by Vanessa Rodriguez
The night wrapped the trees in darkness. Only the dull glow of the moon trapped behind a cloud illuminated the sky. Shadows stretched across the lawn, wavering when the wind swayed the boughs.
“This time will be different.”
Grace ignored her father and stared at Camp Crystal’s main cabin. Even the night couldn’t disguise the perfection and reputation the camp was known for.
But it didn’t matter. Everywhere Grace went it was the same. She never fit in.
“When will you be back?” Grace didn’t know why she bothered asking. He wouldn’t decline the job.
Her father sighed. “Can you last until the end of summer? It’s only two weeks.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Gracie, I can’t keep putting you in different summer programs every time it doesn’t work out.”
“This is the last one.”
“I said, I know.” Grace reached over the console and yanked her duffle bag between their seats. She knew it was her fault, she’d screwed up. And this place had a price tag they could barely afford.
Grace’s father touched her arm “I’ll get you if you need me to, but try, Gracie.”
Grace nodded and slid out of the car. She waved goodbye and tightened her grip on her bag before she trudged up the winding walk way to Camp Crystal.
The main cabin’s windows glowed warm with welcome. But it was a mirage—Grace knew the welcome wouldn’t last. By the end of her stay, those inviting windows would be a reminder she didn’t belong. She stepped onto the wood porch, the boards creaking beneath her feet. The air grew quiet, the chirp of crickets and the whistle of wind absent from the night. A rustling in the dark caught Grace’s ear. Prickles danced along her skin. She turned and fought the urge to call out. The shadows swallowed the surrounding woods. Seconds passed.
It was nothing. Perhaps, a small animal. Grace ignored her unease and entered the cabin.
A fire flickered in the hearth, but it was the only aspect of the room that reminded Grace of a cabin. Large white shag rugs covered the wood floors. Glass topped tables and expensive gray leather couches took occupancy of the room. Even the décor was modern and harsh; steel picture frames, black vases, and dark art.
The room wasn’t only empty of campers, but it also felt empty. Cold. Lifeless. A façade.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” Grace set her bag on the floor. Only the crackle of the fire answered her back. Maybe everyone was asleep. Grace glanced at her watch, doubtful. 8:20pm. She sighed.
Grace turned around. A young man dressed in khaki shorts, Topsiders, and a pale blue polo smiled back. The harsh lighting cut deep shadows beneath his cheekbones giving his chiseled face an even more god-like quality. He smiled and Grace blushed.
“Welcome to Camp Crystal. Our guests are finishing up the evening’s traditional fire night. Why don’t I get you checked in before you meet the rest of your cabin mates. My name is—”
Grace’s gaze flickered to the silver name badge on the young man’s chest. “—Miles.”
Miles studied her and smiled again. “Miss Bautista, I have a feeling you’re not like our usual guest.”
“You may be right. But call me Grace.”
“Very well…Grace.” Miles’ bronze skin flushed a shade of pink. He cleared his throat and stepped behind a white counter. “This is your welcome packet.” He slid a large white envelope toward her. “It contains our rules, daily schedules for kayaking, archery, yoga, meditation, lunch, social hour, and many other activities. If it’s not listed, I’m sure we can accommodate. You’ll also find a map and a key to your cabin. Camp Crystal’s modus operandi is to assure you’re as comfortable as if this was your home away from home.”
Grace opened the envelope and let the key drop into her hand. It was large and brass with a crystal-like gem on the fob. This was the farthest place from home. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
“I know this doesn’t look like a traditional camp, but give it a chance. Before your stay is over you’ll have had an unforgettable experience and made friendships that will last a lifetime. We pride ourselves on this. I assure you won’t want to leave.”
“You have quite a challenge then.”
This time Miles didn’t respond immediately. He studied Grace again, but his pale green eyes delved a little deeper. Would he figure her out before she even made it to her cabin?
“I’ll tell you what, Grace.” Miles paused as if he were choosing his words carefully. “If you have any problem—if you feel your experience here was less than memorable—I will personally see to it that it’s rectified. Anything at all, please don’t hesitate to talk to me.” A sheepish grin touched his lips as he leaned across the counter. “I happen to be an excellent listener.”
“Thank you, I’m sure I’ll be taking you up on that offer.”
“I hope so.”
Grace stood in front of Miles, the crackle of the fire like a flame sizzling between them. Maybe camp wouldn’t be so bad after all. If she was expected at her cabin soon, it could wait. She liked talking to Miles.
