ONLY A FEW days before, everything had ended with a letter.
“I am sooo excited to get married,” Jenna gushed, slapping a paint brush slick with brown paint against the exterior of the maintenance shed.
It was the beginning of the end of summer at Lakeside Bible Camp. Knowing it was time to strip out the season for a new one, Jenna, Shane, and I volunteered to help with the re-painting of the sun-beaten buildings and shoe-scuffed walls. “It’ll be a great way to model to the rest of the staff that leaderships starts with service,” I reasoned with Dan, the Lakeside Camp Director, earlier that morning.
“Or, you guys just wanna run around camp and hang out together all day.” Dan, Jenna, Shane, and I were all part of the full-time, year-round camp staff. In a twist straight out of your favorite Primetime coming-of-age TV series, we were also all best friends.
“Yep, that, too.”
So after a morning of racing around on the camp golf carts, Jenna, Shane, and I had finally begun putting a fresh coat of paint on one of the outlying maintenance buildings. Cracking open another can of dark brown paint, Shane glanced up at Jenna. “Yeah? What are you most excited about?”
“Just to be married,” Jenna huffed impatiently, brushing aside her blonde bangs with the back of her hand. “Finally.”
“You’re only 22,” I pointed out. “What do you mean, ‘finally’?”
Jenna waved away my point with her brush. “It’s different, though, at camp. Besides, Luke and I have been going out for four years. Do you know what it’s like to be together for that long? And not have sex? I finally get to have sex!”
Shane and I looked at each other and grinned. Lucky, I thought, as I slid my brush up and down the wooden slabs. I wasn’t envious of Jenna getting married – I was happy for her, this is what she wanted, but not me, not yet – but I couldn’t help thinking about how nice it would be to know that you had a set expiration date on your V-Card. That you wouldn’t, in fact, die a virgin, which was a secret fear of mine. It had been in regular attendance on my list of prayers since I was 10. “…And please God, don’t let me die a virgin, kthanxluvuamen!”
Jenna sighed dramatically as she hefted up the full bucket of paint Shane had just opened and began making her way around the corner of the shed. “I’m gonna start painting over here,” she called back, brown paint sloshing over the top of the can and splattering the green grass behind her.
Shane and I fell quiet. “Cecelia, you’re breakin’ my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily…” The lyrics wafted with static and tin from the CD player we had set up on one of the golf carts. This was camp to me, all rolled into one song: High school summers, standing in line for ice cream in the dim dining hall after campfire with boys clad in zip-up hoodies and vintage Nikes. The staff would play “Cecelia” and everyone seemed to look at each other with the collective knowledge that we would never be able to get away from this particular association. And I didn’t try. It was still sing-along junk, the unofficial staff anthem, and every week it swiftly carried over to the rest of camp.
“What’re you thinking about, Aden?” I heard Shane ask.
He threw his head back and laughed. “Is that what you’re thinking about most of the time?”
“Well, yeah. I mean…in between thinking about God and stuff.”
“In between thinking about God and stuff,” he repeated. “That’s awesome.”
“I’m aware,” I bantered back.
“You ready for another year of this, AC?”
“Yeah, I am.” I dipped my brush into the paint bucket. “I’m actually pretty excited to get back to the year-round stuff.”
The year-round stuff. Piles of autumn leaves, smoky campfires, boarding in powdered snow, and buds the color of Soylent green on naked branches. Everything I loved most about this place, arcing into a nine-month loop to and from summer.
“Last year, last hurrah?”
“Yes.” My nod was resolute. “One more year and my next step will be planned.”
“Gotta go climb your mountain.”
“And save an entire Kenyan village from dysentery.”
“That’s right, AC,” Shane’s voice stretched with his right arm as he reached up to coat the space between the wall and roof overhang. “Show me that independent type.” He took a step back to study his work, and then quietly added, “My own personal National Geographic.”
I looked back at him, and his eyes locked with mine. Feeling my heart pound, I quickly turned back to my task, trying to summon up enough voice for what I wanted to say. It came out, but just barely. “Do you think you’re going to miss it?”
I watched as Shane turned to gaze thoughtfully at the camp grounds surrounding us. “I will,” he answered, nodding. “I’ll miss the year-round stuff, like you said, and spending every day with my best friends.” He sighed. “It’s going to be tough, you know, to be knee-deep in med school and not want to come back to all of this.”
Then don’t go, stay, I know you can’t, but I can’t imagine being here without you. “Are we going to be pen pals?” I teased. “I’ll send you letters covered in stickers and stuff, and I’ll write each word with a different colored marker. And maybe sometimes I’ll even send you a finger painting. Your new roommates will think you’re the coolest.”
“If you do that, I will kill you,” he laughed. “Besides, I’m going to want to see you all the time. We’re not even going to talk about letters, because letters are crap. I want face-to-face.”
An odd density filled the summer air, and we fell quiet again. I tried to concentrate on the way my brush made a flip-flop sound with each flick of the wrist, the wet sound of paint against dry wood. Say something, already. Don’t make this weird. I opened my mouth and took a breath in.
“I am so done with this painting stuff,” Jenna announced as she walked around the corner.
Whoosh. The moment was gone, the air cleared, and my shoulders practically fell with relief.
We finished painting just before dusk. After locking the golf carts in the maintenance shed, we strolled back to the main part of camp, swinging empty buckets of paint and clutching brushes. We could hear our laughter echo over the rolling green grass, the slight breeze taking it through the leafy trees and down to the lake. It was unusually peaceful. Quiet.
“All the campers must be in their cabins,” Jenna observed. “Getting ready for the night game and campfire.”
