Every Wise Man's Son Doth Know
Her mother's tone was best described as bewildered – it dripped with a kind of surprised puzzlement Alice had never heard in her voice before. She felt Hatter reluctantly pull away, then return for a quick kiss on the lips, before standing up straight. She glanced up at him, his expression a combination of joy and relief, with just a touch of mischief. He smiled down at her as she peeked over his shoulder.
"Oh…mom…" she began, unsure of how to proceed.
"Mrs. Hamilton," Hatter interrupted, spinning around to face the older woman. "I believe I owe you an explanation."
It was the second time she reminded him to call her by her first name. He hadn't forgotten the first, but wasn't sure she'd allow him such an informality after her daughter went running into the arms of someone she perceived as a perfect stranger. He suspected it was simply a polite reflex. "Carol, I…"
"Hat…David," Alice jumped in, correcting herself mid-name. "Maybe I should be the one to…"
Hatter turned to Alice, placing a hand on her waist as he leaned towards her. "I'd like to tell her, love," he said gently, "if it's all the same to you."
While Alice considered his words, Carol stared at them in awe. The natural intimateness they shared was not lost on her; there was a relaxed familiarity about the way he touched her, about the way she responded to his touch…she hadn't witnessed anything like it between Alice and her previous boyfriends. Whoever this man was, whatever was going on, something had changed.
Alice, unable to come up with a plausible explanation for her recent make-out session, decided to let him work his magic on her mother. "If that's what you want."
"Why don't you put on some tea?" he suggested.
She nodded absently, her mind still attempting to piece together a story that would make more sense than, "This is Hatter, from Wonderland. He bought me from a smelly, homeless-looking guy…traded him a bottle of human excitement for little ol' me…" She shook that thought from her head, and met his gaze. Back in the casino, she had claimed that she trusted him completely. It was time to make good on that assertion. "Ok."
As Alice moved towards the kitchen, Hatter returned his attention to Carol. "Is there somewhere we can sit?"
Carol gestured to a small sitting area to his right. He followed her further into the room and was pleasantly surprised by the arrangement: a couch and two easy chairs facing each other, with a coffee table in the middle. At first glance, the chairs did not go together – not even the decorative pillows on the couch seemed to fit – but he appreciated the delightful mismatch of fabrics…it told him that both mother and daughter had a capricious streak. And it made him feel at home. He chose the darker easy chair with the gold accents, while Carol sat in the black and white one beside him.
"I'd like to apologize," Hatter began as he placed his hat on the table. "I deceived you earlier. It wasn't my intention to, but in the heat of the moment I panicked."
"You're not a construction worker."
"Well…I am. I mean, I was. I quit yesterday, actually. Which is why I had to go back to get my phone last night…since I don't plan on ever returning to that site again. I can't believe I forgot it. I suppose it just got lost in the commotion of leaving." He paused to give her a chance to digest this information. When she looked ready, he continued. "What I was referring to was the fact that I neglected to mention that I knew your daughter. At the time, I thought a lie of omission would be easier than an extended narrative."
He watched her ponder his words, wondering if his reason for deception would be good enough for her. Although the beginning of his statement was pure fabrication, the end was not. When someone's child is unconscious in the hospital, you don't prattle on about how you know her…you make the simplest statements possible, then leave things alone.
"I suppose I can't fault you for that," Carol said slowly. "At the hospital, my primary concern was Alice. You could've had seven heads and I wouldn't have cared."
"But it was still wrong, to mislead you…and I know you must be confused about our…affectionate greeting…"
" 'Confused' doesn't even begin to describe it. I mean, she has a boyfriend; I just met him last night…"
"MOM!" Alice called from the kitchen as she searched the cabinets for tea bags.
"I'm sorry, honey, but he has a right to know…"
"I know all about Jack, Carol."
The older woman turned to him, perplexed. "You do?"
"Maybe it would be easier if you'd let me start from the beginning…is that all right?"
Hatter took a deep breath. He had sketched out a plausible history earlier, with the knowledge that sooner or later, someone was going to ask questions about how they became acquainted…but he hadn't expected to tell the tale just yet. He would have to fill in the details as he went along.
