by Gabrielle Griffis
WE ARRIVED AT the mountains in the dark. We unloaded from the church van. There were fifteen bunk beds in the cabin. I fell right asleep.
In the morning we saw everything we hadn’t seen in the dark. The mountains were lush and green. Pink laurel bushes were blooming. We walked across the camp to the dining hall.
Our parents couldn’t afford the youth trip, but our spots were paid for by some charitable parishioners.
‘Maybe they know we need it,’ my sister laughed. She had a Radiohead album in her discman and carried a sketchbook. Lately she’d taken to drawing vampires.
I was reading a comic book about a preacher possessed by a demon.
The thing about Jesus Camp was not that we really wanted to go. We just had nowhere else to go.
The dining hall had high wood ceilings, a mounted deer head, a whirring fan. I hated how loud the room was. Kids from across the state had come to kick off the summer with Jesus. Some of the camp leaders led us in prayer, something about having a holy summer, full of scripture, and getting closer to God. Flies flew around the room.
I was glad we would only be there a few days. My sister and I never went to camp like other kids, or on vacation for that matter.
Being in a new environment was surreal. All I could focus on was how hungry and overstimulated I felt.
My sister and I got in line for breakfast, toast, bacon, questionable looking eggs. She was vegan. I had a bagel with cream cheese. My sister had a granola bar, a clementine, some juice. The girls in our youth group talked about the novel The Notebook.
I had nothing to contribute, so I sipped my water, and listened. Jack gave my sister the evil eye from across the table. I think he loved her, based on the way he glared at her at youth group and church. He also knew we were heathens, and mumbled as much when he brought up his breakfast tray.
After breakfast we went to the chapel. The resident praise and worship band was playing. Lots of tambourine and acoustic guitar. Everyone got really into it, hands in the air, eyes closed. I don’t know why I never believed like everyone else, or at least, I don’t know why I was me and they were them. I could have just as easily been them, but I wasn’t.
I didn’t have the words to describe what I was or what I was experiencing.
The preacher said a prayer and gave a short sermon about summer, about water and baptism, swimming, being washed clean. Everyone got green t-shirts with a quote from Psalms: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
The thing about being a heathen at vacation Bible camp is that you feel like a fraud. I guess because you are a fraud, but I didn’t want anyone to know that. My sister didn’t care, but I still wanted people to like me.
After morning chapel, we had some free time before lunch for camp activities. I wanted to get as far away from everything as I could, so I wandered into the woods to see what was blooming: rhododendrons, bunchberry, blue-bead lily. Birds hopped on branches overhead.
I daydreamed about meeting a boy who was as agnostic as I was. In my head, he was also interested in flowers. We’d bond over our mutual love of oak trees and instantly understand each other. We’d connect on a transcendental level, finding meaning in each other. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in something, I just didn’t believe in whatever was being worshiped back there.
Then I heard footsteps and saw my sister walking up the path.
‘I thought you were drawing,’ I said.
‘I was. That creeper Jack is following me,’ she replied. ‘Come on.’
I looked back up the path.
‘I don’t see anyone,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I told him I had to use the bathroom,’ she said.
We trudged up the hill, navigating rocks and roots. We walked some of the way in silence. My sister wasn’t always the talkative type. I followed, watching her orange ponytail, until we got sufficiently high enough we could see the camp, the lake, the treetops.
My sister broke the silence.
‘I’m glad we’re up here,’ she said, looking down at the chapel, reaching for my hand. All we could hear was the wind through the trees, birds, distant insects. Somewhere a squirrel was rustling through the leaves.
‘I am too,’ I said.
Gabrielle Griffis is a musician, writer and multimedia artist. She works as a librarian. Her fiction has been published in Wigleaf, Split Lip, Matchbook, Monkeybicycle, CHEAP POP, XRAY, Okay Donkey and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Microfiction 2022 and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize.