Chapter 14: Icy Reception On A Very Hot Day
July 9th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
I wonder if it's possible for a person to melt.
Victor stared up at the ceiling, sprawled out across his bed. He could barely believe how hot it was. He was certain it had never gotten this warm in Burtonsville. The heat just pressed in from all directions, leaving him unable to do anything but lie there and sweat. I don't think I'll be able to drag myself up for lunch, he thought, raising a hand to wipe his face. Then again, I'm not exactly dressed for it, so. . . . His fingers touched the spot where the knot of his tie would have rested if he hadn't stripped that, his jacket, and his waistcoat off in a desperate attempt to cool down. It felt weird to be without them, but with the alternative being slowly cooking alive. . . . At least I don't have to go anywhere today. Oh, it's just so hot. . . .
A figure appeared at the very edge of his vision. "Victor?"
Victor turned his head to see Alice standing in his doorway. She looked just as hot as he felt, sweaty hair hanging limp about her face and eyes dulled with heat-induced exhaustion. "Oh, hello Alice. How are you?"
"About ready to see if I can secure a position on one of those ships headed to the Arctic," Alice replied, dragging herself inside with a sigh. "Your room feels cooler than mine – mind if I stay for a bit?"
A voice in Victor's mind (it sounded rather like a combination of his mother and Lady Everglot) immediately started shrieking about how he wasn't properly dressed and how impolite it was to have a young lady in his room in his state. Oh, do be quiet, he told it. She saw me in my pajamas and dressing gown my first night here. At least I'm wearing day-clothes now. And how much ruder would it be for me to force a young lady to face the heat all alone out there? Besides, it's the East End – how long before you learn propriety barely means anything here? "Not at all," he told her. "Do forgive me not getting up, it's just. . . ."
"I totally understand. I don't want to be upright myself." She wandered over to the bed and sat down next to him. "I heard Dr. Bumby say it's the hottest day he can remember."
"I can believe it," Victor said, turning his gaze back to the ceiling. "I can't recall Burtonsville ever feeling like this, even at the height of summer."
"I think the trouble is all these factories that have sprung up in the city," Alice said, leaning back while hanging onto his bedpost. Victor drew his legs up in case she decided to just let go and flop over. "They belch all that smoke into the air, and I swear it helps trap the heat."
Victor nodded. "It sounds about right. You can't even breathe in weather like this." He'd tried – he'd gone out earlier in the week when it was just starting to get warm, and discovered that, thanks to the smog, every breath of air felt like he was taking a drag off Mayhew's pipe. He'd stumbled back to the Home coughing and gasping, and hadn't felt better until Alice had made him a cup of tea. "I miss the country," he added in a softer voice. "Especially on days like these."
"Me too," Alice agreed, joining him in staring at the ceiling. "I miss blue skies and being able to breathe."
"I miss flowers and butterflies," Victor said, picturing the fields and woods that lay just outside Burtonsville. He'd spent many happy hours in both as a child, running around with Scraps, chasing butterflies, or just lying in the grass enjoying the fresh air. Right now, he felt their loss keenly. London was a world of cobblestones and brick, with barely any greenery to be seen. Oh, he knew there were parks scattered throughout the city – he had a vague memory of visiting Hyde Park as a child on a family trip – but none of them seemed to be within a reasonable distance of the Home. And of course, without any plants to feed on, there weren't any butterflies, or any other insects he could study. It was downright depressing.
"Mmm," Alice murmured. "We weren't made to be city people, Victor. The trouble is, there's no escape."
"I know," Victor groaned. "Especially not today." Dear Lord, what did Alice mean by his room being better than hers? The heat was on him like a thick blanket, trying to smother him. How much worse could her room be? "Alice, please – describe something cool," he begged.
Alice was silent for a while. "I've told you about the Land of Fire and Brimstone, right?" she finally asked.
"Alice, I believe we're living there at the moment."
She chuckled. "Well, would you believe that, right before I found myself on the edges of that world, I was exploring an ice cave?"
"Really?" Victor propped himself up on his elbows. "How'd you find that?"
"I was trying to escape those rotten Mechanical Ladybugs at the time," Alice said, scowling. "I thought I'd given them the slip by dropping into a tunnel underground, but the annoying little bastards dropped a marble in after me. I had to run for my life or get crushed."
Victor pictured the scene in his head. "That must have been terrifying," he said with a little shudder.
"One of the scariest moments of my life," Alice nodded. "I mean, most enemies I could slash to ribbons with my Vorpal Blade, or beat into unconsciousness with my Croquet Mallet, or even blow to bits with my Jackbomb. But how does one defeat a marble?" She shook her head. "I managed to outrun it until I came to a large frozen patch at the very bottom of the corkscrew twists and turns. There, thankfully for my continued existence, the marble smashed through the fragile ice and down a hole." She rolled her eyes. "Of course, not a minute afterwards, the ground beneath my feet crumbled away too, and I found myself tumbling into a large cavern, with every surface frozen solid."
"Sounds wonderful," Victor said, smiling at the thought of finding himself surrounded by ice.
"It wasn't at the time – almost every step sent me careening wildly in a direction I didn't mean to go," Alice said, lying down in the space he'd provided. "But right now, I miss it more than anything. The deep blue walls all around me. . .the frosted, slippery ice covering the ground. . .the massive icicles both stretching down from the ceiling and growing up from the floor. . .the soft grey and white stripes of the little stone paths stretching across the chilled abyss, just as cold as everything else. . .my breath coming out in soft little puffs of white. . . ."
Victor closed his eyes, the words washing over him. Oh, he could almost feel it. "You should write books, Alice," he said, pushing his hair back from his forehead. "You've got a way with words."
"Thank you, but I doubt anyone would want to publish my ramblings," Alice replied. "The only way I'd even have a chance is with a pen name." She sighed a little, then brightened. "Oh, and that's where I got the Ice Wand."
"The Ice Wand?" Victor repeated, immediately wanting to hear more.
"Mmm-hmm. Basically a large ice crystal with a handle. Shot my enemies with blasts of bitterly cold air until they froze in some painful-looking position. Very useful against Boojums, for some reason. They seemed to despise the cold."
"They're idiots," Victor mumbled, imagining what it might be like to stand in the Ice Wand's spray. A hissing, frigid wind on his face, leaving delicate patterns of frost clinging to his eyelashes and little icicles dangling from his nose. . .oh, it would be bliss.
"They are," Alice agreed. "Idiots who do nothing but try to burst your eardrums with terrible, high-pitched shrieks. Idiots who send you flying wildly through the air each time you try to jump." She laughed suddenly. "Idiots who make the most amusing faces when some tall, thin, pale young man decides to lecture them for ruining my birthday."
Victor laughed too, opening his eyes. "I sort of wish I could have seen that. I was just so upset that you couldn't enjoy getting your present. . . ."
"Honestly, the laugh was the best present I could have gotten." She paused. "No, I lie – the cake definitely was." They both giggled as she shifted her position. "I think that was the moment when I realized I just how much I liked you – that I actually wanted to be your friend," she added. "I thought you were nice enough before, of course – amusing too. And that picture you drew me got me thinking about the possibilities. But – to do something that kind for me. . . ."
"You deserved it," Victor said, smiling at her. "You'd already made my life here a lot better than I thought it would be. And I couldn't let your birthday pass uncelebrated."
"You've done much the same for me," Alice told him. "My days at Houndsditch were a lot more annoying before you came along." She smirked up at him. "And to think I was going to write you off as some sort of inconsiderate madman. . . ."
"You would have been allowed," Victor confessed, feeling a rush of embarrassment as he remembered his first day at the Home. "But I'm glad you forgave me."
"I'm glad too. I like hearing about your Land of the Dead." She frowned thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I wonder if it's just as hot down there today."
"I don't know," Victor admitted. "It does seem to be underground in some sense – that would have to make it at least a little cooler, right?"
"I suppose." Alice turned her head toward him. "Imagine it's cool down there? For the sake of my parents and Lizzie? Particularly Lizzie, she hated the heat. Drank gallons of lemonade every summer." She smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Do they have lemonade down there?"
"I would think so," Victor said, considering the idea. "They had alcohol, so I assume they would have lemonade as well. Though it might be made with rotten lemons, in their case."
Alice made a face. "Eugh. Well, so long as they don't add body parts to it. . . ."
Victor snorted, then rubbed his neck. Talking about cold drinks had made his throat feel drier than a desert. "Do we have any of the ingredients for lemonade? I'm horribly thirsty now."
"I don't think so, and I'm not risking going out and cooking in the middle of the street," Alice said as she sat back up. "But there must be something cool to drink somewhere in this house. Want to find out?"
"Yes," Victor nodded. "Let me just–" He reached for his tie and waistcoat, draped next to him on the bed.
"Don't bother," Alice said, catching his wrist. "I know for a fact the children and Bumby are hiding in their rooms as well. There's no one to see you. Unless I count. Which I must not, since you didn't immediately put those back on."
There was that voice again, snapping at him for being rude. Victor let out a frustrated sigh – he really was in no mood for endless recriminations from his own brain. "Shut up," he hissed under his breath.
Alice blinked. "I assume that wasn't directed at me. . .don't tell me Cheshire's somehow found a way to bother you too."
"No, no, it's not you, it's me," Victor assured her, waving his free hand. "My mind's giving me the usual lecture about being rude, and – you're really not offended by seeing me like this, are you?" he asked, feeling a tiny spike of nerves. One hand reached for a tie that wasn't there – he made do with gripping his shirt collar. "It's just – it's so hot, and you never – that is to say – you've already s-seen me–"
Alice poked him in the chest. "While seeing you all flustered is usually amusing, I'm worried you're going to overheat if you keep stammering. I'm not offended – in fact, I think you're the only person, besides Dr. Bumby sometimes, that I see around here in a full suit. There's a reason your local nickname is 'swell,' you know. People in Whitechapel can't afford to dress like you do – and they don't care to either."
Victor nodded, the voice finally falling silent in the face of her assertions. "I keep telling myself things like that, but – sometimes, it doesn't stick," he confessed. "Blame growing up with a mother who would get on my back at the slightest misstep."
"Well, I suppose it's better that you keep your manners rather than lose them," Alice said with a small shrug. "But don't worry about them too much while you're here. I understand that's quite a lot like telling you not to breathe, but. . . ." She smirked and patted his shoulder. "Just remember – you once climbed into a young woman's bedroom in the middle of the night, declared your love for her, and then tried to kiss her. Not to mention ran around with your clothes in an awful state of disrepair. And raised the dead from their graves to terrify the living."
Victor laughed despite himself. "Yes, yes, I'm horribly impolite," he agreed, smiling. "Thank you for reminding me."
"What are friends for?" Alice said with a sly smile. "Now come on – we should at least be able to find some water in the kitchen."