Ethel sat across the small table, eating cornflakes and talking to Haddie’s urn, which now sat where Haddie’s food used to. A few months ago, Ethel had found the urn to be a bit impersonal, and so she had drawn a face on it with a Sharpie marker and tied several lengths of black yarn to the lid as a makeshift wig. Recently, she had acquired a hand-knitted wine bottle cozy that she fashioned into a stocking cap for the urn. After all, it was beginning to get cold outside.
“Are you ready to go to camp today?” she asked the urn.
Adjusting to Haddie’s absence after sixty years had been unfathomable—so unfathomable, in fact, that Ethel hadn’t adjusted to it.
There had been several traumatizing moments associated with the passing of Haddie: the moment Ethel realized what was happening and that she could lose her, the moment she had to tear herself away from Haddie’s pleading eyes and tight grasp to make the phone call Ethel had hoped would save Haddie’s life, then returning to Haddie’s lifeless body after the call, knowing she had abandoned her best friend and companion during her final moments of life. And then there had been that moment Ethel had picked up Haddie’s urn from the funeral parlor.
“I can do this, I can do this. She’s not in here, she’s not in here, she’s not in here, she’s not in here…,” Ethel had quietly whispered to herself as she walked into the funeral parlor. She had settled the final bill and then was handed this urn. It was much heavier than she had expected, and although that caught her off guard, it seemed appropriate that the weight of her loss should be so great.
In the days prior to picking up the urn she had imagined Haddie in heaven, but after Ethel helding what remained of Haddie in her hands the physicality of ashes began to seem more and more real than spirit. It wasn’t instant. As she walked out of the funeral parlor on that day, she was still repeating, “This isn’t her, this isn’t her, this isn’t her, this isn’t her.”
Ethel had paused on the sidewalk for a moment and looked at the world around her, this world that had never understood the love Haddie and she had shared, this world that had at times been so unkind. Was she really supposed to plan a memorial service and invite to it people like Haddie’s religious family—people who had no idea who Haddie really was? People who would have called her a sinner and banished her if they had? A feeling washed over Ethel, something she hadn’t felt with that intensity since they were young—that feeling like it was Haddie and she against the world. She gripped the urn tighter and slipped into the safety of her car, where she placed the urn gently on the passenger seat.
As she drove down the road, she found her hand resting on the urn as if it were Haddie’s leg, only significantly colder and harder. Maybe that had been the turning point in Ethel’s attachment to the urn—that moment that had simply allowed Ethel the comfort of habit.
Now, almost a year later, Ethel chatted at the urn across the table from her while she ate her cereal and made a list of things to remember. “Oh yes, good thinking,” she said to the urn when a new idea popped into her head. She continued to talk to the urn while she washed her dishes and while she packed her things, and then she tucked it into her coat and headed out the back door.
Crunchy vine maple leaves littered the brick stairs from the cabin down to the lake. As Ethel descended the steps, she dragged her old green army surplus duffel bag behind her. Everything she could possibly need fit into it. A couple of times, it picked up speed, so that she had to step aside and let it go. After it hit a tree and stopped, Ethel resumed dragging it down to the dock. On her hands and knees, she rolled the duffel bag into the canoe and set Haddie’s urn comfortably on top. Then Ethel made four more trips back up for jugs of water.
Ethel loved this charming cabin Haddie and she had shared since they had retired. It was just two miles down the south shore from Camp Firelight, which had been their home for over forty years. Although significantly quieter, it had still felt like home. Almost every morning they had kayaked past camp as if they were its guardians, which was exactly how they felt.
On this day, since she had such a large load, Ethel took the canoe instead of her kayak. She sat on the dock and gently eased herself onto the seat. It was the first time she could remember taking the canoe out all by herself. It felt so empty without Haddie in it.
As Ethel paddled down the south shore, she wondered if anyone would show up at all. She’d always thought camp was important to many people, but maybe she was wrong. After all, had it really been that important, it wouldn’t be going defunct. Maybe she would be all by herself out there this week. Sometimes she liked having camp all to herself, but under these circumstances it would be like having a funeral for someone she cherished and having no one else come. She looked at the urn. Yes, it would be just like that. There was comfort in being in the presence of others who knew what was lost. She couldn’t bear to go through another loss without that.
When she paddled around a little point, she saw her neighbor, Walt, floating in a cove in his rowboat. It was hard to miss his red plaid wool coat and matching cap with earflaps. He was around her age and had lost his wife about a year before she had lost Haddie, and something about just seeing him was a comfort to Ethel—perhaps that he was proof a person could somehow endure this heartbreak, or perhaps that he was proof she wasn’t as alone as she felt most of the time. She saw him fishing on every calm day like this one. On most days the lake was windy chop and on those days he often didn’t bother, but these calm days were not to be taken for granted. He missed not a one.
She paddled right up to him. “Good morning, Walt. Any luck?”
He held up two perch. “Dinner is served.”
“Well done, sir,” she replied.
“You look like you and Haddie are going somewhere.” He was the only person who knew about Ethel’s attachment to the urn. The first time he saw it, she knew it needed explanation and, since he had recently gone through the same thing, she knew he would understand rather than judge her.
“We’re off to close up camp. They’re shutting it down for good.”
“No,” Walt said.
“I know. I can’t believe it either.”
“It seems like just yesterday I was twelve and getting pelted by the mud balls you Firelight Girls threw at us whenever we’d sneak out of the Boy Scouts camp and try to raid.”
Ethel smiled as she remembered making mud balls.
For a moment, both of them were silent. Then he asked. “How long will you be there?”
“I’ll bring you some fish.”
“Why, I would appreciate that, Walt. I’m hoping some old friends will show up and help.”
“Then I’ll bring plenty of fish.”
“All right, then. I’ll leave you to it. Always a pleasure, Walt,” and with that she pushed off from his boat and paddled away.
“Good luck, Ethel. I’m so sorry,” he said as she left.
The north shore of Lake Wenatchee had changed so much in recent years because people in the software industry had bought up the charming cabins, leveled them, and built giant dwellings they rarely visited. But the south shore, where she lived and where camp was, was in the shadow of Nason Ridge and didn’t get the sun that the north shore did, so it wasn’t as appealing. Therefore, it had been mostly spared.
Elks Beach was closer to the Lodge than the main waterfront area, so Ethel glided in there, stepped out in her tall rubber boots, and pulled her boat in. Oh, this place. Of all the places in camp, this place was her favorite. She held Haddie’s urn to her chest and breathed in deeply. “It’s our place, Haddie. We’re here.” Ethel put the urn down and lay next to it, then reached over and placed her hand on it. It was nothing like Haddie’s hand—nothing like it. But having something to touch had come to feel comforting anyway. It was better than having nothing at all.
When the moment passed and she was ready to get up, Ethel wrestled her duffel bag out of the canoe and dragged it up the pebble beach, up the bank of tangled roots, and up to the main trail that took her to the Lodge. Although the Firelight House had been their home for forty years, Ethel wanted to sleep upstairs in the Lodge, where it all began. She didn’t know how to say good-bye to a place that was at the core of who she was, but she figured maybe a person just started at the beginning.
The Lodge was the oldest of all the structures at camp, made of long, straight, old-growth cedar logs. Unfortunately, paint was invented before stain and so it had been painted brown at some point. It always struck Ethel as tragic to cover up the character of the wood.
Above the huge picture window Ethel reached and found the key she had hidden so long ago. Yes, it was still there. She unlocked the padlock on the giant door and, with a great heave, pushed it open.
The Lodge had always been the heart of camp. It had a kitchen in one end and a mammoth stone fireplace in the other. On the wall hung an old black-and-white photograph of it being constructed in 1933, one log at a time. She breathed in deeply and tried to pick apart the smell like wine connoisseurs did with a fine Pinot. Cedar. Fireplace. Dirt. Subtle hints of paste and tempura paint. Memories. Yes, mostly it just smelled like memories.
Just before the kitchen door was a staircase leading to the dorm room above the kitchen where the cook and her helpers used to stay. Gripping the handrail, Ethel slowly ascended the stairs and entered the quarters she and Haddie had shared with Cookie their first year they were kitchen staff instead of campers. After pausing in the doorway to take it all in, Ethel put Haddie’s urn on her old bunk and then unrolled her sleeping bag on the bunk that had been hers. Overwhelmed with the heaviness in her heart, she lay down. Oh, Haddie. What Ethel would give to see her in this room again for even just one minute. Ethel rolled over onto her side and stared at the urn on the bunk across the little room.
Amber Hill woke up in the middle of the night needing the bathroom. After she used it, she detoured through the living room looking for her mother’s purse to see if she had made it home from the bar where she worked nights. There it was, sitting on the end of the counter. When Amber turned around, there was a dark-haired man standing in the hallway, his eyes hollow and vacant and devoid of conscience. She could see that right away.
