The youth group was on the way to a retreat west of Boston. Corey sat squeezed in the back of the station wagon, her elbows on her knees and her fingers pushing spirals into her temples. She watched Meredith Styles, the group’s guest, who was up front with Bill, the leader. Meredith Styles was a recent college graduate in the church, along on the fall retreat to issue an award called the Coming of Age in Unitarian America Award. They’d collected Meredith at a plain clapboard house in Lexington.
“So these are the brave youth,” Meredith had said upon entering the car.
No member of youth group had met Meredith Styles before, and yet she was to issue the only award Corey had ever heard of in First Parish Church. Corey leaned forward toward the front seat, away from the mindless jabber of Maxine and Jen beside her. She wanted some clue as to the criteria for the mysterious award, but Bill had Magic Smooth Rock 94.3 turned up all the way. Meredith’s red shrub of hair remained frozen no matter how catchy the tune, never nodding to the beat, never swiveling to chat with Bill. Corey wouldn’t have chatted with Bill if she were up front, either.
Corey calculated from road markers that the Friendly Crossroads retreat center was only twenty miles from the church in Lexington. Bill and his wife Janet, who was along as a chaperone, were deliberately disguising this fact. The two-car caravan meandered, stopping at any overlook or shallow New England canyon they happened by. They lingered in a drugstore in Waltham, choosing Wonder Bread and a block of bright cheese for lunch. They ate the sandwiches without condiments in an arboretum near Thompsonville. But it was a ruse, a triangulated journey, designed to convince the group they were traveling some great distance, both spiritually and physically. In reality they remained in the eastern portion of the state, within biking distance of First Parish.
The trick worked, was the thing. When Corey walked across the colored leaves, matted over the lawn of the retreat center, she felt far from home. The center was on several acres of field, which fanned out into a fringe of woods. Though they had left Lexington at two, the sky was already striped pink.
There were seven people on the trip. Four ninth graders (Corey, Maxine, Jen, and Kyle) plus Bill, Janet, and Meredith Styles. Kyle stood still as a tree beside Janet’s car, allowing his hair to string into his face.
“This sucks.” Kyle said that about everything from undercooked coffee cake to youth group exercises to Bill’s best sweater.
Bill led everyone across the yard, a hand on Janet’s neck. Bill had met Janet late in life, and they couldn’t break physical contact. Just like that story of the child who can’t unwind her necklace without losing her head, Janet couldn’t remove Bill’s heavy arm without stopping the oxygen flow to her brain.
Over the retreat center door was a placard: Friendly Crossroads: A place where people come to talk. This feature barely seemed worth mentioning. Did any place exist on earth that wasn’t meant for people to talk? A library, maybe, or a school for the mute. A barren room somewhere with losers shrugging, nothing to say.
Inside, Friendly Crossroads had long halls and shabby Oriental carpets, like a hotel rented by the month in the 1800s. The third story, which Bill had reserved, was the most austere. There were no rugs there; just floorboards so ill fit together that light leaked through. On the north face were two rooms for the adults. The youth room ran the length of the south face, filled with mismatched bunk beds and iron cots. The high ceilings stored extra air.
Kyle sat on the edge of a cot. “This bed sucks.”
Jen and Maxine stormed the room, threw down daypacks on two sets of bunk beds. They’d already dumped out their clothes, magazines, pencils, and squeeze bottles of jewel-toned shampoo before anyone noticed Corey, lingering in a cut of sunlight.
“Come on,” Jen said, indicating a nearby cot. “Bunk up.”
* * *
Corey had attended Sunday school at First Parish since she was eight. Some years she and the other children of faithless parents molded relief maps of Jerusalem from gluey newspaper. Other years they scattered for Free Reflection, only returning for coffee hour. Free Reflection years Corey bought sacks of candy at the drug store and ate them on a mausoleum. She privately called the church Our Lady of Gummy Worm.
This September Corey and her peers had transitioned from Sunday school to evening youth group. They sat on folding chairs in a rec room under the sanctuary, and shared highlights and lowlights from their weeks, surrounded by the strange quiet of the church at night. Usually Corey wanted to cry worse during highlights than lowlights. Once Bill said the highlight of his week was a peanut butter cookie. Once Kyle said it was going to sleep.
The group followed the Unitarian curriculum for ninth graders called About Your Sexuality. Corey couldn’t believe it was real, that the adults upstairs had condoned this program. The curriculum had been running since 1970 and only now, in 1994, were there any rumblings about the content.
