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I don't know why I'm doing this.
Writing this down, I mean. It's not like anybody is making me.
Not this time.
But it seems to me like somebody ought to be keeping track of this stuff. Somebody who actually knows what really happened.
And it isn't as if you can trust the Feds to do it. Oh, they'll write it down, of course. But they won't get it right.
I just think there needs to be one truthful account. A factual one.
So I'm writing it. It isn't a big deal, really. I just hope that someday somebody will actually read it, so I won't feel like it was a complete waste of time...not like the majority of my endeavors.
Take, for example, the sign. Now that's a classic example of a wasted endeavor if I ever saw one.
And if you think about it, that's really how it all started. With the sign.
That's what the sign said.
I know you don't believe me. I know you don't believe that in the history of time, there was ever a sign that said anything that stupid.
But I swear it's true. And I should know: I'm the one who'd painted it.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't want to. I mean, they totally made me do it. They handed me the paint and this giant white cotton sheet and told me what to write on it and everything. Their last sign, see, had met with this very tragic accident, in which someone had folded it up and stuck it in the pool house and some noxious chemical had dripped on it and eaten through the fabric.
So they made me make a new one.
It wasn't just that the sign was stupid. I mean, if you got a look at the kids standing under the sign, you'd have known right away that it was also probably libelous. Because if those kids were gifted, I was Jean-Pierre Rampal.
He was this famous flutist, by the way, for those of you who don't know.
Anyway, I had seriously never seen a whinier bunch of kids in my life. And I've been around a lot of kids, thanks to the nature of my, you know, unique gift and all.
But these kids...Let me tell you, they were something else. Every last one of them was all, "But I don't want to go to music camp," or "Why can't I just stay home with you?" Like the fact that they were going to get to spend six weeks away from their parents was some kind of hardship. If you had told me, at the age of ten or whatever, that I could go somewhere and be away from my parents for six weeks, I'd have been like, "Sign me up, dude."
But not these kids. I suppose on account of the fact they were gifted and all. Maybe gifted kids actually like their parents or something. I wouldn't know.
Still, I tried to believe in the sign. Especially, you know, since I'd made it. Well, with Ruth's help. If you can call Ruth's contribution help, which I wasn't so sure I would. It had consisted mostly of Ruth telling me that my lettering was crooked. Looking at the sign now, I saw that she was right. The letters were crooked. But I doubted anyone but me and Ruth had noticed.
"Aren't they cute?"
That was Ruth, sidling up beside me. She was gazing out at the children, looking all dewy-eyed. Apparently she hadn't noticed all the screaming and sniffling and cries of "But I wanna go home."
But I sure had. They were kind of making me want to go home, too.
Only, if I went home, I'd be stuck working the steam table. That's how you spend your summers when your parents own a restaurant: working the steam table. There was even less of a chance of escape for me, since my parents own three restaurants. It was the least fancy one, Joe Junior's, that offered the buffet of various pasta dishes, all of which were kept warm courtesy of a steam table.
And guess which kid traditionally gets put in charge of the steam table? That's right. The youngest one. Me. It was either that, or the salad bar. And believe me, I had had my fill of deep-sea diving into the ranch dressing tub for stray cherry tomatoes.
But the steam table wasn't the only thing back home that I was trying to avoid.
"I hope I get that one," Ruth gushed, pointing to a cherubic-faced blonde who was standing beneath my sign, clutching a pint-sized cello. "Isn't she sweet?"
"Yeah," I admitted grudgingly. "But what if you get that one?"
I pointed to a little boy who was screaming so loudly at the idea of being separated from Mommy and Daddy for a month and a half, he had gone into a full-blown asthma attack. Both of his frenzied-looking parents were thrusting inhalers at him.
"Aw," Ruth said tolerantly. "I was just like that the first year I came here as a camper. He'll be fine by suppertime."
