August hits Camp Victory like the opening of an oven. Dorothy actually flinches when she steps out of her office. She had always hoped the heat would bother her less once she lost weight, but it doesn't seem to have made much difference to her subjective experience. Her mother is comfortable at temperatures that send her fleeing for the haven of air-conditioning; she wonders how her father would have handled it, if he'd stayed.
The sun is brutal after the shade of the indoors. Dorothy squints and wonders where she's left her sunglasses. She has a bad feeling she'd worn them to a tryst with Jonathan and left them. She's not about to call him and ask. She could pick up a new pair next time she's in town to see Wayne - but, no, shopping with one man for something lost with another? She deserves to have the sun in her eyes.
The hot still air feels heavy, stifling. Why is the admin building so far from the infirmary? Why couldn't she have met Wayne first, years ago? Jon would never have stooped to compete with Wayne, he wouldn't have looked twice at her. Or if he had still pursued her, she wouldn't have succumbed, if she had Wayne by her side.
The summer had looked so promising in June, with her father there, and Wayne giving her forget-me-nots. Now her father is gone and the flowers are dead and the sun is merciless in the cloudless sky. What good is it if it can't bleach the world blank to match? The sun is getting to her - she steps into the infirmary with relief.
Like she does every morning, Amber wakes up around dawn: she jerks halfway up in a jolt of excitement before she remembers she doesn't have anywhere to go. George isn't waiting for her. George is probably still asleep, dreaming about model-pretty girls with perfect size zero bodies, counting the days until he can get out of fatland and back to his real life.
Sometimes she lays back down in bed, slides a hand into her panties, and takes advantage of nobody else being awake yet; sometimes she's too angry at herself to want anything to do with her body. Today it's already so warm, despite the early hour, that the thought of burrowing under the covers repulses her, and she slips over the side of the bunk and down. The floor is pleasantly cool against her feet as she tiptoes to the toilets. She pauses, frowning, at the mirrors. Her hair is limp and she's broken out in two more places during the night.
"As if George was ever going to want to be with you," she whispers at herself. She can still recall the exact feel of his arms around her - it had felt so real. But if he really wanted her, he'd have found a way, right? No, she reminds herself, she's not worth him getting in trouble. He's too nice, too good, to risk it. All she has to do is get through every day feeling like she's starving. She knows all about that. She can do this, she tells herself, and breaks down crying against the mirror.
George plods along the jogging path, his twenty-odd unhappy runners trailing behind him. It's miserable weather for running, and he's trying to go super-slow, but there really isn't a pace slow enough for a day like this. If it were up to him, he'd be lying in the shade somewhere drinking something cold. But the schedule says running and so run they must. He had gotten the impression when he took the job that they were high enough up in the mountains that it wouldn't get so hot, but apparently not, and the pleasant green camp of June has baked away in the heat. The playing fields are yellow, the vegetable garden has shriveled, even the duck pond has pulled away from its banks, leaving several feet of smelly muck between the grass and the water.
"Okay, everybody, water break," he calls. It should really be a sports drink, he thinks, but Shay had looked at him like he was nuts when he suggested it. "That's got sugar and salt," she'd said, which George had thought was the whole point, but she'd said it like he'd suggested handing out poison.
He walks quickly back along the line checking his group. Everyone is drenched with sweat and he sees some bright red faces; a few other people have sat down in the dust, and, as he watches, another girl sinks down to join them, rubbing her forehead and wincing.
He doesn't realize he's running down a mental checklist of symptoms of heat exhaustion until it tallies: better safe than sorry. "We're going to cut it short," he announces. "We'll just go - " he thinks frantically, but can't come up with anything - "Uh, hang out in the rec room."
No one has enough energy to cheer, but their relief is evident. He helps a couple of the most weary to their feet, and they cut from the path to head directly back to main camp.
They're right in the middle of the playing fields (with nowhere to hide) when George sees Shay sprinting towards them.
"Hey," she yells, "Do I see walking? Let's pick up those feet! And turn it around, go go go!"
The campers look uncertainly at George.
"Keep going," he says, motioning them on, and walks towards Shay to intercept her.
"What the hell are you doing," she hisses when he gets close enough, "They've got forty-five minutes left, you get them working!"
"Look," he says, trying to keep his voice down, "It's too hot. Someone's going to get sick out there."
"Sick," she repeats, rolling her eyes, "We're trying to get them healthy! You're letting me down, George!" She turns to yell at the retreating runners. "This is unacceptable," she shouts, "You're all going to owe me extra time! And you," she adds, turning back to George, "This is not okay. I'm your boss, I'm not making suggestions here. These kids are here for one reason, and if they don't exercise, we're wasting their time, you understand me?"
She's in his face, and he steps back involuntarily. She's waiting, glaring at him, and he mutters something conciliatory until she turns around and sprints back the way she came.
George resumes his trek across the field. Maybe she has a point - maybe he's not doing anyone any favors if he doesn't push them.
He wishes, like he always does these days, that he could ask Amber what she thinks. Would she admire him for trying to look out for her fellow campers? Or feel like he was undermining their goals? He's not sure Shay's right that they're only here for one reason. The stuff Poppy was saying on Spirit Quest about understanding yourself - it doesn't seem like they're measuring that at weigh-in. And there's the social aspect - Amber sure seems to be having a lot of fun there. George still can't quite believe how quickly she'd gotten together with Ian.
He has no idea if she'd come hoping to lose weight, or build fitness, or just make friends - it's not like she needs to lose weight, she's already perfect. He wishes he could ask her. There's so much about her that he never got to find out. So much they never got to do. And he's not just thinking about that - although he's not kidding himself, he wants to get his hands up her shirt, desperately - but he also wants to take her on a real date. And give her college advice. And play her Josh Ritter albums. And introduce her to his mom.
The first time he saw Amber he had felt something release inside of him. It was like he'd been yoga-breathing his whole life without knowing it, steady and controlled, and all of a sudden had let out his first-ever sigh, and it felt great, like something he hadn't even known he needed. But now he can't find that rhythm again, and his breath feels short in his chest, and he just can't believe that this is it, that in just a few weeks she's going to vanish out of his life and he's never even going to be able to tell anyone about her.
"And I kind of maybe love her," he says out loud, and then looks around nervously to make sure Shay hasn't snuck back up behind him.
Dorothy looks down at her notepad. "Thank you all for making time for this," she says, "I know some of you were going to be on break tonight." She herself was supposed to have dinner with Wayne, but she's just as glad to have an excuse. It's getting harder and harder to see him, to flirt and talk and accept his kisses, knowing that she'll be screwing Jonathan later. She needs to break it off - one, the other, both - but that isn't the point right now.
"In light of the heat wave," she says, refocusing with effort, "We need to talk about changing the activity schedule for the rest of the session. We could be looking at record highs."
"No problem," Shay says. "If you don't want them working out mid-day, let's just get them up a couple of hours earlier. Dawn aerobics and a 5K as soon as they can see the path."
Dorothy sighs inwardly - it's a reasonable suggestion, but there go her early-morning workouts. Technically the staff can use the weights and machines whenever the campers aren't in there, but she doesn't like to let anyone see her sweat, it seems... unprofessional.