He stared at her fifteen-year-old body. “You’re even hotter than your mother,” he said.
It was one of those moments when time slowed down and Amber suddenly had very keen awareness of everything. She was aware, for instance, that the fireplace poker sat in the stand just two steps from her. She was aware of a chair that was within arm’s reach. She was aware of a picture that hung on the wall in a glass frame. She was aware of his size in comparison to hers and aware that if she locked into battle with him—even with a fireplace poker or a shard of broken glass from the frame—she’d likely not win.
“Hey, Mom,” she said, as if her mother were standing right behind him, and when he turned around Amber tipped the chair over in his path and bolted out the door and into the woods. She heard him stumble out of the trailer behind her, so she kept going.
Her impulse was to continue running, but she had to be careful, so despite her panic, she slowed her pace. After all, sticks could pierce through her foot and branches could stab her in the eye. She could not afford to fall. And she had to be wary of the noise she made.
After a little while, she stopped and listened but couldn’t hear anything over her own heartbeat. She waited for the loud beating to slow and listened again. Although she heard nothing, she walked farther away still. A broken branch on a downed tree reached out and snagged her flannel pajama bottoms, tearing a breezy hole in the pant leg. Almost immediately after that, she walked too close to some devil’s club and it scratched her arm.
She realized it was probably safer to stop than to continue, so she sat down at the base of a large tree and leaned back against it. Hearing a semitruck pass on Highway 2 nearby gave her confidence that she could find her way out of the woods when light returned. But would she make it through the October night? It was cold and she was in nothing but her pajamas. She put her arms inside her short-sleeved T-shirt like folded wings. She wished they were real wings, wings that could take her far, far from her life here.
There, at the base of the tree, she weighed her options. She could walk to a neighbors’ house, knock on the door, and hope they didn’t mistake her for a threat and shoot her in the middle of the night. In these parts, that was a big gamble. What else could she do? She could walk to the highway and hide behind a tree until she saw a state patrol car. But if she asked for help from anyone, she would end up in foster care, potentially living with a man every bit as creepy and dangerous as the one in her house right now. That was not an option. If she entered the foster-care system, she’d probably have to change schools—maybe even several times. She’d never be able to keep her grades up if she had to change schools, so seeking help was also not an option. After all, right now she had straight A’s. Grades meant scholarships, and scholarships meant a ticket to a better life. It was the only ticket she had, and one she could not afford to lose.
But another night like this was not an option either. In winter, a night like this would be deadly. In addition, if she had been sick or injured and hadn’t been able to move as fast she might have been raped by that man. No, this could not happen again.
From day one of Amber’s life, her mother had been on her own. It had been a hard life, but it hadn’t always been as bad as this. For a few years, Amber’s mother had waitressed at the Diner and had been home at night with Amber. But nine years ago, that all changed. When the opportunity arose to work at the bar, the hourly wage was better and so were the tips, so her mother took it. She had assured Amber that life was going to get easier. Maybe it had for her mother, but it sure hadn’t for Amber. Since her mother changed jobs, Amber only saw her for about ten minutes after school and spent the rest of the night alone—that is, until her mother came home around 2:30 a.m., often with a stranger. Amber forgave her and hated her at the same time. She had only been seventeen when she’d had Amber and dropped out of school. What a hard road. Amber really couldn’t imagine how her mother had done it as well as she had. But sometimes … well, sometimes like now, Amber just hated her for being so stupid and so neglectful. Amber hated her for being unable to do better.
Eventually, the sky began to brighten, barely enough to be noticed by eyes that weren’t desperately searching for a sign that night was ending. But even when the sun rose, it wouldn’t mean that it would be safe to return home. Who knew how long it would take for that guy to leave? Amber was cold to the bone and seriously wondered whether she’d outlast him or freeze to death before he left.
She slowly picked her way back through the forest. His sparkly blue Plymouth Satellite still sat in their driveway, so she wandered back deeper into the woods to wait a little longer. Surely she would hear it when he fired that beast up and took off. Tired and shivering, she curled up in a little ball at the base of another tree. Never, she vowed. She would never be at the mercy of her inept mother like this again.
The sun rose completely, and still Amber did not hear the engine of his car. A small patch of sun filtered through the forest and she moved into it to let it offer what warmth it could. If the man didn’t leave soon, she wasn’t going to make it to the school bus on time. But then, what was the point? She was so sleepy, she’d never be able to stay awake anyway.
She dozed a little until a loud noise woke her. Sure enough, when her mother’s lover turned the ignition of his souped-up V-8 the whole neighborhood heard it. Amber shook uncontrollably and wondered if she’d ever be warm again. As she walked home through the woods, she made a mental checklist of all the things she would need: Her book bag. Every pencil in the house. Any money she could find. A sleeping bag. Enough clothes to get her through a school week without looking odd. A winter coat and boots. Tampons. Toiletries. Toilet paper. Flashlight and batteries. That might be wishing for too much. A knife. Matches. Lots of matches. Some kind of shelter. They never went camping and didn’t have a tent, but there was a tarp on the woodpile. That would have to do. Food. Any food she took wouldn’t last long. She needed a sustainable plan. She needed a job.
Once she was back to the clearing around her mobile home, she stopped at the woodpile and folded up the tarp carefully and put it under her bedroom window. Next to the woodpile sat her bike. That would help. People were less likely to pull over and ask her questions if she was on a bike.
Then she opened the door and walked in. Her mother was not only awake but also vacuuming the same spot over and over. Amber stood in the doorway, assessing the situation, and knew deep down that something was very wrong. Her mom was on something bad.
“Where have you been?” Amber’s mother asked, agitated.
“I thought your boyfriend was going to rape me, so I left,” she replied.
“What a stupid thing to think,” her mother said. She was definitely not acting like herself.
“Yeah, you may be right,” Amber said in order to diffuse things.
“I am right.” Amber’s mother didn’t take her eyes off the spot on the floor.
“Okay,” Amber said. As she walked away, it struck her that this might be the last time she saw her mother. It was unlikely, but it was possible.
Once inside the bathroom, Amber locked the door and turned on the shower. While she waited for the water to warm up, she gathered the things she would need that were in the cupboard under the sink, wrapped them in a towel, and set them by the door.
The hot water felt heavenly and brought her back to life. From now on, it would just be school showers. How would that work? Most girls were in and out, keeping their hair dry. She’d need to wash her hair and shave her legs. The other girls would notice that she was doing something abnormal. Would she be able to make it to her next class on time? How was she going to do laundry? She’d have to figure that out later.
Picking up her towel with her things wrapped in it, she went to her room, shut the door, and locked it. Her heart raced from fear she would get caught, fear of being on the receiving end of her mother’s anger in the state she was in, fear the man would come back. Frantically Amber pulled things out of her closet and made piles on her bed. In the first pile, she placed the things she’d need just to get through the next two days. Then, in the second pile, the things she’d need to get through a little longer. And finally, in the third pile, things she’d need to get through the winter. Those winter things were bulky, so instead of packing them, she put them on. As for a knife, matches, and food, she would have to figure out another place and another way to get them, and she’d have to forget about a flashlight and batteries altogether. She put as many things as she could into her little school backpack and stuffed the rest of the things she would need in two pillowcases.
It was stupid, she knew, but she looked at Woof Woof, her favorite stuffed animal from when she was little—a grungy little yellow dog with absolutely no fuzz on his back after the years of being handled by her. Logically, she knew the stuffed dog was just some fake fur, stuffing, and thread, but for some reason she just couldn’t stand leaving him behind. She took two T-shirts out of one of the bags and packed Woof Woof instead.
Then she opened her window, threw everything out, and hopped out herself. Slipping her book bag over her head and across her body, she shoved the tarp in it, and then put her backpack on after that. With a pillowcase in each hand and each hand on the handlebars of her bicycle, she rode off.
Now she was just a girl on a bike, her pedals like the wings she had wished for. Wings that could take her far enough.
The pillowcases bumped awkwardly into her front bike tire every time she corrected or counter-corrected as she pedaled as fast as she could down Lake Wenatchee Highway. She hoped she looked like a homeschooled kid returning from an overnight and not a runaway. The fact that it was mid-morning on a school day and she wasn’t in school made her nervous. Traffic was light, but that didn’t mean a sheriff wouldn’t drive by. She pedaled even harder.
It took perhaps three miles before pure panic worked itself out and Amber realized she really had no plan beyond escape. Now that escaping was accomplished, she had things to figure out, like what she was going to do for shelter and where she was going to catch the school bus.
Clouds had begun to drift in—not many, but enough to get Amber thinking. All she had was a sleeping bag, and a tarp. If her sleeping bag got rained on, it could take days to dry. That was a mistake she could not afford to make this time of year.
At the junction of Lake Wenatchee Highway and the South Shore Road, she turned into the state park and campground. It would be nice to stay there. The campground had toilets with toilet paper. That was huge. But she couldn’t afford the camping fee for even one night. Getting off the main drag felt safer, so she continued up the South Shore Road past many cabins—two-thirds of which appeared to be empty. Should she break into one? She weighed the pros and cons and decided that making any choice that might land her in juvie hall was not an option.
At once, she began to panic about what she was going to do when it snowed. One tarp certainly wasn’t going to do it then. She supposed she could steal some tarps off other people’s woodpiles pretty easily, but even then …
Along the road she continued, one mile, two miles, then three, wondering if staying in her home would have been the safest of all choices, wondering if she had made a mistake that would make every night just as miserable as her last one had been. Then she saw it. The answer to her prayers. A sign welcoming her to Camp Firelight. No one would be in a summer camp in October or for the rest of the off-season. How hard could one of those cabins be to break into? The likelihood of getting caught seemed almost nil. A real roof and almost no risk. Thank you, God.
She walked her bike around the gate and partway down the steep hill until she noticed four small cabins to her left. One of these would be best, she decided, for when the snow came it would be easier to be near the road.
The only windows she could reach on the first two cabins were the back ones, and both were locked. She walked on to the third cabin. All of its windows were locked, too, but low enough that she could get the leverage she’d need to force one open if it came to that. But she walked on to the fourth cabin, leaned her bicycle against the back, and tried the first of the two windows that she could reach. As she jiggled it, she watched through the glass as the lock rose up from the loose screw that held it in. The wood was old, and after she rammed it a few more times it finally gave.
There was no fireplace or woodstove inside. There was no place to prepare or cook food. It was nothing but four bunk beds and a larger cot, presumably for the counselor. How this was going to work this winter in deep snow Amber did not know. More blankets would be needed—that was for sure.
She picked a top bunk in a corner that seemed least likely to be seen from the windows most likely to be looked in, crawled up the ladder with her sleeping bag and alarm clock, and gratefully surrendered to the sleep she hadn’t gotten the night before.
As Shannon Myers walked up the sidewalk toward the front door of the school, dread filled the spaces where she used to have pride. Teaching was such a different beast now. The heavy bag she carried weighed her down in more ways than one.
Mr. Karwacki, her principal, caught her on the way in and pulled her aside. He was two years from retirement and as fed up as Shannon was. “She’s here.”
Shannon didn’t have to ask. She knew who he was talking about. Ms. Trujillo from the Educational Service District, funded by the state to help teachers raise their test scores.
“I’m sorry you have to jump through this flaming hoop of bullshit. Just be like one of those bobblehead toys today.” He demonstrated by nodding emphatically. “Whatever she says, you just smile and nod, and say, ‘Great idea! I’ll try that!’ like she just invented the wheel. If we fight them, they’ll fight back. If we act like we’re on board and have learned so much from them, they will feel successful and go away.”
Mr. Karwacki was like a father to Shannon, and just about the only thing that kept her sane in today’s education climate. She nodded obediently, and as she turned to go down the hall he patted her on the shoulder.
When she got to her classroom, Ms. Trujillo was already waiting for her. Her short black hair was as impeccably styled and sleek as her tailored suit. “Good morning, Shannon,” she said with a forced smile. She had about ten years on Shannon, so the absence of genuine smile lines was noticeable.
“Good morning,” Shannon replied, and shook her hand. “I made a big dent in this,” she said, taking out a binder and opening it to show her. Ms. Trujillo had wanted Shannon to write four or five learning targets for the twenty new national reading standards for each of the six grades of English she taught and then look through her curriculum to find the places where she would or did teach those six hundred targets. It was an impossibly large task, and when it was over they would do the same thing for the communication standards, since writing was a big part of those. It never ended. Somehow, she was supposed to do that and keep up with all of the grading she had to do and the lesson plans she needed to write. There weren’t enough hours in the day, and it left her with a perpetual sense of failure.
Even if she did hit every single one of those targets, it didn’t mean her students were going to do their part to learn them. Many would. Others felt entitled to an education they didn’t earn and had nothing invested in their state test scores. Some knew they would inherit their family farms or ranches one day and had flat out told her they would never need the skills she tried to teach them. Still others were born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome that made learning difficult, or dyslexia, or were on the autism spectrum and preferred to use the dots on the answer sheet to make interesting designs. She could do her part, but she couldn’t do theirs, and yet it all came down on her.
She looked at Ms. Trujillo’s face, hoping for any trace of approval or at least recognition of how hard Shannon had worked, but Ms. Trujillo simply nodded and said, “Some of these need work, but you’re off to a strong start.”
It was never enough. This sense of failure was bringing her to her knees.
“Let’s take a look at your lesson plans,” Ms. Trujillo said.
Shannon obediently opened her plan book. It had her poem of the day and “learning to write a persuasive essay in five paragraphs” listed as what they were going to do.
“I don’t see your learning targets for today. What is it that you want your students to be able to do after you’re done teaching today’s lesson?” asked Ms. Trujillo.
“Well, it varies from student to student,” Shannon answered. “By the end of the week, I want each student to be able to write a persuasive paper using the five-paragraph essay structure, but those aren’t things a student learns in a day.”
“Shannon, I meant it when I said that each day you need to write the one or two targets that you’re teaching to on your board so all the kids know what they are accountable for learning.” Shannon inhaled deeply as she was being scolded, so Ms. Trujillo changed her tone. “You really will be surprised how much better kids will focus and how much more they will do when they know what their targets are.”
Shannon nodded, doing her best to force an expression that would look like she was on board even though her bullshit tolerance was being greatly exceeded.
“Well, then today, perhaps your learning targets should simply be ‘Identify the components to a five-paragraph essay structure’ and ‘Select a topic for a persuasive essay.’”
“Those are great. Thank you,” said Shannon, going to the board to write them down before she forgot them. It was utterly stunning—the waste all of this bullshit created. With Ms. Trujillo’s salary the school could buy much-needed computers. Were these sentences on Shannon’s board and a binder full of documentation of things she was already doing really worth more than computers? And if she weren’t so overworked and disheartened, wouldn’t she bring a different level of enthusiasm to her teaching that might engage more students?
Ms. Trujillo looked back through Shannon’s plan book. “It looks like you spend a lot of time on poetry. What do students do when they first come into your room?”
“I take attendance first, and then read the poem of the day. I realized a few years ago that I was expecting them to use descriptive language in their writing when they really hadn’t developed a descriptive vocabulary, so I began reading them a poem a day. It only takes a couple minutes, and usually it exposes them to at least one new word. We talk about what the word means, and then discuss the meaning or the relevance of the poem for a couple minutes afterward. It’s a nice moment when I check in with everyone and see how they’re all doing. Sometimes a student has written a poem that they want to share. It’s really nice to showcase their new descriptive vocabulary and celebrate their creativity.”
Ms. Trujillo was not impressed. She nodded, trying to appear as though she were considering Shannon’s way of doing things even though she had already made up her mind. “Your students need an entry task when they come in so that they’re working every single minute of class. Some teachers write a sentence on the board with lots of mistakes and the students have to find all of them and rewrite the sentence correctly on their paper. Or other teachers write a sentence on the board for the students to diagram. After you do one, do the other. Save the poetry for a unit. Your first priority is to teach kids to write well. Let me help you by writing two sentences for today so that you don’t have to think of any off the top of your head. Next week I’ll leave a book in your mailbox with sentences for every day to help you with the rest of the year. You’ll be surprised and impressed with what a difference that alone will make in your test scores. We’re going to bring your performance up to snuff in no time.”
Shannon bristled. Bring your performance up to snuff. Oh, how she hated the constant nitpicking and these endless messages of failure. But she thought of Mr. Karwacki, whom she’d do just about anything for, and so she nodded her head and said, “Great idea. I’ll try that,” even though inside she was steaming.
Just then, the bell rang and as the kids rushed in she heard Brian call Luke a motherfucker and looked up just in time to see Brian give Luke a big shove from behind. Luke turned around and punched Brian in the face. And that was when Brian grabbed Luke’s throat and wouldn’t let go. “Stay away from my girlfriend,” Brian seethed.
“Quick, go get Mr. Marshall and Mr. Hawk,” Shannon said to the student closest to her. She dialed the office on her phone and dropped the receiver on the desk. “Tell them I need help,” she said to Ms. Trujillo.
Then Shannon hustled over to the boys. Luke was turning purple. Shannon felt panic rise in her throat but fought it and said, “Brian, let go.” He didn’t flinch. “Let go!” she ordered again.
Meanwhile, students from other classes were rushing in to see the show. Brian didn’t loosen his grip but glanced over at her.
“Let go,” she said firmly.
To her relief, he finally did.
Mr. Hawk, Mr. Marshall, and Mr. Karwacki pushed their way through the crowd and escorted Brian and Luke away just as the final bell rang.
“I notice you don’t have any classroom rules posted,” said Ms. Trujillo. “We’ll work on your classroom management, too.”
