Chapter 1: A Most Upsetting Session
September 7th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
It was – peaceful.
That was what surprised Alice the most. Granted, she knew she'd left Wonderland in a better state when she'd abandoned it along with the asylum almost a year ago (slaughtering a tyrant who'd literally grown into the earth would do that), but – she'd never really expected it to be peaceful again. Too much had happened during her long, painful trip to destroy the Queen – too much misery, too much suffering, and far, far too much death. And this latest plunge into the depths of her subconscious hadn't started off any differently. First the Hatter had lured her to his rotting tea table in the bowels of his tick-tocking domain, only to surreptitiously attempt to slice her in two once she was in her seat. Her mind's efforts to escape that scene had led her to Heart Palace, where the Queen had directed wave after wave of vicious Card Guards to tear her to pieces even as the building collapsed into fiery rubble around their ears. And then when she'd tried to run from that, she'd found herself trapped somewhere even worse – the memories of her past. Strange and horrible figures had loomed above her, calling for doctors and asking if she'd live; her precious family home had stood engulfed in flames as her charred family waved their final goodbye to their lost daughter; and then the Jabberwock had clawed his way out of the wreckage, crushing her parents and sister underfoot while his buck-toothed jaw opened wide to either swallow her whole or roast her alive. . .all that had saved her then was Dr. Bumby's insistence that she "discard that delusion" and "go to Wonderland." And with immense reluctance, she had, although she'd expected nothing less than a descent into the deepest pits of Hell as a result.
But now. . .the sun was shining, the air calm. Majestic trees spread their multicolored leaves over the gently-rolling emerald slopes around her, shading the river on which she floated. Beneath her lily pad boat, the bright blue water flowed steadily onward, without a single ripple or splash from a poison-spitting Snark. Above her head, cotton-ball clouds drifted lazily through the azure sky, unmarred by Mechanical Ladybugs toting exploding acorns or Boojums ready to unleash their terrible shriek. Behind her was blessed peace and quiet, with nothing to send her nerves tingling and her fingers reaching for her knife. And before her, clutching a cup of tea in one paw and consulting the pocket watch dangling from beneath his scarlet coat with the other, was Rabbit. Alice felt a smile spread across her face as she picked up her own teacup from blanket spread across the bottom of the boat. Her old friend was still too thin and ragged for her liking, but she was glad to see him nonetheless. It had been much too long.
Dr. Bumby's voice echoed down from the sky, as it was wont to do during these moments. "Now, Alice – where are you?"
"I'm sailing," Alice replied, delicately sipping her tea. "With a friend." A strange little butterfly with a bolt's nut for a body buzzed her nose, making her giggle. Now this was the Wonderland she remembered from her childhood. "It's different, somehow," she continued, gazing around the landscape again. Nothing but serenity as far as the eye could see. Maybe Wonderland really had managed to recover in full from the Red Queen's taint – and without any interference needed from her. Excellent. "Things have changed."
"Change is good," Dr. Bumby said, sounding as pleased as Alice felt. "It's the first link in the chain of forgetting. Shall we move on to the second?"
The word "yes" was right on the tip of her tongue – when Rabbit chose that moment to start twitching. Alice stared, cup halfway to her lips, as her friend's head jerked up and down, one eye quivering in its socket as his teeth rattled in his jaw. An unpleasant coldness began creeping into her guts. Oh no – was this where it all went wrong again? But she hadn't even gotten the chance to finish her tea! "What's happening?" she asked him, not sure if she wanted an answer or not. "Are – are you mad?"
"I'm not mad," Bumby protested, but Alice didn't pay any heed. Her attention was fixed on the blood now dripping from Rabbit's neck, a steady flow of crimson that contrasted sharply with his white fur. "Rabbit!" she cried, dropping her teacup to reach for him. "What's hurt you? Is something wrong?" The memory of him falling victim to Hatter's oversized foot invaded her thoughts – was that the reason for this sudden horror? No, no, he can't die again – think him better think him better –
Rabbit's twitchy eye abruptly popped, leaving a bare socket to stare back at her. "Something wrong?" he repeated, his voice echoing and strange. "Raaaatherrrr!"
