–Deja vu" may not technically be the right phrase, but I’m not sure what the proper word is to describe walking into the dining room and being hit with the forgotten scent of pine and gluten-free cookies. "Nostalgia" isn’t the right word, either–that would imply fondness for the memory. I could technically say it made me feel like a kid again, but that’s the cliché people use to say they feel free or giddy. I just feel out-of-place.
–The kitchen is this way, girls," says Sister Hansen, the youth group leader, looking very much like she knows what she’s doing with her baseball cap, capri pants, and whistle. But she’s never been here before. We, the four youth volunteers, follow her anyway. Rachel Hansen, Sister Hansen’s daughter and my friend, takes in the sights. Rachel’s thirteen-year-old sister Rebekah and her friend Audrey chat about something unrelated.
Sister Hansen talks to the kitchen ladies, who tell us to put the cookies on the table and to relax until the campers show up. The task gets done quickly, and Rebekah and Audrey bounce off towards the recreation area–I follow. It doesn’t look quite how I remember it. The television has been replaced with another one, slightly less obsolete. The bookshelf is stocked with DVDs instead of VHS tapes–the absence of the tape containing my favorite episode of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog makes me more dismayed than I should be. There is a Frozen DVD where Sonic used to be. I can’t think of a more inferior substitute for Sonic than Anna and Elsa.
"This is actually, like, really cool," says Rebekah, flopping onto the bean bag and reaching out to grab a picture book off the shelf in front of her. Rebekah has no qualms making herself comfortable.
"Yeah, I wish I could’ve come here as a kid," Audrey agrees. She’s looking at the container with all the card games in it.
"Yeah, how come the retarded kids get all the good stuff?" Rebekah shoves the picture book back onto the shelf and stretches out on the beanbag.
"Rebekah!" Rachel scolds. Her voice is a little less soft than usual.
Audrey looks away from the container of cards, eyes forced open and mouth forced into a frown. She might be amused or shocked.
"What?" Rebekah defends herself. "I’m just saying the kids here are lucky."
"Don’t use that word! What if one of the kids’ parents heard?"
"Whatever." Rebekah sits up, crossing her arms.
I prepare to make sheepish eye contact with Rachel, but she doesn’t look at me. Maybe she actually doesn’t know I have Asperger’s. My parents certainly never kept it a secret–Mormons are prone to oversharing–and my parents were always quick to use stories about me as lessons about overcoming adversity. When I was a kid, it was a lot more obvious there was something wrong with me, so even if my parents had never said anything, other people would have. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had a meltdown in Sacrament meeting because I couldn’t stand my velvet dress.
Whether or not Rachel knows I’m autistic, she doesn’t apologize to me on her sister’s behalf, which is just as well. Not apologizing means she doesn’t consider Rebekah’s comment to be an offense towards me, which means in a roundabout way that she sees me as an individual and not as an 'autistic person.' I know it seems like those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are.
When Sister Hansen first asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her and her daughters at Open Arms Camp for Children on the Autism Spectrum and Families, I was afraid she wanted me to be their sentient autism encyclopedia, or something. But it turned out she was only asking because I still hadn’t done most of my value projects for Personal Progress. Personal Progress is this thing Mormon girls do that's supposed to be the female version of Eagle Scout awards. You do a bunch of little activities called 'values' and eight ten-hour projects. You’re supposed to finish it before you go to college, and since it was the summer before senior year, Sister Hansen was worried that I wouldn’t finish. I had my own routine for working on Personal Progress–first I did all the required values in order in the booklet from the first one in the first category, Faith, to the last one in the last category, Virtue. Then I did all the elective values in the same order, and have just started the projects. For Faith I illustrated scenes from the Book of Mormon. After confirming that I could count going to this Open Arms Camp for Divine Nature, which came after Faith, instead of Good Works as Sister Hansen originally suggested, I agreed to volunteer.
After a few minutes of us looking through the DVDs, Sister Hansen comes and finds us. "They want us to make name tags." She leads us to a wooden table outside. Wood chips on twine are piled on the table, next to a plastic container of Sharpies and several large sets of beads. Rebekah and Audrey eagerly browse through the bead kits, while Rachel draws a flowery border around her wood chip. I just steadily write my nickname: Corie.
My handwriting doesn’t turn out as neat as I’d hoped, but at least it’s legible. When I was a kid, my mother always made my name tags for me. She never asked what name I wanted there, just decided everyone at camp should call me Corie. I hated the idea of nicknames–I even called my mom and dad Patricia and Nicholas. But when I got in trouble at school for repeatedly calling my teacher Kimberly, my parents put an end to it.
