Chapter 20: Bedlam's Got Nothing On This
"Can't distinguish reality from illusion. Remember your last journey? An elephant never forgets where she left her trunk. When traveling by train, a valise – never bigger than your head. I may be wrong, Your Grace, but I doubt it. Down this path of primordial ooze, and sideways, once again."
No. No, not again, not again. Alice huddled in her corner, the canvas of the straitjacket itching in a way that taunted her inability to move her arms. Beneath her, the padding that covered every square inch of the room caressed her bare legs with surprising softness – but that was almost worse, digging up memories of callused hands binding them with leather and iron, or sliding up her thighs, never quite reaching her innocence but always threatening. . . . She pulled them tight against herself, shivering, the scream in her throat held back by the memory of needles pinching her veins and laudanum coursing into her belly. It should be impossible to feel this trapped and yet this exposed. . .oh God, why had she let it come to this again?
"Indeed, Doctor; well-demanded I'm sure," Nurse Cratchet put in, always the sycophant. "I mean to say, it's very hot in here." Her features blurred, becoming smooth marble for a moment as her voice dropped a sudden octave. "I mean to say – fuzzy. And she's not helping. No, no help at all!"
Hot? Cratchet had to be mad herself. It was freezing in this wretched room – Alice's calves prickled with goosebumps, as did her freshly-shaven head. My hair. . .it was only just starting to get as long as I'd like again, she thought, sniffling. Why'd you have to take it away why'd you have to take everything away –
"Humiliation, I say!" Dr. Wilson burst out, and she cowered into the padding. "I approve your release and back you come like a bad penny. Reputation in ruins!" He rubbed his forehead. "People talk, Alice. I'm an old dog. . .buried the bone. . .don't you know? Loyalty. . .you must never run away from home." He pointed at her, eyes hard behind the twinkling gold-rimmed lenses on his nose. "Stay, Alice, sit!"
"Can I do much else?" Alice muttered, a flicker of defiance flaring up through the haze of terror surrounding her. She immediately clamped her mouth shut. Damn it, here comes the camphor and prussic acid. . . .
Fortunately, Wilson and Cratchet apparently didn't heard her utterance – or if they did, they simply didn't care. Tut-tutting to each other, they turned and left, weaving with every step as if they were drunk. Alice watched as they bobbed their way down the hall, flush with despair. That was it, then. She'd been left here to rot and die, slowly crushed between soft walls of –
The door was open.
They'd left the door open.
Alice's eyes nearly popped out of her head. Had they really – Dr. Wilson at least was smarter than that, wasn't he? He knew what she was capable of – why on earth would he leave her door gaping wide? Did they think her catatonic again? Did they trust the straitjacket to prevent her from escaping? Or was someone else due in shortly, carrying heavy leather cuffs and iron shackles to truss her up like a Christmas goose?
Forget that! her mind screamed. The portal to freedom's right in front of you! Stand up! Stand up!
Of course, that was easier thought than done. Alice grunted and pushed and wiggled against the wall, digging her heels into the cotton and forcing herself up inch by laborious inch. The straitjacket burned her skin as she rose, resisting her at every turn. One shoulder popped free as she navigated a particularly bulbous bit of fabric – unfortunately, further rubbing proved that that was all she was going to get. If only I could blast this away like I did my London dress. . .oh Wonderland, where are you now?
It took a full three minutes, but eventually, she stood on her own two feet again. Clenching her toes to keep from tipping over, she flexed her elbows and squirmed as best she could. Nope – they'd belted her in tight. No help from her arms today. But she could totter around, and right now, that was all she needed. She promptly wobbled her way to the door, peeking into the hall to check for any inconvenient staff.
Rutledge was exactly as gloomy and terrible as she remembered it. Ancient oil lamps dangled from the ceiling, providing just enough light to accentuate the huge pools of darkness that filled the space between them. Misshapen drips and splatters of old blood painted the vomit-green tiles of the floor, forming curious patterns of creeping horrors. Metal doors as thick as a man's forearm stood sentry up and down each wall, keeping the lunatics away from those supposedly-normal people who worked and visited there. And the chemical burn of antiseptics and other vile concoctions lurked in the foul air, biting at the eyes and throat. It was a monstrous hellhole worthy of any classical master's pen –
But it was also blissfully empty. Alice took her chance, stumbling into what just qualified as the outside world. To her right, the black beyond the lamp deepened into the vague silhouette of a door – but that was just another ward, she knew, with every chance of getting caught. She instead turned her steps left, where a T-shaped junction waited. Down that way lay the treatment rooms – and the door used for food deliveries. It was risky, incredibly so, but if she could find a knife or a scalpel or anything else with even a bit of an edge, then maybe, just maybe, she could cut her arms free and make a run for it. Because she didn't deserve to be here, she knew she didn't, she didn't care what anyone said oh please let me out –
Something launched itself at the barred window next to her, shrieking nonsense. Alice almost leapt right out of her skin before realizing it was just another patient. She glared at him as he wailed, mouth stretching beyond the realms of physicality. "Hush!" The halls of Rutledge were never exactly silent, but if this bastard made too much noise – well, Cratchet or one of the others would come running, and everything would be over before it'd even begun.
