Matthew Wherttam’s character is driven slowly mad after being woken up early each morning by a homesick camper.
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When I was seven years old, my first summer at sleepaway camp, I had been homesick, so when I became a counselor ten years later, I tried to be nice to my campers if they became homesick. Most of them did not, and even those who did got over it in a day or two – except for Ashley. He had seemed fine his first afternoon, but he began crying early the next morning – very early. He did not wake me; he woke the kid next to him. And that kid tiptoed to my very comfortable bed to tell me all about it. As he talked, I woke up, and I did begin to hear Ashley crying. Crying softly and steadily, and hugging himself in his blanket, a blanket he had brought from home. This blanket had pictures of Harry Potter all over it, Harry Potters who were whizzing around on broomsticks and winning game after game of quidditch. The other kids in our cabin were making do with camp blankets, which were gray and, in some cases, frayed and itchy.
He could have already been homesick while he was climbing down the steps of the bus that brought him to camp, and later that night he might have been thinking about home in his dreams. And when he woke the next morning, he must have realized immediately that he was not at home but instead in a cabin full of sleeping strangers. Maybe he had held out for fifteen or twenty minutes, but since now he was crying, something had to be done about it, and so I got out of my comfortable bed and made my way to where he was, and gently and quietly led him away from my other kids, most of whom were still sleeping. I took him out of our cabin and talked with him for a while. I did all the talking. I couldn’t get a word out of him. He was crying and shaking, and shaking even harder whenever I mentioned how much fun he was going to be having that summer. Shaking made his little head bob up and down. He had dark, thick hair that was very neat and that remained neat even with all that shaking. While he, of course, was doing the shaking, it seemed to me, instead, as if there was some foreign object in his small chest that was going up and down. And that thing was sad and suffering but not all that horrible, and it was a thing that should have been allowed to come out.
He was very small. His chest was impossibly narrow. His eyebrows and thin cheeks and chin formed the unhappy triangle that is seen in the faces of premature babies. What I was looking at was not fun. His chest, thin arms and legs, and all the rest of him were insignificant, and the world around him was big. And he kept crying. Crying and shaking.
Reveille sounded. It sounded over the camp’s scratchy public address system, and my campers and the campers in all the other cabins were getting up. Suddenly I found myself promising Ashley that after lunch I would take him to the canteen on the other side of the lake and buy him candy. I would do this during rest period, when another counselor would be watching my bunk. I would be doing this on my “free time.” I did not actually say the words “free time” to Ashley. Most seven-year-olds don’t know what “free time” is. But seven-year-olds know what candy is. And while Ashley did not seem in any way elated by what I was promising him, at least he did not start crying and shaking any harder.
I tried to imagine this candy making him happier. I wondered what type of candy he might want. Tootsie Rolls? M&Ms? Reese’s Pieces? Twizzlers? Pez from Pez dispensers? Candy corn? Jawbreakers? If he needed it, I would get him as much as he wanted. I could dump candy on him every day for the rest of the summer. And at the end of the summer, I would be sending him home to his parents with a mouth full of cavities.
Reveille was over so I led him back to our cabin, and when he started getting out of his pajamas and into his shorts and T-shirt, he stopped crying and shaking. His pajamas were covered with pictures of Harry Potter. So was his T-shirt. Even his toothbrush had a Harry Potter on it.
Maybe he had stopped crying because he had stopped thinking about home and because the others were up and getting dressed. Or maybe he had placed all his thoughts about home into a less active portion of his brain. Or maybe he had just stopped thinking altogether.
I kept a bit of an eye on him at breakfast. He was serious and silent. He didn’t say anything to anyone. And it wasn’t just that he was thin. It was as if he was vanishing and then remaking himself, over and over again, and each such new self was as thin as his old self.
He did nothing noteworthy the rest of that morning.
After lunch I was not able to buy him candy. Just as rest period was starting, two of my other campers, Abraham and Andre, got into an argument, and Abraham ended that argument by hitting Andre with a flashlight and putting a hole in his head. So I had to walk Andre to the camp’s infirmary instead of taking Ashley to the other side of the lake for candy. The hole that Abraham had made in Andre’s head was big enough to require stitches, and so Andre had to be taken in the camp’s bumpy van (which was great fun for him) to the nearby small town, where that town’s only doctor had to stitch him up. When Andre returned to camp later that day, he had an impressive white bandage over his left eye, and my instructions were to keep him out of the lake the next few days and to make sure his bandage stayed in place. But Andre’s friends and enemies were eager to see his stitches, and he was eager to show them off and to get another look at them himself, so he snuck that bandage off after evening activity during the hubbub just before lights out. As soon as that white bandage was off, a solemnity fell over all of us, and we (myself included) crowded politely around him for a look at his stitches. Ashley seemed to be as interested in those stitches as everyone else. They looked like they were a lanyard that had been sewn into Andre’s eyebrow.
