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BY Rena Olsen
“She wasn’t always the ghost of Camp Forever,” I said, keeping my voice low and eerie as I glanced around the circle, making eye contact with each of the mesmerized girls, using my flashlight as a spotlight in the otherwise dark cabin. “She once was a camper…just like YOU!”
“BOO!” A dark figure jumped against the window of the cabin and the girls screamed, scattering as far from the intruder as they could. Most ended up in my lap or as close to it as they could get. I shined my flashlight toward the window to reveal the face of a grinning Alex, senior counselor and the current object of most girls’ affection at camp this week. Every week, really. The girls started giggling, one at a time, until I was buried under a pile of hysterical fourth-graders.
“That was so scary,” said Jamie, one of the newest campers. “Is that story true?”
I wiggled out from under the heap and rose to turn on the lights. A tap on the door interrupted my answer. I opened it to find Alex, grin still in place, hands stuffed in his pockets.
“’Course it’s true,” he said, having heard the question through the thin walls of the cabin. “The first ghost was the camp director’s daughter the very first summer the camp was open.”
“Alex,” I said, warning in my voice. I’d only told the girls the stories of the swings moving on calm nights, of splashing sounds on a quiet lake, and unexplained lights turning on and off all over camp. They were a little too young for the PG-13 version of the camp ghost.
“What? You don’t think they’re old enough to hear?” Alex asked, teasing in his voice.
“We’re old enough,” Jamie said, puffing out her tiny chest, a blush painting her cheeks when Alex winked in response.
“See, Maddy?” he said, crouching down as the girls crowded in.
Resigned, I leaned against the wall, crossing my arms. Alex wasn’t the one who would have to deal with terrified girls in the middle of the night all week, but once he got going, there wasn’t much that could stop him.
“The legend says,” Alex whispered, “that the first camp director’s daughter was given the run of the camp when she lived here. She joined whatever groups she wanted to, went where she wanted, and basically made a nuisance of herself. She would leave the craft room a mess, sneak extra desserts from the kitchen, and take candy and ice cream from the canteen.”
“She sounds like a brat,” Marissa said, wrinkling her nose.
Alex laughed. “The other staff members agreed. They threatened to all quit unless the camp director put some rules in place for his daughter. And so he did, and he said he wouldn’t be there to save her if she broke the rules. She would have to deal with the consequences.”
The girls were all silent, probably imagining if they’d been at camp then. I could see which of them would have fallen on the side of the camp staff, and which were feeling a little bad for the naughty little girl.
“On the very first night of her new restrictions,” Alex continued, “the little girl snuck out of the director’s cabin, determined to go for a midnight swim. She had wanted to swim out to the island in the middle of the lake, but hadn’t been able to try before her dad put the new rules in place. Only, she didn’t realize how far it was. In the middle of the lake, she got very tired.”
“What happened?” Jamie whispered.
“She couldn’t stay afloat,” Alex said. “She started to sink under the surface of the lake, and screamed for help.”
The girls were tense, and a few had clasped hands, but they were super into the story. Alex had that effect on people. And he had perfected this story over the years since we had been campers and then junior counselors together. I wondered who would take up the ghost story mantle once we were gone. This was our final summer. I wasn’t sure I was ready for it to be over.
“Legend says that her dad heard her cries for help.” Alex’s voice interrupted my reverie. This was his favorite part. “But he only stood at the top of the hill and watched her struggle. After all, he had told her that breaking the rules has consequences.”
“What a mean dad!”
“My dad would never let me drown like that!”
The girls were indignant, and I hid a smile.
“And yet he did,” Alex said. “And the ghost of that little girl roamed the camp for years, watching for rule-breakers, waiting for her chance to set things right.”
“How would she set things right?” Another girl, Jill, spoke up for the first time since Alex had arrived. She played right into his hands.
“Every year, there’s a rule-breaker or two that comes to the camp.” Alex looked around the circle. “None of you, of course,” he said. The girls shook their heads vigorously. “The ghost looks for the girl breaking her very first rule on the night of a full moon. If she succeeds, the girl must take her place until she finds a rule-breaker of her own.”
