So, the last two fics I wrote really were continuation pieces—sequels to “The Darkest Hour” that prepped Edward for the events of “The Blue Hour.” However, after I finished up those two, I realized that I have him right were I want him for TBH.
But you may have noticed that I’m still two Cullens short. So here is my last gap-filler piece—a companion piece/aside that takes place after “His Brother’s Keeper,” but this time offscreen from Edward’s world. This is just a little fic that I wrote to get a feel for the characters of those last two Cullens, so I would know them when it comes time to write them in TBH (and this time I stayed under 10,000 words—firmly in the short-story category! Ha!).
The good news is that this is the last aside I had planned to go between “The Darkest Hour” and “The Blue Hour.” So that means I can finally really get to working on TBH! Yay! The bad news is also that this is the last aside I had planned—now I’ll just be working on TBH, and that’s going to be a long one. And since I am simply incapable of posting a WIP, I’m afraid you’re going to have a long wait while I hammer out the whole thing before I can get it posted.
I also want to warn you—while TDH and “Thorns” were pretty self-contained, and “Keeper” only somewhat less so, this story is very deliberately open-ended. The stories of these characters are meant to tie into the main rewrites, TBH and beyond, and so this one is really just an introduction. We really won’t find out much else about them until then—and I won’t tell you anything more to avoid spoilage!
That aside, I now give you “Curiouser & Curiouser,” and from the quote that provides the title, I’m sure you can tell who you’re going to meet. I hope you like it!
Title: Curiouser & Curiouser
Author: Mrs. Hyde
Betas: das_mervin and ket_makura
Fandom: Twilight Hate
Word Count: 7,085
Summary: “Whatever she said was bound to be crazy.” The local diner has a not-so-regular customer.
Author’s Notes: An aside from my “Hours” universe that picks up two loose ends that we haven’t seen before.
Disclaimer: Any names, places, events, or specific back story that you may recognize from the Twilight book or movie series belongs to Stephenie Meyer or Summit Entertainment, respectively, and no profit is being made from this work and no copyright infringement is intended.
Carl Henley threw open the door and rushed inside, the warmth and light of the store striking him immediately, a welcome contrast to the buckets that were pouring down tonight. Paul looked up from his newspaper from behind the counter and jerked his chin in friendly greeting before returning to his funny papers.
Carl shook the rain off his shoulders and flicked the drops off his hat before making his way to the counter and, more importantly, the coffee pot. “Hell of a storm,” Paul remarked, and Carl grunted in agreement, dropping his nickel on the countertop before pulling out a cup and filling up.
“Didn’t look like rain today,” Paul added.
Carl shook his head and took a slow, fortifying sip of his coffee—that was what he needed. “Pretty as a picture,” he agreed after swallowing, wrapping his chilled hands around the cup. He turned ‘round and surveyed the room, the empty booths on one half, the rows of chips and candy on the other.
Despite bearing the insipid name of “The Sunshine Store,” the little all-in-one gas station and 24-hour diner wasn’t a bad place. He should know—he’d been dropping in for a cup of coffee every morning and evening for nearly the last four years. Ever since Elsie died, he’d been rattling around in the old house like the last pea in the can. So it was no surprise that he’d started coming in here for a Cup of Joe and a bit of conversation in the mornings, or for a bit of a rest and a bite to eat in the evenings on his way home from the fields.
There didn’t look to be much conversation to be had tonight, though. The weather had been turning nastier and nastier in past weeks, with winter rolling in, and most weren’t inclined to stop when it was raining cats and dogs like this. The only other soul in the place besides himself and Paul, the cook and owner, was clearly a stranger, a tall, thin fellow in a long coat with his hat pulled low, sitting down in the corner and staring into the cup of coffee he held tight in his hands. Nobody else seemed to be dumb enough to be out in this—not even the newest and most unusual addition to the regulars.
They’d been enjoying a slowly dwindling fall, the good weather still clinging like the last few autumn leaves up until a couple of weeks ago. But in the middle of October it turned abruptly, the skies going gray, the wind biting and sharp, and it rained as often as not. Light jackets were beginning to be replaced with heavy parkas and hoods, and the hardier patrons who did venture out to the store tended to linger longer to avoid going back out into the downpour.
