Damned If You Do
by Edward Ahern
Nadia led David down a flight of stairs into the fluorescent-lit basement of the converted church.
"I don't go into churches," he told her.
"Don't worry," she replied," it was desanctified years ago."
They emerged into a single room, about thirty yards long and twenty wide, and pushed through clouds of tobacco smoke. About forty people were clustered at tables at one end of the room.
Nadia pointed at an open chair. "Sit there. I'll be at the next table. Don't mind the smoke. We encourage tobacco smoking as a vice. But not dope-- clouds the mind. Don't make any of your snap judgments -- just listen."
She watched David insert himself between a tee-shirted woman with tattoos on her neck, arms and hands, and a tie-choked man drab-dressed as if for a funeral. A pathologically obese man at the front of the group started a recitation, the others chanting with him.
"Came to believe that a power greater than myself could relieve me of my inhibitions."
"Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of a dark power much greater than myself."
And so on, twelve steps in all. As the recitation droned on Nadia noticed David was staring at his neighbor's cabalistic inkings.
The speaker paused. "Would any newcomers please raise their hands?"
The funeral director was staring at David with hungry anticipation.
David raised his hand and parroted the words Nadia had provided," My name is David and I'm a chronic relapser into moral conformity."
"Welcome David," the group chanted.
The group leader proceeded. "Tonight we continue our focus on another of the seven deadly sins -- sloth. What does sloth mean to you, David?"
"Ah, laziness or inactivity instead of needed action."
"Partly yes, but only the commonplace part. Listen everyone, real sloth means taking credit or money for the work of others without contributing anything yourself. Who can give me examples from their lives of how they've been able to achieve this?"
Nadia had encountered David in a singles bar called The Body Shop, She had been seated at the bar suffering through a painfully bad pick up attempt when she caught David's eye and he read the situation in the exchange of glances.
David had seated himself next to the man, interrupting his pitch, and in five minutes had angered and scared the man enough that he'd left, muttering threats. David then matter of factly moved over next to Nadia
"Is your pick-up gambit always to instigate a fight?"
"Only when I think the other guy is afraid of me."
They word-sparred easily, layering up innuendos, and left together. Nadia surprised herself by agreeing to stop by David's apartment, and again by making the move that lead to their tumbling into bed.
David put his needs first, but carried Nadia along nicely during the ride.
They pillow-talked afterward about what else got them aroused.
Nadia delighted in violating norms, in flouting the rules of decency.
David preferred illicit sensation without heavy thinking, maximum experience for acceptable risk.
That next morning Nadia convinced David to go on a shoplifting trip. They acted as lookout and diversion for each other, actions meshing almost without speaking. They tallied price tags over lunch. Nadia had outscored David by about $250.
"All right," David said," I'm envious. You stole better than I did this time. Just wait. Since I lost, I'll buy lunch."
"Neither of us is buying."
"And both of us are getting arrested."
Nadia grinned. "I don't think so. I've been watching the waitress and manager. They both make trips to the kitchen and stay there for two or three minutes. The next time they're both in there we take a brisk walk out the door. Better go through your pre-flight check list."
After the fifteen yard dash through the front door they slowed to a stroll and kept talking. They were both fans of heavy metal, and had overlapping taste in movies -- Nadia for horror, David for comic book violence.
Nadia noticed that David never cursed or blasphemed, almost as though it was superfluous. His pleasure taking seemed limited to his senses, and he restrained himself only when the risks were substantial.
She envisioned him as abstract art, an oil painting entirely in matte black, with no distracting moral highlights. He embodied perverse modesty -- he could commit offenses without feeling guilt or pride. His calmness hid a quagmire she felt she was being sucked down into.
They'd been together for two weeks when she wrapped her torso over his and whispered in his ear.
"Do you wonder where I go evenings between eight and ten?"
"Not really. But okay, what drags you away from me two evenings a week?"
"It's a meeting David, for people like us. It helps me to overcome my doubts about what I'm doing. You should come."
"I don't need to hang out with strangers to know that I like myself."
"Don't pretend to be that dumb. You've no knowledge of what you're missing. And it's an anonymous program -- really anonymous, we punish people who even hint about it to outsiders."
Nadia knew he would be a strong addition to her group and cajoled David until he agreed to come. She then worked up the courage to mention him to Abadon, the group leader.
Nick Abadon studied her for a long minute expressionlessly.
She feared him in such moments.
"You may be right Nadia," he said. "He sounds interesting. Bring him to the Monday meeting."
As David sat half listening to the fat man, Abadon came up behind him. The tattooed woman and the undertaker winced and peeled out of their seats without a word. The man moved from behind David to the illustrated lady's chair.
David turned in his seat. "Who're you?"
"Abadon. Nick Abadon. You don't smoke?"
"Don't drink either. Your drug habits are no concern of mine, but I don't like taking something that dulls my edge."
"Interesting. I don't use drugs either, although I promote their use."
David looked more closely. Abadon was old, but his sleek ivory complexion made guessing his age impossible. His eyes were very bright, but occluded, as though he was holding back on their full force.
"Do you have a sponsor, David?"
"I don't know that I'm interested enough in what you do to get one. Seems like just a lot of chanting and slogans."
Abadon didn't smile, but his eyes brightened slightly. "David, the worst offense we commit against ourselves isn't to let fear drag us back into religion -- it's indifference. And there are so many now who just loiter on the side lines. They're already damned but never open up to enjoy the process. Our program tells you in twelve steps how to come awake and really live."
"Yeah, well, not giving a damn is a useful posture. Look Mr. Abadan, Nadia asked me to come here so I did. But I'm content with what I am. You're not showing me anything I want. You seem to have your members intimidated, but I go my own way, without the melodrama."
