I Was a Teenage Slasher Victim
You’re riding in the car with your mom when she kind of shudders in a way you think you’re not supposed to see, grips the wheel harder, and adjusts the rearview mirror away from you.
It’s night, late, maybe even midnight. You can’t see the clock from your seatbelt.
Once before you’ve stayed up past midnight, but that was when your Uncle Dani wrecked her motorcycle and you had to eat dinner from a dollar-machine in the hall and everybody was crying.
You’re ten, say.
It’s a Friday, almost Halloween.
Where your mom’s driving you is the long way to your dad’s new house. It’s supposed to be a surprise visit, an early trick ’r treat.
But now she’s crying.
“Mom?” you say, leaning forward as far as you can without breaking the seatbelt rule.
She shakes her head no, nothing.
A few roads later she adjusts the mirror back to you.
“What is it?” you ask, and can hear it in your voice, that her crying is trying to spread to you.
She can hear it too.
“I was—I was just thinking about when I was . . . a long time ago. I don’t know why.”
“When you were my age?”
“When I met your father.”
“High school,” you say, because you know the story of where they met: summer camp at the lake with the complicated name.
She nods too fast. Rubs her nose with the back of her hand.
“Tell me again,” you say.
It’s comfortable, this story. It’s canoes and sloppy joes in a pot big enough to hold a dog (that’s the joke every year), and it’s sneaking out at night to swim, which you’re never supposed to do but everybody does.
Your mom clicks her headlights to bright—there hasn’t been another car for longer than it usually takes to even get to your dad’s—and nods her head like okay. Like this is good. Like she can do this.
It’s the same kind of nod you do in your room when you’ve built cities of blocks and are about to walk through them slow, so you can watch each building crash into the next building, and do the sounds with your mouth. It’s from the monster movies your dad watches with you on Saturday mornings. But he never understands them right, he always thinks the monsters are from bombs or from the ocean or from some scientist.
You know, though. The reason they’re so strong is they’ve got future muscles. Everybody where they come from can breathe fire.
How else could it be?
As for why the big split between her and your dad, it’s pretty much the usual mystery, except one fight you heard the end of was something about a door being closed. How she should have known right then and right there. And your dad saying no, that he was sorry, that he could fix it, he could make it up. That he would do it right now if she wanted, he would walk right in there with the axe or a bowling ball or whatever and he would—
After that, at night, you checked all the doors in the house, with everybody sleeping. That’s what the fight had been about.
They all worked perfectly. Except maybe your mom and dad’s, but that one was locked like always. Like they’re scientists in there, trying to cook up a monster but embarrassed about it.
Your friend Trace says that when his parents fight, one of them always sleeps on the couch.
Not at your house.
“We were seventeen,” your mom says from the front seat, and you close your eyes, are there with her again, seeing summer camp through her eyes.
Except this time there’s more.
Your mom’s so young, and she looks at her knees a lot.
She’s a counselor. Her and your dad, in his short shorts with the two stripes on the side like a green racetrack.
They don’t know each other yet, even.
The game your dad used to play with you in your room—it’s nothing bad—it was for the two of you to dress up from the costume box (clowns, pirates, alligator heads) to look at their old pictures from the album. But to see them right you had to look through the frame of the mirror from the hall you’d accidentally broke, that had all the mirror gone now, and the back part as well. Your dad would lean the brown frame up against the wall and then put the picture album down under it, and always be careful to reach around to turn the pages. He said this was how you looked into the past.
So, when you close your eyes to see him and your mom at camp, the sky all golden and dusty every day, it’s like your dad’s sitting there beside you with a pirate patch over his eye.
Looking at the old pictures started when your dog Philip (you chose the name) had to go live with people in the country, so he could run and be free and have a better life.
It was like trading Philip for summer camp. And it was a good trade.
Your mom and dad didn’t take pictures of everything, though.
Because your mom knows you know all the normal parts, she doesn’t go through them this time. They’ve told you all about the archery, about the tire swing into the lake. About how the moose head in the cafeteria was supposed to be haunted, and about how, the last night there was bonfire night, and that that was when your dad first put his arm around your mom, with all those sparks leaking up into the sky, never coming down.
Those are the parts you want, but now there’s more parts.
This time there’s the accident with the arrow. That’s what your mom calls it from the front seat.
Through her eyes or her words, you can’t tell anymore, you see it: the newest counselor, the one who just walked up, hasn’t even checked in yet. He’s behind the big hay targets. Not accidentally shot once, maybe in the eye because that would be deadliest, but shot twelve times, all in the face. From somebody who had to have been standing right over him. Standing on his arms probably.
“His head was a—it was a pincushion,” your mom says all at once, the crying back in her voice. And she tried to lift him up but couldn’t, because he was stuck by the head to the ground.
By the time she pulled everybody back to the archery range, the dead counselor was gone gone gone. Not even any blood.
They counted the arrows and there was one quiverful missing, but nobody took your mom’s screaming seriously. Not even your dad.
Then, next, two counselors who had been kissing in the shut-down showers—all your mom can get out before her voice breaks down, it’s blood, swirling around the super-rusted drain. Then clumping. And there was hair on the wall, maybe. Hair that wasn’t attached anymore.
And—this makes her lose the car’s direction, scatter gravel up from the ditch—this time she saw someone running off. Or she heard them, fast feet, and built a shadow up from there.
But how tall? What kind of hair? Did it look back at her while it was running away?
And then the girl who had been killed in the shower, had had things done to her chest area, had her hair already smeared on the wall, she grabbed her hand onto your mom’s ankle.
Your mom screamed, kicked away.
“It was . . . it’s—it’s,” the girl managed to say, then conked, something black like coffee pouring out one side of her mouth.
Before your mom could get your dad back to those shut-down restrooms (he’d been fiberglassing the slow canoe for the next day), the shut-down restrooms suddenly burned down like they were made of hay bales and gasoline.
It was like bonfire night, too early.
The owners of the camp sprayed it with water, then, in the morning, put yellow tape all around it, because the place was dangerous. They said the two dead counselors had really just left to go home, and the fire, it was probably campers smoking cigarettes. Or smoking something.
When they said that ‘something,’ your dad’s hand squeezed your mom’s harder, like he was scared.
Meaning they lied, about him putting his arm around her for the first time on that last night.
This is the real story, the secret story.
You’re almost holding your breath.
The next day was normal, just the usual canoe races, the counselor hiding with snorkel tubes after the finish line, to tump everybody over, winners and all.
Except one of those campers, when she came back up, it was with a dead body draped over her like moss.
It was one of the owners, the wife. Her eyes had been sewed shut, her mouth cut too wide, all the skin and meat cut from her fingerbones.
Then the owner who was the husband floated up, floating like a log with eyes.
After getting everybody to shore and turning their screaming into whimpering, your dad tried to start all the cars but none of them had any battery. And the telephones were all dead.
Your mom and dad did important eyes to each other about all of this. Scared eyes.
Everybody camped in the cafeteria, even though all the walls were windows. They kept all the lights on. They watched the moose in shifts.
Two more nights, then the purple bus would show back up.
In the front seat, your mom’s not trying not to cry anymore.
“You were so brave,” you tell her.
This makes her cry harder.
“We didn’t know who it was!” she says, hitting her hand onto the steering wheel. “We thought it had to be one of us, though. Right? Right?”
You nod, are liking this story. The past is an interesting place.
That night, most of the littler kids asleep, your dad outside so he can smoke one of his cigarettes, all the lights suddenly suck back into their light bulbs, and won’t turn back on.
In the darkness, a small hand takes your mom’s hand.
She screams, shakes the hand off.
When they finally get some candles going, it turns out the hand she shook off was one of the littler kids’, the one who’s always been scared the whole time, even before the dead bodies. He’s crying in the corner, asking for him mom, and the way he’s scared of your dad means he’s scared of his own dad too.
It makes your mom from back then cry, and she’s crying when she’s talking about crying, too. How much she hated herself. How mad it made her, that a kid’s dad would hurt him. And that now she was like that dad, hurting the kid too.
So they decided to do something about this.
The next morning, instead of hiding, they tried to do the usual camp stuff, just always staying with a buddy.
Only, what whoever was doing this didn’t know—unless it was one of them—was that each counselor had a weapon hidden in their shirt or their pants.
Your dad had a fireplace poker. Your mom had one of the knives from the high shelf.
Their idea was to lure this person out, then do something to him.
“But it only happens at night, right?” you say.
Your mom doesn’t answer.
The kids all line up for the tire swing, your dad shimmying (he’s so skinny) out onto the big branch, to make sure there’s nothing wrong with the rope, or the limb.
It’s all just normal.
He nods and one of the other counselors secretly hands his little baseball bat to the other counselor and rears back on the tire swing, holding it the way the old kids get to, and runs for the water with it.
He goes out high, higher, then lets go at the perfect time, reaching up for the sky with his feet like upside-down diving.
But your dad didn’t check the lake.
Bobbing right there under this counselor is one of the triangle buoys, its orange and white stripes painted over, just a blue kind of black.
The counselor sees the top of that upside-down ice-cream cone coming for him, and he flaps and twists and screams.
It doesn’t matter.
It goes in through his stomach, splashes up through his back.
On shore, kids and counselors scatter everywhere.
The only two counselors now are your mom and your dad.
And, “And we didn’t think it was a kid doing it,” your mom says, her eyes in the mirror so red by now.
But you see it anyway, on the side of the road.
It’s a man, tall like your dad. Like he’s asking for a ride.
Your mom takes her foot off the gas so the car’s coasting, so quiet, and, just when the headlights are about to touch the man, show who he is, she clicks the headlights off.
You twist around, see his shape in the brake lights anyway, when your mom’s still thinking about stopping.
He’s got a fireplace poker.
“I don’t even know where all the kids went,” your mom says, lighting the road back up.
“Is Philip out here?” you say to her, because this can’t be the way to your dad’s house, and she laughs and cries at the same time, like a cough that hurts.
Because some of the kids go back to their assigned bunkhouses to hide in their beds, under the covers, your mom and dad go there too.
They have their weapons out in the open now.
And, that one little kid who the whole time at camp has been trying to tell your mom about a ghost he’s been seeing at night, the one who tried to hold your mom’s hand in the cafeteria when the lights went out, he shows her the pictures he’s been drawing.
They’re mostly about the mouth. Red and evil. Teeth like little gravestones.
Your mom holds that kid close, sees her own face reflected in the trembly blade of her knife.
That night, instead of candles, they do the bonfire. Right on schedule.
Everybody sits close enough to it (your dad holding your mom close, your mom leaning into him) that they don’t see the big shadowy person standing behind them, just watching.
Whoever it is shines his light from face to face, everybody screaming inside, too scared to run.
It’s just the sheriff, though.
The kids pile onto his legs like puppies, and he lets them.
Finally he settles his flashlight on your mom and dad. His light bright on your mom’s knife.
“What’s going on here?” he says.
Your mom swallows, the sound loud in her ears.
Why the sheriff’s there is that one of the kids’ cousins was getting called to the army, so that kid needed to go home, say bye in case that was the last time to say it.
But he never expected this.
“Where’s Ralph and Laurie?” he says, his light up on your mom’s face now.
Your dad hooks his head out to the lake like he’s sorry and the sheriff steps over there as best he can, with kids all over him, and shines his light on the three bodies in the lake: the owners at the edge, the counselor on the buoy.
He wades through the kids, back to his car.
Only, when he starts to scream something into his radio, a hand pulls his forehead back against his seat, and another hand, from the other side, drags a shiny knife across his throat like just drawing a line in jello.
His blood burbles out onto his light brown shirt, and, when he falls forward, he pushes the sirens on.
The kids scream, everybody’s screaming, running through the red lights flashing everywhere, and your mom runs for the Chestnuts bunkhouse because it’s closest, but your dad’s already there, pulling the door shut behind him and pushing the wooden peg in to lock it.
She beats on it with her fists and stabs it with her knife but your dad’s in the bathroom already, hiding in the bathtub. Except the bathtub’s where that one artist kid has been leaving all his paintings, so it’s like the killer or the ghost is in there with him already.
Your mom finally crawls in through the window right over him, falls down onto him even though he locked her out, and somehow he doesn’t stab her with his poker and she doesn’t cut him with her knife, and they hide like that until the bus shows up, and then get married and love each other and have you someday.
But: “Who was it?” you ask.
“The—the artist kid’s dad,” your mom says.
They found him trapped in a complicated trap at the edge of the woods. It was a hole with broken paddles on the bottom, splinter-side-up. He had blood all over them, and his mouth was painted red just like his son had been drawing. Because the dad was a clown for parties.
“He got caught in one of his own things,” your mom said, looking to you like you’re supposed to nod.
You don’t, though.
What you’re trying to think is how could your dad know about the sheriff getting cut like that across the throat if he was already in the Chestnuts bunkhouse?
But your mom must have seen it, told him.
But now your mom’s all over the road, and there are no lights at all out here.
“Was that Dad back there?” you ask.
“It’s too late!” she screams about your question, and spills her purse onto the seat beside her, isn’t even driving anymore, is just scratching for something.
She pushes it back to you.
You uncrumple it—it’s old paper—and you kind of have to smile.
It’s one of the artist kid’s drawing. She must have saved it all this time.
“We’re going to see Philip, yes,” she says, and hunches over the wheel like somebody just hit her in the stomach. “You’ll like it there, it’ll be . . . right.”
You see her eyes in the mirror for a moment but she pulls them away. Like she’s scared.
It’s what the kid was drawing.
Only—only it’s not a dad at all.
When you were dressed like this, your dad was wearing a pirate patch on his eye.
You always liked the big wig, the funny nose, the red mouth. That scratchy collar that was like paper folded over and over. The floppy shoes that made that sound when you ran.
Maybe that’s how your mom figured it out.
Maybe she heard you running in the hall. And remembered.
But it’s not your fault, even. Some days your dad, he forgets to put the mirror frame up, doesn’t he? Just leaves it leaning there. And, without him to tell you not to, instead of reaching around like he taught, you can reach right through for that perfect magic summer camp. You’re even small enough to step through. To be there with them in the album. To watch them from the edges of the woods. From the dock, at night.
And you were right about future muscles.
“It’s you,” your mom says, her body all-the-way pressed to the door, like she wants to be as far away as possible.
You lean over so you can see her in the mirror again.
She’s trying to hide.
You smile, feel the paint crackle around your mouth.
It’s how she found you earlier, in your room. Already dressed up.
Paint on your hands too, but that’s not paint.
“I was just playing,” you tell her. “Are we really going to see Philip?”
She nods yes, yes yes yes, that’s right where you’re going, and you nod, look out the side window at the shadows of fence posts blurring together.
But there’s something in the floorboard, too.
It’s peeking out from under the seat, where you hid it.
The thick black blade from your dad’s lawnmower. The one he threw away.
You nod, look out the side window again.
Your heart’s thumping like a rabbit now.
Go ahead, lift the blade with your toe so it meets your hand, know that your dad won’t catch up this far for ten or thirty minutes.
It’ll be just like camp. The best one ever.
You smile, lean forward, breaking the seatbelt rule but the seatbelt rule doesn’t matter anymore.
Your mom, though. She’s been through all this before, hasn’t she? She doesn’t just remember the bad parts, she remembers how to live, too. She opens her door, rolls out into the darkness, and, one hand on the back of the front seat, you see the road about to turn in front of you, but there’s nobody to turn the wheel anymore. To keep up with the road.
“Philip,” you say, right at the end.
It was the artist kid’s name. The one who wouldn’t ever go to sleep. The one who would never come out into the woods to play.
When the car hits whatever it hits, you launch over the front seat, and it’s just like letting go of a tire swing at the exact perfect right time. Especially when you see that the window’s already breaking. The glass is going away, getting ready for you.
Leaving only the frame it was in.
You’re just small enough to slip through it without touching it, even with the back of your clown shoe. Just small enough to crash into the water of the past, like always.
You stand from it, the water dripping off the lawnmower blade you still have.
Right now the camp’s empty, deserted, lonely.
But it won’t always be.
|Copyright © 1999 – 2023 Juked