And then, with no warning, his head exploded into a shower of blood and black slime. Alice threw up her hands, trying in vain to protect her face from the fountain of gore. Behind them, she could see the landscape rotting around her – the grass withering from healthy green to kindling grey, the trees crisping from earthy brown to burnt black, the sky fading from cheery blue to the bright yellow-orange of a freshly-lit fire – "Oh no," she moaned, the coldness spreading up through her limbs. "Not that!"
"Don't struggle, Alice – let the new Wonderland emerge," Bumby counseled, but he couldn't see this, couldn't see the water transform to pitch-black ooze, the bone-white china faces lurch up from the bottom in huge boat-swallowing waves, the tiny porcelain fingers reach out to drag her and what was left of her still-twitching friend into the depths (she'd never been afraid of dolls before, but she definitely was now). . .and still that terrible gunk spurting from Rabbit's neck, coating her exposed flesh and burning burning burning – "Pollution – corruption – it's – it's killing me! Wonderland is destroyed! My mind is in ruins!" she shrieked, desperate for relief, for rescue, for something –
"Forget it, Alice. Block that dream!" Bumby commanded, and she would have been more grateful if he'd said that before those cold, slippery fingers started ripping off her face. "Wake at the sound."
But it was too late, far too late as Rabbit might have said if he'd still been blessed with a head. The hands had shredded every last bit of her skin, leaving her brain and muscles and guts exposed as they dragged her down, down, down into the infinite blackness. . . . A last terrified scream escaped her lips as her head sank beneath the waves. . . .
And then, blessedly, there was a snap, and the darkness changed to merely that behind her eyelids.
Alice took a deep breath and let it out slowly, reacquainting herself with the feel of the scratchy old fainting couch beneath her. Part of her wanted to leap from her spot and run away as fast as she could, away from any lingering ooze, but she forced herself to stay put, lest she make a spectacle of herself attempting to flee from her own brain. Besides, she didn't feel in any condition to move yet. Maybe in a few years she'd be ready to get up.
"There, Alice. Better now, aren't we?"
Alice wondered what exactly Dr. Bumby's definition of "better" was. "My head's exploded and there's a steam hammer in my chest," she groused, sitting up and pressing a hand against her forehead. God, did every session on this couch have to end with her feeling miserable?
Dr. Bumby had the sense to pretend to be embarrassed, at least. "Yes, well, the cost of forgetting is high."
Always with his stupid platitudes. Alice was in no mood for trite, useless words – not after what she'd just been through. "My memories make me vomit," she snapped, her brain bringing up a plethora of images she'd attempted to repress. Rabbit's frail frame smashed flat under Hatter's foot. . .Cheshire's neck spurting blood while his head bounced away into a far corner. . .the Queen of Hearts revealed to have under her masses of twisted flesh Alice's own face, and the mocking speech that had followed. . .her family home being consumed by flame while she could only watch in horror. All still vividly, depressingly clear despite almost a year in therapy. The cost of forgetting might be high, but the cost of remembering seemed higher still. "What can I–"
"Remember other things," Dr. Bumby interrupted, wandering apparently aimlessly to the window behind her.
As if it were that easy! "I want to forget!" Alice almost yelled. She hated feeling like this – vulnerable, fragile, mad. She'd won her freedom from Rutledge – she should also be free of the guilt, the pain, the deep-down ache in her heart! Besides, what other things could she remember that weren't equally as horrible? "Who would choose to be alone, imprisoned by their broken memories?"
"I'll set you free, Alice," Dr. Bumby assured her, finally deigning to notice her suffering. "Memory is a curse more often than a blessing."
Alice barely resisted rolling her eyes. "So you've said. Many times. And–"
"And I will say again," Dr. Bumby snapped, sitting down across from her and fixing her with a stern look, "the past must be paid for. You won't get results if you won't do the work, Alice!" He collected himself and continued in a milder tone. "Now, before our next session, collect your pills from our High Street chemist."
Ugh, pills. Alice hated pills. But she recognized a dismissal when she heard it. "Very well, doctor."
Pushing herself off the couch, she headed for the door, eager to leave this office and its misery behind. To her mild surprise, the office seemed just as eager to be rid of her – the moment her fingers touched the knob, the door popped open. Charlie proved to be the culprit behind this mysterious event, waiting on the other side. "It's my turn to forget, Alice!" he told her as he waltzed past, looking much too cheerful for someone about to undergo therapy with Dr. Bumby.
Alice felt a pang as the boy made himself comfortable on the couch. Poor Charlie – he was the orphan she got along with best, possibly because his history was almost as tragic as hers: a mother who'd beat him, and a father who'd gotten himself hung trying to defend his son. She couldn't blame him for wanting to forget that. Just hope he has an easier time of it than me, she thought, closing the door behind her as Bumby pulled out the key on the end of his watch chain – his usual hypnotizing instrument – to start the session. "That's right, Charlie," she heard him say through the wood, voice fading as she walked away, "just watch it go back and forth. . . ."
The upstairs hall of the Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth was filled with toys, games, and children, as usual. A group lingering by the bend looked up as she approached. "What's wrong now?" one boy demanded with a suspicious frown.
"Can't find the door," Alice replied absently, eying the stairs at the far end of the hall. Hmmm. She knew her orders. And she knew how annoyed Dr. Bumby would be if she bucked them. She ought to just go to the chemist's and get it over with. That's what any non-madwoman would do. So instead she turned and walked into the boys' room, seeking distractions. If Dr. Bumby asked, she was checking up on the children. That was her job, wasn't it? To check up on the children?
There were two boys inside the communal bedroom– perpetual resident Reggie, perched on his top bunk, and relative newcomer Dennis, sitting in the corner. "The loo smells awful!" Reggie complained the instant she stepped inside, fixing her with a scowl.
"Worse than your room?" Alice asked, wrinkling her nose at the stench of wee that never quite left. What was it with these little ones and wetting the bed? "I don't know what you expect me to do about it even if it does. I'm no plumber." She turned her attention to the other boy. "How are you, Dennis?"
"Ollie pinched me smalls," Dennis replied, glowering.
Oh hell, Ollie was still doing that? Well, Alice wasn't going to be the one who asked him what he wanted with his friends' underwear. "Wear bloomers," she suggested with a slight smirk. Dennis merely grumbled in response.
Despite these complaints, the boys seemed to be all right, so Alice continued on to the girls' room. There was only one child in residence this time – young Elsie, doodling some rather cruel-looking stick figures in a patch of sunlight. "Doctor do you right?" she asked as Alice entered, not even bothering to look up. "Still sick in the head? Or did he actually cure you this time?"
"I'm past a cure," Alice half-joked, grimacing as she noticed that the goldfish the girls had talked Dr. Bumby into getting was floating upside-down in its bowl. Great – she'd have to dispose of that later. "Terminal condition."
Elsie hummed a quiet agreement and kept drawing. Alice left her to it and jogged back out into the hall. That was probably all the dillydallying she could get away with – time to complete her chores before a certain someone made a fuss. Abigail, standing by a hopscotch board chalked on the floor (lovely, another thing to clean), gave her a wicked smile as she passed. "Wasting doctor's time?"
"I deserve my bitter tears," Alice replied with a glare. "Want some?"
Abigail wisely fell silent. Brats, the lot of them, Alice thought as she reluctantly descended to the first floor. Dr. Bumby's treatments seem to make them forget their manners along with everything else. Really, Doctor, you need to learn when to stop waving that key in front of their eyes. Keep on like you're are and eventually there'll be nothing left in their heads.
She glanced at the luggage tucked away behind the stairs – these orphans had more things than she did – then allowed herself a moment to examine the copy of The Illustrated London News lying on the nearby endtable. Fire at Match Factory, read the top headline. Six Girls Missing. Alice shook her head at the picture of the burnt-out remains. Is there anything more predictable? The world's gone quite mad.
Leaving the paper and rounding the corner, she encountered two more new children, boy and girl, deep in conversation. "Ten years in the looney bin, I heard," the girl said, not noticing the topic of their discussion had appeared on the scene.
"No ma, no relations – she's an orphan," her companion nodded.
"How exactly does that make me different from either of you?" Alice asked, arching an eyebrow at the two.
"Orphans are supposed to be little!" the girl said, frowning up at her. "You're too old not to have a ma!"
"If only," Alice murmured, looking away. "Don't you have better things to do than stand here and gossip?" The pair shook their heads. "Shouldn't have asked. All right, just keep out of trouble." She continued on to her room, leaving them to giggle and trade more rumors behind her.
Her tiny patch of real estate was the same as it ever was – uncomfortable bed, rotting dresser, rickety shelves, lopsided cupboard, peeling wallpaper, and a leaky umbrella shoved in the corner. Alice sighed as she retrieved her spending money from its hiding place beneath her mattress. This was what passed for home these days. Enough to make one wonder why I bothered leaving Rutledge, she thought, biting her lip as she gazed at the picture of her family on the near wall. The days of living in a loving, well-kept home seemed so far away. . . .
A knock behind her caught her attention. Alice turned around – and smiled, genuinely, for the first time that day. "Hello, Victor."
"Hello," Victor Van Dort – her neighbor, best friend, and the only good company for miles – replied, stepping over the threshold. "What had you so deep in thought, if I may ask?"
Alice spread her arms to encompass her living space. "Back in Oxford, a man named Mr. Payne often preached to us children about the joys of the simple life," she said, recalling the afternoons spent bored out of her mind in the fellow's company. "He really had no idea how humble a home could be. If not for my drawings and the photograph, this could pass for my room at the asylum."
Victor grimaced. "Really?"
"Well, all right, you'd have to take away the cupboard and dresser. And cover the walls with padded white fabric," Alice allowed. "But it's close enough to." She turned in a slow circle, rubbing her arm. "You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but – it's been almost a year, and I still feel out of place."
Victor nodded sympathetically. "I know how you feel. My room here has never felt like home either." He smiled and motioned toward the forest of paper tacked up around her bed. "Still, it's not all bad. You've amassed a lovely art collection."
"I have, haven't I?" Alice agreed, walking toward it. "But let's be fair – what I've amassed is a rather childish art collection–" She waved a hand to indicate all her various scribblings "– and a few rare beautiful pieces." She tapped a certain ink drawing of herself in battle with an Army Ant, shooting her friend a grin. "Courtesy of a most talented artist."
Victor blushed and fussed with his tie. "Well, you give me quite a lot of inspiration," he returned. "And for what it's worth, I like your drawings. The sketch you made me for my birthday was beautiful."
"Yes – the only time I've been able to draw well in this godforsaken place. Be honored." Alice glanced back at the door. "Unfortunately, I can't linger here and discuss art with you all day. Dr. Bumby wants me to go collect my latest round of pills from the chemist."
"Oh, I see." Victor frowned, lips pressed into a disapproving line. "This has to be the third new medication he's tried you on. Are they helping at all?"
"Eh – mostly they just taste bad," Alice said, making a face. "They certainly don't stop me from seeing things." She shrugged. "Then again, it's only been a fortnight. And some things have gotten fuzzier, I think. Although nothing I want to get fuzzy." Her gaze fell to her feet. "I can still hear their screams at night."
Victor stepped forward and put his arm around her. "I'm sorry. I wish I could do something to help you."
Alice rested her head against his shoulder. "Victor, you do enough by just being here." Then, laughing, she added, "Even though I know quite well you'd like to be anywhere other than here."
