Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest Honorable Mention: “The Truth About Psych Camp” by Ann Gelder

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In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its first-ever short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. After the jump, read the first of three honorable mentions: “The Truth About Psych Camp” by Ann Gelder.

“The Truth About Psych Camp”

by Ann Gelder

It was our last week at Wah-Kee-Nah Summer Camp for Teenage Psychiatrists, and we were finally getting to work on real patients. I couldn’t wait. I was sick of the robot patients we’d been using for practice — their grotesquely soft skin, the spastic head-swiveling as they reclined on the couch, the way their gears were always whirring in the background, like they were accusing you of something. Worst of all were their stories, recorded in thick accents by the Japanese engineers who had built them. My wife doesn’t care for me. That burns me up. You know where I’m coming from? Every so often you were supposed to pause the thing with the remote and ask it a question, like “How does that make you feel?” Then you hit a button for a random response: That’s what I pay you to figure out; or, Who are you, my father? The camp counselors told us never to expect any praise from either the robots or the real patients — our clients, as we were supposed to call them. It wasn’t their job to make us feel better.

Our clients were coming by bus. After lunch we gathered to wait for them under a banner that said “Welcome to Camp Wah-Kee-Nah,” the same banner that had been put up for us three weeks earlier. A storm was on the way. The air smelled like iron, and the pine trees, swaying in the wind, had turned black. The banner snapped loose and skittered in a ball across the parking lot. Nobody chased it. We stood in a ragged semicircle, biting our nails, re-buttoning the blazers of our navy-blue pantsuits. I cleaned my glasses with a wadded Kleenex I’d found in my pocket.

Like all 13-year-old girls I was a narcissist. However, my mother, a psychiatrist herself, said that I was the Giant Vortex of Need that Devoured the Universe. I’m exaggerating slightly. But our screaming matches, compounded with the demands of her clients, had definitely stressed her out. During the five-hour drive up here, she had gripped the steering wheel so tightly that a piece of leather came off in her hand when she reached across me to let me out at the entrance.

“It’s my hope,” she’d said then, “that through your experiences here, you will come to appreciate the critical dialectic between self and other in the formation of the ego.”

“Here” was in the middle of a forest on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a collection of low buildings like the longhouses of some small, anhedonic tribe. We touched fingertips. I was barely able to slam the door before she gunned the engine of her ancient Mercedes (recently inherited from her own mother, who had died suddenly in the spring). The car spun out of the parking lot, shooting gravel from under the wheels.

I looked skyward, tracking a thunderclap. When I lowered my head, our clients’ bus had pulled in. It was huge and completely white, although the outline of a racing greyhound showed through on the side panel. I could see nothing through the windows but rolling reflections of trees and storm clouds. The bus hissed and sank to its right.

The doors popped open. A pale man, dressed in a terrycloth robe and pajamas, appeared at the top of the steps. He didn’t look much older than us, which was a surprise. I’d expected the clients to be at least 40, wearing starched clothes and carrying briefcases. Every part of this guy was in motion. He bounced on the balls of his feet, his hands opened and closed, his black hair fluttered in the wind. His eyes darted like dragonflies, green and iridescent and alarming. As he scanned the Teen Psychiatrists’ faces, I had the distinct feeling that this man was looking for me. That was the narcissist in me, I thought. I ducked behind my tent-mate Jessica.

But as always, Jessica had to be the first to offer assistance. She sauntered up to the door and held her hand out. I followed, hunching close to her back.

“You want to come with me, sir?” she said.

Tall and loud, Jessica was constantly chomping on a huge piece of bubble gum, a manifestation of her oral-aggressive tendencies. The man watched her for a few seconds, apparently drawn to the way her earrings swung with the motion of her jaw. I, too, was mesmerized. Without realizing it, I’d stepped out from behind her, and when I came to, the man got me in an eye lock. He grinned, revealing tangled but very white teeth. He leaped off the bus like a little boy, arms flapping outward. He grabbed my hand and pumped it.

