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“What’s this?” Alex awoke to the rattling of the dorm door and the rich—albeit loud— tones of her roommate’s southern accent.
“Hmmm?” Alex murmured, not quite awake.
“There’s this big old suitcase just sitting here in the doorway,” Kristin announced.
From the moment she heard the word “suitcase,” Alex knew it was going to be a great day. The airline had come through! Her favorite jeans, converse sneaker assortment, and colorful collection of mismatched socks found their way back to her without incident.
Alex bolted out of bed and rolled the suitcase into the room, reveling in her good fortune. As she rummaged through her belongings, in search of work clothes for the day, which was easy, and the outfit she wanted to wear later to Jason’s which was suddenly difficult.
She took a deep breath, in an effort to calm down from the flurry of excitement when she was struck by the next indication that it was an above-average day. “What smells so amazing?” she exclaimed.
“Only Anna’s original blend of breakfast goodness,” Kristin laughed. “Part French toast, part bacon, with a dash of cheesy scrambled eggs, and freshly brewed coffee.”
Alex hurried to get ready for the day, eager to get to the dining hall while the food was still hot. She slid into the back of the line and took a warm plate from the stack at the end of the stainless steel counter. The cook, Anna, approached the counter from the kitchen side, carrying a platter piled high with golden brown squares of steaming French toast. “Plenty more where this came from, so eat up!” she said, placing the platter next to a big bowl of scrambled eggs and wiping her hands on the apron tied around her ample Italian frame.
Alex glanced across the counter in disbelief. How could all this food have been prepared by one person? She searched Anna’s face for signs of fatigue, but all she got was a wink when Anna caught her looking.
Alex filled her plate, and headed toward the long, wooden table where Brandon, Bill, Susie, and Jason were already sitting. “Here’s the thing,” Brandon was saying as Alex slid across the wooden bench and picked up her fork to dig in.
“Oh, boy, here we go again,” Pete said, approaching the table and straddling the bench. “‘Here’s the thing’ from Brandon is pretty much the same as: ‘grab a shovel, it’s getting deep.”
“He just saw the job list for the day and found out that he’s on dish duty,” Bill said. “He’s lobbying now for us to go on paper plates for the rest of the summer.”
“Paper plates? For everyone? All summer? Dude, that’s expensive,” Pete said, laughing.
“No, no, here’s the thing,” Brandon said, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, “What’s expensive is all that hot water. And soap. And what about Anna?” Brandon continued, picking up steam. “What is more valuable than that woman’s time?” he insisted.
“That’s why they drafted you to do the dishes,” Bill quipped. “Her time’s too valuable. But you? They can keep you washing all day. Better grab a dish towel.”
Brandon groaned in defeat.
“So where is this duty list?” Alex asked.
"It actually hasn’t been distributed yet,” Bill said. “Young Brandon just happened upon the information prematurely. I think Michael is getting ready to organize things,” Bill pointed with his chin toward the counter where Michael was handing his empty plate to Anna, thanking her for breakfast as he grabbed his clipboard and ran a hand over his bearded face.
Michael perched on the edge of one of the long, wooden tables in the dining hall and called everyone to attention. He announced that he was breaking the group up into teams to tackle various projects around the property. According to Michael, the teams and chores were randomly assigned—a fact that was reflected as the staff began to absorb the particulars of their various fates for the coming hours. Brandon was, indeed, on dishes, while Alex was assigned to a crew that would be cleaning out an old carriage house a couple miles into the woods on the camp’s grounds. She certainly didn’t mind working outside, or the trail walk to get to her job site, although she had to admit that she was secretly hoping she’s be assigned to a team that included Jason, or even Kristin. Instead, she’d be experiencing this episode of camp bonding with Bill, Suzy, and the CIT Jack, who seemed surprised that he’d be called upon to function independent of his sidekick, Josh. Alex had to laugh at the concept of being disappointed about being separated from friends she didn’t even know when she woke up the previous morning. She decided that everything about her life was fairly random right now anyway, and she may as well just go with it.
