were minor challenges necessary for foreshadowing the ultimate climax of his movie of life in which he was the protagonist underdog destined to become an extraordinary screenwriter. So the more he suffered, the more fulfilled he felt.
Relentlessly he hustled between production companies to promote his story. He even bought a stainless white suit for this at the cost of starving for nearly a week, but it was worth it; at least he looked like Hollywood personnel from the outside.
Although he was once crowned the monthly champion salesman of television by the supermarket he was employed in, he could hardly persuade the producers to invest in his movie scripts. His interviewers often interrupted his peddling with, “we will inform you when necessary,” and a fake smile — he has become an expert at discerning the authenticity of these smiles after beholding them daily. What incensed him the most were cases when he peeped back into the glassed office on his way out after being dispatched and saw the interviewer heedlessly pile his script on a deck of scrap papers. “What a dressed-up beast!” he inveighed soundlessly, grinding his teeth with his mouth shut: not out of hatred but because of his endeavor to chew and digest his grievances internally. His lips trembled, and he felt every syllable of profanity tearing and pounding them, but he dared not to open his mouth for a single bit.
“I just need that tiny bit of luck,” he always comforted himself.
His mom made a video call to him via FaceTime every other week. Nonetheless, he never picked up her first calls due to their unpredictability as he would have to tidy his room hastily beforehand—those spitballs of his rejected scripts and paper scraps he generated when venting his resentment through paper tearing. Sometimes, he even forced himself to shower, anticipating it to wash away the almost perpetual tiredness he gave off to anyone sizing him up. She constantly implored him to send her his address in California, on the ground that she wanted to send him some of his favorite childhood snacks. However, he could always think of a way to prevaricate. He deliberately talked to her in a cocky tone, telling her that he lived in Beverly Hills and was tired of all the daily delicacies of endless Wellington steak and Lafite. When asked about his screenwriting career, he would brag about how he was exerting all his current effort on revising the screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster directed by James Cameron that would be shown five years later. She nodded calmly, smiling whenever he mentioned “his Cameron movie,” exhibiting no excitement. Maybe she had seen through his lie long ago, or maybe she just paid all her attention to scrutinizing his face. On a few occasions, she apologized for her incomprehension with his dream:
“You know, kid, mom is sincerely sorry about scolding you for wanting to be a screenwriter. Your Mayflower teachers and friends had come to me several times. They all commented that you are a genius writer and possess a fantastic imagination. Kid, mama has been wrong for all these years. You are born to be a screenwriter!”
After years of scrabbling, though, his indignation gradually dissipated, and his shouts turned hoarse amidst others’ perfunctory language and rejections. He longed to resuscitate the pain that once tormented him because he knew that numbness marks the actual death of a person. He became apt at bearing a smile when the producers criticized his ideas, fawning at the production company during his interview, and bowing unctuously at his interviewers before leaving the room —he could execute these procedures so smoothly that they appeared to be programmed into his body. Instead of pursuing his career as a screenwriter, he found himself being a professional interviewee. One of his interviews was interrupted by his uncle’s call, in which he was informed that his mom had died, being shot on her way back from retrieving her governmental subsidies. To his shock, he uncontrollably hung up the phone immediately after replying with an “OK” emotionlessly and even squeezed out a beam to his interviewer.
Correspondingly, there was a slight variation in the scripts he produced: they continued to demonstrate proficient use of language and were as intriguing as before, but the stories themselves conveyed an increasingly heavy sense of forgery. He perused the works of great writers, attempting to retrieve his story writing skills, but no matter how elaborate and delicate the details in his stories were, that sense of fakeness never faded. He had never realized that it was not his skills that were rusted but, in fact, his belief in the truthfulness of his own stories. It had turned out to him that these stories were only materials required for his interview, similar to his resume.
“Ma, who drew these black marks on your forehead?” he asked, rubbing his mom’s brow, hoping to erase those wrinkles.
“Let me tell you a secret, my dear. We are all children of time, and guess what? These wrinkles are the traces she leaves after she kisses her favorite child,” his mom bowed down and whispered around his ears.
“Am I also her favorite child, mama?” he gazed at her anticipatingly.
“Of course you are!”
‘“We are all children of time.’ How Funny!” he sneered at his greasy face in the mirror when recalling his dialogue with his mother years ago. Time has acted like a thief in his life, with a pair of invisible and filthy hands going jealously after him for all these years, tearing his glossy hair off wisp by wisp and kneading his skin. He had now transformed into a middle-aged man with a bald pate and a creased countenance. His years of interviewing came to an end after he finally found a relatively stable job, loosely related to story-telling and writing, as a stand-up comedian in a pub. He ultimately gained audiences who appreciated him: a bunch of noisy drunkards. They were deeply fond of his stand-up comedies, especially his vulgar jokes. He was more than satisfied with his status quo, earning a quick bundle of cash from the bar owner every evening after he wrapped up his show. He would then squander them all on alcohol and stumble toward his apartment with an empty pocket early in the morning, dead drunk.
Ten days after returning from the news kiosk that August morning to his rental, a day before the Fête, he discovered an envelope from the Mayflower that said “John Winthrop Fête Invitation” on its front, being placed on the shoe cabinet by the door. The sudden arrival of that invitation letter dragged him into an endless mental conflict. Instead of ecstasy, he wasn't courageous enough to pause his sight on it for even a second most of the time, not to mention to unseal it. The early autumn breeze broke into the room from the ajar window, rustling when it rubbed against the stamps, giving off a sound that he heard as a jibe at his failure. Yet whenever he occasionally made up his mind to unfold the letter, the envelope seemed to flee—he could not find it regardless of how thoroughly he rummaged his room.
The same afternoon, he was informed that he had been replaced by an actor who agreed to a lower salary. The news thumped him in the face and sobered him up. That evening, he delivered the most facetious but successful show of his career: telling jokes with a straight face. The agitated crowd yelled; a few dashed onto the stage and poured liquor on him like they were watering their flowers.
An emaciated man approached him after he stepped out of the spotlight.
“Sir, your performance was awe-inspiring. May I buy you a drink?” the man asked in a voice that was hardly heard in the deafening background music playing in the bar.
“Who are you anyway?” he shouted.
“I am the new actor they hired, sir.”
“Well, good for you.” he headed toward the exit, expressing no interest in the conversation. The man followed him nervously, apologizing.
“Sorry, sir. It’s my first day here. I have never worked in these facilities. Please bear with me if I have done anything inappropriate, sir. I was a screenwriter, but my producer recently fired me. I will laugh aloud if this working experience could help me become half as good as you are, sir.”
“Screenwriter,” the word halted his pace, a word so alien, so jarring, and so refreshing.
He turned around and surveyed the newcomer from head to bottom. The man was in an impeccable white suit on which he noticed a few sallow vestiges — a sign of repeated ironing. He was clean-shaven and had his hair waxed, and he was so neat and courteous that the new actor seemed the only civilized being among a flock of beasts.
For a moment, he tranced and thought he was in front of a mirror, a magical one. The man was like the younger himself, humble but confident with passion and hope sparkling in his pupils.
“Sir? I can get you a cab if you want to leave, sir,” the man’s voice pulled him back.
“You know what? I live just across the street,” he rushed out of the pub and started running toward his apartment, leaving the man standing bewildered in front of the bar exist, yelling.
“Wait, sir! Why are you running? What's the matter? Sir?”
“I have a crucial appointment to meet!” he yelled back.
Upon arrival at the apartment, he had no patience with the elevator and charged up the stairs into his room, almost tripping. He then grabbed that unsealed invitation and embarked on his journey to his high school, the Mayflower.
He was back to where it all started, impulsively - maybe due to the side effect of alcohol, or maybe he was reminded of something he had lost. Thirty years ago, he left like a sailor leaving the shore with a robust body and an unswerving determination to ride the waves. Now he returned, soaked, lying on the remains of his ship, and powerlessly paddling toward the shore with a cracked oar. The scene made it difficult not to arouse fear among those standing on the coast, ready to depart.
“Aha, see who’s back! How is everything, our La Mancha boy!”
“Hey, Don Quixote, who fights the wild cat! Still remember me?”
“Believe it or not, I can still recite the spells you came up with!”
His buddies, all renowned and affluent, and teachers from high school all addressed him by his nickname. He was shocked that they still remembered this “La Mancha boy,” his “mysterious magical forest,” and all those hilarious and weird battles he fought under the name of “Don Quixote.” His face blushed in shame: he was the only one who had forgotten them.
The crowd soon gathered in an open space as John Winthrop’s descendant commenced the celebration with a welcoming speech. The weeping sound soon scattered in his surroundings as the mood turned emotional when most participants recollected their times in high school, which kept him wondering how many traumas these souls had all experienced after graduation.
He was in no disposition for sobbing, though, and he snuck out. His heart was pumping as he trotted toward the back of the boys’ dorm. The campus had been renovated after he left, which stirred a swirl of fear in his heart. “It will not be gone, it will not be gone,” he repeated, quickening his steps. His taut face smoothened as those sounds penetrated his eardrums: chirping, swishing, and whooshing, all resonating inside him and leading him toward it.
He finally took a long breath after it was revealed in front of him – the “Neverland” or “the magical forest,” according to his friends. The forest has constantly been intruding on his dreams lately, and he woke up crying afterward every time. It was the origin of his screenwriting dream that revealed the allure of imagination to him; it was his armor and sword against unhappiness during high school; it was also his pandora’s box, unbridling all the agonies that came along afterward.
He loved it. He hated it.
His destiny was intertwined with the “Neverland” thanks to a mysterious movie with an identical name. It was allegedly a low-budget, maiden movie written and filmed by one of the most celebrated directors, who temporarily resided in the nearby town for a year before he moved to Los Angeles and rose to fame. However, the director somehow erased all records of Neverland and denied all rumors of its existence after his first Hollywood film, which he declared as his “maiden” work, received tremendous success. While the public and the nation's film industry were astonished by the director’s unrealistically mature filming technique in his “maiden” film, only a few of his neighbors in the town knew about Neverland. The movie, most of which was filmed in Mayflower's “magical forest,” was said to be the director's clumsy imitation of Harry Potter.
He was deeply fascinated by the myth of Neverland in middle school, for which he investigated tons of documents and the director’s biography for the slightest evidence. Although there was no direct clue about the film, all side proofs verified the hearsay about Neverland. He learned that the director used to be a screenwriter who moved to the nearby town after being dismissed by a production company in another city, in the hope of encountering new opportunities. Moreover, the director’s autobiographies presented an abnormal lack of description of the year he spent in Massachusetts, often equivocated with general expressions like “I loafed away my time in that dejected year.” He also remembered seeing a debit note, framed on the wall of the local photo studio with his autograph, for borrowing video cameras and tripods. With all the evidence he had gathered, there was only a final step before confirming the presence of Neverland: visiting the forest.
"Neverland" was highly secluded—the towering thick trunks drew a clear boundary to the outer world by packing together and building a wooden wall. The only entrance was a tiny opening between the branches with the exact width and height of his body: the hole was as if built exclusively for him by the forest, welcoming this curious explorer. He was immediately in love with "Neverland" after only timidly poking his head inside the wooden wall. Each trunk, branch, and leaf were slightly disparate in color. A single red color, for example, possessed dozens of variations on leaves: crimson, maroon, ruby, and burgundy. These colors on surfaces were reflected and mixed in the air, producing an aurora—like spectrum. The forest was also covered in a carpet of multicolored leaves adhering to each other. Yet whenever he walked on it, the leaves would disperse at his foothold, exposing the mud beneath; they would then reassemble after the foot was lifted. The wind was blowing at the same frequency as his heartbeat and was visible after crossing over with and being dyed by the floating spectrum. Therefore, he could see it naughtily swirling around him.
