The Sleep Away Massacre
I, Max Gelman, met the White Valley Sleep-Away killer and survived the weekend.
I have never shared my story publicly. I’m hoping it will be therapeutic. More therapeutic than the years of group therapy and medication, which never accomplished more than a ticking in my mind and a crippling addiction to anxiety medication. So, if my grammar isn’t perfect, or my writing is shit, do me a favor and most kindly fuck off.
Here we go.
I hated sleep-away camp.
I hated it when my mother made me go from ages five to fifteen. I hated it when she insisted that I get a job there at sixteen. I hated the rich kids. I hated the pine needles. I hated the smells. I hated being expected to socialize for the vast majority of every day. I hated pretty much all of it.
The only thing I didn’t hate was the free car my father offered in return.
Not a great car, mind you, we weren’t rich. The windows were locked shut. The air conditioner didn’t work. There was a distinct smell of onion and cigarettes (why that combination, I will never know), but hey…wheels were wheels. They might as well have been wings at that point.
I hit the road in my Honda shit-mobile early on a sunny May morning. I loved that part. I never experienced that much freedom in my young adult life. The drive took me from the barren White Valley coastline, through Follaton City, and up into the mountains. It rained the whole time. I stopped and picked up smokes and snacks at a gas station along the way. I sang along to all my favorite CDs. I called into a couple sports radio stations, like my dad always did, and argued with the DJs about the prospects of the Mets’ playoff odds. It got the point where I was actually disappointed in reaching my destination. I didn’t get there until quarter after five.
I parked in the front faculty lot and sat back to enjoy the view. Hartshorne Camp sat in a loosely populated county smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Twenty miles of trees surrounded the grounds on every side. The park offered two freshwater lakes, six different playgrounds, and nine different cabins. It was stunning. Even now, after everything that happened, the place still has a haunting beauty to it.
I was apparently late to the party. So late, in fact, that the counselors were already in the middle of orientation. Panic crept in. From the center of the gaggle sprinted a particularly annoying nineteen-year-old named Adam. I recognized him from years prior. A white stripe lined his white shirt, which meant to me that the kiss ass must have finally earned himself a promotion.
“Let’s go, Gelman!” he shouted. “Late to the first day of work. Great start, kid, great start.”
Don’t you hate it when somebody close to your age uses the word “kid”? Adam tapped on the glass annoyingly. I collected myself and discreetly tried to hide the pack of smokes sitting on the passenger seat.
“Let’s go, Gayman.”
“Are you smoking?” He laughed. “You’re underage, kid, by a long shot! You shouldn’t be smoking! Who bought you those? Hm? You won’t be smoking on my watch. Toss ’em. Get up and toss ’em in the garbage can right now. I can’t be complicit in your shit.”
I cut the ignition and lifted myself out of the driver’s side. I grabbed my backpack from the back. Adam turned on the heel of his flawless boots and marched back toward the group. Then he paused to look back at me.
“I’m serious about the cigs, Gelman. Toss ’em. I’m not messing around. Those things will give you cancer, kid.”
I pulled the half-full pack of menthols from my pocket. I deposited them dramatically inside the metal-covered can. Adam nodded approvingly and walked away. I stared into the bin a little longer, marking their position underneath a candy wrapper before he beckoned me back over to the counselors. I fell in line with a cute but unfamiliar brunette. Perfect timing.
“All right, kids, some of you have been here before as campers and have an idea what to expect,” he began. “But for those that have not, do not kid yourselves. The next two weeks will be pure and unfiltered Hell.”
A couple of the crony counselors chuckled emphatically from the front.
“Some of you might not make it the through the fourteen days. Really. We expect that to happen. Some of you won’t have the stuff.”
A meatball turned around. Another one of Adam’s buddies. He pointed at me and grabbed his nuts. Then he laughed.
“Don’t get too excited, Jared.” I smirked. “It’s only the first day.”
“That’s enough, Gelman,” Adam interjected. “No more interruptions out of you.”
“Can I continue?”
“Now, if you all checked your email, you might know there are some new regulations to follow…”
“Email?” I muttered to no one in particular. “Who the fuck has email?”
“Welcome to the new millennium.” The girl next to me giggled.
“Are we there already?”
