They say you’re supposed to piss yourself if someone dips your hand in warm water while you sleep. I was never totally sure who they were exactly—scientists, probably, yet the instructional charts and graphs they could have provided must have eluded the other boys in my tent that night. I woke up to find my hand cramped in a plastic cup of water. Lifting myself onto my elbow, I looked around the dark canvas walls of the room from my sleeping bag. The boys watched me from their places, lined up in cots across the concrete slab where we slept, olive green tent flaps folded back to reveal the sparse woods in which the camp had placed us. I pulled my hand out of the cup.
“Whoa-hoaaaa man,” said a boy on his hands and knees on the floor, as he steadied the cup of water a foot below me, “He was totally about to pee.” His name was Hunter Sharp, a rat-toothed runt of a person from Grand Prairie, Texas. His dull face sloped like the back of a spoon. The sunburned skin below his eyes matched the stiff thatch of hair on his head, and when his face finished peeling the burns would be replaced by abstract splatters of freckles.
The rest of the boys were perfectly still in their beds. With the lights out, they looked as though they might have only been a backdrop painting of camping children, prop dummies brought in for the evening, frozen in place, squinting confusedly. I wondered if they, too, had just been pulled out of sleep by this experiment.
The same fourteen years that each boy in the tent had lived seemed to have been far more generous to Jason Davies. He had a deep-set tan and prismatic, perpetually windblown blond hair that whitened naturally at the ends, matching the down that covered his shins and forearms. His teeth were spaced perfectly like piano keys, and his knobby wrists must have been engineered by god for the sole purpose of displaying an impossible abundance of friendship bracelets. Jason Davies, light of my life, bane of my existence. Equal part middle school archetype—a reminder that things in life can be effortlessly beautiful—and equal part funhouse mirror, into which I might stare miserably, comparing my own form. The living reminder that I was a flesh-covered bean bag, a gigantic sunburned California raisin.
By the age of fourteen, I had grown to the size of a child who, when introduced to parents of friends, was often asked if I had any interest in football. The question was always posed, not because I appeared especially athletic, but rather because I looked difficult to knock down. You’re a real linebacker in the making was an easily translatable code for Oh my, aren’t you a fat little boy.
From across the tent, Jason Davies, who actually was on a football team—Jason Davies, with his perfect shins and knees and elbows—cleat-owning, shoulder pad-wearing Jason Davies—stared at me and my dripping wet hand, clearing his throat before rolling over and closing his eyes on all of us without saying a word.
Our counselor continued his uninterrupted sleep beneath the batik canopy he had strung up on bamboo fishing poles at the beginning of summer. Using his sleeping bag as a cushion, he slept above the covers in tan linen pants tied with a drawstring. In daylight, he wore only a bright red lifeguard’s bathing suit, a camouflage bucket hat, and iridescent, severely angular sunglasses that suggested he might be the type of person who would crash your aunt’s Sea-Doo and lie about it. He smelled like Coppertone and burning rosemary and greeted us exclusively with a lazily shaken “hang loose” gesture. He insisted we call him Jellyfish.
“Get back in your bed,” I threatened Hunter, “or I’m gonna tell Jellyfish.” Hunter got up and looked around cautiously at the others, finding they had stopped paying attention. Once he was safely back in his cot, he leaned towards me and whispered.
“I’d like to see you try, fatass. I’ll get it to work tomorrow night. You better believe, you’re gonna piss.”
Morning air pulsed through the open windows of the bus and dried the dampened temples of a dozen sweating children as we rattled down the gravel road toward the lake. I tucked my knees into the back of the green vinyl bench seat in front of me, letting air pass under my thighs as Hunter and Jason sat beside each other, shared turns playing music on battery-powered computer speakers attached to a yellow Discman. I sat beside Ashley, across the aisle from them. She was a girl I knew from afternoons spent in the craft barn, where we’d sewed leather wallets, weaved delicate knots into chevrons with embroidery thread, and carefully trimmed the silken cords with etched pairs of scissors shaped like palm-sized silver herons.
She carried the clean scent of chlorine bleach in the folds of her clothes like perfume. Every spare inch of her pocket-less, thin cotton shorts were filled by her legs as though they had been sewn for her body specifically. When she rolled her sleeves, tying them up with ribbons decorated in stripes and polka dots, she exposed the white bands of skin above her elbows normally covered by a soccer jersey. She exuded a natural athletic prowess and strength that teen boys had yet to grow afraid of.
