In The Land of the Dead
Well. At least the house isn't on fire anymore.
Arthur Liddell blinked muzzily at the ceiling. Sure enough, the flames that had been licking at the plaster had vanished. His previously-immaculate bedroom was now painted with streaks of soot and smelt like the den of a dragon with an upset tummy, but it seemed the actual danger had passed. I guess the fire brigade finally made an appearance, he thought, lying dreamily on the floor. About time. I was rather tired of risking life and limb.
He took a deep breath, then hacked as the cold air roughed over his scorched lungs. Ugh. . .how much smoke had he inhaled? His limbs felt heavy and numb, as if he'd been lying for hours in ice water instead of racing through the burning remains of his house. I hope I haven't lost the use of my legs. . .what even happened? All I remember is this horrendous cracking noise, and then Lorina –
Arthur was on his feet in a moment, panic flooding new life through his leaden body. His wife – where was his wife? What had become of her? Was she hurt? And oh God, the girls! What had happened to them? He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing his dulled brain back into action. He and Lorina had said goodnight to the girls, lighting Alice's lamp and wishing them both sweet dreams. . .they'd retired to his bedroom and – engaged in a few pleasurable activities. . .he'd been awoken from a sound sleep by a strange tickle in his nose. . .and then –
Fire, fire, all around fire, leaping from floor to ceiling, chasing itself in circles around the hall. . .had Dante's sinners come to claim them?
Feet pounding down the sizzling carpet, hand locked in Lorina's so he didn't lose her – their daughters, they had to get their daughters, no escape until they were together –
Metal branding his palm as he tried to wrench open something that should have sprung free at a touch – "Lizzie! Lizzie, open the door!" "The key, Lizzie! Unlock the door! You'll burn!"
A dark silhouette in the corner of his eye as they ran back, to find the spare key they never thought they'd need – "Mum? Dad?"
Smoke choking him, squeezing his neck like a garrote, and his little girl, his miracle daughter, trying to follow them – "Mum! Father!"
His own blistered fingers waving her away – "Save yourself, Alice! Get out of the house!"
The thunk of the old oak as he slammed their bedroom door closed behind them, to keep out what flames they could – a little shriek of pain, like an eight-year-old burning her hand on a hot doorknob – his skin peeling in slow strips of agony as he made for his nightstand – and then, that crack, and his beloved Lorina screaming –
And then, darkness. Arthur pressed a hand to his chest, trembling. In the end, the smoke and the fire and the stress had all been too much for him, it seemed. A good forty-eight years without fainting, and now. . . . What kind of father am I to fail my family like that? The brigade probably had a good laugh at my weakness. . .though I'd like to have a word with them about just leaving me here to wake up on my own. Whatever happened to compassion? He scrubbed at his face. All right, Arthur. First things first. Find Lorina. She was – she was going back to her own bedroom, she said. . .gathering sheets to make a rope. . . . He turned around, toward the door that separated his chamber from hers –
Only to find half a heavy oak beam in his way.
And Lorina under it.
The horrified cry that leapt from his throat was more animal than human. He scrambled over his bed, hoping against hope that somehow – yes! The beam hadn't crushed her, not yet – instead, it formed an almost perfect right triangle over her, with her limp form tucked into – the near . . .
Why in God's name was his wife blue?
Arthur squinted. Her hair was the same color as before – a wild ginger halo circling her scalp. And her nightgown was still white speckled with yellow flowers – well, where it wasn't charred black. But her skin, rather than being its customary pale pink or even a brilliant burned red, was now a bright and surprisingly cheerful blue. In fact, Arthur was three-quarters sure it matched her eyes. Is she choking? he thought anxiously, pushing himself over the bed. But – that turns you dark blue. . .and certainly not all over your body! Is this some new kind of burn the medical professors haven't told me about? Or maybe it's fallen plaster. . .no, our ceiling is white! He shook his head viciously. Dash it all, Arthur – what's important here is that she might be hurt! He hurried to her side and reached out a hand, hoping to shake her awake.
His hand was blue too.
Arthur froze, staring at his own digits. What – what madness was this? How was he blue? He hadn't touched anything that color in his run through the hall, had he? He yanked up a sleeve. Blue all the way along his arm. Perhaps it was a consequence of breathing trouble, God knew he'd been struggling against the smoke from almost the moment he'd woken up. . .but he felt fine now! In fact. . .he felt a little too fine. . . .
A groan interrupted his thoughts before they could dwell on the subject. "Oooh. . .Arthur?"
"Lorina. . . ." Arthur dropped to his knees, temporarily shoving all the questions jostling for his attention to the back of his mind. "My darling, are you all right?"
"I – I think so. . .things don't hurt like they did. . . ." She twisted her head around and opened her eyes. "Not an experience I care to repeat anytime – oh!"
She sat up sharply, nearly breaking her crown on the beam. "Ah! Oh dear – Arthur, your face!"
"Blue, I'm guessing?" Arthur said, pulling her out from under the fire-scarred beam.
"Yes! Like you've been dipped in a bath of paint! Even your whiskers are a bit. . .you look like you've eaten another bowl of blueberries all by yourself." She touched his cheek. "What happened to you?"
