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Innocence

It was fun to begin with; a game, an adven­ture. But now he’s had enough. He doesn’t like being on his own any more. He’s hun­gry, he’s lone­ly and he’s scared. He wants every­thing back to how it used to be.

Dean McFar­lane is sev­en years old.

The day before yes­ter­day, as they were walk­ing to school togeth­er, Dean’s moth­er dropped dead in front of him.

‘Dean,’ Mom said, sigh­ing, ‘you’ve only been back at school for a cou­ple of days, so how comes you’ve got your­self in trou­ble with the teacher already?’

‘She don’t like me,’ he said as he fol­lowed her at speed, late for school. He’d been drag­ging his feet all morn­ing. Even though she was heav­i­ly preg­nant, Dean’s mom marched along at twice his pace. ‘She picks on me,’ he whined. ‘She lets Gary and them lot get away with any­thing. I nev­er done noth­ing and she blames me when …’

‘What do you mean, you nev­er done noth­ing? What kind of a way to talk is that? If you nev­er done noth­ing, then you must have done something …?’

Dean looked at her and screwed up his face. What was she on about now? She didn’t believe him, did she? Any­way, he decid­ed, he didn’t care what she said because he knew Miss Jinks was pick­ing on him and he knew that he was going to get Gary Saun­ders back at lunchtime or after­noon break because he’d got him into trou­ble yes­ter­day after­noon and he’d had to see the head­teacher and …

‘When I tell your father what you’ve been up to,’ Mrs McFar­lane warned, ‘he’ll kick your back­side. You know what he’s like, he just won’t stand for this kind of behav­iour. I sug­gest that you …’

Mrs McFar­lane stopped talk­ing sud­den­ly, then stopped walk­ing. She stood in the mid­dle of the pave­ment, pulling that kind of puz­zled, almost angry face that she pulled when she was out shop­ping with him and she couldn’t remem­ber what she need­ed, or when she didn’t know which way to go, or when Dean’s baby broth­er grow­ing inside her start­ed to kick. Dean car­ried on a lit­tle fur­ther but then stopped and turned back when he realised she still wasn’t mov­ing. She was stand­ing in the same spot, rub­bing at the side of her neck. She looked in pain.

‘Mom? What’s the matter?’

Mrs McFar­lane looked down at her son but didn’t say any­thing. She couldn’t. She tried not to let him see, but the sud­den pain in her throat was rapid­ly wors­en­ing, tak­ing hold. Her eyes bulged with sud­den, sear­ing agony and she dropped her shop­ping bag. Dean imme­di­ate­ly began col­lect­ing up her spilled belong­ings, still look­ing anx­ious­ly into her face.

‘Dean, I can’t …’ she said, her voice fad­ing to a whis­per. ‘My throat’s …’

She dropped to her knees direct­ly in front of her son and he jumped back with sur­prise. Her eyes now lev­el with his, she began to retch and gag vio­lent­ly. The inside of her throat became swollen, and blood began trick­ling from lesions at the back of her mouth. She hung her head for­ward and drib­bled a long, sticky string of bloody sali­va onto the pave­ment, spit­ting up on the cor­ner of one of Dean’s shoes.

‘Mom …’ he whined, jump­ing back with pan­ic. He looked around for help but he couldn’t see any­one else near­by. If he could just find anoth­er grown-up who could help … He looked for Mrs Camp­bell who lived three doors down at num­ber sev­en­teen — she always seemed to be look­ing out of her liv­ing room win­dow. Maybe she’d come out to help him and—

Clutch­ing her stom­ach in agony, Mrs McFar­lane let out a stran­gled cry of pain then rolled onto her back, her body con­vuls­ing. Now sob­bing, Dean crouched down next to her and held her shoul­ders, try­ing to hold her steady and stop her throw­ing her­self about. He wished he knew what to do, but he’d nev­er learnt about this kind of thing at school or at cubs. He was scared she was going to hurt her­self or the baby. Her eyes were wide open and she stared at him with an expres­sion on her face which fright­ened him more than any­thing he’d ever seen before.

And then she stopped.

Dean’s mom lay motion­less on the ground, her eyes star­ing into space and her mouth hang­ing wide open, a trail of dark blood run­ning down her cheek.

Dean shoved her and shook her and screamed at her but she wouldn’t wake up.

#

I knew straight­away that she’d died because I kept shout­ing at her to wake up but she wouldn’t move. I tried to clean up some of the blood on her face with tis­sues out of her hand­bag but that just made things worse and got her in even more of a mess. She’d got blood in her hair and in one of her ears and I couldn’t get that out either.

Grand­dad John­son told me once about the time he saved a man’s life when he’d been an acci­dent. He said you have to make sure the per­son who’s hurt is breath­ing before you do any­thing else, and he showed me how to do it. He said you could feel for a thing like a lit­tle heart­beat on their wrist or their neck, or you could just lis­ten to them breath­ing. I couldn’t remem­ber exact­ly where to hold Mom’s wrist so I just lis­tened to her instead. I put my ear right next to her mouth and lis­tened and lis­tened and lis­tened but I couldn’t hear any­thing. Every­thing else was qui­et but I couldn’t hear a sound.

I kept look­ing for some­one to help me but there was no one, and I remem­bered Grand­dad telling me you had to get the per­son you’re look­ing after to a hos­pi­tal quick­ly by phon­ing for an ambu­lance. We learnt that at school last year as well and I knew what to do. I got Mom’s mobile out of her pock­et and dialled 999 like I’d been shown but no one answered. That real­ly scared me because my teacher and Grand­dad both said some­one would always answer 999, no mat­ter what. They’ve got loads of peo­ple to answer the phones there so every­one can always get through.

I was scared that Mom was going to get cold. I tried to move her clos­er to the house but she was too heavy. I dragged her a lit­tle way, but not that far because she was heavy and I didn’t want to mess her clothes up or hurt the baby. I got the keys from her coat pock­et and ran back to the house. It took me ages to get inside because I couldn’t get the right key at first. When I got in I took one of the blan­kets from the draw­er under Mom and Dad’s bed and one of her pil­lows. I went back out and cov­ered Mom up and put the pil­low under her head. I was scared that some­thing was going to hap­pen to the baby. I put my hands under the blan­ket and felt Mom’s tum­my for ages but I couldn’t feel any­thing. The baby wasn’t mov­ing but it might just have been asleep.

I thought I should stay out­side with her.

#

Dean need­ed the toi­let. He held on for as long as he could, but after an hour and a half sit­ting out­side in the cold next to his moth­er, he couldn’t wait any longer. He ran back to the house, unlocked the door, dashed to the toi­let and then ran back out­side. He’d hoped that when he got back he’d find that she’d opened her eyes or rolled over or at least made some small move­ment that might indi­cate that she wasn’t dead and that he wasn’t on his own any­more. Noth­ing. No change.

Before sit­ting down next to his mother’s body again, Dean walked the entire length of the street, look­ing for help. From the end of the road he count­ed more than twen­ty oth­er peo­ple lying on the ground like his mom. As far as he could see there was no one else mov­ing around like he was. For a while he thought about going a lit­tle far­ther, but when he found the body of his friend Shaun Wal­lis lying face down in the mid­dle of the next road with his dad, he got scared and ran back to Mom again. He tried knock­ing on a few of his neigh­bours’ doors but none of them answered, not even Mrs Camp­bell at num­ber seventeen.

The sun dis­ap­peared behind a dark grey cloud and it start­ed to rain. Dean made anoth­er quick trip back to the house and fetched an umbrel­la to keep him and Mom dry. He cov­ered her head but he couldn’t stop her legs from get­ting soaked. He was soon wet and shiv­er­ing with cold but he couldn’t leave her, could he? What if some­thing hap­pened to her? It didn’t mat­ter that he hadn’t seen any­one else all morn­ing, he just didn’t want to leave her on her own in case some­one came along and took her or did some­thing hor­ri­ble to her. And any­way, he decid­ed, he want­ed to be there when she woke up. She’d be real­ly proud when she found out he’d looked after her like this. She had to wake up, didn’t she? Who would look after him if she didn’t?

A short while lat­er, Mom’s mobile phone began to bleep. He picked it up and looked at the dis­play, hop­ing Dad was call­ing. On the screen it showed a pic­ture of a bat­tery that was almost emp­ty. Mom had shown him how to use the phone in case any­thing hap­pened with the baby and they need­ed to get in touch with the hos­pi­tal or Dad in a hur­ry. He tried the emer­gency num­ber again but there was still no answer and this time he decid­ed that the police and the ambu­lance peo­ple must have been busy look­ing after all the oth­er sick peo­ple he’d seen lying on the ground beyond the end of the road.

Dean pressed the but­ton which made a list of names come up. Mom had made him remem­ber how to do this. Then he pressed the but­ton with an arrow on it point­ing down, and the list of names began to move. Some of the names he knew, oth­ers he didn’t. Some he couldn’t even read. He saw the names of his Aunt Edie and Car­o­line, Mom’s best friend. Fur­ther on down the list he found the one he’d been look­ing for — Roys­ton McFar­lane — his dad. He’d call him and tell him what had hap­pened and get him to come home. What an idiot, he thought, I should have thought of that sooner.

He couldn’t get the phone to work.

He was sure he was doing it right, just how Mom had shown him. He high­light­ed his dad’s name on the list, then clicked call to make it ring. He kept try­ing but it wouldn’t work. It looked like it was going to, but then it just bleeped in his ear three times, then dis­con­nect­ed. It kept on hap­pen­ing. After a while the bat­tery pic­ture came back on for a sec­ond before the phone switched itself off for good.

#

The day dragged on, and Dean became increas­ing­ly cold and hun­gry. He sat on the pave­ment next to his dead moth­er and ate the packed lunch from his school bag while he wait­ed for his dad to come home from work.

By half-past six, when it was start­ing to get dark and still no one had come, Dean start­ed to pan­ic. He didn’t know what to do. He want­ed to go back to the house, but he didn’t want to leave Mom out­side on her own. He tried to drag her again but only man­aged to move her a lit­tle way. When he touched her skin now she felt even cold­er than he was. When the light had almost com­plete­ly dis­ap­peared, he reluc­tant­ly accept­ed he had to go in. He tucked Mom under the blan­ket again, checked the pil­low was under her head, then ran back to the house.

Dean strug­gled with the front door again. Find­ing the right key had been hard enough in day­light, now it was almost impos­si­ble. Noth­ing much was work­ing when he final­ly man­aged to get inside. The lights came on and so did the tele­vi­sion but noth­ing was on any of the chan­nels. The radio in the kitchen was silent too. He tried to dial 999 from the house phone but still no one answered. He locked the door (Dad had his own key and would be able to let him­self in when he got back) and went upstairs. He sat on the end of his bed and looked out of the win­dow and wait­ed. From where he was sit­ting he could just about see the top of Mom’s head on the pavement.

#

It was kind of excit­ing for a while, being on my own in the house like that. It made me feel grown up. Even though it was dark out and cold I could do what­ev­er I want­ed. I read for a bit and did some draw­ings. I want­ed to play games but I couldn’t get the com­put­er to work.

I kept get­ting upset when I looked out of the win­dow and saw Mom, espe­cial­ly when it got real­ly dark. I didn’t like leav­ing her out there. I tried not to cry and I kept hop­ing that I’d see Dad com­ing home soon. I some­times used to sit in my room and wait for him to come home from work. I used to know which car was his as soon as it turned into our road from the noise, but the weird thing was I didn’t see any cars at all, not one.

I got myself some crisps and choco­late from the kitchen and ate them in my room. Mom nev­er let me do that nor­mal­ly, but it wasn’t a nor­mal night and I didn’t think she’d mind.

I’m not that good at telling the time yet. I know when it’s some­thing o’clock or half-past some­thing, but I get mixed-up with quar­ter-past and quarter-to’s. I remem­ber going to the toi­let and then look­ing at the alarm clock in Mom and Dad’s room. I think it said it was almost ten o’clock but I wasn’t sure. What­ev­er time it was, I knew that it was way past bed­time and then I start­ed to get real­ly scared because Dad should def­i­nite­ly have been home from work. I didn’t know why he hadn’t come back. Maybe he’d been going out some­where and Mom hadn’t told me? Maybe there was a prob­lem he need­ed to sort out. That hap­pened quite a lot.

