By Jonathan Papernick
That summer, the boys of Owl Bunk called the new kid who never spoke “Polio Arms,” “Mr. Skin and Bones,” and sometimes, when feeling particularly cruel, they called him “Biafran Man.” Most of the kids at Camp Elk Horn knew each other from their privileged lives back in the city and the elite neighborhoods and suburbs of Westchester County in which their parents themselves had been raised—from middle school and Sunday school, weekend soccer games and track meets, to Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys where they bought brand-name everything without a second thought of expense. They shipped out for the wilderness for eight weeks every summer and returned to their parents tanned, healthy, and full of a youthful, loudmouthed bravado that is often mistaken for self-confidence.
They didn’t know the skinny kid with big teeth and all the wrong clothes who came on financial scholarship—a foster kid out for his first summer at camp. They’d never seen anything like him before. He was short for his age, starved looking, with pale chopstick legs, protruding belly, and prominent ribs pressed hard against his child-sized Mets T-shirt. His ears seemed too big for his head, sticking out awkwardly like vestigial wings. That first day, he sat quietly on his unmade bunk, deflated duffel bag at his feet as Jordan Davis asked him his name, not unkindly, so I’m told. The dark-eyed boy did not even look up, absorbed as he was in some internal dreamscape unfathomable to the hormone-high thirteen-year-old boys of Owl Bunk.
“You’re not going to tell us your name?” he said in disbelief.
The boy said nothing.
“Well, it looks like we’ll have to give you a name ourselves.”
You can still see the graffiti nearly thirty years later, high up under the rafters where they stored their sleeping bags and mess kits, behind the iron frames of their bunk beds, scratched into the soft pine walls: “Eat Shit, Biafran Man,” “B.M. Hungry for Cock!” “Skin and Bones Club: Members, One.”
It was my second summer working at Camp Elk Horn and my first as counselor of the boys of Owl Bunk. I had never gone to camp as a child, and I was entering my senior year at Hunter College in Manhattan. I shared a tiny roach-filled apartment with my two pothead roommates deep in outer Brooklyn near the end of the L line, far beyond the reach of even the most intrepid would-be artists and dreamers. The prospect of spending two months upstate in the wilds of Orange County thrilled me, gave me hope that the future was full of camaraderie and togetherness, rather than the brutish poverty of takeout pizza, one-night stands, and hangovers, a spiritual and financial condition I expected to change little after I graduated the following year with a degree in English literature and no real job skills or prospects.
Over the years there had been stories that had become part of camp lore, the poor kid who wasted away to nothing and simply vanished. Counselors before me had been known to warn their younger campers if they didn’t clean their plates, they would disappear the same way that boy did. But I never went in for that kind of talk, believed it to be in poor taste. I came to camp to have fun, clean fun, not to inflict psychological damage on my juniors.
The strange thing about the boy was, at mealtime, even among the cat calling and cajoling of his bunk mates, he ate like a lumberjack: six grilled cheese sandwiches and a greasy haystack of fries in a sitting; another time he scarfed down three servings of pancakes before the counselor had finished his own towering pile; then there were the three foot longs fully dressed, and the countless servings of spaghetti, oatmeal, and ordinary cold cereal; he even put away terrifying amounts of tuna casserole, a delicacy the rest of the cabin gladly skipped. He ate like he had never eaten before, and he looked the part. For their first Sunday night snack, after campfire, it’s been said, he devoured eight PB&J sandwiches and four glasses of milk. He seemed intrinsically to know when they had messed with his food and slipped Ex-Lax into his chocolate milk or mopped the toilet bowl with his hamburger bun, and he simply looked past it like it wasn’t even there. With all that eating, he never gained any weight. In fact, as the first week rolled into the second, he seemed to be losing weight, barely a pale erasure on the distant horizon of the heat-drenched soccer field.
At swim class, they laughed at the captain of the Starvation Army as his desperate head bobbed on the water like an inflatable buoy; at archery, they drew crude pictures of his face and pinned it to the target; and when Andrew Marks yanked down his Lee jeans flood pants before Blue Jay Bunk, exposing his shriveled hairless penis to the fifteen-year-old girls laughing in their bras and panties, he took it all with stoic resignation. He never cried, never spoke a word of protest as they tortured him with hard-knuckled noogies, towel snaps, atomic wedgies, pink bellies, and cruel, nipple-twisting .
The annual Sadie Hawkins dance was still a mandatory event then, and the counselors made sure every boy and girl attended whether they wanted to or not. He appeared among the happy, dancing teens and preteens in a checked short-sleeved shirt and a mismatched bowtie and patched-at-the-knees corduroy pants which showed several inches of striped, white sweat socks above his battered black shoes. He sat in the dark on the hardwood bench, his feet barely touching the floor. Three or four songs in, a sympathetic counselor-in-training, a yellow-haired girl named Mandy with enormous breasts and silken hair plaited into thick braids asked him to dance. It had to be a joke— it had to be. All the boys worshipped Mandy and a bounty had been out all summer for the first boy who snatched a pair of Mandy’s satin panties.
He barely came up to her shoulders. But as the boys of Owl Bunk looked on, they realized it was no joke at all. He could dance! He spun and twirled and moved about the floor with the ease of a river trout. He and Mandy danced the Time Warp, with a jump to the left, and a step to the right. He thrust his pelvis, and she laughed and held him by those narrow hips, puffing out her red lips like the freakish Dr. Frank-N-Furter. At the end of the dance, she gave him a long hug and he smiled—he actually smiled. It drove the boys of Owl Bunk insane.
Back in their cabin, the boys, pumped full of testosterone and pent-up sexual aggression agreed it was a good time for a game of come on the cookie. Each of the nine boys sat on the floor in a circle around a chocolate chip cookie someone had grabbed at dinner. The premise was simple: they would all masturbate and relieve themselves onto the cookie, the last unfortunate boy to empty his load would have to eat it.
They began with a solemn statement about their words being their bond and the importance of keeping one’s promise. Then they each vowed if they were the last to finish, they would eat the cookie—crumbs, come, and all. Someone dimmed the lights, jury rigging a tarp under the fly-spattered light bulbs, providing a greater sense of occasion. Jordan Davis whipped his out and began chanting “Man-dee, Man-dee, Man-dee!” He was the de facto leader as he already had a full pubic beard and claimed to have gone down on Courtney Strathers the first night of camp. The boys removed what they had with varying degrees of confidence and began beating away to the continuous chant of “Man-dee, Man-dee, Man-dee!”
That was when he arrived, late from the dance after disappearing God knows where, to the sight of nine thirteen-year-old boys, eyes clenched shut, fully in hand. He wore a new braided yellow and blue lanyard bracelet at his wrist. It was David Green who noticed him first, and distracted in his frantic stroking said, “What are you looking at, faggot?” The boy stood frozen in the doorway, afraid to enter and afraid to run. Lights out was in ten minutes and the counselors were smoking illicitly nearby beneath the stand of pines.
Jordan Davis, without missing a beat said, “You’d better hurry up and get started or you’re eating this cookie.”
It would have been hard to tell if he blushed or blanched in that dim light, especially seen through the lens of impending ecstasy, but it would have been clear he had no intention of taking part. He showered in his bathing suit like a shy nine-year-old and dressed in the bathroom after the rest of the cabin had slipped out for breakfast.
“Oh baby, I’m coming,” Jordan Davis said as he tumbled like a rag doll on top of the chocolate chip cookie. A second, third, and fourth boy followed, sliding on their knees through the pearly ejaculate as they made their contributions.
When they were all done their business, you might have thought they would have been mellowed by the sweet release of their vital fluids onto the cookie, the object of their adolescent endeavors satisfied. Still, the thin boy stood there in the doorframe as the brief afterglow was replaced by shame and pride and a half-dozen unnamed emotions.
“Looks like you’ve got to eat it,” one of the boys said, snapping the elastic waistband of his Adidas soccer shorts back into place.
“Yeah, he’ll eat anything.”
He didn’t run or approach the boys—he stayed right where he stood and seemed to try and shrink away to nothing, to dematerialize, as a half-dozen rough hands grabbed him and pushed him face first into the floor. One of the boys tried to yank off his lanyard bracelet, but he tucked his wrist protectively into his armpit as they pushed him closer to the cookie.
“Eat it,” Jordan Davis said, “Eat it or die.”
Someone kicked him and another punched him in the kidney, and he fell forward, his bony ass in the air. Someone called out for a broomstick and said if he didn’t eat the cookie, he was getting corn-holed tonight.
“We’re being fair,” Jordan Davis said, laughing sadistically. “You’ve got a choice, the cookie or the cornhole.”
He shook his head rapidly side to side, signaling no, no, no.
When Andrew Marks appeared with the broomstick, a glob of hot cinnamon toothpaste smeared on the tip, the boy cried out one single word, the only word any of the boys that summer could recall him saying: “Why?”
Then he gathered up the cookie in his trembling hands and began, piece by soggy piece to eat.
“He’s eating it! I can’t believe he’s eating it! That’s totally sick,” one of the boys said, hyperventilating beneath his laughter.
“What would Mandy think of this?”
“Someone get a camera. Quick!”
When he had finished every crumb, exceeding nearly everyone’s most morbid expectations, he stood up and spread his pipe cleaner arms wide to show he had completed the task. His eyes were blank and his mouth a pink blur. And then his little face crumbled, and he threw up everything onto the floor.
In the still silence that followed there was still a chance to show him compassion, humanity—all someone had to do was step forward and hustle him off to the bathroom to clean him up, offer him some Listerine and a few kind words for following through on this terrible enterprise. But the fresh, sour vomit writhing on the cabin floor was an affront to Jordan Davis’s idea of right and wrong, and he nudged the boy forward and said: “You know you’ve got to eat that.”
Nobody in Owl Bunk had ever seen anyone run so fast before, bursting out the screen door like a flash of afternoon sun through a thick stand of trees, he was gone. Without a trace. No one saw him running down the gravel path past the boys’ cabins toward the lake or the dark of the forest. The night watchman saw no one hotfooting it for the main road. He wasn’t hiding behind the girls’ damp towels strung on taut laundry lines or huddled in the dirt by the lakeshore beneath a capsized canoe, he wasn’t up a tree, clinging, clinging, and he wasn’t tucked away beneath a dining table and the protective curtain of the slick ketchup-stained oilcloth.
He was just gone. His disappearance gave new meaning to the saying “disappeared into thin air,” and the boys of Owl Bunk joked, before the of discipline came down, that he had vanished into the thinnest of thin air. The police dragged the lake and found no body. Search parties canvassed the area for a long time afterward, scoured the forest for miles around and found no sign of the boy, no footsteps, no tracks, nothing. Even a platoon of freshman West Point cadets invited up from Garrison early that fall to run their orienteering drills came up empty. He was simply gone.
All those years later the walls had never been whitewashed, the iron-framed bunks remained the same. Boys still came and went and slept beneath the same roof where that boy had suffered. The incident had hardened into something resembling myth more than reality, as most of the campers took the story to be apocryphal anyway. Time has a way of dulling horror to the point at which fact seems more a fiction or fable. But every time I crossed the threshold into Owl Bunk, I felt a great sadness fill me, knowing that if he were still alive today, he would be twice my age.
My summer was going well, the boys of Owl Bunk were age appropriate in their antics and habits, and I was starting to see a girl I liked named Cathy, who was a counselor for the girls of Robin Bunk. I felt competent for the first time in a long time, and I felt confident about the possibility of future success in an adult world.
One afternoon during a nature walk out in the woods with my boys—and by this point of the summer, some four weeks in, I did feel a sense of ownership over them, even kinship, Jason Rose, a tall athletic kid from Scarsdale, appeared before me, banging what I thought was a pair of drumsticks on the side of the tree. Several of the boys had brought drumsticks that summer and clacked them incessantly on tables, floors, walls—would-be Keith Moons or John Bonhams cutting their teeth all summer long. He pounded out a relentless rhythm, chanting what he thought sounded like an ancient Indian spiritual.
I realized though, aside from his Nalgene bottle, that he had entered the woods empty-handed. I didn’t want my boys littering the pristine floor of the forest with their comic books and candy wrappers, so I always made sure to check before we headed out that no one was carrying anything they might leave in the woods. I asked Jason where he got the sticks and he said, “Over there. In the ditch.”
Three or four boys stood at the foot of a giant pine tree, staring down at something I could not see. As I approached, I heard one of the boys ask, “You think it’s human?”
“Naw, probably a bear cub or something.”
As soon as I saw the bones, curled in a bed of dry leaves in what looked like a fetal position, I knew it was that poor boy, clutching his scrawny knees to his chest for close to thirty years. He looked so small, like a child in second or third grade. Tiny shreds of clothing were still fused to the bone in places. And the lanyard bracelet Mandy told the newspapers she had given him that night after the Sadie Hawkins dance, he was still wearing it. I didn’t want to alarm my boys, but I felt a surge of panic rise in my throat. This boy had died alone in the woods and had never even been given a proper burial. How could it be that nobody ever found him until now?
“Don’t move,” I told the boys, deputizing Andy Sears who had just celebrated his fourteenth birthday and had a mangy scribble of mustache on his upper lip. “I’ll be right back. Just don’t touch anything.”
I ran as fast as I could to the Program Director’s office and found him sipping a cup of coffee behind his desk. I told him what I found, and he said, “Jesus Christ. After all this time, this is the last thing we need.”
The program director was a veteran of over forty summers at Camp Elk Horn, first as a camper, then as a counselor-in-training, then counselor, head of sailing, section head and for the last three summers serving in his current position as PD. His attorney’s brain contained the entire institutional memory of Camp Elk Horn, and he could easily recall the bad times as well as the good. He knew by heart the names and home phone numbers of camp’s biggest donors and planned to be buried at the foot of the camp flagpole when he died. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair short and dark Ray-Bans dangled from blue Croakies around his neck. “What exactly do you want me to do?”
“I think the child at least deserves a decent burial.”
“He’s not a child,” the program director said. “He’s not anything at all anymore. Listen, he has no family to speak of, he’s barely a memory. Why do we want to bring back all that pain and heartache just to move some bones from one place to another?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
A window fan whirred, filling the momentary silence as the program director searched for the right words. A strip of flypaper dangling above his head quivered.
“Do you know how much enrollment dropped after that poor boy died? Trust me I was as horrified as anybody, but that was a long time ago, a generation ago. More, even. It took nearly ten years to get enrollment back up to where it was before the incident, and I’m not about to remind the world that one of our campers died while under our care.”
“You can’t just leave his bones out there,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said after a moment. “We’ll gather them up and put them away somewhere.”
“Just put them away?” I said. “Where? In a storage closet somewhere with the old softball pennants and sailing trophies?”
“What do you want? A memorial, a benefit concert? This is ancient history.” The program director stood up, pushed his chair back and slipped on his Ray-Bans. “Show me where.”
When we returned to the woods, the boys were going crazy, running here and there chasing each other with upraised bones in their hands, whooping and hollering with the kind of boundless joy that is unique to the very young. Wolf Bunk had joined them in their merrymaking and howled through the woods clattering slim leg and arm bones like swords. Wolf Bunk’s counselor Robbie, an illicit marijuana smoker, was nowhere to be seen and Andy Sears stood guard helplessly over the remains of the remains. He was crying. “I tried, I tried, but I couldn’t stop them.” He cradled something in his muscled arms and handed it to me. It was the boy’s skull. I looked at the empty eye sockets and comprehended the enormity of what I held in my hands. A person, a real human being had looked out on a harsh world through these darkened holes, a young person just starting out who did not survive his childhood and was mourned by no one.
The program director grabbed the skull from me and removed a bright silver whistle from his shorts pocket. He slipped it in his mouth and blew it in sharp repetitive blasts until the forest went silent.
“No one is leaving this forest until all those bones are in this garbage bag.” He shouted in his most stern director voice. He produced a black Hefty bag from his back pocket and shook it out.
I’d guess that fewer than half the bones were ever returned, as some were tossed amid horseplay and laughter deeper into the woods, into the quick running stream, up into the dense foliage of the tall trees, or were simply broken to dust beneath the furious hammering of mindless youth. Some of the smaller bones, tiny ring-like vertebrae, finger bones, toes, I imagine were hidden away in underwear waistbands as keepsakes, good luck charms, war booty to show off to disbelieving friends back in the city. This was, for all of them, their first true contact with death, and they had triumphed, at least for now. I found the yellow and blue braided lanyard bracelet curled among some dry leaves and, without thinking, slipped it into my pocket. I saw no purpose in hiding away the bracelet with the rest of his remains. Even after all this time, its bright color had not faded, the knots pulled tight and firm, a symbol of something meant to last forever.
