Ralph never considered himself a morning person. Usually his nights would be spent watching Adult Swim and playing guitar, so mornings were less the start of his day and more the end of it. So it was surprising to him that when the giant bell at the front of the cabin started ringing, and he found himself awaking with ease. Maybe he could get used to this whole camping experience.
Maybe it was because he was sick of hearing about the camp and introducing himself to others that he just wanted to start the actual summer camp experience. Find out what it was like for himself. He wanted to get past the awkward stages of learning the routine and the people around him. It was his first time at camp and he just wanted to feel comfortable again.
It helped that Ralph was placed in, from what he could tell, the best group. His counselor, Louie, seemed pretty laid back and fun, reminding Ralph of this senior who got kicked out of school for bringing in special brownies for all the teachers. The previous day when they had to introduce themselves, Louie just said to talk amongst themselves. "You're gonna be here for a month. Forcing you to learn each other's name at this very moment doesn’t do any of us any good and just forces you to hate me," he had said. Judging by the crazy outburst in one of the other groups, Ralph decided he was right.
The days here couldn't be any worse than the boredom that came with summer vacation. At least at school he was forced to be social, over break he’d just spend time in his room, playing old video games. It was probably the reason he looked forward to camp so much: forced interaction. Even Louie's "Hey dudes, time to get your shower on so we can all get some grub" was a welcome change. Louie was either really good at his job or really bad, but either way the camaraderie was nice to Ralph.
Finally deciding it was time to start the process of getting up, Ralph stood, reaching under his bunk to grab his toiletries. Pulling the bag onto his bed, he was completely unaware of the open zipper and everything proceeded to fall to the floor. He looked up, ready to be made fun of by one of the other boys. It was prime joke material. He awaited their harsh words, laughter and finger pointing. Only that didn't happen. Those actually awake just looked over, sometimes saying to themselves, "That sucks" but otherwise just going about their own business. The guy next to him, completely covered in tattoos and therefore a little scary, quickly stepped in to help.
"Shit man, talk about bad luck," he said, putting Ralph's toothpaste and deodorant back into the bag.
"Yeah, that would be my middle name," Ralph said, a little intimidated by the large tattooed man who he questioned was even young enough to be at Watanka.
"Tell me about it, man. I've just been waiting for something like that to happen to me. Let me tell you, you think you have bad luck? You should hear my life story. I may as well have bad luck as my first, middle, and last name. Oh yeah, name's Santa," he said, extending his hand.
Ralph couldn't help but immediately chuckle. It wasn't just that he said his name was the alter ego of old Saint Nick, it more had to do with the fact that he was also a large Mexican man covered in tattoos. An odd nickname for anyone with that appearance but even moreso given his age of what couldn't have been more than seventeen.
"Before you even ask, my Christian name is Santiago and my first tattoo. . ." he pulled up his sleeve, "Was this bad boy!"
He revealed a tattoo of Santa Claus, a very colorful and extravagant image featuring a stereotypical Saint Nick, but one you may find in a picture in your grandmother's house. It fit in nicely with the other tattoos, some featuring tribal symbols but most just old cartoons characters.
"Okay, good to know. Was a little thrown off at first."
"Yeah, most are. Grams always used to call me it so that means by sister’s would, which then meant my schoolmates would so it just kinda stuck. Trust me, a bunch of gangbangers shouting for Santa is a pretty entertaining sight to behold.
Ralph wondered if the name had any gang affiliation after he used the term "Gangbangers" but he was too scared to ask. For one, he didn’t want to offend him but more importantly, he didn’t really want to be the type of person that would ask that question. Why should it matter what his past held? They were at the camp now and all equals so why would it matter if he had some trouble hundreds of miles away. After sitting in silence for a few moments, he soon realized how rude he was being by not offering up his own name, so Ralph rectified it.
"Well it’s nice to meet you, Ralph. Honestly, after yesterday I wasn't sure how this camp was gonna go," Santa continued, "I felt like a fucking pariah. Had one of the counselors say some nice things to me cause she liked my Foghorn Leghorn tat, but outside of that it’s been nothing but terrified looks."
“Ever think about just wearing some sleeves to cover them up?” Ralph said, trying to offer up any kind of helpful advice.
“Ha! As much as I’m sure others would appreciate it, I doubt that’d really solve the problem. Still got that very visible aspect of the whole being a big Mexican. Not to mention the thought of wearing long sleeves all summer long has me sweating already.”
Ralph showed sympathy but understood where the others were coming from. Santiago was large, tattooed, and held himself like he had just come out of gangland. It wasn't exactly the most approachable appearance, especially given most of the campers’ trepidation towards socialization in general.
It wasn’t like he fell into that category as well. Ralph certainly had a little concern the night before when he realized his bunk was directly next to said scary-looking person. Those fears were quickly absolved after talking to him for a few moments. In fact, Ralph wasn't sure if there was a nicer person in the camp -- besides that one wacky counselor.
"Well I need to get to that shower before these other guys actually manage to get out of bed. Santa don't do cold water."
Unfortunately for Santa, as he would find out shortly, there was no such thing as "hot" water at Camp Watanka. No, at best one could sometimes achieve air temperature water, which still felt absurdly cold. Ralph found this out when he stepped into the shower and it felt like a bucket of ice was dropped over his head. As mad as he was at first, he saw the silver-lining, telling himself, Hey at least you're awake now. Too many mornings of this though and Ralph was sure he would get sick.
When he exited the shower, cold and shivering, Ralph went to the sink to brush his teeth. It was cramped and he could only get access to the sink to moisten the bristles of his toothbrush. So instead he opted to go outside and just spit out the winterfresh/spit concoction brewed in his mouth. In front of "The Bathhouse"-- as the sign on it read -- Ralph looked around hoping to find a water spigot.
His eyes wandered freely, finally landing on the toweled up midriff of a perky girl. Realizing exactly what he was doing, he looked up, staring directly into the eyes of the midriff's owner. Busted. Quickly trying to counteract the perception, he quickly looked away, trying to avoid the look of disgust that was sure to adorn her face. He could hear giggling behind him but he kept his eyes forward.
Off in the distance, he spotted a water spigot next to the lake; only problem being its current occupation by a girl washing her hair. Ralph wasn't sure he wanted to risk it, with the other girls' giggling still resounding in his head, he decided that anything would be better than just standing there. Then he started debating whether he should just go over or just wait. But before he could even make up his mind, he was standing at the spigot, the girl leaned over, washing soap out of her hair. Apparently his legs had decided.
"I just need one more minute. Having a little difficulty getting this shampoo out. Dang water pressure," the girl said, not even looking up at Ralph, “Be happy you’re not a girl and don’t have an entire mane of hair to deal with.”
"You know you might have better luck in the showers," Ralph said, his voice cracking a little.
"Nuh-uh. Nooo thank you. That place is an absolute madhouse. At least this water doesn't turn me into a human popsicle."
"You've got me there. I didn't realize water could be that cold without freezing.”
She laughed at his dumb joke, a heavy tomboyish laugh. He wasn’t sure if it was pity or genuine but he’d take it either way. She finally looked up, getting the final suds out of her hair. She grabbed the towel that lay in the grass and started drying her hair vigorously. Ralph took notice of the Superman shirt she sported. He hadn't met many girls that liked to wear superhero shirts. None of the girls back home would do that. Maybe that's why girls always seemed like such aliens.
"So either you like Superman or you're looking at my boobs. Considering these are solid A's, I doubt it’s the latter. So you like Kal-El?" she said, throwing Ralph off completely. He could hardly make a sentence in his own head, much less with his mouth. The longer he stayed silent, the more suspicious he looked in his motives. Ralph knew this yet he still couldn't manage a word.
"Okay, maybe you were looking at my boobs -- or lack thereof."
"No, no, no! Sorry, my brain just kinda locked up," Ralph finally blurted out, figuring honesty was probably the best option. At least, that's what his mom would always say.
"So your answer is. . ." she was still playing with him, wanting to see how he got out of this situation.
"Oh yeah, I'm big into Superman. Christopher Reeves though, not that Henry Cavill stuff," he added, wondering if he'd just made his second friend this morning. Maybe this camp thing wouldn’t be all too bad.
"Oh god,” she exclaimed, “Do not even get me started. Man of Steel has got to be one of the worst superhero movies I have ever seen. That was like Daredevil bad. It's like the director of some cheesy action movies with a fetish for slow-mo decided to never read the source material or look at the previous movies."
This comforted Ralph, immediately responding with a passionate, "Yeah, what a mess. Literally. How many buildings did they have to destroy in that end fight? Hell, Smallville pretty much just isn't even a town anymore. It's just rubble. So we are now supposed to cheer for a guy that lets his home town get completely destroyed -- massively aiding in the destruction in fact."
