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art by Shane M. Gavin

The Midnight Knock Again

Patricia Russo's first collection of short stories, Shiny Thing, has been published by Papaveria Press. Read other stories by her at DailyScienceFiction.com.
This is what everybody knows about the Midnight Knock:
It doesn't always come at midnight. We call it the Midnight Knock out of tradition. Or laziness, which amounts to the same thing.
Happy people never hear it. And oh, how happy people love to point this out. Especially in public. It's not necessary to smile all the time--imagine a whole city full of constantly smiling people; it's enough to make you sick--but heaven help you if you frown, or sigh, or forget yourself and start thinking grim thoughts as you're walking down the street. Some idiot is bound to call out to you, "Watch it, friend, or you'll hear the Midnight Knock." Occasionally a stranger will tap you on the shoulder, or even poke you in the ribs, to tell you that. Grinning, like it's a big joke. I've punched such people, though only four or five times.
If you hear the Midnight Knock, you should never, under any circumstances, answer the door. It's the first thing parents teach their children, even before Don't Talk to Strangers. And schools reinforce it, drilling this rule into the pupils' heads. In my day, they wouldn't let you graduate from kindergarten unless you could identify the primary colors, count to ten, tie your own shoes, and recite on command, "Never answer the Midnight Knock." In high school, they taught us to restrain people. Health class consisted of first aid, sex education, and how to tackle people headed for the door. I got an A that quarter. And then there are the training programs, for professional minders. Nobody can watch someone else every minute of every day and night. People with unreliable family members--a depressed spouse, a morose grandmother, a sullen teen--well, people with such family members, and money--can hire watchers. Watchers with no qualms about wrestling Grandma to the floor and tying her up. All in the name of the greater good, of course. To save Grandma from herself. Everybody knows this. Even, without a doubt, Morose Grandma, or Depressed Spouse, or Brooding Teen. After they've been pinned down, gotten their wrists and ankles clamped together, perhaps had a bit of a sedative administered as well, and once the knocking has stopped--because it never does continue for very long, a minute or two, which seems nearly eternal while it's going on, but is only really a crumb of time--why, then, Unreliable Family Member recovers his or her senses, and is quite grateful for having been prevented from doing something so dangerous and foolish. Or so the advertisements for all the professional, licensed, certified, etc., minding services would have you believe.
Of course people with unreliable family members but without a great deal of money have to settle for makeshift solutions. Locking said family member into his or her bedroom at night. Filling the house with pets--for it is an odd thing, though apparently true (the evidence is anecdotal, but there are a lot of anecdotes) that the more animals there are in a dwelling place, the less likely it is that the Midnight Knock will be heard. "It stopped once we got the cats," people say. Or, "We should have gotten another dog right away after Brully died, because wouldn't you know--" Etc. This is not something that everybody knows, but it is something that many people believe.
When I was eight or so, my parents sprang for a couple of canaries. I find it a little surprising now that they did even that much. Probably it was to forestall comments from the neighbors--"That child could use a pet" sort of thing, criticism veiled as friendly advice. My parents never could stand being thought of as less than perfect, with less than a perfect family. I was an embarrassment, which they dealt with by ignoring me. Hence my surprise when I came home from school one day and found the canaries. "They're yours," my father said. "So it's your job to take care of them."
Oh, I hated those damn birds.
I learned to smile whenever I caught anyone looking at me. A smile is a very good disguise. Tiring, but it beat cleaning the bird cage. I got away from my family as soon as I was able, and have lived alone ever since. I do not have to worry about minders, or pets. I merely have to worry about how to get through each day.
In any case, I never heard the Midnight Knock as a child.
As a young, or youngish, adult, I heard it twice. Both times, I kept myself from going to the door. I sat down. I felt I needed to be sitting, for if I had kept on standing, it wouldn't have taken more than a twitch of the muscles, a lift of one leg, to start walking. And then running. I sat, and held myself still, with my arms wrapped around my middle, and tried to remember to breathe. Neither time did the knocking continue for more than two minutes. But it did seem like forever; it truly did.
