Let me tell you a story about a place you know.
You know Barnam House.
Everyone I ever talked to about it, they all knew the Barnam House. Most don’t remember where or when, but they heard talk about it or saw the pictures or watched the documentary. And when I describe it, the large white doors, the high walls, the walls with flaking blue paint and the yard outside, always immaculate except for that one, longish patch of dead plants – then they remember. They see the picture again.
I bet right now you can see it. The old trees slowly moving with the wind, the wind whistling and howling past, and of course that one top window shutter that keeps opening and closing, opening and closing, but not in the same pattern as the trees move or the wind whistles.
The Barnam House. There are different stories about it. Some say the Barnams simply left, from one day to the other. There was something they feared and so they left without ever telling anyone. That’s why, if you look through the shutters and you’re lucky enough to have enough light, you can see that there are still plates on the dinner table.
Others say it was a burglary gone wrong – the police were called, there was a stand-off. He didn’t want to give in. The burglar shot the family and then himself.
But I prefer the version which my brother told me, that it was a murder-suicide, about thirty years ago. The wife cheated or somehow otherwise displeased her husband. He got angry. Work trouble. Money trouble. He lost control. He screamed himself into a fury. The kids hid in that corner bedroom, and the wife was with him in the upstairs bedroom, clinging to his clothes and begging him to calm down. But he didn’t calm down. He screamed more. He got angrier – at her, at the world, at himself.
Then he hit her. Hit her until she stopped pleading and begging and whining, and then some more.
At some point he calmed down. He saw the blood on his hands and clothes; the blood all over the bedroom floor. He saw the body of the woman he loved, her hair drenched in red and her face not even recognizable anymore.
And he knew that his kids would be taken and he would be locked up. He didn’t want to live with knowing what he did. He didn’t want his kids to live with knowing what their father did.
So he took an axe and he went to the corner bedroom and he finished the job. And then he finished himself.
His daughter must have been around twelve. Dad broke through the door and she tried to protect her eight year old brother. Screamed, begged, threw things. Tried.
But her younger brother, Albrecht, he was there, in that corner, squeezed right next to the window, between the bed and the wall. He watched as his sister’s head was cut in half like a log.
And he cried, while his father stepped closer and closer, with anger and fear and pain in his eyes and an axe held high.
Albrecht asked “Why?”
But his dad never answered. He just raised his arm and slammed the axe into the head of the person he loved the most in the whole world. Two, three times.
Then he went back to his wife, ran the axe all along his own arms and finally, holding it with both hands, he slammed the axe two times into his own throat. Two times, then his arms failed.
My brother heard that from a friend, who heard it from another friend.
You know the Barnam House; you’ve seen a picture someday on a website, with that one shutter swinging, or you might have heard one of the stories above or some of the many others.
But in our town – well, everybody doesn’t just know the Barnam House, everyone’s seen it. It’s not even five minutes from my place. If you ever come over I can walk you there. You can see the shutter for yourself.
But I’m not crazy. Not like my brother’s friend’s friend, Thomas.
I used to walk past that place every morning and every afternoon. A huge garden. A gravel path down to the house. There was no gate and yet I never saw anyone even step on that gravel path.
It would have been the perfect place to meet with your friends and do crazy stuff but be sure that no one would ever find out. A perfect place for drugs or crime or just a good scary party.
But nobody that path was always empty. And god, no, I would never have stepped on that path either. I’m all for urban exploring, but there are places where you can see and feel that something is wrong.
Thomas didn’t think so. He asked all his friends whether they’d come along to explore Barnam house and they all said no.
So he went alone.
Alone he stepped on that gravel path and he sneaked around the house with a flashlight in his hand and a knife in his pocket. He wanted to break a window open to get in, but, just out of curiosity, he tried the handle of the back door. Unlocked.
Thomas opened it, slowly, with the large flashlight in his hand like a club. Everything was empty and quiet, except for the wind.
Not even any dust.
