She licked her lips and the sky flew in and filled her up, so hot it stuck to her teeth. The earth beneath her was crisping at the edges, every inch fried sunny-side up.
Oh, it was hot.
Horribly, suffocatingly hot.
Alice ached for miles from heel to toe, wincing in the blinding light of what seemed an endless summer, and wondered, in a moment of clarity, if Oliver was worried about her.
She had no idea where she was.
She tried to look around but the moment she turned her head she was flat on the ground. She was pancake thin, plastered to the earth; she was physically impossible. She was suffocated by her eyes, her lips, the length of her face, the impossible weight of her bones and the skin that zipped her in too tightly. She was too human, too many dimensions for this world, and she only realized her eyes were closed when she decided it would be wise to wrench them open.
Sheer force of will pried her eyelids apart. She gasped and wheezed, her eyesight flattening at the edges, and when she blinked again, once more, and three and four times after that, she found herself staring upside down at a bright paper sun stapled to a spinning, glittery thread. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but Alice had just come upon the village of Print, a two-dimensional town that could not sustain her.
Alice sat up slowly, reaching one arm forward to steady herself, and heard the crunch and rustle of something very wrong; her eyes shuttered, broke open, and focused on a world made entirely of paper everything. Paper clouds chugged alongside a paper sun, their bottoms taped to the tops of red-and-white-striped straws. A crumpled, folded-and-refolded half-moon was pinned to the blue construction-paper backdrop. Paper trees stood tall and not, and fat and not, and animals hop-walked around parallelograms of pasture. Homes were rectangles and triangles stapled together, chimneys puffing swirls of smoky tissue straight into the sky. Hills were pasted, one on top of the other, in different shades of green, and stick-figured people stomped around flat and sideways, an entire dimension of being snipped right off.
It was confounding. Astounding. She was out of breath with excitement. Amazement. Alice had no idea she was in danger—how could she? Eagerly, she leaned into her arm to push herself up and onto her feet, but fell forward, her arm now limp where a limb should be. And when she looked down at herself, she felt the strangest sensation.
She heard the strangest sound.
Alice was very likely screaming, though if you ask her about this today, she denies it, and I don’t know why. Pride, I suppose. I’d not guilt her for screaming had she done so; her histrionics would have been for good reason. The fox, you will remember, was still with her, except that he now had Alice’s arm in his mouth, and was very desperately trying to tug her sideways into his paper world. Alice was on the cusp of entering the village of Print, and she was still suffering the effects of being just close enough to a village that could collapse her. She was now moments from being dragged inside and made two-dimensional forever, and she was fighting for her life.
It was Fox against Alice.
Alice tugged and tugged, but it was difficult to know how hard to fight, because in so many ways she felt nothing. Part of her felt half real. Paper-thin. She could only sort of feel the pain of being pulled in different directions, because some part of her had suddenly become something else, and she didn’t know what that was. She hadn’t realized that the fox had managed to pull one of her arms all the way through to the two-dimensional town, and it wasn’t until she heard a great roaring rip that she understood how tremendously wrong all this had become.
Technically, she won the fight.
The fox was scampering away, so Alice must’ve won the fight. Why, then, was Alice screaming so much louder now? (Again, she denies this.) What was there to shout about? And while we’re asking questions, I’d like to wonder, why, in that very same moment, was Alice feeling so much regret?
Well, I will tell you what I think.
I think Alice was wishing she’d never run away from Tim and Oliver. I think she was wishing she’d never left Ferenwood at all. I think she was wishing Furthermore had never existed and that she’d never had a twelfth birthday and that she’d never Surrendered the wrong talent.
Oh, I think Alice was filled with all kinds of regret.
She ran blindly, wildly, charging back down an impossible path of impossible gravity, one foot pounding harder than the other in the blazing heat of an impossible sun.
Alice was sorry.
She was sorry for everything. She was sorry Mother didn’t love her and sorry Father had left her and sorry for ever thinking she could save him. Alice ran until she tripped, until she fell to her knees and her face hit the ground, until she felt tears falling fast down her face. Only then did Alice understand true loss.
Only then did she discover she was missing an entire arm.
She wasn’t bleeding, and this was the first thing Alice noticed. The second thing she noticed was that her right arm had been ripped off at the shoulder, and as she was only now beginning to regain the full use of her mind, the third thing she noticed was that she had been partly turned to paper.
Where blood should have been there were instead wisps of tissue, and where bone should have been there was instead a strange breeze. And though she felt the inclination to bend her arm, to make a fist, to shake herself out of hysteria and tell herself to stop crying—(It’s alright, I’m alive, I’ll survive, she would say)—she could do nothing but stare at the space where something important once was. And then, dear friends, the fourth thing she noticed:
Her bangles were gone.
The loss of an arm and an entire arm’s worth of bangles (the latter, of course, being the greater loss) was too much to digest, especially like this. Like this: her head aching from the hit, her legs cramping from the run; still climbing to her feet and stumbling to stay upright, still moving, now panting, two short legs trying not to trip; her two feet pounding the earth, hard hits like heartbeats against the cracked dirt beneath them. She was off balance, unsteady with only one arm but she wouldn’t stop, she wouldn’t think, she refused to acknowledge any of this, not even for a moment, not until the dirt turned back into grass and the sun fell over sideways and night climbed over day and she was back where she started, forever moving forward just to move backward in time.