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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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10. 9 - HELLO AGAIN

Monday and Tuesday seemed to pass without a care in the world. Everything had become a little easier to bare, maybe down to settling into the camp a little better and enjoying the better times sleeping in my small, warm cabin and new, untouched carpet under my toes when I opened my eyes at the refreshing hour of 6am.

                Come six am on Wednesday morning, however, it didn’t quite feel the same as it had yesterday.

                Julien was going through his morning routine of waking all twelve of his campers, screaming at the top of his lungs and banging so hard on the doors of the campers that it woke even us up – and he didn’t even try to wake us up as we weren’t his responsibility. Both Kiana and I heard their doors slam as they scrambled to align in front of their doors for morning roll call. We both had special circumstances and weren’t expected to report to our camp until seven. Being moved here was a blessing in disguise.

                Despite the somewhat comedic circumstances and laughing at the misfortune of everyone in West-Bridge as well as Thomas, David, and Dean, neither Kiana or I chose to laugh together about it. We’d barely said a word since Sunday when she’d had that small scene on the mini bus. Something had happened, whether in real life or in her head I hadn’t figured out, and since then had become a Kiana I didn’t know.

                “Are you going to get ready?” I asked her, as I laid in my bed on the opposite side of the room. She mumbled a quiet yes but instead of getting up, rolled over so she faced the wall.

                I wanted to know what was wrong, I really did, but after discussing it with Thomas, we’d come to the firm conclusion that if it was my place to know or if she wanted to confide, she’d do it herself. That made me only slightly upset, but I had to think about this rationally – while I’d spent every waking minute by Kiana’s side, we’d known each other now only a week and a half. In the real world, back home, we would be strangers. Or, if I would somehow function like a normal social person, we’d be strangers here too… But it wasn’t unfolding that way, or at least to me.

                I tossed my feet over the bed and sighed. The heater had been on all last night, so the small window pane had fogged up due to excess heat battling it out with the cold morning air outside. Northern California was a different ballgame to the south. Gently, I reached out and wiped my sleeve over the steam.

                “I don’t know if I’ve done or said anything, but I’m sorry,” I said to Kiana hoping she was listening.

                I looked over my shoulder and found her already standing there. She looked a little upset but not any more than she had for the past few days. “I appreciate it,” She said. But she’d said the same thing for the past few days.

                “I can help you,” I persisted, turning around to fully face her. She lazily shuffled over to her bags and began to haul out some clothes to wear for the day. It was creak day, meaning swimming and no point in looking presentable.

                “You go first,” was all she said as she began to remove her shirt to change into her outfit.

                I blinked in surprise. She muttered something different. “First with what?”

                She shook her head pitifully and quickly erased a stray tear I’d barely been able to catch myself. She pulled a new shirt over her head after changing her underwear. “I want to know why everyone else is here. Might make me feel like I’m not the only one dreading today, or hating everything and every second.”

                Oh, that was right. It was visiting today. Parents would start arriving from 12 onwards. Well that sure put a damper on things, not that I’d quite forgotten.

                I shook my head and tried to think over how it was you consoled an upset girl of your own age. Was a hug appropriate? “I know how you’re feeling.”

                “Do you?” She asked suddenly, looking up at me for the first time in days. “I’m sorry, Mercy. I just have bad days and they come on pretty suddenly. I’ll be back to my old self soon.”

                I took a step closer with the excuse of rummaging through my own bags. “That’s not normal, Kiana. Maybe if you talk to me-.”

                Kiana straightened herself out and dusted herself off. “I’ve just been thinking for the past few days. I don’t want to see my parents any more than you. Knowing that, do you understand now?”

                “But, why-.”

                “Don’t ask me why. Ask yourself why. Why don’t you want to see your parents?” Kiana suddenly asked, obviously wanting to hear my answer herself.

                I couldn’t reply to it, knowing my answer would sound something along the lines of ‘They think I’m too antisocial. Feel the need to invest in my wellbeing by promoting healthy social norms and obviously as the typical teenager, I really don’t agree with it.’ No. Then I really would be a spoilt brat, and I wasn’t admitting that to myself never mind anyone else.

                She took my silence as her answer. “See, didn’t think you’d have an answer. I’m sure you have one, but there’s too much you don’t want to say out loud, right? Well, it’s not just you. I promise I won’t be as bad today.”

                A small smile warmed at her efforts. “So… You’re feeling better?” Wednesday was only beginning.

