Aaron is always ready to fight.
Perhaps a summer spent in a less stressful atmosphere will allow him to relax.
Harry took him directly to his cabin, carrying the suitcase so Aaron wouldn’t be seen to be overbalanced and struggling while trying to tote it. Aaron realized what he was doing and thanked him for it. Harry just nodded and smiled and made a joke of it, telling him that he needed the exercise, that he’d missed out on his weight-training session that day. “Missed lifting my anvils,” he joked. Aaron looked at his arms which were almost as skinny as his own and laughed.
As it was late afternoon, there was no one in the cabin. There were eight beds, and two of them were made up. The other six had sheets and a thin blanket all folded up and ready to be used, but the beds themselves were unmade.
“Choose a bunk, Aaron. I’ll help you make it.”
Harry saw Aaron look at his choices, betting he could figure out what the boy’s selection would be. He nodded when he saw he’d been right. The two beds in use were at the far back of the cabin and on the same side, next to each other. Aaron chose the one across the aisle from those and closest to the door. His bed would be as far from the other two as it was possible to get.
Harry set the suitcase down beside it, then sat down on the bed so he wasn’t towering over the boy. “You can have this bed if you want it, Aaron. But can I say something first? Will you listen with an open mind?”
Aaron was still standing. He looked at Harry, then the two made beds, then back at Harry and said, “Sure.”
Harry patted the bed next to him. “Grab a seat.” When Aaron had done so, Harry said, “You’re going to make an initial impression with your cabin mates, just as they will with you. You’ll have a much better time here if you try to meet everyone here more than halfway with a friendly disposition, and that goes double for your cabin mates. I know you’ve had problems with kids your age before, you told me so in the car with all that about fighting, but this is your chance to begin all over again. Choosing this bed”—he patted the cot they were sitting on—“tells these guys as soon as they walk in that you don’t really want to be close to them, that you prefer being as far away from them as you can. What that’ll do is make them defensive. They’ll be together; you’ll be apart. They’ll start whispering when they’re in bed, and you’ll make it obvious you’re not paying them any attention while at the same time trying hard to hear what they’re saying and wondering if it’s bad stuff about you.”
He paused to let that sink in, then said, “Or you can go in a different direction. You can avoid all that by choosing a bed next to them, or one across the aisle but at that end of the cabin. That shows them you want to be part of them. You actually want to be friends! It makes you sociable instead of standoffish. It makes them happy instead of suspicious. And here’s the thing you know and they don’t: if you don’t like them—well, because there’ll only be the one, if you don’t like your cabin mate—you can always change to this bed later, whenever you want to! You’ll still be in charge of you.”
He smiled at Aaron and watched as the gears turned and meshed in his head. The boy gave him a wan smile. “Okay,” he said, and walked down to the other end of the cabin. He surveyed his choices there, then selected the bed on the very end, across the aisle from the other two.
“Perfect!” Harry said. “If you’d picked the one on the same side as the other two, you’d have set it up so it easily could have ended up being two against one, with the guy in the middle pairing up with either you or the guy on the other side. One of you would have been left out. But this way, you’re an equal threesome, even if it is only for tonight. Good thinking.”
