But Oliver wasn’t listening. He’d unrolled a few map scrolls and was reading them upside down and then right side up, collapsing paper staircases and poking open miniature doors and unlocking tiny windows and finding nothing behind them. He even gave the maps a good shake to see if anything new would fall out, all to no avail. He was looking increasingly worried, which Alice, bless her heart, found highly entertaining.
“It’s not right,” Oliver was saying, jabbing at different parts of the map with one finger. “It’s not as it should be. There’s nothing here about a fox.” He shook his head, hard, and rolled up the scrolls he’d so hastily unfurled.
“Oliver,” Alice tried again. “Is that Father’s journal you’ve got there?”
Oliver’s jaw twitched. “What? This? Oh,” he said. “Yes, well, it was all part of my task, you know, to help m—”
“May I see it?” Alice asked, stepping forward. “Please? I’d dearly love to see what Father wrote down.”
Oliver was clinging to his messenger bag so tightly he was nearly vibrating in place. “I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he said. “The Elders put very firm magical restrictions on the items I’ve been loaned for my journey, and if they’re handled by anyone but me, they’ll know.”
“Oh,” said Alice, crestfallen. She knew how tasks worked and she could imagine the Elders having done such a thing. But more importantly, Alice was still operating under the assumption that she could trust Oliver; she thought she’d be able to tell when he was spinning a lie.
So she believed him.
Oliver was visibly relieved, but Alice, who was once again distracted by the paper fox, didn’t seem to notice.
Oliver cleared his throat. “We, um, we should really get going.”
“But he looks so sweet,” she said. “Can’t we bring him along?” Alice had little to hold on to in this strange land and she was proud to have discovered something Oliver had not. She wanted to contribute something important to their journey and couldn’t bring herself to give up on the fox just yet.
But Oliver was shaking his head. “Don’t be fooled by Furthermore,” he said as he shoved the maps back into his bag. “Please, Alice. Remember why we’re here. If we don’t stick to my original plan, we might never reach your father.”
Any reminder of Father was enough to set Alice’s spine straight. “Of course I remember why we’re here,” she said quickly, cheeks aflame. “No need to remind me.”
Oliver nodded and even looked a little sorry to have said anything.
No distractions, Alice scolded herself. No distractions. Think of Father, she thought. Waiting for help. Hurting somewhere.
That was all it took.
She offered a small smile to the fox (who then scampered back into the forest) and joined Oliver at the red door. They were here to meet Time. They were here to save Father.
She took a deep breath.
“Are you ready?” Oliver asked her.
“Always,” she said.
And they knocked.
The two of them together, her knuckles and his. Oliver said these were important manners in Furthermore. When two people came to visit, both people should knock.
“Otherwise,” he said, “it would feel like a lie, wouldn’t it?” He smiled. “Thinking only one person was coming over for tea, when actually it was two!”
Alice raised an eyebrow. She didn’t say it then, but she was thinking it: Oliver was growing odder by the moment.
So they knocked on Time’s door until Oliver said they’d knocked enough, and then it was time to wait.
“How long?” Alice asked. “How long do we wait?”
“As long as it takes,” he said. “We wait until Time comes.”
Ten minutes later, Alice was grumpy.
She thought this was all a bit ridiculous. Waiting for Time. Oh, she was losing her mind, she was sure of it. She tried to remember the last time she’d slept, and couldn’t.
What day was it? How long had they been gone? Had Mother and her brothers finally noticed she’d left?
Alice was paid such unaffectionate attention at home that it was hard for her to believe Mother would miss her. But Alice underestimated the space she took up in the hearts and minds of those she met and she had no way of knowing how her absence would affect the ones she loved. Nor did she have time to dwell on it. Her days were dizzier than ever here in Furthermore, and though she missed her home, she didn’t miss the long, empty hours or the interminable stretches of loneliness. Here at least she had Oliver—a friend unlike any she’d ever had—and constant adventure to fill her mind.
Speaking of which, the big red door had finally opened.
Behind it was a little boy.
He wore denim overalls over a bright red T-shirt and he peered up at them through a pair of spectacles far too large for his face, taking care to stare at Alice the longest.
She and Oliver said nothing.
“Good,” the boy finally said with a sigh. He sounded like he’d lived the life of an old man. “Very good that you’ve brought her.” And then he turned around and left, walking back through a door into a world she couldn’t see the end of.
Oliver moved to follow him, and Alice shot him an anxious look. “Don’t worry,” Oliver said, reaching for her hand. “He’s my friend. And I’ve been here before.”
They followed the boy through a house so dark Alice almost thought she’d gone blind. In fact, it was so impossible to see anything but the boy that the darkness actually seemed intentional.
Time was private, apparently.
They three tiptoed through hallways and up stairways and under doorways until finally they reached a room that was brightly lit. Inside was a very old desk and very old chairs (you’ll find that young people are very good at spotting old things), and every inch of the room was covered in numbers. Plastered to the walls and tables, framed and hung as photos, upholstered to the chairs; books and books of numbers were piled on floors and windowsills and coffee tables. It was bizarre.