Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 2
“He said he was sick,” Isabella repeated to Sheriff Evans. He loomed over her with his arms crossed while stroking his black mustache. She leaned back on the Jenkins’ cream striped sofa, refusing to break eye contact with the tall man.
“So, you let him walk home alone? What did you do after he left?”
She shrugged, “I stayed in the woods. I was just playing.”
“When did you decide to head home?”
“The sun started to go down. I headed back the way we came—from the church.”
“And that’s when Mrs. Williams found you?”
Evans sighed, closed his leather-bound notebook, and tucked a shiny black fountain pen in his shirt pocket. “We’re going to head out for a search party. Mr Jenkins, you’re coming with me. Mrs Jenkins, I recommend calling all the friends you have to join the search. Mr Bernard, please escort Miss Bernard home and join us this evening. The woods around Redwater are not small, nor are they safe. So, please bring extra ammunition. We head out in an hour.”
Everything after that happened quickly. Before their boots left the front door, Maria—Mrs. Jenkins—was on the phone calling their neighbors. Yes, hello, operator. Parker residence please. Cathy, hello, my Tommy is missing.
John and Isabella biked home, and when they arrived, John set the bicycle against their cottage and strode inside to grab his Springfield hunting rifle and extra ammunition. Jane was in the living area, patching a hole in one of the boy’s trousers while the two toddlers sat on the floor with whittled wooden cars and people between them. John did not make eye contact, but he saw from the corner of his eye, Jane was watching him. And then when Isabella came through the door behind him, she tensed.
Isabella turned and headed to her room, closing the door behind her. Jane set her sewing on the side table next to her sewing chair, and stood to follow John into their bedroom where he kept his collection of guns. She found him deep into their closet, shuffling through an ammo box, the hunting rifle already strapped about his shoulder.
Jane cleared her throat, “Can we talk?”
“Yes, what is it?” John said, emptying the ammo box on a shelf in the closest. He couldn’t find the damn .308 shots.
“I spoke to Mrs. Williams when she returned to the church. She said she brought Isabella home. Did she say anything to you?”
“We talked briefly.” It was true. There weren’t many words passed between Mrs. Williams and John. Most of it were looks of acknowledgment. Mrs. Williams expected—entrusted—John to settle Isabella’s wild and out-of-character behavior, to snip it in the bud once and be done with it. And that was John’s intention until Isabella began to speak instead of avoid his gaze. Now, the top priority is finding Tommy, because if he didn’t, there would be a whirl of consequences beyond what any eight-year-old child could imagine.
“Tommy is missing,” she said, lowering her voice and inching in towards John as if this was a secret only she knew.
“I know. I’m headed out with Joseph and Evans. We’re going to go find him,” John said, loading a round into the rifle chamber, stuffing the box of located .308s into his jacket pocket, and securing a tweed golf hat on his head to keep his hair out of his face.
“You’re leaving right now?” She asked. “Are you… leaving her here?”
John turned then to face his wife, unpleased with her tone. It spoke of something he was in the dark about. It held fear. “Yes,” he said cautiously, “I’m not taking her with me.”
Jane’s hands lowered from her chest to in front of her skirts then and she looked down. “I understand. It would be silly, right, to take a chlid into the woods at this time of night?”
“It’s just that—,” Jane dropped her shoulders and laced her fingers together, still refusing eye contact with John, “I talked to Mrs. Williams, and she told me that when she found Isabella that… that she didn’t see Tommy leave the woods.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“He’s too young to be going home by himself.”
“Eight,” she said. “Mrs. Williams just thought it was odd that Isabella wasn’t with him. She said she saw them head into the woods but only found Isabella…”
“Jesus Christ, Jane, do you have something to say? Tommy is missing right now, and I need to go find him. Just speak.”
“No!” She said, throwing her hands down at her side, tears welling into her eyes, “You don’t understand! Mrs. Williams said that when Isabella came back she seemed confused. She didn’t know where she was, and she said that—that her eyes...” her voice dropped to a strained whisper, “they were glowing blue.”
John scoffed, “That’s ridiculous. Trick of the light.”
“No, Jane,” he said, frustrated that Jane would even suggest anything so… so… unnatural. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to gossip. I’m going to go find Tommy, and you’re staying here with the children. We are not discussing this again.”
He headed out, fully strapped and packed with additional ammunition, his medical bag in the event that they find Tommy scathed, and a filled oil-lantern for the dark. Before he left out the front door, he paused in the living room to kiss the foreheads of his young boys and to glance back at Isabella’s closed door. He could swear he heard a soft sobbing from between the cracks. But he did not have time to console her. He needed to leave. He needed to find Tommy.
By the time John arrived to the search crew outside of the church, there was a group waiting on assignments from Sheriff Evans. The night had already fallen and stars rose in the black sky. The moon was only a waxing crescent, teasing no assistance to the men out searching that night.
Sheriff Evans stood on a stump facing the group of men, back to the woods, and holding a lantern up. He addressed the twenty-or-so men waiting for direction.
“Listen up. We’re looking for Thomas Jenkins. Skinny, eight, brown hair. He’s been alone for about four hours now, wandered around Redwater woods since before the sun went down. He was last seen headed towards the church, but we fear he did not make it that far. At this point, he will be hungry and tired and scared. Check in trees—we know the boy’s a climber—and check under bushes. Check anywhere a seventy-pound kid could hide.
“If you find him, notify your group leader to set off a flare. If he is noticeably injured, set off two flares and Dr. Bernard—he’s over there, wave, please, thank you—will come runnin’. Please make sure the area is safe from predators. Do not touch the boy if you find him. Leave that up to myself or Dr. Bernard. There are four group leaders—Charles, Kareem, Eisenhower, and Jones. Assign yourselves a minimum of five to a group. Leaders, grab your flare pack before you head out. Let’s move.”
The crowd dispersed, shuffling to find a group leader and begin the trek through the woods. John found himself next to Kareem who was counting heads and then explaining the section of Redwater that they would be searching. He discussed techniques, and reiterated good places to check for the boy. Kareem had an efficient team. While John wasn’t particularly close to the men in that group, he did know them all to have good reputations; they were men of good deeds and good intentions as far as everybody knew.
First, of course, there was Aditya Kareem who’s family immigrated from Bengali a decade ago. His family, which consisted of him, his father, and his two younger brothers, and their respective wives and children. His mother and sister, however, stayed in India. They settled in Blackrock as farmers, and while there are racist folk about town who swear up and down that Kareem’s family are always up to no good, John always knew them as peaceful. They threw the occasional grand party that unsettled their neighbors a half-mile out, but John supposed it was jealousy that unsettled them more than the complaint of noise because there were no better summer squash and potatoes in the entirety of Redwater County than that of the Kareem’s.
The other men had their own good standing in Blackrock for other reasons. Edward Moore, or Eddie as he went by since he was a kid, started out at a little thieving boy coming from a hard family, but as he grew up, he made amends with those he did wrong and now works at the tannery fixing up saddles and reins and other goods for the locals. He’s never needed much help from John, but they always shared a short word when they ran into each other. Oscar Perez was also a kind fella. His family had roots in Blackrock before it was ever even known as Blackrock. He was about fifteen years younger than John and a head shorter, but he packed a dense body and a hell of a punch. The Perez’s were down on Isley as cattle ranchers. They were not people to mess with, and most folk often didn’t considering their insurmountable generosity—Abuela Perez was John’s favorite to work with seeing that she always had a meal prepared for him every time he made a house-call to check on her. Lastly, the group consisted of Jesse Campbell, the youngest of the entire gathering of search party members. He was always a cautious boy and stayed quiet and out of the way as he grew up. It was rather surprising to see him there that night considering he learned his prudent ways from his mother after his father passed away in a hunting accident when Jesse was just knee-high.