I supposed I had to take her word for it. Ruth's parents had started shipping her off to Camp Wawasee at the ripe old age of seven, so she had about nine years of experience to draw upon. I, on the other hand, had always spent my summers back at the steam table, bored out of my skull because my best (and pretty much only) friend was gone. In spite of the fact that my parents own three restaurants, in which my friends and I can dine any time we want, I have never exactly been Miss Popularity. This might be on account of the fact that, as my guidance counselor puts it, I have issues.
Which was why I wasn't so sure Ruth's idea -- of me putting in an application to be a camp counselor -- was such a good one. For one thing, despite my special talent, child care is not really my forte. And for another, well, like I said: I have these issues.
But apparently no one noticed my antisocial tendencies during the interview, since I got the job.
"Let me just make sure I got this right," I said to Ruth, as she continued to look longingly at the cellist. "It's Camp Wawasee, Box 40, State Road One, Wawasee, Indiana?"
Ruth wrenched her gaze from Goldilocks.
"For the last time," she said, with some exasperation. "Yes."
"Well," I said with a shrug, "I just wanted to make sure I told Rosemary the right address. It's been over a week since I last got something from her, and I'm a little worried."
"God." Ruth no longer spoke with just some exasperation. She was fed up. You could tell. "Would you stop?"
I stuck my chin out. "Stop what?"
"Stop working," she said. "You're allowed a vacation once in a while. Jeez."
I went, "I don't know what you're talking about," even though, of course, I did, and Ruth knew it.
"Look," she said. "Everything is going to be all right, okay? I know what to do."
I gave up trying to pretend that I didn't know what she was talking about, and said, "I just don't want to screw it up. Our system, I mean."
Ruth rolled her eyes. "Hello," she said. "What's to screw up? Rosemary sends the stuff to me, I pass it on to you. What, you think after three months of this, I don't have it down yet?"
Alarmed at the volume with which she'd announced this, I grabbed her arm.
"For God's sake, Ruth," I hissed. "Zip it, will you? Just because we're in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean there might not be you-know-whats around. Any one of those doting parents over there could be an F-E-D."
Ruth rolled her eyes again. "Please," was all she said.
She was right, of course: I was overreacting. But there was no denying the fact that Ruth had gotten seriously slack in the discretion department. Basically, since the whole camp thing had been decided, she'd been completely unable to keep anything else in her head. For weeks before we'd left for counselor training, Ruth had kept bubbling, "Aren't you excited? Aren't you psyched?" Like we were going to Paris with the French Club or something, and not to upstate Indiana to slave away as camp counselors for six weeks. I'd kept wanting to say to her, "Dude, it may not be the steam table, but it's still a job."
I mean, it's not like I don't also have my unofficial part-time career to contend with as well.
The problem was, Ruth's enthusiasm was totally catching. Like, she kept talking about how we were going to spend all of our afternoons on inner tubes, floating along the still waters of Lake Wawasee, getting tan. Or how some of the boy counselors were totally hot, and were going to fall madly in love with us, and offer us rides to the Michigan dunes in their convertibles.
And after a while, I don't know, I just sort of started to believe her.
And that was my second mistake. I mean, after putting in the application in the first place.
Ruth's descriptions of the campers, for instance. Child prodigies, she'd called them. And it's true, you have to audition even to be considered for a place at the camp, both as camper as well as counselor. Ruth's stories about the kids she'd looked after the year before -- a cabin full of sensitive, creative, superintelligent little girls, who still wrote her sweet funny letters, a year later -- totally impressed me. I don't have any sisters, so when Ruth started in about midnight gossip-and-hair-braiding sessions, I don't know, I began to think, Yeah, okay. This might be for me.
Seriously, I went from, "It's just a job," to "I want to escort adorable little girl violinists and flutists to the Polar Bear swim every morning. I want to make sure none of them are budding anorexics by monitoring their caloric intake at meals. I want to help them decide what to wear the night of the All-Camp Orchestral Concert."
