You’re Alive by Cristopher Preston
You’re Alive by Cristopher Preston
Have you ever been hunted? I have, and its taken some time to ever speak of it.
July third, nineteen eighty-nine, was the first time I heard his distinct raspy voice. My live radio show that was heard across the greater Toronto area from CFRB, ‘You’re Live with Doctor Allison Louis’, was nearing the end of our evening timeslot. My producer, Alvin, put up his index finger and made a quizzical expression – his way of asking if I wanted one more caller before time was up. I nodded, straightened my beige blouse under heirloom pearls, brushed my brown hair back over both ears, and spoke the signature line, “Hello, you’re live with Doctor Allison.”
That raspy voice chimed in, “Hi, this is my first time calling. I’m hoping you can help with a problem of mine.”
I smiled, always did whenever hearing from a new caller, but Alvin just continued to with the soundboard in front of him on his side of the soundproof Plexiglas between us.
“And who may I ask is calling?”
“Walter, ma’am. Have you assisted anyone with a fear of the dark before? I can’t ever be in darkness, it terrifies me. The lights are on in my room all day, every day.”
“Scotophobia? Also known as nyctophobia.” my listeners loved getting a new word to chew on for water cooler discussions, “it can stem from anything, really. For children, it’s typically caused by scary movies or stories, something that simple. The phobia can originate from something a bit more complex, like separation anxiety. How long has this been going on?”
Walter replied, “many years, decades maybe?”
“So, from your childhood?”
“More like thirty-five, forty.” This was odd. His voice was gravelly but with a youthful tone. It would also rise to a screech every now and then as well, causing me to dial down my headphones.
“Adult onset of any phobia can be difficult but they’re also undoubtedly easier to treat. Walter, understanding where it comes from, what could be lurking in the dark, is the key to a cure. Confront what it is that’s hiding in the dark and you’ll realize there was nothing really to fear in the first place.”
“That’s insightful, Doc. It’s hard to tell, maybe some type of change, something eating me from the inside out? It’s afraid of sunlight. No, maybe not. But a transformation? Does that make sense?”
Walter wasn’t taking my cues to wrap up and was showing classic signs of being a ‘clinger’, the name Alvin had come up for those who attempted to linger on the line. I looked over to see he was already spinning his glasses with one hand in a gesture that urged me to wrap up.
Even though I had recently quit, years of smoking helped perfect the soothing voice I projected next, “It does, very much. Well, as our time tonight wraps up, hopefully that has provided something to ponder. Personally, I would not recommend medicating this issue as the side-effects could be worse than the actual phobia. General counseling, hypnotherapy, even neuro-linguistic programming would be suitable next steps. I also urge you, as well as any of my callers, to follow up with this same phone line afterwards to hear about my selection of audio tapes for sale. I might just have one for you.”
“Thank you, Doctor Allison. I will.”
“And thank you, Walter. Catch us tomorrow night where we will be live and once again able to offer assistance to all of our callers in the greater Toronto area. Goodnight.”
Walter surprisingly called in afterwards and actually purchased some of my tapes, nobody ever purchased my tapes. Alvin had taken the call and couldn’t wait to tell me afterward how difficult it was to wrap up the transaction. “Such a clinger!” Alvin said, sneering.
I went home that night to my empty townhome in Oakville and let Walter plague my mind for a little while after. It was his off-putting voice that had me thinking. What did a man with that kind of voice even look like? It’s difficult to describe exactly how but he sounded deformed in a way. Who was it that he thought would come after him?
While my mind constantly drifted towards critical self-reflection, this night seemed to sting just a little more. There I was – a fifty-seven year old divorcee with kids who never visited anymore. Perhaps, my family was afraid that I’m going to stalk them in the shadows.
Sometime late that night, I fell asleep to these thoughts with the assistance of some needlessly prescribed sleeping pills.
“Allison! Alvin! Come in here.” Our manager, Thom, beckoned to us while leaning against his office doorway.
I had just began laying out a few new show segments while dusk was creeping in on July ninth. Thom was a man who ran by the clock – by half past five, he wanted to be on the highway home. As a result, discussions with him were brief and rare for us evening personalities.
