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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3. Chapter Three

Grace was eager to get home after school the next day. She could hardly sit still in class and anxiously took the first seat on the bus so that she could get out as quickly as possible once it stopped out front of her house.

Ever since she’d moved into the house, she would come home from school to find her father waiting for her in the kitchen. He would make her tea in a silver teapot, and they’d sit at the small table in the living room by the front window. He’d sit attentively while she told him about her day and all the things she learned or found interesting. He never talked about himself, and she hated that she barely knew him. That didn’t mean she didn’t try. It was just that whenever she asked questions about his past, he would find a way to turn the focus back on her. He loved hearing her stories about school and her passions and quirks. But when the day ended, and she’d pretend to be asleep in her quiet room, he’d retire to the room with the hats, and she’d remember that she barely knew him at all.

She knew basic things. His name was Jefferson. He had brown hair and blue eyes. He took his tea with milk and one small teaspoon of sugar, which she thought just couldn’t possibly be sweet enough to be tolerable. He always drank out of a teacup with a saucer, no matter what. And he always took his tea with one cookie. Just one. And he’d save the rest for her.

There wasn’t much else she knew about him. She knew he’d come from the Enchanted Forest like the others. But she didn’t know where he was born or what his childhood was like. She didn’t know the names of her grandparents, let alone why she never met them. She knew he was a portal jumper, but not how he’d become one. She didn’t know what his favorite color was or if he liked to sing. She didn’t even know the name of her own mother.

That was, she didn’t know until the night before.

She suspected once that her mother might be the famous Alice, but every time it came up she found reasons for why it couldn’t be. In the stories, Alice had come from a place like England, which would make her too old to be her mother. Or maybe she’d come from another world where time stood still. Henry said places like that existed also, and many of those stories wound up in their own books. Alice’s story was a book. She tried to read it, just to catch a glimpse of her father, but the character was so vastly different from him that she couldn’t make sense of what was based on truth and what was a lie. If Alice was her mother, then apparently something was left out.

And none of the stories ever suggested Alice had a child. They definitely didn’t mention the fact that she’d had a child with the one they called the “Mad Hatter.” She knew the hatter was her father. If his obsession with hats and the whispers of his madness hadn’t suggested it, Henry’s book confirmed it. But there was no mention of her mother at all.

“Hello, my darling,” he said when she entered the house after school. She dropped her backpack on the floor in the entryway and rushed across the room to give him a hug. She gave him the same squeeze every day, and every day he’d lift her off her feet and hold her as if it was for the first time in twenty-eight years.

But the moment only lasted for a few seconds before he set her down and she jumped away, eager to get started on tea so she could ask the questions that had been building up all day. Jefferson sensed her hurry and took his time pouring out their tea. He made a show of taking as long as possible with milk and sugar. She reached for a cookie as she waited, and swung her feet back and forth. His eyes were red again. She suspected he hadn’t slept a wink.

He took a seat and then carefully sipped tea from a wide white cup, prolonging the inevitable barrage of questions. When his blue eyes finally met hers, he could see that she was barely containing her excitement. So he dropped his head in defeat and sighed.

“Alright, alright. Get it out,” he said. She let out a giggle.

“I want to know everything,” she started, nearly knocking over her teacup in her haste to set her cookie down. His eyebrows rose, making his eyes go wide in a silly face that always made her smile. She just couldn’t help but notice how tired he looked.

“How about we narrow it down,” he replied.

“What did she look like? Where did she come from? How did you meet? Were you married? Did she live in our cottage? What happened to all her things? What about her family?”

His face held onto the same startled expression as he watched the words tumble out of her mouth. He made a great emphasis to show mock concern, and when she finally stopped for breath, he jumped in to quiet her long enough to breathe between questions.

“One at a time,” he insisted. So she took a deep breath and let it go.

“Her name was Alice,” she stated. He sipped his cup and nodded slowly.

“Indeed.”

“What did she look like?”

“She looked like you. Hair like gold. Eyes dark like ink. I used to tell her that she had her secrets written in them.” He cleared his throat and reached for his cup again.

“Was she pretty?”

“The second most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. After you, of course.” She giggled again.

“Where did she come from? Was it England? Or was it somewhere else?” He seemed to think on this for a moment, purposefully taking his time answering.

“It was another realm, not as much magic as there was in other places,” he told her. “Like England, I suppose. I can see how they’d be mistaken.”

“Tell me about her. What was she like?” He reached for the single cookie he always took with his tea, leaving the rest for her.

“She was a lady,” he explained. “A proper lady. Her father had some sort of fancy title that made him powerful. A landowner. Lord or baron or something. They had a lot of plans for her. But she was—not what they wanted her to be. She had a thirst for adventure and refused to be tied down by the standards of high society.”

“How did she get to Wonderland?”

“She fell through a rabbit hole. The rabbit was a portal jumper too. She was a few years younger than you at the time,” he said with a nod. She felt giddy excitement bubble inside her chest, and she jumped up to sit on her knees, nearly knocking the whole table over. He barely noticed it. After spending so much time taking tea with jittery hares, he didn’t so much as blink when the table shifted.

