Red Queen: Child Eater

“Alice? Alice!”

“Huh?” Alice said upon coming out of her daydream.

“Alice. Again? Really, this is the third time you’ve dozed off during your history lesson,” Aunt Gina reprimanded with a disdainful look.

Alice blushed in embarrassment. “Sorry, Aunt Gina.” She picked up the horrible volume and made a face at the pictureless pages. “It’s just all so boring,” she mumbled. “How are kids these days supposed to learn anything with this drivel?”

“Pardon?”

Hiding her face in the book, Alice pouted. “Nothing,” she mumbled.

“Alice?”

She risked looking over the top of the massive book.

Her adoptive aunt sighed. “I do suppose it is time for tea.”

“Can we take it out in the garden?” Alice asked excitedly. She loved being outside. There was something about it that made her imagination run wild.

“Very well. Kate, would you be so kind as to bring our tea out to the garden?”

“Of course, madam,” Kate said with a wink at Alice.

Alice giggled and followed her aunt out of the study and into the garden. It had become her favourite space the moment she moved in. There were weeping willows that hung over the small pond, over which a short white bridge spanned. The numerous flowerbeds that added their colour to the otherwise green landscape were kept immaculate. She knew none of the names of the flowers planted, but she talked to all of them to tell them how lovely they were. She especially liked to watch butterflies in the lazy afternoon.

“Don’t go rolling around in the grass, Alice. You’ll get covered in filth,” Aunt Gina scolded. “Like last time,” she added under her breath. But there was a wistful smile on her face.

Alice stood up and dusted off her skirt. “I’m not rolling,” she said as she did so. “Oh, look! A white rabbit.” She pointed excitedly, but the timid creature had already disappeared. “Curious. The ones around here are usually brown. And I could have sworn this one wore a monocle.”

“Let’s not be silly, Alice. Rabbits don’t wear monocles.” She took Alice by the shoulders as she spoke and guided her to the wire-framed table where Kate was placing the tea and sweets. “And if they did . . ..” She paused.

“What is it?”

“Never mind. Best to leave them alone. Yes, quite so. Especially for a young child such as yourself.”

Alice gave her aunt a bemused look and reached for a cherry tart. It was delicious, and she soon forgot all about white rabbits. By the time she had finished her tea, her imagination was quite well occupied by other nonsensical things, like flowers baking pies in the late afternoon, and worms hanging their laundry between the blades of grass. Her eyes were drooping, and the last piece of biscuit was beginning to slip through her fingers.

A chime made her start. Rubbing her eyes, she saw the biscuit in her lap and decidedly shoved it in her mouth before it could be snatched away from her. Then she noticed she was alone. “Aunt Gina?” she called. “Kate? What time is it? Are you inside?”

She got up and was about to seek for the whereabouts of the two women when a rustling sound behind her caught her attention. When she turned, she saw a white rabbit nibbling on the grass. She gasped. “You have got a monocle. And a waistcoat,” she cried in astonishment.

At her voice, the rabbit bolted in a terrified bunny manner.

“Oh, no. Wait, Mr. Rabbit. Please,” Alice called, chasing after it. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

She saw the rabbit disappear behind one of the willows and promptly followed. Pushing aside the hanging branches, she saw a hole at the base of the tree. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she mused. “I didn’t know this was here.” Really, she ought to have noticed a hole that size. She’d played beneath this tree often enough. “I would have noticed it if existed before.”

Kneeling, she peeped into the hole. It curved downward at a sharp angle. “I wonder where he went off to in such a hurry,” she said to the hole. “He was so smartly dressed, too. Perhaps he’s going to a party!” She sat back on her haunches to think about that. “It would be impolite to attend a party without having been invited,” she reasoned. Despite that good advice, she crawled through the hole anyway.

Down, down, down she went. “What a peculiarly large tunnel,” she wondered aloud. “I wonder how far I’ll have to keep crawling until I get─” Her thought was cut off by a scream as the tunnel floor suddenly fell out from beneath her.

After a time of falling, she crossed her arms as she watched the walls pass her by. “I wonder for how long I’ll keep falling. What if I should fall all the way through the earth and come out on the other side where people walk on their hands instead of their feet? I’d surly fall over and make a fool of myself. And I know nothing of longitude or latitude to know where I might be. Or what if I should be stuck falling forever? Aunt Gina, Kate, and all the others would be terribly worried about me. I do hope it doesn’t come to that. I shouldn’t want to grow old in this place.”

Just as she was thinking these things, she slowed to a stop. “Oh!” Whatever was holding her suspended let go and she dropped onto a cushioned sofa. “My, my,” she declared as she climbed free. She stood in a hall with a marbled floor and various pictures of chess pieces all hung up crookedly along the slanted walls. It appeared to be a rather long hall with a tiny door at the far end. That door was closing behind the white rabbit.

“Mr. Rabbit!” Alice called. “Oh, do wait up.” In five steps, she was at the end of the hall. She sat down to open the small door and bent with her face nearly touching the floor to peer through. On the other side, she could see the white rabbit running through a beautiful garden. “That must be where the party is at!” she exclaimed excitedly. “How lovely.”

Sitting back up, she paused to consider the conundrum she now found herself in. There was no doubt about her being too big to fit through the door. “If only I had something to make me smaller.”

“You could turn to the bottle,” a voice suggested playfully.

“Beg your pardon?” she asked, looking down.

The doorknob was smiling up at her. “Oh no, that’s not right. You’re much too young.”

“Do you know how I can get smaller?” she inquired.

“If you need to shrink down a size, you could try the bottle,” the doorknob said again.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw a beautiful ornate glass table. On it sat a fogged blue bottle with a cork stopper in the top. Curious, she walked over to the table to pick up the bottle. “If one drinks much from a bottle marked poison, it’s almost certain to disagree with one sooner or later.”

“An odd saying,” the doorknob noted.

“Just a bit of good advice,” Alice said, flipping the label over to read it. “Drink me.” Pulling the stopper, she sniffed the bottle’s contents. “It smells like licorice,” she told the doorknob. Then she took a sip. “Hmm. Tastes like lemon drops.” Another sip. “And that time it tasted like strawberry sherbet.”

She was about to take another sip when she realized the bottle was nearly the same size she was. “Goodness!” she exclaimed, dropping it. “What happened?”

“You almost went out like a light. That’s what happened,” the doorknob snickered.

“Oh, but look!” Alice said, running up to the door. “I’m the perfect size. If you wouldn’t mind?”

The doorknob laughed. “Tut, tut. Sorry. I forgot to tell you. I’m locked.”

“Locked?”

“Locked,” the doorknob repeated. “But that shouldn’t be a problem. You do have the key, do you not?”

“What key?” Alice asked.

The doorknob gave her a scornful look. “Now, now. Don’t tell me you left it up there.”

She looked up at the table and saw a golden key. “Oh dear,” she sighed. “Whatever will I do? I can’t get up there.”

“You could try the box, naturally.”

Glancing down at her feet, she saw a decorative little chest filled with cookies. “How cute.” She reached in and pulled out a little heart-shaped one. The words EAT ME were written on it with purple icing. She took a bite and hummed in satisfaction. “It’s delicious!”

All of a sudden, she shot upward, bumping her head on the ceiling. “Ow!” she moaned. “Oh no. Now what will I do? I’ll never get out!”

“Psst.”

With a sad sniffle, Alice turned at the sound. “Hmm?”

“Over here, kid.”

She glanced around at the hall but there was no one to be seen. “Who’s there?” she asked with a sad sob.

“Ahoy!”

That’s when she noticed the picture hanging on the wall. It stretched from floor to ceiling and was trimmed in gold. The painting was of an ocean and riding the waves was a mighty vessel. She leaned in to get a closer look, for she could have sworn she heard singing. Then, suddenly, she was falling forward, and she splashed into the cold water.

“Help!” she spluttered.

“I say. You there. What are you doing floundering about? You’ll miss the caucus race!”

Turning in the water, she saw a small rowboat coming up next to her. In it was a mouse, a lizard, and a rather pompously dressed dodo. “Caucus race?” she asked as they pulled her into the boat.

“Ah, a fine endeavor, I should say,” the dodo stated proudly. “Quickly, lads.”

They rowed to shore where there was a small fire lit and several animals dressed in colourful garb were chasing each other about with seemingly no purpose.

The dodo pushed her forward. “Hurry it up. Hurry it up. No time to dawdle. You’ll never get dry just standing around. Join in. Join in.”

“Get dry?” she asked just as a wave splashed her skirts. “No one can ever get dry this way.”

“That’s the spirit,” the dodo said, no longer listening to her. “Run along. Run along.”

A lobster took her by the hand and pulled her into the race. She ran in what was a pointless endeavor, or so she thought. And just when she was about to ask when this would end, she felt as though she were being watched.

She stopped and looked to the trees. There, looking right at her, was the white rabbit.

The moment their eyes met, the rabbit disappeared.

“Wait!” she called. “Mr. Rabbit!” She chased after him, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. “Oh, bother,” she grunted in disappointment. “No what will I do?”

“You could stay for a battle,” a voice whispered behind her.

She jumped, startled by the sound. When she turned, she saw two identical figures. They had bald heads and rather round faces. Their bodies were almost as round as balloons, and they were dressed like little boys though they rather looked a bit like old men. “How very curious,” she said.

“If you think we’re wax-works, you ought to pay you know,” the one stated. On his collar was written the name Tweedle-Dumb.

“On the other hand, if you think we’re alive then it would be rude not to say hello.” The second figure had on his collar the name Tweedle-Dee.

“That’s logic,” they said as one.

“Oh,” Alice replied feeling slightly flustered. “Of course, do forgive me. Hello. My name is Alice.”

“What brings you here, Alice?” they asked in unison.

“I’m following a white rabbit. So, if you’ll excuse me.”

“What’s your hurry?” they said, blocking her way.

She stamped her foot rather impatiently. “I’d like to see where he’s going, you see. I’m curious.”

“Oh,” they murmured in an irritatingly understanding tone.

Tweedle-Dumb shook his head. “She’s curious.”

Tweedle-Dee lowered his voice to a whisper. “The others were curious as well.”

“The others?” she asked.

“If you want to catch up with the rabbit, I suggest taking that road,” Tweedle-Dumb said, pointing to the left.

“On the other hand, if you’d care to spend some time with us, we’ll be going in that direction,” Tweedle-Dee added pointing to the right.

Alice looked at the two roads, but she had already made up her mind. “I’ll be going to the left, thank you,” she said politely. Promptly, she made her way to the narrow trail that curved into the trees. Behind her she heard the twins say, “No smarter than the last one. Pity.”

