The fire was low and the noise outside the school was getting louder.
“Alice!” A frantic girl called. Alice looked up, hardly flinching as the windows and floor rattled under the shockwave of a shell landing. “They need you in the office! They’re performing an amputation!” Her French accent mangled the English words, fear thickening it.
Alice swallowed hard and gestured to the soldier in front of her. “Take over here, Lucette.” She passed over the roll of bandages and dipped her hands in a bowl of cold, red water. She dried her hands on her apron and hurried to the office.
It used to be the place where the Headmistress conducted her business but it was now where soldiers who needed amputations were taken. The plaque that read Mme. Toussaint still inspired fear in Alice, but now it was a very different kind.
As she walked, another shell landed and several soldiers began to scream, their eyes bright with fevers and shock. Alice hurried over and pushed one older man down.
“Lieutenant Crane, it’s alright!” She promised, pushing him down to the bed. “You’re safe, you’re safe. Belinda!” She called over the harried looking young woman. “I’m needed in the operating room!”
Belinda nodded and hurried over, taking over in soothing the distressed men.
Alice stepped towards the office and paused outside the door, taking a moment to smooth her hair back. Her eyes caught on the looking glass that hung across from the door. An adult looked back at her. But that couldn’t be—
“Is she here yet?!” The doctor called.
She shook her head. No time for that when lives were on the line.
The girls' dorms had been changed. No longer was it two girls to a room; now it was four. The rest of the rooms were for soldiers to sleep in. That night, Alice was last to her room. She stepped inside and closed the door, taking care to lock it. She slipped off her shoes and hung her apron up where coats and hats had once gone. Next she unbuttoned her skirt and slipped it off, hanging it over the bed frame along with her shirt. Then came her bandeau, and then her girdle. She pulled on her nightgown. It was too small, and had been for nearly a year now. She had had to let the shoulder seams out twice, and it was now hitting the middle of her calf instead of her ankles.
She let her hair out of the bun, fluffing her hands through the brown strands. Her follicles ached, which she had never really felt before the war began.
The clock on the mantle softly chimed half past midnight.
Even though Alice was tired, drop dead—well, maybe not that tired—even, she still wasn’t quite ready for bed.
She knelt on the cold wood floor and reached under her bed. From underneath, she pulled out a box. It was once a hatbox, and it used to hold her fine day hat, from when they used to take trips to the local town. But that hat was long gone, repurposed for what, Alice couldn’t remember. Instead, the box held her dearest childhood memories.
By the window, Alice used the moonlight to see.
In the box was a rabbit. A white rabbit with a red waistcoat, and a pocket watch that no longer worked. Alice stroked a hand over its ears and fur with a tender smile. She hugged it, a tear dripping down her cheek to its head. Underneath the rabbit were her drawings.
Hedgehogs and flamingos as parts of a croquet game. A fat striped cat with a wide grin and pulsing eyes. A flower with a face. A doormouse in a teacup bath. She had even made an origami tart that said Eat Me.
Alice pressed her fingers to them, her heart aching. She missed the little girl who drew them. The same one that hummed about crocodiles and caterpillars and Tweedles. But that little girl wasn’t safe anymore.
“A very merry unbirthday to me,” Alice whispered, promising herself that she would be that Alice again. This would not be the end of her childhood; just a hiccup. “A very merry unbirthday to me. To who? To me.”
She repacked the box, laying the pictures in one by one, with the rabbit carefully placed back on top. She swept her gaze over the windowsill and the floor around her, positive that she had missed one. Then she remembered, and closed the box. It was gone. She put the box back under the bed and slipped between her covers. As soon as her head hit the pillow, she dreamed of riddling cards and teas and rabbits late for croquet. The next morning, she gave up the drawing of the Doormouse to help build the fire.
“I’m coming, Doctor!” Alice hurried, her arms full of freshly dried linens. Her hands moved with ease, tying and tearing and binding. She unwrapped a soldier’s eyes and handed him a small piece to dry his tears and blow his nose on. She helped little Meg—no longer so little, really—with dressing a soldier’s gangrenous stump and sent her to bed. She found three dead soldiers and called for the priest to come send them on. She washed linens until her hands were ready to crack and ate a dinner that hardly made a dent in her aching stomach.
In her room, she pulled out her rabbit and her drawings, and stood by the last little bit of twilight to look at them.
That night, she dreamed of walruses and cabbages and white roses being painted red as blood and a rabbit playing The Last Post. The next day, she tore the drawing of the croquet game into tiny strips for the officers to write on for the messenger pigeons.
“I’m hurrying!” Alice wiped her hands and ran to attend. She handed tools and wiped foreheads. She disposed of organs and tied sutures. She ran from the school to the encampment with verbal messages and fed pigeons. She fixed uniforms and ran the laundry back. She washed dishes and assembled guns. She gave up her drawing of the Cheshire Cat to a soldier who needed to write a goodbye to his family and the origami tart to an officer who wanted to write his will. Her hands were shaking and sore by the time she was sent to bed.
Her head hit the pillow and she dreamed of heads rolling and roses dripping with blood. Of cards ripped in half and a cat hanging.
Her hands were bleeding. The harsh soap and bleach used to clean the bandages dried the hands worse than any winter wind could hope to. But the only thing she could do was rub grease from cooking over them in hopes that her hands wouldn’t be totally ruined. Her mother had once said that Alice’s hands were a lady’s hands.
They still would be after, Alice hoped. But right now, she needed them to be a laundress’ hands, a cook’s hands, a nurse’s hands. Who had time for being a lady when there were bandages to wash, potatoes to peel, and soap to make?
Alice tied her hair back again and went to work. She memorized messages to take from the doctor to the camp officers, recited Bible and Torah passages to dying soldiers. She fed blind soldiers their dinners and helped dig graves down by the river. She hauled buckets of water and pumped more. She typed letters of condolences and forged officers’ signatures on them.
At the end of the day, she fell into bed and dreamed of screaming flowers and oysters smashed under foot and voices howling “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!” all in the same pitch as shells hitting the ground.
The train whistle blew. Alice leaned out the window, waving goodbye to her headmistress and classmates. The war was over and it was time for Alice to go home.
“Au revoir!” She called. “Au revoir!”
Meg ran with the train to the end of the platform, waving Alice’s last drawing; the one of a flower with a face.
“Au revoir!” Meg cried. “Jusqu'à ce que nous nous rencontrions à nouveau!”
Alice waved until the train rounded the bend. “Until we meet again,” she echoed.
At long last, she was leaving France and going home. Home was no longer London, but a small town called Rye, in East Sussex. The Alice that would arrive there was not the little girl that London had seen off to France in 1938. This Alice was taller, older, and quieter.
In her new room, Alice sat on the bed with her rabbit. A toy she had once spent hours carrying around, talking to, bringing to life with stories and songs and memories of Wonderland. Now, it was just a toy in a threadbare waistcoat and a child’s pocket watch.
Funny, Alice thought. It had seemed so much bigger when she first bought it. She looked at it again. What had once taken up most of her palm now only took up the same amount of space as a single hundred pence coin.
“It’s time,” Alice said out loud as she stood up. “To put away childish things.” She calmly placed the rabbit in the box. As she looked down at the rabbit, her eyes began to burn. Slowly, Alice sank to her knees. Her shaking hands lost hold of the box and it tumbled to the floor, spilling the toy. Alice clawed at the floor and yanked it into her arms as she wailed, burying her face in the fur.
Her parents rushed inside and began to ask what was wrong, holding her and murmuring questions and comforting words. But all Alice could do was scream into her toy, begging her childhood to come back.