Morning felt like it came too early. Though the artificial sun indicated it was six, I still bemoaned the night going by too quickly. My neck ached from not moving. I had been tired. After my lashing out from the day before, I was guaranteed to be exhausted. The shower did little to ease the cramped muscles. I could do with black coffee or a really strong cup of tea. Caffeine. That was all I was wishing for.
I pulled myself out of the shower and faced down the bags of clothing. Ill-fitted black suit again? Jeans with a black and white flannel? Or the cargoes and sweatshirt I ended up sleeping in on the couch last night? Sylwyn had been wearing jeans and a black t-shirt the last couple days. Maybe I could take my cue from him. Feeling like I was going to be underdressed, I tugged on the jeans and flannel combo. Pilfering the medicine cabinet mirror, I found an old jar of pomade and got my cowlick to behave itself.
I joined Sylwyn at the counter to stare at the empty box of cereal. “Are you sure about the PET scan?” He took the box and collapsed it down, folding it over and over until it would fit into the trash can.
“You said it yourself. It would be a good idea to have a starting point to work off of,” I pointed out, dropping utensils from last night back in the drawer with their counterparts.
“It’s just weird. It took me years to prepare to become a Simil. You’re doing this almost overnight with no real preparation.” He put the mugs back in the cupboard and took the plates I handed him.
“It’s not like I’m consuming a character today, Wyn. Don’t I have to find out who I want to become first, or something like that?” I dried my hands on the towel on the fridge door and grabbed up my suit jacket. “Can I treat this thing like a blazer, or is that a faux pas?”
He stared at it in confusion. “If you mean to wear over the lumberjack look, yeah, no, don’t. Different fabric if you were going to go all hipster professor.”
“I feel really underdressed.”
“I’m wearing a t-shirt.”
“With a sword. Ain’t nobody gonna say boo to that big daddy.”
“Did you-did you just call me big daddy?”
“No. I might have kinks, but it is way too early in the relationship for you to get access to any of those. Called the sword big daddy. It’s as tall as me. And freaking heavy.” I pulled on my boots and tied the laces around the ankles. “It’s a summons right? How do you keep it around?”
“Oh, no not a summons.”
“But you said it came out of a manuscript.”
“It did. I took it over to Laury to make me a physical copy.”
“Ohhhh. ‘K, that makes more sense.”
“Anyways. Characters would be something we can do later. Usually the Chair chooses a series of books and allows the Simil candidates to choose which one they want. It keeps characters from being brought out more than once,” he explained, opening the door for me.
“Why did you take the Mad Hatter?” I walked out into the hallway and turned to see his answer. The hair on my arms rose. Sylwyn’s posture shifted as the door clicked shut. The man was right, he remembered walking out of his apartment, and then his alter ego would just take over.
“A chess set today? Shall we find some tea?” Hatter asked.
“I guess I must look like a chess board, though I do believe that would be ill-advised to play around the queen of hearts. Tea sounds charming, Hatter. We have something else to do today, though.” I waved to the hallway to start us moving.
“Oh? Shall we visit with the Chair? I don’t remember leaving them yesterday. Ms Drover was cranky,” he mused.
“There are better words for Ms Drover that aren’t for polite society,” I muttered. “But no, I don’t think we need to visit with the Chair today, Hatter. Can you take me to the CT/PET specialist? Sylwyn told me that I need to have my brain scanned so that they know where their starting point is for having me become a Simil.” My stomach coiled at the idea.
“I hate that machine,” he grumbled.
“You don’t have to get in it,” I persuaded.
“All right. Do you want to recite Aristotle with me on our way?” he asked gleefully.
“Why don’t you tell me, and I can join you the next time?” I offered. It had been years since I had read Aristotle. We proceeded at a nice pace down the hall to the lines of Metaphysics.
“Here we are.” He bowed in mock humour. It had felt like a good half-hour walk down the halls before we finally found ourselves in another grey hall with another metal door. Simil knocked gently before opening it to reveal what appeared to be a regular doctor’s office.
The receptionist looked up at us, startled. “Simil! H-how can I help you?” she stuttered, wary.
I walked forward to get her attention. “It seems it would be advantageous as a prospective Simil to have a CT, PET, or MRI done of my brain.”
Her eyes swung to focus on me, and colour drained from her face. “Y-yes, I can schedule you in. I need to make a q-quick call,” she stammered. Hatter motioned me toward the seating area, and we sat down in the rather uncomfortable chairs to wait. I tried to eavesdrop on the receptionist without being blatantly obvious about it. I couldn’t tell what she said, though.
“We can get you in now,” she smiled reassuringly, her demeanour shifting from nervous to confident, but she wasn’t faking very well. Her colour had turned a mottled green. She handed me a clipboard, pen, and a medical history and release form to fill out while she scuttled to the back
“Thank you,” I said appreciatively.
Coming back in scrubs, her colour had improved. “Let’s get the IV set while we’re waiting.” She pulled out a hermetically sealed set of bags and tugged on a pair of gloves. I rolled up my sleeve and let her jab the needle into the soft spot of my elbow and tried not to flinch when she started digging. A blown vein and a second try proved successful, even if it had to be in the top of my hand. “A bit dehydrated. You need to drink more water.”
“A nurse should be with you shortly.” She left back to her desk. We sat in silence for about half an hour before a tall man in pink scrubs opened up a door to let us into the back.
“Good morning,” he greeted us pleasantly. The first nice reaction I had seen outside of Laury and the pharmacist. The Librarian Guild medical facilities were giving me some faith.
“Good morning,” I said cheerily. Hatter followed a step behind.
“We’ll need to run you through some vitals. Can I get your weight?” He motioned to a scale just inside the door. I stepped on the scale, and let him get a heart and blood pressure read. He took my temperature. Once finished, he ushered us into a regular-looking doctor’s room.
A good twenty-minute wait later and a scruffy man in a starched lab coat walked in with a clipboard. “Good morning,” he checked his clipboard once more with a furrowed brow, “I think this is wrong. Mr Thaddeus Jaegar? You’re not…”
“No, that’s right. My legal name is Thaddeus Jaegar.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, we can get that changed for your new name.” He took the cap off his pen with his teeth.
“New name? No, no this is my new name, just got it changed over the summer.”
He paused, blinked, eyebrows furrowing. “I’m gonna need you to explain.”
“Is it essential for a PET scan?”
“Need to make a note in the chart for clarification. Would help to not catch nurses by surprise if you’re looking at becoming a Simil and end up unconscious in the Guild ER needing a cathetar after a battle.”
“That is the weirdest way someone’s ever asked me what I’ve got in my pants.”
“So?” He poised his pen over the paper.
“Female to male. You’d know it if you checked my prescription. Should be on the list in your hand. I just filled it yesterday. Had the pharmacist request my medical files be sent over.”
“It’ll take thirty days to get those in. I can get you scheduled with the ob-gyn on staff for yearlies. She’ll keep your script going. Might be a bit for a gen-prac to have an opening, but as long as you don’t get Cthulu chomping your shoulder or a laser gun to the gut, you should be good otherwise. I can draw blood labs while we’re here and have a needle in you anyways and get that done for updated records. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Jaegar.” He shook my hand. “I am Dr. Edgar Munce. I’ll be administering your PET scan today. I have spoken with the Chair, and they approved the procedure. Can you run me through a family medical history?” he asked. We proceeded through a litany of questions, determining if I was at risk for going into the machine. “Simil, do you need to be here for this?” The doctor eyed the man.
“I asked him to be here for this, seeing as he’s been through it and could reassure me of the proceedings,” I spoke up. Dr. Munce frowned. “Your medical history is supposed to remain private,” he explained.
“Private with the right to tell whoever I want about whatever I want, you just aren’t. HIPPA. I’ve seen the docs enough times. It will be alright,” I reassured.
Eventually, the questions ended. He took out a paper hospital gown from the cabinet and handed it to me, along with a clear plastic bag. “Put all of your belongings in here and put this on. There needs to not be any metal in the machine, so take off what you can. Do you have any implants or dental fixtures?” he asked. I shook my head. “Alright, I’ll let you get changed, and a nurse will be in to escort you to the next room.” He flicked his pen toward the other door in the room. He opened the closer door to exit the room. “Simil?” He pinned the man with a glance that could have melted a hole through metal. Hatter exited after the doctor. I was left in the cold room, alone and asking myself why I was doing this so willingly.
Changed, and my belongings shoved in a plastic bag, I waited on the examination chair. The male nurse popped in from the other door the Dr. had pointed out and ushered me into the next room with the machine. I laid down, watched them hook up a machine to my IV line and waited for the process to be over.
In the doctor’s waiting room once more, I had changed back into my outfit, a bottle of water in hand to help clear out the contrast dye. Hatter sat quietly in the corner. He seemed deep in thought. “This is taking longer than I thought,” I spoke up if only to break the silence.
“Time is and time is not; it’s all just a thought,” Hatter’s vocal fry was rough in the room.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He looked up at me, puzzled. “No one’s ever asked me that.”
“You’ve been quiet, sitting there fidgeting. Do you not like doctor offices?” I asked.
“It is,” I agreed.
“Why are you nice to me?” He picked at the seam of his jeans.
“How so?” I had taken to asking him questions when he asked me questions.
“Back at the receptionist, and even with Dr Munce, you took over,” he speculated.
“Can I not be nice to who I want to be nice to?” I asked.
“Does it benefit you to be nice to me?”
“I’m not sure yet, but should it matter if it benefits me or not to be nice to someone?”
“Thank you,” he said. I folded my hands in my lap to not mimic his fidgeting. “Being different like this hurts after a while,” he tried to smile at me, but his lips quivered.
A knock at the door disturbed our conversation. The doctor came in, not looking very thrilled with the people clinging to him. He held a manila envelope, his body language protective over the little packet against the people. “Thaddeus, the Chair is demanding an audience and not taking no for an answer.” Following him were seven individuals in robes and masks and Ms Drover. The room was filled to bursting. Simil stood to greet the Chair. Ms Drover looked at me in horror. I was starting to wonder if that was just her resting face.
One of the individuals in robes extended a hand to me. “Ms Oppenheimer, it’s nice to see you again. It looks like you are in good health. What brought you to the doctor today?” he asked kindly.
“What brings you to my appointment?” I countered, suddenly wary.
“Simil, bind her,” Ms Drover commanded. His eyes grew large at the command, eyebrows going up.
“What’s going on?” I asked, not moving from my place. Hatter approached me and softly whispered a pair of handcuffs into existence. “Hatter?” He looked back at the Chair, pleading. They waved him on. I held out my hands to him as he slipped the metal loops around my wrists.
“You’re behaving nicely today,” one of the other Chair stated.
“Can I ask why I’m under arrest for visiting a doctor?” I asked.
“We will discuss this in a different…safer…place,” another Chair hesitated. A gag was produced from one of the Chair’s robes.
“You put that on me, and you will regret it immediately,” I hissed. The Chair handed it to Hatter. His colouration paled as he studied the red wiffle ball looking piece of equipment. “I can go with you willingly and with less disturbances if you just treat me with an inkling of respect,” I bit out between clamped teeth.
“We respect the power you wield,” the female Chair flicked thin fingers in Hatter’s direction in a bid for him to move on with his assignment.
“I signed your damn papers! At least I know I’m keeping my end of the bargain!” I shouted at them. I stood up from the chair and took the gag out of Hatter’s trembling fingers. “Where the hell are we going?” I stomped toward the door. One of the Chair moved to block my way. “Well, if I’m cooperating to go wherever the fuck you are wanting me to go, you can damn well get out of my way!”
The man reached for me. A light whisper in the chaos. A singing slash and crunch of metal cracking tile had me falling back against Hatter’s chest. One arm wrapped around my waist, and his chin rested against my head. The tip of a longsword stood between the Chair and me. “Simil?” the man growled.
“See, I told you he was acting weird.” Ms Drover pointed at us. I turned a seething eye on her.
“I’m seeing that, Ms Drover,” the female Chair responded.
“You’ve bound him as much as I’m going to let you.” Hatter’s personage was changing in front of my eyes. White gloves on his hands. An iron brown sleeve with small mother-of-pearl cuff links. I glanced up at him to catch a hint of a top hat brim. The male Chair stepped back.
Doctor Munce was shaking, a cold sweat pouring off him. “All of you! Out of my clinic! I didn’t give you permission to do this here.”
The power of a Read ran through my arms. The handcuffs cracked under a burst of extreme cold. “And that’s as much as I’m going to let you bind me.” I chucked the handcuffs out the door.
Three of the Chair leapt forward, grabbing at Hatter and myself. A torrential downpour of water suddenly soaked everyone. Snow blew into the room, dropping the temperature to negative thirty in seconds.
“Back. Off.” I enunciated, kicking and scratching to get them to let go. “Damn it, just tell me what is going on! If you want my cooperation, I work better with people if they just fucking talk to me!” I dropped the temperature in the room again. “And just to mention it, if it wasn’t already obvious, I can Read without saying anything or moving my hands, so binding me won’t benefit you anyway!” I headbutted one of the Chair. The mask cracked and fell off. A middle-aged man in a goatee stared back at me, stunned. He scrambled to grab his mask.
The Chair was having difficulty in the extreme cold. They were beginning to shake uncontrollably. “Hypothermia, do you want to feel it? I have quite a few lines from Jack London memorized,” I seethed. Finally, the last of the Chair let go of me.
“She really is a Dewey,” the last of the Chair murmured in the onslaught of frigid cold.
“That was the whole point of me coming here, bastard! I was trying to get a starting point. I was doing what I signed up for! That doesn’t mean you should harass me like this every freaking time I do something.” I pushed further into Hatter’s hold, his body warm against my back in the blizzard.
“No.” Ms Drover took the file from Doctor Munce and flicked it at me. The papers fell around me. Hatter bent to pick them up and hand them to me.
I looked at them, stunned. “Hatter,” I asked, the cold stopping as suddenly as it started. He cocked his, eyes searching back and forth across my face. “I need Sylwyn,” I whispered, my hand shaking. He leaned into me, gently kissing me.
“Deus? What’s wrong.” Sylwyn looked up, stunned to see the whole Chair in a doctor’s waiting room. I handed him one of the scans. “Why do you have my scan here?”
“That’s not yours, Wyn,” I said, knowing with that one sentence what I feared was true.
“That’s Thadddeus’s,” Doctor Munce answered. “Who are you? What happened to Simil?” he asked.
“Names Sylwyn Aetherweard, Dr. Munce. Your predecessor was the one who got me through character consumption.” He wrapped himself around me, trying to protect me in some way from the Chair.
“Who are you?” Ms Drover demanded from me.
“I’m Thaddeus Jaegar. Library studies student, part-time TA when I’m not being abducted by psychopaths,” I spat, but I wasn’t as sure of myself as I was ten minutes ago.
“Do you really not remember who you are, Dewey?” the man with the broken mask asked.
“There has to be something wrong,” I trembled.
“Who did you consume?” another Chair asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.” The shaking was getting worse. The scan had the same blossom of colour as Sylwyn’s did when he had consumed his character.
“When did this happen? Simil, did you have her take on a character yesterday without the proper procedures?” accused the female Chair.
“No. He didn’t. I don’t remember ever consuming a character. There has to be something wrong with this scan,” I handed the envelope back to Doctor Munce.
“With what you can do, I’d have to argue not. You are not Grace-Alice Oppenheimer,” the Chair that had tried to block the door said.
I swallowed, desperate for the numbing heat of panic to disburse. “Who am I then?” I whispered. The blossom of panic wrapped up my spine to strangle me. Every fibre of my being threatened to twist apart. Reads lingered at the edge of my fingertips, and I knew in that instant that I was not safe to be around. “Wyn. I can’t be here,” I gasped. I searched his face, begging him silently to fix this.
“It’s going to be okay, Deus. We’ll figure this out,” he tried to reassure me, a hand rubbing my arm.
“Where were you taking me?” I asked.
“To Unabridged,” the female Chair answered. Sylwyn cursed.
“Will it keep everyone safe?” Dizziness was creeping in around the edges of my hearing.
“You don’t want Unabridged, Deus.” Pain laced Sylwyn’s voice.
“Will it keep you safe?” I asked him once more.
“Deus,” he beseeched.
“Sylwyn…?” I was trying not to break down in front of the Chair, but my mental fortitude was just a hairs width from being completely shot. He nodded and pushed us out the door. The Chair followed behind, yelling about the gag and the handcuffs as we rushed through the halls at a fast clip. Sylwyn ignored them. Twists and turns were nauseating, and all I could do was make empty promises with my stomach, beginning it not to hurl.
We ended up at a door that looked old and rusted. It gave me the creeps. Sylwyn turned me to him. “You sure of this, Deus? What’s on the other side of that door is not a pleasant experience.”
“What is Unabridged?” I grasped at his arm, my one anchor in the rolling sea, as I turned to the Chair.
“We allow the Simil free reign. We see just what the character in full encompasses,” Ms Drover stood well back away from us, arms protectively crossed over her chest.
“They strip you bare, put you on a metal table, strap you down. Then they stick you with needles and hook them up to electrodes and some chemicals until you feel like your brain is melting and you want to die. Then you black out. When you wake up, you’re in a cold cell, rocking back and forth, feeling like you were just opened up and your skin was flayed and stretched out to be sewn up again with searing hot needles. Gives you nasty flashbacks and a fear of enclosed spaces,” Sylwyn growled at the Chair.
“It forces the repressed character to take over, in an environment that is safe to us, so that we can verify who the character is and see what powers they wield,” one of the male Chairs tried to qualify.
“It’s torture,” Sylwyn hissed.
“Did you know this was going to happen to me when I signed up to be a Simil?” I dragged in a breath and let go of Sylwyn, hand going for the door. His description scared me. The Reads at my fingertips scared me more. My emotions were always either too far on or too far off. Scared was too far on, and Reads were there to protect me. Which meant I had to protect those around me from myself.
“I had hoped to forewarn you about it before you signed the papers.” He bowed his head. I fought my terror. I swallowed, nervous. Laying my hand on the doorknob, I twisted it open.
Inside the room, around a small privacy-wall was a white-tiled chamber. A metal table sat in the middle, and operating theatre lights hung from the ceiling. A drain in the centre of the floor didn’t bode well for my opinion of the place. Machines were plugged in around the table. A small man, sitting in a chair in the corner, looked up at us, startled, his eyes locking on me. “Why is she not bound?” he practically screeched.
I glared at him. “Shut up. This is humiliating and scary enough to not have some weasel yelling at me, too,” I snapped. He rose out of his chair, rushing me. He stopped short at the tip of a levelled longsword. The man checked himself, suddenly confronted with the cotton candy clown of death in full regalia.
“Do I at least get a hospital gown or something?” I asked, staring at the table.
“No. Cold is meant to hurt,” Hatter answered.
“And this is why they pay us the big bucks. Thanks for keeping this from Wyn, Hatter.” I flipped the buttons of my shirt and shrugged out of it. Socks, pants, and compression top followed suit. Hatter helped me get unstuck from the binder I was very close to burning with hellfire in that moment.
“What are you doing? Simil!” The man hadn’t stopped yelling through this. “Chair!” He turned to the robed figures. They all had their backs to me.
“Hatter, he does anything…” I shivered in the frigid temperature and dropped the last of my clothes on the pile, and kicked them away from the floor drain.
“He won’t be the only one to die in this room.” He turned his disorienting gaze on the Chair. They flinched at his threat as I climbed up on the cold table. I sucked in my breath. The sting of the metal on my skin was just the beginning. Hatter directed the man at sword point. “Don’t abandon me,” I pleaded with Hatter as the man clamped the padded restraints on my wrists and ankles and placed electro-pads on my skin. I gritted my teeth as a series of IVs were placed in the arm that hadn’t had the vein blown out. It wasn’t bad until he proceeded to set another on the top of the hand I hadn’t had an IV in yet that day. Then he went to my feet. I really wanted to die when he set another pair in my soles. Cursing was about all I could do at that point.
When the needles were set, and I couldn’t fight my shaking anymore, Hatter floated into my teary vision, the bill of sale in his hat band wavering. “I know you don’t want this, but it will keep you from biting your tongue off.” He held out a mouth guard with a strap.
“Better than the ball,” I gulped, tears streamed down my face, and I opened my mouth. He brushed my cheek gently as he settled the mouth guard around my teeth and velcroed the closure behind my head.
The man started the machines. Various liquids dripped through the IVs around me. Fire ran under my skin in acidic waves. I felt like my skin was melting off. The IV dripped for three hundred beats before ice surged through my veins, and stars popped behind my eyes. Four hundred and eight beats, and my ears rang, and chainsaws shattered my bones. Two hundred and seventy-two beats and my vision turned to pinpricks of light, and all I could hear was the ocean. Eight hundred and three beats: a searing pain, like a million little jagged, electric knives flaying my skin ran across me, and I buckled and contorted, trying to get away from the feeling. Load after load, beat after beat, of variable pain triggered my nerve endings. Time slowed down to the drip of an IV line. I could only take it with every wave. The power built under my skin like it had the day before, but there was no outlet. I could only face the cage that was my body. The power surged as I tried to release it, to go with it. Then it all stopped, as suddenly as it started.
I was staring at the ceiling, blinking through the pain. The bleached smell of the room had been replaced with the smell of…roses and…tea. I rolled my head to see the entire room taken over with a garden. The Chair stood stunned in the room, distracted with butterflies and birds of a strange sort. A table in the corner held a menagerie of pots and teacups.
Hatter’s face swam into view as he laid my flannel across me. “Alice-Deus?” he whispered. I blinked at him. He reached over and gently removed the mouthguard.
“Hatter?” I rasped, my throat raw.
“Who are you?” The Chair asked in unison.
“Alice-Deus? It’s really you,” Simil beamed.
“Hatter, it’s always been me.” I closed my eyes against the overly bright lights. I was still trying to wrap my head around the pain I had just dealt with.
“Hatter, who is she?” The Chair asked once more.
“He is Alice-Deus,” he answered them happily.
