She took a wrong turn somewhere and found herself at the door to a funhouse. The kind full of wonky mirrors and doors beckoning to be opened. There was no sign that said to enter at your own peril. or to not enter at all. So she took that as a sign to simply go ahead and enter. The lights flickered weakly to life the moment she stepped inside, like fire flies on their last breath. When the door closed behind her she heard a soft click. It was subtle but undeniable, and she knew there was no turning back. This house was larger on the inside than it was on the outside—the kind of thing she probably should have expected. It was full of long, narrow corridors, flanked on both sides by numberless rooms full of nightmares and wonders. The very same that always appeared in her dreams—rooms full of messy beds, abandoned playthings and unswept floors. The odd thing was, though, that these rooms had no doors. It made her a bit uneasy, to think of all the things that could enter and leave at leisure. Of all the hands that could reach out and grab her. The hallways were slightly crooked, the carpet a faded forest green and the floors uneven. As she made her way up one way and then down another she could feel the tug of something sinister pulling her farther and farther down the line. Her heart rang like a warning bell inside her chest, but Curiosity was her middle name and she just couldn’t leave until she’d seen what was inside every room. Even though she knew the last room at the end of the hall—the only one with a door—would be her Last. Somehow she also knew that the room at the end of every hall was one and the same, and that it was just the House’s way of having a little fun. Of giving false hope. The illusion of choice. The promise of something evil behind Door #1 but perhaps something good behind Door #2. She peaked inside each room as she went, holding her breath so as not to disturb any grumpy monsters or sleeping dust bunnies. Everything had once been lived in, played with, loved. Everything was now forsaken, forgotten, uncared for. Everything now had that faint mocking gleam of ice cream, sunshine and sparkling delight, but everything was now too dusty to inhale or savor. Every color of every wall, rug and blanket was now just an echo of how bright things used to be. But even so, she could still feel it—how good things had once been. How pink, yellow, green, blue and white things had been—so clean and ready for life. How everyone had laughed, how the piano had played, the tea and sugar stirred, and the stories passed along a neat little conveyor belt of timeless imagination. She probably could have made a home out of any one of these rooms—if she had really wanted. But she just kept moving along, poking her head through each doorless doorway until she realized something odd. She wasn’t getting any closer to the Last Room at the end of the hall. It was almost as if the hallway was playing a trick on her, extending itself into infinity as she kept accepting its crooked invitation. She stopped dead in her tracks and looked. Stared as hard as she could as far down as she could. And it was as if, the door was there but then it wasn’t, and the lights were on but then they weren’t, and the house was laughing but then it wasn’t; and it was like she wasn’t dreaming—but then it was like she was.
The King told her to “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”, so that’s exactly what she did. Or tried to do. But at the time she didn’t realize it was a maze, and also a spiral. She thought it was just a straight line, a circle, or a diamond. Any kind of shape at all that was just one path. One dimension. Where you couldn’t get lost tracing its straightforward line. Where there were only two directions: forward and backward. Ahead and behind. This way and that. She didn’t realize it was a lush green maze. A beautiful spiraling staircase. She didn’t realize that it wasn’t all lush and green either though. She didn’t know that in some places the roses were dying. That in others people had never smelled or heard of a rose before. And in others still, that they were illegal for their thorns. She thought that when the King said “end” and “stop” that there would only be one End, one Stop. But there were many Ends, which meant many Beginnings too. And there were many Stops along the way. Some of those stops actually were to smell the roses, but the majority of them were not.
She stopped for many things. Some she wanted and some she did not. She stopped for sweets and poison, for fond memories and nightmares. She stopped for refreshments, naps and lectures. She stopped to lose some and to win some. To live out a dream and come back down to earth. She stopped for balloons and sailboats and gardens. For bridges, fountains, sculptures and birds nesting in strange places. She stopped for a swim and she stopped to drown. For the Moon and its best friend the Sun and all of Saturn’s moons and rings. To pass a note to a friend, to light a candle and accidentally burn everything to the ground, to proofread, to run away, to apologize. She stopped for ice palaces and stone fortresses. For trolls, witches, beggars, giants, ghosts and wise old men. She stopped for pennies, wishes, bad jokes and sarcasm. For spring and summer, for melting snowmen and baking gingerbread men. She stopped and started so many times that she began to wonder if she was actually a train, or a never-ending book—if it was another End or Beginning that would be coming up next. And then she stopped and realized that they were very much the same thing.
So she turned to the King and stomped her foot, accusing him of trickery. But the King just winked and said to her one of her favorite things in the world:
“The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.”
(“And you are no exception.”)
And so for now, for a while anyway, she was satisfied with that.
