“Oh don’t be a baby,” the camp nurse, Clara, said as she pressed the antiseptic-saturated cloth into Billy Breen’s forehead. Her breath reeked of stale cigarettes.
“But it stings. Do you have to use so much of that stuff?” Billy asked. The fourteen year-old winced with each blotting jab.
Clara tossed the bandage into a rusted, aluminum trash can and slapped a fresh one onto Billy’s scrape. “If you stuck up for yourself from time to time, instead of running away like a sissy, maybe you’d stop wiping out and needing me to fix your face.”
“They’re bigger than me,” Billy muttered. His voice dropped through the floor. “They’re always bigger than me.”
The camp nurse stalked away and plopped her wide body into a rickety chair that groaned in protest. She inched her glasses down her beak of a nose and scribbled at a file with a well-chewed pencil. She finished and tossed the folder aside. Clara leveled a stern glance at her wounded patient, still sitting on the old, moth-eaten exam table. “And they’re always going to be. You either learn that now and deal, or you wind up a pushover your entire life. There’s a reason your parents sent you here to Camp Lockheart, you know.” A mean-spirited sneer spread gleefully over her mouth.
Billy wondered why such an evil troll of a woman had become a nurse, and at a summer camp for kids no less. He pawed at the clean bandage a final time before slipping down from the exam table. This made three trips to the nurse’s cabin in four days. What’s the standing record? He adjusted his glasses.
“You hear me, mister?” Clara spat.
“Loud and clear. I know why they sent me. I know why I’m stuck here.”
“Good. Keep it in mind as you try and survive the weekend. If not, I hear the girls’ camp across the lake, ‘Camp Unicorns and Rainbows’, or whatever the hell it is, is a much easier place to be. Full of lots of caring and understanding for you more… delicate types.”
The cabin’s browned screen-door slammed behind Billy as he left. A mural of mottled bruises and angry scrapes covered his exposed skin, chronicling the rough start camp had provided. The past four days hadn’t been easy. Not that he had been expecting an easy go of a summer camp themed after the Marine Corp and staffed by retired veterans. He remembered the broad banner with the bold, proud lettering that hung from the signpost at the camp’s entrance. ‘Camp Lockheart: Forging The Future. Est. 1963’ ”.
Billy could hardly imagine that such a shit hole had been allowed to exist for going on twenty years. A glaring sun forced him to squint as he gave the camp another jilted survey. Nothing was at all how it had appeared in the brochure his parents had anxiously given him. Instead of a sprawling lake that glimmered in the sun like a billion diamonds, there was little more than a pond with perpetually brown water that reeked of mold and dead fish. The proud dock in the picture turned out to be a splintery tangle of beaten planks with a pathetic pair of sun-bleached, leaky canoes. And then there were the cabins.
Oh the cabins…
He may have only been fourteen, but Billy knew he had been fleeced the moment he saw the screen door. It was a battered, rusty, rickety door that screamed that nothing beyond would be any better. It was an honest door. The three pairs of bunks looked like throwaways from the war. Dull, olive blankets, coarse and worn, dangled limply from each. There were only five pillows to the six beds. Water dripped from a leaky pipe running under the ceiling, spattering into a slick puddle beside a chipped card table. The constant drone of mosquitoes and other pests hung overhead like a living canopy.
Every boy’s summer dream...
A group of older campers— ‘Private’ they were supposed to call each other, including that jerk Laherty, trotted by in loose formation behind a stocky counselor. They sang a tuneless cadence with forgettable words. Billy hadn’t managed to learn all of the lines yet. Not that it mattered: he barely had the wind to keep up the march, let alone sing. Billy quickly lowered his eyes. Laherty and his thugs had already chased him into nurse’s cabin once today. And once was enough. It didn’t help though.
Laherty’s cool glance locked onto Billy like hawk, trained in on prey that it had every intention on circling around and cutting to pieces. Billy managed to sneak a peek, instantly regretting doing so. Laherty had waited him out. Laherty’s ugly half-smile twisted half of his mouth. Billy felt his face flush. He did his best to stand his ground, but like always, after that first moment of initial bravery, his shoulders slumped, his heart pounded, and his eyes slipped back to the dirt. The formation disappeared onto a nearby trail. The cadence died a moment later.
“You know, sooner or later, you gotta’ stand up to him.”
Billy’s head swiveled to the only friendly voice he’d found in the past week. Erik Fenris looked like the type of kid Billy usually hated. Tall. Athletic. Confident. Stupid, perfect haircut. Billy should’ve hated him. But he didn’t. Fenris had turned out to be the only camper at Lockheart that didn’t seem to want to hold Billy’s head under water. Billy was immensely glad to have met him. He was even more grateful that Fenris was assigned to his cabin.
“Easy for you to say, dickweed,” Billy said, mouthing a rare smile. “He’s not twice your size.”
Fenris slung an arm over Billy’s shoulder as they walked in no particular direction. “How many times have I got to tell you before it sinks into the non-nerd part of your brain? It doesn’t matter how big the other guy is if you know what you’re doing. Look at me! My three brothers are way taller than I am, way stronger too. But you know what? I’ve picked up a few things from them and a few more from the General. Now, most of the time I can hold my own.”
