Alice closed her eyes.
“Enough,” Father said, shaking his head. He was pacing around the room. He was angry: His cheeks flushed, his eyes pinched, his brows furrowed. “I hate hearing you talk about yourself like this. You’re a blank canvas, Alice. No person is better primed for color than you are.”
Alice looked up at him, frustrated and exhausted. “Then when?” she asked. “When will I have color of my own? When will I look like you and Mother?”
“Darling Alice,” he said, reaching for her. “Why must you look like the rest of us? Why do you have to be the one to change? Change the way we see. Don’t change the way you are.”
“But how?” she asked, her little fists clenched around his fingers. She tugged him closer. “How can I do that, Father?”
“You’re an artist.” He smiled. “You can paint the world with the color inside of you.”
The memories tugged on her joints; her fists unclenched. Her heart ached.
It was a moment of weakness, and she allowed it. She felt she’d earned it. She’d decided long ago that life was a long journey. She would be strong and she would be weak, and both would be okay.
So she bit the inside of her cheek, let her chin fall against her chest, raked all ten fingers through her knotted, tangled hair, and she let herself feel weak.
Well, it was strange, she’d just realized, that she hadn’t thought much of her white hair at all lately. Certainly not as much as she used to. Before coming to Furthermore Alice could seldom move from moment to moment without being reminded of her nothing-hair and her nothing-skin. But not here. In fact, it struck her as silly now, to be bothered by her missing colors. What did it matter what she looked like when she had purpose?
She sat up a little straighter.
So what if Oliver was a liar? So what if she’d failed her Surrender? So what if she was lost in a strange land with no idea how to get home? Father needed her, and need didn’t care what nothing looked like. Alice had a proper mission now, and she would not back down. She would fight harder for Father than he could fight for himself.
Nothing would stand in her way.
Alice had only managed to take one step forward before the fox found her again.
He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, suddenly sitting in front of her, proper paper tail wagging in the fading light. He looked calm and sweet and bowed his head every time Alice looked at him. She wanted to pick him up and take him home.
Alice could hear the ghost of Oliver’s voice in her head advising her to be careful. She could almost picture the fear in his face, the warning in his eyes. But Alice didn’t care about Oliver’s advice anymore and she was determined to prove she could make wiser decisions without him.
She bent down in front of the paper fox and scratched him (or her?) under the chin; the rough copper-colored paper felt strange and warm against her fingers. He seemed to like that, so she pet him between the ears and he nuzzled right into her hand.
“Hello, Fox,” she said.
Fox jumped back, bit her skirts, and crinkled his paper nose at her feet.
Alice laughed and felt the cracks in her heart mend, bit by bit.
She took it as a sign. Maybe the fox was the thing Oliver had missed. Maybe the fox was sent especially for her.
What if the fox was trying to lead her to Father?
Alice already knew what Oliver would say about her theory, and even his imaginary condescension made her angry. So she made a sudden decision.
“Fox,” she said. The fox yipped and its paper tongue lolled. “Fox, will you take me to my father?”
The fox nodded eagerly.
Alice clapped her hands together in joy. “Oh, you do know what I’m saying, don’t you?” she asked.
Again, the fox nodded.
“So you’ll help me?” she said. “Will you help me save Father?”
Once more, the fox nodded.
Alice cried out and wrapped her arms around the fox. “Thank you!” she said. “Oh, thank you!”
The fox jumped around and yipped again and was already bounding ahead of her through the forest, turning back every few feet to make sure she was following. Alice didn’t know what was waiting for her but she was excited to be taking charge and making decisions for once. She felt certain that this was right, that she would make her way through Furthermore in a way Oliver couldn’t. Oliver had never even made it to Father, so what did he know about saving him? She was sure that this fox was the key.
This optimism carried her through the next half hour.
Wherever the fox lived, it was far from where he found her, and the farther they went, the stranger the landscape became. Alice assumed they were still in Still, but she couldn’t be sure. For just a fleeting moment Alice caught herself wishing Oliver was around to tell her where they were headed, but she quickly checked the impulse and focused instead on her certainty that the fox would help her find Father.
But the truth was, she was beginning to worry.
The ground beneath her was losing its grass, becoming sparer and drier as they went. Night had tilted into day, and the sun swung back into the sky. Heat filled the gaps in everything, and though Alice felt her instincts prick, denial kept her from registering the warning.
Alice was in a daze by minute thirty-four, one foot following the other and neither knowing their way. She blinked once, twice, so many times before the horizon stood upright and everything slipped sideways. It was strange, she thought, so very, very strange, how her feet kept moving even when she didn’t want them to. Not only did she not want them to keep moving, she wanted them to do the very opposite of keep-moving, but there was no one to tell her feet anything at all, as her mind was always missing when she needed it most.
Her throat was awfully dry.