Mom and Dad brought me to Camp Bramble because they said I was too sad. They said I could come home when I stopped being sad. That was when I knew that I might never see them or home again.
I was eleven years old and couldn’t remember not being sad. Although I couldn’t have given you an explanation as to why. Maybe I just wasn’t satisfied with any answers that people had given me over the last decade. I wanted to know what all of this was that we were in, and why I had to be brought into it when I’d never given permission. I wanted to know what words were and where they came from, and what weather was, and outer space. Most importantly, I wanted to know this: Why? That’s all. Just why. It seemed like a simple enough question. It was only one word, in fact. But no one could seem to answer it in a way that made sense. Maybe the question didn’t make sense.
But for whatever reason, I was sad, and Mom and Dad were tired of it, so they brought me to Camp Bramble. The brochure’s mission statement proclaimed “the healing power of structured time among nature.” My parents seemed to think it was a good bet. Plus, they wouldn’t have to have me in their house anymore. Mom said that my moping got in the way of her chakras and the house’s feng shui, and Dad said that he could never concentrate on the football games knowing I was sitting in my room staring at the wall. Sometimes, I liked to think that their unsettlement towards me was how they loved me.
Camp Bramble was situated in the woods upstate. Which state? I’ve forgotten. There was no one from the camp to greet me at the entrance, so I wandered past the thin wooden gateway in search of someone who might be able to direct me. My parents had packed only one bag of belongings with which to start my new life. The small duffel contained clothes, toiletries, my stuffed moose named Roscoe, and my collection of Morph-Monster cards.
The forest mostly consisted of pine trees, with a few deciduous here and there. The camp sat by a lake, and I saw small cabins clustered off to one side. Near the center of camp, I found the “Mess Hall,” “Meeting House,” and “Admin.” And yet I still hadn’t found a single living soul apart from a squirrel who looked at me furtively before fleeing up a tree trunk.
I eventually found what appeared to be the camp’s entire populace—or close to it—down at the lake. There were at least twenty kids. The camp brochure said that children ages eight to fourteen were welcome. As I watched, some played games on the shore, others swam in the water or canoed over its surface.
Six teenage counselors stood idly by, either talking to each other or surveying their wards from a distance. I couldn’t tell if the expressions on the counselors’ faces were grim or just bored. Something about the entire scene seemed impenetrable. I knew I should just ask a counselor where to go and where to set down my belongings, but something about the lakeside proceedings seemed like they shouldn’t be disturbed.
So, I sat on the stoop of the admin office until a scraggle-chinned man in uniform—whom I quickly surmised to be the Scoutmaster—emerged blearily and looked down at me as if I were a particularly bold raccoon.
“My parents just dropped me off here,” I said in response to his lack of a question. “Where should I go? What should I do?” I felt the urge to ingratiate myself to him since I was, for all intents and purposes, his charge for a terribly indefinite period of time.
I witnessed no communication between the Scoutmaster or the counselors, but I eventually found myself being led to a bunkhouse by a teenage girl wearing a bright yellow shirt that read “STAFF” in big block letters. She had thin arms and legs, and her hair hung down in lank strings at either side of her head. She didn’t give her name, and she didn’t ask for mine.
The single electric light in the cabin was small. Grey sunlight of the overcast afternoon filtered in through the bug screens that made up large portions of the cabin walls. I placed my bags next to the one bed that didn’t appear to be claimed. I produced Roscoe from my bag and set him on the bed itself.
“Dinner’s at six-thirty,” the counselor said before abruptly leaving. I had no idea what the current time was, but I could see part of the mess hall from my cabin, so I simply made my way over when I saw other campers begin to migrate there an hour or two later.
The camp was a quiet place. Most of the campers seemed about as sad as I was, so there wasn’t a lot of chatting or conversation. The most prominent sound was the low hum of insects from the trees, and the occasional bird call. I looked over at the counselors’ tables, and they seemed almost happy and talkative then.
