She could hear mum calling her to dinner.
It seemed to Alex like the world she remembered fondly, the world of freedom, of independence and limitless possibility, was never going to come back. Indeed, this had gone on so long now, that those carefree days had acquired the lustre of a half-recalled dream, dancing on the edge of her conciousness. When The Thing happened all those months ago, mum had laughed it off. Two weeks, she’d said. I’ll be home for two weeks. Think of it like an impromptu holiday with me, she’d said. And then: who’s hungry?
She had been hungry, and mum’s question had led her to drop the train of thought, and focus on dinner. But now those two weeks had extended into four, then eight, and now ten, and Alex wondered whether mum had known, back then, that her “holiday” was going to be a lot longer than either of them wanted.
The first surprise, though, was that the change all around her was so sudden, and so stark. Hating that mum was around all day, constantly flitting from her desk upstairs to the kitchen, to the bathroom, or even out into the garden, Alex decided to spend more time away from the house altogether, exploring parts of her neighbourhood that - until now - held no interest for her. Those walks - adventures, she liked to think - were amazing. All danger seemed to have retreated back behind the garden gates and house walls; there were hardly any people out and about, and fewer cars even. Alex had taken to walking in the middle of the road, imagining herself invincible, like one of those superheroes she’d seen on the telly.
The second surprise was how much she’d started eating. Food dulled the bored ache in her stomach, albeit temporarily, and before too long, those secret midday snacks, away from the judgemental stare of her mother, had become regular enough to count as an additional meal. It didn’t help that treats were in abundant supply - And why else would they be here, unless I’m supposed to eat them? she’d think. If mum had noticed the extra weight, she wasn’t saying much, and that suited Alex just fine: with everything else upside down in her world, some righteous crusade was the last thing she was after. Mum loved a project; Alex hated being it.
In truth, mum had become increasingly distracted; so it was hardly surprising that Alex’s weight gain had gone unnoticed. Mum spent ages at her desk, clutching her mouse, or tapping her keyboard, sometimes sat with tinny music spilling out of her headphones, others spent in solemn silence. When Alex walked past the open door of the study and gazed in, mum seemed hypnotised by the things in front of her. In those moments, she didn’t seem distracted at all; instead there was a faint echo of her old, familiar self.
Alex missed normal too, and she tried to find ways to locate it, but it was as impossible and frustrating as clutching at wisps of smoke. The closest she could get was when she was tethered to her mouse. She used to hold it, tightly, willing it to connect her to the world she had once known. Desparation, she had learned, was fatal: twice now, through no fault of her own, she’d broken her mouse. The first time, she showed it to mum, who completely exploded at her, before grabbing it and throwing it in the bin. The second time, she decided not to tell mum, and instead spent a frantic, and ultimately futile, twenty minutes trying to make it work again. She was surviving without one for now, but soon, she knew, she’d have no choice but to get a third.
“Alex!” Mum’s voice carried an impressive distance from the back door. “Dinner!”
Alex roused herself, stretched, and then bolted towards the kitchen, a dizzying ball of legs and fur, her bell jangling around her neck. As she got closer, mum spotted her.
“There you are!” And then, disapprovingly, “Alex, I think you’re putting on weight again.”