There are many things no one knows about the Midnight Knock.
Who, or what, knocks? There are many stories, but the vast majority are second- or third-hand accounts. "I was looking out the window when my neighbor opened her door, and…." "I was in the other room, and the music was on, so I didn't hear him open the door, but then I heard voices and ran to the front, and there…." "My cousin told me about the time her girlfriend jumped up for no reason, they were eating dinner, you know, it was an ordinary evening, and her girlfriend flung open the door…."
Like that.
They are always described as people, or at least having the appearance of people.
People, but odd people. Not people of the city.
An old woman, gray hair down to her ankles, holding a basket woven from green twigs; in the basket, a mound of glittering diamonds.
Diamonds are a popular motif.
A man dressed in a business suit, but wearing furry boots, and carrying an attaché case, of the type attorneys favor. Attaché cases are common as well. So are furry boots.
A Border Knight, a figure out of children's picture books, armor dented and rusty, insignia tattered. Scarred, as Border Knights are always imagined to be. Bleeding, sometimes, from fresh wounds. The Border Knight does not speak. She or he presents a scroll. A scroll, can you imagine, in this day and age.
Then there are the naked ones, who are said to appear in the guise of the lover of one's dreams, smiling, gentle in their movements, as silent as the Border Knights but conveying without words their willingness to fulfill each and every desire and fantasy that ever passed through the mind of the idiot who has opened the door.
And in contrast, there are those who reach in, across the threshold, and take hold of the fool who has answered the knock, crying, "Come along now, come along now, hurry."
There are very few first-hand accounts, and those that exist are considered suspect. Those who answer the Midnight Knock are ashamed, or afraid, to admit it. Often, however, it is not difficult to guess when someone has done so. Something in the eyes. Something in the way they hold their bodies. Something in the way they whisper to themselves. They do not gather together, though. Each one avoids contact with others who have answered the Midnight Knock. Here I am speaking of those who survive the experience with their minds and bodies relatively undamaged. Not all do.
Where do they come from? We haven't the faintest idea. Not from here. That's the only thing we can say for sure. They look like us--more or less--and when they speak, their language is like ours--more or less. Sometimes less than more. Peculiar intonations, archaic words or else neologisms--it is understandable how a school of thought has arisen that the ones who knock come from another time rather than another place. There are a hundred hypotheses, but there is no solid evidence.
Why do they come? and its corollary What do they want? If there are a hundred hypotheses about where they come from, there must be at least a thousand about what their purpose is. Given the fact that those who answer the Midnight Knock often suffer physical or mental harm (or both), it is difficult not to conclude that this purpose is nefarious. But then, is the purpose of predators nefarious, when they take down prey, and tear great chunks of flesh from the beast as it is dying, but not yet dead? No. There is no evil there, no malice, only nature.
Are we prey, then? Do the knockers come to feed on us in some way? Must they do this because of need, as a matter of survival? I used to find a certain appeal in that hypothesis.
But then (and there is always a "but, then"), there are reports, accounts (second-hand, third-hand), of knockers with tears in their eyes and apologetic voices, no diamonds or surprise lottery tickets as bait, who say "please," and "I'm sorry."
This has been going on for over a hundred years, and we have no more answers now than we did when it began.
The city is full of happy people. Those of us who are not comprise a small minority. And this leads to the last question:
Why do the knockers come only to the doors of unhappy people?
Maybe we taste better to them.
Perhaps they are culling the useless.
Maybe they do it just for the fun of it.
Nobody's ever been able to capture one, interrogate one. They vanish as mysteriously as they arrive. And their victims keep to themselves and do not talk about their experiences. Or, if they do speak, it is only to utter nonsense, sentences without verbs, words without vowels.
Facts. We lack even the most basic facts. After a hundred years. It is pathetic. Without first-hand accounts, many first-hand accounts, we will never scrape together even a few specks of reliable data.