In September they’d watched two slide shows. The first was called The Woman and featured naked women with pillow stomachs and soft clouds of pubic hair. They grinned mildly, their legs thrown open to reveal detailed, dry wrinkles. The Man was next. By the time of The Man, Corey anticipated the powerful lighting and uneven skin tones. The most surprising slide was a penis that was loose in its skin and almost blue. Several members quit after witnessing the filmstrips, leaving just Corey, Jen, Maxine, and Kyle, a collection of those too stupid or depressed to quit.
AYS involved discussions, sometimes wherein one or two members had to cluster inside a larger circle and suffer interrogation. After the interrogations started, and Corey refused to answer most questions, she distanced herself from Jen and Maxine. Corey knew she was gay. The group knew, though she’d never said. She didn’t have to. She knew they’d assume it by how she looked. She had a boy’s haircut. She wore work boots, canvas pants, and bulky sweaters. She couldn’t contain the way she moved, like an adolescent monkey: arms swinging and legs eating too much ground per stride. Her personal sexuality must be clear to everyone, and so she didn’t see the point in announcing it. She hated that others could read her so easily.
The most common question in interrogation was, “What’s your sexuality?” Corey understood that this inquiry played off the theme of the curriculum at large. But why did they ask the same question over and over? Everyone always said “straight,” proudly, like they’d spent ages developing and testing the theory, exploring other paths, imagining alternative futures.
Corey passed on her turns. After all, how could she know anything for sure? One day she might kiss a girl and find the saliva bitter as detergent.
* * *
Jen thumped the cot she’d selected for Corey. “Don’t be bashful.”
“I’m not ‘bashful,’” Corey said. “I just prefer sunlight to the dim end of the room you’ve chosen.” She crossed to the cot below the portal-shaped window. Outside, orange grass rolled to the trees. Corey wanted to run over waves of land, ignoring the November winds and the reeds cutting her ankles.
She set her pack on the mattress. Though she did so gently, the weight sunk the center of the cot, its halves threatening to snap together. She wandered into the hall and peered into Meredith’s room. Twin cots were wedged against the walls, the mattresses depressed like canoes. Then she noticed Meredith Styles, her shabby ensemble blending into the wood. Meredith blinked like a deer.
“All sorted?” Bill called.
Corey retreated into the hall.
“Sorted away,” said Jen, throwing her arm around Kyle, who was considered the most deeply disturbed member of the group. Last year Jen had criticized him for being dense, and Kyle had lifted his bangs to display a ravine in his forehead.
“That explain it?” he asked.
No one discussed the scar, but Jen made a point of hugging Kyle out of nowhere, dragging him between the cookie stations of coffee hour, defending his privacy in interrogation. Once Kyle grabbed Jen’s ass—really dug in with his nails. When Jen protested, he hung his head, saying, “I guess my brain’s not right.”
The group descended for dinner, entering a hall full of parties. People buzzed about, fiddled with flatware, impatient for their food. At Friendly Crossroads each group was in charge of a daily chore. A group from a Korean Presbyterian church in Brookline had prepared dinner. They delivered three serving bowls to each table. One contained a stack of kimchi pancakes, another held spicy tofu stew. In the last bowl sat a long, plain loaf called fishcake.
“What’s fishcake?” Maxine asked, forking a slice.
“Mashed white fish and grain,” Bill said. “It’s quite tasty.”
“Sick.” Maxine scraped her slice back into the bowl. “But Corey might like it. Corey loves fishy flavors. Right, Corey?”
“Maxine,” Bill said, without looking up.
Corey ate two thick slices, chewing loudly to annoy Maxine. The fishcake tasted like soapy, springy bread. The shock on Maxine’s face was worth it, though the slices left Corey too full to sample the stew or pancake.
After dinner the group convened in a private lounge populated by musty tweed couches and chair sacks whose bones had been carried off by termites.
“First,” said Bill, once the group had settled. “I want to properly introduce Meredith Styles.”
Meredith’s cheeks lit like a flashlight had ignited in her mouth.
“Meredith participated in AYS, and I was her leader, if you can believe that, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Anyway, Meredith left us for college, but now she’s back in town, teaching middle school math. As you know, she wanted to establish an award for the group, for presentation at breakfast tomorrow.”
“What do we have to do to get it?” Jen asked.
“That’s a surprise,” said Bill.
“What do you get if you win?” asked Maxine.
“That’s also a surprise.”
“It’s probably dumb as shit,” Kyle said.
“Trust me,” Bill said, peering at Kyle. “It certainly is not.”
Corey pictured the award as either a statuette, money, or a medal on striped ribbon. She didn’t much care what the award commemorated. She knew that, after all the hype, it must be something decent, and she couldn’t imagine any award, no matter the qualifications, that Maxine, Jen, or Kyle could win over her.
