An excerpt from
It’s been five years since the Gulf Coast oil spill, twenty-nine since Chernobyl, fourteen since the twin towers went down like crushed cigarettes, and Mother Nature has had enough. She’s had enough of your genocide, your herbicide, her apples waxed and wrapped in plastic. She’s had enough of your firebombing and name-calling and hours spent thinking nothing at all. She intends to do something about it.
Very few will survive.
The seasons are crazy things, if you really think about them. First comes autumn and its slow cool, converting the leaves from green to yellow to fire-engine red until they crisp and fall through bracing air to be shuffled underfoot. Then winter lumbers on in, heavy and domineering, its snow-capped hush forcing you back inside. After months of icy-cold living, just when you can’t take it anymore, a warm breeze circles around your head, a whisper of spring. The snow is soon melted and forgotten; seedlings push up and try, try again, each sunlit afternoon a blessing of encouragement. Once the memory of the cold slap of winter has lost its sting, when the flowers have burst open triumphantly as if to say, “Hell yeah, I did
it!” summer arrives. Soon enough the earth is so hot and the air is so thick you’re praying for a stiff wind.
Summer, when even the shadows are sweltering, when popsicles melt away in the shade, when flip-flops are too scorching to wear—summer is my favorite. And here at Camp Astor, it’s more beloved and more anticipated than any major holiday. We wait for it all year long.
Mom first sent me here after Dad died. She thought the fresh air would do me good. I was just thirteen then and so nervous about spending two months away from home that I sniffed back tears the whole way from Oregon to Connecticut. People in Portland don’t really get the concept of summer camp—it’s definitely an East Coast thing—but Mom and her mother before her both came to Astor as teens and loved it. I might have been wary that first summer, but now, at seventeen, I’m a full-fledged convert. Part of it has to do with Sarah and May, the two girls I bonded with in the first few months without Dad. They were my lifelines then. We always joke that we’d have fun even if Astor were next to a toxic waste dump or a carnival filled with ex-cons. As long as we’re together, we laugh.
As it happens, though, Camp Astor is great. The cabins are huge and just went through a remodel, so they now have flat-screen televisions, Wi-Fi, and private bedrooms. I used to have to share a bunk bed with a major snorer; now I have a four-poster bed all to myself. It’s a twin—and the room is tiny—but it’s all mine. We have to walk about a block to get to the bathrooms, but they’re tricked out, too: with surround sound stereo and tablets in the stalls. It’s like a spa. And it’s why I keep on coming back, even though I’m technically old enough to have a summer job instead.
Sarah, May, and I love to explore the surrounding forest, but we spend an inordinate amount of time in the computer lab, editing videos we upload to the interwebs. We used to make clips of all the strange and sticky creatures we’d find: frogs, salamanders, you name it. Now our films are more like video selfies: the three of us jumping off the dock in slow-mo or dancing under water. Our clip of gorgeous Sarah flipping her long hair as she rose out of the lake has almost 1,700 views.
There are maybe eighty girls and sixty boys at Astor, tweens to high school seniors, and most of us come every single summer. Up until last year, there were a handful of hot, older guy campers (and, okay, camp counselors) for me to crush on, but this year, we’re left with the our-age dregs—boys who might as well be my brother. Sarah and May go through little crushes with a few of them, but if any one of them tried to kiss me, I’d probably hurl. So we spend our days rowing emerald green, Old Town canoes across the pond, crafting hideous bric-a-brac in the arts cabin, and playing all manner of counselor-led games, like kickball and capture the flag. Occasionally, us older kids go on overnight hikes, and after just a few years here, I’m a total pro at using GPS and blowing up the air mattress solo. With my trusty propane sticks, I can light a fire just as well as any Boy Scout.
Incidentally, I’m almost always the designated camp chef. Want soup? Just add water. Feel like a steak? Just rip open the package of dehydrated meat and…add water. Sarah says my name should be Jackie “Just Add Water” Dunne. And unlike when Sarah, May, or any of the other girls cook, I save all the trash to pack out with us and recycle. Maybe it’s my granola Oregon upbringing, but apparently, I’m the only one that thinks burning it or stuffing it under an old stump is bad.