                “Well, I just want today over with.” As do I, as do I.

***

                The day began by the creek after breakfast. Kiana had quietly slipped off towards her therapy session with Anna, while Thomas and I headed together ahead of the rest of the group towards the lake.

                In terms of Thomas and I, nothing had progressed since Sunday. Not that I was hoping for much to progress so soon, but I was becoming enlightened to the world and the act of socialisation beyond a professional relationship and I wanted to consume as much as I could like a starving child before a buffet of new people and different opportunities.

                Despite all this, we hadn’t quite made our potentially more-than-friends relationship obvious, out of fear that anything more was banned… or looked down upon. I’d even checked the camper rules and they left that section pretty ambiguous. It seemed safe… For now.

                “I think I should teach you how to swim,” Thomas muttered as he stared straight ahead towards the creek that slowly appeared through the dispersing trees. I looked up at his rounder face and admired his more than average features that seemed to glow unlike the others.

                Unsure, I laughed. “I… don’t think so somehow,” I said, letting my arms wrap around my body remember just how cold it was raft racing and how much I regretted that after.

                “Oh, come on. You’re not scared, right?”

                Certainly wasn’t scared, but I hadn’t planned on going in the water today either. “No, but-.”

                Everyone kept cutting me off today. “No excuses. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t swim.”

                I would say I had or hadn’t either, but I didn’t quit have enough people in mind to say if they all knew how to swim or not. I mean, Kiana could, my brother could… My father could…

                “Damn it.”

                He laughed under his breath as we both arrived by the same spot as last week – just out of the way from the rest of the group, who’d all arrived behind us anyways and were beginning to take their places.

                Thankfully our own area was out of view provided by a small indent in the land surrounding the creek, providing a veil of foliage between us and them. Also, the weather had considerably warmed despite the rain that was battering the coast not twenty miles west of us.

                Thomas rubbed his hands together with a small grin on his face. “Where do we begin?”

                “You know, I think sunbathing sounds like a nice thing to do today. It’s not warm enough to swim.”

                Just to spite me, over joyed screams began to emit from the other campers as they pranced straight into the water and began to splash around. “If it’s warm enough for them, it’s warm enough for you.”

                He began to take off his clothes – his jumper and then his trousers, revealing long shorts underneath. He left his shirt on and laid everything else in a bundle beside him. He gestured for me to hurry up. I glanced only slightly at his legs and laughed at the paleness. As white as a sheet of paper but my laughing didn’t seem to faze him.

                Just because Kiana had forced me once she’d cheered up a little, I had with me another set of clothes. The ones I wore – loose fitting basketball shorts and a black t-shirt – were what I intended to wear into the creek today.

                Hesitantly, I followed Thomas’ lead who wandered blindly into the waters. First a toe, and then my foot.

                “Come on, Mercy,” Thomas grumbled as he reached backwards to take a hold of my wrist. “In no time your parents will be here, and you wouldn’t have even got knee deep into the water by then.”

                I pursed my lips as I leaned back against his grip resisting his tugs. I really didn’t want to do this. Water and me didn’t go too well here. It hadn’t been fun before.

                In a moment I’d been tugged hard enough towards Thomas I then stood before him up to my waist in dirty creek water. “Now, I think this is deep enough to start out. Can you at least tread water?”

                I had to look up at him against the sun that beat down above us through a break in the trees. “Tread-what?”

                He shook his head as a mischievous smile evolved on his lips. “You surprise me,” he said before suddenly he sunk down into the water grabbing a tight hold around my waist with his own arms. I didn’t have time at all to process what had happened before my face dunked into the water straight after Thomas who kicked around by my own legs, wrapping them like vines between me.

                My eyes opened for mere seconds before they began to sting. I couldn’t see Thomas, but I could certainly feel him. I reached out instinctively and held on for dear life, in a state of panic promising his early death when we came up for air. That moment came sooner than I expected.

                Thomas helped us both up by kicking off the spongy ground, also lifting millions of dirt particles and slime coating our now soggy clothes.

                Our faces broke the surface at the same time. Coughing and spluttering, I made sure the first thing I touched was his face with the palm of my hand, forcing him back into the disgusting stagnant water. “What the hell!?” I wailed.

                His height played to an advantage unfortunately as he propelled himself out the water to stand a fair half a foot above me, his feet planted as firm as a statue in the bed below us. Before I could attempt anything else, Thomas made a reach for my forearms. “Hey – hey! You can stop now.”