“What happens to the ghost?” Jamie asked.
“She takes over the life of the girl who broke the rules,” Alex said casually. “In fact.” He looked around the huddle of girls. “She could be one of you right now.”
The girls eyed each other, their faces turning suspicious. That was quite enough.
“Okay, Alex, thank you,” I said, wading into the group of girls to pull him up by his arm. “We need to get ready for bed, so say goodnight to Alex, girls.”
The girls mumbled goodnights and headed for their bunks, still sending nervous glances at each other.
“Don’t break any rules, girls,” Alex said cheerfully as I shoved him toward the door.
A slight whimper from one of the bunks told me that it could be a long night in Cottonwood Cabin.
I opened the door, but before I could shove Alex out and close it behind him, he pulled me through with him, pulling the door shut.
“Alex,” I said, pushing against him. “What are you doing?”
“Breaking a few rules,” he said, smiling as his mouth came down on mine. I kissed him back for a minute, maybe two, but then pulled back.
“You are incorrigible,” I said, though there wasn’t much force to my words. I’d loved Alex Chambers since the first year we attended camp together, when we were both second-graders. It had taken years, but last summer we had finally gotten together. The current director knew, but had requested that we kept our relationship on the down low, and definitely away from the campers. He didn’t make it easy.
“Come down to the fire circle tonight,” he said. “We can have a cozy campfire and tell each other ghost stories.”
“No way! You just left eight terrified girls in my cabin. Just because you’re not in a cabin this week doesn’t mean I can leave mine.”
“I just made sure none of them will step foot out of bed until morning,” he said, cocky smirk on his lips. “They’ll be too scared of becoming the ghost.”
“Or they’ll all be in my bed. And they’ll notice if I’m gone.”
“Wait thirty minutes. They’ll be asleep. Then come down.” His eyes turned pleading. “Please, Maddy? I hate when we don’t get to work together.”
Ugh, that boy. I had never been able to say no to him, hard as I tried. I had never left my cabin alone in all the years that I’d been a counselor, though I knew that others did from time to time. It was frowned upon if you got caught, but really only warranted a slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again. Not much of a deterrent.
“Fine,” I said. “But only if they’re all asleep.”
“Deal,” he said, pressing his lips to mine one more time before disappearing into the darkness.
With a deep sigh, equal parts exhilarated and irritated, I stepped back into the cabin.
“Where did you go?” Jamie was instantly in front of me. “We thought the ghost got you.”
Patting her head, I released a small laugh. “No way am I letting a ghost take me away from you guys,” I said. “Now into bed with you. I’ll play you some music to help you sleep, and I promise I won’t go to sleep until you’re all deep in dreamland.” It wasn’t a lie. I just left out the part where I would be leaving for a bit while they slept.
The girls climbed obediently into their bunks, and I couldn’t help but notice that they did it a lot more readily than they had the previous nights. Maybe Alex had scared them into following the rules to the letter. I wondered how long it would last.
I selected soft music to play from the speakers hooked up to my phone and picked up a book, turning off the main lights and clicking on the lamp next to my bed, the orange glow the only light in the cabin. Alex would most likely be going back to staff quarters disappointed tonight. From the restless sounds around me, it would be a long time before these girls fell asleep.
Amazingly, all the girls were breathing deeply less than twenty minutes later. Maybe being scared had exhausted them. I whispered a prayer for no nightmares as I stuffed my feet into sandals and slipped silently out the door. It took me a few seconds after stepping into the shadows to find the path. I had a flashlight, but I’d walked these paths so much over the years, I hardly needed it to see where I was going. Besides, a flashlight could give me away if anyone happened to be gazing out their window.
I heard the lake lapping against the beach before I emerged from the wooded path, and the scent of campfire was strong on the breeze. I stopped to observe Alex from within the shadows, and my heart squeezed. By himself, Alex was a different guy. Relaxed, but not in a way that was trying to impress anyone. I didn’t realize until last summer how much of a show he put on all the time. Sure, he was loved by campers and staff alike, but few knew him as I did. We were both heading into our senior year of college, and I didn’t know what the future held for us. But I didn’t want to think about that tonight.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped out into the beach, kicking my flip-flops off and tiptoeing up behind Alex. Reaching over his head, I covered his eyes and leaned forward, whispering in his ear. “Guess who.”
