Finding Alice

“Every time I close my eyes
It’s like a dark paradise
No one compares to you
But there’s no you,
Except in my dreams tonight.”
-Lana Del Rey

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5. Chapter Five

Grace was the spitting image of her mother. It was no surprise to Jefferson since she’d been born with hair like gold and eyes that grew darker as she got older, but sometimes it still shocked him when he’d see Alice in more than just her physical features. When she took on traits or laughed a certain way. Some part of Alice still existed in Storybrooke. Grace was a constant reminder that he hadn’t imagined Alice at all.

Every so often Alice would shine through despite the fact that they’d never met. Grace acted like Jefferson, speaking like him and mimicking him in the way she swung her hands around when she spoke. Or the silly way she grinned. But now she was sitting at the kitchen table, swinging her legs back and forth. She leaned on her hand as she scribbled on a worksheet from school. She was humming a song. The way Alice used to hum whenever she read books or cooked in the little cottage they shared so briefly before Wonderland took her away.

Grace couldn’t know about Alice’s quirks. She’d only known her long enough to grow in her womb and not a moment longer. Grace never got to hear her mother sing above her cradle. And since Jefferson never spoke of her, Grace couldn’t know the songs of Alice’s world.

He returned to the kitchen counter and leaned against it to rub his eyes. He took a deep breath and waited for the flood of memories to pass. Grace continued to hum behind him, but she didn’t sound like Alice. She sounded like Grace, and he was fairly sure he’d heard that song on one of her morning cartoons. He took comfort in that difference.

He hadn’t stopped thinking about Alice since Grace began the quest for more information. He never wanted to talk about her or tell Grace what really happened. He knew someday she’d grow curious, a trait she’d gotten from both of her parents, and he would be forced to relive the memories he tried to stuff away. So much time had passed since Alice was taken from them. Almost thirty years since he’d woken up in a strange house in a new land where he’d been forced to watch his daughter live her life without him.

Grace was the one good thing he’d done in all his life. The one good choice he made in a long list of dangerous and reckless decisions. Of course, he didn’t regret Alice or the moments they shared. But he regretted their youthful ignorance, the mistakes they made, the choices that led him there. He was too young to be raising a child alone. They could have avoided that. If they’d just stayed away from Wonderland. If he’d only listened to Alice. If Alice had just listened to him. If Grace had just been born anywhere other than Wonderland.

The humming halted, and silence filled the kitchen. They were the only two people in the large house, and there weren’t many neighbors. Regina wanted him to feel alone and isolated again, nothing but a view of town and the house his daughter lived in with her foster family. The silence overwhelmed him, and he tried to avoid it whenever Grace was home from school. He cleared his throat and went back to work on preparing dinner.

“Is everything okay, Papa?” she asked from the table.

“Everything is fine,” he assured her.

He sent her a smile over his shoulder, but she cocked her head to the side. She didn’t believe it. He turned back around and made himself busy chopping vegetables. He hardly cooked at all in the twenty-eight years they were apart, but now that she was there again he tried to cook every night. They were always trying new things, testing the flavors of this new world. The only thing they agreed to never eat again was mushrooms.

“I was just thinking,” he told her.

“About what?” she asked.

“About the questions you’ve been asking. About your mother.”

“Oh.” Her voice sounded faded and distant. As if she could sense her curiosity was causing him pain. “I know it hurts, Papa.” He took another deep breath. She watched his shoulders rise and fall, but he kept his back to her so that he didn’t have to put on a mask and pretend he was just fine.

“I just don’t want you to think I’m keeping things from you. It’s just—it’s not easy for me to talk about. It’s going to break your heart in the end.” The chair slid against the tile as she pushed away from the table. She appeared at his side a moment later. He felt her small hand on his elbow, and he knelt to her level and touched his thumb to her nose. It never failed to make her smile.

“We’ll work through it together,” she promised. His expression went dark again, but he tried to mask it with a smile of his own.

“I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” he said. She knew he truly believed it. She didn’t know how to tell him she thought he deserved more. She knew he wasn’t happy. At least not as happy as he should be.

“I just…” she started, “I feel like it will help the both of us if we talk about her. We never have before. I didn’t even know her name until yesterday.”

“I know,” he replied. He looked guilty, and she squeezed his hand. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you. It’s just never been easy for me to talk about.”

“You loved her.” His eyes went glassy and red again. She knew the answer before he voiced it.

“I did. I always will,” he confirmed. His voice cracked, and her heart ached. Her eyes watered even though she’d never met the woman.

“I want to love her too,” she pleaded. Her voice sounded so soft and sad that he pinched his eyes shut. “I want to miss her like you do.”

