I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m sitting at my computer, half past midnight, my fingers pecking out these terrible words on the keyboard, but insomnia is a bitch and my therapist says this is a very healthy exercise. All I want is to get some sleep.
He says that the words need to come out. They’re clogging up my insides like sludge in ancient plumbing beneath a crumbling house. Words can be poison, he says. Thoughts can be poison. It’s like draining a wound, he says, but don’t you have to drain a wound over and over until it’s healed? I don’t think I can do this more than once.
When I was 8, I went to summer camp. On the first night, three girls were raped, murdered, and left for the counselors to find the next morning.
I’ve heard it all, the different diagnoses given by every doctor from one coast to the other: survivor’s guilt, PTSD, schizophrenia in some rare cases. The problem isn’t in what I saw, it’s in what I didn’t say.
Three girls. Raped and murdered while the camp counselors slept just yards away. Piled like dirty laundry on the trail with the silly name because whoever left them there knew someone would be along sooner or later to take a shower. Three little girls in their sleeping bags, excited for the start of summer camp, just as excited as I was — hell, I may as well have been one of those little girls in tent number 7.
They call it tent number 8 but that’s stupid because we all know no one counted the counselor’s tent. I was in tent number 6 with three other girls. Or tent number 7, if you read the reports. Whatever. Does the number matter? Maybe it did. Oh god, I get this cold-metal taste at the back of my throat when I think about how much it really might have mattered.
We were all in the same group, the Kiowa group, our tents in a tight little cluster. It made it easy for him, I guess. Tiny little tents with tiny little girls inside.
I’m off track again. I can’t think, my hands are shaking and I have to keep hitting the ‘delete’ key.
I woke with a start, clutching the stuffed rabbit I had tried so hard to hide from the older girls because they had laughed and said toys were for babies. Mr. Beans wasn’t for babies, he was a friend, but I didn’t have many friends that weren’t stuffed rabbits so I kept him hidden in case the older girls came back.
And maybe they had, was what I thought. The rustling sounds outside the tent sounded like someone was there, and my first thought was the older girls from the Arapahoe group, girls who were allowed to wear lipgloss and talked about boys and just seemed so cool, like the ladies on the covers of magazines. They had teased me earlier at dinner that night, especially about Mr. Beans, but for one terrible hopeful moment I thought maybe they were testing me. To see if I was tough enough to be their friend, to prove I wasn’t a baby. Momma said sometimes that people teased because they liked you.
I wanted them to like me. I didn’t wake up the other girls, because I knew they would ruin the whole thing, they would probably cry and be babies and then the older girls from Arapahoe wouldn’t be my friends. I even put Mr. Beans behind my suitcase so they wouldn’t see him.
I waited but nothing happened. More rustles, that was all.
I held my breath. I thought it might help, like if I held it long enough I could will them into existence.
The tent flap opened. I exhaled. I looked for the faces of my new friends but it was a man. Not any of the counselors, someone I’d never seen before, this realization set in like a heavy stone sinking to the bottom of a black pond…
I’m going to be sick.
I can’t do this.
But I have to. I have to finish. I have to drain the wound.
His eyes scanned the tent. His eyes counted one, two, three, four little girls. His eyes stopped on me, the fourth little girl, and his eyes met mine.
He put one finger up to his lips, pursed them, and said, “Shhh.”
I nodded, because he was a grown-up, and Momma taught me to listen to grown-ups. She didn’t say what to do if they were scary so I listened. He ducked out and closed the tent flap again.
It was late at night, or early in the morning, I’m not sure which but it was so dark and it seemed like such a long time to lay there awake before I heard someone moaning in the distance. It was quiet but not that far away. I’m told that other girls heard it too, but from four different areas of the camp at once.
Some girls made up stories afterwards to get attention but not me. I never told anyone. Not until now.
When the light finally started to break I realized how badly I needed to pee. I wasn’t sure if the man was still outside but it was probably okay because it was morning and the sun was coming up over the horizon and bad things didn’t happen to little girls in the sunshine. So I poked my head out of the tent. Looked around. The sky was that pale white-blue color it turns just at dawn but it still felt safe, somehow better because the sun had risen and everything was okay. Momma always told me I had an active imagination.
I headed down the trail, towards the showers and the toilets, and that’s where I saw them.
At the base of a tree, slumped together like strange piles of garbage, were three little girls. I knew their names, I still know their names but that doesn’t matter now, does it?
