It was hot in a way the little girls had never known before. The heat stifled. It didn’t make any of them want to bare their legs and leap into a swimming pool. It made them want to find somewhere cool and shady to sit, and curl up, and sleep until winter came. What a relief some clear air to breathe would be, the girl called Em thought. Even the trees, arms heavy and drooping with thick green leaves, sweated. All the girls had patterns of swollen red dots up and down their skinny arms; “chiggers”, someone had said, their first night in Tennessee. Em had never heard of chiggers, but she didn’t like the name, and she didn’t like the idea of bugs so small she couldn’t see them crawling around in her sleeping bag, either. Bug spray was useless here; it was too hot for long sleeves. There was nothing to do but fall asleep knowing you were being feasted upon; and to wake feeling itchy, and filthy, and restless already.
The little girl called Liv had legs so long the models in Em’s mom’s lingerie catalogs would be jealous; except that they were bony legs, all knobby knees and soft blonde fuzz. Her hips jutted out like two things made purely of bone beneath her floral-print leggings—was there really skin under there? Em wondered. But she knew there was, because the girls went each day to the showers, and stripped naked to stand beneath the cool water.
None of the girls could stand to be in the showers for too long. The walls were covered in a patina of pale green slime, in hue not unlike the Spanish moss that covered the oak trees at home, but not so nice as moss, not so soft and innocent. The floors were unspeakable. The girl called Lindy burst into tears the first time she looked down, though no one could tell because of all the water that was already splashed across her face. Thick black slugs, looking sated, full to bursting, and immobile, lined the stalls. Spiders went scurrying to safety at the first touch of water; stains that none of the girls could identify marred the concrete. Nobody dared look up, for fear to see some horrible forest creature lurking; and after a cursory glance to be sure no slugs would be crushed, none of the girls spent much time looking at their feet, either.
The fourth girl, Hetty, was also the meanest. If she missed home, she didn’t show it. Em thought the chiggers must not bother her, for she snuggled up so soundly in her sleeping bag at night. Em could not sleep so well, thinking of all the creatures, sweat running down her forehead, hearing the buzz of crickets outside and feeling the chunks of dirt deep down in her blanket with the tips of her toes. One night there was a cockroach, the size, Em thought, of a mouse. It landed squarely upon Em’s shoulder as she was bending to get a fresh t-shirt out of her bag; she went to brush it off, and saw how big it was, how fierce, gleaming black, and screamed with fright. This set off all the other girls screaming, too. They chased the cockroach around the cabin, none of them sure what to do if it was ever caught.
Soon, mercifully, it was hard to tell if they were yelling with laughter or terror, and Liv cornered it and dropped her towel upon it, and then brave little Lindy was the only one who could get close enough to the heap to dispose of the cockroach. Em slept even more poorly after that; her mother had told her not to peer to closely in the dark, because that’s when cockroaches come crawling out.