Kate McQuade

If I Don’t Answer

Ghosts in the house. Scampers in the walls, rustles in the ceiling. A steady thumping above our bed at night. We had moved in only weeks ago, to this new-to-us (but still quite old) faculty house at the Massachusetts boarding school where I work. So we were still getting used to the pops and complaints of its inner workings: the clicking whistle of the radiators, the basement pulse of the water heater’s heartbeat. But these scuttling sounds were new.

Our bedroom door drifted open, gold light splitting the dark. “What was that noise, Mama?” I told the girls the house was just settling. “What does settling mean, Mama?” I told them sometimes a house has to stretch its arms and legs a little, just like a person, and sometimes it creaks a little, just like a person. They bought what I knew was fiction and I walked them back to their shared room, tucked them into bed.

In the hallway their older brother—eight years old and skeptical—was standing there with his eyebrow raised. I waited for him to ask about the noise. He could handle the truth, I decided; he’s never been afraid of animals, and this was certainly an animal of some kind.

But he didn’t ask. He just arched his eyebrow higher, a new trick, then walked to his bedroom and closed the door without a word.

My son’s door-closing tendency was a new phenomenon, like the eyebrow. Both seemed to have coincided with the move out of our previous school housing assignment—a bustling, light-filled dorm apartment, the only home my kids had ever known—and into this quiet faculty house at the edge of campus. It was a lot of change at once, and I attributed my son’s new habits to the transition, along with what I can describe only as his sudden evasiveness: a new introversion that didn’t necessarily seem unhappy, but which I wasn’t sure how to interpret. On moving day, as the girls ran up and down the stairs and shouted to each other—about the huge bathrooms, the nooks and crannies, the fairy lights I’d strung up before unpacking because I desperately wanted my children to love this new home—my son’s first activity was to make a sign for his bedroom. He hung it on the door with shiny plastic tape: PLEASE KNOK. IF I DONT ANSWER, I AM NOT HERE.

The closed doors weren’t the only change. It was around this time that my son stopped saying “I love you” back to me when I tucked him in at night. Not always, and not out of anger as far as I could tell. Mostly, it seemed, he did it because he could: a closed-lip smile and a slightly patronizing pat on my arm as he rolled over in bed, turning his face away. My unanswered words always dangled there awkwardly, like half an echo.

Mapping this new phase of parenthood felt like mapping the interior of a new house. It takes you a while to remember which light switch goes to which light, which direction to crank the windows, which cabinet is the one you decided would be right for the frying pans. In our old apartment, my son had shared a room with his sister, and he had never closed the door. Not once. We have always been a family of open doors, both figurative and literal—even now, I sometimes have to remind my daughters that it’s polite to use the bathroom in privacy when company is over—and I wondered if his new habit was a reprimand of sorts, a quiet protest of our move. Or maybe it had nothing to do with the move, or nothing to do with protest; maybe it was actually an expression of excitement, a claim to what was, for the first time, his very own unshared space.

In those first few weeks, as summer bent its light toward fall, my son continued to close his door every evening, the PLEASE KNOK sign fluttering stubbornly from its single piece of tape. I always knocked, and he always invited me in, although sometimes he wouldn’t answer the door right away. I would stand in the hallway and wonder if he hadn’t heard me. Then I would wonder if he had. I would imagine him behind the door imagining me. I imagined whole stories in my head about what he must be thinking, and as far as I knew, all of them were fiction.

For the first time, my son—the very first child I ever made—was a mystery to me, as distant and furtive as a thump in the night.

“Flying squirrels,” said the technician from the Office of the Physical Plant, when I called about the noises in the walls. “And probably not the last of them.” They like to pair off, he explained. Where you find one of them, you’ll always find two, sometimes whole colonies. It’s very hard to know if and when you’ve trapped the last one. And if you don’t get down to the very last one, they’ll just repopulate again. “You see, they’re nesting animals,” he said, holding up his hands.

The OPP technician explained that we should take care of the infestation now, because nesting animals meant mating animals, and because the squirrels might chew through electrical wires in the walls. He explained the pros and cons of Have-a-Heart traps, which would require someone to drive the trapped squirrels all the way to the coast to set them loose. If you released them within ten miles of the house, they would eventually find their way back to the attic, a fact that felt both magical and sad at the same time.

That fall, I was often getting up to work on my novel before the kids were awake. The house in those pre-dawn hours was dead silent, which made any noise seem outsized and dramatic. One morning, a sudden rustle in the ceiling broke the quiet, and I couldn’t help but imagine that the attic had been empty until that moment—that a squirrel had just ended, triumphantly, its long journey home. For a moment, I pitied that squirrel for not knowing how short-lived the triumph would be. How foolish it was to allow one’s heart such a permanent attachment to an impermanent situation.

Then I made a note to call OPP about more traps.

My son hadn’t wanted to move in the first place. None of my children had. Our old apartment had been attached to a dorm of forty freshmen girls—teaching at a boarding school means living at a boarding school, so running a dorm was part of my job for many years—and my kids were accustomed to the constant, muffled rumble of human life on the other side of their bedroom walls. They were used to girls coming over to play with them, to take them sledding and build snowmen in the dorm’s front yard. They didn’t feel the fatigue I felt at having lived in some version of a dormitory for nearly two decades. They didn’t share my desire to live, for the fir