“What’s your name?” he shouted over the thunder. His bathrobe, plastered against him by the wind, smelled like an old vinyl bus seat.

“Andromeda,” I shouted back.

“What?”

“Ann-drama-duh.”

“Now there’s a name you don’t hear every day.”

“It’s a long story,” I said. I was going to explain that my mother had gone through a sort of phase around the time I was born. She’d been to a conference on the Greek island of Samos, and had come back with a deep hankering for myth and legend. She’d given me this name so I could grow up feeling (as she had at the time) larger than life. But we weren’t supposed to reveal too much about ourselves to our clients.

“You can call me Joe,” the man said.

Dr. Shirley, the camp director, came over with her clipboard. She wore her reading glasses on a chain around her neck, and the wind had blown them so they hung down her back like a bridle.

“You’re with Joe, then, Andromeda?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “he’s mine.”

Dr. Shirley made the face she always made at me, an odd, pitying smile. She pulled her glasses around and put them on, then wrote Joe’s name next to mine on her list. Behind her, Jessica was reaching into the bus for a tall woman with wild yellow hair. She had on a light-blue bathrobe just like Joe’s.

I led Joe across the parking lot to the main building and into one of the interview rooms. I turned on the video camera to record the session, so Dr. Shirley could critique my performance in our debriefing later. Joe sat upright on the sofa and drummed his fingers on the armrest.

I sat across from him and placed my feet on the footstool so they would not dangle. I took a moment to clean my glasses again. The rustling of my polyester pantsuit irked me. It was too big, but it was the smallest one they had. The other Teen Psychiatrists were at least a year older than I was. My mother had gotten special permission from Dr. Shirley for me to come here. She’d written a letter explaining that I was exceptionally mature for my age. For proof she’d enclosed a school photograph in which I wore a lace-collared shirt and my standard disapproving expression.

I nodded at Joe, inviting him to begin. It was nice not to have to flip a switch on his neck.

“How old are you, Andromeda?” Joe asked. “In this light you look about 12.”

“I’m older,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said. “What matters is if I can trust you.”

“It’s my hope that you will come to trust me,” I said.

“You know your way around here pretty well?”

“Yes,” I said, though this was nothing to brag about. The camp was quite small. We had the main building with the director’s office, two interview rooms, and the library. Behind that were the tent-cabins arranged in two rows of six. Off to the left was a sagging volleyball net, and beyond that a pool no one used. To the right were the dining hall and kitchen, and the bathrooms with the communal shower used only by the exhibitionist Jessica, who stood there pirouetting and splashing long after the water went cold, while the rest of us washed our hair in the sinks and hurriedly mopped ourselves with washcloths under our clothes. Beyond the bathrooms was the fire pit, where in good weather we had lectures and group therapy sessions (a hopeless cacophony of robotic griping). That was all there was to the camp. All around it, around us, was the forest.

Joe stared at the picture on the wall above me. I couldn’t remember if this was the room with the portrait of Jung or the Frederick Church waterfall. Rain and pine cones pelted the roof.

“I don’t suppose you have any idea where we come from,” Joe said finally.

“Where who comes from?”

“Us, your patients.”

I had assumed they were from some nearby hospital. I’d also assumed they weren’t dangerous, because the bus windows had no bars on them. Besides, we were only kids. There had to be some protections for us. We certainly had rules to protect the patients. For instance, we could not dispense medications, though we were told that once we became real psychiatrists, meds would be a cornerstone of our practice. Instead, in preparation for our patients’ arrival, we’d been given cellophane sleeves of Smarties to keep in our pockets and hand out at our discretion.

“Did you wonder why the bus we came on is so big?” Joe said. “There are only ten of us. Why would we need such a big bus? Did you ask yourself that?”

“Perhaps you could tell me.”

“We live on it,” he said. “On the goddamn bus.”

“Mmmm,” I said.

“We’re political prisoners. Dissidents in supposedly the freest country on earth. On a land-bound garbage barge.”

“Mmmm,” I said.

