This is part two of a two-parter story. To read the beginning, please click here.
The trio had gone to bed last night without Mary, whom counselor Penelope had taken aside after the group’s little excursion, and they woke up without her as well. The bunk below Samantha’s was still empty, as if it had never been disturbed. Her belongings still sat scattered on and around the bed.
Samantha was quiet for the rest of the day, barely making eye contact with anyone.
Grace asked Penelope and the other counselors a few times about Mary—where she was, whether she was okay—and she got the same non-answer: “She is reflecting on her behavior.” Something in the pit of Grace’s stomach kept her from pushing harder for the truth.
Eden was the same as always: withdrawn, nervous, and desperate to be invisible. She only spoke when the counselors asked her a direct question in the morning’s classes.
With a creeping sense of dread, the fourth day of the week-long camp reached its end.
The sun was out in full force. Grace felt the sweat soaking through her shirt and collecting in her bra. She repeatedly flapped her shirt collar to fan her collarbone.
“Didn’t know the lord wanted to sweat us to death,” she said with a heavy breath.
“Campers, line up for today’s physical exercise!” Penelope called.
“Since when did Jesus get so concerned with our health?” Grace huffed to herself but followed the group, which was split into two lines facing each other. She, Eden, and Samantha were on one team along with a dozen other girls.
Grace groaned when she realized they were about to play Red Rover—a classic playground game leading to broken arms. She’d thought at a religious camp she’d be safe from such a barbaric game about slamming into other players, but she rolled her eyes and remembered that at the end of the day, they were all stuck in a summer camp in the middle of nowhere with adults only ten years older than them paid minimum wage to keep all the kids occupied for a week. This game was a summer camp classic—why wouldn’t they play it here?
“Red Rover, red rover, send Kate right over!” a chorus on the other side of the field called.
As the girl ran, failed to break the chain, and then joined the other team, Samantha leaned toward Grace and whispered, “I need to talk with you about something.”
“Now’s a good a time as any.”
Samantha glanced around. “I need to talk to you in private.”
“They’re not even listening to us. We’re all the way at the end, and they’re too busy playing this dumb game.”
As if on cue, their impromptu leader yelled to the other team, “Red rover, red rover, send Jenny right over!”
Their opponent, noticing the weak link at the end of the chain, sprinted straight for Grace and Samantha. Eden, on Grace’s other side, clenched her hand, getting her bunkmate’s attention. Grace and Samantha immediately tensed, and the three of them held their hands tightly. Jenny bounced off of them and joined them next to Samantha.
“We’ll talk tonight,” Samantha hissed through her teeth.
With thirty minutes before lights out, the trio walked back from the bathroom to their cabin. Grace noticed Samantha was particularly avoiding the counselors that day. A few days ago, she was waving and smiling whenever she saw them, but now it was as if she was afraid they’d turn her to stone if she ever met their eyes.
However, Penelope happened to be walking to the bathroom as they were leaving.
“Make sure to go straight to bed, ladies,” Penelope cautioned with a smile. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting lost in the woods again, now would we?”
Eden gave a stiff nod when the other two remained unresponsive.
Samantha hastened her pace, taking harried, long steps toward the cabin. With her short legs, Eden had to jog to keep up.
When they entered the cabin, Samantha set a chair against the doorknob before pacing back and forth a few times.
“Are you possessed or something?” Grace gibed.
“Please don’t joke about that,” Samantha sharply retorted.
Grace held up her hands in mock surrender and sat down on Eden’s bed next to her. Eden shifted away slightly and watched Samantha’s frantic paces with nothing to say for a while, until she suddenly piped up.
“Do you know where they took Mary?”
Her voice stopped Samantha in her tracks. She slumped into the chair pushed against the door. As she leaned forward, her body losing strength, her hair dangled in front of her face. Grace couldn’t tell what kind of expression she might have.
“The shack,” she whispered.
They had laughed at her last time; this time, they listened.
“Last year, the counselors sent my best friend, Eileen, there.” Samantha kept looking around her, glancing toward the windows even though it was too dark to see anything on the other side. “I didn’t see her for the rest of camp until the last day, when I caught a glimpse of her getting into her parents’ car. I called her name, but she didn’t seem to hear me at all. She closed the door, and when she looked at me as the car drove away, her eyes looked empty.
