Camp Vampire Kids
Mom and I are driving to camp and playing the game where we think of jobs I could one day have that won’t compromise my condition. That’s how she phrases it. Mom and I spend a lot of time avoiding things that might compromise my condition.
“What about a blackjack dealer in Vegas?” I say.
Mom groans in that way that makes her nostrils flare.
“What’s wrong with that? There are no windows, plus casinos are busier at night.”
“So are emergency rooms. You could be a doctor.”
“You always say that,” I say, then turn and stare out the window. We pass a field and some white cows that look purple through the protective tint. “I could be a bouncer.”
“At a strip club.”
Mom takes her eyes off of the road just long enough to look me over¾all elbows and knees and reedy angles. “Who are you going to bounce?”
She smiles and blows me a kiss.
The game continues. Mom and I go back and forth, suggesting jobs that are noble and practical (hers) or silly and adventurous (mine). What we don’t say, what we never talk about, is that I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to do any of them.
Mom pulls the car onto an off-ramp. “We need gas. You coming inside?”
“Then get your gear on.”
“I don’t need it. I’ll just run from the car to the store. I won’t get burned.”
Mom hits me with the full wattage of her pleading gaze. “Can we please not do this? Not again?”
Mom and I also stopped at a gas station the first year we went to camp. We were lost and went inside for directions. I had my gear on then too—the gloves, the jumpsuit, the face shield. I remember the man behind the counter, the way he stared at me even when Mom started speaking to him.
“Craryville?” he finally said, dragging his eyes from me to Mom. “What do you want to go there for?”
“We’re headed to Camp Fun Without the Sun,” Mom said, and when the man asked what that was, she told him about the camp and the kinds of kids that go there.
“Yeah?” he said, a smirk stretching across his face. “Like little monsters? Little vampires?” He turned to me, brought his fists to his mouth, and made fangs with his index fingers. Then he hissed.
Mom lost her mind. Truly. There was a moment of micro-insanity where she just screamed questions at the cashier—What the hell is your problem? What kind of person are you? Can’t you see he’s just a little boy?—things like that.
The man didn’t know any of the answers.
Mom put a hand on my shoulder, steered me towards the door. Then she stopped, turned around, and kicked over a display of Cool Ranch Doritos.
She was still fuming as we bounced along the camp’s gravel driveway and entered the clearing in the Craryville forest. The other mothers took us inside, sat Mom down, poured her a jelly jar of white wine. They told her how they’d all been there before, how they’d all heard some version of judgment and cruelty spit at their kids. How people follow them through stores, snapping not-so-surreptitious pictures with their phones.
“Some jackass asks if my son is a vampire at least once a week,” one of the mothers confessed. “Which is just so stupid. So ridiculous.”
And it is. When I met Cameron a little later, he was, with his chubby cheeks and ginger crew cut, the least vampire-looking kid I have ever seen.
We’ve also been called Midnight’s Children, Children of the Moon, Children of the Night, Shadow Kids, Nightwalkers, and Night Dwellers. Other people simply point or stare, exchanging whispers and laughter in a classless language all its own. But the most common attempt at creativity, the pejorative we hear again and again, is Vampire Kids.
I wish it were accurate. Imagine a vampire. Now take away the strength and the speed and the immortality, and what are you left with? A pale guy with a terminal reaction to the sun. That’s who I am.
That’s who we all are.
We’re all born this way, but our genetic disorder lays dormant for a while. Depending on the particular variant, we’ll get anywhere from four to six years of day living before it kicks on. Four to six years of pool parties and playgrounds. Of normalcy. Of friends.
I was lucky. I was eight when my immune system could no longer protect my body from the sun. Cameron jokes I was a late wilter. Then, I was young enough that Mom could coax me into my gear by playing to my imagination and sense of make-believe. She’d remind me that my UV-protectant jumpsuit was the kind astronauts wore. She called it my “special costume,” and, for a while, it did make me feel special. Unique. Now it makes me feel like a freak everywhere I go. Everywhere but here.
Mom and I are one of the last families to arrive. We park beside the camp’s main building: a long, single-story structure with dorm rooms on each side, and a kitchen and dining hall in the center. Us kids bunk up on one side of the building so we can stay up all night, watch movies, and play video games. The moms stay on the other side so they can talk, and drink wine, and sometimes cry and hug each other when they think we’re not watching.
