Chapter 2: A Most Frustrating Session
September 7th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
There was so much color.
That was what had always amazed Victor most about the Land of the Dead. It was the complete inversion of what one expected. Life implied color, and death dreariness – after all, one didn't go to a funeral in anything other than black, and almost everyone he knew considered the cloudiest, greyest days as the most appropriate mourning weather. And yet, for practically all his life, the most prominent colors he'd seen Upstairs were off-whites, faded greys, and washed-out blacks, with the occasional touch of crusty brown or pale blue for variety. While Downstairs. . . .
Victor slowly walked around the pub, taking in the scenery with an appreciative eye. The brick foundation, redder than any rose, popped against the eggshell-colored walls. Dusty bottles stacked haphazardly on crooked coffin-shaped shelves glowed with vibrant pinks, yellows, and blues. Grass-green and bruise-purple light from the hanging lamps tinted walls, furniture, and skin curious shades as they battled for supremacy. Even the battered, worm-eaten brown of the bartop and the deep black of the shadows lurking in the corners of the room seemed more alive than their counterparts Above. It was as if all the color in the living world had been leeched away through the soil, trickling down until it landed in rainbow splatters on the Land of the Dead. You could have left some for us, Victor thought, though with no real rancor. He was certain the Dead appreciated the color a lot more than the Living ever would.
"Where are you?"
Dr. Bumby's voice echoed around the room, filling every nook and cranny. Victor frowned. He hated that – hated the way the words seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. It made him feel like he was a pet in a cage, or a figure in a dollhouse – small and insignificant, utterly at the whim of some force greater than himself. He got enough of that every time he received another scolding letter from home. Couldn't he have at least the illusion of choice here?
Still, it wouldn't do to ignore the doctor. "The Ball & Socket," he replied, brushing his fingers along the frayed pink cushioning atop the coffin piano. Some tiny part of him recognized that it was just the memory of a touch, that none of this was real, that it would all fade into oblivion when Dr. Bumby snapped his fingers. But Victor ignored that part. The majority of his mind bought into the illusion. And he was enjoying visiting the pub again, reliving cherished memories and getting a break from the London gloom. Best not to spoil it with reality.
"Is anyone else there?"
Victor glanced left and right. The main room was empty of people, but he could see light spilling out of the doorway to the kitchen. He went and peered over the undersized doors. Inside the little room stood three people he knew well – Mrs. Plum, the motherly head cook; Bonejangles, skeletal singer extraordinaire; and Emily, his sweet corpse bride. The three of them were talking and laughing as Mrs. Plum stirred the contents of a huge black cauldron. Not even the smell of rotting flesh emanating from the pot could stop a fond smile from spreading across Victor's face. "Some of my friends are in the kitchen. Bonejangles, Mrs. Plum, and Emily. I think they're about to have lunch."
"No, they're not."
Victor frowned, puzzled. What was Dr. Bumby talking about? "Yes, they are. I can see them."
"That doesn't matter. They're not there. The Ball & Socket is not there. None of what you claim to see exists, Victor. You made it all up during an unfortunate psychotic episode."
Oh. This again. The puzzlement faded, but the frown remained. "I did not," Victor replied, folding his arms. "They're real. All of this is real."
"It is not real. It is a delusion that was brought on by your fear of getting married. Don't you remember? You were practicing your vows in the woods. You were alone, rejected by your peers, banished until you could get things right. You were nervous, worried, afraid. At the height of your distress, you saw a root in the shape of a gnarled hand sticking out of the ground. And because it was dark, because you were already not thinking clearly, you imagined it was one."
"I didn't need to imagine anything, sir. It was a hand," Victor said firmly, a flicker of irritation coloring his words. As usual, Dr. Bumby was bound and determined to convince him that the very place he'd specifically asked Victor to go to didn't actually exist. That it was all a mere hallucination, despite how real everything felt. Why did Dr. Bumby want him in the Ball & Socket if the psychiatrist was just going to deny that there was a Ball & Socket? Was it really so important to Bumby that the pub dissolve away before his eyes?
The worst part, however, was that sometimes – Victor was tempted to let it. Every so often, he found himself wondering if it was really worth fighting Dr. Bumby's therapy. It didn't happen during every session, and it never lasted long. But sometimes, in the middle of particularly intense appointments – the kind that left him with a throbbing headache afterward – his resolve to remember would weaken. He knew it would be easier to just go along with the suggestions, let his memories be erased so he could leave this wretched place at last. And the way Dr. Bumby talked – so confident, so sure of himself, in a way Victor had never quite been even after nearly taking a sword to the vitals – it was frighteningly simple to agree with him that the Land Below was some sort of fantastic dream he'd had. Something that needed to be discarded so he could get on with the business of living.
But Bumby could never get him to wonder for more than a moment. There were things Victor knew deep in his gut – things he could rely on. And one of them was that the Land of the Dead and Emily were real. And that to forget them would be a betrayal of some of the nicest people, and the most unfortunate bride, he'd ever met. He'd stuck it out this long – he could stick it out to the end. "And the Land of the Dead is not a delusion," he continued. "I'm there right now. I can see Mrs. Plum cooking something over the fire. Shall I ask her what it is?"
"No," Dr. Bumby replied, and now he sounded a bit peeved. "You are trapped in an unproductive hallucination. There is no Mrs. Plum cooking something over a fire. There is no Mrs. Plum at all. There is no Land of the Dead, Victor. Block it from your mind – forget it! Return to the living world. Return to real people."
"These people are real too," Victor protested, glaring up at the ceiling for lack of anywhere better to look. "They may be dead, but they're as real as you or me. I could walk straight into that kitchen and hug any one of them."
"Those 'people' are nothing more than imaginary friends conjured up by your fevered imagination during a time of great mental anguish," Dr. Bumby shot back. "They do not exist. They cannot exist. Dead people do not get up and walk!"
Victor blinked. While he was used to Dr. Bumby getting angry with him during sessions, there was something different about the doctor's tone of voice this time. He sounded like – like Alice had when she'd first learned about the Land of the Dead. Victor felt a sudden wave of sympathy for the psychiatrist. Had he lost someone he loved long ago too? Did he feel like Alice once had – that Victor's stories reopened old wounds that had never quite healed? "Doctor, are you all right?"
There was a moment of silence. "You did not see any form of afterlife," Dr. Bumby finally said, calm and composed once more. "You did not speak with any of the dead. You did not do the impossible, Victor Van Dort. When you saw that 'hand' in the woods, you suffered an unfortunate psychotic episode that led to you hallucinating walking corpses while your pain-filled mind tried to work through its issues regarding commitment. And," he added, tone turning just a touch vindictive, "judging by your descriptions of this 'corpse bride,' some latent necrophilia."
That got Victor well and truly angry. "I do not have necrophilia! I would never v-violate one of the dead like that!" he yelled, balling his fists. "What happened is that I woke up a murdered bride by inadvertently proposing to her!"
"What happened is that you went mad from stress!" Dr. Bumby snapped. "No one else admits they saw the living dead, now do they?"
"I caught her murderer, didn't I?" Victor returned, playing his one and only trump card. "No one claims Lord Barkis didn't exist!"
"An auspicious coincidence, Master Van Dort! They happen from time to time. You probably based the image of your 'bride' on childhood stories of the missing girl. It was sheer dumb luck that her murderer returned to town when he did. And while we're all grateful that you managed to frighten a ruthless killer into accidentally killing himself, it is time to let the past go! Forget this insanity, Victor! Emily was not real – at least, not when you claim to have met her! Your insistence on holding onto this ridiculous fantasy is keeping you from achieving your true destiny!"
Victor, on the verge of snarling back something along the lines of 'you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about,' stopped and blinked a few times. Huh? What was the doctor going on about now? "True destiny?" he repeated, confused.
"Everyone has a purpose, Victor. Yours is not to spend the rest of your life wallowing in fake memories of an afterlife no rational person would conceive of! Nor is it to believe in undead brides that masquerade as tree roots!" The doctor's voice softened, becoming sweet as honey. "All she's doing is causing you pain, Victor. Ruining your reputation and making it impossible to interact with normal people. Wouldn't it be nicer to reject her and reclaim your life?"
Victor shook his head."No. I loved that poor girl, Dr. Bumby. I nearly died for her. I'm not going to erase her from my mind."
"You must!" Dr. Bumby insisted, abandoning soft words. "What you want does not matter anymore! You will forget! And you will return to the living world!"
Victor scowled at the rafters. "Well, if you insist, I can at least do the latter."
"Yes. Just let me go to Elder Gutknecht's tower so he can cast the Ukrainian Haunting Spell." The little part of him that knew this was all a mixture of memories and imagination protested that he was being mean, but Victor couldn't bring himself to care. Dr. Bumby was getting on his nerves. Every session was the same bloody thing, and he was tired of it. He was allowed to wind the doctor up every once in a while.
There was a brief silence, then a distinctly disgusted sigh. "That won't be necessary," Dr. Bumby replied. "You will wake – now." There was the sound of fingers snapping –
And then Victor opened his eyes in Dr. Bumby's office, thrown back into the world of dullness and brown. He stared at the ceiling, letting himself readjust to reality. In the Land of the Living; lying on an uncomfortable old couch in the middle of Whitechapel; and receiving therapy that he very much did not need from someone he very much did not like. How depressing. I'm almost tempted to ask Dr. Bumby to rehypnotize me just so I can escape back to the Ball & Socket.
"It is frankly disturbing how little you care for your own well-being, Victor."
Victor sighed as he sat up. And now this old song-and-dance again. He'd thought things could get samey back in Burtonsville, but that was nothing compared to his sessions with Dr. Angus Bumby. "I think I'm a better person for remembering Emily and the Land of the Dead – sir," he added quickly. No sense in antagonizing his jailer with rudeness.
"You're a better person for clinging to delusions and hallucinations?" Dr. Bumby asked as he leaned back in his chair, sarcasm dripping from his words.
"I used to be terrified of death, Dr. Bumby. Now I hardly fear it at all. And I believe I respect life more too." How could he not, after seeing the pain someone had gone through upon having theirs ripped away from them? Even with the lack of color and excitement in the Land of the Living, Victor knew Emily would have given anything to stay Upstairs. To become a wife and mother, to experience sunshine and happy days with a man she loved. That was the whole reason she'd made her vow, after all. The Land of the Dead was full of wonders, friendship, and fun, but Victor had realized that there were some things – blooming flowers, fresh apples, the simple touch of someone's skin against yours – that you could only properly experience as a breather. And he intended to take full advantage of them. If only for Emily's sake.
"Yes, of course you do. That perfectly explains your suicidal leanings," Dr. Bumby shot back, glaring at Victor over steepled fingers.
"I've only attempted that o-once!" Victor protested. Well – that you know of, he added in his head, feeling a faint pang of guilt. But there was no way in this world or the next that he was going to tell Dr. Bumby about the first incident. He couldn't afford to give the psychiatrist any more firepower in his campaign against his mind. "And only because I thought I could help someone else by doing so! I have no urge to try again now!"
"Do you? Do you really? You've never described the Land of the Dead in anything less than glowing terms. And you seem quite dissatisfied with your life as it currently is." Dr. Bumby's expression softened into something almost paternal. "I worry that one day I'm going to open your door only to find you lying in a puddle of your own blood or hanging from the ceiling by a rope of your ties. I don't want to have to tell your parents that I failed you completely." He stood up, placing a hand on Victor's shoulder. "Let me help you, Victor. Let me clear your mind of those painful and unproductive thoughts that insist on clouding it. There's a whole world out there you could be experiencing. Full of interesting, friendly, living people. Even living women." He leaned down, smiling. "You're a rather handsome boy, you know."