“You think I’m paranoid. I know how this works, this psychiatry business. Go ahead and say it. That’s what you kids tell me every year, sitting there in your navy-blue pantsuits.”

I glanced down at my creased pant legs, the cuffs billowing over my sneakers.

“I’m not crazy,” Joe said. “None of us are. We’re troublemakers, that’s all. At some time in our lives, we all made trouble for the Man. If we were crazy, they could just lock us up. But they can’t keep us anywhere permanent, see, or someone would find us and uncover the truth. So instead, they drive us all over creation. We’re completely under the radar. Plus they drug us, to keep us docile. I’ve been able to resist to some extent, using the power of my mind” — Joe tapped his forehead, audibly — “but the others have no idea. They think we’re on some damn vacation. Just like you kids think you’re at some nice little summer camp. But you’re not. You’re at a central nexus of the Man’s worldwide power grid. And you’re all in collusion.”

“What? I mean, how does that make you feel?”

“I’ve been on that bus for five years,” Joe said. “How do you think I feel?”

“Mmmm,” I said.

I passed Joe the box of tissues. He took one and made a few stabs at each eye, while I asked myself what, exactly, he meant by “collusion.” I had to admit there was something funny about this place. I had sensed it in Dr. Shirley’s smile.

Joe began recounting his experiences as a troublemaker in his hometown of Coyote Rapids, Michigan. As a teenager he had become aware of the corruption at the highest levels of the town’s government, at around the same time he had failed to win a local science fair. The son of a repairman, Joe was a natural-born engineer who could turn his hand to anything — toasters, radios, outboard motors, computers. He had the ability to draw entire 3-D schematics in his mind.

“By the way, I’d love to get my hands on your robots,” he said. “I’d fix them so they didn’t lie there complaining all day. They’d be up and running around on the lawn in no time.”

“Mmmm,” I said.

At any rate, Joe’s project for the science fair, a handheld lie detector, had not even made it into the final round. But not because it didn’t work, Joe said. Because it was dangerous. It revealed the network of falsehoods that the Man laid down everywhere like so much underground cable. They gave the prize to a kid who’d invented some kind of hammer.

But Joe kept using his detector. He had decided to get to the bottom of the rash of layoffs at the lumber mill. He had observed that the mill owner had recently bought himself three new antique cars, and his wife, who just happened to be the town’s mayor, had been swanning about in a diamond necklace that looked like a chandelier. He finally got close enough to scan this pair one night at the Howl and Yip Diner, and his detector lit up like an emergency vehicle. He now knew that the alleged lack of funds to pay the workers was just that — alleged. The ruling class of Coyote Rapids, like their counterparts everywhere, were sucking the very marrow from the common man’s bones and getting away with it.

Joe realized it was up to him to fight the power. He printed pamphlets and handed them out by the post office. He put up a web site, wrote letters to the editor which were never printed, because the mill owners also controlled the newspaper. He began incurring dirty looks at the bait and tackle shop. Don’t rock the boat, these looks said. Leave us to scrabble for our measly earnings and watch terrible, mind-warping TV shows to numb the pain. Even Joe’s parents looked at him like that.

“I stood alone, the vast sea of corruption lapping at my flanks,” Joe said. “Do you have any idea what that was like for me all those years, when I was young and should have been feeding my wild oats like everyone else?”

I shook my head. In my notebook, I wrote, “Delusions of grandeur?” But then I wondered: what, exactly, was wrong with grandeur?

“Then, two days after my 21st birthday, my parents were killed in a car crash,” Joe said. “Semi-truck came around the curve by the Methodist church and smashed their Ford Focus head on. That was meant as a final warning to me. The Man would stop at nothing to keep me quiet. But I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. These people were killers, Andromeda, and I owed it to my parents to tell the truth.”

Joe began to choke with sobs. I crossed out “Delusions of grandeur” in my notes, and wrote “GRIEF.”

