Her eyes open to nothing but empty darkness. A voice sounds. It feels close, encompassing. Pervasive.
"Are you there?"
"Yes," she answers, assured and confused.
"Do you love me?"
She tries to blink, but cannot. She raises her hands to her face, runs them over. She has no eyelids. But it does not hurt as she accidentally plunges her fingers inside.
"I don't want to be here," she says, strangely calm, "I want to go home."
The darkness feels warm. Too warm. Slick, sweaty.
"I have never seen home," answers the voice. "I do not know what it looks like. Instead, this should be home."
Her hands reach out, but find nothing solid. The darkness flows all around her moving limbs.
"I want to see," she says.
The voice sighs.
"And I want you to see. But you won't. You only make those dreadful noises and water your face. You closed your eyes, not I. And you did not listen."
She shakes her head, feeling long hair that should not be there.
"Neither do you."
There is a sound of feet tapping against the floor.
"Pitter, patter. This grows tiresome. Tell me a story. Something, anything. But it mustn't have meaning."
Suddenly there is light. It reveals huge, empty halls, colored blindingly white. A pair of legs run along the ceiling, devoid of a torso.
"Once upon a time, there was I. And I told no story. " She waited, pondered whether to bow, in the end did not. "Where am I, kind legs?"
The things sit up and pay her no heed, though Alice is uncertain how feet could ever pay someone heed. Then she remembers her name isn't Alice at all. But it is so very hard to remember the truth, thinks Alice.
"You are right there," speaks the voice, which might be in her mind, and might not.
She sighs in frustration and sits down, only to remember that there is no chair and she's going to fall, only to realize that there is no gravity so she sits down anyway. From her new seat that isn't a seat, isn't anything really, she notices the floor is a face. There are two mammoth eyes, a nose sticking quite far up, and lips of ruby red moving incorrectly as the voice speaks.
"You are always right there. We are always here, though I suppose time has no meaning. I shall ask him next time, if you promise not to beat him."
She leaves her seat to inspect the nose. It is a strange nose. Whereas most noses have skin, this one seems to be made of a metal. Like a sculpture.
"Are you a nosy person?"
Another pair of eyes form on the nose and stare at her. Then follow a mouth and other facial necessities.
"I like to think not."
She swiftly and fearfully realizes how strange she feels. All the questions rush through her head in a panic and she tries to describe what she's experiencing. It feels like floating, watching all this from far away, relaxed and sleepy. Why should she care about noses? Immediately her attention is grabbed by the second face sticking out its tongue and forming a third.
"Why do you hesitate? Don't you remember?"
She pokes at this newest addition to the room, finds it cool to the touch.
"I don't feel much like myself at all. I can't help but feel as if I am usually someone else. "
The room, thing, face or whatever its true definition, hums.
"Well, you do change rather frequently, I suppose. But you are always Alice."
There is a dulled thunder, somewhere in the vast distance. Faces and legs all jerk in surprise.
"Oh, heavens no. Not him. Not again, not now. Why must he exist at all?"
The sound of what she thinks is either explosions or an elderly woman sighing grows loud for a second and her speaker disintegrates. She grabs part of him with her hand, feels the dust along her fingers before it disperses to a wind that is not there. Then the noise is dampened once more. She walks confusedly along the walls, running her hands over them, trying to figure out what they're made of.
A mix of syrup and honey mustard, she decides, and the wall begins to leak onto her hand in response. It flows and flows, some down to the floor, some onto the ceiling, but most of it leaks lazily into the air, floating obnoxiously around. She regrets everything.
She runs the other way and cuts a hole in the wall with her fingers. She crawls through. It seems rather bare and unstable out here, but at least it isn't raining. As soon as she's outside a downpour starts inside. She is pleased by her narrow escape.
It takes a short eternity or a long instant for her to traverse through a strangely familiar world, filled with grins in the air, child-piglets, lobster dances and unreasonable royalty, but at last she comes to another world, which does not feel strangely familiar but simply strange.
