Chapter 4: Expository Wall Washing
April 10th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"I do hope you're more cooperative during our next session, Master Van Dort."
Alice, in the middle of scrubbing the hallway wall, stopped and poked her head around the bend. Victor was emerging from Dr. Bumby's office, rubbing his forehead and grimacing. The psychiatrist stood behind him, glowering over folded arms. "Your parents are relying on me to cure you," he added. "I'm sure you don't want to disappoint them."
"No, sir," Victor said, his tone suggesting he really just wanted Dr. Bumby to stop lecturing him. "When is our next session?"
"This same time next week – if I don't decide you need another one earlier." Dr. Bumby turned and yanked the door closed. Victor looked back a moment, then sighed and walked away, shaking his head.
Alice met him as he rounded the corner. "I take it your first session didn't go well."
Victor frowned at her, face full of mingled pain and frustration. "Are you supposed to come out of hypnosis with a headache?"
"I don't think so, but I often wake up from one of my sessions feeling like my skull's about to burst," Alice said, nodding sympathetically. "What happened?"
"We talked about what he wanted to do – well, he talked, I listened – and then he h-hypnotized me." Victor turned his gaze toward the wall, one hand adjusting the knot of his tie. "I was hoping it wouldn't work at first – that he'd have to declare me a failure and send me back home. Then. . .I don't know. He just kept going on and on about relaxing, and before I knew it, my eyes had closed and my head had gone all fuzzy. . . ." A ghost of a smile appeared on his face. "It – it was sort of nice, actually."
A sharp pang of jealousy went through Alice. "It hasn't felt nice to me for ages. I take it things changed the moment he started actual therapy, however."
Victor nodded, turning back to her with a grimace. "Oh yes. He asked me about Emily again, then told me almost before I'd stopped that she wasn't real and that I had to forget her. I told him no, and he – he d-didn't like that."
"So you had a bit of a fight?" Alice guessed.
"I suppose you could call it that," Victor agreed. "He told me to forget again, I told him no again, and it went back and forth like that until he woke me up. And now I feel like my brain's trying to leak out my ears," he added, wincing and pressing his fingers against his temple.
"The price we pay to remember," Alice said, shaking her head. "I have to ask – wouldn't it be easier if you just went along with it? You'd get out of here quicker, at the very least."
The glare Victor shot her told her immediately that she'd said something stupid. "Emily doesn't deserve to be forgotten. That poor girl was murdered – by someone who professed to love her, no less. All for a few coins and some jewelry. And I have no idea how long she spent waiting in the Land of the Dead, hoping and praying that just maybe. . . ." He looked at the floor. "I helped set her free. I can't just forget she existed. Why would I want to?"
"Because holding onto those memories landed you here?" Alice pointed out.
"I don't care! I'm not giving them up – ow!" Victor winced again, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Look, I understand nobody believes me about it, but it's not like I plan to parade through the streets telling people I m-married a corpse and saw the afterlife. If everyone would just leave me alone. . . ."
It was the broken note in his voice that got to her – that painful crack that made it sound like he was about to cry. "I'm sorry," Alice said, twisting her sponge in her hands as guilt stabbed at her insides. Well, he'd made her good and angry yesterday – now they were even. "I shouldn't have said anything. They're your memories, you can do what you like with them. I'm just in favor of getting rid of the ones that hurt."
"That's just it, Alice – they don't hurt. My memories of the World Below are some of the nicest I have. And seeing Emily move on. . . ." Victor smiled, lifting his head toward the ceiling. "I used to be rather frightened of death, but now I don't fear it at all. What comes after is worth dying for."
"I can't deny you sold me on your vision of the afterlife last night," Alice admitted. A world of color, freedom, and fun. . .her parents and Lizzie would probably love it down there. Lizzie especially. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes as she thought about her sister – although they'd been separated by ten years, Lizzie had always been there for her. Listening to her stories, playing games with her, even trusting her with her deepest secrets. Alice had once told her that she wanted to grow up to be just like her – Lizzie had laughed and replied that she should grow up to be just like Alice instead. "I think one of me is enough for this world – and I want to see what you'll be like when you're my age." Oh Lizzie, if only you could. . .but then again, would you be disappointed with what I've become?
She pulled her mind away from that depressing line of thought. This was exactly why she wanted to forget that damnable fire. She was sure she'd be much happier just knowing something bad had happened to her family, instead of remembering it. At the very least, it would mean less nightmares to haunt her. And hopefully fewer hallucinations too. Why do these terrible visions insist on making themselves at home in my head?
Alice blinked to find Victor leaning over her, looking concerned. "You, ah, seemed to drift away for a moment there. . . ."
"Sorry – I was thinking," Alice said vaguely, not wanting to burden Victor with her gloomy musings. Besides, she had a question for him. "I don't think you explained that 'setting free' business last night. What's that all about?"
"To be honest – I'm not sure myself," Victor confessed with an awkward smile. "Elder Gutknecht – he was one of the people I met down there, everyone seemed to consider him very learned – said such things weren't for mortal ears. But I think I helped free her from old regrets and pain. Helped her cast off everything that was holding her back."
"So the Land of the Dead's not all there is?"
Victor shrugged. "I assume not. I can't be sure. Emily's passing on was a bit – unusual."
Alice tilted her head. "How? What happened to her?"
A faraway look came into Victor's eyes. "She gave me my ring back, walked down the aisle to the church doors, threw her bouquet to Victoria, smiled at us one last time. . .and then dissolved into dozens of blue butterflies, fluttering up to the moon."
Alice tried to picture someone dissolving into butterflies. That was a peculiar image, even for someone used to Wonderland and its particular brand of nonsense. "And – that was a good thing?"
"She seemed happy," Victor said, coming back to the present. "And there was an air of – peace about the whole business. Whatever happened, it was meant to happen. I just don't know if the butterflies meant she went to Heaven, or – or if she literally became butterflies. Merged with nature, in a way."
Alice considered the possibilities. Transcending this world for another. . .or becoming even more a part of this one. . . . "I think I like the second one better," she confessed.
She nodded. "That makes it sound like those we love never truly leave us." She favored Victor with a rare genuine smile. "It makes me feel like my parents and sister might still be with me."
Victor smiled back. He had a nice smile, Alice had to say. Pity it didn't seem to come out often. Then again, he was probably like her in that he didn't usually find a lot to smile about. "That's true. I'm glad you can find comfort in it." His eyes flicked down to the sponge, as if noticing it for the first time. "Oh, I'm keeping you from your work. . . ."
"It's fine," she assured him, turning back to what remained of the crayon scribbles on the wall. "I'd rather talk to you than scrub the wallpaper. But I'm sure you're eager to go do something else."
"Um. . .well. . . ." There was a moment of silence, in which Alice pictured him playing with his tie again. ". . .Do you want me to help?"
Surprised, Alice looked at him over her shoulder. He seemed serious, head tilted slightly and hands held behind his back. "Didn't you grow up with a legion of servants?" she asked him, half-sarcastic, half-genuinely curious. "Shouldn't your reaction to me be 'scrub harder,' or 'you missed a spot?'"
"Pretty much the only person I could call anywhere near a friend back home was our old driver, Mayhew," Victor replied, fidgeting. "And I've always gotten on well with the servants. I never saw the point of ordering them around as harshly as Mother liked to. I'd feel better if I were useful anyway."
What a peculiar rich boy he was. "Well, I'm not one to say no to help, but I've only got the one sponge," she said. "If you can find yourself a rag in the kitchen, however. . . ."
Victor nodded and hurried off, returning after a few minutes with a old scrap of cloth. He dipped it into the bucket and started wiping away someone's noughts and crosses game. "Do the children often draw on the walls?" he asked.
"All the time," Alice said, rolling her eyes. "I have to do this once a week if we ever want to see clean wallpaper." She wet her sponge again before attacking a doodle of a rather lopsided pony. "I suppose I can't blame them, though. I did the same when I was their age."
"So did I," Victor admitted. "Only twice, though. Mother screamed at me each time I did."
"I got lectured about how a proper artist confines herself to her paper," Alice said. "No screaming – Mama and Papa weren't the type."
"Lucky you," Victor mumbled.
Alice made a noncommital sound – "lucky" was not a word she'd use to describe herself. "You've mentioned a name I don't recognize," she said, changing the subject. "I know Emily is the corpse you married, but who's Victoria?"
"Oh, she was my arranged fiancee – Victoria Everglot," Victor explained. "Victoria White now. My parents and hers engaged us. The whole reason I met Emily was because I was such a wreck at our wedding rehearsal. I couldn't remember my vows for the life of me."
"I see," Alice said. "So you wandered off into the middle of the woods to practice? Odd location for a prospective groom."
"I thought I'd have some privacy there," Victor said with a faint blush. "I didn't expect to accidentally propose to a corpse."
"Well, who would?" Alice gave her sponge a fresh dunking. "How long did you know Victoria? I can't imagine it was a whirlwind romance if the marriage was arranged."
"Um – actually, w-we met the day of the rehearsal."
Alice paused in rubbing away someone's proclamation that Ollie was an idiot. "The day of the rehearsal?" she repeated, disbelieving. "Wait – I thought those sorts of marriages came about when parents introduced their children at balls and parties. So they could get to know each other and all. Shouldn't you at least have had tea together first?"
Victor shrugged in a rather helpless way. "The m-marriage was really for our parents' benefits. And I think my parents, at least, considered it a good thing that I didn't know her. They were probably worried I'd say or do something to offend her and jeopardize the proceedings." He gave Alice a sideways glance. "You may have noticed I'm not always the best at talking to women."
Alice supposed that was a joke, but she didn't find it all that funny. She bit down on her first response, which was to ask Victor if his parents even liked him. "So they wanted you to marry a complete stranger?" she asked instead. "No wonder you were nervous."
"Yes, but – it wouldn't have been that bad," Victor said, starting to smile again. "I met Victoria shortly before the rehearsal. She was a very nice young lady. Seemed almost as shy as I was. After talking to her for a few minutes, I thought we should be together."
Alice eyed him, one eyebrow arched. "From one brief talk? Did she manage to tell you her entire history in those few minutes?"
Victor frowned at her. "No. I just – I saw how sweet she really was. N-nothing like her parents," he added with a little shiver. "She seemed to like me on sight. And I liked her too."
"Fair enough – I suppose you could get that much from a short conversation," Alice allowed. "But it still means you were marrying a virtual stranger."
"Haven't you ever heard of love at first sight?" Victor argued.
"Yes, but hearing about something doesn't mean it's real," Alice replied, thinking about the rumors that flew thick and fast around the East End. "Do you know anything about her? Apart from the fact that she's 'nice?'"
"Um – well. . . ." Victor bit his lip as he thought. "She seems to like music, even if her parents don't approve. . .she sews. . .she's quite pretty. . .and her family used to be rather important, according to my mother. Related to grand dukes. I think they're viscounts these days. I don't really remember."
"That last bit is about Everglots in general, not her," Alice said, wagging a finger at him. "You barely know her at all. And yet you thought you should be together forever." She smirked. "Or did you make yourself think that because you thought you couldn't get out of it?"
"I did not!" Victor snapped, bristling. "She was genuinely very sweet! I don't have to know every little detail to know that I liked her!"
"Liked, yes. Loved?"
Victor fell silent for a long moment. "I w-wanted to make her happy," he mumbled, eyes on his shoes. "Doesn't that count for anything?"
"I suppose it does," Alice relented. She didn't want to upset him all over again – and lose her helper in the bargain. "Maybe you could have had a good marriage based on mutual like. Gotten to know each other after the wedding, as backwards as that is." She washed away an unidentifiable yellow thing. "What about your Emily? What did you know about her?"
"She was nice too – even though she scared me badly when we first met," Victor added with a chuckle. "She found my old dog and gave him to me as a wedding present. She played the piano, and danced in the moonlight. . .and I get the feeling that, if she hadn't been murdered, she would have been the sort to help plan all her friends' nuptials." His shoulders slumped. "It's not fair that her life ended like it did."
"Most people's lives don't end like they should," Alice agreed, staring at a set of four stick figures holding hands. She swiped them away before they could change into too-familiar faces. "I believe we went over just how unfair life is last night, when you objected to me being committed for ten years."
"I still think it's horrible to put children in asylums," Victor said, rubbing the rag a little harder than necessary against the caboose of a crude purple train.
"After a week here, you'll want to send some of these children to one yourself."
"Oh, that's mean."
"So are they. Maybe they have a right to be bratty, but I say I can still get annoyed with them for it." Alice moved a little closer so she could work on the front half of the train. "Back to our previous topic – do you know anything else about Emily, besides the way she died? What's her last name?"
Victor's eyes darted from side to side, his free hand twisting his tie. "Er. . . ."
Alice stared at him. "You didn't bother to find out her last name," she said slowly. "Or imagine one for her."
Victor shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I just – n-never asked. I wasn't r-really thinking clearly at the time."
"I'll say you weren't. And you were willing to marry her regardless?"
"I thought there was n-nothing left for me Above," Victor attempted to explain, waving a hand. "Oh dear, it's such a long, complicated mess of a story. . . . When I met Emily and disappeared Below, Victoria's parents found her a new husband – a Lord Barkis Bittern, who'd recently come to town to attend our wedding." Victor's face darkened for a moment. "At least, that's what he claimed. . . . I heard about her new nuptials from Mayhew, who'd recently succumbed to his cough, poor fellow, and – well, without Victoria, life d-didn't. . .and I wanted so much to make Emily happy, and death with her didn't seem horrible at all. . . ."
"Death?" Alice gaped at Victor, forgetting all about crayon marks. How had she missed that implication?! "Wait – you tried to kill yourself? For someone you barely knew?!"
"I knew enough to believe I'd be happy with her." Victor turned to face her, his expression pleading. "Alice, I – I loved them. I looked forward to both life with Victoria and death with Emily. I know you don't believe me, but it's the truth! I wanted them to be happy – to be happy with them. To enjoy a life – or afterlife – with one or the other, whoever wanted me more."
Alice stared into his eyes. He seemed perfectly sincere – and absolutely desperate for her to believe him. "I don't believe it's eternal, true love you were feeling, but I'll buy that you wanted them to be happy," she said at last.
"What do you think I was feeling then?" Victor challenged, frowning.
"I'm going with a particularly strong case of like, mixed with you daydreaming about some 'ideal marriage' to get over your fears," Alice replied, going back to her cleaning. "I'm sorry, but I can't believe you can truly love someone until you've known them for longer than a day. You need to know things about them first. Like their last names. Or their favorite color," she added facetiously.
Victor was quiet for a bit. "Then how could I set Emily free?" he whispered.
"Obviously, whatever you did was enough. I would imagine intending to commit suicide proved your intentions to her." She frowned at him. "You really believed there was nothing left for you up here without Victoria? What about your parents? Your friends?"
The silence that followed answered her question better than words ever could. "Um – what kept you in this life, then?" Alice asked, fixing her eyes on the wall in an attempt to defuse the awkwardness. It didn't help much.
"Emily seeing Victoria watching our second wedding and not wanting to hurt her," Victor replied, voice soft. "We had to go Upstairs to do things properly, you see. She stopped me from drinking the Wine of Ages – poison – and reunited us. And then, Lord Barkis walked in." He dunked his rag into the bucket with surprising violence. "He claimed Victoria as his wife, and Emily recognized him as her murderer. He tried to kill me when I attempted to stop him from dragging Victoria away. I ended up having to fight him armed with a barbeque fork."
". . .This is why no one believes you, Victor. Your life sounds like a penny dreadful."
It got a smile out of him. "It does a little, doesn't it? But I swear it happened. Emily stopped Barkis from killing me, and then he decided to mock her with a toast – using the Wine of Ages. Once he'd passed on, the rest of the Dead took care of him."
Victor shrugged. "I don't know, but judging by his terrified cries, I'm sure it wasn't pleasant. Not that he didn't deserve whatever punishment they meted out." He sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "And that's when Emily said her goodbyes and turned into butterflies."
"And then the fairytale ended, Victoria ended up marrying another man for whatever reason, and you ended up here," Alice summed up for him. "Obviously whoever's editing your story needed another chapter to sell."
"She thought I had killed myself," Victor explained. "The elder Everglots dragged her away to the country once I brought her home – the arrival of the dead terrified them. And then our pastor started calling me damned. . .do you have any idea what that feels like?" he suddenly asked, looking at her with pained eyes. "To have someone declare you're evil and d-destined for Hell?"
"Not directly, but I have it on good authority that one Reverend Mottle seemed to think I lost my soul in the fire," Alice replied, recalling a bit of gossip Nurse Witless had shared with her. "The rumor was that I could feel nothing – neither pain nor joy, torment nor pleasure. Of course, I was catatonic at the time, so perhaps they were just describing how I was acting." She smirked at him. "Plenty of people probably think I'm destined for Hell – just none of them like to come out and say it. I'm violently unstable, after all. You know what the children said yesterday afternoon, about the spoon? That's because I ripped open the cheek of an orderly that was mocking me back in the asylum with one. Being told I have no soul after that is hardly worth mentioning."
Victor stared for a moment, obviously having no idea how to reply to that. "Ah – well – you s-seem to take it better than I do," he finally said, turning his gaze back to the wall.
"I've had to learn. Remember, your tale of woe only lasts a few months. Mine has lasted over ten years. I've developed a thick skin in that time." Or the appearance of one, she thought. Sometimes, the insults tossed at her still managed to hurt. She'd never admit such weakness to another living soul, though. The world would gobble you up and spit you out if you were weak. "You might develop one too, if you stay here long enough. But we've digressed. Let's go back to the last remark but one, if you recall it."
"About why Victoria married another? Well, when her family heard what Pastor Galswells was saying, they thought it meant I'd c-committed suicide. And she'd already found someone she liked, so. . . ." A weird half-smile appeared on his face. "I've met her new husband. He's – he's n-nice."
"And yet part of you loathes him for taking away someone who might have been your one true love?" Alice guessed.
Victor nodded, looking ashamed. "I shouldn't feel like that. It was obvious they loved each other. She said they could t-talk and laugh. . . ."
"You are aware you may have just proved my previous point about needing more than one day to fall in love for me."
Victor huffed, giving her a look. "You weren't there. You didn't meet Victoria and Emily. You didn't see us together."
"No, I wasn't and I didn't," Alice said, holding up her hands in surrender. "Maybe I missed out on seeing one of the world's great love stories go tragically wrong, depending on which girl you were supposed to end up with. I don't think so, but we'll never know for certain. We'll just have to agree to disagree, contradictory as that is." She stepped back and looked at the wall. "I think we've gotten everything – I can take care of disposing of the water." She gave him another little smile. "Thank you for helping me, though."
"You're very welcome." Victor draped the rag over the side of the bucket, then turned to go. At the top of the stairs, however, he paused and looked back. "Alice?"
"It's – it's blue."
It took her a moment to puzzle out what he meant. "Oh – it's blue or red for me," she told him, dropping the sponge in the bucket. "Depends on my mood." She grinned wickedly. "So, when's the wedding?"
Victor turned pink, laughed nervously, and hurried down the stairs. Alice shook her head with a smile. He was so amusing when he was flustered. I think I'm going to like having him around.