I don’t know what they are. The sane portion of my mind bays out to me the word, “ghoul.” The ever-growing insanity inside me knows no word for them however, and only whispers, somehow more loudly than the baying, “come in.” I am alone now, save for the strange and desolated creatures knocking at my basement door. I wasn’t alone one day ago though. I cannot be sure what has happened to brother and mother, but my mind runs ‘round me horrific visions of what they may have become.
I do not know where they came from either. This house is far into the woods and hills of our village; no neighbors for miles. We never listened to the radio our father bought for us after he died, so if any explanation had been given by others who survived this waylaying, we would not have known of it. What we did know is only what we could hear.
It began two days ago with a simple slow rapping at our front door at some point in the late night or in the very early morning. We were in bed, asleep, and so did not hear the knocking. It was only in the morning, when our mother went to check to see who was knocking at our door, that brother pleaded with her not to. He stopped her at the bottom of the stairway and told her not to answer the door, to check first through the high, narrow glass pane windows above the door. She gave him heed and only checked the window, verifying the deadbolt was still locked in. She backed away from the door, confusion and alarm sweeping across her face. She instructed us the go into the kitchen and wait for her there. We did so, brother being in a veritable excitable horror as he hid underneath the table. I was reluctant to follow, but given the show of alarm from mother, and brother’s panic, I decided it would be wise to mimic his position. From our lack of vantage, we were only allowed to know what was going on through sound alone until mother came to retrieve us. There were small scuffing sounds on the floor; mother walking about in a frantic manner for what brother and I soon discovered to be mother’s attempt to find father’s old hunting rifle. We could hear the bolt throw back and a slide of metal on metal as she loaded the rifle and locked the bolt back into place. More scuffing, then mother shouting at the knocker to leave saying, “I’ve got a gun! An’ don’ be surprised that I know how to use it when you find a hole through ya belly!” But the knocking continued, even while she spoke. Then we heard a yip of consternation, then silence, then, quiet, “How many are ye?” Two scuffles back towards the kitchen and, “No, get back an’ go! I amn’t lettin’ ye in here!” Mother grew silent, and from that silence bore new terrors. We heard the knocking become slightly louder, and quicker, but now the rhythm was confused sounding. “I’ll shoot ye! All of ye!” Knocking was her only reply.
Mother was under the table with us a moment later. She told us there were four of them out there now. She hesitated any more tellings, but decided it was safer for the two of us to know what was out there. “They ain’t normal people,” she said. “They don’ walk right, like they’re drunk from a bad night at the pub. Maybe they’re just that too. And I couldn’t see their faces, they were covered in hair stuck on, probably from the heavy rain we’ve been havin’. And they just keep knockin’ like they’re askin’ me to let them in, but I amn’t, don’ worry none about that.” She told us we need to go upstairs and wait in my brother’s room. There was a window there that looked over the front of the house, five meters above the front door. We scurried our way from underneath the table, brother taking up the rear behind me, and made to run up the stairs. That’s when I remembered Olly. I stopped and tried to ask about her, but mother grabbed my wrist and pulled me up the stairs. The knocking had then spread to the window next to the door. A quiet tap tapping I could hear even as we rushed up the stairs; a flash of a grey, knotted fist knocking on the glass.
Mother rushed us in the bedroom and slammed the door to. She turned to my brother, and in as calm a manner as she could bring to show, asked him what he had seen and why he had stopped her from opening the door. His face blanched and sagged a bit, what little stubble on his face standing on end. He looked at me and then back to mother. “Whatever it is, ya sister is old enough to know,” mother said. He looked away, out the window, a single tear dripping from his chin, his face reddening.
“I heard it last night,” he began. “I woke up and heard it.” His voice choked and cracked.
“What’d ya hear, lad?” Mother’s hands were clamped over his shoulders, I think more to keep herself from collapsing though.
He choked again, then said, “I had my window open like always. I heard a rustling comin’ from the woods there, and thought a deer or stoat or somethin’, and just rolled over and ignored it. But it didn’t sound like any deer or stoat, I know what those sound like. So, I get up te look ou’ the window. And I see it stumblin’ out the woods. It sees Olly, but the damn girl is asleep with just her deaf ear pointin’ to. It was so fast, once it saw ol’ Olly, I couldn’t even track it, it just blurred from where it was to where Olly was sleepin’. I tried to find somethin’ to throw at it, but when I looked back-” He choked on a sob, then paused. “I didn’t want to wake ya up or make any sounds. I closed the window as quiet as I could, but I was afraid if it saw me move or heard me it would just be standin’ in front of me and I’d go too.” He broke down then, and mother brought his face to her chest to stifle the sobs.
My shock must’ve been showing, because mother told me Olly was dead. She saw her body on the ground outside. She also said she saw exactly what brother was saying about not being able to track their movements. When the other three came out of the woods and spotted the other knocker at the door she said they, “got all fuzzy,” then they were right at the door, adding their knocks to the other. I broke down as well, and mother pulled me in to her chest and the three of us had a short cry over Olly. But mother didn’t let it last. She knew we had to find out how many of them there were, and if we could escape. She told us to stay there, and she left the room shutting the door behind her.
Brother and I sat under the window waiting for her to return. Occasionally I would straighten up and twist over the windowsill to get a look below. There were four at the door, knocking rapaciously, slowly. There were still two more stumbling out of the woods, disappearing and then reappearing, one at the door and the other at the window. They lifted their hands, in a half fist, as heavy looking as if they were holding a pale of water. Their fists fell upon the wood and glass, their wrists snapping back and forth in time with the rhythm. I couldn’t get a good look at any of their faces as their hair was long and matted to their gray skin, leaves and thick spider webs woven throughout their hair.
