Chapter 11: Of Bobbies, Bumby, And A Broken Spirit
September 14th, 1875
Whitechapel, London’s East End, England
“Well – I suppose we can forget about her being back as soon as she’s able, hmmm?”
Victor shot Dr. Bumby a glare as he stacked up the breakfast dishes. “I’m well aware that something’s gone wrong, sir,” he said between clenched teeth. “She promised me that she'd be back by suppertime.”
"And you believed her."
"I didn't think anything would–”
“That right there is the crux of the problem,” Dr. Bumby interrupted, scowling. “You didn't think! If you'd taken a mere five seconds to consider the issue, you might not have decided it permissible to let her go out wandering by herself again just as soon as you’d found her! After you'd just barely pulled her out of the grip of another fire, no less!”
“She seemed fine!" Victor shot back, collecting more plates. "Don't you think that if she'd been badly hurt I would have – well, I would have taken her to the hospital, but after that, straight back here! But she wasn't burned, and she was up and walking and coherent – and I believed she’d be safe at her family’s lawyer’s house at any rate. Especially with her nanny nearby to help should something go wrong!” He slammed his stack of china on the table, nailing the doctor with a frustrated snarl. “And I could have gone out and fetched her last night if you’d let me!”
“Let you go wandering around Whitechapel in the dead of night after you’d publicly humiliated Jack Splatter?” Dr. Bumby laughed harshly. “Master Van Dort, you’d have been dead by the first light of dawn.” He picked up a couple of glasses. "Besides, Dr. Tewsbury was quite insistent you stay here in bed. He wasn't pleased at all with you being the one to drag him to our Home after tea."
"Yes, well, you weren't here, and someone had to get help for poor Dennis," Victor retorted. "He could have ended up lame for life thanks to that bottle."
"Yes, fine, true," Dr. Bumby grumbled. "I do wish the children would take more care when they play in the courtyard. I've told them before that a crippled child is almost certainly never going to find a home. " With a smirk, he added, "And it's hardly like we can fleague them to make them more palatable to the customers."
"What? I'm just making a joke."
"A very cruel one! It's bad enough that they do that sort of thing to horses – yes, I know what 'fleague' means, I've lived here six months!" he added as Dr. Bumby stared at him in surprise. "And it's horrible to tell children that no one would ever want them if they got hurt!"
"It's simply to ensure they'll be careful , Master Van Dort," Dr. Bumby said with a long-suffering sigh. "It's a sad truth that most families do not want the cost of taking on a child with – 'special needs,' let's say."
"Still, you could put it kinder than that." Victor grabbed some cutlery, letting out a deep huff as he did. "Where were you yesterday, anyway? I would have happily told you where Alice was and let you fetch her yourself if you'd been around."
"An important meeting with some of the Home's biggest benefactors," Dr. Bumby replied rather vaguely. "Canceling or leaving early would have been unthinkable, I'm afraid. Not that I had any inkling that I should until I came back and promptly received a lecture about making sure the courtyard was clear of broken glass and how people suffering from smoke in the lungs needed rest. "
"I was resting," Victor muttered. "And I was feeling better once teatime came around – fortunately for Dennis. There was no need to confine me to my room like a child. I can take care of myself.”
“Your being here suggests otherwise,” Dr. Bumby retorted. “The mad always think they know best. Look at Alice, going off chasing useless old toys–”
“That rabbit means the world to her!”
“Which is precisely the problem! How is she supposed to forget her past when she clings so desperately to these remnants of it? All she’s doing is retarding her own progress in her therapy." He peered at Victor over his glasses. "I’d say she’s picked up some bad habits from you, but she's always been a tricky patient.”
Victor's reply died in his throat. That had sounded like it came from the front door. . .He and Bumby stared at each other as the rapping repeated itself. Then Victor spun around and rushed to the foyer, leaving his wobbly pile of plates behind. Oh please oh please oh please – “Alice?” he cried, yanking open the door.
It was indeed his wayward friend – accompanied by a policeman. "G'morning, sir," he said, tipping his hat in Victor's direction.
Victor blinked, doing his best to process this unexpected turn of events. Oh dear. What’s wrong now? “Er – h-hello, officer,” he said, touching the knot of his tie. “Is there a problem?”
“No problem – just got someone here who I believe belongs to Dr. Bumby,” the policeman said, clapping a callused hand on Alice's shoulder.
