| Teen Fiction |

Sink or Swim

 “I hate to do this, Dassy, but it’s not the first time you’re late to an activity. If it happens again, I’m gonna have to report it, okay?” 


First day of camp: Grab a bed, get to know bunkmates, analyze counselor, try to unpack in the middle of music and general chaos.

When the last article of clothing is folded to perfection on my corner of the shelf, I sit back on the bed and proceed to tally up the day’s findings:

Bunkhouse — 8/10. Great location, more spacious than last year’s, but the showers look awful. That’s camp.

Bunk — 6/10. Most girls I know from previous years, but there’s a new, cliquey looking threesome who seem to make a lot of noise. And another girl who no one knows, doesn’t look very happy to be here.

Counselor — 7/10. She comes across as adorable, fun, and peppy, and not the type to be super strict about all the rules. But to be honest, I’m a little intimidated by her. Still, that’s bound to change.

There’s a blast of louder noise, which I think is meant to be a summons to the dining hall. Ashira, our counselor, smiles sweetly as she herds us out of the bunkhouse. I give her a shy smile back as I pass, but her eyes are on the silent girl at the back of the straggling line.

“Bayla, are you alright there?” she calls. Her voice is silvery and clear. Wow, did we get Miss Perfect as a counselor this year?

The girl at the back of the line scowls. I look away and hurry to catch up with my friends. The sun’s shining and the path to the dining room is just as overgrown as always. Nothing like camp!

Breakout is cute, nothing major, and I spy some old friends in other bunks. In between shrieks and cheering, nobody eats very much, and nobody really minds. Ashira sits at our table near the new clique, who talk to her eagerly. I shrug; I have my own friends, they can keep to themselves if they want.

Suri nudges me as the waitresses start to clear the table. “Do you know who that is?” she hisses into my ear, signaling toward the end of the table. There was our bunkmate, honey-colored hair pulled back in a pony, highlighting the scowl on her face.

“Ashira called her Bayla, so I guess that’s her name,” I murmur back. “No idea where she’s from or anything, though.”

“Is she homesick or just shy?” Suri wonders. “Ugh, I’d hate to come to camp without knowing anyone.”

“Me too,” I start to say, but my words are drowned out by a burst of music so loud, my eardrums throb. Someone needs to figure out the speaker system ASAP.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” booms Terri, one of the head counselors, into the microphone. “Can we have everyone’s attention…”

Across the table, Adina winks at me. Suri jiggles impatiently in her seat. Even the clique at the end of the table stops their conversation with Ashira to watch.

Just as Perry, the other head counselor, takes the mic, a flash of movement catches my eye. Bayla has scraped her chair back, a bored expression on her face. I watch her stalk between rows of girls, making for the exit.

Nobody seems to notice. Just as I’m wondering if I should tell Suri, if we should do something, I realize that our counselor has, in fact, noticed. Ashira hesitates a moment, then, as the music blares out again, she stands up and leaves the room as well.

“I think I wanna take a lifeguarding course,” I tell Suri as we head down to the pool for the first dip of the summer. “Best job ever! You get to be by the pool aaaall day.”

“But you can’t swim, you have to sit and watch everyone else,” Suri objects. Hmm.

“I’ll have to rethink then,” I tell her. Swim — it’s literally my favorite part of camp.

Some of my bunkmates are clambering down the steps into the pool, but I head straight for the diving board. “Water, here I come!” I cheer, and execute a perfect swallow dive, swimming underwater and coming up for air in the middle of the pool.

“Nice!” someone calls, and I turn to see the head lifeguard. She’s new, I don’t know her name, but she has a bushy ponytail and cool goggles. She gives me a thumbs-up. “Thanks!” I call back, and swim over to Suri and Adina.

“Isn’t this just the best?”

They seem a little distracted. “Hey, what’s up with you guys?” I ask.

Adina waves a hand around. “Oh, nothing much. Just, remember Ashira’s whole speech yesterday, activities are mandatory, no missing anything….”

I nod. It’s an annual thing, this counselor speech. Ashira’s sweet, she really is, and the way she said it, with her eyes all wide and fluttering, seemed to make everyone want to listen.

“Yeah, what about it?”

Suri takes over. “Well, look around you. Is everyone in our bunk here?”

I do a quick survey of the pool area. Besides for us, there are another two bunks having their swim session now, so it’s hard to tell. But a second glance confirms that actually, not everyone who’s supposed to be here is in attendance.

And neither is Ashira.

“What does she have with that girl?”