Joe recovered after a minute, enough to explain how he’d come to be on the bus, and here with me. He’d been kidnapped. About a month after his parents died, a gigantic guy — the bus driver, as it turned out — broke into Joe’s house in the middle of the night and hauled him out of bed. He gagged him and stuffed him into a canvas sack. As he threw Joe over his shoulder, Joe heard the driver’s colossal foot crushing his lie detector.

Joe was crying freely now. He pressed his palms together between his knees, his wiry body listing on our crummy green sofa, as if all the corruption had finally swept him off his feet and out to open water.

I folded my arms, but remembered this was hostile body language and undid them. I crossed my legs at the knees, then at the ankles, set my notebook down, picked it back up. The rustling of my pantsuit was like maracas playing. I had really applied myself during the past three weeks. I had even won an award, Most Improved Clinician, for learning to contain my own outbursts of sobbing during my sessions with the robots. But I could not handle Joe’s crying. Charles, our depression robot, did not so much cry as hiccup, and you could always turn him off when it got to be too much.

Panicking, I reached in my pocket.

“Don’t give me any of those goddamn candies,” Joe said. “And turn off that damn video camera. For God’s sake, let me have some dignity.”

Dr. Shirley had told us never to turn off the camera. But as the thunder crashed and the lights flickered, I yanked the cord out of the wall.

“Storm got it,” I said, and the thrill was so powerful I thought for a second I’d been shocked.

Joe reached into the breast pocket of his pajamas and took out a carefully folded piece of paper. It was a hand-drawn map of the Upper Peninsula, covered with strange symbols. At the top were three large ones, resembling a family of lions at rest.

“That’s Canada,” Joe said. “You ever been there?”

I hadn’t. My mental image of Canada was like death. You walked across a line on the ground and vanished into nothingness.

Joe told me that at the end of the week, when camp was over and the bus headed out for parts yet unknown, he was going to make his move. He planned to hide in the woods till the authorities stopped looking for him. Then he was going to walk along the shore of Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie, march across the International Bridge, and receive asylum right at the Canadian border. You could do that in Canada, Joe said. They didn’t care about papers, procedures. If you wanted to be there, then they wanted you.

“You think the air’s clean here in the forest?” he said. “In Canada you barely have to breathe. You just sit there and the air comes right into your body, washes around, and leaves like it’s supposed to. It’s why the people there are so unafraid of dissent. Read the Canadian constitution. It stipulates — stipulates — that the spark of the divine must be recognized in every human being.”

If even half of this were true, I thought, Canada was the perfect place for my mother. She also was a troublemaker, with a spark of the divine. I wanted to call her up and tell her right then and there: I’ve found a place where they’ll understand — no, worship you. However, on our drive up, she’d said she needed a vacation from her personal life as well as her professional one. How did I feel, she’d asked, about us taking a break from each other for four weeks, while she sorted some things out? Dr. Shirley would of course know how to reach her in an emergency.

So Joe and I were on our own. And I was his last hope. None of his previous Teen Psychiatrists had done a thing for him. They had only sat, in this very armchair, saying Mmmm.

“You can count on me, Joe,” I said.

In my debriefing that afternoon, I told Dr. Shirley that I wanted to try an intensive approach with Joe. We would have to spend all day, every day together. I explained that in addition to being paranoid with delusions of grandeur, he was agoraphobic. So my idea was to take him to different parts of the camp and help him work through his associations with them. In a stroke of foresight, I asked if we could borrow one of the robots so he could practice interacting with someone non-threatening.

“I can see you’re as creative as your mother’s letter indicated,” said Dr. Shirley as she handed me the sign-out sheet for the robots. “You will be a true asset to our profession.”

Mornings, while the other patients dozed on the bus and their therapists hunched over case histories in the library, Joe and I lingered in the dining hall. Charles, the depression robot, sat beside us, his mouth open and his head slumped onto his left shoulder. We wrote up our plans using Joe’s hieroglyphs, which he had developed during his years on the bus. I got the hang of the system pretty quickly. Every symbol represented a syllable, and every word had something to do with escape. He hadn’t considered words he might need once he got to Canada. While he revised his map, I worked on some new ones: “hello” and “goodbye,” also “friend,” “visit,” “job,” “apartment,” and “remember.” I pushed the paper across the table for Joe to look at.

