When I was 12 years old, I begged my parents to let me be a junior counselor at a summer camp a couple hours away from town.
Shockingly, they said yes.
The sprawling ranch was in south Florida, near an Indian reservation. There were horses, goats, pigs, rabbits, and other farm animals.
The camp's mascot was a gigantic pot belly pig, Big C, who was gentle as a lamb. He would roam around the ranch, to the delight of the younger children. It was tradition for anyone who saw Big C to shout out "Big C comin'!"
When I was introduced to my bunkmate, Brittany, I was in complete awe. With sun-soaked blonde hair, a gorgeous face, and a bored expression, she was like a 13-year-old Heather Locklear. When she lit up a cigarette inside our cabin, blowing the smoke through a cracked open window, I knew she was the coolest girl I'd ever met in my life.
Even Brittany's background was glamorous, at least for a generic upper-middle class girl like me. Her father was in prison. Her mom was a bartender. Brittany said words like "fucking-A" and "bitchballs" which I had never heard anyone my own age utter aloud before.
She decided we were going to be best friends and I went along with it. Unfortunately, being bffs with Brittany meant I had to alienate myself from all the other junior camp counselors at the ranch. They all despised her. She never gave them the time of day and when she was forced to talk to one of the other girls, she usually spoke with condescending coolness.
"These other girls here are so fucking-A!" she would groan at night, flicking her cigarette out the window while simultaneously reading Seventeen. "Thank god I have you, Jen."
After a couple weeks of being at camp, Brittany convinced me to sneak out of the ranch almost every night. We would climb the bulky wooden fence and run out in the fields towards a cluster of large trees. Even though I was terrified of heights, I would allow Brittany to coax me up a tree and sit in the branches, gazing out at the stars or the faded lights of the Indian reservation in the distance. I would never climb up as far as Brittany. I would stare up at her, with envy, wishing I could be sitting on the top branch, with my blonde locks flowing in the wind.
One night, we huddled together on a lower branch, and watched in awe as a group of American Indian men, wearing nothing but jeans and cowboy boots, herded a pack of horses in the field right beneath our feet.
Everything about Brittany seemed so grown up. She might have been 13, but she acted 16, at least.
"God, just looking at that tree makes me horny," she once said, pointing to a weeping willow across the lake. "Doesn't it make you horny?"
I nodded enthusiastically, not having the slightest idea what she was talking about.
Another evening, she made me pierce her upper left ear. She already had her ears pierced, but wanted a third hole. Our laughter turned to shrieks of horror as I stabbed her ear with a pin. She had to wear her hair down for several days, to hide the grotesque swelling. Every time I apologized, she laughed.
With a week left into camp, Brittany's school friends showed up one night, with some older boys, in a rusty blue Mustang. Brittany left with them and didn't come back until around 3 a.m.
The next morning, I went to breakfast and immediately noticed something was wrong. Kids were crying. The older camp counselors, college students, were whispering to each other. Some of the camp leaders, the adults, were pacing back and forth, looking stunned.
When I found out the news, I was speechless. Apparently Big C had been slaughtered at the ranch that night. Someone, or some people, had attacked him and cut him open, spilling his guts out. His blood had been splattered and smeared all over the campground.
I felt dizzy with nausea that someone could be so cruel to such a beloved pet. Big C was such a gentle creature. He never would have hurt anyone. He loved everyone. He was so trusting. I went into my cabin and threw myself on my bed and cried. Who could have hurt Big C?
The police were called in. Camp was cancelled. With only a week to go, the ranch owner was so devastated, she couldn't even finish the summer. All events were cancelled.
Brittany had become so attached to me that summer, that she ended up persuading her mom to pay out-of-district tuition to send her to my middle school, about 45 minutes away from where she lived.
I wasn't terribly thrilled by the news. I had cooled our relationship since camp ended. For some reason I felt weird around her now. I didn't find her that entertaining anymore. I certainly no longer wanted to be like her.
Her transfer to my school eventually worked out for her, regardless of me. She instantly became close friends with the popular kids in my school. I rarely saw her in the months before I ended up moving to Nebraska.
In the back of my mind, I always knew what had bothered me about the night Brittany had come home. I always knew why I had severed our friendship without offering her a solid explanation.
The night Brittany had come back from hanging out with her wild friends, she'd reeked of an extremely strong, musky odor. I couldn't pinpoint what it had been at the time. But now, I'm almost certain: it had been blood.
But it hurt too much to put the pieces together. So, instead, I let them fall.
Once in a while, when I think of the summer of 1996, I don't really dwell on Brittany, or the friendship we once shared.
I simply remember lounging on a cold tree branch, feeling a soft breeze run through my hair, watching the horses gallop below in the star-freckled moonlight. Basking in a taste of stolen freedom. Wondering if that's what heaven felt like.