“The knocks started eight months ago.
“I had only moved in two weeks prior and was completing my undergraduate at the time, pulling one of the dreaded all-nighters that defined my senior year, which is why I was still awake at that godforsaken hour. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I was studying for. Some exam in calculus, I think. It hardly matters now.
“Around three in the morning, a curious sound echoed down the hall to where I was slumped in front of the coffee table, papers and books strewn around me and thoughts still in a fog despite the fact my veins were practically brimming with caffeine. The walls are like paper in the apartment complex; usually a fact that annoyed me to no end, but now provided a welcome distraction from anti-derivatives and integrals. Three slow and distinct raps rattling one of the thin door frames. A knock, from the other end of the hall. Lifting my head from the textbook, I craned my neck, inducing a very violent complaint from the tired muscles, to try to better detect any further noises. But there was silence on the floor, and after a minute I was ready to dismiss the noise as a hallucination brought on by sleep-deprivation and return to the mind-numbing flashcards and formulas when the tattoo rang out again, though this time perceptibly closer.
“If you’re reading this, you probably know that there’s only one row of apartments from the third floor up, equally spaced out between the crumbling plaster. When I rented the place at the start of the semester, Mrs. Rodriguez said something about botched construction during expansion being why the upper floors don’t match the lower two where both walls are lined with warped wooden doors, but I digress. You also probably know this apartment is about three-quarters of the way down the hall, with only two doors between it and the apartment at the end of the corridor. So assuming that whoever was lurking in the corridor started at the first door next to the landing, there would have only been five apartments between us, which, as someone living alone in an already shady area of town, was enough to plant a seed of unease in my stomach.
“There was another pause, then a minute later, another unhurried knock, another door closer to mine. Quietly, I crept around my backpack laying gutted on the floor and a few empty packs of chips, towards the door, pressing against the engineered wood. Peering through the peephole, I couldn’t see anything that immediately caught my eye. The shadows pooled in the corners of the fish-eye lens, a rectangle of pale moonlight illuminating a stripe of coarse carpet directly in front of my door and providing the only source of light. A minute passed slowly, each second weighing upon me like a chain around my neck. Then I saw it. Slipping along the boxy shafts alighting on the pale gray floor, a long, thin shadow glided into the strip of light outside my door. Fingers oddly long, even for a distortion, profile smooth, as if whoever was knocking at the crack of dawn had no lips or nose, only a severely pointed chin, neck lengthy and almost crooked at places. Involuntarily, I shuddered.
“It was only later I realized that with the windows behind him, the shadow should not have crept sideways. It should not have turned from profile and tilted its head, like it could see me even through the wood. It should not have waved, long fingers twitching like the limbs of a spider in its death throes.
“Three strikes at the apartment two doors down. The shadow spilled further, consuming more of my meager patch of moonlight. A pause, but then the groan of hinges as Uriah Hector opened his door. The only reason I knew him was because once some mail with his name and apartment number was delivered to my mailbox, and I’d decided to return the mishandled letters personally, since I’d seen him compulsively check his mail compartment and vanish into his apartment and knew he lived close. I’d immediately regretted my decision when he’d opened the door. Picture the stereotypical crotchety old man—short, Santa Claus beard, screechy, teeth stained yellow from chewing tobacco—then crank that image up to eleven, and you’d have Mr. Hector. When he’d seen me with his mail, he’d snatched the envelopes right out my hand and started howling about how I’d stolen them even as I tried to explain that the postman had made a mistake, muttering something about disrespectful millennials before finally slamming the door in my face. So at the time, waiting for the stranger to inevitably come to call, I was hoping his nasty demeanor and some good old-fashioned hollering would scare the knocker off. But apparently, even the cantankerous senior had reservations about screaming at the top of his lungs at three in the morning. A few muffled clips of muttered conversation I couldn’t make out, then a squeak as the door rattled back into place.
“Betrayal seeped into my gut, completely unwarranted. It wasn’t like Mr. Hector had known I was counting on him to rattle the stranger’s resolve, after all, and the steady pattern I had come to dread still echoed into my tiny apartment ominously from the hall. By that point, the seed of unease had blossomed, its roots and stems overtaking the nerves in my limbs and filling them with its adrenaline pollen. The fog muddying my thoughts had long since risen. I reasoned that even if the trespasser really did bring his unwanted presence to my doorstep, I could just pretend I was asleep. Though in the back of my mind, my subconscious trailed a cold finger down my spine, whispering that simply not answering the call was not an option.
“The knock came again, this time so close the reverberations through the plaster made my door tremble in its frame. I had to take a few steps back, heart going ninety miles an hour in my chest. And then it was my turn.
“With each knock, my feet unwillingly shuffled forward, like I was a puppet pulled along by thin threads toward an unknown master. Moving dreamily, my hand rested upon the cold steel and pushed down. Still not entirely sure what I was doing, but feeling compelled to do it anyway, I opened the door.
“It was a man. Average-looking, like someone you’d pass on the street without entirely registering their presence. Even now, I can’t remember what his face looked like, and I’m not sure if I would be able to even if his face wasn’t half-shrouded in shadows. But I remember his smile. That still haunts my dreams on the nights I can actually get my eyes to close. It was impossibly wide, skin raw and cracked at the edges of his ragged lips, visible gums spotted with white flecks and teeth large and straight, like marble tombstones. I stared at that smile for what seemed like an eternity, the image of it stamped into my brain like a brand. It took me a few moments to realize his mouth was moving.
“‘Is Jack Caraway here?’ he asked.
“There was a silence, and a response wrenched itself out of my throat, that no, I’d never known anyone who went by that name. He stared for a second, eyes wide and bloodshot, and I started to worry that he would try to force his way into my apartment to make sure that I indeed did not have Jack Caraway stowed away in my closet before he turned without another word and walked towards the apartment next door. No, not walked. Something between a slump and a march. Robotic. Like he was being compelled as much as I’d been.
“I watched as the man rapped on the door next to mine, fist pounding into the wood with so much force it rattled, waited for a minute, then repeat the process with the next apartment over. Finally, he came to the door at the end of the hallway. With what seemed like trepidation, the stranger slowly raised a clenched fist, and tap the door once. A groan screamed into the hall as the door slowly creaked open. There wasn’t a hand guiding its motion, nor any silhouette I could see in the blue glow emanating from the doorway that dyed the man a sickly hue to indicate a person stood behind it. Only one in front of it, whose head snapped in my direction. Streams of red leaked from the rims of his eyes and nose, running around the harsh edges of that damn smile and dripping onto his teeth. White stained with splatters of tissue and blood. Subtly moving in the imitation of words as he stepped into the apartment, door slamming behind him.
“I think he was mouthing ‘Jack Caraway.’
“When I went to check the carpet at the end of the corridor once dawn had broken, there were no stains to indicate that the man with the bleeding eyes and nose had actually been there. I still didn’t knock on the door. Just in case.
“I even went so far as to ask the neighbors I was friendly terms with if they’d heard anything that sounded like knocking the night before. No one had, and all I got out of the venture was a few suspicious glances. Though I didn’t try to ask Mr. Hector, partially due to the fact I was loathe to suffer his wrath again and partially because I hadn’t seen him since, not even downstairs at the mailbox. So for the next couple of weeks, I tried not to think about it too much.
“The next time I’d heard the knocking was exactly a month later, at 3 A.M.. This time I was binging the new season of some popular show after a bad breakup, bleary from the combination of mild sobbing, the late hour, and a pint of ice cream I’d consumed, when I heard the familiar tattoo against the door near the landing. Freezing in place where I’d curled up on the couch, I listened to the silence out in the hall, the only source of sound the flickering pantomime of reality’s laugh track. As the knock repeated, slowly, deliberately, on the next door, I had to mute it. It felt too much like the studio audience was mocking me.
“Another series of knocks, a pause, then whatever new stranger was out there stood outside Mr. Hector’s apartment. The hinge whining as he flung open the door, I was a statue as I heard a more frenzied and angry muttering than last time from the hall, then a door slamming. Rapping on my neighbor’s doors first, the knocker finally came to call on me with those bone-chilling taps, and I found myself at the door, swinging it wide.
“It was a different man, just as non-descript as the first. In fact, if I had met him on the street, I might have confused him and the original, but somehow I knew that wherever the first knocker had gone, he was not coming back. They had the same smile, though, the same bloodshot eyes.
“He only said one thing.
“‘Is Jack Caraway here?’
“Shaking my head slowly, I stared as he moved on, pounding on the next two doors, and wondered how no one else had woken to the thudding. Then he knocked on the last door once, and it swung open, drenching the hallway in ethereal blue light. Blood began to trickle down from his facial orifices. Red on white, seeping into the dry, cracked skin. In those last few seconds, he stared back at me, grin splitting his face in two, and mouthed two words, before being pulled through the doorway as it gently shut behind him.
“This visitor disturbed me almost more than the first, because now there was a pattern. Now the event from the previous month couldn’t just be discounted as the conjurings of a caffeine-addled college student. Still, I distracted myself from the implications by throwing myself into my course work, my job, my friends, anything to keep me from the question that plagued me at night when I tossed and turned, unable to find solace in dreams of smiles as wide as elephants, bleeding eyes, and doorways glowing the same color as the twilight sky.
“‘Who is Jack Caraway?’
“Maybe I could have ignored it, kept shoving out all the intrusive thoughts with the thought of graduation and getting over my ex, if the third knocker hadn’t turned up a month later.
“I think at that point I had just woken up from a recurring nightmare about raps on my door. I definitely remember almost laughing at the irony as the thuds came against my door, tears rolling down my face and shoulders shaking as I got up to answer the door. Trying to wrench my traitorous hand back with my other arm did nothing, and soon the moonlight was streaming into my apartment as I stared eye-to-eye with a young woman, her lips fissured, bloody, and pulled back in a Cheshire Cat smile. Those were the only things I can really picture about her compared to the others: young, distinctly female, and a smile that seemed much more pained than the others’ manic grins. In every other way, she was utterly unremarkable. Except for her words:
“‘Is Jack Caraway here?’ she begged.
“I replied no, and her eyes threaded through with red seemed ready to burst into tears.
“‘Is he your father?’ she asked, and I was taken aback by the divergence.
“‘I don’t know anyone named Jack Caraway,’ I said. The woman looked ready to pose another question when her body jerked, and she paused for a moment, spasming, before slumping and striding robotically towards the next door, and the next, until she was swallowed by the apartment at the end of the hall, still sobbing his name silently through her bared and bloody teeth. Ultimately, that encounter was what did it. After that, I had to know who he was, why these people were coming to my door in the middle of the night looking for him.
“All of my spare time went towards finding Jack Caraway. A quick online search revealed an author named Jack Kerouac and a few Facebook profiles, but I got a feeling deep in my gut that none of them were who I was after. After classes, I would scour the nearby libraries for newspapers, enlarging microfilm after microfilm, scanning obituaries, marriage announcements, birth bulletins, local articles, anything that might tell me if he’d lived around here. Unfortunately, the only thing I gained from those long hours spent huddled in a backroom was an ungodly amount of knowledge on local history. Then I started looking at birth records from the past century, and while there were a few hundred Jacks and a couple people with the surname ‘Caraway’ or variations thereof, there were none that combined the two. From there I went more hands-on, visiting nursing homes, old neighborhoods, asking everyone I came across if they’d ever heard of Jack Caraway. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy. But I know I’m not. Or at least, I thought I wasn’t. How could I be when there were obviously others searching for him too?
“The knockers came according to schedule: once a month, always at 3 A.M., lacking any distinctive characteristics I could use to track down who they used to be, besides their bloodshot eyes and cracked smiles. By the fourth visit, I’d started asking questions of my own.
“‘Who is Jack Caraway?’ or ‘Why are you looking for him?’
“But they’d only stare at me until I said he wasn’t there. Once I told a knocker that Jack Caraway was in my bathroom, and she was welcome to come inside and talk to him. She’d only shook her head slowly, and a feeling of dizziness hit me like a truck, only subsiding when the stranger had moved on to the next door. They always seemed to leave me with more questions than answers. Except one. After the sixth month, I’d had a realization. The only difference between me and the knockers was that I was only beginning my search, and this was their last resort. The apartment at the end of the corridor was where you went when you couldn’t find answers anywhere else.
