Fiction, Vol. 8.3, Sept. 2014
Dust rose so thick around the car as they plodded down the dry dirt road, Carly could barely see out the window. In the driver’s seat, her father clutched an hours-old paper cup of coffee, a map spread across his lap. When they turned into a weedy parking lot and the dust settled, two girls wearing brown vests and skirts emerged from a shed at the edge of the lot carrying tree saws. The girls walked over to the car, and Carly opened the door a crack.
“You’re a week late. And you’re not in uniform.” The girl to Carly’s right adjusted her backpack strap.
Carly wanted to stay inside the car and shut the door but resigned herself to getting out. Her father wrestled her suitcase from the trunk and came around to her side. “What’s all this about being late?”
“I guess camp started last week.”
Her father dug around in his pocket and pulled out a mess of crumpled paper. He looked at the print for longer than it took to read, then drew Carly to his side and kissed the top of her head. “I’m real sorry.” He turned to the girls. “Where’s a counselor?”
“I’m Maple. This is Fig. Those are our camp names.”
“Right. Is there an adult around?”
“Our counselor is setting up for woodworking.” Maple jutted her chin toward Carly. “We’ll take care of her.”
He looked at his watch. “I have to get going. You sure you can’t find someone?”
“Everyone’s at woodworking. We just came out to the shed because our counselor forgot the saws. Your daughter can come back with us.”
“Well. Thanks.” Carly’s father slammed the trunk shut.
She wanted to tell her father it was too late, open the car door and tuck herself back inside, retrace the long drive down the highway. But he was already getting back into the car.
“Wait,” Carly said as he shut the door.
He waved and backed out of the overgrown lot. Carly dug the heel of her sneaker into the dirt. On the way, when they’d stopped for gas, her father let her have a Cherry Coke and now her heart rattled in her chest. The two girls gripped their saws and stared at her.
“Where are you from?” Maple asked.
“That’s far. Most of us aren’t from that far away.”
“It was a long drive.”
“You missed the fire safety meeting.” Maple planted her feet and glared.
“This morning we took a hike to learn how to identify roots. You missed that, too.”
Carly took a step back. A minute ago, she’d been pretty sure she hated Maple; now she was sure. Also, identifying roots? Underground? She thought she heard Fig whisper something about invasive species.
“You’re Twig. That’ll be your camp name.” Maple set down her saw and took a name tag from her backpack. She wrote “Twig” in brown Magic Marker, then handed it to Carly. “Here.”
“Twig” sounded to Carly like a weak and scrawny name, but arriving a week late put her in no position to argue. She stuck the name tag to her T-shirt.
“We have to get back to woodworking.” Fig pulled a tube of clear liquid from the front pocket of her backpack and handed it to Carly. “Rub this on yourself.”
“What is it?”
“It keeps away insects and other harmful pests.”
Bug spray? “You have woodworking outside?” The stuff smelled like gasoline. “I’m kind-of sensitive to chemicals.” Carly handed it back.
“This is camp. Everything’s outside.”
Maple picked up her saw. They grabbed Carly’s hands and led her from the parking lot. It didn’t feel like friendly hand-holding, but Carly’d never been to camp before.
“What about my suitcase?”
“Don’t worry. The Campfire Girls Guidebook prohibits theft.”
The girls led Carly down a trail through a bed of ferns; she stumbled over a knotted root rising up from the dirt. Twigs snapped against her bare legs. She heard singing in the distance. The trees thinned, and the singing grew louder. Maple and Fig led her through a tangle of weeds into a clearing. A circle of uniformed girls chanted before a tree of a woman. Insects sang in the shrubs. At the center of the circle, wisps of smoke rose from a pile of leaves. Carly turned to Maple. “This is woodworking? Where’s the wood?”
“All around us.”
Carly thought about her suitcase and about her father driving down the freeway. The woman extended her tan, wrinkly arms, and the girls stopped chanting and looked at Carly. Some of them adjusted their vests and pulled at their socks.
“Is this Kindling?” The woman fanned the smoldering leaves.
“No, I’m Twig,” Carly said.
“It’s all the same.”
Maple and Fig dropped Carly’s hands and pushed her toward the circle.
“Can I just watch today? I’ve never done woodworking.” Cherry Coke sloshed in her stomach.
“That’s just the problem with non-native species.”
They gave her another push. Carly turned and tried to elbow past them. She’d run for the parking lot, abandon her suitcase, hitchhike home to Rochester. But Maple and Fig grabbed her wrists and dragged her to the smoking center of the circle. Her ankles bounced over small rocks. Carly squirmed and tried to wrench free.
“What’s going on?” Carly screamed.
“You’re late,” Fig said. “And you’re not in uniform. You’re not a Campfire Girl and besides, clearing out the underbrush helps a forest thrive.”