We’re hurrying across the campgrounds to our bunkhouse, flip-flops slapping against dewy grass. Swimming was amazing, but now the breeze running through my wet hair is making me shiver. To top it off, we just spotted our counselor sitting on the steps outside the bunkhouse, cool as a cucumber and dry as anything, together with Bayla.

It’s funny. We’ve been bunkmates for what, three days already? And I don’t think she’s said a single word to any of us. But she talks to Ashira.

She’s not the only one, there’s that designer-everything clique, Mindy, Miri, and Shiri. They seemed to pal up with the counselor pretty fast, too. Last night, they were sitting outside the bunkhouse with her till at least 2 a.m. — I know, because that’s when I fell asleep.

For a while, a few of us had debated popping a head out of the bunkhouse door and casually joining the conversation. But there was a wordless “keep out” above their heads, and you know what? I have my own friends, thank you very much.

We creak up the bunkhouse steps. I give Bayla a smile, but she presses her lips firmly together. Ashira glances at us. “Be quick in there, guys, next activity is in five minutes!” she sings out.

Says the counselor who just skipped swimming to talk to a camper.


“Hi, Ma.” The line’s crackly. I clutch the phone closer to my ear.

“Hi, sweetie, how’s camp? Did you get my package?”

“Yeah, thanks, Ma. You’re the best!”

“How’s your bunk this year? Nice counselor?” Ma prods. I think about Ashira and her little fan club, the little crumbs of attention she tosses the rest of us, and a lump rises in my throat.

“Yeah… I’m with all my friends from last year again. So that’s good. And my counselor’s… nice.” She was nice, of course she was. Perfect Ashira never did anything wrong. She smiled, she cheered, she kept us on schedule, she knew all our names. But.

“Any new faces? New friends?”

I shake my head. Ma can’t see, but if I talk, I’m scared that sudden tears will spill. Why am I crying?

“I… miss you, Ma,” I sniffle.

She clucks sympathetically. “I miss you too, sweetie.”

The line goes quiet. I take a breath. “Yeah, it’s a little different this year, there are a few new girls, I don’t really know them very well,” I say, as offhand as possible. “But camp is super fun, and the activities are great. I’ll be fine….”

“Change can be a bit unsettling at first,” Ma says. “But you’ll get used to it. And I’m just a phone call away, don’t forget that!”

I smile through the film of tears in my eyes. “Yeah. Bye, then. Love you.”

Night activity’s awesome, trips are great, but aahhh, there’s nothing like the pool. Today I’m doing laps, determined to beat my last record. I leave my friends chilling in the shallow end and kick off, slicing through the water with sure strokes.

It’s hard to do serious swimming with so many people around. When the activity ends and the pool starts to empty, I ignore the lifeguard’s whistle and keep on going. Aaahh, the empty water, the space, the freedom.

Suri calls me, but I wave her to go on ahead. “One more lap,” I puff, coming up for a brief snatch of air. She gives me a thumbs-up and heads off.

I plunge back into the water. Bliss.

When I turn around at the end of the next lap, I notice the pool area is empty, except for the bushy-ponytailed lifeguard. Huvi, I think she’s called.

“Sorry to cut your swim short, but time’s up,” she calls across to me. I grin. I like her, she’s so real and unruffled.

“One more lap,” I say, swimming half the length underwater so I can’t hear her response.

“You’re very good,” Huvi tells me as I grab my towel. “I’ve been watching, you could totally train as a lifeguard or a swimming instructor or something. Does that interest you?”

“Thanks!” It’s nice to hear feedback on my favorite hobby. “I actually — ”

I break off when Ashira appears, looking flushed.

“So that’s where you are!” She pauses to catch her breath. “The whole bunk is waiting on the sports field. The inter-bunk machanayim game, remember?”

“Yeah, I’m coming.” I just want her to leave so I can finish my conversation with Huvi. But she doesn’t.

“I hate to do this, Dassy, but it’s not the first time you’re late to an activity. If it happens again, I’m gonna have to report it, okay?” She flashes her disarming smile. It doesn’t match her tone. “But I really don’t want to do that, so just be super careful from now on, okay?”

I bite my lip. She’s noticed me come late to activities? Does she realize it’s the first time she’s spoken more than two words to me all summer?

And what about her pet campers, how come they get to break the rules wherever they want?

I turn to get dressed, scowling.

“Hey,” says the lifeguard. I swing round; Ashira’s gone and Huvi’s watching me closely. “If you need anything… you can come talk, okay?”

I stare at the neat row of folded clothing on my shelf. “Ugh, I need that denim skirt I left at home! I don’t understand why my package hasn’t arrived yet.”

“When did your mother send it?” Adina asks.

“I think a few days ago already. This makes no sense.” I think for a moment. “I’m going to the office. Maybe it got misplaced somehow?”

Suri offers to come along, and we jog down the path to the main office. “I really hope they have it,” I say.

There are two bulging suitcases outside the office door. I sidestep them and start to push the door open, when we hear noises. It sounds like someone’s crying.

I look at Suri. She shrugs, and we hang back a minute, hesitant.

The phone rings inside. Through the window, we hear the secretary answer cheerfully, and then her voice becomes businesslike. “Oh! Yes, of course. I’ll send her right away.” She lowers her voice, presumably to talk to the people inside. “The car’s here… they’ve come to pick her up.”

“I’ll walk you to the gate,” a familiar voice says, warmly. It’s Ashira. I bite my lip. Suri grabs my sleeve, and we step back, out of sight.

The crying has stopped. “No, I’ll go myself,” we hear, and then Bayla steps out of the office, grabs hold of the suitcases, and heads toward the main gate. She doesn’t notice us. She hasn’t said goodbye to anyone.

I wonder if we should go after her, but from the window, Ashira’s talking again. She speaks in a low tone, but we hear it anyway.

Car accident… Bayla’s father and two brothers. Four months. Hospital, coma, never been the same. One brother died. The other one in rehab.

Bayla’s mother is collapsing without her. After all the efforts to obtain funding for a summer at camp, the family needs her home.

Suri looks stricken. “I don’t think we should be hearing this,” she whispers.

I remember my package. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so important.

“Let’s go,” I say, and we head back to the bunkhouse, slowly.

Ashira isn’t herself for the rest of the day. She tells us that Bayla had to leave for personal reasons, then she subsides into an uncharacteristic silence.

When the rest of the bunk goes in for rest hour, I rest my elbows on the scratched wood of the porch. I don’t want to join them inside. I’m not in the mood for the mindless chatter, Ashira’s seriousness.

“Probably upset that she couldn’t solve the problem herself,” someone comments cynically behind me. I turn around, startled to see the Queen Bee herself — Mindy — standing there. Without her entourage. She flips her hair and gives me a half-smile. “Ashira. Right?”

“I thought you guys were friends,” I blurt at her.

Mindy shrugs, sits down beside me. “I dunno. I mean, we are, but like, she’s the counselor, hello? We’re not meant to be friends. And like, I didn’t come to camp to stick with my school friends and one counselor, it’s not the point.”

Then she smiles again, scoots over to the end of the bench, and jumps to her feet. “You coming inside?”

“Soon,” I tell her, when I find my tongue. Who would’ve thought…?

Mindy’s comment echoes in my mind.

Probably upset she couldn’t solve Bayla’s problems herself. Is it true?

But counselors… they aren’t supposed to be solving big problems like that. It’s not what they’re there for. And then I realize that Ashira, despite her charisma, her silvery voice and trendy accessories — she’s got it wrong. She’s not here to manage life-and-death crises, or to befriend the popular girls. Now, Bayla’s left camp, still desperately unhappy, without having had the chance to let go and relax in the company of girls who could’ve been her friends, if she hadn’t been constantly made to feel different, to talk about her problems and wallow in her situation. And Mindy and co are cool, and elite, and apart, and they could’ve been just part of us by now.

“Hey, there.”

I jump. Huvi’s standing in front of me. She looks so different in her hoody and slinky. I’ve never seen her outside the pool building before.

“How are you doing? What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” I say, sheepishly. “Just, um, thinking, I guess.”

“That’s a good thing,” she tells me with a wink. “Part of the growing pains… and I would know, I was a teen too, once upon a time.” Then she disappears, with a grin and a wave, and I’m left oddly at peace.

Because, I realize, every teen needs some support, even if they don’t have the loudest voice, the biggest problems, or are cool and popular and attention seeking. Maybe Ashira doesn’t know this, but I’m lucky, there are so many other people in my life who do.

I have Ma on the other end of the phone. I have Huvi who’s so casual in her understanding, and there are others too, adults who know how to handle the small crises that every teen faces, and won’t deny them because they’re not big or glamorous or life changing.

They’re small, they’re challenging, and they’re mine.

And I’ll find a way to deal with them, give them the thought and attention they deserve.

After all, I’ve never been satisfied with simply treading water — when I could be diving in and conquering the waves.


(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 865)

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