Anne was one of the last to get off the rented school bus. She was met with cheers, pats on the back, and hugs, just as all the other students were. Smiling meekly, she returned the hugs while still trying to get through the crowd as quickly as possible. The strap of her tote bag dug into her shoulder uncomfortably, far too weighted for a simple weekend trip.
The overly-enthusiastic director, Robert, shepherded the "campers" around the grounds, pointing out gender-separated bunk cabins and boundaries as he did so. Various wooden buildings with chipped white paint covered the terrain. At a certain point, the neatly-trimmed grass became unruly and wild, and the small bunk cabins looked more neglected. Though the Christian camp owned all the land, much of it had fallen into disuse because some girl had disappeared a few years ago, causing a dramatic decline in patrons. That, and, teenagers were simply losing interest. After explaining the schedule for the next two days, Robert sent the students to their cabins to unpack.
The girls started down the short, dusty path to the left that led to the neatest, most well-kept cabins. Boys went to the right. Anne followed, the last in the cluster of girls. She watched her footing in the darkness, knowing a stray stone could easily send her down face-first. The cabins were decent enough on the inside. There were five bunk beds in each of the four rooms. With some effort, Anne tossed her tote bag onto the top bunk in the corner of her room. The other girls were already giggling, fretting over where to plug in their straighteners, and sharing snacks around. Anne politely declined when she was offered, knowing she had a large bag of Cheeto Puffs that she didn't plan on sharing.
Within ten minutes, the cabin leader instructed everyone to go out to the mess hall for dinner. The mess hall, they were told, was the common ground for all campers to meet on. It was the size of two high school gyms and had the words "Christian Encampment" painted in bold letters on the outside wall. Dinner went very well, in Anne's opinion. She even got to sit with the boy she'd been crushing on for a while. She was sure she'd been blushing beet-red the entire time, but it was still nice. The night was all about being social, much to Anne's mortification. The chairs of the main room were set up in a huge circle. Various games were played, some of which she actually enjoyed. Loosening up a bit, she couldn't help but smile constantly during the silly pastime.
It wasn't until the final game that Anne felt a little bit . . . watched. Every time she happened to look in the direction of one of the youth leaders, he would happen to be staring right at her. The first few times, she brushed them off as coincidences. It wasn't until he approached her that she understood it was more than chance. She recognized him from other youth meets. He was . . . strange, to say the least. Whenever youth leaders went up on stage to speak to the students, he was the only one that ever swore.
"So, you like Mario, huh?" he asked, sitting by in the circle of chairs.
Anne blinked, confused for a second. "Oh! Yes, I love Mario games." She glanced down at her shirt, which had a depiction of "Super Mario" riding Yoshi.
"That's cool. You play anything else?"
She nodded and told him a few of her favorite games. Usually, she could talk for hours about video games and debate about consoles. However, a part of her couldn't wait for conversation to end. Steven, as he introduced himself, felt a little more uncomfortable to talk to. Whenever she'd seen him in the past, he was usually alone or trying to worm his way into a group of people chatting. To be honest, she felt bad for him, for he seemed to have difficulty connecting with others. Still, she guiltily knew she didn't want to be the person to aid him. She was hardly the person to help him with making friends.
The students had already been excused to their cabins if they were ready hit the hay. And eerie warning had been given that breakfast would be extra early the next day, so most had already left the mess hall. Anne was an early bird herself.
"Well, I'm getting pretty sleepy," she hinted after she and Steven had spoken for about fifteen minutes, each second becoming more unbearable than the next.
He looked disappointed, but nodded. "Okay, get some sleep," he said, as if giving her his permission. They both stood at the same time. She smiled timidly. As she turned to walk away, Steven put a hand on her shoulder, making her shiver involuntarily. "Well, goodnight, my friend."
The next day didn't get any better.
Truth be told, Anne was having a marvelous time meeting other people and making new friends. There was only one thing, or person in this case, that marred her otherwise fun Saturday: Steven.
He was constantly behind her, standing at her shoulder as if he was her bodyguard. She tried a few times to get rid of him by excusing herself to her cabin for a nap, but he would always be waiting right outside the door for her when she came out. She just didn't have the heart to tell him to go away. With her, he seemed . . . happy—at least happier than she'd ever seen him from afar.
Finally, Anne found some alone time in the middle of the day. In front of the girls' cabin were garden swings. She was delighted to see there was an empty one. Taking a seat, she leaned back and let her eyes shut slowly, letting the swinging sensation rock her into a calm sleep. A voice in front of her nearly made her jump out of her skin.
"Mind if I sit?"
Trying to keep from rolling her eyes, Anne said, "Go ahead."
Like usual, he started abrupt conversation. "You know, you remind me a lot of my former best friend."
"Yeah. Except for your brown hair, you look a lot like her too. Same interests, everything. We were friends for a while in high school, then we came to the camp for a weekend session, like this one. We would go every single year together. That was before I was a youth leader, of course. I was just another camper."
"Why is she your 'former' best friend?"
Steven looked saddened, almost remorseful. "At one of the camps, she said I was being too protective of her and got really mad at me. She said she didn't want to talk to me anymore. It sounded like she'd been holding that back for a while. She did seem annoyed with me for those last months."
"Oh . . ." What else could Anne say?
"But we still see each other at the camp every year." His voice brightened. "We may not be best friends, but she's not mad anymore. She even apologized for getting so mad in the first place."