“Is this her?” A voice said from the other side of the room.
“Miss Benson,” Miles straightened, his air of formality returning, “please, meet Miss Grace Bautista.”
Dressed in jeans, sandals, and a lavender cashmere cardigan, a young woman, Grace guessed to be around her age, strode towards them. She smoothed her cropped black hair behind her ears before speaking. “I’m Lena. I came to take you to the girls before lights out.”
“Our cabin mates. They can’t wait to meet you. We have a full day tomorrow.”
“C’mon.” Lena hooked her arm around Grace’s elbow. “Miles, can you have Grace’s things sent to the cabin, please.”
Grace looked back to Miles for help.
“You’re in good hands,” he said as Lena tugged Grace away. “Grace, remember what I said.”
“Grace, huh?” Lena asked once they were outside the main cabin.
“Miles must like you to be on a first name basis.” Lena’s arm remained slung in Grace’s elbow. “He is an amazing counselor. And off limits.”
“Is he your boyfriend? I didn’t mean any harm. I was just—”
Lena laughed. “Of course not. Camp Crystal has a reputation to uphold. Counselor-camper relationships go no further than acquaintances.” Lena nudged Grace and gave her a warm smile. “I’m just trying to save you from pining over someone who is unavailable to all of us. Miles is charming—exactly what Camp Crystal pays him to be. You have a unique opportunity here: lifelong friendships and acceptance. Connections. Experience.”
Grace studied Lena from the corner of her eye. This girl was dead serious. No malice. No cloaked lies. Or this camp had made her believe every word she spouted like some kind of teenage cult.
“I can already tell we’re going to be perfect friends.” Lena smiled wider if that was even possible and led Grace onto the porch of a small cabin. Like the main cabin, the windows glowed warm and the boards creaked beneath their feet.
Grace followed Lena inside where two beds each lined the opposite walls.
“She’s here!” A handful of voices rang out.
Before Grace could take in her cabin mates’ faces, a pair of arms encircled her, pulling her into a tight hug. “It’s so good to finally meet you—”
“—Grace,” Lena introduced.
“Glad to meet you, Grace. I’m Markie.” The girl released Grace, revealing a mass of loose red waves and bright green eyes.
“Pia.” A girl with a long, thick braid of dark brown hair added. Both Pia and Markie were dressed in pajamas, their faces makeup free and glowing.
“Your bed is over here.” Markie tugged Grace across the room to a pink comforted twin with large gray pillows. “We put together a welcome basket. I hope you like lavender and vanilla.”
The girls stared at Grace with bright, cheery smiles as she took in the interior of the cabin. She could feel their expectant gazes. No doubt they were everything a girl would want being in a new place, but Grace couldn’t help being suspicious. It was eerie. Grace sifted through the basket of lotions, soaps, and makeup. Then she put on her biggest smile and said, “I love it. Thank you.”
All three of her new companions cheered.
“We’ll let you get settled. You must be exhausted and overwhelmed. Your bag is by the door.” Lena pointed behind Grace.
“I didn’t even see them bring it in.”
“Everything at Camp Crystal goes off without a hitch. Never expect less.” Lena stepped closer and drew Grace into a hug. “We love it here. And I know you will, too.”
Sweat dripped from Grace’s brow, the late afternoon heat hovering like a blanket over the woods. Her tennis shoes pounded down the dirt path made by hikers through the brush. Branches swatted at her as she ran; overgrown weeds and plants snatched at her ankles. Grace glanced behind her. No one. Even though her heart raced in her chest, she pushed her legs to run faster.
She reached a slow-trickling brook and slowed to a stop. Her breath came in ragged gasps. The path behind her remained empty, but she had to keep moving.
A twig snapped to her left. What was that? Grace made a slow survey of the woods, but nothing stirred. Leaves rustled behind her, and she whipped around. Nothing. She had to get out of here; her mind was playing tricks on her. Grace took a step back, her shoe sloshed into the brook, cool water seeping into her sock.
She turned around and gasped. “Lena!”
“You’re fast.” Lena grinned.
“How did you get here?”
“I mean, I know, but I didn’t hear you. And you—you were way behind me.” Grace glanced back the way she came. Impossible.
“Grace, are you okay?”
“Maybe your first day was too ambitious.” Lean placed her hand on Grace’s shoulder. They’d only met yesterday, it didn’t feel right, but Grace couldn’t move away. “I think a shower and dinner before fire night is exactly what you need.”
