But something isn’t quite right.
Everyone else thinks the camp is perfectly normal, but Stickley can’t help asking questions, such as:
Why does the camp pro never go out in the sunlight?
Why are they building coffins in arts and crafts class?
Why do the villagers across the river fear the camp so much?
and, most importantly:
Why did he agree to come here in the first place?
As Stickley works to unravel the mystery, he realizes that he’s staying at no ordinary summer camp.
Instead, he’s stumbled upon the Tennis Camp of the Living Dead!
Ages 10 and up
ISBN: 978-0-9839942-3-7 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9839942-2-0 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-9839942-4-4 (ebook)
Read the first few chapters of Tennis Camp of the Living Dead!
Stickley was going to have zero fun for the next two weeks. He knew it already. Yes, his older brothers had all gone to tennis camp. Yes, his older sisters had all gone to tennis camp. But he failed to see why that meant he had to go to tennis camp. He didn’t even like tennis.
It had been bad enough before, when he and his twin sister were going to go together. Now, though, Amanda was at home with a cast on her ankle and Stickley was on a bus flying deeper by the minute into the middle of nowhere. The sky was a mass of ominous black clouds. It was hard to imagine things getting worse.
“Hi!” A kid in the next row up turned around and leaned over the seat back. “Aren’t you excited? We’re almost there!” He stuck out a hand for Stickley to shake. “My name’s Davey. Davey MacNutt.”
“Hi. Stickley Smythe.”
“Oh, gee.” Davey smacked his forehead. “I shouldn’t have told you that. My name, I mean. I’m not Davey. I’m David. My motivation coach says that’s more intimidating.”
Though they were probably the same age, Davey’s spindly frame made him look much younger and his hair stuck up like a cartoon character’s. “Intimidating” was not the word that sprang to mind.
“We’ve been working on competitive psychology all spring,” Davey continued. “Has your motivation coach started that with you yet?”
“Look, I…” Stickley began. The truth was, he wasn’t interested in talking. All he wanted to do was stare out the window and stay mad. He’d spent the past hour and a half getting madder and madder, and he didn’t feel like stopping. First he’d been mad at Amanda, then his parents, and finally, Tilden Smythe. This was all Tilden Smythe’s fault.
Tilden Smythe, Stickley’s grandfather, had come in second in the U.S. National Championship in 1947, and the Smythe family was still feeling the effects. Stickley’s parents had met on the tennis team in college, where they were both All-Americans. His oldest brother Oscar had played on the major-junior circuit before deciding that his future lay in antique dealing. Edith, one of his two sisters, played so ferociously that she’d been asked to star in a commercial for Pro-Tough tennis balls. James and Phillip, the next youngest, had just gotten tennis scholarship offers from the University of Malibu. Even his twin sister Amanda, whose love for tennis was lukewarm by Smythe standards, had won an armload of trophies and ribbons. All the Smythe kids, whatever their level of play, had one thing in common: Bright River Tennis Academy. The camp had been a Smythe family tradition stretching back to Tilden Smythe himself, and this year was Stickley and Amanda’s turn. Then Amanda had broken her ankle falling down the stairs last week and now Stickley was going by himself.
The bus drove past a tall barn that sat at the end of a field. The roof was made of red and white tiles, arranged to form a complicated circular symbol full of triangles, diamonds, and other shapes. The total effect was that of a giant angry eye that stared at the bus as it passed. Next to it, an old man in overalls watched the bus go by. The man spat on the ground and made an angry gesture with the first three fingers of his left hand, then turned his back on them.
“Did you see that?” Stickley asked.
“See what?” said Davey.
Stickley shook his head. “Nothing.”
“My motivation coach says my goal for the year is to increase my opponents’ faults by twenty percent,” Davey said. “He thinks two weeks at Bright River, where nobody knows who I am, will really help me. What does your motivation coach want you to work on?”
“I don’t have one.”
Davey nodded sympathetically. “That’s okay. How about your swing instructor? Did you get assigned any drills?”
“I don’t have a swing instructor, either.”
“Oh. Did your nutritionist give you a menu?”
“But your peer mentor gave you some advice, right? I mean, you’ve got to have a peer mentor.”
Stickley shook his head.
“Oh… okay,” Davey said, wide-eyed. He hesitated for a second, then leaned in closer.
“Your parents believe in winning, right?” he whispered.
“Sure,” Stickley said.
Davey visibly relaxed.
“I just haven’t done a lot of it.” Stickley hoped that would be the end of the discussion. He didn’t feel like explaining his attitude to some random kid he’d just met on the bus.
