I was ten and didn’t know any better. That’s what I tell myself.
Mum said we could go camping one Saturday. This meant the world to my sister Millie, because she had a hankering for adventure. Ice skating, rock climbing, bowling—until now we’d been told no to all those kinds of activities. Back then I wasn’t fussed about all that. A bag of popcorn, some TV and I was chuffed.
At dinner on Friday, all Millie could talk about was tomorrow’s trip. Did you know this and did you know that? Did we buy enough marshmallows?
“What tents did you get us?” she asked. “Three small ones? Or one big one?”
Lowering her fork, Mum said, “I did—”
“I don’t mind either way,” said Millie. “Just curious.”
“I didn’t get any,” Mum continued. “We don’t need them.”
Millie scrunched her face at me and then Mum before having her epiphany.
“Ohhhhh…we’re going old school,” she said. “Sleeping bags and mother nature. Game on.”
“We’re not sleeping there, silly,” said Mum.
“We’re not?” I asked.
“No, we’re just camping there for the day. Like a long picnic.”
“Where are we going?” Millie asked.
Millie studied her plate, hazel eyes following the strands of spaghetti.
Mum reached across the table. Putting a hand on hers, she said, “We live in London, babe. God knows how far we’d have to travel to do proper camping. We can’t afford that.”
“I understand,” Millie said, smiling. “It’ll still be fun. And I can’t wait.”
“Me too,” I added.
“Me three,” said Mum, letting go of Millie. “Think of this as practice—no, a warm-up for the real thing.”
Millie acted happy the rest of the weekend, but I knew she was devastated. At school the next week she sat alone at lunch and spent playtime by herself, in the shade beneath a tree. The few times I offered to join her she insisted I be with my friends. That everything was fine. And it did appear that way as she never really looked sad, more like she was daydreaming, which her teacher can’t have appreciated.
Mum didn’t suspect anything, falling for every smile my sister forced. Not me though. I did my best to make them genuine, like microwaving her pizzas while we watched whatever she wanted.
Against every boyish fibre in my body I even let her do the unthinkable: give me a makeover.
Blush, Egyptian eyeliner, cherry lipstick, the works. Mum said I was the prettiest young lass she ever saw, after my sister. Naturally, there were pictures. I said it was okay as long as Millie didn’t show anyone, especially not Stacy Green.
After school that Friday Millie and I spent the sunny afternoon in Stratford Park. At this point I wasn’t the least bit worried about her. While we swung from the monkey bars and took turns pushing each other on the swings, all I saw was pure, unbridled joy. It was contagious, so much so that I even joined her up in the crow’s nest, which was something I never did.
It seemed a long and painful drop down onto the tarmac, even for someone as chunky as me. I scooted as far back against the barrier as possible, blocking out the laughter and chatter of children below. Meanwhile, Millie sat by the edge where she kept having to brush her frizzy, pecan-brown hair from her face.
“You okay?” I asked.
I snickered and told myself I was.
“Dylan, I need to tell you something.”
“You couldn’t tell me down there?”
“Swear you won’t tell Mum first.”
“On her life.”
“Swear, or we’ll be up here a very long—”
“I swear, I swear.”
“Okay.” She cleared her throat. “I’m camping here tomorrow night. Soon as Mum’s asleep.”
I snorted, but when she didn’t smile or bat a lid, I asked if she was serious.
“Very,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Will it? Where would you sleep?”
“Under the willow tree.”
“Okay, but it’s colder at night—”
“That’s why God made blankets.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“You need to watch Mum, but next week we can swap—”
“No. I…you can’t do this.”
She stared into her lap. “All we do is watch TV. Or go to the park. That’s it. Every day. I just want something different. One time.” Looking up, “Please Dylan?”
Millie was only nine years old. People always thought she was even younger because she was so small. But that didn’t matter. Why would it? She needed my support and she’d be crushed without it. Simple as that, right Dylan?
I didn’t even stop to think about why it felt wrong—a guilty kind of wrong, despite the fact that what she said made perfect sense at the time. Neither did I stop to consider any danger other than the cold or her loneliness…like the gang of youths that gather in the neighbouring alley after dark.
But I was only ten. That’s what I tell myself.
We did grocery shopping the next morning. Mum didn’t notice the few extra snacks Millie snuck into the trolley. I added Choc Ices on her behalf. Vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate. Eight bars a pack. Camping across the street has its perks, I thought.
After unpacking the bags, Millie pulled me over to the garage, where Mum would sometimes tell us to play if we were being too noisy in the living room.
We didn’t own a car. Dad did, but he took it with him when he left us. Now, it was more or less a warehouse for old junk. In the far-right corner by the garage door was a long chest freezer. It was white with a scratched surface. Millie plugged it in and told me we were keeping the Choc Ices here. When I asked what was wrong with our kitchen fridge, she crossed her arms and said, “We’re on a secret mission. We need a secret freezer.”
I didn’t argue.
Flipping the metal latch up, I pulled the lid back. It was roomy and deep. She chucked the Choc Ices inside and the box hit the bottom with a thud.
It took twenty minutes to pack her pink camouflage rucksack. Items included: a sofa cushion, a small blanket, her bathrobe and whatever snacks we were able to squeeze in.
That night, after spitting into the sink as we brushed our teeth, I whispered, “You’ve got serious balls.”
In a deep voice, she replied, “I’m so ready.”
We were in bed by eight. Millie must’ve left the house by ten, considering Mum went to sleep around nine. I was still awake to hear the lights flick out. In fact, I hardly slept at all. Writhing between the sheets—either too hot or too cold—sweaty and sticky, my stomach was a web of knots.
I pictured her laying beneath the willow tree. Alone. Victim of a nippy night breeze. Hungry and all out of food. Unable to sleep, maybe because of the noisy main road beyond the tall, spiky bars that caged her. But what if it was rocks under the blanket keeping her up? Or the many-legged insects tickling the back of her neck, or hands or feet—
Something occurred to me.
If she were really that miserable, nothing would stop her coming home. At this, I found a sliver of peace and drifted somewhat deeper…but only for a second.
I awoke with a start, possibly to movement outside my room—I wasn’t sure. The clock on the wall said it was five.
Was Mum already awake?
She only got up this early for work, but it was Sunday.
But anything was possible.
I sat up, froze and listened, holding my breath.
No footsteps—upstairs or down.
No doors creaking.
No worries, I thought, as my muscles unwound to perfect silence.
Laying back against my pillow, a heavy breath passed my lips. Millie would be home soon; it was almost over. She’d give me the details in bits and pieces, whenever Mum wasn’t looking—probably try and tell me it was my turn next. Yeah, right.
Looking back, it was incredible how prepared and organised we both were. There were even pillows—and a football for a head—placed beneath the sheets in Millie’s room, in case Mum decided to poke her head in at random.
Yep, I thought, the plan was solid. And the freezer was a nice touch.
The secret freezer.
The one she definitely would have unplugged after grabbing the Choc Ices, I assured myself.
But in less than a minute, I was tip-toeing down the stairs and through the dim living room toward the garage. I couldn’t risk anything. If Mum found it switched on, she’d have questions alright.
When my feet hit the concrete, I flinched. It was like ice, biting with every step. There were no windows here, and as I moved through the dark, familiar objects took on curious forms. A shoe became a dead rat, behind me, knives hung in place of screwdrivers, and to the left of the garage door…a floating head stared. I had to remind myself it was just a mop.
Arriving at the freezer, I reached down toward the socket and pulled the plug. It didn’t make a sound.
Heart pounding, I was ready to bolt for the door before Mum walked in—craving the warmth of my bed—but paused.
Eight bars a pack.
The Choc Ices. She wouldn’t have taken the whole box, and I wasn’t about to let them melt. Not to mention, I thought, it would probably be best to get rid of some of the evidence at breakfast. For the security of the mission, of course.
I flipped the latch and tried to lift the lid. It wouldn’t budge. Stuck. So, using both hands and taking a deep breath, I pulled up with one, powerful burst, all the while realising why we no longer used this freezer. Fingers sore, it came free, and I leaned it back against the wall.
Thick mist greeted me, chilling my face as I waved it apart. Leaning forward over the edge, I reached inside toward the—
I shrank back.
Throat tight, piss warmed my legs, pooling around my feet.
I should’ve let the ice cream melt.
Strands of her hair were lined with frosty dandruff. Her skin was rubbery, tinged blue. And Millie’s eyes—open and cloudy—stared at nothing.
I still remember the way she clutched the blanket up to her chin. She almost looked alive.
I didn’t think about her height. That she’d need to step inside to get the Choc Ices. That the lid might fall and lock itself. Or that she might need her taller brother to lend a hand.
But I was only ten. That’s what I tell myself.
Joshua Robinson is a new writer living in London, England. He enjoys reading and writing a variety of dark short stories, which are his focus at the moment. This is his first publication.