Don’t answer the door.

Never answer the door.

This was the lesson that I learned at age five. “Strangers might be at the door,” my father would say. “Don’t talk to strangers.”

I never answered the door. Neither did my father. Every time someone knocked, I’d go get him. “There’s someone at the door, Daddy,” I’d say, but my father wouldn’t get up. “Unless I’m expecting someone, I don’t answer,” he’d tell me. It seemed like a smart strategy. I learned to live my life by that strategy. I always called or texted before I went to anyone’s house. One time, I found a dog walking around. I checked his collar, but it only had an address; no phone number. I took him to his house but didn’t knock. I just left him in the yard and figured he’d be fine. My strategy wasn’t always great.

Sometimes, though, my strategy worked well. When I was ten, the fighting started. At first, it was maybe once every few weeks. When I heard the screaming, I’d retreat to my room and close my door. Sometimes they’d knock, but I never answered. I don’t even know what they’d fight about.

By the time I was eleven, my mother and I were living across town. My dad would take me places on weekends, but never back to the old house. Whenever I mentioned it, he’d ask if I wasn’t having fun at the carnival, the movies, the ball game. Being a kid, it wasn’t too hard to distract me. I know now that he was just deflecting. I know a lot of things now.

I didn’t actually want to live with my mom. No offense to her, but I was always closer to my dad. They hadn’t even asked me who I’d rather live with. Dad didn’t even protest, at least not to me. To this day, I’m not sure if he ever even tried, or if he knew that I was better off with Mom. I wish that I could ask him, but of course it’s too late now. Perhaps it’s too late for me, too.

Don’t answer the door.

Never answer the door.

This was the mantra that invaded my dreams, my nightmares. While other kids were afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet, I was afraid of the thump of knuckles connecting with wood. I had dreams where the knocking wouldn’t stop, but now I think they might have been memories. Once, when I was seven years old, a friend came over unexpectedly. The next day at school, he asked me why I hadn’t answered the door. I informed him that I didn’t know he was coming. “I’m not supposed to answer the door; we never answer unless we’re expecting someone.” My friend asked why I didn’t just look out the window or through the peephole. That was the first I’d ever heard of a peephole. Of course, I knew about windows, but there weren’t any that looked over the front door. But a peephole was a nice concept. I spent the whole day thinking about it, enough that I even got yelled at twice for not paying attention. When my dad picked me up after school, I asked him about it. He pulled over and looked at me for a minute, figuring out what to say. When he finally did respond, he spoke in a voice that I’d never heard before: soft and tentative. I realize now that he was scared. All that he would say was that it was too expensive.

That weekend, I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. My mother caught me at the front door, carrying a hand drill. That was the first time I heard her scream. She snatched the drill away from me and marched me to the den, demanding that my father yell some sense into me. Then she stormed into the kitchen, slamming the door. I heard her pouring wine a moment later. My dad’s face was pale and grey. He sat me on his knee and tried to explain why what I did was wrong, why it wouldn’t have worked. He told me to never use his tools without asking first. I bowed my head, abashed. All I’d wanted to do was help, but I hadn’t realized how much I was doing wrong. I vowed to be better. I never brought up the peephole again. But our life together still deteriorated. When I was eight, the knocking got worse. Almost every day, sometimes even the night. Then, about six months later, the incident happened.

That same friend called me and asked if he could come over. I said yes. I hadn’t asked my parents for fear that they wouldn’t let us. When George arrived, he knocked on the door. I ran to go answer it.

I slid the deadbolt out of place.

I unlocked the door.

I turned the knob.

I hadn’t even opened it a centimeter when my dad materialized out of nowhere. His face was a mask of terror. I’d seen photos of The Scream, and he looked like that, like he was watching himself, me, my mom, the whole world die. He slammed the door back into place, frantically pushing me out of the way. I fell to the ground, screaming and crying, and he didn’t even comfort me. He whirled around, his fear and anger bursting forth.

“How could you? Alex, how could you open that door? I told you a thousand times: we don’t open the door unless we’re expecting someone! We don’t open it!”

I sat there, too shocked to protest. My dad had gotten mad at me before, but never like this. I’d never been scared of him.

“That was George,” I whispered, afraid that if I spoke too loudly, my father would hurt me. “He asked if he could come over.”

