Rejected By: McSweeney’s Online Tendency

The Opposite of a Bedtime Story

     Once upon a time, Jimmy’s dog ran away when he was seven. His parents told him that the overactive german shepherd was kidnapped by some malicious person – his parents wanted to clearly establish the concept of good versus evil in little Jimmy’s mind while also banishing the thought that anything, even a dog, could reject their precious and perfect son. In truth, the dog ran away because they had a small backyard and no place to run and they fed it hard, crunchy bits of dog food that resembled rabbit droppings that had been roasted by the midday sun in a field. In truth, they didn’t walk the dog after work, they didn’t play fetch with the dog on the weekends, and they never took it for hikes or camping trips. In truth, the dog ran away because Jimmy’s family wasn’t tending to his needs, and he saw a better life full of happiness and flaunting female dogs on the other side of the privacy fence. In truth, Snuffles ran away with malice of forethought, and deep down, Jimmy knew that. In truth, Jimmy understood that Snuffles didn’t love him enough to forgive his negligence, and this blossomed a very real insecurity in Jimmy’s heart.

     This championed a long string of beings who would leave Jimmy; this first initial abandonment seeding itself into his prepubescent brain as the inevitable behavior for all his loved ones throughout his life. When his middle school girlfriend broke up with him because his hands sweat too much when they were interlocked with hers, his mind flickered briefly to Snuffles last night in his house and how Snuffles had recoiled from Jimmy’s slimy touch. When his high school girlfriend left him at the end of their senior year because of their budding and differing interests, Jimmy regretfully remembered the time when Snuffles wanted to play fetch, but Jimmy was too interested in his newest video game to participate. And when his college girlfriend left because she was into kinkier sex than he was, Jimmy’s mind wandered to Snuffles, and if Snuffles had found some nice lady dog to get it on with. And as he went through life, a mere shell of a man, Jimmy’s mind would often revert back to memories of Snuffles and fantasies about Snuffle’s life now. Where was Snuffles? Was he still alive? Was he happier without Jimmy? Would everyone in his life be at their happiest without Jimmy? Would the world be an essentially better place without Jimmy? 

     These are the thoughts that plague Jimmy constantly, and even now. Even now, as he stands in front of the congregation on his now-not-wedding day, the reality of his now-not-bride-to-be abandoning him at the alter almost seemed expected. Almost seemed right. Almost seemed like the universe knew what it was doing. Because if Snuffles wouldn’t stay, why should she?

     And no one lived happily ever after.

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Rejected By: FORCES (my university’s journal)

 

Please Be Advised

From: The United States Department of Interior To: Our Loyal Citizens

To: Our Loyal Citizens

Please be advised that in light of recent events some minor, but urgent, additions have modified our nation’s Civil Defense Preparedness Plan. To prevent local chaos in the event of a foreign terror attack, the Civil Defense Cabinet is recommending each resident household to stockpile four weeks worth of food rations and four weeks worth of water supply for each member of the household. This is a precautionary move; please be assured there is no cause for concern. This is a precautionary move.
In God We Trust,
The Civil Defense Cabinet
The United States Department of Interior

***

    The notice arrived in the usual mail – mid-morning, the dog barking incessantly at the mailman, just as I was sitting down with a fresh cup of coffee to begin the workday. The only unusual thing was the notice itself, printed on an obnoxious yellow postcard and stamped with IMPORTANT NOTICE in bright red letters. I read and reread carefully, trying to determine if this was a practical joke from those bastard kids down the block or if I should be concerned. I abandoned the makeshift office in the kitchen, leaving my coffee behind as I walked to the living room to check the news, still carrying the notice and trailed by the dog.

     The channel four newscaster confirmed, in much too cherry a tone: the notices were released today, the East coast recipients assuming it was a joke until the rest of the nation slowly began checking their mail and realizing it wasn’t a hoax. One copy in every mailbox across the country. So many dead trees, I thought.

    My phone rang. It was Barbara’s office. “Hello,” I answered, a little distracted by the television. The newscaster was interviewing people throughout the metroplex, who in turn were deciding whether or not they thought the notice should be taken seriously. As if some dimwit from twenty minutes outside McKinney was going to decide whether the entire nation should take something seriously.

“Did you check the mail yet?” Barbara asked. “Leslie is freaking out and saying the world is ending.”

I broke my trance with the television to roll my eyes. “Fuck Leslie. She likes making drama.” Leslie was the kind of coworker who sustained herself purely on the judgement of others; she refused to believe I was anything but a deadbeat husband – constantly, casually, suggesting to Barbara that the middle-aged dating scene wasn’t so bad.

“But is the world ending?” Barbara’s voice was a little strained, because of Leslie or the situation I couldn’t tell. “Everyone here is actually freaking out because a notice wasn’t delivered to office buildings. They’re asking to leave early, but Warren has his death grip on the timecards.” Warren was an obnoxious, twenty-six year old fresh out of business school who thought he was a boss worth respecting.

“I’m watching CNN right now. Literally nothing has happened.”

“But what’s the notice? What’s it say?”

     I read her the notice.
“That sounds serious.”
“Babe, it literally ends with ‘there’s no cause for concern.’”
“The lady doth protest too much,” she quoted, distracted. I bet Leslie was crying; Leslie cried all the time. “The accounting team is trying to convince Warren to close the office early so we can get supplies. The word apocalypse is being thrown around.”

“Fucking mob mentality, that’s all it is, Barbara. I’m watching the news. The blond chick is saying that the Democratic party can’t be too concerned about the environment if they’re printing off so many notices over nothing.” The dog was whining, so I let him outside. I hadn’t realized Barbara would take this seriously. She made me wonder if I should be taking it seriously. I found the remote and began flipping through the channels, each addressing the same story, each fear mongering. “I bet it’s a stunt from the grocery stores to get us to buy more canned food,” I joked.

Barbara laughed softly. “Because, seriously, no one is buying survival bunker food. That shit is disgusting.” She paused. “I don’t want to sound insane, but it’s only been a few days since Russia made the announcement. Maybe we should take this seriously…” Her voice trailed off, like she was testing the waters with her suggestion.

