Alice was not happy.
She had pieces of happiness, like the plants she cared for every day and the window that let sunlight into her small apartment. Simple joys, like reading her favorite story over and over.
But she was still unhappy. She had a hard time every day at work, putting in long hours for a boss who did not see her as a person. Her coworkers looked down on her for being quiet and reserved. Alice never intended to slight them, but she had a hard time following the complexities of their gossip and the shallowness of office politics. It wasn’t all bad, though. Every day, she got to go back home to her little indoor garden, care for her plants, and read again, and for a short while, she felt she was at peace.
What Alice really wanted more than anything was a life where she could care for a garden every day, bake bread and draw, and drink elderberry tea. She dreamed of peaceful magic and having friends to talk to who understood her. Her only family was her uncle, a hard man who had raised her grudgingly after her parents died, and her cousin, fifteen years older than her and completely uninterested in her life. It could have been worse. Her uncle was wealthy and had provided her with a safe place to live and food to eat. He had paid for tutors to homeschool her until she turned 18. But as soon as she did, she had been given a small sum of money and told to leave. As far as her family saw it, once she was an adult, their obligations to her were over. And so, Alice had found herself alone, trapped in a cycle of hard work and loneliness.
Coming home was always a relief. Alice had put her sweat and tears into getting a degree and a job, eventually earning enough to afford her little apartment – the rent was high for her, but she had desperately wanted a place with a window. She came back home late today, sore and tired. Her back ached from sitting at her office desk and her eyes burned from looking at the bright blue light of her computer monitor all day. Taking off her shoes and throwing them carelessly to the side, she stumbled into the kitchen. She stood there for a moment, torn, then walked back and set her shoes neatly to the side, apologizing to them quietly. Her stomach growled, and she sighed. Although she really had no appetite, she set about making some oatmeal and boiled some water for tea. She let out a long sigh, blinking away tired tears that rose against her best efforts. Finally, she could rest.
After eating, she watered her plants, checking their leaves and trimming them back where needed. Her peace lily was doing very well, the white flower tall and strong. The fiddle-leaf fig seemed to wave at her in the gentle breeze from her electric fan, and she imagined she could hear its gentle song, all smooth strings and soothing music. She checked on the devil’s ivy, admiring its yellow-green leaves and wondering again at its name. It was also called other things, like silver vine and hunter’s robe. She felt it preferred to be called devil’s ivy, though, and therefore that’s what she called it, because seemed like the most respectful thing to do.
It was already eleven. She was tired, but as always, she picked up her book and sat down in the chair she’d set among her plants. The book was well-cared for but time-worn, the paper cover faded and the pages soft from long years of use time. The Princess and Her Hero. It was not a very original title, and the story was simple, set in a magical world. In it, a princess ran away from a witch’s spell. The spell had turned everyone she loved into strangers, and the princess found herself alone. She ran into the woods and lived in an abandoned cottage, learning to take care of herself and making friends with woodland creatures. Eventually, she grew confident enough to go into the village nearby to sell vegetables and buy bread. There she met a boy whom she started to trust, and he became her hero, helping her defeat the witch and save her family. And they lived happily ever after.
Alice wanted so badly to live in a world like that story. But since she lived in her own world, she read two chapters, closed the book, and went to bed. Tomorrow would be another hard day.
When she woke up, she was confused. She was the type to wake suddenly and completely, never lingering in bed or clinging to sleep. So why did it seem like she was still dreaming? The light was a warm and watery yellow, like bright early morning sunlight. But there was no way that could be. Her alarm was supposed to wake her before dawn and her window faced west. Even if she had overslept – and panic rushed through her at the thought – this couldn’t be her apartment. There were leaves overhead, thick and green, rustling in a warm breeze. There was also something poking her left shoulder blade.
She sat up, moving slowly and cautiously. Looking around, she saw she was in a forest, and had been lying in the leaf litter under an oak tree. The thing poking her was a twig. Surrounding her were the early morning sounds of the woods; squirrels chittering and birds chirping enthusiastically as they went about their business. It was spring – she could tell based on the bluebells blooming under the trees and the fresh green color of the oak leaves.
