Chapter 6: The Prodigal Parents Pop In
"Still no word from the Van Dorts?"
"Not a peep," Alice replied, handing over the mail. "I checked through it twice."
Dr. Wilson frowned, drumming his fingers on what had once been Dr. Bumby's desk. "I sent the accursed thing express. . .damn, I hope it hasn't gone missing. I worked hard on that letter."
"My bet's on 'hasn't even arrived yet,'" Alice said. "It's at least five days out from London, and everything Victor's told me suggests it's a lonely little village. They still have a town crier, for goodness's sake! Their post office is probably just a hole in the wall. Possibly literally."
"I admit, I didn't see one when I visited," Dr. Wilson allowed, rubbing his beard. "There really isn't much to it. Rings of rickety little houses, a few small shops in the square, and the Van Dort and Everglot mansions – God knows what they'll do with the latter now that the Everglots have abandoned it. Even the church is over the bridge. I think you could walk the outer wall of the place in just under a day. It's straight out of a fairy tale."
"Not a good one, to hear Victor speak of it," Alice said, smirking. "Dull as dishwater according to him."
"I agree most of it could use a bit of color – but I dare you to apply that epithet to Mrs. Van Dort," Dr. Wilson responded. "I wish I still had the letter she wrote me asking me to come and 'cure' Victor. How did it start? 'Dear Dr. Wilson – my name is Mrs. Eleanor Van Dort, of the Van Dort Fish cannery – don't worry, we don't actually stink of the wretched stuff.'"
Alice snorted. "Really?"
"It was along those lines, anyway. Followed immediately by a list of the various important people she claimed they'd entertained, or at least sold fish to. Damned if I remember them all – I didn't recognize most at the time."
"Yes, that sounds like her." Alice sighed. "Victor's condition was probably little more than a postscript."
"No, no, it made the body," Dr. Wilson assured her, waving a hand. "Along with her claiming that he was always a delicate child, and did I know he used to wet his combinations regularly?" He shook his head. "How the boy managed to survive having her for a mother. . .it's no wonder, honestly, that she threw me out in a huff once I declared him perfectly fit for normal society. She'd already decided there was something wrong with him, and she was going to have a 'professional' back her up and damn the consequences. A nasty case of narcissism coupled with the funds to indulge it." He drummed his fingers against the desk. "Which is why it worries me that we haven't heard back from her yet. This is just the kind of incident that would make her throw a fit."
Or disown Victor entirely, Alice thought, lips thinning. I've seen how they treat him. They never even came to visit on a good day. Why should they change their ways now? Likely they're already pretending they never had a son to avoid the scandal. "I'd give it another day or two," she said aloud, holding her hands behind her as she rocked on her heels. "Express or not, it's a long ride. . .and maybe the mailman's gotten lost trying to find the place."
"I specifically asked for someone who knew the area to prevent that possibility," Dr. Wilson replied. "Though you're right, I myself got a little turned around trying to find it before my ill-fated consultation. . .we'll give it a couple more days. No sense in working myself up about it just yet. Plenty here that needs my attention more." He shuffled through the correspondence. "While we're on the subject of Victor, how is he today?"
"Appetite getting healthier by the meal," Alice said proudly. "And we worked some on his memories this morning. . .didn't get much, but he remembers a toy dog he owned as a boy now."
"Ah. Mr. Bunny serve as assistant alienist in that meeting?" Dr. Wilson deadpanned, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses.
"He attends every one. Not like he has much better to do. He's too big for the dollhouse, and Elsie's confused him for the March Hare and won't let him attend her tea parties."
Dr. Wilson chuckled. "I'm a little surprised you aren't hauling him around with you now. You clung quite tightly to him in the asylum."
"Well, the poor fellow is wearing out," Alice retorted, folding her arms. "It's a temptation, but I don't want him to fall apart just when I need him most. Which reminds me – any luck locating Mr. Radcliffe?"
"Well, we have a letter from Officer Parker here. . . ." Dr. Wilson slit it open and skimmed the contents. "He's in Sussex right now – and nothing yet. He promises to let us know the moment he locates the man, though."
Alice huffed. "Slipperier than an eel. . .but perhaps it's for the best he's still lost. I'm on draft five of my letter to him, and I still can't resist the urge to call him names." She glanced sideways at Dr. Wilson. "I don't think greeting him with the salutation 'Dear Pig-Headed Layabout' will win me his friendship."
"Probably not," Dr. Wilson agreed. "If you'd like me to write it instead, don't hesitate to ask." He patted a drawer. "And I have the affidavit stating I consider you well enough to manage your own financial affairs safely tucked away here. He won't be able to argue with that."
"Thank you. I'll strive for something lacking profanity in attempt six." Alice brushed a bit of dust from her apron. "Now, which of the children am I sending in for three o'clock?"
"Ollie, if you don't mind."
"Oh, that'll be an interesting session."
"They always are. . . ." Dr. Wilson rubbed his face. "Would you believe that Dr. Bumby has absolutely nothing to do with his desire to steal underwear?"
". . .What?"
"I'm serious. I was reading through that journal of his again, and came across an entry detailing an attempt to squash the urge. Said it made him too hard to sell on the block, the bastard. . .Ollie himself still refuses to tell me what he wants with them."
Alice made a face. "Oh, for. . .he's all yours, doctor," she said, waving a hand dismissively as she made for the door. "Just let me know when we can take the locks off the wardrobes."
The rarest sound of all in the Home greeted her as she entered the hall – silence. Amazing just how quiet the place can be when the children are all outside, Alice mused as she headed for the stairs. I hope they're enjoying the slush from yesterday – and not tormenting June too badly with it. Suppose I could join in the fun, but my other dress is in the wash already, and I'm not keen on wandering around here in my underthings. Another thing for my to-do list: new clothes. . . . I guess I could sweep the floor, but do I really feel like more chores? Especially when soon enough we'll have at least one wet pair of mucky feet marching up and down the halls? She paused on the landing, running her fingers along the banister as tiny snails wound their slow way up the spokes. Perhaps the best thing to do is ask Victor if he's ready for another go at that blasted wall–
RAP RAP RAP RAP RAP RAP RAP RAP RAP
Oh. Or I could go see who that is, Alice though, shaking her head as she started down. Hopefully it's Tailor and not Dickenson – you'd think two slammed doors in a man's face would make him take a hint.
The rapping only got loud with every step she took, and graduated into full-on banging as she reached Victor's door. "All right, all right!" she called as she hurried toward the front entrance. "Give me a moment, will you? Whatever happened to patience?"
Their mystery guest apparently had no clue, as they kept up their imperious tempo without the slightest break. Alice took a moment to compose herself – Polite and sane, that's the ticket – then opened the door. "Now then, how can I–"
"WHERE IS THAT SON OF OURS?!"
Alice reeled backward as Nell Van Dort exploded into the front foyer, face dark and hair flying every which way from under her hat. "I can't believe this! In the papers too! I swear, we can't let him alone for five minutes without – you! Would you care to tell me what lies you've been spreading about our boy?" she snapped, rounding on Alice with murder in her eyes.
"What – I – lies?" Alice blurted, blinking as she attempted to keep up. "I beg your pardon–"
"You know what I'm taking about!" One tentacle – No, Alice, hand! She's not the Queen of Hearts, no matter how well an impression she's doing at the moment – was thrust into the fancy beaded handbag dangling at her side, and came out clutching a rather crumpled copy of the Illustrated. "'Liddell Hero Saves Children, Van Dort Heir From Disgusting Doctor!'" she read off the front. "'"I thought it important to get justice for the children," plucky patient says.' Balderdash!" She jabbed her fan at Alice's face – Alice jumped back to avoid losing an eye. "We know about you, Miss Liddell! The one from that dreadful fire! A woman burns up her entire family, and now they're calling her a hero?"
Alice's hackles rose. "If you'd bothered to read past the quote, you'd see that the actual perpetrator was the very man you entrusted with your son's care! I have proof!"
"Proof? Hah! You just want attention!" Mrs. Van Dort growled. "How much did you pay this 'Tailor' to print this drivel?"
"Not a half-penny," Alice snarled back, Cheshire hissing from behind her legs. "Do you even know what it says in that article?"
"Barry came in with it over breakfast one day last week," Mrs. Van Dort said, fanning herself rapidly as if she feared she'd be overcome with emotion otherwise. "Said we needed to come here right away because Victor was in trouble. I'll give him that he was right about that! This rag claims – well, you're the one responsible for it, you know! And you have the audacity to say Victor was smack dab in the middle of it all! As Dr. Bumby's 'personal assistant,' no less!"
Oh damn. . . . "You're rather behind the times," Alice groaned, pinching her nose. "And you were long gone before Dr. Wilson's letter even had a chance to be written, weren't you?"
"Dr. Wilson?" Alice started, then looked around Mrs. Van Dort to see the slight, puzzled figure of her husband just behind. "Harry Wilson?"
"That same crackpot who told us it was perfectly fine to let Victor believe nonsense like corpse brides and Lands of the Dead?" Mrs. Van Dort added, eyes slitted. "Why would he be writing to us?"
The fire in the grate twisted itself into a mockery of the woman's face, daring Alice to yank her tongue out by the root. "Well, in point of fact, he's taken over the Home now that Dr. Bumby has passed," Alice explained, rocking slightly in an attempt to keep her temper. "Which includes your son."
"What?! Oh no, this will not stand!" Mrs. Van Dort declared, slamming her fan shut. "I refuse to let that idiot take any more of our precious time and money! And I certainly will not let you try to make our son your neighbor in the madhouse!"
One stab with the Vorpal Blade in that bulging throat, and the witch would be silenced forever. . .but Alice didn't have her most loyal weapon, and Victor would probably be put out with her if he came in and found his mother so much long pork on the floor. She held up her hands, hoping to quiet the beast just long enough to fob her off on someone else. "Mrs. Van Dort, if you'll just let me–"
Oh, of course. . . . Alice turned to see Victor standing in the doorway, watching her and her guests with anxious eyes. "I – um h-heard shouting–" he started, wringing his hands. "If t-this is a bad time–"
"There you are!"
Mrs. Van Dort charged at Victor, Mr. Van Dort hobbling up in her wake. "Oh, Victor, you've really done it this time!" she shrieked as her son stumbled back a few frightened steps. "Not only have you not given up your mad little fantasy about corpse brides, you've gotten involved with a woman like that?" One pudgy finger shot out at Alice. "A clear lunatic that they only let out of bedlam because they despaired of ever curing her? How you constantly find new depths to sink to is beyond me!" She slapped his chest with her fan. "Nearly a year of treatment under the best psychiatrist in the business, and you somehow manage not to improve at all! In fact, you do just the opposite and make us all look like laughingstocks! And now your name is in this horrible tabloid, claiming – do you know how much we had to pay the crier not to go telling every soul in the village? How much money we've wasted on you in general? We try and we try to make you fit for society, and you throw it all back in our face!" The fan smacked him again, harder this time. "Well, no more! You are out of chances, young man! You will straighten up and make something of yourself, or it's out on the street with you! You're a disgrace, Victor, and I will not have it!"
Victor gaped at her, eyes wide. "And stop goggling like a dead fish!" Mrs. Van Dort added, using her favorite weapon for its intended purpose again. "You look like you're simple."
His jaw snapped shut obligingly. Mr. Van Dort touched his wife's arm, then leaned on his cane, directing a disappointed frown at his son. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Who are you?!"
Now it was the elder Van Dorts' turn to goggle like dead fish. Alice stepped forward with a heavy sigh. "Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, allow me to bring you up to speed," she said, folding her arms across her chest. "Every word of that article is true. Dr. Bumby really was committing such crimes with the children – and he was the mastermind behind the fire that destroyed my family. The only part prone to misinterpretation is Victor's role as 'personal assistant.'"
