The Unfortunate Life of Jamie Robert Mitchum

green grass on forest

The Unfortunate Life of Jamie Robert Mitchum

My mother always told me to stay away from Jamie.

Maybe I should have listened to her.

I guess I didn’t really understand why at the time. I suppose children are more trusting. Sure, he was strange. Anybody could see that. Jamie was the type of kid to play with a magnifying glass on the blacktop during recess. He wore the early loss of his mother on his sleeve and the bruises from bouts with bullies on his arms. Jamie fought with everybody. He fought with the teachers. He fought with whatever parental figure stumbled through the door of his house that week. I think he would fight with a dog if it looked at him the wrong way. But I wasn’t exactly swimming in popularity myself. Good friends were hard to come by those days. We were two dorks destined to stick by each other’s side.

Jamie and Matt—thick as thieves.

My strongest memory of our friendship begins in the fifth grade, on a sunny morning, on the day they found Maggie Henneway’s body buried behind the schoolyard.

Or, more accurately, the day Jamie found her body.

We were playing Cowboys and Indians at recess. Same as any day. Jamie always insisted on being the cowboy. That made me the Indian. His interpretation of the rules included chasing me around the school yard, with a weaponized tree branch at the ready, occasionally whacking me on the back when he got close. Offensive stuff, I get it, even for back then.

At one point, Jamie cornered me at the back of the property. We were up against some fencing that separated us from the woods. I thought I was finished. This would not be the first time Jamie took the game a little too seriously by beating the hell out of me with a stick. The kid thrived on violence. He lived for it. He lifted the branch over his head. He laughed at me cowering with a maniacal “fake” taunt. But just before he took that swing, Jamie stopped and pointed toward a pricker bush behind me. Then he dropped the branch.

“Holy shit…” he started. “A body.”

“What kind of body?” I asked. “Human?”

“No, doofus, rat body,” he finished. “Of course it’s human. Let’s go touch it.”

I’ll never forget the callousness of that comment. He didn’t try to get the teachers. He didn’t run screaming. He just pointed, lazily, almost uninterested, at the stack of rotting human remains just three feet behind my right shoulder.

I cried.

I looked at it. I wish I hadn’t. The woman was sliced down the center of her torso. The gash stretched from the top of her chest to the bottom of her stomach. It almost looked like something you would see in an autopsy room. Her skin was pale. The wounds were bloodless. Her face was swollen and disfigured.

I turned away and vomited. Jamie just stared. Like he needed to study it. Like he liked it.

“Don’t be a baby,” he snapped. “Look at her hair.”

Another little boy came over to see what we were doing. When he saw, he screamed, and somebody ran to get Miss Abernathy.

The school shut down for the week.

My parents picked me up an hour later.

The investigation took months. The police seemed to focus exclusively on the Mitchum family. They talked to Jamie. They talked to his dad. They even talked to his dad’s girlfriends, coworkers, friends, and any known associates. They also talked to their neighbors—which meant my parents were interviewed. Nothing came of the discussions. We didn’t know what the family did after dark. We didn’t see anybody go into his house. We didn’t hear any fights. My parents were just as worried as everybody else.

The detectives broke the case soon after our final discussion. They arrested Mr. Mitchum. They announced, through the press, that they had irrefutable evidence to bring him to prosecution. A bloodstain in the bathroom confirmed it. Maggie Walker spent her last night alive in that house.

Some believe that they were having an affair. Some believe that he abducted her. They traced Maggie to a runaway list. Some think she never ran away at all. The officers and district attorney settled on the first theory and prosecuted it successfully. Jamie’s dad went to jail in the summer of ’95. Jamie moved in with his aunt down the street.

And things only got stranger from there.

Jamie liked the woods.

Sometimes I think that might have been the only reason we were friends. My house bordered the same stretch of forest that connected to our school yard. Every day after school, Jamie would call to tell me he was coming over. At a certain point, he didn’t even ask. I didn’t mind the company. My parents worked until six. They trusted me on my own.

Jamie always wanted to go in the woods. I couldn’t blame him, even given our prior encounter there. For a pair of thirteen-year-old boys, White Valley Forrest is an endless source of excitement and mystery. The creek held fossil beds from back when the area was underwater. The rolling acres and perfectly built paths provided the perfect grounds for exploring. There were wild animals, and hills to jump off, and forts to build. We loved it. We couldn’t imagine a better place to spend an evening.

One hot summer day, right after camp, Jamie stopped by the house as per usual. He looked pretty serious. This time, he had some strange device with him.

“Is that a metal detector?” I asked. “My mom brings one of those to the beach sometimes.”

“It’s my dad’s,” he answered. “This thing cost a thousand bucks. We just got it back at auction. High-tech stuff. He said it could detect fault lines in the universe.”

I shuddered involuntarily. We hadn’t mentioned Mr. Mitchum in years.

“Please. Can we go in the woods?”

I sighed and agreed. There was work to be done on my fort, anyway. We trekked down the path, past the skunk cabbage, through the clearing used for bike jumps, and into the uncharted area just past the school. We searched for hours, with Jamie’s damn metal thing beeping the whole way, but we never found anything.

“I gotta go home,” I announced at one point. “It’s getting dark.”

“Please,” he begged. “Just a little longer.”

I looked at my watch.

“Nah,” I answered. “I have to go home.”

“Whatever, man, fuck you.”

I laughed. I couldn’t read him. I couldn’t tell whether he was serious.

“Don’t you think if there was a portal to another dimension in my backyard, the government or somebody would have fucking found out by now?”

I could see he was angry. Most of the anger faded since his dad went away. That was the reason we were able to remain friends. But the old fire lit behind his dark eyes. He looked like he did just before he hit me with a stick.

“What if my mom’s there?” he asked. “What if my mom is waiting to cross over to get me and she can’t? I don’t want to be alone anymore, man. I can’t. I never even see my aunt. I want what you have. I want my family back.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“How do you know she’s there?”

I never saw Jamie cry before then.

“My dad told me.”

I stared at him. The tears looked genuine.

“Fine. Just a little longer.”

Something about that last walk down a familiar path still makes me shiver. This happened a long time ago, but I still remember the sensation of my hairs standing on my neck. I couldn’t figure out why at the time. Jamie appeared cheerful enough. He kept his eyes fixated to the metal detector. He hummed some old song. He seemed to forgot about me altogether. We split up.

I checked out the fossil beds for the thousandth time. I examined my fort. A family of deer passed by, and I watched them for a while. As it got darker, I couldn’t see Jamie anymore, but I could still hear the beep of his device, so I knew he had to be close by. Then the damn thing went off like a fire alarm.

“Jamie? Jamie, it’s probably just an old sewer pipe, man. There are tons of ’em buried under here.”

A pair of footsteps erupted to my left. I didn’t have time to react. I didn’t have time to brace for impact. I turned just in time to catch a large boulder to the forehead. Then the lights went out.

I woke up with my arms tied. My head throbbed from the impact. Jamie paced around in front of me.

“Dude, what the fuck?” I mumbled groggily. “What the fuck?!”

He smiled. So that’s why he always kept a backpack. The contents spilled out by my feet. Rope, blindfold, tape…he planned this.

“I found it. I fucking found it. I can’t believe I fucking found it.”

“You found what, man?” I screamed. “There’s nothing in here!”

“My dad thought he found it,” he rambled. “He used to come out to these woods every fucking night looking for it. But he was wrong. Wrong spot. Wrong fucking spot, dickhead.”

A knife entered my abdomen. I screamed.

“I have to do this. You know that right?” He continued the conversation as if nothing happened. “I don’t want to, not really. I’d rather do it to somebody who deserves it. But who knows if there’s time? I can still feel her here. Maybe tomorrow, she’ll be gone.”

Jamie stabbed me again. I started to lose the will to fight.

“Dad told me all the rules. Just before he left. One life for one and we’ll be a family again. That’s all it takes. A sacrifice. That’s all He wants. An eye for an eye. I won’t take your eye out, though. That would be fucked up.”

The rope around my wrists was loose.

“Don’t worry about dying,” he continued. “Your parents are old. You’ll see them again in twenty years. Thirty tops. That’ll probably be as quick as turning off a light in the afterlife.”

He stabbed me again. Lighter, this time, more like a scratch, as if he felt bad doing it. I shimmied the rope around my wrists, this way and that. The pain was so bad that it felt like the cords could slice my hands off. But the alternative looked a hell of a lot worse. Adrenaline took over. I slipped the first strand and moved onto the next. The rope fell by my feet.

I got up. The asshole never even bothered to tie my feet.

My right fist flung toward his face with every inch of muscle and strength remaining in my body. It connected with his jaw. My left followed a minute later, and in seconds, Jamie was on the ground. I ran so fucking fast that my shoes slipped off my feet in the process.

Jamie got up and gave chase. He still had the knife in his hand. I can still remember that crazy fucking look in his eyes. When a gunshot went off, I thought I was dead, but somebody else screamed behind me.

Jamie Robert Mitchum passed away in seconds.

I thought I’d go with him.

The man who fired the fatal shot was a police officer who witnessed the fight. My mom called them when I didn’t come home in time. Like I said, she never quite trusted Jaime, and that distrust may have saved my life. The cops quickly arranged for an ambulance. After a couple of blood transfusions, I survived.

I didn’t go to school for a little while. My parents stopped going to work. Eventually, the gossip in town became too much to bear. We had to move on.

Four years in Follaton City have given me a lot of perspective on those years in my childhood. I don’t forgive Jamie for trying to kill me. But I guess I understand it a little better.

On our last night in the house, Mom and Dad made my favorite meal. Pepperoni pizza bread and grilled cheese. A heart-attack waiting to happen. I think they felt guilty about the move, and Jamie, and everything else that happened, so we decided to have a family night. All three of us parked in front of the television. We watched all of our favorite Christmas movies. We made hot cocoa and marshmallows. I loved it. I fell asleep in the living room, with warm memories almost outweighing the rotten.

I woke up just after three thirty to a noise from outside.

I got up and went to the window. A metal detector pinged from the woods. I could see the bright red light pulsating just through the trees. I watched it for a little while, until suddenly, it stopped.

And a woman cried out.