Chapter 12: Better Than A Pet
June 9th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
This is easily the nicest birthday gift I could get today.
Victor closed his eyes and tilted his head up, letting the music wash over him. The Houndsditch Home For Wayward Youth was quiet and peaceful for the moment, a sharp contrast to its usual low level of chaotic grumbling. Dr. Bumby was out, having taken a few of the children away on what he'd called a "therapeutic trip." According to the doctor, they wouldn't be back until late that afternoon. The rest of the Home's younger residents were playing in the concrete "yard" that adjoined the grounds, enjoying the pleasures of early summer and completely ignoring the fact that it was Victor's birthday – or that Victor existed at all, really.
Victor was happy to be ignored. He hadn't expected the children to do anything for his birthday, beyond peppering him with jokes and smart remarks about his becoming "ancient." He much preferred the chance to snatch a few minutes at the piano. He needed his music today. He'd always believed birthdays were supposed to be happy occasions, but this one. . . .
Part of him still couldn't really believe it. Twenty years old. It sounded so – adult. He didn't feel adult. Not any more than he had when he was nineteen and facing down a crazed swordsman surrounded by living corpses, anyway. And to think – I might have been married and celebrating my birthday with my wife if everything had gone according to plan, he thought, melancholy. I wonder if I would have felt like an adult in that case. Maybe if Mother had been breathing down my neck about grandchildren. . . .
He shook his head. He didn't want to dwell on such things today. He'd spent the past fortnight allowing thoughts like those to drag him down. And making a complete arse of himself in front of his one friend in the process. He winced as he remembered his inadvertent whinge to Alice. What right did he have to complain about losing the chance at a normal life after all that had happened to her? How could he have been so thoughtless? At least she'd been gracious enough to listen to him babble on, and to accept his apologies afterward. And to not make a sarcastic comment, though he wouldn't have blamed her if she had. He probably would have even laughed. Her sense of humor is a bit wicked, but I've never met anyone who has her way with words, he thought with a smile. Or her way with hugs. . .though I wish I'd found out about that in a more pleasant way. . . .
A shiver went down his spine. Two weeks, and the memory of that horrific session was still fresh in his mind. He suspected he wouldn't forget it for as long as he lived. The darkness all around him, clinging to him, crushing him in its grip. . .the voices berating him, calling him names, telling him what a useless burden he was. . .and Bumby's voice just adding to the crowd, snapping that he was stupid for letting the dark terrify him like this, that he needed to be stronger, that if he'd just listen and endure this could all go away. . . .
His eyes snapped open as the music faltered. No, he told himself, staring at his trembling hands. Don't think about that. Think about what happened afterward. Think about Alice, who everyone says hates to be touched, willingly hugging you. Think about how nice her arms were around you.
Think about the fact that there's someone here who truly cares about you.
The shaking eased as the rest of it came rushing back. Gasping for air outside of Bumby's office, chest so tight he couldn't breathe, unable to think about anything but the endless, suffocating dark. . .and then, suddenly, feeling her warm body against his, anchoring him, pulling him back toward the light. . . . What would he have done had she not been there? Well, she did say I looked like I was about to pass out, Victor thought, picking up the pieces of his shattered melody and putting them back together. Maybe Dr. Bumby would have found me unconscious on the floor when he next left his office. Hopefully it would have taught him a lesson about what is and isn't appropriate for therapy. He rolled his eyes. On the other hand, Alice told me straight out he doesn't think any way but his has any merit, so. . .honestly, I think sometimes she should be the psychiatrist, not him. I'm much more comfortable talking to her.
And that was a shocker in itself, honestly. He'd never thought he'd be able to say he was comfortable talking to anyone. Even with Victoria and Emily, he'd stumbled over his words, agonized about what was coming out of his mouth. With Alice, he could just – talk. She didn't judge him for his love of butterflies, or accuse him of being unmanly because he didn't enjoy hunting. She understood what it was like to be an outcast, shoved towards the fringes of society. (She understood it much better than he did, of course. . . .) She understood his need to be alone sometimes, to retreat from a world that saw him as a problem, a mistake. She understood his desire to express himself in ways that didn't involve words. And while she did enjoy making him flustered, he had to say that he rather enjoyed shocking her in return. The way her eyes went wide whenever he revealed he wasn't quite as innocent as he first appeared. . .he chuckled just thinking about it. There was a connection there that he'd never had with anyone else. Yes, he still despised the fact that he was forced to be here, treated like some sort of broken toy instead of a person, but – well, if that was the price to pay for having a friend like Alice. . . .