Alice pulled away and glared at him, though her hard gaze was tinged with embarrassment. “I don’t belong to anybody,” she muttered, hugging herself. "I'm not a dolly."
“Well, you’re in his care. Close enough for us.”
Footsteps behind Victor signaled Dr. Bumby's joining the little party. “Well now, what’s this?” he asked, face severe as he looked between his charge and the lawman. “Have you gotten yourself into trouble, Alice?”
“There’s no charges, Doctor, if that’s what you’re worried about,” the policeman assured him as Alice took a special interest in her feet. “Alice and Mr. Radcliffe just had a bit of a disagreement.”
“What happened?” Victor asked, directing the question at Alice.
“He accused me of setting the fire!” Alice burst out, face ablaze with fury. “And he wouldn’t give me either my rabbit or the inquest report!”
“Chris and I were passing through Threadneedle after our morning coffee when Radcliffe comes barrelin' out of his house, black all over his front, yelling for help,” the policeman said, looking more amused than anything. “Grabbed us as soon as he saw us, babblin' on about 'that mad Liddell child' havin' a ‘psychotic episode’ in his office and needing some restraints. Chris went up to see what was what and found Alice rifling through the man’s desk. Soon as she saw him, she bolted through the window. Girl can run when she wants to – led us on a merry chase over all those rooftops, didn’t you Alice?” he asked her with a grin.
“I panicked,” Alice admitted, eyes fixed back on her shoes. “My first thought was that I was about to be dragged back to the asylum. Can you blame me?”
“Course not – if I ever met someone who didn’t run, I’d ask what was wrong with them,” the policeman chuckled. “Anyway, we ran around for a while like chickens with our heads cut off, with her sneakin' along every ledge and gutter she could find, but eventually we caught up to her on some old couple's roof. She tried to dash across the old scrap bridge between that and the next flat, but – well, don't call 'em 'scrap' bridges for nothing.”
“It collapsed almost the moment I set foot on it,” Alice explained, shuddering. “I had to grab onto Constable Hightopp here to avoid meeting a rather messy fate in the alley below.”
Sheer perversity caused Victor's mind to instantly picture the scene. Alice racing across the rickety planks in a frenzy of terror. . .the wood giving way with a snap like a gunshot beneath her buckled shoes. . .her hanging suspended in mid-air for a timeless fraction of a second. . .then tumbling at last to the rocky cobbles, screaming all the way. . . . He gulped and wiped his forehead. His stomach really wasn't designed for all these somersaults. “You’re a-all right, though?”
“I’m not a pancake, so yes, quite all right,” Alice assured him.
“Yeah, well, Radcliffe said he didn’t want to press charges, but he thought an hour or two in the cells might do her good,” Constable Hightopp continued. “And there's been plenty of other people coming in to report her makin' a nuisance of herself, so we thought we ought to take her down to the station and ask her what she’s been up to. Only meant to keep her til teatime or so, just a bit of 'scare 'er straight,' but. . . .”
“But what?” Dr. Bumby asked, lowering his brow.
“Well, we brought her down to the cells at the same time as some of the others were bringing in Jack Splatter for torching the Mermaid and burying a cleaver in Long Tim Hargrove.”
“You caught him? He's bragged before how he's too slippery for you,” Victor said, wrinkling his nose as he recalled a brief volley they'd had not long before Alice had lost herself in Wonderland.
"Hard to slip when you ain't exactly thinkin' straight," Constable Hightopp replied, chuckling. "Apparently some swell managed to nail him right in the gabber! Left him pretty loopy for a while."
A vindictive grin spread across Victor's face. "Really." It wasn’t usually in his nature to indulge in schadenfreude, but it did his heart good to think of that filth Splatter rotting in gaol. And all because he’d managed to send the pimp off to dreamland! This is getting filed right next to sticking Barkis three times before he ever touched me in the memory banks.
“Yeah, he was in a right mood," Constable Hightopp continued. "Kept going on and on about how he was gonna take the fu – er, the toff's head off next time he saw him.” Victor's smile faded. “I say if someone like that could lay a finger on him, he's losin' his touch. Anyway, the minute he saw Alice, he tried to blame the lot on her.”
“He what?!” As if he didn’t like Jack Splatter enough!
Hightopp laughed. “Oh, she didn’t take it lying down. Started calling him cur, leech, maggot – a fantastic line of inquiry, if I do say so.” Alice smirked proudly.
“As fascinating as this is, it doesn’t explain why she’s coming home a day late,” Dr. Bumby said, staring down the officer.
