“You heard me, 42’s the answer.”
“But that has nothing to do with the question.”
“Oh but my dear, that has everything to do with the question. Everybody knows that.”
“Well I don’t.”
“You’re an everybody, aren’t you? Perhaps you’d best look at it from upside down. I find that helps me when I’m lost.”
“But I’m not lost. I just don’t know where I am.”
“Oh, don’t we all.” She threw back her head and laughed, clutching her stomach.
“What? Look, I was told you could help me. Now can you or not?”
“Well that depends.”
She leaned in very close to the girl, her eyes magnified through the thick lenses. “Where is Mr. Cheshire?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know who that is,” replied the girl glumly.
Suddenly the cuckoo clock went off. The woman turned and looked at the little bird springing outwards from the clock face, its little beak working up and down, emitting a loud irritating chirp. “Dear oh dear,” the woman clucked, “Mr. March will be home any minute now and I haven’t even prepared the tea yet.” She rubbed her hands together and pushed back her chair. The girl cleared her throat. The woman spun around with a startled squeak. “Oh you’re still here, are you?”
“Unfortunately yes. What am I supposed to do?”
“Find my cat. That will lead the way.”
“Your cat? Are you mad?”
“Why no, whatever gave you that idea?” The woman swatted at the air, her eyes bugging against the frames of her large spectacles. “Anyways, find Mr. Cheshire, he’ll know what’s best. Tell him the mice are refusing my cheese; he’ll keep them in line. Find my cat, find Mr. Cheshire. Run along now, dearie, that’s a good girl!” She glided past the clock, which was still cuckooing away. “Oh hush it,” the woman said, pushing the bird back into the hole and snapping its door shut. Coo the clock said in retort. Then she left and loud clanging and banging could be heard from the kitchen.
The girl remained where she was, unsure what to do with herself. How was she supposed to find some cat that had run off? She didn’t even know what it looked like. And even if she could find it, how was that supposed to help her? This was a very strange place indeed. It was familiar and yet somehow different here.
Here. Now she wasn’t completely sure where here was. Like she had told the woman with the large spectacles and peculiar looking hat, she wasn’t lost, per say, she just didn’t know where exactly she was in proximity to where she had been previously. Everything had been a bit disorienting since the bright white light had come crashing into town. She had been wandering around ever since, looking for her grandmother. Her grandmother had told her that if anything were to ever happen, she should go to the lagoon. That’s where granny would be waiting and that’s where they would be safe. But her grandmother had never told her where to find the lagoon and nobody else in their village seemed to have ever heard of it. So when the bright white light blotted out the town, she went out in search of the lagoon, without the faintest idea of where she should be going or what she should be looking for, just hoping that she would know it when she saw it. She had been directed to the thatched cottage by a strange man she had never seen before, who wore a cloak that was far too big on him. The cloak was so big in fact, that it covered him completely so she couldn’t see him at all, save for two bright green eyes that winked out from beneath the hood. He told her the woman who lived in the thatched cottage would know what to do with her. When she had turned around to tell him thank you, he had disappeared completely, leaving only his cloak in a heap on the ground, as if he had melted straight into the grass. Going off the only advice she had gotten, the girl carried on until she had found the thatched cottage. Assuming it was the right one, she walked towards it. Outside there was a large sign that read Lady Hatter’s Hat Emporium and Tea House. The lettering was a nice, reassuring gold, so the girl had knocked on the door and that was how she had encountered the woman with the large spectacles and peculiar looking hat.
The girl continued to sit in the chair where she had been sat, listening to Lady Hatter (for that was what the woman insisted she call her) clattering around in the kitchen, musing about this cat she was supposed to find.
Lady Hatter soon returned with a bright blue steaming teapot. This time she did not at all seem surprised to see the girl still sitting at her table.
“About your cat,” began the girl.
“Would you like some tea?” the woman asked. “Tea is the best drink to have before a scavenger hunt, I find.”
“Aren’t you even curious about why I’m looking for what I’m looking for? Or how I ended up at your house of all the houses I could have ended up at?” The girl swirled some sugar into her tea, frowning in concentration. “You probably think I fell through a rabbit’s hole.”
“Now that’s ridiculous, people can’t fit in those, even one so small as yourself. You obviously came in through the looking glass.”
“What? No, I just lost my way through the woods.”
The woman snorted into her tea, causing several bubbles to rise. “Now that really is ridiculous.” She calmed her choking. “Besides, I thought you said you weren’t lost. It’s a completely different matter if you’re lost. Mr. Cheshire can’t help you find your way, he can only point you in a better direction.”
“No, I’m not lost, or I mean, um, I’m just – I don’t even know what your cat looks like! How am I supposed to find something if I don’t know what it is I’m looking for?”
“He’s a cat, I told you.”
“Yes but which cat?”
“The cat. My cat. Find him, find Mr. Cheshire, and this lagoon you’re looking for will become much easier to see. Don’t worry, dear, it’s really not as confusing as you think it is.”
