Inspired by “Gracie’s Theme” by Paul Cardall

You walk through the woods in the dim light of dawn. You’re surprised by how far your memory has taken you. The path is narrower now, nearly clogged with young bushes and saplings. The buildings are still here, ready to collapse, covered in moss and vines, bleached pale or rotted to muddy brown. It’s your memory, not your eyes, that tells you where the ruins end and the undergrowth begins.

Your feet stop in front of the first cabin on the right. A large, wrought-iron number two glints in the sunlight, as black as the charred wood it’s nailed to. You can’t open that familiar door. You don’t want to see how much of your old home-away-from-home nature has reclaimed. Instead, you clear away a patch of dead leaves, pine needles, and acorns and sit down on the stoop. How many times over how many summers did you sit in this exact spot and watch the camp settle for the night? All that’s missing is ice cream.

Past the cabins, through a gap in the trees, the lake shimmers in the growing sunlight. You remember swimming in that lake and the bonfires on the beach. More memories surface, of archery class, of camp-wide capture the flag games, of pranking the other cabins after dark. Five faces appear in all of them – your old friends.

The six of you did everything together. You were so close that rumors spread of you and Brice dating and of Jamie and Alex being secret lesbian lovers. None of you cared. You were a group – inseparable during the summer and as inseparable as you could be the rest of the year while spread across three different states.

It was on this very stoop that you made a promise. You would return in five years after camp closed for the summer. “We’ll bribe the landlord to let us in if we have to,” Diego declared as you all shook on it.

That was three months before the fire. It’d have been one thing if it was lightning or a wildfire. But it wasn’t. “Some sicko with a grudge snuck in and torched the place” was how Greg put it. Once the arsonist was arrested and jailed, that was the end of it. Nothing about why they did it. Just the news that Camp Cottonwood was closed for good.

Still, your group kept in touch – for a while. You shared pictures of prom and graduation then drifted apart. All but Brice. By Easter, he stopped replying and disappeared. You didn’t realize how often you thought about him, how much you liked him, till that spring. You couldn’t have guessed how deeply you would miss him.

Now you’re here, five years later, on the promised day. You doubt anyone will come. You could’ve tried reminding the others, sure, but their addresses and numbers could’ve changed for all you know. It took enough courage to book the hotel in town and make the trip here. Maybe it’s better if you spend the day alone, if you’re the only fool who remembered.

Someone calls your name. You look up, and there stands Brice. Time has worn on him. His hair’s shorter, the beginnings of a beard cling to his chin, and his eyes aren’t as bright as you remember. But he’s still Brice. The guys back home still can’t hold a candle to him.

“I thought you might be here,” he says.

You talk for a minute or two, but the shock won’t let you go far beyond hello. You can barely hear what you are saying to each other. The only thing that sticks is Brice telling you how everyone is waiting somewhere.

“Wait. Everyone?” you ask.

“Yeah. Everyone.”

“Every one?”

“Every one.” Brice gives you his hand and that wide smile he always wore when he’s plotting a surprise. You take his hand and walk with him back toward the camp’s entrance.

Sure enough, there are more cars parked in the gravel lot just inside the front gate. All of your old friends – Jamie, Alex, Greg, Diego – are unloading chairs, grills, fishing poles and coolers. They stop long enough to shout and wave happily at you. Everyone is here, just like Brice had said.

©2020 Joyce Lewis. All rights reserved.