“And you won’t check my QR code, all right? I really don’t have one, truly, honestly! I am not marked, you know? We, the untagged, have become almost like outcasts now…”

Judging by the sour face of the guard standing with a rifle at the ready near the entrance to the shopping mall, it was clearly noticeable which great-grandfather and how courageously would strangle all these fascist innovations that have been showering on his nondescript descendant’s head and purse as of lately, almost like from a horn of plenty or some other horn, thereby giving him, the glorious successor of the family, an extremely instructive and very timely example. Shifting from one foot to the other for a long time, as if from internal cold and cautiously squinting at the video cameras hanging on the walls, after a while the guard, nevertheless, waved his hand in a sign of permission.

"Okay, come on in. At least show me the phone for the sake of formality. One way or another, you’re our first visitor today for the whole day. As if the whole city died out overnight, God save us! I’ll too be kicked out of here soon if there are no buyers going around…”

“Thank you, mister guardsman!” Alice exclaimed joyfully, almost clapping her hands. “I’ll run around here in a jiffy, just to take a peek, okay? I am very, very interested in what is going on here in the capital today! As well as to buy a gift."

Having never received an affirmative reply from the guardian of the new trade order, who suddenly started to diligently examine the tips of his polished shoes, Alice rushed headlong through the opened glass doors, intending if not to buy (she had almost no money for this course of action), then at least to admire from afar all those wonderful curiosities that this huge trading monster could offer to them, unwanted guests of the capital.

What kind of surprise that was when she discovered that there were no sellers at all standing behind the counters of the shops sparkling with Christmas lights and garlands! The glass doors stood wide open, the festive lights were still painting their unique patterns on the walls, reflecting from the mirrors fixed on the ceilings and floor, and around, as far as the eye could see, not a single living soul was visible. It was as if she, a new-found guest of the capital, suddenly found herself in her own mystical Looking Glass.

“Buy us!” a thin voice suddenly came out from somewhere in the distant depths of the boutique, into which Alice wandered in the shopping center.

“And me! Take me too!” a dozen new ones chattered back to it.

“And don’t you forget about me, I’m on sale now!” someone purred very closely.

“Who are you? Where are you hiding? Come on, show yourself immediately, or I’ll… well… call the police, right!” Alice shouted back at them, looking around in fear.

“It’s us, pretty things!” came a chorus of merry chuckles in response. “Buy us now!”

“Things? And where are all the people? Where are your sellers? Is this some new form of trading magic? I don’t understand anything!” Alice threw up her hands in surprise.

“People? Why people? Things!” a multi-voiced chorus of voices sang back to her.

“But surely there should be people around to make things right? People are not things, and what are things without people? You’ve got me completely confused right now!”

“Put us on!” shouted the red patent leather shoes that suddenly jumped out of the box, right in front of the stunned Alice, starting to dance some kind of weird unfamiliar dance right away.

“Try me on!” tenderly whispered a lilac dress with a large cutout on the back that started spinning on the mirrored floor, paired with shoes, now and then trying to drag Alice standing in the center of the hall, taking her by the arm with its sleeve.

“Breathe us in!” dozens of glass jars with perfumes rolled out on the counter with affectionate voices.

“Look at us!” sang the earrings decorated with large red rubies that fluttered out of the case in one go.

“How magnificently beautiful are all of you!” Alice gasped in amazement. “You are the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life!”

“We were made for each other!” the dress assured Alice, putting its arm around her waist.

“We were created only for you!” confirmed the shoes.

“Look in me!” demanded a mirror standing nearby in a beautiful gilded frame.

Coming closer to the mirror, Alice was surprised to find out that her reflection was dressed in the same lilac dress and red shoes, and she had gold ruby earrings in her ears.

“You’re making her look fat!” the mirror said to the dress with displeasure.

“And you’re making her underweight!” snapped back the dress.

“Try us on! Buy us! Take us with you!” the inhabitants of this store vied with each other, never giving Alice a single second to think it all over.

“But… how am I supposed to buy all of you?” Alice was confused. “You must be very, extremely expensive!”

“Loan… Loan! She doesn’t know about the loan?” pretty things started whispering among themselves in surprise. “She’s not local… Surely she doesn’t have a credit card? The bank! She needs to go all-in to the bank!”

“And what should I do with you then? I don’t have any of these loans, and no marks either. I have nothing to pay you with!” Alice sighed in distress.

“Squeak!” squeaked a huge rat, the size of several of Alice’s fists, that suddenly jumped out of the far corner of the room right under Alice’s feet.

“Aahhh! Mouse! I hate mice since my childhood!” Alice screamed, jumping up from fear and almost crushing the shoes spinning under her feet. “Go away!”

“Squeak!” repeated the huge black rat, standing up on his hind legs and absurdly waving front paws in front of him, as if introducing himself.

“This is our friend, Squeak!" things began to reassure Alice soothingly.

“He’s decent!”

“Yes, he helped many of our kind find their new homes!”

“Find their masters!”

“People listened to his wise advice and were finally able to get us!”

“He is so smart. And so sly, too!”

“He’s cool!”

“No!” cried Alice. “I don’t want mouse-friends! Not to speak of the rats! Scram, scram!” with these words, she grabbed one of the still-dancing red shoes, intending to launch it into this being that formed inside her a feeling of deep and sincere disgust.

“Squeak!” a huge black rat squeaked as if being offended, tucking its hind legs and clicking its tail on the mirrored floor, as if annoyed, intending to successfully retreat, but all of a sudden the cat flew into the open door of the boutique from all its hind legs, thus not allowing this tactical retreat to take place.

“M-r-r-r-y-y-a-a-y-y!” Alice was only able to hear a moment before the claws of the newly-born ferocious predator dug into the thick black skin, leaving behind deep bleeding wounds on the body of the Squeak. The rat jumped up, twisted out, and, leaving a piece of his tail in the paws of an unexpectedly appeared cat, retreated like a bullet somewhere in the black darkness of the hall.

“Our poor Squeak…” the dress that had recently danced around the hall began to cry and lowered its sleeves down. “He was so dear to us, and we were close to him!”

“What have you done, silly being?! Who’s going to buy us now? Now we will never find our rich owners!”

“Oh, sure, it’s all about being owned!” the cat purred, sitting on its hind legs, and began diligently licking the wounds inflicted by the Squeak. “They will make anyone they want their slaves. Don’t trust them, girl. I know that. I’ve seen so many of these rats in all my nine lives!”

“The cat! The most real and talking Cheshire Cat! Just like from my children’s fairy tale!” emotional Alice almost cried out with tears.

“Huh, you tell me, Cheshire! I am not from a shire, not that kind of fluffy furry ball with fleas! I wash my face every day in the mornings and evenings as my ancestors purred to me, peace be upon their fur! Yet rubbing is what I like the most. Can you scratch me?” he looked inquiringly at Alice, continuing to lick the rumpled fur. “By the way, my name is Yearr!”

“Of course, I will, my dear cat!” Alice happily agreed to fulfill this simple everyday feline request. “You’re my hero – you defeated such a nasty rat!”

“And scratch behind my ear too, since I’m not scratching myself… for, you know, I have these… paws. P-r-r-r…”

“And why do you have such a strange name, kitty?” Alice asked without stopping caressing the cat. “A cat by the name of… Yearr?”

“I’m a cat-symbol, you know? Year-cat! Is it the year of the cat? And I am the cat-year! It’s been a year!”

“What kind of charade is this?” Alice was puzzled. “Kitty, please don’t talk in riddles!”

“A charade for a masquerade. Kind of riddle, sort of fate,” the cat purred conciliatingly. “Well, you can call me Cheshire if you want to. But I truly don’t have any fleas for you, so don’t even ask!”

“Almost no need for that,” Alice giggled. “And why did you decide to save me from the Squeak?”

