Chapter 18: You Are My Sunshine
August 13th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
Victor's eyes fluttered opened, blinking a few times as his mind readjusted to proper consciousness. He sighed softly. Yet another lovely session of Dr. Bumby telling him he had to forget Emily, that the Land of the Dead was a hallucination, that he was mad and had to be cured, and him replying no, that wasn't right, leave me alone. At least this time he hadn't woken up with a headache. I must be getting used to it.
He turned his head to find Dr. Bumby scowling at him. "Your mother told me that you were usually a most obedient child," the doctor said, voice cold. "I'm starting to wonder who she was talking about."
Victor groaned and sat up. "Dr. Bumby, I'm sorry to be such a bother, I really am, but I don't want to forget her. I've told you before, I'm not going to go around and declare to the whole world I've seen the afterlife. I'd never say another word on the subject if everyone would just stop telling me it didn't happen."
"You say that, and then I catch you telling stories to the children about Emily, Elder Gutknecht, and that ridiculously-named Bonejangles character," Dr. Bumby replied testily. "They're starting to draw as many pictures of your Land of the Dead as they have of Alice's Wonderland."
"Well, it's not like they believe me," Victor pointed out. "Besides, they like hearing the stories. If I can make their lives a little brighter by telling them about Below–" And letting them make fun of me afterward "– then I'm going to do so. I don't think they're telling anyone else, if that's what you're worried about." Not that it would make much difference to my reputation around here, honestly, he added to himself. Being a delusional death-lover is probably better than being a "swell."
Dr. Bumby ignored him, instead staring out the window with a broody expression. "Can make them happy, but can't be bothered to make me happy," he muttered, before directing another sharp look Victor's way. "Your parents are paying me a good sum of money to cure you, Master Van Dort. They want to see you well. I want to see you well."
"I feel I'm already well, sir. Please, why is it so horrible that I want to keep a poor murdered girl's memory alive?"
"Because what you're doing is indulging in a psychosis! The Land of the Dead does not exist, Victor! All you're doing is making life harder for yourself, and for me." Dr. Bumby got up from his chair and walked over to his desk. "My whole work is based around eliminating the painful and unproductive memories of my clients. Your memories of this 'Emily' are extremely unproductive. Their useful life is over – if they ever had one. You are simply delaying your return to proper society for no good reason!" he snapped, slamming his hand on his desk for punctuation.
Victor bit his lip, struggling for something to say. This argument was an old and familiar one by now. The problem was, he couldn't think up any new defenses for his position. "Dr. Bumby–"
"Your whole trouble is your refusal to go deep," Dr. Bumby continued, turning around and glaring at him. "I've never had so much trouble hypnotizing anyone else. Even Alice goes deeper than you, and she's never been the most cooperative of patients." He stalked to the couch and loomed over Victor, eyes hard. "You have got to stop fighting me."
Victor leaned back, intimidated. The glare Dr. Bumby was giving him – it was like he had personally offended the doctor by only going into a light trance. Then again, maybe he had. Dr. Bumby's reputation was built on being a good hypnotist, after all. "P-perhaps that's as far as I can go?" he suggested, gripping the side of the couch for balance.
"Don't give me that. Everyone can go deep. And you – dreamy, artistic, quiet – you should have dropped in moments." Dr. Bumby straightened up. "No, you're struggling against it. Fighting to protect memories you shouldn't even have. That's a sign of a very sick mind, Victor."
A flash of terror shot through Victor. Was Dr. Bumby about to suggest he be committed? He did not want to go to an asylum! "Dr. Bumby, p-please," he pleaded, clasping his hands. "I don't mean to upset you, I really don't. But forgetting Emily and the Land of the Dead goes against everything I believe is right. I promised her I'd remember."
Dr. Bumby frowned, peering at him over the tops of his glasses. "A promise to a woman who didn't exist isn't much of a promise, Master Van Dort."
"I intend to honor it nonetheless. Wouldn't you want to remember if you'd been in my place?"
Dr. Bumby sighed. "I know how to let the past go, Victor. I know how to regulate my mind. If only I could teach you the same." He shook his head, returning to his desk. "You're free to go."