“So that part of the story was true?” He nodded once again.

“That part.”

“Is that how you met? In the movie, she met you when you had tea the hare.” He looked alarmed. Almost offended. Not by her words, but the suggestion that she was anything like the dumpy character they portrayed him as. He turned his stricken eyes on her.

“Goodness, no,” he said with a shake of his head.

He set the teacup down on the saucer and crossed his arms over the table, leaning so he could level his face with hers. He remembered the way Alice would walk him through proper table manners. He wasn’t supposed to sit slouched with his elbows on the table. Grace wasn’t supposed to sit on her knees and bump up and down. Alice would have encouraged this misbehavior just for the freedom that came with being improper. He remembered the way she used to smile when she leaned on her elbows and loudly slurped her tea. It was her own private rebellion.

“I’m not half as mad as that,” he told Grace with a lopsided grin.

“Tell me. Tell me,” she begged, making the china shudder in her excitement. His smile fell as he gazed out of the window. Storybrooke was visible in the distance. Close enough for him to know every street, lane, and alley, but far enough away so that he never really felt like he belonged.

“She was a thief,” he said. He looked back at her face just to see the surprised look in her brown eyes. Then he sat back in his seat and lifted his cup again.

“A thief?” she repeated. He nodded once.

“A thief,” he confirmed. “She was a portal jumper. From a world where titles and reputation were of great importance. Women couldn’t hold titles or own land. She was expected to be owned by her father until she could be passed off to a husband.” Her expression went from excited to horrified. He gave her a pointed look. “You can imagine how well that went over with her. She was curious. Adventurous. Vivacious. But she had kindness in her. She was a lot like you.” When she smiled, he drained his cup and set it aside.

“No, don’t finish. I want to know more,” she pleaded. He reached for the teapot to pour himself another cup. He noticed that she’d barely touched hers, but refilled it anyway.

“Ali…” he paused to clear his throat as if the name was too painful for him to speak out loud, “your mother—didn’t like being told what to do. Not by anyone. She was expected to find a husband while she was young. A rich husband with another one of those fancy titles. She had to be obedient and silent. Could never go anywhere or do anything. She wanted to escape that. Being a portal jumper granted her a few liberties she wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

“So she was like you. She could travel through realms?” He shrugged, stirring the sugar into his tea with a tiny silver spoon.

“Wonderland was the only realm she could travel to on her own. She discovered it by accident, but once she got the hang of portal jumping, there was nothing that could stop her. Wonderland isn’t like the movie and the books, though. It’s a dangerous place. And not really the kind of place she wanted to call home. But the things you could find in Wonderland were worth something if you found the right buyer. The only way a woman like her could escape is if she had her own fortune.”

“So she had a good reason to steal?” He gave her another look.

“Of course,” he said. “We portal jumpers didn’t steal just for the thrill of it. Although….” He gave a quick shrug again, making a silly face that brought a smile to her lips. “That was part of it.” He sipped his tea, and then a thought occurred to him. “Not that you should ever take up stealing for a living.” She smiled.

“You were a thief too?” He made a lot of hand gestures as he debated whether or not he should answer that question honestly. He’d done a lot worse than just stealing, but that wasn’t what she asked.

“I like to think I was an honorable thief,” he said, even though that wasn’t true either. “I had to survive somehow.” She shook her head, smiling again.

“I just don’t want you to be in any trouble, Papa.” He sighed wistfully.

“I wouldn’t exactly use the word ‘thief,’” he finally concluded. “And I suppose she wouldn’t have either. We were—procurers of unique artifacts. We usually did trades and deals. We only stole when we had no other choice. And only when it was vital. Sometimes it was as simple as trading a teacup for gold or a single rose plucked from a garden. Some of those things were hardly considered stolen, right? But sometimes they threatened to take your head. I took the job because I needed to live. She took the job to escape her life.”

“I see.”

“But no,” he said with another shake of his head, answering a question she hadn’t asked. “She was just a child when she fell through the rabbit hole. But not when she started—trading. I didn’t know her when she was younger. We met when we went for the same artifact, and she stole it right out from under me.” Her eyes got wide, and he gave her another smile. Then he drained the last of his cup and set it back down.

“I think that’s enough for today, Grace. Do you have homework to do?” He stood and lifted the tray from the table. She looked disappointed.

“But I have so much more to ask you,” she said. He reached out and touched his thumb to the tip of her nose like a button.

“All in time, sweetheart,” he said.

Even though he was smiling, she could see the hurt in his eyes and the way the tray trembled as he gripped it tight in his hands. It wasn’t that he wanted to keep the information from her, or that he thought she wasn’t strong enough to handle it. It was that he wasn’t. She watched him carry the tray back to the kitchen and then leaned against the back of her chair. She didn’t want to hurt her father, but there was so much more she needed to know. For starters, she wanted to know why he still hadn't spoken her name.

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