SINISTER SUMMER CAMP CHALLENGE HONORABLE MENTION
“They say someone drowns in this lake every year.” Candice’s voice is pitched low, and she jostles the canoe as Penny steps in. “The lake demands a sacrifice, and tonight’s the last night…”
“Bullshit,” counters Penny. “The camp would like, totally shut down if people were dying all the time.”
Candice smirks at me over Penny’s head. “They cover it up. The lake controls the counselors, too. It’s in the water…it gets into your brain when you drink it, and you have to do its bidding.”
Penny rolls her eyes, but I can tell she’s unsettled when I cast off, sending us drifting out onto the black water.
We’re all quiet for a while as I paddle toward the tiny, scrubby island at the heart of the lake. Long, moonlit ripples follow us. Penny breaks the silence with a nervous, “We’re so getting caught.”
Candice scoffs. “What are they gonna do, send us home?”
“They could still tell our parents.”
I don’t remember Penny’s family from orientation, but I try to picture how they might punish their fifteen-year-old daughter for something as harmless as sneaking out past curfew. They might take her phone away for a few days, tops. “We’re almost there.” I try to mask the impatience in my voice. Candice is right, Penny is really getting worked up over nothing. But Candice could still be less of a jerk about the whole thing.
I let the boat edge up to the island’s barely-there shore, scraping against branches tangled with blackberry vines. Penny gasps as a vine rakes down her bare arm, then presses her other hand to the bloody scratch. The smell of her blood mixes with the swampy tang of the lake; my stomach churns.
Candice heaves herself out first, rocking the canoe precariously. “Careful!” I hiss, then help Penny out of the boat. She’s already regretting coming out with us tonight, I can tell. Candice is so thoughtless sometimes.
The trail is invisible to anyone who doesn’t already know the way, leading to a deep, bowl-shaped lagoon in the center of the island. When we emerge by the lagoon, Penny is practically shaking. “This is so dumb, you guys. I want to go back right now.” I can smell salt as tears glisten down her cheeks.
“It’s not a big deal,” Candice says. “We’re not gonna get caught. Right, Laura? You come here all the time.”
“You don’t get it.” Penny sniffles, rubbing a wrist over her nose. Blood from a scratch she didn’t seem to have noticed smears across her top lip. “My parents aren’t like yours. They’re gonna be total dicks about it. They probably won’t even let me come back next year if we get caught!”
“Then why did you come with us in the first place?” Candice snaps. “Ugh! You are being so lame right now!”
“Shh!” They’re both being way too loud for this place. We’re supposed to be quiet and respectful here, or things could quickly get out of control. I watch the lagoon ripple in the distance: perfect, peaceful ribbons of light.
I shouldn’t have brought them, I realize that now. This was a huge mistake. The three of us hung out all summer, but we never quite clicked, not the way I’d hoped. Candice was always picking at Penny, and Penny was always doing something to set Candice off, like getting nervous and changing her mind about what activities we should sign up for, or making a big deal about something dumb she’d said in front of a boy–just worrying about every little thing until Candice snapped at her to stop being such a baby.
But at least, I consider, Penny cares enough to worry. Everything is one big joke to Candice. I’m starting to wonder why I chose them in the first place when we met that first day of camp. It had started off so promising–I thought I’d finally found my group, that we’d be best friends for years and years. Endless summers together.
I can’t stand their squabbling any longer. “Just go,” I point back toward the canoe.
“Yeah, just go, Penny.” Candice’s voice drips with smugness. “And you should swim back. That’s our boat.”
“No,” I say, turning to Candice. “I was talking to you. I don’t want you here.”
“Me? What the fuck, Laura?”
When I don’t respond, Candice’s eyes widen with shock and betrayal. “Well, you can just go to hell, too. Have fun swimming back with poor, pitiful Penny.” Then Candice stomps back into the bushes. I have to swallow down the bitter disappointment that comes with her absence. I’d planned on having two friends here tonight. Three is such a better number: balanced. A pyramid of strength. Two can be precarious, brittle. Two is so much harder to get right.
Penny won’t look me in the eye. “Do you really think she’s taking the canoe?” she finally asks.
“It doesn’t matter.” I sink down beside the lapping water of the lagoon. “We don’t need it.”
“Why?” she asks, crouching down beside me. It’s better this way, I tell myself. Penny is so much calmer. So much easier to be around, really. Candice would have been a nightmare, after a while. And maybe without Candice picking at her, Penny won’t be so nervous all the time. Maybe two will be an okay number, after all. Better, even.
“Penny?” I ask, trailing my fingertips in the warm lake. I splash once, twice, three times–a pattern I’ve known all my life. “Your family sounds pretty harsh, huh?”
“Yeah,” she whispers, dipping her own fingers into the water. “I shouldn’t have come here. If they find out… I just really don’t want them to find out.” Her face scrunches up in the moonlight, as though remembering something painful. Something worse than phone privileges taken away, I realize. Something far worse.
“What if things could change?” I ask, just as three ripples form in the center of the lagoon. Three heads rise out of the lake–long hair dripping with water weeds, their eyes glowing like moons. “What if you could have a completely new family?” As my sister and her pack catch our scent and swim toward us, I take Penny’s hand. The two of us can still be a strong pack, I’m sure of that now. She gives me a confused look but doesn’t try to pull away.
And when I lead Penny into the water, she follows without hesitation. Without looking back.
Jennifer Skogen is the author of the young adult series, The Haunting of Grey Hills, and her work has been featured in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Green Ink Poetry, and Bowery Gothic. Jennifer lives near Seattle, Washington, and goes hiking in beautiful places whenever it isn’t raining.