Someone knocked on the wall behind him. "Victor?"
Speak of the devil – no, wait, that sounds rude even in my head. Victor stopped playing and looked up. Alice was standing in the hall doorway, hands held behind her back. "Hello," he greeted her, turning toward her with a smile. "I thought you were outside with the children."
Alice shook her head. "I was finishing up something in my room," she said, shifting from foot to foot. "I'm sorry to interrupt; I know how important your piano time is to you. . . ."
"It's all right," Victor said, frowning. Alice was fidgeting quite a lot, glancing left and right like she expected something to jump out at her. That was usually a sign that the invisible chorus of voices that plagued her steps was being louder than usual. Oh dear – had whatever had upset her so badly yesterday returned? She'd seemed better over supper last night, but she hadn't given him much of a chance to speak with her, rushing off right after the meal. . . . "Speaking of which, are you all right?"
Alice's lips twitched up nervously as she approached him. "I think so. Someone's trying to tell me I'm not, but I think you can quiet him." She took her hands out from behind her back and presented him with a sheet of paper. "Happy birthday, Victor."
Victor stared at the paper, surprised. She'd gotten him a present? Granted, she'd told him she would over a month ago, but somehow he'd convinced himself she wouldn't follow through. A little knot of guilt formed in his stomach. Some friend you are, doubting her like that. "Thank you," he said, taking the gift and looking at it properly.
His jaw dropped. What she'd given him was a picture – of the Ball & Socket. Specifically, she'd drawn him the little alcove near the back that contained the coffin piano. The sketch wasn't quite true to life – the stairs were a bit crooked, and she'd added a window that, in reality, would have looked in on the kitchen, but it was remarkably close for someone who hadn't actually seen it in person. But. . . . "I thought you said you couldn't draw?" he blurted, then turned pink. "Er, n-not that it's any of my business–"
"I can't draw now," Alice explained, grinning at his expression. "Back in Rutledge, I did some sketches of Wonderland that quite impressed Dr. Wilson. He even suggested that I make a living doing illustrations. But as soon as I came here, my skills suddenly dropped until – well, until Charlie and Elsie could outdraw me. Apparently the Insane Children who populate Wonderland find it necessary to hold my talents hostage until I pay them a visit. Fortunately, their leader was willing to surrender them for a day after I begged." She bit her lip, rocking back and forth on her heels. "Do you like it? I tried to follow your description as closely as possible. . . ."
Goodness, it was weird to see her this nervous. Like looking in some sort of twisted funhouse mirror. Victor gave her a warm smile. "It's fantastic, Alice," he assured her. "Thank you very much." He ran his fingers over the pencil sketch, being careful not to smudge it. "I have some very fond memories of that piano."
"I know," Alice nodded, her face filled with a mixture of pleasure and relief. "I remembered you saying something about a duet with Emily."
"Yes – you didn't hear that whole story, did you?" Victor said, looking up at her. "Dr. Bumby called you away just as I was getting to the actual duet."
"Radcliffe was bothering him about me, so he had to bother me about Radcliffe," Alice said, rolling her eyes. "At least I heard enough to give you a decent drawing." She tilted her head, regarding him curiously. "I'm surprised you played a duet with anyone, though. You're always so private about your music."
"Well, this was special circumstances," Victor explained, turning back to the picture. Memory filled in color and depth, and a lone blue figure sitting at the keyboard. "I was trying to apologize about lying to her, about going to Victoria for help, and the words simply weren't coming out right. She wouldn't listen to me at all. She just – sat there, playing the saddest tune I've ever heard. So, out of desperation, I started playing with her. Reached out to her from the bottom of my heart through the music."
"Did it work?"
