The writing on the wall says it's January 14. I am not sure what year. I haven't been sure of many things lately, but I'm wondering if it's my handwriting I'm looking at.
There is an exquisite-looking key drawn underneath the date. It's carved with a sharp instrument, probably a broken mirror. I couldn't have written this. I'm terrified of mirrors. They love to call it Catoptrophobia around here.
Unlike those of the regular patients in the asylum, my room is windowless, stripped down to a single mattress in the middle, a sink, and bucket for peeing—or puking—when necessary. The tiles on the floor are black and white squares, like a chessboard. I never step on black. Always white. Again, I'm not sure why.
The walls are smeared with a greasy, pale green everywhere. I wonder if it's the previous patient's brains spattered all over from shock therapy. In the Radcliffe Lunatic Asylum, politely known as the Warneford Hospital, the doctors have a fondness for shock therapy. They love watching patients with bulging eyes and shivering limbs begging for relief from the electricity. It makes me question who is really mad here.
It's been a while since I was sent to shock therapy myself. Dr. Tom Truckle, my supervising physician, said I don't need it anymore, particularly after I stopped mentioning Wonderland. He told me that I used to talk about it all the time; a dangerous place I claim I had been whisked away to, when my elder sister lost me when I was seven.
Truth is, I don't remember this Wonderland they are talking about. I don't even know why I am here. My oldest vivid memory is from a week ago. Before that, it's all a purple haze.
I have only one friend in this asylum. It's not a doctor or a nurse. And it's not a human. It doesn't hate, envy, or point a finger at you. My friend is an orange flower I keep in a pot—a Tiger Lily I can't live without. I keep it safe next to a small crack in the wall, where a single ray of sun sneaks through for only ten minutes a day. It might not be enough light to grow a flower, but my Tiger Lily is a tough girl.
Each day I save half of the water they give me for my flower. As for me, better thirsty than mad.
My orange flower is also my personal rain check for my sanity. If I talk to her and she doesn't reply, I know I am not hallucinating. If she talks back to me, all kinds of nonsense starts to happen. Insanity prevails. There must be a reason why I am here. It doesn't mean I will easily give in to such a fate.
“Alice Pleasance Wonder. Are you ready?” The nurse knocks with her electric prod on my steel door. Her name is Waltraud Wagner. She is German. Everything she says sounds like a threat, and she smells like smoke. My fellow mad people say she is a Nazi—that she used to kill her own patients back in Germany. “Get avay vrom za dor. I'm coming in,” she demands.
As I listen to the rattling of her large keychain, my heart pounds in my chest. The turn of the key makes me want to swallow. When the door opens, all I can think of is choking her before she begins to hurt me. Sadly, her neck is too thick for my nimble hands. I stare at her almost-square figure for a moment. Everything about her is four sizes too big. All except her feet, which are as small as mine. My sympathies, little feet.
“Time for your daily ten-minute break upstairs.” She approaches me with a straitjacket, a devilish grin on her face. I never get out. My ward is underground, and I'm only allowed to take my break in another empty ward upstairs where patients love to play soccer.
A big, muscled warden stands behind Waltraud. Thomas Ogier. He is bald, and has an angry-red face and a silver tooth he likes to flash whenever he sees me. His biceps are the size of my head. I have a hard time believing he was ever a four-pound baby.
“Slide your arms into the jacket,” Waltraud demands in her German accent, a cigarette puckered between her lips. “Slow and easy, Alice.” She nods at Warden Ogier, in case I misbehave.
I comply obediently and stretch out my arms for her to do whatever she wants. Waltraud twists my right arm slightly and checks the tattoo on my arm. It's the only tattoo I have. It's a handwritten sentence that looks like a thick armband from afar. Waltraud feels the need to read it aloud: “‘I can't go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.'” I was told I had written it while still believing in Wonderland. “That Alice in Wonderland has really messed with your head,” she says as she puffs smoke into my face.
The tattoo and Waltraud's mocking is the least of my concerns right now. I let her tie me up, and while she does, I close my eyes. I imagine I am a sixteenth-century princess, some kind of lucky Cinderella, being squeezed into a corset by my chain-smoking servant in a fairy tale castle above ground, just about to go meet my prince charming. Such imagery always helps me breathe. I once thought that it was hope that saved the day, not sanity. I need to cool down before I begin my grand escape.