Alex was glad she’d selected her most weathered pair of Chucks as she side stepped puddles from a recent rain as most of the team trudged along the uphill trail a half hour later. Jack’s wiry frame was carrying up him the hill in more of an energetic hop, “So, explain again, exactly, what are we doing?” he asked.
“Dude, we’re just cleaning out this old building, really that’s it. Throwing out trash, that sort of thing,” Bill said, reiterating what Michael had explained back at the dining hall.
“No, I mean, seriously, who is going to use some old building two miles out into the woods? Shouldn’t we be, like, blowing up basketballs or something?”
“Ah,” said Bill, “So it’s the ‘why’ you want to know, rather than the ‘what’?”
“Sure,” Jack shrugged.
“I think the carriage house would have eventually just crumbled away unnoticed, had it not become unexpectedly important last summer. “ Alex stepped over some branches and dried leaves so she could hear Bill’s voice.
“A group of girls got caught in a storm in a bad storm after a canoeing mishap. Dee, the CIT, had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, and Christina, the counselor, who is Meg’s niece, got injured, and the only place they found for shelter was this old carriage house,” Bill said. “I think the whole episode reminded everyone that the building is here, and can be useful. I think Michael wants to use it as a base for some deep woods campouts in the future.”
As the group approached the old stone structure, Alex had to admit it had a certain charm. It looked like something out of the set of an old timey movie, and Alex felt suddenly adventurous. With some effort, the group pushed through the large wooden doors and into the damp, musty interior.
“What? There’s a whole truck in here?” Suzy exclaimed. “None of the stories ever mentioned that. How are we supposed to get a truck out of here, and where is it going to go, if we do?”
“I think we just get it outside and let it be,” Bill said, shaking his head, “But I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting it, either.”
Everyone stood still for a moment, staring at the rusty tools, rubbish, and unidentified clutter. Old beverage cans and rusty bolts rolled across the floor. A filthy pair of overalls hung from the wall, hovering above what was left of a pair of leather work boots.
“Um, this might be a bad time to bring this up,” Jack said, “But do we have any supplies? You know, brooms, garbage bags…” his voice drifted off.
“Ah, yes!” Bill said, resuming his air of Sr. Counselor confidence. “Right there in the corner. Michael came up in the ATV yesterday and dropped off everything he said we’d need. We’re just to pile up the trash, and they’ll come out later to haul it away. Let’s get all the little stuff out first, then we’ll work together on the truck, and sweep everything out at the end.”
Bill’s burst of leadership set the tone as the group hauled out armfuls of rusted metal and dusty rubbish which they bagged up and tossed into a growing mound by the path. A couple of sweaty, dirty hours later, there was nothing left but to deal with the rusted shell of a truck which was almost as large and infinitely less mobile than the average proverbial elephant in the room.
“OK, I’m just going to call it out. Does it even have an engine?” Jack asked.
“Frankly, I’ve been afraid to look,” Bill admitted. “If it has a transmission, we can put it in neutral and push it out of here.” Bill wrestled with the hood and discovered that the truck did, indeed, have some semblance of inner workings. Jack jumped inside and began pulling on the stick shift when his eyes suddenly got large before he looked downward and began shrieking. He barreled out of cab of the truck, gasping, shrieking, and sputtering, creating an instant sense of alarm until it became obvious that he was also laughing.
"Use your words!” Bill advised. “What’s going on?”
“M…mmm…bahahah…mi…mice!” Jack finally gasped. “There’s mice nesting in the seat and…and I sat on them! I could feel them wiggling and then…then…one crawled between my legs…ewwwww, I’m scarred! ”
“Mice!” Suzy screamed, backing as far away from the truck as the small space allowed. “This is as close as I’ll ever get to that truck again.”
“That’s actually bad news,” Bill said. “Once we get it into gear, we need as much muscle as we can to push it out. Since you’re the smallest, I was going to have you steer us out, Suz.”
“No way,” Suzy said.
“Then I hope you ate your Wheaties this morning,” Alex said, climbing up into the cab. “Shoo, mice!” she commanded, wiggling the gearshift into neutral and settling behind the wheel. “Let’s get this thing out of here.”
It took 40 minutes, a lot of muscle, and some creativity, but the group finally pushed the old truck out of the carriage house and into a small nearby clearing. Exhausted, the all leaned against the rusty hull. The sound of their breathing was the only sound to be heard until the silence was pierced by a loud rustling through the still woods. “No more mice…” Jack groaned, feebly.
“If that’s a mouse, we’re all in trouble,” Bill said, glancing down the path. “Hey! Kitchen Boy!”
“Mock if you must, but I come bearing refreshment,” Brandon said, lifting aloft a large thermos.
“No mocking here!” Suzy cried, as Brandon passed out paper cups and began filling them with lemonade.
“I’m just relieved it was just you guys up here,” Brandon said. “I kept seeing that flashing light, and I got thinking about that story you hear every now and again about Johnnie Walker.’
“Johnnie Walker?” Bill repeated. “What are you talking about? And what flashing light?”
“Well, it’s just one of those stories you hear some times, you know, the old civil war legends. In these parts, most revolve around the 137th regiment, which organized only two days before they began marching to catch a train headed to the seat of war—”
“The ‘seat of war’?” Alex repeated—who talks like this?”
Bill groaned. “Oh, not again,” he said, turning to the others in explanation. “This kid is like an encyclopedia of local history. He’s got very little in the way of useful knowledge, but he can drone on like a professor when it comes to this sort of thing.”
“As the regiment assembled so quickly, there exists in the local lore many stories of sad goodbyes as the soldiers prepared to march out.,” Brandon continued. “The legend of Johnnie Walker is one such story. They say Walker’s fiancé was not at her homestead when he came to say goodbye, and that he was forced to join his unit without seeing her. As the story goes, the unit later ended up marching within a mile of the girl’s house which was said to be situated around a lake or perhaps a pond. Walker, albeit unwisely, left the unit under cover of darkness for one last chance at saying goodbye.”
“They were marching through the darkness?” Bill asked.
"I don’t know. Maybe. ”
“I don’t think they marched much at night,” Suzy agreed.
“Maybe they were marching. Maybe they were camping. I don’t know. It’s just a legend. The point is, Walker set out on his own and was never seen again. Often at night, or in rare case by day, a lone light is seen bobbing through lakeside forest areas, not unlike we have here at Camp Edson. Seeing the flashing lights merely reminded me of this bit of local lore.”
“What lights?” Bill asked again.
“I don’t know,” Brandon said, “Whatever lights you guys were flashing.”
“Oh!” Jack said, jumping up and down in glee, “It’s this!” he said, grabbing a broken mirror hanging from the side of the truck. “The mirror must have been catching the sun as were pushed it out of the carriage house!”
Once the ensuing laughter died down, Bill said, “You know, all that crap Brandon was spouting really does have the makings of a camp legend. I’ve always felt we were a bit shy on camp lore around here. Let’s develop this!” He said, pointing his finger first into the air, and then toward Brandon. “Yes, work that up a bit, we can add Story Time with Brandon into our camp fire time. But for right now, grab a broom. Let’s get this place swept out and call it day.”
Alex couldn’t remember when she had enjoyed a shower more than the one she took back at the lodge. Rust colored dirt flowed down the drain for what seemed like forever. The warm water felt good on her sore muscles, and her fresh mint shower gel made her feel awake and energized. She had to admit that she enjoyed the time with her new friends, but also that she was glad that the rest of the day would be spent with Jason. She was nervous and excited for the hour-long drive to his house, and wondered if the time in the car would present an opportunity for Jason to share his secret.
Much to Alex’s delight, they were barely off Camp Edson’s grounds when the subject came up. Alex had made some reference to school, which seemed to jog Jason’s memory.
“I keep forgetting you weren’t here when I told my story,” he said. “I guess I should fill you in on the whole ‘why Jason’s homeschooled’ saga.
Alex was surprised to feel her heart thump inside her chest. She was ready to hear anything Jason was about to say. Everything, that is, except, the words that actually came out of his mouth.