The Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

Ethan Muckelbauer

On my fourth day at Chip Fairley’s Camp for Lost Lambs, June Gibbs pulls me aside at breakfast while I’m clearing my dishes. June’s the one we all avoid: she has a lazy eye and knotted hair and a cloud of cigarette stench that follows her and lingers for hours. Her grip is strong, and I nearly drop my oatmeal bowl out of surprise.

“So,” she says. She’s leaned in real close, and the smell is like you wouldn’t believe. “You don’t really wanna be here, do ya?”

I say, “I don’t know,” and mean it. June lets go of my arm and gives me a once-over with her good eye.

“Well, I sure don’t. And I guess you don’t, neither.”

Her voice is what Alison likes to call “deep fried,” a thick Georgia twang mixed with years of chain-smoking. I don’t know what to say, and I notice Chip shooting glances in our direction. To him, anyone talking to June is sure to cause just as much trouble as she does.

I start to return to my seat, but she holds up a hand. “Walk with me t’night. I’ve got somethin’ you might wanna hear.”

***

Every evening, Chip leads us on a nature hike to demonstrate what he calls “the glory of God’s creation.” What this really means is slugging along an overgrown hiking trail in the stifling humidity. It’s midsummer, so everything is brown and decaying. We all hate it, but we suffer in silence; any friendships between us could be insinuated as something more. June walks in the back, next to a short woman with heavy-lidded eyes. Both of them give me a quick look as I fall between them.

“Let’s hear it.”

June snorts and then spits. “You been here before?”

I remember last fall, when Ma caught me and Alison for the first time and made me stay with Pastor Hempway for a few weeks. For a long time after, I had a blotchy purple stain on my upper thigh that made it hard to stand and sit.

“Not here. But places like it.”

“I’ve been three times,” says June. She nods towards the other woman. “Rebecca twice. It only gets worse.”

Rebecca doesn’t say anything, just stares ahead sullenly, but I see her bow her head in agreement.

“So?”

“So we’re leaving,” says June. “In five days. Sunday, when everyone’s asleep. It’s a couple dozen miles to the nearest town, at least. We’re gonna need to plan ahead.”

Escape. It’s crossed my mind before—as soon as I got here, really—but I’ve thought it through every which way, and I’m pretty sure it can’t be done. Chip and the other counselors keep us under close watch, even at night. There’ve probably been plenty of girls before me who tried it. “No way. Best case scenario, they don’t beat the tar out of us when they catch us. What are you even planning?”

We keep our voices low, masking them under the crunch-crunch-crunch of feet on twigs and gravel and the heavy buzz of cicadas. Chip shoots us a look, probably to check on June. He’s a twig, all gangly limbs, with beady lizard eyes and a patchy little attempt at a goatee. The kind of face you want to smack soon as you see it.

“They always have a counselor watchin’ us sleep. But they leave sometimes, to piss or light a cig. Sunday night is Marfa’s shift, ‘n she always takes a smoke break. Just gotta wait till she steps out, then hoot if to the woods. They’ll look for us, sure. But we can lose ‘em. There’s only so much ground they can cover.”

It strikes me that June’s completely serious; I’d taken this for some weird sort of coping mechanism. A sputter of images goes off in my head, like many reels of film spinning at once. Getting lost in the endless Georgia backwoods. Wild animals tearing open my ribcage. Collapsing of thirst in the shimmering heat. At least with Chip, the worst part would be the humiliation.

“I don’t know. It just—”

“Take your time,” June says with a crooked smile. “But not too much.”

“How do you even know what direction to run?”

“I ain’t got a clue. But she does.” June gestures to Rebecca, who nods again without speaking. “Three times I’ve been a Lost Lamb, and they always use the blindfolds on the drive over.”

“Then how does she know?”

We both turn back to Rebecca, who shrugs.

June spits again. “We just gotta trust her.”

***

The Camp for Lost Lambs is seven buildings altogether, arranged in a semi-circle around a large wooden cross that sticks crookedly up from the gravel. It’s all rotten wood, dusty and derelict, like a ghost town in an old Western. Chip says they use this place for children’s Bible camps during the fall, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere I’d have wanted to be less when I was a kid. Or now.

There’s no grass, just gravel and dirt, so everything is covered in a thin film of dust; it settles on your clothes and hair in minutes. The chapel, where Chip holds service for us twice a day, is filled with an overwhelming smell of rot. I guess some animal crawled up into the rafters and died, leaving its corpse to bake in the sun. Can’t say I blame it. Our meals are boil-in-a-bag mush slapped into bowls by Marfa, a gorilla-like counselor with a buzz cut that only accents her severely squared head. The showers don’t work—Chip calls this a “minor inconvenience”—and instead of cabins, all twelve of us sleep on the floor of the largest building in ratty sleeping bags.

They set up the routine pretty quick: morning service, breakfast, big group, lunch, small groups, evening service, dinner, evening walk, and then bed. This morning we’re all talking about forgiveness. Letting go of past sins, recognizing that God still loves us despite our mistakes, that sort of stuff. It’s all very milquetoast, the kind of shit you’d find in a mailbox pamphlet. The small groups can be a little more venomous.

“None of us are free from sin,” Chip’s saying. He stands behind a beat up podium for effect, leering out at us while we sit on the floor. “But to know God’s love—to really know it—you have to admit your sins.”

Nobody pays much attention, which I’ve come to learn is a mistake. Chip is like a scorpion: keep your eyes on him at all times or he’ll sting. Except right now I’m staring at the ground and my stomach drops when I hear him yell my name.

“Emily!”

Everybody turns to look. I don’t say anything in a silly hope that he’ll lose interest. “Maybe you’d like to tell us about your sins?”

My mouth turns to carpet. The whole room seems filled with a strange ghostly ringing. But June, of all people, stands up. “I’d like to confess, Mr. Fairley.”

Chip looks like someone pissed on his foot, but after a moment he pushes it back down. “Alright then, June.”

“Weeeeeell,” she says. She’s clearly pleased to have an audience. “Back in college, this gal Roz and I would go at it in her car. We’d park behind the Waffle House. We musta done just about everything.”

“This isn’t what I meant,” Chip says sharply.

“Ain’t it?” Her theatricality vanishes at once, replaced by something more dangerous. “You just want us to go on’n tell you about all the women we’ve, uh, known Biblically? Then you tell us how awful we are and go back to your private cabin to—“

The counselors bear down upon her and tackle her to the ground. She thrashes, swinging her fists wildly, but Marfa and a beefy guy named Alvin manage to pin her. Chip stares at her with fury.

“I reckon it’s time to eat,” he says.

***

At lunch, June sits across from me. She looks very pleased with herself, though she’s now sporting a splotchy bruise on her face, and I have a sudden urge to fling my tray of food at her. I scan the cafeteria, making sure Chip isn’t paying us notice. A few tables away, Rebecca shoots us quick, anxious glances.

“So,” June says. “You’ve had some time.”

“Not much.”

“Enough, I reckon.” She forks her gruel absentmindedly, staring past my shoulder at the middle distance. “Guess I just figured you’d be more… enthusiastic.

She gives the last word a silly little pronunciation, like it’s French. It’s the type of thing Alison would do, and I have to suppress a laugh despite myself. “He won’t let you off like that again,” she says. “Now, I can’t make you pull a runner with me. I’m just lookin’ to make sure the good Brother Fairley doesn’t hear anything about what we’ve got goin’ on.”

I try to swallow, but the food congeals in my throat like wet newspaper. Even as June was sparing me the rod earlier, I’d entertained the thought of running to Chip and giving her up. If I could get him to trust me, or at least think I wasn’t on June’s side, I could make my time here that much easier.

“I won’t tell,” I say, my voice thick. “I’ll come with you.”

Shit. I said the first thing that popped into my head that would chase her off, but I know at once I’ve miscalculated. June still looks skeptical, but she pushes her mouth into a thin smile. “Alrighty.” She stands, grabbing her barely-eaten food. “Steal a few extra waters on your way out. We’ll need ‘em for the walk.”

“But we’re not leaving for another few days.”

“It’ll ease my troubled mind,” she says.

At the end of lunch, Chip and the other counselors stand by the exits to hand us each a bottle of water on our way out of the mess hall. These are carefully rationed; without them, the afternoon heat becomes unbearable, and I can tell they’ve bought the bare minimum to keep us conscious each day. Chip watches the whole thing closely, blocks the cooler from access, and gets tetchy if you ask for an extra.

I start to object, but June whips away before I have a word out. This is obviously her form of an initiation. I have to prove I’m willing to stick my neck out. But even if I did decide to run away with June and Rebecca, I didn’t bank on being labeled a fellow troublemaker. Chip’s kept his distance so far, but I don’t want to think about what he might do if he grows to dislike me.

But as I walk towards Chip after clearing my plate, I feel a strange sense of calm. I can see June and myself running through the woods, sleeping under trees, finding our way back to our homes. Somewhere off in the distance, Chip and Marfa and the counselors comb the trees with flashlights—but by then we’re miles away, laughing and shooting the shit. I think about what Alison would say if I turned up on her front door.

All this runs through me, and so as I walk past Chip, I stick my foot out a few extra inches and catch it on the side of a bench. I topple into him, who in turn topples into the cooler of bottled waters. He swears loudly—first time I’ve heard him do it—and then slaps me sharply in the side of the head. “Watch yourself,” he hisses, but as he yells for counselors to come clean up the mess, he doesn’t notice me slip two extra bottles into the folds of my shirt.

Outside, June’s leaned against the side of the building in a Tom Sawyer kind of way, smoking a cigarette. I hand her the two bottles, and she tucks them behind a dead shrub. She doesn’t say anything, just keeps smoking, but as I walk back towards the group I see her crack a narrow smile.

***

June keeps to herself for most of the next day, but as we’re settling into our sleeping bags, I see her drag her stuff closer to me. I try to bury myself in our camp handbook—a thick, laminated pamphlet to help us “ward off temptation”—but she takes a seat on the floor beside me nonetheless.

“So.” Her default conversation starter, apparently. I turn the page without looking up, doing my best to make as much noise as possible. “Why are you here?”

“I’m trying to read.”

“Fuck you.”

I throw the book down, maybe a little harder than I intended. June watches me curiously, like she’s recording me for a psychology experiment. Chip’s distracted, off breaking up an argument between a camper and a counselor, but I know it won’t be long until he spots us. The more often I’m seen with June, the worse it’ll get for me.

“I’d rather be alone right now.”

“Fair enough.” June throws up her hands in mock surrender. “Just figured we should get to know each other, considering.”

I give an involuntary snort of laughter. “That’s a bit frowned upon here.”

She glances over at Chip and waves her hands dismissively. “He’s been declawed. Doesn’t want no lawsuit or publicity or nothin’, just to run his little camp in peace. You’re lucky,” she adds, turning back to me and spitting on the ground. A few drops spatter onto my foot. “It used to be a lot worse here.”

I say, “I know about places like that,” and she nods.

“Most of us do.” She spits again, clicks her tongue. “Look at you. So young. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Neither should you.”

“Well.” Her face softens a bit. With the dusty light filtering in from the stained glass skylights, I can imagine how she must have looked twenty years ago. Not beautiful, maybe, but vibrant, full of electricity. “My husband sends me here.”

“You’re married?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” she says with a laugh. “Didn’t even make it outta high school. I needed someone who could provide for me. He knows what I am. But whenever he catches me with a woman, he sends me here. It’s either that or one of his lessons.” She mimes a boxing motion with her fists.

“Divorce?”

“Sometimes it ain’t that easy,” says June. She digs through her duffel bag for her cigarettes. “I’m sure you know what it’s like to do anything to survive.”

“This isn’t surviving,” I say. “Being here. It’s something less than that.”

She looks at me with something in between pity and amusement. “You remind me of someone,” she says, pulling out a cigarette from the pack. “That’s why I asked you to come with us. It’s stupid, but I just had this feeling.” She stands up and makes to head outside, but turns around. “We shouldn’t get to talking again until Sunday.”

“What about Rebecca?”

“She’s having second thoughts. Doesn’t know if she can manage the walk. But we can make it without her. She told me where to go.”

As she walks away, I start to say something—that I don’t want to go, that I can’t, that I’d rather count down the days until they ship me back into a van than risk everything to run away with her. But I think about what we just said to each other and my words die in my throat.

***

Small group therapy sessions all follow a similar structure: Chip asks us about our sex lives, and we try to remain as monosyllabic as possible. Today, though, he pulls me aside into his office, a cramped little annex doubling as a supply closet. We sit on folding chairs across from each other, Chip with a Bible in his lap. I feel very aware of everything around me; the slight squeak from the chairs as I adjust my weight, the dust suspended in the air, the dryness of my mouth.

“I wanted to talk to you alone,” Chip says. “I’m concerned about you.”

This is no coincidence. We haven’t had a one-on-one session since my first day. I can’t think of a reply, so I just watch my hands.

“I thought today we could talk about your future.”

It catches me off guard—I’d expected him to launch right into June, or at least badger me about Alison.

“Do you see yourself having children, Emily?”

The honest answer is I have no idea. I know he’s baiting me, ready to launch into some speech on God intending man for woman, so I shake my head. Chip, however, doesn’t miss a beat. “I expect that’ll change one day,” he says with a laugh. I have a sudden vision of wrapping my hands around his throat. “And when it does, you’ll need a husband. Have you ever been attracted to a man?”

It’s impossible to get comfortable on this chair. Every position seems to leave part of it jabbing into my side. I realize he’s waiting for an answer, so I shake my head again.

“Surely you have,” he says, smiling gently. “Try and think, now.”

The finer points of my sexuality would, I imagine, be completely lost on Chip Fairley. I figure my best route is the old standby of making shit up. People like Chip aren’t looking for the truth; they’re just waiting for us to tell them what they want to hear. To confirm whatever archaic views of same-sex attraction they’ve been nurturing their whole lives. “Back in high school,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Before the devil. Before you let God out of your heart.”

He’s staring at me very intently now. I can see something like hunger in his face. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking, but I’m suddenly very aware that he’s positioned in between the exit and me.

“One day, you’ll know. You’ll be able to love your husband the way God intended.” He makes a small hand motion, like he’s just stopping himself from reaching out to grab me. I try to respond, but my mouth feels like it’s filled with sawdust. “Why are you spending so much time with June Gibbs?”

There it is. I’d naively hoped we could manage to avoid his attention.

“She follows me,” I say automatically. “Won’t leave me alone. I don’t like her.”

He nods, as though I’d said exactly what he’d expected. I can still see skepticism on his face. “She won’t help you, Emily. She’ll only make it harder for you to find the right path.” But I know now, from the hunger in his eyes, what going down the ‘right path’ would mean. It’s now I realize that I have to go with June—that to stay here, to accept whatever Chip has planned, would be more pathetic than failing to escape.

“I know,” I say.

For a while, neither of us speaks. I stare at my hands, very aware of his eyes on me, waiting for him to let me go. Then he says, “We’ll speak again on Monday,” and stands up.

Sunday night comes too fast. I grow more and more nervous with each passing hour. I see all of the possibilities—getting caught, getting lost, or some combination therein—playing out on the back of my eyelids. I’ve done my best to banish them, to just stay present and focus on the present, but not speaking to June has made me feel worse than I’d expected.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, wide-awake and shivering, I feel June give me the signal, a series of taps that reverberate along the concrete floor. This means that Marfa, tonight’s night watchwoman, has left for the bathroom. I stand hesitantly and make my way towards the exit. I can hear June following behind, but I don’t dare turn to look at her. I’m convinced if I do, it’ll set off some kind of alarm. Outside, the heat has faded but the humidity remains, and we’re both coated in a sticky sweat as we ever so slowly navigate towards the start of the hiking trail. Every crunch of foot on gravel or rustle of leaves makes us stop, remaining perfectly still in the shirring dark.

June’s hid our supplies in the bush near the cafeteria, and it takes her a few moments of rustling to find it. I keep scanning the horizon, looking for any signs of Chip. I feel like I’ve been cast out into the ocean at night; I can barely make out the horizon. Up until now, my greatest fear has been getting caught. Now new visions play themselves out, of June and I being set upon by wild animals or dying of dehydration in the baking Georgia sun.

“Alright,” June says suddenly, straightening up. “Let’s—“

But whatever she’s going to say next is lost, because Chip is sprinting towards us with a flashlight, Marfa close behind, and Rebecca bringing up the rear and pointing frantically towards us. He shouts, “Stop!” and shines the light on our faces.

The next second seems to stretch out into infinity as June and I lock eyes with each other. An understanding passes silently between us: we are on our own. She cannot help me. I shouldn’t follow her. We will never see each other again.

And then we’re both off like a shot in opposite directions. June disappears into the underbrush, and I follow suit, slamming into tree branches and bushes, feeling them scrape at my skin. I don’t look back, just focus on the obstacles in front of me. It’s a wild, terrible sort of feeling. Somewhere in the distance, I can hear Chip yelling: “June! Emily! We know you’re out here!”

After a while—maybe minutes, maybe an hour—I stop to lean against a tree and catch my breath, clutching a stitch in my side. For the first time since I’ve arrived at the Camp for Lost Lambs, I’m completely alone. The night seems to close in around me, to wrap its hands around my neck. I can’t hear Chip anymore, just the whirring of the cicadas.

“June?”

But she’s gone. My voice, a shaky rasp, seems to echo among the trees, like they’re repeating my words as some sort of joke. I imagine if Alison were here. I want, more than anything, to follow someone else’s instructions. To have someone step into my path and tell me where to run, how to get out of this. I realize now that I can’t get out of this. I’ll always be tied to someone o somewhere, desperately straining at my restraints. But I’ve escaped them now, and I regret it. I would rather by in my ratty sleeping bag, wrecking my shoulders and back on the stiff floor, counting the days until I’m bussed back home.

From somewhere far away, maybe miles, comes the sound of someone walking through the underbrush.

“Emily!”

Chip sounds so desperate, so hoarse and out of breath, that it catches me off guard; I almost yell back. I stand back up, scanning the darkness to try and make out his figure. He calls my name again—a little louder, a little closer—and I press myself against the tree trunk.

By now I’m sure June is in the clear. Probably she thinks the same of me. Even if they do catch her, I imagine she’ll do anything to keep from getting dragged back. But I’m not June, or who June thought I was. In front of me, briefly illuminated by slats of moonlight, I see a rabbit dart out from its hole. I imagine how it must feel to be a wild animal; to know only the call of my own body. But even survival is a luxury for me.

“I’m here,” I say, and start to make my way towards Chip.

#

Ethan Muckelbauer’s work has appeared in Josephine Quarterly and North Texas Review. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and currently resides in St. Louis, where he is a law student at Washington University.