For a fortnight, everything is okay. Hazel comes home at the same time every afternoon and leaves at the same time every morning. She sets the clocks to count down to her arrival home from school before she walks out the door. Without fail, she stops by my chair for a kiss and a hug before the bus and finds me first thing as she walks back in the door.
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ She reminds me every time, before convincing me to stand and start preparing dinner for the night. I’m torn between two worlds. I want to be okay for her, I want to be the parent as I should be – I don’t want her to feel guilty for leaving, but I can’t handle the idea that she might stop needing me or feel that I no longer need her. I don’t want her to leave.
I let my hands shake as I cook, I make sure my glass is topped up. She notices all of this and more. This is how she knows I’m not okay. We never talk about it anymore, it’s something understood. Of her own volition she refuses invites to the houses of her friends, and no longer bothers to ask whether she can go. She accepts our way of life. I am her everything, and she is mine.
On the ninth anniversary, she finds me with a photo album. I am beyond drunk. Nine months feels like a lifetime. The wedding album is grey with dust, and heavier than lead. Each picture cuts like a knife, not a single hit softened by the alcohol. My wife, my beautiful wife. Laughing, smiling. Smirking in the pictures just after the speeches we never actually heard.
It’s not fair. We married so late. We never had a chance. Hazel came in then. She’d gone to school despite the day, perhaps she hadn’t remembered. It’s clear enough that she remembers as she comes forward, and I’m not sure whether she’s shaking – or if I’m simply that unsteady. Either is likely. She closes the album, pushes it away and holds her hands out. I take them and stand.
Quietly she pulls me back towards the lounge room, settling me back on the couch. I lay down as bidden, and she pulls the blanket back over me. It’s warm and safe there. Once I’m secure, she crawls under the blanket with me, wraps my arms about her and stays. I bury my nose in her hair, let the last of my tears fall softly into the blanket. She is silent, and the overwhelming urge to sleep has me drifting off. Only her occasional moves bring me back, just to the edge of consciousness. She is shaking for sure now. Perhaps crying, I can’t tell.
‘Why can’t you get better, Dad?’ her voice breaks as she asks the question.
‘I’ll never be better, Haze.’ I murmur sleepily. ‘Not without your Mum.’
‘Never?’ there is an element of fear to her question now. I answer truthfully.
‘Never.’ I couldn’t stop the yawn. I was fading fast, the alcohol was taking me away. I was warm, miserable – but safe with Hazel.
‘Where do you think Mum is?’ she moved around, waking me a little more. I settled quietly before replying, yawning again.
‘Heaven. She was a good woman.’ I murmur, drifting even closer towards sleep. But Hazel isn’t finished. She swallowed, a huge motion that went right through her.
‘Dad… do you want to die?’
‘It would probably hurt less.’ All thought processes are lost in sleep. I drift off by the end of the sentence, passing out into a deep slumber that claims me for the next twelve hours.
Hazel doesn’t sleep for any of it.