I was pulled down by brother the third time I looked. He told me I was going to get them all killed if any of those things saw me. I wanted to argue because I knew we needed to know what those things are, but he was right. It was better to play it cautious, or at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Maybe if we acted quicker, before they all came in, maybe if we broke the back window and ran out, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten them.
Brother still looked like a ghost, and he was even shivering by then. We sat side by side underneath the window of his bedroom and stared at his door, afraid that at any moment we’d hear the knocking there too. We could hear it through the floorboards by then. It echoed up and enveloped us like a dread mist, settling into our minds; a constant droning that threatened to evict our sanity. I swear more had come even after the few minutes that had passed since I looked. The knocking was louder, faster, but each knock could still be distinguished, and I counted the dead space between the knocks. Each one had three seconds of nothing before the next crack at the door or window. Brother must have been doing the same.
“It’s like their talkin’ te us,” he whispered, his voice coming out in a low horse tone. “Their knocks are sayin’, ‘let… me… in…’”, emphasizing each word with a small tap of his finger on the wood floor.
His eyes were on the handle to his bedroom door as he said this, and I got a tingle up my spine. But I knew what he meant. I could hear it too. But it was different in my head. It sounded to me like they were saying, “help… me.”
The door creaked open and mother slid her way in. She said she looked through any window she could, but most of the first-floor windows had knockers at them in the front of the house, and she could see more coming up from the field behind the house. “We’re bein’ surrounded,” she said.
The echo of the knockers was morphing into a din. By the time I’m writing this, it has become a roar. Now, as I sit in the basement, the knockers know where I am, and knock on the basement door, the walls, the windows. There is only one knocking that can be taken from the rest. A knocking on the very floor. My heart knows who it is, but my mind is holding it back. But the walls around my mind are breaking, and I can feel the cracks beginning to crumble away just as the candles I lit around me are slowly burning down to the wisps.
I found four more candles in a wooden chest I located in the far back of the basement. The light was gone so I resorted to feeling my way along the walls of the basement until I stumbled over the chest. It wasn’t locked. I felt around the interior after I swung the heavy lid open, not caring that it made a loud creaking sound. Those things doubtfully heard it over their insistence that I let them in, and anyway, they already know where I am. The flame from the match stick I fished out of my front nightgown pocket fizzled and died down after proliferating to the candlewick.
I can only assume this chest was my father’s, as it held his belongings from during the war. There was a blanket there, a dingy gray old thing, British Army issue from the war by the look of it, along with a dinged-up and grimy silver medal that lay on top. Underneath was a folded muddy green uniform with a yellow page tucked under the flap of the right breast pocket. I took it out and in the faint candle light, read, “10th Division, 29th Brigade, 5th Battalion, Connaught Rangers, Gallipoli, 1915.” A dark green rectangle with a smaller lighter green rectangle inside of it was drawn next to that. Mother must have buried it down here among the cobwebs and dust, not wanting us to find it until she deemed us old enough.
Curiously though, there were two more items beneath the uniform. One, a pistol with a seven-round cartridge laying on top of it, and second, a telephone, the cord attached to the body having been cut. The pistol, I imagine, was father’s standard issue firearm. I picked it out of the chest and initially took in its heft, like an ingot of cold iron. As I write this, I know this pistol, if it even still works, and given that I can even load it, will be of no use to me against the Knockers. There are far many a score more than seven above me.
The telephone was a tad more confusing though. I only vaguely remember mother ever using it. The last time she had however, was a bad night. It was the night after a long winter storm. Four feet of hard-pack snow had built up along the narrow dirt road leading up from the village, cutting us off from anyone on foot or by horse. Our only means of outside communication was a lone telephone wire. I was only eight at the time, so I didn’t understand too well what had happened or what was wrong with mother when she got the call. I was in the kitchen when the telephone rang, finishing my cabbage. It was only a few seconds after she lifted the receiver that she dropped it and crumpled to her knees and buried her face in her hands. Brother was outside, tending to Olly, but he could hear mother’s balling from out there. He rushed in and must have known right away what happened. I was corralled to my bedroom for an early night and later was told that father had been killed on the front lines. Brother was the one to tell me. Mother was bed-ridden for a whole week, brother said of a broken heart, and that it was up to us to keep her strong and make her well again. I couldn’t see how to, and I didn’t, so that burden fell on brother to make both of us better. He made the weekly trip into town with Olly by himself that time, and cooked every meal for us, and even sang what songs he knew to help us sleep, and hummed the tunes of the ones he didn’t. Although at night, I could hear his muffled crying through the chasming hallway between our rooms.
He seemed so brave back then. I am not quite sure what changed in him. Maybe nothing truly changed. Maybe that was his only reserve of courage he had, and he spent it all on our well-being, with nothing more to spare. Or maybe he was born with such a thin and tenuous line to courage itself that father’s death bore too much weight upon it, and the tether snapped, forever leaving brother a coward. That seems too harsh a word to use for someone as compassionate and empathic as him. No, he wasn’t a coward. We were all scared. I don’t know what to call him then. Human, I suppose.
You may be wondering by now, or have already questioned why I am taking so much care in writing this account of my final days with mother and brother, and now here, alone. How can I be so calm and write so much knowing what stands above my head? Part of that calm comes from the weight of my father’s pistol resting on my lap, although it is still not loaded. But the true reason is because I know exactly how they will come for me. It is within my power, so long as I remain sane enough to keep them out. Writing this is helping that sanity keep them in check.
We moved as a body to my bedroom across from brother’s. Mother checked the window, which looked out over the field in the back, and reported there were fifteen Knockers coming up from a long way away. She said the others she saw coming up from before must already be at the windows downstairs. I wish we could have jumped a window and ran, but we could not have known how fast they would be. Like ghosts or wraiths, they would disappear and reappear within less than a second once they found their kin. We were trapped before we could find our bearings. We slipped from room to room, at first only upstairs, and then downstairs, looking for any window or door they weren’t at. We were wasting our time. Knocking could be heard from every window, every door, and even on all of the walls.
The knocking was growing louder, from all sides, to the point where we had to almost yell to one another to be heard. Inconspicuousness was no longer on our minds. The windows weren’t covered, neither was the glass panes on the back and side doors leading outside. We were in full view for the Knockers to see, and them to us. If they have faces, we couldn’t see them behind the matted mess of black wet hair masking them. We did not want to get close to any of the windows for a better look either. We had no way of knowing how strong these things were, or how long our windows could keep from spider-webbing and shattering. But they never did. Never had since we first bought Olly.
Father had just walked Olly home from the village. He was riding atop our first horse, Gabriel, and no, his name had nothing to do with the angel, not directly anyway. It was a strange family tradition dating back to my great grandfather, Jacob Mercer, who named his first horse after God’s Divine messenger, and every horse since has carried that name. Up until Olly of course. She was far too ornery for her name to be changed. She was only the second horse the Mercer family was forced to buy. My family has always preferred to breed our own horses. The first horse my family bought was my grandfather’s third horse, Gabriel. Although that horse was much more mild mannered than Stuck-In-Her-Youth-Potato-Brain-Olly was. He got his horse as a foal from an auction, and while I never learned what that horse’s name was originally, or even if it had a name, it took to Gabriel without a hitch. Like I said already, Olly did not.
Both grandfather’s Gabriel, his second horse, and later our Gabriel, father’s Gabriel, were found out to be sterile. So, without any avenue to breed out from Gabriel, Father was forced to go to market and see if there was a foal there for sale, and if not, then wait for the next horse auction. He ended up doing the latter.
Gabriel had been known for years at that point to have been unable to breed; that was found out before I was born, so mother and father had opted to wait to buy a horse until Gabriel was nearing an age where he’s be too old to carry out his chores. That age ended up being twenty-three. I was six years old then. On his last ride to the village, father told mother, brother and I when he got back, that Gabriel seemed to know exactly what this last chore was, and bore it well. Father also said it must have been Gabriel’s toughest job too, for Olly was exceptionally obtuse for a cob, and for much of the trip back she swung between moods of obstinate malaise, to jerky excitement, which in either case forced Gabriel to literally drag her back to heel.
At dinner that night, after corralling Olly, who vehemently objected to being called Gabriel, into the two-horse stable, father told mother that Gabriel wasn’t faring well. He said they had to rest three times on the way to the village, and five times on the way back. Gabriel no longer trotted, but only trudged along, stepping lightly with each hoof. Father said his joints were bad, and his breathing was cold and shallow. He said tonight was probably “the best time for it,” but mother demurred. I didn’t know what he meant by “the best time for it,” until a week later. And I did not know why mother had disagreed until a few months later. Father understood right away however, and waited the week on mother’s behest. For that week, neither Gabriel nor Olly would do any work. Olly was too young to be a work horse yet, and Gabriel was too old. Father had planned for this. The field had already been seeded the previous month and so we also had no crop to send to market.
Instead of work, brother would take Olly out to the fence by the stable at the side of the house and, under the guidance of father, try to break her. I never liked that term, as it implies breaking the animal’s spirit, killing the wild in her, which is essentially what they did. To her credit though, Olly never answered to the name Gabriel, and shattered the kitchen window upon escaping from brother’s grasp on her first training session. During that short time, Gabriel mainly stayed in his stable, brother tending to his needs, which aside from feeding, were few. There was one thing father did overlook however. Maybe it was an oversight, or maybe it was something he just procrastinated on and resigned himself to the facts later. The time before he went into the market to buy meat and cheese and milk and other supplies for the week, he never bought any hay. And the following week when he came home with Just-Old-Enough-Olly, he knew old Gabriel couldn’t handle a hay barrel on either of his sides while towing along Olly. And so, when brother was tending to Gabriel, he was removing the worst of the hay that he could without leaving the stable barren. It was this chore that caused him to accidentally witness Gabriel’s mercy killing.
On that day, I was told to stay inside and help mother with the cooking and my continued sewing lessons. Father hoped I would take up textiles like his grandfather had and actually make the name Mercer mean something again in the family. The thunderous knocking above my head reminds me that will never come to fruition. But inside I was, cutting potatoes after mother skinned them. We had a great iron pot on the fire, using some rabbit meat from a trap brother had set the day before. Father didn’t look to happy that morning and brother mimicked his mood, so mother and I thought using the rabbit meat he had caught would cheer him up. Looking back, the rabbit stew only made things worse.
