Summer Camp Horror
Before I even have a chance to pull the van to a stop, Kelly leaps out. Brenda yells at her to be careful, that she can’t help anyone if she cracks a leg under a tire. Her fear makes her words harsh. Kelly tells her to shut up as she spills out, kicking up freshly cut grass and gravel in her wake. She’s gone in seconds, just glimpses of pink windbreaker between the trees before she’s swallowed entirely by darkness.
I can hear the rest scrambling with the doors, so I park as quickly as I can and hit the automatic unlock button. Everyone pushes out like clowns from a clown car, clutching their jackets in the unusually chilly summer night. No one makes any plans to search the camp as a group, where to rendezvous, nothing. They split off alone or in small groups, all yelling different names and are gone.
I can hear them like a chorus fading in and out in their frantic searches.
“Sadie! Sadie! Sweetie? Come on out, baby. It’s your mom! Sadie?”
“ALEX! ALEX? ALEX!”
“Tosha? You’re gonna be in HUGE TROUBLE if you don’t come out RIGHT NOW.”
“Becka? I brought your extra inhaler! BECKA!”
It isn’t long before I’m standing beside the van alone. I slide my hands into the pocket of my coat. A weird feeling tickles along the back of my neck, and I hit the lock button on the keyfob until I hear the horn. It gives me a tiny feeling of control.
Some of the other parents are familiar with the camp.They said so in hushed, panicked tones on the drive over. Some attended themselves when they were kids. I imagine they know all the nooks and crannies, carved their names in the wood of the bunk beds and hid joints in loose wall boards.
I don’t know the camp that well, but I feel responsible. My daughter, Violet, is the head counselor. The last text message I got from her–the last text message any of us got from any of our kids–was a simple, one word text.
I finally step away from the car into the night. The moon is doing its best to lend some light, but its efforts are meager at best. I push down the rocky path towards the first building off the path. The worn wooden sign on the door reads Rec Hall. The door hangs open on crooked hinges and I push it open, holding my breath and listening for any sign of life.
There aren’t any.
This is the last place I saw Violet. I remember the crinkled smile on her freckle-kissed face, her promise that everything would be OK. Standing with a clipboard and camp logo hat, she almost looked grown. I break the memory, my voice barely a whisper.
I get the horrible feeling that if I start to yell her name, this will all feel too real.
“Violet?” I call again.
The back door of the Rec Center slams open and my heart drops into my stomach.
“No, it's Steph,” a voice answers. “Sorry, Abby. Any luck finding Violet?”
“No,” I reply. “What about Casey?”
“Nothing. I don’t…Abby, I don’t think anyone’s here.” A crazy laugh breaks out of her. “But-that’s not…no.”
"Let's not panic. Where have we already searched?"
“Kelly’s been down by the lake. There’s a bunch of towels all laid out. Like they were just there. There’s plates and trays all over the mess hall. For christ’s sake, Abby. Are you listening?”
“I don’t understand it.” I say, shaking my head.
“They’re just not here,” Steph says, voice tightening. “Where are they, Abby?”
I take a breath, finding my throat completely dry.
“Where are they?” She asks again, grabbing the lapels of my jacket.
“Steph! I don’t know!”
“Violet was in charge. Violet did something.” Steph’s grip tightens and I wonder if she’s going to do something to me.
“Stop this,” I say, keeping my voice level. “We need to keep looking.” After a beat or two, I put my hands over hers. Steph seems to return to herself and lets go of me. The sides of the jacket stay all crumpled up where her hands were.
“You’re right,” she says faintly. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Violet’s missing too,” I remind her. “Help me look. Come on. Let's look together.”
She nods and leads the way out of the Rec Center. Once she’s no longer facing me, I adjust my jacket and fall in step behind her.
Outside, the chorus of parents desperately calling their children’s names over and over from all corners of the camp is like a haunting melody.
“Have they checked all the dorm cabins?” I ask, falling into step with Steph.
“Joan and Milo checked the lower hill dorms,” she says. “I think Fia and Gary were headed to the lake cabins. We could check the counselor cabins behind the mess hall?” I nod, letting her put together a plan and follow after her, quickening my pace to keep up with her long strides.
With nothing more to say, we fall into silence. I bunch my hands up in my pockets.
“I had some reservations about putting Violet in charge,” Steph says. I open my mouth, but she plows on as if I wasn’t even there. “She’s too young, and the other girls don’t respect her. She doesn’t have enough experience. We…we shouldn’t have put this on her.”
“That’s my daughter you’re talking about,” I snap, eager for my elevated feelings to have an outlet. “She is responsible, and experienced with camping. This isn’t her first time being in charge of something like this, and whatever is happening is not her fault. I suggest you focus on finding your own child and keep your mouth shut.”
I can feel Steph prickling beside me. After a few moments pass, her anger breaks.
“I’m sorry,” Steph sighs. I try to pick out her facial features in the dark and find I can’t.“I’m just…so afraid.”
“I know,” I say. "It'll be ok."
Before we get all the way to the counselor cabins, a commotion breaks out across the lake. White hot panic grips me and, beside me, I can feel Steph choke on her breath.
“Come on,” I say, taking her hand. “Let's just go see what it is.”
We get there as Kelly dumps a sack of something out on the grass.. Cell phones, I realize, dozens of them. I recognize Violet’s right away.
“What is this?” I heard someone ask from the dark. From across the camp, the parents began to assemble.
“They put all their phones in one place,” I say, forcing a calm, steady tone.
“Why?” asks another worried parent.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe Violet did this. Maybe she made them put up their phones for the week to get back to nature or something.”
I answer evenly despite wanting to snap again. “Violet wouldn’t do that. It’s against the rules, and she knows how important it is for some kids to keep in touch with their families. This was something else.”
“We all got the same text though, right?” Steph chimes in. “Why would they all send a text asking for help, then shove their phones into a bag?”
Instead of answering, I reach down and pick up Violet’s phone. It’s locked, and I don’t know the passcode. Then, an idea occurs to me.
“Everyone, take your kid's phone,” I instruct.”Then we’ll know if anyone is missing.” For a moment, the parents fumble around until most of the phones are collected. One phone sits on its own in the grass, claimed by no one.
“Is anyone’s phone missing?” I ask.
No one speaks.
“If no one’s phone is missing…then who’s phone is that?” Kelly asks. Again, no one has an answer. I reach down and move to pick it up.
“Wait!” Steph grabs my arm. “What about fingerprints?”
“Oh for God’s sake, Steph, I’m gonna pick it up,” I scoff. The phone is a bit bigger and heavier than Violet’s. It doesn’t look like any phone I’ve ever seen. I hold it up for the others to see.
“Does this look familiar to any of you?” I ask. The phone catches the light of the moon and seems to short out in my hand. It fizzles alarmingly before emitting several popping sounds. I drop it with a squeak. "What the hell?!"
We all peer over the phone, waiting for something to happen. A strange black liquid began to seep through the now cracked screen. After a moment, all eyes turned back to me.
"OK, Abby, what the hell is this?" Steph’s accusatory tone irritates me and before I can open my mouth to rake her across the coals, a scream interrupts us both.
All heads snap in the direction of the scream.
"Mom!" A voice yells.
Steph shoves me out of the way and breaks into a sprint towards the counselor cabins,the rest of the parents at her heels. After a long moment, I lean down and pick up the broken phone and the sack. No sense in littering.
I hear excited chattering as the parents make it to the door of the cabin and push in, quickly overcrowding the room. Children are scooped into expectant arms, and tears fall on their faces.
I think we're OK.
I wasn't able to see it, but I hope Violet was able to arrange them in a way that they looked natural. That is, like a bunch of terrified children hiding in a cabin, and not arranged in the neat blue-eyed rows like last year. They may be weird little alien clones of children, but they don't have to look like it.
Every year we get a little better. The replacements from four years ago couldn't talk, so we had to pretend the trauma they experienced was so bad, it left them non-verbal. Now, it’s just a matter of arranging them, getting the parents scared enough to pick them up early. Coordinating things correctly. Signaling them with the communication device.
Aside from getting roughed up by Steph, I believe this to be one of our best years.
I lock eyes with Violet across the chaotic room. Already, parents are rushing outside with their 'kids,’ checking over and over to make sure they’re unharmed and hugging them far too tightly.
Before long, the cabin is empty save for Violet and myself.
"Took a long time getting those help texts sent," I chide.
"Yeah, well, something was glitchy with the service or something," my daughter snaps back. "How many more years do we have to do this?"
"Six,” I say quietly. “That was the agreement.”
"You should have let them take me," She says, beginning to collect her things.
"Never,” I say, unflinchingly.”I would do this every year for the rest of my life to keep you."
Violet doesn't answer, just flings her bag over her shoulder and heads out with the group. She’s immediately apologetic, placating the angry parents as they assail her with questions.
I stay in the cabin, stealing just a brief moment to myself. Violet is safe for another year. That is all that matters.
Outside, parents guide their kids toward the van. Many are clamped tightly between one or two adults. Several people are on their phones.
None of them notices how strongly the moonlight catches in the children’s eyes.