He was making hats again. He favoured top hats above all others and made as many as he could with whatever cloth he could get. He had two of silk (one in lime green and one in inky black), three made of flannel and half a dozen others fashioned out of coloured and patterned paper. His favourite one among them was perched atop his head at a jaunty angle: an elegant top hat in plum velvet with a thick ribbon of green satin around it. The square card tucked into the ribbon reading ‘10/6’ was an added quirk.
Alice pressed her palm to the cool glass as she gazed at her husband snipping away at the tartan fabric that would form his fourth hat that week. Occasionally, he paused to sip some tea from a little china cup next to him. Most of the patients in the facility were not allowed china; he had been allowed it upon merit of good behaviour.
He looked up, finally noticing her presence, and grinned broadly at her from his place, toasting her with his teacup as he doffed his velvet hat to her. Alice let out a small laugh that came out like a choked sob as she waved back to him. He had forgone his flamboyant cravat today; it was a little idiosyncrasy that the doctors had allowed him when they were convinced that he was in no danger of trying to strangle himself.
The Queen of Hearts never strangled her victims, she thought.
She stepped into the room quietly, throwing a quick smile at the orderly standing close to the door. She had become familiar with most of the orderlies from her frequent visits; among them, Jamie had become a close friend, having vested personal interest in her husband’s care.
“Hi, honey,” she smiled, putting on a cheery façade as she approached her husband. His neck looked long and bare in the absence of his cravats and ascots. It made the scar that ran across his throat all the more prominent.
“Alice, my little hero!” he exclaimed, reaching his arms out for her. “You look lovelier than the White Queen, all hair of gold and pretty as a spring posy after slaying the jabberwockies, you sweet little saviour, you! Would you like half a cup of tea?” He proffered his own china cup, which was empty.
“No, thank you,” she replied, kissing him in greeting. Wordlessly, she pressed her handbag where she had pictures of their life together: their house, their wedding photographs, their high school prom pictures, pictures of close family and friends. There was no point in showing them to him; he was too far gone at the moment to accept anything that she could tell him. “How have you been, darling?”
“Not too bad, love,” he replied. “The Queen was but a lingering shadow this week, so I had more time to work. The cards allowed me another tea party yesterday.”
“Oh, yes. They let me hold these little meetings if I behave and do what they want me to. This was just a fun party though, not a war council. The folks are quite odd in this place, but then again, we’re all mad here.” He waggled his brows at her as he rolled his eyes jokingly.
Alice chuckled, pushing down the dark irony of his words. “Who all came?” she asked.
“The Dormouse came; she likes her tea extra sweet. She’s been a little strange, a bit more docile than usual. The Cheshire Cat came for a little while and the Caterpillar complimented my hat. Old March tried to steal my walnut muffin again. He’s lucky that he makes good jokes; otherwise, I’d kick him out for stealing my muffins. I like these muffins. They’re nothing on yours, but they’re still all right, better than the wobbly blue jelly they give at lunch here.”
Alice smiled weakly at the names he had given the other residents. She knew that the Dormouse was quiet little Bethany Morris who suffered violent anxiety attacks; the Cheshire Cat was Kitty Greenfield, the compulsive kleptomaniac, and the March Hare was old wispy-haired Arthur Denning who always insisted on wearing a pair of rabbit ears with his bathrobe. She wasn’t sure who the Caterpillar was, but she would find out in time.
“That sounds like fun,” she said fondly. “I wish I could have been there.”
“I asked the cards if you could come, but they’re still letting me see you only on these particular days. I’m just glad that they let me see you at all.” He clasped her hands tightly in his. “I’d go mad if I didn’t get to see you, my Alice, I really would.”
She gave a small laugh, running her fingers through the shaggy brown hair that spilled out from under his velvet hat. He was the only man she had ever loved and she could never imagine herself feeling the same about anyone else. He was the greatest constant in her life.
Alice had always thought of love as something beautiful; she’d never known that it could hurt so much. “I miss you,” she said, gazing wistfully at the man who was her husband and yet felt like a stranger. His smile faded as his eyes grew serious. He pressed her hands, holding them more tightly.
“I’m making another hat,” he told her. “This just might be the one, my love. This just might be the one that will let us go home. I can feel it.” He held her hands to his heart, where she felt the steady thump-thump under her fingers. A strange sensation of gratitude filled her as his heart continued to beat under her hands. “I can feel it, Alice. I can feel it right here.”
Alice felt her eyes burning and buried her face in her husband’s shoulder, wrapping herself tightly around his neck. He held her, stroking her hair, and whispering soothing words like ‘it’s all right’ and ‘we’ll be home soon’. She turned her head, her nose brushing against his neck, where the scar rose like a little ridge. A tear escaped her eye as she recalled the worst night of her life, the night on which his delusion had pushed too far. He had screamed ‘Off with his head!’ and tried to decapitate himself with a kitchen knife. Leaning up, she pressed her lips against the scar that would never leave him.
“I want you to come home,” she whispered.
He drew back, holding her face between his hands. “We will be home soon, my love,” he replied, sounding so assuring that it broke her heart. “I will find a way out. Jack of Spades there,” he nodded at Jamie standing by the door, “has been very kind to me; he and the Knave of Hearts are trying to help me. The Red Queen can’t keep me locked in here forever. I’ll make a hat that will get us out, you’ll see. And then, we’ll be together again.”
Alice stroked the side of his face, her thumb lightly grazing the ugly scar that ran around the front of his neck.
“Promise?” she asked quietly.