Shelby cried underwater. She treaded in the deep end and sank beneath the surface slowly so that the pine-tree horizon shrunk while the blackness grew right before her eyes. She cried into her goggles, coming up for air only to pour out the sad saltwater globs onto the surface of the lake and watch them swim away from her.
The counselors noticed this, and one day after Free Swim, they pulled her aside to ask if she would want her mother to send new goggles, since the ones she had now must obviously be cracked. Shelby, green foam noodle in hand, white bathing cap still on head, shorts already high on her waist so that a round stain of lake water shone between her pudgy legs, shook her head conclusively.
“These goggles are a family heirloom,” she said in a way that made it sound obviously untrue, yet was also hiding a very large truth beneath it.
The counselors nodded and took the noodle from Shelby. They didn’t press the matter, but they did strongly suggest she change her shorts.
Shelby cried in the shower. She cried with shampoo in her hair, with soap on her stomach. When a counselor pulled her aside, she explained that her eyes were red because she had gotten shampoo in them. The counselor didn’t press the matter, but she did suggest that Shelby start using a larger towel to cover up her body.
Shelby decided she didn’t need friends to have a good time at camp. She read books. She became an expert canoer. During breakfast, she counted the blueberries in her muffin and the raisins in her cereal bowl. On group hikes, she studied the trees and moss, clearly enjoying the scenery far too much to contribute to the conversation.
Shelby cried in the morning. The counselors said that nighttimes were the loneliest, but Shelby liked the night because it meant she would get to sleep soon. In the morning, every camper woke up to the traditional trumpet song played by Anthony, the camp director’s 15-year-old nephew. It was the same tune every day, yet Anthony never got it right, and his trumpet squeaked and squawked through the loudspeaker as Shelby wiped hot liquid from her eyes and tried to remember her dreams.
Shelby’s least favorite part of the day was also every other camper’s favorite part of the day. When it was least expected, a counselor would shout “Mail Time!” as loud as they could. The camp was too big for one person’s voice to carry all the way across, so another counselor would hear the “Mail Time!” call and join in. Then more counselors would call “Mail Time!” from the canoes, the horse stables, the tennis courts, and the bathrooms. Then, of course, the campers would bob up and down in the water, sit up in bed, do a little dance in the dining hall, singing “Mail Time!” until the entire camp was shouting and it no longer sounded like decipherable words but hysterical noise, like several hundred women in a burning building, pleading for help.
The other campers liked to read their parents’ letters because they had a spoken agreement that they loved each other. At one point in their lives, usually more, every camper’s mom and dad said “I love you” to them like they meant it and the camper said “I love you back,” and they have been saying it and feeling it ever since. These letters were long and handwritten. Sometimes, a mom would write a word and then think of a better word, a word she knew would please her child even more, and you could see the crossed-out word replaced by the new word, the physical evidence of love. These letters had multiple colors, P.S.s and stickers. The campers liked to compare letters, to discuss whose mom and dad loved them the most. Everybody won.
In the middle of the summer, the camp director called Shelby’s mother and gently suggested she mail Shelby a letter or two. The director told her about Mail Time and how it was every camper’s favorite part of the day. However, the director did not mention the crossed-out words that were replaced by new words, because no one should have to be told about that.
“I hadn’t thought about doing that,” said Shelby’s mother as if a neighbor had shown up at her front door and suggested she examine the inside of her gutters for mold.
Shelby did get a letter during the second-to-last week which, after reading, she folded a dozen times and tucked beneath a loose wooden plank in the cabin floor. The letter was typed and on the back was an old invitation for a New Year’s party.
Your father and I went to a dinner party at the Millers' last night. Tons of fun — the blackened cod was exceptional. Have a good time at camp and make lots of friends.
Mail was distributed every day by Pete. Pete was the camp director’s other nephew, but only through marriage, and he was older and his future was far less bright than Anthony’s. Pete was in charge of maintenance and drove a particularly noisy golf cart that made it easy to tell when he was nearby. In fact, since Pete hardly spoke and was never too far from his cart, an impression of Pete by camper and counselor alike was typically a poor reenactment of an exhaust pipe.
Pete got out of jail two years ago. Every once in a while, when a camper was brave enough to approach the cart and ask what it was like in there, Pete would shrug, scrutinize a far-off pine tree, and say “one big party.”
Pete used to toss Shelby envelopes he had stuffed with different flavored bubblegum until the other campers caught on and the camp director pulled him aside.
Also, every Tuesday night at 3 a.m., Pete would walk down to the lake, strip off all his clothes, and dive into the water. He would tread water in the deep end, where he kept his eyes open and watched the different shades and shapes of blackness swim like fish, dodging the moonlight. No one knew that Pete did this, and no one would ever find out — not the director, the campers, Shelby, not Pete’s friends, nor his future wife or future children. It was a secret so well kept sometimes Pete had to wonder if it actually happened at all, or if he really was as crazy as people kept suggesting.