She turned to ask them what they were talking about, but there was only forest behind her. With a shrug, she continued down the path until she came to a quaint little cottage. There was smoke coming out the chimney, and the front was all decorated in a lovely garden. “I wonder who lives here.”

Stepping up the cobbled path, she knocked at the door once before entering.

“I’m late!” a voice cried out in a panic.

“The white rabbit!” she said excitedly.

The rabbit turned to her and glared at her furiously. He had changed into a red shirt with a white tunic over top all marked with hearts. Around his neck was the strangest plumage of bundled fabric she had ever seen. It looked rather uncomfortable.

“Hello,” she greeted, stepping further into the house. “My name is─”

“What are you waiting for?” the rabbit demanded, cutting her off quite sharply. “Run upstairs and get dressed. We’re very late already!”

She tried to ask what they were late to, but he only pushed her up the stairs all the quicker. Since he was in no mood to speak, she did as she was told and went upstairs. There were two rooms. She chose the one on the left. Inside, she found that a dress had already been laid out for her. It seemed to match the rabbit’s outfit, though it thankfully lacked the neck plumage.

She slipped into the red dress, pulled the white tunic covered in red hearts over top, then tied a big red bow around her waist. Then, she slipped her feet into the red slippers that were also adorned with little hearts.

“How very interesting,” she giggled. “And it fits perfectly. I wonder where we’re going.”

Before leaving the room, she saw a little box filled with cookies that had the words ‘EAT ME’ written on them in frosting.

“Don’t mind if I do,” she said as she snatched one up to her lips. After one bite, she scrunched her face in a sour expression. “Oof. What is that?” Then her stomach began to turn. “Oh no. I think I’m going to be sick.”

She clutched at her sides as she bent over double. Whatever was happening to her felt awful. Her vision seemed to be doing weird things, for the room around her looked to be growing larger. Indeed, she thought she might go out like a candle for how quickly she was shrinking.

When the pain stopped, she glanced around at the giant bedroom she now found herself in. “Oh my,” she gasped in wonder. “What shall I do now?”

The door creaked open and in hopped the white rabbit. His nose twitched as he stared at the empty room. “Now, where has she gotten to?” he asked.

“Mr. Rabbit. I’m down here!” Alice called. It was no use. Her voice was too tiny, even for the rabbit’s long ears to hear.

“Drat,” the rabbit scowled. Then he left the room in a huff. “I’m late,” he muttered.

Alice followed him out of the room to the top of the stairs. “How ever shall I get down?” she wondered. The stairs were much too large for her to climb. There had to be another way. “Of course! I could slide down the rail. Only, the bottom instead of the top.” She giggled at her genius.

The bottom of the stairs was a long way down. But she was unafraid, for the slope appeared gentle. Thinking to have some fun, Alice sat down and began the slide. What she did not anticipate was the curve at the bottom. She spun around this and suddenly found herself airborne. She screamed.

Thankfully, a discarded cushion broke her fall.

“Wow,” she breathed once she realized she was safe. “That was exciting.”

Climbing down from the cushion, she made her way to the front door. There was a crack at the bottom just large enough for her to squeeze through. That was how she found herself outside.

“I wonder where I ought to go from here.”

There came the loud call of a dog barking. At the sound, Alice turned to see the most giant beast she’d ever laid eyes on coming toward her. With a shriek, she dashed into the grass and did not stop running until her legs felt to be on fire. When she felt she was too tired and could go no further, she collapsed in the dirt.

“What do you suppose it is?” asked a voice.

“Do you suppose its some sort of peony?” asked another.

“Peonies don’t have droopy petals like that,” said a third in hushed indignation.

Alice looked around her, but again could see no one. “Hello?” she called.

“Hello, child.”

She turned in all directions trying to find the speaker.

“Over here.” A large and beautiful rose bent forward. “Hello,” it greeted poshly.

“H-hello,” Alice said, staring at the flower. “You talk.”

There was laughter all around her, and she realized that it came from the multitude of flowers surrounding her. They were all quite lovely.

“Of course, we can talk,” the rose proudly proclaimed. “What sort of flowers have you been hanging around with? Come now, child. Close your mouth. We mustn’t gawk in such an unsightly manner.”

Alice closed her mouth in instant obedience.

“Now. Of what variety are you?”

“Variety?”

“What species? Genus?” a white lily prodded rather haughtily.

“Oh, um. I’m Alice,” she said as she pushed herself to her feet. She dipped in a curtsy. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

“An Alice?” a daffodil asked. “Have you ever seen an Alice with petals like that?”

“Come to think of it, have you ever seen an Alice?” the lily added.

“What skinny stalks!” one of the daisies said with a laugh. “And her petals are all turned down.”

“We think she’s pretty,” the violets announced.

“Oh yes, quite pretty,” the rose agreed. “The queen always did like them to be pretty.”

“The queen?” Alice inquired.

“What garden did you grown up in?” another daisy asked.

Alice laughed. “Oh, I didn’t grow up in a garden. I’m not a flower. I’m─”

“A weed!” the lily exclaimed in horror. “Oh, how atrocious!”

“Be gone, weed!” the daisies demanded, reaching out their leaves to give her a shove.

She fell into the bed of violets.

“We don’t want weeds in our bed,” the violets said in unison. They pushed her away from them so that she fell.

All the flowers began laughing and calling her any number of rude names they could think of.

Alice glared at them. “If I was my normal size, I would pick every last one of you! That would teach you some manners! And then, I’d hang you out to dry!”

At that, the flowers began throwing clumps of dirt at her.

Afraid of getting hit, Alice ran from the flowers. She was angry with them and muttered to herself how horrid they had been. “Arrogant. Rude. Snobs!” she shouted when she was far enough that their dirt bombs couldn’t reach her. “I’m glad the flowers in Aunt Gina’s garden don’t talk. Though I’m sure they would be much friendlier.”

Glancing around herself in all directions, she saw nothing but grass. “Hmm,” she wondered. “I appear to have gotten myself lost. I wonder if I shall meet anyone who can help me. Oh!” She spotted a bubble floating toward her. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she said, staring at it.

The bubble popped on a stone, but there was another bubble behind it, and another behind that one.

“Where are they coming from?” she asked as she followed them. She did not expect to see what she found upon reaching their source.

Sitting on a large mushroom was the fattest caterpillar she had ever laid eyes on. It was all blue with spots of gold and purple splattering its body. On its many hands it wore purple gloves, and on its many feet it wore golden slippers. Next to the mushroom stood a copper bottle with a long tube protruding from the top. The caterpillar held what looked to be a pipe, but instead of smoke, it blew bubbles.

“How very curious,” Alice thought with a chuckle.

The caterpillar turned to look at her. “Who are you?” he asked in a startlingly deep voice.

“I don’t rightly know anymore, Sir,” Alice replied, watching a bubble float over her head.

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m not myself, you see.”

“I do not see,” the caterpillar said lazily.

Alice bit her lip. “I’ve changed so much today,” she tried to explain.

“Why?”

“I didn’t mean to. It just seemed to happen. I was chasing a white rabbit, you see.”

“I do not see.”

“Oh, bother,” Alice sighed. “I’m not very good at explaining myself, it seems. Do you know where I could find the white rabbit?”

The caterpillar gave her a weighing look. “I do not know.”

“If only I was taller.”

“Why?”

She placed her hands on her hips. “If I was taller, then I could see which way I’m supposed to go. This is a wretched height to be.”

That seemed to make the caterpillar angry, for he blew the largest bubble yet, which engulfed him whole. This bubble filled with smoke. “One side will make you taller,” the caterpillar’s voice sounded from within the mist, “and the other side will make you shorter.”

“One side of what?” Alice asked in confusion.

“But be warned. You are not the first to become lost.”

“What do you mean?”

Then the bubble burst. Out of the mist appeared a glorious butterfly with glitter dripping from its wings. “One side will make you taller. The other side will make you shorter.”

“One side of what?”

“THE MUSHROOM!” the butterfly shouted in an annoyed huff. With that, he turned his nose up and flew away.

Alice watched him go, mesmerized by his beauty. “One side will make me taller.” She looked at the mushroom. “Hmm. And the other side will make me shorter. I wonder which side is which. I certainly don’t want to get any shorter.” She ripped off two chunks of the mushroom, one per side. “Here goes nothing.”

With one bite of the mushroom, Alice shot skyward until she towered as tall as the trees. “Oh my. This won’t do at all.”

A bite from the second piece dropped her back down to the caterpillar’s height. “This is tricky,” she pouted, glaring at the mushroom in her hands. “Perhaps just a lick.” That turned out to be perfect. “I think I may want this for later,” she decided, plucking the whole mushroom and putting it in her pocket.

Not too far from where she stood, she saw a perfectly manicured path. “Oh, how delightful,” she said happily. “I wonder where this will take me.”

The neatly trimmed grass was soft beneath her feet, her shoes sinking ever so slightly into the spongy path. She giggled, for it was a delightful sensation. “I do hope this trail will lead me to the white rabbit.”

All around her came the song of birds she could not see, and she marveled at the odd sounds. “Curious. I wonder, what sort of birds live here?”

As she walked, she gradually heard another sound. “Singing?”

In the distance, she could see what looked to be a fog hovering above a square-trimmed hedge. As she neared, she realized what it was.

“A tea party!” she squealed with delight.

The table was long with seats all around. Most of these were empty, except for two at the far end. On one sat a man with frizzy hair and a large, ridiculously decorated hat. On the other sat the largest hare Alice had ever seen, and he was dressed in a disconcertingly mismatched suit. The table itself was overflowing with desserts, as well as assorted teacups and teapots.

Alice took a seat, but the moment she did, the hare and the hatter leapt up from their seats.

“No room!” they yelled as they ran to where she was.

“But I thought there was lots of room,” Alice stated in confusion.

“Ah,” the hatter said, tapping his bulbous nose, “but it’s rude to sit down at a party you weren’t invited to.”

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Alice apologized, vacating the chair. “It’s just that I was enjoying your singing so.”

The hare sniffed her hair. “You enjoyed our singing?” he queried, his nose twitching.

Alice nodded. “Why, yes.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place!” the hatter declared. “Come, my dear and have some tea.”

“Pull up a chair,” the hare said. He clapped his paws together and the table grew so that a new seat could be added.

Alice looked at the chair that had appeared out of nowhere and tentatively sat. It was quite comfortable. “Who are the other chairs for?” she asked.

The hatter looked at her like she was crazy. “Others? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. Have some tea.” He placed a large cup in front of her.

“What’s your name, little boy?” the hare asked.

“I’m a girl,” Alice corrected. “And my name is Alice.”

“And where are you going?”

“I’m following the white rabbit.”

“No good,” said a voice from inside the teapot in front of her. The lid lifted so that the tiny head of a sleepy mouse appeared. “Danger.”

“Danger?”

The dormouse blinked sleepily and yawned.

“Would you like some more tea?” the hatter asked.

“I haven’t had any yet,” Alice told him politely. “I can’t very well have more.”

The hatter pulled her still full cup away and placed a new cup in front of her. This one was only half a cup, and yet the tea did not spill out. “Correction. You mean you can’t very well have less. You can always have more than nothing.”

“I suppose,” she agreed, studying the odd phenomenon that was the teacup.

“Where are you off to, little boy?” the hare asked again.

“I’m a girl,” Alice replied with a frown. “And I already told you, I’m following the white rabbit.”

“No good,” came the dormouse’s voice from the teacup a second time. “Danger.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” she asked him.

“I’ve got it!” the hare cried. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

“Clean cup!” the hatter shouted.

All the cups shot into the air and bounced around the table haphazardly until all were in different locations from where they’d started.

“Tell us your name, little boy,” the hare insisted.

“Have some more tea,” the hatter offered.

Alice stood up from the table, annoyed by the repeated questions. “My name is Alice and I’m a little girl,” she huffed. “And I think I’d best be on my way. I’ve never been to such a ridiculous tea party in all my life. Good day.”

“No good,” she heard the voice of the dormouse call after her. “Wake up.”

She ignored him, choosing a path at random to follow. “What nonsense,” she grumbled, stomping her way through the forest. “Ridiculous. None of it made any sense. Calling me a boy. How rude!”

The path she was following was growing fainter beneath her feet until it disappeared completely. By the time she noticed, she realized she was quite lost. Turning this way and that, she searched for a path or something familiar. To her horror, there was neither.

Alone and afraid, Alice sat down on the closest rock and began to weep bitterly. “Oh, what am I to do?” she wailed. “It’s good advice to stay put when one is lost, but I’m quite sure no one is looking for me. Forget the rabbit. I want to go home!”

“And where is your home?” a voice asked.

“I don’t know!” Alice cried, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I’m lost!”

“Lost, is it? That sounds delightful.”

Alice looked up. “Well, it’s not,” she said forcefully. Then she realized she was still alone. She saw no one, and for a moment, she wondered if she had gone quite mad.

“Of course you’ve gone mad,” the voice continued.

Curious, Alice saw a floating smile.

“Everyone’s mad here.”

The smile grew a face, ears, a striped body, four furry legs, and a fluffy tail.

“Who are you?” Alice asked.

“Me? Why, I’m the Cheshire Cat, at your service. What can I do for you?”

Alice sniffed and got to her feet, watching the cat as it disappeared and reappeared in another tree nearby. “Can you help me?”

“Naturally.”

“I would so love to know which way to go.”

“Well,” the Cheshire Cat said, appearing in yet another tree, “that depends on where you want to get to.”

“I just want to find my way home.”

The cat laughed. “Oh, you’ll never find that.”

“Why not?”

“You have no way home. Not here. Here the only way is the queen’s way.”

Alice waited until the cat chose a new spot to lounge. “What queen?” she asked.

“If you haven’t met her, then count yourself lucky. She would be mad about you, absolutely mad! She loves children.”

“But then how am I supposed to get home?”

“You could try the garden. In the garden are many doors. Doors lead to all kinds of places, don’t you know?”

“Do you suppose one leads to my home?”

The Cheshire Cat laughed again. “It’s a distinct possibility.”

“How do I get to this garden?” Alice asked hopefully.

“You could go that way,” the Cheshire Cat told her, pointing off in one direction. “Of course, you could also go this way.” He pointed in the opposite direction. “But I always prefer to take the shortcut.” He appeared in a little crooked tree with popped balloons in place of leaves. At his knock, the tree twisted apart to reveal a beautiful garden.

Alice gasped at the sight. “It’s amazing!” she marveled.

“Yes. But be careful,” the cat warned.

“Why must I be . . .?” The question faded on her tongue for the Cheshire Cat was gone.

With a shrug, Alice stepped between the twisted halves of the tree and into the most incredible garden she had ever had the pleasure of being in. Not even the gardens in story books or paintings could compare. This place was manicured to perfection, and she was sure it must contain every type of plant in the world. She couldn’t wait to explore.

Skipping gleefully down the cobbled path, she would stop to admire the different flower specimens and run her fingers over their soft petals. A cluster of trimmed rose bushes caught her attention. Roses being her favourite flower, she ran excitedly to check them out. However, when she touched their red petals, she found that they were wet.

“Curious,” she mused, studying her hand. Some of the red remained on her fingers. “Is that paint? But who would paint roses red?”

Cautiously, she walked around the rose bushes. In another part of the garden, she saw more rose bushes, but these were still mostly white. Mostly, because there were several someone’s in the process of painting them red. She recognized them as cards. There was the two of diamonds, the three of hearts, and the ace of spades.

“Pardon me,” she asked coming up behind them. “Why are you painting the roses red?”

The cards turned to look at her.

“Well, you see miss,” the two of diamonds explained, “we planted the white roses by mistake.”

“And the queen,” the three of hearts continued, “she likes them red.”

“If she sees we planted the white ones,” the ace of spades added, “then we’ll be sure to lose our heads.”

Alice grabbed her throat, horrified. “Goodness!” she cried. “That’s frightfully dreadful. May I help?”

“Sure!” the cards exclaimed as one.

“Here’s a brush,” the two said, handing her a dripping paintbrush.

“And here’s some paint,” the three added, shoving the pail in her free hand.

“You can start over there,” the ace concluded, pushing her toward one of the bushes.

Dipping the brush in the paint, Alice began the process of coating the white petals red. She had never thought to paint flowers a different colour before, but she found it to be rather enjoyable.

At length, the sound of trumpets could be heard in the distance.

“What is that?” Alice asked. She stopped to listen as the sound grew closer.

The cards gasped in horror. “The queen!!” they shouted in fright.

Paint flew in all directions as the cards hurried to hide the evidence of what they’d been doing. Then, as the trumpeting grew in volume, they threw themselves prostrate on the ground next to the path.

Alice wasn’t sure what to do, so she placed her own can and brush behind one of the bushes and went to lie on her stomach next to the cards. Curious, she kept her head up just enough to see the procession that was making its way toward them. It was quite the sight, all the cards walking in orderly fashion. Among them were also various people and animals dressed in the most ridiculous costumes she’d ever seen. It was almost enough to make her laugh.

The parade came to a stop in front of the prostrate cards.

Trying not to stare, Alice peered up at the magnificent golden coach that sat on the path a stone’s throw away. From this, a woman with a severe face and a dress that shouldn’t have been able to fit in the carriage at all stepped out. The woman’s clothing and hair alike were decorated with an array of hearts. Perhaps she could have been pretty, but she was much too outrageous.

The woman, whom Alice assumed must be the queen she’d heard about, walked to the rose bushes. After touching a single petal, she rounded on the cards still lying on their faces in the dirt. “Who’s been painting my roses red!?” she demanded in a shrill voice that was much too high. “Was it you?” she pointed at the two.

“Not me, your grace. The ace. The ace!”

“The ace you say?”

“No, not me. The three. The three!” the ace countered.

“The three?”

“It isn’t true. The two. The two!” the three wailed.

“ENOUGH!” the queen shouted. “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”

Several other cards jumped on the three offenders and dragged them away while the rest of the party cheered.

Alice stared in horror.

“And who is this?” the queen cried, rounding on Alice.

Frightened, Alice lowered her head. She was trembling all over when a soft hand lifted her chin. Her eyes locked with those of the white rabbit.

“It’s a little girl,” the white rabbit said, nose twitching.

“Oh,” the queen gasped, her countenance suddenly softening. “Stand up, my dear.”

Alice quickly got to her feet, afraid of what might happen if she disobeyed.

“Now, tell me. Who are you and where are you going?”

“M-my name is. . ..” Her throat went dry, and she twiddled her fingers together nervously.

“Stop fidgeting!” the queen demanded. “Stand up straight. Toes pointed out. Shoulders back. And curtsy.”

Alice did her best to follow the queen’s shouted orders.

“Much better. Let’s try that again, shall we?”

“My name is Alice,” Alice began. “And I’m trying to find my way home.”

“YOUR WAY?” the queen screeched. “All ways are MY WAY!”

Such was the force of the tantrum that Alice fell back on her rump. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I was only thinking─”

“Comb your hair while you’re thinking,” the queen said in a softer tone, handing her an enormous brush. “It saves time.”

Alice tried her best to hold the brush that was much too big to use at all, especially not in a seated position. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Much better. Now, my dear. Do you play croquet?”

“Why, yes, Your Majesty.”

“Then LET THE GAME BEGIN!”

Alice was whisked to an open field where a crowd had already gathered to watch. One of the cards took the brush and handed her a pink flamingo along with a green hedgehog. “What is this?” she asked in confusion.

The card just chuckled at her ignorance and walked away.

The queen was given her own flamingo and hedgehog. She held the flamingo up and the crowd cheered wildly with enthusiasm. Once she’d had her fill of their praise, she set the hedgehog on the ground and grabbed the flamingo by its feet, turning its head to the ground.

Fascinated, Alice watched as the queen took a bizarrely haphazard swing with the flamingo, missing the hedgehog entirely. However, the hedgehog took its cue and leapt forward, rolling itself into a ball, intermittently running to maintain momentum.

The cards took up their positions, arching so that the hedgehog rolled beneath each.

One of the poor cards wasn’t fast enough, and the queen shouted, “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”

The crowd cheered as the poor card was dragged away.

“What nonsense,” Alice murmured.

“Did you say something?” the queen asked.

“I was only admiring your skill, Your Majesty. I’ve never seen anyone who plays croquet the way you do.”

The queen laughed joyfully. “Thank you, my dear. It’s your turn.”

Alice placed the hedgehog on the ground and lowered the head of the flamingo, holding the bird that was nearly as big as herself by its feet. It was challenging, but she managed to swing the bird around and whack the hedgehog.

Unfortunately, the hedgehog bounced up into the air, only to land on the queen’s head. There was an eruption of chaos as a cluster of cards rushed to their queen’s aid. They tried their best to catch the critter, but it slid down the folds of the abnormally wide skirts to safety and freedom.

Cards flew in all directions as the queen lost her cool. “OFF WITH HER HEAD!” she screamed, her hair an awful mess. “OFF WITH HER HEAD!”

