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Welcome to Camp Alan-Bridge, for the emotionally vulnerable and unassertive teenagers of North-West California. Building characters since 1975 *** Mercy Reid is being forced to attend a camp after her mother realises how socially awkward her college-aged daughter has become. She has no friends and has no desire to have friends. At Camp Alan-Bridge, she's forced into social situations on a daily basis, meeting people she'd never have looked twice at before. Sometimes it takes more than breaking out of your shell.

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3. 2 - WALK IN THE WOODS

I’d read the rules maybe five times and still didn’t understand why most of them were wasting paper. They were ridiculous, but of course when I brought that up with the instructors on the way to the camp fire, they avoided the subject – reminding me that, ‘rules are there to be followed’.

                My mom never let me forget that. She was great with her lists of rules for the home. I wasn’t allowed to even breathe under her rules.

Rule 1 – Respect all campmates and camp instructors. I could understand this one. Who doesn’t deserve the respect of every other human? We’re all the same here.

Rule 2 – Abide by the dress code at all times. No shorts shorter than your knee. No v-necks allowed. I could even understand this rule. There was always going to be a dress code.

Rule 3 – Unless participating in activities or otherwise have permission, you must remain in your cabin from 8pm onwards every night and must not leave until 6am the next morning. But that’s when it starts getting ridiculous.

                There were about twenty rules total, none of which I cared to think about – all of them I knew off by heart by now. There was even a limit on how often you could shower and when you could shower. I had organised my shower slot with the camp therapist, who with some sucking up to had allowed me two in the one day (although she was clear that I only used two when I really needed it) when I pulled a spiel about how much I hated the cleanliness of this place – which really was atrocious.

                Anna the therapist had handed me a camper diary (something we apparently had to write in everyday as well as keep a schedule in) and noted my times in there. My primary time slot was 7 to 8 in the morning, on every morning but a Wednesday – which was apparently the day we went swimming in the creek which according to Anna, was a substitute shower. I just thought they wanted to save money on the water. I knew that night I’d more than likely use my second shower slot (not that I normally went in the shower twice in one day anyways), which was 8 till 9. Although most campers had to be in their rooms from 8 onwards, my situation warranted special permissions.

                My cabin mate, Kiana, spoke up from my side. “This is such a hike. They should have told us to bring some good shoes.”

                I laughed lightly, looking at her feet as she tripped over a protruding root. She wore converse, but their thin soles weren’t a match for the bumpy terrain. When I’d got back to our cabin earlier and saw her shoes, I could have told her now that none of those would have been suitable anyways. She even brought baby pink glossy heels. I don’t know when she thought she’d have a chance to wear those.

                A warm orange glow began to illuminate the trees in front, and I definitely knew we were approaching when the ground was beginning to level itself and voices met my ears.

                “Alright, campers!” John called, ever cheerful. “We. Have. Made it.” He was panting himself, not as fit as he liked to make himself out to be. “Just make your way up there carefully and take your place on the-.”

                He had no chance to finish, a hoard of teenagers sprinting past him and up over the last little summit before we reached the campfire. John looked dazed and confused when he realised half of us had already left. With a nervous laugh, he signalled to the rest of us – Kiana and I included. “Well, on you go,” he pushed. 

                Passing him by, Kiana and I followed the crowd – seconds later being met with the sight of maybe a dozen more – plus the six or seven who had ran ahead – of other campers in the neighbouring camps.

                Most of them were male, a few female who obviously weren’t from our camp. Most of them congregated together in an area furthered from our entry point, and none of them seemed to take notice of our arrival, preoccupied in their own conversations.

                Loudly, Kendra began to bang on a large metal pot with a stick. “I think that’s everyone for tonight,” she said. She gestured visibly to the muscly older man beside her, about double her height. “Camp Alan-Bridge, this is Julien – the camp instructor for Camp West-Bridge.”

                I could see a theme running here.

                Julien nodded politely at Kendra. Even through the darkness, I could see the blush that painted her face. I nudged Kiana, pointedly looking in their direction. She got the gist pretty quickly and had to cover her mouth before she said anything.

