by S.A. Hunter
My support group was meeting tonight. There were seven of us if I counted Wally Orback, the counselor, but he didn’t have the side-effects. He just ‘empathized’. God, I hated him, and I’d stop going if my job, my doctor, and my mother didn’t keep such close tabs on whether I went. If I didn’t go, well, it was less of a headache if I went.
The meetings took place in the community center, the same as AA, NA, GA, and any other anonymous addiction support group one could think of. In fact, I think an ‘I wish I had an addiction’ anonymous support group met there on Thursdays. We were so anonymous though that we didn’t even have an anonymous name. When we met, Wally just put up a sign that said simply ‘Private Session - Do Not Disturb’.
I slipped in a minute before nine. I was always the last to arrive. The group reluctantly broke up from around the coffee table and began taking seats in the circle. I sat between Ralph and Simon. Ralph and I nodded hello to each other. I liked Ralph. He was old. I suspected in the future, wrinkles like his would be either viewed with mistrust or would go in and out of fashion like bell-bottoms. From his dazed expression, I could tell Simon was off somewhere in his head. I hoped he’d been given de-caf. The last thing I needed tonight was a raving lunatic hyped up on caffeine screaming about the aliens on Grove St. who were beaming satanic messages into his head. Simon should have been institutionalized rather than given the drug. The side-effects made him ten times worse, but supposedly he was on his meds and all right. At least that’s what his mother, the city counselor, insisted. He really wasn’t allowed out of the house except to attend these meetings.
Kara, Ian, and Bob were on the other side of the circle. Kara gave me a little wave. Being the only other woman in group, Kara relied on me as a compatriot, but I didn’t always come through with the reinforcement of girl power. The fact was I held her in contempt. She was thirty-six and still used her daddy’s credit card, but she insisted she was an independent woman.
Wally clapped his hands together to begin the meeting. Some of us, who weren’t ready for it, winced at the loud sound. “Welcome everyone, I hope you had a great week since our last meeting. As you all remember, Ralph was telling us about a conflict between him and his son. Ralph didn’t want his son, who just turned twenty-one, to rush out and take the drug. Ralph wanted him to mature more and have kids. This was a very heated topic. Did anyone have any further thoughts on the subject?”
Kara spoke up first. “I still think Ralph should encourage his son to take the drug. If he became immortal then they’d be like together forever. What do grandkids matter then?” I rolled my eyes. Of course, she felt that way. Kara wanted to always be Daddy’s little girl. I doubted she’d even considered freezing any of her eggs before taking the drug. I had, though I admit the possibility of them getting freezer burn before I used them was very likely. The idea of kids scared me, but the possibility of none scared me more.
“Plus you said he’d banked some of his sperm already, so he could still have kids,” Ian added.
“It’s not the same,” Bob said with a heavy sigh. Bob was a granddad and had been firmly on Ralph’s side.
“How?” Ian asked. Ian was twenty-nine. He’d banked some of his sperm before taking the drug.
“A child from a test tube is the same as a child from the womb, but the experience of the parent is not the same. The joy is once removed. It’s antiseptic.”
Ian just shook his head. He’d never know firsthand the joy of real conception and pregnancy. There would be no labor for him or his wife. They would simply call their doctor and nine months later, be handed a baby.
“What about adoption? Is that sterile too?” That seemed a bit like dirty pool to bring up. One of Bob’s grandkids was adopted.
“No, there’s labor in adoption too. It’s different but still there.”
Ralph bowed his head at the rehash of last week’s discussion. “Have there been any new developments?” Wally asked.
Ralph nodded. “He took it. I’m not angry with him. Sure, I was disappointed when I first heard, but I’ve accepted it. I’ll just be sad.”
“Side-effects?” I asked softly. That had been another major concern.
Ralph shook his head. “Praise God, no.” Everyone let out a collective sigh. It was funny how we all loved our immortality but regretted our existence. Side-effects would do that to you.
“I ate a June Bug. It was crunchy,” Simon said. Kara wrinkled her nose. Bob grinned. Ian sighed in exasperation and slouched down in his chair.
“Now Simon, you know you shouldn’t eat insects,” Wally told him.
“But it was alive,” Simon pouted.
“Yes, it was,” Wally agreed.
“And its life will make me stronger.” He flexed his scrawny arms to demonstrate.
“No, it won’t, Simon,” Wally said.
“The bug eaters should have their own group,” Kara said. She despised Simon and I hated her a little for that. Simon was a nut case, no question there, but he was one of us. She had no right to try and push him out.
