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Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Whispering Grove: a camp for extraordinary children

Some summer secrets are better kept in the dark.

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This year was different. Even the trees seemed to murmur this as we arrived. I knew the instant the bus doors opened with their wailing screech that something was off. The place smelled different. Felt different. Whispered different.

It hasn’t taken long for the rest to notice. The counselors were new. Every last one of the older leaders we’d grown to rely on over the years had been replaced. New people, with unwavering grins and boundless camp songs, guided us to our cabins, repeated the same rules as every year (boys and girls in separate cabins, no wandering off, don’t go near the House).

Roger had always been a little clueless. Or maybe he was brave? But he was the first to “show off” as the counselors called it when they thought we weren’t listening. The snake was harmless, only a gopher should have been afraid of its five feet, and Roger knew how to control it. It was his talent. The snake coiled up his arm and plunked its head down in his hair, its forked tongue slipping out at anyone who watched.

We all laughed, used to this kind of spectacle—he’d called three owls to our campfire two years ago and they’d munched on mice while we ate s’mores.

The too-tight-ponytail counselor didn’t think it was funny at all. She shrieked and Roger realized the adults watched, round-eyed and exchanging glances.

Roger didn’t return to camp for almost a week.

The rest of us started to talk, too.

“There’s no flight lessons,” Jeremy groaned. He had a hold of the edge of my mattress to keep himself grounded. My heart ached for him—this was the only month of the year he got to ‘taste the air,’ as he called it.

“Stacy was hired last minute from some college recruitment event,” Evelyn pitched in about her counselor. Her eyes flashed, reflecting the dark like a cat’s.

“I needed them this summer,” Sara whispered. A crackle of electricity lit her face for an instant. “And they’re not here.”

“We need to do something.” I hated to be the one to say it. I didn’t want the responsibility. Or the questioning looks people exchanged when I suggested plans. “I’ll do it, but help me come up with what we could do,” I added.

Jeremy dropped onto my bed and reached for me. His hand was too warm against my own, but I leaned into him. This was our last year before we graduated, but both of us knew we’d return here to work. Too many kids arrived without knowing what was wrong with them, and at least we could help.

But we were also almost adults, and that fact raced along my skin as surely as Sara’s electrical change. We’d be able to see each other outside of this remote shelter.

One missing face made us all the most concerned. Not that we saw her often during the summers—nothing more than a brief visit or two every year, but she was a part of this place as surely as we were. And now she’d disappeared.

“She’s gotta be at the House,” Roger said. A tiny bird nestled into his neck, chattering in bird-speak in its sleep.

“I have to get up there then,” I said, doing my best to hide the shiver of fear that lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.

“It would be easier for me,” Jeremy spoke up.

I pulled my hand from his and shook my head. “No. If I get caught, that’s one thing, but the rest of you have to stay here. To fix this.”

We all knew the rules: the House was off limits. Get caught going there? No more camp. For always. I’d hate that, but I’d hate it even more if the others thought I’d sent them, thought that maybe they hadn’t gone of their own free will.

Swallowing hard, I forced myself to pay attention. To plan. To keep from jumping in and controlling anything.

To pretend I wasn’t as afraid as I was.

Jeremy wasn’t fooled. As the boys slipped out before the counselors returned, he lingered. I leaned forward, touching my forehead to his chest. His arms circled me and the threat of tears forced me to hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut.

“Let me come with you.”

I shook my head and had to gulp air to keep my voice even, “No. It’s not worth the risk.”

“The risk of you getting caught is worse.”

“If I can’t come back, it wont be much of a loss.” Sometimes the truth felt too sharp, and this cut.

“It would be. For me.”

But I shook my head. No more words. And then footsteps outside and Jeremy had to go, though no footfalls accompanied his retreat.

The wind whispered all night, telling stories in the dark, all of them filled with flames and memories I didn’t want. All of them reminders of what it had been like before the camp found me. I’d arrive two years after everyone else my age had been contacted. They hadn’t detected me before and by that time my parents, my teachers, my classmates, and especially me, thought I’d lost my mind.

