It was all so familiar. She was dressed as before as was I. Shadows flitted about the countryside and through the woods, and the breeze was chill upon our cheeks. We trod the path, ignoring the signs warning of danger. It was as if we’d forgotten what had happened the last time, what would happen if we continued on. In the back of my head I knew we should turn back, but I was powerless to voice that thought.
Once again, we were greeted by the tiger-like cat, and once again he cautioned against the right fork. The Queen’s words returned to haunt me. Why always the left? Why never the right? I wanted to ask, but something stayed my tongue and instead I simply followed her down the path that led to madness.
Afterwards, I held her in my arms, the night cloaking us as we lay in her bed. She wept as if she’d never be able to stop, as did I. How long we cried, I don’t recall. I do remember that here were no words between us. Just me holding her while we wept. Finally she fell into an exhausted sleep while I stayed awake, performing a silent vigil. Perhaps I could keep her safe, if only I could keep my eyes open until the dawn. That was my goal and I am proud to say I achieved it that night. Whether it made a difference, I had no idea. I do know that she slept peacefully the remainder of the night.
That became our ritual. I made it a vow to spend as many nights in her bed, or her in mine, as was possible, and each night I would force myself to stay awake and watch over her. It wasn’t hard. At least spending the night together wasn’t. Her parents never suspected anything more then our normal friendship and we were careful not to do anything besides snuggle and kiss while they were home. Dad, of course, was clueless, so any night that we needed more intimate contact, we’d spend at my place. That became more and more often as the summer wore on.
As did the decline of my health. Alice’s mom commented on it first. I simply shrugged it off as the heat keeping me awake. It had, after all, been particularly warm. I didn’t mention that I’d been forcing myself to stay awake at nights to keep watch over my girlfriend. She wouldn’t have understood. It got to the point where I would fall asleep at the breakfast table or in front of the television. Sometime I’d even nod off while at the movie theatre or taking a break from walking at the mall. I’d simply lean my head against Alice’s shoulder and pass out.
Alice, of course, had picked up on this right away. Only she’d never said anything. I think she realized what was going on and understood the truth of the matter. That I was doing it for me as much as I was for her. Not that she didn’t worry. I could see it in her eyes, her usually smooth forehead creased with concern, her brow raised upwards in a question as she plumbed the depths of my eyes, silently conveying that I didn’t need to do this.
She was wrong. I did need to. If I lost her to her nightmares, I would never forgive myself. I discovered that summer, how deeply love hurt. By the time that school began again, shortly before my 17 th birthday, I was sporting circles beneath my eyes and had lost weight. A lot of weight. Alice’s parents, bless their souls, confronted my dad about it. Not that it did any good. He’d stopped caring long ago. The next step was unexpected. They simply took over. One day they just sat him down and asked if maybe it wouldn’t be better for me to stay with them full time. After all, I was already spending so much time over there and it was, conveniently, just next door.
He had the grace to at least ask me. I could see it in his eyes that it made no difference to him one way or another. Of course, Alice was in favor of it, so I agreed, feeling something break lose inside of me. It’s hard to find out that you’re unwanted. At least I could console myself that someone else wanted me. So, I lost a father and in doing so gained a family.
The only real downside was that Alice and I had lost a safe haven when I moved in. Her parents had fixed up the spare bedroom, turning it into mine. No more illicit nights spent across the fence in my old room. We both guessed, rightly so, that sharing beds as we’d always done wouldn’t be looked upon with suspicion, as long as we were careful about it. And during the day both her mom and dad worked, so it was easy enough to make love if we rushed home from school right away. It gave us an hour or so of alone time before we’d have to become presentable.
There were no more frozen dinners or leftovers, either. Actually, even those had become rare at my house. Potato chips and soda pop were the norm on some nights. Yes, thing really had gone down hill. How much so, I hadn’t realized until the change. One thing that I had never let on to Alice was that the longer I went in my state of near exhaustion, the less strength I had to fight my madness. They left her alone, thankfully, instead concentrating on tormenting me, sometime while I forced myself to stay up at night and watch over her, and sometimes when I was alone in my room during the day, trying to snatch a moment of peace or a nap.
I realized, early on, that I wouldn’t be able to keep this up for ever. At least during the summer, I could sleep during the day, but now that school had started, I began to realize that I would have to give it up at some point or I really would go mad. Madder, I should say, evidenced by what was going on around me. I’m not talking normal, everyday life stuff, but rather the comings and goings of the Queen and her court.