Harry helped Aaron make the bed, then said, “There’s one more thing I need to tell you before taking off. I’ve got things to do I’ve left undone all day because I had to pick someone up at the station.” He grinned, then went on. “What it is, is this: you’re old enough not to need much supervision, and all our other cabins are full. We like to keep them full; makes it easier to make new friends. You’d be in a cabin with seven other boys if there were any spaces left. You were the last boy here, so this is what is left. We’ve got the other newest boy, the last arrival except for you, whom you’ll share this cabin with while you’re both here, and then, as I said earlier, one other kid who’ll only be sleeping here tonight. I told you all this in the car. What I didn’t say was, all the other cabins have counselors in them. You won’t have one here; there aren’t enough counselors to go around. With just two of you here, and since you’re both 13, you guys won’t need anyone looking after you. I think you’ll like it, actually, if you really want to read all those books; there’ll be less commotion for you. The third guy you’ll have, just for tonight, is Charlie. You’ll like him, especially as you seem the quiet type to me. He’ll do all the talking for the three of you! But after tonight, it’ll only be you and a kid your age; his name is Shaun. Now, dinner’s in about, let’s see”—he checked his watch—“a little over an hour. I’d guess your new friends,” he winked at Aaron while stressing the last two words, “will be stopping in here in a few minutes to rest up before dinner and perhaps to meet you; you can meet them then if you’re still in here. Or, you can go out and walk around, see what’s what here, size up the place, get familiar with the surroundings. Up to you what you do, just as it’ll be all summer. Aaron, welcome to Terrace Lake Camp, come see me if you ever need to, and I hope you’ll be as happy as you can be here. That’ll be entirely up to you. Later, dude!”
Aaron felt a small pang of desertion when Harry left. He pushed it aside. He’d been alone more often than not in his life, although not in a strange place he knew nothing about. He decided to walk around outside rather than sit in the cabin waiting for anyone to show up. He didn’t want to appear to be waiting, wanted to show that he was perfectly self-sufficient. Besides, he was curious what the camp was like. He’d only been told he was being sent to a boys’ camp with kids his age and younger for at least four weeks and maybe more, depending on what his mother’s tests at the hospital revealed.
Outside, he saw there were several cabins like the one he’d be assigned to. They didn’t look like they’d been placed where they were according to any preconceived design. Instead, there was a haphazard randomness to their placement, with trees separating them. Woods were all around the perimeter of the main area and directly behind most of the cabins. Slightly downhill from the cabins, set on an area of flat land, was a large building that was obviously the main assembly area and from the odors coming from it, the eating hall, too. Further out past the hall, he could see the lake. There were shouts from kids swimming coming from off to the right, but his view of them was blocked by more trees.
He could see more of the lake to the left, and there he saw boats. Row boats, kayaks, even some small, one- or two-man sailboats, and a few canoes. He found himself getting a little excited. He’d never been in a boat, and the idea of it, of being out on the lake, managing the boat himself, was thrilling. Could he learn to sail? Really?
There was a larger building up behind the cabins, and he saw boys going into it and then emerging a minute or so later. That made its purpose quite clear; that was where the toilets were. Because of its size, Aaron assumed it must contain the showers as well. Probably a changing room, too.
There was so much he didn’t know, but he knew that within a day or two all his questions would be answered. He’d learn by watching how the other boys behaved and by checking out the facilities himself. Did they have small tables in the dining area for just three or four boys eating together, or was it like school with long tables holding many boys? Did you sit in an assigned place, or did you have the same place every time, your own place you’d selected? Or did you just sit wherever you could find a place at random each time? Were the showers broken up into private stalls, or was it an open room where everyone could see everyone else? Were the activities all supervised, and assigned, or could you just do what you wanted to do whenever it suited you? So much unknown. Aaron liked to know what was expected so he could prepare himself mentally, but that wasn’t going to be the case here. But Harry was a very low-key individual, and it made sense the camp he ran was the same way.
Aaron walked down to the lake and took a closer look at the boats. Then he turned to look at the swimming area but still couldn’t see it. He was to discover that the lake had a cove that was masked from where he was standing by a small area of woods that had been left untouched when the grouds of the camp were laid out. The splashing and joyful shouts from the swimmers were coming from there. He thought about walking in that direction but realized he needed to be in the dining room soon and still had to meet his cabin mates. He decided to see if they had returned yet. It would be far better to go in to eat with people who knew the way things worked than to go in by himself and look around vaguely like the new boy he was.
Voices were coming from inside his cabin, or more accurately, one voice, which of course implied two people. Entering, he knew he’d have company.
Two boys were in the front of the cabin, and they stopped talking and turned to look at him. One was tall and slender, the other short and just a bit pudgy. They both looked about Aaron’s age, though at first glance, the shorter one was a little younger, and the tall one was perhaps a bit older.
