“No, wait,” he pleaded, but it was useless. The other guys shoved him into the disused, board-covered cabin, smacking shut the newly pried door. Bewildered, not up to this, he caught his breath and became aware of her breath. Megan’s—he was pretty sure they’d paired him with the owlish girl named Megan. He took a step forward, pawing the dark like a blind person and wondering if somehow his mom was witness to this scene.
“I’m here,” she said.
He moved toward her slowly, the floorboards creaking as if about to give, the thick musty air swarming like insects. His hands found her bare arms, which were slender and soft and trembling. “We don’t have to, you know.”
“Oh, God,” she whispered, “I’m such a baby, sorry.” Her voice was cinnamon-sweet and just inches away. She swallowed. “Now?”
The kiss—his first—was like tiny wet clouds billowing up against his lips, and he felt almost glad to be alive. Then her mouth parted and suddenly they were frenching.
They were cut short by a bang at the door. Couldn’t he have anything?
“Come on already,” Rockman called. “The snakes are waiting.”
Stumbling out into the fading day, Tom glanced over his shoulder. Megan came out, glasses slipping, eyes averted, and walked over to the other girls.
Rockman grabbed his arm. “Damn, dude. Were you copping a feel or what?”
“It took a second to find her.”
Rockman gave him a shove and nodded for the other guys to follow. “Well, come on already. The snakes aren’t gonna hunt themselves.”
Tom walked along silently. He liked Rockman and the others, but they scared him too; they were the roughest guys he’d ever met. Rockman, in fact, reminded him of the POWs in old World War II movies. He even wore army fatigues.
They ran into one of the counselors. “Where’re you fellows headed?” he asked.
“Oh, hi Mr. Peterson. We’re gonna go check the trail for robins. My friend Tom here’s a birdman.” Rockman had locked eyes with the counselor and was staring trancingly, like a vampire on the make.
“Robins, eh? Good for you guys. I’m something of a birdman myself, actually. Just make sure you’re back in time for the reading and the bonfire.”
Rockman grinned. “Sure thing, Mr. Peterson.” He waved to the departing counselor and then smirked and made for the trail. “What a dope.”
The woodsy trail was so pristine and dusk-swept that it seemed artificial. Rockman passed around a can of Skoal. Tom took a small pinch and—another first—stuck it in his bottom lip. “What do we do when we find them?” one of the others asked.
“Whaddaya think?” Rockman huffed. “We stomp ’em. We spit on ’em.”
Tom laughed. “Hard times for snakes, huh?”
Predictably, Rockman was the first to find one. He launched himself into the air and landed both feet on the slithery stick, stomping viciously, as if getting even.
Walking along, Tom felt loose and relaxed from the tobacco, but still, he was troubled. He thought of Megan and his poor dead mother, and wondered if Megan was thinking of him and if he would have the nerve to ask Mr. Peterson or one of the other counselors why God would steal a mother from her twelve-year-old son. The answer, of course, was that God didn’t have anything to do with it; to be held accountable, He would have to exist first. It was like trying to blame the air, or the trees. All the other guys considered themselves staunch atheists, but none of them seemed bothered by the lack of God, whereas Tom was bothered plenty, had always been. After all, where did that leave you? He knew where—alone. A scared defenseless creature at the mercy of predators, no better than a snake in a world of stomping Rockmans. Alone—alone was where.
Rockman drew up alongside him. “How ya doing, buddy? You feeling down about your mom?”
“I don’t know, maybe a little.” He leaned over, pursed his lips, and shot a stream of spit into a pile of crumpled dead leaves.
“Hey! Not bad. Anyway, don’t tell the others, but I got some contraband.”
“Yeah?” He was getting the idea that Rockman had packed nothing but contraband. He absently slapped at his prickling arm; the trail was thick with skeeters.
Rockman nodded. “Sex pics I printed off the Internet, a big ol’ stack of them. Come by my cabin after lights out and I’ll give you a look-see. You’ll feel all better.” He spat. “And that Megan girl? I think she likes you.”
Tom’s spirits lifted a little. They took their time getting back and missed the eight o’clock scripture reading in the main lodge.
“There they are,” Mr. Peterson said when they joined the bonfire circle. “Another hour and we were going to send out a search party.”
Rockman unleashed his stare. “Hi Mr. Peterson. We got a little lost, is all.”
Mr. Peterson grinned. “I figured as much. Just wear a watch next time and bring your compass. Church camp isn’t equipped for late-night rescue missions.”
Tom almost laughed. Church camp? It was more like sin camp. And Peterson really was tranced if he thought the contraband king had packed a compass.
The crackling bonfire sent sparks popping up into the dark night. A few campers were serenading the fire with one of the folk songs they’d learned this week, the one about the magpie and the vulture. The girls from the kissing game wandered over; their fire-lit faces seemed both angelic and witchy. Rockman shoved Tom toward Megan, who was wearing a sweatshirt and keeping each hand balled within the sleeve cuff.
She wiped hair away from her cheek and nudged her slipping glasses back into place. “Where you guys been? You missed the scripture reading.” She seemed polite, nothing more. Either she was playing hard to get or she was hard to get.
Tom shrugged. “Just walking around. You know.”
She smiled, just a little. “Guy stuff?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
To the girls, Rockman said, “Tom here’s a little down on account of his mom. She died this spring giving birth to his baby sister.”
One of the girls covered her mouth, shocked. “Oh no!”
Meanwhile, Megan turned her owl face to Tom and drifted closer to him but said nothing. Rockman gave Tom a thumbs-up and whispered, “Score!”
“Does your heart hurt?” Megan asked.
“Sometimes, I guess.”
“Bright, Megan, real bright.” She bowed her head. “That was a dumb question, forgive me. Your mom is your mom.” Sweetly grainy, like cinnamon sugar—hers was the prettiest voice he’d ever heard. And it was better that she was calm and serious and not giggle-prone; he had never liked giggly girls and these days liked them even less.
She was observing the night sky, so he did too. The stars seemed strangely fake, like pegs from a Lite-Brite set, but then, didn’t everything seem fake lately? Only Megan seemed real, seemed really alive. After a while he said, “I don’t ever want to die.”
“Oh, sweetie.” She shook her head. “Jesus won’t let us. He’ll save our souls and we’ll live forever and ever. In glory, Tom. In beautiful shining glory.” She turned to him and smiled. “We have Jesus, and we’ve got each other, too.” Her hand slipped from its sleeve and—a day of firsts, truly—caught his palm and gave it a good long squeeze. Then, instead of letting go, she slid her fingers down and laced them in his.
He grinned sadly and stared into the fire. They were all goners, of course, every last camper, every one of them a stick in a slow-burning fire, and in a hundred years there would hardly be even so much as a trace of their lives left intact. It was a cruel world. Her trembling grip felt pretty and alive and lasting, and so he allowed himself to be initiated into her world of fairy-tale lies, but still, he knew the truth. That this was a death camp. That it was a cruel world. How could anyone not know? Except…Are you out there? I miss you, okay? I miss you and nothing seems real anymore and my heart hurts so bad. But please don’t worry, I’ll look out for little Mary, I promise. And, listen, I’ll—oh. You’re not there. Alone is where…He sighed and held tight to Megan’s hand. The bonfire blazed on. It was a cruel world.
Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously been published in Bird’s Thumb, Columbia Journal, and Westchester Review.