After dinner, I was given a sash and uniform. I wasn’t clear on exactly when I had to wear my uniform. I’d noticed some campers wearing them, and others wearing shorts and T-shirts. They gave me two sets of khaki shorts and matching shirts, all equipped with plenty of pocket space. A counselor wordlessly showed me how to fit the Official Bramble Scouts Kerchief under the shirt collar and fasten it with a thin metal ring at the front. Then I received a copy of the Bramble Scouts Handbook, along with a sash completely devoid of badges except for one. The badge bore the Bramble Scouts pinecone insignia. In the Handbook, I saw that this was the “Initiate Badge: The first badge awarded, conferred upon a new scout’s admittance to Camp Bramble.”
I started to get my bearings over the course of the first week. I counted six bunkhouses. I assumed each of them had four beds like mine. So that made a maximum of twenty-four campers. Each bunk had a counselor assigned to it. The counselors would come in to check on us once per night before going somewhere else as a group.
I tried to figure out how my time at Camp Bramble was supposed to make me happy. The Scoutmaster didn’t seem happy, and the counselors only seemed happy when they were spending time with each other, away from the campers. The camper in the bunk bed above mine was a girl named Bethica, who was usually occupied in some sort of drawing or other craft activity. The other two beds were occupied by two scowling boys who spoke little, except to each other. I wondered if they were brothers.
The first morning that I awoke in my cabin bed, I thought for a long moment that I was back home. It took time to remember where I was, and to understand why my bed felt so uncomfortable, and why the light streaming in from the outside was so different. A counselor took me aside after breakfast and told me I had to meet with the Scoutmaster. When we arrived at the Admin building, the counselor motioned for me to go in alone.
The interior was a single room, lit only by a dim bulb over the Scoutmaster’s desk. He was a tall, skinny man, at least forty years old. He looked as tired and scraggly as he had the day before. He wore a khaki uniform not dissimilar from the scout uniform: short pants and short sleeves, complete with kerchief and pin. His main additional accessory was a flat-brimmed hat, khaki in color to match the rest of the uniform.
I surveyed the surface of the Scoutmaster’s desk, but there was nothing there besides some stains on the fake wood. A fly buzzed, hovering somewhere near the light bulb.
“State your name,” said the Scoutmaster, his eyes barely focused on me.
“Where are you from?”
I told him.
“And why are you here?”
“My parents brought me.”
The Scoutmaster sighed. “Why did they bring you?”
“Because I’m unhappy.”
“So, they brought you here to make you happy.”
“Because your misery was making them miserable.”
“And do you want to be here?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I just told the truth. “No. I want to go home.”
“Why would you want to go home? You were unhappy there.”
I couldn’t tell if the question was rhetorical or not, so I said nothing.
“Well,” said the Scoutmaster after a long pause, “if you really do want to go home, then I should tell you how you might do that. There are four ways to leave Camp Bramble. One: Your parents come back, pick you up, and bring you home. Simple as that. Two: You change in the way that you need to change. In your case, you’d better start being happy. Three: Earn every merit badge. A scout who earns every merit badge has proven their grit and worth, and they will be permitted to leave.”
The Scoutmaster trailed off there, and after a long silence passed, I ask, “What’s the fourth way?”
“What?” said the Scoutmaster, apparently snapping out of some deep thought.
“What’s the fourth way to get out of here?”
“Oh. Right. The fourth way is to go into the woods.”
He gave no further explanation, and instead waved his hand in a shooing motion, signaling me to leave.
Back in my bunk, I considered the Scoutmaster’s ultimatum. Which would be my method of exiting the camp? I barely gave any thought to the idea that I would be able to get happy. Sure, I thought, my parents would eventually come and get me. But something felt off about that idea. I glanced at the woods through one of the cabin windows and resolved to think as little as possible about that particular prospect. For one, I had no idea what it really meant. Was the Scoutmaster speaking literally or metaphorically?
I thumbed through the Handbook, considering the idea that I might earn my freedom by acquiring every merit badge. Some of the badges seemed to necessitate leaving camp, which I didn’t think was allowed. The Dentistry Badge required the scout to observe a dentist at work and even to aid in certain minor procedures. And the Entrepreneurship Badge entailed “the industrious sale of at least five hundred dollars’ worth of official Bramble Scouts Merchandise to friends, family, neighbors, and other community members.”
