Alice squinted into the distance, still avoiding eye contact with him. She wasn’t sure why she cared, but, for just a second, a very tiny part of her was almost sorry to disappoint him. She pushed it away.
“I’m afraid I cannot help you,” she said quietly. “This day is too important, Oliver. I know Father would understand my decision.”
Oliver seemed genuinely surprised. In fact, his wide eyes and high brows and open mouth came together to express their collective shock, all without saying a word. “You can’t be serious,” he whispered. “Alice, please—you can’t really be serious—”
“Quite serious, I’m afraid.”
“But your father—”
“I will find him on my own, don’t you worry about him.”
“But I already know where he is!” Oliver nearly shouted. “I could get to him right now if I wanted to!”
Alice shot him a dirty look. “Then why don’t you?”
“You are a rotten person,” she said. “That you would dangle my father in front of me as though he were a bit of candy. It’s not enough for you to simply bring him back to his family with no expectation of anything in return—”
“We have no deal, Oliver.” She cut him off. “If you have even half a heart, you may tell me where my father is. Otherwise, I have a life to attend to.”
“You are unbelievable!” he sputtered.
“Good day, Oliver Newbanks. And good luck with your task.”
And with that, she ran down the hill toward the village square.
Oliver Newbanks was close behind.
Alice’s stomach felt stuffed with twigs, each nervous tap of her toes snapping one in half. The morning was brisk and buttery and sent a sudden shiver down her spine. She was standing in line with her peers, keeping very much to herself. Some were dressed in costume, others in plain clothes. Some looked nervous, others looked pompous. There was no way of knowing what any of it meant. The twelve-year-olds had already signed in and each been assigned a number; now all that was left to do was wait, and it was proving nearly impossible. Alice had the sudden, unfortunate need to make use of the ladies’ toilets and though she tried, she could not mute the din of voices around her.
The people of Ferenwood were dressed in their Ferenwood finest. Gowns made of spider silk and hats carved from cottonwood, colors clashing and sounds smashing and cheers erupting for no reason at all. The audience was beginning to take their seats, wide-eyed and excited with the smell of spring fresh in the air.
The stage looked lovely every year, but this year it looked especially fantastic. Today it was made to look just like a stretch of ocean, the plum-blue water lapping at the feet of its contestants and cascading to the ground. Just below it was an expanse of green, set with a smattering of tables and chairs carved from the arms and legs of fallen trees. Vines had knitted themselves across the backs of every chair and the tables were set with gold baskets of glass apples and honey-canes and chocolate-covered sizzle sticks and pitchers of fire-cider and candied-ice. An orchestra readied their instruments; the sky thundered in appreciation; flowers were blossoming in hundreds of glass orbs suspended in midair; and the sun set fire to the sky, streaking the backdrop with an explosion of blush and tangerine and honeyblue.
It was all rather breathtaking.
Whoever’s job it was to decorate had put a little too much sugar in the air and it was making Alice want to sneeze. She tried to stifle the impulse and coughed instead, startling the girl standing just to the left of her. Alice rocked back and forth on her heels and clasped her hands, smiling a shaky smile as the girl glanced her way. The girl smiled back and seemed to regret it. Alice stared down at her feet.
Of the eighty-six of them, Alice was fourth in line. And she would be lying if she said she hadn’t felt like upending the contents of her stomach, just a little bit.
Alice spotted Mother and the triplets as they searched for their seats, and she couldn’t help but feel a spot of warmth settle inside her, soothing her nerves. She had hoped they would come but, really, she wasn’t sure. She never could be certain with Mother, if only because Mother had proven herself to be rather fickle these past few years. But despite their strange and often uncomfortable relationship, Alice couldn’t help but want to make her mother proud.
She’d hoped to make her proud today.
In fact, the bitterness Alice felt toward Mother was just about to be forgotten until she saw Mother take a seat next to the Newbankses. Oliver caught her eye and glared (Alice glared back) as Mother laughed and shook hands and shared fruit with the family of the boy who’d been so cruel to her. Mother didn’t seem to spare a single thought for her feelings.
Alice didn’t want to think about it then, but the truth was staring her straight in the face and she could no longer deny it: Mother never seemed to be on her side.
Alice hung her head and drew in a deep breath, determined to keep moving, no matter what. One day, she said to herself, she would return home with Father in hand, and Mother would finally appreciate her.
Just then came the sound of trumpets and a sudden explosion of color that fell and hung neatly in the sky.
It was the official announcement. The beginning of the rest of her life.
Mr. Lottingale stepped onto the stage.
A hush fell over the crowd, and the eighty-six of them—hovering just to the side—were so collectively nervous Alice could almost hear their hearts racing in unison.
Mr. Lottingale was one of the Town Elders and he had come to make a speech. It was the obvious thing to do, to make a speech before the main event, but Alice could never take Mr. Lottingale seriously. He looked a bit like a pistachio. He was round and beige, cracked open only at the top, his head turtling out, and his brown-green hair flopped around in the breeze. She knew it wasn’t fair of her to focus only on Mr. Lottingale’s looks, as he was certainly a nice-enough person, but every time she looked at him she couldn’t help but think of the time she saw him lick a caterpillar off his upper lip.