“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Anyway, Bright River’s going to be a great place to learn. You’ll be winning tournaments before you know it!”
Davey was obviously trying to think of something nice to say. Despite his bad mood, Stickley was grateful for that. As a potential opponent, he hadn’t expected any sympathy from a Come On Melvin.
“Come On Melvin” was a private nickname, known only to Stickley and his twin sister, for a kid with an expensive outfit, a graphite racket, hysterical parents, and no sense that there was anything else in the world besides winning. It came from a match he had played two years ago, when he was eleven. Stickley hadn’t had a chance past the first thirty seconds, but his opponent’s parents kept screaming at the poor kid, even as he was beating Stickley into the dust: “Come on, Melvin! You can do better than that! Dig deep! Focus! Come on, Melvin!” It had stuck in Stickley’s mind ever since.
Outside, a streak of lightning struck someplace behind the wooded hills west of the highway. As the rumble of thunder reached them, fat raindrops began to spot the windows. Stickley leaned over and tried to raise his window. It stopped about six inches from the top and refused to budge any further no matter how hard Stickley pounded on it.
“Looks like your window’s stuck,” Davey observed. “Want to sit up here?”
“That’s okay. I’m good.” Stickley edged away from the window and reached over to pull his bag out of the path of the rain.
“Here, let me take that for you.” Davey leaned over and picked up the bag before Stickley had a chance to stuff it under the seat.
Davey read the faded label stitched onto the handle of Stickley’s duffel bag. “Wow, a Müller bag. I didn’t even know they made these anymore.”
Stickley winced. “It was my brother’s. He got it when he came up here the first time. It just kind of got passed down to everyone else after that.”
“It’s a good bag,” Davey said. “All the pros twenty years ago used to carry these. But I guess you know that already. Otherwise, why would you go through the trouble to sew up all these little rips in the sides?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Not for the first time, Stickley wondered what it would be like to own something that wasn’t a hand-me-down. He suspected he’d never know. After all, he was even going to a hand-me-down camp.
Rain lashed against the windows and the bus swerved a little in its lane. This was turning into a real storm. Stickley looked up to where the bus driver sat hunched over the wheel. He wore an oversized Bright River baseball cap and a thick coat that would have made more sense on the deck of a cargo ship than a bus heading for summer camp. A line of heavy black stitches twisted through his stubbly hair and disappeared under his hat. He looked pale and unhealthy. Stickley hoped he wasn’t going to have a heart attack.
Stickley noticed that the driver’s window was stuck open, too. The left side of his coat was getting soaked.
“Hey!” Davey bounced up again. “What do you think about meeting Borgo? Pretty cool, huh?”
“I don’t think I know who…”
“You’re kidding. You got this, right?” Davey pulled a glossy brochure out of his bag. On the cover, a group of kids with tennis rackets on their shoulders walked down a wooded path. They were smiling and waving to another group, also with tennis rackets, going the other way.
Stickley had seen this before. He remembered seeing Amanda read it, then thinking he ought to read it, too, before heading off to camp. Apparently, he hadn’t remembered to actually do it.
Davey flipped to a page in the middle and pointed to a large picture of a smiling man in tennis whites. He had long hair and stood next to a trophy that was nearly as tall as he was.
Davey read from the notes under the photo. “ ‘Radu Borgo: Three-time winner of the Central European Invitational. Personal tennis coach to Princess Elsa of Switzerland. On-set advisor for the films Rise of the Tennis Avenger and Return of the Tennis Avenger. Author of Why Don’t You Play Better Tennis?’ And he’s coming here to coach us.”
Stickley took the brochure from Davey and looked closely. The photograph wasn’t right somehow. Radu was kind of blurry, though the giant trophy was in perfect focus. His sister Edith, who was a photography nut, could have said what had gone wrong in the printing process, but Stickley just shrugged and handed it back.
“My motivation coach played him once. Radu Borgo beat him in straight sets. My coach said he’s got the most deceptive drop shot he’d ever seen. It was like playing a ghost.”
“That’s great.” Stickley sank back in his seat. All of a sudden, he realized that he was the only normal kid on a bus full of Come On Melvins. Up to now, Stickley had managed to push this fact out of his mind by being annoyed with his family. But he couldn’t hide from it anymore. Stickley was going to have to play tennis with these people. A lot.
Stickley was going to get his butt kicked every single day.
The bus passed through more farm country, with scraggly fields that crawled right up to the edge of the highway. Lightning flashed again. An instant later, thunder rattled through the bus. The kids made mock-scared noises for a second and then went back to talking.
