My father and I went into witness protection when I was just a little girl. We changed our appearances as much as possible (hair, clothing styles, he grew a beard, etc.). We didn’t change our names, though. Dad said it would be unnecessary since we would be able to move far enough away to be safe from anyone who meant us harm. We moved across the country to a nice house pushed back against the Great Smoky Mountains. He never told me why we had to do it, but I never asked. I trusted him.
When I turned 16, however, I thought it was time that I finally found out why we were forced into this new life. I had been living with the burden of curiosity for far too long, so I asked him to tell me. He looked a little nervous, but he sat me down in the living room and told me everything. It was like he had been rehearsing the lines for many, many years. He knew this talk was inevitable.
He told me that when I was very young there was a nice family that lived across the street from us; a mother, a father, and a beautiful little girl. One late night, when the streets were empty and the beds full, a man came to their house and killed them. The mother and the father were hanged in the living room, and the little girl was left dead on the couch, bloody and bruised.
The way he told it to me sent a shiver down my spine; it sounded so familiar. Ever since I was a little girl I have had the same nightmare at least once a week. My mother, father, and I would be at home. Then, in the middle of the night, a man would break in. He would kill my parents, and then turn to me. As soon as he got to me, my eyes would open and I would jolt awake. I decided not to tell dad about it, though, I didn’t want him to worry.
He continued on and told me that he just so happened to be awake the night of the murder. He watched from his bedroom window as the man drove away. Once the cops arrived, he told them all the information he could: type of car, license plate number, even which direction he went. The policemen assured him that the man was very dangerous. They asked my father if there was any chance he was spotted peeking through the curtains, but my father was unsure. The officers encouraged us to flee town and go under witness protection to be extra cautious. My father wanted no trouble, so he obliged. Two nights later he loaded up the truck with everything that would fit and drove us to the other side of the country.
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I asked him if they ended up catching the guy who did it, but he said he chose not to keep up with the case. He said acting interested or involved could raise suspicions and get us into trouble. I was proud of my dad for doing the right thing and keeping us out of harm’s way, but I was burdened with the need for closure. I wanted so badly to know if the man was caught.
As we finished talking, I found something else weighing on my mind. I debated bringing it up considering it was never spoken of, but curiosity got the better of me. “Dad,” I said, “what happened to my mother?”
His eyes dropped and he slouched back in his chair. When he looked up, his eyes had a warm, soft tone. “When you were a young girl,” he said, “your mother was taken from us in a car accident.” His face hardened a little. His soft look was gone.
“What was her name?”
He leaned back and rubbed his face. We sat in silence for several minutes. I didn’t think he was going to answer. “Karen,” he said, finally, “her name was Karen. And she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
Hearing him talk of her like this made me very happy. He truly loved her. “One more thing,” I said, “if you don’t mind?” He gave me a slight nod. “Do you have a picture of her? Or..Or maybe of all of us?”
He smiled, stood up, and walked into his bedroom. I sat anxiously as I listened to him rummage through his bedside drawer. He came back a few seconds later with a single photo in his hand. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “It’s the only one I’ve got, so I’d like it back.”
I held it up and examined it. We were all three standing in front of our old home. My eyes first went to him; he looked much younger. I moved over to the woman I had barely known, the woman who was supposed to be my mother. He was right, she was beautiful. I scanned down to the little girl in between them; it was me. I couldn’t help but notice how much different I looked. The little girl in the photo had bright red hair, while mine was now a dark brown. “I didn’t know I had red hair,” I said, laughing.
“Oh, yes. But we had to dye it, you know, for safety reasons.” His eyes met mine. He looked nervous for some reason.
“Yes, I understand,” I said. “She was beautiful.” I pointed to Karen, to my mother.
“Yes, she was. And she loved you so much.” He took the picture from me and turned around. “It’s time for bed, Katherine. Goodnight. I love you.”
I told him goodnight and went to my room. I couldn’t stop my mind from racing. So much information was processing, and so many thoughts were coming and going. I wished I could remember my mother. There was so much more I wanted to know.
As I lay awake, sleep was nowhere in sight. I thought of anyway to link myself to my mother, to learn anything else about her. I got an idea. I remembered the old boxes in the basement that had sat untouched since we moved to our new home. Maybe there were more pictures my father had forgotten about. I sprang from my bed and quietly crept from my room to his bedroom door. I listened carefully for any sign of him being awake, but it was silent. I tip-toed to the door that lead to the basement. I opened it slowly, walked in, and carefully closed it behind me. I got to the bottom of the stairs, flipped the light on and went to the corner where the boxes sat collecting dust. I was unsure why, but my heart was racing. I don’t know if it was because I was sneaking around or if I was just excited to find something about my mother.
I pulled the first box from the pile and opened it. It was filled with old video tapes from long ago. I pushed it aside. The second one was junk taken from the old house. I pushed it aside as well. As I navigated my way around the other boxes, a small one in the very back corner caught my eye. I pulled it out and noticed it had a label on it. It read:
Jackpot. I ripped the lid off and peered inside. My excitement died when I noticed there were no pictures, just several newspaper clippings.
I picked up the top one. It was an article from the Obituaries on August 23rd, 2002. It took me only a few seconds to recognize the face – it was my mother. As I read along, tears began forming in my eyes. I thought I was going to burst into tears until I got to one section that confused me. It said:
Karen is survived by her mother, Gerry; father, James; brother, Chesley; sister, Kathy; and husband, Jack.
