January 17th, 18–
The butterfly was fluttering before him, just out of reach. It was beautiful, more beautiful than any he’d seen before. All the colors of the rainbow seemed to be within its wings, and it left glowing trails in the air as it flew. Mesmerized, he leaned forward, reaching out a hand to try and touch it. His fingertips almost brushed its back wing when –
Victor blinked open his eyes to be greeted with a faceful of carpet. He rolled over and looked up at the couch, rubbing his slightly sore nose. Must have fallen out of it just now, he thought, sitting up. Too bad – what a lovely dream.
He untangled his legs from the blanket, then stood up and folded it neatly before placing it on top of his pillow. He was already quite used to sleeping on the sitting room couch. It was a bit too short for him, but that wasn’t something he minded. So long as he wore a pair of socks to bed to keep his feet from getting cold, it suited him just fine. He stretched and popped a kink out of his back. Ahh, much better. Now he was ready to face the morning and –
What was that on the window?
Frowning, Victor investigated, heedless of the fact he was in his pajamas. The two windows on the sitting room’s outer wall were covered in a whitish, bubbly substance. Soap suds, he realized. They’re being washed. That’s all right then.
There was an odd sound from outside – like something stretching, then snapping back – and suddenly the suds were partially whisked away. Startled, Victor drew back. The sound repeated itself, and the rest of the suds disappeared. Who on earth –
His question was somewhat answered a moment later, as the cleaner bounced up to check on his work. Victor found himself looking at the upside-down face of – a dog. A large brown dog, specifically, with a bulbous snout, dark floppy ears, and wearing a what looked to be some sort of pilot’s cap with goggles. The two stared at each other for a moment. Then the dog gave him a little wave. Victor absently waved back. The dog then jumped down again – Victor could see now he was also wearing a stretchy cord around his middle – and vanished. Victor stared at the empty window for a moment, then quickly gathered his clothes and went into the little bathroom to wash up and dress for the day.
No one was in the kitchen or study. Victor knew Marty was most likely still asleep, but Doc had to be up. He went out onto the stairs and descended to the shop level. He spotted Doc through one of the windows, fiddling with something at the front counter. “There’s a dog washing our windows,” he announced as he came inside.
“That’s Gromit,” Doc informed him – Victor could now see he was fixing a spring on one of his many clocks. “He’s one of the many Fabricated creatures around here. His owner Wallace is just outside.”
Victor turned and looked. Through the large windows at the front he could see a bald man with large ears and a big grin standing on the sidewalk. He was holding a bucket full of suds. Behind him was parked a motorized bicycle with a sidecar. “Do they do all the windows around here?” Victor asked, wondering if anyone else had had the experience of waking up to find a dog looking in on you.
“They do whatever Wallace most feels like at the moment, really,” Doc said, replacing the bad spring. “Window washing, pest control, baking. . . . They always put one hundred percent into whatever they’re doing, though.”
“Oh. I assume Mr. Wallace is a Touched, then?”
“Yup – moderate case,” Doc confirmed, fixing the new spring into place and testing the mechanism. “Gromit was one of his first Inventions. They’re a nearly inseparable team now.”
“Rather like you and Marty,” Victor said.
“Precisely,” Doc said, smiling as the clock resumed normal operation. “Although I didn’t build Marty from the ground up.”
“All set, lad? All right, I’ll get our pay.” Wallace came in through the door, grinning brightly. “We’re finished now, Dr. Brown – oh, you have company,” he added, noticing Victor. “Sorry to interrupt, we’re just getting our money for the windows.”
“He’s not a customer, Wallace, he’s my new assistant,” Doc said. “Victor, this is Wallace Park. Wallace, this is Victor Van Dort.”
“Pleasure to meet you, lad,” Wallace said, taking Victor’s hand and shaking it firmly.
“It’s very nice to meet you too, sir,” Victor said with a nod.
“Gromit gave him a bit of a scare when he woke up,” Doc said, chuckling.
“Not quite a s-scare,” Victor said, embarrassed. “More just a surprise. You don’t expect to see a large dog hanging outside your window washing it when you first wake up.”
“He’s new here,” Doc added.
“Oh! What do you think of the city so far?” Wallace asked.
“Very interesting,” Victor said. “And busy.”
“Oh yes, seems like new people are moving in all the time,” Wallace agreed. “Not that I mind, of course. More paying customers. Er, speaking of which, it’ll be the usual rate for the windows.”
“Here you are,” Doc said, handing over the money as the dog Victor had seen before entered the shop. “Hello Gromit.”
“Gromit, we’ve got a newcomer to Secundus,” Wallace said as Gromit waved hello to Doc. “This is Victor. Victor, this is my dog Gromit.”
“Very nice to meet you,” Victor said, extending a hand.
Gromit shook it with a hand-like paw and nodded. Victor frowned slightly. “Don’t you speak?” he asked.
Gromit shook his head as Wallace blushed slightly. “Bit of an oversight on my part,” Wallace confessed. “He can’t even bark like a normal dog. Still, he seems to get along. Isn’t that right, pal?” he added, patting Gromit on the head.
Gromit nodded, looking unconcerned about his lack of speech. For a dog without even a visible mouth, he had an extremely expressive face, Victor noted. He didn’t even need to talk to let you know what he was thinking. “I’ve always loved dogs,” he said conversationally. “I had a dog as a child – Scraps. He was perfectly mundane, but he was still one of my best friends. I do miss him sometimes.”
Gromit gave Victor’s hand a pat, looking sympathetic. Victor smiled at him. “Thank you.”
