Authors: Heather Lyons
I think his name is Edward, but it could easily be Edwin, too. Or perhaps even Edmund. A mere incline of the head is given, but I highly doubt my bitterly voiced suggestion means anything to him. The staff here is the epitome of propriety.
I don’t want what he has to offer. “Toss it into the fire.”
His smile is patient and kind, one borne of tempered familiarity. “Dr. Featheringstone has already previewed its contents.” The open flap is jiggled. “Would you like me to open it as well?”
I sigh and set my sketch pad on the bench next to me. The ducklings in the distance scatter across the pond, leaving me without subject to capture. “Go ahead and read it aloud.”
A slim piece of paper is extracted. Through the afternoon’s golden sunlight, I can determine less than a quarter of the sheet is filled with thin, spidery calligraphy.
E reads, modulating his voice so it sounds very dignified, indeed.
“It is my great hope that I may come and speak to you tomorrow afternoon about a matter of great importance. Yours sincerely, Abraham Van Brunt.”
“That’s it?” I ask once the paper is refolded.
“Yes, my lady.”
What a curious letter. “I am unacquainted with an Abraham Van Brunt,” I tell the orderly. And then, as I reclaim my sketch pad, “I suppose Dr. Featheringstone has already sent off a missive telling him not to bother coming round.”
Naturally, he does not know whether or not the doctor did just such a thing. “Would you like the letter, my lady?”
I’m already turning back toward the pond. “No. Please burn it.”
The crunch of twigs informs me of his retreat, allowing me to reclaim my solitude. The ducks long gone, I spend my time perfecting the tufts of grass and reeds growing at water’s edge on today’s landscape.
I focus harder, my charcoal furiously scraping across the paper until I remember I don’t want to do anything furiously. Not anymore, at least.
I close my eyes, focusing on the red and orange kaleidoscopes that dance across my lids.
The paper in my hand crumples as easily as my heart. I leave it behind on the bench when I make my way back inside, because I’m positive there was an H etched into it. And to think that Featheringstone is convinced I’m sane.
I haven’t been sane in over six years.
RY TO KEEP AN open mind, hm?”
I’m sitting in Dr. Featheringstone’s ode-to-wood office, my hands folded primly across my lap. “Do my parents know about this?”
The corners of his mustache twitch upward. “As you’ve pointed out numerous times in the past, you are not a child. There was no need to inform your father about this as he is not your legal guardian.”
My smile is tight. “If that’s the case, then I must insist you turn the gentleman away at the door. I simply do not have the inclination to entertain a visitor today.”
The good doctor is undeterred. “Since arriving at the Pleasance, you have spent very little time conversing with anyone outside of myself and the staff.”
I nod vigorously.
“But, Alice, none of us live in a vacuum. Mr. Van Brunt’s visit could be an excellent chance for you to practice your conversation skills.”
“Do you find my ability to converse lacking, Doctor?”
He chuckles softly, no doubt remembering how I wasn’t chatty with anyone, himself included, for the first month of my stay. To be fair, it is difficult to carry on an invigorating discussion when one is shaking so hard from withdrawals they fear they might shatter into thousands of painful pieces before a single word can be uttered. Plus, there was the whole bit of how once I did open up, I raved liked a lunatic about things no normal person could imagine being true.
“Certainly not,” he says to me. “But as I must stay at the Pleasance and you must go forth into the world, it will do you good to practice on somebody new.”
“Then send in one of the orderlies. Or one of the nurses. I’ll happily chat with a staff member.”
One of his bushy, out-of-control eyebrows lifts high into his forehead.
“There are people out there who are quite content being solitary,” I point out. “Who do not need to converse with anybody but themselves and their dogs.”
He sets his pen down. “What about cats?”
Rigor mortis sets in ever so briefly at this question.
“You father said you were quite fond of cats growing up. There was one in particular that you favored. Dinah, was it not?”
“I’m—” I have to clear my throat. “Lately, I wonder if perhaps I’m more of a dog person after all.”
The mustache hides nothing. I’m patently aware of how the corners of his mouth turn downward. “Nonetheless, I’m afraid I must insist you allow an audience with Mr. Van Brunt.”
Irritable Alice emerges. “Do you know this gentleman?”
“I do. He and I go way back.”
“As far as you and my father?”
“Not that far.” The frown gives way to another soft chuckle. “But far enough. He would not come here to talk to you if he did not have something important to say.”
“How do you know it’s him?” I ask. “How do you know the missive was not forged?”
Concern fills his dark eyes.
I push my advantage. He must be wondering if I’ve gone mad again. “What if it’s one of the Courts? Or their assassins?”
Fingers tap against the felt mat guarding the top of the wooden desk as he studies me. Just as I feel victory is within my grasp, he says, “You will take the meeting. Hear Mr. Van Brunt out.”
I slump back into the padded chair. I don’t wear defeat well. “Fine.”
EASILY ONE OF THE
tallest men I’ve ever seen, Abraham Van Brunt has to stoop ever so slightly to fit through the doorway into Featheringstone’s office. He’s wearing a smart gray suit with a matching gray vest, a thin chain of gold looping from button to pocket, announcing a watch I want to snatch off his body and toss out the window.
A hand is proffered. “Hello, Ms. Reeve.”
It’s interesting he’s referred to me by the name my family chose to register me under for privacy’s sake. I take in his dark hair, equally dark beard, and piercing blue eyes as I leave his hand lonely in the space between us. “You are an American.”
“Indeed I am.” The hand withdrawn, he lowers himself into a nearby chair. “From New York, to be precise. My name is Abraham Van Brunt—”
“You’re a far cry from home, sir.”
The door opens, bringing with it one of the housekeepers and a tray loaded with a teapot and biscuits. “That I am.” His voice is deep and soft, yet filled with a hint of thunder. “I’m not gone for too long, though. If all goes as planned, I’ll be heading back tonight.”
“Before you do, though, you thought you’d stop by an old friend’s asylum and have a chat with one of the unstable ladies within?”
A smile touches his full lips. “Not just any woman. I specifically wanted to talk to you, Ms. Reeve.”
You would think I’d learned my lesson about curiosity, but apparently I have yet to fully embrace the dangers associated with it. “Has Dr. Featheringstone been talking out of turn about me?”
He waits until the housekeeper closes the door behind her before selecting a cup. “Would you like some tea, Ms. Reeve?”
The words practically have to be ripped from me, but I agree to the drink.
“Let me reassure you that the good doctor has not betrayed your confidences—at least, not much.”
I stir a doily-shaped slice of sugar into my cup, my eyes refusing to leave his face. “I feel quite confident that any mention of my person is gross abuse of patient-doctor confidentiality.”
The flowered teacup comes to rest just before his lips. “Rest assured, he merely informed me there was a woman he’d met who spoke of Wonderland. After that, I . . .” His smile is surprisingly boyish. “Well. Let’s just say that I am quite talented at rooting out mysteries. I’m afraid that I had to know exactly who was mentioning Wonderland and left no stone unturned until I did.”
The blood in my veins runs cold at how easily he issues this statement. “This is a madhouse, sir. I assume many of the residents here have concocted fanciful lands with equally fanciful names to explain away their insanity.”
He sips his tea, and it is his eyes this time that do not stray away. “But how many of them specifically mention Wonderland?”
I silently curse myself when the porcelain in my hands clink against one another.
“It’s not often,” he continues, “that one meets somebody who knows of, let alone has been to and back again, from such a place.”
I let out a carefully nonchalant scoff. “Who is to say that person is me?”
His head tilts to the side as he sets his drink down on a nearby table. “Are you denying it?”