“Well, the thing is, sir, right as she was buildin' up a good head of steam, she, uh, keeled over,” Hightopp explained, taking off his battered top hat and turning it in his hands. “I don’t know if she hit her head or the excitement got to her, but she was out like a light. I didn’t feel right sending her back in that state, so we kept her overnight to make sure she wasn’t sick or nothing. Woke up this morning like nothing had happened, so here she is.”
Victor stared at Hightopp, surprised. He – he actually cared enough about her to keep an eye on her? he thought, tilting his head. To make sure she was truly well enough to make the trip? I would have never guessed, after seeing the behavior of some of his compatriots. . . . A hesitant smile appeared on his face. But that's very kind of him. Maybe I’ve misjudged some of those on the local force a bit.
Judging by his tight-lipped scowl, Dr. Bumby didn’t agree. “And you didn’t even think to summon me?” he growled. “I believe that a young woman suffering a mild psychotic episode in your gaol is sufficient reason to call in a professional. Do you know the untold damage you might have just done to her psyche?”
“Dr. Bumby, with all due respect, how would they be able to tell?” Alice joked, brushing a few strands of hair from her face.
Bumby’s response was to grab her arm and yank her inside. “I’ll deal with you later,” he snapped. “As for you, officer – what’s your name again?”
“Constable Harry Hightopp,” the policeman said, frowning as he replaced his hat. “And I don’t know about what you just said – we just wanted to make sure she was herself before we sent her home.”
“Treating her when she’s not herself is my entire job, Constable!”
Victor looked at the pair squaring off for battle and decided he'd had enough of shouting matches for one day. He offered Alice his hand. "Shall we leave them to it?"
"Please," Alice said, taking it with a grateful smile. They hurried off to the relative safety of her room. "So, how did your trip to the doctor's go?" she added pointedly as Victor closed the door.
"He looked me over and listened to my lungs – said I'd be fine so long as I didn't exert myself overmuch the rest of the day," Victor told her. "Of course, I ended up having to ignore his advice when Dennis fell on a broken bottle during hopscotch in the square."
"Oh no! Lousy lushes," Alice grumbled, folding her arms. "How is he?"
"Sporting a fresh set of stitches up one leg, but he'll recover fully – not that he isn't milking his limp for all its worth right now. But it led to Dr. Bumby and Dr. Tewsbury collaborating to lock me in my room for the rest of the day," Victor sighed. "Otherwise I would have been out looking for you again." He gave his friend a worried once-over. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Fine – or, well, as fine as I get these days,” Alice amended, rocking on her heels. “Better than I was last night, I suppose. I’m not sure why I fainted myself. One moment, I was screaming at Splatter with the full unrighteous fury of the Queen of Hearts; the next, I was waking up to the stench of stale urine and old blood behind bars.”
Victor bit back a wave of nausea. “Hope Splatter’s enjoying that scent. . . . So what happened with Mr. Radcliffe? Did you really send him screaming out of his house?”
“Yes, though I didn’t mean to,” Alice said, glaring at a picture of the Tweedle twins mounted on her wall. “He just made me so angry. . .I told him I knew he had my rabbit and that I wanted it back, and he refused to give it to me. Said that I wasn’t in the right state of mind to have such an ‘inflammatory object.’ We snapped at each other about it for a while, then I demanded he at least tell me everything he knew about the fire. He complained that that was all I ever wanted to talk about – how shocking that I’d want to discuss such matters with the man who settled our estate and even identified my family since I wasn’t able to – then regurgitated that story about Dinah knocking over the lamp. I told him I knew that wasn’t true, and to my shock he agreed with me. For one blissful moment, I thought that, maybe, he was secretly on my side – then he asked me if I liked to play with matches as a girl.” She let out a deep, heavy sigh. “I admit, after that I lost my head. Tried to snatch his papers from his desk, threatened to knock him senseless with one of his precious Ming vases, swore I'd see him bleed like the fat pig he is. . . . He retreated after I threw an inkwell at him. I figured I’d search his study for the inquest report and my rabbit before slipping out the back, but then Hightopp’s partner showed up, and. . . .” Her cheeks flushed red. “I know I shouldn’t have run, but they’ve teased me before about bringing me in ‘just for being off my nut.’ I didn’t want to risk it." She rubbed her arm with a little sigh. "Not that it did me much good in the end.”
