When I took the pill I thought it would be over quickly.
I couldn’t look down so I began to count the tiles on the ceiling. One of them was cracked. This was my punishment, I told myself, and I deserved to feel it. The nurse had made me sit on a white sheet. A girl like me should have known better.
It dripped. I can’t forget the dripping. Drip. Drip. Drip. You stupid girl.
“Andrea, room 12,” the nurse said.
I felt a hand on my burning forehead. Darkness threatened to close in from the corners of my eyes, but I wouldn’t let it. Mum always said I was stubborn.
“Who’s your next of kin?” a voice asked.
I shook my head. “Nobody.”
“Try not to panic. This can happen to women who haven’t had children.”
The light above me was blinding. I stared at it. I could see my porcelain doll’s face looking back at me. Her dress wasn’t white anymore.
“Lola,” the nurse said. “Eat this.”
I opened my mouth, and she popped a piece of Cadbury’s chocolate inside. The sugar took me back further still—to grandpa and hot summer days; to looking for worms in his garden; to sweets he only ever bought me because he was pissed.
“That’s the worst of it over,” the nurse said.
Beads of sweat slid down my forehead. I still couldn’t look down. Anything was better than getting pregnant again. A girl like me should have known better.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
I woke with a jolt to golden light spilling into my room.
I’d struggled to sleep that night. I began to organize the sheets of paper littered around my bed. I must have drifted off reading the file. I couldn’t look at the first page. I didn’t want to know her name. A name would make her real.
My supervisor wanted me to see a recent crime scene. He’d emailed me the file last night. The girl hadn’t even been dead a day. She was only twelve.
Mum said I’d never amount to much.
It didn’t take long for me to get ready and stumble to South Quay Station. I still hadn’t read her name. I opened the file on the platform.
The bustle woke me up when I arrived at Waterloo Station. People were packed inside like sardines. I was uncomfortable even though I was used to it.
“Excuse me love, you got any change?” said a man with a matted beard.
We made eye contact, and I stared blankly at the ground. My office was just around the corner. There would be pictures of Sophia waiting for me. It was just my luck to get the one thing I dreaded the most as my first case. Anything but a child.
I ran into the downstairs bathroom before going up to the office. I splashed my face with water then took a deep breath in and a deep breath out. In and out. In and out.
Mum said I wouldn’t be able to handle a real job.
“Morning Lola,” Joe said, as I stumbled into the office. “Today’s the day.”
He was a year older than me, but he hadn’t had as many setbacks. I’d have gone to uni earlier if I hadn’t got sick. His shirt was never ironed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Excited,” I lied.
I put my bag down on my desk and took out my MacBook. It was five to nine, and Joe never started us until we were on the clock.
“Thank God it’s a standard case,” Liv said.
It was her first field report too. She dressed as sharp as her mind.
“Not that standard,” Joe said. “We can’t rule out murder until the toxicology report comes back, and there’s considerable evidence that she was depressed.”
“My money’s on murder,” Liv said.
Joe glared at her before turning to me. “You should take a leaf out of Lola’s book. She’s waiting till she gets to the scene.”
“The police get it all first hand,” Liv replied. “We’ve just got crumbs to work with.”
He looked at his laptop and smiled. It was 9 am.
“Alright, it’s time to get started.”
Joe took us into the meeting room where I’d interviewed for the job six months previously. He had a briefcase with him. Once we were seated, he opened it and started to spread photographs of the crime scene around the table. It was all so routine.
I kept my eyes focused on Joe until I had no option but to look at the pictures. When I saw Sophia lying on the bloody bed, I felt sick.
Liv picked up a photograph and inspected it closely. I only had to glance at it to see what I needed to know. Sophia wasn’t any different to how I’d been at her age.
“Looks like she’s got a history of self-harm,” Liv said.
“Well spotted,” Joe replied.
I took another look at the photograph and felt the colour drain from my face. There was a razor on her bedside table. That’s what I’d used the first time.
“Her family arrived in the UK when she was two, right?” Liv said.
“Yup. Her uncle’s got a record. Assaulted some poor girl as soon as he got here after one too many drinks. Tried to deny it, but there were witnesses”
“Do you think it could be connected?” Liv said. “If it was murder?”
“It’s hard to say. He got locked up, and he apparently didn’t speak to the family when he got out. Looks like he followed them here looking for money.”
Nothing surprised me when it came to men. Don’t generalise, that’s what they say, but they don’t know what I’ve been through.
Drip. Drip. Drip. You stupid girl.
By the time we arrived at the scene, I was struggling to keep my legs still. The entrance to the block of flats looked more like a hospital than a home. The communal garden was full of discarded toys. No one would live here if they had a better option.
