The afternoon a camper goes missing, Riley must walk into the cold camp lake with the other counselors. They reach their hands down into the sand, feeling for the small girl’s body. When the water grows deep enough, they must swim, and Riley sucks in a gulp of air before plunging under. Although instructed to do so, she doesn’t open her eyes under water. She knows she would likely not see the girl’s body through the murky waters, but fears her mind will create images of its own: the girl’s glasses slipping from her nose, her fingers curled into fists, her legs limp in the sand. Riley reaches out her fingers and runs them through the coarse sand, rising just before the dock. The other counselors have paused here as well, wiping wet hair from their faces and working to catch their breath. Without asking, Riley understands their hearts, too, are pounding away in their chests.
During counselor training they once stood in these same spots, smiling then. The idea of a missing camper seemed absurd, TV-like, not something that would happen at this small Girl Scout camp. The camp director, Carith, a bear of a woman with red frazzled hair that danced in the wind, had shushed their giggles and told them what happened at the dock: they had to swim under, pausing long enough to run their hands along the bottom of their stretch of dock, being sure a body was not floating there. Silence fell over the girls as they came to understand that had they not found the body by the time they reached the dock, it was likely floating somewhere below it, or had drifted farther out into the lake and would require a rescue crew to track it down.
Now, atop the dock, Carith crosses her arms over her chest and silently nods to them. The girls swallow a breath of the warm summer air and then disappear into the green water. Riley watches them go under, her feet still rooted in the wet sand, the waves of the other girls’ movement rocking against her chest.
Shelby Miller came to camp with a hand clenched around that of her Aunt’s. She was the first of her group to arrive and with the hand not holding her Aunt’s, she tugged a small duffle bag, the corners of books showing in its stretched fabric, into the ball field to meet Riley, who knew the girl must be Shelby before her aunt even stammered out her name. The other counselors had told her stories of Shelby, giggled about her autism, about the way she wandered off and was later found reading a book in the outhouse, sitting on a pit toilet, germs teeming around her. Always, when they said this, their eyes turned downward and their faces showed disgust. And yet something in Riley lit up; how amazing it was to need to read badly enough to have to do it atop a pit toilet, in that dark and rank stall, where it must have been a struggle to make out each word on the page.
Riley checked off Shelby’s name on the clipboard and then strode over to meet the pair. Shelby wore glasses with green metal frames that caught the sunlight and glowed. A neon green strap ran around the back of her head and kept the thick lenses clamped to her face. Behind them, her eyes seemed almost murky, as if by the time the light made it through the lenses and got tired enough, it gave up. The girl wore jeans and a long sleeve shirt, even in the heat of July.
“She’s scared of the mosquitoes,” her aunt said. “She reads too much. She knows about malaria and the West Nile virus.”
“Vomiting, muscle weakness, convulsions, vision loss,” Shelby said, listing off symptoms of the diseases. She squeezed her aunt’s hand hard enough her fingers went white.
Her aunt kneeled beside her and pushed a loose strand of hair over her ear. “Camp will be good for you,” she said. “It’ll give you some time away from home. It’ll give you a chance to play with kids your own age.”
Riley had heard similar words from her own father the one time he had been brave enough to send her to camp. When she called him a day later, in tears that one of the other girls had busted the ceramic pot she had made for him, he immediately drove over to pick her up and she never went back. Until becoming a camp counselor, the seclusion, the trees and lake and lean-tos luring her in, telling her what an escape it was from the rest of the world: the fast-paced life of cars, regular washings, and worrying about things like appearing presentable. Riley had taken the summer job as a camp counselor because she hoped to disappear into the wilderness altogether, to prevent her from starting college in the fall. Like Christopher McCandless, she wanted to die amidst the wilderness, her body later found by moose hunters, who might remark on her perfect teeth finally freed from braces (especially if that was all that was left by the time they got to her). There would be a book and a movie and she would get to be famous at exactly the right time: the moment in which she would not be there for people to turn their heads and stare at her. She could watch it all from the clouds, trying to whisper down the things they had missed: the grizzly bear that had made her climb a tree in order to escape, the blow darts she had built out of porcupine quills, and the shelter she had made out of pine boughs and moose dung.
