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FINALIST IN 2022 UNCONVENTIONAL LOVE STORY CONTEST™ JUDGED BY JON LINDSEY & ALLIE ROWBOTTOM  


Wilderness Camp


I’ll tell you the last thing I remembered for a while: we were sitting in Andrea McFadden’s basement after school smoking out of her older brother’s hookah. Someone lifted the top and found black mold growing in the chamber. I stepped into the backyard to puke.

“I’m going to visit my uncle in North Carolina,” said Dee, standing over me. “You’d better not fuck up these shoes.” She always wore these horrible moccasins, even when the ground was soggy. So steadfast you’d think she was tracking something. They’d turn dark from the suburban muck we traipsed through on the way from school to Andrea’s, and she would throw them in the washing machine in the basement, and as it ran it sounded like bodies were being thrown against the wall from her living room where we sat watching Catfish and smoking mids.

Labor Day weekend was approaching. I spent my own binging on my sister’s ADHD medicine and filling up a spare composition book with ideas. Dee wanted to be a writer, in fact she already considered herself one even though she never tried to publish anything. She didn’t actually write much at all, but she had her own ideas.

She planned to take a Greyhound bus cross-country after graduation and write everything exceptional down in a notebook. Dee wanted real scenery, and I wanted to show her what I could do, so that maybe she would take me with her. Like, if I could spin something out of our small diorama lives here already (plasticky paneling, strip mall parking lots, AP tests) imagine what I could do criss-crossing red deserts and mountain ranges by her side. We could be brilliant together, I wrote that down.

Dee didn’t come back to school the following Tuesday. She always skipped without telling me, but this time was different. It was like she’d been disappeared. I built up a case file in my mind.

She would take laxatives at inopportune, conspicuous times of day, like before third period. Sometimes she pulled me into the bathroom with her when we wandered the halls at lunch. “I’m gonna shit my brains out,” she would whisper. I would wait for her outside the stalls and she would talk to me through the door.

She worked one summer at the Forever 21 in the mall, the shitty one. She knew the blind spots and was friends with the floor manager, so sometimes we would go back together and pocket things for the sake of it. The cheap beauty products in metallic casing crowded the vanity in Dee’s bedroom like medallions.

She had sex for the first time when she was really young, long before she knew me. It was hard to think of her as ever being a virgin. She lost her anal virginity junior year, and said it was the first time she felt like she really couldn’t ever look the guy in the eye afterwards. She had a girlfriend for a while after that, but cycled through her as quickly as the others.

She didn’t get along with her mom, so we always hung out at Andrea’s. Andrea’s mother worked night shifts as a nurse and slept all day, so their ranch house was ours to play adult in. We would watch TV together, always Catfish. The fraudsters were always ugly. Dee would laugh during the reveals but it usually made me profoundly sad. Then again, I could sometimes understand the bodysnatcher impulse.

***

Three weeks in I asked our shared English teacher if she knew why Dee was gone. I think her parents were academics, the kind of people who would say something if their kid just disappeared from class one day. I never saw much of her mom, and her dad lived elsewhere. Our teacher just said she wasn’t coming back. At least once a week during lunch I came by the teacher’s room to ask if she heard anything. At a certain point she just told me she couldn’t help me. She knew the kind of girls we were when we were together, maybe Dee’s mom wanted to protect her. I don’t know what she heard about me; I was a good student.

Months passed and I would spam her Facebook with messages. Where are you dd. the people want to know. im so sad without you. youre everywhere in everything dd.

My friends and I got really into taking handfuls of Benadryl. It seemed like something so bubblegum pink was incapable of causing lasting harm, at least until Alexis got herself hospitalized with liver damage. She took medical leave and told everyone it was complications from mono. I never took as much as she did though, just five or six, enough to make the fabric of the couch tickle my arms as I sank in, sleeping in the waking world, staring straight ahead at the television. I watched a Catfish episode about a psychic medium who found a girl several states away and claimed the ghost of her dead dirtbag father was using her as a conduit for messages. Even the producers seemed convinced of this one.

It was deep in autumn and the veil felt thin, and sitting between Andrea and Alexis I wondered aloud if it was possible for Dee to be somewhere truly unreachable. “Well it’s not like she’s dead,” said Andrea, as if she knew something any of us didn’t.