All right then.
A first-hand account.
I shall set down my story. Or fractions of my story, while I still can. Already bits are slipping away from me.
I heard the Midnight Knock twice, and restrained myself. I suffered afterwards, gripped by days, weeks, of agitation, sleeplessness, deeper plunges into gloom than ever before, crying fits that lasted for eternities. The usual, the usual and I knew it was the usual, and I knew it would pass, and it did. For a time, I thought holding myself back had made me stronger. And perhaps I was, for a while. But everything ebbs. Resolve. Strength. Patience. Belief that what you have been taught from childhood is true.
Yesterday I heard the Midnight Knock again, and I answered it.
It was a little after three o'clock in the afternoon.
The work I do does not require me to interact with people face-to-face very often. I had just transmitted a report--ahead of deadline--to my employers, an analysis of trade imbalances. It was mindless work, and futile; I had written the same report a dozen times before.
The knock came, loudly--it's always loud--on my front door. One hard rap. I knew at once what it was. People of the city did not knock like that.
I thought, Again? Again? I've beaten them twice, and still they come.
And I thought, So many questions without answers. Here is the chance to discover if any of those questions do have answers.
And I thought, Why resist? To have twenty, thirty more years of pointlessly enduring one day after the next?
It occurs to me now that many people who go to open the door when they hear the Midnight Knock may have the same thought.
I stood up. I went to the door. I don't remember running, but I reached the door quickly. Perhaps I did run, after all.
The knock came again. I had time. The knock would sound, at intervals, for two minutes. I could have reconsidered. I could have hurried back to my work station, sat down, held myself. Covered my ears.
I slammed my hand against the panel that opened the door. I do not remember holding my breath, but there was a high-pitched humming in my ears, and I felt lightheaded.
I told myself that I was prepared for whatever it turned out to be on the other side of the door.
It was a man, or in appearance a man, of middle years. He looked like my brother might have looked, if my brother had not died young. He was not dressed in business clothes, or in ancient armor. He wore a common yellow shirt and loose trousers. He was not carrying anything that I could see. He did not lunge at me; he stood on the proper side of the threshold, hands folded in front of him. His eyes were kind. His mouth bore a small, delicate smile.
It has taken me half a day to put together that description. Reading it over, I cannot swear that is it factual.
"Hello," said the man. "Will you come with me?" His voice was soft. His accent was neutral.
"Will you tell me who you are, who all of you are? Will you tell me where you are from? Will you tell me what you want? Will you tell me why you only knock at the doors of the unhappy?"
His smile widened. "You are one of the inquisitive ones. There are stories about your kind. I have never met one before."
"Tell me."
"You will see. You will see for yourself." He held out one hand, but did not break the plane of the threshold. "Come. It is a short journey. Down to the street, north two blocks."
"What will I see there?"
"You will do something there, if you choose to."
"Choose?"
"I cannot compel you. Not to come with me, not to walk two blocks with me, not to perform any action."
"When your people come to mine, and mine go with yours, we return damaged, ruined. Destroyed."
"No. It merely appears that way."
"And often you take us by force."
"Never."
"You're a liar," I said, and I reached for the panel to shut the door. Despair swept over me. No answers. And years and years to come of one damn day after the next.
"We come to the unhappy, because happy people never listen," he said, and my hand wavered. He looked at me, and asked, "Have you ever been happy?"
"No."
"Is there anything that could make you happy? Love. Drugs. Recognition. Wealth. Rewards. Praise. Achievement."
"No. Nothing."
"It is the same with us all," he said. "Nothing to be done. And yet there is something that we can do. Not for ourselves, but for others."
"What others?"
"Come and see."
I went with him, then, the man with the soft voice and the kind eyes and the delicate smile (not like mine, the smile that I learned to fake whenever I felt anyone's gaze on me; his counterfeit looked nearly genuine), and we must have gone where he said we were to go, down to the street and two blocks north….
