Claire's parents mightn't have thought that it was terribly unusual if their precocious daughter had come home one day speaking of an imaginary friend. She was an outsider at school: the other children all intuitively placed her in the "other" category and mostly stayed away from her. It wasn't that she was in any way antisocial. Every year when the first day of school started, Claire always did her very best to fit in and get along with all the other children, but again and again her efforts were met with rejection.
At the end of her first week of second grade, her parents had prepared themselves for a disappointed daughter's arrival. She came home beaming with excitement.
"I made a friend!" she exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear, the gap from her lost tooth showing just to the left of center.
"Her name is Alice,"
"Hello, dear child," said the woman standing like a tower over Claire's head. Claire opened her eyes and looked past the woman for a moment to watch the leaves shimmering green as they struggled to snuff out all the sunlight. After a moment, he looked back at the woman's face. Her eyes were green and they sparkled with mischief and mystery. She looked patient, as if she had spent all day waiting on that exact spot for a little girl to appear in the darkened forest.
On Claire's right hand side she could hear a quiet river or a small stream gurgling sleepily a little ways off. The woman waited patiently for her to get her bearings, and then met her gaze, unblinking for a few moments as Claire decided whether or not she was going to be afraid. The woman seemed seven feet tall, her strawberry colored hair fell wavily down to her back and she wore a simple dark green dress which complemented her eyes and the forest around them. Her features were refined, but a little severe to the little girl, as if she was seeing a wise old crone and a young carefree maiden occupying the same space with only the slightest flicker betraying the two extremes rather than their attractive median which stood before Claire.
"I am Alice. How did you come to this place?" she inquired with grace and patience, her gaze only just betraying the intense curiosity with which she examined the little girl. Claire scrambled to her feet, brushed the stray blades of grass and dead leaves off the front of her schoolgirl frock, and tried to brush her frizzy chestnut-colored hair back where it belonged under her black headband with the simple black bow on it.
"I don't-- I mean-- hello Ms. Alice, ma'am," responded Claire, remembering her manners. We musn't make a poor first impression, she thought to herself. "I am afraid I don't know how I came here, or where I am," she stated in her best impression of a British accent she could muster. She made an attempt to curtsy, but all the years of practicing in front of her stuffed animals at tea time had not adequately prepared her for this moment.
"Pity," responded Alice. The ends of her long hair seemed to, only slightly, lose a little of their curl. "You are human, though. That's clear enough."
"If you please, ma'am."
"Yes, I do please ma'am. You can stop pretending you are English, dear. You aren't fooling anyone. I, myself am not English, so you can stop projecting on me as well. Silly girls and your fairy stories."
"That's better. Now, then. Let's be friends. Tell me about yourself."
"Well, ma'am, I am Claire. I am in the Second Grade and I want to be an Astronaut when I grow up."
"Mmmhm, so does Andy in my class, but he's gross and he eats his own boogers. Jackie says she wants to be an Astronaut Nurse Policeman but I think she's just trying to copy everyone else so they will like her better."
"I see. I'm sorry to interrupt dear, but you're still projecting. You do have a strong will for someone so young, don't you," said Alice, with a little bit of a frown. Her eyebrows were now beginning to furrow with both concern and confusion.
"I'm sorry ma'am. I don't know what you mean," answered Claire, desperately wanting to impress Alice.
"Ah. I can see you're not even fully here anyway. Look at your hands: they are already beginning to fade away!"
"Oh no! What's wrong with me?" Claire cried out in alarm as she gazed through her hands at the rapidly darkening leaves above her.
"Come back when you are older, dear. We are friends now, you know," said Alice, with a smile and a small sigh.
"Yes, darling. My, but you are young for your first visit. Curiouser and curiouser. Well. Enjoy the rest of your day at school, Claire!"
And with that, the world went black as Claire lost her balance and fell backwards as she faded from Alice's sight with a popping noise like an old man cracking his knuckles.
"This is interesting," Alice remarked as she disappeared into a gust of wind without a sound.