The same summer that shattered the camp’s reputation.
The people involved were all notable enough to keep the story in the news for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Natalie, the daughter of the city’s top orthopedic surgeon. Allison, the child of a prominent Broadway actress. And Vivian, the senator’s daughter, whose name often appeared in the newspaper with the word troubled in close proximity.
The press mostly left me alone. Compared with the others, I was a nobody. Just the daughter of a neglectful investment banker father and a high-functioning alcoholic mother. A gangly thirteen-year-old whose grandmother had recently died, leaving her with enough money to spend six weeks at one of the nation’s most exclusive summer camps.
It was Franny who ultimately received the bulk of the media’s scorn. Francesca Harris-White, the rich girl who had always befuddled the society columns with her refusal to play the game. Marrying a contemporary of her father at twenty-one. Burying him before she turned thirty. Adopting a child at forty, then another at fifty.
The coverage was brutal. Articles about how Lake Midnight was an unsafe place for a summer camp, especially considering that her husband had drowned there the year before Camp Nightingale opened. Claims that the camp was understaffed and unsupervised. Think pieces blaming Franny for standing by her son when suspicion swirled around him. Some even insinuated there might be something sinister about Camp Nightingale, about Franny, about her family.
I probably had something to do with that.
Scratch that. I know I did.
Yet Franny shows no ill will as she sits in her faux forest, outlining her vision for the new Camp Nightingale.
“It won’t be the same, of course,” she says. “It can’t be. Although fifteen years is a long enough time, what happened will always be like a shadow hanging over the camp. That’s why I’m going to do things differently this time. I’ve set up a charitable trust. No one will have to pay a penny to stay there. The camp will be completely free and merit-based, serving girls from around the tri-state area.”
“That’s very generous,” I say.
“I don’t want anyone’s money. I certainly don’t need it. All I need is to see the place filled again with girls enjoying the outdoors. And I’d truly love it if you would join me.”
I gulp. Me? Spend the summer at Camp Nightingale? This is far different from the commission offer I had expected to receive. It’s so outlandish I start to think I’ve misheard her.
“It’s not that strange of an idea,” Franny says. “I want the camp to have a strong arts component. Yes, the girls there will swim and hike and do all the usual camp activities. But I also want them to learn about writing, photography, painting.”
“You want me to teach them to paint?”
“Of course,” Franny says. “But you’ll also have plenty of time to work on your own. There’s no better inspiration than nature.”
I still don’t get why Franny wants me, of all people, to be there. I should be the last person she wants around. She senses my hesitation, of course. It’s impossible not to, considering how I sit stiff-backed in my chair, fiddling with the napkin in my lap, twisting it into a coiled knot.
“I understand your trepidation,” she says. “I’d feel the same way if our roles were reversed. But I don’t blame you for what happened, Emma. You were young and confused, and the situation was horrible for everyone. I firmly believe in letting bygones be bygones. And it’s my great wish to have some former campers there. To show everyone that it’s a safe, happy place again. Rebecca Schoenfeld has agreed to do it.”
Becca Schoenfeld. Notable photojournalist. Her image of two young Syrian refugees holding hands while covered in blood made front pages around the world. But more important for Franny’s purposes, Becca’s also a veteran of Camp Nightingale’s final summer.
She noticeably wasn’t one of the girls who sought me out on Facebook. Not that I expected her to. Becca was a mystery to me. Not standoffish, necessarily. Aloof. She was quiet, often alone, content to view the world through the lens of the camera that always hung around her neck, even when she was waist-deep in the lake.
I imagine her sitting at this very table, that same camera dangling from its canvas strap as Franny convinces her to return to Camp Nightingale. Knowing that she’s agreed changes things. It makes Franny’s idea seem less like a folly and more like something that could actually happen. Although not with me.
“It’s an awfully big commitment,” I say.
“You’ll be compensated financially, of course.”
“It’s not that,” I say, still twisting the napkin so hard it’s starting to look like rope. “I’m not sure I can go back there again. Not after what happened.”
“Maybe that’s precisely why you should go back,” Franny says. “I was afraid to return, too. I avoided it for two years. I thought I’d find nothing there but darkness and bad memories. That wasn’t the case. It was as beautiful as ever. Nature heals, Emma. I firmly believe that.”
I say nothing. It’s hard to speak when Franny’s green-eyed gaze is fixed on me, intense and compassionate and, yes, a little bit needy.
“Tell me you’ll at least give it some thought,” she says.
“I will,” I tell her. “I’ll think about it.”