Nika wanted to be somewhere else. Wandering the huge camp, with lights, laughter, and free food, her ears ring and her skin crawls in the presence of so many strangers. Maybe she should find her mom. Her mom, who loved these events, talking to all the other mothers and fathers about how wonderful their children were. They weren’t even here for her; she wasn’t in the Rope Climbing Contest or the Camp Song Choir. Her cousin was becoming an Eagle Scout, and that was enough for her mother to demand she attend.
Sullenly, Nika walks under the great oak tree in the center of camp. A small plaque states that this two-hundred-year-old tree has stood since the camp’s inception. She stumbles on a gnarled root, and fumbles to keep her styrofoam cup in her hands. Focusing on her surroundings for a moment, she notices an old man digging into the soft earth. With a small trowel, he fills a sackcloth with dirt, occasionally stopping to sprinkle water and mutter something. Perturbed, but also curious, Nika approaches.
The man startles, a wild look in his eye.
“Lost! We are all lost! Must form a barrier…” He shouts at her, then bends down to resume his work. But when his trowel enters the ground, he pauses.
“Here, child. Use this wisely, and they cannot follow.” Taking a scoop of earth from his sack, he pours it into her cup, then mutters again. Something latin. He resumes digging.
Nika holds still for a few moments. Can she leave, or will he do something even crazier? She looks down at the dirt in her cup, turning to mud as it mixes with the last of her lemonade. Gross. Slowly, carefully, she walks away.
She makes it to the main cabin. Even from here, she can hear the buzz of conversation from the lofty cafeteria on her right. To the left, a small public bathroom is connected to the main building. In the center, a grand oak staircase leads invitingly to double doors, which both have STAFF ONLY signs in bold letters. Probably where they get all the paperwork done. In front of the staircase, a swarm of people surround where a small stand has been set up. Plated chocolate cake slices and water bottles disappear faster than the two Eagle Scouts, judging by their badges, can replace them. What was she doing again? Oh, right, finding mom. Maybe the cafeteria?
Nika’s stomach protests her non-existent diet. A teenager cannot subsist on cookies alone. Not that cake is much better, but… Nika passively inserts herself into the push and shove of the crowd, slowly making her way to the cake. Narrowly dodging the elbow of an overweight giant, she snatches a plate and makes her escape. She considers eating in the cafeteria, a likely place to find her mom, but the waves of noise keep her at bay. Moving to the side, she finds a bench against the wall of the cafeteria. Perfect, except… Nika places down her cup of dirt and stares at the plate, devoid of fork, knife, or even spoon. Glancing at her surroundings- her mom would be mortified if she knew- Nika makes sure the coast is clear before eating the cake one crumbling handful at a time.
Then, for the second time that evening, something odd happens. A boy is suddenly sitting next to her. A cute boy. Nika stops licking chocolate frosting off her fingers, her cheeks turn bright red, and she looks away.
“Don’t like crowds much?” His accent is strange. Almost strange enough to break her out of her state of complete embarrassment. She shakes her head, then wonders if using her hand to wipe chocolate off her face would make things worse.
“The senseless noise of it all, the empty chattering and useless shouting, I can’t stand it anymore.” Surprised at finding a like-minded soul, Nika brings herself to look at him. In the shade of the building, with daylight fading, his exact features are difficult to see. A lone window in the center of the wall shines light on his blonde hair, and a long coat of some kind. Well, of course he wouldn’t be a boy scout. But then, what is he doing here?
He glances at the sky, noting the faint starlight of the approaching dark, and addresses her again. “Well, I must be going. It was nice to make your acquaintance…?” he asks, standing as he does so.
“Ivanika.” The name tastes strange in her small voice. Even mom hasn’t called her that in a long time. She wonders why she said it.
He pauses, as if the name has a greater meaning to him, then nods and walks away.
Nika stares after the strange boy who didn’t give her a name, now giving his voice deeper thought. It was Russian, like her own, but not. It was the accent of aristocrats and nobility that she only heard in painstakingly accurate timepiece dramas. Then the plate, with its remnants of cake, slides off her lap onto the damp leaves, and she remembers her disheveled state.
Nika hurries to the bathroom before anyone else can see her. The Eagle Scouts have run out of supplies, and the crowd has dispersed. The boy’s bathroom reeks, but the girl’s is firmly closed with an Out of Order sign. She listens carefully, making sure the room is empty before darting inside. Placing her cup of dirt (Why am I still carrying that?) on the edge of the sink, she hits the button on the faucet several times to get the water going. With a paper towel rougher than sandpaper, she washes the last traces of chocolate off her face and hands. Then, finally, clutching the cup as if it will protect her from something, she enters the cafeteria to find her mom.