I only learned a couple of days after the fact that the whole reason I was kept inside all that day was because father and brother were out digging a giant hole out beyond the field, over by where brother would dump the bad hay. Brother knew better than to ask father why they were digging the hole, with father looking as dark as a storm cloud. When they had finished, it was late afternoon. I only know this because mother had just thrown the chunks of rabbit meat into the pot as father and brother walked in. That dinner was quiet. Not tense, but morose, contemplative. Mother’s mood had darkened since father had come back in, she no longer laughed and hummed and tussled my hair like she had been doing while we cooked the stew, or taught me how to sew. But now father and mother were emotional mirrors of each other, leaving brother and I confused and concerned as well. I thought they were having a fight with each other in their heads, projecting the quarrel into the other’s mind as people who really know one another only can. I think brother knew better though. While I don’t think he perceived what was truly going through my parent’s minds, I think he did know that something significant in our lives was about to change.
After dinner, brother was bound to set himself to work on the last of the bad hay in Gabriel’s stable, and to feed both old Gabriel and young Olly. Father told him not to mind the hay today and just to feed them. So, he did. But leaving that bad hay behind for Gabriel to lay in gave him unease and a twinge of guilt, and even contempt for father. Brother told me when I was older, “how could da jus’ leave Gabriel wollowin’ in his own shite like tha’?” He only used “shite” around me because he felt it was manly to use bad words he picked up from father. On that night, while brother lay in bed, guilt ridden and sad for Gabriel, thinking of the condition his stable was in and how weak and unable to do anything about it he was, father got out his rifle. And while father got out his rifle, brother decided to waylay his guilt and throw out that bad hay to give both he and Gabriel a peaceful night.
He set out. He grabbed the wheelbarrow and pitchfork from the shed and made his way to the stable. He later told me he found it odd that Gabriel was not in his stable, but the stable door had been closed and latched, so he thought father had brought him out for a stroll, benching his anxiety for a runaway elderly horse. He forked all the rest of the bad hay into the wheelbarrow and, lacing the handle of the gas lamp over the shaft of the wheelbarrow, began pushing it to the small hill beyond the field.
I was only told by mother much later that brother had seen Gabriel die. Brother never finished his story of that night. The way I imagine it happening is this: as he pushed the wheelbarrow past the field and up the gentle slope, past that by the tree line where he dumped the bad hay, he must’ve seen Gabriel standing there, backlit by a fat, full, effulgent moon just above him. He probably thought it queer for Gabriel to be standing right in front of the hole he and father had dug just that day. He may have even figured out what was about to happen to Gabriel, I don’t know. But he did see it; the bullet crash through Gabriel’s head. I imagine brother dropping the wheelbarrow and falling back on his heels just as Gabriel fell into his grave. And father hearing brother’s cry in fear, confusion, and grief, and rushing out to comfort him, although any show of comfort or empathy likely only betrayed what gentle scolding was to come the next day.
After that, most of the childlike wonder in him died. He only ever showed any signs of youth and giddiness around me, and that was sparingly and only when father wasn’t around to see him. But mostly he stayed close to Olly. Father must have seen the prospect of their ages around that time. Olly would be getting old enough to learn the chores that Gabriel had done before her, and brother was becoming strong enough to learn and help with father. The two grew together in those two short years before father was enlisted into the war. Thanks to father, they learned their chores together, and brother began accompanying father to the village market with Olly in tow. And in all the little gaps of time they had between the chores and sleep and eating and day and night, they were together. I was only allowed to join them a year after we heard the news of father’s death. That first adventure we had down by the river bed was nice, but their knocking brings me back.
I am finding it harder to block them out. I had hoped, days ago now, that their knocking would become white noise, like the static of the radio when father left it on at night, falling asleep in his chair until the station’s broadcast ended, before mother would come back down to wake him and put away his whiskey. I was able to let the noise swim past me then, as the background sound of a river while on a woodland tramp will be observed, acknowledged, and then compartmentalized somewhere in the mind to be reflected upon later to give life back into a memory, but I can no longer ignore this knocking. It sounds like the shot of a rifle, sudden and punctuating, but the explosion never fades, never dies down. Maybe if it weren’t for that one Knocker, the distinguished amongst the indistinguishable, I would be able to last.
Mother told us we needed to grab as much food and water as we could carry, and quickly. We knew why before she told us. Brother and I could see the shaking window panes, vibrating the wood around them, we could hear the cracks forming, spidering out from where their boney, knotted fists pistoned down upon them. We all knew it wouldn’t be long before they let themselves in, and we would have to jump.
We only had one bucket of water in the kitchen, and that was used for cooking, not drinking, but mother took it anyway. We had little other options. No. We had no other options. It was that, or open the door to go to the pump by the well and let those things in. And I do not count that as an option.
Brother and I raided the cabinets and drawers for anything we deemed useful. Mother had gone up the stairs with the bucket of water already, leaving only brother and I downstairs. I had bread and two onions, and brother said he would get the cheese and potatoes. He looked ashen, and far off when he told me this, and I realized the potatoes were in the basket by the only window in the kitchen, aside from the door with its glass panes. There were three Knockers at that window alone, although only one was totally visible, the other two on either side only showing loose strands of hair and their fists.
“I can get those if you want to grab the bread,” I offered.
I think he must have predicted my offer because he only half smiled and turned away to the basket, turning left toward the den instead of right to pass by the window. Beads of sweat were clearly visible on his temples, despite it being mid-autumn, and his fists were clenched. It was obvious that he was trying to keep his composure for my sake. I never liked that sort of thing, but I loved him, so I humored him.
Grabbing the food should not have taken more than a few seconds, and indeed it was only that for me. I turned and crossed over to where brother was at the other end of the kitchen to take the bread knife with me when I noticed he wasn’t moving. One hand lay on the brick of cheese, the other floated beside his head in a meek attempt to block out the ghastly visage that lay just beyond the glass. He was shivering, his jaw clenched. I called to him, but I doubt he heard me over the knocking only a foot away from his head. I looked past him, past his hand and saw it. The grey fist rapping on the glass, and the greasy black matted hair veiling its face. Rage welled up from somewhere deep inside me. A rage I’ve never felt before. I wanted to throw the bread threw the window and lunge at the ghoul, beat it to the ground, slash at its face, wrap my fingers around its throat and squeeze until its eyes popped out of their sockets, and scream at it and all the rest to leave my brother alone! But I didn’t. I pushed the rage down with a slow exhale and grabbed the cheese from brother’s hand and pulled him to me, away from the window. I held him, humming into his ear, low and soft like mother used to do when we were little and the thunder shook the house. Brother was little again, and that knocking was thunder manifest.
With bread, bread knife and onions clutched to my chest with one arm, and the brick of cheese in my other hand, we walked to the stairs, my arm wrapped around brother’s back, and made our way to mother’s bedroom. We left the potatoes by the window. Mother met us at the doorway, checked that we had the food and stepped aside. The water bucket was in the back-left corner of the room, next to mother’s bed. Another bucket, smaller, was adjacent to the door, at the opposite end and diagonal to the drinking water. Mother explained this bucket would be the toilet. It was then we knew we would never get out. We were told that no one was allowed to open the bedroom window, just as I was thinking it would be good to dump the bucket after every use. Then I realized why we could not open it. We knew they couldn’t get in on their own, and we knew if we opened the window they would begin appearing in the room. I had been in denial in regards to the height of this window however, thinking surely they cannot fly. This window must to high up for them to simply appear in this room. But that’s exactly what they have been doing; simply appearing. We could not risk opening the window. We were unsure, however, if they would eventually break through the windows downstairs from their constant rapping, which was why we were in mother’s bedroom at all. We stepped inside and mother quickly shut the door behind us. Then we waited.
That was the first day. Right now is the third, although I do not know what time it is, if it is day time or night. There are no windows in the basement. Everything that happened that lead me to be this rat in the cage of this house, separated from mother and brother, happened yesterday, the second day.
Insanity doesn’t have to happen over many years. One bad day is all you need. The human mind is frail. We know certain things to be true, we hold certain truths to be self-evident, having no scientific base to place those truths upon, but we know them nonetheless. We know we die, even without sustaining any lethal disease or injury, but we don’t know why. If we met a person who claims to be three hundred years old, we simply would not believe them, despite there being no falsehoods told. We know the sun warms us during the day and the moon does not during the night. But there would be no denying the truth of things if suddenly, one day, the reverse was true. Without the power of disbelief, we all go mad from this revelation. Similarly, we know people cannot disappear, and then reappear instantly in another location. We know that a horde of people does not live in these woods and that killing our horse and then knocking on our door to come in is a juxtaposition of manners that no one would enact. And yet here they are. Madness must surely be the next logical step. And surely the words logic and madness do not belong in the same sentence, yet here they are, twice now.
I sit here, in my basement, back against the brick wall, pen in hand with only four pages of paper left to write on. I can’t write on both sides, as the ink bleeds through. My hands and dress have ink smeared on them, and I can hear mother telling me to wash up before dinner, “ya goin’ te have te change te ya night dress early again t’night. Jesus save ya. It’s like we got two imps muckin’ about with how many times ya brother and ye are always changin’ inte somethin’ clean.” That’s what happens when you tell us to go play outside. And if I weren’t out exploring with brother, I’d be in my room writing, getting covered in ink.
I don’t have a lot of time left. The four candles I lit are already half gone and I have only four pages remaining. I know what will happen once the candles die, but, I can’t bare thinking about it. I’m writing this so I don’t have to.
I remember my first time going out with brother and Olly very well. It was one of the best days of my life, filled with intrigue, adventure, and comradery. It was 1916, and the war was still searing its way across Europe and slowly making its way over to America, like a virus being transmitted to wayward souls on steam ships via the German U-Boat. Mother was sure that the sinking of the Lusitania off our own shores would incite the American president to attack Germany, but at that point, it hadn’t. In fact, aside from the disaster at Gallipoli, where father lost his life, the war hadn’t yet left an impact on our land. This left brother and I relatively ignorant of the true scope of the war, allowing us to retain what was left of our childhoods intact. Mother encouraged this to the greatest extent that she could, giving brother respite from his chores on occasion so he could experience the good in the world too. And she finally allowed me to join him on his romps with Olly.
He came home one afternoon for dinner and announced he had found an old riverbed, mostly dried up, with only a small stream running through the center of the once large river. Mother acted surprised and gave her full attention to brother, but thinking back on it now, I think she knew very well of the old river bed. I, of course, listening intensely to brother’s story, begged mother to join him the next day in rediscovering it. She was reluctant at first, but seeing my elation at discovering new lands, which was what stories are made of, she gave in.
The next day mother insisted brother do half of his chores before he and I went out. He did without complaint. He knew better than I the stress put upon mother by the role of playing two parents. Once he finished, he and I set out on my first adventure. Brother retrieved Olly from her stable and I followed them into the woods just behind our house, west of the field. We tramped along, Olly in front to stomp down any juniper and ivy in our way, for what seemed to my small mind to be a long time. I remember smelling the blue-eyed grass and lilies along the way, and they kept me contented. The blue-eyed grass was mother’s favorite flower. Father used to pick those for her on occasion. Not on any special day or time, but just whenever the mood struck him, so it was always a surprise to mother and it always solicited a kiss. I wanted that. I still do. I’ve never been kissed by another, not like that.
But we romped on, brother talking forward and backward to Olly and I and generally confusing me with who he spoke at as neither one of us answered him. It was beginning to get tiresome though, and I asked brother if we were there yet, where ever “there” was. He said we had already passed “there” and were now in a new country of sorts, “roaring explorers, adamant converts to the Great Adventure” by his words. I admit, this did instill a feeling of foreboding in me, as I did not recognize any of the trees we ambled past, but I also felt an excitement and an anxiety of what was to come, what treasures we would find, if any there were to be found. I had read stories of old Vikings pillaging their way across our land long ago, stealing through the sea and onto villages unawares as to such a people to even exist. Those people are all gone now, but brother convinced me there was lost treasures left behind by those heathens for us to find, and he believed those treasures were all around us. The problem was, the wood was so thick as to not even allow an arm through without a gouge. What we were doing was following an old trail, brother said left behind by the Vikings, which only heated his fire even further. I was caught up in his enthusiasm.
I inquired about the old riverbed. If indeed we had passed “there” by now, then I certainly hadn’t seen any river bed. He said we’ve been following it all along, walking only ten feet or so from its banks and that I was just too short to see it through the dense wood. Funnily enough, my lack of stature would explain why I could only smell the flowers and not the river, I being so much closer to them than brother or Olly were.
We promptly came upon an opening in the wood. The trail curved closer to the old river bed and the trees faded and were replaced by stunted weeds and dried up old tree carcasses. It was upon one of these many fallen trees that brother stood, stretching out his hand to the sky and placing the other firmly of his hip, proclaimed the discovery, and thereby ownership of, this small bank and the stream that cut through it. Olly reared up and mimicked his master’s proclamation. He was smiling broadly, cheek to cheek, exuding gayety and imbuing in me a warmth of such magnitude I must have been blushing. It was so nice to see him in such a state after so long. It must have been the first time seeing him this way since Gabriel.
Brother dismounted the log and said now we should start looking for treasure. He said there must be coffins of gold and silver cups and jewelry buried underneath the riverbed. I explained we hadn’t brought any shovels and this seemed to stump him. He paced around looking perplexed, Olly waning and waxing with the motion of brother, and I finding a small stone to rest upon. I had just begun making a reed whistle when brother exclaimed, “ah-ha!” and ran through the small stream to the other bank and wrestled a smooth flat rock half protruding out of the mud and said “ah-ha!” once more. Olly seemed just as confused as I felt. I walked over to her, patted her and brother began stabbing at the mud with the flat rock. We watched, waiting for the foolishness of what he was doing to set in, but his charisma never waned, so I found myself in search of a similar rock.
A long time passed, I’m not sure how much, but by the time the sky was turning grey, the riverbed must have looked just like the moon. Even Olly was doing her part, digging her hoof into a mud spot here or there, never a one of us turning anything up. No gold, no silver, no jewels, just mud and sand. Brother wanted to try further down the bed, but I told him we needed to be home for dinner. He said dinner could wait, only a little bit more. Before I could rebuke him, he had turned tail and ran down the bed with his flat rock in hand. Olly, who looked rather reluctant, dutifully trudged on behind him. I had no choice but to follow.
He began digging again about five yards down from where we were, Olly dutifully hoofing the mud again, and I sitting on a rock, not wishing to encourage him anymore. The rock I sat on however, moved. I bolted up and leaped a pace or two before turning around to see what it was I had sat on. It wasn’t a turtle, like I thought. I took a few steps closer to it, straining to see it in the fading light. Brother and Olly both stopped their digging and brother asked what was wrong. I didn’t answer right away because I didn’t have an answer yet. I saw that the thing I sat on was squarish and I had sat on the smoothed over side facing the sky. There were fresh marks in the sand where my bottom had moved the object. I grasped it there and tried to lift it out of the sand, but it wouldn’t budge. I called for brother to come and help me pull it out and together we managed. It was a stone, little over half a meter long, with very old, very worn-down carvings on all sides we could see.
“Doesn’t tha’ look like one of those Faery stones, from the books?” I asked.
“Those are jus’ stories,” brother said.
“Bu’ look at those carvings.” I slid my finger down the face of the grey, cold stone.
“Yeah, it’s old, bu’ it’s not real. Old people thought this stuff were real, bu’ it ain’t. Besides,” brother stood and leaned back on his hips, cracking his back in a way that was satisfying just to hear, “that’s just one stone. All the stories I heard, there needs to be a circle of stones, jus’ like this one. I don’t see any others.”
I protested that there could be others buried beneath the riverbed, as this one was half buried at the edge of the bed, but brother waved this off. He said his back hurt now and he was done playing and that we needed to get home for dinner. He looked older then, or perhaps he just looked his age. He seemed like such a child only minutes prior. The thought of him now turning his thought away from our adventure, and back to home and mother and duties left behind by father’s death at the hands of a meaningless battle broke my heart. I had my old brother back for a few hours, and I don’t think I appreciated it enough, and that left me with guilt that I knew I shouldn’t be feeling. Brother walked to Olly and brushed his hand against her face and kept walking, Olly following in toe. I left the stone shortly after and, together, we made our way home.
I cannot delay this tale any longer. I am running out of pages, light, and therefore time. I have examined father’s pistol and emptied the cartridge and found it to be full: all seven rounds. Whether or not these rounds are still good will be left up to faith. I reloaded the cartridge, and am confident I can use it now. The knocking is omnipresent, pervading my very being, pounding away at my sanity.
Mother explained to both of us the need to ration our food. With no way of knowing how long we were going to be trapped in her room, we needed to keep the food for as long as possible. Brother and mother barricaded the door with her dresser and I closed the shades over the window. Mother indicated to both of us father’s rifle under her bed. I found mother’s notebook on her nightstand with a pen by it’s side. I planned on taking it once mother was asleep. At that time, I still held out on the idea of surviving this, and, as ashamed and sickened as I am now by the idea, I thought of using these events as a way to catapult a successful writing career. I doubted anyone who read the book would believe such things could truly happen, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get it out of me. Now I am writing it. This, and it is more cathartic than I thought it would have been.
With nothing left to do but survive, we all lay on her bed and huddled together. It was only midday, but we all felt exhausted. My eyes were heavy and I could feel mother’s arm, wrapped around my waist, begin to slacken and a slight snore eked out. I tried to look behind me, over mother’s shoulder to see if brother was asleep as well without waking mother, but I couldn’t see him. I assumed he was. After all, he had been awake since the middle of the night when the first Knocker came to the door. I put it out of my mind and allowed my body to rest.
I awoke hours later to the thunder of the Knockers. Many more had arrived from the intensity of the knocking coming from down stairs. I blinked a few times to really be sure I was awake, then realizing that I was it occurred to me I had slept through the day and into the night. The room was pitch black. I could feel mother’s arm still around me and I could barely make out the sound of her soft snoring. Gently and quietly as not to wake mother, I lifted her arm from my waist and slowly put one leg and then the other over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. A chill shot through my feet and up through my spine from the wood floor. The room was freezing and I was certain if I could see my breath I would. I wished I had put my shoes on, and am thoroughly regretting it now.
“Don’t light any candles,” brother hissed from behind me.
I startled and turned instinctually to where I thought brother was. “Why not? They’ve already seen us.” There was a pale light coming in through the slit between the shades of the window and I could barely make out brother’s nose and lips.
He didn’t answer. I stood and stretched, raising my arms above my head and interlocking my fingers, my spine popping and my knuckles cracking, my muscles tensing all the way down to my toes, my breath held and my eyes squeezed shut. I lowered myself from my tip-toes and let out a satisfied sigh.
“Well if you insist on no candles then at least open the shades to let in the moon,” I said. “They don’ know we’re up here.”
A sliver of moonlight cut across the bedroom illuminating it just enough for my memory to fill in the gaps. I padded over to where the food was to make myself and brother a cheese and onion sandwich. As I began slicing the bread, mother woke up, so I made her a sandwich as well.
She asked us how we slept, an awkward question in such a circumstance, but we knew there wasn’t anything else to say, and we had to say something to keep the knocking at bay. That’s when brother told us he hadn’t slept at all, just waited for us to wake up. Mother asked him why he hadn’t slept, but he didn’t answer. I think she and I knew the answer already though.
We ate in silence, huddled back on the bed. We hadn’t anything to say, nor anything to do, only to listen to the knocking. I lost track of time, I had no way of knowing how long we sat there for, huddled together to keep warm. Like before, when brother and I waited from mother to return, sitting beneath brother’s window, I tried to pick out the individual knocks. It was impossible to do. There were far too many. Then, as still now, it sounds as if there is but one large fist banging on all sides at once, and I began to imagine a giant ghoul looming over our house, matted greasy hair vailing its face, grey skin heaving, multiple fists from many arms bashing against the house simultaneously. I imagine the wood cracking, splintering, the windows shattering; It punches through, all its fists smashing against each other at the center of our house, now crumbling around us, crushing us, killing us.
Thoughts of escape consumed me, though I became increasingly aware of the futility of it all. Jump out the window, break my ankle and the Knockers are upon me. Break through the front door, side door, or back door, Knockers swarm me before even a blade of grass caresses my foot. Climb onto the roof and leap over the heads of those preternatural things, break a leg and am caught. Take that scenario, or even jumping out the window, and exclude any injury such a landing would surely leave, and make a run for town. They will have me within a blink. Take a weapon with me, the rifle, though I do not know how to use a rifle, and so will be deadweight. Take the woodfire iron poker with me and smack any that reach me. Keep at it till I get to town… then the horde will bear down on the people there. And that is assuming I would not die before running the entire three miles there.
I played these ideas over and over in my head, trying to think of scenarios where we might escape. None realistically worked, but a few made it through on blind hope. I attempted to imagine the hundreds or more ghouls surrounding the house instead of replaying doomed escapes. I could think of no way any of us could out run the blink the ghouls seem to possess. We’d break the window, either up or down, it didn’t matter ultimately, and make a run for it. The moment the Knockers saw us, we were dead.
Another thing breached my mind at this point. Through all this imagining, I was unable to picture how these things killed. Brother knew, as he had seen Olly die, and mother had a good idea after seeing her corpse, but I had no idea. All my imaginings faded and glared out of focus once the killing began. I suppose that’s normal enough. The mind shies away from mutilation and horror. But as of that moment, I needed a clear head. The knowledge of the way these things killed could save us for all I knew.
I lay there on the bed with eyes half open, feeling the gentle rise and fall of mother’s chest against my back. My thoughts wandered, coasting just above my reach, never grasping anything, always reaching for an idea that would never come. Fantasies filtered in and out, only half seen and the remainder never guessed at. I was as if dazed, asleep in those waking moments, waiting for something to happen, something to change. After a while, something did.
I felt a weight lift from the other side of the bed and I craned my head to see if brother was awake. He stepped over mother and I, careful not to wake either of us. I closed my eyes, thinking he was going to use the bucket, but his footsteps didn’t make it that far. After a few tense moments I slowly opened my eyes to a squint and could just make out brother’s silhouette standing in front of the bedroom door. My anxiety spiked as he placed his hands on either side of the dresser blocking the door. He budged it, testing how much sound it would make. The wooden feet of the dresser rubbed against the wooden floor, making a scuffing sound that would have been loud enough to wake us up, if not for the knocking. Realizing this, he pulled one side of the dresser away from the door, and then the other, walking it back far enough to open the door wide. I was frozen, unable to speak, my mouth open but not even air could escape.
My mind screamed at him to stop, screamed at me to yell to him to stop, screamed at mother to wake up and make him stop, and screamed at the screaming to stop so I could focus. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed my mind to slow and quiet, steeling myself for the confrontation to come. Brother was gone when I opened my eyes.
I debated then whether or not to wake mother. I decided not to, thinking I could handle brother alone. I thought it may even be easier without her; brother not feeling as outnumbered or bullied by her and I calling him back. I thought this was the safest room in the house for mother to be in case something terrible happened. What if I had woken her? She may be down here in the basement with me just now if I had. Or not. Things happened too quickly. I can’t help but feel guilty over her death. I must be partially responsible for it. I know I am. If nothing else, she would have had a fighting chance to get away. I should have woken her to at least giver her that much.
She wouldn’t want me to think these things, I know. But when has such a statement ever helped the grieving or distressed? And so, I got up alone, grabbed the rifle from underneath the bed, and made my way downstairs.
The sun must have been just peeking up through the woods as faint grey light filtered in through the windows. I saw brother just standing there, facing the front door. I stepped behind him. He didn’t notice. I looked past him to the windows on either side of the door and saw, not individual ghouls, but a mass of black, their movements jerky and unnatural, grey light flooding past their tangled mass of fists and hair casting long dreadful shadows across the floor, engulfing brother and I. It made me feel claustrophobic, and I felt my chest tighten and my breath leave me. There were so many, still are so many. Father’s rifle seemed to shrivel at the wall of ghouls just beyond those windows, making it feel useless and leaving me feeling stupid.
Brother moved to open the door and I snapped to. I shouted at him to stop, and instinctively raised the rifle to his back. He stopped, his hand floating inches from the door knob.
“You’d shoot me?”
I couldn’t answer. Images of him as a young boy flitted through my mind, memories of he and I playing; Father teaching us how to ride Gabriel, watching brother as he fell time and time again, laughing through it all. Now he’s older, riding confidently atop Olly, a stick in one hand, tufts of Olly’s mane in the other, pumping the stick up and down like a cavalry saber. It was a little show for me to enjoy whenever he rode past me. He never did any such show after father died. He’s younger again, and mother is chasing him around the kitchen, shouting at him to give her the toad he has captured between his hands. He and I digging holes in the riverbed. I couldn’t shoot him.
He grasped to door knob.
“I will shoot you if I have to! If It’s to save mother!”
He half turned, and his eyes were the saddest of anything I’d ever seen. Hopeless, listless, resigned, disappointed. I couldn’t read them though. It was like he built up a wall around himself the night before as he lay awake in bed while mother and I slept. What had he been thinking of while I was scheming ill-conceived escapes? What demons possessed him that night for him to come to such a conclusion? I no longer knew him, could no longer fathom his depths. Where had the little boy gone? Where had my big brother gone to? He turned back, and opened the door.
My finger slipped, my body jerked and brother fell grabbing at his knee. I dropped the rifle, turned away and ran. The gun shot issued in silence, ending the knocking, and my head rang. I didn’t stop, and knew the only safe place left in the house was down here. I slammed the door behind me and the knocking commenced immediately. I tumbled down the stairs, and shambled to a corner, knelt down and cried. I cried with a furry I’d never felt before, screaming at those things to go away, pleading with them not kill my family, and just screaming incoherently till my voice failed me. But I kept on weeping in the darkness. I cried so long. I wanted to die, I wanted my tears to choke me. I wanted to give in, I wanted to give out. I’ve read books where people died of broken hearts, and my heart is broken, but it hasn’t killed me. I cried myself to sleep, and I awoke, cold and shivering on the floor. The rest of story has been told.
I’ve written this down for anyone who may find my body at any time in the future. I hold no illusions of survival. I am going too die, and I have reconciled this fact. But I do not wish to die the same way brother and mother did. I have the power to choose my death. I have so many regrets from the past three days, so many more from my short life. But I can’t feel the guilt anymore. I think I’m too tired to. I’ve felt nothing but guilt and melancholy for so long, I suppose I’m beginning to forget how anything else feels. I killed brother and mother. I killed them. Not the ghouls. I did. I left mother’s bedroom door open. I shot brother. Those things can’t die, I can’t kill them, but I can die. And I should.