Louis, Jake and I found the body on Devil’s Drop. It was about two weeks before our last day of primary school, and Devil’s Drop was a clearing on a steep hill in the wooded area just off the play park and it was ours.
“Even when we’re thirty and have jobs and suits and stuff?” Jake had said and we’d agreed.
There was a tall thick tree in the middle of the clearing and someone before us had tied a thick blue rope off one of the branches to make a swing. We knotted a new log to the end of it and carved our names into the bark. We had plans to build a fort in the smaller bushier trees that surrounded the clearing and even camp there in the summer if our parent’s actually let us.
We made a pact to go there every day after school until we finished Year Six before Jake and Louis started Littleover, across town, which was a big school with peeling paint and metal gates. Mum applied for me to attend a catholic school, which had a chapel with a stained glass window of baby Moses in his basket that fractured the light into shards of different colours. We used to go to church there every weekend, her and I, while my Dad stayed at home and watched TV. Mum used to cry a lot in church.
“Mary gives me strength,” she said when I asked her why she cried, “You have to break down so you can re-build.”
When school finished, before Jake and Louis got the bus home or one of their Dad’s picked them up, we would run out of the school gates and through the small shopping complex as a short cut, past Sainsbury’s and Blockbusters and the travel agents and head towards my house which was across the road from the park.
Around the time we found the body my house always smelt like cookies. Mum was on maternity leave with my sister Janey, and she was always baking.
“I want a nice fat healthy baby,” she would say, even though Janey wasn’t old enough to eat solid foods yet and Mum had to formula feed her because stress had dried her up after she lost the first baby. She baked and baked as if Janey would absorb the sweetness in the air through her silky skin.
“You boys should stick around,” she said when we got home that day, and Jake and Louis dumped their school jumpers on the sofa in the lounge. Janey was sitting propped up on some pillows on the floor in there so I tied my jumper around her neck loosely to make her a super hero. She gurgled her baby laugh.
“The cookies will be out the oven soon. You can have them fresh with milk.”
“We’ll just have them when we get home,” I said, and then we rushed out the door. There was always a risk some other boys would find Devil’s Drop and be playing there before we arrived.
It began raining on the way there, a summer rain. The playground smelt like hot tarmac. There was one mother there, and a small kid, reception age, probably about the age my brother would have been.
“Should we go and get our jumpers?” Jake asked.
“Nah,” Louis said.
“Yeah, we can cope,” I said.
Louis pushed the bushes aside and we followed him into the wood. It sounded different in there, quieter, even though there was not much noise in either place except the drips of the rain. It smelt weird, like the time my Dad left the black bin out on the side of the road in the hot sun when it wasn’t black bin day.
“I think a drunk guy must have vomited in here,” Louis said.
“Gross,” Jake giggled.
It was about then that we saw him. He was lying face down in the leaves, his head facing down on the slant of the hill. He was wearing Nike trackies, kind of like ones that I owned, and a black hoodie. His hair was dusty blond.
“Shit,” Louis said, “It’s a kid.”
Guilt trickled and flash froze inside me. I remembered telling Louis that I would kill anyone that tried to get into our den but then I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Do you think he fell?” I asked. No one answered. “Hey, are you alright?” I yelled, moving towards him. Louis pulled me back.
“He’s dead, you idiot.”
“How do you know?” Jake asked.
“That’s what dead people smell like.”
“What do we do?” I said. My shirt was wet with rain and sticking to me, and I felt too hot, like when I was wrapped up too well in my bed in the night.
“Get that Mum, let’s get that Mum that’s in the park,” Jake said, almost yelling.
We turned around and ran, jumping over logs and vines, and bursting out of the woods and into the wide open space of the playground. Louis jumped over the yellow metal fence before I noticed that there was no one there but us.
“What do we do?” Jake said. I could tell he was close to tears.
“Should we call the police?”
“There’s a mum over there,” Louis said, and we all looked. Coming down the path was a lady, pushing a pram with a cover that was dotted with rain. She was wearing a big black raincoat and when I took her in I cooled down instantly.