"Right now I would," Victor admitted with a soft groan. "Dr. Bumby told me after lunch I would have a session with him around four."
Alice patted his hand. "And I'm sure you're very eager to go up there and be told to forget the nicest afterlife I've ever heard of," she said, voice dripping sarcasm.
"Oh yes, I can't wait," Victor replied, matching her tone perfectly. She was quite proud of that, to be honest. "I wish he'd just leave me alone. It's been–" His brow furrowed as he did the mental calculations. "Goodness, almost five months! Have I really been here that long?"
"You must, unless I've been hallucinating you," Alice informed him. "Which is always a possibility, granted." She took his hand and squeezed it. "I'm sorry you've been stuck here that long, but we both know Bumby's a stubborn bastard. With the money he's getting from your parents, he's not going to give up on you anytime soon. I bet he thinks you'll break any day now."
Victor shook his head. "Maybe. I'm inclined to believe he's getting a bit desperate. His methods have gotten steadily more aggressive over the past couple of weeks." He looked at her, concern written all over his face. "Speaking of which, you've just had your session, haven't you? How did it go?"
Alice winced. "Horrible. Dodging death, reliving the Queen's tyranny, watching my family burn – and just when I thought I'd gone somewhere safe, I'm attacked by black sludge and porcelain dolls."
"Dolls?" Victor blinked a few times. "Well, the lazy eye on Elsie's favorite is a little disconcerting, I suppose. . . ."
This was why she liked Victor – he always knew how to make her smile. "I agree. Fortunately for me, that one's made out of cheap bakelite. I doubt it could even think about ripping my face off without breaking its fingers."
Victor stared. "Rip your – your imagination just does not like you, does it Alice?"
"It hasn't liked me for years," Alice said, remembering a screaming plunge down a hole of shifting colors and the painful thud into the Village of the Doomed. God, it felt like only yesterday. . . . "And the feeling is mutual, as you well know. Maybe one day my brain and I will come to a truce, but not today." She shook her head and pulled away from him. "Anyway, I should go get those pills. Don't want our dearest doctor to have another grumpy moment and threaten to dock my pay again."
"Certainly not," Victor agreed. "I'll see you later, Alice. Have a good trip."
"Good luck with your session," Alice replied. "Don't let him bully you too much."
"I haven't yet," Victor said, giving her a rather cheeky grin.
Alice returned it. "Damn straight. So don't start now." Giving him a final wave, she headed for the front foyer.
Said room was in greater disrepair than usual – the orphans had been busy scattering cards and books over every available surface. Alice made a note to round up a few to help her clean when she got back. There was a group of four currently present, gathered around the dollhouse. They glanced up as she passed and began murmuring to each other. "Doctor's pet!"
"Too good for the asylum!"
"Mad as a hatter, without the charm."
"Killed her family!"
"Who'd want her?"
"Only the necrophiliac."
"One day he's going to have enough of that word and join me in stuffing you all in a closet," Alice informed them archly. They ignored her, going back to their play. Alice rolled her eyes. Wasn't even worth bothering them about, she thought as she pulled open the front door. After so much time hearing variations on those themes, Victor and I should be immune to such comments. Just makes me sick to hear them going on about that still. . . .
The world outside proved to be surprisingly nice – a rare sunny day, with air clear enough to actually look blue instead of grey. It gave Alice's spirits a much-needed lift. "Another day – a different dream, perhaps?" she wondered, jogging down the steps and through the front gate. It seemed unlikely, but you never knew. After all, she hadn't yet seen anything that wasn't supposed to be there today. That was progress, wasn't it? And she'd be back in time to see Victor again before his session. Perhaps they could have tea together, or play a game, or share more stories of Wonderland and the Land of the Dead. Maybe they'd even get the chance to take a short walk before supper. A tiny smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Maybe, despite that rotten session, today could still be a good day.
She had no idea how wrong she was.