I still remembered them explaining the truth; the way a weight lifted from me. And the extra concern on everyone’s faces. Because I could be dangerous. I didn’t want to be. I just wanted to be me, to not get funny glances from my classmates, to find a nice little place to live with Jeremy.

At breakfast, Sara smiled at me. The younger girl’s hair was as static filled as ever and I reached over to braid it down her back.

“Please bring them back,” she whispered to me, grabbing my hand. “I can’t hold on.” As if to illustrate her point, an arc of electricity snapped between us, tingling down to my toes.

I still felt the numbness when I set out that night. Jeremy waited, perched in a tree and swooped down next to me as I slipped out the back door of my cabin and onto the pine-needles.

I don’t know how I didn’t scream and give us all away.

“I’m going with you.” Arms crossed. The moonlight cast his features in silver.

“No.” I ducked around him, hoping he’d take the hint.

He caught my arm and I turned back, meeting his eyes, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”

“If I don’t go, I’ll regret it even more.”

I wanted to argue. To make him go back to his bunk. But he grabbed my hands and drew me up behind him, crossing my wrists in front of his neck.

“Jump.”

I did, and he latched his hands under my knees, hefting me onto his back.

“You’d better hold on.” With that, we rose. Not fast or dramatic in Superman style, but steady, careful, with effort. He kept us close to the treetops, weaving between them as we went north. Skirted the lake and the mess hall. The shower building still lit from counselors who enjoyed a late evening.

It was a three mile hike, but as the crow flies, only half that distance.

Jeremy set us down in the deep shadows behind the House. Not that it was really a house, but a large windowless structure. Someone had painted windows onto the corrugated tin exterior. From above the roof looked like normal shingles, complete with a chimney.

Whispered tales of the House sometimes filtered through to us. Stories that the House used to take kids from the camp to experiment on. No one knew if they were true, but the warnings to never come near here left little doubt that something odd happened in the past.

And this is where she lived. She’d made no secret of that fact, hiking into camp some days, other times we saw her leave by helicopter from the clearing in front. If we could just figure out what happened to her, ask her for help in understanding, plead for her help, maybe we could salvage camp.

It was a long shot, the risk of being expelled forever high.

Jeremy gripped my hand and I led the way. A door, painted to blend in, was just up ahead. It was the only one in or out.

At the door, I pressed my ear to the cool metal and listened. Silence. No machines. No one speaking. No footsteps. Completely unlike the last time I’d been here. Not that Jeremy knew that, or that I was about to tell him.

I tried the handle, fully expecting to have to pick the lock. But the clasp gave under my tug and the door pulled outward, revealing a slice of darkness that made the night seem bright.

And with the dark came a smell. Smoke. Foul and reeking of burnt plastic. I used the sleeve of my hoodie to cover my nose as I edged inside. Jeremy held the door as I looked around.

Empty. Or burned? Wisps of the cubicles that had once separated desks, and the glass walls that kept lab space clean, now only charred markings on the floor.

No one could be in there. The flashlight tucked into my pocket hardly made a dent in the dark, but left no doubt the place was ruined.

“I’m glad you decided to get brave enough to investigate.” The voice was cool, calm, the kind I heard in my nightmares still.

I spun and pushed Jeremy into my shadow.

The man’s lanky frame stooped toward me in the moonshine.

“What?” Jeremy whispered from behind me. I could feel his hands shake where they rested on my shoulders.

“It’s such a pleasure to see you step into your role,” he continued, taking another step closer. Even in the dark, the spark of his eyes glowed like a dying ember. I knew it only took a breath of anger to bring it to flame.

“We were just worried. We’ll leave now.” I put force behind my words and they rang in my own ears.

He didn’t even flinch.

Strange. That should have worked.

“I think we all have some secrets to share.” He reached out and dropped a hand on my arm. The heat was just a degree away from burning.

Before he forced us away, I caught sight of Jeremy’s face. The confusion there. So many secrets I’d wanted to keep. And now, now he’d be wrapped up in them, too.
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Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:

>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.

>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA. For fun!

>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.

>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.


Find Meradeth Houston online at:www.MeradethHouston.comFacebookTwitterInstagramTumblrAmazonGoodreads, and of course her blog!