It’s always pretty dark in here. Shadowy patches are intermittently interrupted by the faint glow of a few Edison bulbs. The building has plenty of windows, which are covered with a UV-protectant film, but they’re also draped in a coal-black fabric with the heft and thickness of Victorian theater curtains. Dan and Karen don’t like to take any chances. Mom and I have the same tint on our windows back home, but she, too, takes the curtain precaution. Our house doesn’t get a lot of light either. All of our plants are plastic.
I shed my gear, and when my eyes adjust, I race down the hallway to my room and find Cameron. He’s sitting cross-legged on his bunk amid piles of clothes and DVDs and video games. Cameron and I have been roommates at camp for the past four years, and since then, his method of “unpacking” has been to just dump everything on his bed, retrieving items as needed.
“Check it out,” he says, holding up his copy of Time Fighters II. “You will soon succumb to the awesome power of my Mayan warrior.”
“Yeah? Not if my knight’s broadsword has anything to say about it.”
“You two are a couple of dorks.”
I look over and see Hannah lying on my bunk, her black hair fanned out on my white pillowcase like inverted starlight.
I met Hannah last year, her first at camp. A bunch of us were in the game room, flopped on beanbags, watching a movie. She came in and sat on the small square of available carpet beside me. I noticed the faint band of cinnamon-colored dots that run under each of Hannah’s eye and over the bridge of her nose. “I like your freckles,” I said, which, admittedly, is not the smoothest line ever uttered in the history of mankind (it’s probably not even the smoothest line in the history of that game room), but even so, Hannah smiled, brought a self-conscious hand to her face.
“Thanks,” she said. “The result of my moonbathing I guess.”
I know she was joking, but I still couldn’t help myself from picturing Hannah in her backyard, in a bikini, supine in a band of silver light. I almost fell off my beanbag.
And now here she is again. After the grim limbo of home-schooled loneliness, she’s back in my room, on my bunk, grinning that she’s caught me in a moment of unguarded nerdery. It’s fine. Hannah can criticize our video game obsession all she wants, but we all know that she’s logged more hours in the Time Fighters arena than Cam and I put together.
When the rest of the kids and moms have settled in, Dan and Karen gather everyone in the dining hall.
“Helloooo campers,” Dan resounds with his usual showman flare, smiling through his beard that’s gone grayer since last summer.
The lighting from the Edison bulbs lends a theatrical glow to the dining room. It’s an affect Dan embraces. It’s a behavior Karen tolerates.
“Karen and I happy to see a lot of familiar faces and to welcome some new families.”
I look around and spot some new kids, maybe five or six years old, most likely recently diagnosed. I envy them. They sit beside their mothers, giddy at the prospect of a week filled with games and playmates, and no such thing as a bedtime. They don’t yet know how camp also offers a break from the outright judgment or veiled pity of strangers. They haven’t yet come to depend on it.
Dan continues his speech. He runs through the schedule of field trips and nocturnal activities, the ways in which all of us will spend the week “embracing the night.” Then Dan introduces Katie, his and Karen’s daughter, and the reason they started this camp.
Katie is the oldest person with our condition. Not just here at camp, or in the country, but in the world. When I first came here, I didn’t think much about that, or maybe I thought it was cool. But now I sometimes lie awake and think about how difficult and lonely that fact must be. Katie is the living embodiment of all of our hopes and, at the same time, all of our fears.
She’ll be twenty-five in August.
Katie is in charge of the junior counselors, and now that we’re thirteen, Cameron, Hannah and I are old enough to qualify. She welcomes each of us back, reminds us of our various duties and responsibilities. She tells us the Assignment Board will be finished after dinner. Then, while the rest of the campers finish unpacking, the moms head to the kitchen to prepare a feast.
It’s mainly moms that accompany us kids to camp. Some of the dads who live close enough and can get away for the weekend drive up for the last two days. Those days are always hard for Mom.
Dad didn’t take my diagnosis well. He always enjoyed a beer or two after work, but the day we came back from the doctor’s, I watched him pull a bottle of bourbon from the top of the fridge and drink from it straight. He started going out more and more, staying out later and later. One night, he climbed into the back of a police car and demanded to be taken to an establishment called “The Tit Mouse.” When the officer informed Dad that was he not a cab driver, and his cruiser was not a taxi, it was then that Dad became what would later be described as “insolent.”
So, some Thursday night/Friday morning, this cop knocked on our door only to find the sleep-smeared face of an eight-year-old on the other side. Mom was working nights then.
“You here all alone?” he said.
“My dad is supposed to be watching me.”