Halfway to the lake, Ashley’s attention turned toward Jason. She lowered the metal headband of her earphones to a spot behind her neck and shifted the weight of her left leg out, straightening it into the aisle of the bus in his direction. Hunter watched Jason turn away from him, and in an instant, he was standing on the ribbed rubber walkway that lined the aisle between Jason and Ashley, demanding they watch and listen, reaching out to take my CD player from me.
“What are you listening to, Alex?” he asked as he opened the lid and removed the marker-covered disc inside. He held in his hands what I had aptly labeled Awesome Mix, Vol. 4, not quite as awesome as volumes 1 through 3, but considerably better than volume 5. I had decorated it with safari-themed stickers shoplifted from a Hobby Lobby down the road from my house. “Let’s listen to it on the speakers.”
“Hey, wait,” I said, reaching for the disc, still jarred from the abrupt stop of music. I ran through the playlist in my head, then panicked as I remembered the first track. “No, give it back.”
“Come on,” Hunter said, mimicking my nasal whine as he clipped the CD into his Discman, “let us listen to your awesome mix.”
Silence fell upon our fraction of the bus as we waited for the music to begin. Hunter held the speakers at ear level as though waiting for a punchline. The music started with the bass-heavy pounding keys of a piano; then the jazzy flourish of horns and the mechanical beat of a ticking electric typewriter, the ring of a bell; and finally, the blackstrap molasses-coated chipmunk voice of Dolly Parton.
“No, no, no,” I thought, “please not this song, any song but 9 to 5.” I pleaded for the CD. I wanted to knock the speakers from his hands, rip the cords from their jacks, split the speaker wire and strangle Hunter with it. I leaned out of my seat, arms swaying outward in a desperate final bid to stop the song, but it was too late, the chorus had begun.
“Nooo-oo-o-o!” I screamed as the bus vibrated my insides, my voice shaking in rhythm with the benches below us. Hunter cackled as he triumphantly held out the speakers, unfathomable pleasure in my protest, victory in my embarrassment. He must have felt so purely satisfied watching me sink deeper into my seat away from them. He squealed in glee and hollered over the chorus.
“What kind of sissy music is this?!”
Jason Davies canted his head and gazed into the mesh speaker cover as though it alone possessed the voice singing to us, then peered into my horrified face.
“He doesn’t want you to play it,” Ashley said, signaling for Jason to end my torment and take the CD from Hunter. He stared at Ashley as he unplugged the speakers and handed the mix back to me, the good guy, the sensitive hero, the sissy sympathizer. Their knees stretched out farther into the aisle of the bus, colliding occasionally with a thump of rocks splitting beneath the tires or a frantic last-minute turn onto a dirt road, providing the two with endless opportunities to blush and apologize. The hero and the starlet, a weeklong love story. Hunter’s smugness deflated as he saw the pretty girl’s disapproving face mirrored by that of our golden boy Jason Davies.
“Come on,” Hunter said, “I was just kidding. Me and Alex are friends; right, Alex?”
With the spotlight now fixed on me as Ashley’s charity project, I recognized my new place of power, narrowing my eyes at Hunter’s miniature pinscher face. I leaned forward, speaking loudly enough for the surrounding rows of the bus to hear me. “He used up all the film in my disposable camera with pictures of the ground while I was swimming!” A gasp hushed the bus as we pulled up to the lake.
A two-story dock floated at the end of a rotting wood walkway leading away from the shore. A line of children marched slowly along the bridge towards a skeletal ladder that would lead them to the second story where they would leap blindly into the murk of Texas ground water. I bobbed along within the roped-off swimming area, scanning the other floating heads for a face I knew. Ashley and her friends, the crew from the girls’ tent, sat closely in a row, towels below them, their burnt pink legs dangling in the water like a regiment of flamingos, T-shirts for pillows. I marveled at the way the girls in her tent got along so easily. It seemed as though they had known each other long before their parents had shipped them away across the dry grass and church-lined highways of Texas. They laughed in unison at their Kool-Aid blue lipstick lips and sandy tiger-stripe sandal tans, as though they had auditioned and won their parts in the camp, born for their roles.