And that’s when Shannon reached her boiling point. Before her students dispersed and sat down, she shouted, “Does anyone here think Brian and Luke’s fight could have been prevented if I had only posted ‘No fighting’ on the wall?”
The class of juniors laughed.
“Kids, you remember Ms. Trujillo. She’s going to be your teacher today, since apparently I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.”
On her way out, Shannon picked up the fat red three-ring binder full of her national Common Core standards alignment documents and threw it against the back wall. It snapped open and showered papers everywhere. She looked at Ms. Trujillo and said, “I cannot endure one more ounce of your bullshit.”
As Shannon walked down the hallway, her righteous anger quickly gave way to regret. What had she just modeled for her students? That throwing things and swearing was how to solve problems? Super. Great job, Shannon, she thought sarcastically. As she approached the office she decided that it was only prudent to tell Mr. Karwacki first.
Through his window, she could see him talking to Luke. Brian sat in a chair outside. Gently she tapped on the glass, and Mr. Karwacki waved her in.
“Are you okay?” she asked Luke sympathetically.
He nodded and said, “Yeah,” but she could tell he was still shook up.
She put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Luke, I have to talk to Mr. Karwacki, so cover your ears.” She cracked a smile when he actually did. To Mr. Karwacki she said, “I snapped.”
He shut his eyes for a moment. “Uh-oh.”
As Shannon gave him the rundown, Luke struggled to keep a straight face. Shannon pointed at him and said, “Your ears are supposed to be covered,” even though really she didn’t care. He wasn’t hearing anything her whole class hadn’t already heard.
“Well, obviously I have to take some kind of disciplinary action. Do you want a union rep in here for this discussion?”
She shook her head. “You know, I’m not sure I care what happens to me,” she said, surprised to hear herself say it. “Lately, I’ve just been thinking there’s got to be more to life than this. Everything seems like bullshit. I spent nine hours of my weekend making a dent in aligning my curriculum to the new standards and another six hours grading papers. That’s fifteen hours of my whole weekend. I work all day, I grade papers all night, and I spend my weekends doing lesson plans and bullshit. I have no life. I totally missed the boat on life. And then I come back here—to the one basket I’ve put all my eggs in—and get criticized by that lady no matter what I do. I used to love my job. I used to feel proud of the work I did. I hate my job now. In fact, I hate my whole fucking life.”
For a moment, she had forgotten Luke was in the room. She looked over at him, and this time there was only concern on his face where a smile had been just moments ago. He stared at the floor, his hands still over his ears.
Mr. Karwacki didn’t seem mad at all—quite the opposite. He seemed downright understanding as he said, “Well, how about you take some time off to think about whatever it is you’re thinking about, and I’ll tell people you’re on disciplinary leave so I look like I’m doing my job. Come back in a week or two and we’ll talk. But if you decide you want to return and continue to teach, you’ll need to apologize to Ms. Trujillo. You know that, right?”
She nodded. She knew it. Although she was not sorry for speaking the truth, she was sorry for losing her composure in front of the kids. There was not a lot of dignity in that, and in that moment she had not been a good example at all. Yes, she could honestly apologize for that.
So she simply said, “Thank you, Mr. Karwacki. I’ll be in touch,” before she walked out of his office and out of the building.
As she walked home, Shannon knew she should be feeling the pressure of her life collapsing in on itself like a white dwarf sun, but instead she felt what she could only describe as “opening.” It was as if her life had just squeezed her out the way a mother’s body squeezes out a baby. Being born probably seemed like the end of safety and security at the time, too. It happened. People grew and no longer fit inside their old lives anymore.
Even though she knew she should worry about making her house payment, all she felt was relief. Now the worst-case scenario would be that her house would be repossessed, but an hour ago her worst-case scenario was that she would spend the rest of her lonely life living in it. Her new worst-case scenario didn’t seem that bad compared to the old one. Yes, this morning when she looked at her life ahead of her she had felt sentenced and now, it turned out, there was an open window she could crawl out of. It would only be open for a week or two, and then it would shut. If she lost her nerve, she would again find herself sentenced to this lonely small-town life working tirelessly in a profession that had become no different from being married to someone who told her daily that she was ugly and stupid no matter what she did or how hard she tried. That’s exactly what teaching had become.
She looked up at the leaves and thought about all the times she had wanted to see New England in the fall but could never get away from work. This was her big chance.
But when she reached home and rifled through her mail, she found a postcard from her old camp director, Ethel, that changed everything. First Shannon called her old best friend, Laura, to whom she hadn’t spoken in years, and left a message. Then Shannon packed some things, locked the door behind her, and let her tires spin out just a little bit as she drove out of North Prairie.
Elks Beach was where Ethel had first fallen in love. Haddie and she were just fifteen, both counselors in training that year, in cabins next to each other. Both groups of kids from those cabins had just returned from a hike they had taken together, and the counselors had taken them to archery or arts and crafts upon return. Ethel felt grimy and was going to sneak off to the shower when suddenly the skies opened up and rain began to thunder on the tin roof. She looked out the window, and there was Haddie in her red bathing suit, sudsing up, showering right there in the rain. The heavy rains tried to pull the curl out of Haddie’s dark hair, but still it hung to her ivory shoulders in waves.
Immediately Ethel put on her bathing suit, ran out the door, down the stairs, and joined her.
What Ethel remembered most was a feeling of awakening. She had never been so aware of her own skin, every little drop, every little breeze, the soft earth under her feet, how laughter released energy and cultivated it at the same time.
“Let’s swim!” Haddie proposed mischievously. Swimming was only allowed in the designated main beach area where there were lifeguards, but although Ethel was worried about breaking the rules, Elks Beach was set back and hidden. There was reason to believe no one would ever know.
Haddie’s smile had a hold on her, and in that moment Ethel knew she’d likely follow her anywhere.
“Cold” did not begin to describe Lake Wenatchee. Near as Ethel could figure, the water had been snow about five minutes ago. It was painfully cold. But she followed Haddie to the beach and into the water. There was no getting in slowly. It was all or nothing. They ran in up to their knees and dove in.
Above, lightning flashed across the sky, and thunder boomed. Electricity was literally in the air. They treaded water near each other, laughing. Ethel looked in Haddie’s eyes and thought she saw the same thing she suspected was in her own. Love. Joy. Magnetism. But it couldn’t be. Ethel was sure she was the only girl in the world who had feelings like these.
Another bolt of lightning arced over the lake, thunder cracking right behind it.
“We should get out,” Ethel said.
“We should,” Haddie agreed, but she made no move to do so. She glanced down at Ethel’s lips.
Ethel’s impulse to kiss her at that moment was so strong, but she didn’t dare. What did one glance mean? Probably nothing. She imagined the explosive reaction and irreparable consequences if she had read the situation wrong and acted on her impulse. Not only would she lose Haddie’s friendship; she’d likely get kicked out of camp, and her parents most certainly would shun her. The stakes were far too high.
“Come on,” Ethel said, swimming back to shore. Her feet hit the smooth gravel, and she ran for her towel, wrapping it around her, and turned just in time to see Haddie emerge from the lake, water dripping off her face, her hair, her chest and arms, cascading off her hips. Haddie walked up onto the beach in no particular hurry, undaunted by the cold, undaunted by the lightning. It was if Haddie were some mythological water goddess, fearless in her own element, Ethel thought.
After they dressed in their respective cabins, the rain subsided. Haddie built a fire in the ring of rocks out front. Ethel and she sat just close enough to the flames to offer their hair a chance to dry. They exchanged glances across the fire—Haddie’s direct and daring and Ethel’s awkward and timid. It just seemed implausible that Haddie, or any girl in the world for that matter, was thinking and feeling what Ethel was. Haddie’s father was a preacher, for God’s sake. There was no way Haddie could be thinking and feeling what Ethel was. This thought embarrassed Ethel, but then she looked up and read Haddie’s face. It seemed to be saying, Are you feeling this? Aren’t you thinking this? Then don’t make this complicated. It’s simple.
Ethel was still shivering from swimming in the cold water, and yet in her heart she’d never been warmer. She looked up again. Haddie gave her a little smile as if she could read her mind, and this time Ethel bravely held her gaze and smiled back.
But then, just as Haddie started to say something, the girls in their cabins came running back. And the spell was broken.
Few things were more miserable than being in a cast in the summer, but loneliness was one, and Shannon was both. Normally, she did two things: go to school and practice ballet. Since she had spent all of her free time practicing for an important recital, she really didn’t have any friends outside of her ballet school. And since ballet was so competitive, she didn’t really consider any of her ballet friends to be true friends. Even if she was wrong about them, they spent all of their spare time practicing, too, and so now that Shannon was recovering from breaking her ankle during the most important performance of her life they didn’t have time to be her friends anyway. Shannon’s parents grew weary of watching her mope around the house, so despite her broken ankle they signed her up for camp. Unbeknownst to them, this terrified Shannon.