Riley bent to Shelby’s side and eased the girl’s hand out of her aunt’s. She already loved the girl, her thick glasses, her love of reading, her knowledge of exotic diseases.
“I think you’ll have fun this week,” Riley said, careful to not make any promises she couldn’t be sure of keeping and Shelby would realize as so. Their eyes met and Shelby let out a gentle laugh that startled her aunt enough she had to bend to catch the purse slipping from her shoulder.
“What?” Riley asked.
“You have lettuce in your teeth,” Shelby said.
Riley ran her tongue along her front teeth and though she couldn’t feel it out, she didn’t doubt the lettuce was there. Shelby’s aunt knelt and tried to stop the girl’s giggling, but Riley just shook her head. Shelby’s honesty was refreshing and her laugh was a wonderful lilt that made Riley forget about the other new campers coming in, lined up with their overprotective parents and Disney sleeping bags, their hands cramped around plastic flashlights that would later throw beams of light from their lean-tos into Riley’s while they complained about holes in their mosquito nets and begged for duct tape to fix it.
Riley took Shelby’s hand and Shelby dropped the hand of her aunt. Together, the two went to Shelby’s lean-to, taking their time there, flipping their way through the children’s illustrated insect encyclopedia, Shelby pausing at the mosquito, listing out its parts: antennae, abdomen, thorax. Shelby looked up at Riley, her palm pressed against the mosquito’s illustration, as if smashing it further into the page.
“You know, there are over 3,500 species of mosquitoes,” Shelby said.
Perhaps if Riley could hear Shelby’s laugh now, she would not be struggling for air the way she is. Her feet are still stuck in sand; she has not moved. The other girls are somewhere under the dock, stretching out their hands, searching for a body. Riley opens her mouth and begins to pant. She pulls her hands up onto her head while the camp director stares her down. The director is a large and unforgiving woman, especially unforgiving to Riley, who was Shelby’s counselor and shouldn’t have lost the girl. In Birkenstocks, Carith plods down the dock, approaching Riley, while the other counselors emerge on the other side of the dock, all of them searching the eyes of the others to see if Shelby was found. Their faces are pale and a couple of the girls shake a little bit, but none of their eyes shine with the panic that would come from having touched the skin of a girl gone cold and still.
When Carith comes close enough, the vibrations of the dock send waves Riley’s way. Riley squeezes out one last wheeze of air and then submerges herself in the cold water, her eyes clenched shut. Underneath the dock, she runs her hand along the algae-covered wood, surprised at its soft, slick texture and surprised she does not find Shelby because it seems right for her to be the girl that discovers the dead. She heads deeper into the lake, pulling at the water in the hopes of making it out from under the dock. And then she comes up again, that quick ascent, the sunlight sparkling along the surface of the water. But she doesn’t break through. She hits her temple on the bottom of the dock, the impact registering in her eye, nose, and jaw. She slides her hands along the slick algae, feeling for the indentations between boards and tugs herself out, finally breaking the surface of the water in gasps that make the other girls think she has found the body.
The camp director widens her eyes while Riley raises a hand to her temple and is surprised there is no blood on her palm when she pulls it away. Her right eye feels strange and though she can’t be sure because she left her glasses ashore both because she feared losing them and did not wish to see what she might find all that clearly, it seems her vision is even hazier than when she began. She shakes her head to let Carith know she did not discover the body.
“Are you sure? You look in shock.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Riley says. She blinks quickly as if this might restore her vision.
The day Riley took her campers to the zip line, Shelby cinched the cord on her glasses so tight Riley feared she might cut off the circulation to her forehead. The zip line sat up in a large pine, boards nailed to its trunk to serve as a ladder. The platform stood just shy of one hundred feet, though Riley knew without even being up there that it must seem even higher from above. The girls had been up all night chatting about it, the experienced ones taking joy in scaring the others with exaggerated details of the jump: the harness daring to slip loose, the helmet popping off, the ground coming frighteningly close. Riley had watched them from her own lean-to, lying atop her sleeping bag, the night still holding the day’s heat. Shelby had sat in the corner of her lean-to reading the insect encyclopedia with her flashlight, a red cover slipped over the light so as not to attract any bugs, though it must have given all of the insects on her pages a red glow. Riley had wanted to imagine Shelby so transfixed by her book that she didn’t hear the stories of the other girls, but it soon became clear that they had registered deep inside her.
