from “The Badge” by Jeremy Garrett


Scouts in rain slicked ponchos lined up on the hill.  As the bugle played the stars and stripes were folded into a tight triangle.  The chaplain spoke, and a few of the boys wrung their hands through his prayer.

Inside the mess hall a troop of scouts claimed the table in the shadows of stuffed deer heads.  Untouched food steamed on their trays as they regaled each other with hunting stories earned with their fathers.  Sam was the head boy at the table, and as a Life Scout going on Eagle he was full of the experience the younger scouts admired.  At one scout’s request he unfolded a photo from his wallet to show off his trophy kill of an elk’s head and antlers mounted above his bed.  His grin lessened with every telling of the story.  “Dad had taken his shot and missed,” Sam said.  “The elk came straight at me.  I stood and I faced him and I shot a bullet through his neck.”

After dinner the boys waited out the rain on the porch of the lodge.  Relaxed in his rocking chair, Sam was surrounded by scouts with stories less bloody than his.  A scrawny kid boasted of a wrestling win over a Goliath outside of his weight class, and another boy claimed to have survived for weeks alone in the woods.  There was one scout, however, who told stories that were not his own.

Andy McClure sat in the rocker to Sam’s right, and each day after dinner he would read the scouts passages from the horror novels he’d brought with him to camp.  Pale, precocious, and respected for his intimidating silences, Andy McClure lured all the boys in with his monotone drawl.  Today’s reading was of a Louisiana swamp cult’s deadly bacchanal.  The boys cringed at Andy’s depictions of breasts and blood, and in the time it took to read the passage the bookish kid was the most popular of the scouts.

Sam welcomed those moments when the spotlight was off him, when he was saved from retelling the story of the time he’d shot the deer.  Last night Andy had paced around the campfire recounting the tale of an escaped gorilla stalking a woman through a dark city alley.  At the climax of the story Andy had startled them all by taking hold of a younger scout and shaking the boy by his shoulders.  Sam was almost jealous of the contact.  He didn’t really know what it was to be scared.

Andy’s tale of swamp cannibals went unheard by the group of scoutmasters smoking in the corner of the porch.  Sam listened beyond Andy’s reading to catch pieces of their conversation.  “There’s nothing we can do about it,” said one scoutmaster, taking a languid drag from his cigarette.  “The land’s their property and they can do what they want.  But I dare one of them to step into this camp.”

The breeze sent tendrils of smoke spiraling towards the boys.  Though cigarettes were forbidden to them, the adults’ example placed the unhealthy practice in high esteem.  Scouts smuggled cigarettes into the camp, and each summer more and more boys were initiated into the cult of tobacco.  Sam had a pack of American Spirits in his tent.  He craved their feel in his lungs, and the contentment of holding one in his fingers.  He stood

from the rocker and pulled on his poncho.  “I’m braving the rain,” he told the boys.

Andy marked his place in his book.  “If you’re going back to camp I’ll join you.”

Camp Crooked Creak was shaped like a horseshoe around the dead end tributary of a river.  The rain lessened as the boys walked, and the camp spread out before them in all of its rain soaked glory.  On the three-mile trail to Campsite 12 they passed the craft hut, canteen, sports field, and archery range.  They stripped away their ponchos when the sun poked out from the clouds.  Closer to camp there were boys fishing from a peer, where the lake gave off the steam of a quenched inferno.

The campground was empty.  Inside Sam’s tent they sat cross-legged on opposite cots.  Rainwater dripped from the trees onto the tent, and the vibrations sent daddy long-legs scurrying across the canvas ceiling.  Sam stretched out his legs and lit them both a cigarette.  “There’s something the adults aren’t telling us,” he said.

“I know what it is,” said Andy, choking on his first drag.  “I can show you.”


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