"Ha!" Mrs. Van Dort cried, getting her feet back under her. "So you admit to–"
"Trying to give your son a modicum of dignity in that 'rag,' as you put it," Alice cut her off. "A poor euphemism now, I know, but I thought it sounded better than 'slave.' You see, Dr. Bumby actually did just what you wanted, and more. He took away Emily's memory – and the rest of them into the bargain." She rubbed her nose as the fire giggled over her pains. "Victor is not Bumby's co-conspirator – he's his victim. And right now he doesn't recall much about himself – or his family." She turned to Victor with a tight smile. "Victor, I'd like to introduce you to your parents."
Victor stared at her, then at the slack-jawed pair before him. His brow furrowed. "W-William and Nell, right?" he asked timidly.
"Mother and Father," Mr. Van Dort replied, tone disbelieving. "Victor, you – it's us! You must know us!"
"We raised you!" Mrs. Van Dort agreed. Alice bit her tongue to avoid saying something unfortunate. "You can't forget who gave you life!"
Victor rubbed his temple, not meeting their eyes. "I – do forgive me, I don't. . .t-that did feel a bit familiar. . . ." he murmured.
"What, getting yelled at?" Alice asked, arching an eyebrow.
Victor nodded. Alice scowled at Mrs. Van Dort, who had the decency to look uncomfortable for a few moments. "I-I'm sorry," he mumbled. "It's just – hard. . . ."
And then, suddenly, he stiffened, staring off into the distance. Alice's breath caught in her throat. Oh no, oh no no no, not in front of them, please don't have an episode in front of them, I have no idea how I'll explain –
Fortunately, it seemed even Thirteen had the sense not to emerge in front of Nell the dragon. Instead, Victor's gaze shifted down to his parents again, a crease forming between his eyes. "You – you brought me here," he said quietly.
"Yes, of course," Mrs. Van Dort confirmed, though much of her fire had died. "Did you think you drove up here on your own?"
"You were sick, Victor. We had to," Mr. Van Dort put in, with an anxious glance at his wife. "It was for your own good."
"My own good. . . ." Victor's eyes narrowed. "You brought me here. . .and you told him he could do WHATEVER HE WANTED TO ME!"
Victor's lunge for his mother was quick, but Alice was quicker. She burst forward in a blaze of blue wings, tackling him around the middle as the Van Dorts beat a hasty retreat. "YOU BROUGHT ME HERE!" Victor roared, clawing at the air over her shoulder like a wild animal. "YOU LET HIM DO THIS TO ME!"
"We didn't – we told him whatever it takes to make you well!" Mrs. Van Dort protested in a shriek, holding up her fan as a shield as her husband cowered behind her.
"HE DIDN'T WANT ME WELL!" Victor screamed back. "HE WANTED ME A MINDLESS PUPPET! HE WANTED ME BROKEN DOWN TO NOTHING! HE WANTED ME BENT OVER HIS DAMN DESK–"
And with that, the explosion was over. The rage drained out of Victor's face, to be replaced by that haunted look Alice knew all too well by now. "No," he whimpered, slumping against her shoulder and screwing up his eyes. "No, I d-don't want to remember that. . . ."
Alice squeezed him as he struggled against the tears. "Shhh, it's all right, it's all right," she whispered. "I'm here. You're safe. Let's get you back to your room." She shot the stunned Van Dorts the coldest look she could manage. "Could you please take a seat and wait for the doctor?" she said, voice carved from Tundraful's ice. "I think you ought to hear what actually happened to your son in Bumby's 'care.'"
Well, here's something for the list of Most Peculiar Things I've Ever Seen – a quiet Nell Van Dort. And I'm not even in Wonderland. Alice glanced at the rusty nails sticking out of the wooden panels lining the walls. Mostly.
She leaned on the back of the armchair (which she still thought of as "Bumby's chair" – they really did need new furniture around here) and turned her attention back to the Van Dorts. They were perched on the fainting couch in Dr. Wilson's office, stock-still and completely dumbstruck by the psychiatrist's explanation of Victor's 'treatment' in Houndsditch. They reminded Alice of a statue she'd seen once at a party, sitting in the back garden of one of her father's fellow faculty members. She allowed her imagination to cast them in white marble, roses tangling around their legs, bird droppings splattered along Mr. Van Dort's sleeve and a nest in Mrs. Van Dort's hat. She bit back a mean smile. Rather an improvement over them as human beings.
Finally, the silence was broken with a loud swallow from Mrs. Van Dort. "You can't be serious," she said, though her voice was quite subdued. "That's not – Dr. Bumby wouldn't – fancy Victor."
"I'm afraid I am serious," Dr. Wilson replied, all professionalism. "It's all down here in black and white. I don't blame you for not realizing earlier, of course. He was very skilled at keeping his depravities hidden."
"But – but she says he wanted her sister!" Mrs. Van Dort huffed, pointing her fan at Alice before snapping it back open. "You can't have it both ways!"
"Lizzie's mentioned too in that book," Alice said, casting a hate-filled glare at the journal. "He more or less admits to – defiling her. Seems to me that you can."
"Well, obviously the man was badly confused–" Mr. Van Dort started.
"Don't you blame this on him liking both men and women," Alice cut him off, folding her arms. "He would have been just as horrible if Victor had been Victoria. Or if Lizzie had been Lionel, come to think of it. I'll admit I'm no authority – neither sex turned my head until I met Victor, and even then it took the better part of a year for said head to turn – but if most people go around leading perfectly normal lives liking just one or the other, I don't see how he couldn't have managed liking both. One could even argue that he had twice the options for happiness – and he squandered them because he was a bully and a slave to his own nether regions."
"Everyone knows men liking men is immoral," Mrs. Van Dort sniffed, nose in the air.
"Everyone also knows bloodletting relieves disorders of the brain," Alice shot back. "From personal experience, I can tell you that it just makes you feel weak and sick and more prone to seeing things that aren't there." She held up her hands, stalling the woman's further protests. "Dr. Bumby was an evil person who did evil things to many, many people, both men and women, boys and girls. Let's not give him any excuses, shall we?"
"It matters little now," Dr. Wilson added. "He's been dead for a week. We need to focus on helping those left behind."