Wallace pulled out his pocket watch and consulted it. “Oh dear, we’re running a bit behind – we’re due to do the clock today,” he said. “We’d better be off. See you again next month, Dr. Brown?”
“We’ll be here,” Doc confirmed. “Have a good day – and good luck with the clock.”
“Thanks. Come on, lad.” Wallace headed out the door. Gromit gave Victor and Doc a wave, then dropped to four legs to follow. The pair got on their motorized bicycle – Wallace on the bike itself, Gromit in the sidecar – and zoomed away.
“What’s the clock?” Victor asked as Doc replaced his own clock on the wall.
“Oh, it’s a remnant of the days when this was intended to be a copy of London,” Doc said, shining the face of the clock. “It’s a copy of Big Ben. Or, it was. Someone modified it into a cuckoo clock some years ago.”
“Who knows? Most Touched don’t need a reason beyond ‘Because I can.’” He checked the clock against the others, then nodded and turned around. “Come on, let’s go wake Marty and have breakfast. I’m in the mood for pancakes.”
“Do you really think we’ve got it working right?”
“Won’t know until we try!”
The automated pancake machine only functioned partially – the batter jet worked perfectly, but the flipping arm’s timing was all off. After two pancakes came out half-cooked and one came out burnt, Doc finally admitted temporary defeat and flipped the pancakes himself. Breakfast passed quickly, and the three men spent their morning adjusting the timing on the flipping arm in between serving customers. Finally, the machine seemed to be working correctly, and the trio celebrated with chicken sandwiches for lunch. “I think we need a bit of a break, Doc,” Marty said as he finished off his food. “You mind if I go out for a couple of hours?”
“Not at all – it’s a slow day,” Doc said, patting his mouth dry of milk. “I’m going to be working some more on the equations for the power converter in the train. Do you want to go with Marty, Victor?”
“I’d like that,” Victor said, setting aside his plate. “I would enjoy seeing more of the city. If Marty will have me.”
“Sure,” Marty grinned. “Any place in particular you want to go?”
“Well, you mentioned a park a couple of days ago. . . .”
“Oh, Wonderland Park! Yeah, we can go check that place out! I haven’t been in a while.”
“Ah, Lewis Carroll’s Botanical and Biological Wonderland,” Doc said. “It’s a lovely place. You’ll definitely like it there, Victor.”
“Should I bring my sketchbook?” Victor asked eagerly.
“Oh yeah,” Marty said with a decisive nod. “There’s always plenty to see there.”
With that sort of promise, Victor could hardly wait to get going. After the lunch dishes were settled, he grabbed his sketchbook, an inkwell, and a quill, and hurried down to wait at the bottom of the stairs. Marty joined him after taking care of some business, and they set off down the streets.
It was a fairly long walk to Wonderland Park – not that Victor minded. He’d grown to enjoy watching the crowds on the streets, seeing all the different varieties of people that lived here. Occasionally someone would rumble by in a motorized carriage of some sort. Today’s treat came in the form of a long vehicle bedecked with lamps, with an odd symbol painted on the side – a ghostly shape in a red circle with a slash through it. “Who on earth is that?” Victor asked as the carriage roared through the streets, making an awful racket.
“Those are the Ghostbusters,” Marty said. “They’re ‘professional paranormal detectors and eliminators.’ Basically, they hunt down ghosts and catch them.”
“Nobody’s quite sure about that,” Marty admitted. “Dr. Stantz and Dr. Spengler are positive they’re seeing genuine dead people. And they’re definitely catching something – enough people have seen them in action. The thing, a lot of the places they visit are the homes of Touched or people who live really near Touched, so there’s always the chance it’s just somebody’s experiment gone wrong. Or right, depending on what they’re doing.”
“Do they ever come into the shop?”
“Dr. Spengler does occasionally, to see if Doc can offer a second opinion on some of the equipment. He’s the guy who does most of the actual building. He and Dr. Stantz are Slightly Touched, while Dr. Venkman and Mr. Zeddmore are normal. Good combination, I guess.”
“Keeps things even,” Victor agreed. “Though I would think someone who builds equipment to contain ghosts would be more than Slightly Touched.”
“Well, I think Dr. Spengler’s near the Somewhat range – like Doc said, it’s hard to tell sometimes.” They turned another corner. “There it is, Victor. Wonderland Park.”
Victor stared. In front of him, just down the street, was the largest park he’d ever seen in his life. Despite the chilly winter air, it was still full of greenery – long blades of grass, flowers in full bloom, trees gently swaying in a soft breeze. It was like a bit of spring had somehow slipped under January’s notice. The park was surrounded by an iron fence, with the bars twisted into strange and whimsical shapes. There was a large archway for the entrance, with MR. LEWIS CARROLL’S BOTANICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WONDERLAND written above it. The entire place called to him, begged him to run forward and sample its delights. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered.
“Wait until you get inside,” Marty said with a knowing smirk.
They made their way down the street and to the park’s front gate. As they went inside, Victor instantly noticed it was warmer. “Yeah, Lewis has got some sort of personalized weather system going here,” Marty said. “No matter the weather outside the fence, it’s always spring in here. Almost always sunny too.”
“It’s wonderful,” Victor declared. He looked admiringly at a nearby rose. “What gorgeous flowers.”
“Why, thank you!”
Victor nearly jumped out of his skin. Talking animals he’d at least heard of – but talking plants? “Er--”
“Oh dear, look at that,” another flower, this one a lily, said. “You nearly made him lose his petals.”
“I don’t think he’s a flower,” a daisy said. “He looks like he’s a birch. And they’re always losing their bark.”
“I – I’m not a plant at all,” Victor managed to get out, gaping. “I’m a human being.”
“You still look like a birch.”
“How on earth do I look like a birch tree?”
“You’re so pale! But with black bits here and there, like up there.” The daisy gestured with a leaf.
“Those are my eyes! Oh, Good Lord, I’m arguing with a daisy. . . .”
“Everyone argues with the daisies.” A young-looking man appeared, smiling brightly. “They’re naturally prone to teasing, I’m afraid. Just threaten to make them into a chain and they’ll leave you alone.”
Victor studied the newcomer for a moment. He was a fairly short fellow, about the same height as Marty (maybe even an inch or two less). He was slender (though not as much as Victor) and had a soft-featured face. His blond hair was slicked carefully back just so, and his blue-green eyes peered out at the world from behind large, black-framed glasses. He wore a dark red suit with a black and white spotted bow tie, and was also currently wearing what looked like a pair of gardening gloves. “Mr. Carroll, I presume?” Victor guessed.
“Indeed,” Mr. Carroll nodded, holding out a hand, heedless of the earth caking the glove. “I haven’t seen you about before.”
“I’m new to the city,” Victor said, shaking hands. “I’m working with Marty and Dr. Brown. Victor Van Dort.”
“Charmed,” Mr. Carroll said, nodding to Marty. “New to the city, hmm? Do you like it so far?”
“I certainly like this place,” Victor said, wiping his hand off on his pants as he looked around the park. “You have a beautiful park here.”
“He called me gorgeous,” the rose said cheerfully.
“He called us gorgeous,” the lily corrected her. “Don’t mind her, she’s terribly vain,” she added to Victor.
“You’re all amazing,” Victor said honestly. “I’ve never met flowers that can talk before.”
“Daresay they’ve had nothing to say to you,” a second rose said. “Your face has very little sense in it.”
“It has enough sense to know we’re pretty,” the first rose argued.
“Yes, but that’s just the sense God gave everyone.”
“Quiet – if you insult him, he’ll pick us,” the lily warned.
“I couldn’t,” Victor said. “This is incredible. . . .”
“It took me years to perfect them,” Mr. Carroll said, Creativity clear in his voice. “And they were just the start. Go, explore more of the garden! There’s wonders everywhere you look!”
Victor was about to ask a bit more when he saw what looked like a yellow butterfly perched on the petals of a pansy. He immediately fell quiet, studying the insect intently. It was a rather odd-looking specimen – the yellow patterns on the wings looked like spread butter. And – was it him, or did it smell like freshly-baked bread?
The butterfly crawled closer, heedless of its audience. Victor realized with a start that the insect’s body was actually a crust of bread. The wings were bread too, and they were spread with butter! And the head was a sugar cube. “What – how--” he breathed.
“Oh, you like my bread-and-butterfly? Took me some time to make those too,” Mr. Carroll said happily.
“I love butterflies in general,” Victor said softly, extending a hand. The bread-and-butterfly fluttered its wings nervously, then crawled onto the offered appendage. “But this is truly--” he couldn’t even come up with the words to properly describe this. It was beyond fantastic, beyond amazing. It – it sort of invoked that pleasant feeling the dream had given him, of anything being possible. “Wondrous,” he finally said.
“Well, it is a wonderland,” Mr. Carroll laughed, as the bread-and-butterfly took flight again. “I’ve made lots and lots of new insects for this little park of mine.”
Victor hardly dared to breathe. “Really?” he asked, eyes shining brightly. “How many?”
“Oh, I don’t know – enough,” Mr. Carroll said carelessly. “They’re all over the place. Snapdragonflies, true-dragonflies, rocking-horseflies, talking gnats, elephant bees. . . .”
It was all too much. It was like he’d died and gone to Heaven. Victor turned and raced down the path, looking eagerly around. Oh, he didn’t know if he’d have a clear page in his notebook left by the time they were ready to go!
Marty and Mr. Carroll watched him disappear from sight. “I’m not going to find him for at least a hour, am I?” Marty asked, shaking his head in amusement.
“No, probably not,” Mr. Carroll said. He clapped Marty on the shoulder. “But at least it’ll be fun to look.”
This is the loveliest park I have ever been to and I don’t think I want to leave.
Victor happily started yet another sketch of the rocking-horsefly he’d found rocking on a leaf. He had no idea how long he’d spent wandering through the masses of flowers, shrubs, and trees that made up Wonderland Park, finding and drawing various insects. Neither did he care. He was the happiest he’d been in ages. Now if only I could find a piano lurking in the shadows of the trees, I’d be set.
He detailed the face and mane of the rocking-horsefly, still honestly amazed that such a thing could exist. The insects here were all so fantastical, it was hard to believe they were really real. A good half of them looked like toys, and another third like random objects assembled into insect-like shapes. But somehow they all lived and breathed just like regular creatures. He’d found more bread-and-butterflies swarming around an abandoned tea set, extending thin white proboscises to sip at the sweet liquid sitting in the cups. The rocking-horse flies flitted from leaf to leaf, neighing softly, their tails swishing. Mechanical ladybirds buzzed around him, carrying acorns for some unknown purpose. There had even been a talking gnat, who was very gloomy despite his constant mention of puns one could make. Victor had really not been sure what to make of him.
It didn’t matter, though. He’d drawn them all multiple times, luring some closer by various means to get a better chance at sketching the tiny details of their bodies. Mr. Carroll is truly a genius, he decided as he finished his current drawing. Mad, of course, but still a genius. I’ll have to talk to him again later, see if I can learn a bit more about how he made all these creatures. I’m sure he has some wonderful stories about it all.
He got up and brushed the back of his pants off before moving on. Wonderland Park was made up of a variety of different landscapes – here was a garden of talking flowers, there was something that qualified as a small forest, over in the opposite direction was a hedge maze. It was amazing how Mr. Carroll had managed to fit all of this into the space provided. In fact, Victor was starting to get the sneaking suspicion Wonderland Park was somehow bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. He had no idea how this could be, but he knew enough about Touched even now to suspect it as a real possibility. Not that he minded in the least – all it really meant was more places to explore for insects.
The path he was currently on took him over a hill and into a grassy vale. A river cut through the area, meandering along a crooked path. A small cliff at the upper edge of the valley turned the river into a miniature waterfall before it widened temporarily into a large blue pool, surrounded by flowers that seemed to have an inner glow. By the left edge of the pond was a large statue of a girl with her face in her hands, looking supremely miserable. Victor thought it was a very odd decoration to have in such an innately cheerful place. On the right edge of the pond, with her back to him, was a young lady, sitting by the water. Something about her red hair looked familiar – Victor edged to the side, making sure to keep a respectful distance away.
As soon as he saw her face, he recognized her properly. It was Alice Liddell from the hat shop. She was reading a book on the little beach, half-leaning on one knee, apparently completely unaware that she was no longer alone. Victor debated approaching her. She’d seemed pleasant enough when they’d first met. But what if she didn’t care to be interrupted? Marty had already hinted she had a terrible temper. And he remembered the danger in her eyes, the kind that promised terrible vengeance to those who’d wronged her. And what if her chaperone came back and –
Wait, did she even have a chaperone? The first time he’d met her on the street, she’d been walking alone. At the time, he’d been too stunned by Secundus itself to really notice, but now that he thought about it, that was quite unusual. Victor frowned. Was it really proper for a young lady to go out by herself, without someone to act as a guide and protector? Then again, perhaps the rules were different in Secundus. He really didn’t know.
He looked at her again. He had to admit, she made a very pretty figure sitting there. She was wearing a purple dress today, very simple in style – no flounces, no bustle, no lace. Just straight clean lines that suited her quite well. The leather belt she’d had on before was buckled again around her waist. She had her boots on, as well as a pair of lacy black fingerless gloves. Her hair was swept back from her face and over her shoulders, a strand or two escaping and hanging down straight in front of her. And her face was – well, very nice to look at. Especially her lips, curved in a slight smile. He found himself fiddling with his quill. Did he dare? Was it right?
The artist in him simply couldn’t turn down the picture. He quietly sat down a few feet away from her, turned to a fresh page, and began to draw. He didn’t do people often – he honestly felt more at home with insects and nature scenes. But he felt he got a good start on Alice, capturing the casual way she sat on the bank. He sketched as quickly as he could, glancing up at her every so often to compare his drawing to reality. As he filled in the details, though, his focus narrowed slowly to just the picture itself. A line here, a bit of shading there, a wavy curve over there. . . .
“I think the forehead should be wider.”
Victor nearly upset the inkwell over the sketch. His head snapped up to see Alice leaning over him, smirking as she looked down upon his artistic efforts. Oh, God, when had she noticed him? “M-Miss Liddell! I – d-do forgive me--” he babbled, hurriedly setting down his pen.
“It’s a lovely drawing otherwise,” Alice said, ignoring his stammering. “You’re quite talented.”
Victor was pleased by the praise, but still deeply embarrassed at being caught. “Please excuse me – I’m s-sorry for not a-asking your permission,” he told her, feeling his cheeks heat.
“Oh, I draw random people off the street all the time,” Alice said. “I can hardly get angry at you for doing the same.”
Alice nodded, looking him in the face for the first time. “I’ve got a sketchbook of my own at home. Though I prefer pencil – easier to fix if you make a mistake.”
“I’ve a-always drawn with ink,” Victor said, seizing upon the topic of conversation. “I j-just try to m-make any mistakes l-look natural.”
“I would imagine that’s an easy job – mistakes look like they come naturally to you.”
Victor jumped again, looking around for the source of the new voice. “H-hello?”
“Just one ‘h’ will do, I’m sure.”
“Teasing again, Cheshire?” Alice asked, standing up straight and folding her arms. “Where are you, you mangy puss?”
“Right where I’m supposed to be.” Victor suddenly felt a presence to his left. He looked over to see a pair of yellow cat eyes and a large, sharp-toothed grin next to him. Just two eyes and a grin – no face or body to go with them. “I was thinking you didn’t notice anything larger than two inches,” the mouth continued. The voice that issued from it was low and calm, with just a hint of wicked playfulness behind it. “I’ve never seen anyone stalk a bread-and-butterfly so long.”
“Y-you’ve been f-following me?” Victor asked, trying to process all that was happening.
“I have a natural tendency toward curiosity, due to my species,” the mouth replied, the eyes glimmering with amusement. “And, though I have seen many things in this park, I’ve never seen anyone quite so thin and pale as yourself. If you were any skinnier, you would disappear from the side.”
“As if you have room to talk,” Alice scolded, apparently finding talking to a pair of eyes and a mouth to be perfectly natural. “Why don’t you actually show yourself instead of being so mysterious?”
“Nature’s grip on my personality again,” the mouth said. “But, as I’m sure you shall insist. . . .” A body faded into sight around the mouth and eyes. The speaker was revealed to be a most unusual-looking cat. He appeared to be little more than skin stretched over a skeleton, with an unusually large head and paws. His extremely thin fur was a bluish-grey, and covered in strange black patterns and symbols. His tail was long, with a small lion-like tuft at the end. His face was extremely round – all the better to accommodate the wide grin – with big, slightly tattered ears. A large golden hoop dangled from one – for what reason, Victor couldn’t say. He regarded Victor with that unique look of comingled interest and boredom only cats can pull off. “You mustn’t stare so – you risk your eyes getting stuck like that.”
Victor blinked, forcing his brain back into gear. He’d dealt with a human-like animal just this morning. Conversing with this one shouldn’t be so hard. “Er – are you – one of M-Mr. Carroll’s creations?” he asked, a bit timidly. The cat’s claws and teeth did look very sharp.
“I consider myself to be a bit more than just a Touched’s Fabricated creature,” the cat replied. “But yes, he is responsible for bringing me into the world.”
“I d-didn’t mean offense--”
“People rarely do. And did I say I took offense to your words?”
“I – I assumed that--”
“You shouldn’t assume anything of a cat. We have a talent for not doing as you expect.” He vanished again, then reappeared on Victor’s opposite side. “Especially when our creators kindly built in certain talents.”
“You’re acting like you want to give him a heart attack,” Alice scolded the cat again. “He’s brand new here. Only been here – three days now, is it?”
“Four,” Victor said quietly, eyeing the cat.
“He didn’t seem nearly half as nervous watching the insects,” the cat said, studying him in turn. “They’re much stranger than I am, to be sure.”
“I’m n-never nervous around insects,” Victor said, trying to inject a bit more confidence into his voice. It was ridiculous of him to be intimidated by a cat. It was just – that permanent grin was more than a little unnerving. “T-they’re a passion of mine.”
“An entomologist, then?”
“N-no, they’re just a h-hobby. . . .” Victor swallowed. “I’m s-sorry, I never got your n-name.”
“You do apologize a lot, don’t you?” Victor nearly said “I’m sorry” again, but quickly bit it back. “I am known as the Cheshire Cat.”
“We generally call him just Cheshire for short,” Alice added, reaching over to pet the cat behind his ears.
Victor nodded. “Well, it’s v-very nice to meet you.”
“I don’t know if I would call it nice to meet you, but it certainly is interesting,” Cheshire said, putting his paws on Victor’s knee and looking at the drawing.
Victor wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Fortunately, he was saved from the trouble by something leaping out of the water and spitting green liquid at him. “Look out!” Alice said, grabbing his arm and pulling him to the side.
“Ah! What – what is--” Victor asked.
“Snark spit,” Alice said, pointing to the spot on the grass where the green liquid had landed. To Victor’s shock, it was sizzling softly. “It’s mildly corrosive – it can’t eat all the way through your flesh, but it stings horribly.” She glared at the water, reaching for her belt. “I still don’t know why Lewis designed them that way. Or why he designed them at all, frankly. They’re nothing but trouble.”
“What are they?” Victor asked, looking toward the water himself. “I g-gather they’re aquatic--”
“They’re fish,” Alice said, in tones of great disgust. “Bloody annoying fish with frog-like legs, sharp teeth, and a long sticky tongue they like to use to yank you into the water so they can nibble on you. They’re the only things worse than those ladybirds.”
“I thought the ladybirds were quite nice,” Victor said, baffled.
“You haven’t been around them when you’re only three inches tall,” Alice said darkly. “They drop acorns on you. And Lewis being Lewis, he’s made the acorns explosive. It’s a wonder there’s any oak trees growing here.” Her hand tightened on something. “Come on, you wretch, give me something to aim at. . . .”
The snark leapt from the water again, a long pink tongue darting from its mouth. Alice sidestepped it and, almost quicker than Victor could see, pulled a knife and threw it. The blade flipped end over end before hitting home in the snark’s belly, instantly gutting it. The snark let out a brief cry before falling dead into the water. Alice folded her arms and looked on in satisfaction. “Much better.”
Victor gaped. Had that – had she – Oh God, he thought, suddenly rather frightened. The girls he was used to at home were all quiet, demure creatures. He couldn’t picture any of them wielding a knife. Especially not with such deadly accuracy. Suddenly Marty’s comment seemed more like a hidden warning. “You – you--”
Alice smirked at him. “Yes?”
Victor felt his courage fail him. “N-nothing,” he whispered, looking away.
“You’d best fetch that,” the Cheshire Cat said, nodding toward the now bloody pond. “It wouldn’t do to let it rust.”
“Certainly not,” Alice agreed, lifting up her skirts and wading into the water. She retrieved the knife from the snark’s belly and washed it clean, pulling out a handkerchief to dry it as she returned to land. “Hopefully the rest of the snarks will be content with that and not bother us,” she added.
The Cheshire Cat nodded, then looked at Victor. “Cats are expected to be rude and ungrateful, but I’m told humans are taught differently. I believe a thank you is in order for at least saving you from a nasty burn.”
“Yes, t-th-thank you,” Victor said hurriedly, not wanting to upset either Alice or the Cat. “T-that was v-v-very kind of you.” He pulled his sketchbook back onto his lap, wondering how best to make his excuses to leave.
Alice looked at him, her expression changing from one of vague annoyance to genuine regret. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, sheathing her knife and crouching down next to him. “I just can’t stand snarks.”
Victor forced himself to look up at her. Her eyes, which had looked so dangerous before, suddenly seemed immeasurably sad. “I’m s-sorry,” he said, feeling a wave of guilt come over him. “It’s just – y-young ladies at home are – I mean – n-none of them would k-know how to use a b-blade – and am I c-correct in assuming y-you have no c-chaperone?”
A little of the danger came back as Alice smirked. “Do I look like I need one?”
Victor’s gaze went to the knife at her waist. “No.”
“If you’re worried about your conversation, I suppose I could be persuaded to serve as a guard,” the Cheshire Cat said, sounding deeply amused. “I’ve nothing better to do than watch over a thoroughly mad girl and an overly nervous boy.”
“Cheshire,” Alice said, her tone abruptly very dark.
Victor was about to say that he didn’t mind that personal remark, it was all too obviously true, when the other thing the Cat had said registered. “Mad?” he repeated, looking between the Cat and Alice. “Are you Touched, then?”
Alice looked at him for a moment, then lowered her eyes as she sat down properly. “No, it was a more traditional form of madness,” she mumbled.
This was encouraging. Victor felt again the urge to leave. But then he looked at her dismal form – the way her shoulders slumped, the way her hair hung in her face, the way her eyes stared at the ground – and felt a burst of sympathy. He knew how it felt to feel so low. “Oh,” he said, fiddling with his tie. “I – I have n-no idea of the etiquette of t-this, so m-may I ask what happened?”
“My parents died,” Alice said, her voice hollow. “Our house caught fire in the middle of the night one winter. I was the only one to get outside. I was only a few months shy of my eighth birthday at the time, and my mind simply – couldn’t handle what happened. So I shut myself down like a malfunctioning Automaton. The doctors called it severe catatonia. They treated me at the hospital, then when they couldn’t wake me, sent me to Rutledge Asylum.” She lifted her head and stared at Victor with hard eyes. “I’m better now,” she continued, new conviction in her voice. “I’ve been out of the asylum for two years. Yes, I do still see a doctor for – checkups, but I’m not hallucinating nor babbling nonsense or any of that. Despite what some flea-bitten tomcats may say,” she added, turning to glare at the Cheshire Cat.
“Now, Alice, you know I only meant it in the best possible way,” the Cheshire Cat replied, supremely unruffled. “You’ve stated yourself that you’re mad.”
“Not around anyone who doesn’t understand that I’m not talking about proper crazy nor being Touched! You can’t say those sorts of things in front of someone who’s only been in town four days!”
“Oh, hush. I have the right to be upset.” Alice looked back at Victor, a challenging look in her eyes. Victor got the idea she was daring him to say something in her head.
Well, he really ought to say something. But how to put it so she didn’t get angry with him? “I – I’m terribly sorry about your parents,” he finally said, hoping she would accept it as genuine sympathy it was. He got the feeling she disliked being pitied.
Alice looked surprised, which puzzled him. Surely she should be used to hearing such sentiments. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
There was a moment’s awkward silence, which Victor struggled to fill. It was even harder than normal to think of things to say with the Cheshire Cat grinning at him. “H-how long have you l-lived in Secundus?” he finally settled on. That seemed like a safe enough topic.
“Two years – I moved here after they released me from Rutledge,” Alice provided, looking glad to be on safer ground. “I live with my aunt and uncle – Uncle Charles works as a solicitor here.”
“Oh. D-do you like it?”
Alice grinned. It wasn’t the same as her usual smirks – this one looked truly pleasant. “Oh, very much so. I used to come here all the time as a child. Mum and Dad would bring me to this park and let me explore to my heart’s content. It became my favorite place in the world.” She looked reflectively at the water – the blood had washed away at last, leaving it clear once more. “It still is, really.”
“I can understand that,” Victor said, smiling a little himself. “It’s so beautiful here. And the creatures you find – well, the Cheshire Cat mentioned my interest in the insects,” he said, glancing over at the feline.
“There’s a lot more to see than just insects,” Alice assured him. “Lewis makes all sorts of wonderful things. He’s one of those Touched who doesn’t specialize. Whatever his fancy of the day is, that’s what he’s going to build.”
“I thought most Touched didn’t specialize,” Victor commented, looking out on the water. “That doing a little bit of everything was part of what made them Touched.”
“In my experience, it depends on the scientist,” Alice said. “I’ve known a few in my time here. Lewis really does do a bit of everything. Richard, meanwhile, is almost entirely devoted to mechanics. Machines for hat-making, for tea parties, for anything one could think of. He expresses almost no interest in biology or chemistry at all.” She glanced at him. “I think your employer is the same way. At least, I’ve never heard of Dr. Brown dabbling in biological matters. I don’t know about chemistry.”
Victor thought about that for a moment. “He’s expressed interest in mind-reading, but I don’t know if that’s precisely biology,” he admitted. “He has a chemistry set as well, and he’s indicated he’s used it, but it’s mostly machines for him.” He paused, then asked, “Does Mr. Dodgson have a chemistry set?”
“Yes,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “He only uses it for making tea occasionally. It’s for the look of the thing, he says.”
“Looks can be very important,” the Cheshire Cat commented, stretching himself out on the grass, tail swishing from side to side. “One should always look before they leap, to give an oft-quoted example.”
“Ignore him, he enjoys confusing people,” Alice said, as Victor glanced over at the cat in puzzlement. “And making personal remarks, much like Richard.”
“Someone has to,” was the Cheshire Cat’s opinion. “I’m just glad you’ve gotten him to stop stuttering.”
Ironically, Victor felt himself try to start again at that. He took a moment and concentrated so that the words would flow out smoothly. “It’s just something that happens when I’m nervous. I don’t mean to.”
“It’s a wonder you can speak clearly at all then, living here,” the Cheshire Cat retorted. “Why would anyone of your obvious nervous disposition choose to come to Secundus? I understand that humans can be contrary, but this seems beyond even madness.”
“I didn’t exactly choose – I got my foot caught in the ladder to Dr. Brown’s flying train,” Victor explained. “They brought me here without realizing it.”
“And why are you still here, exactly?”
“I have to echo his question – why did you stay?” Alice asked, tilting her head.
“W-well, Doc offered me a job,” Victor said, playing with his tie. “And he and Marty were so kind to me when they discovered me there, and I – I’ve always w-wanted to have a b-bit of an adventure. . . .”
The Cheshire Cat arched an eyebrow as he lifted his head. Then his smile seemed to widen – it was rather hard to tell for certain, since it already stretched across half of his face. “Alice,” he said, sounding amused, “you were worried he would think badly of you being mad?”
Victor, however, saw the humor behind the statement. “You think I’m mad?” he asked with a smile of his own.
“You must be,” the Cheshire Cat replied. “Or else you wouldn’t have stayed here.”
“It was ‘come here’ when you used that line on me,” Alice noted, though a slight smile was curving her lips too now.
“Yes, but he didn’t have much of a choice in coming, now did he?” The Cheshire Cat stretched, the bones of his spine popping. “I can use logic when it suits my purposes.”
“I don’t care if I’m mad,” Victor said, looking around. “I’m glad I decided to stay. I would have never seen this place if I’d remained in Burtonsville.” His gaze fell on the pond and its statue again. “Though I admit, I don’t see why your friend erected such a depressing statue on such a lovely spot.”
“It’s not a statue,” Alice said with a smirk. “Look closer.”
Victor glanced back at her, then leaned forward and studied the statue. After a moment, he saw what she meant – the figure was actually a fountain of sorts. Two trails of tears poured from the girl’s eyes into the pond. “Oh, I see!”
“It’s the Pool of Tears,” Alice nodded. “The water’s even salty. It’s actually quite nice to swim in when the snarks have been cleared away. Like a bit of the seaside in the middle of the city.”
Victor continued to study the fountain. “You know – and do forgive me if I’m being forward – it looks a bit like you,” he commented.
Alice blushed at that. “Well, I may have inspired this idea,” she confessed. “Lewis asked me to test a growth potion of his, and I became upset at something and cried so hard I actually left a puddle big enough to wade in. He was inspired and built the statue soon after.”
Victor chuckled. “Ah.” He leaned back slightly. “Do the other places in the park have names?”
“They have things which people call them, which is close enough for your purposes,” the Cheshire Cat said, rolling onto his back for a moment.
“There’s the Garden of Living Flowers by the entrance, and the Tulgey Wood – I believe you were just there,” Alice said, pointing out the various directions each lay in. “There’s also the Fungiferous Forest, though you need to take some of his shrinking potion to properly explore it. That way is the Hedge Maze, and the rabbit burrows – that’s where the White Rabbit and the March Hare live.”
Victor wasn’t surprised to learn the March Hare was one of Mr. Carroll’s creations. “I thought the March Hare lived with Mr. Dodgson.”
“Well, he does practically,” Alice admitted. “They and the Dormouse are nearly inseparable. But he has a residence here, should he choose to use it. Underneath them is also the village of Dementia, where the mining gnomes live. And then back nearer the front is Looking-Glass House, where Lewis lives. Everything runs backwards there, and the chess sets and card decks are all alive. He’s even created a tiny world out of a chessboard for them.” She smirked. “Lewis seems to have an obsession with making things either very small or very big.”
“There are worse obsessions to have,” Victor commented, smiling as another butterfly – this one a bright blue that reminded him of the ones they had at home – fluttered past.
“Yes, I suppose there are,” Alice agreed, leaning back to watch the butterfly herself.
And accidentally placing her hand on his.
The contact was like a shock of lightning through him. Victor was honestly unused to being touched unless someone was dragging him around. And he was extremely unused to being touched by young ladies. His eyes snapped onto Alice’s hand, resting on his. Her healthy pink skin was a distinct contrast to his own dead white. And her skin was so – so soft, her flesh so warm against his. . . .
Alice noticed the touch as well, looking down at their hands. “Oh! I’m sorry,” she said, pulling away. “I didn’t mean--”
“I know,” Victor said, raising his head. She raised hers at the same time, and their eyes locked. Once again Victor was struck by just how green her eyes were. Almost everyone in Burtonsville either had brown eyes, like himself, or blue eyes. Other shades were a rarity. And Alice’s eyes were just so full of emotion, of life. . . .
He realized he’d been staring, then realized Alice was staring right back. “I-is something the m-matter?” he said, hearing the Cheshire Cat give a little “huff” at the return of his stutter.
“You have such – peculiar eyes,” Alice said after a moment, her cheeks turning slightly pinker. “They look almost like you have no iris at all, just pupil. N-not that I mean they’re not nice, I – um –”
“Your eyes are unusual too,” Victor blurted, feeling himself blush. She thought his eyes were nice? “Er, not that they’re not beautiful as well--” Oh, God, why had he just called them beautiful?! Not that that wasn’t the truth, of course, Alice was very pretty and a little scary but also rather fun to talk to and what was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he keep his thoughts straight for five seconds all of a sudden?
Alice was still staring, and she’d turned even pinker. “Beautiful?” she repeated in a whisper. Something about it sent a sudden, strangely pleasant chill up his spine. . . .
“Oh, there you are!”
The spell was broken by the familiar voice. Both Victor and Alice managed to wrench their eyes away from each other and turn their heads to see Marty standing behind them. The young man was slightly disheveled, and looked both amused and annoyed. “I’ve been trying to find you for a hour and a half!” he continued, walking a bit closer.
Goodness, he’d been exploring for that long? Victor gave Marty a sheepish smile. “I’m terribly sorry, I rather lost track of the time.”
“Eh, that’s easy to do in here,” Marty allowed with a little wave. “Hey Alice. Hello Cheshire.”
“Hello Marty,” Alice said, picking at one of her gloves. “Nice to see you again.”
“Your timing could use some work,” the Cheshire Cat said, padding over and twining around Marty’s legs. “You interrupted a staring contest I was just starting to get interested in.”
Victor felt his cheeks heat all over again. “Nothing,” he said, just a little too quickly. “Alice and I were just t-talking. She was telling me about the park.”
“Oh yeah, Alice would know this place inside and out,” Marty said with a nod. “Been coming here ever since you were a kid, right?”
Alice nodded. “I was telling him how I inspired the Pool of Tears,” she said, looking back at the pond. “Along with some other things.”
“She’s quite the conversationalist,” Victor said, hoping to banish the lingering traces of awkwardness. Glancing at the feline still prowling about, he added, “So is the Cheshire Cat.”
“They say flattery will get you nowhere,” the Cheshire Cat told him, then winked. “But it never hurts, either.”
“You’ll have to save the best tongue-twisters, Cheshire,” Marty said, consulting his watch again. “We really ought to be getting back. Doc’s probably come up with a new invention by now.”
“Oh, yes,” Victor said, feeling a pang. He’d hoped to explore so much more. Especially now that Alice had told him a bit more about the place. He got up reluctantly. “We’d best be off, then.”
Marty picked up on the disappointment in his face. “Don’t worry, we can come back tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “Doc’s pretty easy about giving us lots of free time. You’ll get to see it all.”
Victor smiled. “I’m glad.” He turned back to Alice, who got to her feet. “It was good to see you again, Miss Liddell.”
“It was quite pleasant seeing you too, Master Van Dort,” she said, then bent down. “Don’t forget your inkwell.”
“Oh, thank you,” Victor said, accepting it from her. Their fingers brushed as the little pot was passed over – Victor felt another jolt, but managed to keep from showing it this time. “I’ll – I’ll see you in the future?”
“I’m sure you will,” Alice said, with another one of her genuine smiles. “Dr. Brown and Richard are quite good friends, and you’ve still got an invitation to attend one of March’s tea parties.”
“And if you come here often enough, you’re sure to encounter her,” the Cheshire Cat added, smiling in a way that almost seemed lecherous.
Victor swallowed. “Good. Well then, good day.”
“Have a good one Alice, Cheshire,” Marty nodded. “Come on, Victor, the path’s back this way.” He set off back the way he’d come. Victor lingered a moment to give Alice a final nod, then followed.
Once they were alone, Marty gave Victor a smirk. “Staring contest, huh?”
Victor really wished he could stop blushing. “She’d j-just put her h-hand on mine,” he said defensively. “It wasn’t – it really--” He didn’t even know what to say.
“You like her, though, right? As a friend?”
“She seems nice enough,” Victor said. “Though a bit scary at times.”
“Scary? What did she do, break out the Vorpal Blade in front of you?”
“That thing has a name??”
“Yeah. Apparently it’s the sharpest knife on earth – can cut through almost anything,” Marty said. “She’s very proud of it. What did she do with it?”
“Killed a fish,” Victor admitted. “A snark.”
“Oh, those things? Trust me, it deserved it,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve had to swim with them – they gang up on you and don’t let go.”
“You seem very casual about her owning a weapon,” Victor noted. “Is that common for young ladies around here?”
“No, but Alice is way different than most normal girls,” Marty said. Victor had to nod at that. “Doc and I have known her for a while. She’s pretty nice once you get to know her. Temper like a volcano, but you really have to piss her off to get her violent. Normally she just cuts you down with her tongue. Never get into an insult contest with her, she’s always gonna win.”
“I’ll remember that,” Victor said with a smile. “And yes, I noticed. She seemed genuinely upset that she’d frightened me.”
“Yeah, that would have to do with – uh--” Marty suddenly stopped, eyes darting back and forth. “I really shouldn’t say--”
Victor, however, already had a guess at what he meant. “Her time in the asylum, you mean?”
Marty’s eyes went wide with shock. “She told you about that already? Took three visits for me and Doc to get the story.”
“The Cheshire Cat forced her, in a way,” Victor explained. “He mentioned she was mad, and I thought it meant she was Touched.”
Marty shook his head. “No – she’s more like an Igor, like me. Just likes to hang around all the mad scientists. And yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. A lot of people are afraid of her because she spent eight years locked up. I’ll admit she can be creepy sometimes, but I’ve never seen her hurt anyone or anything that didn’t deserve it.”
Victor thought about that for a moment. “The snark did try to spit acid at me first,” he said.
“Yeah, you see? You don’t have to be afraid of her unless you get her mad.”
“Yes, but I sometimes think I have a talent for that,” Victor mumbled. “My mother always seemed angry at me for some reason.”
Marty opened his mouth to say something, then paused and seemingly changed his mind about what he was going to say. “Is Alice anything like your mom?”
Victor snorted. “Oh no. My mother would probably hate her on sight.”
“Then I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Victor snickered, despite himself. “How do you know her and her friends?” he asked as they reached the entrance again.
“Doc needed a hat for a special occasion, so we went to Richard’s shop,” Marty said. “They got to talking, and it turns out Richard’s got as big a thing for clocks and time as Doc does. They tend to bounce ideas off each other, and he’s got an open invitation to drop by the tea parties he and March are always having.” He laughed. “You gotta see one of those.”
“Well, I do have my own invitation,” Victor said, smiling. “Perhaps we could attend one day this week?”
“I don’t see why not. Let’s go talk to Doc about it.”