Closing his eyes against the bright glare of the afternoon light, Ash feels the warmth of the sun on his face. It’s a bright day. Too bright for October in British Columbia. The first day all week it hasn’t been pouring rain. Ash would have preferred it to be dark and grey and drizzly. It would have suited his mood. The crowd shuffles around him as the Minister standing beside the coffin delivers sentiments about loss and shadows of death. Silent tears run down his face as he stares at the glossy wood, knowing that just beyond that lid is the body of his sister. Only two days have passed since he regained consciousness and he still hasn’t been able to wrap his head around everything that has happened.
He’s been flip flopping all day between wishing his parents had had an open casket so he could have one last look at his sister and thankful that he doesn’t have to look at the place where those bruises were. Even covered in make-up or clothes, he would know they were there. He holds onto his last memory with her. Of playfully fighting over food in the cafeteria. But sitting here in this chair, the pulling of scabs and settling of bruises all over his body reminds him of what would have happened to his sister. He fingers the skin at the base of his neck. Feeling the bruises from Staal’s hands. The twin of his sister’s. The last thing they’ll ever have together.
From the chair on the other side of Sullivan, he can hear Rowena’s sobs. Her long blond hair hiding her face. Emmette’s hands rest comfortingly against her back. She’s been having as hard a time as he has with Penelope’s death. A harder time, maybe. Over the last few years, she’s been closer to Penelope than he’s been. The two girls had been best friends since they were children and nothing anyone has done seems to be helping her.
He can’t blame her, nothing has helped him either. His friends are trying to be supportive, but they can’t understand. Sullie has been at his beck and call, but all he’s wanted to do is huddle in Penelope’s room and think about all the things he could have done to change what happened. If he had just pushed her harder to make sure she’d really broken up with Staal. If he had reported Staal. If he had told his parents. There were so many things he could have done. So many ways he’s responsible for his sister’s death. Rowena’s the only one who can really understand his pain because she carries her own guilt. The same guilt.
“Ash.” Sullivan’s elbow presses into his side. “Pay attention.”
“What?” He whispers.
“It’s your turn.” Jutting her chin towards the expectant minister, she whispers. Ash looks at her with confusion. “For the eulogy.”
“Right. Right.” He nods, glancing around. A swarm of silent people watch him, most with worried expressions on their faces. He pushes himself out of his chair, hugging his father and kissing his mother’s cheek before he steps up next to the coffin. They’ve placed a chair there for him, knowing he can’t stand for more than a few minutes at a time. He positions himself so that he can rest his hand above where Penelope’s would be inside the coffin. A gesture of comfort more for himself than anyone else. Except maybe his sister.
“Thank you all for coming. I know Penelope would have been…” He paused for a moment. “Well, honestly, she would have been surprised that so many people showed up for her. P was always a bit of a loner. At her happiest when she was running. She was always like that, even when we were kids. Except for summer camp. She thrived in the outdoors. In competition. It was the one place where she was able to be the leader I always knew she was born to be. I remember this one year. Her favourite summer, even to this day.” Choking back sobs, he brushes a hand across his lips. “Penelope led a day long game of capture the flag, with military style ranks and strategies. And if her team members stepped out of line…” He chuckles, “Well, Frasier, you know, you suffered her wrath.” He glances at his friend, who nods in agreement. “Needless to say, her team won, and they won by a landslide.” Ash pauses to catch his breath as a wave of familiar laughter ripples through the attendees.
“I wish things could have stayed as simple as they were at summer camp. Where everything was warm fuzzies and sing-a-longs.” He rubs his forehead. “But that’s not the way real life is. This isn’t a movie with a happy, tidy ending where everything turns out for the best. Penelope and I had our problems, like any siblings. We fought, and we made up, and then we fought some more. But she was my twin. The other part of me. And without her,” His breath comes in a painful shutter “I am incomplete. She could be endlessly frustrating, but she was loyal to the core. I wish I could talk to her just one more time. Just once. To tell her how much she matters to me. No matter what.” He looked down at the coffin, placing both hands flat on the surface. “I love you, P. I always will. Always.” With a deep, shuddering breath, Ash pushes himself up to a standing position and looks at his parents. “Penelope meant the world to me. My parents. To most everyone here. And someday, someday, we’ll get the closure we need to move forward.”
Ash steps away from his sister and slides into his seat as the Minister wraps up the service. Taking his mother’s hand in his, he looks over to make sure she was okay with what he’s said. She smile travels to her eyes as she wipes away tears.
“Thank you, sweetheart.” She whispers, “Your sister was always very proud of you.”
Nodding, Ash squeezes her fingers and stands to follow his parents as they begin the procession to place a sprig of bluebells on top of the coffin. Penelope’s favourite flower. Dainty and gentle and nothing like her. The perfect companion to his strong-willed sister.
Ash finally breaks away from the stream of well-wishers, and makes his way to where his friends are standing a few meters away from the gravesite. His fingers find Sullivan’s. Her skin pleasantly cool in the warm afternoon. He leans into her, letting the weight of the afternoon finally settle on him.
“Do you need to sit down?” Sullie wraps her arm around his waist.
“Can we get out of the sun?” He tugs at the collar of his shirt, pulling his tie loose. Sweat pooling everywhere.
Emmette leads them to a tall tree away from the string of traffic making its way out of the cemetery. The five of them settle into the pool of shade provided by the overhanging branches. Ash strips off his suit jacket before leaning up against the rough bark of the trunk.
“Fuck. This day sucks.” He rubs his fingers against the scabs around his eye. Small flecks come away on his fingers.
“I might be able to make it a little bit better.” A shadow falls over them. They all stare up at the stranger blankly for a moment.
“Officer Daniels.” Rowena reaches forward to shake his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”
“I didn’t know you were coming today.” Sullivan adds.
“I usually don’t announce my presence, but today, I wanted to share something with you. We’ve charged your former teacher with your sister’s death.”
“You have?” Ash starts to get up but the pain forces him to remain sitting.
“We have. One of the other girls on Sullivan’s list came forward. And there were some pretty distinctive bruises on her hands, and yours there, Ash. They match bruises found on Gina Strand’s body. We’re re-opening that case as well. I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen, but he has been charged.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” Ash sighs, leaning back against the tree.
“And when you’re done school,” Officer Daniels points at Sullivan, “You better make sure you work somewhere in the justice system. You have an undeniable talent. Keep in touch and will look at internships and references.” He shakes her hand. “I hope you all get some closure from this.” He nods at them and walks away.
Ash takes a deep breath. “Well I guess that’s something.”
“I guess it is.” Sullie nods, leaning against his shoulder.
“It’s not over, but it’s a start.” He closes his eyes and relaxes for the first time since the police showed up on his doorstep. “It’s a start.”
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