A minute or so later, Stickley saw a large wooden sign by the side of the road.
The sign had a border of white flowers planted around its base. It read “Welcome to Vasaria, where decent people sleep well at night!” Underneath were smaller squares showing the local businesses that had sponsored the sign’s construction.
As the rain ran over its surface, Stickley saw that something had been previously carved into the sign and later painted over. It looked like words. He squinted at the ragged letters until he could see what they spelled out:
Stickley stared. What in the world was that supposed to mean? Go home? He would if he could.
The bus driver hit the brakes with enough force to slide everyone forward in their seats. The turn signals glowed and the bus turned left, off of the highway and onto a smaller road hemmed in by tall weeds.
This road, Stickley noticed, was surfaced with gravel. This worried him slightly. Wasn’t tennis supposed to be a game where people ran around on an immaculate court in pressed white clothes? Should they really be taking a gravel road to get to a tennis camp?
Through the windshield, Stickley could make out the shape of an iron bridge stretching across a narrow river ahead of them. Beyond it, the road continued into the forested hills. Thick logs with ragged tops, as if they’d just recently been cut down, stood on either side of the entrance to the bridge.
The bus passed between them with inches to spare on either side. Stickley noticed that someone had carved columns of letters and symbols deep into the backs of the logs. He tried to get another look at them through the rusty iron girders, but was distracted by something in the forest. It was only there for a second, a flash of white in the deep shadows, he was sure he had seen it. It was a human figure, half-hidden behind a tree. Someone had been watching the bus go by.
Stickley slumped back in his seat. He’d have to remember to put all this in a letter to his sister. Before leaving, Amanda had made him promise to write every day. She and Stickley had never been away from each other for this long before and Amanda was nervous about it. Stickley was, too, even though he hadn’t admitted it. But he had agreed to write. At the time, he’d been concerned that he wouldn’t have anything to say. Now, before they’d even reached Bright River, he had seen enough to fill a large-sized postcard.
On the other side of the bridge, the ground rose quickly and the road soon got very steep. More than once, the bus nearly lost its grip on the gravel, slipping sideways for a second and causing little noises of fear all through the bus.
“Whoa!” Davey said as he clung to the edge of his seat. “Exciting!”
Stickley grunted. He was reserving judgment. If they lived, then it would be exciting. If this bus ended up at the bottom of the river, he hoped he would get to come back and haunt his family for making him go to this camp in the first place.
The road wound back and forth through the forest, over hills and around them, until Stickley had no idea how far they were from the river, the highway, or civilization in general. Finally, at the bottom of a long slope, the road widened and the trees began to thin out. The kids on the bus crowded against the windows. Through the trees they could see rustic-looking log buildings, then a tall climbing wall webbed with safety lines.
Cries of excitement went up all along the bus. The high fences surrounding the tennis courts were now visible in the distance.
The bus passed under an arched gate made from lashed-together logs. Above the arch, someone had fashioned the words “Welcome to Bright River” out of branches.
They had arrived.
The bus stopped in front of a long log building with a copper roof. On the flagpole by the front door, the Bright River flag hung limply in the rain.
As soon as the bus stopped, the door flew open and someone dashed up the stairs. He was about as old as Stickley’s oldest brother Oscar, which meant he was probably in college or just finished with it. He wore khaki shorts and a crimson Bright River polo shirt, and had the beginnings of a reddish-brown beard. A grimy, wet fishing hat was perched on the back of his head.
“All right, campers!” He sounded like this was the most exciting part of his day. “Welcome to Bright River Tennis Academy! Why are we here?”
“To always get better! Not just at tennis, but at life!” the kids shouted. All of them except for Stickley. Were they supposed to have learned this already? Was this something else from the brochure he’d forgotten to read?
“My name’s Howard.” He grinned at them. “I’m one of the counselors here, and I also teach the nature studies program. Grab your stuff and I’ll meet you outside to give you your cabin assignments.” He pointed to the rows of whitewashed cabins on either side of the central lawn. “Girls on that side of the commons, boys on the other. It’s a little drizzly out, so watch your step.”
Out the window, black streams of water snaked though the parking lot. The lawn looked like it was about to turn into a huge mud pit. A little drizzly? Seriously? Stickley suspected that unreasonable cheerfulness was a big part of a camp counselor’s job.