Meanwhile, Alice had dug out some old tea from the back of one of the kitchen cabinets. She sighed, knowing that it would be painful for Hatter to drink it, some ancient brand-name brew that couldn't compare with his high-quality tea tastes. But she told herself that he was probably aware of all that, and had sent her to make tea in an attempt to take the pressure off her, not because he expected something that would entice his palette. In any case, she had eavesdropped on his conversation with her mother with great interest, and was curious to hear what he was about to say, so she soundlessly joined them in what she liked to call "the sitting room."
He saw Alice sneak in out of the corner of his eye, but ignored her. "Alice and I met at school…it was one of those chance things that have happened to millions of people – I was walking across campus, minding my own business, when I saw a girl slip on a bit of ice created by the drizzle of a nearby fountain." He stopped for a moment, pleased with the description. "She didn't fall, but she accidentally dropped her books when she held out her arms to steady herself. I ran over and picked them up for her." Hatter smiled as the image solidified in his mind. "Her response to my attempted chivalry was less than enthusiastic…she grabbed her books out of my hand and muttered a frosty, 'Thanks'…"
Carol shook her head. "I'm sad to say that doesn't surprise me."
"Mom!" Alice protested again, plopping on the couch across from them.
"Don't 'mom' me. You know exactly what I'm talking about."
Alice crossed her arms as her mother gestured for Hatter to go on. "Anyway, she was about to storm out of my life when the cover of one of my books caught her eye. It was Alice in Wonderland."
"That's her favorite book…her father used to…"
"…read it to her when she was a little girl. Yes, that's what she told me when she saw the title. Thus began a brief conversation in which I discovered that her name was also Alice, and she learned that I was a literary major reading it for my 'Women in Fantasy' class…at which point she warmed up to me ever so slightly."
"And that would be where 'Hatter' comes from…?"
"It's our little joke…or, rather, her little joke. I have quite the hat collection, you see…"
"The Mad Hatter was always her favorite character," Carol mused.
"Really? She never told me that." Hatter's grin widened.
Alice felt her cheeks growing hot at the revelation. That instant, she wished she could disappear back through the Looking Glass. "I'm sitting right here, you know…"
"And so…" he went on, bringing to focus back to himself. "…we became friends. Sort of."
"You know, she never mentioned you…"
"Well…I suppose I wasn't particularly important at the time…just some guy she occasionally sat around with waxing poetic on great works of literature. Not boyfriend material."
"I still don't understand how you ended up finding her last night." Carol said.
"If you'll allow me to continue..."
Before he could get another word out, the whistling of a teakettle interrupted him, and Carol rose. "Let me just get that, and I'll be right back."
"Do you want me to help, mom?"
"No, I'm fine…I'll only be a minute."
When she was gone, Hatter ventured a glance at a very annoyed-looking Alice. "This is fun," he whispered.
She scowled at him. "For you maybe…"
He stood and made his way around the coffee table, sitting next to her and taking her hand. "Have I said something that upset you?"
She saw the concern in his face and sighed. "No…but…I wouldn't exactly call this 'fun.' I mean, between my mom's little sarcastic comments and not knowing what's gonna come out of your mouth…"
"Do you like it so far?"
She nodded vigorously. "You certainly have me pegged, though I hate to admit it. I can't wait to hear how you manage to talk your way into the here and now."
Approaching footsteps prevented him from responding. He released her hand and reached for a cup and saucer off the tray that Carol had placed on the coffee table. He ignored the milk and sugar. "So, where were we?"
"You weren't boyfriend material."
"Ah, yes." He took a drink. "We became friendly, but not to the point that we were actually friends. I must admit that I had fallen head over heels for her, but she didn't really see me, if you catch my drift. She already had a boyfriend, and I didn't want to interfere with that, so I tried to be content with my role as the 'buddy'."
"How long did this go on?"
"Oh, I don't know…a year or so? We never exchanged personal information or anything like that…I didn't even realize she lived in this neighborhood until last night. I was on my way back from the job site, cell phone safely in my pocket, when I saw a man and a woman arguing. It was late and they were kinda off to the side, near an alley…and although there wasn't the slightest suggestion of violence, I approached them. I hadn't planned on intervening, but I wanted a closer look…you know, just make sure everything was ok. Imagine my astonishment when I recognized Alice."
"I was giving him the ring back, for good this time," Alice interjected, pleased that she was finally able to make a contribution. "I told him that we should take a break…we should both take a step back and think about what we want. I know you think I'm being silly, mom, but there's something about the whole thing that creeped me out. Big time."
