Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before. I’ve done my best to repress the memories of that year of my life. Maybe I’ve vaguely referenced certain aspects about the ordeal here and there. It would have been impossible not to, considering its impact, but I’ve never regaled it in its entirety.
I’ve been cleaning out the basement at my mom’s house, and towards the back, buried under a mess of boxes filled with random junk and old clothes, was a small, clear, plastic storage container. I had no idea that my mom had kept the letters.
The letters began not long after my best friend Ben, the kid from whom I’d been just shy of inseparable since we were three years old, was moving away. I remember being crushed that day, when Ben came up to me in our fourth-grade class with puffy eyes and told me he and his mom were leaving town.
That night at home, my mom explained that her father, Ben grandpa, was no longer capable of caring for himself. As such, his mom had decided to move out to the very small town in which he lived, which itself was two states over, and stay in his house until such time her assistance was no longer necessary. My mom also suggested I get their new address and give them mine, so Ben and I could write back and forth.
And so we did, starting with the first letter Ben sent me, a couple of months after they left.
* * * * * *
November 19th, 1999
It’s very boring here. There is nothing to do. Not outside at least. But guess what…….my mom got me SO many games. Crash Team Racing, Crash Bandicoot Warped, Dino Crisis, DRIVER!!!! 007: Tomorrow Never Dies, and then these two games called Grand Theft Auto but they’re weird and the graphics are stupid. Driver is the coolest one but I haven’t played 007 too much yet because I just got it. You should come visit sometime and check out Driver. And I’m still playing Tony Hawk a lot…..duh!!!!
The next house is far away from ours and there’s nothing at our house that’s any fun. School is dumb too. There’s kids from 3 different towns that go to my new school my teacher said. And I already know everything there teaching. I wish I could come back home.
Oh and my mom met a old friend of hers named Joe and he’s been here a lot. He’s nice and he plays Playstation with me. I think he lets me win but he says he doesn’t.
We have to make our moms let you come out here or let me come back there. Dude…what if my mom would let me come live with you? We would basically be brothers. Talk to your mom and see if she would let me. I’ll talk to mine too.
P.S. Sk8 Broz 4 Life
* * * * * *
It might be cringy to you, but Sk8 Broz was what we lived for back then. We were gonna be pro skateboarders. It was a dumb dream, but it was ours.
We generally sent a letter back and forth every week. This went on for about seven months, with us just telling each other about our weeks, what was going on with the people from our respective schools, and both of us regaling how we’d tried to convince our moms to let Ben come live with us back home.
But the most prevalent theme of the letters was Ben’s lamenting of the situation as a whole.
“I wish I never had to come to this stupid house.”
“I hate living with my grandpa. He doesn’t even remember who we are a lot.”
“My school is the worst. All the kids there are dumb, you would hate them.”
At least two of these types of statements were made in each letter. That’s why it was so surprising when, after those seven months of letters of that type, there was a lull of about two months, at the end of which I received one from him, one where his attitude had seemingly completely reversed.
* * * * * *
September 2nd, 2000
Guess what?? I found a skatepark a few minutes away from my house, it’s sick! Since not a lot of people live here it’s not very busy that much. The woods here are pretty cool too. I think I just didn’t like them because it’s been cold.
This is actually a pretty fun place. Some of the kids are pretty cool actually. There not Sk8 Broz cool, but there ok. Joe bought me a Playstation 2!!! And the games Street Fighter EX3 and Dead or Alive 2 and Dynasty Warriors 2!!!
My grandpa is still my grandpa, but he’s doing okay I guess.
GUESS WHAT? My mom said she would pay for you guys to drive out here. She said she feels bad you haven’t come back and I haven’t come home and so she said she’ll pay!!!
She told me to tell you to ask your mom to take some time off work to come out and visit. In your next letter let me know when she is able to do that so my mom can too. FINALLY BRO!!!
* * * * * *
The last letter I’d received before that one was much like they’d always been. Unenthusiastic, withdrawn, scornful, all of his surroundings. It was a sudden switch, but I was happy for him. I kept my mom apprised of his letters, letting her know what was going on on their end of things. When it came to this letter, she finally relented and promised me she’d take some time off work in a couple months, even going so far as letting me miss school for a few days so we could visit before it got too cold and started snowing.
