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


32. Chapter Thirty-Two

The Queen of Hearts handed a small silver knife to the nearest guard. Jefferson could only watch as the guard moved toward Alice. He didn’t know why she could still move and he couldn’t. Maybe they thought she was no threat to them in her condition, but Alice did her best to fight them. By the time they had her subdued, each guard was covered in scratches and bruises. It still wasn’t enough. There were just too many.

She was finally stilled when the silver knife plunged into her belly. Crimson poured from the wound and spread over her cloak. She went silent and slumped against the guards holding her up. She had her back to Jefferson, so he could only see the movements of the guard and the way the blood pooled around her feet and soaked into the fabric of her cloak. Then the sound of a shrill cry filled the tense air. All he could do was twist his hands.

“A girl,” the guard told the Queen. She took her seat on the throne, her expression hidden behind the mask.

Alice finally lifted her head. Her skin was pallid from shock and the loss of blood. He could see her shaking and struggling just to lift her head and follow the sound of their screaming daughter. When Jefferson saw her for the first time, she was a tiny little thing all sticky with blood, screaming at the top of her lungs. She had a cut on her knee but was otherwise unharmed.

Then the Queen whispered her final sentence. The man beside her nodded before verbalizing it.

“Off with her head,” he said. Alice’s eyes found Jefferson’s from over her shoulder. She’d already lost color in her skin and was struggling to stay awake. He still couldn’t go to her, let alone protect her. He’d failed as a husband and a father. All he could do was hold back tears as her dark eyes went glassy and unfocused.

“Go,” she said, quiet enough to count as a whisper.

Another guard stepped forward, unsheathed the sword at his side, and swung.

Jefferson would never forget the sound of it. The sickening tear of her gut and Grace’s first screams, or the whisper of a sword cutting through the air. Nothing haunted his dreams more than the final thud of her head on the floor at the foot of the Queen’s dais. Her body went limp and the guards swarmed around her, blocking her from view.

“No,” he said as he tried to push his way out of the enchantment. He gripped his hands and fought with everything he had. “No!” But it didn’t matter. Alice was silent. She didn’t move.

One guard knelt beside her body, pulling the bloodied cloak off of the floor. He approached the soldier still holding the squiggling baby and gently wrapped her in the fabric. Then he took her in his arms and carried her to her father. Jefferson’s body finally moved. He wanted to go to Alice, but all he did was reach for the baby and hold her to his chest. The numbness began to seep in. He couldn’t breathe.

“Leave Wonderland,” the guard said, staring at him with eyes that were sharp and green in the depths of his red helmet. “And never come back. Or you will meet the same fate.”

Jefferson turned and fled. He clutched the crying baby in his arms and ran as fast as he could until he reached the portal waiting for him on the hill. Two came through, and only two could go back.

He paused when he reached it and looked down at the baby’s face. He took a deep breath and took one last look at Wonderland, knowing he’d never be back. The sky had darkened and droplets of water began to rain from the sky.

The baby was still crying when he carried her through the portal and he ran his finger down her cheek to calm her. He’d failed her mother. He’d failed as a husband, but he wouldn’t fail as a father. He just didn’t know how to do this by himself. He bent down to lift the hat off the forest floor and tipped it onto his head.

The cottage smelled dusty and stagnant when he got the front door opened and carried the baby inside. He set her down on the bed he’d shared with her mother. She kicked her feet, screaming and writhing in Alice’s cloak.

They didn’t have any time to prepare for her before leaving the cottage. So there was nothing there for a child and Jefferson was at a loss for what to do. Alice would have known what to do. She would have at least been able to keep him grounded. It was supposed to be her. Not him.

But she was gone. And he wasn’t ready to give in to the grief just yet. His hands were still shaking from shock and he couldn’t get the image of her out of his head. But he had to focus on the baby now. Once she was okay, he could give in to the pain. He could let it go. Alice wanted her to come first, and he had to obey that final wish.

He pulled the sticky cloak off of her tiny body and found a clean cloth to wrap her in. Then he pulled her back to his chest and tried to bounce her, but it was no use. She continued to wail. He had to find her something to eat and bandage the cut on her knee. She’d been removed from her mother’s body so forcefully. She’d been injured in the birth. And her connection to her mother was nothing more than the hastily tied off cord at the center of her belly. It was no wonder she was crying the way she was.

He turned to look for something to soothe her and found a man standing in the bedroom doorway.

“Oh, how sweet,” the Dark One said in his singsong voice.

“What are you doing here?” Jefferson asked.

“I believe we had a deal.”

Jefferson gritted his teeth but held his tongue. If he didn’t hand it over, he’d have no choice but to go back to Wonderland and repay his debt. He’d asked Alice to keep the rose safe in her pocket. He didn’t know if it was still there or what state it would be in. But Rumpelstiltskin never said it had to be fresh. So he turned back around and reached for the cloak with his one free hand. The baby stayed tucked into his arm, small and very angry.

The dried flower was still in the pocket. It was wilted and the petals were broken, but he handed it out anyway. The color had drained over time and turned white. The Dark One let out a laugh as he took the remains in his hands.

“Did you know?” Jefferson asked.

“Did I know what?”

“Did you know she wouldn’t come back?”

“All magic comes with a price.”

“I paid my price! We both did!” The baby squealed in his arms, frightened by the sound of his rising voice. He bounced her gently. It was all he knew how to do. He’d never had any younger siblings or family with children.

“I held up to my end of the deal and you held up to yours. I have no control over what happens in Wonderland. Fate—takes people where they need to be.”

The creature turned around but didn’t leave. Jefferson followed him into the main room, where evidence of Alice’s life was still everywhere he looked. An abandoned scarf hanging over a chair. Her favorite necklace left lying on a table. A teacup with painted roses and a gold lip, carefully set in the window sill.

“Please? Is there anything you can do? Any way I can get her back?” Rumpelstiltskin laughed.

“I don’t believe you’ll be willing to pay the price for that,” he said, with a pointed look at the little girl in Jefferson’s arms. “A life for a life. That’s the way it works. If it works at all.”

He would almost give anything to get Alice back, but with their daughter finally in his arms, his instinct was to pull her away and protect her. He shook his head and looked down at her as she wailed and fussed in his arms. She was probably hungry, cold, and frightened. Already three things he never wanted his daughter to be.

“Just go,” he said. His voice cracked and he used all he had to keep it together. “Never come back. Never ask me for another thing.”

“As you wish.” The Dark One bowed low and snapped his fingers, disappearing in a swirling cloud of smoke.

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