The therapist leaned in closer, and Jack twisted in his seat. He didn’t like being this close to Dr. Cheshire. He had the uncanny ability to look deep into Jack and pinpoint his most hidden insecurities. And then there was his creepy smile. Jack shivered.
“Am I making you uncomfortable?” the doctor asked, his too-wide smile adding to the eerie feeling that permeated the room.
Jack checked his watch again. “I don’t want to be late. That’s all.”
Dr. Cheshire steepled his fingers and nodded. “That’s what I would like to revisit. What will happen if you’re late?”
Jack swallowed hard in a futile attempt to settle the lump in his throat. He couldn’t stop his shaking knee. “I made a promise to be on time. What’s a man if his word is worthless?”
“Interesting that you equate punctuality with self-worth,” Dr. Cheshire mused. “And certainly not healthy. You struggle with acute anxiety, Mr. White, and I worry that this continual pressure you put on yourself is making it worse.”
Jack could feel his watch ticking against his wrist and with each tick, more time slipped away. “Look, doc, I’m very, very late.”
The therapist smiled that unsettling, too wide, slightly maniacal grin. “I say you should be late–on purpose.”
“Excuse me?” Jack asked, sure that he heard the doctor wrong.
Impossibly, Cheshire’s smile widened. “Be late today on purpose. It will be freeing!”
Jack jumped up. “I have to go.” He dashed toward the door, keeping his eyes on the second hand of his watch, but the doctor was faster. He put himself between Jack and the door.
“I will not allow you to leave,” Cheshire said, still smiling but somehow making it look dangerous. “Not for another five minutes. What will five minutes hurt?”
“Everything!” Jack cried. “I can’t be late. Now please, step aside. I have someplace to be!”
“OK,” Cheshire sighed. “At least tell me about this important appointment.”
Jack tapped his foot involuntarily. “It’s really none of your business.”
Cheshire’s knowing smile returned. “Whatever causes you this much anxiety and sends you shaking into my office is precisely my business.” Jack made for the door again but the doctor moved so his back was flush against it. “And I am not going to allow you to leave until you tell me where you are going.”
Jack’s heart raced faster than the ticking second hand on his watch, but seeing his defeat, he hung his head and replied, “I have a date. With a woman.”
“Is it Victoria?” Cheshire asked, his face suddenly serious.
Jack tapped his foot again. “Yes! Yes it is, OK? So now you know. You know what will happen if I’m late. Kindly move aside!”
The doctor frowned. “Oh my dear Mr. White, I cannot let you go see her again! Not after last time when she–”
“Get out of my way! I’m late!” Jack exploded as he rushed the door. Dr. Cheshire stepped back, alarmed at Jack’s sudden outburst.
Jack tried the knob but it didn’t move. Locked. He grunted as he tried again, this time resorting to pounding on the door with his fist when it wouldn’t budge. “Jack, Jack,” Cheshire soothed as the patient dissolved into frustrated tears. “Here.” Cheshire fished a vial from his pocket and held it out to his patient. It was full of a golden liquid and a tag hung from the cap that said DRINK ME.
“If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed,” Cheshire said, “then drink this and it will calm you. Can you promise that you will use this in case things get to be too much?”
Jack nodded as he took the vial and tucked it into his front shirt pocket. “Thanks.”
“You’re very welcome,” the doctor said. He unlocked the door and then opened it wide, holding it with his foot as Jack stared into the hallway. “Good luck.”
“Don’t worry about me, doc,” Jack said as he stepped out of the office.
The subway couldn’t carry Jack fast enough. His feet were much too slow. All he could think about as he dashed down 62nd street was how late he was, and how Victoria hated it when he was late. If he wanted to make this relationship work, he’d have to try harder. She’d made him swear that he would do better, be on time, work harder, show up for her, and do more. Being late, even by a minute, would just prove to her that he didn’t care, and she might leave him again. Just like she did last time.
He rounded the corner and spotted their meeting spot: The Mad Hatter Coffee and Tea. He took a deep breath as he approached the door, closed his eyes, and thought about the exact right thing to say–the perfect excuse for his lateness. But then, a street vendor caught his eye. Red roses. Her favorite.
He bought them and waltzed in, confident she would be pleased with the gift. He checked her favorite table in the back room surrounded by velvet curtains, but she wasn’t there yet. The relief he felt almost caused him to collapse. You can’t be late if you arrive before the other person, afterall.
He ordered two teas and tiny sandwiches, also her favorites, and sat in their spot to wait for her arrival. He even snapped a photo of the steaming mugs and perfectly cut heart-shaped snacks and posted it to Instagram with the caption: “I love days like this.”
Then the bell at the door tinkled, and he smelled her before he saw her. Rose and cardamom mixed with the scent of brewing coffee, and it immediately hypnotized him. Scent is one of the best ways to access memory, and even as he watched her sashay toward him in her short, black dress, a wave of hypnosis swallowed him in memories of her lips, her promises, and his heartbreak.
Victoria’s nails were as red as her hair, as red as blood. The thought flashed in his mind as he lost himself, letting her scent and her gorgeous face and her hourglass body entrance him. She glanced at the roses and tea already on the table. “This is more like it,” she said as she took a seat. “But you were late.”
