Alice watched Spring mature into summer through the window of her tower room, and missed the feeling of breathing in fresh, warm air. She had a calendar, and true to the stereotype she marked off each day as it passed to keep track of time, under various pictures of fluffy kittens.
On one day in particular, Alice woke early to bathe and primp as best she could, then moved to sit at the window and stare out at the tree that she now regarded with fondness. “It’s my birthday,” she said to both her baby and the tree. “I’m finally twenty-one, though I won’t be going to bars or drinking anymore.” She placed her hands on her stomach and smiled warmly. “Not with my Alicia to care for. Honestly, I don’t think that I enjoyed it all that much anyway – I was just trying to escape myself, you know? I don’t have to do that anymore.” She turned to gaze around her tower room, and whispered, “I’ve had so much time to think, living alone up here, that I’ve started to feel like I’m in the process of being reborn myself.”
The familiar knock sounded, and she called “Come in!” Hackett pushed the door open with the breakfast tray, and when Alice sat down she realized that there was a small cake with a candle included in the setting. “For me?” she exclaimed.
“It really is your birthday, I hope, and that you didn’t lie on your admissions paperwork. I’d have to write you up for that,” he said with a wink as he pulled out a lighter. “Should I sing?”
“No!” Alice said hastily with a blush. “It’s not a big deal, or anything.”
“What a shame. I’ve been practicing in the shower all week long.” Hackett chuckled as he finished lighting the candle and slid the cake a little closer to her. “At least make a wish.”
Was he flirting with her? Alice had never had anyone act so jovially with her before, and she didn’t know if there was anything special behind it or simply what friends did. Her heart began to race, and she silently reminded herself for the umpteenth time to not act like an idiot. She was not going to make a fool of herself by revealing that she had a crush on the warden – especially on her birthday.
“Well … I want to keep my baby more than anything else,” she answered.
“That one is already in the works. Pick something else to wish for.”
It was a hard question. As she thought about it, wax began to drip from the candle and onto the frosting, and she wondered how long Hackett was going to wait patiently.
When Alice looked towards the window, the answer came to her. “I want to go outside,” she said, then blew out the candle.
They ate in silence, until Alice offered Hackett a portion of her cake and he accepted. “My next door neighbor made this,” he commented quietly. “She caught me in the bakery section of the grocery store, and insisted that whoever I was buying a cake for would appreciate a homemade one much better. She was likely hoping that I’d share some juicy details, but I made sure to keep my tongue guarded.” Hackett chuckled. “That woman is something else.”
“Oh?” Alice felt a little crestfallen. The cake was so moist and delicious, she didn’t have it in her to refuse it out of jealousy, especially not with being pregnant. “Are you two close?”
“I mow her lawn occasionally …” Hackett paused, watching Alice carefully. She made sure that her eyes stayed fixed on her plate. “When her grandkids can’t get around to it.”
“Oh!” Alice immediately blushed, deeper still with knowing that Hackett was watching. “You know,” she said quickly, “I’ve been here long enough, it’s weird to imagine you living in a house with neighbors. It makes sense, but it’s still something that’s part of another world. You know, one that I don’t belong to anymore.”
“You’ll be back out there before you know it.” Hackett had a small, secretive sort of smile that made Alice’s heart ache. All she wanted was to keep her infatuation hidden from him, so they could continue sharing breakfast together without any awkwardness between them, but despite herself it slipped out when she least expected it to. Maybe he already knew, and was flattered despite not returning her affections. “Recant your confession,” he said, “And I’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.”
“I like the free health care,” she murmured.
When they were finished eating, Hackett cleared up the table and left, and Alice returned to the window to stare out of the trees that surrounded the castle prison. She wondered what the forest smelled like, and if there were any mushrooms sprouting in the undergrowth. It was funny: she had never cared an ounce about nature before, but now that all she could do was look at it from a distance, she wanted more than anything to breathe it in and marvel at everything.
“After you’re born, Alicia, we’ll go hiking every chance we get. We’ll find waterfalls, and learn all the different types of butterflies. Heck, I’ll even try out camping once you’re a little older,” she promised, and felt a little better.