“I got hungry. And skinny. And my shagginess has decreased as well. You can even say that I went feral, even though it sounds strange, especially in my case. What kind of year, such is a cat, it turns out. And these rats bred here in enormous quantities! Everyone tries to steal something or teach others their pilfering habits. But I’ll find them all, they won’t escape my gaze, they won’t hide in a hole, m-r-r-r-y-y-a-a-y-y! So I’ve been living here as of lately, catching them and… well, you know what we, cats, do with mice…” he symbolically squinted with his green eye, as if checking her, Alice, general erudition.

“You are very brave!” Alice agreed with him affectionately. “But all these pretty things… they wanted me to buy them all… they wanted to find their new home… and now…”

“Nothing terrible will happen to them!” the cat waved his paw towards the counter. “They’re not humans. Not even cats! They won’t peel off, they won’t get skinny, and… well, what is usually done with you, people, in hardships? They won’t go animalistic, that’s it!”

“People are not things!” Alice smiled. “Especially since I don’t even have anyone to buy these things from. There are no sellers around here either, you see that? So what am I supposed to do now?”

“Do you want me to show you the lord of this place?” the cat winked at her.

“Who, who?”

“Well, he is sort of local head spirit, the caretaker. I do remember how one of the rats, fleeing from me, jumped on his back and started screaming for him to protect her. Well, I tore his gilded paint from the sides for that, too! So now we’re with him… how to put it more precisely… we don’t drink milk from one bowl, yes.”

“All right, lead on!” Alice exclaimed. “But, if anything, I’ll put him in his rightful place first!”

When Alice, out of breath from running through the floors and corridors, finally caught up with her brave fluffy fellow traveler, he was already sitting impressively on the back of a huge gilded bull, standing in the center of an improvised oasis with palm trees on the top floor of the shopping mall, and every now and then arched his cat’s back and flexed his claws, as if intending to gently plunge them into the black-and-gold neck on command.

“Well, here he is! Evil spirit! But he won’t throw me out of here now!” the cat assured her with satisfaction and plunged his claws into the bull’s neck.

The statue, which had seemed lifeless up to that moment, suddenly started shaking, jerked sharply, trying to throw off its new rider, its eyes turned bloodshot in the blink of an eye, and thick acrid smoke poured out of its nostrils.

“See how angry he is? What a waste, we are not to his taste! M-r-r-r-y-y-a-a-y-y!” and with these words, the cat furiously scratched the upper part of one of the sides of the golden bull.

The head of the golden bull with bloodshot eyes suddenly turned towards Alice, and a low guttural rumble, coupled with acrid smoke, swept through the hall for a brief moment.

“You are standing in front of the altar of our temple, human whelp! Behave yourself!”

“Aha, he spoke at last! Last time you weren’t so talkative, as far as I can yell!” the cat mewed, giving the bull a slap with his paw.

“Did you steal all the people from here and replace them with things? Come on, admit it!” Alice looked intently into the bull’s eyes filled with blood and rage. “And don’t you hiss like that, I’m not afraid of you, I have a real Cheshire Cat now. Got it?!”

“This place is a temple of things. You’re a foreigner here. Get lost!” the head of the animated statue was spinning from side to side in rage, but for some unknown reason, the bull could not move.

“Bring the people back immediately!” Alice demanded and stamped her foot. “Just look at yourself, false God!”

“People… came to my domain willingly. They bowed before me… willingly. And then… they disappeared. Everyone who bowed. And only things remained…”

“Well, then stay here all alone as long as you like, thing! Without new adepts, you are nothing! A false temple will once fall to ashes! Mmm!” Alice grimaced at the bull.

“M-r-r-r-y-y-a-a-y-y!” added the battle Cheshire Cat and kicked the animated statue with a paw right between his horns.

“Trespassers! Blasphemers! Get out of my temple!” the bull roared with all his might, trying to break away, but the gilded chains that held him firmly did not allow him to do it. Only the bloodshot eyes with hatred bored into the retreating figures of the girl and the cat walking impressively on two paws until they finally disappeared from sight.

“That’s what I call taking the bull by the horns!” the cat, wandering along the corridor, continued to tell, purring contentedly under his mustache and nose.

“I hope he won’t hurt more people," Alice said, looking back anxiously. “That spirit of yours is so evil, yay! Did you see his red eyes?”

