The last few rays of sunlight filtered through the trees casting wavering shadows across the streets as Blake pulled his truck into the parking lot. Much like himself, the old truck had seen better days. It’s once red paint had faded to a sun bleached pink and the wheel wells above the tires had almost completely rusted out. He had been planning for a few months to get rid of the battered old relic but it was the one constant thing in his life. Beaten down as it was, it never failed him.
Quickly scanning the half empty parking lot, Blake found a space near the back of the lot that he could wedge the truck into. The engine coughed once as he shut down the engine and almost laughed at the sound. It sounded somewhere between a shotgun blast and a wet sneeze reminiscent of his late Uncle Walt forever blowing his nose into an overly used handkerchief that was then promptly stuffed into a pocket for later use. He ran a hand up his jaw line to the bristle short hair cut he had recently given himself. The stubble on his face was nearly the same length as the hair on his head so they made an equally sandpaper like sound under his calloused hands. He roughly dug his fingers into the knots of tension settled at the base of his neck and closed his eyes hoping to stem off the headache he knew was waiting to blossom.
With a sigh the echoed in the groan of his truck door, he pushed his way out and glanced around. The early fall leaves had yet to begun falling and gave the small red brick church in front of him an almost camouflaged effect. The reddish haze seemed to fit with the dancing spots behind his eyes. He shut the truck door behind him and dusted his hands down the sides of his well-worn jeans before tucking in the back of his black button down shirt.
” Why does it always have to be a church?,’ Blake breathed out as he solemnly crossed the street and mounted the concrete steps. His fingers trembled slightly as reached for the door. His mind was racing and it gave him pause. He questioned if he had really sunk this low. The thought hung on him like an ill-fitting suit until he realized he had nowhere else to go.
The scent of coffee too long in the pot hit him as soon as Blake entered the building. He saw more than a handful of coats hanging in the closet just in front of him and muffled conversation that got louder as he walked down the hallway. He hated the first looks he always got at new meetings. It was like walking into a high school class room in a new town three weeks after classes had started for the year. The uncertainty if his voice would crack the first time he tried to speak. He knew he didn’t have many options though. The urge for a fix was too strong to fight for much longer. He could feel it like a barely contained scream tickling the back of his throat.
Blake rounded the corner through an open doorway to see the requisite semi-circle of chairs and people wandering around them like a silent game of musical chairs that no one was ever going to be eliminated from. An exceptionally tall woman caught his eye immediately as did her blazing red fingernails. They were at least three inches longer than what could have been comfortable. Her hair was piled in a loose bun atop her head and could have only been one or two shades darker than her nail polish. She was standing near a coffee dispenser that likely was installed the day after the last block was laid in the church steeple talking to a man who had to have been the pastor of the church. They both turned as he entered and smiled that knowing smile of a secret shared.
The rest of the assemblage was clustered in small knots around the room that must have been an auditorium for church pageants and bake sales. To Blake, they looked like people in life rafts after a boat sinking. That feeling of being in water way too deep and far from shore was not a new one to him. A momentary pang of envy passed through him for the camaraderie they shared before he felt a hand clasp his shoulder.
” We don’t usually get new faces very often,” a warm rolling voice said from his right.
Blake turned to see the wide smiling face of a man accustomed to his voice carrying weight. His crisp white button down shirt was covered by what could have only been a hand-made sweater vest likely knitted by some local sewing circle. The wool was a deep purple that managed to look regal and clownish at the same time.
” Pastor Tom Wilkins,” the man said reaching his soft white fingers toward Blake,” But most people around here call me Papa.”
” Blake Heatherton,” Blake responded as he slipped his calloused palm into the pastor’s hand. ” If I may as , why do the call you ” Papa”?”
” It started as a joke when I played Father Time in the Christmas parade a long time ago and as I am not a Catholic priest some of the folks took umbrage to me being Father anything, so we switched it to Papa Time and it just sort of stuck,” Papa explained with a wry smile that crossed his ruddy features.
” We will be starting soon so if you wouldn’t mind taking a seat,” Papa said with practiced ease as he guided Blake’s elbow toward a folding plastic chair.
