We’re lost. Angie refuses to admit it, but we’ve strayed far from the road Google Maps is directing us to get back on. On the screen, the moving dot representing our car seems almost as exasperated as I am with my sister’s driving, bouncing from road to road, reloading, and redirecting us until I turn it off altogether, deciding we’ll find our way without it somehow.
Trees tower over us from all sides. The blurs of green flying by are the only thing I’ve seen for miles, while my 7/11 slushie has reduced down to an inch of sticky red water and the snack bag to nothing more than empty, crumpled wrappers stuffed into the front pouch of my backpack.
“Are we even on the road anymore?” I strain to see the ground beneath us without rolling the window down.
“For God’s sake, June, I know what I’m doing.” Another bump sends me pressing myself against the back of my chair to keep from flying through the windshield, the sudden jolt leaving my muscles rigid.
The path- if it can even be called that- is dusty, bumpy, and narrow, so narrow that I can see where the edge of the “road” meets a cliff’s edge and I can see down, down, down to a polluted-looking stream. I bring my eyes back to my phone and turn on a movie that lasts twenty minutes before being in the middle of nowhere executes my service and it isn’t worth waiting through the loading.
We pull into a parking lot identifiable by merely the bumper blocks. I step out into the sultry summer heat, gravel crunching under my shoes, and help Angie carry my bags down a sloped path with a graffitied sign directing us around a wooded area. I can hear the burbling stream from here, and the sun beats down on my face and neck. My legs ache from the sudden movement after almost four hours of sitting.
“Do you see any of your classmates?” Angie asks, stumbling to level ground and wiping her forehead. I shake my head.
The section of woodland spits us out into a clearing. “They might not be here yet.”
“And you’re sure this is the right place?”
She grunts in response. A row of cabins- not with an exterior of stacked wooden logs like I’d imagined- sit against the cloudless azure sky, a post with arrow-shaped signs reading things like “main office” and “showers.” There are trees as far as I can see to the right and other buildings, square-shaped and flat-roofed, to the left.
Gleeful shouts and laughter drift from somewhere behind the cabins, followed by a splash. We approach what I hope is the office and a woman who looks to be in her thirties hands Angie a clipboard.
“She’s with the Crestview Homeschool program, right?” She ties her hair- a shade I can only describe as auburn, not red or brown- into a low ponytail and gives us a crooked smile.
“Yup. She has medication we were told had to be stored here.” Angie flips the page and scribbles her signature across another line before handing the clipboard back. I dig through my bag and hand over a pouch, pills rattling inside.
“Great. We got your email about the amounts and all that. And you’re her…?”
“Mom,” Angie lies. The woman takes the bait and smiles; my jaw unclenches in relief.
“Great. I’m Jeanne Caswell.” She flips through the stack of papers on the clipboard and then looks back up at us. “I think Arabella has the key to the cabin you two are sharing.”
The name sounds familiar, but I can’t attach a face to it. Angie turns to me, tossing her frizzy brown hair, which she’d streaked with purple after moving out, over her shoulder, and scratching the back of her neck.
“You’ll be okay, June?”
“Yeah, I got it from here.”
She hesitates as everybody does before leaving me anywhere by myself and then turns and opens the door. “Call me if you need anything or if something happens-”
I cut her off before she can think twice about our lie, leaving me here, or everything that could go wrong. She touches my shoulder briefly, presses her lips together, and then walks back to her car. Jeanne hands me a paper with a colorful schedule on it.
“Next to us is the dining hall. The counselors have their own cabin and a lounge. You’ll meet all of them tomorrow at orientation, where everything will be explained in-depth, but for tonight, all you need is the basics: no leaving the cabin at night, no wandering off of campgrounds, keep your cell phone away when there’s an activity going on, you get it. Some of the kids from your school are hanging out by the picnic tables.”
She helps me carry my bags to the cabin, where I place them by the door and follow the sound of laughing to the picnic tables behind the cabins. Teenagers lounge across several purple wooden tables, some perched on top of it, others laying across the benches and most huddled into groups. I scan the area for other Crestview Kids.
“June!” Leo waves me over, grinning.
I slide onto the bench next to him. His nose and cheeks are slightly sunburnt, chin-length blonde hair tied back, and a Philadelphia Phantoms cap resting crookedly on his head. We talk about school and comic books for a while, pausing to swat at mosquitoes. The roar of an engine tears my attention from the latest Marvel movie to a girl jogging past the trees. Her hair is curly and frizzy and wild, and she throws her arms around a frail-looking girl, holding up car keys.
“Your favorite cousin got a mustang! Well, technically I got a mustang passed down, but still!”
Jeanne trudges down after her. “Riley, turn the car off before you get out, how many times do I have to tell you that?!”
The girl- Riley- holds her hands up in surrender and mutters a “sorry, sorry” through laughter. No one seems phased from the loud encounter, continuing to laugh and hang out until Jeanne announces we’re going to the dining hall for dinner, which turns out to be an open-spaced, wood-paneled room with star projectors and a screen for movies above rows of round tables. I sit with Leo and two other girls from Crestview.
The diet plan recommended by the hospital comes flooding back to me as I stare down at a corndog, brownie, and pile of fruit on a plastic tray. I’m here to escape being nagged about things like that, I remind myself.
I eat everything on my plate.
After dinner, we’re free to hang out in the dining hall or outside or go to our cabins. While Leo and this girl named Amelia are deep in a conversation about video games, I slip outside.
I haven’t been alone this long in months. It’s refreshing to be able to hear my own thoughts and have nurses’ voices and my parents’ comments and sorrow absent from my mind. As much as it can be, anyway. On a scale of 1-10, my headache is a 2 today. 2 is good. 2 means I can function like a healthy person. 2 means I can have fun.
I don’t miss my parents or siblings as much as I’d thought I would. Carrying these secrets is lonely, but here I’m not alone. Even without anyone by my side, I have tons of other things, most I don’t even know yet, and I manage to push the guilt aside when remembering that this is the only thing I want.
Deciding to retire to the cabin, explore a bit, and read the rest of the graphic novel I brought, I start walking back only to realize halfway there that I still need the key.
Jeanne is still in the dining hall talking to one of the counselors when I find her. “Do you know where Arabella is?”
She makes a clicking sound with her tongue and strains to see over several tables of kids. “Riley! Where’s Arabella?”
Riley cups her mouth with her hands and shouts back “Treehouse!”
“She’s in the treehouse a couple of feet into the woods on the left side of the farthest cabin. It’s hard to see at first, but you’ll-”
I thank her and spend the next three minutes stacking a plate with food and then jogging across the lawn towards where glowing lights shine through the tree branches and pierce the darkness of the evening- lights from the treehouse.
“Arabella? I uh, I’m going to climb up if that’s okay.”
“We’re sharing a cabin and uh, I need the key to get in. I brought you dinner, but I don’t know what you like, so I kinda grabbed some of everything. I’m June by the way. What are you doing up there?” Shut up, June, I scold myself. Stop rambling.
I’m about to turn and give up when she peeks out, holding up a finger in a “one-minute” gesture, and then climbs down. She skips the last two rungs of the ladder nailed onto the tree trunk and lands on both feet. I don’t know where to look first.
Her jeans are torn at the knees, which are bruised with a bandage over one of them. Her eyes are wide and round and the color of American money behind thin-lensed glasses that sit close to the end of her button nose. She folds her arms in front of her chest and the breeze causes the edges of her flannel to lift.
“Uh, this is for you. Again, sorry if it’s stuff you don’t like. I just thought that since you didn’t show up to dinner- why didn’t you show up by the way? Are you okay?” I thrust the plate at her, which she stares at for a long moment before taking from me. “I came by to get the key. Uhm, you and I are sharing a cabin.”
I wince at how long I’ve been talking and stuff my hands into my pockets. My palms sweat. I’m nervous, I realize after shifting my weight from foot to foot for the third time. I want her to like me.
“Uh, thanks. For the food, I mean.” She pulls a key from the front pocket of her jeans and tosses it to me. “Here’s the key.”
“How many people have died here?” I blurt. The gears in my head start turning, and I start firing off questions. “Are there a lot of ghost stories about any of the buildings? Who designed the place? The architecture in the dining hall reminds me of that of Greek buildings- or maybe Victorian. I don’t remember. How long have you been coming here?”
She opens and then closes her mouth, adjusting her glasses. “I don’t know if anyone has died here. There are no recorded deaths. There aren’t any ghost stories about entities residing on campgrounds, but I’ve heard stories about things in the woods. And you were correct when you said it’s similar to the structure of Greek buildings; the Victorian era was 1837-1901, and buildings were typically dollhouse-like with bright colors.”
I blink twice, not having expected her to have a Wikipedia page on architecture memorized. Is every camp regular like this? “It’s June, by the way.” I give her a smile that I pray doesn’t make my dimples stand out. “As in that’s my name. I know you know what month it is, I just-” I rock back on my heel. Why am I so stupid? “I’ll stop talking now.”
She continues to stare at me, lips parted and what I think is a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. When she says nothing, I suck in a breath and turn on my heel.
“I’ll be in the cabin- uh…” I trail off, looking at her one last time and noticing a red mark beneath her eye. It stretches from her cheekbone to her ear, and once again I can’t keep my mouth shut. “Are you okay?”
She almost sounds irritated in her response. “Yes. I’m fine. Don’t wait up for me. Not that I assumed you would.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll see you around?”
It earns me a shrug and half-smile with absent effort. I wonder which part of me annoyed her the most. “Sure.”
Before I can mess anything up further, I jog to the cabin, key in hand, the serrated side digging into my palm. I curse myself the entire way. Clearly, we aren’t going to be the time of roommates that stay up all night talking or paint each other’s nails and gossip. I get a hollow ache in my chest. It grows as I unpack my clothes and set them in a wooden bureau, leaving half the drawers empty for Arabella.
The cabin has two beds, with matching cherry-colored comforters, a nightstand with a lamp and clock on it, and a fur rug covering the hardwood between the beds. A shelf to hold luggage sits against the back wall next to the sink. I crack the single window open and take out the real reason I’m here.
My mind wanders back to the hospital. I don’t miss the sterile white walls or freezing tile floors, nor the bland food or pinch of needles, but I miss her. I wonder if she remembers me, and my chest aches.
She could be dead. She could be better. All I have is the bucket list she’d started when things got worse than they’d ever been. Cancer didn’t care that the list was unfinished. While the activities she’d started to think of and scribble down grew in quantity, so did the cancer cells.
But this isn’t my list; these were her goals at the time, not mine. I set the crumpled paper on the bed next to my notepad and start writing. One summer. One list. One person, if possible. Everything that will mean I’ve lived, not just existed.
I stay up to write until I fall asleep on the rug.
Thank you for reading!
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