Camp Zombie

by Ian Rogers

There is only one rule at camp and Mark breaks it: he wakes me up.

Sleep is a rare commodity here, as deeply coveted as a box of Twinkies at fat camp. My first impulse is to swing out and kick him in the face. Lying in one of the hammocks — there are dozens of them all over camp, and at night they look like giant insect cocoons spun between the trees — I’m in the perfect position to do so. But when I roll to my side to kick, I lose my balance and start to fall out of the hammock. Mark catches me before I hit the ground, letting go of the feather he used to tickle me, and I watch as it seesaws gently to the ground.

“What the hell are you doing?” I grumble in a fuzzy voice. “Let me go!”

Mark sets me down. “Did you know your eyes get all puffy when you’re tired? It’s cute.”

“I’m always tired,” I snap.

“I know,” he replies smoothly, “and you’re always cute.”

I walked right into that one. I close my eyes and press a fist against the bridge of my nose, an old trick to prevent the headache that comes from being pulled so abruptly from sleep. “You must want something,” I say, my eyes still closed.

“What have you got today?”

“A couple of classes. Water therapy this morning and yoga in the afternoon.”

“You free tonight?”

“Available? Yes. Free? No.” I try to sound dry and sultry, but with only three hours sleep in as many days it comes out sad and pathetic.

“Can you come over to the Shack tonight after lights-out?” I look at Mark–really look at him–and see he’s anxious, almost bursting with excitement.

“What for?” I ask.

“I’ve wanted to try something for a while now,” he says vaguely. “This is the first year I’ve had the Shack to myself.”

“That must be nice,” I say, thinking of the sky blue cabin that I’ve been sharing with half a dozen girls this summer.

“So can you come over?”

“What for?”

Mark smiles, and when he speaks his voice is low and secretive.

“I think I’ve found a cure.”

I had been going to Camp Zombie since I was six years old, and when I turned seventeen I became a counsellor. It just seemed like the thing to do. I was so used to going that it became my summer routine. I couldn’t imagine life without it, even though camp is only two months of the year. It’s like being part of a secret society where instead of money or influence you need a sleep disorder to be a member. You need to be a zombie.


Mark and I walk down the dirt road to the wooden arch at the camp entrance. At the start of the summer he stuck a sign in the ground next to the arch. It says YOU MUST BE THIS TIRED TO ENTER and shows an extremely tired man, hunched over, shoulders slumped, bags under his eyes hanging down to his feet.

“I wasn’t always a zombie,” Mark tells me in a low, confessional tone.

“None of us were, Mark.”

“Yeah, but I can actually trace my life back to the point when I became one.” He gives me a quick sidelong look, as if he’s unsure whether or not to continue. “When I was little I was one of those kids who crawled into his parents’ bed in the middle of the night.”

“Every kid did that.”

“Yeah, but I did it every night. Every night.”

“Do you still do that?”

“Don’t be cute,” Mark says, annoyed. “After a few years I started sleeping on my own, and it was around that time that the night terrors began.”

“So, what? You were scarred from sleeping with your parents?”

“No,” he says, a bit impatiently. “I was afraid because I no longer had someone to share my bed with.”

“Really…” I say, seeing where this is going.

“I’ve been looking for a sort of…” He gestures vaguely. “… sleep companion, I guess you could say.”

“A bed buddy,” I offer.

“If you like,” he says, grudgingly.

“You want me to sleep with you.”

“Well, yes.”

“Does your therapy include rolling on top of me in the middle of the night ‘by accident’ and dry-humping me?”

“I don’t think so,” he says, and scratches his chin uncertainly.

“No way. I haven’t lost that much sleep yet.”

I start to walk back up the road and he comes after me, grabbing lightly at my shoulder.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I was just trying to make it seem less… strange.”

“It is strange, and kind of perverse.”

Mark holds up his hands defensively. “I’m not trying to put you in a position where I can feel you up, ‘accidentally’ or otherwise. My parents have been sending me to a shrink. He’s a nice enough guy, surprisingly. He told me to create a timeline of when my sleep problems first began. I did, and this is what I found. The night terrors didn’t start until I started sleeping alone.”

“Maybe,” I concede.

“Will you at least think about it?” he asks, almost pleads.

“You don’t even have to sleep. I just need you to be there. You can read a book or do a crossword puzzle. Anything you want.”

I look at the gleam in his eyes and feel a small stab of offense that he’s more excited about the possibility of sleep than of having sex with me.

“I’ll sleep on it, okay?”

The first thing I learned at camp is that insomnia is not a sleep disorder in itself but rather a symptom of a larger problem. Sleep apnea, bruxism, somnambulism–take your pick. In my case, it’s narcolepsy. That’s the one where you fall asleep at different times of the day without warning. We’re a lot of fun at parties. We’re the coat racks.

Mine is a mild case. I don’t so much pass out as get unusually strong urges to sleep, sleep, sleep. These urges come on suddenly and are almost impossible to ignore. My mother calls me “the jetlagged vampire.” We joke about my sleep disorder because that’s what zombies do with their parents. They don’t understand us and they can’t help us. That’s why they send us to camp.

We look like everyone else, but in truth we are not entirely human.

I walk back to camp by myself, having dismissed Mark so I can think about his proposition. I leave the road and wander down to the lake. It has a Native American name, something long and hard to pronounce and fraught with historical significance. I keep forgetting it. People with sleep disorders have notoriously bad memories. It’s the first thing to go once you start losing sleep. We just call it Lake Nod.

The bright August sun makes the water look like liquid silver. Through the screen of trees on the far side I can see Vista House, a commune for troubled teens — if by “troubled” you mean pregnant. Some of the zombies call it Camp Youknockedmeupbigtime. Curtis Yarwood says it’s specifically for Catholic girls who have “wandered off the path” and gotten pregnant through “non-immaculate conception.” In the evening you can hear them singing “Kumbaya.”

I sit on a big rock overlooking the lake and wonder if any of the girls over there ever have trouble sleeping. Probably a lot of them do. Even so, their concept of “trouble sleeping” is far different from ours. It could always be worse, is one of my mother’s favourite sayings. She doesn’t think a little sleeplessness is something to be concerned about. There are bigger problems in the world, she told me once. Easy for her to say; she hasn’t lost a night’s sleep in her life. Is it her peace of mind or the vial of valium she keeps in her bathroom vanity?

Either way she’s right. It could be worse. I could be sleepless and pregnant.

Mark said I would be safe with him. But he might not be safe with me.

Sleep remedies are strange things. Some people swap them like hockey cards, while others hoard them like secret treasures. I’ve tried many over the years–exercise, meditation, tea before bed, leaving the television on–but none have worked.

Then it came to me last fall. I didn’t seek it out, it just happened, for three blissful, sleep-filled months. I never told anyone about it, not even my parents. Especially not my parents.

His name was Neil. He was an undergrad at Ryerson and I met him at a used book store on Yonge Street. He was looking for used film textbooks because he couldn’t afford to pay for new ones. He accidentally dropped a heavy volume on my foot and was taken aback when I didn’t scream or make any other sign of acknowledgment.

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but the thing that attracted me most was that he didn’t leave right after we had sex. I had been told by girls at school that this was what guys do, and that the way to tell which guy you’ll end up marrying was to find the one that stays the whole night.
I had no interest in marrying Neil. The sex was good, but the sleep was better. He would nod off right after we finished, and I would feel myself being pulled after him, as if there was an invisible anchor wrapped around me and I had no choice but to follow.

I kept him a secret from everyone–partly because I was ashamed to tell anyone that the solution to my sleeplessness was sex, but mostly because it felt good to have a secret. The details of my sleeping life were known to everyone in my family. This was something for me and only me.

Neil ended up leaving on his own, saying something about feeling guilty, him being twenty-one, me being “only sixteen.” I was upset, but more at the loss of the sleep than the sex. I never held it against him. He helped me find my sleep switch.

Finding it was a mixed blessing. It’s like having an itch you can scratch, but you better not. It might turn into something worse — like gonorrhoea. I decided it wasn’t a good idea just to sleep with someone so I could sleep. You can go a long time without sleep. You can go an even longer time without sex.

Maybe I’m just afraid of ending up at Vista House.

Each building at camp is painted a different shade of blue — the color of sleep — and my last class of the day is in the Cerulean cabin. The roof has rounded eaves that make it look like a giant toadstool. The kids call it the Smurf house.

Inside, the furniture consists of recliners and bean-bag chairs, futons and inflatable sofas, and endless piles of blankets and pillows. All of which had been pushed off to the side to make room for the yoga mats.

Teaching yoga to little kids is like trying to teach a tornado to stand still. I try to be patient, but it isn’t easy. Sleeplessness causes irritability, and by the end of the class I can go from zero to bitch in about three seconds.

After the kids are gone, headed to Periwinkle Lodge for dinner, I stay behind to pick up the mats and put the furniture back. Once I’m done I lock up the cabin and sit on the porch steps, looking across the campground at the sun setting behind the trees. The light is a hard golden color; a nice change from all the blue.

