One morning in early February, there was a knock on the Liddell house door. Mrs. Liddell looked up, set down her book, and made her way to the front door, taking care to step around Dinah and avoid the toys of Alice's scattered about. Alice was around here somewhere, she knew, though not where, exactly. The child was always moving around. Normally Elizabeth would be looking out for her sister, but the older girl was out with friends at the moment.
Mrs. Liddell smoothed a few wrinkles out of her dress before opening the door. Before her on the steps stood a woman she was familiar with, but had not communicated much with before.
"Why, Mrs. Pensworth! This is certainly a surprise." The Pensworth family lived a few blocks away, in a very large and grand house. The Liddells had been there a few times for social gatherings, and their children had been pushed to play together while the adults talked. The two families weren't close, but they were acquainted.
Mrs. Pensworth smiled warmly at her. "It's a pleasure, Mrs. Liddell. Might I come in?"
"Of course." Mrs. Liddell opened the door wider, allowing the woman into the house. She led her to the sitting room, both women taking seats and tea.
"I can't say I expected a visit from you," Mrs. Liddell said, looking at her peer curiously. Mrs. Pensworth nodded.
"I wanted to speak with you. My Abigail's ninth birthday is coming up on the seventh of this month, and—"
Mrs. Pensworth cut off as the floorboards creaked. Both women turned to the doorway of the sitting room, seeing a small, dark head shyly peering around the corner. The grey sleeves of her dress fell over her hands.
"Alice," the girl's mother said, "come in here. We have a visitor, see?"
Alice shuffled into the room, twisting the hem of her dress. "Hullo."
"No dear, you say, 'Hello, Mrs. Pensworth.' Try again."
"Hello, Mrs. Pensworth."
The older woman reached out and patted her head, ignoring Alice's flinch as she did so. "Alice, I've actually come to speak about you. Would you care to listen?"
Alice glanced at Mrs. Liddell, and then nodded. She pulled up a stool and kneeled on it. When her mother scolded, she switched to the proper position and sat on her hands.
"As I was saying," Mrs. Pensworth continued, "Abigail's birthday is rapidly approaching. I'm planning a party for her, of course, and hope all the little girls in this neighborhood will attend. Naturally, I'm here to extend an invitation for your Alice. I do hope you will accept."
"Well, that is certainly kind of you," Mrs. Liddell answered. "I'm sure Alice will be happy to accept, won't you dear?"
The child herself looked absolutely horrified.
That night, Alice nestled into bed, pulling her soft comforter around her. Oh, she was dreading the seventh. She didn't like Abigail Pensworth much. The girl had long, lovely blond hair and she loved pulling on Alice's short dark locks to compare. Also, she had a group of friends that gathered around her at every party and shot whispers and giggles in Alice's direction every time she looked there way. Every time, Alice ended up sitting in a corner clutching her rabbit to her chest, silently watching the adults. Elizabeth fit right in with the teenagers, and simply told Alice to be friendly to the other girls, and they would come around.
Easy for her to say, Alice thought bitterly, turning onto her stomach. Lizzie is beautiful and popular. Anyone would like her.
Though she was loathing admitting it, Alice had to accept that she herself was most likely the problem. While the other girls her age were obsessed with dolls and braiding each other's hair, Alice sat alone and had tea parties with nobody in particular, drew pictures off odd-looking characters, and often spoke to herself. To the other girls her age, Alice was quite mad.
Only on the outside, however. Alice found herself perfectly sane. Though the others couldn't see it, she knew her Wonderland existed. It was where she went every night, and had un-birthday parties with the Mad Hatter—a man so eccentric no child could have imagined him on her own—the Dormouse, and the March Hare. Occasionally the Cheshire Cat would show up, spout some cryptic nonsense, complain about the Queen a bit, and disappear just as suddenly as he had come.
Alice believed it was all real. Wonderland was so detailed, intricate, and defined that she was sure that there was no way she had dreamed it up all by herself. It was a dreamland, of course, but in a place where dreams were reality. It seemed to Alice that a strange portal opened up every night, or when she was feeling lonely, to Wonderland so she could come and go as she pleased.