Nobody else looks very happy about the idea either, though. The cabin counselors are shifting in their seats and looking at each other.
"They are teenagers," Poppy finally speaks up, "Aren't they most energetic at night?"
Shay allows as how they could probably manage night basketball and volleyball, with lanterns by the courts.
"But we have to do something with them during the day," she concludes, "They can't just sit on their asses. They're not going to burn calories screwing around in the craft hut."
She stares a challenge at Dorothy, who stares back.
George had been absolutely right to bring those kids in, the last thing they need is a case of heatstroke, and the last thing she needs is Shay making this a power struggle. The heat is making everyone quarrelsome, and it's bad enough among the kids; the staff has to keep it together.
The lifeguards offer to pick up some extra shifts poolside, and George, looking nervously at Shay, offers slow, stretchy yoga, but the pool is only so big, and they only have so many yoga mats.
"Extra riding?" Dorothy asks, looking at her short list of ideas.
The head wrangler was here twenty years ago when Dorothy was a camper; she makes a face like Dorothy hasn't learned a thing in all that time. "Horses are bigger than you and hairier," she says, "They need help to sponge them down, not more work."
"Okay," Dorothy says, "So no." She crosses it off. She hates making last-minute changes like this, with all the resultant juggling of breaks and days off. At least that's one less variable.
"What about boating?" Poppy asks. "I know some of the kids are really into that."
Dorothy shakes her head. "Water restrictions," she says, "They'll - upstream - we won't have more than a trickle in the creek by Tuesday."
"Oh," Poppy sighs. "Too bad."
Dorothy frowns at her list. She was reluctant to resort to this, but - "Wayne knows a couple of local spelunkers," she says. "Cave enthusiasts? I've talked to one of them and she says there are some caves near here that would be suitable for our kids - they've taken Girl Scouts. Her references check out."
Poppy looks a little skittish. Some of the other counselors are nudging each other and grinning at the mention of Wayne. Dorothy's bedroom is next door to the breakroom, and the walls are thin - she's heard more than one person joking that getting laid might be good for her. Not that she is, with Wayne, it feels like too much of a betrayal, when she can't say no to Jon - focus.
"We'll only be able to send one cabin at a time," Dorothy reminds them, and the gas for the van, on top of the fees for the cave guides, is going to eat most of the rest of her discretionary fund. "But if no one has any other ideas, I think we should go for it."
"You're the boss," Shay mutters. Dorothy pretends not to hear her; it seems easier.
When Ian plops his tray down next to hers, Amber says hi automatically, but doesn't really pay him any mind; he's around so much of the time that she mostly just tunes him out. She knows it's bad, but it would be worse to dump him, right? It's only when Trent sits down across from him next to Chloe that she realizes they're both covered in dried mud, and grinning like idiots.
"It was so excellent," Ian tells her, "We got to, like, crawl through this cave, way underground, with headlamps and everything. At one point we all turned off our lights and you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face."
"Yeah," Trent says, "It was intense. You should write a song about it."
"Maybe after Will goes," Ian says, "I think you guys are next, this afternoon."
Sure enough, after lunch Poppy tells them to change into long pants, clothes that they don't mind getting muddy, and they'll be going with George on a field trip. ("I'm not so good with underground," Poppy explains.) Amber isn't so sure she's good with underground either - for one thing, she doesn't have any clothes she wants to get ruined, and what about, like, bats, and snakes?
"There are no bats in this cave," the cave guy tells them when they get there, after a long and vaguely queasy van ride. Amber had hoped for shotgun when she saw George driving, but Becca had cut in front of her and climbed in. Now that Ian is always around, so is Will a lot of the time, and so Amber gets occasional updates on the question of whether Becca and Will are speaking to each other again yet. Looks like it's still 'no'.
The cave guy is still talking. "This is a talus cave, which means that it was formed from the spaces between fallen boulders" blah blah blah. Amber shudders. If they fell once, couldn't they fall again? The other cave person, the woman, is handing out helmets, which smell nasty, like Lysol, and kneepads - Amber bends over to strap them on, and catches George looking at her. He quickly looks away. But now Amber is thinking about kneepads and George in the same thought - thinking about being kneeling, in front of George - and she can feel herself blushing. She's never done anything like that, but for George... she's sure that wasn't what he was thinking, though.
They switch on their helmets and crawl one by one into the cave. Amber ends up behind Chloe, looking right at her butt, and in front of Will, which means that Will is looking at her butt. At least it's not George, who's already seen more of her stupid butt than she would like.
The cave is pleasantly cool, she'll give it that - the rock is actually uncomfortably chill when she has to put her hands on it, and it seems to be sucking all of the moisture out of her hands. Otherwise, she doesn't see the appeal. There aren't any stalactites here, like you see in pictures of caves, or cave paintings or anything, and she keeps whacking her head on the low roofs when she forgets to allow for the height of her helmet.
They get to a big space where they can all fit and do the lights-out thing Ian had told her about, and it is a little cool. If she was still with George they could totally kiss in the dark right there with everyone and if they were quiet enough, no one would know, which would be so romantic. But she's not, and George is all the way on the other side of the room and doesn't want to kiss her anyways. So caving sucks, and then the cave lady tells them they'll be going through the tightest spot of the cave, and might have to drop down to their bellies, and squeezes out through some tiny little gap Amber hadn't even seen before she dove in there.
Carter and Sierra and Becca and Chloe all follow her out, twisting and kicking and squealing (mostly Chloe), and then it's Amber's turn.
She sticks her head and shoulders gingerly into the tunnel. The rock is rough where it scrapes her arms; she can feel it pressing heavily against her back and shoulders, like the whole cliff is falling down on her right now. It's so tight she can't expand her lungs. She feels her back pocket snag on something, tries to wiggle forward, and her hips wedge in. She's stuck.
"Help," she says, quietly, and then, really panicking, "Oh my god! Oh my god, you guys, I'm stuck! Help!" Who thought this was a good idea, taking a bunch of fat kids into a tiny cave? She's going to, like, die here because she hasn't lost enough weight... she thrashes but she can't move. She starts to cry.
"Oh spare me," she hears Will saying behind her, "Seriously? You think everyone else can fit but you, the skinniest person here, are going to get stuck? 'Oh, reassure me,'" she says in a mocking falsetto.
"Hey," George says, sounding angry, "She's genuinely scared, okay?" She hears shuffling behind her. "This is George," he says, and she feels a hand wrap around her ankle. "It's okay. You can do this. Try to back up a little and then, uh, drop your hips a little."
So now George is looking at her giant stuck butt, and if she dies here he's going to be trapped too. She tries to take a deep breath but she can't, she can't breathe.
"I know you can do this, Amber," George says. "Let's take some yoga breaths, okay?" She can hear him behind her, making exaggerated hoos and haas so she can hear them; he sounds a little like Darth Vader, and she giggles.
"Breathe," he reminds her, and she breathes with him for a moment. He gives her ankle a little squeeze and all at once she feels totally safe, like, she knows he's never going to leave her, that he's going to dig her out with his bare hands if he has to. After that it's somehow easy to scoot back a little and commando-crawl out through the low tunnel. She comes blinking out into the sunlight and turns in time to see his face look up to her as he emerges.
Amber is obviously still upset from her moment of claustrophobia, and George has already seen the other cave of the cave tour, so he offers to sit with Amber while everyone else crawls down the next hole. It's completely altruistic. Really. The sun actually feels good after the dark of the cave, and he finds a nice boulder to lean against and motions her down next to him.
She sits down too close, brushing warmly against his side, which feels so much better than the sun, but as long as he doesn't acknowledge it, he doesn't have to tell her to stop.
"I'm so sorry for freaking out like that," she says shakily. "I'm such a loser."
George wishes he could squeeze her hand. Really, he wishes he could kiss her until she forgot all about the cave, but... at least her hand.
"Feeling trapped sucks," he says. "Everybody is scared of stuff."
"Yeah?" Amber asks. "What are you scared of?"
"I get stage fright," he says, "Especially, like, presentations?"
"Oh," she says, "Because you might mishear a question?" and he loves that she gets that, just like that.
"And big dogs," he admits, which, okay, makes him look like a huge chicken, but it feels so easy to tell her, and if he can't touch her to comfort her, the least he can do is keep talking. "Sometimes I don't hear them, and then, boom, there's like this giant dog there."
"Oh my god," Amber says, laughing a little, "I used to walk dogs? Back before I could get a real job? And my neighbor had this Doberman, that, like, hated other dogs, so I would take him out, and - "
He listens to the rise and fall of her voice, and can feel her close against his side. A little bit of her hair is tickling his cheek. If he turned his head, he could kiss her. He knows he can't - maybe he wasn't taking advantage of her before, but right now, while she's still off-balance, and vulnerable? Right now is the last time he should be thinking about kissing her. But she's right there. All he would have to do is turn, he can't resist - he surges to his feet, pushing off the boulder and away.
Amber is staring at him.
"Uh, stretching my legs," he mumbles sheepishly, and walks over to the edge of the little clearing. Amber stays sitting by the boulder, looking lost. Maybe it's already too late to not have hurt her. But what does that mean he should do next? All he can think is to stay away, let her have fun with a nice normal sixteen-year-old boyfriend, and try to carry his hurt himself instead of inflicting it on her.
On the ride back to camp, Amber leans against the window of the van and wonders what's wrong with her. She knows George doesn't want to be with her, but she totally threw herself at him; she was practically acting like her mom, which is scary, not to mention super-embarrassing. She had even thought for a minute that George was really going to kiss her, which, how delusional is that?
Amber has always had to be the careful one to balance out her mother's total lack of discretion. If she's acting like Teal then every impulse becomes suspect: if she wants to ask George his last name so she can find him on Facebook after camp, is that stalking? If she hasn't told Ian she likes someone else, is she just using him? Has she been talking too much? She's been sighing to Chloe a lot about how much she wishes she could be with George - she hasn't told her they were together, briefly, but maybe she's been over-sharing about how much she thinks about him.
Amber wishes briefly that she was back at work, at the dollar store, the Walmart, or even the nursing home cafeteria, handing out jello and getting pinched. It's so stupid, being at camp and wishing she was at work, when she had worked so many hours to pay for camp, but work has always been the one place where she knows what she's doing. Smile, do your job, and you know you're not being weird or inappropriate. She's never understood why her mom can't get that, can't at least learn it well enough to hold onto a job.
Amber looks out the window, at the trees and mountains. She'd thought, maybe, this summer might be a chance to fit in somewhere other than work. Make some friends, even flirt with boys. But first she'd totally messed up and made them send Caitlin away, and then fallen hard for someone out of her league. She can't do anything right. She's glad that camp is going to be over soon - better to be home in the blue vest than here pining for George and making a fool of herself.
She's not sure what she'll do if she keeps on pining once she's home.
The sun has set and it still feels like 100 degrees in the shade. George is technically on break but in fact he's loitering on the cafeteria porch, trying not to be totally obvious about waiting for Poppy's girls to come back from the shower house. He knows it's so wrong to look, but Amber freshly-scrubbed, still damp from the shower, is irresistible. There she is now, walking with Chloe, hair twisted up in a pink towel that matches her flip-flops.
"You know, I have a daughter," someone says, and George nearly jumps out of his skin.
It's Dr. Rand's boyfriend, Wayne, holding flowers and a bottle of wine.
"I think Dr. Rand is in her office," George stammers, and then processes what Wayne had said. "Um. I. I wasn't - I mean, I wouldn't, I mean - "
"Beautiful girls," Wayne says, with a vaguely avuncular air that does nothing to reassure George.
"How old is your daughter?" he croaks.
"She's fifteen," Wayne says, nodding like this was a very good question. "Not much younger than some of these kids, I would guess."
"I guess not," George says, and blurts out "So you must have a .44 and a shovel, right?" What the hell is he saying? Is Wayne going to tell Dr. Rand he caught him staring?
"Got the shovel," Wayne agrees. "It would just kill me if anyone took advantage of her."
George is wondering if maybe he should just go drown himself in the duck pond and save everyone time.
"But you know," Wayne continues thoughtfully, "A wise man once said that young people are like campsites, the thing to do is leave them better than you found them. I don't fool myself that I can stop her, if she wants to get mixed up with someone. Best I can do is be there and make sure she knows she can use the shovel herself if she needs it. So to speak."
George is whiplashing between terror and utter confusion. Is Wayne saying, what, that he knows? And he thinks it's okay? Not, George reminds himself, that the camp director's boyfriend is actually a relevant authority here.
"There's another theory," Wayne goes on, and why won't he stop talking, "Where you take half the older person's age, plus seven, and that's the youngest they can date. So I could be twenty years older and still courting Dorothy, and a six-year age difference, say," he pauses, like he's expecting George to nod or something, "The youngster's got to be at least twenty. My fifteen-year-old - well. At a certain point it seems unfair to expect her to do her own shoveling."
"So you would... shovel," George says feebly.
"Someone wants to dig themselves deeper, least I can do is help out," Wayne says, looking hard at George for a moment. Then he spots Dr. Rand coming out of her office and ambles off, grinning and brandishing the flowers and wine. George has to sit down. He has no idea what just happened. Maybe the heat is melting his brain.
"Okay," Chloe tells Amber, "That's enough."
"Um, what?" she says. In theory she's writing in her journal. In fact she feels too wilted and droopy to come up with sentences, and she's been doodling MASHes on the back page, cheating so that she winds up every time with George. Three kids in an apartment in Seattle - it's never going to happen, and she feels sadder every time she finishes one, but she can't stop.
"You're, like, moping," Chloe says. "Just go to his room and take off your shirt already."
"What?" Amber gasps. "Chloe. I'd get kicked out! He'd get kicked out!"
She looks quickly around the cabin. It's almost empty - she can hear Becca talking to Poppy in her room, and Will is writing furiously with her headphones on - but Amber lowers her voice anyways.
"It's impossible," she says. "You can't really think anything could happen. I'd be in such huge trouble. Dr. Rand would call my mom to come get me, like, immediately."
"There's only like ten days of camp left," Chloe points out. "I don't think we're working out enough to lose much more weight, anyways. Maybe I should stop eating lunch, hmm."
"I still don't want to go home," Amber says. "And I don't - I mean, I've never - I don't want it to be like that. I want it to mean something."
"It can mean something with your shirt off," Chloe says, but Amber isn't really listening. To tell the truth, she has thought about going to George one more time, just so she knows she tried. Even a pity kiss would be one more thing to remember once she's home.
The days continue to be wretchedly hot, and the nights are sweltering. One night at the basketball courts, Poppy motions George aside. "Becca told me about this cool meteor shower," she whispers, "We're going to sneak out to watch it!"
"You and... Becca?" George asks, confused.
"No, silly, my whole cabin! You guys should come! We're going to bring blankets and lay in the soccer field. Don't worry," she says, seeing his hesitation, "I'm sure if we're there we can make sure there isn't any you-know."
George is pretty sure his guys decide they'll come precisely in hopes of getting away with some you-know, but he finds himself in the soccer field after midnight carrying a stack of blankets, arranging boys and girls into two adjacent but carefully separated lines. Amber ends up on one end and he wishes he could lie down next to her, kiss her in the warm night and tell her her eyes are more beautiful than the stars, something corny like that.
Instead he's near Poppy. "This is so exciting!" she squeaks. Becca, just beyond her, chuckles. "Isn't this exciting, George," Poppy says, rolling over to look at him, "We're having an adventure! The majesty of nature," she intones, "And the thrill of the forbidden!" Becca giggles, and she joins in, snorting a little.
She wouldn't be laughing if he told her about his own adventures in sneaking out. He wishes he could, though, he wishes he could tell someone. I met this girl, he thinks, and I've never felt like this before.
He looks up. The sky is actually really beautiful, black and full of more stars than he's ever seen. It's funny how he's been here all summer and barely looked at the sky.
He has no idea what he's looking at - the Big Dipper, maybe, and, like, Orion? He can hear Becca and Poppy murmuring together. Becca seems to be giving her a guided tour, pointing out constellations and relating myths.
George is just going to have to settle for "lots of stars, very pretty". And then, a sudden moving spark, there and gone in a flash. "Ooh," everyone says, and "Oh, I missed it? Where?" And then there's another, and another.
"Quit it," he hears Amber say, "I'm trying to watch the meteors," and George sits up to glare at Ian, who, he sees, has managed to squirm unnoticed to her side. He sheepishly retreats to where he belongs, and George lays back down feeling sharp satisfaction, that Amber had rejected him, and jealousy, that he at least was allowed to try.
He stares up into the endless sky. It just goes on forever, like he could be hanging there in space. There's another meteor, a huge one, across what seems like half the sky. It actually leaves a streak on his vision for a second, it's so bright.
He can't accept that he has one more week, and then Amber will be gone and he'll never see her again. She can't just be a shooting star, she's the moon, the sun. He feels the ground pressed against his back and imagines a current running through it, connecting them; he can feel himself touching her, through the back of his head, the blanket, the grass, the yards of ground between them, where she lies parallel looking at the same stars. He can't feel something so strong if it's not real. He can't be expected to ignore something like that just because of where they met. Maybe he can wait and find her again, someday, when she's older. But she's never going to wait for him, that's ridiculous. Maybe she doesn't really care for Ian, but she's for sure going to meet someone, and she's never going to think about George again, and he can't see the stars anymore, they've gotten blurry somehow.
The meteor shower is amazing, once Ian stops pestering her. Amber's never seen anything like this; she's never been out of the city before. She had no idea there were this many stars when the sky wasn't all orange from streetlights. And there are so many shooting stars.
She knows it's hopeless, but she wishes on every one.
Dorothy forgets the Perseids entirely until Wayne sends her an email asking if she saw any. Every year, she means to go out, but she always seems to be wrapped up in some camp business or other. And this year she had been with Jonathan.
She could use a meteorite, she thinks, something to come slamming into her life and put an end to the Age of Jon, let the Age of Wayne begin properly. She knows from recovery that's not the kind of higher power she should be hoping for, but every time she sees Jon the words are there on her lips, "this is the last time", and she just never says them.
Maybe once the campers leave, and she and Jon are closing down their respective camps, she can close down their relationship the same way, neatly, tidily. To reopen in the spring, she thinks, and despairs.
George can't sleep. The sheets are sticking to his skin. He can't stop thinking about Amber, her skin and her hair and her spectacular curves, and he's been hard for what seems like hours, but his guys are right there through an open doorway so he can't do anything about it. Even if he thinks they're all asleep, he's not taking the chance. He needs to just go to sleep himself, it's like two in the morning and he's got dawn yoga tomorrow, but it's just too overwhelmingly hot.
He finally decides to go out for a walk; maybe there'll at least be some air out there.
There's maybe the faintest touch of a breeze, no more, and it even smells hot, but it's better than being inside. He turns on his flashlight and walks down to the shrunken duck pond. It's more mud than water now; they'd given up on boating a week ago and wrestled the boats out to cover up for the winter. Scanning across the mud with his flashlight, he finds the ruts where they'd dragged the boats. A pathetic end for boating, he thinks, and tries not to find that symbolic.
He plays the flashlight across the water. No ducks; they must go somewhere else to sleep. It's snowing, though.
George blinks; maybe he's asleep, or maybe his brain has finally boiled and he's hallucinating. He stares intently at the beam of the flashlight. No joking, there are tiny flecks of snow drifting down through the cone of light, sporadic, but definitely there.
It can't actually be snow - maybe something weird about the lake? But he turns away, back towards camp, and still sees it, falling slowly and gently everywhere he turns the light. He knows it can snow in the mountains when you wouldn't expect it, but not in August, on a ninety-degree day, right?
He puts out his hand to catch one of the little flakes. He half-expects it to melt on his palm, but it doesn't. It sits there, light enough to blow off from his breath when he brings his hand to his face to look more closely, and as it flies off back into the darkness, he realizes what he's looking at. It's ash.
There is ash falling all around him, slowly and steadily out of the sky, and the hot smell on the breeze is smoke.
Somewhere, something is burning.
He stops feeling the heat, stops feeling anything but a sick jitter of energy. He kicks off into a sprint that carries him back along the path to main camp in what feels like an instant. He bangs on Dr. Rand's door and calls her name; he wants someone in charge dealing with this. He has no idea who to call to find out where the fire might be or what they need to do.
Dr. Rand doesn't answer, and he knocks again. He'd never figured her for a sound sleeper, but when he presses his good ear to the door he doesn't hear anything that could be someone waking up. Her door is locked. He goes to try her office, thinking maybe she's there for some reason, but it's dark.
He runs to the infirmary; maybe she's already up and has the situation under control.
The night nurse is reading a book, but puts it down in alarm when George rushes in.
She hasn't seen Dr. Rand, but comes to the door to look out at the ash.
"It could be miles and miles away," she says, but George hadn't made Eagle Scout without learning a few things about forest fires. Such as: take them seriously. They agree that she'll wake up the other nurses and he'll keep looking for Dr. Rand.
He tries her room and the office again with no luck. She's not in the cafeteria getting a 3 am snack; she's not in the red barn indulging in a 3 am spin on the exercise bike.
He recalls the morning she ran into him waiting for Amber, and wonders if she's also gone out for a walk. Maybe she's crossed the bridge and is out somewhere under the trees where she might not notice the ash.
He runs down through main camp, past the pond and the playing fields. He pounds over the bridge then slows; which way? He decides to try the river path first.
As worried as he is about the ash, it's still spooky being out here by himself at night. The bubble of light from the flashlight is his whole world; anything could be out there beyond it.
He's near the edge of the camp, now; he raises the flashlight from the path in front of him and spots the glint of the new fence maybe fifty feet away.
"Dr. Rand?" he calls. No answer.
As he turns to backtrack he notices that the door of the old toolshed is cracked open.
It's a weird little building - Poppy told him once that it used to be a boathouse, years ago, and then the groundskeeper started using it, and now it really should be torn down. Dr. Rand had reminded them all to keep their campers away after the LARP incident. George can't imagine that she'd be in there, but the door is open.
He steps out onto the little dock, which creaks under his feet. There's a stagnant pool underneath, where some water must have stayed trapped as the creek dried up. It smells kind of rotten. He really can't imagine that Dr. Rand would be hanging out in here.
"Dr. Rand?" he calls again. He hears something rustle in the shed. He takes another step and pulls open the door - he has just enough time to see the shining eyes of a raccoon before he hears an enormous creak and the whole shed starts to lean over to the side.
He stumbles back, startled, and his foot goes down through the floorboards. The shed crashes down on top of him.
Dorothy is walking back from seeing Jonathan. Her flashlight is dying - she supposes she's lucky to have remembered it at all, when he texted her asking her to come meet him again. The batteries are on their last legs, though, and the faint glow aimed right at her feet is just bright enough to keep from stumbling.
The sex wasn't even that good. Whatever spark ever existed between herself and Jon is dimming just like her flashlight.
I should have changed these batteries a long time ago, she thinks.
Suddenly she thinks she hears something - someone shouting? She picks up her pace and makes her way back to camp as fast as she can without tripping.
George doesn't black out, he thinks, but there are a couple of moments of panic and disorientation before he makes himself take a deep breath and try to figure out where he is. He's under something, face down, and can't lift his head. He can't see anything, just darkness. He's lying at an awkward diagonal on an uncomfortable jumble of wood, waist deep in the water, and there's something big and flat and heavy like a roof or wall pressing on his back and shoulders. He feels banged up, but no acute pain, so he's probably not badly hurt. But he's thoroughly pinned.
He tries to shift a little, to see if he can work his way out, and something lurches alarmingly. He freezes. If the wreck collapses any further, he could be pushed into the the water, and he's not sure he'd be able to pull himself free. He wishes he at least had some light, or his whistle to call for help.
He makes himself start yoga breathing, nice steady inhales and exhales through the nose, and tries not to think about still being trapped if the fire gets here.
Amber wakes up way too early; it's still dark, and instead of coming awake all at once, it's a slow slide out of sleep. As she gathers her wits the conviction grows inside of her: something is wrong. Something is very wrong.
She climbs down from the top bunk and, moving automatically, strips off her pajamas and starts to get dressed. There's somewhere she needs to go. She slides into her flip-flops and then, frowning, kicks them off again and pulls on socks and sneakers.
Dorothy sees two things as she hurries back into camp - one, every light in the infirmary is on, and two, there's a light rain of ash clearly visible where it passes by the windows. She curses and fumbles for her phone - she'd tossed it aside with her clothes and hadn't thought to check it afterwards.
Amber grabs a flashlight and is about to tiptoe out of the cabin when she pauses. Squeaky board. No, something else.
Whatever it is she has to do, she's not sure she can do it by herself. She thinks about waking up Poppy - Poppy had told them to pay attention to their dreams, back at Spirit Quest, she might understand - but, no, Poppy was probably thinking about, like, symbols and stuff, not this wordless insistent tugging.
Although. She recalls that Ian told her about how Becca could do some fortune-telling thing, and Amber had overheard, once, Becca saying it has to be outside and Poppy following her, solemn and expectant, coming back in a few minutes later almost wistful. Poppy would take her seriously, Amber thinks, if she woke her up with this.
But she wouldn't let her go.
George recites the Scout Law and then everything he can remember from "If", which turns out to not be very much.
"Becca," Amber whispers. "Becca!" She taps her shoulder.
Becca blinks at her in confusion.
"I really need your help," Amber says.
"It's the middle of the night," Becca whispers back.
"I know," Amber says, "Please. Please."
Becca frowns, but starts fumbling for clothes.
Amber thinks suddenly of Will, how she'd held her hair when she threw up, and had never told anyone about George, and snuck with her into the cafeteria kitchen.
"Will, too," she tells Becca, who almost lays back down again. "No, please. I'll wake her up."
Becca is staring at her like she's crazy but she's already shaking Will's shoulder.
"Whaaa?" Will says muzzily.
"Sssh!" Amber says. "Will, you have to come with me."
"Rand told me they moved the key," Will says sleepily. "Go back to sleep."
Becca bends down over her to hiss something in her ear. Will glares back at her, not moving. This is not the time, Amber wants to yell. Their stupid falling-out is so much less important than... whatever this is.
"Up," she commands instead, quietly, a pitch and tone she remembers from her dog-walking days. Will looks cross but sits up and reaches for a shirt.
Dorothy listens to the message a second time, hoping she's misheard something. It's still the Forest Service fire team. Wildfire less than three miles away, probable evacuation order coming.
She turns aside from the infirmary - they must have called there directly when they couldn't reach her, and she knows her nurses know their part of the plan - and heads straight for her office and the emergency binder.
George tries to picture Amber, the way her hair caught the sunlight, the way she bounced when she ran, but instead, he finds himself thinking about the campfire after parents' weekend. He'd seen her holding Ian's hand and felt like he needed to gasp for air. But he had somehow managed to make himself keep singing, a little unevenly, but good enough to help lead the campers.
Amber takes a quick look around the cabin - everyone else is somehow still asleep, and she can hear Poppy snoring in the adjoining room. She motions them out, and they pick their way carefully down the path in the dark.
"Okay," Will says, "So are you going to tell us what's happening here?"
"I think I had a dream," Amber says, "Or maybe, god, I don't know. I just have to do this, okay?" She pauses. "I need you guys."
Becca looks intrigued. Will scowls at her, but keeps walking. They cross the bridge, trying to move quietly, and when they reach the other side Amber pulls out her flashlight and turns it on.
"What the hell," Will says, "It's snowing."
Becca holds out her hands. "I don't think that's snow," she says, "I think that's ash."
"Like from campfire?" Will asks. "We haven't had one in ages."
"No," Becca says slowly, "I think we need to go tell someone about this."
"No!" Amber says quickly. "There's no time! Come on!" She's sure, now, this way. She's got the flashlight, and they follow her as she half-walks, half-runs along the river.
"This is my grove," Becca says, looking around.
Amber can't tell one clump of trees from the next, but wherever they are is close to the right place. She turns in a circle - where - and then she hears it. Someone, muffled and indistinct, is singing the camp song.
She runs down to the bank of the creek, leaving the other girls behind her in the dark. There's an old shed there, fallen in, and it's coming from underneath. She recognizes the voice.
