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Fantasticoe Spring 2011


Welcome to Wonderland

Taylor Marie Ready


             Ali's eyes crossed as Mr. Newman again told the class that their projects were due by Friday.  She glanced at the clock yet again, found that it had only been three minutes and twenty seven seconds since she last looked and dropped her head onto her desk with a thud.  Gretchen, her best friend, snorted and giggled in the seat next to her.

            "Alice Hawk and Gretchen Smith, would you two like to share something with the entire class?"  Mr. Newman asked in his stern voice.  Ali lifted her head off her desk and blew a piece of blonde bang out of her eyes.  She shook her head.  When Mr. Newman turned toward the old blackboard again, Ali reached over and punched Gretchen in the shoulder.  Gretchen only erupted in more silent giggles.  Sarah Dowery, who sat in front of Gretchen with her perfectly placed short skirt and flowered tank-top, chestnut hair, and delicately painted nails, twisted in her chair and narrowed her eyes at the two friends, then turned back again and gave her full attention to Mr. Newman.  Ali stuck her tongue out at the cheerleader's head and flashed her middle finger.  Gretchen made a choking motion behind Sarah's neck.  Brian, Ali's other best friend and brother, chuckled from two seats back.

             Ali Hawk, full name Alice Francis Marie Hawk, was a normal high school senior.  Trying to make the rest of the school year with decent grades, maintaining her two best friends, and doing everything to rebel against the plastic Barbie Dolls that had taken over the town, Ali was not popular in Highlands Ranch High.  With her pure blonde curly hair that fell to her slender waist, and muscular gymnast body, Ali had the makings of being one of the high school's star cheerleaders.  But because of Ali's hot, Irish temper and her refusal to conform, choosing to wear baggy sweatshirts instead of short skirts and watching movies in her room Friday nights instead of partying, she was thrown out of the inner circle of popularity.  That's when Ali found Gretchen. 

            Gretchen was tall, 5'7, with short, straight red hair, the color of a fire truck.  She died it every month.  She was beanpole skinny, but shoveled junk into her mouth constantly.  Even now, with ten minutes left of class, Gretchen was nibbling on a cosmic brownie, picking off the colorful chocolate bits first and popping them into her mouth.

            "This is a classic novel, class."  Mr. Newman brought Ali's attention back to the front of the room.  "Alice in Wonderland forever changed the children's book genre, so please try and not butcher your presentations on it."  The class murmured unintelligible agreements right as the bell rang.  Ali stuffed her copy of Alice in Wonderland into her backpack and stood, swinging the heavy bag onto her shoulders.  Gretchen and Brian came to stand next to her and they were just about to leave when they heard an ominous clicking getting closer.  Ali turned and rolled her eyes as Sarah Dowery stopped before her.

            "I don't appreciate you guys disrupting Mr. Newman's class like you did."  She said in her falsely sweet voice.

            "Save it, Sarah, please."  Ali said, pulling her long hair out of the backpack strap.

            "Don't talk to your student body president like that.  This isn't your own little ‘wonderland' where you can just talk to me with such disrespect."  Sarah clipped.  Gretchen, Brian and Ali just stared at her before Gretchen sucked in a dramatic breath.

            "OOOO….good one…"  Gretchen said, sarcasm dripping from every word.

            "Thanks for the advice Sarah but I'm pretty sure I can and did talk to you how I want."  Ali retorted, tossing her hair out of her face and stalking out of the class.  Brian and Gretchen followed. 

            "I believe that's little sis: 1, big slut: 0!"  Brian said, slinging his arm around Ali and Gretchen's shoulders.  Ali rolled her eyes but let a small smile touch her lips.

            "Brian, it's immature to keep score like that…and we're both 18."

            "Ah yes but I am technically 3 minutes older."  Brian dramatically shook a dirty blonde lock away from his face.  At first glance, Ali and Brian didn't look like twins; siblings definitely but not twins.  However once you really looked at the two, they looked exactly alike.  Both had intense, bright green eyes and high cheekbones.  Brian got his muscular, 6'4" frame from their father; while Ali's more petite body was their mother's.  Ali got her shock white blonde hair from their father; Brian got their mother's dirty blonde, almost brown hair; both kids had their mother's curliness.  Brian was in a surfer/rock dude phase, growing his hair down to his shoulders and letting it do what it wanted.  He was a bit of a ladies' man but always treated women with respect.

            "On a more important note, we're still going to Beta tonight, right?"  Gretchen asked, tossing the last bit of cosmic brownie into her mouth.

            "Of course we are.  I need to go dancing."  Ali exclaimed.

             "Uh, Ali, could you possibly spring for gas money?  I kinda spent all my money on that iPod dock…"  Brian said.  Ali rolled her eyes.

            "I don't know why you bought that thing; our birthday is in like three weeks."  Ali replied.

            "Ah come on you know me, I need instant gratification."  Brian replied with a huge grin on his face.

            "Ew."  Ali said, hitting her brother in the stomach.  "Yes I'll spring for gas, just don't say that again. 

            "Yes!"  Brian said triumphantly, pumping his fist.

            "So we'll pick you up at eight, sound good?"  Ali asked Gretchen, ignoring her brother.

            "Sounds like a plan, Stan."  Gretchen replied.

            Brian and Ali said goodbye to Gretchen as the three parted ways toward their different cars.  The car that the twins drove was a vintage, 1970 hippie van, complete with a paint job of somewhere between red and brown and blue shag carpeting decorating the interior.  Ali loved this car.  For her, it was a refreshing change from the BMW's, Mustangs, and Lexus' that filled the rest of the parking lot, although most people would call the van an ugly eye-sore.  Again, it was the non-conformist in Ali that took great pleasure in watching the faces of the rich high school students around cringe whenever they came close to the van.  Ali laughed as she opened the passenger door, a deafening screech filling the air as the car protested, and seeing two guys in a midnight blue BMW cover their ears.  During the ten minute drive home, Ali put her feet up on the dash and stared out of the open window, the cool spring air feeling marvelous on her face.  Brian was fiddling with the very expensive sound system that was his Christmas present last year.

            "So, did you invite Ryan to Beta tonight?"  Brian asked, finally finding a station that he was happy with.  Ali snorted in response.  "You two are fighting again, aren't you?"  He asked.

            "You could say that."  Ali replied, still looking out of the window.

            "What about?" 

            "Same old same old, he wants me to go to CU Boulder with him."

            "Still bent on getting out of this town huh?"

            "Getting out of this state, Brian.  I'm sick of all this superficiality.  It drives me crazy."

            "You do realize that there will be many Sarah Dowery's no matter where you go, right?"