“Hi,” Aaron said, beating them to the punch. “I’m Aaron. Just got here a few minutes ago.”
The shorter boy answered. Aaron realized, hearing him speak, that it had been his voice he’d heard before entering. “Hi. I’m Charlie and this is Shaun. Shaun just got here today, too. I’ve been here a week already. I go home tomorrow morning. After breakfast. My parents are coming for me. This is a great place! The food’s good, the counselors are young and really nice, and there aren’t any girls around. I’m going to come back next year and stay longer. I was only here for a week this time; didn’t want to risk a longer stay if I found I hated the place. This is my first year here, and I wasn’t sure I’d like it. That’s why I only came for one week. I—”
Shaun, a faint smile on his face, broke in. “Take a breath, Charlie. You’re repeating yourself.” Then he grinned. “I’ve only known Charlie for an hour. I didn’t know it was possible for someone to talk steadily for a whole hour, but Charlie just showed me it was.” Shaun’s voice was a slow, soft Southern drawl, the first Aaron had ever encountered other than coming from a character on a movie screen.
Charlie was smiling. “Yeah. That’s why they put me in here with you guys. Everyone else was tired of me. Ha ha ha. But you’ll only have to put up with me for a short time. Hey, we need to get into dinner. I’ll show you guys how it works. Follow me.”
The large building which Aaron had thought to be the dining hall proved to be exactly that. As the chairs and tables could be seen to be easily movable, even disassembled, it was obvious to him that the room could also be used for other purposes. He imagined it becoming an assembly hall, or a place for showing movies, or even a rainy-day gathering place for games or stories. It was a large room and now set up with long tables and also smaller ones. Along the far side from the door there were tables of food set up; boys were lining up to pass by and take what they wanted. Aaron and the other two got in line and picked up trays, piled on an empty plate and silverware and slowly moved past the food. There was plenty, and Aaron was surprised at the variety. Several kinds of meat, potatoes and rice cooked in different ways, several salads, several veggies, and then a separate table for desserts.
Aaron loaded up and then followed the other two boys to a table that seated four. “This certainly is surprising,” he said, then realized that he’d had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this. He’d sort of expected the sort of thing he’d seen in the movie Oliver! where the boys sat at long tables and there was no separation at all. And the food here was just as unexpected. Was what he was seeing now normal fare for boys’ summer camps? He was sure it wasn’t. Just how much did this camp cost, anyway? He had no idea, just that his mom wasn’t paying for it. No way could she afford anything like this!
Aaron got to know the two boys he ate with. Well, one, actually. Shaun hardly said a word. Neither did Aaron. By the end of the meal, at which Charlie had three desserts, Aaron was glad the boy would be gone in the morning. He rather wished he had some of Charlie’s self-confidence, but he also saw the dark side of having too much.
As they were leaving, Aaron was the last through the door. He was looking back at a sudden clatter of dishes in the room and wasn’t looking where he was going. He ran headlong into a boy coming in who tried his best to avoid him. But in doing so, the boy was off-balance and ended up tumbling back out the door and down onto the ground. Aaron stumbled forward, too, tripped over the boy and hit the ground as well, sprawled partly on top of the other boy.
The boy managed to crawl out from under Aaron and climbed to his feet. Aaron rose, too, and saw the other boy already standing. He was wearing what Aaron interpreted as a smirk on his face.
“Oops. Sorry about that. Didn’t see you there,” the boy said, though he didn’t look at all apologetic to Aaron.
Aaron reacted as he always did. Defense first, right along with standing up for himself. Anything else in the South Bronx led to disaster. “What the hell,” he said angrily as he stood up. “Watch where you’re going!”
The other boy’s face changed. He looked at Aaron quizzically, then got up, brushed off his jeans, frowned, and without saying another word, walked inside.
