Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension, The Porch, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die, and Lighthouse Writers. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a 3x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, MUTHA, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Joyland, and more. Her first collection of essays, The Perpetual Motion Machine, was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel, The Brittanys, is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Find her on Instagram at @suboatmilk
THE ANIMAL MAN
It was the summer everyone was setting off fireworks and no one knew why. It was also the first summer that I was too old to stay home and do nothing, but too young to get a real job that I’d have to quit when I returned to campus for my final year of college. I was staying with my parents in Delray Beach and my mom had found me a job at a local day camp. She’d met the owner while waiting in line to pay for her groceries.
I was dreading my final year of school. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself when it was over. All my friends had started talking about getting jobs in big cities like New York and Chicago and Boston, and I knew if I didn't figure something out quick, I might end up in Florida forever. I was studying English, but didn’t want to teach or be a copyeditor. I didn't want to work for a newspaper or magazine. I didn't want to go into public relations. What I really wanted was to write my own stories and read books and eat chips, but I knew well enough that a life like that had to be earned over time. I knew that only lucky people got that kind of freedom, and I wasn’t particularly blessed in that way.
The day camp was fine. Since I was twenty, I was considered a senior counselor. I had two leaders in my group too, Mindy and Suzanne, who were both in their forties, but they had made it clear that the younger counselors were to do all the dirty work. There were twenty kids in our group, boys and girls, all age five, and I had two junior counselors, Beth and Sarah, to help me. I hadn’t realized how much work goes into a single day of camp: carpool and lunchtime and swim and getting to and from activities and applying sunscreen constantly and preventing allergic reactions and handling arguments and misunderstandings and tying shoelaces (so many shoelaces) and putting Band-Aids on booboos and holding hands and carrying kids and handing out popsicles and labeling arts and crafts projects and oh my god just so much shit.
I had thought that maybe I’d have some kind of summer romance, like in Grease, but there was seriously no time to even think or breathe. The kids needed so much attention, and we were all working for that end of summer tip, the envelopes filled with money from parents whose kids had said “Erica is my favorite!” so you got a fat wad of cash. It was my first summer, and the numbers Mindy and Suzanne had claimed possible seemed like a legend—but I wanted to try my best, anyway, and find out. I was hoping that the cash I got from camp would help buy time, would help ease the fact that I had no plans for after college.
So I endured it. I endured the face paint and the peeing of pants and the screaming in my ear and the thousands of trips to the nurse’s office and the rainy days getting soaked from head to toe in Florida storms. The stains on my clothes and the gum in my hair and the snot all over my t-shirts. At first, it was all performance, but honestly, after a while, I came to love the kids. I loved one boy, Grayson, in particular, who was obsessed with Disney Pixar’s Cars and had a bright red Lightning McQueen backpack that he wore every day. It was funny how the kids had these huge backpacks with barely anything inside. Maybe a pencil or a cute eraser, but otherwise there was no real need. Sometimes there were notes for us: Timmy is on early dismissal today or No more pasta for Bailey at lunch. But I still enjoyed seeing the kids come to camp with their bags; lifting the backpacks off their shoulders and feeling the plush material that had been wrapped around their arms. I loved how they hung inside the cubbies all day—a healthy variety of Disney Pixar characters and sometimes an obscure cartoon I wasn’t familiar with—waiting for their kids to return.
Grayson would draw me pictures and play with my hair and would fall asleep on me during Yoga hour, a very weird part of the day where we had to massage all the kids’ feet. But I didn’t mind Grayson’s feet. I believed him to be clean somehow, cleaner than the other kids. He always smelled like dryer sheets and arrived to camp with wet hair, the telltale sign of a morning bath. The other kids were sticky and covered in clouds of dirt like Pig Pen.
It was understood that Grayson was mine, my camper to behold. But he was only a half-summer camper, so after the first four weeks, he left and never came back.
I tried to make our goodbye memorable, holding him tight and telling him how special he was. But he sort of wiggled and squirmed out of the hold and ran to his mother. The final sting was that there was no envelope from Grayson, all that time spent. I had chosen him, and I had chosen wrong. The rest of the summer, I promised myself, I’d just do my job and not get attached again. But the nature of a promise is the emptiness inside, the possibility that one might go back on their word, the collapse.