            Ali sighed.  "I just…need a change.  Besides, I already got accepted to NYU.  No way would I pass up that opportunity."  Brian was silent.  Ali hung her head.  "I'm sorry, I know you don't like me to bring it up, but it's going to happen, Brian, we can't just avoid it because then it'll hurt all the more when it finally happens.  And it's not like I'm leaving forever."  Brian still didn't answer.  Ali and Brian were inseparable.  So when Ali found out that she had a full-ride to NYU for Theatre and Brian would be going to an in-state school, he was crushed.  Ali was bitter-sweet about it.  She would miss her brother more than anything, but NYU had been her dream.  She worked so hard, studied for countless months to get the grades and poured over audition pieces to get the scholarship.

             "Let's just drop for now, please?  It'll spoil my mood for tonight."  Brian said.

            "Okay."  Ali replied.

            Brian pulled into the driveway of the two-story, average suburban house that the family lived in.  The twins entered the house from the garage and into the laundry room.  Their puppy, a 6 month old black and brown speckled Great Dane named Max, bounded into the room and jumped straight up onto Brian, trying to lick his face.  Brian laughed and pushed the huge dog away from him.

            "Ali?  Brian?  Is that you guys?"  Their mother's voice rang from the kitchen.  The twins moved through the house and pushed open the kitchen door to find their mother moving from the stove to the oven to the multiple counters filled with raw vegetables, cutting boards, and a crock pot.  Lilly Hawk was a small woman, with a small waist and prominent curves.  Her long, curly dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a messy braid and she had an apron tied around her waist over jeans and a colorful striped t-shirt.

            "Hey, mom, what's all this for?"  Ali asked, taking over cutting the green onions that Lilly was trying to multitask with putting a roast beef into the crock pot.

            "Your father has told his boss that he will host the employee party this weekend, which means I'm cooking."  On the surface, Lilly sounded frustrated, but in truth their mother loved to cook and took any job she could since her plans for her own restaurant fell through.  She went to culinary school and had every opportunity to start her own business, but she couldn't get enough publicity and it never worked.  But she had found their father, Grahm, shortly after and the two have been doing well for themselves.

            "Are you two still going to Beta tonight?"  Lilly asked.

            "Yep."  Brian replied, dipping a piece of broccoli in some ranch and stuffing it in his mouth.

            "Please do not stay out that late, it's still a school night."  Their mother said, wiping ranch off of his mouth.

            "We know mom."  Ali said, chuckling.  "We're picking up Gretchen at eight."

            Just then they heard the garage door open and their father's footsteps walking toward the kitchen.  Max barked excitedly and bounded out of the kitchen.  Graham's booming voice floated to the kitchen, getting closer.            

            "Max no!  Ahh get off you huge mutt!"  Graham yelled and stumbled into the kitchen.  "Brian, get your dog off me!"  He laughed.

            Brian cracked up and grabbed Max by the collar, dragging his drooling mouth away from their father's three piece suit.  Lilly, Ali, and Brian were doubled over with laughter.

            "Oh…that's great, that's just great."  Graham said, chuckling and wiping drool off of his coat.  He reached over and wiped it on Ali's cheek.  "Yummmmay!"  Graham said.

            Ali squealed and mopped the drool off her face.  "Dad, that was so gross!!"  She yelled.

            "He's your dog."  Graham replied.

            "Correction: he's my dog."  Brian said, sitting on the floor and rubbing Max's upturned belly, the dog's tongue lolling onto the floor.

            "Correction: he's both of our dog."  Ali said, wiping Max's drool off with a towel.  Brian laughed and Lilly continued her bustling around the kitchen.  Graham wrapped his arms around her and kissed her cheek and whispered thank you in her ear.  Ali watched and smiled, thinking how lucky her parents were, that after 23 years, they were still much in love.

            Ali was just finishing putting on eyeliner when there was a knock on her bedroom door.  "Come in!"  She yelled over the music she had turned on.  Brian opened the door and came dancing into her room.  He had on a black, button down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and nice, dark blue jeans with black tennis shoes on.  He stood behind Ali and checked his hair in the mirror.  "You look like a tool."  Ali said, smiling as she put on lip gloss

            "You look like a skank."  Brian replied plopping down onto her bed and retying his shoes. 

            "I do not, ass."  Ali was wearing jean shorts and Nike sneakers with a black top with silver sequins on it.  She put in hoop earrings and fluffed her hair before grabbing her phone and stuffing it in her pocket.  "Let's go!" 

            The twins thundered down the stairs and into the living room where their parents were sitting on the couch watching America's Best Dance Crew and drinking wine.  Ali and Brian kissed each parent on the cheek and headed out to the hippie van.

            Brian had to honk three times before Gretchen opened the door to her house and stepped out.  Gretchen and Ali had pretty much everything in common except one thing; Gretchen loved to dress up and tease men.  She had on a one-sleeve, black dress that scrunched up around an artfully placed hole in the right side.  She walked with the confidence of a woman who knew she was beautiful in spiked, bright red heels with studs lining the heel.  Her bright red, freshly dyed hair was softly curled and her earrings dangled to her thin shoulders.  Ali rolled down her window and her and Brian whistled and catcalled as Gretchen smiled wide and walked down to the van.  The twins twisted around in their chairs as Gretchen pulled the door closed when she sat down.

            "Damn girl, someone's about to get heartbroken."  Brian said.

            "I think you look fabulous."  Ali said, smiling at her best friend.

            "Thanks guys."  Gretchen replied.  "Now come on, let's go!"

            The drive to Beta was about an hour and a half.  Forty-five minutes into the drive, the highway turned into a stretch of two-lanes through barren grasslands with no lights for miles.  One lane of traffic traveled north, while the other traveled south.

            "This road creeps me out."  Gretchen said quietly.

            "Tell me about it."  Ali replied as a car passed them going the opposite direction.  Ali shivered and turned the radio on.

            Beta was Denver's most happening dance club.  Four floors of glass and loud, bumping music could be seen and heard for miles.  The three of them danced and laughed with each other most of the night; Gretchen had turned down multiple men shamelessly.  They left the club at a reasonable time with smiles on their faces, a successful night out putting all of them in high spirits.

            "I already can't wait to come back next week!"  Gretchen said excitedly.  "That was better than usual.  Did the atmosphere seem louder and more vibrant to anyone else."

            "Yeah, I felt that too."  Ali replied, smiling as they got into the van.

            The drive on the long stretch of dark road didn't bother the three as much this time.  Brian had turned the radio up and they were all talking and laughing. 

About halfway down the stretch, a car that was driving in the opposite direction turned on his brights and Brian veered, shielding his eyes.  Everything slowed down, and Ali saw how close their van was to the other car.  Brian tried to swerve back into their lane but the other car had twisted that way also.  Ali brought her arms up in an instinctive protective pose and shut her eyes. 

***

            Ali's neck hurt.  As she came to her senses, she knew that she was laying face down.  Her nose was filled with the smell of fresh grass and she thought that she must have been thrown from the car.  She had been wearing her seatbelt but she thought that the impact must have been so strong that it snapped.  Ali focused on her body and couldn't feel any pain anywhere else but her neck.  She twitched her fingers and toes, and then tried moving her arms.  She braced her arms on the ground and tried to rise.  Pain shot from the top of her spine up through her skull and her eyes shot open in pain.  She cried out and dropped back down onto the ground.  She took several deep breaths and tried again, slower.  She made it to her knees; her eyes squeezed shut against the pain. 

