Grace was eager to get home after school the next day. She could hardly sit still all day long and anxiously took the first seat on the bus so that she could get out quickly once it stopped in front of the large house she shared with her father.
Ever since the curse had broken and she moved into the house, she would come home from school to find him waiting for her in the kitchen. He would make her tea in a silver pot and they would sit at the small table in the living room by the window. He would sit attentively while she told him about her day. He never talked about himself, and she hated that she barely knew him. That didn’t mean she didn’t try. It was just that whenever questions about his past arose, he would somehow find a way to turn the focus back on her. He loved hearing her stories about school and her passions and quirks. But when the day was over and she would pretend to sleep in her quiet room, he would retire to his room of hats and she would feel like she barely knew him at all.
She knew basic things. His name was Jefferson. He had brown hair and blue eyes. He took his tea with milk and one teaspoon of sugar, which she thought just couldn’t possibly be sweet enough to be tolerable. He always drank out of a teacup with a saucer, no matter what. And he always took his tea with one cookie. Just one. And he would save the rest for her.
There wasn’t much else she knew about him. She knew that he’d come from the Enchanted Forest like the rest of them. But she wasn't sure if he’d been born there or what his childhood was like. She knew he was a portal jumper, but not how he’d become one. She didn’t know his favorite color, or if he’d ever liked to sing. She didn’t even know the name of her own mother.
That was, she didn’t know it until the night before.
She had suspected before that her mother might be the famous Alice. But every time she thought about it her mind would find reasons for why it couldn’t be possible. Alice must have come from England, like in the stories, which would make her too old to be her mother. Or maybe she hadn’t come from England at all. Maybe she came from another realm where time stood still. Henry told her those worlds existed too, and many of those stories had ended up in different books. Alice’s story had been a book. She tried to read it, just to catch a glimpse of her father, but the language itself was so difficult for her to understand that she couldn’t put a face to any of the names that she read. And the hatter in the story didn’t seem much like the hatter in her home at all.
And none of Alice’s stories even suggested she’d ever had a child. And none of them hinted at a relationship between her and the one they called the “Mad Hatter.” Over time, she knew that it had to be her father. If his obsession with hats and the whispers of his madness hadn’t suggested it, Henry’s book definitely confirmed it.
“Hello, my darling,” he said when she entered the house.
She dropped her backpack to the floor and rushed across the room to give him a hug. She gave him the same squeeze every day, and every day he would lift her off her feet and hold her back as if it was the first time in twenty-eight years that he’d been able to hold her.
But the moment only lasted for a few seconds before he set her down and she jumped away, eager to get started on tea so that she could ask the questions that had been plaguing her all day. Jefferson sensed her hurry, and so he took his time pouring out their tea and made a show of taking his time with milk and sugar. She reached for a cookie as she waited, and she swung her feet back and forth as she watched him. His eyes were red again, and she suspected that he hadn’t slept a wink.
She watched him take a seat and then he cautiously sipped tea from a wide white cup, prolonging the inevitable barrage of questions. When his blue eyes finally met her dark ones he could see that she was barely containing her excitement. So he dropped his head in defeat and sighed.
“Alright, alright. Spit it out,” he said. She let out a giggle.
“I want to know everything,” she started, nearly knocking over her teacup in her haste to set down her cookie. His eyebrows rose, making his blue eyes go wide in a silly face that always made her smile. She just couldn’t help but notice how tired he looked.
“What’s everything?” he replied.
“What did she look like? Where did she come from? How did you meet? Were you married? Did she live in our cottage? What happened to all her stuff? What about her family?” His face held onto that same startled expression as he watched the words tumble out of her mouth. He made a a strong emphasis to show his mock concern and when she finally stopped for breath he jumped in to quiet her so she could breathe between questions.
“One at a time. One at a time,” he insisted. So she took a deep breath and let it go.
“Her name was Alice,” she stated. He sipped his tea and nodded slowly.
“What did she look like?”
“She looked like you. Eyes as dark as ink and hair like gold.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Oh, she was beautiful. The second most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. After you.” She giggled again.
“Where did she come from? Was it England? Or was it another realm?” He seemed to think on this for a moment, purposefully taking his time answering.
“Another realm,” he told her. “Much like England, I suppose. I can see how it would be mistaken.”
“Tell me about her.” He nodded slowly and reached for the single cookie he always took with his tea, leaving the rest for her.
“She was a lady,” he told her. “A proper lady. Her father had some sort of fancy title that made him very powerful. They had a lot of plans for her. But she was—curiouser and curiouser. And she had a thirst for adventure and refused to be tied down to standards of society.”
“How did she get to Wonderland?”
“She fell through a rabbit hole when she was about your age,” he said with a nod. She felt giddy excitement bubble inside her chest and she jumped up to sit on her feet, nearly knocking the whole table over. He barely noticed it. After spending so much time taking tea with jittery hares, he didn’t so much as blink when the table shifted.
