Monday, February 8, 2010

Bloodcurdling Story

     I went to sleep-away camp once during the summer between 5th and 6th grade. It was a special needs camp—a camp for kids who suffered from asthma. It was just like regular sleep-away camp, with swimming and horseback riding and hikes, except at this camp, most of the counselors were medically trained professionals. Oh yeah, there were no bonfires because the smoke would send half the camp to the hospital. Even without the fire, there were scary stories. The stories were not told in the circle and they were not counselor sanctioned. No, these stories were told in the bunkhouse, after lights-out, by the two older boys, Steve and Jason. They were starting junior high in the fall and this summer was their third year at asthma camp. 

     There was nothing all that original about their tales. A psycho who lived across the lake, on top of the hill, back in town, in a haunted house. They told us how he hates kids, how he vowed to kill one kid every year. And every year, he takes one kid from his tent, from his bunk, when he walks out to the john in the middle of the night, when he swims past the ropes, or when he takes the wrong trail. And the kid he grabs is never seen again.
     This was the story Steve and Jason shared that first night, after lights-out, after we had light-saber fights with our flashlights, after our bunk counselor, Todd, called for us to “quiet down and hit the rack,” after the kid in the bunk above me climbed down to take a pee.
      “It’s true, it happened last year,” Steve said, “in the middle of the night, right in this cabin. His name was Frankie and he was in his bunk when we went to sleep. The next morning, he was gone. His bunk was made and we never saw him again.”
      “Everyone was relieved it was over,” Jason said. “Only one kid goes. And once Frankie was gone, we all knew we were safe.”
     Steve said, “I heard it happen. I heard the psycho humming that mulberry bush song.” 

      Jason sang the song, “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel; The monkey thought 'twas all in fun, Pop! Goes the weasel.”
     Steve said, “You can hear the psycho hum it, you can hear it in the wind if you listen close. I did, I heard it last year.”

     Jason said, “If we’re lucky, that kid that just left, the kid in the bathroom, maybe he will get gone tonight. Then we won’t have to worry.”

     We all held our breath, listening, but all we heard was a toilet flush, and moments later we heard that kid’s feet slapping the wood floor, him climbing up to the top bunk, and the squeak of the mattress. I knew, right then, I would not be peeing in the middle of the night.

     That first night, I did not sleep well. I don’t think anybody did. The second night was worse. It was windy and stormy. Lightning flickered. The wind howled. After lights-out, Steve got up to use the bathroom. 

     Again, we all held our breath. I thought, could it be Steve this year? Oh God, please let it be Steve. 

     Then the song started in a grunting hum, in the direction of the bathroom. “All around the mulberry bush”…then a gasping breath filled the room, then something dragged across the floor, a lame foot, maybe. “The monkey chased the weasel” ; a dying breath and a dragging limb, “The monkey thought 'twas all in fun…” Then quiet, for ten seconds, then another ten seconds. Then there was the explosion of a popped paper bag “bang” followed by a mixed chorus of “Pop! Goes the weasel” and little kid screams, and older kid laughter, and a really pissed Todd storming into the bunkhouse.

     Steve admitted to the joke. “It was me humming and dragging my foot.” 

      “I popped the bag,” Jason confessed.

     Todd told everyone that this was just a story to scare us. He assured us there was no psycho that steals kids. We all calmed down and the lights were turned back off. 

     A few minutes after Todd went back to his room, Jason said, “If you all are smart, you won’t believe Todd. If you don’t keep up your guard, you will be next.”

      “The counselors don’t want you to call your parents—they can’t have you ask to go home,” Steve said. “You wait and see, one of us won’t make it to the end.” 

     The boys were right. On Wednesday night, a younger boy, Justin, disappeared in the night. When we went to sleep, Justin lay in his bunk, wheezing and coughing. In the morning, his bunk was all made up and he was nowhere to be found. “See,” Steve said. “I told you this would happen.”
      “He sang the song in a whisper,” Jason said. “I heard everything. I heard Justin gasp for breath as he was dragged out.” 

     I was a little sad for Justin. But only a little. At breakfast, Todd announced to the group that Justin had gone home. “He was just too sick. The doctor thought it best.” But we all knew the truth. We knew Todd didn’t want us calling our parents. We knew he had to keep Justin’s disappearance a secret. And for us, that was okay. Sure, we lost Justin, but the rest of us were safe. We were free once again to take a pee in the middle of the night.