Aaron stared after him. There was something about the boy—the way he looked, his posture, the way his clothes looked—that added up to an impressive presence, not something most kids his age had. And to Aaron, it all added up to a description that fit a particular sub-group of kids who had always been his nemeses: rich kid.
“Who was that?” Aaron asked. Shaun, of course, had no idea, but Charlie did. “That was Dylan. Dylan McCallister. He’s 14 or 15, I’m not sure which; he’s one of the counselors. He works mainly with the ten- and eleven-year olds and also at the stables. He’s one of those guys that’s good at everything he does.”
“Not at watching where he’s walking,” Aaron retorted.
Shaun gave him a funny look, and they all headed back in the direction of the cabin.
A guy Aaron hadn’t met stopped them before they’d gone far. “Hey guys, I’m Richie. A counselor. I work on the beach, mostly. But you two”—he was looking at Aaron and Shaun and leaving out Charlie—“are both new today, huh?”
Richie was a redhead, and he looked to Aaron to be probably 15. He had one of those open faces that made him look like he’d never told a lie in his life and would be shocked to learn that other people had. He had a happy smile on his face; it looked like a natural condition for him.
“Yeah,” Aaron said. Shaun glanced at him, and Aaron shrugged it off. Okay, he realized he’d sounded a bit defensive. So what?
Richie didn’t appear to have noticed anything. “Glad I caught you then. Harry wants all the newcomers back in the assembly room—where we just ate. He has to give all you guys the talk.”
“The talk?” Shaun asked, preempting Aaron, and not sounding a bit defensive.
“Oh, just to go over the ground rules here. No big deal. But he wants to get it over with as soon as, you know? I think all the other new guys are already there. Come on, I’ll walk back with you.”
There were probably fifteen or so boys gathered in the room. Only a few were Aaron’s age; most of them were younger. Harry was there, too, and with him were several boys Aaron could tell were older but still teens. Harry smiled at Aaron and Shaun as they were the last ones to come in. “Okay, then, that’s everyone. Gather round, everyone.”
The food was all put away by then, and the room looked different. Most of the tables had been collapsed and stored along the walls. Seats for the boys listening to Harry speak were set in a semicircle. Harry had a chair in front of theirs, facing them. There were other chairs facing them, too, set for the older-looking boys.
Harry was smiling at everyone, putting them at their ease. Being the last to enter, Aaron and Shaun found the last two empty chairs which were at the far end of the semicircle.
“Okay, I wanted to officially welcome you all here,” Harry began. “Many of you are here for two weeks, some for longer, and every one of you is new, meaning that none of you have been at our camp before. Because of that, I need to go over some things, explain the ground rules here, tell you what we’re all about, what you can expect, and what I’ll expect. What I expect is easy, and no one should have any problems at all with it.
“This is a place for you to relax, to let go of all your problems and worries and fears. You left them at home. They’re not here. Here you can be what you are: kids. Just enjoy yourselves. That’s what you’re here for. I want you to let everything else go. Here, we’re all about you being safe and having fun. That’s the whole reason we exist. This, guys, this is the place for you to be kids and to be with other kids who want what you want: to have fun.”
He stopped to smile at them. He was an easy man to like. His whole manner was easygoing, and he exuded friendliness.
“I’ll be introducing you to our counselors in just a moment.” He gestured to the boys sitting around him. “They’re young! But they know what they’re doing. They all were campers here before they became counselors, so they’ve been through this as newcomers, just like you are doing now. I like to hire guys I’ve watched at camp and come to know. I think having counselors not too much older than the campers helps you relate and build bonds. These are all great guys, that’s why I selected them, and I’m sure you’ll like them. One of them is assigned to each cabin. But you can talk to any of them about anything, not just the one in your cabin.
“Most of you have been here much of the day already, and so have seen something I suppose I should talk about first, because you’ll be wondering. That’s our swimming area and how it works. Maybe you’ve noticed. Well, if you were there, you certainly noticed. Most of the boys weren’t wearing bathing suits. We need to talk about that.”
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