“Now you’re thinking,” Joe said, tapping the paper with his pencil. “How about you make me ‘capitalism,’ ‘globalization,’ and ‘bourgeoisie.’ Oh, and ‘fascist.’” I got started immediately, and by the third day, I had them. “Fascist” turned out especially well, Joe told me. I’d made it look like an SUV.

When the cook left about an hour after breakfast each day, Joe and I made our foray into the kitchen. We stole a little food each time and varied the type (granola one day, Coke the next) so the cook suspected nothing. However, there was one potential problem with Jessica. On the second day she caught me in our tent cabin, shoving two jars of peanut butter into my duffel bag. She grinned and blew a big raspberry bubble.

“Rock on, Klepto,” she said. I was going to have to deal with her at some point, but I had no idea how.

A more urgent problem was finding clothes for Joe. Obviously he could not head off into the woods in his bathrobe and slippers, and no one on the bus had any other type of clothing. Also, everyone at our camp was female. Joe said he would not be averse to one of the pantsuits, if it came to that, but we did not have any extras that fit him.

Finally, on our last day together, I remembered the maintenance man who came to camp every afternoon. I had observed him several times from a distance, on his hands and knees, staring into the pool. When he arrived and settled into his ritual, I snuck into the back of his van and stole a pair of work boots and some coveralls. Delirious with success, I ran straight to the library and tore a full-color map out of a book called Native Peoples of Northern Michigan. Jessica, leafing through The Complete Works of Freud, Volume II, winked at me. I winked back, then went to our cabin and stole a pair of her socks.

“No one’s ever done anything like this for me,” Joe said as I set the socks on the picnic table with the rest of our haul. I sat beside him, and he suddenly turned and buried his face in my shoulder. I patted his blue-black hair.

“Do you really have to leave tomorrow?” I asked him.

He raised his head and laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I mean, I want to go too. To Canada. But I can’t right now. My mom, see. She’s sorting some things out right now. I guess I’m not supposed to tell you stuff about my own life. But could you wait? You could get back on the bus and we could meet up here next year, and then we could all go to Canada together. My mom’s a psychiatrist too, you know.”

“I have been trying to tell you,” Joe said, “that psychiatry is one of the Man’s most powerful weapons. Anyone who resists the program is labeled, medicated, sanded down until they fit in or whisked away if they don’t. No offense, but the one thing I really need to get away from is all you shrinks.”

D-day came. I awoke from a dream about tidal waves, shivering and nauseous. Fog lay in the treetops, suffocating them.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jessica asked on our way back from breakfast.

I glanced at the bus, barely visible through the fog except for the greyhound, which seemed more starkly outlined than ever. Joe was still inside, pretending to sleep.

“You’re going to miss him, huh?” Jessica said.

We went to an interview room and I told her everything, sobbing like a maniac the whole time.

“I want in,” Jessica said, chomping furiously on her gum. “Fuck the Man, man, you know? Tell me what to do.”

At 1:15, T minus 45, Joe and I took up our position behind two pine trees whose trunks had merged. Charles sat on my duffel bag, wearing Joe’s robe and draped in a blanket. We peered around the trunks as the lanky figure of Jessica sashayed through the mist, ponytail bouncing. She rapped on the bus door, unleashed a giant pink bubble from her mouth, and popped it. The driver opened the door and stepped out.

Joe grabbed my wrist to make sure I got a good look at what he’d been living with for five years. This was the man who had captured him. I had never seen anyone like this guy, huge and red with indistinct features, like a ham. He wore a navy blue uniform, not unlike our pantsuits, with a circular insignia on the shoulder. Jessica’s head jerked as he approached her, and she clutched her throat. She had swallowed her gum.

Then, bless her, she did her work. She touched the man’s sleeve, ran her finger around the insignia. She led him over to the front of the bus, where she acted like she was interested in the headlights.

Joe picked up Charles and slung him over his shoulder. As Jessica led the man around to the other side of the bus, we ran across the parking lot and got on. We slid Charles into Joe’s seat. It was true that Joe was an electronics genius. The day before, he had opened Charles’s chest and reconfigured him. When he was done, Charles had only one setting, Deep Gloom. All he could do was turn his head, moan every once in a while, and mutter “leave me alone.” We’d recorded this and the moans in Joe’s voice, using the video camera. At last Charles sounded truly miserable.

We switched him on and wrapped him as tightly as we could in the blanket. Only one foot, with Joe’s slipper on it, stuck out. We figured it would be days or weeks before anyone discovered Joe was gone. Charles fit right in. The other prisoners appeared catatonic. They lolled in their seats or dozed on the fold-down bunks in the back. Maybe it was the drugs, or simply spending a week with the Teen Psychiatrists, that had drained what little life they had right out of them. Even the tall woman’s wild hair had been tamed. Someone, maybe Jessica, had squashed it under a pink bandana.

“Sorry, Charles,” I whispered, and patted his shoulder.

Charles’s head swiveled, his remaining gears whirred. “Leave me alone,” he said, and we did.

We ran back to get my duffel bag. Joe took his map out of the pocket of his coveralls for a final check. That’s when another paper fell out — the one with the words I’d invented, plus a few extras I’d done just last night. Joe picked it up and nodded, then stuffed both papers back in his pocket. I couldn’t tell if he’d seen “love” or my phone number.

At the edge of the forest we shook hands, and then, for some reason, I stepped back and gave him a salute.

“Fight the power,” he said, and turned away.

I watched him carrying my heavy bag away like it was nothing. He sprang across the pine litter in his stolen boots. In a minute there was no trace of him.

The fog lifted. A brilliant blue dome descended over the trees. Birds chirped.

I walked back to camp. The bus was gone, and Teen Psychiatrists wandered the grounds without purpose. The girl whose insights into Jungian archetypes had amazed us all was hitting a tree trunk with a stick. The Erich Fromm Club tried throwing a Frisbee around, but lost it on the roof of the office.

I locked myself in an interview room and sobbed for two hours.

Later, Jessica and I stayed up all night telling each other about our families. Her father had recently quit his job to become a motorcycle daredevil called the Javelin. I knew almost nothing about my own father, a Greek behaviorist my mother had met on Samos, who had disappeared from the face of the earth when he learned she was pregnant. But I decided Jessica’s situation was much worse. The Freudian implications of the “Javelin” were pretty mind-boggling.

The next morning my mom arrived in the battered Mercedes. Her vacation had apparently done her a world of good. Her brow was smooth and her shoulders relaxed, revealing her long and elegant neck, like a dancer’s. She was even wearing lilac perfume. She had never worn perfume in her life.

I threw my luggage into the back seat.

“Why are your clothes in a Hefty bag?” she asked, the rear-view mirror framing her brown eyes. “What happened to that nice duffel bag you had?”

I came so close to telling her the truth. I wanted her to know what I’d done for Joe, which was the best thing — the only really good thing — I’d ever done in my life. I was going to add that although it had its problems, Camp Wah-Kee-Nah had cured my narcissism.

But as I slid into the passenger seat, my mom turned and smiled at me. Along with perfume and that strange calmness, she had acquired a new smile on her vacation — Dr. Shirley’s smile.

“Nothing happened to it,” I said.

My mom had said Dr. Shirley would know how to reach her. Obviously, she had reached her already. The Man’s power grid was worldwide, his antennae tuned.

We drove south across the Mackinac Bridge. Blue sky flashed through white cables. I shut my eyes, and, using the power of my mind, shoved Joe over the line into Canada.

Ann Gelder’s fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Tin House Open Bar, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, and Tin House. Her first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby, will be published by Bona Fide Books in 2014. She blogs, somewhat irregularly, at swerveandvanish.blogspot.com.