Middletown Middle: The Girls Who Never Left

“All the best times in my life happen at camp,” ten-year-old Sally declares, hugging her bunkmate on the first day of camp. They hadn’t seen each other since the previous summer, but they pick up right where they left off.

“It’s because the rules are different here,” Nancy, Sally’s bunkmate, remarks as she finds a spot to sit on the edge of the bed.

“What rules?” Sally inquires, jumping onto the top bunk above Nancy.

“You know, like we have to be in bed by nine o’clock, no boys are allowed, and no telling ghost stories.”

“We’re the only camp anywhere without ghost stories,” Sally says, leaning over the edge of the bed to look at Nancy. “It’s because the younger kids get scared.”

“Well, yeah. I’d be scared too,” Nancy admits. “But you’re not.”

“No, as long as this place is here, I’m not going to be afraid,” Sally asserts confidently.

At Camp Karacapi, an all-girls summer camp located just an hour from Middletown, Kansas, a lunchtime tradition takes place. As the girls prepare to sit down for lunch at exactly 12:05, one of the older girls stands up and calls out, “It’s time for the lunchtime song!” The girls eagerly anticipate this moment each day, joining together in song and celebration.

All the others respond – Flea!
The older girl follows with – Flea fly!
The girls shout back – Flea Fly!
And they continue trading lines.
Flea fly Flo!
Flea fly Flo!
A koomalada koomalada koomalada beestay!
A koomalada koomalada koomalada beestay!
Oh no no not the beestay!
Oh no no no the Betsy!

At camp, the girls call the lunch lady Betsy and fear her food more than they fear ghost stories. In fact, they have stopped eating it entirely. Who has time to eat, anyway?

The campers, aged six to sixteen, spend their entire summer at the camp. It’s a time warp without phones or electronics, and they live in cabins of indeterminate age. Calendars on the walls have been untouched for decades, and while the paint may have faded and the landscaping may be overgrown, the camp itself buzzes with energy.

Summertime is always a joyous occasion for these girls, as they reunite with old friends and enjoy each other’s company. Nights at Camp Karacapi are hot and sticky, but the girls are so exhausted from their days that they fall asleep easily. They know that the secret to life is to enjoy it, and the summers at the camp feel endless. For the older girls, leaving the camp is emotional. The last day of camp isn’t just the end of summer for the sixteen-year-olds; it’s the last day of their childhood.

The girls pay no attention to the calendar, as they know the schedule by heart. Each week brings with it sacred traditions, such as color days, the play, the talent show, pie wars, and parents day. Color days is a week where the campers are separated into four colors. Their color will not just be for the week but for every year they are at the camp. It’s a legacy, and any siblings who attend will be on the same team. Throughout the year, the girls buy clothes in their chosen color so they can have a summer wardrobe in their hue.

These traditions don’t make sense to the girls’ friends outside of camp. While kids outside the camp are playing video games, the girls at Camp Karacapi are writing skits, having swim races, and participating in cardboard regattas. At the camp, everyone is equal, and all ideas are heard.

Camp Karacapi is protected from the larger world. The road sign, painted by campers who have been adults for decades, is worn and faded, serving only as a landmark to those who know to look for it. The camp can be found in a cluster of elms and black walnuts on flattened farmland. The dusty road leading to the entrance stretches for miles until you come upon a tall and tattered teepee. The camp is so old that parents used to bring their children here on horseback. As nature reclaims its space, the road to the camp has become overgrown.

Sometimes, neighbors who live miles away complain privately about a deep, booming drumbeat emanating from the camp. It’s like a heartbeat that fades when summer ends. However, when you are on the campgrounds, the beat is silent. All camps have strange, unexplainable anomalies that defy explanation, and Camp Karacapi is no exception. There are stories that the sixteen-year-olds tell the six-year-olds that grow and change every summer. These are stories that can only be told when you’re safe.

At Camp Karacapi, troubles from home stay there. It’s a safe place, a place where time has stopped, and the world’s troubles seem like make-believe. For these girls, especially, the outside world seems to move further away from their reality each day. The ghost stories other camps tell by the fireside pale in comparison to their Camp Karacapi.

The girls say all life’s best moments happen at summer camp without a note of sarcasm. For most, life outside of camp was fine. For others, camp was an escape.

As summer moves along and parent day approaches, there is a mix of excitement and anxiety. The girls trade their independence for a day to brag to their parents about how amazing their summer has been. However, the presence of their parents also reminds them of all the things they usually try to ignore, such as time and troubles.

On parent day, four girls from the Elm Cabin skip their traditional morning polar bear song at breakfast.

“I wish there wasn’t a parents day,” says Donna, an eleven-year-old redhead with pigtails, looking on the verge of tears.

The other three kids nod or grunt in agreement as they push their scrambled brown eggs around on their plates. As mentioned earlier, nobody eats much at Camp Karacapi.

Anna, a twelve-year-old wearing a solid blue t-shirt covered in hand-scribbled markings representing camp slogans, says, “I don’t think both of my parents will come.” Her name, Anna, is written in big letters on the back of her shirt.

“No?” the redhead asks.

“Dad was really sick last time,” Anna explains.

“At least you might have someone coming,” the third girl at the table adds. “My parents stopped coming years ago.”

The fourth girl wishes aloud that they would just cancel parents day.

“They will,” Anna says. “When the parents stop coming.”

Donna stands up from her seat and walks away in tears, dumping the food from her tray into the trash. In an attempt to lift the mood, she begins to sing.

Flea Fly
Flea Fly Flo
The other girls don’t join.

Come-a lata come a lata come-a lata vista
Oh no no not the vista

Despite her efforts, no one joins in, and Donna finishes her melancholy chant alone.

Eenie meenie decimeenie oowala wala meenie
Exameenie sala meenie ooh wala wala meenie
Beep beadalily oatenboaten boo boe bedoaten dottin

Her words are heavy with a sense of emptiness and sadness. The room falls into an uneasy calm as she finishes her song. Suddenly, a low rumbling noise from outside grows louder. The girls realize that it is the sound of cars arriving.

“The parents,” they say, leaning back in their seats.

Slowly, the girls get up from their tables, grabbing the hands of nearby campers. In clusters, the campers slowly exit the chow hall and gather in the meeting area by the flag. On the far side of the camp, a dusty parking lot fills with cars, though there are far fewer than in years past. The girls wait as the cloud of dust settles, not moving from the area until their parents come over to them.

“I can’t tell if that’s her.”

There are mutterings throughout camp.

“She’s alone, oh no.”

“They’re taking forever.”

One girl runs to the edge of camp and stops, tears streaming down her face as she waits for her elderly father. He walks slowly, but better than some of the others who need canes or walkers.

“They look so old.”

“They are old.”

It takes a while for the parents to reach the meeting space. When they do, the kids’ sadness subsides, and they seem genuinely happy to see their parents. The kids with their parents disperse around the camp, while the campers without parents are invited to tag along. Overall, the parents aren’t as athletic as they used to be, so they mostly sit around updating their kids on the goings-on at home. A couple of adventurous ones hop in a canoe and lazily float around the lake.

The summer days are long, but night approaches. After a day full of talk and activities, it’s time for the parents to go. Their eyes aren’t like they used to be, and the thought of driving the dark wooded roads sends them into a panic.

The goodbyes are emotional. For some, it will be the last time they see their parents. The camp will survive the absence of Parents Day. Another tradition will take its place, but it will not include ghost stories. Ghost stories have been outlawed at Camp Karacapi for more than 70 years, but in the neighboring communities, there is a story full of spirits.

The neighbors who can hear the boom of the drum across the lake complain privately but know there is nothing that can be done. The girls are happy. They deserve to be happy.

Their ghost story is of eighteen happy girls who were killed one summer over 70 years ago when a deranged cook laced marshmallows with poison. S’mores around the campfire on a brutally hot night were to be the last activity they’d participate in as living, breathing beings. When the police arrived early that morning, the fire was smoldering, but there was no life in the girls.

The camp closed officially the next day. Betsy, the cook, was arrested and spent the remainder of her life in jail. The land where the camp sits has never been touched. Its owner is unknown, but the girls have made a claim to it. Every few years in the spring, good Samaritans prep the space for the campers. They pull weeds, replace sheets, and paint the walls bright pink and blue.

At the general store down the road a bit from the camp, there is a faded black-and-white photo of the girls from the last camp. All eighteen campers who died are included. Even in the old photo, their smiling faces are clearly shown. The woman who owns the store is in the picture too – one of the survivors. She knows the story and protects it. The story of the campers by the lake cannot be changed. It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story about an endless childhood, about the girls who never left.

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