I think we were expecting Jukes to continue to evade us, but when we arrived in front of his house yesterday morning there was a white car parked in front of us in the drive way.
“White,” I said.
“Yeah,” Neal said. His expression was grim and he was already reaching across Julian for the hand guns in the glove compartment.
They forgot to tell me to stay in the car so I waited until they had knocked on the door and it was opening before I got out of the car and followed them.
“Hi,” Julian was saying with his signature pleasant voice as I came up behind them. “We’re researching a story on Braydon Summerson’s disappearance, and we wondered if we might ask you some questions.”
Robert Jukes was maybe in his early forties. His hair was thinning, his eyes were pale and watery, his skin sallow and sagging more than I would have expected for someone his age.
“What you wanna question me for,” he said.
“Well,” Julian said. “We understand there have been a number of disappearances.”
This didn’t seem to have any affect, so Julian added, with extra honey in his voice, “from what we’ve gathered you were close friends with the first boy recorded as going missing.”
Finally Jukes’ expression changed. “You’re here about Freddy?”
“Yeah,” Julian said. “Fred Ericson. We understand you two were out in the woods when he disappeared.”
Jukes sighed. “You’d better come in,” he said and stood aside. I was already inside before Neal or Julian could intervene.
It was dim inside, and smelled like bleach, but with something under it, something I couldn’t put my finger on but which stank.
Jukes brought us into the dining room. It was clean on the surface but I could see grime in the grout in the tile and I suspected that if I’d sprayed down the fridge it would have become white not the dusty color it was.
We sat around the rickety old dining room table on shivering wicker chairs.
“Alright what you want to know about Freddy,” he said.
“We just want to know what you experienced that day,” Julian said. “Whatever you can remember standing out.”
Jukes hesitated, glancing between them as if trying to decode some mystery. “This a joke?” he said.
We were awkwardly quiet, taken aback.
“You here to make fun of crazy Jukes? We doing this again? You people show up here every time something happens, like fucking clockwork — you think I killed Freddy just come out and ask me and I’ll tell you just what I told everyone else: he disappeared.”
“We don’t think you killed Freddy,” Neal said, leaning forward, capitalizing on his energy. “We think Fred Ericson disappeared into thin air, just like you said.”
This caught Jukes off guard, I could see it in his expression. Neal smiled that bright satisfied smile he gets when he’s onto something good. They were connected, I could feel it sorta buzzing between us. I knew we were going to get the truth.
“Yeah,” Jukes said slowly.
“But it wasn’t like a disappearance exactly, was it,” Neal said. “It was more like, he stepped right out of the world.”
“How did you know that,” Jukes breathed. “Who are you?”
“Did you see where he went?” Julian asked.
“The warm place,” Jukes said, and his eyes were sort of alight in this unsettling way. He leaned forward. “We were just going back to see where Sonny died —”
I glanced, alarmed at Julian, but he seemed completely unbothered. “Sonny?” he asked.
“Freddy’s older brother. He had asthma, had a real bad attack out in the woods. We just wanted to see the spot, we’d stole a bottle of dad’s beer, we were gonna pour some out for him. It had been a whole year, see?”
“Yeah,” Neal said. “That’s what you do for family when they go.”
“Exactly!” Jukes said. “But when we got out there —” he paused. “We got out there and there was this tree.” He was gesturing in the air, looking up at something that wasn’t there. “With all the roots exposed, right? And in between the roots we could see light shinin through.” He closed his eyes, smiled, totally given over to the memory. “This warm wind was blowin out.” He took a long breath like he could still smell it. But then slowly his smile faded. “Freddy, he was always braver than me. He walked right in, and his expression was all full of wonder, like he’d seen the full face of god — and he turned back to tell me to come on and —” He stopped and opened his eyes. He looked at us helplessly. “And then he was gone, just like that. The light was gone, the warm wind, all of it. It was just a tree stickin out of the dirt.”
There was a long pause when he was finished, and as Jukes came down off the elation of reliving his story, some unsureness seemed to creep back in.
“There, you got your story,” he snapped. “Crazy Jukes. Happy?”
Julian glanced at Neal.
“We believe you,” Neal said.
“What you witnessed out there was called a Rift,” Julian said. “It’s what happens when a tear appears between the worlds.”
This hung between them for a long moment.
“You believe me,” he breathed, awestruck. And then, “you know how to open it up again?” he laughed. “I tried damn near everything I could think of to get that to come on back, but so far there’s been nothing.”
“What have you tried?” Julian asked, utterly casual and suddenly Jukes couldn’t seem to make eye contact.
“Oh,” he said. “You know. Just whatever I could think of.”
“Right,” Neal said. “Well maybe you should show us the rift site?”
Again Jukes hesitated.
“Is it nearby?” Julian asked.
“Right out in the back,” Jukes said, but he was looking around his kitchen like he was looking for an escape route.
“We’d like to see it,” Julian said.
“Well —” Jukes began and then Neal said in a cool, toneless voice,
“If we get a good look we can see what we can do about reopening it.”
I knew he was lying, and for a moment I didn’t know why. But then I saw Jukes’ face was full of naked hunger and I understood everything that had happened all at once.
“Maybe you should come back,” Jukes said. “Come back tomorrow.”
“No,” Julian said. There was no honey in his voice anymore. “We’d like to see it now.”
Jukes seemed to understand that he didn’t have a choice but didn’t seem quite willing to push the situation into open hostility. I sat there, totally strung out on adrenaline hahaha, but the boys were totally cool.
“Okay,” Jukes said. “Yeah, alright, lets go have a look.”
He let us out the kitchen door, made to follow us out last but Neal stopped at the door. “Oh no, go ahead,” he said and Jukes, smile faltering, shuffled out before us.
The tree wasn’t far out into the woods. It was barely out of his back yard, not even a hundred yards from the back door.
It was a grand old tree. Huge and majestic, like it had always been there, the roots arching up and exposing a tangled darkness that seemed to go into the earth itself. It was exactly the sort of doorway to another world I would have imagined.
“Alright, we’re just gonna have a look around,” Julian said.
Neal met my eye and nodded me out to look around too.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It was cold and the ground was hard. There were more stick bundles hanging in the branches. There were bigger stick structures too, sticking out of the ground in huge tangled masses. There were stone piles too, and looking closer I found little piles of feathers, in one some small mammal’s rib cage, maybe a raccoons.
A little scrap of red was barely visible poking up out of the mud under the roots, and I bent to touch it, heart hammering. When I wiped the mud away a little, I could see it was swishy waterproof material, quilted, the sort of fabric that might make up a down jacket.
“Neal!” I shouted. “Julian!”
They came around the tree, and I could see in their faces that they already knew what I’d found.
“Hey,” Jukes said. “You shouldn’t —”
“Yeah,” Neal said dully. His tone was utterly unsurprised, just like resigned, like he sees this shit all the time. It was Neal who finally climbed down into the mud and started pulling away dirt, excavating the fabric just to be sure it really was what we thought it was. It turned out to be Braydon’s sleeve. Neal stopped digging when he found wrist.
“I don’t know who did that,” Jukes said. He was pale and stammering, totally panicked. Idk everything had gone sort of surreal.
“Call the police,” Neal said softly to me. He was pulling the gun out from the waistband of his jeans.
Jukes didn’t seem worried about the gun. He had collapsed on his knees. “I didn’t want to hurt them,” he said. “I needed the warm place and the warm place needed offerings. I needed it to come back. I had to make it come back, just like when it came after Sonny died. I didn’t want to hurt them.”
“So you strangled them, didn’t you?” Julian asked. He just sounded tired. I didn’t understand how they could be so calm with a dead kid’s wrist sticking out of the dirt, pale as a button mushroom between the roots.
“It had to be like with Sonny,” Jukes sobbed. “I didn’t want to hurt them.”
Neal’s voice was heavy when he said, “yeah I know.”
We waited the twenty or so minutes for the police to arrive. And then, just as the site was starting to finally get busy, the cops cuffing a blubbering Jukes, Julian nudged me gently.
“Time to go,” he said.
“What?” I gasped, looking up at him, surprised. “But —”
“Shiloh, let’s move,” Neal snapped from behind us. He was using his don’t fuck with me voice.
“But they’re just about to dig,” I said, jogging to catch up to him.
“Yeah, we know,” Neal said. “That’s why we’re leaving.”
“But —” I wasn’t sure how to vocalize my issue.
“We know what they’re going to find, right?” Neal said. “You want to stay and see?”
I recoiled. “No, I just —”
“I know,” Julian said. “You want to see it to the end, I get it.” He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “But they’ll start asking questions if we stay. They’ll want to know why we’re out for a hike on private property, away from any trails. They’re going to have too many questions we’re not going to be able to answer. Better to get out of town now, let them just forget us. They have all the evidence they’re going to need now.”
So we left the woods. We got back into the car and started driving. Within hours the story broke that they’d found Braydon’s body, surrounded by many other bodies, bodies from as long as 25 years ago. Mostly boys, but some girls too. Mostly between the ages of 10 and 14, mostly missing local kids, but some that no one had even been looking for. Twenty three bodies total. They arrested Robert Jukes the same day.
Neal turned off the car stereo right after the story confirmed that they’d arrested Robert Jukes, not staying to hear interviews with Braydon’s family or the local sheriff.
“Fish and chips?” he suggested.
“Yeah,” Julian replied.
We drove in silence for a long time, until we were out of the woods, driving on open high way with farm land as far as the eye could see.