Once upon a time, a curious girl called Alice finds herself in an even curiouser situation, when she wakes up in a world that isn't her own—on the other side of death. Determined to recall the otherwise hazy details of her demise, she embarks through the land of Nod in hopes of self-discovery... Or, whatever comes thereafter.
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ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A GIRL WHO WAS DEAD.
Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure
of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. Realiza-
tion came to her as she looked around, as though a patch of
fog lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing
through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back
behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered
mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers
she felt sure she would need.
The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of
her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had
thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled
around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was
all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by
trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the
roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even
digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were
fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry
rustled with the movement of her skirt. Fear trickled in,
and she fought it down. Regardless of where she was, panic
would do little to improve her situation. She pressed her
hazy mind into service, frustration gnawing at the edges of
She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to
remember what she had been doing before. This new place
felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same
time, but only belonged to one. A subtle shift in perception
and it reminded her of looking through the glass in an old
general store near her aunt’s cottage. You could creep in
under a board that hadn’t been fully nailed down, the smells
of dust and damp wood seeping into the air. Light filtered
in, lazy in its walk, and she’d step to the window, thick glass,
imperfections as bubbles in the cloudy portal. She look out
then and saw the world outside as she imagined someone
standing on a threshold of another world might. Bright
greens of trees and field, thick browns of the boles of old
maple and oak but rendered with the brush of an impres-
sionist. Peering at the trees and their branches above,
hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a
breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest
wasn’t where she was meant to be. Still, it invoked a feeling
of familiarity, and despite her situation, a comforting
warmth settled in her chest.
This certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea, she
thought to herself. The memories of those familiar places
flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and
pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase
was another thing she remembered and wondered how long
her mind would continue to drip-feed these memories; a
stream trying in vain to remember it was a river.
Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and
took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, the
dry scents of trees and leaves, and a faint, tang of saltwater.
It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean and the
soft sand that would squish between her toes when the
honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt,
took another breath, and headed toward what she thought
might be the end of the tunnel.
Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the
smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead
foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disen-
tangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as
though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopo-
lize her time, jealous of her youth. She blew out an anxious
breath, the emotion a cover for her frustration. She’d always
had a short fuse, and though she recognized the complete
nonsense involved in becoming angry with a tree, she
wanted nothing more than to grab one back and shake it
until it gave up all it knew of her situation. The further she
went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches
becoming sparser and losing strength against her determi-
nation. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the
trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out.
The path gradually lit up, and unless merely a mirage, a
widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.
Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The
trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she
could recall breaking a branch off here and kicking a pile of
leaves to the side. She looked down and noticed the ground
had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by
ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of
the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the
Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her
way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t
thought there would be any animals here—the forest
seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scur-
rying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded
wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she
froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she
watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, tongue lolled
out as if to say, “He"o.”
Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could
wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the
tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path
had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered
the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked
at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had
taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight,
and her mother’s sister hovered into view in her mind’s eye
—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous
figure. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died and
spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in
everything she could. Like the trick with the dogs. Alice
bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like
“Nice doggy...good doggy...”
She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the
animal in small hesitant half-steps. It tilted its head to the
side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that
reminded her of summer skies, pleasant and comforting.
Inching her way closer to the creature, Alice stopped, hand
still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and
seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking
she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck
out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth
tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.
A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand
back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could
without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was
intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take
something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the
dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had
changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.
He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded
down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back
over his shoulder, as if waiting for her to follow. His expec-
tant look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she
was taking the right path. The dog started again and let out
a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”
By the time Alice caught up with the beast, the tunnel
entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay under-
foot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was
better as well, though she still could not tell where the illu-
mination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was
stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a
The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice
came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water lay
before them, with no end in sight. A light breeze blew
across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the
shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though
still clear as glass. From where she stood, Alice could see
the bottom for several feet out.
Where the water met sand, a small pier made from
weathered planks, and lashed together with thick cords of
rope, jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark
lacquered wood with a high prow, and a lantern hanging
from the bowsprit, looked to have room for two or three
people bobbed, tied to the pier.
Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the
boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall—over six feet,
and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice
couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood.
He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the
boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his
footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end
of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and
held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.
The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of
the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he
let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered,
fingers plucking at her skirt nervously. The man stood there
waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never
spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning
flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a
cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of some-
thing, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about
that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw
flashing lights and heard the faint sounds of sirens and
steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.
She considered the boatman for a little while longer and
waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist
in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the
gun—just a quiet expectation in the air.
Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and
she was standing on the subway platform. The man was
there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his
hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her,
forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something,
something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she
The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her
back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still,
tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short
painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to
her throat. She let her lids fall closed, took a deep breath,
and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she
could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she
opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand
outstretched, unaffected by her episode.
Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet
the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed
again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were
beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself
down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand
next to the dog.
Her left hand went on stroking his fur, and she enjoyed
the softness against her palm; the reassuring warmth
beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her
free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her
“What do you want?” she asked the figure at the end of
No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the
situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things
she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a
man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still
seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain.
Although, the harder she thought, the more something
glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed
She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved.
Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier,
and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea
flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and
she grabbed for it.
...turn to page one hundred and sixty-three, Mythology, and...
Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she
was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early
autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.
Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a
stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the black-
board, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat
behind Alice, whispering to a $iend. She turned to see who―
Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. The
memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of
course—the dead need to pay the ferryman for passage. She
looked down and saw she had been digging a hole in the
sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding
against each other under her fingernails. Something glit-
tered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she
brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She
wondered where hers was and realized she wouldn’t have
had one. They no longer buried the dead with a coin. It
troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on
this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish.
For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one
someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.
What of the others? Those that had come here in the
intervening years and found themselves wandering this
endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how
many actua"y come here? Surely those who passed on didn’t all
go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better
term, awkward. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the
cloud in her head, and bent to clean the coin.
When the disc was as clean as she could get it without
walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it
was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image
on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer
edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t deci-
pher. While she was looking at it, the dog let out a low
Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted
what the dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting
full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that
remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows,
wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged.
Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to
tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.
She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for
him—he was the first human she had encountered since
coming to this place, present company, excluded—and
running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a
collision course toward her.
He drew closer and opened his mouth, the words that
spilled out made up her mind for her.
“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN,
Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading
for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out.
The dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and
throat. She reached the coiled figure and slapped the coin
into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned,
making his way to the boat.
She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the
psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards
away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened
her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach
when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhur-
ried and unconcerned.
The dinghy rocked as Alice, her new animal companion,
Dog, and the boatman stepped in, leaning forward to untie
the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at
the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water,
and pushed off, sending them on their way.
At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of
the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before
twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself, giving way to despair.
He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then
the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in
a matter of seconds. The only sounds were the rush of
water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in
the water, and Dog’s panting.
THEY DRIFTED AND PUSHED ALONG FOR A WHILE, ALICE
petting Dog in the bow of the boat, half-reclining, while the
ferryman worked his long wooden pole in the water. After a
time, she sat up but still couldn’t see the other side. That
didn’t bother her yet since she wasn’t sure which direction
she should go once she was free.
She craned her neck and looked over the edge of the
boat. The glassy water swirled and eddied in white curls of
foam against the lacquered wood. Reaching down, she
trailed her fingers in the water, the cool wetness lapping
against her skin, and the spray jumping up, freckling
A frisson shimmying up her skin spurred her mind into
action. She wanted to ask the ferryman a question—when
something bumped against her fingers. She snatched her
hand back on instinct, the feeling on her fingertips like wet
sandpaper. She looked down, curious as to what she
touched—maybe a chunk of driftwood floating by or the
back of an eel. A pair of cold black eyes staring out from a
bleach-white face greeted her.
She jerked away, fear tightening the pit of her stomach.
She could still see it, a woman with her arms outstretched
above her head, hair spilling about her face like a corona.
Alice looked out across the water and saw the rest, what
had been waiting for them in the deepest parts.
Some men and women, all with the same bleach-white
flesh, naked, stared. They floated just below the surface,
reaching up as if yearning for a hand to pull them from their
prisons. There were hundreds, thousands, like a field of
human kelp, and they made Alice want to draw in and cry.
Instead, she turned her gaze to the ferryman.
“Who are they?”
The ferryman paused, lifting his pole from the water. He
raised it to the sky and pointed, bringing it down in a sharp
arc to splash in the water. She leaned over the side to see
the wood shove aside one of the bodies, exposing the scars
on its shoulders where wings had once been. Fear sent a
cold frisson through her. She sank back into the boat,
huddling below the gunwales so she wouldn’t have to see
out. They began to move again, the swish-blub of the ferry-
man’s pole lulling her into a semblance of complacency. She
closed her eyes and sunk her hand into Dog’s fur, the eyes
of the drowned dead seared into her mind.
A breeze blowing across her skin made Alice open her eyes
and venture a peek above the side. They were in the shal-
lows again, the nightmare fields of bodies behind them. Just
ahead, a thin strip of beach edged along the clear expanse of
water. The ferryman adjusted his pole, and the boat angled
toward a pier that looked identical to the one they had left
As they drew closer, Dog lifted his head and sniffed.