What Grace needed was normal. Normal was no one paying attention to her. Normal was sitting at the camp lunch table alone. Normal was muttered remarks about her under other campers’ breaths. These girls weren’t anywhere near normal. But if she told her dad the reason she couldn’t stay at Camp Crystal was because everyone was being nice to her for once, he’d be upset she pulled him away from work.
“C’mon, Grace. You look pale.” Lena linked her arm through Grace’s like she did the night before and guided her through the woods until the main cabin came into view. They passed a couple of girls heading to the dining hall. Grace couldn’t remember their names, but it was hard to forget how cheery and insistent they were that she joined them tonight by the fire.
“Hey, I think you’re right,” Grace said, stopping in front of the main cabin. “Food and a freshen up will be perfect.”
Lena’s lips curved into a huge smile. “I couldn’t have put it a better way.”
“But I should probably call my dad. I promised I would when I settled in.” Grace’s gaze darted to the main cabin’s window. She had no intention of calling her father; she just needed a moment to herself. And it wouldn’t hurt to see Miles again. He seemed to be the most normal person at this camp of perfect cloned teens.
“Then I’ll save you at seat at dinner.”
“I’ll be there.” Grace jogged up the few steps to the front door, the creak of wood beneath her feet.
Grace stopped with her hand on the door.
“I’m so happy you’re here. You’re fitting in—” Lena paused as if she couldn’t find the right word, but the gleam in her eyes said otherwise. They stood there for a second too long staring at each other.
Grace swallowed. “Perfectly?” she offered, her voice soft.
“You took the word right out of my mouth.” Lena turned and walked away.
Grace shivered and entered the main cabin. Anything to put a wall between her and the feeling that this place was too perfect.
“You were right,” Grace said.
Miles looked up from his laptop and the pile of papers next to it. He peered over the top of his screen and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Right about what?”
“That this place would feel more at home than…well, home.”
“I didn’t say that.” Miles gave her a knowing smile.
“I said that we aim to make this more like a second home.”
Grace stepped over to the counter and rested her elbows on the counter next to Miles’ laptop. “Well, whatever you said, you were right. So thank you.”
“No need to thank me, Grace. It was up to you to trust the situation and those around you. It’s not easy to let your guard down.”
This close Miles’ eyes weren’t just green but ringed in dark blue. How did she get close enough for their arms to brush? “What about your guard? Do you ever let it down?”
Miles breath came out staggered. Grace hadn’t meant to be so bold. A lot had changed these past two weeks. Lena, Markie, Pia—all of the girls of Camp Crystal—had welcomed her despite her distance and shown her what friendship could be. It’d taken time for her suspicion to melt away, but they’d given her no reason to doubt it.
“Not in a professional setting.”
“Right, of course.” Grace moved her arm away, but Miles placed his hand on it before she could escape.
“But it’s been a challenge lately.”
The heat of Miles’ hand weighed heavy on Grace’s arm, seeping into her skin and sending prickles through her limbs and into her belly. She couldn’t move, and she didn’t want to.
The cabin’s front screen door swung open, and Miles pulled away abruptly. Lena popped her head in. “There you are.”
“Miss Benson,” Miles said, his professional charm in full force.
“Grace, tonight is the last night of fire night, and we usually do something special. Are you coming? You won’t want to miss this.” Lena waited with her usual gleaming smile of encouragement.
Grace looked to Miles for help. She wanted him to give her a reason to stay.
“You should go,” he said. But he must’ve seen the look of disappointment on her face because he quickly added, “I’ll be there at the end for closing ceremonies.”
“C’mon Grace, everyone is already in the woods.”
Outside, the night was upon them. Black inked the sky and heavy clouds hid the moon. Lena’s silhouette, only brightened by the small flashlight in her hands, guided Grace past the cabins and into the woods. Branches and fallen leaves crunched beneath their shoes as they weaved between the trees on the beaten path to the large bonfire pit where fire night was held every evening.
“What’s so special about tonight? Well, other than the last night of camp.” Grace couldn’t believe how fast the past two weeks had gone. She hadn’t even spoken to her father since he left. Even when she’d missed his call, she wasn’t homesick.
“You’ll see. I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
A small pit of dread edged its way into Grace’s stomach, but she quickly dismissed it. These girls were different. Different in their endless optimism and open arms welcome, but they weren’t like the girls from other camps. Right?