A heavy wave of water filled my mouth and ears, and I felt the weight of a body sink me below the lake’s surface. I gulped, coughed, and spit mouthfuls of the children’s wake as two hands grasped my shoulders and pushed me deep toward the muddy lake bed. The water tasted like iron or copper, a mouth full of pennies. I struggled back to the surface, using the boy’s body as a ladder. When at last I found air, I heard Hunter’s cackle greet me. Flecks of water sprayed his as I wheezed and thrashed in front of him. Floating face to face for a moment, I briefly considered my weight advantage. How easily I could hold him underwater, feel him fight below me, feel his panic as he clawed at my arms and fought to keep his mouth and lungs closed. I wouldn’t have to drown him, I could just scare him enough to make him cry. I’d get everyone else’s attention after the fact, all the campers pointing and laughing as Hunter blubbered in the dirt and wiped his snotty face with his sun-bleached beach towel.
The chirp of a whistle called us all to shore, where we stood dripping in little mud patches, barefoot, foggy goggles draped around our necks. Someone had dragged an orange Igloo barrel from the rear hatch of the bus onto a long wooden picnic table, where Styrofoam plates held gummy white bread sandwiches filled with sour mustard and square ham. I wrapped my towel around my middle, hunched forward, and ate, concealing the sag of my stomach over the taut waistband of my bathing suit. I hid behind the coconut-scented team of girls from Ashley’s tent, distancing myself from Hunter’s gaze and his attempts to put himself in mine, crudely revealing the yellow clumps of mustard-soaked bread caught in the spaces between his teeth.
We rode back to camp at dusk and showered off the green lake water, leaving our bathing suits hanging like signal flags along a clothesline strung between two awkwardly sprawling mesquite trees. Jellyfish ushered us from the rickety wooden shower stalls back to our tent, where he had rearranged our cots so that the heads of each bed met two more at their corners, forming a large asterisk in the center of the concrete platform.
“I want to show you all something I learned from a yoga teacher last summer in Cancun,” he said. “She actually saw the Dalai Lama once when he was in Houston. Everyone sit like this.” He sat firmly in the center of his cot with his legs crossed, palms resting over the curves of his calves. In that posture, Jellyfish looked uncomfortable, his back arched, his elbows pulled inward, his chest bent before his navel. As he quietly waited for us, he seemed bridled to an invisible post, like the horses that the counselors let us ride along the hay-soft trails between stables. We sat on top of our sleeping bags, surrounding a citronella candle that Jellyfish lit and set in the center of our five colliding beds. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with the air inside our tent, the scent of puberty and burning mosquito repellent, and then exhaled through his mouth.
Jason Davies was the first to follow suit, shutting his eyes tight as though waiting anxiously for someone to tell him to open them back up to reveal a surprise. His chest expanded and sunk as he breathed deeply. Hunter went next, mimicking Jason mimicking Jellyfish. The time we spent breathing was endless. I took the breaths and pushed the air, making the same sounds as the other boys, but I left my eyes open, watching the chests rise and fall on their cots. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the candle, Jellyfish told us to imagine a river running slowly over a stone bed, to be pulled along like silt in the current.
“Imagine the leaves in the trees above you, the wind in the branches,” he said, impersonating the yoga instructor. “Be one with the leaves, be one with the river, be everything, and be nothing.”
He told us to visualize a goal, to clear our minds and think only of one thing, one beautiful moment in life we had yet to accomplish, to pick a spot on our perceived horizons and imagine it approaching rapidly, coming into view and transforming into a reality.
“Right now,” I thought, inhaling the lemony-floral smoke of the candle, a formless thought taking shape and becoming lifelike, “right now, I could punch that stupid motherfucker right in his ugly fucking face.” I exhaled.
Jason nodded with his eyes still shut, agreeing profusely with whatever image he had conjured up. What were the goals of a boy like Jason Davies? What could he possibly have left to accomplish? I struggled to think there might be more to imagine than cheering football fans, screaming as they carried him through a football stadium, or perhaps a ribboned set of keys to a newer version of a dirt bike he already owned.
“When I count down from ten, we will all be very relaxed,” Jellyfish whispered, “and then we will lie down for bed. I want your last thoughts of the night, before you fall asleep, to be of whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. Visualize it, and make it happen.”
We lay there for the rest of the night like a five headed star, a creature with ten arms and ten legs, painfully unsure, yet growing a little more each day, bones aching, wishing silently to ourselves for something better.
The smooth strokes of the blades barely made a sound as I reached over and trimmed the pointed crimson hair from the ridge of Hunter’s sleeping eye socket. A 14-year-old’s virgin eyebrows cut perfectly like warm silk. He lay perfectly still while I worked, clipping across his face, watching as the hair settled on his cheeks like flocking powder. I held the blunt pads of my fingers to the tips of the blades like stoppers to avoid pricking him.
