Chapter 11: Unpleasant Pre-Birthday Surprises
June 8th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Alice tiptoed out of her room, carefully choosing each step to avoid creaks in the floorboards. Victor's door was open a crack – after a moment's indecision, she went ahead and took a peek. Her friend was lying on his bed, absorbed in a book. Nodding, she slipped away, creeping into the front foyer. To her immense relief, the only child in there was Charlie, and he was quite busy playing solitaire. She sneaked by him, then grinned as she darted out the front door. This couldn't have worked out any better if she'd planned it. Children and Victor all amusing themselves, and Dr. Bumby busy in his office with explicit instructions not to be disturbed. It was the perfect moment to slip out and buy a birthday present for a certain special someone.
Perhaps most people wouldn't consider this a mission that required such stealth, but Alice knew better. She didn't want Victor to catch the slightest hint of what his present would be. She wanted to give him a real surprise – something that would equal the divine cake he'd given her for her birthday. Something that would get him to smile again. He hadn't been doing a lot of that for the past fortnight. Turning a year older seemed to be sending his thoughts down dark and lonely paths. He'd told her a few days ago, after she'd caught him staring blankly at the wall in his room, that he felt like he was stuck in a world of children, more or less – unable to grow up, unable to have a normal life. That was a sentiment Alice could definitely sympathize with (as Victor himself had realized halfway through, stammering out apologies as he did). It was heartbreaking to see him moping around, staring out windows at the people passing by like a puppy waiting for a long-lost master. Not to mention he looked exhausted half the time – Alice had a sneaking suspicion that the nightmare he'd told her about, with the darkness and the voices, had come along to trouble him in the wake of the session that had sent him running from Dr. Bumby's office. Brilliant work there, doctor, she thought, rolling her eyes as she turned her steps toward the shops. I thought your job was all about ridding people of painful memories and fears, not making them stronger. With all that weighing on Victor, Alice wanted to make his birthday special – something to be celebrated, not feared.
Fortunately, after quite a lot of fruitless brainstorming, she finally had an idea for the perfect gift for her friend. She'd engaged him in conversation yesterday about his art in an attempt to perk him up, and it turned out that he wasn't merely a master of the inkpot and quill pen – Victor Van Dort apparently enjoyed painting from time to time too. He'd spoken wistfully of his easel and oils, gathering dust in his parents' house, and of paintings he'd made of butterflies and landscapes. Hearing him go on like that, looking almost his old self, had gotten her thinking. On her low salary, easel, canvas, and oils were beyond her reach. But a paintbrush, and a few cheap watercolors? She could afford that. Perhaps it wouldn't be as fancy as what he'd left behind in Burtonsville, but she was certain he would appreciate the gift nonetheless. And, if he was feeling up to it, maybe she could convince him to try adding a bit of color to some of his Wonderland –
With extreme reluctance, Alice turned around to see the face – well, mostly the nose – of one Priscilla "Pris" Witless, former night nurse at Rutledge Asylum and current drunken pain-in-the-arse. "Nurse Witless," she said, voice cool. Ugh, she'd just have to show her ugly mug today. . . .
Witless grinned at her in a way Alice guessed was supposed to be friendly. "How are you today, dearie?" she asked, sidling closer. "Lovely weather, isn't it?"
"Much better than the pea-souper we had the other day, yes," Alice replied, eyes shifting left and right. What was the best way to extract herself from this situation? She didn't have long before someone would notice her missing. . . .
"Mmm. My pigeons like the sunshine much better," Witless agreed. Her face dropped into a calculated piteous frown. "Poor things are running a bit low on feed and water. . .and I could do with a drink myself. . . ."
Alice sighed. "Nurse Witless, I'm rather busy at the moment," she said, stepping backward.
"Too busy to favor an old woman with a pound or two?" Witless tched, shaking her head. "You have some to spare, I'm certain."