Maxine and Jen had gossiped about the award being a gift certificate for spa treatment or electrolysis. But the award would be a simple thing, nothing rich. Winning it would force the group to leave Corey alone, because she would’ve been singled out by someone beyond their circle, and that authority would be too powerful to ignore. Meredith Styles was certainly off-key, her raisin eyes set in pudding skin. But she’d been to college. She’d seen the world. She must have some perspective worth abiding. And no one had anything else to reflect on at the retreat besides the award, so it would necessarily bloat with importance. Corey set herself the goal of winning. But of course, once she won, she’d pretend she didn’t care.
“Now,” Bill said. “Here’s another special thing about Meredith Styles. Meredith?”
“I’m gay.” Meredith scanned each face. Corey expected snarky remarks, but there was nothing. Corey hadn’t guessed Meredith was gay. Meredith was hump-shouldered and dingy. Corey couldn’t imagine her linking up with any man she’d ever known, but then again she couldn’t picture her with a particular female either. She was just the sort of half-tragic figure that Corey had avoided for years.
“Great,” said Bill. “See? Everyone can be different. Now for some highlights and lowlights.”
They went around the room. Nothing was startling, as they’d been together all day. Many listed the dry drugstore sandwiches among the lowlights. Highlights varied from “Talking to Maxine” to “Ice cream at dinner.” Corey’s highlight was fishcake. Her lowlight was youth group.
“What about youth group?” Bill asked.
Next they placed questions in a shoebox decorated with printouts of reproductive systems. Corey put in What’s your favorite color? Lately she’d tried to divert discussions, but people just went around fast saying “Blue, red, magenta, blue, purple, green, blue,” then moved on.
Among the earnest questions were a few that demanded What’s your sexuality? Everyone answered straight, expect for Corey, who passed, and Meredith Styles, who said “Gay” in a way that implied Didn’t we just go over this? Someone pulled a question about fetishes. No one had one, except Bill.
“It’s not a fetish precisely,” he said. “But the most pornographic scene I’ve ever watched was a woman giving a man a shave.”
“On the balls?” Kyle asked.
Bill scowled. “My point is that pornography doesn’t have to be hardcore like Playboy. It can be a plain domestic scene.”
“Playboy’s not hardcore,” Kyle said. “It doesn’t even have boners.”
Janet gave a deep nod.
“Do you mean it turned you on, or what?” asked Maxine. “The shaving?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
The game wore down as people ran out of curiosity. Jen and Maxine went to bed, and eventually Bill and Janet did, too, gripping each other as they ascended the stairs. Meredith put a lighter to the Duraflame in the fireplace. When it erupted with orange licks, Corey realized how cold she’d been.
“Damn,” Kyle said. “Stuck with the fagg-o’s.”
Meredith’s mouth fell open, like a fish sucking air from water. “Excuse me?”
“Fagg-o’s,” said Kyle. “We’re not allowed to say the real f-word in About Your Dicks and Pussies.”
“What made you say that?” Meredith asked.
“Oh,” Kyle said. “Haven’t you guessed Corey’s a queer, too? Hate to ruin the surprise.”
Meredith looked at Corey. The chemical log burned uniformly, without snaps or sparks. Corey shrugged. She’d thought Kyle was too much in his own dark world to notice.
“Kyle,” Meredith said. “Your grandmother is a big presence in this church.”
“Don’t talk about my grandma.”
“You wouldn’t want her to hear you talk like that, would you?”
“She knows I talk like that.” Kyle lifted his hair. The scar was worse than Corey remembered, the walls hardened into keloid rinds. Tracks of bubbles bordered the edges where the sutures went through.
“Oh my god,” said Meredith. “What happened?”
Kyle let his bangs flop down. “Brain masses.”
Corey looked at the rug. At first the design seemed abstract, but the more she stared the more animals rose from the shapes. There were buffalos rolling with stump legs, possum babies, floating dog heads.
“It’s benign,” Kyle said. “Obviously. But they take tissue every time. I’m not working with a full load, if you know what I mean.” He stood up. His t-shirt hung to his knees, featuring an eagle riding a motorcycle. Feathers blew out in the exhaust. “On that note, time to pet the worm.”
Once he was gone, Meredith poked the fire with a metal arm, but it didn’t do much. The flame looked fashioned from plastic.
“That was heavy,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Corey.
Meredith shook her head. “I’m not used to teenagers.”
“I thought you taught math.” Corey couldn’t imagine Meredith at the helm of a class: dangling arms, dull eyes.
