Today, Lise Quintana and Keven Sharp explore “Improbable,” by Mandy Kay, submitted for Issue #10, Alice in Wonderland.
There were black hornets swarming inside her head. She shouldn’t be here, she knew, but she always had a soft spot for white rabbits. Human in a mask or not, if she squinted, she could almost believe that he had soft rabbit feet and not scuffed—and likely stolen—shoes. He held a baggie between his middle and ring finger, hidden in his cupped palm. She held a hundred dollar bill in the same style. They shook hands and parted ways. He was a hundred dollars richer. She had a small handful of pills with little smiley faces. She didn’t think there was any need for secrecy in the crowded room, but he was paranoid about transactions. He insisted she should be, too. Maybe he was right. But a small part of her wanted to get caught. Just a little. It added to the thrill. It gave her something else to think about for a little while before she went to bed at night.
Everyone deals with death differently. That was always the reason she gave her mother, sister, and whatever friends she had along the way. Some people turned to religion. Others turned to photographs and old home movies. And some people turned to more self-destructive ways of coping. It started with alcohol when she was seventeen. After a few years when booze and wild nights out didn’t give her the comfort she craved, she turned to pills. Sometimes she could remember what she did the next morning. Most times she could not.
Alice Liddell left the party early. The lock on her front door was rarely engaged anymore. She didn’t have anything worth stealing anyway. Her bed was just at the other end of the room, but the stained, cat-scented carpet looked more comfortable this evening. Alice rested her head in the crook of her arm, opened the baggie, and popped two pills in her mouth. Down the hatch.
Her fingers danced along the rest of the pills inside the plastic while she waited. Swallowing the three that remained was more tempting than she’d like to admit. But suppose someone were to walk in before her light went kaput? There would be an emergency room fee and her stomach would get pumped. She’d come out of it broke with nothing to do for several weeks. All in all, it would be a waste of three perfectly good pills. Overdosing wasn’t the way she wanted to go anyway. It seemed too cowardly. She sighed and rolled to her back, watching the cracks in the ceiling to pass the time by until the high kicked in.
The floor vibrated beneath her. That was new. The carpet fibers danced this way and that, seeming to grow before her very eyes. But that was impossible.
“Nothing is impossible. Improbable, yes. But not impossible.”
The voice didn’t seem to come from any one place. It echoed around the room, reverberated, amplified. But that was, well, improbable.
Alice felt the floor give way, and despite everything, she was not surprised. The smell of rot overpowered the building on humid days. When it rained, her ceiling leaked, and there were two more floors above her. She held her breath and braced herself for impact. Impact that never came. The carpet fibers wrapped around her body like snakes and held her over a vast expanse of nothingness. Her cries were trapped in her throat. One moment she saw a ceiling, the next, a blue and purple sky with several birds overhead. Not impossible. Not at all! Just improbable and absolute nonsense. It could be a bad batch of pick-me-ups, definitely, but she could feel the breeze in her hair and her skin scream against the scratchy fabric of whatever the carpet was made of. If she looked down, she might panic even more, so she kept her gaze ever upward, greeting the sky with a strained smile of sheer terror. She could feel her binds struggle to keep her weight, and prayed that the snapping she kept hearing wasn’t them giving way to gravity. Alice closed her eyes and prayed for life.
Life answered with one more snap.
Alice could not scream, let alone get a breath of air as she plummeted. She waved her arms, grasping for something, anything, only stopping when her fingers seized a small pocket watch. Her mind clicked over a notch. The cool brass felt familiar in her hand. The seconds ticked by unnaturally slow backward on its face. Ever since she grabbed it out of thin air, her fall became more of a gentle slide.
Her feet finally touched solid ground. Flowers grew here and there, all moving, but there was no breeze to speak of among the field. She swore she heard her name, but that was silly. There was no one else here. Except, if she squinted, she thought that that flower was moving different. And the one next to it. Alice got down on her hands and knees to confirm something she already somehow knew. The flowers had faces. Their voices were quiet, but they were there. This should unnerve her, she knew it should, but she swore she knew them. But that was imposs—rather, improbable. Or was it?
Alice jumped. Too loud to be a flower. Too familiar not to follow. Curious. Shoving the watch in the pocket of her pants, she walked along a tiled path, careful to avoid the cracks. Last thing she needed right now was a mother back home with a snapped backbone. Harmless rhyme or not, she wasn’t taking any chances. It led to a clearing amongst trees and bushes, a table that was several feet too long with chairs of different shapes and sizes, none matching. No one sat but a short man with a hat a little too big. Apparently here, the bigger, the better. He gave her a glance, drained his tea cup, then with another glance spit it all right back.
