Accidents of Nature

Harriet McBryde Johnson

Henry Holt and Co.

My shoulders are sticky with my father's sweat where I took his arm to get out of the station wagon. We're met by a tall brunette in bermuda shorts. "I'm Sue, the senior counselor in Jean's cabin. Carole's around here somewhere."

"Pleased to meet you." My parents speak in unison so perfect that someone really ought in some manner to express amusement. But instead Sue and Dad shake hands and my mother accepts a clip board loaded with forms, while I sit, silent, beside the car. The sun beats down on my head.
"Has Jean ever spent a night away from home?"

My Dad says, "No."
"Well," Mom adds, "only with us with her, on family trips and whatnot." She's working on the forms on the hood of our station wagon. Inside my sister Cindy is sprawled across the back seat.

Sue says, "We have a lot of first-time campers this time. Jean'll fit right in."
Mom's smile is a little rigid. "Well, I know she will. She always does. You know, she's in public high school. Going to graduate next year."

"With honors, I might add. Beta Club. Key Club. I-don't-know-what-all Club. And perfect attendance for seven years in a row--" Dad's habitual grin goes up a wide notch.
"At any rate," Mom says, "we thought it would be good for her to have an experience away from home. Away from us too. She needs to find out she can survive without us. She's never let cerebral palsy hold her back."

I shrug. I feel no need to prove anything, but if this is what my parents want, I can indulge them. While I'm at camp, my family will be sleeping in a tent on the beach.
"I know she'll have a great time. You're not nervous, are you?"
It takes me by surprise, her turning from my parents to me without warning, and I'm not ready to talk. I'm struggling to get words out, and I realize I don't even know what words I'm going for. There's no way out when it gets like this.
Sue jumps back in. "Hey, that's a really cute outfit." It's a culotte suit in a funny print -- the words NO NO NO NO NO repeated all over.

Dad's still grinning and I know what's coming. "Like I told her this morning: just look at those clothes to remember what to tell the boys at camp!" He rubs my head the same way he rubbed it this morning when he made the same joke, the same way he always rubs his best dog. He always makes dumb jokes, and I always laugh. I laugh now, but I hope the talking will end soon and they'll get me out of the sun.
My mother hands Sue the clip board. "Did I do everything right?"

Sue shows them where to sign. They sign. Along with the intake forms, I'm handed over in the sandy parking area. Mom bends down. I tilt my head up for a kiss that smells like face powder and feels like lip stick. Dad gives me a noisy smack on the forehead and a friendly slap on the back. "Now try to behave yourself, girl. Do us proud."
I wonder if it will be this hot the whole time.

That's it. I should have a spaz attack, but I don't. There should be a strong emotion of some kind, but there isn't. Ever since that August in 1970, I've pressed hard to squeeze something out of my memory, but I always find it dry. I have to accept it. When I lean back to receive good-bye kisses from my mother and father, all I feel is hot.

Copyright © 2006 Harriet McBryde Johnson
This text is from an uncorrected proof.