Alice can’t remember being this bored in her life. She flops down on her bed, disturbing a pile of textbooks and papers. Her tutors seem intent on overworking her since her sister left for college as if an increased workload could keep her from her feelings. Alice wishes it could.
Bianca, the fluffy white cat her sister left behind, jumps onto Alice’s stomach and begins kneading her belly with its paws. She should shove the cat off because she’ll get white hair all over her nice blue cardigan and white dress but she doesn’t think it’s fair. Bianca is sad too.
Alice reaches her fingers out in front of her toward the peaked ceiling of her attic bedroom. Her nanny Margaret used to say “adventure lies at your fingertips.” Alice can recall all the times she’s tried to see something beyond her fingertips, laying in the grass staring at the cloudless sky or crawling under one of the large hydrangea bushes and pressing her fingers through the mass of green and purple. To her, adventure seemed far beyond the reach of her fingertips, perhaps hidden behind a veil she couldn’t see.
Her parents haven’t been home in months, traveling for this thing or another, and Alice feels their absence mixing with her sister’s to form a sort of melancholy madness within her. Her feelings are like an underwater volcano rumbling and fuming but hidden under the deep dark water. The bubbles of hot steam would take days to reach the surface.
Bianca pounces on a pencil but lands on a pile of slippery paper. She does a sort of ungraceful pawing in an attempt to get her footing but ends up falling onto the floor. Alice rolls onto her stomach and peers at her. She’s shaking her paws and ignoring Alice as if it was her fault. This sort of thing used to make Alice laugh but instead, she just feels sorry for the cat.
Alice rolls out of bed, straightens her dress, pulls up her white tights, and fixes her pearl necklace so the clasp rests at the back of her neck. Standing at her lone triangular window, she watches the gardeners weeding the flowerbeds along the driveway. She can recall waving to the flowers in the mornings as a child, especially the sunflowers and daisies as they moved their heads to follow the sun. She has the urge to do it again.
Pressing her fingertips into the glass she follows the line they make to the light blue VW Beetle her parents bought her for her sixteenth birthday, a car she’s driven only a handful of times. Alice rarely has anywhere to go. Tutors come to her. She has no friends. There are people who cook for her, clean for her, and shop for her. She traces the round curve of the car with her fingers and makes a bold decision.
She slips on her black ballet flats and pats the now-sleeping Bianca on the head before tiptoeing down the wooden stairs. She’s supposed to be studying and the house staff keeps a close eye on her. She can visualize a detailed report of her activity being compiled and sent to her parents daily and it makes her furious. She’s not something to be managed, and without her sister to distract those thoughts away, she lets them rage inside her. The volcano might be close to erupting.
A wooden rack by the tall front door contains a neat row of silver and brass keys of various sizes and shapes all hung on small black hooks. Alice has no idea what all the keys are for despite asking her parents and the staff numerous times. Her keys, the last in the row, are easy to spot thanks to the keychain her sister sent her; a silly grinning pink striped cat with a curling tail and yellow eyes.
Alice peeks through the stained glass of the front door to see where the gardeners are and smiles at the way the colored glass transforms the tidy lawn, flowerbeds, and trees into a kaleidoscope of topsy-turvy colors and shapes. It feels like magic. She opens the door and senses an opening inside herself; a beginning. She runs to the car before someone can stop her.
She imagines people are chasing her, calling her back to her room and her studies, but when she glances in her rearview mirror she sees nothing of the sort. Her quiet street remains neat and orderly with all the hedges clipped into unnatural shapes, not at all the way they grow in nature. Alice realizes she craves wildness, an undisturbed and disorderly place. She turns from the city and presses her fingers out in front of her-letting her fingertips lead the way.
At first, Alice drives with a hyper-focus on the rules of the road making sure to stay three car lengths from the vehicle in front of her and to stop for a full 10 seconds at each stop sign. She plays no music but listens for sirens or signs of someone following her. As the skyline of the city shrinks and disappears behind her, she keeps imagining she’ll be arrested and incarcerated for breaking a rule-the first time in her life.
When nothing happens, Alice begins to relax. She rolls down the window and lets the wind mess up her perfectly styled blonde hair. It occurs to her, in a rush, she’d left her cell phone and purse upstairs in her room. For a moment it feels like a fatal mistake. She imagines a true-crime podcast trying to make sense of her actions, taking her absence of forethought to be some dire clue. The feeling doesn’t take hold though. The further she drives without incident, the more it changes into a sense of giddy freedom. Nobody can track her and she can do what she wants. It makes her laugh.
