Apr 162015
 

If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars. Just a silver sliver, almost close enough to eat. A sliver of cheese, a sliver of cake, a cup of tea to be polite. Someone had given her a cup of tea once, someone with blue-green eyes and long ears. Funny how she couldn’t remember his face, though. All that part was hazy, her memory of him wrapped in smoke but for the eyes and ears. And the ears were long and furry.

When they found her all she would say was, “The Rabbit. The Rabbit. The Rabbit.” Over and over. When she acted like that they said she was mad. Alice knew she wasn’t mad. Maybe. Not deep down. But the powders they gave her made the world all muzzy and sideways and sometimes she felt mad.

Everything had happened just as she said, when she could say something besides “Rabbit.” She and Dor went into the Old City for Dor’s birthday. Sixteenth birthday. Sixteen candles on your cake, a sliver of cake and a cup of tea for you, my dear. They both went in, but only Alice came out. Two weeks later came Alice, covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit, wearing a dress that wasn’t hers. Red running down the insides of her legs and blue marks on her thighs were fingers had been.

Her hand went without thought to her left cheek, touched the long thick scar that followed the line of bone from her hairline to the top of her lip. Her face had been flayed open when they found her, and she couldn’t say how or why. It had been open for a long while, the blood oozing from it gone black and brackish, the skin around it tattered at the edges. The doctors told her parents they had done their best, but she would never be beautiful again.

Her sister said it was her own fault. If she had stayed out of the Old City as she was supposed to, this never would have happened. There was a reason why they lived in the New City, the ring of shiny new buildings that kept the Old City at bay. The Old City wasn’t for people like them. It was for the filth you threw away. All children were warned about the dangers of straying to the Old City. Alice didn’t belong there.

The hospital where Alice had lived for the last ten years was in the Old City, so her sister was wrong. Alice did belong there.

Sometimes her parents came to visit, doing their duty; their noses wrinkled like she was something that smelled bad, even though the attendants always dragged her out and gave her a bath first. She hated the baths. They were icy cold and rough with scrubbing, and she was never permitted to clean herself. If she struggled or cried out they would hit her with the bath brush or pinch hard enough to leave a mark, always somewhere that couldn’t be seen, the side of her breast or the soft part of her belly, with a promise of “more where that came from” unless she behaved.

Her parents didn’t visit so much anymore. Alice couldn’t really remember the last time, but she knew it had been a long time. The days all ran together in her room, no books to read, no things to do. Hatcher said she should exercise so she would be fit when she got out, but somewhere in her heart Alice knew she would never get out. She was a broken thing, and the New City did not like broken things. They liked the new and the whole. Alice hardly recalled when she was new and whole. That girl seemed like someone else she’d known once, long ago and far away.

“Alice?” A voice through the mouse hole.

Many years before, a mouse had gotten into the wall and chewed through the batting between her cell and Hatcher’s. Alice didn’t know what had happened to the mouse. Probably caught in a trap in the kitchens, or went out on the riverside and drowned. But the mouse had led her to Hatcher, a rough voice coming through the wall. She had really thought she’d gone round the bend at first, hearing voices coming from nowhere.

“Hey, you,” the voice had said.

She’d looked around wildly, afraid, and scuttled into a corner on the far side of the window, opposite the door.

“Hey, you. Down here,” the voice said.

Alice had resolutely put her fingers in her ears. Everyone knew hearing voices was a sign of madness, and she’d promised herself she would not be mad no matter what they said, no matter how she felt. After several moments of happy silence she released her fingers and looked around the room in relief.

A great sigh exhaled from the walls. “The mouse hole, you nit.”

Alice stared in alarm at the small opening in the corner opposite. Somehow a talking mouse was worse than voices in her head. If mice were talking, then there really were men with blue-green eyes and long furry ears. And while she didn’t remember his face, she did remember she’d been afraid. She stared at the mouse hole like something horrible might suddenly emerge from it, like the Rabbit might unfold himself from that space and finish whatever he had started.