A shiver ran through his body before he suddenly stood, reaching his arms behind him to grab the backs of my legs as he rose. I shrieked and moved my arms to clasp his shoulders, laughing as he began galloping across the beach. He rushed toward the lake, his feet leaving dents in the wet sand, and began splashing along the shoreline. As he moved deeper, I gripped him tighter. “Alex, stop!”
“Oh you want me to stop?” he asked, still moving forward.
“Yes, please!” I gasped, both from laughter and from the cold water that was splashing onto my bare legs.
“You don’t want me to dump you in this lake?”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
I came up sputtering from where Alex tossed me to find him already at my side, swimming circles in the shallow water. He snagged me around the waist, pulling me close.
“I hate you.”
“Lies,” he said before crushing my lips under his, the warmth of his mouth clashing with the coolness of my lips.
I let him think he’d gotten the best of me, raising my arms to tangle in his hair, but at the last minute I placed both hands flat on his head and shoved him under the water. I was slogging back toward shore when a hand gripped my ankle, pulling me back under.
We played for a few more minutes before calling a truce and heading back to shore and the warmth of the fire. Thankfully Alex had brought some towels as well. He wound a towel around me and then wrapped me in his arms. I leaned my head on his shoulder, the heat from the fire and from his body warming me.
“Maddy?” Alex said after a while.
“I love you.”
Instantly I was wide awake. I knew I loved Alex, but we’d never said it out loud. This was a huge step, and suddenly I was very happy I’d broken the rules and come out to meet him tonight. I wonder how long he’d been planning it.
Sitting up, I looked Alex in the eye. I’d seen many sides to Alex, but I’d never seen him so vulnerable. “I love you too, Alex,” I said. Joy sparked in his eyes as he leaned forward, and then we didn’t talk again for quite some time.
It was very late when Alex walked me back toward my cabin. Our clothes were almost dry, and our fingers tangled together as our hands swung between us. We took our time. I didn’t want the night to end, but I also couldn’t wait for whatever came next. For the first time, I was excited for the end of summer in a few weeks. I loved Camp Forever, but I needed to move on. Moving on with Alex didn’t seem quite so scary.
As we passed the canteen and craft buildings, a loud slam echoed through the air. I jumped, gripping Alex’s arm. He tensed as well, the muscles in his arm contracting under my palm. Looking up, I frowned as I saw a light on in one of the little-used upstairs rooms.
“Do you think someone is up there?” I asked. Sometimes the staff used the extra rooms as a quiet place to get away, but rarely at 3am.
Alex shrugged. “Only way to know is to check it out.”
That didn’t seem like the best idea, but I didn’t have a reason to disagree. I kept tight hold of Alex’s hand as we climbed the outside staircase to the room above the canteen. The door was slightly ajar, and Alex knocked as he pushed it open. “Anyone in here?”
The room was empty.
A single lamp burned in the corner, and in the exact middle of the room a large book lay, as if it had fallen there.
Except there were no bookcases anywhere near the center of the room.
“Haha,” I said, trying to control the shaking in my voice. “First you butter me up, then you scare me? Nice try.”
Alex turned to me, eyes perplexed. “I didn’t to this, Maddy,” he said. “I have no idea how this light turned on or this book got here. I turned it off on the way down to the lake.”
My stomach flipped. “Another staff member must have done it then,” I said. “They must have been watching us and ran out of here before we got up here.”
“There’s only one way down, Maddy,” Alex said, voice serious. “And there’s no way someone could have run out without us seeing them.”
“They figured out a way, okay?” I said. “Alex, what other explanation is there? It’s just a joke.”
His eyes were darting around the room, taking in every corner. He glanced and me and his expression cleared. “Of course it’s just a joke. What else could it be?” he said, but his tone was unconvincing. “Let’s get you back to your cabin. Those girls are going to be up in a couple hours.”
I groaned, trying to revive some of the levity from earlier. “Ugh, don’t remind me.”
