Almost the entire town turned up for Jessica’s funeral. It wasn’t that surprising really, as they huddled together, a sea of black clothes and sombre faces, the priests’ voice a dull monotone as he recited the funeral rites over the corpse of a ten year old girl.
They all looked at the ground, the sky, some even looked at the coffin, but they didn’t look at each other, at the crying mother and the stoic father, avoiding the gaze of young Tim, barely 5 and still too young to understand just exactly what was going on.
He tugged on his mothers dress and she bent over to him, listening to him whisper. He was a quiet child, never raising his voice, he didn’t shout and scream like the other children, but there was always the occasional strange child who would grow out of their strangeness. The whispering was audible, on the still morning, a background noise to the priests prepared speech. Jenny, the mother, shook her head slightly then broke down into fresh sobs, strong and wrenching. Tim looked confused and clutched at his teddy bear, squeezing it tighter.
She’d fallen down the stairs, tripping over an errant toy, no one knew who it belonged too, they hoped that if it was Tim’s the parents would never tell him. Either way the toy had caused her to fall, breaking three of her ribs as she bounced down the hardwood stairs, bruising her fragile body before finally, she hit her head, hard enough to fracture it. She had died of internal haemorrhaging before they reached the hospital, her mother crying, her father cold and detached, unable to look at his wife or the body of his daughter.
There was a brief pause in the priest sermon as the family approached the coffin, Tim hoisted into his fathers’ arms, his low voice could be heard, carried on a small breeze, “What are we doing?” “We’re saying goodbye to Jess.” “Where is she going?” “We talked about this buddy, remember? She’s gone up to heaven” “When is she coming back?” “She won’t, heaven is so nice a place, that people don’t want to leave, but someday we’ll go up and join her.” Tim looked confused and it was obvious to everyone he had more questions, but he kept quiet as his father set him down beside the coffin. Jenny laid her hand on the smooth wood and muttered something, tears flowing freely, before she stepped away, next was Tim, he also put his hand on the coffin, he stood for a moment, eyes closed, then he leaned forward and gently kissed the side. Her father was last, gently he laid his hand on the coffin and whispered, but still everyone heard. “I’m so sorry. I just…I’m sorry.” he began to cry then, tears slowly rolling down his face. Everyone looked at each other finally, trying to see if everyone else was as uncomfortable as they were. The father was supposed to be strong, silent, there for his family.
They thought that maybe, it was the lack of viewing that was causing the upset in the natural balance. Normally the body would be laid out but the Augers had decided against it, saying it was better to remember her before. The town for the most part disagreed, it would help them all with closure, especially young Tim, but it was what the family wanted and no one interfered. They had no family in those parts, just each other and though the town would remark on it and gossip about it, they would never say anything to her parents.
Most of the town new Jessica, she was a friendly child, willing to talk to child and grown up alike, she was quite charming and sweet, never a bad word for anyone and always the first to offer comfort. Even though she was only ten, everyone could already tell that she would become a remarkable woman. It had been a bit of a joke amongst people at first, how clumsy she was, she was always covered in bruises, falling and scraping her knee, tripping over steps and carpets, slipping in puddles, the child seemed to attract such things, most everyone could recall a time or two they saw her fall and stand back up again, examining the small mark before continuing on her way. It was generally one of the first things people remarked on, not her kindness, but her lack of grace. As she grew older, she tripped less and less, but the bruises remained, she stopped stumbling, tripping, falling, but still those marks bloomed purple and yellow before fading. People were so used to seeing her covered in marks that they stopped really seeing it but not all of them had that excuse. There was the time when she told her teacher, Mrs. Simmons she had fallen off the tire swing in their yard and when asked how that gave her a black eye she quickly smiled and said “Oh no, that’s what happened last week, I was playing with Tim and he threw a building block at me.” Mrs. Simmons didn’t mention this to anyone, though at the time, she knew Tim wouldn’t do anything to hurt his sister, nor would he be strong enough to cause such a large and ugly bruise.
Or the time Mr. Smith, the shop owner saw her wince, bending down and asked if she was ok, she smiled and told him that yes, she was perfectly fine, she hadn’t been paying attention and fell up the stairs, hurting her side.
The town knew, but they looked away.
As the priest finished his sermon, they watched as the casket was lowered and the earth filled in, slowly, each person tossing a handful of earth into the grave. When the deed was done, everyone filed passed the family, offering condolences and support. They never met the eyes of the grieving mother and a few refused to speak to her father. It was all his fault, he had pretty much admitted it. They all heard him, why else would he tell her he was sorry? Soon, the family were left there, alone and bereft before they too followed the throngs of people. They didn’t want to have a wake, but the decision had been taken out of their hands, being told that they needed it.
The house was full of people, but they didn’t stay long, bringing food and staying only a few brief moments before making excuses and scurrying off, too ashamed with themselves to stay for any real amount of time.
Weeks passed, then months and slowly the town allowed themselves to forget, occasionally they discussed what a disgrace it was, that her father was never punished, glossing over their own role in events, how they never said anything, never stepped in. It was a well known secret that she had been beaten to death, but the official reports said she died from a fall, but they all knew that Jenny was the town physicians sister, of course, there was no autopsy. People were happy in their idle gossip, talking of failures of the law and the corruption of people, though they knew the doctor was in on it, they didn’t stop going to him, for both themselves and their children because they knew why he had put the fall as the reason for her death, the same reason they never made a public fuss, he knew and he was negligent. They all were.
Tim sat in bed at night, holding his teddy, wishing, hoping that tonight would be different, that tonight nothing would happen. He had always been a quiet child but after his sister died he began to withdraw into himself, people said it would pass, it was merely grief. He could hear the noise on the stairs, he closed his eyes tightly. The drinking had stopped when his sister died, but slowly, it started again, never during the daytime though, now it was restricted to night. His door banged open, the knob breaking through the plaster, the stench of alcohol filling the room. “Look what you did you little bastard.” he felt the sharp sting of a slap across the face, his eyes opening in shock. He saw something in the darkness, it was the cane. He whimpered and hoped that maybe the monster would go away.
The next morning he woke up slowly, tired and sore all over, he was carefully dressing. All the bruises that covered his body were hidden. After a half hour or so it wouldn’t’ hurt as much, he knew that. He went downstairs for breakfast. As he sat at the table his mother put a plate of pancakes in front of him, it was his favourite, with crispy bacon on the side. He poured syrup onto them, not looking at his mother, she too avoided looking at him. It was always the same, after a beating she always made him something nice. He was always thankful for the nice things his mother did, but soon she would start to drink again and the monster would come back.