"No, I don't," Alice said shortly. "I need every penny of what I've got."
Witless's eyes narrowed suspiciously behind her glasses. "Whatever for? You don't buy anything but pills, and Dr. Bumby pays for those. Surely you can give something to an old friend."
Old friend? Ha! If I ever stopped getting paid, you'd forget I existed. "This money is for a birthday present – for a real friend," Alice told her, turning around. "You'll have to bother me another day for tuppence."
"A real friend?" Witless repeated, confused. "You don't have – Ooooh, wait. . . ." She grabbed Alice's arm. "It's that Van Dort boy, isn't it? Trying to curry a little favor? Convince him to take you away from all this?"
The smarmy tone in Witless's voice got right up Alice's nose. She shot the old drunkard her best glare over her shoulder. "I genuinely like him," she snarled. "I'm not trying to manipulate him into anything."
"Shame – you should," Witless replied frankly. "Heir to the Van Dort fish empire – he'll be able to keep you in riches for the rest of your days."
"I don't like him because he's rich," Alice said, shaking her head. "I like him because he's nice." She yanked her arm free of Witless's grip. "And now, if you'll excuse me–"
"I wonder what he'd do if I told him about something you said at Rutledge."
It was like having ice water shot into her veins. Alice froze, then slowly turned to see Witless smirking at her. "You – you wouldn't," she whispered, hating herself for the frightened crack in her voice.
"Oh, but dearie – doesn't he deserve to know the whole truth about you?" Witless replied, voice as thick and syrupy as honey even as her eyes gleamed with malice.
Alice stared at the woman, feeling the walls closing in around her. Of course Witless would tell him what she'd said in the asylum. Witless would do anything for the money necessary to buy herself another bottle of Blue Ruin. But – but Victor wouldn't believe the old bag when she implied that Alice had been the one to kill her family, would he?
Maybe not – but do you want him to hear about what else happened at Rutledge? a voice inside her said. About the nights you howled like a Boojum yourself? About how you attacked that nurse while being bathed? About what you did to those orderlies who were spoiling your rabbit? And what you did to your wrists after you'd put paid to them? Do you want him to hear all the worst horror stories of your time in captivity? Because Witless would tell him. And he'd never want to be your friend again. You'd lose him. Just like you lose everybody.
Alice's shoulders slumped in defeat. Wordlessly she reached into her pocket and pulled out her money, pressing it into Witless's waiting palm. Witless smiled at her, all warmth and pleasantness now that she'd gotten what she wanted. "Good girl. Always willing to help an old lady." She patted Alice's arm. "Your rich boy can buy his own things. He wouldn't give half a damn about a present from you, anyway."
Alice didn't respond – just pushed past her and started the walk back toward the Home. The distance seemed to have increased tenfold since she'd oh-so-cheerfully rushed out – was that really just a few minutes ago? It felt like weeks. She slipped a hand into her pocket, feeling the emptiness which was somehow heavier than the money she'd carried. "Habitually late as always," the Jabberwock whispered in her ear. "If you'd bothered to come up with an idea earlier, perhaps you might have actually succeeded in your plan. But now you'll have to face him empty-handed. How long before you learn that you can never run from your guilt?"
"Shove off," Alice mumbled. "You're nothing but a figment of my imagination."
"And who was it that said my insults were second-rate? Perhaps I am, but Victor certainly isn't. Oh, the disappointed look he'll have when you'll have to confess you were too busy daydreaming to get him something in time. . . ."
"It hasn't happened yet, you stupid dragon," she snapped, though there was no heart behind her words. "Can't you wait until tomorrow to make me even more miserable?"
"If you insist," the Jabberwock purred, moving back. "Unlike you, I know how to make the best use of my time. Goodbye – for now." He took to the air and flew off, the smoke from his furnace heart pouring over her and forming her own personal storm cloud of self-pity as she dragged herself onwards.