"Nadia said you were self-propelled. Would you describe yourself as a hedonist David, out for yourself?"
"And that you would take violent action to improve your situation?"
"Depends on the risk."
"And that injury to others is sometimes necessary?"
"Collateral damage can't be avoided."
"David, you're an idiot savant -- doing our kind of things, but crudely, without the refinements that add so much to enjoyment. Here's what I propose. Accept me as your temporary sponsor. Come to a meeting a day for the next ninety days. If after ninety days you don't think you're getting a lot more out of life I'll help you become a Jesuit."
"That's a lot of meetings."
"I'll show you how to enjoy them."
When David told Nadia that Abadon had become his sponsor she was anxious. Abadon hadn't accepted a sponsee in all the time she'd been going to meetings, despite several people asking him.
After a few meetings people noticed the guidance that Abadon was providing David, and began currying favor with him. But Nadia knew that David used people in a one-way/one-time fashion and was uncomfortable with relationships, even venal ones. He slashed at their overtures until they stopped making them.
Abadon began giving David assignments, service work he called it. Nadia at this point was living with David. There had never been even a suggestion of his moving in with her. She never asked David where he went and what he did, but sometimes he took her with him. Nadia's guilty pleasures were focused on shock rather than injury, and she began to hate what David was bringing her into.
He developed a scheme -- a project he called it -- for robbing the old and infirm on subway rides, a procedure Nadia was forced to watch on several rides that they took together. But David tired of it -- boring, he said.
At Abadon's direction David began to entice and bring home young girls from the bus terminal , mildly abuse them, and then discard them back at the bus station. Nadia tried to be out of the apartment when David did this, but sometimes walked in on David and a sobbing teenager.
Nadia finally left David after they had killed an elderly woman. They occupied her apartment, and forced her to sign checks and provide account numbers. They roped her to her bed, unfed and unsanitary, until there was no more money or property to steal. Nadia had been bullied into sharing the custodial duties. She forced herself to tell David that their treatment of the woman was needlessly vicious. David had stared flatly back at her. His look was rawer, cruder than Abadon's, but carried the same threat. She only said it once. David finally untied the old woman and left her in her bed, starving and infirm, unable to move. He threw a potful of cold water on her, facilitating a rapid death from pneumonia.
Nadia felt coated in self-revulsion. She left David, quit going to the meetings, and never told anyone in the group where she now lived. She kept hoping that David would call and say that he, too, had broken things off with Abadon. Several other group members did call and leave messages of concern and then threats, but not David.
She thought about going to a church, but decided it was not only hypocritical but useless. No minister accustomed to garden variety transgressions would understand. She thought briefly about suicide, but didn't want to die feeling like she did about herself.
The moon cycled twice before David called.
"Look Nadia, I'm afraid of where Abadon is leading me. Can we get together to talk?"
"I can't let you know where I live, David."
"I understand. Let's meet at the downtown Sheraton. Lots of people around."
"I don't know that I can help you, David. You're really deep into the program, deeper than I ever gotů"
"At least talk to me, Nadia -- tell me how you got out."
They met on Sunday morning for brunch, watching the sauce congeal on their eggs Benedict without eating them.
"I do miss you Nadia," David said. "You're the only person other than Abadon I'm able to open up to."
"David, I'm afraid for you, and afraid of you at the same time. It's like you've awakened and you're not the cute guy sleeping next to me anymore, You're something I don't want to touch. It was a mistake for me to join the group, and doubly wrong to bring you into it."
"Abadon wondered for a while if you'd come back. Now he knows you won't. He's dangerous Nadia, really dangerous. Stay hidden. I only wish I could get out."
"I ran away because I'm scared as hell. I'm never going back. Don't get trapped, David. Run away."
"I don't know if I can," he murmured. Then, as if to change the subject, he said, "Let me top up your coffee."
They sipped coffee and talked about their lingering commonalities, but Nadia could take no comfort in what little they had left together. The conversation broke down under its own inane weight. As Nadia stared at David her eyelids began to sag.
When she was aware of opening them again she was stretched out naked in her own bathtub, immersed in warm water. She tried to move, then tried to scream, but could do neither. She could barely concentrate enough to breathe. David was seated on the edge of the bathtub.
"Glad you're awake. Your mouth is taped, so please just listen. We tracked you here several weeks ago, but kept hoping you'd come back."
A sudden extra fright sparked in Nadia's eyes.
"What is it? Ah. No, I didn't have sex with you. That wouldn't have been appropriate.
"We couldn't have you fleeing toward repentance Nadia, not with your knowledge of us. You're going to apparently commit suicide. I do regret this, it was you that brought me to Abadon and helped me awaken. You're woven into my life.
"Fortunately, though, you're still damned for prior offenses. Abadon won't lose you."
Nadia began to cry soundlessly, droplets wandering down her face..
"I'm going to miss you Nadia. I doubt I'll ever be this close with another woman."
David had been holding a double edged razor blade. He picked her left arm out of the bathwater and stroked her hand before cutting deeply into her forearm just above the wrist. He gently lowered her left arm back into the water and plucked out the right arm, repeating the process. The bath water reddened in sluggish swirls.
Nadia's vision began to fail, and she strained to focus on David's face, which stared back at her with patience and affection. "You can go to hell now," he whispered.
© 2012 Edward Ahern
Bio: Edward Ahern describes himself as "Officially old, ex J school grad/reporter who for 40 years worked in foreign intelligence (make of that what you will) and export paper sales." He further remarks that he is still with his "Original wife, but after 42 years I suspect we're both out of warranty." Edward's recent publishing credits include stories in Bewildering Stories, Red Fez, Wicked East (twice!), Escape, and, of course, Aphelion (The Body Surfer, October 2011).
E-mail: Edward Ahern
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