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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25. Chapter Twenty-Five

Jefferson didn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t this. He hadn’t set foot in Wonderland in almost thirty years. When he was younger, Wonderland would change every so often. The most drastic of those changes happened with the Queen of Hearts usurped the Red Queen. Wonderland had shifted to accommodate her. Sometimes it did so for seemingly no reason at all. Roads would change from one side of the maze to the other. The sky would be a different color than the day before, or the location of mushroom patches or homes and burrows would change.

He was never there to see it happening with his own eyes. It always seemed to occur when he was gone, and none of Wonderland’s residence seemed to notice at all. Alice only remarked on it once or twice when he’d bring it up in his own confusion. She would just smile and say, “Looks much better this way, don’t you think?” and carry on whatever task they’d set out for. She never got lost, and once he got used to it, he started to wonder if it had ever changed at all.

They spent less and less time in Wonderland after Alice came to live with him in the Enchanted Forest. They did jobs in other lands when they needed the money to fund the building of their cottage. But for the most part, they’d spent the early days of their marriage focused only on each other. Until Alice’s supply of money began to dwindle.

Wonderland could be anything now, full of new and scary dangers. He could die. Or step through that portal and never see his daughter again.

But he trusted that Emma and her family would care for Grace if he never made it back. Alice was on the other side of that portal somewhere, and he couldn’t just stand around waiting for another chance. He didn’t know what state she might be in without a heart, but he had to bring her home. He’d never forgive himself if he didn’t try. He’d never be able to look Grace in the eyes and tell her that he’d never tried. Grace believed that true love would always find a way. He had to prove her right.

So he jumped.

The cold hit him like a wall when his feet touched the slippery earth. Instead of the place between worlds, he felt ice in his nose, and it was so sharp and sudden that he ended up on his knees, hands slipping over frost and ice on the road.

It was definitely still a road, winding and twisting its way down the hill to the hedges off in the distance. The sky was a deep dark purple, with swirling blue clouds that looked like the ending of a storm. Frost and snow had stuck to every surface. Blades of grass sagged onto the road from the weight. Everywhere he looked, Wonderland was pale and lifeless.

There was no color anymore. Even though everything on the ground was white, the land appeared hazy and dark. As if the sun could no longer penetrate through the angry clouds or dusty haze. The longer he stood there, the more he could make out Wonderland’s unique scents. But it wasn’t how he remembered it. It smelled like decaying leaves and rotten apples. Like an abandoned orchard left to ferment in the sun.

He took a deep breath and tried to force himself not to breathe through his nose. He stood to his feet and headed slowly down the hill, slipping on the ice and trying not to touch anything to catch his balance. He didn’t know where to begin his search, but he hoped something familiar might spark an idea.

He wasn’t even sure what he’d do if he found her. The portal might not let them both back through. Maybe he could just force her through by herself. Give Grace a mother in exchange for a father.

He knew they’d be angry, both of them, if he made that choice. So he decided not to think about it until he absolutely had to. He would have to figure it out as he went along. For now, his goal was simple. He just needed to confirm that Alice was alive. Once he knew for sure, he could figure out what to do.

Wonderland was eerily silent, and it set his nerves on edge. Once or twice, he thought he heard whispering from deep within the forest of grass, but nothing appeared on the road for a long time. There were no footprints in the frost. It was as if the animals avoided the open road. He couldn’t even locate the patch of mushrooms they’d claimed as their own so many years before. Back when Wonderland was as vibrant and alive as Alice was.

Wonderland was dying. He could feel it as he walked. The bricks in the road crumbled and cracked beneath the frost. The weight of ice on the grass was too heavy for the blades. They sagged in the road, making the place even more wild and dangerous looking than he remembered. The sky churned, but no thunder rolled. It looked like the threat of a storm, with no knowledge of when it would begin. There were no birds, flowers, or animals; nothing but the quiet whispers of unfelt breezes and he slid along his way. Even the few mushrooms he encountered were soggy beneath a layer of frost.

“What happened here?” he asked, as he ran his fingers over a tall mushroom to wipe away the ice. The skin felt wrinkled and orange instead of the bright colors he remembered.

“You’re late,” a voice said from behind.

He jolted and spun, expecting the Queen’s guard or worse. But it was only a rabbit. Standing in the middle of the broken and cracked road. The rabbit wore a thick coat and gold-rimmed glasses but otherwise appeared like a perfectly normal rabbit. Albeit on the larger side. He was holding a pocket watch that Jefferson knew went counterclockwise but always seemed to make sense to everyone else.

“Beg pardon?” he asked.

“You’re late,” the rabbit informed him.

“Were you waiting for me?”