Becky Reilly walks by swinging a bow and carrying a quiver of arrows on her back. She’s wearing a shell top that shows off her skinny, freckled arms.

“Sup sister?”

“Not much.”

“You going to dinner?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Beanie-weenies tonight. Yum.” Becky rubs her stomach, then sticks a finger in her mouth.

“I think I’ll pass.”

“I hear that. I think I’d rather eat some mushrooms in the forest and take my chances.”

“How’s archery?”

“Oh, fine. I wish I was doing crafts this year. I’d have these kids making wallets or something. Get a little sweatshop going.”

“There’s always next year.”

“True dat.”

“Who came up with the idea of using archery to help insomnia?”

Becky looks at the bow in her hand as if seeing it for the first time. “Whatever it takes, right?”

“Right.”

“I’m like Robin Hood and the kids are my Merry Men. Power in numbers, baby.”

That makes me laugh for no real reason. It’s like Becky touched on something profound without realizing it.

We don’t come to camp to be cured. We come to be among other zombies. To keep each other company through the long, lonely nights.

No two zombies are alike. One year I met a girl named Alice who couldn’t fall sleep unless she was on a moving train. She had been born on a train and this, she believed, was the root of her sleeplessness. Her father was a successful Bay Street lawyer, and one of his drinking buddies was a bigwig at VIA Rail. Together they arranged for Alice to spent most of her time on The Canadian, which runs between Toronto and Vancouver. Her father paid a tutor to travel with her, had clothes and care packages delivered at various stops, and that’s how she lived, always in motion, always on her way somewhere else.

If the train girl had the strangest sleep disorder I ever heard of, Mark had the nastiest.

Night terrors. A sleep disorder which causes the subject to experience extreme terror and a temporary inability to regain consciousness. It’s like drowning in your sleep. No, it’s like being attacked by sharks in your sleep. It’s a condition that usually affects people with overly nervous dispositions, but that didn’t describe Mark at all. He is laidback, funny, and possessed of the sort of obnoxious overconfidence that only teenage boys and professional daredevils can get away with.

He stays in the Screaming Shack, which is painted midnight blue and is sound-proofed especially for zombies with night terrors. A sign next to the door says DON’T LOSE ANY SLEEP OVER IT. I read it several times as I stand on the stoop. It’s not a terribly funny sign, amusing at best, but I laugh anyway. Zombies are masters of the delayed response.

As I raise my hand to knock, the door opens and Mark is standing there, looking at me with raised eyebrows.

“Cali? Was that you laughing?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s funny?”

“Me. You. This.” I shrug my shoulders and Mark’s eyebrows go higher, almost disappearing in his shaggy brown hair.

“Second thoughts?”

“I’m here aren’t I.”

“Yes.” He abruptly steps aside to let me in, as if worried I might change my mind and bolt.

I enter the Shack. It’s a single room with a woodstove, a small kitchenette, and a bed pushed up against the far wall. The only light comes from a single lamp on a nightstand. Mark is dressed for bed in flannel pants and the DON’T FEAR THE SLEEPER t-shirt he made in the silk-screening class he is teaching this year.

“I swear I won’t try anything funny,” he says as we cross to the bed. It’s only a double, which means we’ll be lying close to each other. He notices the book in my hand. I hold it up. It’s a Stephen King hardcover, almost as big as a phone book.

“Don’t worry,” I tell him. “If you make any moves, I’ll just drop this on your crotch.”

“Fair enough,” he says, and crawls under the covers. I sit on the other side, lift my legs up. I hesitate a moment, then slip them under the sheets.

“So,” he says.

“So,” I say back. “Pleasant dreams.”

He laughs. “Yeah, right.”

Mark rolls onto his side. His elbow brushes my arm and he apologizes. I tell him it’s okay and open my book. I try to focus my eyes but the words seem to be surrounded by dark auras that make them hard to read. I have to blink several times to get through each page.

The auras expand as I read until at one point everything is swallowed in one enormous black cloud. I try to see though it, but there’s a pressure pulling me down. I struggle against it, and when I open my eyes I realize I’ve been asleep. I’m shocked at how simple it is. This thing everyone else takes for granted. One moment you’re awake, the next you’re waking up.

I’ve been asleep and I’m no longer holding the book. I’m holding Mark. Curled up next to him, my arms wrapped around his middle. My head is pressed against his back, and I can feel the rise and fall of his breathing.

There are no straight lines in sleep. People curl into commas, nestled together like spoons in a kitchen drawer. There is comfort in curves. More comfort than I expected. I’ll just lie here, I tell myself. I won’t do anything. Mark is asleep, and I don’t want to wake him.

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