I stood on a colouring book outside the flat. Sick threatened to rise up from my stomach. If things had been different, she’d be old enough for crayons by now.
Mum said that what I’d done was unforgivable.
Bloody footprints led to Sophia’s bedroom. I turned to look at Liv. She was unusually peaky. It made me feel better about the sick inching its way up my throat. Joe pushed the door to the bedroom open with a creak. It smelt like death.
The forensic team had removed the covers from the bed, but the stains on the mattress showed exactly where Sophia had taken her last breath.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Joe said. “I’m going to have a look upstairs.”
Liv began to inspect Sophia’s bed. I decided to look at her belongings. Cutters are good at hiding things. If she’d killed herself, there’d be evidence somewhere. I opened the wardrobe, and my heart threatened to beat its way out of my chest.
A porcelain doll was staring back at me.
She looked like Barb.
Mum bought me Barb instead of a fancy communion dress. All the other girls wore baby bride’s dress. The doll was compensation for the seamless gown. Mum shoved her faith down my throat until I hated it. I’d marked my initials on Barb’s shoe.
When I was twelve, Mum hit me because she’d heard I’d made friends with a boy. I’ll never forget the anger in her eyes when asked if I was still a virgin. I hadn’t even kissed anyone. I was her pride and joy, and she wanted me to be a white bride.
But she didn’t know what Dad had done to me before he left her.
I rebelled at sixteen. It wasn’t much of a rebellion by teenage standards. I drank two cans of beer and kissed a boy. It felt bad, and I loved it. Mum smelt the beer on my breath that night and locked me out. That was the first time she said I’d come to nothing.
It was only matter of time before I got pregnant.
I picked up Sophia’s doll and looked at her wooden shoe. There was faded writing on it. I couldn’t make out my initials, but someone had written something there.
It had to be a coincidence, I told myself, but I hadn’t seen Barb in years. There are months I don’t remember. Maybe she’d ended up with Sophia. Mum got rid of everything I owned when she found out about what I’d done to the baby.
Liv tapped me on the shoulder, and I jolted. Dr Varma told me not to listen to the thoughts. If the case had been anything else, my mind would have been silent.
“Find anything interesting?” Liv asked.
I put the doll back into the wardrobe where it belonged.
“No. We should look for a note or something. A diary.”
I turned around and properly looked at Sophia’s room for the first time. If I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed that she was a lot younger. The walls were a garish shade of hot pink, and cuddly toys were stuffed onto the shelves.
“It’s hard to believe a girl that young would cut,” Liv said.
Sophia’s bedside drawer had a Hello Kitty lamp on it. Maybe her parents couldn’t afford to give her a grown up room. But nothing in the report said her dad’s business was in trouble. It was one of a few thriving shops in the East End.
“You’d be shocked at how common it is,” I said to Liv.
She stood behind me when I opened the drawer. There was a packet of tampons inside and a photograph of Sophia smiling with her friends. Seeing her face with colour in her cheeks made me realise that there was something familiar about her.
“God damn it,” Liv said, looking at the photograph.
She began to mercilessly go through Sophia’s belongings. I knew there would be nothing. I glanced again at the photograph and froze.
A girl like Sophia had lived next door to me and Mum. Her parents called the police after hearing me scream when Mum hit me. They thought they were being kind, that someone next door had taken a nasty fall, but they just made it worse.
“Find anything yet?” Joe asked.
“Nothing,” we replied.
Before I had a chance to contemplate how the answer might affect me, I asked, “Has the family always lived here?”
“No, I think they had a flat in Bromley to begin with.”
73 Sunnybrook Avenue, Bromley, Flat 4. That was the address.
It was her, it had to be, I told myself, before involuntarily slumping down onto the bed. A wave of dread rushed through my body. I tried to resist it, but the thudding of my heart was proof that it was futile. I’d known Sophia.
“Jesus, are you okay?” Liv said.
“Liv, can you go outside for a second?” Joe said. “I think Lola needs some space.”
Liv nodded and walked out the room.
I shuddered when I realised how close I was to the bloody sheets. I’d lied through my teeth to get the job. I was on the lowest dose of Steraline. I’d thought I could handle it.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as the door shut. “I never had breakfast this morning.”
“Lola, you’re a smart girl. I know what you’re capable of. Just try to relax.”
“She was just so young,” I said, refusing to acknowledge how faint I felt.
“My first kid was only six,” he said matter-of-factly.
I was six when Dad touched me for the first time.
Seconds later, I was sick into my hands. I looked up at Joe, clasping my sick.
“Right Lola,” he said, “let’s get you home.”
I stood and ran out of the bedroom searching for the bathroom. I didn’t want to contaminate the scene. It was bad enough that I knew Sophia.
When Liv saw what had happened, she helped me to the bathroom. She’d never been kind to me before. I lent down and stuck my head inside the toilet bowl.
“What the heck has made you like this?” she asked.
My career was on the line so I told her the truth.
“I knew her,” I said. “I didn’t realise until I saw the picture.”
“Joe!” Liv shouted. “You’d better come in here.”
He burst into the bathroom and retched when he smelt the sick.
“Lola knew Sophia,” Liv said.
“Why the hell didn’t you say something sooner?”
Drip. Drip. Drip. You stupid girl.
I retched into the toilet even though I knew that I wasn’t going to be sick again. They were going to find out everything now. There’s so much I don’t remember about the months when I was sick—and not sick like this. Maybe Sophia was something I didn’t remember too.
If I hadn’t been such a stupid girl, Sophia would have never been exposed to violence. It could have been one of the reasons she decided to cut in the first place.
But I’d have never done it if it hadn’t been for Dad.
Sophia’s parents were Catholic, from what I remembered. Mum said that they should have stayed in their own country when she found out that they’d moved in next door. She wasn’t happy that they didn’t put anything in the plate at mass.
“How did you know them?” Joe asked, rubbing my back.
“Take your time,” Liv said. “She’s probably in shock,” she added, addressing Joe.
I shut my eyes and tried to remember. I had to remember. Mum said Sophia’s parents didn’t care about her either. Then it dawned on me that I’d hurt her.
I’d hurt Sophia, and now she was dead.
Sophia couldn’t sit still at mass. Her parents still insisted on taking her, even if it meant annoying the other parishioners. She’d run up and down the aisles laughing.
“It’s a disgrace,” Mum used to say. “No respect for the House of God.”
Whilst Sophia ran riot, her parents would pray. They raised their hands up to the Heavens when it was time for Holy Communion. Even Mum didn’t do that.
One day at mass, I went to the bathroom, and Sophia decided to follow me. She must have been about four at the time. The church was old, and its doors were too heavy for children. I didn’t hold the door open. I didn’t want to be responsible for her.
She screamed so loudly that Father Martin stopped the mass.
Mum always said that I was bad with kids.
I pulled myself away from the toilet bowl and slumped against the bath.
“Right, I think it’s best that we get Lola home,” Joe said, looking at me. “She’ll be a lot more use to us when she’s feeling better.”
I had to get out of Sophia’s house, I was remembering too much. Liv sat beside me and rubbed my back. I was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Mum used to say that the Devil finds work for idle hands. She blamed herself when I got rid of the baby. If she’d raised me in a stricter household, I’d have never had the opportunity to fall like I did. She jumped from the roof a month later.
I was twenty.
Sophia’s dad called the police. Mum hadn’t been wearing any shoes when she did it. There’s a garden on the roof. Sophia’s dad was watering his plants when he noticed that she was acting strangely. She apparently smiled at him manically.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” she’d said.
He tried to grab her as she jumped, but her blouse slipped through his fingers. Until today, the man who’d tried to help was just a faceless part of the nightmare.
If a life is worth a life, I should have jumped and not her.
When Mum found out about the baby, I told her what Dad had done.
She said I was a liar.
Joe and Liv practically had to carry me out the building. They insisted that I take the front seat so that I could focus on the road. They said that it would make me feel better. I tried to, but my mind was flooding with images of everything I’d tried to forget.
“Is it alright if we stop for a coffee?” Liv asked. “You feeling okay enough for that? We can get you a bottle of ice-cold water, Lola. It’ll help.”
I nodded, and she smiled at me from the rear-view mirror.
Five minutes later, the car smelt like coffee beans. Joe told Liv to go into his briefcase. It was on the backseat I should have been sitting on. She pulled out a pink scrapbook with a donkey on the front. It wasn’t Sophia’s.
It was mine, and I knew exactly what was inside it. I started to shake. Mum must have given all of my childhood toys to the neighbours’ kids. I had no option but to crash with friends whilst I tried to get my head together.
Mum told everyone that I’d been sectioned again.
The first time I got sick, Dr Varma told me to write the thoughts down. The scrapbook was the only thing I’d brought with me. He offered me paper but I refused. My childhood was dead. He gave me a crayon instead of a pen.
I wrote about murdering Dad sixty-three times in one afternoon.
“It was me,” I said. “I killed her.”
Liv dropped her coffee cup.
Drip. Drip. Drip. You stupid girl.
Emma Grae is a Scottish author and journalist from Glasgow. She has published fiction and poetry in the UK and Ireland since 2014 in journals including The Honest Ulsterman, From Glasgow to Saturn and The Open Mouse.
As a journalist, Emma writes under her birth surname, Guinness, and has bylines in a number of publications including Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post and Metro.