Carl knew pretty much everyone who came in on a regular basis. They were all locals like himself, and anyone else who ventured in was just passing through—truckers, travelers, and the odd tourist. Nobody ever really paid them any mind; there were usually several shared glances of amusement from the regulars when they would spot tourists peering at them with all the same avid interest they might devote to the Liberty Bell down in town, but otherwise they pretty much ignored them and were ignored in return.
It was rare that anyone who was not a regular garnered much interest from those who were. The exception to this rule had wandered into the store one night not unlike this one about three weeks ago.
The weather that night had been as awful as it was tonight—the first really big wintry rain of the year. The skies were dark and the freezing rain had been coming down in sheets. Carl had been sitting with the unfortunately named Helmut Lang, who was equally unfortunately known as Mutt to his friends, when nearly everyone in the store, Carl included, had been startled right out of their skins when the door flew open with a bang.
Standing in the doorway was perhaps the most bizarre apparition he’d personally ever seen. Who or whatever it was looked like a walking rag heap, the tiny figure so swathed in dirty, ragged clothes and jangling with an assortment of random trinkets and baubles that it was at first impossible to even tell if it was male or female. He, she, or it just stood there for a moment, oblivious to the water dripping off his soaked clothes—if you could call them that—and onto the floor around his bare ankles and feet clad in mismatched shoes.
“Hey,” Paul called irritably after that first shocked, staring silence. “You wanna close the door? You’re lettin’ all the rain in.”
The strange creature slammed the door shut behind him with all speed and stared for a moment longer, before pulling off the large, floppy, and soaking hat from her head—revealing that it was in fact a woman underneath all that mess.
Or rather, a girl—a tiny, slight slip of a girl, with a flattened mat of closely cropped dark hair, pale skin, and a blank expression—and a startlingly pretty face. She stared quite unabashedly back at all of them before she suddenly moved. It was oddly unnerving to watch her, the way she seemed to float over the floor on her tiptoes. The silence was deafening as she skated right up to everyone in the store, peered searchingly in their faces for a moment, and then went on to the next.
Carl had been in his usual seat by the far window and so had been one of the last to undergo this frank scrutiny; as such, he was in a position to bemusedly watch her circuit of the room, to see the odd expressions that crossed his friends’ faces as they drew quickly away from her when she came close.
And then his breath caught in his throat as she was suddenly in front of him, and she was staring at him, only she was staring through him, with a pair of wide, wild eyes, and he too drew sharply back from that empty, china-doll face.
Then she was gone, shoving her tiny nose right up to Mutt’s big honker, and Carl watched dazedly as he too jerked away, going faintly cross-eyed, until the girl went over to peer at Roscoe Jenkins for a moment before walking to the middle of the dining area and announcing to the room at large: “He’s not here.”
Mutt and Carl exchanged bewildered glances. She didn’t speak again, simply stood where she was for a moment, her head cocked to the side as she turned and looked all about the room, before she flitted over to the half of the store holding all the junk food and cheap souvenirs. There she wandered through the rows of shelves, her eyes taking in everything with all the unblinking solemnity of an acolyte listening to a sermon.
The uncomfortable hush that had fallen over the store upon her entrance still hung heavy in the room as they all watched her, their bemusement clear on all their faces as she darted between the shelves, examining every trinket and trifle that was on sale. She picked up every individual pencil in the cup by the register and held them up to her nose and then put them back, before moving over to the stacks of Pennsylvania shot glasses, flipping them over one by one to stack them in the opposite direction, bottoms up, before reversing the process and putting them back precisely the way she’d found them. Next she set all of the key rings to swinging on their hooks, moving so quickly that Carl barely saw what she was doing before the whole pegboard rack was full of swinging chains like some strange madman’s clock. Then she moved on to the rows of snow globes, picking up each one, shaking it violently, and setting it down. She pushed her face within an inch of the dome as she watched the snow settle before moving on to do the same with the next in the line.
The perplexed expressions of those in the store had turned much more sardonic while watching this display; clearly, this one’s cheese had slid off her cracker. The low hubbub of talk slowly began to rise, but it was subdued now, and all the conversations were peppered with remarks and cracks about what had just wandered in.
The girl took a thorough inventory of every piece of merchandise or snack food that was for sale in that half of the store. After perching for a moment atop the ice cream freezer to push her nose close to the bulletin board full of flyers, she hopped down and drifted to the dead center of the store, facing the doors, and stopped still and stood. Just stood there, staring at the doors, utterly and unnaturally motionless, never seeming even to blink.
