Joseph Sloan is a New England writer. He has worked professionally with children and adolescents with autism for over ten years. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Matthew eased himself from the Chevy onto the gravel at the edge of the parking lot. His stepfather hurriedly thanked the camp director, awkwardly patted Matthew on the back, and climbed back into the car. Ms. Carlin looked Matthew up and down. It was mid-July, two weeks after camp had begun, and his clothes were too warm. He had pale skin and dark, unkempt hair and brown eyes and freckles. She escorted Matthew to his cabin, which was empty because all of the other boys were at the lake, and she left him to unpack.
Matthew’s mother had told him to fit in with the other boys, to do what they did and to make friends and so he went about trying to fit into the crowded, messy cabin. He unrolled his frayed Superman sleeping bag on a top bunk. He placed the portable night-light next to his pillow although he had nothing to read with it. Matthew read and understood programming manuals that were meant for graduate students and while his father would have let him bring some of them his mother (on medical advice) had not. He found that the other boys had taken over all of the drawers and so he left his clothes in his duffel and pushed it as far back between the dresser and the foot of the bunk bed as possible. He took his toiletry kit into the washroom and found a small space at the end of the shelf by the sink on which to balance it. Then he returned to his bed and stood, uncertain of what to do next.
After a moment Matthew heard voices outside. The door opened and Boys Bunk D poured in, pounding on each other, bursting to be heard. Dripping wet in their swim trunks they dragged beach towels behind them as an afterthought. At the center of the swirling current was a boy named Ryan Demherst. He was smaller than most of the others and he had straw hair and orange trunks and when he saw Matthew he stopped and so did all of the other boys. He looked at Matthew with the amused amazement with which he regarded every new plaything and Matthew looked back at him, open and nervous and with a cautious smile.
Slowly the boys fanned out around him. You’re Matthew, aren’t you? Yes I am Where have you been? Are you sure you can come this late? Where did you put your stuff? I’ve been at school. Take a look at his sleeping bag… Yes, Mrs. Carlin brought me in here. Yes… Do you like Superman, Matthew? Yes I do What else do you like Matthew what else do you like hey Matthew hey Matthew how long have you had that sleeping bag Matthew hey Matthew was that your dad’s sleeping bag No my dad didn’t like Superman no my dad died Hey Matthew hey…
Ryan Demherst stepped forward with a smile and the other boys immediately fell silent. “Hey buddy, you can’t sleep there.”
“No. This is my bunk down here.” Ryan nodded toward the lower bunk, the one underneath the one that Matthew had made up for himself. Matthew looked at it, then up at his own bunk, then down at Ryan’s, confused.
“It was empty…”
“Yeah, I know. I know. I like it that way. You need to go and bunk over Flanigan.” Ryan nodded toward a bunk in the far corner, by the door to the washroom. The lower bunk sagged, the upper one dwelled beneath a massive spider web in the corner of the ceiling. Flanigan, who was two heads taller than Ryan Demherst and twice as wide, started to protest but instantly fell silent at a look from the smaller boy.
“Okay…” Matthew sensed that there was something wrong, something that was said but not said, something slipping just out of his hand as he tried to grasp it. He wanted these boys to like him and to swim to the dock with him (now that he could swim, which he could not last summer) and he wanted to sit with them in the dining hall and to laugh with them and to know just when to call them “buddy” and “big guy” and “pal”, to crack the code of their language, so much more complicated than any computer program he had designed. But he did not want to unmake his bunk and to fish out his duffel and to go to sleep with the spiders above Flanigan.
Matthew wanted his voice to weave the tangle of these thoughts together and to make them accept him as one of their own and leave his bunk in peace. But as always his gray voice fell out of his mouth in ugly dripping syllables that bore no relation to the colorful images racing through his mind. He strained and his face quivered. “Okay, no problem.”
Ryan laughed then and Matthew thought that this might be good but he was not sure. “Okay. So why don’t you do that.” Ryan turned and headed for the door and all of the other boys turned from Matthew to follow him. At the door Ryan stopped. “Hey, Matthew, do you wanna play Nightprowler tonight?”
“Nightprowler, it’s a game. Don’t tell me you’ve never played? Meet us by Girl’s Bunk C tonight when it gets dark.”
Matthew knew his mother would want him to play a game, any game. It was a chance to fit in. “Okay.”
Ryan and the other boys were gone. Matthew stood for a moment and then started to unmake his bunk, move his things to the far corner, wipe away the spider webs. He found a new hiding place for the duffel full of clothes. About an hour later the boys trickled back in to change. They did not look at him where he sat on his bunk with his feet dangling, wishing that his mother had let him bring just one of his books to read. The boys left for the dining hall but he did not want to chance going to dinner. He thought that he might be able to sit with the boys but he was not sure. Several times he caught himself rocking back and forth and tried to stop. He ate some crackers he had from a rest stop on the highway. The light faded outside of the window.
Ryan returned around 8:30. It was almost dark outside. “Hey man, what are you doing, just sitting there? Come on, people want to see you.” Matthew climbed down from his bunk and followed Ryan out into the late twilight, his legs stiff. This was the time of day when he and his father would have walked together. Sometimes Matthew would talk about computer code and railroad lines and his father would listen. Often they would walk in silence. A sliver of moon hung high in the sky and Matthew remembered his father showing him how to use a moon like that to find your direction. In the northern latitudes a connection from the high corner of the crescent to the low one would point to the south. It had seemed clear when his father had shown him on a cold cloudless night outside their Massachusetts home but as Matthew stared up now he could not quite make the imaginary line drop all the way down to earth.
On the other side of the clearing the other kids were assembling and as Ryan and Matthew approached they stopped to stare. Matthew fell a step behind Ryan as he approached the group, then two. His stomach clenched and he suddenly tasted metal in his mouth. He wanted to be home in his bed with his books and his laptop. But he knew this was the right thing to do and he made himself step forward till he stood on the edge of the group as Ryan strode to its center.
“All right, Nightprowler” Ryan announced. He turned to Matthew. “We got two teams. Each team has a flag and whoever gets the other team’s flag first wins. You’ve got to get the flag without being seen. If someone sees you they call ‘Nightprowler’ and you’re out. Got it?”
“Okay. So, here’s the flag.” Ryan handed Matthew a piece of torn red cloth. “You’re red team.” Ryan turned to the others. “Who else is red team? Allison, Kenny, Flanigan, Justin, Sammy, Camie. The rest of us are blue team.”
Matthew did not see a blue flag. Allison, a girl with peanut colored curls, looked at him. “Go hide it Matthew” she said. “Go way out in the woods and hide it good.”
Matthew smiled uncertainly. He took a step toward the woods in the direction Allison had pointed. He stopped and looked back.
“Go!” Allison commanded incredulously. “Go!”
Matthew turned and plunged into the woods. It was darker there. There were lights by the bunks but as he moved away from the camp it was hard to see by the clouded crescent moon. He pressed in, stumbling over rocks and roots, bumping his head against tree limbs, clutching the dirty red cloth. He was wearing his green corduroys which were hot but which protected his legs from thorns. The trees thinned and he turned to his left, skirted a thick stand of oaks, then eased to his right. He reached a pile of boulders and after hesitating for a moment he turned left again and pressed on through thickening undergrowth.
He reached a stream and did not know what to do. In the dim light he could see a few stones and he stepped out onto one of them, then to another, then leapt for the far bank. His sneakers slid across the mud and he dropped to his knees, sliding back into the cold water. He climbed to his feet, ankle deep, and in the woods behind him he heard stifled laughter and hushed admonitions to silence.
Matthew stepped onto the bank and turned. He scanned the woods on the other side and thought that he saw movement but he was not sure. He hurriedly turned away and pressed on into thicker woods. He was no longer sure exactly which way his bunk was but he was not worried about that; he wanted to find just the right place to hide his team’s flag.
On he went, trying to hold a straight line. After five more minutes Matthew found himself in a grove of evergreen trees. There was a small clearing and in the center of the clearing a pile of stones, round smooth stones placed neatly on top of each other. He approached them slowly. He paused, looked around. He quickly leaned over, took the top stone from the pile, placed the flag on the next one and then laid the stone back on top of it. He looked around again. Silence.
Matthew hurried from the grove. Now he was sure he was lost, he could not hear the stream and he did not recognize the trees. There was a sudden movement to his left. He stopped, turned. “Matthew!” The voice came from his right. He spun. The game! “Nightprowler” he cried hoarsely, “nightprowler!” Laughter in the trees, from his right and from behind him and he ran without a sense of direction. His feet and ankles were wet and his face was scratched and there was a lump from a tree branch on the top of his head
Movement up ahead and to his side now, shadowy figures in the trees. A figure materialized almost within his vision and then was gone. His voice was deep and flat and desperate: “Nightprowler!” Gales of laughter from all sides, and calls back Nightprowler nightprowler nightprowler! He didn’t understand this game, how was he to know if he was the one they had seen? Was he in or was he out? How could he find a little blue flag (was there a blue flag?) in this big dark forest? He didn’t know which way to go and now he was lost and scared nightprowler nightprowler nightprowler Matthew were you at a crazy school Matthew nightprowler was your dad a retard like you and he dropped to his knees and put his face down in his hands on the ground and waited for it to stop, rocking back and forth.
Ryan Demherst emerged from the trees. He stood over Matthew and looked down at him. Then he turned and walked into the woods, shadowy figures detaching from other shadows to follow him, and Matthew was left alone. Finally he stopped rocking. He raised his head and then he stood up. His pants were wet and his shirt was torn and dirty. The forest was silent. He looked around and thought that he might recognize the rocks to his right as something he had passed on his way to hide the flag. He began to walk that way, in what he thought was the direction of the camp.
Somewhere Matthew heard underbrush crackling and kids laughing. He moved more slowly. In the trees above he heard the branches stir and the woods brightened in front of him. He stopped and listened and as the wind touched his face he remembered standing in a different forest in the rain with his father’s big, warm hand wrapped around his own and he knew that he did not have to go back to that cabin with the boys of Bunk D. He did not have to crawl into the cobwebbed bed above big Flanigan without his books and his computer. He did not have to find his way to the right table in the dining hall or swim out to the dock in the lake. None of it. He stood for another moment. Then Matthew turned away and began to walk in the direction of the crescent moon.