How to Make It to the Promised Land
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry
He leaves. I look at the ID in my hand. I stare until the photograph of Anya no longer looks like a face. It becomes something else: a fingerprint, maybe, or a scattering of sand. It looks like everything and nothing at the same time. I fold it up and stick it in my back pocket.
“The bank and Passport Control are opening up,” Bobby Z. says, getting excited. “Get moving.”
The weak sun is now casting a pale glare. The basketball court clears out. Clutching their plastic beads, kids file past the red-painted iron sculpture that everyone calls “the dueling tampons.” I see them line up in front of Bunk Machon, then circle back to Alonim.
Bobby Z. and the couple of counselors who didn’t take the younger kids to the waterslides in San Marino are walking around, sweeping the place. “Time to get going,” Orna Lewis says. “No dilly-dallying in Poland.”
“If this is Poland, how come we’re not speaking Polish?”
She just scowls at me. “Let’s go,” she says. “There’s KP duty in Poland, too.”
I head down the slope toward the dining hall, acting as if I know where I’m going. Kron appears by my side. Her red hair is wild, each curl going off in its own direction, disobeying the laws of gravity. She looks at me and says, serious, “How are we supposed to remember what we never knew in the first place?”
It’s a good question. Kron occupies the only single bed in our bunk; no other girl wanted to be near the black netting she draped over her bed, the weird atonal music she plays. She and I started hanging out a couple of weeks ago, eating at those empty tables in the back of the dining hall; still, I don’t know much about her. The counselors call her Karen, but she insists that her name is Kron, that she was born on the planet of Lamu. She moves her bracelets up and down her wrist, following my eyes.
I don’t know what makes me say it: her bracelets, her sad serious face—or mine? “Let’s get out of here,” I say.
I lead the way through a raggedy stand of pines and up a back path that I like to take to the dining hall. If you climb far enough up this hill, you can sometimes spot a glint of metal—cars streaming up and down the black strip of the Pacific Coast Highway, heading north to Santa Barbara or south to L.A.. Somehow we manage to reach the kitchen without running into any guards. You’d think there’d be someone here to acknowledge the building’s transformation into a desecrated synagogue, but in a way I’m not surprised. My mother has told me stories about her uncle Avi, a fat, black-hatted father of eight with pale blue eyes and a sour-pickle smell; he refused to join the army, railing against the godless Israeli state and his heathen relatives, even while he ripped off his business partner and cheated on his wife. “The more pious they look, the more hypocritical they are,” she’d say. She thinks this and yet still she sent me here?
I rattle the screen door and call Yarden’s name. Yarden is from Honduras and has skin the color of milky tea. Sometimes when I’m supposed to be at swimming or crafts I sneak in here and plant myself on the counter, helping him to peel potatoes until they form a pyramid. He tells me about the importance of breathing through the diaphragm, his long fingers resting on his ribs, or he tells me about the mangroves back home. I am beautiful and smart, he says, but I shouldn’t be so down on makeup. “A girl should never be afraid to wear a little color,” he says firmly as he chops onions, the tip of his knife gleaming.
“Yarden?” I hiss again. No answer. Kron stays several feet back, on patrol.
“It’s better that he’s not around. We’ll just pop off the screen window; you’ll crawl in.”
I give her a leg up, guide her to the loose part of the screen. She is as light as a bird. I am loving this. We are misfits, we are outlaws. We won’t be around for deportation. If we were in Poland, we would be the ones to survive.
“This is a bad idea,” Kron whispers.
I boost her up even higher. “It’s the best idea I’ve had all summer,” I say.
She twists around. “I don’t think—”
“That’s right,” I say. “Don’t think at all.” That had been my policy all summer: not thinking, trying to forget, trying to imagine that the person stuck here with a freak as her only friend is someone else, that it’s someone else standing under the weak shower spray, tears mixing with the lukewarm water, wondering, why me?
Finally, Kron gets the screen off and slips through the window. A minute later, she is at the back door, opening it for me.
“I bet you they’re all inbred,” I say, inside the dark kitchen with its cracked linoleum. “They probably all have those weird diseases, like the Amish or the English royal family.”
We are discussing the girls in our bunk, or rather, I’m discussing them. Kron isn’t nearly as interested as I am in Jill Simon’s breeding. There’s only the scratch-scratch of her pencil as she sits on the floor, drawing.
I lean over. On the yellow cardboard face of her star, she’s sketching a disk with radiating spokes. It’s creepy, but kind of cool too. I’m wondering what it’s supposed to represent, when Kron, in her small, flat voice, says, “It’s not so bad in here.”
“No, it’s not,” I say, thinking that we could stay here for days, weeks even. Yarden would come back and the two of us could help him in the kitchen, hanging out in this sanctuary of warmth, away from the onslaught of activity after activity performed in the name of “camp spirit” and “Jewish community.” “If they wanted to make sure the Holocaust never happens again,” I say, “they’d be teaching us stuff so we don’t end up like them.”
Kron snorts. “What kind of stuff?”
I hesitate, because it’s sounding pretty dumb to me too, but I’m thinking of my mother’s two years in the army and I finally say, “Stuff so we could kick ass, so no one could push us around.”
Kron doesn’t say anything but she doesn’t laugh either. A minute or two pass with the sound of her scratchings. Then she says, “If we get caught—”
“We’re not going to get caught.”
“If we do,” Kron says again, flatly, “we meet at the canteen at three. No one will bother us there.”
“Okay.” I sit back, surprised but grateful that she’s taking charge. “Tell me about Lamu,” I say. Kron gives me a look. I shrug. “What’s the weather like? Who lives there?”
“Some things are better left unsaid,” she says beneath the curtain of her hair. “You know, Anne Frank survived years in an attic, barely talking above a whisper.”
“Good for Anne Frank,” I say. I pluck a pan off a hook above the industrial chrome stove and stare into it. The surface is all scratched up, but I can just make out my face. An old-looking face, I’ve been told (“classic,” my mother says); the hard jaw, the formerly blond hair that has settled into a harmless and unexciting shade of brown, the tiny nose and light blue eyes that I’m told are dead ringers for my father’s. Not that I see him often enough to know. It’s an okay face, not great, not terrible. “I’m surprised they didn’t make me a guard or a Nazi or something,” I say.
Kron looks up.
“Are there Jews on Lamu?” I try. “Jews who look like me?”
“Lamu does not host organized religions,” she says after a pause. “We don’t believe in them.”
“That’s good,” I say, softly.