My heart thumped faster as the guy in the Our Lady of the Hills Camp T-shirt rounded the van onto a tree-canopied dirt road.
My folks’ divorce last year had ushered in TV, telephone, and air conditioning. Now my dream of going to boarding school—even if it was only ten days at Catholic summer camp—was about to come true.
Mom had plunked me on a plane in the palm-treed sauna of Miami this morning. Four hours later I’d climbed down metal stairs onto tarmac in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina. Nirvana. Even the air smelled like trees and heaven.
Now, after driving a long, pretty ribbon of peaks and valleys, the camp van pulled into a kaleidoscope of sound, kids, and color and galumphed to a stop.
The three campers we’d picked up at the Hendersonville Greyhound/gas station piled into the melee of shouting and laughing children racing around the sandy drive.
I stalled on my seat as thirteen years of shyness sloshed battery acid into my stomach. My eyes fixed on the teen boys high-fiving each other beneath a white gazebo.
I sucked in a breath for courage and climbed out.
The clink of dishes and the smell of bacon floated out the screens of the large building behind us.
Our luggage landed on the dirt, pluming small dust clouds at our feet.
I traipsed after the Greyhound riders, my eyes gobbling everything at once—the huge forest-rimmed field anchored by a backstop. Tar paper roofs marched down the road to a weathered chapel and hulking gym. The Virgin Mary presided over mud-colored tennis courts.
A breeze ruffled the pines as we passed the office.
I plowed into the pudgy fourth grader in front of me.
“Ann, this is you,” the driver said.
My eyes flew up the Tudor cottage steps to the gaggle of girls gathered on the porch.
I schlepped my new yellow suitcase up the steps, my gaze glued to my feet, hoping the Virgin Mary would save me from splatting across the porch in front of strangers.
Still on my feet, stuffed full of new names and faces, I opened the screen door and stepped into the cottage. Girls buzzed around me pointing out the empty bunks.
A girl named Melissa quirked a brow at me. “First time here?” When I nodded, she said in a sassy south-of-the-Mason-Dixon drawl. “Well, honey, here’s how it is.” She wagged her finger in front of my face. “No touchy the boys.”
The other girls giggled.
“In the dining hall, they sit on the left. We’re on the right. If those hotties in Cabin 12 are playing soft ball, you can be durn sure we’ll be locked up tight in the gym with a basketball. And don’t even get me started on communal bathing—”
She leaned over me where I’d perched on a bare mattress. “Maybe that’s how they swim in Florida, but uh-uh. This here is holy ground.” She shook her head like Mother Anthony did at St. Hugh’s when somebody got in trouble.
We all busted up laughing, Melissa right along with us. And just like that, I was living my dream.
The next day I lined up along the Olympic-sized pool to be tested for swimming ability with my eighteen BFFs. I’d run the gamut of swimming lessons before I hit third grade, swam on a team at Shenandoah Pool, lived on a sailboat. I rubbed the skin on the inside of my right elbow where the archery bow had left welts. This was one test I’d own.
Patty Young, one of the sunniest girls in our cottage, leaned against the chain link front of me.
My eyes locked on an angry purple scar slashed across her back between the two pieces of her bathing suit. “What happened to your back?”
Patty pivoted to face me with military stiffness, all sharp angles, elbows, knees, and shoulders. She’d had severe scoliosis, surgery to implant rods, and a year in a body cast.
My heart hurt. I’d grown up licking invisible wounds, thinking my life was harder than other kids’. But it pained me to even picture Patty’s past.
A guy with a whistle lying against the finest bronzed chest I’d ever seen told us we’d have to swim across the pool and back.
Melissa elbowed me. “Put your tongue back in your mouth, honey. You’re gonna catch flies.”
I clamped my mouth shut, indignant. My tongue had so stayed inside my mouth.
“That’s Eddie Falcone, the camp director’s son. He’s a freshman,” Melissa said in South Carolina speak.
My brows arched with hope. “They sure don’t grow ninth graders like him in Miami.” Not that I’d actually seen many ninth graders. St. Hugh’s ended with eighth grade.
Eddie wound down his short speech, clapped his hands together, and smiled at us.
Melissa tisked at me. “Give it up, little Miss Annie. He’s a freshman at Duuuke.” After a heartbeat, she added, “University.”
My heart fell into my stomach. Yeah, well, that was never going to happen.
After I swam, Eddie scratched something on his clipboard and later read Fetterman off the list of girls in the top group.
Like the unattainable Eddie and all-day rains, camp had its low points, but even the lowest moments rated better than best ones at home—dealing with Dad in small doses, fish only on Fridays, and dancing around the house to Sweet and Innocent while Donny Osmond crooned from a forty-five.
While it wasn’t boarding school, I learned a lot of important facts at camp. Piling hot dogs, beans, and buns on top of each other made formerly inedible items palatable. During Gymkanas (wacky relays, pitting cabins against each other) you could feel noise vibrate through your bones from the pads of your feet. When the scratchy rendition of Ave Maria played from the camp speakers, it was time to turn off the lights and deal Black Jack for M&Ms.
Too soon, I found myself pressing my nose to the airplane window, watching the blue-tipped mountains fade into the horizon.
Last night’s Leaving on a Jet Plane we’d sung at campfire played in my head.
I smeared tears across my cheeks with my palms. I needed to suck it up. I was going home to my new, improved life.
Flying south toward Miami, aching for happy, I didn’t know whether I’d get a second shot at my dream.
But I did.
Thirty eight weeks at Our Lady of the Hills spanned the panorama of my teens. I washed my hair in waterfalls, learned to horseback ride English, and dug rain trenches around a tent. I woke up at three a.m. and heard my seven cottage-mates talking in their sleep at the same time. I had a crush on Eddie and somebody different every summer. I made and missed a hundred friends. I cried every time I went home.