It’s a late night train ride home and I’m pretending to listen to music. But really my phone died an hour ago, and I’m just listening to the silence between the steel tracks. And to the stories between the silence. The ones left behind by lovers and losers, old men with nowhere to go and women wishing for a better home. Stories too heavy to carry up concrete steps and out into the tainted city air breathed by angels, demons and pigeons alike. Stories left behind in sadness, relief or bitterness. I think about leaving my own story behind but there’s still so much more that needs to happen. Leaving it behind now would be careless. And lazy. It hardly weighs more than a tiny pebble full of air. I could fit a hundred copies into my pocket, that’s how light and thin and young it is. That’s how much further it has to go. So I turn back to the music that’s not really playing instead—until a girl gets on the train.
She looks about my age and like she’s scheduled to fall off the cliff of Functionally Drunk any moment now. I can smell it on her like perfume gone wrong when she collapses next to me; a slinky who’s lost its bounce and rainbow coloring. She’s all rusty and silver now. No, not silver. Grey. Like a whisky bottle full of rain but you drink it anyway because who cares. Or you drank everything else. Or you don’t even notice the difference anymore. I might notice though. One of them might feed my soul, the other one might kill me.
I think about moving but that would be rude. She might notice. Drunk people are unpredictable people. And unpredictable people either love you a lot or hate you even more. Especially girls. So I stay where I am, and just keep playing make believe with my headphones.
“I saw a ghost once.”
I could pretend not to hear her. I could pretend to be listening to the loudest rock music in the world. But I’m already taking out my earbuds and turning my head.
“What?” I ask.
“Well, not me. M-my baby sister… we were in the kitchen. She kept telling me not to be scared. ’Don’t be scared’,” she says in a soft baby voice. “’Don’t be scared, Abby.’ K-kept… looking over there. Like she could see something! I didn’t see anything!”
I’m already wishing she had boarded a different car. Because I don’t do well with ghost stories. Because there has to be someone else on this train who lives for them. Because I don’t want to take this story to bed with me. But she’s looking at me with this need in her eyes that I so dearly recognize. This need to be heard and believed. And I don’t know what else. Saved? Reassured? Absolved?
She’s doing that thing people do when they’re trying so desperately to shut down and dig themselves a hole, while also reaching up and out for help, releasing a thousand tears in the process. Like a thousand tiny bats finally given permission by the setting sun to burst from their cave. Like she’s being pulled in both directions, and doesn’t know where it’s safer to go. Into the earth or into the sky. So she sort of just stays where she is, bobbing miserably like a rotten red apple.
“I didn’t see anything!” she swears. “If I had seen something… I would’ve… I didn’t see anything!” she cries. Like I don’t believe her. Like I’m about to accuse her of something.
“Oh. O-okay.” I’m feeling so uneasy but so glued to my seat. “So… what happened?”
“She disappeared, the next day.” Her head and voice both droop into a wilted whisper.
“Who? The ghost?”
“N-no…” She looks up at me again. Begging me with her eyes to connect the dots that she’s probably so tired of carrying everywhere with her. Of connecting, disconnecting, then reconnecting again every day. There’s probably hundreds of thousands of them. So heavy in her pockets. They probably weigh a ton.
“Oh.” I say, completely stunned. “Your—. And you think—.“ I can’t even get the words out of my mouth, it’s so sad. It’s all suddenly so sadly unbelievable and unexplainable. I don’t want to believe it. But I do. For some reason I do. And before I know it I’m riding the train with her to her stop. And she’s asking me if I believe her and I’m nodding my head yes. Then she’s asking if I believe her baby sister. And somehow I know that believing her isn’t nearly as important as believing in her baby sister. So I’m nodding my head again, yes. And I’m taking some of those heavy dots from her pockets and placing them in mine. I feel them knocking against my pebble full of air, and it almost bursts. And even though I don’t know the whole story, and even though it’s so unfinished—and even though I know I should be more skeptical about these things—when I get off the train I carry it up the stairs with me. I take it out into the tainted city air where it can breathe with the rest of us. And then once I’m home, I take it reluctantly to bed.
Do you know the story of Goldilocks? Do you know she spent most of her waking hours trying to find something that felt just right? Do you know that by the end of her life, her fingertips were both so burnt and so frost bitten that—had this not been a fairytale—everyone would say that both existing simultaneously on the same spot of skin is impossible. Do you know that she searched for light when there was too much darkness? All consuming and bittersweet. And that she craved the darkness when there was too much light? All warm and bright and inviting. Do you know that she was never satisfied? And that this dissatisfaction shriveled up her heart until she finally died of what the doctors called Rotted Heart. Do you know that Goldilocks lived more in the past, and more in the future, than she ever did in the present moment?
The Present Moment was a stranger to her. A peculiar lanky fellow that lurked in the shadows with a gold tipped cane. The Present Moment had so much trouble keeping himself afoot. And when he limped to her door and knocked, it never felt quite right. Goldilocks would send him away, always running back to the familiar embrace of the past, or propelling herself into the waiting arms of the future. Because this present moment was never what she wanted it to be. It was just a thin slice of crusty old bread in between a thick slice of gooey nostalgia and an even thicker, gooier slice of possibility.
Do you know that Goldilocks ate ice cream that was either melted into a pink soup, or frozen into a block of ice? Do you know that her tea was always too hot or too cold, and that by the end of her life there were more shattered teacups on the kitchen floor than there were grey hairs on her head. And that’s only because Goldilocks could never get her hair to look just right. She never had a perfect hair day. It was either too frizzy or too flat. Too long or too short. Too limp or too curly. And so by the end of her life she had ripped out more hairs from her head than there are stars in the sky.
Do you know that Goldilocks was actually an escaped mental patient, or at least that’s what everyone at her funeral said. And that when she broke into the cottage of The Three Bears she was really just hoping to be eaten alive. Because it would give her peace of mind. Because she didn’t know where else to find it. Goldilocks would never have to make another decision again. Would never have to feel the pull of desire and the push of regret. Nor the dizzying extremes of a pendulum that never stopped swinging. She would never have to feel too young or too old. Too pretty or too ugly. Too eager or too apathetic. Too kind or too mean. She could just rest in the earth while the flowers bloomed above her. But she never smelled quite right to the bears, and so they never bothered sinking their teeth into her.
It’s not that Goldilocks actually liked being this way. In fact, Goldilocks had tried very hard to change. To be different, happier, calmer, cooler, more put together. In the beginning, she had tried very hard. But almost every time she had invited The Present Moment to supper, he would only stay a little while. He would lean his cane against the table, but never quite moved his hand away from it. He would cross his good leg over his bad—as if he was truly settling in—only to uncross and cross them three dozen times before dessert was served. That is, if he even stayed long enough for dessert. It was only now and then that Goldilocks actually had his full and undivided attention. But even then his eyes wandered. His ears perked up at sounds that weren’t there. His fingers tapped relentlessly, impatiently, on the table. And he never even took off his coat. And so Goldilocks stopped inviting him for supper, because if she couldn’t learn how to live in the present moment from The Present himself, then she couldn’t learn it from anyone.
Alice invited herself to the Mad Hatter’s tea party by bribing two grave diggers with suspiciously large front teeth to dig a rabbit hole in the earth and then fell straight in. She wasn’t worried about being late; you can never be late to a tea party that never truly ends. It took her almost no time at all to reorient herself and locate the whereabouts of the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. She simply followed the scent of sugar and madness. The long table, with all its empty cushioned chairs—just as she remembered it—was now covered in a pink and white checkered table cloth.
“We remembered how much you like pink, Alice.” The Mad Hatter said.
“You’re late!” cried the March Hare.
The dormouse was sleeping in his teapot, and Alice sat down. She stuck her tongue out at the March Hare, who took it as a compliment and blew her a kiss. Alice caught it and dropped it in her teacup. It turned into a lump of sugar that then quickly dissolved. She felt braver this time, being back in Wonderland. She wasn’t afraid of their madness anymore. She wasn’t confused or offended by it. In fact, she felt like a part of her had been slowly dying without it.
When Alice announced she’d be staying in Wonderland for a while, The White Rabbit offered her a spare room in his house as long as she promised not to grow big and wreck the whole thing again. Some days Alice didn’t get out of bed. Other days Alice spent her mornings befriending balloons with funny faces and funny voices, sent by the Mad Hatter as an invitation to tea. She spent evenings smoking hookah with the caterpillar, wondering how on earth he wasn’t confused about who he was as he kept changing from a caterpillar to a butterfly, and then back again. She suspected it was something in the tobacco, but then wondered why it hadn’t changed her at all. She even spent an afternoon helping Winnie the Pooh convince the bees that he really was, in fact, just a little black raincloud, until the Mad Hatter gingerly pointed out that “this is the wrong story, Alice! It doesn’t belong here! Go on and put it back where you found it!” And on very late nights, when Alice was much too troubled to sleep, she’d climb a tree and sit with the Cheshire Cat, and together they’d stare at the moon. She’d swing her legs back and forth aimlessly, happily—the way she did as a child when she was still much too small to touch the floor when sitting, her head empty of thoughts and full of wonder—until the moon, who was always staring back, started to complain of dizziness and asked if she would please stop.