Although I never saw a schedule posted anywhere, every day seemed to have a built-in structure. There were plenty of organized activities, most of them featuring chances to earn badges. The first badge I earned after the Initiate Badge was the Swimming Badge, which only required the demonstration of a few simple strokes. I’d always been a decent swimmer, although I’d never really enjoyed it. And in the lake, I could never rid myself of the thought that something was just about to touch my feet in the murky depths below.
Later in the week, I ventured to talk to Bethica, who had decorated her wall and bed frame with drawings and other decorations she’d made herself. She had earned all the art-related badges and very few of the other ones. I ingratiated myself to her by complimenting her drawings. It wasn’t hard to think of nice things to say about them since they really were pretty good. She mostly drew birds and horses and wilderness scenes.
“Do you ever draw people?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said. Although none of the drawings she’d taped over her bed seemed to show humans of any kind.
Rapport thusly forged, I launched my one burning query. “Hey, what happens if I never get to leave the camp?”
“My parents brought me here because I’m too sad. What if I’m never able to get happy, or earn all the badges? Will I just live here forever?”
Bethica squinted at me, either considering my question or trying to decide if she should stop talking to me.
“I guess you’d just go into the woods,” she said.
“Okay. But what does that mean?”
She shrugged. “No one knows. I’ve only seen it happen once. If campers get too old, they have to go into the woods. No one knows what happens after that. I don’t think even the Scoutmaster knows. People say that the Scoutmaster and the counselors used to be campers. And they avoided going into the woods by becoming staff members. But they’ll have to go eventually. That’s what people say.”
She shrugged again. “Other campers.”
As long as I was asking questions, I inquired, “Are you happy?”
“No,” she said evenly. “But I’m not sad.”
“Oh. So why are you here?”
“Something about ‘character-building.’ That’s what my dad said. But I think he just wanted to be alone with this new lady he’s been seeing since my mom died.”
“Oh.” I was unsure what to say to any of that. I didn’t even really know what it meant. “Do you like the new lady?”
“Not really. She smells weird. Not bad, just weird. And I don’t think she likes me. And she and my dad make weird noises at night. I’m kind of glad to be here just because it means I don’t have to hear those noises anymore.”
She offered to draw something for me, and I said sure. Then she asked what I wanted her to draw, and I said I didn’t know. After a minute, I remembered my Morph-Monster cards and handed her one I liked. A dog with fur made of ice and fire. She drew a picture of the dog in under twenty minutes. And what was more, the dog in her picture was in a completely different pose from the one on the card. She gave it to me, and I could feel myself get a little happy for maybe a quarter of a second.
I did my best to settle into life at the camp. I figured that the sooner I got used to things there, the sooner I might be able to improve my mood and get out. I focused on earning badges. It was a good distraction, and I earned nearly one a day during my first couple weeks there. Initiate Badge, Swimming Badge, Lanyard Badge, Whistling Badge, Leaf-Collecting Badge, Bug Spray Badge, Bird-Watching Badge, Water-Listening Badge, Sanitation Badge, and First Aid Badge. The activities helped distract me from my potentially permanent consignment to these cabins and this lake and these woods.
I had a bad habit of scaring myself, especially outdoors, and especially at night. While earning the Vigilance Badge, I had to sit outside and remain awake for an entire night. A few hours in, I became plagued by anxious imaginings. Snakes in the grass, tentacles slithering up from the lake and dragging me in, owls swooping down and gutting me with their beaks and talons.
The next day, I blearily browsed the Handbook again, searching for badges that might help improve my mood. Because earning the Vigilance Badge had certainly not done that. I came across the Zen Meditation Badge, and later that day, I asked the ever-beleaguered-looking Scoutmaster if one of the counselors would be leading a Zen class at any point. When he gave me a confused look, I showed him the Zen Meditation Badge in the handbook. He waved a hand tiredly and said, “You’re gonna have to figure that one out yourself.”
So, I walked along the edge of the lake for a bit until I found a secluded area that looked alright. The sky was mostly clear, and the sunlight was just warm enough. I followed the vague directions in the Handbook—“A Scout must learn to calmly let the world pass through them as they focus on their breathing and achieve a state of Zen.” If “Zen” meant boredom, then I got there pretty quickly. I tried to listen to the wind and the water and the birds and the bugs, and I tried not to think of a snake slowly devouring a mouse in the grips of primal terror. I decided that once I found the camp scenic and not terrifying, it meant I’d achieved Zen.
