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Jim Ingram sat hunched at his desk, bathed in the cold light of his monitor. He was alone. It was seven thirty-one.
Only the ticking of the clock and the hushed din of the television for company now: soft domestic sounds arriving from another time and place, as though reaching his ears by two tin-cans and a line of string.
Jim had come back from work at half-five. He’d microwaved a bolognese, watched Match of the Day, took the cat out, then the bin. Afterward, he turned the dishwasher on and drank two cups of tea. Karen was watching some murder mystery, sniffing into roll-after-roll of paper towels and gulping back cheap wine. A typical Monday night.
He’d run out of chores, there were no more distractions. Just him and the laptop, and a horrible choice rotting away inside him.
He scrunched his toes in his well-worn slippers, clenched his jaw and stifled a sigh. He couldn’t afford to be weak, not today. Today he had to decide.
Could he do it? Could he kill his daughter?
And this time, would she stay dead?
He was looking at Amber’s Facebook page: at the pictures he’d taken of her ninth birthday. He was surprised she had them on there. He thought teenagers were supposed to be embarrassed about stuff like that. Didn’t seem that long ago, that fresh spring day: face-painting and bright pink balloons.
She had an active post-mortem social life. It had been opened up to tourists, to gawkers, well-wishers and rubberneckers. Jim didn’t have an account. He’d never had much use for computers, and frankly he’d always regarded Facebook with suspicion. Just exhibitionism for kids he’d always thought. A website for people with too much time on their hands.
Jim was one of those people now.
When all the forms had been filled out and the service finished and the leftover nibbles wrapped in plastic, her Facebook page lingered on, preserving something innocent of mortality, untroubled by tubes and catheters, the silence of the morgue, the heat of the incinerator.
In Jim’s throat a hot lump was growing.
They’d had a chat with her friends - weeping girls acting out a pantomime of grief. One of them knew the password. But it was Karen who’d decided to keep the page open. It would be a tribute, she said, a memorial, and they could moderate it, and all their friends and family could remember her, and that way she’d live on. Forever.
“Sweet Amber," they said. “Lovely Amber. Beautiful Amber. Daddy’s precious little angel. At rest now. At peace. Passed away. In a better place. Taken from us. So young. Such a shame. What a loss. So much ahead of her. How could they have known?. She took something. Complications at St John’s. Our thoughts with the family. A tragedy.”
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber: over and over, until her name was just a sound in the mouth with no taste or texture.
No-one consulted him, no one consulted Jim about anything. All his life he’d done as he was told. Until now.
What was wrong with him? Why shouldn’t they keep their daft shrine?
Karen wouldn’t look him in the eye anymore. Even the lads down the pub seemed afraid of him. They were all worried it was making him choke. He’d muddled through the funeral, staring at his shoes, letting his hand be shaken like a stiff pump. Never a word of complaint. No tears shed. Nothing. Because Jim was miles away - years even. He was still in the hospital, the news was still bouncing around his head. He was still asking what the hell happened.
They were taking her away with their grief. Reducing her to something gauche and sentimental, confusing the sacred with the profane. Every time he scrolled down that bloody page and saw the messages, the comments and pictures, his insides turned to water. It was a nightmare, a nightmare where your heart was offal and you had to swallow fibreglass to stay alive.
He could see the body covered by a grey sheet. It lay perfectly still, staring with two glass eyes, a vacant thing that was and was not his daughter. Inert on the gurney, skin peeled back, stomach opened like a flower for a premature cause of death. He imagined the dispassionate fumbling of her mortician, some lumpy balding man with haemorrhoids and stale breath, violating her remains. He’d felt the thick rubber fingers rummaging through the viscera, combing her innards. The madness of medicine: oracles asking a putrid organ to speak for her, to provide answers, when there were no answers he’d wanted to hear.
Something caught in Jim’s throat. He trembled and a landslide gave way beneath his breastbone. Amber’s face swam before him and there was a roaring in his ears like the all the oceans in a seashell.
He stood up and walked out of the room. He didn’t look back.
He'd just remembered he’d promised Karen he'd do the ironing. All this could wait until tomorrow.
Yes. Until tomorrow.
The door closed. It was seven-thirty-three. On the computer something flashed on screen:
Do you know Amber? Would you like to send her a message?
Callum Henderson is a fourth year undergraduate student at Strathclyde University, studying journalism and creative writing. He lives in Bathgate with his parents, sister and two dogs. In 2010 he won the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘Young Writers Award’, and in 2012 was published in the science fiction anthology If You Could Only See Yourself - And Other Stories. In his spare time he enjoys playing the violin, computer games and, apparently, bragging at tedious length about his career.