                “Camp West-Bridge, meet Camp Alan-Bridge. These are their instructors, Kendra, and John.” He didn’t include Anna – who had seemingly left anyways.

                Camp West-Bridge didn’t seem like they were having any of it though, and talked right the way through his speech, which camp Alan-Bridge were fidgety but still paying attention.

                I could see the frustration on Julian’s face. A muscle in his face twitched. I was waiting for that line to be crossed, but of course, I wasn’t waiting long. “Would you insolent brats shut up and listen to an authority for once in your life!” he raged. “Or you will indeed be running the tracks for twice the time tomorrow morning, believe me when I say.”

                That shut them up. It also shut everyone else up too. So I could only guess their camp wasn’t specialised in the same way ours was? Obviously not.

                Kendra laid a hand on his shoulder. Julien turned to face her and they both smiled. Wolf whistles emitted right away from Camp West-Bridge in response.

                Julien’s face became enraged again, the only thing stopping him from unleashing his rage was Kendra’s firm gaze. They definitely had something going on.

                It looked like Julien needed a therapist himself, or perhaps visit an anger management camp. In that moment I felt sincerely sorry for the campers… Even if they were little shits and deserved his wrath.

                “Anyway,” John began, reminding us he was still here, “Your two camps couldn’t be any more different.” Oh, yes, we’d realised.

                Kiana and I made our way to a log bench, silently deciding we’d probably be here a while so why not get comfortable. At that moment, marshmallows were passed around the circle of us in true camper fashion. If we got this every night, I probably wouldn’t complain. Who didn’t like marshmallows?

                John sat himself down, slightly obscured by the flickering flames of the larger campfire. “Camp Alan-Bridge is for the unassertive and emotionally vulnerable. Camp West-Bridge is for the Misguided and Mischievous. You are here because this needs to be fixed. You are all a risk to yourself in one way or another, and we think you can all help each other.”

                Across from us over the campfire, someone laughed. “So you mean to say Camp Alan-Bridge is for the nobodies and drama-queens?” Although I took a little offense to that, I couldn’t disagree. Isn’t that what we were? The people no one noticed, the ones who take everything literally and take it to heart.

                A boy around my age from cabin 4 obviously wasn’t going to take that sitting down. “Isn’t Camp West-Bridge for the delinquents and future trash of the USA?”

                Julien laughed in response, and not in the slightest sarcastically.

                The campers from the other group didn’t say a word in response. Did we hit a nerve?

                “Now, now,” John replied. “You’re just as bad as each other, no matter what you call it. Which is exactly why you’re here. A lot of the camper activities will be done together, and you’ll all be eating in the one shared mess hall located between the two camp grounds. You all better get along.”

                Fat chance there, I thought. I could already sense the hostility and it was barely 8pm.

                Kendra laughed through the tense silence. “Alright, before we dig an even deeper hole, let’s have some fun.” She reached behind her and pulled out a bag of wonderful delight. “S’mores, anyone?”

***

                The rest of that night was uneventful. From 10 onwards, John left with a few campers who wanted to head back. Julien was snoring because it seemed none of his campers were even considering leaving for a few hours. Kendra was admiring Julien. The rest of the campers from Alan-Bridge were relaxing by the fire or talking with their new found friends.

                I personally returned home with Kendra around Midnight after Julien drew another line – realising all of them had to be awake for six so he could make them run laps at seven. Rather them than us. Kendra was getting tired herself, so after they both extinguished the fire we headed in our own directions.

                Once we were back in our cabins, Kiana fell asleep immediately in her cot while I lay on the lumpy mattress and thought a little to myself. I wandered about. Made the room familiar but realised there wasn’t much to be seen.

                I picked up on the fact that our window was bolted shut and there was a gaping hole behind my cot that let in a relentlessly cold night draft. I couldn’t shove enough sheets against it to block the air, so eventually gave up – also because I figured out I probably had a family of spiders under my cot with a rather large web spawning the diagonals of the frame.

                Giving up, I fished a battery flashlight from the sideboard – something Kiana had probably brought – and slipped on some shoes. It was at least coming up for one AM, well past the curfew… Not that it bothered me. My only problem was figuring out how they monitored the cabins.

                I barely had to turn the key before the door blew into me from the force of the outside wind. The gust came in and rippled Kiana’s sheets. For a second I was worried she’d wake up. A few noises emitted from her mouth… Then she curled back over and snored as loudly as before.

                With a sigh of relief, I quickly tip-toes out and flicked on the flashlight, letting the door close quietly behind me. The lights were off in every cabin other than the instructors. Thinking fast, I headed in the direction of the shower block. There was no way I was getting caught. I wouldn’t stay in that room just because someone tells me to. If I wanted to walk, I’d be allowed to walk.

                I might have been out for at least half an hour – tree past tree, but I made sure to keep note of where I was, remember the way or risk really getting in trouble. I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy having to call in a rescue team because a troublesome camper decided the rules weren’t for her.

                In seconds I suddenly realised exactly where I was as I stumbled onto a narrow dirty path – on route to the campfire. Everyone would be gone. A place to sit down.

                It sounded great when I knew no one else would be there.

                I pulled myself over the last steep part of the climb and settled in full view of the campfire – now all that remained was the burnt wood, soaked from the pail of water Julien had poured over it before he left. Using my flashlight, I navigated my path towards the nearest log bench, parking myself on the edge.

                I can’t stay here too long. I have no idea what sort of stuff is out here at night – is it dangerous-

                “Who are you?”

                The sudden voice interrupting my train of thought stopped my heart in a moment of terror. Leaping from my seat, a shriek of terror ripped up my throat. The figure bounded towards me and clamped their hand over my mouth.

                I didn’t have time to focus of the me-space, or the grossness. The torch had been dropped by my feet, casting a light in the opposite of directions I needed it to light up. I could only just make out the face of a male; a squared jaw and short choppy hair. They also gave the vibe of vicious murderer whose make sure no one would hear you scream.

                I came to a conclusion then that I’d been reading too much horror.

                When the person figured I was no longer going to scream, they removed their hand. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” they said.

                That’s what all murderers say. “Who are you?” I asked breathlessly, taking a cautious step back.

                “From camp.”

                I bent to the side and grasped my torch. In a split second of courage, I flashed it in their eyes and watched them cringe. “Everyone’s back in their cabins.”

                He obviously wasn’t from my camp, anyway. “Clearly not everyone,” he said, a pointed stare in my direction once I removed the torch from his eyes. “Can you please turn the torch off? It’s blinding me.”

                I wasn’t going to turn off, definitely not if I didn’t know what this guy was capable of. “No.”

                “Why not?” He replied.

                For a few seconds I stared. He was maybe around 18 – about a year older than myself. He could have been younger, could have been older… I wouldn’t have known. His face was boyish, with deep green eyes, perhaps even brown. He certainly didn’t look like a threat.

                Despite what everything in me was telling me to do, I turned off the torch. “Thanks,” He said.

                “Not welcome. You scared the hell out of me.” I crossed my arms over my chest and took a further step back. Not that he’d have seen me do that anyway.

                I heard the breathy laughter. “You came out of nowhere. What are you even doing here?”

                “I should ask you that.”

                “I asked you first.”

                “Fine.”

                “Fine.”

                Silence fell over after the quick exchange, enveloping us in an awkwardness. Or maybe it was just me. Social interaction tended to make me feel like that.

                “Are you going to answer the question?” He broke the silence again.

                I sighed, tired and unamused now. “Not tired, felt claustrophobic in my cabin. Is that enough?” I replied, showing every ounce of what I though in my voice. When he didn’t reply, I realised I’d probably been a little rude. I fell back on the seat behind me and said, “What about you?”

                He laughed. “I didn’t even get a chance to go back to my cabin. I fell asleep and no one woke me up.”

                I could only stare at the little I saw. In shock? Surprise? And he sounded so calm about it. “You’re not freaking out?”

                He laughed. “No. If anything, I’m relieved. Maybe the wolves will get me.”

                “You’re crazy.”

                “Aren’t you the crazy one? I mean, you’re the one in camp Alan-Bridge.”

                I frowned in disappointed. And to think I nearly thought this social interaction thing was going half alright.

                Through the darkness, something darted in front of me. His hand. “I’m Thomas.”

                I stared down at his hands. His big boyish hands tinted brown from the dry dirt and thought for a second – would he be offended if I didn’t shake his hand? After a few seconds, without me saying a word, he seemed to get the hint and retracted it awkwardly. “Sorry,” he muttered, as if he’d done something wrong.

                Feeling suddenly like the bad guy here, I responded, “I’m Mercy.” Why did I have to feel so guilty? This guy was more than likely a creep – and that was my honest unbiased opinion not based on looks, because I couldn’t see an inch in front of my nose. I could only imagine what he’d look like – I mean, when I could see him clearly.

                He laughed – but I couldn’t tell if it was sincere. “Well, I guess it’s nice to meet you.”

                That laid the awkwardness on thick. I didn’t know how to respond, not helped by the fact this guy could have been anyone. Should I tell him I was leaving? Or… Should I just leave and hope he doesn’t have night vision?

                I decided telling him wouldn’t trigger any inner serial killer instincts. Meekly, I announced, “And…” I drawled out, “I have to go now.”

                I turned away faster than I maybe should have and had taken a few steps before he got the chance to intervene. He didn’t attempt to approach me, but I heard him say, “wait!”

                Stupidly enough, I did, without any reason other than he asked me to. I hit myself internally over the head and sighed. “What?” I muttered back at him.

                I heard the crunch of leaves under his boots and tensed. Where was he? Was he coming towards me? “I don’t know my way back to my camp. I can’t stay out here all night.” His voice had dropped an octave, making him sound almost… scared? I could check his expression to gauge the truth.

                I scoffed. “What do you want me to do about that?” The only thing I could do was wake up my camp instructors and get myself in trouble as well as whoever he was. I didn’t suppose his own camp instructors would be very pleased with him, either.

                After a pregnant pause, he said, “I don’t know.” I could hear his breathing. “But it’s a little cold out here.”

                Sighing, I spun on my heels and faced back in his direction. “If you got frost bite, it wouldn’t be my problem. What’s in it for me if I help you out?” It wasn’t even cold enough to get frostbite. And helping out a potential serial killer wasn’t my top priority right now.

                Why do I always get myself into such ridiculous situations?

                He thought about it for a second. “Brownie points?” He suggested. When I laughed, I heard the audible rush of breath that told me he was getting frustrated. “Seriously, I’ll be out here all night. I’ll freeze.”

                “I don’t know the way back to your camp either, and when they see you’re not there, it’ll be just as bad as turning yourself in right now to my camp.”

                I could hear the ruffle of his clothing, and the dark shadow of his face turning left and right as if he was shaking his head. “No, I never turn myself in.”

                I sighed exasperatedly. Of course he didn’t. I decided in a split second what it was I could do. “Follow me.”

                I started on my way down the slope, assuming he was following behind. “Where are you?” I heard him call. A spike of hope appeared, wishing he’d get lost and then I wouldn’t feel bad for not trying.

                “Follow my voice,” I called to him after hearing him curse from a few meter behind. A bubble of laughter erupted inside me, loving nothing more than feeling like I was in control. Maybe he’d stumble into a ditch and break his leg. That’d be fun.

                Unfortunately, I could hear him getting closer as we came to the end of the slope and the lights ahead that illuminated the flower patch central to the cabins let off a glow between the thinning trees. “Are we there yet?” Thomas asked in an exaggerated whisper.

                I kicked a root in frustration that he hadn’t in fact went in the wrong direction. “Yes,” I sourly muttered and fished the keys from my pocket, nearly ripping the stitching between the pocket and jeans.

                Approaching my cabin around the rest was easy from then out, light slowly flooding the area. I peered back over my shoulder and scanned the area, not seeing any trace of Thomas. Had he got the hint? He was there a second ago…

                I turned my back on the outer forest and jammed the key into my lock. Then, behind me, came his voice. “What are we doing here?” he asked.

                I jumped in fright, my heart pounding against my chest. My back hit the door with a thump and I held my arms over my chest, the key protruding painfully into my waist. “Oh my gosh,” I whispered, trying to calm my nerves.

                “Well?” He persisted. It was then I could actually see his face in clear light. I peeped open an eye and saw his frown, his thin lips set in a firm straight line. He had a young face, but frown lines had gathered between his eyes as he bunched his eyebrows to examine me making him appear a little older. Brown haired. Blue eyed. He looked no older than 18 years old – definitely not the face I had imagine up by the camp fire.

                I tilted my head to the side, finally catching my breath. “I was going to give you some blankets.”

                He rolled his eyes. Had he been doing that all along? “Those won’t help me much?”

                “What else do you expect me to do?”

                That silenced him.

                I shook my head, feeling like I could wring his neck but had to remind myself – I would never be able to bring myself to do that, I’d never be able to strangle him anyways, and I was at a camp that’d provide many several witnesses. The lock, between my thoughts, finally clicked into place letting the door swing open.

                I remained in my place and listened for a few seconds, tensely holding the door. I couldn’t hear a peep. Kiana must have still been sleeping. Tip-toeing in, leaving Thomas behind, I let the door slam shut behind me forgetting the noise it would make.

                More suspiciously than anything else, Kiana didn’t as much as flinch or move. Looking around quickly, I found what I was looking for. Blankets. Eyeing the ones of my bed and the ones stuffed under it beside the family of spiders and hole in our cabin walls, I debated for mere seconds what ones to give him. Was he hell getting the clean ones.

                Getting onto my knees, I pinched the thin blankets and pulled them away – a small stream of air taking the place of the blanket and filling the cabin with cold night air. Definitely something I was going to bring up when I next saw the camp instructors. I made sure in particular to avoid the spiders and whatever else was lurking under there.

                Rising to my feet, I shook out the blankets and immediately regretted it when a million particles of dust fell from the sheets and floated to the ground. Just what this place needed. Grimacing, I examined the sheet – dirty in patches and all around pretty gross. Perfect. Thomas will love it.

                I made my way to the door and opened it a crack. I peeked my head out and saw Thomas staring right back at me as if he hadn’t moved an inch. “Did you get it?” He asked, realizing he had no other options. He’d lost his frown, making me see he was a lot more handsome if he wasn’t angry. His skin was flawless, apart from light trace of hair on his jaw.

                I nodded, producing the sheet between the cracks and dumping it on the damp slab beneath the door. “Sleep tight,” I said, as I began to shut the door. There was that frown again, and his lips forming a light o shape in shock. He didn’t dare touch them.

                Before I could slam the door shut behind me, he jammed his foot. “You expect me to use these?”

                “Yes. I’m surprised you’re not trying to break your way in here. Wouldn’t be me sleeping outside.” Diverting the subject, I hoped he’d give up and not bother about the sheets. He was lucky I even had spares.

                He grumbled something under his breath, followed by, “Not like I haven’t done that before.”

                I didn’t have time to question, because he’d already removed his foot. With my pressure on the door, it went bouncing into its frame causing the entire cabin the shake. For a few seconds, I paused. There, just slightly, the light patter of footsteps as they went in a direction away from the cabin and away out.

                Despite my lack of intention to help, I did hope he’d be alright. Mostly because it’d be my fault and his own stubbornness if he got hurt through the night.

                I sighed with relief, knowing it was finally all over and let myself sink against the door and slide down it. I squinted at my watch and saw it was 3am. I had barely 3 hours to sleep. I’d be shattered tomorrow.

                A voice interrupted my thoughts. “I think,” Kiana’s sleepy voice interrupted, her form not moving in the slightest looking the exact same as she had when I arrived back at the cabin five minutes ago, “You need to tell me what’s going on.”

                Maybe she wasn’t such a light sleeper after all?

 

 

 

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