Finally, Alice fell to the ground.
She rolled over in the grass, adrenaline keeping her from collapsing into panic, and took a moment to marvel at the twilight she’d returned to. Just above her head was Tim’s big red door, and just in front of her was wide-open nowhere with a pond nearby. The crickets sang to scratch an itch and the frogs croaked along because it was a catchy tune; the tall grass danced with a sultry breeze and the moon sat atop an unwashed cloud, shining over everything. Somehow, even in this moment of perfect terribleness, the Still night was still lovely, fragrant, and awfully enchanting, and Oliver Newbanks stood before her, looking like he’d been spun from glass.
Oliver Newbanks, who appeared to be catching his breath. Oliver Newbanks, who was looking at Alice, eyes wide, chest heaving, sweat beading at his brow, and he said once, softly, “Alice?”
So she whispered once, softly, “Oliver?”
“Alice,” he said, urgently now, eyes tight and shining, “are you alright?” His voice was pitched low, like he was afraid it might crack.
And Alice shook her head. No. No, she wasn’t okay.
The moon was quickly rising, and with it, a veil of darkness that partially obscured Alice from view. So Oliver drew closer, and only then did he see what had happened to her. He jerked back, clapped a hand to his mouth, and cried, “Oh goodness, Alice!”
She didn’t know what to say.
Oliver reached out to touch the place where her arm might’ve been, and she saw his hand shake.
“Are you in pain?” he whispered, his voice trembling.
Alice shook her head again. No. In fact, she felt nothing at all. She hadn’t yet processed the shock of losing her arm, so she wasn’t sure how to react. Should she be scared? Should she be strong?
“Will it grow back?” she asked.
Oliver’s eyes went so wide Alice could see the white rims around his irises. “No,” he said softly. “The effects of Furthermore, when they can’t be fixed, are always final.”
That’s when Alice began to feel.
His words stabbed at a corner of her brain; it was a twisty, piercing pain that exploded behind her eyes and took her breath away. For no reason at all she was suddenly desperate and aching, aching, where her arm used to be, and suddenly there was nothing in the world she wanted more than to have two arms. Suddenly all she could think about was having two arms. Suddenly there were a million hundred trillion thousand things she wanted to do with her arms and suddenly she couldn’t, suddenly she couldn’t, and it was all too much. The stabbing pain caught fire and dropped a flame down her throat and this shocked her heart into a terrible, tripping beat, and in less than a moment she was so thoroughly and absolutely shattered she couldn’t calm down long enough to make herself scream.
She looked at Oliver.
“. . . have to find a painter,” he was saying.
“What?” The word was more of a rasp than a word. Alice had already lost a father, the length of her right arm, and an entire set of bangles, so it made sense that her voice would follow suit.
“Yes,” Oliver was saying. “It’s the only way.” He was on his feet now, arms crossed, pacing the length of the same five-foot stretch. “The problem is, I don’t quite know how to find one. I’d only ever heard rumors, you know?” He looked up at her. “And the trip will take us off course, of course, and cost us a great deal of time.” He looked away again, mumbling. “Though obviously the expense would be worth it.” He seemed to be speaking entirely to himself.
“Wait,” she rasped again. “What do you mean?”
Oliver stopped pacing, looked up in surprise. “We have to get your arm fixed,” he said.
“But I thought you said—”
He shook his head, hard. “No, no, it won’t grow back. But we could get someone to paint you a new one.”
Alice was about to ask more questions, but a sudden hope had taken up too much room inside of her and she couldn’t think around it. She made the strangest noises. Startled, squeaky sounds that made it too obvious she was trying not to cry.
“Alice,” Oliver said quietly. “Will you tell me what happened?” He offered her a handkerchief and she took it. “Where did you go? Who did this to you? How did you get back?”
So Alice told him the story. She told him about trusting the fox she shouldn’t have trusted, about the paper world she saw, about the fox ripping off her arm as she tried to escape.
Oliver was devastated.
Alice was ashamed.
They were each convinced of their guilt, and they were right to be; they two had torn holes in each other, and the wounds, unhealed, had only led to more pain. The simple truth was that they were both to blame for what had happened. Oliver for his reluctance to trust Alice and for his failure to make her feel like a true partner; and Alice for making decisions motivated by anger and hurt and recklessness.
But young hearts are more resilient than most. They would both recover.
“Shall we?” said Oliver tentatively. “Time is such a tricky thing. We can never take too much.” His eyes were nervous, asking all the questions he couldn’t bring himself to say aloud. He was worried, Alice knew, that she would abandon him again.
So when Alice nodded, Oliver smiled, relief sagging his shoulders.
“Where will we go?” Alice asked. “To fix my arm? How will we get there?”
Oliver looked stricken as he stared at her, and Alice thought it was because he felt sorry for her; but that wasn’t it at all. Oliver felt much more than sorry for Alice. His heart had grown ten sizes since he’d met her, and the hours he’d lost her had nearly broken him. She was injured and he knew it to be his fault—to be a result of his selfishness and stupidity—and he wasn’t sure he could forgive himself.
“I don’t honestly know,” Oliver said softly. He looked out into the distance. “But not-knowing is only temporary when we’ve got the minds to figure it out. We’ll find a way.”