On August 20th, 2013, Lena walked into the classroom of the Queen. She taught junior and senior AP English. She had long blonde curls and piercing blue eyes. As always, she dressed with a retro air, choosing a fitted navy skirt, red heels, and a white blouse. The Queen was also the Debate coach. Which is why a fourteen year old Lena walked into her classroom at 2:05pm because she would join the debate team, just like the cool and confident girl on her TV. That girl was involved in lots of extracurriculars which is why she was so popular. The White Queen held the door open for all of the students.
“Welcome! Please, have a seat anywhere.” she would call with a smile. At around 2:30pm she checked the slim gold watch on her left wrist and closed the door.
Then, he walked in...five minutes late. He entered the room with striking confidence. He was as Mad as a Hatter. His curls made him seem three inches taller than he really was and he had green eyes. Lena knew, in that instant, that he would be in her life. That he would change her life. In fact, he sat at desk right next to her. Lena wondered how she could concentrate on the presentation that the Queen was conducting on the basics of each type of speech and debate competition they could enter.
The Queen turned the next hour over to the older students who were clustered around small pods of desks with white boards and markers. The groups would teach the students, in depth, about the type of competition they were experts in. That is when the Hatter actually spoke to Lena. He turned to her with a smile, his eyes were greener than she could have ever imagined,
“Wanna come with me to Lincoln Douglas?” He indicated the table in the corner to the right of them. He smelled of cinnamon gum. Lena followed the Mad Hatter to the Lincoln Douglas table.
The Tweedle Twins ran this table. They were both tall with long faces and pitch black hair.
Dee opened the presentation explaining that Lincoln Douglas was one versus one debate.
Dum cut Dee off explaining that topics were decided prior to the competition to allow the competitors to prep.
Dee inserted that time ahead of the competitions could be spent researching, then practicing against one other.
Before Dee could finish her sentence, Dum added that the winner of the round faced another opponent.
Dee and Dum smiled mirrored grins and laughed together.
The Hatter asked for examples of topics. His voice cracked as he finished his question. Lena blushed.
At the second meeting Lena confidently went to find her seat next to the Hatter. But it wasn’t free. In her place was the Rabbit, her hair dyed with streaks of pink and purple. She had a bohemian skirt and Lena’s heart broke as the Rabbit made the Hatter laugh. But her heart rejoiced when the Hatter called her name as he pulled another desk over to him. The Hatter introduced the Rabbit to Lena as an old friend. She captivated both of them with eccentric stories of her life traveling with her military parents while they waited for the meeting to begin.
Lena listened as everyone planned how they would compete in the tournament of the year which was on Saturday. Once again, the team split up into their respective events and the Twins made sure that the Lincoln Douglas students had their outlines ready with points, counter points, and strong conclusions. The time exhausted Lena. The Twins experately dismantled all of her arguments, pushing her to find better words for her thoughts.
The Hatter waved goodbye as he hopped into his father’s car. Lena watched as he pulled away and kicked small stones atop the short brick wall encasing the rose bushes by the parking lot. The air felt cooler. She wondered if the Hatter might kiss her lips beneath falling red and orange leaves soon.
Lena woke up early Saturday morning. She spent an hour showering, doing her hair a thick braid, and perfecting her makeup. The Hatter was already at the bus stop along with the Rabbit. Lena almost fainted as she felt her heart quicken to see him in a gray suit and tie. He seemed out of place next to the Rabbit’s green flowery skirt and dangling gold bracelets. Both of them smiled at Lena. The bus pulled up right on time at 6:30am. They drove thirty minutes to Carroll High School in the next town over and shuffled into the bright cafeteria.
With expert speed, the Twins found a suitable table and everyone crowded around using the precious thirty minutes to prepare. The time seemed to slip through her fingers and Lena was nervous as she walked as calmly as possible to room 101 which was across from the Hatter in room 102. They smiled at one other. The judges approached them, college students who got paid for the day and a free lunch.
Right before entering his room the Hatter spun on his heel, locked his green eyes on Lena’s brown, and said, “You. Will. Do. Great.”
Lena had the confidence of the Hatter on her side. Lena and the Hatter both won round after round. She took home third and he took home 1st. They stepped outside to a big oak tree. The Hatter pulled Lena next to him and tossed his arm over her shoulders. She could smell fresh linen and his cinnamon gum, her cheeks burned bright. The whole team stood and took a photo with Lena and the Hatter proudly clutching their medals.
They rode side by side on the bus. The Twins proclaimed that they were rising stars. They handled the opening season of the year with grace and elegance. Every competition one or both of them took home a prize. October signaled the start of the real tournaments. Now students on the same level as the Twins could begin to truly compete along with everyone else. Suddenly, the Twins spent less time helping Lena and the Hatter. Red appeared the first week of October. She was a seasoned actress and the pupil of the Queen. Her apple red lips formed a perfect cupid’s bow and to the amazement of Lena, never seemed to clash with her red hair.
The Queen praised Red. Red was a junior, she had been in the drama competitions since her freshman year and would compete alongside the team as she always had. Red was cold to Lena when Lena loudly expressed her excitement at the big tournament because it was an opportunity to hone her skills, remarking that, “You are a novice, darling.” Her cold stare silenced Lena’s excitement and the Hatter did not make eye contact with her the rest of the meeting.
On Saturday, October 5th, Red wore a black lacy dress and matching gloves. She wore 1920s style pumps and carried a small white handbag. Somehow, her lips and hair were redder against the gray sky of the fall. Red picked the table they would sit at. Lena found herself asking this astonishing woman for tips. Red competed in Drama. She told the story of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Red was a perfect Zelda. She had mastered a sultry southern accent and embodied Zelda’s plight for independence in her marriage.
“Darling, I doubt that the way I win my competitions have anything to do with your world,” Red motioned her away. As she had done time and time again, Lena plopped down at the table waiting for everyone to finish their competitions from round one. She was doing her best to analyze her weak points when Red arrived.
“How did your round go? Did you see any interesting pieces?” inquired Lena. Red took a deep breath and plucked her earbuds out.
Suddenly, her icy black eyes were directed at Lena and Lena alone, “Darling, I do not feel the incessant need to discuss my successes, nor my failures with you.” That day, Lena did not win. Red did.
October cooled into November and frosted over into December. Lena tried her best to avoid Red. She did not talk to her nor did she ask her any questions. The morning of December 14th, the Hatter wore his signature gray suit. Lena decided to wear her red dress. She had settled into the safety of the consistency of the tournaments. She practiced as much as she could and then she competed. Her mother sped off to a yoga class and left Lena in the cold of the morning. Christmas was coming. The Rabbit wore a big fluffy green sweater embroidered with a glittery Rudolph on the front. Underneath was a more tasteful green dress. She paired it all with a set of brown boots and her messy hair looked purposeful.
The Hatter had his earbuds in; he enjoyed his ritual of listening to music before the tournament and right after. It gave him the space to clear his head. The Rabbit was friendly, asking about what Lena might do differently in this competition rather than the last. Once the bus pulled up, Lena sat silently alone and was shocked when the Hatter joined her.
“You don’t bother me in my ritual,” he explained and popped his music on once again.
It was a longer ride and Lena was aware of the feeling of his warm thigh against hers. She was cold; she hadn’t prepared for the weather because she felt her tattered beige jacket didn’t look good with the dress. Suddenly, the Hatter shifted and Lena did her best to not look at him, not disturb him. With expert swiftness he shifted out of his jacket and draped it along her shoulders. She burned bright as her dress.
“You looked cold,” he said simply and shrugged. She held his eyes for a moment and smiled. He returned to his ritual.
Lena inhaled the scent of the Hatter’s cinnamon gum as quietly as she could as they pulled up and gave the Hatter his jacket as they deboarded. She felt herself blush again. The cafeteria was already warm due to the crammed teenage bodies all bustling around, trying to practice and plan. Red sat at a table. She had decided on an elegant purple velvet dress. Not a lot of people could make velvet look elegant but her curves and confident white pumps completed the outfit; along with her red lipstick of course. Lena had never been courageous enough for lipstick. She didn’t meet Red’s gaze, just watched as she called over the Hatter. Lena sighed, at least she still smelled like him.
The students were permitted freedom between rounds. LD was a briefer competition than some. Lena returned to the table to find it empty. She decided to meander the halls for a bit, listening to the clicking of her heels on the green tiled hallway. She noticed a figure in the hallway. The Knave was taller than her, almost six feet she imagined. His black hair was combed back perfectly and he was dressed in a full tux. He stood by the stairway so she had to walk past him to return to the cafeteria. The windows showed gray clouds giving way to a soft snow. The Knave smiled at her.
His eyes were an ink black and his smile enthralled her. He smelled of peppermint and she blushed at him. Boldly, he introduced himself and offered to take her to the library. This was his home turf and there wasn’t much to do while the competitions were in full swing. He was handsome and charming, convincing her to run away with him for a bit to the library out of her dreams. Huge wooden bookshelves created a maze. The shelves hid a small nook with two arm chairs; the air was perfumed with the intoxicating scent of old books and they Knave let her wander for a while. He asked her questions about her school, her hobbies, her competition. She flipped through page by page of an older book, letting herself get lost in the world that was created. And when she looked up...the Knave kissed her.
The next round pulled Lena away from the Knave, but he followed her to the competitions when he could. If he couldn’t they’d return to the library. Lena ate her PB and J in the library with him and he gave her his Oreo cookies. They didn’t kiss again, but delighted in conversation. The Knave wanted to know Lena which surprised her. He complimented her dress and told her that she was smart and kind. He helped her in debate, too. He pointed out moments when she lost the judge in her argument and ways that she could button things up. The day was done.
She waited for him at the library, she had made it to finals and was excited to tell him what she thought went well. She waited. She waited. She waited. Eventually, it was 4:30, time to go to the theater for the awards ceremony. She desperately searched for him in the crowd and filled the Rabbit in on her mystery man. Finally, the ceremony began. The Knave was nowhere to be found. Lena boarded the bus in silence. The Hatter sat with Red.
At home, Lena sank beneath the bubbles of the bath. She wondered if the Knave wondered about her. The heat felt good on her skin and grounded herself out of the fantasy. She had imagined that the Knave would find some way back to her. She imagined he would burst in debate practice, professing his love for her.
On the first day back from break, Lena walked into school wearing pink lipstick. It was her big Christmas gift from her mother, a set of lipsticks. She was excited to return to debate. When she entered the classroom, a hush fell over the room. All eyes were suddenly on her. Red sat in a corner and her eyes were rimmed with tears. Lena timidly approached the Rabbit who looked at Lena with disgust. She was left to find a seat. The Queen wasn’t at practice that afternoon. The Rabbit explained that she was just downstairs at parent teacher conferences if they needed her. It still didn’t explain Red’s tears.
“For heaven’s sake, Rabbit,” exclaimed Red, “She kissed him. She knows exactly what she did.”
The story tumbled out quickly. It turned out that the Knave already had someone to kiss. He had Red. They had been together for 18 months and twenty two days. Rabbit encouraged everyone to sit down. The Hatter didn’t look at Lena at all.
The whole debate team sat criss-cross applesauce and the Rabbit was the mediator. She asked for Lena’s side of the story and then Red’s. Red clarified she had met the Knave in elementary and that they were neighbors. He had asked her out by giving her a red rose one perfect, Colorado afternoon and the rest was history. According to Red, she had been distressed that she couldn’t find her boyfriend at his high school.
Apparently, during Christmas break, it all came out. The kiss, the betrayal, and the break up. The group sat in stunned silence. Lena pleaded her case as well as she could. At this point, she was crying, too. After a moment, the Twins turned to Lena.
“Stop the tears, it’s pathetic,” they ordered her in unison.
“Here is the reality of the situation,” began Dee, “You show up to practice and loudly exclaim how good you are. You don’t acknowledge our achievements. It’s obvious you’ve had a thing for the Hatter.”
Dum picked up where his twin left off, “Yeah, no that’s been obvious. You think you’re hot shit because you’ve won a couple medals and a couple ribbons.”
Dee interrupted,“It’s exhausting hearing your accomplishments and how you disguise it all to sound as if you are taking an interest in our work. You throw yourself at the Hatter and then kiss Red’s boyfriend behind her back. It’s not fair to her.”
“You are drama. You need the world to surround you and no one else,” said Dum
“It has to stop,” they spoke in unison again and looked at each other with matching Cheshire Cat grins.
Lena watched through tears as each member systematically stood up for Red. At this point, Lena couldn’t hear anything. She had thought that she had done well at caring for this family. She thought her triumphs were theirs. Eventually, she got up and walked out.
On February 1st, the Rabbit showed up at Lena’s doorstep. “Let’s take a walk,” she said. Lena shoved herself into jeans, a sweater, and tennis shoes. They walked down the apartment stairs and outside to a surprisingly sunny February morning.
The Rabbit led Lena to Rolling Meadows. The Rabbit broke the silence, “You know the saddest part of all of this is…” she trailed off.
“The saddest part is that the Hatter liked you. You were just too caught up in your own feelings for him that you didn’t notice… I guess.”
She shrugged her shoulders. The gravel crunched beneath her steps. The girls walked in silence. The Rabbit offered Lena a quick hug when they returned to her apartment and hopped away. The sun shone brightly down on Lena. It seemed to jolt her awake. Like the time she had spent in Wonderland was just a dream.