Chapter 1: S'mores and scary stories


The kids were gathered around the campfire, roasting marshmallows. Eight warm little bodies formed a loose circle ringing the crackling fire, all holding their sticks above the flames, bobbing the sticks up and down less in an attempt to find the perfect roasting spot than in a struggle to keep the long, unbalanced rods aloft.
“How’s everyone doing?” Myra asked, watching for any sign of tears or aggression triggered by a fiery marshmallow casualty or perceived fire-hogging.
“Good,” a chorus of young voices chimed.
“Almost ready for s’mores?” she asked.
“Yes!” they cried.
Myra broke graham crackers into crumbly squares and chocolate bars into sweet rectangles. The children congregated around her, and she guided them into a semblance of a line. Each child in turn held up the marshmallow end of their stick, and Myra slid it off between the jaws of two graham crackers, the bottom one topped with chocolate. She handed eight s’mores to eight eager children, and they reconvened around the fire to munch their creations.
Alex pulled his marshmallow from the fire and walked behind the children to Myra. He lifted two graham crackers from the depleted stack and attempted to hold the stick steady with his legs to slide off the marshmallow.
Myra laughed as she watched him. “Need a hand?” she said.
“No,” he said uncertainly, the stick swaying dangerously between his knees.
She stood and held the stick steady. “Don’t be proud,” she said. “This is how s’mores are made. It’s a two-person job.”
He relinquished the stick and used both hands to free the marshmallow from the stick onto the graham crackers. “Thanks,” he said, grinning at her.
“It’s my job,” she teased. “It’s written in my contract: Must oversee s’mores creation and assist all struggling individuals in completing their campfire desserts.”
“Yes,” he said, nodding mock-pensively at the legal jargon, lost in thought as he looked at her. She held his gaze for a long minute before turning back to the fire.
He sat next to her. The children were finishing their last bites, licking melted chocolate from their fingers and unwittingly transferring it to the corners of their mouths. Alex lifted his s’more and opened his mouth, just about to take a bite when he paused and looked at Myra next to him. “You didn’t make one,” he said.
“No, I needed my hands free,” she said.
“Here, have mine.” He held his s’more out to her.
She shook her head. “That’s all right,” she said.
He continued to proffer the gooey concoction. “Go ahead. I haven’t taken a bite yet.”
“Actually,” she said tentatively, “your marshmallow was pretty burnt. The chocolate’s not going to cover the taste of that blackened shell.”
He lowered the s’more. “I see,” he said. “It doesn’t meet your standards.” Before she could apologize again, he took a giant bite and chewed. The sticky marshmallow gummed up the crumbling cracker, coated by the molten chocolate. He chewed thoroughly, gazing into the orange fire, and finally swallowed.
“Well?” she said.
Nodding, he turned to her. “You’re right, s’mores connoisseur. It tasted sweet, sticky, crunchy, and also burnt.”

After a follow-up round of marshmallow roasting and s’mores consumption during which Myra toasted a paragon of a golden-brown marshmallow, she called the children to attention. They squinted at her around the fire. She announced, “As the girls know, Camp Embla has a tradition of starting out the first night with a good scary story.” The four girls nodded vigorously in agreement. Myra smiled and continued, “To welcome the boys this year, I’d like to invite our new counselor Alex to start us off this summer.” She turned to Alex and said, projecting her voice as if they were onstage, “Can you rise to the challenge?”
He put his hands to his hips and said, “I can, and it’s an honor.” He cleared his throat, glanced around conspiratorially, and began. “I grew up a few towns over from Ash Lake. It was known for being the clearest, warmest, best swimming lake in the county. The sand was soft and pure without any rocks or weeds to hurt your feet. You could see down to the bottom of the lake, and it was deep enough that you could dive but shallow enough that the sun warmed it all the way through so it felt like bathwater in August. But even though it was the perfect lake, there was one strange thing about it.”
He paused. The kids all leaned in.
Looking around in a circle to catch each listener’s gaze, he said, “No one swam in it.”
The children whispered to each other in confusion. “But it was perfect,” one of the girls insisted, her eyes wide.
“Yes, it was,” Alex confirmed. “But no one swam in it because they knew what had happened there.” He raised his eyebrows. “They knew what happened before, and they knew it could happen to them.”
The fire flickered and hissed as the children stared at him, waiting to hear what could happen to them.
He said, “One summer years ago, a boy was stuck indoors on a beautiful day. He asked his mother if he could go swimming in the lake, but she said that it wasn’t safe for him to go without her, and she needed to stay at home to finish her chores. She said he could go play outside in the woods instead. He could play anywhere on land. She knew her son wouldn’t get lost or hurt in the woods by himself, but going swimming alone was another matter.”
“The boy was disappointed, but he set out for the woods. It was early afternoon. The sun was almost straight overhead, bright and warm on his face and shoulders. The whole world was green, leaves lush along tree branches and grass and moss carpeting the ground, everything glowing dappled green in the sun with the wind rustling the leaves and making the light shimmer.
