This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Gail Smith looked over at her son, Gregory, as he made his way toward the front door of Herbert and Gwen, their cousins in Columbia, South Carolina. As usual, he cut across the stone squares on the left side of the driveway. Gail wore heels, so that was out of the question for her. Then again, she thought, her youngest son (by five minutes with his identical twin Gary) had a style all his own and would have taken the squares no matter his clothes or the weather which, today, was dank and damp.
Truth be known, Gail wondered how she and all of her sons seemed to be complete opposites. She was a very organized person and could often find financial and even work records going back for years. Gregory, on the other hand, couldn’t tell her how much he had just spent the previous day at the supermarket.
She wrote everything down in notebooks so she could remember later on. Gregory winged it, like with the novels and short stories he published. She could never grasp how he did it without outlines and such. It was an alien concept to her.
And don’t get her started on humor. Wiseacres. Cut-ups. Jokers. Those were just a few of the descriptions that fit her sons. You name it, they tried to be funny every way they could.
Ryk told colorful jokes, while Gary injected humor if someone said something odd. Gregory preferred a blend of ad-libbing, double-entendres and what he called “British” humor, whatever he thought might get a laugh at a particular moment. Gail could only shake her head, as she’d tried in vain (for decades, in fact) to discover the source of that humor.
Still, she loved her sons. She’d raised them well. All had graduated college. Her oldest, Ryk, had been married for more than twenty years. All worked and, for the most part, paid their bills.
Alas, she wished they were much closer. Ryk lived almost four hours away in Atlanta. Gary was still back in Texas.
Oh, well, as she was fond of saying, it was what it was.
She put her mind back to the present. On Sundays, she and Gregory often visited Herbert and Gwen after church service and a meal at a local restaurant. Her cousins were home this time. The previous Sunday, Gail and Gregory had dropped into a house that was empty save for Hera, a large, lovable mixed-breed Labrador. This Sunday, Herbert was on the living room couch, watching women’s college basketball, while Gwen prepared supper in the kitchen.
“Well, well, come on in,” Herbert greeted, leaning forward on the couch. “Valerian’s sleeping and I got so relaxed, I think I fell asleep, too. How are you?”
An excited Hera came out of her hiding spot in Herbert’s bedroom, eager to see her favorite cousins. When things were quiet, she could often be found under the bed, snoozing. Then, the second she heard the voice of either Gail or Gregory, she was out of the room in a flash. Just a blur of fur and tail. While she didn’t exactly bound these days, she could move faster than normal.
She zeroed in on Gregory, as she always did. He was her special one, not just because he took her for walks – everyone took her for walks. Gregory, however, took her for really long walks and on different routes. By the time Hera returned to the house, she was exhausted, with just enough energy to make it to the water bowl and then to a quiet spot in a back corner of the living room.
One of the great things about Herbert’s neighborhood was its extensive system of walking trails that ran past many of the homes. Side trails connected to side streets and one path let to a large man-made lake populated by ducks. Hera had left many a calling card along these paths, while terrorizing squirrels foraging for nuts. On this day, however, there would be no walking. It was a cold and drizzly day and Hera would have to settle for some vigorous petting and pampering from her cousins.
Gail left her son to watch television with Herbert. She wanted to chat with Gwen, girl stuff and all that. To Greg, it was the kind of talk that went in one ear and out the other.
At that moment, a rambunctious boy came running into the kitchen, slowing to a walk only after being admonished by Herbert. His name was Kingston and he was all energy, just waiting to be unleashed on the first grade. He was the oldest son of Javell, Gwen and Herbert’s youngest child (Javell’s own youngest, Valerian, Jr., was asleep in the back bedroom). Kingston was a pistol, though, full of too much energy for a boy who just become old enough for elementary school. He hugged Gail and then was off like a shot to his own room.
“Too much sugar?” Gail asked.
Gwen shook her head. “He’s been like that all day and he’s already had his nap.”
Gail nodded. She knew what her cousin was talking about. Her own children were never like Kingston after their naps, but she’d taken care of plenty of nieces and nephews who were carbon copies of her young cousin. Oh, well, she thought, he had a mother and grandmother who would deal with him. Her child-rearing days were well behind her and she looked forward to other things.
“I talked to Myra yesterday,” Gail said, as she took a seat on a stool at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. “Has she talked to you about a little black dress ball?”
Gwen nodded, her back to her cousin while she opened up a package of ground beef. “Yes, it’s a charity event. There are a bunch of different groups doing it to raise funds for college scholarships.”
