by Anne E. Johnson
André hated getting rained on and studying calculus about equally. Therefore, when it poured on his way home from school, he didn’t hesitate. Lifting his calculus textbook, he opened its thick cover like a Mansard roof over his head.
The wind swooshed upward and the book turned into a sail, dragging André across his Brooklyn neighborhood. All the detritus of a typical Bedford-Stuyvesant Monday sailed past. When an empty egg carton shot toward him, André repurposed the book as a shield.
“Thank God for calculus,” he sputtered, staggering through the security door of his apartment building. Bounding up the stairs―the elevator was still broken―he sang the famous theme of pointy-nosed Miss Gulch, riding her bike past Dorothy’s farm in The Wizard of Oz. “Oh, Auntie Em!” André declared to the empty apartment. “It’s a cyclone!”
He glanced at the clock. Mom would be home from work at twenty past five. That gave him just under two hours to be Alice. There was no time to waste.
Having dumped his warped and wrinkled math book on the kitchen table, André rushed to his room. Although he was alone, he closed the door, just in case. He tore off the skinny jeans and burnout tee he’d worn to school. “I’m coming, Alice,” he chanted over and over as he pushed a pile of boxes off an old trunk at the bottom of his closet. Inside he found the comforting sight of a sky-blue dress with a sequined bodice. André held up the dress and admired row upon row of one-inch fringe, stretching from the Empire waist to the floor.
“Hello, Alice,” said André. He slid the garment up his slender body and zipped it with practiced, flexible arms. “Shoes, now.” Once the charcoal sheer stockings were on, he stepped into a pair of ivory pumps. Their satin finish gave them a pearlescent sheen that he never tired of admiring.
“And the face.” The same moment he reached for Alice’s make-up bag, the wind gusted, clattering his window with hail. “Dreadful,” said André because that’s what Alice would say and he had almost become her. “Don’t worry, darlings,” he assured the twenty or so stuffed animals piled up on his bed. “Mama Alice will keep you safe.”
He set his mind to the final stages. Brown foundation. Scarlet-bronze lipstick. Jet black eyeliner and mascara. Copper eye shadow. And the last, most glorious step: from a high shelf above the bed he pulled a box marked “André’s Old Toys.” The label was a lie. He removed the cover and lifted out a black bouffant wig.
“So glad you’re here, Alice,” Alice said to herself in the mirror. She blew a kiss and the transformation was complete.
When Alice waltzed around the little room, it became a glamorous ballroom. She curtsied to Prince Leopold (who had been a plywood dresser only moments before) and winked demurely when he shook his gold braid epaulets at her. Prince Leopold happened to be a dead ringer for a boy named Leo in André’s American History class, but Alice knew him only as a prince.
She was about to allow His Highness to kiss her hand when a wet thunk against the window made her jump and yelp. Using a finger that ended in a silver press-on nail, she pushed up one slat of the Venetian blinds. The two hysterical pink eyes stared back at her through the pane.
“Prince Leopold!” she squealed. “You simply must rescue the injured kitten on the terrace!”
The “terrace” was a rusting A.C. unit. When the “prince” made no move to help, Alice herself took a closer look. The “injured kitten” was a sopping-wet, filthy, bedraggled stuffed rabbit. There was lingering evidence that its fur had once been white.
Injured kittens were a sad fact of life, but a stuffed animal in peril was more than Alice could take. After a withering glance back at her impotent prince, she addressed the suffering bunny. “I’ll bring you in out of the storm, poor baby,” she said, reaching toward the window.
The glass dissolved as her fingers touched it. And then the air conditioner melted away. And then the wall. Within seconds, the entire bedroom was gone. This wasn’t the usual Alice fantasy, where she saw the crappy real stuff in an impossibly glamorous way. No, this was something much more freakishly real.
As far as Alice could see in all directions was a landscape of peach-colored cotton candy fibers glistening under a lemon sherbet sky.
The stuffed rabbit appeared somewhat whiter now, but still could have used a bleaching. He bounced among the cotton candy hillocks, leaving dents that puffed back into shape as he sprang upward.
“Too fun!” declared Alice, who leapt toward the nearest fluffy pile. Unlike the buoyant bunny, however, Alice stuck. Worse, she sank.
