|Escape From Camp Bedlam|
I looked for my sister, Pippa. Then I heard her screaming, â€œHelp! Leith! Theyâ€™ve got me!â€
My heart leapt. I felt sick. My sister was
(riiiiiip)gone. I looked around. I felt like I was going to fall on the ground and barf. One by one, they were ripping their skins, peeling back their faces, revealing the horrors beneath.
I turned to face the darkness. My sister shrieked. I started to shake. And run.
â€œAfter him!â€ croaked one of the raw-faced monstrosities, dripping rotten flesh and green blood all over its clean white camp-issue t-shirt.
â€œPlease bring him back,â€ cooed the cook, tearing off her scalp and popping her eyes out of her skull like bright blue marbles, revealing dark, empty sockets. â€œNot much meat on the boy, but with his sister, theyâ€™ll make a nice stew!â€ She threw back her head and cackled, tearing away the rest of her papery flesh like ancient wallpaper.
â€œPippa! Iâ€™m coming!â€ I ran away from the huge cauldr
Nothing. Just night sounds. Crickets. Small animals. Birds.
I drew a deep breath of relief. My thudding heartbeat steadied. Pippa! She must have gotten away.
I turned. And ran into my sisterâ€™s arms. Normally, I wouldnâ€™t do anything so dorky, but these were what my dad would call special circumstances.
â€œCome with me,â€ she said, her voice flat and matter-of-fact. â€œI know the way.â€
She led. I followed.
â€œBut, Pip, youâ€™re taking us back to camp.â€
â€œTrust me, Bugsy. Theyâ€™ve scattered. Itâ€™s the last place theyâ€™ll look.â€
The campsite looked deserted. Only the big, bubbling cauldron remained to show that anyone had been there. Then Pippa reached into her pocket and raised something to her lips. A whistle. She blew like Gabriel on Judgement Day!
They came from everywhere. The monster-counsellors â€“ slimy, skinless â€“ oozing green goop and staring unblinkingly with cold, lidless eyes.
â€œPippa â€“ what have you done?â€
â€œPippa?â€ She laughed, her voice deep and coarse. She reached up under her chin. I backed away. I knew what was coming. With a sickening riiiiiip, she started to tear her face off.
â€œNo!â€ I screamed. â€œWhat have you done with my sister?â€
â€œSee for yourself,â€ said the Pippa-thing, advancing and putting her hands around my neck. â€œLetâ€™s take a peek in the cauldron â€¦â€
Her hands closed around my throat. They were strong and bony. Squeezing. Crushing. Putting on the pressure till â€¦
â€œAaaeugh!â€ I screamed, pulling away from my sisterâ€™s shaking hands. â€œGet away!â€
â€œLeith, wake up â€“ itâ€™s me, Pip.â€
I pushed myself as far away as I could, and only stopped when I hit the bus window. The warmth of the glass felt good against my oily cheek. â€œWeâ€™re â€¦ going to camp?â€ I asked, my voice wobbly.
â€œRight. You fell asleep. Are you OK?â€ She touched my neck. I cringed. Her hand felt slimy, just like in the dream â€“ must be that Natureâ€™s Organics stuff sheâ€™s always rubbing into her perfect skin.
I looked at her doll-like face and couldnâ€™t imagine any foul fiend hiding under something so beautiful. And then she smiled. I know it isnâ€™t cool to talk about your sister this way, but Pippa has always been drop-dead adorable. Although sheâ€™s two years older than me â€“ nearly fourteen â€“ sheâ€™s always been like a gorgeous doll; a playmate and a friend. And now sheâ€™s at the age when guys are starting to notice her. I canâ€™t help feeling jealous and protective.
Our parents (the perky Pauline and bald Barry) are bigtime marine biologists, and when the chance came to join a special squad exploring the spectacular Grouper Islands for two weeks, quick as a wink, we got packed off to camp. But thatâ€™s OK. Pippa and I look out for each other. Itâ€™s always been that way.
So I couldnâ€™t help feeling uncomfortable when I noticed the grinning kid at the front of the bus turning around, staring at her. Heâ€™d been talking to the driver, Mr Jekyll, since he got on, shooting off his big yap, saying how great he is at everything, especially sports. He was broad-shouldered and did look like some kind of athlete. Maybe Roger Federer. He had slicked-back hair and dark, flashing eyes; eyes that kept fixing on my sister.
Pippaâ€™s the looker in our family, as youâ€™ve probably guessed. She has thick, dark brown hair that curls away from her heart-shaped face, liquid eyes and a button nose. Her skin is clear and smooth, and she used to be a bit chunky around the middle, but these days sheâ€™s slim and fit, just the type of nice girl whoâ€™s going to attract the wrong kind of boy.
â€œâ€¦ I was the best,â€ the bragging boy was telling the driver. â€œMy mother used to stand at the finishing line and cheer â€¦â€
In the looks stakes, Iâ€™m a disappointment â€¦ at least, after youâ€™ve met the perfect Pip. Even compared to the beady-eyed loudmouth up the front, Iâ€™m not much. If you were being nice, youâ€™d say Iâ€™m average â€“ medium height, skinny, with mousy brown hair and freckles over most of my long narrow face. Not a rockstar. Mum says Iâ€™m cute. I think mothers have to sign something when their babies are born saying that they will always consider them cute.
â€œâ€¦ three letters meaning stupid?â€ intoned a dull voice behind us. I turned and saw a tall, beak-nosed boy with hair so fine and fair I could see the pinkness of his scalp. He was hunched over a puzzle book.
â€œThree letters meaning stupid?â€ the girl across the aisle repeated. â€œY-O-U!â€ She giggled at her own joke. She was short and thin, with glossy black hair, a wide smiling mouth, and below the hem of her white shorts, a strawberry-shaped birthmark on one knee. She laughed again as the beak-nosed boy playfully slapped her with the book. I thought, the way he did it, he liked her.
That was everybody â€“ just the five of us, plus driver. Still, it was mid-summer and the school holidays were entering their third week. Camp Damble would be teeming with kids. Kids whoâ€™d been there since day one, gotten the best bunks, already made loads of friends, and wouldnâ€™t see the need to mix with newbies like us.
I stared out the window at the flat, dry landscape. Weâ€™d been travelling for hours and looked to be in the middle of nowhere. This could be the Australian outback or the Arizona desert. Where were we? How much farther?
As if to answer, Mr Jekyll stomped on the brakes. With a hiss, the doors opened. He swung around. â€œAw right, you lot! Everybody out!â€
Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Not even the bragging boy.
The driver turned his back on us. Still, no one spoke, no one moved.
Was this some kind of joke â€“ part of an initiation?
I heard a metallic click-clack as Mr Jekyll turned to face us, a shotgun in his hands. â€œWell â€¦ gonna make me say it twice?â€
* * *
Frozen, we stared at each other, nobody daring to speak. Jekyll pushed the loaded barrel into the boastful boyâ€™s belly. He gulped. And started down the steps. He wasnâ€™t bragging now.
As if by unspoken agreement, we followed. One by one. Single file. In silence. Jekyll came last. He kept the shotgun trained on us as he unlatched the luggage compartment. He started to throw our bags into the dirt.
â€œHey!â€ Crossword Boy started forward. Jekyll swung around.
The dark-eyed braggart stepped in, right between the two of them. He might be annoying, but I thought that was incredibly brave. â€œBe cool, man,â€ he said evenly, clenching Crosswordâ€™s shoulder. â€œItâ€™s a joke. Thatâ€™s all this is. Right, Mr Jekyll?â€
Jekyllâ€™s expression didnâ€™t change. He was like a machine.
â€œYouâ€™re not really planning to leave us â€¦ here?â€
Jekyll smiled, his bland oval face taking on a predatory look. With one leathery hand, he continued tossing out our belongings. He was tall with broad shoulders, and even without the gun, he would have been too threatening to tackle.
â€œYouâ€™re not going to â€¦ right?â€ the show-off persisted. â€œLeave us here, I mean. You canâ€™t.â€
Jekyll stopped what he was doing and gave his full attention to the boy. â€œSays who, sonny?â€
â€œIf you do â€¦ whoâ€™ll take care of us?â€
Again, Jekyll smiled. â€œOut there â€“ theyâ€™ll take care of you â€¦ the creatures.â€
â€œThe â€¦ creatures?â€ This was Birthmark Girl.
â€œSure,â€ said Jekyll. â€œHere there be creatures. And the creaturesâ€™ll take care of you real nice. So nice, no oneâ€™ll even know you was ever here to begin with.â€
â€œWhat about our stuff?â€ challenged the Crossword Kid. â€œWill â€˜the creaturesâ€™ eat that too? Better put it back if you donâ€™t want people to get â€™spicious. To get â€™spicious and work out it was you â€¦â€
Jekyll lifted the barrel and pointed it straight at the boyâ€™s chest. â€œWell, maybe you got a point there, pardner. If Iâ€™m gonna wind up doinâ€™ the time, might just as well do the crime, now, mightnâ€™t I?â€ His finger found the trigger. â€œIâ€™ll leave your bodies for the creatures. Thatâ€™s what we normally do, anyways. But you five Iâ€™ll pop mâ€™self. Any last requests, pardner?â€ He peeled off his WELCOME TO CAMP DAMBLE t-shirt and dropped it in the dirt. â€œDonâ€™t wanna go gettinâ€™ blood on that. Dr Grieg might not like it.â€
Crossword looked like a four-letter word meaning terror.
Then Braggart spoke up, â€œYeah, Mr Jekyll, I got a request for you â€“ how â€™bout packinâ€™ my ham-fist in your bread-basket?â€ And, pushing the gun barrel up in the air, he hit him!
What happened next was a blur, but soon Jekyll and the little windbag were rolling in the dust like enemies in a spaghetti western. All they needed was the weird background music, which wouldnâ€™t have seemed weird at all. The boy, having the advantage of speed, laid into his opponent, fighting for grim death. Jekyll, though not muscular, seemed strong as an android.
Birthmark Girl grabbed a heavy-looking suitcase and hurled it at Jekyll. She missed.
Then the two sparring nutjobs had the gun between them. They struggled, the young lion and the wily warhorse; the barrel was pointed at the boy â€¦ then the man â€¦ then it was impossible to tell who, as â€¦
It went off!
* * *
The boy crumpled, his knees buckling beneath him as he slid face-first onto the ground.
Jekyll turned away, reaching for his shirt, which he slipped on before turning to face us. He hadnâ€™t even broken a sweat. His expression was blank, his eyes glassy. â€œAw righty â€“ whoâ€™s next?â€ He laughed mechanically.
Pippa ran to the motionless boy. Birthmark half-heartedly threw another case at Jekyll. Again, she missed. Crossword looked nervously at Jekyll, then hid behind me. I stood there looking like a freckle-faced nerd.
â€œWhatâ€™s the matter with young people? Donâ€™t any of you have a sense of humour?â€ Jekyll let fly with a volley of laughter.
â€œSense of humour?â€ spat Pippa, tears in her eyes. â€œCanâ€™t you see what youâ€™ve done?â€
â€œSure,â€ said Jekyll. â€œI winded him with mâ€™fist. The shot was a blank. In a minute or two, heâ€™ll be good as new.â€ He reached down and effortlessly hauled the boy to his feet.
Leaning up against the side of the bus, the kid wheezed and coughed. He spat; right on Pippaâ€™s shoe.
â€œUrgh!â€ Reaching in her pocket for a Kleenex, she walked slowly back to my side. I was glad she had not looked at the little blowhard the way he was looking at her.
â€œAll aboard!â€ called Mr Jekyll brightly as he started to throw our bags back into the hold.
I looked at Pippa. â€œMust be some sort of first-day joke.â€
She nodded, but didnâ€™t seem convinced.
Still, what other explanation could there be?
The rest of the trip passed mostly in silence, but since the ice had been broken so dramatically, we introduced ourselves.
The crossword fanatic was Ray. He seemed ashamed of having acted like such a coward, and went straight back to his book of puzzles after giving us the briefest possible introduction. I wondered if he normally would have played his games and things on his mobile phone. Not that it mattered; phones, laptops â€“ technology of any kind â€“ it was all banned at camp; one of Dr Griegâ€™s little rules. One of the reasons our parents had liked the sound of this particular camp was that there was no sitting inside all day; weâ€™d be forced to go out and â€œcommune with nature,â€ if only out of boredom.
Birthmarkâ€™s name was Jane, and she and Pippa struck up quite a conversation about Hollywoodâ€™s latest â€œbad boyâ€ hunk, while the show-off said in a quiet voice, â€œIâ€™m Benson Chicken. Everyone calls me Broody.â€
I nearly laughed. But his manner was so suddenly subdued, I couldnâ€™t. He seemed thoughtful, preoccupied, the exact opposite of how heâ€™d been before our unscheduled stop.
With Jane and Pippa prattling away about Ryan and Liam and whoever, and Ray with his nose stuck in a book, that left me with no one to talk to but Broody. I tried several conversation-starters, but nothing got him going.
Not until we veered onto a narrow dirt road and a whistling Mr Jekyll turned his head to announce in a clear voice, â€œLook, kids, here we are!â€
Then I heard Broody mutter, â€œIt wasnâ€™t a blank. I shot him. Right in the gut.â€
WELCOME TO CAMP DAMBLE! proclaimed a big sign carved into the arch that curved over the gate we drove through as we entered the sprawling grounds. I wondered why they had gone to the trouble of putting up a gate when there was no fence. Simply to identify the place, I supposed. It wasnâ€™t like, out here, we were going to need a fence. No gangs. No neighbours. Nobody at all.
Unless the creatures decided to pay a visit.
I shrugged the thought away. The creatures were no more real than Mr Jekyllâ€™s performance had been â€“ just part of a hazing ritual, some sort of prank. I wondered what our parents would have thought if theyâ€™d known, theyâ€™d put us in the hands of loonies. They probably would have preferred us to come along to the Grouper Islands and take our chances with the monsters of the deep.
â€œWow! Football!â€ Broody seemed to have shrugged off his dark mood. His eager face was pressed against the bus window.
â€œThatâ€™s right, son,â€ said Mr Jekyll breezily. â€œFootball, basketball, swimming, canoeing â€“ you name it, Camp Damble has something for everyone.â€
â€œLook at that!â€ said Jane, pointing to the wide, winding river just visible through the trees. It looked muddy, deep and invitingly cold on such a warm day.
â€œCool,â€ said Pippa, and I could tell from her faraway look that she was already there, taking a refreshing dip; maybe with Ryan or Liam acting as lifeguard.
But I only had eyes for the long, low building that I took to be the mess hall. And the circular campfire area in front of it with rows of benches all around. I was starving! But our first stop had nothing to do with food. We pulled up in front of a neat row of small white cabins.
â€œLadies first,â€ called Mr Jekyll.
This time he unpacked the bags without throwing them, pulling a gun or making dumb remarks. Things were looking up.
â€œSee you, Bugsy!â€
We said goodbye to Pippa and Jane.
â€œYour stop, gentlemen,â€ said Jekyll, stopping the bus moments later.
I didnâ€™t think that â€œgentlemenâ€ very well described us, especially considering the way we all pushed each other out of the way, but I wasnâ€™t about to stop and argue as we grabbed our bags and rushed inside to bag the best bunks.
Not that there was any need for competition. We seemed to have the cabin all to ourselves â€“ six bunk beds against three walls, with a big wooden dresser and assorted cubby-holes against the fourth.
Broody and I each claimed a top bunk, while Ray was happy to take the bottom one under me. Well, maybe â€œhappyâ€ is not quite the word. â€œI might fall out if I get on top,â€ was all he said as he started to unpack his duffel. It seemed to contain an endless number of books â€“ anagrams, crosswords, IQ puzzles â€“ all to do with, I later thought, both logic and deception. Not exactly a survival kit for the great outdoors. I wondered what he would do if he was bitten by a snake, or even saw one. Probably freak out, then try to make as many smaller words as possible out of its name. Adder. Add. Dad. Read. Red. Der.
What an odd pair to be bunking with â€“ the cowardly, bookish Ray and the mindlessly physical Broody. I wondered which one I was more like. And reluctantly decided it was Ray.
â€œHey, Leaf â€“ catch!â€ yelled Broody.
â€œMy nameâ€™s Leith, not Leaf,â€ I started to tell him as I looked up to see a ball flying toward my face. I ducked just in time. The ball went crashing off the walls, bounced on the floor and hit Ray on the rebound.
I chuckled. Broody was laughing fit to bust. Maybe I was more like him than the sulky, humourless Ray.
