Chapter 15: Private Eyes Are Watching You
July 18th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Oh! Oh for – stop running away!"
Victor stomped his foot, trying to capture the quill he'd just dropped as it scooted around his chair. Unfortunately, all his efforts seemed to be doing was creating little breezes that propelled the pen even farther away from him. It was quite irritating, to say the least. "Get back here!" he snapped, attempting to snag the very tip of the feather with his toe.
The quill scuttled away as if carried by a few of Paul's cockroaches, slipping to the farthest possible point under the table he'd taken over for drawing. Grumbling, Victor got down on his hands and knees. "Bloody pen," he mumbled, ducking his head under the surface and squinting. Ah yes, there it was – next to that wayward clump of dust. He leaned down a little more and extended his arm. "You wouldn't think something that is incapable of rolling would be able to–"
Someone was staring at him.
Victor froze, fingers just short of his prize. Someone was – this was more than just staring. He could feel the eyes upon him, intently burning a hole through – through the back of his trousers. Someone was taking a good, long, admiring look – at his arse. Puzzled (and a little unnerved), he grabbed the pen and extracted himself from under the table. "Um, h-hello," he started, getting to his feet. "Can I – Dr. Bumby?"
Dr. Bumby didn't respond immediately, looking through the young man at some distant world only he could see. Then he blinked rapidly a few times, shaking his head as his gaze refocused on Victor. "What – oh. My apologies, Victor – I was thinking of something else," he said, giving the young man a bland smile. "Something wrong?"
"I – sir?"
"What were you doing under the table?" Dr. Bumby clarified.
Feeling quite peculiar, Victor held up the wayward quill. "I, ah, l-lost my pen. . . ." He fought the urge to grab his tie, glancing left and right. "W-was there something you wanted?"
Just for a second, Victor thought he saw a hungry gleam in the doctor's eyes. Then it was gone, leaving him to wonder if it had ever existed. "No," Dr. Bumby said with another shake of his head. "I just saw you in that unusual position and wanted to know if there was any trouble. Carry on."
With that, he departed. Victor watched him go, turning his quill over and over in his fingers. That was – I don't even know. The way he was looking at me, you'd swear – but he's the doctor! He couldn't have – would he? Maybe I imagined it. . .but it felt so real! I can't believe – would Dr. Bumby really have – But why? What am I missing? Trying to comprehend what had just happened, he started turning in circles, attempting to get a look at his rear.
He'd been doing that for about a minute without success when a voice suddenly said, "You know, you've always reminded me of a puppy dog, but I never expected to find you chasing your own tail."
"Alice!" Victor jerked his head up, a blush creeping over his cheeks. Well, at least she'd been the one to catch him in such a ridiculous position. Someone like Abigail or Ollie wouldn't have been as kind as to compare him to a puppy. And if Dr. Bumby had come back. . .oh, he wouldn't have relished trying to explain this to him.
Alice leaned against the side of the doorway, an amused smirk on her face. "Yes, that's my name. What are you doing?"
"Um – I was trying to see–" Wait a minute – she'd be able to tell him, wouldn't she? It would be a bit awkward, but it was better than making himself sick with dizziness. He turned around and bent over slightly. "Alice, is there anything on the seat of my trousers?"
He felt her eyes scan his posterior. "No, nothing that I can see. Why? Did the children try to trick you into sitting in something?" she asked, voice darkening.
Victor shook his head, straightening. "No, it's nothing to do with them." He waved a hand at his sketchbook as he turned. "I was drawing, and I happened to drop my quill, and when I went to fetch it, I – I found Dr. Bumby – staring at me."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Staring at your arse, you mean?"
Victor nodded, twisting his hands together. "It was – r-rather disconcerting," he murmured, looking away from her.
"I would imagine. . .but why would he be staring at your backside?"
"Don't ask me. He said he was just curious as to what I was doing, but. . . ." Victor grimaced, a weird, unpleasant crawly feeling going down his spine. "It felt like he was looking awfully hard at – the a-area in question."
"Well, you certainly don't have anything on your trousers to explain it," Alice said, shrugging. "You're sure you didn't imagine it?"
"I don't know. It felt very real."
Alice smirked. "Yes, but things that aren't real can sometimes feel realer than real things. Take it from someone who knows." She suddenly frowned at a point past Victor. "Not the time to engage me in debate about what constitutes 'real,' Cat."
Victor couldn't help a smile. "He does so love complicating the issue, doesn't he?"
"Always. He lives for it." Alice shook her head. "But I suppose my talking to something invisible to everyone else does prove my point. What reason would Dr. Bumby have for staring at your rear? Nothing against said rear, mind, but really now."
Victor frowned, interlacing his fingers in front of him. Alice made a good argument. And he didn't really want to believe Dr. Bumby had any sort of interest in his rear end. But. . . . "It's just – afterward, having to talk to him. . .I felt so – t-trapped, all of a sudden. And there was something about the look on his face. . . . He's done other odd things as well," he added, feeling an almost irrational need to give more evidence for his position. "Sometimes, after he wakes me from a session, I'll find him – leaning over me. Watching me rather intently."
"Oh, he does that to me too," Alice said carelessly, pushing a stray lock of hair out of her face. "Not all the time, but if a session's been particularly trying. . . . I'll agree that it's not a nice thing to open your eyes to, though. He's got a face like a melted wax doll, doesn't he?"
Victor hummed in agreement. "I've always been more put off by the stare," he said, unclasping his hands. "The way he looks at people sometimes as if he owns them. I've seen something like it on my mother when she interacted with the servants, and I didn't like it any more then than I do now." He rubbed his face. "I understand he owns the house, and that we're his responsibility as his patients, but – I don't know. His behavior can be–"
"Creepy?" Alice filled in, and sighed. "Yes, I know. He can be arrogant, and pushy, and a bit weird at times. I can't say I like him very much, even if he does give me a wage and a roof over my head. But we have to remember – for all his faults, he is trying to help. He's said outright his goal is to make people like me and the children useful members of society again."
"By making you forget things?"
"Painful things. Things that are holding us back. His philosophy is that memories of all sorts have a useful life. Once their time is past, you need to push them out of your mind so they don't drag you down." She shrugged. "You've had enough sadness in your life, I'd wager – mostly thanks to those wonderful parents of yours," she added with a roll of her eyes. "Wouldn't you prefer to remember just the happy times?"
Victor considered that for a long moment. Forgetting the afternoon spent stranded in that field, the morning Scraps had gotten torn to pieces before his eyes, a certain dark night in front of the bathroom mirror. . .it did have a certain appeal. But then piano music echoed through his head, and he remembered being handed a stem of winter jasmine and watching butterflies fill the night sky. Bittersweet memories, but – he'd rather cut off his hand (a possibility that sent his skin crawling) than give them up. "Even my happiest memories still have some sadness attached," he said quietly. "Isn't it the same with you?"
Alice chewed her lower lip. "I suppose," she admitted reluctantly, then sighed. "But honestly, after everything I've been through – if I have to sacrifice a few of the only-slightly-painful memories to have just the painless ones, that's all right by me."
Victor fussed with his tie knot. "It doesn't sound healthy to me," he muttered. "Giving up so much of your life and mind."
Alice's eyebrows lowered. "I don't think having years of nightmares thanks to hearing the screams of your family trapped inside your burning house is healthy either," she said coldly. "Or dealing with horrific hallucinations that can pop up at any moment and rip you away from the real world."
Victor winced and held up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean – you're entitled to deal with your pain however you wish," he said. "It's your head. I shouldn't say anything about it."
"Exactly," Alice agreed, poking him in the ribs. "Lest you forget, your 'trauma' involves a loving woman wanting to marry you despite her being dead, and you helping her remove her killer from this world and sending her off either to Heaven or to a carefree life as a flock – my apologies, rabble – of butterflies."
Victor snorted. "You could have said flock."
"Would you not have corrected me?"
"I think it actually is an accepted term for a group of butterflies. I just prefer 'rabble' because it's more unique. And easier to remember than 'kaleidoscope.'"
"'Kaleidoscope' provides the better image," Alice shot back with a smile. "I think Emily would prefer that."
"Well, if you insist. . . ." Victor's smile dropped. "But I understand what you mean. What happened to me is something I wouldn't mind remembering for the rest of my days." He rolled his eyes. "In fact, it was most traumatic to the people who weren't even there when it happened."
"So I've gathered," Alice said, frowning. "Although, considering that. . .Victor, why didn't you ever just lie? I know you said before that you found it an affront to Emily's memory, but – is she really worth being forced to live in Whitechapel? I never had a choice about the matter, but you did. Wouldn't it have been easier to recant what you said before coming here?"
