Question: Why do I write scary stories? Answer: Because it’s a challenge to write something scarier than real life, and I do like a good challenge.
This is the time of year when my past pricks at my thoughts until all the bad memories spill out. Valentine’s Day happens to be the anniversary of one of my top five most frightening real-life experiences. No, it wasn’t a day where I was unceremoniously dumped. It wasn’t a day when I had a bad reaction to chocolate and spent a romantic evening worshiping at the porcelain shrine. It wasn’t a day when I felt lonely enough to throw an “I Hate V-Day” party. It was the day I hid from a crazed gunman, certain I was going to die after he murdered my landlord on my back doorstep.
Let me explain.
It happened in a cute chocolate-box of a town in the Netherlands, a tiny little hamlet called Amstenrade. It was the most unlikely place you would ever expect a murder. My father had been stationed at the Afcent Nato Base and we settled there because it seemed to be the perfect place for a family to live. It was ideal on so many levels. It was close to work and school, full of adorable little old houses and shops, and surrounded by fields of corn and sugar beets. Plus, there was no crime. Seriously, no crime at all. I was told that in the town’s 800+ year history there had never been a murder.
One of the greatest benefits of living in Amstenrade was our landlord. He lived with his family in the other half of our duplex. He must have preferred his privacy because you would not even know his home was there. We lived in an L-shaped home and his half fit neatly behind ours. We appeared to be on the only hill in that whole flat country. Our half of the house was on the top of the hill and his was at the bottom. This left us with the curious design of his front door facing our basement back door.
Our landlord’s name was Hoop Shoenmaker and he was a sweet, helpful, caring man. I found this surprising because after what he went through in life he was entitled to be moody and bitter. His parents opposed Hitler back in World War II and they paid for their opinions with their lives. The whole family was thrown into a concentration camp when Hoop was eight years old. By the time he was released at the end of the war he was the only member of his family left alive.
Hoop was like a grandfather to me. He set up badminton in the back yard so my brothers and I could play. He showed us all how to get from our backyard onto the public grounds of Amstenrade Castle, the best places to eat, and the parks we could explore. He was often the first person I would go to once I was home from school. There was something comforting about telling him about my day while he watered his well-tended garden. He would patiently listen, smile, nod and offer advice whenever he thought it would help.
That ended on Valentines’ Day when I was fifteen years old. My father and two of my little brothers (the eldest was away at a sleepover) were downstairs watching TV. My mother and I were upstairs talking about something unimportant and forgettable on her bed. I dimly remember hearing arguing outside but didn’t dwell on it because it didn’t last very long.
Shots rang out within the hour.
My brain immediately went into protective mode. I heard Hoop’s wife, daughter and four-year-old granddaughter screaming uncontrollably, but my rattled mind convinced me that it had to be fireworks and not gunshots. I told myself that his family was weeping because some visiting idiot set firecrackers off near the four-year-old and they were freaked out and furious. It simply couldn’t be gunfire. After all, this was the Netherlands and there were no guns in a peaceful country like this!
But my illusion was shattered when my mother flew to the window then dropped to the floor crying, “He’s got a gun! Get down!”
I had no idea who she was talking about, but the naked fear in her face and voice had me on the floor and crawling to the only room without windows--the bathroom. My mother hid under the sink. I heard her muttering, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die” over and over. We lived in one of those long-standing European homes, which meant each room had an old-fashioned lock and key. But when I reached over to lock the door all I could only see was an empty keyhole. The key was gone!
I frantically searched for a weapon of some kind, any kind. But this was a small bathroom and anything I could have used-hairspray, nail file, etc.--were kept in my bedroom on the vanity table. The only thing I found was a razor. I knew it was no match for a gun, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. I was hysterical enough to find the thought of scarring the shooter to be funny. The most I could do with that razor was give our unknown assailant some kind of macabre makeover for his mug shot.
I sat there between my mother and the door, listening to the screams outside. I had never heard a more soul-rending noise in my life. It was more animal than human, a primal sound made up of unending hopelessness and loss. The one thing I couldn’t hear was my own family. My father was downstairs where the shooting happened; my ten and seven year old brothers were with him, so why could I not hear them? My brothers should have been thundering upstairs to find comfort from their mother, not silent as the dead. And where was my father? Why was he not up there with us, keeping us away from gunfire? I thought for sure he would have charged up the stairs to make sure we were all right. I recalled the sound of several shots being fired and my mind started to wonder how many of those bullets made it into our home. I crouched down and tried not think about the worst. I was shaking uncontrollably, wondering when would it be safe to go check on my brothers.
The disturbing sound of heavy footsteps cut through all my thoughts. They came from the direction of the stairs. I waited to hear confirmation that it was my father, hoping he would call out “Nena! Tina! Are you all right?” But there was nothing, just the slow plodding thuds as an unknown presence made its way up to us.
My mother stopped muttering. I held my breath and drew my knees tightly against my chest, desperately trying to shrink into the shadows. Still I listened for my father’s voice. Still nothing. The footsteps approached the bathroom. I was afraid the sound of our fearfully pounding hearts would give us away. A shadowy figure appeared in the opaque glass of the door. I could not measure how long it stood there looking in, but it was long enough to wish I had a weapon. All I could think was, “If I had a gun I would shoot him through the door right now.” I can sincerely say with hand on heart that I honestly thought I was going to die. I was certain from the distraught sobbing downstairs that someone was already dead and I was sure we were next. I was terrified, but I was also angry--angry that I would not get a chance to fight back and angry that I would not get a chance to grow up.
And then the shadow moved on. I could hear it stamp into the room we had crawled out of minutes earlier. I registered the click of a phone being lifted from its cradle and then I heard my father’s measured voice saying, “Please come, my landlord has been shot.”
I gasped with shock then went limp with relief. There was not a killer outside the door; no one else was going to die that night. I couldn’t fathom why my father moved so slowly or why he didn’t call out to us, but that’s because I did not understand the nature of shock back then. I spent the rest of the night with my two little brothers in my room, my door closed against the ongoing trauma outside, as if I could block out the strobe-flash of emergency lights and piercing sounds of grief. A closed door did not make one bit of difference to my ten year old brother. He followed my father to our back door when he went to investigate and saw my landlord take a bullet to the chest. He had heard and seen it all and was beyond comfort that night.
My parents eventually joined us and shared all they knew from the police. My landlord’s daughter was convalescing at their home after a round of surgery. Her boyfriend arrived at the door drunk and high and demanding to see her. Hoop explained that she was sleeping and would not be seeing anyone until she felt better. The boyfriend left in a rage and went straight to his uncle’s house. His uncle had just returned from an elephant-hunting expedition in Africa. He searched for and found the gun used to hunt the gentle giants, returned back to the house, and when Hoop answered the door he shot him in the chest. I do not know much about weapons, but apparently that type of gun was powerful enough to blow a hole where Hoop’s heart was. I know this because my brother spent the rest of the night rocking back and forth on his heels, staring into space, mouthing, “His chest was gone, his chest was gone, his chest was gone…” over and over again.
After he killed Hoop the boyfriend turned on my father and took a few shots at him. He couldn’t have been more than ten feet away but he kept missing him. That seemed to spook him enough to make him run away. He was easily caught an hour later. His capture did not require a coordinated manhunt because he was still eerily close by, hiding in the bushes a little ways up the street.
The boyfriend’s defense was that it was a “crime of passion” which ensured he only served three years in prison. We were lucky enough to move Stateside four months later. It was a relief to get out of there. We missed Hoop, and the house felt haunted after his murder. For days Hoop’s widow tried to scrub his blood off her front porch, but the concrete absorbed the blood and left a permanent stain to remind everyone what happened. She eventually gave up and threw a rug over it, but it didn’t help much because we knew what was underneath. My brothers and I started taking the long way to our bus stop just to avoid walking past it. I honestly do not know how she could have stayed where her husband had so violently been murdered. I moved within a year of my husband’s death; it was the only way I could stop feeling he had returned home every time a key turned in the lock. But when it came to Hoop’s widow I could only imagine that she stayed because her home was where she felt closest to her husband.
I credit memories like these with helping me to keep it real when I’m going for the scare. It can be fun to indulge in fear when it’s fiction. Writing can quicken the pulse and make you feel on edge in a good way. When you trade authenticity for fantasy you can surrender to the thrill because, like a roller coaster, you ultimately feel you are safe.
I cannot promise you’ll feel safe when you read Notes From A Necrophobe. I rooted enough of it in reality to make you ask yourself, “Are there deadly pockets of bacteria waiting to be released into the world? Are they virulent enough to bring on the apocalypse?”
But that is a true story for another time.