I keep a baseball bat under my bed. It’s not a genuine Louisville Slugger, carved from Northern white ash, but it’s polished smooth and when I crept across the outfield to claim it from the equipment shed last week, it fit handily in my grip. It’s only thirty inches long, sized for a ten-year-old. I’ve always had small hands.
At night, I lie on my stomach, one arm dangling over the edge of the bed, fingers tracing the grain of the wood. Legs bare, I kick off the laundry-issued wool blanket, welcoming the mountain air that settles over the backs of my thighs. I listen to the crickets’ pulsing fiddle song, a warning to the males to keep their distance. Stay close, girls, they sing. Stay close, girls, I sing.
On the windowsill above my pillow, I keep a flashlight and a citronella coil and a picture of me and my ex-boyfriend embracing on a beach. I don’t know why I lie to the other counselors and say, It’s ok, the long-distance thing isn’t so bad, but on these nights I’m glad to have the photo near my bed.
I listen to the girls’ nocturnal symphony, syncopated sounds floating across the room from one row of metal beds to the other. Rachel keeps time, her breath soft and measured. Maddie rumbles, the kind of wet, graceless snoring that punctuates itself with gasps and snorts. Her mother said something about adenoids on Visiting Day. They’re terribly enlarged. Are there dust mites in the pillows? Gluten in her cereal? Is she drinking her Elderberry every morning?
Lauren’s bed is bare but I can still hear her chirping and muttering. Safe at home tonight, does she dream about him? Can she smell the sweat and pine sap on his skin, hear the scrape of his zipper as he presses a knee into her pillow? No, she’s probably awake now too.
I stand in the doorway of the bathroom every evening while the girls shower, a gatekeeper. I hear him unzipping his jeans whenever one of the girls closes a toiletry bag full of miniature pink bottles. At dusk I float in clouds of Raspberry Rain and Apricot Mist, but smell only woodchips and damp denim. When the lights go out, old sneakers and Pennsylvania mud. At breakfast I can make out his shape in the shadows behind a dining hall window, gazing at Elise as she swigs her morning Elderberry.
My whole body is alert now, yet that night, I heard only the howl of a little girl awakened by a man’s bare knee bristling against her nose. The squeal of bedsprings surprised at their sudden release. Footsteps pounding past my bed. A loose belt buckle clanging against the doorknob. The screen door’s wail and slam. She screamed and screamed and screamed and I exploded outside, a splinter sinking into the ball of my foot as I pulled up short on the porch step.
I looked across the expanse of black grass, my eyes growing accustomed to the dark. I waited for the flash of a zipper, the rhythm of an unbuckled belt in flight. Porch lights flickered on, one by one, illuminating tidy green boxes full of girls. But in their glow, he was gone, nothing but a set of muddy footprints on the floorboards by the door. A reminder that sleep had granted me too much peace.
Two days after “the incident,” as the director instructed me to call it, I returned to the bunk to find Lauren’s trunks on the front porch, her bed stripped down to its mattress. Her mother hurried out of the bathroom and I froze in the doorway, lake water still dripping from my hair. Alone together, I didn’t say hello, or how are you? or Nice to see you again, Mrs. Dunlevy. She said nothing, but didn’t turn away or try to move past me either.
“I — I’m so,” But I couldn’t drag up the words. Colleges don’t offer a Freshman course in consoling mothers grieving for something they didn’t know they could lose. “I wish — I couldn’t — does Lauren know you’re here?” My eyes started to burn and I took small gasps that pushed the words down further.
She reached out and pulled me into her, and I shook even harder, sobbing because there was nothing else for me to do. When she finally stepped back, her silk shirt bloomed a darker purple where she’d held me. She squeezed my shoulders and was gone before I could clear my eyes.
That night, I called my ex-boyfriend from the staff lounge. “Shit,” he said, matter-of-factly, when I finished.
I’d told him everything: How I still had no idea what that man really did to Lauren because she stopped speaking after she screamed. How badly I wished he’d come for me instead. How the director had offered parents earnest assurances and deep discounts on the remainder of their tuition. How camp policy dictated that I couldn’t keep anything in the bunk that might be turned against us. Nope, no pepper spray, the director had said. Not even a baseball bat, Sweetie. How the new night-watchman reeked of motor oil and spat sunflower seeds all over our front porch. How a broken mother held me like a daughter.
I waited for him to say something, imagined he’d dropped the phone, gassed up his Altima, and already started the four-hour drive upstate to bring me home. But the line just hummed and I stifled my urge to fill the space between us.
Finally: “What’re you going to do?”
“I got myself a bat,” I said, and hung up the phone.
So tonight, I lie on my stomach and run my fingers along its grain. I make sure it’s placed exactly where I can grasp the handle if I need it. I’d say I sleep with a baseball bat under my bed, but this summer, I don’t sleep.
Jessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. She received a BA in Latin from Harvard University and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and two boys outside of New York City.