The cop spent the next few seconds looking at me, and then over at his cruiser where Dad was slumped against the window, asleep in the backseat. The cop had this look on his face, as if the effort of turning from me to his car was causing him a deep and mysterious pain. Eventually, he let Dad go, saying that he wasn’t going to arrest him because Dad had no priors. Which I didn’t understand. At the time, I thought “priors” was police slang for priorities. It turns out that cop and I were both right.
Mom tried to defend Dad, telling me that he was just scared and confused. She said that, given time, he would be back to his old self. But less than a year after that night, Dad left us and moved to Phoenix, a place that averages 351 days of sunshine a year. So enough about Dad.
As I’m finishing my second helping of Karen’s lasagna, I see that Katie has somehow intuited my most secret of desires, or it’s just a stroke of amazing fortune, but either way, I’m overjoyed when I check the Assignment Board. Hannah and I have been assigned Lifeguard Duty for Midnight Swim.
Dan and Karen buy glow-in-the-dark items in bulk. I sit on the dock, watching a lake teeming with phosphorescent beach balls, Frisbees, and pool noodles. Neon green inner tubes glowing like giant radioactive doughnuts. Campers splash around, and luminescent blues and greens and yellows reflect and ripple in the dark water, the colors pulsing and undulating like some submerged aurora borealis. Hannah sits beside me, our legs dangling off the edge of the dock, our feet in the water. Our knees nowhere close to touching.
I think about mentioning my aurora borealis comparison to Hannah. Things haven’t been going as well as I’d hoped. I’ve spent the majority of our shift trying not to stare at Hannah, then smiling awkwardly and quickly looking away when she catches me. Instead, I tell her about the Ipomoea Alba, how it’s a night-blooming morning glory. I don’t tell Hannah I know this because it was the topic of my botany paper. Mrs. Sedota, my online science teacher, let me choose it. When I admitted I selected that flower because I thought Hannah would like it, that it would give us something to talk about, Mrs. Sedota said I had “admirable foresight.”
But now as I hear the words spill from my head, I realize that only someone who doesn’t really interact with other people would think their science paper a suitable source of flirty banter.
“It’s commonly called the moonflower,” I say, “because when its alabaster petals unfold, they resemble a full moon.”
“That’s . . . cool,” Hannah says. Then she raises her eyebrows, offers a slack-tightrope smile.
Even in the dark, I can tell it’s a look of forced interest. I wish one of the campers would start drowning and save me.
“Yeah,” I continue, like an idiot. “Even though many people consider the moonflower beautiful during the day, it’s at night when they really come alive. Kind of like—”
You. Like you. Like you. Just say it. Why can’t I say it?
“Kind of like.”
“Mushrooms,” Cameron yells as he rumbles past us, leaps from the end of the dock, and cannonballs into the lake.
Later that night, Cam and I are in the game room, slumped on beanbags, awash in the kaleidoscopic glow of Time Fighters II. The Time Fighters franchise allows players to choose warriors from various epochs and then battle to the death. Mom doesn’t care for the violence, but it’s not like she can tell me to go outside and play either. Currently, my medieval knight is getting his gallant ass handed to him by Cameron’s Mayan warrior.
“You should just tell her how you feel,” he says. “Let her know how infatuated you are.”
Cam is good enough at Time Fighters to turn away from the screen, to stare at me and through my bullshit while still fending off attacks from my knight. If there is a perk to a life spent indoors and with little social interaction, it is that we are all excellent at video games.
“Yeah, fine, I like Hannah. But I wouldn’t say I’m infatuated with her.”
“You spent all of last summer writing her that poem. Comparing her skin to . . . what was it . . . midnight snow?”
It was moonlit snow, and I only spent half the summer working on it. Not like it matters. Not like I gave Hannah the poem, or even finished writing it.
Cameron nails my knight twice with his Jaguar Claw Strike before I can parry with my broadsword.
“Either way, you better get moving,” he says. “Her mom told my mom they might not being coming back next year.”
“What? Like not coming back to camp? Why not?”
Cameron shrugs his shoulders. Then his character catches mine upside the head with his obsidian war club. There are cartoonish bursts of bright red gore, and I’m a goner.
The next afternoon, I roll over from a nap to find Hannah standing over my bed. She’s backlit by this soft, ethereal white light. She looks like an angel, and I must be dreaming.
“You have a lot of drool on your pillow,” she says. “Like, more than seems normal.”
“What?” I sit up. “What’s happening?”
“Check it out,” Hannah says, and then steps aside to reveal the window, its curtains drawn, and beyond them a sky choked with clouds the color of dirty cotton.