Ahead the trees took on the warm glow of campfire. They weren’t far. The low rise of chatter and laughter beckoned them as the fire light grew stronger. Grace cleared the last grove of trees and stopped on the threshold of the fire pit.
That tiny pinch of dread blossomed into a cavernous beast of fear. Grace swallowed hard and took a step back, falling into Lena’s grip. “What, what is this?”
“Closing ceremonies, my dear Grace.”
Surrounding the fire, all of Camp Crystal stared back at her. They were dressed in brown hooded robes that touched the bare earth. Their perfect faces transformed into dark grimaces beneath the dancing flames of firelight.
Grace tugged out of Lena’s hands and turned to face her. When had she put on a robe? What was happening?
“Don’t be afraid. This is your induction. You’re one of us now.”
Grace shook her head. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Lena slowly raised the hood of her robe over her head. Around the fire pit, her fellow campers followed. Soon Grace was surrounded by a haunting sea of brown ghost-like figures.
“Trust us, Grace. Have we steered you wrong yet?”
“Please don’t do this.” Grace made a run for it but they must’ve known she’d bolt. Hooded figures grabbed at her and drew her back. “Let me go.”
Lena raised her hands into the air and began to chant a language Grace didn’t understand. The cloaked campers’ voices rose together until their low hum resonated down to Grace’s bones.
“You don’t understand. You’re wrong.” Grace struggled against her captors. Where was Miles? Maybe he’d known about this all along. Maybe he didn’t care about her like she’d thought.
Beside them, the fire fizzled into dull blue flames and then shot into the air like a torch. Grace gasped, but the voices around her grew louder. Faster. Everything became brighter. It wasn’t the fire engulfing them; the clouds opened up as if answering the campers’ call, exposing the moon. It was large and full, like it might fall into the woods and crush them all.
Heat seared into Grace’s skin. Panic coursed through her veins. She began to cry. Grace slumped to her knees as fear wracked her body. It was happening again.
Lena knelt down and picked up Grace’s chin. “Look at me, Grace. We love you. We want you to be a part of us.”
“I’m sorry,” Grace whispered, and she opened her eyes.
Lena stumbled back on her rear and gasped. “What…Grace, your eyes.”
Grace’s captors gasped and let her go. The chanting died away, leaving the crackle of the fire in its wake. Then the screams of terror began. Grace glanced down at her hands. Her nails were lengthened into razor-sharp talons, black and curled at the ends. Energy surged through her body, transforming her into a hunched beastly creature with muscled haunches and a snout. Grace pounced into the crowd of huddled campers and slashed her hands across their bodies. Cries of pain filled the air. Warm blood sprayed across her fur. The metallic saltiness of flesh and death poured into her mouth at every snap of her fangs.
Once the creature inside of Grace surfaced there was no stopping it. She couldn’t control the fear, the anger, or the pain. Grace howled into the air, sad and remorseful. She was fated to be a spectator of her own destruction—it was her punishment for what she was.
The creature didn’t have to turn for Grace to know whose voice that was. Miles. No. Please, leave. Never look back.
“I saw you Grace. I know you’re in there.”
Grace whipped around, her eyes set on Miles. Hunger unfurled itself inside her ready to pounce. She pulled it back but her grip was slipping.
“Listen to me. You don’t have to do this.” Miles’ voice wavered.
The beast dragged her closer. Grace wanted to yell at him to escape while he still could.
“I like you. A lot.”
After what Miles had seen, how could he?
“I knew there was something different about you.”
Grace fought to control the creature, finding strength in Miles’ words. Maybe she could beat it for once.
“Grace, you are strong, and smart, and amazing. I know you can beat this.” Miles stepped closer and Grace strained against the beast. “To me you are…perfect.”
Perfect. It was a lie. Hackles rose on the back of her neck. She’d tried so hard to fit in and when she did, she knew she’d never be perfect. Grace let the darkness inside free. Her clawed arm snapped out, sinking its talons into Miles’ abdomen. She released him and he slumped to the ground with a grunt.
Grace stepped into the cover of the woods where she’d wait until her father arrived.
Alone. And Imperfect.
It was better this way.
About the Author
A Midwest girl and half Pinoy at heart, I now reside in Southern California where I spend my afternoons auditioning for commercials or writing. I write New Adult and most genres of YA from contemporary to fantasy. And my steamy adult romance can be found written under the pen name Angelique Reyes.
Follow me on Twitter @Married2ARod
Read more from Vanessa:
The Cheaters Club – BROKEN BOY on Wattpad
Updates every Friday!