“Little late again.” She smiled. “My name is Meredith. You?”
“Right…much better than Gayman.”
“Only my friends call me that.”
Adam cleared his voice and launched into a new soapbox.
“Because we are understaffed, all of us will be assigned double the work. That means less breaks. That means one counselor to each cabin. That means each of you will be expected to run an activity during the day. There is no hand holding. Not these next two weeks, folks. We can’t afford it.”
A couple people groaned.
“I know it sucks, guys. But there is nothing else we can do. I wanted you to be aware of it so when I’m on your ass, you won’t be surprised, Gelman.”
Meredith raised her hand.
“Where do we sleep tonight?”
“Bunk assignments are posted in the commons.”
The group grew silent.
“All right, well, no kids tonight. Free time. I have some ice breakers to get us through the last couple hours of daylight. Then I figured we could tell some scary stories by the fire. Who’s in?”
Meredith laughed and walked away from the group. A couple people went, too. I joined them.
“Guys…guys, this is not over. We still have a lot to cover. Nobody knows how to operate the inflatable raft!”
One boy lifted off his shirt and hopped into the lake. We all followed.
It’s weird to imagine a party without alcohol these days.
We held a round robin tournament of chicken fights. We bet money (against Adam’s best wishes). We swam races. Some of the girls lounged on the dirt beach and tried to catch a tan. The rest of the guys looked for fish. Truthfully, it was the most fun I had ever had on a camping trip. When we went to bed that night, I thought, for once…maybe this year would be the first time I had a good time.
I was wrong.
Adam held true to his word about the separate bunks. Nine counselors for nine cabins. He made each of us, individually, promise to stay inside from sundown to sunset. The only exceptions would be if we had to pee, and even then, he encouraged us to go before bed. He called it “proper training for the real thing,” and unfortunately some of the other counselors agreed with him. I, on the other hand, had one thing on my mind.
They became a shameful and incessant habit at that point in my life. Call it teenage rebellion, or general angst, or a wealth of bad decisions that I have since grown from—but in the mid- to late nineties, I could be an absolute asshole without a nicotine fix. The thought had consumed my mind the whole afternoon. I knew I wouldn’t last another day without hitting Adam unless I got the Marlboros from out of the trash. I just needed one, you know? Just one.
Adam stayed up late by the fire. I watched him through the open window of Cabin 6. My skin itched. My gums ached. Midnight turned into one and one went into one thirty. Finally, sometime around two, I heard the welcoming sound of cold water squelching fire. Heavy boots retreated to Cabin 1. The lights went out.
I waited for another fifteen minutes. My finger tapped the entire time. I actually timed myself. I didn’t want to fuck this up. I waited a full fifteen minutes. Then I slipped outside.
The woods had an odd sort of afterglow that night. The moon might have been full or near-full, but banks of rolling fog on the lake blocked its light, which made visibility tough up in the hills. I soon found myself reaching out with arms in front, dodging through pricklers, grasping for the open space of the parking lot in the dark. Just like a true addict.
I finally found it. A dim streetlight illuminated the spot like a video game. I located the garbage can, moved the expectant candy wrapper, and found the green pack of menthols sitting right on top.
Within seconds, I pulled one out, sparked it, inhaled, and let the warm rush of relaxation wash over me. The itch on my arms settled. My head lightened. The day’s troubles melted behind the burning paper of chemicals and ash.
I took in my surroundings as a breeze brought a flutter through the trees. The lake sparkled. The mist started to shift a little to the left, slowly taking over the campsite and thinning out in the process. I allowed myself to enjoy the beauty. Soon college would come and take me away from here. I never wanted to be an Adam. I always wanted to get out of Valley County. But I still loved it. It was still home.
I kicked my cigarette and lit a new one. Something jumped in the distance. A blue shape darted across the opposite end of the lot, just beyond the trees. A flashlight turned on.
Shit, I thought, busted. My father is going to fucking kill me.
“Hello?” I called out with the cigarette safely under my foot. “Adam, I just had to take a piss, man. I went for a walk…got lost…”
“Adam? You out there?”
