They all came prepared: notebooks with dog ears, sticky notes, pens in different colors. Some of the girls had glitter on the covers. The boys had graphic stickers on theirs. Ben’s notebook was undecorated. He also used a crappy gel pen he had found in his sister’s room that smudged beyond belief. The ink stain on his shirt was in plain view of everyone in the room, including Mr. Smith with his thick glasses.
Ben almost forgot about the meeting, but his mother wouldn’t let it go. Last night, over a plate of that horrid impossible burger and soggy fries, she asked him if he was excited to show off his work, and he almost asked what she was on about. His counselor made him come to these meetings instead of some other community work, and Ben’s mother was thrilled her little boy was “Doing so well”. In truth, Ben didn’t want to “share his feelings” with a group of similarly “disturbed” children – do they still use that term? – but there was no alternative.
“Amber, would you like to share your story with the group?”
The Group. That’s the term. Not “disturbed kids”, but “the group”. As if we’re on a camping trip, Ben thought. He wondered what the girl in the pink shirt and ponytail had done. Amber, perfect little doll. Did she smash her gramma’s teacups? Wrote “slut” on someone’s locker?
“Mr. Smith is fine, Amber. Go on.”
Mr. Smith is no joke, Ben thought. I wonder if he’s a fairy. He wore corduroy pants and a button up shirt with those stupid patches on elbows, just like Ben’s fairy uncle. And with those glasses, he looked like his idea of fun was sitting in a circle of disturbed kids on a Thursday evening.
The topic was “This Year I Will…” and Ben spent his Wednesday evening – up until 2 am – scribbling obscenities on the margins of the notebook. Now, however, seeing other kids’ open notebooks on their knees, he figured he should write a sentence or two while Mr. Smith’s attention was on Amber’s chest.
“This year I will stop being angry,” Amber read. A boy on Ben’s right giggled. Mr. Smith shot a glance at him, and dead silence fell on the group.
“Lesley, please pay attention.”
Lesley mumbled a half-assed apology, and Amber continued.
“I am angry all the time so I dunno if I can really stop but I’ll try. David –” she looked up, blushed, and corrected herself, “Mr. Smith says I can do it and if he believes in me, I’ll do it for sure. But it’s hard.”
“Do you want to tell us why it’s hard?” Mr. Smith asked. Ben noticed the man leaned in over his notes. What a bullshitter, Ben thought.
“Well…” Amber looked around, her face red to her ears. She didn’t really look into other kids’ eyes, or if she did, she looked away even quicker. “My step dad isn’t a good man.”
Mr. Smith nodded. “And why do you say that?”
Lesley and the other boys looked at Amber without blinking. The girls rolled their eyes. One girl, the one gnawing at a bubble gum, even mumbled something under her breath. Ben thought he heard a “this crap again”, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Well he... he sometimes touched my knee under the table. I told him off but he didn’t stop. That’s why he’s bad.”
“And how did you make him stop?”
“I put a fork through his hand.” She said coldly, and one boy giggled.
“And did that make you feel better?” Mr. Smith asked.
“No. No one believed me.”
Mr. Smith looked at his notes, and continued in the same voice of a concerned uncle. “Well, Amber, perhaps it was because you put your fork in his hand while he was in bed sleeping.”
Bubblegum girl snorted. Boys leered.
“From my understanding, there were other incidents in school too. One of your teachers was questioned after you accused him of touching you in the music room. At the time the supposed event happened, he was out of town.”
Amber shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn’t make a difference. I don’t like Mr. Samuel.”
“It’s okay to be angry, Amber. And everyone else. It is okay. But the thing is, we can’t go about stabbing people or accusing them of impropriety, especially our caretakers.” Mr. Smith looked around the room. Amber slammed her notebook shut. “I want you to think about why you thought of your step father when I asked you why you were angry. And then, I want you to write down what you’d do differently in the exact same situation. Okay?”
Amber mumbled and opened her notebook again. That puffy thing on the top of her pen dangled while she wrote.
“How about we hear from someone else? Is anyone else angry?”
Most boys would say yes, Ben thought. Yet, no one raised their hands. This was a chore to them. It certainly felt like a chore to him. The clock showed it was only 13 minutes in the session, and it felt like 13 hours.
“How about you, Ben?” Mr. Smith asked, and Ben flinched. “It’s your first time here. The other kids have been around for a while, and I can say some of them are probably bored of each other. We could all use a new perspective. A new way to tell stories. Do you have a story to share with us?”