Eventually, she made it back to Houndsditch. Victor was in the front foyer now, pouring over the few titles available to him in the shelves. He glanced up as she entered, then frowned. "Alice?" He moved toward her, one hand outstretched. "Are you all right?"
The concern in his eyes hurt more than the Queen's tentacles crushing the life from her body. "I don't want to talk about it," she said quietly, rushing past him before he could ask any more questions. I don't want to have to tell you that you're not getting a birthday present all because of some old drunken bitch who loves nothing more than to blackmail me at every opportunity.
She escaped into her room, closing the door hard behind her so Victor wouldn't get any ideas about following. Then she flopped down onto her bed, squeezing her eyes closed so she wouldn't cry. It was a stupid thing to cry about. All it was was a birthday present! Victor would probably be getting something elaborate and showy from his parents. He wouldn't even notice her lack of a gift. And if he did, he'd forgive her, because he was a sweet-hearted boy who didn't care much about material possessions beyond his sketchbook. She shouldn't give another thought to the matter.
Except. . .she'd been looking forward to this. Looking forward to the moment where she could get him alone and present her gift. His eyes would have widened in surprise, and then he'd have opened it to see the paints, and that shy little smile would have lit up his face. . .and he would have thanked her sincerely and gratefully, and the rest of the day would have been happy and warm no matter the weather outside. . . . She opened her eyes to glower at the ceiling. Why did Witless have to show up today of all days? All I wanted was to see him smile again. . . . Damn it, is there nothing else I can give him?
As if they felt she needed yet another dose of guilt over this mess, her eyes slid down to stare at the collection of pictures Victor had given her. They'd fallen into a routine of sorts – whenever he was around during one of her story times, he drew something and presented it to her afterward. His skill with a pen was unmistakable – somehow, he always seemed able to translate her over-the-top descriptions into ink and paper. Her gaze traveled over the sketches ringing her bed. On the far left, an angry fanged mushroom flared its cap; closer to the corner, a Mechanical Ladybug lugged its explosive payload through a foggy sky, over her pillow, her London self continued her ceaseless battle against the army ant –
And right next to that. . . .
Alice pulled herself up, settling on her knees in front of the picture. It was the newest of the lot, drawn just four days ago to illustrate her latest tale about her trip through the Tower of Steam in the heart of Queensland's twisty hedge maze. Captured in ink, her Wonderland self floated above one of the innumerable steam vents in the tower, skirts billowed, long hair drifting in the breeze, the Cards clutched in her hand. The imaginary Alice smirked out at reality, face confident and dangerous despite the lurking threat of Boojums. But it wasn't her other self's expression that drew Alice's eye. Before completing the drawing, Victor had added a few wisps of steam trailing up behind her. And the way he'd drawn them, curling out in gentle ripples and arcs, it looked like –
Well, it looked like she had wings.
She ran her fingers over the lines, remembering how pink Victor's cheeks had turned as he'd told her, "It – it just seemed right. . .I hope it doesn't look silly to you." She'd replied that it didn't, not at all, he'd done a wonderful job as always, but that hadn't expressed her real feelings. Truth be told, she'd been stunned – and more than a little touched. He'd made her look like an angel.
He'd made her, of all people, look like an angel.
The tears were pricking at the corners of her eyes again. She turned away, blinking them back. That was the real reason she'd wanted to get him a birthday present – she'd wanted to thank him. Everyone else saw her as nothing more than a violent lunatic who screamed at invisible monsters and had probably killed her family – and he saw her as an angel. He was truly someone special, and now. . .she wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the guilt churning and cooking in her belly. Why had she let Witless bully her like that? She simply couldn't face him empty-handed. . . .
"But you must," the Jabberwock said with wicked glee. "Selfish, misbegotten–"
"Oh, do stop going on in that manner. You're just jealous you never got a portrait done by either of them."
