In his bunk that first night, it was as if God were pressing a finger through the middle of Sammy Krupnik’s chest. Somebody was going to drown this summer at Bible Camp. He shivered all night listening to the breathing of strange boys. The next morning he cornered the younger of the two counselors. The young counselor was everything the boys weren’t but wanted to be—sixteen, good-looking, and having sex with his girlfriend back home.
Are you serious, Krupnik? the young counselor said. This is Bible Camp! Jesus walked on water!
Sammy barely passed his swim test. His lungs froze in the cold lake water, but he managed to throw his arms and legs around in a convincing way. The drowned person was not him, not this time. But swim was every morning, and there were other opportunities over the next two weeks: a hike to Rainbow Falls and a whitewater rafting finale the counselors talked up as a meeting with a hidden strength the boys could never imagine. Meanwhile, Sammy crashed his bike on the BMX track and nearly gored himself on the handlebars. The bruise was spreading toward his groin. He was growing up because of these pains.
Sammy’s baby brother was in the younger group at the camp. He disappeared one day. Sammy panicked his way through the cabins and past the lunch tables, tugged the shirtsleeves of tall, outdoorsy men, and browbeat the smirking kids his brother thought were his friends.
Hadn’t they just been to Rainbow Falls? Sammy asked. What had happened to him there?
We haven’t seen him, they said.
He’s dead! they said.
He’s in the nurse’s tent, they said.
Sammy found his brother on a cot, eyes closed. He sat by him. He pulled on his little finger.
Nurse, what does he have? Sammy asked.
A touch of strep, she said.
When will he come out of it? he asked.
She lifted his shirt and prodded the yellow-green bruise on the soft flesh of his abdomen, just under the waist of his jeans.
Back at the cabin, the older counselor was gone and the young counselor was handing around a bag of chew and Dixie cups. Each boy pulled out a sticky brown chunk and then stuck it all into his cheek. Just try not to swallow it, the young counselor said. You wouldn’t want to know what happens. When the bag reached Sammy’s hands, he turned it down. I’m smart enough not to say yes to this, he said. Good boy, the young counselor said and slapped his shoulder.
The young counselor read his girlfriend’s latest letter to the boys, about all the people she hated in her life. You know that dickhead Mark? he read. That fuckwad Doug? That … He spit in his cup and waved Sammy over. Does this say fat ass or faggot ass, Krupnik? Sammy climbed up on the young counselor’s bunk to read over his shoulder, but all he could see were the hard, messy strokes of the girlfriend’s hand.
That night it was a miracle only one boy vomited his guts out till morning.
The main thing that put the Bible in Bible Camp, other than the Jesus songs around the campfire, was Sunday services at the open-air chapel overlooking the valley with the plain stone cross laid flat against the sky. Sammy didn’t listen to a word of the sermon because it was boring. He didn’t open his mouth to sing because the songs were lame. But he did climb up that cross and cling to its arms high above the barns and green fields and felt like he was falling and falling and hoped it would never end. No one was yelling at him to come down, and later no one threatened to call his parents to come and take him home. Instead, everyone was standing on the stone pews and shouting, Three cheers for Sammy! Hip hip hooray! Long after he said good-bye to God he still kept that moment.
The night before the trip, the counselors gathered the boys together in the big hall and showed them a movie about whitewater rafting safety. The boys were all high-fiving in anticipation, but Sammy held his breath at every close-up of frothing water and slick rocks. At one point in the movie, someone fell out of the raft and got swept under. The river frothed over the rocks, and the camera slowly zoomed toward the blurred shape of the dead man under the water.
The room was silent when the lights came on, and the camp counselors aimed their sober looks at the deepest parts of the boys. What had happened to their young counselor, standing there at the front of the room? The boys made their way back to the cabins and hot showers, the shame of their bodies and the masturbation jokes. Sammy didn’t talk to anyone. He was too busy planning his escape and imagining the varieties of his whitewater drowning. Somewhere in the camp, his baby brother was asleep in his bunk, not even worrying about him. One of the boys held a pencil erect at his crotch and rolled it back and forth between his palms, saying, Does anyone know what this is? But Sammy was still thinking about the dead man in the movie and the silent faces of the counselors, as if they were saying, Listen, boys, this is the important part: even with a life jacket the guy still drowned.