When Alan Spade first spotted Alice she was talking to a squirrel. He stood with his pressure washer in hand, staring past his chipped white picket fence, and there she stood on the sidewalk, hands on hips, chastising the squirrel for giving her poor directions.
“You’re talking ever so fast,” she said in a thick English accent that bordered on ridiculous. “I cannot understand a thing you’re saying!”
He almost called to his wife, Marla, to come outside, but then he remembered she was gone.
The girl looked like an older version of Alice from the illustrations in the book version of Alice in Wonderland and not like Alice from the Disney film. Really she was an ugly girl of eleven or twelve with a scrunched-up face and pale skin. Her bramble of hay-colored hair was tied up in a big blue ribbon and she wore an archaic corn yellow dress with a white apron complimented by blue stockings and Mary Jane flats.
The squirrel ran off and Alice stomped her Mary Janes and crossed her arms. She glanced over and spotted Alan staring.
“Sir!” she called. “Oh sir!”
He put down his pressure washer and approached the fence.
“Everything ok?” he asked.
“Oh, my name’s Alice and I’m terribly, terribly lost,” she said, gripping the fence and leaning toward him with one foot dangling behind her. “Perhaps you could tell me which way I ought to go from here.”
“Depends where you’re going.”
“How would I know? I told you, I’m lost.”
“No,” he said, “what I meant was where are you trying to go?”
“Away from here.”
“Then—I guess it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
Alice giggled. “Sir, you sound so much like the Cheshire Cat. Do you know him?”
Alan scratched at his receding hairline. “Is that the brown cat that’s always pissing on my wife’s hydrangeas?”
Alice shook her head and glanced around like a tourist stepping off the plane in a foreign country. “You speak so strangely, sir, and everything here looks so very different from what I’m accustomed to. Which part of Wonderland is this?”
“You’re not in Wonderland,” Alan said. “You’re in suburbia.”
Alice stepped away from the fence, her eyes wide. “This just gets curiouser and curiouser.”
She turned and spotted a brown rabbit emerge from the bushes across the street.
“Oh, sir!” she called after it. “Sir! Do you know the White Rabbit or perhaps the March Hare? Sir!”
The rabbit took off into the bushes and Alice ran after it shouting, “Sir! Sir!”
Alan shook his head and returned to his pressure washer.
Alan arrived at the station the next day with his uniform looking uncharacteristically wrinkled. Marla usually did the ironing and he kept forgetting to build an extra few minutes into his morning schedule to complete the unfamiliar chore. He strolled into the bullpen and there was Alice, sitting in the interrogation room with her legs kicking beneath her.
Alan called over another officer, Tony Bowers, who had his face obscured by a large Styrofoam cup. He wobbled over, his large gut leading the way.
“Bowers, what is that girl doing here?”
“Hey, Spade, saw your wife workin’ the emergency room last night. You two still having your issues?”
“Did you hear what I said? What is that girl doing here?”
“Who? Alice the loon? She got picked up last night wandering around in the park.”
“Why’s she in the interrogation room?”
“The little nutjob wouldn’t shut up. She kept blabbering on about God-knows-what and finally the night shift guys couldn’t take it no more.”
“She was at my house yesterday,” Alan said, “going on about Wonderland.”
Bowers laughed deep from his belly. “A lost girl stops at your house and you just let her wander off? Jesus, man, I know you don’t want no kids but that doesn’t mean you have to go and kill off other people’s.”
Alan felt his hands curl into fists. “Did anyone check missing persons?”
“Course we did,” Bowers said. “Didn’t turn up nothing. No one’s reported a missing child and the girl just talks nonsense. Child Services will be here within the hour.”
“Maybe I could try talking to her,” Alan said.
“Be my guest. Like I said, she’s just spittin’ bull.”
The walls of the interrogation room were painted pale grey and only contained a simple table with a chair on each side. No one ever looked more out of place there than Alice, who seemed to melt the grey right off the walls.
She recognized him as soon as he stuck his head inside the room, even with his uniform on.
“You! The Cheshire man!” Alice sprang up and ran over to him. “Oh, please, sir, please. I’ve been taken prisoner in this awful place.”
He knelt down to speak with her face-to-face, standard operating procedure when dealing with children.
“You’re not a prisoner. We’re just trying to figure out who you belong to.”
“I don’t belong to anyone. I’m not a dog, you know.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then you should say what you mean. If I learned anything in Wonderland, it’s that one must always say what one means.”
“Wow. You must really enjoy Alice in Wonderland.”
“Oh, I do, sir. I enjoy Alice in Wonderland ever so much which is why I want to be Alice in Wonderland once again instead of Alice in Suburbia, which I am not enjoying very much at’ll.”
“Where exactly is it that you live, Alice?”
