I was on my best behaviour after that. I lingered by bottle shops, longed for something that would soothe the permanent pain. Without the alcohol, it still took my breath away. Perfectly sunny days were marred by sudden recollections that left me choking for air, suffocated by my own grief. I kept to safe areas, to places and activities that wouldn’t remind me.
I couldn’t stay away from Hazel, though. Loving her hurt more than anything. I felt guilty for the days I was relieved to see her leave for school, for the hours alone in the house that I was safe from her accidental similarities. The way she moved, and spoke, and reacted to almost everything. She fussed over me, just as Kate would have – forcing me back into a semi-regular routine where I cooked and we ate together. She’d sit at the table until all of the food was gone.
I came to rely on her for that. She was my routine, my reason for staying sober and sane. Hazel depended on me, and I was all that she had – without her, I had absolutely nothing more. No business, no love, no job, no children, no family. Hazel was everything. She became an obsession.
I threw myself completely into my role as her protector. Sobriety had cleared up some of the confusion, and now it was plain as day. Hazel was all I had left, and she was just as easy to lose as Kate had been. I had been careless, over the past months – but I made up for it. I started running background checks on the parents of her friends, I kept her home more often than not. Who knew what grief could come to someone not in their own safe environment. I wasn’t prepared to take the risk anymore.
Paranoia proved right, when she didn’t stop her homework on the dot of five. She didn’t march out to make sure I had dinner on, or to help with the jigsaw puzzle I was doing as a means of keeping myself busy while she was out of the house. She didn’t hang by the table to beg to be allowed to stay at so-and-so’s house for the weekend (a request I would ultimately deny). I saw nothing of her at all.
Five-thirty came and passed. This was highly irregular for her. I knew she was home; her coat was on its hook, her schoolbag on the floor.
Six o’clock. I told myself she must have fallen asleep while doing homework. My thudding heart told me otherwise, and shakily I stood to check. I needed to make sure she was okay, but dreaded finding out she might not be. For a moment, I was back in Narrie. Standing outside that door, ready to tear her world apart – but this time, it was me who was going to fall to pieces. Again.
I opened her bedroom door, forcing my eyes open. She was asleep on her desk, for sure – right? Wrong. Panic mode went into hyperdrive, Hazel wasn’t in her room at all. I turned back into the corridor, opening all of the doors I could find, calling her name. She didn’t answer. I burst into the bathroom at the end of the hallway, already planning a phone call to the police in my head.
She was there.
Sitting in the bathtub, her knees drawn up to her chest. She turned and looked at me as I walked in. How many hours had she been crying? I’d never seen her look so terrified. The paleness of her skin frightened me, almost the same grey transparency as Kate’s had been. But Kate had been dead. How close was Hazel?
‘Daddy…’ she sobbed quietly, shifting about in the bath. ‘There’s something wrong with me.’
Then I saw the blood.