fighting bullying one novel at a time
Here's how CAMP begins…
When I was fourteen, not quite four years ago, I’d lie awake at night and pray my mother would die.
If I had known her secret, I might not have hated her. But my parents didn’t tell me about the ghost that slipped into the hospital the day I was born. It crept across my umbilical cord, linking me to my mother’s past. Then it wedged right between us. My father said doctors couldn’t explain the purple blotches on my chest. But now I’m sure of this: That phantom punched me hard. And though the black-and-blues faded before I could crawl, the ghost kept pushing my mother from me, flexing its muscles, bulking up. So by the time my parents sent me to sleepaway camp, that ghost was larger than I was. I just hadn’t seen it yet.
Dad sprang the news about camp on us in the fall when I was in ninth grade. “I heard from my brother today,” he announced at dinner as my mother carried a plate of lamb chops to the kitchen table. The smell of meat thickened the air. “Ed closed the deal on that girls camp he’s been looking at.”
My mother’s hands shook on hearing Ed’s name. Back then, in 1962, I couldn’t have guessed the real reason my uncle rattled her, though I would find out in time.
“And there’s great news for you, Amy,” my father told me. He smiled so wide I saw his gold tooth. “Guess who’s going to sleepaway?” Dad used his happy-birthday voice, the tone usually followed by a brightly wrapped package.
But camp was a present I didn’t want. What if all the girls knew each other from past summers? And how could I leave my little brother, Charlie? Who would play with him when he’d come home from summer school at The Woodland Center for Handicapped Children? Who would read to him while our mother made supper or brought the laundry up from the basement or mopped the bathroom floor?
“Dad, I don’t want to go,” I said flatly.
“You’re not worried about the cost, honey, are you?” He kept talking before I could tell him that wasn’t it—not at all. “’Cause everything’s worked out already. I’ll help Uncle Ed with the bookkeeping, and you’ll go to camp for free. Isn’t that great news?” My father lifted his water glass as if to toast me. “The two oldest cabins are for girls just your age.”
My mother uncovered a pot. The lid clanged the stove. “Lou, you said we’d discuss this when the deal went through. We need to talk about it.”
“We will. It’ll be fine.” My father faced me and smiled again.
“Dad, I really don’t want to go.” What if nobody liked me? I’d be all alone. Not even Charlie to talk to, to care for. I slid closer to him and jabbed a bite of meat. But when I held out his fork, my brother refused it. Instead, he drummed the table—a kind of frenzied patting.
“Don’t be silly, Amy,” my father said. “Of course you want to go. Who wouldn’t want eight weeks by a lake in Maine?”
“Lou,” my mother said once more, turning from the stove this time. She stared hard at my father, then fixed on Charlie. “I said we need to talk about this.”
“But Ed says it’s a beautiful place.”
“What could Ed possibly know about running a camp?”
“Sonia, come on, Sonia. He’ll learn. And the property’s terrific. In great shape, Ed says.”
“I don’t care what Ed says.”
“Why can’t you just be happy for him? We’re family, for God’s sake. Brothers support each other. And anyhow, Ed got a good deal, and Amy gets to go to camp. What could be wrong with that?”
“I told you,” my mother answered. “Ed doesn’t know the first thing about running a camp.”
“And I told you he’ll learn. And he won’t even have to change a thing. He already talked to the head counselor. She’s been there two or three summers, and she said she’ll come back.”
“Dad, I really don’t think...” I placed a hand on Charlie’s, stilling his fingers. Everything stopped: the air in the kitchen, the swish of my mother’s spoon in the vegetable pot, the questions in my mind.
“Your mother’s right, Amy. Right as usual. She and I will talk about this later.”
I forced a playfulness into my voice then, a reassurance for myself as well as for Charlie that nothing would change, that no one would go away for the summer. “Let’s pour some ketchup, buddy. Then you can dip, okay?”
My mother turned a thimbleful of peas onto Charlie’s plate. He grabbed his fork, holding it tight in his scrawny fist. “No.” Charlie mustered up his gravelly voice. “No. No!” He swiped at his plate, sending meat and vegetables through the kitchen.
My mother leaped up behind him, her hands heavy on Charlie’s birdlike shoulders.
“It’s okay, son,” my father said, as Charlie struggled to twist loose, his eyes finding mine.
“Mom, let him go!” The words spilled from my mouth. I couldn’t stop them, though I knew I’d get in trouble. “Please, Mom. You’re hurting him.” I looked to my father in silent pleading: Do something.
My mother’s eyes burned into me. “You think you’re so smart, Amy? You know what’s best for your brother? Then you make him behave.”
“Please,” I tried again, my voice softer now. “Just let him go, Mom.”
“Oh, you don’t know anything, Amy,” she said. Charlie wriggled faster to escape our mother’s grip. “You don’t know anything. Nothing.”
“But you’re hurting him!” I tried once more, my courage fueled by anger. How dare she treat Charlie like that. “Stop squeezing his shoulders!”
My mother shot Dad a look. “Don’t you tell your mother how to manage her own son, young lady,” my father said.
Charlie finally freed himself and flew from the kitchen. I followed my brother up the stairs, pounding the steps to the beat in my mind: I hate her. I hate her. I wish she were dead.
I hated how my mother made my father buckle. I hated how my mother treated Charlie. I hated how she made me feel unworthy of her love.
That night my father told us about camp, I prayed my mother would die.
And here's what happens shortly after Amy arrives at Camp Takawanda, when Rory, Amy's nemesis, gets her bullying campaign in gear...
“Amy, you lied to us.” Rory addressed me from her bed after lights out.
“What do you mean?” Fear choked my words.
“You lied to us, and people who lie get punished. Isn’t that right, girls?”
A flashlight beamed through the screen door, aiming like a rifle at each bed. “Bunk 9, pipe down in there.” The on-duty counselor used a schoolteacher voice. “And if I have to warn you ladies again, I’ll spend this OD shift sitting in your cabin.”
Silence filled the room while the light scanned us again. Then the creak of the wooden stoop, the counselor settling in by our door. Please stay, I prayed. Please don’t go away.
I lay frozen with fright. How had I lied? And what would they do to me?
The cabin stilled, the eye of the hurricane. Not a ruffling of blankets and sheets. Not a sneeze or a throat-clearing. No, this wouldn’t be a prank like my bra up the flagpole. Rory’s accusation, the way she had stretched lied into two syllables, signaled something darker.
I wished I had confided in Patsy. Now all my hope rested with the counselor by our door. Please don’t go away, I prayed again.
But the stoop creaked. Then soft footsteps. The crunching of pine needles and twigs.
“Shhh.” The warning came from the front of the cabin. It had to be Rory. My heart galloped in my ears. “She’s going to the counselor shack.” Yes, Rory’s voice. I knew it even in a whisper. “That bridge game in there’ll go on for hours. But we’ll wait a few minutes just to be safe, make sure she’s gone for good.”
This was it then. My initiation. Oh my God.
“So you lied to us, Amy,” Rory said again.
“About what?” was all I could think to say. Tears burned the back of my eyes. Don’t let them hear you cry, I warned myself.
“You said you met the kitchen boys, Andy and Jed. But I talked to them, and I know you didn’t. So you just stay where you are while we get ready for your special introduction. You got that?”
I tried to slip into my mother’s armor: no outer world in; no inner world out. But my tears wouldn’t stop.
“I said you got that, Amy Becker?” Rory asked once more.
“Enough, Rory,” Donnie whispered. “And in case you forgot, she’s the owner’s niece. This could really get you in trouble.”
I wanted to reach out to her, my new friend. But fear kept me still, my blanket pulled tight around me. When would Patsy get back from her night out? She had told us she was heading into town with the other first-year counselors. Uncle Ed had offered to drive them, she had said.
“You think I’m that stupid, Donnie-girl?” Rory’s voice stayed hushed. “Well, we don’t have to worry about Mr. Becker. Robin, his daughter, is coming with us. Everyone is. And Amy won’t snitch to anyone. Isn’t that right, Amy Becker? It’s been two days, and I know you by now.”
Rory didn’t wait for my answer. “So Donnie-girl,” she continued, “you’re either with us or with her. And if you’re with her, you get the same treatment she does. Your choice.”
“Okay. Okay,” Donnie whispered. “Let’s just do it already.”
“Don’t be so hasty. The boys aren’t meeting us till 10:30, and the counselors off duty won’t be back till midnight. So let’s take our time and do this the right way.”
On Rory’s command, the girls got out of bed and found their flashlights.
“Good. I think we’re set.” Rory’s tone softened, even in a whisper. “Now there’s nothing to be scared of, Amy. Just a little something we planned, a special way for you to meet those kitchen boys you lied about.”
I focused on Rory’s words, trying to ignore the turning in my stomach. Please, God, I prayed. Please don’t let them hurt me.
“So get up and out of your nightgown,” Rory ordered. “And don’t bother getting dressed. You won’t need any clothes.”
“Knock it off,” Rory said, then addressed me once more. “Just put your robe on, and take your flashlight...no...on second thought, no flashlight. You won’t need that either.”
I wriggled from my blanket and stood in the cool air. Why couldn’t I say no? No, Rory. I’m not coming. I tried to push the words from my mouth, but nothing came. Without a sound, I stripped off my nightgown, reached for my robe—on the nail with my laundry bag—and shivered as I put it on.
“Blindfold her,” Rory whispered.
Jessica used what felt like the tie from a starched beach robe, the terry cloth scratchy on my face. “And make sure it’s tight enough so she can’t see anything.” Jessica yanked the band until I thought my heart would shoot through my skull.
“Now, Donnie, since you’ve been telling me to ease up, I’m putting you in charge of leading her with me. And don’t even think of doing anything stupid.” With Rory pulling me by my left arm and Donnie guiding me by my right, we stepped into the night. I heard Jessica, Fran, and Karen behind us.
“Shhh,” Rory commanded, when we met another group, the girls from Bunk 10, I assumed. “No talking. You all know the plan.”
Want to know what happens next?