Sports Camp

For my parents, who sent me to camp

Facing the Wall

iley Liston’s first glimpse of the lake came as the bus wheels screeched around a tight turn on the rural highway. He could see the water shining in the sunlight beyond the trees. The driver braked hard, and Riley lunged forward. The minibus made a sharp right onto a narrow dirt road and rattled past the

The sign—featuring a painting of a giant snapping turtle—looked considerably shabbier than it had in the brochure. From what Riley could see of the buildings up ahead, the rest of the camp looked run-down, too.

“That thing had my foot in its mouth last year, I swear!” said Barry Monahan, the pudgy kid in the seat in front of Riley. “I’ve still got a scar.”

“That thing” was Big Joe, the legendary resident of Lake Surprise. Said to be as wide as a wheelbarrow and as fierce as a mountain lion, the snapping turtle had been
the subject of all kinds of stories from the older guys on the three-hour ride from the city. They told of kids who’d lost fingers and toes, and of others who’d barely escaped.

“About ten years ago he bit some kid’s leg off!”

Riley squirmed and looked toward the lake again, but the bus had turned uphill and was approaching a ring of cabins.

When the bus stopped, a counselor stepped on board and introduced himself as Shawn. “You guys are in Cabin Three,” he said.

“Who’s in those other cabins?” somebody asked.

“Your rivals.”

Riley swallowed hard and grabbed his backpack from the rack above his seat. He’d done well at sports in the past—Little League baseball, YMCA soccer—but he’d be one of the youngest kids at this two-week sports camp in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Most of the guys on the bus were twelve, and a few—Barry and Hernando—had already turned thirteen. Riley’s eleventh birthday had been in April.

“Move your butt,” said the guy behind him as they stood in the aisle.

Riley looked back. Tony Maniglia, who towered over Riley, was smiling as if he’d been joking—there was no
way Riley could go anywhere until the line started to move.

Riley could sense that these older guys would be picking on the smaller ones like him. He knew most of them from their neighborhood in Jersey City, but not well. They’d been to camp before; Riley hadn’t.

The only other eleven-year-old in the group was Barry Monahan’s scrawny little brother, Patrick. He wasn’t much bigger than Riley, but Patrick could have kicked his butt in two seconds. Riley had seen him working in the alley behind Monahan’s Tavern, lifting beer kegs that Riley wouldn’t have been able to budge.

Riley took a lower bunk against the wall, below Patrick. The inside walls of the cabin had been painted a pale yellow many years before, and the floor was bare gray boards. There were also ten lockers but no locks.

Riley spread out his sleeping bag, shoved his backpack under the bunk, and hung his sweatshirt and rain jacket in the locker.

“Cabin Three …,” Barry was saying. “I seem to remember that this is the haunted one. I stayed in Cabin Six last year, but the guys in this one were always scared to be in here alone.”

Riley looked around. It didn’t look spooky in the daylight. He read the sheet of paper that had been sitting on every bunk:

Saturday, July 31


Triple-header on Tap

Cabin 1 Wonders vs. Cabin 2 Tubers (Cabin 3 Threshers vs. Cabin 4 Fortunes and Cabin 5 Fighters vs. Cabin 6 Sixers to follow)

6:30 p.m.

The spacious and modern Olympia Arena

What’s at Stake:
Team points toward the Big Joe Trophy!

Softball, Water Polo Get Under Way Tomorrow

Sunday morning at the Arthur Drummond Memorial Stadium

Water Polo:
After lunch at the Lake Surprise Aquatics and Fitness Center

Each camper must play at least one quarter of every basketball game and one half of each water-polo event

Two-man canoe races, a cross-country running relay, the tug-of-war, and lots more, including the camp-ending Lake Surprise Showdown (a marathon swim race)

Best of luck to all Camp Olympia athletes!

Shawn, the counselor—a physical-education major from East Stroudsburg University—took them on a quick tour of the facilities. The “arena” turned out to be an old barn with a cement floor, and the “stadium” was a softball field with a chain-link backstop.

The Camp Olympia Institute for Sports Nutrition smelled greasy and kind of smoky. It consisted of long folding tables with wooden benches in a metal-sided building. Riley noticed an old sign leaning against the building and partly obscured by weeds. It said

They were also shown the bathhouse and latrine, affectionately known as the Larry. Tony Maniglia, walking next to Riley, whispered, “I’m surprised they haven’t renamed it the Center for the Study of Urination and Hygiene.”

Dinner consisted of hamburgers, pasty mashed potatoes, and soggy green beans, gathered from a cafeteria line. After eating, they met up back at the cabin and were issued their uniforms—orange shirts with black numbers (Riley got number 5) for the basketball and softball games and matching orange sweatbands to wear for water polo and races.

Very cool
, Riley thought. There was nothing like a team uniform, even if it was just a cotton T-shirt.

They walked back to the arena for their first basketball game, against Cabin 4. Shawn watched his Cabin 3 guys shoot for a few minutes and picked five players to
start the game. Riley took a seat on the bench with Eldon, Kirby, Patrick, and Diego. He definitely wasn’t one of the best five.

“You others stay alert,” Shawn said. “You’ll be out there soon.”

Riley did some stretching and passed a ball back and forth with Patrick. The starters did well and built a three-point lead after one quarter. But Cabin 4 had taken an opposite strategy, putting its five least skilled players on the floor at the start to get their mandatory time over with.

So in the second quarter, Riley found himself being covered by the best point guard in the camp. He had the ball stolen the first two times he handled it and got beat three times for fast-break layups. Eldon and Kirby were totally outsized at forward. At halftime Riley’s team trailed 21–12.

“You guys stink,” said Vinnie Kazmerski, Cabin 3’s tallest player, who’d mostly been responsible for the first-quarter lead.

“Yeah,” said Barry, staring right at Riley. “You looked like you were afraid of them. We need
on this team, not wimps.”

So Riley sat between Eldon and Kirby and watched the second half as his team tried in vain to overcome the deficit. They wound up losing by two.

Shawn gathered the team around him before sending them back to the cabin. “My fault,” he said. “I should have paid more attention to how they were lining up.”

“We’ll slaughter them next time,” said Barry. “In the play-offs.”

“The Trading Post’s open,” Shawn said. “Hit the showers and hang around camp, but don’t wander off. Lights-out is at eleven.”

Despite the loss, guys were snapping towels and laughing in the shower room. Riley tried to face the wall the whole time. He had no muscles to speak of, and only a few thin hairs were growing anywhere besides his head.

He was scrubbing his face when the water suddenly went ice-cold, and he jumped back and opened his eyes.

Patrick was standing there with a big grin. Riley frowned and reset the faucet, then he rinsed quickly and got out of there.

His teammates set off for the Trading Post in groups of two or three. Riley followed by himself.

The Trading Post was up a steep path next to the dining hall. It was about the size of the cabins, and two counselors stood behind a counter midway through the room. Camp Olympia T-shirts and sweatshirts hung from the walls, and there were rows of candy bars and gum and a large cooler of drinks. On a table were craft items like a fat dowel with
indications of where to carve a totem pole. Riley picked up a whittling knife and looked it over.

“Just get drinks,” Barry Monahan was saying to his brother and some of the other guys. “We’ve got a stash of food at the cabin.”

Riley didn’t think that included him, so he bought a Crunch bar and sat at a picnic table outside in the dark to eat it. The guys from Cabin 4 had arrived, and the kid who’d eaten Riley alive in the second quarter gave him a nod.

There was some trash-talking between Barry and Vinnie and some of the players from Cabin 4; just ranting about the unfair mismatch in the second quarter and how they’d be getting revenge in the water-polo game in a few days.

But soon Riley’s cabin mates were walking back. They walked right past Riley and didn’t even notice he was there.

Riley could see the cabins in the distance, and he waited until he saw the Monahans and the others go inside. And even though he knew everyone in the cabin, it hit him that he didn’t have any real friends at Camp Olympia.

Off the Path

wo jumbo red and white cardboard buckets from Jersey Chicken were sitting on a bench in the middle of the cabin when Riley finally walked in. The place was famous back in their neighborhood in Jersey City; Riley and his dad went there at least twice a month to bring home a bucket. The Monahans must have picked some up and brought it with them.

Riley’s mouth watered, but he didn’t look into the buckets to see if there was any chicken left. Big Vinnie was licking his fingers; Barry was chawing down on a leg.

“Goo-oood,” Hernando said, tossing a bone into the garbage can.

“Lights-out!” one of the counselors shouted from somewhere outside. Riley climbed into his sleeping bag.

“Story time,” Barry said. “Let me fill you guys in on a little of what we’re up against here.”

Riley had always pegged Barry as a jerk, but he did turn out to be an especially good storyteller. He told them about the kid who disappeared from camp in the middle of the night “about fifteen or sixteen years ago.” He was never seen again, but the rumor was that you could still hear him giggling in the forest late on summer nights. The laughs always ended with a terrified scream.

Things were quiet for a few minutes. The only light was from Barry’s flashlight, muffled by a black T-shirt he’d placed over it.

Riley stared up at the bunk above him. Over the years, dozens of kids had carved their names or written them in pen on the wooden slats:

KENNY V. 2006

“Cozy sleeping quarters,” Barry said. “Only thing missing is my girlfriend.”

“What girlfriend?” asked his brother, Patrick.

“Any one of them would do,” Barry replied. “A little making out before bedtime would be just the thing, don’t you agree, Vinnie?”

“You said it,” Vinnie replied.

“So how many girls have
made out with, Liston?” Barry said with a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Riley mumbled. He’d been hoping to stay out of this conversation.

“Can’t count that high, huh, Riley boy?” Barry laughed again, and everybody else laughed with him. “Don’t worry, twerp, it’ll happen one of these years.”

“Leave him alone,” Tony said. “He can’t help it if his hair hasn’t sprouted yet.”

Riley blinked hard and rolled over to face the wall. This could be a tough two weeks; these guys had lots more going on than basketball. He was the smallest kid in the cabin, maybe in the whole camp. He threw back the top of his sleeping bag and sat up. He pulled on a pair of shorts and his sneakers, picked up his flashlight, and headed for the door.

“Where you going?” Barry asked.

“To the bathroom.”

He slipped outside. A light was on in the counselors’ cabin, but no one was around. Riley followed the path toward the latrine, but he had a different destination. In the distance he could see a single lightbulb burning by the boat house, so he quietly made his way down the hill toward the lake.

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