“You should speak to him.”
The words startled Alice out of her habit of staring mindlessly into space without quite looking at anything. That is what she was doing, even if her gaze just so happened to be directed towards the circulation desk.
That was pure coincidence and she would defend herself from all allegations to the contrary with planted feet and a fiery temper.
She looked to her shoulder, where the Cheshire cat had made himself at home, most of his fat, fuzzy body draped lazily down her back. “Speak to who?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, then why are you saying things?”
“I enjoy looking intelligent.”
“You do not,” she muttered.
“Yes, I do. I enjoy it very much.”
“I’m well aware of that. What I mean to say is that you don’t
look intelligent when you don’t think before you speak.”
“Why should I think before I speak? It’s so much more fun to do it in the reverse order. Besides, you think enough for both of us.”
Alice shifted, a crick beginning to form in her neck from the cat’s weight and trying to balance so he did not fall off her shoulder. “And you don’t think enough. Sometimes I wonder if you have a mind at all.”
“I should think not. My head is full of cotton fluff, spit, and shoestrings.”
“That must be uncomfortable.”
“I wouldn’t know. But you should speak to him.”
“To who?” she sighed.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re sitting in a different place today,” he said.
“What if I am? I’m free to move about as I wish.”
“You’re sitting in a different place so you can be closer.”
“Closer to what?”
The Cheshire cat did not answer as he became distracted, batting at a lock of her hair. “It’s quite messy today.”
Although she didn’t have a hand mirror, she guessed that this was probably true. It was generally untidy. Her long dirty blonde hair tended to snag in the most awkward ways.
She conceded that the cat may have a point and gathered all the many fly away tresses to the best of her ability, arranging them in a mostly straight bundle down her back. As an afterthought, she tilted her head carefully to one side to show off a long stretch of neck, which her sister had often said was one of her best features.
She sat poised and elegant, in careful but lacking imitation of the girls in her dormitory or of women in paintings. Her dress was rather nice that day and she arranged her face to show that she was in gentle and intelligent contemplation of her school work, but would be gracious enough not to be bothered if someone happened to disturb her to compliment her on her lovely neck and nowhere-near-perfect hair.
She rewrote the problem.
Then she did a simple first step.
Then she sat still for quite a long time before peaking up to see if anyone had noticed.
No one had except the Cheshire cat, who grinned obnoxiously.
“I’m not trying to impress anyone,” she said defensively. “I’m simply attempting to look presentable and as though I slept more than three hours last night.”
“You look very good then. I would have guess you had five hours of sleep.”
The cat bunched his back legs and sprang from Alice’s shoulder onto her work, to sit atop her current problem. Her whole body swayed uncomfortably at his awkward movements.
“You should sit up straighter.” Alice did so. “And cross your legs at the ankle.” Again she followed instructions. “And purse your lips more.” She made an attempt at this, but felt that she might be doing it wrong and looking a bit silly. “And flutter your eyelashes.”
Alice attempted this as well, the library flickering light and dark in an arrhythmic fashion.
“Faster,” the cat instructed.
Her eyes began to strain.
Her eyelashes began to smoke and she wondered first if they might catch fire, and second if she looked at all attractive with smoke rising from her eyelids.
“Faster!” the cat crowed, rolling about on his back to mark one of her books with the back of his neck, not that Alice was able to see him through her strobing vision and the ever darkening cloud of smoke.
She groaned and dropped her head to the table, barely missing the Cheshire cat’s tail. She coughed a few times, waving the smoke away from her head and books with one hand. Then she squeezed her eyes closed and waited for them to cool before glaring up at the cat.
“You stopped,” he said, sounding quite disappointed.
“I did. Why did you have me do that? It did not make me more appealing and was very bad advice.”
“I wanted to see if you would do it,” the cat said.
“You are very unhelpful.”
“What benefit is there in being helpful?”
“Pride in an accomplishment? A warm feeling of assisting a friend and showing kindness? The knowledge that the gesture may one day be returned?”
The cat stopped his squirming a moment and thought on this. Alice watched him with a mixture of annoyance and hope.
At last, the cat came to a conclusion and looked at Alice with a wide, toothy grin. “No. It’s much more fun my way.”