The campers had begun to crowd into the aisle, dragging their bags behind them. Stickley unzipped his bag and fished around for his jacket. Moments later, he realized that he’d forgotten to bring a jacket. Or an umbrella. Or any kind of rain gear at all. Not even a garbage bag he could punch arm holes into. As a younger child in a huge family, Stickley was used to his parents letting him manage his own affairs. But would it have killed them to make sure he’d packed everything?
He stirred through the contents of his Müller bag one last time. No luck. But he did turn up something he didn’t expect: an envelope with “Stickley” written on it in Amanda’s round, slanted handwriting.
While he waited for the rest of the Come On Melvins to file out of the bus, he flipped open the envelope and read the letter inside.
It doesn’t look like you’re finished packing, so if you find this note, don’t read it until you get there, okay?
I hate that we’re not going to camp together. I know you weren’t looking forward to it, but I was. A little. I wanted to get good enough to beat Lillian Ange in the city rec league tournament this year. Remember her? The one with the headband? The one who never shut up?
Of course, my ankle may not even be healed by then, so it probably doesn’t make any difference. Edith said she’s going to teach me a special weightlifting program to make the bones heal faster, but I’m not sure I trust Edith over Dr. Henson. I’m going to avoid her for a couple of days and hope she forgets about it.
Be careful while you’re at camp. Make sure you write me every day. Right now you’re only downstairs eating breakfast and it already feels weird. This stupid ankle.
Have a good time. You’re going to hate to hear this, but maybe you can try to work on your tennis. After all, what else is there to do?
P.S. I just checked on the guinea pig. No one suspects it’s a replacement. I’ll keep looking.
That letter was pretty much Amanda in a nutshell. She was the one who always made the arrangements, who always knew what to say. She was good at it, so Stickley had been happy to let her. He had gotten used to it. It was what they did.
Now, though, it was a problem. Without Amanda here to take care of things, he felt like half his brain was missing. Specifically, the half that did things like making sure jackets were packed. Stickley slung his bag over his shoulder. This was going to be a long couple of weeks.
As the campers shuffled toward the steps, Stickley paused for a second next to the bus driver. The driver’s skin was gray and unhealthy-looking, like the underside of a mushroom cap. Stickley thought he could see the bones underneath the driver’s shriveled skin. He wondered what kind of injury had required those huge stitches along the back of his head.
For a terrible second, Stickley thought the driver was about to say something. He couldn’t have explained why, but that idea was horrifying. Stickley had to stop himself from putting his hands over his ears as he hurried past the driver and down the steps.
At the door to the bus, Howard held a clipboard in one hand and an umbrella in the other. One by one, the campers gave their names and he sent them running to their assigned cabins. As the line shrank, Stickley heard campers being sent off to cabins with names like “Hawthorn,” “Rowan,” “Oak,” and “Willow.”
Stickley stepped off the bus. “Yeah, um, Stickley Smythe.”
“Smythe…” Howard checked the list, and then flipped it over to consult some handwritten notes on the other side. “Oh, okay. Here we are. You’re in Ficus cabin.” He pointed to himself. “Awesome! That’s my cabin. Nice to meet you, Stickley. Go drop off your gear and head over to the tennis courts. You guys have got the first lesson today!”
Stickley had jogged halfway across the sodden lawn when he heard the voice behind him.
“Hey!” It was Davey. He wore a windbreaker made from shiny waterproof fabric with luminous yellow stripes along the arms. “Same cabin, right? Ficus?”
“All right! Go Ficus! I bet we’ll get to play each other all the time.” They passed the dripping tower of the climbing wall. “Do you want to stop for a second? You know, so you can put your jacket on? It’s raining pretty hard.”
Was it better to have Davey think he was too lazy to put on a jacket, or that he was too dumb to remember to bring one in the first place? Neither one sounded good, so Stickley shook his head and didn’t say anything as they ran the rest of the way to the cabins.
The boys’ cabins stood in a long row at the edge of the woods, overhung by tall trees. Each cabin had a deep wooden porch on the front. Most of them looked like they hadn’t been fixed up, or even cleaned, in a long time. Some of the walls were covered with ivy, which looked kind of neat until Stickley noticed it was poison ivy.
Stickley drifted over to the opposite side of the path. He’d never had poison ivy, but once his brother James had gotten it so bad he’d been written up in a medical journal. Stickley and James both had the Smythe family features: black hair, blue eyes, and an inability to get a tan. Stickley didn’t feel like testing whether they shared the poison ivy thing, too.
Stubby wooden planks hung from the edge of each porch, with the names of the cabins burned into them. There was “Oak,” “Hawthorn,” “Maple,” “Walnut,” and “Ash.” Then there was “Ficus.” Ficus’ sign was made of plastic, with stick-on metallic letters.