"I still can't believe you call your dad by his rank," Billy said.
Fenris faked a left jab and then brought his right knee up in a heartbeat. The knee only grazed Billy’s stomach, but it was enough to get Fenris’s point across. A serious, bordering on dour look, came over the taller boy’s face. “Sometimes you gotta’ fake weakness to be strong. Other times you have to let it all out. My dad used to call it letting the demon have its laugh.”
A hawk screeched in the high blue sky. Billy’s brow wrinkled. “What do you mean demon?”
The taller boy with the perfectly styled hair picked up a smooth stone and skipped it out into the pond. “The demon. You know… that little voice in your head that always shows up when you’ve got a choice to make.”
Billy awkwardly tossed his own stone. On cue, it hit the water with a disappointing thunk. “My choices are usually limited to getting it in the face or getting it in the gut.”
Fenris spun on his friend and grabbed Billy by the shoulders. Billy’s heart sank. The other shoe had finally dropped. Erik Fenris was a fist away from joining the growing list of bullies in Billy’s head. Instead, Fenris’s voice turned to steel.
“No. There’s always a choice. You can either draw your line, unleash the demon and let it have its laugh or you can spend the rest of your life cowering in lunchroom corners.”
Fenris’s face was masked in cold stone. Billy only nodded. What else was there to do? Fenris had made his point. Billy tried wrapping his mind around the odds of him ever beating Laherty or any of the other thousand bullies he had known in a fight. As best he could tell, he had a better shot at getting struck by lightning. Underground.
The awkward moment passed and the rough edges of Fenris’s face reverted back to his million dollar smile. Billy breathed a sigh of relief and managed a nervous bit of laughter as Fenris released him.
“You put your pack together yet?” Fenris asked, as though he hadn’t spent the past five minutes talking about inner demons.
“We were supposed to pack?” Billy replied, stomach already sinking.
Fenris broke off in a trot. “Come on. We gotta’ get your pack ready for maneuvers tonight.”
“Wait. Hold up!” Billy trailed after his friend. “What the hell is a maneuver?”
“I keep forgetting you come from a civilian family,” Fenris called back. The taller boy had spun around and now backpedaled down the lumpy clay road toward the cluster of cabins. “Maneuvers is when we hit the trees, man. We’re gonna’ gear up and get some real camping done.”
Billy halted immediately. His parents hadn’t said a thing about camping. Actual camping, anyway. “You mean we’re going to sleep outside? At night?”
“Duh,” Fenris said. “How else do you camp?” He shook his head and laughed at the dumbest ever asked.
A thin sheen of cold sweat broke out along Billy’s hairline. “Aren’t there animals out there, though? Like bears and cougars?” He didn’t particularly relish the notion of being separated from a roving grizzly’s savage fury by only a thin sheet of nylon.
Fenris pulled up to a halt and shrugged his shoulders. “Well, yeah I guess so. But it’s mostly wolves around these parts, this time of year. It’s how we wound up with the legend of Private Shanks.” His eyes widened with nearly overflowing excitement. “It’s the best part of the week.” He disappeared into the cabin with a faded number six clinging to life above the door.
Some of the other cadets, especially the older boys, had mentioned the tale of Private Shanks during the week. They seemed to take a certain sick pleasure in recounting the tale to the first timers. Billy remembered reading something about the old folktale on the brochure. There, the story had been listed like any other activity— ‘Campfire Tales’ it had been titled.
“Great,” Billy said with all of the enthusiasm of a wet mop. “Can’t wait.”
Billy entered the cabin and saw one of other boys, a doughy sort named Stevens, handing the payphone to Fenris before flopping down on a squeaky bunk. Billy pulled his drab, olive backpack out from the footlocker at the end of his bunk and carefully arranged the assorted clothing and gear like Fenris had taught him. The back and forth on the payphone picked up its pace. Fenris’s voice climbed an angry octave and a moment later, he slammed the phone down. His face was beat red and his fists were tightly gnarled by his sides.
“What was that about?” Billy asked, stuffing a sweater into his pack.
Fenris said nothing. He stared out the cabin’s dingy, lone window. His fists trembled.
Billy set his pack down on his bunk and regarded his friend. “Fenris?”
Fenris’s back and shoulders suddenly eased. He released a deep breath. His fingers unwound. “Nothing. It was nothing. Just the same old bullshit from home.” He nodded to Billy’s half-filled backpack. “How’s the pack coming?”
Shortly after sundown, the cadets of cabins four through six arrived at their campsite. Packs were dropped and complaints about blisters and sore backs filled the air. Over the next twenty minutes, Billy was barked at, snapped at and ordered around. Tents were erected in a neat ring around the fire pit’s wide stone circle, a latrine dug, and gear stowed.
Billy kept a close watch over his shoulder the entire time. You could never tell when or where Laherty or one of his cronies would appear. Best to keep your head on a swivel as Fenris might have said.
