BY LAUREN SPINABELLI
Alice collected collectives. She harbored them in her mind, the way her gums had harbored baby teeth and grownup teeth, mismatched ships in a sea of cherry pink. She collected baby teeth, too—they rattled around in an old breath mint tin. She gathered things she could no longer have—her childhood mouth-bones, a sense of belonging. She memorized the collectives from a paperback book; she recited them in her head every morning as she brushed her mismatched teeth.
A group of birds is a flock, that’s easy.
But a group of bats could be a colony or a cloud.
A school of fish. A swarm of bees. A litter of kittens.
She delighted in the strange collections, picturing a smack of jellyfish or a charm of hummingbirds or a troubling of goldfish. Troubling. She garbled the word over her scrambled eggs and pancakes one summer morning. She sat at the breakfast table, harbored between her two parents, a couple. The three of them made a family. Her father peered over his mug of coffee, the heat fogging up his glasses. A pair.
“Yes. A troubling of goldfish.”
Alice scraped at the pool of syrup with her fork, watched as it dripped and glinted off the tines. Her mother glanced at her father, a sense of urgency in her eyes. He set down his mug.
“What do you call a group of girls, hmm? Girls that are friends?”
Alice pressed her fork tines into her tongue, thought about how it tasted sweet but hurt at the same time. She dropped it with a clatter against her plate.
“Depends what sort of girls. A clique, if they’re like the teenagers in my books. A squad, if they’re cheerleaders. The Pink Ladies, if you’re watching—“
“What about a cabin, sweetie?”
“A group of cabins? I guess if a group of houses is a neighborh—“
“A group of girls, honey. A group of girls is called a cabin, if they’re—“
“Travelling in an airplane?”
Alice adjusted her glasses, leaving a thumbprint of syrup on the lens. Her mother took a sharp breath in through her nose, the way she did when she found her daughter’s mint tin full of teeth.
“At camp. If they’re at a summer camp, and they’re all staying in a cabin together, they’re a cabin of campers.”
Alice knew this, of course. And she knew what was coming. She had seen the brochures, the thin pamphlets dappled with smiling faces, the prices printed in microscopic font and circled with magic marker. Her parents were sending her to a summer camp. Troubling, indeed.
She had read the books with the whiny teenagers and the screaming tantrums. Slam the door, shriek into your pillow. But Alice was not a teenager yet. She retreated softly to her room; shut her door like a whisper. She thought of the two words she knew for a group of ravens: unkindness, conspiracy.
Alice’s father slipped the pamphlets under her door. She could not choose whether or not to go to camp, but she could choose which camp. Like men on death row choosing their last meal, Alice thought grimly. She knew to choose an all-girls camp. In her books, the cliques of girls were always playing tug-of-war over boys—who ended up being more trouble than they were worth. Like a prickle of hedgehogs, threatening to pop the delicate bubble of sisterhood.
Alice stacked the co-ed camp pamphlets—or camphlets, as she began to call them in her head, and slid them back under her door. Only two remained, identical to the others, except the cheerful stock photos were plucked clean of boys. Pine Cove and Moon Lake—both had lakes, both had pines, both served three meals a day and promised an ‘enriching experience.’ The tiniest detail charmed her: Moon Lake named their cabins after different planets’ moons. She could be in the Thebe Cabin or Atlas Cabin or the Rosalind or the Larissa. Alice smiled at the thought of being in the Titania Cabin. The name made her think of fairies called Peaseblossom or Mustardseed. Alice did not know the name for a group of fairies, but she thought the word for butterflies might do. A rabble of fairies. She imagined herself into a whimsical rabble of campers, wearing flowers in their hair and stirring up trouble at Camp Moon Lake. Moon Lake. Those two nouns conjured the most enchanting image: a strawberry moon sitting in the night sky, her twin sister rippling on the surface of the water. The daydream alone spurred her decision. She would attend Camp Moon Lake for Girls.
It felt wrong arriving by the light of the sun. Alice sat in the passenger seat of her mother’s car, the air conditioning blasting to combat the June heat. Her orange duffel bag was in the trunk, stuffed with T-shirts and bottles of sunscreen. Her backpack sat at her feet, the tin of teeth rattling in the smallest pocket, the paperback of collectives tucked next to her water bottle. She snuck glances of herself in the side view mirror. She’d cleaned the smudges from her glasses so they reflected the sunlight and trees gliding past. Her mother had braided her hair.
Static began to creep over the radio, and Alice knew they must be close. Moon Lake’s camphlet described its location as ‘remote.’ Soon the paved road turned to clattering gravel, narrowing to a single lane lined with towering white pines. A sign strung from the high branches, shaped in the upward curve of a smile: WELCOME HOME. The O’s were decorated like full moons. Alice’s heart began to race. She thought of a charm of hummingbirds.
Alice was not placed in the Titania Cabin—or the Puck Cabin, which was her second choice. Her mother parked the car in the grassy field across from a cluster of Jupiter Cabins: Sinope, Arche, Carpo, and Lysithea. Alice slung her orange duffel over one shoulder, her backpack over the other. She tucked her pillow under her arm, her childish frame wobbling under the weight of her summer possessions.
“Let me help you,” Alice’s mother grasped for the duffel, but Alice lurched away. She heard her mother breathe in sharply through her nose.
“I can do it.”
“Okay. Have fun, sweetheart. Be good.”
“Thanks, love you.”
“Love you too.”
Alice kissed her mother on the cheek and stumbled towards the Jupiter Cabins. She heard the engine start up behind her, then a car window humming as it rolled down. She turned to see her mother leaning across the passenger seat.
“I’ll miss you!”
“You too, mom!”
Alice lifted her arm and struggled to wave. Her mother turned out of the grass and onto the gravel. Alice listened to the crackle of pebbles on the underbelly of the car as it disappeared into the trees.
The Sinope Cabin was alive with girls and their mothers. They wrestled fitted sheets onto the narrow mattresses, clipped battery-powered fans to bed frames, unrolled sleeping bags, sorted tiny toiletries into shower caddies. Alice dragged her duffel across the wooden cabin floor towards an unclaimed bed. She overheard a mother lecturing her daughter about scented garbage bags and dirty laundry. She didn’t think there was a word for a group of mothers, but if there were, it would be a nag. A nag of mothers, flitting about the cabin. Alice felt a presence over her shoulder as she unzipped her bag. An older girl, probably eighteen or nineteen, tapped her on the shoulder.
“And just what might your name be?’
“Oh, I’m Alice.”
The counselor checked Alice’s name off her list and introduced herself as Rachel. Rachel wore a navy Camp Moon Lake Staff shirt and a silver hoop through her nose. She had all of her adult teeth.
“We’re going to get started here in a few minutes, Alice, if you want to set up your bed.”
“Okay,” Alice pulled her sleeping bag from her duffel and smoothed it out over the bare striped mattress. Her mother hadn’t known to pack a sheet. She tucked her collectives paperback and her teeth tin under her pillow. The mothers began to filter out, leaving wet lipstick kisses on their daughters’ foreheads, tossing last-minute reminders over their shoulders.
“Sunscreen, Susan. Every two hours.”
“No frogs this year, Heather. Heather, are you listening to me?”
“And wear your goggles for the swim test.”
“I mean it, Heather!”
Soon it was just the girls and Rachel. Alice admired the white twinkle lights her counselor had strung from the ceiling. Rachel clapped her hands twice.
“Oh-kay Sinope ladies! We are going to get the ball rolling here by playing a little game. Will everyone line up on this side of the cabin?”
There was a flurry of beds squeaking and socked feet scrambling as seven girls shuffled towards one end of the room. Rachel twirled a piece of chalk in her fingers. She bent down and drew a line down the center of the cabin floor in front of the campers’ feet.
“This game is called Cross the Line. Before we play, I want everyone to sound off with their names. “
Alice, Susan, Heather, Courtney, Sarah, Olivia, and Lizzie introduced themselves. Alice noticed the glimmer of familiarity in most of the girls’ eyes, the ghost of a smile that crossed their lips. This was not their first summer at Moon Lake.
“So Cross the Line works like this: everyone starts on that side of the line. I’m going to call out a few things. If what I say applies to you, you step over the line. So if I say, ‘if you have a pet, step over the line…’”
Susan, Heather, and Lizzie stepped over the line.
“Perfect, exactly. We’ll play a few rounds here so you can learn about one another and see what you have in common. “
For half a dozen rounds, Alice did not cross the line. She did not have a pet, or a brother, or a sister. She had never been to camp before, her favorite food was not pizza, and she did not sing in the shower—she recited collectives. Rachel clapped her hands together as Susan, Heather, Courtney, Olivia, and Lizzie retreated back over the chalk line, now a long smudge of dust on the floor.
“Alice, why don’t you pick the next round? Who should step over the line?”
Alice bounced on her toes, itching to cross the line.
“Okay, um. Cross the line if you collect something!”
Seven pairs of feet scuffed across the chalk line. Heather dragged her finger through the white dust and smeared a line onto Lizzie’s forehead. Lizzie giggled and pinched some chalk dust between her fingers, flicking them onto Heather’s shirt in retaliation. Rachel tried to rein them in.
“Nice work, Alice! You got everyone across the line. Let’s use this as an icebreaker. Everyone, go around and tell us what you collect. Let’s start with Courtney.”
Courtney collected painted china dolls. Sarah collected stuffed elephants. Olivia collected postcards. Susan collected glass bumblebees. Lizzie collected Pez dispensers. Heather collected nail polish. When Alice said she collected collectives, she watched as Rachel’s face curdled.
“What does that mean?”
For a second, Alice considered lying and changing her answer to Happy Meal toys. Instead, she ambled over to her bed and slid the paperback book out from under her pillow to show Rachel. Her breath mint tin tumbled out with it, clattering onto the cabin floor and scattering her baby teeth like pearl beads everywhere. Alice’s heart thundered like hummingbirds for the second time that day. Rachel was quick to comfort her.
“Oh no. Here, everyone, help clean up Alice’s mints.”
Heather nudged one of the teeth with her toe. She reached down and pinched it between her fingers, then placed it onto her tongue like a slice of gum. Sucking on it, her brow furrowed with confusion. She spit out the tooth and examined it in her palm.
“I’m gonna throw up,” she announced calmly, letting the tooth slip from her fingers and back onto the floor. She rushed onto the back porch and started spitting into the grass. The rest of the girls, slowly realizing that the teeth were not mints, stared at Alice in silent horror.
* * *
A set of teeth. A pair of eyes. A lock of hair. Alice examined herself under the fluorescent energy-efficient light of the bathhouse. What had compelled her to bring her teeth to camp? Or put them under her pillow? Rachel had tried to recover. Tried to turn the grotesque into the interesting.
“What an interesting thing to collect.” Her voice had rise to a high pitch, like when Alice’s mother was telling a fib. Despite her counselor’s best efforts, Alice’s mood had shifted severely. She retreated into her sadness like a turtle into its shell. A bale of turtles. That’s what Alice needed to do: bail. Bail on Sinope, bail on Moon Lake. She heard Rachel’s voice echo across the bathhouse.
“Ready for supper, Alice? The first night is always grilled cheese!”
Alice slipped out of the stall and joined the Sinope girls outside of the bathhouse. They walked single-file through the pines towards the dining hall. One side of the WELCOME HOME sign had come loose, and the banner flopped down to the dirt. Alice tried to cheer herself up by thinking of a clever term for a group of grilled cheese, but she couldn’t think of anything.
Alice sat next to Rachel at supper, the rest of the Sinope girls all clustered around the same table. The dining hall was buzzing with campers and counselors setting tables, spilling drinks, clattering forks and knives. The Sinope girls passed around a tray of buttery grilled cheese. Rachel ladled out tomato soup into plastic mugs. Dessert was ice cream sandwiches, frozen as hard as chocolate and vanilla bricks. The girls gnawed on them with sticky hands, dripping white melt onto their shorts.
A shriek pierced the dining hall.
“It’s stuck in my ice cream!”
A younger camper, a few tables over, stood bleeding from her mouth. She sank her nails into the flesh of her ice cream sandwich, carving something out of it. Her baby tooth, imbedded inside. The campers watched as her counselor dug it out with the tine of a fork. Alice felt her sadness growing. Her face flushed with anticipation. She waited.
Heather was the first. She turned back from watching the scene, the words ready on the edge of her tongue. Her eyes caught Alice’s, her lips parted.
“One more for the collection, Alice.”
Alice stayed silent. Heather’s comment didn’t faze her, but she felt a strange emptiness at watching the excitement on the younger camper’s face. Rachel wiped her hands on the back of her shorts and gathered up the discarded ice cream wrappers.
“Alright Sinope! Time to wash up and head to the bonfire!”
* * *
The Sinope girls were stuffed with grilled cheese, their voices hoarse from shouting campfire songs, the corners of their mouths crusty with toothpaste foam. Rachel led them out of the bathhouse, the last bits of sunlight dissolving in the sky. Fireflies began to flicker dimly in the air ahead of the campers. Lizzie and Heather took off after them, arms outstretched, hands cupped. The other girls followed suit. Rachel watched, helping Courtney unscrew her water bottle to catch one. They snatched at the bugs with their small hands, whining and exclaiming each time they peeked through their fingers to find nothing but air. Alice caught a glimmer in the corner of her eye. She reached up gently and caught the creature in her fist.
“I got one!”
She felt herself peer out of her own sadness. A small sense of victory washed over her. She watched as the light pulsed through the cracks between her fingers, the stark yellow reflecting off her pale skin. Like the moon reflecting sunlight. She smiled. What do you call a group of fireflies? She wondered.
“Let me see!”
Heather was at her side now, Lizzie a few steps behind. Alice could smell the campfire clinging to their hair. She uncurled her hand. The firefly crawled across her palm. Heather tried to grab it, but Alice closed her fist protectively. Heather pulled her hand away.
“What’d you do that for? You probably killed it!”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Let go of it. You can’t keep it forever.”
Alice loosened her grip, and watched as the dead firefly slipped through her fingers and into the grass.
* * *
The Sinope Cabin was stuffed with stale, hot air. Alice’s cabin mates slept under the whir of their battery-powered fans, but the glow of twinkle lights illuminated the sweat beading on their lips. Rachel ground her teeth violently in her sleep. Olivia and Susan both snored in alternating rhythm. Alice lay sweating under her sleeping bag, her eyes glued to the lights hanging above her. A string of lights. One word rolled around her in mind, and it wasn’t a collective—or was it? Forever. Heather’s word: you can’t keep it forever. Let go of it. The word frightened Alice—more than a pack of wolves or a pit of snakes. The thought of something without an end—teeth that never fell out, or fireflies that never died. Endings seemed natural to Alice, beautiful, even. Every book she ever read had an ending. She collected her fragments of fallen bones, each piece in the tin bringing her closer to the end of her childhood. If it didn’t end, how could something new begin?
Alice felt under her pillow, gripping the cool metal tin. The teeth rattled in her hand as she shimmied out of her sleeping bag and swung her feet onto the cabin floor. The fans hummed, the girls snored. Her footsteps were silent under the layers of noise. The back door of the Sinope Cabin creaked open and shut again as Alice slipped out and into the night.
In her books, the girls snuck out to kiss boys under the stars. But this felt more important. She leapt off the back porch and into the grass where Heather almost got sick that afternoon. That felt like years ago now. She wove her way through the wood behind the cabin, the moonlight glimmering through the leaves. Outside was noisier than inside: cicadas, crickets, a bullfrog croaking in the distance. She didn’t know what she was looking for until she saw it: a tree stump, thick with rings. She placed the teeth tin on the surface of the stump and headed back towards her cabin. She thought about the words for a group of trees. When they're young, it’s a nursery. Grown, they become a forest.
Lauren Spinabelli is a writer from Pittsburgh currently living in Brooklyn.