"No, but at least you didn't end up wandering the streets in another fog," Victor said, trying to be positive. “I can’t say I blame you much for panicking – I probably would have done the same. And while I can't quite condone you throwing ink at people, if only because it's a waste of good drawing supplies–” Alice let out a soft giggle "–I will defend your right to berate Radcliffe to the ends of the earth." He scowled, shaking his head. "What a thing to accuse you of! Does he seriously believe you started the fire?”
All humor abruptly left Alice's face, leaving it to crumple into misery. “Well. . .maybe I did,” she whispered.
Victor blinked. “What?” Hadn't she just drenched Radcliffe in India's best for such an accusation? Why echo his words now?
“I – I’ve been collecting memories lately, in Wonderland," Alice explained, keeping her gaze fixed on a sketch of the White Rabbit. "Literally, in fact – the world's shaped them into solid form and scattered them about the landscape for me to find. Most have been simple things – little crystal houses and bottles and butterflies, which, when broken, provide a brief window into the past. But – but there's also been two others, in the guise of our front door, blanketed inside with flame. Those I have to pass through, straight back into the night of the fire."
"Let me finish, please," Alice said, holding up a hand. "The first one is barely worth mentioning – a completely unnecessary reminder that our library was a firetrap thanks to all of Papa’s books and paper and photography equipment. Any fool could have told you that. My own mother remarked on it as a joke. But the second. . . .” She pressed the heel of her palm against her eyes as her voice grew watery. “The night it all happened, I was the last one out of the library. I'd been reading with Dinah, and – and the log I left on the fire – I don’t know if it was really dead–”
Victor took her tenderly by the shoulders, turning her toward him. “Alice. It was an accident,” he told her in the firmest tones he could muster. “You did not kill your family.”
She finally turned her eyes to his again, bright green dulled with grief. “How can you be so certain?" she demanded. "You weren’t there. You can’t tell me if that log was dead or not.”
“No, I can’t,” Victor admitted. “But I can tell you that I know you would have checked. I know you, Alice. You would have never done anything to deliberately hurt your family. I don't give a damn what the children, or Radcliffe, or the Illustrated, or anyone else might say about it. Whatever happened, it was not your fault.” He brushed a lock of hair away from her face. “Please, Alice – don’t let the Jabberwock win after he’s died.”
That got a smile. “Thank you,” she whispered, pulling him into a hug. “Maybe I should have taken you to Radcliffe’s, cough or not.”
Victor wrapped his arms around her. “I told you I would have been happy to come. Though you're probably right that I did need my rest. . .still, I do hope you know I'm always going to be on your side."
“I do,” she assured her. "And I'm beyond grateful for it." She pulled away, eyes light again and her usual smirk back in place. “Funny you should mention the Jabberwock, incidentally – I ran across his skeleton in the Vale of Tears earlier. Such a relief to know he’s dead and gone for good, especially since my mind has recently enjoyed sticking his face everywhere.”
“Right, you said – well, hopefully that spells the end of that particular hallucination.” Victor tilted his head, curiosity filling him. “Alice, what has been going on in your mind? I've gotten a few reports from people who have run into you, but – it's all very hard to understand. Someone said something about Dormy trying to boil you – I thought you were friends? And who exactly is this 'Carpenter' you mistook me for? I don’t think you’ve told me about him yet.”
“I don’t think he was a person before – just a figure in the Tweedles’ favorite poem,” Alice replied, shaking her head. “And I bet the inhabitants of the Deluded Depths would have preferred that he and his Walrus companion had remained that way.”
“The Deluded Depths?” Victor repeated, even more intrigued.
Alice nodded, grinning and pushing him down to sit on her bed. “Filled with fish even you might like – and plenty of things I’m sure you wouldn’t. But let me start at the beginning, with me following yet another white furry creature down a dark hole. . . .”
Victor listened raptly as Alice recounted her recent adventures to him. It was an amazing, violent, nonsensical tale, filled with things like giant floating factories devoted to the production of rivers of tea and staffed by flocks of half-mechanized dodos, a vast expanse of icy sea blanketed by a glowing aurora and patrolled by a vicious new breed of snark, and an underwater city built from shipwrecks and populated by fish wearing their Sunday best. Alice’s way with words was amazing as always – at times, Victor could swear he could feel the floor shake from the constant pounding of Pressing Up & Cranking Down, or see the antenna of a hidden Ice Snark poking up from just behind the wardrobe. Of course, the pure strangeness of it all meant that he had to interrupt from time to time with a puzzled question or comment:
“Wait, the Duchess gave you a weapon? Didn't she try to slaughter and dress you for dinner last time you met?"
