Mark the Ocelot’s Summer at Camp
by Nathan Kamal
“The dogs will have it easiest,” the camp Counselor said.
She was right. Some of the campers looked uncomfortable, but the statistics proved themselves. A full 70% of the dogs would qualify as Fully Human, while the next most successful group, the bears, were only at 30%. The percentages dwindled dramatically from there.
She did not mean to be discouraging to the campers. Although all of them had a chance, not everyone would make it to Fully Human. Many — if not most — would be disqualified and would go back out to the Woods.
“But remember, at the end of it all, it's not about what species you are now, it's about what you can be!” the Counselor said. She clapped her hands together. “So let's get out there and have a great summer!”
She smiled brightly. Her canines were very sharp.
* * *
The ocelot was assigned the name Mark. He was also assigned Bunk E in Cabin 8, which meant he was sharing a bunkhouse with a fox named Ray, a pony named Ralph, a turtle named Michel and a capuchin named Hector. Michel was also a boy, but the name had apparently amused someone in Processing, so Michel it was.
Bunk E meant Mark the ocelot was in a bottom bunk. When he found his Cabin 8, Ray the fox had already laid claim to Bunk F. Apparently, it had originally been assigned to Hector but, after a bit of squabbling, they had exchanged. Mark the ocelot hoped no one would get in trouble about it. He hoped no one would ever get into trouble and that they would all qualify together at the end of summer.
“Hey,” Ray the fox said to him. Talking was the first and most difficult part of becoming Human.
“Hey,” Mark said back.
They looked at each other for a few long moments. Everyone in Cabin 8 was slowly unpacking their backpacks, which contained an identical set of shorts, a t-shirt, a spare pair of knee-socks and a swimsuit.
“Do you guys want to play Parcheesi?” Michel the turtle asked. He had dug up a board game from the rickety cabinet by the door.
The six of them looked at each other uncertainly. Someone made a lowing mewling noise.
“I want to be the red piece,” Ralph the pony said.
So they all played until dinner, which was Salisbury steak and was pretty good.
* * *
The first morning, they had foot races.
Predictably, the dogs won all of the races. Although the campers were distributed by species across cabins, the dogs had a tendency to group together. At meal times, they congregated at the same table; given that Humans also ran in packs, there was no way for the counselors to forbid this, but there was still something unnerving about the way the dogs snapped at each other playfully and stared at the rabbits in the lunch-line a little too long.
Mark the ocelot picked at his hot dog. The little tube of meat was a strange pink color, not at all what he was used to eating. Mustard helped, though.
Across from him, Ray the fox watched the dogs. He had done well in the races but had still come in consistently in third place. Mark the ocelot had run with all his might, but it was difficult not to drop to all fours and give in to the sheer power and freedom of his legs. Instead, he had tottered steadily and quickly and made it into the top eight.
After lunch, three of the dogs cornered Ralph the pony and were all sent into the Woods immediately.
* * *
The second day was Arts & Crafts, which was an integral part of being human. One of the counselors stood behind a large table covered in spools of yarn, pots of glue, every color of glitter, insofar as Mark could tell, anyway, and every shape of pasta. He was a younger man with a quick, nervous laugh and he would play guitar for the campers in the Rec Area after dinner time. His guitar strap was rainbow-patterned.
Mark the ocelot and Hector the capuchin shared a workspace for the afternoon. Hector had the easiest time of any of his cabin friends, because his thumbs were already opposable. He also had very little imagination; he only made pictures of scenes from the jungle, which was frowned upon.
Hector held one of his pictures out to Mark the ocelot. There were trees made of macaroni noodles pasted to cardboard. Their leaves were green glitter. He had drawn the brown shape of a monkey in one.
“Yeah?” Hector the capuchin asked.
Mark the ocelot looked at it and said nothing.
The Counselor walked over, past a table of arguing parrots. “No,” the Counselor said, “that's not right, Hector.”
* * *
After dinner on the second day — breakfast for dinner, Mark the ocelot had sausage links and ignored his flapjack — the Campers were brought into the auditorium to watch a movie. You could also go swimming, if you waited thirty minutes, but the water was cold at night, and the only campers who wanted to were the amphibians, and it was discouraged for them.
Mark the ocelot, Ray the fox, Michel the turtle and Hector the capuchin sat together on hard folding chairs and waited while the counselors fussed with the projector. Something about loading the reel was difficult, and the campers were getting restless.
A few rows ahead, the dogs were whispering amongst themselves. Everyone was supposed to socialize together, which was a big part of being Human, but dogs pretty much only talked to other dogs. They stared at the rabbits and felines and the counselors. It made Mark the ocelot very nervous.
The movie started. It was about teenagers in the 1980s, and was pretty funny.
It was not easy for the campers to laugh, but most of them gave it their best try. Mark the ocelot noticed that Ray the fox never laughed and seemed bored by the movie. He stared out the windows most of the evening, and then went to bed without saying anything.
* * *
On the third day, campers went out into the Woods and had to identify various plants by their scientific names. Mark the ocelot felt very uncomfortable in the Woods; it was too familiar. There were too many smells and too many rustles in the undergrowth. Plus, there was always the thought about the campers who had left early and were still lurking in their natural state out there. He hoped they would not see any of them.
Hector the capuchin and Michel the turtle were Path Buddies for the day; they had to hold hands while a Counselor walked ahead.
They were passing a busy little stream while the Counselor — a young woman with feathered hair and a nervous laugh — was explaining how some of the trees had started as seeds and some had been planted, and in a way, doesn't that represent us all. That was when it happened.
Hector the capuchin and Michel the turtle had been whispering to each other during the entire outing. And when they saw the quick water of the stream, they did not hesitate. Michel the turtle dived in and moved smoothly down the current, bobbing and gliding. Hector the capuchin leapt onto his back.
The Counselor shouted their names, but the capuchin just answered with a long piercing shriek that they found out later could be heard all the way back at Camp.
The turtle said nothing and Mark the ocelot never saw them again.
* * *
The final day of Camp, Cabin 8 was left with only Mark the ocelot and Ray the fox. They did not talk much, but they did not growl either, and that was good. They packed their matching duffel bags and sat down on their beds. The Parcheesi board was still out on the table, an unfinished move still in midplay.
Graduation was about to start, and Ray the fox was staring at his sneakers. He stared at them for a long time, and Mark the ocelot watched him.
Slowly, Ray the fox bent over and unlaced them. He slipped his feet out of the sneakers and then he took off his shirt and then his shorts. Suddenly, Ray the fox was gone, and there was just a fox in a cabin. He did not have feet. He had paws.
The fox sniffed the air and looked at the cabin door. It was open, and they could hear the excited dogs. Almost all of them had been qualified as Fully Human, which meant this had been a successful summer. The others, the dogs who had failed, were already being muzzled and sedated for their transport to the Woods. Their pitiful whines were already becoming quieter, but a fox's ears are more sensitive than a Human's.
His fur bristled and he bolted for the door. He did not look back at Mark the ocelot.
Mark did look back at the empty cabin and the Parcheesi game before heading to Graduation.
Copyright © 2017 by Nathan Kamal