TW: This story contains themes of grief, death, and suicide in addition to some adult language.
My brother Archie and I spent exactly four summers at Camp Gopher before it closed. And I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me when it did, not really. After all, even back then, before the recession, the place stayed open only for the grace of God (and the handiwork of a few dozen do-gooders and funders). They were the kind of people who claimed to want kids like us, with no other options, to have some place to go when school wasn’t in-session.
But that’s not exactly a sustainable business model, I figured, not when none of your customers can pay you. So, it really shouldn’t have surprised me when Camp Gopher closed, and it shouldn’t have surprised me to find it so empty when I pulled up to the main lodge that evening. But it did.
I put my car into park before throwing open the door and hopping onto the dirt. I remembered the old wooden building being rustic back then, sort of old-fashioned and messy, but not decrepit. It looked lopsided now, and even from here, I could see that parts of the roof had given way completely, collapsed in under the weight of disuse.
I don’t know why I thought seeing this place would make me feel different. Maybe it had—bad different, though, worse different. The lodge used to be sort of hectic. Along with offices and a shop, where you could get chocolate bars and no-name soda, it had the only running water in the whole woods.
So if you had diarrhea or an upset stomach, which someone always ends up with when you throw a bunch of kids together, you had to make sure you got it out of your system before they locked up at night. Or it was latrine runs in the dark.
I took a few steps forward, then, regarding this husk the way a person might regard a snake or a rodent, like a creature that could rear up and bite. But for a moment, as I moved closer to the door, I could almost see Archie, obscured in my mind’s eye, as if standing behind the fog rolling from my lips in the cold.
He looked the way I would have liked to remember him but mostly didn’t. He was twelve or thirteen that summer, three years younger than me and already taller—built like his dad, or so our mother never let him forget.
He had started combing his hair into a kind of faux-hawk, held up with too much gel that hardened along his scalp like dinosaur spikes. And I told him as much. I remembered him leaning on the lodge’s railing, talking to some younger kid to try and convince him his name was short for Archduke Ferdinand—which was funny.
But I think Archie saw something play across my face, like maybe I was going to scold him, because he turned to meet my eye and flipped me two birds, sticking out his tongue. And when I offered the same gesture in return, he threw back his head in a fit of laughter, mostly, I think, because the poor kid between us looked like he might drop dead.
But my brother wasn’t a troublemaker or anything like that. He was just funny. And he really liked Camp Gopher. I knew he did, even though he didn’t say it. But he would start asking about it in a sort of roundabout way each spring, making up stories about how a classmate had invited him on the family yacht that summer but he wasn’t sure if we were going to be away. So he would decline if we were, as much as that sucked. But it really was good for us to be away.
I stopped now to eye a rotten display that still housed a sun-beaten map of the campgrounds. And there too, of course, carved into the wood, was the funny chipped illustration of the one, the only, hero of the pines, Buck Dumpster—an anthropomorphic something between an elk and a moose, with a lime-colored stripe of fur right between his antlers. What a stupid goddamn name.
A crudely drawn speech bubble read: “Be a ‘deer!’ Don’t litter.” I wrinkled up my nose, reaching out a hand to pluck a promotional bookmark from the three or four that still sat in the stall even now, protected from the elements all these years by only a scratched-up plastic box.
I flipped the thing around in my hands a few times, but it just offered another slogan: “Do the work today for a greener tomorrow!” I scoffed at that, letting it fall from my grasp and flutter into the dead grass.
“That’s what you look like,” I had said to Archie one summer, shoving him with my shoulder as I extended a finger to point at Buck as we passed.
“Yeah, well, when you were born, they were gonna name you Fuck Dumpster.”
I was startled from these thoughts by a sudden rolling wind, a gust that made the whole lodge shake under its own weight, groaning and grinding as if its very bones might come tumbling apart. On something of a whim, though, I drew even closer to the front doors and pressed my face to the yellowed glass. I tugged at the handle: locked and locked good.
The building’s insides looked like I expected them, though, all but ravaged, from the, things toppled over or broken, with a big wooden beam having actually come crumbling down from the ceiling.
But to my astonishment, really, to my complete, unsettled amazement, I could see that the old sofa was still there, green paisley velvet. And sitting in it still, motionless, like a picture from a scrapbook (if people put corpses in scrapbooks) was Buck Dumpster himself—a mascot costume in brown and green fur. The thing was covered in dust, in grime, but back then, in its glory days, one of the bigger counselors would put it on and dance around. There was a sort of recycling presentation every year, and the little kids really ate it up. I stared at the costume for a long time.