“She didn’t respond to my texts for the rest of summer break,” Samantha continued, “and when I saw her in school again, she acted like nothing was wrong. When I tried asking her about camp, she was talking about things she couldn’t have possibly experienced—like she had been a part of the activities all week. And I didn’t realize it at first, but she was…different, somehow.”
“What do you mean?” Grace asked.
“She was a little more mellow, like she needed permission to do more things now. She deferred to what others wanted. She went from playing her own tune to performing what was written in front of her. Something must have happened in the shack during camp, and it changed her.” Samantha dug her fingers into her hair and clenched her eyes. “I told you guys. I warned you, and now if we do one thing wrong, we’ll be stuck in there with Mary, losing our minds or whatever the hell happens in there.”
“Wait.” Grace shot to her feet. “You know what’s happening, and you just want to leave Mary there?”
“There’s nothing we can do to help her! Just keep your head down, and you’ll be fine. Right, Eden?” Samantha turned to their quiet roommate with a pleading expression.
However, Eden shook her head. “I don’t know… I’m scared, but Mary isn’t a bad person, I don’t think.”
Grace made a start for the door, and Samantha stood in front of it with her arms wide. “Don’t go out there. You don’t know what’s waiting for you.”
“Maybe I can go because I don’t know what’s waiting for me in the shack.”
Samantha grabbed Grace in desperation, causing them both to stumble to the floor. Grace was about to yell at her until she realized Samantha was crying. Mucus ran from her nose, which she had buried into Grace’s shirt. “Please, please,” she begged. “Reconsider. I can’t watch more people go to that hell.”
Grace pushed her off. “Okay, okay. Just stop it, geez.”
Samantha stayed on the ground, staring into space, wiping the tears from her eyes. Eden handed her a pack of tissues and rubbed her back, saying some generic thoughtful things that Grace ignored as she got into bed and yanked the sheets over her head.
“Everything all right in there?” Penelope called from outside the cabin. “It’s almost lights out.”
“Yes,” Eden answered. “Thank you.”
“Don’t stay up late. We’ve got confession at nine tomorrow morning and mass after everyone is finished.”
Eden moved the chair away from the door, persuaded Samantha to go to bed, and turned off the lights. The three did not speak.
Nor were they able to sleep.
Every camper sat in the church that morning. The lights were dim, and a quiet organ played in the background. The droning noise was putting Grace to sleep, which she desperately needed after the previous night.
There were three visiting priests conducting confessionals. One camper entered a private booth, essentially a wooden box with a screen separating the two people, at a time. Grace had been one of the first people to go, and it was over quickly; her parents had been taking her to annual confessions ever since she was ten years old. She confessed the usual “I backtalked my parents and didn’t clean my room,” and the priest gave her the usual penance of a few Hail Marys and a suggestion of making dinner for her parents, which she never did. She was pretty sure they didn’t want to eat her cooking.
Samantha had gone shortly afterward and returned without a word. Eden was one of the last to entire a confessional booth, and Grace was pretty sure she’d been trying to avoid it. It wasn’t until a counselor noticed she hadn’t participated that she left the pew and hesitantly walked to the booth in the back, opening the thin wooden door. It closed silently, and Grace resumed her business of pretending to pray.
The day should have resumed as normal. Eden exited the booth a few minutes later with her head down as always. She looked like she had been crying, but Grace wasn’t going to judge; maybe Eden took confession seriously.
However, as Eden approached the pew with Grace and Samantha, Penelope intercepted her path and hooked her arm around the quiet girl’s. She whispered something in Eden’s ear. The girl’s face blanched, and she tried to pull her arm away. The scuffle got everyone’s attention.
“Come on, this is going to help you,” Penelope urged, loud enough for everyone in the quiet church to overhear.
“N-no, no, I can’t.”
Penelope pulled harder. She was taller and larger than Eden; she could easily drag the girl out on her own.
Grace shot to her feet. “Miss Penelope, what’re you doing?”
“I know a kind girl like you must be worried when she sees her bunkmate in distress,” Penelope cooed, as if reassuring a small child, “but please do not concern yourself. Eden just needs some special care. She’ll be better soon, don’t worry.”
Grace watched their counselor drag away a second person from their cabin. She remained standing, in utter shock. Samantha tugged on her sleeve and shook her head.
