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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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4. 3 - REVELATIONS & REGULATIONS

                The mess hall was located in the middle grounds between the two associated camps – not a five minute walk in either direction, reminding me of the close proximity. Kendra led the way up front, announcing that everyone would be allowed to make their own way tomorrow at whatever time they liked from 8 till 9. There wasn’t much of a route to memorise though – we literally just walked along a straight path.

                Beside me, Kiana looked tired having only slept for about two hours once she’d finished grilling me. The black bags under her eyes said everything.

                I laughed at the memory. Kiana had a lot of questions that was for sure. If anything, too many questions.

                I remembered back to last night;

                “Who was that at our door? Where have you been?” She didn’t wait even a breath between each question, shooting them off as if she’d practised them. I gulped, knowing she was either going to let it pass or she was going straight to the main office to rat me up.

                “I- uh,” I began to say. Kiana narrowed her eyes, twisting her entire body to sit cross legged on her own bed. I sighed dramatically, following suit and sitting across from her. “I wasn’t tired – so I went back to the camp fire.”

                She raised her eyebrows, motioning with her hands for me to continue. “The guy?”

                “Is that all you’re interested in.”

                “Duh.”

                ~

                Kiana laughed. “Maybe you’ll see Thomas here. You should say hey to him.”

                I laughed sourly in return. “No. You should have seen his face whenever I spoke to him. Clearly didn’t like me, and let me tell you again that I didn’t like him.” After the way I’d treated him, anyways. I knew at least that I was a little snappy yesterday.

                “Perfect time to make up, then.”

                “Make up? Who do you think we are? We barely know each other and never will know each other.”

                “Yeah, okay.”

                One of the camp leaders in front of us pushed the door open to the mess hall. Stepping inside, we realised it was as small as two of our cabins put together crammed full with different items ranging from rusty cutlery to chipped stained porcelain dishes. Lined in heated containers along the far side of the room appeared the breakfast – letting off a putrid smell of perhaps stale and overheated breakfast stuffs.

                Two long tables were running from one side to the other. One for the other camp, one for ours. It seems the other camp were already here – devouring their food silently overseen by their thug camp leader Julien. I looked over the group quickly, but didn’t spot Thomas. Not that I had much time to check.

                Kiana on my arm, she pulled me to the food area, just behind a few of our own campers and snatched up two of the nicer looking plates – or at least, the whitest looking ones. I turned up my nose at the sight and thought about my chances of getting something better to eat later.

                I couldn’t imagine the food being any nicer than the plates.

                “Eat up, girls and boys, we’ve got a big day behind us!” Kendra wailed as she made her way down the campers piling food onto their plates. I felt her presence arrive behind my shoulder. Tensing, I hesitantly picked up the ladle for the scrambled eggs. Did I really want to be eating this?”

                “What are you having, Mercy?” She asked. I peered over my shoulder and saw her face inches from mine, a scary smile pasted on her lips.

                I looked back down at my plate and over at Kiana. We’d reached the end of the line. I’d passed the charred bacon, the solid pancakes, and everything else in between. I thought right then I’d rather starve. “Oh, I think I’ll just have some bread,” I said, eyeing the loaf that most campers hadn’t touched and the small portions of jams and butter lying beside it. Yum.

                Kendra tutted. “You’ll regret that later when you’re hungry. We’re not big on lunch here – there’s a lot to do around midday.”

                I didn’t reply. I knew I wouldn’t regret it because at least I wouldn’t catch whatever disease was lurking on the food. Kiana didn’t seem to have these thoughts, though. I looked over her tall skinny form, clutching a plate that put the boys’ selection to shame.

                Holding my plate with a mere slice of stale bread, we made our way to the far end of the table together, seeing few others finished ahead of us. Just as we sat, Julien ripped through the air with his whistle.

                I covered my ears in surprise, nearly deafened and most definitely awake. “Alright, campers. Once you’ve finished, we’ll make our way out for post-breakfast workout and then you can sign up for your Monday activities.” He whistled once more, for no reason other than he could. “You have five minutes!”

                Most of them began to get up and flee for the door like the mess hall was on fire. I really was beyond scared for each of their sanity under Julien’s eye in that camp. It was bound to be hell. And a post-breakfast workout? He was mad.

                Distracted, I push around the small slice of bread with my knife knowing I probably wasn’t going to eat it. As I looked back up again seconds later, I caught sight of him – looking directly back at me. In this light Thomas looked far less intimidating, but our encounter last night still made me a little wary. The guy obviously had issues – if that wasn’t already apparent from the fact he was even In Camp West-Bridge in the first place. He wore a flannel over a regular t-shirt. On his bottom half, dark green cargo shorts reaching just below his knee. Not the most fashionable, but who’d be doing workouts in jeans?

                Despite walking with the crowd of his campers, his eyes followed mines and before he reached the door I saw his lips form the word ‘thanks’. At least, that’s what it looked like.

                Julien was the last to exit, about five people after Thomas had left. I let go of a breath I’d clearly been holding.

                Kiana elbowed my side. “Was that him?” She asked. Was he that obvious?

