“I don’t know why everyone is so disposed to believe her version of everything,” Malligne said, tapping a squared French tip against her water bottle. “I guess because she’s young and cute, and that trumps.”

We all nodded. It was an old, familiar story. We all had our version. We met every Thursday night in a church basement at 7:30 to try to make sense of it.

“I mean, she’s living off the grid in a shack with a bunch of guys. God only knows what they’re doing out there. I’m sure they’re growing marijuana,” Malligne sighed and knit her perfectly arched brows as much as Botox would allow, her face a beautiful sculpture. “I suppose I shouldn’t have gone out there, but I had to know.”

She lapsed into silence. No one prompted her for the rest of the story. Everyone shared as much as they were willing and no more. We all took our turns, and no one gave advice or opinions in keeping with the tradition of Anonymous Step-Parents.

“I’d like to share,” Villenne intoned. Her deep, slow voice matched her mannish looks: square jaw, long thin nose, severe iron-gray bun. I swear she had an Adam’s apple. “My name is Villenne. A lot of you already know my story, but for those of you who don’t, I’m attempting a blended family. I have two daughters from a previous marriage and my husband has one. Three teen girls together in one house is…trying, to say the least. The jealousy and arguing and fighting. It’s really taking a toll on me, on my marriage.”

Villenne paused to dab her eyes with an actual lace-edged handkerchief. Every move she made said she’d been primly proper for over fifty years. I wondered how she’d gotten pregnant with two of her own. The sex must have been downright Victorian.

“Last weekend, she snuck out of the house,” Villenne’s voice raised at least two octaves. “I wouldn’t even have known but she showed up at a party and her sisters saw her. She was on restriction for talking back and not doing her chores. Not that discipline makes any difference to her. She’s sixteen now. I can’t keep her locked in her room. If she wants out, she’ll find a way. Apparently she hooked up with some senior boy at the party.” Villenne cried openly, the lines around her thin lips deepening hideously. Someone rubbed her shoulder and offered her a hug. “She’ll probably end up pregnant or on drugs or both. I’m afraid for her. But all I get from her is venom and her father is no help.”

We sat silently in our circle of chairs nursing paper cups full of bitter, brown water. The harsh fluorescent lights overhead lit our misery. I chided myself for being catty, but it helped break the tension for me. These were my sisters, my daughters, and my friends. Their stories belonged to me, and I chuckled with familiarity at each retelling of a new old tale.

“Hi, my name is Angerit,” said our newest member. Her accent (German?) made her difficult to understand. She pulled at the raveling sleeve of her shabby sweater. Stringy hair in need of a washing framed her sad, doughy face.

“Hi, Angerit,” we said dutifully.

“I haven’t shared before. I have two step children,” a sudden sob, then she rushed on. “But we’ve run out of money! The school called the Protective Service. My husband…he took the kids to the foster home, but they ran back to us. Now he is in more trouble, but he drove them back again. The lady is nice at the foster house; she gives candy and treats. She is fat and makes the children fat. But they run away. How can we tell them? They must stay and not run away home. Not until their Da finds another job. Then, maybe,” She shook her head sadly. A member handed her a tissue.

“It’s me they hate. Always me. I have sent them away, they say. Why? Because I am there. Their mother is gone.”

Once again, we nodded in unison. We were there. We were outsiders. Not their real mothers who were beautiful, dead, and sainted.

“I’d like to share on that,” Malligne said. “I think that’s so true! We’re here. We’re trying to fill the shoes of a parent who is gone and can be perfect in memory. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. God knows…”

Her cheeks colored under perfectly applied blush, and she looked briefly human. “So, I went to go check out her shack in the woods. I couldn’t help it. I had to know what was going on. I pretended to be a neighboring organic farmer. I brought apples…”

As she trailed off, I felt chilled.

“I didn’t see anything wrong. The guys she’s living with are prospecting, farming. I guess they’re called ‘makers.’ I didn’t know it was a thing. Back to the land, do-it-yourself types. Hippies, but not as dirty or ‘free-love.’ Anyway, she didn’t recognize me. I wore jeans and a t-shirt. I didn’t have make up on or my hair done.”

We laughed at this, but I think she was serious. I certainly couldn’t envision her in a t-shirt. Did Neiman-Marcus sell Versace white cotton t-shirts for forty-something fashion slaves?

She pressed her lips together and the laughter ceased. “So, like I said, I brought some fruit. But I don’t know what happened…she took a bite of one of the apples…”

A single tear squeezed from one corner of one eye, but her face remained expressionless. “She’s in the hospital now. Apparently an apple-piece became lodged in her esophagus. They’ve induced a coma.”

The room filled with tense disbelief. One of the ladies got up and went to Malligne’s side with a box of tissues. No one dared breathe. Malligne thanked the woman at her side, dabbed her eye with the tissue, then waved at the room.

“We’ll get through it; we always do. I was there to call the ambulance, and her father has the best insurance.” She added, “And her doctor is fabulously good looking.”

We laughed through our tears and the tension eased. “Dr. Prince,” Malligne said. “Isn’t that a hoot?”

The meeting was called for the evening, but everyone stood around a little longer, chatting and eating day-old grocery store cookies. I looked around at our motley gathering and felt sympathy, pity, love, and anger.

Malligne checked her phone, searching, I supposed, for any news regarding her step-daughter. Villenne looked haggard as she stooped, gray-shouldered over short, dumpy Angerit; Angerit gestured animatedly as she reprised her story of poverty and loss. I knew it would not go well for any of them. They were doomed stereotypes in a world predisposed to equate youth and beauty with goodness and innocence. They did not know me, but I knew them.

I embrace what I am. That is the difference between them and me. Their stories only prove to me that I am in the right. Their emotional pain steels me. I will have no regrets.

I left the room without anyone noticing. My mortar and pestle waited, hidden in the shadows. I flew, briefly silhouetted against the moon, back to my hut where it perched on its bird legs, hidden deep in the forest.