“But every vampire needs a Renfield,” I said.
Wally threw his hands into the air. Ian snorted. Kara looked shocked. She always looked shocked when I brought this up. Bob wryly shook his head. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a glimmer of amusement in Ralph’s face. Simon bounced up and down on his chair. In a sing-song voice, he chanted “Renfield, renfield, renfield!”
“Shut up!” yelled Kara. Simon stopped for a second to glance at me. I was biting back a smile. He grinned widely and started chanting again only in a lower voice.
“We are not vampires,” Ian droned. We’d had this argument time and again, but it was a fun argument.
“Oh come on, aren’t you ultra-sensitive to the sunlight? Doesn’t the merest whiff of garlic make you want to heave? Tell me you don’t want your meat so rare it could moo?” Simon mooed ecstatically.
“We are not monsters. What we have is a legitimate medical condition.”
“A medical condition with no known cure. There is no going back.”
“So? Neither can anyone else,” said Kara.
“So?” I spat. “Everyone else can go outside in the daylight without wrapping up like Eskimos, their body temperatures stay at a toasty 98.6º while ours drops to whatever climate we’re in. We can’t go out in below freezing weather, or our blood literally freezes. Need I mention the cravings: The fascination of a strong smooth limb, the hypnotic thrumming of a pulse, the smell of fresh blood? Kara, don’t you dare lie and say you’ve never experienced it. You live one block over from a butcher’s shop. You have to be plagued by it constantly.”
“No, I don’t!” Kara replied triumphantly. “I moved last week.”
I rolled my eyes at her. “The point is we’re stuck this way until we commit suicide so why even bother discussing any of this? The only point to life anymore is on the sharp end of a stick.”
“I think you mean period, not point,” said a voice from the doorway. We whirled around in our seats to stare at the new speaker. He stood just inside the room with his whole body in shadow. I heard low growls from several throats, and raised an eyebrow at the group. I hadn’t brought up the predatory instincts in my rant, but with that response, I didn’t need to.
“I’m sorry but this isn’t an open session. You must be referred to attend,” Wally said.
“But I was. Here is a letter from my doctor. I’m sorry I didn’t contact you earlier and please forgive me for being late.” The newcomer stepped forward into the light. We all blinked. He was paler than all of us. He had short dark hair that was slicked back and large hollow looking eyes. He was the stereotype people thought of when they thought of us the ‘afflicted’.
Wally stood up and met the man at the edge of the circle. He took the letter the guy held out and looked it over. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to check this before I can admit you into the meetings.”
“I understand. You can call him at home if you like. Here I’ll give you his number.” The guy took the letter back and scribbled a phone number on it.
“Now?” Wally asked slightly flummoxed.
“I really would like to attend this meeting.”
Wally’s eyes widened slightly. Someone eager to join our support group had never happened. We’d all been prodded here until we couldn’t take it anymore and joined. Wally excused himself to go make the call. We all sat silently. We were not about to speak again until the guy had been okayed. There had been people, investigative journalists mainly, who had tried to sit in on meetings like ours. We were the weirdos of the world, and the public was curious about us like they once were about pinheads and wolf-girls. We were a modern day sideshow, but we did not want to be on display. We wanted to live our lives quietly and deal with the hardships inherent with our conditions privately.
The new guy didn’t seem to take our silence as unfriendly. He stood outside the circle comfortably. I saw him looking over the group, getting first impressions. I could imagine what he thought. Frank and Bob looked like they should be out on the front porch of a general store smoking pipes and chewing the fat. Simon’s unkempt hair and stained clothing alone would indicate him as slightly unhinged, but as if that weren’t enough, he’d begun to tunelessly hum to himself as he rocked back and forth. Ian went for cool and disinterested by examining his manicured nails. He was very fastidious about his appearance. He didn’t want to be pretty, just impeccable at all times. Having the side effects was as annoying as lint on a pair of slacks to him. Kara was smiling at the new guy. She missed the sunshine the most of all of us. She used tanning lotion in the summer and kept blond streaks in her hair with hydrogen peroxide. I knew what the guy would see when he looked at me. I was in one of my funeral girl fazes. I was all in black with stark make-up and my hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. If there’d been words on my shirt, they would’ve been ‘Leave me alone’.
Wally came back after ten minutes. “Well everyone, it looks like we have a new member. Please welcome John Farmer.”