â€œI wonder whatâ€™s for â€¦â€ I started to say â€œlunchâ€ but never got the word out. Because as I glanced out the window, I saw something that stopped the breath in my throat. Perched just above the windowsill and staring straight at me was the wildest pair of eyes Iâ€™d ever seen!
* * *
And they were gone.
Had I imagined it? Neither Broody nor Ray seemed to have noticed. But since they were both preoccupied, that wasnâ€™t too surprising.
Was somebody out there watching us?
I glanced down at the cover of my suspense novel, the only book Iâ€™d brought along. Strangers by Dean Koontz. That was what we were. Strangers. All of us. And the man at the window â€“ if there really had been a man â€“ was a stranger too. Maybe the strangest of all.
The door crashed open and my heart pounded as yet another stranger bounced into the room.
â€œHi! Iâ€™m Ant! Iâ€™m the head counsellor for boys here at Camp Damble! I report directly to the owner and founder of this great facility, Dr Grieg. Youâ€™ll meet him tonight. Heâ€™s a genius! Electronics, robotics, all sorts of inventions â€“ maybe one day heâ€™ll cure disease, even death! He tells a good campfire yarn, too. No, wait â€“ make that a great campfire yarn!â€
Ant? He looked more like a cross between a toy action-movie figure and Mr Potato Head. Short, wide and muscular, he couldnâ€™t have been more than nineteen or twenty, but affected a manner of paternal wisdom mixed with boyish enthusiasm that didnâ€™t come off. He wore white shoes, socks and shorts, and a white t-shirt, across which was stencilled in black letters, ANT. I thought about the sci-fi movie, Them, in which giant ants took over the world. Ant seemed like the kind of guy whoâ€™d love to rule the world. If Dr Grieg would let him.
â€œChop-chop â€“ hurry and unpack. Then weâ€™re off to the river to dip our oars. Letâ€™s hear it for canoeing!â€
â€œUm,â€ I said, half-raising my hand and feeling more than half foolish, â€œwhenâ€™s lunch?â€
â€œRight after canoeing, my friend.â€ He draped a casual arm around my shoulder as I jumped down off my bunk. When I looked up into his eyes, I saw that they were as cold as Mr Jekyllâ€™s. â€œIâ€™ll be back in ten â€“ catch you then! Hey, Iâ€™m a poet.â€ Smiling and waving, he bounded out the door.
â€œWhat was that?â€ asked Ray in his usual monotone.
â€œAs far as I can tell,â€ I said, â€œthat was an Ant.â€
â€œMore like a roach,â€ drawled Ray. â€œSomeone should step on him.â€
â€œBig phoney,â€ said Broody, yanking open the top dresser drawer and claiming it as his.
â€œIf I donâ€™t get something to eat soon,â€ I said, â€œIâ€™m going to eat Rayâ€™s Odour Eaters!â€
â€œHey!â€ whined Ray, curling up into a ball on his bunk. He was making no attempt to finish unpacking before Ant came back. He didnâ€™t seem to care. He looked downhearted.
â€œDid, um,â€ I began, feeling like a prize dork, â€œeither of you notice anyone â€¦ I mean anything â€¦ at the window, just before Ant got here?â€
â€œI did,â€ said Broody, turning around with a gleam in his eye. â€œGirls. And the best-looking one is your sister!â€
â€œHang on,â€ I said, feeling my face start to colour beneath my freckles, â€œyou wait a second---â€
â€œNo time to spare! Chop-chop!â€ Ant was back. â€œCome, young gentlemen, letâ€™s move.â€
I kept an eye on Broody as we trekked down to the river. All the way there, he refused to meet my eye. He looked sly and guilty. I could tell he was thinking about Pippa. Well, I was thinking about her too, and no way was this going to happen. Let him chase after Jane or Mrs Jekyll or a million other girls. Not my Pip. Not in this lifetime.
Ant had corralled about twenty guys from the other cabins, and we made our way, buzzing with high-spirited chatter and a bit of pushing and shoving, toward the previously-glimpsed river.
Then, through the trees, I caught sight of something else, something that sent a chill down my spine.
The Black Bungalow
IT LOOKED LIKE a sinister version of the mess hall. A low stone building, completely black, out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, we were already in the middle of nowhere, but this place was a good hike from even the nearest cabin.
