Chapter 10: Save Me From The Dark
May 25th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Hmph, why can't they make their own beds for–"
The sounds of a door being flung open and running feet yanked Alice out of her annoyed musings. Startled, she looked up to see Victor collapse against the wall across from the boys' room, gulping down air like he'd just run a marathon. He was paler than normal (a feat she still found astonishing), and trembling violently. Alice couldn't help but stare. What the – what did Dr. Bumby do to him in there? "Victor?" she asked, leaving Ollie's bed half-done behind her. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine!" Victor said a bit too quickly. He sucked in another breath, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him. His knuckles were whiter than white as he clung to the corner. "I'm fine," he repeated, voice softer. "I'm fine."
Oh no. Alice knew better than that. She'd seen this sort of behavior at the asylum – any time someone started repeating something over and over, there was going to be trouble. "No, you're not," she said, folding her arms and frowning at him. "What happened?"
Victor finally raised his head. His eyes were haunted – and faintly red, she noted with a start. Had he been crying? "My session – d-didn't go well," he whispered, swallowing.
"That's obvious," Alice replied, looking him up and down. "What on earth did Dr. Bumby dig up?"
"Nothing – it wasn't a memory," Victor tried to explain, wiping some sweat from his face. "Not really. We didn't even get that far. He was talking about floating, and he happened to mention it was d-dark, and I told him I didn't like that. . . ." His breathing quickened again. "And he asked why, and I – t-then he told me it was nothing to fear – and he m-made me – and–"
"And how you're getting any air into your lungs is beyond me!" Alice interrupted, staring at his rapidly-moving chest. "Deep breaths, Victor, all right? Calm down."
Victor, however, seemed unable to hear her, his gaze fixed on some mysterious middle distance. "He – he said he was trying to – trying to help – s-something about 'desensitization,' whatever that is – but it felt like – like he was p-punishing me for – for resisting him so much – for being bad s-stupid w-w-worthless–"
Alice gaped as he bent over again, eyes squeezed shut and gasping like a drowning man. She'd known Victor was a pile of nerves – she still liked to tease him sometimes just to watch him get all flustered. The way he stammered and played with his tie was rather cute. This full-blown panic attack, however. . .this was scary. Victor looked like he was about to keel over any minute. But what could she do? She wasn't a psychiatrist, and the only one around appeared to be responsible for this mess. Damn it, Bumby, sometimes I wonder how good you really are, she thought, hands bunching up briefly into fists. Now I've got to figure out how to calm him down before he forgets how to breathe entirely. But how?
A mad idea came to her – try what she had almost done on her birthday, when he'd come to check up on her and she'd thanked him for the cake. She'd balked at the last minute then, her old fears about getting that close to anyone again preventing her from taking the final step. After all, it seemed everyone she dared let into her heart in any capacity suffered horribly somehow.
But he's already suffering, she told herself. And what else can I do? I can't leave him alone like this. . . . Shoving away all her fiddly little worries and doubts, Alice threw her arms around Victor and hugged him tightly.
Victor froze, his breath catching in his throat. For a terrifying moment Alice worried her plan had backfired. Then he let out a long, low sigh, and his chest started moving again at a much less frantic pace. "Sorry," he whispered, sounding deeply embarrassed.
"It's all right," Alice said, trying to keep her relief from being too obvious. Hoping to get a smile out of him, she added, "You're easier to hug than I expected. I thought it would be like hugging the trunk of a birch tree. Granted, you're as stiff and pale as one at the moment, but. . . ." But there was actually some softness on that absurdly-skinny frame of his. It was – kind of nice.
He chuckled in her ear. "I'm glad." After a moment's hesitation, he added in a quieter voice, "I haven't been hugged in ages. . . ." His arms wrapped around her awkwardly – like he wasn't quite sure what he should be doing with his hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't m-mean to worry you. . . ."
"It's rather hard not to worry about someone who looks like he's doing his damndest to render himself unconscious," Alice informed him, pulling away a bit so she could see his face. "Care to talk about it? Or will that just send you spiraling back into the black depths of panic?"
Victor looked at her, then away. "'Black depths' is about right," he mumbled. "I – um. . . ." His eyes fixed on the light streaming in through the boys' room's window. "This may sound odd, but can we go outside? I think I'll be able to talk about it easier if I'm in the sun."
"Of course." The beds could wait. Alice took Victor's hand and led him downstairs. Abigail, playing in the hallway, noticed Victor's face and started to ask what was wrong, but Alice waved her off as they rushed past. Oh no you don't. The last thing he needs right now is one of you brats spouting off about things you don't understand.