I sighed. “Barbara, would you like me to go to the store and get some disgusting food and bottled water for you?” The news stations were transitioning towards the upcoming election, so I switched the television off. Whoever is elected into office is going to inherit a shit show.

“For us,” she corrected. “And Scooter.”
I let Scooter in from the backyard. “I really don’t think there’s anything serious to worry about. This just seems like media attention-grabbing.” I began gathering my keys and my wallet.

“But just in case?”

     “Just in case,” I resigned, heading out the door. I hung up as she began to reassure Leslie.
It wasn’t even noon yet, but the roads were already crowded with honking cars and road-rage threats. Apparently, alarmist notices in the mail were the permission the neighborhood needed to go into a panic and start driving like maniacs. It took me twenty minutes just to drive up the road to the supermarket; I would have been better off walking.

The market itself was crowded as well – there were, for once, more than two cashiers ringing up bottles of water and baskets full of canned food, and there were two managers attempting to stay the crowds pushing in for the giant water jugs. I figured the bigger jugs of water would make the most economic sense, and briefly considered pushing in as well, but I hated crowds. This entire ordeal was my worst nightmare: massive amounts of people, all panicking, all lacking the common sense to just take a breath. There were no carts left, so I settled for a hand basket and went to the usual bottled drink aisle, searching for the single bottles of water. There wasn’t much left. I ended up grabbing the few single bottles of the off brand water, the cheap stuff that tasted like plastic that no one had thought to hoard yet, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I drug one of the remaining packs of water out from under the shelving fixture, but this presented another problem. The water came in packs of twenty-four, larger than the hand basket I was stuck with. I ended up hoisted the water onto my shoulder like it was a fallen platoon mate and I was the last survivor, scooting the basket along with my feet, making my way towards the canned food aisle.

It occurred to me as I wandered the store weighed down by water bottles that I hadn’t the slightest clue was sort of food counted as nonperishables for a rations stockpile. I set the water at my feet and stacked the hand basket on top, pulling out my phone to Google apocalyptic supply bunkers. As I scrolled through the flood of movie suggestions, online shows, zombie survival guides, and conspiracy theories, an older man stopped next to me and very obviously examined the water at my feet. I ignored him. He bent down and began taking the single water bottles from the basket.

     “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting his pathetic attempt at theft. “Those are mine.”

“But you’re just standing there on your damn phone. I need these.” I couldn’t remember if I’d ever heard a senior citizen swear before, but it was funny to me.

“Well, I need them, too. And my wife needs them. And we have a dog, so there’s a lot of water-needing happening at my place.”

He muttered something under his breath and walked off with two my bottles. I let him go.

I found a webpage that recommended canned goods, dry cereals, and potatoes. Potatoes seemed dangerous – I’d read a story about a family in Ireland that were poisoned by rotting potatoes in their basement, and who knew how long this food would be sitting in our pantry. I decided some canned goods and cereals would be good enough. I hoisted the water back on my shoulder and began scooting along again.

The canned food aisle was ransacked. Half the options were sold out, and the remaining options mostly sounded made up. What the hell is spam actually made of? I read the ingredients and immediately ruled it out. I glanced hopelessly down the rest of the aisle and considered giving up and going home.

A young women rounded the far end of the aisle and began throwing random cans into her own hand basket without even paying attention to what she was grabbing. She look like she’d rolled out of bed a few seconds ago, disheveled and clearly panicked. She reminded me of Barbara when I’d first met her back in college.

     “Excuse me,” she mumbled, brushing passed me to grab more and more cans. The basket looked like it weighed more than her as she filled it to the brim. She began limping under its weight as she headed back towards the registers.

As I surveyed the remainder of the aisle it occurred to me that the girl, and a sizable portion of my city, and supposedly the rest of the country, were taking this precautionary recommendation seriously. Up until this point, I’d been operating under the mission of making Barbara more comfortable, not even giving this potential threat any real thought. It had been a few days since Russia had publicly announced they’d built some sort of missiles, what their president was proudly calling their weapons of mass destruction. But no one in the States had taken this to mean anything; our relationship with Russia had been cordial for the past few years. The rest of the world was busy stressing and panicking, but we had all but forgotten until this morning. I glanced down at the basket of water at my feet, thinking about Barbara. She had taken this seriously ever since I read it to her, and she had been almost embarrassed to ask me to go to the store and stock up. If she wanted me to get supplies, I could get supplies. The likelihood of us actually needed this food still seemed slim to me, but you never know. So I made my way down the aisle, water hoisted on my shoulder, picking the least disgusting sounding cans of foods and placing them in the basket between my feet. I scooted down the entire aisle slowly loading up on beans and vegetables and weird gravies. I rounded the corner of the aisle and made my way to the cereals, reading the back of the boxes for the ones with the furthest out expiration dates, which happened to be the ones with the tiny marshmallows in them. Barbara was going to think I made that up jut to get the kiddie cereals.

     I took the long way back to the cashiers, stopping to chose some pasta (a fancy kind I’d never heard of before, but that had a nice shape) and some sauce (that came in a glass jar, not plastic) and a bag of salad mix. Barbara was bound to be having an awful day – Leslie was an ugly crier, and her boss was a jackass, especially when it came to people’s emotions, so I thought making her dinner would be nice. One of the endocarp displays in the pharmacy on the way to the registers had condoms. I added a pack to my basket, hopeful.

The line for the cashiers were each at least twenty people deep. Their conversations ranged from angry at the length of the line to angry that the store was so crowded, to angry that the government had put us in this predicament in the first place. I consciously tried to look not angry. The poor cashiers were so young, probably still in high school, and they all looked like they were going to pass out.

When it was finally my turn, I place my basket of cans and water on the conveyer belt alongside my pack of water and grabbed a Snickers from the rank of candy bars and placed it next to the condoms. Barbara loved Snickers.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked as I unloaded the contents of the basket.