Tomorrow morning, we’re headed out on the Senior Slog—three-nights of backpacking reserved for those of us on our last summer here. We’ve been hearing about how amazing it is since we were in middle school, so we’re pretty stoked. Plus, since the boys go one way and the girls go another, we’re guaranteed to have a few nights without idiocy—last year on the Senior Slog, the boys’ group had a pissing contest to see whose could reach the farthest. ‘Nuff said.
Right now, I’m lying on my stomach on the east lawn, spending today’s first hour of free time doing absolutely nothing while the rest of the girls preen in the bathroom. The morning dew has dissipated, and the grass underneath me is sweet-smelling and warm from the sun. I spot a tiny, silvery spider crawling gingerly over my forearm, trying to get to the other side. Thank God Sarah and May aren’t here. They’d start hollering for me to kill it, but I never minded spiders. They’re beautiful, really. And just trying to live their lives, like the rest of us. I watch its delicate, little body traverse my skin before dropping into the grass. It makes its way around a stick and disappears into the lawn.
I turn to lie on my back and let the sun wash over my face. The clouds above are huge and puffy, straight out of a cartoon. I thumb Bernard’s compass in my hands. The only friend I love more than Sarah and May is Bernard. Besides Mom, he’s my favorite person on the planet. “This is your booby prize for outdoor feats not yet completed,” he’d said as he handed it to me. We’ve been attached at the hip ever since we locked eyes across the starting line for the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. We sauntered the whole mile, so nobody was surprised when the gay guy and the artsy girl came in dead last. Thus began our fated best-friendship. Even though camp’s only a few weeks, I always miss him like crazy.
The compass is plated in gold, hung on a gold chain necklace, and has a Japanese maple leaf etched into the lid. A tiny diamond is imbedded into the leaf like a shimmering raindrop, and the Oregon state motto—Alis Volat Propriis (“she flies with her own wings”)—is engraved on the back. Bernard found it at a garage sale. He’s got a way of plucking unappreciated treasures out of flea market buckets and cyber antique graveyards. At first, I tried to give the “booby prize” back—it was so beyond nice—but he just laughed and said, “Newsflash! I don’t like boobies, Jackie.” He rolled his eyes. “I want you to have it. They’ll probably make you go camping out there,” he said with a shudder.
Its gold surface feels cool to the touch, even in the midday heat. With the sun beating down on me, I feel so sleepy I could conk out here and now, but I can see Sarah running toward me, her long, blond hair flapping behind her like kite tails. Her eyes are lit up and wild-looking.
“Hey!” she squeals. “There’s a new camper checking in.” She grins.
My eyes pop wide open. “Girl or boy?” I ask, pushing myself off the grass.
“Jackie, I would not be literally running over here to tell you about another female.”
We walk toward the camp’s office. I can tell just by looking at Sarah that he’s cute. She wears her libido on her sleeve. When someone even remotely attractive is around, she moves like a Bengal tiger.
“He’s checking in now?” I wonder out loud. “Camp is almost over—why is he so late?”
“Who cares? We need a guy around here who isn’t a total barf. Fingers crossed, Jackio.”
The girl has a way with words, and she’s right. I stop in front of a reflective window and do a quick scan of my face. The only part of my body I love unconditionally is my hair, which ordinarily flows down my back in chocolate-colored waves. Right now, I’m so sweaty that it’s closer to a wet bathmat. Several strands are slopped down against my forehead. I pull my hair back in a low ponytail and use a little spit on my finger to push my eyebrows into place.
Sarah rolls her eyes and yanks on my arm. “Let’s go.”
We’re almost at the office when May waddles out of the mess hall, carrying an ice-cream cone like a torch. “Raspberry,” she practically screams. “They just got a new flavor!” She’s always excited by the small things—a trait that’s both adorable and annoying, depending on your mood.
“Dude, shh,” Sarah says. “Get over here. We’re gonna go check out the new guy.”
“New guy? Yes,” she hisses.
Slowly and stealthily—as stealthily as we can muster through our muffled snickers, anyway—we creep up to the office window. The office is in a wood cabin, long and low to the ground, but the window is pretty high up. We have to pull ourselves up on our tiptoes to peer over the ledge. Brittany, the lead camp counselor, is facing us and talking to him from behind the desk.
