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Online Feature: “Campfire Sing-Alongs for Opposite Orphans” by Catherine Carberry

 

At night, the camp was illuminated. We slept during the day to avoid dreams of our parents killing us again, and in the hours before sunrise we laced our boots, packed jerky and marshmallows, and hiked the candle-lined trails that snaked behind our cabins. As junior counselor, I led the nocturnal hikes through the forest. Before my mother accidentally shot me, I had been camping only once, on an overnight Girl Scouts retreat. But after months at the Accidental camp, I could build fires, patch torn tents, and hike the intricate trails without a compass. Sometimes I led the campers in sing-alongs I remembered, and sometimes we were silent. Tonight, our only sounds were soft footsteps on the pine needle floor.

Counting the new arrivals, there were fifteen of us at the Accidental camp. The new campers were quadruplets whose father had fallen asleep at the wheel. Their minivan had tumbled into a ravine in rural Idaho, and they stayed there starving for five days, their limbs tangled and bleeding while their father wrote love letters to their mother on the window fog. The quadruplets were lagging behind, so I let the other campers lead the way.

When I was appointed junior counselor, Bonnie said it was only because at sixteen I was the oldest camper. Bonnie was fourteen and jealous. But I knew our head counselors, Wanda and Susan, recognized my leadership potential. I had three hundred volunteer hours logged when I died. I had a green Girl Scout sash filled with badges.

“You’ll get used to it,” I said to the Idaho kids. “Doesn’t the lake look beautiful from up here?”

Below us was the lake where each night we canoed and kayaked and swam. It gleamed like a silver coin from the stadium lights ringing the shore. The entire camp blossomed with light to dissuade dreamers and nappers and curious risk-takers from sleeping before the sun rose. We all knew if we slept at night, we would dream of dying. A few campers had even tried it before, and all claimed to have relived the moment of their deaths. And so we engaged the mind and body at night to avoid nightmares, which were detrimental to our progress through the Fifty-Two Stages of Acceptance. The pine trees were crowded with paper lanterns hanging from intricate nets of twine, and Wanda and Susan had strung multicolored Christmas tree lights along the roof of the dining lodge. The bulbs cast a pinkish light on the picnic tables and made wispy shadows of our limbs.

The Idaho kids yawned and held hands as they walked, still not accustomed to our schedule. They were still on stage one: Confusion. Stage two was Successfully Adapting to Inverse Sleep Patterns.

“Be careful,” I said. “You can sleep when the sun rises.”

One of the Idaho kids rested her head on her brother’s shoulder. I used to be jealous of the campers who came with their siblings, but Wanda and Susan told me I was lucky my brother was still alive. I should be grateful, they reminded me, that my mother had carried Jeremy to the neighbor’s house before returning to our bathroom with her gun. When I came home from school, she had been pointing the gun at her own reflection. The mirror hung on the door, and she took down her robe from the hook and pantomimed suicide, pointing the gun at her reflection. I guessed she wanted to see what it looked like, what she was about to do. It wasn’t her fault that she was nervous, that she slipped and shot me when I opened the door.

This was part of being at camp, the impossible mental acrobatics of mourning for oneself.
We were expected to go through it methodically, following the Fifty-Two Stages of Acceptance until we passed the last step and then woke up in a new family with parents who hopefully wouldn’t kill us. It could have been worse, Susan always said. She pointed to the nursery on the island and said at least we’d seen enough of our lives to know what we were missing. More often she talked about the Intentional camp across the lake, told us that at least our parents hadn’t chosen to kill us. Those campers, Susan said, had more to reckon with.

When we came to a clearing, I built a fire and handed marshmallows and sticks to the campers. A quirk of the afterlife: No matter how slowly we rotated our sticks over the flame, the marshmallows always burned. Another difference: Here, there were no stars. I had tried to make a map of the Accidental camp once, tracing the trails that cut alongside the archery fields before swerving up and unspooling at the top of the mountain. I sketched the cabins of the Intentional camp on the other side, and the four-story nursery on the island. I walked as far as I could, but then the trees grew dense, their trunks nearly fused together to form a wall. They stretched tall enough to blot out the sun, taller than I thought pine trees could grow. Until then, I’d thought we could have been in Vermont.

