[Disclaimer: The names in this short story have been changed to protect the identity of children currently in foster care here in El Paso County.]
She slowly peered around the corner of the doors, cautiously taking each step at a time. The adult with the microphone cheerfully screamed her name and she searched the crowd of unfamiliar adults to see if one of them was actually going to claim her for the week. From her left she saw someone with a sign running toward her. Her name was on the sign and the blonde lady was smiling as she called out to her. 7 year old Michelle stepped off the last and largest bus step and walked toward the smiling lady. She reached out to hug her, but Michelle withdrew. She hated being touched by adults. The smiling blonde lady signaled for her to follow and she led Michelle to the back of the crowd where they could hear better.
“Hi Michelle! I’m your big camper Casey and I’m so happy you’re here! This is Anna, your fellow little camper. The three of us are going to hang out this week.”
Michelle looked hesitantly at Anna. She was beaming from ear to ear and continued to cheer with the rest of the crowd as more children were called off the bus. Michelle didn’t know what to think about this place and all these people. She generally preferred quieter places and didn’t like that she had to leave her little brother back at her foster parent’s house all week. She scanned the crowd and watched as the adults cheered and several other children looked both excited and terrified. She met the gaze of another girl who appeared as unsure as Michelle felt. Seeing the look in the other girl’s eyes reminded Michelle to be tough and not let anyone know what she was feeling. She stiffened up, raised her chin, and kept her gaze set on something distant. She wanted to figure out this Casey lady she was with, but felt it was a better decision to let her know from the beginning that she wasn’t interested in being friends with her.
After all of the children were unloaded from the bus Casey turned to Anna and Michelle and guided them toward the cabin they would be staying in that week. That’s when it struck Michelle she had not grabbed her luggage. Panic struck and she began to look around desperately, hoping she hadn’t lost everything she had packed to come with her. Realizing she would have to enlist help, she poked the back of Casey’s arm and told her the dilemma.
“Oh don’t worry! All of your stuff is already unloaded and sitting on your bed waiting for you.”
Untrusting of this stranger, Michelle reluctantly followed Casey to the cabin and dreaded the moment she would walk in to not find her luggage where Casey said it would be. Anna seemed completely oblivious to the anxiety Michelle was experiencing. Anna skipped beside Casey and held her hand as they walked toward the cabin. Michelle walked behind the pair and rolled her eyes as she thought of how naive Anna must be to instantly trust this strange adult.
When they approached the steps to the cabin Casey turned to the girls and said, “Welcome to your home for the week! We’re so excited to have you here at camp!” Anna frantically ran passed Casey and into the cabin where she began shrieking with excitement over the decorations that awaited them. Pastel streamers of pink, yellow, and green hung from the ceilings, balloons covered the walls, and glow-in-the-dark stars studded the space above each child’s bed. Anna jumped on the first bed she saw and eagerly claimed it as hers. Michelle slowly rounded the corner of their room and stopped at what she saw. It felt magical. Twinkling Christmas lights lined their beds and the door frames, welcome banners were hung on each bed, and there on her bed sat the duffel bag she had packed the night before. Michelle breathed a sigh of relief and began to feel this place may not be so bad.
Anna jumped up and down on the top bunk of the bed they would be sharing. Michelle hesitantly watched, but then realized Anna had claimed the top bunk and she wanted the top bunk! Michelle climbed to the top beside Anna and began her negotiations.
“I’ll let you have my dessert for the week if you let me have the top bunk.”
“No way! I was here first so this is my bed!” Said Anna.
“But I want to sleep on the top bunk too and there’s only one!” Argued Michelle.
“Hey girls!” Casey interrupted. “I love that you both want to have the top bunk. Here at camp, we don’t share beds because that’s our private space that no one else can have. Michelle, why won’t you climb down since Anna was up there first?
As a compromise, what if you guys switch beds every night? That way you each get turns at sleeping on the top bunk!”
Michelle and Anna looked at each other. Both seemed to realize it was the only fair solution compared to the alternative of only one of them getting to use it all week. Shrugging her shoulders, Michelle began to spread her bedding onto the bottom bunk. Anna also agreed and the girls continued to get their rooms settled before going to lunch.
Once they arranged all of their belongings Casey let them know it was time for lunch. The three of them, along with their other cabin mates, began the walk over to the dining hall. This was the first time Michelle had gotten a change to look around the campus she was going to be staying at for the next week. She saw a sprawling activities center covered by large canopies. Under the canopies she caught glimpses of paint brushes, blank t-shirts, ropes and strings, and other colorful crafting supplies. She saw yard games dotting the campus, sports equipment, and signs pointing toward archery and horseback riding. She made one more visual sweep of the campus when out of the corner of her eye she spotted it: water slides! Everything inside of her leapt for joy at the thought of getting to ride a water slide. She had seen advertisements on TV for them but had never been on one. She could envision herself flying full speed, hugging the edges as she made multiple turns, until she was engulfed with the deliciously cool pool water waiting for her at the end. This week, she decided, was going to be better than she thought.
Inside the chaotic dining hall all of the little campers and big campers gathered around tables to quickly ingest their lunches and then be on their way to the day’s first activity. The boys were assigned the first hour of swim time so Michelle and Anna decided to visit the activities center while waiting for their turn to swim. The two girls scanned the crafts tables and Anna decided she wanted to make a tie dye t-shirt. A staff member began working with Anna and her shirt while Michelle continued to walk to each craft table, examining all of the options, before moving on to the next craft table. Finally, after seeing every craft activity she could choose from, Michelle decided she wanted to paint a mask. Another staff member grabbed a blank white mask, paint and paint brushes, and tied an apron around Michelle so she wouldn’t spill paint on her clothes. She sat down and began to dip the brush into the blue paint. She leaned her face against her other hand and breathed a heavy sigh of impatience as she wondered how much longer until it was her turn to swim. Casey walked over and sat across from her.
“Wow that mask if looking great Michelle! Do you paint a lot?”
Michelle looked up at her but only replied with a shoulder shrug.
Casey continued, “Michelle I’m so happy I’m with you at camp! What activity are you most looking forward to doing this week?”
Michelle could feel the excitement welling up in her again and before she could remember to keep her guard up she blurted out, “WATER SLIDES!”
She was instantly embarrassed by her exclamation and quickly moved her focus back down to the mask she was painting.
“Water slides?” Asked Casey. “Michelle, that’s the activity I’ve been looking forward to the most, too! I’ve heard they’re pretty fast. Maybe we can ride them together so we’re not scared?”
Michelle only shrugged her shoulders and didn’t look up from her painting. She pretended to be busy with selecting a new color to paint with and eventually Casey got up to go check on Anna. Michelle was mad at herself for getting so excited in front of Casey. She didn’t want Casey to think Michelle wanted to be friends with her and was worried about having to spend time with her the rest of the week. Michelle continued to mindlessly smear paint across the mask when Casey walked back over.
“Guess what? It’s girls pool time!”
Michelle’s eyes widened and she jumped up from the craft table. She wasn’t allowed to be by herself at camp so she had to wait for Anna to finish cleaning up her tie dye t-shirt mess before they could walk back to the cabin and change into their bathing suits. Michelle was the first one in the room and knew exactly where she had packed her swimsuit. She snatched it out of the duffel bag and ran to the bathroom to change. It only took her minutes to be completely pool ready and she was frustrated when she realized she had to continue to wait for everyone else in the cabin to get changed and ready. The excited energy grew inside of her and she began to pace back and forth in the cabin’s main room. She poked her head back into the bedroom to see if the other girls were ready…not yet. She stalked back into the main room, quickening her pace. She felt annoyed that her swim time was bring carved into because her roommates were slow to get changed. She knew they only got an hour and she could feel the precious seconds draining from the clock. She began to pace faster and grew angrier with the other girls. What was taking them so long? She got so lost in her frustration Michelle didn’t realize she was running back and forth in the main room until Casey walked in and asked what she was doing.
“Can we go yet?!” Asked Michelle.
“We’re all ready now!” Exclaimed Casey.
Michelle was instantly at the door and did her best to not run away from the group to beat them to the water slides. She was the first there, but a lifeguard was waiting at the top of the slide and instructed her to wait on her big camper. Michelle turned to see Casey and Anna finally approaching.
“C’mon you guys let’s go!” Said Michelle irritated.
Anna decided she wasn’t quite ready to conquer the slides so after negotiating who would walk her down to the pool area it was finally time for Michelle to jump in line for the slides. She grabbed a tube to slide down in and impatiently waited as she watched each girl disappear behind the slide’s first curve. When it was finally her turn she stood ankle-deep in the churning water, looked down at the surprisingly steep slide, and then realized she couldn’t move. Michelle felt frozen with fear. The slide was faster and steeper than she anticipated and now she was aware she holding up the line for the other girls. She heard someone splash into the water behind her.
“Hey Michelle, I know you really wanted to go by yourself the first time, but what if we go together? I think the first time would be more fun with two people anyway!” Said Casey.
Michelle felt instant relief at Casey’s suggestion and they quickly worked to arrange the large tube so they both easily fit on it, with Michelle in the front and Casey in the back. Casey leaned over Michelle’s shoulder and asked, “Ready?” Michelle gave a timid nod and Casey pushed off the wall sending their tube into the slide’s first turn. The speed was both terrifying and exhilarating to Michelle. She could hear Casey shouting and laughing behind her and that’s when she realized she was having fun! They navigated sharp twists and turns, squealing with delight each time the water splashed them in the face. Then came the final decent into the pool. The tube picked up speed on the straight-away and it was then Michelle could see the pool water and realized she had not considered how deep the pool may be. Fear instantly seized her but before she could react they were at the end of the slide and both went under water. Panic grew inside of Michelle as she grasped for air when suddenly she was hoisted up from above the water. Recognizing she wasn’t standing on her feet she felt Casey’s hands under her arms and holding her above the water.
Michelle couldn’t believe it. Casey had saved her! How did Casey know she didn’t like having her head under water? And why would Casey care enough to do anything about it? Casey continued to keep Michelle hoisted above the water until her feet could touch. Casey let her go and Michelle turned to face Casey. She had a huge smile covering her face and said, “That was so much fun! Did you like it Michelle?!”
Michelle paused to think, caught up in the tornado of thoughts swirling in her mind. Feeling she couldn’t put words to her thoughts, she grabbed Casey’s hand and eagerly shouted, “Again! Again!” Casey laughed and gave Michelle a high five.
“Michelle I’m so proud of you for going down that fast slide. You’re so brave!”
Brave…Michelle had never thought of that word for herself, but she liked the way it sounded when Casey said it.
“Yeah? Well if you think that was brave just watch this! I’m going by myself this time!”
The two grabbed their own tubes and ran to the top of the slide again. This time, knowing Casey was behind her and cheering her on, Michelle eagerly jumped in her tube. She turned around to look at Casey who reached to give her one more high five of encouragement, then she pushed off the walls. She could hear Casey cheering for her and in that moment Michelle felt fully alive. She also felt something else…something that felt unfamiliar to her. She rounded another curve, giggling the whole way, and felt another splash of water hit her face.
Joy. That was it. This moment, this memory, she decided, was called joy.