The chairs were the old school folding kind, brown metal with tan cushions that were almost comfortable. They were usually folded and stacked neatly against the wall in the basement of the church on Dionin street. Three times a week they were unfolded and made into a circle: once for bible book club on Monday afternoons, another time for prayer group on Tuesday mornings, and then every Friday night for meetings.
Some Fridays, the circle could get up to twenty members. Most weeks it was half that. Tonight was less. Langston didn’t really care. He just needed a meeting.
It had been six years since the last time he got high. It didn’t matter. His life was a constant series of triggers. Whenever he felt like pulling one, he would end up here, in this circle, or one just like it, telling strangers he occasionally recognized explicit details of how he threw away his life.
The ritualistic aspect of it was important. The circle was important. The repetition was important.
They joke about how people get addicted to meetings instead of drugs. Langston didn’t mind the trade off. At least meetings didn’t send you to the emergency room with abscesses. Or into jail for the weekend, sick and detoxing. They don’t kill you and swallow you whole like addictions do.
He sat down at one of the chairs, six synthetic sugar packets heartlessly drowned into his coffee. The styrofoam cup was warm in his cold hands. The meeting was about to start.
There was a banging noise coming from down the hall. It sounded like a door hadn’t been closed properly and the echoing, cavernous booming rattled through the empty basement and into the little meeting room.
The girl next to him was pounding her feet against the cement floor in time to the noise. She was grabbing her knees with her fingers. Her nails were mostly imaginary, gnawed nearly to the bed.
Between the way she looked and the way she acted it was either her first meeting or a court mandated appearance. Both options were lousy. He smiled over at her and she turned her head slightly.
There was something wrong with her eyes.
She looked down again. Her blonde hair with dull roots obscured her face. And her eyes.
He could hear her teeth grinding against each other. It sounded like an old and dying machine.
He looked away. Someone was speaking. It was Marc. Langston had seen him at dozens of meetings. He had heard his story dozen of times. He could tell it. Wife divorced him, then he was fired, now his brother was dying of esophageal cancer. The repetition was good for people. The ritual was important.
The door rattled off in the distance. It sounded like it was being slammed and reopened by wind. It had been breezy all day, with the October leaves flying in twisting little patterns across the sky. Red and gold and dying in celebratory sacrifice for the coming of fall.
After Marc finished, someone else went. Langston heard them as a dull noise, waves in a seashell in another room. He couldn’t focus. He couldn’t stop thinking about her eyes.
She was still grinding her teeth. He noticed her knuckles were cut up and weirdly scarred. She was making very, very weird noises very, very quietly. Deep jagged breaths with another noise coming from her. A weird sibilant sound.
Was that really what her eyes looked like?
It must have been the light. A reflection. Someone was talking. He couldn’t hear a thing.
He tried to pay attention. The person talking was saying it seemed like there was a new member? And would she want to say something?
He saw the girl next to him raise her head. She stood up.
There was a loud bang down the hall. The lights flickered. They came back on. The girl’s breathing sounded weird. She turned and looked at him. Her eyes. It wasn’t the light. That’s what they looked like.
“Sure,” she said. Her voice sounded so normal. That made it worse. “I’d love to tell you my story.”
What was that noise in the hall? It almost sounded like something was walking around. Shuffling?
“My name is Emily.”
Even Langston said it. It was automatic. The ritual only works if you participate. Repetition helps.
“This is my story. It started three years ago. The first time I got high. My mom had surgery on her knee. I tried some of her pain meds. They were awesome. I collapsed on the couch after taking them. I was made of cumulus clouds and unicorns. I was composed of rainbows and garden gnomes. So I took more. Obvs. Then some more. Then I got some from my friends. Then pills cost too much. Then I found out heroin was a lot cheaper than prescription pills. And much easier to get.”
“This next part is the part in “Behind the Music” before the comeback,” she said and pushed her hair back. Langston saw someone stare. Did they see the eyes? “I got really messed up on heroin. My friends weren’t always my friends. I did a lot of things I really regret. I should have died. I wish I did. It would have been better than this. Maybe.”
She smiled. What was going on with her jaw? It seemed to pulse?
Another noise in the hall.
“Two months ago, my friend and I were trying to score. We were getting sick. We were sleeping in an underpass. We didn’t have anything. My friend, Amy, she drew a circle. Like this.”
Something was outside in the hall. Langston knew there was something. It wasn’t a loose door. It was moving and getting closer. He wanted to get up and run out. He felt like he couldn’t move. Instead, he just listened to the noise. A rattling noise. A hissing, like air escaping a tire.
“We decided we were going to call something to help us. Get us high or whatever. To not feel sick or something. Whatever. It doesn’t matter now.”
In the hallway, the noise grew louder, a hypnotic rattling circular noise.
“Anyway. We made the circle. We called it. And it showed up. It immediately showed up. Like it had just been waiting for this moment forever. I guess it had.”
Marc with the divorce and unemployment and dying brother stared at her. All the veins in his neck stuck out like new blades of grass in the summer.
“The first thing that happened was it killed Amy. Dead. Totally dead. And then …it… well, it ate her. After that, it spoke to me. It asked if I still wanted what I called it for. Did I want its help? And I told it yeah, because why the fuck not? I’ll take living and not dying for 500, Alex.”
Langston realized the feeling he had of being trapped wasn’t just a sensation. He couldn’t move his body. It was as if he was nailed to the old school brown metal chair with the almost comfortable cushion.
“He told me he had been asleep. For a really, really long time. Now he was up. Because of us. And all he wanted was to eat. And he didn’t really ever want to stop eating again. So we made a deal. If I helped him out, brought him to places where he could eat, he’d help me out. He couldn’t get me heroin, but he could get me high in a different way: I could eat with him. I said yes. So…so, then he …he changed me. My eyes, first. Then other things.”
She looked over at Langston. Her slit pupils widened and contracted in the fluorescent night. He felt his legs spasm. She laughed.
“And guess what? I like this better than junk. Better than anything. He told me the more pain and sadness people have in their life, the better they taste. All that sorrow flavors the body.”
She walked over to Langston. She put her hand on his shoulder. Her hands didn’t feel like skin. Like human skin.
“And he’s right. Sadness tastes magnificent. Like rainbows and fucking unicorns. But he needs a circle to pull him into this world. So I told him I had an idea. A way we could kill two birds with one stone. Or kill something, at least.”
Behind the door, something hissed.
“This is our fifth meeting. Fifth town in two months. No one has caught on yet. Of course, we don’t leave a lot of evidence in our wake. Most of it we swallow.”
Her mouth…changed. Opened wide, then wider. Then wider. Her jaw unhinged as they watched, helpless. Her tongue, forked and long emerged from her red mouth like a newborn child. She licked the air and smiled at Langston.
“I think you’re first.” She said to him quietly. Then, louder, “We’re ready.”
The door opened.