They started calling me Corie about the time I was diagnosed. I think parents use terms of endearment when they’re annoyed or exasperated but trying not to be, and that was probably where my nickname came from. But my overactive imagination had a different way of interpreting it. At the time, there was a commercial airing: it showed a little boy bound and gagged in a dark room and a voiceover said, "My name is Autism. I’ve stolen your son. Only you can save him." When my parents told me I had Asperger’s, and that was what was making me act different from other kids, it made me feel like my real self was different from me. I guess at some point I started thinking that 'Corie' was my Asperger’s, and 'Coral' was the girl who had to be saved. Of course, I know better now, and almost everyone calls me Corie.
When we’re all done with our name tags, the campers finally arrive. Some of them make name tags too, and some of them go to decorate birdhouses. A lady with a clipboard tells us to go help the campers with their crafts. The problem is, we don’t know how to make birdhouses any more than they do. Audrey finds a little boy with an already–assembled birdhouse and asks if he needs help decorating. The rest of us go back into the dining room to find that we won’t be needed until lunch.
Lunch is pretty similar to the way it’s always been: they don’t have the garlic bread I used to love, but they do have gluten–free cookies. Those bring back memories. The gluten–free cookies at camp were the reason I once ended up on a gluten–free diet–it was my idea, actually, all because I loved the cookies’ soft, powdery texture. I regretted it after about two weeks of being denied normal carb–based foods, but luckily my parents soon realized the diet didn’t affect my behavior and let me give it up.
"Are those good?" Audrey asks when she sees me eating a cookie. I offer her a piece and her eyes widen like she’s just seen the face of God. "It is good!" she reports to Rebekah, and the two of them scramble off to get some for themselves. They come back with a bowl for the table to share, and make the mistake of offering some to Sister Hansen when she comes to check on us.
"Girls!" Sister Hansen scolds. "Those are for the kids with special diets!"
"But Corie had some!" Rebekah argues.
I look up from my half–eaten cookie, blushing either from the shame of stealing some poor gluten–deprived child of their dessert, or the shame of having once been such a kid. Sister Hansen crouches and not–so–quietly whispers, "Corie, you’re not on your diet anymore, are you?"
I shake my head. Sister Hansen turns away from me, directing her lecture at the whole table. "I don’t want you taking any more. Some of these kids can’t eat dessert very often–you can have the normal cookies."
She’s right: those cookies were for the campers, and there weren’t enough for everyone. They’re expensive, too. I feel bad, like I shouldn’t be there, like I should be under the table with the soft red tablecloth, where no one can touch...
"Sorry," I say. I stand up abruptly and throw away my trash. Then I plant my face against the soda fountain for just a few seconds, just long enough to cool off and put a smile back on my face before pouring myself a root beer and going back out. Everyone is smiling and happy again. I guess my mistake wasn’t as big of a deal as it felt like it was.
The campers finish eating and leave the dining hall. We clean up after them, and when we’re done, Nancy tells us to supervise the other activities. "Just make sure to use the buddy system," she warns us. "You may be big girls, but we don’t want anyone getting lost." Rebekah and Audrey want to jump in the bouncy house, so Rachel and I go to the crafts table.
"I feel like they don’t really need us here," I say.
"I guess not," Rachel agrees. "But we can just stay here and supervise?"
We end up just drawing what we feel like, like the kids are doing. I try to capture some of the scenes in front of me. I remember before I ever went to camp my parents thought I’d like it because there was an arts and crafts area. The scene in front of me reminds me exactly how wrong they were.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t handle a lot of noise and sights and smells, so this would’ve had me running away to hide. But I’m older now, and it would be extremely inappropriate for a volunteer to hide under a table, so I try to ignore my headache and pay attention to the small talk Rachel is trying to make. We just chat for a while, until Sister Hansen group texts us to ask us if we can teach some songs at campfire.
Only a portion of the campers actually show up at campfire–that’s one good thing about this camp: no activities are mandatory, and the campers that need quiet time are free to go back to their cabins. Rachel and I meet up with Audrey and Rebekah, who are sitting on one of the benches furthest from the fire. Campfire starts with story time; one of the organizers reads a picture book that I can’t focus on–the wind is blowing and there’s a fly buzzing around my head. Other people are making noise, too–the other volunteers are whispering and a girl with a Pikachu t–shirt is playing in the dirt. She holds a stick near her face, and appears to be speaking to it, though I can’t hear what she’s saying.
"...the heck is she doing?" Rebekah’s voice drifts into my focus, and I notice the other girls are watching the kid, too.
"Are they allowed to, like, sit in the dirt like that?" asks Audrey.
"Yeah, but she’s being distracting." That’s Rachel.
"So are we," I whisper. They ignore me. Rachel gets up to go talk to the girl, and Rebekah follows. I turn to watch.
"Excuse me, could you be quiet, please?" Rachel asks.
The kid pauses for a second. "No." She goes back to talking to her stick.