Mrs. Van Dort scowled, beating the air with her fan. "I'm still not sure I believe it. Our Victor, actually – even forced I can't picture it! And I have it on good authority he tried to marry a dead woman!"
"And he really doesn't remember anything?" Mr. Van Dort put in.
Alice arched an eyebrow. "Didn't the fact that he addressed you by your first names give you a hint?"
"The amnesia is near-total," Dr. Wilson confirmed with a sigh. "We've recovered bits and pieces, but nothing of major significance yet."
Mr. Van Dort stared at his feet in a very Victor-like pose. "But—how do you not know who your own parents are?" he mumbled. "Didn't he see that we looked alike? Didn't he recognize his Mother's voice?"
"Well, he did say her screaming at him felt familiar," Alice noted, shooting a frown at Mrs. Van Dort.
"He needed discipline," Mrs. Van Dort replied, sending it right back. "We were just trying to ensure he grew up right."
"Yes, you did a bully job there," Alice muttered.
"Do you think we wanted this to happen?" Mrs. Van Dort demanded. The fan whipped toward the door. "That is our son out there!"
"The son you were ready to disown almost the minute you walked in the door."
Mrs. Van Dort fell silent briefly. "I didn't know then," she finally said, her tone abashed. "I thought he was just mucking around with the wrong sort."
"Nell simply has a bit of a temper," Mr. Van Dort said, patting her arm comfortingly. "Moments here and there, heh heh."
"Funny, they said much the same about me in the asylum." Alice rubbed circles into her forehead. "Look, I'm sorry if I'm being a bit harsh – I have no doubt you never intended Victor to be – hurt like he was here. But you sent him here regardless, and I think you could stand to be a little more contrite."
"We were just looking out for him!" Mrs. Van Dort insisted, slapping her knee with her fan. "Get him to stop obsessing over the past and impossible dead people! Be the gentleman he ought to be! That's all!"
"With all due respect, you always seemed like the ones obsessing to me," Alice said, voice hard. "Victor said time and time again he didn't mind keeping the whole incident to himself so long as he was allowed to remember in peace."
"And yet he told everyone he came across!"
"Which I believe included every other psychiatrist you hired to 'cure' him, the residents of the village where it happened, and me, who lived in the same house – and I didn't even hear it from him first. One of the children was eavesdropping and let it spill. He only filled in the details when we had a small fight about the reality of it."
"Hmph. You'd think someone in your condition not believing him would have finally convinced him he was hallucinating," Mrs. Van Dort muttered.
"Well, I didn't at first, but I thought it was a nice enough story. . .and then I happened to run into Victoria White one day on the streets." She gave the astonished Van Dorts a Cheshire grin. "She's not very fond of you at the moment."
"She. . .we thought her parents had just had their wits addled when they started going on about it," Mr. Van Dort confessed.
"She's willing to take an oath before the bailiff if she must," Dr. Wilson said. "I'm having a hard time digesting it myself, but with two eyewitness accounts. . . ."
"Obviously you're never going to believe it, so I won't try to convince you," Alice said as Mrs. Van Dort wrinkled her nose. "But even if it was just a fantasy acted out on a cold winter's night, what was the harm? All he wanted was to make sure someone who'd lost everything wasn't forgotten." Her jaw tightened. "And don't think he didn't tell me about you encouraging Dr. Bumby to change his mind around on some other things too. To make him less himself and more who you wanted him to be."
"We just – he's supposed to – doesn't his fidgeting bother you at all?" Mrs. Van Dort finally settled on.
". . .well of course you wouldn't have a proper opinion on the subject."
Alice rolled her eyes. "You know, he once confided in me that he was half-certain that you sent him down here simply to get rid of him. That you considered him too much of an embarrassment to acknowledge anymore."
"What?" Mr. Van Dort looked like he'd been slapped in the face with one of his own fish. "How could he think we'd abandon our own flesh and blood?!"
Alice shot a significant look back at his wife. "I'm not going to disown him!" she snapped, slamming her fan shut.
"Good, because if you'd tried, I might have needed to fetch a spoon."
Mrs. Van Dort blinked, then stared at her husband, who just shrugged. "Alice, why don't you go check on Victor while I continue here," Dr. Wilson groaned, covering his face with his hand. "Make sure he's recovered from his fit earlier."
"My pleasure, doctor." With a deliberately huffy sniff in Mrs. Van Dort's direction, Alice got up and stalked out of the room.
Locating Victor wasn't difficult – Alice simply went downstairs, rounded the bend in the hall, and there he was, almost nose-to-nose with her (well, nose-to-collarbone in her case). They both started, Victor almost jumping backward to avoid a collision. "Oh! Hello again. I thought you were lying down."
"I couldn't," Victor said, pacing up and down the boards in front of her. Little Origami Ant monks scrambled around his feet, waving sticks of incense and calling for calm. "Not with – not with them in the house."
"Ah. Yes, lovely first impression they made, don't you think?"
Victor shot her a dark look. "How could they have done this?" he demanded, raking his fingers through his hair. "Why did they leave me in the h-hands of that – that monster?"
"Because whatever they think is best is what everyone else has to think is best too, and damn the consequences," Alice replied. "And to be fair, they didn't know he was a monster at the time." She rocked on her heels. "Do you remember anything of your first day here?"
"Mostly Nell – er, Mother – telling Bumby he had carte blanche to do as he would," Victor muttered, pulling at his tie. He glanced down. "Something about stopping me doing this?"
"That was more of a secondary goal," Alice admitted. "The first was – well–"
"Making me forget," Victor growled. Alice blinked. "I did hear you explain things to them. Everything they wanted and more. . . ."
"They were specifically after Emily's memory," Alice said, not wanting him to think the absolute worst of his parents. Just one step up. "They never wanted you to lose it all."
"Which is why Mother came in here and started talking about throwing me on the street," Victor replied, resuming his pacing. "And calling Emily a 'mad little fantasy.' How could she say that if the whole village apparently saw me raise the dead?"
"Whole village minus two – when you went missing, they went looking for you," Alice explained. "They didn't return until it was all done and over with."