                I shrugged, not wanting to tell her yes or no. “Not sure who you’re talking about.”

***

                Kiana and I made our way back together to our cabin. John suggested before we leave that early morning was the time to write in our feelings in our diaries – for the previous day. It was something we had to do, though, and John made that pretty clear.

                “It’s so stupid. I don’t have anything to tell them that they don’t already know. I’m not misunderstood, I don’t have feelings trapped inside me – I just have a messed up family life and parents who couldn’t give two craps about me or my sister,” Kiana explained, giving me a slight insight to her family life and the problems back home.

                “So that’s why you’re here?” I asked, as we reached the small flower bed.

                Kiana nodded. “I guess so… Mom thinks I can’t deal with my emotions since my father left and she remarried. It’s basically like every other story of broken families who have no interest of coming back together. Everyone’s heard it too many times.”

                I nodded, knowing disagreeing wasn’t going to work. After a few seconds, she asked, “So what’s your story?”

                I was knocked a little with surprise. “Oh, similar to yours,” I said, brushing it off easily. I didn’t want to talk about it – not that there was much to talk about.

                “Really?” We arrived on our doorstep, but blocking our path was a small folded pile of sheets. “What’s that?” she asked, bending down and cautiously lifting up the bundle. It unfolded in her hands, and I immediately recognised the torn sheet with a similar hole to the one I’d torn in the sheets I’d gave Thomas.

                “It’s the blanket I gave Thomas,” I said. I felt a small warmth creep up inside me. I hadn’t expected him to return it.

                “It smells of washing powder,” Kiana said, carefully taking a sniff of the sheet. “I think he washed it. It’s still damp.”

                I laughed. “Well, when I gave it to him it was soaking with sour water, dust, and spiders.” I reached out carefully trailed my finger down the surface. Sure enough, it was damp and emitting the smell of cheap washing powder and bleach. I laughed lightly.

                “He has manners and does washing. You need to snag him, Mercy.”

                I shook my head as the corners of my lips upturned. “You haven’t spent five seconds with the guy. I spent maybe half an hour last night and that was enough.”

                “Lies.”

                I laughed in response, shaking my head as I pushed open our door. I let Kiana take in the sheets, trailing behind her picking up as much dirt as they had when I’d given them to Thomas in the first place. Suddenly I felt guilty for his effort. Lying on the corner of my bed was the diary Anna had given me for my thoughts. Campers, 2016 was printed on the front of the hardback cover.

                I peered down at my watch quickly and noticed the time. Coincidentally, I also had my counselling appointment on Monday mornings. Mines was in ten minutes time and hadn’t even wrote my name on the front of the thing yet.

                “I hear Anna isn’t in a good mood today. Maybe you should leave now and conjure and excuse about your diary.”

                That sounded better than turning up late and having my head bit off. I nodded and made my way from the cabin – diary tucked under my arm and sprinted the short few yards towards the main office-cabin. I didn’t have to knock on the door – a series of door inside leading off into the separate offices of each of the leaders, chairs positioned outside each.

                I pushed open the screen and made my way in, taking note of the names on each door. I reached the end door, Anna’s office. I knocked politely on the door, not knowing if she’d let me in right away or hold me outside for the best part of half an hour while everyone else made their way out for the daily activities with John and Kendra.

                “Come in!” Anna yelled from inside. I turned the knob slowly, letting the door swing open. “Oh, Mercy,” she said when she saw my figure in the door way. “Is it that time already?” She maybe didn’t look as pissed off as people were describing her as, but she certainly did look stressed. Paperwork was scattered around her and her hair was falling from a loose bun on the top of her head. She looked exactly like I had when I’d been studying for exams not a month ago.

                “I can come back another time?” I offered, signalling back at the door as I taken another step into the room. The door clicked shut behind me.

                She waved frantically. “Oh, no, no need for that. Please, sit. You brought your diary yes?” She asked.

                “About that…”

                She groaned, sinking into her seat. “You too?” She laughed humourlessly. “It’s a new thing introduced this year to keep track of our campers, what’s going on inside their head. It was my suggestion. If this doesn’t work out right, it’s my head on the line.”

                I tried not to laugh. “Well, you’re asking teenagers to write about their feelings. That’s never going to go well.”

                She sighed, shaking her head. “Let’s forget about the diary this one time but I’ll expect the days you missed to be filled in for our next half week meeting on Thursday afternoon.” We quickly moved past that subject and got onto what she really wanted to know. “So, how are you liking the camp?”

                I shrugged, settling into the seat knowing I’d be here for a while. “It’s alright. Underwhelming if anything.”

                She scribbled something down after she sifted through the papers on her desk. “mhm,” she said, urging me to continue.

                “And… the people are nice?”

                Anna looked up, reminding me of the school counsellor who’d act the exact same way. I twitched uncomfortably. “Is that all?”

                “I think so.” I know so. These things always baffled me – what did they expect me to say?

                Anna sighed and brushed her page with her hand. “Your mother spoke to me a few weeks before your arrival and briefed me on your situation. It sounds like you are scared of socialization.”