“Welcome, John,” Kara said brightly. I scanned the rest of the group. Unlike Kara, no one else was so eager to welcome him. We were still wondering if he were for real, after all he wanted to be here. Wally brought a chair forward for John. Kara instantly leapt up to move her seat to make room for him. I pressed my lips together in annoyance. With the new seating arrangement, the new guy was directly across from me.
Wally retook his seat and turned to the newcomer. “I think it would be good, John, if you start by telling us a little about yourself.”
He nodded. “Well, you all know my name. I’m new to the city. I moved here because of a job offer.”
“How long have you been afflicted?” Bob asked.
“Afflicted?” John asked. Lord help me, he truly looked like he didn’t know what Bob meant.
“When did you take the drug and get the side effects?” I supplied.
Comprehension sparked in his eyes, and he nodded again. “I took the drug five years ago on my thirty-third birthday. You call the side effects an affliction?”
“What would you call it?” Frank asked gruffly.
“I view immortality as a gift.”
Wally beamed and nodded his head. “Good, that is a very good outlook.”
I could see the group closing off as they silently disagreed. Even Kara, the bubbliest of us, was having a little trouble. “Don’t you feel sort of cheated, though? Yeah, we got immortality, but unlike everyone else, we’re saddled with all this other stuff. I mean we can’t go out into the sunlight anymore.”
John shrugged. “I miss the sun, but I get to see an endless number of nights, and I think the moon and the stars are just as beautiful as sunlight.”
“Everyone else gets both, though,” I argued. “You say this is a gift, but everyone else got more. How precious is our gift since we got less? Everyone else gets to enjoy eternity. We get to watch them from the sidelines.”
John opened his mouth to reply, but Ian put a restraining hand on his arm. “Please, don’t challenge her. She’ll just start on the whole vampire thing again and frankly, that gives me a headache.”
John turned to Ian and gave him a bewildered look. I could feel a mischievous smile tugging on my lips. Wally jumped in before I could begin again my little dissertation on how we were modern vampires. I pouted slightly.
“John, you have a very positive outlook, and I am very happy you can express it so well to the others. I think we could use a little positivism in this group. Too often, the others drown themselves in angst. I can understand a little depression, but everyone here has to at least acknowledge that you have fallen into resenting the drug and what it has done for you.” Again, I rolled my eyes. It was so easy for Wally to spout these platitudes. Tomorrow when he woke up, the sun would be streaming in through his curtains, and he’d go and make himself a nice hearty breakfast and relish what the day had in store for him. We, on the other hand, would wake up in an enclosed room completely dark, stumble out, and let our eyes slowly adjust to dim artificial light, force ourselves to eat, take our prescription pills, and wonder how much longer we could keep doing this. Okay, maybe I was projecting my typical day onto everyone else, but theirs couldn’t be much different.
I wasn’t the only one getting irritated. Bob sat forward in his chair and leveled a hard glare at John. “Tell me boy, do you have family?”
John frowned at being called ‘boy’. “I have some distant relatives,” he answered.
“Well, I have a wife, three sons, all married, and eight grandchildren. One of my grandkids graduated high school last week. His parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandmother went to the ceremony, but Granddad had to stay home because it was too sunny. I missed one of the most important days in my grandson’s life. I’ll probably miss a lot of important days because I can’t go out in daylight. Don’t give me that ‘but you have forever’ crap. I’d rather have had a finite number of days than no more days at all.” Bob sat back, and he raised his hand to wipe his face. Ralph reached over and squeezed his shoulder.
“See, this is exactly what I meant. You all dwell on the negative rather than the positive. You have all the time in the world to spend with your grandson. So you missed this one thing, you still have--”
“Shut up, Wally,” Ralph ordered.
Wally gaped at the demand. We all waited for Bob to compose himself. Bob, at the moment, was the bravest of us all because he’d gone through something none of us had to suffer yet. We hadn’t missed any important moments so far, but they were out there waiting to slip by us.
A low chuckle began. All heads swiveled toward John. He had his head bowed, and his shoulders were shaking slightly in his mirth. I could feel the others tensing. None of us liked the way he sounded. Kara finally took it upon herself to ask him, “Uh John, what’s so funny?”
He lifted his head still laughing and because I was sitting directly across from him, I saw his elongated canines, a common side effect. We had to be careful not to flash them in public. There was a case in Seattle of a man with the side effects being arrested because the officer said he’d been threatened when the man smiled at him too widely.
“You are all pathetic!” John exclaimed. We all jerked at this exclamation.
