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Afterward, many parents praised the summer camp director, even the ones who yanked their boys from the remote cabins the day after they received his phone call, even the ones who gave the damning anonymous quotes to newspapers (“What kind of a man hires teenagers like that?”).
The director had heard the news at sunset, on a Wednesday in August, after a camp-wide capture the flag game, and he had stayed up all night to make the calls. “Your boy is safe, but something terrible has happened,” is how the director started out each call. And then, after a few long seconds of him pursing his lips, staring into the middle distance: “One of our most popular counselors, a college freshman the boys called Badger, had a terrible accident.”
According to camp lore, RR—which is what the kids all called Richard Rayak, the director—said that Badger had died after diving into a raging river. He snatched an eight-year-old camper from the water’s icy grip before being sucked downstream himself. RR might have believed that, but court records tell a more nuanced tale. A jury determined that Badger had been drinking beer, because of beer cans with his prints on them. It was likely that he had been horsing around in the river, and simply drowned.
Enrollment dropped, but the camp survived. RR still led the boys in “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” at the Friday night campfire, but he forgot the lyrics sometimes. And sometimes at night, when midnight skinny dippers snuck back to their cabins, RR would materialize out of the woods, like a ghost, but he wouldn’t say anything. It was like he couldn’t even see his campers.
After the accident, the camp created a “Badger Bravery Award” and gave it every year to the “most courageous camper,” usually a boy who made his first high dive from the platform on the swimming dock at Lake Towanda. When RR bestowed the trophy, he talked vaguely of Badger’s heroics. How could he know the details?
But one person knew what really happened that evening on the river. Billy Gubin was a strange child before Badger’s death. Eight years old, and he read poetry and kept pet frogs. He liked lanyard-making and photography, and eschewed archery and tennis, which made him a natural target for the camp bullies—but after the accident, he became downright spooky. He stopped talking that summer. In the fall, his grades plunged from As to Fs. He woke his parents night after night, screaming. They sent him to see a shrink, who told his parents that Billy had an overactive imagination and must have suffered a trauma when he was very young.
Badger had loved Billy, as a counselor should love a camper—he wanted to help him feel the wonder of the outdoors, to sleep under the stars, to stop being so scared. Badger had nothing against lanyards, but he wanted Billy to see the beauty in wild things, too. Who knew? A swift-flowing river, a crackling fire, the scent of pines—those things had helped so many boys. Badger didn’t tell others, but they had helped him.
That’s why, after dinner on the canoe outing that Badger was leading—Badger, two junior counselors, and 10 campers, including Billy—Badger asked Billy to float down the Claw River with him. Badger told Billy to sit in the front of the canoe, which Billy now knew was called a bow. They stopped a half mile from the campsite, before a confluence with a much faster river, and pulled their canoe into some reeds, then walked ashore. Badger told Billy to look at the muddy tracks on the ground, and he would see the “faint but telltale signs of a rarely seen apex predator.” Billy thought that phrase was cool. He would never forget it. There, in the mud, was a paw print. And another, and another. Bigger than a big dog’s, with a kind of sloppy M pad in the middle. “Another telltale sign,” Badger said.
The tracks ended next to a big pine tree. Badger looked to his left, then to his right, and just as he started to raise his head Billy heard a quiet hiss, almost like someone blowing a kiss, and the dusk seemed to turn a shade darker, just for an instant. And then Badger grunted as if he had stubbed his toe. A big soft yellow boulder fell on the back of Badger’s neck. It didn’t bounce off.
Billy tried to run, and tripped. Badger’s legs were moving funny, and Billy saw that it was the heavy yellow thing that was making them move. Badger’s eyes grew big and frantic and now he was waving his arms but the heavy thing was calm, barely moving. Billy could see the tawny boulder breathing. He closed his eyes and he heard a purring and a ripping. When he opened them his counselor wasn’t Badger anymore. He was meat.
Billy ran toward the river. He jumped in the canoe and thrashed his way back to the campsite, toward the other campers. The river gurgled, but over it he could hear wet, terrible sounds from where Badger was. Had been.
No one found Badger’s body. They only found the beer cans and a wet, shaking, mute Billy Gubin, who never spoke again, not about his supposed rescue, or anything else. And so they arrived at the most awful conclusion they could imagine. Alcohol, a cold river, clowning around. What could be more sad?