"Apparently I've destroyed her taste for mad women – she satisfies her cravings with pork now. Has me scouting out pig snouts for her while I'm on my travels. The rewards are nice, but honestly, having her so friendly now is a bit creepy. I almost preferred her as a foe!"
“How many different memories are there again? I'm losing track. I know houses are your family, and the glasses Bumby. . . .”
"Right, and then there's a bottle of gin for Nurse Witless, a peacock feather for Nanny, a syringe for Dr. Wilson – very happy those don't appear often – a pen for Mr. Radcliffe, and – well, a butterfly for you!"
"Me? Alice, you've known me half a year. I didn't think Wonderland would bother."
"Well, it's not like I don't miss you when we're apart." (Which forced Victor to try and hide a blush.)
"So – you jump on a blue-capped mushroom, and the world just – changes. Rebuilds itself completely."
"And it's always to put you atop a slide."
"So – I should have just spent my days in Hyde Park and waited for you to show up for a trip around their famous playground?"
"Oh, stop it. . .though maybe you should have. Damn, you know how long I've been waiting for a chance to go on that slide properly?"
"You may have mentioned. . . ."
“Eye fish. Alice, that’s weird even for you.”
"I haven't even told you about the anchor fish yet! Or the turtle chest I saw swimming in the distance once. Or the Cannon Crabs. Or the Oyster Starlets!"
"Oh for – I am officially declaring the Deluded Depths the strangest realm you've created for Wonderland yet."
Still, even if everything she said didn’t settle completely comfortably into his mind, it was a pleasure to listen to the story – and to understand, at least in part, what had prompted her sudden disappearance from the Home. Alice's body might have been stumbling around the streets of London without plan or purpose, but her mind had been extraordinarily busy indeed. She'd battled her way across dangerous landscapes, confronting monsters galore, all in the pursuit of rooting out a fresh corruption infecting her mind. Everything seemed to center around the discovery of a new sort of enemy she called the Ruin, now spreading across Wonderland courtesy of a terrifying train constructed by the March Hare and the Dormouse. “Though I’m not entirely sure they meant to build what they did,” Alice admitted. “They may not have ever been the sanest or nicest of creatures, but I can't see them attempting to destroy their own home. There’s only one Wonderlander who’s ever tried that, and last I knew, she was very, very dead.”
Victor’s gaze flicked toward the crude doodle of a hedge maze marked with lopsided hearts tacked up nearby. “The dead don't always stay quietly in their graves, though," he remarked softly. "Do you think she’s behind this – Infernal Train?”
“No, I don't, actually,” Alice said, rocking on her heels as she examined a sketch of Card Guards being messily dismembered. “The Ruins – they're disgusting piles of slop, but they're not really her style. She prefers armies based on games, if she can get them. Surely I didn't kill every Card Guard and Crimson Chessman under her command.” She shook her head and plopped onto the bed next to him. “Honestly, after fighting so many various forms of the wretched goop, I've come to believe they're not from any place in Wonderland. They’re more like gooey parasites that have burrowed into my mind.”
“Like ticks or lice?”
“Yes, exactly. Only they're after my sanity instead of my blood. Or along with my blood, considering how nasty they are.” She shuddered. “That Colossal Ruin ripping itself from the ground, all dripping faces and jagged metal and boiling ooze – that's going to haunt my nightmares for weeks to come. Mostly because I know the next time I meet one, it’s not going to run away once I’ve sufficiently wounded it.”
Victor nodded, shivering. And he'd thought having his mother's voice occasionally shout at him inside his skull was bad. Poor Alice. “I wish you all the best in fighting them,” he told her, putting a friendly hand on her shoulder. “And I hope you can get this infection cleared–”
The pair started, heads jerking toward the door. Dr. Bumby was standing there like the herald of some cruel god, arms folded, lips thin, eyes hidden behind the cold white discs of his glasses. “My office. Now,” he growled. Turning his glare on Victor, he added, “And I’m sure you can do something much more useful with your time than strengthen the memory of her hallucinations!”
“Dr. Bumby, we were just–” Alice started
“Just allowing yourself to sink back into unproductive thoughts and emotions! One would think you didn't want to get better! I can only imagine what horrors gaol has inflicted on your psyche!” He grabbed her wrist and yanked her to her feet. “Upstairs!”
“All right, all right! You don’t need to drag me!” Alice snapped, yanking herself free of his grip. “I’ve got legs, you know.” She shot Victor an apologetic look. “I’ll see you later, then.”
“Right.” Victor sighed as doctor and patient vanished out the door, still sniping at each other. Oh lovely. Apparently Bumby's little tiff with Officer Hightopp hadn't gone well. He hadn't seen the psychiatrist in this foul a mood since the day he and Alice had danced in the front foyer. Alice was going to catch hell in that office, that was for sure. And here I thought her return was going to be a happy occasion, he thought, rising from his seat and idly running his fingers over one of Alice's sketches. Why does he have to ruin everything with his bad temper? He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Don’t be too hard on her, Dr. Bumby. You’re the one who refuses to treat those hallucinations properly, after all!
It was suppertime before Victor saw Alice again – after her session with Dr. Bumby, she'd hidden herself in her room, leaving the doctor and Victor to pick up the chores. The children had kept Victor busy enough that there was little chance to slip away, and the one time he had tried knocking on her door, Bumby had appeared and promptly shoved a broom in his hand, directing him to the front step on pain of refusing him access to the piano for a fortnight. It was a tense, unpleasant sort of day, not at all helped by the worry churning in his gut over his friend's potential state.
Alice finally emerged from her self-imposed exile to throw together the meal Dr. Bumby had ordered for dinner. Victor, taking his usual place between Reggie and Abigail, watched her serve with concerned eyes. She was deeply subdued, dropping food onto each plate without even a glance at the owner. "Alice, what–" he tried as she came around to him.
The leathery hunk of meat hit his dish, and she swept past him to deliver Reggie his share. "Mealtime is for eating, not for talking," Dr. Bumby growled thunderously. "If you want to engage in frivolous conversation, you can do it on your own time."
Victor took the hint and kept his mouth shut as Alice came back around with the vegetables. The children too picked up on the danger signs, and devoted themselves to finishing off their food as fast as possible to escape the storm lingering around their keeper. Alice herself merely picked at her meal, and Dr. Bumby practically attacked his slab of overcooked beef, sawing away with his knife like he had a personal vendetta against the cow. Victor managed to choke down his portion, though it sat in his stomach like a stone. It was a dinner as silent as the grave – or, in Victor’s more informed opinion, as silent as the grave would never be.
After everyone was finished, Alice hastily gathered up the dishes, still refusing to meet anyone's eye, and disappeared toward the kitchen. The children scattered, Bumby stomping off behind. Victor waited to make sure he wasn't about to receive a barked order to follow (not that he would have obeyed if he had), then hurried after Alice.
She was standing over the sink, arms almost elbow-deep in the soapy water and hair hanging around her face like a widow's heavy veil. Victor lingered at the bottom of the stairs as she scrubbed, unsure if he was doing the right thing. Alice typically preferred to be alone when she was upset – rather like himself – but he had to know if there was anything he could to do to help. “Are – are you all right?” he finally asked, tensed to flee should she tell him to bugger off.
There was a long pause. “He told me he might send me back to Rutledge,” she whispered at last, setting a plate aside to dry.
Victor’s entire body went cold. “He what?"
Alice turned around, revealing eyes rimmed all round with red. “He said that he’d hoped I was strong enough to not give the hallucinations any footholds. That he'd trusted me to be able to tell what was real and what wasn’t,” she said, voice shaking. “And that he was extremely disappointed in me for letting my mind and body wander off like that. I t-tried to explain that it wasn't like I'd wanted that to happen, that I would have fought it if I could, but he cut me off and said that if I was going to be a danger to myself and others, m-maybe it would be b-better if I were back in a. . .a. . . .” She bit down on her lower lip as it started to wobble, tears shining in her eyes. “And that he wasn’t afraid to say I should be c-committed again if – if he really thought–”
Her voice cracked, and she covered her face with a soapy arm. Victor darted forward and swept her into an embrace. “Oh, God, Alice. . . .”
“I’m not going back!” she shouted abruptly, shrill and broken. “Not to that hell! Not ever! I won’t, I simply won’t!” She grabbed him in a death grip, burying her face in his chest. “I want to be well again! I want to know what’s real!”
At a loss for words, Victor simply rubbed her back for a few moments, letting her sob into his jacket. He felt rather out of his depth here. He’d comforted Alice during bad moments before, but this. . . . “I’m real,” he finally said, for lack of anything better.
