Chapter Two: Memory Gap

The blonde girl heard nothing but an odd ringing noise... but what was it...?

Could it have been a voice...?

Was it wind chimes...?

Or water running...?

Metal... shards...?

Red water... dripping out of a...

The world around her seemed to swirl... it was transparent like an old movie.

"ALIIIIIIICE!" her mother silently screeched, lunging straight at her even as the world was erased. "BABYYYYYY! NOOOOO!"

"What are you doing here...?" someone whispered in an insubstantial voice. "What are you doing here... what are... doing... here?"

"Return," a static-riddled voice hissed. "Failure."

Then... the world was gone.

Blackness. Infinite shadow stretching on endlessly.

Then red... all over a cracked floor.

Floor...

Red Rivers... white pools... milk?

She opened her eyes with a jolt, but the bright lights overhead made her cringe almost instantly; with a whine, she closed them again to block the light.

Wait... light? she wondered, slowly turning her head and groggily trying to figure out what was going on. What's going on? What happened?

In truth, her mind wasn't completely awake yet: it felt as though she were swimming to the surface of an underground river, but the air above was as black and airless as the water below. She had been drifting in the darkness for a long time before she'd remembered who she was: Alice... her name was Alice. She was fifteen years old, and going to be starting her Freshman year in high school.

She could hear noises and knew she was awake, although she couldn't feel anything... but the sounds were all wrong. The squeak of rubber on linoleum had replaced the gentle thrushing noise of the trees outside of her parents' window. The rattle of trays in a metal cart instead of her brother's snoring and her mother's quiet sleep-mumbling.

Alice slowly tried to roll over, but something held her back like a leash: when she tried again, a sharp sting seared through her hand. After a moment, she blearily buried her face in her mother's pillow and mewled, since it smelled way different than it had the previous evening. Everything smelled like bleach instead of the floral spices she was used to.

What's going on here? she faintly wondered, struggling to rouse herself. This isn't my house... where am I?

When she tried to call for her mother and father, the only thing that came out of her mouth was a hoarse croak that sounded nothing like her: fear immediately flooded through her heart and she catapulted off of the pillow, thrashing sideways and kicking at the sheets. She yanked on the thing restraining her left arm, ignoring the pain that was stabbing her like a wasp's sting.

A few seconds later, a shrill alarm went off, and she flailed around even more.

However, that's when she heard a door swing open.

"Oh, dear! Ellen, go get the doctor right now! The patient in room three just woke up!" a female gently called; a set of hands soon grabbed her quivering shoulders and gently set her back down. "Easy, honey, just calm down… there's no need to pull out your IV, okay?"

IV? she wondered hazily; her head was pounding and her body ached. What's an IV...? Wait... a needle...? With...

"Ellen's taking too long... I'll go get the doctor," the soothing voice stammered. "Try to stay calm until I'm back."

"What happened?" Alice tried to croak, but the woman was gone—leaving her alone. "Hello...?

Nobody responded, leaving the girl to wonder just what the hell was going on.

However, the door opened only a few moments later, and someone else walked in.

"Whoa there," a strange voice said right next to her ear. "You're bleeding... must've done a number on your arm."

Alice slowly turned her head: she smelled Old Spice, the kind of aftershave that Alex gave their father every year for Father's day.

However, this wasn't her father's voice, so who was it?

"Who...?" she croaked, struggling to make her throat work. "Where...?"

"This is the first sign of life that you've shown in three days," the man sighed, clamping down on her wrist when she tried to lift it again. "You're gonna rip your IV out if you keep flailing: you need to be careful. Now... it's all right to open your eyes."

"I tried," Alice whispered; her tongue and the insides of her cheeks felt as though they were furry with cotton. "I can't."

"You're just worn out," the man chuckled, patting the girl's wrist. "I'm sure it feels like you've got weights on your eyelids, but give it your best shot."

