In separate cars, four girls approached the camp, their paths converging at the center to form a cross. Their destination was Saint Croix Camp, a Christian summer camp, for a week of Bible study, outdoor activities, and team-building exercises. The kids all knew the camp was just an excuse for parents to be rid of their children for a week.
None of those girls wanted to be there. They each rode in the back seat of a vehicle, listening to music and messaging friends on their phones before they’d lose all technology access.
how much longer do u have to go?
maps puts it at ten minutes away
ugh im sorry, good luck in hell for a week
yeah this blows
maybe ull meet a cute boy while ur there ;)
LOL SHUT UP
As predicted, Grace’s vehicle pulled into the rural Wyoming camp ten minutes later. Her parents confiscated her phone—which she gave up only after a mean stink eye—and they checked her bag to make sure she hadn’t brought her old music player. The camp said “no technology,” and they meant it. The occasional kid argued that even the compasses they used to discern north were technology as well, but this sort of behavior was met with the wordless command to go take a timeout in The Shack.
Grace’s parents had discovered the camp after her parents insisted she get her confirmation at the local church and she’d replied, “Why bother? God’s not real.”
Grace’s family was a part of the very small black population at the local Catholic church, and they dressed formally and spoke politely so that they could to be accepted by the other members of the church. Grace’s refusal one day to partake in communion was the last straw. They asked the priest for help, and he recommended a week-long camp in the summer that was only 45 minutes away.
Even the kids who hadn’t been to Saint Croix knew that the camp had a reputation for being strict. Parents typically didn’t send their kids there unless there was something they wanted fixed in their child. That or they lived in the area and were willing to spend the hefty price tag to be rid of their kid for a week, from one Saturday to the next. Roughly seven days child-free.
Once Grace’s parents signed her in, they wasted no time leaving. Grace was alone, one kid in a pool of disgruntled teens aged fourteen to seventeen. A counselor who was smiling way too much called everyone over to separate them into age groups. From there, they were randomly assigned to four-person groups, segregated by gender—to Grace’s complete lack of surprise.
She was a member of Unit C. Her bunkmate was Eden, a short girl with curly black hair and fair skin. Grace thought she was almost white enough to be translucent. She kept avoiding making eye contact with everyone. She held one arm against her body and wrapped one ankle around the other.
Mary and Samantha were the two other girls on the other side of the small cabin. Mary had olive skin and an undercut hairstyle with long side bangs. Grace could imagine her wearing winged eyeliner and lots of ear piercings. The punk girl stood with her arms crossed and a scowl permanently plastered on her face. Next to her was Samantha, who was white and seemed the most “normal” of their group. She was talkative, engaged in conversation with the counselor, who she seemed to already be familiar with, and was already unpacking her things. Grace and the others were still in too foul of moods to make themselves at home.
The first day was a short one. Campers had an hour to get settled before ice breaker exercises and dinner. Then there was an hour of campfire time before lights out.
As soon as their counselor, who’d introduced herself as Penelope, left to go check on another nearby unit she was assigned to, Mary let out a loud, overwrought sigh.
“Something wrong?” Samantha asked.
“Uh, is something right?” she retorted with a large gesture at their surroundings.
“I think the cabin is kind of nice.”
“She’s not talking about the cabin,” Grace cut in.
“Fuck my mom and dad,” Mary growled, eliciting a gasp from Samantha, who hushed her and asked her not to use foul language at camp.
Grace rolled her eyes and dumped out her duffel bag onto her bottom bunk bed. Eden was still sitting on the ladder, staring at the floor.
Grace noted that she was the only black kid in the room, which was the usual for her in Wyoming. She knew that meant choosing her words wisely—especially around the counselors—so that she didn’t come off as that black girl. This was even more important at a religious camp set on “curing” them of any ill behavior.
The rest of the hour went along without too much chatter, other than Samantha assuring the group that she’d been to the camp every year for the last three and that the first day was always awkward, but it would be fun by the end. No one put forth enough energy to give a comeback. Grace could only think, That poor white girl.
Penelope returned at 5 PM to ask the group to come out to the field and sit in a circle for ice breaker exercises. They were with the other twelve sixteen-year-old girls; the boys had been taken elsewhere for the remainder of camp. Their exercise for the afternoon was to go around in the circle, introduce themselves with their first name and one fact about themselves, and then to recite the names of everyone before them. Grace hated these games; anyone who was near the starting point had it easy. She had terrible luck, too; she always found herself near the end.
Sure enough, her unit was last in the group.
“My name is Mary, and I really don’t want to be here.” She got all eleven names right; even if she didn’t give a shit, she had a great memory.
“I’m Eden. I like country music.” Eden stumbled but did eventually make it through the names with some encouragement from various people in the circle.
“I’m Samantha! My favorite flower is the gardenia.” She didn’t fare well in the name game, but she took it all in good fun.
Grace was last. “My name is Grace. I don’t believe in a god.” She started going through the first few names, when a counselor interrupted her.
“I—I’m sorry? I think we may have misheard you,” Maddie, the counselor sitting next to Penelope, said in shock.
Grace locked eyes with her. “My name is Grace. I don’t believe in a god,” she repeated.
Maddie grimaced for a moment before catching herself and forcing a strained smile. “Grace, we all know the first day in a new camp away from home can be stressful. However, we have rules we follow. We’re all quite relaxed on the first day because we understand this is a new situation for you, and that can cause new campers to lash out, but we’re going to have to ask you to change your one fact about yourself.”
“What, so I can’t express my opinions here?”
Samantha nudged her in the side and whispered, “Don’t fight them. Trust me.”
Maddie and Grace still held their stares on each other while the rest of the group awkwardly glanced from one another to Penelope, who wore a manufactured smile, before resting their gazes on Grace. When Maddie said nothing, Grace finally acquiesced, not liking everyone staring at her so intensely.
“Fine. I don’t like ice breakers.”
Maddie’s expression did not soften, but she let the issue drop and asked Grace to try to name everyone. Naturally, as the sixteenth person, Grace failed several times. Honestly, she hadn’t listened to the introductions very closely. She was just biding her time until next Saturday, then she’d never have to see these losers ever again.
The counselors kept a close eye on Grace for the rest of the night, even confronting her during dinner for not participating in the prayer before the meal. “I hope someone with a name like yours would like to partake in grace tomorrow,” Penelope had said. She’d smiled, but it sounded like a threat.
The campfire was like any other summer camp activity, except the counselors told Bible stories instead of horror stories. Grace thought those two things weren’t all that different, though.
They all returned to their cabins at 9 PM. Counselors checked on each unit, leading a bedtime prayer before switching the lights off.
After a few minutes had passed, Samantha said, “Grace, you really need to be careful what you say here. You, too, Mary.”
“I’m not afraid of this shack bullshit,” came the rebuttal from below Samantha. “The rumors make it out to be some scary shack in the woods where the worst kids who ‘can’t be saved’ are sent,” Mary said with air quotation marks made with her fingers, “but I bet it’s no different from time-out corners in elementary school.”
Samantha whipped her head over the bed to look at Mary. Her braids dangled in front of her face. “It’s true! People disappear in the shack.”
Grace laughed as she adjusted her silk pillowcase, which she’d brought from home. “Now that’s a load of bullshit.”
“How would a goody-two-shoes like you know what happens in the shack?” Mary insisted.
Samantha sat up. She opened her mouth, but then she closed it without answering the question. “Never mind. Just be careful.”
Water continually crashed down to the group’s left. Penelope and Maddie led their group of sixteen-year-olds up a mountain, chanting, “God is good! God is great!”, though Grace, in the back, could barely hear them over the waterfall’s torrent. She was thankful for that. Whenever Penelope turned around to check on the group, Grace and Mary reluctantly mouthed the words, but they both refused to say them aloud if they could get away with it.
“Can’t believe our parents think a little time in nature and some Bible verses can change us,” Grace grumbled.
The group was hiking to their main activity for the day: a whitewater rafting trip. Normally, Grace would be excited about such an activity—as much as she preferred being inside, she had always wanted to go whitewater rafting–but she couldn’t think of a worse group of people to be stuck with.
“Hey, what do you think would happen if Penelope and Maddie fell out of their raft?” Mary snickered, leaning in close to Grace to whisper in her ear.
Grace laughed quietly, covering her mouth. “They’d probably pray for Jesus himself to dive into the water and save them.”
“Unit C, we can’t hear you back there!” Penelope called from ahead.
“Sorry, Miss P! The water’s just really loud!” Mary shouted with a fake smile. She turned back to Grace. “You’d think a god or whatever would be able to hear us even without us being loud.”
They hiked to a canyon with a river bisecting it. The counselors confirmed the water wasn’t too choppy for the kids and met with the instructor for the rafting course, who set up everyone in two rafts, a group of eight in each plus one counselor. Penelope was riding in the raft that Unit C was in. The instructor also sat in their raft.
After some brief instructions on what to expect, both groups began floating through the waters. Grace sat next to Eden, who was gripping her oar tightly as they approached rougher waters. The waves pushed the rafts left and right, carrying them along the river and past the trees. Other girls cheered and screamed excitedly as they crashed through the water, splashing everywhere. Mary, sitting in the front, glared as some water smacked her in the face. Samantha laughed and wiped the water that had splashed herself.
“Isn’t today wonderful?” Penelope cheered. “Girls, let’s all give thanks to God for today!”
Grace groaned quietly.
Penelope led the group in a brief prayer. Grace kept silent, her back to Penelope, and glanced at Eden, who was also silent. Grace had barely heard her speak this entire time.
“Amen,” Penelope concluded, and the majority of the group repeated after her with one loud, exuberant, “Amen!”
Then there was a splash, and Eden was no longer next to Grace.
A bright orange life jacket floated on the surface, but Eden was nowhere to be found.
The instructor unclipped his own and dove into the water, which kept carrying the raft forward and away from the girl who went overboard. All the girls on both rafts looked behind them as the instructor popped his head out of the water with Eden in one arm. She coughed and scrunched her eyes closed. The instructor swam to Eden’s life jacket without much difficulty, and Penelope’s raft rowed against the river’s current. Penelope tossed the other life jacket back out into the water to the instructor, who gave it to Eden to hold onto. Without too much difficulty, they made it back onto the raft. Grace was honestly impressed; the instructor was a strong swimmer.
“Eden, are you okay?!” Penelope moved Eden’s soaked hair out of her face. The girl coughed again and nodded.
Penelope turned to the rest of the girls. “Thank you, God, for protecting Eden. Please keep these children safe.” Then she focused her gaze on Grace, Mary, and Samantha at the front. “And keep a watchful eye on these girls to keep them from attracting the devil.”
Grace expected Mary to make some sort of comeback, but they were all too stunned to say anything. They just stared at Eden, trying to figure out what happened.
Back at the cabin just before lights out, Samantha asked Eden if everything was all right.
“Yes, I just got a little unsteady in the raft and fell when we hit a bump,” the pale girl explained.
“But how’d you lose your life jacket?” Mary asked.
Eden paused and stared at her hands. “I must have put it on wrong…”
The three girls didn’t push the issue further.
Mary had spent the entirety of the third day testing the waters around the counselors, trying to figure out exactly what she could get away with. Grace had the feeling this girl was a delight at school.
During the day’s bible study, Mary had coughed once a minute. When Penelope had asked her if she needed a glass of water, Mary had assured her that she was fine. Yet the coughing had continued. Penelope stopped the discussion at one point to go fetch some water, but Mary had countered her with, “That’s not holy water, right? Wouldn’t want to burn someone who you think the devil has his clutches on.”
Samantha had dropped her mouth, totally aghast, and kept shaking her head vigorously in Mary’s direction. Penelope ignored the girl’s comment and continued leading her discussion of how to practice spiritual self-defense in a world that’s lost sight of God.
Mary had raised her hand, and Penelope reluctantly called on her. “Miss P, what kind of level grind do I need to go through to have my spirit barrier strong enough to resist the devil?”
Penelope clearly regretted calling on her and had resorted to ignoring her for the rest of class. With her victory established, Mary disengaged from the discussion completely and started drawing on her piece of paper, sketching out flames, some devil horns, and a stick figure with a beard.
“What the hell is that?” Grace had whispered, pointing at the drawing as they were leaving the room.
“Jesus,” Mary had cackled. “Sorry, I actually can’t draw people.”
That night, Samantha confronted Mary and told her she needed to behave for her own safety. Mary exploded in derisive laughter, spitting, “I’m gonna show you that the shack is just another imaginary scary story to force dumb kids to be obedient” as she walked out the cabin door.
In her absence, with the lights out, Grace whispered, “Did she just leave?”
Samantha and Eden were silent, with Samantha in shock, and Eden her usual awkwardly quiet self.
“Well, I’m worried about her going off on her own, so I’m gonna go after her,” Grace said, lacing up her shoes.
Samantha hastily climbed down the ladder of her top bunk, nearly slipping on the last bar. “W-wait!” she whispered. “You’ll just get in trouble!”
“I don’t want her getting hurt, that’s all. And if a counselor catches her, they’ll make life for our unit even more hellish. You don’t need to follow me. I can manage alone.” Grace finished tying the double knot of her shoelaces and quietly opened their door, just wide enough so that it wouldn’t creak like it always did at its halfway point.
Samantha grabbed Grace’s arm. “Don’t go.”
Grace pushed her off. “Whatever.” She closed the door softly and ran off in her pajama tank top and shorts.
Samantha followed shortly afterward, and surprisingly, Eden trailed not far behind. Grace had a feeling Eden hated being alone.
The trio continued forward. Samantha explained the shack was beyond a thick line of trees north of the cabins. She led the way, pointing out Polaris ahead in the clear sky.
“Can’t say St. Croix Camp taught us nothing, I guess.” Grace laughed quietly.
The camp after lights out was silent and dark. Grace, Samantha, and Eden carefully made their way through the field to the trees, occasionally tripping over the occasional overgrown tree root. Samantha’s teeth were chattering, and it couldn’t have been from the temperature, because it was a comfortable sixty-five degrees. She whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” to herself. Grace didn’t care for Samantha’s anxiety, so she ignored her.
Then they heard a scream in the distance. Eden calmly pointed in the direction she was pretty sure she heard it from. The trio took off in haste, shoving bushes out of their path, their feet slapping weeds as they sprinted ahead.
They found Mary at the bottom of a hill rubbing her ankle. “Oh, hey, guys,” she said nonchalantly.
“What the heck is wrong with you?” Samantha yelled, her voice getting higher as she got more flustered. “Do you have any idea what’s going to happen to you if they find you out of the cabin right now? Especially after all the crazy stunts you pulled today.”
“They can do their worst. I’m not scared.”
“You should be.” Samantha crouched and carefully descended the steep hill. “Can you walk?”
Mary got to her feet and winced. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.”
Samantha sighed. “Be quiet and let me help you.”
Once they managed to climb the steep incline—Grace and Eden helped to pull them up when they reached the top—Samantha leaned her shoulder into Mary’s armpit on the side of her twisted ankle. With the group all together now, they slowly stumbled back into camp—
To see Penelope waiting for them, arms crossed.