“Look. Do what you want. Give me toilet duty. Just don’t tell my dad. Okay? He’s got a complex. It’s a whole thing…”
I dipped into the pockets of my baggy jeans and pulled out my own flashlight. The stupid thing took a minute to kick on. I smacked it a couple times. I rotated the batteries. When the beam finally kicked in, I pointed it in the direction of the light. Seemingly in reply, my partner in the distance went dark.
“Hello?” I asked. “What are you doing?”
To be honest, I didn’t really expect anything sinister. I thought it could be Meredith or one of the other counselors fucking with me, or even just a trick of the light. I dipped my flashlight through the trees. I was looking for that hint of blue. I found it after a moment, in a clearing a little closer to my left. I pointed in that direction. But I still couldn’t quite see it. It was just a shape.
It didn’t move. Nobody replied.
“This isn’t very funny…”
It still didn’t move. I waited a couple minutes.
I pocketed the cigs and walked back toward the campgrounds with a quickened pace.
Somebody followed me.
I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them rustling in the trees. It couldn’t be the wind. Something big moved a particularly heavy branch to the left, which caused it to recoil to the right, and the sound was similar to a thwack. My nerves fired up. I could feel it in my bones. Someone was in the woods with me.
“This isn’t fucking funny,” I yelled with false confidence. “If this is about the cigs…”
I looked to my right.
Sitting about twenty yards away, partially obscured behind a bush, a man in a blue sweatshirt was watching me. He didn’t move.
I sprinted so fucking fast that my track coach in high school would have been floored. I could still hear the guy following me. I smacked my face on pricklers. I hit my head on a low-hanging branch. A flash of blue jumped up in my peripherals just before I dove into the center of the campsite and slammed my body up against Adam’s door. I nearly started crying.
“Adam, get the fuck out here, right now,” I screamed. “Adam, this is an emergency. Wake the fuck up.”
I turned around and looked wildly into the woods. Nobody was there.
Adam stepped outside in his boxer shorts.
“Is that you, Gelman?” He groaned. “I can’t see anything. Somebody took my glasses. What happened?”
I quickly tried to explain everything that just happened. Minus the cigarettes.
“Bullshit you went for a walk.” He smirked. “You were smoking.”
I stared at him.
“Is that really the fucking point?”
He smiled knowingly.
“All right, all right, calm down. Where did you see him?”
I pointed to the winding path that led to the parking lot and kept blabbering.
“Blue sweatshirt. That’s all I saw. Blue sweatshirt.”
Adam walked right by me.
“Did you leave your jacket by Cabin 9?” he asked.
I shook my head. Adam pointed groggily to the last cabin on the premises.
Sitting on the door handle was a light blue sweatshirt.
I checked my watch. Three a.m. The kids arrived at eight.
Adam gathered the camp counselors around the re-lit firepit. He tapped his heel while the groggy lot assembled in a line. We must have looked like soldiers awaiting orders, because he marched back and forth in front of us, with the blue sweatshirt raised idiotically over his head, almost like a battle flag of some kind.
“All right,” he shouted. “All right. Good morning, assholes. Who’s fucking sweatshirt is this?”
“Gelman says the owner of this sweatshirt chased him through the woods. And somebody took my fucking glasses from my nightstand. So, let’s end this right here and now, so everyone can get some much-needed sleep. I’ll repeat the question. Who did it?”
All of the counselors stood in place awkwardly.
“Jared? Is this yours?”
Jared actually seemed offended.
“No, man, I was sleeping.”
Adam nodded and cut him off with a hand gesture.
Adam’s tough looking friend shook his head solemnly.
“New girl? This your shitty attempt at flirting?”
I never even noticed the short little brunette standing to my right.
“Einstein.” She snickered. “Check the size. That’s a dress on me.”
Adam went through the rest of the group. Nobody noticed a thing. Every one of them claimed to be sleeping. We were left with the mysterious blue sweatshirt and nothing else.
“All right, then, since this belongs to nobody, you won’t mind if I do this.”
Adam tossed the blue sweatshirt in the fire, lit some matches, and set it ablaze.
“Idiot…” Meredith began. “That could have been evidence.”
He quickly pulled it out.
“Evidence of what, though? A spooky encounter in the woods?” he countered. “I don’t know if Gelman is even telling the truth. Maybe he’s just trying to fuck with me. Wouldn’t put it past him. But we’ll set a watch. We’ll keep each other safe.”