There is a man in much too small garments sitting underneath a tree in summertime, a book in his hands. Faceless things in children's clothing play games in the distance. She walks over to him, admiring her pretty blue dress as she glides along the rich green grass. As she comes closer she sees that there are no words on the pages, but instead a seemingly endless well. The book glows, casting strange light upon the man-child's face. She taps his shoulder.
"Who are you, what are you reading, where are we, do you have the time and haven't we met already and didn't you leave?"
Dirty blond hair parts itself from his face as he looks up.
"I am all, reading the book, now, but there is no time, yes, yes." He smiles. "You were here just before, Alice. Do you want to ask me questions again?"
She would have, had she not melted into the ground. She sinks slowly, in liquid form, and watches him through a murky yet soothing red liquid. He looks puzzled as he stares down at her, but placated. He slowly fades from view and she leisurely floats along. Eventually the liquid spits her out, and she is spattered across an infant with a bucktoothed man's face.
She flows off him and rematerializes as Alice. She looks at the unusual infant with a hint of curiosity. The baby is put in the hands of a bored looking woman, surrounded by vague nurses that stare into the empty air. It smiles up at her.
"This is how I envision my birth, if ever I had one, which I am not quite sure. Are eternal things born or were they simply always there? Well, better safe than sorry, I say!"
She scratches her hair, making sure not to ruffle the blue ribbon.
"You are a very big baby."
He smiles, chuckles.
She blinks, feels her eyes grow larger.
"I don't think I've ever seen a baby like you."
He looks very snug in his blanket. She wonders how an infant body can keep such a big head in place. It is easily equal to the body in size.
"It is well that I am the only one, then. Apart from you. And your sister, perhaps. And the whole world you came from, of course. But in here, there was only ever I. Or at least I think so. Perhaps it is time to read again. My mind grows fuzzy. Though I'm not really the mind, but rather a thought."
He opens one eye wide and she steps inside. The verdant fields reflected in it appear to have been a lie, however, as she finds herself in a stuffy room with blinds drawn and lights out. The blinds are apparently not enough for the inhabitant, as books have been piled high behind them, to completely block view. Paper has been slipped into the crack between door and floor.
"Good evening," she ventures.
An office chair creaks as it turns around, revealing a small man in the big chair, a now familiar face grinning her way.
"Hullo, hallo! Now why would you be here?"
"I do not know. Why are you here?"
He puts a finger to his lips and ponders visibly.
"I do not know either. I want to run away, but I always stay." He shrugs. "There are many memories I have, of things that never were. I do not recognize this life, yet there is something familiar about it. I am working on something in this place, at this time. But I do not know what, nor do I know why or when."
She tries to pick up one of the books barring the window, but it refuses to move.
"What is all this for? Don't you like the view?"
"I do, I do. But it works both ways. Peer out and there will always be someone peering in."
She hums, sending little notes into the room that proceed to crawl all over the walls.
"Terribly sorry." She coughs. "It was nice meeting you, but I best be going."
He smiles broader, then.
"Another day, perhaps! Or simply never."
She feels his eyes on her as she slips through the cracks.
Another room. It is smaller than the last one, and the furnishing is poorer. There is no office chair, only a stool. There is a small table littered with papers and various electrical doodads and mechanical minutiae and empty cups. The man is there, as always. He stands, smiling, looking tired. He shrugs in apology.
"I feel rather sickly these days. Seeking knowledge or some such lunacy. Knowledge finds you, not the other way around."
She hops onto the table, sits and swings her legs back and forth as the thing creaks and moans under her weight. She apologizes and it stops complaining. She looks back to him.
"And what does it do when it finds you?"
He leans against the wall.
"It feeds you or eats you. Not that there is much of a difference."
Her eyes roam the room. It is barricaded like the other one, isolating him from whatever is out there. A small mirror rests upon a shelf and she catches his reflection. It doesn't look as he does but does share some features with him, she acquiesces after a moment's thought. He runs a finger along his face, where the sunken bows under his eyes are in the reflection.
"Healthy soul in healthy mind and body. The body is definitely wrong today, but then it always was. The mind? Indubitably splendiferous. Yet it is all pointless, for I doubt I have a soul. I am not a man, but the idea of a man, which is much better. Then again, a man did create me, so perhaps I gained his soul. Ah, who can tell? Who truly wishes to?"
Her eyes return to her and she reaches a hand into her head, takes out a smoke and lights it.
"I think answers have their charm."
He nods gravely.
Then he cocks his head suddenly, curiosity scribbled on his face.
"Does Alice smoke? Were there cigarettes? What are smokes?"
She points it his way and taps ash off.
"That's what I said at least once! Things are not quite right here. I do not believe I am Alice, though I am quite sure I am."
He scratches his head.
"How strange! Who else would you be?"
She nods her head to imagined music, purses her lips and hums.
"A sailor. I would sail away. To some place."
The smile leaves his face, but she can see melancholy regardless. The eyes betray the emotion, and she's quite sure the mouth would too, if it was anywhere to be seen. It is a bitter and sweet sadness she sees.
"I remember. I wanted to run away, but I always stayed. And dreamed. Of traveling to a faraway land, seeing a beautiful world. But there was no such world, for whatever there was to see would only be through my eyes. Yes, Alice, I believe I know what you mean. I wanted to be someone else too. "
Suddenly there is giggling, and a giant, gloved hand plucks her from the room. She is bathed in the light of a strange sun. It has a fashionable top hat, a wide smile, and happy eyes.
"There you are! Best be careful! It is a big place, this world of ours. But we have it all to ourselves."
She stares up at him and yawns.
"But there do seem to be quite a lot of you."
He squints down at her.
"Now where have you been?"
He peers around, his huge eyes swinging with the heavy sound of grinding metal. Then they stop and he laughs good-naturedly.
"Careful, Alice, careful. Remember what happened last time you were in such an inquisitive mood? Ahaha! I actually thought you were never coming back after that time. Actually believed that…that you …"
His smile freezes and a wind starts howling. It carries whispers, malignant, hateful voices. She watches carefully as he is assaulted by all doubts and fears and undeniable truths. He is no longer a sun, merely a small man hovering in the empty sky. His eyes go wide and his mouth gapes and he falls to the ground, heavy. Tears flow at an alarming pace from his growing eyes. His whole face distorts as he wails and clasps his head in his hands. She waits patiently and politely.
"Aaah," he moans. "Aaaah!" He sobs and moans and wails. "Aaah."
She hums to herself. Suddenly he stops and jumps to his feet, smiling.
"Hah! What am I thinking? You're right here! Ha, ha, oh, you mustn't toy with me so. It will drive me mad."
He smiles and takes her hand, whisking her away. They spend an eternity, then, building castles out of cards and cheating at chess.
But it turns out to be a false eternity, as it comes to an end. There is another problem in the world they have fled, and he leaves once more. She wanders the land, swims through the sand and comes out tanned. She is in another room, with another man who is the same. His smile is stiff, unconvincing, and there are tears in his eyes.
The walls are littered with photos of a woman. Three photos, copied over and over. It is impossible to see the wall itself, but she feels certain it is white. The room is nicer than the last one, with a pretty little desk and a computer, surrounded by withered flowers and clumsily written poems scribbled on perfumed paper. The photos are not of Alice, but she still recognizes the woman as Alice.
"I loved her. But I am ugly and I am a coward. All these letters I wrote and never sent, all these flowers I bought, all these chocolates. But they are trapped in here with me. In my little room, in my little world."
She traces a finger along the face on a picture. The woman is beautiful. She has the warmest smile and, she discovers as she listens to the voice echoing in the picture, the warmest voice. Alice is jealous, and sad.
"Is she the real Alice?"
She runs her hand over the other pictures, keeping one eye on him.
He puts his hands around himself, turns his back to her.
"I don't know. Maybe she ran away and started a new life."
He turns back to face her, wide, unblinking eyes staring up at her.
"Maybe I killed her."
She cocks her head.
He starts pacing the little room, wringing his hands in front of him.
"I can't remember what happened. I had pined for her for years and done nothing. She got a boyfriend and I did nothing. They were together for two years and I did nothing. I did nothing right up until the day I heard she was to be married. What do you think I did?"
He is quiet then, staring at her picture before he continues.
"I did as cowards do: I ran away. Ran away into myself and my magical creation."
There is a hint of pride at the last words, but it disappears quickly, buried under layers of regret.
"In my haze and madness everything moved so fast, like a fantasy. One moment I lost her, the next I won her, and then I was prisoner in a padded cell. A new little room barred from the world. Except now they could always peer in. Eventually I tore free, and I took all these bad memories and threw them away, in here. That's what I am. That's what Jervis Tetch is: A bad memory."
She rests her head on empty air and looks down at him.
"And who am I?"
He raises his hands in surrender.
"I don't know. And you can't remember because your mind has sunken into mine."
She nabs the top hat off his head and tries it on. It feels comical, but nice.
"Can you set me free?"
His sullen eyes linger on the hat, but he raises no objection.
"I can, but not this version of me. I am only a small part, an unwanted part at that. But the new I, the Hatter, cannot remain this way forever. I can't run or hide from the truth. I will see reason, even if just for a little while. All you can do is wait. And hope you don't fade away like the others. Though I suppose that would be freedom of sorts."
She bids him farewell and sets sail. She floats through many parts of the landscape, some stormy, some calm. She tells jokes and forlornly listens to a psalm. She sees him laughing and crying and coughing and lying. She meets people long forgotten, promises to remember what he will not, then she loses them, then finds them, then forgets them all over again. In nine days she travels nine ways, she sings and begs for light at night, then does the exact opposite when day beaks.
Eventually he returns, but he does not seek her out, forcing her to find him herself. When she does he looks small and sad, seated at a table in the sun, shadows of people sitting all about him. She grabs a cup of tea and sips it, making up tastes for each drop. He stares at her with big eyes.
She nods her head in greeting.
"Hello," she adds for good measure.
He just stares.
"But you went away."
She puts the cup back down.
He raises his hands in bewilderment.
"You were getting so awfully thin, just wasting away before my very eyes."
She looks down on herself, bemused.
"So I took your ribbon off and, and…and you were gone."
She looks down at him, still bemused.
"But I'm right here."
He jumps to his feet, all trace of sadness gone from his eyes.
"I'll find you again, then! I swear it!"
And he disappears. She drinks all the tea.
Later he appears once more with a girl, but, Alice notes with no little dismay, it is not her at all. The little man stops doting on this new arrival as she steps in front of him. He looks between the two of them slowly, repeatedly.
"I am very confused," says the new arrival.
"Confusion is a constant," says Alice wisely.
"Why are you two at once?"
The little man's eyes still travel from one to the other. The confusion remains, and it is quite boring, so Alice leaves.
She runs down decaying streets, flies over the assembled fleets, crawls under the sheets and bears witness to miraculous feats. By trekking through the assorted wonders, she eventually finds her way to another memory, another little man locked inside a room. This one doesn't even smile.
"I killed you," he says as he looks up at her.
"I'm sorry," she says, just to say something.
He shakes his head.
"This place is turning real. I can remember all of these things. The true memories make sense now."
"So how do I…"
She phases through the wall and they are walking down a street. He looks like he wants to disappear into his clothes. Every now and then people laugh behind them.
"So how do I get out?"
The people laugh very loudly. The little man twitches a little and his eyes dart around. He starts to sweat and squirm.
"I don't know. I don't even know how you're still here. You're dead."
She pulls out a cigarette from behind her ear and lights it.
"I don't think I'm dead."
He trudges on without listening.
"The mind doesn't live on. That never happens. You can't possibly still be here. This is my head. Mostly."
She blows rings in the smoke, and triangles and cathedrals.
"I still think I want to get out."
He slips a look at her from under his hat and his big coat. He reminds her of a turtle.
