Before she left for camp, Ashley dyed her hair. The label on the box did not lie: this was Blackest Black. Before, her hair had been the color of whipped butter. Now, it was the color of tar.
Ashley’s mother had freaked when she saw it. Why? That’s what she wanted to know. Was this some act of rebellion? Some adolescent attempt to embarrass their family?
Ashley felt compelled to give her mother an answer. I needed a change, she said—the understatement of the century.
Now, she was stepping off the Greyhound bus with Isabelle, entering Camp Matokwa, where she would live like Laura Ingalls Wilder for eight weeks. Isabelle hadn’t said much about Ashley’s hair, except to mention her eyebrows, which were still blond. You might want to do something about those, Isabelle said.
So Ashley had bought a makeup pencil, a dark, waxy brown. It made the skin under her eyebrows itch. She felt like an imposter, a little girl playing dress-up.
For the past forty-three days, Ashley had been trying to forget. David said, “What happens at Sigma Chi stays at Sigma Chi,” so that is what Ashley had been telling herself. David was Ashley’s brother, a sophomore at Colgate. Her other brothers, Craig and Jonathon, had gone there before him, and played hockey, and pledged Sigma Chi just like their father. Before her visit, Ashley had thought she would go to Colgate, too—carry on the Barnum family tradition. But now she knew she wouldn’t. She would never go back to that place.
Every time she closed her eyes, there He was. She was trying to forget, but she couldn’t. That night was lodged in Ashley’s memory like a popcorn kernel stuck between her teeth. She couldn’t shake it.
And so, she ate.
Doritos and Oreos and White Cheddar Bugles. Cookie dough and Cool Whip and whole canisters of rainbow sprinkles. Food helped, while she was eating it. Food numbed her senses like a drug. But afterward, when her stomach was empty and her mind was clear, she knew that she was only hurting herself. She’d done this shit when she was thirteen. Bingeing and barfing, the whole vicious cycle. She’d gotten help and she’d stopped. Now, she was regressing. She was, in fact, acting like a baby.
Cut the crap, Ashley told herself. So why hadn’t she stopped? She, Ashley Joy Barnum, had always been lucky. She had what every girl wanted: she was pretty, she was well liked, and she was successful. Ashley’s life was a perfect, red, shiny apple, plucked from the highest branch—but then you took a bite and discovered the truth. The apple was brown, rotten to the core. You gagged, and you spit the whole thing out.
“Ash?” Isabelle said. “You okay?”
Ashley had been so distracted that she hadn’t realized they were walking. Ashley, Isabelle, Sam, Evyn, and a whole bunch of people she didn’t know, loaded with duffel bags and teddy bears and sleepsacks, shlumping across the field like a herd of buffalo.
“I’m fine,” Ashley said.
“You sure?” Isabelle didn’t sound convinced.
Did Ashley want to lie to her best friend? No, she did not. But to tell Isabelle the truth was to tell her about that night, and Ashley did not want to tell anyone about that night. And so, Ashley smiled. She willed her pretty lips skyward and opened her blue eyes wide. She was good at this.
* * *
For the past forty-three days, Ashley had been trying to follow Trish’s advice. Trish had been the leader of the eating disorder group Ashley had attended when she was thirteen. “Don’t eat your feelings,” Trish would say, “write your feelings.” Journaling was Trish’s thing. Whatever emotion Ashley was experiencing, Trish told her to “identify it” and “journal it.” Was she hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Putting her feelings on paper, Trish said, would let some air out of Ashley’s “stress balloon.”
Trish was a cheeseball, no doubt, but Ashley had liked going to Group. Trish had helped her. But now, trying to “identify her feelings” was like trying to read Sanskrit or decipher hieroglyphs on the walls of an Egyptian cave.
Ashley felt like she was going crazy, so this was what she had written in her journal. “I feel crazy.” (Followed by two pages of the word “why” written in purple pen.) Writing in her favorite color, Trish had said, would help the process.
So far, purple had not helped the process.
The journal was stuffed inside the massive canvas duffel that was now hanging from Ashley’s shoulder, digging into her skin and bumping against her leg with each step. Whywhywhywhywhywhy?
Ashley could feel Isabelle glancing at her. Isabelle, her best friend since eighth grade. Isabelle, who had been begging her to come to Camp Matokwa from the moment they met.
Ashley had agreed in a rebellious moment. It was January 1st. Ashley had, just seconds before, hung up the phone on her mother, who had called Isabelle’s house to ream Ashley out for leaving the Davenports’ New Year’s Eve party early the night before. Ungrateful. Selfish. Rude. Those were her mother’s words. Okay yes, Ashley had left the party without saying goodbye or thank you. Okay yes, Ashley had realized that Roland and Alicia Davenport were important clients of her father. But did her mother realize that she would have said goodbye and thank you if she had not mistaken the coat closet for a bathroom and found her father and Mrs. Davenport doing it against the wall? Ashley had told her mother gently, but her mother had accused her of lying. (Lying, despite the fact that Ashley’s father had been caught in such positions before, by Ashley’s mother herself.) So Ashley had hung up the phone. She was sick of the drama. When Isabelle suggested she come to Maine this summer, to get away from her parents, Ashley had agreed. Camp would be good for her, she thought. Camp would be an escape.
The strap of the duffel was ripping into her skin, the sun was burning her eyes. They seemed to be walking forever, like prisoners on a chain gang.
Looking at Isabelle now, joking, laughing, Ashley barely recognized her. She was chipper and ponytailed. She had a bounce in her step. Every so often she stopped to bump hips with Sam or Evyn and do some complicated hand slap routine that ended in a whoop. At school, Isabelle would never act like this. She was serious and studious, a quiet observer, the yin to Ashley’s yang. The peanut butter to Ashley’s jelly.
“Iz?” Ashley said, reaching for Isabelle’s arm.
Ashley could tell Isabelle—right here, right now, while the other girls marched on —she could tell her about that night. But what if Isabelle didn’t believe her? What if, like when Ashley told her mom about Mrs. Davenport, Isabelle thought she was a liar? Or, worse, that she’d gotten what she asked for? Ashley had, after all, gone to a fraternity party at her own volition. She’d worn heels. She’d drunk beer. What happens at Sigma Chi stays at Sigma Chi. Her brother’s words thrummed in Ashley’s ears.
“Nothing,” Ashley said.
Isabelle raised her eyebrows.
“Just thanks,” Ashley said. “For bringing me here.”