First, she didn’t know anything about making friends. Second, she had no idea how to be excellent at camp. Her stomach burned and cramped the whole drive there. Even the worst of her pre-performance jitters had never been this bad.
“This will be good for you,” her mother had said as they walked from their car to the Lodge slowly so that Shannon could keep up on her crutches. “You can do all the things you’ve never had time to do.”
Shannon didn’t even really know what those things were, but she couldn’t imagine anything fun that she could do with her stupid cast.
While her parents stood in line for check-in, she sat on a bench in the Lodge, elevating her leg while she watched all the other kids. In front of her parents, a couple girls squealed and hugged each other. They were old friends, Shannon could tell. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t considered the possibility that some of the kids up here would already know one another. Her spirits sank even more, as she knew she was going to be even lonelier than she had been by herself.
Behind her parents was a girl who looked like she might be the same age. Her long brown ponytail reached her low back. Shannon tried to imagine how huge the bun on top of her head would be if she was a ballet dancer. It would be way too big and heavy. Then the girl turned to look behind her and Shannon saw her face. She was nervous, too, and this filled Shannon with hope, hope that someone in this camp felt the same way. But then another girl ran over to this girl with the too-long ponytail and hugged her. Shannon’s hopes were dashed. The girl wasn’t as alone as Shannon was. She already had at least one friend. So why did she look so nervous? What could she possibly be worried about?
Shannon watched as the girl’s dad began to mutter loudly about what was taking so long, and as the girl’s mother tried to pacify him the girl turned her head and squeezed her eyes shut tight, almost like a wince, but longer. That’s what she was nervous about.
After Shannon’s parents had their turn, Shannon watched the camp director gesture for them to wait for a moment while the girl behind them checked in, and then, after the girl kissed her parents good-bye, she and Shannon’s parents walked over to Shannon together.
“Shannon, this is Laura,” Shannon’s mom said. “She’s going to be in the same cabin as you, and since she’s been here before, she’s going to show us the way.”
“Hi,” Shannon said awkwardly, and stood up on her crutches.
“Hi,” Laura replied. She picked up her giant duffel bag and led the way.
Shannon followed, with her parents behind her carrying her things. Her mom attempted to make chitchat with Laura and so from time to time Laura would turn around to answer a question, but she didn’t elaborate. She wasn’t particularly talkative. Shannon’s hope for a friend diminished even further.
As she followed Laura up the two steps and into the door of the cabin, the other girls who had arrived already paused their conversations to see who was there and size her up. One murmured, “Bummer,” which Shannon first took personally before realizing that the girl was talking about her cast and not her.
From the corner of her cabin, her counselor, Janet, stepped forward and extended her hand. “Shannon, hi! We’ve been anxiously awaiting your arrival and we’re so glad you made it!” She looked down at Shannon’s cast and said, “Ugh! That’s rough. But there will still be plenty of fun things to do here with us. You’re going to have a great time.” As Shannon said hello and answered questions about where she lived, she still could not figure out what the rules were here and how to be the best. It was not obvious.
Janet pointed her to an empty bottom bunk, where her parents put her things. “I promise to take excellent care of her,” Janet told them.
Then Shannon’s parents kissed her good-bye and left her there. Looking out the window and watching them walk down the path without her, she was filled with anxiety and dread.
Laura greeted Janet and then a couple more old friends who were settling into their bunks. There were seven other girls altogether, all of whom Shannon was sure were going to reject her, because as she looked around what she suddenly realized was that she not only knew nothing about how to make friends; she also knew nothing about how to be a friend. Nothing. This was going to be a problem.
An hour later, Shannon sat on a log overlooking the little sand and gravel beach while the rest of her cabin shivered on the shore waiting their turn to take their swim tests. She never thought she’d actually be grateful for her cast, but judging by the shrieks, the water was extremely cold, and since the sun wasn’t out, swimming in water like that was unthinkable. Her cast had actually saved her this time.
Ethel, the camp director, sat next to her on the log for a moment. “How’d you hurt your leg?” she asked.
“Ballet,” Shannon replied, and added, “I used to be great.”
Ethel paused thoughtfully and then said, “That’s what I love about camp. You don’t have to be great. You can just be a kid.” And then, as she stood, she said, “Explore, try new things, imagine, make new friends. That’s all kids need to do,” as if those were the simplest things in the world.
Something about driving up the South Shore Road after all these years still filled her heart with excitement and joy. She slipped U2’s Joshua Tree CD into her car stereo and turned it up loud, just like she had when she was eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, and she let the music and the scenery take her back.
When she came around a turn much too fast, she saw an animal in the middle of the road and hit her brakes. Startled, the long, lean creature ran gracefully off and down toward the lake, and only when it moved did she realize what it was—a cougar. A cougar! She had never seen one in real life before. Wow, a cougar! She couldn’t wait to tell Ethel.
Shannon drove another quarter mile before seeing the sign welcoming her to Camp Firelight and continued just a little beyond that to the parking lot. After she put on her large backpack that she hadn’t used since the mid-1990s, she ran down the steep trail into camp.
“Hello!” she called out, but no one answered.
The door to the Lodge was unlocked, so Ethel was clearly up there somewhere. Shannon dumped her backpack there and then continued to run. How good it felt to be back! Across the bridge and the little playfield she ran, and down the steep little hill to the waterfront. Before she continued her search, she paused to walk out onto the long floating dock, look across the lake at Mt. Dirtyface, and just sit for a moment. I’m here! she thought. I’m here! Even though the camp was going to be sold, it felt wonderful simply to be back, and to be back in this pivotal moment in her life when she needed to reboot her soul. She hoped so much that Laura would come. How great it would be to be together here again.
With that thought, Shannon stood and began walking down the water’s edge. In a patch of sand among the pebbles that covered most of the beach was a large print, similar in size to that of a bear but rounder and with no claws—cougar! Two cougar things to share with Ethel! Ethel would love it! It had been an unusually dry summer and fall, so perhaps many creeks had dried up, driving wildlife down from the mountaintops to the lake.
She checked the Lodge again, but Ethel still hadn’t returned, so Shannon walked the quarter-mile trail out to Moose Beach. As she neared, she saw Ethel through the trees sitting on a log and talking to herself. Shannon paused for a moment to watch. If Ethel was praying, it seemed like she should be done relatively soon, but as the moments ticked on Shannon realized it was more likely that Ethel was simply talking to someone who wasn’t there. Could she be in the early stages of dementia? Shannon wondered, suddenly fearful. Regardless of whether Ethel had lost her mind or was simply talking to a ghost, Shannon didn’t want to cause her alarm or embarrassment, so she simply walked back to the main part of camp and through it and continued on down the one-mile trail to Windy Point.
There she simply sat on the wooden bench perched on a rock outcrop and waited—waited for answers about the next step in her life, waited for the right moment to return to camp, waited for the osprey in a nearby tree to launch and dive for a fish, waited.
Things Ruby did not like included but were not limited to: shoes, socks, tights, lace (it itched and scratched), having her hair combed, having her hair cut, scrubbing her nails before a meal, pretty much anything having to do with hygiene or personal upkeep, coming inside, sitting down, sitting still, sitting quietly, and absolutely everything that fell under the umbrella of “acting like a lady…”
… which was why she now believed Camp Firelight was the greatest place in the world. Sure, just an hour ago she was crying as her parents drove away, calling after them desperately and then sobbing into Miss Mildred’s leg. Ruby was only six after all. But now that moment had passed and this new moment was proving to be just about the most fun a girl could have.
Rain fell hard from the sky, but her counselor didn’t make them come inside as Ruby’s mom would have, while telling her stories of kids who had died from catching a cold. No, Ruby’s counselor took them to the little beach, where they kicked their shoes off and ran around in the rain, splashing in the shallow water, singing. A little girl named Ethel hooked her elbow in Ruby’s and ran in a circle as if they were square-dancing on the edge of the lake. Over and over they sang the song happily, jumping, splashing, and running until they were soaked and cold.
And after, because she was cold and the water was hot, she didn’t mind taking a shower. Plus, there were frogs in there, which made it considerably more fun.
As she stood in the warm stream of water singing, she vowed she’d never succumb to becoming a lady. She had every intention of feeling this wild and free forever.
It was the first time Ruby had ever been at camp without her sister, Opal, and it felt wrong. The old gang was gone. Opal was gone. Haddie was gone. And Ethel … well, Ethel was gone in another way, but that was all Ruby’s fault.
Walking across those pebbles on the beach brought it all back—what she had lost when she lost Ethel. All that joy. Ruby could still see six-year-old Ethel singing on the shore and still feel the sweetness of her arm in hers. She took one last look at the beach before climbing the little hill back up to the playfield.
She had missed out on so much in the decades since her big mistake. It made her sick and weak to think about it. She leaned on her walking stick for a moment and then, feeling like she was about to pass out, sat down on a bench near the playfield and put her head between her legs.
