Jefferson didn’t know what to expect. He hadn’t set foot in Wonderland in almost thirty years. When he was younger, Wonderland would change every so often. After Alice had come to live with him in the Enchanted Forest, they had arrived one morning to find that the Red Queen’s reign had mysteriously ended and the Queen of Hearts took over. Wonderland shifted and changed to accommodate her. Sometimes it did so without reason. Roads would move from one side of the maze to the other. The color of the sky would change, or the location of certain patches of mushrooms.
He never saw it moving or changing. They always occurred while he was out, and none of Wonderland’s residents seemed to notice. Alice only remarked on it once or twice but never got lost. And once he got used to the difference, he started to wonder if it had ever changed at all.
They spent less time in Wonderland after Alice came to stay with him. They did jobs in other lands when they needed the money. But for the most part, they spent the early months of their marriage focused only on each other and their cottage, until Alice’s supply of gold began to dwindle.
Wonderland could be completely different now, full of new and scary creatures. He could die at any time. He could step through that portal and never see Grace or Alice ever again.
He trusted that Emma and her family would care for Grace if he never made it back. He couldn’t stand back and wait for a sign of Alice any longer. She was inside that portal somewhere. He didn’t know what state she was in without her heart, but he had to bring her home. And he’d never forgive himself if he didn’t try. He’d never be able to look Grace in the eyes and tell her that he hadn’t even tried to bring her mother home to her.
So he jumped.
The cold hit him like a brick wall when his feet touched the slippery earth. It felt like ice in his nose, and it was so sharp and sudden he found himself on his knees with his hands slipping over a layer of frost on the road.
The road was definitely there, winding and twisting its way down the hill to the hedges off in the distance. The sky was a deep dark purple, with swirling blue clouds that looked like a storm. But frost and snow had stuck to every surface. Blades of tall grass sagged into the road from the weight. Everywhere he looked was pale and white.
There was no color in the land anymore. Even though everything on the ground was white, from the blades of grass to the hedges far off, the land appeared hazy and dark. The longer he stood there, the more he could make out Wonderland’s unique scents. Not the way he remembered it. But the smell of decaying leaves and rotting trees.
He took a deep breath and then tried not to breathe through his nose. Then he stood to his feet and headed down the hill, slipping on the ice and trying not to touch anything to catch his balance. He didn’t know where to find any of the creatures he’d known in his youth, but he hoped that he would find something familiar that might lead him in the right direction. But he wasn’t even sure what he’d do if he did find her. The portal might not let the both of them back through. Maybe he could force her to go by herself. Give Grace a mother in exchange for a father.
He decided not to think about it until he had to. He would figure things out as he went along. For now, his goal was simple. He just had to confirm that Alice was alive. And once he knew for sure, he could focus on getting her back home.
Wonderland was silent, and it set his nerves on edge. Once or twice he thought he caught whispering from inside the blades of icy grass, but nothing appeared on the road. There were no footprints in the frost. He couldn’t even find the patch of mushrooms they’d claimed as their own so many years ago. Back when Wonderland was still alive and vibrant.
It was dying. He could feel it as he walked. The bricks in the road were crumbling and cracked beneath the frost. The weight of ice on the grass was almost too much for the blades to carry. They sagged into the road, giving the place a more wild and dangerous look than he remembered. The sky churned, but there were no sounds from above. No thunder, no birds, no animals. Nothing but quiet whispers of unfelt breezes as he slipped and slid along the path. Even the few mushrooms he found appeared soggy beneath the layer of frost.
“What happened here?” he asked himself as he ran his fingers over a big mushroom to wipe away the ice. The skin beneath was wrinkled and orange instead of the bright cherry red he remembered.
“You’re late,” a voice said from behind him.
He jolted and spun around, expecting the Queen’s guard or worse. But it was only a rabbit. A white one. Standing in the middle of the broken and cracked road. He wore a thick coat and glasses but otherwise appeared like a perfectly normal rabbit. Albeit a large one. He was holding a pocket watch that Jefferson knew went counterclockwise, but always seemed to make sense to the animal.
“Beg pardon?” he asked.
“You’re late,” the rabbit informed him.
“You were waiting for me?”
“Goodness, no. The Queen has been expecting you.” Jefferson gulped and took a step away from the creature. His foot slipped on an upturned stone.
“I’m not here to see the Queen. I’m here to find Alice.”
“Alice?” The rabbit looked confused. It blinked at him with beady black eyes. “Alice? What’s an Alice?” Jefferson wanted to lift the rabbit by his coat and shake him.
“Don’t you remember? The girl who fell through the rabbit hole? Your rabbit hole? You brought her here.” The rabbit blinked a few more times.
“Oh,” he said with sudden realization. “Yes, Alice. I remember Alice.”
“Do you know where she is? What happened to her?”
“Alice is gone. She hasn’t been here for some time.”
“She has to be here. Where else could she be?”
“Alice has forgotten Wonderland. And Wonderland has forgotten Alice. Alice is gone.” Jefferson sighed heavily. He hated that he could never get a straight answer out of these creatures.
“Do you have any idea where she is?” he decided to ask, though he didn’t expect a reply. The creatures in Wonderland hardly ever answered the way you expected. The rabbit took a long time to think about it before blinking up at him again.
“The Queen of Hearts took her head. She went to the place where all creatures go when they’ve lost their heads.”
“The Queen took my head too. And I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Of course you did. You went to the place all creatures go when they’ve lost their heads.”
“And where is that exactly?”
Jefferson ground his teeth. He hated being called “mad.” He and Alice used to throw the word around in jest. It seemed so silly at the time. Just a joke about how unusual they were in their own lands. But it had been torture for him for so long. He remembered what Emma said when he tried to convince her of the truth. She called him insane. Distaste and pity all at once. It left the same sour feeling in his gut.
“Then I guess I’ve wasted my trip,” he said. “I’ll get going now.”
“No, no. You can’t go. The Queen is expecting you.”
“I’m not here to see the Queen. I won’t see the Queen. Not again.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, Mr. Jefferson.”
The guards' armor made a distinct shuffling noise as they ran. He heard the armor shifting before he saw them. Their feet hit the broken and cracked road without slipping on the ice. He spun back around to face the rabbit as he tried to figure out how quickly he could get back to his portal.
“You work for her now?” he spat, disgusted at the creature for siding with the enemy. The rabbit only blinked in confusion.
“Why I’ve always worked for her,” he said.
The guards were getting closer, and Jefferson was running out of time. He’d have to come back to Wonderland when he had a better plan. So he took off at a run up the road where he’d left the portal waiting. His feet slipped on the ice, and it is hard to stay on his feet. He should have come with weapons, and if he could get back in time, he’d be able to equip himself better.
He caught sight of the portal up the road, but something shot at him from the bottom of the hill and struck him in the shoulder. His feet slipped out from under him, and he hit the ground and slid back down several feet before coming to a stop. Before he could jump back to his feet, someone shoved him face first into the road and yanked his arms behind his back.
“No, please?” he begged. “I have a daughter. I have to get home to my daughter. I didn’t take anything. Please? Just let me go.”
“Trespassers go to the Jabberwock,” the guard told him. “As decreed by the Red Queen.”
“I didn’t take anything, I swear,” Jefferson pleaded. “I just want to get home to my daughter.”
One of the guards moved to stand before him. His boots were made of white instead of red and Jefferson looked up at him, surprised to see his face exposed. The man had hair as black as night and eyes that were vibrantly green in the dreary landscape. He held his hand over the hilt of his sword and cocked his head to the side as he examined his prisoner.
“You shouldn’t have come back to this place,” he said. Then he turned to the guards that were holding Jefferson down on the cold stone road. “This one doesn’t go to the Jabberwock. The Queen has been expecting him.”
“But sir,” a guard argued.
“I said take him to the Queen.”
They reluctantly followed orders and lifted Jefferson off of his feet. They dragged him back down the road, kicking and yelling. He couldn’t lose Grace again. He couldn’t put her at risk by leaving that portal open. He knew that’s what the Queen really wanted. He was foolish to come back to Wonderland. Foolish for believing that Alice could still be alive. It had probably been a trap planned from the start. Now he was going to lose Grace all over again, all for chasing false hope. And this time, he didn’t think he’d ever get her back.