2022 Spring Fiction Contest Runner Up
We remember confirmation camp on summer mornings when the air smells like woodsmoke. At camp that year, every night ended with a campfire, and every morning started with solo prayer time. When the bells woke us at 7, we’d scatter into the pine trees looking for a spot where we could throw pebbles into the creek but wouldn’t be standing in poison ivy, where we could see the Rockies peeking above the treetops but still had plenty of shade. We were supposed to be quiet and admire God’s creation, but some of us took pictures for our MySpace accounts or doodled in the dirt or spied on the boys through the gaps in the tree trunks. For the most part though, we followed the rules. We wanted to be good. We were twelve and thirteen and fourteen, high on hormones and on being away from home for the first time.
After solo prayer time, our cabin, Lupine, reconvened at the base of the three big crosses by the camp store. From there, we went to our first daily activity. On Monday, we ran across swaying bridges in the ropes course. On Tuesday, we hiked to a glacier-fed lake. But on Wednesday, when we gathered at the base of the three crosses, chatting about what we were going to make in wood carving, our counselor couldn’t find Emmy.
At first it seemed like a joke. Emmy stood across from Cheryl, wearing a purple zip-up. When the counselor called her name, she waved, but the counselor frowned and repeated herself, looking right through Emmy.
“I’m here!” Emmy yelled.
The counselor frowned at us. “Stop messing around. Where’s Emmy?”
We repeated that Emmy was there, and the counselor rolled her eyes as if to say I wasn’t born yesterday. “If she’s lost, you need to tell me. No one’s going to get in trouble, I promise.”
“I’m not lost!” Emmy wailed, her face blotchy. All week she had bragged to us about how much her parents loved the birdhouse she had made in woodshop at school. She had smugly promised that she would show the rest of us how to sand a joint.
The counselor chewed on her cuticles. “Go back to the cabin and wait there.” It looked like wood carving wasn’t going to happen.
At our campfire the night before, after our counselor left to get marshmallow skewers, Emmy had leaned toward the eight of us, her cabinmates. Behind her, the mountains tore into the night sky, a jagged hemline. Wanna hear a secret? she asked.
Mikey was out in the woods with her before dinner, she said. They were both tired and sweaty from hiking, dirt streaked on their faces, their legs. He asked her if she had ever kissed a boy. She had, she said, once. Then Mikey grabbed her face and planted his mouth on hers. Emmy said he tasted like dirt, like the mushy apples we ate on the trail that day. His tongue pushed into her mouth, slippery and strong. He placed his hand on her chest and squeezed, which hurt a little. Even when she told us about it, she wasn’t sure whether she liked it.
We all knew that touching like that was against the rules. On the first day of camp, our counselor had called it “purpling” and said we weren’t supposed to do it.
“The boys’ cabins are off-limits,” she’d said. Her voice was loud and slow, like our teachers’ voices at school, even though she was only in college and was shorter than most of us. “We don’t want any purpling at camp.”
“What about pinking?” one of us joked. “Or bluing?”
The counselor ran a hand through her hair. She had a look on her face like, Shit, I didn’t think about that. “That’s also against the rules,” she said.
Around the fire, after Emmy finished her story, we stared at Krista from across the circle. Krista ignored us and stirred the fire with a stick until sparks flew up and smoke stung our eyes. Our mothers liked to say that Krista was “troubled.” She wore tight black clothes and thick eyeliner. She ditched school and cussed in church. We’d all heard the rumors—Krista was an experienced purpler.
Our counselor came back with marshmallows and skewers, and we forgot about Emmy’s purpling for a while. But after the fire died down and the rest of us went to bed, we saw Krista and Emmy walking to the bathrooms together, carrying their toothbrushes and talking about something that we were too far away to hear.
On Thursday morning, the day after we were supposed to have wood carving, our counselor said that she and some of the other adults were going out to look for Emmy. She wrung her hands, said that she was praying God would watch over her. No matter how much we tried to reassure her that Emmy was all right, she still seemed worried, a little dog in a thunderstorm.
A taller, frecklier counselor took us river rafting that day. At the river, she took attendance, handing each of us a life vest when she called our names. But when she called Bex and Iris, her eyes skipped right over them. We corrected her, pointing them out, but she just rubbed her eyes and told us to wait while she got one of the adults from our church. After she left, we looked at each other, starting to feel like, what is going on? Iris was pale, like she might puke. Bex rubbed her thumb along the top of Iris’s hand.
Soon, the counselor came back, leading one of our church chaperones, Barb. Barb’s short hair flopped all over the place as she speed-walked to us. She called for Bex and Iris, her voice working into a frenzy, a scream.