The room is packed, every bench overflowing with bodies that warm the area. She tries to block out the ebb and flow of conversation, turning it into a buzzing as she focuses on finding her mother’s face. No, no, no. A random child shrieks behind her and she stiffens. The center of the room is a cacophony, and she uses one hand to pull the hood over her eyes. Still no sign of her. Still no sign of her. Nika’s blood begins to boil. She barely notices the vibration of her phone against her hip. Backing into a corner on the far side of the room, she unlocks it.
At the main stage. Ceremony about to start. Where are you? Oh god. All of this was for nothing. She fumbles a little as she texts with one hand.
In the cafeteria. OMW
A screeching sound, worse than nails on chalkboard, fills the room as the old speaker above her activates.
“Attention guests! Our Eagle Scout Ceremony is about to begin! Please make your way to the main stage in the cabin area to celebrate our NEW EAGLE SCOUTS!”
Nika drops her cup and sinks to the floor, hands over her ears. When the announcement stops, she scoops the cup off the ground and bolts. Without thinking, she tears open one of the Staff Only doors. Offices. Desks. Like a child hiding from an earthquake, she crawls under one of the desks. Breathe, Nika. Breathe. She nearly crushes the styrofoam in her hand, before putting it down and wrapping her arms around her legs. One, two, three, four… She counts her breaths to slow them down. Two hundred and one, two hundred and two… With a sigh, she finally stops. Peeking out from under the desk, she looks around.
The room is completely empty. All of the staff are at the ceremony. The silence, the darkness, the authority of the space, help her feel safe. She thinks about the grand event. The Star Spangled Banner blasted on speakers as big as she is. The shouting of the crowd, and her mother in particular, as the names of the Scouts are called. The uproarious clapping as each receives a shiny new badge. Her mom will be furious, but… maybe she should just stay here.
Calmed down, and with nothing to do, Nika moves an office chair to a window and watches the sun set. This proves entertaining for… five minutes? Meanwhile, what her mother will do when she doesn’t show up weighs on her. Finally, she moves the chair back to where it belongs, and walks up to the sturdy oak doors. Steeling herself, she steps outside.
As she strolls up to the center oak tree, Nika realizes that the old man is missing. She would question whether he existed at all, if not for her cup of dirt and the hole in the earth where he had been digging. She walks over to the pocket in the ground, but hears a loud click before she can examine it. She whirls around.
Oh, just the automatic lights. Artificial fluorescence joins the smoldering torches in their efforts to light the area. Nika smirks to herself for getting scared, then looks down.
“What the?!?” The dirt at the bottom of the hole is a dark red. Before Nika can process what she’s seeing, she hears screams from the cabin area.
“Mom?” she calls uncertainly, half running, half stumbling toward the sound. A boy runs out from behind the cabins, then screams as he is blasted with a wave of fire. A figure, hard to see in the flickering, scattered light, walks casually past the flames. It’s too much for Nika. Turning, she sprints back toward the main building. But something runs behind her. Almost stumbling with the motion, she flings a handful of dirt over her shoulder. There’s a shrieking, hissing sound, deathly close. Flinging the oak door open with even more force than before, Nika rushes into the office area and slams it shut.
Her hands fumble with the locks, but she gets them closed. With a sickening thud, something hits the door. Nika looks worriedly at the window. In cabin fashion, it has a wooden cross dividing it into four parts. Still, she runs a thin layer of dirt across the sill, then does the same across the bottom of the door. She goes to the back of the office area. No back exit, only a main office- likely for the owner of the camp, with its own locking door. She hurries inside as the oak doors crack under the weight of some creature. Crawling under the desk, she uses the last of the dirt to draw a ring around her.
Okay, Nika, what did you see? Did you really just… watch someone die? What about mom? Is she okay? Nika tells herself to breathe as panic sets in for the second time that night. Am I going to be okay? She pulls out her phone. A red warning sign tells her the message to her mom was never sent. Stupid boy scout camps in the middle of nowhere, of course there’s no reception. Suddenly, Nika feels hopelessly exhausted. She’s done all she can, right? So far, nothing has approached the office door. She looks down at her Circle of Protection (but it didn’t save the old man). Pushing aside unhelpful thoughts, Nika closes her eyes and forces herself to focus on her own little world. Maybe, after a while, she even sleeps uneasily. A long time or a short time passes in a strange fashion.
Startled, she bumps her head on the top of the desk, then looks out. The strange boy sits on one knee, staring curiously at her.
“Yes?” She tries not to sound scared. She is not sure she succeeds.
“Ivanika, I’m sorry about all of this.” He gestures at destruction she cannot see. She realizes the air is full of smoke. “I can make this all better. But you need to trust me.” He extends a hand.
Nika thinks of all the reasons she should be afraid. She thinks of her mom, her cousin, the running boy. Why does it all seem so unimportant? Why does this strange boy, with a voice from another time, have such beautiful blue eyes? Almost in a daze, she takes his hand.
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