“Tell us something you’ve never told anyone else.”
In any other context, this would feel like a trap. But here, laying on the floor of the cabin Ella has called home for a week, the trouble is not the question itself, but that she can’t think of a single thing she hasn’t told at least one person here.
It is the last night of camp, and here in the cabin they are stretching the time as much as possible, refusing to sleep away their last hours together. Lights out was at 10 PM, so they sit in the dark, clustered on the floor, whispering as if their normal speaking voices will break the dawn. Even their counselor has forced her eyes to stay open, though Ella can see her burrowing further and further into her sleeping bag the longer the girls stay awake. At ten in the morning, they will say tearful goodbyes, climb into their parents’ cars, and cry themselves to sleep on the way home. But right now, it is only midnight, and it feels like they have all the time in the world.
Over the past week, the girls in Cabin 3 have become impossibly, recklessly close, sharing parts of themselves they had always kept buried deep inside. They say we hope we can be this open when we go back to our real lives. They say we are different at camp; we want to be this way all the time.
At camp, Ella is kind, and outgoing, and funny, and empathetic. When her friends fall on her shoulders to cry, she strokes their hair and wipes away their tears. At home, she panics and melts down at the slightest inconvenience. Here, she can drop a s’more in the dirt, laugh, and eat it as if nothing happened. Everyone is a little less careful. They like to think we could be these people at home!, but the truth is that everyone needs to be careful at home.
Ella shifts into a seated position, arms wrapped around her pillow. Some of the girls have pulled their mattresses from their bunks and onto the floor. Ella presses her shoulder against the girl next to her. On her other side, two girls lay side by side with their fingers interlocked. Everyone is touching; they form a complicated knot, impossible to untangle. Outside, it is summer-cold, breezy and crisp, but inside the cabin it is warm with body heat, a warmth that would be unbearable during the daytime. Here, now, it is simply cozy.
Earlier in the night, they rehashed all the inside jokes that were born this week and laughed until their stomachs hurt. But now, as the clock turns from late night to early morning, the giggles have died down and the tone is somber.
Ella looks around the room and thinks that everyone looks beautiful in the shadows. She tries to guess what they’re thinking. Some look sad, others sleepy, others expectant. Some give her encouraging smiles. What secret can she tell them that they don’t already know?
She broke down about her parents’ divorce on day one, during their first pre-bedtime cabin gathering. She wasn’t planning on it; the story just fell out of her.
She described all her crushes from grades 5 through 10, the boys and the girls, on day two. No one blinked twice or balked, but the best part was that no one told her she was brave or that they were proud, either. No one turned it into a big thing. In private, another girl asked her when she knew, and how. She told her and the other girl started to cry. Ella hugged her and assured her that everything would be okay.
On day three, she had a conversation with two girls and discovered they shared the same favorite band. This one wasn’t earth-shattering, but it felt the most important.
On day four, she told the group she didn’t want to go to college. She hasn’t even told her best friend yet.
And so on. They know her favorite colors, the names of her pets, her hopes and dreams and fears. They know she cheated on her algebra final, and they forgave her. They know she only takes Spanish because her mother wanted her to, and that she secretly practices French on the weekends.
What is left to tell? She must think of something, another piece of herself to share before the sun comes up and the opportunity disappears with the night.
Maybe that’s how you know when it’s over, she thinks, when you’re all out of secrets.
There is one thing. One secret she has not shared, because it will change the way they see her. It will pop the carefully constructed bubble they have built.
I won’t be back next year.
She runs the words through her head, imagines herself saying them.
If she does, they will ask her why. But it won’t matter why. She could give the best, most understandable answer in the world, and it wouldn’t matter. Her admission will remind them that this week is ending, and it won’t ever be the same again, couldn’t possibly be, not if only some of them return. Once Ella has said it, then someone else might come out and admit the same thing. Imagine the tears then. Imagine everyone dragging their mattresses back their bunks, no longer interested in chatting, and pretending to sleep, lost in their thoughts as they try to envision this place without their friends or worse, without themselves.
But if Ella does not say it, if she can come up with anything else, she will prolong the night. Stories and secrets inspire other stories and other secrets. There is still so much to know about each other, so much to cheer, and mourn, and laugh about. It doesn’t have to end. Yes, gradually a few of them will drift off, but they will remain tangled together on the floor and that itself is part of the memory: Remember when we slept on the floor? They will wake with the dawning grey light of morning, exhausted, but happy, knowing that they did everything they could.
Is it fair to them, though? Is it fair to lie now, when she has been so honest all week? Would it be more truthful to gently remind them that it must end?
“Ella?” someone says. “Are you going to answer?”