I had to yell into the intercom at Pollo Tropical because the fireworks were so loud. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with a side of rice and beans and a large Sierra Mist. I ate the food in my car because it was late and I didn’t want to wake my parents. Staying with them was embarrassing, mostly because I never had anything to do after work besides getting disgusting drive-thru food and going home. I wished for some kind of magical date to go on where I could dress up in a ballgown and get my hair and makeup done. But instead, I nourished myself on the rubbery chicken and soggy bun, the sad rice that I dug my spoon into, making a bed for the beans. It felt good to wash it down with the drink I’d sip all night and keep by my bed. At twenty, it seemed like I never really had to ingest any water. I knew my body was 60% H₂O or something, and felt like that was enough.
I parked in the garage and took the elevator up to my parents’ apartment on the fifth floor. When I walked inside, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table picking at her fingernails.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, still in my pathetic camp uniform, an ill-fitting white polo T-shirt with my camp’s emblem, American Heritage Day Camp, and khaki shorts that rode up my ass. All of it was wet and then dried again from the day’s sweat; stained with whatever the kids had eaten, mixed with glue and crayons, dirt, chlorine.
“Your grandmother passed away,” my mom said, not looking at me as she got up to open the fridge and then close it without taking anything out.
“Are you okay?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure if I was. Maybe I was asking myself.
“You know I always had a—strained relationship with Edna. But I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
“When did it happen?”
“Tonight. You dad got the call an hour ago. He’s on the phone with your aunt, making arrangements. I just can’t deal with any of that. There’s been so much yelling.”
“I need to take a shower,” I said and left her there in the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator open and close again. I went directly into the bathroom and took off all my clothes, put my Sierra Mist cup on the counter of the sink and got in the shower. I realized halfway through that I was still wearing my underwear.
That night, I dreamt I was starving and looking for somewhere to eat. I was wandering the streets and asking people if they knew a good spot. Finally, someone directed me to a place that only served slices of cake, cakes of all kinds, so many flavor options, you could even design your own, and I had to go there. But just as I was walking up to the door, the shop lights turned off. I pressed open the door and the clerk yelled at me to back away. I stood outside the store and looked in at all the cake slices sitting behind the glass. They were beautiful: carrot cakes, red velvet, pistachio, chocolate. They looked like dolls waiting to be held and I wanted to hold them all. I tried to call my dad but his phone was off, and then I tried my mom and hers was off too, and then I thought to call my best friend, Dena, who was no longer my best friend, and before I could even try I woke up. I realized, in my waking life, that the cake store wasn’t special. It was actually just a bakery. You could tell a bakery what kind of cake flavor you wanted, and they’d make it for you. It was something anyone could have.
Our schedule had a big yellow star on it when I got to camp in the morning. After lunch, instead of going to “Theater,” we would be attending a special activity. The last time we’d attended something special, one of the campers, Spencer, got so anxious about the loud music that he put his whole fist in his mouth and threw up all over himself. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Beth and Sarah were pretty much useless. Sarah was fifteen and obsessed with her boyfriend, Jeremy, who was a lifeguard at the camp. He had white blonde hair and wore his sunglasses backwards on his head. I couldn’t stand him. Any chance Sarah got, she escaped to go hang out with Jeremy. Beth was seventeen, and she was afraid of everything. She couldn’t handle blood or vomit or shit, all the things necessary to be a camp counselor. I wasn’t exactly fond of those things either, but I rolled up my sleeves when it came down to it.
Mindy and Suzanne sure as shit weren’t going to take a kid to the nurse or help them wipe their asses. They were always talking about some fad diet, trying to help each other lose weight. Mindy once went a whole week only eating cottage cheese. Suzanne was always talking about coffee enemas and essential oils and she drank these herbal teas that gave her diarrhea all day long. So, I was understood to be captain of the ship.
My favorite part of the day, and the only part I really enjoyed, was taking charge of lunch. I was allowed to go into the cafeteria fifteen minutes before lunchtime and set up everyone’s food. I knew who had which allergies, who was off carbs that week, who needed extra fruit, which kids were allowed Gatorade, which could only have water, who couldn’t sit next to whom, which kids wanted ketchup or mustard or butter or whose birthday it was and then they got a special cupcake with a candle in it and everyone sang to them.
To be in the cafeteria alone felt like being Superwoman. I soared from counter to counter with a stack of trays, filling them up one by one, zooming over to our group’s table by the window and setting everything up. When the all the kids in camp rushed in for lunch, the whole hour went by like a symphony, a well oiled, orchestrated dance of juice and chicken nuggets and ham sandwiches. It was the single greatest accomplishment in my life thus far.
