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Fiction Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

CW: verbal abuse, cult influence, hints of domestic violence

A cool breeze drifted in from the bay and pushed the night clouds further east. The waxing gibbous moon appeared through the haze and exposed the darkest corners of the campus. Rita waited behind a maple tree for the last of the adult education students to leave. Every Monday evening when the parking lot had emptied, the senior members of the Self-Act Center gathered in the auditorium of Warm Springs High School.

That’s all she knew about them. Her teacher occasionally mentioned a committee and she imagined a group of ten like a board of directors. Before they got started, she would enter quietly, say her goodbyes, and leave. No one ever quit the program. No one ever tried. She would be the first. Tonight.

Rita eased down the main hallway, past an aisle of lockers. Just last year, she had fled high school life and felt no nostalgia for it now. College was only marginally better.

She had always been a background kid. The only thing about her that stood out was her god-awful, frizzy hair. She let it grow down to her shoulder blades and it naturally poofed out on the sides. Her hair had body, she didn’t. The waves and curls filled in the space that she couldn’t take up. When they fought as kids, her brother Rob would call her a skinny, little beanpole and teased her that one day she would just blow away.

Rob was two years older, a popular athlete in high school, and overall goofball who always got attention with his moronic chatter. He was her ticket into parties that she never wanted to attend but got dragged into by her best friend Michelle who so desperately believed they belonged in the popular crowd. When Rob left for UC Santa Barbara, Michelle found her own way into a new crowd and left her behind–which was totally fine with Rita. A month later, Michelle showed up to school with a black eye. She claimed she tripped on the stairs at a party and refused to give any more details. To get her mind off the previous weekend, Rita took her to the latest Spiderman movie the following Friday night, but when the movie started, Michelle sat quietly and wept. They drove home in silence. Rita went to bed and cried too. She wanted to help but didn’t know how.

Over in the courtyard, a pockmarked janitor picked aluminum cans and plastic bottles out of the trash and tossed them in the recyclables bin, grumbling to himself what difference it would make. He hadn’t noticed her. Rita slipped around the corner. In high school, she thrived in the shadows. She wished it could be that way now.

When it was her turn to move out, Rita applied to local colleges and got into Berkeley. She dreamed of going to an Ivy League school but being so far from home scared her. College was supposed to be different, a place to start fresh and create her own identity. A place where she wouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to spend her evenings in a coffee shop discussing deep ideas with mature people.

But the same patterns emerged. The competition to get good grades, to suck up to the professors, to be seen at the biggest parties. After a month she found herself straggling behind her roommate and her friends, explaining daily why she didn’t want to join a sorority.

One Saturday night after returning from the library, the door to the room across the hall was open for the first time since she moved in. The young woman, who she’d been told was a third-year double-major in psychology and biology, sat at her desk in pajamas drinking herbal tea and reading a textbook, completely oblivious to the party going on in the hallway.

She invited Rita in and they spent the evening discussing human behavior and analyzing the social dynamics of the people just outside the door. Rita wondered if she still wanted to major in Economics. The next day Carole invited her to a meeting.

“It’s like a class, but off campus. We work on interpersonal skills.” Her eyes lit up. “But it’s so much more.”

She couldn’t offer any more details than that. It was hard to explain. She had to try it to understand it. The mystery intrigued Rita.

Carole brought her to a community center with a large room emptied of tables and chairs. Everyone welcomed her. The professor, Dr. Thomas Neubank, introduced himself–a small, out-of-place man in a three-piece suit, buzz-cut hair, and round spectacles, but with a voice that animated the room. They started with eye contact exercises–how to really look at people, to observe their expression and posture, to read how comfortable they were with you. She learned the power of a genuine smile to get people to relax and open up. Reading people was just as important as what you said. Her feet ached at the end of the evening but her head buzzed with excitement.

She went every week and learned so much more. How to speak with a dynamic voice, how to adjust her posture, how to speak on the fly. Everyone praised her progress. Every evening ended on a natural high. In just a few short weeks, friends commented on a change in her that they couldn’t quite place. Her voice or face seemed different, lighter. And when the introductory class ended, she signed up for more. She became an advocate, a disciple, a convert. And yet.

When the weekly assignments came, the deadlines pressed down on her. Say hello to ten people a day to get over your fear of speaking to strangers. Introduce yourself to twenty-five people over the weekend in social situations. Get to know one hundred people in a week and tell them about the program. And remember the invite. A mentor stayed with her to pump her up when she got discouraged or tired. And soon she was out in public, speaking at promotional events and encouraging newcomers to join.

She stayed out late to meet her quotas and returned to the dorms dizzy from all the social interactions. With her roommate already asleep, she would collapse on her bed, close her eyes and see faces, so many faces. It took up all her time. It was affecting her mode. She was polite to strangers but rude to friends. It was affecting her grades. It was time to quit.

The stage entrance to the auditorium was unlocked. With all her weight she twisted the bone-thin handle and leaned back, stepping through quickly and catching the door with her shoulder before it could slam shut with a boom. She closed it with a soft click.

The backstage lights had been turned off. With her toe tapping forward she slid along the waxed stage, careful to avoid obstacles. A misplaced chair. A lectern. There should be voices. And a thin line of light sneaking through the base of the stage curtain. Maybe she was early. The curtain dragged along her face. She pushed it aside and slipped into the vast space of the auditorium.

Out on the stage, the vast room smelled of bodies at the end of a long day. A dense air pushed forward and drew back like an audience breathing as a whole. She had interrupted a lesson. The one that starts in the dark. Don’t move. Let them finish.

The audience would be quiet. Trained not to cough, distract. No fidgeting, no shifting. Each body held still. The student would be close by. The hairs on her arms lifted to feel a presence. Had the student entered from the front? The side? Or would they start in the crowd, unaware they would be singled out.

An explosion of yellow light with no sound blasted her senses. Jarring but necessary, they would say. She held up her hand and wore it like a baseball cap. On the floor in the front row, a pair of polished dress shoes and grey slacks sat next to a black skirt and pumps.

“Good evening.”

The voice carried the room without an echo. The auditorium was full.

“We thought you might not come.” He pretended to be concerned. But he was smiling. Oh yes, he would be smiling. Her teacher had found out. Of course he had found out.

“I understand you’ve expressed an interest in leaving.”

Don’t explain. Give nothing he can use. She took deep breaths to calm her heart while counting down from one thousand.

An eternity passed and then he spoke, “That is unfortunate.”

A small victory. She had been trained to endure the silences.

“When you first came to us, you were…frustrated. In the softest voice, you told us you wanted courage.”

She cringed to think of herself then.

“You have grown so much, learned so much.” A deep sigh. “You have done so well.”

He wanted them to know her success was because of him.

“And now you stand before us. Determined. Confident.”

She couldn’t resist a chin-high nod.

“…maybe a little too confident. Is there nothing left to fear?” The voice deepened, grew, and filled the room like a genie escaping from a bottle. “We still have lessons for you.”

The impromptu speeches. Thrown at you any time of day. To keep you prepared. Never a moment to sit quietly and think.

“Do you truly believe you can speak in any situation, no matter how stressful, at a moment’s notice without hesitating?”

She stood tall and stared at the point in the room where he must have been.

“Okay. If you think you’re ready, prove it. Give us a little speech. Show us your skills. Convince us…and yourself.”

She could not get her eyes adjusted to the spotlight. Someone she knew must be out there.

“Think of it as a graduation speech. A final test. Surprise us. Show us that charisma. That confidence. Make us feel it.” The voice paused and then deepened with pleasure. “But don’t forget. We know you. It had better be good.”

She peeled her tongue from the roof of her mouth and rolled it around for moisture. A glass of water would be nice but he’d claim she was stalling. Her hands were moist. Ironic.

