To the People Who Bought the House at the End of My Court:
You don’t believe in ghosts, obviously. You were probably glad to get the house at such a bargain price. Still, it seems like someone should tell you.
Their names were Jason and Cindy. He was forty, she was thirty-five. They bought the house twelve years ago, in a brand-new development, the same time I bought mine.
I didn’t know them well. We said hello and chatted in passing. They were sociable, outgoing people who organized a block party for the neighbors every Fourth of July, where the street was effectively blocked off as people brought out their camp chairs and barbecues. It was, ironically, not the only time they caused the street to be blocked off.
The economic good times seem so long ago. We bought the house for under $200,000, right before prices started going up. We refinanced once or twice, pulling out a little cash along the way. Jason and Cindy did too. I don’t know what they used the money for. Maybe it was something noble, like a college education, or medical bills. Maybe it was something frivolous. Some of it surely went to landscaping: the Greek goddess fountain in the front yard is still running.
Back then a house seemed like a source of infinite wealth. When prices hit $500,000, I wrote in my journal that, “In another year or two we’ll be millionaires on paper.”
It was hard to know where to point the finger when the economy crashed. And “crash” seemed like the right word: an endless freeway pile-up where one car slammed into the rest, and then another, and then another. Some, like me, managed to just scrape past the wreck and escape with only minor damage. Some didn’t.
The neighborhood started to empty. We could always tell when a house was foreclosed: the lawn went wild, and more than once there was a pile of junk in the driveway, nothing even worth stealing. Ghost houses, I called them, haunted by good intentions and promises that were never kept.
Squatters would move into one house or another until the police chased them away. I didn’t even mind the squatters: at least they took care of the yard.
Somewhere along the way, Jason lost his sales job. Cindy kept hers in tech support, but it wasn’t enough. Cindy’s parents came to live with them; the reasons might have been health-related or financial. Maybe both. Jason and Cindy filed for bankruptcy.
I don’t know what mistakes they made in those twelve years. I don’t know how they came to owe $500,000 on a house now worth less than the $200,000 they paid when they moved in. I don’t know if Jason had mental problems, or if Cindy and her parents saw it coming.
All I know is: on the last day before they had to vacate the house, I woke at four in the morning to the sound of my dogs barking a furious alarm. The police had sealed off the street after getting a phone call from a desperate Jason. They tried to talk to him from outside the house, but got no response. They tried for a long time. Finally the SWAT team burst in and found all four of them: Cindy and her parents murdered, Jason shot by his own hand.
The news reports say he’d already killed the rest of the family by the time he called the police. Maybe he just wanted somebody to bear witness.
Four people are dead and a bank got a little bit richer. I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone at the bank meant for this to happen. It wasn’t their fault that Jason lost his job, that the housing market collapsed, that four people together couldn’t pay their debts. Jason is not absolved for what he’s done, and Cindy must have had a hand in whatever financial choices they made. And yet. These people were more than dots on someone’s ledger. I can’t help thinking that the only comfort for Jason was knowing that the bankers, too, were getting far less than they’d been promised.
You don’t believe in ghosts. I’m telling you, there are four of them who are dead certain that your house still belongs to them. They’re angry, and they don’t know where to turn their anger. Tread carefully.
Laura Ruth Loomis is a social worker in the San Francisco area, currently working on a novel-in-short-stories. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Writer's Digest, On the Premises, and Many Mountains Moving.