"The same that happened to you, I think," Arthur said, directing her gaze to her own arm. "Though I'm not quite sure what that is yet."
Lorina gaped at the bright blue limb. (And yes, it did exactly match her eyes. If he'd been a betting man, he might have won himself a pound on that.) "What – how – I thought burns turned you red?" she blurted.
"I've been over it in my own head already – if it was a particularly massive burn we'd both be on our knees in agony," Arthur pointed out. "Though, having said that – shouldn't we be anyway? I mean–" He turned over his hand, staring at the charring on his palm. "That hurt like the dickens not five minutes ago. And you – darling, trust me, you're always beautiful to me, but those were some rather large blisters running rampant over your face before. . . ."
"Before this nearly took my head off entirely?" Lorina completed for him, tapping the beam. "You weren't looking much better, my dear. . .but you're right, none of this makes sense. That fire. . .Arthur, when this snapped right above me, I thought we were mere seconds from death!"
Thick, heavy clouds of gray, snaking their way into his throat and filling his chest with cement. . .he tried to hack it out, but there was always more to replace it. . .and it burned too, in its own way, eyes watering, mouth aflame with some chemical stew. . .he tried to stay upright, but it was just too hard, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe –
He wasn't breathing.
Arthur pressed his hand back against his chest. No motion – not while he was silent. He'd sucked in a breath before, but then he'd been trying. . .and he was having some real trouble feeling his pajamas. It was justified with his hand, that was burned to hell and back, but even the rest of him feel – leathery, he supposed. Not quite deadened of all feeling, but there was the definite sense something was missing. A couple of somethings, in fact. . .he slid two fingers against his neck and waited.
Nothing. His arteries and veins were still. A check of his wrist, just for completeness's sake, confirmed it. He slumped back onto his heels. "Oh no. . . ."
Arthur looked at his wife, his heart twisting in his chest. "Lorina. . .we were a few seconds from death. And now – now we're a few seconds after it."
"What?" Lorina groped at her own wrist. Her eyes went wide. "Oh, God. . .we're – we're d-dead?"
"It certainly seems that way. . . ." Arthur looked around the smoldering remains of his bedroom. "Bloody piss-poor afterlife, I have to say."
"Arthur, what – oh, why am I bothering, we're bloody dead. . . ." Lorina went to bury her face in her hands, then stopped and frowned at them. "We're dead. . .and blue. Have you ever heard of a corpse turning blue before?"
"The anatomy students never said. . .of course, I never cared to engage them in conversation about what happened in their little operating theater," Arthur admitted. "I don't think it's usual, though. Katie Winks certainly wasn't blue in her casket."
"No, she wasn't. . .but that's another thought," Lorina said, frown deepening. "Why are we in our house still? I thought – well, you've heard Mr. Dodgson's ruminations on the afterlife. Waking up still burnt and broken, in one's own house, can't be usual either."
"We don't know that," Arthur pointed out. "I've certainly never talked to anyone who's – died before. Maybe something like this happens to everyone. No idea why, of course, but it could very well be usual."
"Unusual sort of usual," Lorina murmured, absently brushing the wrinkles out of her skirt. "Certainly not what I expected when I–" She stopped and swallowed roughly. "This isn't how I wanted to go at all."
"No one wants to go this way," Arthur told her, wrapping an arm around her. "I'm sorry you had to suffer so. . .it wasn't lingering, was it? I just – the smoke was too much in the end, and everything went black."
"The last thing I remember is seeing this crashing down toward me," Lorina said, waving a hand at the beam. She felt her head. "How it didn't hit me, I don't know, but. . .I must have fainted. And after that, it was all over."
"Oh, Lorina. . . ." Arthur ran crispy fingers through his hair, sick again over his own weakness. "If only I could have spared you. If I'd just been able to find Lizzie's spare key, I–"
Funny – one would think that, being dead, his blood would lack the ability to run cold. Judging by her expression, his wife was having the same thought. "LIZZIE!"
Lorina burst from his arms, clambering over the bed like a Barbary macaque. "I can't believe – get her key, Arthur! I'll see if she's–" Unable to finish, she instead shook her head and bolted out the door.
Arthur vaulted over the mattress and tore open the drawer that had given him so much trouble before, emptying it brutally on the floor. A lifetime's worth of midnight detritus tumbled over the blackened carpet. Arthur rooted through the odds and ends, tossing them every which way, until finally he located his older daughter's spare room key. Clutching it tightly in his fist, he darted after his wife. Please, please tell me I have no reason to actually use this. . . .
Unfortunately, his prayers were for naught – Lorina was already at the opposite end of the hall, yanking on Lizzie's doorknob with all her might. "She's in there, Arthur!" she gasped, tears glittering in her eyes. (The dead could still cry? This day simply kept getting stranger.) "I can hear her! Oh, why did she lock herself in?"
