Every summer for as long as I could remember, I went to Camp Wukchumini with my hometown church. My family wasn’t terribly religious, but we went to Beachside First Baptist Church every Sunday. My mother was a big believer in the “serving” part of serving the Lord. We sorted cans at the food drive, served heaping plates to the poor at Thanksgiving and gave our old toys away at Christmas, whether we wanted to or not. “Giving is the best reward,” my mother would say as she packed them into brown cardboard boxes.
The way I saw it, camp was my reward for all that giving. Six hours in a hot, stinky yellow bus was a small price to pay for two whole glorious weeks of freedom.
This year, with my brothers and sister off at different camps, it would be just me and my friends at Jr. High camp. I could barely contain my excitement. We were assigned to Cedar Cabin #3, right down by the lake. Last year, we had shared our cabin with three girls from Sacramento; Jennifer, Kendra and Shannon. I was still pen pals with Shannon. We wondered who we’d get this year.
“I bet they're from L. A.,” Kimberly rolled the letters in a fancy way, leaning against one of the empty bunks.
“Maybe even Beverly Hills,” Tammy chimed in, shaking her hip like John Travolta.
The three leftover bunks stayed empty all afternoon, while we took a swim in the lake then laid our towels out on the sand to discuss the cute boys playing volleyball nearby. As the sun dipped down over the trees, wandered back to Cedar 3 to get ready for dinner. We decided to open our care packages from home instead. I was deep in negotiations with Kimberly over a pack of Ding Dongs when two girls with matching blonde Farrah Fawcett hairdos rushed through the door. Shelly and Chelle. Of course they were best friends. “Our bus broke down!” Shelley puffed, her blue eyes wide. “We ran all the way here.”
“Is the snack shack still open?” Chelle tossed her sleeping bag up to the top bunk. It landed with a soft plop on the mattress. “We have to stock up before the dinner bell rings.” They were gone as soon as they came.
Another girl trudged up in their wake, carrying a faded flowered suitcase and an old sleeping bag wrapped in a red Mexican blanket. She was a little too tall, a little too big, with olive skin and wavy black hair. Without a word, she moved towards the leftover bottom bunk, shoved her suitcase underneath, crossed her arms across her chest and turned to face us.
We stared back at her, none of us daring to speak.
“Well, hello to you too,” she said finally. “Thanks for the welcome wagon, I feel so at home.”
My mother’s voice prickled in my head. Be kind to everyone, even those who don’t deserve it.
I stepped forward, stammering. “Hi, I’m Summer. It sucks that you broke down.” The girls giggled at my bold choice of words. None of their mothers allowed that kind of language at home either.
The girl looked at me like I’d just landed in a UFO. “Yep, it was pretty shitty,” she shot back, hands on hips. I could feel the jaws dropping all around me. “My name is Brandywine Brown and my dad is a famous football player. You can call me Brandi. With an i.” The dinner bell pealed, and we made a grateful escape.
Kimberly sidled up next to me as we skidded down the hill, ponytail swinging. “She’s an odd duck, isn’t she?”
“I don’t think she wants to be here,” I replied. I couldn’t fathom the thought. Church camp was the absolute, number one highlight of my year, except for Christmas.
We entered the mess hall as a unit. Our counselor, Cindy, was already there, snuggled in next to the boys counselor, Jimmy, at a long table with rickety benches on either side. Rumor had it that Cindy only came to camp so she could spend alone time with Jimmy in the woods, which we thought was really romantic, but also a little gross.
I spotted Shelley and Chelle chatting away with a group of girls two tables over. Shelley leaned over to whisper in Chelle’s ear, then they both grinned and waved at me.
There was a small commotion towards the front of the room and we all turned our attention to Camp Leader Dan. “Okaaaay campers!” His battered megaphone squeaked. He frowned, gave it a couple of taps, then settled back in behind it. “I’ve got some good news and I’ve some got bad news.”
Our cheers rose and bounced off the wooden ceiling. “Ok. Okaaay! Bad news first: K.P. for tomorrow morning starts at six a.m.”
A sea of boos. He chuckled into the megaphone. “The good news is, the lovely ladies of Cedar Cabin #3 will be our first K.P. team!” Kimberly rolled her eyes at me and went back to her thumb war with Eli Draper.
Dan swung his guitar around from his back and began to strum. “Who remembers the camp song?” Hands raised all over the room. “Who has it memorized?” More hands Big cheers. “A one, a two, a one-two-three! Sing it with me! Wuuuk Chu Mini-mini-mini-mini” We all sang at the tops of our lungs. I looked around the room and spotted Brandi at the very end of a table in the corner of the room, next to a small boy with a hole in his upper lip. She looked up, raised one eyebrow at me and went back to their conversation, oblivious to the singing.
Brandi came back to the cabin after curfew, shuffling into her bunk in the darkness. Cindy was snoring softly. We directed our flashlights at her, like a spotlight. Brandi folded her arms across her chest. “I snagged some Hubba Bubba,” she whispered, “You want some?” She opened the pack and tossed chunks of gum to each of us. Kimberly looked at Tami, who looked at me. I unwrapped the gum and popped it into my mouth, even though I had already brushed my teeth.
Brandi blew a bubble and popped it loudly. “You all look like a bunch of Breck girls,” she said through her gum. “You know, my mom was the original Breck girl. They gave her a year’s worth of shampoo after she was in the commercial. She’s an actress. Maybe you’ve seen her. We live in Hollywood. Well, I’m going to bed now.” Brandi stuck her wad of gum underneath the top bunk and rolled out her sleeping bag. She crawled into it, fully clothed. We gaped. “Goodnight, blondies,” she said.
The next few days raced by in a sunny whirl of camp songs, canoes, and campfires. Brandi came and went, regaling us with stories about her glamorous life in Hollywood before disappearing into her bunk. She kept to herself during chapel and games, standing on the sidelines with her little friend, who’s name we found out, was Kevin. Before I knew it, Saturday had arrived and camp was half over. Cindy had had planned a hike to the waterfall with the boys and Jimmy, of course. Just as we got to the trail, I realized I’d forgotten my towel.
“We’ll wait for you,” I could see my reflection in Cindy’s mirrored sunglasses.
“I know the way,” I shouted over my shoulder, already running back towards camp. “I’ll meet you there.”
When I got back to Cedar 3, the cabin was cool and dark. I was blinded, feeling around to the end of my bunk, where I found the damp ball of terrycloth. I turned to go back out into the sunshine. “Hey Breck Girl,” Brandi peered out from her bunk.
I jumped. “Oh, Brandi, hi,” I said. “I didn’t see you. We’re going to the waterfall, do you want to come?”
“Uh, no.” her words floated towards me. “I’ve got things to do.” I blinked as the room began to take shape.
“Where’s your little friend?” I asked.
“Oh, Kevin? Yeah, he’s cool. He’s got a cleft palate, you know.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “His mom does a lot of smack.”
“She does what?” I stammered.
“I’m just kidding, Breck Girl.” She smirked. “Man, you’re pretty gullible.” A tall, plaid thermos sat in her lap. She opened it slowly, poured some milky liquid into it the lid and took a long sip. She smacked her lips. “You want some? I brought it from home.”
“What is it?” I wrinkled my nose. The liquid had a heavy, sweet smell.
“It’s Bailey’s,” Brandi sipped again. “Very expensive. You should try some. Unless you’re chicken.”
I frowned and held out my hand. Brandi handed me the plastic cup. I gulped the whole thing down, my throat burning.
“Woah,” I said. “That’s terrible. But good at the same time.” I sat down on the wooden floor. My stomach was warm, the feeling rolling outward down my limbs. My legs felt heavy. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go back out into the glaring sun. Brandi rolled back on her bunk laughing, arms around her stomach.
“Oh my God, Breck Girl,” she gasped, “you should see your face!” She collapsed in giggles, which made me laugh, and pretty soon we were completely out of breath from laughing so hard.
Brandi poured, then handed me the plastic cup again. “Tell me something Breck Girl, have you ever rode in a limousine?”
I drank again, twisting my finger through the cup’s plastic loop. “My name, for your information,” I slurred, “is Summer.”
“Oh yeah, from Beachside First Baptist Church,” Brandi lifted the cup and sipped. “Tell me more about yourself, Summer.”
So I did. I told her about our town, bending my arm and pointing to the crook to show her exactly where it was on the “official State of California map.” That cracked her up. I told her how my dad loved to surf on Sundays when the rest of us went to church, about the campfires we had on the beach and about the crush I had on Troy McCallum. I told her about all the volunteering my mom made us do, and how she made us homemade bread, which was embarrassing because everyone else at school got Wonder Bread with their bologna. I told her about my older brothers who were cool, and my sister who was a pain. “In my ass,” I said with conviction. It felt good to let loose.
“Ass, ass, ass!” Brandi shouted.
“Ass ass assity ass!” I shouted. We laughed until we were breathless again.
“Tell me about Hollywood, Brandywine Brown” I said, the words rolling off my tongue. I felt like I was floating.
Brandi poured again “Oh, it’s o.k.” She sipped from the cup. “If you like movie stars!”