The program director was satisfied with the heft of the black trash bag, but I knew the boy was still out there scattered, alone, disrespected even now. The boys of Owl Bunk and Wolf Bunk were made to swear on their honor they would never tell a soul what they found in the woods. Punishment for the slightest transgression was immediate expulsion from the camp and blacklisted from any future camp events. The boys were silent, solemn as they nodded their heads in assent. But I saw them pulling faces and laughing when the program director’s back was turned.
I just wanted to say one thing to them, not to scare them or shame them, just to make them understand that life is precious, and we all deserve to be honored in our death, but the program director forbade me from speaking, prohibited me from saying these few simple words: “Imagine if this was you.”
August began with a terrible heat wave, with oppressive humidity blanketing everything as temperatures hit the mid-nineties . My boys wandered listlessly from swim instruction to arts and crafts that first morning, heads lowered, faces blank. It was the heat, I was sure, as there was no air-conditioning at the camp, and the two floor fans brought in to the cabin in anticipation the night before did little but stir the hot air from one place to another. I told my boys they each needed to drink an entire bottle of water every hour and to keep themselves cool by not exerting themselves too much. I went to the rec hall and gathered up some board games and playing cards, hoping they would keep themselves busy until they regained their energy.
By late afternoon, the entirety of Owl Bunk lay sacked out on their beds, not quite asleep, but not quite awake. Some of the boys, heads lolling limply to the sides, drooled, or ground their teeth ferociously. I was frightened by what I saw and checked in on the boys next door at Wolf Bunk. Robbie sat, head in hands, in a broken-down Adirondack chair on the front porch of the boys’ cabin.
“They’ve just been walking around the cabin repetitively in these sort-of-creepy patterns, like they have been programmed by some maniac.”
The first thing I noticed upon entering their cabin was that the entire place smelled like rotting meat. The boys who were not laid out on their bunks moved about in twitchy, nervous patterns, their faces empty of their usual vitality. After a moment, one boy broke off from his routine, and I followed him into the back of the cabin where the sinks and toilets were situated. He knelt before the toilet bowl, lapping up the filthy water with his black distended tongue, his body trembling as he did so.
I probably should have gone to the nurse first thing that morning, but in my naivety of all things medical, I was certain it would pass. I was certain now it would not simply go away. The nurse practitioner arrived at Owl Bunk in a flat-out run, cell phone pressed to her ear. “These boys must be quarantined at once,” she said breathlessly.
“What’s the matter with them?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Their parents were called and told not to panic as they were apprised of the situation. Some of the parents wanted to pick up the boys immediately, but the overwhelmed camp secretary said it would be too risky until it was determined how contagious the condition was. Indignant voices were raised, and lawsuits were threatened, but what could they really do? This was a medical crisis of unprecedented scale. The program director too had taken to his bed and the various section heads ordered the rest of the camp to stay within five hundred yards of the boys’ cabins until further notice.
The nurse practitioner established that the causative agent was either a bacteria or a virus, which meant that the boys could have been suffering from pretty much anything. West Nile virus had not been active in the region in years, and Lyme disease, though a possibility, was unlikely to have struck such a broad swath of boys. A pair of ambulances slipped into Camp Elk Horn by an overgrown hunting trail, sirens and flashing lights turned off so as not to panic the rest of the campers.
Robbie and I, who as yet showed no symptoms of the terrible sickness, were whisked off to the infirmary for observation and for our own safety. Neither of us had a temperature or swollen glands or loss of appetite or anything of concern in our blood or urine that would suggest we had been infected by whatever the boys were suffering from. When asked by the gray-faced medical examiner if the boys had ingested anything unusual: wild mushrooms, berries, roots, tree bark, we said no. But when pressed by the medical examiner, who wore a shining stethoscope at his chest, if the boys had participated in any out-of-the-ordinary activities during the past few days, Robbie was silent, terrified. His blood had come back revealing high levels of THC within the last twenty-four hours. He had broken camp policy and was in line to be fired and criminally charged for his misdeeds if his results were reported to the camp administration.
“The boys,” I said, “found some old bones in the woods.”
“Bones?” the medical examiner said, his attention sharp.
“I believe they belonged to a camper who went missing back in the early eighties. His body was never found.”
When I woke late the next morning in my tiny infirmary cot, I learned that the camp had been shut down for the rest of the summer, and that those who were not in quarantine had been bused to area hospitals to undergo batteries of tests.
The Great Lawn was empty, the flag flew at half-mast. The cabin windows of the junior campers were dark. The entire camp had disappeared overnight. I ran into Jane, the arts and crafts teacher and a friend of Cathy’s, lugging a duffel bag and a tangle of macramé, and asked her what was going on. She broke into violent tears, “Three boys died overnight. They just shriveled up and died.”
I held her in my arms and felt her heart pounding against my chest. I wondered which boys had died. It didn’t really matter to me—they were all just kids at the beginning of their life journey. After a moment, Jane pulled away and wiped her eyes. “Cathy wants you to Facebook her.”
And then Jane was gone, leaving me alone in a ghost town that was just a few days earlier a vibrant, vital summer camp full of laughter and joy.
The boys’ cabins had been cordoned off with yellow police tape and the county sheriff’s SUV sat parked in a ditch between Owl Bunk and Wolf Bunk. An ambulance idled outside the boys’ bunks, its back door swung fully open. Several deputies and assorted county officials milled about talking quietly. I stepped over the tape and made my way toward the cabin. I was afraid of what I would find—I had comforted these boys when they were homesick, when they had wet their beds, when they had failed their swimming tests, when their confused young hearts had been broken for the first time, but I needed my wallet, my phone, the keys to my apartment. I didn’t care about the rest of my things, but I wasn’t going anywhere with what I had on me at the moment: a laminated staff card and a blue and yellow lanyard bracelet.
An officer in dark aviator glasses and a black Stetson hat stopped me, hands against my chest, as if a verbal order could not possibly be enough to communicate that I could go no further.
“I need to get my things.”
“This area is off-limits.”
I told him who I was and explained my situation. I couldn’t get back to the city without my wallet, and he nodded his head sympathetically and excused himself.
I was left standing out there in the hot sun batting a yellow tetherball back and forth and was reminded of the first day of camp when I had met my ten boys. They were not extraordinary athletes, not prodigies of any kind. They were not yet handsome, stuck somewhere between deep childhood and the guileless splendor of adolescence. They told the same types of silly vulgar jokes that I had told at their age, and they never ever imagined that harm could come to any one of them. It was unthinkable. I had felt the same way when I was a boy until 9/11 struck and then all I thought about for a long time was all the terrible ways one could die.
The deputy returned and said he would get my stuff for me if I could tell him exactly where to find it; he had to be quick. That would be easy. I kept all my personal belongings in a wooden cubby beside my bed. None of my boys ever dared breach my privacy.
As I waited again, the tetherball swinging around and around the aluminum pole like a planet in a rush to circle the sun, I saw the door of Owl Bunk swing open amid urgent shouts and orders. It had been so quiet until that moment that I had allowed my body to relax in the warm sun, to forget the horror behind those wooden walls. A broad-chested EMT with a baby blue cloth mask fastened over his mouth held the door open with his back. A moment later, a stretcher appeared with one of my boys on it. I moved closer to catch a look to see if he was all right, and as the orderlies rushed toward the waiting ambulance, the light blanket they had thrown over his form blew off and fell to the ground.
I wish I had never laid eyes on what I saw then. I didn’t even know whose body it was, it was so desiccated, so dried out, so brittle. It looked like a shrunken husk of something completely wasted away. It no longer looked human. The deputy returned, tsk-tsked me, and turned my face away with his gloved hand. “You don’t want to see this.”
“That’s for the epidemiologist to determine.”
“Are they . . . ?” I began.
“You’d better leave,” he said, and slipped my things into my hands.
Thirty-one boys died, all of Owl Bunk and all the boys of Wolf Bunk as well as several other boys. Six girls died, and the program director succumbed after three days of struggle. It was believed that everyone who died had come into contact with the bones found out in the woods. But I had held the tiny skull in my hands, and I was alive.
When I returned to the city, I had trouble settling back into my old life; drinking with my school friends seemed a pathetic waste of time, ubiquitous video games a waste of life. I moved alone into a small studio apartment in time for the fall semester and scoured the internet daily for answers. Just after Labor Day the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported they discovered nothing abnormal in their findings. The bones contained nothing out of the ordinary. The kids had died of some sort of fast-moving wasting disease. But its provenance was simply a mystery that had no answer.
The kids’ parents blamed the camp and deadly microorganisms and poorly filtered drinking water; they blamed listeria, E. coli and salmonella, but there was no hard evidence to prove anything. They were simply flailing in the dark with the hope of striking something.
I couldn’t concentrate on my classes, and I monitored the sympathy pages that had sprung up on Facebook. The kids’ parents wrote long messages to their children as if they were still alive. “Hey, champ: I thought of you today when I passed our basketball court .” It broke my heart to read them, but I read them and reread them and reread them. I thought about taking my life. What kind of world do we live in where such a thing can happen? Why was I spared?
One day I saw a brief message from Amanda Morrow (née Slater). Mandy. She wrote the type of platitudes one utters when there truly are no words. I clicked on her profile and saw that she lived in Connecticut, outside Hartford, several hours away. I found the lanyard bracelet in my desk drawer, looking as new as the day it was knotted, and suddenly felt the need to meet her and return the bracelet. Perhaps she could help me understand the impossible. I messaged her and explained who I was, and she wrote back within the hour telling me to come anytime.
Thirty years may have passed, and Mandy was married to an insurance executive, a mother of three with twin boys and a girl wearing her down, but she had lost none of her beauty. Her blue eyes were warm and welcoming, her frosted hair cut into a crisp bob. She hugged me in the doorway of her charming white colonial , though I was a complete stranger. She invited me in. It was lunchtime and we sat in silence at her kitchen table, sipping hot tea.
“I’m so sorry,” she said at last.
I pulled the lanyard bracelet from my pocket and flattened it out on the table.
“Oh,” she said. “I’d forgotten about that.”
I told her it had still been fastened to his wrist when we found him, but it slipped off as the boys grabbed his bones up like they were toys. “I thought you should have it,” I said. “It only seemed right. You were kind to him.”
“I wasn’t kind, not kind enough,” she said, looking away, her eyes misting. “Before that awful night when he disappeared, I called him those names, too, not to his face, but in my mind. He was so skinny; it was frightening to look at him. So, he was Biafran Man. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but I knew it wasn’t kind.” She was silent, sipping her green tea. “When I returned home, I went to the public library to learn what Biafran Man could possibly mean, and oh, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so guilty.”
I had looked up Biafra on Wikipedia before my first summer at Camp Elk Horn, having heard about the local legend who had disappeared into nothingness, and I had read about the Nigerian Civil War in which hundreds of thousands of children from the breakaway Republic of Biafra, maybe more than one million, had been systematically starved to death. It had been all over the news in the early ’ 70s and someone at Camp Elk Horn remembered the horror and widened the circle of pain through their cruel words. I found a picture of a tiny baldheaded boy with giant wet eyes and a huge head heavy on his thin neck, his arms barely twigs, his belly distended with hunger. Biafran Man—surely the cruelest nickname I had ever heard.
“He knew what it meant,” Mandy said. “He was a smart kid. He knew. He was such a great dancer, so free. He came alive for the first time all summer when we danced. Afterward, we walked back to my cabin. I wanted to give him something—the bracelet, so he would always know he had a friend. His wrist was so thin it kept slipping off, so I had to re-knot it twice. He had been afraid those boys would really hurt him, but he said he wasn’t afraid, not anymore, with me as his friend. He swore to me as he left my cabin that night that he would make them all sorry for how they treated him. They would all pay. They were brave words, but I knew they were empty threats uttered simply to make himself feel better. But now, I believe he really did have his revenge.”
“But these weren’t the same kids,” I said.
She was quiet for a moment, “Do you really think they would have acted any different?”
I was stunned for a moment when I realized I had no idea. My kids weren’t cruel kids; they weren’t sadistic, mean-spirited people; they’d been known on occasion to get ahead of logic and reason, their rampant insecurities taking over, but they would have treated a stranger in their midst better. I had to believe that, or simply give up on the whole human enterprise.
“What about me?” I said. “Would I have acted any different when I was a boy?”
“You?” she said taking my wrist and slipping the lanyard bracelet on, tying a tight knot at my pulse. “You would have done the right thing. Don’t you think?”
Jonathan Papernick is the author of six books including the upcoming short story collection GALLERY THE DISAPPEARED MEN, (April, Gramarye Media). He is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College and lives in Providence Rhode Island.