The next morning, I was the first to wake up, followed shortly by Jellyfish. Then the recorded song of a trumpet projected from a bullhorn, stirring through the trees and waking the rest of the boys and girls in their usual tents, in their usual spots, in their usual states. Except for Hunter Sharp, who woke up to hundreds of shimmering red splinters of hair stabbing him in the eyelids, sticking to the sweat on his cheeks and the drool on his chin.
“What going on?” He asked groggily, rubbing his face and looking at the sharp hairs on his fingertips. The portion of his left eyebrow that still grew from his face formed a small period above his eye. There remained a few stray hairs, but nothing substantial enough to give the illusion of a full brow. His surprised expression, altered by its new absence, made a tiny horizontal question mark across the top of his face.
As we went to take our turns in the shower stalls, the counselors lined us up to question us. Jellyfish pressed a stern face down upon us, fighting a smirk with every new line of interrogation. Who had removed the majority of Hunter’s eyebrow while he slept? Who had access to a razor? Jellyfish himself was the only person in our tent who shaved, and even then, surely the electric buzz would have drawn our attention. Wouldn’t he have felt his face vibrating as the silver device hummed across it?
“I saw a thing on TV,” I offered, “that said a cockroach can eat an entire eyebrow off your face in one night if you don’t move while you sleep. If it’s hungry, I mean.”
Jellyfish considered the possibility, then waved me off, laughing. “I know it wasn’t you,” he said. “It was probably one of the girls in the other tent, using one of their leg or armpit razors.” He stood and held his electric razor out to Hunter. “Well, I guess this means someone over in the next bunk has a crush on you. You might want to try and even it out.”
He looked vaguely extraterrestrial at assembly later that morning. A visitor from another planet who raised his eyebrows so high in suspicion of his fellow campers that they sprouted wings and flew away. We were given a final 15 minutes to wander the camp general store, buying any supplies we might need for our long journeys home, back to our different cities and suburbs across Texas. Single servings of chips; traffic-cone-orange crackers smeared with powdery crumbling pads of peanut butter; autograph books and cologne samples; sewing kits and stuffed zoo animals in different miniature camp sweatshirts. I replaced the disposable camera that Hunter had used up, and spent the rest of my money on new spools of embroidery thread to practice the knots that Ashley had taught me in the window-unit-dampened afternoons I spent in the safety net of the craft barn.
Away from the grimy lake water in my sinuses and the fire ants at my ankles, I watched rain run in veins down the bus windows as we waited on our cold rides back to our parents. Soon, we would all separate into groups heading to Dallas or Houston. Ashley and Jason exchanged pages of bubble-lettered rainbow notes and phone numbers before a final goodbye worthy of the two hours of weeping she did alone at the back of our homebound bus.
I dragged my suitcase up the steps of our charter and scanned the dwindling population of campers that remained in clumps scattered across the lawn. I watched as Jellyfish talked over the back of Hunter’s head to an older strawberry-haired woman who held his duffle bag in her arms. Unable to make out Hunter’s expression, I instead pictured the way he’d looked just an hour before, his mouth stained with single-serve Neapolitan ice cream, as we sat in the grass eating. He tilted and scraped the inside of his miniature Blue Bell carton with a plastic spoon and licked the melted pink and brown foam streaming down his arm.
“I hope I get to do this again next year,” he said, the remaining traces of his eyebrows stared back at me like the hidden eye holes cut into a latex Halloween mask. For a moment, I found myself wanting to sorry for him, imagining him as though there might be a face behind the one he wore, something less ghastly. “Do you think you’ll come back?”
For people like Jason and Ashley, camp was a place to be exaggerated versions of the people they always had been. Camp was a dress rehearsal for the school year, the lives they had in other places. For me, it felt like an audition. I could have pretended to be anyone I wanted, trying voices on for size, seeing how they fit. I considered the possibility that in those seven days I might have been any number of things. I might have been a victim, or a villain, a star, a many-limbed beast, I might have been everything, I might have been nothing.
I like to think my final portrayal had a certain nuanced cruelty to it, an unexpected ending, the gnarled set of claws digging their way up from a pile of rubble to grab you at the last minute. As the bus rolled along the wet road towards home, spanning the rain-pounded haze of the river below us, I smiled wide and took an imaginary bow. The big fat sissy, and his sharpened pair of embroidery scissors.
Alex Ebel is a writer living in Boston, where he is currently receiving his MFA at Emerson College. His work has previously been featured in Hobart, The Rumpus, Punchnel’s, and Hello Mr, among other publications. He can be found online @alexsebel