by Cheryl Anne Gardner
We are the self-proclaimed defilers of what is said to be known.
They call it a camp, but we never do like in the boy scouts. The Keepers, they make us hate on ourselves for miles in our bare feet, every day, jungle-dragging the dolls behind us on rope we could smoke if we only had matches. We were already whacked from working through the night, the cold and the dark having gnawed at our bloodied fingers. We hate those fucking dolls. They bring them in by the truck load; dump them on the cracked-up concrete out in the yard. We have to pick their stinking carcasses out of the pile, choose them and name them—the ones that would be our—had to cut out their eyes, burn their hair, shove nails between their tiny painted teeth. We couldn’t let them know us or want us.
At Christmas time, we’d take the eyes and thread them into garland, hang them over the rusty tetanus-infected mess of rebar that made for a tree. We needed to do these things, and we needed to do what we did alone. Not many stayed for very long, not long to enough to make friends. I had only a few. José said his father had tried to choke him out once, and Brad’s father shot him with a crossbow while hunting, though it was never determined what exactly his dad had been shooting at. I don’t talk about my dad. Accidents. Prone to. That’s what they called us. But nothing we’d ever suffered in the real world gave us nightmares like the swamp dolls did, barefoot-walking in the murky sludge, carrion fumes rising around us, clinging to the sweat on our skin and on our clothes. It’s worse when it rains. They come more when it rains. The monsters. They stalk the water, wait for the dolls to come stick-collecting for the evening fires, and when we reach down, the monsters lunge from the depths, tear chunks of flesh to the bone and then drag the dolls down; nothing left behind but mutilated plastic heads, bobbing and floating on the surface.
I look out over the swamp. The sky’s clear tonight, a warm wind in the trees. I can see farther than the end of history, beyond the farthest of stars. There are hundreds, thousands of heads it seems, swaying in distant moon-lit undulations. Adults are liars. They said it was for our own good. Said they loved us. They said when we were done with the program we would be stronger, not the weak, polluted little shits, assholes, delinquents, and jerkoffs we were before we came here.
I don’t know if we’re any stronger. We strip our clothes off, kneel down in the mud as we pray to Jesus, and then we wade in . . .
Maybe we are stronger.
Strong enough not to scream.