I was ten years old when we committed our first murder. I say we though I played no part in the actual act, other than do nothing to try and stop it. It was meeting that woman today made me recall it. I knew from the moment I set eyes on her she was going to be trouble. It was nothing she said, but something in the way she looked at me, as though her eyes could see my very soul. If I have a soul. I’ve always imagined people like me are set apart from others. Anyway, back to the murder.
Three years passed since my initiation into Christy’s exclusive club. We’d taken to calling ourselves Shadows. We blended in well when the need arose and there were many such times. Christy was bored, the assaults on our bodies no longer thrilled him and he was hungry for new blood. Tony, a new boy seemed the perfect candidate to join our little band, but we were proven wrong. He resembled me, as I was when I first arrived at the school, lost, frightened. Feeling a little bit abandoned by those he loved. He welcomed Christy’s attention in the same way I had and held onto the hand extended in friendship like a drowning man. But he was different from me.
His initiation didn’t go as smoothly, and Freddy and Christy had no choice but stuff rags into his mouth to stop his cries. They didn’t intend to kill him, but the rags coupled with the pressure of his face being pressed into the filthy bed, cut off his air. They were too intent on what they were doing to realise he wasn’t breathing. When they did, it was too late. I wasn’t there when it happened, though I knew about it. My only involvement was in moving the body.
Freddy came to fetch me, and I knew from the look on his face something was wrong. There was no need for explanation. He came bursting through the door of the room, disturbing my classmates and drawing a stern look from the teacher. This time of the day was a free period, I’d chosen to stay back to attend an additional art class, as I’d no stomach for what was about to happen. Excusing myself, I followed him out to the woods. The memory of that day is so vivid my heart rate increases as I write. Sound and smells assail brain no matter how hard I try to hold them back.
It was close to winter. I remember the cold cutting through the thin cotton of my white shirt sleeves. I’d forgotten to take my jacket, and I cursed my oversight, as I tried to rub life in to my frozen arms. The track leading to our den was leaf-strewn and slippery and I remember kicking aside the clusters of reds and gold. The trees were stripped bare by the biting wind and the branches were empty except for the dark clumps of the crows’ nests dotting them. The noise of the birds’ cries was amplified, and I heard the cawing overhead. I heard the shouts of the boys on the football field and, the swish of car tires on the damp road. I’m forgetting the reason for my story. Oh, yes, the murder.
Christy’s face was wet with sweat when I arrived at the shed. Freddy was moving too fast to ask him what the problem was, and I’d become used to obeying their orders and commands.
“He’s in here,” Christy said, and moved back to let me enter.
I prayed they didn’t want me to take part in the assault on his body and stood looking down at the still, prone figure. I never enjoyed the act and suffered their demands in silence. This made them think I didn’t object to their pawing my skin, but they were wrong. Sad to say their actions blighted my body and I’ve been impotent all my life.
As I waited for the expected slap on the back urging me on, my eyes surveyed the small, white body on the makeshift bed. There were thin streaks of blood on his buttocks. I remember the harshness of its colour in the dim, half-light of the shed’s interior. There was also some on the tail of his shirt and the waistband of his underpants. Strange how a colour can remain with you, as this is how I recall that day, steeped in redness.
“Is he dead?”
The question startled me, and I turned around in alarm and looked at its owner. It never dawned on me the boy was dead. I thought like me, he was too ashamed to move or look up.
“What do you mean is he dead,” I asked Christy, “why would he be dead?”
“Look, then,” he mumbled.
I leant over and shook Tony’s shoulder.
“Come on, it’s o.k.” I said, “You can get up now. No one’s going to hurt you.”
His body turned to stone in the brief time it laid there. I turned him over and jumped back as his, staring eyes came into view. I’d never seen death before well, not this sort of death. I’d seen my mother at the funeral home, when the embalmer’s work was done, and the surroundings were clinical. But there in that unforgiving shed, filled with its tattered array of oddments and reeking of mustiness, it was frightening. It was made more so by the look of terror in Tony’s eyes and the tear- track on his cheeks. The dirty rags protruded from his mouth and spilled down onto the front of his school jumper like filthy swear words tumbling from his lips. I reached over to remove them but was stopped by Christy’s hand on my arm.
“Don’t touch them,” his whisper was urgent.
Freddy came up beside us and we stayed looking down at the body.
“What’re you going to do?” I asked.
“What are we going to do, you mean,” Christy’s voice was a snarl.
I knew better to deny any involvement in the death, as I knew the repercussions would be terrible. I was as much to blame.
“You go outside,” Christy pushed me towards the door. “See if the coast is clear.”
“What’re you going to do?” I asked, again.
“We’ll carry him deeper into the woods.”
I was shivering; more from fright than cold, as I walked out into the watery sunlight. To my heightened senses, it seemed all sound ceased as I looked through the trees in search of life. When I was sure there was no one to witness what was about to happen, I signalled. Christy and Freddy came stumbling out carrying Tony’s body. Neither of them bothered to pull his pants up and his buttocks scraped the floor of the wood every time they grew weary. With me as lookout, we traced a path through the trees until we came within yards of the road.
“Here’s fine,” Christy said, as they threw the body down.
It landed with a soft thud and we gathered leaves and covered it over.
“You should’ve taken the rags out of his mouth,” I said. “The police might trace them back to the shed.”
“You do it,” Christy pushed me towards the mound.
“Why, me?” I stood my ground. “You put them in there, you take them out.”
“Don’t get fuckin’ smart with me,” His eyes blazed, and I grew weak under his stare.
I knelt beside the pile of leaves and tried to remember which way the body was facing. I brushed aside the leaves from where I imagined his head was. My aim was good, and the rags came into view. They were wedged firmly between Tony’s teeth, and I pulled hard to remove them. As they came free so did the air trapped in his lungs, I know that’s what it was, but at the time, it seemed to us he’d taken a breath. I heard the others swearing as I scuttled back on my bottom, and I knew they were standing behind me waiting for the mound to heave. When nothing happened, I gathered my courage and crawled back to the where he lay. Brushing aside some more of the leaves, I placed my hand on his chest, praying I’d feel it move, but there was nothing.
“Come on,” Christy whispered, and by the time I looked around they were running through the trees.
I stayed long enough to cover the body and then followed them. My pants stuck to my legs with sweat, but to my shame I’d wet myself. Christy and Freddy waited for me by the shed.
“We have to get our stories straight,” Christy pointed at my hand. “And get rid of those.”
I became aware that I was holding the bundle of dirty rags. The realisation sent me hurrying to the nearest tree for support, as the terror of what happened spewed from me. In the past, the others would’ve ridiculed my actions and the dark, wet stain on the front of my trousers. Today was different. They were too intent on covering their tracks to pay attention to me. After a hurried and hushed conference in the shed, we made our way back to the school.
“Where have you three been,” the headmaster met us in the hall. “Up to mischief I bet?”
“Gathering conkers, sir,” we chorused in unison and pulled handfuls of the reddy-brown chestnuts from our pockets.
“Very well,” he looked down at our muddy hands. “Go and wash up. It’ll soon be time for supper.”
I admit sharing in the others’ sly smiles of victory as we climbed the stairs. Once I’d changed out of my wet pants, it was easy pretending nothing untoward had happened and everything was as it should be. I didn’t bargain on the restless dreams and the nightmares that continued to haunt me throughout my life.
The arrival of the police next day had the school buzzing. Tony’s absence was noticed at roll call, as he’d no friends’ other than us. The roars of the headmaster at those who shared his dorm, for not noticing his bed hadn’t been slept in were met with indifferent shrugs. We’d been left pretty much unattended as the teachers combed the woods and we watched from the classroom windows as they came back ashen faced. Christy winked at me as we passed in the hall and I remember how my stomach churned with excitement at the thought of being involved in such a secret.
We were confined to our dorms for the rest of the day. For once I was included with the other boys as we speculated what was happening. Some said Tony ran away or was kidnapped, but this was dismissed by those who knew his family as rubbish. They weren’t rich enough for anyone to kidnap him. The sound of sirens sent us rushing out into the corridors as the police arrived. Those not privy to what happened knew it was something serious. I still recall the boys’ faces as the blue light of the car’s beacon cut across them; each one ashen and set in stone. The teachers had their hands full trying to keep over three hundred curious boys in check.
By mid-afternoon an incident room was set up in one of the study halls. Christy, Freddy and I were offered to the investigating officers as the boys closest to Tony, so we were summoned first. I was the last of the three to be called and the way was paved by the other two. The detective in charge was kind and took my trembling hands for nothing more than the fright of a ten-year-old.
“Now, son,” he smiled. “There’s nothing to be frightened about. I just want to ask you a few questions about your friend Tony Quinn.”
“Did he run away?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“No, no,” the man’s face grew serious. “I’m afraid it’s much worse.”
“Did he get knocked down by a car?”
“No, but I’m afraid he was badly hurt.”
“Is he in hospital?” I was enjoying the man’s discomfort.
“Your headmaster will explain it to you later, now back to my questions,” he sat down beside me. “Did Tony ever talk about running away?”
“Yeah, he was always saying he would,” I said.
“Wasn’t he happy here?”
“Naw, he missed his mother,” I giggled behind my hands. “He was a bit of a Mammy’s boy.”
“I see,” the detective shook his head. “You can go now.”
I knew my answers were in keeping with those of my friends, and the picture we painted was one the police suspected all along. Tony was murdered by someone he met in his attempt to hitch a ride home. It didn’t bother us that his body was found so close to the school, as this was before DNA testing and anyway, who’d suspect three young boys not yet in their teens?
Though I’d no stomach for the actual murder, it was the weeks of turmoil gave me a taste for the excitement. Knowing we were cleverer than all the grownups made us cocky, but not to the point of boasting. That was done among us, long after the investigation were called off and we were again allowed to roam through the woods. To this day, that’s what spurs me on. The thrill of the chase.