My imagination ran riot as a pleasant shiver trickled down my back. Was it the lair of an evil troll, a holding cell for kids who refused to eat their broccoli, or the hideout of a bunch of renegade creatures?
â€œAnt â€“ whatâ€™s that?â€
He spun around, smiling until he saw what I was pointing at. His face froze. His smile faded. He looked like a robot that had just been short-circuited.
All conversation died. All eyes turned to me. I felt my cheeks start to burn beneath their patchy camouflage. I had made another embarrassing blunder, but had no idea what. Maybe Iâ€™d unwittingly pointed out the secret laboratory of the famous Dr Grieg. I felt as if the whole world had ground to a halt and the only sound left was the blood thumping in my ears.
â€œThat,â€ said Ant slowly, â€œis â€¦ off limits. Do you understand?â€
â€œWhy?â€ asked Ray.
â€œBecause I say so!â€ Antâ€™s eyes flashed. He wasnâ€™t even pretending to be nice.
â€œThatâ€™s not an answer,â€ said Broody, flowering in the warmth of attention as every eye turned in his direction. â€œYou havenâ€™t told us why.â€
â€œBecause, something might â€¦ happen to you.â€ Ant smiled.
â€œSuch as?â€ Broody was determined to milk this for maximum exposure. This morning he was just another nameless kid; by tonight, heâ€™d be a star.
â€œFor instance,â€ said Ant, his voice dropping to an ominous whisper, â€œyou might run into â€¦ Henry.â€
â€œWho?â€ Broody and Ray made a chorus.
â€œTrust me â€“ he isnâ€™t someone you want to meet.â€
â€œWhy not?â€ I asked, warming to the subject of the unspeakable Henry. I wondered if he was the kind of person Dean Koontz might put in a book. Like the terrifying Bruno Fry in Whispers.
In the same secretive whisper, Ant said, â€œHenryâ€™s â€¦ not so nice.â€
In spite of our questions, he refused to be drawn, and with a cry of â€œchop-chopâ€ started us once more toward the river. The old conversations slowly broke out again, but there was no more pushing, and I got the feeling we were all locked in our private thoughts about the Black Bungalow and equally mysterious Henry.
Who was he? Why did Ant believe he was dangerous? And if he was some kind of lunatic, how come he was allowed to live so close to camp?
Especially a camp without a fence.
Without meaning to, I found myself looking about, scanning the shadows, squinting into the dappled light of the forest. But I wasnâ€™t looking for Bigfoot or Baron Frankenstein; I was looking for a guy â€“ as far as I knew, an ordinary man, maybe just a little strange â€“ and then I saw him.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes. It couldnâ€™t be.
But it was.
He was still there. This time I wasnâ€™t imagining him â€“ and apparently I hadnâ€™t been before, because â€¦
â€¦ this was the same guy. And again he was staring straight at me.
â€œChop-chop! Everybody down to the bank! The girls will be meeting us in a minute. You boys pair off and pick a canoe. Make sure to get yourselves a sturdy one.â€
Everybody scrambled, and I took advantage of the confusion to pull back into the bushes. There he was, large as life, the wild-eyed guy from the window, and this time he didnâ€™t run away. Not even when I walked up to him and stuck out my hand.
â€œHi,â€ I said, â€œIâ€™m Leith. You must be Henry.â€
* * *
There it was again, that wild-eyed look. The way he was staring at me, I thought his eyes were going to bug right out of his skull like in a cartoon.
â€œHenry?â€ He gave a sharp, high-pitched cackle. Enormous grey eyes darted about in his pale, lined face. He was tall â€“ much taller than Ant â€“ with greying black hair that stuck out around his rectangular face like steel wool. He wore a plaid jacket, grey slacks and black leather shoes that probably hadnâ€™t seen polish in ages. And he smelt funny â€“ kind of stale â€“ like he hadnâ€™t been outdoors in a while.
In a burst of noise, the girls arrived, coming over the rise led by a small, energetic woman who looked like an auburn-haired monkey. Like Ant, she was dressed all in white, except that on the front of her t-shirt was the word MUT. Around her neck was a whistle, and she blew it with gusto.
* * *