"Oh, that just figures. . . ." Victor shook his head. "But still! To deny something everyone else saw happen, to say I have to lose something I know was precious to me – no wonder I didn't recognize them, I probably didn't want to recognize them!" His fists clenched. "They abandon me here, they tell that bastard he can do with my mind what he will – and then they come storming back like it's all my fault he – oh, I ought to–"
"Ought to come with me and calm down before you do something you'll regret later," Alice said, wrapping an arm firmly around his waist and steering him back into his room. The Origami Ants scattered to avoid getting stepped on. "People don't tend to look kindly on those who attack their own flesh and blood."
"They don't feel like my flesh and blood," Victor muttered. He smacked one hand into the other. "Thanks to them, I don't have my art, I don't have my music – maybe they wanted to get rid of those as well. God knows what they think is appropriate for a 'gentleman.'"
"No, no, your mother actually encouraged your piano lessons," Alice reassured him. "I think you're mixing her up with Victoria's mother."
"Oh yes, she's shared a few childhood stories. . .I'm half-glad I gave Lady Everglot a scare with her skirt."
"Don't you dare consider setting your parents on fire – love or not, I will smack you," Alice threatened, a tentacle bulging under the wallpaper beside her.
Victor cooled slightly. "Sorry. I don't – I'm just riled up," he muttered. "I'd be fine with just a solid punch in the teeth." His knuckles whitened. "The world would be a better place if Nell Van Dort couldn't talk for a good few months."
"Oh, trust me, I agree, but it would have consequences you wouldn't like."
"What worse could they do to me?"
Alice winced as the Tweedles danced before her eyes, holding a straitjacket and grinning. "A little less brain gives the troubles more space!" "Rutledge."
The anger shot out of Victor's face, shooed away by terror. "You – do you r-really – oh, they would, wouldn't they?" he answered himself, shivering. "They left me here, after all. . .and – and there's – s-something about – cold baths? And toast? I – ah!"
Victor clutched at his head, letting out a long hiss. "How bad do you think it would be if I just threw my head back and screamed for a while?"
"Bad – you'd scare the life out of June and the children," Alice told him, patting his arm understandingly. "Not to mention having to talk more to your mother. . .may I suggest an alternative?"
Alice picked up his pillow and fluffed it. "The poor man's punching bag."
Victor glanced at it, then back at her. "You want me to hit that?"
"Why not? I've slugged my pillow a time or two when I was frustrated. That little 'pomf!' as it deflates is quite satisfying." She gave the cushion one final shake, propped it up on the bed, then extended her arm in invitation. "Go on, put those fists to work. You'll feel better and avoid getting in trouble."
Victor pressed his lips together, then nodded. "All right." He cracked his knuckles and turned toward his target, scowling. "You – how dare you leave me in this place," he snarled. "How dare you insist I forget someone so important to me. How dare you tell him that it's perfectly fine if he messes up my head. How dare you come back now and act as if I'm the problem! You – you rotten, horrible, low-life excuses for–" His fist reared back, then shot forward with all his might. "You'll pay for sending me here!"
The world filled with white fluff. Alice waved her hand in front of her face, wondering what silly Mock Sparrow had chosen this moment to molt. Oh for – not now, Wonder– "Achoo!"
She froze as the feather continued its downward spiral, tickling her fingers. Another clung to her apron, as if it was frightened of drifting all the way to the floor, and a third landed lightly on her shoe. "What th – they're real?" she blurted.
Victor stared at the bed, bits of down settling on his hair like snow on a coal heap. ". . .did you know pillows could pop?"
"Pop?" Alice followed his gaze. Sure enough, her friend had managed to hit the pillow with enough force to burst its (admittedly worn) stitching. "Bloody hell, no wonder you were able to put down Jack Splatter that one time."
"I still don't believe I did that."
"What on earth was – oh!"
June appeared in the doorway. She stood frozen for a moment, taking in the busted pillow, the rain of feathers, and the rather disheveled pair in the middle of it all. Then her lips began to twitch upward. "What – what did you–" she started, pressing her hands against her mouth to hide a burgeoning case of the giggles.
"Victor was thinking of a new career in boxing," Alice said, unable to help her own grin. "Of course, he needs a stage name. What do you think of Master Van Dort, Slayer of Bedroom Accoutrements?"
That broke not only June's composure, but Victor's as well – and the sight of them laughing like hyenas destroyed whatever dignity she had left while covered in feathers. Snickers, guffaws, and snorts filled the air as they struggled to get a hold of themselves. "Oh – oh dear," Victor finally said, clutching his middle as he gasped for breath. "Slayer of Bedroom – I don't that would be a position that paid very well, Alice."
"Too bad, you seem to be quite good at it," June commented, twisting one of the broken threads poking out from the end of the pillowcase around her finger. "Seriously, though, what happened?"
"It's my fault – he was upset over his parents, and I told him it would be better to punch the pillow than his mother," Alice explained, brushing off her apron.
"I'm still rather tempted," Victor admitted, eyebrows lowering into an angry line. "Perhaps she'd explode into a collection of pies."
"Amusing, but as June and I would be responsible for the mess, I must ask you not to test that theory." Alice gave her head a good shake, sending down swirling toward the floor. "Did you hear any of the fireworks before, June? I thought for sure he was going to leap on his parents like a lion after a pair of wildebeests."
"We heard shouting – nothing clear, but it didn't sound happy," June replied. "Charlie and Reggie were going to come in and 'help' with some snowballs – I just barely stopped them."
"You shouldn't have bothered – some cold slush down their backs would have served them right," Victor muttered, before his face softened. "I'm sorry if I scared any of you. It's just – when I remembered Ne-Moth-Nell telling Bumby to do as he would, I–" His hands opened and closed. "I c-couldn't control myself."
"No, you couldn't, could you?" Alice said thoughtfully, leaning her head to one side. "Not that I blame you, but. . .before, when the topic of your parents came up, you'd complain a little, then let it go. I could never picture you full-on lunging at them if you saw them again. Even Bumby couldn't get you riled up for more than an afternoon. That wall may be keeping your memories back, but it seems to be letting your anger run free."
Victor's hands immediately went for his tie. "I – um – well – there's m-more for me to be angry about, isn't there?" he said, eyes darting all over the room. "I-I'm sorry, I don't mean–"
"No, don't apologize," Alice interrupted. "I think it's a good thing. A lot of people treated you like a doormat before, particularly your parents. Now they should think twice before treading all over you. You probably held in a lot more than was healthy."
"That's not what I've heard from the children," June said, raising an eyebrow. "They told me that when he brought Mr. Bunny back to the house, he, Jack Splatter, and Dr. Bumby got in a fight, and he called them some truly awful names. Not to mention all the tales of him beating up and setting cats on that horrible pimp. . .and dueling someone with a fork?"
"I – what?"
"Victoria can tell you more about that one – it's quite the amusing story," Alice grinned, before turning thoughtful again. "But that does make it sound like it's been going on longer than I thought. . .maybe my wandering off into Wonderland was the real start. God knows I was plenty frustrated with myself – I certainly wouldn't blame you for being the same, Victor."
"Or maybe it's – it's Bumby," Victor mumbled, eyes on his feet. "A surprise left b-behind in case anyone tried to free me. Making me – v-vicious."
"I severely doubt that," Alice reassured him, touching his arm. "You would have attacked me in Moorgate if that was the case, not him. I've never known you to direct your anger at someone who didn't deserve it. And even then, a good three-quarters of the time you felt guilty straight afterward. You were probably due an explosion or two." She swiped some feathers off her sleeve. "Just make sure you keep them contained to pillow popping."
"I'll try. I don't – I don't want to become some common thug."
"Even with your memories hidden away, I don't think that's possible." She smirked. "If it makes you feel better, even at your worst, you'll probably never be as vicious as me."
Victor's brow furrowed. ". . .is it all right if I ask you why that makes me think of soup?"
Alice blinked. "I – think I've got an idea, but we'll explore it properly later." She picked up the empty pillow case. "Let's revive this poor desiccated shell. Otherwise you're not going to have anything to sleep on tonight."
They'd just scooped up the last bits of down from the far corner of the room when there was a knock at the door. "Excuse me – er, what are you doing?" Dr. Wilson asked, blinking at the scene.
"Exploded pillow," Alice explained, holding up a feather. "Victor was a little frustrated before."
"I'm sorry, sir – it won't happen again," Victor added, ducking his head.
"Don't make promises you might not be able to keep," Dr. Wilson replied. "Your parents would like to speak with you."
Victor tensed. "What about?"
"I believe I've convinced them into an apology. I don't know what sort it'll be, but – for what it's worth, they do seem genuinely shaken by the – indignities you suffered here, let's say." He sighed. "And they are your parents. You should make some effort to reconcile."
Victor twiddled a feather between his fingers. "I guess I owe them an apology too," he admitted. "For, ah, nearly attacking them. . .and if they're able to bring anything back. . . ." He looked over at Alice. "Could you come with me?"
"Of course," Alice agreed. "But Victor – if you really don't want to see them, don't feel obligated. Family is important, but they haven't acted much like one lately."
Victor twirled his feather, then stuffed it into the pillow. "No, I'll see them," he said. "They are another link to my past. And if they're truly sorry. . . ." He brushed himself off. "Where are they?"
"I left them in the foyer," Dr. Wilson said. "I'll be near if you need me."
"Thank you. Hopefully I won't." Squaring his shoulders, Victor headed for the foyer, Alice trailing in his wake.
The Van Dorts were standing by the piano, murmuring to each other as they entered. Mr. Van Dort noticed them first. "Bet you've been getting on well with this," he said with an awkward smile, running his fingers along the keys. "Compose anything new lately?"
Victor took a deep breath. "I would if I could remember how," he replied, making his father's cheer waver. "Didn't Dr. Wilson and Alice explain?"
"Yes, but – I didn't think you'd ever forget the piano!" Mr. Van Dort said, eyes wide. "Goodness, Victor, you adore these things!"
Victor gave him a pained grin. "That I do remember." He ran his fingers through his hair as Alice stood at his elbow, eyeing the Van Dorts as if she was a hyena and they two juicy bones. "I – I'm sorry for – earlier. For my b-behavior. What came back. . .it was horrible and infuriating and I c-can't believe you actually said it. But that's no reason to try and – well." His fingers found his tie once more, pulling and twisting as was his way. "I'm sorry."
"So are we," Mr. Van Dort replied, letting out a heavy sigh. "We never – we were only doing what we thought was right!"
"Exactly," Mrs. Van Dort nodded from behind her fan. "You refused to forget that corpse girl, and–"
"Emily, Nell – Mother," Victor corrected himself. "Her name's Emily. It's one of the few things about her I have left – and frankly, I'd consider it a sign you really were sorry if you used it!"
Mrs. Van Dort harrumphed. "Emily, then," Mr. Van Dort said, though his face resembled that of a man who'd just taken an unexpected bite out of a lemon. "Look, you were moping about, not doing anything with yourself, and we just wanted you to move on! To meet another girl and make a respectable marriage! To step into my shoes and start on your career! To – to stop acting like dead company was better than live!"
Victor blinked at the sudden passion in his father's voice, then glanced at Alice. "I – did I really–"
"Sometimes," Alice admitted. "You only frightened me once, but – still. You really did seem to prefer the Land of the Dead."
Victor pinched his nose. "I see. . .I'm sorry for scaring you like that too, then," he murmured. "Even if I don't remember it. I promise, though, if all t-this hasn't made me want to – um – d-depart, let's say? – I don't think anything else will."
"Don't suppose you remember much about your 'Land of the Dead' at the moment anyway," Nell muttered behind her silk screen.
"No, I don't – but I will," Victor told her, crossing his arms and standing up a little straighter. "And I don't want to hear a single word more about how I shouldn't. My memories are mine and mine alone, and you don't get to control them. I won't go through this again."