She told me about her house right next to the Chinese Theater, and how her dad wasn’t around much because he was always busy being famous. She told me about her nanny, “Joanie, from England” she said with an accent. “She was strict, I tell ya. None of that Mary Poppins bippity boppity boo stuff for her.” She talked about her boyfriend, Luke., who she had just kissed for the first time. “He’s on TV,” she said dreamily. "Have you ever seen The Partridge Family?" I’d never met anyone named Luke.
“What’s your mom like?” I asked.
“She’s never home,” Brandi sighed. “But it’s alright. I just wish she had told me about camp.”
“What do you mean?” I lolled on the floor, hands behind my head, one leg over the other, foot swinging. “Camp is the best.”
“I didn’t know I was coming here. My mom packed me up in the car on Saturday, drove me to some church and put me on the bus.” Brandi picked at her thumbnail. “I didn’t know a soul. But then I met Kevin. And now you.”
I had no idea what to say. Brandi offered me the cup one more time, took it back and finished it off with a swig. She tipped it over and shook it. “Looks like we’re empty, blondie!” she bellowed.
I splayed out on the floor and watched the ceiling spin. I had to close my eyes. When I opened them again, the sun was low and the room was much too warm. I touched my pounding head and looked around.
“Oh, crap. The hike,” I mumbled. “They’re probably on their way back. I never showed up. They’ll want to know...we have to tell them the truth.”
Brandi sat up slowly and swung her feet to the floor. “Pipe down, Breck Girl.” She tucked the empty thermos into her sleeping bag. “This never happened. We went for a hike of our own.”
I could feel the panic seeping out onto my cheeks. I started to hyperventilate. “Summer!” she barked. “Focus! We went for a hike, we got tired. We fell asleep. Stick to the story, they’ll never know.”
Just then, the girls of Cedar 3 burst through the door, led by a frazzled Cindy. “There you are!” She slid her flip flops off and wrinkled her nose, her eyes searching the room. “We were worried, Summer. Are you girls OK?”
“Fine!” I smiled brightly. “Just fine! We decided to take a, um, a little hike. And we got tired.”
My stomach lurched, I smiled again weakly, then threw up all over the floor.
“It was all my fault,” Brandi blurted, the words tumbling out to the shocked room. “I brought this with me and we drank the whole thing.” She held up the empty thermos and stuck out her chin.
“Kimberly,” Cindy said soberly, “Go get Camp Leader Dan.”
Our parents were called and we were given a stern talking-to about camp rules. Brandi was moved to a different cabin and I was sent to the infirmary, while my reputation bounced along the camp grapevine. By the time I got back to Cedar 3, I was a bone fide bad girl. Everyone wanted to gawk at me, but nobody dared to actually approach me, even Tammy and Kimberly.
When I got home, my mother sat me down for “the talk.” I fidgeted in my seat, wishing I was anywhere else. I was angry, I was confused. I was embarrassed. I was grounded. I’d have to volunteer at an AA meeting at church. The list went on.
“Mistakes are lessons in disguise,” my mother said. I’d felt like I’d be punished until the end of time.
“I just want to know one thing,” my mother leaned in towards me, her face serious. “What got into you?”
“I don’t know. Brandi seemed so cool.” My anger bubbled up. “And you know, her mom is a beautiful actress, but she just dropped Brandi off at the bus. Just left her!” I swooped my arm, indignation growing. “She never even told Brandi that she was going to camp. She didn’t know anyone.”
“I’m glad that you wanted to be a good friend, honey.” My mother looked out the window for a minute. “But,you should know something. Brandi’s real name is Brenda. She’s a charity case."
“A charity case?” my mind was racing with pictures of people being served ice-cream scoops of mashed potatoes on a paper plate.
“Her mother is an alcoholic,” my mother continued. “The church has a rehabilitation program and they gave Brenda a camp scholarship so her mom could go to rehab.”
“What about her dad? He’s famous! Why didn’t he help?” I sagged in my chair.
“People are complicated, Summer.” My mom patted my knee. “Brenda has never met her dad. He left before she was born.”
People are complicated.
Mistakes are lessons in disguise.
I’ll probably never cross paths with Brandi again, but I think about her all the time. I wish I could tell her how brave she was. How the lesson I learned that summer didn’t have anything to do with the mistake we made, but it had everything to do with her. How she sought Kevin out and made a friend in a sea of unfamiliar faces. How she could laugh so deeply, despite her own troubles. How she found a way to wrap herself in a stories to make the hurt go away. About how, when push came to shove, she chose the truth over the lie.