She listened to the birds sing song after song until finally someone walked up to her rather briskly. “Are you okay?” It was Ethel. Ruby still recognized her voice.
What should she say? “Ethel…,” she began, but choked up.
“Yes, it’s me: Ethel. What’s going on? Do you need an ambulance? The phone here is disconnected and I don’t have a car, so I’d need to paddle to a neighbor’s house to call, I’m afraid.”
“No. No ambulance. It’s just…” Ruby sat up so Ethel could see her face and noticed how Ethel’s had changed. Age softens some and makes others appear more severe. Age had softened Ethel. As she looked at her friend’s silver hair and the many lines in her face, it hit Ruby even harder how much time had passed. “I came here to apologize and I just … I don’t know … I just … I think I’m having an anxiety attack.”
Ethel studied her closely. “Ruby?”
“Ethel, if I could change just one moment in my whole long life, it would be that one. I would give anything to go back and do it differently … to do anything but what I did. I know ‘sorry’ is too small a word for that and for decades of silence.”
“It was a different time,” Ethel said, but it seemed forced and cold.
Ruby reached into her pocket for the sympathy card that she had bought last year after she’d heard about Haddie’s passing. “It seemed too audacious to send this last year and so I didn’t, but I wanted you to know how sorry I was about Haddie.…” She held it out for Ethel.
Ethel held her hand up as if to stop the card from coming near her. She didn’t want it. “Do you need help getting to the Lodge?”
Ruby paused for a moment to feel the level of panic coursing through her veins, to feel how hard her heart was beating, to feel the ease with which the air now filled her lungs. It was improving. “No, I think I’m okay now,” she said. And she realized that even though she knew it wasn’t reasonable for Ethel to forgive her for a lifetime of banishment, even though she hadn’t expected it, somewhere deep inside she had dared to hope for a miracle. And it wasn’t going to happen. Ethel’s indifference stung worse than anger or even hatred. And Ruby knew she deserved every bit of it.
“Okay. Well … Listen, I have someplace I have to go, but I don’t feel all right just leaving you here.”
So Ruby let Ethel walk her to the Lodge and guide her to a chair near the fireplace, where a fire still burned.
“Excuse me for just a moment,” Ethel said, disappearing into the kitchen and returning with a cup of water for Ruby.
It didn’t feel to Ruby so much as an act of caring as it was an act of duty, but still common decency counted and so she said, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. See you at dinner.” And with that, Ethel left.
Ruby tried to digest what had just happened. Ethel hadn’t engaged. And it left Ruby looking at all of her regrets, her sorrows, her shame. Ethel hadn’t lightened any of that burden for her, and why would she? Ruby stared at the floor in front of her, as if she could actually see her regrets, her sorrows, and her shame—as if those things were boxes of junk before her—and she realized if she was ever going to get rid of it, she was going to have to forgive herself. No one was going to do it for her—certainly not Ethel.
What would that even look or sound like? Ruby wondered. Forgive myself. It sounded so easy. She attempted to do it every day. She really did. Forgive myself, she told herself, but that was about as far as it went. The voice in her head was sharp and impatient. It had no compassion, no mercy for her. It was mean. Even if she could say to herself, “I forgive myself,” the tone somehow insinuated that she wasn’t worthy of good friends or true love.
Forgive myself, she tried again, but she couldn’t let it go, couldn’t redeem herself, and couldn’t feel compassion for her twenty-one-year-old self who had made a mistake.
Shortly after Ruby turned twenty-one, she and Gil exchanged vows in the large backyard of her parents’ house in Wenatchee. It was a small gathering. Gil’s only guest was his younger brother, Andy. His parents lived in Missouri, so Washington State was too far to come, especially during summer when they couldn’t leave their soybean farm.
Ruby’s mother worked in the kitchen, making a special dish that she had read about in the Ladies’ Home Journal. She had made a beautiful cake, too, frosted delicately with real cream frosting.
Ruby had met Gil at the Apple Blossom parade the previous year when he was one of the elite forest-fire fighters based out of Entiat. When summer was over, he was hired by the Portland Fire Department, and so for a year they had simply exchanged letters while she wrapped up her second year at secretary school. Suddenly she realized that it had been a mistake to think letters had been enough to really get to know Gil. It clearly had been too easy to fill the void in a long-distance relationship with her own fantasies. She had imagined her wedding many times, and not once had it looked like this.
While the rest of the party mingled in the backyard, drinking punch and waiting for the cake to be cut, Gil and Andy had wandered into the house and were listening to a baseball game on the radio. Gil had actually lay on the couch with his feet up.
“Hi, Ruby. I hope you don’t mind. I’ve just been working really hard lately, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen my brother.”
In that moment, Ruby saw everything she needed to know about her future. She was going to be Gil’s servant. If he loved her, she could have called herself his wife, but a man who loved his wife did not lie on a couch at his own wedding reception and listen to a baseball game as if it were any other day. A man who wanted a servant did that. Ruby was surprised Gil did not ask her to bring him anything.
In a few moments, they would cut the cake and then she would sit in the passenger seat of Gil’s car. People would throw rice at them. And then he would drive away, taking her to a new place where she had no friends or family and no way out. Along the way, he would stop at a motel somewhere and take her virginity.
Ethel, Haddie, and Ruby’s sister, Opal, had wandered in just in time to see reality wash over Ruby’s face as she looked at her new husband on her parents’ couch. Ethel grabbed Ruby’s arm and pulled her into the bathroom.
Ruby looked at them with wide, horrified eyes. “Oh my God. A mistake has been made,” she said simply.
“As long as you don’t consummate the marriage tonight, it can be annulled, as if it never happened,” Haddie told her. “Say the word, and we’ll make a run for it. We’ll go back to camp and make sure no one can find you until this mistake is undone.”
Ruby paused and then gave one decisive nod.
“Out front in ninety seconds,” said Opal.
“Should I tell Mom?” Ruby asked Opal.
“Only if you want her to try to fix it by getting Gil off the couch so he can either change your mind or chase you,” Opal replied, sticking a toothbrush down the front of her dress.
“What are you doing?” Ruby asked.
“This is all we really need until we get your annulment Monday. Running away is no excuse for bad breath and tooth decay,” replied Opal.
“Good idea,” Ruby said, and stuck a toothbrush down the front of her dress as well, her dress that had been her grandmother’s and then her mother’s, who had altered it lovingly for her.
Before she left, Ruby stopped in the kitchen and put her arms around her mother. “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done to make this day special for me,” she said. “I am so lucky to be so loved.”
What she was about to do was possibly going to cause her parents great embarrassment. The wedding certainly had put them out a fair amount of money. Such a waste. If only she hadn’t been living in a fantasy world, fed by nothing but empty words. If only Henry had come home from Korea three years ago. If Henry had come home, she never would have met Gil in the first place.
“You are so loved,” her mother replied.
“I love you so much, too, Mom.” Ruby kissed her cheek, squeezed her hand, and stepped away. She looked out the window at her guests in the backyard—close friends and cousins mostly, and her older brother, John, among them.
And then she slipped out the front door into the passenger seat of Opal’s car. Ethel and Haddie sat in the back. “Don’t peel out,” Ruby said to Opal.
“I’m not stupid,” Opal replied, and turned the wheel toward camp.
That year, Ethel was the assistant camp director and Haddie was a lifeguard. Ruby envied them. They were living the dream. No one seemed to expect them to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries. No one seemed to expect them to get married. At least not yet. How had they escaped all these expectations? They appeared to be so free, while Ruby felt so trapped.
“I’ll ruin this dress,” Ruby fretted.
“We’ll loan you clothes,” Ethel assured her. “You don’t even have to take this dress out of the car. When we get to camp, we’ll bring clothes up to you.”
Haddie said, “Maybe you and Opal should backpack up to Hidden Lake just in case anyone thinks to come looking for you at camp. They’ll never find you there.”
“Good idea,” Opal said. “Then on Monday, we’ll go to the courthouse and get a judge to make this whole thing go away.” She turned to Ruby. “It’s okay. You’re okay now. Everything’s going to be okay.”
As it turned out, Ruby’s parents had come to camp looking for her, while she and Opal were hiding at Hidden Lake, and while she never did find out the whole story of what went on at camp in her absence, she was able to piece together a few things. First, a discussion about her whereabouts and motivation quickly escalated into her father shouting something about how his daughters weren’t going to turn into old hermit spinsters like Ethel and Haddie surely were going to. Threats were made. And after he stormed away, Ruby’s mother followed him for a bit but then came back to apologize for his brashness, and when she did what she saw was Haddie comforting Ethel, brushing the hair out of her face and kissing her on the lips. To her credit, Ruby’s mom didn’t blab it all over town, but she did call up Ethel’s mom and told her. Ruby didn’t know the details of that fallout either but did know Ethel and her mom hadn’t spoken since that unfortunate incident.
