Back at the Sukulov house, the flashlights shining brightly on the drawings caused Ted and Jules to stop and stare in silence. She saw the concentration on Ted’s face, his need to take it all in without disturbance. Standing in front of something so strange and seemingly so out of place, Jules had few words to say anyway.
After a few minutes of silence, Ted finally spoke as he touched one of the drawings. “What is this? Is this charcoal? The walls are covered top to bottom on every side. What is this?” Ted looked at his finger, which had touched the wall and then pulled off a piece of paper that was peeling. He held the paper in his hand and looked over it, top to bottom. But he saw no marks.
“This is old Turkish wallpaper,” he said to Jules. “Why would someone place expensive, lavish wallpaper in a hidden room? It makes no sense.”
Jules stayed quiet; the concept of someone choosing old Turkish wallpaper over other wall coverings was as much as mystery as why it mattered in the first place.
“And whatever it is, it’s dried on here for good,” Ted continued. “It’s almost like oil-based paint, but where would that come from?”
“The Latvian investigators believe galls from older oak trees were used to make the oily ink mixtures,” Jules answered, happy to have something to add. “But I don’t know why they think that. That practice ended centuries ago, and I doubt a child would know how to use such an old technique.”
“Look at these drawings,” Ted said. “They’re so perfect; it’s almost as if they were meticulously painted on the wall. Whoever drew these didn’t rough it with tree bark and sap. And there are so many different faces. How could a child draw so many faces? It’s like he documented, in his own childlike way, all the young boys who entered this house. And he makes them look happy; they’re all smiling as if playing outside in a park. Do you think these are actually victims or just a wild imagination?”
The bad energy Jules felt before no longer surrounded her, and that put her at ease as she also took in all the happy faces on the walls. She, too, wondered how and who could have drawn such beautiful things. “Who is he?” she asked. “Whoever did these drawings, I mean. I’m assuming it was one of the boys. Sukulov couldn’t get back here. It had to have been…”
She couldn’t help but connect the dots, and it was clear that Ted had connected them too, even if he wouldn’t say so aloud. “Ted, how did Toby learn to draw like this?”
“I didn’t know he could. He never liked to draw, but I guess things changed after being locked up in a strange house.” Ted stopped speaking for a few seconds before he began again. “Here it is, right over here.”
. . . .
Ted stood in front of the one drawing that had caught all the earlier attention. A well-dressed man stood in the middle. His black curly hair was styled toward the right, and he had clear dark eyes and a happy smile. A boy on the right held Ted’s hand, and in the boy’s other hand was a small toy. On the left, an older boy stood alone to the side.
“This is where the bones were found, right here,” Jules said.
After a short period of silence, Ted spoke again. “It is so strange to see this. I want to feel closure. I thought I’d feel closure. But now I can’t feel anything.”
“That’s normal, Ted.”
“But it’s not normal. It’s never been normal. Jeremy and Toby were so different,” Ted continued. “Jeremy was distant. He was five when his mother died, and after that, he wouldn’t even hold my hand. I couldn’t touch him or get close. But Toby was different. He wasn’t affected by her death, I guess. He held my hand everywhere we went, and he held it so tight. I got so used to having his hand there; I forgot to cherish it until he was taken away.”
“Siblings are different,” Jules added in an attempt to lighten the talk. “I am entirely opposite from my sisters. I wouldn’t worry too much about Jeremy. He’ll come around. They always do.”
“I don’t think he will. I don’t really know if I’m ready, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Jules asked.
Ted hesitated before continuing, but he decided to put more out there. He needed to know Jules, and she needed to know him. “I have to be ready to forgive Jeremy. I can’t do that yet.”
“Certainly you don’t blame him for what happened to Toby. He was just a boy too.”
“I don’t think I can help it. We are alone together and I am still so angry. It just comes out; I try to hide it, and I know he could feel it. And I’m still so angry.”
“That was natural. You were both grieving…angry about how things happened, played out. It must have been a terrible time for you and Jeremy. He was probably angry too, and that probably made it worse.”
“It’s Toby’s coming back to us that’s made it worse,” Ted explained. ‘You’re crazy. That’s not normal. You’re going to hell.’ I know Jeremy thinks these things…for feeling my little boy around me all the time. Now Jeremy’s out of school, and going off to college next year, I hope, and he seems somehow to know it all, even what’s best for me. He’s moved on and he wants me to do the same. He wants me to let it all go, but I can’t while Toby is still beside me holding my hand.”
Ted needed to talk and Jules was happy to be his ear. “I know I need to move on, but I have to take care of things first. I have to do more for Toby. Then things will be right between Jeremy and me.”
“What does Jeremy think now? Is he happy you’re bringing Toby home…so he can be put to rest?”
“I don’t know what he’s thinking. I can never tell.”
“Well, what are you thinking? This may be the end and will all be over when he is put to rest,” Jules said. “Will you be ready to move on then?”
“I don’t want him to leave me again.”
“Sometimes, it’s easier just to stop and let time pass you by. The hurt will become milder, but it never goes away,” Jules said, and they sat quietly for a minute or two to take it all in. Such was Ted’s pain that Jules could almost see his weak spot, the hole in his heart, and his crying soul seeping out. Ted’s voice was tender, a soft tone used by those who’ve been hurt so badly you can’t be certain whether they’ll ever be able to move on. They may claim to have left all the pain behind, but it’s all a lie.
Jules felt his pain, but she also knew the truth. His future with his only living son depended on his being able to let his dead son go. “It’s not Toby holding your hand. Ted, you can’t get attached to this. You know that, right?”
“I know. But it seems so real. I want it so badly to be real.”
“But it will never be real. Don’t let your mind stay in that place. It will only make things worse.”
. . . .
Playful childlike drawings, surrounded by darkness, would make anyone’s skin crawl. Jules was eager to get of there and it seemed Ted was too. They rushed their crawl back through the maze so they could get outside again, where there was plenty of standing room and natural light. Like night and day, dark and light, and not knowing that point of final change–light ahead, dark behind–the crawl back through the maze also provided plenty of time to ponder.
By the time they finally stood up, Jules had decided to let Ted speak first, and he did. “What do you think happened in there? It sickens me even to think about it. Walls covered with happy children, smiling and playing in a house where that sick bastard lived.”
“It’s difficult to say,” Jules said, knowing nothing would ever ease his pain, and nothing she said could be close to providing the real answers he needed. “With what we know now, it’s hard to separate Toby from the other missing boys. We just don’t know what happened to any of them.”
“And…?” Ted could tell she had more to say.
“The Latvian authorities always believed the boys were trafficked someplace else. But we know now that not all of them got out…at least one of them didn’t get out.”
“I know my son died many years ago,” Ted replied. “I felt it in my gut: the moment when his tiny heart stopped beating. I don’t need to know how he died. I just need to know the people responsible get what’s deserved.”
After a few seconds to think more about what he’d just seen, Ted added more. “How did anyone get inside there? It was so well hidden. Sukulov couldn’t have gotten through that tight space. And where are the other remains, assuming Toby wasn’t the only one killed?”
Then Ted put his second question out there, as if he’d been waiting for the right time. “Does the embassy still keep up with the three boys who were rescued? They must know something.”
Jules knew he wanted to find out how much she actually knew about this house and the boys who did get out. Her response only proved she knew how to maneuver around such questions. In truth, she knew a lot. While she hadn’t been told anything directly, and she wasn’t in all the closed-door briefings, she managed to be in on all the talk and rumors. A wealthy Russian in Jūrmala is accused of child trafficking, but was pulled out and sent back to Russia before he could be arrested. When Latvian police raided his home in Jūrmala, they found three young boys. The three were dirty and scared, but‒at least physically–unharmed. This last bit of information was kept quiet as much as possible because of the boys’ ages and, of course, because Sukulov was never arrested and formally charged. People in Jūrmala wanted him to return to Latvia to stand accused and tell everything that had happened. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and much of the event was swept under the rug.
“The three boys were reunited with their families, I understand,” Jules answered carefully, giving Ted the short version. “But there’s nothing more to tell you. The families were pretty much kept in the dark, and allegedly the Russians pressured the Latvians to keep everyone away from the boys. No one at the U.S. Embassy ever spoke or met with them. The only thing the embassy received was an official statement taken the day after the rescue, like the rest of the diplomatic community in Riga. After that, everything basically went back to normal…don’t ask; don’t tell.”
“The Russians are good at all that hush-hush stuff, I know. But if you read the official crime statements,” Ted said, pressing for more, “then you know what the boys said about noises coming out of the walls. Right?”
“Yes,” Jules answered. She remembered the eerie details far too well. “Each boy gave the same account of what happened, and…each boy asked the same questions when taken from the house, alluding to there being two others inside…behind the walls. ‘Where are the others? Don’t leave them in that house. They were kind to us. They talked to us from behind the walls. ‘You’ll be okay. We will not let him hurt you. We promise,’ they said. And…”
“It was reported that all three boys spoke in a creepy tone, almost in unison.”
“That’s what the reports said…reports written by the Russians,” Ted replied. “What else did the boys say?”
“They said a lot, but none of it made sense…and there was very little about Sukulov. None of the three identified him. It was almost like he wasn’t even there.”
“How can that be?”
When Jules replied with a simple “I’m not sure,” Ted asked more. “What do you make of what they said about the noises in the walls? Do you think one of the boys speaking from behind the walls was Toby?”
“No one can say for certain. The forensics capabilities here aren’t very strong, so we probably won’t get any accurate information about how long the bones have been here. Still, the forensics folks did say the bones are old, at least a decade, based on the dust and dirt surrounding the skeleton.”
“That would be around the time Toby went missing, and the raid on the house was about four years ago.”
“That’s quite a gap in time…six years. I don’t see how the two could be connected. And…” Jules paused before she moved on.
“And what?” Ted seemed to want, need, to know everything Jules knew about this story and, even more, how she felt.
“I meant to say, didn’t you say you could feel it…when Toby died? Was it four years later or was it closer to the time he disappeared?”
“It was just after we arrived back in the U.S., six months after he disappeared.”
“Well, with that–and I say this because I’ve also seen Toby–we shouldn’t connect the voices those three boys heard with Toby.”
From the look on Ted’s face, she could tell he was relieved that Toby’s suffering was short-lived, and wasn’t the chained-up, locked-away victim Ted had always imagined. Also from the look on his face, Jules could see that he was determined to figure out this mystery.
“Well then, who could it have been?” he asked. “The three boys said they heard English. The other boys, or whomever they heard behind the walls, spoke English.”
When she offered no answer, he added more. “Jules, with what you know about the nonphysical world, do you think something else is going on here?”
“Of course there’s something else going on here. I said it before, Ted; the moment that front door opened and we walked into this place, whatever it is let itself be known.”
“What let itself be known?” Ted asked.
She didn’t reply, and she kept her thoughts to herself as they headed toward the exit. How can you tell when you’re walking on evil ground? It isn’t always easy to know when things aren’t right; sometimes it takes more than cold air and chill bumps to connect the dots. And the most difficult part is explaining any of it to others.
When they reached the main doors to the house, they walked out quickly. There, on the old wooden porch, they stood silently.
. . . .
Fresh air and sunlight can work wonders in lifting your mind, body, and spirit. Jules closed her eyes and held her face up toward the sky. The sun peeped out from the heavy clouds, but she didn’t feel any of the uplifting sensations she’d expected. She took in several deep breaths and then turned to face Ted. “I don’t like what I just felt. It’s not a good place. Something is wrong in there.”
“How can a place be good or bad?” Ted quickly asked, taking his own pause from soaking up the sun and clean air.
“I can just feel it. Something else is going on in there, and whatever it is…it’s dark.”
“But how can a place be evil? Do you think it was that way while Seri Sukulov lived here? Did he bring it with him, or was it already here?”
Jules answered his question as gently as she could. “I can’t say for sure, but…I think there’s more than just a haunting here. It certainly appears to be more than a haunting. It’s something else. And I think whatever it is has been here a lot longer than Seri Sukulov was.”
“Why do you say that?”
“For several reasons,” she answered.
“Well, for one: Do you see how the house is built at sea level? There are reasons why some old pagan owner would do this; it was built on sacred soil.
“And…?” Ted asked for more.
“For two: Do you see that tree over there?” She pointed to the one object on the grounds that still seemed to be living. Everything else was either dead or strewn in all directions. But, in the midst of all the destruction, that tree appeared to be properly cared for, and strong. “Look at that tree, standing tall and proud all by itself. The tree tells me that the person who planted it so carefully believed in pagan ways. It’s a sign.”
Ted looked at the tree for a few seconds. “Okay, what am I missing here?”
“It’s a linden tree, which, according to traditional folklore, symbolizes femininity,” Jules replied. “A linden tree, standing alone, especially without its male oak partner, had sacred meaning in the old pagan days.”
“What sacred, pagan meaning?”
She slowed. “It’s not exactly clear.”
She realized that her careful use of words made him skeptical. It must have sounded like hogwash to him. She saw it written all over his face. ‘Not exactly clear’ means not exactly right and not exactly wrong, which leaves everything in the middle, with no real answer. In times like this, anyone trying to understand it all usually loses it all–all direction, all meaning, even all faith that a lot more is out there.
Clearly, she was about to lose him for good, so she continued. “The problem with this tree is that it’s not planted on a hill or elevated in any way. As they relate to feminine energy, hills–or lack of hills–are important to those with pagan belief systems. A linden tree planted on a hillside symbolized a mother giving birth…or giving life. The hill is like the belly of a pregnant mother. A tree planted on lower ground, or below sea level, symbolized the opposite of giving life, particularly in dark pagan rituals.”
Ted felt the need to survey the property again; the house appeared to be built at sea level, unlike the surrounding homes that appeared to be built several feet above ground. He finally noticed the landscape and it felt creepy.
The property was also flat; there were no hills for trees to be planted, in contrast to nearby trees that were planted on small artificial mounds. And the tree that had Jules’ attention was actually planted below sea level; it appeared the owners meticulously removed soil to plant the tree low.
But all this still wasn’t enough for Ted. “How so?” Ted asked. “How does a tree planted below sea level symbolize the opposite of giving life?”
“Dark bonfires, for example, burned wood taken from low ground. Those preparing for such rituals scoured the countryside, in lower ditches and ravines, for those perfect trees. The bonfires you see today at summer and winter solstice are created using trees from high on the hillside. That wood is said to bring luck and good fortune from Mother Earth. Wooden crosses and other symbols were made from the same wood. That’s why the forests all around are revered and respected; people who know about the past also know the power the trees hold.”
“And that has some bearing on what’s going on inside this house?” Ted seemed even more uncertain.
“Absolutely,” Jules answered. “What goes on outside, on the property, controls everything and everyone on the property. If the property has the signs of dark pagan ways, the house, the interior, also will have similar signs of dark paganism. And the people inside would have the same characteristics.”
“When was that tree planted?” Ted asked, skeptically.
“Well, just look at it. You can tell it’s more than a hundred years old. The energy in that tree adds to whatever is consuming this property…the house and those who venture inside.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re making excuses for Sukulov and what he did to those boys.”
“I’m not making excuses for anyone! I’m just telling you what I see and what I felt when we went into this house. It’s a bad place. The house is very dark, and it’s been that way for a long time. And darkness like this…it’s not easy to get rid of,” Jules said somberly.
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