Victor sighed as well and stood up. "Thank you. Good day, Dr. Bumby," he said, more for politeness's sake than out of genuine good feelings. Then he turned and slunk out of the office.
Once he was safely back in the hall, he let his fists clench. Four months. Four months and they still hadn't given up! What would it take to get these people to just leave him be?! Any guilt he still felt over disappointing his parents and psychiatrist was being smothered by his anger over still being stuck in Whitechapel. Why was it so terrible that he dared want to honor Emily's memory? Who was he hurting? Nobody outside of his village seemed to give tuppence about it, apart from relishing the opportunity to bully him with ugly names. And he'd gotten that for so long that it was easy to ignore. You just had to come to our door ranting about devil worship, didn't you Pastor Galswells? he thought as he stalked his way downstairs. Perhaps if you'd kept your wits about you, my mother would have actually listened to me for once in her life!
He entered the front foyer and found Elsie, Ollie, and a couple of other children playing with the dollhouse, along with Alice sweeping some dust out the front door. She looked up as he threw himself into a chair. "So, how bad was the argument this time?" she asked, leaning on her broom.
Victor huffed. "It was mostly the typical complaints – my memories are unproductive, the Land of the Dead never existed, Emily was a hallucination. . .you know how it all goes. Though this time he also said my trouble was that I'm not going deep."
"When he hypnotizes me," Victor explained. "I only ever go into a light trance. He wants me to go deeper."
"Hmmmm," Alice said, tilting her head. "So you can have terrible visions of your family dying and your childhood dreamland being twisted and broken, like me?"
Victor couldn't help smiling. Alice's brand of sarcasm was just the tonic he needed after a hour with Bumby. "I suppose so. It works so well for you, after all." More seriously, he added, "I'm sorry your sessions still aren't going well."
"Oh, they've never gone well," Alice said philosophically. "My mind prefers tormenting me to listening to Dr. Bumby. Sometimes it'll feel like they're working, and things will get fuzzy–" She threw out a hand. "– and then, chaos."
"You two must just be too old," Elsie said, looking up from the dollhouse. "Too old and too broken. Works on me fine. I like the sessions."
"Bully for you," Alice replied, resuming her sweeping.
"You just don't wanna admit you killed your family," Ollie said with a smirk.
Alice went stiff for a moment, then glared at the boy. Victor joined her, feeling a fresh surge of annoyance. Why did some of the children delight in pushing Alice's buttons? "None of that," he scolded, since Alice seemed disinclined to speak. "What happened to the Liddells was a terrible accident. Nothing more."
"But it was her cat who set the house on fire!" Ollie argued, apparently in one of his combative moods. "Might as well have been her."
"That's not right. Whatever her cat did–"
"Dinah didn't do anything!"
Victor jumped, startled by the fury he heard in Alice's voice. The children seemed similarly shocked – one even hid behind the dollhouse. Alice snarled at all and sundry for a moment, then got a hold of herself, pressing a hand against her forehead. "I'm sorry," she apologized, looking at Victor. "It's just – everyone tells me that the fire started because Dinah knocked over a lamp in our library. But – I couldn't tell you why, but I know Dinah is innocent! There's something wrong with that story, but I can't figure out what!" Her knuckles went white around her broom handle. "This is why I want to forget! So I can stop obsessing over cats and lamps and watching my family burn! So I can stop seeing things on the street and having nightmares! So I can stop feeling like I want to scream every time anyone brings up my past!"
A wave of sympathy crashed over Victor. It always hurt to see her like this – looking so angry and yet so vulnerable. He wanted to take her in his arms and just hold her until she felt better. "Alice. . . ." he started, rising.
"I want to have problems like yours," she continued, blinking back tears. "I want memories of a happy afterlife, whether they're real or not. I want a corpse groom and butterflies in the moonlight. And I want to not go deep into trance and have visions of my friends dying and mysterious centaurs parading around like they own my Wonderland."
"I'd trade if I could," Victor told her, coming to stand by her side. "Believe me, I would."