"George!" she calls. "Oh my god, George!"
Amber's voice is the best thing he's ever heard.
"George!" she's saying. "Are you - what even - " The beam of the flashlight slants in through the mess of boards, showing him the nest of jagged edges that surrounds him. He shudders - it's amazing that he's not seriously injured.
"I'm okay," he says. "Just... stuck."
"Hang on, I'll - "
"No! Wait. Don't - don't step on the dock, if there's anything left. I'm kind of - in the middle here, and if anything else falls, I don't - "
Instead he hears a splash, and the water around him ripples. She must be wading towards him, he realizes. He can't turn his head to see her, the boards lying on his shoulders are in the way.
"I'm here," she says, and under the water he feels something patting him on the butt. "Um, sorry," she adds, "I can't really reach - "
It's okay. It's better than okay. How in the world had she found him?
He feels the weight on his back give a little, and then settle back on him, pressing.
"I don't think I can move this," she says. "But don't worry. I'll stay with you."
That's wonderful news. "No, that's terrible news," he says. "Amber, listen, there's a fire. Maybe close, coming closer. You have to go tell Dr. Rand and then you have to evacuate, okay? You have to get out of here with everyone else."
"So noble," someone says sarcastically. Will. "Shut up and be rescued, okay?"
He feels more motion in the water around him.
"Let's try on three," Amber says, "One, two, three, lift!"
The wall on his back rocks and then squeezes down harder than ever.
"It's no good," Will says, panting, "We need like a lever or something. Or more people."
"No, wait, not a lever," comes a voice he can't quite make out - she's quiet and on his bad side. He hears someone moving away through the water.
"Will, take the flashlight," Amber calls. The light leaves and it's dark again.
"I'm still here," Amber tells George. "Becca had some sort of idea, or maybe she just figured we were wasting time. We're going to get you out of here."
She tries to sound confident, but she's so scared, now that Becca and Will are gone. It's so dark, and she has no idea if George is, like, bleeding in there. Some of the boards seem awfully sharp and splintery. The only place she could find to snake a hand through she ended up groping his butt, which doesn't seem that reassuring. "I'm sorry I can't hold your hand," she says.
"Can you just - " George says. "Heh. Can you just talk to me?"
She's up to her thighs in stinking water, feet sliding around in muck, and she has no idea what to say besides "please tell me we're not going to die here." So instead she tries to tell him how much she likes yoga, how she'd never been on a horse before, how glad she is she came to camp. She tells him he's going to have to take her on a real date to thank her for rescuing him, that she wants flowers but no chocolates and lots of kissing afterwards, things she'd never dare to say if she could see him and he could see her and no one was trapped under a building.
He tries to make little replies - yeah, uh-huh, what then - so she knows he's still with her, but it's getting harder to talk.
Dorothy hefts the bell in her hands. She's made the calls - her buses should be coming up the mountain as soon as someone wakes up the drivers - but this is the real point of commitment, where a hundred people will be looking to her for direction. No hesitation, just a calm execution of the plan.
She swings it as hard as she can.
Way off in main camp, Amber thinks she hears the bell ringing. Maybe Becca or Will has woken someone up; maybe help will be here soon. Her eyes have adjusted to the dark, and she can see the ash falling, faster and thicker. She can smell smoke. She wonders how far away the fire is now.
It's a huge relief when she spots the beam of light bobbing towards her.
"Someone's coming," she tells George, "We're going to get you out of there!"
But it's just Will and Becca.
"Why didn't you bring help?" she wails, but Becca is already sliding back down the bank into the muddy water, carrying two big coils of rope from the rock climbing wall.
"We... were in... a hurry," Will pants behind her.
"We just need a pulley," Becca says shortly, and starts tying bits of rope to bits of shed.
Dorothy has staff, running back and forth collecting essential items, and campers, milling around clutching blankets and backpacks, and even the camp dog, captured and leashed and whining miserably, but no buses.
She gets on the phone. They're there, they tell her, confused, they just radioed in, they're loading right now.
"They're not here," she repeats. Wait, they ask, you're at the tennis camp, right? He said you were all gathering there.
"Almost there," Amber tells George. He hasn't been saying much. "Just one more minute, okay?"
It's taking forever - Becca keeps rearranging things, and snapping at Will to hold the flashlight at a better angle. "I'm frickin' shorter than you," Will finally yells back, "It's not my fault!"
Amber reaches in through the boards to give George another little pat. All she can do is pray.
"I can't believe you stole my buses!" Dorothy shouts into her phone. "You're downwind, across the lake! My camp will be ashes before you're in danger!" She's shaking with fury. She can't believe that only hours ago she was naked with this man.
"Look, Dot, honey, be reasonable," Jonathan says. "I've got the future leaders of America here, and besides, more of my kids fit on each bus - "
"You miserable worm," Dorothy says, and stabs the off-button so viciously that she almost loses her grip on the phone. She has seventy-eight kids to evacuate in, what? The one fifteen-passenger van?
"You," she barks, pointing at one of her counselors, "You're van-certified. Round up your cabin and get them into the van, then squeeze in as many as you can from unit C."
"With seatbelts, right?" the young counselor asks. "I can't put my girls in a car without seatbelts."
"Laps and floors," Dorothy orders. "Let's do this."
"Okay," Becca shouts, "Pull! Pull! Pull!"
Only a few of the counselors have cars, but most of the kitchen staff do. Dorothy packs kids into trunks; she fills the filthy bed of the groundskeeper's pick-up truck. When the head wrangler appears at the head of the string of camp horses, Dorothy begs her to let her put riders on them.
"They smell the fire," she says, "Might bolt," and Dorothy is about to wave her on her way, resigned, when she relents. "I can handle them," she says gruffly, and Dorothy thanks her profusely and gives her ten of the least panicked campers.
"Anton's good with the trailer," she adds as they leave, and right, the horse trailer, that's another cabin or two right there.
Amber works frantically to clear away boards after they move the big piece. George had groaned a little as they lifted it away; he's barely moving. Finally, finally, she gets her arms around his waist and can pull him away from the wreckage. Becca and Will hurry to help her carry him to the shore.
Dorothy hangs up her phone again. The first of her cars has made it into town, only to be motioned further on; the sheriff is evacuating the whole town and no one's being allowed back up the road at all. So much for anyone turning around for a second load.
She turns and realizes Poppy is standing in front of her wringing her hands.
"Dr. Rand, I'm so sorry," she says, "I'm missing three of my girls, and I can't find them anywhere."
"Will," Dorothy sighs, and Poppy nods.
"And Amber, and Becca - I just have no idea where they could be - "
"We'll look for them," Dorothy assures her, "You get the rest of your cabin into - " she looks around. "Into my car," she finishes, pressing her keys into Poppy's hands. "And anyone else you can fit."
Dorothy has no idea who to send to look for the missing girls, or where they could be. Not even Will would take advantage of a crisis like this to raid the kitchen. Maybe they went back to the cabin to try to save some more of their stuff? She'd told everyone essentials only, but she knows teens can be sentimental about belongings... she hurries towards the cabins.
George blinks; someone is patting his face.
"You have to wake up now," they're saying. "We have to go."
