Willows vs. Wolverines
Mackenzie and I are on an ugly orange bus filled with strangers, and all of them are singing off-key.
“Foxtail, Foxtail, burning bright, you’re my heart’s one true delight!” shrieks a chorus of piercing voices, and I slump farther down in my ripped vinyl seat, hoping some of the sound waves will fly over my head and miss my ears. I don’t understand how anyone could be so excited about Camp Foxtail. Then again, the rest of these kids probably don’t know what they’ve been missing at Camp Sweetwater, where Mackenzie and I have spent summers since we were eight. And where we would be headed right now, if there were any justice in the world.
“No singing until we’re on camp grounds!” shouts the driver. He’s got about twelve pieces of gum in his mouth, so the words sound garbled, but his exasperation comes
through loud and clear. I can tell he’d rather be doing pretty much anything other than chauffeuring a bunch of kids to middle-of-nowhere Michigan—going to the dentist, shoveling snow, getting all his leg hair waxed off.
I know how he feels. This is the last place I want to be too.
Mackenzie rubs her eyes under her purple-framed glasses. “I can’t believe we’re missing Midnight Snack at Camp Sweetwater,” she grumbles.
“I know,” I say. “I’ve been dreaming about it all year.” After the Welcome Campfire there was always this enormous late-night snack buffet in the mess hall—sundae ingredients, popcorn, cookies, you name it. Mackenzie couldn’t eat most of it because of her dairy allergy, so we invented these special dessert sandwiches made of toaster waffles, peanut butter, bananas, Marshmallow Fluff, and chocolate syrup: the ChocoNanaFlufferNutter Delight. We’ve tried to replicate them at home a million times, but they never taste the same. Mackenzie once read about this Chinese restaurant that put drugs in its disgusting food so people got addicted and kept coming back, and we have a theory Camp Sweetwater might do the same thing with their peanut butter. We even pooled our allowances and bought a drug-testing kit
so we could investigate our hypothesis this summer. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to peeing in a cup in the spider-filled cabin bathroom, but I was totally prepared to do it for science.
Of course, that was all for nothing now that my parents and Mackenzie’s had some stupid falling out with Delilah, their friend who runs Camp Sweetwater. Why do adults have to be so dramatic about their friendships? Don’t they realize camp is way more important than whatever they’re fighting about?
“I bet Camp Foxtail won’t even have peanut butter,” I say.
“They’ll probably feed us eggplant casserole and chicken feet and those disgusting Jell-O molds with canned fruit that my great-aunt Doreen makes,” Mackenzie says.
“They’ll probably make us eat dog food.” All this talk of food reminds me of the package of Red Vines in my backpack, so I dig it out. Mackenzie takes a whole handful. There’s not much that can improve this situation, but candy makes everything at least a little better.
“I bet the lake will be full of seaweed and trash and leeches,” she says with her mouth full. “I bet we won’t even be able to swim.”
“I bet they won’t have beds. We’ll have to sleep on the floor.”
“Or on the lawn.”
“Or in the woods.”
“Or in a pit of snakes.”
“And what kind of name is Camp Foxtail, anyway?” I ask. “It’s like they were too cheap to name it after an actual animal, so they named it after a piece of fuzz hanging from an animal’s butt.”
Mackenzie finally cracks a smile. “Camp Fuzzbutt,” she says, which makes us both start giggling. At least she’s with me on this horrible orange bus. There’s no way I could make it through an entire month of this horror show without her.
The ride takes four hours. By the time we finally turn onto the dirt road marked with a huge wooden sign in the shape of a fox, I’m restless and cranky and thirsty from all the sugar I’ve eaten. The second we bump past the sign, everyone starts scream-singing “Foxtail, Foxtail, burning bright” again, and this time the driver lets them get all the way through it. There are only about three other people on the bus who don’t seem to know the words, and despite the fact that I don’t want to be here, I feel left out.
I know I should feel lucky that I get to go to camp at all—none of my aunts and uncles went, and they won’t let my cousins go either, even though they’ve been begging for years. The rest of my family thinks my parents are totally nuts for letting me go away for an entire month, but my mom has all these amazing memories of spending her summers at Camp Pine Needle in Minnesota, and she wants me to have similar experiences. Then again, if that’s the case, she should really send me to a camp where I’ll actually have fun. I wish more than anything that Mackenzie and I were riding through the familiar arch that marks the boundary of Camp Sweetwater right now, belting out the Sweetwater Anthem Delilah taught us when we were little kids.
