Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
The rental house exceeded my expectations. You may think $400 per month rent for a three bedroom, two bath, furnished house four miles from a state university suspicious, but having grown up in the foothills, I knew how rent in the mountains worked. Four-hundred dollars wouldn’t pay for a weekend in Blowing Rock when the leaves were changing, but up the road in Boone the price of accommodations dropped every foot you traveled off Highway 321.
I decided to go back to college after more than a decade to complete a degree in sociology. Being older, I had no interest in rowdy parties or frenetic friendships. The house would provide solitude nestled as it was off a gravel road surrounded by wooded hills and hollers. The only downside was the lease. Rentals in the area typically offered semester-long terms, but the property manager wouldn’t budge on a full year commitment. Perhaps that was why it was vacant and I was offered a showing on the same day I called.
In late July of last year, I found myself standing in the kitchen of the house after a whirlwind tour by a sallow man who introduced himself as, “Mr. Snodgrass.” He was in a hurry, and preferred pointing at rooms rather than entering them. The place seemed charming, so after Mr. Snodgrass’s brief closing pitch, I informed him I would take it. He produced a document which I pretended to read before signing and then handed me a keyring and excused himself. He was in his car before it occurred to me that my lease didn’t begin for a few days and he hadn’t asked for the security deposit.
After he left, I took my time exploring the place. It was something of a time capsule that had been fashionable when new, then tacky for decades, and presently seemed an amusing kitsch. The Harvest Gold kitchen appliances were in working order and the gold-flecked Formica counters were only mildly scratched. Despite its age, it seemed curiously unlived in. Mr. Snodgrass had even made a point of telling me the red rotary phone by the door worked. I won’t bother describing the rest of the house in detail; suffice to say it and the furnishing were stylistically congruent with the kitchen. The exception to the grandmotherly yellows, browns, and greens was the downstairs bathroom which was aggressively ugly. Given the pink toilet, pink lavatory, pink wall tile, and green tub, I had no reason to suspect anything other than poor taste for my unease standing in the room.
My first month in the house was pleasant. I spent the two weeks before fall classes began enjoying the wilderness and mentally preparing myself to be a student again. I met my only neighbors, Mr. and Ms. Green, who appeared ancient but may have been a weathered middle-age lacking preventative healthcare and fluoridated water. I learned they were brother and sister. Mr. Green’s wife had died years previous and Ms. Green never married. A meticulously maintained wooden fence separated our properties and stood in abrupt contrast to the rest of their homestead which was the archetypal four-miles-from-321 mountain house, complete with tin roof, sagging porch, and haint bottles swaying from a gnarly ash tree. The first question Ms. Green asked me was, “Do you know Jesus”? When I assured her I did, she seemed disappointed.
Around the time the dogwoods faded to pink in late August, the house began to turn as well. The carpet on the stairs came loose on the small landing where the steps turned. Judging it to be a safety hazard, I called Mr. Snodgrass from the rotary phone in the kitchen and asked if I may remove it. While he didn’t immediately say no, he seemed hesitant. Thinking he was under the impression that I was asking him to have the stairs recarpeted, I explained that I was handy and intended to do all the work. Reluctantly, he agreed.
I began the project the following Saturday morning. Removing the carpet went smoothly with only a pair of scissors and claw hammer. The padding was not so easy. While it came up without a problem on the stairs, it seemed vigorously glued down on the landing. There the padding was stuck and heavily stained brown. I was annoyed that whatever adhesive had been used stained the wood underneath as it would increase the time I would need to devote to sanding.
That night as I relaxed on the couch, something portentous happened. I heard a loud thud on the stairs followed by the lights flickering. The television turned off and then on again. I am not easily spooked, but I jumped up and stood perfectly still for the better part of a minute irrationally convinced there was an intruder in the house. I reminded myself that no one could be on the stairs as they would have had to come through the living room. Had I carelessly left something at the top of the stairs that fell? That seemed plausible, but I grabbed the fire-poker from beside the woodstove before investigating.
There was nothing on the landing or anywhere near the stairs. As I stood on the landing where I had been unsuccessful sanding the brown stain, I was seized by a cold chill and sudden urge to pee. Normally, I would have walked up the stairs to use the master bathroom as was my custom to avoid the pink and green travesty downstairs, but I wanted nothing more than to be off the steps and the downstairs bathroom was closer.
I straddled the offensive pink toilet for a long while willing myself to pee. My insubordinate bladder refused and the longer I stood there the more uneasy, even nauseous, I felt. I realized that I had never used the toilet or even washed my hands in the lavatory. A sudden intrusive thought about what it would be like to take a shower in the green tub knotted my stomach with irrational revulsion. I’m embarrassed to admit that I went outside and peed in the shelter of an unruly azalea beside the kitchen door.
As I finished, something of note occurred: I heard a vehicle start and saw headlights on the road in front of my house. This was odd because the Greens were the sort of people who turned in reliably at sundown. As I emerged from the azalea I saw an unfamiliar truck. In the half-moonlight, I could see that it was a light color with faux-wood siding but could not see the driver. I judged by the revs and bumpy growl of its carbureted engine that it was old. As it drove off I was startled by an explosion of red sparks from a cigarette hitting the gravel on the side of the road. It was the first, but not the last, time I saw the truck.
That night I slept in fits and starts on the couch with both lamps on and the television tuned to a comedy channel instead of the true crime stories I typically watched.
The dog days’ sun of the following morning burned away most of the fear I felt so I returned to my crime shows and bed that night. On Monday, as I walked back from my empty mailbox, I noticed a fresh cigarette butt. It was from a Newport and must have been the one I saw tossed from the truck. I didn’t smoke and neither did Ms. Green. Her brother was a committed chewer as evidenced by his remaining brown tooth and the perennial smear on his chin. As weeks passed, I observed a growing number of butts in front of my house.
The truck returned at least twice a week, always at night. I didn’t call the police out of deference to the clannish culture of mountain folk which frowns on official involvement in country matters. There is a local saying, “Who needs the police when I’ve got land and a backhoe.” For all I knew, the truck driver had both. I told myself he, sure it was a man, was a friend of the Greens come to pay a visit even though their pitch-black windows indicated otherwise.
As a precaution, I resolved to lock the kitchen door behind me every time I came home and double-check it and the unused front door before the sun went down. There wasn’t much else I could do. I couldn’t afford to break my lease, and I didn’t know anyone within commuting distance to school that I could stay with.
To add to my concern, a worrying phenomenon began. Periodically, I discovered my kitchen door unlocked in the morning. I am not absent-minded. This never happened, even once, anywhere I had lived. What’s more the truck made me obsessive about the locks. I briefly suspected someone had a key, but that didn’t explain the dangling chain-lock.
In October, I got a less spooky though nonetheless harrowing scare. It was in the early morning and I was still asleep when I heard banging on my front door. I leapt out of bed frightened and confused. By the time I made it downstairs, I heard a woman screaming for help as the banging moved to my kitchen door. When I opened it I discovered a frantic Ms. Green. She barely managed to communicate that Mr. Green had “taken a spell.” I asked her if she called 911, but she didn’t seem to understand, so I called from the red phone as she paced in the grass. To complicate things, she refused to come inside to take the phone herself. Not knowing what had happened, I had to relay questions from the operator to Ms. Green and interpret her semi-coherent answers. Once I was told an ambulance was en route, I followed Ms. Green back to her house unsure of what I would find or how I could help.
Mr. Green had fallen through a flimsy glass table and was lying amid shards and twisted metal. He appeared to be conscious, but couldn’t talk. There was a nasty gash on his hand that bled profusely. I instructed Ms. Green to get a towel as I knelt to check for more injuries. There didn’t appear to be any.
Implausibly, no ambulance arrived. After nearly half an hour of waiting, Mr. Green was starting to fade in and out, his pallor ashen, and his sister looked on the verge of collapse herself. I decided I had no choice but to try to get them to help on my own. With considerable effort, I managed to drag the limp man to his car and heave him onto what was left of the back seat. The aged Cutlass had ample room, at least.
Ms. Green didn’t say a word as I drove but she seemed to have calmed down some. I didn’t like the silence from the back, so I resolved to keep my eyes on the road and only think about getting to the hospital. When we arrived, I pulled into the Emergency Room entrance and to avoid any nonsense about forms and insurance, I yelled that there was a dying man in the back of the car.
