This story is by Liam Buck and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The trees swayed hypnotically from side to side in the gentle breeze. The snow had stopped but the iron-cold air still held its bite. Edith knew where to go as soon as they entered the forest and ran ahead of Thomas, grabbing the gnarled branches of the tree as she had done so many times before. Thomas was behind her like he always was, ready to catch her if she fell. The only difference this time was the rope he was hiding beneath his clothes. As they settled on one the highest branches Thomas quietly tied one end of rope to the branch they sat on.
“Are you happy, Edith?”
“I’m always happy up here, Tom. I’m always happy with you.”
That was all he needed to hear. She hadn’t suffered in this life, not yet, and he wasn’t going to let her. He slowly began to place the noose around her neck.
“What’s this Tom? What are you doing?” There was confusion in her voice but she sat still and let Tom tighten it.
“Our mother used to always wear a locket around her neck. This is just like that. You can be just like our mother now.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Do you trust me, Edith?”
“I trust you, Tom.”
He wasn’t sure how much time passed before it happened, but he knew he was doing the right thing. He wouldn’t let her suffer. She fell quickly and the snap told him it was over. Silenced danced between the trees while all else stood still. As he sat on the branch, alone, Thomas thought back to how this whole situation had occurred. His mind drifted back to his last visit with Doctor O’Leary a week ago.
Thomas found himself sitting in the doctor’s office again as the doctor told him that his sister would be taken from his care and registered at an institution in Dublin due to the continued degradation of her health and behaviour. Thomas played the doctor’s words over and over in his mind but couldn’t find any meaning behind them. He felt unable to think, momentarily grateful for the comforting numbness that comes with disbelief. Part of him had always known this day would come but he always pushed such thoughts to the back of his mind. He never wanted to think that Edith could be taken from him, no matter how different she was or how difficult she could be. She was his sister and the only family that he had for a long time. How could he let this happen?
The doctors had told Thomas’s father the day she was born that something was wrong with her. Mongolian’s Disease was the original name, but he had always hated that. “The Mongols were foreign invaders. They tore towns apart and killed all around them. They were monsters… she is not a monster” That is what he would say about Edith, she was his daughter and not a monster. But he died before they renamed it to Down’s Syndrome.
No matter how much love he held in his heart for his daughter, he loved their mother more. Seeing her die while giving birth to Edith broke him and the shell of the man that remained could not provide for his children. He found comfort in drink and soon became wrapped in the arms of addiction. Thomas could never forgive him for that. He missed his mother just as much as his father did and to so selfishly indulge himself in grief only made their lives all the harder.
Their father was never violent to his credit, like so many other men were, but that didn’t stop the neglect from burying itself deep into the very bones of Thomas’s existence. After years of constant drinking his liver finally gave in, leaving Thomas to look after Edith on his own. He hated his father for that; he was a weak man who gave up when his children needed him most, but worst of all, he never recovered like Thomas had always hoped. He foolishly believed that his father would pull through and learn to provide once again, but his childish innocence died alongside his father.
With his innocence dead and buried, Thomas knew there was no use arguing with the doctor. So, when he said that nurses would come from the institution the following week to collect Edith, Thomas simply nodded and left the office. Edith was waiting in the hall with a nurse when Thomas left the office. She didn’t need to be told to go with him, she just instinctively stood by his side and took his hand, always willing to go wherever he would take her. They left the building and went to what they called home, an old stone farmhouse wedged between two identical others. The walls stood cold and grey. Without any lighting inside shadows lurked from room to room, stalking the halls of this silent cage. Edith sat in the chair by the window where the cold, January draught slipped in through the cracks. Mildew crept along the sill and up the wall, it’s pungent smell becoming stronger with each breath of wind that entered the house.
She opened her book to reread it once again and sat in silence as Thomas’s mind wreathed in turmoil. He wanted to believe all that the doctor had told him. He wanted to think that Edith would receive the best care possible in this institution and that they would treat her kindly… with respect. But he had heard the stories of such places, just as everyone else had. Stories of women being brought there and never seen or heard from again. People knew there was abuse going on in there, both physically and mentally, but they did nothing about it. Who were they to complain? They weren’t doctors and it wasn’t their business. Thomas couldn’t do that to Edith, regardless of whether she would be treated well or not. He was the only person that she trusted and he wouldn’t become their father. He wouldn’t leave Edith on her own. But what choice did he have?
He thought back to when Edith was just a child. From the second she was born people had said she was different and treated her accordingly. But Thomas could see no difference between his sister and any other child her age, not where it mattered. She would hum as she plodded along the road to the church, excited to see other people and happy to be away from the house. Together they used to climb the same tree in a nearby forest, shouting in the thrill of fear as they moved higher with every reach. Edith laughed, smiled and cried, just as all other children did. But the doctors said she was different and they were trying to take her from him because of that, and Thomas felt powerless to stop them.
Thomas knew he couldn’t keep Edith with him. The doctors knew where they lived, they’d just come and take her. That would upset her even more than if Thomas convinced her that going with them was the right thing to do. They couldn’t run away either; they had nowhere to go and even if they did, they had no money to get there. Thomas delved deep into his thoughts to try and conjure an easy solution to this problem, but to no avail. As he turned and saw Edith sleeping peacefully in the chair with her book on her lap, an option presented itself to him. He could let her be with their mother and father.
“No. No, God no! I can’t do that to her. How would I live with myself afterwards knowing what I’d done?” But Thomas then realised that this decision wasn’t about him, it was about Edith. He couldn’t leave her go the institution, that much he was certain of. “She’d never learn to hate me anyway, if I let her go. She’d just live the rest of her life never trusting anyone and always wondering why the only person she loved left her.” Staying put would only prolong the inevitable. If he was to end her suffering before it could begin, then only he would be the one to feel pain… that was how Thomas made his decision, no matter how it was. As tough as this situation was, Thomas understood that the greatest pain in life comes from the lack of understanding. With no reason as to why things should happen, life can feel like a never-ending source of pain and anguish… an eternal pool of unjustified and unavoidable suffering.
Thomas pulled himself from his mind and found himself alone on the branch once again. Edith may be gone, but she didn’t suffer. He could make his peace with that. Soon time would move on and Thomas with it, and this would all but a memory.