“Take a fucking look around, how do you think it’s going?” the cashier spat back. She started frantically scanning all the cans, her hands shaky. She dropped the first two and cursed at them each time.

“It’s pretty crazy in here,” I agreed, glancing around. “Apocalypse scares are good for business, I guess.”

     “You sound like my goddamn manager. But guess what? I get paid the same regardless of how many fucking losers I ring up.” She was still scanning away. “You people are just making my fucking job harder. The world isn’t going to fucking end. The world won’t end with a ridiculous amount of beans and fucking water bottles.”

I assumed ‘fuck’ was the only swear word she knew yet. “Sorry about that,” I mumbled, avoiding any chance of eye contact and preoccupying myself with finding my wallet.

She finished scanning. “You’re total is $68.56.”
“Man, the word not-ending is expensive,” I joked.
She didn’t laugh.
I swiped my card. The moments the machine spent authorizing my card we spent in silence. I left the hand basket at the front entrance, carrying the water pack on my shoulder again and all the bags of cans in one hand. The apocalypse was heavy. I had to set everything down on the ground to unlock the trunk.

“Need any help there?” The voice came from behind and startled me.

I turned to see the older woman who runs the flower shop in the parking lot standing a few feet away from my car.

“No, I’m alright, thanks. Just gotta get everything loaded up.” I open the trunk and began loading the bags.

She remained quiet, but stayed there, watching me.
“How’re you doing today?” I asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
“I’m alright, I suppose, dear,” she said, taking our conversation as a cue to move closer. “Not a lot of business today. I suppose the end of the world isn’t the opportune time to buy flowers.”

     I finished loading everything up. Her voice was so grandmotherly that I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic. “You think the world is going end?” I asked, closing the trunk and leaning against the car.

“Why else would everyone be panicking?” She gestured to the packed parking lot, not a spot empty, not a cart in sight, cars full of children off school early and waiting for their parents to stock up inside the grocery store.

I nodded. “Maybe everyone just want to feel safe,” I suggested, thinking again about Barbara.

“Yes, but safe from what?” she argued. “If there wasn’t something for people to feel unsafe from, they wouldn’t be panicking, dear.”
I nodded, more slowly, not completely agreeing with her. People are frequently afraid of things without reason. I decided to change the subject because I was starting to get a weird feeling, almost nervous. It was the same feeling I got when I was fifteen and told my parents I didn’t believe in God. My mother had given me a scornful look and told me I was going to seriously regret that decision whenever I died and found out I was wrong. I tried to shrug the feeling off. “Have any daisies today?” I asked, nodding my head toward the tent where her flower shop was set up.

“I do!” Her face lit up and she began walking towards the tent.
I followed her.
“What color daisies do you want, dear?” she asked as she began to survey her stock.              “White works.” I never understood why people feel the need to dye flowers.
“Nice and classic.” She picked a dozen and wrapped them with a yellow bow. She told me how to care for them (vase, then the water, then the powder, then the flowers), and I paid with a twenty dollar bill, telling her to keep the change as an end of the world present.

She giggled. “My entire life the government has been telling me there’s nothing to worry about. And every time, something terrible happens.” She waved goodbye. I got that nervous feeling in my gut again.

     It took me twenty minutes to drive home, just up the road. The entrance to the grocery store parking lot was jammed, and the streets were even more packed, cars honking constantly. Scooter greeted me eagerly at the store, jumping up onto my legs and almost tripping me. I struggled my way to the dry basement, huffing as I let the water slip from my shoulders and onto the grimy old couch; when it landed, a cloud of dust puffed into the air. This place is disgusting. I arranged the cans of food along the counter next to the couch, in descending order of least disgusting to most disgusting. I stacked the boxes of cereal into a pyramid shape and put the single bottles of water into the mini fridge. I surveyed my work and glanced around. All we had down here was the old couch, the sagging counter tops, an old television that had a built-in VCR player, some board games, and boxes of storage. I thought briefly that we were lucky we weren’t in a position that required us to use the dry basement often, then felt the twinge of anxiety and dread in my stomach as I reminded myself of the old woman’s words: the government always says don’t worry, then something bad happens.

My phone buzzed, startling me. It was a text from Barbara; Warren had decided to let them go home early and she was on her way.

I tried to shake off the nervous feeling and went upstairs to begin making an early dinner for Barbara.

 ***

     The sauce was simmering, the pasta was boiling, and the bag of salad was mixed when Barbara arrived home. I had set up the flowers and the Snickers on the coffee table for her to see when she walked in.

“I’m home!” she called, and I heard the thud of her bag as it hit the floor. “Oh my god, did you buy me a Snickers?”

I heard the ruffle of the wrapper and grinned. “I totally did.”

She rounded the corner to the kitchen already chewing on the Snickers. “Oh!” she explained through the mouthful of candy. She swallowed. “You cooked me dinner?”

I kissed her, and she tasted like chocolate. “I totally did.”
“Are you trying to make up for Leslie’s ugly crying?” She took another bite of Snickers.       “I definitely am,” I smirked. “Did she cry a lot?”

“She couldn’t stop crying all day!” Barbara slipped her shoes off and kicked them out of the kitchen. “I’m convinced her crying was the only reason Warren actually agreed to let us go. He’d do practically anything to not be around her crying.”

“I think any sane human would feel the same.” I began plating the food while Barbara hummed excitedly. She loved food.

As we sat down to eat, both our phones began buzzing violently.

“Just ignore it,” she groaned, tossing hers across the room to land on the couch. She sat down and began twirling pasta on her fork.

I pulled mine out of my pocket to silence whatever alarm was going off.

It wasn’t an alarm.
It was a public safety announcement.

     “Babe?” she asked.
“Russia launched the missiles,” I read.

 

 

Rejected Be: Myself (did not submit anywhere)

Tampons From Hell

I was incredulous. “Wait, you won’t let me in the teen section at the library, but you’re sending me to an overnight summer camp?” I pushed the camp brochure back across the kitchen counter.

     “It’s not just any summer camp!” my mother insisted, trying to show me the brochure again, as if fun fonts and group photos of shockingly un-diverse teenagers were going to convince me. “It’s a Christian summer camp that mixes Bible study with the thrill of the outdoors!” Yes, that was the camp’s slogan.

“I don’t want to go,” I informed her, knowing my opinion on the matter was unwelcome.

“Why not?” my younger brother asked. He’d been lingering by the door, trying to figure out what my mother was so excited about. “It’s a whole week, far away from here.” He winked at me behind my mother’s back.

I ignored him. “Mom, I don’t like the outdoors.”

“That’s not all they do there,” she reminded me, unfolding the brochure to the panel with the Bible study accolades. “They host different Bible studies three different times a day. This year’s theme is finding your identity in Christ.”

“Mom, that’s every theme of every teenage Bible study ever. And you already make me read the Bible every day anyway, and do a million Bible studies a semester. I own more Beth Moore books than I do actual books.”

“Beth Moore books are actual books, and you should study your Bible every day regardless of what I want. I don’t ‘make’ you.” My mom was fond of using air quotes to convey how offensive she frequently found my accusations.

Josh nodded sarcastically behind her, still hovering in the doorway.

     “Mom, I really don’t want to go.”
“I mean, I’ll go,” Joshua volunteered.
“You have to be in high school to go,” my mom informed him, “But maybe in a couple of years we’ll sign you up, too.”
“Wait, have you already signed me up?” I felt my face getting red as all my anticipation and plans for a summer spent indoors with books and Netflix binges slipped away.
“And paid for it, so you can drop the unfriendly attitude and be grateful for it, young lady.”

That ended the conversation and sealed the deal. I was going to Christian summer camp. In the weeks intervening, I pleaded with my father to overturn my mother’s executive decision, but he was on her side. “Leah, you know I love you,” he would say. “But I have to sleep next to your mother every night, so she’s the one I’m most concerned with pleasing.”

After two weeks of begging, I finally accepted this camp as my impending doom, and set about trying to guarantee that I would survive. I devised my
Summer Camp Survival Strategy: a list

  1. Conveniently forget to pack swimsuit. This should eliminate the chances of participating in water sports.
  2. Conveniently forget to pack Bible. This should decrease interaction during the Bible study portions. Additionally, pack six previously unread novels (one for each day).
  3. Pack comfy clothes only. Sweatpants are preferred, but if the laundry isn’t done, gym sorts will suffice.
  4. A blank notebook and two packs of new gel pens.
  5. Lots of sunscreen – SPF 45.
  6. A 20-pack of jumbo pads.
  7. Shower shoes.

      The morning before my departure, I put my plan into action. I hid all of my jean shorts and missionary skirts in my winter clothes trunk, leaving only the sweatpants available for packing. I slid my Bible just far enough under the bed that it wouldn’t be seen from eye level, but not far enough that it look like I was hiding it. I added a layer of clothes in my underwear drawer, where I hid my secular books from my strict and prying mother. One side of my suitcase was devoted to clothes; sports bras, underwear, sweatpants, t-shirts with Christian band names, socks with funky prints, and two pairs of sneakers: my everyday white sneakers, and my formal sneakers – red converse. The other side was reserved for the mystery books I’d biked to the library to check out (I even got one of the them from the teen room), my new notebook (with a sealed spine, because spiral-bound notebooks were so junior high), and two new packs of gel pens I bought with my babysitting money. The rest of my babysitting money was for my camp commissary account, which I planned to spend entirely on snacks.

My mother bounded into my room, without knocking, as I was zipping up my suitcase.     “Oh, sweetie! There’s going to be a dance on the last night of camp!” She’d segued from the brochure onto the camp’s website, and was scrolling down the itinerary on her tablet.

I sighed. My mother had already made her mind that I wasn’t going to go to the junior prom next year, so I have no idea why she was so excited about the camp’s formal. “That definitely sounds like something I don’t want to attend.”

   “Oh, you’re such a Debby Downer! It’ll be fun! You need to pack something nice to wear.” She began rummaging through my closet, shifting between Easter dresses of years past.“Here, take this one! You look so nice in red.”

I took the dress and reluctantly packed it into my suitcase, completely unconcerned with it wrinkling.

My mother began rifling through my chest a drawers, and I held my breath and hoped she wouldn’t find my hidden books. Instead, she found my willfully forgotten swimsuit. “Oh, honey, you’ll need this,” she said, folding it up neatly. “There’s a lake and waterslide and everything.”

“I don’t really want to swim,” I admitted, thinking first about how uncomfortable my body felt in a swimsuit, and secondly how soon my period was supposed to arrive.

“Why not?”
“I’m supposed to be getting my period this week.”
“How do you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
I hesitated. “Um, because I track it?”
“Why would you need to do that?”
“So that I know when I need to pack some pads?” I pointed to the full pack of pads next to my toiletry bag in my suitcase.
“You don’t need to track your period unless you’re worried about getting pregnant. Are you worried about getting pregnant?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, mom, I’m not, but it’s still good to know! I wouldn’t want to be swimming and then suddenly be surrounded by a cloud of blood or something.”

     “Your period doesn’t happen when you’re in water,” my mother asserted, rolling all my socks into coupled balls.

I held back a laugh. “That’s one hundred percent not true.” My grandmother hadn’t given my mother a very thorough sexual education, and so in turn, I hadn’t received one from my mother. I learned most of what I knew from the internet.

“Well, then, just wear a pad in your swimsuit.”

My face crumbled with disgust. “That’s the grossest suggestion I’ve ever heard of. Why don’t I just take a couple of tampons, in case I feel like swimming.”

My mother stopped rigid, clutching my socks tightly in her hands. “Tampons are only for girls who’ve already had sex, and you shouldn’t be having sex until your wedding night. God did not give you the precious gift of virginity for you to throw it away over a tampon.”