It was like I went mental or something. I couldn't wait to take mastery over the cabin I'd been assigned -- Frangipani Cottage. Eight little beds, plus mine in a separate room, in a tiny house (thankfully air-conditioned) that contained a mini-kitchen for snacks and its own private, multiple-showerhead and toilet-stalled bathroom. I had even gone so far as to hang up a sign (with crooked lettering) across the sweet little mosquito-netted front porch that said, Welcome, Frangipanis!
Look, I know how it sounds. But Ruth had me whipped up into some kind of camp-counselor frenzy.
But standing there, actually seeing the kids for whom I was going to be responsible for most of July and half of August, I began to have second thoughts. I mean, nobody wants to hang out next to a steam table when it's ninety degrees outside, but at least a steam table can't stick its finger up its nose, then try to hold your hand with that same finger.
It was as I was watching all these kids saying good-bye to their parents, wondering whether I'd just made the worst mistake of my life, that Pamela, the camp's assistant director, came up to me and, clipboard in hand, whispered in my ear, "Can we talk?"
I'll admit it: my heart sped up a little. I figured I was busted....
Because, of course, there was a little something I'd left off of my application for the job. I just hadn't thought it would catch up with me this quickly.
"Uh, sure," I said. Pamela was, after all, my boss. What was I going to say, "Get lost"?
We moved away from Ruth, who was still gazing rapturously at what I would have to say were some very unhappy campers. I swear, I don't think Ruth even noticed how many of those kids were crying.
Then I noticed Ruth wasn't looking at the kids at all. She was staring at one of the counselors, a particularly hot-looking violinist named Todd, who was standing there chatting up some parents. That's when I realized that, in Ruth's head, she wasn't there underneath my crappy sign, watching a bunch of kids shriek, "Mommy, please don't leave me." Not at all. In Ruth's mind, she was in Todd's convertible, heading out toward the dunes for fried perch, a little tartar sauce, and some above-the-waist petting.
Lucky Ruth. She got Todd -- at least in her mind's eye -- while I was stuck with Pamela, a no-nonsense, khaki-clad woman in her late thirties who was probably about to fire me...which would explain why she'd draped an arm sympathetically across my shoulders as we strolled.
Poor Pamela. She was obviously not aware that one of my issues -- at least according to Mr. Goodhart, my guidance counselor back at Ernest Pyle High School -- is a total aversion to being touched. According to Mr. G, I am extremely sensitive about my personal space, and dislike having it invaded.
Which isn't technically true. There's one person I wouldn't mind invading my personal space.
The problem is, he doesn't do it anywhere near enough.
"Jess," Pamela was saying, as we walked along. She didn't seem to notice the fact that I'd broken into a sweat, on account of my nervousness that I was about to be fired -- not to mention trying to restrain myself from flinging her arm off me. "I'm afraid there's been a bit of a change in plans."
A change in plans? That didn't sound, to me, like a prelude to dismissal. Was it possible my secret -- which wasn't, actually, much of a secret anymore, but which had apparently not yet reached Pamela's ears -- was still safe?
"It seems," Pamela went on, "that one of your fellow counselors, Andrew Shippinger, has come down with mono."
Relieved as I was that our conversation was definitely not going in the "I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go" direction, I have to admit I didn't know what I was supposed to do with this piece of information. The thing about Andrew, I mean. I knew Andrew from my week of counselor training. He played the French horn and was obsessed with Tomb Raider. He was one of the counselors Ruth and I had rated Undo-able. We had three lists, see: the Undo-ables, like Andrew. The Do-ables, who were, you know, all right, but nothing to get your pulse going.
And then there were the Hotties. The Hotties were the guys like Todd who, like Joshua Bell, the famous violinist, had it all: looks, money, talent...and most important of all, a car.
Which was kind of weird. I mean, a car being a prerequisite for hotness. Especially since Ruth has her own car, and it's even a convertible.
But according to Ruth -- who was the one who'd made up all these rules in the first place -- going to the dunes in your own car simply doesn't count.
The thing is, the chances of a Hottie glancing twice in the direction of either Ruth or me are like nil. Not that we're dogs or anything, but we're no Gwyneth Paltrows.
And that whole Do-able/Undo-able thing? Yeah, need I point out that neither Ruth nor I have ever "done" anybody in our lives?
And I have to say, the way things are going, I don't think it's going to happen, either.
But Andrew Shippinger? So not Do-able. Why was Pamela talking to me about him? Did she think I'd given him mono? Why do I always get blamed for everything? The only way my lips would ever touch Andrew Shippinger's would be if he sucked down too much water in the pool and needed CPR.
And when was Pamela going to move her arm?
"Which leaves us," she went on, "with a shortage of male counselors. I have plenty of females on my waiting list, but absolutely no more men."
Again, I wondered what this had to do with me. It's true I have two brothers, but if Pamela was thinking either of them would make a good camp counselor, she'd been getting a little too much fresh air.
"So I was wondering," Pamela continued, "if it would upset you very much if we assigned you to the cottage Andrew was supposed to have."
At that point, if she'd asked me to kill her mother, I probably would have said yes. I was that relieved I wasn't being fired -- and I'd have done anything, anything at all, to get that arm off me. It isn't just that I have a thing about people touching me. I mean, I do. If you don't know me, keep your damned mitts to yourself. What is the problem there?
But you'd be surprised how touchy-feely these camp people are. It's all trust falls and human pretzel twists to them.
But that wasn't my only problem with Pamela. On top of my other "issues," I have a thing about authority figures. It probably has something to do with the fact that, last spring, one of them tried to shoot me.
So I stood there, sweating copiously, the words "Sure, yeah, whatever, let go of me," already right there on my lips.
But before I could say any of that, Pamela must have noticed how uncomfortable I was with the whole arm thing -- either that or she'd realized how damp she was getting from my copious sweating. In any case, she dropped her arm away from me, and suddenly I could breathe easily again.
I looked around, wondering where we were. I'd lost my bearings in my panic over Pamela's touching me. Beneath us lay the gravel path that led to various Camp Wawasee outbuildings. Close by was the dining hall, newly refinished with a twenty-foot ceiling. Next, the camp's administrative offices. Then the infirmary. Beside that, the music building, a modular structure built mostly underground in order to preserve the woodsy feel of the place, with a huge skylight that shone down on a tree-filled atrium from which extended hallways leading to the soundproof classrooms, practice rooms, and so on.
What I couldn't see was the Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the half dozen clay tennis courts. Not that the kids had much time for swimming and tennis, what with all the practicing they had to do for the end-of-session orchestral concert that took place in the outdoor amphitheater, with seating for nine hundred. But nothing was too good for these little budding geniuses. Not far from the amphitheater was the Pit, where campers gathered nightly to link arms and sing while roasting marshmallows around a sunken campfire.
From there the path curved to the various cabins -- a dozen for the girls on one side of camp and a dozen for the boys on the other?until it finally sloped down to Camp Wawasee's private lake, in all its mirror -- surfaced, tree-lined glory. In fact, the windows of Frangipani Cottage looked out over the lake. From my bed in my little private room, I could see the water without even raising my head.
Only, apparently, it wasn't my bed anymore. I could feel Frangipani Cottage, with its lake views, its angelic flutists, its midnight-gabfest-and-hair-braiding sessions, slipping away, like water down the drain of...well, a steam table.
"It's just that, of all our female counselors this year," Pamela was going on, "you really strike me as the one most capable of handling a cabinful of little boys. And you scored so well in your first aid and lifesaving courses -- "
Great. I'm being persecuted because of my knowledge of the Heimlich maneuver -- honed, of course, from years of working in food services.
" -- that I know I can put these kids into your hands and not worry about them a second longer."
Pamela was really laying it on thick. Don't ask me why. I mean, she was my boss. She had every right to assign me to a different cabin if she wanted to. She was the one doling out my paychecks, after all.
