The plane descended below the cloud layer. Sam grabbed Kevin’s elbow and pointed out the window. “Hey Kevin. Is that where the Fairwell Raiders play?”
Kevin Lowry leaned his stocky frame across Sam’s lap. All the Lowry boys played high school football. “Nah. I been to my big brothers’ games. That’s way bigger.”
When the plane hit the runway, the wheels skidded and the brakes shrieked. While they taxied to the jet way, Sam’s excitement mounted. Eight weeks was the longest he’d ever been away from his parents. They were planning a barbeque for his first night back from camp with Anna and the Parkers. Also, he missed Dander. He’d only had a month to play with the cat before leaving for camp. He couldn’t wait to snuggle with him again.
The Lowrys were waiting at the gate with Sam’s parents. Sam called them aunt and uncle, even though they really weren’t. Uncle Adam had been best friends with Dan Spencer since they were Sam’s age. Sam really liked Aunt Jeanie. She made the best brownies on the block and always let him and Kevin stay up late when he slept over. She was always tired though, which was understandable what with Kevin being the youngest of seven kids. A proper Catholic family, Dan would say, which always elicited comments from Faith about her girlish figure.
“Come here, Sam.” He ran into his mom’s outstretched arms and squeezed her tight. Dan ran fingers though his hair, which had turned almost auburn in Maine’s summer sun.
He missed his folks more than he realized. “I love you guys.”
“We missed you too, Sam,” Dan Spencer said.
After hugs and waves, and collecting luggage at baggage claim, the Spencers and Lowrys separated. Sam piled into the back of the Beamer, counting the minutes until he could hold Dander again. As Dan was pulling out of the parking garage he asked, “How’s Dander? Did she, I mean he, miss me?”
“First, tell us about camp, Sam. Your letters left much to our imagination,” Faith said.
Camp Sacquenuckot required a letter addressed home every Monday and Thursday. No letter, no lunch, but they didn’t read them and had no way of knowing how short Sam’s were. About half of his read, “Dear Mom and Dad – I’m hungry so I’m writing you. Bye. Love, Sam.”
So, Sam knew his mom would have a ton of questions. Dan Spencer, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as curious. Sam figured it was because he’d gone to Camp Sacquenuckot too, a long time ago with Uncle Adam. His dad knew all about camp. He’d hiked to the top of Mount Katahdin, done the island swim, ridden the back trails of the Northern Forest, gone fishing in the lake, made shepherd’s pie over a campfire, and gone snipe hunting under a full moon. Faith Spencer didn’t know any of it. She’d spent her summers modeling in New York City. She always used to say that if she hadn’t met Dan, she might have been the next Cindy Crawford.
Sam almost hadn’t made it to camp that summer. Surprisingly, Dan objected, and rather strongly at that. Sam tried every trick he knew. He begged. He pleaded. He cried, but his dad still steadfastly refused. In the family tradition of open communication, Sam’s camp attendance became a regular topic at the dinner table for weeks. Sam knew he’d won when his mom came downstairs one Sunday morning dressed for church. The night before, Sam heard loud noises coming from their bedroom. Dan wrote the check to Camp Sacquenuckot that morning. Sam could tell his dad wasn’t happy about it.
“So tell us more about Francesco.” Sam could see his mom’s eyes questioning him from the rear view mirror.
Sam’s favorite of the two counselors in the cabin, Francesco was an exchange student attending Bates College. “He was really cool, Mom. He’s from Italy, some place named Perugia. He said some famous murder happened there. He’d tell us ghost stories about Fruity Rudy and Foxy Knoxy when we camped out. Peter was okay too, but he was from Pennsylvania. He was a beast, like he had hair everywhere.” Sam giggled.
“The ghost of Foxy Knoxy?” Faith’s brow arched in the mirror. “That not quite how CNN tells the story. Francesco sounds like quite a character. Tell us more about your summer. Who were your best friends? What were your favorite activities? Did you see the great white skunk?”
Sacquenuckot was Algonquin for skunk. The first day of camp, Director Chuck told the legend of the great white skunk that had guarded the North Forest since the dawn of time. In 1948, when Founder Damon was hiking near Mt. Katahdin, he fell into a crevasse and got lost in the caves below, where the great white skunk appeared to him. He followed it out of the caves to the valley where he founded Camp Sacquenuckot.
