Layla’s a small-town teen trying to be herself and is misinterpreted at every turn. She’s not popular because her dad’s a minister and her interests never seem to match those around her. She’s learned to keep to herself and her music – big mistake. When her love of classic rock makes her parents wonder if she’s “getting ideas” she finds herself shipped off to church camp. There she’s faced with horrible food and her day is planned out by the millisecond. To make matters worse her bunkmate is the cheery, tow-the-line sort and Donna, her nemesis, is at the same camp and is determined to make things hard for her. The only thing Layla has left to cling to is her music, but when her interests and character are challenged will her faith in herself and her shaky trust in something more be strong enough to see her through?
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After getting checked in, I headed out to my cabin to dump my gear before orientation. No, cabin was an optimistic word. I can still see that building in my head: an enormous brown wooden structure that looked more like a workhouse or a barrack than a happy little camp house. Like the main buildings my home away from home could have used a coat of paint and some insecticide. It was amazing that the wooden structure hadn’t rotted away from being stuck back in the damp forest so long.
The inside of my cell didn’t give me a reason to be any more optimistic. Besides the obligatory sections of bunk beds there were wooden chests of drawers and a couple wobbly tables and chairs. It was all very Berenstain Bears meets Camp Crystal Lake. Still, it wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter. All I could really do was make the best of it and wait things out.
Common sense ruled that most of the beds in the room were occupied, or else they’d grown their own bedding out of boredom. Sighing, I dragged my stuff to the one empty lower bunk and began to make myself at home. I was so wrapped up in self-pity that I was only interested in getting my bed made so I could escape the humid, musty-smelling place.
“Wow, you’re new aren’t you?” a perky voice chirped. I jumped hard enough to slam my head into the rickety bunk above mine.
“Wild observation,” I hissed through the throbbing in my skull. A girl the size of my forearm slid gracefully off the top bunk and dropped to the floor without a sound. I’d been in high school long enough to be an expert profiler and there was no doubt in my mind that she was a cheerleader. The summer just kept getting better.
“I’m Missy; I’ve been coming here ever since I was nine,” she added then beamed a smile any dentist or orthodontist would probably be tempted to frame. I was tempted to ask if she wanted a medal for the accomplishment but held my tongue. I’d been around youth group enough to know that if there was something to count attendance for, there were pins and badges to commemorate it. Sure enough, on the crisp white polo shirt she sported was a small gold pin with a series of added bars to show off each year she’d returned to the asylum.
“I’m Layla,” I managed as I gracefully slammed my stuff onto the bottom bunk in an effort to encourage her to leave me alone.
“Isn’t that Hebrew for something?” she asked with a tilt of the head that was probably meant to show off her blonde locks. It just made her look like a curious Labrador retriever.
“Dunno. I think my parents’ gave me the name because they were listening to Derek and the Dominoes when I was conceived,” I said as I busied myself tucking clothes away and dutifully slid my Bible under my pillow. It was an outright lie, but it was worth seeing Missy’s baffled expression. Having an unusual name meant you got tired of explaining it really quick. I’d already come to the conclusion that as soon as I was old enough to get a tattoo I would get my name, its pronunciation, and its meaning inked someplace really visible so I’d never have to have that conversation ever again.
“Are you planning on wearing that to the orientation?” she asked in an attempt to change the subject, and nodded to my Led Zeppelin shirt. As she stared her expression grew dubious. I wasn’t a size zero blonde cheerleader, but I wasn’t anything to sneeze at. Still, it seemed she was more interested in the strange, presumably satanic writing scrawled across my chest than my chest itself. At least I hoped so.
“Sure, what’s wrong with it?” I asked, my raised eyebrows practically daring her to say it. In those days, I had fun antagonizing girls like Missy. They were all for preaching peace and acceptance and knew they should lead by example. Despite that philosophy, quite often the synapses just didn’t connect the saying to the doing, especially once Sunday was over.
“Well, it’s just that…we don’t really wear stuff like that here. What’s ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ anyway?”
“You’ve never heard of that?” I blanched and slid my bag under the bed. “Oh, wow, Missy; you’ve never heard that song? I mean, it’s ‘Stairway to Heaven!’ It’s like one of the best Christian rock songs ever, all about God’s forgiveness and salvation and stuff! You have to climb the Stairway to Heaven if you’re gonna be saved, right?”
I could see her ticking through her mental Bible retention in the silence that followed. Luckily, most Sunday school lessons focus on the same ten to twelve stories over and over again. It was one advantage of being a pastor’s kid – I could do far more than hold my own in a fight over the Bible, though I hated to get into those types of arguments. No one ever won and it wasn’t about the book or spirituality, itself, but about proving that you were right. No thank you. “Yeah, I think I remember reading that somewhere. I’ll have to go looking for that song…though Led Zeppelin doesn’t really sound like a Christian group.”
I shook my head in pity. “C’mon Missy, you’re forgetting where it talks about the absence of faith causing one to descend from salvation with the strength of a zeppelin crafted from lead,” I went on, more and more amazed when she nodded somberly. That was the trouble with all the new, watered-down translations; for all I knew there was a verse that had been retranslated as such.
“You’re so right, Layla. You’re so, so right,” Missy nodded and placed one of her perfectly-manicured hands on my shoulder. She looked like she was nearly in tears, moved as she was. “I’m so glad you’re my bunkmate.” I followed her numbly towards Harmony Hall.
Never one to run from uncomfortable or unusual subject matter, Zillah Anderson is an author of the speculative, the dark, and the sexy – and sometimes all three at once. She is the author of The Inheritance and the young adult title Knocking Down Heaven’s Door with No Boundaries Press, the erotic short Power Chord with Rebel Ink Press, and has also had her work included in the Wicked East Press Anthology Halloween Frights vol. III. She resides in the Midwest, loves all things crafty and nerdy, and writes while she bides her time for her true purpose: total world domination.
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