A gruff drill instructor, whose face was covered by over-sized aviator sunglasses despite the growing twilight, shouted for Billy to gather wood for the fire. Billy’s eyes shifted left, right and then left again. Laherty was out of sight, but Billy’s hiking boots felt cemented into the forest floor.
“You waiting for something, private?” the drill instructor asked gruffly, arms folded over his chest.
A twisted, knot of a root caught Billy’s toe as he shuffled into the trees. He stumbled, flailed wildly and face planted into pile of wet leaves. A few of the other boys laughed before the icy stares of the drill instructors set them back to work. Billy brushed himself off. “Assholes,” he muttered. He thought of the overflowing bookshelf hanging over his bed at home. He’d have given anything in the world for the safe, familiar feeling of those pages.
Moonlight pushed all but the final purplish rays of the setting sun beneath the horizon. There was only a strange, hazy light that Billy found unsettling; like walking through a slightly ajar door that you knew should have been closed. He poked and prodded at every other fallen branch and stick with his boot. He had only just bent for the first when the crunching of leaves came. Billy’s head spun nervously. A bit of bile raised in his throat, burning on the way up. His heart raced. He squinted.
An animal maybe. Fox? Squirrel?
But what if it’s something bigger?
What if it’s a cougar? Or a bear? Or a wolf?
Holy shit… what if it’s a whole fucking pack of wolves?
The leaves snapped again. Closer this time. In the span of a minute, the night seemed to have taken the world over. There was no starlight. Only a faded, empty moon, struggling for life behind a canvas of murky gray clouds. Billy took a few nervous back toward the campsite. Leaves crunched, this time within arm’s reach. Billy spun…
And bumped nose first into a tree. He staggered and fell, dazed by the blow. His vision blurred and for a moment the world teetered to one side. He blinked. Rubbed his eyes. He reached to adjust his thick-rimmed glasses.
“Oh shit,” Billy stammered.
The underbrush snapped at him from all sides. Through the haze he squinted, looking anxiously for the first sign of danger. He rocked onto his hands and knees, then dragged his hands over the ground in frantic arcs looking for his lost glasses.
“Lose something, loser,” a frosty, venom-filled voice asked.
Of course. Why wouldn’t Laherty show up when I don’t stand a chance.
Billy's mind churned. A billion responses crashed about his thoughts like a highway pile up. He stammered. Laherty moved on Billy’s weakness like an emboldened predator. He shoved Billy hard in the chest, and the smaller boy sprawled onto the ground. Billy landed with a grunt.
Billy’s fingers brushed against the familiar frame of his glasses. He smashed them into his face where they dangled crookedly from his nose and ears. His eyes widened. A lump strangled his throat, pushing the desperate scream down into his stomach.
Laherty hovered over Billy, flanked on either side by Victor and Lincoln; the two ugliest, acne-covered twins Billy had ever seen. Victor and Lincoln were Laherty’s preferred muscle around Camp Lockheart. Between them Billy figured they’d caused a lifetime’s worth of misery. Lincoln, in particular, had a silent menace about him; the empty glare of a monster without a soul. Lincoln whittled a wrist-thick branch in a spear tip with his Ka-Bar, with hardly a flicker of his lifeless eyes.
“I asked you a question, asswipe,” Laherty said. He leaned over, fists clenched atop his knees.
“I uh, uhm,” Billy stuttered.
Laherty nodded. Lincoln and Victor sprang into action. In a heartbeat, Victor had Billy’s shoulders pinned to the ground. Billy’s legs thrashed and kicked up a wall of loose leaves and muck, but it was little use: Victor had him by thirty pounds. Lincoln sank to his knees beside Billy’s head. He brought the wicked-looking knife into view, letting Billy’s eyes focus on its glinting razor’s edge. It was all Billy could do not to soil himself. He whimpered, a fat tear fell from the corner of his eye.
“Oh shit, Link,” Laherty said through a cold laugh, “you made him cry.”
Without a word, Lincoln scraped the knife’s edge against Billy’s cheek, catching the tear. He leveled the moistened blade in above Billy’s quivering lips. “Open,” Lincoln said.
Billy’s muscles froze from top to bottom. Even if he wanted to open his mouth, his jaw refused his brain’s command. Victor clamped a hand around the smaller boy’s throat. Billy’s mouth gasped open on reflex and Lincoln rubbed the blade over his tongue.
Laherty rocked on his heels, enjoying Billy’s torture. “I bet that’s salty, isn’t—”
Fenris’s fist caught Laherty clean on the side of his jaw, rattling stars into his target’s vision. Laherty went down hard in a heap. Victor popped up and squared off, ready for a fistfight. Fenris did the same. Billy rolled away from a stunned Lincoln and darted behind his rescuer.
Laherty struggled to his feet, nursing his jaw with his hand, leaves clinging to his hair. “Chicken shit move, Fenris.”
“Tough talk coming from the piece of shit who needs help picking on someone half his size,” Fenris replied, hands dancing in a classic boxer’s pose.
Laherty took a step toward Fenris. Fenris halted him with a glare. “There’s plenty more if any of you want some. Believe me. I could do this all day.”
“Come on, man. We gotta get back before the instructors notice we’re all gone,” Victor said. Beside him, Lincoln only nodded and sheathed his Ka-Bar. The twins started back for the camp, crunching footsteps disappearing a moment later.
“You should probably listen to him,” Fenris said. The son of a third generation Marine took a single step at Laherty, keeping his fists readied. “I’d hate to have to explain what you sickos were doing to Billy and how you got your ass kicked at the same time.”
The gears behind Laherty’s eyes cranked a few times and the senior camp bully stalked after his friends. Billy’s nerves tingled like an electrical mess of tangled wires. He still felt the cold kiss of Lincoln’s knife against his cheek. The thought tugged breath from his lungs in haggard pulls. He choked down a gulp of air, forcing his nerves to settle.
“You ok?” Fenris asked. He cupped Billy’s shoulder like an older brother.
Billy fought back the tears, but a thin sheen of tears managed to coat his eyes. He hoped the murky night hid them. “He had a knife… I was so scared. I don’t… I don’t know what I would’ve done if you didn’t show up.”
“Those pricks are all talk and they only even bother with that when they got the numbers. Let Lincoln try that shit with the knife when it’s just him and me and we’ll see who comes out king of the psycho killers then.” Fenris squeezed Billy’s shoulder. A perfect smile, even and calm, painted his face as though he hadn’t just played superhero.
“Thanks, Fenris.” Billy dabbed his eyes with the back of his fist. “I mean it. I don’t know how I’d survive this place without you.”
Fenris pulled the smaller boy into a good-natured headlock, shook him a couple of times and then released. “Don’t mention it. Someone’s gotta’ look out for the little guy. May as well be me. Let’s head back. It’s getting pretty dark and it’s probably time for the ‘Legend of Shanks’.”
The boys had walked about thirty feet before Billy asked the same question that every first timer to Camp Lockheart asks. “You don’t think it’s real, do you?”
The fire crackled and popped bits of cinder and ash and belched a constant plume of smoke into the moonless sky. Jagged, needle-like shadows danced on the ring of tents. The temperature had dropped to something more end-of-fall than July. The campers sat cross-legged around the fire, a drill instructor strategically placed every fourth or fifth boy for crowd control.
Billy sat wedged between Fenris and an older boy with a snout of a nose whose name Billy couldn’t remember. Laherty and his thugs sat on the fire’s opposite side, dancing flames lapping at their faces, distorting features in a demonic twist of light and shadow.
Biggs, the ranking instructor, hushed the lively crowd with a ‘simmer down’ motion of his hands. He's bigger than a gorilla, Billy thought, his hands could probably crush a skull. Biggs stepped a single foot onto the tree stump that always served as the storyteller’s seat and worked his chin stubble. “I dunno know.”
“Don’t know what, DI Biggs?” Wedge, the second-in-command DI answered on cue, grinning stupidly as though it weren’t the billionth time they’d played this little skit. An older camper nearby groaned, but Wedge’s grin flashed into a snarl and the boy quickly stifled.
Biggs shook his head. “I don’t know if this particularly sorry ass group of monkey spunk can handle it.”
A couple of the newer boys, Billy included, laughed at the crude language, but found themselves silenced just as quickly as Wedge’s heckler. “They didn’t come all this way for ‘Goodnight Moon’, DI Biggs. Better let em have it,” Wedge said.
“You guys think you can hack it?” Biggs asked. He took his boot from the stump. “Cuz I don’t wanna hear anyone crying about being afraid afterwards. We don’t much like crying here at Camp Lockheart.”
Most of the boys responded to the challenge with a cheer. Biggs played the game for a few more ‘I don’t knows’, letting the fervor build into pep-rally levels. Satisfied, Biggs lowered his bulky-frame onto the stump and took a deep breath.
This is it. The Legend of Private Shanks. Time to see what the fuss was about.
“I gotta lay down some ground rules before I start,” Biggs said, leaning in. Several of the campers followed suit and Biggs knew he had them. “First, no one goes anywhere without a buddy from here on in. These woods are dangerous and that ain’t no joke. You go wandering off and get lost and nobody’s gonna find you until spring. That’s a promise. Second, them trees are full of all kind of animals. Some big. Some small. Don’t mess with anything that’s got more legs than you do. And third…”
Wedge skillfully let the moment hang in the moonless air before speaking. “Third, sir?”
Biggs stared into the fire as though he hadn’t heard the question. The skipping flicker cast jabbing shadows over his face.
“Sir...” Wedge said.
Biggs’s eyes darted around. He returned from the faux daydream. “Third, and listen carefully because this may save your life. If you hear a faint, soft sound like a whimpering on the breeze… Run. Drop what you’re doing and run. Run back to camp. Run back home. Run wherever you want. Just run.”
A boy about Billy’s age, with dark skin and a heavy Southern accent stuck his hand up for a question. “Why, Drill Instructor Biggs? Where’s the whimpering sound comin’ from?”
“Shanks, dumbass.” Laherty scoffed from a few seats away. Lincoln and Victor quickly followed suit, chuckling at the greenhorn question. “It’s Private Shanks crying in the woods. Crying because they left him.”