I can’t decide which is more beautiful—the view from the window or the smile on Hannah’s face. These shadowless gray days have, over the years, come to represent one indelible thing: freedom. The freedom to be outside during the day, to feel, however briefly, like ordinary kids. By the time we scramble to the door, Mom is already there, measuring the UV index with her solar meter. It’s a 0.8, the lower end of the potential threat spectrum. Still, Mom groans.
“I’ll wear a hat.”
“And long sleeves,” she says.
I change clothes, and Mom warns me not to smile at the sky so my braces don’t get struck by lightning. Then she laughs. Because yes, as if having an extremely rare and deadly allergy to the sun wasn’t enough of a genetic kick in the dick, I also have crooked teeth.
I return to the clearing just as Cameron and Katie have almost finished picking teams for kickball. Cameron has snagged Hannah. It’s between me and Jacob, one of the new five-year-olds, who is running around chasing a grasshopper. It’s Katie’s pick. We lock eyes. I try to project a neutrality, to suppress all emotion, but my face must not be cooperating because Katie shoots me a sly, knowing grin. Then she picks Jacob.
Cameron places Hannah in centerfield because she possesses an athletic grace, a seemingly effortless speed. Cameron sticks me in far leftfield because I do not. Just as we’re about to run to our positions, Hannah removes her hoodie. She’s wearing a white tank top underneath. Even with the cloud cover, this is a careless and dangerous degree of exposure. I think about saying something. Then I notice how Hannah’s tank top allows some of her black bra strap to wink through, and I keep my mouth shut.
Instead, I think about what Cam said.
“Dan told me they might put in a zip line next year,” I shout across the outfield. “That’ll be pretty cool, huh?”
“Yeah. Maybe,” she shouts back.
“Maybe. Why maybe?”
Hannah points toward home. Mom is up. She does a little shimmy at the plate, rubs her toes in the dirt like a bull about to charge. Then she smiles and waves to me.
“Move back,” Hannah says. “She’s got a good leg.”
“What? No she doesn’t.”
But Hannah shakes her palm at me, urging me farther back, farther away. I walk towards her.
“Hey. You’re coming back next year, right?”
“Maybe. My mom is still deciding.”
And then, sure enough, a deep, rubbery whomp rings out across the field, and Mom sends one flying into the gray sky.
Hannah sprints across the field, gets underneath the ball just in time to pluck it from the air. She throws the ball back to the pitcher but doesn’t jog back to her position.
“Deciding what?” I shout once more. And then again.
But Hannah just stands there, staring at home plate, not answering.
Just as we get our third out, the clouds begin to dissipate, and the sky shifts from gray to blue like battlefield smoke, and we all run for cover.
Hannah’s been assigned Dish Duty for all of dinner, and I don’t see her again until we’re all headed to the fire pit. Dan builds a bonfire, and we sit around it, listening to the crickets and cicadas, staring at light-drunk moths that fly too close to the flames. We listen to Dan’s scary stories about the spectral inhabitants of nearby farmhouses or the variety of monsters that lurk in the woods. His stories are silly, or dramatic, but overall ineffective at inducing fright. None of us kids are afraid of the dark. As someone starts strumming a guitar for a sing-along, I see Hannah stand up. She walks halfway around the fire pit, nudges my foot with hers.
“Wanna go for a walk?”
We head into the forest. A summer breeze swirls through the branches, the leaves, making their moon shadows flutter. We arrive at the lake, shed our shoes, and walk around its bank. I feel the cool hug of mud around my feet.
“Sorry about this afternoon,” Hannah says.
“It’s just that my mom didn’t want me to say anything until we knew for sure.”
“That you’re not coming back?”
“That I’m getting better.”
We stop walking. Hannah stares at the moonlit lake, its inky shimmer. Then her face breaks into a huge smile. “It’s actually kind of amazing.”
Hannah tells me how her dermatologist has been incrementally increasing her exposure to UV light, and that, so far, she hasn’t been burned.
“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her, because I don’t.
“I know, right? I think my doctor is even more excited than my parents. He says I’m like one in a million. Can you believe that?”
“We’re still being careful, making sure I respond well to the treatments and that my tolerance is increasing, but if it’s true, just think about it.”
I do. I imagine Hannah outside during the day, walking along a beach, playing in a park. I imagine her with other kids, and while their faces are blurry, nondescript, I clearly see them basking in the sun’s warm glow. They are unharmed and unafraid. They are not me.
I feel my face flush, and my vision goes watery with tears. I wipe my eyes before Hannah notices, grateful, once again, for the dark.
“So you’re not coming back to camp then?”
“Well, I mean, not if I’m getting better. Mom thinks we should give the spot to someone more—”
“Deserving.” Hannah cocks her head and what’s left of her smile falls. “Are you mad at me?”
We just stand there for a second. Fireflies blink on and off. Sounds from the sing-along drift through the silence. This Little Light of Mine. I never minded that song, if I even thought about it at all, but now the lyrics sound sickeningly sweet.
“No. You would be missed is all. Cameron and I would miss you.”
“Aww,” Hannah says, leaning in for a hug. “I’d miss you guys, too. You two are like my best buds here.”
And while I’m so grateful to be this close to Hannah, to feel her body against mine, to have her arms wrapped around me, I’m even more grateful that she can’t see my face.
Later that night, we all load up into a rented school bus. Dan stands at the front, tells us we’re getting a special midnight tour of the Albany Zoo. Whoops and cheers bounce around me, echoing throughout the bus’s metal interior. We wander through the Reptile House, staring at snakes and lizards indifferent to our curiosity. We see zebras asleep in the middle of a field, huddled together in a herd of black and white. The grand finale of our tour is the tiger exhibit. A crescent moon of moms and campers belly-up to the enclosure’s concrete railing. Soon there’s the clang of an unseen gate, and a group of tigers slowly pad out into the night. Everyone is instantly captivated—by the deep orange of their fur, their stripes as black as a new moon night. By the two cubs that drink from a makeshift watering hole, the pink wink of their tongues. Even Cameron nudges me in the side with his elbow, points to a massive tiger raking his claws along the length of a log.
A zookeeper tells us that most of these tigers were born here, which means in captivity. Which means they are forced to ignore their nocturnal instincts, to conform to the zoo’s daytime schedule and perform for its sunlit pageantry.
That’s what I see anyway. I see a group of animals who look angry and annoyed at being awakened to entertain some sick kids. I see their orange fur turned a sickly yellow in the light of the zoo’s sodium arc lamps. I see one tiger rub its head along the side of another, both of them making a low, repetitive, guttural sound. The zookeeper tells us this is called “chuffing,” that it’s the way tigers greet one another.
Tiger chuffing sounds like Mom blowing her nose when she has a cold.
Over in the far corner of the enclosure, I spot a medium-sized tiger. She stares right at me, narrowing her eyes, and flashing her fangs. Then she turns her back to me, lifts her tail, and shoots out a jet of pee.
On the bus ride back to camp, I take one of the seats in the back, sprawl out, and feign sleep so no one can sit next to me, so no one will bother me. It works for a while (I use the bus’s occasional bumps to sneak a peek). We hit what feels like a pretty good pothole, and I peak Hannah’s legs beside my seat. She must know that I’m faking, that I’m not really asleep, because she stands there for a really long time. I force my eyes all the way shut, and when I crack them open again, she’s gone.
At some point, my sleep feigning must work because I doze off. The next thing I know, Mom is shaking me awake. We’re back at camp, back just before sunrise, the sky purpling, a red thread of light on the horizon. Everyone scurries inside and gets ready for bed.
Maybe it’s because I napped on the bus, but I have trouble falling asleep. I’ve spent the last few hours tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling. Finally, I sit up. I pull the curtains aside. Sunlight streams in through the tint, lending a lavender glow to the room.
Why does Hannah get to be better? What makes her so special? I think, even though I could answer that question a hundred different ways.
But maybe it’s not just Hannah. Maybe the rest of us can get better too, can start being normal again. Maybe we already are.
I get up and dig through the dresser for some clothes. Cameron rustles in his sleep, cocooned among his treasures like some Egyptian Pharaoh. As I ease the door closed and make my way through the hallway’s shadowy emptiness, I think about my odds, the way hope can quickly devolve into delusion. I know I’m not getting better, and I hate that Hannah is. I want her to be sick and weird, like me. With me. I’d rather Hannah be sick and with me, than healthy and with someone else.
Maybe that cashier all those years ago was right. Maybe I am monster.
I grab the handle of the front door and take a breath.
Maybe if this doesn’t work out, I deserve what I get.