The Van Dorts were getting quite good at shocked staring, Alice noted. "Where this stubborn streak came from I'll never understand," Mrs. Van Dort finally said, fanning herself slowly. "You were never like this before the – incident."
"You'll just have to get used to it. Maybe I wouldn't be this bad if you hadn't sent me here," he added with acid in his tone.
Mrs. Van Dort scowled at him. "Don't you – you can't believe this is what we wanted," she added, voice suddenly strained. "I never – for God's sake, Victor, do you really think we'd let some bloke take you and – I don't even want to say it."
"Please don't," Victor whispered, shuddering. Alice touched his arm to steady him. "I still have – e-episodes. I wouldn't want you to see."
"Good, because we don't want to see," Mrs. Van Dort said, snapping her fan shut decisively. "But don't you dare think our plan was for Bumby to – to pull this."
"We're your parents, Victor," Mr. Van Dort nodded. "Can you honestly think so poorly of us?"
Hatter, March, and Dormy, seated at the nearby table, broke into a chorus of guffaws. Alice clamped her lips shut, lest she join them. Victor examined his shoes. "I – I don't want to," he said at last. Then, looking up with sharp eyes, he continue, "But it's hard when my only real memory of you is Mother saying it would be a miracle if he could make me more of a 'society boy.'"
The Van Dorts winced. "We were only looking out for your welfare," Mr. Van Dort insisted, as if the phrase was the only thing keeping him afloat in a sea of misery.
"Yes – how do you expect to get along in life without being able to mingle?" Mrs. Van Dort agreed. "You need to be able to impress people! To actually talk to them instead of just stutter in their direction! And to stop being so clumsy!" She flicked her fan back open. "Look, why don't we just take you home, get you a proper psychiatrist, and–"
"Dr. Wilson is a proper psychiatrist," Alice snapped, earning herself a few strange looks from the tea party set. He's close enough for these purposes! "He treated me!"
Mrs. Van Dort looked her up and down disdainfully. "And you turned out so well."
"That is the woman who is responsible for you having anything resembling a son back," Victor snarled, hands bunching into fists again. Mrs. Van Dort smartly took a step back. "You will treat her with respect."
"We're just saying that having your own room and things back around you would surely be better than lollygagging here," Mr. Van Dort said, trying to pull the conversation back on track. "You never liked it in London, did you? It'll do you a world of good to leave all this nonsense behind." He plastered on another smile. "What do you say, son? Want to go home?"
Victor looked at him, then turned to Alice. Alice stared back, suddenly feeling rather like the cut-in-half man he'd mentioned meeting Downstairs. Mr. Van Dort does have a point, her more logical side confessed. Going back to the place he grew up, being surrounded by familiar faces, able to sleep in his own bed – isn't that exactly what he needs? Dr. Wilson's nice enough, but even he admits he wasn't able to do much for you – he might not have any success with Victor either. And how likely is it that they'd find someone worse than Dr. Bumby this time around? He's always hated living in Whitechapel – I can't force him to stay in this hellhole.
But he's mine, her more emotional half put in, fighting back tears. Watching him leave after all this – it would be like stomping on my own heart! And who are they to come in like saviors after all this time? He may not like Whitechapel, but it's what he knows right now. Dragging him away on a hopeful whim, back to a village that hates him, far away from the people who care about him – he'd be a wreck! And if his mother found out about him following orders. . .they abandoned him here. They weren't the ones who cut him free of the Dollmaker. Who pulled him out of the darkness in Moorgate. Who risks her reputation night after night so he can actually get some sleep – though that's for the benefit of both of us, I admit. Her jaw clenched. Lickspittles and swells – they don't deserve to have him back!
"Astute observation – but I haven't seen you trade skirts for trousers yet," Cheshire purred, winding around her feet. "Care to let the one actually asked have a say?"
Alice sighed, shoulders slumping. Right – this wasn't her decision. She had to let Victor walk his own path. No being his crutch – or using him as hers, come to think of it. "Whatever you think is best," she said. "If you want to go home – go."
Those lovely dark brown eyes looked deep into hers for a long moment. Then his hands wrapped around hers, lifting them to his chest. "I am home."
Brilliant flowers in every color of the rainbow burst out of the walls and floor, filling the air with a sweet perfume. Alice did her best not to titter like a moron. How did he manage to be so sweet even without half his mind?
"What? No, Victor, we never lived in London," Mr. Van Dort said, his concerned tone spoiling the mood a bit. Alice frowned at him – didn't he recognize romance when he heard it? Her eyes shifted left to his sour-faced wife. Then again. . . .
"That's not what I meant – can she come?" Victor asked, turning back to his parents. "Stay with us?"
"What? Bring a known lunatic back to Burtonsville and let her live in our house?" Mrs. Van Dort gasped, clutching a dramatic hand to her expansive breast. "The crier would have us roasted on a spit before the day was out! It's bad enough Pastor Galswells thinks you're in league with the devil himself – you want to add that scandal to our troubles?"
Victor's face hardened. "Then I guess it's best for everyone if I stay here, isn't it? I wouldn't want to make your lives any harder."
"He'd make your life harder too," Mr. Van Dort said, fiddling with the top of his cane. "Man simply hasn't been the same since you met that – Emily. People are worrying, frankly. He seems ready to preach himself into an early grave."
"You're not exactly helping your case," Alice pointed out.
Victor shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, I do, but I'm comfortable here. It's not the best place in the world, but – I have everything I need."
"You'd have all the same in Burtonsville!" Mrs. Van Dort protested. "Better, in fact! Including a better doctor than that Wilson!"
Victor hit her with a steely glare. "Do excuse me, but you thought Bumby was a better doctor. I don't want to see what your next attempt is." He swallowed and looked away again. "Besides, i-it's hard enough trusting Dr. Wilson on the – b-bad days."
"But – what about all your old friends?" Mr. Van Dort asked. Alice decided he deserved some sort of award for telling such a bold-faced lie with such a straight face.
"I have friends here – Alice, June, Victoria. . . ."
"Victoria Everglot's still in the city?"
