Finding Alice

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“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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1. Chapter One

Isolation was what he knew best. Even as a child when he had a family, he was alone. His father, a hatter, worked day and night making hats for the local villages and even the nobility. His mother, though she claimed she didn’t work, spent her days assisting her husband with his work, when she wasn’t cooking and cleaning and caring for their small cottage in the woods, nestled in a meadow of lilac trees.

Jefferson had learned loneliness from the first time his mother pulled him out of his sling, claiming he was too heavy to be carried around anymore. He’d learned how to play alone, was educated alone, and lived his life alone.

For a person so accustomed to isolation, he dreaded it. Every mistake he’d ever made in his life had been some vain attempt to ease that loneliness. But it always failed, and isolation would quickly swallow him again. He could survive in it, but not thrive. And sometimes he’d feared it would drive him mad.

No one ever asked. And he hated that they never cared enough to. He’d appeared through a portal one day carrying a crying infant, wrapped in icy blue fabric stained with her mother’s blood. And no one cared to ask where she’d come from or why he vowed to never return to the one place that eased that loneliness. Just for a moment.

For a while, isolation was nothing but a painful memory. He still lived in a small cottage in the woods, but he had a child to care for, and no time to think about the empty hole in his heart her mother had left behind. He devoted his life to his daughter, and from the moment she began to speak and wonder about the world, she was full of those questions no one else asked. But she was the one person he couldn’t give answers to.

Grace had found a new place in his heart, and his life was filled with noise and joy. But the hole was still there. The place where her mother was supposed to be. And in his loneliness, fear of isolation, in some naïve trust where he’d thought he was sparing his daughter from the same upbringing, he’d lost her too. For twenty-eight years he’d been trapped in a land without magic, watching her live her life from afar, not knowing who he was. The isolation surrounded him like a dark cloak.

No one asked about the man living on the outskirts of town in his sizeable and empty house. They couldn’t remember. But he remembered everything.

When the curse was broken, and Grace returned to him, the light came back into his life. But he’d lived so long in the dark that he lived in constant fear of the madness that threatened to swallow him whole. He tried to push it back and devote himself to her again. They had everything they needed now. They no longer had to forage for mushrooms in the woods just to survive. They had a home full of beautiful things and constant sound. Her laughter filled the halls. Her footsteps on the floorboards woke him each morning. He had a sense of purpose again. A goal.

But then she would leave for school, and he’d be left alone with nothing but his thoughts and his hats. And try as he might, he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering to that dark empty place in his heart.

His thoughts turned toward the woman who’d brought that color into his life, and so did Grace’s. She was questioning things again. Why there was a hole in her memories where a mother should have been. Why her father spent so much time quietly in his room with all those hats in the middle of the night when he thought she was asleep.

Grace knew her mother must have been special to him, though he never spoke of her. She didn’t even know the woman’s name. She could see it clearly in the madness that seemed to hover on the edge of every word he spoke. Just as clearly as she could see the unknown woman every day when she saw her own face staring back at her in a mirror.

Her father was different than he’d been in the Enchanted Forest. Before the curse pulled them all away to this new land. She knew there’d been sadness in his heart then, but he was better at keeping it from her before. She only saw it on rare occasions when she couldn’t sleep and she’d peek out of her bedroom door to see him leaning against the mantle, staring into the flames and twisting a shimmering blue fabric in his hands.

He seemed to have less control over it in this new world. His shorter hair was always messy from all the times he’d run his fingers through it in frustration. His once bright blue eyes were etched with a permanent redness. Sometimes she’d catch him staring at the patterns on the wallpaper, and it would take him a moment or two to hear her when she tried to grab his attention. He was always holding something back now, and she would have just blamed it on all the years of separation if it weren’t for the fact that he still spent his sleepless nights making hats.

Grace could see her father’s features in her nose and her smile, but her golden hair and dark eyes only led to more questions. She knew she must look somewhat like the woman her father kept hidden in his head. She was desperate to know more.

She could hear him wandering the house at night when she’d lie awake in her bedroom. She saw the shadows under the door when he paced down the hall before settling into the room with the hats. He wouldn’t tell her why he continued to make them. She didn’t think he wanted to return to the Forest where all they had was a small cottage and mushrooms. They had everything they’d ever need here. They had each other again, but he was still searching for something else.

Jefferson was muttering to himself in his room down the hall. In all the years she’d spent in Storybrooke, she’d grown accustomed to her bedroom with her foster family. She’d fall asleep to the sound of cars on the street. Their headlights would shimmer across the walls like the scales of a fish. But this big house was silent at night. Harder for her to fall asleep. And the silence only made her concern grow. He was louder than he realized. Always pacing. Always muttering. Growing ever closer to complete madness.

Grace knew he’d probably hear her coming before she even left her room. She wondered how he’d react. Would he be upset if she bothered him so late at night? But in all her life, both of them, she’d never known him to get angry with her. He’d always been patient, kind, and gentle. All traits she’d learned to emulate. But there was anger in him, and she could hear it in his late-night mutterings.

She considered going back to bed, but she caught sight of her reflection in the tall mirror in her room. Even in the dim light, she could see the light color of her hair. So startling a contrast from the dark color of her eyes. Not her father’s hair. Not her father’s eyes. She thought back to when she’d been dreaming peacefully just minutes before. When she dreamt of a woman with light hair and dark eyes, who sang songs to her in a lush garden full of white roses.

So she slipped out of her room and tiptoed down the hall to the room at the very end. She looked in at where her father was sitting at a large table in the center of the room. She could see him fussing over fabric and thread, ripping and jabbing and muttering. He was so preoccupied with his task and his frustration that he didn’t hear her over the sound of his own thoughts. He clenched his teeth and mumbled something about the hat ‘not working’ as he broke a string of thread with his teeth.

“Papa?” she asked, quietly, and the man froze. He looked up, and his face immediately morphed back into the one she knew so well. The frustration drained from his features and left behind the face of the man who used to rock her to sleep when she was still small enough to fit comfortably in his arms.

“Grace?” he said, slightly shocked by his sudden and abrupt return to reality.

He dropped the unfinished hat on the table and stood. He was still wearing the clothes he’d worn at dinner, so it was evident that he hadn’t gone to bed at all. The vest and his shirt were buttoned to the neck, but the scarf he always wore around his throat had come loose. Enough for her to make out the scars beneath the fabric. He never told her how he’d gotten them, but she saw them nonetheless.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, reaching out his hands to take both of hers. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” She slid her small hands into his and smiled up at him.

“You didn’t wake me, Papa,” she assured him. “I just couldn’t sleep.”

“Why not? What’s the matter?”

He pulled a chair away from the table and instructed her to sit down. She took her seat cautiously as her eyes searched the room and the extensive collection of top hats. They were all the same. All meant to mimic the other one he’d had once. The one that could take him to other worlds. She thought the habit was supposed to die with the curse, but it appeared he was just as adamant to continue. She just didn’t know if it was the result of twenty-eight years of routine or if he actually wanted one to take them away.

“Nothing is the matter, Papa,” she promised as he took his seat before her. “I was just thinking too much.” He reached out to trace a finger over her cheek, brushing her hair out of her face. She gave him another smile to reassure him. His expression was still concerned.

“What were you thinking about?” She took a deep breath, and he dropped his hand to his lap to give her his full attention. She laced her fingers on the table in front of her and worked up the courage to ask the question that had been on her mind since she came home.

“I was thinking about my mother.” His expression went grim. Not angry like he’d been when he thought she was sleeping, but dead and devoid of thought. He dropped his eyes to the hat on the other side of the table and sighed heavily. His expression was blank, but it was clear the gears in his mind were whirring with thoughts.

“I knew you were going to ask again. With everything that’s happened.” She nodded slowly.

“I know you don’t like to talk about it. I know it hurts you. But—I’ve been thinking about her a lot. And sometimes I just wish I knew more about her. Like even her name—and why she’s not here.”

He didn’t speak for a long moment as he stared at the hats that seemed to grow in number with each passing day. She wanted him to say something, anything that would give her a hint about the woman who’d given her life, and likely died to do it. But he didn’t speak, and so she took another deep breath to continue building her case.

“I tried to look for her in the stories. My friend Henry has a book, but there’s nothing about her. Not anywhere. Not even in the movies.” He gave her another sigh and lifted his head, this time staring across the room at the darkened window, where a bronze telescope sat unused and collecting dust.

“She’s in the stories, Grace,” he told her. “She’s in all the stories.” Her eyes widened, and she sat up straighter.

“Really?”

“They’re her stories. At least the ones from this world. She didn’t spend a lot of time in the Enchanted Forest. Maybe that’s why she’s not in Henry’s book. At least not directly. She had her own stories.”

Grace was familiar with them. More specifically with her father’s story. She hadn’t read Henry’s book, but he’d told her about it. She’d learned as much as she could. The story in Henry’s book was real. But the ones from this world, well, the character didn’t seem much like the man in front of her at all. But they rarely did, Henry told her. And as far as Grace knew, there was really only one woman who had any friendly connection to the Hatter at all.

“Does that mean,” she started, “That my mother is…?”

“Yes.” He nodded slowly, studying her expressions as she took in this new information. She kept the name off of her lips even though she knew it well. Everyone did.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” He’d dreaded that question more than any other. He dropped his head into his hands and bit his bottom lip. He suddenly felt exhausted.

“Because the stories in this world aren’t real. At least, they’re not accurate. What happened to her isn’t in the stories, and I didn’t want to burden you with unnecessary pain.” He finally looked up at her, and she could see the redness return to his eyes. She sank lower into her seat and tried to stay strong. So he wouldn’t see her falter.

“So she’s really dead then,” she stated. “Did you see it happen?” A flicker of emotion crossed his face, but he swallowed it again.

“She’s gone, Grace.” She breathed out slowly and leaned her head against the back of the chair. “I told you that. Were you expecting a different answer this time?”

“No,” she admitted. “I guess I was just hoping there was a way. Like with Henry’s family. They always find a way for everyone to be together.” He reached for her hand again and squeezed it. This time he was the one to reassure her.

“We’re together again, Grace. That’s all that matters now. If there was a way, I would find it.” She nodded and he tried to smile for her.

“Then will you tell me about her? About how you met? I don’t know anything at all. Except for what’s in the stories.” She looked back up at him with renewed excitement. A laugh escaped him. He usually laughed to mask his own pain. It was one of the many reasons people called him mad. But she knew it wasn’t madness. He was suffering and didn’t want to put that suffering on anyone else.

“Tomorrow,” he promised. “It’s late, and you have school in the morning.”

“You promise?” He nodded. He’d never been very good at keeping promises, but he would try for Grace.

“I promise. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

He immediately regretted saying it. He didn’t know what kind of questions she might ask. She jumped up excitedly, and this time the laugh was sincere. It was the result of love and not a nervous reflex to keep people from seeing what he really felt. He stood from his chair and took her hand in his, leading her back to the door so she could return to her room. He bent down and planted a kiss on the top of her head. She smiled, obviously too excited to get any sleep. He knew her thoughts would keep her up, building question after question. But he wanted to put it off. Even if just for a little while longer.

“Goodnight, Papa,” she said. He ruffled her already messy blonde hair and smiled back down at her.

“Goodnight, Grace.”

He watched her skip back down the hall to her room. He waited for the door to shut before closing his own, but he left it cracked so he could hear if she needed anything. He just hoped he didn’t wake her again.

He left his hand resting on the crystal doorknob for a long moment before turning back to face the room. The collection of hats was growing, and he hated that he couldn’t make one work again. He needed the old hat back, but it was severely damaged now. Destroyed. No sign of magic left. Not even in the ashes.

He crossed the room and stopped beside a display of useless hats. Then he reached for a drawer and slid it open. A single object rested inside on a silk cushion. He lifted it to eye level and examined the delicate artifact gently in his fingers. It was made of fine porcelain, with red painted roses and a lip dipped in gold.

It was a teacup. That had once been very valuable in gold before it gained value in sentiment. He set it back down on the cushion and ran his finger along the unused gold lip.

“If there is a way,” he said to himself, confident that his spoken thoughts wouldn’t be overheard, “I will find it.”

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