A few people from very differing walks of life had already found seats as Blake found a spot as far away from the coffee pot as possible. He had switched to drinking tea years before and even the smell of it nauseated him a little now but the minor inconvenience of the odor was worth it if it brought him some peace of mind. Fingernails had taken a seat directly across from him and turned her knees demurely to the side to hide the fact that her skirt was short enough to make sure the dimples on her behind left suction marks on the cold vinyl. Her smile was warm and Blake responded with one of his own. They were here for the same reason after all.
” Welcome everyone,” Papa boomed in the echoing space. His voice raised to the level reserved for outdoor church services and being heard in the next city down the highway. A thin trickle of sweat had worked its way down Blake’s collar and he was shocked at being actually nervous. It had been a while since he had been to a meeting and this was the first time he had even needed to since moving into the area. Every eye in the room was on him now and he shined in that way most preachers do when they have commanded attention.
” We usually start our meeting with a prayer but as we have some new faces in our group today we will save it for the end so we can have them ready for the next meeting,” Papa intoned as he looked over both Blake and Fingernails ” Who would like to start?”
” I will,” a mousey looking woman replied with a wave of her hand that was part resignation and part asking for permission. Papa smiled again with a practiced nod of his head that did nothing to disturb the very poorly combed over locks of his hair.
” Hi, I’m Amy,” the woman said as she stood and smoothed her hands over her abdomen.
” Hi Amy,” the group chimed back at differing octaves each rising around each other.
” Hi Amy,” a voice called out just as everyone else finished like it had waited simply to stand on its own. It had jumped from a very overweight young man who couldn’t have been more than a teenager. Blake shook his head at the injustice of it. “Addicted so young any more” he thought as the echo calmed down.
” It’s been four months since my last fix,” Amy started and was met with a smattering of applause only to be drowned out by the slapping of Late Voice’s meaty hands that sounded like someone pounding an uncooked slab of beef of a concrete floor. All the eyes turned to him and he grinned in that brief second it took before he met Papa’s stern glare. He stopped instantly and stuffed his hands in his pockets of his stretched sweat pants.
” I still get the urge constantly,” Amy continued in a wavering tone ” I just know that once I start, I won’t be able to stop. The last time, I ended up naked in a police cell covered in body glitter with the word ” JUICY” tattooed on my lower back with an arrow pointing towards my butt.”
Blake nodded his head solemnly. He had woken up on the wrong end of a bender in far worse shape. He shook off the memories that were beginning to creep into his thoughts. He looked over at Fingernails and saw she had a similar look on her face. They caught each others eyes again briefly and immediately turned away like high school kids caught staring at each other. Blake watched out of the corner of his eye as her fingernails drifted down her neck and tugged briefly at the collar of her sleeveless black blouse whose buttons were strained against her barely contained breasts.
” Those days are long past,” Papa soothed her and looked to her right and motioned with his hand that the man sitting there should go next as Amy retook her seat.
” I’m Max,” the man said as he stood from his chair. His chocolate-brown skin shone with a light film of perspiration made only more noticeable by the fact he did not have a single hair on his head. He had shaved his head but had not stopped there. He had shaved his eyebrows and from the look of his bare arms sticking out of his ebony t-shirt had shaved every hair off his body.
” Hi, Max,” the group called back.
” Hi,Max,” Late Voice called out just as they finished again. A muttering among the group now caused him to look down at his battered running shoes. A slight smile played across his face for a half a heartbeat before disappearing.
” It’s been nine weeks since my last incident,” Max said with a heavy sigh but the look of a man used to being scrutinized. The applause was much more hearty this time. Each slap seeming to echo of the next with Late Voice’s own hammer fists drowning out even that level of sound. The group now looking at each to see who had been the loudest.
” The meetings I have been to almost daily since have helped,” Max continued to further knowing looks and oddly sad glances ” The last thing I really want is to end up like last time when I was found giving head to the entire starting line up of the college basketball team in the alley behind the greek diner while the cheer leading squad performed their routine from the half time show in the street to distract the police. I mean I did promise them if they won the district championship after all….”
Max trailed off with a wistful, far away look on his face. Blake shook his head to drive the image from his rapidly twisting thoughts. Too many evenings in his past could have taken a similar tone had he swung that way. The headache flared briefly behind his eyes and he closed them to stop his vision from swimming. His stomach clenched responsively and he felt saliva flood his mouth in preparation for the vomit he knew would follow in moments. His eyes flared open and he looked directly into the flushed gaze of Fingernails.
Her hand had trailed down the side of her neck and was running the crimson tips along the fringe of her shirt. They caught briefly and tugged down the collar exposing the cherry red strap of her bra. The corner of her mouth turned up slightly before she looked back to Max who had sat back down beside the wildly clapping Late Voice. Blake’s mouth dried up instantly. His eyes focused on the visible pulse he could see beating in her neck and felt his pulse slow to match it as he gulped down several lungfuls of air.
” Who would like to go next ?” Papa droned with an almost stifled yawn.
” I will, ” Late Voice said with a crack in his voice usually reserved for high school freshman and old men propositioning prostitutes. He pulled the hem of his sweat pants up over the protruding mound of his belly. As his shirt pillowed out around him, Blake noticed the long faded grease stains from where he had clearly wiped his hands many times over.
” Hi, I’m Patrick,” Late Voice hurriedly blurted out. His eager face seeking each persons in turn quickly to make sure they had heard him.
” Hi, Patrick,” The group droned back much to the dismay of Patrick.
” It’s been five weeks since my last fix,” Patrick said in the earnest way puppies look when they learn how to pee on the newspaper left beside the door to train them. His fleshy jowls jiggled as he nodded in congratulations to himself. He dipped his chin to his chest at that point and drew a ragged breath that rattled in his chest. Blake thought he had actually fallen asleep standing as the pause dragged on but as Patrick lifted his head his eyes shone with a maniacal look.
” I can’t remember how my last bender started but I remember how it ended very vividly. I had gotten it in my head to try to eat the ten pound cheeseburger they offer at that dive bar around the corner from the hospital. I got about half way through it before the reporters from the college television station showed up. They turned the cameras on and I just attacked the pile of food that was left. I passed out with less than a pound left,” Patrick paused and sighed at this point ” No ones ever done it before and I really wanted to be the first.”
Patrick flopped heavily enough in his chair at that point to spread the metal legs slightly beyond what could have only been the stress fracture point as one of them cracked and sent him tumbling to the floor. His girth slapped the floor like a garbage bag full of ground beef. Blake jumped up out of his chair and reached for the younger man only to have Patrick bounce back up to his feet and make a comically oafish bow to the crowd. His smile beamed like the noon day sun as he pulled another chair under his ample back side.
” Are you alright, Patrick,” Papa asked as he moved beside the now flush faced young man and put a hand on his shoulder.
” Fine and dandy,” Patrick giggled as he ran his hands through his hair and wiped them on the front of his shirt.
Blake turned to take his own seat and his eyes grazed over Fingernails who had unbuttoned her blouse down to the point her more than abundant cleavage was available for anyone to see. As she caught Blake’s eyes again, she stood and reflexively pushed her chest out straining the remaining buttons to the point that they would embed themselves in the block walls if they shot free. Her exposed skin beckoned his gaze and his headache pulsed once in his skull before shifting to a throb in his groin. Her hand rubbed smoothly over her flat stomach and raised them hem of her shirt just enough to flash the lines of a flowery tribal tattoo that traced over her tanned hip bone.
” Hi,” Fingernails began with a lilt in her voice that matched her single arched eyebrow ,” I’m Vanessa and this is my first meeting.”
Applause exploded from the group and caught Blake off guard. He found himself clapping along as Vanessa demurely lowered her eyes and turned her hips until her knees were touching. She raised her head then and shook out her blazing red hair before taking a deep breath and speaking again.