“I know you are.” Alice sighed. “Why the hell do you care so much about a madwoman?”
“Because you’re the smartest, funniest, kindest woman I’ve ever met,” Victor said, leaning his cheek against the top of her head as he gently rocked them. “And the bravest.”
"I cannot measure up so well to a viscount's daughter and a – dead woman." Alice paused. "That doesn't sound quite right when you say it aloud, does it?"
Victor chuckled weakly. "Not really. . .but you do. I won't say you're as enthusiastic as Emily, or as sweet as Victoria, but you've a special charm all your own."
"Madness is a special charm now?"
"No, being a storyteller so fantastic I can practically see your Wonderland at times is. Along with a sharp wit and a well-read mind. . .and a beautiful imagination." He pulled back just enough to reach down and tilt her head up to look her in the eyes. “Bumby and all the rest of them – I don't care what they say. I know you can beat this. You're stronger than this madness.” He offered up a smile – shaky and nervous, but a smile all the same. “Although, by all accounts, I’m off my rocker too, so. . . .”
To his immense relief, that got a laugh. “Right, I’d nearly forgotten,” she nodded. “The one who keeps going on about walking corpses who have better lives than most living people. You’re crazier than I am.” She squeezed his middle. “It’s the two of us against the world, isn’t it?”
“If that’s the way you’d like it,” Victor said, drawing her close again. “I just – I wish I could help you more.”
“You do more than anyone else does,” Alice replied, pressing her ear against his chest. “You know how often I'd wished you were in Wonderland with me? I would have loved to have shown you the Vale of Tears at its best, or Tundraful's glowing sky.” She sighed again. "You'll have to draw me some more pictures."
“You are a most prolific muse, I assure you,” Victor grinned, before drawing a few more soothing circles on her back. “But really. Anything I can do to help – all you need to do is ask.”
“Thank you.” Alice pulled free of his arms, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron. “Ugh – that was quite the production. . .and damn it, I've gotten you all wet, I'm sorry."
"I've suffered much worse things than being wet," Victor told her, though he had to admit that the splotches on his back were getting a bit cold. "Do you want me to take over the dishes while you get yourself put together?"
"No, it'll be better if I have something to keep me busy," Alice said, waving a hand and splattering soap across the floor. "Besides, if Bumby gets an inkling I've been slacking, I'll get another lecture, and I am quite done with those for today." She frowned. “For me or you – you’d best make yourself scarce before he discovers you here and accuses you of driving me closer to insanity again.”
“I suppose,” Victor agreed, sighing. He wasn't particularly fond of the idea of leaving her alone now. It seemed to him that she needed someone around to help keep the darkness at bay. But she was right about Dr. Bumby, unfortunately. If the walking storm caught them – well, Victor guessed he’d rather be struck by real lightning. “You’ll be all right?”
“I’ll try,” Alice said, going back to the dishes. “At any rate, I’m going to do my absolute best to ignore any Wonderland visitors from now on. Dr. Bumby has a point – I really can’t keep letting my brain flutter off to other worlds while the rest of me wanders about unchecked." Her shoulders stiffened. "I dread to think what I did while I was not all there. . . .”
"I don't think you hurt anyone," Victor rushed to say. "You – broke a few things in a tea shop, but other than that I'm pretty sure you were merely an annoyance."
The tension drained. "Good. People expect me to be an annoyance." She shook her head with a scowl. “If Wonderland wants to trouble me while I’m sleeping, fine. Regular dreams I can handle. But no more of these mental 'holidays,' though that's not really the right word at all. The waking world is for London only.”
Victor nodded, pushing down a faint flicker of disappointment that he wouldn’t be getting any more stories of her dreamland anytime soon. “Right. I’ll help keep you grounded best I can.”
“Thank you. And Victor?” She glanced back at him, smiling. “Feel free to scold any more Boojums who try to pop up.”
Victor laughed. “You have my word.”
Alice nodded and resumed her task. Victor left her to it, heart a little lighter. This has been the most trying week of my life, by far, he thought as he mounted the stairs. But hopefully, the worst is over now. Bumby's likely to still be snippy for the next few days, and I doubt Wonderland will leave Alice be without a fight. . .but maybe, just maybe, things can start getting back to normal.
"Viiiictoooor! Ollie just ate one of our playing cards!"
. . .As normal as it gets around here.