In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its first-ever short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. After the jump, read the first of three honorable mentions: “The Truth About Psych Camp” by Ann Gelder.
“The Truth About Psych Camp”
by Ann Gelder
It was our last week at Wah-Kee-Nah Summer Camp for Teenage Psychiatrists, and we were finally getting to work on real patients. I couldn’t wait. I was sick of the robot patients we’d been using for practice — their grotesquely soft skin, the spastic head-swiveling as they reclined on the couch, the way their gears were always whirring in the background, like they were accusing you of something. Worst of all were their stories, recorded in thick accents by the Japanese engineers who had built them. My wife doesn’t care for me. That burns me up. You know where I’m coming from? Every so often you were supposed to pause the thing with the remote and ask it a question, like “How does that make you feel?” Then you hit a button for a random response: That’s what I pay you to figure out; or, Who are you, my father? The camp counselors told us never to expect any praise from either the robots or the real patients — our clients, as we were supposed to call them. It wasn’t their job to make us feel better.
Our clients were coming by bus. After lunch we gathered to wait for them under a banner that said “Welcome to Camp Wah-Kee-Nah,” the same banner that had been put up for us three weeks earlier. A storm was on the way. The air smelled like iron, and the pine trees, swaying in the wind, had turned black. The banner snapped loose and skittered in a ball across the parking lot. Nobody chased it. We stood in a ragged semicircle, biting our nails, re-buttoning the blazers of our navy-blue pantsuits. I cleaned my glasses with a wadded Kleenex I’d found in my pocket.
Like all 13-year-old girls I was a narcissist. However, my mother, a psychiatrist herself, said that I was the Giant Vortex of Need that Devoured the Universe. I’m exaggerating slightly. But our screaming matches, compounded with the demands of her clients, had definitely stressed her out. During the five-hour drive up here, she had gripped the steering wheel so tightly that a piece of leather came off in her hand when she reached across me to let me out at the entrance.
“It’s my hope,” she’d said then, “that through your experiences here, you will come to appreciate the critical dialectic between self and other in the formation of the ego.”
“Here” was in the middle of a forest on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a collection of low buildings like the longhouses of some small, anhedonic tribe. We touched fingertips. I was barely able to slam the door before she gunned the engine of her ancient Mercedes (recently inherited from her own mother, who had died suddenly in the spring). The car spun out of the parking lot, shooting gravel from under the wheels.
I looked skyward, tracking a thunderclap. When I lowered my head, our clients’ bus had pulled in. It was huge and completely white, although the outline of a racing greyhound showed through on the side panel. I could see nothing through the windows but rolling reflections of trees and storm clouds. The bus hissed and sank to its right.
The doors popped open. A pale man, dressed in a terrycloth robe and pajamas, appeared at the top of the steps. He didn’t look much older than us, which was a surprise. I’d expected the clients to be at least 40, wearing starched clothes and carrying briefcases. Every part of this guy was in motion. He bounced on the balls of his feet, his hands opened and closed, his black hair fluttered in the wind. His eyes darted like dragonflies, green and iridescent and alarming. As he scanned the Teen Psychiatrists’ faces, I had the distinct feeling that this man was looking for me. That was the narcissist in me, I thought. I ducked behind my tent-mate Jessica.
But as always, Jessica had to be the first to offer assistance. She sauntered up to the door and held her hand out. I followed, hunching close to her back.
“You want to come with me, sir?” she said.
Tall and loud, Jessica was constantly chomping on a huge piece of bubble gum, a manifestation of her oral-aggressive tendencies. The man watched her for a few seconds, apparently drawn to the way her earrings swung with the motion of her jaw. I, too, was mesmerized. Without realizing it, I’d stepped out from behind her, and when I came to, the man got me in an eye lock. He grinned, revealing tangled but very white teeth. He leaped off the bus like a little boy, arms flapping outward. He grabbed my hand and pumped it.
“What’s your name?” he shouted over the thunder. His bathrobe, plastered against him by the wind, smelled like an old vinyl bus seat.
“Andromeda,” I shouted back.
“Now there’s a name you don’t hear every day.”
“It’s a long story,” I said. I was going to explain that my mother had gone through a sort of phase around the time I was born. She’d been to a conference on the Greek island of Samos, and had come back with a deep hankering for myth and legend. She’d given me this name so I could grow up feeling (as she had at the time) larger than life. But we weren’t supposed to reveal too much about ourselves to our clients.
“You can call me Joe,” the man said.
Dr. Shirley, the camp director, came over with her clipboard. She wore her reading glasses on a chain around her neck, and the wind had blown them so they hung down her back like a bridle.
“You’re with Joe, then, Andromeda?” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “he’s mine.”