Alice’s feet were the first part of her to disappear. It happened gradually; not toe by toe by toe but a slow fadeout that no one else seemed to notice. An innocuous amputation. She first realised something was wrong when Mark tried to warm his cold soles against hers one night, legs stretched right across her side of the bed. The sharp edges of his toenails caught at her ankles but failed, somehow, to find her feet. He searched idly for a moment or two before settling for her thighs instead, pressing a chill into her flesh like a brand.
She allowed herself a quiet portion of panic once Mark was at work and Nathan was at school and the baby was napping and the house was still, but after that there was just a tired sort of irritability. She didn’t have time for this nonsense. She painted her toenails to try to keep track of them but the moment she looked away they faded against the floor like gauze.
She tried to tell her mother on the phone but she mistook it for a metaphor and gave a clucking kind of laugh. “Women of a certain age, you know how it goes.”
For a while she thought that might be it. It didn’t seem like something you’d go to the doctor about, and it wasn’t really inconveniencing her, so she didn’t want to make a fuss. She scoured the parenting forums, hoping someone else might have experienced the same thing. One of those bizarre but actually quite common post-natal affliction that no one talks about. Like the acid-fizz tingle of let-down and the bleeding haemorrhoids and the husband stitch her gynaecologist shrugged off with: “You’ll be grateful someday.”
But there was nothing on the message boards about disappearing feet. Nothing about the hollow feeling in her pelvis. Nothing about the blurring of her eyes.
The day she met Karin on the beach and the kids made a boat out of sand, Alice told her: “I think I’m going blind.”
The wind tossed handfuls of sand into their faces, the way they told their children not to. Karin dabbed at her brimming eyes but Alice kept staring out at the shoreline. She hadn’t needed to blink for a week; had forgotten it was meant to be an autonomic function.
“You’re just tired,” Karin said, collaring her youngest to spray sun cream onto the back of his neck.
Alice breathed in the floral chemicals and squinted out at the encroaching sea—an indistinct horizon, grey beach and grey sky and grey breathing water, all smudged with Vaseline.
“I keep getting those floaters,” she said, “in my peripheral.” Little black specks hiding at the edges, darting away whenever she tried to catch them, the way time slipped away during night feeds—a minute became an hour became misted daylight with no memory of how long she’d been sitting in the rocking chair.
Karin released her sunscreened child back to where the others scooped up bucketfuls of dark, grimy sand, packing it into an imaginary lifeboat that was already beginning to melt beneath the incoming tide.
“Sleep deprivation’s a bitch,” she said. “Georgie teething again?”
Alice jiggled the baby in her lap. She knew he would be her last and felt a guilty kind of relief for it. She’d never catch up to Karin’s three and therefore never achieve the upper tier of motherly wisdom she seemed to exude so effortlessly. She was sure Karin didn’t cry on the toilet because it was the only room in the house with a lock on the door. Alice pressed her lips into Georgie’s sand-speckled cheek by way of apology.
Karin turned her smile on the baby. “Don’t you ever get to nap when— Ruby!” Her voice jumped an octave without warning as she caught her middle child snatching but Alice didn’t flinch.
The mothers watched and waited. The squabble resolved itself. The ocean seethed a little closer each time it returned, pushing the wind up the beach as if to make room for its swell. The air ruffled in defiance.
Alice shivered and peered through the black clouds in her vision as her four-year-old approached, holding out his arm.
“What is it, sweet-pea?” she asked, trying to emulate Karin’s easy pleasantness instead of sighing.
“Got stung,” Nathan said, pointing at a miniscule red dot amongst a thousand other miniscule red dots on his sand-irritated arm.
Alice kissed it and sent him away with a commiseration breadstick. He ran back to the water and fell into the next wave.
“I just… feel like I’m losing something,” she said, after a half-minute silence. “Like, if I close my eyes it’s all going to disapp— Nathan! Oh, for chrissakes.”
She pressed Georgie into Karin’s arms and the conversation fell loose, snapping away across the beach on the wind.
The night Mark came home with takeaway for one and said he thought she’d already eaten with the kids, Alice lay awake atop the bedcovers, listening to the clash of cutlery below. When the baby stirred she let him cry until she heard Mark exhaling his way up the stairs.
Alice’s fingertips were next to disappear, then her palms, knuckles by the fistful, until finally her watch slipped off her wrist and cracked its face against the kitchen floor. When she stroked her children’s heads they twitched away from the tickle of an insect and swatted at the space where her hands should be. She left her wedding ring on the side of the basin and Mark tidied it away with the rest of her unworn jewellery—a snarled tangle of silver and beads that made its nest in the bathroom cupboard. She learned to pick up the baby with her forearms, and just like all her other adaptations, no one noticed and nothing really changed. Not really.
The day she met Karin at the birthday party, Alice let Georgie crawl amongst the balloons as the mothers crunched cheese puffs and celery sticks at the edge of the sports hall.
“—like it’s all going to disappear.” Alice finished her sentence, three weeks late. “Like there’s a black hole about to swallow me up.”
Karin stirred the hummus with a tortilla chip and looked sideways at her, “Do you think it’s… you know.”
She didn’t use the acronym but Alice had already mentioned it to the nurse, in passing, when she took Georgie for his booster shots. The nurse didn’t acknowledge her missing body parts but suggested she get her thyroid checked.
“I mean, I’m fine, really,” Alice said, picking at a trail of silvery snot on her jeans, almost exactly the height of her eldest. “It’s normal. Isn’t it? The exhaustion? Georgie’s got six teeth now.”
“Six? Busy boy. And crawling— Oh, he’s got a streamer.”
Alice waved a handless arm. “Let him. I’m done hovering second time round.”
“Try having three… Lola, I saw that. One more time and you are banned from the bouncy castle.”
Lola did it one more time and Karin crossed the room to press a firm grip into her daughter’s upper arm and tell her this was her last chance or they’d be going straight home right this minute.
Alice didn’t miss squeezing Nathan’s hand too tightly when she couldn’t keep the frustration from seeping out of her. She was gentler now there were fewer pieces of her. Left no fingerprints, no footprints. Took up less space. Weeks slid by without her looking anyone in the eye—the blackness of her pupils had become too cavernous for comfort. She conducted entire conversations with people looking twelve inches to the right of her head.
“You know they use sleep deprivation as torture,” Karin said, when she rejoined the circle of chairs, all facing inward; no need for eye contact when minding children.
“It’s not that.”
“Or maybe you just need a night out.”
“Karin, I feel like I’m falling apart.”
“Or, you know, a really good fu— Oh, bless, Nathan won pass-the-parcel.”
Her breasts vanished overnight. She floated in the shower, massaging the smoothness of her solar plexus with a detached sort of contentment. Georgie was just about weaned but he still sometimes stuck a hand down her shirt for comfort and grouched when all he found was tough pectoral.
She couldn’t tell if Mark noticed or not.
“I’ve been crying a lot lately,” she told him later, in bed, while he watched YouTube on the iPad with his headphones on. “It’s not hormones. It’s like I’m mourning.”
Underneath the covers he sought out the warmth behind her knees with his feet. She shuffled away until he couldn’t reach. He laid a hand on her belly instead. She watched his eyes flickering blue in sync with the screen.
“This morning I thought maybe you’d died,” she told him. “There was a crash on the news. Three car pile-up on your way to work.”
His hand flipped over and stroked upwards to where her cleavage used to be.
If he’d died, she thought, the last thing she’d have to remember him by would be the spider he’d left under a mug on the bathroom floor. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to squash it or throw it out the window. She’d slid a postcard underneath the cup and set it free in the airing cupboard—just in case reincarnation was an actual thing and Mark’s soul had somehow been transferred into the last living creature he’d been close to.
His hand stalled when it reached her collar bone and drifted back down her pelvis, pausing once more when it touched pubic hair. Alice felt her hips shift involuntarily but Mark’s fingers didn’t move any further. Something on the video made him snort a laugh out of his nose.
If he had really died she would have visited the spider in the cupboard every day to speak aloud all the little things she never bothered to tell him when he was alive. Every imperfect, significant moment between making sandwiches and beds and Lego models.
Mark tapped his headphones and shrugged an apology. His knuckles traced her caesarean scar and she had to turn over.
On Sunday, while Mark slept in, Alice walked Nathan to school and waited half an hour outside the locked gate until she realised why it wasn’t open. Nathan started crying and Georgie joined in for fear of missing out and they harmonised, briefly, like an air raid siren.
On the way home, they waved at the man with no legs who sat in the bay window of his bungalow, his wheelchair pushed up against the glass.
“Why does that man only have knees?” Nathan asked her.
“Because he didn’t eat his broccoli.”
“That’s not true.”
“An accident. I don’t know. You ask me that every time we see him.”
She thought maybe she should knock on the door and introduce herself. Bring him a newspaper or a tin of boiled sweets or something. She’d been waving at him ever since Georgie was a tiny, angry little thing with a throat full of colic. She’d walk round and round the block with him wrapped tight against her chest, her legs pistoning on autopilot—the kind of exhaustion where even sunlight hurt her skin—and the silent, legless man would raise a calm, quiet palm each time she passed.
“Why do we have to wave?” Nathan asked, pulling so hard on the side of the buggy that Alice imagined just letting all three of them fall sideways into the road.
“Because he’s lonely and it’s nice to say hello,” she told him.
Because he sees me, she thought.
The day they met, coincidentally, at the park, Karin didn’t notice the hole in Alice’s chest, even though she’d left her coat hanging open on purpose. The pale spring sunshine shone right through her skin, and after a while Karin stopped trying to look directly at her. The light curved around Alice’s exposed ribs and sank into the darkness where her organs should have been. Her voice came out of the cavity, deeper and more sarcastic than it used to be, buzzing as it brushed the edges of her collarbones.
They sat side by side on the bench and watched the kids chase each other around the climbing frame, screeching like foxes in the night. The baby sat at their feet and inspected individual blades of grass with his fat fingers.
“I said, I feel like I’m falling apart,” Alice said.
Karin’s lips lifted in a brief, understanding smile but the silences were getting longer, hanging between them like rotting fruit. “Wow, good jumping, Thomas!” she said, to fill the quiet.
“Careful, Nathan,” Alice said, to counterbalance the praise. “That’s a bit too far for you.” Nathan made the leap anyway and stared blankly over his shoulder when he proved her wrong.
Lola tried next but scraped her knees and came wailing for a maternal lap. Karin jerked forward and dug in her bag for antiseptic wipes.
“Like, maybe it’s all building up to something.” Alice said, looking down at the back of Karin’s head, knowing she couldn’t hear her. The sun sat low behind the hill and turned the children into faceless shadows. “Do you think people know, deep down, when they’re due a car accident or a stroke or something? Do you think they get a sense of it, before? This feeling. Like drifting towards an edge.”
Karin shushed her snotty child and weaved her fingers into her hair. Alice’s phantom digits tingled at the memory of combing out the tangles in Georgie’s curls.
“Or maybe it’s the other way around,” Alice said. “Maybe something bad’s already happened and no one else has noticed except—”
Karin turned away and her voice came out dull as it rebounded off the rubbery safety surface. “Five minutes, kids.”
The children were stick figures now, black scrawls against a flattened sky.
The day Mark told his boss she was having ‘coping issues’ and decided it would be better if he worked from home for a while, Alice stood in the kitchen below his study and pretended he was dead again, letting her words burst like bubbles against the polystyrene ceiling tiles as she told him the minute details of her day. Her throat had begun to close up, her voice tearing, thin as tissue paper.
“Yesterday was flying ant day,” she said. “Thousands of them, crawling out of the patio. All those fat queens, off to start new colonies.”
She’d watched them gather, throwing themselves into the air with misplaced confidence; a brief, uncertain launch into a carnivorous world, rewarded by a life spent underground.
“Nathan wanted to go outside,” she said. “I told him what would happen but…”
He’d gone out anyway—a tiny stomping giant, giddy with thoughts of genocide—but no matter how many he killed, the swarm kept coming. He’d run back inside, shrieking, his clothing and hair alive with squirming black question marks. Alice had plucked each one off by the wings and washed them down the kitchen sink. The baby had eaten a few. Nathan had hyperventilated softly into a cushion and glared at the back door until they’d all flown away.
“Most of them die, anyway,” Alice said to the ceiling. Saved from a life of inertia, she told the spider, later.
Afterwards, Nathan wanted a hug but couldn’t work out how to hold onto her. He leaned against her shoulder, occasionally slipping through when she let her attention wander and lost her connection to the tangible. She let him pull on her earring and he watched the flesh of her earlobe stretch with an avid kind of horror.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
Alice smiled. He pulled harder.
“Does it hurt now?”
Alice shook her head, absorbing his little voice as best she could, even though there was malice and confusion and the edge of panic in it. Everything sounded so far away these days, like music playing in another room.
“Did it hurt when they put a hole in you?” he asked, eyeing her stomach with suspicion.
“No,” Alice lied. They’d cut her open after twenty-six hours of labour and he’d come out grey and floppy, squinting up at her as if to say, “Is this it?” She’d thought she’d recognise him, but it wasn’t the same baby she’d known from the inside.
“Nothing hurts any more,” she said. “Not really.”
The day Mark took the children to his parents’ house, when the burglar alarm was set and the bins were taken out and the boys were strapped into the car, Alice visited the spider in the airing cupboard and watched motes of dust and dead skin settle onto the cobwebs. The spider was a ‘she’, Alice knew, because of the cotton sacs of eggs stuck in a neat line along the door frame. Soon there would be thousands of them, clambering determinedly over the piles of rough, greying towels, seeking out a place for their own webs, their own tiny lives.
Alice stepped into the cupboard, passed right through the shelves, and shut the door behind her. She didn’t need to breathe any more, but she felt the house exhale—a creaking relief at finally being empty.
Outside, the car idled on the driveway, as if trying to remember what it had forgotten.
© Jo Gatford
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Jo’s interview]