I really should have cared about the particulars.
We drove for most of the day and didn’t arrive until it was already dusk. We didn’t stop for food, either, so by the time we arrived, Charlie and I were starving. He was just beginning to whine and I was trying desperately to keep him quiet – my parents were in a surprisingly good mood, but they were known for their quick shifts in temper.
The camp itself was gorgeous. It was set out in the woods, following a narrow winding path that delved deep into the green. As time went on, I began to wonder if we were on a road at all – all traces of travel and humanity had ceased to exist. It made me think distantly of the Garden of Eden. We came upon the camp suddenly, its appearance announced by a stark wooden cabin with the name “Rebecca” printed on its front. It was joined a few meters away by another cabin named “Ruth.” There were twelve cabins in all, six bearing female names and six bearing male names, all Biblical in nature, of course.
Past the cabins was a small clearing that housed a group of kids, all about six to twelve. A few counselors were milling around, tending to the homesick kids and trying to make them feel at ease. I had to wonder if Charlie was going to cry – he’d never been away from home for this long before. Well, come to think of it, neither had I – but I fancied myself beyond the age of tears.
We pulled up alongside the group of our peers and stepped out of the car. Charlie clung to me like a leech, and I really couldn’t blame him. We had never seen so many kids in one place before. As our parents walked us over, one of the counselors, a big, cheery man with a nametag that read “Malachi,” bounded towards us. The conversation went like this:
“Wow, two more campers, I see! You all arrived just in time!”
“Sorry we’re late,” said my father. He smiled easily at the man. “Had a little trouble finding the place – it’s certainly secluded, as you said.”
“Of course. Isolation from the temptations of the modern world is a very important part of our camp,” Malachi answered. Then he turned to my brother and me. “And what are your names?”
Charlie was staring at Malachi with his mouth hanging open and his eyes bugging out of his head, so I answered for the both of us. “My name is David, and this is my little brother, Charlie.”
“Oh, you two must be the Stanton brothers!” His smile grew wider as he straightened up and looked at my parents. “I’ll cross your names off the list. Don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, they’ll achieve salvation here, just as promised.”
All these years later, I remember two things about Malachi: that unfaltering smile and his promise of salvation.
My mother and father hugged us each in turn, and my mother left us with some stern instructions. “Now, you two be good and do exactly what the counselors say. If you’re good boys, then you’ll be seeing us in just a few days.”
I blinked back my confusion. “I thought the camp was two weeks?”
My mom just smiled and replied, “Oh, of course. Silly me! I guess I’m just going to miss you so much!”
My father didn’t say a word.
And so they abandoned us to our fates in the middle of that forest.
That evening, compared to the days that followed, was fairly uneventful. First, we were assigned to cabins. Charlie and I were split up, as we fell under different age groups. I was in the cabin named “Jacob,” and he was in the cabin named “Abraham.” The cabins were located right next to each other, so it wasn’t that bad. I figured that, if he became scared or upset in the middle of the night, the counselors could just come and get me.
By the time we had gotten settled, the stars were beginning to twinkle against the black sky. I was positively starving, as were most of the other children there. The first friend I made was named Tony, my bunkmate. As we put our beds together, he began to complain about the lack of food immediately.
“Man, my parents wouldn’t give us any food today. Do you think they’ll feed us supper?”
“They have to, right?” I responded. It seemed only logical, but there was a small part of me that wasn’t sure.
After that little opening, Tony introduced himself, and I learned that he’d come from almost a thousand miles away just for this camp. I was pretty shocked by that: this must be a great program, then.
“Have you ever been to this camp before?” He asked me.
“No, have you?”
He frowned. “No, I haven’t either… that’s weird. No one else I’ve talked to has been here before, either. The camp must be new.”
Before I could answer, the counselors called us all outside. We crowded around the fire pit, shivering in the cold air. You’d think it would be warm in the summer, but I can assure you that the wind bit hard that night. I had found my brother in the throng and pressed him close to me. I didn’t like watching him shake in the cold. As I heard the faint clicking of his chattering teeth, my misgivings became harder and harder to block out.
Our attention was diverted for a moment by Malachi’s booming voice. He stood in front of the fire pit as a few other counselors – Rebecca and Jacob, I would later learn – started a small flame. It grew with Malachi’s voice and cast sickly shadows across his face. It blocked out the color in his eyes and I began to wonder if they hadn’t always been black and I’d only just noticed.
“Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ After laying His hands on them, He departed from there.”
“You, as children, are the innocent in flesh, the pure in mind, the little lambs of our lord, Jesus Christ.” Malachi’s voice was completely devoid of emotion. I felt Charlie’s shivers grow stronger as he spoke. “The goal of this camp is to prepare the lambs for Jesus’s return. We shall not rebuke our children. We shall not keep them from the Lord. We shall deliver them unto His hand to be treated with His divine mercy, lest the evils of the world should color the pure white of their souls.”
His speech was beginning to make me feel sick. Luckily, he went silent for a few moments as the other counselors began to pass something around.
I was desperately hoping that it was food – any kind of food, really. I was starving and I could tell that Charlie was worse off than I was. He knew better than to whine, after years of strict training and fasting from our mother and father, but that just meant he had developed other forms of rebellion. Mostly, he would begin to withdraw, his eyes going dim and his mind wandering. For some reason, the thought of Charlie like this was making me feel panicky. At least in the context of this camp. I’d rather Charlie have his wits about him.
Once Charlie and I received our handouts, I was initially quite disappointed, and I almost felt guilty for that disappointment. It was a thin wafer with a cross printed on it and a small cup of sour, pungent red wine. The Eucharist.