Startled, Alice jerked her head up to stare into the grin of the Cheshire Cat. The tattooed blue feline was resting a paw on the black journal that served as her diary, currently lying on her pillow. She could see a copy of his eternal smile peeking out from between the pages. "Not that I think Victor would appreciate the face of an overly-talkative buck-toothed lizard staring out at him from his wall," he added, his lips curling over his teeth in a smirk.
Alice quickly shoved both cat and dragon to the back of her mind before a brawl could break out. Picking up her journal, she extracted the picture of the Cat, along with the others that she'd drawn in the asylum. The White Rabbit, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, Hatter's asylum "funhouse," the Fungiferous Forest. . .Dr. Wilson had told her, upon surrendering them, that he thought she might have a future as an illustrator if she needed extra work. If only – every scrap of talent I possessed vanished as soon as I entered Houndsditch, she thought bitterly. What good would it do, drawing Victor a picture now?
. . .Then again – what harm would it do?
She frowned thoughtfully. That was a point. Perhaps her artistic skills weren't as good as his anymore, but – trying wouldn't hurt, would it? And she didn't have anything else to offer him on such short notice. . . . Scouring her room turned up a pencil and some blank paper, which she rested on a nearby stool. Now, what did she want to draw? A portrait of Victor? Something from her Wonderland? Or something from his Land of the Dead?
A memory swam before her eyes – Victor telling the children about his duet with Emily in the Ball & Socket pub. She'd been called away from the story by Dr. Bumby before getting to hear it all, but she was sure she remembered enough of his description to do a decent sketch. She set to work, replaying Victor's story over in her mind. "I saw her from the stairs, slumped in front of the coffin piano. . .it was an oddly cheery instrument for such a macabre base – I think the pink lining helped with that. . .the keys were a bit crooked, but the tones it produced! I would bet Bonejangles made sure it was kept in top condition. . . ."
A few minutes of extremely careful sketching later, she'd managed to produce – an unformed scribble that no person on earth would ever guess was either a coffin or a piano. Frustrated, Alice gritted her teeth and violently rubbed out the picture. "Argh! Damn it! Why must I draw like a six-year-old?! I know I can do better!"
"Knowing and doing are two different things."
"I'm aware of that, you blasted Cat! How about you give me some useful advice?" Alice snapped.
"About drawing?" Cheshire said, and chuckled. "Please, Alice, when have you ever seen a cat hold a pencil? You need to ask a different group entirely about that."
Childish laughter suddenly echoed through the room. Looking up, Alice saw a young girl, about the same age as Elsie, standing by her door. Her ginger hair was tangled and wild, and her face was more scars and stitches than flesh. She waved at Alice. "Time to play with us?"
Alice looked from her to the paper, then back. The girl giggled and shook a finger. "Uh-uh! Only members of the fort are allowed! And you're not loud enough."
This little brat was holding her art skills hostage? Alice was tempted to shout for a moment, but stopped herself. The last thing she needed was to bring Victor – or worse, Dr. Bumby – running. "I can't come play – I'm trying to get well," she whispered, leaning close to the child. "The Queen is dead, and the Hatter forcibly reformed. You should be able to find plenty of playmates in Wonderland." She bit her lip. "But I need those skills you hold. It's – it's important."
The girl frowned curiously. Emboldened, Alice continued. "My best friend's birthday is tomorrow, and I've been robbed of the money I need to buy him a present." She held up the paper. "This drawing – this is all I have to give him. And without you surrendering what you took, it's not going to look like much." She reached out and took the little girl's hand. "Victor – he's the only friend I've had in ages. I need to do this for him." She pressed her lips together. "Please."
There was a charged silence. Then the girl nodded, and a strange tingling filled Alice's fingers. "Okay, okay – but just for today," the child said, pulling free and putting her hands on her hips. "You want it for good, come visit us at our fort."
And with that, she was gone. Alice smiled at the spot where she had stood. "Thank you," she whispered, flexing her hands.
Then she grabbed her pencil and set back to work.