It was cabin time: sharing and praying. Karen Abe was sitting on the floor when one of the girls got up from the circle and stared out from the wire netting of their openair windows.
“I think something’s going on in Twenty-One,” she said.
A chill went up Karen’s spine. Lisa Tanizaki was in Cabin Twenty-One. They were best friends—or at least that’s what other people at Paradise Park Camp would say. They lived three blocks away from each other in the San Fernando Valley, and had always gone to New Hope Church. Every summer they went to a Japanese American Christian camp here in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Karen was assigned Cabin Twenty with Rachel Kubota from their same school, plus four girls from Monterey Park, whom she referred to as the Lukewarms—and their cabin leader, Wendy Kanegoe, a sophomore at Cal State LA. Wendy tried to call the Lukewarm back to the circle and focus. But then she also rose and looked outside. The rest of them followed, Karen at the rear, leaving their Living Bibles and the tan-covered four-scripture law tracks on the ratty carpet.
Every light was on in cabin Twenty-One. It glowed yellow with a tinge of algae green. Outside, flashlights from spectators blazed dots in the darkness. Karen inhaled the grapefruit burn of Douglas fir and smoke from the nearby campfire.
“Some girl’s getting exorcized,” a chubby boy in shorts called out from the dirt pathway. He was new to camp. Karen had heard that he had just accepted Christ at group worship last night.
The Lukewarms squealed and gathered tightly as if that would keep them safe.
The boy waited a few minutes as if he expected them to join him. When no one did, he disappeared across the way to see what was happening.
“The Catholics call it exorcism, but Christians don’t,” Rachel said. Rachel’s father was the minister of New Hope.
Lisa’s grandparents had been in the same World War II camp as Rachel’s.
“If you’re born again, you can’t be demon-possessed,” Wendy assured them. “The Devil has no hold on you.” Wendy, always the good cabin leader, was steady and calm.
“But you can be oppressed,” Rachel said.
“What does that mean?” a Lukewarm asked.
“That a demon can attach to you,” Karen said. “They can’t take over, but they can still bother you. They can enter through a weak spot.”
Rachel squinted her eyes as if she was reassessing Karen’s level of spirituality.
Before Karen could say anything more, the chubby boy in shorts was back standing in front of their cabin. She began to realize that he had a crush on someone in the cabin.
“It’s Lisa Tanizaki,” the boy called out. “They want Karen Abe to come to Cabin Twenty-One.”
“Why?” Karen tightened her fists. The boy said her name as if he knew her. He didn’t know her.
“You’re her best friend, right? They think you can help.”
The Lukewarms made room for Karen to get through the door.
“I’ll go with you,” Wendy said, pressing lightly on her elbow.
“And I’ll take care of things here,” Rachel volunteered. What a kiss-ass, Karen thought.
Wendy wrapped Karen’s hand around the crook of her arm and together they walked down the stairs of the cabin, the screen door flapping behind them.
As they crossed the dirt walkway, something crackled and then landed on her white long-sleeve T-shirt. “Shit! What is that?” Karen felt here throat closing up. She hated bugs, especially spiders and cockroaches. But this one was worse because she didn’t know what it was.
The boy pointed his flashlight at Karen’s T-shirt. It was about an inch long with six legs and white stripes on its back. “Oh, it’s a Mount Hermon june beetle. I think they’re endangered.”
Of course this nerd would know about bugs. “God, get it off me!”
The boy started slapping at her body, even grazing her breasts in their A-cup bra. Karen pushed him away.
“It’s okay.” Wendy put herself between the two campers. “They don’t bite.”
They examined Karen’s T-shirt with Wendy’s soft flashlight.
“What is wrong with you?” Karen frowned at the new boy. His bare legs were caked with a layer of pink.
“It’s just calamine lotion. Got into some poison oak today.”
You better not’ve given me your poison oak, Karen thought to herself. She silently swore at him, noticing Wendy giving her a sideways glance.
The three of them continued walking through the crowd of high school campers, most of them in college sweatshirts, their faces frozen. Someone murmured that the local hospital had been called and an ambulance was on its way. They were greeted at the door of Cabin Twenty by its cabin leader, a skinny young woman with her hair tied back in a ponytail. Karen recognized her as Wendy’s good friend Tammy. The two leaders awkwardly embraced, their stiff, thin bodies knocking together.
Karen continued through the porch to the bunkbeds. The room smelled of barf, and Karen stifled a retch.
There were grown-ups surrounding the far bunkbeds. Camp admins, all men in polo shirts embroidered with the camp Christian cross ablaze above a redwood tree, were absorbed in their walkie-talkies. As they quickly huddled for an impromptu meeting, the view to the bottom bunk opened. From a distance, Lisa Tanizaki looked like sleeping beauty in her baby-blue UCLA T-shirt.
But as Karen got closer, she saw there were streaks of vomit on Lisa’s cheek. Her eyes were half-open, as if she was watching everything transpire in front of her.
“No, young lady, you’ll have to stay in the other room,” a walkie-talkie man stopped Karen. She looked down and saw a dark circle on the rug.
“I’m her friend. Karen Abe. I was told to come here.”
“We’ll get you when we need you,” he said, practically pushing her back out onto the enclosed porch.
“Lisa was acting weird, like she was high,” a voice said from a corner of the porch.
In the dark, Karen spied someone else from New Hope: Jacob Conner. He was hapa, half and half. In certain contexts he looked more white, in others, Japanese. Here he seemed otherworldly. An elf. An angel.
“What are you doing here?”
Jacob paused before answering. “Lisa forgot her jacket in the hall after worship. I was here to bring it back.”
That’s a lame excuse. Weren’t you here to spy on her, make sure she kept her mouth shut?
Cabin Twenty-One leader Tammy’s back was turned toward them, but Karen could still overhear her talking to Wendy: “Her body got all stiff like a board. She was grinding her teeth.”
“Sounds like The Exorcist to me,” the poison-oak boy said to Jacob and Karen. “You know, there are Satan worshippers up here in these mountains.”
The back of Karen’s neck tingled like when a tine of a fork accidentally hit the middle of a cavity.
“Shut up, Carl,” said Jacob. He was acting tough, but Karen saw right through it.
“No, really. I even saw something when I was hiking around Mount Hermon.”
Karen’s body lurched. So this stupid boy Carl was in Mount Hermon today too; did he see anything?
Carl couldn’t shut up: “I went to this clearing and there was a pentagram carved into the rock floor. And stones piled up at each point of the star.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Jacob scoffed, as if he were trying to convince himself.
“And this dark mark in the middle of it. I think it was blood.”
He’s so full of shit. Karen turned her back and gestured for Jacob to do the same.
Rachel walked up onto the porch in a Stanford beanie. “Is Lisa still alive?”
What a question to ask, thought Karen. “Of course, she’s alive. An ambulance is coming for her.”
“Since I’ve known Lisa the longest, I thought you might want my input,” Rachel said, as if she was making some kind of public announcement.
What a bitch, Karen thought. Just because their grandparents were interned together, that didn’t mean anything.
The two camp leaders turned to listen. “Whatever information you may have, Rachel, please share,” Wendy said.
“If you ask me, Lisa hasn’t been herself. At our last youth praise meeting, Lisa usually helps lead worship, but she said that she couldn’t do it. She sat in the back of the church. I mean, just sat there. She didn’t sing or anything.”
Karen remembered that night. She was, in fact, relieved that Lisa wasn’t up there in front, hogging the spotlight. Jacob had sat right next to Karen in the third row of the padded pews, for the very first time. The side of his thigh grazed hers. Karen was so self-conscious, she only mouthed the lyrics to the praise songs.
“Maybe Lisa was just feeling sick?” Wendy said.
“But then she dropped out of the worship team for camp too. Something was definitely going on with her.” Rachel took a deep breath. “Maybe Karen would know. Because the two of them took a walk to Mount Hermon during our afternoon free time today.”
Jacob’s head jerked up. “You spent time with her today, Karen?” His voice sounded strange. On edge.
“How did Lisa seem?” Wendy asked.
“The same. Like always.” Karen tried to keep her voice light and normal.
“I mean, I hate to ask something like this, but was she taking any kind of drug?” Tammy stuffed her hands in her front sweatshirt pouch.
“Absolutely not,” said Rachel.
As if she would know, thought Karen.
Tammy kept her gaze on Karen. “Because it would really help Lisa now.”
“No, no drugs,” said Karen. “As far as I know.”
“Maybe a problem at home?”
“No,” Miss Know-It-All Rachel said.
“I don’t know her that well,” Tammy said, “but she’s been super quiet. She asked me to pray for her tonight, but she wouldn’t tell me for what. We even got cooking oil from the kitchen to anoint her. And that’s when all the trouble happened.” Tammy took her hands out of her pockets and started to cry. Wendy put an arm around her. The campers hung their heads. They didn’t know what to do with a college person’s tears.
Karen took a deep breath. She didn’t know how the words reached her lips, but they dripped out like fresh honey: “You know, I think we saw that pentagram up there. Lisa was checking it out. She was really fascinated by it.” She now had the attention of everyone on the porch.
“You mean you think that Lisa is demon-possessed?” the chubby boy said, almost ecstatic.
“It’s just that Lisa really started acting weird after she saw that pentagram. That’s all I’m saying.”
An ambulance siren pierced the hum of the insects outside.
It stopped and restarted. Help had arrived.
Lisa hadn’t been herself, all right. Karen knew it. But she took full advantage of it.
In fact, in the caravan from the Valley to Santa Cruz, Lisa volunteered to ride in a van with one of the parents and the camp supplies. Why would she do that? Karen got a backseat with Jacob and his best friend in the second car. It was pure heaven. She got to be with Jacob for six uninterrupted hours and that was all that mattered.
Jacob’s friend held his pillow to his chest and immediately fell asleep. Most of the drive, Jacob and Karen took turns trying to throw Doritos in the boy’s open mouth. It was hilarious.
After hours on the road, Karen felt that the old Karen was fading away. Wasn’t that even in the Bible? New wine in new wineskins. Her old wineskin—the less popular one, less smart, less pretty—was blowing away. New Karen had everything going on.
When they arrived at camp, Karen was relieved to see that she wouldn’t be sharing a cabin with Lisa. More distance, more independence. More time alone with Jacob, maybe.
Lisa cornered her in the dining room. Karen was still holding her breakfast tray. “Go for a walk with me during free time.” It was a command, not a request.
That was the last thing Karen wanted to do, but Lisa had blindsided her so early in the morning. All Karen could do was nod her head yes.
On their walk, Lisa took the lead, like always. She was smaller than Karen, more nimble. She jumped up and down from rocks with ease. A damn billy goat.
Finally, when they reached a clearing, Lisa stopped dead in her tracks and turned around. “I need to tell you something.”
Karen felt unsteady. Ordinarily she would relish hearing some stain, some sin in Lisa’s life, whether it was true or not. To hear it directly from Lisa herself, though. There was no pleasure in that.
“I was raped by Jacob Connor.”
Karen’s first inclination was to laugh. What a stupid practical joke. But then Lisa didn’t laugh back.
“When?” She was barely able to speak.
“After the car wash fundraiser. A month ago.”
Somehow that didn’t surprise Karen. She noticed how chummy-chummy they’d been. Goofing around and spraying water on each other. Karen was burning with jealousy and left the fundraiser early. “Who knows about this?” she asked.
Lisa started crying. She never cried. There were two dark smudges on her forehead like the ones on the Japanese empress doll in Karen’s grandmother’s house.
“Just you, now. And Jesus.”
This is the biggest sack of horseshit ever.
“I spoke to Jesus. Really, I did. During this morning’s quiet time.” A breeze moved up the mountain, whipping Lisa’s black silk hair over her face. “He told me that I need to talk to my parents; that He would take care of me through all of this.”
“What are you going to tell them?”
“Everything. I have to.”
“You’re not going to mention Jacob, right?”
“He did it to me. He raped me.”
“But you’ll ruin his life.”
“I don’t give a fuck about that. He raped me.”
Lisa never swore either. And to hear the F-word from her mouth in the quietness of Mount Hermon jarred Karen. “C’mon, he didn’t rape-rape you. How can you be so awful?”
“Yes, he did. I didn’t want to do it. I had never done it before. I told him to stop.”
Karen couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t imagine that Jacob had such insatiable passion for Lisa. “You’re the one who kept throwing yourself at him that day. I saw you at the car wash fundraiser. I remember. You were in your cutoffs. You weren’t even wearing any underwear.”
“What, are you saying that it was my fault?”
“I’m not sure. I would’ve known.”
It was Lisa’s turn to look incredulous. “And why’s that? Because of your crush on Jacob? Everyone knows you like him, Karen. I wanted to tell you first because I didn’t want you to hear this from someone else. You know, he even makes fun of you liking him.”
Karen’s anger flip-flopped into shame. No, that couldn’t be true. Beautiful Jacob with his lean swimmer’s body, his long hair tinged light brown from sun. Jacob, who Karen imagined kissing every single night.
“You are such a bitch!” Karen saw the pile of stones in the clearing, calling her to action like David facing Goliath. She scooped one up and threw it as hard as she could at Lisa’s face. Lisa expertly moved to avoid contact, but her shoes hit some gravel and she lost her footing. She fell headfirst against a boulder.
And there she lay.
For a second, Karen was frozen in place. She looked around her. Were there any witnesses? A crow called out to another crow in the tall pine trees. Were they reporting what happened? And then there was God. He had seen it.
“Jesus, please,” she prayed. “Let her be okay.”
She kneeled over her friend’s body. “Lisa.” She could barely say her name. What if she killed her? And then again, louder, “Lisa?” Air was still coming out of her friend’s delicate nostrils.She gently lifted Lisa’s head, her hair streaming behind like a black veil, and surprisingly there was no blood, no evidence of the collision with the ground.
She gently lifted Lisa’s head, her hair streaming behind like a black veil, and surprisingly there was no blood, no evidence of the collision with the ground. Lisa’s eyes were closed and there was a tiny bit of foam at the corner of her mouth. Karen wished she had brought her canteen.
“Dear Lord, please. I’ll do anything. I’ll be a better person. Just heal Lisa.”
A crow cawed again, and miraculously, Lisa’s eyes fluttered open.
“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”
“What happened?” Lisa squinted and frowned, pulling herself up by her elbows.
No, can it really be true? Has she forgotten?
“You slipped and hit your head. Maybe it’s the altitude. I think it got to you.” She helped Lisa to her feet.
“That was really weird.”
“What do you remember?”
“Just that we were walking up the hill.” Lisa’s eyes got big. “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Not now,” Karen said. “Later tonight, okay?”
Lisa reluctantly nodded, and although a bit wobbly, she took the lead again. Walking behind her, Karen said silently: Thank you, Jesus.
“Let’s pray for Lisa,” Wendy instructed, as the paramedics strapped Lisa onto a gurney.
The Lukewarms had arrived and were sobbing, their noses red like cartoon bunnies. They all smelled death in the room.
All arms were extended toward Lisa’s body. Karen didn’t want to. Stupid poison-oak boy, with his pink legs, stood right next to her. Jacob on her other side. His whole body, especially his hands, seemed to be shaking, but no one else noticed.
What was that on her sleeve? The striped beetle again. Karen wanted to scream, but she didn’t. Instead she swallowed her cry, closed her eyes, and extended her arm.
The short story “Possessed” by Naomi Hirahara is excerpted from Santa Cruz Noir edited by Susie Bright. Used with permission of the publisher, Akashic Books. Copyright © 2018 by Naomi Hirahara.