Alice willed her eyes to open: each lid felt as heavy as a garage door, but with a herculean effort, she managed to open them just enough to see. She was startled to discover that she was in a hospital room: fluorescent light bulbs buzzed overhead, making the skin of her arms look almost bone white. Through the slats of the venetian blinds on the window, she distantly made out the sight of the mountains surrounding her hometown. Silver rails fenced her bed like a curb: in some places, her strawberry blonde hair fell over the sides like curtains of satin.

When she slowly turned her head and stared at the person who'd spoken, she beheld a clean-cut older man with tight blonde curls.

His wire-rimmed glasses gleamed when he flashed a penlight in her eyes, but after a moment he nodded.

"Looks like most of the cobwebs are gone," he comically explained, making the girl give a slow blink. "I'm Doctor Kesslov."

Alice stared at him with a dazed expression: the doctor wasn't wearing a white coat, but the clothes he WAS wearing seemed a little odd for the season. He was currently donned in a pair of khaki slacks and a dark green turtleneck sweater. Any normal person would have died walking anywhere in the Virginian humidity with clothes like that on, so it made her wonder if he was a quack. Actually, the only sign that he WAS a real doctor was the Stethoscope draped around his neck.

"Aren't you hot?" the pale girl finally croaked, eying his clothing selection with dismay. "Isn't it too warm for clothes like that?"

"Not for this time of year," Doctor Kesslov snorted, quirking an eyebrow. "Can you tell me the date, kiddo?"

"I don't know," she mumbled, slowly shaking her head and taking a deep breath as she thought about it. "The fifth, I guess..."

"The fifth of what?" the doctor asked carefully, all joking manner gone in an instant. "Do you remember?"

"July," Alice stated slowly, closing her eyes as she thought about it. "The fireworks show was yesterday, right?"

"Can you tell me your name? Dr. Kesslov slowly inquired, giving her an expression she couldn't read. "What's your name?"

Alice immediately frowned, since that was definitely a weird question: the doctor most definitely knew her name, but since he was asking, he must have had a reason... and somehow, she didn't think she was going to like it when the bomb finally dropped.

"Alice Thompson," she stated quietly, slowly lifting the covers and staring at her skinny body to check for stitches or a cast. "What happened to me? I mean, the last thing I remember is... waking up and going downstairs since my Mom and Dad weren't in the house, but then... it's all blank."

Dr. Kesslov remained silent, but the look on his face made Alice extremely uneasy.

He looked completely stunned.

Around that moment, something dripped from Alice's nose: it was an odd and unpleasant feeling, but somehow, it wasn't like a nosebleed... it was more like something that shouldn't be was leaking through her nasal cavity. When she slowly turned and wiped her nose on her shoulder, fighting back a sneeze, Dr. Kesslov grabbed a box of tissues of the bedside table and set it within her reach.

"We're going to do some more tests," the doctor noted, staring at her hand when she grabbed a tissue. "We're trying to find out what's causing that."

"What happened to me?" Alice asked, blowing her nose; she winced when her throat shut tight and seemed to swell up. "Seriously, what happened?"

"We'll find out, Alice, I promise," Dr. Kesslov sighed, squeezing her wrist, "but right now, there are people who've been waiting to meet you."

With that, the doctor stood up and walked over to the door before sticking his head out: the blonde girl heard a murmur of voices in the hallway, but after a few moments, the Doctor pulled himself back inside before swinging the door aside with a smile. Alice had a moment to wonder why the man was smiling at her that way... the way her vocal instructor had always done before a solo acapella recital.

Then, her parents walked into the room, and Alice blinked in shock.

Her mother spread her arms wide and rushed over to the bed, crushing the slender blonde and burying her face in the pillow beside her head: the girl could feel tears on her neck, and although she wanted to ask her mother what was wrong, she couldn't get a word in since her lungs were stuck. Then the woman pulled back and started kissing her face all over, weeping and laughing.

"Baby," she whispered, shakily lifting a hand and tearfully running it through the girl's soft blonde hair. "You're back... you're home!"

Alice was speechless and riveted with shock.

Did Mom's hair go gray overnight? she fearfully wondered, shivering. How could she get so thin and tired since just yesterday? It isn't possible!

Then her father walked in, and she gasped over her mother's shoulder.

"Daddy?" she whispered, staring at him in shock. "No way..."

Her once-proud father's shoulders were drooped, and he was walking with a severe limp that severely worried her.

"Look at her!" the man unexpectedly barked, making the blonde girl jump; her mother rubbed her back without letting go, which simply allowed her perfume to wash over Alice's senses. "Did this happen from being starved or abused?"

Alice twitched and tried looking around for a mirror: she wanted to see what was wrong with her to make her dad act like that.

"She was severely dehydrated when she was brought in," Dr. Kesslov stated, measuring his words very carefully. "She was also suffering from exhaustion, and it did appear that she hadn't eaten for several days, but I found no traces of long-term malnutrition... or even, for that matter, any abuse. As far as I can tell, there isn't any physical cause for the delay in her growth."

"Then how do you explain it?" her father snapped, making the girl flinch and her mother sigh. "She doesn't look a day older than when she disappeared!"

Disappeared?

The word ripped through her heart like a wildfire and sent panic shooting up her throat.

"D-d-disappeared?!" Alice finally choked, making everyone in the room turn to look at her. "What are you talking about? Just last night we finished... you know, boarding up all of the windows to keep those... things... from getting in like last time! You know, because of the birds and all?"

Her father's face caved in and her mother jerked back with a startled expression, grey eyes impossibly wide.

"Last night?" the man croaked, staring at the blonde girl with an unfathomable expression. "Baby..."

"What's going on here?!" Alice whispered, clear eyes darting back and forth between her father's new lines and her mother's gray hair. After a moment, however, she glanced out the window and froze when she spotted a maple: red and yellow leaves were hanging off of it, and beyond it, the mountains were ablaze with autumnal colors. She stared at the scenery: everything was scarlet and gold. "Daddy...? How much time has passed since the Fourth of July?"

She didn't want to know: the only thing she was sure of was that Summer was long gone.

"Baby... what are you talking about?" her mother finally sobbed, gripping her shoulders. "The fourth of July when we boarded up the windows?!"

"Yes! Exactly!" she exclaimed, eyes brightening up with hope. "We did it just last night, right? So, what's going on?!"

"Last night," her father whispered hoarsely, slowly lifting an arm and rubbing his face; then he inched to the side of her bed and clutched her in a bear hug with shaking shoulders, making the girl freeze like a statue. "That happened three years ago, Lissie... where the hell have you been?"

And just like that, the floor dropped out from underneath the girl's stomach and she couldn't move.

She couldn't speak.

She couldn't even breathe.

She had been frozen in place.

"Three... years...?" she blankly asked, blue eyes glazing over as something bright flickered behind her eyes. "But... I don't remember anything! I'm fifteen!"

"Baby, you're eighteen," the man wept, making her feel like she was freezing from the inside out. "You're not fifteen anymore, you're eighteen."

"Impossible," Alice whispered, slowly shaking her head as a ringing filled her ears. "Impossible! It's not true! I'm still only fifteen!"

"You're eighteen now!" her mother cried. "Baby, please, it is true! You've been gone for three years!"

"LIES!" the girl shouted, squeezing her eyes shut as an unbearable pressure built up in her head. "LIES! LIES! LIEEEEES! I'M FIFTEEN!"

Without warning, a thunderous concussion split the air and the light bulbs above them exploded. All of a sudden, Alice felt so weak that she couldn't even remain sitting up: she went limp in her father's grasp and groaned, not even registering the panic that had enveloped the room because of what had just happened. Her eyes slowly fluttered closed and a rushing noise enveloped her.

Just before she passed out, however, she heard something strange.

We're all mad here, Dear Alice, a voice full of static whispered inside her head. We're watching you.