How do you apologize for something like that? How do you apologize for causing someone and her mother to become estranged? If only Ruby had never gotten engaged to Gil. If only Ethel had never been put in that position by helping her.
It got worse. The following Monday, a judge did eventually grant Ruby an annulment, but not before an uncomfortable series of questions about whether she just had wedding night jitters. When she did return home, she was a single woman again. The moment she walked into the house, she had to face her father’s wrath and her mother’s questions, like, “Do you kiss other women or allow other women to kiss you in a way that is normally reserved for men?”
After that, it was … uncomfortable to be friends with Ethel and Haddie. Ruby’s parents were scrutinizing every move she made. Run out on your wedding day because your feelings were hurt? That made no sense at all to them. After all, her mother reasoned, a married woman’s feelings were hurt much of the time. It was part of marriage.
So, when Ethel called one evening to check on her, Ruby had asked her to please not phone her house anymore.
Ethel was silent. Ruby’s insides felt as if they were being wrung out like wet laundry, twisted. It was wrong. And it was what she felt she had to do in order to survive.
In all these years, she’d never made it right. How could a person make something as big as that right? Ruby couldn’t.
Stunned, Ethel hung up the phone and looked at Haddie. “Ruby doesn’t want me to call her anymore.”
Haddie’s face immediately reflected the wounds Ethel would come to feel as her disbelief wore away. At first, Ethel was more uncertain and confused than anything else. After all, how does someone tell another to simply stop being a friend after fifteen years? How does she just forget all the good times? It made no sense.
And still there was this other part of her, a part deep inside that wasn’t rational—the part that simply memorized everything she’d been taught, all the subtleties of “normal”—and that part of her wondered whether she had done something wrong and didn’t deserve friendship or acceptance.
For the first week, she kept hoping Ruby would sneak away from her house and call them and tell them her mom had made her say that, but she didn’t mean it. As the first week gave way to the second week, Ethel lost more and more hope, until, a month later, she had none.
One evening while Haddie built a fire in the fireplace, Ethel stopped and studied the framed picture of the three of them and a few others on the dock back in 1953. She looked at Ruby’s eyes, which, like always, held the promise of harmless mischief. They held no malice, no sign that one day she would inflict this much pain upon Ethel. It heightened Ethel’s sense of betrayal. She had expected to be rejected by society for loving Haddie but hadn’t expected to be rejected by Ruby, and that spurred Ethel to take the picture off the wall and throw it on the floor, smashing it.
Haddie jumped and then paused for a moment before she reacted. She took two steps toward Ethel and put an arm around her. “We’re in that picture, too, you know.”
It was true. That was the thing about bad intentions. They couldn’t be done to another without being done to oneself as well. And as she looked at the broken glass on top of the image of Haddie, Ethel’s heart filled with regret and her bottom lip began to tremble.
“Come here,” Haddie said, putting her arms around her.
Ethel sobbed as if she’d just found out Ruby had died, because in a way she had. “How could she ruin everything?” she asked Haddie.
“I don’t know,” Haddie answered simply.
“We were good friends to her! We were good friends!”
“Let it go. If you can, Ethel, just let it go.”
“But I don’t understand!”
“We don’t have to.”
Ethel pulled away and looked at Haddie’s face.
“We don’t have to understand,” Haddie said. “And really, we can’t. No one can ever really know what it’s like to be someone else. We just have to know that in her heart, she really does love us. She just doesn’t know what else to do.”
Ethel shook her head defiantly, then slowed and softened until she barely whispered, “Will everyone we love desert us?”
Haddie shrugged apologetically. “Maybe. But we’ve got each other. That’s more than a lot of people will ever have.”
Looking at the floor again, Ethel said, “I’m sorry I broke the picture of us.”
“I know,” Haddie replied. She bent down and began to help Ethel pick up the jagged shards of glass that had scattered everywhere.
A card? Ruby shows up after fifty-seven years and she wanted to give me a card? She dismissed Haddie and me like we were worthless and completely missed the rest of Haddie’s life, and now she shows up and hands me a card like Haddie was even worth two dollars and fifty cents to her? Ethel was fuming. She didn’t want to be, and she hoped she hid it well, because there was nothing dignified about a fifty-five-year grudge and she didn’t want Ruby to think she had any power over her at all. She wanted her to think she was completely unaffected, that her life had been good, which it had, and that it was Ruby’s loss, which it was. But Ethel also knew that it had been her loss as well. It wasn’t as if she and Haddie had just been able to go out and replace Ruby. Ruby couldn’t be replaced, and her absence had been felt—especially at first.
Ethel had lied when she told Ruby she had somewhere to go, saying that only because she needed to step away. Now, outside the lodge, she looked around for something to do. Up the hill sat the “Holiday House,” the nurse’s cabin. Surely there were tons of first-aid supplies that needed organizing, so Ethel took the master key off the ledge of the window once more, walked up the hill, and let herself in.
Opening drawers and cupboards, she discovered that everything was already packed away nicely. The Holiday House was in good shape.
She sat on a cot for a moment as it sank in that she’d have to share her last week here in her old home, the home where she and Haddie had shared so much life and love, with someone she had spent the last fifty-five years being angry at. As the weight of it hit her, she lay back on the cot, stared at the ceiling, and said, “Oh, Haddie. You were always my source of grace. I sure wish you were here with me now.”
And it may have been Ethel’s imagination, but she thought she heard Haddie’s voice reply, Well, what are you going to do, Ethel—throw mud balls at her? Chase her with a broom? Come on, don’t make it hard. Just forgive and go on.
“Hey, Steve,” Laura said as he walked in the door at the end of the workday. He gave her a little hug and kissed her cheek. He always smelled so good when he came home from the lumber store, like pine and cedar. She rested her head on his chest and squeezed him back. That was the thing. They were still affectionate like that. And it felt genuine. She wondered what was so wrong with her that she couldn’t jump from this affectionate place to a place that sizzled like the fajitas she was making.
She reached over and stirred the meat and vegetables in the skillet before they burned.
“My old camp director, Ethel, contacted a bunch of us last week to say camp is closing for good, and she invited us to come out this week and help her clean it one last time and close it up.”
“Hm,” Steve said as he carried food from the kitchen to the dining room table.
It wasn’t the first meal they’d had alone. There had been plenty of times when Alison was out with friends or involved in some activity and Laura and Steve had eaten by themselves. She wasn’t sure why it felt so different now that Alison had just left for college. Perhaps because this was going to be the new norm and it didn’t feel normal at all. It felt empty and unsure.
“Shannon left a message to say she is coming, but I can’t believe she can really miss that much school, so I don’t know how long she’ll be there. And I don’t know who else, if anyone, will be able to help on such short notice. I feel uneasy about Ethel being out there by herself. She’s well into her seventies now and could trip on a root and break a hip. The phone is shut off up there, which means she’d have to go back to her own house to call herself an ambulance. I don’t like that at all.”
Steve nodded. “Seems like a bad idea.”
“I was wondering how you’d feel about me spending the week out there.”
Steve paused and looked at her. She thought she saw just the tiniest glimmer of fear pass through his eyes. Maybe it was sadness. Maybe it was nothing at all, nothing but her imagination.
He shrugged. “Gotta do what you gotta do,” he said, and spooned some meat and vegetables onto a tortilla.
“I don’t have to go,” she said. “I can stay here with you. I mean, I know there have been some profound changes in our home just this weekend, and I don’t want you to feel lonely.”
His expression softened. “No,” he said. “Go. I’ll be all right.”
She looked across the table at him, grateful. Steve was handsome. His eyes were clear and blue, his jaw strong and well-defined, and his scruffy whiskers were sexy, albeit abrasive. He was due for a haircut. The reddish-brown tips of his hair were long enough to begin to curl. They touched the collar of his flannel shirt and lay against his thick, manly neck. She loved that neck.
He caught her staring at him and looked at her curiously. “What?” he asked.
She smiled self-consciously. “I was just noticing how handsome and sexy you are.”
He shook his head. An expression washed over his face as if to ask her if she thought he was stupid. As she was taken back, her eyes welled up.
She reached across the table and put her hand on his, the one that held his fork, and he looked up at her again and took in her expression. He put his fork down, turned his hand over, and held hers.
“I meant it,” she said. “I was telling the truth.”
He nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” She tried to find the right words.
He reached across the table and smoothed her hair out of her eyes, and that gentle, loving gesture made her feel even worse. “What?” he asked softly. “What’s going on inside you?”
“I know there’s something wrong with me. That there has been for a long time. And when you couldn’t believe that I thought you were handsome and sexy, I just … I just saw how damaging … my problem has been.”
He lowered his head and nodded.
“I want to fix it,” she said.
He kept his eyes low and continued to nod and finally looked up with an expression that said both, Thank you, and, I’m afraid it’s too late.
