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We called it The Bone Room. That final room at the end of a wooden panelled corridor at the back of the museum. It was always the Bone Room to us, although the sign on the door read Natural History Exhibit – Witness Mother Nature in all death’s beautiful glory!
Daniel was the first of us to spend the night alone in there, Simon was next after him. I didn’t get my chance, although the game had been my idea. After what happened to Jessica, I was never allowed in the museum again. No-one really blamed me for what happened, although Jessica’s parents tried. Everyone knew that it wasn’t my fault.
The museum belonged to Daniel’s Grandad, Mr Peters. It was set up in the old family home at the top of the hill, where Mr Peters had lived all his life and Daniel had lived since he was eight. It was a mansion really, the bottom floor given over to the museum – a project of Mr Peters’ after his wife and daughter had died. He charged tourists £2 to see local artefacts, militia outfits and historical objects. It was pretty rubbish looking back, but it was somewhere we could play; the creaking floorboards a give-away to whomever was crouched behind the model of a first world war soldier or hidden under a diorama display of the old Victorian town in our games of hide and seek. Even now, all these years later, I can still remember the slightly fusty smell of the museum, the tingling sensation of dust in my nostrils, my hair starting to frizz in the cold damp air.
Our favourite part of the museum was The Bone Room. It was filled with glass cases, each containing a different animal skeleton. Sometimes, it was obvious what the animal had been in life – the illuminated python skeleton with its jaws open always made Jessica cry. With others it was difficult to tell. Mr Peters had hidden the labels behind a little wooden panel on each case and he encouraged the visitors to see how many they could guess correctly. The hedgehog confused me, the small skeleton so unlike the living creature without its spiky body, but the worst of them all was the goose, its wings spread out, beak open in a hiss of terror. Sometimes I imagined I could hear it hiss when I walked past the case.
“Jessica’s scared of the goose,” I told the others laughing one day. “Look at her face, the baby. She looks like she’s going to wet herself.” I stood by the boys then and pushed Jessica towards the case, making the hissing noises that I feared myself.
Daniel always looked uncomfortable when I made fun of Jessica. I think it was because he was the oldest and was trying to make-out he was better than us. He had scruffy ginger hair and freckle-covered cheeks that would burn red when he was angry, making him angrier still in embarrassment.
“Leave her alone,” he said. “Look at her she’s only a kid. You’d be scared too if you were her.” Thing was, Jessica was only a year or so younger than me, but her parents dressed her up in these girly little dresses, tied stupid blue ribbons in her hair every day. They all thought she was a precious little doll, whereas I always wore jeans and a sweater, both covered in mud and holes and there was nothing precious about me.
“I don’t know why you can’t be like other girls,” my mum had said when she’d emptied the pockets of my jeans for the wash and found owl pellets in there. I’d swiped them from the museum, where Mr Peters had been taking them apart with tweezers and inspecting the remains he found inside. I didn’t tell her about the rabbit’s skull I had found in the woods, that was buried at the bottom of my toy box. Besides, I didn’t want to be like other girls if that meant wearing dresses and ribbons and crying when you were scared instead of making others cry for you.
The week after I’d pushed Jessica at the goose case, we sat on the floor in The Bone Room, under a large desk, upon which sat mammal skulls of various sizes. A family walked in, the mother balancing her toddler on her hip, the pushchair no doubt left outside on the museum steps.
“Oh my God John, this is so creepy,” she said to her husband. “Why did you make us come in here?”
“Don’t be so soft. It’s not creepy, it’s nature.” He laughed. “Hang on, apart from that goose. He is REALLY creepy.” He put on a silly, squawking voice. “I’m going to get you Amanda! Ooh, fancy a kiss?”
The woman laughed.
“No, I don’t. Get off! Can we leave now please? I know it’s silly, but I really don’t like it in here.” She put the toddler on the floor as they left The Bone Room, and as he shuffled past where we were sat, I reached out and dropped a rat’s skull in the hood of his coat as a joke. Simon and I were shaking with laughter. He put his hands over his mouth so as not to laugh out loud, his brown curly hair shaking with his shoulders. Jessica sat wide eyed, and Daniel’s cheeks raged red.
“Why’d you do that? What’s wrong with you?” he hissed.
“Oh relax,” I said “It’s only a joke. It’ll fall out before they notice it anyway.” The shriek and the child’s cry that came from the corridor suggested that was not the case, setting Simon off laughing again.
“You’re such a freak,” Daniel said glaring at me.
“I’M a freak? You are. You’re as bad as her,” I said, shoving Jessica’s shoulder. “You think you’re better than all of us, but you’re a stupid orphan who’s scared of everything. I’ve seen you when you think no-one’s looking. You’re as scared of this room as she is.”
“I’m not,” said Daniel, jutting his jaw out and shaking his head. “I’m just sick of you and your stupid games.”
“That’s a shame because I’ve got a great game. You want to prove you’re not scared? You spend a night in The Bone Room all by yourself. Or are you too much of a baby to do it?”
Daniel turned to look at me then, and I could almost feel the heat coming off his cheeks.
“I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘But then you have to do it after me.”
So, it was decided. Daniel would steal the keys from his grandad after he had locked up for the night. He’d pretend that he was having a sleepover at Simon’s and Jessica and I would say we were going there too for dinner. After dinner we would go back to the museum and lock Daniel in The Bone Room, then we would sneak out first thing in the morning and let him out again.
“Nothing to it,” he said the following day. “It’s just a load of old bones is all.”
It was supposed to be my turn next, but Simon insisted that he wanted to go. It sounded like fun and he wasn’t having a girl beat him to it. A few days later we did it all again. This time Simon told his parents he was staying at Daniel’s and after dinner we all crept downstairs to the museum.
“I think it was too easy for Daniel,” I said. “He had all the lights on. We should take some of these bulbs out.” Simon’s swagger dropped slightly then and when we closed the door on him, he looked like he was going to be sick. He wouldn’t look at us when we let him out the next day.
“What happened?” I laughed. “Does the goose come alive at night?”
“Shut up,” he said. “It’s your turn next anyway. We’ll see how you like it.”
I was supposed to stay in The Bone Room the following weekend, but when the day came round, I had a stomach-ache and my mum wouldn’t let me go for a sleepover. I didn’t say that Jessica should take my place. I didn’t taunt her. They were lying when they said that. It was Simon who took the bulbs out. It was Daniel who locked the door. It wasn’t me who made them. Yes, I was there, but I went straight home. I had to; my mum had said.
Her body was found on the floor the next morning, the goose cabinet crashed to pieces beside her, its bones scattered across the room. It was too late to help her by then, Jessica’s head was cracked open, the pool of blood matting the loose hair around her shoulders. She must have tried to climb on top of the cabinet but fallen and smashed her head. Maybe she was scared trying to sleep on the floor. What a terrible accident. A kids’ game gone wrong. The whole town mourned.
I was never allowed to step foot in the museum again, but it closed for good soon after anyway. Daniel and Simon wouldn’t speak to me anymore and eventually my family moved to another town.
So many years ago now, and yet many memories of that time remain. I miss my friends and the games that we used to play and I always dreamed of having my own museum and Bone Room. That never happened, but I have a few keepsakes and treasures locked in a jewellery case in my wardrobe. The rabbit’s skull I found in the woods. A child’s fistful of owl pellet bones. The bones from a goose. An old rusty key. The blue ribbon from Jessica’s hair.