Alex entered through a doorway, triggering a ding.
"Be right out," a voice said from out of sight.
Alex opened his mouth but couldn't utter a sound. Instead, Alex's head ticked as he surveyed the room. His eyes zig zagged without rhythm. As Alex stared at the weapons encased in glass, his body shivered. He steadied his jittering hands by clenching them at his waist. He was alone. And that made him feel that where he stood was off limits; made him nervous. But that's what guns do best - clear rooms.
"Sorry, partner," said the man out of sight. Then, he entered the store room. He was a burly man with a rigid posture, dark eyes, and a disarming smile. He wore a nametag that read Patrick. "What brings you in?"
"Um, well, there was one I saw online. In one of your videos"
"Uh, maybe I'm - I'm - saying it wrong."
"No, you're not. But, it's not for sale."
"I know it's not for sale."
"Who sent you?" Patrick asked, leaning against the glass.
Patrick’s eyes widened. Just then the door dinged again and Patrick hollered to the new patron, "be right with you sir!" Then Patrick leaned closer to Alex and whispered, "I could tell when I first laid eyes on you that you needed my help.” Patrick removed a piece of scratch paper from his pocket and tossed it onto the glass top.
"Hurry, write your number,” Patrick said. Alex picked up a nearby pen and, with a most unsteady hand, scribbled his digits onto the pad.
"Kid, you're going to be alright now." Patrick reached across the counter and petted Alex's head. Alex wouldn’t lift his eyes higher than Patrick’s chest. Patrick reached and lifted Alex's chin until their eyes met, then smiled. Alex forced a grin. "The serpent that once deceived us," Patrick began to say.
Then together, they whispered," is the same serpent that delivers us peace." Patrick nodded and then Alex left the store.
And when Alex left he felt a wave of anxiety sweep over him. Because he knew he should not have been in that store. At least, that’s what his mother, Taylor, would tell him. Alex required more attention and medication than most kids. Or else he’d hurt people. Mostly himself. And his mother made it her mission to protect her baby. And that, unfortunately, meant that his brokenness had become her identity.
So, it was no surprise to Alex when, a few steps outside the store, his mother called.
“Where are you?" She asked.
"Um…on my way to Sam's,” Alex said, fidgeting in the wind like the breeze was a strangers’ unwelcomed touch.
"It's been nearly an hour. I told you to call when you got there."
"I got distracted. You know how I am."
"I should have never let you go by yourself."
"Mom, I'm fine."
"Did you take your Abilify this morning?"
"Yes." Alex said, walking down a plain sidewalk flanked with picturesque storefronts.
"Yes, I wouldn't lie about that." But he did. Alex always lied about his medication. He believed it worked, by replacing one symptom for another. Neurosis for stagnation. Delusions for depression. But Alex learned to find comfort in his delusions. As unsettling as his episodes were to witness, they were his. But the numbness and alienation he felt on medication muted reality. So he always said that he took his medications because, in the end, he could always attribute "thinking" that he had taken his medications to just another delusion. "I gotta go, mom. I'm almost at Sam's."
"I love you, Alex."
Alex grimaced, and through his clenched teeth said, "I love you too."
Alex hung up and walked a few more blocks before arriving at Sam's. He entered through the basement door into Sam's damp, dark bedroom. Sam sat hunched toward his computer monitor beside a stack of half consumed boxes, bags, and cans of caloric junk. Without a word, Alex sat next to Sam.
Sam navigated through a few tabs, and said, "he posted a new video this morning."
"I finally saw him, Sam."
"You - what?
"I couldn’t wait any longer. I know we said we'd go together but -"
"No, don't apologize. You're right, Alex. You do need it. I'm proud of you. Did you tell your mom?"
"She wouldn't understand."
“Good,“ Sam said, then he hit the spacebar. An ad began to play. "Gotta pee," Sam said.
"Should I wait?"
"No, keep it playing. I watched it this morning."
Alex watched the advertisement alone. And his blood chilled. The screen flashed bright, contrasting colors. A single shadowy figure emerged from the colorful chaos. Serialist music further contorted the offputting scene. Then the colors and sounds seized and the shadowy figure spoke in a modulating, robotic voice, "Heal yourself," it said again and again. And with each repetition the voice deepened. The screen darkened, fading to black. Alex stared at the screen, jaw ajar. That was his exact dream from the night before.
The ad was followed by a video with Patrick, center screen, the walls of his armory as his background. "Patrick here, from Munitioned Healing…I've been getting a lot threats recently. A lot of know-it-alls who seem to know nothing at all. Well," Patrick said, turning to address all the weapons at his rear, "if you're so tough, come on in."
Alex laughed. As Sam returned, he bore a vicarious smile.
"But seriously," Patrick continued, "there are forces at play trying to keep me silent. And as long as I keep speaking the truth, that will be true. But I'm lucky, because I can tell who is trying to silence me. But many of you, any of you, who are under the grip of big pharma…you don't see that your every fiber is being censored. And you're living every day…" Patrick’s voice shuddered, "as half a human."
Sam hit pause on the video, looked at Alex, and said, "this is what your mom does to you."
"I know," Alex said, his breath hastening in anger.
"She's more in your head than that disease, if you even have it. You're not actually taking that stuff, are you?"
"Abilify? No. I mean. Every now and then she watches me take it. So I do. And, it's fine."
"Don't say that."
"I mean - like, just to keep the peace."
"But you don't actually feel better on it, do you?"
"No, I mean. It's complicated. Sometimes I do think it helps. I don't know! I don't know!" Alex exhaled, releasing his annoyance. "While you were in the restroom, I saw my dream on this screen."
"You dreamed an ad? Are you sure it just wasn't the last thing you watched before you fell asleep? That can happen you know, your last thought before sleep gets trapped in your head."
"No, Sam. I'm sure it was a dream."
Sam hit play to continue the video. Alex, confused, tilted his head.
"What?" Sam asked.
“No, tell,” Sam demanded, spinning his chair to face Alex.
“Well, just that you paused the video by tapping the spacebar with your left thumb. But you hit play by using the mouse with your right hand."
"Like I said, it's nothing. Just a pattern, I guess."
That night, Patrick reached out to Alex with a single text: meet in the lot below the Union Tower tomorrow at 8. There's a moving truck at the back of P3. Alex wondered how Patrick was able to keep his operation hidden in plain sight. And why a meeting place of piety and mysticism was stuffed between concrete barriers.
The next night Alex wandered the abandoned lot. He didn't know if this is how it always looked after business hours, or if the lot was terminally empty. Regardless, it made finding the truck -- which Alex noticed was exactly 357 steps from the elevator -- quite easy. He then knocked on the back of the moving van that matched the description in Patrick's text. The back door rolled open, and a sweet, demure blonde opened the door and greeted Alex with a smile. She was naked, save for a sequin curtain that was wrapped around her body as a cloak.
Alex stepped into the van and swam through dozens of layers of curtains. He'd walked only a few feet, but felt as if he trespassed through just as many dimensions. It seemed disorderly, but he noticed a complex color to the pattern. Then, Alex walked through the final layer of curtains and entered a ceremonial space where Patrick, and three others sat in silence. In the center of them lay a Colt Python .357 Magnum. It was the one they called serpent.
Patrick was clad in all black, his neck adorned with a chained bullet pennant. He appeared far more powerful than a humble store manager. Every other person wore nothing but a curtain draped over their shoulders. The blonde trailing Alex, handed him a curtain and pointed to a back partition, where he changed. Then Alex returned to the altar, where all sat in silence.
Patrick opened his eyes, "Ah, Alex, welcome."
"Welcome faithful Alex," the other four chanted in unison.
Patrick continued, "you gather with us today in a ceremony of mystique, power, and tranquility. Each of us here is in search of heaven on earth. Only one of us today will discover it. What lies before us is not just a weapon. It is a portal from this life to the next." Each member synchronously interlocked their index fingers at their abdomen. "There are six of us sitting here. This revolver can carry six bullets, but holds just one. Before this ceremony, I spun the gun’s wheel. And I will select who begins. To demonstrate our interconnectedness, we do not point the revolver at our own selves, but the person directly across from us. The serpent will decide who today is granted entry. And who today will receive heaven on earth."
The five sang, in liturgical harmony, "heaven belongs to the dying."
"Ivana," Patrick said, pointing to the blond that greeted Alex, "begin."
Ivana pointed the revolver at an older woman who sat directly across from her. The woman closed her eyes in prayer, mumbling her lips. Ivana sighed, and then pulled the trigger. Click. The woman began to kiss the floor and said, "Next time, I pray!" Alex's eyes widened, even more than his beaming smile.
Ivana then handed the revolver to the man to her right. He pointed the serpent at Patrick. Then the man said, "father, you have brought heaven to us, now let me take you to it." Patrick bowed. The man squeezed the trigger. Click.
Patrick said, "You're right son, I long for heaven. But it is not my time. Blessed be the serpent."
