"Um, hi. My name is Killua."
"Hi, Killua!" echoed back the crowd, cheery Stepford Wives style.
"And, um," Killua said. He entwined his fingers, and rested them on his calf, his foot balanced precariously on his knee. "She died about 6 weeks ago."
"Awww," chorused the crowd of Stepford Widows.
He'd dreaded it, but it still forced his foot off his knee as he jerked upright.
The thin, bespectacled women with sensible shoes and proudly gray, spiked, short hair who described herself earlier as the "facilitator and travel companion" smiled at him in exactly that way he'd wanted never to see again.
"Do you mind sharing your wife's first name with us, Killua?"
"She is not my wife," Killua said. His voice was brittle, and he'd hoped when he spoke it would drop into a million, razor-sharp shards. The concerned looks, and hems and haws, came next. He actually wanted to roll his eyes.
"She was my fiance," Killua said. The murmurs lifted in volume that the room of 12 or so sounded like a congregation raising its voice in fervent prayer.
The woman to his right, a short, middle aged woman with olive skin, and a neat, stiff bob of graying dark brown hair, reached towards him, patting his arm softly and awkwardly.
"You never even got to enjoy having a wife, dear," said his assailant, the slight lilt of her accent stretching her vowels hypnotically.
"Uh, yeah," Killua replied. He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Sensing the moment moving away from her control, the bespectacled journeyer cleared her throat, and reached for the copy of stapled xeroxes on the floor by her feet.
A shaft of cosmically stage directed light pierced the space vacated by the facilitator spiked head of hair. With a rush of wind and snow from outside, the door to the church's rectory flew open. Into the shaft of light, wintry mix swirling around a head of hair styled almost precisely like that of a paintbrush, walked a tall, smiling, tanned face. Two rows of shining white teeth flashed below narrowed eyes and a creased forehead.
"Sorry I'm late, everyone!"
"I was afraid you weren't going to come."
"Here, there's a seat next to me, Gon!"
He responded to everyone and no one with a wave, and some wordless affirmation.
Killua realized he was staring when Gon locked eyes with him. Gon's eyes popped open a little wider, and the smile shut tight, just for a brief moment. Killua quickly faked a cough, and bent his head into his elbow, Dracula style, while Gon slid between two smiling, fawning women, and pulled up one of the spare stackable plastic chairs.
"We have a new member?" Gon asked, tone friendly but politely reverent, before the facilitator could try to wrangle the group back into order.
"Oh, yes, Gon, this is Killua. It's his first meeting," she said, gesturing solemnly in Killua's general direction. Her lips frowned, but her tone and eyes sparkled as she spoke. "His fiance died only six weeks ago."
"I'm so sorry," Gon said.
And, he actually was.
"It's okay," Killua mumbled, reflexively.
The corner of the facilitator's lips curled up, but she wasn't smiling.
"Now, now, there's no need to downplay what you're going through. Not here."
This was a space of honesty, and openness.
The group settled into their seats. A sense of anticipation, and also relief, filled the room. Killua leaned back over the back of his seat until his spine curved into an S.
You can feel welcome to share, here. Really share.
Eventually, a packet of tissues would be pulled from a purse.
The stories would start like greeting cards, sweeping and empty.
But, actually, death was frighteningly mundane.
The woman across from him twisted her Kleenex in her hand as she described how she decided gray was a better color than brown to dress her dead husband in when she buried him. Later, she donated all of his clothing, except for the other gray pair of pants.
"I keep it hanging in my closet. I don't touch it, but I know it's there."
Nods, soft as a cat's footfalls. Her soft sniffles were a screeching feral beast in the night. Running wild and unexpected by their feet.
Killua crossed and uncrossed his feet, and then his knees. He rested his palms on his knees, and then folded his arms again. Nothing was comfortable, which was nothing new, but every shift might as well have been an alarm blaring everyone around him to attention.
The woman Killua had to twist his neck far to the left to see gave a small chuckle, and then covered her mouth. She shook her head. Her husband died after a fight, when she'd stormed out of the front door, still shaking from the argument. There'd been no signs, and when she returned he was dead on the floor of their kitchen.
"I'm still so mad at him," she said, tears pouring down her cheeks. The silence of a crowd of polite women in emotional agony at a loss for how to respond inspired a wave of painful hiccups. The facilitator eventually held up her hand, ready to symbolically pass the baton.
"Can I have a turn, June?"
The latecomer, the only other man in the room, who until now had been placed very carefully just outside the boundary of Killua's gaze, lifted his hand. The facilitator June's sails had the wind knocked out of them, but she read the room just like Killua did. Everyone else was on the edge of their seats. Everyone had been waiting for this.
"Yes, Gon, please go ahead."
Gon nodded politely. He then said nothing for a moment. He rested his forearms on his knees.
"Retz was horribly allergic to dogs, so the day after she died I brought home a dog."
He smiled when he said her name. Retz. He smiled so big and so wide that Killua smiled back.
"It was a stray, and looked all beat up. It looked exactly like how I felt, basically."
He still smiled, Gon did. He sat up straight.
"I named him Kon, after my great grandpa. Yeah, after him, not after his dog or anything."
An actual laugh line, with chuckles and smiles. Killua silently scoffed. June wrinkled her brow.
"He was really sweet, but he was really, really not in good shape. I don't think he'd ever lived with a person before," Gon said. The warmth in his voice made Killua's palms sweat. Warm, but not like a crackling fire. Warm like holding your thumb above a candle flame for longer than you can stand.
"Her family came to the house, her mom and dad and older brother. We'd known she'd die any day, so there wasn't much planning for the funeral. She and I had already done most of it. And, so, we're sitting there..."
Killua held his breath, as if he could somehow be surprised by the next part of the story.
"And Kon takes a giant dump right in the middle of the carpet."
Retz's mom sobs louder, her dad storms out in anger, and his brother, who never for even one moment liked Gon, just looked at him like it was Gon himself who was actually the little steaming pile of turds.
It wasn't just how he told it, or the details of the story. Its perfect, ironic absurdity. The made for TV contrasting tones. His face brightened like a light bulb clicked on.
"I was bent over, on my knees, cleaning shit off my carpet, while my in-laws watched. My wife had just died in the room on the other side of the wall. It still smelled like the lotion she liked me to rub on her hands and feet."
A scent memory of citrus and lavender filled Killua's nose. Not lotion. Dryer sheets.
"They make it smell less like death in here," she had said to Killua, in the month before she finally died. She asked him to tuck them under her pillow.
The genuine laughter, the relieved breaking of the morbid tension, explained a great deal about why Gon had been greeted so warmly by the crowd.
Gon's face went from bright sunshine to dusky sunset. Darkness added a gravel to his voice, as if tears were about to burst forth. The circle went quiet.
"I had to take Kon to the pound the next day. I realized I couldn't take care of him. It was a mistake to bring him home."
The stuffy heat of the rectory's basement smelled like years of stale, moldering carpet, and suddenly Killua's stomach turned over inside of him like a capsized boat. He heard sympathetic murmurs, as Gon looked down at the floor between his feet. No one said anything, and Killua thought he was losing his mind. When he couldn't keep the angry words inside, he was as surprised as anyone.
"You took the dog to the pound? That fucking sucks, dude. It's not the dog's fault your wife died, and you were too lazy to take care of it."
All he heard was the rattle and hiss of the baseboard radiators turning on. A gentle swish of hot water through pipes might have just been his blood in his ears. No one looked at anyone else, except through a sideways glance.
As if she'd been waiting for just this cue, June suddenly piped up.
"This is a non-judgmental, safe space, so if you can't respect our group norms, you can...."
It was Gon who interrupted her with an audible shake of his head.
"Mm-mmm, no, I agree with him. He's absolutely right."
When Killua turned his head to see Gon's face, it was staring right back at him, brown eyes shamelessly level with his own. Pink bloomed on Killua's face in an uneven blush from his cheeks to his neck.
June readied herself to say something more, and the dread was a flashpoint of vicarious embarrassment. The woman sitting next to Killua raised her small hand to point towards the clock behind her head.
"June, dear, I think it's break time."
Another release of desperately held tension squeaked out of the room as chairs were pushed back and sighs released, as June nodded and said they should come back in 10 minutes for reflection and closing thoughts.
It shouldn't have taken as long as it did for Killua to push back his chair, stand up, and walk towards the entrance, but his knees were weak and his fingers shook as he pulled the pack of cigarettes and lighter out of his pockets. He used his elbow to push open the door. A blast of icy, snowy wind slapped him in the face, and he couldn't have been more grateful.
There was a "No smoking within 15 feet" sign he considered desecrating with his first drag, but he sighed, and instead shuffled over around the corner of the building, away from the security light.
Nicotine and a chemically induced moment of calm filled Killua's lungs. He started smoking again after she died. She helped him quit. They did it together, actually, when she'd gotten sick. She only ever did it when she drank, or after sex, but still.
The first thing he did after she died was walk across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes. Doom himself to an early death, then, rather than doom a puppy.
It was like Gon had absorbed the light from the room and then the security light, and brought it with him, a human glow star like the one's kids press to their ceiling. Killua said nothing as he ashed his cigarette.
"Do you mind?" Gon asked, stepping close enough to Killua to be heard over the rushing wind.
Killua pushed his eyebrows together in disbelief. "Are you bumming a cigarette?"
Gon shook his head in an exaggerated way, like a toddler would.
"Oh, no, I don't smoke."
Killua took another drag, and quirked one eyebrow up.
"Then what are you doing out here?"
Gon stood casually at ease, with his hands in his pockets.
"Just enjoying some fresh air."
Gon's hair stood upright on his head, spiked with some industrial strength product, and even that waved in the powerful, chilly wind.
"Alright," Killua said. They stood next to each other in an oddly comfortable silence, both staring off into the dark parking lot in front of them.
A question occured to Killua as he dropped his cigarette to the asphalt, too cold to finish it.
"How old are you?"
Gon smiled as he replied.
Killua's eyes went wide.
"Same age as me, then."
Gon's eyes, still big and shiny in the darkness, narrowed.
"Youngest ones here, probably, huh?"
Killua shrugged one shoulder.
"Figured you'd know, you seem like an old hat here by now."
Gon turned toward Killua.
"I've been going for a while. My wife died a year ago."
Killua looked down at his shoes. Flimsy canvas tennis shoes that were no match for winter, but all he could bring himself to bother to wear.
"I'm sorry. I know how much you loved her."
Gon didn't say anything, and even now, Killua found the silence surprisingly soothing. Gon took a deep breath.
"Thanks for what you said in there. I feel shitty about Kon every day. It wasn't fair, he was just a puppy."
"No, it wasn't fair," Killua said. "What part of any of this is fair?"
It was Gon's turn to shrug.
"I don't know."
The time passed for only a minute more, at the most, but Killua wished, stupidly, it could have been longer. His nose started to sting, though, so he gestured with a jerk of his head back towards the door.
"6 weeks is brutal, Killua," Gon said, instead of moving. "I'm sorry. To lose someone you loved."
Reflexes already bone deep after just a month and a half snapped Killua to attention. He almost did a little bow, before stopping himself.
"Thank you for your concern."
Then he turned, and walked towards the door, not looking behind him as he heard Gon walk quickly to keep up.