The counselors of sleepaway camp Stelita Tero are beasts, uncaged till morning. By now, we’ve shed our counselor skins, stripped off first-aid fanny packs and letter-bead bracelets. We’ve unclipped our nametags and go nameless, feral. I am not Shamrock, not until the breakfast bell rings at seven thirty. That’s not Bonsai and Choo-Choo making out in the boathouse shadows. It’s not Rugrat taking whiskey pulls from the bottle because we’re short on cups or Twinkie imitating sweater-vest kid from cabin three.
We spend our days waiting for that midnight freedom. We survive bag-eyed mornings, regret snapping when campers are slow to brush their teeth. We belt the camp song, though Bonsai—that fucking try-hard—and cabin seven are always loudest, always get their food first. We slouch through afternoons, craft God’s eyes from popsicle sticks and yarn, sweat through endless rounds of elbow tag on the crabgrass soccer field.
In the dark, we are bound into a pack. We leave behind the whining: “Can we go swimming yet?” “I hate kickball.” We leave behind the crafts: peanut butter birdfeeders, googly-eyed rocks, egg carton seed pots. We leave behind our school-year lives: study-abroad, Sigma Chi, microwave mac’n’cheese. While our campers slumber, our throats flame with cheap rum and skunk weed. We race past the boathouse, wrestle in the ga-ga pit, take turns pissing by the rope swing. We howl our desperate rage and wild joy at the distant moon, at the empty summer night, at the forever-death of each second as it passes.
In ten years, Bonsai will be an active member of two Facebook groups for pun enthusiasts (“Welcome to the PUNderdome” and “Good Clean Pun”). Twinkie will post pictures of her toddler “breakdancing” and say she’s “#blessed.” We will be data analysts and kindergarten teachers. We will forget to measure time. We will fall asleep early and decline invitations without having other plans. If we pass one another in the canned soup aisle, we will say, “Jeez, how long’s it been? Two years? Three?” We will ask about kids and spouses whose names we’ve forgotten, maybe never knew. We will run dry of conversation, gesture to uncrossed items on a rumpled list, make nonspecific future plans.
At Stelita Tero, summer is ending. On our last night, we are drawn to the lake, the moon-flicker on black waves. We shed what’s left of us in piles on the sand: Rugrat’s thrift-store denim atop Bonsai’s designer jeans, Choo-Choo’s Nike’s stacked on my worn boots. Floating in the lake’s liquid moon, even we can’t tell ourselves apart. In one voice, we swear pack loyalty, eternal friendship, undying love.
Our final minutes stretch toward morning’s tyranny. Campers shift, restless in their bunks. We are weightless in the water. Rage and desperation slip through our loosened fists. We forget the need to wring every drop from short-lived freedom. In the end, there is only night and moon, lake and skin. We are endless and unspooling in the dark.
Mike Keller-Wilson lives, writes, and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa. He received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In his day job, he teaches writing and dad jokes to a captive audience of 7th graders. He’s never quite outgrown summer camp or his official counselor fanny pack. You can find him on Twitter @Mike3Stars.