Alice could smell it too, crisp air and slumbering trees, pine
and yew and oak, and a hint of wood smoke. The shore and
pier came at them, each growing larger, though the beach
was still little more than a strip of sand that stretched to
either horizon. At its edge, the beach gave way to pale grass
dusted with snow. The wind, too, had begun to chill, and
Alice shivered a little in her top and skirt.
The boat bumped the pier with a gentle rocking
motion, and the ferryman reached over to moor it to one of
the posts. He then stood at the stern, his pole and robes
motionless as Alice and Dog departed. When they were
safely off, and on dry land, he unlashed his craft and started
pushing his way back to the other side. A moment of panic
struck Alice, not for the lack of companionship, but of
direction, and she called out to him.
“Wait! Where do I go now?”
No answer came, as the current grabbed the boat again,
and pulled it from sight. She stood, as it and its driver dwin-
dled in the distance, and didn’t turn until the speck of it
passed out of sight.
Dog cocked his head disapprovingly, as though to
rebuke her for the language. Alice frowned, then pursed her
“Don’t look at me like that. Aunt Shelia says it all the
He huffed, and stood, making his way up the hill of the
shore. Alice wondered for a minute how much he really
understood, then realized just standing there was going to
leave her more alone than she had felt when the ferryman
left. She followed, the sand squishing in small depressions as
They reached the crest of the rise together and stopped
when sand turned to snowy grass. It felt brittle underfoot,
crunching softly as the powder compacted under her
weight. A couple of hundred yards off, the grass turned to
forest, though not like the one she had passed through
before. This was a forest of living trees, their bark alive in a
way the others hadn’t been. A few even retained leaves that
held autumn colors despite the cold.
The smell of wood smoke was stronger and Alice looked
around for its source. The dog set off again, towards the
edge of the woods, and she followed. Half her attention on
him and the other on warmth to ward off the cold that had
crept into her fingers and toes and nose. They were close to
the line where grass met tree when Dog angled to Alice’s
right and let out a sharp yip.
A small cottage sat back from the tree line in a natural
clearing, built from what looked like river stone and thatch.
A well, also put together with those smooth, round rocks,
stood just a few feet from the front door. A man was bent
over the edge, hauling up a rope. A twig cracked underfoot,
and he started, dropping the rope. It uncoiled like a whip
while whatever was on the other end fell. The line drew
taut with an audible splash from below. The man hung his
head for a moment, sighed, and turned around.
His age was indeterminate. Somewhere in between
young adulthood and middle age, his shock of white hair
made it hard to be sure. He was only about half a head taller
than Alice, with deep blue eyes. He leaned back against the
well, looking her up and down, a half-frown on his face.
“Sisyphean,” he said.
“Beg your pardon?” Alice frowned, wondering if he was
quite possibly as mad as the naked man on the beach.
He gestured at the well behind him. “Sisyphean. Been
trying to get that bucket up for an hour in this cold, and
every time it gets close...” He whistled, making a sound like
a bomb coming down. “...splash.”
Alice was still trying to make her mind up about him
when the dog walked over, sat in front of him, and licked
his hand. The man smiled, bent down, and ruffled the
Something in Alice, a voice she had heard a thousand
times, picked away like Jiminy Cricket. Help him, her aunt
said. It isn’t our way to leave those in need. Alice unfroze from
her place. She walked over to the well, grabbed the rope,
and began hauling it up the best to her capabilities. The
load on the end was heavy, and the coarse rope stung her
hands, but she was able to pull it all the way up; the bucket
on the end first peeking, then fully hovering over the lip.
The man reached forward and grabbed it by the handle,
unhooking the rope from the eyehole hammered into the
metal. “Thank you,” he said.
He walked toward the cottage, Dog at his heels. He
stopped once to look back. “Come on then. No need to
freeze out here.”
Alice followed and managed to get ahead, first opening,
and then holding the door as he made his way through with
the full pail.
The interior of the cottage was cozy, with a rough but
well-swept wood floor, clean walls lined with shelves, and a
bed in the far corner. A cast-iron stove squatted in the
center of the room beside a table cut from the same planks
as the floor. A large black pot sat on the stove, which was
already throwing out ample heat. The man walked to the
pot and tipped about half the bucket in. It made a hissing
sound as the water hit the hot sides and bottom, and
tendrils of steam rose into the air.
Alice closed the door behind her and felt the ambient
temperature rise a couple degrees as she shut out the rising
wind. Her fingers and nose tingled as they thawed, in tiny
pins and needles. The man pulled out a chair and sat,
gesturing for her to do the same. The dog lay on the floor
and put his head between his paws, melting into instant
When Alice had settled into a chair across from the
man, he smiled. “What’s your name, girl?”
“Nice to meet you, Alice. I’m Cain.” He held out a hand.
Alice took it and shook it. As she did, she noticed a
marking on his wrist, writing in a language she didn’t under-
stand or recognize. She opened her mouth to ask him about
it. A howl from outside interrupted her, deep and forlorn. It
hung in the air for a second and then trailed off. It sounded
lonely. Dog chuffed in his sleep, and Cain chuckled.
“Maybe it’s a cousin of his.” He moved to the stove,
picked up a ladle, and stirred the water in the pot. A bowl
sat on the table, filled with diced potatoes and carrots. He
picked it up and tipped it into the pot.
“You’re gonna need something warmer than that if you
plan on venturing further.”
Alice looked down at her thin blouse and skirtmentally
agreed with him. Cain glanced over his shoulder and
“Under the bed—there’s a small chest—should be some
stuff in there that’ll fit you.” He turned his attention back
to the pot.
Alice stood there watching his back for a moment, and
when he didn’t turn, squatted down next to Dog. He raised
his head, and she stroked his fur, whispering mostly
nonsense into his ear, which seemed to please him despite it
being nothing at all, really. Then she stood and padded over
to the bed in the corner.
She bent down and managed to drag out the long, low
box hidden in the shadows under the bed. A simple brass
clasp on the lid held the chest shut. She unclasped it and
flipped the top up. She stepped back, stifling a sneeze, as a
bouquet of dust, must, and dry fur assaulted her nose at
once. Furs in varying shades of white and gray filled the
chest to near overflowing. She pulled one out and unfolded
it. It looked like a parka, with large ivory buttons and loop-
holes in the front, and a hood that hung down the back.
Alice shrugged into it, ignoring the gamey scent, and was
pleased to see it fit her well.
She looked into the chest again and pulled another piece
out. A pair of pants, made of loose leather and trimmed in
fur, unfolded themselves in her hand. She tried those on as
well and was again pleasantly surprised when she found they
fit her. Once more into the chest, she came up with soft
boots made of the same leather as the pants and trimmed at
the top with fur. She stepped out of her flats, pulled on the
boots, and hurried back to the table.
The dog raised his head at her entrance, cocked it to
one side, and let out a chuff of air. Cain turned around at
the sound, ladle in hand, and looked her over.
“They fit? Good, good.” He nodded in approval, the
stove lending his skin a warm cast.
He looked as if he was going to say something else,
when a sound outside the cottage, long and low and wind-
ing, echoed through the trees and pressed against the walls
like a wind. It went on for a long minute, and then faded
away in echoes. Cain’s eyebrows knit together, and he
turned, dropping the ladle back into the pot.
She watched him stir for a moment, indecision flut-
tering in her belly like a bit of bad breakfast. She looked
down at the animal, and he gave her a soft whine.
Fine, she mouthed.
“Where am I?” She asked. “What’s happening? It feels
almost as though I’m being pulled in this direction and that,
but I have no idea why.”
He didn’t turn. “There are things in this world and that,
and in others that cannot be answered with a simple maybe,
or perhaps ̧ or even a yes or no. But in this, you are in the land
“What?” she asked. Frustration welled up in her again.
Cryptic. Nonsense, even.
When he glanced at her again, his face was grim. “You
need to go,” he said.
“Wh—why?” Alice asked.
“The Hunt is coming...” He trailed off as the horn
wound again. He nodded toward the dog, who was on his
feet and already moving to the door. “Follow him. And if
you make it to the mountains, look for the Sisters.”
He hustled her along, despite her protests. Her
companion was already waiting, his tail a-wag, like they
were supposed to go walkies. Cain threw the door open and
all but shoved her out. The horn sounded again, a bit closer,
and she looked back at the older man. His eyes were wide,
and something deep in them spoke of a ferocity she had not
“Run!” He shouted, and stumbled away with some effort,
before slamming the door in her face.
Alice stood in the cold and stared at the rough wood of
the door. She thought about marching back in and
demanding an explanation, maybe even reasoning that there
was no assurance the Hunt, whatever that was, came for
her. But the look in Cain’s eyes, a dark look if there ever
was one, made her hesitate. The thought was driven from
her head when the dog barked—once, sharp and insistent.
She turned and saw him already making a path through the
snow. She followed her companion without second thought
as to what might be coming.