The horror movies we’d seen taught us to be camp counselors. Some nights when rain came down with a gentle thrum on the roof of our cabin on the grounds of Ransom Lake, we saw visions of crepuscular terror being played out on the ceiling above our beds. Though we never discussed it, together we shared this small intimacy. Our understanding served as an equalizer, cutting through the barbed scales of class division. While Van was allegedly heir to a perfume fortune, and Slater was more or less from a destitute home, both had seen Friday the 13th and knew the deal. We understood who we were, that there was danger in being too reckless, too diffident or promiscuous. We couldn’t let our egos fight our battles for us. If we aspired to be exceptionally tan or athletic, if we let the dream-blue water shower us in a tiled bathhouse, we were doomed. We might survive if we harbored some immemorial, diamond-like personal tragedy; if one of us was cast out from the group for refusing to join the nude, midnight plunge. In short, we had to already be haunted to make it. We were aware this had all happened before and would happen again in infinite sequels, reiterations, and filmic quotations. Eternal return was crucial to our enduring fear and acceptance.
The open fields, shaded woods, and lapping shores around Ransom Lake were territories stripped of the usual social hang-ups and anxieties we’d grown so used to negotiating in real life. It was easy to project lustful feelings upon such a landscape. Miles beyond the thick outcroppings of firs the land leveled out into a great expanse of baked clay earth. If we stood on the roof of our cabin on a clear day, we could even see red mesas shooting up in the distance. Where they shimmered against the horizon was like a sparkling, drugged beach to the heavens. I don’t think I was the first person to experience a crush as feeling like being pulled into a riptide. But I was obsessed with this feeling, and a part of the feeling was the sense that my desire was weightless (enmeshed in the very scenery), unholy, and could end at any moment with the appearance of a masked intruder.
We arrived in pickups, duffle bags slung over our shoulders, the smell of oil shale and shaving cream trailing us. We were there to set up the facilities (but in truth to be unanchored from responsibility) for a week before the campers were dropped off from the yearly parade of station wagons and sedans that inundated the small dirt road leading to the grounds. Jude was staring at me from behind the wavering gauze of that night’s bonfire. She looked like she knew how to recite Spanish prayers, like she’d had a dragonfly book as a child. A lot of data swarmed up around her and her Rasputin clothes. I knew her from other summers. But this was new, this crush. So I suggested we be together, just shouted the words over the blaze. I was worried they would burn up before they reached her.
“You’re wasting your time,” Lee whispered in my ear. “She doesn’t like you.” He then tightened his grip on a teal air rifle and fired three shots into the dark night sky as if he was inaugurating my failure.
I didn’t respond, just looked at the glowing screen of my phone (sifting through images of fault lines) and pretended nothing happened. Finally, she moved around the embers, not unlike rocks unsettled by a current, and stood by my side.
Jude and I lived there at Ransom Lake in one of the cabins for about three months, long after the campers – I can’t, for the life of me, even remember who they were – were picked up and our peers had driven back to wherever they came from. Goodbye to Van and Slater and Lee. Back to the places that might as well have never existed. To say these days were… what? There isn’t a rightful word. We waited in the waist-length September grasses until the last car peeled away in a plume of dust. Then the air was filled with only the sounds of bugs and our own breathing. I looked at Jude, eyes still reddened from the cavalcade of car exhaust, and we reached an ugly agreement, a shared dedication. We owed a love, or a debt to the grounds, to the lake.
As fall came around the temperatures plunged at night. There was no heat, just a small electric heater we’d bought from the Walmart, so we nailed spare sleeping bags over the windows to stay warm. We spent some mornings dripping red candle wax to make a shape on the paint-stained wooden floor. By the middle of November, the wax thing was nearly two-feet tall. At some point I made a call home, to say I would be extending my trip, like I was a student in Europe burning through my pittance, trying to find an answer to life’s questions in Paris or Barcelona after college exams. I could hear ice clinking in a crystalline tumbler some few hundred miles away and the purring voice said, “Good, be safe on your adventure, son,” and I promised I would try to be home to sing carols in the fields at Christmas. Click, the dead line, phone call over. We screened Death Race 2000 and Rollerball through the dented white projector normally used on Friday nights to show the campers Austin Powers and Zoolander on a pale square on the side of Credence Barn, out past the archery range. We agreed to watch no camp or slasher movies for fear that doing so would encourage a deeper psychic fissure than the one we currently found ourselves in.
The town was about three miles away. We drove there to get more supplies on a frigid December afternoon. I couldn’t have known we would last barely another week. The snow was coming down in swaths of ice-blue that reminded me, somehow, somewhere (conjured in my core, I guess), of a horse-drawn carriage clopping down a quiet path toward a pond, with aquarium lights under the water. The questioning thoughts of what was at the bottom, what had been left there. Maybe nothing at all, and sometimes that is what’s most malignant. Just the declining glow of lanterns slowly building up years, maybe decades worth of algae.
I parked on the main street, cut the engine, then leaned over to kiss Jude, whose breath was beginning to fog her window. She turned away, pulled her floppy knitted hat over her ears and got out of the truck. For a moment I sat there as the heat began to slip out the rust holes near my feet and the windshield became dotted, then covered in snow. I clambered across the seat and followed her out the passenger door.
“Wait,” I said. “Come on. I can make it up to you.”
“Not right now you can’t,” she said, flipping up the collar of her coat. “To be honest, I don’t really want to be around you.”
The night before I’d drunk a lot of beer and rambled on about a slew of ontological concerns and said, “No two souls can ever know one another in any kind of deep sense, can they? You can only predict what someone might do. And everyone, including me, is willing to betray.”
“I think you know me, and I know you,” she’d finally replied, and though in truth her saying so meant the world to me, I burst into laughter, and once I started I couldn’t stop, not until tears collected in the neck of my sweater. She didn’t really say a thing for the rest of the night, just dripped wax on her forearm and peeled it off until the candle she was holding was just a mean nub, her skin had smarted, and the downy blond hairs were gone.
Jude was already down the block, ducking her head in the doorway of the hardware store. Inside, we used my credit card to buy foam sealant for the rust holes in the truck and the cracks between the boards in the walls of the cabin, where since October the wind blew in with a whistling sound. Sometimes we woke up to snow drifting in like sunlight through bullet holes. We bought duct tape and Duraflame logs and lengths of rope. I picked up a flashlight, felt the weight in my hands, put it back. At night I used the torch on my phone to find the outhouse, and this was a downside to the whole deal, but not a dealbreaker.
As we drove along the pitted country road back to the cabin, our purchases in plastic thank-you bags by Jude’s feet, I saw in my rearview the outline of a grey minivan several car lengths behind us. The headlights were off despite the failing daylight. The snow was such that I was nearly blind to any details in the gale, and the driver’s face remained obscured. I turned off the radio and downshifted to second.
“I can’t believe this,” I said. “Look. We’re being followed. What a nightmare. I’ve never been followed before. What could they want with us?”
“Nothing,” Jude said definitively, turning around to look out the back. She seemed to stiffen slightly, and was silent for a moment. “It’s not like we have any cash or anything. They’re probably just lost.”
I turned onto a service road and put my hazards on, and watched as the van eased past us, slowed, and didn’t stop.
“Who was that?” I could barely conceal the terror in my voice. I turned to Jude.
“No one,” she said, not meeting my gaze.
“Go fuck yourself,” I said, and pulled back onto the main road.
A few days later we woke up to find the truck was gone. Stolen. The keys remained in the mess kit bowl we used as a catch-all, but like those arm hairs Jude burned away the truck was, you know, gone. I went and stood in the snow, where boot-prints and clues and the like were indecipherable from our own. The tire marks led down the dirt road and you can be sure I wasn’t about to follow them, not then. This is not what winning feels like, I thought grimly, and in that moment, trailing in the shadow of that thought, the external life I’d temporarily banished suddenly felt poignant and farther away than ever. Like I was on the lam from the murky gravity of the place I came from, where I might’ve walked beneath the eaves of a great crumbling house on a summer night, anonymous and decentered, the smell of huckleberry and French lotion dying on the breeze. The finality of that click of the phone line was like handcuffs fastening me to the beige army cot I shared with Jude.
“Well,” I said, wrapping myself in a southwestern-style quilt and huddling before the electric heater. “Well, nothing then.”
That evening we split a can of New England clam chowder, heated on a hot plate. In the cafeteria was an eight-burner gas stove, but without a group, without that laughter, the building was cavernous and lonely. We ate cross-legged on the floor, the enormous wax volcano between us. When our eyes met I understood we were daring each other to break down and say maybe let’s leave this place.
“Let’s walk into town and go to a bar,” Jude said. Her face was pleading.
“Okay,” I agreed, “but I want you to know I was already planning for us to do that. Even before you made the suggestion.”
With the caked snow on our boots and the need to step off the shoulder into the drainage ditch every time a car passed, it took us almost two hours to walk the three miles into town. By the time we arrived our faces were blushed with frost and the sun had gone down. There was only one bar, I don’t remember the name, the kind of place with antique cans of beer on the high shelves. A feverish moon shone through the burnished windows, like a round tooth hung dumbly in the sky. The radio was churning out Billy Idol, and as I looked around me at the hungry faces, I had the sense that someone’s salary was being docked.
Jude opened a tab and we drank greyhounds until we were both a little tipsy. I buried my face in her wool sweater as we leaned against the wall in the hallway, skewing the hanged portraits, waiting for the bathrooms.
“Are you smelling me?” she asked.
“You just smell like wool,” I said. “Like nothing.” About her was the odor of horses, really, a triumph.
We played pool with a group of mean-spirited office men. The type you see in airport bars, who’d have no problem pushing the kill button as long they remained behind the screen. One was short with hair thinning at the temples, wearing a windbreaker over a paunch he pushed up against the table when he took his shots. Another was thin like a long-distance runner. They looked about halfway done with life but insisted they were within the standard age range of camp counselors, like us.
As the night carried on the thin one kept showing me pictures of a sleeping baby wrapped in the arms of a benevolent nurse, a gold wedding band glinting from her finger and through the screen. “Not my family,” he joked, but it was, and I could tell the baby and wife were thousands of miles away, in some cozy place with long shadows on the lawn, somewhere where he wouldn’t make jokes like that. The man’s grin was sheepish, as if he wanted to communicate how proud he was to have a family, but couldn’t quite breach an imagined barrier between us. He probably showed those pictures to everyone he met, even if the floodgates of emotion never fully opened. The balding one rolled his eyes. “Come on, Chuck,” he cut in, “leave the kid alone.”
I hid my drink in my coat pocket and wandered outside. The air met me cold and serene. The sidewalk was empty save for a smoldering cigarette butt, still damp with lipstick, and a few scattered pools of spit. I looked around, saw the gently swinging traffic light, didn’t know why I went out there to begin with.
Inside, Jude was putting on a show for the office men. She used wetted cocktail napkins to make stick figures which she set on the pool table felt. From what I gathered this was a scene of medieval, courtly subterfuge. “I need trees,” she declared. Darcy, the short one, broke a pool stick over his knee and handed her the shards.
“Here,” Jude said, “is the dice maven, and here is the pauper, and this is king.” Sometimes I really hated the things she said. The men around us cheered. It dawned on me, suddenly, a cliché: they were all hopped up on powder.
“I want to go home,” I whispered in Jude’s ear.
“Then go,” she said. “I’m having fun. I haven’t even built my moat yet.”
My face went red, I picked up a pool ball and mashed it into the little figures on the felt until they were pilly mush. The men around us booed, shaking their heads.
“I guess you took your shot, kid,” one of them remarked.
Later I pretended I was asleep when Jude came in some time around four, dragging snow across the floor, the wind howling over the soccer field behind her. Her arm curled around my neck as she settled into the creaky cot. I turned and felt the raised Braille-like birthmarks dotted across her bare skin. Her breath against my ear was sour with booze. But I didn’t care, she came back, and I was happy then.
We said goodbye to the place and each other the next day at dusk. We sat in Adirondack chairs facing the lake, the sky above dimming like a sputtering flame. Every now and then a hive of starlings blotted out the horizon in their westerly dance. Whatever happened here was finished. I’d exhausted all thoughts and prayers for our success. Surviving wasn’t a prophecy after all. The days just bled in a zero-sum game. Maybe I shouldn’t have made a scene at the bar, but I knew in my heart that wasn’t the problem, not really. In the relative light I could see the marks of love blooming across Jude’s neck, and I wondered if they were mine. After a while she drug her duffel through the snow, making a furrow, dampening what was inside. She stood by the road a hundred feet away, thumb up, or maybe she was holding up her phone, trying to get a signal. The headlights of the minivan looked fractured from where I stood, and I heard her greet whoever leaned across the divider to unlock the passenger door.
Some months later I found my truck parked outside a tract home in Temecula, totally by accident. I tried the key and the door swung open. CDs lay scattered on the seats, which now had more bits of foam coming out, and just a general human smell. I tried the ignition and the engine turned over, then roared to life. The person’s things were on the dashboard, too: lipstick melted in the sun, chewed up shells of sunflower seeds. I’d forgotten the danger of intersecting lives. I’d forgotten the silence of lawnmowers and stacks of canoes in Credence Barn. I pushed the clutch and locked in the gear; I drove my foot down hard on the gas. The sound of burning rubber rang in my ears. I tasted salt hitting my lip, realized the tears kept coming.
Jonah Simonak is a fiction writer and poet based in New York City. His work has previously appeared in Entropy Magazine, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere.