Peer Review by David M. (United States)

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Second Star to the Right

By: ...emily

They kept him hidden under disappointed sighs and thin smiles, banishing him to a half-life when they murmured, “Oh, he’s no one, dear.” Saying it made it true. He was no one, he was nothing, he was spirit fumes and smoke.

They swept him under the rug like startled hostesses, realizing they had forgotten to get rid of offending dirt. With slight curtsies and hasty apologies, they welcomed me as a guest and led me to a seat, trampling his grave of Persian carpet. I shifted my eight-year-old body for a more comfortable fit, but the armchair was stiff with lies.

Our meeting held many firsts. He was the first man I’d seen with hair longer than mine and the first man who smoked—really smoked with a cigarette and everything—in front of me. My face flamed when he cussed, but I liked the way he swished the word down with his Miller Light, his lips curling into a smile when my mother hissed at him. 

His stringy mane and beard were almost regal, and his eyes were green as seaweed and as murky as Louisiana swamp water. A disciple of the sea and a loiterer of the docks, the air around him was distinctly salty. Without a net to mend or an oyster to crack, his rough hands found his pack of Camels and lit up. After the first time, he was careful to hide them from me, but I spied on him when he slipped into the garage, watching as he puffed clouds of nicotine.  Hidden in the haze, unbridled at last, dreams could be dwelt on, and desires could tiptoe out of dark crevices. There was no shame in his smoke—only obscurity. Unseen in the fog, he was no one, he was nothing, but he was free. So free that he floated up and out of society’s sphere and into another world.

When the encounter was cut short, they tried to render him bodiless and fashion him into a ghost once more, but I had already touched him and decided he was very much alive. His strong bones, oiled at the joints with whisky and gin, hummed with an infectious boyishness. Peter Pan of the Sea, vanquisher of the clean and tidy, he sprinkled ash like pixie dust and became the stuff of legend for my brother and I.

I’d become a giantess by our second meeting—10-year-olds were practically adults—and I resolved to stick to him like a suckerfish, even if the respectable relatives shooed me away in hopes of preserving my virtue.  During the drive to my aunt’s house, Grandma said he smelt like a barbeque pit, but I thought he smelt like s’mores—I had always liked mine burnt.

Peter Pan was playing cool today, legs propped up on a crate, cigarette hanging from his lower lip, and I thought if he weren’t so old, he would be the sort of guy my friends would save dandelion wishes for. His smile, now yellowed, still had a lazy charm, and I wondered how many girls once dreamed about that impish grin. 

 I observed behind hooded lids as he lounged, laying bare his secrets. Sun-baked skin from the docks, hair inspired by rock bands, a stoic expression learned from the navy.  I longed to steal his ash tray, to toss the embers on the breeze, and walk through a curtain of sparks, emerging on the other side of society, where nights were longer, but where truth was shining, with freedom abound.

I was toeing the ground, dragging a line into the dirt, eying his half of the world where the law was lawlessness, and people did what they wanted simply because they wanted it.

 I wanted to step over the line.

So I did.

It wasn’t quite like Neverland, but it wasn’t like the safety behind my mother’s skirts, either. I took greedy gulps of his toxic, secondhand smoke, pretending I, too, could conquer this king of killers. He grinned, I grinned back, and I was almost flying when the relatives returned and dragged me back to the ground.

I never saw him again, but they told me the cancer took half his tongue, half his jaw, and all his pride. For a fisherman, he didn’t know much about lures—he was hooked from the first puff, the first swig, the first jab of the needle.  

Now in his patched up trailer, he waits for the pixies to spirit him away. We wait for the phone call, for the death of someone forever young.

And I am left to wonder if chemotherapy is a fair price to pay for a life of sweet, reckless abandon.



I would appreciate any thoughts on this project's clarity, story-flow, and emotional impact. Please feel free to nitpick at stilted prose, grammar, or diction! In the first paragraph, "Spirit fumes" refers to the fumes of alcohol, but I'm not sure that comes across. If anyone has suggestions on how I could reword that but still convey the same idea, I offer you virtual cookies of gratitude:)  

Peer Review

Wow. The subject matter is interesting, to be sure, but not exactly unique. What makes this piece stand out is the gorgeously vivid way in which you describe it. From the very first sentence your imagery is incredibly strong. You do a fantastic job throughout of keeping us engaged, doling out information, and keeping your descriptions colorful and evocative.

Probably the sense of adventure -- that there are people who lead far more interesting and exciting lives than I do, and the yearning to live that more adventurous life.

There is basically one scene, that of the first meeting, and even then, there's not much scene there. The whole piece is basically a character portrait; it's not so much a personal narrative as a portrait of a significant figure from your childhood. I don't think that's bad. I think this piece is wonderful as it is. But if you want to make it more narrative you can trim down a bit of the description (though I don't want you to!) and add in more scenes of your interaction with him and with the idea of him.

Absolutely. It was a powerful emotional punch, and delivered on the tension you established -- his enthralling bad-boy-ness, but the danger of his lifestyle.

Reviewer Comments

I'm sorry I don't have more comments to offer... but this piece is just so good, I don't see any way to comment! I could color it yellow with "this image is incredible," but I don't think you need that. Rest assured that you've written a truly incredible piece!