The cup of coffee in my hand felt heavier than it should. My eyes were drooping, lack of sleep was crippling me. I would walk out in town with no notion of where I was going, I would cook dinner and the recipe would disappear from my memory, or I would realise that I hadn't bought the right ingredients halfway through. There was a faint throb at the back of my head that wouldn't seem to go away no matter how many aspirin I swallowed. It could have been a symptom of fatigue, maybe it was grief and boredom.
The school had put me on compassionate leave, but all it served to do was leave me alone with my thoughts. It had been two days since Mira fell and there were volunteers combing the woodland for any sign of her or Dalma. Mira's parents were wealthy and powerful, members of the parent/teacher association. They had been baying for my blood ever since Dalma's disappearance, and the school had made it clear that I should lay low until either they were placated in some way, or the blame fell on someone else. Unlikely.
If I had started towards them a second earlier I could have saved her. I found myself replaying that day: the fire in Dalma's eyes, the sound of her howling and Mira's bones breaking on the concrete. I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I had planned on travelling beyond my time here, and teaching had been the best way to do that. I couldn't step back into a classroom now, even if the blame for Mira was shifted from me to someone else. My plans, my life had been completely derailed, and being shut in my apartment with my hands tied meant there was nothing I could do about it. All it had taken was one second of hesitation.
A knock at my door roused me and I looked through the peephole. Petyr was stood there, patiently waiting. I opened the door.
"How are you?"
I sighed a little. My haggard face was all the response he needed, but I gave as big a smile as I could. "I'm doing a little better. Come in, man. Do you want a coffee or something?"
As we came into the living room I realised the state I had let my apartment deteriorate into. I had spilled coffee on the table and the floor, and a plate was festering on the bedside table. I quickly scooped it up and washed it as the coffee brewed. Petyr took the cup with a smile, pretending he hadn't noticed the mess.
I sat opposite him. "Has there been any news?"
He sipped his coffee. "We think we have a trail to follow through the forest. However, it leads into a thicker... Thicker?"
"Thicker works, you could say denser."
"Okay, it leads into a denser part of the forest. It will slow us down, but we have hope that we will find her."
"And the parents?"
"Nothing. The police have searched the house but they found very little. It seems no one had lived there for some time."
I frowned. The throbbing at the back of my head intensified and I took a gulp of my coffee.
"Has anyone spoken to the parents at all?"
"Some, but not for nearly two months."
"But... How... How was she even accepted into the school?"
"All the paperwork had been processed already. Another child's father was taking her to school. He said she was waiting outside the house every morning."
My head was spinning. I was turning the information over and over. Petyr was looking at me strangely. "What is it?"
"Do you have the address?"
"I do, but you should not go there. The police have closed it off."
I stood up. "Just drive past then. Please. It might be helpful."
He sighed, annoyed. I don't think I'd seen him annoyed before. It took an offer to buy him dinner and a bottle of wine before he finally agreed to take me there with a grunt.
The weather had broken, and rain was showering the car. Petyr was focused on the road, still unhappy with the situation. I didn't know what I was thinking. I wasn't a detective, I wasn't even sure what I was looking for. The information was stewing in my brain, blending together, and questions were forming. Dalma's parents might have been missing for two months, so how had Dalma lived, fed herself? One thing was certain, she didn't have autism to the degree she seemed to. She was a survivor, ten years old or not. I turned to Petyr.
"That neighbour who took Dalma to school, the police have spoken to them right?"
"I expect so."
"Do you know where he lives?"
He gave me a sidelong look before frowning back at the road. "You shouldn't be involving yourself in these things."
"I'm already involved. It's my fault."
He sighed. "In your position, I would not have suspected that Dalma would do what she did. You are only human. Is that the expression?"
“Yeah. I should have been faster, stricter with Mira. Moved her right in front of me so I could keep an eye on her. I could have closed the damn window."
Petyr didn't reply right away. He seemed to be thinking of a response. I didn't envy the task. Finally he cleared his throat. "This is the house here."
The neighbourhood was full of large, expensive looking houses. Dalma's house was no different, except for the police tape across the door and the officers stood in the driveway. They looked like they were keeping watch rather than looking around. There was no suspicion directed at us as we drove past. A little further along the road Petyr pulled up, outside another expensive house. This one was gated and the driveway was lined with neatly trimmed shrubbery. I shrugged my coat around me as I got out of the car into the rain. Petyr pressed a button on an intercom and muttered some Hungarian into it. There was a wary reply, and the gate clicked open. The curtains of the house were drawn, probably to avoid the local press, and a few rustled as the occupants peered down at us.
The door opened before we could knock, and a middle aged portly man regarded us suspiciously. Petyr gave him a warm smile and exchanged a few pleasantries with him whilst I stood there in silence. Inside, a girl watched us from the top of the stairs nervously. Her mother hung around the door between the kitchen and the entrance hall, eavesdropping. After what seemed like a shivering eternity, the man motioned us inside.
We sat in a plush living room. I felt myself sinking into the sofa, a wave of tiredness washing over me. Petyr nudged me.
"His name is Milan. He wants to know if you would like a drink."
"I'm okay thanks. No English?"
I leaned forward. "Is he ok with us asking him some questions?"
"I explained that we are not with the newspaper, and who you are."
I took a breath. Milan was sitting expectantly, glancing towards the hallway where his wife and daughter were lingering.
"How often did he take Dalma to school?"
Petyr relayed the question. "Every day. He had seen her waiting outside the house on a few mornings before he stopped for her."
"Did she speak to him?"
"She said her name. She pointed at the house when he asked where she lived."
"Did he see her parents?"
Petyr relayed the question. Milan shifted uncomfortably as he replied.
"He used to see them sometimes. They were private people." Milan added something else, his face difficult to read. "He didn't know they had a daughter until he saw her waiting outside the house."
I raised an eyebrow. "How long have the parents lived in the neighbourhood?"
"Several years. Six years he thinks."
Milan shifted again. There was more he wanted to say. Petyr looked at me, and I motioned for him to wait. I didn't have to wait long. He opened his mouth to speak, conflicted as to whether he should or not. Finally he decided. Petyr listened intently, translating.
"People talk in neighbourhoods like these, and there were a lot of rumours about them. Dalma's father was a hunter, and brought back deer regularly. People could hear both of them cutting the meat in the back garden at first, but later they moved it into the house. They never spoke to anybody. The mother would go to work, and the father would hunt."
"But Dalma was registered to the school."
"He says that he registered her. Her parents never came out to object. He raised his concerns about her welfare with the other neighbours and they supported his decision."
I sat back, thinking. The parents were certainly not in the picture, and I suspected that they hadn't been in the picture for a long time. Petyr was waiting for me to ask another question. No one had seen Dalma before which seemed unlikely. Had her parents been embarrassed, and kept her hidden away? Someone had to have seen her at least once though. Milan's daughter had joined her mother at the living room door, and the mother was gently shooing her away. Protecting her. My thoughts went to the classroom again, Dalma's furious blue eyes, and I suppressed a shudder. Could I do that as a father? Lock my child away all her life? Even if that was the case, what had changed? She wasn't locked up any more.
I had a brainwave. "What did they look like, Dalma's parents?"
He answered quickly. "The father has dark hair, and is very tall. The mother's hair is lighter, she is around medium height."
"What about their eye colour?"
He thought for a moment. He spoke to his wife, and she answered quickly.
I looked at Petyr. He caught the look and shook the man's hand. I offered a clumsy 'thank you' in my best Hungarian and followed Petyr to the door. His daughter had disappeared upstairs, and her mother was heading up after her. This further solidified the theory I was forming. Concern, protection, compassion, love. Things that all parents feel at some point, but not Dalma's parents.
At least, not the two people who had claimed to be her parents.