Maybe in the past she'd switched a girl counselor to a boys' cabin and gotten flak for it. Like maybe the girl she'd assigned to the cabin had quit or something. I'm not much of a quitter. The fact is, boys would be more work and less fun, but hey, what was I going to do?
"Yeah," I said. The back of my neck still felt damp from where her arm had been. "Well, that's fine."
Pamela reached out to clutch me by the elbow, looking intently down into my face. Being clutched by the elbow wasn't as bad as having her arm around my shoulders, so I was able to remain calm.
"Do you really mean that, Jess?" she asked me. "You'll really do it?"
What was I going to say, no? And risk being sent home, where I'd have to spend the rest of my summer sweating over trays of meatballs and manicotti at Joe Junior's? And when I wasn't at the restaurant, the only people I'd have to hang around with would be my parents (no thanks) my brother Mike, who was preparing to go away for his first year at Harvard and spent all the time on his computer e-mailing his new roommate, trying to determine who was bringing the minifridge and who was bringing the scanner or my other brother, Douglas, who did nothing all day but read comic books in his room, coming out only for meals and South Park.
Not to mention the fact that for weeks now, there'd been a white van parked across the street from our house that didn't seem to belong to anyone in the neighborhood.
Um, no thanks. I'd stay here, if it was all the same.
"Um, yeah," I said. "Whatever. Just tell me what cabin I'm assigned to now, and I'll start moving my stuff."
Pamela actually hugged me. I can't say a whole lot for her management skills. One thing you would not catch my father doing is hugging one of his employees for agreeing to do what he'd asked her to do. More like he'd have given her a big fat "so long" if she'd said anything but, "Yes, Mr. Mastriani."
"That's great!" Pamela cried. "That's just great. You are such a doll, Jess."
Yeah, that's me. A regular Barbie.
Pamela looked down at her clipboard. "You'll be in Birch Tree Cottage now."
Birch Tree Cottage. I was giving up frangipani for birch. Story of my damned life.
"Now I'll just have to make sure the alternate can make it tonight." Pamela was still looking down at her chart. "I think she's from your hometown. And she's a flutist, too. Maybe you know her. Karen Sue Hanky?"
I had to bite back a great big laugh. Karen Sue Hanky? Now, if Karen Sue had found out she was being reassigned to a boys' cabin, she definitely would have cried.
"Yeah, I know her," I said, noncommittally. Boy, are you making a big mistake, was what I thought to myself. But I didn't say it out loud, of course.
"She interviewed quite well," Pamela said, still looking down at her clipboard, "but she only scored a five on performance."
I raised my eyebrows. It wasn't news to me, of course, that Karen Sue couldn't play worth a hang. But it seemed kind of wrong for Pamela to be admitting it in front of me. I guess she thought we were friends and all, on account of me not crying when she told me she was moving me to a boys' cabin.
The thing is, though, I already have all the friends I can stand.
"And she's only fourth chair," Pamela murmured, looking down at her chart. Then she heaved this enormous sigh. "Oh, well," she said. "What else can we do?"
Pamela smiled down at me, then started back to the administrative offices. She had apparently forgotten the fact that I am only third chair, just one up from Karen Sue.
My performance audition score, however, for the camp had been ten. Out of ten.
Oh, yeah. I rock.
Well, at playing the flute, anyway. I don't actually rock at much else.
I figured I'd better get a move on, if I was going to gather my stuff before any of the Frangipanis showed up and got the wrong idea...like that Camp Wawasee was unorganized or something. Which, of course, they were, as both the disaster with the sign -- the one I told you about earlier -- and the fact that they'd hired me attested to. I mean, had they even run my name through Yahoo!, or anything? If they had, they might have gotten an unpleasant little surprise.