For a while, Alice just sat there, heart rate speeding up, pounding faster and faster as panic set in. Had she been kidnapped and dumped in the woods? But she was unscathed, without even a headache. And who would bother to kidnap her, anyway? She had been carefully protected as a child because her uncle was so rich, even though he had never really seemed to care what happened to her. No one would be foolish enough to think he would bother to pay a ransom for her now. Besides, who would do such a thing only to leave her in a forest in the middle of nowhere?
If no one had put her here, that meant this really might be a dream. Or her mind had snapped, and she was hallucinating. Maybe she had fallen into a coma in her sleep? Or – maybe she was dead? Was this the afterlife?
Deep breaths, she thought, inhaling slowly, holding for a count of seven, and then exhaling. Alice kept breathing carefully, trying to wipe her mind blank for a minute and slow the racing questions. What mattered now was what she did next. She was unharmed, and while this might be a dream, it might also be real. Just because she had no explanation did not mean it was unexplainable. She might find out what was going on later, but for now, she should act somehow.
If she had been hiking and somehow gotten lost or separated from her companions, she might have chosen to stay where she was, but in this strange situation exploring made the most sense to her. And more than that, she wanted to explore. Now that she was calmer, she had started to appreciate how beautiful the forest around her was. She always felt more at peace when she was surrounded by nature. And who knew? This seemed like a remote location, but it might just be a small park in a city, or maybe she was near a town. If she could find someone to tell her where she was, she could better decide what to do next.
Standing up she looked around, trying to pick a path forward. She really had no idea where to start. Before she could begin to panic again, she saw the patch of bluebells, petals tinged with violet, flowers swing gently in the breeze. She could almost hear the tinkling of little bells as they moved like they really were ringing. That way, she realized, as though there was no question, as though that was definitively the right choice. The decision seemed easy now. Alice started walking past the flower patch, stepping carefully between the trees and keeping her eyes and ears open. She found she was enjoying herself despite how bizarre her situation was. She never had the time to travel or explore outside, and only had the vaguest memories from her early childhood when her parents were still alive. The only reason she could recognize the flora was because she loved to read about nature and plant life. Thinking of her plants in her apartment, she felt a twinge of regret. Hopefully, they would be okay without her for a while. But even though she had no idea when she might come back home, she was filled with joy as she walked through the forest, listening to the birds singing. The trees stood tall and steady around her like they were protecting her. They felt almost like friends.
After walking for a long time, Alice started to feel scared again. She had no food or water, and there was no sign of anyone as she walked. It was already early afternoon, and her legs ached. The air was warm and the day was beautiful, but no matter how pleasant her walk was, there was no denying that she was lost. The longer she walked, the harder it was not to obsess over the strangeness of her appearance in the forest.
As the afternoon wore on, she saw a thinning in the undergrowth ahead, like a path. Maybe a trail for deer? But as she followed it, it grew more and more worn and clearly defined, like a proper path. It went on for a while until she came to a fork. Once again, she was nervous. It felt as though she had a very important decision to make, as though the wrong one might ruin something precious. As though she was on the verge of something life-changing. She stood frozen, terrified but not certain why, and then she saw some ivy on the ground. A vine had grown onto the path on the right. As she looked at it, she sighed in relief. It was like the ivy was pointing, and she decided to trust it. Perhaps she was loopy with dehydration, or truly trapped in some strange hallucination, but she was certain. The right fork was the correct way.
Making her way down the path, she started to speed up, eager to reach the end of the path. Maybe because she thought she would find someone soon, or maybe for some other reason she did not really know. A shallow rock wall, mossy and old, crumbling slightly, started alongside the path. She entered a clearing and stopped, shocked. Thrilled. Because in the clearing, she saw a cottage. And the cottage was exactly the one she had always imagined from The Princess and Her Hero, the one where the princess escaped the witch and learned to garden and found new friends.
She was inside her favorite story, and she was in her favorite place in the story. It felt like coming home.