“That is one tall drink of water,” May whispers.
We giggle. He really is. We can only see the back of him right now, but he must be six-foot-six or more. His hair is a sandy red like a fox’s. Lightly tanned skin peeks out from his cut-off jean shorts and plaid, short-sleeved shirt. I glimpse at his big hands and toned forearms. My heart’s beating faster and I haven’t even gotten a look at his face. Brittany hands him a folder of paperwork, and he turns to face us.
“Duck,” Sarah blurts, pulling us both down to hide under the window frame.
But it’s too late. For a split second, he looks directly into my eyes. He is gorgeous. He smirks when he sees me, like he knows not only that we were spying on him, but that he’s hot shit. There’s something about him that makes me nervous. I run my hands over my arms—all the little hairs are standing on end.
I hear the screen door to the camp’s office thwack. Heavy, clodding feet make their way across the porch. We plop down in the shade below the window and pretend we’re chilling, as if it’s our favorite place to relax. May is suddenly fervently invested in eating that ice cream, and Sarah bursts into high-pitched peals of laughter like we just came up with the funniest joke on the planet. Real subtle. I’m trying to imagine why a guy our age would be showing up at camp now. It’s one of those things you do each summer, every summer, or not at all.
Within a couple seconds, he’s walking right past us, lugging his suitcase and backpack toward the senior boys’ cabins. I notice he has the recycling symbol tattooed on his calf. Of all the things to get tatted! Maybe it has some different meaning I’m not aware of—like a gang symbol. The Recyclers. I giggle to myself, and he glances our way, running his eyes over Sarah, then May, then me. It gives me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and my smile fades, but Sarah is all grins.
“Hi,” she says.
He nods and keeps walking, his face turned down in a scowl.
Sarah scrambles up onto her feet and sticks out her hand. “I’m Sarah,” she purrs. “And that’s Jackie and May. Welcome to Astor. What’s up?”
His expression is listless, like he’d rather be anywhere but here.
“Hey. I’m Xander,” he says begrudgingly. His voice is so deep it sounds bottomless.
“Well, uh. We’re glad you’re here, Xander!” Sarah says.
“Um, yeah, whatever,” Xander says, rolling his eyes, then continues on his way.
Oh jeez. So much for playing it cool.
I cross my arms and watch him saunter off into the distance.
* * *
At dinner in the mess hall, my stomach is still in knots. Xander’s made fast friends with all the senior guys, and they’re sitting at the opposite end of the table from Sarah, May, and me. He keeps whispering to the dudes at his end of the table while eyeing us. Eventually he whips out his phone and starts showing it around to the guys.
They all start laughing hysterically. Jonathan, a shy kid from Maryland, turns beet red and buries his head in his hands.
Sarah, May, and I eye each other uneasily. What the hell are they looking at?
Ever-confident Sarah pops up from her seat and saunters over to their end of the table.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” she says, with a toss of her long, blond hair.
Xander jams his phone into his pocket, visibly annoyed. “Your tits.”
“Um, what?” Sarah shrieks, taking a step back.
I run to her side, May trailing behind me. “Give me your phone, asswipe,” I demand.
“Um, no, not happening,” Xander says with a smirk, as a counselor, Jessica, races up to the commotion.
“What’s going on, guys?” Jessica asks.
Sarah looks away, but before she does I see her eyes pooling with tears.
“Xander the creep said he has a photo of Sarah naked,” I say, glaring his way. “And he was showing it to everyone.”
Jessica looks slightly taken aback. “Xander, is this true?”
He tips his head back and rolls his eyes, and I swear he says the C-word under his breath, though I can barely hear it.
“Give me your phone,” Jessica says.
Begrudgingly, Xander hands it over. He’s used an app to position a picture of Sarah’s face over a buxom porn shot. It’s disgusting and disturbing and Jessica hauls him to the office on the spot. We’re seething, and Sarah’s understandably very shaken up. I hope he’ll be kicked out.
I knew I was right that something was off with this guy. The girl and boy campers always tease each other and play pranks, but at the end of the day, it’s usually harmless. After only a few hours, Xander’s impressed the guys with his cruelty, and now they think it’s funny. I vow then and there to hate him for the rest of my days.