It was edging towards the end of autumn and the crackled auburn leaves had parted with their skeletal branches. They no longer belonged together.
Hazel awoke as a stream of harsh light was cast from between the curtains across her tired, youthful face. She squinted at Vincent who lay unresponsive beside her, eyelids closed among the shadows, almost smiling. His left arm was outstretched, palm facing up, along her pillow. Hazel frowned at the crinkle in the linen where his fingers rested. She turned away from him and the mocking window.
Hazel spun the shower taps tightly closed so the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ labels were lined up horizontally. She wrapped a towel around her hair and dabbed herself dry before folding a second towel around her bodice. Aside from a pile of Vincent’s clothes that sat on a chair, the bathroom was spotless. Hazel’s eyes were continuously drawn to Vincent’s clothes. This was his attempt at folding, but she felt they really did need to go in the wash. After a trip to the laundry, Hazel scrubbed her hands thoroughly with exfoliating soap before proceeding.
Hazel’s swollen fingers traced past her hair styler and makeup which rested beside the basin at right angles. Hairbrush in hand, she gazed straight ahead. The steam from the shower had caused the mirrors to cloud over, so she blindly unknotted her hair.
Hazel’s eyes darted towards the shower. The water droplets were slowly building up on the shower-head and a pool of water was beginning to form below. She fetched a face washer and placed it directly below to catch the droplets.
Hazel carefully washed her hands again, so that she could dry her hair. She winced at the thrum of the hairdryer blaring so close to her ears and, in an effort to escape, allowed her thoughts to wander back to just one month earlier when this sterile house had felt like home.
She and Vincent had been living together for six months when something had gone amiss. Not so much in their relationship, but within her. Vincent had noticed it too. But Hazel refused to accept it.
This morning her childhood friend felt like a stranger. She had been at the clinic for just one month but she no longer belonged to this life.
Overwhelmed by her all-consuming thoughts, Hazel failed to notice an ominous shadow appearing in the misted-over mirror.
The sudden touch of fingertips on her waist came like an electric shock. Hazel’s heart jumped as she spun around and she dropped the hairdryer on Vincent’s toes, narrowly missing the wet basin. Vincent instinctively lunged for the powerpoint. Click.
Concentrating on remaining composed, Hazel wiped the hairdryer clean with a cloth and washed her hands. Her hair was still damp but she felt the need to return the dryer to its place in the drawer.
Vincent’s eyes were fixed upon Hazel’s scarlet hands. Red raw. He struggled to hold back a grimace and felt physically ill. The steamy air made him feel paralysed; almost frightened. Hazel’s pupils were hopeful but frantic, desperately pleading him for an answer.
In that brief moment, Vincent felt nothing. He forced his eyes away from her scarred hands and demanded a hint of normalcy.
‘It’s 6am,’ he said hesitantly glancing at his watch.
‘I know,’ Hazel replied, disappointed.
‘I couldn’t sleep.’
Vincent paused for some time.
‘Baby, your hands…’
‘Stop!’ she snapped. Her voice echoed, resonating five times over. Vincent shuddered at the haunting reverberations. Hazel sighed deeply. They stood there observing one another for a few moments and Hazel wondered if Vincent would continue to upset her.
As each waited for the other to save the conversation, a solitary ant found its way through a crack in the grouting of the tiled walls near the mirror. A second ant too emerged unnoticed and followed the first. In a matter of seconds a mass of ants swarmed in a path along Hazel’s hairbrush, makeup kit and toothbrush.
Vincent saw them first. He unhesitatingly clasped Hazel by either shoulder in an attempt to, however awkwardly, direct her line of sight towards the door.
‘Vince! What are you doing?’ she squirmed.
Hazel’s scream was piercing. Vincent’s efforts were hopeless. She had spotted them darting about, infecting her belongings.
Hazel’s fingertips shook violently and the all too familiar burning sensation contorted her chest, weighing her down as though being buried by a wave with no hope in resurfacing. Vincent tried to embrace her, but felt useless. His hands aimlessly smoothed over her hair and traced the cheek bones of a trembling body. Hazel had been given strategies to deal with moments like this but she struggled to apply them in real time.
Hazel began hyperventilating. Vincent opened the bathroom door to dilute the humidity in the air from the shower.
Her time at the hospital was supposed to help her. And him. Through Vincent’s eyes, she was no worse but no better either. He missed her.
‘I want to be alone,’ Hazel murmured.
Did she mean the words she uttered so coldly? Sometimes she was open about her issues and other times it was as though she did not care about Vincent at all. He often made the mistake of taking offence.
Vincent gathered a handful of tissues and squashed as many ants as he could find. He occasionally glanced back at Hazel who was sat down emotionless, staring distantly at the floor.
He promptly twisted the shower taps firmly closed and exited the room with a tentative, ‘I love you’. He did not wait for a reply.
The bathroom air chilled. After some minutes, Hazel stood up and continued drying her hair. She gazed ahead at the mirror. She could see only patches of her reflection in amongst the half frosted over mirror.
Hazel approached the shower and spun the taps to correct Vincent’s oversight, so that the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ taps were lined up harmoniously once again.