Alice in Christmasland – A puzzle story


It started on Christmas Eve, or rather kurisumasu, and now I’m stuck in a time loop. Or maybe I’m just in Tokyo.

My grandmother was happy when I told her about the Teach-English-in-Japan job. Finally, I was visiting the land of our ancestors. My first night in Tokyo, I stood beneath the blinding lights of Shinjuku station, lost in a trance while a surge of people moved by. It looked like a scene out of the Matrix.

Dinner was a hamburger and soggy fries from a hot food vending machine because I didn’t need to speak to anyone to get it. I don’t think this is exactly the land our ancestors lived in, Baba.

Very quickly, I learned to say kudasai and arigatō and spent a lot time pointing to things I’d searched up on my cell phone. Or I just spoke English. I was here to teach English to a bunch of people who already spoke English.

“We want to talk like native English speaker,” my host explained.

A few months went by. Even though I was getting the hang of Tokyo with all of its quirks and routines, I didn’t anticipate how homesick I would be during the holidays. I was told the Tokyo Christmas Market was a big thing, so I went to get hot chocolate and a bratwurst among the glittering trees. Young girls dressed as elves were passing out candy canes while greeting everyone with a cheerful, “Merīkurisumasu!

This is what Christmas looks like to the Japanese based on pictures and movies, and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong.

I had just finished my Christmas bratwurst when I spied movement in front of an alleyway. It looked like one of those plump, lucky cats you see in sushi places, but it was a real white cat. It was actually smiling. And waving.

I went to get a closer look and ended up following the creature into the alleyway and then…time loop. No matter what I do, it’s Christmas Eve and I end up back in the alleyway chasing after that cat. Was it a cat I saw?

Maneki-neko, explained a man selling reindeer ornaments the first time I emerged from the alleyway. The cat isn’t waving, it’s apparently beckoning. Like “come hither”. That might have been useful to know before I ran after it. Every time around I inevitably go through a series of adventures trying to find that cat, but always end up in the alley, back at the beginning.

Just turn around, you say. Head out the same way you’ve came into the alley. Don’t you think I’ve thought of that? Don’t you think THEY’VE thought of that?

Once I’m in the alley, it doesn’t matter which way I go. I end up back in Christmas town. There are weird Santas everywhere. One of them does a Mission Impossible thing cabling down into the crowd.

I want to go home. And I have to find that maneki-neko to do it.

The man at the ornament stand who told me about maneki-neko always points me to a tea room. I’ve tried not going to the tea room. I’ve tried shoving the vendor into his heavily ornamented Christmas tree in a rage. That gets security chasing me until at some point I duck between two buildings to get away and then…You get how this goes, right?

My cell phone doesn’t work either. Well, it works as a cell phone should. I’ve tried calling my host family. My Tokyo friends. I called home to Wisconsin, begging them to send someone from the embassy, the CIA, the United Nations. Nothing anyone does can get to me before everything resets.

I’ve Googled time loops. The results were not helpful.

This time around, I decide to go to the tea house. It’s green tea, which I didn’t used to like because I thought it tasted like drinking grass, but the stuff is growing on me.

The tea house is very traditional and they whip up a bowl of tea until it’s frothy before bringing to you on a lacquer tray. It’s the only place in the village where I can’t hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat.

After I finish my tea, there’s an old man with thick glasses and long crickety arms that challenges me to a game of Go. It’s a strategy game with white and black stones and the only rule is that you place one of your stones on one of the open corners on the grid that’s carved on the board.

At first, I had no idea how to play, and just tried to make interesting patterns, but after a hundred loops or so, I started getting the hang of it. It’s a strategy game where you try to capture territory by surrounding the other players stones with your own. At the end, the old, crickety man always tells me, “Anata wa ushinatta.”

I looked up the meaning after the first couple times. He’s telling me, “You have lost.”

Today our game goes on for longer than usual. At the end, he bows and his words have changed.

“Watashi makemashitawa.” I have lost.

I understand him without using the translation app on my phone. I must have been stuck in here longer than I thought. When I look down, I can almost make out the shape of a feline face in the white stones.

I step outside into the cold, walking through the lane and events that at first seemed so strange to me and finding an odd familiarity in them now. I pass a snack counter where I’ve tried ordering everything on the menu, even the fried octopus balls.

“Don’t take my fish cake!” an irate girl in a green felt hat cries to her companion. A ridiculous argument is about to ensue which will somehow lead to me being chased into an alley if I stick around. As I hurry away, I’m compelled to repeat the girl’s words out loud: “Naruto o toru na.”

Something feels curious about the sound of it, but I’m pulled away from my thoughts by the sudden flash of a snow-white tail.

I break into a run, weaving through the crowd. The maneki-neko is sauntering toward another alleyway.

“Stop!” I cry. And then I try it in Japanese, with extra politeness: “Chotto matte kudasai!”

The cat stops and turns around to face me. He is smiling.

And that is when I remember a drawing from a children’s book Baba gave me. One of another smiling cat. A cat that was all smile. On the same page, there had been a letter puzzle drawn into the shape of a diamond.

Was it a cat I saw?

I think I have it then, like a pattern of white stones falling into place.

“The world is a warm place,” I tell the maneki-neko, but in his language, the language of my ancestors, and one that is becoming mine too. I speak each syllable carefully.

“Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo.”

The cat grins, eyes closed and content, and beckons me forward.

How does Alice get out of the time loop? (SPOILERS)

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DABWAHA bribe – Unpublished scene from Jade Temptress sequel


Permission granted via Check out clothing line “Rumentnishang” at their website.

As promised, here is a teaser scene from Wei-wei’s story–if it were to ever see the light of day. This is completely unedited and hot off the presses, so you can see what typically goes into an ugly draft. Please excuse any mistakes. It’s also in first person unlike the rest of the Lotus Palace books because I’m RIGHT in the middle of editing a first person book and I just found it too hard to switch at the drop of a dime.

Come vote for The Jade Temptress for DABWAHA Round 1 from midnight to noon on 3/20! I’m up against Sarah MacLean’s Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover…which, has a pretty cool cover. 🙂

If I make it to Round 2, I’ll type up another scene. This one will feature another potential hero as well as possibly Wei-wei’s first kiss. 😉


This is an unpublished and unedited excerpt from an untitled and unproposed story featuring Wei-wei, a secondary character from the Lotus Palace mystery series.
It occurs after the events of The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress.

Tang Dynasty China, 849 A.D.

The moment I entered the second courtyard of our house, I knew there was something amiss. The garden doors of our main study had been propped open and I could see my half-brother inside, seated at his desk. That was nothing strange. Chang-min was the most studious of us, due in part to my iron fist when it came to his lessons.

Standing over Chang-min was my elder brother, which was certainly strange. Huang had always hated the study. When we were younger, he’d half-heartedly flipped through Father’s lessons while I diligently pondered every character. I loved the crisp feel of pages beneath my fingertips, the earthy smell of ground ink stick, and the way the black stroke flowed from my brush onto snow white paper. That was why I had taken over our younger brother’s studies.

Another man in a dark-colored scholar’s robe and headdress stood beside my elder brother. At first I thought it might have been Father. Who else would be hovering over Chang-min’s shoulder as he bent over his writing?

But I knew from the breadth of his shoulders and his strident that he was certainly not father. My father had a quiet, commanding presence that he carried wherever he went, whether it was the Ministry of Defense or our parlor. This stranger was a visitor in our home, yet he took up space in a way that was jarring, intrusive. Space that was usually mine.

“Elder Brother,” I greeted, stepping into the study.

I spared our guest the barest of glances, but long enough that he was aware of it. He straightened to his full height to regard me curiously.

“Wei-wei.” Huang gave me a brief nod. “I’ll be with you shortly.”

His tone was brusque, dismissive. Sounding nothing like himself. I narrowed my eyes at my brother. He may have earned the high degree of jinshi and a minor imperial appointment, but both Huang and I knew what a struggle it was for him. He was neither a scholar nor a bureaucrat at heart. This gravely serious demeanor didn’t fit him.

“I came to check on our brother’s progress,” I said coolly. Huang flicked his hand in a furtive gesture, trying to usher me away, but I ignored it. “He was assigned an essay this morning.”

“Sister, this is Yu Jin-Quan,” my elder brother introduced, resigned. “His family comes from an esteemed line of imperial scholars.”

I squared off against the intruder as if doing battle. “Honored to make your acquaintance.”

“Lady Bai.” He bowed, but barely. “And I yours.”

His tone was flat, his broad jaw fixed. For a moment we stared at each other, neither of us blinking. My younger brother glanced up from his essay, then wisely ducked his head back down to continue writing. My neck ached from staring up at this man who dressed like an academic, but had the brutish quality of a…of an ox.

“Our brother has been reviewing the course of his studies with Master Yu,” Huang began.

I felt my fingertips going cold. “Why would he have any interest in that?”

“I understand Lady Bai has been in charge of her brother’s studies,” Yu Jin-Quan remarked. “A woman with any familiarity with the Classics is certainly….commendable.”

Commendable? With a pause?

“Young Lord Bai has made adequate progress,” he continued. “He will have much more to cover to be prepared for the provincial exams, but this servant believes that the student has a grasp of the basics required.”

Heat rose up the back of my neck. I had more than a passing familiarity with the Classics. These were my books. My study. At five years old, I’d been the one sitting at that desk with Huang beside me. I’d read through all of these shelves in the years since then.

And Chang-min was my pupil. Aiding him in his studies was my one valuable contribution to our family. It was the source of my freedom. But now this Yu Jin-Quan had appeared, from a long line of imperial scholars. Using the words of a servant, but the tone of an equal.

I couldn’t even gather my wits to give him a cold farewell as Huang thanked him for coming. Instead, I remained frozen, staring at the characters flowing from Chang-min’s brush as the two men moved around the desk to go.

“We have some things to discuss,” Huang said quietly to me as he passed.

We did. But I was afraid I already knew the answer. It didn’t matter how much I’d read and studied from our personal library. I could never attend the academies in the city or engage in tea room discussions between candidates and scholars. I didn’t have the experience, or the respect that someone like Yu could offer.

I was trapped in the silk robes of a woman, the prettiest shackles in all the world. And those chains were about to tighten.