Some nights in the school hol­i­days I used to try and stay up as long as I could but I always seemed to fall asleep. Now I want­ed to get to sleep but I couldn’t. I want­ed it to be morn­ing. I didn’t like being on my own in the dark. I thought about going back out and sit­ting with Mom for a bit but I was too scared. I didn’t want to go down­stairs on my own. The moon came out a few times and when it did I could see her. She was still lying on the pave­ment where I’d left her. I wished she’d get up and come in.

#

When Dean woke up next morn­ing, it was late. It was almost mid­day by the time he climbed out of bed. He’d stayed awake all night and had then slept through almost the entire morn­ing. He lay still for a while and went over the events of the pre­vi­ous day in his head. He remem­bered his mom and how he’d left her lying on the pave­ment out­side. He jumped up and his heart sank when he saw that she was still there in the exact same posi­tion. Then he remem­bered his dad. Sure­ly he must have been home by now? He checked his par­ents’ bed­room but the bed hadn’t been slept in. The car wasn’t out­side either. Why hadn’t Dad come back yet?

The sun­light had been stream­ing in through Dean’s win­dow, warm­ing the area on the top of his bed where he’d curled up and fall­en asleep. The tem­per­a­ture dropped notice­ably as he moved around the rest of the house. He took off his school uni­form (which he’d slept in) and threw it down­stairs for Mom to wash. Then he grabbed the warmest clothes he could find and got dressed. He’d nev­er known the house to be this cold. And it was qui­et too. There usu­al­ly always seemed to be noise all around him and this silence was frightening.

Break­fast, his mom told him almost every morn­ing, was the most impor­tant meal of the day. Dean fetched him­self some cere­al, a slice of bread and a few bis­cuits. He couldn’t find any­thing else. He didn’t know how to use the oven or the ket­tle or toast­er. Mom had shown him how to make a piz­za in the microwave before now and he decid­ed he’d do that for tea. Maybe Dad would be back then and he could make him some too.

Dean put on his school coat. Clutch­ing his food and a half-full bot­tle of lemon­ade, he went back out to where his mom still lay. All day he sat on the pave­ment next to her. He didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t feel safe any­where else. Dur­ing the course of the day he tried again to drag her clos­er to home. He man­aged to move her a cou­ple more metres, almost to the edge of their dri­ve, but that was all. As the dark­ness drew in again he went back indoors. The lights weren’t work­ing when he got inside, and nei­ther was any­thing else electric.

#

I couldn’t help it. I didn’t mean to do it, I got scared and it just hap­pened. Mom’s going to be mad at me.

I’d been sit­ting out­side with her for ages but I came back in when it start­ed to get dark. When I got inside the house it was all qui­et and emp­ty again and I got real­ly scared. I could hear loads of nois­es and I knew what they all were but they still scared me. There was drip­ping water com­ing from the freez­er in the kitchen and I could hear the blind at the win­dow in Mom and Dad’s room blow­ing in the wind, mak­ing a tap­ping noise. And every so often the wind made the let­ter box in the front door flap. Mom’s been nag­ging at Dad for ages to get it fixed but he hasn’t had time. It sound­ed like some­one com­ing to the house, and the first few times it hap­pened I ran to the door because I thought it was going to be Mom or Dad. I got real­ly upset when there was no one there.

I didn’t want to go upstairs. I want­ed to hide away out of sight so I crawled under the din­ing room table. I only came out a cou­ple of times, first to get some more food from the kitchen and then to try and find my torch. I got myself anoth­er pack­et of crisps and the last bar of choco­late from the cup­board. I want­ed some bread and but­ter but I must have left the bread open because it had gone all hard and it tast­ed hor­ri­ble. All of the lemon­ade and cans of Coke had gone. I had to drink the orange juice I don’t like but I made it too strong and it made me feel a bit sick. I was real­ly thirsty though so I kept drink­ing it.

