It was a strange time for someone to be knocking on the door. A strange time for someone to even be awake. But I’d been having a strange dream, so I guess the strangeness of real life seemed normal by comparison.
In the dream, I’d been standing in a dark hallway. There was someone with me, in front of me. A woman. She was beautiful, with plastic-perfect skin and hair styled so exactly it seemed like a single molded piece atop her head. She was facing me, but not looking at me, looking through me, past me, beyond. And she was smiling. A huge smile. A too-big smile.
Then I remembered my niece was spending the night while her parents were on a business trip. She was staying in the room at the end of the hall, and I’d told her she could knock on my door if she needed anything. I’d said it to be nice, but now, somewhere in the neighborhood of half-past-three, I regretted it.
I opened my door, asking “What do you nee—”
My niece wasn’t there. I glanced up and down the hall, lingering a moment on her door at the end of the corridor. It was then that I heard the third knock.
Coming from her door, not mine.
I went to the end of the hall and called softly through the door, “You alright in there?”
There was no answer, so I cracked the door open and peeked inside. My niece was fast asleep under the covers. I was a little relieved, but mostly confused. If she was asleep, who was knocking?
I turned around slowly and paused. Staring down the dark hallway, it looked so familiar, but that only made sense, because I lived here and saw it every night. It made sense that it would show up in my dreams.
Shrugging off the chill, I returned to my own room, remembering just before climbing into bed that I’d left my niece’s door open. With a sigh I went back into the hall just in time to see the door click shut on its own.
So maybe she was awake after all. But what did I care? I was tired and she didn’t seem to need anything. As long as she stayed quiet the rest of the night, I’d have forgotten it all by morning.
Then she started screaming.
Sleepiness melted away as I rushed back to her room. I yanked on the doorknob, but it didn’t budge. Like it was locked. Except that door didn’t have a lock. The only other explanation was that someone was holding it closed from the other side, and my niece was just a little girl.
“Who’s in there?” I shouted, trying to make myself heard over the screaming. I fought with the doorknob, twisting this way and that. The door itself creaked with the strain, but still there was no give. The knob and door may as well have been a single fused object.
Giving up my futile actions, I took several steps back and ran at the door. My shoulder bounced off the wood, and I heard a faint crack. My niece went on screaming. I rubbed my bruised shoulder as I prepared to try again, backing up a little farther this time. I ran for all I was worth. My bare feet had good traction against the carpet. I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the impact—
But stumbled to a halt at the last second. The mothering instincts that had so far fueled me disintegrated. My legs turned to stone and my blood to ice. Another voice was coming from beyond the door. A grinding voice dredged from the depths. It sounded male, which surprised me. Why had I imagined it to be a woman? Its words were maddening in their unintelligibility. Each syllable stabbed my brain and squeezed tears from my eyes. I clamped my hands over my mouth to hold in a cry.
There’s no describing the relief I felt when the voice finally stopped. Perhaps the only thing to compare it with is the terror that rose in me when I realized that my niece’s screams had stopped as well.
I’d ended up on the floor, and there I stayed for several minutes, trying to understand what the abrupt silence meant. When I finally tried the doorknob again, it turned easily, but I couldn’t make myself actually open the door. What would I find?
I felt the metal knob slowly become a part of my hand as I crouched frozen in indecision. The adult in me demanded I check on my niece to make sure she was alright. The child in me, however, held me back, told me she wasn’t alright and I wouldn’t be able to handle what I’d see when I opened that door.
So I didn’t. The doorknob finished melding with my hand, and I could feel its coldness seeping down my arm. The hours hurt my ears as they passed, and come dawn I was still there in the hallway, a numb statue.
You have to look, the gray sunbeams seemed to say as they crept in from my bedroom. Their warmth found me and thawed my joints. Feeling returned to my fingers, and with it came a tiny measure of courage. Not much, but enough to make me twist the knob and push the door open. As the hinges creaked, I closed my eyes. I wasn’t quite ready; not quite yet. I waited for the door to swing all the way into the room, counted to three, and finally looked.