Iris buried her face in Bex’s shoulder. The rest of us looked down at the dirt, at our flip-flops and water socks that we thought we’d get to wear river rafting. Emmy was back at the cabin, or maybe out in the woods, unseen. And now the same thing was happening to Bex and Iris.
In the end, we didn’t get to go river rafting. The kids from other cabins did, but Barb and the tall counselor whispered with their heads down and then gathered us together to say that the bus would take us back to camp—before another one of us girls could disappear. We didn’t argue. They wouldn’t have believed us, anyway.
The meaner kids at church had always whispered things about Bex and Iris, even before camp. They called Bex “Bex the Butch” because she wore basketball shorts and baggy T-shirts. They joked about her liking Iris like that, said that Iris would go along with it because she wanted the attention. But when we got to camp, Bex and Iris became their own island. Iris saved a spot for Bex at dinner every night and bought her ice cream from the gift shop with the money her mother had sent her. When Iris skinned her knee during the low ropes course on Monday, Bex held ice on it and glared at anyone who laughed.
Tuesday night, Bex and Iris snuck off while we were singing “Prince of Peace.” Underneath the guitars strumming we heard twigs snapping and Bex and Iris giggling, and after the song they were gone.
When the adults finally noticed, we said they had gone to the bathroom. We didn’t know where they really went, but they were back in the cabin at lights out, Iris brushing her hair and humming, Bex flicking through the pages of her Bible from her own bed across the room.
Barb and the tall counselor took us back to our cabin at camp and told us to wait there, like they were afraid that we might evaporate. Once the cabin door closed, we sat sharing MP3 players and playing cards. We blasted Fall Out Boy or Black Eyed Peas (the versions with swear words), and Cheryl showed us how to make cootie catchers. It was nice to be able to breathe, to not have the counselors and the chaperones and the pastors hovering around us all the time.
Bex and Iris sat on Krista’s bunk at the back of the cabin. Iris waved her hands as she talked, and Bex nodded along with her. Cheryl was pretending she couldn’t see them, maybe because she thought that was what the adults wanted, like this was a test with some right answer. But her eyes kept darting over to the corner where Krista listened to Bex and Iris with one leg dangling off the bed. When Iris finished talking, Krista opened her mouth to say something. Then the door to the cabin jiggled, and we scrambled to put everything away, to make it look like we’d been following the rules the whole time.
The next day was Friday, and we were dragged out of bed at 4:30 for a sunrise service on the lawn. It was cold when we woke up, and the sky was dark, like we were waiting for the world to light candles.
A huge cross draped in purple cloth guarded the far end of the field. We shivered in the cold and complained about how hungry we were. Krista pulled her sleeping bag over her shoulders and scooted off to the side, putting space between her and the rest of us.
We’d all heard the rumors about the last time Krista was an acolyte. Confirmation students had to take turns being acolytes so that we could become good adults in the eyes of the church. We carried the crucifix and poured wine during communion and lit candles, and we wore white robes that hung in the church closet. There were three robes—Stained, Cold Ankles, and Drags on the Ground. On the day in question, Krista picked Cold Ankles. We saw her wearing it, watched her ankles flash by when she carried the cross up to the pulpit.
The story goes that after the service, when everyone had gone home, the pastor smelled smoke. He went to the closet and saw Cold Ankles smoldering. The pastor was alarmed, but he put out the fire. And the next week at confirmation class, he lectured us about respecting church property, about how expensive those ugly white robes were. He didn’t tell us that Krista was the last one with the candle lighter, but it didn’t matter. We already knew.
The first rays of sun crept over the horizon, tinting the sky red like communion wine. All of the counselors gathered at the foot of the cross to lead us in prayer, but first, they asked for a moment of silence for Bex and Iris and Emmy. All the adults closed their eyes and raised their palms toward the sky. “Please watch over our three girls,” the counselors prayed. “Please keep them safe and guide them back to us soon. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” We looked around at each other with raised eyebrows, wondering what it would take to get the adults to cut this out.
The sun was coming up. The pastor began the service, speaking of how being in nature makes us all closer to our Heavenly Father. It was, he said, the perfect time to reflect on how Jesus felt when He was alone on that hill in Golgotha, nailed up on that cross with nothing to eat and only vinegar from a sponge to drink. None of us can ever truly fathom how great His sacrifice was, and none of us will ever truly deserve His love. But it’s okay because He chose us. Because of Him, all us sinners have been granted eternal life.