"I only want you to be happy," Carol said. "I don't want your…" she shot a look at Hatter, unsure of how much Alice had told him about her own troubled past. "I just don't want you to hold back because you're afraid of getting hurt. If your instincts tell you something's off…well, that's different."
There was an awkward silence for a few seconds as mother and daughter contemplated what the other had said. After he felt a sufficient amount of time had passed, Hatter decided it was his place to break it. "When I realized who it was, I called to her…the man looked annoyed, but she seemed relieved. She said a quick goodbye to him and ran up to me, wrapping her arms around me. Even before she spoke I knew the hug was for show…but that didn't stop me from savoring the moment."
"What did she say?"
" 'Help me,' I believe, were the words that she murmured in my ear. I was happy to oblige her, enthusiastically asking how she was and such…I watched Jack retreat as we spoke, and when the coast was clear, I let her know." He finished his tea and placed the cup and saucer back on the tray. "She nearly ran off on me then, but she seemed so agitated…I couldn't let her go wandering the night in such a state. Despite her protests, she ended up wanting to talk things out…so we partially climbed up a fire escape in the alley and discussed what had happened."
Carol shook her head. "I still don't see how an hour's worth of conversation could have such a dramatic affect that…"
"I'm done with Jack." Alice spoke with a calm certainty, sitting up straight and facing her mother. "That was decided when I returned the ring. He's a nice guy, but he's not who I thought he was…he's not what I want. I want something more." She smiled shyly at Hatter, then continued. "I don't know what happened out there on that fire escape…maybe it was simply being in the right place at the right time…with the right person. As David and I sat there and talked about Jack, I finally saw him…really saw him for the first time. And part of what I saw was how he felt about me, how much he truly cared. Everything clicked into place in that moment." She felt his hand take her own. "And that's when I knew."
To say that Carol was shocked by her daughter's admission would be an understatement. Alice was not impetuous – she never approached a situation without a well thought-out plan. Yet here she was, diving into a new relationship before the old one has had a chance to cool…it made Carol pause and consider the narrative she just heard. She suspected that there was something they weren't telling her, but believed it was something private…a shared secret meant for them and them alone. She reminded herself that Alice was a grown woman, free to make her own choices, her own mistakes. Free to fall in love with whomever she wanted. "And you ended up in that abandoned building how?"
"She saw a cat run into it," Hatter offered. "I told her not to follow, but she was on the ground and chasing after the little furball before I knew what was happening. By the time I caught up with her, she was unconscious. I assumed a loose brick had fallen and hit her on the head."
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know," Carol said, as a means of rebuking Alice for her carelessness.
Alice hid a smile. "I know."
"Well…that's quite an account of your relationship," she mused. "To be honest, at this point I don't know what to think of it all. I'll need some time to mull it over." She picked up the tray and stood. "If you'll excuse me…"
Hatter gave her a polite nod as she exited the room. Neither he nor Alice spoke for several minutes. "Well?" he asked softly, turning his head to face her.
"Did you enjoy it?"
She slouched back into the couch, turning her head towards him. "I did. Very much."
"And, you know, it's not really a lie…not the parts that count, anyway."
She thought about all the things he had said…about her not wanting his help, about their growing friendship, about his long-hidden feelings. "Did you really fall for me so much more quickly than I did for you?"
He considered her question carefully, turning his head so he was once again facing straight ahead. "Yes. I wasn't aware of it at first, not consciously…but the day you left, as we were saying goodbye, it hit me all at once, like downing an entire bottle of clarity. I finally saw how much I cared about you…and how long I had felt that way."
"It began when I was still chasing after Jack?"
She quickly replayed her time in Wonderland over in her head, searching for evidence of his feelings. She was amazed to discover a number of obvious indications, not the mention the more subtle hints that were scattered here and there throughout their journey together. "Hatter..."
He faced her again, his eyes meeting hers. "Yes?"
"Did you like the parts that I added? To our story, I mean?"
"Were they true?" he asked, reaching up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
"They were beautiful," Hatter replied earnestly. "That last part was my favorite."
Alice scooted over and leaned forward. "Mine too."
"I just have one question," he said, backing away ever so slightly.
"Was the Mad Hatter really your favorite character in Alice in Wonderland?"
She felt her face turning red again, and moved to get up, but Hatter grabbed her arm before she could get away. She didn't even try to fight him as she fell back onto the couch, though she did manage to playfully slug him in the arm. "Shut up and kiss me."
"As my lady commands…"