“Do you at least have any idea where your cat might have gone?”
“Try the poppy fields. The cat loves playing with the flowers.”
And with that, the girl was on her way. At least, she was out again walking. She still wasn’t sure which way she should be heading in, but she figured forwards was as good as any other direction, so forwards she went. As she went, the trees began to grow thinner. Not in the sense that there were fewer of them, but literally that they were getting thinner. And shorter. Before the girl knew it, she was walking amongst tall grass, not a tree in sight. Curious, she thought, but not so curious that it caused her to stop walking. At first, the grass was a bright vibrant green, far greener than any grass she had ever encountered in the village. This delighted her to a great degree, for she had always found green to be pleasant colour, especially so the brighter and more vibrant it got. The only colour which gave her greater delight than green was pink (and the most delight of all, of course, came from green and pink combined – what a lovely combination that was; in fact, the very dress she wore was a nice, lovely green and pink). The girl found herself thinking more and more of the colour pink that she began to see it everywhere she looked. It wasn’t until ten steps later that she realised the pink she was seeing was in fact quite real and not a part of her imagination at all.
“Oh!” she cried out, and this time she was so astounded as to stop. “Why there’s poppies everywhere! Pink poppies! I didn’t even know those existed!” The girl sat down right then and there and plucked a poppy from its stem, leaning in to inhale its delicate fragrance. “Oh, they’re much nicer than red poppies.”
“That’s silly, red poppies don’t exist.”
“Oh they most certainly do,” the girl replied. “My grandmother grew them in our garden and they were lovely, but I think these are far lovelier, for pink suits them better…” At this she trailed off, for it had just occurred to her that she didn’t know who she was speaking to. She looked around but saw no one. “Who said that?”
“Said what?” the same voice drifted out.
“Said red poppies don’t exist.” This time the voice only laughed. Well, squeaked. It was like a laugh-squeak. The girl parted a bunch of the long-stemmed pink poppies. “Oh!” she exclaimed.
A cat’s face emerged from the flowers, its whiskers twitching. Some pollen spotted its nose. He was an ordinary looking cat, with chestnut brown fur and a lighter brown muzzle.
“Hello,” the girl cooed.
“Hello to you.”
“I didn’t know cats could talk.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, cats can’t talk,” said the cat.
The girl furrowed her brow. “But you’re talking now.” At least she thought it was. Come to think of it, its mouth hadn’t moved. “Aren’t you?”
“I told you, cats can’t talk.” The cat started to lick its paw. Just then, a mouse walked out from behind the cat. He scampered onto the girl’s knee, looking up at her intently. He continued to stare at her like this until he seemed to have made up his mind about her. Then he stood up on his hind legs, like any gentleman could, and gave her a deep bow. “Mr. Cheshire, at your service.”
The girl blinked. “You’re Mr. Cheshire?”
“I thought the cat was Mr. Cheshire.”
“Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know. Lady Hatter told me to look for the cat and Mr. Cheshire, and I assumed they were the same. I guess she meant, if I found her cat then I would also find you.”
“She’s right, as usual. Chestnut and I rarely part ways.”
“The cat.” Mr. Cheshire hopped down from the girl’s knee and scampered to the cat. He reached up and scratched its chin, causing it to emit a loud purring sound.
“I see.” The girl scratched her ear. “I didn’t know cats and mice could be such good friends.”
“Oh yes.” Mr. Cheshire turned back to her. “Mouse’s best friend.”
“I see.” The girl suddenly remembered. “Oh that reminds me, I was supposed to tell you that the mice are refusing Lady Hatter’s cheese.”
Mr. Cheshire crossed his arms. “Those scallywags, always misbehaving when I’m not around. Don’t worry, I’ll deal with them. But first,” and here he eyed the girl quizzically, “I suppose you want something.”
“Lady Hatter must have sent you to find me for something, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
The girl sighed. “I’m looking for my grandmother. She’s supposed to be at the lagoon, but I don’t know where it is. Do you?”
“That depends.” The girl’s sense of déjà vu was picking up. “Let me ask you, are those shoes good dancing shoes?”
The girl looked down at her shoes. They were black patent leather shoes, with a single strap going around her ankle and connecting to the heel. Her grandmother had given them to her when her parents died. The girl looked back at the mouse. “I don’t know. I’ve never used them for dancing, just walking.”
“Well could you dance in them?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Excellent!” Mr. Cheshire rubbed his paws together. “I’ve a party I must attend, and I’m supposed to bring a non-feline guest.”
“They specified non-feline?”
“Of course. Chestnut would have obviously come with me, and the hostess likes surprises.”
“Is Chestnut still going to go as well?”
“But doesn’t that discount the hostess’ wishes?” But Mr. Cheshire had already bounded off, with Chestnut in close pursuit. The girl had no choice but to follow if she were ever to find the lagoon and her grandmother.