                “Scared?” I spat, suddenly feeling angry at the mention of my mom. “What did she tell you?”

                She tilted her head and thought for a second. “She mentioned that you’ve alienated yourself for quite some time. You have no friends. You don’t want friends. You don’t do well in school. You aren’t flexible in your schedules.”

                “What does that have to do with anything? That’s just who I am.”

                Anna shook her head. “Humans are social creature. It’s not natural to seclude yourself.” Social creature. Pfft. Any creature would be put off socialization after spending their childhood with my family – overbearing and too strict for freedom. That’s not even considering the fact that everyone in my home town were utter idiots.

                “I’m clearly the anomaly.”

                “There are no anomalies in human nature. You’re not special, you’re not different – you’re damaged.”

                I suddenly became offended. It was like she’d sat and had a conversation with my mom and stolen every single one of her lines. “Let me get this clear – I’m not scared of socialization, I’m scared of certain people. You would be too if you grew up in my household living with my mom, if you went to my school being around the people I had since the moment I was old enough to enter kindergarten. This is me, and no stupid counsellor can change that.” I got up from my seat, prepared to leave at any seconds. “And you can keep your stupid diaries.” I threw it at the wall behind her in a rage I’ve built up inside me.

                Anna got up too, a look of surprise and fear. “Mercy, wait! Your parents only want what’s best. They don’t want to see you hurt yourself.”

                I turned on my heel and pulled the door as hard as I could. “I’m not hurting myself, they’re hurting me!”

***

                Apparently today everyone was down by the lake. There was no swimming today, but John was trying to get everyone active. Mostly everyone was just sunbathing – sitting as still as could be. When I arrived, he was going red at the face in frustration. In the end, five minutes after I settled down in the long grass by the banks of the lake, John gave up with a frustrated groan – muttering something about not knowing why he even tries.

                I didn’t know either, John.

                I hadn’t discussed what Kiana would be doing, but she obviously hadn’t chosen water activities because she was nowhere to be seen. To be frank, the only reason I had chosen water activities was because I knew John would be here and not the psycho leader Julien. It appeared most of Julien’s camp was here too, seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces.

                As I rolled over in the grass, my hip hit painfully the sharp corner of the hardback diary. Anna had insisted I take it after my little spiel. It was better I write in it now or I could very well be back here next year. No thank you.

                Sighing exasperatedly, I slammed my hand on top of the cover blindly and pulled it up closer to my face. Where to start? Ah, yes. Day one. I scribbled down some sentences that made very little sense to anyone but me, consisting mostly of my complaints. I didn’t linger on the details, not wanting another spy in my life. And for obvious reasons omitted my late night excursion yesterday.

                “Campers!” John yelled, breaking me away from my thought, “How about we make ourselves some rafts?”

                “I’m not going in the water, no way,” one of the girls shrieked away in front.

                I propped myself up on my elbows watching as he came up with another ingenious idea that was imminently going to fall through. “I’m not saying you will go in the water, I just want to make some rafts. Some of the other campers can use it – provided you all wear a lifejacket.”

                I snorted in discreet laughter. The lake was tiny – you’d have to be hit over the head unconscious to drown in it.

                Some of the guys from the other camp were up on their feet with their friends at the idea, already shoving each other into the muddy stagnant water battling each other with large sticks from the surrounding forest. John grinned at the reaction and tried to encourage more people to join in. “We need people to collect the materials. A group of five should go off and collect the sticks! I have the string here.”

                A large portion of camp west-bridge were up and gone in a much larger group than five. Everyone left were the few individuals from my own camp – I recognised the two girls are those from induction who stood in the back and laughed at John. I also recognised the guy from the camp fire from cabin 4 – the only one who shot back when camp West-Bridge couldn’t keep their comments to themselves.

                “Is this all we have left? Oh dear,” he said, followed by a nervous laugh. “No to worry. The stick gathering is the hardest part.”

                The guy from cabin 4 moved along and stood by John and rubbed his hands together. “Is there anything I could be doing?” He was small in height but seemed to make up for that in personality. He was clearly a similar age to me; 17 years old.

                “I would ask you to cut up the strips of string for binding the raft together, Andrew, but I’m afraid we have to follow certain regulations that disallow us from letting you handle potential weapons,” John explained with a sheepish grin, tossing the ball of string in one hand, clutching the scissors in the other.

                Andrew from cabin 4 frowned, but brushed it away with a laugh. “I’m not going to stab anyone with it,” he replied, becoming a little weary.

                “Oh, we have no doubt none of you would do such a thing, but we have to take precautions.”

                I then recalled the fact that all cutlery in the mess hall was plastic – and not even thick plastic. Was this because… they thought we were a danger? Suddenly the idea of a camp for troubled teenagers took another turn.

                One of the girls from earlier snorted. “I’m sure if any of us were intent of hurting you or ourselves, we’d have found a much less obvious way to do it.”

                Kendra decided to make herself known and stepped into most of our fields of vision. “And that, campers, is what we’re most afraid of.” 

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