Putting the pedal to the metal was an understatement, Sarah thought, but it didn’t do her much good with how far she’d gotten before her crimson ’67 Chevy Impala had come to a stop. The car had been her beauty throughout her last two years of high school and all six years of college before finishing her Master’s in Anthropology, but now it was nothing more than a smoking mess on the side of an asphalt road in the middle of nowhere.
The sun was beginning to set in the distance, sending waves of vermillion and royal shades of purple and blue rolling across the heavens.
It’s too far to walk tonight, she thought, crossing her arms as she thought back three, four, or maybe five miles to the last rest stop she’d passed, not to mention twice as far to the nearest gas station, and she wasn’t even sure if that rundown blotch on the horizon in her rearview was even still working let alone reliable to any stretch of the imagination.
Sarah plucked at the white tank-top sticking to her skin and groaned inside, thinking of the hellish combination of heat and humidity around her and the snippets of The Hills Have Eyes that bounced into her head now and then.
She opened the passenger side door, pulled open the dash and extruded a cigarette and lighter. She slammed the door– “So much for a road trip with no map!” –and then lit the cigarette. The moment she took in a puff of smoke she choked and spit the whole thing out, snubbing the lit end with the toe of her boot before throwing the lighter back in the car.
The only thing he left me, and still it did me no good. Her mind flashed briefly to the geeky smile of her ex, who she’d been dating since her senior year at Yale. But he was studying math, and like the study she’d seen online had once said, they had no qualms about one-night stands. And as she stood in cap and gown during graduation the month before, she waved to him in the stadium and not one, but two other graduates had asked why she was waving to their boyfriend. Needless to say, they’d all dumped him before the keynote speaker had even begun to step down from the podium.
So now she was here.
Sarah slid back into the driver’s seat and slipped the emergency break on. She cracked the windows enough to let the breeze in but to keep out fingers and hands and then put her seat back. She tried to shut her eyes, and when that failed, she opted to lie uncomfortably across the entire front seat and stare up at the stars through the windshield.
Science had never been her forte, but as was required of any undergraduate, she’d needed to take two. For the first she took geology, since it seemed remotely relevant, and for the second she took astronomy. (“So you’re studying the heavens and the earth,” her father had quipped.) Amidst a congealed puddle of planetary formation and nebulae she could draw forth the names of a few constellations–Orion, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor–but she still couldn’t place the names with the stars no matter how many nights she had spent looking skyward through an upside-down telescope.
After a few hours of futilely trying to remember Sirius from Betelgeuse, she fell asleep behind the wheel.
She woke to a pair of eyes staring at her through the windshield. She started at first but found her body didn’t respond–and probably for the better. The more she stared at the eyes, the less she saw them and the more she noticed they lacked a face, let alone a body tying them to the earth. She trained her eyes on the outline of those facing her, saw how they followed her gaze, tracing circles in the dark of night.
They were human eyes, but barely discernible where the night began and the eyes ended. One second she was peering at the left eye, and the next her sight had drifted to a nearby star. She blinked a couple times and faced the faceless: The eyes were still there and she knew she wasn’t dreaming.
This time, when she went to move, her body responded at once, but the moment she shifted her weight to sit up, the eyes blinked and darted away.
Typical, she thought, thinking back to the many times she’d caught her boyfriend staring, right before he supposedly had a class to get to.
Nonetheless, her curiosity overpowered her sense of safety and she struggled to push through the passenger door and climb out. Once out, she stopped in her tracks and watched the pair of eyes drift across the waving field of twisted purple grasses and curled stalks of shadowy kelly-green.
“By God, Alice, I’ve been here before.” She took a tentative step forward, careful where she stepped because wherever she stepped could be atop speaking caterpillars or wonders far worse. She glanced back at her car and found for every inch she moved further ahead, her car drifted a yard or so back. In a few more feet, she’d barely be able to see it anymore.
She pressed onward into the Wonderland of her youth.
She heard a thick purr and turned to her right. Resting atop a curlicue stump in the middle of a patch of sleeping flowers was a grinning mouth. A second later, the silhouette of a fat purple cat materialized around it.
“Long time no see,” she heard the cat say before it licked its violet lips.
“Cheshire!” she said and swooped in, but the cat lifted a finger and she came to a dead halt.
“You’ll wake the flowers,” he said dryly, and when she’d suppressed her forward-flinging motion, he put his paw down. “You did not see what I said,” said he. “You heard wrong, I’m afraid. ‘Long time no C,’ I said, as in A, B, C.” He pursed his lips as if mouthing the letters like a fellow caterpillar once had before, she presumed, he became a butterfly someplace.
Sarah looked at him sideways. “I don’t follow.”
“Neither do I,” said the cat and got to his paws, stretching his back iconically before leaping onto the ground, “I lead.”
He rubbed against the next green curlicue, purring as he looked back at her with an even more iconic grin upon his face.
Sarah started off at a run paralleling the prancing purple cat before her, but as she ran further, forgetting the changing lands around her, the cat glanced back, his eyes glowed a moment, and his body began shifting into mist that dissipated the moment it touched the ground.
Sarah stopped herself a second before running into a solid cement wall. When she took a step back, she even saw skid marks in the dirt before she noticed the nearby bush. Looking more closely, she saw the bush was not one, but a cluster in a semicircle beneath the bulbous shadow of man sitting on the wall. He waved a pipe through the air, rattling a hookah sitting beside him, and then spewed a series of ones and zeros into the air.
“Careful, dear,” he drawled, “you might have knocked me off again.”
“Why,” said Sarah dryly, “if it isn’t Humpty Dumpty, the most pretentious character in Wonderland.”
He narrowed his eyes to bare slits that glinted in the moonlight. “Pretentious, my dear, from the root praetensa, ultimately meaning ‘to pretend.’ Does this seem real enough to you, my dear?”
He puffed another stream of binary.
“Where’d the pipe come from?”
“A friend,” he said, pausing to pass a smoky butterfly from his lips, “who flew away. Sad thing you missed it. The ceremony was oh, so, so” he puffed out a few rings “moving.”
“I think I knew him once. Kind fellow.” Sarah waved her hand to clear the air of the putrid smell. “Gave good advice but smoke too much.”
Humpty Dumpty snorted. “Oh, don’t be so pecksniffian, dear, it’s much too early to be technical about things. You do still suppose this is all a dream, don’t you?”
“Isn’t Wonderland always?”
Humpty Dumpty laughed so hard he guffawed, and he guffawed so hard he rumbled and rattled precariously. Sarah put her hands up to catch him, but he stopped that very moment, soon enough to avoid disaster.
But now his eyes were narrower, shinier in the night.
“I have learned my lessons and I have learned that gravity shall always prevail, even in Wonderland. I know when I am about to fall. I know what could happen. All those king’s men, all their horses. A nightmare, I call it, hands everywhere, hooves everywhere else.”
He rolled forward and Sarah squeaked, but the egg-man just bounced off the green bushes and landed on his feet.
“Have a kiss, my dear, but don’t be so pretentious, shall we?” He began walking away, dragging his hookah behind him. “I advise you, go the other way.”
Within seconds, the contours of Wonderland had him out of sight.
Sarah turned to follow the wall in the other direction, but paused mid-step. Humpty Dumpty hadn’t told her to go the other direction; he had said to go the other way. And if she couldn’t go back (since there was no “going back” in Wonderland; its physics allowed you only to go forward, or else Alice wouldn’t have had to wake up, but would have climbed back out of that dastardly rabbit hole to leave) the only other way to go was over.
Sarah climbed onto the bushes, staying close to the wall to steady her steps on the uneven branches, and then gripped the edge of the cement and swung herself over. She over-compensated for her lightness and swung too far, tumbling over the top and falling straight off the other side.
Her vision was flooded with red and for a second she thought she had come to in a puddle of her own blood, but a second later she realized she was prone upon a glossy crimson tile that stretched from the wall to an equally as cardinal castle in the distance rising staggeringly into the sky’s darkness.
A pair of eyes alighted before her and the Cheshire cat returned.
“Took you long enough,” he purred, “to climb the wall.”
Sarah snorted. “The Red Queen isn’t Wonderland.”
“Perception is everything,” spoke the cat as he sat up and began walking toward the distant castle, “and since most perceive the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen as one and the same, in Wonderland, they are.”
“But if this is my dream, and I do know the difference, why aren’t they each their own?”
The Cheshire cat looked back at her and grinned. “Is this your dream?” He pranced forward a few steps, wagging his tale delightedly, and purred back, “So many things have changed in Wonderland, we could talk of them for days. In any case, I advise you not to look down.”
So naturally, she looked down. The red of the tiles bled outward and when she looked up again, everything was tinted in a red hue and the sky above had turned a deep, wine-colored maroon. She looked down again and realized the reflection below was now the real world above, but there was no use in staring: Wonderland wouldn’t change its mind on her again so soon.
“Dear me,” the cat said, tracing circles around her feet, “I do guess it must be time to get going, a shame though, as there was so much more to say to be heard. Nonetheless, I implore you to enjoy your trip, Alice-friend.”
Then he was gone. First his body, then his eyes.