“Sixth grade. Not quite fagg-o level.”
Meredith poked a hole in the Duraflame, which was green inside. Corey was tired, but if she stayed up with Meredith, she might earn the award.
“Want to go for a walk?”
Meredith’s expanding eyes crumpled the skin around them. “It’s November.”
“We have sweaters.” Corey pinched the wool of her sleeve. Meredith Styles looked down at her own sweater, grayer and baggier even than Corey’s.
* * *
They left quietly. The other groups were asleep, though it wasn’t even eleven. Outside, the grass had frosted, and it snapped as they crossed to the woods.
“So,” Corey said. “You graduated?”
“In May,” said Meredith. “At first my parents didn’t let me come home.”
“Why?” Corey didn’t know if she’d want Meredith Styles sulking around her house, either.
“They were pretty mad when I came out. I had to get this apartment in Billerica that didn’t lock right. There were silverfish. Like, everywhere. I mean, even in my macaroni. They let me move back eventually.”
The moon popped up, low above black broccoli trees. They circled the edge of the forest. In the dark it looked too thick to enter.
“You know what the sad thing about being gay is?” Meredith asked.
The question was too big. Corey could name thirty things as a warm up.
“I’ll tell you,” said Meredith. “You go through hell to come out, and even then you don’t reap any benefit. I’ve still never more than kissed a girl.”
Meredith shook her head, her chemical blue eyes flashing in the dark. Corey wasn’t surprised that Meredith Styles hadn’t enjoyed romantic luck. She had the over-soft skin of an infant, but the misshapen hair of the very old. Corey couldn’t imagine being Meredith Style’s age, done with college, and still a virgin. Plus, coming out was nothing. Corey could tell people anytime she wanted, she just didn’t choose to. Meredith Styles was being melodramatic.
“Did you come out to your parents yet?” Meredith asked.
“No.” Her parents wouldn’t send her to Billerica, but they didn’t talk about matters of the heart. She watched musicals with them after dinner, joined them on wordless walks through the suburban hills. AYS was their way to not have to explain the hard stuff.
Corey and Meredith sat on a log. Under their feet was frozen marsh. The soggy wood of the log chilled through to her skin and Corey wished she had a jacket to stretch under her.
“What do you think about AYS?” Meredith asked. “Pretty weird, right?”
“Bill gives too much information.”
Meredith laughed. “As soon as I heard about it I was like, no way, Jose. But my parents forced me. In the end, though, it was okay.”
Even though quitting had occurred to Corey after the filmstrips, she would never do it. There was comfort in the meetings, even if she didn’t participate much. Just knowing other kids had more problems than her. Other adults, even.
“Look. I wasn’t going to do this,” Meredith said, arranging her hands on her knees. “But I’m going to be honest with you here. Bill asked me to present the award.”
“I mean, it wasn’t my idea.”
Meredith’s face was whiter than the moon, lighting the air around her. Corey retrieved a stick from the ice. She snapped it in half, but a length of bark wouldn’t let go. She tried to tear it, but it was too damp and flexible. “Whose idea was it?”
“Bill’s,” Meredith said. “That’s what I’m saying. He called me up and asked me to make an award for a certain youth.”
“Wait,” Corey said. “You know who’s getting it?” Her chest balled up. She wanted one more night to picture the award being presented to her, Maxine and Jen frowning into their cereal, the lips of Kyle’s scar closing in silence. She wanted one more night pretending things would be different, somehow, if she got it.
“Yes,” said Meredith. “That’s the thing. The award was made for someone, not for itself.”
“What do you mean?”
Meredith sighed, like Corey was too dumb to get it, even though Meredith was the one who wasn’t making sense. “The award is for you, Corey.”
Corey’s chest unfurled, inflating with air. She felt like her body could lift off the log, sail up between the stars. She clung to the wood. “Really?”
Meredith shook her head. “Bill told me one of the members of the group was struggling to fit in. Was lonely and becoming an outsider. He didn’t want that to happen, so he asked me to make up an award. I thought you should know.”
At first, Corey let the burn of cold coat her feelings. But even in the thirty-degree night, her cheeks flamed. So Meredith wouldn’t see, Corey stood from the log. She wanted to run back across the hill, into the woods. Her feet sprang apart, and she slipped on the frozen marsh, landing hard on her side.
* * *
Back inside the retreat center, Meredith suggested Corey sleep on the other cot in her room. “Just if you want a break from the whole fagg-o situation.” Corey couldn’t read her flat eyes, but she seemed like she was being genuine.
Meredith sat on one of the twin beds in her room. The room was windowless with a steeply pitched ceiling. Corey took her pants and boots off, pulled her sweater down to her knees. She didn’t want to sleep in here. The room was airless and so quiet she could hear Meredith breathe. But she did want to hide from the other youth, so she could forget the humiliation of the award. She curled on the mattress, drawing the scratchy blanket over herself. Meredith changed into flannel pajamas with wooden buttons, and visited Corey’s side.
“I’m sorry I told you all that,” Meredith said. “I’m not sure I should have, but I wanted to be honest.”
“That’s okay,” said Corey. “I don’t care.”
Meredith looked abashed, like she wanted Corey to care some.
Corey turned on her stomach and closed her eyes, hoping Meredith Styles would go to her own bed. But she didn’t. After a while, Corey opened one eye. Meredith’s raised hand was visible in the light of the electric lantern. The palm hovered, a pad of flesh trembling the air. Then it lowered and started stroking Corey’s body, from head to toe, over the blanket, like she was a dog. Corey felt heated under the sheets, moist, but only if she shut her eyes.
“I know I can’t do anything,” Meredith said. “But you deserve to be touched.”
The patting slowed, lingering first at the base of Corey’s back, then the nape of her neck. Corey could feel the hand hesitate, considering. Corey might not get a chance to kiss another girl for a very long time. Even if it was just Meredith, she could get the idea.
But then she pictured breakfast tomorrow, Meredith sliding her hand across the table toward her, Kyle and Maxine and Jen watching Corey’s hand rise toward it, drawn by heat, without free will. Acid rose in Corey’s throat. When Meredith’s hand dug under the sheets, Corey sat up.
“I don’t like that,” she said. She hadn’t meant to sound so babyish.
Meredith stepped back. “You better go back to your room.” She was shaking her head. “I apologize. The situation got away from me.”
Corey clutched her pants and boots over her legs and hurried away. She closed the door on a faint apology, floating in the dark.
In the youth room, the window projected a prism of moonlight on the floorboards. It was so bright that Corey was surprised anyone was sleeping through it. Only Jen remained in the area the group had originally claimed. Maybe there had been a fight, because Maxine was sleeping in a far corner. Kyle by Corey’s cot.
Corey lay down, facing Kyle. His lips were open, slick with saliva. The skin on his face was loose and smooth, and his bangs stuck up to reveal the tip of his scar. Corey flipped over to face the portal. Too bad the night wasn’t blue, instead of purple, so she could imagine she was at sea.
* * *
Corey woke before anyone else. She put her pants and boots on and went down to the kitchen. A group of Hare Krishnas was making vegan waffles, and Corey offered to help.
In a corner of the industrial kitchen, she sliced bananas. She sprayed the rounds with sugar water so they wouldn’t brown, arranged them on platters for each table. Eventually, the groups filed in. Meredith Styles was still in her flannel pajamas. When the full youth group was seated, Corey joined them.
She kept her head down while Bill introduced the award, willing him to rush so they could finish eating, do the dishes and take the short trip back to Lexington.
“The Coming of Age award is for one brave youth,” Bill said. “A youth who has worked in the face of challenge to establish connections and friendships, even when those friendships are not reciprocated. This youth walks alone, and blames no one. But we are proud of this youth, no matter the path the youth has taken.”
Meredith got up. Her hair was even more knotted than yesterday, certain curls hardened into a deep crimson, scraping her temples and the peak of her forehead. Corey didn’t hear her name, but everyone turned to her at once.
Corey stood for the award, a rigid piece of paper. The certificate felt dry in her hands. Everyone clapped. Maxine and Jen studied their stiffening syrup. Even Kyle was speechless; his mouth loose like half his face still slept.
Corey sat down, spreading the award on her lap. As soon as everyone was eating again, she lowered her head to read the text. In the margin was a block of untidy handwriting: This award may be phony but it’s for a person who is not. I hope one day you understand. But maybe it’s better if you never do, because that will mean your road was easier.
Corey crumpled the award into her pocket. Her road would be easy, she decided then. She’d make sure of that.
* * *
For the journey home, Corey requested to switch cars, and sat in back behind Kyle and Janet. Halfway to Lexington, Kyle turned in his seat.
“Welcome to Loserville,” he said. “Population, two.”
Corey was fine with that. There were worse people to be clumped with. She and Kyle might have different struggles, but they could both survive.
Out the window, twenty miles ticked down. Corey kept her face parallel to the glass, watched the vistas and overlooks pass, and, this time, they didn’t stop anywhere.
Lydia Conklin is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. She has received a Pushcart Prize, work-study scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others, and grants and awards from the Astraea Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review. She has drawn graphic fiction for Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.