Chris would never have assumed funerals would get easier, not when they were ones for her friends. But she always expected them to be better than they were, before finding that they were just the same again. As Stacey’s closest remaining friend, she was right up at the front, right near Stacey’s coffin and squeezing her mother’s hand. Taking time off for so many funerals was hard for her mum — it meant more time off work, so less money to spend on food — but Chris could tell she was trying hard not to let it show. She was good at reading her mum, even in places like this. Even with the skull man sitting there on her lap.
“You won’t want me to say this,” said Chris, “but the man with the skull for a head is sitting on you. His fronds are on your legs, his skull is in front of your head. I don’t understand how you’re even able to see anything.” The skull just grinned, as if she had told a joke.
“You’re right,” said her mum, “I didn’t want you to say that. Please let the skull man go, Chris. Not here at a funeral, not now. It isn’t the place.”
“Stacey didn’t mention him, not ever,” said Chris. “Not to anybody except for us. She wanted to keep her family safe, I think, to keep them from the truth. I’m not sure it was right of her, in the end.” Her mum began to cry, and Chris knew if she asked she’d be told it was because of the funeral.
Chris looked round. A funeral for a child is a terrible thing, and the crematorium was as packed as it had been for Joe and Grant. Most of the school had turned out, and lots of the teachers, and lots more people of all ages that could have been from anywhere at all. All lives cast long shadows, but a child’s was longer than most, and for the third time Chris wondered who’d come to her funeral, after the skull man had burned her down.
“Three fires, and three families dead,” said the skull man in his bored, old way. “You’d think someone would say something, wouldn’t you? But it’s funny what you can make people not notice, once you set your mind to it.”
“Not the Doctor,” said Chris, in a voice only monsters could hear, speaking out loud before she could help herself. Instantly, she knew it was a mistake. At a glance, the floating skull looked much the same. But Chris somehow Chris could tell that inside it was no longer grinning.
“The Doctor,” said the man, now sounding less bored. “An old, grey man? Haughty, and rude. Enormous eyebrows. Not patient with people he thinks aren’t as smart as him.”
“You must be thinking of Doctor O’Neil,” said Chris. “Or Doctor Marr. Most of the psychiatrists sound a bit like that, now that you happen to mention it.” The skull man looked a little bit relieved. “Doctor,” he said, more to himself than anything.
“I shouldn't have done that”, thought Chris. “I shouldn't have told him about the Doctor.” She had never thought that you could be too sad, at the funeral of your very best friend. But now, she realised there was a way. There was a place below the tiny coffin, and it was a place that no one should ever have to go.
Chris wondered about the time she could see the Doctor again, and wished more than anything that time could be right now.