"Stalkers Anonymous" by Dale T. Stucky
When Colin arrived at the meeting place Tuesday night he found a group of about twenty people clustered around a light pole. They all seemed to know each other; all talking and smoking—glowing pinpoints of cigarettes speckling their silhouettes. He proceeded past them straight to the door, but, twisting the knob, found it locked.
"Running late," someone in the group said.
"Big surprise," someone else added.
Colin walked a ways off, leaned against a wall and eyed them, and he could tell they were eyeing him. The tone of voices indicated men in their thirties or forties, but occasional outbursts of high-pitched laughter suggested a few females. He heard one ask, "Who's the newbie?"
Heads cocked in Colin's direction, then eased away. "Do we care?" came one reply.
"I’m a Hinckley trainee," Colin answered in the cold evening air, aiming the comment at no one in particular.
Most didn't hear him but a few heads swiveled his way and gave him a closer appraisal.
"Does look a little like him," someone said and giggled.
Unsure laughter rose at this then fizzled. They went back to chatting as if he didn't exist, as if he were some anomaly, as if they weren't all anomalies. He watched them with distaste. Do you have to be a card-carrying member here? Tired of the sight he pulled out his smartphone and noted the time. 7:35 p.m. Bad enough to be sent here—they've got to keep you waiting like the perverts they assume you are.
He stuffed the phone, a graduation gift, back into his pocket and took in the setting. Only a trickle of traffic out. No one else on the streets. He had the peculiar feeling they were the only ones in the city, and the rest, wise to some impending doom, were all underground. Below earth was where he might end up himself, if he didn’t take warning, so he’d been told, and if he didn’t attend these sessions to obtain his diversion, his one-time pass, and get back on the right path.
He sighed, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. “Visalia, Gateway to the Sierras,” the archway at the edge of town had proclaimed. He had to deal with another gateway, a gateway drug of sorts—addiction to one Julia Spearman.
A jiggled flash of lightning from a storm to the west teased his eyes open. On the eastern horizon, John Muir's hulking Range of Light strobe-lit into view. A particularly dazzling bolt revealed the snow at the highest elevations. There lay his home away from home—the employee cabins at seven-thousand foot plus altitude.
* * *
When he'd first arrived at Sequoia National Park for the summer, he'd been chilled and amazed by the alien world into which the concessionaire's bus transported him from the Fresno airport. The snowbanks still towered twelve feet high along the winding road to the seasonal workers’ cabin area, and he felt trapped in some gigantic luge and felt his Houston past sliding forever behind him.
But the novelty of snow quickly wore off, and only made him shudder with its icy indifference. He'd come in mid-May and most of the other employees hadn’t yet arrived. He felt lonely and terribly homesick. The employee cabins were dark, and along the opposite wall to his sat a matching bunk with a naked mattress. He, as a fresh English major via Texas A&M with no "collegiate-level" job prospects, had been desperate to escape his parents' house. Now, he had every reason to breathe freely—if he hadn’t been choked with regret. He hadn’t said a proper goodbye to his family but skirted away with scarcely a wave. He felt bad about it.
* * *
When the door to the meeting place finally opened, the others, like a school of upright mackerel, moved forward, flicking their waning cigarettes onto the sidewalk as they funneled through. Colin brought up the rear. He wanted his pick of seats—somewhere he was unlikely to be called upon—but little chance of that now.
On entering the large fluorescent-lit room with its yellow no-nonsense cinderblock walls, he found the issue moot—the chairs had been arranged in a circle. Only two vacant spots remained and he took the one farthest from the entrance—where presumably would preside the leader. On the right side of the chosen gap sat a diminutive lady in her early seventies who surprised him by nodding and smiling at him. Did she really belong here? Colin could tell she had been a semi-beauty in her youth. Still slender, still elegantly dressed—though her outfit was sleeveless and dismayingly short—with a face not too adorned with wrinkles. Her hair glowed like freshly polished silver, dropped over her forehead in a sort of bang, and was topped by an undersized purple and off-center beret. But age had loosened her throat into a dewlap, and the distance between her nose and upper lip had extended as if a denture within had slipped and taken the skin with it.
A balding man sat to the left—wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with Winona Ryder's cute but world-weary face. He didn’t smile at Colin. This Ryder-man scooted his chair a few inches to the right as Colin took a seat, and Colin retaliated by scooting his a little to the left, being careful not to slide too close to the lady, who had, herself, shifted in her chair to study a printed sheet in her hands as if absorbed in studying the program for a wedding, maybe, or a church musical. She looked far too old and far too normal for this setting.
The facilitator turned out not a bad looking one—blond and fresh-faced—although at least twenty years Colin's senior. Wouldn't mind stalking her, crept into his mind. She started out by informing everyone the coffee machine had been repaired, and that coffee was now available. At least a dozen got up without further invite and queued up at the back wall where a table had been set with muffins and doughnuts.
The facilitator didn't seem perturbed at this exodus and busied herself shuffling some papers. Colin sighed, leaned back and rubbed his face. "Now, I got to deal with this shit," he moaned under his breath.
The little lady to his left whispered, "You're new here, young man, aren't you?"
Colin looked over and down at her. "Uh huh," he answered. The sight of her non-superior smile struck him with its incongruity, like finding a Hawaiian on an Everest expedition.
"But, I'm not sure I’ve got the right place," he added.
She gleamed at him—her eyes silvery grey like a snowmelt stream. "Why this is the SA group, Stalkers Anonymous. Is that where you need?"