Wonderland was real, but only she could go there. That was why she was mad. The other girls didn't believe the stories Alice told of her friends in her dreamland. They called her names and told her she should be locked up for her own safety. Alice buried her face in her pillow. This was why she preferred being alone or at least with Elizabeth. Her older sister, though seventeen, was always kind and understanding when Alice wanted to share the events of the night.
Almost on cue, the door to the young girl's room opened and her sister's silhouette appeared surrounded by the dim light of the hallway.
"Alice? You're not sleeping, are you? I haven't seen you all day, not since I got home from Jane's. Mother told me about your invitation."
Alice sat straight up in bed. "I don't want to go. Abigail is nasty and so are her friends."
Elizabeth sat on the edge of her bed. "It won't be so bad. Maybe there will be so many other little girls there, they won't even know you've arrived."
"They'll know, Lizzie. Every time there's a social gathering, they always find me and say rude things. I don't want to be anywhere near them. Besides, Mrs. Pensworth will tell Abigail I'm coming."
Elizabeth sighed and tucked a strand of Alice's hair behind her ear. She was ten years older than her sister, but she still remembered how it was to be her age. Girls even then were catty and unfeeling, she knew; she used to be just as imaginative as Alice once. If a child was 'different' from the others, they were shown no mercy. "I would try to get you out of it," she said, "but Mother is adamant that you go. She's concerned that you haven't any friends."
"I do have friends though," Alice whined, "they just..."
"Don't live here." Elizabeth smiled. "I know, it's too bad. But perhaps you should try to make friends in London, hm? That way you can have fun in both worlds."
"It would be heavenly if Wonderland and London could just..." the eight-year-old slapped her hands together, "combine, and then everything would be easy. I would call it Londerland."
Elizabeth let out a high peal of laughter and pulled her sister close. "Oh, I love you Alice. Your mind works in delightful ways."
Wrapping her arms around the older girl's waist, Alice replied, "I'd love for you to meet Mr. Hatter, Lizzie. I think the two of you would get along smashingly."
"From what you've told me of him, I don't know whether to be excited or insulted." Elizabeth kissed her forehead. "You work on creating your Londerland, and then we'll see. Until then, we'd best head to bed. It's late." She tucked Alice's blankets around her and said goodnight, leaving the door open a crack so the glow of the nightlight in the hallway could shine through.
Alice settled in, closing her eyes. When she awoke again, she was in her Wonderland.
The day of February seventh dawned grey and gloomy, the dark clouds overhead threatening snow. Mrs. Liddell pulled Alice by the hand, dragging the unwilling child down the stone streets of London and to the block where the Pensworth house stood. She was dressed in a pale pink dress with a matching ribbon in her dark hair, and she couldn't be more unhappy. Alice preferred to wear black, greys and browns when she was in London, and occasionally blue. Only in Wonderland, which was bright and colorful and served as a stunning contrast to the grisly, smoky image of the city, would Alice wear pastel colors. Despite her protests, Mrs. Liddell had insisted that her daughter be dressed properly for a party, to match the other children.
Alice kicked at a stone as they walked nearer to the mansion, where carriages of all sorts lined the sidewalk. The other parents were dropping off their children, who were wrapped snugly in furs and other ridiculous assortments. The Liddells, being a family of intellect rather than obscene wealth, had no money for a hired carriage and even mentioning fur coats was forbidden. Mr. Liddell despised the practice of skinning animals for clothing and decoration, and made his stance on the matter quite clear.
"No bearskin rug before the hearth, no deer antlers on the wall, no taxidermic abominations in the house! Demeans the creature's dignity!" he had said, taking an enormous puff of his pipe. Alice, sitting before him petting Dinah, agreed.
Mrs. Liddell stepped up the stairs, daughter in tow, and rapped smartly on the large wooden door. It was excessive, in Alice's opinion. How many trees had to be cut down to create such a door? She was about to voice this opinion to her mother, but the door itself swung open. A butler stood in the entryway, and he took Alice's coat from her. Mrs. Liddell waved him off when he attempted to take hers, saying she wasn't staying. She looked Alice in the eye, told her to behave, and turned to leave.