“Uhm… Not really.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Ben looked at Mr. Smith’s face. The fucker smiled at him.
“I wrote one sentence. It says ‘This year I will get the fuck out of this place’,” Ben said and closed his notebook. “I don’t like this town. I don’t like this group. I don’t like you. And I think this is a joke. How’s a writing circle gonna help me? Huh?”
Mr. Smith leaned forward again. Again, again with his concerned uncle spiel. His eyes looked watery behind his glasses. “Why do you think you don’t like this town?”
“It sucks. It’s boring.”
“Was your idea of fun to set your grandma’s cat on fire?”
Other boys perked up at that. Ben shrugged. The fleabag had it coming, always scratching and biting. Somehow, he didn’t get caught the first few times with other people’s cats. Mrs. Oldsmar – not grandma, call me Mrs. Oldmar, she repeated – had a keen sense of hearing. Much better than you’d expect from a centennial.
“Wasn’t boring, that’s for sure”, Ben said.
“And now you’re here. Being bored to death. I don’t think you made a right call, now, did you, Ben?”
Ben scoffed. “You can say that again.”
“So what would you do differently?”
Ben narrowed his eyes. “What I’d do differently? What I’d do…” he repeated and sneered. “I know where she keeps the key to her house. It’s under the pot on the right of the front door. I’d lock the door after having set the house on fire. I’d have burned down the whole house, cat and Mrs. Oldsmar both. And then I’d wipe the key so the cops wouldn’t find my prints. And then I wouldn’t be here.”
Mr. Smith nodded. “That’s better. So why didn’t you write that down?”
Ben’s mouth dropped. “Why… ‘cause I wanna get out of here? You know, get ‘better’ and leave? Why do you think?”
“I think you’re a coward, Ben.” Mr. Smith replied, leaning back in his chair. Is that a smirk on his stupid face? Ben looked around the room. Even Lesley with his fat mouth grinned at him. Girls too. But Mr. Smith’s face also showed contempt.
Ben opened his notebook. A drop of ink landed on a new page, and he used his left thumb to leave a smear. Looking up, he started writing and reading aloud: “This year, I will go back to Mrs. Oldmar’s house to say I’m sorry. And when I leave in the evening, I will leave the oven on, and she won’t notice. And I’ll set the house on fire, and lock the door, replacing the key without my fingerprints back in its place.”
“That’s better.” Mr. Smith nodded after Ben finished. Ben looked up incredulously. “How does that make you feel?”
Ben didn’t respond. He looked to where Lesley sat, but instead he saw Mrs. Oldmar’s old face, all wrinkled and ugly, smiling at him. She believed him when he apologized, he realized. She believed his bullshittery and now she offered him her horrid, stale cookies. Ben slowly extended his hand, took one, and bit into it.
Yep. Fucking stale.
He offered to do the dishes for grandma, for Mrs. Oldmar, and she praised how great of a boy he was now after the treatment. He smiled and nodded, yeah, we also had creative writing, and maybe one day she’d like to hear his stories, and my, she really would. Ben did the dishes and put the oven on, and then he even kissed the wrinkly old face goodnight. The key was exactly where she always kept it. He took hers too. Just in case she woke up during the night. Just in case she tried to get to the exit. He locked the door, and carefully wiped the handle and the key before putting it back.
The house burned down like a candle that night. It was beautiful.
“Makes me feel…” Ben started, all of a sudden aware of intent stares of other kids in the room. He blinked. His eyes hurt like after looking in the sun.
His feet hurt like he stood behind a tree until the house was nothing but char.
“Yes?” Mr. Smith grinned. The rest of the kids grinned too.
Ben cleared his throat. He felt how hot his face was. He wondered if other kids saw the fire in him.
“Makes me feel better. Thank you, Mr. Smith”, he said.
Mr. Smith grinned wider. His smile didn’t seem like a boring uncle’s anymore; more like the face of a guy your mother wouldn’t want you to hang out with.
Ben looked back to Amber. She looked up, her eyes flashing red. She was still writing about her step dad. She also grinned.
“Good! That was very good. See, all you needed was a little nudge. Just a new a way to tell your story.”
Ben nodded and closed his notebook. With the palms of his hands, he almost petted it.
“Anyone else?” Mr. Smith asked, and this time, three hands went up eagerly.
Ben looked forward to hearing their stories.