Mother was making tea when Alice finally made it home—just before dark. Alice pushed open the front door with a secret weighing down her skirts: Inside her pocket was the one dillypop, carefully wrapped, to be saved for a special occasion. Alice would have to wait weeks to get her hands on another fink but she’d made peace with the loss of the last of her money. The triplets were eating appleberry jam straight from the jar, small purple fingers sticking to their faces. Mother was humming a tune as she moved about the kitchen and, even though Alice stood before her, Mother wiped her just-washed hands on her apron and didn’t seem to notice her daughter at all.
Oh, it didn’t matter.
Alice was tired, she was torn, and she took a seat, dropping her chin in her hands. What a day today had been. Nothing would shake the weight of the world from her shoulders tonight, not even a cheekful of candy. Alice wished the world would shed a few pounds. She desperately wanted to find Father, but she also desperately wanted to have a task; and so she’d come to no conclusion at all, leaving Oliver in a twist of his own.
Finding Father meant trusting Oliver. It meant sacrificing her own future to help him with his, and even then there was no guarantee of anything. Besides, just because she could see through a lie did not mean she had any reason to trust Oliver Newbanks.
Alice pushed away from the table and slipped into her bedroom, grateful for the chance to be alone while her brothers were busy in the kitchen. There was one small section of this room that was hers and hers alone, and it was hidden under the floorboards.
Alice had hidden her life underneath this room. Books and trinkets, clothes and flowers: the only precious things she owned.
She carefully removed a few planks of wood and unearthed her outfit for tomorrow. She’d been working on it for two years, carefully stitching it together, piece by piece. Four skirts, a half-sleeved blouse, a vest, and a cropped, sleeveless jacket all to be worn together. The final bit was the headpiece, crocheted by hand, trimmed with a train of yellow tulle and strung with hammered tin coins. Alice had spent months dyeing the fabrics and adorning the plain cloth, embroidering flowers, sewing beads and sequins into intricate patterns, and adding tiny mirrors to the hem to make the skirt glitter with every step. It was an explosion of colors, heavy with the weight of all the work she’d done. She even knew exactly which flowers she’d weave into her braid.
Alice knew she would be incredible.
She would so thoroughly impress the Town Elders that they’d have no choice but to give her the best task—the grandest task. She’d go on to be a town hero, just like Father, and she would make her family proud. She’d had it all figured out.
Children in Ferenwood prepared their whole lives for their Surrender. Each child was born with a singular magical talent, and it was the job of parents and teachers to recognize and nurture that talent and, ultimately, develop their Surrender performance. The performance was crucial because it was a presentation of untapped potential; it was critical to show just how useful your magical talent could be because the best talents would go on to receive the best tasks. The best adventures.
This was what Alice had dreamed of.
But Alice hadn’t needed any of that extra help, because she’d figured it out on her own. Father had told her, many moons ago, what she needed to do. Maybe he hadn’t realized it then, but she had.
“Do you hear that?” he asked her one night. They were standing under the night sky.
“Hear what?” Alice asked.
Father closed his eyes and smiled at the moon. “Oh, Alice,” he whispered. “Unfold your heart. Sharpen your ears. And never say no to the world when it asks you to dance.”
They slept in the grass that night, she and Father, not saying another word. Alice listened to the earth come alive: the wind singing, the grass swaying, the lakes swimming laps. Trees stretched their branches, flowers yawned themselves to sleep, the stars blinking fast as they dozed off. She witnessed it all, listening closely the whole time. She had never felt more real in all her life.
And every night after that, when Father asked her if she could hear the music, Alice knew exactly what he meant. And when the world asked her to dance, she never said no.
Alice looked up and found Mother standing in the doorway. Mother didn’t look upset, but she had her arms crossed against her chest all the same. She nodded to the skirts Alice was holding in her lap.
“Are you ready?” Mother asked.
“I think so,” Alice said quietly, wondering what Mother would say if she knew how selfish her daughter was. Selfish enough to consider getting tasked over finding Father.
Mother would never forgive her.
“What if I have to leave Ferenwood?” Alice said, feeling unexpectedly emotional. “Will you be alright without me? How will you get by?”
“Oh, we’ll find a way to manage,” Mother said, staring at her hands as she smoothed out her apron. “I’ve been stowing away the berries for some time now.”
Alice wondered whether Mother would ever realize how deeply those words hurt her that night. Mother had answered a question Alice did not ask. Alice wanted Mother to tell her she’d be missed, that she’d be sorry to see her go. Alice wasn’t asking about the ferenberries at all.
It was only then that Alice saw how little Mother needed her.
Alice did not belong in this small home where no room was her own, where her few possessions had to be buried beneath it. She knew now that no one would miss her so long as Mother had her medicine berries, and it made her feel terribly lonely. Father had already left her, and now, in her own way, Mother had, too. Alice was on her own and she knew then, in that moment, that no matter what happened, she would forever regret a decision to waive her Surrender. She would never forgive herself for not forging a path of her own.
So, it was decided. She would dance tomorrow.