"I'm pretty sure the Superman we all know and love would be smart enough to not take down skyscrapers full of people," she said, finally done drying and deciding to wrap the towel around her head.
"At least half a million people died during that fight. At least," he said, gurgling at the end as he rinsed his mouth of toothpaste.
"And then he's so fucking upset that he has to kill Zod, the guy who just tried to destroy the world, right after not being upset at all over the hundreds of thousands of human beings that were crushed to death due to that little scrap. How heroic." The sarcasm rolled off her tongue with ease.
"And don't even get me started on Lois Lane in that movie. She makes some of the stupidest decisions ever, yet we're supposed to commend her for being so brave. For what, wandering off in the middle of the Arctic and being lucky enough to stumble upon an alien spacecraft, where she moves through the world like an idiot in a horror movie. 'That's a big alien spacecraft. Better go explore it!'"
"Margot Kidder was so much better. My boyfriend is insane and swears that Kate Bosworth was the best Lois Lane. He said 'She resembled the comics Lois the most' or some crap. She’s a go-getter willing to take calculated risks; not scaling a glacier at 2am. I promptly drug tested him shortly after but the results came back negative," she said, laughing. Ralph was still recovering from the use of the word boyfriend. Sure, he didn't even know this girls name but she was actually into Superman. And good Superman too! It was hard to not be at least a little disappointed. Still, at least he met someone he could talk to. And a girl at that. Plus who knows, maybe it could turn into something down the road.
"Do they have tests for insanity? Because you might need to do that. As much as I hate Man of Steel, I may hate the Superhero Soap Opera known as Superman Returns even more," Ralph said, trying to steer away from the boyfriend.
"Tell me about it. I about ended things the moment I found out but he likes Doctor Who so he's not all that bad." She looked over at her cabin where the over-enthused counselor was corralling the girls into lines, trying to get them all ready to go to breakfast. "Well, well, well. Looks like it's my cue to leave. It was nice meeting you. . ."
"Ralph. . . Lieber. And you--"
"Sally. If you can remember that then I'll love you forever. Everyone always seems to remember it as Sandy or Sarah. Even got a Sal once, which I guess is right, but I think grandpa thought I was a boy the last couple years of his life so I’d still count it as a miss."
"Would dream of forgetting," he said, but she didn't give him a response. Was that too much? Was she weirded out by it? He didn't have time to ask, not that he would have, because before he knew it she was sprinting off to her line for breakfast.
"Ralph!" someone yelled from off in the distance. Ralph looked towards it and spotted Santa, waving his hands, trying to get his attention, "We gotta go to breakfast, dude."
Ralph made it back in just enough time to grab his glasses off his bunk. He quickly joined up with his group, headed by Louie, and then marched over to the flag pole to begin the day’s activities. First there were a couple of morning rituals to be had, something that caught him off-guard, but it made sense quickly given where they were lined up.
The pledge of allegiance was harder for Ralph to remember than he thought. It was even harder for him to recall when the last time was that he even had to recite it. Probably elementary school. It just wasn't something that ever entered his life. Maybe if he was more into sports then he'd have been exposed to it more. Instead a slight chuckle came to his body, drawing an intense stare of disapproval from one of the counselors. He couldn't help it, the whole thing seemed silly. He half expected to go start coloring or craft something out of construction paper.
Ralph was half-expecting a prayer or moment of silence but instead Big Al stepped out from the main office and moved to the head of the lines. He had a big huge smile on his face, calling some of the guys 'sport' as he passed by. Ralph noticed the huge name tag that read "Big Al” firmly attached to the breast of his shirt. Finally settling in, and receiving a happy greeting from his counselors, Al looked out on the camper’s with a massive grin, soaking in the surroundings.
"The first official day. It's exciting isn't it? Couldn't have asked for a better morning, could we,”
“Absolutely not, beautiful morning,” the chipper woman behind him said.
“Yes, Carol, the best.” Al seemed to think the question was rhetorical given his annoyed look when Carol spoke up.
They were right though, it certainly was a beautiful morning. The fog was starting to fade and streaks of light shown down on the lake, giving it an ethereal glow. Any place that can look like this can't be that bad.
"And while I wish that every day would be as beautiful as this one, I know that's just not likely. Now, now I'm not trying to be a gloomy Gus. Some days are going to be brighter and warmer than others but I promise you, the good days will outweigh the bad ones. Just like your experience here at Watanka. Don't let a few things get to you and ruin your time.”
“Beautifully said,” Carol chimed in again. Ralph noticed Louie at the back, barely able to contain his laughter, causing some of the other counselors to smile and chuckle to themselves.
“Now, there’s a couple things that I need to go over. Yes, the rumors are true and given the massive heatwave hitting us this summer, we’ll be providing extra swimming time,” Al paused, waiting for applause but only receiving it from the counselors, mostly Carol. “And I also wanted to announce the addition of new activity! Thanks to our friend Keith over there, we’re going to be able to reopen an old classic. The Archery range!”
This actually drew some excitement from the camp. Ralph had overheard the previous night that the Archery range had been closed because someone was murdered there. He didn’t believe it, especially given that it came from the Belar twins, and needed clarification. So he went to Louie about it and his laughter was all Ralph needed to know that he had been ribbed. Stupid twins.
“Yes, yes it’s very exciting. As some of you know, I’ve been wanting to bring that range back for years but lack of equipment just wouldn’t allow it. Step in, Mr. Tucker over there who has graciously donated several bows and dozens of arrows. Yes, he’s been a swell addition to the crew. I think he might have something to say,” Al said and motioned Keith over to join him.
“I’ve been bow hunting since I was about nine so I know my way around a bow and arrow,” Keith said, “Al has been gracious enough to provide me with the opportunity to pass on this fun hobby to you. I mean, who doesn’t want to say that they learned how to shoot an apple off their friend’s head?”
Al’s eyes grew wide and Ralph could just imagine the number of lawsuits that Al could see in his mind after that comment.
“I’m kidding,” Keith interjected, “That’s not really what we’re going for. I welcome anyone that wants to come join. I promise it’ll be a blast.”
Keith looked at Al, clearly no longer wanting to talk, which Al happily obliged him, sending him back to his group.
“So y’all have that to look forward to. We’ve also obviously got rock climbing, kayaking, and . . . pottery, amongst other things. So you can. . .”
The sirens started subtly but then their presence was felt more and more as the source drew closer and closer. At first Ralph just assumed it would start to fade, an ambulance passing through to a nearby town, but instead the sound just grew louder and louder until finally the headlights emerged through the morning dew, a pair of flashing red and blue lights up top. The police vehicle was driving up the dirt road with some urgency, drawing a look of concern from Al.
In fact, all the counselors looked a little worried. Marion was whispering something to Al. It looked like Louie tossed a baggie of something into the bushes, but of what, Ralph couldn't be sure. Carol just stood, hands behind her back, rocking backwards and forwards, heels to toes. She seemed amused by all of the excitement more than anything.
"Maybe we should get these hungry campers to breakfast," Al suggested, his voice booming.
Carol agreed, starting to usher the campers towards the dining hall. The other counselors followed suit. Except for Marion who followed Al to the cop, who had just exited his vehicle. His partner stayed in the vehicle, doing something on the laptop. The cops seemed suspicious of the camp, but Ralph wasn't sure if he was just reading into things. Cops always intimidated him and seemed like they were sniffing out trouble. Even though Ralph was far from a troublemaker, his fear of the law was real.
While Al and the Marion sorted out the situation with the cops, Ralph was ushered into the dining hall with the rest of the campers. No one knew what was going on but that didn't stop the rumor mill from churning up ridiculous theories.
"Alice told Tommy that Nancy said they found a bunch of marijuana plants out in the woods and that they belong to Al. Said that's how he's been making his money all these years and that the camp is just a front. He must be loaded and he's just stuffing it all away, waiting to run off to Aruba or something."
"I heard that they found a bunch of kiddie porn on Al's computer so they're here to take him away. Probably why he runs this camp. Gets pictures of us boys for his collection. God, I can’t even imagine how many cameras are around here."
"No, no, no. You're wrong. They came because Al murdered his wife. See, he decided he finally had enough and took her out back and wam. That’s why he's been so happy."
"Al doesn’t have a wife."
Ralph found it amusing that no matter who was telling the story, the reason the cops were here was always to get Al for something. It wasn't like Al was a bad guy, but no one liked to see authority crumble more than a bunch of pre and pubescent kids. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been too bad because the police left without taking Al. Or doing anything. In fact, Al seemed to be in an even better mood after the police had left.
Getting his breakfast -- two waffles doused in syrup and three sausages -- Ralph made his way over to Santiago, who was saving him a spot.
"I don't know man, you really think it's not at least a little real?" Santiago was engaged in conversation with the boy to his right. Ralph thought his name was Chase.
"No it absolutely is fake. It more like a simplistic ballet routine sometimes featuring tables . . . or ladders . . . or chairs," Chase said.
"Those hits are real as hell though man. They be like bam, bam!" Santiago mimed chair shots, even giving his own reaction to receiving a chair shot, something that required flailing arms that ended up hitting the poor girl next to him.
"If you keep doing stuff like that, I'll argue wrestling with you any day," Chase laughed. The girl Ralph had seen by Chase's side the night before came out of nowhere and took Chase away, whispering something into his ear. Whatever it was, they left in a rush.
"Probably going for a bit of the ole in out," said Santiago, right when the two were out of earshot.
At first Ralph didn't get the joke, shooting Santa a look of confusion. By the time he got it, Santa had already moved on, mentioning something about basketball. Eventually, the conversation ended up exactly where Ralph had expected it to: the police that morning.
“I don’t know, it all seems pretty normal to me,” Santa shrugged it off, “If there was actually a problem then someone would have been arrested. That’s how it works.”
“Still it could’ve been something serious,” stated Ralph.
“And you’re worrying about it, why?” Santa asked. And he was right. Why was Ralph worrying about why they were there? It didn’t matter so long as everything was okay. And the police left didn’t they? They wouldn’t have just up and left and things weren’t okay. So it had to be fine.
“You’re right, it’s stupid.”
“Chances are they just found weed on one of the counselors. Hell, did you see how much Louie was sweating during all that? I think that one brunette girl snagged the bag that he ditched. You
But there Louie was, standing over with Keith, and he looked as calm as can be. In fact, it was Keith that seemed to be nervous and freaking out. They were speaking in hushed tones but Ralph could see it on their faces that something had happened. His curiosity got the best of him and he started over towards them, wanting to find out for himself. Upon reaching them, Keith was ready to leave, brushing past him and saying to himself under his breath “I am so fucking dead.”
“What was that about?” Ralph asked.
“Don’t worry about it. He’s just having a rough day,” said Ralph, taking a huge swig of coffee.
“What’s there to worry about? Is that why the cops were here today?” Ralph asked these questions at lightning speed, drawing a look of ire from Louie.
“Woah there, easy detective. Nah, man. Don’t worry about it. What can I do for you . . . Ralph.” Louie said this last part as if he was just drawing a name out of an invisible hat and just lucky to guess the correct one.
“I was . . . uh,” he stumbled over his words, trying to think of something, “I was just wondering if there’d be time to go back to the cabin, I forgot some sunscreen.”
“Sunscreen?” Louie asked, befuddled, “You realize Santiago has some, right? You know, in that place you were just sitting?”
Sure enough, there sat a big bottle of sunscreen right where Santa was sitting.
Congrats Ralph, you are the world’s worst liar. Also, unimaginative.
The rest of the morning went pretty seamless, with the excitement from the police slowly fading with the rising sun. Ralph went with his group to the kayaks, the first activity of the day. He was excited for it at first until Louie that explained since it involved being in the water, they'd have to go over safety protocols. It's not like it mattered though, his parents already signed his life away, giving up any right to sue outside of negligence. This was all just window dressing.
By the time Louie was finally done going over safety, it had gotten hot. So hot that Ralph could feel every piece of clothing he had on, sticking to his body. Did I remember to put on deodorant? Ralph thought to himself, trying to subtly check and make sure he had no pit stains. He was relieved when he saw that he didn't but quickly suspicious when an odor hit his nostrils. Was that him? Or was it one of the other campers? Ralph squeezed his arms to his body, trying to avoid letting the smell escape.
So Ralph's mind was a little preoccupied when Keith had brought his group over to join Louie's shortly before lunch. He said he needed to make a phone call and that it was really important. Ralph would go and ask Louie but he knew he’d be receiving the same derision as before. Whatever it was, Ralph still didn't know enough to put anything together. Outside of Keith’s short outburst, it was all a mystery.
So while Ralph had listened in, making sure not to miss out on any vital information, all he could think was, You are so fucking dead.
END CHAPTER TEN