It’s the 9th birthday of a the daughter of a friend of my mom’s. She is wearing an Alice dress and hairband, and since I am already going there, I offer to take her with me to the local Wonderland theme park that has just opened nearby.
We’re having a fine time, wandering through an outdoor labyrinth that combines a hedge maze and a house of mirrors, laughing as we chase each other down the recursive pathways. She finds her way out before I do, and strikes up a chat with a White Rabbit mascot. Every time I turn a corner I can see them, through a glass wall, or reflected in a mirror, but somehow I can’t find my way out. I start to get a sinister feeling, and bang helplessly on the glass as the White Rabbit takes her hand and they skip off together across a sunlit field and through a tall, wrought iron gate. I am powerless to reach them, and although I scream myself hoarse, she cannot hear.
Somehow, the second they are out of sight, the maze opens before me and I am free. I run to the gate, but it is locked and far too tall to climb. Panicked, I flee the park and rush home to my mom’s house. I breathlessly try to explain what happened as I rush around the house, trying to find something useful with which to mount a rescue. All I can come up with are a hammer and a grill lighter. Grimly, I vow to burn the place down if I have to. Mom admonishes me, saying I can’t do that sort of thing. “Why not?” I ask, flicking the lighter.
Just then someone bangs on the door and mom answers it. It is her friend, and she is furious. She is angrily declaiming me to my mother as I sheepishly peer from behind her. She is pushing a stroller, and a five year old boy stands boredly by. She scowls at me. “They took her hair, damn you.” she cries. “And her teeth!” As she says this the little girl peeks shyly around her mother’s skirts. Her long locks have been shorn down to ragged clumps. Horrified, I shove through the doorway and collapse to my knees, taking her in my arms and apologizing repeatedly. She barely responds.
I go to the barn and rummage until I find an old, heavy, stainless steel oar. It is somewhat rusted, but still sturdy. It feels good in my hands as I start carving the air, slipping into barely remembered sword and spear forms as imaginary enemies appear before me. The mission has changed from rescue to revenge. Later when I am practicing in the back yard, my brother Chris comes out and offers to help, so I have him throw things at me and practice blocking and cutting them out of the air.
The next day, I return to Wonderland, to the tall black gate. Using the oar as a prybar, I wrench the lock open and slip through. I have gone maybe a dozen or so steps forward on a lush green lawn, when I spring some kind of trap- a fifteen foot hemispherical dome rotates up out of the ground in front of me. As it closes over my head, I lunge backward with my makeshift weapon, just managing to get it under the edge of the dome as it meets the ground on the opposite side. All is dark but for the sliver of green-tinged light from that crescent where the dome is held open by the oar. I am laying flat on my stomach, one hand on the handle, when I feel something pluck at my pant leg and giggle. Careful to keep my grip on the oar, I scramble around so my back is against the dome and I can try to lever it upward by lifting with my legs. As the crescent of light waxes a few inches, I catch glimpses of pale, slender figures dancing in the darkness beneath the dome. Giggles and titters reach my ears, but no discernable words, and none of the figures come close enough to make out. Straining, I manage to claim a few more inches. It’s almost to the point where I can grip the edge of the dome with my hands and try to escape, when suddenly the oar jerks in my hand. Looking down, I see shadows cast by several sets of legs outside the dome, and there is another violent tug on the oar. I struggle to keep my grip in this unexpected tug of war, the light wavering as the edge of the dome rises and falls with our efforts. Bracing myself, I shove hard with my legs, hoping the added leverage of the other person’s grip will help me raise the dome enough to just duck out of it.
As the light brightens, one of the dancing figures capers forward- and I see the darkness was a blessing. The body is that of a man, but the limbs are arranged like a quadruped’s, and it moves on all fours- all fours being four hands on the ends of four pale, muscled arms. The head extends toward me on an overlong neck as it bounds up to me, bringing the parody of a human face right up to mine- skin the color of a dead fish’s belly, expressionless, with dull eyes and a too-long, tapered nose. All of this would have been bad enough, but it was also, monstrously, upside down on the creature’s head.
In that second of abject horror, my grip on the oar handle slackens, and my unseen opponent pulls it out of my hands almost casually, as if I had offered it to them and there were merely accepting it.
And then the dome slides shut, merging with the grass without a sound.
Something plucks at my sleeve.