When I was nine, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp for two weeks. It took me only one week to bring the place to its knees.
Now the prospect of sleep-away camp was awesome, because when you are a painfully awkward, try-hard bag of weird with no friends and mean stupid brothers, summer camp is basically your one hope for positive human interaction during the summer.
Possibly, just possibly, there will be a cool counselor who will teach you about Dungeons & Dragons, and, by extension, life. And possibly, just possibly, there will be other kids who don’t already know what a loser you are and by some miracle won’t be able to smell it on site. And possibly, just possibly, for a week or so, you’ll fit in somewhere.
However, the actuality of sleep away camp was that my tent was full of exquisitely groomed and extremely judgmental nine-year-olds who all went to school together and were already friends. They could smell my weird on sight.
Here’s how meeting them went:
Counselor: “Girls, this is your new bunkmate, Jennifer.”
Me: “HI I’M JENNIFER I LIKE READING AND SOCCER …and sometimesscienceandEscapefromWitchMountain…”
Them: “Why does sheeeeeee have to be here? Can’t we have Leeeeeetha?”
The camp administrators had cruelly assigned one of their friends from home, Lisa, to a different cabin. So not only was I Jennifer, official weirdbag, with a last name that contains both “Pee” and “Ass,” I was the cruel instrument dividing them from a perfect summer of hanging with their bestie, Lisa.
I tried really hard to be friendly.
They tried really hard to let me know it would be better if I killed myself.
It did not start small. Within the span of about two days, they put dog shit in my sleeping bag and put weird, gross things on my face while I slept. They stole my underwear and festooned it around the camp so that I had to go collect it from trees. They put my hand in warm water so I would pee the bedroll (that totally works, by the way). Worst of all, the Buddy System completely broke down where I was concerned, so I had to swim alone, eat alone, hike alone, and worst of all, pee in the creepy latrines alone.
Our tent counselor, Pammie, was busy learning to blow smoke rings and lose her virginity, or whatever she did at night, and was no help whatsoever. The other adults had the usual adult solutions: Ignore them. Be nicer. They are good girls from nice homes, I’m sure they will be reasonable if you just ask them. Are you sure you’re not doing something to antagonize them?Subtext: Be less weird, kid.
I begged them to let me switch with Lisa. I just wanted everyone to be happy and to sleep through the night again. But in the name of “learning to get along,” they left me there.
They stranded me.
So they deserved what they got.
My opportunity for revenge came unexpectedly. The girls had started telling spooky stories at night, and one night one of them passed the flashlight to me. I didn’t want to, at first, but for the first time they were actually talking to me like a person, so I tried to rise to the occasion.
You see, there was a ghost of a camper, and sometimes you would hear her footsteps behind you, or feel her ghostly hand in yours in the lake, or hear her weeping late at night in the bathroom. Her parents had been in a terrible accident when she was at camp and never came to pick her up, so she stayed here, forgotten about, until she died.
The next night, they asked for more of the story. What happened to her? Where was she?
It was the bathrooms, I said. The latrines were haunted. And I mean, seriously fucking haunted.
You see, late at night you would go to the bathroom alone and hear someone crying it the stalls. And you might want to say “Psssst, are you okay?” but you must never do this. You must never, ever speak to that girl, because it’s not a girl, it’s the ghost. And right there with the ghost, is the thing that murdered her. It would wait until some girl answered back, and it would slither under the stall partitions using the sound of your voice to find you in the dark. It would reach out under the side of the stall with its claw—or was it a shiny silver blade?—and slash through your Achilles tendon. Now that you were immobilized, it would drag you away, into the woods, into its cave or shed or nest, and it would eat you and dress up in your clothes.
You’d be a ghost, then, and you’d be bound to it, and it would use you to lure in another little girl. You had to stay with it until you helped it capture someone else. Then you could go to heaven.
How did I know this, my bunkmates wondered.
“Well, I have to go to the bathroom alone all the time, and one night I heard her in the next stall. “
“Are you kidding? That was probably just a kid.”
“No, she told me. She warned me what would happen. “
“But you talked to her, so why aren’t you dead?”
“I pulled my feet up out of the way, so when it reached under the stall it couldn’t find me. It couldn’t get me, so it gave up. “
“Are you saying that you saw this thing?”
“Yes. And it’s not a claw. It’s a knife.”
The knife I described was silver, and curved, and vaguely ceremonial in nature. It was also something that conveniently was in the display case of Genuine Indian Artifacts from the camp’s “history” exhibit.
I told them that after it left she said it was angry, and that now it is making her get two campers instead of one. So she’s on the lookout.
That night, three girls in my tent wet the bed.
The next night, five of the eight of us wet the bed. The rest of us peed in the woods, holding each other’s hands and whispering comforting words.
By the following day, the story had spread through the campers. The latrines were silent, completely empty, as 200 girls began to pee in the lake and bury their shit in the woods and form pee platoons to guard each other.
On Day 5, I watched the ringleader of my former tormentors wet her pants in front of me because she had held her pee too long and was too scared to go outside or to the bathroom. Also on Day 5, campers had begun calling home in hysterics, asking their parents to come get them. Girls were fainting, having weird crying episodes.
By Day 6, I was the most popular and interesting girl at camp. EVERYONE wanted to sit by me, to know me, to hear more about the bathroom ghost.
On Day 7, the administrators sent me home from summer camp with seven days left to go for causing “a disturbance.” They apologetically refunded my mom’s money, said some words about it being a “bad influence” and kicked me out. My mom was both livid and embarrassed. She wanted to know what I did. I told the truth: I told a ghost story, and it freaked the other kids out. But they had ASKED. They asked me for a story.
Day 8 passed without incident at home. From the phone call that my mother got on Day 9, something like “chaos” and “mass hysteria not seen since the Salem Witch Trials” was going on at camp. The camp was very sorry they’d sent me home, and they’d like to invite me back, if perhaps maybe I could come and tell the girls that it was just a story that I’d made up and that it wasn’t really true?
Did I even want to go back, my mom wondered? Oh yes, I said.
On Day 10 I found myself back in my old cabin. It didn’t smell good in there. It smelled like fear. And pee. My former tormenters surrounded me, white-faced and worried. When I had left so suddenly, they were sure the monster had gotten me somehow, and that the camp was just lying about kicking me out. So the rumor had spread that I was dead. These bullies who had hated me so much had turned my bedroll into a small shrine, with flowers and stuffed animals.
Here is where I was supposed to take it all back.
Here is where I was supposed to apologize for scaring them, and tell them it was made up.
Here’s where I said, “It’s all true.”