Another Knock, Del Elizabeth
Having guests over has become a significantly bigger deal since humans became second on the food chain. Constant state of emergency. Curfew at 7 PM sharp- strictly enforced. Just a few years ago the human army forces surrendered. The government saw it futile to keep fighting against an enemy that wasn’t rational- wasn’t animal nor human nor anything with the slightest concept of mercy.
At approximately 7:20, the sun starts to set. That’s twenty minutes to avert your eyes to the ground and quietly make your way home. They see you. They’re hungry. And if they don’t get you, the brave and few patrollers will.
By 8:00, it’s dark. Consider yourself roadkill if you’re still roaming the streets. You aren’t a person anymore, you are bait, you are prey, and you are in immediate danger. Humans are not the alpha species anymore. It’s an illusion to think you can outrun what’s already caught you and what will most definitely follow you home.
Doors locked. Window curtains drawn. Candles flamed quelled. Dwellers tucked into their beds and their snores muffled. No tossing and turning, at least if you have a window. If you’re thirsty for a cup of water or hungry for a midnight snack, you lie awake, restless. Once in a blue moon a nightmare will plague your thoughts and you’ll fight the temptation to flick on a nightlight or squirm into your parent’s bed. No- you’d sooner take a lifetime of night terrors than face what’s lurking just outside. You don’t move until the first sliver of sunlight streams into the house.
The evenings are agonizingly slow. Peggy counts the minutes to 10 PM. That’s usually the point where you have a clear outlook on if you’ll survive. Things are looking good. Mom swept the floor and did the dishes so no discernable smell comes from inside the house besides the stenches of bleach and formaldehyde.
The twins had just been sent to bed- Carson muttering a complaint until he was hushed and Carrie going easily after she’d learned the truth about where daddy had gone just a few months ago, and most notably, that he wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.
Her mother trails back into the room, feather duster in hand. Peggy didn’t think so much dust could accumulate on the shelves in just twenty-four hours, but she did think paranoia was one powerful, all-consuming beast.
“You think we’re in the clear?”
“Never know.” Her mother shakes her head, shoulder-length hair swaying along. “You can’t be too cautious.”
Peggy purses her lips. “What was different the night they ate dad?”
Her face darkens. “Carrie was crying, and Carson didn’t like that, so he started to cry too. You were always a quiet kid. You were asleep. I was trying to calm the twins down when your father heard the knocking.” When asked a question concerning that night, Peggy always got the full story. As selfish as it seemed, she’d begun to grow numb to hearing it. The only thing related to it that could evoke an emotional response from her was the visual that was burned on the backside of her eyelids from when she’d heard commotion and stumbled downstairs to check.
She was lucky nobody had seen her until it was all over.
“I told them we didn’t have kids, that they were hearing the neighbor’s kids- and I know that’s cruel, but I couldn’t stand to lose you. You were all so young and had all the growing to do. You had just begun to learn your times tables and the twins were working on their first words.” She blows out the candle at the dining room table. Peggy’s eyes follow the smoke as it buffs up in the air above them. “They wouldn’t take it. Their faces, oh dear, their eyes- gaping holes really, their eyes and their mouth, their faces didn’t change. I think that’s what scares me the most. They look human but they aren’t. They don’t have the heart or the spirit or the feeling.”
“They’re like puppets,” Peggy says.
A bitter laugh. “Ironic. They have us on strings. We’re their puppets.” She straightens up.
“Just when I was about to go and grab one of you- they like the young ones, and Carrie had been the one who lured them over- your father stepped up and he-” Her voice goes thick and teary, abruptly cuts itself off with a sob.
Peggy looks at her nails, inspecting them because she’d rather look there than her mother’s crying face. “He started to chop off his fingers.” She remembers. She remembers hiding with her ear pressed to her door, hearing her mother scream and her father bite back pained noises as he served himself up on a silver platter.
“You wouldn’t go back to sleep,” her mother recalls. “So you swept up the blood.”
“There was so much,” Peggy replies numbly.
Outside, the bushes by the doorway shift in the breeze. The noise is so subtle yet strong enough to mask the sound of a knock at the door. Not a knock knock knock. A single knock. Not to be mistaken for an amiable neighbor. It’s an animal looking for its meal and nothing more. If you don’t answer, the same noise will persistently continue until it drives you mad and you’d take death over hearing the single knock one more time. You answer the knocks or they break in. Statistics said the second knock was most commonly answered, because the first going ignored was either a product of denial or disbelief. This time, the second knock is again disguised by the plants, obliviously and calmly moving, leaves kissing the concrete.
Her mother shivers. “We need to cut the plants tomorrow morning, they make too much noise.”
Another knock. The third’s the charm.
They fall silent until knock four, when Peggy’s mother lurches out of her seat, looking pale as a sheet. Peggy swallows a violent bout of nausea as her mother peeks through the blinds.
“Peggy,” she says, voice absent of any emotion.
Peggy rises, nervously tucking and untucking her hair behind her ear with an unsteady hand. “Yeah, mom?”
“Answer the door.”
The fifth knock summons a lump to Peggy’s throat and a full-body chill. Did talking about them bring them closer? Was it speaking of the devil for real?
“Peggy, you have to do it,” her mother says, looking perfectly composed aside from the red-rimmed eyes and quivering lip. “Answer the door.”
She takes a step forward as the sixth knock occurs. They like the young ones, Peggy thinks. You know what that means. Like father like daughter. This is what’s going to play out. Her mother is going to give her a hug goodbye, and the blade of a knife will tenderly cut the skin of her throat until she falls dead at Their feet. Peggy swallows, peeking through the peephole.
Now, she’d seen them before. When she was young, she’d seen them hunched over her father’s body—two of them, ripping what was left of him to shreds. The crack of a joint here, the unnatural curve of a broken arm, there. Peggy can recall- one at his shoulder, unhinged jaw embracing his head—face gone slack, for he was already dead. The other was clawing at his torso, neat work shirt ruffled and bloodied, line of his intestines tracing the tile on the floor until it was slurped up. She can’t forget. She had tried. That image had followed her and now she was to repeat that history.
Knock seven. The sharp, punctual noise drills at her eardrums.
“Peggy,” her mother says again. She’s starting to hate her name. Maybe she should have been a Penny. Or a Poppy. Penelope, perhaps. “You need to. They won’t leave.”
Through the fishhole view, Peggy can see them- same as they’d looked before. They all look the same. No hair, no eyelashes, no freckles, not even a nose, really. Just a hollow frame of what a human could be. Two dark holes, another smaller one, and then a gaping mouth, which Peggy knew could, in seconds, consume their entire face. She didn’t know just which was more gruesome- being chewed, serrated teeth piercing her flesh until she was in bits, or being swallowed whole in a mouth lacking teeth.
“Answer the door.”
She knew what to do. She’d been taught the procedure. “Would you like to come in?”
Another grunt and then they’re shoving past her.
Peggy stares blankly ahead before closing the door, walking backwards into the house. Her heart is beating so fast her entire body is hot- like it was the one time she and a friend had stayed out too late and ran home as fast as they could. All that running and she still couldn’t outrun this.
They pull the chairs out, wooden legs dragging against the tile, and sit, heads moving in tandem to look at Peggy.
It’s her. It has to be. The options are her and her mother, and they like the young ones.
You have to be a good host, she remembers. Be polite and welcoming or They’ll sense the fear and get angry. Do not anger Them.
“We are happy to have you,” Peggy says.
“Smile.” Her mother walks in, tear dripping from her chin and a wide smile on her face.
“Hello,” she says warmly. “We love guests here.”
Peggy stands frozen, watching in wonderment.
They haven’t moved- not even a twitch. The soulless holes in their face seem to be staring dead at Peggy and her mother no matter where they go. Every direction they are seen. They are traced. Hunted.
“Peggy, would you get me a knife?” It isn’t her mother’s face, blissfully blank, that makes the lump in Peggy’s throat grow, but her voice. It’s taut, like she’s barely holding herself from breaking apart, and trying so hard to be cheerful.
Thinking about that, she forgets just why her mother had spoken. Her mother beckons her over with a flourish.
As they’re making to stand over in the secluded area on the other side of the kitchen island, their guests, in eerie sync, shake their heads, a low, incoherent humming noise coming from their throats.
Alarm flashes in her mother’s eyes. “Would you please get me a knife?”
This time she hears loud and clear, making for the silverware drawer and grabbing a knife. Peggy swallows, feeling sick when she imagines it buried in her chest. Or sinking into her neck, slicing the veins there like it would slice tomatoes.
She hands it to her mom, fingers twitching just to put it away and bolt out the door. If she runs fast enough she’ll avoid running into them- and they’re probably full by now, having gotten their dinners already. But her mother is taking the knife in hand and approaching the table.
“Lucky we have any silverware,” she’s saying, using the same tone she’d use to tell the twins that breakfast is ready and that she made their favorite. “I just ran the dishwasher this afternoon.” Peggy follows, timidly settling for leaning against the counter while she thinks about how she never met love just yet, and how she’ll never go on a roadtrip and she’ll never get the record player she was saving up her money for. She’ll be dead in a matter of minutes.
“It’s just us two, but boy do we eat a lot,” she continues as Peggy fidgets with her hands. “My daughter is chronically ill.”
Her eyes go wide. Peggy was as healthy as the day she was born.
“Fainting spells, aches, pains, and she’s got a severe iron deficiency,” her mother explains, lying through her teeth as Peggy actually begins to feel quite faint. Maybe the twins will wake tomorrow without a sister, she thinks, but with this, it’s far more likely they will wake without a mother. It would be foolish to mention her mother isn’t being honest, because that’ll cost both of their lives, and there’s nobody else to open the child-proof vitamin containers for the twins then.
She mutes her mourning as the realization sets in. She’s about to lose a mother, and she’s about to replace one too.
“She’s not a good meal.” Like a spider swiftly skittering across a surface, the knife drags up her arm. “And I’ve been missing my husband as of late.” The blade rests against her neck.
Both of Their heads twitch, having forgotten entirely about Peggy and instead fixated on their meal.
“My dear, would you do the honors?”
It takes a minute and a world of agony to see that Peggy was being spoken to. “Hey sunshine,” her mother says. “I need one last thing from you.”
You are my sunshine, Peggy thinks, resisting humming along to the lullaby she remembers being sung as a child. She silently walks up to her mother, resigned as she takes the knife. As she’s laying it across her neck, feeling the life beneath it, her mother sucks in a breath. The veins, the blood flow. Peggy was about to cut it into shreds. She was about to end a life.
She takes a shaky breath when her mother turns to whisper in her ear.
“Take care of the twins,” she rasps. “I love you.”
Instead of saying it back, Peggy slices, flinching back as blood splatters across her face. The knife falls from her hands.
In an instant, They’re lunging for the body, blood leaking everywhere, all over the flowy flowery blouse and the tile floors. They grab onto it and Peggy stumbles back as they feed. She walks backward up the stairs, wide eyes on the devoured body of her mother. The loving smile eternally plastered on her mother’s face. The face that was falling backwards into a large, gaping jaw.
Peggy blows a kiss. Somewhere, in the back of her head, she thinks she still hears the knocking. She doesn’t think it’ll ever go away.
Del Elizabeth (she/they) is a 17-year-old creative & dramatic writer from California. She has an affection for horror as well as poetry of all sorts. In her free time, she participates in performing arts and reads to better her writing.