“What does it do?” I demand.
“Like I said, I’m not saying because I don’t want to have anything to do with Lewis Carroll.” The Executioner stands up. “But I know who cooked it for him.”
“That’s a start.” The Pillar steps forward. “Who?”
“I’m not telling you that either.” The Executioner smirks. “Not until you entertain me like in the old days, Senor Pillardo. Come on, make me laugh.”
The Pillar stiffens for a fraction of a second. “Of course.” He raises his glass. “Want to play Wonderland logic again?”
“Whatever’s on your mind. Just be sure you make me laugh.” The Executioner hands him a pistol. “And for starters, I laugh when someone shoots one of my guards. How about that for a start?”
“My pleasure.” The Pillar grabs the gun from the table and shoots two of the guards without hesitation.
I swallow hard and step away from him. Never have I imagined him this cruel. But who am I kidding? He has twelve dead people on his conscience.
“Frabjous! Haven’t lost your swift speed, Senor Pillardo.” The Executioner clinks glasses with the Pillar. “Now make me really laugh. Tell me jokes. Tell me about your adventures outside of Mushroomland all of these years. But I have to warn you, if you don’t make me laugh...”
“You will shoot me and the girl, I know.”
“No.” The Executioner approaches him. “I will make you shoot one of those kids outside, make the girl watch it, and then shoot you and her.”
This is the moment when I raise my trembling hand, unable to stay here any longer. “Is there a bathroom nearby?”
“Just outside that door, to the left,” The Executioner says dismissively. He is so much into the Pillar.
I turn and leave. Not for the bathroom. But for the children. It might be close to the end of the world, but I’m finding those children and getting them out of Mushroomland, if it’s the last thing I do before judgement day.
Outside, I don’t bother finding the bathroom. I just want out to look for the children.
Among the Executioner’s soldiers, I pretend I am an airhead brat with a colorful umbrella, trekking around the vast landscape and admiring the roses.
Some of them are irritated by me, borderline offended, but none of them can do anything about it. I have the Executioner’s permission to be out here.
Flashing my stupid-girl smiles, I’m looking for the children in my peripheral vision.
Nighttime isn’t helping much. All I have for light is a small moon up in the sky. For a moment, it looks like a mushroom lighting up the world. But I know better. The coconut’s effect hasn’t fully worked on me yet.
Farther into the landscape, I am happy to be hiding between folds of darkness and even darker trees in the castle’s garden. I am like a cat now. I see everyone from my vantage point but none of them see me. The Cheshire comes to mind instantly, but I don’t want to think about him.
Then I glimpse the children in the distance.
They’re being loaded like sheep into a barred Jeep, surrounded by machine gun men.
Like a cat, I tiptoe closer. Each child is given a gun before getting on the Jeep. Oh, my God.
I mean, I’ve read about drug lords and cartels using young, poor children in their drug business, even in war, but I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes. It seems that the words we read in newspapers, the videos we watch on news cable, no matter how atrocious and unbelievable are never really processed by our brains. We watch these things as if they are a movie, as if they’re not real, until you see them with your own eyes.
But right now, I can’t stand it. Those children aren’t going to become machine gun drug traffickers. Their childhood isn’t going to be taken advantage of by this mean man called the Executioner. I will find a way to get them out of Mushroomland.
This means more to me than the end of the world.
Because frankly, the world will end anyway. It’s the crimes we don’t do anything about that are the real evil.
Taking my shoes off, I pad as slowly as I can, closer to the Jeep.
There are about twenty children, and for some reason, they’re shown out of the Jeep again. One of the machine gun men tells them to wait next to a huge mushroom tree—haven’t seen one before, really, but hey, I could still be imagining things.
Once the kids are alone, I approach them, worried they’ll shoot or resist me because I’m foreign or something.
But they don’t.
They actually look at me as if they know me, anticipating whatever I have to say.
“I’m Alice,” I begin. “I will get you out of here. You want to get out of here, right?”
They nod eagerly, and I realize they don’t speak my language, but they seem to understand me, still. Maybe freedom and children’s rights is a universal thing. No language is really needed.
“Look,” I try to explain things with my hands while I talk. Common sense sign language should work, right? “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but how about you all get into that Jeep again. I can drive it away until we figure out what to do next.”
They follow my pointing finger to the Jeep, guns still in their hands.
“No,” I say. “No guns. You don’t need them.”
They’re reluctant about it, but cooperate eventually. One after the other they get into the Jeep, smiling at me. It’s lovely how a child’s smile makes your life seem worthless in order to save them.
But it’s not funny at all seeing each one of them is missing knuckles on their last two fingers, starting from the pinky. I can’t explain how this breaks my heart. I suddenly feel embarrassed complaining about shock therapy back in the asylum. At least no one cut off a piece of me.
“Hey.” I stop a boy and kneel down to face him. “Who did that to you?” I point at the missing fingers.
“The Executioner.” Of course.
“Mark?” I blink. “Who’s Mark?”
“No.” The boy waves his forefinger. “Slave. Mark.”
My hands reach for my mouth to cup a shriek. “It’s a mark? Like a tattoo? You’re a salve?”
“Executioner slave.” The boy taps his chest and then points to the rest of the children. “Travel. Drug. Sell.”
“Not anymore.” I hug him closer. “I will take care of you.”
The boy smiles broadly, as if I have bought him a gift. I mean, God, he doesn’t even know what they are doing to him, trapped within the walls of mushroom all around.
Before he gets in the Jeep, he turns around and touches my hair. “Alice,” he whispers. “Mother say Alice come. Alice save us.”
Inside the Jeep, lights still out, I try to think of a plan.
So what? I am going to ignite the vehicle with the kids inside and just try to escape Mushroomland?
It doesn’t really sound like a plan, and now that I’ve given the children hope, it really doesn’t sound like a plan.
“Think, Alice.” I bang my hands on the wheel, staring at the machine gun men in the distance. It’ll only be minutes before they come back.
My hatred for the Pillar increases. Or maybe I should blame myself for counting too much on him. Who was I fooling? I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I learned he was a drug lord. I bet he marked children like the Executioner does. That bastard.
I fiddle with my umbrella, realizing it only has a few bullets. I can go back to put one in the Executioner and then another in the Pillar, but what good will that do for the children?
Suddenly, one of the machine gun men sees us and blows red fireworks in the sky, exposing the Jeep for everyone to see.
It’s too late now for a plan. Survival instinct at its core.
I push the pedal and bump into every hedge and mushroom in my way, trying to chug my way out of here.
Jeeps start following me, shooting at us.