Ha! Roz looked away, and I nabbed Chapter 2. May posting this one serve as dynamite up the literary buttock. Although, she did finally write the line that opened the door to the next leg of our journey. We are on the move once again.
Fifteen minutes later, we slid into the huge corner booth at Stacked. The word “coffee” resounded seven times, and Earl’s name tagged along for the ride to the waitress’ order pad. Claudia’s hand came to rest on my thigh, and I placed my own over hers. At least for the moment, life proved good.
We studied the menu, mindful to stay on gift-certificate budget, in case the game came down to that ten bucks I had been foolish enough to dwindle.
Soon, the waitress returned with several carafes. The word “pancakes” resounded seven times, and “tofu scramble” hitchhiked without incident.
Coffee was poured, and we drifted into an agreeable silence. Collectively, we seemed to insist the occasion was ordinary, that we were not in the clutches of riddling professors—clutches so tight they could have strangled our reality, if we let them. Yet, all the while, everyone’s eyes flitted among the many patrons in that restaurant, no doubt looking for the pawn we were certain was there to give us a clue. With my back to the room, I did my spying via the massive mirror on the wall, and not a damn thing caught my attention.
When the food arrived, we intently ate, again appearing as though we hadn’t a care in the world. Once sated, we quickly stacked our dishes and slid them to the outside of the table, and a perceptive busboy appeared and took them away. Seconds later, the waitress showed up with more coffee. She placed the bill tray on the table, which Laura, holder of the almighty gift certificate, immediately pulled in her own direction.
Daring to hurl us back to Ginny and Kris’ world, Janice asked, “Anybody have any idea what we’re up against?”
“Through the Looking-Glass.”
“First, I think we have to figure out how to make the map into a chessboard,” Maggie said and tossed the thing in my direction.
I agreed and spread out the map on the table. “Does anybody have a pencil?”
A few affirmed possession and seized purses, but Janice loudly said, “You might do best to use mine. My instructions said to bring a notebook and a pencil. No flippin’ clue why, but here it is.”
A toss and a roll brought me the pencil. A stretch and a tilt brought seven surveyors with a keen interest in a hometown that suddenly felt foreign.
“Grant Avenue and Lancaster Street,” I said with an eventual stab. “We’re here.” I drew an X on the spot. “This is e1.”
“So are the chessboard squares buildings or blocks or what?”
Laura quickly rattled off the other businesses on the block, six in all, and it seemed obvious we weren’t talking buildings.
“Shit, it is blocks.”
“Eight city blocks by eight city blocks.”
“Sixty-four blocks? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“We can’t walk sixty-four blocks! We’ll die.”
“No wonder they carbed us up with pancakes.”
“Like how many miles is sixty-four blocks?”
Janice volunteered to look it up, and seconds later, she was tap-tap-tappin’ on her own electronic gadget. Finally, she said, “It’s three-point-nine miles.”
Janice specified, “Unless you live in the East and not the Midwest. Then, it’s three-point-one.”
“What? Why the hell are blocks shorter out East?”
“I say we move.”
“Well, let’s not move to the South or the West,” Janice said, her smart phone making us smarter than we cared to be. “Their blocks are even longer than ours. Sixty-four blocks would be over six miles.”
“Shit, maybe we should stay put.”
“Who the hell makes the rules? A block should be a block no matter where the hell you are.”
“I agree, and here we are with sixty-four of the stupid things.”
“Draw the damn chessboard, Sutter. Let’s get this show on the road.”
I aimed the pencil just as Susan slapped her hand down on the you-are-here portion of the map.
“What about Through the Looking-Glass, you guys? This can’t be as exhaustingly simple as walking sixty-four blocks.”
I paused my pencil and joined everyone in a moment’s thought.
“Susan’s right,” I soon concurred. “If it is chess, we have to move like chess pieces, not just walk the whole chessboard.”
“All right, honey,” Claudia encouraged with a pat on my thigh. “If we’re the king, how does the king move?”
Feigning great effort, I stretched my brain. “One square in any direction.”
“Well, that’s the same as walking sixty-four squares, isn’t it?”
I reasoned, “If we were the only piece on the board and a king, yes, we could walk the sixty-four squares, but chess isn’t played with one piece. Plus, getting the other player’s king is the goal of the game. We can’t move the king unless we know it’s safe to do so.”
“So we get a turn, and they get a turn?”
“How the hell are we supposed to know it’s safe to move?”
“It’s even worse than that,” I said and pointed to our square on the map. “If we’re here and a king, we can’t move anyway. We should be surrounded by our own pieces. There should be three pawns in front of us and a bishop and a queen on either side of us.”
“We’re already screwed?”
“No, no, no, you guys. We’re Alice,” Susan said and retrieved her ebook reader. As she navigated, she reminded, “Alice wants to get to the eighth square to be a queen.” A moment later, she reread, “‘I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join—though of course I should LIKE to be a Queen, best.’ Remember? And then the queen says, ‘That’s easily managed. You can be the White Queen’s Pawn … you’re in the Second Square to begin with: when you get to the Eighth Square you’ll be a Queen.’ Kate, where would the White Queen’s pawn be?”
My finger moved over and up a block on the map. “Right there. Prentice Park Way and Main Street with Water and Second on the backside.”
“All right, but you said we can’t get there if we’re a king.”
“This is insane!”
Laura slapped her hand on the map several times. “This e1 block is simply our point of reference. Sutter, draw out the whole chessboard.”
With a nod, I began drawing squares around the blocks and numbering each one. As I did so, Susan read, and things slowly started to make some sense.
“The Red Queen tells Alice, ‘A pawn goes two squares in its first move, you know. So you’ll go VERY quickly through the Third Square—by railway, I should think—and you’ll find yourself in the Fourth Square in no time. Well, THAT square belongs to Tweedledum and Tweedledee—the Fifth is mostly water—the Sixth belongs to Humpty Dumpty … the Seventh Square is all forest—however, one of the Knights will show you the way—and in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it’s all feasting and fun.'”
“Feasting and fun!”
“And less than half a mile!”
“Okay, that’s incentive.”
“Maybe the eighth square is Camp Thunder Thigh.”
“Cool it, you guys! Slow down a sec,” I shouted. “Susan, repeat everything—slowly—so I can get it all on the map.”
Everyone quieted, and she obliged.
Soon, we had a chessboard with all the expected moves spelled out. But something niggled at me: For a Ginny and Kris concoction, it seemed far, far too simple.
Alison said, “I still don’t get it. I just don’t think this is right.” She paused while all eyes narrowed at her. “Well, think about it. Even if we get to the second square, how the heck are we supposed to take the railway to the fourth one? Granton doesn’t have a railway, does it?”
No one wanted to admit she had a valid point so we just continued to stare at her.
Then, Janice jumped in, “Al’s right. We’re missing something.”
Holly suggested, “Maybe we should just get to the second square, chickies, and there will be something there for us, a clue.”
“We’re supposed to search the whole block for a clue?”
“Maybe we’ll get another text message.”
“Or maybe we’ll get something from somebody right here. Maybe there’s someone like Dolores here, too.”
All eyes scanned the restaurant once more, but again, no one looked or acted like a pawn in a giant chess game. I wondered whether we did.
“How about a vote? Should we just head to the second square and hope for the best?”
With unanimous uncertainty, we each raised a hand and then prepared to leave.
As I filled my gas station cup with restaurant coffee, Claudia inquired whether the gift certificate was sufficient or if Laura needed money.
Laura grabbed the bill and took a gander. “We’re covered,” she said, and as she did, a white strip of paper fell from her grasp. “What the hell is this?”
Laura twisted her face with what I deemed disgust and then held the paper for us to see.
!nuf hgin ,klawrebbaj eht erehweB
“Looks like an f-ing foreign language.”
“What the hell does it mean?”
Susan slapped the table very hard and startled the shit right out of us. “It’s backwards!”
“Doesn’t that frickin’ figure!”
“It’s the same as in the book!” Susan shouted. “Alice gets the ‘Jabberwocky’ poem at the beginning of the story. She has to hold it up to the looking glass, the mirror, in order to read it.”
Laura shook her head in exasperation and then stretched to hold it to the mirror on the back wall. “‘Bewhere the jabberwalk, nigh fun,'” she read. “Makes as much sense backward as forward.”
“What the heck does it mean?”
“How is that a clue?”
Susan and her ebook reader were on the ball. “There’s a line in ‘Jabberwocky’ that reads, ‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!'” She snatched the pencil from me and the bill from Laura and scrawled the line on the back. She held it for us to see the subtle differences.
“What the heck is a Jabberwock?” Alison asked.
Susan answered, “In the poem, it’s a monster that a young man slays—beheads, in fact. Ginny said …um … Ginny said it’s a representation of fear, slaying ones fears, overcoming obstacles.”
“The poem is a nonsense poem,” I added. “Jabberwock can mean that, too: nonsense. It’s wordplay. That’s what Ginny did. She played with Lewis Carroll’s wordplay. There’s portmanteau, blending two words to create a new one: ‘be’ and ‘where’ become ‘bewhere.’ ‘Jabber’ and ‘walk,’ ‘jabberwalk.’ Then, ‘nigh fun’ rhymes with ‘my son.'”
“What is ‘nigh’?”
“Near or almost,” I answered.
Laura held up the strip of paper to the mirror again.
“So… be where the jabber walk—on the chessboard—because it’s almost fun? Christ, Ginny needs some serious help.”
I laughed at the sudden obviousness. “She’s being a smartass. With us on a walk, there would be jabbering. If we walk, we jabber: jabberwalk.”
“We do not jabber.”
“So how is it a clue?”
Susan reasoned, “I think it just validates that we’re right. We’re Alice. We’re on the other side of the looking glass, and we need to walk the chessboard. We need to get to the spot Kate says is for the White Queen’s pawn.”
“All right, let’s do it!”
“I still don’t think we jabber.”
“We don’t jabber. Does anybody have to pee?”
“Get moving then,” Laura said with a flicking wrist. “You have five minutes.”
I had consumed enough coffee to warrant at least ten.
“Meet out front,” she ordered. “Five minutes.”
We grabbed our things, but Laura stole the map from me and remained seated. The rest of us zoomed to be first to the bathroom. With the seven of us crammed into the two-stall space, it became rather obvious: Ginny was right. We did jabber. Boy, did we jabber.
We finished our business and poured out the front door.
A moment later, Laura exited the restaurant waving the map. She announced, “A train is public transit. Granton doesn’t have trains, but it’s got buses, and the bus station is on the block we’re going to. I say we head to the bus station.”
Holly slid her arm around her. “You’re good, babe!”
“Makes more sense than anything else.”
“All right, the bus station it is.”
With a mission in mind, the jabberers walked. Laura and I lagged and silently shared a cigarette.
Soon, the glass door of Granton Transit parted to let us enter yet another sterile and unwelcoming building. I started thinking maybe there was a story here. The Chamber of Commerce had been bitching about a drop in tourism. Maybe it was our demeanor and not the sucky economy.
Immediately, Laura jumped into crime-scene mode. “All right, spread out and look for clues … or a Dolores. Look at everything backward and forward. Find something!”
Maggie waved a flyer she snatched from a rack. “Maybe we’re just supposed to figure out the correct bus line that’ll get us to the fourth square.”
“All right, Novak,” Laura said with a nod, “see if you can figure it out. The rest of us spread out and look for clues or a Dolores. Remember, look at everything backward and—”
“Um, I don’t really think that’s necessary,” Claudia interrupted.
We all turned to look at her and found her index finger pointing to the far wall.
There sat Ginny.
She did not look at all happy to see us. I couldn’t tell for certain if her face was truly reddened or if it was the glare off her red university sweatpants and sweatshirt. Her leg bounced up and down, and she repeatedly glanced to her watch.
Very, very cautiously, we approached her.
“‘Where do you come from?'” she haughtily asked. “‘And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don’t twiddle your fingers all the time.'”
“We came from Stacked,” Janice bravely answered as we tried to resist the urge to laugh or tremble with fear or both. “And we’re going—”
“We’ve lost our way!” Susan loudly blurted. She whispered something to Maggie, who in turn relayed it to the group: Ginny was the Red Queen, reciting from the book.
“‘I don’t know what you mean by YOUR way,'” Ginny spouted, “‘all the ways about here belong to ME—but why did you come out here at all?'”
All eyes shot to Susan for the appropriate answer. I’d have bet we all had read the story, but odds were better that no one except for Susan knew it verbatim. When her face registered panic, I realized she didn’t either.
Before she could even formulate an answer or cast a line of BS, Ginny said, “‘Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say, it saves time.'”
Awkwardly, Susan curtsied. It looked strange as hell, but no one blamed her for not wanting to play in traffic—and no one laughed. Especially when Ginny shot us all looks that demanded the same from us.
And we curtsied.
Okay, everyone curtsied except Laura.
Ginny rose from her chair and marched to stand directly in front of Laura. “Curtsey,” she ordered.
“Ginny, I am not going to curtsey, not even for you. I think we—”
“‘Open your mouth a LITTLE wider when you speak, and always say your Majesty.'”
Laura simply gaped at her, and I imagined her ears to be as steam engines in the train station Granton didn’t have. Who would have thought the cop would have a problem with authority figures?
“Well?” Ginny challenged as she bore her eyes into her.
Laura’s face turned red, and she quickly scanned the vicinity. “Your Majesty,” she choked out, “we’re planning on taking the bus to the fourth square. Granton is a bit lacking in the train department. Or do you have other plans for us, Your Majesty?” It was obvious she tried not to laugh.
“When you say ‘square,’ Laura—I’ve seen squares, compared with which the fourth square would be a circle.”
“And I’ve seen people talk in circles, Your Majesty.”
“When you say ‘talk,’ Laura—I could show you talk, in comparison with which you’d call this silence.”
Laura groaned. “Bus or something else, Ginny?”
“When you say ‘bus,’ Laura—”
This time Laura nearly screamed and clutched Holly’s hand. “Help me, Hol, before I throw Her Majesty under a bus.”
“Ginny—I mean Your Majesty,” Holly said with a laugh. “You are being very goofy.”
“When you say ‘goofy,’ Holly—”
“Ginny!” multiplied itself times eight.
“My word, you girls are testy this morning.” She shook her head very dramatically. “You need something to sweeten your dispositions. … ‘I know what YOU’D like!'” she declared and pulled a small tin out of the pouch of her sweatshirt. Opening it, she revealed mini black and white cookies. “‘Have a biscuit?'”
We exchanged glances, and not knowing what else to do, we each took a tiny cookie from her tin. When she looked down to close and return the tin, I shoved my cookie into Claudia’s mouth. She smiled and nearly began laughing. I came dangerously close to joining her. What the hell was all this? Maybe we had slipped through a mirror.
With great seriousness, Ginny removed a tape measure from her pocket and said, “‘While you’re refreshing yourself, I’ll just take the measurements.'” She moved forward a bit and placed a red plastic stick thingy … um, a thingamajig on the floor. “‘At the end of two yards, I shall give you your directions.'” Again she moved forward and did the same thing. “‘At the end of THREE yards I shall repeat them—for fear of your forgetting them. At the end of FOUR, I shall say good-bye. And at the end of FIVE, I shall go!'”
When she set down the final thingamajig, she walked back to us, and for the first time since we had seen her, she smiled, rather broadly in fact. “You girls are doing great,” she whispered and gave each of our arms a squeeze. “I’m proud of you.”
Susan whispered in kind, “And you’re the best damn Red Queen I’ve ever seen—literally.” She chuckled at her supposed wittiness.
Ginny returned to the first thingamajig, about-faced, and said, “You’ve obviously figured out that you need to get to the eighth square to become queens like Kris and me. You can get to the fourth by foot or bus—your choice. However, you need to remember that as a group you are a pawn, and as a group, you must move as only a pawn. Within the group, there are also four pawns, being used for a purpose. Susan, you know Carroll’s story. Kate, you know chess. Laura, you know everything there is to know about this city. Janice, you know how to take good notes, which I assume you have been doing.”
The redhead’s face severely reddened for the Red Queen, and she cockily nodded. Okay, she wordlessly lied through her teeth.
Ginny continued, “That leaves four of you without roles. You’ll need to decide as a group who fits best: bishop, knight, or rook. No kings. The kings are already reserved.” She laughed again and then pointed in my direction with her head. “Kate will be able to help you with all that.” After a split-second smile, she continued, “When you reach the eighth square, you’ll be quizzed—a right ‘proper examination.’ Kris and I would be remiss not to make sure you can be good queens for the day.” She chortled in a way that scared the shit out of me.
“What will we be quizzed about?” Alison asked.
“Your journey to the eighth square, of course. Janice will have thorough notes of your travels, but you’ll need to supply four things that represent each story square you’ve visited. Not one, not two, not three, but four.”
While we pondered the complexity of that, Ginny moved to the next thingamajig. She said, “‘Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing—turn out your toes as you walk—and remember who you are!'”
She nearly jumped to the next thingamajig and offered a quick, “Goodbye, girls.” Another swift maneuver had her not only to the last thingamajig but out the door as well.
Mouths agape, we stared at each other.