The New England mid-October air, sharp and crisp, presented itself in a way that said goodbye to summer while promising winter soon. Detective Thicket trudged his feet through the carpet of red and gold fallen leaves as he breathed in the wet, musty smell of the woods. He couldn’t help but notice that nothing had changed since the last time he was here. The trees stood the way they stood each day before, just some taller and stronger while others stood with lost branches from heavy winds or were dying from disease. The squirrels and the birds went about their business on this day, the same way other squirrels and birds went about their business in 1995. If only the forest could talk, he thought, the stories it would tell. Somewhere in Thicket’s mind he could hear his friends, Matt and Brad, teasing him the way they did that April evening. The night he stumbled onto Luke Peterson’s dead body.
Thicket avoided this place ever since. Until today. Today he decided to come back. Maybe it would spark a memory. Maybe it would help him solve Luke’s case. Maybe solving Luke’s case would help him solve Jesse’s. He had to focus on Jesse. He knew that. But he just couldn’t get Luke out of his mind or the strong sense that solving one would solve the other.
He stopped walking and looked up at the blue sky. The woods were less scary under the golden daylight. He thought about how he never found that witch’s grave, but found Luke’s grave instead. There wasn’t a witch’s curse, but a curse existed none the less. It was his own curse, the one that laid on him the night he found Luke’s body. Ever since, he had been haunted by the memory. It forever changed his view of Elmwood, adults, and life. Who was he kidding? Deep down Thicket knew it was more than Luke’s dead body that had changed him. Elmwood’s secrets ran deep, just like his own.
He could hear a crow in the distance. The leaves shuffled in the breeze. He closed his eyes. He could see that night, every detail. He could see his friends Brad and Matt. He could hear their antics. He could see himself, running, then slipping, onto the mound in front of him. He remembered the Vans sneaker, the dead body, the smell. The memory played in his head, like shadows of ghosts acting out a scene amongst the very same ground he stood on now. Back before he was Detective Thicket. When he was just a fourteen-year-old boy called Danny.
“And just what are you boys doing out here in these woods so late at night?” The detective asked Danny and his friends. He eyed each of them, but stared extra-long at Danny.
“We were looking for a witch’s grave, sir.” Danny said looking down at his shoes.
“A witch’s grave? In April?”
“Yes sir. We heard about it from my brother, sir.”
“And who’s your brother?”
“Tommy. Tommy Thicket. He’s-”
“Yeah, yeah. I know Tommy Thicket. He’s that kid with the football scholarship to Penn State. Maybe you should take after your brother and grab a football instead of roaming around the woods.” The detective said.
“We just wanted to-”
“See a grave. Well it looks like you found one, kid.”
“Ah, leave the boy alone. He’s got to be pretty shook up, seeing a dead body and all.” A detective, dressed in khakis and a windbreaker, walked up to both of them. Danny eyed the badge that hung from his neck.
“Well, we don’t need any other dead kids in Elmwood.” The cop said.
Just then, there was a commotion in the distance. A woman cried and screamed. “Let me see him. Let me see him. That’s my son.”
Danny looked, setting his eyes on Luke Peterson’s mom. A man in a long black wool coat put his arms around her, trying to calm her down and steer her into the other direction.
“Ah, hell. Who called the mother here?” The detective snarled.
“Well, she needs to identify the body.” The cop said.
“Let her do it at the morgue. She doesn’t need to see this.”
The woman began to run towards them.
The detective went straight into police mode, running up to Mrs. Peterson, the cop followed. They stopped her halfway to Luke’s body. She tried to push past them.
“I need to see my son. Show me my son.” She said.
“Ms. Peterson, not now. You can identify your son later, just not now. We don’t want to spoil any evidence that might exist at the crime scene.” The detective kept a calm voice, but held his posture in a stern authoritarian way, guarding the path that lead to Luke’s body.
“I need to see my son.” The woman said again. “You can’t stop me from seeing my son.”
“Yes, Ms. Peterson, we understand. You will get a chance to view the body-just not yet. We need to mark items in evidence and can’t corrupt the evidence by your entrance into the crime scene.” The cop explained.
The woman let out a wail. It was a wail that Danny never wanted to hear again in his life.
“But is it my son, is it my son?” The woman cried.
“Ma’am, let’s just get you a drink of water and calm down a moment-” The detective reached out for her arm, gently pulling her along.
Danny looked away. He couldn’t watch. The detective went with Mrs. Peterson while the cop walked over to the man in the long black wool coat.
Danny walked closer to where Luke’s body was, marked off with caution tape. Another detective was there now, taking pictures of the scene.
Danny kept a small distance between him and the photographer to not draw any attention to himself. He stood very still and cast a glance back at his body. He just had to look again. He knew it seemed weird, to want to look at the dead body again. It was just that he wanted to understand. He wanted to understand what happened, who could have done this. Maybe he could spot a clue if he looked.
He set his eyes on the mess of blond hair, the green airwalk sneakers, the Nirvana t-shirt. The detective with the camera snapped more pictures, then walked away. The man in the long black wool coat headed towards the photographer now. Danny stepped closer to the caution tape. The retched stench overpowered his senses the closer he got. He looked back down at Luke and noticed a gold cross hanging around his neck.
“Let’s go kid, nothing to see here.” The photographer said coming back up behind him. Danny backed away. He watched as the photographer went back towards Luke’s body, this time followed by the man in the long black wool coat. They appeared to be in a deep, low conversation.
Danny watched. The man in the long black wool coat made eye contact with Danny.
Danny felt his stomach drop. He knew the man in the long black wool coat. How could he forget?
Thicket’s cell phone rang now, breaking up his concentration. He opened his eyes, grounding himself back to the woods engrossed in the golden daylight.
“Hello,” Thicket said as he accepted the call.
“Thicket – its Sergeant Turner. I need you here at the station. Where are you anyway? I’ve got a set of very distraught parents. Seems they found some inappropriate sexting messages on their kid’s phone.”
“Okay, I mean, can’t another cop take their statement? I’m out working on Jesse’s case.” And Luke’s case, Thicket thought, but he didn’t say it.
“That’s the thing. It’s the sexting messages. They’re from someone that calls themselves the Juice. I think you need to be here to talk to them.”
There was silence.
“Hello, Thicket – you there?” Sergeant Turner said.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be right down.” Thicket hung up before Sergeant Turner could say anything else.
Thicket could still see the face of the man in the long black wool coat. He remembered the way their eyes locked. He realized he never saw the gold cross wrapped in evidence. Had they given it back to Luke’s mom?
For the first time Thicket realized he may have known who the Juice was all along. Now, he’d have to prove it.
Sarah Normandie lives in New England. A former teacher and government attorney, Sarah currently negotiates multi-million dollar deals for a Fortune-500 Company by day and writes by night. Married to her high school prom date, she is the proud mom of two amazing children. Sarah studied writing under the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program and is a recipient of the Certificate of Excellence awarded by Truby University for her studies in the Philosophy in Story Program led by Hollywood story structure guru, John Truby. Sarah’s work has been featured at CommuterLit.com and the Sky Island Journal. She recently completed her novel, Monsters Like Us, and is working on her next book.