I’m drying my hair when I notice it.
I’m juggling hairdryer and hand-mirror, trying to get the awkward bit at the back that never quite dries and always goes frizzy, when I get a flash of shoulder. My skin is smooth, unblemished except for a faint tan line, still fading from last summer. I frown and switch off the dryer.
“Babe,” I say.
It takes him a second, but he peels himself away from the computer and gives a grunt that I choose to interpret as ‘What’s wrong?’
“Look at that.” I turn my back to him, holding my hair out of the way. Water trickles down my neck.
Matt cocks his head. “What am I looking at?”
He looks at me blankly. I sigh.
“I used to have a mole. Right there.”
“Yeah. You made up a little poem about it once. When we started going out. You don’t remember? There was a little girl and she had a little mole, right in the middle of her shoulder…” I trail off. “Never mind.”
Matt shrugs, his eyes already drifting back to the screen. “I’m sure it’s nothing. It probably just… went.”
“I don’t think they do that,” I say, but he isn’t looking at me anymore.
“Thought you were meeting Jane after work.”
“Yeah, well.” I plonk my Tesco bag down on the kitchen table, probably harder than I need to. “I was. She cancelled. At quarter to six. Again.” I pull off my jacket and throw it at the peg in the hallway. It lands on the floor in a heap, and I have to stoop to pick it up.
“Bitch,” Matt says, without much feeling, and flips the channel on the telly.
My phone chirps with a text, and I pull it out of my pocket.
sorry hun just soooo busy atm! XD lunch wed? got meeting in town afternoon, cld meet you before xx
I scowl and think about not answering. Then I sigh.
K, I text back. See you half 12 by the clock?
lookin forward to it! XD xx
“I’m going for a bath,” I tell Matt. “If you’re phoning for Chinese, can you get me beef chow mein?”
He nods, but I suspect I’ll still end up with chicken.
I run the bath and sit in it until the water’s tepid and my fingers start to prune. Then I get into my pyjamas and grab a bottle of nail varnish. Don’t normally bother with this kind of primping on a weeknight, but I’m still pissed off, and there’s something soothing about painting my nails. Making sure everything’s neat and bright, tropical green or sunshine yellow, glossy and uniform as plastic.
In the living room, I hear Matt on the phone. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says to the woman in the Hoi Nam. “One crispy beef, one chicken chow mein. Brilliant.”
It takes another two cancellations before I get around to meeting Jane, in a Starbucks at the far end of town after work. I’m staring into my vanilla latte; Jane’s still going strong into the eighth minute of her rant about what a tosser her new manager is. It doesn’t require much participation from me, really—just the occasional nod or “Yeah, I can’t believe him.”
I swirl my coffee with the wooden stirrer, lift the cup in both hands. I’m about to put it my mouth when I notice.
My nails are chipped—starting to look a bit too Courtney Love for the office, really. Apart from the one on my right index finger. Because that one—it’s gone.
Not gone as in, pulled out. There’s no blood—plus, I think I would’ve noticed the excruciating pain. There’s just soft skin where it used to be. No nail bed, no cuticle, no nothing.
I put down my coffee and hold my finger up in front of my face. It’s shiny, like scar tissue.
“Are you listening?” says Jane.
I blink. “Uh,” I say. “He nicked your parking space?”
“Right.” Jane frowns. “And don’t get me started on that meeting yesterday morning—”
But I’ve tuned her out. I’m still looking at the back of my finger—same as the front, only minus the fingerprint. I’m holding it right in her eye line, and she hasn’t even noticed.
Maybe I’m going nuts.
Seems unlikely, though. Too dramatic. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to people like me.
Maybe I’m just going.
The thought pops into my head all of a sudden, as though it doesn’t belong to me. I shiver, and pull the sleeves of my cardigan down over my hands. Jane is still talking.
It’s my ear piercings, next. I’m talking to Mum, mobile phone pressed between my ear and my shoulder, fumbling in my jewellery box. I pull out a pair of amber drops in simple silver settings. Present from Carl, my brother, a few birthdays ago, though I’m pretty sure his wife Abbie picked them out. The colour’s rich, honey and sunlight and sepia. I’ve seen pictures of insects trapped in amber, though, and when I first unwrapped them—after I’d said ‘thank you’ and ‘ooh, aren’t they pretty’, of course—I held them up to the light, searching for a stray scrap of gossamer wing.
I haven’t worn them in years. Nobody noticed when I did.
In my ear, Mum’s saying something about can I go to Tesco on the way over to her house, and she’ll text me the shopping list, and if I could pop in the pet shop and get some dog food for Raffles that’d be great, and could I get Carl to phone her, only she hasn’t heard from him in ages and she’s starting to get worried.