"So, you have a new best friend?"
"Yes. You, of course."
Anne paused for what felt like an eternity. Did a guy in college just tell her that she was his best friend? He had to be at least twenty-two years old. She was only sixteen. What frightened her the most was the mad gleam in his eye when he said it.
She sighed, knowing she had to stop this now before it got any worse.
"Look . . . Steven. I'm sorry, but I don't exactly feel . . . comfortable with us being that close. I don't makes friends in two days. It's not how it works for me." That was a complete and utter lie, she knew. As quiet and reserved as she was, she'd made friends with plenty of people within an hour. In fact, she was willing to call many people at the camp her friends already. Steven was just so . . . possessive. Whenever she started a conversation with someone, Steven would steer her away. He had been with no one else but her the entire camp.
"Oh . . . Well, maybe we just need to give it time. We still have the rest of the today and tomorrow to be friends."
Anne bit her lip. "No, Steven, I-I mean . . ."
"You just don't want to be around me, do you?" The tone of his voice made her shudder. It also made her sensitive side extremely guilty. With a deep sigh, she nodded slowly.
"Well, then, maybe we'll see each other at the bonfire tonight." His anger and hurt was suddenly gone, which terrified Anne more than when he used it. Eerily calm, he got off the swing and walked towards the boys' cabins.
The guilt clawed at her the entire evening. Anne simply lay in her bunk, staring at the ceiling. The poor guy just wanted a friend, that's all. She always thought she herself had trouble making friends at times, especially when they didn't share interests. Steven was a completely different story.
Most of the girls had already left for the bonfire. It was required to go, so she knew she couldn't mope around for much longer. She'd have to face Steven again. At least the entire camp would be there in case his temper flared, as she'd seen during his youth leader talks. She dreaded the long walk to the bonfire as she opened the cabin door. Far off, there was a large spark of fire, but it was too dark to see the people around it.
Steeling herself, she began her trek outside.
It wasn't until she had walked a few steps that she realized Steven had been standing right by the opening of the door. Before she could so much as gasp in surprise, the baseball bat he was holding connected with the side of her head.
The putrid smell invading her nostrils were what eased her awake. Anne's eyes snapped open as the memories rushed back like wild fire. She tried to scrambled to sit up, only to realized she was already propped up against the wall.
Her eyes frantically zipped around, trying to adjust to the darkness of the room. Candlelight lit the room dimly, lining the walls and casting eerie, flickering shadows on the walls. The dirt floor looked so far away. She was sitting on the top bunk of a bed, she realized. When she tried to move, her arms and legs were restricted by chains that wound around the frame of the bunk bed. There was no way she could leave the mattress. Her hands were bound behind her.
The smell was becoming just intolerable. In the flickering light, she saw the source of it. Across the room, on another top bunk was a . . . a . . .
Anne tried to scream in complete and utter terror, only to grasp that her voice was muffled. Some sort of cloth was stuffed into her mouth and her lips were covered with a thick strip of duct tape. Every time she took a frantic breath through her nose, the stench of death and decay assaulted her senses.
"I thought you liked the top bunk."
Anne's eyes widened darted in the direction of the speaker.
Steven, who had been standing in the darkest corner of the room, stepped forward. He stared at her for a few moments, then glanced at the body that occupied the other bunk.
"She liked them, too." He laughed at the horror on Anne's face. Slowly, purposefully, he walked to the other bunk and climbed the ladder. Grabbing the corpse by the hair, he lifted its head up. Skin hung loosely on the decaying body. The eyes were closed, the cheeks sunken in. He stroked the side of the dead girl's face, almost lovingly. Looking up, he stared at Anne with an unreadable expression. "I told you I still see her every year. And she isn't mad at me anymore."
A girl disappeared a few years ago.
"Me and her found this place during our first summer here. It's under the ground and very old. Not even the current camp owners know about it. The farthest cabin in the camp. We took apart the bunks from the upper floor and put them here, as our secret place."
Anne's chest heaved with sobs. With her eyes, she begged and pleaded, but he only laughed. "She gave me that exact same look," Steven mused. He shook his head. "But at least she gave me a chance, unlike you. I can't have people trying to steal my best friends, can I? I'm keeping you safe. She didn't appreciate what I was doing for her when she woke up in here. And neither do you. But luckily, friends forgive each other."
Steven climbed off the bunk, and then circled the room, blowing out candles as he did so. Finally, he held the last one in his hand as he climbed the ladder to Anne's bunk. She whimpered and tried to scoot as far away as possible. Inevitably, he continued forward until his face was inches from hers.
"You could have at least given me a chance, Anne," he whispered. "But it's okay. I forgive you." He ran his hand along the side of her face tenderly. She trembled uncontrollably as tears freely gushed from her eyes. She struggled with all her might, but the chains only dug into her skin deeper. Holding the candle between them, Steven smiled. He kissed her cheek, then backed away until he reached the ladder.
Anne began struggling anew when she saw him pull a rope down from the middle of the room. A ladder from the ceiling came down with it as a trapdoor to the ground floor opened. Her throat burned from trying to scream as she fought the chains wildly. Steven blew out the candle and set on the floor. She shrieked through her muffled voice as he began climbing the ladder.
When he reached the top, he pulled up the ladder. Right before closing the trapdoor, his voice echoed through the underground room.
"We'll see each other next summer, I promise."