Where was my name? My father’s was in there, how could they have forgotten her daughter? I laid the article to the side and picked up another. The title read:
FAMILY SLAIN IN GRUESOME MURDERS
It didn’t take long for me to realize this was the article about the family that had lived directly in front of us. I began to red.
Last night, on August 24th, 2002, a mother and father, Lyle and Helen Brown, were strung up by the neck in their living room. Their daughter, Lindsey, was found dead on the couch, bruised and bloody.
I stopped reading. This wasn’t the reason I came down here, I thought. I only wanted to find something about my mother. I tossed it aside and picked up another.
It was from August 23rd, 2002. It read:
WOMAN AND CHILD KILLED BY DRUNK DRIVER
Yesterday, Thursday, August 22nd, 2002, a mother and her daughter were killed in an automobile accident. They were identified to be Karen and Katherine Woods. They were struck head-on by a drunk driver who was believed to be–
The article cut off. My head was spinning. I didn’t understand. Why does the article say I was killed with my mother? I felt angry, but I didn’t know who to be angry at.
I laid it aside and picked up another one. This one was from August 26th, 2002. The title read:
DNA TEST SHOWS MISTAKE IN FAMILY MURDER
As I began to read, I heard the basement door click open; my dad was awake. I hurriedly crammed everything back into the box and stuffed it back into its corner. As soon as I got to my feet and turned around he arrived at the basement floor. I was surprised to see a nervous look on his face instead of an angry one.
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “I haven’t been completely honest with you. Come upstairs.”
I was surprised at the calm tone in his voice. I rushed up the stairs and sat on the couch. He sat beside me and took my hand.
“Dad,” I said before he could speak, “why does that article say I was killed in the wreck with mom? I don’t under–”
“I will explain.” His face turned pale and his voice nearly left him. I could tell he was stressed.
“I’m sorry,” I started, “we don’t ha–”
“Yes. Yes, we do. You deserve to know,” he said. He took a deep breath before he spoke again. “Your mother was killed around the same time as the murders across the street.” His eyes began to water.
“I faked your death.” He was crying now.
I felt so terrible, but so confused. I know it was hard for him to talk about, but the burning desire to know the truth kept me quiet.
He wiped his eyes and began again. “I faked your death in case that man came after me. I didn’t want him to know about you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“Okay, dad, I understand.” I let go of his hand. Something wasn’t right. “I’m going to bed now, okay?” I told him I loved him and quickly went to my room and locked the door before he could stop me.
He lied to me. I knew he lied to me because my mother was killed before the murders. How would he know we would need protection?
I grabbed my laptop and sat on my bed. I searched “Karen Woods car accident, 2002.” I clicked the first link. It looked to be the same newspaper clipping that I had just read downstairs, except this one wasn’t cut off. I found my place and continued reading.
–struck head-on by a drunk driver who was believed to be Lyle Brown.
My heart stopped. Everything clicked. The neighbor. He was the drunk driver. He was the one who killed my mother. My father faked my death because he knew that the family across the street was going to be murdered. He knew because he was the one who murdered them.
He didn’t want anyone coming after me for revenge.
I searched my father’s name and clicked the first link. It looked like a wanted poster.
JACK WOODS WANTED FOR FIRST DEGREE MURDER AND CHILD ABDUCTION
My heart sank to my stomach. All of my muscles tightened. I didn’t understand the abduction part, but I was growing too angry to think. My eyes swelled with tears. I couldn’t believe the monster my father was.
It hurt my heart to accept it. I didn’t want it to be true, but I couldn’t deny it. I felt so terribly for the parents, but even more for the little girl. I searched “Lyle, Helen, and Lindsey Brown murders” and clicked the first link. The first thing I saw was:
WARNING – GRAPHIC PHOTOS
I scrolled to the first picture. It was straight from the crime scene. Lyle and Helen were hanging by their necks in the living room. I felt like I was going to puke.
I didn’t want to see the next picture. I scrolled anyway. All of my nausea, anger, and sadness was immediately replaced with confusion when I saw it. I looked at the little girl curled up on the couch. What bothered me most was not the blood or the bruises.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had to call the police. As I grabbed my cell phone I heard a loud knock on the door.
“Katherine,” my dad was yelling. “Open the door. We need to talk.”
Fear struck my body. I began to shake. He knows, I thought. He knows that I found out the truth. I ran to my bathroom and dialed 911. I told them I was in danger. I told them Jack Woods was in the house and I needed help.
I had to play it off. I had to act like I didn’t know until the cops got there. I hid the phone in the medicine cabinet and walked into my room. I wiped my eyes and tried to look as normal as possible.
“One second, dad,” I yelled. It made me sick calling him that.
I walked timidly to the door and opened it. He looked angry and nervous. He was pouring with sweat. I could smell the liquor on his breath.
“Sorry, I was in the bathroom,” I said.
His drunken eyes locked to mine. Neither of us said a word. I could feel my eyes beginning to water. I was truly terrified.
He stared at me for several more seconds. It felt like hours. No matter how scared I was, my eyes never left his. His were evil, the eyes of a killer. Without saying another word, he turned around and stumbled to his room. I slammed my door and locked it.
I walked to my laptop to look at the picture one more time. I stared at the little girl curled up on the couch. Once again, it wasn’t the blood or bruises that bothered me. No. It was the bright red hair.
The cops showed up ten minutes later, kicked his door down and arrested him.
As they ushered him away in handcuffs, his eyes met mine one more time. I knew it would be the last time I had to look into the eyes of the man who killed my parents.