The doors. She could turn and dash off the stage. She could find the exit in the dark, slam through, and run to the street. She would have time to get her bearings, to find her car, to get her keys...but they would follow. Maybe tonight, most definitely tomorrow. Watching. Evaluating. Preparing something new. It had to end now.

“Thinking of leaving? Or did you want to give your speech at the bottom of the steps? I did say surprise us. Still, I don’t think this audience will be impressed.”

The room was silent and then a cough. Someone new.

“Can you explain why you think you are better than the rest of us?”

She stood firm. Tired of backing down. Tired of shrinking when it mattered. She glared into the darkness. She would tell the others what to expect. They will speak like pros, but be treated like drones. She would tell them everything. Get some to quit. Those already on the fence. Awaken others. Tell them what was really going on. Oh, he was on dangerous ground now. Giving her this chance to speak.

Her eyes flared with intensity.

“Good.” He purred with the voice of a predator about to devour a meal.

Wait. She searched the darkness. Was he trying to scare her or pump her up? He relished a challenge. That’s what he wants. If she spoke the truth, convincingly, persuasively, there’d be a debate. Oh, how he loved a debate. All he ever wanted was a worthy opponent.

A pen tapped on a clipboard.

“You may begin.”

*

The following weekend she went home, and in the morning took a stroll around Lake Elizabeth Park to clear her mind. In the open air, it was easier to see anyone who might be watching. The best place to make sure they had made good on their promise. The evening had been a success. She had convinced them of her abilities. They promised to back off and gave her the freedom to do what she wanted.

Up ahead on the trail, five boys darted about in fits and starts along the path–picking up rocks to skip in the lake or throw at the Canada geese. Easy to guess they were freshman in high school–gangling, loud, and cocky.

Ahead of them, a young woman, sixteen or seventeen maybe. When she tugged at her hair–shoulder-length, straight, and black–Rita recognized her as an exchange student who had transferred to her high school last spring. She’d showed her around campus but never got to know her.

The boys noticed her too. One nudged another in the elbow, whispered and pointed up ahead with his chin. The other looked and whispered a comment that got four tittering laughs. They took turns whispering comments to outdo the others until one got the courage to whistle.

The exchange student flinched, a subtle pause in her step, but she did not turn around. The other boys whistled too and laughed at their audacity. Then one got the courage to speak.

“Hey, pretty girl.” He dragged out his voice. “Pretty, pretty, girl.”

More cackles and laughs.

Rita was having none of this. She had not taken her eyes off of them, had not slowed down to avoid them, had not considered walking somewhere else. She kept her pace steady and walked right into the middle of their group. The thing that pleased her the most–her heart rate never went up.

The furthest one turned around when his latest comment did not get a response. He jolted back at seeing a stranger standing among his friends. The brief fear embarrassed him and to save face, he leaned back with folded arms and started to crone, “hey baby…”

“Stop,” she said. She didn’t yell it. But the force from her lungs held his words.

He looked to his friends for assistance.

She stuck out her arm and pointed up the hill.

She had read them well. Just kids testing to see what they could get away with, showing off their impudence. Slowly they wandered up the grass in silence. She remained in a towering stance with no fear about what to do if they got brave and turned back. She soaked up the moment, gaining power from it. When they reached the crest of the hill, she expected one of them to shout back a snide remark to regain a little dignity. She was disappointed when none of them did.

The exchange student, further down the trail, had stopped to watch. She stood with one hand holding the elbow of the other arm that hung rigidly at her side. She mouthed thank you and lightly bowed her head.

Rita turned away before a tear could form and felt an instinct–a hunter’s instinct–that led her up the hill.

She went after the boys. Kept her distance and followed them to the mall. She made a single call and waited. When her new assistants arrived, she assigned one boy to each. She went home while they tracked the boys all day. She found out where they lived, found out when they would be alone. And she recruited all five, taught them how to be polite and respectful when speaking to women. She gave them the confidence to speak to adults. They became model citizens. And learned to recruit problem kids in other schools. With this well-earned promotion, she would use her new authority to tame the wolves.

January 28, 2022 13:54

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