“Who wants to sing the Titanic song?” I said.

The campers switched off their headlamps and gathered in a circle around the fire. I found the graham crackers in my rucksack and started handing them out as the campers sang in overlapping harmony:

It was sad (so sad!)
It was sad (too bad!)
It was sad when the great ship went down
To the bottom of the sea.

I had always been curious about the Titanic deaths. I had read about parents suffocating their children in steerage before the ship filled with water, how they traded one death for another this way. Wanda and Susan kept us too busy to dwell on the logistics of infanticide, but I still thought about the deaths that parents deemed necessary. I had asked Wanda and Susan about it once.

“You’re lucky you don’t know the answer,” Susan said.

When I first came to the camp, I wondered how Wanda and Susan could still believe in luck. Now I understood that luck absolved us of blaming ourselves or our parents for what had happened. We were victims of circumstance, Wanda and Susan always said.

Besides sleeping at night, another thing that was detrimental to our progress was speculation about what our family members were doing now. I had stopped wondering if my brother was living with my father. If my mother had killed herself after I interrupted her suicide. Instead, I was focused on only two things: being a good junior counselor, and passing through the steps as gracefully as I could. I wanted my new family. I wanted my second chance.

When we hiked back to camp, it was nearly sunrise. In the morning, the cabins glowed ghostly white. As other campers brushed their teeth, I extinguished the lanterns that lined our floors and hung from the walls. I pulled down dark curtains that muted the sunlight. Sleeping at camp was different from sleeping at home. It was a dreamless, lifeless sleep.

*

I woke up to screaming. There was a new blonde girl in the bunk beside me, screaming with her eyes open. I got up and shook her, clapped my palm over her mouth. She bit me.

All the new campers arrived screaming in their sleep, waking in flannel sleeping bags as if after drowning or poisoning or shooting us by accident, our parents had signed us up for a sleep-away camp. I realized I had seen her before, but only in black and white. I recognized her blonde braids, the bluish bruise around her neck.

“You’re Helga Goebbals,” I said.

Wanda and Susan had told us about Helga and her siblings, the seven German kids whose parents had killed them in Hitler’s bunker. They’d been at the Intentional Camp years before, and they had all passed their stages and left for their second chances.

Helga sat up in bed and blinked. Most of the new arrivals asked me questions: Where were they? Would they see their parents again? When was breakfast? But once Helga had recovered, she only rolled her eyes.

“I guess I have to get Wanda and Susan,” she said, then swung her legs over the bunk and left the cabin in her nightgown. The sun had already set, so I went outside to ring the breakfast bell. I saw the twin glow of Wanda and Susan’s headlamps as they walked to our cabin with their arms around the Helga’s shoulders. As the other girls woke up, Wanda and Susan explained that Helga was here again because she had been killed twice. This time, it had been an accident.

“Last time, she was at the Intentional camp,” Wanda said. “So there’s a silver lining.”

“Welcome to the Accidental Camp,” I said to Helga, as if a Girl Scout smile could hide my questions. I had never thought of the true possibility of being killed by a second set of parents.
“What’s she so happy about?” Helga looked to Wanda and Susan.

“Josie likes it here,” Wanda said. “And so will you.”

Helga stomped her foot, though she must have known there was no point in temper tantrums. There was nowhere else to go until we received our second chances. All we could do was be pleasant and optimistic and hope to pass through the stages as easily as possible.

When the rest of the campers were filing into the dining lodge, Wanda and Susan took me aside. Both Wanda and Susan had been killed as adults, but I knew that Wanda was only in charge because she was a grown-up. Wanda had died in the ’70s and still wore her hair in wilted, feathered waves. Susan was our true head counselor; she was sterner than Wanda and had the look of those stoic Dust Bowl women staring out at their ruined farms.

“Josie, we’re going to need your help with Helga. Wanda and I have our hands full with the Idaho siblings.”

“Will it help me get through Homesickness quicker?” I said.

I had already passed thirty-five stages, but I had been stuck on thirty-six, Homesickness, for nearly a month. I was supposed to feel nostalgic for my family, for my childhood bedroom and the gray Vermont winters. Wanda and Susan expected me to wake up crying from dreams of happy memories, to exhibit a longing for my old life. Then, I was supposed to turn Homesickness into a excitement for a new life. The next stage, thirty-seven, was Anticipation.

