“It’s three in the morning. Why are you up?” my mother said in a tired voice.
“I’ve got homework! If you’d helped me when I asked you to, maybe I’d be sleeping right now!” I shot back. I know, it’s wrong to speak to my mother like that. But she’s been so distant lately. I guess I can’t blame her.
A few months ago, my parents got a divorce, and my mom hasn’t been the same since then. My dad hasn’t even called to see how I’m doing. He’s probably living in some fancy apartment somewhere in New York, partying every day. But that’s not the only thing. My grandfather lost his battle with cancer a week ago. That only added to my mom’s pain. She never talked much about her childhood, but I know she was very close to her father. She forgets to eat or give us food, and she hasn’t been going to work. It frustrates me. I know she’s upset, but I lost my father and grandfather too. I’m still taking care of myself and doing everything I have to. She’s a mother. She needs to do her job, no matter what.
“Okay, okay, what’s your homework?” my mother asked.
“I’ve got to write an essay about an old family tradition or secret or something,” I mumbled. My mother nodded. She had a faraway look in her eyes.
“Well, you know, there is something. Your great great great grandmother,” she said. I raised an eyebrow.
“She was Alice.” my mother whispered. And for the first time in two weeks, she smiled.
“Oh, not this again, Mom! Don’t you think I’m a little old for fairy tales?” I snapped. My mother chuckled.
“You know, it’s true. We are descendants of Alice in Wonderland,” she smiled. I rolled my eyes. With that, my mother walked back to her room, leaving me alone in the dark. Alice in Wonderland had been our official family fairy tale. My mother would recite it to me every night when I was younger. She even used to tell me we were descendants of Alice. Clearly, she didn’t think that joke had gotten old. It had.
Obviously, I got an F on my essay, since there was no essay. But it was nothing new. I’ve always been the problem child, getting by with my grades, but not doing well. My sister, on the other hand, was everything I’d love to be and more. She was probably the only thing keeping my mom alive. You might expect me to be jealous of her, but actually, she is my best friend. I trust her with everything. She’s also my only friend, so who else do I have to trust? I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s the glue holding our family together. Unfortunately, she won’t be here for very long. She got into Yale and she’s leaving in a year. I wonder how life will be when she leaves. As sad as I am, I know she deserves this. She’s worked so hard, and now she’s achieved everything she ever wanted. My sister got into an Ivy League school. I’m so proud of her. I only wish that I could say that about myself.
When I got home from school that day with a big fat F on my paper, I found something very unusual. Instead of finding my mother in her pajamas sleeping the day away, she was bathed and clean, and on a very heated phone call.
“I’m sorry, what? No! Absolutely not! I have no empathy for you. Your problems are your own, do not dump them on me now. I do not care if you become homeless or die, or whatever! You aren’t about to just walk into my life like nothing ever happened! We do not need you in our lives!” she yelled. By the looks of it, she was talking to my father. He called. I couldn’t believe it. My sister tiptoed down the stairs, beckoning for me to come up. I followed her up the stairs and she led me to her room.
“What the heck was that?” I yelled at my sister.
“Please, Em, calm down! I’ll explain it all to you, okay? You just need to hear me out.” she said frantically. Immediately, I felt calmer. My sister had that power. She could calm me down no matter how bad the situation was. She always seemed so cool and collected. I was pretty much the opposite. Just like our names. My parents named me Ember and my sister Brooke. Fire and water.
“Dad called today. He wants custody.” Brooke said softly. My mouth fell open.
“Custody? Of us? Who does he think he is? Does he think he can just stroll back into our lives and take us away? This is crazy! There’s no way I’m ever going with him!” I yelled. As much as living with my mom sucked, my dad was worse. Even more irresponsible than my mother. I hated him from the bottom of my heart.
“Don’t worry. Mom’s not going to let him take us. We’ll find a way to stay together, Ember.” my sister smiled.
“But why does he want this all of a sudden? He cares about us now?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I think it’s because he might get fired from his job and he wants to look responsible. I only heard bits and pieces of their conversation.” Brooke said. I scoffed.
That sounded like something our father would do. Using us for his good. Why did he have us in the first place? He wasn’t ready for kids and he still isn’t.
“But why is Mom like this? She changed out of her pajamas and took a shower.” I exclaimed.
“My guess is she wanted to show Dad that she’s living a perfectly happy life without him and she’s doing fine.” Brooke laughed. I loved her laugh. It sounded like wind chimes on a sunny day. I’d do anything to hear that laugh more often. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much reason to laugh in these dark times. An hour later, my mother came upstairs to talk to us. I was still in Brooke’s room reading a book.
“Hi girls. Can I talk to you?” Mom said in a tired voice. She sat on the bed and sighed.
“So I’m assuming you know what’s going on. Your father wants custody. And I know this will be hard, but it will also be good for you. You can get to know your father. You don’t have to cut ties with him just because I did.” she said. I gasped in shock. Brooke raised an eyebrow.
“What? You’re listening to him? You are going to send us to New York to live with that sorry excuse of a father?” I screamed
“Ember, calm down!” Brooke exclaimed. We sat in silence for a minute.
“Girls, I understand you don’t particularly like him. Neither do I. But he is still the only father you’ve got. You have to bond with him now before it’s too late.” Mom said softly.
“Mom, please. He’s not a good person. He won’t treat us right.” Brooke whispered. She was about to cry, I could tell. I nodded. My mother took a deep breath.
“Okay, we’ll talk about this tomorrow,” she said, and with that, she got up and walked back to her room. Brooke squeezed my hand. She gave me an “It’s going to be okay,” look. I smiled at her and went to my room.
Just like that, two weeks later, Brooke and I were on a flight to New York. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that my mother let him take us. She probably did it to get a break from us. She was selfish, just like our father.
When we arrived in New York, our father wasn’t even at the airport to greet us. We waited for 30 minutes and he didn’t show up. We eventually gave in and called him. He had forgotten we were even here. He called us an Uber to take us to his apartment.
The man in the Uber was a bit sketchy. He had a thick Russian accent and he smelled of liquor.
“So gorrlss...vat is your names, hmm?” he said. I looked at Brooke with fear in my eyes. As usual, she was calm and collected.
“I’m Brooke and this is Ember. Nice to meet you.” Brooke said sweetly. I looked at her in alarm. What was she doing?
“Wow, vat pretty names. Aembaar and Brooook. You know, I also have a daughter your age. Her name ees Aleeessa.” he drawled. Brooke gasped. She was quiet for the rest of the trip.
“Oh, thees is your father’s house, hmm? I know heem. Vee is old friends.” the Uber driver said as we pulled up in front of an apartment building. Brooke shot me a nervous glance. We made a beeline for the door of the building and didn’t look back once. As we expected, our father wasn’t in the lobby to greet us. Instead, the doorman handed us a key and we went up to my dad’s apartment. When we opened the door, Dad didn’t even greet us properly.
“Oh, you guys are here. Um ok well just to your room or whatever and just hang out, okay,” he said with a very bored look on his face. Me and Brooke did as we were told, glad to have some time together.
“Brooke, who was that guy in the Uber?” I asked as soon as we closed the door of our room. Brooke shook her head.
“Ember, we just got ourselves into something very dangerous,” she said softly. And then she told me everything.
By the time she was done, I was shocked into silence. It was nothing new, I’d heard this story a million times, but this time, it just seemed so different.
“They’re out to get us, Ember. We have to escape,” she said. Just then, our father walked in. We both quickly picked up books and pretended to be busy.
“Hi girls. So I have a work call. Feel free to pass by in the background, my boss won’t mind. So I’m going to go now, ‘kay?” he said in the same bored tone he had greeted us in. Brooke scoffed. I had never seen her so angry.
“Yeah right, his boss doesn’t mind. He just wants to look like a good parent,” she muttered. We didn’t come out of our rooms the entire day, not even for dinner. I’m sure our father must have forgotten about us. Mom had planned for us to stay in New York for a week. I didn’t know how we would manage seven days living like this.
That night, I had a dream for the first time in months. It was a good dream, a memory. It was a memory of my sixth Christmas. Things were so simple back then. Our family was together. My grandma had gotten me a book. It was Alice in Wonderland. She read it to me every day. Her last words were the last sentence of the book she read aloud to me. That book meant everything to me. I may not believe in the fantasy world my parents made up, but that book is still important to me. A few days after Christmas, we went shopping to prepare for our annual new year’s party. I brought my book with me, as I always did. Eventually, I got bored and settled down in a corner to read. I kept reading for maybe 30 minutes. As I closed the book, I realized I had no clue where my mother and sister were. I started searching frantically, calling their names until finally I gave up and sat down. Then came the tears. I buried my face in my jacket and cried for someone to come get me. Finally, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see my sister. She gave me a hug and helped me up.
“It’s going to be okay, Emmy. I’ll always be there for you, even when I’m not,” she said softly. I smiled at her and wiped the tears off my face. She was the only person who could make me smile.
I woke up in a good mood, remembering my dream. In fact, I actually wanted to do something that day instead of sitting in my room. After all, we were in New York! There was so much to see and do! I woke Brooke up and told her my plan. She immediately got dressed and we went out into the cold winter air. She seemed to have forgotten about what she told me the day before. As we exited the building, I bumped into a girl holding a stack of books. We both fell on the sidewalk, the books scattered everywhere. The girl got up with hatred in her eyes. She sighed and picked up the books. She looked about as old as me, maybe a bit older. And then I came up with a crazy idea.
“I’m so, so, sorry! I totally wasn’t looking where I was going! I’m Ember, and this is my sister Brooke.” I said warmly. I was trying to make friends. She scowled when she heard our names.
“I am Alyssa. You are correct. Next time, watch where you are going. QOH scum.” she muttered. Alyssa spoke with a slight Russian accent, just like the Uber driver. Could this be his daughter? She did look just like him. Brooke gasped. She knew who this was. But what did Alyssa mean by “QOH scum”? What was QOH? I ignored this strange behavior and we went on to see the Statue of Liberty. On our way there, we saw a girl with flowing blonde hair. Alyssa. She saw us on the other side of the road and rolled her eyes. And then it hit me. Alyssa was a descendant of the Queen of Hearts, and she was out to get us. I understood everything. Immediately, I turned to Brooke. But when I tried to tell her, she said,
“Ember, come on. Don’t talk about this now. Let’s enjoy this trip.” And I tried to enjoy it. But my theory kept coming back to me. What if I was right, and the Queen of Hearts wanted revenge? The rest of the day, I kept seeing Alyssa everywhere. I tried to ignore it. And that was my biggest mistake.
Around 6 pm, Brooke decided it was late and we should go home. We walked back to Times Square and Brooke checked Google Maps.
“Oh, I know a faster way home, Emmy. Look, right through that alley,” she said, showing me her phone. I looked at the dark alley.
“Are you sure? I mean, what if we get kidnapped or something?” I asked, wrinkling my forehead. Brooke laughed.
“You’ve been watching way too many movies, now let’s go,” she said joyfully. I followed her reluctantly with a feeling of dread boiling up inside me. As we entered the dark alley, I saw a figure moving around behind a trash can. I whipped out my phone and turned the flashlight on. And standing right there, with her bright blue eyes was Alyssa. Brooke nearly screamed.
“What do you want?” Brooke whispered, her voice trembling.
“You know what I want, Brooke. I want good to win. Can’t you see that? We have to rid the world of evil, like you. Your great great great grandmother, she made a mistake that I can fix.” Alyssa said, walking toward us slowly.
“Now you get to choose. Yourself, or your sister?” she muttered. Brooke trembled. We both stayed quiet.
“Okay then. I get to choose. Hmmm...I think, BROOKE! This is for all the suffering you have caused me and my family. The Queen of Hearts must die!” Alyssa yelled, and then she drove a knife through my heart. Not literally, figuratively. And that’s the worst part.
Brooke let out a strangled sob and crumpled to the ground.
“I’ll be back for you, Ember,” Alyssa muttered and walked away like nothing ever happened. Brooke grabbed my hand.
“No! I’ll call an ambulance! I’ll save you! Brooke!” I cried, but Brooke shook her head.
“Ember, listen. We both know I can’t be saved, but I can help you. Just listen to me. Alyssa is Alice. You were right. You need to stop her and her father. Please, show them that your family doesn’t make you who you are. You do.” Brooke whispered.
“Wha-What do you mean? If Alyssa is Alice then who are we?” I mumbled. But it was too late. Brooke closed her eyes
“I will always be there for you, even when I’m not,” she whispered. She let out one last breath and then her body was still.
I don’t know how much I screamed that night. I don’t know how long I stayed there, sitting in the alley, holding my sister’s hand, and wishing she would just wake up. She never did, and she never would.