One day in particular, Alice found herself witnessing the battle of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, until she grew so bored with the whole thing that she found herself drawing a sheep for The Little Prince, who wasn’t at all interested in taking bets on who would win. He did, however, ask Alice if she thought his rose needed painting. Alice told him that it didn’t. That it was a lovely rose. The loveliest rose in the world. But she said this quietly so the Queen wouldn’t hear, because in Wonderland the Queen’s roses were the best roses. But then the Mad Hatter—this time not so gingerly and with a glint of warning in his eyes—pointed out that this story also did not belong here, and to put it back where she found it. Alice apologized and quickly turned her undivided attention back to the battle, which in the end nobody won.
So time went on. Alice drank her tea, took long walks in the Tulgey Wood, and celebrated many, many unbirthdays. But one day, while Alice was feeling particularly bored and in need of a different sort of adventure, she found herself admiring Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and asked if she could try them on. Just to see if they’d fit and sparkle as much on her feet. And then she found herself romping with Max and the Wild Things through the great maze, getting lost and found again and again. But it wasn’t until she went flying with Peter Pan one night across the skies of Wonderland, while drawing additional stars into the sky with Harold’s purple crayon, that The Mad Hatter stepped forward from the shadows and told Alice that she must leave.
”But why?” Alice asked.
“You are destroying Wonderland. You cannot bring wild things into a mad world. You cannot bring other stories into Wonderland without slowly erasing our story. You are putting everyone here in danger, and—I’m afraid—are going mad.”
“But we’re all mad here!” Alice protested. “And I don’t want to leave.”
The Mad Hatter shook his head. “You must; it’s time. Your madness is not our madness. Your madness will kill us all.” He paused. “And,” he added, plucking the purple crayon from her hand, “Wonderland has enough stars.”
Alice frowned and looked around her. She loved Wonderland. It was her favorite place in the whole world, but she didn’t want to be the cause of its demise. She didn’t want to be the reason why Wonderland might no longer exist. She loved everything and everyone here. And it was for this very reason that Alice drank her last cup of tea, curtsied goodbye to the Queen of Hearts—and the flowers who had grown to really admire her petals—, buttered her last watch, and left Wonderland.
“You’ll be back, Alice,” promised The Cheshire Cat who had suddenly appeared, curled up in a ball, on top of the Mad Hatter’s hat. “You’ll be back when you’re ready.”
Shadow Puppet Girl flies in through my open window and kneels by my bedside. She shakes me awake and says she’s here for a visit and doesn’t stop poking at my ribs until I finally get out of bed. She smells like spring flowers dying slowly. It’s dark in my bedroom but I can still see her so distinctly from everything else. She is one color only, the color of shadow. I ask her who she is and where she comes from, and she tells me she is the shadow of my past. Of every memory and heartache and wound. I ask her why she is only one color then, and shouldn’t she also be red? The color of heartbreak and blood and rage? Shadow Puppet Girl points a blaming finger straight at me. Tells me that all my wounds cast the same dark shadow on the wall of the world, and that she can only be what I project. I feel bad about this so I get dressed. Put on a pair of overalls, braid my hair, and ask Shadow Puppet Girl to take me back to my childhood. We travel back to the age when I had the most stuffed animals, and together we rip out the hearts of every single one of them and I make Shadow Puppet Girl a dress from the soft red threads of my childhood. I ask her if she’ll leave me alone now, if she’ll let me sleep in peace. But Shadow Puppet Girl is too busy twirling around and around in her new pretty red dress and doesn’t hear a word I say.
Little Red Riding Hood walks through the forest because she is bored. She wants the wolf to find her. She buys the brightest red cloak she can afford and turns into a lighthouse. She stands at the highest point in the forest and lets her red light shine until the wolves come home. There are many of them. Some want to eat her, others want to play. Some want to lead her back to the safety of her village. But there is one wolf she is waiting for, the one that will ask her to stay and live among them. She waits the longest for him, in the wind and the rain and the scorching heat. She waits through every season and every phase of the moon. She waits day in and day out and sees every color there is to see in the sky. She watches flowers bloom and die at her feet, befriends baby animals who grow and age and say goodbye. She learns about the darkness and its army of shadows. She meets Dusk and Dawn, and they become her king and queen. She stands and waits as grass grows around her, each blade a story to tell of the waiting game she plays. And even the trees begin to whisper, their crisp leafy voices carrying words of courage, doubt, insanity and love throughout the forest. Some even reach the ears of the villagers, but Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t budge. Not even when her grandmother’s plea is carried back to her on the wind. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember what they did to me?” But Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t care. Little Red Riding Hood grows sick with waiting. She turns into a volcano and when she erupts she becomes a red firework in the sky, and instead of howling at the moon, the wolves now howl at her.