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My Best. Our Best. Their Best.
Silent in front of me laid a girl named Carly, fragile and misshaped to those who looked closely. The tears ran down my spine, ingraining a panic hushed by the gentle breathing of the sleeping children around me.
“Carly, can you hear me?” Whispered into concrete ears, she did not stir. Her breath was heavy, running faster then her body could keep up with.
“Carly, you need to wake up.” She remained strewn in her position; unable to feel my quivering hands shake her unnaturally still body. With every thrust of the wind the tent would gain a wisp of cold air, as if to give aid to the increasingly dire situation. The sudden memory of the movie “New York Minute” appeared, blocking my senses. The warnings of a nearing tornado had cause my ten-year-old self, my twelve-year-old sister, and my forty-five year old father to be placed into a walled room during the middle of the movie, with no windows and one solid white door. Trembling in a state of blindness, I saw. I saw everything I’d always fear coming true, crashing down on me like the twisted rains full of acid, distorting my beating heart. Lost in a great darkness, I found myself weeping. Even in my father’s arms, with my sister’s coos, I was weeping. A childhood fear realized and a memory that would never be forgotten.
“...it’s okay,” remembering where I was, “Carly, it’s Natalie… you have to wake up for me… please?” Desperate at this point, I raised my voice to the volume at which secret comments passed between friends are made in the hushed silence of a movie theatre.
“Whaddss goinon? Whhyiss shebreathin liketat?” The youngest laying behind me, only eight, awoke groggily, piercing the night with the vary question playing on repeat in my brain for the past hour.
“Oh Anna,” turning down to my original volume, just above silence but not above a whisper, “go back to sleep, she’s just having a bad dream.” I prayed.
“Hmm… oaakk…” Muttered into a blur of lines, she was all ready whisked off into a cloud of sleep. Eleven children, playing in the land where the moon is brighter then the sun, snuggled into the cocoons their parents carefully prodded and poked to make sure that their child would have the best. The best being a sleeping bag made for Arctic winds and bug repellant too strong for even the mightiest Amazonian forest pests to handle, containing 98.5 percent deet, sold at your local convenience store for three dollars. I wondered if this moment would be one of those you see on the news, about the tragic camp counselor who lost a camper due to the stupidity of feeding her peanuts when she was deathly allergic. I could see the headline, Peanuts Kill Camper, Counselor To Blame or even better, Natalie Brownson, Cold Nutted Killer. Next to the article, hidden on page “E7” in the corner would be the horrible picture taken for my eleventh-grade year book, the one where my hair is wet and full of shampoo from a shower that ended five minutes too early and I’m still wearing my blue staff shirt. Looking down at the girl, a girl that was possibly going to ruin the only future I had, I shook harder.
“Carly. I am telling you to wake up.” Still speaking in a voice only a mouse could hear, I could barely contain the flood of rage spilling into my veins, this one person that could destroy everything.
She stirred. Turning over and reaching for the flap of her borrowed sleeping bag, without a conscious thought.
“Carly, I am not angry,” lying, I rubbed her shoulder,” you have to wake up. Please.”
“Okay.” A voice shot out of the darkness, chilling the wind to a standstill, causing the flaps of the tent to hold their breath. I could have French kissed the sun.
“Okay, we’re going to step outside,” looking around through blind eyes, I notice how suddenly the eleven gentle heads seemed so easily able to be stepped on, “but watch your step very carefully...”
“Okay, but why?”
I led her through the snuggled nests of the others without answering, concentrating with nearsighted eyes on the faint green light glowing from my wrist, the only light I had on me, for my flashlight was next to my green sleeping bag all the way across the tent, about four children in the opposite direction. As we reached the long unintentional tear in the side, I felt the cool air breathe again. Letting out the breath I had kept in for the last hour, I could finally use my normal voice.
“Do you ever have trouble breathing at night?”
“I do when I’m outside, near grass...” She looked down at her feet, staring heavily at the soft grass.
“I see, have you always had trouble waking up?”