It didn’t feel like home any more. Every­thing felt dif­fer­ent with­out Mom and Dad, real­ly strange, and it was get­ting cold­er and cold­er. I still didn’t want to go upstairs so I put my coat back on and the dirty school jumper that I’d thrown down­stairs for Mom to wash. Think­ing about Mom and Dad made me upset again. I was start­ing to think I was nev­er going to see Dad again. I was glad I’d missed two days of school, but I’d rather have gone and had every­thing back how it used to be.

I’ve made a real mess in here now. Mom and Dad are going to be mad at me. The dark fright­ens me so I tried to light the big yel­low can­dle that Mom keeps on the side­board. I took it under the table and used a match from the box out of the kitchen. Any­way, I lit the can­dle and I must have had it too close to the table­cloth because it start­ed burn­ing. It burned real­ly, real­ly quick. I got out from under the table and used the rest of the orange juice to put out the fire. I tried to pull the table­cloth off but I didn’t know there were plates and things still on it and they fell on the car­pet and some of them smashed. That made me upset again because the noise made me jump and because I knew that Mom would be cross that I’d bro­ken her plates. She always got cross if I broke a plate or a dish or a cup. I didn’t want to move because I was scared I might cut myself on some of the bro­ken pieces.

I think I fell asleep. When I woke up I was all wet. I thought it was just orange juice at first but then I realised it was all over my trousers and all over the floor and I knew I’d wet myself. I haven’t wet myself since I was four. It was all over the car­pet and I tried to clean it up with the burnt table­cloth but all that did was make things worse. My trousers were soaked so I took them off. I put my coat over me and tried to keep warm but I couldn’t stop shivering.

#

Exhaust­ed, and suf­fer­ing from shock and mild expo­sure, Dean slept inter­mit­tent­ly for a fur­ther few hours. The morn­ing final­ly arrived, bring­ing with it some wel­come light and warmth. He went upstairs and got him­self some clean clothes. He smelled from the acci­dent he’d had in the night. He tried to wash but the water was too cold. He used some of Dad’s deodor­ant spray to cov­er up the smell.

Dean was find­ing it hard­er and hard­er to be upstairs on his own. Dad had recent­ly dec­o­rat­ed the spare room as a nurs­ery, ready for the birth of Dean’s baby broth­er. He’d paint­ed ted­dy bears and car­toon char­ac­ters on the walls and there were lots of stuffed toys in there too. When Dean walked past the open nurs­ery door he felt like the toys’ eyes were mov­ing, watch­ing him as he crept around the house, doing things he shouldn’t.

While Dean was up in his bed­room get­ting changed, he noticed that his mom had gone. For a sec­ond he was excit­ed and relieved and he ran back down­stairs to find her, expect­ing that she’d be back indoors, clean­ing up the mess he’d made or just sit­ting on the sofa wait­ing for him. When he found that she wasn’t there he slumped against the wall at the bot­tom of the stairs and began to sob. Why had she left him? Why hadn’t she come back to the house? This sud­den rejec­tion hurt more than any­thing else. He knew he had to go and find her.

Dean grabbed his smelly coat from where he’d left it at the bot­tom of the ban­is­ter and put on his train­ers. He stepped out into the open, shut the door behind him, locked it (he was pret­ty sure he’d done it prop­er­ly) and then put Mom’s keys in his trouser pocket.

She hadn’t tak­en her bag. Strange that she’d left it there in the mid­dle of the street. And her phone too.

He picked up the phone and held it tight­ly. He picked up the bag as well but put it down again at the end of the road because it was quite big and heavy and because he didn’t think there was any­thing that impor­tant in it. Mom always car­ried her purse and her mon­ey in her coat pock­et because it was safer. Dean tucked the bag out of sight at the end of someone’s dri­ve, intend­ing to take it back to the house later.

Where was she? Where had she gone?

Strange that there were oth­er peo­ple mov­ing around now. Strange that none of them seemed to see him, even when he got up close. Strange how all of their faces looked so cold and emp­ty and how none of them answered when he asked them for help.

#

I think I know the way to Dad’s work because Mom’s tak­en me there on the bus loads of times when we’ve been to meet him in the school hol­i­days. I’m going to try and walk there even though I know it’s a long way. It’s going to take ages.

I’m going to go and find Dad and then the two of us will go and find Mom.

THE AUTUMN SERIES