If I concentrate, with my eyes closed, I can draw some of the particulars back. I retain enough sense to understand that I cannot be sure whether I am remembering or imagining. But this is what returns:
An empty storefront of a vacant building, a For Rent or Sale sign in the window.
I do not recall people. I mean passersby, pedestrians, cyclists. But then, I never pay much attention to people when I am outside. There were probably the ordinary number of folks out and about for a weekday afternoon. I know there is no streetcar route on that block, so it would have been odd to see people waiting at a stop. Not that I did. I mean, I didn't. There were no streetcar stops.
That is not important.
My memory is breaking up. Splintering.
The man led me to the storefront. He did not speak on the way, or touch me.
On the pavement in front of the vacant building a child squatted. Boy or girl? I can't be certain. I think I knew at the time. It's gone now. The child was weeping. Not sobbing, not having a tantrum. Just squatting on the pavement, head down, alone and crying.
"Go on," the man said.
"I don't understand."
"Yes, you do."
"But I am a stranger. Her parents… his friends…."
"Did yours?"
"No."
"Ever?"
"Not once."
"Your siblings, relatives?"
"No."
"Friends?"
"No."
I am sure he asked me that. I am sure I answered the truth. I believe I remember accurately what he said next: "Happy people don't understand."
And I believe I said, "They make it worse."
"It's not their fault."
"Yes, it is." Perhaps I did not say that. Perhaps I merely thought it. Perhaps I am thinking it only now.
"Go on," he said again, or maybe he just looked at me and waited.
"But I am a stranger. He will be frightened. She will run away."
"You won't know until you've tried."
And I remember sitting down on the sidewalk next to the crying child, and speaking to her or him quietly, and putting my arm around his shoulders, and telling her a little story, and then a joke, and listening when she finally leaned against me and hugged me tight, and told me all in a breathless rush about the miserable day he had had, the terrible injustice she had been subjected to. And I said that tomorrow would be better, and wiped his face with my sleeve, and said, Can you smile? Can you laugh? Because if you can smile, if you can laugh, then you know that your sadness is passing. And the child smiled. And stood up. It didn't laugh, only ran off to wherever it was supposed to be, home, I imagine, but not before it turned twice to wave at me.
I remember that very distinctly, the child turning to wave, and smiling as it waved. Its smile was not like mine, nor like that of the man who had knocked on my door. The child's smile was real.
I sat on the pavement long after the child had gone. The man stood, gazing down at me.
"For this?" I said.
"For this."
"And all the others? All the rest? The ones who answer the knock, to lovers and lawyers and knights, it is for this?"
"It is. Most of them understand in the end, and do not blame us too much."
I could not remember how to find my way home. The man must have led me there. Yes, he must have, because he said something else, before he left. Vanished, the way a dream vanishes. Before he did, I asked him, "But who are you? Where do you come from?"
"We are you," he said.
And then I was alone in my flat, with the workstation humming, and the events of the past few hours crumbling into bits no larger than grains of sand.
My mind is in pieces. My body will fail, as well. That is what happens to some, to many, who answer the Midnight Knock. But the man said--I want to believe that I remember it correctly. That he said, "It merely seems that way."
And, "We are you," he said.
The diamonds are lies. The perfect lovers are lies. The scrolls bestowing ancient titles are lies. Lures and bait, snaring people through greed and hope. What the man told me might be lies as well.
But the child was real. I doubt many things, but I do not doubt that.
We are you.
Does that mean that one day I will be knocking on the doors of the unhappy people of the city, and enticing them out with illusionary wealth or false promises of powers. (Come with me and I will teach you to fly, to become invisible, to restore the dead to life….) Or, like the man who came to me, to smile an almost genuine smile, and say, Come and see for yourself, and lead someone to a chance to be kind?
The thought almost makes me cry. It is the grief of desire.
I am not at my workstation. I do not remember lying down, but I am. I am lying on the floor.
There is nothing to do now but wait.
Time will tell.
I hope when, if, time does tell me, I will be able to understand its words.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 22nd, 2012

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