“Oh, I live everywhere, sir—at least until I’m dead.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Alan carefully phrased his next question. “Where were you before you came to suburbia?”
“And how did you get here from Wonderland?”
“I walked through the mirror in the Duchess’ house.”
“And where were you before you were in Wonderland?”
“In England on my family’s estate.”
“And where in England was your family’s estate?”
Alice thought about this one. “I don’t remember, sir. I’ve been living in Wonderland so long I’ve forgotten.”
“Have you forgotten or do you not know because the book never says where in England Alice lived?”
“Which book do you speak of, sir?”
A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Bowers stuck his head through the opening and informed Alan that the woman from Child Services was there.
Alan turned back to Alice and sighed. “I hope you find your way back to Wonderland, Alice, I really do.”
“Thank you, sir. You’ve been ever so kind to me. Spades have always been my favorite suit.”
He followed her eyes to his nameplate and smiled. “Take care of yourself, Alice.”
She smiled a crooked little grin that was much more English than her accent and threw her arms around his neck and squeezed in an awkward hug, forcing her straw-colored bramble into Alan’s face.
He finally managed to free himself and left her there in the interrogation room.
Outside, the woman from Child Services, an elderly woman with glasses on a string, greeted Alan with a scowl. Her name was Ms. Snelling.
“What’s going to happen to her?” Alan asked.
“Unfortunately, nothing good,” Ms. Snelling said. “It’s rare we don’t have any kind of identification or familial relations in the case of a minor. She’ll eventually end up in a group home, but she’ll have to remain in a juvenile detention center until she’s processed.”
“But I’m not sure she’ll do well in a juvenile detention center.”
“Very few children do,” Snelling said robotically.
Alan glanced through the interrogation room window at Alice, who seemed to be staring at him with her large, doe eyes, her hand pressed up against the glass.
“Well, what if—what if someone were willing to house the child until the paperwork could be completed?”
Ms. Snelling peered at Alan over the top of her glasses. “And where would such an altruistic individual be found, Officer Spade?”
Alan threw open the front door of his home and Alice ran inside.
“Oh my,” she said. “This is the biggest cottage I’ve ever seen!”
Alan’s home was a fairly typical middle-class home decorated by his wife—a two story bi-level home with a finished basement Alan used as a billiards room. He escorted Alice to the guest bedroom upstairs.
“Eventually, we’ll have to find you some clean clothes,” he said. “You can’t go running around in that dress all the time.”
“It’s never stopped me before,” she said.
“Well, you shouldn’t go running around in the same dress. If you need anything, I’ll be just down the hall.”
“And where will you be if I don’t?”
Alan was too exhausted to answer. Instead, he quickly shut the door and left her there before she had a chance to say anything else. Halfway down the hall, he rested against the wall with his hand over his face. A soft humming floated to him from Alice’s new room and he couldn’t help but wonder why the hell he had just sacrificed a week’s worth of vacation time for some crazy girl he had just met.
The next morning he awoke to an eruption he first suspected of being thunder. Then he remembered Alice and realized the noise had actually been the sound of dozens of pots and pans hitting the kitchen floor. He ran downstairs and found Alice lying on the kitchen floor in a rainbow puddle with blue gel outlining her lips. Empty containers of orange juice and milk and dish soap and every other liquid in his kitchen lay strewn around with their caps popped off, oozing their contents onto the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
She howled like a wolf caught in a bear trap and held her stomach.
He reached down and picked up a bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Alice, did you drink this?”
She nodded. “I saw—a squirrel outside run into a hole in the tree and I thought—I’d join him for tea but none of these drinks made me any smaller.”
“Christ, Alice, are you insane?!”
In answer to his question, she leaned forward and vomited a puddle of bright blue and green with swirls of milky white and splashes of orange. It was the only time Alan had ever seen anyone vomit an abstract painting.
He dragged Alice to her feet, threw her in the back of his car, and raced off to the hospital.
Ms. Snelling was waiting for Alan outside the emergency room after Alice had had her stomach pumped.
“Less than one day,” she said. “Less than one day, Officer Spade.”
“I know, I know. I’ll do better.”
“Are you sure you’re capable? She’s a very disturbed young lady, and my interest is in the well-being of the child.”
“I will do better, I promise,” Alan said.
But deep down, he wasn’t so sure he could keep that promise.
The next morning, Alan woke extra early to ensure he’d beat Alice out of bed. At around five, she came skipping into the kitchen in her dress, which at this point was discolored and stained and almost unwearable.
“Sir, sir,” she said, “I’m ever so hungry. That snake those people in the white room stuck into my mouth stole all my food! I know it’s early but I would love a nice hot pudding or perhaps gooseberry fool!”