"No you wouldn't, and I wouldn't blame you. You don't want to have problems like mine." Alice sighed, shoulders slumping. "I feel like I'm being torn in two. On one hand, I want to forget, so I can start my life over fresh. On the other. . .I want to know what happened that night. I want to know the truth."
"The truth is your stupid cat was clumsy and you just don't wanna admit it," Ollie said, having recovered his courage.
Alice shot him another glare. "My cat didn't do a damn thing. One day I'll prove that to you."
"And if kitty did?" the boy said with an evil smirk.
"Then it's still not her fault," Victor said before Alice could reply. "It's not like she had any way of k-knowing what her cat was going to do." Unlike I did, once. . . .
To his surprise, Alice frowned at him, as if she'd picked up on his thought. "You sound like you talk from personal experience," she commented. "Did Scraps do something wrong once, and you got blamed?"
Victor hesitated a moment, then shook his head. She'd get it out of him sooner or later – might as well make it sooner. "No, it's – it's got nothing to do with pets," he said reluctantly. "I was thinking of – Lord Barkis's death."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "What about it?"
"Did you lie? Did you kill him?" Ollie asked excitedly. The other children abandoned their play to listen in.
"Not directly, but. . . ." Victor sighed. "I knew that goblet was filled with poison. I could have saved him. I didn't." He looked at his feet, feeling the guilt pile up on him. "Because I felt he deserved to die."
"He did," Alice said promptly. "That monster could have just let Victoria go when he realized she didn't have any money. But instead he decided he was going to make her suffer because he'd neglected to do his research. And that's not even considering the fact he married her just to steal her dowry – and that he'd already murdered one girl for her gold and jewels."
"Yes, yes, I know all that," Victor told her, looking back up. "And I'm not sorry he's dead. It's just – was it really my decision to let him kill himself? If I knew, did I have any moral obligation to speak up?"
"You and everyone else in that church knew," Alice pointed out. "With the possible exception of Victoria, but if she had any brains in her head she surely figured out that the wine was no good for anyone's health when she saw it being used in your wedding to a corpse. Any of them could have said something too. If the blame falls on you, it falls on them equally." Her eyes softened. "Do you think he even would have listened to you? The man he'd just attempted to murder?"
"I – I guess not," Victor said, fiddling with his fingers. "I know the guilt's stupid. You're right in saying any of us could have spoken up. And I was far more concerned with protecting Victoria at the time. I don't think any of us were thinking clearly at that moment." He let out a weak chuckle. "Not to mention the bottle had a huge glowering skull on it. You think that would have been an obvious clue. . . ." He adjusted his tie. "But still. . .I wonder what it says about me that I would let someone die."
"Well – have you ever wanted to kill someone? Or allow someone to kill themselves?" Alice asked, stepping back with arms crossed. "Have you ever felt that way about any other person you've come across?"
Victor thought. "No," he said with a little shake of his head. "I've never gotten quite so angry at anyone before or since. Not even Bumby when he annoys me comes close."
"And why did you want him to die? Because he'd tried to kill you?"
"No!" Victor said automatically, then bit his lip as Alice gave him a flat look. "All right, maybe that played a tiny part. . .but the main reason I wanted him to drink that poison was because of all the hurt he'd caused others. I wanted him to die so he'd stop spreading his evil throughout the world. I wanted him to die so no one would have to suffer like Emily or Victoria ever again."
Alice smiled. "Then I don't think you have any reason to worry," she told him, laying a hand on his arm. "You're not bloodthirsty, Victor. You just have a very strong sense of justice."
"And she'd know, being Miss Bloodthirsty," Ollie said, although his expression suggested that he was in fact disappointed Victor wasn't.
Alice scowled at him. "You know, your constant hurtful comments don't actually make you part of the conversation."
The boy just shrugged and went back to playing. Victor rolled his eyes, then put his hand over Alice's. "Thank you," he told her. "I think I needed to hear that from someone else. And for what it's worth, I believe you about Dinah. I hope you find out what really happened, so you can put it all to rest."
"Thank you," Alice said, just a hint of her previous smile pulling at her lips. "I'd say 'and I hope you can convince Dr. Bumby you're not mad,' but I doubt that's going to happen."
"Me either," Victor confessed with a groan. "It's been just over four months. You'd think that long with no change would have convinced him."
"He likes a challenge," Alice said, shrugging. "Why do you think he's put up with me for so long?" She stepped away and leaned her broom up against the wall. "Granted, I never expected you to still be with us four months later," she continued, leaning next to it. "You seemed so fragile when you first came here. I thought Bumby would break you for sure."
"I'm very glad he hasn't," Victor said, shaking his head. "My parents didn't expect me to last this long either. Their last letter was almost entirely things like, 'How could you still be clinging to such delusions?' and 'Why won't you work with your doctor?'" He rubbed his face, the frustration building up again in his chest. "I've given into them on practically everything else. I've always tried to be the good, obedient son they wanted. Why can't they let me have this? Why can't they see how important it is to me?"
"Because they're only concerned with what's important to them," Alice said bluntly. "They proved that to me with the letter about the penny dreadfuls." She put her hand back on his arm, pulling it away from his face. "But I think it's good that you're sticking to your principles. Don't give them an inch."
"I have no intention to," Victor told her, smirking. "Even if I have to spend a year here, I'm not giving up." Although that thought made him shiver internally. An entire year at Houndsditch, living in the East End, in a maze of cobblestones and smog and terrifying people. . .even the most battle-hardened warrior would get a chill, he was sure. Please, don't let it come to that!
"Let's hope you don't have to," Alice said, echoing his thought. "Let's hope that both of us can get out of here before Christmas this year." She paused. "And while we're hoping, let's hope unicorns appear and solve all our problems."
Victor laughed. "Has anyone ever told you you're quite funny?"
"Someone did just now," Alice grinned, patting his arm. "I'm glad you find my smart remarks amusing. Not that I would stop making them if you didn't."
"I wouldn't want you to."
"Glad we're in agreement then." Alice slid her hand up to his shoulder, frowning. "And you are tense. Dr. Bumby didn't try that whole 'darkness is a good thing and you should get used to it' routine on you again, did he?"
"Oh, no," Victor assured her, resisting the urge to shudder. Even months later, the memory of that horrific session still haunted him. "He's occasionally made suggestions to that effect, but n-nothing like he tried that one time. The typical session is either trying to make me forget Emily, or eliminating my nervous habits."
Alice glanced at his hands, folding and unfolding themselves. "Considering how fidgety you still are, I don't think that's worked any either."
Victor shrugged. "I think I might play with my tie a little less. . . ."
Alice smirked at him. "Oh, I wasn't complaining. I like you fidgety."
"You're the first person on Earth to say that. Even my parents don't like me fidgety."
"Your parents don't like anything about you, or anyone else," Alice declared. "They should move to the bottom of the ocean. At least there your father might get along with the fish."
Victor chuckled. "I doubt it – he kills them and packs them in cans for a living. They'd swarm him and try to take their revenge."
"I don't think the average fish would be much good at that."
"I don't think so either. Father should be very grateful he doesn't have to deal with your Snarks." Victor turned thoughtful. "I wonder if he'd try to can them if he could."
"He'd be welcome to them," Alice said, bitterness creeping into her voice. "I'd hunt them down and bring him the carcasses myself. Though I doubt they'd taste very good. Particularly the Lava Snarks."
"That probably wouldn't stop Father, so long as they were fresh and cheap." Victor laughed again. "How do we get into such odd conversations?"
"Well, I'm not all there in the head. I don't know your excuse." Alice gave his shoulder a light squeeze. "But I have to say, I like them."
"I like them too," Victor said, putting his hand over hers. "You always make me feel better about being here. Thank you."
"Thank you for being the only decent company this city has to offer," Alice replied, smiling.
"Hey, what about us?" one of the children playing with the dollhouse protested.
"You're not old enough to be decent company yet."
"That's not what Dr. Bumby says."
"Well, Dr. Bumby has his opinion, and I have mine. Besides, you lot make fun of me at every opportunity. Or say things that you know will upset me," Alice added, frowning significantly at Ollie.
"So you'd rather talk to the necrophiliac?" Ollie replied, smirking at Victor.
Victor shook his head, eyes rolling heavenward. "Ollie, stop it," Alice scolded. "You only tease him so much because you like to show off that you know a long, complicated word."
"I also know 'pyromaniac.'"
"I am going to stuff you into that dollhouse if you don't be quiet."
"Ooooh, could you?" Elsie said, clapping her hands. "I'd help! He broke my dolly the other day."
Alice grinned at the suddenly-frightened boy. "Two against one. I'd learn how to keep your mouth shut."
Ollie, now tight-lipped, nodded and quickly went back to his play. Victor repressed a snigger. "You're terrible," he mock-scolded.
"Yes, but so are they, so it all works out," Alice replied. "Besides, I saw you trying not to smile. You like it when we're terrible to each other."
"Perhaps a little," Victor confessed. He stretched, glad to feel the tension leaving his muscles. "I think I may go and draw for a while. I'm feeling much better now."
"Glad to hear it," Alice said. "And really, don't let Bumby upset you. So you don't do what he wants you to do. Perhaps some failure will help temper that ego of his."
"Maybe, but I doubt it." He gave her a little nod. "I'll see you at tea?"
"Unless the dust sneaks back in, yes," Alice joked with a grin.
Something about the way her eyes sparkled as she said that caught Victor's attention. He found himself staring at her, taking in her face. He'd seen her daily for four months now, but for some reason, it felt like he'd never really looked at her before. Her eyes were brilliant – bright green fire (though he'd never use that metaphor around her). Her skin was a sickly white, but smooth and clear. Her dark hair was tousled and ragged, but all that did was make him want to run his fingers through it, combing it for her with his hands. He wondered how it would feel – soft? Rough? No, Alice took good care of her hair, it was sure to be soft. . .soft as those pale pink lips of hers. The color of a tea rosebud, just about to bloom. And that smile of hers – like a ray of sunshine breaking through the ever-present city gloom. Victor smiled back as his heart melted into a warm runny mess. Oh, her smile was just so perfect. Almost like –
Like Victoria and Emily's smiles.
It was like having ice water dumped over his head. In a single blink, the moment was lost. Alice tilted her head, a confused look taking the place of the grin. "Something else you wanted?"
"No, no, j-just lost in thought," Victor said, spinning around before she could get a good look at his face. "Um – g-good luck with your chores." He bolted out of the foyer, toward the safety of his own room. That warmth – was he really –
No! he shouted at himself. No, you are not falling in love with her! If you fall in love with her, you might ruin the one friendship you've made here. Love and you don't mix – didn't you learn anything from what happened with Victoria and Emily? Perhaps you weren't in true love with either of them, but it still hurt like the dickens when you found out you didn't have a chance with either, didn't it? Do you want to feel that again?
Still, the lingering gooey sweetness in his chest was hard to ignore. He hadn't realized before now just how close to Alice he'd gotten. She really was the sunshine in his life. He could barely imagine a life without her – even as he knew he would have to leave her behind one day. Yes, there were always letters, and chances to visit, but – without her actually by his side, his days were going to be much gloomier. And when she smiled like that. . . .
He shook his head. This was silly. He simply couldn't fall in love with Alice. He wasn't going to stay here forever – even his notoriously-determined parents would eventually get tired of this farce of psychology. And besides, what hope did he have of his feelings being reciprocated? With Victoria, he'd had the advantage of a pre-arranged engagement; with Emily, the fact that she was willing to take anyone who proposed. They'd had to at least tolerate him at first, and there had been the promise of a lifetime (or afterlifetime) together to get to know each other properly. No such guarantees with Alice – she actively avoided getting close to people.
And you're the exception, a little voice inside him said. What does that mean?
That I've made a good friend, Victor replied firmly, sitting down and retrieving his sketchbook. Art would make a good distraction from this insanity. And I shouldn't hope for anything more. He let out a deep sigh before picking up his pen. I can't stand having my heart broken again.