Two cards grabbed Alice by the arms and dragged her away.

Frightened, Alice demanded, “where are you taking me?” But she received no response.

A quaint house was where they dragged her, though it looked more like a mini castle. They knocked on the door once, then turned around and left her there.

“Did you knock?” a scrawny beanpole of a fellow asked from where he was sitting straight-backed next to the door.

“No. But they did.” She pointed at the empty path.

The man looked to where she pointed, then back at her. “Did you want to go in?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Do you live here?”

“I’m the butler.”

“If you’re the butler, shouldn’t you be inside?” she asked.

He glanced at the door. “I suppose I should. I would let you in, but it appears I’m also out.”

“Then how do I get in?”

With a contemplative gaze, he pondered this conundrum. “I’ve got it. If you were inside, you could knock,” here he got up to demonstrate the action, “and I could let you out!”

She frowned at his foolishness. “You can’t let me out if I can’t first get in,” she scolded. “Is the door locked?”

“It might be.”

“Don’t you know?”

“I haven’t checked,” he admitted, resuming his seated position.

Alice rolled her eyes in annoyance. “What nonsense.”

The butler continued to talk about things that didn’t make sense, but Alice ignored him. Instead, she pushed the door to find that it opened easily. Stepping inside, she found herself in a kitchen that was far too black for her liking.

“Who are you?” a fat woman wearing a dress that looked like a pumpkin asked.

“I’m Alice. Who are you?” Alice countered.

“I’m the duchess,” the duchess said eloquently. At least, she was trying to be eloquent. She was much too boisterous to pull it off. “Did the queen send you?”

“We were playing croquet. She got angry.”

“Oh, well, that happens rather often. I suppose I’d best get you ready.”

“Ready for what?”

The duchess tapped the side of her scrunched nose with one of her sausage fingers secretively. “This way.”

Alice followed her to a back room where a flurry of fabrics spun through the air. She was so mesmerized by the strange dance that she didn’t notice the dress that was being sowed around her as she walked. By the time she reached the other end of the room, her outfit had been changed completely.

“Much better,” the duchess praised. “Take a seat over there.”

“Why?” Alice asked. She looked down at herself to see that her clothes weren’t what they’d been. Then, upon looking up, she saw a wall covered in pictures. Each picture was of a child.

“Sit,” the duchess said again.

Alice looked at the seat provided. It was a large thing heavily cushioned. Since it looked comfortable enough, she took her place. The chair dwarfed her, but it was delightfully plush.

“Look this way,” the duchess called in a sing-song voice. “And don’t forget to smile!”

A camera flashed and two paper cranes flew down from the window. They lifted the resulting picture already in its frame and placed it in an open space on the wall.

“Who are they all?” Alice asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know who you’re talking about,” the duchess replied. “Come now. I’m sure the queen is waiting for you.”

The duchess pushed Alice through the house until they were back in the kitchen. Though it had been empty before, now there was a skeletal cook shouting, “more pepper!” As she said this, she waved a massive shaker in the air which was the cause of an ever-growing cloud spreading out across the room.

Alice felt a sneeze coming on. Covering her face, she grabbed the first cloth she could find and placed it over her nose and mouth as protection. She heard a wailing and looked into a basket wherein sat the ugliest baby she’d ever seen. Its mouth was open wider than any baby’s ought to be able to go, from which came the most horrendous sound. “What is that?” she cringed.

“Oh, that’s the baby. Would you mind holding him?” the duchess asked.

A plate shattered at Alice’s feet.

Glancing up, she saw the cook glaring at her. “More pepper!” the woman shouted.

Alice grabbed the baby, another plate whizzing over her head to shatter against the wall. “It’s too dangerous here,” she said to the howling infant.

Another plate crashed against the wall as Alice ran for the door. She was relieved when she was finally outside again.

“Weren’t you going in?” the butler asked.

“I was in, and now I’m out,” she told him as she ran past.

“So complicated,” he said behind her.

She ran into the nearby hedge maze, still holding the baby. It was grunting and making strange noises unbecoming of a baby. “Quiet,” she told the child. “You’re sounding like a pig.”

Pulling back the blanket, Alice realized that was exactly what she was holding. The pig squirmed so vigorously that she had to put it down.

“That’s rather unfortunate,” she said, watching the bonneted pig run away.

Glancing around at her surroundings, Alice realized she once again was lost. “Oh dear,” she sighed. “Now where have I ended up?”

A small squeak caught her attention.

“Oh, hello,” she greeted upon recognizing the dormouse from the bizarre tea party.

“Follow me,” the mouse pleaded in a hurried tone.

Noting the urgency, Alice followed the dormouse as he led her through what seemed to be an endless maze. She was just starting to get annoyed about her predicament when the labyrinth ended, opening on what looked like an outdoor courtroom. There was a raised balcony overlooking the space, and in the centre stood a gated pedestal. What was curious to her were the many doors in the stands where spectators would normally have sat.

“What is this place?” she asked in wonder.

“Here,” the dormouse squeaked. He pointed at the door directly beneath the balcony. It was made as a mirror.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” she said as she stepped toward it. She was entranced by the fog swirling in the mirror. “The Cheshire Cat mentioned many doors. Where does this one lead? Will it take me home?”

Leaning closer, Alice noticed that there were faces in the mist.

She gasped. “Who are they?”

