You never forget your first dead body

I may never forget the feeling Ryan and I shared that day as we ran down the sidewalk just before dusk, racing each other to see the dead body first. I was in third grade, but it had to be summer because I can’t remember going to school that day or any day soon thereafter, and if classes had been in session, I’m sure I would’ve told somebody about what happened. Besides those involved, I can’t say for sure that I ever shared the experience with anyone until years later. The air was warm, but I remember the sense in the shade that it was quickly cooling all around us. The sliver of sun that wasn’t hidden behind the trees shone a thin red-orange ray over our small block in a corner of watermarked Woburn, Massachusetts, a blue-collar northern suburb of Boston, best known as the town with toxic water in Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action. Dirt crusted my knees from several hours of street hockey, jail tag, and other neighborhood games.  

A few feet away from where the path down to the body began, we stumbled to a stop. I remember wanting to run in the other direction. I imagine I fought with myself about going any farther, as I often still do to this day when faced with choices of little or great significance—whether it be to wake up one morning or to put myself to sleep forever. Maybe we should go tell someoneBut, I must’ve argued, we should see it first

Ry was always the fearless one, and it had been his suggestion, just minutes earlier, to hide at The Hatch, a hangout of the older boys, during a game of jail tag; he figured no one would find us because they’d be too afraid to look. The entrance to the path that led down into the swamp and The Hatch was just off Lowell Street, which bordered our block, about a hundred feet from the corner where the street met Millyan Road. All the kids our age wanted to go to The Hatch, but our parents said to stay out of the woods, and the older boys said we weren’t allowed. A rush of adrenaline flooded my body and tightened my chest at the idea of being found out by my parents or, worse, getting caught in The Hatch and beat on by the older boys—who, as we’d soon find out, were even more capable of acts of violence than we thought. 

We tried to make our way to the woods without being seen by the other team. The two of us dipped between parked cars, crept alongside sheds, pressed our noses against fences, peering through small holes to see if we had been followed, and flattened our backs against trees as we snuck to the end of the street. When we heard muffled shouting followed by screeching tires turning the corner, we ducked down by some hedges to hide. We watched from behind the bushes as Jack Harvey’s car came to a stop and two of his friends slipped out of the car, heaved a baggy-clothed body out of the back seat, and swung it like a sagging sack of trash over the sidewalk toward the swamp. Then the car started moving, and they both jumped in and slammed the doors as it sped off down the street. 

Ry and I sped off, too, racing to see the body first. But just before the entrance to the path, we both stopped, reconsidering. We turned to each other, and Ryan’s eyes were as wide open as his mouth was. My stomach shifted and sank as we staggered forward. It almost seemed as if we were holding hands—one of our movements would initiate the other’s. If my feet fumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, Ry would have to catch himself from falling, too. We moved at the same slouched pace and kept our eyes on the entrance to the path. My hands grew heavy by my side, and my feet felt weighted on the pavement, my sneakers stone-soled. But my head felt light, almost rising on its own to see down the path, my neck like a string tied to a balloon. As scared as I was, I still wanted to see it first. 

The boy’s feet were only a few inches from where ours had stopped, his arms and legs splayed, his head downslope. His mouth was wide open, and what was coming out of it was worse than blood because it wasn’t blood. It was something we had never seen before. For a moment, it seemed everything had stopped. Nothing moved. Not the air or the earth. Not the trees or their leaves. Not Ryan, not me, and not the boy. The only thing that moved was the thick froth of white foam seeping from his mouth like suds spilling over the side of an over-soaped washing machine.  

He seemed shorter than most of the older boys in our neighborhood, but he dressed like they all did then—everything two or three sizes too big and too long—and that made him look even smaller, lying there on the slope. He wore a gray T-shirt so oversized that its short sleeves covered most of his bony arms. His baggy blue jeans were professionally faded, and on his feet were white Nike Air Force 1s—like I’d always asked for on birthdays or Christmas. He had buzzed brown hair, pale white skin, and a dark brown, pea-sized birthmark just below his right cheekbone.  

Our knowledge of “dead or not” came only from films and video games. Aside from attending my great aunt’s wake when I was five, I had never seen a dead person. This body lacked that thick layer of makeup that had made Aunt Gigi look like a life-sized porcelain doll, like the ones she had collected in a tall glass case and which I wasn’t allowed to touch. I lost all my senses but sight. I lost Ryan for a time; if he said anything, I didn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear the birds or the branches rustle above, and I couldn’t hear the cars on I-95 like I always could. I can’t say I knew silence before that moment, because, to me, silence had always been the hollow hissing of the highway just beside my house. 

Unlike the roadkill we had grown accustomed to finding where the street met the curb, this body wasn’t an intriguing mess of flesh we felt the need to inspect further. We weren’t pushed to pick or poke at this person—a real person—with his pimples and over-applied Adidas aftershave. He smelled more like my uncle Ricky, with his overpowering cologne and fancy cufflinks, than he did roadkill or my embalmed great aunt. Like Gigi’s dolls in the case, and Gigi herself in her open casket, this body was motionless, inanimate, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. 

And that foam! That foam was more terrifying than torn flesh. It was my first glimpse of a possible future, if I chose the path of becoming one of the older boys. 

Ryan and I stared with mouths as wide as the boy’s, still locked in shock—as if a piece of roadkill we flipped over had turned out to be my cat or Ryan’s dog. Finally, I nudged the boy’s foot with mine. It had some give, but it wasn’t as stiff as expected. The foot fell back to its position, and we fled the scene faster than we had originally run toward it.  

Ryan ran ahead of me, up into the side yard of the house we’d been hiding near, and he leaped to the street off this dirt ledge where the grass just stopped, which, over years of repeated drop-ins, we had molded into a dirt bike ramp. I dipped around the lower side of the ramp through an opening in the bushes. We passed by the corner house across the way, and I watched Ryan almost skate across the street towards the Barbases’ house, tan like mine but with brown shutters instead of green. We kept to the left on Millyan Road, rounding the corner of the fork that broke off to Frances Road on the right. I stayed on the grass around the bend, taking the pressure off my feet and passing a row of short, dark red bushes—well pruned but prickly—to my right. Ryan was already in my front yard when I was still in front of the blue house before mine. The last rays of light spilled over the top of the brown roof and onto the driveway, slicing it in two diagonally. I caught up with Ry, and we raced up the back porch stairs, between the covered grill and the glass table with its green chairs and tied up umbrella, and I grabbed the curved gold handle and pulled open the screen porch door.  

I could see my mother at the kitchen sink, wearing a denim dress that almost reached her ankles, like a pair of overalls without pant legs, and a thick white short-sleeve shirt underneath. She wore cork-heeled white sandals, and her dark brown hair was cut short and bobbed upward just before her shoulders so you could still see the back of her neck. Through the three windows above the sink in front of her, I could see the tops of the dark green, almost purple bushes just outside and a bit of light still stuck to the leaves of a tree across the street. All the lights in the house were still off, and the windowpanes created this gray grid around her head and shoulders. Everything had a deep green hue to it—like when you’re outside and it’s about to rain or when you feel as though you’re in a dream but don’t know for sure yet. 

I remember everything feeling like it took longer than it should have. I see myself stepping through the wide threshold into the kitchen, one foot moving from hardwood to laminate. Mom always told us to take off our shoes before coming in the house—I can still see her handwritten signs on the mudroom wall above a black plastic rectangle where shoes went— 

but I didn’t have time for that. Each step I took toward my mother was underwater, heavy, with invisible walls I had to break through to reach her.  

“Brendan Michael. No shoes in the house,” my mother said without turning from the sink. 

“Mom. Mum, there’s a boy. He’s in the woods, Mum. We think he’s dead,” I said, not thinking about the words, only seeing the boy’s body—the image of foam lingering in my head. 

“Bren, hon, slow down. What do you mean? Is this a joke?” she said, turning and leaning over me, her eyes fixed on me. She seemed irritated I’d interrupted her.  

“No, Mum, I swear. Ry ’n’ I just saw it. Come see. Please! Please come see!” I replied, grabbing her arm and pulling her toward the porch door where Ryan still waited outside. She must’ve felt my hand shaking or maybe my palm sweating. Something told her to believe me this time, that this wasn’t another of my too-frequent lies. 

Ry and I walked fast, ahead of my mother, past the Coughlins’ house on the left, with its perfect green grass, trimmed hedges with white and blue flowers between them, and an angled driveway we kids loved to skateboard up and down when there wasn’t a car in it. At the Barbases’ house again, my mother a few paces behind us, Ry and I picked up speed as we turned the bend by the bushes, some nearly half a telephone pole tall, that divided the Barbases’ backyard from the road. We crossed the street in front of the house on the right corner of Millyan, where my uncle would soon live. There was a catalpa tree at the corner, with big green leaves like upside-down teardrops and long green pods that hung low enough to grab from the sidewalk; the older boys often crashed their cars there during drag races, and a deep scar in the thick trunk widened with every collision. Ryan and I stopped at the same corner as before, where Millyan met Lowell, and we pointed down the road toward the path. Nothing could get us to turn that corner again. 

The two of us watched from behind the same untrimmed bushes as before, around the rotted wood fence and past the only small clearing in the overgrowth, where a red fire hydrant stood, as my mom approached the path. I knew as soon as she saw the body because she stopped and abruptly brought her hand up to cover her mouth. She stepped down the path and began to crouch over the body, out of my vision. I imagined her checking for a pulse, with two fingers on his throat or wrist, as they do in movies. I wondered what she thought of the foam, if she knew what it meant. She phoned the police at some point. I can’t remember if she went to the house across the street to use a phone or if she had a mobile phone by then. Soon we heard sirens, and then we saw the red and blue lights. The emergency vehicles pulled up, an ambulance with a fire truck and police cars behind it. Two men in light blue shirts stepped out and made their way to the body. My mother stood by, occasionally looking over at us. They lifted the limp, lifeless body differently than the older boys had—from under the arms and behind the knees as opposed to by the wrists and ankles. They brought him up to the sidewalk and placed him on a flat orange board with holes for handles. His arms fell by his side, and one hand hung crooked over the curb. One of the men made sure his head—still spilling suds—didn’t hit too hard. They lifted the board with the boy on it, placed it on a set of yellow pipes with wheels, and slid him into the back of the ambulance. The man by his head stepped up and into the back with him, and the other hopped in and shut one door then the other as they peeled off, possibly even faster than the car that had left him behind earlier. 

After my mom and I were back home, I sat on a small wooden stool with my back to the radiator, looking up to her at the sink. Ryan had gone back to his house, or maybe my mom sent him there. She was washing whatever dishes she had been cleaning when I pulled her away. I couldn’t understand how she picked up just where she left off, as if that part of life between those dirty dishes never happened. Did it?  

The dishwasher door was open, with the bottom rack pulled out a couple of feet in front of me. She’d scrub one item at a time, rinse off the soap suds, and then place it on the rack. Everything in the right place, a specific place, the way she taught me—like-things together, all the forks facing up with the other forks, spoons up with other spoons, knives always facing down, cups and bowls on the top rack, and plates lined up on the bottom, larger to smaller. Even then, I knew—whether I wanted to or not—all of this mattered.  

The lights were still off; it was important not to waste electricity. My mother’s head was down, and she looked deeply focused on the dishes. I was still trying to figure out if all of it had actually happened when she said something I’m not sure she’s said to me since. 

“You did a good thing today, Bren.” I would be surprised to hear her say that now, and I’m not sure I said anything in response then. “You and Ryan may very well have saved that boy’s life.”  

He was alive? Doctors can bring boys back from the dead? I was flooded with questions. I spent the next few days crazed by that confusion. I wanted to question all I had ever heard. And all the bike tricks and trails I had been told weren’t safe began to tempt me more. I began to wonder what I could get away with, if it were true that boys could be brought back to life. 

A week or so later, standing at the kitchen sink again, my mom told me the boy was sixteen years old, hanging out with older boys who were eighteen and twenty-one. She said he had something called alcohol poisoning, and that’s what had made the foam come out of his mouth. I guess it meant he was never dead at all, just on his way—dying.  

With that realization came the sudden death of my plans to test my invincibility, my dream of riding the dirt paths my parents had deemed restricted. And there were more questions. I wondered why the older boys would let their friend poison himself. I wanted to know why they wouldn’t get help, or bring him to the hospital, instead of dumping him by the swamp like the neighbors did with their lawn clippings. Why people consumed alcohol, let alone why they would do so to the point of poisoning themselves, was beyond me at eight. What I knew about the beer my dad would drink at dinner—and the wine my mother wouldn’t—was that I wasn’t allowed to have it. Just as The Hatch was only for the older boys, so was alcohol only for adults.  

As the years went on, the older boys slowly became adults—or at least they reached the age where they could be sent to prison and not back to their parents with a slap on the wrist. For our part, my friends and I became aware of alcohol’s more attractive characteristics, and we inherited The Hatch. The older boys left behind the lawn chairs with broken legs, no backs, and some with only one or two rubber straps left to sit on. Each of us found that a certain chair seemed familiar, and then we realized that every chair had been stolen from its respective set and that the rest of each set was still at our respective houses. They also left us one extremely weather-warped plywood table (as uneven as our chairs), a green plastic bench with wide hollow legs on either end, which were meant to hold potted plants, and a particle board computer desk with sizable strips of its vinyl cover peeled off. (With what waterlogged and air-bubbled sections were still there, one of us deduced that the desk had been in his house, then thrown to the curb a couple of months before.) They even handed down a hatchet, which was used to cut out the wooded space beside the swamp and after which the hideout was named. It was left stuck in one of the trees behind the fire pit.  

Now, of course, I don’t mean they literally left us The Hatch or gave it to us like the hand-me-down clothing the Prohaskas next door used to give me. In reality, they just left it—vandalized it one last time and vacated. And they might as well have directly handed down the habits, harmful and unhealthy, that came along with hanging out at The Hatch. The habits that, more realistically, each of us inherited a predisposition to from our respective parents. The same habits that we all had our hearts set on ever since someone older than us said, You’re not allowed. 

About the Author

Brendan M. Collins

Brendan M. Collins is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he studied English with a concentration in creative writing. Born in Woburn, Massachusetts, he was a nonfiction editor of UMass Lowell’s literary magazine, the Offering, in which he also had work published in 2015 and 2016.

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