As summer camp drew to a close there was always one final big campfire. Everyone, all the counselors, the support staff, the director, and all of us campers would set out after supper and climb the winding path through the crabapple orchard, along a winding, narrow path with pine trees on either side, before we emerged onto a little ridge at the top of the mountain. Most of the time we’d get there as the sun was halfway below the horizon and start the fire in the brick fire pit that had been there, well, I think before some of us were even born. As I’d look out over a seemingly endless swath of forest below I always felt it had always been there, and would always be there. By the time I was thirteen, though, I was starting to grow out of that feeling. I didn’t want to but it was inevitable. I’d been coming to the camp for three years, which, at the time, felt like a lot, because it was. It was almost a quarter of my life. And the group I was with had been moved to a relatively new section, set apart from the main camp. The main camp was a cluster of cabins, basically miniature houses with electric lights, clustered around the dining hall. We, the older campers, were sent to a spot several hundred feet beyond the bath house, which had previously marked the edge of the camp, and we changed, slept, and kept all our gear in “the hogans”, . These were large canvas tents thrown over arched wooden frames with wooden floors, as though a disorganized wagon train had rolled through the forest and then collectively gave up and rolled their wheels away into the woods.
At the campfire, after complete darkness had settled but Gary, one of the counselors, decided that before it was time to extinguish the fire and leave he would tell a ghost story. Gary was a good guy—he was my group’s counselor, and slept in the hogan next to the one I shared with a few other guy, and we all liked him. He was eighteen which, at the time, made him seem like an adult to us, but also close enough that we could relate to him. He was a good guy, always looking out for us, which couldn’t have been easy.
“You’re a good group of kids,” he said, and I felt warm not just from the fire but from a sense of pride that Gary liked us. “All of us who work here appreciate that,” he went on, “because we all know what happened to Bernice.”
Now there was a slight chill. I think all of us kids were confused but we could see the adults shifting uncomfortably.
“Bernice was an old lady who lived in town. She was retired but she came here every summer to work as the camp’s cook. She didn’t drive. She walked home late at night, sometimes ten o’clock, after she washed all the dishes.”
Firelight played over Gary’s face as he looked at us.
“One summer there were these two kids, Nancy and Sam, a brother and sister. They were always up to something. They found a dead toad and left it in someone’s bed. They locked a cabin and went out through the window. Stuff like that. Then they stole a rattlesnake rattle we had in the display case in the dining hall and one night hid in the bushes down by the lake. When Bernice went by on her way home they shook it. It sounded just like a live rattlesnake. Bernice jumped and ran and slipped on something. She hit her head on a big rock. Died instantly.”
Someone gasped. Gary shook his head.
“No one knew Nancy and Sam were responsible but they settled down after that. Except a few nights later Nancy woke up in the middle of the night. She felt something drawing her and she could see two glowing eyes in the darkness and a voice said, ‘Come with me’. She followed the glowing eyes down to the lake. And that’s where everyone found her the next morning, dead, with her head cracked open on the same big rock where Bernice had fallen. No one said anything. I guess they thought it was best to let camp go on, but Sam’s parents were called and they were supposed to pick him up the next day. Except the next day they found him. By the lake. His head on the same rock.”
Gary tossed a stick into the fire.
“Well,” said the camp director, “thanks for that, Gary. Let’s get this fire put out and everyone head back. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Even as an easily frightened and often gullible thirteen-year old I had some real suspicions about the “ghost story” we’d just heard, such as, when had this happened? Had three deaths, especially the deaths of two campers, prompted some kind of investigation? How did anyone know the kids saw “glowing eyes in the darkness” and heard a voice? But I liked Gary and if he got a kick out of telling us a silly ghost story I didn’t want to ruin it. And I think everyone else felt the same way because we all chattered happily as we made our way to our various bivouacs.
Then, in the middle of the night, something woke me up, a powerful force that drew me out into the darkness. It was my bladder, of course. Too much fruit punch at the campfire had caught up with me. I walked a good distance from the hogans, picked a spot, and was feeling a tremendous sense of relief when I realized that, through the woods, I could see two glowing lights off in the distance. Still not fully awake I felt a cold terror creep over me before I realized they were the lights of the bath house, which were always left on all night. A new feeling of relief was coming over me when a voice in the darkness said, “Are you okay?”
And that, I’m sorry to say, is the story of why I punched Gary in the face.