"Fortunately for me," Victor nodded, smiling as the scene replayed itself in his mind. "At first she was determined to be angry – every time I started playing, she'd take her hands away. But then – I guess my persistence won her over. Or annoyed her sufficiently to try and show me up," he added with a chuckle. "All I know is that we ended up making some beautiful music together. And she – she had such enthusiasm. To the point where, near the end, her hand actually popped off in her excitement and continued playing by itself. I'd never met anyone like that before – anyone who seemed to love the piano as much as I did. I think that's the moment when I realized I really did love her too. Or, well, had a very strong case of like," he amended, smirking at his friend.
"Very, very strong case," Alice nodded, giggling. "Seems like Emily won the day when it came to music."
"She did, yes – though I did have a near-immediate desire to teach Victoria how to play," Victor said, glancing at the piano beside him. "I thought, if I'm going to share my life with this nice young lady, I want to share my greatest passion with her too. I imagined our lessons together a lot when thinking about what I hoped would be." He sighed, dropping his gaze to the floor. "Of course, that'll never happen now. . . ."
Alice laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry for you," she said, pure sympathy in her voice. With an amused huff, she added, "I must be a great disappointment after them."
Victor's head snapped up. Alice was smiling at him, obviously trying to make light of what she'd just said – but that was genuine sadness in her eyes. That would not stand. "You're not," he said firmly, setting the picture aside to take her hand. "Not at all. Alice, I – I don't know where I'd be if you weren't here with me."
"Still in Houndsditch, I'd imagine. Unless you think my absence would have made your parents send you somewhere else?"
"You know what I mean," Victor said, shaking his head. "Life here at the Home would be intolerable if it weren't for you." He squeezed her hand. "You are the best friend I've had since Scraps died."
There were those wide eyes he usually found so amusing. She stared at him for a moment, apparently struck dumb. Then a genuine smile spread across her face. "Good to know I rank up there with your old dog," she teased, but he could hear in her voice she was truly touched. "I imagine it's tough to come anywhere near Scraps in your heart."
"Well, I doubt I come anywhere close to your Dinah," Victor joked back, patting her hand.
"Not in catching mice, that's for certain," Alice replied, making them both laugh. More sincerely, she added, "But in companionship, yes. You're the greatest friend I've had in a long, long while, Victor. I – I want to say I'm glad you came here, but that just sounds cruel."
Victor bit back another laugh. "It's all right. I know what you mean. Settle on 'I'm very glad to have met you?'"
"It's a deal," Alice said, shaking hands with him.
Victor nodded. "A deal," he agreed. She really does have a beautiful smile, he thought. And the way her eyes light up when she's in a good mood. . .I wish she could be happy more often. I wish both of us could be.
Alice nodded back, then pulled away. "Well, I'm sure you want to be left alone with your music," she said, turning to go. "You never know when those brats outside will intrude, and I don't want to keep you from it."
Victor looked at her, then back at the drawing now resting on the keyboard. He picked it up and stared at it, tracing the lines with his eyes. For a moment, he again saw the pink cushioning, the yellowed keys, the dark-haired figure mournfully tapping away. . . . "Wait," he called.
Alice stopped in the doorway, looking at him over her shoulder. Victor smiled at her, just a pinch nervous. "Would – would you like to hear something I've been working on?"
Alice blinked a few times, brown wrinkling in confusion. "You want me to stay?" she said, turning around slowly.
"If you'd like to," he replied, biting his lower lip. She'd given him one of his favorite memories in picture form – the least he could do was let her stay, rather than forcing her to retreat to her room. In fact, he rather wanted her to hear his music. Deep inside, he realized that she'd understand. That it was safe for him to share this part of himself with her. She was his best friend – if he couldn't share this with her, who could he share it with? Besides – perhaps now I'll finally get an answer to the question of how I compare with Elizabeth Liddell.
Alice eyed him for a moment, a faintly suspicious look on her face. Then the smile came back. "Well then – I'd be honored to hear what you're composing," she said, coming to stand by the piano.
Victor smiled back at her, then turned back to the keys, placing the picture in the music stand to keep it safe and out of the way. Correction, he thought, feeling his heart swell as he looked at it. This is the nicest birthday gift I could get today. He stretched out his fingers and grinned. "I think you'll enjoy this – it's a rather light melody. . . ."