I stayed up with Adam and another counselor named Hannah. We sat by the campfire in silence. Nobody said anything. Nobody seemed to believe me. Maybe it was just a prank.
Adam phoned the park rangers around seven. They agreed to perform a grid search. Our bosses called and spoke with them. They didn’t deem it necessary to shut down at that point. Maybe they should have. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.
The kids streamed in at eight o’clock sharp. A few clung to their families. A few ran right in. I remember looking for the shy ones, the ones that reminded me of myself, and noting them in my head for future reference. Those were the ones that needed attention the most. I caught Meredith doing the same thing.
The park rangers stopped by the camp around ten. I was on my way to change and get ready for the inflatable raft when I overheard their conversation with Adam.
“Okay. We didn’t see anything suspicious. Doesn’t mean it’s safe. Keep in touch. Keep us on speed dial. We’ll be back.”
“Okay. Thank you, officer.”
I retreated back inside my cabin and got my gear. The rest of the day melted away into work.
After a day of rotating through activities, wrangling a group of ten or more mischievous children, and all the while entertaining the thought of a crazy person in the woods, I was exhausted. The entire group was gathered around the fireplace. We ate marshmallows. We sang songs. Around ten o’clock, Adam got up and ordered bedtime. The counselors cheered and the kids groaned.
I herded my batch toward Cabin 8. Most seemed just as tired as me. Some still wanted to go home. Some just wanted to sleep in their beds. I told them to write letters to their parents, in the morning, instead. They always seemed to like that idea.
The counselors met earlier in the day and drew straws for that night’s watch by the campfire. Marcus and Hannah got nine to twelve. Jared and Meredith twelve to three. And, finally, Kumar and Josie had the graveyard shift from three to six. I guessed Adam didn’t trust me.
I went to bed with an aching in my stomach and a gnawing in my gums.
One thirty a.m.
I woke up to a tapping on the glass window by my bed.
My vision was blurry. I reached for the familiar shape of my glasses on the nightstand.
They were gone.
The rapping on the glass stayed quiet but insistent. It seemed like the tapper knew enough to know where I slept. I assumed it to be Meredith. Butterflies went off in my stomach. I got up and squinted at the window.
“What’s going on?” I asked in my best inside voice. “Who’s there?”
“Come see, come see,” the voice said in return. “Come see, come see.”
The footsteps retreated.
I threw on my jacket and did my best not to wake the kids. Any one of them could rat me out to Adam. A couple of them shifted. But none of them got up.
I opened the door to find a completely empty camp. Two chairs sat propped by the fire-pit. They were empty. The fire still burned on as expected. But there was nobody there to tend it.
It’s embarrassing to admit now, but my mind immediately went to the gutter. I thought maybe Jared had worked his jock charm on Meredith and won her over. Maybe they snuck off somewhere to hook up. Maybe they found the new hiding spot for my cigs and smoked them all.
My depression turned to anger as another possibility crept into the back of my mind.
Maybe she didn’t want to go with him. Maybe Jared forced her.
I darted toward Cabin 7 and knocked on the door as quietly as possible.
I tugged the handle and found it unsurprisingly unlocked. I was greeted by a gaggle of blurry children. They all immediately shouted a million explanations in my direction.
“Miss Meredith left and never came back.”
“She was supposed to be watching the fire.”
“She took my glasses!”
“Michael went with her to the bathroom.”
“He was scared to go alone.”
“We heard noises.”
“Yeah, I heard somebody moaning.”
“Somebody was definitely moaning. Like this—ahhh-oooh…”
I tried to tell the kids to calm down as they bombarded me with more.
“Where?” I asked. “Where did you hear this? Tell me where?”
A few of them pointed nervously.
“Where guys, where?”
A particularly brave ten-year-old boy named Martin pushed himself to the front.
“Somebody took them,” he said. “I saw them through the window. They went to Cabin 10.”
I checked my watch. Two a.m. Time to wake up Adam.
Adam and I stood in front of the door to Cabin 10. The camp forbid people to go inside. The floorboards were cracked and the paint was peeling. Every year, the business side promised to send someone to fix it up, and every year, they disappointed us.