So after lunch that day, my campers happily fed and carrying the dreamy look of five-year-olds, we walked in single file to the room assigned for our special activity. When we approached the door, Mindy and Suzanne handed me, Beth and Sarah safari hats. “Have these been sanitized?” Beth asked, but Mindy grabbed it from her and stuck it on her head. “Sorry, I just don’t want to get lice,” Beth added before heading to the back of the line.
When we entered the room, there was a semicircle of x’s taped on the floor for the kids to sit on and I could faintly hear the sounds of tribal music. There was a guy who looked to be no older than me sitting at the butt of the semicircle. He was wearing a full safari outfit: brown leather boots with khaki pants tucked in, a khaki pocketed button-down, and a professional safari hat, not like the ones Mindy must have gotten from Party City. His long, curly brown hair spilled out from under his hat and he had a big nose. He was smiling, holding a guitar.
“Hey kiddos,” he said and I hated him. “Everyone take a seat on an ‘x’ and we’ll get started.”
“Should I take Spencer to the nurse?” I asked Mindy and she laughed through her teeth. “Seriously,” I said. “This might be too much for him.”
“I think he’s kinda cute.” Suzanne nudged me and I wanted to kill her, feed her to whatever animal was about to be brought out in this circle of doom.
The kids seemed excited though, and we took our seats on the carpet next to them. I felt like a grade A idiot in my hat, but my time at camp had taught me to humble myself and just go with the flow, so I was going to sit there until it was over.
His name was Chris Bradley, and he proceeded to spend the hour singing animal themed songs to the kids about positivity and love for the environment. Then he brought out various animals in cages and took them out, showed us their teeth, their scales, their paws, their heads and tails, whatever. Sometimes he would walk around the circle holding the creature out and letting us pet it. There was one snake that I wasn’t too fond of and when it was my turn, I simply shook my head “no” until the kids started chanting for me to pet it.
“Erica doesn’t do snakes,” I said and got up off the floor. I was going to excuse myself to the bathroom but Suzanne cornered me at the door.
“I'm telling you, I think he’s cute,” she whispered.
“I think he’s a little young for you,” I said.
“For you,” Suzanne pressed.
“The Safari Hippie? Are you kidding?”
“He’d probably go down on you for hours.”
Suzanne was like the big sister I never had. We sometimes talked about masturbation or intermittent fasting. At first, I thought it was a test, but sometimes she came to work smelling like weed and I realized she was okay.
“My grandmother died yesterday,” I said and realized I hadn’t told anyone until just now. But maybe it would be a defense against having to flirt with Chris Bradley.
“All the more reason to get drunk with this guy and fool around. Do you have any idea what I’d give to be your age again? Young and hot and single and just—available?”
“You mean slutty?”
“You can both be slutty together. That’s the beauty of it. Just a fun thing. Come on, I want to know if he wears leopard print underwear!”
When the show was over, the kids got stickers of different animals put on their t-shirts, and when one girl, Cameron, didn't get the sticker she wanted, she started crying. Everyone else was already filing out of the room, so I went over to her and picked her up.
“But…I…want…the…koala!” Cameron cry-yelled at me.
“What do we say, Cameron?”
“Huh?” she sniffled.
“You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. Come on, what did you get, ohhh, a starfish! That is so cool!”
“You know,” Chris Bradley chimed in. “Starfish don’t have a brain, or any blood in their bodies—” Cameron continued to wail.
“Not helping, Animal Man.”
“Hey, Cameron is it?” he asked. “Starfish are actually more closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars, so really they should be called Sea Stars. They don’t have gills or fins or scales, so they’re not fish. They’re just—”
“Magic?” I added.
“Magic,” he confirmed.
Cameron put her head on my shoulder and stopped crying. She wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t hyperventilating anymore.
“Thanks,” I said, and left the room to catch up with my group.
As I walked Cameron back to our homeroom, she tore the starfish sticker off her chest and stuck it on me, almost hurting me.
“I don’t want it,” she said, mad.
“But don’t you want to show your mom what you did today?”
“She’ll buy me a koala sticker, like I wanted.”
I set Cameron down on the ground and took her hand instead of carrying her. I patted down the edges of the sticker and wore it proudly the rest of the day. Sea Star, I thought; no brain, no blood, no problem.
