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DON’T KNOCK ON WOOD

dont knock on wood


Estimated reading time — 15 minutes

Don’t knock on wood. Ever again. I know that sounds crazy. But trust me. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it because you might not be ready for what you’re inviting into your life…

I definitely wasn’t.

About a month ago, I packed up what few possessions I owned and tossed them into the back of my Toyota Camry. I left my dumpy apartment in Utica, New York, and headed for a small town called Moria three hours upstate. I’d never heard of the place before but settled on it because it was the only spot I could afford and maybe save a decent amount of money at the same time. I probably should’ve done a bit more research on Moria because there’s simply not much there besides a gas station, several old churches and one rundown bar. The nearest grocery store is thirty minutes away. The nearest police station, forty. The interstate highway is an hour. You get the picture. Middle of nowhere.

But luckily, the bar had an opening and, as I’d tended bar after college for a time, I landed a job there pretty quickly. The work gave me a lifeline while I hunted for something in my profession, teaching history at the high school level.

The bar was called The Dip and sat on the outskirts of town at a junction of various lonely back roads. It was a true dump, one without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness. Old neon Genesee and Keystone signs flickered on the dusty wood-paneled walls. A scuffed up pool table sat unused under a dim lamp’s glow. The place had a permanent musk about it, a certain eau de chainsmoker. You could’ve walked in there in the 90s and, I swear, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from today. A genuine relic of the North Country – less a hidden gem, more an overlooked and forgotten shithole.

It was at the end of my first week working at the bar that it happened.

The owner was a guy named Darren. He either worked the bar nightly or, at the very least, made a drop-in. That particular night he’d called me minutes before my shift. Never a great sign when that happens. Ominous, in fact. Apparently, his wife had come down with something bad and he needed to stay home to look after her. He asked if I minded working the bar myself or if I wanted to take the night off. Being as broke as I was, I told him I’d hold down the fort. No problem. It’s not like bartending was rocket science. I had worked about four shifts at this point at The Dip and had a pretty good handle on the job. This wasn’t New York City. No one was asking for anything too fancy or complicated. I knew how to pour a beer and make a Jack & Coke. I had memorized the opening and closing checklists, etc. And I could handle myself. Remember, this was Moria, a sleepy town with a population of 1000. It wasn’t like the place was going to be slammed on a random Wednesday night.

My prediction held-up. The night proceeded uneventfully with a slow trickle of customers; mostly, a handful of bearded white guys who I could tell were the “regulars.”

Time crept along slowly that night, crept along as it generally does on a job wherein the work poses one with little in the way of a challenge. By the time the clock read ten to midnight, the place was dead. A middle-aged couple and three local millworkers in Carhartts were there. There was also a man, probably in his fifties, with jet-black hair, alone, who’d been drinking steadily the entire evening, sitting at the opposite end of the bar. I wanted to close up early, so I announced Last Call, and, of course, at that point, the guy decided it was an appropriate time to strike up a conversation.

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So we chatted a bit while I wiped down the bar. “Since when does Darren have new blood working behind the bar? Ain’t never seen you here before,” the loner stated, clearly tipsy.

“I just moved here a few weeks ago,” I explained.

He lifted his beer up to cheers and smirked playfully, “Sorry to hear that.” The guy seemed friendly enough. Had a North Country accent almost as thick as his bushy black hair. Conversing, I found out he was twice divorced, no kids. He worked a few towns away as a janitor and bus driver for the Ticonderoga High School. I told him I had interviewed at that school for a teaching job that very morning. He asked how it went and I said I thought I’d killed it, which was true. Sometimes you just have a great feeling in the room and you know it’s a sure-fire thing.

Still, though, not wanting to jinx it, I rapped my knuckles against the dark oak bar-top three times in quick succession. “Knock on wood,” I said, as one does.

The man stiffened, face noticeably draining of blood. I detected a distinct change in his demeanor. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said in a low voice.

My forehead scrunched in confusion, “Do what?” I had no clue what he was referring to. “You mean this?” I went to knock on the bar again. His hand reached out, grabbed my wrist, and stopped me. He held my fist above the bar for a time, trembling, not daring to let our hands make even the slightest contact with the countertop below. “Don’t,” he begged. He carefully released my hand. I stepped back, not comfortable with this interaction. I looked around the bar and saw the couple and the three men watching us closely.

“Don’t knock on wood again,” he commanded ominously, sitting back. I was beginning to second guess my decision to have taken the night’s shift. I tried to play it cool and humor him. He’d seemed plenty easy-going a few minutes ago…

“Why not?’ I asked. “It’s just a silly thing people do – for good luck.”

“Only bad things come of it here… My friend John, we were out one night. He was tellin’ me about this girl he was seein’… He didn’t want it to go south, so he knocked on wood like you did. Later it… it started…”

“What started?”

“Terrible things… Terrible things started happenin’ to him. One damn thing after another. Lost his job. Girlfriend left him. Everything in his life went from bad to worse… his luck ran out. Then he started calling me in the middle of the night, sayin’ something was coming for him. Sayin’ he kept seein’ it, hearin’ it…” The man took a breath, tangible fear in his voice. “Couple nights later I went to his home to check on him. Hadn’t heard from him for a few days. When I walked in all I saw was blood… everywhere… no other trace of him. Never saw him again. Cops haven’t a clue.”

I swallowed, “Maybe it’s just an awful coincidence…?”

“It’s not just him. I know plenty of others who’ve done it. All knocked and been through hell. Every time you knock, you risk callin’ it. Invitin’ it into your life …”

“Inviting who?”

“The Evil.”

It was at that moment the middle-aged woman piped up, “Don’t listen to Gary, girl. He’s just being an ass.”

The man, who was apparently Gary, shot her a fiery look. “Don’t you start, Rita!”

“Calm down,” I interjected.

One of the three men drinking at a table, a young guy with a shoddy goatee, stood up. “Damn it, this man is speakin’ the truth! My cousin Duane was killed, too. They never caught the guy. My uncle said that a week before it happened the two of them were talkin’… ” He trailed off as his two drinkmates ushered him to a chair, tugging his sleeve.

Shoddy Goatee continued, “My cousin had just found out he was gonna be a father, and was sayin’ how he was hopin’ his wife would have a boy. He really wanted a son… he knocked… was killed a few days later by a stranger. She, she lost the–”

“That’s enough,” one of his friends demanded, pulling him back to his seat.

To my right, I could hear the squeak of a stool shifting. I looked over to see the middle-aged woman’s husband throw down some cash on the counter. He’d had enough of this. Rita was discreetly thumbing the small silver necklace of the crucifix that she was wearing.

Gary leaned across the bar and looked at me, dead-serious, “I know it sounds insane. It’s something we all do out of habit, you know? It seems harmless… but are you willing to take that risk?”

I shook my head, not sure what to believe. The janitor downed the rest of his drink to steady his nerves, then set the glass onto the wooden bartop, hand shaking. “We shouldn’t talk about it anymore. Talkin’ about it will only make it worse. Just… don’t do it again! For Chrissakes… for your own sake.”

I was silent. I didn’t really know what else to say. Gary fumbled out his wallet, no longer wanting to be in this bar for another second. He paid and lurched out, then stopping by the door, turned to add, “Be careful.”

Then he was gone. The energy in the room now sapped, it only took a few minutes for the rest of the crowd to clear out. Before I knew it, I was alone.

Frankly, I was a little stunned by how the whole evening had taken such a bizarre turn. And all of this because of something so seemingly innocuous. Don’t knock on wood? Seriously? Where did Gary stand on throwing salt over one’s shoulder? Could I hang a horseshoe above my front door? I laughed to myself at the absurdity of it all. This guy was a piece of work.

But Gary had succeeded at one thing… creeping me the hell out. Typically, I was very thorough with all my end-of-night duties: wiping down the taps, the soda guns, the liquor bottles, mopping… Tonight, however, I just wanted to do the bare minimum and go home. And as I was wiping the bar, grazing my hand mindlessly across the surface – THLICK! – I suddenly recoiled my hand in pain.