“Ah, that explains why she’s trying to get us all at the same table,” Gail remarked. “What exactly is it?”
“It’s like a brunch,” Gwen answered. “Actually, it’s more like a lunch or get-together. I’m guessing since all the proceeds are supposed to go to the charity, there won’t be a big meal. Probably finger foods and stuff.”
Gail hoped someone would donate some food for the events. She didn’t want to have to eat a late breakfast just to compensate for a light meal at the ball. A chime echoed through the house as the front door opened.
Looking to her right, Gail saw a comely young woman in the foyer. She had close-cropped hair and was shucking her jacket. Then, after mouthing something toward Gregory, she headed for the kitchen.
Gail welcomed her cousin, Javell, with a big hug. Javell lived with her parents, so the presence of Kingston and Valerian was permanent. It also worked out well for Javell. She worked in the same office as her mother, in downtown Columbia, but she also had a part-time job at the nearby mall.
She was a hard worker, no doubt, but she was also the mother of two children. Thus, Gail made it a point to try to impart her own experiences of child-raising on her young cousin. Gail had raised three kids by herself and had successfully run several careers and businesses. If she set her mind to something, she did it. Not bad for a skinny little girl from Somerville, Massachusetts, who some had once said would never amount to anything.
“Here to share some more wisdom, Cousin Gail?” Javell asked.
“No,” Gwen shot back. “She’s here for some girl talk with me, but you can stay if you like. You still might learn something.”
“Oh, come on, I was just kidding,” Javell shot back. “But, seriously. Gail is the most grounded person I know.”
The sound of a throat clearing in a sarcastic manner made heads turn in time to see Gregory walk in.
“What was that for?” Javell asked.
“Don’t pay him any mind,” Gail remarked. “What’s going on with you?”
“Same old, same old,” Javell answered, with a sigh. “It was a quiet day at the store. Oh, that reminds me. I was talking to one of my girlfriends and she said she potty-trained her youngest by putting a box of candy on the back of the toilet.”
“How does a quiet day at the store segue to potty training?” Gregory asked. “Did things go down the drain or something?”
Javell smirked and ignored him. “It’s just a conversation from this morning,” Javell said with a smirk. “Anyway, when he did it right, he got a piece of candy.”
“I didn’t do that with the twins,” Gail commented. “I just put them on the toilet and that was that.”
“I know a woman who had a son who would just sit on the toilet for an hour and not do anything,” Gwen added.
“An hour?” Gregory remarked. “Did he have the sports section?”
Gail playfully slapped at his arm. “You’re so smart.”
“Shouldn’t you be out walking Hera?” Gwen noted.
“It’s raining outside,” Gregory said. “Besides, she needs a Sunday off from flirting with those French poodles.”
Gail gave her son a questioning look. He sighed and then explained about the walking path that ran to the left of Herbert’s house. There was a large yard that housed no less than five giant poodles.
“Every time I come by with Hera, they rush up to the fence and bark at her in French,” he added.
“Hold on a second,” Javell interrupted, with a curious side glance. “Barking at her in French? What does French barking sound like?”
“Well, it’s like ‘comment allez woof.’”
Gwen dropped her spatula on the counter as a fit of guilty laughter broke out in the kitchen. The joke was so stupid that one couldn’t help but laugh. Even Hera was at the kitchen door, wagging her tail, wondering what the hubbub was about.
“Oh, my God,” Javell blurted. “I have to give it you this time, Greg. That was funny.”
“Your son and his sense of humor,” Gwen said, shaking her head and wiping tears from her eyes. “He must get it from you, Gail.”
Gail shook her head vehemently. “Not from me. And definitely not from his father’s side of the family. I think some of those aliens that Gregory always writes about zapped him and his brothers when they were kids.”
“Oh, ha-ha,” Gregory snorted, his arms crossed in mock anger. “This woman is in a severe case of denial. She always says she doesn’t know where we get our humor from, but she knows. Just ask her about summer camp.”
Javell turned around, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. “What about summer camp, Gail?”
Gail blushed but tried to brush the matter aside. Javell wouldn’t relent, though, and Gail had to give in. With a knowing glance at Gregory that said she’d get back at him later, she acknowledged his words.
“Well, yeah, I guess what my son said is true,” she admitted, looking a little embarrassed. “I had my, eh, experiences at camp.”
Javell was shocked, as if to imply how the woman who was so organized and grounded could have ever been a troublemaker. Even Gwen sported the look. Gregory, of course, now stood with a look of smugness on his face, as if he’d won some imaginary prize.
“Okay, if you’re going to tell us that you used to get into trouble at camp, Gail, I’m going to have to press the issue,” Gwen interjected.
There was more to it than that, of course. Gregory mentioned that he was going to write a book on his mother’s summer camp exploits and adventures. When Gwen heard that, she turned off the stove and took the pan of beef off the burner.
“Oh, this I have got to hear,” she remarked. “I can’t wait for the book. Sorry, Greg.”
“It’s getting late,” Gail retorted. “Maybe another time.”
“That’s okay,” Gregory interjected. “I’m driving and we’ve got the gate opener in the car. I think we’ve got time for a story or two.”
Gail looked at her son with a mix of a frown and a smirk. One of these days, she’d do more than slap him upside his head. Then again, she’d often found it fun to tell him of her childhood. And hadn’t the guest preacher in church this very Sunday said to hold on to friends and memories?
“Okay, I guess one story won’t hurt,” she said, with a sigh. “My first day at camp was very memorable, now that I think about it. But, I’ll let my son tell it. He’s the one who had his own radio shows.”
“It was the Internet actually, but that’s a story for another time,” Gregory corrected. “Okay all. Gather round for the story of a lifetime.”
“Wait a second, Greg,” Gwen interrupted. “Herbert? Is that game finished?”
Herbert appeared in the doorway. Yes, the game was over. Gwen told him to take a seat at the kitchen table to listen to his cousin’s camp adventures.
“Okay, now all we need is a roaring campfire and some marshmallows,” Gregory quipped. “Are we ready? Well, it all began a long, eh, I mean, a short time ago, but in a land far, far away.”
Birds chirped their morning songs, as they had done every morning across the brilliant green landscape on the outskirts of Brockton, Massachusetts. The gentle breeze barely disturbed the heavy branches of the nearby spruce. All was right in the world.
Then, reality horned it way in. The birds stopped singing, listened for a few seconds and then took flight. The cause became evident soon enough, as the droning sound of automobile engines cut across the magnificent morning.
It was a convoy of vehicles. Five school buses, with a Nash Suburban leading the way and two more behind the last bus. The convoy continued down the lone road on the landscaped hill and into a copse of spruces on either side.
Emerging from the shade, the convoy slowed and turned left, down a long unpaved road, the wheels kicking up clouds of dust. Any animal foolish enough not to have fled before at the noise of the convoy turned tail and scrambled deeper into the woods to escape the threatening clouds of dust.
At long last, the destination appeared. Two figures opened double gates and the convoy passed through. When the last Nash Suburban had gone in, two girls, each clad in a clean white blouse and dark plaid skirt, closed the gates.
The buses stopped before three large wooden buildings on their right. To the left was a lone building, one-story high. The front door of that building opened and a severe-looking woman wearing a pine green business suit and white blouse came outside onto the porch. She looked the buses over with bespectacled eyes.
Out of nowhere appeared a small group of young women, all of whom appeared to be in their twenties, almost all the same height and weight. None smiled; they were all business. Wearing the same uniform as the young women at the gate, they spread out in the middle of the camp. The five oldest each went to a bus, pushed the door open and ordered the occupants off.
It was like someone had kicked open an ant mound. Little girls of all ages between seven and thirteen walked off, hefting green duffel bags over a shoulder. They took in the sight of the camp in which they found themselves. Very few words were spoken aloud though there were plenty of whispers.
One of the girls was a skinny, but spry girl named Gail. Her hair pulled back into tiny pig tails, she wore a drab green tee-shirt and tan cargo shorts. On her feet, she had her usual Converse sneakers. The truth was that she always wore sneakers, the better to be a tomboy. Also, she didn’t have any other shoes, save for a pair of sandals.
She stepped off the third bus in line and did a complete turn to see what she was facing. The camp was much better than she thought it would be. The young adult women looked formidable and the severe woman on the other side of the road didn’t look like the type who would tolerate disobedience and mischief.
In fact, the woman, who looked to be older than Gail’s mother, stood upon a stoop in front of a door with the word “Camp Director” above it. She wore not even the vestige of a smile, her hair pulled back into a severe salt-and-pepper bun, so much so that it seemed to Gail that it was pulling tight the skin on her face. Maybe that was why she didn’t smile. And the stern woman’s eyes, black as coal, behind round-rimmed glasses, burrowed deep into Gail’s soul to the point that she shivered.
Gail looked away and pointed her gaze into the trees that surrounded the camp. Each corner of the camp that she could see was dominated by tall evergreens, darker than pine, probably spruce or Douglas fir, like her family’s Christmas trees. About twenty feet up in each tree, there was a wooden platform, with three sides barred in by wooden railings. She spied movement and, squinting, realized there were more young adult women in those tree stands, watching the activities below.
“Looks like they’ve pulled out all the stops.”
Gail turned and saw a dark-skinned girl next to her. The girl was Angela, whom she’d met on the bus when she’d boarded it in Boston hours earlier. Angela was nine years old, a year older than Gail. She was also heavier but carried it well.
Angela smacked a wad of gum in her mouth. She’d been annoying everyone on her bus with the sound but she didn’t care. Gail thought maybe the girl enjoyed getting under people’s skin. She tried to blow a bubble, but it failed, so she tried again, blowing much harder. She ended up blowing the wad completely out of her mouth and into the dirt next to the bus. Without missing a beat, she dug another piece of gum out of one of the pockets of her shorts, peeled off the wrapper and popped it into her mouth.
“Okay, so when I asked if you had another piece of gum, you forgot about that piece?” Gail asked, perturbed.
Angela shook her head. “I have a certain allotment of gum per day. Only when I have more pieces than that allotment do I have anything to share.”
Gail frowned at the explanation. She didn’t even know what “allotment” meant. She just rolled her eyes and changed the subject.
“Yes, it does seem like they’ve pulled out all the stops,” she said. “Putting all of their bad eggs in one basket.”
“Well, yeah, we are from the inner city,” Angela commented. “Most of us have wreaked havoc at other summer camps. The rest probably just have bad reputations at home. I guess we’re not supposed to be tomboys or something. I think they’re going to try to stop that this time around.”
Gail pointed out the tree stands. Angela had missed them in her assessment. Gail also pointed down the road to a small body of water, two playing fields and a large expanse of woods. The road continued out of sight to the right and Gail had no idea what lay at the end of that road.
“It would sure be nice to know where that road went,” Angela said.
“All I want to know is what’s beyond those woods,” Gail countered.
Angela reminded Gail about the tree stands. She reasoned there had to be similar stands in the woods, to keep an eye on the water and playing fields. They’d be a tough nut to crack if Gail was going to get into the woods without being seen.
“There’s gotta’ be a weak spot in their security,” Gail said. “Let’s give it a go, eh?”
“Give it a go?” Angela asked. “That’s hardly text book. What? I heard my cousin, Eleanor, use it the other day.”
“Whatever, Professor,” Gail mocked. “What say we test out our new task masters?”
Angela nodded and snagged two girls passing by. She quickly explained Gail’s idea. The girls were eager to go along. One even winked at a few more girls, who winked back, the decision to test the camp’s security agreed without a word or distinct movement to alert the camp counselors, who supervised the campers from the middle of the road.
“What do you want to do?” one girl asked the other. “An argument?”
The other girl shook her head. “No, make it knuckles.”
“Yeah,” Gail agreed. “No one can resist a girl fight.”
Angela waded into the middle of the trio. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!”
Angela started to say something else only to stop so she could remove the gum from her mouth. Then, she looked right at Gail.
Gregory stared at Herbert in surprise at the interruption.
“I said ‘what’ as in goodness gracious, Gregory, what in the world was that,” Herbert said, looking perplexed.
“Oh, eh, I might have embellished it a little bit,” a sheepish Gregory tried to explain.
“A little bit?” Gail blurted. “You ripped off a movie that hadn’t even been made when I was at camp.”
Gregory shrugged. “Hey, what can I say? It’s called being creative.”
“No, it’s called being Gregory Marshall Smith, that’s what it’s called,” Gwen interjected. “You’re turning your mother into a female Lassiter Shane. Gail, you’d better tell the story before he has you leading a mass escape.”
Gail could only shake her head in amazement at her son’s wild story, especially since it practically copied the opening scene from The Great Escape. She’d have to make it her mission now to find out where his head had gone so wrong. For now, though, she had a story – a real story – to tell. So, she got up off her stool, stretched and then returned to sitting.
“Okay, sit back and listen to the real story of Camp Whispering Pines,” Gail began, casting a wary eye at her son. “It was the first time I’d ever gone away for the summer. No pun intended, but let’s just say I was not a happy camper.”
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