“What the hell is happening?” Grace hissed in Samantha’s ear.
Samantha didn’t respond. Before she could, the organist loudly played a chord, and a priest with altar servers began walking down the center aisle. The congregation stood for their approach. Things would continue without Eden being present.
Grace didn’t understand why no one was concerned over what had just happened. Eden had clearly been upset over something. What would the counselors want to do with her?
As the priest began the first reading passage, Grace bolted to her feet as if an idea had suddenly struck her like lightning.
Samantha tried to pull her back to the pew. “What are you doing?”
Everyone was staring. The priest wasn’t sure what to do. The other campers looked at one another. When the counselors began their approach, Grace kicked the padded kneeler in her pew and screamed:
“I don’t care if God is real or not anymore—you’re all sick people who hate people who are different from you! What great Christians you all are!”
Penelope grabbed one arm, and another counselor grabbed the other. Grace twisted her body, trying to shove both counselors as they dragged her out of the pew. Campers scrambled out of their path as Grace flailed about.
“You really want to join the rest of your group that badly?” Penelope growled.
Grace smirked. She couldn’t think of a quicker way to get to the shack, and if she got to startle everyone else here, that was an added bonus. She turned to the sole remaining member from Unit C not in trouble and tried to smile. Samantha looked on in horror, her hands covering her mouth. Her eyes watered. She was probably going to break soon. Grace hoped Samantha would be able to hold it together enough to survive the next two days.
Hell, I hope I can survive the next two days.
As they neared the exit, Samantha jumped up and darted toward Grace in a mad panic. Grace couldn’t believe her eyes. After everything this girl had said about avoiding the shack, she was giving them an excuse to drag her along, too?
Samantha pulled at Penelope, pleading with her not to take another person. More counselors descended upon her, grabbing her. The largest counselor, one of the male counselors who had been working with the boys that week so far, picked her up and placed her over his shoulder. She pounded her fists into his back.
“I don’t care about your religion—just learn to think for your goddamn selves!” Grace shouted while a group of counselors dragged the two teenage girls out of church.
The doors slammed shut with a heavy thud, and mass continued as if nothing had happened.
After all the ruckus over the shack, Grace was almost disappointed when she saw it from the outside. It looked like any normal cabin, albeit smaller. How anticlimactic, she thought. Maybe it’s creepier at night.
A counselor unlocked the front door, and Penelope led Grace inside, gently pushing her. Grace knew it was useless to fight back; after all, she had intended to come here. Samantha had stopped struggling on the way to the shack, but once it had come into view, she had started flailing again. Once Grace walked inside a few paces, the male counselor set Samantha down on her feet, but in the midst of her thrashing, she stumbled over her feet and hit her knees on the wooden floor.
The counselors immediately shut the door. Grace could hear the sound of the lock mechanism turning.
“Please don’t panic, girls,” Penelope said. “We’re only doing this to help you. You’re going to be much happier by the end.”
Then they left. Their words hung in the stale air of the cabin.
Samantha dashed to the door and tried to twist the doorknob, which—of course–didn’t budge.
“Pretty sure it’s against fire codes to construct a building with no way out,” Grace said—not so much for her own benefit but in the hopes that a light joke might lift the mood. Samantha ignored her as she kept trying to open the door until she realized it was futile. She slammed her fists on the frame. She fell to her knees.
Grace flinched at Samantha’s outburst and quietly walked away. Looks like I should go explore by myself, she thought, taking one last glance at Samantha, who had clamped her palms over her ears, as if she was desperate to block out someone’s voice—even though no one was talking.
The cabin was two stories, though that was easy to miss from the inside; the spiral staircase was tucked into a back corner. On the first floor was a kitchen and what looked like a shared common space, but there were no furnishings. Nothing indicated life in this structure. The wood looked brand new, but from the age of the camp, Grace thought this cabin must be about equally as old, which would put it at around fifty. A wood cabin couldn’t possibly look the same after fifty years. Yet, from what she remembered on the way here, it did look dated on the outside.
The stairs screeched as Grace proceeded to the second floor. Someone upstairs let out a brief shriek at the first creaky step, and when Grace reached the upstairs, she saw Eden sitting with her back against the wall, pulling her knees to her chest.
Grace had suspected she’d be here, but it was still a relief to see her safe and sound.
Well…physically safe and sound.
Eden whimpered and held back sobs when she saw her bunkmate enter. “Please don’t come closer,” she whispered.
Grace kept walking, and Eden quickly shuffled herself across the floor to the corner. “Grace, please!” she pleaded, louder this time.
Grace held up her hands and backed off a few paces before sitting on the floor. “Okay, okay.” She noted to herself that this was the first time Eden had said her name. “Are you, uh…doing all right?”
It was a stupid question. Eden covered her mouth in response, like she was afraid of something escaping from her lips.
“Have you seen Mary?” Grace asked.
Eden said nothing.
Grace sighed and got back on her feet. If both Eden and Samantha were going to give her a spooky silent treatment, then she would just have to find the outspoken Mary instead. This could be the new Unit C cabin—albeit without beds. Or furniture of any kind.
The second floor was as bare as the first. It was just a small, empty room with a door in the back. Grace opened it to find a closet.
Mary was crouched inside.
She grabbed the knob and slammed the door shut.
Grace had barely had any time to react. “M-Mary?” she stuttered in surprise. “Everything okay in there?”
“Go away! I don’t want to see them!” the voice said from the closet.
Grace raised an eyebrow. She was starting to get the feeling that something really was off about the shack.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered, pulling the door open again. Light shined on Mary’s face, and she scrunched her eyes shut before turning around and covering them.
“Stop! Stop!” Mary shouted. “Stop it stop it stop it stop it!” She screamed louder and louder.
It freaked out Grace enough to kick the door shut. Then Mary went quiet.
What the fuck.
She took in a deep breath.
“Looks like you’re the only one left,” someone said.
Grace’s body froze. It had felt like someone had whispered in her ear from behind. She stayed where she was, unmoving, for a long time.
The sun set many hours later. The cabin was dark, but Grace’s eyes adjusted. She had eventually tired of standing and sat down, but she hadn’t moved from her spot, afraid to turn around. She’d had nightmares before of some unseen force grabbing her from behind, making it harder for her to move, and once she was able to get a look at her attacker, the fright had always woken her up right away.
But she was already awake this time.
The four girls hadn’t spoken to one another since Grace closed the door on Mary. As far as Grace knew, Samantha was still downstairs by the door. Mary hadn’t left the closet, and Eden hadn’t made a peep as she sat against the wall.
Grace was starting to doubt if she could last the night here.
“We will test those doubts,” the voice from before said.
A spotlight suddenly shone on Grace. She squinted her eyes at the sudden light source. And then, without warning, she was back on her high school theater stage, punching another girl. Grace remembered this. The girl had told her to “go back to her ghetto home” to find some costumes for the poor, dirty girl character she was playing. It was the culmination of a terrible day, and she let her judgment lapse, and so she smacked the girl straight on her ass. After that moment, everyone at school saw her for black girl they’d been trying to stereotype all year.
The spotlight singled her out as other students ignored her at the private school her parents had felt the need to enroll her in. Boys began paying too much attention to her as girls wouldn’t stop whispering about her. It simultaneously felt like everyone was watching her but no one was seeing her.
Her parents became overly critical of the way she dressed, despite the fact that everyone had to wear a uniform at her school. They made sure her collars were pressed sharp and her skirt was at the appropriate length, neither too long nor too short.
The light always pointed her out, making sure everyone knew of her, even if they didn’t know her. And it never went away; neither did Grace’s irritation.
“Stop, please. Please stop making everyone look at me,” she begged.
“But at the same time, you want people to look at you,” the voice said.
“If no one’s going to see me for who I am, then what’s the goddamn point of looking?”
“Why do you play the role they gave you to play, then?”
Two more spotlights turned on, illuminating her from the sides. Grace couldn’t see anything past the bright lights, other than dozens of eyes watching her every move, examining her flinches, her nervous sweating, her fists clenching, relaxing, then clenching again.
“I’m not playing around. I’m just me, and I’m not perfect, but I’m not some dirty girl intent on causing trouble, despite what my reputation states. And even if I was, it’d be no one’s business.”
“No one likes dirty girls. No one likes darkness. Everyone wants to see happy, pure girls, as if they’re cloaked in a white light.”
The eyes drew closer, closing in on her. Not a single pair blinked. Grace could hear a dull, constant murmur around her. “Impure,” “dirty,” they chanted.
“Well, that’s just not me!” Grace yelled, charging ahead into the crowd, swinging her fists, thrashing her legs about, screaming madly. “And I’m just fine being me and no one else!”
“So be it. You are a lost cause.”
The lights turned off. The eyes were gone. Grace was back on the second floor of the shack, on her feet, panting heavily in the darkness.
She turned around. No one was there.
However, Eden was still against the wall, now crying, and whispering to someone. “No, no, that’s wrong. I can’t tell anyone. These are impure thoughts. Don’t make me tell her. Please, please, stop asking me to.”
“Eden, we need to get the hell out of here!” Grace urged, running over to her and grabbing her by the shoulders.
Eden shoved her away. “Grace, please, for both of our sakes, leave me alone!”
“This place is messing with our heads! We need to get out of here! Get Samantha, and I’ll get Mary somehow!”
“Stop it! Stop saying those things! I won’t tell her! If I tell her that, then it’s going to become real, and my parents are going to hate me! Stop!”
Grace’s fingers eased off of the girl. She didn’t think Eden was talking to her anymore.
“Because they said God doesn’t love girls who love girls, so please, stop! I promise I’ll stop, and then things can go back to normal!” Eden pleaded with some unseen force.
Grace grabbed her bunkmate’s hand. “Eden, please. Come back. I’m here. I don’t care about how others want to see you. You should be who you want to be.”
Eden looked directly into Grace’s eyes. Grace thought this would be a good time to smile, but she wasn’t in a particularly relaxed mood. She chose to lock eyes with Eden, refusing to look away. Eden couldn’t tear her gaze away either. She moved her free hand over her mouth.
“I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I have enough of an idea,” Grace said, using her own free hand to gently pull Eden’s hand away from her mouth. “And you don’t need to tell me, but you need to admit it to yourself.”
“I’m afraid of being me. I want people to like me.”
“Anyone who doesn’t like you for who you are isn’t someone you should bother with.”
Eden’s eyes wavered, glancing around the room, as if she was watching something. Grace gripped harder, but didn’t say anything. Eden needed to break out of it because she wanted to.
“O…okay,” she said. She licked her dry lips before continuing. “I like girls.” She stared at Grace. “And I like you.”
Grace nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”
With Grace’s help, Eden got to her feet. “Thank you for listening.”
Grace wasn’t sure what to say next, and neither was Eden, but the girl seemed to be in control of herself. Grace let go of her hands.
They both turned their attention to the closet door. Mary had been in the shack over a day longer than they had. It was no wonder she was already acting completely different than how they’d known her in the first few days of camp.
Grace knocked on the door. “Mary? Can we come in?”
“No, no, if I see them, they’re going to change me,” she answered. “When I see their stares, it’s like they see through me. I can’t let people get close to me, because when they get close, they can hurt me, so I just need to be alone so that people stop hurting me and I stop hurting them.”
“Mary, the shack is just messing with your head.”
“No, you don’t understand. God’s right. I’ve been bad, and I should be punished. I think I’m just gonna stay in this closet and wither and die.”
“Mary, I think you’re a nice person,” Eden offered.
“Thanks, but you don’t know me, Eden,” she replied. “You all have known me for a few days—that’s it. You probably think I’m that cool girl with the punk hair who stirs trouble, but in reality, I’m just a bitch who uses people to make herself feel better.”
“If that’s true, how is suffering alone going to solve your problems?” Grace asked.
“If I can’t be fixed, I might as well be removed from everyone’s lives. The voice said as much, and I think it might be right.”
“Mary, God wouldn’t wish that on you,” Eden insisted in her own gentle way. She placed her hand on the wooden door, like she was reaching out to the person inside.
“You’re not so special,” Grace said. “I punched a bitch at school.”
They heard a laugh from the other side. “No shit?”
“So we’re all a little broken, some of us more than others. That doesn’t mean we should just be tossed aside.”
Eden went to open the door, but Grace set her hand on top and shook her head.
“We’re going to go talk to Samantha downstairs. Do you feel up to meeting us down there when you’re ready?” she asked.
“You really don’t want to be my friend.”
“Why don’t you let us decide that for ourselves?”
