21. Chapter Twenty-One
Jefferson didn’t want to let Grace go. After they finished with their dinner, they chose a movie to watch together. She fell asleep on the stuffy couch, and he didn’t bother to get up and carry her to her bed. She had school in the morning, but he didn’t want to be parted from her. His heart was full of regret and guilt. He was afraid if he left her, he might never see her again.
He fell asleep on the couch beside her and dreamt that white roses had wrapped around his body. He couldn’t move as the thorny vines constricted him like snakes. He could feel the thorns digging into his skin and the frozen dirt smothering him as they dragged him down through the snow and earth. He opened his mouth to scream as they pulled him under, the dirt choked him and he could do nothing as the vines consumed him. He was left in the dark with nothing but the light of his own beating heart.
He woke with a start in the living room. Grace was still asleep on the couch at his side. She’d have to wake up in a few hours to get ready for school. So he finally moved off of the couch, lifted her into his arms and carried her up the stairs to her room. She didn’t wake up as he laid her down on the bed and tucked her blanket under her chin. She merely hummed in her sleep and pulled a stuffed rabbit to her chest. He pressed a kiss to her head and left the room with the door cracked.
Sleep was calling to him again. He was so exhausted. But sleep always eluded him. When Grace was gone, he couldn’t sleep without seeing her face as she cried out for him, begging him to take her back home to the forest. But now that he had her, Alice consumed his dreams. Sometimes he would find her dead and decaying in Wonderland, sobbing as she asked him why he’d left her there all alone. Sometimes the dreams were pleasant, and they would be back in Wonderland under the mushrooms wrapped in her cloak. Sometimes the dreams were normal. And he would simply find her in their cottage back home, holding Grace against her chest as she hummed to herself. It didn’t matter what he dreamt; he always woke up afraid and in pain and more tired than he’d been to start with.
He crept to his bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. He pinched his tired eyes and leaned against his hands. But the feeling of dirt and snow in his throat and thorns in his skin had his eyes shooting back open. He just wanted to sleep. To dream of nothing and be free of guilt and pain. But Alice was haunting him, and now he understood why. She was still alive and somewhere across all the realms and the worlds that separated him, she still called out to him. He hated himself for never knowing until now, and he knew he’d never rest until she was beside him again.
Mr. Gold brought Alice through once before. He’d used magic to turn a mirror into her looking-glass. But he had nothing left to give Mr. Gold. He knew his wealth and the things he owned wouldn’t interest the man. He would have to give something of greater value. Another dangerous favor or the only thing left that Jefferson still loved. Grace.
He couldn’t trust anyone to help him. It was something he’d have to do on his own. So he stood and returned to the bottom floor to shut all the lights off and make sure the doors were locked. Then he stepped out into the backyard on the cool green grass. The rose bushes lined the property beneath a brick wall. So that no one would be able to get over without falling into thorns. It was a big wide yard where Grace could play, and he could watch her without constricting her. Sometimes she liked to go out there on warm days and play tea party with her dolls among the red roses.
Jefferson hadn’t planted them. He never cared for them. They came along with Regina’s curse so that he could never forget what he’d lost. When he’d been stuck in that house all alone, he never went out into the yard because everywhere he looked he was reminded of Alice and the thing that had taken her from him. Now he stood in the grass, taking in the shape and color of every bloom.
Grace thought he was making the roses white. The roses had been red, but the color was fading. Not into a lovely soft pink, but a muddy color like fading blood on a white cloth. Some of the roses had already turned solid white as if they’d been bleached by the sun. He walked across the yard to the closest bush. Most of them were that dull color, but he touched his thorn scratched fingers to one that was as pure and white as the moon. As white as the roses he’d torn from Alice’s grave. He’d never maintained them. Never cared for them. Even after the curse broke. But the petals were soft and smooth and without imperfection.
It was magic. Just like the roses in her grave. No one had put them there, and no one tended to them. Whoever buried Alice’s heart had left nothing but a heart and a headstone. Maybe no one buried it either. Maybe it came over with the curse because it was already in the Enchanted Forest. Regina didn’t keep it in her collection because Regina didn’t have it. Magic had caused the roses to grow above Alice’s heart. Magic was turning the roses white. They were trying to tell him something.
He stayed out there until the sun came up and all of the colors had drained from the blossoms, leaving each and every one of them that icy pale shade. It was as if the sky itself had leeched the red from the roses and used the color to paint the clouds. When the sun was up, he turned and left the yard.
Once Grace had disappeared on her school bus, he returned to the yard. This time, he set the icy blue hat on his head and carried a tea tray out onto the small table he’d set outside for Grace and her parties. His silver teapot balanced on the tray with the painted teacup and the box that contained Alice’s heart.
He wasn’t sure what he was doing or if it would even work, but he had to try. He couldn’t sit still and wait for something else to happen. For the first time in years, that glimmer of hope was bursting in his chest like a flowering seed. He took the hat off and set it in the center of the small table. Then he poured out a cup of tea and carefully placed it inside the hat. The old one had required magic. Maybe this one needed a particular kind of magic.
He wasn’t sure if it would work, and he felt foolish to even try, but the cup had guided him to her heart, and maybe it could take him to her. He took a deep breath and lifted the lid of the box to expose her pulsing heart.
“Take me to her,” he said. “Take me to Wonderland.”
The magic zipped through the air like the crackle of electricity. The tea in the cup didn’t shimmer like a mirror like it had before, but there was a spark in the air around him. And then finally, the hat began to tremble. Magic swirled around it in puffs of purple clouds, until it was spinning and opening itself wide enough for him to jump inside. He stood on the edges of the portal laughing as he peered inside.
I started making a mood board because I was bored and not doing homework (as usual), but also too distracted for writing. But I had like 1,000 pictures I wanted to use or liked for various reasons and most of them had to get cut to make room. BUT THEY WERE SO PERFECT/AND OR PRETTY.
So I started making individual chapter banners out of them and found other pictures to fill in for the ones I didn't have. Every chapter so far has one already if you want to check them out and I'll post the mood board after a specific chapter because it's kind of spoilery.