The significance of stage fright and anything other than life itself evaporated the moment the window shattered from the impact of my body.
Sparkling shards formed an iridescent cloud around me, suspended under the clear blue sky. The glass sang a wind chime tune, a backdrop to my sharp intake of breath and the heavy thump of my heart.
As the distance between me and the window grew and my blond wig blew into my face, tears flooded my eyes. I messed up now. Not only was I going to die, I was trying to be Alice whilst doing so, breaking my parents’ hearts twice over.
I was supposed to love my sister. Like other guys loved theirs deep down, beyond the trenches of sibling rivalry—a war I lost by default.
Alice would have been prettier. Kinder. More popular. She would have had straight A’s and she would have landed every lead role in her drama club. Maybe, we could’ve attended the same school and the same drama club, and she would have been cast as Alice instead of me.
If I didn’t go to a boys’ boarding school—and she wasn’t dead.
It’s a shame I survived our first day of life and she didn’t. She would have been a better child, my parents had said as much. A perfect. Little. Angel. My whole life, my birthdays were chained to her grave where we left Alice in Wonderland themed gifts and flowers on her tombstone. A day of mourning, and not of celebration.
What was I thinking..?
‘Artie, we’re gonna be late.’ Dustin squeezed my arm, his foot tapping the steps impatiently as he was holding his pocket watch, a functional part of his costume.
Oliver twisted his purple striped tail.
‘Miss Brown is gonna be mad.’ He grinned, making the painted whiskers rise on his round face.
Sitting on the small landing at the top of the stairs by the library on the sixth floor, I crunched my apron over my forget-me-not blue dress.
‘Can we swap? I can’t do this.’ I looked up at the boys, pleading.
Dustin wrinkled his freckled nose with a pink heart painted onto its tip, and pursed his lips. The big white bunny ears he wore flopped as he tilted his head.
‘Yes you can, we practised. You really are good at this.’
‘And if you chicken out now, you’ll never hear the end of it,’ said Oliver, still grinning, like he wanted me to quit, just to see the drama ensue.
Dustin gave me a warm, encouraging smile.
‘I’ll give you a reward if you don’t let us down,’ he said with a mysterious twinkle in his sapphire eyes. ‘Come on. Break a leg!’
Intrigued by his promise, I let him pull me up and drag me along as he started running down the stairs. His bunny ears bounced up and down with every step, and his short, brown hair shined coppery gold at each turn of the staircase, when bathed in the light of the afternoon sun filtering through the tall, gothic windows of the old school building.
‘What’s the reward?’ I asked as we ran, trying not to imagine all the things I hoped for.
‘What do you want it to be?’ He looked back over his shoulder, face flushed and hair messy; an image so tantalising it left me breathless. I wanted it to be him.
Something overcame me, bravery or foolishness. Maybe I was already about to make a mistake doing this performance—why not add another few?
‘What?’ He spun around so fast I crashed into him, and we both stumbled. Dustin, losing his footing, fell onto his bottom and rolled down the last four steps to the narrow landing on the turn. I lost my balance as he held onto my hand and I ran down those steps, unable to stop. Then, stepped on the hem of the stupid dress. Right in front of the window. And tripped. Forwards.
Dustin’s hand slipped from mine as I crashed into the glass, one thought reverberating in my mind.
Will I be missed as much as Alice?
The glow of the afternoon faded before my eyes, dying inside the throat of the darkness that swallowed me.
The ground didn’t hit hard, it caught me. Soft and fleshy. I rolled onto cool, spherical surfaces, down and down and down until I finally dug my fingers in and stopped myself from falling, in one that was shaped like a shallow bowl. My heart was pounding like I just fell from a second floor window. I did. Panting, I took huge gulps of the damp air filled with the smell of decay and something familiar. Mushrooms. I was sitting in a giant mushroom underneath ancient oaks.
Where’s the school?
Dusk drowned the colours of the woods. But everything didn't disappear into black, the colours of life didn’t cease to exist. The foliage around was the deepest, darkest green, adorned with pale purple flowers, rhododendrons, radiating a soft, ethereal glow as fireflies danced around them. Like stars gathering for a ballroom dance, they swayed a slow waltz to the soft tune of zephyr-stroked leaves and crickets’ chirps. An owl hooted, a warm, deep sound, comforting in the darkness that crept closer as night was falling over the forest. Soon, it would be completely dark.
With a soft exhale, I pulled back my hands out of the mushroom and sat up straight.
‘You took your time, Alice.’ A voice said, and as I turned my head towards it, smoke blew into my face, tasting like warm, artificial strawberries.
‘Are you sure? Because this note here definitely says “Alice.”’
He waved a piece of folded paper and as the smoke dispersed, I tried not to flinch at the sight of him: a man down to his waist, like a centaur, but instead of a horse, the rest of him was a huge, fat caterpillar. Willing myself not to show my disgust, I took the note.
“To: A. Alice Perry,” it was addressed on the outside.
