Sam turned sixteen and got his driver’s license a month before leaving for his seventh summer at Camp Sacquenuckot. This year, he would be a counselor in training, CIT for short, which meant he’d be assigned to a particular age group or activity. He hoped they’d put him to work in the stables.
The Maine landscape buzzed by during the six hour bus ride from Portland to Camp Sacquenuckot. The time couldn’t pass quickly enough, as far as Sam was concerned. He couldn’t wait to feel Bomber’s powerful legs carry him over the forest’s winding trails, to feel the rush of cool lake water engulf him, to lead the younger campers on yet another unsuccessful Snipe hunt. At camp, he could forget about home. At this point, forgetting was welcome relief.
“So, what are the odds you’ll see Bruce Lee at the end of the summer?” Kevin Lowry asked. Sam had sprouted into an almost average-sized kid over the past few years. Kevin had really bulked out. They were both entering their junior year at Fairwood High and Kevin had already earned a starting spot on the offensive line. Sam and Kevin were still thick as thieves, even though they didn’t see each other as much as they used to. After Sam’s parents sold the house, they’d moved into a much smaller one in a different neighborhood.
“What do you think?” Bruce Lee was the Spencer’s newest feline addition. A Siamese with attitude, Sam’s dad liked Bruce Lee even less than the other cats.
“I wouldn’t take that bet,” Kevin responded.
“Yeah, me either.” Sam’s track record with cats hadn’t improved over the years. After his third summer at camp, he came home to the news that Peanut had wandered off. The next year, he learned that Maudie, a tabby reminding him of Tiger, fell victim to the wandering curse. The summer after that, his fifth at Sacquenuckot, Sam added Weasely, the big orange tomcat acquired during his Harry Potter phase, to the long list of Spencer wandering feline fatalities. Last year, he’d lost Pixel, a cat with an exceptionally poor sense of balance. Sam was surprised the shelter hadn’t turned them down yet. All those news reports of overcrowded shelters must be true.
Kevin nudged Sam with his elbow. “Your dad was in rare form last night.”
Sam groaned. “Don’t remind me.”
Following tradition, the Spencer family held a barbeque for Sam’s last night home. Uncle Adam, Aunt Jeannie, Kevin, and the two older brothers still living at home joined them, along with a tray of Aunt Jeannie’s famous brownies. Faith invited the Parkers, but they begged off. Sam missed Anna. They had played every day as kids, but her folks didn’t want her coming to Sam’s neighborhood. He couldn’t blame them. Anna had worked off her childhood chubbiness and her allergies were under control too. Now fourteen years old, she’d sprouted into a tall, pretty girl with designs on becoming a model like Sam’s mom could have been.
Dan Spencer had proven well up to the challenge of ruining Sam’s last night home. He drank whiskey instead of beer and tied on a big one before the grill was even hot. He’d really laid into Sam.
“What the fuck are you going to camp for, Sam? Why don’t you get a real job and earn some money, for fuck’s sake? This CIT bullshit is just that – bullshit. I pay them for you to work your ass off the entire summer? Gimme a break?”
Dan swore virtually non-stop these days and never, ever went to church. Faith nagged him constantly, and the more she did, the more Dan drank and swore. After the company fired Dan three years back, everything spiraled down. Now, Dan sold tools from behind a counter at Sears, they lived in a crappy little ghetto house surrounded by crack heads and forget the Beamer, they didn’t even have the Camry anymore. Faith drove Sam to the airport in the rusted out Kia they bought on eBay for $300.
Sam refused to feel guilty about leaving for the summer, or the camp tuition. After everything his parents had put him through, they owed him that. Camp wasn’t just a fun summer getaway. It kept him sane. After ten months in the asylum he called home, camp was a necessary respite, a break from all the madness and heartache.
“Just relax, Sam,” Kevin said. “Catch some shut eye. We’ll be at camp before you know it and then you won’t have to think about all the shit back home for another eight weeks.”
When the bus pulled onto the bumpy, gravel-packed road leading to the camp, Sam woke up. Relief flooded him like a warm, sunny day at the sight of his beloved Camp Suck my Dick. The younger kids piled out of the bus first and went off with the group leaders to meet other kids their age, old friends from summers past and new acquaintances.
Sam and Kevin were the last to disembark and by then, the area had cleared out. Only Director Chuck, Skunkface Bob, and Mary Larry, the best group leader, remained. Larry earned his nickname when he was still a camper by playing Mary Poppins in the summer theatre production. This was his eighth season as a counselor, counting his CIT summer, and he still couldn’t shake it. At this point, Sam wasn’t even sure Larry wanted to lose the nickname. He lived in New York, went to a theatre school in Chelsea, and sung at gay bars on free nights, often in drag and billed as Mary Larry or sometimes Merry Larry. Mary Larry was proud of his stage reputation, but Sam thought it ridiculous. He just couldn’t understand how Larry enjoyed pretending to be a woman. Larry sat him down last summer and tried to explain that he wasn’t playing the part of a woman. He was a woman, deep inside, where it counted most. Sam just couldn’t relate, no matter how hard as he tried.
Director Chuck was a man for whom tradition and loyalty mattered. He attended Camp Sacquenuckot as a kid and his teaching job was perfect for continuing as a counselor. When the camp nearly went under some years back, Director Chuck borrowed against his pension to save it. He barked out instructions. “Lowry, you’re with Larry. He’s got the Badgers this year. Spencer, you’ll work in the stables during the day and bunk with the Groundhogs.”
Sam broke into the biggest grin he’d worn in weeks. Mary Larry and Kevin headed towards the Badger bunks at the northern end of camp and Director Chuck trotted back to the office. The Badgers were the group for ten year old boys, the age Sam had been his first summer away. Each age group had a name: Polecats for the six and seven year olds (the older kids called them the Stinkies), Muskrats for the eight year olds, Badgers, Weasels, and so on.
Skunkface Bob clapped him on the shoulder. A big man, he towered over Sam. “Spencer. Good ta see you agin, boy. You’re fillin’ out, but not too much like Lowry. That un’s too big. We like ‘em small, the horses and me.”
As far as Sam knew, Skunkface Bob had been born in Camp Sacquenuckot’s stables and had never ventured farther than the back trail. He and his white-striped beard occupied a spot in Sacquenuckot lore for as long as anyone could remember. When Director Chuck bought the place, Skunkface Bob came with it. What Skunkface lacked in formal education, he made up for with his extensive knowledge of horses. Everything Sam knew about them came from him. The past few summers, he and Bomber had taken home half a dozen blue ribbons. “I’m glad they put me with you, Skunkface.”
“Yep. Me too. C’mon, let’s head out to the barn. Mr. Quiver’s will be glad to see ya.”
“He’s still alive?”
“Sho nuff, but he cain’t move so good no more.”
“How old is he?” The Siamese cat was ancient. Even if Bruce Lee miraculously didn’t wander off, he’d be lucky to live half so long as Mr. Quivers.
“Shoot, you know I don’t count so good, Spencer. Twenty something, mebbe thirty? I wasn’t much older than you when he was a kitten.”
“Did my dad know Mr. Quivers?” In all the years Sam had been coming to Sacquenuckot, not once had his dad opened up about his camp experiences.
Skunkface Bob thought for a moment. Sam could see a crooked smile peeking out from beneath his beard. “I think so. You remind me of your dad, Spencer. We’re going to have fun this summer.”