The candy floss grabbed at her pumps and twined around her ankle. The last thing Alice saw as the ceiling of peach steel wool shut over her were the White Rabbit’s pink eyes, looking down at her.
It was a soft landing, thanks to the floor being covered with a quilt. Actually, Alice recognized this quilt. “This is my bed,” she exclaimed, wobbling in pumps on her own mattress, “but it’s taking up the entire floor.”
She looked around. “And why are the walls white? Have I lost my sanity? Whose room is this really? I would never have white walls. Where’s my Lady Gaga poster? And all my stuffed…”
Her stuffed animals showed up just as she wondered about them. They crawled up on their own, struggling through the crevices between the bed and the walls. “You’re alive,” Alice accused Reginald, a blue and pink striped elephant who’d been her favorite for years.
“Of course we’re alive,” said Reginald. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know. I mean, your mom has no clue. But you?” His voice was gruffer than Alice would have imagined. Reginald pushed his soft trunk against her nose and growled. “You wanna know what it feels like?”
This sounded ominous. “What what feels like?”
Although Reginald’s smile was sewn on, it somehow became a smirk. “Cuddles,” he announced. Turning toward a wall, he called to Clarissa, an orange bear with a green tummy. “Show her, Clar.”
Alice, eager for a cuddle, opened her arms to her beloved bear. With each bounding step across the room-sized bed, Clarissa nearly doubled in size. By the time she reached Alice, her fuzzy ears bent against the ceiling. “Don’t crush me!” Alice begged the giant teddy, pulling her knees to her chest and crossing her forearms in front of her face.
Two plump orange limbs, ample as tree trunks, slid behind her shoulders and pulled her into a lime shag carpet of a bear chest. “Ooh, my widdle pookums,” Clarissa cooed.
This, Alice realized, was what she always said when she cradled a stuffed friend. How ironic that André, the terribly lonely boy, would now die as a girl smothered by too much love.
“Don’t fight it,” advised a reedy voice. When Alice squirmed around to see, she found Mr. Olaf, her stuffed penguin, waving up from the quilt. “Cuddles are scary at first,” Mr. Olaf intoned sagely, “but once you relax, they’re nice.”
Closing her eyes, Alice took a big breath and let it out slowly. Sure enough, what had felt like being snuffed out by a pillow now seemed like a loving embrace. Alice snuggled back, digging her hands deep into Clarissa’s microfiber fur.
She’d nearly fallen asleep when a chorus of alarmed animal noises jolted her awake. “Interloper!” squawked Sachi, the Japanese silky chicken. “Interloper!” echoed Terry the Tiger.
The animals’ cries of “Interloper!” pushed the white walls outward. Clarissa, losing her balance, opened her thick orange arms. For a few seconds, Alice held onto the bear’s tummy fur, but then her fingers slipped and she fell.
Down, down, down. “At least it’s just a bed down there,” thought Alice. But she never hit the bed. She just kept falling.
“Ooh!” said Alice, feeling the wind blow up her skirt. The layers and layers of fringe on her dress stuck outward like the legs of a million millipedes. “Ah-hah!” she added, seeing that the dirty White Rabbit with big pink eyes was falling right beside her. “You’re the interloper,” observed Alice.
“Your animals seem to think so,” said the White Rabbit.
Whump! They landed. The smell of an exquisite perfume whirled around Alice’s nostrils. White lights lit white marble counters from the inside, the giving the surfaces a ghostly, expensive glow. And on those counters?
“Paradise,” sighed Alice.
“Cosmetics department,” the White Rabbit specified.
Alice nodded. “Exactly. My idea of Paradise.”
With a roll of his pink eyes, the White Rabbit hopped away. But Alice didn’t care. She’d found what she hadn’t even known she was seeking. “You,” she said to a tube of lipstick, “are the reason I’m here.”
Alice looked around for a sales rep to show her the products. “Ahem?” she called, seeing no one about. “I can test the colors, right? Otherwise, how will I know if they work with my complexion?”
“Choose me!” said a tinny, tiny voice.
“No, choose me,” insisted another.
Alice stared at the tray of lipstick tubes. “Did you say something?”
“I’m the right one for you,” claimed a tube labeled “Dankly Morose.” Its voice came out of its cap. “I’ll highlight the burnt umber of your eyes.”
Alice reached toward it, but another tube distracted her. “I’m ‘Exquisiliscious,’ perfect for a glamour girl like you.”
Alice’s hand stretched toward that tube, but stopped when suddenly all the tubes shuddered and stood at attention.
“She’s here!” hissed several lipsticks. When Alice looked around, she saw no one. She waited a few more seconds, her hand hovering over a glittering gold tube labeled “Crimson Alter Ego.” Finally, she couldn’t wait any longer.
“I’m trying this one on,” she announced loudly. Pulling off the gold cap, she fell in love with the hue. It reminded her of a broken heart pureed in a vat of molten copper, with an undertone of nightmare. It had chutzpah, as André’s high school principal, Mrs. Rosenstein, liked to say. “You’re gonna make me shine,” Alice cooed to the color as it twisted out toward her puckered lips. It touched her softly and spread smoothly, giving off a faint scent of lilac. “Perfect,” said Alice.
“It does suit you,” a loud voice boomed down from above.
“Who’s there?” demanded Alice, still holding the pigment to her lips.
“That shade really makes the contours of your face pop,” said the voice. “Do you suppose it would do the same for me?”
Alice tried not be alarmed by the fact that the lipstick seemed to be glued to her lower lip. Speaking as clearly as she could under the circumstances, she offered a bargain. “I can definitely advise you on this, but I need to see your face.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the voice boomed, “You have a point. Cover up your pretty hairdo.”
“Do what?” But Alice didn’t get a chance to discuss it further. The ceiling shattered. As plaster chips rained down on the cosmetics wonderland, a huge hand stretched down toward Alice. She knew she should be having a Faye Wray-and-King Kong moment, screaming as the fingers closed around her. Instead, she was preoccupied with something that didn’t make sense: the lipstick, which had finally come free from her lip, no longer had any color. It had gone as white as a steer’s skeleton in the Mojave desert.
As the colossal hand drew her upward, a planet-sized face came into view. It had the cheekbones and eye shape of a young woman’s face.
“I just love cosmetics,” the lady said, “but I have trouble choosing.”
Seeing a way out of her predicament, Alice offered another bargain. “Your skin has a bit more yellow than mine,” she said. “You’ll want a deeper sense of purple in your pigment. So put me back down and I’ll find something nice for you. I’m thinking ‘Dankly Morose’ is more your scene.”
“No,” said the face, its eyes wide with hunger. “I’ll just use yours.”
Alice held up the white lipstick. “Sorry, hon, but there’s no color left. It just drained out somehow.”
In the huge face, the huge lips into a smile wider than the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “I see plenty of color.”
Alice’s looked at her hand, holding up the lipstick. Her hand was red. More precisely, it was Crimson Alter Ego. So was her arm.
Using the convex side of the lipstick like a funhouse mirror, Alice saw that her face and hair were crimson, too. She dropped the lipstick and reached for the hem of her dress to check her legs. Her blue dress had turned bright gold. Its fabric hardened like armor. The pleats and tucks smoothed and rounded out, forming a tube that rose to her nose.
The overgrown Cosmetics Lady held Alice differently now, between thumb and forefinger. And here came the other hand to twist the “tube.” Around spun Alice, her crimson shoulders and head emerging from her stiff gold dress.
“Help Mama get ready for the ball,” said the Cosmetics Lady. A breeze rushed past as her giant hand pulled Lipstick Alice up to her giant mouth. Alice’s head moved rapidly toward a bead of spittle the size of her fist bobbing along the lip’s cracked surface.
“Nooo!” screamed Alice, scrunching her eyes and bunching her fingers and wishing she’d never seen a cosmetics counter in her whole, sorry life.
The upward motion stopped suddenly. The scent of perfume was replaced by the musty smell of pine and dirt. A millimeter at a time, Alice opened her eyes. There stood the White Rabbit, up on his haunches. He treated Alice to a maddeningly innocent wave of his paw before scampering off into the pitch-black distance.
Left alone, Alice gave herself a once-over. Her skin was brown, as it should be. Her dress was blue, as it should be. These were big steps in the right direction.