This was not the first time that my mother had conflated using tampons to losing my virginity, but it hadn’t lost its edge of absurdity. Regardless, I didn’t think now was the time to tell her that I was thoroughly uninterested in penis-possessing people. “Alright,” I conceded, deciding this wasn’t the hill I wanted to fight and die on. “I’ll take the swimsuit, but I highly doubt I’m going to want to swim.”

“Your choice,” my mother said, her voice still retaining a touch of its severity. “And remember you’re not allowed to court until you’re in college. That rule still applies for this dance. Try and find a nice group of girls to go with.”

My heart leapt with excitement, nervousness, and guilt. “I’m sure I can find a girl to go with.”

     “I’m sure you could talk your cabin into going as a group!” she suggested, her sternness slowly melting away.

“Maybe.” I stuffed the swimsuit into my suitcase and wondered if my summer could possibly get more awkward.

 

** *

The next morning, my mother woke me up before the sun to begin the five hour drive to the Middle Of Nowhere. I used the time to listen to as much music as I could; as soon as we stepped foot on the campgrounds, electronics were prohibited. Joshua napped. My father drove with one hand, sipping his coffee with the other, and slowly nodded along to my mothers constant commentary on every mediocre facet of the outdoors.

At first: “You can tell we’re getting into the deep wilderness because of how tall the trees are getting.” Later on: “Look, you can start to see the lake!” When we arrived: “There’s so much dirt.”

As my father loaded my suitcase and pillows, I read the giant sign above the curved archway, leading into the campground. “Camp Peniel?” I glanced at my father. “Don’t they get how phallic that sounds?”

My father grinned and began rolling my suitcase up the dirt path.
My mother scolded me. “Not everyone’s head is in the gutter like yours, Leah Magdalene.” Joshua flashed me look, clearly impressed I’d managed to get middle-named.
I apologized. “Sorry, mom. It’s just a really weird name.”
We walked further into the unknown, making our way towards the camper check in. We met the campground tour guide who gave us the brief lay of the land; the campground was split into designated boys and girls areas, with the explicit purpose of leaving room for Jesus, and the only common ground was the mess hall. He showed us the lake, which had a giant water slide and a zip-line that ended abruptly above the deepest part of the lake, the worship hall where the morning and evening Bible studies would be taking place, and finally arrived at my cabin. It was the furthest away from the common ground.

     My cabin counselor nearly ran our to greet us. “My name is Susanna!” she announced, hugging me without my consent. “We’re going to have so much fun this week!”

I gave her a half-hearted smile.

“You might need to do a little convincing with this one,” my mother said apologetically. “She’s not overly fond of the outdoors.”

“Oh, we’ll change that!” Susanna assured her. “We’re going to get along so well!”

My mother smiled excitedly and helped me carry my suitcase inside (my father and brother weren’t allowed inside – it was a girls only zone).

I was, per my mother’s habitual earliness, the first camper to arrive in my cabin. The cabin was lined with five rows of empty bunkbeds, with one single bed in the opposite corner for Susanna. My mother gave her verbal approval of everything, commenting that the lighting was nice, the beds were clean, the bathroom smelled like flowers. I chose the bottom bunk of the bed furtherest from the door of the cabin and made my bed with the guest sheets I’d smuggled from the linen closet at home. I put my books and toiletry kit on the tiny shelf attached to the headboard, and shoved my suitcase full of clothes under the bed.

     My mother finally hugged me goodbye, told Susanna to make sure I socialized, and then waltzed out the cabin, showing no signs of remorse at abandoning her only daughter alone in the middle of nowhere with a virtual stranger. I tried not to take it personally.

Camper check in was listed as continuous from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, so I had several hours before I would be expected to go to the mess hall for dinner. I politely told Susanna that I was tired from the trip, and curled up in my bunk, reading my first book as the other girls in my cabin slowly trickled in. One thing became painfully obvious as the other girls made themselves at home: I was not going to fit in. They all looked exactly the same – bleached blond hair, jean shorts (that came to the knee, per the camp’s modesty code), fitted t-shirts with the sleeved rolled up, flip-flops that revealed excessive pedicures, and post-it notes stuck in the mirror above their large makeup bags reminding them that men look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. I stuck out like a sore thumb – no makeup, a pixie cut that required no attention, sweatpants, and a t-shirt that claimed Modest Is Hottest. Even our book choices were drastically different. My shelf supported my gel pens, my notebook, and a slew of mystery novels. Theirs involved Bible study books and decorative Bibles, and I was dreading every moment of the upcoming week until the very last cabin mate arrived.

She was tall, tan, brunette. She wore cutoff jeans that rested above her knee and a white tank top that you could see her purple bra through – everything about her defied camp regulations, and I was instantly in love.

She glanced around the cabin. The only empty bunk was the one above me.
“Hey, bunkmate!” she said sarcastically as she swung her duffle bag onto the top bunk.       I face felt warm. “Hey,” I said softly.

    “I’m Janice,” she said, reaching her hand out.
I shook it, trying to gather my shattered confidence. “Hey,” I said again. “I’m Leah.”           “Leah…” she said, trying my name out a few times. “Leah, Le—ah. Leah’s a good name.”

“Thanks,” I said, slightly distracted by how smooth her hair was. “It’s from the Bible. Both my names are.”
“Yeah? What’s your middle name?”
“Magdalene. It’s Leah Magdalene.”
She grimaced. “That’s so Biblical. How do you handle that?” She climbed the rickety ladder up to her bunk and leaned her head over the side.
“In a sort of pretend-it’s-normal kind of way. What’s your middle name?”
“Joplin.”
I blinked. “Shut up.”
Janice swung her legs over the side of the bunk, her tan legs dangling in front of me. She shaved her legs. “Totally serious. My parents are weird ass hippies.”
Susanna miraculously appeared at the foot of our beds. “Hi, girls! We don’t use language like that here!”
“Why not?” Janice asked.
“We like to glorify the Lord with all that we do, and that starts with our thoughts and ends to our words and actions!”
Neither Janice or I responded, and Susanna faltered in her enthusiasm. “Well, it’s almost supper time, so we’re going to walk down to the mess hall together. How about we go ahead and get our shoes on?” Susanna left us to get ready.

 

      Janice slid down from her bunk. “It is just me, or does she sound like a kindergarten teacher?” she whispered to me.

“Totally,” I grinned.

Janice tied her long hair up into a ponytail as she walked towards the cabin door, and I followed after her, suddenly hopeful that this week wouldn’t be so horrible.

 

** *

 

The food they served us left a lot to be desired, so Janice and I both habitually opted for the salad bar that was available during both lunches and dinners. To my relief, Janice felt as opposed to the other girls in our cabin as I did, and so we agreed to be each other’s camp BFF, reveling in how ironic we were.

The morning and evening Bible studies were segregated by gender, but the noontime sessions were communal, directly before lunch was served. When it was just us girls, Susanna and the other cabin counselors talked to us about the importance of saving ourselves for marriage, using harsh metaphors to demonstrate how emotionally traumatizing losing your virginity outside of marriage is, and how to dress and behave modestly in order to not distract the boys from the Lord’s holy work in their lives. The communal Bible studies, however, were much more generalized; a youth pastor with hair longer than mine telling us that we are in the world and not of it, reminding us that Christ should be the foundation of our identity.

“I know it’s tempting to want to collect labels,” he told us. “But labels are the way the world tries to lay a claim on your body and soul.”

     I glanced at Leah who rolled her eyes at me. It gave me butterflies in my stomach every time she made me feel less alone.

“The Lord is who we should be focused on pleasing,” he continued. “The world may give us temporary pleasure. Drugs: marijuana, alcohol. Sexual promiscuity: having sex before marriage, engaging in homosexual relationships, going too far with your boyfriend. All these can all seem fun and harmless in the moment, but they have severe consequences for the rest of your life, and, more importantly, they damage your relationship with God.”

I glanced down at my notebook, where I’d been doodling along the edge of the page. I wondered how the camp would react if they found out I was gay, if they’d be allowed to call my parents to take me home early.

“God looks down at us, his beautiful, made in his image creations, and smiles. But when we sin, He asks us, ‘Why have you chosen sin over Me? Am I less important than your temporary pleasure?’”

I glanced at Janice, adoring the way she bit her lip as she drew tiny animals on the opposite side of the same page I was working on. I wondered if she was even listening to the pastor. I wondered what she would think if she knew I had a crush on her.

The pastor thumped his fingers against his Bible. “Each of our sins separates us a little more from Christ.” I knew exactly which Bible verse he was going to turn to. “It’s not just the things we typically associate with abomination, like homosexuality.” I flinched. “‘Do you not know,’” he began reading, “‘That the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived.’” He paused, looking out at us all. “This is the part that the world would want us to ignore. This is where the way of the world and the way of the Lord are opposing. This is where we have to chose what’s more important to us.” He began reading again. “‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.’” He finished, closing his Bible and looking our over all of us, silently. I felt like he could look into my mind, like he could see how perverse my thoughts were in the sight of the Lord.

      One boy across the room raised his hand. The pastor called on him. “But, some people can’t help but be gay,” he said. “Isn’t it okay to be gay as long as you don’t act on it? Like, my uncle is gay, but he’s a Christian, so he never got married or had sex with anyone.”

The pastor ran his fingers through his hair. “I would agree that sometimes sinful urges feel like they can’t be helped, but being gay is a choice. It says so in the Bible; it’s a conscious choice to live a life separate from God. But I think that you’re uncle is doing the right thing by not giving into the temptation.”

I was watching the top of Janice’s head as she bent over her illustrations. She didn’t seem to be listening at all. My heart felt heavy and I felt a little sick. I didn’t feel like I was making a conscious choice by liking her. I felt so nervous about being found out. My mind wandered, thinking about the rest of my life, living with a terrible secret that I’d never told anyone. I felt exhausted already, and tears heated my eyes.

The youth pastor prayed over us and our upcoming food, but I didn’t close my eyes during the prayer.

When we were in the salad bar line, Janice leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I bet that kid that asked about being gay was really talking about himself, not his uncle.”

    “You were listening?”
“Yeah. I bet he’s gay and he feels weird being here.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“About what?” She loaded two tongs of spinach onto her plate.
“About being gay. Do you think you can be a Christian and still be gay?”
She thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know. I think that if God is going to limit salvation based on where some guys like to put their dicks, then he’s not really all-loving.”
I blushed a little bit. “But girls can be gay, too.”
She giggled. “Maybe, but I’ve never met a lesbian.”
The word lesbian sounded so nice coming out of her mouth. “How do you know?” I asked.

“I mean, you can usually tell, right? They all look like Ellen.”

I glanced down at myself quickly. I was wearing gym sorts and a Relient K t-shirt. I didn’t look like Ellen. “What would you do if you met one?” I asked. I’d been pointlessly making my way through the line, too distracted to actually put anything on my plate. I ended up getting a scoop of sunflower seeds at the end of the bar before we made our way back to our table.

Janice was thinking about my question, chewing on a cheese cube from her plate. “I don’t know. I never really thought of it as a big deal, you know? I never really thought about anything sex related as being enough to hinder a relationship with God. But, you know, my parents had me before they were married, and they weren’t planning on getting married until my mom converted, and my dad did it just so she wouldn’t leave him. I don’t know.” She took a bite of her salad. “It just never seemed like a big deal to me, and I hadn’t really thought of it before.”

     That seemed so weird to me, that she could live most of her life in a Christian household and not think about her sexual inclinations being displeasing to God. For a brief moment, I wished I was straight so that I wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of confusion and guilt anymore, but then she licked some salad dressing off her bottom lip and I was completely smitten again. I thought about telling her. My mouth opened and began forming the words. I tossed some sunflower seeds in my mouth, chickening out. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess it’s not a big deal.”

 

***

The emphasis on water sports was much bigger than I’d anticipated, and my friendship with Janice hit it’s second obstacle: she loved water sports. She’d brought a black bikini that she wasn’t allowed to wear because of the camp’s modest pledge, so she spited the dress code by wearing a white t-shirt over it. She looked like a super model as she walked out of the bathroom and over our bunk.

      “Are you sure you don’t want to swim?” she asked, wrapping her hair into a messy bun. It was the fourth day at camp, and she’d been down to the lake every day. “The fish are totally cute, and if we want to be real deviants we can pretend that we don’t hear the blow horn and stay a few minutes into the boys’ swim time. Maybe we’ll see some of them without their shirts on.”

“I think it’s so unfair that they can swim without their shirts on, but we have to wear one- pieces,” I said.

She contorted her body into a dramatic pose. “Or! Bikinis and t-shirts!” She giggled.            “Come on, put your suit on and we’ll go down together.”

“I really don’t feel like it.” “Why not?”

    “Because.”
“Leah.”
“Janice.”
“Tell me.”
My face flushed and I looked down at my lap. “I started my period last night.”

Janice looked confused. “So?”

I felt even more embarrassed. “So…I can’t so swimming.”

She laughed. “Just put a freaking tampon in. You’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, I’m not allowed to use tampons.”

Janice stared blankly at me. “What the hell.”

Susanna appeared at the foot of our bunk. “Now, girls! We’ve talked about the language! Let’s have pure hearts and pure language!” She skipped out of the cabin.

Janice grimaced. “I thought she’d already left.” She sat down next to me. “What do you mean you’re not allowed to use tampons.”

“I mean that my mother said they’re only for girls who’ve lost their virginity, and I’m a virgin, so I’m not allowed to use tampons.”

“That’s the wackiest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said, getting off the bed and walking to the bathroom. She returned with a box of tampons, and tossed them into my lap. “Here. There’s instructions on the back of the box. The swim time is about to start, so I’m gonna go down to the lake. I’ll see you there?”

“Sure, okay.”
Then it was just me and the box of tampons.

     My face flushed when I opened the box of tampons and pulled one out. I felt horrified as I examined the diagram on the box, wondering how my vagina was ever going to work like that. I put the box down and picked up my book, deciding to stay in and tell Janice that I’d fallen asleep. But then I imagined Janice, emerging from the lake in her white shirt and black bikini, hair dripping down her back like a James Bond mistress, and I slammed my book shut. I took the box of tampons into the bathroom with me.

I decided to try to insert the tampon in a shower cubicle instead of a bathroom stall, because I felt that squatting would make the whole ordeal easier. I slid my sweatpants to the floor, followed by my panties, and then read the instructional diagram again. I unwrapped the tampon, and took a close look at it; it was so square, and made out of cardboard instead of cotton like I assumed it would be. I took a deep breath and then squatted. My hand felt around, trying to figure out exactly where my vagina was. I found it, and I felt how small it was. It was so small. I looked at the tampon. It was so big. I had seriously doubts about its ability to fit inside me. I took a deep breath before shoving it inside myself.

It hurt. There was a very specific kind of sharp pain that I had never felt before, and an immediate nausea accompanied it. I leaned against the shower wall and tried to take deep breaths. Deep breaths. Women wear these all the time, I thought. Janice wears these, I can wear these. I took deeper and deeper breaths, not moving, barely thinking of anything, for a few minutes until I could barely notice the stinging. I stood up, and immediately the pain was back. I went to pull my pants up and the pain persisted, every movement of my legs triggering a sharp and painful stab in my vagina.

     I looked at myself in the mirror outside the shower and noticed that I was sweating. I rinsed my face off in the sink, then went to find my swimsuit. I stuffed my body into the swimsuit, but the sight of my reflection in the mirror was enough to convince me to wear a t-shirt over it. I adopted my shower shoes as lake shoes, and began the harrowing walk down to the lake.

The path from the cabin to the lake usually took about four minutes, but the cautious walking and frequent stops slowed me down. About fifteen minutes later, I was overlooking the lake from the bottom of the waterslide, scanning the groups of modestly clad female swimmers for Janice, and trying to control my thoughts away from the radiating pain.

“Leah! Up here!” Janice was at the top of the waterslide, waving down at me.
I waved back.
“Come up here, we’ll slide down together!” Janice was already wet, her t-shirt clinging to her body.
“No, I’m good. I’ll meet you down here!” I called back.
“Suit yourself, you wuss.” Janice flung herself down the waterslide.
I made my way down the tiny slope to the edge of the water, each step agonizing pain. The nausea was getting stronger the longer I left the tampon in, but I was determined. Girls splashed around me, some shrieking at the fish, others swinging into the water on ropes, others attempting to tan on the side of the lake. Janice splashed into the water with delighted screams, and emerged ecstatically, looking around to see where I was waiting.

“Over here!” I yelled, waving. That made my stomach turn.

     Janice began swimming over, graceful in water. When it wasn’t deep enough to swim she stood up, water dripping off of her, her black bikini clearly visible. My knees shook, but it might have just been from pain.

Janice walked through the muddy shore water, getting slowly closer. “Dude, you have to go down that slide. It’s awesome.”

“I’m really not up for a slide right now,” I insisted.

Janice glanced at me, head to foot, and something caught her eye. “Whoa, Leah, you’re bleeding.”

I glanced down at my body and saw a trickle of blood running down my thigh. “Shit.”            Suzanne appeared by our side. “Now, girls, we’ve talked about the language. If it happens again, I’ll be forced to contact your parents.”

I looked at Suzanne hazily. The nausea was building inside me.
“Are we clear, girls? Only language that glorifies God, please.” Suzanne walked away, and I turned toward a nearby tree and heaved, clutching my stomach.
“Leah! Are you okay?” Janice scrambled out of the water and rushed to my side. She collected what little hair I had and kept it out of my eyes.
I threw up again. The nausea radiated from my vagina throughout my entire body.                “Girl, you seemed so fine earlier. What happened?”

I stood up a little straighter. “Okay, this is so embarrassing.” Janice scoffed. “You can tell me.”

     I lowered my voice, making sure no one else could hear. “I really don’t think tampons are good for me,” I confessed. “My mom always told me not to wear them, and I think I know why now, because this hurts more than than anything.”

Janice squinted her eyes. “Tampons aren’t supposed to hurt, dude. Did you put it in right?” “I followed the diagram. I left the stringy thing out, I shoved the rest of it in.”
“But you took the cardboard out once you had the tampon in, right?”
My face flushed again. “No.”

Janice’s eyes widened. “You shoved the cardboard in, AND you left it inside you?”

I threw up again. “I’ve never done this before,” I choked. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to leave and take out.”

“No wonder you’re throwing up, that’s insane.”
A tear rolled down my face. “I don’t know what to do.”
“We’re gonna go back to the cabin.” Janice helped me straighten up and walked with me, holding my hand just in case, and we slowly made our way back to the cabin.
I took off my swimsuit and sat on the toilet to take the tampon out, crying a little as I pulled it slowly. Janice stood outside the stall, suggesting to try and rip it out, quick, like a Bandaid. Once it was out, I felt the immediate relief. The nausea started to subside, my head stopped pounding. I tossed the tampon in the trash and changed into the sweatpants and a t-shirt that Janice had tossed over the door. I emerged from the stall like an ashamed puppy.

“Okay, come here,” Janice insisted, pulling me by my hand and leading me to our bunk.      “I’m going to show you how to do it.” She unwrapped the tampon and used her hand to demonstrate how to insert the cardboard, push the tampon in, and slide the cardboard back out again. “See, only the cotton part stays inside you,” she concluded.

      “That seems way less painful, but I honestly don’t think my vagina can take it right now.” I fell back onto my pillow.

“That’s something I really like about you,” Janice said, laying on her side next to me. “Not many Christian girls can say the word vagina without whispering.”

“I’m not exactly sure I’m a Christian,” I confided. I felt strangely liberated, as if touching and talking about my vagina so much was the secret key to finding my confidence. I wanted to bare my soul.

“Why would you say that?” She picked some fuzz off my t-shirt.
“Well…” I hesitated slightly. “Janice, I’m gay.”
Janice sat up, slowly. She looked confused, and a little nervous. I felt my face flush, and some of my previous nausea came back, and I instantly regretting every moment of my life. Then she laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded, defensive.
“I mean, earlier this week I told you that all lesbians look like Ellen Degeneres and you didn’t say anything.”
I giggled a little bit. “I mean, I kind of look like Ellen, I guess.”

She doubled over, laughing. “You look nothing like Ellen, dude.”

I traipsed over to the mirror in the bathroom and turned my head a few directions to get a good look. “My hair is the same length.”

“The list of comparison stops there.” She was still giggling uncontrollably.

      I sat back down on the bed and waited for her hysterics to subside. “So, does all the laughing mean you’re not disgusted or horrified by me?”

She cocked her head to the side, confused. “Why would I feel like that?”
“Because of what the pastor guy said about being gay. How it’s a sin and everything.”
She scooted a little closer to me and put her arm around my shoulders, leaning in close as if she was going to share a secret. “I sincerely wasn’t paying that much attention to him until that other kid spoke.”

I snorted. “He was just reading Bible verses where homosexuality is listed as a sin.” I felt all these emotions rising to the surface and I started rambling. “And back when my parents told me what being gay was, they told me it was a conscious, sinful choice people made so that they wouldn’t have to confront their sins before God, and my grandmother would always turn the TV to a different station if anyone who was obviously gay was on, even if it was just a commercial. She told me Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t destroyed so that she would have to watch sinful people pretend their lives were normal.”

Janice was quiet for a few moments. “That’s pretty intense,” she finally said, very softly. “Yeah.” I leaned my head on her shoulder.
“It’s weird to me that this all has been such an event for you. My parents have never addressed the issue of homosexuality with me.” She brushed my hair off my forehead. “I don’t think any of that is true, though. I’m not really sure how I feel about all this church stuff, but I can’t imagine that God is going to send you to hell because you like girls.”

I smiled. This was the first time I had told anyone my secret, and it helped me feel so secure and confident in myself. I glanced over at Janice. “Thanks for not freaking out.”

     “Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry it’s been such hell for you.”

Suzanne appeared out of nowhere. “Alright, ladies. I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to call your parents. I’ve told you three times that this language is not acceptable, and we can’t tolerate you girls blatantly breaking the rules and going against the will of God. You should both start packing your bags.”

“What the hell, seriously?” Janice climbed out from the bunk and glared at Suzanne.            “You’re kicking us out of camp because I said some minor swear words. They’re not even the bad ones! They’re the ones you’re allowed to say on TV!”

“I’m not concerned with what’s allowed on television, I’m concerned with glorifying the Lord. Your words are not glorifying the Lord.” She walked away, the most somber I had ever seen her.

Janice slipped back into the bunk. “This is bullshit.”
“Did you really want to stay another three days here?” I asked.
Janice looked torn. “I mean, I like the waterslide.”
I laughed. “Okay, then, I’m sorry.”
We packed our bags with ease. Neither of us had really made ourselves at home in the cabin.

Suzanne called our parents, describing how vulgar we’d been and how she knew that the Lord was displeased with our actions.

“And just think,” Janice whispered, “She doesn’t even know that you like boobies.”
I smirked. “I’ve never really thought about boobs as a separate entity before. It’s creepy.”

The following morning, my parents pulled into camp as soon as the sun was rising. My mother wouldn’t look me in the eye as she helped gather my suitcase and pillows. She was

silently livid; I was in for a serious talking to on the ride home. I debated whether or not I should tell her that it was Janice who had been doing all the swearing – it was halfway true, but I decided I’d made too much progress in the departments of confidence and honesty to back peddle so soon.

Janice was still asleep as we snuck my belongings out of the cabin. I wanted to take her up to say goodbye, but my mother was impatient to get on the road so that the berating could be begin. I settled for writing Janice a note on the page we’d been doodling on the day before. I scribbled my email address and signed it in the most pretentious way I could think of: In perpetuity, Leah.