Being around these men was comforting to John because although he did not know them well, he did trust their reputations, and trusted that they wouldn’t miss him if he slipped away once they neared Marwos, thinking better of his intentions and abilities to survive the dark wilderness alone.
When they began to head into the woods, John followed. Kareem’s team was to search the closest to Marwos. He thought that if he fell behind, he could break off and head into that section alone. He hoped to find Tommy intact, but something deep in his gut told him that it wasn’t going to be the case. Something in Isabella’s voice from earlier that day, and Jane’s comment—her eyes were glowing blue. What could it mean? It most certainly could have been just a trick of the light, but what if it wasn’t?
God, what was he thinking just then? Demons and devils didn’t exist as much as the holy folk of the town believed they did. He wasn’t going to let superstition get in the way of what could be a real medical emergency. Marwos had wolves and coyotes and bears and cottonmouth snakes. There was a real danger lurking in the depth of it and if he truly got lost out there, he could have been gone by then.
No. John shook his head. He wasn’t going to think about it. Tommy could also have just climbed a tree and was waiting out the night. He was a smart kid, after all.
They entered the tree line. It was dark. Without the aid of the moon, the only light they could make out was the shadows and highlights from yellow flames of lantern held up high. As they broke apart from the rest of the party, the echoes of crunching leaves and snapping twigs underfoot echoed alongside the yells of Tommy’s name. The farther they got from the rest of the groups, the more Kareem’s group spread out, covering ground with about ten feet between the five of them. After a half-hour trek from the church, they made it to the edges of Marwos and changed course, deciding it would be best to comb the woods to the edge of the road.
“If the boy has any instinctual direction, he would have gone that way and taken the road home. But that’s a two hour walk back to his house, so it’s a clear chance he’s on his way there now,” Kareem said. He had a point. Even if Tommy got lost, there was a chance he headed west around the lake. If he did, and he continued to follow it, he would have ran right into the main road which would have brought him home.
As hopeful as he wanted to be about him heading towards the road, John still felt the urge to check deeper into the woods. He wanted to tell the group his thoughts—his sinking feeling, but to find the right words without being suspicious was impossible. Nobody went into Marwos. Even Evans thought it was unreasonable to think that Tommy would have made it that far. However, knowing that Isabella admitted to it… John wondered if Tommy never made it out.
He stopped in his place, lowered his lantern, and backed away from the group who prepared to spread out to comb through towards the road. He blew out his light and backed towards Marwos slowly, crouching behind the trunk of a thick pine to wait for the group to get far away enough to forget about him. No one looked back. No one cared that John was missing. They only searched for Tommy.
John stood. He turned, shuffled in his pocket for a new match, lit his lantern, and then walked towards Marwos. Marwos was not a large section of woods, but it was thick. Thorns and poison ivy grabbed at pant legs and loose fabric. There was an illusory defined barrier between the strong, stout white pines and the lanky, clasping slash pines that made up the difference between the Redwater woods and Marwos. John stepped across that boundary and felt the earth shift under him, almost as if it shied away from his footfalls. He continued forward.
When Isabella said they went into Marwos, John wasn’t sure at first what she meant. Sure, it wasn’t a grand forest, but it did stretch for a squared two miles, with three-quarters of it’s land sparring off the encroaching white pines, and the other quarter jutting out into the lake as a peninsula ever-reaching toward the island in the center of Redwater Lake, toward Death Island.
The main attraction of Marwos for peculiar children like Isabella and Tommy—like John, Joseph, and Peter—was the island. Protruding from the water like an alluring hill, it invited imaginative children who felt the threat of the name was no match for their invincibility that childhood granted them. It was a place far away from the adults where they could just be themselves. Most adolescences and teenagers stayed away from the island because it was a mile-swim in black, copperhead-infested water with the only reward being a place to sit under a speckled canopy of mostly dead trees. But to young children? It was a pirate island. It was a good strategic location for guerrilla warfare, a place to make camp, to pretend a game of deserted island in the middle of the wide, blue ocean that they only heard of from the few travelers that marched in and out of town and from those stories that grandpa used to tell when he lived in Virgina.
Death Island was adventure.
But it was hard to get to. Between traversing through the thick undergrowth, thorny vines, and out-maneuvering the predators that lurked there, you also had to get past the booby traps set up by the formidable landowners, the Walker family.
John knew by then the people that they were, which meant that they’re rather kind and unfortunately mistaken as ill and barbaric pagans due to their dark skin color and familial roots originating in southern Louisiana, but though they could be obstinate and boisterous, they were often considerate of the townsfolk and made it their duty to protect wandering children from the dangers of Marwos and Death Island. In fact, they did well enough to ward others away by spreading the name “Death Island” and warning people of the dangers of the area that the last time any child had gone missing due to those woods was thirty years ago when Peter disappeared.
The irony was not missed on him.
As John progressed between the lanky trunks and bushy undergrowth, an eerie feeling crawled down his spine, tingling his neck and sending shivers through his arms. He had hoped he’d never have to be there again. He may not truly remember the events that took place the night that Peter disappeared, but the feeling of Marwos was not forgotten. It was a feeling that he didn’t belong there; and not just because it was nature and he’s never really felt “at home” in nature settings (he was a man that loved his house and manicured gardens), but it felt that the woods simply did not want him there.
Past a certain point, it grew silent. Only the crunch below his boots and the drumming of his heart could be heard. An acrid scent rose from the ground, like a mangled mix of decaying fauna and fungus feasting on remains of lost souls, both innocent and not. It unsettled John to think that below his feet was topsoil rich with nutrients sucked from life that once was crawling through that very forest perhaps only decades ago, but the bodies now lay disintegrated by acid spat by ravenous bacteria and unforgiving fungi.
John inhaled deeply, holding in his breath. He wasn’t going to think about death. Instead, he was going to make a plan. He had a feeling that the children were attempting to make it to Death Island. With that in mind, he followed the overgrown path through Marwos that led to the peninsula. He hoped if he stayed on the path and kept his ears piqued, he could pick up a sign of Tommy perhaps hiding in a tree or under a bush. So, with his lantern held high, he took large steps forward, hiking over fallen trees and brambles. The path was expected to be less clear, but even John can make out crumbled leaves and stamped dirt. It was an animal path, taken by both hunter and prey. It was familiar. It was the very same path. It was odd. Underneath the looming pines, John felt like a kid again. Everything seemed so large and intimidating, and while John felt very out of place in those woods, it was all so exhilarating. His hands shook with the same excitement he felt all those years ago running behind Peter and Joseph towards the peninsula.
Yet the dark frightened him. It made him jump easily. It made him paranoid of what could be watching…
A low growl resonated through the woods. From behind him? John turned. The lantern swung on it’s iron handle. Orange light illuminated the unfamiliar backs of the trees and allowed the shadows to dance in rhythm with the squeaking swing of the lantern. He stepped backwards, and the darkness approached him, thick and shadowy, encroaching in his bubble of light. Every step back resonated two footfalls, and John knew that both were not him.
A snarl behind him. He snapped back around to face the path towards the lake. In the motion of the flame, he caught sight of a moving shadow dashing across the path to the other side of the trees. A wolf? Larger than a coyote. Faster than a bear. John moved the light to the left side of the path to illuminate a larger area, perhaps it would scare whatever was hunting him. Nothing. He moved it to the right, and in the bushes between two pines he saw bright, fiery blue eyes.
The lantern went out with a howl from the beast.
John dropped the lantern, shattering the glass on the forest floor, and ran.
He ran back towards the road. He leaped back over the fallen branches and trunks, over bushes and brambles. Something snagged at his pant leg and ripped through the fabric, scratching his leg. He felt the sting of a slice, but kept going. His chest heaved, his ribs burned, and he suffocated taking in mouthfuls of iron-scented decay all around him. His head screamed, but the woods were still so, so eerily quiet other than the slap of branches from his face and the heavy panting from his lips.
He wanted to look back. Was it a trick of his mind? Was he just getting farther from his investigation because of the fear that he tried so hard to bottle? It was an illusion. It had to be. He needed to know. John looked back, and when he did, he did not see the shadowy blue-eyed figure as he did before. Nothing. There was nothing. He tripped. He jerked forward as he tried to bring his foot up to continue his run, and he fell. Caught on the roots. The palms of his hands scrapped against hard rocks, and the tender meaty flesh of them stung. He tried to push himself up, but something slithered under his pant leg from his exposed ankle and wrapped around his calf, cutting into his flesh with pokes like thorns from a vine. He felt it twist and rope itself around him. He gasped.
He turned on his side and reached for the small knife he buried in his left coat pocket. It wasn’t there. He shifted and felt in the right one. Gone. Gone. Gone. His heart thrummed against his ribcage so deafeningly loud against the quiet of the woods. The vines continued to tighten against his leg, now to his knee, like a snake does to it’s prey.
What if it was a snake?
John managed to turn on his back and sit up. He pulled at the strap of the Springfield on his back and aimed it in the dark near his foot. He couldn't see a damn thing! He aimed a little higher and shot.
As he did, a red flare rose high into the dark sky. A second red pop followed it.
And in the momentary illumination of his rifle shot, he did not see vines or roots or the snake his was fearing. He saw the wolf with it’s foaming jaws snapped around his leg. It’s blue eyes stared at him wild with rings of yellow around the pupil, but then once the flash of light disappeared, so did the blue.
In that moment, John leaped up and ran towards the flare—towards Tommy—without thought of the path or what else might get him because anything, anything at all, would be better than that wolf, or whatever it was. Even if it meant Tommy might be hurt, anything else was better than staying in Marwos.
When he reached the location where the flares went off, a murmuring gathering had already formed around the area. This annoyed John to no end. He was the doctor. They should not be crowding the boy if he was found, let alone if he was hurt.
“Move aside,” he announced, pushing himself through the crowd of men.
John stepped into the center, but he did not find Tommy. He saw a carcass. Heath Charlie, the one who found the body, whimpered on the ground at the feet of the crowd.
“I—” he stammered, “I’m s-sorry.”
John grabbed a lantern from a man near him and held it above the bloodied mass in the center. It was not Tommy. It was a small deer, from what John could tell by the tuffs of brown fur left over with a similar hue to that of Tommy’s hair color. But it was short and coarse, where Tommy had wavy locks that touched his shoulders bore from a rat’s nest on his head. And one small hoof laid half-covered in leaves near, but detached, from the ankle of the thing. The rest of it was unrecognizable.
It was a heap of bone and organs and blood.
“I thought—” Heath stammered again, “I thought it was him.”
John shook his head, “No, it’s not. It’s time to move out. It’s been long enough. Where’s Sheriff Evans?”
Evans pushed through the crowd, finally arriving onto the scene.
“Good God,” he said, putting his hand to his mouth and nose.
“Indeed. Evans, it’s time to call it. We should head back and try again in the light.”
“I think that’s the right call, John,” he said eying the mess on the ground with a disgusted, yet intrigued look. Evans took a moment longer to look at the carcass before whistling and announcing the departure with the groups. Team leaders were to make sure everyone was accounted for before heading back. They would all regroup in the morning at 7 when the sun was out and Tommy would be easier to see.
“Hopefully,” Evans said, “Tommy will be home before then.”
Then he left, stepping around the carcass and heading back towards the church. After once last glance at the thing on the ground, John followed. An exhaustion settling over him, but with more questions than he had when everything began.