I held it up into the light to see what the hell had happened. There, in the meat between my thumb and index finger, was a nasty wooden splinter. It was embedded deep within the skin. Gaaaah. A big one, too.

I spent a few minutes in the bathroom digging and poking at it under running water, trying to no avail to squeeze it out. This sucker was really jammed in there. My father had always told me that skin would naturally find a way to reject splinters or anything small that didn’t belong. But Jesus! I had no idea how my body would work this one out. It was wedged under a few centimeters of flesh, with no clear entry point to slide in to retrieve it. I’d have to cut through the skin to dig it out at this point. Finally, I gave up, resigned to my fate of a sore hand for the next few days. Just my luck!

I shut off the faucet.

The faint sound of three quick little knocks stirred me. I looked up, confused. What was that?
It had come from the main room of the bar. I left the bathroom and stepped out into the long hall that led to the bar. From my perspective though, I couldn’t see the entire room – there was a blindspot at the mouth of the hall, leaving half of it obstructed from view. I slowly crept forward, craning my neck as best I could as I approached this compromised corner.

“Hello?” My mind worked through all the logical explanations of what the sound could’ve been. The mop might’ve fallen over and knocked against something. Maybe Darren had decided to stop by after all. But there was no reply.

Knock, knock, knock.

I slowed. Now I knew I wasn’t imagining things. I’d definitely heard something. My eyes refused to blink, anxious about what might be waiting in the next room. The sound had been one of a light tapping on the bartop. Like someone had knocked on it…

“Darren? That you?”

No response. I pushed forward to where the hall opened up into the bar, stood at the edge for a second, cautiously scanning the room. It looked empty.

I walked over to peer behind the bar, checking to see if Darren was indeed tinkering around back there. But that and the rest of the room were clear. No fallen mop, either. What the hell was going on? I knew I had heard…

Knock, knock, knock.

Shit. I stiffened, on high alert. At that point there was no denying it. Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. It might’ve been outside. Yeah, maybe outside.

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I felt very uneasy. Who was doing this? Was Gary the janitor still hanging around, playing a game of “Let’s Freak out the New Bartender”? That possibility lit a fuse within me. I hated games like that, and even more so – I loathed the idiots who played them. I grabbed a bottle of cheap liquor from the back wall to use for protection and gingerly made my way around the bar. Taking a deep breath, I headed for the front door.

I slowly unlocked the door. This action caused a sharp pain to coarse through my hand — that splinter still agitating. I grit my teeth in both discomfort and anticipation and cracked the door open. I raised the bottle high with my other hand, ready to smash someone in the face if need be.

But when I stepped outside into the vacant parking lot, there was no one. The only car there was mine, sitting underneath a lone street lamp thirty yards away. There was an eerie stillness in the air. I walked out a few feet into the night and scanned around. All I could see were the faint gray outlines of the surrounding trees on the outskirts of the parking lot. Like tall ominous monoliths. I saw no one lurking the heavy shadows in between.

A cold wind blew. I clutched myself instinctively, shivering; my breath a frosty wisp. The wind rustled through the trees, snapping and rattling all the spindly branches above… Maybe the knocking I’d heard was just the sound of trees bending in the wind…? Yup, that could’ve been it.

It started to rain, developing into a heavy drizzle. Screw this, what was I doing out here in the middle of the night in the cold rain chasing strange sounds? The man was long gone, probably having had a good laugh at my expense. I relaxed a little and lowered the liquor bottle. Then I shook my soaked head. This was ridiculous. My mind was playing tricks on me, all because some random drunk had planted these weird scary seeds in my head. I had never been prone to jumping at shadows or letting fear get the best of me. Why did I feel so unnerved and on edge this time?

I went back inside, being sure to lock the door, my hand stinging yet again from that stupid splinter. I set the bottle on the bar, not bothering to put it back in its place. It was time to turn off the lights and get the hell out of there. As I gathered my belongings, something caught my attention. I approached the bar for a closer look, moving aside the rag I had been using to wipe the countertops.

My eyes widened in confusion. Not quite understanding what I was looking at. Or how it was possible. But sure enough, a section of the oak countertop had completely rotted, like it was infested with termites who had run rampant for days. What the hell…? There’s no way termites would ever devour something that fast…

A thought occurred to me. This was the same spot I had knocked on wood earlier.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

I spun around, more startled than if someone had dumped freezing ice water down my back. My breath caught in my throat. There he was… A man, standing at the opposite end of the long bar by the front door.

PLINK! The light above him exploded, blanketing the intruder in darkness. I was too shocked to scream or run. I remained in place. Everything inside me was telling me to flee. But I couldn’t. I was immobilized. I imagined it was like the feeling of encountering a grizzly bear in the wild… knowing in one’s core that by running there’d be a very good chance of being mauled to death seconds later.

I couldn’t see his face from where I stood. One thing was for sure: this wasn’t the janitor. This guy was too tall, too thin. He stood at an angle, as if half of his body had sunken in on itself. Something was also very wrong with his head. It was long and ovular with hair like a strange whorling rat’s nest. Or twisted roots from an upturned tree…

“Bar’s closed,” I squeaked out from a far away place.

The man said nothing. He just stood there watching me. Silent.

I took a tiny, imperceptible step backwards, eyeing another bottle to grab for protection. Before I could summon the courage to actually reach for one, he slowly extended his arm outwards from his side. His posture straightened as he did so. This terrifying motion stopped me cold. His joints cracked audibly, letting out a strange splintering sound with each of his rigid movements.

As his slender fingers unfurled, I couldn’t stop thinking about just how long his arm was even for a man his height. It was unnaturally long. He balled his out-stretched spider-like fingers into a fist and clenched tightly. There was that loud awful cracking sound again. CRACKALACKALACK!

“Wh- what do you want??” I stuttered.

His mouth opened, as if to speak. No sound came forth. He took his fist suddenly and knocked it against his chest –

KNOCK
KNOCK
KNOCK!

It sounded EXACTLY like the knocking before, but now much much louder. I knew something was terribly wrong with this sinister man that stood before me. This wasn’t the sound that’s made when thumping a chest. This was… different. Unknowable. It sounded hard, like he was hitting a heavy tree-trunk. This wasn’t a man I realized. It was something else…

The Knocking Man

I took another guarded step backwards and with that he lunged at me. Instinct kicked in. I grabbed the closest bottle and I bolted off in the other direction, gunning it for the back exit. But that hall was long, as I said before, and this goddamn thing was fast. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! The sound chased after me, bouncing off the walls, raging in my ears… I knew he was gaining quickly. With no other choice, I ducked into the bathroom – the unholy knocking now only getting louder and more repetitive.

I raced to slam the door shut, briefly catching a glimpse of The Knocking Man’s horrid face in the Exit sign’s red glow. His skin was corrugated, decomposing. He glared at me viciously with his tiny dark eyes that were like two shiny black beetles. I heaved all my weight against the door and scrambled to lock it. His fist rapped against the heavy wood – KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! And again – KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

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“GO AWAY!!!” I screamed, backing into the corner of this small windowless room. He beat against the door wildly – KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! It sounded like a dozen fists pounding at once. The fury of a mob in one man’s body. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! The wood was thick and sturdy, but the force with which he hit the door was splintering it, pulverizing it, practically beating sawdust into the air…

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! In a matter of seconds, this man, this creature, this thing would be in the room with me! I raised the liquor bottle defensively, knowing in my heart it wouldn’t make the slightest difference against him. I looked around, scanning to see if there was anything else I could use for protection. An old bar of soap. An empty paper towel dispenser. A box of matches atop the toilet – the bar’s inexpensive version of incense.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK! He pounded with a terrible fury. It would all be over soon now… Then an idea sparked…

CRACK! A huge chunk of wood burst out from the door. His long sinuous arm slipped through and reached around wildly. No time to think, I frantically stepped forward and swung that liquor bottle against his arm. The glass smashed into a thousand pieces with alcohol dousing his skin.

I raced to the toilet for the matches and desperately tried to ignite one as the Knocking Man’s arm clambered to open the door.

The first few matches didn’t take! The pack must have gotten damp from being in here so long. I kept struggling – striking and failing – with not one of them drawing even the slightest flicker.

The Knocking Man’s arm felt around and found the handle. Shit, he was going to unlock it! My hands were trembling. I could barely get them to function properly.

“Come on, come on!” I yelled, more frustrated with myself than with the lousy matches. I struck one of the final ones…Shfick! Ah! At last!

It went out. Dammit!

Still, I was encouraged. Frantically now, I kept at it. I’d gotten one to catch… I could do this. There was only one more match left. Just one more! I’d been so good at this in high school, smoking in the bathroom all those years… What was wrong with me?! I wiped my sweaty fingers on my shirt and tried again.

In the background, that awful hand played around with the lock… its spindly fingers twisting the knob. And as the lock clicked into place, my match struck. Ignited! I had no time to steady its flicker. This was my only chance. I tossed it at the Knocking Man’s alcohol-slick arm!

A flame spread. The fire licked up his knotty skin. The Knocking Man howled in pain from the other side of the door, whipping his arm around, feverishly trying to put the blaze out, to no avail. I stood as far back as I could from the burning arm, which waved itself about in a bewildered frenzy, a mad conductor overseeing a dark symphony in a minor key. He wriggled, violently ripping his arm through the hole, retracting it back into the hall. I heard a sound of heavy footsteps as the thing apparently fled.

Then… nothing.

A period of silence ensued, lasting a few seconds but it felt like an eternity. All was quiet. The attack had stopped. The knocking had ceased for the moment. I cautiously stepped towards the splintered hole in the door. I peered out. I couldn’t see him or it from my perspective. Was he gone? Maybe it was a trap.

I knew I couldn’t stay here forever. He’d be back and when he returned, he’d be angrier than ever. I steeled myself, opened the door, stepped out. The dark hallway appeared empty. I took my chances and hustled for the front entrance.

Once I’d arrived at this marker, I swung the door open and studied the parking lot. The rain had intensified, now coming down in a torrential downpour. If he had run outside, the fire would have extinguished in seconds… but there was still no sign of him. It looked clear, so I sprinted for my car, being sure to frequently check behind my shoulder the entire way. I fished out my keys and slammed into the front seat, locking the doors. The engine cranked to life and I peeled out of the drenched parking lot. The Toyota’s windshield wipers were barely able to keep up against the storm. Though it wasn’t hard to tell that the backcountry road I was racing down was a washed out mess. A flash flood was imminent.

I was breathing fast, foot on the gas, all adrenalin. I needed to focus. I didn’t know these forested back roads very well. Some of them could be seemingly unending, snaking through the woods for miles with no discernible outlet — or sign of life. The few scattered houses I did see were either ominously dark or boarded up. I couldn’t afford to get lost in this web. I needed to find civilization. I needed to find it now! The rain was pouring down so hard, bending the tree boughs that loomed over the road, making the scene a claustrophobic tunnel. I fumbled out my phone to check for service. No network. There wouldn’t be one until I got closer to town.

I tightened my fist back around the wheel, and audibly grimaced in pain. My hand hurt more than ever now. This was some awful splinter. The rain was pelting the windshield furiously, incessantly — but I stole a quick look to inspect my hand in the dim light of the dashboard. To my shock, the skin near the sliver had now turned black. It looked deeply infected, like a sore that had gone weeks without treatment and now was necrotizing. What the hell was happening to me…?

Before I could even begin to wrap my head around this gruesome sight, a distinct noise cut through the beating rain and the flurry of my troubled thoughts… It came from above. A sudden unwelcome CRACKING noise. A sound of something heavy splintering apart, and a moment later…

A large oak tree fell directly onto the road ten feet ahead of me. I had no time to react. I was driving too damn fast. The next moment, I collided with it. My vision then filled with the frenetic sight of glass spraying towards me, the dashboard compacting, the crunch of bark as my head melded with the massive tree trunk. For a split-second, it all seemed like this terrifying face opening its awful maw to devour me.

And then, just before everything went completely totally horrifyingly dark, there, somewhere in the back of my ears, I swear I heard a noise that will haunt me for the rest of my life – Knock Knock Knock!

Credit: Zachary Donohue

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