“Yep.” Shane winked at me. “Almost time for them to find true love at Capture the Flag.”
I swung my paint bucket at him. He snickered in response. I’d once told him how, when I was in middle school, playing Capture the Flag at night was the most romantic and exciting experience of my life. “It was like Braveheart!” I had defended, when he had laughed. “You didn’t know whether you were going to be captured by the enemy or get pushed into the bushes for a heated middle school makeout!”
“Hey look,” I heard Jenna say, as she raised a hand and waved. “There’s Dan.”
We watched as Dan pushed open the door of the main lodge and stood in the courtyard, waiting for us.
“Poor guy,” Shane quipped. “He’s probably been standing at that window all day like a lost puppy, just waiting for us to come back.”
I laughed in agreement. After being on year-round staff with the rest of us – The Quadfecta of Friendship, as he called it – Dan was named Lakeside Bible Camp Director earlier that spring. He loved the position, but hated that he had to stick close to the camp office all day. I had never known someone who looked at being in an office as the same as being stuck in jail. Except maybe myself.
As we reached the courtyard, I was just about to tease Dan about his “Geology Rocks” t-shirt when he raised his right hand in a quick gesture of hello, then shoved it back into the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts. I stopped short. Something was wrong.
“Aden, you got a letter.”
“A letter?” I asked, confused. “But I never get letters.”
“Yeah.” Dan swallowed, then said, “I think it’s from your parents. I put it on your bunk.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath from Jenna. Feeling as if I were moving underwater, I handed my paint bucket into Shane’s waiting hand, then slowly walked past my friends and up the hill to my cabin, feeling my friend’s eyes following me the whole way there.
The moon was full. It illuminated the camp grounds, casting silver on dancing leaves. Wood smoke lingered on the night air, shadowing every breath like a ghost.
I had missed the campfire.
I walked down the dirt path leading to the row of cabins flocking the main lodge. Light still glowing from one of the tiny ramshackle cottages, the sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed wafted out through the thin window screens.
Stepping onto the porch, I could see him through the screen door. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, sheets of music scattered around him.
“Hey,” Dan replied, setting down his guitar. “I was wondering when you’d be over.”
I opened the screen door and walked inside. Letting the letter drop onto the floor between us, I sat down across from him.
I shook my head.
“I have to go home.”
I had been at camp for two years. They didn’t come to visit. Wouldn’t. And I didn’t go home. Couldn’t.
The last time we talked had been during my one and only year of college, before I came to Lakeside. I went so far as to swallow my pride a handful of times and invite them to campus via email, my typed words sounding so pathetic when I reread them to myself: “It’s going to be a big weekend, I think you’d have a nice time…Chicago is actually really beautiful this time of year…” They ignored the requests. In the rare emails I had received from my parents, they relayed only the most basic of news…like how they had sold my childhood home and moved up north; or, my personal favorite, how they had just gotten back from a trip to the coast with my brothers Kaelen and Dain. Every time something like that would land in my inbox, I would read it, shove myself away from the computer, and then walk swiftly away to somewhere, anywhere, vowing that I would never really make an effort ever again.
Soon I made good on my word, and the emails simply stopped altogether.
Whenever a holiday rolled around, most people at camp just accepted my vague answers that I was too busy or couldn’t afford the trip home. Every once in a while, though, someone would screw up their face with a confused look and ask something like, “But aren’t you going to miss being with your family?” My family’s not like yours, I always wanted to retort. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want to have to confront the pity in their dumb eyes. So instead I’d simply give them a patient but empty smile and maneuver a deft subject change. After a while it just became automatic.
Dan, Shane, and Jenna knew, though; as did Kelsey, my best friend since the age of 14. One in the bunch would always offer to bring me home with them for Christmas break or Easter weekend. Sometimes I’d accept. Other times, if I felt like I just couldn’t stand one more Orphan Holiday, I’d beg off, choosing instead to spend the time alone in my little cabin. It wasn’t so bad…I’d go into town and get coffee at the cute little local coffee shop by the lake, then spend the rest of the day reading or watching movies. Aden Days, Kelsey once called them. Sometimes I found myself wondering if maybe, at home, my absence was being noted. I swiftly terminated those thoughts, however. It was best not to think too much about it, or them.
“So your dad was in a car accident, but he’s okay now?”
“He says he is.”
“So then why do you have to go home?”
I couldn’t seem to make myself answer him, at first. The words wouldn’t come out, and when they finally did, they were barely a whisper. “He could’ve died, Dan. And the other driver did.” I watched as the blue eyes behind Dan’s black-rimmed glasses widened with understanding. “I’m not trying to be dramatic. But I haven’t spoken to him, not really, in the last three years.”
Dan’s eyes studied mine, and then dropped back down to the letter on the floor between us. “So this is kind of like a prodigal daughter thing.”
“A person needs a family, you know?” Tears pooled, but I wouldn’t let them spill. I had sworn to myself long ago that I would never cry over them again. “And right now…I just don’t really have one.”
“But is this what you really wanna do, though, Aden? Leave camp, go live with them?”
“No.” I swallowed hard. It was most definitely the last thing that I wanted to do. “But if I don’t do this now, I never will. And you know what will happen then, Dan. I’ll be 40 years old and one of those people who are so far away from their family that it’s like they never even had one. And those people are bitter. And sad.” I looked down at my hands. “And I don’t want to be like that.”
Silence filled the room. “Then I guess you’re right,” Dan eventually said. “Then you should go home. It’s the right thing to do.”
It grew quiet again. Finally, Dan cleared his throat and asked the thing I had been hoping he wouldn’t, yet somehow had known all along that he would.
“But so, what about Shane?”
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