“The ground was warm under the boy’s bare feet. The dirt was smooth and the grass was soft. The boy walked into the woods along the trail. He listened to the birds call to one another, caught a glimpse of a garter snake slithering near his feet, a pair of shy white-tailed deer scampering farther away from the path.
“He ventured deep into the woods, noticing the hidden details of the woods around him, climbing over fallen tree trunks and shimmying under tangled branches. He hiked and skipped and backtracked and peeked under leaves and touched a mossy rock with his fingertips. He felt like he was discovering the whole world, that he was becoming a part of it, he was in the forest and he was the forest, along with the deer and the trees and the moss.
“Time had passed quickly and it was already late afternoon. The sun was beginning its lazy up-north summer descent, still high above but having shined and heated the earth for many long hours that day. Sweat beaded on the boy’s forehead and made his shirt stick to his back. It was so obvious and natural, so right, what to do next. Now that he had immersed himself in the forest, warmed by the land, he needed to cool himself in the water. He needed to go swimming.
“He trekked out of the forest and over to Ash Lake. The lake was quiet. He was the only person around, maybe for miles. But after the woods, he knew that the lake was far from deserted. He heard the frogs croaking their throaty welcome, the constant thrum of insects humming. He stripped off his sticky clothing, felt the breeze refreshing his skin, the sun pressing its rays like handprints on his body.
“He squinted as he walked across the beach and down the dock. The sun reflected off the water, sending bright beams piercing into his sensitive eyes, like an overeager dog unaware of its own strength as it greeted him. The water looked like diamonds, liquid gems that would envelop him in the currency of coolness. He walked to the end of the dock. The wooden planks were dry and brittle from years of weathering, a reminder not to linger, he was almost there. He curled his toes around the dock’s edge, raised his arms and held them together to form a point over his head. He bent his knees, centered himself, and pushed off with his toes, sending his body up and out and down in a loose arch.
“His fingers sliced into the water, then his wrists, his arms, head, torso, and legs all following in turn, the gems flowing aside to admit him. The water erased his sweat and fatigue in a moment.
“The boy swam quickly to the center of the lake, where the water was deepest and cleanest. The more he swam, the more relaxed he became. Like in the forest, he felt connected to the lake around him and the fish below him and the water striders pattering over the lake’s surface. But unlike in the forest, he didn’t feel that heightened sense of vigor, like his heart was expanding in infinite endurance and empathy. Instead he felt dampened, his relaxation arising from the feeling of being so very tired that all other concerns became insignificant. The promise of rest smoothed over the usual worries and made his whole world feel as smooth and beautiful as glass, as the glassy surface of the lake on the stillest day.
“The lake was unaccustomed to a presence like the boy’s. He was the only person swimming that day, and usually there was no one at all. His youth and vitality were rare and the lake was pleasantly surprised. The boy was like honey on bitter greens. The lake was static and the boy was perpetual motion. The boy’s energy was at the peak of a mountain, and the lake’s energy rested at the base. It was inevitable, a natural law, that his energy ran down the slope and collected in the lake, giving it unprecedented strength.
“His arms grew heavier and his strokes slowed. His ankles felt weighted down, and they drifted deeper, from kicking at the surface to floating a foot under. The water pressed against the soles of his feet and filled the gaps between his toes. His eyelids, which had been so reactive and protective as they squinted against the sun, now softened and lolled over his eyes. His head dipped underwater, and his hair that had been stringy and wet over his forehead now reached outward from his scalp as if held by static electricity, a gentle current that siphoned the energy from his limbs and face and heart out through the waving strands of hair that framed his face like a halo.
“His body came to a standstill, limbs unmoving, eyes unblinking, mouth slightly open without a trace of bubbles emerging. His face was smooth and pale as sculpture, frozen in a moment of idle calm.
“The frogs kept croaking, the birds kept calling, and the sun kept shining down on the still, glassy surface of the lake.”
Alex fell silent. The fire crackled as it chewed the remaining logs. It sent up showers of sparks that twinkled in the children’s eyes as they stared, immobilized and spellbound, at their storyteller. He stretched the silence, digging into it to create a dark pit that everyone imagined gazing down, unable to see the bottom but equally unable to look up.
At last he said, “After the boy was found, parents knew better than to let their children swim in Ash Lake, and children knew better than to want to. As everyone stayed away, the lake’s abandonment intensified. It scarcely ever encountered a human being. It settled back into stillness and tranquility, a sleepy never-ending daydream. But after it met the boy, it acquired a new undertone of restlessness: a tickle, a hum that went against its apparent serenity.”
Somber and hushed, Alex said, “To this day, people know to be cautious near Ash Lake. When you’re with your friends, laughing together, absorbed in each other’s company, you won’t even notice anything. But if you go by yourself and listen very carefully, you can hear the lake’s impatience, that low unrest, almost like a hungry stomach rumbling.”
The children were frozen, eyes wide, mouths open. Alex studied their faces for a long moment, holding eye contact with each one. Then he leaned back, sighing, and said, “Welcome to Camp Embla.”
Rousing herself from what felt like a deep hibernation, Myra said, “Thank you, Alex, for the introduction.” The children were still lost in the transcendent fog of a vivid story, so to bring them back she clapped her hands together and said, “Who wants another s’more?”

After the third course of s’mores, the children were quiet with honest sleepiness. Myra took the four girls, Alex the four boys. The counselors tucked the kids into plastic-mattressed, wooden-framed bunk beds in their respective cabins.
Myra fetched a bucket, filled it with water from the outdoor spigot, and lugged the heavy bucket over to the fire without sloshing too much water out. She poured the contents over the expiring fire, squelching the remains of the hardiest flames with a steady stream of water. A plume of smoke rose like a dying breath. The water fizzed over the sooty logs as it fully extinguished the fire.
She straightened, holding the handle of the empty bucket, to find Alex sitting on one of the stumps around the fire pit. He was watching her now, and probably had been watching her as she performed this nightly duty.
Without the fire, the circle was lit only by the stars. The bulbs by each of the cabins and the outhouse glowed from afar, invitingly yellow, but they offered no illumination beyond a small radius of artificial light around the buildings. Myra felt her way through bluish-black darkness to sit next to Alex.
“Any more chores for the night?” he asked. She could see his outline but not his features, and his voice rose from a silhouette rather than a speaking mouth.
“Not really,” she said. “The fire is the main one. You know, making sure the camp doesn’t burn down while we sleep.”
Silence had felt natural around the fire, where the dancing flames centered everyone around a hypnotic display, but now that the fire was out, the quiet felt itchy and awkward.
“So,” Alex said. “What did you think of my story? How does it compare to past years?”
She shrugged, then realized he wouldn’t notice that slight motion in the dark. “It was okay,” she said.
“Okay?” he repeated. “Just okay? The kids seemed pretty scared.”
“I suppose,” she conceded. “They like getting into the mood. But to be honest, it’s not exactly the scariest story we’ve ever heard here.”
“No?” he said.
She was shrugging in vain again. It was too difficult to be polite at night. “The bad guy is a lake,” she said. “There’s no effective fear there. When you’re lying in your creaky bed at night, staring at the ceiling in the pitch blackness, you don’t worry that a lake is going to sneak in through the window and get you.”
“No?” he repeated.
She was almost annoyed now. “No, you don’t. A lake is just not scary.”
“Fine, I get it,” he said. “I hope the kids weren’t too disappointed. I’ll work on my scary story skills.”
“No, it was decent,” she backpedaled. “The kids liked it. You had a good build-up. I just think you could have had a stronger ending.”
“All right,” he said. She thought they were finished, but just as she opened her mouth to say goodnight, he said, “Just remember. The initial impact matters, but good scary stories are about instilling a seed of fear that grows into something deeper.”
“Okay,” she said. “Yeah.” She stood up now, sweeping off the dirt that clung to her backside. “Make sure you’re up early tomorrow to get breakfast ready.”
“I will,” he said. “Goodnight, Myra.”
She nodded, caught herself, said, “You, too.”
They went their opposite ways, Myra to the girls’ cabin, Alex to the boys’, each heading toward their own yellow lightbulb like moths to private flames.
The cabin held two bunk beds for the four girls, plus a single bed for Myra. She cracked the door open and tiptoed in to avoid waking the girls. She saw a small blanketed lump in each bed, a sleeping child reduced to a dark oval. Myra slipped off her shoes and jeans, wriggled out of her bra, and slid into the sleeping bag she had spread over her mattress earlier. It felt the same as it always did. She had slept in this same bag every summer for nearly a decade. She knew the slippery feeling of the inner nylon shell against her skin, and where to find the hole in the side seam that she felt for when insomnia struck. She’d fallen asleep in this cabin dozens of times over the years, but tonight she lay awake, holding her breath and listening for the girls’ gentle inhales and exhales. She couldn’t tell if she could actually hear them breathing or if she just imagined it and was really hearing her own pulse in her ears, a seashell effect.

She’d told Alex that his story wasn’t as scary as past tales, but that wasn’t strictly true. It wasn’t less scary, it was just a different type of scary. The girls invented stories about ghosts and hodags and hidebehinds, but it was all make-believe. Alex had crossed a line, gone somewhere ugly and inappropriate. Instead of finishing a story giggling and shrieking with jumpy excitement at imaginary creatures, the children had been stunned, their bodies motionless and their gazes vacant as they imagined their sibling, cousin, friend, themselves, floating, just barely submerged, a lone lifeless body in a hungry lake. Myra wasn’t annoyed that he’d told a mediocre story; she was disgusted that he’d told a horror story.