It soon became apparent that they had taken up residence in my bedroom, now that I had abandoned it. A simple glance across the fence that divided the Sherwood’s house from mine was all that was needed for confirmation. I caught glimpses of one or the other of them moving behind the curtains, dark shadowy shapes that were easy to put a name to. There were even times when I’d peer out of Alice’s room and one of them regarding me from across the way, sometimes with an angry glare or a knowing smile. Other times, the room would appear empty, leaving me to wonder if they were in hiding or if they’d tired of being confined to the small space of my bedroom and were roaming the house, slowly making it their own. A stronghold of sorts. This, I should mention, was a sobering and worrisome thought.
It was after our quarter finals that it all came to a head. My dad had ignored the letters and calls from the school, telling him that his daughter was falling asleep in class and not turning in her homework. I was in danger of not graduating. Of course they’d never made it next door to my actual care takers. Alice did her best to keep me from any real trouble, taking over my homework and situating her desk behind mine in class so that she could nudge me awake whenever necessary. It worked well enough until I failed each and every one of my finals, actually falling asleep during Algebra and English Lit. That was the day the bomb dropped.
I don’t think it would have been so bad, if they hadn’t gotten involved. That’s sarcasm or irony or whatever you want to call it, by the way. A conference was arranged with my dad. In the wisdom of my youth I thought it would be better not to tell Alice’s parents, and so I swore her to secrecy and set up an appointment for the following week. Just me and dad and my school councilor. What could possibly go wrong? I found out the answer to that on Wednesday afternoon.
There’s really nothing more to say, at least not concerning the next five days. I continued my vigil, even though I could barely think. It’s amazing how inventive you can get when you need to stay awake. No-doze, diet pills, cola… I was living on a mixture of all three. Oh, sure, I still ate my normal meals, but in the evenings, in the privacy of my room, I’d start my cocktail of sleep suppressants. Sure, every once in a while I’d nod off, but not for long. At least never long enough to fall into a true dream state. Of course, most of my waking time was spent half in dreams by then. Alice worried over me. How could she not? Her parents did too, unaware of why I did it. They thought that I was still dealing with grief over my mom’s suicide.
That weekend they sat me down and told me that I needed to see someone. A shrink. They were right, of course. After all, that’s what crazy people did. First I’d see the shrink, and then they’d put me in the psycho ward and perform experiments on me in the name of science during the day, while orderlies raped me at night while I was too strung out on drugs to care. I should mention at this point that I’d become delusional with exhaustion and truly believed this scenario. That’s how far I was gone and not even I had realized it.
Well, they made an appointment. The only fault in their plan lay in parental permission. They’d need my dad’s ok. As it was, they killed two birds with one stone for me. That afternoon they went over and had a long, serious, adult talk with him. I don’t know the details, but I do know what the outcome was. He would take me to school on Wednesday afternoon and then, on the following day, he and I would meet with a councilor. Not only that, but they would be present at both.
God, I felt guilty for loving my next door neighbors more than I did my own father but who would blame me? After all, they cared about me more then he ever had. Even before mom died. I told them that, that night. Oh, not that I loved them more. Just that I loved them. Broke down and cried too, and not just a little, but hysterical sobs that threatened to tear me apart. Mr. Sherwood just held me, not saying a word for which I was thankful. I didn’t need words. Just the knowledge that someone cared. Yes, I was that far gone. I don’t think any of us had realized it until that exact moment.
Afterwards, after I had calmed down some, we went out for burgers and shakes. Alice, of course had chocolate and I had strawberry. By the time we got home, I was feeling very full, and very tired and Alice’s mom ushered me off to bed. That’s when I began to panic. She didn’t understand. I tried to tell her, to explain, but I guess I sounded like what I was. A crazed teenage girl who hadn’t slept properly in months. She shushed me and put me into my bed, gentle but firm, and told me to sleep and I agreed, but only after I made her promise that she wouldn’t let Alice go to bed until I woke up.
Really, it was a brilliant plan. We’d just take turns sleeping. Why I hadn’t thought of it before, I really couldn’t say. Secure in the knowledge that everything was going to work out, I fell into the deepest sleep that I have ever experienced. I was told later that I slept straight through the night, into the following day, and half way through the next night. In fact, I hadn’t realized it was Sunday night until the next morning when the household woke up for work and school. Standing in the doorway of my bedroom, looking somewhat dazed, I listened to the sounds of my adopted family. Weekday sounds, not Sunday morning sounds. I was confused. Not just for a moment, nor for several moments, but for the rest of the day and into the next. The only time I stopped being confused was when I would drift off into welcome slumbers, usually without warning.