Conversation began to grind down again—how could anybody talk with her standing there? She said nothing, didn’t move, didn’t look at any of them—just stared at the door.
The diner half of the store was quiet now, filled with pointed coughs and uncomfortable rustles of newspapers and the creaks of chairs as their occupants fidgeted. The pleasant wait for the rain to let up wasn’t so pleasant anymore, but nobody could get out without first going around the girl, and, well, nobody really wanted to be the first to do that.
Eventually, Paul had been the one to speak up. “Hey—are you lookin’ for something?”
No answer; she didn’t even twitch. Paul called again, but when he again got no answer, he cast a scowl of annoyance at nearby Delvin Fischer, set down his newspaper in irritation, and crossed the room.
“Can I help you?” he asked pointedly, moving to stand in front of her. Paul’s six-foot, three-inch frame dwarfed the tiny creature; she looked hardly more than a child as she stared unblinkingly up at Paul’s ruddy face.
“No,” she chimed, and moved a little to reposition herself so that she could see the door again from where she stood.
There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Paul asked, “What are you doing?”
Paul looked like he wanted to say something more—or to throw her out—but he turned towards the door, where her eyes were fixed, and could see the driving rain still coming down hard. He hmmed a little and then headed resignedly to his place the lunch counter, shrugging his shoulders at the looks and raised eyebrows all his patrons were giving him. When they glanced at each other, they all sort of shrugged in agreement as well; so she was a few bricks shy of a load. She wasn’t hurting anything, and it was raining cats and dogs out there. If she wanted to wait it out, she could.
And she did. She stood there, not moving, not making a sound, for what was at least a solid hour. The close, friendly atmosphere had fled, and a good half of the fellows in the place had decided that home was a better option after all.
Carl had stayed; he had been nursing what he had decided would be his last cup before he left, when she finally spoke again.
“The rain is stopping.” Her voice had a queer, toneless quality to it, and Carl raised his eyes from his contemplation of his cup at the sudden proclamation to see the girl abruptly move. She skimmed across the floor, flung the door open, and slipped right across the threshold and out into the slowing drizzle. As suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone.
There had been some laughing and talk about that strange little episode for the rest of that evening, and for a day or two afterward (and not all of it kind). But stranger things had happened, and really, which was worse: A rude, screaming New York lawyer who threatened to sue everyone in the place for not finding him a tow truck for his fancy car, or an odd little girl who stood in the middle of the store to wait out the rain?
They’d been well on their ways to forgetting all about it. And they probably would have, had not three days later, when they skies opened up once more, she reappeared.
The same as it had been that first night, many of the same bunch of regulars had been talking and laughing around the coffee pot, when bam! The door flew open once more, and there she stood, still wearing the same rag-heap castoffs, still dripping wet, and still with that same moon-faced look.
This time she closed the door without being told, and then skittered over to the diner to eyeball the men inside, who were regarding her in silent astonishment. She didn’t get up in everyone’s faces this time—only Bert Hendrickson’s, who hadn’t been there last time. And just as before, she’d informed them all that “He’s not here,” before scuttling over to the other side of the store, making that same circuit as before, adjusting random items as she went, and ending up in the middle of the store once again, right in front of the doors and staring out at the rain.
After a strained silence in which she was oblivious to the stares and smirks she was getting, Paul gave an irritated huff and went over to her again. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked tiredly.
“No,” she chirped, and turned back to the door.
“What are you doing here, miss?” he asked, now sounding annoyed.
Paul gave a helpless look over his shoulder; everyone, Carl included, could only shrug or shake their heads. Paul had no real reason to throw her out; he’d been keeping a close eye on her both times she’d been pawing at the displays, so he apparently hadn’t seen her try to lift anything. He was clearly torn between wanting to toss out the nuisance and feeling sorry for the poor girl who was obviously not right in the head. Finally, with a sigh, he gently grabbed her upper arm and said, “Well, why don’t you come have a seat while you wait?” Paul gave a gentle tug on her arm—
And was taken quite by surprise when she didn’t budge an inch. Paul towered over her and probably outweighed her by a good 150 pounds, and yet his hand slipped right off of her as if he’d tried to lift an anchor.