Once Mr. Green was secure, I parked the Cutlass and returned to Ms. Green with the key. It was chilly and I was underdressed, but I felt I could get home on my own. She stared blankly for a moment then related that she did not drive. I asked if there was someone I could call but she shook her head. Not wanting to abandon her, I ditched class and spent the next eleven hours waffling between extended periods of boredom next to a stone-silent Ms. Green and acting as facilitator between her and the doctors and nurses.
Finally, we were informed that Mr. Green was stable and resting. He suffered a small stroke in addition to his lacerated hand, but should recover after a couple of weeks in the hospital and extended bedrest at home. Ms. Green was satisfied and asked to leave.
Like the drive to the hospital, she remained silent on the way home. I couldn’t blame her. I was exhausted and could only imagine how she felt. I parked the car in her driveway and helped her out before turning to go to my place. She stopped me and asked that I wait while she got something from inside. She returned with an old plastic-framed mirror and handed it to me. She paused for several seconds as if waiting for me to say something, so I mumbled puzzled thanks.
“Put that by your front door on the side with the knob. If the Devil comes calling, he won’t get inside unless you invite him.” She said as if explaining a simple fact to a simpler child. As she walked into her house, I observed no mirror beside her door.
Since Ms. Green couldn’t drive, I took her to and from the hospital and invited her grocery shopping with me. On days she wanted to visit her brother, she waited at the mailboxes for me to get home from class. She liked to stay for an hour or more every trip, so I brought homework and did what I could while she whispered to a taciturn Mr. Green. On our first outing she expressed her pleasure, not at the time and service I provided her, but at my having followed her advice about the mirror.
I did hang the mirror beside my front door. It was silly, but I felt it would be rude not to use her gift. That, more than our shared experience with the stroke, broke the ice between us.
At first it was nice to hear her speak, but her benign comments about her garden or the weather always turned dark. She instructed me about things that lived in our woods and deep in caves under the hills. I learned, without wanting to, how to tell the difference between the shriek of a mountain lion and the wail of a banshee, not to pick up a blue jay feather, and never, ever nudge an unoccupied rocking chair. I tried to change the subject as her prevarications repeated in my head like a catchy chorus when I went to bed, but she returned to her demented cautionary tales. One day I stopped her during a particularly creepy lesson about the witch who had to cross the river when it was time to slaughter the hogs because if she wasn’t on the other side of running water the pigs wouldn’t bleed. I asked her if she knew anything about the truck that parked in front of my house some nights. She matter-of-factly responded that she reckoned that is the Devil and went back to talking about the witch. It would have been nice if her mirror and advice helped, but the truck still appeared and more unsettling things happened in the house.
A week into Mr. Green’s hospital stay and Ms. Green’s dependence on me, I awoke to screams for help downstairs. Assuming it was Ms. Green, I ran down to see what was the matter. When I got downstairs, there was no one there. The doors were locked. I had left the television on, so I insisted that was the source of the cries even though the volume seemed too low to account for what I heard. Strangely, I thought I smelled cigarette smoke.
I skipped classes to retrieve Mr. Green from the hospital. The doctor said he would need help eating and going to the bathroom. He also advised us that he would need regular baths to avoid bedsores and a potentially fatal infection.
When we returned home, I observed a problem. Though I was in the Green’s house on the day of the stroke, I hadn’t paid much attention to the layout. The bedrooms were upstairs and the only bathroom was downstairs. Mr. Green could not walk unassisted, and it took considerable effort for me and his sister to get him in the door. There was no way that the two of them could get him up and down the stairs by themselves.
I had an idea but hesitated before sharing it. An intimidating woman and her invalid brother were not ideal roommates, but I did have a small bedroom downstairs and there was the ghastly bath. Truth be told, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable in my house. As we stood teetering in front of the stairway, I decided to extend them an invitation pointing out the convenience of having a bed and bath on the same floor.
Mr. Green had been silent, and didn’t seem completely aware, but as I spoke he began moaning. The moans grew louder as I continued, and when I mentioned the downstairs bath he began jerking and making a screeching noise while his eyes blinked rapidly but didn’t seem to focus on anything. Ms. Green and I sat him on the couch, as she repeated, “I’m not taking you over there. I’m not taking you over there!”
Once the screeching subsided into sporadic noises, she turned to me and said that he could stay on the couch where he was but she would thank me if I came over to help get him in and out of the bath. I stood there dismayed, hoping for some clarification over what had happened. For a moment, it looked as though Ms. Green was going to say something. Then she took a long look at her brother before turning back to me and saying he needed his rest.
As winter approached it brought with it gloom that increased as the days got shorter. My grades, which started off great, began to suffer as I alternatingly felt alone and watched in my house. It didn’t help that I was caregiver to the Greens. With each passing week, the house served up a new anomaly. My keys, which I always placed in a change tray on the kitchen counter, would disappear and reappear. Once, after looking for them for nearly an hour, and missing class as a result, I found them in the silverware drawer. Who puts keys in a silverware drawer? I smelled cigarettes more often. The damn truck continued its ominous visits. I wanted out, but had nine months left of my lease and nowhere that I could go if I intended to stay in school.
If I left school again, I left school forever.
Somehow, I made it through the semester with B’s and one C. It was disappointing, but I was relieved. I wished I could return to my parent’s place for the entire break, but how would I, a 30-year-old man who had moved out 12-years ago, explain myself? Also, who would take care of the Greens? Mr. Green hadn’t improved and his sister had taken to giving him herbal concoctions instead of his medicine which I now administered.
I did make it home for Christmas, but left after one night. Everyone commented on how bad I looked. It was clear that my presence was bringing everyone down. Rather than sharing in the cheerfulness, I was offended by it.
I saw Mr. Snodgrass for the second, and last, time in late December. By then the house smelled like a motel room and I was sure he would remind me that the lease stipulated no smoking. I called him because of the green tub. Though I didn’t use the downstairs bathroom, persistent freezing mountain temperatures necessitated letting taps trickle to avoid having the pipes burst. When I started going in to turn on the taps, I saw that the tub looked as though someone had just taken a bath. I suspected the well was backing up because the water left thick red rings which I took to be hard water and pipe gunk.
Mr. Snodgrass knocked on the kitchen door a few days later during an uncommonly warm and sunny afternoon. When I invited him in, he pursed his lips and looked over my shoulder before walking out into the yard. I followed him as he made his way behind the house to the well. He wasn’t interested in my attempts at conversation.
That was until I mentioned the truck. He stopped in mid-stride and looked at me as though I had told him I took it upon myself to knock down an interior wall. He raised an eyebrow and asked if I called the police. When I told him no, he nodded and agreed that was for the best. He promptly forgot about the well and returned the way we came. As we approached the kitchen door, I went to let him in to inspect the tub only to discover he had made his way to his car. I stood there not as nonplussed as I should have been as he opened the door to his cloth-top Lincoln and advised, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In early February, I left the house and gave my notice in that order. Flakes of snow began falling in mid-afternoon as I departed from class for the day. The forecast called for between 8 and 12 inches, hardly enough to cancel classes. After checking on the Greens, I decided to take a nap before finishing my “Economic Challenges of Urban Housing” paper which was due in the morning. Around 6pm I felt refreshed enough to proofread my draft. As always, the television was tuned to true crime.
At nine an unsolved murder program caught my attention when the narrator said, “Boone, North Carolina.” I often stopped to pay attention to crime shows where the incident occurred in my home state and this one was in the city where I lived. I had worked for three hours, tediously subjecting my paper to the rigors of the American Sociological Association style, and could use a break, so I turned up the volume and settled in for a vicarious thrill.
The 40-year-old crime was exceptionally brutal. A family of three had been torture-murdered in their home. The adult son was gunned down on the stairs with a shotgun blast to the stomach. The husband and wife were beaten and repeatedly burned with cigarettes before being ligature strangled and arranged with their heads submerged in a bathtub full of water. The killer, or killers, even dragged the son from the stairs and plunged his head into the water. The black and white crime scene photograph of three people, two with bound hands, posthumously kneeling with their heads in an overflowing tub was chilling.
There are two types of true crime shows, those that air before 9pm which rely on recreations and dramatizations for the squeamish and those after that serve macabre authenticity. As this show progressed, more disturbing images were shown: morgue slides of cigarette burns, small cuts with a ruler next to them, a close-up of a cord digging deep into flesh, but the money shot was the victims in the tub. Except for a snapshot of a leathery man in a fur hat and a uniformed officer with a vacant expression standing together in front of an exterior door, there were no images of the house.
I wondered why I never heard of this murder, especially being a local, but it occurred to me this is precisely the sort of thing God-fearing Southerners avoid talking about. The old folks, notwithstanding Ms. Green, held to the belief that if you speak of the devil he will soon appear.
Being an avid follower of this sort of program, I was amazed that the crime remained unsolved. There seemed to be abundant evidence at the scene. Tire tracks from a large vehicle were crushed into the icy yard. The police suspected a pickup truck. Also, while all three family members smoked, the men smoked Marlboros and the woman smoked Virginia Slims, yet several Newport butts were found in a kitchen ashtray and on the floor.
A suspect emerged when police learned that the son-in-law had boasted that if anything happened to the family, he and his wife would get the house. He drove a truck and smoked Newports. He had also been acquitted of a murder in Tennessee, and was suspect in a kidnapping-turned-murder in South Carolina. Astonishingly, the police arrested him but let him go after some of his friends said he was drinking with them at the time of the murders and the neighbors claimed to have seen “black men” at the house.
As the program returned from its final commercial break, I bolted off the couch and my blood froze. The black and white photo of the family in the tub was replaced with a color image of the victims in a green tub surrounded by pink tile! At that moment, I heard a rusty squeal followed by water rushing into the downstairs tub. Maybe my frenzied brain imagined it, but the sound continued, deafening, even over my hammering heart, as I ran for my keys which weren’t in the change tray.
Frantically, I tore through the kitchen looking everywhere for my keys -even in the goddamned silverware drawer. Just as I resolved to run out into the snow and keep running until I got to the highway, I kicked my keys which had materialized on the floor. I grabbed them, hurled myself into my car, and foolishly floored the gas which caused me to move exactly 6-inches backwards and spin impotently in the ice.
I didn’t want to get out of my car, but I wouldn’t get anywhere unless I grabbed paper bags from the kitchen and put them behind my skidding tires to get traction. It was the only thing I could think of as there was no one with me to push.
Steeling myself, I ran into the house where the television volume was rising above the torrent in the bathroom. As I reached under the sink to get a bag, the faucet above me sprang to life and the pipe ruptured, spraying me with numbing water. I fell backwards and lay there dazed as the lights strobed and I heard sickening thumps coming down the stairs.
As I slid in the growing pool of freezing water, scrambling to get to my feet, the red phone rang. The next few minutes were a blur of sound, light, and darkness, but somehow, I found myself back in my car with a dubious recollection of stuffing bags under my tires.
I knew that if I floored the engine again, I would run over the bags and resume spinning, so I willed myself to gently press the accelerator. Thankfully, I rolled out of the driveway and reasoned that, with luck, my momentum should keep me from getting stuck. I backed onto the road and stopped to put the car in drive. If I was going to get stuck again, this is where it would happen, so I eased my foot off the break and let the car move forward on its own. As I was about to nudge the accelerator, I heard a familiar engine roar to life. Headlights appeared behind me.
The truck followed, close on my bumper, forcing me to drive dangerously fast. As I approached the end of the road, it slowed and seemed to stop. The headlights vanished as I turned off the street onto a paved road that led to the highway.
An hour and a hazardous drive down the mountain later, I found myself recounting everything to my speechless uncle. He was a committed believer in everything, so he not only took me at my word but insisted on going back with me in the morning. It was his idea to check and see if the unsolved murder program was scheduled to replay after midnight. It was.
As we watched together, I tried to convince myself that stress and isolation had caused me to imagine the everything. I had no proof that I was living in the murder house. A green tub and pink tile in common was enough to make one ask questions, but it was hardly definitive. I almost convinced myself that I had suffered a temporary breakdown by the time the color image appeared on screen. It definitely looked like my bathroom.
The conclusion of the program, which I had missed, partially excused the police for the crime remaining unsolved, but it left my uncle and me chilled. The suspect son-in-law was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He had been sitting in his light-colored truck with wood siding on the road in front of the house.
Late the next morning, my uncle and I returned to pick up my few belongings. The kitchen was flooded but there was no sound of water coming from the bathroom. Neither of us felt inclined to open the door and investigate. As we loaded my car, I saw Ms. Green at the mailbox. Though I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, I needed confirmation. And if true, I wanted to know why she hadn’t told me.
She nodded when I asked about the murders. When I demanded to know why she never told me, she looked me in the eyes and lied, “We thought you knew.”
Credit: Eddie Price