Outside, the air was almost clear – at least, one could tell that the sky was blue – and the sun warm against her skin. Despite the nice weather, there didn't seem to be a lot of people about. Good, Alice thought with a nod. That gives us some privacy. "Better?" she asked Victor as they started toward the outdoor market, still hand-in-hand.
"Much," Victor said, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a whoosh. He already looked ten times more relaxed than before. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet – I'm still curious as to what put you in that state in the first place."
Victor bit his lip, then turned away from her, shoulders hunched. "You'll – you'll t-think I'm silly. . . ."
"Maybe, but that doesn't mean I'm any less curious," Alice replied. "Besides, I want to know what to avoid bringing up so I don't ever have to see you like that again. You managed to frighten me a little – and if you're not one of my hallucinations, that's a pretty mean feat." She gave his arm a gentle tug. "I promise I won't make fun of you for it."
Victor peeked back at her. "Well. . .all right," he said, turning back around. "Like I said before, we didn't even get past the very beginning of the session. Dr. Bumby told me he wanted to see if he could get me deeper than I usually go. He was going on and on about relaxing and floating, and I was actually enjoying myself until he happened to say that it was just me, him, and the darkness." He began to fiddle with his tie. "And – um – I don't – t-that is to say–"
"You're scared of the dark?" Alice said, slightly amused. Only slightly, though – the image of him bent over and hyperventilating like mad was still clear in her mind's eye.
Victor rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. "Not – it's a very specific sort of dark. I'm fine if there's at least some light. Moonlight or candlelight or even a single ember from a fire – so long as I can see something. But total darkness? The kind where you can't even see your hand in front of your face?" He shivered. "I hate that. I feel like – like I'm trapped with a m-monster, one that's all around me. . .and I can't get away, no matter how hard I try. . .the darkness choking me, suffocating me, trying to d-digest me in its insides. . . ."
Alice nearly said, "So you've had an experience with those carnivorous mushrooms too?" but stopped herself. It sounded too much like she was mocking him, and that wasn't the case at all. "It sounds horrible," she said instead, giving his hand a sympathetic squeeze. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, though. I was scared of the dark myself, when I was – younger. . . ."
She trailed off, frowning. Something about that was important. Something about – a nightlight? Well, if she'd been scared of the dark, of course she would have had one. Mama and Papa would have never left her to suffer. But – there was something else about it, something. . . . Something she couldn't remember, damn it! "Hnnh!" she growled, gritting her teeth. Why did her mind insist on keeping all the memories she wanted to remember to itself?
Alice shook her head, turning her attention back to Victor. "Don't mind me – there's something about that and a nightlight that I feel is important, but of course I can't put my finger on it." She glared at a nearby bin of "fresh" potatoes to relieve her feelings. "It's the wrong memories that always get my attention. . . ."
"I'm sorry," Victor said, returning her squeeze. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't upset me, my inability to figure out my own bloody past did. I didn't mean to interrupt your story. Unless you wanted me to interrupt so you didn't have to tell it."
Victor smiled weakly. "I wouldn't mind. . . ." He sighed. "Anyway, I told Dr. Bumby I didn't like the dark, and he said that was a childish fear I should have gotten over. Which is probably true, but. . . . Then he asked me why I was afraid of it. And I – I told him about this n-nightmare I sometimes have. . . ."
He trailed off, eyes focused on that middle distance again. Alice waited, unsure if she should say anything. Finally, she cracked. "Victor, if you really–"
"No, it's just – it's horrible. F-for me, anyway," he qualified, fiddling with the end of his tie. "You'll think it's stupid, most likely. . . ." His gaze dropped to his feet. "I'm in the dark, and I'm all alone – except for these voices. Telling me I'm – I'm not f-fit to be around others, I'm worthless, I'm s-stupid, I'm a – a bad boy," he mumbled, cheeks burning. "And no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I can't get away. Add onto that the feeling like I'm about to be torn to s-shreds by the darkness itself, and–" He pulled his hand out of hers to hug himself. "I know it sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud, but for me – there's not a word to describe just how t-terrifying it really is. It was the cause of a lot of b-bed-wetting when I was younger. Even today it robs me of sleep – not that I need any help in that department," he added grouchily, rolling his eyes.