The man's jaw snapped shut, and he flipped around, choosing now to stare at the far wall of his cell. Alice was surprised – she hadn't actually expected that to work. He can't have mistaken me for one of the – Alice, you're really going to think that after some of the delusions you've suffered? At least this one worked in my favor. She squinted at him as he stood there, suddenly stiff as a statue. Honestly, he looked like a statue – he was paler than Victor top to bottom. Surely no man his age would already have white hair. . .and was it just her, or was the padding of his cell a lot cleaner than –
Damn! Alice darted for cover in the nearest stripe of shade, pressing herself up against the wall and trying not to breathe. Don't notice me don't notice me don't notice me –
Two hulking shapes lumbered into view in the hall across, pushing a gurney between them. Alice recognized them immediately – David and Lum Monroe, the superintendent's idiotic nephews. Furious bile rose in her throat as she remembered leather slapping against her skin and rough hands squeezing her jaw, all backed by inane giggling. Just who I wanted to see upon my return. What poor soul is suffering their torments – Mr. Bunny!
She jerked straight as the "patient" passed in front of her, flopped across the stretcher, so close and yet so far. No, no, no! They can't have it, they'll destroy it! Alice thought in a panic. They've already made it stink of porridge – leave it alone! Leave it alone!
Unfortunately, the ability to manipulate matter with her mind still eluded her, and the pair squeaked past, oblivious to her presence. Alice waddled after them, shoving her desire to escape to the side temporarily. They won't ruin it again on my watch, she thought, teeth clenched. Beside her, another patient drifted helplessly in his cell, bumping into the walls and ceiling. All I need is something to free my hands, and I'll teach them a lesson they'll never forget. Lecherous oafs – what I wouldn't give to make you squeal like the pigs you are.
The orderlies had vanished by the time she reached the intersection – no surprise, really. Snails moved faster than she did in this rotten jacket. But at least she knew where they were headed. The first of the treatment rooms was just around this corner, wasn't it? Surely she'd find something useful in there. . .she stumbled along, feet slapping against the cold tile. What I wouldn't give for my high boots now. . .hello, what's this?
A couple of abandoned carts were lined up against the wall. Alice moved to take a closer look, only to half-fall backward as old urine assaulted her nose. Ah – bedpans, she thought, wobbling away. Not exactly the most useful tool for slicing anything open. Though I suppose if I wanted to make myself stink too badly for anyone to come near. . .at this point, I'm half-willing to try gnawing the damn thing off. She tried an experimental bend – she could get her head almost between her legs, but the straps were completely out of reach of her teeth. Probably for the best; who knows when this was last washed. It's certainly never been taught French or music. Visions of straitjackets and shackles dancing the lobster quadrille filling her head, she rounded the corner and pushed her way through the heavy double doors –
Only to be confronted with a surprisingly-fragile-looking metal chair, leather restraints sprouting from its arms and legs.
What was it about such a simple piece of furniture that inspired such horror in her? Maybe it was the huge stain of brownish-red beneath its footrest, a souvenir from all those who had been forced into its seat. Or maybe it was the battered tray sitting beside it, sporting nothing but one simple drill, flaked with more of that horrible rust. Or maybe it was simply the fact that she'd been in here before, strapped down, utterly helpless as – as –
"If it isn't what's-her-name from the idiot's ward!"
Tweedle-Dum's voice grated against her ears, making her fingers tighten on the arms of the chair. As if he didn't know exactly who she was! She tried to snap at him, but her voice was choked away by cloth – a "necessary precaution," Cratchet had put it. Necessary her arse – it was to keep her from calling for help! Though who would come to her aid, she had no idea. Hatter's Automatons, maybe, but one blast from their rockets would send the whole room up in – no, no, Alice, don't think about it –
"Yeah. It's Alice," Tweedle-Dee replied in his dull tones, not picking up on his brother's sarcasm. Then again, turning the handle of the drill was probably taxing his considerable brainpower to its limit. Alice squirmed, trying to dislodge the little cage they'd put atop her head to hold the instrument – no luck. David's arm was as solid as stone."Uncle's prize lunatic."
"How she's a prize is beyond me," Nurse Cratchet commented. "Not even that lawyer stops by anymore."
"Uncle says she's pretty," Tweedle-Dee said, though he didn't sound like he agreed. Well, if he didn't like her dress, he could damn well not look at it. Wasn't her fault it was always covered in blood.
"Yes, well, your uncle is known for not being fussy with his women." Cratchet rolled her eyes, then smirked at her glaring charge. "Now why that face, Alice? Oh, I know, the instruments are gruesome," she allowed, proudly gesturing to the array of gleaming saws and knives at her side. "But a hole in the head gives the troubles more space! Just the thing for your 'stone of madness!'"
Madness a stone? That – was actually a good metaphor, it did feel like it dragged her down. . .but you couldn't use blades on stone, you'd blunt or snap them – was that their intention? To blunt her mind, snap her will? Grotesque monsters! If the Queen couldn't stop her, why did they think they had a chance? "Good for seizures too, mebbe," Cratchet added, as if to convince her further. "You must be as sick of those as I am hearing you whinge about them!"
Alice tried to kick and pull, but the straps held, strong and tough as steel. "No running this time!" Lum laughed, and oh how she wanted to introduce his face to the Croquet Mallet – then there was a sharp pain at the very top of her head, and suddenly all her attention was focused on the drill now biting through her skin, ready to bore out blood and bone and maybe even brain – another twist, another jolt, and this simple gag would not hold back her scream –
And then, miracle of miracles, Dr. Wilson had burst in and told them to "get that bloody contraption off her!" The rest of the memory was mostly a babble of voices – "It were Cratchet's idea!" "Going against my direct orders–" "We were just trying to help the suffering soul!" "Do we still get paid if she don't get better?" – but she could clearly make out Wilson loosing her from the chair, holding his handkerchief to her bleeding scalp as he helped her up: "Don't worry, Alice – I would never approve of trepanation in your case. And especially not without anesthetic!" For three days afterward, he'd been her White Knight upon an L-shaped horse, and even after he'd started his own ridiculous treatments again, she'd never been able to think of him as badly as she had before. Alice opened her eyes, catching her breath as the surge of adrenaline abated –
Then shrieked as she saw the huge drills jammed through the walls and ceiling, fresh blood still dripping off their tips. Oh God oh God –
You know, they'd probably slit these straps like butter, some tiny part of her whispered. We know how sharp they are, after all.
And end up looking like a bloody, meaty hunk of Swiss cheese should they whirr to life? I don't think so! Ignoring how much she'd sounded like the Queen of Hearts just then, she scrambled out of the room, somehow managing not to slip in the spreading crimson puddles beneath her.
She pattered down the hallway beyond, eyes scanning the area carefully for any chance of escape. Nothing but more cell doors, locked tight against all intruders and pitch black behind their tiny windows. Speaking of the Queen, this reminded her of the Heart Palace dungeons. Except worse – at least the Queen had been merciful enough to let her keep the use of her hands! Dreadful ironies. . .am I going to have to walk through this entire facility to find my freedom? They'll probably find me if I do. . . . For a moment, the doors seemed to spring open, disgorging wave after wave of needle-nosed doctors and tentacled nurses, swarming her and carrying her back to the drills as they jabbed and squeezed and –
She shook her head rapidly, dispelling the illusion. Don't even think about it, Alice, or you'll never find your way, she counseled herself, tottering onward. She bumped into the wall as she encountered another corner, pressing her shoulder against it to keep herself steady. Just keep moving. Just keep moving and you've got a chance. Just keep –
The shriek of metal against tile pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to see the double doors of another treatment room opening wide to accommodate her. How kind – I think. What's this one's particular brand of – oh no. No no no –
She stared at the tiny, blurred sign set above the frame, breath coming in quick, terrified bursts. Bloodletting. Don't want to go in here I don't want to go in here – but – I can't go back to the drills either – no no no –
She flung herself against the nearest cell door, succumbing briefly to the urge to hide. . .but there was no way in, and the current occupant probably didn't want company anyway, crucified as she was against her bed, haloed with sharp metal. A true angel of Hell. . . . Alice closed her eyes and got her wits back about her. Keep moving, she reminded herself. You're strong, you can get through this. Still better than being caught, right? Go now and you'll never have to see it again. Taking a deep breath, she wobbled inside, intending to just run (well – fast-walk) through and be done with it.
The bed was the first thing her traitorous gaze found – old and sagging in the middle, stained brown and red and yellow. She tried to step around, but a cart rolled into her path, scratched and dented, smelling of chemicals and – She ripped her eyes away, only for them to fall on the shelves lining the walls, creaky and rusted with their paint chipping off. . .and the jars lined up across them, fat and clear and filled with – with –
"Tighter, tighter! You know what happens if she's allowed to muck about!"
The belts bit into her flesh, sharp as Jabberspawn teeth. Alice flexed her fingers, wishing her weapons would appear. The Blade would slice these straps into ribbons, and the Cards deal a nasty blow to the wretched Tweedle-Dum (wait, no, she'd slaughtered him already – that was Lum, not that he was any improvement) standing above her. But her beloved toys were far out of reach in this realm. She stared at the lava dripping through the cracks in the ceiling – "I'm not on holiday," she told the Mock Turtle again, and wished that she was.
"That does it, Nurse – any more, and they'll snap," Lum reported, tugging at a buckle.
"Good. Now fetch our little friends." Nurse Cratchet smirked down at Alice, looking so like the Duchess Alice had to wonder for a moment if she'd somehow managed to put back her brain. "Some mental conditions are relieved by bloodletting," she informed her hostage. "Doctor thinks it won't be effective against your symptoms–" And he would know, Alice thought, he's applied the nasty things himself enough times "– but I'm at the end of my tether, and these leeches need the work!"