            "Brian?  Gretchen?"  She called out, rubbing her neck.  When there was no answer she opened her eyes and looked around.  Her mouth dropped in awe.

            She was kneeling on the greenest grass she'd ever seen, right next to a small river.  The sky was midnight blue but also had streaks of bright pink, yellow, blue, red, and purple.  In the distance, she could see a thick forest of trees with crooked trunks and huge, turquoise colored leaves.  She turned and could see nothing but green hills for miles.  The river next to her was completely clear and when Ali looked closer, she saw the most bizarre fish.  Rainbow colored, with fins down their long, thin bodies, they swam lazily upstream.  Ali's gaze followed the river and saw that it disappeared into the crooked forest.  She rubbed her head and stood very slowly.  She looked down and saw that she was wearing a pastel pink dress that fell to her knees and poofed outward, and on her feet were pure white keds.  Her curly, white blonde hair still hung to her waist and fell around the corset-like bodice of the dress.  Ali's forehead wrinkled with confusion and she reached down and ran the material of the dress through her fingers.  It was real.  It was silky.

            "What is going on?"  Ali whispered to herself.  She looked around again before deciding to follow the river into the forest.  She was expecting the darkness in the forest to be solid but when she followed the trail into the thicket of trees, she found that the nature inside was literally lit up.  Flowers, plants, and insects glowed faintly along with the river.  Ali shook her head and continued to follow the trail.  She dared not to touch any of the objects surrounding her but just continued to walk.  She soon came to a fork in the trail with two crooked and aged signs.  Her eyes widened as she read them.  White Queen's Castle read the sign pointing to the left.  Red Queen's Castle read the sign pointing to the right.

            "You have got to be shitting me."  Ali said.  She stood gaping at the signs and was knocked out of her shock when she heard crashing footsteps through the trees.  Ali quickly ducked behind a nearby tree and peeked around just as two very large twins came out through the trees on the other side of the past.  Both were about seven feet tall, with matching blue pants and red and white striped shirts; each had a red cap with a yellow flag sticking out of the top.  Ali's eyes widened.  She looked at the nearest one's collar and sure enough she could make out a faint DUM written in elegant, blue ink.  Ali closed her eyes tight and shook her head, but when she opened her eyes again she was still staring at Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

            "There ain't no one here, nohow!"  Tweedledee exclaimed.

            "I saw someone here, I did!"  Tweedledum replied.

            "No you did not.  Look here, these signs are wrong!"  Tweedledee cried out, ignoring his brother.  Dee went over to the signs and switched them so that it said the Red Queen was to the left and the White Queen to the right.

            "Contrariwise!"  Dum objected.  He shoved his brother out of the way and returned them to the way they had been pointing originally.  For the next five minutes, Ali watched the Twins' backs as they fought over which way the signs should be pointing.  Just when Ali thought of turning around and going back out of the forest, a twenty foot long flower on the other side of the path bent down behind the Twins.  The flower's petals were glowing, neon purple and the face in the middle was weathered and tired looking.

            "Tweedledee and Tweedledum, what are you two doing?"  Her wary voice reverberated through Ali.  The flower was not talking loud, but her voice carried and was weighted down with such seriousness that Ali felt a chill sweep through her, an ominous feeling creeping over her.

"You know not to be out in the open like this.  If you value your lives, you will turn around and go back to your home.  Honestly, you remember what happened to the Walrus and the Lion."  Tweedledee and Tweedledum bowed their heads and took off their hats in respect.

"We saw someone here, we did."  Said Dee, squeezing his hat in his hands and rocking back and forth like a child.

"Everyone knows to stay in the cover of the forest during nightfall."  The flower said.  "Now go back, quickly."  The Twins scuttled down the path while the flower called after them.  "Make sure to stay in the cover of the forest!"  Then the flower stood back up and was silent again.  Ali looked toward the signs, found that both were now pointing right, and sighed.  She looked around, debating on going back to the path and back to where she had woken up, but something stopped her.  She considered the conversation she had just heard from the flower.  She decided not to chance being on the open path and looked around her.  Out of the corner of her eye, Ali noticed a pulsing glow coming from the distance through the trees.  She wondered if she should follow it, not knowing whether it was dangerous or not.  After biting her nail and deciding that she really didn't know where to start to try and figure out how to get out of here, she followed the blue glow.

             Ali was walking for about ten minutes before she finally heard voices and stepped out into a clearing.  She immediately regretted not looking before emerging.  All talking and whispering stopped and dozens of eyes turned and stared at her.  Ali stared, shocked as she looked around and saw giant different colored flowers, 20 feet tall, staring down at her.  Various forest animals were perked up, watching her.  But what made Ali stop dead was the large, faintly glowing mushroom straight in front of her.  On one side of the mushroom, a white rabbit in a tweed vest and pocket watch sticking out was gazing at her.  On the other, there was a small, brown field mouse, and a crazy-looking grey rabbit. And there, with pants too short, red suspenders, an over-sized green bow-tie, crazy, wirey purple hair, and a red and purple top-hat, stood the Mad-Hatter himself.  But that wasn't the end of this shocking scene.  Ali turned her eyes up to the mushroom and out of the curling smoke emerged the deep blue, spectacle-wearing, hookah-smoking Caterpillar.  The Caterpillar regarded her with his all-knowing gaze and took a long puff of his hookah.

            "Who…are…you?"  He asked his deep, slow voice.

            Ali was silent for several minutes…and then she laughed.  She couldn't help it.  This was too bizarre.  The blue Caterpillar, the actual Caterpillar from the book she was learning about in her AP English class in high school, was asking her the same question he asked Alice in the book.  The Caterpillar before her closed its eyes and took a deep breath.  In a flash, where a harmless blue caterpillar had been a second before, rose a great, orange and red dragon that roared and towered over Ali, who screamed and fell to her knees.

            "WHO ARE YOU?"  The dragon boomed, its voice vibrating through Ali's core.

            "Ali Hawk!"  She screamed, hiding her face in her arms.  All was silent for a moment.

            "Look at me when I speak to you."  Said the same voice as before.  Ali looked up, and the dragon was now gone and the blue caterpillar lounged on the mushroom as before.  The forest animals, who had bolted in fear, came slowly back to the circle.  Ali slowly stood, shaking, and looked at him.  "I did not ask your name, Alice, I asked who you are."  He said, the smoke rings surrounding Ali. 

            "I don't know what you mean."  Ali replied, coughing through the smoke.

            "Yes you do.  You know of us, don't you?"

            Ali hesitated.  "Yes…but you're not real.  None of you are."  She glanced toward the Mad Hatter, his bright green eyes staring in opposite directions, yet she knew he was looking at her.  He grinned, his three rows of sharp, jagged teeth gleaming with spit.  Ali couldn't help but flinch.