It was as if my father’s facial painting morphed. He was no longer The Scream; he’d become one of the Monet paintings that we’d studied in art class. Calm. His anger washed away in a pond of lilies.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked me softly. I looked down, not wanting to disappoint him with an explanation that no longer seemed credible.

“I…I was afraid you wouldn’t let him come over,” I mumbled. My father sighed, resting his forehead in one palm.

“Alex, I have no problem with your friends coming over. I just need you to tell me beforehand.”


“Because,” my father fumbled, “what if I’d been walking around in my underwear?”

I frowned. Dad never walked around in his underwear. He took a deep breath, searching for another excuse. “Because there might be things out that we don’t want your friends to see.”

This too made little sense. What could they possibly have that was so secret? I’d seen pretty much everything in the house, so what could they be hiding?

“Because we’re your parents and this is our house. We always tell you when we’re having someone over. It’s just polite.”

I decided to accept this reason, as it actually made sense. Besides, I was distracted, since my dad opened the door to let a very confused George inside. George and I ran to the den and played video games until my mom made him go home.

“Alex has homework to do, and I’m sure that you do, too,” my mom said sweetly as she practically propelled George outside. “Bye, now! Say hello to your parents for me,” she warbled. Years later, the way she spoke still makes me shudder. She didn’t sound like my mother. She sounded like an imitation; like something was trying to be my mother.

The next day, my parents added another lock to the door. I can’t help but think that it had something to do with the voice that had emanated from my mother.

Don’t answer the door.

Never answer the door.

Looking back on it, the answer seems so obvious, like I should have figured it out as a child. But back then, I just thought we were normal, that our problems were normal people problems. Sure, maybe my parents were a little overprotective, but every time I heard about a murder or kidnapping, their overprotectiveness made a little more sense.

When I was thirteen, I ran away. I was tired of living in that cramped apartment with my mom. There was only one bedroom: she hung a sheet across part of it so I could have some privacy. We shared that room, a bathroom so small that you had to practically stand on the toilet to close the door, a “family fun room” with a little TV and a ratty couch, and a kitchen that didn’t even have room for a microwave. Mom kept telling me that it was just for a little while, that we’d find a real place soon—“I’m saving as much money as I can, Alex, so we can find a real place later this year”—but I couldn’t take it anymore. I missed my home.

I packed a lunch—an apple and a cheese stick—and emptied my piggy bank. Walking to the bus stop with so much loose change in my pockets and backpack was difficult and uncomfortable, especially when the weight of the coins overcame my belt and my pants fell down, but I persevered. It was a Saturday and Mom was at work, so I knew I had around five hours before she’d get home, before I’d be caught. I planned to be back long before then. I suppose that it wasn’t really running away, but that’s what it felt like.

I was a pro at riding the bus at this point, but I was nervous enough that I dropped my coins when trying to pay. I picked them up, embarrassed, only to drop them again. The people waiting behind me grumbled until an impatient or nice man stepped forwards and paid for me. I thanked him and trudged to the back, planting myself in the last row with my backpack beside me. As the bus rumbled down the road, I stared out the window, trying to remember every detail of the house. I wanted to know if anything had changed.

Of course I was worried that upon seeing me, my father would call my mom. I was a kid: getting in trouble was the worst thing that could happen. But seeing the place where I grew up was more important, I guess. I can’t really explain it. It was like the house called to me. I needed to see it, and being yelled at or grounded was small potatoes in comparison.

What a fool I was. How naïve, how innocent. Getting caught doing something wrong was the scariest thing to me as a child. I guess it still is, just in a different way.

I got off the bus a few blocks away from the house. As I walked, my stomach began to ache, hard enough that I had to stop for a few minutes. I nibbled on a cheese stick as I walked, hoping to calm my stomach. Only a few more houses to go. I was so close; I could nearly see the yard, but something was wrong. It was like my feet wouldn’t move. I started to panic. What was wrong?

It turned out that the only problem was that I was an idiot. I’d trudged through some wet cement and my shoe got stuck. After giving me a stern lecture with lots of flailing arms, a construction worker helped me scrape the drying cement off my sole, then sent me on my way; with a lot of muttered curses, I might add. Humiliated, I continued towards the house, periodically glancing down for reassurance.

When I reached the house, I could tell something was off. Maybe it was just my recent growth spurt, but the house looked small; like, much smaller than I remembered. Seeing it now, after a couple of years, it struck me as odd that there were so few windows in the front. And why was the front door at the corner instead of the middle? I’d never thought about it when I’d lived there, but now, with a fresh perspective, I realized the strangeness. This house wasn’t normal.

Despite my uneasiness, I still wanted to go in. After all, I’d come all this way. But, like an idiot, I hadn’t called my dad ahead of time. There was no way that he’d answer the door for me. I decided, instead, to peek in the few windows. First, of course, I had to look in my old room. I’d taken almost all of my stuff with me when we’d moved, so the emptiness of the bedroom shouldn’t have surprised me. But honestly, it was one of the most depressing things I’d seen at that point in my life. The dusty bed frame (we’d taken the mattress with us as well) sat upon the dusty floor. The only other piece of furniture was the dusty bookshelf we hadn’t been able to fit in our tiny apartment. I guess my dad had moved or sold my dresser and desk. There were a couple of boxes in the corner: stuff I hadn’t taken with me but still wanted. My mom had promised that when we found a better apartment, I could have all my old things back. Looking at those boxes now, I wanted to reach in there and take them away. Honestly, I didn’t even remember what was in them. I just knew it was mine.

After looking at my old room, I didn’t have the heart to snoop anywhere else. I sulked all the way to the bus stop, then cried as soon as I got home. Neither of my parents ever found out that I’d done it, but that visit changed me. I no longer wanted to go back.

Don’t answer the door.

Never answer the door.

As promised, my mother and I moved into a new, larger apartment later that year. I got my own bedroom and my own bathroom, and I finally began to feel content with my life. For one thing, in our old house and our last apartment, there’d only been one bathroom. That really makes a difference. But there were other things too. My dad came over to help us move in. He’d brought five boxes of things that we’d left behind, including the two that I’d seen in my old bedroom. After we set up the kitchen and den, my mom brought out some red wine and my dad left to get Chinese food. We sat together at the table and ate dinner, smiling, laughing. My parents looked so happy together. I honestly thought they would get back together. We could live here, in this apartment. I knew my dad was coming back the next day to finish unpacking, so I excused myself and went to bed. I hoped that without me, they would talk things out. They’d say whatever it was that they never said around me. Maybe he’d even stay the night.

Okay. Gross. I did not want to think about my parents having sex, but I was thirteen. Sex was pretty much all I ever thought about. But still, gross. Maybe they’d just share a few kisses. That’s all. Very innocent.

I got ready for bed, then stood near my door, trying to eavesdrop. I heard some laughter, then a conversation whose content I couldn’t make out. The clink of wine glasses. Then nothing. Why was there nothing? I thought about opening my door a crack, but I was afraid that they’d hear me. I pressed my ear as hard against the door as I could. Still nothing. The screee of a chair being pushed out roughly. Footsteps. Then voices again, but not happy ones.

The argument lasted a few minutes before a door slammed. A few minutes later, another slam. I could hear my mother crying. The sound of her sobs cascaded over me, peer-pressuring my own tear ducts to join in. My parents were not going to get back together.

My dad didn’t show up the next day, or the day after that. My mother refused to answer any questions about him, but I could tell that she was worried. A week later, she called the police and reported my father missing. Seven years later, he was declared dead.

I think I understand now why he’s gone. Why they got divorced. Why we moved. I’ve spent the past seven years trying to understand, to put all the pieces together. My mother knows the answer, but she shut down the subject every time I tried to ask. Well, if she won’t tell me, then I’ll find out for myself. I’m sitting by the front door as I write this. Seven years later and the house looks exactly the same as it did that day that I ran away.

When I finally opened the boxes my father had brought, I found my old journals. I used to write something every night before bed. I’d written down my dreams, my nightmares. The arguments I hadn’t understood. The times my mother had begged my dad to leave the house—“How can you expose our child to this danger?”—and the times he’d refused. I’d written about the knocking. There were pages and pages of doodles and drawings. And my mantra: there was an entire journal filled with those eight words, written over and over and over.

Don’t answer the door.

Never answer the door.

The realization came as I was reading the journals. I hadn’t understood back then, but I do now. I know why my dad never let me open the door. There’s still one thing that I don’t understand, but I will. Tonight, when they knock, I’m opening the door.