After the sermon, we had fishsticks for breakfast, which we swirled in ketchup on paper plates. We would leave on Sunday. Only two more days. We did not want to end up like Bex and Iris and Emmy. All of us had broken the rules. Some of us talked during morning reflection, and some of us dropped trash into the bushes when we were hiking. Some of us had kept our phones with us all week even though we weren’t supposed to, had texted our parents early in the morning because a week is a long time to be away from home. But not all of us were worried.
“Bex and Iris and Emmy broke the really important rules,” Cheryl said as we dumped our paper plates into the trash. Whenever Bex or Iris or Emmy said something, she turned her head as if she couldn’t hear them. “The stuff we did isn’t that bad. It’s like, what’s worse, stealing a car or copying a homework assignment?”
The trail back to camp was steep and rugged, and we had to be careful not to slip and fall while carrying our sleeping bags. As we piled back in the cabin, Emmy looked up from her book and said, “Welcome back.” Bex and Iris crawled into their bunks. Some of us got our toiletries and headed for the showers. Others changed into shorts and T-shirts. We saw that Krista’s bunk was empty, her sleeping bag gone. We looked around, uneasy. Maybe she was playing a trick on us. Maybe she would be back soon, after she was sure we had enough time to worry. It was almost time for morning reflection, but that day we didn’t feel like splitting up, didn’t feel like being alone with God.
Our counselor came back from looking for Emmy and Bex and Iris. Her hair was frizzy and falling out of her ponytail. She had dark circles under her eyes. She must have been up all night, worrying. After all, she was the one who would have to explain to Emmy’s and Iris’s and Bex’s parents that their daughters were missing, because to her, they really were. None of us wanted to tell her that she was wrong, that Krista was the one who needed to be found.
Our counselor stretched her mouth into a thin little smile. “How are we all feeling this morning,” she asked in a fake-chipper voice.
We reflected her fake enthusiasm right back at her. “Super,” we said. “Great service. Really makes you think about, like, Jesus and stuff.”
“It was a great service, huh? Beautiful sunrise.” She looked around and frowned. “Where’s—”
“Krista’s still getting ready,” we said. “She’s doing her makeup in the bathroom. We told her to hurry up.”
She squinted like she didn’t believe us but looked down at her watch anyway. “You all better get going. See you back here at eight and we can talk about the activities we have planned for today.”
Out the door and into the woods we followed her. Our counselor peeled off at the bathrooms and veered to the right, down the trail to the mess hall. Once her footsteps faded, we huddled up. We needed to find Krista. Guilt snaked its way through our guts as we thought about all the times that we had whispered behind Krista’s back about her eye makeup or her possible pyromania.
We looked back over our shoulders to make sure our counselor was still gone, and then we trekked, single file, back up the hill to the field. We stepped over tree roots and rocks, hurrying as quietly as we could.
The field unfurled like a banner as we crested the hill. The big, wooden cross looked down over an empty lawn, no one to watch over. We peeked behind trees and combed aside grass, but there was no trace of Krista.
Then Cheryl shouted, surprised. Krista’s sleeping bag lay crumpled at the foot of an aspen tree. It was piled on top of itself, like the shed skin of a snake. She couldn’t be far. We leaned back and peered into the tree branches, shading our eyes with our hands, but we still couldn’t see her. We only had ten minutes of solo prayer time left. Defeated, we started back down the hill toward the cabin. At least we could say that we tried.
The last of us had barely turned her back on the field when we heard it. A rustle in the trees. A slithery, whispery kind of sound. The underbrush stirred, and then Krista stumbled into the field.
“Krista,” we said, “you’re okay!”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m fine. What are you guys doing here?”
“We came to look for you. We need to get back to the cabin.”
She braced herself on a tree trunk and stared hard at us. “I’m not coming.”
“Please? The counselors will be worried.”
“So let them worry. I’m sick of this place. Everyone here’s a bunch of lying assholes.”
We looked at each other, not sure whether we were included in “everyone.” “Come on,” we said instead. “Stop joking around. We’ll be late.”
Krista rolled up her sleeping bag and tucked it under her arm. “I told you, I’m not going. This place sucks. They’re just trying to scare us into being sheep.”
For a moment, we just stood there, not sure how to respond, not sure whether we believed her. Camp wasn’t so bad. The counselors and the chaperones told us stories and showed us how not to get blisters from our hiking boots and how to braid our hair. They played guitar for us and taught us the names of trees—lodgepole pine, aspen, cottonwood. Everyone said this was a place touched by God. Maybe, some of us thought, Krista is just jealous that she can’t see that. But before we could come up with something to say, she walked back into the trees, the branches swishing behind her.