Inside it, hid a short message.
“Come to the clearing. Let’s have some cake!”
‘It’s Arthur A. Perry. My second name is after my dead sis–’ Irrelevant. ‘My name is just Arthur.’
‘Well, the invitation is still yours, Arthur-dressed-as-Alice. Why do you refuse to play your roles? You and that other Alice Perry.’ The caterpillar-man shook his head in disapproval.
‘Alice Perry?’ I raised my head.
‘The one who sent you the invite. But you look a mess, girl. You are in no shape to attend a tea party.’ He sighed. ‘It’s going to take me the whole night to wash off all the blood you smeared onto my mushrooms.’
The breath caught in my lungs.
Keeping my eyes on him, my fingers twitched towards the ripped skirt, and grabbed onto wet fabric.
‘Poor Alice,’ he said, his voice dripping with pity, but his lips curling into a sinister smile as he licked them, with a glint of anticipation in his eyes. ‘Soaking. Red.’ His tone was one that should have been reserved for “strawberry cheesecake” and “chocolate sponge.”
A wave of nausea washed over me. Losing my balance, I fell off the mushroom, landing in grass that towered over my head.
This was a nightmare.
‘I have to wake up,’ I muttered, getting onto my feet.
The creature leaned closer, snaking down from the top of the mushroom.
‘Wake up? For that, first you must sleep.’ He blew another puff of smoke into my face.
I turned and ran.
Deep into the woods.
My wig caught in a low branch of a tree, hollies and thorny blackberry bushes tugged and tore the skirt of my bloodied costume and leaves slapped into my face. My heart raced, but as the darkness thickened, my strides slowed down and came to a halt.
Where was I?
And where did I want to go?
Close by, fireflies gave their aerial performance, illuminating a figure, running from tree to tree.
‘We are running out of time… Artie, where are you? We only have until the sun comes up!’ My heart skipped a beat as I recognised the voice of the boy with the white bunny ears and pom-pom tail, running around with his pocket watch. He didn’t fall… Did he?
‘Wait!’ I yelled, but he was already too far to hear me, and I was unable to catch up. I lost sight of him. How was he so fast? I was always the faster runner, between the two of us.
‘Could it be because you broke your legs?’ A familiar voice replied to my thoughts, from a tree above. On a thick branch lay Oliver, grinning down at me, his purple striped tail swishing lazily as he clawed the tree’s bark.
‘My legs are fine,’ I said tentatively, but refused to look down or touch them.
‘How do you know?’ He purred, his cat ears twitching with intrigue.
‘They don’t hurt.’
His grin widened the way it always did when he found a weak point.
‘But do you feel them at all, Alice?’
My breath hitched and I stepped backwards.
‘What are you doing here, Oliver? And Dustin? You two didn’t fall with me, did you? You aren’t real. This place isn’t real. It’s all in my head, of course I don’t feel a thing.’
‘Quite right.’ He chuckled. ‘But who says the things inside your head aren’t real?’ He hung from the tree, upside down. ‘Can you be certain the “real” you isn’t a mere thought inside somebody else’s head? And if I am your thought, can you command me? Or can I disappear at my own will?’ He mused, turning translucent. ‘Can I leave, before the sun rises, even if you have to stay here forever?’
‘Oliver, wait! What happens at sunrise? How do I get out?!’
He smiled, before disappearing completely.
‘Follow the fireflies.’
I continued through the woods, treading carefully in the pitch dark, following the only sprinkles of light in the darkness. The stars moved around the night sky as the hours went, and I walked the woods, aware of the time passing and afraid of the morning that would soon come. Then, I arrived at a clearing. Goosebumps rose on my arms at the chill gust of wind and the sight of tombs. I found a graveyard.
Would it be wiser to turn around?
Taking a deep breath, I stepped out from the trees and made my way through the cemetery, recognising the layout; I knew this place. My pulse picked up when I saw the familiar grave.
Covered in a picnic blanket, it had a big cake on a stand, plates and teacups on top. A petite girl sat with a large gift-wrapped box as tall as her, wearing an asymmetric top hat and a crisp shirt. Serving tea.
‘Happy birthday, Art. You are a little more than fashionably late to our party.’
‘It’s not my birthday… And nobody calls me that,’ I said with a frown, as I sat in the grass on the opposite side of the grave from her. Was this what she would’ve been like? Small, chubby and sporting a pixie cut.
‘I would’ve.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyhow, it’s my birthday every day. Therefore, so is yours. Besides, your unbirthday might be today. Would you like cake?’ She cut into it with a large knife and served a slice on a plate. A perfect slice, with a perfect smile.
‘Keep your cake,’ I pushed it back despite the rumbling of my stomach. ‘How do I get out of here?’
‘Out of here?’ She clapped her hands together, raising her eyebrows. ‘Didn’t you have enough? Sixteen years! Sixteen years of having everything to yourself. Our toys. Our room. Our parents. And all the cake?’ She stared at me in disbelief. ‘You were heard. You were seen. You were loved for who you were, and not who they’d thought you’d be. You already lived.’
‘At least you were never compared to a dead dream.’
‘I am a dead dream. Perfection? It is only for those who didn’t get a chance to make mistakes and struggle. Wanna bet which feels worse?’
‘Having cake and no responsibilities doesn’t sound like a curse to me.’ I folded my arms. ‘You have it easy.’
‘I guess that’s true,’ she said quietly. ‘But do you ever wonder about all the things that would have been different? If I survived. Good and bad. Our birthday parties, the people I would have met and loved. What we could’ve been to each other, if only I lived, or you died too. We’d be best friends, you know. It would’ve been worth it, the bad parts of life, the mistakes and not living up to expectations.’
She sniffed, and my chest tightened. Giving in, I took a bite of the chocolate cake.
‘Is it too late for that? For us to get on?’ I asked.
‘Hope not. I even got you a present.’ She gestured to the large box. ‘Will you open it at least?’
Unable to turn it down as she looked at me with a hopeful expression, I got up and walked around her grave.
‘Don’t worry about not bringing me anything,’ she added, though it did not even cross my mind. I couldn’t have. ‘I’m just happy to see you here, even if you had to hurt yourself so badly.’
‘Uh… Thanks?’ I pulled the bow holding the box closed and opened the lid.
My stomach turned as I looked up at her, smiling expectantly as she sipped her tea.
Inside the box, sticking out from the grass below was a brand new tombstone with my name on it.
‘I’m not staying!’ I backed away, my body trembling with the urge to run.
‘No need to be afraid. There will be cake every day, and you won’t have to worry about stupid things like exams. It will be fun. We could finally be treated like equals. Real twins!’
For the first time in forever, I didn’t want to be treated like Alice. I didn’t want death to polish my flaws. Was it too late to realise..?
‘Am I already dead?’
‘Not yet. All I know is, if you are still here after the sunrise, you’ll stay. If not, you’ll live. I cannot predict which one it will be, but… you might not want to go back, Art. It was a bad fall.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I just have a bad feeling about it. Don’t you?
I shook my head, ignoring the sickening feeling in my stomach.
‘Do I get to choose?’
‘If you have something to go back for, if you can find your reason, you might get a chance to go back. The fates love a good story.’ She smiled knowingly. ‘It should be here. Your reason, I mean. Everybody brings their fears and hopes along, and they all wander the woods whilst we wait for the sun to rise.’
My hopes..? But what was it I hoped for…? Closing my eyes I recounted the minutes before my fall.
“I’ll give you a reward if you don’t let us down… What do you want it to be?”
I clasped her hands in mine.
‘I’ll forever be in your debt if you help me now–’
‘Don’t be gross.’ She grimaced.
‘Have you seen where the white rabbit went?’
It was like chasing a mirage. The white ears were easy to spot in the dark, but also easy to lose sight of and difficult to keep up with. The possible reasons why kept replaying in my head, making my heart beat to the rhythm of fear.
Maybe, because of all the blood on the mushrooms.
Maybe, because in the real world, I broke my legs.
Maybe, because it was a bad fall.
Was Alice right? Should I not want to go back?
Not watching where I went anymore, I bumped into Dustin under a willow tree.
I grabbed his hands before he could disappear again. His white ears drooped as he met my gaze.
‘Artie,’ he whispered, his large eyes reflecting the sad and hopeful flickers of the fireflies around us. ‘Wake up, please.’
He pulled one of his hands from mine and held up his pocket watch by the chain between our faces.
‘You know how.’
The clock swung side to side to the rhythm it ticked, and my eyes fluttered closed as the first rays of sun touched the willow leaves.
‘First, you must fall asleep.’
I needed time to adjust to the brightness of the sterile room and its clean but unpleasant smell. With a thin sheet tucked around me tightly, I lay on my back on a firm, narrow bed, in a white gown instead of the costume. On the side, underneath the hook that held up a bag of fluid, dripping down a tube plugged into my arm, a screen monitored my blood pressure and oxygen levels.
‘You won’t need my gift just yet,’ Alice said, looking at the readings.
‘Alice?’ I blinked. The woman in blue gave me a sympathetic smile. It wasn’t her.
On the nightstand, chocolates and cards awaited my attention.
The first I picked up was from the drama club.
Not what Dustin meant by “Break a leg,” mate! Get better soon! - Oliver.”
Recognising Dustin’s handwriting, my heart beat faster.
“I’m sorry. I’ll come and visit.”
Was this a “sorry I pulled you off the stairs” or…
My chest tightened.
A “sorry—I don’t like you like that”?
He wrote he would come. Meaning, he wanted to see me, right? Of course, he wouldn’t be able to write his answer inside a shared card. Would he come alone? We could share some choc–
The hopeful anticipation turned into icy dread as I tried to pull my legs up, but–
Could move nothing.