“That’s my mum,” I said, and we ran to her.
“Mum, mum, mum, mum,”
“I just thought I would bring you some coats. I don’t want you getting sick.”
“Mum we found something.”
“There’s a body,” Louis said.
“A body. It’s a kid.”
We took her over to the gap in the hedges that we used to get inside. The pram wouldn’t push through, so Mum abandoned it, unclipping Janey and sitting her on her hip. The baby was getting wet and she was crying and I kept saying shh Janey, shh, as we were walking and Jake was trailing behind, crying properly too by now. Mum took Janey’s dribble cloth and put it over her nose when we got close.
“Oh God,” she said when she saw him, and she started crying too, big raking sobs into the blanket. She stopped about where Louis had stopped me before, as if there was a barrier, an invisible tent the boy had made for himself with his last breath.
“Oh God,” she repeated, “It’s a little boy.”
She didn’t move for a while, just cried, and Janey cried and Jake cried and I wanted to.
“What do we do?” Louis asked.
“Hey, Mum,” I pulled on her coat, pushed at her side. “What do we do? Shall I call the police?”
“Take your sister,” she said, and gave Janey to me. We all stood on the threshold as she crossed it. She held the cloth to her mouth and I saw it flop up and down where her sobs pushed out breath. She knelt down next to him. We held our breath.
Reaching her hand out, she hovered it over the boy’s back, moving it as if she was stroking him.
“Don’t touch it,” I yelled but she didn’t seem to hear me. She stroked the boy’s hair away from his face.
“I think we should call the police,” Louis said.
“Mum’ll do it,” I said.
Mum bent her head to her chest and closed her eyes.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee.”
She sat down in the grass and scooped the dead boy into her arms so his head was in her lap. I looked at Jake who could barely see for sobbing and Louis who frowned at me. She’s your mother. I held Janey close to me because it was her mother too.
Gingerly, I stepped over the branch that was in front of me and then tip toed towards her.
“Shall we call the police, Mum?”
“Yeah, I think we should.”
“We weren’t supposed to touch him,” Louis said, as Mum handed me her mobile phone.
“Shut up,” I told him.
The police came within five minutes. I was waiting for them at the gap in the bushes with Janey on my hip. She was whimpering. There was a man and a woman and they asked me if I was alright and could they take me to him. I said I could. I said that my mother was with him and my friends Louis and Jake.
“Please don’t be mad at my mum.”
The man raised an eyebrow. The woman asked “Why would we be?”
“She’s hugging him. She’s hugging the dead boy.”
When we got there my Mum was singing to the boy, hush little baby, and rocking him, tears falling on her face and onto his jumper with the rain.
“What the hell is she doing?” The man said, and the woman reached an arm out to hold him back. She spoke into her radio and called for backup and forensics.
“I’ll go,” she said to the man.
The policewoman crouched down by my mother. “Ma’am, ma’am, you need to come with me please, it’s going to be okay, he’s not going to be alone, he’s not going to be alone.”
They took us down to the police station with them, and they let Mum change Janey and put her down for a nap in the pram. All of our Dads showed up. I pulled away from Mum and ran to him. They asked Jake, Louis and me to go over what happened and how we found him. We were put in different rooms with our fathers and they asked what happened when my mum got there. I told them exactly as I remembered it.
“Does your Mum know this boy?” The policeman asked me.
“No. I don’t think,” I looked up at my Dad.
“I can’t see how she would. She’s just, she’s fragile.”
My mother used to say prayers on rosary beads every night after I was sleeping. She used to ask Jesus to keep us safe, and for enough money to get the bills paid, and for her sister who was getting divorced and for the child she sponsored in Africa who was ill with the flu. She used to ask Mary for a baby. She asked for Mary to help her let her children go.
My father constantly questioned them. He didn’t understand why you needed an object to pray to an invisible God. Mum explained they were just a symbol. “I just need something to hold,” she said, “It makes it real. And true.”
When I was about seven, I found the rosary beads on a dreary day when I was off from school for the holidays. I wrapped them around my wrist, feeling the cold pressure against my skin from each bead. I whipped them about, and dangled them off the side of her bed, flicking them from side to side like a metronome. Then I abandoned them on the floor to play with something else and forgot about them until they crunched under my feet and shattered, blue and red and brown shards all over the hardwood floors.
I wept with guilt, and she found me trying helplessly to piece back together the tiny bits of glass with a dried up pritt stick.
We left the police station about ten minutes after the officer talked to my Dad alone. Jake and Louis had already left, and I hadn’t seen them go. The house was the same when we got in, my football boots were still kicked off and crusty with mud from my game two nights before. Janey’s rattle and her stacking blocks were scattered all over the floor and Mum nudged them aside with her feet and sat down on the sofa, staring out the window even though it was dark. It smelt like cookies.
Dad made Mum a hot cup of tea and me a hot chocolate and gave Janey some milk in a bottle. All four of us stayed in the lounge, Mum and Dad on one side of the room with Janey sleeping between them and me on the armchair by myself.
“Well,” my Dad said, clearing his throat “It’s been a big night.”
As usual that was all he could muster, and we were quiet for a long time after that before we all went to bed.
We were going to go and play out the next day but Jake said he didn’t want to go anywhere near the park and there was nowhere else to go so we stayed in and watched David Attenborough and ate Victoria Sponge. They both got picked up early. I had another slice, and then another and then vomited them all back up in the night.
The police rung about a week later to let us know what had happened with the boy but we had already seen on the news. He was a missing boy, had been for almost 24 hours when we found him. His step mother had been arrested in connection with it. They were saying she poisoned him and laid him out in the park at night time and then reported that she couldn’t find him. His father was in Stockholm on business and flew home as soon as he was informed.
Mum was baking double chocolate chip muffins when Dad got the phone call. He didn’t tell either of us but I listened on the second landline phone which was upstairs in my parent’s room. When Mum had seen it on TV she said, “I wonder where his real mother is,” and then got up off the couch to make a bottle for Janey whose nose was streaming from a cold and needed an early night.
That night, or another night, or a few nights, I lay awake for a long time. I thought about the times I was told I was getting a baby brother, and my mother would balloon up and buy baby clothes and paint the spare room and then she would shrink down again, her stomach flabby and empty, hanging over her knickers while she got dressed. I used to pretend that aliens were coming, or that a litter of seven puppies lived in the spare room. Sometimes I would get tired and cry that the puppies weren’t real. I thought babies were a game.
I got up out of bed, and padded across the short space of hall between me and Janey’s bedrooms. She was quiet, but she was awake too, lying on her back like I had been. I wondered if she knew more than we thought she did and she couldn’t sleep either but she was watching her sparkly mobile spin and I think that was all she was doing. It made me think that maybe Janey would be like Dad and I would be like Mum rather than the other way around.
When she saw me she raised her chubby hands to be picked up. I carried her down the hallway and peaked round the door into my parent’s room. There they were, two long silhouetted humps in the bedsheets, the light from the street lights coming in through a crack in the curtain, my Dad snoring softly. I waited there a long time wondering whether to crawl in like I used to when I was tiny, but Janey started whimpering and I quickly took her from their room to mine, laying her in my rumpled football bedsheets and getting in alongside her. I stroked her feathery hair, and kissed her soft cheek.
I wished that she had been born sooner, that we’d been twins, so she could come to secondary school with me and we could go to our new classes and meet our new teachers together. I wished that we could talk together about Mum and Dad. I’d asked Dad and he’d said Janey wouldn’t remember the body we found on Devil’s Drop. I wished that I didn’t remember either.
“It’s okay, Janey,” I whispered, “I love you.”
Then we went to sleep, and me, eleven years old, holding my little sister in my arms and praying that she would always be safe and alive and well. All four of us slept until morning.
Heather Cripps is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. She has previously been published in The Wax Paper, The Forge Literary Magazine and The Purple Breakfast Review. When she isn’t writing short stories or posting on her Instagram, she enjoys coffee, plays and colour coding her calendar.