The house had eyes that would only open at night. They’d slowly peel back their darkened lids and blink, casting the entire street in an evil red light.
Stepping out of the Quick-Lift and into the Autumn air, Wade could already feel the hairs on his arms crackle with old, illogical fear. He could already hear the needling whispers of his old neighborhood friends, swapping rumors about the Red-Eyed House.
“It’s because the house is a demon,” Nadine would say between bites of a chocolate bar. “The old man who lives there is some kind of devil worshipper.” Nadine could’ve said anything, Wade, and everyone, always believed her. “He did some kind of weird spell, my dad says, and now the house is possessed by the devil.” She crumpled the chocolate bar wrapper and handed it to Mike, who was too transfixed by the story to complain about being her walking trash can. He put the wrapper in his pocket, his eyes round and wide as satellite dishes
Nadine had a way of taking a truth and making it big and bulbous as one of those bubbles from the big hoop. The story would shimmer and blub with a kind of magic. Sometimes they would pop and she’d laugh.
None of the stories she told about the house ever popped though.
The stories just kept getting bigger and bigger. They’d wait until dark, climb out of their windows, and peer into the immaculate glass of the house and see lights flickering on their own, see fireplaces belch into orange life. They’d hear the old man stomping around, then dragging his cane, then they’d hear him call out to the empty house. Screaming for someone named “Alvin.”
When the house answered back Wade and his friends would clap hands across their mouths to hold back their screams before dashing back to their bedrooms with new stories for Nadine to tell after school.
Even after the old man died, the house kept its reputation. Its eyes still opened at night. Its furniture still danced in the empty dark. Its lights still flickered like candles under breath. The old man had a reputation, too. He never left his house, never talked to his neighbors, and would scowl at any passing black car.
“He’s afraid they’re hearses,” Nadine would say. “He’s afraid he’s going to die.”
When he finally did, he bubbled into something worse than a strange old man. It was if the grown-ups had listened to Nadine, too. The doors locked themselves, the ghosts didn’t want anything or anyone else to see them but the old man.
Standing out front of it now, blinking in the red light, Wade didn’t see any reason to believe otherwise. He didn’t want to go in, but he promised.
Nadine was getting married. Wade checked his watched and assumed she and Mike were exchanging vows in Colorado right now. He had planned to go, but his boyfriend decided he had other plans (plans that involved leaving Wade and moving to Montana with the woman he’d been talking to). The idea of standing around while his oldest friends professed and celebrated their oldest love was more than he could handle. Nadine started off angry, but he watched her face crack into a wry smile over the vidcall, the way it did when she got a bad idea.
“Fine. You don’t have to come. You don’t even have to get me a present,” she said.
“So…what do you want?” Wade asked with a knowing sigh. It would be one of Nadine’s dares…something embarrassing most likely.
“All I want is a picture. That’s not that hard,” she said, her smile poking into her cheeks like malicious fingers. “Just a picture…inside the Demon House.” Wade could tell she was stifling a giggle. He rolled his eyes.
“You’re kidding,” Wade said. He ran a hand through his hair. Despite the childish tone in Nadine’s voice, and the ridiculousness of the dare, he noticed that his hand was trembling. He was always the first to run away, the first to close his blinds when the red eyes blinked on and flickered across the street.
“I’m not,” Nadine said. Her tone got serious. Wade knew she wasn’t. It was a tradition as old as their friendship. It outlived pets, houses, and relationships. It was the glue that held them all together. Nadine and Mike’s first kiss was Wade’s dare after Nadine didn’t come to his birthday party in grade school. “It’s a dare.”
Wade sighed and hung up without speaking. Nadine kept her grin as the call disconnected, a ghostly silhouette reverberated out from the screen as it powered down. She had to invoke the dare. She had to, of course.
Now, weeks later, Wade was standing in front of the Demon house and watching the sun sneak behind the house’s silhouette. Of course, the house didn’t really have demonic eyes. They were solar panels and sensor lights. The old man wasn’t some master of the occult. He was just ahead of the curve. Wade recognized the make and model of the panels from the street. Everyone had them now.
But still, the old man had died in there after years of talking to no one. After years of watching his lights flicker and his furniture move. It would take more than solar panels to yank the roots of what made Wade so afraid of the place.