"I’d been told there'd be some kind of meeting here for. . .er, obsessive behavior."
The woman stared at him kindly. "Obsessive? Oh my, are you that?”
"Depends on the definition, I guess.”
"In-teres-ting," she murmured slowly and appeared to consider a response, but then turned away and began fumbling through her purse as if digging for pepper spray.
"What are you in for?" Colin asked, trying to lighten the mood and wanting to draw her back into conversation.
"Well," she looked up and said, a little proudly, "I’ve been told I’m a stalker and I suppose I am. So I’ve been coming here for over a year.”
This piece of shrapnel lodged in Colin's brain—the strangeness of it. His own stint was scheduled for a mere three months. What could it be about this fragile little lady, he wondered, that could possibly require a whole year of correction and treatment. He stared at her for a moment, then, finally accepting the surreal, settled back in his chair.
"This is where I'm supposed to be I suppose," he mumbled and, in a lower voice, added, "oddball city."
The group leader began to clear her throat and the coffee addicts shuffled slowly back to their seats. Colin's new "friend" lowered her purse gently to the floor, apparently having found what she wanted.
"So, team-members," the facilitator began, "how did we do on our assignments this week?" she asked and crossed her legs demurely. Colin admired her knit skirt and her well-kept appearance.
A strip-jerky of a man to the right of her, one tanned as dark as the blood-brown carpet, lifted his hand first, and, after their mentor nodded to him, blurted out, “Well, Miss Rita, I didn’t even think about—“
Miss Rita broke in, “Proper etiquette if you please, Rob.”
"Oh yeah.” He cleared his throat and began again measuredly. “Hello, my name is Rob, and I—am a stalker.”
“Hellooo Mr. Rob,” the group chanted back in a mirthful tone.
Robert paused and looked at the leader for approval. She smiled sweetly and he continued, “Well, Miss Rita, I didn't think about Meg once this week . . . well, couldn't been much more'n twice anyway."
Many in the group erupted in guffaws at this. A gruff-voiced woman threw in, "That counting your wet dreams, Stringer?"
The leader broke through with a surprisingly loud voice, "Now, what have I been saying team?" The mirth died down. "We are all here to support each other. If you think otherwise, you can just walk out that door."
No one spoke up, but Colin heard a whisper off to the side, "Wish my parole officer would say that."
Miss Rita ignored this and turned back to the speaker. "Now, Robert, it certainly sounds like you've made progress. But remember—the assignment was to leaf through your copies of People Magazine—the ones featuring Miss Ryan—at least three times during the week without masturbating once or cutting out any of the pictures."
"Yes ma'am, that I did, and, uh, I didn't do any of that other stuff."
"So he says, Miss Rita," announced a three-hundred-pound black man wearing a Lakers jersey. "How we know he ain't lying?"
Miss Rita answered calmly, "As I mentioned last week, I'll be getting these magazines back at the end of the session, and I will know who has been honest with the group and who hasn't. As for the masturbating, that will have to be—like the Seinfeld episode—on the honor system."
"Course, that don't mean I didn't stop by the gate to her estate a time or two. Just in admiration, you know," Rob Stringer added helpfully.
"I thought we talked about that, Robert," Miss Rita said sternly, shaking her head and scribbling on the margins of her notepad.
"We did," said Stringer. “But, like I say—I didn't do nothing on the magazines. You could put 'em in a doctor's waiting room. You could eat off 'em."
"Yeah. . .if you don't mind a little STD seasoning," someone added, giggling.
Miss Rita looked angrily in the commenter's direction and the laughter that began to swell quickly died away. She presided over seconds of silence, her face welcoming the challenge. At length she straightened up and laid down her pen. She began slowly scanning the circle, a human periscope searching for a torpedo target.
“Miss Rita, I have a confession to make,” piped in a dome-headed man in a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Cindy rules!”
Miss Rita sighed and responded, “Yes, Serge. Please don’t disappoint me.”
“Hello, my name is Serge—but, as you know, folks call me “Eggs”—and I am indeed a bona-fide stalker.” Miss Rita pursed her lips at this and said nothing.
“Hellooo Mr. Eggs,” sang the choir.
Colin squirmed in his seat, not believing he was supposed to learn from this group. “Eggs” McLaughlin, he found out later, was so named because the man, self confessedly, represented the most cracked of all the members. He typically sought cover behind a laurel hedgerow south and east of the Crawford estate, landscaping invisible to the house but plainly visible from the street, where he would lie in wait for hours to snap a digital photo of his prey.
“I slipped up big time this week, Miss Rita, I confess. I got tired of waiting for Cindy—it’d been a good ten days since I laid eyes, or lens, upon her—and I got to feeling her people were intentionally keeping her from me, so I. . .I. . . .”
Miss Rita sighed. “What’d you do Eggs?”
“I egged her house.”
The group broke into a smattering of whistling and laughter.
“Well, it’s what I’m known for, right? I figured what better way to send her a sign, right? That it was me, Eggs. What better way to let her know I was out there. Her number one fan.”
Miss Rita shook her head and said, “We’ll talk after class, Serge. We obviously need a better plan.”
But “Eggs” couldn’t suppress himself and gushed, “You should have seen me though, two security men hot on my tail, and me weaving in and out of traffic like one of those DNA doohickeys.”
“That’ll be enough.”
“I do feel bad about it.”
“I’m sure you do.”
"Miss Rita, I got something to say," called out a clean-cut man in a sports jacket.<