Alice finds herself leaving the highway and driving on a series of two-lane roads weaving through a part of town she didn’t know existed. There are tall fields of wild grasses dotted by an occasional horse or cow, long driveways disappearing into clumps of tall trees, dusty tractors cutting deep grooves into the soil, and watery rice fields with long-necked white cranes. It feels reckless and Alice enjoys the feeling. Each turn feels like an unwinding or maybe a winding up.
After going across a series of small one-lane bridges she turns onto a dark strip of road filled with things both wonderful and scary; tall unmanaged weeds with giant thorns, rows of scraggly trees leaning across the road as if trying to touch each other, rusted cars stripped and naked without seats or mirrors, and a heaping pile of junk with a faded yellow mattress set on the top like a dirty garbage throne.
It’s a bumpy road and it occurs to Alice she doesn’t know how to change a tire. She slows to avoid needing to figure it out when she spots a strange short man standing dressed in an expensive and spotlessly clean white linen suit. He holds a large gold pocket watch in his hand attached to his jacket by an extravagant gleaming chain. Her windows are down, and as she nears him, she can hear him exclaiming in a quick agitated voice.
“I’m late! I’m late! Oh, this isn’t good at all. I’m so late and I do have such an important date. Oh me, oh my! I’m late.”
Alice stops the car beside the man, aware this isn’t something she should do. Vaguely she recalls the words “stranger danger,” but dismisses it because he looks familiar. He has small watery eyes and hops from foot to foot.
“Are you alright?” Alice calls.
The man jumps, quite high considering his large belly, and then peers into the passenger window at Alice. She notices this close up he’s got a small thin mustache and rather large ears. The buttons on his jacket are gold faces, all slightly different expressions, but all with large bulbous noses. The man looks at his watch and then back at her several times before speaking.
“I’m so late! I’m so very very late!”
“Would you like a ride?” Alice asks.
She’s shocked at her boldness and marvels at how different being impulsive feels. The man looks from the watch to her and back again. He smiles at Alice and she wishes she could remember where she knows him from, perhaps he’s a friend of her father.
“I’m late! I’m so very late!” he says. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing, but if you really don’t mind…”
He’d given her a chance to change her mind, but Alice unlocks the door and smiles at him. She’s being a good citizen. This man is harmless and…he’s late!
He slides into the passenger seat bringing with him the unmistakable smell of flowers. He opens and shuts his pocket watch several times before erupting into a series of sneezes, each a bit larger than the last. He pulls out a white handkerchief covered in tiny red roses from his jacket pocket and loudly blows his nose.
“Are you okay?” Alice says.
The man sneezes again, and it’s such an exuberant thing it makes Alice giggle. She covers her mouth to stifle the sound, afraid to hurt his feelings. He opens and closes his watch, blows his nose several more times, and then stares at Alice.
“Do you have a cat?” he says.
“I’m allergic,” he says and sneezes a few more times.
Alice wishes she’d not let Bianca climb all over her, but the man gives her another smile and his cheeks flush a light pink.
“I’m late,” he says, flipping the watch open again.
“Where should I take you?”
“That way,” he says.
He points straight ahead and Alice begins driving slowly on the uneven road, avoiding holes in the ground and the odd pieces of garbage. She wants to speak to the man more, but he seems rather absorbed in looking at his watch, sneezing, and mumbling to himself.
“I’m late. Oh, dear. This will not do. I’m so late.”
“What are you late for?” Alice asks, unable to contain her curiosity.
The man doesn’t respond, and she thinks it would be rude to ask a second time.
The road takes a sharp turn to the left followed by two more sharp turns to the left. Alice knows, logically, it should lead back to the place they started, but it does not. The road has become wide, smooth, and lined by tall hedges cut the exact same height and width. They drive through a pair of golden gates toward an impressively large mansion surrounded by gigantic rose bushes.
Alice pulls into a valet loop stopping directly in front of the house. Two men rush past her car with buckets of red paint and she swears they look oddly square. Without a word, her passenger jumps from the car, straightens his suit, and runs toward a gathering of people in the gardens to the left of the house. Alice can make out red banners, red carpets, and people dressed in fancy clothes. She calls after the man, but he doesn’t hear her. A long black car appears in her rearview mirror and honks impatiently for her to move.
Alice wonders about the party and why the man was so worried about being late. Perhaps he’s supposed to officiate a wedding or give out an award. Alice doesn’t like not knowing things. She plans to circle back to get some answers, but once she’s pulled away from the house the road narrows and narrows until it’s barely wide enough for her small car to pass.
Without the ability to turn around, she’s forced to continue as the one-lane road winds around and around and up and up. It’s dizzying how high she climbs and how cold the air becomes. Alice rolls up her windows as patches of snow appear beside the car. Tall pine trees form a barrier along the road and she can’t see anything past them. She fears the twisting road will go on forever, but it doesn’t.
Without warning the road stops at an enormous white wall stretching left and right as far as she can see. Alice rubs her eyes. She climbed a snowy mountain to arrive at the base of a wall with no snow in sight. How curious!
There’s a zapping electrical sound in the air and Alice rolls down her window to search for the source. She’s amazed at how warm the air has become. A tall thin man dressed in colorful clothing, layers, and layers of it, leans against the wall. He has a cloud of smoke in front of him, and as she watches, he breaks into an interpretive dance. The smoke changes color from white to blue as he moves in a fluid circular motion, his long arms and legs making graceful arches around him.
Alice can’t take her eyes off him and, as if she’d willed it to happen, he moves toward her car. He arrives at the driver’s window in a flurry of colorful smoke. He has one green eye and one blue. The smell of patchouli, sage, and clove fills her car and makes her dizzy. He gives her a relaxed smile she recognizes but can’t remember why.
“Who are you, man?” he asks.
He says it slowly, drawing out each word, and it makes Alice giggle. He spins in a circle, and a blur of colorful silks floats around him like smoke. He smiles again, leaning so close his blue stone pendant necklace touches her arm.
“Who are you, man? Like, where did you come from?”
“I’m Alice. I came up the mountain. I mean I came down the mountain. Actually, I’m not sure.”
“Whoa, that’s trippy man. Did you go up or did you go down?”
“I don’t know.”
“Far out, man.”
Alice watches him as he begins to dance again, spinning and spinning until she worries he may fall down. He doesn’t. He pulls out a small wooden pipe and fills her car with green smoke smelling of pine needles. Alice swears it circles around him like a wreath, the old line from “Twas the Night Before Christmas” ringing in her head. He gives her a dimpled smile.
“Where are you going, Alice?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how can you go there? I mean, how can you go somewhere you don’t know, man?”
“I don’t know.”
Alice feels confused. The man pulls out a dark brown bottle from a hidden pocket in his clothing and dumps two pills onto his dirty palm, one red and one blue. He holds them out for Alice to examine.
“One pill makes you larger. Like, real big, man. The biggest you can imagine being. You might not stop either, getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Alice nods but has no idea what he’s talking about.
“One pill makes you smaller. Like tiny, man. Like so small you can hide in plain sight and nobody can touch you. So so small.”
It occurs to Alice he’s some kind of drug addict and maybe these are experimental drugs or pills he created. He holds the pills out to her as an offering, but she shakes her head no. He swallows both pills without water. He giggles and Alice does too. There’s a sort of mania about him, but it doesn’t feel dangerous. It feels electric.
Suddenly, a purple smoke smelling of lavender fills the car and it makes Alice feel a bit sleepy. The man begins dancing again and, as Alice watches, he appears to become bigger and smaller over and over. The wall behind him appears to grow and shrink as well. Alice rubs her eyes and realizes she might be drugged by the smoke. It’s an unsettling feeling, but it has made her too relaxed to fully care.
With a flourish, and returning to his regular size, he climbs into the passenger seat and shuts the door behind him. He points at the wall, a flurry of silver bracelets slipping up and down his arm.
“You want to go through, man? Break on through to the other side?”
“You need to use the interface, man. You gotta like tell it to let you pass.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He points a long finger at the wall. His nails are painted purple and there’s a large butterfly ring on his thumb.
“Tell it, man. Tell the wall you want to go through.”
Alice leans out her window and faces the wall. She feels foolish.
“Can you let me pass, please?”
The man laughs and touches her hand. A spark of electric energy passes between them; a shock. His eyes blaze brightly.
“No, man. You got to tell it, not ask it. Tell it!”
Alice hasn’t had the occasion to demand anything in her life, so it feels awkward. He squeezes her hand reassuringly, and she feels another shock. She leans out the window toward the looming white wall and shouts with all her might.
“I demand you let me pass! Now!”
It works! The wall opens wide enough for the small blue car to pass through onto a wide-open countryside with rolling green hills in all directions. The sun shines overhead in a clear blue sky, and the man blows out a yellow smoke smelling of honeysuckles and springtime. He looks at Alice through the haze.
“Who are you, man?”
“Alice. I told you, remember?”
“Yeah, but like, what’s an Alice?”
Alice can’t think of what to say. It’s a strange question, one she hasn’t considered before, and she’s about to ask him who he is when he opens the door and rolls out of the car. Alice slams on the brakes, but he’s on his feet skipping up a small hill covered in daisies waving madly in a flurry of color and movement. Alice waves back until he disappears from view.
For a long time, Alice drives in silence pondering the strange man’s question; what’s an Alice? She’s defined herself by the roles she plays; the little sister, the dutiful daughter, and the student. Alice must be more though, right? She can’t simply be a thing to other people.
Last summer her sister took a course in philosophy and she’d become dull and full of unanswerable questions. Alice can recall her talking about reality and consciousness until she’d talked herself into a frenzy and cried herself to sleep. Alice feels close to the same feeling now.
The road takes a sharp right turn, and then another, and then a third. Alice finds she’s left the countryside behind and she’s passing a large hospital with rows of reflective windows reaching high into the sky. Straining to see the top, she doesn’t see a man crossing the road until she’s upon him. She slams on her brakes and stops less than an inch from his legs.
“Sorry!” Alice calls. “Are you okay?”
The man gives her a crooked smile and laughs with a small snort. He’s got a bulging brown leather bag draped across his chest and is carrying a large misshapen birthday cake on a plate with bright pink frosting. He rushes to her car window and leans in.
“Oh, it’s you!” he says.
He’s wearing dark black eyeliner accentuating murky blue eyes with tiny black pupils. Curly reddish hair peeks out from under a large black top hat with colorful patches. Dressed in purple pants with a maroon jacket, he bows slightly and Alice feels the spark of familiarity she’s been feeling all day. Curiouser and curiouser!
“Do I know you?” she asks.
“Does a butcher know a baker or a candlestick maker? Does a sailor know a ship in the deep blue sea? Does a turtle know the sand it’s hatched into?”
“Suppose or supposed?”
“I don’t know.”
The man moves to the passenger side of the car and climbs in, bringing with him the sugary sweet smell of cake and frosting. The familiar pang of worry hits her stomach for a moment. She doesn’t know this man, for sure, but she dismisses it and realizes it has become easier and easier to do so.
The man unstraps the leather bag and lets it fall to the floor with a clattering of glass. He balances the cake on his knees and Alice can see “Very Merry Unbirthday” written in blue frosting across the top.
“Why, yes. Don’t mind if I do.”
While Alice resumes driving, the man retrieves from his bag a beaker of pale pink liquid and a white teacup with a matching saucer covered in tiny red hearts. Holding both above the cake, he pours the liquid from the beaker into his teacup splashing several drops onto the cake. He returns the beaker to his bag and sips his tea loudly.
Alice doesn’t want to make the mistakes she’d made with her other passengers today in her efforts to be polite. She’d like some answers. Perhaps it was yelling at the wall, but she feels braver and begins questioning the smiling man as he sips his pink tea, firing off one question after another.
“What is your name?”
“The Mad Hatter or Matt Hatter, or some call me Simply Mad or Raving Mad. I prefer Hatter or Hattie, but I do answer to all.”
He attempts to tip his hat to Alice and more of the pink tea drips onto the cake.
“Do you know a man who wears a white suit?”
“White suit, White suit, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
“Do you know the colorful man with the smoke?”
“Oh, yes I know the smokey man, the smokey man, the smokey man. Oh, yes, I know the smokey man that lives on Drury Lane.”
The Hatter removes a small brown Dormouse from the front pocket of his jacket and sets it on the tea saucer. The sleeping thing wakes, puts its paws on the lip of the cup, and takes a long drink.
“Who is that?”
“Why he’s the cheese to my sandwich and the peanut butter to my jelly is all.”
The Hatter puts his ear down toward the Dormouse and nods as if the tiny thing is speaking to him.
“The Dormouse would like me to thank you for the ride. He’s quite fond of car rides and its been ever so long since we’ve had one.”
“Tell him he’s welcome.”
“Tell him yourself.”
The Hatter holds the Dormouse up toward Alice’s face and it blinks at her with small black eyes.
“You are welcome,” she says.
The Dormouse curls up into a ball in the palm of the Hatter and falls asleep.
“You must defer to me for all further inquiries,” the Hatter says.
He lurches forward with no warning and points excitedly out the window. The cake slides with him creating a trail of frosting on the door and on the sleeve of his shirt. Alice follows where he’s pointing.
“The hospital?” she asks.
“Yes, yes. I must go there,” the Hatter says. “The very merry unbirthday of my friend must take place today, for he might not have another one for a long time, poor fellow.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice says. “Didn’t we come from there?”
“Who can say where we come from? The land? The sea? The lollipop tree?”
Alice feels exhausted but turns the car around. Within a few minutes, they arrive at the place they started, but when she stops the car the Hatter begins to cry.
“Whatever is the matter?”
“Whatever is the Hatter you mean?”
“Why are you crying?”
“I’ve only just remembered that my friend, the March Hare, isn’t here because it’s April and that’s why you hit me with your car.”
Alice doesn’t know what to say so she drives away from the hospital. The Hatter pulls another beaker from his bag of a brownish liquid, pours it into his teacup, and drinks it down in one gulp.
“There!” he says.
He points to a park with a large pond and Alice pulls over. She recognizes this place and it feels comforting to be somewhere she’s been before. Her nanny Margret took her and her sister to this park each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for three hours-the happiest times of her childhood. The slides, swings, and sandbox look the same as she remembers. The Hatter jumps out of the car and Alice follows him. He sets down the cake and pulls a patchwork quilt from his bag and spreads it on the ground near a wide Willow tree.
Alice smooths out her dress and straightens her legs in front of her. She’s had quite an adventure! She imagines this must be what it feels like to visit old friends. Perhaps she has! She wants to ask the Hatter about it but is afraid it would break the spell and the happiness she feels.
“It’s time,” the Hatter says.
Sixteen white candles pop and sizzle on the top of the lopsided cake. The Dormouse peers at Alice from the brim of the black top hat and she’s certain he winks at her. Without warning the Hatter sings to Alice with an exuberance she can’t recall anyone ever showing her before. It brings tears to her eyes.
“A very merry unbirthday
A very merry unbirthday
Now blow the candle out, my dear
And make your wish come true
A very merry unbirthday to you.”
Alice blows out the candles. The Hatter pulls plates, forks, and a serving knife from his bag and cuts them each a thick slice of the cake. Alice eats it while staring at the ducks in the pond. There are two young girls holding hands by the edge of the water, the smallest leans in and whispers to the larger one. Alice knows this moment, a secret between sisters, and it’s sweeter than the cake.
Alice, the Hatter, and the Dormouse watch the sun change the sky to orange, yellow, and purple before plopping down at the edge of the horizon like a fat orange ball. The Dormouse yawns and the Hatter slips him into his pocket, giving Alice a smile she feels reaches every part of her.
Laying down on the blanket Alice raises her hands toward the sky and watches the faint light as it dims and goes out at her fingertips.
Author’s note: When I read the prompt my first thought was to continue my theme from last week and write about a woman picking up her grandmother as a teenager on the road and hearing her story-a nod to Field of Dreams. This idea felt overdone and I went through a list of other ideas; aliens, angels, demons, ghosts (Large Marge!), killers, and a person from the future. I ticked each off as not feeling right until I came up with the idea of setting the story with characters from one of my favorite childhood books. I’ve always been attracted to the story of Alice in Wonderland and wondered what it might be like for Alice to revisit her friends at a time in her life she might need a little adventure. This was wicked fun to write, and although I’m certain I didn’t get the characters quite right, I hope you enjoyed it. Stay curious!
Short Story Challenge | Week 6
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about picking up a hitchhiker. We had to include the words hospital, defer, interface, experiment, beaker, visualize, mattress, skyline, interpret, and zap.
Read Anna’s Week 6: The Hitchhiker
Write With Us
Prompt: Selling a childhood home
Include: dreamscape, convince, pioneer, genesis, cumulous, jump, mash, condition, erase, gold
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
The Unbirthday Song (Alice in Wonderland) lyrics © Walt Disney Music Co. Ltd., Walt Disney Music Company, Wonderland Music Company Inc.