The fireworks woke me up from a dream I was having about my grandmother. It was actually a time I’d had with her that I couldn’t remember if I’d lived or dreamt. So sometimes I would dream about it. We were in the mall back when my whole family lived in New York, and she was taking me to OshKosh B’gosh. She bought me my very first pair of overalls. They were green corduroy and I wanted to wear them every day like how a cartoon character wears the same outfit in each episode. After buying the overalls, I was allowed to wear them out of the store and carry my old clothing in a shopping bag. She took me to the food court and got me a cinnamon sugar pretzel from Auntie Anne’s and I spilled the cinnamon sugar all over the front of my new overalls. She tried to pat away the sugar dust but it wasn’t coming out.
“You have to eat like a lady in your new clothes,” she told me and I knew, even as young as I was, that it was out of love, that she didn’t want me to feel bad, but that I had still done something wrong, that I had to change, grow up, become something new. And then I woke up to the fireworks and wondered if my dad would fly home for her funeral.
I wondered what the last piece of mail I’d sent to her was. I wondered if she knew I was about to graduate soon. I had an unbelievable urge to call her even though I had never called her on the phone in my whole life. I wanted to hear her voice and have a grandmother I was close to. I wanted to start over with her, to try harder, to be a good granddaughter. We had written letters since I was old enough to write, since we moved, since I couldn’t see her on weekends anymore. But that was it, just the letters every once in a while on my birthday or for Hanukah.
I wanted to ask my mom if I had a pair of overalls like that, but if she said no, I'm not sure I would have even believed her. I didn’t want it to be a dream, even though it probably was. I wanted to fall back asleep and keep dreaming of her, but the fireworks were too loud. I looked out my window and tried to see where they were coming from, but I only saw the smoke they left behind in the air, floating away from the city and towards the water, sinking into the place where the ocean met the sky.
The next day was a Friday, which meant pizza for lunch and tie-dye t-shirts. I only had two of our camp’s regulation polo shirts, so it was nice to get to Friday and be able to wear something else. Friday also meant that our after swim snack was popsicles. I liked to send Beth to go pick up our box of popsicles because Sarah couldn’t be trusted not to run off and make out with Jeremy, even though we’d just spent an hour with him at the pool. Mindy and Suzanne used this time in between swim and our next activity to make any personal phone calls they had pending like hair appointments or to call their insurance companies. They both had huge datebooks and it made me nervous to think about all those meetings and commitments scribbled down on the pages, filling up the months.
“Hey, Erica, right?” Chris Bradley asked when he found us with the campers, outside our room, waiting on the popsicles.
Sarah made an “Oooo” noise and I hushed her.
“Yes, and you’re the Animal Man.”
“I prefer Animal Specialist.” I didn't laugh. “I'm just kidding. It’s my dad’s business. I help him out with these day camp gigs.”
“That’s cool,” I said and realized I was dripping wet in a bathing suit and wrapped in a towel. Hoping my nipples weren’t accidentally hard or something, I adjusted my towel up to my neck. “I didn’t realize you’d still be around.”
“Oh, yeah, I'm here all week. But today’s my last day. We actually had a bird incident with the preteens today.”
“I love some good bird play,” I said and didn't know why I was trying, what I was doing.
“Who doesn't? But seriously, one of the parakeets shit all over this girl and—”
“Uh, there are children present. We say ‘poop.’”
“Right. Well, he pooped all over a girl and it was a mess.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I said and Beth arrived back with the popsicles. The kids started grabbing at the box until I stood up and delegated. Some favored certain flavors, and by now I knew everyone’s preference; even my own, cherry. But depending on who was good that day or who gave me agita, a word I’d learned from Mindy, I’d pick and choose who got what. When it came to Dylan, who was being an absolute ass, I decided to just stick my hand in the box at random and pull out whatever fortune decided. Chris Bradley stood by and watched awkwardly.
“Orange!” Dylan groaned.
“You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!” I smiled at him and he begrudgingly returned to his towel and ate his popsicle. I knew he had been hoping for lime. Sucks, kid. The campers ate and dripped popsicle juice all over themselves, which was the beauty of keeping them in their bathing suits until after they were done. With one swift shake of a lamb’s tail, we’d have them out of their wet clothes and into dry ones.
“Got any extra?” Chris Bradley asked and I did in fact have a few left over.