For the kids who couldn’t pronounce Sacquenuckot, and some of those who could, the camp was nicknamed Camp Skunk, or Camp Suck a Nuck, or Camp Suck my Dick by the older kids, but if they got caught saying that they weren’t allowed to swim in the lake for a day.
“Oh man, Mom. There’s so much to tell you. I had eight kids in my cabin. Five were from New York and Boston. This one kid, Petah –“
“Like in the Hunger Games?” his mom asked.
“Sort of. You know, Peter, but he said it Petah. He talked funny. He came from a place named Lawn Giland somewhere in New York. He said a lot of words funny. He put buttah on his toast and he got a splintah in his foot from the cabin’s wood floor.”
Dan and Faith both laughed.
“So, Mom. Where did Dander sleep when I was gone? Did sh … he sleep on my bed or with you and Dad?”
“Not with us,” his dad muttered under his breath.
“I want to hear more about the activities. You mentioned swimming in the letters containing actual sentences.”
“The lake is totally awesome, Mom. I went swimming every day, sometimes twice I day. I got to go sailing, they have sunfish and minifish and catamarans which are really cool pontoon boats. I got to go snorkeling too. I can swim really fast with my flippers on. And we had a swim team and I won a big race. And we played water polo. And we went skinny dipping at night and this one guy in my group, Richie, he …” Sam’s face reddened “… he had hair on his privates and he’s only ten years old like me. We called him Brussel Sprouts.”
Faith covered her mouth with her hand, but Sam could tell it was to hide a smile. Dan though, scowled into the mirror, sending shivers down Sam’s spine. “It’s not decent.”
“Everyone matures in their own time,” Faith reassured Sam after a nasty glance for Dan. “It’ll happen to you too, sweetie. Just give it some time.”
“Mom!” Sam was just old enough for the conversation to embarrass him.
“We can talk about anything, Sam. It’s called open communication, remember? So, was the waterfront your favorite?”
“No,” he said quickly, glad for a change of subject. “Horseback riding was. Being smaller than the other kids was an advantage. I rode almost every day and Skunkface Bob taught me all about horses.”
“Skunkface Bob? Who’s that?” Faith turned to face Sam in the back seat.
Sam’s face lit up. “Oh, he’s the riding instructor. We call him Skunkface cause his beard has a white stripe in it. He’s been at Camp Skunk forever. He was there when you went, wasn’t he, Dad?”
Dan Spencer kept his eyes on the road and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
After it became obvious Dan wouldn’t answer, Faith broke the uneasy silence. “Your father never mentioned anyone named Skunkface Bob. Trust me; I’d remember a name like that. But, he doesn’t talk about his summers at Camp Sacquenuckot very much.”
Dan pulled into the driveway. “Grab your things, Sam. I’ll fire up the grill. The Parkers will be over soon. Anna’s excited to see you.”
“You knew Skunkface Bob, didn’t you, Dad?”
“Yeah.” Dan Spencer made a queer face. “I knew him.”
“Isn’t he awesome? He taught me how to brush the horses down, how to put on a saddle – did you know the horses try to trick you by holding their breath so the cinch is loose – how to post and how to jump. I won a blue ribbon!”
“A blue ribbon! I’m so proud of you, Sam. Aren’t you, Dan?”
“Yeah. I’m going to give the ribbon to Dander to play with.”
Faith’s face fell. “Sam, there’s something we need to tell you. About Dander. He’s gone, I’m afraid.”
Sam’s lip started to tremble. “Gone. What does that mean, gone?”
“He just –“
“Wandered off,” Dan finished. “The cat just wandered off, just like it wandered into the Parker’s back yard this spring. I told you, Sam. I told you nothing good would come from it. Cats are horrid beasts. They always let you down.”
Sam burst into tears. All summer long, he’d been looking forward to his reunion with Dander. He ran into his bedroom and cried into his pillow until Faith called him down to the backyard for dinner. Dan Spencer, Anna, and the Parkers were waiting. Sam was so sad over the loss of Dander that when his dad raised up a mug of frosty root beer to toast his return, Sam barely heard him.