“It was where you went when there was nothing left.
“Of course, this raised questions of what exactly was going on with the apartment in question, what the blue glow was, how they’d even known about it, etcetera, all red herrings I was unwilling to dwell on in the face of the mystery of Jack Caraway. This realization only served as more motivation; I would be the one to succeed where the knockers had failed. Over time, my grades started to slip, I lost my job, and my friends and family first tried to distract me from my quest, then abandoned me once they saw how deep I was, and I barely graduated with enough credits or any resemblance of a social life. But the less that acquired my attention, the more time and money I could spend on what I’d come to refer to as my Purpose.
“Then the eighth visit came.
“As was routine at that point, I was waiting by the door at 2:59, hand eagerly clenching the handle, mentally preparing any questions I could try on the newest stranger. At 3:00, the knocking started right on schedule. Counting down the doors to go, I relished the laggard pounds, each a reminder of how much better I was doing than whatever unfortunate soul stood in the hallway. When the third knock came on my door, I swung the door open full force to confront the stranger.
“Except it wasn’t a stranger.
“Uriah Hector stood in my doorway, teeth eerily white where there had once been tobacco stains, wrinkled eyes boasting almost-completely red sclera.
“‘Is Jack Caraway here?’
“‘Mr. Hector?’ I whispered in disbelief. Sure, I hadn’t seen him since that first stranger came to call, but I assumed he was off visiting relatives or had been finally put in a geriatric facility; I’d never expected he’d been following the same trail I’d been on, how could I have ever expected?
“‘Is Jack Caraway here?’ he repeated, voice raspy in that smoker’s way that strangely reassured me. Even if his teeth may have been wiped clean, his lungs had not. I have no idea why that made me feel better, but it gave me enough strength to reply that I hadn’t. He’d already started to move on to the next door when I called out.
“‘Mr. Hector? What—what does that door lead too?’
“He paused midstep, and slowly, deliberately, his head twisted around to the back of his neck like he was some kind of owl. I watched in horror as I heard the sharp crack of bone, as those bloodshot eyes turned on me.
“Then the old man started to knock on the next door, head still rotated around, but I slammed the door so hard that the plaster on the ceiling shuddered, head in my hands. Everything was downhill from there.
“My search, which had been happily speeding along the tracks, had been derailed abruptly when my savings ran out. I tried to beg my friends and parents to lend me some, but they all refused, claiming it was my own fault. But of course it’s not my fault, right? It’s all because of Jack Caraway. I did everything for him.
“But now I’ve been out of food, rent money, and clues for weeks now. I don’t look down on the knockers now; I imagine that they felt as desperate and empty as I do now, that there was nothing left for them in what outsiders call our real lives. They sacrificed themselves for knowledge, and I deeply respect that. I have a feeling I’m going to join their numbers soon, now that there’s nothing left for me either. Which brings me to why I’m writing this letter. I assume you’re the next occupant of my apartment, and I’m probably… elsewhere. Don’t be concerned. I’ll have finally completed my Purpose, and I’ll go out like they all did.
“A smile on my face.
“You, on the other hand, have something to live for. So I’m leaving this as a warning. Unless you want all the plans you’ve made for your life to go awry, don’t open the door for us.
“Never. Open. The Door.
The woman takes a sharp breath, pressing her hand against her mouth. She’d gotten up for a glass of water, and when she was fumbling blindly in the cabinet she’d felt her hand brush against something parchment-like. A bit of reorganizing had revealed an envelope, tucked in the crack between the cabinet wood and the wall, and flicking on the kitchen light, she’d begun to read it aloud.
Feeling a bit queasy, the woman glances at the analog clock on the microwave.
Her stomach begins to churn as a muffled sound echoes through the thin walls into her apartment.
Biography: Ever since I can remember, I’ve been driven to create, whether it be art, poems, or stories. To me, creating something is a way to get people to think about the world differently, whether it be through a particularly good painting or a thought-provoking novel. It lets us put the stories and images we all carry inside our heads down on paper where everyone can see. A few artists that have helped inspire my work with their own stories and images are Neil Gaiman, Maggie Stiefvater, and Jonathan Sims.