“I gotta get home,” Alice determined. “But first I gotta figure out where I am.” She stood. Both her ankles rolled and she landed on her knees. Looking around, she realized she was deep in a pine forest.
“This rules out Brooklyn,” she deduced. “South Jersey, maybe?” She tried again to stand, but her pumps sank into the spongy layer of dried pine needles. “A girl’s worst nightmare,” she sighed, pulling off her shoes and choosing a random direction to proceed in her stockings.
All the trees looked the same, lit by a silvery tint that seemed more Broadway spotlight than natural moon. Alice liked the way it made the sequins on her bodice glisten.
“Turn off that damn light,” growled a husky voice that swooped from bass to soprano and back.
Given her recent experience at the cosmetics counter, Alice immediately searched above for the giant speaking to her. But the only thing up there was the canopy of treetops.
“Did your balloon fly away, darling?” asked the voice, which was closer to Alice’s altitude than she’d expected. “I used to stare at the sky when I was your age,” said the voice. Alice, still searching, wobbling past a few trees.
Sitting on a wide gray mushroom was the oldest, most worn-out drag queen Alice had ever seen. The seams across her chartreuse sheath dress cut into her ample hips and belly, giving her the distinct look of a caterpillar. “Who do you think you are,” she demanded of Alice, “standing there being so freaking young?”
Having no idea how to answer that, Alice countered with her own question. “Shouldn’t you be smoking a hookah?”
The drag queen’s eyebrows rose, crawling upward like they resented being disturbed and pushing the flesh in her forehead into long hills and crevices. “I used to smoke a hookah,” she admitted, “but I gave it up. The hipsters have made it too trendy.” Twice she swatted the air with her antennae-length eyelashes. “Miss Larraine don’t do trendy.”
Impressed, Alice curtsied the best she could on the soft ground. “Is Larraine your drag name? Mine’s Alice.”
Larraine stared down at Alice from her fungal throne. “It’s my only name, my lovely.” She squinted into the distance, as if trying to see the distant past. The expression left hairline cracks in her beige facial foundation, applied too thickly for good taste. “I used to have another name,” she sighed, “but I’ve forgotten it.”
Thinking of all the time she was forced to spend as André, Alice wished she had the nerve to forget the other part of herself. “So, nobody gives you a hard time?” Alice asked. “You can just be Larraine?” Alice wondered for a moment if she might be in Paradise after all. The way Larraine rubbed her temples and belched out a gust of bologna-scented wind put made her doubt that, though. “Will I ever learn to be Alice all the time?” she asked the guru on the shroom. “I don’t want to be André any more.”
Larraine lifted her shoulders in a shrug high enough to pop a side seam. “Howwww?” She let the word linger on the collagen welts of her lips.
“How what?” asked Alice.
“How do you know you’re not truly both Alice and André? Are you sure you want to lose André forever? There’s no going back.”
Alice leaned her elbows against the edge of the mushroom. “Where I live, I have to hide Alice,” she explained. “I’m tired of hiding.”
“Then why?” Larraine’s voice rose to nearly a shriek. “Why are you hiding?”
Alice stepped back, feeling the tears bubble over. Wiping her cheek left smeared mascara on the back of her hand. “Everyone’s gonna hate Alice,” she sniffled. She imagined she saw a glimmer of sympathy in Larraine’s wrinkled brow.
But the drag queen’s sorrowful smile twisted quickly into a sneer. “Self-pity and cowardice,” she mused, slicing Alice in two vertically with a razor-edged glare. “You poor, poor thing.” The words were icy. “I know just the place for you.” Larraine bellowed into the deep woods, “One for the palace! Need an escort to the palace!”
“A palace!” echoed Alice, now shamelessly optimistic. She fixed her hair while scanning the trees for an emerging knight.
“There you are,” Larraine said flatly when the escort arrived.
Alice sighed. No knight. Not even a trained grizzly. Her escort was the White Rabbit, who waggled eyebrows Alice hadn’t even realized he had.
Said the White Rabbit, “We’re late. This way, please.” He hopped off into the dark.
Alice, tripping after him, glanced back to say goodbye to Larraine. But only fog and dried leaves swirled where the shimmering green drag queen and her big white mushroom had been.
As for the White Rabbit, all Alice could see was his fluffy tail, disappearing into a hole in a rotting log. “I’m not touching that,” declared Alice. “It’s got maggots.” But she knew she had no choice. She was alone and lost in a dark forest. Although Alice couldn’t say she liked the White Rabbit, he was at the moment the closest thing she had to a friend.
She put on her shoes. “Coming,” she called resignedly, stepping toward the putrid log.
As Alice drew nearer, the hole in the log began to glow like gold; by the time she reached it, the log had vanished. In its place was a golden trap door, encrusted with precious gems. “So much for the maggots,” Alice laughed, grabbing the ornately twisted handle and pulling up.
She heard the White Rabbit say, “Oh-ho! There’s still maggots here!” from deep in the earth.
“This place is perfect,” Alice countered as she majestically descended a gleaming gold staircase. “Enamel tiles, exquisite architecture. Even the curtains are gold lamé.” Having arrived on a floor of polished rose Italian marble, Alice spun with her arms open like a Disney princess. “There isn’t even dust or fingerprints on anything! Don’t you dare tell me there are maggots.”
For an instrant, she spied the White Rabbit in a corner. “Not all maggots are actually insects,” he said philosophically. His pink eyes were sad. “Good luck, Alice.” He gave a tiny bow, turned, and hopped into a gold-plated air duct.
Alarmed, Alice lunged after him. As she moved toward the wall, however, the wall moved toward her; the results were painful for her nose. “The beautiful room is shrinking!” she wailed as the four walls closed in around her.
With her teeth clenched and legs straddled in an uncomfortably macho stance, Alice pushed out at two opposite walls. They didn’t budge. “This isn’t even a room anymore,” complained Alice. “It’s more like a very fancy closet.”
She thought for a minute. Then she slapped her forehead (an action which simultaneously caused her to bang her elbow). “I get it now,” she groaned to whatever puppet master was getting his jollies watching Alice’s Very Weird Day. “You’re trying to show me how I live my life in a decorative, protective closet,” said Alice. “Very nice. Very subtle. Well, you try coming out as a gonna-be trangender in a housing project in Harlem. To say nothing of high school.” She shook her finger randomly at the air. “You, whoever you are, all safe in some distant booth, observing poor Alice on CCTV―you don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘bully’.”
One golden wall slid open. There, hulking over her closet, blocking out the sunshine, was a snorting bull with steam rising from its giant head. As she cowered, Alice noticed that the bull bore a striking resemblance to Jamal Torres, a mean, awful boy from school. “I said bully, not bull,” she informed her tormentor. But the bull stayed.
When it swiped its horns at her, Alice whimpered, “I take it this is still part of the metaphor.” The bull sprayed snot and pawed the marble floor, scratching it badly.
That sign of disrespect to something so beautiful was all Alice needed to rev up her indignation. “Don’t you snort at me like that, Jamal,” she threatened. “I know it was you that came up behind me last week and pushed me down, creep.” She snarled and the bull took a step back. “Now, let me out of here. No loser like you is gonna keep Astonishing, Astounding Alice in the closet, hear?”
Hiking up her hem and staring down her nemesis, she squeezed between the bull’s beefy shoulder and the golden door jamb. Her fringe caught on a hinge, pulling loose a thread that unraveled yard by yard as she ran. But Alice only ran faster.
The ground, which once again looked like peach cotton candy, started to shake in a slow rhythm from something striking it behind her. She assumed at first it was Jamal the Bull, but realized a running bull would not make a slow, heavy beat like that.
Alice’s plan was to run forever or until the ominous pounding stopped, whichever came first. Suddenly the White Rabbit appeared in her path, peeking over a lump in the cotton candy turf.
“Oh, dear,” the White Rabbit said through trembling stitched-on lips. He looked past Alice.
Alice stopped. “What?!”
There was no need for the White Rabbit to explain. Reflected in his pink eyes, wide and glassy with terror, Alice saw a much scarier reason than Jamal Torres to stay in the closet. Alice’s mother, in massive size, lurched across the pinkish hills. She was being chased by all of Alice’s stuffed animals, swarming behind her heels like fire ants. Reginald the Elephant was in the vanguard, tooting a strident rallying tune through his trunk.