“Goodness no. But we’ve been expecting you for some time. The Queen wishes to see you.” Jefferson gulped and took a step away from the creature. His foot slipped on an upturned stone.

“I’m not here to see the Queen. I’m here to find Alice.”

“Alice?” The rabbit looked confused. He blinked beady red eyes and cocked his head to the side, ears twitching as if he’d heard that name wrong. “Alice? What’s an Alice?” Jefferson wanted to grab him by the throat and throttle him.

“Don’t you remember? The girl who fell through the rabbit hole? It was your rabbit hole, wasn’t it? You brought her here.” The rabbit blinked several more times.

“Oh,” he said with sudden realization. “Yes, Alice. I remember her.”

“Do you know where she is? What happened to her?”

“She’s gone. She hasn’t been here for some time.”

“She has to be here. Where else could she be?”

“She’s forgotten Wonderland. And Wonderland has forgotten her. Alice is gone.” Jefferson sighed heavily. He could never get a straight answer out of them.

“Do you have any idea where she is?” he decided to ask, though he didn’t expect a proper answer. The creatures in Wonderland hardly ever answered the way he thought they should. The rabbit took a long time to think.

“The Queen of Hearts took her head. She went to the place where all creatures go when they've lost their heads.”

“The Queen took my head too. I didn’t go anywhere.”

“Of course you did. You went to the place all creatures go when they’ve lost their heads.”

“And where is that exactly?”

“Mad.”

His teeth clenched. He hated being called “mad.” He and Alice used to throw the word around like a silly joke. They were odd as portal jumpers, but Wonderland was the most unusual place of all. It was normal to feel mad in such a strange place. But the word had been used to torture him for so long. He remembered the way Emma had called him insane when he tried to convince her of the truth. With distaste and pity, all mingled together. It left a sour feeling in his gut.

“Then I guess I’ve wasted my time,” he said. “I’ll be going now.”

“Oh, no. You can’t go. The Queen is expecting you.”

“I’m not here to see the Queen. I don’t want to see her.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, Mr. Hatter.”

Jefferson stiffened, listening to the sudden sound in the air. It had started low enough for him not to notice. But Wonderland was silent and still, and it didn’t take long for the sound to reach him. The distinct shuffle of metal coming from down the bend in the road. He’d heard that sound a thousand times in his nightmares. The sound of armor shifting. They’d been there all along, just waiting to catch him off guard. He spun back toward the rabbit as his mind raced to find the quickest route back to the portal.

“You work for her now?” he spat, disgusted at the creature for his betrayal. Alice had considered the White Rabbit a friend.

“Why I’ve always worked for her,” he said as if this were obvious.

The guards appeared below. Their white armor shimmering between blades of frozen grass. Much closer than he initially thought. He’d have to come up with a better plan before returning.

So he took off at a run up the road toward the waiting portal. It was challenging to stay upright on the icy stones. He’d have to equip himself better next time. Something warmer. Boots. Weapons.

The portal stood shimmering at the top of the hill, taking the form of a looking-glass, just like before. He’d nearly reached it when something struck him on the shoulder, knocking his feet out from under him. He hit the ground hard and slid on the ice for several feet before coming to a stop. He tried to jump back to his feet, but it was already too late. Someone shoved him face first into the road and yanked his arms behind his back.

“No, please?” he begged. “I have a daughter. I have to get home to her. I didn’t take anything. Please? Let me go?”

“Trespassers go to the Jabberwock,” the guard informed him. “As decreed by her majesty, the Red Queen.”

“I didn’t take anything, I swear,” Jefferson pleaded. “I just want to get home to my daughter.”

One of the guards moved to stand before him. His boots were white instead of red and Jefferson looked up, surprised to see the man’s human face exposed, instead of hidden behind a helmet. The man had dark hair and eyes that were sharply green in the dreary landscape. He held a hand over the hilt of his sword and examined his prisoner.

“You shouldn’t have returned to this place,” he said. Then he turned to the other guards, who were keeping him pinned to the ground. “This one doesn’t go to the Jabberwock yet. The Queen would like to see him first.”

“But sir…,” a guard protested.

“I said take him to the Queen.”

They reluctantly followed orders and lifted Jefferson to his feet. He tried to struggle, but the enchantment glued his legs and forced him silent. He couldn’t lose Grace again. He couldn’t put her at risk by leaving that portal open. He knew that’s what the Queen really wanted. He was foolish to come back to Wonderland. An idiot for believing Alice could still be alive. It was probably a trap from the very start. And now he was going to lose Grace all over again, all for chasing false hope. This time he couldn’t be sure he’d ever get her back.

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