Chapter One: The Fairy
Much later, Alice would wonder what might have happened if she’d gone to bed when she was supposed to.
It was a fluke, really, because she was the sort of girl who almost always followed the rules. But she’d been doing schoolwork and she’d lost track of time.
It was a Saturday night, and her tutor, Miss Juniper, had assigned her another chunk of algebra for Monday morning. Alice excelled in all her subjects—she never would have allowed it to be otherwise—but in algebra her excellence was born of hard work and long hours rather than natural talent, so she’d determined to make an early start. She wouldn’t be bothering anyone, either. Her room had its own little writing desk and even its own electric lamp, which her father had had installed three years before with the boast that no daughter of his was going to ruin her eyes scribbling by gaslight.
Her father had been working late again. When Alice heard the telltale creak of the front door, she weighed the odds and decided he’d probably be happier to see her than angry that she was still up. She shrugged into her robe and padded into the hall and down the stairs.
The late-night silence was a little unnerving. Alice had grown up in a house that had practically bustled with servants and guests, even in the middle of the night, and she was used to seeing strangers about. But the servants had departed one by one as times had grown mean, until only Cook, Miss Juniper, and her father’s man were left, and the visitors were less common than they used to be. The guest rooms that lined the hallway were all shut up now, with sheets draped over the furniture.
She passed the doors quickly, tugging her robe a little tighter, and ducked into the servants’ stairs that led to the kitchen. Her father would probably be there, fixing himself something hot to drink.
Sure enough, the swinging door at the bottom of the steps was outlined in yellow light. Alice put her hand out to push it open, but as her fingers brushed the wood she heard the voices, and realized her father wasn’t alone.
“. . . you have to know what we can do for you, Mr. Creighton,” said someone who wasn’t her father. “Someone is going to take advantage of it sooner or later.”
Alice turned away at once. Being up late was one thing, but eavesdropping on her father’s business conversations was quite another. She’d put her foot on the first step when the sound of her father’s voice brought her up short.
“Don’t you dare!” he shouted. “Don’t you dare threaten my family.”
The words hung in the air for long seconds, like a fading firework.
Her father never shouted, at least not in her hearing. He was a quiet, honest man who dealt fairly with everyone, put flowers on her mother’s grave once a month, and went to church every Sunday. Hearing him talk like that was like watching a teddy bear yawn and reveal a mouth full of fangs. Alice stood perfectly still, not daring to move even her eyes. She wanted to run, knew she ought to—whatever was being said was obviously not for her ears—but her feet felt like lead weights.
“Mr. Creighton,” said the other man. “Nobody’s threatening. I’m just stating a fact. Nothing wrong with stating a fact, is there? No law against it.”
His voice was odd, high and nasal. Alice could hear a strange sound as well, a kind of urgent thrum-thrum-thrum.
“Don’t mess me around,” her father said, not shouting now but still angrier than she’d ever heard him. “We both know what you’re here to say, and I’m sure you know what my answer’s going to be.”
“I strongly recommend you reconsider your position, Mr. Creighton.” The thrumming grew louder. “For the sake of everyone involved.”
“By God,” Alice’s father said. “So help me, I ought to break your ugly head against the wall.”
“You could do that,” the other man said. “You could do that, Mr. Creighton. But you won’t. You know it would be unwise.” His voice dropped a fraction. “For the girl, most of all.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, Alice turned around. Her heart was still beating so hard, it seemed a wonder that her father couldn’t hear it. She stepped back down to the door, carefully avoiding the creaky step, and pressed her fingers into the crack of light. It was wrong, possibly the most wrong thing she had ever done in her entire life, but she had to see. She gave the swinging door the lightest touch, and the crack widened into a gap big enough for a garter snake, to which she applied her eye.
The light made her squint. On one side of the room was her father, still in his suit, looking rumpled. His hair was damp with sweat. One of his hands was curled around the handle of a cast-iron frying pan sitting on the range, as though he meant to swing it and make good on his threat.