The girls formed a line at the base of the tree, the experienced ones eager to take the first flights. They tugged loose scrunchies, freeing their pony tails so that their hair could swing along behind them, and fought over the one pink helmet, ultimately deciding that Janice, who had made this jump three times before, had earned the right to wear it. Shelby stood behind them all, her legs crossed together as if she was in need of a bathroom. Though she had been to camp before, she had never dared the zip line plunge. Riley wanted to go to her and set a hand on her shoulder, whisper that it would be okay, that if she wanted Riley could make up a story about her not being able to jump. But Riley also knew what it was like to be the girl who always needed a reassuring pat, who was always discovered with the counselor, or hall monitor, or chaperone. Riley let Shelby be.
After the other girls had flown, screaming as they leapt, smiling down at the others while they swung to a stop, Shelby pulled on a helmet and the other girls watched in awe at how quickly she climbed. When they had played freeze tag in the open field, Shelby had gotten up to no more than an idle jog. And yet now, she climbed the way a rock climber might, quickly scampering up the ladder without daring to look below. At the platform, another counselor gave her a pat on the back and Shelby made the mistake of looking down. Even from the ground, Riley could hear the girl’s gasp. Shelby froze and crossed her arms over her chest, as if trying to hug herself. She didn’t make it even a step closer to the edge of the platform and was instead forced to retreat down the ladder, but going down was harder than going up and Shelby stopped about halfway down, clinging to the splintering boards nailed into the pine. The other girls kicked at the ground and glanced across the lake to the dining hall, where the lunch buffet had been ready for them for fifteen minutes.
Riley went to the base of the tree and whispered up to the girl. “You’re more than halfway there. Just keep easing your way down.”
“I think a mosquito bit me,” Shelby said. Her voice cracked with tears and her small body began to shake.
Janice let out a sigh and the others girls did their best to mimic her.
Riley thought of Shelby up there, her palms beginning to sweat, the symptoms of malaria and the West Nile virus running through her mind. She climbed the ladder until she was right below Shelby. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll climb down together.” She thought about reaching up a hand to pat Shelby’s back, but feared she herself might then slip. During their descent, Riley listened to the girl’s whispers: I’m shaking, lightheaded, nauseous.
By the time they change out of their suits and make it to the dining hall for dinner, a row of police cars has settled in the gravel drive and Carith has pushed a small cluster of reporters to the outskirts of camp. The counselors sit at one of the long wooden tables and smear peanut butter onto wheat bagels because tonight is not a night they could eat chicken nuggets, or tater tots, or even elbow pasta. While scraping Skippy from the jar, Riley notices the vision in her right eye beginning to fade away, a black veil beginning to fall over it. She drops her knife to the ground and it clatters against the concrete floor. “I think I’m going blind,” she tells the camp director.
Carith just shakes her head and tells Riley to pick up the knife.
When Riley bends to the floor and goes to grab the knife but gets only a palmful of floor instead, Carith takes her hand. It’s large, hot, and squeezes too hard. Riley follows her out to her car and then sits in silence while Carith makes the drive into town. Riley opens her eyes wider, as if this will increase her field of vision, to no avail. Still, her heart slows in her chest as they creep farther from camp, from the police cars sitting there, from Shelby – wherever she might be. She rolls her window down an inch and swallows the cool air, tasting dirt and dead leaves on her tongue.
In the emergency room, Carith has to fill out Riley’s form and she asks the questions in a gruff voice that brings tears to Riley’s eyes. She blinks them back, sure she does not deserve to cry, but eventually a tear falls to the form and Carith has to brush it away before it can smear the ink.
The doctor is an unsightly oompa loompa of a man and for a moment, Riley considers herself lucky to have limited vision in one eye. He’s so wide around the middle she wonders if he might have a tumor growing in his abdomen. She finds herself wishing Shelby were here, wishing she could point to the doctor and say: see there, take a look at that man. He hasn’t even been bitten by a mosquito, and yet he looks like that. Mosquitoes are small things, really.
The doctor calls an ophthalmologist, who turns out to be a frighteningly beautiful woman, someone with looks grand enough her appearance makes Riley doubt her skills as a doctor. With a soft hand on her back, the woman leads Riley to a room down the hall that Riley perceives as dim and will only realize two weeks later, when she returns for a follow-up appointment, was just as bright as the other rooms; her vision was just further failing then. The rest becomes a bit of a blur to Riley because hospitals with their astringent smells and repetitious sounds of clanking carts and squeaky shoes, make her faint and dizzy, remind her of her other trips to the hospital: the afternoon she slipped in to sit at her friend’s bedside, knowing she was the one who could have stopped the anorexia from going this far; the time she entered after her grandmother was already gone and asked to touch her face because she never had before and wondered what skin that had been around that long felt like; and the time she entered the sliding doors all on her own, a time when she was strangely brave and fearless, willing to reveal the infected bite another girl at school had dealt her to a kind nurse who believed her when she said a raccoon had done it.
After the ophthalmologist tells Riley she has a detached retina, and before Riley can gather the words to ask exactly what this means, an anesthesiologist slips Riley off to sleep, asking her to count backwards from ten. Somewhere around eight, she thinks of her mother, of how her end came in a hospital, soon after she gave birth to Riley. She wonders if she is always brought back to the hospital because her mother lurks there, wandering the halls, floating above her bed, sitting perched in the corner of the room where she can whisper sweet words. Maybe it is not a mistake Riley comes here often. Maybe it is only her mother calling her back.
When Riley awakes, she is lying face down, looking through a hole in the table. The ophthalmologist’s warm hand runs along her back, breathing air back into her lungs.
“It went fine,” the ophthalmologist says. “I put a gas bubble in your eye in order to reattach the retina. You will have to keep your head down as much as possible for the next couple weeks. And wear the eye patch.”
Only then does Riley reach a hand up to touch her eye and realize the patch is over it, realize she has not gone blind in that eye. She traces the patch’s outline. In the corner, Carith sits in a chair that is not large enough for her. Riley cannot turn her head to see her, but her presence makes the room seem smaller, heavier, as if they are all suspended in a thick liquid they will soon have to swim through.
During the drive home from the hospital, the highway lights become a steady stream of gold and Riley imagines she is inside a space shuttle rocketing itself away from Earth. Carith says she called Riley’s father from the hospital and he didn’t pick up.
“It’s Saturday at the library,” Riley says. “Story time. He makes up stories for the children. He has hand puppets. It’s his favorite day.” She imagines him perched on the edge of his rocking chair, his eyes bright as he digs through the box of puppets. Once, when Riley was still young enough to attend story time and still naive enough to believe in the hopeful note her father’s stories always ended on, he told a story about a girl who dared to walk across the backs of alligators in order to cross a river and return a baby bird to its nest. At the time, Riley had thought the story was about her. A year later, when her father recounted her mother’s safari adventures in Africa, she realized the story was not about her at all.
“I’ll call again when we get back to camp,” Carith says.
Riley stares at the woman’s large hands gripped around the steering wheel. She reaches out to touch a thick wrist. “Maybe it’d be best if you don’t tell him quite yet,” she says. “I think I’d just like to stay at camp for a few more days.” She lets her fingers linger on Carith’s wrist, as if they have the power of convincing her.
“You’d probably be more comfortable at home.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Her father would dote over her and when he was sure she was settled, he would then start in on questions about the missing camper that would only make Riley feel dizzy again, make her imagine Shelby confused, sad, and lost.
Carith takes her gaze away from the road long enough to meet Riley’s unpatched eye and acknowledge the dark patch stretched over the other. “Let’s say I called,” Carith says. “Let’s say I tried but the call wouldn’t go through. Eventually, we’ll have to call again.” She takes a hand away from the steering wheel long enough to tap Riley’s knee once and then immediately slaps it back onto the steering wheel, as if removing it in the first place had been a mistake.
When Riley returns to camp, she is ushered into the room at the top of the arts and craft lodge, where the counselors sleep on weekends in between camp sessions. The other counselors are strangely sweet to Riley. They tell her they could decorate her patch with pink sequins and gold glitter, clearly never having paid enough to attention to understand these are things that Riley would not appreciate and that the patch in its deep blackness is already perfect. She offers a smile to their words and then rests her face on a pillow. She imagines what Shelby might do at the sight of her now. She would laugh, her joyous lilt filling the arts and crafts lodge, making it somehow seem larger.
Later, when they think Riley is asleep, she can hear them chatting, saying it’s a shame she was ever hired in the first place. There is a pause after this comment before one of the more boisterous counselors, Erin, chirps in to say, “But what would we have ever gossiped about then?” They break out into a flurry of giggles that Riley understands must be suppressed by their hands because she has heard them laugh out loud before, has been there to feel her ears ring and her body shake with their vibrations. She traces the outline of the patch and finds herself comforted by its small offering of protection.
The afternoon Shelby disappeared, Riley’s group of campers was supposed to go swimming. The changing ordeal always took a while because the preteen girls went about it slowly, trying to cover one patch of bare skin as soon as it was exposed, sometimes holding up towels for one another to change behind. The lean-tos were clogged with cots and luggage, not giving the girls that much room to begin with. And, of course, then came the lathering on of sunscreen because they hadn’t yet reached the age in which tanning become a dangerous addiction, and instead wished to avoid the nuisance of a sore back that would prevent sleep and make their parents think twice about allowing them to come back to camp next year.
While the other girls slowly changed, Shelby appeared at Riley’s lean-to, flipping through her encyclopedia. Riley had been reading a book at the time and couldn’t be sure how long the girl had been sitting on her lean-to floor. Shelby’s book was open to the mosquito.
“What’s up,” Riley said, slipping a bookmark into her novel.
“I don’t want to go swimming.” She ran her hand over an enlarged illustration of the mosquito, tracing its proboscis.
“Because your arms and legs will be bare.”
“There won’t be mosquitoes in the lake.”
“There will be mosquitoes around the lake and on the surface of the lake.”
Riley couldn’t argue with that. She gave the girl a gentle shrug.
Shelby closed her book and pulled her knees up to her chin. She spoke softly, as if revealing a secret. “I asked my aunt for a wetsuit. Do you know what a wetsuit is?”
“It’s like seal skin. It covers your arms and legs. It’s thick enough mosquitoes would never be able to get through.” Her eyes gently brightened and a small smile formed on her face as she glanced toward the rafters of the lean-to, before letting her gaze fall back to her browned Velcro shoes. “They are expensive, though. My aunt said maybe when I graduate high school. Maybe then.”
“You could swim with your clothes on,” Riley said, knowing it was wrong the instant it came out.
Shelby shook her head. “They are not made of the same material as a wetsuit. They would get heavy. I would not be able to swim.”
Riley got up from her cot and sat on the floor beside Shelby. The girls hadn’t showered for two days and Shelby had a salty, musky smell about her. “It’s the closest you’ll get to a shower until tomorrow,” Riley said.
Shelby sighed. “I don’t really care about that. You know, the shampoo, the soap, it attracts the mosquitoes. They like the fruity smells.”
“The lake doesn’t smell like fruit.”
Though Riley hadn’t tried to make a joke, Shelby laughed, earning stares from some of the other girls, who were lathering sunscreen onto each other’s backs. Riley took the girl’s hand and gave it a soft squeeze. “You have to go swimming. It’s the rule. Each group goes at least once.” Shelby began to blink quickly, like she might cry, and Riley went on to say what she would tell only a girl as mature as Shelby. “It’s for the parents. They pay for camp and they want to know that if the world ever goes under, you’ll be able to swim.” She dared to reach a finger into Shelby’s armpit, and tried to give her a tickle, but the girl squirmed away. “It won’t be that bad. There will be kickboards and beach balls, lots of games.”
“Not fun games.”
“No, not usually.”
Shelby inched her way back over to Riley and this time slipped her hand into Riley’s. “You could let me skip.”
“I can only let you skip if you’re sick, and if you’re sick, you can’t go to the campfire tonight.” All the girls, even Shelby, loved the campfire the most, loved the S’Mores that made their fingers sticky enough they would awake in the middle of the night to find them stuck to the side of their sleeping bags. They cherished the campfire songs they sung while watching the flames creep higher, eventually growing tall enough they cast a shaky reflection onto the lake’s surface.
Shelby spoke in a whisper. “I can be alone for a little bit. No one has to know. I will just stay and read my book and you can say I went swimming.”
“You should probably change. The other girls are almost ready.”
Shelby squeezed warm fingers around Riley’s bare biceps. “I can’t go swimming. The mosquitoes will buzz right past those other girls and go right to me. They will eat and eat and they will take all my blood.” She said it in all earnestness, her eyes large under her thick lenses. Her body began to shake and Riley felt the ripples in her own limbs.
“You will sit on your cot and read your book the entire time we are gone?”
“Yes. I won’t move. I will stay under my mosquito net.”
Riley ran a hand over Shelby’s head and then gave her a nod. The girl picked up her book, jogged to her cot, and hopped under her mosquito net, being sure to tuck the sides under her mattress before settling down with her book.
Riley is thinking about Shelby’s words again, about how sure she was the mosquitoes would get her before anyone else, the same way Riley had once assumed she was a magnet for everything gone wrong, when one of the counselors comes upstairs to say that Shelby has been found. Erin says Shelby was found curled up on the zip line platform, had been there nearly a day without anyone ever bothering to look up. “All those police, all those dogs, you woulda thought someone would have just looked up.” Erin puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head.
“Is she okay?” Riley asks. She sits up atop her mattress and stares at her sleeping bag.
“She’s dehydrated and on the way to the hospital, but should be fine.”
Riley nods and bites at a fingernail. The word should has always bothered her. It seems pregnant with assumptions.
“It’s too bad you weren’t there to see it,” Erin says. “Shelby had been out there all night without a mosquito net. She had her hands pulled inside her sleeves. But her face is just covered with bites. She barely looks the same anymore. Her face is swollen like a balloon. It’s a wonder she couldn’t just fly down on her own.”
“Is she still here?” Riley asks.
“She’s not gone yet. They have to carry her around to the other side of the lake. It’s a good thing she’s not one of the fat campers. I mean, if it had been Tammy or something, that would have been a hard hike.”
Riley rises to a standing position, holding her hands out against the wooden wall until she gains her balance.
“You oughta stay,” Erin says.
Riley goes anyway, mostly because it feels good to move again and because since the doctor has told her to keep her gaze turned down to keep that air bubble in place, she now has an excuse to stare at her feet and at that lake trail lined with tree roots and stones the other counselors are much more adept at picking out than her. Staring at the ground makes it seem larger, an entire planet of its own. It seems so cruel that while Shelby was curled up atop the zip line platform, Riley could only glance down, always inspecting the ground.
When she hears the calm voices of the medics reassuring Shelby, telling her her aunt will meet her at the hospital, Riley glances up long enough to catch Shelby’s puffy face, which has ballooned enough her glasses suddenly seem small. Her fingers are clenched together in fists under the straps of the stretcher. Riley remembers the moment in which the girl told her about the wetsuit she dreamed of, the moment in which Riley had wanted to ask: What happens when your wetsuit fails, when a mosquito slides in under the suit, when the bugs find your feet or hands or head? It was not a question to ask eleven-year-olds who still dared to believe in the magic of things they hadn’t yet held in their hands. On a different day, Riley might go to the girl, set a hand on her forehead and remind her that a wetsuit couldn’t have saved her from this. She might tell Shelby that she has heard the best way to overcome your fears is to surround yourself with them, though she has never been brave enough to try it herself.
Instead, Riley leans against a large oak, waiting to see if Shelby will look up from the stretcher long enough to notice her. Shelby doesn’t, but one of the medics does glance Riley’s way, giving her a slight nod that makes Shelby look too. “Hey,” she says. “I almost did it. I almost did the zip line. I got all the way up there and realized I forgot the helmet. You can’t climb down without a helmet.”
“You were supposed to be reading.”
“None of the other girls ever read.”
“I read.” Riley says this loudly enough the medics stare at her and pause in their passing.
“Yeah,” Shelby says, and Riley knows what she means by this, knows she fears becoming like Riley.
“I’m going to college in the fall,” Riley says. “On a full scholarship. Reading takes you places, you know.”
The medics continue on, the stretcher appearing surprisingly light in their hands, their feet so adept at navigating over those looming tree roots.
“I would have jumped,” Shelby says while they disappear around a curve in the trail. “If I had a helmet, I would have jumped.”
