Everything said in the group is to be kept private.
The whir of the ceiling fan’s the only sound in the room. Group members signed an agreement before entering. We know the rules. No putdowns. Show respect. One person speaks at a time. All is confidential, except in cases of child abuse or potential harm to others.
We’ve been screened, talked out our trauma. It’s unlikely that something new would arise, though if it did, we’d be upfront about it.
Things have changed since the former days. No jittering calves or the sight of others’ bodies to put us over the edge. Instead, there’s a smudge of faces—wind-blown features, like the nascent earth.
Diane, the group leader, a fixture in her leatherback chair, speaks through blonde, seventies fringe.
“There’s a road you can take that leads away from your troubles,” she reads from the palimpsest—a wire-bound notebook that once contained line-by-line notes, though the contents have been scratched out and rewritten in various shades of ink. “Not knowing where I’m going, any road will lead me there. Repeat.”
The six to ten of us repeat the mantra, ignoring the poor syntax, dangling participle, and lack of flow. Though we all recognize the quote by Lewis Carroll turned into a song lyric by George Harrison, no one corrects her. Nothing can be allowed to disrupt the next forty-five minutes of rapport and cohesion that we’ve built.
“It’s how you react,” she throws in.
Another noise—not the fan, but the click-clack of our rewards in the small, paper bag she holds: candies in flavors of watermelon, cherry, orange, and lime, sweet and melting like flavored ice on our tongues, like nothing we’ve tasted. When the time comes, we’ll each have our share, but not yet.
“Think of me as your navigator,” she entices, “and you as my cadets.”
We all nod and smile, though we’re unnerved, the way orange being both a fruit and a color is unnerving. Normalcy is dangled in front of us, when we hardly recognize each other.
Birds are chirping somewhere: chickadees calling from the soft folds of the sky. The sound was never clearer. She continues her overture, her riposte against silence, smiling widely.
“Remember, it’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.”
As we tell our stories, the familiar chorus rises.
I bake. A lot.
That’s good, Linda. It’s helpful to have a relaxing hobby.
I like to bake my brains out. It helps ease my stress.
Of course it does.
To forget the pain.
Normalize and convert it to good.
The aggression. His.
It’s hard to describe. You had to see it to know, like the Seven Wonders of the World.
I wish it were different.
Life would be different if I were white.
Better. Comfortable in my skin. Settled.
So what if you’re a rolling stone?
More like the shadow of one.
Film noir had the best actors.
I like to stare.
We know, Gavin.
I like staring at people for long periods.
Maybe you’re curious.
Do you know any famous starers?
You look like James Dean.
Like or at?
This is your safe space.
Know what I really wish?
I wish I could be the way I am, and my appearance didn’t matter.
That’s a very common reaction.
It’s natural to want to withhold some information.
It’s natural to feel nervous sharing your feelings.
The fan sighs overhead, a syncopation of beats through dull, gray air.
Gavin is looking at me now. Glaring like the eyes of deer at moonlit dusk. Like the reindeer stitched onto my brother’s famous sweater that he always wore in family Christmas photos. The ones where the whole gang’s superimposed on a mountain scene in front of meditative pines, my mom beaming with promise.
I want to play with your sex.
“Let’s talk about safety,” Diane proposes. “Any road can be a safe road if you let it.”
The poor syntax continues. The rapturous monosyllables and inversion with no clear beginning retreat from black-and-white waves to grey.
A siren whines somewhere. They warned about people like us. The boy we all knew, and the girl. The boy-girl no one did.
He’s closer now. Close enough to touch, though we’re in separate rooms, waiting on candy and a bittersweet salvo to carry us into the night. I can feel his hand creeping up my thigh, tapping at the juncture of flesh where leg meets hip. He could be looking at anyone, but I know it’s at me. I try to remember where I’ve seen him: in a theater or stadium, out the back window of a car that drove to a restaurant. It’s hard to remember. It feels like flashes from some vaguely remembered dream.
The screen crackles, magical woo, and we’re here—the whole group together. Diane shakes the bag of candy. Gavin draws his hand away as her arm flexes—a strength-training exercise, a chance to build positive imagery. Slow breathing, muscle relaxation. Her eyes soften when it’s my turn.
“Want some?” she asks, jiggling it like the calves we’ve imagined.
Katie Nickas writes flash and short fiction exploring conflicting identities. She is drawn to strong, unapologetic characters encountering difficult situations. Her work is published or forthcoming in magazines including Asymmetry, Dear Damsels, Five on the Fifth, Idle Ink, and STORGY.