The butler shut the door and led the young girl to the expansive dining room, where the large congregation of little girls and their mothers sat around a massive oak table. Alice felt a knot twist in her stomach. A prison by any other name, was a phrase she once heard Elizabeth say, and she imaged it applied to the situation at hand.
Mrs. Pensworth greeted her brightly as she stepped slowly into the room. She directed the child gently to a waiting chair, dangerously close to Abigail's grabbing hands and in between Mary Cott, who liked to bite, and Eugenia Woolsey, who's nose was upturned like a pig's and caused her to speak in a high, nasally tone. Both girls shot her suspicious glares as she sat.
Not even before Alice arranged herself comfortably, Mrs. Pensworth clapped her hands. "Alright, it appears that all the guests have arrived. Shall we move to the sitting room and play a few games? We can eat cake and have Abigail open her gifts later."
Alice picked nervously at her nails. She hadn't brought anything for Abigail.
The other guests stood up quickly, and when Alice tried to catch up she tripped on the hem of her dress and sent her chair clattering to the ground. The other girls snickered, hiding their smirks behind their manicured hands. Face burning, Alice returned her chair to the proper place and followed after.
The game to be played was musical chairs. A wide circle of assorted seats filled the room, and each girl took one. The music began, and they filed in a line around the circumference. When the music stopped suddenly, Alice found herself engaged in a race to the nearest chair with Abigail Pensworth. They dropped into the chair at the same time, and each struggled to push the other off.
Looking to sturdy herself, Alice put her hand on the soft cushion, unknowingly pinning down Abigail's lavender satin dress. When the blond girl suddenly lurched forward, a resound rip echoed through the room, which fell dead silent.
Abigail looked incredulously from the large tear in her skirt to Alice, and back again. She let out a shrill screech. "This was brand new, you little disease! You're cursed, Alice, I swear! Someday something terrible is going to happen to you and your family and it will be your entire fault! You're cursed!"
Abigail burst into tears then, prompting her mother to hurry up and try to console her. Not wanting to deal with the venomous glares from the other inhabitants of the room, Alice turned and fled.
"Fire, Alice, fire!" "Save yourself! Wake up Lizzie! Lizzie, open the door! The key, Lizzie, unlock the door! You'll burn!"
Her lungs were on fire, and they weren't the only things. Alice lay on the cool stone of the street outside the Liddell house, gasping for air. Smoke, there was smoke everywhere, one minute she had been in her Wonderland, and the next...
It hurt. It hurt so badly. Everything was burning. Alice couldn't move. Where was she? Where were her parents? Where was Lizzie? What was happening?
"Help us, Alice! Save us, Alice! Don't leave us alone, Alice! Don't abandon us, Alice! Stay with us!"
Alice gasped, taking in the crisp night air as she dragged herself away from the blazing flames. Her legs didn't seem to be working, as though she had suffered a great fall and landed feet-first. She had been in her bedroom. How had she made it from there to the street?
She was dimly aware of the noise, a constant buzz and chatter that seemed to surround the whole area, filling her ears, hurting her head. She let loose a loud wail as the pain got to be unbearable. Alice felt herself being lifted into a sitting position.
The position gave her a clear view of the Liddell house collapsing into ash.
She screamed again, thrashing in the arms of whomever held her. the grip on her shoulders tightened, and more people swarmed around. Exhausted, Alice settled down, allowing herself to be laid down again. Faces turned over her, unrecognizable, and Alice didn't understand whatever they were saying.
"This girl is..."
Alice, she wanted to say, I'm Alice. Where is my family? She forced her lips to move, to make any kind of sound.
"Save us, Alice!"
Where were they? They had gotten out, right? She hadn't left them in there to burn, had she? They had to have...escaped...she wasn't the only one...
"It will be your entire fault!" she heard Abigail's voice echo. "You're cursed!"
"Don't leave us alone, Alice!"
"Don't abandon us, Alice!"
Tears welled up in her green eyes and trickled down her face, stinging her burned flesh.
"I did this."
"Stay with us!"
"I killed them!"