I force my cup to meet my lips, willing every muscle in my arm to stay steady. “I would argue any ravings uttered under the duress of narcotics is suspect, Mr. Van Brunt.”
His curiosity toward my statement is obvious, but his manners do not allow him to pry. “Let me be frank with you, as I know our time is limited today. I am aware precious few people are able to find the way to Wonderland.” A tight smile curves his full lips upward, but no teeth peek through. “You are something of an enigma, Ms. Reeve. One I’m most keen to talk in depth to.”
My quick shot of laughter borders on hysteria. “Careful with what you say around here, Mr. Van Brunt. Or you too will be sitting alongside me here at the Pleasance.”
This amuses him. “Sometimes,” he murmurs, “I wonder if I ought to be, after all the things I’ve seen in my life.”
“Are you claiming to have gone to Wonderland?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t had that pleasure yet.” He leans forward, his arms resting against his thighs. “But as I’m certain you have, I am here to offer you a job.”
I blink, startled. Of all the things he has said today, this is the most astounding of all. “A
His words are crisp and even. “It just so happens I am in need of someone who has been to Wonderland and lived to tell the tale.” There’s that tight smile of his once more. “It hasn’t been the easiest of tasks to locate just such a person, to be honest. In fact . . .” His fingers lace together as they drape over his knees. “You are the sole candidate.”
It’s unbearably gauche, but my mouth drops open for the briefest of moments. But then I pull myself together, my spine lengthening as I assume a pose of perfect propriety. “I do not find this joke funny, sir. Furthermore, I cannot believe Dr. Featheringstone would have allowed you in if he knew you would taunt me with such things.”
“This is no joke, Ms. Reeve. I am most sincere in my request.”
He appears earnest, but then I am not the finest at judging character nowadays. Too many things are still uneven in my mind; too many suspicions or deeply seated feelings are scattered amongst memories better suited to watercolor paintings abandoned during rainstorms. “What exactly do you need with such a person?”
His vivid blue eyes pin me to where I sit. “I would think that was obvious. I would need you to go back to Wonderland.”
A buzz fills my ears; a trickle of sweat slips down the back of my neck. “Absolutely not.”
He’s undeterred. “You have yet to hear the reasons why.”
My fingers curl tightly around the carved wooden chair arms as I erect my defenses. “There is nothing you could say to tempt me to go back.”
“Ah, so you do admit to having been to Wonderland.”
“We are done here.” I rise to my feet, my head held high.
He stays exactly where he is. “What if I told you that, if you do not go back, Wonderland may cease to exist?”
I pause midway across the room, hating that his words have even stopped me thus far. Rage mixes with desperation. Does this man know the truth? Is he mocking me? “Is this some kind of twisted fairy belief? That, if I choose not to believe in Wonderland, it and its magic will no longer breathe life?”
“Not at all.” He reclaims his cup. “I meant what I said quite literally. If you do not go back, alongside a team from my organization, Wonderland’s very existence could wink out like a candle in a windstorm.”
Damn him. I backtrack to where the bloody man is sitting, sipping his tea like he hasn’t just thrown a bomb at my feet. “And my presence will somehow stop that from happening?”
“Your knowledge of Wonderland will.” One last sip precedes the cup finding its way back to the table, and Abraham Van Brunt is on his feet, towering over me. “I will be honest with you, Ms. Reeve. All of my organization’s missions to Wonderland have failed so far. Nobody has been able to breech its borders, let alone find an entrance point.”
Craning my neck allows me to see the anguished anger burning in his bright eyes.
“Time is running short, and there are no options left for me save one.”
My laughter borders on a gasp. “You truly believe
“I know you are.”
“You know nothing, Mr. Van Brunt. You especially do not know that, should I return to Wonderland, my life is forfeit. Lives of those I . . ." My fingers twist into the starched brown skirt I’m wearing. “Many lives will be forfeited.”
Ah. Now I have his attention. Deep Vs form in his forehead.