***This excerpt is from an advanced uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Carolyn Parkhurst
In another world, you make it work. In another world, you never even hear the name “Scott Bean.” Or you do, and you maybe even subscribe to his newsletter, but on the night that he comes to speak at a library not far from your house, Iris is sent home from school with a stomach bug, or Josh is out of town and you don’t want to hire a sitter. You figure you’ll catch him next time. Later, when you hear his name on the news and it sounds familiar, you shake your head and think, “What a wacko.” It doesn’t even occur to you to say, “That could have been me.” Because you know yourself, and it goes without saying. You would never get mixed up in something like that. End of story.
June 3, 2012: New Hampshire
The camp is in New Hampshire. We’ve been driving for two days now—well, not literally, because we stopped at a hotel overnight and we’ve taken breaks to eat and go to the bathroom, but you know what I mean. We’ve been driving for two days, approximately, and I can’t decide if I want to be there already or not.
Tilly and I are both sitting in the middle row—she’s behind our dad, and I’m behind our mom—because the way-back is all full of our bags and suitcases and everything. It looks like a lot, but it really isn’t. Not for moving someplace completely new. For a while last week, Tilly got really obsessed with the idea that we could rent a U‑Haul, and she was even looking up prices and showing my parents all of these websites and Yelp reviews and stuff, but she couldn’t get them to say yes. They kept saying the whole point is to simplify, to figure out the bare minimum we need to live. I don’t think that is the whole point, though, because we could have done that and stayed in DC.
Tilly was mad at me earlier this afternoon, but she’s over it now. One good thing about her is that even though she gets mad pretty often, it doesn’t last long. Okay, so: for practically the whole day, she’s been bugging my parents about stopping to see the place where the Old Man of the Mountain used to be. Yes, used to be. Tilly has this whole weird thing about big statues—or “big people,” actually, is what she calls them, because they don’t have to be statues, and in fact, this is an example of one that wasn’t. The Old Man of the Mountain was this piece of rock that used to be there on the side of the mountain, jutting out, and it kind of looked like an old guy’s face. Tilly’s shown me pictures of it, and it’s on the New Hampshire state quarter; it’s cool, but not that cool. And then one night, it fell off the mountain—it just collapsed and broke, and the pieces rolled down onto the road below. It happened back in 2003, on May 3, and I know the date because it was Tilly’s fourth birthday. Not that she would have known about it at the time, but she acts like it’s some big mystical thing instead of sort of an interesting coincidence.
So now, nine years later, here we are in New Hampshire. And the mountain is still there, but that’s all it is: a mountain. No face on it, no big person. But Tilly wanted to go look at it, and after a million hours of begging, my mom and dad finally agreed.
So we pulled off the road, and Tilly got out and walked up to the fence and stared up at the empty space like it was amazing, like it was a place where something holy and sacred had happened. “I can’t believe that it was there, and now it’s gone,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m never going to get to see it. It’s like the Colossus of Rhodes and the Bamiyan Buddhas.” She looked like she might start crying.
And I mean, this is our one big stop on the way to the camp? We’d been passing all these billboards for places that looked amazing: an alpine slide, Weirs Beach, and a Western ghost-town-looking place where you can get your face put on a wanted poster. And instead, Tilly gets her way, and we stop to look at something that isn’t even there. So while she was going on and on with her random facts (“…and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote this story about it, called ‘The Great Stone Face’…”), I just cleared my throat and said really loudly, “It was just a piece of rock.”
It worked. Tilly got mad instantly (“zero to sixty” is what my mom calls it), and made a move like she was going to hit me as hard as she could. I shrank myself down and pressed into my mom’s side, and my dad grabbed Tilly’s hand.
“Guys,” said my mom. “Come on. Tilly, you don’t hit your sister, ever, no matter how mad you are. Iris, this is important to Tilly. Stop putting it down.”
“Fucking fuck,” Tilly said, enough under her breath that my parents let it go.
I just walked away like I was super-calm and totally above that kind of behavior, even though the whole time, I was continuing the conversation in my head. This is the most boring tourist thing ever: let’s go look at some air! You know those “Falling Rock” signs you see on the highway? That’s the same exact thing—get your cameras out! But after I stopped being angry, I felt kind of bad for making fun of this thing she likes so much, so when I went into the visitor’s center to use the bathroom, I bought her a postcard in the gift shop.
Now it’s like a half hour later, and we’re driving right through a forest, or at least that’s what it seems like. I didn’t even know there were roads that went through forests; I thought it was all like hiking trails and people camping. I can’t decide if it feels cozy or spooky; everywhere you look, every window, nothing but pine trees. It feels like a fairy tale, but the beginning part that’s a little bit scary, because you don’t know what the characters are going to find. It feels like we’re the only people on earth.
Tilly’s all bored and fidgety. She starts humming something, a tune she made up. I know where this is going, and I turn and look out my window, so I can be outside it, kind of. Even though she’s thirteen, and I’m only eleven, a lot of the time it seems like I’m the big sister.
“Daddy,” sings Tilly, softly. “Gonna suck your cock.” She draws the word “cock” out so that it’s two syllables.
“Cut it out, Tilly,” says Dad. He sounds a little annoyed, but not as angry or shocked as you might think if you were someone who wasn’t in our family. Tilly says this kind of stuff all the time. We’re all used to it. “No more, or you’re jinxed.”
Jinxed means she’s not allowed to talk for five minutes, just like when you say something at the same time as someone else, except that she can’t get out of it by someone saying her name. My mom and dad only do it when we’re in the car; it’s because they can’t send her to her room or take away her computer or whatever. Taking away her computer has always been Tilly’s biggest consequence. I wonder what they’ll do at this camp, when there’s no computer to take away.
“Hey,” I say to her. Sometimes she just needs some other place for her mind to go. “Wanna play That Didn’t Hurt?”
She grins, then leans over and pinches my arm.
“That didn’t hurt,” I say. I wriggle so my seatbelt is a little looser, then whack Tilly on the back of her head.
“That didn’t hurt,” she says. We’re both laughing.
“Guys,” my mom calls from the front seat. She hates it when we do this. “This always ends with one of you crying.”
“We don’t care,” I call back. Tilly punches me in the side, and I grab a handful of her hair and tug. Before I even pull my hand back, Tilly says, “That didn’t hurt,” and then scratches my arm hard enough that her fingernails leave white lines.
“That didn’t hurt,” I say, even though it did. I rub my arm. It is kind of a stupid game, when you think about it. “I don’t feel like playing anymore.”
“Hey, Mom,” Tilly says. “Nobody’s crying.”
My mom doesn’t answer.
For a little while, we’re all quiet. Now that we’re almost there, I’m starting to feel a little scared. This place we’re going, Camp Harmony, doesn’t sound like it’s going to be much fun. The guy in charge is this friend of my parents’ named Scott Bean. He’s kind of famous for running parenting conferences (if that’s something you can be famous for), which is how my mom met him. Eventually, she started helping him out, redoing his website for him, and sending out flyers and stuff.
And now she’s helping him start up this camp. It’s not a regular camp, though, like a place where kids go for a few weeks. It’s something called a “family camp,” and the idea is that whole families come and stay for a week, to learn how to get along better or something. But that’s not what we’re doing, the week-long thing. We’re actually moving here to help run the place, us and Scott Bean and two other families. And we’re not going home after the summer’s over, either, though my mom and dad haven’t talked as much about that part.
“I need to pee,” Tilly says suddenly. “It’s an emergency.”
Should’ve gone at the stupid rock place, I think.
My mom sighs. “We’ve only got maybe ten or fifteen more minutes until we get there. Can you wait?”
“No,” Tilly says. “I told you, it’s an emergency.”
My dad looks at my mom. “Want me to pull over?” he asks.
“I guess,” she says. “I think I have some tissues in my purse.”
My dad pulls to the side of the road and stops the car. I don’t have to go, but even if I did, I’d hold it. I wouldn’t want to squat down and pee on the pine needles, in the middle of the woods.
“Okay,” my mom says, opening her door. “Come with me.”
“Come with you?” says Tilly. “Sorry, Mom, I’m not a lesbian.”
I don’t even really get that one, but I know it’s something inappropriate.
“That’s enough,” says Dad, but Tilly’s already closed the door.
I watch them walk away into the trees. Tilly’s gotten really tall lately, like even just in the month since she turned thirteen. She’s taller than my mom now, though even from the back, you can tell that my mom is the grown‑up and Tilly is the kid, because Tilly walks in this kind of all-over-the-place way, weaving around in all different directions, and she keeps her head down, not really looking where she’s going. I’m prettier than Tilly, I think, but it’s partly just because she never brushes her hair, and the medicines she takes have made her a little bit fat.
The car is quiet for a minute. Then my dad asks, “So, how you doing, kiddo?”
I shrug. “Okay, I guess.”
“Me, too,” he says.
“You’re nervous?” I say. I don’t know why that surprises me, but it does. “So why are we going?”
He turns around and gives me a look like We’ve already talked about this, which we have a million times. All he says is, “Nervousness isn’t a bad thing. It just means we’re trying something new.”
I don’t really want to talk about it anymore, so I say, “I miss the motel,” in this gloomy voice, because I know it’ll make him laugh. It works, and I smile, too.
My parents hated the motel we stayed at last night, because they found a hair in the shower, and breakfast was just muffins wrapped in plastic. But Tilly and I liked it. Last night, we were going crazy, jumping from bed to bed and playing TV Bingo, which is where you click through the channels as fast as you can, and only stop when you see something that fits in a certain category, like animals or a commercial that shows a kitchen. Mom and Dad let us order pizza for dinner from a place that left ads in all the rooms, and no one even said anything about how this was the last pizza we were going to be eating for a long time.
This morning, though, neither of us talked very much. When we knew it was almost time to go—
Mom was in the shower, and Dad was packing up, looking around the room to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything—we flopped down next to each other on one of the beds and turned on the TV. We didn’t fight about what to watch; we just picked the first kids’ show we found. It was Blue’s Clues, which is way too young for either of us, but it made me feel kind of sentimental. Back when we used to watch Blue’s Clues, we lived in our same house in Washington, the one my parents are trying to sell now, and life just seemed kind of… solid, I guess. Like you didn’t even have to wonder whether anything was going to change. I remember that for a while I thought that paw prints were some kind of universal symbol for “clue,” and I liked to imagine what it would be like if there were tons of them out there in the world, just waiting for you to find them when you needed them.
In the episode we watched in the hotel room, the question that Steve and Blue were trying to answer was, “What does Blue want to build?”
“Probably a doggy door,” Tilly said, “so she can finally escape from this madhouse,” and we both laughed. But after that, we sat there quietly and watched like we were three years old again, and our parents didn’t make us turn it off until Blue and Steve had found all the clues they needed to solve the puzzle.
It’s almost four o’clock by the time we get to Camp Harmony. The sign where you turn in is wrong; it still says “Kozy Kabins,” which I guess is what it used to be called here before Scott bought it. Tilly freaks out for a minute, thinking that we’re lost, but then we see Scott walking toward the car, so we know we’re in the right place. Scott’s a big guy, taller than my dad and kind of muscly, with dark hair that’s always slicked into place, even if he’s just wearing shorts and a T‑shirt, like now. My parents have this joke about him being good-looking, like my dad will say, “Oh, he uses hair product—you think that’s handsome?” and my mom will say, “You know your zipper’s down?” and my dad will say, “Oh, a zipped‑up fly—you think that’s handsome?” and they’ll both laugh. I love times like that, when they’re getting along and having fun together. (And honestly, I think my dad is better looking than Scott Bean, but whatever.)
Scott’s pretty nice, I guess. We met him a bunch of times in DC, and he always had good ideas for games to play with us. He doesn’t have any kids of his own, though, so I don’t really get why people go to him for advice about being a parent.
My dad stops the car, and everything is suddenly quiet. Scott walks over and opens my mom’s door, then leans in and puts a hand on the door frame.
“Welcome, Hammond family,” he says, grinning. He has a deep voice, like a guy on a radio morning show.
“Hey,” I say. Tilly doesn’t say anything except, “Finally, we can get out.”
“Are we the first ones here?” my mom asks.
“You are indeed,” says Scott, stepping back so she can get out.
“The Ruffins are arriving tomorrow; the Goughs were supposed to be here already, but I got a message from Rick that they had some car trouble in Connecticut, and they’re running behind.”
The rest of us have gotten out by now, and we’re all just stretching and looking around. We’re standing in a circular driveway, made out of gray pebbles. Behind us, there’s a row of little cottages, painted different colors, and in front of us there’s a big stretch of grass with a couple of buildings, and a path leading down to the lake. It’s pretty, I guess, but everything feels sort of run-down and empty.
I think that when Tilly gets out of the car, it finally occurs to her what a big deal this is. “This is it?” she asks. “This is where we’re actually going to be living?”
Scott’s just finishing up hugging my mom and shaking my dad’s hand, and now he crouches down between me and Tilly and puts an arm around each of us.
“Girls,” he says, in a low voice. My mom and dad can probably hear what he’s saying, but it’s supposed to seem like it’s just for us. “Don’t worry, okay? I know this feels crazy and huge, but I promise: it’s going to be great.”
Then he just stays where he is, looking between the two of us, like he’s waiting for an answer. I sort of nod and shrug; Tilly shakes him off and starts walking around in circles, tapping her cheeks really fast, like she does when she gets anxious.
“No,” she says. She stops in front of my parents and grabs hold of Mom’s shoulders. I can see my mom sag a little bit from the weight Tilly’s putting on her. “I’m not going to live here. Take me home.”
My mom doesn’t answer, just gently disentangles herself. “So which one of these is ours?” she asks Scott, gesturing to the row of colorful cabins.
“None of them, actually,” Scott says. “These are the visitor cabins. Come with me, and I’ll show you the staff campground.”
We follow him down a little dirt path that curves behind the dollhouse cabins and goes back into the woods. Tilly’s still tapping her cheeks, but she comes along without saying anything. We walk a ways, and then a second group of buildings comes into view. They’re the same size as the others, but less cute and more run-down. They’re all painted the same color, a kind of dull green that makes them blend into the trees.
“You folks are in Number Five,” Scott says, pointing to the one on the end. It’s got a tiny front porch with two canvas chairs on it, and a white door right in the middle. I swear the whole thing is smaller than the jungle gym at my old school.
“Perfect,” my mom says. “Do we need a key?”
“Nope,” says Scott. “No keys here. We’re an open-door community.”
“Oh, of course,” my mom says. “I’m still in city detox.”
“I’ll go get some of the bags,” my dad says to my mom and turns back the way we came. My mom walks up onto the cabin porch and opens the door. Tilly stops in the doorway, and I stand behind her, waiting to get inside.
“You just get yourselves settled,” Scott calls from outside. “I’m in Number One, if you need anything.”
I nudge Tilly. “He’s in Number One,” I say quietly, nudging her into the cabin. “He lives in pee.”
Tilly still looks upset, but her face twists almost into a smile. “I’m glad we’re not in Number Two,” she says.
Right inside the front door is a big room that’s half kitchen and half living room. On one side, there’s a white plastic table and chairs, and running along the wall, there’s a refrigerator, a sink, and a counter with some stove burners built in. There are cupboards, but they don’t have any doors, and neither does the space underneath the sink; they’re just covered with dirty yellow-and-white-checked curtains.
On the other half of the room, there’s a couch and two armchairs arranged around a coffee table. The furniture is old and ugly, and none of it matches. There are three doors, leading to a bathroom and two bedrooms. The whole place feels grungy, like it couldn’t get clean no matter how hard we try.
“This sucks,” I say. I’m getting really nervous all of a sudden, which is silly because nothing’s happened, but maybe it’s been building up. Like we were all so focused on getting here, and now we actually are. Here. So…now what?
“It really sucks,” I say, louder. I feel like I’m filling up with some kind of thick, horrible substance. I picture it like the disgusting yellow goo my dad used one time to fill the spaces between the bathtub and the wall in our old house: it’s called caulk, which Tilly would probably think is funny because it sounds like “cock,” but right now, I’m not even thinking about that, I’m just picturing this gross, gluey stuff, ugly and poisonous, expanding to fit the inside-shape of my body, spreading through me and hardening as it seeps into every little crevice.
There’s a thump as Tilly finally lets the screen door swing shut. She walks in, and I can tell by the look on her face that she’s about to go over the edge. For some reason that makes me furious. I make a deep growling noise and punch the dirty, shiny sofa, to keep from punching her.
“I’m not living here,” she says, her voice rising to a wail. She lunges at my mother, maybe to hit her, maybe to bite her, and my mom grabs her upper arms to keep her away. “I want my Xbox. I want my computer.” She’s screaming now. “I’ll kill you if you don’t give me my computer.” I go into the bathroom and slam the door.
We’re here for Tilly, she’s the whole reason we gave up everything and moved here, even though nobody’s saying it. But I can make a scene, too. “Fuck,” I yell. Then louder, in case they didn’t hear me: “Fuck!”
While I’m peeing, I look around the bathroom. There’s no bathtub, just a nasty-looking shower stall. There are rust marks in the sink, and the blue plastic shower curtain is spattered with uneven white dots along its bottom edge. The toilet flushes with one of those sticks that you step on, like it’s a public restroom. I wonder how many feet have stood on that dirty-white plastic shower platform, sending dirt and hair and who knows what else down the drain. How many mouths have spit into that sink? I feel like throwing up.
When I come out, my mom and Tilly are sitting on the couch. Tilly is crying in long soft moans, and my mom is trying to put an arm around her, but it’s hard because Tilly keeps jerking her body around. My mom looks at me over Tilly’s head and smiles in this kind of sad way. She wants me to be more mature, to be the big sister even though I’m the little sister, but I’m not going to do it. I stand there hating them both for a minute, hating hating hating everything, and then it’s like the hard yellow stuff melts back into liquid, and I’m crying like I’m never going to stop. My mom holds out her other arm, and I sink down next to her and press my face to her shoulder. I let her hold on to me and whisper soft things to both of us, as if it could make even the tiniest bit of difference.