” I’ve been an addict for as long as I can remember. I don’t known when it started but I know it got worse when I ran away from home at sixteen,” Vanessa said, her voice almost a whisper as something near personal judgement passed over her features. ” I decided I needed help after I woke up yesterday morning in bed with three men and another woman. I was covered from head to toe in every type of bodily fluid you can imagine and I realized I didn’t want to live like this anymore.”
The applause was short-lived as Blake took his feet. Vanessa smiled shyly at the intrusion of her unburdening but quickly sat down when she saw what Blake was holding. Much like the every present handkerchief, Uncle Walt carried something else with him at all times. The charcoal grey pistol gleamed dully as he pointed it at her and motioned for her to take her seat. He rolled his head once and felt the tension in his neck pop free with the fluid moving in his joints released.
” Hi, my name is Blake,” Blake grinned at them all with a smile that never touched his eyes. Not a single voice responded in answer so he shrugged his shoulders and began pacing around the small ring of chairs. His arm ramrod straight in front of him allowing the eye of the gun to look each of them in the face before moving on to the next person in line.
” Much like yourselves, I am an addict,” Blake continued in a voice that boomed like early May thunder in the small space. ” This isn’t the first meeting I have gone to but it took me a long time to realize what I was really addicted too.”
Blake had stopped pacing directly in front of Max and pressed the tip of the gun against his forehead. Large droplets of sweat cascaded down the bald mans skull and rain over his face to match the tears that were now freely falling. Blake could hear the slight scuffling of chairs behind him and before anyone could run for the door he swung back around and locked them all in place with the glare that now darkened his features.
” What you eventually realize is that all you are addicted to is the attention,” Blake growled at them, ” Why else would you let people debase you and degrade you in the ways you do?”
” I am certainly not judging you, I am really no better,” Blake explained as he now made his way around the outside of the ring of chairs and rubbed the gun off the metal back of each folding chair causing an echoing gong not unlike church bells at a funeral. He stopped directly behind Vanessa and ran the gun up the back of her neck before pointing it directly at Papa.
” On the contrary,” Blake said with a half laugh bubbling madly in the back of his throat ” I plan on making sure all the attention is focused directly on all of you. That’s why I called the police and local news right before I got here to tell them that I was going to kill everybody at this meeting before turning the gun on myself. You will be the poor victims that get your true fifteen minutes of fame before being replaced by the next celebrity divorce or political scandal. I have been to meetings all over and it’s always the same. The poor me. The pay attention to me. Think of me as the person who will make sure you get the attention you have always wanted.”
There were unchecked cries and whimpers at this point that made the moment somehow more fulfilling to Blake. He laughed out loud as he noticed the dark stain in the crotch of Patrick’s pants that was steadily creeping down his leg.
In the now fading light the revolving blue and red police lights could be seen reflecting off the outside windows as several car doors slammed all at once. With a sigh, Blake pointed the gun at Patrick and watched the man’s jowls shake in terror as he raised his hands to wave off the thought of the bullets flying towards him. Blake clicked the safety off with a snap that brought everything in the room into complete focus.
” The truth is, I have no intention of killing myself,” Blake explained as he fed a hand into Vanessa’s hair and pulled back hard enough to make her scream. A sound that brought the sound of dozens of stomping combat style boots to the base of the church walls. He once again pointed the gun at Patrick who was now visibly shaking hard enough to cause his loose skin to jiggle.
” After I shoot all of you and give myself up, I will leave here in handcuffs. I will get all the attention I can possibly ever dream of for the rest of my life. News reports. Television specials. Book deals. The possibilities are endless really.” Blake sighed in obvious pleasure. After a life of being a nobody, he was finally going to make an impact in all their lives. He could almost hear the news reporters droning in the monotone way all of them did despite the atrocities they saw daily and it brought a smile to his face. It was his name that would be on their lips soon enough.
Time seemed to freeze briefly then and he heard his own heart pounding in his chest. Blake watched a large tear dribble down Vanessa’s cheek as she mouthed something at him than as he tightened his finger on the trigger. Right before the first bullet shredded Patrick’s throat and before he could turn the gun toward anyone else, he realized she had been trying to say ” Please, do it.”