            "I can assure you, we are as real as you are right now."  The Blue Caterpillar said, bringing Ali's attention back to him.

            "I just want to go home.  I don't even know how I got here."

            "You're here for a reason, Alice.  You need to help us."

            "Oh no.  No, no, no, no, no.  No.  I am not the right Alice, ok?  I am Ali Hawk, I come from Highlands Ranch, Colorado and I'm going to study Theatre at NYU in the fall."  Hearing herself say it made Ali feel grounded and in touch with reality.

            "You are no longer who you thought you were.  And you cannot go home until you have fulfilled what needs to be done here."

            "You have got to be fucking kidding…"  Ali said, rubbing her forehead.  The creatures around her erupted in protests.

            "QUIET!"  The Caterpillar boomed.  All immediately fell silent.  "This is no joke, Alice.  The truth is, you must save our world, or you will never see yours again."

            "What are you talking about?"  Ali asked, getting frustrated.  "This is Wonderland, a fictional place for children.  It's not real."

            The Caterpillar regarded her with distaste.  "There is no time for you to accept what has happened to you, Alice.  You need to act, and you need to act now.  Our world is dying."  He paused, seeing in Ali's face that he was not getting through to her.  "You must be shown.  Cheshire…?"  The Caterpillar called out.

            "Certainly."  Said a voice.  Ali shrieked as a floating mouth appeared, followed by the ever famous pink and blue fur-coated Cheshire Cat.  His eyes were twice as large as a regular cat's, his grin packed with far more teeth than normal, pearly white and sharp.  His face was twisted up, his fur matted with dirt and what looked like blood.  He got right up into Ali's face and when he spoke his breath smelled of waste and raw fish.  "Follow me."

            He led her back into the forest, which seemed dimmer now, and disappeared, except for his eyes.  Ali followed the oversized glowing orbs with their slitted pupils hesitantly.  When they were successfully out of the forest, the cat's twisted grin reappeared.

            "Wonderland has become victim to a dark force.  Come, we will go to the Red Queen's castle so that you will see."

            "No, I'm getting out of here."  Ali said.

            The eyes and mouth chuckled and turned upside down.  "How do you propose to do that?  This land changes constantly.  The same path will lead to a different place if you try and retrace your steps."  Cheshire fully reappeared and he rested his chin on his paws, his dirty claws exposed and deadly sharp.  Ali deflated.

            "Really?"  She asked weakly.

            "Mmhmm.  Follow me."

            The Cat kept his whole body visible as he lead Ali over hills and across streams and Ali noticed that the farther this way they walked, the less plants and animals seemed to live.  What seemed like hours later, they emerged at the top of a great hill and down below sat the most sinister looking castle.  Red and black, the massive castle had about seventeen towers and was surrounded by a red moat.  There was nothing surrounding the castle outside the gate.  No grass, no trees, no animals of any kind.  Just dirt and rocks.  The sky was a churning, and dark grey, with the occasional rumble of thunder.  Ali could make out various hearts that she could see on the castle at this distance.

            "The castle itself drains the life from the surrounding land."  The Cheshire Cat told her, his voice dead serious but his grin wide as ever; an eerie contrast.  "After the Red Queen was murdered, something manifested into the heart of the castle.  No one knows what it looks like.  Those who have seen it have not lived to explain.  Whatever it is, though, is draining the life from Wonderland.  You've been called here to stop it.  Good luck."  And with that, the Cheshire Cat vanished completely.

            "Wait!"  Ali called.  The cat's wide grin just reappeared before her.

            "Welcome to Wonderland, Alice."  And it vanished again.

            Ali stood at the top of the hill for a long time after the Cheshire Cat left her.  She could see the outer gate; it had a twisted heart on it and she could make out round blobs on the top of the gate.  As Ali focused on them, she saw that they were a series of severed head.  Their eyes wide and mouths open in shock and terror.  Ali shivered and looked away.  She tried to tell herself this wasn't real.  Still.  She couldn't believe, how could it be?  Alice in Wonderland was a children's book.  This place is nothing like the one she read about.  It was dark.  Scary.  She ran her fingers violently through her hair and blew out a breath.  A snap of a twig made Ali whip around so fast that she stumbled on a tree stump.  As she started to fall, a hand gripped her arm and caught her before she fell.  The long, sharp, dirty fingernails pressed against her skin and Ali's eyed traveled up the arm to the face that made her shrink back.  But the Mad Hatter didn't let go.

            "Th-thank you…"  Ali said quietly, stuttering and trying to pull out of his grasp.  Mad Hatter just looked at her.  Well, not really looked at her, as his right eye was looking right and the left was looking straight up.   But his face was turned down toward her and she thought he was regarding her.

            "You're Alice, the one that's going to save Wonderland."  He said, his voice soft and eerie. 

            "My name is Ali and I'm not saving anything.  I'm going home."  She replied, again trying to pull out of the Mad Hatter's gritty hand.  He only tightened his grip on her and turned his face toward the dead castle.

            "Do you know why a raven is like a writing desk?"  Hatter abruptly asked, his voice so soft the Ali almost didn't hear it.

            Ali rolled her eyes.  "No I don't.  And neither do you.  Now let me go!"

            "I would like to show you something."  The Mad Hatter said, again bringing his attention back down to her.

            "What?"  Ali asked, suspicious.  The Mad Hatter let go of her arm and stood at the edge of the great hill. 

            "Watch."  He said, staring out at the land.

            Ali looked at him for a moment then stared out as well.  Gradually a scene developed in the air in front of Ali, and she saw the Wonderland like it was described in the book.  She saw a beautiful little girl with flowing, curly blonde hair talking to one of the 20 foot tall flowers.  It was the same flower that Ali saw talking to Tweedledee and Tweedledum, but the face looked much younger, kinder, and happier.  A series of scenes flashed in front of Ali.  The little girl talking with a walrus and a lion.  The little girl playing crocket with flamingos with the Red Queen.  And finally the little girl talking to the Caterpillar.  The next series of scenes showed a similar looking girl, with the same white blonde locks, slightly older than the first.  She was talking to the Caterpillar and shaking her head.  Then Ali saw the same castle that was below her, red moat and all.  However, the castle in the scene before her was more alive, still sinister but not evil.  The final image showed the same girl, running at the Red Queen, her face twisted in rage and holding up and mighty red and black sword.  The girl sliced the Queen's head off in one swift motion.  The next scene showed a celebration.  What Ali saw next made the dread inside of her solid and complete.  The Red Queen's castle had taken on a life of its own.  As Ali watched, she saw that at the heart of the castle was…something.  It was dark.  Evil.  It sucked the life and happiness out of everything around it.  Ali watched as she saw the toll it had taken on Wonderland and its creatures.  She saw bodies.  Shriveled up and littering the ground.  She saw those creatures that were still alive cowering in the cover of the forest, afraid of the dark and huddling together for survival.  Ali began to understand and when the scene went blank, she was silent.

            "Wonderland used to be a light place."  The Mad Hatter started, looking at her.  "A wonderful place.  And every time we were in trouble, a new Alice was chosen to come here and save us.  Wonderland has become a place of nightmares.  If you don't sleep with one eyes open, you get killed.  You are the last piece to the puzzle.  You were chosen, and if you don't succeed, Wonderland will fall."  

            "How do you know all this?"  Ali asked, swallowing the bile that was rising in her throat.

            "I wasn't always Mad, you know."  He replied.  They were silent for a few moments.

            "I don't think I can do this."  Ali whispered, her fear making her muscles tense and filling her eyes with tears.

            Hatter turned to her and leaned down, his pointed teeth and crazy eyes unsettling her.  "Everyone is capable of doing something.  Once you accept that it needs to be done, your heart and body will know what to do."  And with that, he went back into the trees. 

            Ali sat on the cliff and stared down at the castle below.  Throughout the several hours she was there, she thought of the scenes she had just witnessed.  Ali could feel the darkness in the air.  She could taste the evil that emanated from the castle.  It was sour.  Moldy.  Rotting.  She sat there until the fear in her stomach hardened, making her able to stand and come to a decision.  She turned, and the Mad Hatter, who had been watching her from the shadow of the trees, walked out to meet her.

            "Ok."  She said.

            The Mad Hatter led her back to the Blue Caterpillar's mushroom.  Ali stood in front of the Caterpillar and he puffed his hookah.

            "Are you ready?"  He asked her.

            "Yes."  She answered.

            He nodded and the white rabbit hopped off out of sight only to return dragging a clear case.  In the case, Ali saw a gleaming sword.  The blade was pure white with emerald jewels decorating the hilt.  Ali opened the case and took out the sword holding it up.

            "It has begun."  The Caterpillar said.

***

            Ali was panting.  She couldn't breathe, but she didn't dare stop running.  She tried not to take her eyes off the forest path for fear that it would shift and change without her noticing and she'd once again be one step behind.  It was hard not to look up, though; hard to ignore the roaring and screaming that was coming from all around.  The thing that lived in the Red castle was terrorizing Wonderland.  Everywhere she looked, she could see animals dropping to the ground, shriveling up and turning pasty grey, their mouths frozen open in silent screams and eyeless sockets staring emptily at nothing.

            Ali had slept with one eye open for the past five years she'd been in Wonderland.  Moving from one hiding place to another, her only comfort was the friends she made and the sword she had strapped her hip.  No one knew when that thing would strike and although Ali did have friends, no one wanted her to stay long for fear that that thing would target them.  Ali had slept in caves, trees, behind bushes and rocks.  The clothes she came to Wonderland with were tattered and falling off her body.  Had it not been for some of the humans that were still surviving, making her new pants and a shirt and cloak made out of leather, she would have frozen to death.

            Throughout the five years, Ali had been able to figure out a few things.  After the last Alice had slain the Red Queen, some dark thing remained, lingering in the deserted ruin. It slowly grew stronger, devouring the life force of any living thing that approached the dead castle. One day, it had sucked a man dry, leaving only his skin-covered skeleton behind, and then it took shape as a black cloud that grew as it consumed more.   It floated free over the castle and the surrounding fields and forest. Beneath it was a perpetually dark desert, and its arms reached out like small tornados, seeking for something living to drain. When it found a person, the arm burned blue, running electric currents all through the giant mass, and the pitch-black wall extended outward visibly further, covering more of the desert. It thundered with unappeasable hunger.  No one knew when it would come, or who it would devour next. 

            It gave out one of those roars and Ali couldn't help but look up as she was running.  It loomed above her like a menacing blanket, shooting down funnels of itself and snatching up various creatures.  Ali tried to suppress her panic, but let out a small scream when she fell down some steps and onto a bridge over a deep canyon.  The land had changed on Ali again.  She tried to smash the panic that was rising in her and got up and sprinted off down the bridge.  She had learned to just keep running when the land changed on her.  When she was across the bridge, she kept her eyes focused on the path before.  Just keep running.  Don't stop, or you die.  She kept repeating this to herself until the path abruptly widened and she burst into a clearing.  Ali's eyes widened as she stared at the magnificent White Castle.

            For the last five years she's been trying to find the White castle, searching day and night.  But the path had always changed and she was never able to find it.  The castle was old and decrepit; Ali could tell that it had been abandoned many years ago.  She cautiously tip toed up the magnificent steps of the castle and opened one of the great doors with a deafening rusty screech.  Hearing a roar, Ali turned in the doorway and saw the thing in the distance, and heard the faint screams of the forest creatures.          

            Ali closed the door on the sight and retreated into the darkness of the castle.  She wondered around, looking to various rooms.  All the furniture had been left.  It was all dusty and dirty, but still beautiful in its own way.  Ali was in the weapons chamber when a shadow moved across the room.  She quickly drew her sword awkwardly, brandishing it like a baseball bat.

            "Come out!"  Ali yelled hysterically, her voice quivering with fear.  It was silent for a moment and then she heard a whoosh and the sword was knocked out of her hands, and she fell backwards to the ground, her face in shadow.  A glinting metal sword tip was resting against her throat and she could see the outline of a man, although his face was hidden in the darkness.

            "This is my castle."  He said venomously.  "Leave now and I will spare your life."

            "Please, I didn't mean any harm; I was just trying to find a safe place to sleep."  Ali tried to scramble back and her face was suddenly thrown into light that was coming from a dirty window nearby.  The man dropped his sword to his side and gave a small gasp.

            "Alice?"  He said, his voice soft and surprised.                      

            "Yes…"  Ali said, too frightened and tired to correct her name.

            The man stepped into the light as well.  He was in his late twenties, possibly reaching thirty.  His face was hard and stoic, and scars gave him a rather frightening look.  His crystal blue eyes pierced through her as they stared unblinking down at her.  He was tall, and big; she could see through his armor that he was battle-hardened and muscular.  His shoulder-length, shaggy black hair fell over his eyes and gave him a look that was almost psychotic.

            "You're really her?"  He whispered.

            "Yes, I am."  Ali replied, her voice shaking along with the rest of her body, fear coursing through her.  The man surprised her when he sheathed his sword and knelt down on his knee, giving her a deep bow.

            "Please forgive me; I did not know it was you."

            Ali sat there, dirt covering her face and arms, staring at the man with fear and surprise.  "Um…it's alright."  She said quietly.

            "My name is Surick.  I used to be a soldier for the White Queen.  I've been looking after her castle for all these years."  He stood and offered her a hand.  She hesitated then let him help her up.  "I've been able to keep the Darkness from destroying this place."

            "Really?  But how?"  Ali asked.

            "The Queen had a rather talented sorcerer living at the castle when she was alive.  I found his room of magic and managed to acquire talismans that protect the castle from evil."

            "That's incredible."  Ali said.  "Please, would it be alright if I just stayed the night?"  She asked him.  "I will only stay the night then be out of your castle in the morning."

            "Don't be ridiculous, please stay.  You can set up here, there is plenty of room."  He leaned down and kissed the back of her hand then looked up at her.  "It would be my honor, Alice."

***

            In the span of the two years that Ali lived at the castle, she, with the help of Surick, had cleaned up the castle and made it a little more alive.  Surick had also begun to train her in combat, teaching her how to use her sword, along with several other weapons that were in the weapons room.  Ali was learning to strategize and make quick decisions, which she silently thanked Surick for.  He told her that he was only doing his duty by teaching her.  She admired him, and understood his need to feel like he was useful again since the White Queen died.

            Eating the roast pig that Surick had caught for her, Ali sat at the long table by herself, her legs folded up under her.  She ate each bite slowly, thinking over the encounter that just happened.

            "Alice!  Alice, please we have nowhere to go."  Ali looked down at the family of foxes that had showed up at the castle's front entrance.  The father of the family, Dacon, had been consumed by the Darkness and the mom and four pups had been driven out of their home.

            "I would help you Kendra, but Surik made it clear to me that no one else is allowed to live here." Kendra looked up at Ali, and she could see the desperation in the mother's eyes, her once playful pups now laying around her hopelessly.  Ali stared at them, torn.

            "Shit…"  She said under her breath, then looked back into the depths of the castle.  "Wait right here, don't go anywhere."  And with that, she set off through the dim corridors of the castle to Surik's quarters.  She banged on his door three times hard and heard him curse and mumble as things were knocked over.  He wrenched the door open fast, his stoic face and piercing eyes bearing into her.

             "What?"  He said rudely.  She had woken him from a nap and he stood there in nothing but boots and trousers.  Ali stood there with her arms crossed, determined to change his stubborn mind this time.

            "Surik, Kendra and her pups just lost Dacon and their home.  They need a place to stay—"          

            "The answer is no, you know that."  He interrupted her.  She scowled at him.

            "I was not asking you, Surik.  I'm telling you that they are staying here until they are well enough to find a secure home."  Throughout the couple years of living with Surik, Ali could tell when his eyes changed what he was feeling, and right now he was slightly shocked at her authoritative tone.  She smirked, she couldn't help it.  Turning from him and walking down the corridor, she heard him fall into step a little behind as she made her way back toward the front entrance.  Kendra was still where she left her.

             "Come in Kendra, please, and we will find you some accommodations."  Kendra thanked them both with much gratitude and Ali led them to a room that would do for the time being.  Ali and Surik sat together in one of the common rooms, Ali looking out the window, and Surik staring at her.

             "What?"  She asked him when her skin started to prick from his gaze.

             "What was that, Alice?

             "What was what?"

             "Where did you muster up that kind of authority."

             Ali glanced sideways at him, then continued looking out the window.  "I couldn't turn them away.  She has four pups and nowhere to live.  And Dacon is gone as well."

             "You almost sounded like a Queen."  Surik said quietly.  Ali tuned to fully look at him and saw him looking at her, but his eyes were also somewhere else.  A large knock on the front entrance door made them both jump.  Surik sprang up and grabbed the dagger that had been lying next to him.  Opening the front entrance, there stood about 30 men and woman.  The man in front, a burly man with a large brown and grey beard and thick hair, puffed out his chest.

             "Alice?"  He said, looking right at her.

             "Yes?  Can I help you?"

             "My name is Grover, and we have come here to fight with you."

             Ali didn't know what to think about suddenly have soldiers at her command.  Surik was talking with them now, and she let him.  She didn't know what to do as a commander and leader.  All of a sudden she lost her appetite for her roast pig and took it back into the kitchen and threw it out.  One thing she missed was a refrigerator.  They threw so much food away.  She made her way to the library and sat in one of the overstuffed chairs next to the window overlooking the grounds.  As she looked, she gasped and turned pasty white at what she saw.

            There, walking across the grounds, pearly white and slightly transparent, was her mother.  Ali was frozen and she watched the figure float through the grass.  The door opened to the library and Surik came in.  She did not notice him come to her chair and start talking to her.  Her mother turned slowly toward the window where she was and looked at her.  Surik was now kneeling in on the floor in front of her chair, trying to talk to her.  Her mother mouthed something that Ali could not make out and then she dissolved.

            "Alice!  Alice!"  Surik shook her a little and Ali finally looked at him.  "What's wrong?  What did you see?"  Ali looked out over the grounds again, but her mother was gone.

            "Nothing…a ghost.  It was nothing."  She replied.

            Surik hesitated a moment and then stood.  "Those are good soldiers in there, I think they will be useful to us."

            "I can't command soldiers, Surik, I'm not a Queen."

            "But you have the potential, Alice, I saw just this morning.  And I will help you.  We need them, Alice.  They must stay."

***

 

            Alice stood in her bathroom.  Her large living quarters on the west wing of the castle had all of the Queen's old things, as well as some modern touches that Alice created.  Her sword was in one hand, and about a foot of her blonde hair was in the other.  Ten years had passed since she came to Wonderland.  She looked at her slightly aged face, even more aged eyes, and pushed down the emotion that was building up inside her.  Surik had trained her well.  She heard a knock on her door and told whoever it was to come in.

            "Alice we need to go over these papers—"  Surik stopped at the sight of her.  He looked from her face, her blonde hair in wild spirals on top of her head now that it wasn't weighed down, to the sword in her one hand and the chunk of hair in her other, then back at her face.  "You look…different."

            "I know."  Alice replied.  "What do you want to talk to me about?"

            "The papers…that we found.  We need to go over them."  Surik said, still looking at her hair.  Alice regarded him for a moment then led the way to the battle chamber, which was right next to the weapons chamber.  When Alice entered, she found her soldiers sitting around the table and at the end, where she sat, stood a headless manikin with a brilliant suit of armor adorning it.  The armor was silver with white cloth.  The boots were made of tough leather with matching gloves.  Alice was engraved in elegant cursive over the left breast.

            "What is this?"  She asked, staring at the armor.

            "A surprise."  Surik said from behind her.

            "No warrior should be without armor."  Grover said from the right side of the table.  Alice walked over to the armor.  She ran her fingers over the smooth metal and traced the cursive.  Taking the armor back to her quarters, she put it on and gazed at herself in the mirror.  A stranger stared back at her.  Alice couldn't believe how much she changed.  What she saw in the mirror frightened her.  Her face was smooth and hard, with several small scars.  Her eyes were intense with alertness and experience.  Coupled with the armor, she looked…impressive.  She had to admire that she now looked like the leader she had trained to be.  She made her way back to the battle chamber. 

When she entered, all her soldiers stood and bowed to her.  Looking around at them all, Alice raised her chin and sat down at her place at the end of the table.

 Having looked at the papers that Surik acquired, they realized that they were missing an important page, which was at the dark castle.  The Mad Hatter, now one of Alice's good friends, was standing in the corner of the room while the soldiers deliberated.

 "No, no no, absolutely not." Alice said, rubbing her temples.

 "Alice, he knows this land better than anyone, especially the castle since he lived there as the Red Queen's prisoner."  Grover said.

 "I will not risk his life to get a piece of paper.  We will find another way."

 "We are out of options, Alice."  Surik said next to her.  "He knows the risks and he's still willing."  Alice sighed and looked over to the Hatter.  His crazy eyes were kind and he smiled warmly at her.  His pointed teeth didn't bother her anymore.

 "Would you all excuse us please?"  Alice asked her soldiers.  They filed out obediently and quietly, Surik pausing for a moment at the door before closing it.  "Hatter, come sit."  He glided over to one of the chairs and sat facing her.  Alice took a moment to find the words.  "You understand that this could kill you."

 "Alice, do not worry for me.  No matter what happens, all will be well."  He said, in his light airy voice that she was so used to.  Alice sighed and rubbed her face in her hands.

 "Are you sure about this Hatter?"  Her voice let slip the deep concern she was feeling.

 He smiled again at her.  "I'm delighted to help the greatest Alice to ever come to Wonderland."

 She smiled back at him.  That was the last time she ever saw him:

 Alice was woken by screeching, hissing, and several yells.  She scrambled out of bed, in the thin pajamas she had fashioned a long time ago into a type of sweatpants and tank top from her old memories.  Seizing her sword from her bedside, she ran through the castle toward the noise and entered the great hall.  There she found Surik and Grover wrestling with a squirming, screeching Cheshire Cat.

 "I must see Alice!  I must see Alice now!"  The cat was screeching.

 "Where did you get this?"  Surik was yelling, brandishing a piece of parchment.

 "The Mad Hatter told me to bring it to Alice when he died!"  Alice's insides froze when she heard that.

 "SILENCE!"  Alice boomed, her deep voice echoing on the walls.  Everyone stopped and stared at her.  "Let him go."  She said.  As soon as he was released, the Cheshire Cat sprinted up the staircase and leapt into her arms.  He was quivering and hiding his face.  She had never seen him act that way.  "Cheshire, what do you mean when the Mad Hatter died?  What happened?"  She asked desperately.

 Cheshire turned his monstrous eyes up to her.  "The Darkness…Hatter…he got the paper but he couldn't get out in time.  He gave it to me just before he was consumed.  I couldn't save him, Alice, I'm so sorry."  Alice's mouth dropped open in shock and horror. 

 The castle shook as a tremendous roar rang out through the night.  Alice looked to the front doors, dropped the cat, and ran toward the entrance.

 "Alice no!"  Surik ran after her as she tugged the doors open.  The wind was ripping through the air, tearing at Alice's hair, and the sky was churning.  The Darkness was just beyond the talisman perimeter, roaring and livid.  Something shot out from the depths of the Darkness and a shriveled up Mad Hatter, eye sockets blackened and mouth stretched wide, his pointed teeth rotted, landed on the steps leading up to the doors.

 "No!"  Alice screamed in anguish at the Darkness, and Surik came up behind her, clutched her arms and tried to pull her back into the castle.  He was yelling to Grover, but Alice couldn't hear.  Surik managed to wrestle Alice back inside. He practically dragged her up to her room with her kicking and screaming the whole way. Once there, he sat her down against the wall and waited until she stopped crying.  He helped her get back into the bed and then left her. 

 ***

Twenty years had passed since Alice first awoke in Wonderland.  Now, Alice was hunched over multiple pieces of paper containing inscriptions, legends, maps, and directions.  Her glinting armor held the white sword against her hip.  Her neck-length, wild, spiral blonde hair was pushed back from her aged eyes.  She had found the answer.  She knew what to do.  She just couldn't figure out how to get it.  The door opened and Alice looked up to see Surick entering the room.

            "You called?"  He asked.

            "I know what to do."  Her voice was deeper, dripping with authority.  Twenty years had passed, although by looking at Alice's face, she looked as though she only aged ten.  Her eyes were the ones that looked much older than twenty.  She turned the papers around to show him.

            "The Sacred Dragon?"  He asked.  Alice nodded.  "Have you found it?" 

            Alice nodded again.  "I'll need to see the Caterpillar though; there is a key to unlock the tomb.

            "I'll gather everyone."  Surick said, and hurried out of the room.  Alice sighed and looked around the huge library that she now spends most of her time in.  She paced to the large bay window that looked out over the grounds of her castle.  Alice has now called it home for fifteen years and it has been her headquarters for a very long time.

            Alice tightened her hands into fists and her face tensed as an apparition of her brother floated across the grounds.  She had not forgotten her family over all this time.  She sees Brian's apparition the most.  She wonders every day what happened to them, and still hopes to see them again, but she doesn't cry at night over it anymore.  Alice closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.

 She went outside, jumped onto her black stallion, and lead her soldiers into the barren land that was Wonderland.  The Great Darkness had spread like a deadly virus to most of the land, and had also grown tenfold in power and strength.  The rivers dried up long ago, and the color has drained from the forest and the sky.  Alice rode hard through the thick, sour air, tasting the evil that saturated it.  Her soldiers rode faithfully beside her, although she could hear various coughing and see some of them wrapping their cloaks tighter in the frigid breeze.  They thundered into the forest, now deserted and dead.  They approached the one last place where there was a small semblance of life.  As she approached his mushroom, the Caterpillar was already one step ahead of her.

            "You already know the answer, Alice."  He said, calm as ever.  Alice said nothing, but frowned.  "What have I been telling you all these years?"  He asked.

            "Courage and love will keep you alive."  She replied without hesitation.

            "What else?"

            "Trust my sword, it is the answer."

            "Exactly."

            Alice looked down at the sword that had not left her hip in twenty years.  "The sword is the key?"  She asked, disbelief creeping up in her voice.

            The Caterpillar just looked at her.  Alice rubbed her forehead then sighed and jumped back onto her horse and they rode out of the forest.  She stopped a few miles east of the Red Queen's castle, in the wasteland as she had come to call it.  She took out the parchment that she had the Mad Hatter uncover for her, and her heart jolted slightly at the painful memory.  She closed her eyes for a moment, giving him the respect he was due, and then looked at the crucial map.  She found the spot and rode on, her soldiers following her.  She finally came to a grouping of rock placed artfully and forming a giant tomb.  Alice hopped off her horse and searched the map with her eyes.  She read the inscription on the bottom:  Only those with pure of heart and the White Glory will attain the Sacred Dragon.  The key will crumble the rock.  Alice now knew that her sword was the key but she still didn't know where the sword had to be placed.  She growled in frustration.  And then it came to her, something she had read twenty years ago, about a rabbit hole. 

            "Of course."  She said and ran to the massive, rectangular rock holding all the others in place.  She heard one her soldiers shout and she turned to find a massive solid black cloud rolling through the sky.  The ground rumbled and shook and Alice could hear the roaring of the angered Darkness.  She noticed some of her soldiers starting to back away.

"Hold your ground!  Do not let that thing know you're afraid!"  She screamed, her voice strong but her stomach churning with a mixture of fear and excitement.  Alice didn't have much time and she plunged the sword into the rock in front of her.  It shuddered and glowing blue veins appeared running up all the rocks.  The tomb rumbled as it started to collapse and she heard the Darkness scream with rage.  Alice quickly grabbed the sword from the rock before it was crushed and yelled at her soldiers to back away as a great purple dragon burst out of the rubble and gave out a mighty roar.  Alice ducked and rolled as she narrowly missed the monster's swinging spiked tail, and she climbed up the rocks and onto the dragons back.  She memorized the incantation to make the dragon obey her and yelled it at the top of her lungs.  She immediately felt the power she had over the dragon and she screamed in triumph.  The great dragon opened its mouth wide and roared as she screamed.  Alice rounded the dragon and charged at the oncoming wall of Darkness.  As she got closer, she could see the core of the Darkness.  It was protected by the swirling, churning outer layer and Alice could see that the core was powering the entire being.  It glowed a powerful blue, with the being's black wisps floating around it.  Electrical currents would periodically shoot through the whole mass and the Darkness would rumble with the power.  Alice willed the dragon to spew fire directly toward the core, but it only created a hole in the outer layer.  She cried out as the sword glowed white hot against her hip and she wrenched it out of its sheath.  Alice narrowly missed as the Darkness shot out a string of its outer layer, rolling the dragon through the air to avoid it.  She realized what she had to do and charged at the Darkness.  Right as she got to the outer layer, she willed the dragon to spew fire, bursting through and charging toward the core.  The Darkness screamed high and shrill in outrage.  Alice almost reached the core when it sent another string of its outer layer surging toward her she swerved to avoid it.  Alice twisted around and threw her sword toward the core with all her strength, throwing herself off the dragon in the process. 

 She was falling.  Everything slowed down.  She saw the sword twirling toward the Darkness's core like some ironic dance.  She watched as the sword pierced the core, as it imbedded itself deep within and the core collapsed in on itself, then exploded outward.  The blast twisted Alice's body and propelled her toward the ground with full speed.  She saw the ground rushing up to meet her she threw her arms up instinctively just as she was about to make impact.

 ***

            Alice heard a faint voice.  Someone was saying her name.  A name from long ago.  She knew that voice…no, voices.  There were multiple voices.  All familiar.  They grew louder until she could make out two male voices and two female.  Her eyes finally flickered open and a bright, fluorescent light was shining in her eyes.  She squeezed her eyes shut again tightly.  She heard the deep male voice tell someone to turn the light off and after a moment it did.  She tried opening her eyes again and after a moment of blurriness, saw the worried faces of her mother and father, Gretchen, and Brian looking down at her. 

            "Mom?   Dad?"  She said, and her voice was higher now.

            "Hi, sweetheart."  Her mother said, her eyes tearing and a smile on her face.  "How are you feeling?"

            Alice hesitated.  "Where am I?"

            "You're in the hospital."  Her father answered.  "You've been in a coma for three weeks."

            "What?"  She said, disbelief filling her voice.

            "Do you remember the accident, Ali?"  Gretchen asked.  "We hit another car head-on.  You went into a coma, but the doctor said it's a miracle no one was killed."

            Alice turned to her brother.  He was staring down at her.  There were bruises all along his face and neck and his right arm was in a cast but other than that he seemed fine.  She reached up to touch his face.

            "Ali…I'm sorry…"  She had never remembered her brother crying, so she didn't know what to do when she saw the tears fall down cheeks.

            "Is this real?"  Alice asked, turning back to stare at the ceiling.  "Am I back?"

            "Back from where, baby?"  Lilly asked.

            Alice glanced at her, and decided not to answer.  She then looked back to Brian and Gretchen.  Brian was again staring at her, as was Gretchen.  Brian was frowning.  Alice wondered if they were seeing what she knew would be there.

            "Ali, the doctor is coming to check on you but you should be able to come home very soon."  Graham said.

            "Call me Alice, please."  She replied without thinking.

            Lilly and Graham looked at each other and Brian frowned harder.

            A few days later, Alice was packing her backpack for school.  The movements felt strange to her, foreign.  Her teachers and parents were working with her so she could keep up with her classes after missing so much school, so she could still go to NYU.  Alice couldn't muster up the same excitement she felt about going to New York as she did before the accident.  It all seemed so unimportant now that the fate of a world didn't rest on her shoulders.  Driving to school, Brian tried to make conversation, but Alice stared out the window, not making eye contact with him, not wanting him to see…she focused on the land outside, expecting to see rolling hills, multicolored sky, and the looming Darkness out of the corner of her eye.

            Alice saw no point to her life back in Highlands Ranch.  She had already lived her life and nothing seemed real to her.  She would go back to the White Castle in her dreams and only then did she feel at home.  She felt that it was ironic that her friends and family had become so concerned with her lack of expression and emotion that she was now on suicide watch.  She'd never dream of ending her life.  Her experience in Wonderland taught her the value of life.

 

Two weeks later, Alice was sitting in her old room when Brian came in and sat next to her on the bed.

            "Ali?"  He said.

            "Alice."  Was her automatic reply.

            "Please look at me.  You've barely looked at me or spoken to me since you've woken up."  He pleaded.  Alice sighed and turned to him.  "Will you ever forgive me?"

            Alice's face softened.  "I never blamed you for anything, Brian."

            "Then why…"

            "Look at me, Brian, look into my eyes and tell me what you see."

            Brian hesitated.  "You look so much older.  I know that sounds crazy, but your eyes just look so aged, like you've seen a lot of horrible things over a lifetime."

            "You saw that when I opened my eyes at the hospital too, didn't you?"

            "Yes."

            Alice turned away from him again.  "This isn't your fault, Brian.  Let's just say that my brain went through a change while in a coma, and leave it at that, ok?"

            "Ok."  He replied, and paused before leaving her room.  Alice stood and walked to her window.  She had thrown her full-body mirror away.  She looked like a stranger in the mirror.  A young girl with old, battle-hardened eyes and attitude.  She rested her arms on the window sill and rested her chin on her arms, staring at nothing out of the glass.  After a while she noticed a strange object that was snagged in the bushes against the wind and she went outside to investigate.  As she was crossing the street, something that looked like a blue and pink tail flashed in the corner of her eye.  She whipped her head around, but saw nothing.  She was alone except for the wind.  She continued walking toward the object and went into her neighbor's front yard; there she stopped.  Caught in the bushes, fighting against the wind, was a red and purple top hat.  She gingerly picked it up and noticed a small tag on the side; she flipped it over and her heart almost stopped.  It read:

            Welcome to Wonderland. 

 Alice heard the faint chuckle of the Cheshire Cat fade away on the wind.

* * *

Copyright 2011 by Taylor Marie Ready