"A baker's dozen, nurse!" Tweedle-Lum declared, holding up a particularly fat specimen that twisted and twirled between his fingers. "Let me put them on her!"
"No, me, me!" Tweedle-D – David cried, holding up a jar filled almost to the brim with squirming black. Alice could see an angry red line across his cheek, and hatred burning in his piggish eyes. "I can make them hurt."
"Together, boys – she's not the only one due for a draining," Cratchet said, tone brisk and businesslike even as she glowered at her charge. Alice glowered back, until icy slime touched her arm, and tiny teeth lodged themselves in her flesh – Snarks, Snarks, why were there always Snarks –
The sound of her own voice was enough to surprise her out of the memory. Alice rocked back and forth on her heels, forcing her stomach to settle. No. No time to waste making herself sick over the past – not here. Not now. She had to escape – had to get loose so she could go back to Houndsditch and make the bastard, the smirking, cooing graduate of Oxford (you should have been thrown out on your ear!) who ran it pay. Getting her balance, she started forward again –
Splat. Icy slime against her skin. . . .
Alice jerked her head around just in time to see a leech, fortunately the wrong-way up, slide off her shoulder and onto the floor. She stared at it a moment as it writhed helplessly by her feet. Then, knowing full well that she was going to regret doing so, she looked up.
Tens of thousands of wet black bodies met her gaze, swarming over the ceiling like miniature versions of the piranha Alice had seen in Father's book of marine life. They squirmed and writhed against each other, as if as disgusted with themselves as any other right-thinking (or wrong-thinking) person would be. Every so often, one would be jarred loose from its fellows and fall to the floor, landing with a damp splash on the tile. Fresh blood leaked from the edges of their ganon, trickling down the wall in tiny rivulets. Had the ceiling turned to harvestable flesh? Or were the evil little monsters feeding on each other? Alice did not know and did not care. She hurried out of the room as fast as her legs could carry her, avoiding the tiny cousins of Slithering Ruin raining from the sky and trying to nip at her toes. Worse than Queensland, how can this be worse than Queensland – "The world is upside-down, Alice!" Hatter wailed in her head, and now she couldn't help but agree. Everything was wrong and twisted and flipped – and worse yet, she was at its mercy.
But I'm not going to sit down and wait for gravity to smash my head against the ceiling, she decided, gritting her teeth in mad determination (ha ha ha). I've started this trek, and I will damn well finish it. I left Rutledge by the front door last time – that option is not available now. But I will leave! I made it out of here once, I can do it again! . . .I hope. . . .
More dirty hallway stretched ahead of her – Alice was starting to think someone had managed to put one in a duplicating machine. Every last one looked exactly alike, down to the "Quiet Please" signs mounted on the faded paint. It was enough to make her worry she was going around in circles. No, look, the doors are different, she told herself, noting the sudden appearance of wood instead of metal. I must be making progress. I just hope I don't have to go through any more treatments. . .the cold baths wouldn't be too bad, but that electric chair – sizzling skin, burning brain – "How much voltage? And how many amps?" "No more than she deserves." "Well then, enough to wipe her memory clean! Demolish the past! I know–"
"Which way's up and which way's down?"
"I was gonna say–"
Alice blinked, suddenly cognizant of the fact that those horrible voices were coming from outside her head. Peeping round the corner, she found herself facing another familiar pair of rusted double doors. Ah – good old Ward One, she thought, putting what sarcasm she had left to her to use. Where those who don't have patrons – or an inheritance – to secure them private quarters must languish. I must be mad, or else I wouldn't have come here.
The main trouble was, Ward One was also one of the regular stomping grounds of David and Lum – that's where Dr. Wilson had always banished them when he caught them harassing her. And it sounded like they were right on the other side of the doors – yes, she could just see Lum's head through the crooked window. "Don't interrupt!" he was snapping at his twin. "If I can't–"
"Go to the lavatory?"
Lum rolled his eyes nearly out of his head. "Maddening. . . ."
"Yes you are. But what am I?"
A most unwelcome obstacle, Alice answered, grumbling. Damn it all. . .I wonder if they still have my rabbit? Not that it really matters, there's no way I can snatch it back from them in this state. Unless I headbutted them. The idea of ramming her skull into their oversized bellies was amusing – if she did it hard enough, would they explode in a shower of half-digested pies? – but would only end in her dragged away in chains. But my only other choice is the leeches. . . .
"I'll give you–"
"A present? You shouldn't have. I've nothing for you."
She gulped. Well. . .it sounds like they're busy arguing. Maybe. . .maybe if I'm very careful, and they're not watching the ward too closely. . . . Very, very slowly, she crept forward on tiptoe (not easy when you couldn't use your arms for balance) and eased open the right-hand door, hiding behind it for as long as she could as –
Oh. The world really was upside-down – in a sense, anyway. Before her, on the floor, Ward One stood in its shit brown and vomit green glory, busted carts and filthy beds standing empty at the moment, but ready to be filled once the latest crop of lunatics was harvested. However, the ceiling, rather than being cracked, insect-infested plaster (hygiene had never been one of Rutledge's strong points), was instead the ward done over again, this time in blinding white and heavy black. The only color there was from the blood liberally doused over the linens, which dripped steadily onto its counterpart below –
"I defer to your enormous arse, your Worship. Just a coxcomb, a – a – a catacomb, the – the cat. . .a felix feline. . ."
"What cat? Where? Is the fox among the pigeons? Sly devil."
"Moved out of the henhouse then? What what?"
And the red-striped shirts and caps of the Tweedles, hanging like bats in mirror image of the Monroes. Oh perfect. Neither double my pleasure or fun. At least they don't seem to be paying me any mind either. . . . Pulling her gaze downward again, she spotted the exit (well, entrance) doors, looming wide as if in invitation. Alice sucked in a breath, eyes flicking from Monroes to Tweedles and back. It was a terrible, terrible risk – but it was one she would have to take. You made it through two – third time's the charm? Courage thus bolstered, she plunged forward.
To her mild surprise, it was Tweedle-Dee who noticed her first. "Fox back in the henhouse!" he cried as she pattered her way beneath him.
Tweedle-Dee pointed. "Nurse's favorite lunatic!"
"Oh, her!" Tweedle-Dum said. He leered down. "Still without any meat on her, I see. Dr. Bumby's medicine didn't do much to fatten you up!"
"She's not delectable at all, no-way no-how!"
"Shut up," Alice muttered, continuing her slow but steady course. The twins could taunt and tease all they liked – so long as they didn't fall off the ceiling and start feasting on her blood, she'd pay them no mind. Her escape was getting closer by the moment, but she had to reach it before–
"If you don't stop it, I'll rip out your tongue!"
"Like they say the kitty – Hey! Look!"
"You really think I'm going to fall for that? They dropped you on your head when you were born, David, I swear."
"No, no, look! I mean it!"
"Oh, fine, if it'll – what – you! Who let you out?!"
Shit! Alice broke into the closest thing she could to a run as the twins gave chase. "Fox is gonna lose her tail!" Tweedle-Dum smirked.
"Shame – she's got a nice bottom," Tweedle-Dee said.
"I said shut up!" Alice leaned forward as much as she dared, avoiding David's meaty hand by a hair's-breadth – the cold tile beneath her changed color, but Lum was right behind –
And then, by some miracle, the doors slammed shut, forcing him back into the ward. Alice paused to get her breath as the furious orderlies pounded on the metal. "Get back here! Cratchet'll have our heads for this!" Lum shouted.
"'Les we bring her yours!" David added, tone poisonous. "I'll whack it off myself! With a spoon!"
"Not if you can't catch me," Alice muttered, sticking out her tongue at them before soldiering onward. Goodness, she almost felt close to smiling after that! A narrow escape, to be sure, but still an escape. Just the confidence boost she needed. I will get out, I will get out, I will get out! she repeated to herself, nodding with each word.
More tan and green walls, more doors to nowhere, more corners to turn. . .and then, another crooked sign: Waiting Room. Oh, so I'm near the front! Alice realized with a pleased jolt. Perhaps I'll be able to leave through that door after all. Visitors should hardly be a problem, and I can creep by whoever's drawn front desk duty. She practiced her crouch – yes, she could stand up again, though she wobbled dangerously – then crept up to the doors and took a peek inside. The room stood cold and empty before her. Too cold and empty – no staff at all, and everything was such a pristine white it didn't look quite real –
A hand grabbed her shoulder, spun her around, and thrust her down onto one of the couches. Startled, Alice looked up to see Dr. Bumby leaning over her, a sly smile on his lips. "Come now, Alice," he said, taking a friendly seat beside her. "Am I not to be as much honored and obeyed as the Queen? Is that asking too much? I want what she wanted." He scooted closer, pressing his clammy palm against her thigh. "Give yourself over to that. Trade the tentacles for the Train. It's altogether a better ride." His eyes narrowed, expression curling into a sneer. "It's that, or back to Rutledge!"
Don't you touch me don't you touch me you beast you monster I'll have your skull for what you did to Lizzie – Alice tried to get her mouth to work, to spit the full force of her venom in his face, but then someone plopped down heavily on her other side, and her head automatically turned to see Pris Witless sitting there. "Never a kind word or reward for services rendered," the old nurse complained, glaring sideways at her former charge. "Don't I deserve a bit of luck? Don't piss on what's right and owing to me, I say." She smirked, voice darkening with evil pleasure (or was it just the stink of Blue Ruin?). "Brought you out of the asylum – now you'll go back on your own accord!"
No – no, I'm not, I'm not going back, I'd never go back – Bumby's form on her left abruptly twisted and grew, and Alice jerked around to see Nanny now in the seat, eye still purple and blue from Splatter's tender treatment. "I told your mother, dear – you're a distant and stubborn child, too content in her own world," she said, tone disappointed. "Young women need to leave their Wonderlands – the real world is not so wonderful." She sighed and fixed her peacock feather. "You'll need to grow up. Perhaps some more time in – 'care?'"
I am grown they won't help me here please Nanny you were supposed to be on my side – Another ballooning of a form, and now Alice found herself facing Radcliffe on her right, scowling at her as if she'd just broken a priceless Ming vase. "You look decent enough – but appearances deceive," he declared, arms folded. "I know you for an unstable and violent person. Certainly not the kind who should be seen in the company of the nouveau riche." His lip curled with distaste. "I can't say I'm surprised you've been incarcerated in the asylum again. A long stay under supervision would serve you right!"
And then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone, leaving only the white tiles and the white walls and the white desk and the white couches – white, so much white, it had never been this clean at Rutledge, they must have done the washing-up just for her. . . . But I'm not staying, I'm not, I'm not, Alice repeated to herself, though her confidence had leaked away. They're wrong, they're all wrong, Radcliffe and Nanny and Pris and Bumby – I won't let them be right. I certainly won't let Bumby be right. Fuck the tentacles and your train! She wrenched herself back to her feet, ignoring as best she could the way the world wobbled and shuddered before her eyes. It didn't matter – nothing mattered except making it out. She'd come this far – to fail now would be the definition of tragedy. She stumbled forward, elbows and wrists aching from their imprisonment, skin chafing under the canvas. Have to figure out a way to get this off on the fence. . .without hanging myself. . .or is that the only way out of here? No Alice no you had your chance with the spoon don't think about it –
Through the doors, and into the front hall, still whiter than white except for the red splashed all over the floor. Her toes turned an unnatural crimson as she waded through, soles sticking to the tile more and more with every step – but she would not stop. Stopping meant a fate worse than death. Just keep going, just keep going. All that matters. Just keep going.
"Aeurgh. . . ."
Alice lifted her head to see a fellow patient cowering against the wall, hands protecting a face mutilated by metal. Pale and unreal as the furniture, his wild eyes still made her give him a wide berth. Right around the corner, another man trapped in canvas and blinded by bandages beat a steady tattoo against the wall with his head, adding another drop of red against the white with each dull smack. Pity welled up inside her for these poor lost souls, but she couldn't help them – not without helping herself. And she trusted her ability to do so less and less with each passing moment. Broken bruised forgotten sore, too far gone to care anymore – not there just yet, but close so close – have to get out have to get out –
Another turning, and suddenly before her was the final door. Alice lurched toward it, desperate to finally be free –
Alice shrieked and stumbled backward, feet slipping and leaving ugly red smears all over the floor. But she had to get back, had to get away, because that was David and Lum – or were they Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum? Did it really matter? – looming large within the open frame, and she couldn't be caught, not by them, not by anybody – her feet slid again, and she scrambled to keep her balance because if she fell she couldn't get up again and she'd be trapped and the orderlies would have her in their grasp and no no no I'm not insane not yet I'm not a bad penny Dr. Wilson it's not me it's Bumby Bumby destroyed my life and I need to stop him need to get revenge which we call justice I didn't kill my family don't take me back I don't –
Alice bumped to a stop against the wall, eyes wide. David and Lum hadn't even noticed her, too intent on the new patient they were dragging inside the asylum – one Victor Van Dort. Her friend – her beloved – was bound in a straitjacket even tighter than hers, and his bare feet squealed against the tile as he tried to stop them pulling him further in. "Please, p-please no!" he begged, looking from one Tweedle to the other with red-rimmed eyes, tear tracks clear on his pale face. "I'm not insane, I'm n-not! It happened, I s-swear! Please, let me go!"
Tweedle-Lum laughed. "That's what they all say. We know better! You must be mad, else you wouldn't have come here! But we'll fix you up soon enough." He tousled Victor's hair mockingly. "First a visit with the shaver – this disgusting mop ought to be thrown down the loo!"
"I want to take him to the leeches," Tweedle-David said. "You think he could get any paler?"
"Cold saltwater might do the trick," Tweedle-Lum replied. "An hour or two and he'd be as blue as he claim the dead are! Or maybe prussic acid would suit him better?"
"Bet he'd jump in the chair," Tweedle-David observed, shaking Victor like a rag doll. "Ten thousand volts clears any head!"
"Lock him tight against the wall, like he's in a coffin!"
"Twirl him round in that new spinny thing Doctor's got!"
"I know what'll do it! The drill!" Tweedle-Lum announced, chortling as he stabbed his finger at the ceiling. "A little less brain gives the troubles more space!"
The orderlies' eyes locked on her, but Alice didn't care anymore. Her vision had gone a violent, jittery red, and she could practically smell the Ragebox's steam as it exploded in her face. The straitjacket tore like paper as she let out an ear-piercing, Hysterical scream, filling the air with tatters of cloth – and what did it matter if it left her naked; all that meant was that the Tweedles would be distracted long enough for her to claw out their eyes! They wouldn't have her, and they would not have her Victor! Shrieking fury, she lunged at David –
And found herself attempting to throttle a lamppost.
This time the surprise did send her tumbling down onto her bottom. Alice blinked, jerking her head left and right as she tried to get her bearings. The white walls of Rutledge had vanished, replaced by cool night air filled to the brim with a heavy fog. Beneath her was dry ground and dead grass, not a hint of tile or blood. She examined herself minutely, hands roaming everywhere (and wasn't it a relief to be able to move them however she wished!). Her faithful black-and-white dress was back on her body, looking a bit worse for wear thanks to her unthinking adventures – but still softer than canvas, and granting her poor abused legs a degree of modesty under the stockings. And on her head – shaggy dark hair, still there, still growing out, not all shaved off to be sold to a wig-maker's. Alice nearly wept from the relief. "Oh, thank God. . . ." A hallucination, that was all. A nightmare brought on by the Queen's warning. She wasn't in Rutledge – and neither was Victor. They were safe.
"Is that asking too much? I want what she wanted. . . ."
. . .Safe for now. A flicker of her cut-off anger returned, just a tiny squirt from the Ragebox. Bumby was still out there, after all. You bastard, she thought, getting back to her feet. You made my poor sister's life an absolute misery, and then, when that wasn't enough, took it away from her altogether! Along with my mother and father – and you hoped to get me in the bargain, didn't you? Probably hoped I'd kill myself in Rutledge. . ."forget it, Alice," ugh! And to think I listened to you! She scrubbed at her face. No more – if you thought I was intent on remembering before, oh-ho, wait until you see me now. I'll dig up every last moment of the night you murdered my family and find something that'll prove your guilt to the entire world! And then I'll tell Victor, and we'll see you rot in jail together!
"I never got a chance to tell you that Dr. Bumby threatened me with 'radical treatments' before, did I?"
Alice froze, sudden fright bringing her righteous fury up short. That was right – when she'd fallen back down the rabbit hole at Radcliffe's, she and Victor were expecting an end to his temporary reprieve from the pills. It wasn't unthinkable that his parents had finally authorized the wretched things by now. And while she was quite certain Victor would never take them willingly, Bumby was obviously not above using force to get his way. . .another vision of her love in the institutional whites swam before her eyes, hair reduced to stubble as he rocked back and forth in a padded cell, pleading for mercy that would never come. Was that the inevitable end of his and Bumby's tiff? Never, she promised herself, stiffening her spine and clenching her fists. I'll never let Rutledge have him. Don't worry, Victor – no matter what happens, I'll protect you.
Well – if she could find her way back to Houndsditch. Where in God's name was she? Alice squinted out into the gloam, but all that was visible was a nearby set of benches, the vague shape of a tree, and the glowing aura of the next lamppost. She rocked on her heels, pondering. Trees around and earth beneath her, so she couldn't be on the street. . .a park then – Hyde Park? Something about this place did feel just the tiniest bit familiar. . .but the sea of blank gray made it impossible to be sure. It could be that I've wandered out of London altogether and into some tiny hamlet like Burtonsville. I wouldn't think I was capable of walking that far, but I've proved full of surprises over the past month or two. So what happened now?
Guess the best thing to do is follow the light, Alice decided, jogging forward. The post resolved itself after a few moments, tattered advertisements plastered all round. Another loomed up out of the fog, a friendly yellow orb in this dank and dreary world. Maybe I'll stumble upon someone who can help me. And who won't automatically beg sexual favors in return. Keeping a steady pace up and a sharp eye out, she followed the golden glow as it swelled up from each lamp. Left, left, then left again. . .I'd better not be running in a –
"Help, Alice! We need your help!"
What? Who was that? Alice stopped, eyes scanning what little she could see of the world to try and find the source of the voice. "Don't desert us – again!" it cried. "Don't ignore us!"
There – right in front of her, in the next circle of light! She could just see something human-shaped crawling along! "I hear you!" she called as she darted forward. "I–"
Her jaw dropped in horror. The creeping figure was the ginger-haired child she'd seen at the very beginning of her adventures, the one who had pointed her in the direction of Hatter's Domain. Or, rather, it was half of that child. The poor thing had been sliced neatly in two at the waist, forcing the little one to drag herself forward with her hands. A trail of blood extended into the mist from her scissored-off stump, matching the red leaking from the girl's eyes and hairline. How on earth is she even still alive after such an operation?! Alice thought, dropping to her knees before the child. My imaginary friends have always been tougher than they look, but this is just – madness!
The little one reached out to her with trembling fingers. "You haven't before," she whispered. "I tried to tell you. . . ."
"I tried to keep up," Alice replied, stroking the child's hair. "What happened to you? Why do you suffer? The Queen's tyranny is just a memory. She has no power over you – does she?" If that bitch really does have something to do with all of this –
"Our enemies come and go," the child said, eyes darting left and right as if she expected some demon to swoop down and carry her away before she could finish her speech. Which was all too likely to be the case in Wonderland these days, Alice had to admit. "But now a new evil reigns. And this fiend's malevolence has eclipsed the conquered Queen's!" Her hand closed on Alice's skirt. "Stop him, Alice! Avenge us all! Take back your crown!"
And with that, the last of the life finally drained from the child's body. She slumped to the ground, eyes closed in eternal sleep, blue claiming her skin. Alice remained where she was, hand still tangled in the girl's now-purplish locks. New evil. . . . "But evil's face changes rather quickly, and while her heart is still dark, it's not as dark as Ruin. . . .you picked up her crown. But now you've put it down. A monster she was – but at least she was our monster." "Bumby," she spat, disgusted. "Of course. I pretty much handed him control of Wonderland the moment I decided to enter his therapy, didn't I? What a fool I was. . . ."
She stood up at last, brushing dirt off her skirt. "I'm sorry," she whispered to the child's corpse. "I'm sorry to have been so dense that you had to die to deliver your message. But I promise I'll kick the bastard out. Wonderland will be mine and mine alone again before long." Her brow wrinkled. "Though – why would Bumby's avatar try to destroy you? You were Hatter's playthings back when his domain echoed Rutledge, which was fair enough. But Bumby makes his living off curing–"
"How can these children be adopted if no one ever comes over to adopt them?"
Something deep in her brain clicked into place. Faces appeared in her memory, shimmering and changing like quicksilver – the face of every child that Dr. Bumby had sent off to a "good home." The ones who'd sung nursery rhymes and stared at nothing for long stretches. The ones who'd barely seemed like children at all.
The one whom she'd thought she'd seen being put up for sale in the worst part of Limehouse. Oh God – Caroline, was that you? How did you end up there? Did he really –
Alice hugged herself, bile rising in her throat. Bumby had been willing to kill her entire family for the crime of her sister not being interested in him romantically. Was it such a stretch to think that he didn't have the best interests of the children under his care at heart? She and Victor had agreed during previous discussions he treated everyone around him like a personal possession, to be taken and given as he pleased. . .and suddenly she remembered all the odd, hungry glances he'd sent her way, the day he'd sent the backdoor men scrambling with a look that suggested he thought of Alice as his toy. . .and Victor's brief insistence that he'd caught the man staring at his arse. . . .
The stench of burning wood and the crackle of a raging fire hit her then, yanking her out of her thoughts. Turning in the direction of the little girl's blood trail, she saw her home rising out of the fog, burning bright as a Yuletide log. Burning from the blaze Bumby had set. She gritted her teeth as she watched the flames leap from the windows. She'd once faced the Jabberwock, the avatar of her own misplaced guilt and fear, in the scorched remains of the Liddell home. Would entering this time introduce her to Bumby's Wonderland form? Would she find the depot of that Infernal Train at last, and the way to stop it before it tore apart everything and everyone she loved?
Let's find out, she thought. For the children, for Victor, and for myself. Girding her lions and swallowing back her fear, she dashed forward into the flames. Heat enveloped her, smoke choked her lungs, and for a moment she wondered if she'd made a horrible mistake. Then the fire cleared, and she found herself atop a high platform, looking out over – a toy junkyard?
Puzzled, Alice turned in a circle, taking in as much of the scenery as she could. This was as far from her expectations as could be. Below her tower were endless piles of the common debris of childhood – torn off doll limbs, broken bits of miniature furniture, snapped pencils and crayons, and a million other unrecognizable chunks of color. Stretching up from these hills of trash was a city of dollhouses – brightly painted, but in severe disrepair. Roofs seemed ready to slough off at the slightest touch, walls were cracked or missing large splintered chunks, wallpaper hung in tattered strips, and the furniture – I've heard of armchairs before, but I'm quite certain they're not meant to have actual arms, Alice thought, squinting at the open room behind her. Nor a table legs that require little stockings. A clever use of the parts, perhaps, but damn if it doesn't make the whole world seem that much – sicker.
She turned back around, examining her path across this baffling landscape. Platforms atop rickety scaffolding (probably whatever remained of houses that had finally crumbled into the garbage heaps), covered in thin, torn patchwork quilts or painted in faded rainbow colors led the way, broken up here and there by little floating houses, with steam jetting from their chimneys and cycloptic eyes peering at her from under their roofs. It all suggested a place of silliness and fun, joy and laughter, but – the dull hue of the sky, the aching silence in the air, and oh yes, that giant black tower looming on the horizon suffused the entire realm with an intense aura of wrongness. Well, this is where you get Ruin from, I'm sure of it. I always did prefer stuffed animals to dolls.
"I might have chosen another gown then."
"Cheshire? What – oh." Alice grimaced as she looked down. Yes, new realm, new dress – and this one matched its surroundings better than she'd like. It was playfully mismatched – top banana yellow with vertical sky-blue stripes and matching buttons; bottom black with dark pink checks and a lighter pink petticoat; fingerless gloves sporting horizontal bands of teal and white. But rather than being charming, something about the disjointedness seemed rather – disturbing. Especially when you saw the stuffing poking out of her left sleeve, and Hollow Ives in the form of a doll's head much too close to those of the Ruin for her liking. The gown seemed to suggest she was a toy – a doll to be dressed up and played with and then discarded on a shelf. Alice shivered, then glared out across the landscape of rotting childhood. "I'm not your plaything, you monster," she whispered, Vorpal Blade materializing in her hand. "And I'll prove it to you, one way or another."