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


23. Chapter Twenty-Three

Jefferson didn’t want to let Grace go. After they finished dinner, they chose a movie to watch. She fell asleep on the couch, and he didn’t bother to carry her to bed. She had school in the morning, but she’d grown so accustomed to going to bed on time that she hadn’t lasted very long. He didn’t want to part with her just yet. His heart was full of regret and guilt. He was afraid if he left her now, he might never see her again.

He fell asleep on the couch beside her and dreamt that white roses had wrapped around his body. He couldn’t move as the thorny vines constricted him like wiggling snakes. The thorns dug into his skin, pricking holes and leaving splotches of blood in the snow. The frozen dirt beneath smothered him as he was dragged into the earth. He tried to scream as he was pulled under, but the mud filled his throat and choked him. The vines consumed him. He was left in the dark with nothing but the light of his own beating heart.

He woke with a start in the living room. Grace was still sleeping peacefully at his side. She’d have to wake up in a few hours to get ready for school. So he finally moved off of the couch, lifted her in his arms, and carried her up the stairs to her room. She didn’t wake up. She only hummed in her sleep and pulled a stuffed rabbit to her chest when he laid her down. He pressed a kiss to her head and left the room with the door cracked.

Sleep was calling to him, but he dreaded it now. When Grace was gone, he couldn’t sleep without seeing her begging him to take her home. But now he had her again, and it was Alice who wouldn’t leave him alone. Sometimes he dreamt of her dead and decaying in Wonderland. But sometimes the dreams were pleasant and warm. He’d find her lying beside him beneath a mushroom, lost in bliss. Sometimes they would be back in their cottage in the Enchanted Forest, and she’d have Grace tucked into a sling at her front, cradling her daughter as she helped with household chores. It didn’t matter if the dreams were frightening or pleasant, he always woke up afraid, suffering, and more exhausted than he’d been to start with.

He avoided sleep as much as he could now. The only thing about the dreams that remained constant was his knowledge. That Alice was gone. And he dreaded having to explain to her why he’d left her alone.

He crept to his room and sat down on the edge of the bed. He pinched his tired eyes between his fingers and leaned into his hands. Sleep was just out of his reach, pulling him in like thorns on his skin and dirt in his throat. His eyes shot back open. He just wanted to dream of nothing and be free of guilt and pain for one night. Alice was haunting him, and now he finally understood why. He’d done what she asked and protected Grace. He had her back. But he still had one more task to complete. Alice was alive, calling to him across all the realms that separated them. He hated himself for never knowing until now, and he’d never rest until she was beside him again.

Mr. Gold brought Alice through once before. He used magic to turn a mirror into her looking-glass, but Gold said he couldn’t help anymore. Jefferson already had everything he needed to find the answers he sought. He just needed to puzzle it out. The cloak and the hat had been useless. But not the cup. It still had enough magic left in it; enough of the right kind of magic. It might be able to turn a useless hat into something more.

He returned to the bottom floor to shut off all the lights and lock the doors. Then he stepped into the backyard onto the cold green grass. The rose bushes lined the yard beneath the brick wall just like the hedges in Alice’s childhood home. It was a big, wide yard where Grace could play freely for hours, and he could watch her without constricting her. Sometimes she liked to go outside and play tea party in the garden among the roses.

But Jefferson hadn’t planted them. He never cared for him. He’d woken up the morning after Regina’s curse to find them there. They bloomed every spring regardless of what he did or didn’t do to them. He could never bring himself to care for them. They reminded him too much of what took Alice away from him. And by all accounts, given what he did know of roses, they should have been dead. If not unkempt and riddled with insects. Now he stood in the grass, taking in the shape and color of every neat blossom.

Grace thought he was making the roses white. They were red all the years he’d been trapped there, but now the color was fading. Not into a soft pink, but a muddy color like fading blood on a white cloth. Some of the roses had already turned solid and white as if they’d been bleached by the sun. He walked across the yard to the closest bush. Some petals were that faded color, some were as white as the moon. As white as the roses he’d ripped out of Alice’s grave. The petals were soft and smooth and free from insect bites. As if he’d spent all his days tending to them.

It was magic, he realized. Just like the roses on her grave. No one tended to them, and maybe no one put the roses there. Whoever buried Alice’s heart left no trace behind. Perhaps it came over with the curse because it was already in the Enchanted Forest. Regina didn’t keep it with her collection, because Regina never had it. Magic caused the roses to grow above Alice’s beating heart. Magic was turning them white. It was a message.

He remained in the garden until the sun came up and all the color seemed to drain from the blossoms, leaving each and every one of them an icy pale shade in the desaturated morning light. As if the sky had leached the color from the roses and used it to paint the clouds over Storybrooke.

He took one last look before turning back to the house to get Grace ready for school. He only returned when she was gone. This time with the blue hat perched on his head and a tea tray in his arms. He set it down on Grace’s small tea party table. The silver teapot balanced on the dish with the painted cup and the box that contained Alice’s heart.

He wasn’t sure what he was doing or if it would even work, but he had to try. He couldn’t sit still and wait for something to happen. For the first time in years, the glimmer of hope was burning his chest like a flowering seed. He took the hat off and set it in the center of the small table. Then he poured a cup of tea and carefully placed it inside the hat. The old one required magic. And maybe this one needed a specific kind of magic.

He wasn’t sure if it would work, and he felt foolish just to try, but the cloak had taken him to her once, and the cup had guided him to her heart. He took a deep breath and lifted the lid to expose the glowing, pulsing heart.

“Take me back,” he said. “Take me to Wonderland.”

Magic zipped through the air like a crackle of electricity. There was a spark, shimmering around him. It was a magic only gifted to portal jumpers, giants with their beans, and mermaids. And he laughed when he felt that old familiar jolt again.

Finally, the hat began to tremble. Magic swirled around it in puffs of blue smoke, until it was spinning and opening itself wide enough for him to jump inside. He stood on the edges of the portal, and for the first day since he lost Alice, he was looking forward to returning to Wonderland.

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