He went inside, slowly and quietly. He made his way to the kitchen and saw a sink filled with dirty dishes and a stove with a pot that must not have been washed for thirty years. Knives and chopping boards and the open storage room revealed a large stack of cans and bags of rice and potatoes that he didn’t dare to touch.
He passed the living room and admired the perfectly set table – set for two, not for four. Dry flowers on the windowsill. An open recipe book lying on the seat of an old armchair.
Thomas glanced into the guest bathroom. He looked at the door to the basement and put his hand on it. But something stopped him. He later said the door handle felt too cold and that that was the only reason why he didn’t go down into the basement.
So he went upstairs instead – upstairs, to where they died.
You might also have seen a photo of those old wooden stairs. They were all over the press, photos of those stairs are even used for some other murder cases – they’ve become stock photos for “creepy old stairs” that the newspapers like to use.
And Thomas went up those stairs. He said he felt them bending under his weight and that most of them gave off a groan when his feet stepped on them.
He got upstairs and he saw the four doors. The open bathroom door to his right revealed all that there was to be seen. He thought about looking for a souvenir in there, an old perfume of the Miss or the killer’s shaver, but Thomas didn’t feel relaxed.
He was always that cool guy – open for anything, willing to go alone at night to buy another six-pack, not scared to take a crap alone somewhere in the forest – but in that moment, alone at the top of the stairs in the Barnam House, Thomas wished for nothing more than a good forest. So he didn’t hunt for souvenirs.
But he couldn’t just go back like that.
He had to see it all.
Thomas forced himself to take two steps forward, towards that other door. The bedroom.
Hand on the cold handle. Slowly pushed it down. Pushed the door open and there was light and still he held the flashlight high. Just in case.
Thomas said he saw that the bed was messy and that there were dark stains on the floor around and on the bed. The sheets were still on the bed, clothes still thrown on a chair, a man’s boots still lying in a corner.
He stopped himself from going into the room. Because he heard something; something that was not the wind.
Something like a crying boy.
Thomas closed the door, just in case. He turned left, towards the corridor that led to two doors, one left and one right.
He stopped and listened and heard nothing but the wind. He breathed. He told himself to calm down. Took slow, careful steps.
He said he chuckled at himself for being so scared of a ghost story and yet he clutched that flashlight tight and his other hand felt for the knife.
As if a knife can stop a ghost.
No more sounds. Just the wind, howling loud. Occasionally, from the room to his left, came the clatter of the shutter slamming shut.
Thomas said the room to his left just felt boring. There was no reason to look inside. But he wanted, needed, had to look into the one to his left.
That corner room.
He felt cold but calm. The door to his right felt safe. So he turned to the other door. Glanced back towards the stairs and the bathroom in the distance. Placed his hand on the door handle.
Warm door handle.
And he stopped, breathed, and just before he pressed it down he heard the crying.
A boy’s voice.
The boy, crying and sobbing.
“Don’t hurt me.”
And Thomas, seventeen, he was a tough guy, but he ran.
Down those stairs and out the back door and around the house and back towards the street, screaming.
When he got home he grabbed his blanket and he rushed to the sofa, next to his mom, wrapped his sweaty body and cried, but even when she asked, he didn’t tell his mother why.
He locked himself inside and rarely even went to school. He only told his friends about all of it a few months later. And those friends told their friends, like my brother told me.
Thomas, he fell apart. He still got his grades, but his mother had to pick him up from school and he didn’t go much elsewhere anymore.
Thomas became a warning, not to mess with the Barnam House. A warning, that Albrecht was still there, waiting for an answer why he had to die.
That still lives on, but different now.
Two years after Thomas went there, there was a group of drunk teens. A dare and they went inside. Smashed the table. Sprayed each other with the Miss’s perfumes. Stood in awe, staring at the dark stains on the floor and bed.
And then they went to Albrecht’s room.
They didn’t hear anything, they just opened the door.
And they found the body, dry as leather, of a seven year old boy.
Naked, hands missing, with an axe still stuck in his skull.
A boy that went missing two years earlier.