She didn’t seem to notice, only stared up at him from those wide eyes of hers. “But I’m waiting.”
“Well, you can’t just wait in the doorway,” Paul said, exasperated.
“Oh!” she said, her eyes actually managing to go wider. “I did not know!”
With that, she darted across the floor and in a wink of an eye was perched on the stool at the end of the bar—not sitting, but rather crouching atop the seat, her knees akimbo and her palms resting on the edge. There she sat, like a wet little frog, her eyes once again fixed on the door, watching the rain outside.
Everyone just looked at each other, not even trying to hide their reactions anymore, and Paul pinched the bridge of his nose and gave up, going behind his counter to brew up a fresh pot of coffee.
Conversation was as stilted as before, and finally Bert, who was the oldest of their bunch and notoriously ill-tempered (and who clearly hadn’t been pleased by his once-over earlier), made his way over to the girl. “What’re you doing here, girly?” he asked her.
“Waiting,” she said, her eyes blinking up at him in a slow, mechanical fashion.
“Well, what’re you waitin’ for?” he demanded.
“For Him,” she said earnestly.
Bert eyed her. “Who?”
“Him,” she repeated.
“Who’s ‘him’?” Bert snapped, clearly getting irritated.
“I don’t know Him yet.”
Bert stared at her. “Then just how can you be waitin’ for him?” he asked triumphantly.
“He will be here when it rains,” she answered, utterly unperturbed by (and to) Bert’s increasing frustration.
Carl, deciding that someone needed to be rescued (although he wasn’t sure who—Bert, the girl, or the rest of the gang), slid out of his seat and made his way over to the coffee pot. The girl turned away from Bert at the sound of Carl reaching for the pot, leaving him standing with his mouth open, cut off before he could really work up a good rant. She instead spun her seat around to watch Carl avidly as he filled his cup. The feel of her strange eyes on his back was unnerving, but he made himself smile pleasantly when he turned around, and he asked her, “What’s your name, missy?”
Without warning, she thrust her hand right under his nose, making him jump backwards like a startled cat and nearly sloshing his coffee onto the floor. “I am ALICE,” she said.
And that’s how she said it, too—not simply a name, but a pronouncement, and you could hear her saying it all in upper case. Blinking, Carl had looked at the proffered hand, which was empty, and then at the strap that was wrapped tightly around her tiny, blue-veined wrist. Raising his glasses, he peered down at it. It was a bracelet of some kind, made of leather, and it had been riveted closed on her bony arm. The peeling strap was threaded through a small metal plate, a bit like a dog tag. There had clearly once been words punched into the surface, but the metal was old, beaten and weathered and rusted. While most of what had been written on it was unreadable, in the upper right corner, he could barely make out the stamped letters beneath the grime: most of an A-L, what looked to be part of an I, and C-E. Alice.
“Where is your name?” she demanded suddenly.
Taken aback, Carl had been unable to immediately form a response, but as it happened, he didn’t need to. He had been, coincidentally, wearing a jacket that his nephew had gotten him from the garage where he worked, and it had his name embroidered on a patch on the front. Alice’s strange, orange eyes roved all over him, which made him more than a bit jittery, before coming to rest on his chest. She leaned forward, tilting precariously on the edge of her seat but not falling, and her smooth little forehead puckered for a moment, her mouth silently forming the consonants, before she looked up and asked, “Carl?”
Carl coughed, tossing a good-natured scowl at the snickering he heard behind him, and said, “Yes—my name’s Carl.”
Her blank little face suddenly split into an enormous smile, showing every one of her sharp white teeth. She seized his hand with her own icy fingers, her grip like iron, and nearly shook his arm out of its socket. “Carl! I am ALICE!”
And that was all they’d ever gotten out of her, even after three weeks of her showing up at the store when it rained. Just Alice. When they’d tried to ask her for her last name, she’d sorta gone blank again and said that she only had the one, showing them where it was on her bracelet as obvious proof. When Mutt had condescendingly told her that she had to have another name—everyone did—she very sincerely asked him how she could get one.
That’s all there was to Alice—no other name, and no apparent home. They’d tried to find out where she was from, how old she was, who she belonged to (or even where she’d escaped from), but they could only ever get vague rambling answers from her—about places with lots of trees where it was warmer, and swimming in rivers, about walking around for a long time, and that she’d started traveling this way looking for someone she’d seen before.
Any questions about family or friends was met with a blank stare. But she would tell them all about this mysterious person she was looking for (everything but his name, that is), and she assured them that whenever this person she was supposedly waiting for got here, then she’d be with Him, and they’d be safe from the Bad People. Oh, They weren’t after her, she explained after this statement was met with some looks of alarm, but it was best to avoid Them, she said, because if she didn’t, They might take her away and make her do Bad Things, and she didn’t want to do that, because it was Bad.
She always talked thataway—it got to be almost a game with them, asking her questions to see what she’d come up with next. Not that it was hard—if she thought you had the slightest interest in what she had to say, she’d talk your ear off. And whatever she said was bound to be crazy.
Why, only last week she’d been in here, getting out of another rainstorm, when she’d popped off with another one. Roscoe and Fred Sandige had been embroiled in their usual gin rummy game in their booth by the wall, and Alice was there. By this point, everyone was already so used to her that they had come to largely ignore her odd ways, to even regard them with a bemused sort of fondness. So it was that neither Roscoe nor Fred paid her much mind when she plonked herself down on the floor by their table to watch. She was mesmerized by Fred’s shuffling, watching with her eyes popped and her mouth open every time he riffled and bridged the cards.
There was a rumble of an engine and the crack of its backfire—Bert was here, obviously, as announced by his ancient pickup, the bed of which was filled with a large bundle beneath a tarp. The man himself came tromping into the store soon after, cursing the rain, the weather, and the world at large, but most of all what he’d found in his field that evening.
“Lost another goddamn cow,” he grunted as he filled up his cup, the pennies he threw angrily down on the counter skating everywhere. He jerked his chin out towards his pickup in response to the general sounds of commiseration from those near him. “That’s my second dead cow in as many weeks—and I can’t find no sign of disease or nothin’. It was just layin’ there, out by the trees by that creek up on the north side of my field.”
“You think maybe it could be another pack of wild dogs, like last year?” Mutt asked. He’d lost one himself earlier, and one of his best milkers, too, and so was quite as eager to find a cause for it as Bert.
Bert grunted. “Naw—them dogs tore up the cows they took down something fierce. This one is fine—maybe chewed on a little by something after it died, but I can’t see anything what would’ve killed it like that. But dammit, whatever it is, if this keeps up, I’m gonna be in real trouble.”
“Was it a brown cow with white spots and a white face?”
Everyone turned at the sudden sound of Alice’s piping voice. She was watching the talk from where she crouched on the floor with a furrow on her little forehead.
Bert scowled at her, as he was prone to do, and said, “Yeah, it was—you see what killed it, then, girly?”
Alice looked stricken. “I did that!” she said in dismay. “I didn’t know it belonged to someone!”
There was a brief instant of silence, followed by a spell of not-so-muffled snickering. Bert gave her a disbelieving look. “You killed my cow?” he asked flatly.
Alice nodded dolefully. “I ate it.”
Now the whole diner burst into full-on laughter. Bert just snorted in disgust and turned back to the counter. “You ‘ate’ his cow, hmm?” Mutt asked in amusement.
“I was hungry,” Alice said mournfully. “I did not know that the cows belonged to people.”
Carl couldn’t resist joining in at that point. “Well, missy, they do—all the cows and livestock ‘round these parts belong to people, so you’d best not eat any more of ‘em.”
Alice shook her head furiously. “Oh, I won’t!” she said, her voice earnest.
“You can eat all of them damned deer you want, though,” Roscoe tossed out with a grin. “They’re always tearin’ up the gardens.”
“Okay!” Alice nodded eagerly at everyone, and they could only laugh.
And, sure enough, the next rainy night she came in, two days afterward, she bounded over to Roscoe and proudly informed him that she didn’t eat any cows, but that she ate a deer, just as he’d said to. Roscoe had snorted, but had told her she was a good girl, and was still so amused by her obvious delight that he ended up agreeing to teach her how to shuffle.
She’d picked it up pretty quickly, too—although not without a typically Alice mishap. First time she tried the bridge, she’d sent the cards spraying up in the air. Roscoe had shouted with laughter, but Alice was damn near hypnotized, her jaw slack and her eyes darting wildly around as the cards rained down all over her—to the point that Roscoe had had to nudge her out of her odd little trance to get her to pick them up.
She’d finally got it down in the end, and sat for nearly a good half hour playing with the greasy old deck, totally absorbed in her new skill, shuffling over and over and never seeming to tire of it. She only stopped when she was suddenly hit by one of her spells.
Alice was never quite right even at the best of times, but every now and again she’d sort of…seize up. Her head would list to the side and her mouth would fall open and she’d go half cock-eyed. It’d come on so sudden that she’d even stop mid-sentence, freezing where she was to stare off into nothing, going from seeming just a bit loopy to looking like a shoe-in for the booby hatch.
But she’d snap out of it soon enough, returning to her strange little self as quickly as her spell had come on, and after making an announcement about the changing weather or the fact that whoever she was waiting for wasn’t coming that night, she’d just sort of wander off.
Sure enough, as the rain had begun to taper off that evening, Alice locked up for a bit before announcing that the rain was stopping and, leaving the messy pile of half-shuffled cards where they were, slid out of her seat and started to head out the door.
Paul was a good guy—he had two girls of his own, and the youngest was somewhere near Alice’s age (or best they could figure what her age was). Carl guessed that Alice’s nonsense talk about eating animals must’ve got him somewhere in his gut, because before she made it out the door, he’d called, “Alice, honey?”
She spun on her heel to face him, one foot still extended mid-stride, half in and half out the door. “I’ve got a big pile of dirty dishes back here,” he told her kindly. “Why don’t you come and wash ‘em for me, and then you can get something to eat?”
Alice blinked for a moment, and then an excited grin slashed across her face. “Yes!” she tweeted, and zipped across the room, the door slamming shut behind her. Paul directed her behind the counter and into the washroom, and Carl and Roscoe had shared amused looks at the sound of Paul’s voice getting progressively more and more exasperated as he tried to explain to Alice what she was supposed to be doing, since she clearly hadn’t a clue.
Paul finally came out to the counter, frustration and amusement warring on his face. From the racket coming from the washroom, it sounded like Alice had finally figured things out. She’d surprised them all with the speed that she’d finished, too. Barely ten minutes later, she’d come floating back out, soaked to the bone and with suds in her hair, but she looked as though she’d had the time of her life.
Paul had peered dubiously into the washroom, but had turned around again exclaiming in genuine surprise over what an excellent job she’d done, and she smiled hugely back at him. She happily bounced around the counter and onto the stool where Paul directed her, and he picked up his pad and leaned over and asked kindly, “Now—what can I get you?”
Alice had stared uncomprehendingly. “You washed all those dishes, Alice—now you can get something for yourself,” he prompted.
Her mouth dropped open, her expression one of unrestrained wonder. “Really?” she gasped. Paul nodded. “Anything?” she asked, and he nodded again.
And then she was off like a shot. Paul just stared, his pad still in his hand and his pencil poised above it, as she hurdled across the store, rummaged on the shelf by the far wall, and came skittering back. She leapt up on her stool, and on the counter she set a brand new deck of red Bicycles, still wrapped in cellophane. “I want that!” she announced, beaming.
Paul gave Carl a long-suffering look (he was hard-pressed not to burst out laughing) before pinching the bridge of his nose and saying, “I meant something for you to eat, Alice.”
“Oh—but I’m not hungry!” she told him sincerely. “I ate a deer.” Then her little face fell. “Does that mean I have to put them back?”
Paul looked up at her crestfallen expression and sighed tiredly, shaking his head. “No, no—if that’s what you want, then you can have ‘em.”
Her face lit up like the sun. “Thank you!” she trilled. “When He gets here, I can show Him how to shuffle!” Then her eyes went wide. “Oooh!” she squeaked, and went flying across the room, only to return with one of those silly collectible thimbles with the state flag on it. “If I wash some more, can I have this too?”
Blowing a breath through his nose, Paul smiled thinly and said, “You know what—you washed plenty of dishes tonight—why don’t you just take ‘em both.”
Alice had looked as though she’d just been given a million dollars. “Oh, thank you!” she’d squealed, beaming, and she scooped up her prizes, tucked them away somewhere in the tatters of her clothes, and turned around and scampered right out the door.
Carl shook his head, his thoughts of Alice prompting him to look ‘round for her. The weather was certainly horrible enough for her to be inside, waiting it out, but she was nowhere to be found—tonight there was only Paul, himself, and that pale, dubious-looking character slouched over in the corner. That being the case, he settled down on the stool near to where Paul was now puzzling over the crossword (he was terrible at them, but he doggedly tried to work them every day). Carl eyed the front page sitting forlornly on the counter beside him—he still couldn’t get over Truman getting elected again, but all in all he wasn’t much interested in what was going on in the world and so let the paper be.
“THERE you are!”
Even used to Alice’s dramatic entrances as he was, Carl jumped at the sudden sound of the door slamming open and her excited shout—but that was nothing compared to the reaction of the man sitting in the corner. He literally—literally—leapt clean out of his seat, splashing his coffee all over the table as his cup went flying, wildly scrambling backwards in terror until he was pressed tight up against the glass of the window behind him.
Carl blinked in surprise at the tableau playing out in front of him, of tiny little Alice, her face alight like a kid’s at Christmas, as she vaulted across the floor towards the strange man, who’s bloodless face had the look of a rabbit in a snare.
“You are here!” Alice was babbling as she charged toward him, her arms waving. “You are late—I have been waiting a long time, but I knew you would be here, but you kept going other places, and that one time They almost got you, and They would have if you had gone the other way at the green sign, but you didn’t and I saw it and I found you and now you are here!”
“What?” he gasped, his eyes darting wildly around, looking for escape, his breath coming in panicked pants. “What? What do you want—who are you?!”
Beaming, Alice thrust her arm out as she always did to introduce herself; in the split second that she did, the stranger’s eyes went wide—and he seized her arm and twisted it around her back, jerking it up high and tight even as his other hand flew up to clench around her neck.
“Hey!” Carl rose furiously out of his seat, and he heard Paul’s angry exclamation behind him at the sight of this bastard twisting poor little Alice’s arm. “You get your hands off her—there’s no cause to be treating a little girl like that, you—”
The stranger looked up, and Carl stopped in his tracks, his mouth going dry as he was suddenly pinned in place by his gaze, by his eyes, those wide, burning eyes, and he swallowed reflexively but forced his knees to unlock, because no matter how he looked, Carl wasn’t going to let him treat that girl that way—
The tension in his shoulders relaxed. In all honestly, Alice didn’t look the least bit perturbed—she was still grinning like a loon, hopping on her toes and trying to look over her shoulder at the fellow. Carl scratched his head; hadn’t he been taken aback when Alice “introduced” herself to him, too? Hell, Bert said that he as often as not wanted to shake her when she would go off on her latest bit of craziness. There was no need to get quite so wound up, not really.
He sat back down on his stool and gave Paul a careless smile, which he returned. Carl let his eyes rove languidly over the room, only listening to what was going on in the corner with half an ear. Certainly wasn’t paying enough attention to hear the tightly whispered words of the stranger—but there was no way he couldn’t hear Alice’s answers, what with how her discordant little voice was always set at one volume.
“I am ALICE!” she was saying, squirming beneath his hands, flopping her arm against his grip. “There—under your hand—my name!”
The man said something in her ear, no mean feat with the way she kept craning her neck back at him, and she said in response, “No one—I saw you!”
The man jerked her arm, making her jump where she stood as the force of it nearly lifted her off the ground, and Carl’s brow furrowed—that didn’t seem right. The man said something else, and Alice shook her head. “Oh, no—you’re here, and there are Carl and Paul—” she looked over in their direction and smiled happily, “—and sometimes there is Mutt and Roscoe and Fred and Bert—”
The man bit out something to her, sounding angry, and she cocked her head, listening, and sudden comprehension washed over her features, and she shook her head, informing him that, “Oh, no, there aren’t any others like us—”
She didn’t get to finish; her captor clapped his hand over her mouth and snarled, “Quiet!” Carl looked at Paul—this wasn’t right, he shouldn’t be doing that, and Carl started to get up again, and the stranger’s eyes flashed his way…and Carl sat back down, grinning lazily at Paul…this was all kind of funny, now that he thought about it. He reckoned it was really only a matter of time before goofy little Alice managed to get on somebody’s nerves.
“Look,” the man was saying quietly, his voice tight. “Why don’t we go…outside, and talk about this.”
“Okay!” said Alice cheerily.
He released her, his body tensed as though to spring, but Alice only whirled around and held up her little wrist. “See?” she demanded, showing him her bracelet. “I am ALICE!”