“I would kick them too if I got to them,” the cat shrugged his tail lazily, as if boasting. “But I still have enough battles with all sorts of local rats here waiting for me. Well, where are we going to run now?”

“Oh, it’s probably already very late,” Alice suddenly realized. “I promised the guard to take a walk here for a short time. And we were so busy here that I forgot about it completely. My family is waiting for me at home!”

"So you are not local? And I was already thinking that now you will too start living here day and night long. Bring me some milk, or, say, sausages…” the cat dreamily rolled his tail like a pretzel. “Because the local would-be soldier at the entrance completely forgot about me, it seems, no matter how hard I mewed at him… And here he is. Sleeps on duty like a dead man without a grain of conscience! My very eyes wouldn’t have seen him and my very paws wouldn’t have touched him!” the cat purred cheerfully, carefully creeping up to the guard who was dozing at the table on the first floor. “Although, you know, we can argue about paws…” and with these words, the Cheshire Cat by the name of Yearr deftly jumped on the plump belly of the sleeping guard, that was rising up every now and then, gently curling up on it.

“Goodbye, kitty! I will surely miss you,” Alice said, affectionately stroking the curled-up cat.

“You will be back, won’t you?” he looked back with his emerald-green eyes with hope and devotion. “With milk and sausage?”

“I’ll try to visit you more often!” Alice assured him. “If my parents allow it.”

“Well, then, ciao-cocoa!” he waved goodbye to her with his paw. “...Wait, I almost forgot to tell you!” he suddenly realized.

“What exactly?” Alice turned around, already going out through the glass-mirrored door.

“Follow the white rabbit, of course!” the cat purred and winked with his huge, cunning eyes, green like the most beautiful of emeralds.

* * *

When Alice stepped out of the threshold of this new temple, it was already night outside. The snow swirled in the light of the street lamps, and the stars shone brightly in the sky. The silhouette of the shopping center was gradually fading away as if it had never existed – as if everything that had just transpired there, in this new Looking Glass, was not real, as if the whole life in the endless pursuit of things was somehow unreal, implausible, untrue…

“Well,” Alice sighed sadly, wrapping her winter scarf tighter and tighter against the suddenly rising cold wind. “So I didn’t buy a gift for mom! Eh… just wasted my time…” she became upset.

“Don’t be sad by vain things, child!” a voice rustled in a gust of wind from out of nowhere. “We will lead you to eternity!”

“Who are you?” Alice said in response to her invisible interlocutor, looking around in surprise and not noticing a single passerby.

“The right question is who are you? Lift your gaze skyward!”

“Stars! Wow, what a clear sky! How many distant suns are there on it!” the girl whispered, looking up spellbound.

“Do you see how we shine in this night? Only in the total darkness, we became visible!”

“Stars, you are like someone’s distant bright souls illuminating our earthly path…”

“You can buy thousands of things, but is it possible to buy eternity? You can only get it as a gift, earn it. Earn the fulfillment of your dreams. Stretch out your hands to the sky!” a mysterious voice whispered again.

“Wow, a shooting star! How bright!” enthusiastically exclaimed Alice, lifting up her hands to the sky.

“I am descending into your arms, child. Make a wish!”

"I… I wish that people could become happy. So that… so that they don’t become like things. I want… peace on the whole Earth. And so that Mom gets well!” Alice sobbed, wiping out freezing in the cold tears with her mitt.

“The desire of pure souls will be fulfilled…”

* * *

“Alice… Alice! Did you doze off while studying again? Are you tired, my dear?”

“Mom, I just fell asleep… I had such a wonderful dream…”

“Do you see how dark it is outside the window? You’ve been sleeping for hours, darling. Completely lost with all these lessons and thoughts about gifts, right?”

“I… wow… look, Mom! What a starry sky there is today! Just like in my dream!”

“Yes, honey, the sky is very beautiful today…”

“Look, Mom, a shooting star! How bright! This is the first time I see such a thing!”

“Me too, daughter…”

“I am descending into your arms, child,” a strong, warm, and caressing voice whispered somewhere on the very brink of her consciousness. “The desire of pure souls will be fulfilled…”