And Andre’s had not been the only blood shed that day. That afternoon, after swimming, we all showered to get rid of the mud from the lake. And we showered in the partially roofed, cinder block shower stalls halfway down the hill from the cabins. When only one kid was left in those shower stalls, one of his buddies began tossing fist-sized rocks in through the gap in the roof. The fifth or sixth such rock hit him. He came running out of those shower stalls with no clothes on, and his face and entire upper body were red. I was horrified but also relieved that he was not one of my kids. And then I began hoping that this additional gore might have captured the bulk of Ashley’s attention and drawn him more into the swing of things at camp.
After this shower-stall casualty had been led off to the camp’s infirmary, interest in him and his rock-throwing buddy lessened considerably. And later, when everyone learned that his wound had been very small and needed no stitches and that all that blood on his head and upper body had, in fact, been mostly water from the shower, everyone seemed to lose all interest in him. I hoped Ashley had lost interest in him or at least was not worrying about possibly being the next kid to end up with a hole in his head.
The very next morning Ashley was crying again. This time he woke me up. I went straight to his bunk, and we went through the same drill as the day before. I took him outdoors, where I talked and he didn’t. This time I didn’t offer to buy him any candy. Candy, I realized, was beside the point. He cried and he shook. And this time he shook like a bird that’s up against the back wall of its cage, just out of reach of a big cat. Or maybe like a child in the chair of a dentist who is insisting that what is going to happen next is not going to hurt.
When reveille sounded, he was still crying and shaking.
As the day wore on, I noticed that he was not just wordless, he was detached. Not totally detached but a kid who was never going to be doing any more than sticking his toe into whatever was happening around him. At baseball he’d swing the bat and take the field, but it was more like he was punching in and punching out of a job than actually playing ball. When it was time he swam in the lake, but he did not mind being the last kid to get into the water. Other kids were too busy having fun or not having fun and getting hurt or hurting someone else – too busy to slow down – while he was just sort of there, suspended in midair or, at best, moving in slow motion. He was like the guy in the group photograph who, instead of smiling and saying cheese, has a blank expression and is wondering why he and everybody else are even posing for the picture. His cabin mates might have had the right approach. They were doing their best to work around him. But early mornings were a different story. Early mornings were when his crying and shaking were too heartfelt to be ignored.
That afternoon we went on a nature hike. We were finding worms and salamanders in the mud underneath rocks. Worms and salamanders are fun. Worms wiggle and salamanders change color. Ashley wasn’t interested in the worms. He spent some time examining a salamander. It was utterly still. Ashley was taking his time with that salamander. Scientists sometimes need to be still. I started thinking he might grow up to be a scientist – a distinguished scientist. While Harry Potter was just fictional and made potions and cast spells that were fake, one day Ashley might have his own laboratory where he would be a real scientist doing real things. Then I realized I was probably all wrong about that. The best I could hope for was that when Ashley had grown up, he’d be a little bigger than he was now. And then I got angry at myself for thinking about him at all.
The next morning, the third early morning in a row, he was crying again. This time he woke everyone in the cabin except me. They came en masse to the edge of my bed, and they woke me up and said to me:
“Something is wrong with Ashley again.”
Since they were all up, I said we should do nothing and just let him cry. Some minutes passed. Ashley was still crying and shaking and we weren’t sleeping and reveille hadn’t sounded and reveille was still a long way off.
So I got up, yanked him out of bed, and rushed him along the path past all the other cabins. We were barefoot and our feet and the bottoms of our pajamas were soon wet with the morning dew. The sun was already up. There was fog, fog that was moving but, for some reason, was not burning off. Fog is usually delicate. This particular fog was not. The leaves on the trees and bushes were shiny and green, and they were moving in the wind and they seemed to be saying:
“We’re doing what we are supposed to be doing. You and Ashley keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Farther down the hill, beyond the shower stalls but blocked from view by the rest of the forest, was the camp’s lake. I wondered what it was looking like right now in this early morning sun and fog. Later in the morning, after the fog had burned off – if it ever did – that lake would be looking pretty good. But this fog might not burn off. Instead, it might turn into thunderclouds and then into drenching rain.
I did no talking that early morning. I just kept hustling Ashley along the path. We were going so fast that he didn’t have much breath left for crying. And he was bouncing so hard from my pulling that I couldn’t tell whether he was also shaking on his own. We were going so fast that he was barely on the ground. What I was doing to him had to be against camp rules. If I had hauled him all the way to the camp’s infirmary, the nurse there could have given him forty-five minutes of talk therapy right on the spot. But in talk therapy, isn’t the patient supposed to be doing some of the talking? I wanted to smack him. I wanted to smack him in the head and see if I could mess up that neat, dark hair of his.
Then I started getting out of breath myself. And I started getting over my anger. I even got a little analytical. I began realizing that Ashley was not only getting me mad, he was frightening me. He was reaching the others in my cabin, and yet I was not reaching him. And he was too short. And his thin arms were listless. And his tiny legs were as indifferent as the rest of his body. They didn’t have much to hold up, but they didn’t seem to be interested in doing even that. The only time he got intense about anything was when he was crying and shaking early in the morning. I began wishing that the bullies in my bunk would throttle him instead of ignoring him. The night before, when everyone was in bed and I was about to turn out the lights, my campers were discussing which of them was the strongest and who could beat up who. They didn’t include Ashley in that discussion. There was no reason to include him. All of them could have beaten him up.
I was still rushing him around the path when reveille sounded. I had been so focused on tugging at his tiny arm that it took me a while to notice that for the first time, there were no pictures of Harry Potter on his pajamas. He was wearing Harry Potter-less pajamas. He was pathetic with or without Harry Potter.
When we got back to our cabin, all my other campers were bent over and huddling together and whispering. If they hadn’t been so small and unwrinkled, they could have been old men talking quietly about illness and death.
Later that day I talked to the head counselor about my problem. The two of us then went to the camp’s supervisor, and he listened to all I had to say. He told me if Ashley kept crying in the morning, he’d talk to him. He wouldn’t say that he would send Ashley home, but he did admit that not all seven-year-olds are quite ready for sleepaway camp. The camp’s supervisor was a bureaucrat. Bureaucrats like to let problems linger.
Back then psychiatrists had not yet identified and described all the present-day types and flavors of anxiety and depression. They were (and still are) like the early cartographers who were trying to capture the entire earth in one map without nearly enough information. But I’m sure, even back then, they were working hard on coining fancy names for every unhappiness they could think of. It takes time to build new mythologies. We tell ourselves progress has been made. And, indeed, these days a kid like Ashley might already be getting pediatric doses of psychotropic medication or at least be in some kind of outpatient program for collections of listless children. But back then I wanted him out of my sight. Even when it was not early morning and he was not crying and shaking, he was too damn quiet and too damn small and too damn inert. I preferred that problems from my campers be action-packed. I preferred rocks and flashlights being bashed into faces. Fishing hooks getting accidently stuck in hands. Twisted ankles. Poison ivy. Even bedwetting.
That evening everybody had to write a postcard home. If you didn’t write one, you weren’t let into the mess hall for dinner. You would have to return to your cabin and write one before you could eat. I had my campers pile their postcards on the dresser next to my bed. And I had to help some of them finish their cards. Addresses, in particular, were a problem. My kids couldn’t seem to center their addresses on their cards. Ashley had no trouble with his card. I suspected he had no trouble with any kind of writing and was even reading books with lots of big words in them. And most likely he already knew by heart the recipes for Harry Potter’s most difficult potions. I was afraid to look at what he had written home.
When all the cards were done and I was checking to see that I had a card from everyone, I discovered that someone had scribbled all over Ashley’s card. I was stunned. Even though he had no friends, it didn’t seem that he had any enemies either. And then I realized the others weren’t totally ignoring him. He had been waking them up in the morning.
It was almost dinner and I had no time to sort out who had done that scribbling. Ashley didn’t seem to care. I asked him to write another card and he did. I peeked at it before I handed it in at the mess hall, and all it said was that he was having a great time at camp. Instead, he should have been begging his mother to take him home. He could have been eloquent and graphic in making such a request.
Early the next morning, the fourth early morning in a row, Ashley was crying again. That was more than enough for me. I tore him out of his bed and out of our cabin with such force that I knew for sure I was breaking camp rules. We flew around that path that fourth morning. It was raining. My pajamas were getting cold and wet. And so were my shoulders. And I didn’t care how much water was falling on him. My pajamas had no pictures of Harry Potter on them. My pajamas had no pictures of anyone on them. I didn’t care what was on his pajamas. I wasn’t talking to him, and I was less interested than ever in hearing him say nothing back. I found myself dragging him further and further from all the other cabins. I found myself heading toward the half-covered shower stalls halfway down the hill. Their cinder block walls had turned a dark gray in the rain. The rain was drumming on the partial roof of those stalls. I dragged him into those stalls. And then I started yelling at him. The words came out quite easily.
“Cry all you want.”
“From now on you’re gonna do all your crying in here.”
“I’m leaving. But I am going to be watching you. And if you take one step out of here, I’m coming back and I’m going to kill you.”
And then I stepped just outside those stalls.
All of what I had said surely couldn’t have been in the camp’s rules or in any psychiatric handbook, for that matter. It was still raining. Ashley was still crying. I was standing in brown mud. It felt cool and soft and pleasant. The rest of me was wet. Ashley must have been shaking as well as crying, but now there was a questioning tone in his crying. Or maybe I was just imagining that.
“Remember,” I shouted in to him, “you put one damn foot out of here, and I’m coming back and I’m going to kill you.”
Then I began walking away. He could have started crying even louder, but I was hearing less and less of it. No doubt he was also shaking, but he was not shaking hard enough to cause the cinder block walls of those shower stalls to shake along with him. I really had to get out of my wet pajamas.