Riley does not remind her that she said the same thing about swimming, promised that if she had had a wetsuit, she would have gone in.
The day they first practiced their water search, Riley dreamt of disappearing into the lake the way the counselors feared a camper might. It would not be such a bad place to end up, down there on the bottom of the lake, thick mud and algae creating a soft bed. The tree frogs would sing each night, their throats billowing into bubbles that would send ripples across the surface of the water, the vibrations reaching down into the depths of the lake, until they would tickle her toes. From her bed of algae, she could watch the girls canoe, watch the aluminum boat bottoms slip across the surface of the lake, the paddles appearing from time to time, like the legs of a giant water bug.
Instead, on staff camp day, Riley takes the plunge off the zip line platform. Not all of the counselors make the leap. They have seen enough campers vomit afterward or be brought down pale and shaking. Some of them have flown dozens of times when they were campers themselves. Riley jumps because she still sometimes sees Shelby’s face when she looks at the surface of the lake, sees the girl’s bloated head and imagines her having drowned. Besides, she is still wearing the eye patch and will only be able to see half the world whip by her side. She thinks herself a pirate when she steps off the edge of the wooden platform and into air, suddenly sinking along that line that hums while she and her harness slip across it. She soars across the ball field and closes her eyes. When she opens them again, she is slipping forward and then backward on the line, waiting for her body to come to a stop, slightly surprised she has not plummeted to her death.
Erin sets up the ladder and climbs it, arriving at Riley’s side. Riley sets her feet on the ladder and Erin helps her unclip her harness.
“You know,” Erin says. “I saw Shelby that afternoon she first got lost. I saw her sitting up there on that platform. But it wasn’t like I was going to say anything. Some people just oughta be left.” She smiles while she springs loose the harness, the wind blowing her hair into her face.
Riley stares at her blonde hair and perfect face, and considers pushing her right off that ladder. Erin’s words can’t be true; she would have adored the attention of finding the lost girl. Still, her words make Riley sick. “Are you going to jump?” Riley asks.
“No, not today,” Erin says. “I’ve done this a million times before. And the wind, it’s kind of strong today, you know?”
“Sure,” Riley says. She remembers how the camp, and all the people it held, looked smaller from that platform. Less intimidating. More conquerable. She wonders if Shelby felt larger sitting up there for so long. She wonders how the girl ever made it through the night without her book.
When Riley leaves for college just weeks later, she takes her eye patch with her. It’s tucked into her pocket through that college orientation, when she is standing beside the Erie Canal, the smallest of all the scholarship recipients gathered there in the shade of large oaks. A newly tenured professor in khaki shorts and a blue polo climbs atop a picnic table and asks them all to share their names, prefacing them with an adjective that starts with the first letter of their name and describes them. In the moment, all Riley can think of is rhinocerotic because her dorm has cable and Animal Planet. Just an hour ago, she empathized with a rhinoceros that had to brave open terrain in order to drink from a water hole. Poachers sat hunkered in the trees, their guns drawn. The rhino heard the shot but was caught in mid-run by the onslaught of bullets. Riley flicked off the television, not wanting to watch something so strong and armored sink to a dusty death.
The other students stare back at her. “It means like a rhinoceros,” Riley says. They still stare, as if asking her to go on. But she doesn’t.
A girl named Annette laughs and says she is amorous. Robert says he is rambunctious, Brittany brainy. Then comes a girl with brunette braids and the sort of lenses that darken in the sunlight. She says her name is Shelby and then pauses. Riley remembers the girl with the same name, her swollen face the day she was found. The professor rubs his hand over his chin and tells her to take her time. Shelby pushes her hand into her pocket and comes up with a piece of amber she rubs between her fingers. “Salacious. No, I mean, salubrious,” she finally says. Some of the students twitch in a way that makes them look like they’re searching their surroundings for a dictionary. Riley doesn’t hear many of the names that come after that. She’s too busy watching Shelby run her fingers over the amber. She wonders if there might be a mosquito trapped inside.
Later that night, in her bed across from her roommate Veronica (vivacious), Riley struggles to find sleep. She tugs on her eye patch to further darken the room and distracts herself from the shouting and laughing down the hall by thinking of more words: ragged, rare, resilient.