“Um—I don’t know what any of that is, but I’ve got breakfast all set up for ya.”
He led her into the dining room and sat her down at the formal dining table in front of a bowl of Cheerios, a plate with two strawberry Pop-Tarts and three strips of overcooked bacon, and a glass of orange juice.
“Sorry,” Alan apologized. “I’m not much of a cook.”
“I would venture to say you’re no cook at all!” Alice said. “This is not at all what I had in mind for my unbirthday breakfast.”
“Oh, it’s your birthday today?”
“No, it’s my unbirthday, sir.”
“Wait—isn’t everyday that isn’t your birthday your unbirthday?”
“Exactly! Certainly it’s your unbirthday, too. We should celebrate!”
“Maybe after breakfast.”
Despite her earlier complaints, Alice ate greedily. She devoured the Pop-Tarts in three or four bites and then slid the strips of bacon down her throat. Her hand worked like a piston, moving the spoon from the bowl to her mouth in a blur. She refused to drink the orange juice, most likely on account of her associating the orange liquid with her experience the previous day.
“Rubbish,” she said when she finished the last bite. “Absolute rubbish.”
Then she picked up her empty plate and threw it like a Frisbee directly at Alan’s head. He ducked just in time and the plate shattered on the wall behind him.
“What are you doing?!”
“I’m clearing the table,” she said.
Then she picked up the bowl and smashed it through the glass of Marla’s display case for the china they had received as a wedding gift.
The bowl and the china lay in ruins inside the display case.
“Thanks for helping to clean up,” Alan said.
“Oh, you’re ever so welcome!”
The next morning, he woke to another crash, this one from the guest bedroom. He rushed across the hall and threw open the door and there was Alice, bleeding from her temple, surrounded by a sea of glass. The standing mirror was nothing but a frame, the mirror completely shattered.
“My apologies, sir,” Alice said in a low, monotone voice. “I wanted ever so much to return to Wonderland. I thought maybe I could travel through your mirror, but it refused to cooperate.”
Alan bent down and inspected the gash on Alice’s head. It was about three inches across and wide as a caterpillar. She needed stitches, but he knew he couldn’t take her to the hospital again, not with Ms. Snelling’s scowl waiting for him. No, there was only one person he could call for help.
Marla arrived twenty minutes later with her first aid kit. She worked as an operating room nurse, and Alan knew she had off on Thursdays.
“When Mrs. Carrol called and said you had a girl living with you this was not what I pictured at all,” she said upon laying eyes on Alice.
She cleaned the wound and stitched Alice up with three butterfly stitches.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Alice said. “Thank you ever so much.”
Alan let Alice loose in the backyard to chase butterflies and attempt to strike up conversations with the local wildlife.
With the glass patio door closed, Alan was left alone with his wife and her glare, a penetrating, accusatory stare perfected over seven years of marriage. They hadn’t been in the same room together for over a month.
“What?” he finally said, knowing full well he was walking directly into her trap.
“What is this?” Marla asked. “Are you trying to prove something?”
“No, I’m not trying to prove anything. I thought I could help her and I know we’ve been arguing about children—”
“So you thought you would go out and get a practice child and see what you thought about the whole fatherhood thing?”
“No, it’s not like that. Well, yeah, maybe it is kind of like that, but I really did want to help the girl, but now I need help, Marla. This girl is insane!”
Out in the yard, Alice seemed to be having an interesting conversation with the squirrels.
“Well, I’d be insane, too, if someone forced me to wear that filthy dress.”
Alan glanced outside where Alice knelt in the mud. Her dress, which had been a mess before, now appeared to be in absolute tatters from trouncing all over the yard.
“Shopping,” Marla said, answering the unasked question. “I’ll take her shopping. You look like you could use some rest.”
Alan smiled, knowing that that meant Marla was staying.
When they arrived back at the house, Alice ran through the door wearing a new white dress covered in red flowers and wrapped herself around Alan’s waist.
“Oh thank goodness, sir, she tried to dress me like a boy! It was ever so terrible!”
“Pants didn’t go over so well,” Marla said. “Trying to dress this girl is like trying to dress a Golden Retriever.”
Marla led Alice and Alan into the living room and forced Alice down in front of the flat screen. She held a small plastic bag.
“Are we going to watch something on the magic wall?” Alice asked.
“Yes we are and I think it’s something you’re going to enjoy.”
Marla pulled a DVD copy of Alice in Wonderland from her Target bag and popped it into the DVD player.
“What are you doing?” Alan asked.
“I just want to see how she reacts to it. Maybe it’ll wake her up from all this nonsense.”