The bus winds through the woods, and I brace myself for what I’m going to see when it pulls out the other side. I know how much photos on websites can lie. But the woods open up onto a wide green lawn, and then the bus lurches to a stop in front of an old-timey-looking wooden building. There’s a sign that says FRIENDSHIP SOCIAL LODGE above the front door, which is super cheesy, but the lodge itself actually looks pretty nice.
I turn to Mackenzie. “Hey, do you think—” I start to say, but she’s staring out the window in the other direction.
“Whoa,” she says quietly.
My eyes bug out when I see what she’s looking at. I knew Camp Foxtail was bigger than our old camp, but I didn’t realize it was this much bigger—there are easily two hundred kids on the lawn. I knew practically everyone at Camp Sweetwater, but here I don’t recognize a single face.
At school, I’m never the most popular or the best at anything—Dani Alvarez and Nick Riccardi get the highest grades, Sasha Hollingsworth always beats me on swim team, and Lily Greer-Whipple is the teacher’s pet. I’m not even the class clown—Gavin Yeh’s jokes are so dumb, but the whole sixth grade still thinks he’s the funniest. But at Sweetwater I was always the pranking queen. Dozens of girls always swarmed me the second I got off the bus, eager to hug me and take selfies with me and hear about the hijinks Mackenzie and I had planned for the summer ahead. Camp was the only place where I was cool and interesting and fun without having to try.
Now I’m going to have to start all over again at the very bottom of the social ladder, and just thinking about it is so exhausting that I want to cry. Nobody at this camp even cares that I’m here. It might be forever before I have a solid group of friends. For all I know, it might not happen at all.
I’m about to complain about all of it to Mackenzie, but before I can say anything, she reaches out her pinkie finger. It’s our secret signal for “I need moral support,” and I realize how terrified she must be right now. The first day of Camp Sweetwater was always hard for her even though Delilah was there, so I can only imagine how she feels surrounded by strangers in this brand-new place. I shouldn’t be thinking about making new friends when the best friend I already have needs my help.
I link my finger through hers and hold on tight. “It’s gonna be okay,” I say. “We can get through anything as long as we’re together, right? Even leeches. Even eggplant casserole.”
Mackenzie shrugs and says, “I guess,” instead of smiling like I’d hoped, but when the girls in front of us get up and push toward the bus doors, she lets go of me and stands up too, so I guess maybe I helped a little. I stay right behind her as we climb off the bus so she knows I have her back.
A counselor in a bright orange T-shirt that says I’M FOXY across the chest is standing at the bottom of the steps with a clipboard. “Name?” he asks.
He traces his pen down the page until he finds my name, and I see that I’m listed as Isobel, which I hate. The
counselor makes a neat check mark on the paper and smiles at me. “Have a great summer, Isobel,” he says, and then his eyes skate right past me and onto the next boy. If this were Camp Sweetwater, Delilah would be rushing over right now to welcome Mackenzie and me and sneak us some of the sour candies she always carries in her pockets. It’s so weird and sad to be just another couple of names on a list.
We must be the last group to arrive, because I’m not done gathering my duffel and my sleeping bag before the counselors start blowing whistles and herding everyone into one big group in the center of the enormous oval-shaped field. There’s a flagpole at one end and soccer goals at the other, and the cabins are spaced evenly around the edge. Camp Sweetwater only had twelve cabins, but here I count twenty. Mackenzie sits down all the way at the edge of the group, and I join her, though I always prefer to be closer to the center. I look around and guess which of the other girls might be in our cabin, and when I spot a couple of friendly-looking ones our age, I try to make eye contact. But they’re busy talking and showing each other pictures before their counselors make them put their phones away, and none of them notice I exist. I tell myself it’s not an omen for how the rest of the summer will go.
Another counselor in a FOXY shirt gets up in front of the group. “Who is stronger than an ox?” she shouts.
I barely have time to shoot Mackenzie a look like What? before everyone on the lawn shouts back, “I am! I am! I’m a fox!” They’re all holding up three fingers next to each temple, which I guess is supposed to represent fox ears.
“Who here thinks outside the box?”
“I do! I do! I’m a fox!”
“Who’s as steady as the rocks?”
“I am! I am! I’m a fox!”
“Who’s more graceful than the hawks?”
“I am! I am! I’m a fox!”
“Dumbest chant ever,” Mackenzie grumbles. “How is a fox stronger than an ox?” I know she’s thinking about the cheer she made up last year that became part of the standard Camp Sweetwater repertoire; it’s so sad to think of our friends singing it around their Welcome Campfire without us. But even though the fox call-and-response is way stupider than our old cheer, part of me wants to join in, just to be part of the group.
I’m about to make fox ears with my fingers like everyone else, but the chant is already over, and the counselor shouts, “Welcome back, campers! Who’s ready to have an amaaaaazing summer?”
Everyone screams, and I feel stupid sitting there in silence, so I clap. Mackenzie keeps her hands folded in her lap.
“Let’s get started, then! First, I’d like to welcome all our brand-new Foxes! Raise your hand if this is your first summer at Camp Foxtail!”
A bunch of hands go up, but almost all of them belong to little kids, and for a second I’m not sure what to do. I don’t really want to call attention to the fact that I’m an outsider, in the same category as a bunch of eight-year-olds. But at the same time, I do want everyone to notice I’m here. So I put my hand in the air and smile to let the other campers know I’m friendly. Mackenzie glances at me, then looks at the ground and raises her hand to shoulder height.
“How about a big round of applause to make them feel welcome?” the counselor shouts, and everyone claps. “Perfect! We’re so glad to have you all with us, and we know you’ll love Camp Foxtail as much as we do! And now . . . are you ready for some cabin assignments?”
Everyone screams again, and the counselor starts calling out names, starting with the littlest kids. The wide-eyed third graders follow their counselors to their cabins, lugging their too-heavy bags behind them. One tiny girl
sitting near us starts crying when her name is called, and an older boy who has the same dark hair and eyes wraps an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t be scared,” he says. “You’re going to love Cottonwood Lodge. That’s the one I told you about with the purple door, remember? Maybe later today you can help your counselor teach your cabin all the Camp Foxtail songs you know. That would be cool, right?” The little girl nods and wipes her eyes, and when her counselor beckons her over, she puts on a brave face and goes.
It’s stupid, but for a second I wish I had a big brother to hug me and tell me everything’s going to be fine. I’m twelve years old, and I should be able to take care of myself. But no matter how brave you are, it’s nice to have someone to show you the ropes when you’re in a new place. When you’re the oldest kid in the family, you always have to figure everything out for yourself.
At least Mackenzie and I have each other. I nudge her with my shoulder. “You want the bottom bunk again?”
“Yeah,” she says, and she gives me a tiny smile. I start looking forward to tonight after lights-out, when we can whisper together until we fall asleep. One of the best things about camp is that it’s like having a four-week-long sleepover party with your best friend.
The kids who are getting called now look about our age, so we start listening for our names. The boys’ cabins are all named after woodland animals—Badger, Chipmunk, Raccoon, Owl—and the girls’ cabins are named after trees—Cottonwood, Birch, Poplar, Cedar. Mackenzie’s name is the third one called for Maple Lodge, and I grab my backpack and get ready to stand up too. I’m a Maple, I tell myself, and I try to feel some pride in that—cabin loyalty is a big deal. I wonder what our cabin cheers will be like. I can’t think of anything that rhymes with “maple” besides “staple.”
But then the counselor finishes reading off the names of the Maples, and I realize I haven’t heard mine. I probably wasn’t paying enough attention. “She called me, right?” I whisper to Mackenzie, but then I see that my best friend’s eyes are wide and scared. She shakes her head.
“But how is that possible? They can’t put us in different cabins. They must’ve made a mistake, right?” Mackenzie’s only six weeks younger than me, and we’ve never been in different cabins before. We’ve never been apart for anything at camp; Delilah always made sure we were in the same activities and on the same team for capture the flag and the Sweetwater Olympics. We
were together so much that everyone referred to us as IzzyAndMackenzie, one word.
A short counselor with a black ponytail raises a hand above her head and shouts, “Follow me, Maples!” and girls start making their way over to her. But Mackenzie’s still standing next to me, staring wildly around like she’s forgotten how to walk. I’m upset, but she’s clearly full-on panicked. If she had known we’d be separated, I doubt she would’ve agreed to come to Camp Foxtail at all.
“You should go over there,” I whisper, and I try to keep my voice as calm and brave as possible. “It’s okay. We’ll still see each other all the time, right?”
“I guess,” she says, but she doesn’t sound convinced. We both know how much time everyone spends with their own cabins.
I link my pinkie with hers and give it a squeeze. “Go,” I whisper. “I’m sure they’re all really nice. I’ll see you at dinner, okay? And in the meantime I’ll talk to someone about getting you switched into my cabin.” No matter how miserable Mackenzie is, she never makes a fuss, so fixing this will be up to me. Not that I mind helping her, obviously.
Mackenzie nods. She takes a deep breath, and then she turns and walks away, head down, her purple-sneakered
feet dragging in the dirt. I try to keep a reassuring smile on my face in case she looks back at me.
But once she’s out of sight and I’m left alone with a bunch of strangers, I suddenly don’t feel very brave anymore either.