Alice rolled her eyes, having expected this, and pushed at the cat to urge him to move off her notes so she could get back to work. The cat made himself heavy and floppy and refused to be moved.
“You should talk to him.”
“I refuse to have this exchange with you again.”
She imitated the cat’s accent to the best of her ability. “’You should speak to him
.’ ‘To who?’ ‘I don’t know
.’ Really, it’s quite tiring, and since I already know the outcome, I see no point in repeating it endlessly.”
“You’ve never read a book twice?”
“Only if I’ve forgotten key points and I want to refresh my memory.”
“I could read the same sentence over and over and over and over…” the cat’s words devolved into a tune, “Over and over ‘n’ over ‘n’ over…”
Alice yanked her notes from under the cat, interrupting his song and causing him to roll slightly onto his side. She twisted in her seat to place the notes next to the cat and turn away from him as much as she could.
The cat shimmered and reappeared, shifted over a foot to sit atop her notes once more.
“That was rude,” he said, looking completely unruffled, nonetheless.
“I learn from the best. Why should I be kind to you when you are nothing but a pest?”
“I would hope you wouldn’t sink to my level. Most unladylike.”
“I really should be getting back to my studies.”
“What’s the worst that could happen if you spoke to him.”
She bit back her initial response of “spoke to who?” and glared at the cat.
“He looks dumb. And dull. I don’t know why you would want to speak to him.”
“Neither do I, if this mystery person I should talk to is dumb and dull.”
“So many mysteries! So few magnifying glasses!”
Clearly the cat was not going to allow her to study until it said whatever it had to say, so she set down her pen and leaned her chin in one hand, waiting for him to get it off his chest so she could carry on with her life.
This pleased the cat tremendously, and he spent the next ten minutes taking advantage of her attention by licking himself. First his one little paw. Then the other. Then he would lick a paw and wipe it against his face, closing his eyes and pushing his ears back. Then he rolled strangely to lick his own shoulder, brushing his thick, clumping hair in the wrong direction and leaving damp streaks that darkened his fur. Then he cleaned his belly, sitting in a manner that made him look quite fat and lazy. Then he went back to his first paw again.
Sometimes he twisted into positions that were surely impossible, and Alice suspected that he was detaching his own head or extending the length of his tongue to reach difficult places.
Every so often he would glance up at her and grin, knowing full well how he was trying her patience.
At last, he finished his bath, even though he had only cleaned about a third of his body.
“What’s the worst that could happen if you talked to him?” he asked.
Alice decided she had had about enough and had not waited through the cat’s obsessive torture to have the same conversation once again.
“He could be impolite. Or dull. Or very concerned with some subject that I don’t care about.” She was, of course, speaking generally. These were problems with initiating conversation with anyone.
“Two points,” the cat said. “First, you yourself meet all those criteria and I don’t see why they would be a problem for you.”
Alice sniffed, affronted. “You are the one who is impolite, not I.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Sometimes I get the two of us confused because we are so similar.”
She highly doubted that, although she had the brief thought of what it would be like to have the ears of a kitten. Most likely she would have better hearing, but at the same time people would think her a very strange sight. Perhaps on bad days no one would be able to see her ears through her hair.
“Secondly,” the cat continued, “if he is like that then there is no point in fawning over him further and you can move on to better prospects.”
She didn’t know quite what to say to that. It was true, but then a part of her wanted not to know for certain. As long as she looked from afar, she could imagine that the boy at the circulation desk was a gentleman, a scholar, and a dreamer. He would not mind her clumsy conversation, and find her company enjoyable. He probably knew nothing of mathematics, but he wouldn’t dismiss it immediately. He would listen enraptured to her tales and then supply his own in return.
Alice hoped they would be stories about dragons, because she did not know nearly enough of those.
… Not that they were talking about the boy at the circulation desk. And not that she was thinking of him.
Her gaze shifted towards him, and watched for a moment as he attempted to balance a pencil on its tip with limited success.
The cat was grinning at her again. She wished that he would do it less often. Perhaps she could steal all his teeth when he was sleeping. She would probably need assistance from several fairies for such a venture.
“Sometimes, I’d prefer not to know,” she admitted, dropping her eyes down to her work, visible again as the cat had disappeared.
Chapter 3, 4, 5