I don’t believe in ghosts.
Even though I collect horror fiction and write thrillers, I don’t have a superstitious bone in my body. I come from a long-line of scientists and rationalists; ghosts, demons, monsters, they’re just for entertainment.
And yet there is one story — one I heard personally — that has stuck with me for the past two decades. One that will likely haunt me for the rest of my life.
I was in high school at the time and living at home.
My father was a public defender and frequently had other lawyers over to the house for dinner.
They’d eat, drink beers, and swap stories filled with so much legal jargon that I could barely make sense of them.
One of the lawyers was a younger man named Jake.
He and his wife had moved to our city a few years earlier and lived in a new development east of our neighborhood. I never met his wife, Beth, but I overheard Jake say she she’d gotten a degree as an interior designer. He was an optimistic guy and saw good things ahead for his career. Beth wanted to start a family. Jake was onboard.
There was the issue of Beth’s father, however.
Her mother had passed away a year previously and her father, Otto, had to move in with her and Jake. He suffered from advanced dementia — needed help dressing, bathing, eating, and frequently got confused. Beth loved her father and was willing to put aside her own career aspirations to take care of him. Jake was a bit resentful, he suggested several times that Otto be in a proper nursing home, but Beth wouldn’t hear anything of it. She insisted she could take care of her own father.
Despite his misgivings, Jake was impressed by Beth’s resolve.
Otto was not easy to care for. He would wander — they’d find him in a park several blocks from the house. He would get very confused and sometimes even violent. Once he knocked Jake into a dresser, enraged that he couldn’t find his watch. It was on his wrist. Ever the dutiful daughter, Beth persisted. She put child-safety locks around the house and kept a close eye on Otto.
The summer before my junior year, I was at home studying for the ACTs with my mother when my father came into the kitchen pale a sheet. He sat down at the table and took a deep breath before he told us about a call he’d just gotten.
“Something terrible has happened,” he said.
My mother and I braced for the worst. My father said he’d received a call from one of his lawyer friends. Beth was dead. Jake had left his house that morning concerned because Otto was having a particularly bad day. He was out of it and very argumentative.
As Beth saw Jake out to his car, she told him that she was ready to move her father to a nursing home. She was deeply disappointed that she couldn’t care for him any longer but it was simply too difficult. He kissed her and told her it was for the best — her father needed round-the-clock care and might improve in the company of people his own age. They decided they’d move Otto into a home that weekend.
Jake had a busy day at the courthouse. He returned to his office to find he’d missed several calls from Beth. She did not leave any messages. He called the house and there was no answer. Jake did paperwork for an hour and then called the house again. Again, there was no answer. He grew worried and headed home.
When he got there, he found the house eerily silent.
He called out for Beth and got no answer though he did hear the shuffle of footsteps in the bedrooms on the floor above. Calling out again, Jake made his way upstairs. He found Otto standing in the hallway. His hands were covered in blood.
“Otto,” Jake asked, panicking, “Are you okay? Where’s Beth?”
Otto wouldn’t speak. He just pointed into his bedroom. That was where Jake found Beth. She’d been stabbed seventeen times in the chest and gut. The carpet was so soaked with blood that it had turned black.
The police took Otto into custody. He admitted he’d gotten into an argument with his daughter. He stabbed her with a paring knife because he said she’d hidden his watch. When the cops told him it was on his wrist, he fell silent. Two minutes later, he asked where Beth was and when they might be having dinner.
My father went to Beth’s funeral. Overcome with grief, Jake decided to move back near his parents and sisters. I never saw him again. My father, however, offered to help Jake move. Jake waved the offer away, saying he’d hired a moving company.
A week later, my father pulled me aside while I was raking leaves in the front yard. He told me he’d talked to Jake and heard something “that didn’t make sense.”
It was sunny outside, one of those warm late summer afternoons when the air is still and the shadows seem to stretch out to the very horizon. I remember the moment as clearly as though it had happened only a few minutes ago.
My father told me Jake had been staying at hotel while the house was being packed up. Two hours after the movers — a team of five guys* — had arrived, one of them, Franklin, called Jake at the hotel with a question.
“Are we the only people in this house?”
Jake was confused.
“I mean,” Franklin clarified, “Outside of my guys is there anyone here?”
Jake told him the house was empty. Then asked why Franklin was asking.
“Cause we heard footsteps upstairs, like someone was up there. One of my guys called up and got no answer. He went up and looked around but didn’t see anyone. He thought maybe someone was trying to play a trick on us.”
Jake reiterated that there was no one else in the house.
Franklin called back an hour later.
“Seriously, man,” Franklin said, agitated, “Why are you playing tricks?”
Jake insisted he wasn’t.
“There’s someone in this house,” Franklin said, “We heard some upstairs. There was someone running. Sounding like they were knocking things over. Slammed one of the doors. And then they screamed.”
Jake, chilled, asked, “Screamed?”
“Yeah,” Franklin said, “A woman screamed upstairs. Freaked us all the hell out. We went up there and looked around and couldn’t find anyone. One of my guys said the noises happened in that room where all the carpet’s been ripped out. I don’t know if this is some sort of practical joke or something but we’re getting weirded out over here, man. You want us to do this right?”
Jake said of course, he said he had no idea what was happening.
Franklin sounded doubtful and said, “Fine. But no more.”
Jake was on edge until the next and final call came.
“We’re leaving,” Franklin said, unnerved, “We heard it again. The running, the slamming doors, the woman screaming… We can’t do this job, man. Sorry.”
The movers left and refused to go back. Jake hired another moving company a few days later. The house was cleared out without incident. Before he left town, Jake toured the house himself.
He heard nothing.
* This was pre-internet days and the incident hadn’t been in the papers as far as I was aware.
My name is Keith Thomas. It’s one of many names I’ve used as a writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker. If you like what you’ve read here, I have a novel, The Clarity, coming out in Feb. 2018. If you visit my website — Night Platform — you can sign up for my newsletter and I’ll tell you more about my work, my thoughts on writing, collaborating, and filmmaking, answer questions, riff on collecting good ideas, and share any worthwhile insights that I discover.