“You love them,” he said, nudging me as we walked back down the stairs and resumed our course back to Cottonwood.
“Kinda,” I said, shrugging.
“You love me,” he said, pulling me around to face him. We were within sight of the cabin now, its porchlight a beacon.
I shrugged. “Kinda.”
His forehead creased before his face broke into a grin. “We’ll work on that attitude of yours,” he said. “Someday it’ll get better.”
“Maybe,” I said. “It could take some work.”
He leaned down to give me one more lingering kiss. “I’m willing to do the work.”
I watched him lope away, a goofy grin on my face, echoes of the word “someday” fluttering through my heart. When I could no longer make out his white t-shirt, I turned back toward my cabin, coming up short, my heart in my throat.
Between me and my cabin stood a girl. Sort of. She had long glossy hair and wore a choker as an accessory to what looked like a retro camp t-shirt and shorts combo. Her arms were layered with friendship bracelets, and she wore a flower crown around her head. Her face wasn’t angry, but assessing.
And she was see-through.
The porch light on the cabin was still visible behind her, the glow muted but still there. The cheerful red door to the cabin, behind which slept eight girls I had promised to take care of, shimmered at the edges as the girl rocked back on her heels.
“You broke the rules,” she said. Her voice had a breezy quality to it, and I strained to hear it.
“Who-who are you?”
“I was the ghost of Camp Forever,” she said. “But you broke the rules.”
“I don’t understand.” I gauged my chances of making a break for it. How fast did ghosts run?
In an instant, she was in front of me, inches from my face. “I broke the rules once. But now you broke the rules. I never thought it would be you.”
I tried to step back, but my feet were rooted to the ground.
“I watched you. You and all your friends. And all the campers and counselors before you. Lots of rule-breakers. But never you.” She paused as she studied my face, lost in thought. Her eyes flew up to meet mine. “But there are consequences for breaking the rules.”
My mouth had gone dry, but I tried to swallow anyway.
“Please, can I go back to my cabin?” I didn’t recognize my own voice. I should have let Alex walk me all the way to the door.
She was still inches from my face, and I couldn’t look away from her eyes. Eyes that were blue and glowing and I was falling
And then I was upright again, staring into brown eyes, which had been frightened only a moment ago, but were now relieved, grateful. I leaned back, disoriented. I could no longer see the light on the cabin because I was facing the wrong direction and staring at…
I watched as the other me looked down at herself, running hands over arms and clothes, running fingers through short curls.
“What’s happening?” I tried to ask, but no sound came from my mouth.
“It’s okay,” Other-Maddy said. “You’ll get the hang of talking without breathing eventually.”
I realized she was right. I wasn’t taking air into my lungs. I could no longer feel my heartbeat.
“Thanks, Maddy,” Other-Maddy said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the cool air.” She took a deep breath. “I think I’m going to like it here.”
I reached for her, but she sidestepped me easily. “Okay, so obviously things are different now, but they’re not all bad. You get to stay at Camp Forever…well…forever! Or until some other girl breaks her first rule on the night of a full moon.”
She pointed up, and sure enough, the bright circle of the moon stared back at me. It had been cloudy earlier. I hadn’t even realized it was tonight.
“Don’t worry,” Other-Maddy said, reaching out an arm to pat my shoulder and then pulling back as she remembered that I was see-through. “I’ll take good care of your life.”
I wanted to scream at her, to somehow grab her and force her out of my body, but I could only drift after her as she marched toward the cabin. Before going inside, she turned around. “And I’ll never leave these girls alone, I promise.” With a wink, she disappeared inside.
My mouth opened in a silent scream as the moon ducked behind the clouds again, and the porch light on Cottonwood Cabin clicked off, shrouding the entire area in blackness.
I wasn’t always the ghost of Camp Forever. I was once a camper. Just. Like. You.
About the Author
Rena Olsen is a writer, therapist, teacher, sometimes singer, and eternal optimist. By day she tries to save the world as a school therapist, and at night she creates new worlds in her writing. Her debut novel, THE GIRL BEFORE, is now available from Putnam! Represented by Sharon Pelletier of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC.