Dire straits preyed upon the frozen Pentagon City.
Its otherwise fair midwinter afternoon was disturbed by a great white beast winding through the streets — one-third dragon, one-third yeti, one-third unrequited lover, and one hundred percent malice. Every three moments it huffed deep, drawing slick-wheeled cars and the occasional unlucky pedestrian into its maw, and then bellowed a conflagration of blue frost, whistling like a blizzard and freezing the whole block.
To the Hatter, the clamor was only a distant hum. Instead his ears focused on the revving engine inside the Chrysler stuck in the snow off Interstate Seventy-Seven. He listened patiently until the engine fell idle, and a bleach-blond girl emerged, her nose red, her hands muzzled in mittens. She worked her eyes on the Hatter, who stood right there, listening patiently.
“Need a helping hat?” he asked. The girl only stared. He was dressed for the weather, all in gray except for his white scarf, and was perfectly ordinary except for the scruffy round hat atop his head, which had sat in that exact position so long a swift had nested there, and was now warming a clutch of tiny eggs.
“Uh,” the girl said at last, before she smiled.
—My words follow—
“Oh, don’t mind these,” said the Hatter. With one hand, he whisked the nest–swift and all–off his hat and behind his back. With the other, he removed the hat, spun it twice, and rested it on his stomach as he bowed to the girl. Then he repeated all the motions in reverse.
The swift was rather ruffled, but it still did not leave its perch. It twittered madly, but the hatter paid it no mind.
“I am the Hatter,” he said, smiling. “And you, charming lady, are…?”
“Call me Mittens,” said the girl, bemused, but still smiling politely.
“What a strange name.”
“Why give your real name to someone who’s given you a fake?”
“Touche,” the Hatter tapped the side of his nose. “So, do you need a helping hat?”
Mittens gripped her arms, sneezed. “Well, it seems that a monster straight from the Book of Revelations is snaking its way through the city and I, like most sensible people, am trying to leave. Only my car’s broken down and I’m supposed to be meeting my boyfriend at the outskirts. But I don’t see how a hat is supposed to help fix my car.”
The Hatter’s smile could have split his face. “You have obviously never heard of me.”