“Ah, but there are plenty of chai–”
“I said, no room! Not for you, Alice. Not anymore.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks. She had trouble placing what she felt. Anger? No, there was no need for anger. She didn’t want to sit at the table anyway. Confusion, then. But it had a taste of something else. Shock. Some misplaced shame
“How do you know my name?”
The stranger glared back at her. He took another small sip from the cup, then hurled it at a tree. The shatter made his point loud and clear without him saying a word. She felt she should know him, and she supposed he felt the same by the way he acted.
“How do you not remember mine?” he asked after a pause too long. “Unless they’ve finally gone to your head. No. No, you are not Alice. Not the right one. Fake! Imposter! Improper!”
He rolled his shoulders back and stood. First on ground. Then on chair. Then on table, walking through pots and cakes, giving little care to where his feet may land so long as they brought him closer to her.
“The real Alice is in there,” he said, finger dangerously close to her forehead. Alice took a couple steps back. “She’s in there, but she’s dehydrated. Denied. Delicate. Dead! Digging through dust to dangerous places. To dungeons. For dragons! Dear, darling dimwit. Dancing around decapitated. Not much use without a head. And you are to blame, Not-Alice. You are to blame with your drink-me drinks and eat-me eats. Ruined your mind, they did. For shame! Little girl no longer. No curiouser. No room for you. No room for me!”
He laughed and rolled himself along to the opposite side of the table, not seeming to care or even notice the mess he was making of his brightly colored outfit. Alice tried to cough past the lump in her throat, but it came out more like a sob. He was positively mad.
“Watch your step, Not-Alice! Watch your back!”
Alice turned and lost her footing. The world fell beneath her, this time with no magical carpet to help break her fall. Head over heels over head again, down through the ground, up toward the sky, spinning around, upside down again. Hair smoothed in a ribbon, dress pressed and perfect, skirts more a floatation device in a sea of sky than simple clothing. Teapots and ticking clocks tumbled right along with her, sensible and dangerous. Forests of mushrooms to the left. Sugar coated mountains to the right.
If she noticed her sudden change in clothing, she did not seem to mind. A shift in the current, and Alice fell to the side. Her head felt like it might burst. She knew this place. She knew that man. It was on the tip of her tongue, but the full thought would not come.
“I feel like I blocked it out,” she said aloud to herself. “I know this place. I know I know it, but…”
But it just wasn’t clicking. The puzzle was laid out in front of her, and she only needed to find which pieces fit together, but it was harder than it looked.
“I’m really just dreaming.”
But it didn’t feel like a dream. That was the problem. None of her dreams were ever this vivid. Not since her father was still alive, at very least. “Because he encouraged them.”
That was always the main difference between her relationship with her parents. Her mother wanted her to do away with silly things like magic and play. She wouldn’t read her bedtime stories or talk to her about what garden gnomes did to keep bad spirits away. It was always academics, not adventure. Fitting rooms, not fantasy. Manners, not madness. The woman was dreadfully boring when Alice was growing up, and when her father passed away, she had only gotten more reserved and strict. Sometimes, late at night, when everyone else was asleep, Alice would imagine life had her mother gotten cancer instead. She knew this was a wicked, terrible thing to think of, but it helped pass the time all the same. Alice and her father got along better than her and her mother ever would, that was all. When she was younger, they’d talk for hours about… About…
Her voice felt like ice in her throat. The pain eased a little, as if she popped the top of her forehead and all the pressure hissed out.
Wonderland. Where flowers sang in the sun and tea parties never ended. Where nothing is impossible and everything is nonsense. Nothing expected, only accepted. Wonderland. Baby pigs and mazes and croquet and public executions. Cats and rabbits. Paint on roses.
“How could I forget?”
Everyone dealt with death in their own way. Her way was late night parties and drinks and pills. Her sister’s way was moving out of the house as soon as the funeral was over. Her mother’s way was throwing everything of her father’s to the garbage bin. She claimed remembering only prolonged the pain. Alice did not doubt. She’d seen her mother cry over old letters and photographs too many times. Alice just did not agree.
Up until he was too sick to move his pen, he’d draw her pictures of the different creatures in Wonderland for them to tell each other stories about. Her mother thought it was unhealthy for them both to carry out this fantasy. Sometimes she’d make a remark or two, but most of the time, at least while he was still at home, she’d just stand by and shake her head.
Alice sat back down on the ground. Her head was swimming. The colors brightened and faded with every breath she took.
It happened when he went to the hospital. She’d come back home and notice some of the stuff in the house was missing. When she talked to her sister about it, she insisted that her mother was just dealing with the situation best she could and to just leave well enough alone. She tried. Most of the time, she could ignore that parts of her father were going in the dumpster out back.
She checked the dress to see if the watch was still there. Alas, no pockets.
The cancer spread to his brain. He turned into an empty shell. Alice took the change harder than her mother or sister. She had to be taken out of his room by a couple nurses on duty.
“It happened overnight. It wasn’t gradual. One day he was there. The next, poof.”
She’d gone home alone that night. Her mother and sister told her to come back in the morning after she got some rest. They’d call if there was any change. She went to her room and locked the door behind her. It took her a few minutes to realize what about the room was different. Empty walls don’t lie.
“I remember screaming. I kicked a hole in the door when my fingers were shaking so bad I couldn’t get the lock undone. I knew my mother was just dealing with it the way she knew how, but…”
But she had no right to go into her room. All the pictures they’d drawn together of Wonderland that lined the walls in the tiny bedroom lay ripped in the trash. She took out the pieces one by one, trying so hard to put them back together.
“But they were soaked with food and grease from breakfast. They were ruined.”
She tried to make sense of nonsense, just like she did when her father was still able to speak. She tried to scrape dried egg off a colored picture of the Cheshire Cat with her fingers, but the paper was so sodden that she only ripped it further. Alice Liddell cried alone at the dining room table, her sobs drowning out the incoming calls and texts from her sister.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Alice sat on the ground in silence. The pain and dizziness were both gone, but she would have preferred it to the emptiness that filled her now. Alone, with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company.
“Not completely alone, Alice.”
The Cheshire Cat appeared from nowhere, nuzzling his grinning face against her hands. She was too preoccupied to give him the attention he craved. He seemed to understand all the same, choosing to vanish, then reappear again on a stump next to her. His smile seemed more mocking than friendly.
“Do you think he would be happy for you?”
The question made her eyes sting. The Cheshire Cat knew the answer already. Why did he have to ask something so obvious.
“Pills and tablets and drinks far stronger than Hatter’s tea. Alice, what have you done?”
She tried to smile back at him, but her facial expression was already set. Instead, she covered her face in her hands, and for the first time since that night at the dining room table, she gave herself over to grief.
“But what she did wasn’t right! Those were my memories. Just because she wanted to write him out didn’t mean I wanted to. It’s not fair.”
“Fair doesn’t exist, Alice. Not here. Not there.”
“I miss him.”
“Then don’t wipe him out.”
She’d had the same conversation with her mother on more than one occasion. Every time it ended in pointing fingers, shifting blame from one side to the next, until one of them finally stormed out. It was asinine.
“Eat me eats and drink me drinks. Mushrooms here don’t have the same affect as mushrooms there. You want an escape from sorrow, and all you can manage is suicide. Something happened to that mind of yours. Growing up has nothing to do with it. Stop escaping. Go home, Alice. Wonderland will wait for you.”
The White Rabbit hopped toward her holding his paw out. She hadn’t even noticed he was here before. The brass pocket watch swung from a chain. With timid finger she reached out to take it. She popped it open. This time the hands rushed forward.
But she wasn’t ready to go back, she wanted to say. She blinked before the words could form on her lips, and she was not sitting next to a cat with too wide a smile, but instead sat alone in a corner of the room soaked and freezing. Rain poured inside the open window. It took some effort, but she was able to close it when she put all of her weight into it.
She felt something heavy in the pocket of her jeans. A brass watch on a worn chain. She swallowed hard before pressing the release. Time proceeded as normal. An inscription on the inside cover was hard to make out at first.
Nothing is impossible.
Three smiling pills set on the coffee table within an arms reach. Alice palmed them, rolling each one around in her fingers while she walked to the next room. Plink plink plink! They didn’t look so happy when they swam in toilet water.
She walked back to the other room and picked up her phone. No missed calls. No new texts. That wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. She wasn’t checking to see what she missed while she was passed out. She dialed the first number to come to mind.
“Hey. It’s Alice. Yeah, I got a new phone. Hey listen. I, ah, I’m ready to, you know. I’m ready to fix the problem. I need help.”