The man flinched backwards when her arm came up, and he stared at her a moment more before flicking his eyes quickly down to her arm and back to her face…and then back down to her wrist again to read what was on her bracelet. Carl could see a confounded look slowly creeping onto his face, and he couldn’t help but snort at the sight.
“Where is your name?” she was asking eagerly.
“You know this fella, Alice?” Paul was blinking rapidly, as if trying to stay awake.
Alice nodded, grinning hugely as she pranced wildly about in the space between the man and the counter. “I was waiting for him, and now he’s here, and we are going to go places and see things!” she burbled.
Carl shook himself a little. “You know this little lady?” he asked the man, feeling that he should, even though he was having a little trouble remembering why.
The man was just staring at Alice, who was dancing all around him on her toes. “I’ve never seen her before in my life,” he said, his drawling voice a study in confusion.
Paul scratched his head. “Well, we were hoping you might know her—she’s been in here for the past three weeks sayin’ she was waiting for someone—” here he stopped and squinted a little at the man, looking a bit befuddled and vaguely surprised. “Someone with yellow hair and a long coat, actually.”
Fear flashed on the man’s face, and Carl couldn’t help but think this was all a bit off, something was fishy about this whole deal, and his eyebrows drew together. “Alice, if this guy doesn’t know you, he may not be the one you think you’re waiting for—maybe you shouldn’t—”
“Oh, no! He is!” Alice interrupted him, her face intense as she came to an abrupt halt in front of where he sat. “I’ve seen him!” she insisted.
Carl thought he should protest…but for some reason, it didn’t seem so important now. “Well, okay,” he agreed, slouching back onto his stool.
Alice beamed. “Yes! We are going!” she crowed. “Goodbye!” She skittered across the floor and seized first Paul’s and then Carl’s hand for one of her wildly enthusiastic handshakes. “And tell Bert and Roscoe and all of my friends goodbye for me!” She grinned fit to split her face at the stranger, who was still just staring at her, clearly baffled by this display. “We are going now!” she said to Carl, her freezing grip tight on his hand—and her fingers and her face went suddenly slack, her head lolling to the side as she stared off into nothing.
Carl flicked his gaze over to whoever that was she was going off with; his alarm was now warring with the confusion that Alice always seemed to generate—and the confusion seemed to be winning the fight. “Oh!” she said suddenly, and Carl returned his gaze to Alice to see that she was snapped out of it. “And you will go too—but you will have to go the other way, because the rain is going to make that that big tree fall down by the bridge so you can’t go that way,” she said with a shake of her head, her face serious.
But she was all smiles again just as quick, and she released his hand to scamper back to the other man’s side where she bounced excitedly on the balls of her feet; he was starting to look less afraid for his life and more afraid of being bitten.
“Well, then, you—you take care, Alice,” Paul said, and Carl easily seconded the wish, and she nodded, still beaming and waving wildly even as her mysterious companion took her firmly by the arm and marched her towards the door and out into the slowing rain.
The two sat in silence for a while after that, nothing much to say between them. Paul finally moved from where he had been slumped, staring sightlessly at his mostly empty crossword. He looked up, at the door where they left. “I…I hope she’s all right,” he said uncertainly.
Carl squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them wide, trying to shake off the peculiar lethargy that had kept him in his seat. “I—yeah,” he said at last. “She—she seemed to know him.”
“I dunno,” Paul said, coming around the counter with a rag to wipe up the spilled coffee on the table; his movements were oddly sluggish as he went. “That guy seemed…a bit seedy.”
Carl remembered those strangely glittering eyes, and shuddered reflexively. “Yeah—but Alice is none too normal either,” he said, trying to lighten the mood and to forget those eyes—and his discomfort over the way he’d just sort of…folded up in the face of them.
Carl didn’t stay long after that, simply finished up his coffee and left, since the rain was letting up. He thought about Alice on the drive home—he did hope that she would be okay. Strange though she was, she was also sweet. You couldn’t help but like her—once you got over the crazy things she did. He really hoped things turned out all right for her—and he particularly hoped she found a place to live, he reflected ruefully as he turned his car around by the bridge over the creek. The freshly uprooted old pine that was blocking his way home was nearly ten miles away from the diner. The poor thing must have been wandering out here all by herself in the middle of nowhere and in the rain to have seen it—how else could she have known that it had fallen down?
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