If Sheila could read minds, she would have about a forty three reasons to fire me. As a day camp counselor accountable for twenty-one hyperactive third graders, I found it difficult to get through the day without some inappropriate thoughts.
For instance, I had given all of my kids rather tasteless nicknames. There was Deborah, the girl with narrow eyes whose wispy blonde hair always stuck out behind her ears. She never smiled or frowned- so I called her Yoda. Then there was James, who had tiny ears and no hair. What kind of third grader is bald? In my mind, he was Caillou- though to his credit, he was much less whiny than the cartoon kid.
Sarah was in another category completely. To be honest, she was one of the creepiest kids I had ever met. On our trip to the petting zoo, she had grabbed my hand, looked up at me with pleading eyes, and asked if she could hit the animals. Hell no, you cannot hit the animals! What the fuck? I liked to call her the silent killer because I was certain that she would grow up to be a convicted felon.
It was every counselor’s least favorite day: the field trip to Ivory Park. Out of every weekly trip, this one was on the bottom of our fun list. For one thing, it meant an entire afternoon outside in the 90 degree heat. It also meant that every kid would go home with bee stings, sunburn, and vicious scratches from the ducks that had “attacked them out of nowhere.”
Sarah tugged on my hand until I looked at her. “Will we get to play with the ducks?”
“You will get to feed them if you are good, hon.” I won’t let you within 3 football fields of those poor creatures. “We’re about to get in line, you can be leader.”
I pursed my lips and let out a sharp whistle. “Miss Jamie’s group, line up in THREE…. two,” the kids darted across the gym, nearly knocking each other over. I skimmed the “line” in front of me. One of them was picking his nose and there was a small cluster of people in the middle. However, they all had their eyes on me, and this was as close to perfection as I could ever hope for. For the hundredth time, it had been proven: counting down was magical. I had no clue what I would do if I ever got to “one.”
“Alright, let’s go! If you brought a lunch, hand it to me as you get on the bus!”
As I stationed myself beside the bus doors, I was tempted to slip the driver a twenty and ask her to take us to Chuck E. Cheese’s instead. Counselors always got to take the tokens of the kids who misbehaved to use them for their own gaming pleasure. Last year, I had won enough tickets to get 43 mystery flavor Airheads.
“Miss Jamie, will you sit with me?” Dani pulled at my wrist.
“We’ll see when everybody is on the bus.” While counselors are not supposed to pick favorites, Dani had snatched that title the day we ran out of bologna and she offered to share her lunch with Sarah. Unfortunately, it was not my job to sit with Miss Generosity on the bus. I had to focus on “makin’ sure those damn kids don’t say a word,” as the driver phrased it.
As I climbed up the stairs, the doors closed behind me with a shutter-inducing squeak. This was enough to stop every giggle, squeal, and “I told you so!” on the bus. I propped my clipboard against the front seat.
“Josh, please move to the front… we need two to a seat, guys! Now, Miss Beverly has asked that we have silent bus on the way to the park.” Her request was met with a universal groan. I also thought that silent bus was a bit harsh, but I wasn’t about to cross the former weight-lifting champion of Puck County.
“You guys are not in trouble! Miss Beverly needs to focus on her driving. Now, if you promise to stay quiet for me, you will all get a surprise after lunch. Do you promise?” I tried to add a hint of sweetness to my voice at the end, but it ended up sounding rather fake. I didn’t expect them to be perfectly silent, and I didn’t blame them for wanting to talk. Nonetheless, they replied with the anticipated (if not a bit half-hearted) “We promise.”
“Alright, let’s be goin’,” Bev mumbled. I scanned the bus for the child most likely to talk first- Horsemouth, of course. I grabbed each seat as I headed down the aisle, giving Dani an apologetic nod. I heard Shannon squeal as I slipped beside her. Just as she opened her mouth, I held a finger to my lips. In the seat across from me, Deborah began to cough.
“Shylent bus! Ya’ll be quiet!” Geez, it was a freaking cough. This was ridiculous. Yoda looked at me and began to bite her fingernails with amazing determination. Her face turned pink, her eyes brimming with tears. I took a deep breath.
“You are allowed to cough, Deborah!” Holy crap- my voice really boomed when I put some umph into it. Oh well, it was all the better that Bev heard me. They were my kids, not hers.
“Miss Bev, watch out for…” Dani’s voice caught mid-sentence as the bus swerved to the right. Twenty one tiny screams filled the bus as it tumbled onto the grass and came to a halt. Holy fucking shit. My breathing was shallow and ragged, my arms curled tightly around Shannon. I felt the dull sting of her fingernails digging into my chest.
“Sorry ‘bout that! There was a puppy!”
A puppy. My kids collectively gulped for air in relief, and for once, nobody said a word.
Bev chuckled as she turned the key in the ignition. The engine rumbled for all of two seconds before fading. Frowning, she turned the keys again. The engine was silent.
Crap, anything but this. I took everything I thought about Chuck E. Cheese back. Ivory Park was definitely the most fun field trip! I loved spending the afternoon outside! I loved not spending the afternoon on a broken-down bus.
Bev threw the keys on the dashboard and slid her phone out of her pocket. Crap. Well, it was time to get creative.
“Hey kids, let’s get out of the bus! I think I see an Indian!”
“Where, where?” Horsemouth pressed her face against the window. “I don’t see anything.” She crossed her arms and stuck out her bottom lip in a convincing imitation of a spoiled brat. You can’t fool me, Horsemouth. I see that spark of excitement in your eyes.
“You have to go outside to see him!” I rushed down the aisle. “Line up! Let’s go!”
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t my best idea. Maybe lying to my kids was a bad habit. But most of the time, it had come in handy. My kids had never been more angelic than the day I told them that the bears at the petting zoo could escape from their cages. But there wasn’t much harm in a visit from a friendly Indian. Maybe I could deliver on this one. Anything was better than twenty-one cranky third graders.
“Okay, guys, I have to make a phone call! Get in a circle!” They clustered together to form a haphazard trapezoid. New method. “Everybody hold hands and spread out! Kyle, we’re playing duck-duck-goose. You start.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and slid it open. Who the hell would drop everything to put on a tribal costume and hide in the woods? Unless… oh god, I would owe her my firstborn child. But it was worth a try. I pressed the number three on my speed dial.
“Hey, Sheila? I have a bit of a favor to ask of you.”