Pulling off her pumps and hurling them behind her at the monster mom, Alice commenced running again. She felt her nylons ripping and her lungs constricting, so she slowed to a trot. “I’ll never outrun her!” cried Alice. “Somebody, help me!”
A rumbling and thumping now came from the other direction.
“Who’s that?” wailed Alice.
Over the distant rise came not a face Alice had recently been much too close to. “The lipstick tester from the cosmetics counter!” she gasped, recognizing the color of Crimson Alter Ego that had smeared from her own head onto those enormous lips.
“Friend or foe?” asked Alice.
“We’re all your friends,” replied the Cosmetics Lady. Bending low, looked critically at Alice. “I know a thing or two about fashion. Trust me when I say, that dress is too short for you.”
Easily distracted by couture, Alice defended her favorite frock. “Don’t be stupid. This is a maxi dress.” She looked down to admire how the fringe creased over the top of her feet. Instead, she had a clear view of her bare lower legs in smudged, ragged stockings. The lower eighteen inches of the dress were missing.
“Ha! You’re a fashion disaster!” crowed the Cosmetics Lady. But there was no time for repairs. Alice’s mother was almost upon them.
The Cosmetics Lady stretched out both her arms and thrust them forward and back like a bat silhouetted against the moon. The breeze she stirred up carried in thousands of gold tubes of lipstick, shrieking out a metallic battle cry. The giantess and her pigmentary troops hurtled past Alice toward her mother.
Soon Alice’s mom was trapped in a golden tower made of lipstick bricks. “They can’t hold her,” warned the Cosmetics Lady. “You must bind her.”
Noticing the thread that trailed from her skirt, Alice knew just what to do. She circled the lipstick prison, letting the thread wrap around her mom. Around and around and around she sprinted. The once-long dress was turning into a miniskirt. All the little lipsticks jumped away as Alice tied up her mother in sky-blue thread.
While she caught her breath, Alice watched the helpful lipsticks follow the Cosmetics Lady away over the horizon. “Stay gorgeous!” they shouted back into the wind.
For one glorious moment, Alice felt triumphant. Her mother, trussed like a spool of kite string, shrank to her normal size. Alice stood on tiptoe to tower over her. “My own mother,” she scoffed, “trying to scare me into staying in the closet.” She started a self-satisfied cackle, but stopped short when she noticed her mother’s injured expression. Alice was intensely annoyed at the tears forming in her own eyes. “What’s wrong, Mom?” she asked in anger.
“You say I’m your mother,” Mom said.
“Well, sure.” Alice sniffled, more sad than angry now.
“But what about André?”
Alice swallowed hard. “What about him?”
“I’m also André’s mother, right?”
In Alice’s tear-blurred vision, the thread binding her mother―his mother, their mother―dissolved. Alice blinked. André opened his eyes. “Yes, Mom,” said André, “you’re my mother, too.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Mom, standing over André’s bed in his room in their apartment in Brooklyn. “What do you mean, I’m your mother too? Whose else’s mom would I be?”
André sat up slowly. He was still wearing his Alice dress. Its fringe was undamaged. There were no runs in his stockings. His pumps were on his feet and pristine. Weirdest of all, he was dressed head to toe like a girl, and Mom was not hysterical.
She already knew about Alice, André realized, and she didn’t care.
“So, you gonna help me with dinner, or what?” asked Mom.
“Yeah, just a sec,” said Alice. Said André. Said both of them as one.
“Those better not be my shoes,” Mom chuckled as she headed down the hall to the kitchen.
After sitting stunned for a minute, André turned his head to take off Alice’s wig. He caught sight of a sopping, filthy stuffed rabbit that had once been white, sprawled across the top of the air conditioner. Its pink eyes twinkled just as a gust of wind swept it away.
Alice slipped off her dress. André slipped on his sweats.
“These string beans aren’t gonna chop themselves,” Mom called.
“Be right out!” called André. That was redundant, though, since apparently he was already out.
Anne E. Johnson lives in Brooklyn. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in FrostFire Worlds, Shelter of Daylight, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her series of humorous science fiction novels, The Webrid Chronicles, is being published by Candlemark & Gleam. Anne writes speculative fiction for children and tweens as well. Learn more on her website,http://anneejohnson.com.