The air felt damp against his cheeks while he watched the last shovels of dirt fall to cover Rose’s grave.
Madnes hadn’t known Auntie Rose all that well. She’d been cheerful, had a smile as bright as a sunbeam, and was always busy doing something—that was all he could remember from the few times she’d visited their family.
Now, the pastor spoke a few parting words, and then the funeral gathering dispersed. People drifted off, back to their waiting steam cars, in a solemn line.
“So young…she was so young,” Madnes heard an older woman saying as she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
“I know.” His uncle comforted the woman, arm around her frail shoulders and letting her lean on him as they crossed the cemetery grass.
Madnes felt a hand touch his back and he glanced up to see his mother’s eyes, still damp. “Mom, why did she die?” he asked her. It was a question that nobody seemed to have a clear answer for.
Mom brushed his carrot-red bangs back from his face; she hated bangs and the way they could hide people’s expressions. “Death isn’t something for you to worry about now, little Hatter. You’re much too young,” she told him, her gaze becoming distant and unfocused.
Madnes scratched an inch on his forehead. “I’m in high school—stop acting like I’m a kid! And anyway, that’s not why I asked. I just want to know what she died of,” he persisted.
But Mom’s arm steered him away, walking to where Dad stood waiting at their car, and she said nothing more.
Madnes glanced back over his shoulder at the now lonely plot of upturned soil, the single black alder beside it bowing its branches with a sudden breeze.
A gray tabby cat strode over to pause at the tree. It stood up on its hind legs and bowed its head solemnly, as if in mourning. If that wasn’t a strange enough sight, the cat was also wearing a peculiar vest and a bowler hat.
Madnes gaped. He blinked rapidly and looked again, making sure he wasn’t just seeing things.
But the strange cat was gone.
One Year Later
Madnes Hatter pedaled his bike along the curving sidewalk atop the cliff face, overlooking a stretch of rock-and-sand beach and the sea shimmering under a late golden sun. A gust of wind blew his bangs back and threatened to snatch off his top hat; he readjusted the goggles strapped around its base.
His gaze lingered on the sunset streaked clouds, wishing he could melt into them and leave this island behind—this place that was all he’d ever known. A wide world lay just beyond the ocean channel, just waiting for him to explore…if only traveling wasn’t so expensive.
His dad traveled to the mainland all the time, a place which he claimed was full of people and problems worse than their Oswick Island home—a British island in the Mediterranean Sea. He went there on business trips, and never let Madnes tag along. They didn’t exactly have the best relationship.
The sidewalk led Madnes onward past the view of the beach, and soon a small, two-story building approached on his left. The large sign there read: Designer Hats & Accessories. Every window of the building displayed fantastic pieces of headwear, some extravagant and others utterly ridiculous. But the biggest draw of attention was the massive top hat perched on the building’s roof, tilted to one side. The roof was even curved a bit to resemble a head.
‘Why didn’t they just build the shop out of a giant mannequin?’ Madnes thought to himself.
His parents loved to stand out in society just as much as he hated to stand out. That’s why his dad changed his last name to Mom’s, Hatter, after they married. Hatter was a prestigious name in the hat-making industry.
His bike turned into the pebbled driveway. Flipping the break on, Madnes hopped off. The door’s bell jingled when he stepped inside.
“You’re late, little hat.” Mom glanced his way while inspecting a green, feathered piece she held up to the light.
Madnes grunted, “Hmph.”
“Did the book club run late?”
“Not very talkative today, I see.”
He took out a sandwich from the fridge and headed for the backyard to eat in solitary peace. Mom made a tut-tut sound with her tongue.
His parents put all their time and energy into running this designer hat shop. Their actual home was up on the second floor, and that convenience made their work schedule become practically 24/7.
He tossed his satchel on a white chair in the backyard garden and sat down, settling his teeth into the sandwich.
An airship hummed on its journey across the sky, the balloon of its upper half reflecting the sun. Throughout the town around him, trails of steam rose above rooftops from chimneys like foggy tendrils. Steam-powered electricity was what ran the island, and it kept their population thriving.
Madnes watched a few of the tendrils from their own chimney drift idly into the sky. Oswick had rebuilt itself with the use of steam, pipes and gears, ever since the Solar Storm Wipeout that had hit Earth before Madnes was born and had wiped out every electrical grid across the globe.
He flicked off his top hat, letting it fall into his lap. Hats—he wanted more than a future of making hats like his parents. He didn’t know what sort of future, but something—anything—different from Oswick’s daily routine.
Something that would add spice to all the boring…
But tomorrow came, as tomorrows often do, and another boring day of school passed by Madnes. He carried his satchel of books down the bustling hallway at the end of classes.
“What should I do?” Harrey kept asking him as he followed after, desperation in his voice. And when Madnes wouldn’t answer, he grabbed the front of his shirt, like a frantic drama king, and shook him. “What should I do?” he asked louder.
“You could stop wrinkling my shirt, for a start,” said Madnes.
Harrey released him. Needing to do something with his hands, he scrubbed them over his scalp, yanking at his brown hair like a crazed rabbit. “She refused me! The love of my life refused to go out with me!” Harrey moaned. “She’s killed me, I tell you, her cruel words a dagger through my heart. And now I’m bleeding internally, soon to die…”
Madnes huffed and looked away. “Can I go now?”
“You’re so callous! Have a little sympathy for your dying friend, here.”
“Harrey. You do this every time a girl refuses to go out with you. Give up, and do your homework for once.”
“Nooo~! Heartless. You’re heartless!”
Madnes exited the school doors, the atmosphere shifting from dim hallway to open daylight. He left Harrey March behind to wallow in his temporary misery. Madnes had better things to do with the rest of his day than listen to Harrey’s whining and moping over his love life.
He breathed in the outdoors air. A swish of blonde off to the side caught Madnes’s eye. There, waiting several paces ahead, stood Alice; she turned when she heard the door and saw them.
“Is he moping again?” she asked around a lollipop, nodding to indicate Harrey who had followed him out.
Madnes nodded. “And for the same typical reason.”
She fell into step with him, both of them hurrying to leave Harrey behind as he dragged his feet at the speed of a depressed snail and moaned.
Madnes glanced to the side at his friend. Alice wasn’t tall, but her eyes like large pools of sea-green had a way of captivating a person. She wore the female version of the school’s brown plaid uniform and a green ribbon in her thick, yet short hair.
Alice was odd in her own way, but not nearly as bothersome as Harrey could be. In fact, he quite enjoyed her company. Together they walked from school, following the sidewalk as it led past a bustling street of steam cars and houses on one side, and the open seacoast on the other.
Alice glanced sidelong up at him. “You have a bored look on your face,” she commented.
“I am bored.”
“Every day you look like that.”
“Every day I’m bored.”
“Oh?” Her head tilted, blonde tresses dangling just above her shoulders. “Is this small world too boring for you, now?”
He gazed ahead. “It’s always the same. Same town, same people, same problems, same future of hat-making waiting ahead of me…it gets old.”
“Hmm, a land without wonder and hope is a boring place, indeed. Oswick has become that,” she said.
Madnes turned his head to look at her. She flashed him a mysterious smile and then trotted away. Her house was down the nearby street. She waved the lollipop at him as she left, and he lazily waved back.
What was she getting at by saying that? He wondered.
Continuing onward, Madnes tipped his hat back to watch the sea and the shifting waters as they struck against the rocky shore below.
After walking for a while, the buildings and houses on his left were obscured by trees and a small park. He paused there and rested his elbows on the stone railing overlooking the cliff.
“A land without wonder…” he thought out loud. “I need a real wonderland then, is that it? A place that’s never boring. Ha, how great it’d be to find such a place!” He said it with sarcasm, knowing it would never happen.
Seagulls cried overhead. He closed his eyes against a warm gust of air and tasted salt on his tongue.
“A wonderland…” he whispered.
A sudden cry came, jolting him out of his thoughts, and was followed by a loud splash.
Madnes opened his eyes and hurried to look over the rail.
Below, where the sea came up to the cliff, a small round hat bobbed in the water. Someone had fallen in!
Madnes hoisted himself over the rail, finding footholds in the cliff face’s slope of rock. He fumbled his way down, then jumped, landing in the water.
He splashed about, spitting saltwater, and scanned every which way. But there was nothing to be seen anywhere except the hat.
He sucked in a breath and dived, forcing his eyes open in the saltiness.
Still, there was nothing, no one below the waves.
Madnes resurfaced and clambered up onto the rocky bank, panting. After a while, he managed to climb himself back over the rail, his palms scraped red from the effort.
Where had that cry for help come from? If it wasn’t from the water, then…
“A heart that is willing to save others at your own peril. You’ve passed the test!” spoke a voice.
Madnes sharply turned around, but no human was in sight.
Great. Had he been cursed to hear ghost voices now? He never should have complained about being bored!
That was when a pair of paws suddenly smacked him in the face, pressing on his eyelids, and Madnes stumbled back, swatting the attacker away.
A brilliant light flashed behind his eyes and a strange sensation of energy washed through his body. He gasped and clutched at his aching eyeballs. “Ouch! What the heck…?”
Madnes blinked rapidly, massaging the pain, and wiping water away.
Before him on the stone railing sat a gray tabby cat.
It didn’t seem any different than your average tabby, except that its fluffy features had been neatly smoothed, and it wore a suit and cravat on the upper half of its body. Okay, maybe it was different from your average tabby. Oddly different. Did ghosts normally appear as well-dressed cats?
Madnes watched in both amazement and horror as the tabby rose to stand on its hind legs and bowed with a flourishing paw in greeting, flashing him a too-big smile.
“Your vision has been awoken, Madnes Hatter,” said the cat. “I’ve followed you these many years, waiting for the opportune time when you would be ready, and now you are! It is a heavy responsibility that lies before you.”
“W-w-what…?” Madnes stuttered, unable to wrap his mind around the absurdity before him. “Talking cat? Responsibility? What crazy dream am I having?” He slapped the sides of his face, hoping to wake himself up. “What sort of ghost are you?”
“Ghost? I am real and alive, thank you very much.” The cat tsked at him. “And neither is this a dream. You’ve seen me before, remember?”
Madnes thought back. The funeral, Auntie Rose, the strange tabby by the grave…
“For many generations, this gift has been granted to a member of the Hatter family. And starting today, it is your turn,” the tabby said.
Paws suddenly grabbed and turned Madnes’s head around so that he was facing the park and playground behind him. It looked every bit a normal playground, just as it always did every day he passed by it. But…something felt off.
Where rocks had littered the playground border, huge red-and-purple mushrooms grew large enough to sit on. A strange bird with a head shaped like a hammer squawked and dove past a child, and the child stared about as if wondering what had stirred the air but couldn’t see it.
“There’s never been a bird like that in Oswick,” Madnes exclaimed.
As he continued to watch, a cluster of bananas ran past him—hurrying across the lawn with a waddling stride and wearing little headbands.
“Ninja bananas, to be precise,” the cat corrected.
Madnes rubbed at his eyes, making them water.
“It won’t go away, Madnes. What you’re seeing are life-forms from another world: Wonderland, as the portals link it to Earth, here in Oswick,” the cat explained. “My name is Cheshire, by the way. And I’m here to train you to become the next Madness Solver!” He flashed a wide smile.
Madnes turned his head slowly toward the cat. “The…what?”
“Madness Solver.” Cheshire shrugged as if it were obvious. “The person who works to keep the balance between worlds.”
Cheshire waited, but only confusion and revulsion that a cat was talking to him showed on Madnes’s face.
“You now see things that no other human here can,” Cheshire continued. “Those are mushrooms back in Wonderland, but when in your world, they appear as rocks. The ninja bananas appear like regular bananas to anyone else here, but you can see their true form. Only you and those of Wonderland see true forms.” Cheshire’s paws gestured while he explained. “It’s common logic that when two worlds collide there are bound to be problems and conflicts. And it’s your job to solve them before anyone gets hurt.” One paw rubbed his whiskered chin. “To put it another way, you are the Wonderland peacekeeper. That’s who the Madness Solver is, and what you will do.”
“So, when I eat a banana…” Madnes began.
“No, not every banana is alive—that’s just their Earthly disguise, since they’re already banana-shaped,” Cheshire straightened out.
“Oh…” was all Madnes could manage to say. He stared at the tabby for one long second, then bolted in the opposite direction, running as fast as his legs could carry him. “No, thank you. I don’t need a job that badly! I’m happy being bored!” he shouted over his shoulder.
The cat watched him go, shaking his furry head.
The farther Madnes ran, more strange sights came across his path: A goose wearing clothes; a bear walking on two legs; a group of mermaids like dolphins playing off the shore…too many things that his brain couldn’t make sense of.
And suddenly, Oswick was no longer boring—it was crazy.
And he might not live long enough to have a future.
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