The memory was wrong.
When he was a boy, his grandparents’ cabin on the lake was a rustic palace. It had electricity and AC and Super Nintendo and a playroom on the second floor with literal treasure chests full of toys. He remembered the kitchen next to the patio, the screen door making that sandy scraping sound as it opened and shut. Food was always on the way—his Ukrainian grandparents made sure of that—and he couldn’t imagine the kitchen without the memory-smell of cooking meat mixed with campfire smoke.
He remembered the summer heat and the way the lake water slowly iced him over with each wading step, climbing up his goosebumped legs, knees, soaking into his shorts, making him squeeze his eyes shut when his genitals submerged. And as he swam he would imagine the long grey necks of brachiosaurs rising out of the water, chewing seaweed like cattle chewing cud. Jurassic Park was one of the only VHS tapes in the cabin.
For three summers in a row, from age nine to eleven, he attended summer gospel camp. He remembered the softness of his sleeping bag, and the way the cold zipper would wake him. He remembered going to the chapel after breakfast and sitting in those wooden pews that bruised his butt. He would chant along with the gospel songs, but quietly so he could hear the girls’ voices.
He thought working at the camp after all these years would be nostalgic.
His grandparents were not there to cook for him this time. The smoky smell of cooking meat was replaced by the moist fumes of Kraft Dinner bubbling in a pot. The beach where he used to build sand castles was now ugly and brown, dirt-like, and the sand became a second skin. He slept in grime, itchy in the night, making him wake with rashes where he had been idly scratching.
Thinking the lake water his only escape, he padded past the hot brown sand and into the wet blackish goop and then onto the slimy, dull pebbles, the size of Lego bricks. They bruised with their blunt sharpness, the pain distracting from the cold of the lake. He wrinkled his nose at the greenness of the water. Even far away from the seaweed it was green. More bog than lake.
He wandered playgrounds and campfire sites, collecting pop cans and chip bags, their colours vivid against the earthy greens and browns of the campgrounds. Sometimes he found empty bottles of Kokanee and Ziploc bags with pinches of pungent green flakes still inside. Condom wrappers, too. The counselors, he hoped.
The dinner cabin was no longer a place of sloppy Joes and Jell-O desserts. It was a mess to clean up after the rude young campers finished their meals. In the humid heat of the summer sun, the leftover food spoiled in seconds. After a fish dinner (fresh from the bog-lake), he discovered a pail of fish guts outside the back entrance of the kitchen. One of the cooks forgot about it, or didn’t care. When he examined the contents of the bucket, the smell was so thick it was wet, and it shot up his nostrils as though fired by a Super Soaker full of human sweat. Half reeling from nausea, he saw movement in the bucket. Writhing, penetrating swarms of fishbelly-white maggots dancing in the guts. His guts, or so it felt.
The vomit burned his throat and tongue on the way out. It tasted of powdered cheese. After blinking away tears of pain, he saw that the maggots were missing, replaced by similar-sized orange noodles, each curved, like dozens of tiny frowns. Frowns, not smiles.
For a moment, the bucket of rejected Kraft Dinner looked like an improvement over the fish guts. Then the maggots resurfaced, and he could no longer tell the noodles from the worms.