Arthur had no reply for her, as that was precisely the question that had bothered him throughout the final moments of his life. The elder of his two daughters openly despised locked rooms – "a prison by another name," she'd once called them. Not even being interrupted in her dressing by a servant (they'd all gone for the night, hadn't they? Sharpe was visiting her sister, he knew that much, and the cook and maids were having an evening off somewhere. . . .) had stayed her desire to keep her door open to the world. Discovering it sealed tight in the midst of a terrific fire. . .had it been an attempt to save herself by blocking out the flames? If so, why hadn't she answered them when they'd tried to get in? She really should have been the first one out, with how light she sleeps. . .unless. . .is Alice in there too? Did Lizzie try to save her, and Alice lock the door to keep the fire away? No, wait, that can't be, I know I saw Alice in the hall . . . .
He shook his head hard. Wool-gathering won't get me the answers I seek. Another thing you think death would have cured me of. . . . Motioning for his wife to stand aside, he slipped the key into the lock and turned it. The door clicked open, creaking on fire-warped hinges. Arthur threw it wide and stepped inside.
The room beyond had been spared the hellish flames their chamber had suffered. The air still stank of that chemical smoke, of course, and the wainscoting would never be the same. But it was clear that the fire, for all its fury, hadn't quite been able to penetrate this part of the house.
But it had done its work regardless. Lizzie sat on her bed, arms wrapped around her legs, face pressed into her knees, shoulders shaking with soft sobs. Like her parents, every inch of exposed skin was blue. Arthur lowered his eyes, unable to bear the sight. His daughter, only so recently a young lady. . . .
"Lizzie!" Lorina pushed past him, dropping onto the bed by her daughter's side. "Oh, Lizzie. . .my poor, sweet girl. . . ."
Lizzie lifted her head, revealing a blue face streaked with tears. "M-Mama?" she whispered. "P-Papa?"
Arthur's own vision went watery. He scrubbed at his eyes. No time for tears, not from him. His wife and daughter needed him to be strong right now. "It's us, Lizzie," he said quietly, moving toward the bed. "I know we must look a bit strange–"
"You're dead too," Lizzie interrupted, voice choked by fresh sorrow. "He got you too. . . ."
"He?" Lorina frowned. "Lizzie, what are you – your neck!"
Arthur blinked taken aback. Neck? What about Lizzie's neck? Puzzled, he peered closer. Blue like the rest of her, and unburned. . . .
But not unmarred. Five long dark blue stripes stretched along either side of his daughter's throat. They looked like bruises – bruises in the shape of fingers. Arthur gaped for a moment, then looked his eldest up and down. The rest of her looked all right – her nightgown was a bit torn around the hem and collar, and badly rumpled, and he thought he could see another bruise on her leg. . .but no blisters, he realized with a jolt. No burning, no charring. . .Lorina and I are a mess, but she's almost picture-perfect! It's like. . .it's like she died before the fire started.
Lorina appeared to be thinking along the same lines, given the look on her face. She lightly brushed the ugly stripes. "Lizzie," she whispered, "what happened?"
Lizzie looked away, chest heaving in needless breath. "I – he – h-he – I told him I didn't want to!" she suddenly screamed, throwing her head back. "I told him I'm not your bloody toy, and he – he took what he w-wanted anyway. . . ."
For the second time that – night? Morning? He supposed it didn't matter – Arthur's dead blood went chill. The pain in his daughter's voice, the sobbing that had greeted them, the state of her nightclothes and those ugly, ugly bruises – it all pointed to one man.
Bumby was one of the horde of undergraduates Arthur and his colleagues corralled at Oxford University, having arrived a couple of years ago to study medicine and psychology. Arthur didn't know much about his family background beyond the man's father being an accountant who'd been shot when he'd argued with a young thief trying to take his wallet. Bumby claimed the incident had inspired him to seek out the poor, the wretched, and the broken, and to help them find a proper calling in their life. Privately, Arthur considered it more likely Bumby had decided the life of a doctor would get him fame, fortune, and the bodyguards to keep it. The young man wore arrogance like a badge of honor, treating the vast majority of his classmates (and even a handful of his teachers) with barely-concealed contempt. After all, he was the only one on the planet who understood how it all worked – shouldn't these pathetic idiots be grateful he was here to explain it to them? Arthur had tolerated the prat at school – for all his airs, Bumby did make good grades, and when in the presence of his social betters, he was a bastion of politeness. But there had been no occasion for them to interact outside the university's halls, a fact the dean was grateful for.
That is, until the day Bumby had caught him just outside his office and asked for an invitation to tea. It was well-known on campus that Arthur occasionally asked students (especially those with an interest in photography) around for a cup and a biscuit, and Bumby had pointed out that it was hardly fair that he'd never been invited. Arthur would have liked to have left it at "No, it isn't," and shut the door in the bounder's face, but unfortunately Bumby had been currying favor lately with an important donor to the school, and Arthur knew he'd never hear the end of it from his fellow faculty if their budgets abruptly shrank because of him. So Bumby had gotten his invitation and shown up with some other boys one fine, sunny day. And Arthur, selfishly, had begged his wife and daughter, preparing for a trip into London, to instead sit with him and make the experience more bearable. Lizzie had protested mightily – "Father, I've spent a week planning out what I want this new dress to look like! And besides, you know how I feel about those toadies" – but had bowed to her father's wishes in the end. And from the moment she walked in. . .well, even a blind, deaf, and dumb man could have guessed Bumby was smitten. The normally-loquacious student had spent the entire meal staring at Lizzie, mouth slightly open, not even touching his food. It was the first time since they'd met that Arthur had seen him let others speak without offering his own (of course superior) opinion on a subject. He'd been surprised, of course, but at the time, his main emotion had been gratefulness at the chance to have a conversation without his student being – to put it crudely – a pain in the arse. And, shamefully, he'd wondered if perhaps having a young lady to impress would inspire Bumby to improve himself. Lizzie had made it her business to hate every undergraduate entirely on principle, considering them nothing more than educated social climbers. And the boys, from freshmen to seniors, all knew it. "It's a fool's errand to court her," Terrence Caruthers had warned Bumby as they left.