Grace didn’t know the details, but it wasn’t her business. If Mary wanted to talk about it more in the future, Grace would be there to listen. Until then, she wouldn’t pry.
With that settled, Grace and Eden descended the spiral staircase. Grace felt disoriented, which she thought was due to walking in a circle, but when she reached the bottom, she realized it wasn’t that. A thick fog had blanketed the first floor, and it was thick around Samantha, who lay on the ground, her eyes glazed over. She was murmuring nonsense to herself, not really saying words, just strange syllables. It reminded Grace of sleep-talking.
As Grace entered the densest part of the fog, voices spoke—female, male, young, and old.
“Mind explaining why I found a binder in your room?”
“Sammy, are you sure you don’t want to invite any girls to your birthday party?”
“Did you know Sam won’t change in the girls’ locker room?”
“Samantha, why won’t you wear the dress Grandpa got you for Christmas? Don’t all girls love dresses?
“Why is she so weird?”
Then there was Samantha’s voice: “Why can’t I be normal?”
Gardenias suddenly grew from nothing, all around and on top of Samantha’s motionless body. Their white petals steadily grew darker as the voices continued to lambast her.
“She’s just confused.”
“No, she’s gross, a demon, just trying to trick others. No one will love her.”
Grace tore through the black gardenias on Samantha. All four of them were going to survive this night. They were going to keep on surviving.
“You can’t taint her any longer,” a voice said as the fog gathered, forming a featureless figure. “She wants to be here.”
“You’re just making Samantha feel like she has no other option,” Grace challenged, “when in reality, there are people who will like her for who she is.”
“She does not believe you.”
“Sam, I swear, when you’re here, it feels like they’re trying to make you fit some sort of mold—to fit their own idealized version of you,” Grace continued. “And maybe it’s like that for you at home, too. And this isn’t fucking fair, but you’re not alone in this.”
“Anyone who doesn’t like you for who you are isn’t someone you should bother with,” Eden added, smiling at Grace.
“You don’t get it,” came Sam’s voice. “It’s not just what other people think of me. I have this idea of myself, and my body doesn’t reflect that. The way others see me doesn’t reflect that. People act like I’m so weird for thinking I’m a boy… And I don’t fully understand how I see myself.”
“You don’t have to know that by the time you’re in high school,” Eden said, speaking far more than she had characteristically before. “Everyone acts like you find yourself in high school and have a coming of age. We don’t have to know who we are or what—or who–we like by the time we’re sixteen.”
“Sam, I’m gay. My parents suspected as much and sent me here to try to get rid of that part of me. When I told the priest about it this morning, he got uncomfortable. When people reject that part of me, I get scared and want to crawl into a corner, some abandoned place like this shack. But if I let them change that about me, it will be like letting a part of myself die. I don’t want that. Do you want to lose a part of yourself?”
“I…just want to be normal.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘normal.’” Eden kneeled down next to Sam, whose eyes opened slowly, blinking, lips quivering.
“I…” The words started to come.
“Are you trying to ruin her happiness?!” the figure from before bellowed.
“I want you to define what happiness means for you,” Eden said, pulling Samantha into a sitting position. “I want you to define who you are.”
“I’m…Sam. I’m still figuring this out…but I think I’d like to be seen as a boy.”
He shook some gardenia petals out of his long hair. As they hit the floor, they disappeared.
“We’ll do that,” Grace said, sitting down on his other side.
“Ugh. That’s not how I wanted to come out,” he groaned.
Eden giggled. “Yeah, I had a less than pleasant experience myself.”
Another voice came from the top of the spiral staircase. “Think you’ve got room for one more in the pity party?”
Grace patted the floor next to her. “Only if you agree that we’re not treating this like a pity party.”
Mary took the steps two at a time and hopped to the bottom. “Deal. No self-pity here.”
The four campers of Unit C sat in the dark together, not knowing what else to say, but not really needing to say anything. The counselors would arrive in the morning to take them to their parents, and they’d leave St. Croix Camp. But they would not let St. Croix Camp forget about them.
With a bobby pin, Grace got to work on the wooden door’s surface, scratching the black coating of the hair pin on to their canvas.
When Penelope arrived to open the door the next day, she was unaware of the rough-looking “Unit C was here and lived” message on the other side.