I squashed down my feeling of disappointment. Well, I DID say that I would be fine with any kind of food… and this was technically food. I looked down at Charlie and saw him eyeing his wafer, struggling to keep the tears out of his eyes. Malachi had resumed talking, but I didn’t care anymore. All I cared about was Charlie.
I made sure the counselors weren’t looking as I slipped my wafer into Charlie’s hand. He looked up at me, relieved but curious. “You need it more than me,” I whispered.
“Thanks, David,” he answered as he crammed the wafers in his mouth. He downed the red wine and grimaced, trying to stop himself from spitting it out. I hoped that he was exaggerating how bad it was as I drank my portion. Again, I was disappointed. I’d never tasted something so bitter. It actually made my tongue numb.
Malachi droned on and I felt myself becoming drowsy. The combination of a day-long car ride and lack of food had exhausted me – and not just me. I noticed heads drooping all around my brother and me. Malachi must have noticed this, too, because he wrapped up his little speech with a short prayer. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but the words swam in and out of my head. All I could do was think about bed. I hoped the cabins would be at least a little warmer than it was out here.
Malachi dismissed us and instructed us to return to our cabins. I was more than willing to comply. I stumbled back towards my cabin on shaky legs. I really, really needed food. Or sleep. And, since it didn’t look like food was in my near future, sleep was going to have to do.
I had only gone a few steps when I felt a hand catch me. I stumbled to a stop and looked behind to see a counselor’s smiling face.
“David?” She asked.
I found myself grunting in reply. I didn’t think I was capable of forming words. I was starting to feel very strange. What was wrong with me?
“I’m Rebecca. My co-counselor Jacob and I would like to talk to you for a minute. Do you mind?”
I shook my head as they led me to the edge of the clearing. We stepped just past the edge of the trees when I felt my legs being swept out from under me. I pitched forward, my reactions woefully slow. My head struck the hard root of a tree and my vision became fluid, everything swimming in front of me with interspersed stripes of black. I wanted to struggle to my feet, but my body suddenly no longer seemed like my own. I couldn’t control my own muscles. I was just realizing this as Jacob – he must have been the one behind me, the one who kicked my legs out – stepped on my back, his heavy foot anchoring me in place. He ground his foot down hard and I felt the air whoosh out of my lungs. It hurt, God, it hurt, and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t BREATHE…
And then Rebecca was down on her knees in front of me, staring at me with cold eyes. She was still smiling, but even I could tell that it was fake. She’d plastered it on there and must have forgotten to take it off when she and her friend decided to ambush me, I thought. With every passing second, she seemed less like a person and more like a demon in human skin.
“Now, David. What happens when we sin?”
My head was spinning and Jacob’s boot stamped down harder on me. I thought my bones would splinter as I fumbled desperately for an answer.
When nothing came, I sputtered, “I-I don’t know!” My lungs were burning. I needed air.
Thankfully, the boot let up just a little bit as Rebecca looked at me with false sympathy. “You don’t know? Would you like me to tell you?”
“Yes!” I gasped out. The boot relented some more. Okay, good, I was answering correctly.
“When we sin, we are punished. We have to be punished so we can be good boys and girls. Would you like to be a good boy, David?”
In hindsight, my answer left something to be desired. Then again, what could I say to what was so obviously a trick question? “Yes!” I gasped, waiting for the boot to lift just a little more…
It didn’t. Instead, it came crushing down on me again and I heard something crack inside me. Shit, what was that? I wondered vaguely if Jacob had broken something. I didn’t have much time to think about it as Jacob decided it was his turn to question me, leading us down to the root of the problem.
“Why didn’t you take the Eucharist?”
A spark of recognition flitted into my brain as I thought back to Charlie. Of course, they couldn’t blame me for worrying about my little brother! I struggled to gasp out my words but the crushed state of my lungs made it impossible. Jacob grudgingly relented as my chest was seized with a coughing fit.
“My…b-brother!” I hacked some more. My throat and lips felt numb, but I could feel just a little bit of dampness running down my chin. It wasn’t until later that I would realize it was blood. “He was… hungry… didn’t h-have anything to eat…”
“Is that right?” Drawled Rebecca. Somehow, she made me more nervous than Jacob. Perhaps it was her pretend-nice act that did it. “David, don’t you believe in God?”
I didn’t really understand what that question had to do with anything, but I nodded violently. I do believe, I do believe, I do believe.
“Then don’t you believe that God will provide for your brother? Don’t you believe He will take care of Charlie?”
I hated the way Charlie’s name rolled off her lips. It made me feel worse knowing that she knew who my brother was. And what was this about God providing for us? Did that mean they weren’t going to feed us? I suffocated my fear and hid it deep inside myself, deciding that that was a question for another time, another time when I wasn’t about to be stomped to death. I nodded and said, “Yes, I believe.”
“Good!” She answered, smiling. Just like that, Jacob’s foot was gone and he was helping me up, a content smile spread across his face. I was dizzy on my feet, but only partly from my recent trials. My control over my own body was almost nonexistent, and he had to hold me firmly in place as Rebecca drew a white napkin out of her back pocket.
Inside the napkin was the host. She pulled it out and held her fingers towards me.
“Now. Open up and accept our Lord, David. Be cleansed from your sin.”
My mouth dropped open obediently. I could feel the blood more clearly this time and it was beginning to dawn on me what it was. I wondered where it was coming from exactly when she shoved the wafer into my mouth. I was filled with a sudden urge to spit it back out, but I didn’t. I swallowed it down and stared at her with owlish eyes, my fear plain on my face.
“Now, Jacob, why don’t you help David back to his room?” Said Rebecca.
And, just like that, Jacob was leading me towards my cabin, my feet stumbling with each step. What was wrong with my body? As the question arose again in my mind, I found myself thinking back to the sacramental wine, how bitter it tasted.