But I couldn’t get there. And even if I could, how was I going to prove to the counselors and Scoutmaster that I’d done it? I decided that maybe I could just lie. So, I went back to the Admin building and told the bored-looking teenager there that I’d completed the requirements for the Zen Meditation Badge. The counselor handed it over without any fuss. That night, I started looking for other badges I might get by way of deceit. The pickings were slim, since most of the badges required the scout to actively display proficiency in the designated skill. But I found nearly a dozen that I might be able to swing without doing any actual work. Nature Appreciation Badge, Gratitude Badge, Dream Journal Badge, Bookworm Badge, et cetera.
But then, after the first few weeks, my badge-earning rate slowed considerably. Some quick calculations—which I considered submitting for the Math Badge—revealed that, at this new rate, it might take years to earn all of them. Not to mention, some badges were unearnable within the confines of the camp. But at the very least, the Scoutmaster might view my badge-earning fervor as a sign that I’d turned over a new leaf and was hungry for life. And who knew? Maybe this endless series of pointless tasks would in fact make me happy. Or at least, it might help me accept the endless series of pointless tasks that comprised life.
But as I lay awake that night—failing to earn my Early-to-Bed Early-to-Rise Badge—I wondered why I was even so set on going home. I didn’t like Camp Bramble, but I also hadn’t particularly liked life at home. Maybe there was something wrong with my brain. Or maybe there was something wrong with the brains of happy people.
I went to the Admin building and lied about my sleeping and waking times. They gave me the Early-to-Bed Early-to-Rise Badge. I took off the backing and adhered it to the incomplete row on my sash. I was up to thirty badges. I walked by the Scoutmaster and tried to indicate my sash to him, as if saying, Look at all of these, which I’ve earned in only a little over a month! But he didn’t take notice, as far as I could tell.
A sizeable portion of the badges were related to camping and wilderness, which I tried to contend should be conferred automatically because we were living in a forest. But the droop-eyed teenager at the Admin desk that day wasn’t having it.
“You need to participate in a Bramble Scout Wilderness Expedition to be eligible for those badges,” he said in a monotone while looking somewhere just to the side of my head.
“Oh. So, when do those happen?”
He shrugged. “Every now and then. Should be on the camp bulletin board.”
“Camp bulletin board?” In over a month, I hadn’t seen or heard about anything like that.
“It’s by the outhouses.”
“Outhouses?” I’d been doing my business outside for a month. And after smelling the outhouses, I continued to do so.
A sign on the bulletin board indicated that there would be a wilderness expedition at the end of that week. I had lost track of what day of the week it was, but back in the Admin building I found an up-to-date calendar.
I asked Bethica if she would go with me, in part because she was the only scout I knew by name. (I knew I’d have to work on that if I ever wanted to earn the Cooperation and Community Badge.)
Bethica was hesitant, but she came around after considering the animals she might see out there. Further fodder for her drawings.
“And you could get the Wildlife Identification Badge,” I said to encourage her.
“You’re so obsessed with the badges,” she said.
“You have badges,” I said, pointing to her sash, which was draped over the side of her bed. “All the art ones.”
“Yeah, cuz they’re the prettiest ones. I could get more, but the other ones aren’t as pretty looking.”
“Okay. So, you wanna be forced into the woods and die?”
“I’m sure no one dies in the woods.” Her calmness was infuriating sometimes. Surely, she could pick up the Zen Meditation Badge without even trying.
I wondered if perhaps the wilderness expedition would reveal anything about the woods. Would we find former campers wandering around the trees, living off salmon and river water? The expedition assembled in the morning. Aside from me, Bethica, and the Scoutmaster, there were only a few other campers present. The Scoutmaster looked even more haggard and unkempt than before. I found myself wondering how long he’d been the Scoutmaster.
He informed us that we’d be spending twenty-four hours in the woods. We were supplied with camping equipment that looked nearly worn out. The Scoutmaster led us wordlessly into the woods, and I tried to assess the sashes and miens of the few other scouts. One of them had heavy bags under his eyes and appeared to be in his early teens. His sash was rippling with too many badges to count, and I made a note to talk to him later.
Every hundred yards or so, the Scoutmaster mumbled a number, which apparently meant to turn to that page in the Handbook. We identified plants and birds. I saw no people in those woods other than us.
After several miles, we began to set up camp under the Scoutmaster’s direction. I found myself assembling a tent alongside the boy with many patches, so I told him my name and asked him his.
“Floyd,” he said, not looking at me. He had glasses and slightly puffy cheeks. I asked him how long he’d been at Camp Bramble, but he either didn’t hear the question or just pretended not to.
“That’s a lot of badges,” I said.
“It’s all but one,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just need the Poison Fungus Identification Badge.”
“And then you get to leave?” I asked. He paused in the work of setting up the tent, but he didn’t look at me. He just looked up towards the sky and the treetops, as if seeing them for the first time, and he sighed. I tried to guess his age. He looked maybe thirteen or fourteen, on the cusp of being forced out into the woods for good if he didn’t get that last badge.
“How’d you get, like, the Entrepreneurship Badge?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you have to leave camp to do that?”
“We left camp today,” he pointed out.
I made a note to check the bulletin board about other excursions. Floyd’s sash, bristling with badges, gave me some hope. Even if his dour expression did not.
I kept careful notes about which badges I earned during the expedition. Hiking Badge, Camping Badge, and multiple requisites of the Wildlife Identification Badge. I insisted on making the fire so that I could get the Fire Starter Badge, but after twenty minutes of me struggling with dry pieces of wood, the Scoutmaster just used a lighter.
At night, around the fire, a kid played a ukulele and sang a monotonous song about a ghost who lived in the woods. He earned both the Music Performance Badge and the Ghost Story Badge in one fell swoop. I asked if I could tell a tale to earn the Campfire Story Badge. No one responded enthusiastically, but also no one objected, as far as I could tell.
Bethica was sitting on my right, drawing something as always. Her medium at that moment was crayons, and she drew ghosts sitting around the campfire.
“Okay,” I said, wondering what I was going to say. I didn’t know many stories to begin with, and I wasn’t sure what qualified one as a campfire story. I decided to just make something up and hope for the best.
“There was once a little boy who got lost in the woods,” I began. “He’d run away from home. Not because his parents were mean, but because there was something wrong in the little boy. The little boy didn't know what was wrong, just that something was wrong. So, he left home in search of a way to fix it. But then he got lost in the woods. And, um...”
“And he met a unicorn,” Bethica chimed in.
“Uh, yeah. A unicorn.”
“And they became best friends,” Bethica continued. “And the unicorn said, ‘I know of a magical lake deep in these woods that can cure your soul.’” She then looked at me expectantly.
“Sure. So, the boy followed the unicorn, and they met many challenges along the way. Like, um...”
“Like a troll who said that they couldn’t cross his bridge until they answered his riddle,” said Bethica. “And when the boy answered the riddle, the troll said, ‘That’s wrong! Now I’ll eat you up!’ But then the boy said, ‘Aha! But you didn’t say I had to answer the riddle correctly. I just had to answer it.’ And then the troll screamed and turned to dust.”
“Right,” I said. “And eventually they got to the magical lake. And the boy and the unicorn drank from it. And they felt more wonderful than anyone had ever felt before. The en—”
“But then!” Bethica interrupted. “When they were heading back out of the woods, the unicorn got bit by a snake and died. And the boy cried and cried over her. The end.”
I looked around the circle to see how the story had been received. Some faces looked satisfied, some looked puzzled, some looked bored. I comforted myself with the thought that, much like the boy answering the troll, I had technically completed the task. Plus, since Bethica had given her spontaneous assistance, I might also have completed the requirements for the Artistic Collaboration Badge.
The next day, as we packed up camp, Floyd broke from his stoicism. He pointed excitedly at a patch of mushrooms, yelling, “They’re poisonous! They’re poisonous! I can get my badge!” In a fervor, he tore a few of the mushroom heads off their stalks and then brought them to the Scoutmaster. “I did it,” said Floyd. “I won. I got them all.” The Scoutmaster didn’t even seem to be aware that anyone was addressing him.
Floyd’s excitement infected me, and when we arrived back at Camp Bramble, I followed him to the Admin cabin. Bethica came too, but she was preoccupied with drawing an elk that had mushrooms growing out of its head instead of antlers.
