I’d waited a year to see the June sun reflect on the lake—the feeling it brought each summer was indescribable. I stared out the back seat window, letting my phone drop to my lap as the unparalleled sense of belonging overshadowed the blue light’s magnetism.
“Honey,” my dad said in his irritating, sing-songy voice, “remember to write to us when you get the chance. Your sister cried every day last year because she missed you so much.”
I stared over at Caroline, her innocent little pigtails protruding from her skull. I wanted to pull them.
“Please!” she shrieked, “Write me a letter!”
I rolled my eyes. “Why do you need a letter? It’s, what, eight weeks? You’ll survive. What are you gonna do when I go away to college in a year?”
Tears began to gloss her eyes. “I don’t want you to leave!” she cried. “I want you to stay with us forever!”
“Grow up and get over it,” I replied with a scoff.
My mother’s face whipped around from the driver’s seat. “Don’t talk to your sister like that,” she said through gritted teeth. “Give her a hug and tell her you love her.”
Green leaves framed my field of view as we pulled into the driveway. Still looking out the window, I didn’t even look her in the eye when I responded, “Can’t. I’m wearing a seatbelt.”
The glass superimposed my parents’ reflections on the sparkling lake as they exchanged horrified expressions.
I picked up my phone to write my last few texts—mostly reminders to friends that I would be gone for eight weeks in the middle of the woods without Internet access. I took off my seatbelt as soon as the car stopped, flinging the door open and jumping onto the gravel within the same instant.
My father rolled down his window as I ran to open the trunk. “Get back here right now, Parker, and apologize to your sister.” I looked into the back seat as I pulled out my duffel bag. Her eyes were inflated from salty tears, and her lips quivered, exposing the gap between her front teeth.
Seeing her cry made me feel guilty. But the sickening feeling of letting the word “sorry” escape from my lips was far more daunting. I, instead, glanced at an invisible watch on my wrist. “Sorry. Looks like I’m running late for the opening campfire. Got to go,” I said, knowing full well that the campfire didn’t start at noon.
“See you on visiting day.” I slid my Ray Bans on and walked into freedom.
· · · · · · ·
When I was a first-year, I was terrified each night by a strange animal noise coming from the woods. I could never quite figure out what type of animal it was, but its cacophonous shrieks provoked the image association of a hooded demon. My bunkmates and I would share our suspicions as to what creature might have been capable of making this horrendous noise, but the counselors always claimed that they hadn’t heard anything. By our second year, the mysterious noise was long forgotten, eclipsed by the excitement and wonder of sleepaway camp.
Camp was so beautiful. When I arrived each year, I felt as if each breath I took built up a force field for everything that tethered my spirits. The light that leaked through the trees, the glow of the sun hitting the sand at the bottom of the lake, the green mountains that framed the blue sky—these were the factors that I thought of whenever I tried to figure out what, exactly, conjured this unidentifiable sensation that I experienced only at camp.
The one fiber of the tether string that always managed to punch a hole in the force field was my family. Their letters were the nexus that grounded me—a reminder that the real, awfully-comprehensible world still lay beyond the camp’s gates. I always dreaded reading them. The first year, it was because of homesickness; the second, because they took too long to read; the third, there was only one, and it was all about how Caroline had said her first words and I had missed it. The fourth year, they simply annoyed me. Now, each time I read their notes, guilt ripped at my chest. Just five more weeks, I reminded myself. Then you’ll go home and they’ll be so overwhelmed with joy that you won’t even need to apologize. I considered writing back. Every day, I thought about it. But I’d gone so long without apologizing; it was too late to give in now.
· · · · · · ·
The fourth Monday of camp, the familiar sound of stacked envelopes hitting the table pierced my eardrums. I sat on my bed, as usual, while the other girls eagerly crowded around the pile. I always hoped that there would be no reason to get up, but there was always an envelope addressed to me. As I got up reluctantly to collect my mail today, however, I found a letter from Caroline. It read:
I love you! You’re the best big sister ever. I miss you. I can’t wait to see you on visiting day and give you a big hug and kiss.
Her words were simple, but they shattered my heart. All I could think about as I read her messy handwriting was how tears had streaked her face the last time I’d seen her. And how those tears had been my fault. Regret stabbed me. I didn’t deserve such a kind note—not even with an apology. What I’d done was irreversible, and it tormented me.
· · · · · · ·
That night, her tear-streaked face haunted my dreams. I heard her shrieks, intensely amplified. I saw my parents’ shared glance of horror in slow motion, telling me what an abominable person I was. I woke abruptly with a film of sweat on my forehead. My hair was plastered to my neck, and my pillow was damp. Wiping my face with my sleeve, I slid out of bed and put my shoes on. I stepped silently out the door and crept along the dirt path to the bathroom, imagining cool, soothing sink water on my face. But when I reached for the door, I heard the most alarming sound known to human ears: the creature.
Its sound was even more terrifying than it had been first-year. It was loud and shrill, and it made my head spin. The scariest part was, perhaps, that I was alone—or maybe it was the feeling of losing control. For four years, I’d been free of the demon’s cry; for it to return, at an age when I ought to have had far more reason and security, made my spine shake with adrenaline.
I turned to run back to the cabin, but that was when I saw it creep out of the darkness. It had eight furry, yet spindly, legs and the body of a centipede. It had no face—only teeth. I screamed and ran, but one of its awful legs wrapped around my neck. I grimaced at its horrible limb as it lifted me twenty feet up to its fangs. I braced myself for the pain, both physical and mental. I felt my vision blur as hot tears boiled in my eyes—tears for my mother and father, to whom I’d never said goodbye. Tears for Caroline, who received neither the apology nor the sister she deserved. The monster’s ugly teeth were about to puncture my skin. But I never felt pain.
My eyes shot open. Expecting to see darkness, or maybe the flames of hell, I saw the light brown wood of the bed above mine. Feeling around anxiously, I found myself in my own bed in the safety of the cabin. My breathing began to slow with a sense of relief greater than I can ever explain. I could see the golden sunrise through the windows, making the lake glow. Using the new morning’s light, I took out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to Caroline.