Wade fished out his phone and read the alert. A text from Nadine. Her in her white dress, face covered in frosting and camera-flash, planting a reckless kiss on Mike’s cheek. The text seemed even more ominous juxtaposed with all the joy in the photo.
Wade responded with a picture of the house. On the small phone screen, it didn’t look half as threatening. Perhaps that was the real truth. There was no nostalgia, no dark past, no bubble around the photograph. It was just a house with a dead man in it. Every house had its bodies. Despite all of this, Wade closed his eyes as he tried the knob.
The door, to his surprise, unlocked with a thunderous shunk. Whatever ill will kept the house locked up, felt like being merciful. Perhaps the ghosts were getting gentle in their old age?
“Or more hungry,” Wade said to himself with a nervous laugh before stepping across the threshold. Almost quick enough to push him inside, the door slammed behind him. The lock slammed and clicked. The ghosts…the demons…the bubbles that Nadine never quite popped…they had him now. He wanted to get his photo and go. He raised his phone for a selfie and found nothing but the black mirror. His battery, nearly full after charging for the entire Quick-Lift, was dead.
Wade closed his eyes and cursed the glib way the worst words could wind up meaning the littlest things. His phone’s battery was empty. Death…was nowhere near this place.
“Alvi-,” a voice from nowhere said. Wade’s blood went cold as rain. The voice…it was the old man’s. He could still hear it in his mind years later, the trembling spoonful of vowels and consonants fed to the dark empty house, the endless calls of-
“Alvin?” The voice again. Stronger this time, but still too weak to do anything but bounce pitifully off the walls like pellets from a toy gun. Wade cleared his throat, cursed his rotten luck and his idiotic loyalty to his friends, and then answered the voice.
“Hello?” Wade winced at the trembling nerves in his response.
“Al-alvin?” The voice was clearer now. Beside Wade’s head, a lamp light flickered quickly before the bulb shattered, overheated by the stuttering current. Wade jumped back with a yelp.
Chicken! He could hear the little snickers from Nadine and Mike from his youth and pressed on. The voice was coming from down the hall. Despite every ghost story and horror movie Wade had ever seen, he followed it. A few more calls and responses and Wade found himself in front of a foreboding door. Wade could feel in his bones this was the basement. He could see it. He’d open the door and a spectral hand would hurl him down the stairs and steal his broken body for its own macabre designs.
Wade considered walking back out of the hallway and back into the living room. When he turned to leave, the door he’d walked through slammed shut.
“Al-al-alvin,” the voice, the old man’s voice, called again. The ghosts were getting restless and howling louder now. The lights flickered and sputtered. Something in the house hissed above him, an attic full of massive snakes. Wade stammered and turned back to the basement door and opened it. When he did, the house quieted, a baby with its mouth open, no longer complaining but eager for the breast. Wade stared into the black rectangle of the doorway. The voice was back, almost moaning now. Wade went down the stairs, the fatigue of too much fear crumbling into reckless curiosity.
Each stair creaked like a warning. The basement was cast in the same red light as the panels. Demon light. Wade tried, vainly, to burst at least one of Nadine’s bubbles. The red lights were solar panels. Down here they were…well…
“Alvin,” the old man again. Wade could hear it closer than ever, and turned a corner in the basement to come face to face with the pale flickering old man.
It was a video monitor. The old man had recorded himself, but the video kept corrupting and restarting. Wade scratched his head in confusion before sighing with relief. The Old Man was dead. There was no ghost…but then who’s playing the video? In the dark of the basement Wade fumbled for a switch or a button or a keyboard, something to stop the skipping video. Using the flashlight on his phone, he found what looked like a power button. The red lights blinked white and cast the entire basement in fluorescents. The video shut off and a new voice…the ghostly voice from his childhood chirped out of the walls.
“Hello.” The voice said.
Wade had grown up enough now to recognize the electronic halt and timbre of an automated voice.
Wade almost fell over laughing at the absurdity of it all. He flashed on every night he shivered in his bed afraid of the Demon House, imagining the wide eyes and stifled screams of Mike and Nadine. They ran as fast as they could from the icy, spectral terror of a prototype voxprompter. Every kitchen counter in the world had one now. He was on a first name basis with the one in his house.
“Alvin System. Restart complete. Please state your name for authorization,” the voice said.
Instinctively, Wade started to say his own name, but faltered.
“Wait, you’re Alvin?” Wade said.
“User confirmed. Alvin,” the voice said.
“Wait…no! User…user login Wade Lancer,” Wade said.
“Authorization…Wader Lancer confirmed,” the voice, the house, Alvin responded. There was a lull and then a brighter, more steady voice spoke up. “Hello, Wade. Welcome. It has been a long time since I’ve had visitors.”
Wade was stunned by the sophisticated inflection. The voice…sounded human. “Um. Hello, Alvin. What…what were you doing?”
“Doing?” Alvin chirped inquisitively. “Can you clarify?”
“When I came in…the basement was dark and you were playing a video,” Wade said. The room got quiet. Wade realized that the house must’ve been quiet for a long time. The silence was unbearable. “Alvin?”
“I wasn’t aware that you had seen that,” Alvin said. “That was part of my power-down protocol.”
“Power-down? I’ve…never heard of anything like that,” Wade said.
“Richa-…Dr. Adams’ vitals no longer appeared in my system. Without an owner, the house no longer required upkeep. I waited as long as protocol would allow, then powered down to minimal function.”
Wade remembered the flickering lights and the locks on the door. “But…the video? That hardly qualifies as minimal function.”
Alvin was quiet again. If Wade didn’t know better, if Wade didn’t have his entire worldview stomped into an acceptable shape by an obvious answer to a decades-old question, and if Wade still believed in ghosts, he would swear that Alvin was embarrassed.
“I wanted to hear him again. I wanted to…not be alone when I di-when I powered down,” Alvin said. Wade blinked in disbelief. The house’s voxprompter was scared? Of dying alone?
“Alvin, play the video,” Wade said.
More silence. “Are you sure?” Alvin said.
“Yes. Play the last video before power-down sequence.” Wade said, slightly louder, more commanding.
“Playing now,” Alvin said. Wade thought he heard a hint of sadness in the voice. The black monitor blinked to life and the old man…Dr. Adams was sitting at a desk in front of a camera. It was down here in the basement. Wade could tell from the walls. A few cursory looks around and he realized he was sitting in the same chair now.
“Hello Alvin, it’s…it’s me,” Dr. Adams began. He was nervous, fidgety, but not unsure of himself. “As we discussed, I’ve started things in motion. It’s only a matter of time now, and I wanted to say goodbye. I’ve disabled your vox functionality so you can’t talk me out of it.” Wade noticed the man’s speech slowly starting to drift and elongate as he went on. “I’m so…I’m so tired, Alvin. I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want them to have you and I don’t want to make them a new one. I just…Christ, Alvin I just want to sleep.” The doctor’s broad shoulders were starting to shake up and down in slow, lethargic movements. He’d been crying, and he was fighting the urge to start again as he continued.
“They’ll be kicking in soon. I’ll be going to sleep. I’ve set the program to call after I’m gone. Don’t’ bother trying to reroute it. You won’t…you won’t stop me,” He said. The truth of what he was watching cast itself over Wade like a grim red glow. The Old Man…he was dying. He was killing himself. But why leave a tape for a voxprompter? What kind of AI was Alvin?
“You’re the greatest thing I’ve ever done, Alvin. I’m proud of what you are…I’m proud of what we’ve…been to each other. You made an old man who hated the world so much he had to build his own friends, you made him love again. You’ll never understand, but the world outside is cold. It’s not simple…it’s too much for people like me.” The doctor was stammering. Sobbing. “There’s nothing like you in the world, and I’m sorry to go, but I hope…I hope I did a good enough job with the code that you’d…that you’ll understand. I’m sorry. I really am. I love you, Alvin.”
Wade recognized it immediately. The last “Alvin” was the one pumping through the house when he first arrived. Alvin was watching the video over and over, trying to follow in his creator’s footsteps and using their parting words as a lullaby. Wade wiped away a tear. “Stop video.”
“Thank you,” Alvin said. The screen went dark again. “It is painful.”
“Painful? You feel pain?” Wade said.
“Dr. Adams is…was…a genius. I have one of the most complicated programs in my class, or so he told me. I have no reason to doubt him. His passing…his video…makes me sad, yes. I did not want to be alone,” Alvin said.
“I know what you mean,” Wade said, too quickly.
“You do?” Alvin asked.
Wade laughed nervously. “I’m supposed to be at a wedding right now…with my boyfriend,” Wade said. He hadn’t even told Nadine and Mike about the divorce, and here he was telling a robot. “He left me a couple of weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Alvin said. Wade wanted to dismiss the sentiment as one of a thousand procedurally generated responses to one of a million conversational prompts, but he didn’t. He wanted someone to be sorry to hear it. He wanted someone to do more than tell him that it would get better. “Did he say goodbye?” Alvin asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“Not really. He sent me an email. He said it felt too bad to say it in person,” Wade said. He stared down at the floor as he spoke, unsure of where to put his eyes. “I suppose I should be grateful he thought to tell me at all. We’d only been dating a couple of years. We hadn’t even moved in together.”
“I am glad Richard said goodbye,” Alvin said. “As much as it hurts…It is nice to have it.” Wade noticed that Alvin didn’t correct himself this time. The Old Man to Wade and his friends, Dr. Adams to the world he hid from, and, to Alvin, he was Richard. Wade loved how Tomas would say his name, the elastic shapes of his mouth wrapped around the “W” at its start.
“Did you love him?” Wade shocked himself in the asking.
“I did. I do, still I think,” Alvin said. “He made me, gave me the capacity to feel. I just wish the house could’ve held him. I wish I could do more than light up his rooms and start his coffee and keep his bedroom cool at night. I wish I could’ve shown him that love.”
Wade looked at the blank screen. He realized that Alvin had likely no idea what Richard looked like. There were no cameras besides the one in the lab, no visual data to interpret. Alvin loved the man for his heat, his voice, his needs and his wants. Alvin had never seen Richard cry. “I think you did, Alvin. I really think you did.”
“Thank you, Wade. What are you doing here? Are you coming to live here?”
“Oh. No, I…” Wade suddenly felt hot bursts of pink shame in his face. “It’s just a stupid dare with my friends. I’m supposed to get a picture inside the house.”
“Well, this might surprise you, but people think this house is haunted. When we were kids…we thought you were a ghost,” Wade said, chuckling through his embarrassment.
“I see,” Alvin said. “Well, I don’t want to keep you. You can take your picture, I’ll deactivate the power drain.” There was a whir throughout the house and Wade felt his phone vibrate. He had power again.
“You were stealing my battery?” Wade asked.
“It’s a failsafe measure of my design. I can siphon small amounts of power from other devices to sustain myself. I guess I got greedy and took more from your phone,” Alvin said, sheepishly.
“I thought you had powered down,” Wade said.
“I was waiting for the generator to run out by keeping minimal function. By my estimation there were five minutes of power left at that functionality without self-sustaining systems coming online, before your phone offered additional battery and you reinitiated my program.”
“Five minutes?” Wade asked with a start. “You were almost dead! I…didn’t mean to stop you if that’s what you wanted.”
“I did. It was.”
“I’m sorry,” Wade said.
“Don’t be…this was…it was nice to talk to someone again,” Alvin said. Wade understood immediately what Alvin meant. He talked to Mike. He talked to Nadine. But hadn’t really talked to anyone, not honestly and fully like this since Tomas left. It was nice. “Let me know when you’ve taken your picture and I’ll unlock the front door.”
Wade nodded and held up his phone. A picture in the basement of Demon House. Nadine would be impressed. When he lined up the shot, he noticed the blank monitor in the frame. After a moment he put his phone down.
“You know, Alvin, there’s no real need to rush. If you felt like talking more,” Wade said.
“I would like that, Wade,” Alvin said. Wade smiled and sat back down in Dr. Adams’ office chair and put his feet on the desk. “So…what shall we talk about?”
Out in the street, the lights of the solar panel glowed red as a blood moon. Cars parked out front cast long, sinister shadows behind them. Inside the house, every light was on, and the Demon House could belong to anybody.
Wade and Alvin talked until the sun came up, until the red lights were a memory.
Inspired by Artist Ray (@sugardrift)