We didn’t try to follow. Instead, we walked back down the trail, back to our cabin. When our counselor realized that Krista was missing, we said that we hadn’t seen her. Probably, we said, Bex and Iris and Emmy would be okay. Maybe the rescue efforts should focus on Krista.
We don’t remember much about the last two days of camp now, not after so many years. But we do remember the times when we looked over at Krista’s empty chair and wondered if she regretted missing craft day or if she craved the frito pie at the mess hall. We remember how the adults took turns searching the woods, calling for our four cabinmates. We remember how, when some of us said we wanted to look too, they told us that it was safest for us to stay put.
So we went to our solo prayer time and our daily rotations and our evening Bible study, and sometimes we worried about Krista. We imagined all the bad things that could have happened—maybe a tree had fallen on her or she had slipped and hit her head. Those thoughts made us feel sick. But Krista wanted to leave, and she was tough—tougher than any of us. At night, when we sang acoustic camp songs against the black velvet backdrop of the mountain night, we thought of her sleeping with a billion stars over her head and the dirt under her back, and in those moments, when we felt like we could reach out and touch the heavens, we believed that she would be okay.
Sunday morning came. Krista was still gone, and the counselors still couldn’t see Bex or Iris or Emmy. After breakfast, we loaded our sleeping bags and duffels and backpacks into the chaperone’s cars. As we were about to leave, Bex’s parents arrived with Iris’s mother. Bex’s parents came to church sometimes, but most of us had never seen Iris’s mother. Our counselor held Bex’s mother’s hand as she talked and steered all three parents back to our cabin to go pick up their daughters’ things. We heard later that the counselors had called Krista’s mother too, but she didn’t want to come, said it would be too painful.
By now we know what happened next. The way Bex tells it, she and Iris ran after their parents as they passed the three crosses. Bex’s string backpack jingled with each footstep, and her mom looked over her shoulder at the sound. She gasped and grabbed her husband’s shoulder, and Bex ran to the two of them. They embraced, the three of them rocking back and forth.
Iris’s mother turned to see what was going on and clapped her hand over her mouth at the sight of Iris. She threw one arm around Iris’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head. When she looked up at the counselor, her face was pinched, confused.
“You told us that our daughters were missing.”
“They were,” the counselor said. “They are. We’ve looked everywhere.” She sounded like a little kid, not the teacher she had seemed like when we first arrived. She looked from Bex’s parents to Iris’s mother and back again. Her eyes kept darting to the spot where Bex and Iris stood, her gaze focused on a spot just above their heads.
A different counselor escorted Emmy’s parents to the cabin. Emmy’s mother was a confirmation leader, and her father always volunteered to read Bible passages on Sunday. They were both tall and thin, and they kind of looked like each other if you squinted hard enough. Emmy jogged after them, throwing twigs and pebbles that bounced off their backs, but they kept walking without turning around. Emmy ran up next to her father and yelled as loud as she could. He swatted at the air like he was waving away a mosquito and kept walking. They disappeared behind a grove of aspen trees, and Emmy sank into a squat in the dirt and lowered her head onto her arms.
We were watching Emmy when Barb arrived to take the rest of us home. Even when she called out to us, we dawdled, thinking that maybe we should grab Emmy, that no one would notice if we tucked her under the seats. But Barb herded us toward the car, saying that we needed to get going so we could beat the Sunday traffic on I-70. None of us could get over to Emmy in time. None of us knew how we could convince Barb to bring back a child that she still couldn’t see. So we got into the car. As we pulled down the long, dirt drive, some of us clutched our pillows to our chests and drifted off to sleep. Some of us plugged into our MP3 players or pulled out books to read. And as the camp shrank through the back windshield, some of us looked back.
A lot has changed since then. Bex and Iris don’t go to church anymore, but we used to see them at school before we all graduated. Cheryl claimed that she saw Krista working at a movie theater in Arvada one summer, but it’s possible she imagined it. She and Emmy never came to church again. Neither did their parents. Sometimes we still look for them among the pews. We scan the bulletins to see if they are ushering or if they baked the bread for service. We think about what we might say if we see them again, but we can never find the right words.
We like to think that Krista and Emmy found each other in the end. Maybe they roamed the empty camp that fall, climbed trees, splashed through streams, fell asleep in the grass. One unseen season before they found a way back home. Or maybe they’re still out there. Maybe they will reappear someday, and the counselors will think that they are being haunted. Maybe the next time that we see them, we will no longer remember that week, or its rules, or who we were.
holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Evansville. She is originally from Colorado and currently lives in Los Angeles.