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It was summer and I’d been thinking of Alice. I was clean and dry, and my body was looking for something. I’d remember the way she’d look at me and laugh, sometimes cruelly, sometimes sweetly. How we’d grip each other’s hair when we’d fuck. But mostly I remembered little fleeting moments of touch, static under my fingers. It’d been a casual thing, based mostly on convenience. And then she’d disappeared.

Back when I was getting sober, I had a dream where I was in love with her. We were at the zoo, and I was introducing her to my friends, but I lost her. There was a man in a cage there, big, his limbs too long, his head twice the normal size. Everyone gathered around to stare, and people asked me Where’s Alice? and I didn’t know. When I woke I tried to remember the sight of the caged animal, the man. Only my own face came to mind. My face, in that room, in the mountains, sweating and swearing and getting clean, the clouds broiling overhead.

It’d been more than a year since I’d seen her. Back then, the sky had been thick with smoke from the fires and it was forty degrees most of the time. I would buzz her flat at about 11pm and we’d drink ourselves into a stupor until dawn. It had been my lowest point, but that was not her fault. Then, one day, she’d stopped messaging and we lost touch.

I didn’t even remember her last name. It’s possible I never knew it. But after a bit of digging, there she was. She was tagged in a nightclub photo on a Facebook post from years ago, her username linked to a dormant account: Alice H. A crowd shot, blurry with movement, her holding a glass of something clear. Her face was the only one in focus, smiling. Not like when I knew her. This was brighter, more open. Eventually, I found her LinkedIn, which listed her as working at a hotel in the east end of the city.

I went down one night to the food-truck park outside the hotel and stood in the rain and ate chips. I leaned against a railing and pretended to text while keeping an eye out. I came again the following night. On the third night, I saw her. She walked past me and I caught her eye.

She stared at me with a look of nervy astonishment. I could see her calculating how long since she’d seen me, how we’d left it, what I was doing there. She was wearing a blue suit, a hotel uniform. She seemed smaller, less sure. I almost didn’t reply when she spoke to me. Maybe I’d looked at her photograph too long. It felt almost unreal to see her move, to hear her breathe. But we talked and laughed, and arranged to meet up again.

I didn’t feel bad about how I found her. The world tends towards us being on our own, and it’s up to us to correct that.


I met Alice at a cafe the next afternoon. It was nice, easy, totally undemanding. She was relaxed, and she smiled, and she smelled nice, and she ordered green tea, and she didn’t even smoke anymore. She told me straight up that she’d spent some time in a facility. That for a short time afterwards she’d moved back in with her family. She said she felt like a different person. She said she was back on track. She got a steady job, her own place. But that jitteriness was still there, in the cracks. She was still a little nervous of the world. I was from the past, and I could see that threw her.

My body was different too. It existed in the world in new ways. I’d gained a lot of weight. I felt new things, or at least I now remembered things I had previously forgotten. I’d forgotten the feel of breeze on my skin. I’d forgotten sweetness on my tongue. I’d forgotten waking up from a peaceful sleep.

I told her I was a caretaker at a school, and she told me she was the hotel night manager. Neither were jobs we’d expected to find ourselves in. She liked the quiet, she said. ‘I can control it.’ She shrugged. ‘My own little world.’

I felt her warming to me. When I’m sober, I’m quieter, less cocky, less sure. I think she liked that. Alice had gotten clean a while before me, so maybe she was more used to it. Since I’d sobered up, I’d had to contend with myself in a way I never really had before. I had a body I didn’t like. My gut hung over my jeans. My eyes turned down sadly. My chin was weak.

She was perfect in all her imperfections. She had lines around her eyes, which deepened when she smiled. One of her front teeth was cracked. Her thin hands shook a little when she got her credit card out of her bag. I wanted to protect her, somehow. I tried to focus on her instead of me, leaving my body behind and thinking only of her.


A week later we kissed in my car, our lips connecting for seconds, our hands lingering on one another’s, the tips of our fingers touching. A feeling of warmth welled up in me, one that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was past that first barrier. I was right on the threshold.

I told her then, in the car, about the dream I had about losing her at the zoo. I told her that in my dream we were an item. That’s the phrase I used. ‘I lost you. I thought I might’ve loved you,’ I said.

She looked back at me blankly for a moment, then laughed. ‘Getting sober is awful,’ she said. ‘Maybe you were feverish.’

Maybe I was.

She asked if I was seeing anyone. I shook my head. ‘Not for ages,’ I said. ‘Been worrying about my own shit, I guess.’

She had been seeing someone for a while, she told me, but it was done. ‘He was a prick, but I knew what I was doing,’ she said. ‘It was nice to be with someone and not care.’

I dropped her home early so she could get ready for work. Alice lived in the hilly north-east, in a small flat in a nice area, the street throttled with calm. She pointed out her place, right on the bottom floor.

‘I’ll walk you to the door,’ I said. ‘Cup of tea?’

She looked over at me, and then straight past me. ‘Better not,’ she said. ‘I’m just going in to get ready for work.’

I watched as she went inside.

Down the road I stopped at the little overpriced grocer and wandered the aisles, dwelling by the freezer searching for something for dinner. But then I had this idea—I could give Alice a lift back to town. I went around the shop putting everything back where I had found it, and drove to her place. No one answered the door. I stood there on the doorstep, shuffling. I hadn’t thought it through, and was about to leave when I peered into the front window. It was her bedroom. When I tried the window, it was unlocked, with no flyscreen. I was hit by warmth as I climbed inside.

The main light switch in the bedroom didn’t work, so I felt around until I found a lamp. The room looked as if she’d just moved in and emptied her suitcase. The floor was a landscape of dirty clothes. There was a mattress in the middle of the floor, topped with several layers of blankets, an armchair piled with more clothes and linen, several dying pot plants, a built-in wardrobe and a few stacks of books along the wall. It was unmistakably Alice.

I squeezed into the armchair among the clothes and surveyed the room. A floor length mirror sat against a wall. I saw her looking at herself before she’d leave for the day. Straightening her skirts, fixing her hair. The room smelled like her. Not just like her perfume, although that was in there somewhere. It was the smell of the deeper her, the bit that people lie about.

When I pulled the blanket straight, a contoured purple vibrator rolled out onto the floor. I tucked it back into the sheets.

Lying on her bed, I read from the stack of poetry books on the floor. There was an Emily Dickinson book called My life had stood –  a Loaded Gun (‘and now We roam in Sov’reign Woods/And now We hunt the Doe–’). The sheets smelled sour. I looked down at my own body, wide and flat, at my chewed nails, at the blurred point of my own nose. My breathing slowed, grew heavy. I seemed to disappear into the bed, into the unfamiliarity, into Alice.

The sound of a passing car jolted me back into consciousness. I looked at my watch. Two in the morning. I sat up, alert, but then, realising she wouldn’t be home until about eight, I set an alarm on my phone for dawn, crawled under the pile of blankets and fell back asleep. Back to the sovereign woods, deep and dank. I was looking for Alice between rows of ancient trees. A doe bolted, scared.


As the weeks passed, we fit together in new ways. Our hands connected easily. We talked: we found the gaps in each other, the little ones we left open, and carved something new there. When we kissed, my body dissolved. I always dropped her home, and she never invited me in. ‘Let’s take it slow,’ she said.

Then one night we took a walk along the waterfront and she told me she didn’t think she could be intimate with anyone ever again. It came out in the middle of a conversation while we sat with our feet dangling over the pier.

‘I just can’t even imagine it.’ She stirred her melting gelato. ‘I hope you’re not disappointed.’

I pursed my lips and gazed at the mucky bay. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I understand.’

‘It just feels so…’ She made an eeurrgh noise, uncomfortable, a little scared. ‘Nothing like that interests me. At the moment. Anymore. I don’t know.’

‘It’s okay,’ I said. My fingers found hers, and she pulled her hand away.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her eyes averted. I didn’t say anything. We stared out over the water, the boats, the grey sky. ‘I have to keep a space clear,’ she said eventually. ‘A line.’ She pointed a finger and cut the air around her.

We walked along the pier until the sun started to sink, and then she had to get to the hotel. I watched her disappear in the crowd, the invisible line skimming passers-by.

But her apartment window, as usual, was unlocked. The air was stale too, always slow, always mine. I got to know her schedule. On days when we didn’t see each other, I could still slide into her life, a quiet place. The theft of it didn’t occur to me. The invasion. I was taking nothing and leaving only breath. If anything, I thought, I was leaving my scent. She might grow to love me quicker if my smell became one with her own space. My body would grow familiar, warm. It would become home to her.

I didn’t care about sex. I hoped she understood that. I wanted her.


Some weeks later, I woke in Alice’s bed to the sound of a key turning in her front door, and then footsteps. Alice’s footsteps. I’d overslept, I thought, but then I saw it was dark outside. She was home early.

I looked around the room. There was only one hiding place. I grabbed my shoes and made for the wardrobe, tucking myself behind her coats just as her bedroom door clicked open.

I could see her through the gap in the wardrobe, looking around the piles of clothes and detritus on the floor, digging through her handbag. I was breathing heavily, I realised, and inhaled and held it. She paused. Her eyes surveyed the room. Did she hear me? She stalked slowly across the floor, her steps short and sparse. She was out of view now. I could sense her standing in the middle of the room, her eyes scanning. Her footsteps echoed through the walls. Step. Step.

Then all at once she moved more swiftly. I heard tinny music. She’d put headphones on.