He opens his eyes. He's lying on the ground with his head in Amber's lap. For a second he has no idea how he got here, and then he remembers: the weight on his back lifting away, his feet and legs catching on submerged boards as he was dragged out of the water.
"Hey," he says hoarsely, and sits halfway up. He feels wobbly, but okay. "I'm good," he says.
Amber scrambles to her feet and pulls him up. As he tries to put weight on his left leg, it buckles under him. Pain shoots through his knee.
"I'm not sure I can walk," he admits.
The girls aren't in their cabin, or the rec room, or the kitchen. For lack of anywhere better to look, Dorothy goes back to the parking area. She's down to a last handful of people - her nursing staff, two counselors, and three senior boys who had kept shouting "women and children first" whenever she tried to put them in a car. "That's you," she had yelled back, but there were enough kids on the brink of fighting for spaces that she hadn't pushed.
Unfortunately she's all out of cars.
"You're going to have to head out on foot," she tells them all.
"You're coming too, right?" asks one of the seniors. He looks like he's regretting his decision to be noble.
"As soon as I find everyone," she says.
"Maybe it'll help now that the sun is coming up," the boy suggests. He points: there's an orange glow lighting up the tops of the trees beyond the camp.
It looks strange, and for a minute Dorothy can't figure out why. Can it really be dawn already? Has the evacuation taken that long? Then she realizes what's wrong.
"That's not east," she says out loud.
"This is the only time I will ever, ever say this," Will says, struggling along, "But thank god yoga boy here is so skinny."
She's got one of George's legs on each hip like she's pulling a cart; he's sitting behind her on Amber and Becca's linked hands with his arms over their shoulders. The angle is kind of killing his knee but at least they're finally moving. They can see the light of the fire now, fading the stars and casting eerie flickering shadows through the trees.
George can't tell if he can feel the heat yet, or if it's just the hot weather.
The sight of the fire has Dorothy paralyzed. It's so close. She doesn't see how they can possibly outrun it, not all the way down the long dirt road to the camp.
She thinks she can hear it too, roaring, coming closer, and a high wailing. It gets louder too fast, though, and then she realizes what she's hearing - engine noise, and a siren. She turns, and coming down the road towards them is a pair of headlights, and a second car with flashing lights behind in pursuit.
The truck swerves to a halt about ten feet away, spraying them with fine gravel.
"Dorothy," Wayne shouts, opening his door and getting out, "Thought I might find you here!"
Dorothy has never before in her life been tempted to swoon. Here's a man, she realizes, who would drive into a forest fire in case she needed him. Why on earth has she been risking this?
The patrol car has also stopped, and a state trooper comes running towards them.
"Travel into the at-risk area is strictly forbidden," he's yelling, "Even if you drive safely, which you were not by any - ." He takes a deep breath. "Step away from your vehicle or I will - "
"No problem," Wayne interrupts, tossing his keys to Dorothy and sticking out his wrists. "I'm all yours, officer." He gives Dorothy a little wave as the cuffs close and lets the trooper push him back towards his vehicle.
Her little band isn't waiting to be told what to do and are climbing up into the back of the truck. Dorothy stops the head nurse and hands her the keys.
"You'll have to drive," she says, "I can't leave my kids behind."
They cross the bridge and continue on across the field.
Amber's arms are aching, she's lost all feeling in her fingers, but she's not stopping. The fire seems closer and brighter every second.
"The evacuation is mandatory for you, too, ma'am," the state trooper tells her, grasping her by the upper arm.
She almost pulls away. But she sees the look in his eye, the frightened glint that says he won't hesitate to pull his taser if that's what gets him back in his car and driving away from the fire.
She stumbles bleakly to the patrol car and into the back seat, where Wayne grasps one of her suddenly cold hands between his.
"I'll alert the fire crews," the trooper tells her, getting on his radio. "They'll be on the lookout for your missing campers. If they keep their heads, they could still come through."
He waits to see Wayne's pickup down the road before pulling out to follow it. Dorothy doesn't look back. She leans her head against Wayne's shoulder, exhausted.
"There's still hope," Wayne tells her softly. "Miracles. A Power whose care Teaches thy way along that pathless coast - Lone wandering, but not lost."
"I'm also falling in love with you," Dorothy says sadly, and Wayne hums a little and pulls her close the best he can despite the handcuffs.
"There's nobody here," Will is yelling. "They left us. They fucking left us!"
"We know," Becca shouts back, "Just shut up already! Stop screaming about it!"
Amber just sobs and sobs. She can't believe they worked so hard to rescue George and it was all for nothing. She's too young to die in a fire. She's going to die a virgin. Her mom is never going to make it without her. It's all over.
"Maybe we can still make it out," Becca is saying. "Come on, let's get George again and - "
"There is no way," Will interrupts, "I have walked down that road, it's way too long, the fire is too close, we'll never make it."
"So what do you want to do," Becca says, "Just sit down and give up?"
Maybe she can die in George's arms, Amber thinks. That's romantic, right? It doesn't really sound romantic. It sounds horrible. She breaks into fresh sobs.
"Swimming pool," George says abruptly. "I saw this on the news once. We can all get into the swimming pool and - "
"Just let camp burn down around us?" Will asks incredulously.
"Do you have any better ideas?" Becca asks rhetorically. She's already looping George's arm over her shoulders.
Amber realizes she's staring awestruck at George. He's so brilliant and amazing, he's totally saving them! She grabs Becca's hands and they lift George between them.
Even with only one ear, George can hear snapping and crackling behind him. Worse, he can feel the heat on the back of his neck, angry and intense. If he hadn't hurt his knee, he could sprint to the pool in a fraction of the time it's taking them to shuffle their way there.
He would never leave Amber, of course. But he could hold her hand and help her run, not have to be carried like a dead weight. He almost tells her to leave him and run for it. But he's really not that noble. He can see the fire to either side of them, red and yellow and terrifying, and all he wants in the world is to be as far from it as possible.
"We're never going to make it," Will shouts.
"Go faster," Becca yells back.
Will surges forward, almost yanking George's legs out of their sockets, making his knee scream in pain. He yelps and Will almost drops his legs.
"Just keep going!" Amber orders.
The fire is practically licking at their heels, but Amber can at least see the pool now, hovering in front of them like turquoise heaven. They're going as fast as they can but it feels like they're hardly moving. Amber is amazed Becca and Will haven't dropped George and bolted for it; maybe that makes her a bad person, that it's occurred to her. The cabins are catching fire one by one and the cafeteria is ablaze to their left; Amber's never really believed in hell but this is it, coming closer and closer.
"Oh god," George says, looking back over his shoulder, "I think it's reached the propane tank."
Amber actually throws him forward into the water. He hits with a splash, and then she's plunging in after him, on top of him. He grabs her and helps her sink down with him. They hang there near the bottom for long seconds, submerged, staring at each other, and then there's a boom that he can feel even through several feet of water.
Amber waits as long as she can but her lungs are crying out for air. She pushes up to the surface and sees Will and Becca bob up at the same time nearby.
Camp Victory is burning down around them.
There are jets of flame shooting out the windows of the horse barn. It sounds like things are exploding in the cafeteria. The admin building is already just a skeleton. As she watches, the roof of the infirmary falls in. They are literally in the middle of an inferno, and the air is blistering on her face and neck above the water.