Wally caught onto our rising ire. He knew if he didn’t step in, we just might attack our newest member. Violent tendencies were another common side-effect. “John, lashing out at the group will not help anyone. No one here is pathetic. Side-effects are very difficult things to live with.”
“Yeah, well that won’t be any problem for this group, they don’t live.”
“Now see here, we might not have the rosy picture of the world that you seem to have, but we live, and we manage. You don’t know any of us,” Ian protested.
“Do you regret taking the drug?” he demanded.
Ian cast his eyes around at us as if searching for some support before answering. “No, I don’t,” he said, but he didn’t say it with much conviction.
“I don’t like him. He’s not going to be here next week is he?” Simon whispered. I reached over and patted his arm to calm him.
“Only if we’re lucky,” I answered.
John heard my reply. He whipped up his hand and pointed at me. “You fantasize about being a vampire, right? You don’t even want to view yourself as human anymore. That is just pathetic.”
“And you’re not? You want to see the world as all sunshine and rainbows, forgetting the fact that very sunshine will burn you to a crisp the minute you step outside unprotected. Why not say we’re vampires? Garlic makes us heave. Raw meat makes us drool. The sun burns. We’re immortal. In my dictionary, that spells vampire.”
“Vampires are monsters. They’re dead, rejected by God, fiends. Why would you want to think of yourself like that?”
“Because I call them like I see them.”
“You think you’re a monster because you took the drug. Are we all monsters then?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I admit we don’t have all the vampiric traits. Crosses don’t harm us, and we can still see our reflections in mirrors, but I can feel the evolution of those traits beginning within me. I veer away from religious houses now when I walk down a street. I avert my eyes from mirrors. Who knows, one day a church could burst into flames when I set foot inside, or I won’t recognize a mirror immediately when I see one because I won’t be in it.”
“So why aren’t you in your coffin?” John demanded.
“Because the sun’s down, idiot. I’m allowed out at night.”
John did one of his skin crawling chuckles again. “Little girl, no one is afraid of you. You do not have even an ounce of menace. You may dress all in black and look dourly at everyone, but you’re just scared of growing up and being frozen in time makes you think you don’t have to.”
“You don’t know a damn thing about me!” I jumped to my feet. “If you want to accuse someone of wanting to be child forever, why don’t you look at Kara?”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Kara shouted.
Wally rose from his seat and got between John and me. “Jennifer, settle down. John brings up some very valid points. Your obsession with vampires is rather unhealthy and disturbing, but let’s just call a truce for now shall we?”
Ralph got up and gently pulled me back to my chair. I sat reluctantly. Wally retook his seat. “Do any of you agree with her?” John asked the group. Kara shook her head vigorously. Ian shook his head as well. Bob rubbed his face with his hand. Ralph patted me on my knee, but he shook his head. Simon was the only one who nodded. If John thought he would prove something by showing nobody else except a crazy, bug eating boy agreed with me, well it was his first session of group.
“Good to know I’m not the only one who appreciates what he was given. Immortality is a wonderful thing. We won’t age. We possibly will never die. We have all the time in the world. I can’t imagine anything better.”
Wally had been nodding his head along with John up until his last statement. Even he knew better than to say stupid things like that around us.
Ralph’s hand rose from my knee where he’d been keeping it like a weight to hold me down. He placed it on his own leg. I could tell by the whiteness of his knuckles that he was applying far more pressure to himself than he had been to me. “Why are you here?” he demanded. His voice was tinged with anger and challenge. “If you’re so well adjusted then why are you here with us?”
John jerked at the hostile tone. “Because I’m new to the area. I thought I could meet some people.”
“You thought this was a social opportunity?” He looked incredulous. I think we probably all did.
John hunched his shoulders. “I don’t know many people in the area, and my job doesn’t put me in contact with many coworkers. I thought meeting others with the side effects would be a good idea.”
Ian barked a laugh. “You say we’re pathetic and not living life, but at least, we have family and friends to spend the nights with.”
John dropped his head and stared at his shoes.
Kara reached out tentatively and touched his shoulder. “Don’t you have anyone?”
He shook his head.
“Well, now you have us,” Wally said, and his overblown good nature made it über trite. Our raised eyebrows were more understated but just as emphatic. We did not think we wanted to have John, let alone let him have us.
Wally wanted to keep the session going so cast his eye around the group for a new victim. “Ian, you said two weeks ago that you thought your law firm was subtly discriminating against you. Have you approached any of the partners with your concerns?”
Ian smirked. “No, that would ruin the lawsuit I’m building.”
