Camp Bonhomie ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
August put the strap of his duffle bag over his shoulder and looked around the room as if seeing it for the last time. His eyes lingered fondly over the books, the closet that held his clothes, the door to the bathroom, the writing desk, the bed that (he realized now) was the best and most comfortable bed in the world. He wouldn’t be back for two weeks and two weeks is a long time when you’re going someplace you don’t want to go. He was already homesick and he hadn’t even left yet.
He had been going to take the bus but his father agreed as a kind of concession to drive him the hundred miles to camp. He was silent the entire way, staring grimly out the window. When he saw a sign that said they had only ten miles to go, his mouth went dry and he felt a sick feeling in his stomach.
“You’re going to have such a good time,” his father said, as if reading his mind.
“I don’t want to do this,” August said. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“You’re not going to be sick,” his father said. “ You’re going to be fine. Look, we all have to do things we don’t want to do. That’s the way life is. Sometimes those things we don’t want to do can turn out to be very good for us.”
“Mother wouldn’t have made me go.”
“Your doctor had to pull some strings to get you accepted. Not everybody can get into this camp.”
“I wish I had been one of the ones that couldn’t get in.”
“He believes it’s the best thing for you at this point in your development.”
“He’s an idiot. I’d like to see him spend two weeks away from home in a strange place with a bunch of strangers he doesn’t care to know.”
“Give it a chance, August. Please, for my sake.”
“How do you know I won’t run away when nobody’s looking. Hitchhike back home?”
“Is that what you’re planning on doing?”
“No, I’m just saying ‘what if’.”
“I don’t want you hitchhiking. You’re only thirteen years old. You don’t know what the world is like yet.”
“I have a pretty good idea.”
“I don’t want to find you in a ditch with your throat cut and God only knows what else.”
“It might turn out to be a good thing.”
When they came to the camp, his father pulled off the highway and went up an enormous hill where the trees were so thick they kept out the sunlight. He turned in at a gate marked “welcome” at the top of the hill and drove around a winding drive to a low, rustic building where new arrivals were supposed to check in. He parked the car and turned off the engine.
“That’s all right,” August said. “You don’t have to wait. You can just drop me off.”
“No,” his father said. “This is your first time away from home. I want to see where you’ll be staying. I want to talk to the person in charge.”
They went inside. His father waited patiently while August stood in line to sign in. When he had his room assignment, his father insisted on going to the room with him and seeing it. He wanted to have a picture in his head to take back home, he said, of the place where August would be staying.
Each cabin had four rooms with four boys to a room. August was in room two of cabin eight. The three other boys who would be staying in the room with him had already arrived, so August had to take the bed that was left over. He didn’t mind because it was the bed that was the farthest from the others. He threw his bag down and turned to his father.
“You can go now,” he said.
“You’ll be all right?” his father asked. “You like the room?”
“Does it matter?”
“Aren’t you going to say good-bye to me before I go?”
“Won’t you miss me?”
“Probably not as much as you think I should.”
His father put his hands on his shoulders, patted him twice, and then left him alone in the room. Out the window August saw him talking to one of the counselors, a thin young man dressed all in white. His father had his back to the window but August could see the face of the counselor as it went from jolly to seriously attentive. He knew his father was telling him August’s history of emotional problems and how they had all been trying to get August to open up to others and emerge from his self-imposed isolation before it was too late.
After his father drove away, August lay down on the bed, not knowing exactly what he was supposed to do. In a little while his three roommates came in and August stood up. They introduced themselves and shook hands like little men. Two of them, Ricky and Eddie, were younger than August and had a callow, frightened look. The third was half-a-head taller and a year or two older. His name was Randall. He had a self-confident swagger that August found intimidating. If August had trouble with any of them, it would be with Randall.
“There’s something I think I should tell you about myself,” August said, when the others had stopped talking and he had a chance to speak.
“What’s that?” Randall asked.
“I don’t want to be here and I want to be left alone. If you don’t mess with me, we’ll be fine, but if you’re thinking about playing any little tricks on me like putting a snake in my bed or dipping my toothbrush in the toilet, I have to tell you I’m not right in the head and I can snap. I have a big knife and I don’t mind using it.”
Ricky and Eddie sat side by side on the bed looking at him, trying to figure out what he was saying. Ricky smiled but Eddie looked scared.
“I don’t believe you have a knife,” Randall said with a sneer. “Let me see it.”
“Oh, you don’t want to see it,” August said.
“You’re not supposed to have weapons here.”
“Well, nobody needs to know about it. Just knowing it exists ought to be enough.”
“Maybe Captain Jack should know about it too,” Randall said.
“Who’s Captain Jack?”
“He’s the head counselor,” Eddie said.
“He doesn’t need to know about it,” August said. “It’s just for the four of us to know.”
Ricky and Eddie nodded their heads and smiled as if a mystery had been cleared up.
“Big man,” Randall said. “Big, crazy man.”