"Maybe," Victor admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. "But – it just feels so wrong to me. And I was so angry about Pastor Galswells calling me damned and all the other villagers shunning me that I dug my heels in out of spite. Besides, I'm not very good at fibbing."
"You convinced Emily you were going to see your parents that one time," Alice pointed out.
"That's because I thought I was," Victor explained. "The only part I lied to her about was the reason I thought we should see them – I was hoping to get their help in explaining to her my situation and why we couldn't be married." He grimaced. "Which was an awful plan, now that I think about it. If Mother reacted this badly to just hearing about me being accidentally wed to a corpse, I can only imagine what she'd done if she'd actually met my bride."
"I can't, and I'm glad I can't," Alice said, shaking her head. "But you could always lie now. Easier to tell a fib in a letter, I'm sure."
"Perhaps, but the first thing they'd do is write to Dr. Bumby–"
"And they'd never take your word over his," Alice finished, squinching up her eyes and nodding. "I didn't think of that."
"Exactly. And after all the sessions we've had together, I'm certain Dr. Bumby would be able to tell the difference between a false confession and a real one." Victor sighed. "No – the time to pretend has long past, I think. I've been stubborn about it this long – I can wait until they give in."
"Well, I can't say I'm upset over the chance to enjoy your company for a while longer," Alice said, rocking back and forth on her heels. "And I suppose it is admirable that you're willing to stick so closely to your convictions."
"Thank you." Victor watched her for a moment, wondering if he should put voice to the question that had been bothering him for a couple of weeks now. Oh, just do it, he told himself. It can't be any harder than going after Lord Barkis with a barbeque fork. "Alice – why do you go along so easily with me talking about the Land of the Dead? I thought you more or less agreed with everyone else that it was little more than a hallucination." Unwillingly, hope rose up in his heart. Was it at all possible that she'd changed her mind? That, finally, he'd have someone around who believed him?
"Well, yes, I do," Alice started, dashing his hopes to the ground. Then she smiled. "But it's the sort of hallucination I wish I was saddled with. I'd rather be dancing with the undead than seeing the Jabberwock's shadow lurking around corners. Besides, it's so much fun I like playing along. It's just the sort of afterlife I'd like to go to. You could say I'm with Dr. Wilson – you may be a bit mad, but it's the kind of madness everyone should just learn to ignore."
"I see." It wasn't quite the answer he'd hoped for, but he'd take it all the same. Even so, he couldn't resist poking her arm. "Mark my words, Alice – one day, I'm going to find proof that it all happened. Proof not even my parents will be able to reject."
"I look forward to that day." Alice's expression suddenly turned serious. "And if you do – will you find a way to bring me Downstairs? I want to see my family again. Just one more time."
Victor nodded, putting his hand on her shoulder. "I promise."
Alice smiled up at him. "Thank you." Then her expression morphed back into her usual smirk. "You put up with way too much from me. 'Of course it's not true – but can you do me this favor if it is?'"
Victor chuckled, slipping his arm around her. "It's fine. It's what friends do for each other, isn't it?"
"I don't have much experience with friends, so I really couldn't say."
"Yes, well, neither do I. But – I think I know enough now to call you my best friend."
Alice stared up at him. "Best friend? Oh, Victor, you could do so much better than a madwoman."
"Could I? In case you haven't noticed, Alice, no one tolerates me the way you do."
"That's true," Alice agreed. "I almost forgot you're a madman yourself." She pressed her head against his shoulder. "I guess we'll just have to be mad together."
"Indeed," Victor agreed. His eyes strayed over to his sketchbook. "Would you like to see what I've been drawing?"
"Do I ever not want to see?" Alice pulled away and started toward the table, then stopped and looked back. "Oh, and Victor?"
"If you do catch Dr. Bumby apparently looking at you – the wrong way, let's say – again, I promise not to see anything should you decide to punch him in the nose."
Victor just caught himself from rubbing his arse. "Thanks," he whispered, then tried to smile. "Though, really, I'm sure I just imagined it. Nothing to worry about."
You're bad at fibbing, hmm? an internal voice scolded.
Oh hush, he shot back. Besides, it's almost the truth. I still can't think of any reason why he'd want to look. I probably was overreacting. It's not something I want to give another thought to either way.
"Even so." Alice leaned over the book. "Now, what have you been up to in the world of art?"
Victor joined her, happy to turn the conversation to other things. "I was trying to draw one of Mother's favorite vases from memory. . . ."