“You can slow down a little while. We don’t want to lose you too soon,” Susan said. In Girl Scouts, I had earned more badges than anyone in my troop. I volunteered at the animal shelter, organized a Christmas pageant that we performed for an audience of two hundred half-deaf senior citizens. I could build a solar oven and tie fourteen kinds of knots.

I liked being a junior counselor. I liked swim lessons and archery and horseback riding and leading the younger campers on hikes by moonlight. But I didn’t want to slow down. I wanted to be like Marcus, the camper who had left in record time. Wanda and Susan had nicknamed him Little Buddha for how peacefully he slid through the Stages of Acceptance. Little Buddha, though, had died a benign death: carbon monoxide poisoning when his mother left him home alone. He had less to forgive, less to forget.

In the dining lodge I sat next to Helga, who was bragging about the Intentional camp and making fun of the Idaho kids.

“Boy, do you have a long way to go,” she said to Robby as he dumbly lifted a spoon of oatmeal to his mouth.

“At the Intentional camp, we had three hundred stages,” she said, and pointed to the list Susan had tacked up by the lodge door.

Next to the fifty-two stages were our names and gold stars for each stage we had passed. Wanda and Susan were not on the list; they had given up their second chances to stay at the camp as head counselors. I had always thought they were martyrs, but now with Helga back, I suspected they might know something we didn’t, that living once was dangerous enough.

“How did you go?” Helga asked me.

“My mother,” I said. Usually we didn’t talk about our lives until Acceptance & Crafts, where we discussed murder while making log cabins out of popsicle sticks.

“My first mother gave us all morphine. Then she poisoned us in Uncle Adolf’s bunker,” Helga said. “My second father pushed me off a balcony. I guess it was a mistake since I woke up here. But I bet he was relieved. He didn’t like me.”

I wondered what it meant that I was sharing a table with an unlucky child of Nazis. I knew why Helga’s first parents had killed her, how they had been afraid of being on the losing side of a war. For all of Susan’s claims that we were luckier than the Intentional campers, I wondered if it mattered how we came.

“The Intentional camp was nicer,” Helga said, looking around the wood-paneled walls. The dining lodge smelled like spaghetti sauce and artificial citrus and the glue from last night’s session of Acceptance & Crafts.

“My brothers and sisters were there, and we had better lights outside. Real lanterns with fire in them.”

“But don’t you think it’s better to be here at the Accidental camp?” I asked Helga.

Most of the new arrivals were grateful, especially when they learned about the Intentional camp.

“Doesn’t really matter,” Helga shrugged. “We’re all orphans anyway.”

“We’re not orphans.” I sounded angrier than I’d meant. But I assumed my father was still alive, though maybe he and Jeremy had moved somewhere warmer. And maybe my mother hadn’t killed herself after the ambulance came for me. There was a chance both my parents were still in Vermont, my mother in some prison or pastel hospital room, my father racing across the country to forget her.

“We’re the opposite of orphans,” I said. “My parents are still alive without me, probably.”

I looked to my name on the chart and wished I could fill it up with stars, race through camp and get my second chance in a life where I wouldn’t be Josie, where I would no longer wonder what I was missing. I closed my eyes. I tried to be homesick.

“My first parents are dead, though,” Helga said. “They definitely offed themselves after they killed us. It was the only sensible thing to do.”

Helga was only twelve, but she spoke like an adult, like someone haunted. I guessed it was because she had already lived twice.

I tried to imagine a camp for parents who killed their children, wondered how many stages they would have and whether they would ever get a second chance. My mother, making lanyard bracelets and chain-smoking in a bunk bed. Helga’s parents weeping in German about war and Russians.

The Idaho kids ate with their heads bowed to their bowls. The rest of the table introduced themselves, and Helga asked each camper how he or she had died. Bonnie told Helga about her father giving her a bite of his cake, not knowing there were walnuts. Kevin talked about water skiing, how his father had called him a pussy and then pulled him behind the boat and didn’t stop, not even when Kevin slipped off and when his head smacked a buoy.

“He must’ve thought it was a joke or something,” Kevin said, then went back to his oatmeal.
“I bet your dad still goes to that lake without you,” Helga said, and she reached across the table and poured herself more orange juice from the pitcher.