Across from him, hanging in the air, was a fairy.
When Alice had been a little girl, her father had given her a book called The Enchanted Forest. It was a big book made with thick paper, and had large type with pen-and-ink illustrations on each facing page. She’d probably been a bit too old for it, truth be told, but she’d read it anyway, as she read every piece of printed material that fell within her reach. It was the story of a rather stupid little girl who wandered into an enchanted forest, and caused a good deal of havoc among the creatures who lived there.
One of those creatures had been a fairy. It was a slim, child-like figure with wide eyes and a button nose wearing flowing robes, held aloft by gauzy insect wings—Alice had always imagined the wings in translucent greens and blues, like a butterfly’s—and it had looked down at the little girl with an air of amused benevolence while it stood daintily in her raised palm.
At that age, Alice had grasped the idea that some things in books were real, and others were not. Questioning her father had revealed that there were such things as lions, tigers, and elephants (he’d promised a visit to the zoo, which had yet to happen), while trolls, centaurs, and dragons were the figments of writers’ overactive imaginations. Alice remembered feeling vaguely annoyed at the author of The Enchanted Forest, who had clearly intended to deceive little girls possessing less penetrating intellects than her own.
There was, her father had told her, no such thing as fairies, either.
The thing hovering in the air in Alice’s kitchen was similar enough to the picture in the book to be instantly recognizable, but he was larger, for one thing. The creature in the book had been insectile, six inches high at most, while this creature was a good two feet from head to heel. His wings were enormous, considerably bigger than his slender body, and beat the air so fast, they were a blur, like a hummingbird’s. They were colored, not in greens and blues, but yellow and black, which put Alice in mind of something nasty and poisonous.
The fairy’s skin was off-white and gnarled with warty growths sprouting clusters of thick, black hair. His scalp was bare and bald as an egg, gleaming wetly in the electric light. He had no nose at all, and his eyes were wide but black from edge to edge. When he spoke, she could see a mouth full of needle-like teeth, and a long red tongue like a snake’s.
Alice closed her eyes. This, she thought, is ridiculous. There are no such things as fairies. She gave herself a pinch on the arm, which hurt, and counted slowly to ten.
When I open my eyes, she thought, he will be gone.
“I really wish you’d at least hear my offer,” said the nasal voice.
Alice opened her eyes. The fairy was still there. He had hovered closer to her father, his wings thrum-thrumming, one tiny finger wagging in under his nose.
“I will not,” Alice’s father said. “I will not entertain any sort of offer. Go back and tell your master that. And tell him, if he troubles me again, I’ll . . .”
The fairy waited, lip curled in a cocky grin that showed his teeth. “You’ll what, Mr. Creighton?”
“Get out!” he shouted. “Get out of my house!”
There was a long moment of silence. The fairy hovered, impudently, as if to demonstrate that he didn’t have to go just because her father had said so. Then, with an affected sigh, he spun in the air and zipped out the open doorway on the other side of the room. Alice heard one of the front windows rattle open.
Her father sagged, like a heavy weight had been fastened around his shoulders. He let go of the frying pan and leaned on the range for support. Alice wanted to run to him, but she didn’t dare. Whatever she had just seen—and she was still not certain what she had just seen—it was something she had not been supposed to witness.
Alice’s father took a long breath, closed his eyes, and blew it out slowly, tickling the edges of his mustache. Then his eyes snapped open, full of panic.
“Alice,” he said, under his breath. “Oh God.”
All of a sudden he was running, struggling to get his feet under him, caroming off the kitchen doorway and out toward the main stairs. Alice was caught for a moment in stunned surprise, then started running herself, back up the servants’ stairs, heedless of the creaking. He made it to her door only a few seconds before she arrived.
Finding the door ajar, he flung it open, and stared wide-eyed at the empty room. His expression, bathed in the glow of her electric desk lamp, was the most terrifying thing Alice had ever seen.
She hurried to his side and grabbed his arm. “Father! Is something wrong?”