We walked over to his office as he motioned to his guest chairs. Luckily for us, both Alvin and I were relatively thin since he refused to move his portly mass while we entered. All of us women around the office knew why he did this, to be brushed against, so I was always sure to give him nothing more than my boney elbow on the way.
“What’s new, boss?” Alvin said.
“You’ve got quite the success story on your hands, Allison. That man, Walter, he’s been calling the station and buying up all of your various psycho-babble tapes and has been singing your praises. He claims that you cured his phobia of the dark.”
“He’s been calling?” I look over to Alvin.
Alvin looked rather sheepish, a far cry from his usual arrogance. “Okay, yes, he’s been calling. The guy is incessant, Alli!”
I was quite upset, we didn’t hear back from the majority of our callers. “Jesus, you’re an asshole sometimes. Well thank you, Thom. I’m glad to hear it.”
“You two have your billboard time coming up, I think a picture with you and your biggest fan would look great on it. Capitalize on those successes.” It had been a while since my show was advertised on any of the billboards that peppered the Queen Elizabeth Parkway.
“We’ll do it. Next time he calls, Alvin will set up a time. We’ll get a photographer over there. It’ll be nice.” I smiled.
Walter had agreed quite excitedly when he called later on, this is what Alvin told me. The shoot was set for two days later at Walter’s home. I was nervous but it wasn’t because I was meeting a client in person, I had a clinic for years prior to moving from Ottawa to Toronto. It was more that I hate cameras. Effort was needed – brown dye hid the silver within and a bit of time in front of my vanity mirror meant that my skin would look twenty years younger. Still, I didn’t feel my image was needed to be seen for callers to be enticed to dial my help line.
We had followed the directions to a home in South Oakville. I lived much further West and truthfully didn’t venture this way too often. I arrived on time, Alvin was the only one to beat me there in his red Pontiac convertible. Our photographer was several minutes late – you can’t expect much more from artists. His tardiness did provide Alvin and I an opportunity to examine the scene ahead of us. The property began with a black ornate gate and winding cobblestone driveway running towards a towering mansion that loomed in the distance.
“He said lakeshore road? You didn’t mishear him?”
“This is it. His credit card address was the same, although the name on it was Nathan Rhodes.”
“Who the hell’s that?” The name sounded oddly familiar.
“He said that Walter was what he preferred to go by but that Nathan was his real name. Funny enough, even when he called back, he still introduced himself as ‘Walter’. A sale is a sale so I put it through anyway.”
Chester pulled up in a whirl of dust. He leapt out of some rust bucket and began to assemble his camera gear while spouting off lines like, “great day for a shoot! I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“Let’s get our boy,” Alvin said while beginning to walk down the red cobble road.
As the three of us ascended the several chiseled steps up towards a giant deeply stained oak door, I could have sworn that I saw a curtain flutter. The day was bright but there were so many weeping willow treess surrounding the entrance that it kept sun glare off the windows. I rang the doorbell.
We waited, as would be expected with such a large household when someone would need to make their way to you. That was, unless they saw you coming. I also distinctly remember thinking about that name Rhodes in that moment once more. How did I know that name? That’s when the door crept open and I recognized the man standing in front of me was the wealthy philanthropist, Sebastian Rhodes.
Sebastian, tall and roughly my age while dressed in partly undone work attire kept half behind the oak door. “Yes? Can I help you?”
“Sorry, you Mister Rhodes, correct?” His family’s generosity had planted the name ‘Rhodes’ on countless buildings in the area.
“Sebastian Rhodes, yes.” He studied me further before continuing. “You came to my door so introducing yourself would be the polite thing to do, Madame.”
“I’m so sorry, sir. My name is Doctor Allison Louis. This is Alvin Muns and that’s Chester, our photographer. We’re here to see Walter for a photoshoot as he is an avid listener of my radio show.”
“Who put you up to this?” He was visibly agitated and wanted us gone immediately.
“The caller said their name was Walter, possibly Nathan then? That’s the name on the credit card.” We both seemed just as confused.
“Are you starting to hear how this all must sound to an old man like me? Nathan’s my son but he’d never tune into some radio doctor show.”
“No Walter live here, probably just some punk who stole my son’s credit card. Wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll have words with him to keep that wallet secure around his idiot friends.”
Alvin stepped in, “it’s okay, we’re sorry to have disturbed you. We’ll leave.”
There was distrust in Sebastian’s cold blue eyes as he nodded then closed the door slowly on us. It was clear to me that he knew a ‘Walter’ but he was going to continue pushing much harder than we cared to argue. After all, the photoshoot wasn’t exactly high on my priority list.
While we walked back to the cars, I caught a glimpse of the curtains that covered basement windows move once more. Walter? Nathan? It hardly mattered anymore.
Alvin spoke up first. “I’ll break it to Thom that this was a bust. Did you want to grab a drink or something, Alli?”
“My place at seven, bring the pizza. I have enough alcohol to take the sting off this ridiculous incident.” I then looked over at Chester, “thank you for your services. You can head out.”
“Sure!” he seemed unaffected by the bad news, “but I do still need to be paid, dude.”
To my colleagues, the term ‘monster’ would typically be a reference to an individual who displayed no empathy. Sociopaths and psychopaths are often labelled this as well. It was then, the night that followed our botched photoshoot, which forever changed my perception of what a real monster was.
It began as intended. Alvin and I ate, drank, and laughed for hours as the sun set around us. I admired him – he was a good two decades younger than me but provided warmth in his smile that just felt good. It wasn’t sexual but definitely flirty and was something I so seldom received these days.
My living room hummed with the soft tunes of Vladimir Horowitz during his New York recordings while a back issue of Psychology Today lay face down on the stand beside me. Someone I went to Queens University with, Debbie Cotour, somehow had a column accepted. I’m not sure how that hack made it and my essays were never published, perhaps it was my reputation as a radio shrink. Either way, Alvin was a nice distraction from my usual obsessions in this lonely home.
Once, he laughed so hard at my impression of Chester that he spilled a small amount of his wine on my Moroccan rug below with a thud. “Shit! I’m so sorry, Alli. Let me get that.”
“No, it’s completely fine, Alvin. These rugs require a certain touch to get something as stubborn and expensive as cabernet sauvignon out. I’ve got it. You should probably hit the road, anyway.” I stood up, adjusted my blue silk pajamas and began heading to the kitchen. “We don’t want your wife wondering where you are.”
Alvin stood up as well, “you’re right. For the record, my old lady never wonders. I’ll head out but thanks for the hospitality. We should do it again sometime.”
“It’s not like hanging out with your mother, is it?” I called out from afar while getting a damp cloth.
I could hear him smirk while getting his shoes on. “Far from it. Alli, you’re pretty fun.”
We caught a glimpse of each other as he opened the door to exit. “Bye,” we both said simultaneously right before locking the door behind him and turning off the porch light.
After dabbing up the spilt liquid, I went upstairs to shake off my wine buzz with a nice warm bath. I may have missed it at first, the initial knocking, because of the running tub water and classical music still bellowing out from the floor below. Once the water turned off, I definitely heard it then – someone rattling hard on my front door.
My mind immediately went to Alvin forgetting something since he did leave in a hurry. With a quick check that nothing indecent was showing from my pajamas, I headed down to the front door once again.
Glancing back to the living room, I saw nothing that Alvin may have left lying around. He knocked again. “One second, Alvin!”
I hit the porch light on once more but that familiar glow from around the closed door didn’t return so my next action was to hit the interior foyer overhead light. To not keep my co-worker waiting in the dark, I flung the door open with a smile.
The street was quiet, humid, and still with only a single figure in front of me. Alvin’s car was not in my driveway. In processing who I was exactly looking at, my grin faded all too quick. Even though he was cloaked in shadow, dressed in a beige trench coat and rain hat, this wasn’t Alvin, not by a long shot.
“Doctor Allison, it’s me. It’s Walter.” I knew that raspy voice before he even said his name.
“Walter? Why – no, please leave.”
He sensed my instincts before I even reacted. His left hand dropped a clear object, my porch bulb, and caught my hand on the outer door knob before I could step back and swing it closed. He’d Snared me like prey on my own door with a hand that was afflicted with grotesque hair and claw-like nails.
Walter continued, “I came for my picture that you promised.” He revealed a polaroid camera in the other hand.
My brain stuttered to a halt, all psychology fundamentals for a situation such as this failed me. To yell? I couldn’t, not without him tearing me apart before someone arrived. To reason? Who, or what, was I even dealing with? When something did come out, it was a simple, “No, please let me go.”
“I was normal like you so long ago but this affliction,” Walter’s shadowy face peered down at his hands, “took me early in life, given to me by another. The change was gradual, slowed further by light. You, Doctor, helped me embrace it and I feel more in control than ever before. To celebrate, I found you in the phone book and set out at dusk. I want my picture.”
If he was describing some obscure disease, his claws were nearly puncturing my skin and I had no intention of being infected. In a whimpering tone, I said, “Okay, okay. A picture and then you leave. Please don’t hurt me, Walter.”
“Good. Step inside and we’ll take it in your hallway.”
He let go. The top of my hand cratered with claw divots but, thankfully, no puncture. I made the first move, walking backwards into my own home while this deformed stranger followed every step.
My options for defending myself were limited – there was mace spray in my purse but it was located in the kitchen, which may as well have been a thousand miles away. The only action I could think of taking was discretely engaging the deadbolt lock prior to swinging the door closed behind him so that it wouldn’t entirely shut. I was able to do this, Walter didn’t seem to notice that the door was still less than an inch ajar.
We now stood there in my foyer, the overhead light seemed hopelessly dim to penetrate the hat he kept his head covered with. A crooked finger of his pointed upward, “turn that off.”
“Does it hurt your eyes? Do you see better in the dark, Walter?”
“My eyes are sensitive but my ears, they give me all the help I need to see. To use this camera though,” his monstrous hand held the polaroid in an awkward manner, “you’ll need to take the picture.”
An opportunity was presenting itself but I forced myself to keep calm, like a runner poised on their starting block prior to the starter’s pistol going off. I took the camera, careful to study the operation of it. Thankfully, I had owned one like this previously. To delay what was to come next for a moment more, I explained, “you know, Walter, we visited you earlier today. Perhaps we had the wrong home.”
“You did, I saw you from the window but Sebastian forbid me from greeting you. Nathan wasn’t happy when I used his credit card for your tapes. He yelled so I gave him a scar he will see for a long while. Then made my way here.”
“Are they your family? Why would you do that?” I began holding the camera up to face me as the device trembled from my own nerves.
He shuffled in as a shadow behind me and looked forward. “Not family, but close. Nobody is like me.”
Possibly because his hulking figure was behind me, exhausting hot breaths on my neck, but I could only conceive of worse actions being taken against me unless I acted. My slipper-covered feet silently twisted and allowed my body to torque around and face the invader. He had been too focused on his photograph trophy for this safari he was on to notice my initial movements.
Within a moment, I had the camera at his face and punched the red button down. A powerful flash burst outward, as seen through my own shut eyes in order to reduce its blinding effects.
He shrieked, “Fuck! Where are you? Get back –“
Walter’s words were cut short when I cracked the camera against his face and pushed him back, destroying my shoe rack under his fall. Even when this beastly man wasn’t expecting it, his frame was surprisingly difficult to tip over, only outmatched by my own desperation to survive.
Like a ghazel, my first few steps were magnificently coordinated. The door swung open effortlessly, the door never hinged shut fully, and moonlight flooded in as I crested through the doorway. That’s when I felt a tug, and all momentum left me.
My left foot had been snagged by what felt like a bear trap, causing my body to slam forward. As my vision danced somewhere between complete blackout and seeing double, I could hear Walter rising back to his feet, all while his grip never loosened.
“I respect you, admire you. This is how you treat me?” His tone now sounded more feral.
My world began to invert as he pulled up on my ankle, dangling me upside down like a catch of the day. As my arms slunk to the ground, my left hand touched something – the porch bulb. In a last-ditch effort, I whipped the glass object at my stalker. It broke somewhere within the shadowy outline of his face, causing him to moan in anger or frustration.
It was no use, he had me.
“Walt!” called out a commanding voice.
“Sebastian?” I was carelessly dropped by Walter, who was clearly startled. “How did you find me?”
The impact against my concrete porch drained me of any further fight. I was forced to watch what happened next helpless.
Sebastian Rhodes was standing in a defensive pose with a wooden gripped hunting rifle trained on Walter while his silver Mercedes-Benz idled behind him. “Don’t ask stupid questions, there are many big game that leave less of a trail than you, Walt. I certainly wasn’t going to stand by and let you run amok, destroying the work we’ve put into keeping you hidden. Get in the car!”
“You know that can’t hurt me with that, right?” Walter growled.
“It only needs to wake the neighbors. You wouldn’t want to become some science experiment, would you?”
Walter’s gigantic body, which was torqued like a muscle car while attacking me, now slouched over ever so slightly. He stepped overtop of me, toward the porch steps but stopped short of descending them.
It was peculiar, the outline of his very large back moved independent from his breath in such an inhumane way. If I were to guess, the movements were attributed to wings which moved independently to his actual back. These appendages also shuddered and relaxed, deflating his overall outline, as Walter consolidated his thoughts on returning home.
Walter began to take heavy footsteps towards him. “I’m coming, put down your toy.”
Sebastian positioned the hunting rifle under his arm while passing by Walter, affectionately patting him on the shoulder as the beastly man made his way to the car. The aging philanthropist came up to me, assisting my arm as I got to my feet once more.
“Doctor Louis, you saw nothing. Got it? Not a thing.”
I glanced into those intense eyes as they glared at me behind wire framed glasses. “What is he?”
“That?” he looked back to Walter struggling to enter the tight confines of his car’s back seats, “a family heirloom. He’s our problem, not anyone else’s. Then again, he doesn’t even exist.”
I waited for any further information but, similar to my first run-in with this man, he offered no such satisfaction. Once I resided to the fact that nothing more would be said, I simply nodded in an agreeable fashion. Sebastian nodded back, slower and more deliberately than I had, and began to march back to his vehicle.
Throughout this commotion, not another person had driven or walked by. While it was just after midnight, my hope was for someone, anyone, to have witnessed what I saw so that I didn’t have to feel so alone. Instead, as the silver car pulled away, it was just myself left to pick up the pieces.
My feet wouldn’t cooperate at first. Fear has a way of pouring concrete in your veins. When that first step did come, broken glass crunch under my slipper which was only a further indication of how unsafe I felt in that moment. Still, I forced myself to carry on as tears welled up.
While stepping in and closing the door, the classical sounds could be heard still emanating from my stereo but offered no comfort as it previously had. My eyes caught the discarded picture laying on the ground amongst the pieces of broken furniture and camera parts. With a wobbling hand, I plucked it up after locking the deadbolt and slide lock behind me on the front door.
I retreated to the kitchen, turned on every potlight and fumbled through my purse, pocketing the mace in my robe. Under the bright lights, I mistakenly decided to turn the photo over to see what image it managed to capture. What I saw was something so befuddling that it was difficult to settle to the fact that I was present when this was taken. Walter was human-like with his large hat as he was wincing at the camera’s bright flash but his features were almost bat-like – pointy ears, red eyes, upturned nose, facial fur, and sharp fangs. I hadn’t taken a breath for the entire moment that I stared at the photo. After finally breaking my gaze, a desperate inhale entered my lungs and I quickly found an empty envelope to steal myself away from being consumed any further from the photo’s contents.
I never had a reason to fear the dark until that night but always have since. My fear had a face, however. That creature, Walter, was right – it was himself who was now unshackled and able to roam freely in the shadows. Worse still, it was my own doing that he was able to remove those shackles. I had failed as a psychologist and as a member of this now-threatened town.
After no longer in a state to help others with such a broken psyche, I gave up my talk show and took an office job. Suffice to say that the lights never turned off again in that home or the condominium in Toronto I moved to very shortly after the incident. The sleeping pills I had been taken before were not so needless anymore. Every single moment before I slipped into an unconscious state, that polaroid image would flash across my vision and it took months before I could stop screaming every time this happened. The picture itself entered a safety deposit box, my only remaining assurance that I wasn’t certifiably crazy. Now, twenty years later, I receive a voicemail from Nathan. He has some questions for a ‘reliable professional’. Do I call him back and assist the family that killed my career and nearly killed me? Or, do I get that god forsaken photo from the bank and out the family at every media outlet who will listen? Tomorrow, I will decide.
Copyright Cristopher Preston 2019