“Grape or cherry?” I asked, praying he would say grape.
“Cherry sounds rad,” he said, and I handed it over.
“Your whole mouth will be red,” Sarah giggled and Beth laughed too, the two of them already eating their lemon popsicles.
“Did you know the male octopus can change from white to red instantly when they’re ready to mate?” he said to all of us, even the kids, and I just wanted it to end.
“I’ve got my hands full here,” I said, holding my grape popsicle still in the wrapper, not wanting to eat it in front of him. Maybe I’d give him a chance, listen to Suzanne and go for it. Why not? What else was I doing anyway? “I'm free tonight if you want to do something. I live by the beach. I don’t know, you can come and like, hang out or whatever.”
“Groovy,” he said and I wasn’t sure what planet he was from.
I gave him my number and he walked down the corridor and out of my sight. When we all entered the classroom again, Beth and Sarah were chatting about my date with the Animal Man. I sat on the desk and ate my popsicle, telling them to be quiet and help the kids.
“Are you…practicing for later?” Sarah blurted out.
“I can’t believe you’re going out with him!” Mindy said.
“What the hell,” I said. “It’s not like I had big plans tonight anyway.”
“That’s my girl,” Suzanne said and it was settled. There would be a date. I looked around the room at all my campers, some of them half-naked and struggling to put their legs into the holes of their underwear, some of them already dressed and coloring a picture. I knew camp would eventually end, that I’d never work here again after this summer. It was a one and done kind of deal. But for a moment, I felt like I was home. Like I had finally learned a language and could understand all the jokes. I could even make a joke, if I wanted.
The Animal Man arrived at my parents’ place at eight o’clock that night. I’d had plenty of time to shower and change, debate whether to look sexy or casual, and I decided to just wear shorts and a t-shirt. I kind of still looked like I was at camp, but my hair was down, not in a messy bun, and I had makeup on. And I wasn’t covered in suntan lotion or graham cracker crumbs or snot.
We met across the street from my parents’ condo and walked down to the beach. I didn't really want to go anywhere public with him—like a restaurant or bowling. I thought if I got bored or tired, or even creeped out, I could just escape back home. We walked for a while on the sand just talking about my college classes, his animals shows, how Florida was a shithole that we’d both ended up in temporarily and were trying desperately to leave permanently. I told him I wanted to be a writer and he told me he was pursuing music, hence the guitar and animal songs. He also brought up how his ex had been a stripper and he’d lived in Miami for a while, on a high-rise by the beach.
“Wait, how old are you?” I asked, thinking this whole time he’d been my age.
I was shocked. He definitely didn’t look it. I thought he might be lying but why would he lie about that. Why was he still working for his dad? What was wrong with him? “Do you know that I'm twenty?” I asked.
“I do now. Shit. I'm glad I didn't bring a flask.”
“I wish you had.”
Something about him became more appealing, like maybe I could get past his gross, long, curly hair and his style, the fact that he was wearing a paisley button-down and bellbottom jeans, and he could take me away from my life, take care of me. He could play his music and I could write and maybe it could work out.
“Oh wow!” he whisper-yelled. “Look! You guys have sea turtle eggs out here.” He pointed to a mound of sand on the ground that looked like nothing to me. “Oh shit, there’s a mother laying her eggs! Holy crap! I haven’t seen a mother lay her eggs since I was kid and my dad showed me.”
Lo and behold, a giant mother sea turtle was digging in the sand a few feet away. She had been hard to see in the dark, but our eyes adjusted and we both got quiet for a while. The whole ordeal must have taken thirty minutes, maybe even an hour, but we were entranced. Eventually, the mother turned herself around and headed back to the sea. Chris Bradley and I sat down in the sand and I was ready for him to kiss me, for him to make a move. We had experienced something beautiful and natural together, this mother and her eggs, the creation of life. I felt happy for the first time in a long time.
“Shame that only a few of the babies will make it to the ocean when they hatch,” he said. “Freaking birds go after them, circle of life, you know? I guess you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
“Sure,” I said, waiting for the kiss, just waiting for it to happen so it could have happened already.
All of a sudden, I noticed that Chris Bradley had taken his dick out, and it was just flopped on the sand.
“What are you doing?” I asked, though I knew. Anyone would’ve known. It looked like the snake I’d been afraid to pet. It was shady in the dark but aggressive somehow, like it might bite. Its aura was vibrating, and not in a good way. I felt nauseous.
“It’s just more comfortable like this,” he said.
“I just thought we would, like, go to dinner or something before that happened.”
“What difference does dinner make? We go out to eat, pay some ridiculous bill for food we could’ve made ourselves, then just end up back here. It’s all the same.”
“But we would get to know each other, we would get close—” I paused and realized the lie I’d been telling myself. There would be no shimmering moon, no tenderness, no romance.
“You know,” he said, “you really just need to be more open, more positive.”
He didn't put it away, so I left Chris Bradley on the beach. I ran back to my parents’ building and told the doorman not to let anyone in. But he never called up and I didn’t hear from him again.
When I got back upstairs, my parents were both asleep, but there was a note on the kitchen table. It was written on a yellow legal pad: just the words respiration, perspiration, desperation. My mom was always writing poetry and leaving it around the house, little notes everywhere on legal pads. I’d never truly understood my parents, neither my mom nor my dad, and I didn't think they’d ever understood me. But that summer living under one roof made me feel like a kid again, like I was trying to hide in my own little world.
There were no fireworks that night and I wondered if they were over for good. I missed them and hoped to hear their crackle and fizz, their booming blows as they punched the sky again and again.
At the end of summer, the camp had a carnival that was a huge deal. The kids went bonkers for it. We had to show up super early the morning of the carnival in order to prepare. Each counselor, even Mindy and Suzanne, who’d teamed up together, would have a group of kids to chaperone. No one could break out of their groups, switch groups, get lost, etc. My group was fine except for Dylan, who had become a problem camper. He always wanted to go against the grain. He didn’t have the camp spirit, as they say.
The carnival was fun, though. We got to be outside and eat cotton candy and it was fun to see the kids so happy on big bouncy slides and winning stuffed animals. Dylan insisted on going on this one ride that flipped you upside down. He was five, but fearless, and no one else in my group wanted to go. I promised them that if we waited for Dylan, we could all get another round of cotton candy, so they obliged. But when Dylan came off the ride he was green and bent over and threw up all over the grass. Beth had crossed my path and when she saw what happened she looked like she was going to cry. “Take my other four,” I told her, and I picked up Dylan and carried him off to the side.
There was so much going on—so many loud noises and campers and carnies and staff—that no one noticed his puke. It wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, but he was crying. I’d never seen him cry, only moan and groan about popsicles or not wanting to do yoga.
“I threw up!” he kept crying and I sat him down on the ground and got him cleaned up with a few napkins from one of the concession stands. I gave him a cup of ice water and he drank it slowly, carefully.
“Those rides suck,” I said, wanting to be real with him. “I’d get sick too. You’re brave for even going.”
“Have you ever thrown up before?” he asked, which was a weird question, but it made me think back to the first time I ever did, after my grandmother made me French toast at her apartment in New York when I was six or seven. I felt sick for hours before I finally threw up all over her couch. I remember her apartment had hundreds, thousands of mirrors all over and I felt like I was in a bad dream until my mom came and got me.
Even now, I hadn’t eaten French toast again. I felt like crying all of a sudden and had to hold back tears. No one had ever really explained things to me the way I’d needed them to.
“Sure.” I needed to change the subject. “You know, Dylan, I'm wondering if you know what you might want to be when you grow up?”
“A firefighter!” he said, excited, and I could see the color coming back to his face. “Ms. Erica?” Dylan asked, forgetting about the vomit question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Twenty wasn’t exactly grown up, and he was five, so I tried not to be offended by the question. But I wasn’t sure if he’d understand if I said a writer.
“I want to be someone who tells good stories,” I said instead.
I watched as he considered it. I didn’t think of what kind of envelope I might get from his mom at the end of camp. He’d probably only remember all the lime popsicles I didn't give him. Not this moment at the carnival, us sitting together in the grass. How eventually, I took him for a walk in the parking lot and let him balance on the parking bumpers, how I held his hand when he felt unsteady, how we ran races until he got tired and we rejoined the group back at the classroom. How I got in trouble for taking him away without telling anyone. How Suzanne yelled and it actually scared me, but then she forgave me.
Camp went on until it was over. I found the Sea Star sticker in my laundry weeks later, all shredded in clumps, unrecognizable except that I knew what it was, where it came from. I forgot about the sea turtles, their eggs, their babies and the whole rest of their lives.