“No, we know she is called Grace-Alice Oppenheimer. Who is she?” Ms Drover pressed.
“You are as loony as the Walrus, Ms Drover,” Simil replied. “He is Alice that I met all those years ago.” He pulled the weasel by the collar over to unstrap me and helped on the other side.
“You mean she is Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?” One of the male Chair asked, stunned.
“It’d be nice if I could have my clothes back on while we talk about this,” I mumbled.
“Why is she still talking like herself?” one of the other Chair asked while the weasel unhooked me. I hissed when the needles were removed from my feet.
“Why does that have to hurt so bloody much?” I retorted.
“Because we have to force your repressed character out. The first time a character is consumed, the brain tries to close off ties to the character. It’s to keep the mind intact as much as possible. If you can break the wall before it is built, the character can cross over more easily,” a different Chair explained.
“I thought I was supposed to black out. God, that would have been better than being awake for that experience. At least a morphine drip or something would have been polite,” I groused. I sat up and rubbed at the bruising. “I’m not gonna be able to walk for a couple of days, you heathens,” I shot at them, looking at my feet.
Hatter handed me my clothes and held his jacket out for my own privacy from the Chair.
I pulled on the bare minimum of my clothes and stuffed my undergarments in my back pocket. No way in hell was I going to try to tug or pull anything tight on. My skin felt like cactus needles were buried under every square inch of it. The Chair walked around the garden, mesmerized with the detail when they got that hint. Hatter, when he was satisfied that they were ignoring me, and I was done getting dressed, brought me a cup of tea. He sat down on the table next to me.
“Thank you,” I whispered to him. He smiled encouragingly.
“How long have you been like this, Alice?” Ms Drover finally turned and asked me.
“Thaddeus, Ms Drover. Is it so much to ask? For the life of me, please, call me Thaddeus. You know, I don’t have any memories of my parents from before I was six?” I chuckled morosely. I had to think about it. I remembered first grade. I remembered the teachers always amused with my sense of imagination. I never really thought too much about it, though. My parents had always acted a little concerned about my actions, but I thought that was normal.
“Is it possible?” One of the Chair asked another.
“Did she consume a character at such a young age?” The other responded.
“But why did she phase so late?” the female Chair asked.
“Are there others like her?” another one asked, trembling.
“He, you fucked up heathens. He. Now what? What more do you want from me today, because if you can’t respect me, my name, my pronouns, or my gender, I’m exhausted and going to go lie down somewhere that doesn’t involve needles.” I stood up, teetering on painful feet. They all turned to me.
“Now I take you home,” Hatter made it a statement.
“Simil, we must discuss your behavior!” one of the Chair stepped forward.
“Even the best of trained dogs bite, Robinson,” Hatter’s aura took over the garden in a shadow. The man withdrew a step.
“Going back to the apartment sounds nice.” I took the crook of his elbow to support my weight. My feet stung. I grabbed the laces of my boots, tied them in a knot, and slung them over my neck. I had no energy to try to pull them on. I wasn’t going to stay in that room one more second. I hoped to never see the place again.
“You need to inform Sylwyn of this,” Simil cautioned.
“Yes,” I agreed, heading for the door. One of the Chair strangled a squeaking protest. I levelled a gaze at them. “I’ll meet with you tomorrow in the testing grounds to discuss this further,” I told them as we walked out of the room.
Hatter walked me back to his apartment in silence. He spoke fhuasgladh for the door to unlock and held it open for me. Inside the room, he closed the door behind us with a click. He caught my hand, pulling me up against the wall next to the door. He pinned me, one hand pulling my waist against his roughly. He kissed me harshly, sparking fire in my lungs. Resting his forehead against mine, he drew in a ragged breath. “You are terrifying in your earnesty, Alice-Deus,” Hatter informed me. I stared up at him in a daze. My lips felt swollen, and my core trembled. He kissed me again, as his mapped my body against his. Lean strength crowded, reassured, erased the day for a moment. “Why did you do that?” He finally relenting. I braced myself against the wall, my knees shaking and threatening to cave.
“I’ve done a lot, Hatter,” I tried to catch my breath.
“Why did you allow them to Unabridge you?” he specified.
“Because it meant I controlled the situation,” I rested my arms on his shoulders, twining fingers behind his neck to put most of my weight on him. “It meant they couldn’t take away my free will.”
“You need to speak with Sylwyn, Alice-Deus,” Hatter kissed me once more. His demeaner shifted, and I knew Sylwyn was back.
He drew in a startled breath, surprised to be back in the apartment. He pulled me to him, burying his face in my hair. “Damn it all, Deus, I was so scared for you,” he sobbed. “When I saw the scans…I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that you had consumed a character already.” He picked me up and settled me at the counter stools.
“Wyn,” I held his attention. “They Unabridged me.”
“God, that had to be horrible. You’re here, though. Did the Mad Hatter watch out for you?” he asked, hopeful. I nodded, chewing on my lip. “What’s wrong? Did you find out what character you consumed?” he asked.
“That’s the thing.” I reached for him, but pulled my hand back to my lap, unable to touch him.
“What is it?” He sat next to me.
“The character never came out,” I told him.
“So, you aren’t a Simil yet? The scans were wrong?” he asked with relief.
I shook my head, and horror crossed his face. “I think it happened so long ago. I’m…I’m Alice. I’m the Alice to your Mad Hatter,” I tried explaining.
“I’m not following, Deus,” he said, confused.
“You told me yesterday of your fear,” I searched for a way to not have to say it, but came up empty, “of one day not waking up.” I rubbed at my wrists where bruises were darkening, unable to look him in the eye. He sat, stunned, unable to move. “I am what you fear,” I explained.
“You mean…you aren’t Thaddeus Jaegar?” he looked crestfallen. “For…for how long? I mean, you just Phased. It’s not like this was happening recently?” he asked. “Were you you or were you Alice when we met here or in college?” he persisted.
I shook my head. “Grace Oppenheimer must have consumed me when she was very young, when she was just learning how to read. I don’t think she ever realized what she did. I can remember growing up, from about the age of six. That’s my best guess at when I became me. My birth certificate never had Alice as part of my name. My folks called me Grace-Alice. Uncle Thaddeus called me Ally until I asked him and mom if it would be okay to go by Thaddeus,” I tried to explain. That was the best I could understand about what was going on. That had to be the explanation for why I couldn’t remember my parents before the age of six. Why I had always suspected I was adopted.
“They knew.” Stunned awe crossed his features.
“I don’t think I would have ever thought about it until today. Thought it was just them looking for a cutesy girly nickname when I was a kid.”
“But you don’t remember your story,” he chirped.
“I remember the book because I’ve read it a billion times. I’ve had dreams about Wonderland, but I always thought it was because of reading, from watching the movies.” I set my hands on the counter, leaning against it.
“Alice is a little girl though, not much beyond the age of what, eleven?” he asked.
“Have you ever watched the movie Hook?” I asked him. He nodded. “Do you remember how Peter grew up and forgot everything about Neverland?” I pressed.
“You grew up,” he mused. “But why have you never Read anything out before?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I mean, the first time it ever happened, that I can say definitively was back in the warehouse when I was sorting books. I mean, yeah, I felt like I had characters from books come to life in crowded buildings, things like that, but I wasn’t aware of actually doing anything on my own,” I guessed. “Maybe I broke the amount of energy it took to consume a character at that age, and I didn’t gain it back all at once, but it had to accumulate over time?” I mused.
“What about Mad Hatter?” he asked me. I looked at him, perplexed. “How did he take finding out that you were Alice? Was he there for you during…” he fidgeted. I blushed, my eyes glancing away from him. “Your character is supposed to be a child,” he protested.
“I’m the main character to his storyline, and he just met me all grown up,” I mumbled.
“So…you and he…” he tried to wrap his mouth around the words.
“Kissed…”I supplied, not able to look at him. He stood suddenly, chair legs grinding on the floor, and walked away from me. I followed his flight with aloof eyes, trying to fight down my feelings of being hurt. It had to hurt him too, to find out I was nothing more than a character from a book, and his character was in love just as much as he was.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Deus.” He moved across the room to the window. I sat there in silence, not sure how I was supposed to respond. This was so frustrating. “You…you’re already a Simil. There’s not much left for me to teach you.” He brushed at a few flyaways from his ponytail.
“Are you telling me to leave?” I asked, sliding out of the counter stool. He looked up at me, startled, like I had just slashed him with a knife.
“No, I-I just…” he paused, not sure what he was trying to say. It wasn’t going to do either of us any good for me to blow up right now. I wanted to grab my things and run, but the only person I would be running to right now was standing in this room.
“What do you want me to do, Sylwyn? I don’t know what I can say right now to you to make you okay with what is happening. That’s the operative word here, I guess. Making you do anything takes away your decision here. See, the thing is, even if I left here, I don’t know where I would go. I’m a Simil in a Library Guild. I can only guess that we are not well-tolerated in most places. The only place I would be running to is back here because I only know you and the Mad Hatter. I am isolated here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. If I kiss you, Hatter might come out, and if I kiss Hatter, you might come out. What do you want me to do? You told me to call you out if you’re being jealous. I don’t think that’s what happening now, but I am reminding you.” I pressed him, feeling like the remainder of my strength for the day was cracking. He walked to me. I allowed him to wrap his arms around me and sagged into him.
“I’m sorry, Deus. I’m not being fair to you.”
“We’ll figure it out, Wyn. That’s something we were always been good at doing in college. For now, I’m exhausted, and my feet are killing me.” I withdrew from his embrace. I pulled my flannel off and my shoes.
“Thaddeus Jaegar!” he exclaimed at the bruising on the bottom of my feet.
“Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled about it either.” I pulled my compression shirt over my head for the third time that day and tossed it on the counter stool, not giving one damn that I was hanging out all over the place. I walked into the bathroom, tripping over my jeans as I got them off. I turned the plug in the tub and ran hot water for a bath.
“Damn it! They need to find a better way than Unabridging someone to verify character possession,” Sylwyn hissed behind me.
I turned in the mirror to see what he saw. I had bruising across my shoulders from slamming into the metal table convulsively. I had red puckering under my skin from whatever they had injected into me. My wrists and ankles were bruised a sickening green-blue. “I can emphatically agree. I was awake for the whole thing.” I eased into the hot water. It stung my feet painfully, but as I sank into the bath, the rest of my muscles unwound.
“Seriously?” he asked, sitting on the toilet seat next to the bathtub.
“Yeah. If you are already the character, going into blackout’s not going to happen.” I closed my eyes, savouring the warmth.
He cursed. “That must have been miserable.”
“The restraints were there so that my convulsions didn’t send me off the table, ’cause that’s all my body tried to do was get away from whatever drug they put in those IV lines,” I expanded. “And yeah, brain-melting was definitely an apt description for the first couple minutes of that procedure.” I made little waves with the bubbles and water, enjoying the texture. “At least I didn’t bite my tongue off.”
“What?” Sylwyn didn’t quite hear me.
“Hatter gagged me to keep from biting my tongue off.” I motioned to my teeth.
“He what!” Sylwyn came off the toilet, furious.
“Mouthguard with a strap to keep me from spitting it out so that I wouldn’t bite my tongue,” I soothed.
“What if you had puked? Some people puke when they’re in too much pain.” Sylwyn wasn’t sure what to do with the tiny space. There wasn’t enough room to pace.
“Didn’t think about that at that point; I just wanted my teeth to stop chattering and grinding.” I slid further into the tub, my knees exposed and cold.
Sylwyn slumped back to his seat, burying his head in his hands. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the one there for you, Deus,” he apologized.
I laid my hand on his leg. “Hatter, I think he took over, so you wouldn’t experience that. I’m alive, and we have answers to our questions. It’ll work itself out in the end. I scheduled with the Chair to have them at the testing arena tomorrow. Hopefully, I can get them to figure out exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here, outside of being harassed,” I tried to reassure him.
He took my hand and brought it up to his lips, his eyes shifting back and forth across my face. “Said I’d date you, Deus, didn’t know I was bargaining for my heart to stop every time you got an idea in your head.”
“And it’s only been a day, and you’re already dealing with me taking over the bathtub.” I tried for levity.
“This how you’re going to always address pain?”
“Meh, it’s what I do to get through heart-attack level cramps, so yeah, probably.”
“Those don’t happen as often now I’m on T.”
“Thaddeus Jaegar, how did you not just outright kill the Chair today? I feel like it would have been the most valid reason for you to have completely slaughtered them.”
“I agreed to Unabridging because I feared I would, and I didn’t want to take you out with them by accident.”
“Yo, bastard, I thought we made an arrangement that you weren’t going to hurt yourself trying to make me happy.”
“My happiness would have gone down the drain if you got taken out, so I valued the mental over the physical health, and I’m laying here in a bath with you sitting there looking at me, trying really hard not to have an anxiety attack at being perceived. Feed me cookies when we get done here, and tell me I did well.”
He chuckled at that and pulled a towel out of his cabinet. “Deal. Tonight’s bread pudding night at the cafeteria, but if you don’t mind waiting, I can go down to the general store and grab groceries.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“That exhausted; I’m waiting ’til you’re out of that water and dressed before I leave. Don’t need Mad Hatter going on a spree just because his Alice drowns in a tub getting over the Guild manhandling him.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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