As the tenor of Floyd’s voice became more agitated, it became clear that there was a problem. The counselor behind the desk seemed unmoved. I stared at the beads of various pastel colors braided into her hair.
Floyd took a laminated binder from a nearby desk and paged through it. He held his mushrooms next to a picture there and implored the counselor to see the resemblance. “They’re poisonous!” Floyd shouted. The counselor still seemed unsure. In the next moment, I saw Floyd shove the mushrooms into his mouth, chew, then swallow.
Within thirty minutes, he was groaning in pain in the infirmary, but his sash was now complete. Through the extreme discomfort, he smiled a little and said, “I’m so close. I’ll be out of here. I’m going home.”
I asked the nurse if he’d be okay. She said, “Yeah, probably. But I’m not a botanist.” I showed her the few pieces of mushroom Floyd hadn’t eaten. She inspected them for a moment and then shrugged.
I sat by Floyd’s infirmary cot for an hour, which was the requisite amount of time to earn the Patient Companionship Badge.
Floyd didn’t die, but it took him several days of stomach pain, fever, and diarrhea to recover. Eventually, he emerged triumphant from the infirmary, waving his completed sash aloft. “One hundred and thirty-seven!” he announced for all to hear. “One hundred and thirty-seven badges!” And with that, he marched straight to the central cabin to see the Scoutmaster.
I waited impatiently outside the cabin, along with Bethica and a few other scouts. We couldn’t hear anything for a few minutes, but eventually there was the now familiar sound of Floyd’s rising rage. I heard some stomping and thudding noises, followed by a crash or two. Eventually, the Scoutmaster emerged, holding a crying Floyd by the scruff of his neck. (Or, more accurately, by his Official Bramble Scouts Kerchief.) Floyd was crying. He wailed pitifully, but the sounds soon devolved into sobs and hiccups.
I couldn’t tell if the Scoutmaster pushed him or if he just fell, but soon Floyd was on the ground, his cheek pressing into the dirt. I looked into the face of the Scoutmaster, which seemed miles away even as it was angled at the crying Floyd. Something was wrong with the Scoutmaster’s eyes. His face seemed more worn than ever, and his eye sockets looked cavernous.
No one said anything, and Floyd’s crying slowly lessened. The Scoutmaster let forth a long, heavy sigh before returning inside his cabin, closing the door, and loudly locking it.
The details of Floyd and the Scoutmaster’s confrontation came out soon enough. The Scoutmaster had informed Floyd that, in light of his achievement of earning every badge, he was more than welcome to leave the camp. However, Floyd’s parents had no interest in taking him back into their home. Floyd would not have to enter the woods, but he had nowhere else to go.
I moped around camp for a while after that, just wandering through the various recreation areas and pockets of nature. I wondered if my parents would ever want to take me back. I tried to get used to the idea that Camp Bramble might be my new permanent home, and maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Worse things could happen. But the woods were always lurking in my periphery. We’d seen no other campers during the wilderness expedition, so where did they go?
There were too many questions that I didn’t want to consider. I tried to find ways to distract myself. I felt most distracted whenever I was with Bethica. She became the closest thing I had to a friend in the camp. Just the fact that I knew her name put her well above most of the other campers in terms of friend status.
One time, we were down by the lake, and we thought we were the only ones there, but then we noticed two of the teenage counselors. One of them was a skinny girl with stringy red hair, and the other was a stocky boy with a heavy brow and a determined look. They were sitting at the end of the small dock, and they were kissing. We watched them, unseen, for a few minutes. I eventually looked from them to Bethica. She was drawing them. A heart floated in the air above the drawn versions of the counselors. Then Bethica drew the water, and under the water, she had placed some type of tentacle poised to grab the unsuspecting counselors.
I alternated between watching her and watching the teenagers. The counselors’ hands roamed around each other’s bodies. Bethica only looked at me after she’d finished her drawing. She soon looked puzzled, probably wondering why I was looking at her. I knew and didn’t know why. But either way, one of us eventually suggested that we head back to camp, and that was that.
That night, I dreamt about the two counselors. They were still there, on the dock, but it was nighttime, and it was cold and cloudy. And in the way of dream logic, I was one of the counselors, but I was also watching them. And then eventually tentacles arose from the water and dragged me/them down down down. The temperature of the water alternated between cold and hot, and I couldn’t decide if I felt panicked or peaceful. I/the counselors wrapped my/their arms tighter around me/them, and right before I/we saw the face or the maw of the creature, I woke up.
I looked in the Handbook again that morning and found badges about fear. The Admitting-Your-Fears Badge. The Facing-Your-Fears Badge. The Cowardice Badge. The Nightmare Badge. The Acknowledging-Your-Mortality Badge. And I found badges related to love. The Tummy-Butterflies Badge. The First Kiss Badge. The Love-At-First-Sight Badge.
The day that Bethica’s dad came to pick her up, I felt worse than I’d ever felt before. And since I’d never exactly felt good, that was saying something. I asked her why she was being picked up, and she squinted at me, confused. “Because my dad wants me back.”
I watched as she got into a car with her dad and his girlfriend. I tried to rush after them, but the dull red station wagon was too fast. I went back to the cabin and found some drawings that she’d left for me, along with a short note: It was nice meeting you, followed by a simple doodle of a smiley face. I cried a lot that night. I’d felt pretty certain in that moment that I’d never be happy enough for my parents to take me back.
I lasted another week—a week in which I didn’t even attempt to earn a badge—before I decided to leave Camp Bramble. By that point, I’d learned that a bus sometimes picked up kids for badge-earning excursions in a nearby town. So there had to be some way to escape. I tried simply walking down the road, but it curved and crisscrossed. I became lost repeatedly, and eventually I just found myself back at camp.
After some thought, I decided I’d earned enough wilderness survival badges to make it through the woods. And eventually I’d have to get somewhere. I’d get to civilization.
I took the Handbook, if only for the survival tips. Plus, I figured the paper might be useful for starting fires. I’d use the pages related to badges that had nothing of use to me in the woods. The pages with badges about love and fear. And art.
I thought I had read the Handbook cover to cover by that point, but I found some pages I’d never seen before. Appendices, maybe. But some of them had additional badges on them. Bonus badges? Supplementary ones? They were even stranger and more conceptual than the others. The Harmony Badge. The Restlessness Badge. The Stillness Badge. The Personal Reinvention Badge. The Becoming-One-With-Nature Badge.
I raided the camp for supplies just before leaving. Food, flashlights, flint and tinder, bedroll, compass, et cetera. The only things of my own that I took were a few changes of clothes, my stuffed moose Roscoe, and my Morph-Monster cards. I hadn’t found a single other kid in the camp to Morph Battle against during my entire time there.
I set off before dawn one day, choosing a random direction. The pre-sunrise light of day was very faint, which was why, when I reached the edge of the forest, I didn’t notice the man’s presence until he spoke. Startled, I turned on my flashlight and pointed the beam in the direction of the voice. It was the Scoutmaster, sitting in some type of picnic chair. Did he know I was coming? How did he know I’d be leaving through this part of the woods? I didn’t even know since I’d just picked it at random.
“Leaving camp?” he said.
“I...Yes. I am.”
The Scoutmaster nodded slowly. He squinted against the shine of my flashlight. “Would you mind turning that thing off?” he asked. I obliged. “If you want to enter the woods on your own, that’s your right. But why not wait a few more years? Your parents might still come back for you.”
“I don’t think they will,” I said. “I just know that I need to go.”
The Scoutmaster nodded. “You’re a wise one. Since you’re leaving, I might as well tell you something that I never tell to any of the campers.”
He took a long pause.
“No one actually wants to have children,” he said at last. “It’s a compulsion. Children break off of their parents like buds, then form into something entirely unwelcome: other people. So, they bring the children here, to us, in the hopes that we can make them something bearable. So that we can assure the parents that they’re not monsters for disliking their children. It’s the children’s fault. And it’s the children’s responsibility to change. Or else disappear into the woods, where they might be more useful.”
“What happens in the woods?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“What counts as a stupid question?”
“Questions without answers.”
“How am I supposed to know if a question has an answer or not unless I ask it?”
“Ah. Another stupid question. Maybe you’re not as wise as I thought.”
Very slowly, he spat on the ground, letting gravity gradually pull the gob of saliva down to the soil. “You’d better get going before you change your mind.”
I felt a sudden jolt of anxiety, as if this was my last chance to leave. I turned towards the dark of the woods and sprinted ahead. I turned on my flashlight so I wouldn’t trip on a rock or hit a tree branch. And I didn’t look back at the camp.
By the end of my first day in the woods, I was completely lost. I’m not sure how many days passed before my food ran out. But not long after the hunger began to set in, I saw an owl catch a squirrel and rip it into dripping ribbons.
I had nothing to occupy my mind except for my dreams and my imagination. And the Handbook. I read through it repeatedly for survival tips, but the advice seemed to become less useful each time. Find a source of running water. Follow it upstream. Keep the sun at your back.
Even though the badges were more useless than ever, I found myself drawn to those pages. One night, I reread the page for the Becoming-One-With-Nature Badge: Awarded to any scout who achieves a sufficiently high level of oneness with nature. The scout’s heart, mind, and body must be nearly indistinguishable from the nature that surrounds it.
The next day was cold and cloudy. The sky dripped, but it wasn’t quite heavy enough to be called rain. As if compelled by some nameless external will, I stripped off my clothes and stood with my bare feet on the damp ground. I was cold, and I couldn’t fully comprehend what I was doing, but something about the soil felt calm and nourishing. I held that position for hours, until I fell asleep. When I awoke, I could feel a change. Small, rudimentary appendages—like roots—protruded from the soles of my feet and sucked up delicious moisture from the dirt. I also noticed that my skin had begun to grow rough and bark-like.
I changed and grew rapidly over the following days. Or maybe it was months. Or years? I rose higher and higher, grew branches and leaves and a sturdy trunk. When I was finally more tree than boy, was I content? Had I escaped into peaceful oblivion, away from the questions that had dogged me so persistently as a human? Not entirely. Because I didn’t entirely become a tree. I could still see, for one thing. I could look out, with visual perception, ahead and behind and around me. I saw Roscoe and my Morph-Monster cards moldering on the ground.
One day, as I scanned my surroundings, I realized that I could see the camp. I could think of no reason why I should suddenly be able to view it, except that maybe the forest itself was a living, moving thing. No matter the reason, this view of the camp did not go away, and my vestigial human curiosity was drawn to observing it.
I found that my view of Camp Bramble was not fixed to any one point in space, and possibly not any specific point in time either. I theorized that these visions were being passed back to me along the root network of the forest itself. Or maybe I was only dreaming them. Regardless, I saw life at the camp proceed much as it had before I’d left. The days bleeding into each other, time being filled with meaningless and melancholy activities.
The only face that I recognized, other than that of the Scoutmaster, was Floyd. He was considering suicide. I could see it in his face and smell it in his pheromones. But the very day before he finally walked to the bottom of the lake, two other familiar faces arrived. I recognized my mother and my father. They had returned for me. But they couldn’t find me. Nor could they locate the Scoutmaster to ask after my whereabouts. But they had come to Camp Bramble to retrieve a kid, and they didn’t want to leave empty-handed.
Floyd made his case to them desperately. Mom and Dad looked at each other, shrugged, and told Floyd to gather his things. He did so with ecstatic gusto, and soon he disappeared from view in the back seat of my parents’ car. I considered the Scoutmaster’s declaration that no one actually wanted to have children. I pondered the truth or falsity of it, to no conclusion. And I wondered where the Scoutmaster’s own parents might be.
I remained in the forest, growing more wooden with each passing day. I stood there for years, absorbing all of the detritus of the forest floor: carbon and nitrogen and human knowledge and the echoes of epochs past. I absorbed all of the lost memories that people had discarded on the forest floor, or that were brought to the forest by rain. I listened to the consciousness of people and plants and animals, living and dead. I absorbed their thoughts and their knowledge, even as my own consciousness began to fade into the silent and wordless mind-state of trees.
I became intimately familiar with everybody—human, animal, insect—decomposing in the soil at every location in the woods. And eventually, I gave in to the erosion of the last of my human senses in favor of the sensations of the forest. But before I passed completely into the all-knowing oblivion of plant life, I left one last vestige behind. So that, if someone ever comes along and cuts me down, they will find no rings to count. They will find only these words.