My hand caught on something behind me. A handle. There was a little door in the wall at the back of the wardrobe. I pulled some of Alice’s coats up and eased it open. It was pitch black in there, but I mapped it out with my hands in the dark. The door was about a metre high and half a metre wide, just big enough for me to squeeze through.

I eased myself into the narrow gap and pulled the door shut. There was enough space for me to stand in the darkness, but not to turn. I was pressed between plasterboard and a brick wall, gridded with stud beams. If I breathed deep, my chest pressed against timber posts. So I breathed shallow while I listened to her footsteps, and waited until I could re-emerge.

I don’t know how long I stood there, staring into the blackness, listening to the hiss of headphones.


The first time I tried to get clean I had stayed at my cousin’s place in the mountains. He was Christian and he didn’t touch a drop of booze, let alone anything else, but he was always strangely sympathetic towards me and whatever shit I got into, and he’d welcomed me. I’d hid away in his upstairs bedroom, staring up at the wooden beams that criss-crossed the peaked ceiling as my body gradually creaked and tightened, squeezing ooze and pain from the cracks. My hands had felt like they’d inflated to ten times their actual size. My arms had been too weak to lift them. I’d stared up at those wooden beams like they were prison bars.

Trapped there in the wall, I thought about that room. Thought about how, in the middle of the week, a huge storm had come over that mountain house, and how I’d looked out the window over the treetops and watched the inky clouds boil over. I thought about how, a few days later, I’d left for the city, refreshed. The sunlight burned my eyes, but it was beautiful. I’d done it. It didn’t take, and everything went to shit again within a few weeks, but I knew I could try again. That room in the mountain house had drained me, replenished me. I knew sooner or later I’d end up back there, and eventually it would work.


After some hours, I finally heard a noise from the other side. She was getting up—footsteps, the wardrobe opening, whistling, her bedroom door shutting. When I knew she was gone, I pushed at the little hatch back into the wardrobe. It wouldn’t budge. I pushed again, harder. It was jammed, or there was something on the other side of it, blocking it. I kicked it. Again. Nothing.

I looked around me. The sun had come up, and somewhere above me a hole let in a breeze and just a bit of light. My eyes adjusted. I had a few metres either side of me. I eased myself along the wall to my right, keeping one hand low in case I found another hatch. I tried to get a sense of where I was in the building—a different pitch underfoot, a different temperature, might mean a different room, a possible exit. I reached the end of the wall—a corner, with just enough space to ease myself around. Then another corner. A split in the path. A dead end. Doubling back, I pulled myself along like that for what seemed like hours. The heat climbed. I was slick with sweat. I lost my sense of direction. I could no longer tell if I’d been heading to the back of the building or the front. The back, I decided, and I let myself lean against the inner wall and rest for a bit. There must be a manhole or something. Some way out.

I tried to think about Alice, but I couldn’t picture her. This time, all I could remember was the sensation of being that animal in the cage from my dream.


The heat climbed and dropped. It’d been over a day, maybe two. Time did not exist in the walls. In the dark I couldn’t read the line between waking and sleep. But when I heard a hiss, a machine, I snapped fully awake. I felt Alice’s presence—she was out there now. A sliver of light caught my eye, about halfway down the wall. A crack.

I slid down the wall and pressed my eye to the light. It pierced my retinas. Sunlight. Through it I could see Alice’s room, but from a different angle. And there was Alice—a limb, hair, a hand holding a hairdryer. I was by her mirror. It was morning. Then suddenly the hairdryer fell silent, and just at that moment my foot twitched and I kicked the plasterboard. Alice froze. Then came the first knock.

She rapped on the wall three times. She was right there, just centimetres from me. Could she hear my breathing?

I crooked my weakened fingers and rapped back. Three times. She inhaled. Paused. Then she ran from the room, her footsteps echoing into the abyss.


I looked for Alice, but I couldn’t see her. The wooden beams were pressing on my flesh. The familiar pain came back. My limbs weakened and spasmed. My lips split and bled. The substance of my body was falling through the cracks in my flesh, oozing out in liquids. In turn, the walls were seeping into me. I felt the building sigh, pulse around me.

Alice was on the other side of the wall; I could hear her now. But she was tiny, dwarfed by me, by her room. I felt her in there. I heard her tapping against the walls again, against my flesh.

The door would be too small for me now, the door in Alice’s wardrobe. My arms had distended and stretched; my hands grown to a frightening size. My heartbeat grew to a painful volume, a deep thrum all around me, punctuated by knock, knock, knock. Alice was knocking all around me, and within, between my organs, my bladder, my liver. She was terrified. I loved her so much in that moment.

Then, the grind of moving furniture somewhere on the other side of the wall, the banging, louder than ever, hammering, shaking. The crack of light widened, burning my eyes. As I was wrenched from the wall, and the floor slammed against my shoulder, my eyes adjusted to the daylight. Alice, tears in her eyes, hammer in hand.

In the mirror, the caged animal stared back at me.