Back in the day there was no compassion. A kid could come up to us with a wicked crimson gash sliced down his face—or some other dire affliction—and there we’d be, uncaring and uncouth, stoned and a little sun-high, all: “Infirmary’s that way.” I remember Rosenstein sweating through his sheets and looking totally transparent for two days in ’86 before the nurse finally stepped in and rushed him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and put on an IV. Needless to say, he returned to camp a hero.
But that was Timber Falls; the more you struggled the cooler you became. Public humiliation, verbal abuse, backwater pranks, elaborate gaslighting operations—these were the tools of the trade. If we were to be doctors or lawyers or sports agents one day, as our parents so desired, then first we’d have to coexist and thrive on that scrubby patch of Pocono hillside, deciphering our ranks in a system we’d realize, only later, was a miniature of America’s: hierarchical, capitalistic, a dog-eat-dog nightmare. In short, surviving at Timber Falls meant taking a lot of abuse, grinning and chuckling and participating, serving and volleying, singing your song before the masses. And what we learned—what the whole point seemed to be—was that some kids just weren’t cut out for it.
Levi Friedland was one of those kids.
At first Levi was difficult in a run-of-the-mill way. It took five or six requests before he’d trawl under the bunkbed for his shiny new tennis racket. Stubborn and tardy, I’d often find him well behind the group, kicking rocks and talking to himself. During cleanup his bunk counselors discovered ungodly things stuffed into the back of his cubby: banana peels, torn-up baseball cards, and tighty-whities streaked with skid marks. And as camp went on, it only got worse. Levi began parading around his bunk in his underwear, flashing anyone who dared to meet his eye. He made it his daily custom to burst in on a showering bunkmate with a maniacal grin stretched across his round-cheeked face. He yanked people’s swimsuits down for no apparent reason and got into fistfights as a result—always losing terribly.
Surviving at Timber Falls meant taking a lot of abuse, grinning and chuckling and participating, serving and volleying, singing your song before the masses.
Still, these sorts of struggles were not entirely unheard of for an eleven-year-old and did not themselves preclude us from shepherding Levi through the eight-week duration of camp. Indeed, if not for the greater trouble that soon sprung out of those smaller ones, things might have turned out differently. But as it happened, about three weeks into camp, Junior Boys Division developed a secret: Levi Friedland began disappearing.
None of us could figure how he did it. There were the bunk counselors (three in each dwelling), the cabin door hinges we kept deliberately rusted and creaky, the old wooden floors that yawned and groaned under even the daintiest of feet. Nevertheless, it was often that we’d wake to Levi’s empty bed and totally freak out, only to find him waiting at the flagpole for morning meeting, heavy grey bags under his eyes, but present nonetheless.
As for what he was actually doing out there, sneaking around at night, the counselors on Boys Camp had no idea. Eventually, they decided that they didn’t care. Levi was a weirdo. The best thing was to leave him alone.
But I had an inkling.
Around the halfway-point of camp, a drawing appeared thumbtacked to the particle board above Levi’s bunk. It depicted a group of aliens holding a boy down as he screamed in terror, black oval for a mouth, white circles for eyes. Scrawled under this scene, in green crayon, the word HELP.
The setting of the drawing was camp. You could see the ochre-colored cabin roofs, the basketball courts, the rock climbing walls, the lake. I knew right away that the drawing was important, and that it had to do with Levi’s strange disappearances, but I did nothing about it. I tore down the drawing before anyone could see it and sorted the foreboding omen into the recesses of my indifference, as any Timber Falls counselor might have in those days. I mentioned it to no one. It was just a drawing, I told myself. Nothing more would come of it. But that was not the case.
One day, a week before the camper-counselor game, I trekked up to the art shack to retrieve Levi for dinner.
Steph was the honcho there, known not only for her moral compass, but also her utilitarian, often-lenient treatment of camper issues—an attitude that made her a natural ally to boys like Levi. The picture painted upon my arrival affirmed this reality. Steph and Levi sat beside each other at the crafts table. Steph leaned over Levi while he focused on the drawing process, grey tongue stuck out of his concentrated lips.
“Hey Adam,” Steph sang, turning to greet me, smiling. “How was the writing?”
“Good,” I lied, perpetrating the myth that I woke up at the ass-crack of dawn and did five pages before morning meeting every day. Ever since returning to become Junior Boys Division Leader I had cultivated the image of being slightly above the foolish affairs of the place. Being chubby and less athletic than the rest of the guys, I chose to stake my claim on the intellectual side. I told people I was a writer. It was an untapped market.
“I can’t wait to read something,” Steph said, crossing her legs.
An awkward silence.
“Adam, could I grab you for a second?” Steph stood up from the picnic table and motioned me out of the shack down the dirt path a bit. She stopped, regarded me, sighed. “Okay. This might sound weird, but do you know about this whole aliens thing?”
I remembered the drawing I’d thrown away, with HELP scrawled at the bottom. I wanted to confide in Steph, but it would mean admitting to Boys Camp’s biggest secret, admitting that I knew Levi was sneaking out, and that I was doing nothing about it. Girls Camp was a different ballgame, after all. If I confided in Steph, would she really understand that Levi’s sneaking out was small peas in comparison to some of the other, more barbarous misadventures we’d covered up in the past?
There was a businesslike look on Steph’s face that I had never seen before. “I mean with Levi,” she clarified, after I hadn’t responded for a while.
“What alien stuff?” I asked.
She slipped back inside the shack and returned with a piece of paper fluttering in her hands. The drawing showed a kid being gravitated up into a spacecraft. The setting of the abduction was Timber Falls—the lake, more specifically. The look on the boy’s face was one of pure terror. Just like the drawing I’d seen tacked above his bunk, the boy was clearly Levi.
“It’s not just a story,” Steph whispered. “He said that this happened to him.”
Through the doorway I saw Levi put his implements down and lean over the picnic table to stare at us suspiciously.
“He told me that every night he wanders down to the lake path to meet the aliens, and that they tell him to do things.”
“I think he wants to run away.”
“He needs a friend, Adam. Someone like you. He’s very alone.”
“Okay.” I nodded, trying to seem serious. “I got ya. I’ll talk to him.”
It was another lie. Having a heart-to-heart with Levi would have forced me to confront some things about myself that, at the time, I just wasn’t ready for. Namely, the fact that Levi and I occupied the same space in the world. The only difference between us, really, was that over the years I had learned to fake it. Levi wasn’t there yet. He was still himself.
Steph sighed. “I just keep thinking about our training, you know? How kids interpret trauma in strange, narrative ways. Stories like this. Aliens, Satanists.”
Whatever training she was referring to, I could not remember. “Well,” I said, gesturing at the doorway. “I have to get him down to archery.”
Steph nodded. “Keep me updated will you?” She put her hand on my elbow.
“Yeah,” I said. “Next time I have the night off, maybe I’ll come up and we can talk about it?”
It was an awkward attempt at flirting, but Steph smiled.
As it happened, the next time I had off was the night that Andy, Head of Boys Camp, finally became privy to the Levi saga. He pulled me off of the basketball court and derided me in that soft, whispering way of his, shiny cop sunglasses strapped over his eyes, bald head glinting under the fluorescence of the night lights.
“Levi has fucking vanished,” he said.
I asked him what he meant.
“No one has seen him since dinner. Vanished. You need to find him, now.”
So I jogged down to my cabin and grabbed my flashlight and sprinted up to the art shack, where Steph was sweeping a pile of paint peelings off of the deck and into the leaves.
I wanted to explain that boys like Levi and myself had to learn how to survive.
Steph wasn’t surprised when I told her that Levi was missing. Steely-eyed, she slipped on her shoes and followed me down through camp, past the field house and Horowitz field, past the ochre-colored bunks of boys’ camp with their lichen-clad roofs, and down through the pines, beyond the newly-constructed rock-climbing wall, the rope course, and the rarely-used bocce court. The sky was a deep indigo, nearly black. The crickets were out and screeching.
I had assumed the search would establish a certain camaraderie between Steph and I, offer an opportunity for intimacy. It didn’t. Steph was worried about Levi, not me.
“This is terrible. I knew something would happen—didn’t I say that?” Steph smacked her flashlight against her thigh. The bulb was flickering.
“He’ll be fine,” I said, offering her mine.
“How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true. He always comes back.”
Steph stopped in her tracks. “What do you mean?”
I told her about the disappearances, Levi’s empty bunk, the alien drawing—everything. She crossed her arms as I spoke, shook her head, sighed mournfully. I could see I was digging a hole, so I tried to explain, tried to tell to her that this was what Boys Camp was like, that this was the point of camp. Kids had to figure out things for themselves. Counselors meddling in their affairs only gummed up the development.
Steph hated all of that and shook her head. “And you’re just okay with that? With the way it is? You don’t want to change it?”
I wanted to explain that boys like Levi and myself had to learn how to survive. I wanted to explain that to help Levi in the long run would be to disregard him now. I wanted to explain that despite how it might seem I’d already done a lot for him—more than most. I’d picked him up from activities, asked him questions, treated him with a certain respect. And I wanted to explain to Steph that these considerations were proof of my value and that I was worthy of her affection.
But Steph didn’t give me the chance. She kept walking ahead of me, scanning the brown pillars of the forest with her dimming flashlight.
“We should split up,” she said, when we reached the lake path. “I’ll walk around the archery range. You can go to the lake.”
“You don’t want to come with me?”
“I don’t see how it would help.”
I watched her filter through the moonlit lawns of the archery range. Back when I was a camper, I’d often sneak out of the bunk just to stand lookout there for a friend and “his girl.” I’d sit on the ground a few paces away from the kissing couple, hearing the fleshy clicking of their lips. Face away, they’d say, if ever I turned to look at them. Mind your own business.
The lake was manmade, wretched, fishless, its shoreline really just a stretch of cleared forest where sand had been carried by the bag and dumped onto the leaves and twigs and pine needles. The air there was dense, mosquito-laden and buzzing, the water itself a murky green.
I held my flashlight up and scanned the brush around the beach.
“Levi,” I said.
“Levi,” I called.
He was nowhere to be found.
The lake stood before me black and foreboding. A gust of wind woke a small group of waves and pushed them toward the shoreline. I felt like I was being watched. I felt eyes in the distance somewhere. I tried to walk back to the path, but no matter where I stood I felt it: a presence creeping up around me, something in the very air.
Up until that moment I’d prided myself on skepticism, built my personality on a scaffolding of grit, realism, and the resulting fearlessness this combination inspired. I didn’t believe in the camp stories: the Pocono Devil, the demented local man who lived in a shack deep in the woods. I didn’t believe in aliens. But on that night, it was as if a veil had been raised, a blindfold loosened. My skepticism extended inward: Who was I to say the stories weren’t true? Who was I to say the world made sense? Camp was the world and the world was camp, and who was I to ordain what was and what wasn’t?
I tried to get Steph on the walkie, but instead of her voice a weird, melodic clicking came out.
Fully spooked, I turned to sprint back up the path to safety, but just then a noise broke out into the clearing—something like an ancient battle horn, or giant shofar. There was a smell, too, one I could only liken to the way my uncle’s basement had smelled when I visited him in Havertown and saw for the first time his snake collection, that fluorescent-lighted space stocked with shelves of Tupperware containers, different types of snakes coiled up inside the plastic. Dung and death and leather.
To make matters worse, it was then that a harsh yellow light woke up under the grey waters of the lake. The light was dim at first, but after only a few seconds it intensified, like a semi-truck with its brights on was crawling from the deep toward the surface. The horn noise sounded again and something metal-looking eased out of the water.
And then it was daytime and I was cold and sore and prone. I had woken up in the forest, a few paces off from the lake, with a pile of vomit next to me and my shoes kicked off. My clothes were wet and swampy. It was daylight. Birds were chirping.
I had no time to process any of it. Already well-derelict of duty, I shot up off of the ground and grabbed the walkie talkie, which had been barking for I didn’t know how long.
It was a miracle—and a sign of the times—that I wasn’t fired. After informing me that they’d found Levi safe and sound, Andy asked what the fuck happened and I lobbed some flaccid (but true) excuse at him about passing out, dehydration, really played up my weakness, which must have been evident, because after a short burst of anger Andy began to look at me with genuine concern.
I sat in his office on his sticky leather couch and sipped creamy coffee from a Styrofoam cup as he told me the story.
Levi had been found early that morning by a stranger, two miles away, on a quiet dirt road, in someone’s driveway, curled up in the bed of a truck. Apparently, the owner of the truck was a hunter and had nearly shot Levi, thinking he was a thief, or large raccoon. “Real Pocono guy,” Andy said. “Called the office at four-thirty in the morning. Only knew Levi was one of ours from the Timber Falls T-shirt.”
“Obviously, we’re sending Levi home.”
“Putting him on a plane to Florida in a few hours, whenever he’s ready.”
“And the parents?”
Andy smirked. “Levi’s dad is an old friend of mine—an old camper. He’ll understand.”
I tried to imagine Levi’s father, a typical camp guy, sporty, willful, crude. I felt a pang of sympathy for Levi. He must have felt so alone.
“Anyway,” Andy continued, “It’s no one’s fault. If a kid wants to run away, he can. All we can do is find him, which we did.”
“Where is he now?” I asked, remembering—fuzzily, as if through tulle—what had happened to me at the lake: the spaceship under the water, the yellow light, my bewitched footsteps, and how it all mimicked Levi’s drawing.
“At the infirmary,” Andy said. “But—“
I didn’t wait to hear the rest.
The infirmary was a dusty old cabin where almost always you’d find a kid or two crouched over a chum bucket spitting up bile. But on that day, there was only Levi, which lent the cedar interior a sequestered feeling, like the entire camp had unconsciously gleaned the story of his misfortune and resolved to leave him well alone.
The nurse raised her eyebrows when I walked in and nodded coldly to the back of the infirmary, the private rooms, where I found Levi looking pale and defeated, though stoic. He held his head high and read from a book about dragons, one leg tucked under the tangled top sheet, the other propped up. He still had a few bits of leaf and twig in his hair.
“Levi,” I said.
He looked up at me and his eyes widened.
“You alright? Jesus. What happened?”
For a moment I thought he would cry, but he didn’t. He deliberated, then turned his attention back to the dragon book and didn’t answer.
“Levi,” I stepped closer, lowering my voice. “I went to the lake last night.”
Levi blushed, eyes still on his book.
“Listen, I saw them.”
I wanted him to smile, breathe a sigh of relief. Levi blinked and said nothing.
“You can tell me the truth. I believe you now. I went down last night and saw them. Their spaceship is under the lake, right?”
Levi stayed quiet, but I could tell that the mention of the aliens had struck a chord.
“Levi. I’m sorry I didn’t try to help you earlier. But now I am. And you can help me to.”
Levi remained silent.
Levi sensed blood in the water. He sensed an opportunity, one he’d obviously never encountered before.
We stayed like that for a moment, festering in the swill of each other’s divergent wills. Then Levi sighed and let his posture go. He was tired, confused, and wanted to be left alone—but I was tired, too, and I wanted him to say something, to admit to what we had shared.
“Levi, come on man, I said I believe you. Didn’t you hear me?”
Levi squinted his eyes. “Whaddya mean?”
“Your drawings. I went down to the lake, last night, looking for you, and I saw them too. The aliens. Isn’t that a relief? They’re real. I believe you.”
It was the moment for us to connect, for me to admit that I understood him better than he thought and for him to admit that the aliens were real. But Levi sensed blood in the water. He sensed an opportunity, one he’d obviously never encountered before. An opportunity to subjugate someone, to humiliate them.
“Aliens don’t exist,” he said, coldly.
“Levi,” I soothed.
“Only crazy people see aliens.”
He accompanied the words with a blank stare, a sort of challenging one. He was relishing in the moment, his first camp victory. I wanted to explain to him that this was no time for antagonism, but before I could say anything more I heard a familiar voice back at the front desk.
Steph would have heard what happened by then. She must have come rushing down from the art shack to check on her favorite camper. And though I knew that this was yet another opportunity to share something with her, perhaps even the truth—that Levi wasn’t lying, that what he had drawn was as real as anything, and that I, too, had experienced the aliens—I also recognized that I could never tell her these things, or that I didn’t want to, and that even if I did, Levi wouldn’t back me up. The truth wasn’t for Steph, or anyone else. Not this truth, at least. This was for me and Levi alone.
I slipped out of the back door before she could find me there. I didn’t say anything more to Levi. In fact, it was the last time we spoke. That was how we left things. I went back to my bunk and slept until Andy walkied to tell me that he was driving Levi to the airport.
With the help of a few of his bunk counselors, I packed Levi’s things into his duffel and walked it out to Andy’s car. Levi was in the back seat. He said nothing to me when I placed his bag on the seat beside him.
“Alright,” Andy said. “Say goodbye.”
Levi didn’t look at me. He kept his eyes straight, focusing on the windshield of Andy’s Chevy Tahoe.
“He must be tired,” I said.
Andy nodded and closed the door.
I retreated to the steps off the front office, and watched them drive out of camp, down the mountain, and back to civilization, thinking I would never see or hear of Levi Friedland again. But I was wrong about that—at least in certain sense—because today, thirty years later: a surprise.
Like any other morning I woke up alone and made coffee alone and undertook my pre-writing ritual, retrieving the newspaper from my front stoop and perusing its contents at the kitchen counter.
At first, it seemed to be like any other edition. War, congressional gridlock, a small refinery explosion—nothing new in the city. In fact, I almost put the paper down before some unknown impetus compelled me to flip over to the Metro section, where he was waiting, like a secret out of the past. After all these years: Levi Friedland. The same blonde hair, the same wide nose, those playful eyes. I knew it was him from the moment I saw his photo.
The picture showed three doctors in white lab coats; Levi stood on the left with his arms crossed seriously. The trials of childhood were nothing to him now. He was thirty-something, idealistic, successful.
Doctors Pioneer New, Life-Saving Robotic Surgery, the headline read.
Apparently, Levi and his two partners had found a way to mitigate human error. They used a joystick-and-button interface to make exact incisions, and minuscule cameras to check their work. The procedure rendered the folds and cisterns of the heart more easily navigable, the knots and clusters of the knee, the interdependent tendrils of the human neck.
“Ever since I was a child,” a quote from Levi read, at the bottom of the piece, “I knew that I was meant to do something like this. I just hope our discoveries can help people.”
Dr. Friedland divides his time between family and work, but sometimes the equation can become lopsided.
“The work has to come first, unfortunately,” Levi said. “That’s the price you pay for trying to save lives.”
As impressive as all of that was, the first thing I thought of when I read the article was camp. Not Levi’s ingenuity, or the impressive medical innovation he’d assisted in pioneering, or the fact that he had a family where I had nothing. No, I thought of camp, the confused little boy who disappeared from his bunk every night. Could the man in the newspaper really be the same Levi? Had Levi really escaped the bounds of disquietude that I knew—now in my middle-ages—would hold me forever? Had he really made it?
Which gave me an idea for a story.
So I climbed up to my study and opened the blinds and sat down at my desk and began to sketch something out, eventually stumbling onto a certainty of where, at least, the story would begin.
A man returns to his old summer camp for a visiting day reunion. He wears a suit to the function, wanting to denote his success, but the man quickly realizes that he is overdressed and begins to feel hesitant, anxious.
He will call and call and sit on the artificial beach and yearn to be visited, to be made whole once again.
At the mess hall he encounters old bunkmates, counselors, lifeguards, rock-climbing instructors. He smiles, shakes hands, scoops crinkle-cut fries onto a paper plate, but feels entirely empty, un-cored, preoccupied by the ghost of a memory he can’t ascertain the specifics of. “Levi,” someone says, “do you remember me? I’m . . . ”—but our protagonist can’t focus, and soon feels himself being drawn out of the mess hall, away from the people, across the campus, past the faerie-lit cabins, down the gravel path through the woods, and finally to the lake, where he realizes the truth of things: that all of the successes and pleasures of his life are due not to his gamesome spirit, defiant pluck, or strength of will—not to any characteristic of his, at all, in fact—but to a solitary experience he had at camp many years before, at this very lakeside, as a child, when he was visited by aliens.
Slipping off his shoes and socks and toeing out onto the sand, our protagonist will remember the night when he saw a strange light under the surface of the lake and woke up the next day miles from it all, in the back of some stranger’s truck. With his feet now in the murky water, our protagonist will call out into the air: I am here again. Come and see me. He will call and call and sit on the artificial beach and yearn to be visited, to be made whole once again. It was them all along, he will think. His family (he will have one, for the purposes of our story) will feel far from him, like a dream, like a story, and from the falseness of this love he will realize that the past is a story and that the future is one too and that if a person feels alone and unloved in the present moment then they’ve probably always been alone and unloved and maybe always will be—at least until a subsequent moment changes the equation. Life is a corridor with one million doors and each door you open has a room—but who is to say the room existed before you opened it? Who is to say that there isn’t a void behind every other door?
And then something else will happen. I’m not sure yet what it will be, but I know that something has to change.
Maybe a light comes from the deep. Maybe five grey figures emerge from the lake, circle the man, walk him into their spaceship slumbering beneath the man-made waters, and take him away—or maybe that doesn’t happen at all. Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe the man’s old counselor emerges from the bushes, weary and middle-aged, and maybe the two men share an understanding they should have shared years before, have a frank conversation about what is and what isn’t—or maybe our protagonist has a heart attack and dies before that can happen. Maybe an understanding is never reached. Maybe, hundreds of miles away, a nuclear warhead meets concrete in a large American city. Maybe a bear slinks out of the woods and the whole narrative shifts to one of preternatural survival—because that’s what life is: you think you know your struggle and you gear yourself up to fight it and then some prevailing force enters and your squabble exits and you’re left alone on stage in front of your whole seventh grade class and the curtain won’t close and the music is starting and someone is putting a microphone in your hands and you’re supposed to say something that suddenly makes everything make sense, or worse yet—oh god—you’re supposed to sing.
But an ending will come. And with it a realization. Something about life. Something about camp. Something about human kindness, and compassion. Something about love.