A faint click echoed into the hallway when Alex tentatively tested the handle. The door opened easier than he’d expected and the heavy wooden panel cracked ajar exposing a fluorescent-lit sliver of the office before him. He stood nervously in the empty corridor, assessing the thin beam of light projecting itself across the toes of his shoes and onto the wall behind him.
No turning back now.
There wasn’t. He’d made his presence known. Even if he turned and ran away he’d never make it around the corner before someone from inside investigated the ghostly occurrence. The air was still inside the building, this late into the evening even the vents had been turned off; wasn’t the wind. The door hung open, just slightly, but there was in fact no turning back.
A hesitant foot brought him across the threshold, beyond the door boldly marked “Dr. Robert Preston” and below that, “Office of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.” Alex swayed awkwardly for a moment in the doorframe, his wallet chain clinking lightly against the floodgate as a wave of unfamiliarity washed over him. That always happened with new places, even places that weren’t new but rather infrequently visited. Always in the first few steps while his senses adjusted to the tone of the room; the underlying tensions or smells, lighting and sounds. He just stood for a moment, taking it in. Waiting for the feeling to pass. He didn’t want to be here.
The small room before him was silent but for the rhythmic tap of a clock high on a wall to his left and the less rhythmic clicking of fingers dancing softly across a keyboard.
“Hello. May I help you?” The sounds of typing had ceased and a woman’s voice, equal parts authority and hospitality, gave an unwelcome complexity to the otherwise simple atmosphere.
Alex’s eyes followed the sound back to its source. A woman probably in her mid-thirties sat behind a heavy rosewood desk. Her auburn hair, having been hastily curled into a bun and secured with a pencil, betrayed hints of a long day. He followed a few loose hairs past her ear, beyond her elegant jawbone and into the plunging neckline of her red silk blouse. He forced himself to look at her face, her deep green eyes awaited his answer patiently, her crimson lips curled in a friendly smile that may have doubled as a question mark. A disarming thing, that smile, immediately it began deconstructing barriers he’d erected to deal with this visit.
She’s pretty . . . And she was.
“Uh,” he stammered, “Yes. Alex Freeman.” He felt his face grow flush. “I have a 6:30 appointment.”
She produced a clipboard and pen from a drawer and placed them on the reception desk before her. “Go ahead and fill out this form while I finish this up.” she gestured at the monitor next to her, “Then we’ll get you checked in.” With a smile she turned away and began tapping once more on her keyboard, the occasional mouse-click sounding out at random intervals.
Alex approached the desk; his hand shook as he took up the pen and put his name at the top of the page. From his new vantage point he examined the receptionist with a more discerning eye. Against the wall beyond her chair he could see a pair of high-heeled shoes lying in a forlorn pile. Though he couldn’t see her feet; only a pair of smooth, sun-browned legs stretching from beneath a black knee-length skirt and disappearing into the darkened substructure of the desk, he assumed she had cast off the assuredly painful footwear and simply gone without. He wanted to see her feet.
I want to see all of her.
He shook his head, lightly, clearing his mind and returning to the forms.
Take another look. He did.
He watched her painted fingernails tiptoeing from key to key. Her hands, just beginning to show her age, moved lightly from word to word with deliberate precision. His eyes traced her from wrist to shoulder and once more dove into the tempting recesses of the neckline. From there he was drawn to a gap, an inch—maybe two—between the second and third button of her blouse where the layers of silk had folded opposite one another creating a miniscule window exposing the inner curve of her breast. He lingered there for what seemed like minutes, the powder-soft flesh teasing him as it dove beneath the lace-work barricade of her bra placing all additional spectacles beyond visual range.
“A 6:30 appointment?” she asked, turning back to face him. Did she see him looking? Oh, God, did she? If so she made no indication, though her eyes demanded his attention. “Last slot of the day. You’re the reason I’m working late.” She smiled again and reached for the clipboard. “I’ll take that. You can have a seat over there. Dr. Preston will be with you shortly.”
He watched as she retrieved the forms—somehow he’d managed to complete them—and considered holding the pen, making her take it from him, enticing her into physical contact. He forced the thought from his mind and placed the pen in the little coffee mug with the rest of the writing implements. What the hell was wrong with him?
Hastily grabbing a business card from a stack nearby, Alex turned toward the black leather couches that adorned the waiting room. It was the first time he’d even bothered to look around, so enamored by the receptionist; he hadn’t even looked to see if they were alone in the surprisingly claustrophobic space. They were, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he made his way across the well-trafficked blue-green carpet and took a squeaking seat on the worn couch.
The clock continued counting the moments thunderously while Alex examined the card. “Denise Simmons, Administrative Assistant,” the office phone, fax, and e-mail information followed. He glanced once back to the woman, typing diligently, before forcing himself to look elsewhere and shoved the card into his front pocket. The walls in the room were sparsely decorated, mostly the accolades of Dr. Preston, a couple pieces of motel art with generic flowers in vases, but finally he settled on an inkblot framed and centered just beneath the clock. Alex squinted, allowing his imagination to draw shapes from the randomness. A bird of some sort, with shadowy wings and feathers like raindrops, or maybe it was a butterfly, or a flower; or a face.
There was no face. Was there? He stared for long moments, searching for the source of that thought, tilting his head left and right, and allowing his eyes to explore it in various degrees of focus. Nervously, he adjusted the heavy metals rings adorning his fingers, loosening them slightly. He looked down at his hand, the flesh below the gaudy jewelry was red, swollen and sore; allergy? He didn’t care, he liked them; a silver skull it’s fanged mouth agape, and a pentacle. He didn’t believe any of that pagan stuff but he liked the looks on the faces of those who did.
Alex made and unmade a fist and after many long minutes he stood and crossed the room to confront the ink blot up close. The typing sound slowed briefly, Denise’s eyes watching him in his encounter. Alex took the frame off the wall and held it in his hands finally turning it so it appeared upside down. There. There’s the face, staring back at him with inky malice. A twisted visage with narrow eyes and a smattering of inky teeth placed at random intervals in its gaping maw. It sent a shiver down his spine to look at it. “Alex?” His heart jumped and the frame nearly leapt from his grasp at the sound of the doctor’s voice. He steadied himself placing the face—no it was a bird now that he’d righted it—back on its designated hanger and turned to face the man addressing him. Younger than he’d been expecting, Dr. Preston might have been in his late forties, his neatly trimmed goatee held the slightest hints of graying; as though it had been grown intentionally to lend age to his otherwise youthful appearance. His eyes bore traces of a man who liked to laugh and the lines around his mouth agreed with that assessment. The man’s short-cropped hair receding just enough to make him appear distinguished. Not at all what Alex had expected.
“Yeah?” He couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable in front of this man. His own attire being the all black typical of a kid his age, decorated with chains and studded with, metal pyramids. His hair swept back into a myriad of two-inch spikes crowned a face hidden behind a mask of eyeliner and metallic accessories, like the “statue of misery” his sister had quipped once. He’d never felt more like cliché than he did at that moment, may as well have rolled up his sleeves and showed him the scratches.
Dr. Preston smiled as though sensing his uneasiness, “Come on in, have a seat.” He gestured through the door into his office. He entered into a room lined with bookshelves and statues. Alex noted an old-timey fainting couch in one corner, a typical therapist’s couch against another wall, and a number of chairs of various design. No desk he noted.
“Do I have to lay on the couch?” He asked, gesturing toward the therapist’s couch apprehensively.
“Only if you want to,” the doctor pulled up a chair, it looked well-worn and comfortable, “You’re just here for a consult today, so make yourself at home.”
Alex walked from place to place, examining the chairs and statues and various knick-knacks.
“So tell me, Alex, why are you here?” Dr. Preston picked up a notebook from a nearby table and opened it.
Alex shrugged absently, “My mom made me.” He continued to pace.
“Really?” He seemed skeptical.
The older man flipped a page and paused, “It’s just that looking at the notes I have; skipping school, sneaking out, sleeping in class. I don’t get the impression that you’re the kind of guy who just does what his mother tells him.”
Alex paused his pacing. He got you.
“I have to assume,” Dr. Preston continued, “that you want to be here for some reason.” He let that sink in for a few seconds and moved on, “How old are you Alex?”
“Doesn’t it say there?” He waved his hand dismissively at the notebook. Dr. Preston smiled.
“It does, yes. But I’d really like to talk with you, Alex.” He closed the notebook and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I spoke with your mother when she made this appointment for you. She told me all sorts of things; she thinks you’re depressed and wants me to give you pills. I could do that. I could just write you a prescription and we could be done here; but I don’t think you want that any more than I do. You’re not a patient of mine, Alex. What I’d like to determine is whether or not you should be. So help me to help you.” He took a breath, “How old are you?”
Alex turned and looked the doctor in the eye, “Seventeen.”
“Still in high school, then?”
Dr. Preston smiled. “Your mother says she’s worried about your skipping class.” He reopened the notebook, “What do you do when you skip?”
“I dunno,” he shrugged, “Hang out with friends.”
“When you do go to class, your teachers say you sleep through them . . .”
“Is this about my grades?” Alex responded defensively, “Because I can get caught up, it’s easy work.”
The doctor nodded, “No. Your grades are your teachers’ business. This is about you. Are you not getting enough sleep?”
Again he shrugged.
“How many times a week would you say you sneak out at night?”
“Two or three. I dunno. I don’t really keep track.”
“Why do you sneak out?”
“I feel like walking, I guess. Just can’t sleep.” He picked up a small wooden figure from a shelf; a diminutive man with an exaggeratedly large phallus. The label on the bottom read ‘Fertility Idol.’ Ew.
“Where do you go? What do you do?”
Alex placed the figure back on the shelf, “I dunno.” Don’t remember.
The doctor’s pencil scratched on the pages before him, “On nights you do stay home, your mother says you sometimes have nightmares? That you sometimes wake her up all the way in the other room while talking in your sleep?”
“Really?” Alex stopped his wanderings abruptly.
“She never told you about it, then?”
“No.” He sat on the edge of the fainting couch.
“Are you taking any foreign language classes in school?” Preston’s pencil was scratching more fiercely now.
“German, why?” A puzzled look played across his face.
“Your mother said that sometimes, when you talk, it’s in a different language. Something she can’t understand.”
“That’s . . . weird.”
Dr. Preston let the pencil rest for a moment and stood to move his chair closer to Alex’s position, speaking as he did so. “When I was in college I took Latin. I was having a hard time in class and found that after long nights of studying that I’d occasionally dream in Latin.”
“I don’t really study.”
“Well, maybe you’re absorbing some while you sleep in German class.” The older man smiled, “Either way, at least you’re learning something, right?”
Alex smiled back and it faded nearly as quickly as it had formed.
The doctor’s eyes probed his face and asked, suddenly, “Any specific dreams you’d like to talk about?”
Alex hesitated, “Maybe one.” Two.
“Go ahead.” The notebook opened, again.
“Well I’m driving, right?” I like this one. “But it’s one of those training cars, like in Driver’s Ed where there’s a steering wheel on both sides.” Alex made some motions with his hands indicating a second wheel on his right, “So I’m driving, and in the passenger seat is my mom; and she’s giving me all these instructions in this really fucked up. . . messed up voice.” He felt heat rising in his cheeks at his lack of verbal restraint. As rebellious as he wanted to appear, Alex wasn’t comfortable using profanity in front of adults. Dr. Preston didn’t seem to notice.
“Then I realize that my steering wheel isn’t working; that even though I’m in the driver’s seat, she’s controlling the car. But she keeps barking these instructions at me, and her voice is all, strange. It’s deep and kind of echoes, like there’s more than one voice talking at a time. It’s really eerie. It’s almost, um,” Demonic? “Like a demon or something.”
“I see,” he made a few notes, “and what does that say to you?”
“That my mom’s the Devil?”
Dr. Preston laughed; a joyous sound, the sound of a man who honestly loved his life and appreciated a good joke. Alex’s face lit up briefly at the sight. This guy wasn’t so bad after all. Careful, that’s how they get you.
“Alright,” the doctor had composed himself, “thank you for that. I take it your mother runs a pretty tight ship?”
“You could say that. I can’t do anything without telling her. That’s part of why I skip school, to have some freedom while she’s at work. She won’t even let me date girls.”
“Are you friends with many girls?” Pencil, scratching.
“But there are lots who go to your school right? It’s a co-ed school?”
“Do you have dreams with girls in them?” The room got very quiet. Alex could swear he heard the clock in the waiting room ticking.
“Sexual?” Dr. Preston’s voice had become serious. As though he had finally identified the path to his goal and was ready to blaze that trail through Alex’s psyche without fear or remorse.
“I guess . . .” Alex shifted uncomfortably on the couch beneath him, his eye searching the room for somewhere else to look aside from the doctor and his notebook. They landed on the fertility idol. Figures.
“Any nocturnal emissions?”
“I’m sorry,” the doctor paused, “Wet dreams?
Silence. Fidgeting. Well played.
“I take it, then, that you don’t have a girl friend?”
Alex pulled his eyes away from the statue to resume the conversation, “Um, no.”
“Any special girl caught your eye? Someone you want to get to know better?”
An image jumped instantly to the forefront of Alex’s mind; a brown-eyed girl with chestnut hair and a light dusting of freckles across laughing cheekbones. “Yeah.”
“Tell me about her, what’s her name?”
“Kristen Sheridan. She’s in my chemistry class. She’s a senior.”
“So a year older? You ever talk to her?”
“Not really, we don’t really know the same people.” And she’s an honor student and you’re a freak. Alex winced inwardly.
“Does she ever make appearances in your dreams?” Dr. Preston’s voice was somewhat hesitant, as if he knew he was exploring a delicate subject matter.
Alex began to answer and trailed off incomprehensibly. This is why he was here, this is what drove him to get on that bus and ride out here. His mind had drifted back to a dream he’d had a few nights prior.
He was standing on the street just across from the Coffee Hut where she worked; it was late, after midnight for sure, and he was waiting for her. Only it wasn’t him waiting there, he was only loosely connected to the body, the arms and legs felt far away and wouldn’t obey his commands. Sounds made their way as if through long tunnels before he could hear them. His vision, unblinking, was forced in whichever direction this vessel chose, as though he were simply watching events play out on a screen.
Then there she was, locking the door to the shop, turning to face him—no, not him, someone else—and she smiled. Half skipping, she crossed the street, her white blouse fluttering in the night air as she moved, her work apron untied at the top and hanging haphazardly at her waist, flattening the pleats of her skirt. She approached gaily and threw her arms around him kissing him on the cheek; he couldn’t feel it and this body made no inclination to respond.
Kristen frowned in mockery and asked, “Where are you parked? I thought you had a car.”
“It’s a nice night,” not my voice Alex pondered as his vision was forced skyward and back to her beaming face. “I feel like walking. It’s not far”
Kristen shrugged a response and moved to hook her arm through his. . .
They were somewhere else. Like a skip in an old record, they were no longer standing on the street by the Coffee Hut, but near an old tree on a small grassy patch of vacant property. Alex recognized the old tree, it wasn’t far from his own home and marked the entrance to a wooded area he remembered playing in when he was younger. It was a thin patch of forest maybe fifty yards wide and several miles in length following the path of a seasonal stream which had cut its way through this landscape long before the city had grown up around it. The tall trees provided a natural barricade shielding the suburbs on one side from the noise and smells of the highway on the other; beneath the canopy laid a tangle of muddy trails and hastily constructed tree forts.
His eyes were steered back to Kristen. She appeared nervous about entering what, Alex knew, would be a shortcut to her home. She clung to his hand as if expecting monsters to jump from every shadow.
“Come on.” Not my voice! They made their way into the underbrush and she clung to his arm.
Another skip, and she was on the ground. Lying on her back she stared skyward there was blood in the corner of her mouth and her lip was swollen; but her face was confused. The body was upon her before she became lucid enough to react. Alex found his vantage point mere inches from her puzzled face. There was fear in her eyes and Alex was pulled away as the body reared up.
Alex was vaguely aware of a plastic button bouncing off the lip of this flesh-made mask, as her blouse was torn open. He was barely cognizant of the hands, one on the bare flesh of her hip under the pleated skirt holding her firmly against the damp earth; the other clamped viciously upon her now-exposed breast. The body of her attacker weighed down onto her as she writhed helplessly. Alex, too, writhed in his own way, demanding these limbs obey, trying with all of his might to bring an end to what he was being forced to watch, but the body wouldn’t respond. He could only stare straight ahead unable even the force the eyes closed.
And the vision was gone. Had he done it? He had no sound, no vision, no feeling; there were smells though, earth and trees and fear. No, he knew it was all still happening even before the emotions hit him and overwhelmed him completely. Lust, betrayal, pleasure, fear, desire, pain, sorrow, anger—so much anger—ecstasy, the vision returned and the body convulsed reflexively. She screamed. A sound more torturous than anything he’d ever heard, as though she’d just realized what was happening.
The hands moved, from her breast to her neck it resumed it vice-like grip and the scream was cut short. She clawed at the arm, trying to pull it loose, her fingernails carving frantic patterns into the skin. Her attacker’s strength was inhuman, a fact only reinforced when the first blow came. A fist landed squarely upon her cheek, knocking her head heavily to one side. Another to her midsection knocking what little breath from her body she still possessed. She stared up at him with bloodshot eyes, her delicate mouth gasping for air, it was almost as if she could see him in there and she was begging him to please, somehow, make it stop. And he couldn’t, even as tears streamed down her face and he ached to cry himself, he utterly without power.
The fists came faster, to her body, to her face, to her arms and shoulders. There was blood, so much blood and a cracking sound but no hesitation as her attacker continued to pummel the life from Kristen Sheridan.
Then she was still. She may have been for several minutes before the rain of blows had ceased. He stood before her, looking down at her body. Her face contorted with pain and actual structural damage, her skirt wadded up at her waist, and her white blouse splayed open like the bloodied and tattered wings of a fallen angel.
Alex had woken that morning and been ill. He’d vomited in bed, vomited as he stumbled across the hall to the toilet, and vomited again though his tears when he got there. His mother had allowed him to stay home from church and rest; he spent the day crying in the bathtub.
“Alex?” it was Dr. Preston.
“Hmm, what? Oh, no. No dreams about her.” Chicken. How long had he been silently reliving that nightmare?
“Alright,” he scratched a few more lines in his notebook; there was a look of concern on his face. “Well, I think that’s all for today.” Alex sat up; when had he lain down? “I think I’m going to have a talk with your mother.”
“About what?” He almost snapped the question. “What kind of pills I need? Or about my wet dreams?”
“No.” The doctor smiled, “I don’t think you need pills just yet. You seem like a pretty average young man your age dealing with some pretty complicated issues. I’m going to ask your mother to give you a little more space, see how that works out for you.”
“Okay, what should I do?” He stretched his shoulders, his whole body felt tense, and loosened the rings on his fingers again. Dr. Preston looked up from his scratchings, “I think you should talk to this girl, Krystal?”
“Kristen.” Alex winced slightly saying the name.
“Right, give her a call, maybe go out with her. See if it goes anywhere. I’ll think you’ll feel better.” Did he just wink? Alex stood up and made his way out of the office, silently. The receptionist had gone home for the night, pity, and somehow the empty hallways leading to elevator seemed even less inhabited than they had when he’d arrived. He entered the elevator, signaled for the ground floor and began his descent.
It was raining outside as he left the building. Big heavy drops that hit like personal insults. He pulled his hood on flattening his hair and made his way toward the bus stop. It was a couple of blocks away and Alex found himself surprised at how tired he was; both physically and mentally. He allowed his body into a state autopilot as he trudged through the rain, letting his brain idle and his legs carry him of their own accord. They knew where he was going.
There was a phone booth near the bus stop and he took a minute to peruse the phone book. Dr. Preston said he should call her; his hand flipped deftly from page to page. M, P. R; he watched his hands turning pages, his rings glittering in the light of a dim street lamp, dripping with rainwater and smudging the cheaply printed pages. There was a brief flash of memory, washing his hands, picking bits of something from the intricate metalwork of his jewelry. He found his page, and hastily circled his prize, tearing loose the whole page and shoving it in his pocket.
Just in time as well, the bus was just arriving and his legs carried him toward the stop. With a squeak and a hiss, the bus slowed to a stop and the door opened.
“Getting on?” the driver called out to him; an aged man with tattoos on his knuckles clutching the door mechanism impatiently.
Alex realized his legs hadn’t stopped moving, and he was walking past the designated stop. “I feel like walking.” He called back. Not my voice! Alex panicked, he knew this feeling; it was like in the dream. Somehow between the elevator and here he had lost control of . . . of what? His own body? He tried to make sense of it as the bus driver only shrugged at his rain-soaked form and pulled away from the curb.
Alex could still hear the bus’s engine clear as day, he wasn’t all gone, “Let it go.” The not-his-voice suddenly spoke audibly. To me? He struggled to maintain control making and unmaking fists. He again recalled washing his hands, in the forest, in the stream, it was a dream; right? Oh God, it was dream, right?
He felt his own face smile, mocking him as it drew the torn phonebook page from his shirt pocket, shielding it from the rain with his hooded head. Oh my God! What have I done? The paper unfolded exposing the circled name and address before his fretful eyes.
“The question,” the voice said out loud and inwardly, “Is what are you still going to do?”
He wanted to scream, to cry, to vomit, to . . . anything. Anything just to confirm that he still had some control over his body as he gazed helplessly at the name on the page.
© A. Stephen Getty 2009
All Rights Reserved