Fifteen-year-old Ali slowly sat up and cautiously rubbed the back of her head. Gazing around she tried to make sense of her surroundings. Gradually, like a pack of shuffled cards, her memories began to fall back into place. She could remember meeting Josh in the college car park after lectures. He’d said:
‘Want to go somewhere for a smoke?’
Then she could recall holding hands and walking together to a nearby park. Here, lying with her head in Josh’s lap, lazily sharing a spliff under the shade of one of the few trees on the recreation ground. It was early evening at the end of a long, hot summer’s day, and the only people in sight were lone dog walkers, desultorily tossing ragged tennis balls for their over-enthusiastic pooches. Josh sat with his back propped against the tree trunk, staring across the large expanse of parched, yellow grass, passing the joint back and forth.
‘Look, a rabbit!’ With that Ali was up and off in rapid pursuit of the creature, Josh closely following.
Now, she was on the highly polished floor of a large circular room, the walls consisting mainly of identical doors. Midway up each door, there was something resembling a bank cash dispenser. Curiouser and curiouser! Looking above the doors, she could see that the white emulsion of the wall soon gave way to unpainted, bare mud sides, stretching upwards and upwards. Laying back down, prone, Ali could see a blue disk of sky, but it was a long way off. Must’ve fallen and knocked myself unconscious. After a few moments’ contemplation, she got unsteadily to her feet and walked over to the nearest door. The monitor on its centre said,
‘Please follow on-screen instructions. Use keypad for answers.’ Ali stood looking at the VDU for a few moments before typing ‘OK’. The screen changed.
‘Are you normal?’
‘Do you ever lay awake at night worrying?
‘That is not normal. This door is closed to you.’ Ali tried pushing the door, but it was firmly shut. Moving a few steps to her right, to the next door. She typed,
‘HI’ on its keypad.
‘Are you normal?’
‘Do you ever worry about your appearance?’
‘That is not normal. This door is closed to you.’ Frowning Ali moved on to the next door. She typed,
‘I AM NORMAL’
‘Do you ever feel angry?’
‘That is not normal. This door is closed to you.’ Thinking hard, Ali stepped to the right. She typed,
‘I AM ABNORMAL.’
‘That is not normal. This door is closed to you.’ Ok, need to try another tack. At the following door, she typed,
‘Are you normal?’
‘Do you ever worry about your sexuality?’
‘Are you gay?’
‘Do you ever think that you were born into the wrong body?’
‘That is not normal. This door is closed to you.’ Turning her back, Ali slithered down the wall onto the floor, tears streaming down her face. I’m not normal. I’ve got a mental health problem. More to the point I’ll never get out of here. And then there was a click, a door on the other side of the room opened and a large brown rabbit entered. Except it wasn’t a rabbit it was too big and had longer ears than a rabbit. It was a hare! It gambolled around the room, occasionally rearing up onto its hind legs, appearing to use its front legs to shadow box. At other times it would run round and round in circles, joyously leaping into the air. Suddenly, it froze stock still and sniffed the air, whiskers twitching. It stared at Ali, carefully appraising her.
‘Hello…Are you a human?’
‘Any dogs with you?’
‘Can you see any?’
‘Have you got a gun?’
‘No!’ The hare sidles closer.
‘Why are you crying?’
‘Because I’m nuts...I must be… I think I’m talking to an animal.’ At this, the hare throws its head back, shouts with laughter and resumes its frantic running, jumping, and boxing. After a few seconds, it calms, quiets and stops.
‘I’m the March Hare you know.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Ali. Think about this. Who decides what’s normal?’ And with that, he leaps up into the air, turns mid-jump, and disappears through another door, no keypad or anything. Ali sits bemused for a few seconds and then gets up, crosses the room and tries the door that the March Hare left by: nothing. It remains solidly shut. And then, she remembers, she has her phone in her back pocket.
‘Ali! Are you alright?’
‘I think so, but I’m stuck down this deep, rabbit hole.’
‘Daft cow, it’s not a rabbit hole…It’s an old borehole.’
‘Whatever…I can’t get out.’
‘It’s ok. Fire brigade and ambulance are on their way…Saw you fall…When I looked you were lying unconscious down there…Look up.’ Ali looks up and there is Josh’s head outlined against the blue sky. They wave.
‘I rang your Mum too…She’ll be here soon.’
Ali’s fall has left her shaken but unhurt. The fire brigade had hoisted her out of the shaft, a humiliating experience for a fifteen-year-old. The ambulance service checked her over and declared her unharmed. Then Moira, her Mum, drove her home. They were both uncharacteristically quiet during the journey. Ali had expected a lengthy lecture, but Moira kept her eyes fixed on the road and said nothing. Later, Ali is sitting on the sofa, flicking through TikTok on her phone. Losing interest, she stands, tucking it into her back pocket. Moira appears in the doorway, arms folded across her chest.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘I don’t think so…this door is closed to you.’
‘If you think you’re going out at this time of night you’ve got another think coming.’
‘But Mum, I need to see Josh.’
‘Not happening…No more sneaking out to see that boy, smoke pot and falling down holes for you.’
‘For fuck’s sake!’
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Hi Sharon. Your story is so enjoyable. I loved the connections with Alice in Wonderland, in a contemporary, fun way. I noticed was that you switched from past tense to present tense midway (after the rabbit showed up). I was wondering if that was intentional. The "Are you Normal" questions and dialogue was very interesting to read!!
Thank you for taking the time to read my story and for the encouraging feedback. Yes, the tense change was intentional. I'm experimenting with moving backward and forwards in time when I'm telling a tale, rather than following a linear process.