Rachel puts her hands on her hips and stoops down to look the kid in the eye. "Excuse me, I asked you to stop."
The kid turns away. "I don’t want to."
I stand up, looking at the campfire audience to see if I can spot the girl’s parents. There’s a pregnant lady with hair like the kid’s, but she’s busy trying to quiet down a fussing baby, and I don’t know if she’s the kid’s mom, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I wander over to keep a closer eye on the scene, though I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. Audrey follows me.
"Did you guys hear what she just said?" Rebekah says to me and Audrey.
"My kids aren’t gonna be like that!" says Audrey.
Rachel keeps trying to force the kid to look her in the eye, and the kid keeps shifting down to avoid her. She's still looking at her stick, though she’s stopped talking to it. I notice the stick has a roly–poly crawling around on it. Finally Rachel reaches out and lifts the kid’s chin to make her look at Rachel. The girl recoils, slapping the inside of Rachel’s arm. "Hey, don’t!" she shouts. As she scrambles to her feet, she holds her stick out in front of her like a weapon. "I’ll have my roly–poly Pokémon use Rollout on you!"
The campers have noticed what’s happening–the pregnant woman comes over. "What’s going on?" asks a supervisor.
"I just asked her to be quiet and let the kids listen to the story!" Rachel says. "And she hit me!"
The mother gasps. "Emily!" she scolds. "You hit somebody with a stick!?"
Emily looks positively alarmed. "No, I – " she starts to say, but her voice trails off as her mother marches towards her.
"She didn’t," I say, but the mother ignores me.
"Give me that!" the mother demands. She grabs Emily’s collar with one hand and the stick with the other. Before she can explain what’s on the stick, her mother notices the rollie–pollie smeared all over her.
"What is that?" She lets go of Emily and drops the stick, staring at her hands.
"There was a bug on the stick. A roly–poly," I explain.
No one seems to care, except Emily, whose eyes are now tearing up. "That was my Pokémon! You killed my Pokemon! You killer!" She angrily kicks the stick in her mother’s direction and then starts running.
"Emily! Come back!" The mother shouts. "Can someone go get her please? I can’t run right now." She gestures to her pregnant belly. Rachel and Audrey take off in Emily’s direction.
"She didn’t hit anyone. Rachel grabbed her chin, and she pushed her away."
The mother covers her face, either embarrassed or frustrated. "That girl! I don’t know what to do with her!"
I look in the direction where Emily ran, but she’s out of sight. A few women surround Emily’s mother while she starts crying in the middle of the camp. The supervisor pulls out a walkie talkie: "Nancy? We got a missing girl–shouldn’t be too far from the campfire. She got upset and hit one of the volunteers."
"She grabbed her!" I start to say, but then I notice almost everyone left. The parents who aren't crowding Emily’s mom go back to their kids. We’re supposed to use the buddy system, and that means I’m supposed to stay here with Rebekah. Instead, I take advantage of the fact that no one is paying attention and walk towards the mountains. I can see Rachel and Audrey in the distance, checking behind trees. I’m planning on heading in the same direction, but then I stop and notice the cafeteria a few yards away. There’s no direct path leading to it, but if you’re willing to step on plant life, you can get to the back entrance.
I walk through the shrubbery, ignoring the sticker seeds poking through my socks. The cafeteria is empty. I walk to the table and lift the yellow table cloth, and part of me wishes she won’t be there so I can cool off in here by myself for a while. She is there, her head tucked between her knees.
She doesn’t notice me until I say "Hey." She jumps. Hoping she doesn’t run away again, I crawl under the table next to her and press myself into the opposite corner. It’s smaller here than I remember, but I try to give her space.
"I’m sorry that you lost your... Pokémon," I say.
She looks at me with no clear expression. "My Pokémon," she repeats.
"I don’t think your mom meant to kill it."
"She still did," says Emily. I can’t argue with that.
"I hate it here," Emily says. She’s pressed her head back into her knees with her arms around her legs, squeezing herself tight.
"So do I," I confess.
I can hear footsteps from outside. I know Emily’s mom is probably worried about her, and the supervisors about the liability. I also know if I’m the one to drag Emily out everyone will forgive me for wandering off without a buddy.
A couple more minutes of hiding won’t hurt.
"Emily! Ems!" The voices are nearby. "Ems! Where are you!"
'Ems' is a stupid nickname–I wonder if she got it like I got 'Corie.' I glance back at the little girl, see that she’s taken off her name necklace and set it down. The name is Emily, but from the adult handwriting I can tell she didn't write it.
"What’s your name?" I ask her.
"...I’m Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town," she says without looking up.
I readjust my position, curl my arms around my legs, and slowly start rocking back and forth. "Nice to meet you, Ash," I say. "I’m Coral."