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Instead, I found the woods.

They had broken in. Invaded her space, the last pure bastion of her memory, and so had destroyed what might have been my only reminder of the truth of Hazel Lawley.

Shattered glass lay gleaming on the floor beneath twisting white branches that had grown rapidly through the windows, catching up the shutters and carrying them along. Her bed was broken in two, the headboard crushed by clutching wooden hands. Her feather-stuffed duvet had been torn to shreds.

Strangest of all was the way the branches had burrowed beneath the wallpaper and grown up along the walls, bulging grotesquely beneath the papering in a manner that put me in mind of worms tunneling through flesh.

All of it must have grown at a tremendous speed, but the moment I stepped into the room everything was eerily still and as peaceful as a forest glade.

I did feel something then, but it was not grief or anger. It was joy.

I had known Hazel had lived the last months of her life in terror of the woods. She had told me, privately and once in a letter, that she felt almost as if they wanted to claim her. I had even asked her to return to the estate, because I felt that I could use my knowledge to help her.

When she died, a part of me saw it as her final and most ultimate refusal. Optimistically (a trait which does not come naturally to me), despite everything, I thought she had managed to escape. To end on her own terms.

How foolish of me, to think the woods would ever let her go.

As I stood in the doorway I felt suddenly exposed, as if I were vulnerable to something that had never truly threatened me before. The same impulse that had driven me to Hazel’s bedroom then made me retreat, shut the door, and hurry back along the corridor.

It’s fortunate I did not encounter anyone else on my way to the woodshed behind the Lawley house, because I think I would have made a startling sight. I could not wipe the grin from my face. I know it was no true smile, but a grotesque rictus, a look of vindication and perverse delight.

All this time spent trading secrets, and now this horror was practically in the open. All anyone would need to do would be to open the bedroom door, to see what lay within, and all my work, the course of my entire life, would be twisted beyond all recognition. The possibility of change! The hope of escape!

It was an alluring, heady sensation, one I have felt before standing on the high balcony outside the library at home or on the dock of the mill pond, gazing into those cool green depths. The thought that I might have the power to derail my life from the track laid out before me.

I crossed the lawn as darkness fell. The woodshed stood open. The handle of the axe was smooth on my palms. Its swinging weight like a pendulum as I let it hang from my grip, rushing back across the lawn, through darkened corridors on the far side of the house, away from the solemn murmurs of the funeral service.

“Come and see,” I muttered aloud, intoxicated by my own boldness. “Come and see! Before it’s gone, come and see!” The excitement of an exposed secret warred with the terror of being discovered. I climbed the stairs as a man of two minds, struggling against myself.

Let the branches grow! Let the woods come in!

Beat them back. Drive them away.

Let go! Hold fast.

I have not used my body for violence in so long. It was there in Hazel’s bedroom, between the thudding of the axe, the splintering of wood, that I began to feel again. I believe I was laughing, but I know I was weeping. That was the moment I felt Hazel’s death, and when the shame and rage of everything we had shared, everything I had tamped down and buried, burst out.

I felt like I was cutting it free.

What a fool I am.

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