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The Death Knock

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 1, 2013
pp. 135-157 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0034

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My aunt Antoinette was a forty-year-old nurse who had worked the night shift for years. On this particular night in January 1982, as I think back on her story now, she had the night off and was in bed like other people. She and her husband were asleep upstairs in the master bedroom of their new Garrison Colonial in a well-to-do Boston suburb. Sleeping in the other rooms were her younger children and her teenaged daughter from her first marriage, whose bedroom fronted the street. Suddenly Antoinette was awakened by a loud and urgent knock at the front door.

Hurrying to the bedroom window, from which she had a clear view of the brick walk and steps, she raised the shade and peered down. No one was there. The noise had stopped. Assuming it must have been kids pulling a prank, she went back to bed, where her husband, Sal, lay asleep. She had only just gotten back under the covers when the knock came again, as heavily and insistently as before.

She poked Sal on the shoulder and hissed, “Get up, will you? Don’t you hear that?” He opened his eyes and snorted in bewilderment. Listening dutifully for a moment, then mumbling that he couldn’t hear anything, he slipped back into unconsciousness. But she could still hear the banging as plainly as their voices. She cursed and rushed downstairs, halting momentarily before the door before throwing back the bolt and flinging it wide.

All was silent. She stood there a moment, barefoot in her thin nightgown. Something was odd. Then she realized that no footprints disturbed the glittering snow. The night air struck her bed-warmed skin, and she shivered.

Antoinette was seldom daunted. Hugging her chest, she peered left and right into the empty yard. She jammed her feet into her older daughter’s boots and, crunching her way across the hard snow, went around to the backyard, which dropped off sharply, ending in a fence with some woods behind it. There was no sign of anyone. Uneasily she hastened back to the warmth of the house, locking the door behind her. When she looked up she saw her eldest daughter, Pauline, standing at the top of the stairs. “Did you hear that racket?” Antoinette asked in a loud whisper, not wanting to wake up the younger ones. The girl nodded. “Is this some friend of yours?” she demanded, hoping she would be right. But Pauline denied it. The girl was afraid; she too had heard someone knocking at the door, looked out the window, and seen no one. They stood together for a few minutes, whispering and looking out of windows. After a while Pauline went back to bed.

Her mother went into the kitchen and turned on the light switch. The large Tiffany lampshade filled the room with a warm glow, revealing a clean maple table with a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and a small ashtray neatly grouped off to the side. She went to the sink and filled the kettle.

She flipped through magazines while she drank her tea, but the uneasy feeling would not leave her. She turned on the gas ring under the kettle again and sat at the table all night reading, drinking tea, and smoking. Finally at six thirty, unable to wait any longer, she began to make phone calls.

She called each of her three sisters, who all lived in nearby suburbs. Had any of them been locked out last night? Had anyone’s car broken down? No, everyone had been home asleep. She told them about the knock and how Pauline had heard it too. And with a superstitious impulse that seemed contrary to her personality, Antoinette said to her sister Mary, “Somebody’s going to die.” After she had made her children’s lunches and sent them off to school, she finally lay down on the sofa to get some rest. In the early afternoon she was awakened by the phone ringing.

She recognized instantly the sound of the crackling, long-distance line from Ireland. Then came the voice of her second cousin Agnes, who was trying to speak...

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