Jack had asked him if he wanted a reward. His first impulse was to say no, before years of experience kicked in and his mind restored itself to its previous comforting state of thinking of one person above all others: himself. It was surprisingly effortless.
He asked for the keys to his teashop.
Within a quarter of an hour, the keys were in his pocket and he was fading back into the labyrinth of enormous, empty shells of buildings that defied gravity, steel trees, an iron forest and the gaping holes in the earth, the ‘no go’ areas that promised a quick death to anyone who wandered into them. The news of the Queen’s defeat had not reached these neighbourhoods yet – he heard nothing but the wind, and the silent sound of memory.
‘Alice,’ he had said, and she had pulled her eyes from the abyss and taken his hand. It had been cold; cold like her fear.
Hatter swore to himself as he pushed open the door. The Suits had not even bothered to lock up behind them, so the scavengers had been, and the looters and the vandals. The light bulbs had all been stolen. The ceiling had been completely stripped and also seemed to have been burned, out of spite or a desire for warmth he could not tell. The bar was completely empty – perhaps he should have expected that. Every bottle in the place appeared to have been smashed, broken glass crunching beneath his feet. An assortment of obscenities had been spray-painted onto the walls, ‘traitor’, ‘spy,’ even ‘oyster’.
He chuckled to himself without laughter.
Passing the hat was so profitable!
So to speak.
He climbed the stairs to his office, expecting to find it in a worse state than the shop. Instead, he found the door locked and no sign of a break in.
It was worse than the vandalism.
He slowly approached the desk and chair that stood exactly as he had left them. His silver headphones still hung in their place of honour on the chair, and the contents of a half-finished cup of tea sat eerily on the other end of the desk. A ghost accompanied him everywhere he looked, stood silent and resolute on the rug, her eyes following his every movement, every nerve in her body prepared to fight, or run, her distrust of him, her innocent determination, her stubbornness. ‘How do I get to this casino?’ He still shuddered to think of her there, remembered the fear that had burned the inside of his stomach like acid that morning in the Kingdom of the Knights when he had started awake and realised that that was precisely where she had gone. Even now after everything that had happened; she still didn’t fully understand how reckless she had been, the risk that she had taken, the importance of what she had done.
‘You want me to stay?’ she had asked before disappearing into the looking glass.
Hatter approached the shelves and took down a bottle of pink nectar labeled ‘excitement’.
He’d replied no. He’d said ‘Hell, no.’
He gazed at the pink liquid and wanted more than anything to be outside himself; suddenly the veins on his hands and inner arms appeared to him in sharp relief and they seemed so small and fragile, so easy to break, so easy to puncture, it would be so easy ‘No NO,’ he growled to himself, ‘Please, no’, he pleaded with himself and gripped the bottle in his hand, focusing all his attention on it, seeing the world reduced to that plastic bottle, its little silver screw top and the shiny incandescent contents, the pink, the transparent plastic, salvation, pink, transparent, plastic salvation.
And her face hadn’t changed. That was it. For a second, she had seemed devoid of emotion and then she had smiled, rather sweetly, with something like relief.
He swallowed the entire contents of the bottle. He felt his blood surge as the effects of the drug began to take hold. What was it he’d told Ratty? Something about only taking one drop at a time ‘or the experience might burst your shriveled-up little heart. Gottit?’ The memory was uproarious, and he laughed, beginning to dance and jump about like a child discovering his first fix.
She’d looked over her shoulder at him, for just a second, he liked to think because she knew that he had lied.
Did that mean his heart was going to burst? Did it matter? The sensation defied description. His fists punched the air, and he was whooping, singing, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ along with the fifty oysters who’d been drained till they died so that this feeling could exist, their excitement bursting through his head like an exploding grapefruit. For some reason this thought made him feel sad and guilty: but why? They were singing to him, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ and their song was beautiful.
Then the looking glass had closed, and she was gone.
The adrenaline soaring in his veins began to hurt. He couldn’t see. His body was trapped in a curved mirror, turning in and out of itself, and leaping, and singing ‘I win!’ He tried to jump all the way up to the ceiling and touch it, he wanted to dance and dance and sing, because he had won, but he curled up on the floor, delirious with pain made worse by the signals in his brain telling him it wasn’t there; that nothing was there but excitement.
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
But why does that matter? I’ve won!
He’d once seen a young man die of a heart attack after downing an entire bottle of this stuff. Only it wasn’t the same: what had he taken? Lust? Passion?
He screamed. His heart heaved like something diseased and exhausted, the heart of an old man, not strong enough for anything, as if were made of… what are we made of again?
Alice was studying him, more moved than surprised.
‘I was starting to think you weren’t coming back.’
He was too tired to feel. He lay flat on his back staring at that same ceiling that five minutes ago had seemed so interesting, so unattainable. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. He looked to the side at his arm, once again examining the tiny blue canals of veins that had terrified him. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. The song became quieter and quieter, its final notes fading away into the crevasses they’d come from.
You’re mad as a box of frogs, he thought, and you haven’t won a thing.