Another, this one shorter and much more impatient. “You’re not hearing bloody voices and a mouse is not speaking to you. I’m in the room next to yours and I can see you through the hole. You’re not crazy and there’s no magic, so will you please come here and speak with me before I go madder than I already have?”

“If you’re not in my head and you’re not magic, then how do you know what I’m thinking?” Alice asked, her voice suspicious. She was beginning to wonder whether this wasn’t some trick of the doctors, some way to draw her into a trap.

The attendants gave her a powder with her breakfast and dinner, to “keep her calm,” they said. But she knew that those powders still allowed her some freedom to be Alice, to think and dream and try to remember the lost bits of her life. When they took her out of her room for a bath or a visit, she sometimes saw other patients, people standing still with dead eyes and drool on their chins, people who were alive and didn’t know it. Those people were “difficult to deal with.” They got injections instead of powders. Alice didn’t want injections, so she wasn’t going to say or do anything that would alarm the doctors. Doctors who might be trying to trick her with voices in the wall.

“I know what you’re thinking, because that’s what I’d be thinking if I were you,” the voice said. “We’re in the loony bin, aren’t we? Now, come over and have a look through the hole and you’ll see.”

She stood cautiously, still unsure it was not a trick, whether of her mind or the doctors. She crossed under the window and crouched by the mouse hole.

“All I can see are your knees,” the voice complained. “Come all the way down, won’t you?”

Alice lowered to her stomach, keeping her head well away from the opening. She had a vague fear that a needle might flash through the hole and plunge into her eye.

Once her cheek was on the ground she could see through the small, tight opening. On the other side was an iron grey eye and part of a nose. There was a bulge just where the rest of the nose disappeared from view, like it might have been broken once. It didn’t look like any doctor she knew, but Alice wasn’t taking any chances. “Let me see your whole face,” she said.

“Good,” the grey eye said. “You’re thinking. That’s good. Not just a pretty face, then.”

Alice’s hand moved automatically to cover her scar; then she remembered she was lying on that side of her face and he couldn’t really see it anyway. Let him think she was pretty if he wanted. It would be nice to be pretty to someone even with her fair hair all snarled and nothing to wear but a woolen shift. She heard the swish-swish of wool on batting as the grey eye moved away from the hole and became two grey eyes, a long broken nose and a bushy black beard with flecks of white in it.

“All right, then?” the voice asked. “I’m Hatcher.”

And that was how they met. Hatcher was ten years older than Alice, and nobody ever came to see him.

“Why are you here?” she asked one day, long after they were friends, or at least friends who never really saw each other.

“I killed a lot of people with an ,” he said. “That’s how I got my name. Hatcher.”

“What was your name before?” Alice asked. She was surprisingly undisturbed by the knowledge that her new friend was an axe murderer. It seemed unrelated to who he was now, the rough voice and grey eyes through the hole in the wall.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember anything from before, really. They found me with a bloodied axe in my hand and five people dead around me all slashed to pieces. I tried to do the same for the police when they came for me, so I must have killed those people.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Don’t remember,” he said, and his voice change a little, became hard. “It’s like there’s this haze over my eyes, black smoke filling everything up. I remember the weight of the axe in my hand, and the hot blood on my face, in my mouth. I remember the sound of the blade in soft flesh.”

“I remember that too,” Alice said, although she didn’t know why she said that. For a moment it had been true, though. She could hear the sound of a knife piercing skin, that sliding slicing noise, and someone screaming.

“Did you kill a lot of people too?” Hatcher asked.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I might have.”

“It’s all right if you did,” Hatcher said. “I would understand.”

“I really don’t know,” Alice said. “I remember before and I remember after, but that fortnight is gone, save for a few flashes.”

“The man with the long ears.”

“Yes,” Alice said. The man who hunted her, faceless, through her nightmares.

“When we get out we’ll find him, and then you’ll know what happened to you,” Hatcher said.

That had been eight years before, and they were both still there, rooms side by side in a hospital that had no intention of ever letting them go.

From ALICE, Ace trade release August 4, 2015. Preorder here:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Books-A-Million

Indiebound

Powells

or ask your local bookstore to order a copy for you!