Another knock on the door startled her, though it was the same tone that she was used to. Tentatively, she called out, “Come in?” and Hackett entered.
“Sorry. It took longer than I expected, but I have these for you.” He held out a pair of shoes. “I should have asked your size first.”
“I guess I’m just average,” Alice said as she took the sneakers and stared at them, confused. They were standard prison issue, used, and smelled strongly of disinfectant.
“Go on and put them on,” Hackett urged.
“Why?” Alice couldn’t help but ask. If they were a birthday present, she wondered what sort of strange idea had possessed Hackett to give them to her. She preferred padding around barefoot over the idea of wearing those ugly things.
“I recommend putting on socks first.”
“Okay …” Alice decided that she was going to get answers faster if she went ahead and did as he said, so she rummaged through her things for a pair of socks, then pulled the shoes on and laced them up. They were a little too roomy in the toes, but that was better than being too small. “Now what?” she asked.
He smiled secretively again, and held the door open. “Follow me.”
Alice exited into the maze of passages, feeling weird and clumsy in the shoes. It wasn’t long before she was disoriented, but something told her that they were not on their way to see Dr. Westley. After several minutes, Hackett stopped in front of a wooden door, which he unlocked with the set of keys he kept on his belt.
“Alice,” he said, turning to her with a grin. “Your birthday wish is granted.” He pushed open the door, and blinding sunlight washed over her with the song of birds.
She stood, dumbstruck, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the light. The prison fence still rose up in front of her, but the breeze was fresh and there was blue sky above. Timidly, she took a step outside.
The summer sun felt hot enough to scorch her skin, and she had to shield her eyes with her hand. “Basil …” she gasped, then failed to come up with anything else to say.
“We can leave the prison altogether if you wish, and walk around the forest. The next hour is my gift to you.” Hackett locked the door behind him, then stood beside her. “We’ll have to leave through the main entrance with the guards, of course, and we’re on a fairly tight schedule.”
Alice nodded, then again repeated, “Basil …” but the words she wanted to express herself refused to come. Her baby squirmed inside her, and she unconsciously placed her hand over her.
“Come on.” Hackett held out his hand to her. “While it’s still quiet around here.”
She took it, then in a daze followed him to the guard station at the entrance, then out into the forest that she had spent months staring at. It was so different, she almost didn’t recognize her tree when Hackett stopped underneath it to point up at her window.
They continued walking through the shade of the trees, their hands clasped firmly together as Hackett helped her navigate over rocks and rotting logs, carefully ensuring that she never completely lost her balance. When they came across a small patch of wildflowers, he considered them before picking the prettiest bloom and handing it to Alice. With a painful stab she realized that it was the first time anyone had ever given her a flower, and with her history she wasn’t sure if she deserved it. But Hackett was pulling her along again, so she kept hold of it, mindful not to bruise any of the leaves or petals.
An alarm went off on Hackett’s cellphone far too quickly for her liking, and with that they turned around to return to the prison. The passages were dark and obscured by a veil of green in her vision, but like always Hackett knew exactly how to return her to her room. He said goodbye before locking the door.
Alice sat down on the bed, staring at the flower in her hand. Alicia gave several good kicks to her ribs, which made her wince and exclaim, “Settle down girl! It couldn’t last all day. We had to come back here eventually …” With a heavy sigh, she laid down and stared at the window. “That sunlight felt really good though, didn’t it. Maybe I should tell them everything I know, and get us released from here. But … I don’t want to say goodbye to Basil. I like him so much, baby girl, and he’s sweet to me. He probably thinks that I’m some crazy kid to rehabilitate, but I want to stay near him for as long as possible, because he means the world to me.”
An idea came to her, so she grabbed the first book that Hackett had given to her and gently tucked the flower in between the pages, carefully arranging the leaves before closing it and setting it back on the nightstand. “There. Now today will be preserved forever.”
Tears unexpectedly stung her eyes. “Oh Alicia,” she sobbed, “I wish I had been smarter in the past. I wish that I hadn’t destroyed my life.”