“So that part of the story was real?” He nodded once again.
“Is that how you met? In the movie she met you when you had tea with the hare.” He seemed alarmed for a moment. Almost offended. Not by her words but by the suggestion that he was anything like the character they portrayed him as. He turned his stricken eyes on her.
“Goodness no,” he said with a shake of his head.
He set his teacup down on a saucer and turned back to her. He crossed his arms over the table, leaning so he could level his face with hers. He remembered the way Alice walked him through proper table manners just in case he ever had to take tea with someone important. He wasn’t supposed to sit slouched with his elbows on the table. Grace wasn’t supposed to sit on her knees and bump up and down. But Alice would have encouraged this misbehavior just for the freedom that came with being improper. He remembered the way she used to smile when she leaned on her elbows and loudly slurped her tea. It was her own private rebellion.
“I’m not half as mad as that,” he told Grace with a lopsided grin.
“Tell me. Tell me,” she begged, making the china shudder in her excitement. His smile fell as he gazed away.
“She was a thief,” he said. He looked back at her face just to see the surprised look in her dark brown eyes. Then he sat back in his seat and lifted his cup and saucer again.
“A thief?” she repeated. He nodded once.
“A thief,” he confirmed. “She was a portal jumper. From a world where high society reined. Women couldn’t hold titles or own land. She was expected to be owned by her father until she could be passed off to a husband.” This time her expression went from surprised to alarmed. He gave her a pointed look. “You can only imagine how well that went over with her. She was curious. Adventurous. Vivacious. A lot like you.” When she smiled he drained his teacup and went to set it aside.
“No, don’t finish. I want to know more,” she pleaded. He reached for the teapot to pour himself another cup. He noticed that she’d barely touched hers, but refilled it anyway just to top it off.
“Ali…” he paused to clear his throat, as if the name was too painful for him to speak out loud. “Your mother—didn’t like being told what to do. Not by anyone. She was expected to find a husband while she was a young. A wealthy man with another one of those fancy titles. She had to be a dutiful and obedient wife who would never be allowed to go anywhere or do anything. And she wanted to escape that. Being a portal jumper granted her a few liberties she wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
“So she was like you. She could travel through realms?” He shrugged, stirring the sugar into his tea with a tiny silver spoon.
“Wonderland was the only realm she could travel to. She discovered it by accident. But once she’d gotten the hang of portal jumping there was nothing that could stop her. But Wonderland isn’t like it is in the movie and the books here. It’s dangerous. And so it really wasn’t the kind of place she wanted to call home. But the things you could find in Wonderland could get you a pretty penny if you found the right buyer. The only way a woman like her could escape the life they planned for her, was to have her own gold.”
“So she had a good reason to steal?” He gave her another look.
“Of course,” he said. “We portal jumpers didn’t steal for the thrill of it. Although…” He gave a partial shrug again, making a silly face that brought a smile to her lips. “That was part of it.”
“You were a thief too?” He made a lot of hand gestures as he debated whether or not he should answer that question honestly.
“I like to think I was an honorable thief,” he said, even though that wasn’t true either. She shook her head, smiling again.
“I just don’t want you to get into any trouble, Papa.” He sighed wistfully.
“I wouldn’t exactly use the word thief,” he finally concluded. “And I suppose she wouldn’t have either. We were—procurers of unique artifacts. Sometimes we did trades, sometimes we stole. Sometimes it was as simple as swapping a teacup for gold, or a single red rose plucked from the Queen’s private garden. Some of those things could hardly be considered stolen, right? But sometimes they threatened to take your head for them. I took the job because I wanted to stay alive. She took the job to escape her life.”
“But no,” he said with another shake of his head, answering a question she hadn’t asked. “She was a child when she fell through the rabbit hole. But not when she started—stealing and trading. I didn’t know her when she was younger. We met when our employers wanted the same artifact and she stole it right out from under my nose.” Her eyes got wide and he offered her another smile. Then he drained the last of his cup and set it back down.
“I think that’s enough for today, Grace. Don’t you have homework to do?” He went to lift the tea tray from the table and she looked disappointed.
“But I have so much more to ask you,” she said. He simply reached out and touched his thumb to the tip of her nose like a button.
“All in time, sweetheart,” he said.
Even though he was smiling, she could see the hurt in his eyes and the way the tray trembled as he held it in his hands. It wasn’t that he wanted to keep the information from her, or that he thought she wasn’t strong enough to handle it. It was that he wasn’t. She watched him carry the tray back into the kitchen and then leaned against the back of her chair. She didn’t want to hurt her father, but she wanted to know so much more.
I forgot what I was going to say about this because there was an ice cream truck outside and I had to chase it down.