“No, no. they are supposed to cross over at the top!” Rory says as I attempt to fix the flimsy tent poles. He is looking at the instruction booklet appearing to be totally lost.
“Uh… And now it says… connect the green fabric to the light blue fabric cause… it’s split in half for some reason.”
I’m holding poles in place, but his nose is too far buried in the instructions to notice. “Can you bring me the green one so I can at least get that situated?”
He looks back and forth at both of them on the ground a couple of times, and then picks up both and holds them out to me like he doesn’t know which one is green. I roll my eyes jokingly and take them out of his hands, tucking them under my arm.
I slide the poles through the loops on the outside of the fabric and ask Rory to hold them so they stay crossed. He sandwiches the poles with his hands where they intersect, and I put the blue fabric onto the other ends of the poles. Once both pieces are on, I connect them via the rows of latches and buttons on the sides, having to reach around Rory on the left side. This is probably the weirdest tent I have seen in my whole life.
“Did you put the stakes in?” Rory asks, one hand still holding the poles with one hand, and looking at the instructions with the other.
“Not yet.” I reply, grabbing the six stakes out from the their plastic ziploc bag. They look more like long, rounded Allen wrenches than the giant nails we see on movies and TV shows, but they should be functional all the same. I press each one into the ground through the loops on the bottom of the tent. Rory lets go of the poles, and the tent holds steady, so I grab the rain shield and throw it over the top of the tent.
He secures it in place at each corner. “Finished!”
“I'll go get the sleeping bags and stuff.” I say, and I walk towards the car. I pass Oliver, who is hunched down quietly over the rusted metal fire pit, desperately trying to get a flame going but not making much (if any) progress.
I pop the trunk and put a bag under each arm. I grab the third with an empty hand and then snag one of our big lanterns with the other. I waddle my way back to the tent, trying not to let the bulky sleeping bags fall, and then toss everything inside.
We hear a triumphant “yes!” and turn to see Oliver standing beside the fire pit, an orange and yellow fire flickering and smoking beside him. Without saying another word to either of us, he walks over to the tent and climbs inside. Rory sighs, and I pat him on the shoulder, not saying anything. No words of encouragement, no advice, just because I don't know exactly what I want to say to him right now. I'll think of something soon enough, though.
A dog barks from the camper next to us. I turn to look at it hooked up to the camper by its leash. There are lots of dogs in this campground. Every other camper has at least one dog, maybe two. There are lots of people here too. Couples going on an annual outing to get away from the hecticness of everyday life, families who just bought expensive new RVS and want to break them in before Summer starts, and then kids. Just kids. Kids setting up department store tents with vague instructions on the grass and struggling to light fires in the fire pits. Kids not wanting to stay in hotels for another four days. Kids like us.
I sit on the ground next to where Rory stands and pluck a fat blade of grass out of the dirt. I twirl it in between my fingers while I gaze at the small swimming lake in the middle of the campground as the sun slowly sinks. I feel the green fibers of the grass being strained and ripping ever so slowly in my grasp, the faint odor of a freshly cut lawn melting onto my fingers.
I hear the crunching of plastic grocery bags and look up to find Rory rummaging through our food in the trunk. “I think the ice cream has gone bad.” He says, picking up the bag of ice cream pints and putting it on the ground next to him. He continues to look, and then grabs another bag. He picks up the ice cream bag and throws it in the green, mesh trash can by the road. He brings the other one over and sits it next to one of the logs near the fire pit.
“S’mores?” I ask, eying the big bag of marshmallows, box of graham crackers, and bars of chocolate.
“And hotdogs!” Rory holds up the vacuum-sealed package and shakes it a bit.
“I’ll go find some sticks.” I get up off the ground before he can answer.
He nods. “Old-school. I like it.”
I walk towards the trees behind us in the fading light, searching for a few good, strong sticks that won’t burn in half. I find three long sticks in the grass by a tree that have already been sharpened, probably by some kids playing war or hunting or something like that. I pick them up and take them back over to Rory, who is seated on one of the logs by the fire. He thanks me, takes one of the sticks out of my hand, tears open the package of hotdogs and pulls one out, and puts it on his stick.
“Here,” He says, handing the package to me. I follow suit, and then join him on the log. We sit in silence, watching the hot fire flickering brighter and brighter as the sky grows even darker. Campers are going dark, and fire pit fires are glowing. At the edge of utter blackness, one of our lanterns flicks on from inside the tent. Oliver is lying quietly on his sleeping bag, awake, with one hand on the lantern.
“Hey, Oliver. You wanna join us?” I ask. Nothing, but I still try to convince him. “We are gonna have s'mores!” Still nothing.
Man, this kid is stubborn.
Rory sighs, and says just loud enough that I can hear, “He's mad at me.”
I look at Rory, and then to Oliver, and back to Rory again. “Well, yeah. I can tell. But have you thought about why he's mad at you?”
“I know that he's mad that I didn't tell him what was wrong even though I knew, but, to be completely honest,” He looks at me and twirls his stick in his hands, “It wasn’t because of him. I was doing it because of you. I—we barely know you save for yesterday and the day before. I didn't know how you'd react to, well—that.
“I didn't want you to see me like that and then think from then on that I'm just some kid who needs to be led around by the hand and protected from everything. Because I don't. I know how to manage myself.”
They really don't know me, do they? “I know that. And I would never think of you like that unless you wanted me to, Rory.” I say, pulling my stick out of the fire and inspecting my hotdog, which has almost began to char over. “But, back to what I was saying before. Yes, Oliver is obviously mad cause you didn't say anything to him. But is there a possibility that what is really making him mad is the fact that you didn't apologize?”
He looks at me, his dark brows knitted in confusion. “But I did apologize, didn't I?”
“For scratching his hand. Not for anything else.”
He looks down at his hands and murmurs under his breath, “I swore…”
I dig a toe of my worn down tennis shoes into the soft dirt. “He really cares about you, Rory. I know we hardly know each other, but I can tell he is definitely your best friend, and you're his.”
“That's true, I suppose.”
“I can also tell that it's really hurting him that you haven't. He tries so hard to make sure you're okay and that you're happy.” I study Rory's eyes. “I can see that just from how you guys talk to and act around each other.”
“You can?” He says, a little intrigued.
“Yeah, I'm pretty good at reading people.” I bend down and grab a few twigs and wood chips from the ground in front of me and throw them into the fire.
Rory sighs again. “Thing is, though, I’d figured he'd understand that I was sorry, even if I didn't say anything.”
“Well, sometimes, even when people do understand what you feel, they like to hear it straight from you themselves, just to get a sense of confirmation.”
Rory lifts up his stick out of the fire and bites one end off of his burnt hot dog. “I guess he might be one of those people, then. I can see that.”
I pause for a moment, trying to recollect my thoughts. This situation that I've been trying to mediate is starting to take somewhat of a toll on me, and I don't know exactly what I'm feeling right now, but it's not anything close to bravery.
“Y'know, you're lucky Rory.” I try to say it in the most stoic tone I can muster, but sounds more like a whimpering dog when it comes out. “You're lucky you have people who care about you.”
I can feel it coming on from a mile away, but as soon as that last word escapes my lips, my eyes cloud over with hot tears that don't hesitate to run down my cheeks.
Rory looks over at me with concern and lays his stick on the grass. “Avril... Are you okay? Like really okay?”
My eyes well up again, distorting his firelight-lit figure until I blink. I try to shake it off with a laugh and a smile as something unimportant, but paired with a choking sob, my acting is wholly unconvincing. “No. Not at all.”
“What's wrong? If you don't mind talking about it, that is…”
Don't do it, Avril. You say one word, and then you'll say two. Then three, then four, then a whole story. Then you’ll say too much. You always say too much.
“All my life I've been told by everyone that I don't matter. That I don't deserve anything. That nobody will ever love me.
“Everyone at school who knows who I am acts like I'm some force of evil who shouldn't be reckoned with, even if I've never done a single thing to them.
“I have a lazy, television-addicted father who doesn't even acknowledge my existence ninety-five percent of the time, and a mother who divorced and left him for the other side of the country and wanted to take me with, but somehow lost all custody. She was the only one I’ve ever known who actually gave a crap about what I felt.” I choke back another sob as tears are running down from my eyes and dripping off my chin.
I'm digging my nails into my palms, and the strands of hair that are so unlucky as to be blown into my face by the breeze are plastered to my cheeks and temples. I grow quiet and try to catch my breath.
Alright, you need to stop. Don't say anything else. Don't tell him about—
“And then there was her.”
You never listen, do you?
“Her name was Dayna. You might have seen her around school once or twice. Or not. But you wouldn't know her like I did.” I rethink, “Or like I thought I did.
“She came around in fourth grade, and it wasn't too hard to become friends with her. She was smart, personable, funny, helpful—so many people in our class wanted to be her friend, but she said no to all of them. Except me.
“We did absolutely everything together, like best friends do. We hung out at each other's houses, we went to movies and stuff together. She even gave this weirdly long and sentimental speech at my Bat Mitzvah that left all of my aunts in tears.
“We talked all our hopes and dreams for the future, and we supported each other in reaching for them. We we're always together. And as we grew closer and closer, we wanted it to stay that way.
“We were planning that when we grow up we were going to move to Hawaii and live in a huge mansion together with our seventy pet horses.” I pause to laugh at the sheer, childish ridiculousness of that idea. I'm not even sure how you would be able to get seventy horses to a little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“I loved her so much, and I thought she loved me... Man, was I wrong.
“She changed freshman year. Started hanging out with me less and less. We hardly ever talked until the last couple of weeks of sophomore year. Everything went back to how it was before. We hung out almost every day after school, we talked, we laughed, and I thought it all was gonna be alright again. Until the last day of school.”
(Continued in part two)