“Here’s the thing no one tells you,” Helga said, looking at the younger campers. “If your parents got a second chance, they’d do it again. And it wouldn’t be an accident.”

I wanted to tell Helga she was wrong, but the truth was I could imagine my mother killing me again. I knew my father wouldn’t ever stay put long enough to notice my mother getting worse, no matter how many chances he had.

“Our parents don’t get second chances, but we do. It’ll be better next time,” I said. I looked to Bonnie and Kevin and the Idaho kids, but they didn’t seem convinced.

“At least it’ll be different,” I said, and I thought of the millions of possibilities for our second chances, all the incarnations of family and place: a teen mother in Dallas, an enormous blonde family in Salt Lake, parents with mansions, parents living next to bowling alleys, parents who want you and parents who don’t. I had always been exhilarated by imagining my second chance in all its variations, but now there was another possibility: that what had happened to Helga could happen to me.

Wanda came to our table and overheard our conversation.

“How about you talk about something more pleasant? Josie, tell Helga about our itinerary today.”

“After breakfast we have Acceptance & Crafts. Then we’ll go to the lake,” I said. I thought I saw Kevin shudder. “Then horseback riding, hiking, and a picnic.”

“What about screaming?” Helga said. “At my last camp, there was synchronized screaming.”
“The Accidental campers don’t have to resort to emotional outbursts,” Wanda said. She looked as though she expected something great from us. Helga was smiling smugly at Kevin, who looked miserable.

At Acceptance & Crafts, we sat at a round table with glasses of lemonade. I helped the Idaho kids pour glue onto paper plates and begin to construct the walls of their cabins. When Wanda and Susan asked me how Homesickness was coming, I stood up and addressed the group.

“It’s not easy,” I said. “I’ve spent so much time not thinking about home. I’ve forgotten a lot of things, I think.”

“What’s a happy memory from your home in Vermont?”

I thought of the Girl Scouts awards ceremony in 8th grade, when I won the Silver Award. I remembered ironing my sash the night before, and then my mother refusing to drive me to the community center. I had walked two miles before Amy’s mother pulled over and gave me a ride. I remembered her sad, nervous smile when she asked how my mom was doing. I was three weeks from winning the Gold Award when I died.

“I don’t have happy memories,” I said.

The other stages had been difficult, but I had passed them swiftly. I had gone through Confusion, three of the Anger stages, Excellence in Archery, Excellence in Horseback Riding, Denial, Gratitude. I had written furious letters to my parents during the Retroactive Rebellion stage, and then burned them during the Stubbornness stage. I had stripped the skin off my knuckles when I punched a window during an Anger stage. After passing half the stages, I was supposed to be ready to start thinking of living again. I was supposed to remember the good parts of living so I would want to do it again. But I was not homesick.

“Let’s talk about our hopes for second chances,” Wanda said, and motioned for me to sit down. I knew that today I was not making Wanda and Susan proud.

Bonnie stood up. She was on stage twenty four: Optimism.

“I hope I don’t have any allergies next time,” Bonnie said. “And I hope we have a beach house, and I’d like an older sister, but a really cool one. Not a goody-goody like Josie.”

“Josie is a valuable part of our team,” Wanda said. “She’s going through a hard time now. Kevin, why don’t you talk about how you got through Homesickness?”

Kevin was four stages ahead of me. I wondered if things would be easier if I had drowned in a lake instead of seeing my mother’s shocked face as she fired at me. Kevin stood up and wiped his gluey hands on his pants.

“I guess I thought about how my dad wasn’t always a jerk. I thought a lot about my friends, too. I miss those guys.”

“Did he love you?” Helga said. “My first parents killed us because they loved us.”

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate question,” I said.

“It’s true. I heard them talking. I saw my mother cry when she gave Hedwig her injection,” Helga said.

“It wasn’t love,” Kevin said, and he turned pale. “He didn’t love me when I died.”

“Stop it, Kevin. You can’t be jealous of Helga,” I said.

But I understood him. Even if we had woken up at the Accidental camp, none of us wanted to believe our deaths were entirely accidental, that our parents could truly be so careless. At least Helga’s parents had thought they were saving her.

One by one, the campers stopped working on their popsicle stick cabins and looked to Wanda and Susan, and then to me. The Idaho children were crying. I stood up and wrapped my arms around two of the girls.

Wanda and Susan began to lecture, telling us that being an Accidental camper meant we had something to be grateful for, while the kids at the Intentional camp had to carry the extra weight of knowing their parents wanted them dead.

“Your parents loved you,” Susan said to us. “Think of the poor Intentional campers and what they have to go through.”

I looked at Helga, but she was whistling and making a swastika out of popsicle sticks.

“But what if they’re happier without us?” Kevin said.

Kevin was supposed to be on Stage Thirty-Nine: Gratitude, but the stage before had been Harmful Speculation.

“This is dangerous thinking,” Susan said, and she motioned for Wanda to peel a gold star off Kevin’s chart. She looked to the rest of us, to see if anyone else was sliding backwards along the stages.

“You all know the rules,” Susan said. “You know what helps and what harms. Wanda and I are here to help. You all want your second chances, don’t you?”

“What about third chances?” Helga said, smirking.

Susan looked to Helga as if she had forgotten she was there.

“And third chances,” Susan said. “You can try and pass the stages, Helga. You already have a head start.”

“I’m not going back, no way,” Helga said.

Wanda and Susan looked at each other, then ordered me to take the rest of the campers to the lake for swim practice while Helga stayed behind.

“Have them swim extra laps,” Susan told me, and handed me her whistle. I turned on my headlamp and led the campers to the shore.

“I’m not getting in the water,” Kevin said. The other campers were quieter than usual and straggled behind.

“How about we sing a song while we walk?” I said, but they only grumbled.

And I didn’t want to sing, either. I wondered what my father would tell Jeremy when he was older, if my brother would find comfort in knowing my death had been only an accident, or if he wouldn’t know anything at all. Jeremy was only three months old when I died. He probably wouldn’t remember me.

As we marched to the lake, I tried to remember the last time I had seen absolute darkness, when I had slept in the dark instead of gauzy daylight. The lake glowed like a murky fishbowl from the fog lights anchored to the bottom.

“All right, everyone, time for practice,” I said.

I blew the whistle, but the campers didn’t take off their overalls. Some of them waded in the shallow water as though they had forgotten they were still wearing shoes. Some of them crouched on the banks and began to clumsily skip stones. I turned to Bonnie, who was collecting fistfuls of rocks.

“What are you thinking about?” I said.

“Shut up.” Bonnie picked up a stone and threw it at the water as though she was hoping to hit something tender, something that could get hurt.

“What if instead of allergies, I have something else wrong with me? What if it’s worse next time?”

“You’re supposed to be on Optimism,” I said, though I knew the stages couldn’t restrict us much as Susan and Wanda hoped. I put my whistle on top of my folded clothes and towel, and then I walked to the lake’s edge. The rocks were covered in melted wax, the candles already burning low.

I went in to my waist and then swam away from shore, towards the small island where the nursery stood. Inside, there were rows of bassinets, hundreds of them. In a way, I was jealous of the newborns who had been strangled, suffocated, or left behind in bar bathrooms. I wondered if they had any memories of where they had been before. It must be easier for them than for anyone.

I floated on my back and looked up at the starless sky, into a darkness untouched by our headlamps and lanterns and the cheery glow of Christmas lights. I closed my eyes and let myself float, buoyed by the water.

When I woke up, I was crying. My mouth was filled with water.

Helga had leapt in and was trying to pull me to the shore, but I kicked away from her. I pulled myself to the rocks and coughed. I couldn’t believe I had been so careless.

“What did you dream?” Helga said. “Did you see your mother kill you?”

But I hadn’t dreamt about the bullet tearing through my stomach. Instead, I dreamt of ice skating with my mother and father when I was very young. My mother was having a good week. It was her idea to ask the neighbors to borrow their skates, to let me skip school and drive there on a cloudy Tuesday morning when the lake was dusted in snow.

“Skate far enough, we’ll wind up in Canada,” my mother said.

“Should we run away?” my father said.

He opened his arms and pointed north. My mother smiled and I thought of the three of us taking off, skating forever into that muted horizon until the clouds rolled onto the ice and swallowed us whole. The lake stretched in front of us, a vast plain of rippled ice. My parents and I linked hands until we were gliding, pushing past the shore. Finally we all let go of each other and spun out over the lake, swooping in wide circles and spinning until we fell, knowing the ice would hold us.

Now, I gulped air and looked at the lake in front of me, surrounded by lights. When I caught my breath, I asked Helga if she had remembered her first family when she was living with her second parents.

“I don’t think so. I only remembered them when I came back here,” Helga said.

“What happened to all your memories?” I said.

“They were just gone. I was a different person,” she said. “My name was Natalie. We lived in the desert, near Las Vegas.”

Helga turned on her headlamp and turned towards me. I squinted at the light.

“I’m not going back,” she said. “They can’t make me try.”

We sat next to each other on the shore, the rocks pressing into our legs. Once I got my second chance, all my memories of my mother and father and Jeremy would disappear. I wasn’t homesick, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to forget days like ice skating, days when my mother wasn’t a normal mother, but even better. Days when she was luminous. I tried to remind myself of the rareness of those days, that more often were the days when I came home from school to find my mother in bed with cigarette burns polka dotting her arms and Jeremy crying in his crib.

Wanda and Susan came running to the lake, and Wanda threw a towel around my shoulders.
“What happened?” Susan said. She looked to Helga as if it were her fault that I had been stupid enough to sleep. “What did you dream?”

“It was a good memory,” I said to Susan. But now I could only think about what happened after that day: the weeks of my mother’s sadness after Jeremy was born, my father’s long trips across the country and the postcards he sent from cities. When I tried to get my mother to quit smoking, when I asked if she wanted to see me perform at the senior citizen’s center. She had looked at me like a stranger and said she’d only put me in Girl Scouts to keep from killing me.

“You were always home. I just thought it’d be something you did after school,” she’d said. “Not who you’d become.”

Susan was beaming with pride, her face a bright searchlight into mine. “You might be getting closer to Homesickness,” she said.

I smiled back, but now I was no longer thinking of home. I was thinking of how I had trusted the ice to not crack.

*

With Helga at camp, we stopped advancing through the stages. Without any of the campers reaching the fifty-second stage, no one could leave for their second chance. Miraculously, as if the camp were holding its breath, no new campers arrived. After two weeks of this stasis, of the Idaho children wetting the bed, Kevin cursing his father, the campers trudging through our hikes and uninterested in sing-alongs, Wanda and Susan invited the Intentional campers to visit.

We were preparing for swim practice when we noticed the rowboats across the lake. We all paused and stood in the shallow water, watching the Intentional campers board their boats and begin to row towards us.

“Try to imagine yourselves in their position,” Susan said, a hysterical edge to her voice. Lately, she’d been scraping stars off the stages and forcing us to sing cheerful songs around the campfire. She and Wanda had been watching Helga closely to make sure she didn’t tell us any more stories to make us afraid of our second chance, but it was enough that she was here, a reminder of what our second parents might do.

“Should we swim out to them?” I asked Wanda and Susan. I had some idea of greeting the Intentional campers in the water as if the lake were neutral territory. I wondered if the Intentional campers were all like Helga, if they knew things we didn’t just because they had been killed on purpose.

Susan shook her head, so I quieted the boys who had begun splashing and throwing handfuls of slimy leaves at each other. We ringed the shore and watched the Intentional campers approach. To them, we must have looked like giant fireflies. They didn’t wear headlamps or carry lanterns. When they came closer, I noticed some of them were smiling. They waved.

Wanda was jumping up and down. “Welcome!” she called, and the campers climbed out of the boats and pulled them to shore. Helga ran towards a girl who looked older than me.

“You’re still here,” she said. She leapt into the girl’s arms, looking like a child for the first time since she’d arrived. The girl smiled and hugged Helga.

“I never left. I’m the head counselor now” the girl said.

“This is Bernadette. Her parents poisoned her during the war,” Helga announced proudly, as if she was presenting Bernadette for Show and Tell.

Wanda and Susan smiled at the Intentional campers, and told them that Helga and I would show them where to set up their tents.

The campers were polite and orderly as they followed us to the cabins, where they began unpacking their bags and setting up small canvas tents outside. As gifts, they’d brought popsicle stick snowflakes dusted in silver glitter. They hung them from our trees and decorated their campsite.

Helga and Bernadette walked together, Helga telling Bernadette about her second family in Las Vegas, how desert stretched for miles, how there was a city with rainbow-colored lights. I helped the Intentional campers unpack their pillows and sleeping bags, and then I began to gather wood for a fire. Kevin shuffled behind, kicking at the pine needles.

“Why’s he so sad?” one of the boys asked me.

“My dad was an asshole,” Kevin said. “Don’t you think they might be happier without us?”

“I don’t think so.” The Intentional boy smiled at Kevin, and the other campers nodded. I wondered if they were happy because in a way, they’d survived the worst thing that could happen to a person. For the Intentional campers, the camp itself was their second chance.

The Intentional campers stayed a week. They accompanied us on our activities, swimming laps just as well as we did, performing admirable tricks on horseback. We learned that very few of their deaths had been malicious. Most were postpartum depression, schizophrenia, some kind of chemical cataclysm in a parent’s brain that compelled them to lift the knife, to drive off the road.

Then there was Mallory, whose mother stabbed her after Mallory told her she was pregnant. And David, the all-star point guard whose father shot him in the back when he found him having sex with the basketball team captain. But even Mallory and David pirouetted on horseback and taught the Idaho kids how to steady their arrows when we practiced archery. They seemed relieved, peaceful.

Soon, their happiness spread to the Accidental campers. The Idaho children passed their first stage of Confusion, and moved through Denial, Nostalgia, and Gratitude. They slept peacefully during the daytime, no longer yawning or complaining about the brightness of our cabins. Kevin stopped talking about his father. I began thinking that maybe my second chance wouldn’t end like Helga’s.
Maybe it would even be better than my first.

Even Helga seemed happier, telling the Intentional campers what their camp used to be like, how she and her siblings would run through the forest barefoot, something their father would never have allowed. At Acceptance & Crafts, she told us about her mother. This time, Helga wasn’t bragging about how much she had been loved when she died.

“I woke up from the morphine,” she told us. “The rest of them just fell asleep. But I woke up and my mother’s hands were in my mouth. I fought back. That’s why I have this bruise,” she said, pointing to the mark of her mother’s hands around her neck.

“It wasn’t easy, what your mother did. She didn’t want to do it,” Wanda said.

I thought of my own mother and of Helga’s. It was easier to think that my mother, too, thought she was protecting me from something. She could have shot herself in front of me. Instead, her impulse was to keep me from seeing it, to kill herself when she thought I wasn’t home. Maybe she wanted to keep me from all the things that made it impossible for her to leave bed some days, to make sure I didn’t end up like her. This was a fragile understanding. It was a lie I would tell myself until it felt closer to the truth.

*

When the Intentional campers were leaving, we accompanied them to their rowboats and gave them the crafts we had made together, friendship bracelets and paper crowns. As they boarded their boats, Helga came to me, looked me up and down. She was wearing a backpack and carrying her pillow and sleeping bag. She was going with them.

“You really think it’s going to be better for you?” she said. “You still want your second chance?”

“I’m not afraid of it,” I said.

Helga hugged me, then waded into the water and climbed into one of the boats. As the Intentional campers left, Helga waved from the boat and picked up an oar.

That morning, as the sun was about to rise, I snuck into the storage room in the dining lodge. In between craft supplies and bags of marshmallows, I found sheets of gold stars, thousands of them. I took them and went to the chart, filled all of my stages with stars. I pressed them on and thought about what my mother would say if she saw me breaking the rules, skipping ahead.

I took the path that rose up behind the camp, and I walked until I was on top of the mountain, looking down at the sloping roofs of our cabins and the morning glint off the lake. Finally, I sat down beneath a pine tree, and I used my rucksack as a pillow. Maybe when I woke up, I would be somewhere else. Maybe I would still be here.

This story appeared in Indiana Review 36.2, Winter 2014.

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Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor based in Spain. Her fiction has appeared in journals including North American Review, 64Harvard Review, Sou’wester, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Tin House online, and has been broadcast on NPR. She received her MFA from Bowling Green University, where she served as Assistant Editor of Mid-American Review. She recently served as Assistant Editor of Bartleby Snopes, and as an editorial intern at The Paris Review.

 

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