Skirting the pack of friendly -- a little too friendly, if you ask me you had to shove them out of your way with your knees to escape their long, hot tongues -- dogs that roamed freely around the camp, I headed back to Frangipani Cottage, where I began throwing my stuff into the duffel bag I'd brought it all in. It burned me up a little to think that Karen Sue Hanky was the one who was going to get to enjoy that excellent view of Lake Wawasee from what had been my bed. I'd known Karen Sue since kindergarten, and if anyone had ever suffered from a case of the I'm-So-Greats, it was Karen Sue. Seriously. The girl totally thought she was all that, just because her dad owned the biggest car dealership in town, she happened to be blonde, and she played fourth chair flute in our school orchestra.
And yeah, you had to audition to make the Symphonic Orchestra, and yeah, it had won all these awards and was mostly made up of only juniors and seniors, and Karen and I had both made it as sophomores, but please. I ask you, in the vast spectrum of things, is fourth chair in Symphonic Orchestra anything? Anything at all? Not. So not.
Not to Karen it wasn't, though. She would never rest until she was first chair. But to get there, she had to challenge and beat the person in third chair.
And I can tell you, that was so not going to happen. Not in this world. I wouldn't call making third chair of Ernest Pyle High School's Symphonic Orchestra a world-class accomplishment, or anything, but it wasn't something I was going to let Karen Sue take away from me. No way.
Not like she was taking Frangipani Cottage away from me.
Well, frangipani, I decided, was a stupid plant, anyway. Smelly. A big smelly flower. Birch trees were way better.
That's what I told myself, anyway.
It wasn't until I actually got to Birch Tree Cottage that I changed my mind. Okay, first off, can I just tell you what a logistical nightmare it was going to be, supervising eight little boys? How was I even going to be able to take a shower without one of them barging in to use the john, or worse, spying on me, as young boys -- and some not so young ones, as illustrated by my older brothers, who spend inordinate amounts of time gazing with binoculars at Claire Lippman, the girl next door -- are wont to do?
Plus Birch Tree Cottage was the farthest cabin from everything -- the pool, the amphitheater, the music building. It was practically in the woods. There was no lake view here. There was not even any light here, since the thickly leafed tree branches overhead let in not the slightest hint of sun. Everything was damp and smelled faintly of mildew. There was mildew in the showers.
Let me be the first to tell you: Birch Tree Cottage? Yeah, it sucked.
I missed Frangipani Cottage, and the little girls whose hair I could have been French braiding, already. If I knew how to French braid, that is.
Still, maybe they could have taught me. My little girl campers, I mean.
And when I'd stowed my stuff away and stepped outside the cabin and saw the first of my charges heading toward me, lugging their suitcases and instruments behind them, I missed Frangipani Cottage even more.
I'm serious. You never saw a scruffier, more sour-faced group of kids in your life. Ranging in age from ten to twelve years old, these were no mischievous-but-good-at-heart Harry Potters.
Far from it.
These kids looked exactly like what they were: spoiled little music prodigies whose parents couldn't wait to take a six-week vacation from them.
The boys all stopped when they saw me and stood there, blinking through the lenses of their glasses, which were fogged up on account of the humidity. Their parents, who were helping them with their luggage, looked like they were longing to get as far from Camp Wawasee as they possibly could -- preferably to a place where pitchers of margaritas were being served.
I hastened to say the speech I'd been taught at counselor training. I remembered to substitute the words birch tree for frangipani.
"Welcome to Birch Tree Cottage," I said. "I'm your counselor, Jess. We're going to have a lot of fun together."
The parents, you could tell, couldn't care less that I wasn't a boy. They seemed pleased by the fact that I clearly bathed regularly and could speak English.
The boys, however, looked shocked. Sullen and shocked.
One of them went, "Hey, you're a girl."
Another one wanted to know, "What's a girl counselor doing in a boys' cabin?"
A third one said, "She's not a girl. Look at her hair," which I found highly insulting, considering the fact that my hair isn't that short.
Finally, the most sullen-looking boy of them all, the one with the mullet cut and the weight problem, went, "She is, too, a girl. She's that girl from TV. The lightning girl."
And with that, my cover was blown.
2001 by Meggin Cabot
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Teenage girls Fiction, Psychic ability Fiction, Missing children Fiction