"Then I am her fool," Bumby had replied, forcing Arthur to hide a snort. Yes, he'd gone to bed that night full of hope, secure in the knowledge that if he wanted even the slightest chance of capturing the elder Liddell girl's affections, Bumby would have to work very hard indeed.
If only he'd known then what he knew now. Bumby had indeed worked very hard. Unfortunately, what he'd worked very hard at was stalking Lizzie. Arthur had noticed his older daughter becoming more reserved and anxious in the days since meeting Bumby, but he'd attributed it to the knowledge that Lorina was starting to introduce her to young men outside the college, preparing her for real suitors and eventual marriage. Lizzie had always been a free spirit, and the idea of being tied down to one man and his house was probably a hard one for her to handle. He'd tried to be encouraging – "You'll be fine, Lizzie. Just give them all a fair chance." "When you meet the one you love, you'll know. It'll be just like me and your mother." "Don't be afraid! You're going to make a fine wife someday!" – but Lizzie had always either winced and looked away or changed the subject, and he'd eventually given it up as something Lorina was better suited to handle. He'd only been clued in to what was really going on the day Alice had marched into his study and demanded, with folded arms, "You have to expel Angus Bumby!"
"Oh? And why do I have to do that?" he'd replied, quite puzzled. As far as he knew, Alice's acquaintance with the undergraduate went as far as saying "hello" when she'd seen him in the foyer.
"Because he's creepy and mean!" Alice had replied, shaking her bunny to make her point. "He tried to follow Lizzie into the toilet the other day; she told me so! He won't leave her alone no matter what she does! Can't you make him go away?"
And that had led to Arthur knocking on Lizzie's door, and one of the most awkward conversations he'd ever had in his life. Lizzie was initially furious with her sister and refused to talk, but after some coaxing, she'd finally confessed that Bumby had been following her all over Oxford, and even into London. The man had apparently decided that, since he was madly in love with her, she had to feel the same and was just playing hard to get. He'd popped up almost everywhere she went, offering smarmy compliments and thoughts about how wonderful their lives together would be – including, as Alice had said, in the ladies' at Waterloo Station the day before. "I managed to call the attendant before he could try anything too untoward, but God – the way he looks at me, as if I'm his own personal – dolly, I suppose. . . ."
"Why didn't you say anything to me before?" Arthur had demanded, knee deep in indescribable horror.
Lizzie had turned her eyes down, fiddling with a ribbon on her skirt. "I – I wasn't sure if you would do anything about it," she'd admitted in a small voice. "You keep going on about how someone needs to 'civilize' him, and – I thought you'd volunteer me for the job."
Arthur's heart had ripped in two that very moment. How could his daughter not believe he'd protect her from such a scoundrel? How cruel and unfeeling he must have seemed with all his "encouraging" comments! He'd wrapped in her in his arms, promising her that he'd do everything in his power to keep the bastard from ever seeing her again.
The very next day, Bumby's donor friend had come to his office and said that Bumby deserved another invitation to tea, and could he be sure Elizabeth was in? Arthur had agreed to avoid a scene, but warned Lizzie to be out the moment he got home. Lizzie had gone off to visit a friend the day of the party, and Arthur had done his level best to keep Bumby in the same room as him at all times, even encouraging the man's propensity for monologuing. But it had all been for naught, sadly – Lizzie had appeared after the tea was over, begging him never to invite the scoundrel over again. And when he'd asked what had happened. . ."Oh Papa – I had to come back a little early, so I came round through the back garden – and there he was! He cornered me by the rose bushes and tried to get a hand up my skirt! A slap got me free, but. . .ugggh. Let that friend of his take all his money away – I can't go through that again!" Arthur had already decided that he was putting his foot down about any future "hints" regarding Bumby coming over his house, but that had almost made him decide to put Alice's proposal into action.
Of course, he couldn't actually expel Bumby – the scandal would have ruined all their reputations and cost him the position that allowed him to keep his family comfortable. But he'd done what he could beyond that extreme. A handful of undergraduates who shared some of his classes happily acquiesced to his plea that they form a police of sorts, keeping an eye on the bastard on-campus and making sure he didn't wander off between lectures. The maid Cassandra had been easy enough to enlist as Lizzie's chaperone – Lizzie had chafed slightly at this ("Even when I'm just going to visit a friend?"), but it had taken just one reminder of her experience in the back garden to get her to agree. Nan Sharpe also stood guard over the girls, keeping a wary eye out for rustling in the bushes and disposing of the presents Bumby occasionally left in the mailbox. And the one final time Bumby managed to wrangle himself an invitation to tea (helped this time by both his donor friend and the president of the college), Arthur had promptly given Lorina his wallet and had her treat both Lizzie and Alice to a couple days in London so they'd be well out of the way of the man. His fellow deans and teachers had joked about him being paranoid – "Boys will be boys, Arthur! He's a bit of a git, but he can't be that bad. Your daughter should appreciate having someone so devoted" – but Arthur didn't care. They hadn't seen the look in Lizzie's eyes when she'd pleaded for his help.