“We’ve seen better days, Bucky,” I said at last, turning and moving away, back towards my car to do what I had come here to do. Fishing the key from my pocket, I unlocked the trunk manually and began digging out supplies: a ratty green backpack and a heavy black pistol, one that I had hidden behind an empty first-aid kid on the off-chance I got pulled over on the way.
Looking around, then, I bit down on my lip before tucking the thing squarely into my belt, where it sat like a discomforting weight, threatening to drag me down completely into the dirt. But pressing on despite it, I threw the knapsack over my shoulder and moved for the backseat to retrieve a six-pack of fancy brewery beer that I had been saving.
I lifted it easily, but wedged there, beneath the seat, was, to my surprise, a little container made of tin, the kind that holds hard candy. It rattled when I picked it up.
“I don’t want the green apple. I hate goddamn green apple,” Archie had moaned from his perch in my passenger’s seat. He had already shaved his hair down by then, figuring he was going to lose it all anyway. And as I turned to glance at him, I remember thinking how thin he was beginning to look—although he had even more height on me at 25. “I’m sick. You have to be nice to me,” he said.
“You ate all the cherry, dude. Can’t I have, like, at least one grape or something? Jesus Christ.”
“You can have the green apple.”
“You’re being a real…You know what? No candy for no one.” Making a swift grab then, I swiped the container from his hands and tossed it over my shoulder, where I suppose it had been until this very moment.
I looked down at the tin for a few seconds, and with one loud, irritated grunt, I chucked it as hard as I could, sending it flying into the trees never to be seen again. And with that, I slammed the car door shut and set off, sneakers following the rocky little trail I knew would be there.
The path took me by an abandoned fire-pit, surrounded by rocks for sitting, and I dropped the beer there, wrestling one free to take along with me, before continuing deeper into the woods. I emerged after only a few moments onto the shores of a great, black lake. Kids had once played there too, splashing, shouting, fighting over who was cheating at Marco Polo, but now, the water sat still as glass, like an oil-slick caught in time, catching, in shades of sick yellow and silver, the glint from the waning sun.
I knelt down in the sand, then, cold where I pressed my knees, and tugged the bag from my shoulder, digging through its contents for all the pieces: a disposable lighter, a toy plastic boat, a bundle of newspaper, and a photo of Archie, the last one I had of him, stupid goddamn nose tubes and all.
My hand waivered over the box of ammunition, but shoving it to the very bottom of the bag, I zipped it back up and set about my duties. I placed Archie in a bed of newspapers, and shoved this haphazard bundle into my makeshift vessel. And in one swift motion, I set the whole nest aflame with a brilliant flick of the lighter before ducking down to gently push the craft out to sea.
“This is your Viking funeral, Arch! Right here on Lake Gopher!” Which was not what it was called, for the record, but opening the beer can then, I poured its contents into the water, watching the murky lake bubble and froth beneath the stream. The empty can fell from my grasp and bobbed away.
I took a few steps back then to watch the little boat drift farther and farther out, burning bright orange now, a tiny fire bobbing with the wind. And again, I thought this would make me feel different. And maybe it had—bad different, though, worse different. I was a sort of self-centered person, I thought. I came here to do self-centered things.
And I had burned up the very last physical vestige of my brother in a send-off that was very much for my own peace of mind, not his soul or whatever. Archie clung to me even now, like the weight at my hip.
So, I groaned, picking up the backpack, and marched toward the path, starting to wipe idly at my eyes. Screw it.
I returned to the fire-pit just as the sun was really beginning to set, and I threw my bag down near one of the stones. From here, I could still see the very back of the lodge, jutting out like a jumbled mass, splintering in all directions, from behind the trees.
A rear window was open, I noticed, threadbare curtains flapping with the wind. And that brought me back again, to those distant summers, when there was no air-conditioning, only the hope for a June breeze. I sighed deeply, closing my eyes, but moving around the circle, I then began picking up sticks the long-gone camper in me thought might make for good kindling.
I had gathered five or six when I stopped, cocking my head to one side as I came upon the hard candy tin, sitting there in the dirt along with the Buck Dumpster bookmark, placed side-by-side a few feet from the path. “Don't litter! Do the work today for a greener tomorrow!”
Even there, in the waning light, I could make out the bulbous yellow bubble letters, and for a moment, my gaze trailed upward, to where I knew my car was still parked. It was close enough, I decided, close enough for it to have landed here from my throw. And hell, they printed thousands of those stupid bookmarks every year. I would not be surprised to find a few more lying around.
I would set it on fire, I thought, scooping it up along with my bundle of branches. I grabbed the tin and chucked it even further into the woods, watching it disappear out of sight.
The campfire itself was easier than I would have expected. The lighter and the bookmark got me enough of a spark to get something, smokey and pitiful as it was, going before the night really fell. And sinking onto one of the stone chairs, I sat, sometime later, throwing back my third beer as I fumbled to load the handgun. I counted as I did it, as if I had any idea what I was doing, and really, I knew I did not need to completely fill the thing. I wouldn’t need that many bullets.
Something struck my cheek. I cried out, thinking, in my stupor, that really I had been shot. And wouldn’t that be funny if someone else had beaten my own hand to the punch? But no. Someone had thrown something, and it had struck me: a pebble, a tiny rock. No, there it was resting in my lap: a piece of hard candy.
“Who’s there?” I asked hoarsely, rising unsteadily to my feet and blinking into the dark. The fire was playing tricks on my eyes, making them water and strain. And looking from my right to my left, I really had to force myself to see. Something was wrapped around a tree only a few feet away, I realized. A snake, I thought, a rotten vine.
A sensation heavy and gut-wrenching settled in my stomach in that instant, though, a feeling like dread or disbelief or horror, when I understood that the thing, the thing that I was looking at was an arm, covered in damp, matted fur.
The head came next, then the antlers, peeking out from behind a tree trunk. Fabric eyes locked with my own. And I recognized the Buck Dumpster costume, standing in full glory, caught in the fire’s glow, peeking out at me from the slits in the blackened woods. And then I saw something in its clenched fist, something shimmering and metal. A knife, I realized. Buck had a knife.
“Who are you? I’m armed.” I cried, stumbling backward and tripping over my own knapsack to land hard on my ass. My shoulder collided with the rock on which I had been sitting, and I cringed, letting out a curse, writhing and wincing as I fumbled to drag myself backward. But something was crunching now, I realized, closer and closer, the stranger walking toward me.
And all at once, he was standing over me, the mascot, rotten and frayed, this six-foot elk, deer, something. And cornered, I raised the gun, closed my eyes, and fired, once, twice, three times. I waited, expected a reaction. But none came.
Instead, when I dared look, Buck was still standing, staring down at me with three holes in his torso. And through those holes, I could, I swear, see neatly the way the shadows and fire danced. Clean through, no one inside.
No one inside.
The nightmare raised a hand, and I turned back my head, waiting for the blow to come down. But it did not. Jesus.
Buck was flipping me the bird. And that was funny.
I allowed my mouth to fall open, staring, in disbelief, in confusion, as the creature opened its other palm, revealing not a knife, but the tin candy container. And opening it, Buck ducked down easily on one knee to meet my eye and offer it up. There was one grape left.
And I knew then. I understood. I understood in the gesture, in the way he carried his body, and while it made no sense, I knew.
“What? How…Have you been here? In this place?”
Buck shook his head, reaching out a furry hand to shove my shoulder and then pat me on the back, pointing his finger squarely in my face as if to say doofus. No, not here, but with me, with me this whole time.
“I don’t....I don't...Why?”
I was stammering, and Archie allowed a silent sigh to pass through him, antlers shaking as the costume’s shoulders heaved. He brought up a pointer finger to indicate the gun and then used two hands to draw a narrow rectangle in the air. The bookmark, I realized. “Do the work today for a greener tomorrow!”
I fell forward, abandoning my weapon to tug the costume into a strange half-hug, burying my face in its frayed shoulder and allowing several ragged breaths to roll through me. My nose burned at the stench of age and dust.
But I didn’t care. I held onto that embrace for as long as I could. “I miss you so much, Arch. God, I miss you so much. I feel so goddamn guilty. Things have been so bad, and I just, I’m sorry, I'm sorry I couldn’t save you."
Archie held me and patted my back. It was okay, it was okay. And while I don’t know how long the hug itself lasted, minutes, hours, there on the forest floor, eventually, the costume went limp in my arms. And I was sitting holding Buck Dumpster’s head in my hands as his body fell into a heap.
But it was less dark now, I thought. There was a fire. And in the distance, back out on the lake, I thought, for only a moment, I could see another fire, a speck burning on the water, faint, but strong.
It surged, flashing more brilliantly than anything I had seen before. And then it went out at last.