                His hold around my forearms changed to a loose hug around my back as we seemed to drift further away from the banks and soon enough I couldn’t touch the ground. We also floated into the main view of other campers who seemed to have a similar idea to us.

                I was going to drown, I’d contract some serious disease from these contaminated, polluted waters, or I’d kill myself after all this. Thoughts kept repeating before Thomas interrupted. “Oh, look, you’re treading water.”

                I tried to glance down but found water directly under my chin – not that it would have helped in any situation seeing as the waters had become so dirty I wouldn’t have been able to see anyways. “No, I’m floating.”

                “Same thing. As long as you’re keeping yourself afloat and your legs and arms are moving, it’s fine,” he said as his gaze shot to the small space between us as if he could actually see through the water.

                I tried to wriggle free of Thomas’ grip to prove a point. “Um, not exactly treading water then.” I pointedly tried to shrug him off.

                A small smile graced his lips. “I don’t think you should be too confident just yet.”

                “I don’t think I’ll sink that easily,” I replied back as I tried to wriggle free in a burst of confidence mixed with conflicting fear.

                He muttered something about having it my way before he let go from below my arms and suddenly it didn’t feel so easy to float anymore. I watched him laugh as my head sunk until water began to touch my eyes. Arms were flailing before he finally seconds later hoisted me back into his hold. “Told you,” He replied.

                “Yeah, whatever,” I said as I raised an arm to slap his wet chest.

                In the short distance between us and everyone else, their light chatter met our ears as they lounged around without a care in the world. Except I knew most of them would be thinking about later this day – towards the time most of their parents would arrive. It was all my mind kept coming back to, and suddenly I was curious.

                Thomas let us drift ashore until we could finally climb out the water. He didn’t seem to care that we’d spent a mere five minutes in the water and seemed satisfied with the fact he’d got me in there at all. I asked him as we both sat our soaked bodies in the shade, “will your parents be coming today?”

                The small smile that graced his lips began to sink. “Probably,” he mumbled.

                So it was like that? I should have guessed. It’d have been more a surprise if he was happy about it… Or if anyone here was happy about it. We all resented the people who sent us here no matter the fun we were appearing to have at the time. “Not good?” I asked gently as I ran my wet fingers through the thin grass.

                He shook his head. “I guess not.” He clearly didn’t want to talk about it, and instead turned the situation of me. “What about yours?”

                I shrugged like he had to me. “They’ll probably be here too.” I tried not to give too much away, thinking it best I don’t talk too much shit about them.

                Thomas looked away. “What’d they send you here for… Specifically? Did you do something?”

                I grimaced at the thought of explaining but knew there was no avoiding it if I wanted to be honest. “My mom made me go to a party. A high school party. Where I knew no one… It didn’t end well.”

                “Oh,” Thomas replied. I knew what he was thinking, I’ve made friends with a social reject, what the hell have I done. “Sounds like an overreaction to me.”

                I widened my eyes in surprise and said, “That’s what I’ve been saying but no one agrees.” He nodded slowly as I then asked, “So why did your parents send you here, specifically?” turning his own question on him.

                He laughed under his breath with an expression painting the story like a bitter memory he couldn’t quite believe. “Step dad doesn’t like me. Thinks I have attitude problems and likes to make me look like the bad guy in front of my mom. They’re both under the impression I’m on the road to nowhere.”

                I shook my head in disappointment. Both our parents sounded like peas in a pod, with the exception of maybe his step father who really could be a big bad piece of work. “Well you’re not,” I said suddenly. “You’re not on the road to nowhere and I hope you know that.”

                He nodded but as I looked at his face that peered off in the direction of the trees, I realised he didn’t look convinced. Thomas really didn’t believe those words did he?

***

                In the mess hall in front of my parents, the day began to drag by as minutes turned to tens of minutes, tens of minutes into hours. I hadn’t said a word.

                My mother had this expression resembling a woman’s static face filled with botox who couldn’t quite give a convincing smile yet to anyone who dared make her laugh. Everything looked fake… But that was just my mom all day every day. Nothing was ever real with mom. “Jake made the cut for the local teen soccer club, did you hear?” She asked, muttering the same words she’d probably bragged about to our neighbour Mrs Yates over the past week because she knew it was safe subject.

                My brother Jake, named after our dad, sat there scowling as if he’d heard it a dozen times too. I knew that feeling well. When I was his age, I made my first and last attempt to join a club and at the time my mom had bragged so hard about her daughter the triangle player in the local high school orchestra that I quit the following week. My brother’s soccer career would be short lived.

                At the other side of the hall, Kiana sat with her family. It would be my first time seeing them, and they looked exactly as I had pictured them. The woman opposite her looked similar to my mom – proper and well dressed. The man looked like the male embodiment of his wife – on his own accord or by command of his wife, I had no way to tell. I was glad I only had one overbearing and abnormal parent to deal with. My dad was normal by comparison – the man who lived permanently in khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts.

                “You know, Mercy, I hope this camp is doing you well. It looks good and your camp leaders appear well suited. Tell me, what have you been up to?” Mom suddenly asked as if she was interested. My dad beside her agreed with a nod of his head.

                On the other side of the hall to Kiana, Thomas sat with his parents. For a moment I was distracted by them, who in comparison to the people who spawned both Kiana and I, looked a lot more common. They didn’t appear to be saying much and in his mom’s arms were two infants. Siblings?

                My dad waved his hand in front of my face to catch my attention as if he was genuinely curious. I couldn’t fault my dad, he probably did want to know. My mom only wanted to hear so she could complain or perhaps use my explanation to spawn her own version of events to the other women in the neighbourhood. “Mercy?” My dad asked.

                I shrugged at them both, not knowing what to say. “Where do I start?” I said as if there was a lot to say. There wasn’t.

                My mom’s eyes brightened for a moment, conjuring all sorts in her head about the social butterfly her daughter had become. “Well,” I began, “We all sang songs around a campfire on the day we arrived. Made lots of friends and ate s’mores.”

                My father squinted as if he couldn’t quite believe it. My mom didn’t catch even a pinch of my sarcasm. Jake only snickered under his breath. “Oh, how wonderful!” My mom exclaimed, “Go on.”

                I peered off thoughtfully and wondered how I should do this. Should I be honest or tell her what she wanted to hear? Should I go in there, guns ablaze and make sure she knew how much I hated this? “There’s been swimming in the creek, but I don’t talk to anyone but my cabin mate. There’s also been raft racing – which ended well because I fell into the water and got sick. We also do sports – they made me run track on the same day I fell in, and you know, made me collapse and I was unconscious for a while but that’s fairly normal here. We also had to move cabins because my one was structurally defective but we’d already stayed in it for half a week. There was a nice family of spiders under our cot though so we were sad to leave them-.”

                “Mercy,” my mom interrupted. “Don’t joke around. We want to know how great it is here,” she said through a clenched smile that hurt to look at.

                I smiled as I looked at my brother and father’s shocked expressions. “It is great though! I mean, at the start it wasn’t great. I wasn’t eating much because the food can be mouldy and I was also avoiding touching anything because not only is everything covered in an inch of dirt, but so are the showers. Oh, and did I mention? There’s basically no security here so I can sneak out and do as I please when no one’s looking – which is always.”

                No one said a word for a few seconds. “You’ve been sneaking out?” My father asked. “Our Mercy has been sneaking out?”

                I nodded.

                Suddenly a smile crept up on his lips before he said, “Finally!”

                Not a moment after the word left his lips, my mom’s hand shot up to slap his arm. “Jake!” She exclaimed, “Don’t encourage her. You know she isn’t normal.”

                Well, I thought, that’s certainly isn’t encouraging. Suddenly a bad mood began to roll over me. Sarcasm wasn’t on my menu any more.

                My brother’s eyes glowed in child-like delight. “What have you been doing? Eating the food when no one’s around? Pranking the camp leaders? Pranking other campers?” He asked as if he thought I’d be capable of that. He was sorely mistaken.

                A piece of hair fell astray from my mom’s head and settled between her eyebrows. It looked hugely out of place. “Please tell me you haven’t,” she appeared to pray as she tightly shut her eyes and clenched her hands around table. Her nails began to strain against her grip on the surface.

                “Oh, no,” I nonchalantly replied but before anyone could visibly relax, I added, “Just meeting my boyfriend out in the forest so no one can see us.”

                That was all it took for things to go from 1 to 10 in a matter of seconds. A single nail snapped and pinged off in a direction I didn’t follow. A vein in her head began to throb as her face grew purple with anger. She was insane. Neurotic and insane. “Meeting who!?” She screamed.

                My father only looked slightly concerned as he reached up and tried to pull my mom back down into her seat as people began to turn and stare. “Calm down, honey, a boyfriend is normal at her age,” he said, although mom was having none of that.

                “A boyfriend is normal at most ages but do you really think it’s normal for Mercy to have a boyfriend after being a social recluse for all of her life? After two weeks of arriving here? Mercy isn’t just normal,” she shouted, making sure everyone heard.

                I couldn’t bring myself to care anymore that people stared at the scene unfolding. I glanced over at Kiana and realised their table was possibly the only one not staring at us – in their own argument but being considerably quieter about it.

                “I want to see this therapist of yours and ask her what the hell they’ve been doing to my daughter! What have they done with my Mercy?!” My mom screeched like she’d forgotten to take her pills that morning. She never forgot anything.

                I leaned back in my chair as I watched John approach from the other side of the hall, ready to calm the situation. I couldn’t take this, I couldn’t take any of this. I felt like crying and screaming like a child and making an absolute fool of myself… But that wouldn’t matter so long as my mom knew how I felt. “Your daughter Mercy who likes to be by herself and read all day or the Mercy you tell all your friends I am – the Grade A student on the cheer team with an abundance of friends all over the state? The Mercy you’ve constructed in your head out of all your dreams for a perfect daughter? Constructing perfect lies to tell your friends to account for why they never see me and why no one has ever heard of me? The Mercy who’s currently volunteering in South-East Asia with starving children or the Mercy at a summer camp for messed up kids?” I asked as a lump began to form in my throat, my voice beginning to shake.

                My little brother across from me could only look away while my parents began to fight between themselves in response to my outburst. I could have stopped this and made it a peaceful meeting. I could have told my mom some lies or at least downplay things to save me the emotional pain, but how could I when I knew she didn’t want to know anything about me? And I mean, the real me.

                “Calm down, Honey. She’s only been here a week, she hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s in good hands here,” my dad quietly explained to my mom as John appeared behind them.

                My mom sensed the presence and whipped around with a murderous expression. “Are you the therapist?” She asked, as if John – the five foot man with camper uniform stained with tomato sauce and sweat marks – really resembled a therapist.

                He outstretched his hands to lay his pudgy fingers over her forearms. My mom was having none of that and shook them off as he said, “Oh, hey Mr and Mrs. Reid, what’s the problem here?” John asked, backing off from my mom who looked like she could have ripped John’s face off. I knew she could rip John’s face off.

                My mom stamped her foot clad in Louboutin’s bought for her 40th birthday. An audible crack emitted from the shoe as she dangerously whispered, “I want to see Anna Tonbridge – she’s the supposed therapist here, right? Take me to her now!” as if shouting and blaming Anna for my behaviour would fix things.

                I only sat there and stared into the table with my brother opposite, who probably wished he could go home and never return to face anyone here out of sheer embarrassment. This happened every time – in a restaurant, can I see the chef!? In a store, can I see your supervisor!? At community meetings, can I see the mayor!?

                It never stopped.

                John only laughed awkwardly to try and lighten the mood, but my mom didn’t let up. He then finally said as he found himself looking away, “Anna’s on her lunch break right now. I don’t suppose you can come with me and wait until she’s ready?” he asked, sensing what type of person my mom was. She was psychotic.

                My mom agreed, several family friendly curse words later, and stormed out ahead of my dad and John, who looked at each other apologetically. My brother didn’t move as his face hit the table surface and groaned.

                “Hey, Mercy,” he said quietly, his voice slightly muffled.

                “What?”

                He rolled his head to the side letting me look at his baby faced features and wide eyes. “When you come home, promise you’ll never leave again. Don’t leave me with her all alone,” Jake replied as he played with hands outstretched across the table.

                I could only laugh at my brother. “There’s always bible camp like mom usually sends you to in the summer?” I suggested, knowing he hated bible camp more than life itself.

                He didn’t even grimace. Instead, Jake smiled lightly. “Ugh, why did I behave this year?” he groaned to himself as if he thought if he misbehaved, he’d have been sent away. I already knew this would happen. He’d be on his best behaviour to have the best summer of his life with friends from school but all he could grasp at in terms of a social life were the kids from church that, like us, only ever escaped the house of Sunday’s.

                I shook my head at him and got up from my seat. Eyes hadn’t yet completely deflected, setting me more and more on edge. “I’ll be home soon, just take care of mom and dad for a little while longer.”

                He laughed. “Don’t have too much fun, Mercy… Because that’s not fair.”

                I smiled internally. Fun.

 

 

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