I joined Ian in his smirk. We were bloodthirsty due to the side effects. I sometimes thought Ian’s profession made him doubly so.
“Ian, I’m not sure that would be a wise decision,” Wally stammered.
“And I have to disagree. I know I can get nearly two million dollars with a solid case, maybe even more if they want to settle and keep the whole matter hushed.”
“But you won’t be able to continue on at the firm. What about your future?” Kara asked. Kara’s consideration of the situation surprised me. Maybe she was growing up, by millimeters maybe, but growing nonetheless.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own firm,” he replied as always showing he had thought everything through to the very last dot. Ian would never be hard up. He’d probably already confirmed a stable base of clients to take with him when he left.
“I hope you nail those bastards to the wall,” chuckled Bob. Ian’s smirk widened, and he flashed his canines to the older man.
“Well, I hope all goes well, Ian,” Wally said, but he didn’t sound hopeful. He sounded queasy. I had a growing suspicion that Wally was a vegan or turning into one by continued contact with us. Wally swallowed uncomfortably and looked around the group again. His eyes settled on me.
“Jennifer, you haven’t really told us anything tonight about how things are with you. How are things at home and work?”
I shrugged. “Everything’s going okay.”
“No problems? No difficulties?”
I blew out a puff of breath. “Everything is exactly the same as the last time you asked me four weeks ago. If you want to stop doing that entirely that’d be fine with me.”
“How’s your mother?” he persisted.
My hands curled into loose fists. “She’s fine.”
“Has she reconsidered taking the drug?”
“She’s still mortal all right. She won’t take the drug. She doesn’t want to end up like me. She’d rather die.”
“I’m sure that’s not the reason your mother refuses to take the drug.”
“Well, she won’t give me another reason. She grows older everyday, and she won’t take the drug. She loves the sun on her face more than--” I stopped myself.
“More than what, Jennifer?” Wally asked.
“More than me, okay! My mother loves the sun and daytime more than she loves me. She won’t give even a day up of that to spend with me. Do you know it’s been six weeks since we spoke to each other face-to-face? I go to her house, and she won’t answer the door when I knock. I can hear her in there, but she won’t even come to the door to tell me to go away.”
“Oh Jennifer,” Kara said. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes. I was not going to cry.
“But you two still talk,” stammered Wally.
“Yeah, on the phone, she’ll talk to me for hours. I can’t stand to hear it ring anymore. I hate the damn thing.”
“Your mother is weak,” John said.
I didn’t even know I’d launched myself at him until Bob and Ralph pulled me back. Simon was making a strange keening sound in his chair and had curled into a ball. Kara and Ian had leapt back out of their chairs. Wally was actually at the doorway ready to bolt. John still sat in his chair. He hadn’t moved a hair.
“Let’s all calm down,” ordered Bob. Ian righted my fallen chair, and Bob and Ralph pushed me back into it. My eyes were still locked with John’s.
“Come on Jenn, don’t let the new guy goad you. You’re one of the tough ones,” Ralph said to me.
I took deep calming breathes. “Don’t tell me the thought of ripping him apart hasn’t crossed your mind tonight.”
Ralph flashed me a small understanding grin. “It has, but it’d just make a mess and put Wally in hysterics.”
I nodded my head. I did a quick glance at John. He was smiling. The sonuvabitch was smiling. My hands curled into fists again. Ralph looked at John and shook his head. He pulled his chair right up against mine and sat down. He placed a hand on my shoulder to weigh me down again. I jumped when I felt a hand wrap around my opposite arm. I looked over to find Simon. He gave me a cautious look. When I didn’t shrug him off, he scooted his chair closer, but instead of restraining me like Ralph, he huddled against me. I had a felt a flash of guilt for upsetting him. Everyone settled back into the circle, but it was into an uneasy calm. We were all tense, and it was all due to the new guy who was still grinning like an idiot.
“I’m really glad I came tonight. I’ll make sure to be on time next week,” John said. We all stared at him in bewilderment. He was happy about tonight?
“That’s great, John. We’ll have a seat saved for you,” Wally said in his most valiant attempt to be upbeat, though the quaver in his voice sort of ruined it.
“Are you going to skip?” Ralph asked me softly.
I thought a moment, and shook my head. “Nah, maybe next week, he’ll provoke Kara, and she’ll rip him apart. That’d be fun to watch.” Ralph chuckled and squeezed my shoulder.
Wally closed group with the same mantra at every meeting, “Remember to take eternity one night at a time and that there’s always group.”