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Trigger warning: Mental health themes
Henry sent Dr. Jones to see me today. It was a clever move; the good Doctor has known me since I was a little girl and if anyone could persuade me to act reasonably, Henry probably thought it would be him.
“Alice,” he said as he entered the room, “How are you?”
The most innocent of questions.
“I am perfectly well, Doctor.” I wanted to add, as I am sure you know, but I knew Henry was eavesdropping. He likes to linger in front of my door.
I let Dr. Jones examine me. I need him to be my ally. His stethoscope felt cold on my skin as he asked, “Are you bleeding at all?”
“Why would I bleed?” I said, and he let it go.
I wanted to ask Sarah to bring us tea and cake, but Dr. Jones said he couldn’t stay.
Not feeling well.
Henry won’t let me go down to the dining room, he says I’m too sick. Sarah brings me all my meals up here. The food tastes funny and I try to eat as little as possible, but I still need nourishment if I ever want to escape this place.
I feel so dispirited. When the wave of gloom threatens to engulf me, I focus on the room. The deep teal walls, like the ocean in autumn, the stucco ceiling with its elegant curves, my rosewood desk with its mother-of-pearl inlay. My bed, my refuge, my burrow, my coffin…
My thoughts wander and I’ll stop here.
Sarah came in today with my breakfast tray, set it down and sighed, “I wish you would talk to me.”
I pretended there was something very interesting happening on the empty beach outside. My sister touched my shoulder, forcing me to turn around.
“I know you didn’t mean to do it, Alice. But you’re sick, and if you won’t let us help you…”
“I know you’re fucking my husband,” I told her calmly. The profanity hit her like a slap. “These walls are not thick enough to muffle your moans. And his grunts, oh Sally, oh Sally…“
She ran away from me and I rinsed my mouth with tea.
I woke up to find a dark stain on my bed. It was cold and sticky and smelt like iron and earth. Why did Dr. Jones ask if I was bleeding?
Would they tell him what they were doing to me? Is he an accomplice?
Raised voices downstairs.
“You cannot keep her here forever!” Dr. Jones said.
“What am I supposed to do?” That was Henry, my grunting husband. “Have her locked up?”
Afterwards, as Dr. Jones examined me, he whispered, “Let me help you.”
I wanted to kiss his dear old face, but I just nodded, hot tears spilling from my eyes.
“This is not good, you should have proper care,” he added.
“Yes,” I whispered back. “I think… I think Henry wants to be rid of me.”
There. I said it.
But Dr. Jones gave me a strange look. I don’t know if I can trust him completely.
Henry doesn’t come to see me at all. I hear his footsteps creaking along the corridor. I see him through the window, walking down the beach. He has taken to wearing black, probably thinks it makes him look thinner. It does, I must admit, but it also makes him look sallow and old, though it doesn’t seem to bother my sister.
Brought together by common misery. A crazy lady in the attic, how tragic, how romantic.
If I were dead, they could marry and live happily ever after.
But I have other plans.
“Do you think I’m dangerous?” I asked Dr. Jones today.
“No, Alice, I don’t think you are,” he replied, gently.
“Then why am I locked up here? Can’t you see what they’re doing? They’re trying to drive me mad and be rid of me. My husband refuses to come and see me.”
I cried until I fell asleep, sick and exhausted.
Sarah came in with a bowl of stew.
“Alice…” She hadn’t addressed me since I accused her of sleeping with Henry, so I raised my head to see what she wanted. “Dr. Jones told Henry today that fresh air would do you a world of good.”
I watched her in silence, waiting to hear what she had in mind. She cleared her throat.
Unlike Henry, black becomes her. Her slim frame looks elegant, her sandy hair shiny. I can see the allure.
“I could take you to the beach,” she suggested. “When Henry goes to work tomorrow. I can take you if you promise you’ll be good.”
I’m not a dog, I wanted to tell her. You don’t have to worry I won’t be good.
But I just nodded and said: “I would like that very much.”
The stew was bitter. She’s trying to poison me.
I have the key. That’s all that matters.
Sarah came to take me out in the morning. When I felt the salty wind touch my skin, I wanted to spread my arms and run towards it, screaming for freedom. But I behaved. I did not want to make her suspicious.
“Do you remember when we were little girls?” she said. “We used to run through the surf and Mum would be livid when our dresses got wet.”
I should have drowned her then. I wanted to ask her about Henry, it was on the tip of my tongue. Who dared to touch first, whose kiss lit the fire, all the gory details. But I watched the seagulls instead, sailing on the wind.
When we came back to the house, I pretended I had to go to the bathroom urgently. She was careless, she did not know there was a cabinet with spare keys in the hall just outside the bathroom door.
I have the key.
Today was Sarah’s shopping day so I waited by the window until I saw her leave the house. Then I sneaked out of my room and went into the study. I searched through the drawers. Henry’s envelope with the money for food and bills was in its usual place. Full. I took a few notes. Sarah is a negligent housekeeper; she won’t notice.
There were other papers in the drawer, too. I snooped around to see if there was anything about my medical condition but, of course, there was nothing. It was all made up, all of it.
There was a birth certificate of one Sally Anne Harper, born on the 2nd June. I left it where I found it and went back to my room.
I’m leaving tonight.
I’ll hide this diary in the boathouse. If someone finds it, I hope they’ll let everybody know how my husband and sister conspired to murder me.
Gull Island Gazette, 5th July
Missing: Alice May Harper, 26, from White Bay Cottage, Gull Island
Mrs. Harper disappeared on the night of 3rd July. The police believe she left the family cottage and took the sailboat out to the ocean.
Mrs. Harper is 5 ft 3 in, slim, with brown hair and blue eyes. She was wearing a navy-blue dress. As of this morning, the Coast Guard has found no trace of her.
This is the second tragedy to hit our prominent local entrepreneur, Mr. Henry Harper and his family. The Harpers’ newborn daughter, Sally Anne, died in cot last month.
Interview with Jelena Dunato, Author of “The Disappearance of Alice Harper”
What inspired your story?
This story, like most stories I’m happy with, is a blend of several things coming together at the right moment. First, there was a prompt in my writing group to write a story in the form of a diary. I decided to try it, but to challenge myself, I chose to have an unreliable narrator, someone you couldn’t trust at all. Mental illness was one of the obvious ways to achieve that, but since it is a sensitive subject, I wanted to stick to what I knew – and I knew a thing or two about postpartum depression.
This story is fiction, of course, with a gothic twist. But I think the subject of motherhood has many dark corners that are worth exploring. The relationship between mothers and babies is perhaps the most sanctified, glossed-over relationship in our culture, which makes delving into its darker aspects both difficult and necessary.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Despite its extreme darkness and violence, it’s a fascinating portrait of an unreliable narrator sinking into madness. Also, it’s a reminder not to mess with cats.
Why do you like to write fiction, and what does writing fiction bring into your life?
I’m a curator and I write a lot of non-fiction – articles, papers, catalogues and such – which requires meticulous research and very specific terminology. Writing fiction allows me to unwind and let myself travel where my imagination takes me.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I often write about fortune-tellers. Not because I think it’s interesting to see the future, but because I think it’s fascinating to read people and guess what they’re about to do next.
What are you working on now?
My novel, of course, as all aspiring writers do.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
You can find me on Twitter: @Jelenawrites. I also have several short stories forthcoming in various SFF magazines, so if you like my style, you can look me up.