"Reason is coming to me. There will be a way out soon. You'll just have to remind the main me of reality as soon as he's susceptible to it. Though I don't know how you can leave now."
He peers around with scared eyes. They've walked through the same street, past the same people at least three times now. He looks back at her.
"Maybe you can find the new Alice and leave with her. That way you could at least help her escape, though I don't know what will happen to you."
"It will probably be something beautiful and whimsical."
He smiles, then. A real smile, if only for a second.
"That's a pretty thought."
She nods solemnly.
"Thought is a pretty thing."
It does not take long to find the newcomer. She is at the center of it all, if it were possible to say this place has a center. The little man is still there, babbling confusedly, though the new girl looks less confused every passing second. Alice drops onto the scene.
"Is there something resembling me on the other side?"
The little man looks up without moving his eyes or his head.
She points to her face.
"Something like this?"
He stares. The other Alice stares. He says nothing. She goes on.
"You know, don't you?"
Still he says nothing. There is a slight trembling in his heart. She can see it.
"Neither one of us is Alice."
He slides slowly to the floor, sits there with his head turned down.
"She's long gone."
She takes the new Alice's hand, turns to him with a calm smile.
"It's time to let go. We don't belong here."
There is a long silence, until finally he nods, with a tiny, choked sob. She moves her arms then, in a strangely real manner. There is no visible movement, only feeling. The ribbon comes off.
She opens her eyes and the world is dark and ugly. The room is dreary and sad and full of unmoving, unthinking people. The stench is terrible. And there, on the floor, lies a corpse that she recognizes as her own.
Or one of hers. Her mind is a strange jumble, but it seems very clear to her that she is two people. She looks down at her body, both familiar and strange. She shakes hands with herself.
"Nice to meet you."
"Thank you," she says. "Welcome to me."
She looks to her side, where he sits staring at nothing with empty eyes. She rises from her chair, ambles purposefully over to him. Small hands grip round his throat. She squeezes. He reaches for his hat, shakily pushes it off. His slowly bulging eyes move to hers. Blood vessels pop. His mouth shivers and he mouths the words.
She stares into his eyes.
"Yes, I love you."
He cries but does not detain them. She doesn't let go. When she does she still stands there, staring down at him. Then she sighs.
Tired feet leave the darkness.
The old woman across from her cries, her face buried in her hands. The woman feels familiar, the greying curls and the warm brown eyes. But it evokes nothing inside of her.
"I'm sorry. I am afraid I am not who this was. I am two in one, yet I remember neither."
She is well provided for. There is nothing she wants. They do not pressure her in the least, though they are persistent. Is she absolutely sure she doesn't know what happened to the hat? "Yes," she says, a thousand times over. At times she feels eyes on her, and once she was sure there was a living shadow lurking outside her window. Reality has grown cumbersome. The doctors are painful and she slowly comes to detest them. One night when she returns home she trudges straight outside again and grabs a cab, disappearing into the night, down into the deep slums of the city. After a hazy blur of a moment she is back in that place, wandering through empty, dilapidated rooms. She runs through the ruined building and outside, then goes on running, through row after row of rubble, till finally she is in a ruined living room tearing through old furniture and trash until finally, finally, she finds it.
It feels familiar in her hands. It feels right. She hugs it close like an old friend. Her breath shudders. She's crying, she notes absentmindedly.
She puts on the hat.
There is a darkness, which she fills with her own voice. There is a vast empty hall, which she fills with her thoughts. She stares out into the room.
"Are you there?"
There is no answer. She clutches her sides, feeling infinitely small.
"We or I am so alone."
A low, sad and childish voice echoes through the halls.
"I am here. Why are you?"
"I want to run away, but I always stay the same."
There is a silence, long and terrible.
"I killed you. I'm sorry. I killed your minds."
She breathes out. It feels real, in a way nothing ever has.
"It's okay. I forgive you. I want to run away."
He appears then, a small man with small feet and a sad, crooked smile.
"Then let's be cowards together."
She takes his hand and they disappear into themselves.