Billy’s mouth spoke faster than his brain would've preferred. “Left him where?”
Biggs suddenly sprang up from his seat. “Would you ladies would like to sit out here and tell the damn story to yourselves? Maybe Wedge, Jadsen and I should head back to camp and let you guys sort it all out.”
None of the boys spoke. The fire crackled. Papery leaves rustled. Billy panned over the assembled faces. Most had let their eyes drill holes into whichever closest patch of earth they could find. Even Fenris and Laherty.
The senior drill instructor took his seat. “That’s better. Although he’s a giant dipshit, Private Laherty over there is correct. In the fifties, before Camp Lockheart was Camp Lockheart and a summer camp for all of you doughy suburban pukes, it was more of a— dammit Wedge, what did they call it back then? Not juvenile detention camp, but…”
“I think you’re looking for ‘Home For Criminally Insane Boys,” Wedge answered gleefully.
A rare smile spread over Biggs’s mouth. “Ah, yes. That’s right.”
The palms of Billy’s hands were coated in icy sweat. He had his fingers locked together in a tight knit inside his sweatshirt pocket. Here it comes, he thought.
Nightmare fuel for life.
Biggs poked at the fire, freeing a steaming sizzle of cracking ember. “Back then, things was a little different. Back then, if a boy stepped out of line more than his share, he got a crack on the mouth. At a certain age, maybe his pops’d take him out back and give him the ole one-two. Teach him some manners. That’s how it was done then. And things were better for it! Lot less back talk back then. But sometimes that wasn’t enough. Sometimes a young man would fall so far out of line that they sent him away.”
The circle of campers was as still as a model posing for an oil painting. Only the fire dared whispering. Biggs cleared his throat. “Edgar Shanks was one of those. Back in fifty-one, Edgar Shanks’s parents sent their only son away. Unlike the other pieces of shit that found themselves here, Edgar was a good boy. Made good grades. Mowed the lawn. Probably walked on water. They say the only spot of trouble he ever got in was with a schoolyard bully who wouldn’t leave him be. One day, after Edgar found the bottom of the mud puddle one time too many, they finally fought. Only once.”
Wedge pumped his fist on cue. “Sounds like that ole bully learned his lesson.”
Biggs’s face darkened despite the firelight. “You could say that. Or you could say Edgar Shanks beat him so bad that that schoolyard bully never did wake up.”
A rolling nausea roiled in the pit of Billy’s stomach at the thought of a person being beaten to death. Nausea and something else. Something shameful. Excitement. He’d be a liar if he denied that he hadn’t imagined beating any of a dozen neighborhood bullies to death. To see their tears and their snot-filled noses bleating for mercy for a change. To hear their breath strangled from their—
“They say Edgar’s parents were pressured by the judge overhearing the case to send him away. Let things die down a bit, that way the neighbors and other parents could move on.” Biggs paused, melodramatically. He shook his head.
“Bad call. They sent poor Edgar to about the worst place on Earth. The camp was filled with psychos and druggies and sex-sadists all-too-happy to corn hole whatever unlucky piece of meat came their way. Poor Edgar was out of his element, top to bottom. He didn’t make it a night before he was begging the camp’s commandant to go home.”
Laherty found a set of brass ones. “Skip to the good part.” His eyes found Billy across the fire. “Skip to the part where they tortured him.”
Spittle launched from Biggs’s face as he barked, “Dammit Laherty, every Goddang year I tell this thing, I gotta tell you to pipe down. Maybe this is the year I finally make good on taking that security job and just kick your ass.”
Biggs composed himself. “In any event, peckerwood over there is right. The other boys caught wind of Edgar’s story and decided they were gonna test him. They waited, the lot of them, until nightfall. They were smart too, those insane bastards. They waited until the counselors’ watch had passed before making their move. It was just after midnight. Someone threw stuffed a rolled sock into Edgar’s mouth as he slept and quickly taped it over. He woke up, thrashing, kicking at the sheets. Didn’t matter. They say there were six older boys involved. Ole Edgar didn’t have a chance. They stripped him to his skivvies. Cinched his wrists and ankles with bits of packing twine they’d swiped from mail call.”
Billy cringed. He pressed his back as far into the log as it would go. He had been petrified of the same thing since arriving at Camp Lockheart.
“They carried him down a trail to a campsite just like this one. They slammed him against a tree, wrenched his arms, and tied them behind the trunk.” Biggs took a breath, a big swallow of air as though he were remembering the incident personally. “They only taunted him at first, getting off on seeing the scrawny, new kid crying his muffled cries into the dirty sock in his mouth. It wasn’t until one of the degenerates slapped him… It was like the dam had broken and all of the sickness came pouring out. They took turns. Punching the wind from his gut, blacking his eyes. Then, they got braver. Legend says they took a knife to him next, carving little strips of skin like bacon from his chest and legs. He bled the ground beneath the tree red, and soaked it with tears. They say the ring leader hauled it out and pissed on him for good measure. They say that’s when the whimpering started.”
Billy’s throat had all but clenched shut around a plum-sized lump. He knew his eyes were wide as saucers: he felt the skin stretching at the corners. His sweatshirt pocket was damp of sweat. Around the fire, he found similar expressions of disgust and terror. Except for Laherty. That sick bastard probably had a hard-on at the thought.
Billy nudged Fenris. He was about to mutter to his friend when he noticed the grim, stone-like mask had returned. Jesus Christ, what was it with this guy? Maybe he’s playing with a screw loose.
Biggs shifted his weight, worked the stubble on his chin. “They left poor Edgar out there all night. At roll call the next morning, no one talked. No one saw where the new guy had wandered off to. ‘Maybe he ran off’, someone finally said. The search party didn’t take long. They found him—pieces anyway—near the tree they’d tied him to. No body though. Only little bits of meat. Half-chewed eyeballs. They bagged a hand with about a foot of packing twine cutting into the wrist and brought it back for the police. But that was all. The State Police sent out a major search, rescue divers for the lake, helicopter, dogs, you name it. Nothing. Authorities couldn’t pin a pile of flies on a pile of shit. Eventually, everyone kinda forgot about ole Edgar Shanks.”
“So, they never found him?”
Billy’s head swiveled for the voice’s owner. It took him a second to realize it was his.
“That’s right, new guy,” Biggs said. “They say he’s still out there somewhere. Blind and groping around in the dark with a bloody stump.” Biggs paused a beat. “Whimpering.”
In the distance a faint, soft sound arose. The circle of campers huddled closer, too afraid to be the first to jump.
Biggs’s head jerked to the left. His eyes narrowed in the firelight. “You guys hear that?”
Again the sound came. Closer.
Biggs’s head swung to the right. “Sounds like it’s closer.”
The whimper sobbed, scraping closer to the fire. Biggers drew a flashlight from a hip-holster. The spear of blinding white light sawed through the darkness, settling on a tree fifteen feet behind Billy. Biggs slowly advanced, stepping through the circle of campers.
The whimpering came again.
Biggs peaked behind the tree bathed in his flashlight’s beam. He let the beam fall to the ground. His expression was blank. He only muttered. “Oh, God.”
The boy with the Southern accent found his voice first. “What is—”
The scream scattered the ring of campers into a yelping tangle of limbs. A pale form, stripped to the waist lurched from behind a tent. Its waxy skin had the look of moldy plastic. A dripping stump stabbed at them. Mud caked hair dangled over gouged eye sockets. Billy scrambled backward, clawing at the earth.
Biggs and Wedge laughed. Wedge tried speaking, but the laughter kept coming. Biggs gave him a playful shove. He walked over to the monster and dropped an arm over its shoulder. “Ladies, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Private Shanks, aka, DI Jadsen.”
Biggs grabbed the creature’s hair and pulled. The mask came off like a villain being revealed on a kid’s cartoon. Drill Instructor Jadsen joined his comrade in a laugh, peeling at the fake stump that he had saturated in dyed corn syrup. He dabbed his finger in the sticky fluid and blotted his tongue. “Classic fake blood. Hitchcock would be proud.”
Hearts thundered to the man. Nervous laughter broke out in a few boys at first, then by the others once the adrenaline fizzled. Billy’s own pounding pulse strangled his throat. He put on a fake smile and tossed out a fake laugh. He couldn’t afford to come across any worse or weaker.
“Alright, my little maggots,” Biggs said, reeling them in, “bunk up and lights out in ten. I hear anything louder than breaking wind and we’re gonna have ourselves a little march till about sunrise. You get me?”
The campers all shouted back in unison, “We get you, sir!”
A stiff wind whistled through the trees. The night carried the long notes of an owl’s call through the stillness. Billy pulled the sleeping bag tight around his chin. The flimsy padding roll was about as comfortable as cement. Billy hated it. Even worse than sleeping on the terrible cot in the terrible cabin. The one-man tent shivered all around him with each passing breeze. He stared at the ceiling.
This must be what being buried alive feels like… Trapped alone inside a tiny space. In the dark. Barely moving. Your pounding heart the only measure of time passing you by...
Shuffling boots stalked around the tent. DI Bigg’s coarse voice admonished an unlucky camper a second later. For that first moment, though, Billy’s breath had frozen in his lungs. Laherty. That fucker would surely be paying him a visit tonight. Lincoln and Victor too. They probably figured that stupid Shanks story would make it all the more fun. He reached under his pillow. Still there.
The multi-tool was still there, right where Fenris had told him he had stashed it. His hand trembled around it. But it was reassuring all the same. He wouldn’t end up like Shanks. Beaten? Left for dead? No thanks. Wimp or not, he finally realized Fenris was right. You either let the demon dance, or you let the world take everything from you a stinging piece at a time. Billy Breen’s hand steadied around the multi-tool’s studded rubber grip.
He would be ready this time. For the first time since coming to Camp Lockheart, Billy closed his eyes, smiled, and let sleep claim him.
A clanging rattle exploded all around the tent. Billy bolted upright, bumped his head against the damp canvas, knocked over the small lantern by his sleeping bag. His hand stabbed beneath his pillow for the multi-tool. Shaking, he snapped out the four inch blade and tightened his hand around the grip. He rolled around. Crawled for the zipper-sealed door. The sharp tip of the multi-tool lead the way. Billy pinched the zipper and slowly dragged it up.
Streaking of morning sunlight and mist poured into his tent. He pulled back a flap and peered outside. Biggs was striking the innards of an empty coffee can with his field knife. The campsite was a flurry of activity: campers rushed in all directions to get the fire started, gear stowed for the trek back, to take a turn at the latrine. The chaos reminded Billy of the ant farm swarming on his desk at home. He rocked back onto his haunches and heaved a sigh of relief.
Billy emerged a moment later, freshly changed, multi-tool resting in a cargo pocket. The woods were alive with cicada song. DI Wedge had a small crew gathered around the fire and had just tossed a couple of pounds of bacon onto a skillet. The scent wafted, found its way to Billy’s stomach and tore a growl free. Some of the other boys passed by his tent, nodded and smiled. Billy smiled back. Finally. Today won’t be as bad as all of the others.
When the sun reached its high point, the DI’s issued their final marching orders. The campers formed their lines, backs laden with packs, arms and legs covered with bug bites and grime, and made for Camp Lockheart.
A mile into the return hike, just as Billy’s legs began to burn with effort, DI Biggs ordered the halt. The burly instructor’s scowl seemed cemented in place. Deep lines carved his forehead. “We have to go back.”
“What’s going on, boss?” Wedge asked, pulling his group alongside the first. A halt on march usually meant one thing. His head bobbed a quick count of his campers. “Who’s missing?”
Biggs grunted. “Nah, everyone’s here. I don’t fucking believe it, but I think I left my keys back on the story stump. I set em down there this morning at chow and must’ve forgot em.”
Wedge signaled with his hands. “Alright, ladies. You heard the man. Let’s mount up and move out.”
The campers groaned, and complained, and some of the older boys swore under their breaths. Laherty and his thugs had a few particularly colorful remarks to share. The crowd did an about-face back down the trail.
“I’ll go back,” Billy said. He stepped through tight columns of campers and approached the DI’s. “I’ll get the keys.”
An eyebrow arched up from behind Biggs’s aviator sunglasses. “I don’t think so. You’ve barely managed to not jump at your own shadow all week. C’mon, boys, let’s—”
“I said I can do it, DI Biggs,” Billy said. Steel cased his voice, for once keeping it from trembling. “I’ll grab the keys and catch back up before you even make it back.”
Biggs folded his arms over his chest. Billy watched his reflection in Biggs’s sunglasses as the DI mulled it over. Finally, Biggs shrugged. “Alright, Breen. You’ve got yourself an objective to see to. Head back to the site, grab the keys, and double-time it back. If you can pull that off before formation, hell, we may be able to make something of you yet.”
Billy smiled. He shifted his the weight of his pack and hustled down the earthen trail back to the camp site. The formation’s cadence trailed off behind him for a few minutes, then fizzled to nothing. He gripped at his pack’s shoulder straps and trotted easily, hopping twisted roots and dodging loose stones. He had to admit he felt good. His mother had been right: it was good to get out in the fresh air.
The campsite was just as they had left it. Foot prints tracked in crazy loops in all directions. The campers had done right by their instructors. No trash. No refuse at all left behind. Biggs’s keys glinted into the afternoon and Billy found them easily. He picked them up, gave them a twirl—
Something heavy slammed into the back of Billy’s head with a snap, blanketing his vision in swirling darkness. The ground caught him.
The world slowly sharpened. Billy’s eyes came back into focus. And he wished they hadn’t. Instantly.
Laherty stood a step beyond arm’s length. If I can get to the multi-tool… Billy struggled, but his arms refused to obey. His head reeled. He looked down. His arms were stretched from his body and tied behind the tree trunk pressing into his back. A sour taste filled his mouth. He tried to spit and scream, but only a muffled howl escaped the gag. And there was Laherty. Standing. Grinning. Enjoying his work, like a spider at the edge of a twitching web.
The world teetered at the edges of Billy's vision, but the cold truth struck home.
“That’s right, sleeping beauty. Wake up time.” The back of Laherty’s hand stung Billy’s eyes to tears. “Looks like someone found a pair just in time to lose it.”
A lump inched up Billy’s throat. His nostrils flared for oxygen. His chest heaved. Billy gurgled against the gag, fighting hard to keep up the appearance of courage. Laherty balled a fist and slammed it into Billy’s stomach. The smaller boy grunted. And crumpled.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. They always go for the ‘tough guy’ routine at this point. Usually only takes—” Laherty’s fist slammed home again— “a punch or two.”
In a split second, Billy’s newfound courage dissolved. He slumped as low as could manage with his arms twisted painfully behind him. And sobbed a whining sob. His eyes widened as Laherty approached a third time. With Lincoln’s Ka-Bar brandished proudly in his hand.
Laherty’s long shadow fell over Billy like sweeping night. “We’re long overdue with introducing you to the real Private Shanks…”
The flashlight’s crisp, dazzling beam sawed through the night. Fenris felt the tremor in his voice before the words choked their way out. “Over here! I found him!”
Billy barely had the strength to lift his head. His eyes were nearly swollen shut. Dried blood caked to the gash at his temple. His hair and clothing reeked of urine. He only murmured.
“Jesus Christ, what did they do to you?” Fenris snapped the blade of his knife open and quickly cut the ropes binding Billy’s wrists.
Billy’s tattered t-shirt clung to the jagged slashes at his chest and stomach. Fenris’s hand trembled as he reached for Billy’s gag. “My God, Billy. Hold on. Help’s coming.”
A moment later, Billy was laid gently on a stretcher by the DI’s. Biggs and Wedge frantically worked on Billy’s wounds, applying pressure, dabbing antiseptic, bandaging. Billy drifted in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of the antiseptic’s sting and the DI’s well-trained response.
“What about his face?” Wedge asked quietly, looking over his shoulder at the campers who had volunteered for the search. The vertical slashes down had missed the eyes, but left the boy with angry, canyon-like wounds. A scarecrow’s face.
Fenris watched as the instructors reigned the search party in and readied them for the march back. His clenched fists vibrated by his sides.
Billy sat up with a jolt. His bandaged hands found carefully applied dressings, neatly cinched and taped off. He panned around, narrowed his eyes, fell back against the cot. His vision blurred along the edges.
A cot. That means I’m back. Or I’m dead and maybe in Hell.
Billy squinted and reached for the small table next to his cot. He slid his glasses into place. Fire gnawed at his skin from the inside out. His temples rang and his face felt tight and frozen in place. He needed a mirror.
When his feet hit the cold floor of the Infirmary, Billy’s knees buckled. He staggered a step, bumped into the nurse’s heavy desk, steadied himself. There was a faint smell of cigarettes but no ugly nurse Clara. A toilet flushed. Nurse Clara emerged from the restroom a moment later, surprise decorating her face.
“Wasn’t expecting you to be up so soon,” Clara said, bonafide concern weighing heavily in her voice. “Your parents are on their way. You’ll be home soon. You can put this whole thing behind you.”
“Behind me?” Billy said, softly. “You think I want to put this behind me?”
“I just thought—”
Billy’s head snapped over his shoulder to the camp nurse. His eyes, purple and swollen, tightened. “No. You didn’t think. People like you never think. You just talk and talk and talk. You never think or do anything about anything until it’s too late.” Billy traced a finger to one of the tight lines on his face. “I want to see.”
The color drained from Clara’s face. She fumbled in her desk drawer for a cigarette. She puckered one between her fat lips, juggled a lighter shaped like a pig. “I don’t think—”
The multi-tool appeared in Billy’s hand and a flash later the blade was free. He didn’t point it at the stunned nurse. He didn’t have to. Billy felt the song growing in his chest. In his head. In his blood. Fenris would be proud.
The demon was long overdue for its laugh.
Clara handed Billy a small cosmetic mirror, then quickly jerked back her chubby palm. Billy slowed raised the smudged glass in front of his face. His chest heaved a few times as the legacy of Laherty’s cruel game seared its way into his brain. The mirror hit the floor with a crack. The Infirmary door slammed shut a beat later.
Laherty’s cabin was just ahead. Billy’s hand wrapped tightly around the multi-tool's soothing grip. I’m a part of you now, it said in his head, together we’ll make the little piggies squeal. His feet moved on their own accord, carrying him closer to revenge.
They may get the last lick in. They may even kill me, he thought. But I’m gonna carve my name into Laherty. I’m gonna carve ‘Shanks’ right into his forehead so the whole world knows.
Billy’s hand tightened around the cabin door’s handle. A crash came from inside. Then a bloodcurdling scream split his already throbbing skull. Billy, stared at the dirty screen, took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
Hell had come to Camp Lockheart. The table was flipped on its side, several chairs had been splintered into kindling. Blood, arcing crimson sprays of blood, painted the walls and ceiling.
And saturated the twins’ bunks.
Lincoln and Victor’s bodies lay twisted in their blood-stained sheets. Their mattresses had been soaked through and the telltale sound of thick fluid dripping came from beneath the bunks. Their torsos looked as though they’d been gnawed on by a feral animal.
Billy dropped the multi-tool and covered his mouth against the tidal wave of rising bile. He stepped back towards the door. He tried in vain not to look around the cabin, but a trailing stain of deep red caught his eye. Billy’s eyes had a mind of their own. He followed the trail of blood around the corner to its end.
Laherty was slumped in a corner, propped against the wall. Most of his innards had been torn free, leaving a sloppy cavity staring back at the world. His hands were covered in gore from the feeble attempt at stuffing them back in. An angry smile had been carved into his throat across the Adam’s apple.
A muffled sound, like chuckling came from the adjacent corner. Billy swallowed a breath and slowly turned to the strange sound.
Fenris rocked, knees to chest, his face a slick mask of blood. The same redness covered his arms to the elbows. His bloodied Ka-Bar sat on the floor beside him. The muffled sound became clearer, became uncontrollable laughter.
And Billy screamed.