The whole week went by like that, culminating in our visit with the school councilor on Wednesday. By then, I like to think that I was fairly coherent. The strangest thing, I think, was riding in the back seat of the Sherwood’s car, my dad up against one door, and myself against the other separated by not only a couple feet of seat, but by intangibles as well. Grief, fear, anger, confusion. It was a heady mix, one that he’d drunk heavily from over the past year and now he hung on to it like an alcoholic to drink. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of what it must be like to be him, and I felt nothing but pity. My heart was empty. What a terrible thing to admit to, but it was true.
We rode in silence, the noise of the outside world our only companion, held to a whisper behind closed windows. There was one moment, however, when I felt a spark of love for him. It was when we were exiting the car. He was the last out, standing awkwardly at the curb, his tie slightly askew. I couldn’t stand it, and walked meekly up to him, straightening it, and then buttoning his coat for him. A warm surge filled me suddenly and I wrapped my arms around him in a fierce hug, thinking that if he would only just hug me back, everything would be ok. Once again, he failed me, simply patting me on the head uncomfortably as if I was a stray dog. With a shrug and a minimum of tears I let him go and began the long walk up the path, an odd fish swimming against the current of my just released classmates.
I took a deep breath, so as not to drown, and made it into the main hallway, pausing for my guardians to catch up before leading onward to Mr. Cartwright’s office. A word about the school councilor. He actually cared about the students, which may or may not have made him an anomaly in the public school system at the time. Even more surprising was that we liked him as well. A mutual admiration society, perhaps, but I think it was something more then that. He was just a decent human being. That said, I was still nervous about this meeting. I had good reason to be.
It started off well enough, everyone introducing themselves. I couldn’t help thinking that Alice was somewhere nearby. After all, just because I’d taken a few days off didn’t mean that she could do the same. It wasn’t as good as having her at my side, but it had to be enough. I needed her bright presence, just then, her hand squeezing mine, the warmth of her next to me. Not just a physical warmth, but an emotional one as well.
After we’d introduced ourselves to one another, and the adults had helped themselves to coffee, the party began. Oh, it was a solemn enough affair, at least at first. Mr. C. went over the issues, checking his notes every so often to verify his words, while Alice’s parents listened with looks of growing concern and my dad simply nodded along as if he’d already heard the speech and was bored.
That is what set me off, I think. It wasn’t like it was going well to begin with. After all, I was guilty on all charges and in serious danger of flunking out. But it was that look of indifference on my dad’s face that did me in. Even at the time, rage growing in me, I knew I should let it go. If only Alice had been there, I’m sure she could have pacified me with a look or perhaps a covert touch. But she wasn’t. I was alone.
"Fuck you. Fuck all of you." I know you might find it strange if I told you that I had never once in my entire life uttered that word. And now, in the course of 5 seconds I’d said it twice and in front of three of the people I admired most no less. It went down hill from there. It wasn’t as if I could tell them that it wasn’t me. Either they’d believe me and lock me up, or think I was a liar. So I simply kept my mouth shut while the Scoundrel took control and made a shambles of my life.
Chaos ensued. It wasn’t bad enough that I swore and called them all sorts of names. What was even worse was that my rage targeted my dad. Not my rage, I should say, but their rage. I was just as helpless as everyone else to stop me as I spit on his pathetic still crooked tie and then over turned my chair and fled the room. No one even made a move to stop me, so stunned where they at my outburst. Needless to say, I was put on a two week suspension that day. Not that I cared. Not about that, anyway. What I did worry over was how it must look to Allie’s mom and dad. Surely, they’d cast me out now. Those were my thoughts as I tore off at a run, fleeing the school grounds with no intention of ever returning. I’d used the F-word for the first time that day. What other firsts were I capable of? I soon found out.
As I’d said, I’d shop lifted before. Well, I hadn’t, but my current incarnation most certainly had. It was no difficulty to find myself in possession of a pair of cold alcoholic beverages. Another first for me, drunk in public. Was there no end to my adventures? After that is was so easy to cast stones through car windows and start my own crime spree. I went mad with power. No one could stop me. I was too fast and too clever for them…
How I avoided being caught, I have no idea. I do know that I spent the night sleeping under a bridge with the other riff raff. The next morning I stank not only of booze, but of my own vomit and urine. At least I hoped it was mine. The alternative was too awful to contemplate. At least I was back in control again… I rethought that after sitting up and barfing again. For once I wished I wasn’t present. It would serve the others right if they were saddled with a sour stomach and a headache that eclipsed all other headaches.
I made my way back home that way, too embarrassed at my condition to take the bus. I felt myself fortunate that I’d been dressed for a cold day and I think my state of drunkenness had been such that I didn’t notice the bitter cold of the November air as much as I could have. As it was, I was still wracked with shivers and I felt like the proverbial walking dead by the time I reached the street on which I lived. For a brief moment I thought about avoiding my borrowed parents and going to my real home thinking there’d be less questions that way. The thought was short lived, however as I was discovered before I could make it to the safety of obscurity by Alice.
It was just as well that I had been suspended, seeing as I spent a large part of the next two weeks in bed. My exhaustion had opened up the doors for a fever to set in, triggered by my night of drinking and sleeping out in the elements. Surprisingly, Allie’s parents said little about my outburst in the councilor’s office, save for that we’d talk about it when I was feeling better. Such a threat made me wish that I might never recover, but by middle of the second week, I had not only shed my fever, but I’d caught up on most of the sleep I’d missed out on over the past few months. Not one word was said the entire time about my behavior, at least not directly.
It was made clear that they’d rescheduled my appointment with the shrink, so it was only a matter of time before they discovered just how crazy I really was. In a way, I thought, it would be a relief. It was something that had been eating away at me as long as I could remember. Only my mom had known. And Alice, of course. I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there was a cure.
Medication. Hypnosis. Lobotomy. I began to taunt the others with that prospect, telling them in the privacy of my room late at night that soon they’d be history. Ghosts. I wouldn’t miss them at all. Not a single one of them. Suddenly hopeful, I began to look forward to my visit with the psychiatrist. It was my turn to strike back.
Strangely enough, they were silent. I thought they might spend their energy pleading or badgering me, maybe even begging. Not a word. Unbeknownst to be they were plotting their course at night while I slept, united in a fierce desire to live at any cost, using the distraction of Alice’s nightmares to keep me unaware.
I’d been right in that. My vigil had kept the shadows and the Hatter and the beast-men at bay. They didn’t start up right away, but like dark scouts they kept watch on her dreams just waiting for the right moment, picking their time carefully for a night when I was wrapped up in slumbers so deep that I couldn’t break them. Surprisingly enough, even our shared wall couldn’t keep her from pulling me along with her, so close were we by that time in our lives and I found myself once again ensconced in her nightmares. One thing had changed, however, and not just a small detail. Somehow one of them had gotten caught in the undertow as well and was pulled along with us.
As before, Alice was dressed in her blood stained shift and black ribbons and I was encased in black from head to toe. We were standing upon the path through the woods, shadows flirting with our vision, a bitter wind tugging at our hair. Only this time, there were three of us. The Princess, dark and regal, was there as well looking as surprised as I was. Oh, she made us look like such waifs, standing there before us, her dark brown hair shimmering down over her shoulders, her lace dress accented with silver buttons. Her sleeves were of lace as well and she wore sliver rings upon her fingers and a sparkling diamond upon a silver chain lay nestled between her breasts. She was magnificent beyond description.
Her gaze turned first to Alice and then to me, dark lashed eyes freezing me into place, her sneer an icy dagger that plunged into my heart.
"What is this, girl? This place you have brought me to?"
Alice came to my rescue, speechless as I was. It seemed so completely natural for her to curtsey before speaking. It was only later that I dwelled on it and remarked that I’d never seen her do that before. Nor could she recall performing the obeisance either.
"Forgive us, your highness, but it was not our doing that brought you here."
She sniffed. The princess, that is, and turned her haughty glare to Allie as if truly seeing her for the first time, and then simply turned her back on us, her impatient stride carrying her quickly out of sight, hiding her among the shadow drenched trees. We looked at each other, my best friend and I, and shrugged. Well, she did at least. I simply gave her a worried smile and moved closer, close enough to take her hand. I should mention that, in these dreams of hers, she never seemed to be aware of what was to come. Nor was I. I always had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that something wasn’t right, that we should turn back but still I’d follow her insistent lead as we made our way up the deserted path. As always, we trekked past the warning signs to the fork in the path and the great oak upon which the cat lay sprawled out upon and came to a halt at his voice.
And as always, Alice chose the left fork while something nagged at my thoughts. It was the Queen’s voice, of course, or at least the memory of her words. Why always the left? Something terrible awaited us in that direction, I just knew it. I wanted to say something, to perhaps tug upon her hand and change our course and yet I didn’t. Instead, I let her lead us to the clearing and the Hatter’s party.