"I can't believe I thought it was hot yesterday," George says behind her.
Amber turns around and flings her arms around his neck. Just like she had the night he found her in the woods, she kisses him without thinking about it, overcome with relief and joy.
"Hey," George says, "Uh." He looks over at Will and Becca meaningfully. Amber looks too. They're maybe twenty feet away, out closer to the center of the pool, talking quietly and intently. As she watches, they hug.
"I don't think they mind," Amber says, reaching a hand up to George's hair. It's already almost dry.
"I don't want to take advantage," he croaks, and tries to back away.
Amber follows, pressing her body up against his under the water.
She looks dramatically around them. "You know," she tells him sincerely, "I really don't think you're my counselor anymore," and she grabs him by the back of the head and kisses him before he can say anything else.
He's rigid for a moment and then he melts into her, clinging to her shoulders and kissing and kissing and kissing her.
"Hey," Will says, "I think the pool noodles are, like, vaporizing," and Amber just smiles and pulls them a little lower into the water.
Tiny wavelets lap at George's chin as they kiss. With his eyes closed, he feels like the plane of the water divides him in two, sequestering his body into some separate world, where his hands are clutching Amber's hips and hers are sliding down his chest. He lets one leg drift between hers and then winces as too much weight shifts to his injured knee.
His eyes pop open and he breaks the kiss. The swimming pool is intense aqua around them and beyond that the world is livid orange with fire. Amber's hair is floating around her shoulders just under the surface and she looks like a mermaid.
She blinks at him, suddenly shy.
"You saved my life," he tells her. "How did you even know to come find me?"
"I just knew," she says, "I don't know."
He touches her cheek, her hair, her lips.
Somewhere behind the smoke, the sun is finally coming up. George wonders how far the fire has spread, whether anyone else wasn't as lucky.
No one is as lucky as he is. The camp falling down to coals is the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, huddled in the middle of it with Amber: he's stupidly, fiercely happy. When he thought she had to be his secret, he'd never felt safe; now that he knows he could never deny what she means to him, he feels invincible.
"I'm never hiding this again," he tells her, squeezing her hands, and she stays there, entwined with him under the water, as they wait to be found.
Dorothy gets into the hospital elevator and pushes the button for George's floor. She clutches the wilted bunch of daisies she bought for him like they're the thing that might save his life, instead of luck, a swimming pool, and three of her campers.
The lawyers have given her a long list of things she shouldn't say, although they'd agreed that she should see him, as a show of support. That's all irrelevant - she owes an amends, a big one, and that's more important to her than the size of the inevitable settlement.
Dorothy doesn't think she'll ever forget Shay's phone call. She'd still been in the back of the state patrol car, trying to convince the trooper to overlook Wayne's reckless driving and take them to where the camp was meeting up. Shay had told her that she'd done a headcount found everyone except the three missing girls - and George. And one of the nurses said George had been looking for Dorothy. Dorothy had already felt sick over the girls, and the news about George had left her almost too stricken to speak. That she hadn't even known he was missing was bad enough; that he'd had to go looking for her, because she had abandoned her kids to see Jonathan, was crushing.
She'd confessed to Wayne flatly, half-hoping he'd just push her out of the car or something and put her out of her misery. He'd told her to focus on her campers and they would talk about it later, and held her hand while they waited for the fire crews to make it into the camp.
The elevator dings and the door opens. Replace guilt with gratitude, she reminds herself. There had been another phone call: all found, all alive, and an improbable story of George's rescue. She has no idea what to make of that, and it's one of the reasons she wants to see him, after she makes her apology.
She finds his room and calls a hello, but as she steps around the curtain, she stops short. He's not alone. Amber is perched next to him on the hospital bed, holding his hand; their lips are suspiciously red.
"Dr. Rand!" she says, and George lifts his chin resolutely. Dorothy realizes she's dropped the daisies.
"This is absolutely - " unacceptable, she wants to say, but it dies in her mouth. This wasn't in her script. Forgive to be forgiven, but, "she's sixteen!" bursts out.
"You don't have to be here for this," George is telling Amber. He whispers something in her ear - some sort of reassurance, Dorothy assumes, because Amber smiles at him and slips from the side of the bed, giving Dorothy a hard look as she passes her on her way out the door.
"So this is how she knew where you were," Dorothy says slowly. "She was - out with you?"
"No!" George answers instantly. "Well, sort of. She wasn't there. But she says she had a dream."
"So this didn't start at camp," Dorothy says.
George hesitates. "No, it did," he says, "We kissed a few times, and then I stopped it because, well, obviously." He shrugs. "I'm sorry I didn't wait until camp was over," he says. "But I can't regret meeting her. She's vital to me." He says it modestly, like he can't imagine that Dorothy will understand this.
Dorothy isn't sure if Amber is more like his Wayne or more like his Jonathan; she's not sure it's relevant. "She was under my care," she starts, and jumps when she hears footsteps behind her. Amber obviously hadn't gone far; now, coming back in, she picks up the abandoned daisies, gives the bouquet a little fluff, and carries it to George.
"My mom thinks it's great," she tells Dorothy defiantly. "George didn't leave me behind in a forest fire." There's a world of threat in the simple words; Dorothy can see the steel under the sweet exterior, the determination that paid her own way to camp and hauled George to safety.
"You're never getting within a mile of my camp again," Dorothy tells George. "But honestly," she adds, "I don't think they're going to rebuild it." And she's not sure she'd want to come back, she doesn't add. They're calling her a hero on the news, but she's seen the footage of her kids, spilling out of overpacked cars like clowns. She'd been derelict in her duties, and while the lawyers might manage to hang it on Jonathan in the end, she'll never feel like their narrow escape was anything due to her.
"I'm sorry I left you both behind," she tells Amber and George now. Somewhere a lawyer is shaking his head. "It was my responsibility to make sure you got out, and I failed. I have no words for how grateful I am that you're here."
"We were lucky," George says, and takes Amber's hands. Dorothy decides that's her cue to leave.
She sighs as she rides the elevator back down to the ground floor. She can't like it, but maybe she can let it be. She'll ask the lawyers if she was still a mandated reporter when she walked into the hospital; she hasn't seen anything more than hand-holding, doesn't have reason to suspect more than kissing. If it comes to it, maybe she'll accept the penalties rather than make the report; it seems like she owes them that.
Wayne would understand, she thinks. He'd admitted, when they'd finally talked, that he was angry and hurt, but if he never saw her again, he'd never get past angry, and he'd rather work it out with her than without her. Whatever help Amber might need, forcibly separating her from George doesn't seem like the way to make sure she gets it at this point. She'll ask a colleague, a counselor, to look in on Amber. Someone other than the counselor she'll see herself, to talk about Wayne, and not letting her past sabotage her future.
She finds her car and leaves the hospital parking lot. Wayne had told her he'd always liked Septembers, that they made him think of new years and clean states and fresh starts. He'd held her and kissed her carefully, like it really was the first time.
She's driving to meet him now. They'll have lunch, and walk in the little park nearby. He'll point out the lupines and California poppies, and tell her again how next year, after the fire, the wildflowers will be amazing.