Alice Celebrates a Birthday

I.

 

Alice Liddell felt boxed in. “In this body, in this town, in this goddamn head of mine,” she said, eating the previous night’s birthday cake for breakfast.

“That doesn’t sound very promising, dear,” Alice’s mother said, sipping loudly from a teacup and eyeing a crossword puzzle.

“Well, it’s not supposed to sound promising. It’s supposed to sound depressing. I am depressed, you know.”

Alice’s mother looked up.

“Can you please stop with that? You are not depressed. You just had a lovely party yesterday. I think you’re just bored is all. I tell you to get out of the house, pick at the garden, make some art. The nice kind of art, that is.”

Alice’s mother watched Alice poke at the cake crumbs as two of Alice’s brothers skated through the kitchen and out into the backyard, laughing.

“If you really insist,” her mother said, “I could call Dr. Patel. I could make an appointment for you.”

“Dr. Patel? You can’t be serious. That man is probably dead by now,” Alice said. “And I’m not really depressed, mother. Not like before. It’s just this place.”

“I’m sure the man isn’t dead. Don’t be so morbid. Indians live a very long time. And he’s a bright man. Maybe he can help you feel less like”—and she paused, considered how it would feel to be boxed in, to feel trapped—“less like parcel post,” she said.

“Parcel post?” Alice laughed. “What does that even mean? I am not a piece of mail, Lorina.”

“Please don’t call me Lorina, Alice. I’m your mother for Christ’s sake.”

“And you’ve really got to be kidding me with Dr. Patel. I’m not you, mother. I don’t need a man to tell me how to feel,” Alice said.

“Alice, can you not? I hate when you get like this,” her mother said. “I don’t know what has gotten into you. Always so negative. Always so difficult.”

 

II.

 

“It’s always been difficult with Alice,” Lorina Liddell told her brother over the phone. “You remember when she was young.”

“Of course I remember,” her brother said.

“With that wonderland of hers. All the―All of the―” She searched for the words.

“I know, Lorina. I can sympathize. Alice can be a handful. We all know that. But she’s grown now. She’ll need to start taking responsibility for herself. Try to understand her mind doesn’t work like a normal mind works, but she is plenty capable. She just needs some support.”

“I’ve been the only one supporting her. I don’t think anyone understands how bad it really is. I’m at my wit’s end,” Lorina snapped.

“Are you forgetting your husband?”

“Well, Henry, too, yes―Can you keep it down? I’m on the phone,” she screamed at one of the children, covering the phone’s receiver.

“I’m not saying you’re not supportive,” her brother said. “I’m just saying that someone with Alice’s condition needs stability. Some routine. Maybe that little party she had wasn’t the best thing for her.”

“It just gets so infuriating at times,” Lorina said softly, nearly whispering into the phone’s mouthpiece. “And she’s getting depressed, she tells me. Depressed. It’s so up and down with her, and it’s taking a toll on me, you know. One week she’s―dare I say―normal, and the next, she’s locked herself in her room, like some Flowers in the Attic madness. No wonder she feels trapped.”

“Is that what she said?” her brother asked. “She feels trapped?”

“Yes. Trapped. And she’s doing it to herself. She’s doing weird stuff, too. The school counselor called me in because of some drawings she made. Gruesome little pieces. But I didn’t make a big deal of it and we still had her little party. The things I do for that girl. It was us here, Henry’s sister, his friend Charles, Alice’s cousins. Even that Mary Badcock I told you about. The one who spread the rumor about Alice being―what’s it called?―when they have both parts. Anyway, it was a lovely little party we had, and still you should have seen the way she was acting. Like it was inconveniencing her. And, David, you probably wouldn’t even recognize her, honestly. I couldn’t even tell you what the poor thing weighs now. I should send a photo.”

“Now you’re just being awful,” David said.

“I’m trying to be honest. Henry won’t listen when I talk to him. He’s too busy thinking about his prestigious university. He should’ve married that damn school.”

“Well, have you considered coming back to England?” her brother asked. It was the question that ended most of their conversations.

“You know I can’t do that. Henry would never allow it. But you know what, maybe we’ll plan to come over for the holidays. That will be all right, won’t it?

“That would be great, Lor. I’m sure the kids would love to see you.”

“Oh, I bet they’ve gotten so big. You should see my litter now. But, David, I really have to go. Give Kathryn my love, will you?”

 

III.

 

Alice sat in her room with Bayard, a droopy-eared, droopy-eyed bloodhound, with Alice rubbing the dog’s head furiously with her knuckles, and Bayard groaning softly, pushing into Alice’s fist. Bayard was nearly twelve years old, with rusty-gate joints and crusty eyes, but still just as lovable as ever.

Alice remembered Bayard as a puppy, the day her father brought him home after work, not too many days after her cat Cheshire was run over by one of the Tweedle boys.

“You’re so old now, Baynie, but still just so cute,” Alice said. “When you die, I’m going to make you into a backpack. Sew your front right paw to your back right paw”―here, she cupped one paw gently in her hand―“and your left front to the left back. Take out all your insides and put a zipper right where your spine is now.”

Alice kissed the top of Bayard’s head and wiped a strand of gray hair from her lips.

“OK, baby. How about we call it an early night? What do you say to some music? How does that sound?”

With that, Alice put on one of her dad’s dusty rock records―Pink Floyd’s Meddle―and crawled across the room to her corduroy purse. She removed a handful of items and placed them on her lap. She considered the flowers for a moment. She had a small bundle. Beautiful petals of pink and white forming some of the most elegant miniature umbrellas. How stunning the intricacy of nature, she thought, and she recalled how her mother warned her about them as a child.

“They may be pretty,” Lorina had said earnestly, “but they can make you very very sick. They can kill a girl your size. You stay away from them, you here? If you see any more in the garden, you don’t touch them.”

Alice grabbed another bag within her purse and began packing a cork pipe with marijuana. She considered this a small birthday gift to herself. Of course, it was not her real birthday, an after-birthday present perhaps, or an un-birthday gift of sorts. And it was still within her birthday week. A Sunday evening. Girls she knew from school always extended their birthdays at least one extra day. There was no reason she couldn’t as well.

Alice clicked the lighter and exhaled the smoke into a rusty fan, which dispelled the smoke out the window and into the backyard. She then took another small hit, lifted one of Bayard’s silky ears, and whistled a coil of smoke into it. His ear twitched hurriedly and he squinted his eyes, but the dog didn’t move otherwise. Alice had heard that this was the easiest way to get dogs high. Blowing smoke into the ear canal. But Bayard didn’t react much aside from the twitching ear, and shortly after, side-eyeing Alice and wiggling his chin deeper into his doggy bed.

“Alice,” Lorina called from across the house. “You left your laundry in the washer. Alice,” she called again. “It smells terrible in here.”

Alice patted the contents of her pipe with the bottom of the lighter. She quickly stood and grabbed a perfume bottle from atop her dresser and christened the room with the scent of oleanders.

“Alice,” her mother called again.

“Can you just run it again?” she yelled through her door. “I don’t feel good.”

“You never feel good,” her mother said.

Alice gathered her pipe and baggies and re-zipped her purse, throwing it in the corner of the room. Then, as side-A of the record neared a close, she flopped herself between an assortment of pillows and let her mind wander.

All in the golden afternoon, she thought.

 

IV.

 

Dr. Patel needed to be certain―absolutely positive―about Alice’s condition before even hinting at it. But he was so conflicted. It was too extreme of a diagnosis, wasn’t it? She was just a girl. Sure, Alice had a collection of issues, but which one of his patients didn’t?

We could see about lithium, he thought. Pair it with an antidepressant and see how that works.

The doctor slumped in his swivel chair. His eyes ran left to right as he read the notes, attempting to relive it in his brain.

If only he taped his sessions.

Would Mrs. Liddell sign off on that? It really wasn’t that out of the ordinary. But what if she questioned it? Would it be unethical to tape Alice’s sessions without permission?

Dr. Patel sighed deep and long, puffing his cheeks freckled with thick, dark stubble. How could he, from memory alone, be confident Alice was willingly trying to manipulate him? Memory wasn’t always reliable. He knew that. Sure, his notes were detailed enough, but there was no way to successfully recall the subtle queues, the slight changes in Alice’s posture he rushed to scribbled down, her mirroring mannerism, like Alice knew how it all worked. A little girl, so blond and blue-eyed, it was almost painful.

Dr. Patel tapped his notebook with a pencil, thinking, gently poking the individual words of the last two lines in his notes with the eraser-end. He read to himself: Has she consciously manipulated her mother to become an unwitting accomplice to her delusions? What about her father? Peers?

He circled the last selection, written quickly and sloppily, as if it was an afterthought. It read: Absent of empathy?

He paused for a moment and then continued tapping his pencil, thinking, worrying.

 

V.

 

Henry Liddell was the one to answer the doors when the Tweedle twins came to confess about Cheshire. They were both shaking, with Dee, the one driving at the time, talking rapidly, apologizing, looking for guidance on what to do next. As soon as Henry realized what the two were blabbering on about, he ran into the street to see what hope was left, but the gore paralyzed the poor man. He fell to his knees and placed his hand atop the concave face of his beloved friend.

Alice was in the front room, peering through the blinds, watching her father fight back tears as he tried to pry the story from the boys, and later, pry the cat from the wet road.

Alice was the only one who knew the real story.

She had been in the garden, with Cheshire on her lap. She squeezed his head and pressed his ears back, giggling at how silly cats look with no ears. She was laughing, hiding the ears under small hands, pushing hard into his skull. In a flash, Cheshire snapped at Alice and hurled himself from the patio furniture.

“You little shit,” Alice yelped, looking at the indentation of teeth on the back of her hand.

She stood and roamed the garden, trying to corner the cat and gather him back into her arms, but Cheshire swung his paw as she bent down. A small slice of skin rose on the ball of her wrist.

Alice chased the cat behind the tool shed and cornered him where the two fences met. She decided her foot was a safer bet to lock the cat in place, with her black boots and thick stockings as armor. She placed the toe of her boot on the cat’s neck.

“You think you can just bite me? Think clawing me is OK? You made me bleed, Cheshire. I don’t think I deserved that, do you?” Alice pressed hard on the animal. “I am your owner. I own you, Cheshire. I saved you from the pound, and you just think you can scratch and nip at me, do you?” She gave one last forceful push into the cat, one last umph to make her point.

Let the cat sulk the rest of the day, she thought. Give him a taste of his own medicine. But there was no umph. Just a soft and hollow crack. The brittle collapse of cervical bones.

Alice cursed. One absentminded “Fuck.”

It felt good to let the word free from her mind, as if it was there all day. She repeated the word and breathed deep. But what was she going to do now? The cat had been old, but not old enough to just keel over. “Fuck,” she said again, louder, taking a seat next to the motionless feline.

Alice sat up against the shed and slammed her head into it. She kicked the cat in frustration and cried, not because her best friend was dead, but because she didn’t want to get in trouble. She didn’t want to get caught. She didn’t want to have to tell her parents. She didn’t want to be blamed, because it had been the cat’s doing after all, acting up the way it was.

Alice considered screaming and acting as if she stumbled upon the cat’s corpse. But after some careful consideration, she decided it would be better to hide the evidence and play dumb. Alice’s mother was napping, her father was making himself a sandwich, and her siblings were somewhere in the house, so digging a hole on the Liddell property right then was out of the question. Besides, the grass wouldn’t grow over quick enough. She could bury the cat by the tomatoes, but she didn’t want to stain her white dress. It was her favorite.

Alive decided to take Cheshire off-site, to the wooded area by the neighborhood park, and just leave it there for the other animals to nibble at. But she couldn’t just walk freely with a dead cat in her arms. She needed a covering.

Alice walked back into the house from behind the shed, looking disinterested and nonchalant, making her way to the garage.

“What are you looking for?” her dad asked from the kitchen.

“Remember my backpack from last year?” she said quickly.

“Oh,” he said, continuing to slice a cucumber. “No, I don’t think so.”

Back outside, Alice shoveled the cat into the purple backpack she pulled from the garage. She gave one last glimpse at the house and made her way to the gate. When she strolled into the front hard, holding the backpack like a purse, her heart jumped at the passing of a teal minivan. How easy it would be to get caught in the daytime, she thought. She wondered if there was enough time to lay low before dusk.

The driver of the minivan waved at Alice, and Alice involuntarily waved back, lifting the bag that concealed the dead cat. She smiled as an idea swam through her brain and splashed a brilliant splash.

“Perfect,” she said aloud to herself.

Alice waited five minutes or so, sweating and blotting her head with her arm when she heard the music. She knew right away the vehicle. She knew right away who was inside. Those pieces of shit Tweedle boys. Those fat bullies.

Alice crawled to the corner of the property where there was a six-inch gap in the hedges. Here, she tipped the backpack upside down, shaking the cat free, where it peacefully plopped on the grass. The music grew louder. They were close. She one, two three, tossed the cat into the road and ran back through the gate, staying low. She regretted not being able to watch it happen, but better safe than sorry, she figured.

Alice walked in the back door and watched her dad biting into his sandwich.

She scrunched her face at him and said, “I’m bored, Daddy.”

Her dad shrugged his shoulders and continued chewing open-mouthed.

 

VI.

 

“Hello,” Lorina said, perching the phone between her head and shoulder, reaching into the oven to remove the baking sheet.

“Good evening,” a deep voice said. “This is Dr. Patel. I am looking for Mrs. Liddell please.”

“Oh, Dr. Patel. Please, Lorina is perfectly fine. How may I help you?”

Lorina placed the baking sheet on top of the stove to cool. She took off the oven mitt and puffed her hair, as if the man on the line was able to see her in her current state of unkempt domesticity.

“Alice missed her appointment today,” he said. “I just wanted to call and make sure everything was OK.”

“Oh, yes. I meant to call. Alice seems to be getting better every day and she requested to take break from therapy in order to concentrate on her schooling. Even one hour a week takes a lot out of her with the new curriculum at the private school and all.”

“Mrs. Liddell, I am a psychiatrist, not a therapist.”

“I see,” she said.

“I’ll need to see Alice a few more times before I can solidify a diagnosis, and I will want to prescribe her medications. The state in which you are viewing your daughter is a manic state. She seems happy, content. She seems fine. But I can assure you―” He paused. “Look, Alice needs a doctor’s supervision,” he continued, “and Alice will require a professional to monitor her med―”

“Dr. Patel, I’m sorry to cut you off, but I am in the middle of baking and I’m afraid the biscuits are burning on the sheet as we speak. I need to spoon them off to cool, but it’s difficult with the phone pressed so awkwardly against my ear.”

“Mrs. Liddell, your daughter’s wellbeing is of the utmost importance. If she doesn’t continue her sessions, she could be in great danger to herself or others,” the voice said.

“Alice is just a child,” Lorina said, swallowing a laugh.

“If Alice would prefer another doctor, maybe a female doctor, I’d be happy to recommend one.”

“Oh dear. These biscuits are going to be charcoal. I hate to be so rude, doctor, but I will call you back. What time is it now? OK. I can―”

“Mrs. Liddell.”

“―call you in an hour or two. Yes?”

“Lorina,” the man bellowed.

“I hate to be so rude, but I really have to go. The biscuits, doctor.”

And she hung up the phone, without waiting for a response.

“Hmm,” she said to no one, poking at the top of the cookies.

 

 

VII.

 

On the Monday after Alice’s birthday, the school erupted with rumors about Mary Badcock. She hadn’t come home Saturday night, but the consensus was she had run away with an older friend of hers. The students had yet to suspect foul play, but it was still early in the week.

Many students were interviewed that Monday, but Alice wouldn’t be talked to until that Thursday. Nothing would come out of the conversation anyway. None of the student’s knew Mary attended Alice’s party. None of the students knew Alice even had a party. The ones who received the invitation quickly discarded it from their minds after throwing the gaudy thing in the garbage. And Mary certainly wouldn’t have told her friends she went. She’d never live it down. And although her mother had convinced her to go, Mary’s mother assumed Mary was going to lie about it and go do what Mary always did, which her mother guessed to be smoking cigarettes and courting boys to god-knows-where. Those are the things she heard.

Eventually, Mrs. Badcock did call the Liddell residence.

“Oh my gosh,” Lorina said. “Missing?”

Lorina confirmed Mary’s attendance, but she was believed to have left before they even sang Happy Birthday.

“I remember seeing her early on, happy that at least one of Alice’s friends showed up. But to be honest with you, Mary did she seem out of sorts, like she was forced to be somewhere she didn’t want to be. And frankly, I don’t blame her. That’s kind of how I felt, too. I tried to play along, but you know how it is.”

“Did she say anything about going somewhere in particular? Can you think of anything at all?” Mrs. Badcock asked.

“Oh, dear. We spoke for not a minute. A brief Nice to see you, thanks for coming is all. But I will certainly ask Alice when I see her. She’s just up in her room. Let me call her down now.”

Alice said she couldn’t recall anything out of the ordinary. Just that it was nice of her to pop by and wish her happy birthday. But if there was anything she could do, to please let her know.

During one the group interviews at school, three of Mary’s friends referenced a man she claimed to be seeing. Tillie was the first of the three to say something about him, and upon further coaxing, Elsie and Lacie confessed to hearing about the man as well.

“What the heck was his name?” one of the girls asked. They sat for a minute, thinking.

“Charles, wasn’t it? But I don’t know his last name,” Elsie said.

“Oh my god, you’re right. Charles Dodgy,” said Lacie. “Dodgy, Dodger, something like that. Remember at lunch when we laughed about it?”

“Was that the modeling guy?” Tillie asked.

“Modeling?” an officer asked, notepad in hand, propped against the wall behind the school principal.

“Yes, something about Mary becoming a model. But this was a few months ago. I really haven’t heard anything about the guy since. I don’t even know why he came to mind, honestly.”

The others agreed they hadn’t heard about the man in some time either.

When the school bell rang, the officer told the girls he would be in touch again, and if there was anything else they could remember, it could be pertinent to the investigation.

“You think that’s the man that took her? Charles Dodgy?” one of the girls asked.

“Let’s just hope she comes home soon,” the principal said solemnly.

 

VIII.

 

“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” Henry said.

“Oh, happy birthday,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Sweet Sixteen! Can you believe it, Henry?”

“Our little girl’s Sweet Sixteen,” he said. “I remember like yesterday the day you were born. Your head could fit in my palm.”

Alice’s sister, Edith, to whom she was closest, ran across the room and jumped into Alice’s arms. Her dress rustled as her sister struggled to wrap her legs around Alice’s waist.

“Happy birthday, sis,” Edith said. She fell to the floor from Alice’s loose grip.

“Thank you,” Alice moaned, hoping no one had noticed the sound of plastic inside her cotton dress. “It doesn’t feel like my birthday,” she said expertly.

“It never does,” Henry said, “but you have to milk it while you can. When you’re my age, it means even less. But when you’re sixteen, the world revolves around you.”

“I’ll be sixteen in two years, Daddy,” Edith said.

“Don’t remind me,” Henry said. “Can you both promise me you’ll stay young forever?”

“What do you think, Edith? Can we promise him that?” Alice said.

“We promise! We promise!” Edith sang, jumping up and down.

Later that afternoon, Alice and her siblings picked at the crudités as they waited for guests to arrive. Alice didn’t really want a party, but her parents were adamant.

“Sixteen is a milestone for a young lady,” her mother had said. “It’s your duty to celebrate.”

“I’d rather it just be us,” said Alice.

“Leave that anxiety for another day. You only turn sixteen once. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun.”

And so there she was, dipping a slice of bell pepper in a buttermilk-and-herb dressing, waiting for her guests. Her mother had mailed out invitations to her family, a few neighbors, and a handful of schoolmates whose addresses were scribbled in the family’s leather logbook.

“You invited people from my school?” Alice wailed when she found out.

“Just the ones I remembered. That boy who helped with the presidential poster, your friend Mary, the other girl who―”

“Mary? Mary Badcock?” Alice cried. “Why the hell would you invite Mary Badcock?”

“I thought you two were friends again?” her mother said.

The front door opened and banged hard against the wall, knocking Alice from her stupor.

“Sorry,” Harry, Alice’s oldest brother, called, too worried about the large gift box in his arms to check if the door left a mark. “Where’s my little dormouse at?”

Alice rolled her eyes and suppressed a smile.

Eventually, everyone but Lorina moved to the front room, as Lorina continued to place snacks on the table and cut a block of cheddar. Alice, as the guest of honor, took her father’s usual place on the loveseat. Within the hour, Alice’s aunt and uncle arrived with her cousin, Henry’s friend Charles Dodgson came, and Mary Badcock arrived shortly after wearing a cream-colored blouse and a blue pinafore. She carried a glittery bag by its ribbon handle and handed it off to Alice.

“Happy birthday,” she said shyly.

“Thanks, Mary,” Alice said.

In the kitchen, when her mother decided to hang her apron and greet the guests in the sitting room, Alice and Mary went into the kitchen. Mary nibbled at a cube of cheese. She thought of apologizing for all the kid stuff she and her friends started about Alice, but she didn’t want to bring it up on Alice’s birthday. No need to remind her of such trivialities on such a special day. She liked Alice, but was sometimes jealous of how much her family seemed to love her. Mary didn’t get the attention she wanted outside of school. At home, she was just another body moving through the estate.

“Let me fix you a drink,” Alice said.

Mary covered her mouth, chewing hurriedly, and mumbled her thanks.

As Alice poured lavender lemonade from a glass pitcher, Mary asked about the powder room, and Alice pointed down the hall. Alice slipped the hand she used to point into her dress pocket and pulled out the plastic bag she had been hiding since that morning. She removed the pink and white flowers from the baggie and dipped them in Mary’s glass. Alice pulled a wooden muddler from the drawer at her hip and pressed the flowers to the bottom of the glass. She poked and twisted, crushing the stems and tearing the fragile petals into small bits.

Alice wiped the muddler with a dish towel. She then used a silver stirrer to swirl the drink into a tiny tornado. After six quick whisks, she removed as much of the flower as she could, discarding the compost along with the bag in which the flowers were held.

Alice jumped as two big hands gripped her shoulders from behind. Her father leaned over and kissed her rosy cheek.

“Sixteen years old. My sweet Alice,” he said.

“Yep,” Alice said. “The big one-six.”

Shortly after, Mary walked back into the kitchen, followed by Alice’s mother.

“All right now,” Lorina said. “Why is everyone still in the house? Let’s play some games in the yard, shall we?”

“It’s too hot outside,” Alice said. “You’re going to make everyone all sweaty. We’re fine in here.”

“We can set up badminton,” her father said.

“When are we going to do cake?” one of Alice’s sisters asked, opening the refrigerator door.

“Not for a bit, dear,” her mother said. “Well, I for one am going to park my behind outside and get some sunshine.”

“Oh, Mary, your drink,” Alice said, as if she had forgotten, and Alice carefully handed Mary the slippery glass. “With real bits of lavender,” she said.

Mary took a sip.

“I adore lavender lemonade,” she said. “It’s absolutely perfect in this kind of weather. You don’t want to sit outside?”

“Maybe in a bit,” Alice said. “I’ll catch up with you in a little.”

“All in the golden afternoon,” Mary said.

“Full leisurely we glide,” said Alice, chuckling.

Alice shimmered her way into the sitting room. Mary stepped into the back yard.

 

Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out and children’s picture book Uma the Umbrella. His work can be found in Maudlin House, The Los Angeles Review, Potluck, Sundog Lit, and others.

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