He pulled away from her and leaned against the counter as he dropped to the floor. Then he rested his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. Grace sniffed as she took the place beside him. She was surprised at how easily the sorrow came to her. She’d never known her mother and had lived her entire life without her. How could she mourn for someone she’d never known? The conversation had turned disconsolate, and she felt the grief deep within her heart. She didn’t want to hurt her father, but it was a loss they both had to share.

She sniffed, and Jefferson reached out a hand to grasp hers. He held it on his knee as he covered his face with his other hand. He finally moved and turned his red eyes on the kitchen window. The sun was going down and slashed the sky with deep shades of orange. His eyes were wet and even though time had passed, and he should have had plenty of time to grieve and move on, he never would.

It was true love, Grace thought. The same kind that always found a way to persevere. It could save lives. And no matter how much time passed, a person couldn’t recover from losing that kind of love. She had no doubt Alice had been that love for Jefferson.

He sniffed a few times before stretching his arm out over his knee. He squeezed his fist and focused his attention on that, though he didn’t release his grip on her hand.

“My first memory of her,” he said, “was her laugh.” Then he smiled, before looking at Grace. “She had a playful laugh. She was always like that. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be serious when she had to be, but she’d come from a place where she couldn’t laugh freely. So she liked to play games. She liked being free. Sometimes she was very sneaky. Like you.” Grace smiled and rested her head on her father’s knee as he spoke. Dinner was long forgotten on the counter.

He still seemed jittery and nervous as he twisted his fingers and bounced his other knee. He couldn’t look at her for very long before turning away again.

“I had a job. Something I could only find in Wonderland. Something with a kind of magic. I never did find out what it was, just that my employer was willing to pay a lot of money for it. She got to it first. She wanted me to race her for it.”

“Did you?” she asked. He nodded quickly.

“I tried. She was fast. And clever. And in my own defense, she had a head start. But she stuck it into the pocket of her cloak and ran for her portal. I got the cloak, but when I reached into the pockets—nothing was there.”

“Did you ever get it?” His eyebrows furrowed as he twisted his fingers.

“The very next day.”

“What happened?”

“I went back to Wonderland to find out more about her. I wanted to know who she worked for. She found me first.”

“Did she make you race again?” He laughed and shook his head.

“No, she was kind to me. I told her I needed the money and without it, I was sleeping in the woods. As soon as I told her I’d gone hungry, she handed it right over. She always took care of other people. Gave things up sometimes so others could have them. Her life, for instance.”

His voice went dark. Not in the usual soft way he spoke to Grace. Now it seemed like he was thinking out loud. Angry at Alice for being kind enough to give her life for them.

“How did you fall in love?” Grace prodded. She didn’t want his words to fade away. Even though she was hungry, she didn’t want him to stop talking. He smiled again as he looked down at his twisting fingers. His eyes had gone soft even though she could still see the sheen of moisture in them.

“Wonderland has a way of making everything seem more magical and wonderful than it really is. The food tastes better. Colors are brighter. It smells like your safest, happiest memories. That’s how it draws you in. You go mad staying in a place like that for too long. It was difficult not to fall in love with her there.” Grace didn’t like the sound of that. As if he was blaming Wonderland for how he felt. But that couldn’t be true. Not if he still felt her loss so sharply.

“Wonderland couldn’t have made you love her so much,” she remarked.

He looked back at the window and shook his head. He didn't really see what was beyond the glass. He was in another time and place, thinking of another sky in a different world. The scarf tucked into his shirt had come loose around his throat. Violent pink scars wrapped around his neck. She was always curious about them since she was sure he didn’t have them before. But she could never bring herself to ask about what happened when they were apart. And he never brought anything up if she didn’t ask first.

“No,” he agreed, but his voice sounded far away again. “Wonderland just made it unavoidable. I didn’t want to fall in love. Wonderland didn’t give us a choice. Then it took her away. It lures you in with false safety—and then it takes everything from you.”

He looked back at her, making sure that she didn’t carry any of his guilt. He was happy to have Grace. The price was steep, but the moment they knew about her, they made a promise to pay whatever price they could so that she could live. Jefferson expected to give his own life for them, and the regret he felt for Alice’s death would haunt him forever.

“She loved you,” he told her. “She didn’t know you very long, but she loved you. Remember that.”

Grace didn’t know what to say, so she looked back at the tiles on the floor and thought about how he’d never actually said her name. Not once. He confirmed it when Grace voiced it, and almost said it once, but he’d never said the name. Grace wanted to hear it. Maybe hearing it would bring them one step closer to healing. Or perhaps to help her connect to the woman who’d apparently loved her.

“Can you say her name?” she asked as she turned her eyes back to him. He squeezed her hand.

“Her name was Alice,” he told her. "She was my Alice. And she was everything to me."

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