Bumby, naturally, had not liked the fact that he could no longer get his favorite girl alone. "She's a tease, that's what she is," Arthur had overheard him complaining to a classmate one day. "An absolutely rotten tease. All 'come hither' looks paired with cruel words. But I'll make her see sense. She can't deny me forever!" Arthur had somehow resisted the urge to march over and shake some sense into the boy. How could anyone, particularly someone studying the secrets of the human mind, be so blind as to how much a woman hated him? Lizzie wasn't the sort to tease at all – on the contrary, she was almost too open with her feelings. He'd had to ground her more than once for mouthing off to university staff. What was wrong with Bumby that he couldn't see that? Was he really that blinded by his own lusts?
Yes, yes he was, as he'd proved three days ago. Arthur had answered a knock at the door and found Bumby on his front step. "I'm here to see Elizabeth," he'd said without preamble. "Let me in."
"She's not here," Arthur had replied (which was fortunately true – she, Cassandra, Alice, and Mr. Dodgson had been taking a wander along the banks of the Isis). "And I wouldn't let you in even if she was. She's told me of the liberties you've taken with her, Master Bumby. What sort of man follows a woman into the bloody toilet?"
"A desperate man!" Bumby had cried. "A man wishing for his beloved to show him just one moment of favor! Dean Liddell, your daughter is driving me mad with her inability to just say what she feels! She loves me, I know she does! I've seen it in every little turn of her head, every sway of her hips! But she won't actually say the words! I don't see why she feels such a need to play hard to get – haven't I proven myself enough? I could give her everything she could possibly want in this life, once I obtain my degree! I will worship the ground she walks on if she'll just confess that she is mine, and has been since the moment we laid eyes on each other!" He'd held up clasped hands, eyes wide behind his glasses. "Please, sir! Just grant me an audience with her! Wouldn't you have felt the same if someone had tried to keep you from your wife?"
And that, right there, had been the last straw. "My courtship with Lorina was started with both of our consent, you bounder!" he'd shouted, backing Bumby off the step and onto the front path. "In fact, she approached me first! How dare you compare your – your sick obsession with our love! A man who truly cares about the object of his desire knows to respect her refusal! And he certainly doesn't try anything like you did in our back garden!"
"I was just–"
"Don't even dare, Angus! I thought you nothing more than a pompous boor before, but now–" He'd jabbed his finger into Bumby's chest, sending the notoriously-unsteady undergraduate sprawling on the dirt. "My daughter does not like you, Master Bumby. In fact, she loathes you more than she has ever loathed any person before. You have gained the enmity of this entire family through your rude and frankly frightening actions. I will not have you anywhere near my girls again. You are no longer welcome in this house, and if I have just one more report of you harassing my Lizzie, I don't care what your patron will do – you'll be spending the night in a jail cell!"
Bumby had gaped up at him briefly – then his eyes narrowed. "Well, that's where she gets it from, clearly," he'd grumbled, getting up and brushing the dirt off his suit. "And to think I once admired you as an educator, Dean Liddell. Good day."
And with that, he'd stalked off in a snit. Arthur had slammed the door after him and strode back to his study, aflame with righteous indignation. The nerve of that idiot. . .but at least he'd finally gotten to tell off the stuck-up prick. The women of the house had all applauded him when he'd told them about the incident over tea, and the next couple of days had been so free of trouble that he'd allowed himself to think he'd won.
Now it was clear that all he'd done was get Bumby angry enough to take what he wanted by force. He squeezed his eyes shut, losing the battle against the threatening tears. "Lizzie. . .my dear, dear girl. . .I'm so sorry. . . ."
"Oh, Papa, no," Lizzie pleaded, voice cracking. "It wasn't your fault. You did everything you could. If – if I'd only had the chance to scream when he–" She cut off, throat choked with another sob.
Lorina pulled her close, resting her head against her shoulder. "It's not your fault either, Lizzie. Who could have guessed he'd go this far?" She glanced at the burns brushing the floorboards. "He really tried to kill us all. . . ."
"Why wouldn't he?" Lizzie replied in cold tones. "He certainly didn't mind killing me when I tried to – f-fight him off. And he said right – right as–" She swallowed. "Well, he told me just how angry he was with Papa for being 'blind to love,' so. . .perhaps he thought it the perfect way to get revenge on all of us."
Arthur pressed his hand to his face. "Monster," he mumbled. "And I thought the worst he could be was arrogant and deluded. . . ." He forced himself to look at his daughter – eternally eighteen, eternally broken. "I wish I'd had him arrested the day he tried to get his hand up your dress."
"You didn't know he'd try this," Lorina said, motioning him into their embrace. Arthur gladly obeyed, though he wasn't sure how much he deserved such comfort. "None of us did."
"I didn't want to think he would," Lizzie muttered. "Especially after all the precautions Papa took." She wiped her eyes roughly. "Why couldn't he have just left you alive? He – he got what he w-wanted from me, why punish my parents and sis–"
She stopped dead, head jerking up in horror. "Oh God – Mama, where's Alice?!"
Lorina gasped, springing to her feet. "Alice! I was so worried about you that I – oh, she must be so frightened! And to – to die so young. . .Arthur, what do we tell her?"
"I don't know," Arthur confessed, scrubbing some charred hairs out of his beard. "She's a smart one, she might have already guessed. . .I'll check her room," he added, standing up. "Maybe she's hiding somewhere. That fire would have dampened even her indomitable spirit, I think." Unwillingly he pictured Alice holed up under her bed, clutching her bunny and crying as the flames slid closer and closer to her young flesh. . . Maybe it's for the best we haven't ended up in Heaven to meet God's grace. I'd have a few choice words for Him otherwise.
"I'll come with you," Lizzie said, sliding off the bed. "She'll probably want me anyway, and – ah–"
"I don't look that much like your father anymore?" Arthur deadpanned, glancing down at his burned hands.
"It's not that bad. . .but you know her imagination, Papa. I don't want her throwing cards at you thinking you're a Bandersnatch or a Jub-Jub bird or any of the others."
Arthur conceded the point with a nod. "You're – all right to see her, though?" he added, voice softening.
"It's better than staying in here," Lizzie replied, grimacing at the bed. "I don't – I – I want her as much as she wants me, I think."
Lorina put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We'll all go together. We're a family, even – even now."
Arthur nodded. "Exactly. Come on." Bracing himself with a very unnecessary breath, he led the way to Alice's door and threw it wide.
Again, it seemed the fire hadn't been able to quite penetrate this chamber – like Lizzie's room, the main damage was to the wainscoting on the sides of the door and some bubbled varnish on the floor. Unlike Lizzie's, however, there was no crying girl to greet them on the bed. Arthur got on his knees as Lorina went to check the closet. "Alice? Little bunny, are you there?"
Nothing but empty darkness greeted him beneath the old mattress. "She's not here either," Lorina said, emerging from the forest of clothes. "She was in the hall when we were – well – maybe she's somewhere else in the house?"
Lizzie, however, was staring at something else. "Mama? Papa? Why is her window open?"
Arthur's head jerked round. Alice's window was indeed open wide, letting in what Arthur supposed would be a cold breeze if he could properly feel anything. That made absolutely no sense for early November – Alice could be a curious and confusing little thing, but she wanted to be warm at night the same as anyone else. Had she been trying to let some imaginary friend of hers in? Or – or had she –
"Save yourself, Alice! Get out of the house!"
Arthur banged his head on the bed frame as he jerked himself out from under it and ran toward the open pane. The pain was vague and far away, however – more like he remembered how it should hurt instead of it actually hurting – and he had much more important things on his mind. Such as scanning the expanse of blue-tinted snow that was their back garden for any signs of a little figure whose last act had been to fling herself free of the flames consuming their house. . . .
Lorina joined him, holding a blistered knuckle to her mouth. "Arthur, you don't really think – she would have broken her leg or neck if she'd tried jumping!"
"Maybe not in soft new snow," Arthur replied, still searching for mysterious divots or slushy footprints. "And it's a better way out than trying to get down the stairs. You know she's a clever and plucky little girl. She'd never just sit and let herself roast!"
Lizzie squeezed between them and stared hard at the cold, blank landscape. "I don't see her," she finally said, sighing.
"Neither do I," Arthur confessed, slumping. Then he straightened again as a sudden new thought made itself clear. "Although. . .considering we're dead. . .doesn't that mean–?"
"Let's check the rest of the house before we get our hopes up," Lorina said, squeezing his arm. "It would be wonderful, but – well, you remember that time she won hide-and-seek by smushing herself into the kitchen sink cupboard."
"True," Arthur nodded. "And besides, I want to know just how Bumby managed to burn down this place. It's brick – it's supposed to be impervious to just about anything!"
"Well, we didn't die by Barbary macaque, at least," Lorina said, smiling weakly. She tugged him away from the window and took Lizzie's hand. "Come along you two. Even if we're dead, it's no reason to stand around doing nothing. Not with so many mysteries to solve."
"I wish we could hire Mr. Holmes to assist us," Lizzie said as they ventured back out into the hall. "Or even Dr. Watson."
"Detective stories in the afterlife? Too bad we can't write to Mr. Doyle and suggest it," Arthur joked.
The hall was a mess of charred wood, but still stable. The same couldn't be said of the stairs, which now sported so many holes one would be forgiven for thinking they'd been constructed of Swiss cheese. The three carefully wound their way to the ground floor on what was left, linked together in a human chain. "Oh!" Lorina cried as a bit of wood crunched into ash under her foot. "Oh my. . .I suppose we really should just be grateful there's any of it left standing!"
"I know," Arthur said, clinging to the railing with his free hand. "This all should have collapsed in by now, shouldn't it? I mean, if the upstairs is this bad. . . ."
Lizzie stared thoughtfully at the ashen ceiling. "It – it's like the house died with us," she commented. "If that makes any sense at all."
"We're dead, we're in burnt-out remains of our home, and we're all blue," Arthur replied, shaking his head. "I think sense is not a common feature of the afterlife." He sighed as his feet finally touched the relatively solid landing, and helped his wife and daughter over the final gap. "Right – where to?"
"The library," Lorina said. "Alice always did find your photographs fascinating, Art – is it just me, or is that awful smell worse down here?"
"Like rotted fruit," Lizzie said, waving a hand in front of her nose. "Only now it's been thrown to roast on a bonfire."
Arthur's stomach plunged straight to his feet. "Oh no. . . ." He pulled away from Lizzie and rushed through the crumbling remains of the nearest wall.
Beyond – he wouldn't have even known it was a library if it hadn't been in the right place. The pride and joy of his home was nothing more than a scorched husk. The books had been almost uniformly reduced to a fine ash, and the furniture lay in charred heaps. The stench of his developing chemicals hung thick and heavy in the air, and here and there he could see warped glass plates and lenses. He reached down and extracted from the black crusts half a photograph of a starfish. Years and years of work, all gone. . . .
"Arthur? Oh God," Lorina said behind him, leading Lizzie through the hole. "Darling, I'm so sorry. . . ."
"He lit my equipment," Arthur said dully, letting the starfish drop from his numb fingers. "One match is all it would have taken. A few moments burning in the pan, then spreading to the papers and books. . . ." He glanced up at a dark starburst against the far wall, embedded with chunks of dripping metal. "And once it hit the gas line. . . ."
"Arthur. . . ." Lorina wrapped him in a hug from behind. "You mustn't blame yourself, dear. You could not have seen this happening."
"Oh? You did," Arthur retorted, turning around. "'We'll all roast in our beds thanks to your father's unnatural devotion to printed paper.' Remember?"
Lorina winced. "I didn't mean anything by that. I never really thought. . .I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You were right – both of you," he said, looking at Lizzie. "I should have put all this in the basement – or better yet, outside. He couldn't have caused so much damage otherwise."
"I don't know about that, Papa," Lizzie said, poking around in the fireplace. "Look at this." She pulled out the shattered remains of an oil lamp. "This is Alice's nightlight. He must have stolen it after he – he–"
"Lizzie, your hands!" Lorina cried.
Lizzie looked down to find the glass cutting into her palms. "What does it matter anymore? It doesn't hurt. . .I'm missing pain, why am I missing pain?"
"I'm not – but I do miss your touch," Arthur admitted to Lorina. "I can tell you're there, but – that's about it."
Lorina poked a burn on her hand. "So we can see and hear and smell just fine, but feeling eludes us. . .you're right, Arthur, there's not much sense in this afterlife."
"Alice is going to feel right at home," Lizzie said, dropping the lamp. It tinkled against the floor. "It's not fair. You at least should be in Heaven. They don't want to let me because I'm – impure, fine, but it's no reason to leave you out."
"Any Heaven that blames you for what he did is not one I want to be in," Arthur growled. "We'll burn together again in Hell first."
"I wouldn't actually mind I think. Anything to get those – those c-clammy hands off me. . . ." Lizzie hugged herself tightly, sniffling. "I want a bath. Is it proper for the dead to have baths?"
"If the plumbing still works, I'll draw you one, proper or not," Lorina promised, before crossing the room to pull her into another tight embrace. "Lizzie, I – oh Lizzie. . .I'm so, so sorry. . . ."
"Please, Mama, don't say that," Lizzie said, hugging back. "Don't blame yourself. You either, Papa. It just makes me feel worse." She hiccuped. "I – I didn't really lead him on, did I? Make him think–"
"No, Elizabeth," Arthur interrupted, not about to let his daughter take on any blame. "Your feelings were quite clear, believe me. How he could keep up his quest in the face of your hate. . .then again, a man who's not afraid to follow a woman into the loo in public doesn't have much in the way of observational skills." He wrapped his arms around her back. "It wasn't your fault either, Lizzie. Don't ever believe it was your fault."
"It's hard," Lizzie whispered, burying her face in Lorina's chest. "Especially seeing what he did after he – had his way with me." A shiver wracked her body. "Why wasn't it enough to hurt me? Why did he have to drag my entire family into it?" She looked up, eyes glittering with tears. "Alice is only eight years old. . . ."
Arthur sighed deeply. This was wrong. All so very, very wrong. The afterlife he'd always heard about was a place free of regret and fear. This place – well, so far it had been anything but. Wrong indeed, Mr. Dodgson. Good thing you don't know what it's really like when you write to your child friends. "I don't know, Lizzie," he murmured. "But it's too late for whys now. What happened, happened, and now all we can do is pick up the pieces and – move on. So to speak." He pulled back. "Shall we search the rest of the house?"
It didn't take long at all (if time even existed for them now) to scour the remainder of their home. Thanks to the fuel so helpfully provided in the library, the downstairs was largely gutted, with walls stripped down to the frames and furniture crumbling to dust at a touch. Only the sitting room directly beneath Lizzie's had been spared the destruction, and even that bore heavy scorch marks on the walls, and half-melted window panes. There was absolutely nowhere a scared little girl could hide. And yet. . . . "No sign of her," Arthur murmured as they returned to the foot of the stairs. "Like she's melted away into thin air."
"Maybe she did get out," Lizzie said hopefully. "She's small, and she's fast – remember when she got herself stuck up that tree on one of our rowing trips?"
"Oh yes – I take my eyes off her for just a moment, and suddenly she's clinging to a branch a good two feet above my head!" Lorina giggled. "What was it she said? 'I had to prove to Dinah I could climb as good as she could?'"
"All I know is that it took me and Mr. Dodgson to get her down – and she didn't apologize until we took away her cake at tea," Arthur said with a nostalgic grin. "Such a bold and curious creature. . .I hope you're right, Lizzie. Hang me, I had a good life, but – she deserves more."
"We ought to check the garden first," Lorina said, sobering. "We haven't seen the cats either, and while I'd love for all of them to have escaped and be picked up by a neighbor, it's possible they all just ran outside."
"Fair enough," Arthur agreed, turning toward the door. "Suppose we should go see."
Lizzie caught his arm as he grabbed the handle. "Papa – we don't know what's out there."
"Looked like Oxford from Alice's window," Arthur pointed out.
"Yes, but. . . ." Lizzie stared hard at the door. "What if Judgment's out this end, waiting for us?"
"Then we'll have to face it eventually," Arthur told her, not unkindly. "We can't spend the rest of our – lives – rotting away in here."
Lizzie looked ready to argue that point. Lorina touched her shoulder. "You want to see your sister again, don't you?"
"Actually, no, but. . . ." Lizzie swallowed and stepped back. "Just – be careful, Papa. Just in case – he didn't make it out in time either."
"If he's out there, I'll crack his skull open," Arthur promised. Then, taking a deep, steadying breath out of habit, he flung open the door and marched out.
More blue-tinted snow greeted him, covering up the well-manicured lawn he doted on in summer. The path was clear though, as was the sign they'd put up to indicate whose property this was. Arthur squinted at it. Had he really chosen such a garish shade of orange for "THE LIDDELLS?" I guess it does make it stand out. . . . He turned his gaze toward the street. Same cobbles, same hoofprints in the snow, same people coming up the sidewalk. . .how peculiar it was that their afterlife should be so much like their living one –
And then he got a better look at the group passing by on their promenade. Not people so much as what had once been people. Closest to the fence was a man missing half his face, with one eye nothing but a gaping hole and teeth exposed in a gruesome grin. Next to him was a young lady whose hands were skeletal – she too sported an empty socket, though on the opposite side from her companion. Beside her was another woman, this one missing her left arm entirely – a sad stump of bone protruded from the torn shoulder of her dress, which had a rather chewed look. And bringing up the rear was an honest-to-God skeleton with no identifying features beyond a dapper red suit. Their skin – those who still had it – was as blue as Arthur's, and their clothes were both brilliantly colored and terribly ragged. Arthur gaped at them, horrified. Good God – I didn't actually think – is that truly our fate? To watch our skin slough away and our organs fall out until we're nothing but walking piles of bones?
The skeleton-hands woman glanced over from her conversation with the half-face man and spotted the stunned dean on the front porch. "Oh, look, everyone! New arrival!"
The group stopped and regarded Arthur and his house with interest. "Looks like it was destroyed by fire," the half-faced man said, before waving. "Hello! Terribly sorry about what's happened to you, but welcome!"
"Hello," Arthur managed. New arrival? "I'm – I'm Arthur Liddell."
"Arthur – Dean Liddell!" The one-armed lady pushed her way to the front of the group, eyes wide with shock. "Goodness me, what are you doing here so soon? You should have gone quietly in your sleep. . .do you remember me at all?" she added, putting her remaining hand to her mouth.
Arthur searched the worm-eaten face. She did look oddly familiar. . .but from where. . . .
It all came back to him in a flash. The young woman down the lane, who'd lived with her father and brother and was often accused of having the rosiest cheeks in the neighborhood. Lorina's occasional tea friend and Ned Ferarrs' would-be fiancee. The unfortunate victim of a terrible carriage accident that had left without her left arm and with a burning infection. The corpse who hadn't been blue in her casket – but was very much so down here. "Katherine Winks! I never – I s-suppose it's good to see you again."
"Relatively speaking, you mean?" Miss Winks replied, chuckling. "It's all right. I was in shock too when I first arrived. You get over it quicker than you think."
"Katie Winks?" Lorina joined Arthur in the doorway and gasped. "Good Lord! But we buried you four years – um. . . ." She smiled weakly as she struggled to switch conversational gears. "How – how are you, dear?"
"Much better – although even now I still try to pick things up with the wrong arm," Miss Winks added, patting her left shoulder. "But I make do."
"Miss Winks, where on earth are we?" Arthur asked, figuring someone who'd been dead four years would have to know. "This isn't Heaven or Hell, is it?"
Miss Winks shook her head and gave him a bright grin. "Welcome to the Land of the Dead."