That night was different. Once again, something had changed. It was her presence, the Princess. Once again the animal-men were cavorting about, and once again they surrounded us, taking me hostage and Alice prisoner. This time, however, the Hatter made no appearance after Alice’s violation, they were content to leave her lying in a pool of bitter tears and semen, ignoring her while they slunk off into the woods like thieves in the night, leaving me tied to the stake, helpless to comfort her.
"Oh, poor thing." My head turned swiftly at her voice. She’d returned, still a picture of dark beauty, her steps regal and unhurried as she crossed the manicured lawn, circling around the table like a predator sensing it’s prey.
"Poor, poor Lucy. I didn’t realize how hard this must be for you." I blinked, surprised at the hint of honey sweet sympathy tingeing her words. Did she really care? I found it hard to believe, and yet I wanted to believe so badly that I was willing to suspend my suspicion.
"And poor Alice, used so vilely." She made a ‘tsking’ sound as she strolled past me, her attention now upon my sobbing friend. Bending at the knees, she offered her a hand. I could only watch in astonishment as she helped her to stand, her whole body shaking with the memory of violence.
"It’s not fair, is it? What they do to you? What did you ever do to deserve it, young Alice. I ask you that, what have you done to deserve such treatment?"
"No-nothing." She managed, her tears renewed. "Nothing."
As always, my heart broke just looking at her, seeing that lost look in her eyes, knowing that it was my fault. If only I had been able to keep watch once more. If only my body hadn’t betrayed me into sleeping. I think the Princess sensed this, knowing my thoughts as if they were her own, for she smiled cruelly towards me, a smile that she kept from Alice.
"Ever wonder why they leave her alone? Is it fair that you should take the brunt of their vile actions while she is spared?"
Alice gaze fell upon me, her eyes full of shadows. She shook her head as if trying to clear her thoughts or perhaps shake the hateful words from her ears as the manifestation of my madness continued on.
"Doesn’t seem fair at all. They never even touch her except to tie her to that stake. She’s still a virgin while your maidenhood is ruined. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be sodomized. Really, if she truly loved you, she’d be willing to trade places with you, don’t you think?"
The irony of her words were that I had wished exactly that more than once. She knew that too as well as she knew that I had never voiced that thought to Alice. Oh, she was clever, the Princess. She smiled at me tauntingly. What her game was I had no idea, and even if I did, I was helpless to fight her, tied and gagged as I was. All I could do was watch and listen in fear as she slowly manipulated Alice’s thinking, her words dripping poisoned honey. It was a terrible thing to watch the anger growing in her blue orbs, all directed at me. She was masterful, the Princess, and cruel. Just how cruel I had never suspected.
Taking a straight razor from the folds of her gown, a wicked looking weapon enhanced by an oval of emerald upon one end, she handed it over, placing it in Allie’s hand and forcing her to curl her fingers about it.
"My gift to you, love." She cooed, kissing her on the cheek tenderly. "Use it as you see fit."
With a gentle push, she started Alice walking across the soiled lawn in my direction, only it wasn’t Alice that dwelt behind those eyes. Madness. I recognized it easily, having seen the same reflection in the bathroom mirror time and time again. Madness and something else. It took me a moment to recognize it, but when I did, I shrunk back in genuine fear. Malice, pure and simple, and it was directed at me.
Afterwards, I awoke in my own bed, my own screams waking me from my nightmare… from her nightmare, really, but it had become mine. Pain wracked my body sharply, the memory of her slowly and methodically drawing blood in calculated motions, the wounds shallow and yet excruciatingly painful. She hadn’t spared a single inch of flesh in her revenge and I felt each and every one as an explosion of unimaginable pain that was carried with me from the dreamscape into the waking world as well.
By the time that Mrs. Sherwood had reached me, calming me down, holding me close, my screams had become gasping sobs. I heard her sharp intake of breath at the sight of my arms covered in my own blood. Later I discovered that the words ‘whore’ and ‘sinner’ covered my arms, much like in the past, only this time they’d been methodically scribed with a razor blade, leaving my bed sheets and myself stained crimson in the aftermath. She had done this, not I. I tried to explain that, but I’m not sure how much got through, seeing as how it must have sounded like the ranting of an hysterical child.
Alice was there too, I should add, but she held herself strangely aloof. That hurt as well. In the past, she would have been at my side, holding my hand, reassuring me gently. The sight of her half in and half out of my doorway, her head tilted slightly to one side in seeming indifference pierced me through the heart in a way that mere steel couldn’t have done. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first blow of the final battle had begun, and the victory had gone to the other side.