Alice watched the television with rabid curiosity, her eyes wide as saucers, her mouth hanging slightly agape in an excited smile. She glanced back at Alan when the title flashed across the screen, but soon her eyes were back on her 2D counterpart. She watched cartoon Alice chase after the rabbit and tumble down the hole into Wonderland. With each second that passed, Alice’s face seemed to crumble like sedimentary rock. The excited smile vanished and most of her lower lip she held tucked tightly in her teeth. Her eyes glassed over and she wrapped her arms across her chest.
She made it to Alice’s conversation with the doorknob before she sprang to her feet and darted off into the backyard.
Alan turned to Marla, anger carved into his face.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just thought some immersion therapy might snap her back to reality.”
Alan followed Alice into the backyard and found her cowering under the oak tree, her face buried in her hands.
“Please don’t make me watch anymore,” Alice cried. “It was awful—awful.”
Her English accent lay next to her, forgotten.
“You don’t have to watch anymore. I promise,” Alan told her. “Come back inside.”
She smiled and leapt into his arms. He held her there, softly caressing her back and he felt her body relax.
She voluntarily accompanied him back inside the house. Alan and Marla spent the evening making amends. Marla combed out Alice’s hair while Alan read to her from the first Harry Potter book, which she seemed to enjoy very much, commenting and openly giggling throughout Alan’s reading. Around nine o’clock, they put Alice to bed. She fell asleep almost right away and the pair stood there and watched her for a few minutes before retiring to their bedroom together.
The next day was as normal a day as Alan could remember since Marla left—except for Alice, of course. His wife called off work and they spent the day with their odd houseguest, teaching her about the proper way to clean off the table after breakfast and the value of staying the same size on a consistent basis. Alan finished reading the first Potter novel and would have started the second except Alice insisted on going out into the backyard after dinner to discuss the novel with the squirrels. Actually, there was nothing normal about the day, but it was the most normal Alan had felt in a long, long time.
Later that evening, Ms. Snelling called to inform Alan that Alice’s paperwork had been processed and she’d be by the next morning to take her to the group home. Alan didn’t know what to say so he just told Snelling Alice would be ready in the morning.
Alan and Marla sat Alice down in the living room and tried to explain the situation.
“But why, why can’t I just stay here? I like it here.”
Her English accent had all but evaporated.
“You don’t understand, Alice, there’s a lot of red tape in matters of child custody. I’m sure you’ll find a very nice family who will love you very much.”
“But you two have been ever so kind to me. Don’t you want me here? Did I do something wrong?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Marla said. “It’s just the way things are.”
“Well, I don’t care for the way things are! They suck!”
And Alice ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door. Alan could hear her sobs from his bedroom, but Marla said it was best to leave the girl be. He listened to her cry until the sobbing subsided around midnight. He figured she must have cried herself to sleep. Although Marla disapproved, Alan went and checked on her. He cracked the door open and the light from the hallway poured in on Alice’s pale face. She stirred, sighed, and rolled over but did not wake. He watched her sleep for a few minutes, listening to the rise and fall of her breath rolling across the pillow. Then he returned to his room. He checked on her every hour until about four in the morning when he finally drifted off into a restless haze.
His alarm woke him around seven. It was an hour before Ms. Snelling’s arrival. Marla was still asleep, snoring softly next to him. Alan staggered down the hall to the guestroom, but Alice wasn’t inside. Her absence woke him instantly. Her sheets lay in a heap on the bed, but the girl was nowhere in sight.
His heart slowed when he walked back out into the hallway and heard water running in the bathroom.
“Alice?” he called. “Alice, you in there?”
He tried the door but found it locked.
Still no answer.
He pounded on the door, lightly at first and then, with each passing second and still no answer, more forcefully.
The water continued to run inside but still, Alice said nothing.
Marla appeared at his side, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“Alice locked herself inside.”
Alan ran to the garage and grabbed a screwdriver from his toolbox and sprinted back to the bathroom door. He quickly used it to unlock the door and rushed inside. The water in the sink was running, but Alice wasn’t there. Alan walked slowly to the sink and turned off the running water.
“Alan, look at the mirror,” Marla said.
Alan glanced up and studied the mirror. He stared at it a long time to make certain what he saw wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. There were two handprints on the mirror like someone had placed their hands there after it had fogged over after a hot shower—only the shower hadn’t been used that morning. There was no puddle of water in the bottom of the tub or the clambake humidity that usually accompanies a hot shower. Alan knew from the size that the handprints belonged to Alice. Underneath the handprints, she had drawn a spade inside the outline of a heart.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” he said.
He rested his hand against the warm mirror and smiled at his reflection.
Douglas James Troxell once tried to use a flamingo to play croquet, but the flamingo would not cooperate. His stories have appeared in Mobius, Fiction365, Word Fountain, The Fringe, and The Wilkes University Review.
Follow his blog at http://themoderntranscendentalist.wordpress.com.