“This is definitely better than the forbidden forest in Harry Potter!” he cried thrillingly. Not only was he assured that Neverland was filmed in this forest, but he also felt pitiful at the director's lack of appreciation of "Neverland." Was being famous more attractive than witnessing all these miracles? He quietly pledged that one day he would pay back the forest with a film that the director owed.
Throughout his four years in Mayflower, he spent countless afternoons immersed in the woods, designing the plots and crafting the properties for his version of Neverland, when his classmates devoted themselves to afterschool curriculums. He used to wear “capes" made of large banana leaves and swaggered about in the classroom. And he always carried a few wooden sticks, his “wands,” with him. Once, the student sitting next to him during lunch mistook and ate his bag of chips. He stood up solemnly, bowed to him, and proclaimed his decision to duel with him in the tone of a sixteen-century British noble. Under the student's bewildered expression and the laughter of others in the dining hall, he pulled out his second-longest wooden stick, pointed it toward the student, and began chanting his spells. Despite being baffled by the situation, the student still wittily cooperated with him and fell "dead" on the ground.
They loved him.
“Hey, you stepped on my wand!”
A boy’s voice dragged him out of his memory. Only then did he realize that he was in the leafy shade, and there was a boy in a windbreaker standing in the sunlight not far away. A beam of light leaked from among the leaves, hitting the boy’s thin but vital face, and the bristling hair on the top of his head shone brightly.
He was a little dazed, was it because of the dizzy ray? The resolute eyes of the young man seemed to have been seen elsewhere.
“Please move your foot away, my wand will be broken by you.” The boy pointed to his feet.
“Your wand?” He glanced at a wooden stick under his feet and blurted out, “This is obviously...”
“It's obviously a wooden stick, right? I know what you are going to say.” The boy shook his head helplessly, then knelt to pick up the wood and patted the dirt on it.
“Adults, why is your world so boring? You must know that every tree here has its name. Many of them are older than my grandparents! But even after being burned by fire and struck by lightning, they still stand here. And these, the wooden sticks in your view, do you think they can only be sent into the fireplaces as firewood? In the wizarding world, every wand is made of wood.” The boy grabbed several of his “magic wands,” drawing a few symbols in the air.
“I know...” How could he not understand? He has been weaving dreams in this magical forest for four years and has also enchanted many wooden sticks to become “magic wands,” but since he walked out of the woods, his spells have failed, his magic has disappeared, and finally, even his dream, the only relic of his Mayflower era, was swallowed by the vicious “dragon” of reality.
“Here, it’s a present for you.” The boy picked out a wooden stick and handed it over.
“Thank you, but I don't know magic. I can’t turn it into a magic wand as you did.” He said to the boy sincerely.
“Actually...” the boy hesitated momentarily and said, “I don’t have magic either. The older we grow up, the less we believe in magic, right? I am not stupid! I don’t think they are magic wands. But we always have to believe in something and stick to something. So, it was a wand, it is a wand, and it will always be a wand, deal?”
He fell into silence for a while.
“It's getting late, I have to go back. Mom’s dinner is probably ready.” The boy left him contemplating in situ, holding a bunch of sticks.
“By the way, I don't know your name yet?” He suddenly called at the boy’s back.
“They all call me ‘La Mancha Boy’ or ‘Don Quixote versus Wildcats.’” The boy cried in return and ran away.
The sunlight followed the young man away. Even though he couldn't see the boy running, he could still hear his voice lingering in the “Neverland”: “Adults, believe it, then it is NOT A STICK!”
“BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!” His crappy alarm on his bedside cupboard screamed and quaked violently, to which it almost fell to the floor. He rubbed his eyes, it was ten in the morning of August twenty-first, and he was lying on the ground near his porch in the crumpled shirt he wore for his last performance at the bar. The room was congested with the smell of alcohol, and the envelope was on the floor near him, half-opened, with his askew handwriting on the front: “John Winthrop Fête Invitation.”
That afternoon, he appeared in front of an office building at Hollywood Boulevard with his new script that he completed during the noon: “Please, Protect Your Piece of Neverland.” On the other side of the street was a screen that was live broadcasting the opening ceremony of the John Winthrop Fête.
Ithaca, New York
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