Some kids have said getting burned feels like being stung by a cloud of bees; others imagine it’s like getting pierced with hundreds of arrows—an invisible assault that is both localized and all-encompassing. But when I step outside and into the clearing, all I feel is the sun’s warmth on my skin. It’s a sensation that, after years of dormancy, ignites so many memories. Picnics in the park. Fourth of July parades. Dad and I at the beach, playing in the waves, and then secreting some seawater back to the sand to pour on Mom’s back.
But then something happens. The warmth grows hotter and hotter, almost as if someone is turning a dial, exponentially increasing the output of sunlight. My memories get eclipsed by a searing pain, the sun’s needle teeth tearing into my arms and face. I have trouble catching my breath. It feels like I’m drowning in heat. I try heading back towards the safety of the building, but doing so makes me dizzy. Pockets of nausea bloom and burst in my throat. My vision goes blurry. The cars in the parking lot and the woods beyond melt into one another.
The sky swirls, or I do, but either way, I stumble and find myself on my hands and knees. The waxy blades of grass feel cool to the touch, and there is a blink of relief as my face is out of the sun, shielded by the back of my head. The pull to stay like this, to somehow crawl inside the safety my own shadow, is too strong, and my body goes limp.
I wake up in my room. A dull but persistent heat pulses from my body. I can feel my heart beat behind my eyes. Mom sits on the edge of my bed, applying aloe to my arm, which is swollen and blistered and the raw, inflamed color of a glazed ham. Mom must feel my eyes on her because she stops, lifts her head. Her face is puffy and slick with tears. Her eyes are as red as my arms.
“Hi,” I say.
“What the hell? What were you thinking?”
“No,” she yells, startling us both. Two new tears leak from her eyes and trail down her face. “That’s not good enough. You have to give me more than that.”
So I tell her about Hannah. About how she’s getting better, and how envious and angry and scared that makes me.
“I don’t understand,” Mom says. “Aren’t you happy for her?”
“Yes. And no. Not completely. If Hannah gets better, she’ll start a different life. She’ll no longer need us. She’ll leave and she won’t come back.”
“What makes you think she’d do that?”
Mom goes silent. The wrinkle between her eyes deepens, and her mouth moves as if to say something, but nothing comes out.
I place my hand on her balled fist, give it a squeeze. “How long was I out there?”
“Two minutes. Maybe less. Katie saw you go outside.”
“Is she the one that—?”
“Oh shit,” I say, and Mom’s eyes widen. “Sorry. Is she okay?”
“She got some minor burns. She says you’ve heavier than you look.”
We just sit together for a while. Then Mom finishes applying the aloe and bandages my arms. She gives me some aspirin, tells me to get some rest.
The throaty rumble of the bus’s engine wakes me up. Dan and Karen are taking everyone to Mega-Fun Zone, a bowling alley/arcade that touts the largest Laser Tag arena in upstate New York.
When they’re gone, I decide I need some air. I get up and get dressed, wincing with each movement. I shuffle down to the fire pit, ease myself down in one of the Adirondack chairs. A breeze blows in from the clearing, cooling my skin and stinging it at the same time. Birds—or if you believe Dan’s stories—bats flit through the trees.
I hear the rustle of leaves and swing my flashlight to the source, illuminating Katie’s face. She shields her eyes, and I kill the beam.
“You didn’t want to go bowling?”
“Nah,” she says. “The used shoes gross me out.”
“Thanks for saving me. I’m sorry you got hurt.”
“No big thing.” Katie waves off my apology, but I can see her hand is bandaged. She sits beside me.
“Still. Thank you.”
“Of course. You know this morning was the first time in almost nineteen years that I’ve felt the sun on my skin. With each birthday the doctors and reporters return, marveling at another year, another record set. They all want to know what I’m doing, how I’m outwitting our disease. But in all of these years, none of them ever bothered to ask if I’m happy.”
“And are you?”
“I am today. I felt needed. Instead of just hiding in the shadows, waiting for the sun to set, I got to save you from doing something stupid.”
I pick up a twig, toss it into the pile of ashes and charred logs. “I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I just—”
“Wanted to feel normal? To feel like an ordinary kid and not a freak?”
“I get it. You liked someone who didn’t necessarily feel the same way?”
“And in the anger and confusion of your heartache you did something foolish?”
“I suppose so.”
Katie stands and smiles. She pats me on the shoulder with her burned hand. “Well then, you’re in luck. Because that’s about as normal as it gets.”
Joe Dornich is the author of The Ways We Get By (Black Lawrence Press, December 2020). His stories have won contests and fellowships from The Master’s Review, Carve Magazine, South Central MLA, Key West Literary Seminars, and the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Joe lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee.