When Strangers Knock

by Justin Mulwee

Late one evening, a man punched away on his typewriter. He was almost near the end of his creation when the ribbon jammed. He fiddled with it momentarily to no avail. “That’s enough for tonight,” he muttered to himself, and wiped the ink from his fingers onto his pants. As he yawned, a little girl came bounding down the stairs to him.

“Teeth all brushed?” He asked.

“Mhm,” she said, and proved so with a huge grin. “Then it's time for bed.” She ran up the stairs ahead of him, and he followed.

“Daddy,” she said, now just a head popping up from beneath pink blankets, “is it okay that I want to be a princess?” Her father laughed.

“Of course it is. You can be whatever you want.”

The girl wrinkled her nose. “It's just that Kristie says I only got two choices: I got to get a husband or a job. But I don't want a job, and Kristie's mom says husbands are o-ver-rated.” She struggled at the last word. “Can't I just be a princess?” Her father sat down beside her.

“Nobody can say if you're going to end up a princess or not. But stick to your dreams. Sometimes our dreams are what get us through the day when we feel sad. Our dreams let us say, 'someday, things will be just how I want them to be'. That's why we reach for them.” He put his finger right on her nose. “If you don't forget your dreams, they won't forget you. They can have a mind of their own. I wasn't always a writer, you know. One day when you least expect it, your dreams might reach for you.” The little girl's eyes grew dim with sleep.

“Kay.” she said. “I'm still going to be a princess then.” With that she flung herself into the mattress and covered her face with blankets. Her father smiled and gently poked her in the stomach. She silently recoiled beneath the covers, letting out a muffled yelp.

“Night, princess.”

Glancing at his watch, he took a few steps to the room just down the hall, and entered quietly. A woman lay on her side in the bed, already asleep. He quietly loomed over her for a moment. She licked the freckle above her lip in her sleep. He laid a hand on her shoulder, gently enough not to disturb her. After a moment’s thought, he moved to his sock drawer and found an old spiral-bound notebook beneath a pile of ties he never wore. Lifting the cover revealed pages covered in handwritten blue ink. The script was desperate and sloppy, as if scrawled on the paper very quickly. By the dim light of a bedside lamp, he began to read his own words.

I have to write this down so that I remember, and don't pass it all off as some kind of delusion later. Maria was there, too, but she wouldn’t have remembered. At least, not all of it.

I found myself standing in front of an old cabin. Ivy crept up the splintered wooden walls. A cat statue had toppled over and broken in front of the front door. Next to this was a water pump, with rust showing through its pale green paint. Vines wrapped around its stem and invaded its nozzle, a sure sign it had been out of use for ages and would not likely work.

A crow flew from its nest in the cabin’s gutter and stood in front of the door as if to greet me. At the beat of its wings, I noticed—not for the first time, but more profoundly now that I had stopped walking—that the dark woods surrounding were deathly quiet. The silence was thick, tangible. I felt as though I had to wade through it when I moved, and every sound I made was some sort of violation of an understood law. Not an animal footstep or bird call seemed to penetrate it, only the quiet rhythm of raindrops. I don't know if it was still raining or if water was only falling from the dense canopy overhead. Either way, each drop felt like ice.

The woman in my arms mumbled something softly. She turned her head, exposing four large freckles: one just above her lips, one on her chin, and two on her left cheek. I always fancied that when God finished creating her face, he flicked a bit of paint off his fingers to insert a deliberate flaw. I guessed it was all He could do to keep from creating a perfect person.

A loch of wet, honey-colored hair was caught in her mouth. Brushing it aside, I found her cheek ice cold. Her arms were covered in little red nicks and scratches from all the brush in the woods. Mine were no different. But on her, those scratches seemed grievous wounds. “We'll be somewhere warm and dry soon, dearest,” I said. “Hang in there.”

I could hardly blame her for fainting. I wouldn’t have minded fainting myself, and I wasn’t the one six months pregnant. Her frame was light, but my arms grew weaker by the minute. It was obvious that no one had lived in this cabin for years. Perhaps I could at least find a few blankets inside, and if nothing else, shelter from the wind. As I took a step forward, the crow stepped aside politely. Letting Maria's legs down, I awkwardly supported her with one arm and reached for the ornate brass doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. Getting in wasn't going to be that simple. I softly laid Maria in a nearby patch of grass, though I felt a bit guilty for putting her down. After fiddling with the doorknob in vain, I kicked the door twice with my boot. The contact shot an echo through the woods—the only sound for miles. Old as the cabin may be, the door was too sturdy to break into so easily. There had to be another way to enter. Two curtained windows loomed overhead, too high to get into. My eyes moved further up.

That’s when I noticed something strange. It was so faint that I was not at once sure of what I was seeing: a tiny stream of smoke emanating from the chimney. It wavered like a little ghost, and I speculated it came from a dying fire. Could someone actually live out here?

I suddenly felt an odd sense of dread. No one in his right mind would live in a place like this—far from civilization, enclosed by an eerily silent forest in a run-down cabin. I could have been standing at the door of a lunatic or an axe murderer. I at once recalled my violence against the door in trying to force it open, and my face grew hot. My options were few. My hand shook from some combination of cold and apprehension as I raised my hand to the door.

Knock, knock.

Water trickled down my face and into my mouth. No answer.

Knock, Knock, Knock.

Two darker shadows appeared in the crack of the door: someone’s feet. A lock clicked, and the door cracked open as far as the chain would allow. The shadow in the doorway was shorter than I expected, though I could make out no features.

“We need shelter,” I managed to say, looking back at Maria in the grass just behind me. The door closed completely. Then, with the rattling of a chain and a light creak, the door opened wide. The stranger turned and retreated into his home. A silent invitation. I lifted Maria from the grass. With only a little hesitation, and with the care of entering a narrow doorway with my bride in my arms, I followed.

Our host seemed to float across the unfinished wooden floor; the cloak dragged so as to obscure the feet. The figure closed the door behind me. On the far side of the room, an old couch faced the fireplace. I lowered Maria onto it. She gave no indication that she sensed this movement. A few smoldering embers in the fireplace made the whole room very warm. The glow from the fading fire dimly lit Maria's face. She was pale. I feared for her health. I'm no doctor, but I could tell hypothermia had already set in. I feared, too, for our unborn daughter.

I turned to find the stranger behind me. The oil lamp in his hand made the shadows dance about him. The cloak he wore shrouded his every feature. The black hood and poor lighting made the face a mystery and an abyss. His only token of humanity was a pale, bony hand holding the lamp up. And I say 'he' by default; from the sparse clues, couldn't decide if my host was male or female. The stranger would have been terrifying if he were not so small. Black garb and all, the figure barely reached my chest.

The stranger's bony hand reached down and felt Maria's forehead, then promptly floated over to a large wooden chest, pulled out a brown woolen blanket, and gently laid it over my wife. The stranger looked at me, or at least I thought from the direction of the head, then back at Maria as if assessing the situation. Then, ever-so-hesitantly, the figure lowered the hood of the cloak. I was taken aback.

In front of me was a little girl no older than seven or eight. She had fair skin, dark eyes, and black hair. “Where are your parents?” I asked. She shrugged. “In the woods. They'll be home soon enough,” she reassured. “Please, warm up and stay the night.” The invitation was awfully adult. I nodded, but with an uneasy confusion. What kind of parents would raise a child like this, cut off from all other human contact? What could they possibly be doing in those maze-like woods in the freezing cold at this hour? I resigned myself to the notion that I would soon enough find out, and perhaps make the most of my encounter with these strange hermits. They did raise an awfully polite daughter, after all.

Something was funny about the whole house, or else something was funny with my senses. Everything seemed a little fuzzy. The edges of every object seemed soft to me, as if I were looking through a camera lens very slightly out of focus. The smell of the home wasn't exactly familiar as far as I could tell, yet I felt something like nostalgia as I took in the air. What really struck me as odd was when I went to the bathroom—as silly as it sounds. I walked into the bathroom instinctively, and it wasn't until I was washing my hands that I wondered how I knew where the bathroom was in the first place. Now it's not as if it were a large home, but I didn't even remember looking for it. I just walked in.

But that isn't half as disturbing as what I saw upon returning to the living room. I caught my strange young host with her hand on Maria's pregnant belly, just staring. “What are you doing?” I asked, and when I think about it now, I must have sounded hostile. I was hostile. The girl immediately removed her hand as if from a hot burner, and turned to face me.

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean...” Her voice trembled and her eyes watered, obviously quite sensitive to the scolding of an adult. Leaving her words hanging, the girl ran to the opposite side of the room, hastily pulled a book from the shelf, and began to read (or pretend to). Poor girl. Any other day I might have not have had such a reaction; it was just a little girl being curious, after all. Just then, though, it didn't take much to make me uneasy.

I returned to my wife's side and felt her skin once more. Warmer than a half-hour ago. She seemed to be sleeping more peacefully now. She licked the freckle above her lip as she often did while sleeping. I was thankful that the cure for mild hypothermia was nothing more than a little heat.

If we hadn't found that house... I shudder at the thought.

Eager to reconcile with the little girl, I approached her. She was wearing a plastic tiara on her head, a new development. The book she pretended to read was entitled The Wanderer. I recalled that I once had an idea for a book with the same name, but I wasn't aware the title was taken until then. I will probably never get around to becoming an author, anyway. “What are you reading?” I asked, though I honestly didn't care. When she put it down, we made eye contact in decent lighting for the first time. It was then that I realized that there was something odd about this girl, as well. She seemed extremely familiar, as though I knew her once and had completely forgotten. After a few seconds I realized what it was: her eyes were unmistakably Maria's.

Suddenly, I had the feeling everything would be fine. Remarking upon the lateness of the hour, I took a seat next to Maria in a large, worn chair. That must have been when I nodded off.

I awoke next to Maria, who was already staring at me as I opened my eyes. “Where are we?” She asked at once. “The last thing I remember is being miserably lost.” I pointed out that I stumbled upon it by chance in the woods, and we were not exactly un-lost just yet. She looked around the room, apparently content with that explanation. “You know,” she said, “this is just like the house we've always wanted. Simple, beautiful, old-fashioned. It even has the fireplace in the right spot.”

That's when it hit me that this house was not only similar to the type of house we had talked about owning; it was the house we had talked about owning. Every detail. When approached by our host, Maria gasped. We both knew, without any doubt now, who we were looking at.

Our host—our daughter—told us how to exit the woods. We bid her farewell, but with the feeling that the parting was only temporary. Now, I don't know if I believe in visions, but somehow I know that house will catch up with us sooner or later.