Victor repressed a shiver. Dr. Bumby may have been lauded for his psychiatric work, but Victor had discovered that the man's social skills were somewhat lacking (and that was saying something, coming from him). The good doctor had a strange knack for making compliments sound creepy. Not to mention that whenever Dr. Bumby looked at him like this, Victor had the oddest feeling he was being sized up for something. What, he didn't know, but it was enough to unnerve him. He reached for his tie, then stopped as he recalled how much that irritated the doctor. "Um, t-thank you," he said, twisting his hands together instead. "B-but I have been experiencing the world, sir. I don't spend all my time lost in memories of what happened those two days, I assure you." And as for living women. . .I've found one, but I'm sure she'd never return my feelings. And judging by your reaction the last time we got close, you wouldn't approve of the match either.
Dr. Bumby frowned and straightened up. "It is impossible to get through to you, Master Van Dort," he grumbled. "Five months with no change – you should have been cured in half that time. I'm tempted to try more drastic measures. . .but I'll have to get your parents' approval first," he added with a deep, put-on sigh. "Consider this your last chance to cooperate. I am being paid to cure you, and cure you I will." He leaned forward again, his glasses shining blinding white in the sunlight as he locked eyes with Victor. "Whether you like it or not."
Oh dear – Victor hadn't thought there was anything worse than Bumby's too-sincere smiles, but this somehow managed to be even creepier. He couldn't think of a single response that would satisfy those eerie blank discs. So instead he turned his gaze to the window behind him, squeezing his fingers to stop them fidgeting. He hated putting Dr. Bumby in these moods – if only because the doctor was invariably short with him the rest of the day – but the alternative was doing something that felt wrong down to his very core. No matter what anyone might say or do, he couldn't bring himself to declare Emily nonexistent. The mere thought made him feel like – well, like Barkis Bittern. And the day he ended up anything like that horrible man was the day he'd remove himself from human society altogether.
Dr. Bumby huffed and turned away, shaking his head. "Typical. It's sad, really, how some people refuse to accept help," he mumbled. "The world would be a much better place if we all followed our assigned purposes without question."
Victor wasn't sure he agreed, but didn't dare say so. It seemed too much like jabbing the lion in the eye. "Perhaps I just haven't found mine yet?" he suggested instead.
"Or you won't listen to those who already know," Dr. Bumby returned coldly. He sat down at his desk and picked up some papers. "But I don't have time to argue it with you. You're free to go."
Victor was only too happy to comply. He practically ran out the door, breathing a sigh of relief. Ugh, that office felt more like a prison with every session – especially with how Dr. Bumby had taken to hovering over him. But he'd earned his freedom for another week. And hopefully his parents would take their time granting permission for the psychiatrist to try more "drastic" treatments. He wanted to believe that they wouldn't grant their permission at all, but knowing his mother. . . . If only he could procure the money necessary to shed their influence over his life once and for all. One day, you'll find a way out of here, he promised himself, running his fingers through his hair. One day.
The hallway was crowded with children as usual, doodling on the walls and floor. Victor approached the nearest, Reggie, who was working hard on a picture of a big snarling dog. "Have you seen Alice?" he asked, crouching down. Talking with her was sure to lift his spirits. Maybe he could follow the children's example and get his sketchbook for another drawing of Wonderland. Adding to her art collection was better than sitting around feeling sorry for himself.
Reggie shook his head. "She ain't come back from her errand yet."
"She hasn't?" Victor frowned. That was odd. Alice preferred to get whatever Bumby ordered her to do over as quickly as possible, so she had more time to herself. Unless she got distracted, of course. Which is happening more and more often these days, Victor admitted to himself, biting his lip.
It worried him, to tell the truth. During the majority of his stay here at the Home, Alice's hallucinations had seemed to be relatively infrequent and harmless, despite her dire warnings upon his arrival. Yes, sometimes she'd have a conversation with something that wasn't there, but in general she'd been as lucid as anyone else he knew. However, over the past fortnight, her mental state had deteriorated with alarming rapidity. Now she was seeing things multiple times a day – and worse, she was having a lot more trouble distinguishing reality from the illusion. She'd taken to snapping at empty chairs and cowering away from random strangers on the street, only realizing their harmlessness when prompted. Once he'd even gone into her room to find her beating her wardrobe with her umbrella – when he'd gotten her calmed down, she'd confessed to imagining she was hitting a Phantasmagoria with her flamingo croquet mallet ("And the horrid thing just would not die!"). It was a terrifying change to witness, especially in someone he cared about so much.
His biggest fear was that, one day, she'd have an episode so bad that she'd hurt herself – or worse, someone else. And he knew that was Alice's greatest fear as well. Once you got past her sharp words and cold demeanor, the last of the Liddells proved to have a surprisingly soft heart. She was always quick to apologize for her behavior after a moment of insanity, and more than once she'd anxiously examined him and anyone else nearby for signs of madness-inflicted injury, not relaxing until he'd assured her multiple times all was well. To wake from a hallucination with blood on her hands – Victor didn't think there was any force in this world that could keep her mind from snapping with the sheer horror. And when she talked about the mere possibility of going back to that wretched Rutledge Asylum – well, the terror in her eyes was enough to sway even the most hardened soul.
Except Dr. Bumby. The psychiatrist didn't seem to give even half a damn about the fact that Alice was suffering so much as of late. Oh yes, he claimed that his therapy would eventually eliminate her hallucinations, but it didn't seem right that he just ignored them in the here and now. In fact, Victor would swear that this severe dip in Alice's sanity had started around the same time as Bumby's decision to try more "radical" treatments to eliminate her painful past. By Alice's own admission, the pills and extra sessions were helping a little – but in Victor's opinion, the side effects were worse than the "disease." There must be a less brutal way for Dr. Bumby to fix Alice's memory woes, he thought, shaking his head. The way things are going, you'd think he had it out for her!
"Nope," Reggie said, dragging Victor's mind back to the present. "Ain't seen her since she left. Maybe she saw a rabbit and ran off after it." He snickered. "Bet she's wading through the sewer right now, thinking she's in Wonderland."
"That's not funny," Victor said, giving the boy a severe look. "If she was hurt, you'd be sorry."
Reggie just shrugged and added more teeth to his dog. Victor sighed and left him to it, heading down the stairs. All right, no Alice. Perhaps he could do some sketching on his own then. Or find a book to while away the time with until she returned. He couldn't have read them all yet. And surely she'd be back before he got too bored.
However, Reggie's words wouldn't let him be. What if she had fallen into another hallucination while out and about? Normally he or Dr. Bumby was around to pull her out of it, but this time. . . . Despite himself, he began picturing Alice wandering the streets of Whitechapel, battling figments of her imagination, utterly oblivious to the world around her. . .and then falling into a ditch and breaking her legs, or running in front of a carriage going too fast to stop, or –
He shut his eyes, pressing on his temples. "She's fine," he told himself firmly. "She's – she's just taking a nice, long walk before she has to come back to this loathsome place. Like we do whenever we run errands together. She is perfectly all right and I'll see her when she gets back."
It didn't help. That niggle of worry kept tugging at his heart. The days were ending earlier now – what if night fell with her still out there? What if she got lost and couldn't find her way back? What if she injured herself in some forgotten alley where she couldn't get help? Or, worse yet, what if someone like Jack Splatter came upon her and decided that, as long as she didn't know what was happening in the real world –
A wave of nausea nearly doubled him over. Victor held his stomach and his breath, waiting for the sick feeling to pass. No – he couldn't bear to think of that happening to his Alice. He had to try looking for her, if only for the sake of his nerves. He'd probably find he was worrying over nothing, but – that was better than just sitting around with his mind running off in a thousand different, terrible directions, wasn't it? And besides, maybe once he found her, they could pop into a store, or look for a park, or – or do anything together, really. Anything that might make this day better. His mind made up, Victor straightened his back and strode through the foyer and out the front doors, ready to tackle anything in his way.
He hoped, anyway.