Alex was handed the revolver. He looked at its contours. He'd read a lot about revolvers but had never held one in real life. Of the thousands he'd seen online, none looked like this. Its handle was built of raw wood, the trigger blood red, and the body of the barrel interlaced with snake skin. At the end of the barrel, a decapitated python's head was affixed, as if the bullets departing were bites from the devil himself. Alex massaged the weapon in his hands a few times, a sensation so new it steadied his mind. He noticed at this moment he was without ticks or wandering. He felt, perhaps for the first time in his life, perfectly content.
Then he raised the revolver to the oldest man in the circle. He looked to be seventy. His head bounced as if he had late stage Parkinson's. As the old man's head bobbed, he tried to bow it in prayer, the pitiful display of physical ineptness made Alex wish there was a bullet behind his trigger pull. Alex's arms weakened and stomach flipped. He slowly squeezed the trigger until - Bang.
The body hadn't hit the floor, when the other four chanted, "Naked he came into this earth. Naked he departs."
Alex laughed, like he'd just accomplished something great.
So much happened in such little time, that Alex could not process the order of any. There was the sound of the body flopping to the floor. Then, the faint smell of iron, seeping from the dead man's blood. There was a distinctive flash of light, as if a picture had been taken. A flash which coincided with the thunderous percussion of a revolver unloading inside an enclosed space. What Alex noticed most was the silence from the congregation. None screamed or whimpered. There was just a dutiful silence, a calming reverence. Then, the warm blood cooling as it trickled against Alex's bare feet.
"A communion," Patrick said, pointing to the trickling blood. Then each member bowed onto all fours and began licking the dead man's blood.
Alex had struggled with hallucinations. Most of his short life he could not distinguish reality from the imagined. There were few moments Alex could definitely identify as real. And those he could were tainted by a sedation caused by his prescribed antipsychotic medications, as if he had lived his entire life in the third-person. If there was anything Alex dreamed, any heaven he could invite to earth, it would be that which clearly distinguished reality. Something as clear as identifying life from death. And this moment, Alex knew, more clearly than he'd known anything before, was real life. So Alex knelt with the rest and slurped the dead man’s blood.
Precisely when Alex licked the blood, there was, in the van, another flash.
Alex knelt upwards and looked to Patrick, confused.
Patrick explained, "it is good you've taken part today, Alex. You've healed right before our eyes." Ivana stood, and walked to the back partition, "this is the part that I most dislike. Because sometimes new members succumb to fear. I don't think you will struggle with this. But in case temptation greets you, and you should feel compelled to for some reason abandon us." Patrick reached for two sheets of glossy paper that Ivana delivered from the other partition, "you should know that these will be released."
The two glossy papers were printed photographs. The first of Alex shooting the old man. The second of him licking his blood. In the frame, there's no one else.
"No father, you don't have to worry about me." Alex pleaded.
"I knew you'd understand," Patrick said, raising his arms for a hug. And Alex tucked himself into his arms. "All first timers must replace the fallen. Next week, share this experience with someone dear."
The others rolled the old man's body off his curtain, and lifted it toward the ceiling. Patrick let go of Alex and said, "help us keep out the light." As he helped hang the curtain, Alex thought of how holy of a space this was, of all the curtains he passed coming into this room. And if his senses were right, the next one to hang would be green.
Alex walked back to his home. After a few blocks he heard from afar a familiar voice shout, "wait!"
Ivana ran by his side, and said, "I'm walking this way too." What followed was a few steps of silence. Then, Ivana asked, "how are you holding up?"
"I feel awake - for the first time."
"That's how I felt too."
"How long have you been going?"
"A little over six months."
"Gosh, you must be anxious," Alex said, feeling himself tremble. It was as if the further he stepped away from that sacred space the less in touch he felt. "Do you ever find it difficult to re-enter this mundane life outside that truck?"
"Of course. Every week I pray for my time. One day it will come. Father must be tortured."
"Patrick, how long has he been chosen?"
"For two years, since the serpent first revealed itself to him."
"Hmm," Alex wondered, "what are the odds that for two years he hasn't been shot once?"
"It's a miracle." Then they walked a few more steps, pondering the magnificence of Patrick. Ivana pointed to a block they were crossing and said, "I'm headed this way. See you next week."
"See you next week," Alex said. Then, after she walked a few more paces away, asked, " have you ever seen him spin the revolver before a cleanse?"
"No," Ivana said, "only the father can witness that." Then she turned and walked out of sight down a dark, empty road.
That night, Alex, like he normally had, struggled to sleep. His mind replayed the scene of blood spraying from the old man’s head. As did the thump of his carcass and the touch of his cool blood. And, most eerie, the solemn silence of the surviving. It was, to Alex, all so poetic. He had found a group that transcended the veneer of society; believed that he was finally cured from his doctor's obsession. Because although he couldn't sleep, he finally knew why. And Alex could not wait to share the cure with his mom.
A few days later, Patrick texted Alex: come by the shop, I want to show you something. Since his mom was at work, Alex immediately left. He arrived as he did the first time, with a ding. "Come in back, Alex!" Patrick shouted. Once in his back office, Alex was taken aback to see Patrick plain clothed. He adored Patrick as a spiritual guide and omniscient figure. To see Patrick plain clothed felt innaporirate. But Patrick ushered Alex to sit beside him, in front of the two pictures of Alex committing murder and cannibalism.
"I just wanted to check on you," Patrick said. "How've you been, since the other night?"
"It's hard being back. I liked life in ritual - that's what you call it, right?"
"That's the heaven that awaits. I hate it here, doing everything but worship." Patrick took a sip from his tumbler, "but it's worked, right? You feel like a different man?"
"Absolutely. I - I really can't explain it."
"What was it the doctors said you had?"
"Bullshit. You're a child with a zestful imagination. I'm glad we found each other Alex." Alex, under Patrick's towering authority, felt too embarrassed to smirk. Patrick again, lifted Alex's head by his chin until their eyes met, and smiled.
Alex stood to leave and Patrick asked, "do you know who you're bringing this week?"
"Yes, father," Alex said, "my mom, Taylor."
“God,” Patrick said, grasping Alex by the thigh, “you’re brave.”
Over the next few days, Alex's life was normal. He entered and exited dreamstates, struggling to understand consciousness from sleep. He was, to his disappointment, the exact same. So, he yearned even more to once again be inside the van, to feel once more the clarity of life - the stakes of death. So, it was no problem for Alex to ask his mom to join him for a group session that he found therapeutic. She wanted to be a supportive mother, after all.
But when Alex walked into the lifeless parking lot, his mother worried and asked, "where are you taking me, dear?"
"Don't worry," Alex assured her. But something inside him flipped, because worry was exactly what he felt. As they approached the van, Taylor slowed, looking every direction with each step.
"I'm not going in there." Taylor said, turning her back to the van.
But when she turned away she came face to face with father Patrick, clothed in black. "Some get cold feet. It is great to meet you, Taylor."
"Who are you?"
"I am the founder of Munitioned Healing."
"Healing?" Taylor laughed, "in a box truck?"
"And what, exactly, have the glass towers of medicine provided him?"
"Mom," Alex interjected, "trust me."
Taylor looked at her son and in that moment recalled the nearly two decades of struggle and heartache and tears and pain that they shared. Taylor remembered how often she wished that he could feel a purpose. Or better, wanted. So, she felt silly that she would ever deny the first man to bring her son into his life. An act which not even Alex’s father had accomplished.
She took a long steady breath, then two. “Okay son,” Taylor said, “I trust you.”
Patrick ushered Alex and his mother into the back of the van. Once inside they passed through the layers of curtains until they reached the ceremonial space. Every other participant was bowed in prayer. Their nakedness concealed under their draped curtains. Alex led his mother to the back. "It's just like a robe," Alex assured. And that thought eased her into dressing the same.
Taylor was the last to enter the ceremonial space and when she did she cried, "what is that?" As she pointed at the Colt Python .357 Magnum. No one, not even Alex, acknowledged her plight. "Alex, what is going on?!" Taylor shouted.
"It teaches us to trust." He motioned his mother to sit beside him. She sat, and looked terrified at the revolver.
Patrick handed the serpent to Alex. He pointed the revolver at Patrick, pulled the trigger. Click.
"See Mom," Alex said, "trust."
Then Alex handed the weapon to his mother, and she pointed it at the woman who Ivana aimed at last week, donned in a green curtain. Taylor, shaking, raised the weapon. She winced, her head convulsed. She wanted to abandon the scene. But that felt more dangerous than pulling the trigger. She prayed for a click. Instead, the serpent delivered a bang.
The moment replicated Alex's first kill. There was a flash. Silence. Then four licking her blood like dogs. Taylor, in utter shock, felt dead as the woman she shot. And then, Taylor collapsed. As she did, Alex thought about how the person draped in orange must be next.
Hours later, Taylor awakened in her bedroom with Alex by her side. She awoke slowly, and then in a frenzy, as she remembered the moments from hours before. "Alex, I'm calling the cops."
"No," Alex said coolly, "you're not."
"You bet your -" Alex tossed a picture of her shooting the woman onto the nearby bed.
"Have fun explaining this."
"You're sick. You're too sick, Alex."
"Stop calling me that! You're the one who’s brain washed!"
"At least I have a brain."
If Alex had a gun in his hands at that moment he may have shot her. Instead he just screamed. Louder and longer than he'd ever screamed. His entire body tremored. Everywhere outside that truck he was a problem. A sick, incurable problem. And in that scream he released years of entrapment, and resigned to the eternal disappointment of his own life. It was a scream so explosive that all that followed, from both Taylor and Alex, was silence. And they both sat beside each other, unable to look beyond the floor.
After a minute, Alex looked at his mom and said, "inside that truck I felt a power I have never touched before. I've lived my whole life trying to discern between real and the imagined. But there, as sick as it was, it felt like I was watching something as sick as me. Something I finally understood."
Taylor whimpered, and after her crying slowed, she said between her tears, "this won't make you better, honey. What that man is - he's very, very bad. Do you understand me? Have you ever seen me cry like this?" Alex shook his head. "Exactly, no one should make your momma cry like this, Alex."
"I - I am just so tired of feeling nothing. I want to feel alive," Alex said, before he weeped into his mother's shoulder.
A few minutes passed, and Taylor said, "I'll get us out of this."
Taylor cried again, because she knew that she could not trust anything Alex said. "Give me a few days, sweetie." Which was all they had before the next meeting.
Taylor considered informing law enforcement. She even considered admitting her son to the psychiatric ward - like she'd done once before. But in the end Taylor believed that the blackmail against her would be too incriminating, and any actions she took would only place her behind bars for murder. Still, she obsessively plotted, and never monitored Alex's medication. So that week, Alex took none. But most damningly, Alex saw a lot of Sam that week.
During the night before the next session, Alex was in Sam's basement. During which Sam continued to exacerbate just how dire of a situation Alex was in while under his mother's control.
"You need to leave her." Sam exclaimed.
“I know. I told you I have a plan,” Alex said. “You have to trust me.
"Alex…” Sam sighed.
“What?” Alex swallowed, preparing for bad news.
“It’s hard to trust you,” Sam said, unable to look at Alex.
“That’s something you and my mom have in common,” Alex said, crossing his arms in a corner of Sam’s love couch.
“No. I know I sound crazy. I’ll say it - I know sometimes I am crazy. But this isn’t. Come this time tomorrow I’ll be free. There’s a pattern to this cult, Sam. And I figured it out.”
"You are good at that,” Sam said.
"Tomorrow - I want you to join us."
"Really?" Sam said, sitting upright in his chair. He’d followed Patrick’s public videos for months. Still years after Alex. And for more time than he cared to measure, Alex was Sam’s canary, always encountering loneliness, depression, or mania, months before Sam. Maybe Patrick was a cure Sam didn’t yet know that he needed.
"Yeah, my mom has to bring someone new. But I think she's afraid to."
"What's going to happen there?"
"It's hard to explain."
The next day, Taylor, Sam, and Alex walked toward the truck. When it was in sight, Taylor stopped Sam and Alex, pulled them close, and whispered "Let me shoot first."
Sam nodded in affirmation.
But Alex retorted, "Mom, you don't choose who goes first."
"What?" she exclaimed, her face revealing horror. “Who does?”
“Father Patrick chooses,” Alex said.
Taylor collected her thoughts and with poise said, “Okay, okay. I can delay him until the cops arrive.”
“What?!” Alex seethed, pulling his mother toward him by her arm.
Before he could say anymore Father Patrick’s warm voice echoed throughout the garage, "welcome faithfuls!"
In that moment, all their stomachs flipped.
Inside, the ceremony commenced as anticipated. There was the donning of curtains. The exposition of the ritual. A reverence for the serpent. Alex noticed Sam absorbed each moment with intrigue; He'd been a fan after all, since day once. His mother sat nervously. But Alex was relieved that it was her who wore orange.
Ivana began the ceremony, pointing the serpent at a woman Alex had not yet met. Nothing happened.
Sam was next. He pointed the serpent at Patrick. But again the revolver clicked.
Then Alex was handed the serpent, and pointed it at his mother. Taylor convulsed where she sat. Alex glanced at Patrick and smiled. Then to Sam, and said, “I told you...”
Outside the van, there were sounds of shuffling feet. The sound of police fast approaching. Taylor cried, “thank god,” as she stood in relief.
But Alex continued to slowly squeeze the trigger until he heard a bang. His mother flopped to the floor. And Alex couldn't help but smirk, because for the first time in his life he felt free.