I finished the last season. By then, I had quit adderall and got fat again. It was ok, though, because I had a new body positive outlook. Prom came and went, I wore a dress I found when my mom moved some boxes out of the garage after discovering water damage. Purple velvet, too tight around the tits and too short for prom. Who did I think I was! Mom said she used to wear it to dinner parties. It looked much better on her, and was an outfit she could repeat.

I tried messaging Dee everywhere, on the off chance that maybe she was somewhere phoneless but still somehow able to check her Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook. So many ways to reach her and yet there she wasn’t, for months and months. One day my Facebook messages lit up: I love you I love you I love you.

Her mom had sent her to a wilderness camp for at-risk teens in North Carolina, arranged for her to be dragged off as soon as she stepped out of the car in some half-town adjacent to where her uncle lived. The program sounded like it was designed by some morons from another time. Basically, these kids (druggies, shoplifters, truant, older boyfriends, etc.) would criss-cross the forests of North Carolina setting up campsites at different arbitrarily marked points. Every month, they could come back to a home base where they would be able to take a proper shower and eat cafeteria food, then it was back out into the wild. Going weeks at a time without washing made Dee’s bleach-damaged hair grow in quickly and with new luster from the excess oil and sweat. It looked healthy.

At this camp, things like adverse weather, wild animal encounters, illness and injury were all considered instrumental to the teens’ developing life skills. A storm, for instance, could be taken as a metaphor for a difficult period in one’s life. You just had to pitch your tent and wait it out.

Some girl made a run for it at one campsite. First, they sent groups of kids out to comb the woods for her. Then, when they realized it was serious, beyond something that could be transmuted into a metaphor for some kind of dependency, there were proper search parties, with dogs and helicopters. They eventually found the girl, age 14, dead in the fetal position near an iced-over creek. Of course they kept this quiet so the other parents wouldn’t freak out, but the kids all knew, and Dee knew then that she had to be strategic in making her break.

After a few months at wilderness camp, Dee was moved to a youth rehab facility in either Iowa or Idaho or Illinois for no problem in particular. She turned 18 in early May and signed herself out with her new boyfriend, Moe, who was also not a drug addict but had been sent there by his aunt after getting caught selling weed to his classmates in Nevada.

Dee’s departure from rehab was a big moment for her. The first time I saw her she drew the story out triumphantly. She and Moe had simply walked out, down a steep grassy hill that looked like the world was dropping off into an abyss if you were standing in the double doors of the place facing straight ahead. But it didn’t, instead it sloped down into the freeway. The two of them hitchhiked to stay with Moe’s dad, who conveniently lived two towns over. He took a liking to Dee and paid for her plane ticket home, where she knew Andrea’s mom would let her crash on the couch. She would never speak to her mother again. Now that she was out of the fishbowl, she didn’t need Moe. He had been dead set on coming out to meet her once she got settled, but she blocked his number as soon as she touched down. I was speechless, in love.

I graduated along with Alexis, Andrea and all our other friends. But when Dee came back she was different. Something was off, and she kept using words that white girls aren’t allowed to say. She didn’t care, she had been miles away from Tumblr for months. She wasn’t planning on finishing high school. Everything about it seemed beside the point after what she’d been through. She used to talk about applying to Purdue, where her estranged father was a professor. She thought it would give her a leg up, even though she hadn’t spoken to him in years and when she called on holidays he never picked up. Now, she thought working as a waitress at a Denny’s on the edge of town seemed like the kind of romantic endeavor that would carry her off to where she needed to be. Imagine all the people she would meet! She would write on her breaks.

One day she stole $200 from Andrea’s mom and ran off. I could never track her down, none of us could. Our classmates got bachelor’s degrees, engagement photoshoots, tidy little jobs. I approximated that lifestyle myself eventually, but every single thing I did felt excruciatingly small and quotidian measured against the parallel fantastical life I’m sure, to this day, she lives. She was like the songs we used to listen to.



Serena Devi is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is a formed ESB fellow at the Poetry Project and has had work published in The Recluse, dirt child, and Leste.
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