Two of them were in their sleeping bags. One was just on the ground. She had her pajama top pushed up. No pajama bottoms.
There was blood. They weren’t moving.
I can still see them.
I’m afraid I’ll never stop seeing them.
I don’t know why but I went right past them. I guess I knew if I went back to my tent I’d wet the bed and I’d never have any big-girl friends so I went right past the little sleeping bags and straight to the bathroom. I peed. I went back to tent number 6.
Tent number 7 was empty.
When I went back to sleep, the last sleep I ever had unbroken by nightmares or screaming, I think I had convinced myself the whole thing was a bad dream. There was no man, no pile of sleeping bags with dead little girls in them, no empty tent number 7.
The counselors got us up earlier than usual. We went to the Great Hall for breakfast. We went canoeing in the river. It was fun. Everything was okay.
Bad dream. That was all.
Buses came to take us back to the Great Hall. When we got off the buses one of the older counselors, the ones that ran the camp, he told us there was a problem with the water supply. His face was the color of old milk. Camp was cancelled for the summer, he said. We all needed to pack our things and go home.
Water supply. Camp cancelled.
In tent number 6 as we packed our things the other girls whined about how it was unfair, they’d sold so many cookies to get here this year and after one stupid day it was already over, but I kept hearing the gray-faced counselor’s words in my ears, camp is cancelled, camp is cancelled.
I tried to nap on the bus ride home but my seatmate kept waking me up because I was crying in my sleep. She called me a baby.
Bus stopped. Got off the bus. Troop leader said not to talk to anyone who wasn’t our parents.
Lots of reporters. Shouting. Momma grabbed me and cried. No more camp, she said.
She threw out my sleeping bag as soon as we got home.
The police came once or twice after that but I never talked to them. Momma told them I’d been very clear, I hadn’t seen anything. I’d slept all night. I’d slept all night.
Would it have helped if I said something? If I had told? Every time I thought about doing it my heart plummeted into my stomach, I saw the man’s face and his finger on his lips and heard his “shhh”. Usually I threw up.
So these words, the words I’ve never said until now, they festered inside me like some exotic form of mental rot. I can’t hold a job for more than a few months, I call in sick too much. Too tired all the time. No husband to speak of, the night terrors took care of that. A man will only sleep in your bed so many times before the screaming and thrashing drives him away.
But my new therapist, he’s been so nice, he tells me whatever happened isn’t my fault and that this will help and I started to think that maybe it was time to tell, time to describe the face that poked into tent number 6 that night in 1977.
And then I remember why I can’t. What I had blocked out, the thing my mind forced me to forget even though I can still see the twisted tangled little bodies underneath the tree as clear as day, my brain shattered this memory and scattered it to the wind but it has always been there, waiting at the bottom of my gullet to force out vomit instead of words should I ever decide to tell.
Mr. Beans was gone. As the other girls whined about how their summer was ruined, I reached behind my suitcase for Mr. Beans and felt nothing but air.
He had been there, I was sure of it! I had hidden him so the big girls wouldn’t see! I looked under my pillow, shook out my sleeping bag, but Mr. Beans just wasn’t there.
I checked behind my suitcase one last time and found something else was missing, too. A little plastic flower tag, all bright pink and sunny yellow, the cheerful way of marking the bag as my own was gone. A tag you put on your suitcase so if it went missing it could be returned to you easy-peasy because it had your name, address, and phone number on it.
When I went home I tried not to think about it. I really did. But every time the police asked me a question, every time my father wondered aloud if anyone had seen the fiend, every time the news stations begged their viewers to step forward if they had information… I thought about that tag, the one he had taken, and how easily he could find me if I told. As time went on I forgot about the tag, I think I forced myself to forget, but the sick feeling in my stomach remained. I still knew not to tell.
He took my tag and he took Mr. Beans and he took my innocence, the last summer I ever truly felt like a little girl who lived in a world where mommies and daddies and camp counselors could keep you safe. He took but you know, he left something, too.
I found it in my suitcase when I was unpacking. A little scrap of paper, much like the one the news said counselors had found back in April and discarded as a joke. They found a note in their suitcase, too, but they laughed and they threw it away without a second thought. The note that mentioned killing three girls.
Three girls. Not four.
In tent number 7. Not 6.
But my note, oh yes, my note…
All it said was “shhh”.