Stickley and Davey stopped and looked up at the sign.
“Wow,” Davey said. “Can you believe we’re actually here?”
Stickley frowned. This place was a dump. As far as he could remember, his brothers and sisters had always said that Bright River was a nice place. But that didn’t prove anything. After all, these were the same people who had told him at various points in his life that: (A) He could fly, (B) There was a magic gnome in the garage that ate little brothers, and (C) All he had to do was be himself and everything would work out fine. He should have known.
There was a rumble of thunder. From somewhere deep in the forest, an owl hooted.
They threw their luggage on bunks in the cabin, grabbed their racket bags, and ran through the rain to the lines of fenced-in courts between the lodge and the river.
They joined a dozen other kids who stood at the edge of the courts, just under the heavy blue tarps that had been hung up to keep out the rain. Underneath the tarps, sodium lamps on poles glowed pinkish and made the entire place seem unreal.
“Hey, guys!” Davey waved. “My name’s Davey. Davey MacNutt.”
He froze mid-wave and smacked himself on the forehead. Hard.
“David!” he corrected. “I’m David. That’s my name.” Davey massaged his forehead. “Wow. You know, that really hurt.”
Another camper, pink-faced with a blonde crew cut, tapped on Stickley’s shoulder. “Begging pardon, please. Are you playing much the tennis?”
His accent was so heavy that it took Stickley a second to realize what he was saying. When Stickley said that he did, the pink-faced camper nodded his head. “Ah. I was afraid of that.”
“My name is Heinrich,” he said. “I am certain now that everyone here, they are tennis playing people, yes? This is a place where you must play the tennis with urgency?”
“I guess so,” Stickley said. “I mean, it’s a tennis camp.”
“I see. A mistake, I think it has been made. I was sent here to improve my English. It was believed that this was a language camp. My parents, they will have distress when they learn this.”
“I’m sorry” was the only thing Stickley could think to say, but that didn’t seem to cover it.
Three figures emerged from the shadows at the far end of the courts. Two of them were counselors, a boy and a girl, both about Howard’s age. They wore faultless tennis whites with little crimson Bright River logos on the collars and carried shiny copper-colored rackets. Behind them was a tall man with longish dark hair, disheveled in a way that looked like he had just staggered out of bed and had probably taken two hours to get right. He wore a white linen sport coat over a striped t-shirt, tight jeans, and a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses. He twirled his racket on one finger.
“Hello, everyone,” the girl said. “Welcome to Bright River! My name’s Becky, and this is Chip.”
Chip nodded at them and flashed a broad smile. “How’s it going?”
“We’re the head counselors here, and also the assistant tennis instructors, so you’ll be seeing a lot of us.”
It had taken Stickley a moment to notice this in the tarpaulin-shaded gloom, but Becky was really pretty. She had big, dark eyes. Her tiny silver earrings glittered in the sodium lights. Stickley realized he was staring at her. He imagined the rest of the Ficuses were, too.
“But you guys don’t want to hear about us, do you?” Chip asked. “Campers, it’s my pleasure to introduce to you the two-time junior European champion, Wimbledon semi-finalist, and Tennis Pro magazine’s winner of the ‘New Faces in Tennis’ award—our instructor for the season—Mr. Radu Borgo!”
The Ficuses went wild with applause. The tall man stepped from behind Chip and Becky and waved graciously.
“Thank you. Thank you all so much.” Radu peered at the campers in front of him. For a long time, he did nothing but stare at the Ficuses, shifting his attention from face to face as if he were looking for someone in particular. Stickley wondered if Radu could even see anything with those glasses on.
Eventually, after an uncomfortably long pause, the tennis pro straightened up and smiled. “All right. Good. All right. Now, first of all, you must forgive me if this speech is a little short, but my English is not too good, you know.”
Behind Stickley, Heinrich muttered something in German. Stickley assumed it had something to do with false modesty.
“When I was a boy in Romania, I had to choose between tennis lessons and English lessons. It was a sacrifice, but it was the right choice. Sacrifices are necessary. No one can crush his opponent without making sacrifices. Are you prepared to make sacrifices?”
Most of the Ficuses nodded eagerly. Stickley and Heinrich were the exceptions.
“Enough jaw-music!” Chip said. “Let’s play! Who’s with me?”
“Hang on,” Becky said, with a dirty look in Chip’s direction. “We have to start out with some practice serves first. Everybody line up along the baseline.”
The Ficuses began to unzip their racket bags and pick up balls from the big wire basket in the corner.