Not answering she continued to stare longingly at the grass, so much so it could have replaced the color of her dark brown eyes.
“Carly? Would you rather sit? Near the fire pit?” I never noticed how meek she must be, frankly, this was the only conversation we’d shared that lasted over short greetings and small chitchat.
“Yes, that would be nice, my knees hurt.”
“They hurt a lot when I walk, especially on hills.” Studying the landscape, I began to regret the encouragement I shouted at all the girls as we made our way carrying large forest green packs and food supplies up the large hill we were currently perched on, especially to those who carried the blue water jug, which included none other then the girl sitting next to me on the mossy and damp log. Damp from nothing else, but the moss. The wind weaved through the willows and oaks around, playing with leaves until it reached us. Glancing at this young girl, with hair of porcupine fur and smelling of lavender, the anger seeped from my heart and turned into guilt in my stomach. How could I have been so angry with this innocent girl, only half my height, though full in figure.
“Why do your knees hurt so much?” I stared at the grass, with as much interest as she had just moments before.
“I was born with that one disease, the one where your birth mother drinks while you’re in the womb... alcohol something.” My head shot up. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. “I was put into the foster system, but now I have another family, although sometimes I wish I didn’t.” Putting the pieces together, with a crack of lightning, I understood. I knew more about this then she might think.
“Why does it take you so long to wake up?”
“What?” She looked at me with a question written across her mind.
“When you were asleep, you were breathing heavy, but when I tried to wake you up, you didn’t stir for the longest time. Why?”
“I just am a heavy sleeper, it gets kind of loud in my house...” she seemed infatuated by the grass again.
“Is that why you had trouble sleeping? Do your parents fight a lot?”
“It’s nothing, it’s just the grass as I said before.”
“I know, I know, but...” she turned away from me, knowingly, “Okay. Would you prefer to sleep back at main camp, away from the grass?”
We walked slowly, the dirt path in front of us was filled with silence, making it wider and longer then it was six hours ago when we got here. After explaining to the nurse what had happened, and agreeing in short conversation that I’d come and pick up Carly in the morning, I moved toward the door. Hidden behind the secrets of who she will become and what is shaping her now, I took her image in like the moss on the log soaked in water. She didn’t dare look toward me, for she knew what I would see. The truth would be plainly written across her face.
Walking back to the campsite, where the eleven heads danced in unison with the stars breaking through the navy sky, I evaluated my assumptions. Through the required training, all staff learned when to recognize warning signs that a child was being abused in their own home. Knowing in my gut because of experiences in my own past and backed by trained evidence, I walked faster. Faster toward the campsite, faster toward the sleep that would remind the sun to brighten the sky, and faster toward a future I wanted to prevent.
The next morning I awoke to find a day of imagination. The children were up and ready by six a.m., we got our fire to start, and we were first back to main camp without one hitch. The seductions of such a day, made the events in the night almost vanish, as if fogged in a mist by the glorious sunlight. Unfortunately only the ignorant could ignore the past, and I went into Health Service’s to find an empty room. They told me that Carly had fallen asleep while leaning against a wall. They tried for several minutes to wake her but couldn’t. By the time I arrived, it was too late, they had called her foster parents and had picked her up early this morning. The perfection of the day was thrown into the dirt, drowning in the rain of mud and irony. She was given back to the people that would alter her, misshape her, and leave her broken, only to have to fight to survive in this world alone. I filed a suspected abuse report, knowing that because I never asked her the real question, thus never hearing the truth, nothing would ever come of it.
I walked down the dirt path, smaller and thinner then ever before, filled to the brim with thoughts, with lost actions and wonder. What would happen to her? Would I see her next year, if so, would she be covered in long sleeves in the heat and be lost inside herself? How do you live with knowing that somewhere there is a child who falls asleep as fast as she can so she can block out the noise that comes at night, the fighting, the screaming; a child that has trained her body to never wake until it’s safe. Looking further and further down the path, I saw the future, her future, and my past. I had to turn away.
I had to forget.