Ah – what he'd went through was worse than carnivorous mushrooms. "I do understand, actually," Alice said, absent-mindedly rubbing her arm. "When I was fighting my way through Wonderland, before I could do anything about the Queen of Hearts, I had to confront her right-hand dragon – the Jabberwock. The first time I met him, he'd made his lair at the very top of the Land of Fire and Brimstone – in a burning copy of my old home. And almost the moment I'd gotten there, he started in on me about – about how I didn't do anything to save my family." She squeezed her eyes shut as it all came back to her – the hot stink of smoke and ash, the flames with their distorted, screaming faces licking the sides of the floor, the scorched black crumbling skeleton of what had once been home. . .and those words, those awful, soul-crushing words. . . ."You selfish, misbegotten, and unnatural child! You smelled the smoke, but you were in dreamland taking tea with your friends. You couldn't be bothered. Your room was protected and spared, while your family upstairs roasted in an inferno of incredible horror!"
She felt an arm go around her, and for a moment panicked that it was the Jabberwock's claw – but no, this touch was far too gentle, far too comforting. Far too human. "I know you tell me I say this too much but – I'm so sorry for you," Victor's voice whispered. "That must have been terrible."
"It was," Alice murmured, letting her head rest for a moment against his shoulder. Anyone else she would have shaken off with various degrees of politeness, but. . .his arm felt – right, around her. Maybe it was because she could feel just how genuinely concerned he was. It was nice. "I still have nightmares about it. About what might have happened if Gryphon hadn't shown up to help me when he did." She opened her eyes and looked up at him, a dangerous smile on her face. "But I paid that monster back for those words. I don't care what he tried to tell me – I didn't kill my family. What happened was – was an accident." Except there was still that niggle in the back of her head, that smidgen of doubt. . . . She shoved it away, out of her mind. "You should yell back at your voices – tell them to leave you alone."
"I've tried. It doesn't work," Victor muttered. "Believe me, I've tried everything I can think of to stop that dream, but it just keeps coming back." He shuddered. "I told Dr. Bumby that too, but he said that darkness always has its place, and I should learn to accept that. Then he m-made me live through the dream. Told me it would help 'desensitize' me to it. All it did was make me feel even more miserable then I usually do during a session." He shook his head, pressing his fingers against his eyes. "He finally relented after I started crying and b-begged him to stop."
Alice rolled her eyes. Typical Bumby. "He's done that to me a few times too – run roughshod over my desires. It's just the way he is – he knows his way is the best, and your opinion is not wanted. Never mind that it's your brain on the line. It can make therapy with him an experience, as you well know." She sighed. "Still, I suppose he's trying to help."
"I'll thank him not to help me like that anymore," Victor grumbled. "Even fighting with him about Emily is preferable."
"It still amazes me how determined you are to keep her memory alive," Alice admitted. "Even with almost everyone around you telling you she wasn't real."
"She was real, and I just can't forget her," Victor told her, frowning. "She was important to me. It's like you with your family. You may want to forget the details of what happened to them, but you don't want to forget them, now do you?"
Alice shot him a glare. "Of course not!" she snapped. "They're my family. How could I ever let myself forget them?"
Victor nodded. "And how could I ever let myself forget someone I loved? Forgetting her, denying her existence, feels like the ultimate betrayal. Besides, she was forgotten for far too long. She deserves to be remembered."
Alice was silent for a moment, digesting that. She still wasn't sure what to make of Victor's story, if she were honest with herself. He talked about Emily and the afterlife with such conviction, one couldn't help but be drawn in. . .and yet, she knew that no one could really raise the dead. If they could, she'd be down at the Oxford vault where her family was interred, saying a proper goodbye before the maggots picked them clean. Besides, she of all people knew how much detail one could place into a hallucination. She was willing to accept the parts of his tale that involved living people as real, but the rest. . . .
Still, he seemed completely normal otherwise. And his stories of the Land of the Dead always entertained her. What was the harm in humoring him? "I suppose you're right. It must have been a lonely afterlife for her, waiting and waiting for a husband."
Victor nodded again, eyes sad. "I still feel awful for her," he whispered. "Murdered by someone she loved, then trapping herself in a sort of limbo because she was so desperate to get married. . . ."
"When she could have been having loads of fun in the Ball & Socket with the rest of the Dead," Alice said, nudging him playfully.
Victor chuckled. "Yes, exactly. I've never quite understood why the Land of the Dead exists, but – the idea of it being the final stop for earthly pleasures appeals to me. One last hurrah, where you can do all the things you wanted to do in life but never were able to."
"Sounds reasonable," Alice agreed. "And then, afterwards, you explode into butterflies to everyone's bewilderment."
"I don't know if it always has to be butterflies," Victor said, smiling. "Though I know that's how I'd want to go."
"No, really? Those sketches all over your walls didn't give me any clue," Alice deadpanned.
"Oh, Alice, you know me," Victor said, trying to adopt a mock-serious expression but unable to quite hide his grin. "I just hate–"
"Here now, what are you doing hanging onto her?"
Victor and Alice both started. Alice peered around her friend to see one of the East End's many prostitutes leering at him. Damn, she hadn't even noticed they'd wandered into that part of town. She'd half-forgotten they'd been walking in the first place. "A handsome boy like yourself could do so much better," the woman added, showing off her yellowed teeth in what Alice supposed passed for a smile.
Victor gaped at the woman for a moment, then shut his mouth with a snap. "No, thank you," he said, frowning and backing up a step.
"Oh come on, I'm sure you're eager to dab it up with someone," the prostitute said, running a long nail up Victor's sleeve. "Only the best for such a good-looking customer."
"He said no," Alice snapped, scowling.
"Stay out of this, you ugly dollymop," the woman said, not even looking at her. "Leave this sort of thing to the professionals."
Victor's eyes narrowed. "I am very much not interested," he said, moving away from the prostitute again. "I've said as much every other time you and your ilk have insisted on calling to me. And I'll thank you not to call my friend names."
"Friend? Is that what you're calling 'em these days?" The prostitute smirked. "I can do twice the tricks she can, darling."
Alice seized Victor's wrist. "Come on, let's get out of here," she said, pulling him back the way they'd come. "Before I do something I regret."
Victor nodded and followed, shooting a departing glare at the prostitute. She returned it tenfold. "All right then, be that way! Everyone knows the swells can't get theirs up anyway!" she yelled after them.
A few of the other people in the street stopped and snickered, making Victor blush. "Ignore them," Alice said, leading him down the street. "She's just upset she wasn't able to get anything off you."
"I would never visit one of them," Victor said, squeezing his eyes shut and grimacing. "Could never. I'd ask how anyone could, but –"
"Well, the madams and pimps who run the brothels around here live pretty well," Alice told him, thinking of Nanny Sharpe and her small empire in the Mangled Mermaid pub. "And when you're starving on the street, anything seems acceptable. It's sadly one of the best ways to make a pound or two around here."
Victor sighed. "I guess if both parties are willing. . .but I'd never be able to. Besides, they're–"
"Uglier than sin?" Alice asked, slowing back down to a walk.
"I would have put it a bit more delicately." Victor adjusted his tie. "She's not the first I've encountered out here, but she's the first to get that close. Usually they're content to just show off and offer their – services from a distance." He shuddered. "I try to walk past them as quickly as possible, both to avoid the offers and the abuse after I refuse." He frowned and looked down at Alice. "Though I've been meaning to ask you – what exactly makes someone a 'swell?' I understand it's an insult, but I've been unable to puzzle out just what it is they're insulting. 'Can Dort' from the children back home was much easier to figure out."
"It's referring to your clothes," Alice said, waving her hand at his suit. "They recognize you as someone who's got money. That's why they pester you so much, and why they're so annoyed when you refuse – they think you can give them a good fee. If you ever did – partake – you'd probably be charged double the normal price."
"Never," Victor said with another shudder. "Do I want to know what 'dollymop' means?"
"She was saying I was an amateur version of her," Alice said, shrugging. "Nothing I haven't heard before. It's hard to be a woman on these streets and not be accused of selling your backside."
Victor scowled. "Vile," he muttered. "Nobody at home talked like that, and I should know. I was the main victim of all the bullies there."
"That's life in the East End for you. Although perhaps your bullies were just not very creative when it came to insults."
"Fair enough – 'Can Dort' was really the best they could do." Victor shook his head. "It's depressing, how many horrible people are in the world."
"You were sheltered as a child, weren't you?"
"Comes of growing up rich, I think. And in a town miles from anyone else." Victor tilted his head. "Wasn't Oxford a nice place to live, though?"
"It was, but even it had its share of annoyances," Alice told him. "You should have seen the undergraduates at the college. Lizzie hated them, and with good reason. Most of them seemed to consider her some sort of prize to be won from Papa." For a moment, an unformed memory floated before her eyes – something about a particular student bothering Lizzie more than the others – but it was gone before she could grasp it, much like the one with her nightlight. Alice huffed. Bloody memories, never cooperating when she needed them to. . . .
"I see. I'd convey my apologies to your sister if I could," Victor said.
"And I think she'd actually accept them, coming from you." Alice shook off the cobwebs of the past and tugged on Victor's arm. "Come on, we'd better get back to the Home. I've still got beds to make. Are you feeling better, at least?"
"Much," Victor nodded, then shrugged. "Well, except for being annoyed by that woman."
"Better than being frightened out of your wits, right?"
Victor nodded again, smiling. "Yes, true. Thank you for putting up with me."
Alice smiled back. "You put up with me all the time. What's good for the gander is good for the goose. Now hurry it up before Dr. Bumby notices us missing."