Waves of heavy rain drifted in through the trees. Lightning cackled in the distance. I could tell Adam was scared. His arms and legs trembled together so much they could have started a band. I didn’t mind. I was scared, too.
“What’s the plan?” I asked. “We don’t have any weapons.”
He stared back with wide and blank eyes.
“We don’t have time for that, man. There are kids missing. We have to search for them. That starts here.”
“You don’t think I know that, Gelman?! Let me fucking think, please.”
The crack in his voice made me uncomfortable. Until that point, Adam was the figure of authority. He was the guy to go to if you had a problem. Now, here he was, shaking in his over-priced boots and barely able to grip the door handle in front of him. Nothing had even happened yet.
“Is anybody in there?” he announced. “I’m coming in.”
He took a deep breath. Then, with one smooth motion, he turned the handle to Cabin 10 and waltzed inside. I followed him.
The first thing to greet us was the overwhelming stench of rot. It was as if the door had created an airlock for the horrible smells inside. A sickening sweet tone drifted through, like cheap perfume mixed in with the rancid stock of a butcher shop. The odor reached into my nostrils and trickled down into my stomach. I ran back outside and vomited. Adam quickly followed suit.
“There’s a dead body in there,” Adam whined. “I know it. I fucking know it, man. I’m not going to look at a dead body. I can’t do it, Max. I can’t.”
He stared at me pleadingly with snot dribbling down his nose.
“What do we do?”
Tears started to well up in his eyes. I hated him, then. I hated everything about him. He looked pathetic. We needed a leader in that moment. We needed direction. We needed guidance. And all we got was a stupid fucking kid. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know what we should do. I never did. I’m sorry. But the bitterness sticks with you more than anything else.
“Keep your voice down,” I mouthed. “You want the campers to hear you?”
He shook his head silently.
“We have to look. It’ll be quick. Let’s go.”
I walked back into Cabin 10 and surveyed the chaos. Adam followed suit sheepishly. Ten bunk beds lined the sides. Nothing about that seemed out of the ordinary. But there were blankets on them. Pillows and twisted sheets with red-and-brown-stained sheets covered every area. Clothes lay on the floor in various stages of upheaval. Something evil happened in that room. I could feel it even then.
“He’s been living here,” I whispered in disgust. “Did you check this room before people got here?”
Adam shrugged despondently as his wide eyes surveyed the scenery.
“No. Nobody does. Why would we? It’s locked. Supposed to be empty. We don’t…we don’t use it.”
Unbelievable. Adam leaned outside to retch again. I looked through the beds for a clue to the disarray. I found it in a couple of minutes.
“Look!” I shouted. “Look, man. Glasses.”
Adam rushed in to see it. Three rows. Five glasses in each row. Somebody organized them like trophies. I found mine and slid them back on. Adam did the same.
“We need to call the rangers,” I started. “We need help.”
No response. I turned to Adam and shook him. The sudden clarity allowed me to see his pitiful face all the more clearly. I wanted to hit him.
“Adam, do you hear me?” I shouted. “We need to call the rangers.”
“Go do it now.”
He shuffled aimlessly for the door. I turned back to the chaos. There was one more mystery left. I suspected Adam didn’t have the stomach to deal with it.
The bulges under the covers of three beds gave me an unsettling inkling. I approached one of the them slowly. Part of me expected a counselor to pop out and claim the whole thing as a prank. Lit turds and the like. They would record it. Everybody would play it back at the campfire. Big joke on the guy who showed up late, right? Most of me expected everything but the reality of the situation.
I pulled back the covers.
Laying under the sheets was the mutilated body of a young girl.
She didn’t have any eyes left.
But she still wore glasses.
Two-thirty in the morning.
Nothing prepares you for this. I couldn’t stop that thought from echoing in my mind over and over again. Nothing prepares you to witness this kind of carnage. There’s no rulebook on how to react. Emilia’s face had turned blue. Scars and scratches covered her neck. Bits of skin were still wedged underneath her fingernails. You could actually see it. The blond hair that I recognized as in magnificent curls to start the day was tangled, matted, and mixed with oddly colored stains and raw lake water. I reached out to check her wrist for a pulse. Her skin was still wet but horribly cold, colder than any human being I’ve touched before or since.
I looked around the room one more time.
Two more shapes lay in consecutive beds to my right. One was a lot bigger than the other. I knew someone would have to check them. I couldn’t bring myself to go through it again. I fought with the idea while a pair of empty eye sockets stared back at me.
I didn’t have to debate much longer, because somebody screamed, and then the whole camp came alive.
I left Cabin 10 without checking the remaining lumps. The kids were all awake now and anxiously huddled by the windows of their respective. Adam yapped by the fireplace with a dinosaur-like cellphone in hand. He looked toward me hopefully. I shook my head.
The remaining counselors exited their cabins one by one.
A woman screamed.
“What the fuck?”
“Who is screaming?”
“What do we do?”
Everyone looked toward Adam for instruction. He hesitated. Then he put his hand over his ear, turned around, and yelled something stupid back into the phone.
“Keep the kids in their cabins,” I shouted. “Mele, come with me.”
Two-forty in the morning.
Voices have an awkward way of traveling across flat water. Have you ever noticed? Sometimes, if there is nothing to block the sound, a scream can travel for miles.
Meredith and her abductor seemed to be within the campgrounds. We followed her shouts and rushed to the lake. She begged us to help. She begged us to save her. Mele picked up a tree branch. The big goon looked like he could have taken on a grizzly. We were ready to fight. We were so sure we would make it to her. We were sure we could save her.
But when we got to the shoreline, we couldn’t see a thing. A dip in the hill and the position of the moon obscured most of the light. We waited for another scream. Mele spotted motion on the other side of the lake. We could see somebody struggling. We called out to them. Only gasps echoed in return.
Mele got in the water. We started to swim. The closer we got, the more we could see of the commotion. Meredith struggled to keep her head up. A shape behind held her down. Her twisted little body bobbed up and down like a tiny little ragdoll. She shrieked in heaving anguish that dipped in and out like a skipping record player.
We swam faster. Only a hundred yards to go. Only a little further. We would make it. We would save her. But suddenly, the shouting ceased. The thrashing slowed. Then, as suddenly as the everything started, it stopped.
Meredith’s body floated toward us in the lazy waves.
The man behind her looked straight ahead. Right into our eyes. We could see the whites. He waited for us to get close enough to be a threat. Then he darted behind the tree line. We were too late. We were just too late.
Rescue workers pulled Meredith’s body out of the water. I don’t think either of us had the stomach for it. They found the killer strung-up body in a tree just up the hill. They took a long time to find out more. Like a motive. Not that it mattered. None of it mattered to me. What’s dead is dead. What’s gone is gone. I struggled with the idea that it should have been me.
Two thirty a.m. A long time later.
Have you ever noticed that some of society’s baddest apples all go by three names? Mark David Chapman. John Wayne Gacy. James Earl Ray. Lee Harvey Oswald. John Wilkes Booth. You get the picture. The man who murdered my friend had three names, too. Real fancy names. The type that came from wealth. But I won’t give that shithead the postmortem satisfaction of listing one of them. So, let’s just call him the Devil.
The Devil murdered his father in the summer of ’84. Then he cut out his eyes and kept them in a plastic bag. Nobody really knows why. The police arrested him. They stashed him in a prison in the heart of Valley’s northern wilderness. He stayed put for a long time.
And then he escaped.
The investigating officers thought he high-tailed it to Canada. The Devil had family out there in the boondocks. There were several other leads pointing in that direction. They worked it for a little while. They brought in some private contractor who updated the town here and there. But as the years dragged on, and interest in the case faded away, so the cops shifted their focus.
And our guy stayed put the whole time. I started camp three years later.
Hartshorne Camp closed in the wake of the murders. The grounds are unoccupied these days. Sometimes I wonder what replaced the playgrounds, the cabins, the lake, the supplies. I heard they knocked it all down and planted more trees, let nature reclaim the place, so to speak. But I haven’t bothered to go look. We have enough to worry about in the Valley without looking for more.
I can’t speculate as to when he found us. I started camp, as a kid, in ’87. He escaped in ’84. I think about that part a lot. That one final stare across the lake. The way our eyes locked. The way he nodded.
Like he knew me.