Every generation of a family takes a little from the one that preceded it: hair and eye color, the shape of a nose, or the way a face can show surprise or sadness. Sometimes those pieces come together in surprising ways, and a distinctive gesture or the eyes of a long-dead relative suddenly return in the face of a newborn baby. In this way, each generation is a return of the dead, a haunting of the living family by the dead one, a reminder that a family’s roots can run very deep.
Chris writes to tell me about the summer of 1985, the summer he lost his best friend, Chris. Eric and Chris had been friends since the second grade, inseparable playmates when they were young and, as they grew older, teenagers looking for anything to relieve the boredom of suburban Maryland.
“That summer was our last summer before high school started,” Eric tells me. “We didn’t have any real plans, but we knew we were going to start some trouble.”
No mailbox was safe from Chris’s baseball bat and no robin or starling could out-fly Eric’s BB gun. The summer was quickly turned into a catalog of venial crimes and acts of petty vandalism.
Even this, however, was not enough to completely alleviate the boredom that seemed to haunt Eric and Chris. “It was around the middle of summer that we went up to the old Kocher place,” Eric tells me, “to find the ghost that was supposed to be up there.”
The boys had heard the stories all their lives. They were told in the margins of a teenager’s circumscribed life: heard in the bleachers after the game, passed around at sleepovers and bus rides, whispered in the shadows at the video game arcade.
“It went like this: there was this family that used to live there, the Kochers, and the son got sick and the dad thought it was something like a curse,” Eric tells me. “So, he kills his son but then the whole family gets sick and they all die because the son comes back and kills them all. And the son was supposed to be buried in the back yard, in the well.”
Legend had it that the son’s ghost walked the countryside at night and haunted the shell of the old Kocher homestead. He could be seen, it was said, on certain nights but no one could say exactly which nights. He was chalk-white and moaned in despair, or he was covered in dirt and blood and growled like a dog.
Whatever the description, one detail that all storytellers agreed upon was that the Kocher place wasn’t just creepy, it was haunted by the past, by an act so evil that it seemed the very land the house was built upon could not forgive it.
“Chris said we ought to go up some night and check it out,” Eric tells me. “Like a dumb-ass, I said, Why not tonight?” And Eric later said that Chris smiled wide at his friend’s invitation.
Eric had a permit, so they drove up in his family’s old station wagon, arriving just before midnight. They parked at the end of a dirt road and walked the rest of the way through trees and bushes guided by the light of the full moon and the boys’ cigarette lighters.
At the top of a small rise lay the old Kocher place, or what was left of it. Intentional neglect had collapsed the walls and roof, while generations of kids like Chris and Eric had gnawed away at what was left.
A weathered square was all that remained of the home’s foundation. Weeds and small trees had long ago claimed the interior, and only the imagination could describe the house that had stood in the spot a hundred years before.
Eric and Chris paused at the foundation’s edge. It lay like a giant tombstone, seeming to mark some boundary, but its power and its purpose were elusive, suggesting a house, a murder, a ghost, a story.
Chris produced two cans of beer from his coat pocket and gently rested his right foot on a foundation stone. Eric got out his pack of cigarettes and shared them with Chris. The boys drank and smoked, conversing quietly in the vacant face of night.
They waited. They waited for a sound like a snarl or a smell like a corpse or the sight of a see-through, floating sheet or something they didn’t know what.
“We were just hanging out for a while, teasing each other about how lame it was,” Eric recalls, “and then Chris says, Where’s the well?”
In the dark, it was hard to make out anything past the little clearing where the foundation stood, but as the boys searched the perimeter, they found a small hole. “We were looking for a big thing, like the kind of well you might see in a cartoon, I guess,” Eric tells me. “This thing was just a hole lined with bricks. It was pretty small, too.”
Having almost stumbled on top of the well, the boys stood uncomfortably close to its rim. Eric felt an out of place chill in the summer night air. Chris wondered aloud if the small hole at their feet was even big enough to fit a boy’s body. Eric didn’t answer.
Chris continued his speculations and Eric sensed a strange fascination with the Kocher place, with the old legend, and with the murder of the little boy. “I asked him flat out, I said, Why are you so concerned with it,” Eric recalls, “and I guess there was something about my tone, something set him off, like I was accusing him of something and then he told me why.”
Chris revealed to his friend that the Kocher place wasn’t just some old house, not to him. Chris’s grandfather had married a woman named Mary Koch, shortened from Kocher after the events that wiped out her Great Uncle’s doomed family. The boy buried in the well is my cousin, Eric told Chris, and blood will have blood.
“Then we heard something scratching,” Eric remembers, “and it sounds like it might be coming from inside the well.”
A sound like clawing began to rise from the old well, from the ground beneath the boys’ feet. Chris looked at Eric and Eric looked at Chris. Their fear was a kind of excitement, an anticipation that their world was about to change, maybe not for the better, but at least it would be a change.
“It was getting louder, this scratching sound,” Eric tells me, “because whatever it was was crawling up the well, it was coming up from below.”
The boys began to back up and Eric tripped and fell on the rough ground. The sound was getting louder. “I was hoping and praying it was just a raccoon,” Eric tells me.
Instead he saw a lean dark figure quietly emerge from the well. Rotted clothes covered its body and strings of black hair obscured the face. It crawled on the wet grass with stick-like hands, its head turning from side to side to taste the air.
It was the size of a boy, so young and small, and now Eric wondered how it had fit inside the hole.
Eric was still on the ground, clambering backward over rocks and fallen branches while Chris stood still, seemingly transfixed by the strange sight.
The figure – the boy – stopped and turned its head upwards to look at Chris. Eric got to feet and ran, screaming at Chris to do the same. But, before he ran blindly into the dark forest, Eric saw the bestial face, the blood red eyes, and the hideous fangs that marked the boy as something more terrifying, more deadly than the ghost of a murdered child he had expected was ahunting this place.
“It was a damn vampire,” Eric tells me. “We went to look for a ghost, but we found a freakin’ vampire!”
After an hour of being lost in the woods, Eric got back to the car and found that Chris was not there. “I thought he must be lost, too,” Eric remembers. “I figured I’d lock the doors and have to wait for him.”
Just before dawn, Eric saw a dark figure emerge from the trees. It was Chris. Eric stopped and stared at his friend for a moment before unlocking the door.
“The ride home was quiet,” Eric tells me. “When I asked what happened, Chris said it was just a raccoon.” But as Eric glanced at his friend sitting beside him in the dark car, it seemed to Eric that the strange mark on his neck could have been dirt or a scratch from a tree branch or something else.
“I didn’t see Chris much after that,” Eric tells me. “He seemed different. He started hanging out with a different crowd. And then his mom got sick and she died.”
Eric ended up in a vocational school and now operates his own heating and cooling business. Chris’s life took a darker path. He disappeared for a time after his mother’s death and people said he had gotten into drugs and moved away or was in jail or was dead. “No one seems to know for sure where he went or what happened to him,” Eric tells me. “I guess he’s kind of like those ghost stories now.”
Maybe all that remains of Chris is a legend, something people tell each other to give a scare, to teach a lesson, or just keep the boredom at bay for one more night.