I wrote him back a few days later, giving him the dates my mom had notified her firm she wouldn’t be in, as well as requesting their phone number. I got Ben’s reply very shortly thereafter.
* * * * * *
September 12th, 2000
My mom said those days are perfect and she asked off work. FINALLY DUDE!!! There aren’t any houses to trick or treat at so we will just have to hang out on Halloween (BEST HOLIDAY EVER) but you should still bring a costume. We will have to go to the skatepark and play my PS2. Did you get a PS2?? If you did bring your games if they aren’t ones I have.
Here is our number. Joe (my mom’s friend) might answer. She said your mom can call and make sure it is all ok.
* * * * * *
My mom did indeed call, and Ben’s mom boyfriend Joe indeed answered. He politely informed my mom that Joanna (Ben’s mom) wasn’t yet back from work, but that everything as planned was good to go, and that they were excited to see us (and he to meet us), remarking that there was rarely a time that Ben didn’t relate a conversation to me/his hometown in some way, and that it would be good for him to see me. After getting and writing down the directions to their home two states over, my mom hung up the phone and informed me of the good news.
Our plan spanned seven days: one day for driving and getting there, five days there, and a day to drive and get back home. We left on October 26th, a Thursday. I was so excited; I can’t even find the words to describe how amped up I was. I was finally going to see my closest friend, the person to whom I related most that I hadn’t seen for the better part of a year. On top of that, I was getting to miss school, and on top of that, it was going to be Halloween, our favorite holiday. By all accounts, this was shaping up to be a great week.
We made the 10 ½ hour drive and upon the last few directions my mom had been given, we found ourselves traversing long, empty roads. Finally, we made the last directed turn, and in the distance we could see a house.
Dusk had settled, and it was that odd few moments where it’s light out and dark out simultaneously when we pulled up to the house. We parked next to Joanna’s van (which was “decorated” with a large dent in the driver’s side that I had made but that Ben had taken the blame for) and another car that presumably belonged to her boyfriend, Joe.
As we got out of the car, a man emerged from the front door of the house, wearing a Frankenstein costume.
“Hey, guys! Welcome, welcome, welcome! I’m Joe, you must be Amber and Nick! Hey Nick, a little birdie told us that your favorite holiday is Halloween, so we thought we’d start the celebration early! I hope you brought a costume!”
I was instantly ecstatic. “I did, I brought a costume!” I yelled up to the man.
“Well suit up, partner! We have a surprise all set up for you when you’re ready! Ben wanted to make you guys reuniting extra spectacular.”
I asked my mom if I could change into it right away, to which she obliged. I sprinted up the porch steps with my bag and was directed by Joe to the bathroom while he stayed behind to greet my mother. As I walked through the house I heard him say “Very nice to meet you, Amber. Joanna’s finishing things in the basement. Ben set up a…”
I remember looking around their house and finding the mess within it strange. It wasn’t exceptionally messy or anything, but Ben’s mom was always kind of a neat freak; their house never had anything out of place. This new house, however, had dirty dishes on the dining room table, piles of clothes all over the place, things like that. Again, nothing too outrageous, just uncharacteristic.
I changed into my Power Ranger costume in the bathroom and walked back to the living room, where my mom and Joe stood talking. Besides the bit of a mess, the house was decorated for Halloween pretty elaborately. There were (obviously decorative) cobwebs all over the place, bowls of candy throughout the house, a decorative skeleton in a chair in the corner of the living room, stuff like that. I was very excited to see what they’d done with the basement.
Joe ushered us towards the basement door and opened it to let us through, closing it behind him. There were small lights on each of the steps we used to guide us down, and once we got to the bottom of the steps, we were forced to turn left down a very narrow walkway.
I remember being scared; the darkness and confinement were overwhelming. But I also remember my mom leaning down and whispering to me “It’s okay. Ben told Joe how much you guys liked the haunted maze you went to a couple of years ago, so he built one for you guys here since there’s none around here.”
My mom kept her hand on my shoulder as we walked through. Lights would flash and things would pop out and drop down and loud noises would blast from speakers just like a normal haunted maze, and for being in a basement, I recall it being surprisingly well done. I heard Joe from behind my mom say “the finale is just up ahead”.
We made one more turn and found two small lights pointed up at a pair of dark blue curtains hanging down.
“Let me sneak by you guys quick, come in when I tell you, he wants this to be perfect,” Joe said enthusiastically as he brushed past us and through the curtains, being sure to keep them as closed as possible so as not to ruin the surprise.
“Ready to see your best friend? I know how much you guys have been looking forward to this!” he said from behind the curtain. And I was. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen Ben, and I was more than ready.
After just a few seconds, we heard “Come in!” followed by a comical spooky laugh, like the kind a Scooby-Doo villain would make.
I was so excited to see my best friend. My mom whispered for me to go ahead, and I walked through the curtains, and there he was, along with his mom and two other men.
His mom was nude, her body cut into eight pieces, all of them nailed to the wall, fashioned to make it look as if she was waving to us. Ben’s grandpa was in a rocking chair, also nude, with his hands sewn to his ankles and his feet sewn to his wrists. His mouth had been cut at the edges of his lips and his mouth was open twice as far as any person’s mouth should be able to open.
Next to him was another man, presumably (and later confirmed to be) the real Joe, hung from a rope tied to a load-bearing beam in the ceiling, all the skin from his torso removed. His tongue was nailed into his forehead (That may have actually been Ben’s grandpa, but I don’t think so. It’s been a long time and like I said, I’ve done my best to not think about it).
Drinking glasses of various sizes as well as saucers and bowls were strewn about the floor, all filled with blood (I’m assuming). On the wall, made from strips of the real Joe’s removed skin were the words “Missed you!”.
To the left was the man who had posed as Joe, who had terrified, sobbing Ben bound on his knees facing me. Ben was filthy, as if he hadn’t bathed or changed his clothes in months. Joe quickly tore away the piece of duct tape that was covering my best friend’s mouth and said “Quick! Say hi!”
Ben just continued crying. I don’t even think he had time to comprehend his chance at last words.
This whole thing lasted less than five seconds. I had walked through those curtains and stopped in my tracks, blocking my mom from entering the area. She had soon thereafter poked her head through and immediately pulled back from whence we’d came to run back through the “maze”.
The last image I have of my best friend in the world, the person with whom I shared every interest, the other half of the would-be skateboard phenom team the Sk8 Broz, was of him on his knees in front of a psychopath, sobbing, as that psychopath took a hacksaw to his neck and started thrusting his arm back.
As my mom repeatedly told me to “go, move, run”, all I could hear was the gurgled screams of Ben Nebel, and at one point, the loud voice of the madman who’d taken his life:
“Oh, come on! You’re not even gonna let him watch?! You’re no fun!” followed by a disturbingly calm yet loud laughter.
We found our way back to the stairs, where my mom told me to go outside and get in the car and lock the doors. Knowing now wasn’t the time to question her, I abided. I looked back as I ran through the hallway and saw her tip over a bookshelf in front of the basement door.
She was gone for about 20 seconds after that, but she finally emerged from within the house, ran to the car, and we drove away, stopping at the end of the street. She explained that she’d been looking for and eventually found a phone in their house and called the police, quickly said a murder had occurred and said she’d be at the end of the road from Ben’s house, the address to which she’d luckily put at the top of the contents of her purse when we’d gone in.
Given that we were in the literal middle of nowhere. It took the police nearly 20 minutes to arrive. When they did, we led them to the house, and they entered. I remember asking my mom what if the man had run away, but she told me she was confident the bookshelf was too heavy to move from the other side of the basement door,
As it turns out, the man hadn’t tried to get out through the basement door.
He hadn’t tried to get out at all.
He simply placed the head of my best friend on a small table next to him, wrote a note (or maybe he had it prewritten, I don’t recall), put a single-barrel shotgun in mouth and pulled the trigger.
I will forever have the images of my best friend’s mother, her boyfriend, and her grandfather in their final stages, all the viscera and sinew that accompanies dismembered and skinned bodies. I will forever have the image of the last time my eyes laid upon my best friend, the image burned into my ten-year-old eyes of him with tears streaming down his face and a hacksaw pressed against his neck.
But the part about that whole ordeal that sticks with me more than any of that….is the note their killer left.
You probably want to know why I did it, right?
I don’t know…I saw an opportunity and I took it. It was pretty funny though right?
Be honest :)
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