Gingerly, as if expecting it to flip over and snap at him, Stickley took his own racket out. The strings were so loose that they looked like a butterfly net. Grip tape trailed down from the handle in limp curls.
“Golly!” Davey said as he saw the wreckage of Stickley’s racket.
Stickley frowned. He had a vague memory of standing in the Smythe garage with Amanda as he tried to pick out which of their rackets to take with him.
“Make sure you show that to Edith before you go,” Amanda had said as he’d taken one from the rack. “She’ll restring it and regrip it for you in about two minutes. It’ll make her happy.”
Stickley had said he would, and that was the end of that.
As he stood up, Stickley noticed Heinrich sending a few short serves down the court. Even the kid who thought he was going to language camp had brought a working racket. Great.
Becky stopped next to Stickley and Davey. “What’s going on, guys?”
Stickley held up his racket. He tried to smile like it was no big deal. “I’ve kind of got a…”
“Oh, good gracious.” Becky said. “You poor kid! What happened?”
“Is there a problem here?” Radu had materialized at Stickley’s elbow and stood frowning at Stickley’s racket.
“I think his racket’s dead,” Davey volunteered.
“Is there any chance I can borrow one?” Stickley winced a little as he asked this. He suspected that a lecture about taking care of his gear was on the way.
“I don’t know if we—” began Becky, but Radu shook his head dismissively.
“It is no problem. In fact, I appreciate his manner of thinking. To a degree. It is not good to believe that your performance depends on expensive equipment.”
Radu turned to Davey and pointed. “What racket is that?”
Davey stared up into Radu’s sunglasses. “It’s a… It’s a…” He held it up between them, as if trying to ward off the tennis instructor.
Radu nodded. “Ah. I see. A Wembley Pro. Do you appreciate it?”
“I do.” Davey nodded. “I really do.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. The Wembley line is a superb product range. You may ignore all that I was telling this other young man. Go and practice your serves.”
When Davey trotted away, Radu turned back to Stickley. “As for you, there is no reason why you cannot become a strong player with an inferior racket. Fortunately, the equipment shed has a wide variety of inferior rackets from which to choose. Go there and pick out one that suits you.”
The equipment shed was behind the fenced-in courts. Inside, Stickley saw a couple of long workbenches with vises, stretchers, and things for fixing tennis rackets. There was also a very strong smell. At first he thought it was just the heavy odor of new tennis balls from the cartons stacked by the door, but there was something else underneath that. Something bad.
He found the rackets hung up on pegs next to some old shovels. They were older wooden rackets with their handles taped up with everything from duct tape to scotch tape.
The bad smell was a lot worse now. It reminded him of trash that had been left out in the sun and forgotten about, or the time his brothers James and Philip had started an amateur taxidermy business in the loft of the family barn. Holding his breath as much as possible, Stickley sorted through the rackets until he found one that was the right size and wasn’t about to fall apart.
As he turned to head back, his foot scuffed against something and a dense cloud of the foul smell billowed up and encircled him. Stickley’s stomach rolled. He coughed and tried hard not to think of the big breakfast he’d eaten that morning. He pulled the collar of his t-shirt over his nose. It didn’t help the smell much, but made him feel a little better.
He looked down. On the floor was a gym bag. It was one of those big ones, the kind that hockey players carried, which could be as long as a person when it was filled with stuff. It was unzipped and Stickley’s kick had caused one of the edges to fall open slightly. In the half-light that filtered in from the doorway, he couldn’t see what was in it.
Stickley knelt to get a better look, then paused for a second. Why in the world did he think he needed to do this? Didn’t the fact that it smelled horrible give him enough of a clue to leave it alone?
He pushed the sides of the bag open with two fingers. Down here, the smell was inescapable. He could smell it with his eyes, it was so strong. But even now he had no idea what was causing it. In the bag, there was nothing rotten, nothing decaying. Just dirt. A thin layer of plain-looking, ordinary dirt.
For the rest of the lesson, Stickley thought about what he had seen. What was the point of a gym bag full of dirt? And what about the smell? None of these questions had any answer, but they distracted him from having to think about tennis.
All they did that morning was practice their serves and run through drills while Chip and Becky made notes on their performance. Radu walked among them with his hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing them through his sunglasses.
Eventually, Chip blew his whistle and gathered all the Ficuses together.
“All right, everyone,” Radu said. “That is enough for today, I think. My goal today was simply to get an idea of your relative experience.”
“My uncle played for the Universität von München,” Heinrich said. “Does that qualify as relative experience?”
“Clever young man,” Radu said. “No. Today was merely an exercise, but tomorrow—aah!”
Radu broke off in mid-sentence to throw his hands in front of his face. He looked like he was trying to fight off an angry bird that only he could see.
No one knew what had come over him. On the courts, under the shadow of the tarps, there was nothing to see. But outside, a tiny break in the clouds had let the sun through and the wet landscape gleamed with reflected light. An instant later it was gone and the scene was just as gloomy as ever.
Radu shuddered and re-adjusted his sunglasses. Behind Radu’s back, Stickley saw Chip and Becky exchange a quick, worried look.
“Where was I?” asked Radu. “I was… I was… Well, it is no matter. Tomorrow, we play in earnest, but today I think we have done enough. All right?” He pulled his jacket closer around himself. “Go get your lunch now.”
“All right, kids, go ahead,” Becky said. “I’ll tell Howard where to find you.” In comparison to Chip, who was stretching his hamstrings and grunting like a cave man, and Radu, who suddenly looked ill, Becky was as pretty as ever. She certainly didn’t look like she’d been running around a tennis court for two hours. Something about her reminded him of a character from the old black-and-white movies that his brother Oscar collected. She seemed a little old-fashioned, he decided, but in a good way.
As the Ficuses took off in a pack, Stickley stopped a few yards from the tennis courts and turned around. He still had the racket from the equipment shed. Should he return it? Maybe so.
He started to go back, but stopped when he saw Radu loping toward the shed. Stickley wondered whether Radu knew about the strange bag of dirt, too. He decided to hang onto the racket. After all, he told himself, who else would forget to bring a racket to a tennis camp? He was sure no one would miss it. Not only that, but he’d be perfectly happy to never get near that horrible smell again.
At lunch, the campers from each cabin sat together while Fritz, the camp director, read announcements from the back of the dining hall. Fritz wasn’t much older than the rest of the counselors, but his hair was completely gray. According to Oscar, when someone’s hair turned gray early like that, it was a sign that they’d had some sort of terrible shock, or that they were “defective in character.” Oscar had a lot of ideas that the rest of the family generally took with a grain of salt. Fritz carried two clipboards and wore a small spiral-bound notebook on a string around his neck. He seemed to have a lot on his mind.
He talked about how the camp was run and what they were going to be doing over the next two weeks, but Stickley was completely unable to pay attention. A tall kid on Stickley’s left was carefully carving a neat cube from a slice of watermelon and Stickley couldn’t help but watch.
“Hi,” the kid said when he noticed Stickley. “I’m Ron Marduk.” Ron pushed the rest of the watermelon to the edge of his plate and took a bite from the cube. “What’s your IJTF?”
Oh, jeez. The IJTF ranking. If there was anything in the world that identified you as a Come On Melvin, it was worrying about your International Junior Tennis Federation ranking.
“I’m 457,” Ron said. “Third in my region.”
Stickley nodded. “That’s great. I don’t have one.”
“It’s okay. I don’t either,” said Davey, who had been listening in. “Well, I do. But they won’t tell me what it is. My motivation coach says, as far as I’m concerned, I should think of the lowest number in the IJTF, add one to it, and that’s me. He wants me to stay hungry.”
Ron Marduk finished off his cube of watermelon and took a tiny booklet from his pocket. He consulted it for a second, then dug around in the side pocket of his cargo shorts. He took out a pill box as big as a thick paperback book, with dozens of tiny compartments on both sides. After checking the booklet one more time, he opened three compartments and shook a pill out of each.
“Have to keep my enzymes balanced,” he said when he noticed Stickley staring. “Twenty grams of watermelon adds sugar, adds carbohydrates, and it changes a bunch of vitamin levels. Takes me out of my peak performance zone.” He stood up. “I’ll be right back. Gotta get a glass of water.”
On the other side of the hall, Fritz was still talking. He was explaining how campers who wanted extra practice could reserve the tennis courts. In his mind, Stickley counted up the days until he could go home.
It was still drizzling when Howard led them outside again. “All right, guys,” Howard said, “time for arts and crafts!”
In response to the chorus of groans, Howard added, “When you get to the torchlight ceremony, you’re going to have to swear that you got better, not just at tennis, but at life, so don’t give me any of that.”
“What’s the torchlight ceremony?” Ron asked.
“It’s a special assembly we have on the last night of camp. Sort of a graduation. It’s at a secret location deep in the woods. It’s actually pretty cool. I’ll have to—”
Without warning, something bumped into Stickley hard enough to send him lurching toward Heinrich, who tried to catch him, but missed.
“Ow!” Stickley pushed himself up from the wet stone path. A man in work pants and a long-sleeved shirt stood behind him. The man stared down at a tipped-over wheelbarrow and the mud that had spilled out of it. His face was hidden by the brim of a Bright River cap. From what little Stickley could see, he was terribly thin. In fact, he looked a whole lot like the bus driver.
The man knelt slowly, like his joints were stiff, and turned the wheelbarrow right side up. Without a word and still not looking at anyone, he pushed the wheelbarrow down the path past the lodge.
“Are you okay there, dude?” Howard asked.
Stickley nodded. He watched the man push the wheelbarrow away around a line of pine trees.
“That’s one of the Duvalier brothers. They’re… a little odd, but they take good care of the place.” Howard checked the climber’s watch clipped to his belt loop. “Hey! Come on, we’re going to be late.”
The arts and crafts cabin was at the end of a trail that ran through dense woods. Years ago, the cabin had been painted red and white, and even though the paint was peeling off of the elaborate woodwork in spots, it still looked like something out of a fairy tale. Another counselor, a woman with curly black hair falling down to her shoulders, stood at the door. She wore big, round glasses and couple of elaborate necklaces made from scrap metal. She had that vague, well-meaning expression that Stickley always saw in art teachers.
“They’re all yours, Squeak,” Howard said.
“All right, guys! Let’s go inside. You’re getting rained on,” Squeak chirped.
As they followed her, Davey whispered to Stickley: “I bet this improves hand-eye coordination. That must be why they’re making us do it.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right,” Stickley deadpanned.
Inside, long tables stretched the length of the cabin and tools of all sorts hung from hooks. While Squeak introduced herself, Stickley studied the forest through the window behind her. He hadn’t noticed it at first, but there was something out there besides trees. In the distance, half-concealed by a fallen tree trunk, something was watching them. It stood motionless for a second, then disappeared into the underbrush with a sort of hop. On either side of Stickley, Ron Marduk and Davey were listening closely to Squeak. Neither one had seen it.
Squeak picked up a gruesome-looking power saw, whose curving metal teeth looked like something out of a horror movie. “Now let’s get started! Who’s used one of these before?”
After a short, nebulous tutorial that, in Stickley’s opinion, was as good as a guarantee of sending someone to the emergency room, Squeak passed out power tools to all the Ficus campers. Then she divided them up into pairs and handed out cardboard shapes of varying sizes.
“I want you to start out copying these templates so you can get the feel of how the tools work. Okay, guys? There’s some scrap wood in that barrel in the corner.”
For the next hour or so, the cabin was filled with the sounds of machines starting and stopping, biting into wood, and then creaking dangerously as they were pulled free from awkward cuts. Sawdust floated through the air like a mist, and the chatter of the campers was punctuated by the sounds of misshapen wood chunks hitting the floor.
Davey held up their attempt at a finished piece. “Do you think this is good enough?”
“Sure,” said Stickley. “It’s fine. She just wants to make sure we can use the tools without cutting off anybody’s hand.” He glanced over to where Ron was adjusting the gauze dressing on Heinrich’s freshly-bandaged elbow.
At the next table, the Hinchfield cousins, a pair of slightly round kids with bowl haircuts and nervous expressions, were diligently sanding a long piece with odd corners. Stickley couldn’t stop watching them work. He nudged Davey. “Look at that. Doesn’t it look like their piece fits into ours?” he asked.
“Maybe. I guess so.”
“And that one. That could connect to the end.” Stickley frowned as he tried to move the pieces around in his mind. When he and Amanda had been laid up with chicken pox last year, they had gotten hooked on jigsaw puzzles. They put together dozens of them, sometimes together and sometimes competitively, during their week and a half of isolation. He remembered that they had easily been ten times faster when they worked together. Now, as he thought about the wooden shapes the Ficuses were making, it felt like when he knew what piece Amanda needed, but couldn’t find it.
Squeak stood up and took note of everyone’s progress. “Listen, guys, if you’ve finished your first one, go ahead and trade templates with somebody else. I want to make sure you know how to make any shape or angle you need.”
Davey nudged Stickley. “The Hinchfields have a tough-looking one. Let’s show everybody we can do that one, too. I’ll give ours to Ron. It looks like he’ll need something easy. I don’t think Heinrich is a fast healer.”
Stickley didn’t answer. He frowned at where the Ficuses had set down their finished pieces. In Stickley’s mind, the pieces came together. He knew what they were making.