Witness

Short Fiction about Childhood’s New Experiences

I hadn’t thought about Brenda Duncan in twenty-five years. But as I drove my daughter Lucy and her buddies to Cumberland Springs for church camp, memories of my own childhood crowded into the forefront of my mind. When we arrived and the girls tumbled out of the car, excited but the most superficial degree of nervous, innocent but much less vulnerable than anyone would think, just as I had been so long ago, that girl from my cabin commanded my attention again.

The first night of camp when I was ten years old, we huddled along the bunk beds and tried to understand Brenda’s story. Ten months earlier, she had watched her father shoot her mother in their bedroom.

Brenda’s shaggy bangs hung in her eyes. She had scratched at the mosquito bites on her legs until they became sores. She swiveled on her ratty sleeping bag from side to side of her bunk, like an actress playing in the round.

“Mom reached for the ash tray on the dresser. She didn’t hear Dad walk in the room. He shot her in the chest. Her blood got all over the blanket she just bought at Woolworth’s.”

A shudder rippled through the bunks, lined with snaggle-toothed, saucer-eyed girls just like me. I couldn’t imagine my father raising a hand to hurt my mother. I feared I would get in trouble for listening to Brenda, because my parents didn’t allow me to watch scary movies or violent television shows. I felt a sense of shame, as if I were tainted just by hearing the story. But it was also delicious, darkly attractive.

The next day, I let Brenda cut in front of me at breakfast. My best friend Janet shared with Brenda the home-made peanut butter cookies her mom sent to camp. We invited her to sit with us at morning worship services. At crafts, Brenda always got the paint colors she wanted. She could claim the front of the water fountain line on demand as the tale of her tragedy spread. The counselors hugged her, patted her shoulder, cooed “poor child.” As we marched into the cafeteria for dinner, campers’ heads drew together, fingers pointed, mouths whispered behind cupped hands. All eyes focused on us, the loyal friends and the unfortunate girl. Brenda held her head high as she glided past the gossipmongers. The strange fixed smile on her face was one of defense, we reasoned. And after evening worship, a longer, deeper version of the morning, we could not tear ourselves away from the tale she was obsessed with telling.

“I hid behind the door. He stared right at me before he left. Momma never made a sound.”

The third day, she groped for details: how she hadn’t talked to her father since then. How when they returned to the house much later, she had to sneak in the bedroom while her grandmother made a phone call. How her aunt refused to listen to the truth.

We began to avoid eye contact with Brenda. That night, as she whipped up the emotions of our cabin mates, Janet and I used our flashlights to read notes we’d exchanged with boys during the worship services. Brenda poured on the effects: “Did I tell you about the gun?” A few girls yawned and fell asleep.

The fourth day Brenda didn’t say much. Nobody made room for her when she approached the crafts table. When she didn’t get her own bottle of glue right away, she wandered off. She found the camp nurse and they sat outside the nurse’s camper in lawn chairs. The nurse leaned forward, listened, and held her hand. When Brenda approached us in the cafeteria line at dinner, we turned away. She scooted her tray next to mine anyway then sat down at our table.

“My grandmother still won’t let me talk about it.”

Janet and I would not look at her. We giggled between ourselves about the lifeguard we both had a crush on. The three other girls at the table leaned over their plates, intent on their mashed potatoes and gravy.

“They fought all the time,” Brenda’s voice grew shrill. “I was used to it.”

“Okay, okay, we know,” I rolled my eyes.

“He’s in jail now,” she practically shouted.

Janet and I exchanged glances, and we shook our heads. I stabbed at the meat loaf. When Brenda touched my arm, I jerked away.

“What’s wrong with you?”  She appealed.

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me.” My voice grew louder.

“I was there all by myself.”

“We know the whole story. You’ve told us everything.” I slammed down my fork.  “And it’s sick and we’re sorry, but we wish you’d shut up.”

Suddenly the room was still. Everybody had frozen. Campers standing in the food line stared. But they were watching Brenda.

I picked up my fork, swirled my peas and carrots. “Look, we’re sorry. But we just can’t…you can’t talk about it all the time.”

Brenda’s eyes narrowed, but didn’t fill with tears. She whirled to her plate, chomped her dinner roll in silence. The noise gradually returned. Chairs scraped across concrete, forks tapped against plastic plates, occasionally a glass of fruit punch crashed to the floor. The other girls at the table wiped their mouths, set down their napkins, waited for me. We abandoned Brenda and bused our trays as a group. As we left the cafeteria, my friends thanked me for cutting her off.

I shivered at the memory then caught up with my daughter Lucy, who was trying to pick a bunk with all her friends nearby.  They had lugged in their big suitcases and only a few items remained in the front seat.

“Can I speak with you a minute?”

Lucy huffed but followed me back out to the car. She piled her autograph dog on top of her scrapbooks while I tried to talk to her.

“You’ll make new friends here,” I hesitated. She shrugged. I looked at the other campers trickling into their cabin. “Some will be different from you.”

A wiggle of understanding crossed her forehead. She looked at me straight on.

“Mom they’re waiting. We’re going swimming and I don’t want to have to walk by myself.”

“I know, but, the different ones, you’ll treat them…?”

“What? I still have to change. Can I go now?  I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

She dashed off to avoid being odd man out. It’s not you I’m worried about, I thought. I was still standing there when Lucy’s friends appeared in their bathing suits. She scampered to catch up with them.

“Make sure you…listen,” I called half-heartedly, but they were already out of earshot, carrying their monogrammed towels and sun totes toward the swimming area.

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