I roll my eyes. Of course she hasn’t heard from Carl. He’s busy in London, with his fancy job and his fancy flat and his lawyer-who-looks-like-a-model wife. Nobody expects him to call.
“It’s not too much trouble, is it?” she says, anxiously.
“Of course I’ll bloody do it!” I snap back. “I always do, don’t I?”
I feel bad right away.
I’m still pissed off at Matt for ignoring the fingernail incident. He tried to convince me I must’ve ripped it out without noticing, and when I wouldn’t shut up about it he eventually shrugged and muttered, “Yeah, maybe you should phone the doctor.” I knew there was no point telling him he’d upset me, though. I’d be lucky to get another shrug.
Still. No excuse to go around snapping at other people.
I tilt the mirror up to put in my earrings. “Sorry, Mum,” I say. “I’m just a bit—”
I trail off. My ear piercings—they’re gone. Not just closed up, like when you don’t put anything in them for ages. That still leaves a little dent in the skin. No, they’re just absent, like they were never there. Even the scar from my first, ill-fated attempt at piercing them with a safety pin when I was thirteen has disappeared.
“Are you alright, dear?” Mum asks.
“I. Yeah.” I swallow. “I’ll see you later.”
I hang up the phone, and before I’m even conscious of having moved, I’m in the bathroom, dry-heaving over the sink, tears pricking at my eyes. Bile raises in my throat, but nothing comes up.
I stay there for a minute, maybe longer. My eyes are sore; my throat burns. I lift my head to look in the mirror above the sink, but my face looks the same as it did last night. It’s just the ears.
I sift through my memories. The first time, with the safety pin. A sleepover in Kelly Richards’ living room. Early hours, dizzy from sugar overload and a single passed-round bottle of WKD Blue. We light a candle and use the flame to sterilise the pins, and then we take turns. My ear won’t stop bleeding, and in the morning we scrub the pillowcase in the bathroom sink, frantically trying to get the blood out before Kelly’s mum notices.
The second time I get them done, I’m sitting in a branch of Claire’s Accessories with my first boyfriend, Stu, at my side, holding his hand in a deathgrip. It’s our three-week anniversary, and he’s bought me a pair of tiny, gold, heart-shaped studs. Three weeks later, he’ll dump me for Shauna Thomas, who sings in a covers band and gets away with wearing lipstick and three-inch heels to school, but right now we’re in love. I blink as the girl squeezes the piercing gun and the stud shoots in—but it hardly hurts at all, and then it’s done. The weight of the earrings feels strange, though. It changes how I hold my head, makes my hand keep creeping up to touch my earlobes. I feel different, transformed by the little hearts and the way Stu looks at me.
The third time, I’m wandering through town, navigating the lunchtime crowds in a daze with my phone clutched to my chest. Dad. Heart attack. Nothing they could do. I keep expecting the screen to light up, someone from the hospital calling back to tell me it was all a mistake. It’s entirely by chance that I end up leaning against the front window of the piercing place, and I haven’t bothered with earrings in years. I’m not sure what makes me go in. Whether I’m trying to pin myself to reality, or to something else. Sitting round the table in Mum’s house, later, Abbie’s the only one who notices I’ve had them done. She raises her eyebrows and doesn’t say anything, and six months later, she buys me earrings.
I’m still staring in the mirror. The memories are still here, but the evidence of them is gone. My face is pale, red around the eyes.
I splash water on it. I contemplate calling in sick to work, but just the thought of picking up the phone leaves me exhausted. I go back to bed.
The rest of my fingernails go, after that. One by one, at first; the last two on the same day. After the first couple, I stop telling Matt about it. I never do get around to making a doctor’s appointment.
I don’t tell Matt when the mole on the back of my wrist disappears, either, or the scar on my thigh from when I was seven and fell off my bike into next door’s rose bushes. He doesn’t notice they’re gone; but then, we haven’t touched in months.
I stop phoning Jane to ask if she wants to meet up for coffee, and she never calls me. Eventually, my boss phones, and I mumble something about a stomach bug that I can’t even remember after she hangs up.
I’m sitting by the window, staring at the lines on the back of my hands and wondering if they’re starting to fade, when it occurs to me I haven’t left the flat in a week.
There are three missed calls on my phone, all from Mum. I listen to the voicemails first, starting with Could you phone the dentist and make an appointment for me? I just don’t understand that silly new automated system they’ve got, and finishing with, Is everything alright? You’d tell me if something happened, wouldn’t you?
I press the ‘call’ button. The smudge my fingertip leaves on the touchscreen reassures me.
Mum picks up after two rings. “Is everything alright?” she says. “I’ve been going frantic over here.” She sounds breathless; I think I might actually believe her.
I should tell her what’s happening. Somehow, though, I can’t get the words out. “Oh, you know,” I say, instead. “Not been feeling very well.”
“Oh, dear,” she says. “Is it that ‘flu that’s been going around? Pat was laid up for two weeks.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Must be.”
I wake up two days later and find my left eyebrow missing. There’s no stubble where it used to be. The skin is smooth and poreless. I look alien, and faintly surprised.
I’m out of milk and cornflakes—I’m going to have to go to the shop. But I can’t leave the flat like this, so I shave off the other one and draw them both back on with eyeliner pencil. I’m trying to find Matt, to ask him if he thinks it looks weird, when I realise he isn’t in the flat.
His laptop’s gone, and I don’t remember hearing him get into bed last night. I don’t remember the last time we did sleep side-by-side, come to think of it. I try to remember if we argued, if I said things I should be regretting now. If he mentioned anything about having to go away for work. Nothing comes back to me.
I should be frantic, shouldn’t I? I should be phoning around everyone I know, maybe even the police.
But I’m not. It occurs to me, in a roundabout kind of a way, that maybe he was never here. Maybe I just made him up.
I think about it for a moment longer, and then I go to buy milk.
On my way back into the flat, I notice the light on the landline blinking. Five new answerphone messages. I should listen to them, but the thought feels unutterably heavy.
I delete them all instead.
I wake up and the world is flat.
It’s disorienting, and when I reach out to grab my phone I miss and knock a cold cup of tea off the bedside table. My carpet’s light blue; it’s bound to stain. I swear and scramble out of bed, into the bathroom to grab a wad of toilet paper.
That’s when I catch sight of my face in the bathroom mirror.
Its smooth, unblemished skin; its wide blue eye.
Just the one.
I stare. I stare, and then I stumble back into the bedroom and curl up in the foetal position and clutch handfuls of my hair.
I should call somebody. Mum, a doctor, Matt—at least if he answers, I’ll know he was real. I reach for the phone.
My fingers, with their shiny, unreal tips, hover inches above it. They shake. My hand falls back onto the mattress.
Somehow, the morning I wake to darkness isn’t a surprise. I touch my face, where my eyes used to be. There’s nothing there but skin, smooth and taut like fabric stretched over a frame.
I feel my way around the room using my fingertips and duck under the curtain to stand by the window. I can’t see the light, but I’m drawn to it anyway. Perhaps I am turning into a plant.
A plant, or a deep-sea creature. There are fish in the depths of the ocean who’ve lived without light for so many generations that their eyes have atrophied. They swim around in the cold dark, and they don’t even know that it’s cold, or that it’s dark.
I remember reading about it in one of the nature books in the school library, staring at the pictures of their blind eyes and their great yawning needle-toothed mouths. I used to be interested in things like that when I was small, when the world was big and strange.
A sound shatters the silence. It’s my phone ringing. I turn away from the window and fumble for it, but I’m too late to pick up the call, and I can’t see the screen to find out who it was. I run my fingers over the screen, as though I could read it by touch alone.
I wonder if I still have fingerprints.
I wait for the phone to ring again.
It doesn’t. Eventually, I go back to the window.
I wonder what people passing in the street will think of the eyeless girl on the first floor. If they’ll mistake me for a mannequin, a Halloween mask. If they’ll see me at all.
There’s a tap at the door. Voices outside. I hear them as though I’m underwater. They sound distorted, further away than I know they are.
“Maybe she went on holiday?”
It’s a man’s voice. Someone I know, I think, but I can’t put a name to it. Mark? Martin? I want to call out to him. I open my mouth—
I don’t open my mouth.
I have no mouth. I make a sound somewhere in my throat; a low, dying-animal sound.
Another voice answers him. “Could be. Look at all the post in the hallway—she’s obviously not here.”
I get to my feet and shuffle towards the door. The voices are growing quieter. Footsteps recede down the corridor. I scrabble at the doorknob but can’t grasp it. My fingers feel stiff, as though the joints have fused together.
The thought distracts me; and as the voices fade away, I can’t remember why I wanted to speak to them.
There is a long silence.
After a while, I find my way back to the window. I move slowly, my legs heavy. When I get to the window, I rest my cheek against the cool glass of the pane, and it feels like home.
I can’t tell if there’s anybody in the street, if anybody sees me.
The phone doesn’t ring. Nobody else comes to the door.
It occurs to me, in a roundabout kind of a way, that maybe I was never here.