"Ever–" Victor blinked. "You're aware she's married now, right?"
"Yes," Mrs. Van Dort said icily. "You threw away a real winner there, Victor."
"She – ah – is very nice," Victor said, rubbing the back of his head. "She stops by regularly for lunch to help me remember. She tells me what it was like growing up in Burtonsville – and we talk quite a bit about Emily." He smirked. "If my former fiancee is all right with me remembering her. . . ."
"But – what help could she be?" Mr. Van Dort asked, face twisted up in confusion. "You only knew each other for an afternoon!"
Victor's eyes went wide. "Wh-what? Wait a minute – h-how did we get engaged then?"
"Us!" Mrs. Van Dort replied, slapping her fan against her leg. "We arranged things, and you met at the rehearsal! We didn't expect you to be that horrible at learning your lines!"
Victor gaped, clearly thrown for a loop. "But – I thought – she was going on about–"
"You see? That's why you need us," Mrs. Van Dort said triumphantly. "How are you going to learn anything about yourself without your parents?"
"No one said you weren't welcome to help out where you could," Alice said, although the idea of having Nell Van Dort as a regular visitor made her fingers itch for a set of Jacks or a pack of Cards. "We're all eager to see him back to himself, you know."
"Yes. . .m-maybe you could just take me on a day trip to Burtonsville?" Victor suggested with a weak smile.
"Day trip?! Victor, you know we live out in–" Mrs. Van Dort stopped, then flipped her fan closed. "Oh, fine, we'll play your game. Not like we can just run off and pretend it never happened – don't you start," she added, seeing the beginnings of a sarcastic comment in Alice's eyes. "We just need to find proper accommodations."
"I'm sure Dr. Wilson can help you with that," Alice said, keeping her tone carefully neutral. "And we'd be more than happy to have you assist in curing your son's amnesia."
"Brava, brava! What a performance!" Carpenter cheered, clapping wildly (and making a startled Dormy drop his spoon). "I should negociticulate you all a contract for my theater!"
Oh shush! Not all the world's a stage, you know. Break my concentration and I won't be able to entertain you anymore.
"I know what'll do the trick – a trip down to the docks!" Mr. Van Dort declared, sporting his first genuine smile of the day. "The salt air, the splashing waves, the boats bringing in the day's catch – how could that not stir up something?"
Victor went green. "Oh, it would indeed – my stomach," he said, rubbing his belly. "My apologies, but – well, June made fish last night, and I couldn't bring myself to eat more than a few bites! Just the smell of it – I may not remember why, but I'm certain I loathe fish!"
Alice hastily turned her snort at Mr. Van Dort's stunned expression into a throat-clearing. "Ah – I'm afraid you're in a bit of a pickle then," she informed her friend. "Your father there owns and runs the most successful cannery in England. In fact, June made sure that's where our salmon yesterday came from. Solidarity, I suppose."
Victor stared at her, then at his father, searching for the joke and finding none. "But – I – if that's the case, shouldn't I – wait." He rubbed his temple contemplatively. "I think. . .d-did we have a lot?"
"Almost every meal," Mr. Van Dort got out. "You know, important to show it was the best. . . ."
"Oh. That – that would do it, wouldn't it?"
"So you told me," Alice confirmed. "You can still take him down to the docks if you like, Mr. Van Dort. I don't see the harm, and any memory restored is a good thing. Not all of them have to be pleasant."
"We'll discuss it later – we have to see if the Langham has any rooms open," Mrs. Van Dort said, taking her husband's unresisting arm. She frowned deeply at Alice. "But you'll be seeing us again soon. I hope that meets with your approval."
"So long as you're here to help, you're fine by me," Alice replied, letting just a touch of venom sneak into her voice. "I wish you luck with your search for a room meeting your exacting standards."
"Thank you. Come on, William." With a tug and a rustling of skirts, the couple were out the door.
Victor watched them go, then pressed his face into his hand. "Ugh. . .heir to a cannery and I tell him straight out I loathe fish. . . ."
"Well, better to tell him now, when he can blame it on the amnesia instead of you, right?" Alice said, hoping to cheer him up. "And besides, you don't have to want to eat the stuff to pack it into cans. Not that you were ever that enthusiastic about the prospect."
"Mmmm. . .did you know?" he asked suddenly, looking up.
"That your parents have a tendency to chew on their feet? Only second-hand before today."
Victor shook his head. "About – about Victoria and I only knowing each other an afternoon."
"Oh – you mentioned it, yes," Alice said, twiddling with her apron. "I was under the impression she had as well."
"No, it never – she always did concentrate on the rehearsal, and my time in her r-room, but I always assumed. . . ."
Alice patted his arm. "I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it. She just wants to help you remember. Just like the rest of us." She nodded at the door. "Including them, I promise."
"Right. . . ." Victor sighed as he watched the carriage depart through the window. "I'm still having a hard time believing we're related. I mean, I can see Will-Father and I look somewhat alike, but. . .it's scary how – disconnected I feel from them."
"Well, if you want, we can dig up some more memories of them," Alice offered. "Though, fair warning – you mentioned having a lot of nannies as a child."
"I see. Maybe later," Victor replied, rubbing his forehead. "It's a lot to take in for one day. To think now they wanted to bring me back. . . ."
"That's just how life works," Alice said, shaking her head. "And I'm perfectly willing to turn them away if you never want to see them again. It would be absolutely no trouble."
"No, I should give them a chance," Victor said. Alice pushed down a faint pang of disappointment. "Like you said, not all of my memories are going to be pleasant – but I want them back nonetheless." He gave her a little smirk. "I think I can stop myself trying to strangle them again."
"Wait until you've got your mind back to make that promise," Alice teased. More seriously, she added, "Can I get you anything? A biscuit, perhaps? I know I could use something sweet after enduring so much time with your mother."
"A biscuit sounds nice," Victor nodded. "And you did promise to tell me about the insects you saw in Wonderland the other day, when we were flipping through my encyclopedia."
"Oh yes!" Alice took his hand and started for the kitchen. "Let's start with the nutterflies. . . ."