Sarah looked ahead again and saw why: The looming castle was now only feet ahead of her. The gate leading inside was guarded by two walking cards, both Diamonds it appeared, the one playing croquet with an upturned flamingo. Neither noticed her as she stepped inside. Perhaps, she thought, because she was in the underneath, and they couldn’t see her from where they were on level ground.
The castle’s hallways were long and connected at odd, unpredictable angles, and she wasn’t exactly surprised when some ended hanging in the air while others ended at empty walls still little more than wood and stone.
At last, however, just as she was beginning to grow drowsy, she found a large pair of doors that she was sure would lead to the Queen. So, naturally as I’m you can by now imagine, she went through them.
But instead of a queen on the throne, she saw a familiar crazy-eyed tea addict decked in red robes and a towering hat that just barely cleared the ceiling. She dashed toward him at once, and stealing another glance at the floor, saw she was no longer a reflection but real again.
“Why, Hatter, you’re king now!”
He blinked at her, snapping his fingers off to the side. Another card came running, this one a Spade, and served him another cup of tea. He drank it in a single sip and cracked the cup returning it to the platter.
“Do I know you?” He tapped his hat and it shrunk to a reasonable size but it sprouted a jungle, complete with monkey and snakes, instead.
“I…I thought you did. Don’t you remember? I’m Sarah.”
“I recall nothing of the sort.” He snapped his fingers and cracked another tea cup that was just as quickly replaced with a third. “But I’m afraid you didn’t ask for an audience, and since you broke that cardinal law” –he laughed at the unintentional pun of the palace– “you must be hung.”
“Oh, I’m sure you mean hanged.”
“Yes, yes, that too.”
Meanwhile, a ragged rabbit had come onto the scene and was tapping his foot anxiously.
“Your Highness” said the rabbit and the Hatter raised a hand and pointed to his still-jungle hat, “forgive me, Your Jungledness, this is ridiculous.”
“Oh, no, I’m afraid,” said the king of Wonderland. “This is most definitely not ridiculous; ludicrous, perhaps, maybe even insane, but surely not ridiculous.”
The May Hare snorted. “I insist you release this young girl! Don’t you remember Alice at all? She gave her youth to you, yet you forget her so willingly?”
The Hatter touched his hat and it turned into a book, but quite clearly, many pages were missing. He pages through them absently, as if searching for a particular passage.
“No, no, not at all, no Alice in this open mind.”
Sarah thought he was being abnormally subdued for being Mad, after all.
The Hare jumped up and stamped his long feet on the stone floor. “I insist! Don’t you remember anything?”
“No, no, not at all,” he said. “Now where is my advisor? This rabbit must be shut up at once!”
“I am your advisor!” the rabbit declared. But it was all for naught, apparently, as the king snapped his fingers twice and began drinking not a cup of tea, but the whole tea pot instead.
“Come on,” the May Hare said and grabbed Sarah’s hand. She was pulled forward only an inch, but in that one moment they had reached the top of the castle’s tallest tower, overlooking all of Wonderland.
And New York. Chicago. Half the west coast and parts of the world Sarah could only guess at, maybe China or Japan, some place in Europe, and the landscape went on and on, the dull grey of the sparkling cities broken only by patches of wondrous purple grass and curls of kelly-green.
“What is this?” Sarah said as she spun around, her hands close to her face in case she needed to gasp at any moment.
“What remains of Wonderland,” said the Hare quietly. “All around the world, children’s dreams are crumbling, they’re growing up too fast, and the wonders of imagination are being turned to the material constructs of society. You’ve studied the history of humanity. You’ve seen progression and evolution. Now witness destruction.”
Sarah stepped closer to the edge, shaking her head in disbelief.
She looked back at the Hare. “Why am I here?” She shook her head again, more forcefully, felt her thoughts shaking inside her skull. “Why me? Why here? Why Wonderland?”
The Hare frowned. “That is the question, isn’t it? It’s a very merry unbirthday, indeed, when we haven’t a clue why we’re here or what we’re here for. Wouldn’t you agree?” He paused but gave her no time to reply. “So let me ask, guest of Wonderland, why are you here?”
He looked at her, and she looked back, but when she looked away she saw not the crumbling Wonderland, but only the lights of the cities, and as she looked longer, she realized they weren’t cities at all, but the fading stars of dawn.
Sarah sat up and leaned over the steering wheel while she rubbed her eyes clear of sleep. The sun was rising in her rearview and she didn’t like the prospect of driving further into the dark, if her car would even let her. She undid the emergency break and tried the key again.
The car started flawlessly.
Sarah smiled, stealing another glance at the stars, and when she started driving, she turned her car around to go home.