The parking lot at Shrine of the Little Flower church was packed with cars. Everywhere, girls stood around in overalls and tank tops, hugging their parents goodbye and giggling. In less than twenty minutes, we would be boarding one of the yellow school buses lined up against the curb and heading up into the middle of nowhere — the tip of Michigan’s thumb or, as I grew up knowing it, Up North. I was not sure exactly what I was doing there with all those other girls — girls who obviously knew one another from school or church, who seemed excited for the next two weeks, which we would spend doing god knows what. Hiking? Gossiping? Braiding hair?
While all the other families milled around outside, my mother sat in the car with my little sister, Felicia, and me. She rattled off a list of things we should have in our backpacks: soap, swimsuit, socks. I was happy to stay in the car, to not have to mingle in the hot parking lot where the giant statue of Jesus strung upon his crucifix stood tall, watching over everyone. My mother warned us about getting lost or drowning, warned us against poison ivy and poison oak. Right before we boarded the bus, saying our final goodbye, she leaned in close to me and said, “Be careful and look out for your sister. You don’t know these girls.”
On the bus, my sister and I sat pressed next to each other like kittens. When we weren’t watching the girls, we looked out the window, hypnotized by the blur of cornfields and farms and trailer parks that multiplied the farther we drove north. As the sun grew in the sky, the shadows of the fields took on a strange look. Nestled close, my sister fell asleep, but I was awake, a seed of nervousness rooting in my chest.
I was up eavesdropping, taking note of some of the girls’ names and hometowns. There were girls with names I had never heard before — Tegan and Mallory and Lawler — all from places I had never heard of either: Kalamazoo, Orion, Muskegon. I looked at my right hand and wondered where in Michigan those towns could be. With my finger, I jabbed the spot where I lived and wondered if any of the girls had heard of Southfield, or at least driven through it to get to Detroit.
It was early evening by the time we got there. Up North, the air smelled different, like seaweed and wet earth just beginning to dry. This was the first time my sister and I had ever been to camp, the first time we had ever entered a forest. A few feet away, sloping down a dirt path, you could see Lake Huron panting, washing across the shore. I looked at it in awe, surprised by its endlessness.
My sister and I wandered around the open dirt driveway, looking for a place to sit, until we were given instructions on where to go. In the distance, we spotted a log where two other girls sat. As we made our way over, I scrunched my face, inspecting them. They were both black — as brown as my sister and I were — and hunched over together, arguing or whispering. I nudged my sister and pointed at them. “That looks like Rachelle, doesn’t it?” The taller girl, hearing her name, looked up, a wide, gap-toothed smile taking over her face.
Felicia and I knew Rachelle and Alana from school and because our mothers had become friends. For a while, we had even lived in the same apartment complex. They stood as we approached, Alana wearing a tiny, pink leopard-print backpack while Rachelle had on a purse in the shape of a cat. In each of their hands, they held small garbage bags instead of luggage. I was relieved to see them, and I wondered if our mothers had planned this or if it was truly a coincidence.