She figured it was some form of insidious homesickness, the kind people--her new colleagues, her grandma--warned her about. You know, the sudden nostalgia for your family dog; the intense cravings for home-cooked meals you’ve only seen in your family albums; how the muddy camp lake reminded you of grandma’s stories about the nasty black floodwater back at her city that you’ve never even been to; figures lurking at the corners of your vision; the two-fingered handprints only you can see on your cabin walls?
Whenever she did a headcount there were often extra bodies to account for.
For the first few days she couldn’t shake off the feeling of being watched in the campgrounds. At night she was sleepless, staring up at the aged wooden beams of the ceiling, trying her best to let her campers’ sleeping noises and the creaking and thumping of the cabin go inconsequentially through her, like she was a sieve instead of a sponge. She chalked the insomnia up to the nervousness of being the only newbie among the staff. Maybe she was a little too sensitive for her own good like her grandma told her (“Ellie, spirits don’t travel abroad.” But what about this place’s own hungry ghosts?).
In the dark, from the hallways, there was always a thumping sound going door to door.
The lakewater looked and felt all sorts of wrong like something had died in it, or pissed and shat in it. Ellie mostly mumbled this to herself as a half-joke and also half to hide her discomfort of getting into the canoe. She wasn’t as good a swimmer as her resume made her out to be. She thought of her grandma wading knee-deep into the floodwater with all the rat’s piss and rat’s corpses, how Ellie didn’t have to grow up living in a city so dense with people and pollution she would have to wear a mask to get through her day.
Jason, her fellow camp counselor, taking Ellie’s lighthearted tone as his due, “Shouldn’t you be used to it already? Didn’t your people travel in boats or something?” Ellie then made it a point to mispronounce his name back to her girls, whose laughter distracted her enough to ignore the murky waters churning beneath her.
Later during lights out it was her campers themselves who told Ellie of indeed something dying in the lake. They’ve heard it whispered over at the boys’ cabin, the urban legend about a string of violent murders that happened back when the camp used to be a posh private school, or maybe a church? Was it a hospital? Anyways--
“--he stabbed the students with a knife and cut them to pieces.”
“Threw the bodies into the lake!”
“Well, not without frying the cut-off parts first, it was all very Hannibal.”
“I’m never going into the water. Gross. You’re not going to force us, are you? ”
--anyways it all happened a long time ago.
Not much else to be done about it. When the noises started up again, she doubled up her sweater and went outside to check the small stretch of hallway separating their room with the others, from the admin office, the small media room.
There, kneeling on the poorly lit hallway floors, a girl older than her own gaggle of campers. She wore a unfamiliar uniform.
No, not with a knife, Ellie thought, the moonlight grazing half of the girl’s face where part of her skull had caved in, possibly bludgeoned by a heavy mallet-like thing on the side of her head until she died. Definitely, not a knife.
I’m so sorry, miss. The girl was wringing her hands, well what’s left of it, two intact fingers on her left, five stumps on her right. She was kneeling because she was missing a foot and couldn’t get up. Miss, I know it’s really late, but I’ve been looking for my friend and I’ve tried all the doors. And we just want to go home.
There was an overwhelming stench of rotten meat, of oil that had gone rancid. This hadn’t been covered in any of their staff trainings. But talk. Ellie could talk. If she could just breathe past the bile coming up her throat.
Ellie decided, once she really opened her eyes, faced that weird sort of homesickness for a place she couldn’t even name, taking everything in: her own campers and their new friends; Jason and Erica and Cole and girl-Sam and boy-Sammy shooting the shit during dinner; at the figures lurking at the edges of her vision; the girl with the caved-in head; the armless boy she met in the canoe shed asking her to tie his shoelaces for him--Weren’t they all just tourists like her, foreigners trying to find their place and make their way onto this world?
“Are you sure your friend was-” Dumped here , Ellie went without saying, opting to settle the paddle across her legs and keeping balance in her canoe. Caved-in girl barely weighed anything despite her complaints of being stuck in the cabin for the last 20 years, sitting with the stump of her foot hidden away from Ellie’s view. Nothing to be done about the aesthetics of her head. But the chilly night breeze blew the worst of the stench away and Ellie almost didn’t have to keep her poker face.
Yes, her bones are here. Well, she used to be here. The sheepish smile on the bloodied face looked a little weird, and the girl was wringing her hands again, all nervous. Almost shy? We were supposed to leave this place together. But the previous body didn’t take us both.
Her hold on her paddle was suddenly clammy. “Uh.”
I didn’t even expect that you’d even look a bit like her. Total coincidence. And now the stench was stronger, because the girl was reaching out both of her hands towards her. You understand why, right? Us not entirely alive, not entirely dead either, no place for us here. You of all people would understand, not belonging anywhere. We’ll just hitch a ride home.
This far into the lake no one would hear her scream. So she threw the paddle and entered the freezing muddled water. Prayed that the excellent water-related skills she lied about in her resume was perfectly adequate--grandma, grandma, please. Her lungs were burning. Black water trying to get into her nose and mouth and ears. There was a heavy, fingerless hand scrabbling at the back of her neck.