“Lost souls,” the dormouse told her. “The white rabbit, he finds them and leads them here for their protection.”

“Protection?” Alice placed her hand on the mirror, and one of the souls did likewise. The little girl on the other side of the mirror looked to be about her age, and her expression was sad.

“You’re not dead,” the ghost girl said. “But how are you here? This isn’t right. You need to wake.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.

“The Red Queen. She’s looking for us. Your presence could draw her here. She eats the souls of children to keep herself immortal. If you stay too long in this place, she might come looking for you, and then we’ll all be in danger. You must save yourself.”

“How many of you are there?” Alice asked.

“Many,” the girl replied. “But there are many more who did not escape here to this place where we are safe. Many others were devoured.”

“That’s awful,” Alice said.

“Please, you must hurry,” the girl urged. “Run from this place. Run to your home.”

The other children added their voices to the plea.

“I’m going to set you free,” she told the ghost children. “I promise.”

“You will do no such thing.”

Alice turned at the voice of the Queen of Hearts. “And why shouldn’t I?” she asked.

“Because you are not dead. The living have no place in this dream. Go back to your home.”

Alice smiled. “No, I don’t think I will. You see, I’ve been searching for this place for a long time. Now that I’m finally here, why would I leave?”

The queen frowned and stood to her full height, which was much taller than Alice’s. She glared down at the little girl before her. “Who are you?” she demanded.

Calmly, Alice touched the mirror. “So, this is where you’ve been hiding them all this time. Thank you for keeping them safe for me.”

“WHO ARE YOU?” the queen screeched.

“Me?” Alice purred, facing the furious queen. “My dear, you’re a thousand years too early to be making demands of me.”

“I am the queen!” the queen huffed in indignation.

“You may be the Queen of Hearts,” Alice told her, “but I was queen long before you came to be. You want to know who I am? Very well, I shall tell you. I am the Red Queen. And I’ve come to claim what is mine.” She turned to the white rabbit. “Thank you, little friend, for guiding the souls to this place.”

The white rabbit cowered away from Alice, hiding himself shamefully behind the Queen of Hearts.

“And thank you, Your Majesty,” Alice continued sarcastically. “For keeping them all together in one place.”

Reaching into her pocket, Alice pulled out the mushroom she’d kept there, shoving it in her mouth. As she grew in height, her sickeningly sweet smile grew ever more terrifying as her countenance became that of the Red Queen. Then, as the mirror door shattered, she grabbed a handful of the ghost children and shoved them in her mouth.

The card army did their best to stop the now giant child, but their weapons were useless. One swift kick and the cards were flung in all directions, floating haphazardly to the ground.

“I’m sorry, my queen,” the white rabbit quivered.

“It’s not your fault,” the queen told him. “We all thought she was just another child.”

“My queen!” the duchess cried, running toward the massacre that no one could do anything about. “We may have a way to stop this,” the fat woman said panting.

“What?” the queen hissed.

The skeletal cook of the duchess stepped forward, a massive pepper shaker in her arms. “I noticed the moment she set foot in the house,” she croaked.

“Cards!” the queen ordered. “Line up!”

The cards who weren’t busy getting kicked around by the Red Queen rushed to obey their queen’s command. Some stood, grabbing the ankles of the others. Then, as one, they began to flap their fellows to create a wind.

The cook shook the shaker and pepper particles flew into the air. They sailed upward until they reached the Red Queen’s face. There they accosted her nose, tickling and doing what they did best.

As the Red Queen’s nose scrunched, those on the ground hurried to find cover. Then, she began to sneeze. She sneezed and sneezed, and with each sneeze, the soul of one of the children she’d consumed was released. This continued for quite some time, for she had devoured a great many souls. With each soul that was sneezed out, the Red Queen shrank in size.

Everyone watched from where they were hidden until there were no souls left to be sneezed.

When the cloud of pepper cleared, the Red Queen had shrunk back to the size of a normal child, and she was crying like one.

The Queen of Hearts stepped forward and gently pat her on the head. “There, there. You don’t have to be the Red Queen anymore.”

Alice glared up at her through her reddened eyes. Those eyes carried a deep hatred. “You ruined everything,” she sniffled.

“I know. But your reign as the Red Queen is finished.” She stood and motioned to the guards. “I’ll have an escort take you home now. Time for you to live your life as a normal human child. We’ll keep an eye on you in the meantime.”

The cards grabbed Alice and marched her through the gardens, out into the forest, and down the path that had brought her to Wonderland in the first place.

Sulking as she walked, Alice looked up only once when she heard laughing children. Her gaze lighted on the bizarre tea party, only this time, all the chairs were full. All of them, except the one belonging to her.

They reached a door that was more of a window looking out at another, simpler garden. This one she recognized, for it was her adoptive aunt’s garden.

Casting a final indignant glare at the cards, she stepped through the door and back into the real world.

“Alice? Alice, there you are,” her aunt said, storming toward her with an angry expression. “I told you to come inside. Why can’t you listen? Look at your dress! What have you done?”

Alice looked down at herself to see that she was covered in dirt. “I fell,” she grumbled.

Her aunt sighed and took her by the hand. “Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

She let her aunt drag her toward the house. Something felt different. It was an icky feeling, the feeling of knowing she’d finally lost. As added salt in the wound, when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw a white rabbit watching from a nearby bush. From that day forward, she would have to live her life as a normal human child, and she was not pleased about it.

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