As they finished their dinner in silence, the image Laura had was of herself sitting in the middle of a vast pile of rubble—her home, her wreckage, her doing. In it, Steve was caught and pinned. Her fajitas tasted like guilt—metallic and bitter—but she choked them down anyway. Finally, the tension was too much, so she excused herself and then rushed off to pack her things.
And an hour later, she approached Steve slowly and awkwardly. She kissed him on the cheek, told him she loved him, and lingered for a moment.
He didn’t say it back. Instead, he simply said, “Have fun at camp. See you later.”
“Thanks,” she said, and listened to the empty sound of her footsteps echoing in the house as she walked out the door and shut it behind her.
Oh yes, Laura thought as she walked down the trail from the parking lot by the light of her flashlight. There was something profoundly comforting about places a person knew in the dark, these trails like old friends she hadn’t forgotten. The young trees had grown. They looked different. But it felt the same. Well, the same, but emptier.
In the beam of her flashlight she could see crimson vine maple leaves that had fallen. They littered the trail like rose petals in a wedding. In the distance, she heard a great horned owl. Her senses felt so heightened here. She had forgotten this feeling. It felt like being much more alive than she had felt in a long time. Each footstep left her with a greater and greater sense of connection with all living things.
As she passed the cabins on the hill, she could smell a fire burning … oh, how she loved that campfire smell. Then, from the Holiday House, she could see the lights on in the Lodge, exactly where she expected to find Ethel and anyone else who might be there. Laura pushed the big old door open and peeked her head around it, spotted Ethel by the fireplace with two other ladies, and did her best owl call. “Hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo!” she called, and then smiled.
As Ethel answered Laura’s owl call, Shannon jumped up and ran over to her. “Laura!” she called out joyfully as she hugged her and rocked back and forth in a silly dance.
At one time, they had been almost inseparable. And then life happened. Life and kids and family. Yes, life happened until Laura barely remembered who she once was, until she barely remembered those precious few years when anything seemed possible.
“Aw, man, is it good to be here!” Laura said. “God, it’s good to see you again!”
“Together again!” Shannon exclaimed.
Then Ethel walked up and said, “I’m so glad you could make it, my little naturalist. Did you hear that big owl singing out there tonight?”
“I did,” Laura answered, hugging her. Ethel, the mom Laura would have preferred to have had. Ethel seemed much more delicate now. How precious she was.
“Did you see him?” asked Ethel. “He’s a big guy!”
“No, I didn’t get to see him.” Although Laura talked about the owl, a flood of memories rushed back to her, memories of being on nature walks with Ethel. “What a blessing to be back here together again,” Laura said, looking into Ethel’s twinkling eyes.
Then Ethel, remembering her manners, said, “Laura, I’d like you to meet Ruby, who was my friend during my early Camp Firelight years.” There was unmistakable tension that Laura couldn’t put her finger on, but it was real. Growing up with her raging alcoholic dad had taught her to accurately tune into and assess the energy in a room when she entered, and she hadn’t lost that ability.
“Ruby. Pleasure to meet you,” Laura said, shaking her hand.
“Likewise,” Ruby replied, and sat back down again in her chair by the fireplace.
For the next hour, they all chitchatted, which was different from talking. It was edited. Instead of saying, My youngest just left for college and I’m sad and lost and thinking of leaving my husband, Laura told the edited version of her life where it sounded idyllic. The others did the same. She noticed Shannon used euphemisms such as “transition time” and “exploring what I want to do in the next era of my life.” Is she going through a divorce? wondered Laura. She didn’t recall Shannon getting married. And Ethel and Ruby were sugarcoating the loss of the camp, pretending to feel more acceptance than they did. They may have been even been pretending to like each other, too. Laura still couldn’t quite decipher what was going on there.
When the evening began to wind down to a close, Shannon asked, “Ethel, can Laura and I stay out in Moose?”
“Better make it Elks,” Laura said. “Moose is too far to the bathroom.”
“When you’re my age,” Ruby said, “every place is too far to the bathroom.”
“Amen,” Ethel agreed, and handed Laura the key.
“I just peed on a spider and two moths,” Shannon announced as she walked out of a stall in the bathroom.
“I forgot about that,” Laura said. “There were always moths in the toilet. I wonder why. And this smell. What is this smell? I missed this smell.”
Shannon breathed in deeply. “I’m going to go with Pine-Sol with a twist of mold.”
“It makes me really happy.”
They poured themselves paper cups of water from the plastic jug Ethel had left on the windowsill, brushed their teeth over the giant metal trough that served as a sink, and spit. “Listen to this,” Laura said as she poured a little water from her cup over her toothbrush. “I love the sound it makes. It’s the sound of the beginning and the end of a happy day.”
“We tie-dyed a whole lot of underwear in this sink.”
“Ah, yes. We did,” said Laura as she remembered.
“We should do it again.” Shannon proposed. “Wait. All mine are black.”
“We should raid Ethel’s and tie-dye them,” Laura said with a mischievous smile.
“You did not just say that! You? Ethel’s pet? I’m shocked! When did you get this sinister streak?”
“When I had teenagers.”
“Of course.” Shannon smiled.
As they walked from the bathroom to their cabin, Shannon’s words sank in. Ethel’s pet. It was true. She always was Ethel’s favorite. Laura wasn’t sure why, exactly, but she and Ethel just seemed to fit. “Do you think she’s okay?”
“Ethel?” Shannon thought for a moment and then shook her head. “I can’t tell.” After a pause, she added, “Maybe we shouldn’t tie-dye her underwear until we know.”
Laura laughed and said, “That’s probably a good idea.”
As they passed by the fire ring outside their cabin, Laura said, “I think I might build a little fire tonight. I’m not quite ready for bed.”
“I wish I could say that,” Shannon replied, climbing the stairs. “My heart wants to sit by a fire all night, but my body’s not going to go along with that. I’m going to be asleep in about ten minutes whether I want to or not. I’ve had a long, strange day.”
“Yeah?” Laura asked, hoping Shannon would say more.
“It’s possible I snapped and walked out of work today, but not before saying a few choice words.”
“It’s possible?” Laura asked, like a parent.
“Yeah…,” Shannon said slowly. “It’s possible my teaching career is over.”
“Oh no!” said Laura sympathetically.
“You know, it’s surprisingly okay with me. I could get my job back if I wanted it, but I don’t think I do. I don’t know. It feels like time for something else … something happier. So, yeah, as much as the seventeen-year-old in me wants to stay up all night catching up with you, the forty-three-year-old in me isn’t capable.”
Laura laughed. “I understand.”
“Enjoy your fire, though. And we’ll catch up more tomorrow.”
In the dark, it could have been 1987. Shannon’s voice sounded the same. The earth under Laura’s feet felt the same. Everything smelled the same. Yes, the darkness hid everything that had changed, it seemed to Laura. It hid wrinkles and bodies that had thickened. It made her regular life seem far, far away.
“Sleep tight,” Laura said.
As her fire died down to coals, Laura closed her eyes for a moment and listened to the sound of peace. How nice it was to have this space completely free of expectations—or, rather, disappointments. She didn’t have to hear the sound of the hallway creaking, her husband still up after she’d gone to bed—or listen to him creep in after he thought she was asleep and slide under the covers next to her as quietly as he could. How she loathed the sound of him not rocking the boat. Tonight, she didn’t have to listen to the I love you that was not said. No, here it was all just neutral.
Space felt so good. It had been so long since she’d had enough space to realize where she stopped and other people began. Even now, all alone on the porch, it still wasn’t clear. Inside herself she pictured a knot with many different kinds and colors of rope—only one of which was hers. The other ropes were her family members and their stuff. As she held the image of the knot in her mind’s eye, she saw the knot beginning to loosen. It was a start.
From time to time, she heard autumn leaves rustle, a chipmunk’s claws scratch the trunk of a tree while it climbed, and, from under the porch, a frog croaked very slowly. But she did not hear judgment, resentment, anger, or abandonment—only peace.
And suddenly she wished she had not told Steve she wanted to change. This solitude suited her perfectly. Neutral contentment. Peace. How would she break it to him?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the song of a great horned owl: Who, who-who-who, who-who-who. Other people thought their call sounded like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” but to Laura, it sounded like, “Here comes the bride, comes the bride.” She lifted her hands to her mouth and answered. Back and forth, back and forth they sang until the owl swept down low and landed in a branch where it could see her. It sang one more time, Here comes the bride, comes the bride.
Her mind drifted back to her own wedding. If she had it do over again, would she? Yes. But if marriage was something that had to be renewed annually like a magazine subscription, would she renew? No. So when the owl called out the wedding march to her again, Laura answered in English, “No.”
Author Kaya McLaren spent four summers in college working at Camp Zanika on Lake Wenatchee in Washington State. The Firelight Girls, the book this chapter is taken from, releases on October 14. You can order the book on Amazon.