The first last caller came at nearly ten o’clock, well after the stragglers among the trick-or-treaters had paid their visits to the cul-de-sac. Janie hustled from the bathroom in her pajamas, her foaming toothbrush jutting from her mouth, to see who it was. I waved her back, crept to the door, and peered through the peephole.
It had been a distinctive, unmistakable knock, an old-timey knock, a shave-and-a-haircut knock minus the two bits. But no one was there.
I eased the door open and switched on the outside light. I peered to the left and the right, looking up and down the street. Leaves stirred in small, lazy circles, and a neighbor across the way hauled a trash can down to the curb, one janky wheel rattling. But no one was there, not at the door.
It took me ten minutes to settle Janie down, hopped up as she was on fun-sized candy bars and hot cocoa. “It’s just some kids pulling a ding-dong ditch,” I told her. “Happens every Halloween—it’s nothing to lose sleep over.” Back then I half-believed it myself.
The second caller came five years later, when I was in college, rapping at my dorm room door right around 10:30. It was a knock shy that time, just shave-and-a-hair, but the feel of it, the weight of it was the same. I hoped it was one of the usual suspects—Veronica, Brenda, or Zoe come to convince me to go to a party, or maybe even been Ben, sneaking up to see me—but something in me remembered.
I set my copy of Beloved aside, slipped from my bed, checked myself in the mirror, and pulled the door open. But no one was there.
Down the hall Ella fumbled with her keys, one striped towel slung over her shoulder and a second spun up into a makeshift turban, her shower caddy dangling from the crook of her arm.
“Did you just knock, Ell?” I called.
“Not me,” she said, looking at me, looking past me. I crept down to the lounge, where the three branching corridors of our dorm floor converged in a small annex. The TV was on, the annual airing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown flickering on the old, muted set, but the annex was empty.
The third came when I was 26. I had my own apartment then, one of just eight in the unit. It was a gated complex, and old Joe, a retired police officer, roamed the grounds after dark, rattling his keyring to let everyone know he was coming and going. Three staccato knocks startled me, loud enough for me to hear over the music on my Discman. They were sharp, emphatic knocks, and on my apartment door—my own door, not the reinforced security door that had driven disappointed trick-or-treaters to a table of cider and cupcakes at the rental office.
It was eleven o’clock, so it could only be Bailey from upstairs. She was a third-shift nurse, probably heading in to work, starting her day while I was wrapping up mine. I could have sworn I heard her voice. “Bailey, do you know what time it is?” I sighed as I tugged the door open. But no one was there.
I always locked my apartment door, but that night I wedged a chair from the kitchen under the knob. I sat up until two o’clock, watching most of a double feature of Hammer horror movies. When I went to bed, I locked my bedroom door as well.
I married, divorced, remarried, divorced again. I had some good years, some bad years.
When my mother died my sister got the bookstore and her jewelry; I inherited the family recipes, the quilts, and her house in the sticks, 200-odd miles away.
It was a beauty, a midcentury farmhouse she had renovated room by room over the course of twelve years. A week after I moved in Deke Chalmers, the farmer who leased the fields around the house, came by to extend the deal he’d made with my mother. We settled things over a cup of coffee with a handshake. For a solid month just about every neighbor along the old dirt road paid me a visit and brought me a pie or a casserole.
I had two dogs by then, Dozer, a mastiff mutt, and Bessie, a terrier. Dozer was a low-key senior citizen, a sweetheart who weighed as much as I did; Bessie could be trusted to bark at anything Dozer couldn’t be bothered with. Neither one of them rose when the front hall echoed with two solid knocks at 11:30 on an otherwise forgettable Tuesday night. It wouldn’t be a trick-or-treater. Mine was the only house for a quarter mile in either direction, and they’d had trunk-or-treating for the farm kids in the parking lot outside the Lion’s Club two nights before. Dozer lifted his huge head groggily when I hurried past him, and Bessie wriggled out from under her blanket, half-awake.
Near the door I thought I heard someone whisper, someone giggle in reply. I wondered if the Chalmers kids would be out this late, and I wondered how they’d respond to a talking-to from someone so new to the neighborhood. But no one was there.
I grabbed a flashlight and walked a slow circuit around the house with Dozer by my side. Bess yapped frantically at the front door, unhappy to be left out. I ran the beam of the flashlight along the rows of cornstalks, dwelling on the shadows between them. Dozer wagged his tail, glad to be part of this strange game.
I knew what had to be coming even then, and I carried the knowing with me.
For a few years, when I started to have trouble getting around like I once did, I lived with my sister. We talked about most everything, but I only ventured to bring up the last caller once, a few days into October. Either she didn’t hear me, or she decided to ignore me. Most of our talks went that way. I never mentioned it again, though I always double-checked the doors on Halloween night.
When Eileen passed I moved to Hazelton Heights. It was pricy, but they had 24-hour nursing and an activities director named Caroline, a bundle of energy who had a knack for persuading the older folks that tomorrow might be worthwhile. We had painting classes and yoga on the lawn, and she even threw us a Halloween masquerade ball. I went as a witch, and my costume won me a fifty-dollar gift certificate to the bookstore downtown.
I thought I would be ready when the last caller came, but I was wrong.
They knocked only once, right before midnight, and the knock was different—sharp, knuckled, the sound of bone on wood. It felt definitive, determined. I walked to the door in my nightgown, lightheaded and unsteady.
I’d hoped I’d understand when it happened, hoped it would make sense. But that’s not how the game is played, is it? Callers knock and run away and snicker in the dark. They hide and watch if we’re not quick enough to catch them in the act. We answer because we have to know who came to call. That’s it. That’s all.
I did it once myself when I was thirteen or so, egged on by my friends. I didn’t know who owned that door, that house; I didn’t think it mattered. But I never did it again. I was too afraid—not of the dark, or even of getting caught, but unnerved by the certainty that I myself was being watched as we watched my neighbor peer out into the night, that I had interrupted something that had designs on that door.
I took my time getting to the door. I tucked my toes into my slippers, one foot after the other. I smoothed out my gown, and I claimed my glasses from the nightstand. I didn’t check the clock because I didn’t need to.
I suppose I could have pulled my covers up to my chin and stared at the door until dawn. But that’s not the half of the bargain we take on, is it, we people on the inside, however safe and warm we might be? When a caller knocks, we rise, we answer; we ease the door open.
Could be anyone. Could be anything. Could be the caller we’ve been waiting on, caught up to us at last.
William Wandless is a professor of English by day, but by night he writes horror and dark fantasy fiction. His latest stories appear in Dissections, Dark Moon Digest, and Bourbon Penn, and new work will soon appear in Home Sweet Horror, an anthology from Black Ink Fiction.