The comment pulled him from his bliss. “How was I late? You just arrived.”
She pursed her full lips and looked down her long, elegant nose at him. “If you had been on time, the tea would’ve been cold by now. And it is not.” She took a sip of her cup and set it back down slowly. “I told you to be here at 2. Why were you late?”
Dumbfounded, Jack let his mouth hang open as he searched his brain for the excuse he prepared. He glanced at the roses. “I was getting you roses.”
She narrowed her precisely lined eyes at him. “From the vendor across the street? That only took you less than a minute.” She picked up one rose and held it to her nose. “Though I do appreciate the thought.”
“I’m glad you like them,” he squeaked. “How’s your tea?”
She extended her index finger and rested it on his lips. “Don’t try to change the subject.You were thinking of Alice again.” His heartbeat increased as he opened his mouth to protest, but she pressed down on his lips harder. “Don’t you dare lie to me. You know what happened the last time I found her in your house.”
“Victoria, I wasn’t–”
“Ah, ah, ah,” she whispered dangerously. “You know better than that.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” he said as quietly as he could.
“That’s better.” She pulled her finger away and grabbed a sandwich. “How is Alice, anyway?”
“I haven’t seen her since she moved back to England, your Majesty,” Jack said as he watched her rip the sandwich apart and pop one small bite into her mouth. “I was at my doctor appointment.”
“Ha!” she snorted. “With that quack Cheshire? You still see that man?”
He bowed his head in shame. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“Well,” she said between bites. “You know what I think about that. The last time you were in the hospital, he did nothing but make things worse. I remember. You were just a shell of a man thanks to him.”
Anger surged in Jack’s chest. She had been the reason he had to go to the hospital in the first place. If it weren’t for Dr. Cheshire, he might still be there, counting the seconds on his watch, falling further and further down the rabbit hole of depression, spiraling until he was too deep to dig himself out. Instead of saying all of that, though, he remained quiet. He knew bringing up the past would never make her happy, and all he wanted was for things to go back to normal.
“Let’s talk of pleasant things,” he suggested. “How was your afternoon? Did you win the croquet match?”
She scowled. “Of course I did. You know how terrible my sister is at that game. I have no idea why she insists we play. She already knows I will win.”
He smiled. “You are a wonderful croquet player, Victoria.”
Her brows knit together for a moment before she grinned. “Jack White, I want you to do something for me.”
“Anything,” he sighed.
“Call Alice right now and tell her that you love her,” she said. “Tell her that you want her to move back to New York and that you can’t live without her. Tell her that you will throw yourself from the highest skyscraper if she doesn’t come back.”
“Why would I do that?” he asked, trying to keep his voice even but knowing what would happen next if he didn’t comply.
“So I can play with her,” Victoria said, her grin widening to a menacing leer. “Do it. Now.”
Shaking, Jack reached for his phone. Even though he didn’t want to do it, he couldn’t help scrolling through his contacts and hovering over Alice’s name. No, no, no. He didn’t want to do this. He could stop himself this time. He would.
“Jack, I command you to call her right now,” Victoria said in a whisper.
Jack pressed the button and held the phone to his ear. With each ring he internally shouted at himself to hang up. Throw the phone. Run away. But no matter how hard he tried to break the spell, he couldn’t stop himself.
“Hello!” Alice said, her voice bright and clear and full of all that’s good.
Jack smiled. “Hi, Alice.”
“Jack, it’s so good to hear from you! How have you been? It’s been ages since we caught up,” she said.
“Tell her,” Victoria said. “I command you to tell her you want her to move back.”
Jack swallowed hard. “I wanted to ask you to move back.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, and Jack hoped they had disconnected somehow. “I don’t think you want that.” Her voice turned hollow and sad. “Is Victoria there with you?”
Jack looked at Victoria who continued to smirk. “Tell her you love her.”
He opened his mouth but closed it again. This was all wrong. He swore he’d never put Alice in danger again, and he would never, ever lead her back down the rabbit hole. If she was going to be safe, she had to stay in England. But selfishly, he wanted to tell Alice everything he felt. He wanted to see her again. And even though Jack didn’t want to say he loved her, he knew it was still true.
“I command it,” Victoria said.
“Alice,” he began, trying to hold the words back. She always said she’d come back for him. Those were the last words she said before she left.
“Tell me, Jack,” she begged, her voice soft and desperate.
He looked into Victoria’s eyes and willed everything in him to stop. Then he remembered. The vial. DRINK ME. He pulled it out of his shirt pocket and downed it before Victoria could swat it out of his hand. It tasted like oranges and barley, and as it slid down his throat it released the hold Victoria had on him. “I have to call you back,” he said, and hung up the phone without waiting for Alice to respond.
Victoria stared at him, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. “I command you to call her back now,” she seethed. “I command you!”
He stood up, shaking the table so that the tea spilled down her front. “This is designer, you idiot!” she shrieked.
Normally he would try to help her clean up and fall over himself apologizing, but he didn’t care. He felt ten feet tall. “We’re done.”
“You’re nothing without me!” she shouted as he headed toward the door. “If you walk away from me, then you’ll never see me again.”
He turned and smiled at her. “Is that a promise?”