“You—” He gestured weakly at her empty room, then down at her. “I thought—”
“I was studying,” Alice said, “and I got up for a moment. I’m sorry if I startled you.”
All at once his fierceness melted, and he wrapped his arms around her in a hug so tight, he lifted her off the ground.
“Alice,” he said, his scratchy cheek pressed against her forehead. “Alice.”
“I’m here, Father.” She squirmed until she worked her own arms free, then put them around him as far as they would go.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. She wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or not. “Everything is going to be all right.”
“Of course it is,” she said.
When he let go, there was something new in his face, a strange, wild determination so far out of the ordinary that it made Alice feel scared and proud of him, both at once. He set her down gently, put his hands on her shoulders, and looked her in the eye.
“I love you,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Alice felt herself blushing. “Of course.”
His eyes were already miles away. He patted her shoulder, absently, and then hurried toward his study. Alice looked after him, wondering about the decision she’d seen in his eyes.
Then, because she was a girl who followed the rules, she went back into her room and went to bed.
The next morning, everything seemed so normal that Alice almost thought she’d dreamed the whole thing. Almost, but not quite.
She woke up in her familiar bed, under her warm, familiar quilt with its frayed edge. Her room was just her familiar room, with the heavy oak wardrobe in one corner and the framed picture of her grandmother looking down benevolently.
There was no elf sitting on her desk, and her books were just where she’d left them the night before. No troll in the heavy wooden chest at the foot of the bed, only the winter comforters and an ancient pair of stuffed rabbits she couldn’t quite bear to throw away. She even, feeling intensely self-conscious, lifted the bedskirts and looked underneath, but there was no dragon there, only a thick layer of dust.
Nevertheless, she was certain what she’d seen had been real. The memory was bright and clear, not fuzzy and fading the way dreams were. When she sat down for breakfast with her father, she became doubly sure. He was acting normal, but it was an act, a little too sincere to believe.
“Earthquakes again,” he said, paging through the Times. “First New Zealand, now Managua. Thousands dead, it says.”
“That’s terrible,” Alice said, because she knew it was expected of her. She was trying to keep from staring at her father’s face. He’d washed and shaved since last night, of course, but there was still something tight around his eyes. It wasn’t a dream, she thought. I’m sure of it.
“Something ought to be done about it,” he said, turning the page. “And still fighting in Spain. Seems like the whole world’s coming to pieces.”
“You always say they only print the bad news,” Alice said.
Her father looked up and smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
Cooper, her father’s man, appeared with a plate of toast and jam. Properly speaking, it wasn’t his job to serve at table, but Alice’s father had been forced to give the last of the footmen the sack when they’d caught him stealing from the pantry. Cooper insisted he didn’t mind. In this day and age, he said, a man ought to be grateful to have work at all.
Her father put the paper aside and went to work on the toast, all in silence. Alice took a slice herself and carefully covered it with jam, right to the edges, working carefully with the butter knife to spread it evenly. The longer neither of them spoke, the more the silence grew and grew, like some monstrous thing squatting on the table between them. When her father finally cleared his throat Alice gave a little start.
“I’m going on a trip.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “Something’s come up. It’s important, I’m afraid.”
“When?” Alice said. “And how long will you be gone?”
“I’m catching a steamer tonight.”
A ship? Her father’s business took him all over New England, and occasionally as far as Chicago or Washington, D.C., but he’d never been gone for more than a week, and never on a steamer. “And where—”
“Here.” He folded the paper and pushed it over to her. “It’s the Gideon, bound for Buenos Aires.” The schedule, a set of stops all down through the Caribbean and South America, was printed in a neat box beside the ticket prices and number for inquiries. “This way you’ll be able to keep track of me.”
Alice put one hand on the paper and swallowed hard, trying to sound as normal as she could. “When should I expect you back?”
His expression cracked. Just for a moment, but Alice was watching him closely, and she knew him better than anyone. His mouth turned down, pulling at his mustache, and his eyes glittered with tears.
“It’ll be some time,” he said. “I’m sorry, Alice. I wish there was another way.”
Something was wrong, very wrong. Alice fought a growing thickness in her throat.
“Perhaps I should come with you,” she said. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have dreamed of offering such a suggestion unbidden, but desperate times called for desperate measures. “You’ve always said I need more experience in the practical side of business—”
“No,” he said, a little too quickly. “Not this trip. When I get back . . .” He forced a smile. “Maybe then it’ll be time for you to start making the rounds with me. But I’ll make sure to send you a postcard from every stop.”
The following day, Miss Juniper moved into one of the guest rooms and added looking after Alice to her tutoring duties, although in truth Alice didn’t take much looking after. She worked on her French, and her algebra, and completed everything she was assigned on time. When Miss Juniper asked her what she wanted to do for her day off, Alice told her that she wanted to go to the Carnegie Library. She spent eight solid hours there, a solemn girl alone at one of the great wooden reading desks, working her way through a stack of books that represented everything the library had on the subject of fairies.
Her father needed her help, she was certain of it. She wasn’t sure why, or how, but the brief glimpse of the fairy in the kitchen was all she had to go on. She took home a notebook full of references and scribbles, and as many books as the librarian would let her have. She stayed up late reading that night, and the night afterward as well. Alice was not a girl who believed in half measures.
Two days later, Cooper brought her the Times with breakfast. The front page told her that President Hoover had given another speech promising that the worst was over, that the stock market had taken another tumble, and, below the fold, that the steamer Gideon had gone down in a freak storm off Hatteras, with all hands.
Chapter Two: Mr. Pallworthy
After the storm of telegrams—the messenger boy kept bringing stacks of them, and Alice piled them unread inside the door to her father’s study—came an inundation of relations. They were mostly cousins, none of whom Alice had ever seen before and none of whom paid her more than perfunctory attention. They trooped through the big old house like visitors to a museum, offering her halfhearted pats on the head while giving the furniture appraising looks.
After the cousins came the accountants, who were more open in their appraisals and didn’t bother with Alice at all, and after the accountants, like a Biblical plague building up to a big finish, came the lawyers. They belonged to several different firms and seemed to have come to argue with one another, and for the most part they paid no attention to Alice either. She stood grimly in the dining room, in her short-sleeved black dress, feeling like an overlooked decoration.
Eventually, one of the lawyers came and told her they were going to have a chat. She wondered if he was their leader. He was certainly the largest, his coal-gray suit straining to contain his girth, and he had an enormous gray mustache that drooped past the corners of his mouth, the ends stained nicotine-yellow. When he came to fetch her, he affected a jolly, avuncular manner that made it clear it had been years since he’d dealt with anyone under the age of thirty.
She followed him up to her father’s study, and seethed quietly as he seated himself behind the desk in her father’s chair. It creaked alarmingly beneath his bulk. Alice stood in front of the desk, as she had so many times before, and fought the illusion that her father had somehow transformed into this smoke-stinking whale of a man.
“So, my girl,” he said, “you have my sincerest condolences. Terrible business. A terrible business. You understand what’s happened, don’t you?”
I’m twelve, Alice thought, not five. She made herself nod. “I understand.”
“My name is Mr. Pallworthy. I’m here to look after things on behalf of your father’s business partners, that sort of thing.”
Alice, feeling that a response was called for, nodded again.
“I don’t imagine you know very much about your father’s business”—his deep-set eyes flicked to her, as though to confirm this—“but that’s fine. We’ll take care of everything, don’t you worry.” He reached under the desk and brought up a heavy briefcase, from which he extracted a thick sheaf of paper. “Now, your father’s primary interests had suffered, unfortunately, from our current market conditions—”
He went on, his tone changing from the jolly talking-to-children voice to a going-through-the-motions drone. Alice could follow what he was reading, possibly better than Mr. Pallworthy himself could—his voice faltered when he came to some of the more arcane financial terms—but the gist was clear from the outset. There was nothing left, nothing at all, and it was only by the extreme generosity of the creditors represented by Mr. Pallworthy that Alice would be allowed to leave the building with the clothes on her back.
Under other circumstances, she would have taken some pleasure in going through the paperwork herself to figure out how he was cheating her—he was, of course, cheating her, that was what lawyers were for—but at that moment she couldn’t bring herself to care. When he’d wound down, he asked her if she had any questions.
“What is to happen to me?” she said.
“Eh?” Mr. Pallworthy frowned, his mustache bouncing. “What do you mean?”
“I can’t stay here, I assume,” Alice said.
“No, of course not,” the lawyer said. “The house will be sold at auction, the arrangements are already being made.” He seemed to remember he was speaking to a child, and put on his jolly-old-boy face again while he rummaged through the stack of papers. “Arrangements have been made for you too, of course. You’re to stay with family, I believe. One moment.” He found the paper he was looking for and peered at it. “Ah, yes. I see you’ll be moving in with your uncle Jerry.”
Alice blinked. “I haven’t got an uncle Jerry.”
“Of course you do.” Mr. Pallworthy tapped the paper. “It says so right here.”
“But—” She bit back her protest. It was no good to say that her father had had only one brother, and that his name had been Arnold and he’d died in the War before Alice had been born. Her mother’s family she’d never known at all. Mr. Pallworthy wouldn’t particularly care, and he would believe his piece of paper. “I see. Uncle Jerry.”
“He lives in Pittsburgh, it says. Or near Pittsburgh. Arrangements are being made to get you there.” He seemed to like the phrase. “Taking the train all the way to Pennsylvania, all by yourself! Won’t that be an adventure.”
“I suppose,” Alice answered politely.
“Did you have any other questions?”
Alice just shook her head. Something about her expression must have finally registered with him, and the lawyer’s face clouded as he dredged his memory for something to reassure grieving children. “Chin up, you know. I’m sure things seem awful, but . . .” He faltered, then brightened up. “Just remember, it’s all part of God’s plan!”
Courtesy of the extreme restraint of the creditors represented by Mr. Pallworthy, Alice was allowed to pack two trunks full of her clothes, books, and a few odds and ends, after one of the lawyers had looked them over to make sure there was nothing too expensive among them. She tucked the threadbare rabbits deep inside the trunk, underneath her nightshirts. She knew it was childish, but it made her feel better; and anyway, she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them for Mr. Pallworthy to toss in the trash. The picture of her grandmother stayed—it had been taken by someone famous, apparently, and would have to be auctioned—so Alice stared at her for a few moments in silent farewell before letting a lawyer escort her to the door.
A footman in a big black Ford delivered her to Penn Station, and handed her an envelope containing a one-way, coach-class ticket to Pittsburgh, a local ticket to a station called North Landing, and two ten-dollar bills. She had to break one of these almost immediately, at the station ticket window, in order make change to tip the porters who dragged her trunks down to the side of the track.
The long ride on the train barely registered. She spent it with her chin in her hands, staring blindly out the window as endless farms and pastures rolled past and the sun crossed overhead and sank behind the western horizon. The other passengers in her compartment, as though by common agreement, struck up a lively conversation and completely ignored the gloomy girl in the mourning dress.
Alice’s father had taught her that when she had problems, she ought to list them carefully, one by one, and see what could be done about them. She did this now, using an imaginary pencil and the endless Pennsylvania farmland as a sketchpad.
The first problem was, Alice felt like she was living in a dream. Ever since the night in the kitchen, when she’d watched her father arguing with a fairy, the world had acquired a dangerously thin quality, as though it were only as substantial as a soap bubble.
The second problem was, Alice hadn’t cried when she’d read the newspaper. She hadn’t cried when the telegrams had arrived, or all the way through the funeral. She hadn’t cried when Miss Juniper hugged her good-bye, though the tutor’s eyes had been brimful of tears. She certainly hadn’t cried while the flocks of vultures picked through the house. She kept expecting to, but she hadn’t.
She supposed this was because of the third problem, which was that she didn’t really believe it had happened. In a sane, normal world, when the Times reported that a ship had gone down, it had almost certainly gone down. The Times had ways of checking on these things. Sane, normal Alice would have accepted it as fact, and cried (quietly, alone, and in the dead of night, but cried nonetheless) and then squared her shoulders and tried to deal with whatever life offered her next, because that was the kind of girl she was.
But something had gone wrong. If fairies were real, then the world was not sane and normal anymore. If magic was real, then what she read in the Times didn’t have to be true. Her father might not be drowned after all. He could be—she cast through her limited repertoire of fantastic fiction—a castaway, on an enchanted island. Or spirited away to a crystal palace to be entertained by an elfin court. Or anything. That was the point. If fairies were real, then anything could happen.
Alice realized, as the sun was setting, that she would never be able to leave things where they were. It was as though she had hold of a loose thread at the end of a sweater. She had to give it a tug, and find out if the whole garment unraveled, and if so, what was underneath.
The last problem, in this case, was that she had no idea what to do next. But that was all right. The difficult part was usually deciding where you were headed. After that, in Alice’s experience, getting there was just a matter of hard work.
Not that I have very much choice where I’m headed, Alice thought, for the moment. She leaned back in her seat, eyes closed, and listened to the rails clicking endlessly past.
The two-car local pulled into North Landing station, which turned out to be little more than a wooden platform, a sign, and a gravel lot. A sullen attendant lugged Alice’s trunks off the train, frowned at the nickel she gave him, and climbed back aboard the train without a word.
It was long after dark, and without the city lights to interfere, the sky was a riot of stars. Alice, who had never spent more than a fortnight outside the confines of New York City, looked up at them and felt very small and very alone. To the south, across the river, the city of Pittsburgh proper gave off a muted red-and-yellow glow, but to the north there was nothing but darkness.
She was just feeling the chill and wondering what she would do if no one arrived to meet her when she heard the rattle of an engine and the crunch of tires on gravel. A pair of headlamps blazed, and then an ancient car—a Model T that looked like it was older than Alice—circled around the lot and pulled to a stop in front of the platform. The driver got out, leaving the engine idling, and came up the short steps to meet her.
He was a huge man, tall and muscular, dressed in a leather motoring jacket. His beard, sideburns, mustache, and hair all merged into a wiry black mane that completely surrounded his head and hid his face, apart from a small patch around dark, sunken eyes and a protruding, scabby knob of a nose. If this was “Uncle Jerry,” Alice decided, he was certainly not any relation of her father’s.
“You’ll be Miss Creighton,” the man said. His voice rumbled deeper than the car’s engine, and Alice half expected the same coal-black smoke to leak from his mouth.
She drew herself up and nodded. He stared at her for a moment, and managed to give the strong impression that he didn’t like what he saw.
“Right,” he said eventually. “Get in.”
“You—” Alice began, then reconsidered and spoke more politely. “Have you been sent to bring me to my uncle?”
For some reason this made the huge man smile, flashing discolored teeth through the bristling hedge of beard and mustache. “That’s right.”
If she’d hoped for more information than that, she was disappointed. Alice stepped down from the platform toward the car, and the big man followed closely behind. Halfway there, she stopped and looked back at her two trunks, which were now sitting unattended on the platform’s edge.
The man halted, followed her gaze, then looked down at her. Something in his hairy face twitched, but he turned around with exaggerated care and climbed back up to the platform. He gathered the handles to her trunks in one hand—a hand, Alice couldn’t help but notice, that was broad enough to wrap around a coconut—and lifted them without even a hint of effort. She stepped aside as he brushed past her and affixed her things to the car’s luggage rack.
“Thank you,” Alice said, and received only a grunt in return. “Can I ask your name?”
“You can call me Mr. Black,” the big man said. “Now get in. Your uncle wants to see you.”