Alice's eyes popped open, heart thundering in her chest. What was that sound? She held her breath, listening closely. Distinctly, she heard scratching, followed by a long, mournful howl.
She jerked the sheets up over her head and burrowed under the pillow, trembling. Why she feared the…the thing, the whatever-it-was, she didn't know—but it terrified her, nonetheless. The idea that it wanted in brought tears to her eyes. What felt like hours passed, and she fell into a fitful sleep near dawn.
Her exhaustion was evident—she leaned over the counter at the shop, head resting heavily in her hands, and stared vacantly out the window, eyes half-closed. Reginald watched her from outside, hesitant to disturb her, but awfully curious as to her state. He gave in to the curiosity and slipped inside.
At the sight of him, she perked up. "Good afternoon, Reginald."
"And the same to you, Alice." He bowed with a flourish. "How are you this fine, splendiferous, and altogether-pleasant day?"
She yawned. "I'm very sorry—I'm terribly tired."
He leaned against the counter, half-facing her. "Bad night?"
"Yes, actually. Several bad nights, in fact."
His brow furrowed in concern. "What's wrong?"
She exhaled heavily. "There's an…animal…keeping me awake at night."
"What sort of animal?"
She shrugged. "I've no idea. I heard it howling a few nights ago—now it's scratching at my door."
The Hatter's face paled. "How long has it been happening?"
"Yes. The scratching, too."
"Last night was the fourth night I heard it—the second night it scratched to get in."
His face turned darkly serious, and he took her hands in his. "Alice, find somewhere else to sleep—get a room in town, if you must, but do not sleep in your house tonight."
Something cold slipped into her veins. "Reginald…what is it?"
He released her, eyes looking away. "Truthfully, I don't know—I've heard only stories."
"What sorts of stories?"
He deliberately turned his back on her. "Stories that give no pleasure in the retelling."
"I can't answer your questions, Alice…I don't know how. I can only ask you again to not go home. Please."
"Fine. I'll find somewhere else."
He turned back to her. "You promise?"
Alice stepped back, more than a little frightened. "Yes, but—Reg, what is this thing?"
"It has no name."
"What does it want?"
She shivered, the cold reaching her very heart. "Me?"
"Can it—will it—will it go away?"
She could see his jaw clenching and relaxing. "Not on its own."
Quite suddenly, he reached for her hand, turning it and pressing his lips to her palm. "I'll take care of it."
She opened her mouth, but he held up a silencing hand. "No more questions. Please—leave it." He left, then, without another word.
He wasn't seen for three more days. When, at last, he reappeared at the shop, he looked more than a little worse for wear—and if she noticed he acted a bit more mad than usual, she didn't comment on it.