At dinner in the cafeteria, he imagined that people were looking at him oddly, whispering about him and avoiding being near him, so he figured that Randall must have told people what he said about having a knife. After dinner he went back to the room and lay on his back on the bed with his hands across his chest. Eddie and Ricky came in and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk to see the lake, but he said he was sick from the terrible food and he couldn’t get up off the bed.
That night he couldn’t sleep because the bed was hard and narrow, he was hot, and the chirring of the insects kept him awake. He was still awake around two in the morning when a thunderstorm moved through and nearly tore the roof off the cabin, which the others didn’t seem to notice.
Breakfast was at seven-thirty. After breakfast everybody was required to attend an orientation meeting in the assembly hall, at which the rules of the camp were explained. At the end of the meeting, each camper was given a schedule of events and activities. Failure to follow the schedule resulted in demerits. A certain number of demerits resulted in expulsion from the camp. August glanced briefly at his schedule and crumpled it up. Just like school, he thought, only worse. At school he at least got to go home at the end of the day.
His first scheduled activity was a demonstration of wood carving. He was trying to figure out where he was supposed to go when the young counselor he had seen talking to his father approached him.
“Are you August Gilpin?” the counselor asked, not unlike a police officer serving a summons.
“Who wants to know?”
“Don’t get cute with me. I know who you are.”
“If you know, then why are you asking?”
“Captain Jack wants to see you in his office right away in the administration building.”
“We don’t tolerate any shit here from you city kids, even the crazy ones. You’re about to find that out.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” August said. “I haven’t done anything.”
“They’re waiting for you, little man.”
“Let them wait. I don’t care. They can go to hell.”
He looked over his shoulder to see if anybody was watching him and then he left camp. He didn’t go out the front gate and down the road but instead went around by the lake and into the woods. He found a path through the thick trees and heavy foliage on the other side of the lake but he didn’t know where it led. It led away from camp and that was the important thing.
He followed the path for a long way and then he came to a converging path going in another direction. He was tired of going the same way so he took the new path. It seemed to hold promise in a vague way that he didn’t understand. Maybe the path would lead him to what he was looking for, but he didn’t know yet what that was.
After a while the path ended, or turned back on itself, but he didn’t mind. He kept going because the pathless foliage was not as thick as it had been or the trees as forbidding. It was easy walking for as far as he could see.
Coming to a high hill with some large rocks, he sat down to rest. From that vantage point he could see a long way, perhaps miles. He saw some houses and a road, so he knew he wasn’t hopelessly lost in the woods. On the road he saw a few cars and large trucks on their way to the city. He would hitch a ride with one of the truck drivers. He would tell him he was hiking in the woods with friends and got separated from them, became lost on his own, and wanted only to get back home and let everybody know he was all right.
The road was farther away than it appeared. He was sweating when he reached it, out of breath and thirsty. He began walking in the direction he believed was home. Cars whizzed past him going very fast. He didn’t know how he was ever going to get anybody to stop.
He had walked maybe a quarter-mile or so with his back to oncoming traffic, when a big car, an old white Cadillac, slowed, passed him and pulled off onto the shoulder ahead of him. He didn’t understand at first if somebody was offering him a ride or if it was something else.
The driver rolled down the window and motioned for August to come to him. August saw it was an older man, much older than his father.
“Where you headed?” the man asked him.
“I’m not really sure,” August said.
“You look like you’re pretty well done in. Get in and we’ll give you a ride.”
He reached behind him and pulled the latch on the back door, opening it partway. August grabbed onto the door and got in. He saw right away that there was a woman in the car with the man.
“This is my wife, Nellie Fritchie,” the man said.
“How do you do?” the woman said. She turned around and faced August but he knew she couldn’t see him because she was blind. Her eyes rolled around in her head like loose marbles and her eyelids fluttered. Her face was very wrinkled and she wore a blond wig that seemed too young for her and lots of lipstick.
“And my name is Johnny Fritchie,” the man said.
“Hello,” August said.
“And what might your name be?”
“Carl Heinrich,” he said. It was the first name that came to him, the name of an older boy he knew from school.
“And how old are you, Carl?”
“That’s pretty young to be walking along the highway in this part of the United States alone, Carl. Are you sure you’re not in some kind of trouble?”
“No, I’m not.”
“I’m not even going to ask you where you live, Carl, because I don’t think you’d tell me the truth. Would you like to know where we live?”
“We live hundreds and hundreds of miles from here in the state of Maine. Have you ever been to Maine, Carl?”
“Would you like to see Maine?”
“I guess so.”
“We have a big house on the coast of Maine with more room than the two of us need. Would you like to come and be our guest for a while, Carl? For as long as you want, really. You don’t have to answer me right this minute, Carl. Just sit there and think about it. I admire a man who takes his time to make decisions.”
August lay down on the broad seat and put his legs up. He turned over on his side with his face toward the seat back. The leather smelled good and felt cool against his face. He felt perfectly relaxed and at ease for the first time in a long time. As he drifted off to sleep, he felt the tires underneath him turning, turning, putting miles between himself and everything he wanted to leave behind.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp