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Out of the Woods

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Henry frowned at his inbox, reading the text of the Evite. The invitation, scattered with colorful fall leaves, read ‘KinderKare Camping Excursion Weekend!’

“How much team-building does one company even need?” he muttered to himself.

Eliza burst through the door of his office, and he straightened in his ergonomic desk chair. He tried to affect a cool, unbothered demeanor, in spite of knowing the lines on his forehead had a tendency to betray him.

“Henry,” she whined, waving her phone screen haphazardly in his direction. “Camping? Really? Can’t we go play mini-golf, or do one of those fancy Escape Rooms instead?”

“You don’t like things that are miniature version of other things. And you’re afraid of puzzles.”

She scoffed at that. “Well, yeah, because who wants a mini-quiche when you can eat a whole quiche at boozy brunch? And puzzles are just fine and dandy, until you spend the entire summer before seventh grade on a 3,000-piece one that you never complete because your cat ate one of the pieces.” She pouted, looking wistful. “Fluffers was never the same after that.”

Henry shook his head. “The point is, would any team-building event get the Eliza Dooley seal of approval?”

She appeared to consider that for a moment. “No?”

“Sounds like camping is as good as anything, then.” He leaned closer to his monitor, skimming the rest of the event details. “Experience the joys of primitive survival alongside your colleagues…” he read, then shuddered. “That sounds vaguely terrifying. Look, Eliza--”

But when he looked back up, she’d disappeared.

Camping had never been Henry’s favorite activity, but perhaps the company-mandated trip would be a good thing-- a return to nature, a breath of fresh air, and an opportunity to screw up his courage and tell Eliza how he really felt. Forty-eight hours in the middle of the woods, with no running water, electricity or cell phone reception...

He wrinkled his nose. “What could be more romantic than that?”

 

---

 

“Eliza, what did you think camping was? Popping into the forest for a quick s’more, then driving to the nearest Four Seasons to spend the night?”

They were standing off to the side of the campsite the team had booked. Henry had lugged his tent (borrowed from his outdoorsiest neighbor), his sleeping bag ($110 on Amazon with 187 five-star reviews), and a number of other bags of equipment out of the company SUV, while Eliza had circled the clearing searching for cell service. It was only once the trunk of the vehicle had been emptied that he realized she’d brought no equipment of her own besides a small designer satchel.

She huffed and stomped her foot-- kind of adorably. He fought to maintain his exasperated demeanor. “Duh, I knew it involved sleeping in the woods. I just-- thought maybe all that junk was provided?”

“That junk, like… tents? Sleeping bags? Lanterns?”

Her eyes lit up. “My phone has a killer flashlight app.” She tapped the screen a few times in rapid succession, and suddenly he was blinded.

“Ahh, okay, I believe you,” he said, shielding his eyes. “Put that thing away.” She slipped it into her pocket and sighed.

“I guess I could just go home,” she suggested, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Hang on-- was this all a ploy to get out of team-building? You thought if you didn’t bring anything, you wouldn’t have to rough it out here with the rest of us?”

She cocked her head to the side. “Hang on. Would that have worked?”

“No, Eliza! If the rest of us are stuck out here--” He grimaced. “I mean, if the rest of us get to experience the joy of primitive survival alongside our colleagues-- then you do, too.”

Eliza threw up her hands. “Alright, alright. I’ll stay.” She tapped one manicured finger against her lips, and Henry tried not to let the motion distract him. “Just not sure what I’m going to do about sleeping tonight...”

“We’ll just have to find you a spot in someone else’s tent. Charmonique?”

Charmonique looked over from where she’d been skillfully setting up her tent. With one raised eyebrow, she shook her head. “Uh uh, that’s not happening. There’s only enough room in here for me and my two other favorite people-- ‘Myself’ and ‘I.’”

Eliza grinned. “Up top, girlfriend!” she said, hopping up and holding one hand in the air. Charmonique high-fived her with a wry smile before returning to her tent. Henry just frowned and pushed himself up to stand beside her.

“Eliza. You do realize you’re currently homeless for the weekend.”

“Been there, done that.” She rolled her eyes. “Besides, maybe I can bunk with--”

“Saperstein,” Henry suggested.

She winced. “Boss man? No thanks. Besides,” she added, gesturing to the other side of the clearing, where he’d tied a hammock between two trees. “I think he’ll be sleeping under the stars tonight.”

“Hmm.” Henry steepled his fingers under his chin as he surveyed the campsite.

“How about--” Eliza began.

“You’re right!” He snapped his fingers, then pointed to Terrance and his wife, who were gazing at each other as they unfolded a tarp. “They’ve got a big tent.”

“I’m not third-wheeling it tonight, Henry.”

“Fine.” He furrowed his brow. “Charlie?”

The assistant looked up from what he was doing a few feet away. “I accidentally bought a one-man backpacking tent,” he said, then grimaced. “In size ‘Petite’.” Indeed, the tent he was pitching was practically miniature.

That only left-- The idea occurred to Henry, and he swiveled around to find the woman in question.

Clearly picking up on his  intent, Eliza wrinkled her nose. “No, Henry.”

“Eliza--”

“No way.”

“Eliza--”

“Not happening.”

“Eliza! You have to at least ask--”

“Joan,” Eliza said through gritted teeth. The woman in question had spotted them and marched over during their conversation. She peered dramatically at the ground around Eliza.

“You seem to have forgotten your things. Haven’t you ever camped before?”

“Gross, no. I can pass out on the floor and not wash my hair for days in the comfort of my own apartment, thank you very much,” Eliza replied, crossing her arms.

Joan grimaced. “Well, my husband and I are veterans of the great outdoors. Our favorite campground is up Route 9-- five stars on Yelp, terrific bathrooms-- but this one’s better than the poison sumac-infested two-starrer off Highway 75.” She scratched idly at her arm as she shook her head. “Anyway, as soon as I saw that Terrance brought Maureen, I called him to drive up and join us. The Evite said nothing about spouses,” she added with a disapproving tone.

“Joan, you sent the Evite,” Henry pointed out.

Joan ignored him and gave Eliza a simpering smile. “Enjoy sleeping on the ground,” she said, before about-facing and flouncing back to her tent.

Eliza blinked at Henry, hope in her eyes. “I guess this means I have to--”

“No,” Henry said with a sigh. “You’re not calling an Uber.” His stomach dropped as he realized there was only one real option remaining. He pinched the bridge of his nose and made his decision. “You can sleep with me. In my tent, I mean. We can sleep together-- I mean-- you know what I mean. In my tent.”

She hesitated. “I don’t have a sleeping bag, or a pillow, or anything, either.”

“You can share mine.” Oh god.

One corner of her mouth quirked up. “You’d share with me?”

He let out a long, calming breath through his nose. Did he know what he was getting himself into?

No. He definitely didn’t.

“Of course,” he said anyway. “What are friends for?”

 

---

 

“Okay, everybody. We’re here to have fun-- but we’re also here to build something,” Saperstein said, clapping his hands together in front of him. “Does anyone know what we’re building here?”

Joan’s hand shot up, and he pointed at her. “A team?”

He smiled. “That’s exactly right, Joan. A team.”

Eliza made a quiet gagging sound, nudging Henry with her elbow as they stood toward the back of the group. He shushed her, and she wrinkled her nose at him. Saperstein went on to explain their afternoon activity-- a ropes course for which they’d be split into teams of two. Henry wasn’t sure if he wanted to be paired with Eliza, or if he desperately didn’t.

In the end, it didn’t matter, because Saperstein declared the teams to be “ladies’ choice,” and Eliza grabbed his hand immediately. He swallowed thickly, staring down at their clasped hands, and nodded.

“Ready,” Saperstein began. “Get set...go!”

And they were off. The first task had Henry in a blindfold as Eliza directed him verbally through an obstacle course. On her orders, he stepped over logs and ducked beneath branches.

“Three more steps, then turn right.”

He took three steps, then frowned. “Your right, or my right?”

“Both of our rights.”

“No, Eliza. Your voice is coming from ahead of me now, which means you’re facing me. So your right is--”

“Your right.”

He nodded resolutely, then took a step to his left. Saperstein sounded his bullhorn, and then Henry heard his voice crackling through a megaphone. “Henry and Eliza, you’re disqualified.”

Henry jerked the blindfold down so it hung around his neck like a kerchief. “What was that, Eliza?”

“I told you to turn right!”

“No, you said I was right.”

She put both hands on her hips and pursed her lips. “When have I ever admitted that so easily, Henry?” She did have a point there. “I said your right, not you’re right. I wasn’t behind you-- I was beside you.”

Sure enough, when he’d taken off his blindfold, he’d seen her standing a few feet away, facing forward. His ears must have been playing tricks on him, her voice bouncing off trees or echoing through the forest or something. “Sorry,” he muttered, and they turned to watch Terrance and Maureen handily take first place.

“You’re not always right, you know,” she said, her eyes on Saperstein handing out blue first-place ribbons.

He chuckled. Little did she know how wrongheaded he’d felt of late. “Trust me. I know.”

She shook her head and wandered off toward the refreshments table without a backwards glance.

The next activity seemed simple-- they were sent on a scavenger hunt that took them all across the campground, gathering basic items that had been planted based on a series of clues. It seemed simple, that is, until the very first clue left them completely stumped. They deciphered that it was directing them to find a silver San Diego Padres keyring; they just had no idea where it was telling them to find it.

“Ugh… if I could just… get a little bit higher…” Eliza had climbed on a tree stump, holding her phone as high in the air as she could reach.

“Then what?” asked Henry irritably. He’d sat down against the trunk of a tree, leaning forward on his bent knees. He wasn’t fond of puzzles he couldn’t solve. “You’d play a round of Candy Crush and give up on the scavenger hunt entirely?”

“Nobody plays Candy Crush anymore, Henry.”

“Then what?”

“Surely Amazon Prime Now delivers to the middle of the woods. I’m gonna rush-order a keyring.”

He looked up at her, his mouth hanging open indignantly. “Eliza, that’s the very definition of cheating.”

“No, Henry,” she said. “It’s the very definition of problem-solving. Which is exactly what this exercise is supposed to teach us to do.”

“No, it isn’t!” He stood up, brushing dirt off his jeans. “The point of the exercise is to decipher the clues and follow the rules.”

Eliza hopped down from her stump, apparently having given up on finding service. “No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is!” They were face to face now, inches apart, and she had a defiant glint in her eye. Just as he was about to say something else, Saperstein’s bullhorn rang out again, and they turned back to the campsite.

“Everyone can return to base,” he said into the megaphone. “Charmonique and Charlie are the winners of round two, for successfully realizing that this was an unsolveable problem. Instead, they took the SUV to the Target we drove past before the  last exit and procured all the items there,” he explained, his voice proud.

“See?” said Eliza, a smug smile on her face. She began to walk back to camp, and he followed her in silence.

The last activity was a long wall, a tall, wooden structure with ropes hanging over the edge.

“We have to climb this?” asked Eliza.

“Just one of you does,” answered Saperstein. “The finish line is just on the other side.”

“I’m not climbing up that,” she said to Henry, pointing at the top. “I hate heights.”

“What, are you going to give me a boost?” Henry put both hands on his hips. “It makes more sense for me to boost you up there. You’re lighter.”

“Yeah, and taller.”

“Marginally.”

She rolled her eyes. “So I could give you more of a boost than you could give me, meaning you’d reach the top more easily than I would.”

As they stood at the bottom arguing, they failed to notice that everyone else had managed to start climbing, using the ropes for leverage. Within minutes, the sound of Saperstein’s bullhorn filled the woods again, as he declared Joan the winner.

Henry rubbed at one temple, a headache building. “We didn’t even try.” It was the story of his life, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, because somebody kept disagreeing with me,” Eliza said.

He laughed bitterly, still preoccupied with his own failures. He spoke without thinking, for once, before he could stop himself. “Why do you always have to be so damn difficult, Eliza? Why is everything such a challenge with you?”

He regretted the words as soon as they’d left his mouth, but the damage was done.

“I’m sorry I’m not easy enough for you, Henry.” Her face stony, she stormed off into the woods.

He squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, he noticed Charmonique watching him from a few feet away. She shook her head slowly, a reproachful look on her face, and he turned away before she could start a slow clap or something equally salt-meets-wound.

“You really messed that one up, Henry,” she called out helpfully as he stalked away.

Yeah. He knew.

Eliza didn’t speak to him at all during dinner, and sat on the opposite side of the campfire as the group assembled s’mores. He tried to make one, too, but the graham crackers tasted like cardboard, the chocolate bitter on his tongue.

With a sigh, he slipped away. He couldn’t get anything else right, so he might as well just turn in early. Perhaps if he was asleep before Eliza joined him, he wouldn’t have to focus on how royally he kept screwing things up when it came to her.

 

---

 

Henry had almost managed to drift off when Eliza unzipped the side of the tent and clambered in. Once inside, she zipped it back up too quickly, and it snagged on the fabric. She tugged, and huffed, but it stayed stubbornly stuck. Finally, Henry sat up in his sleeping bag and pulled the canvas from her hands, gently moving the zipper back enough to unstick it and zip it back up properly. It was dark inside the tent, but he could still see the scowl on her face.

“You can’t just yank on it until it does what you want it to,” he muttered, his voice rough from having been so close to sleep.

Eliza chuckled despite her annoyance. “That’s what he said. Or what he didn’t say? What she said? What she--”

“Tent care is no laughing matter.” He knew he was being his petulant and pedantic self, but couldn’t help it. He lay back down, punching the pillow harder than necessary to get comfortable, but then reached across and unzipped the sleeping bag so Eliza could crawl in. She did so with a glare, facing away from him and tugging the fabric over her so hard that the force of it rolled him inches closer to her. He bit his lip to avoid thinking about how he could feel her warmth. How he wished things were different.

After a moment, she flopped over to face him. “Why are you being like this lately?”

Henry shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t digging into the hard ground through the fabric. “I’m just being how I always am.”

“No, you’re not. First you got huffy that I didn’t buy out an REI to come to this thing, then you were a total D-bag on the ropes course, and now you’re being a--”

“A what?”

“A--” She opened her mouth and closed it again, searching for the word.

He scowled. “See, it’s these kinds of communication breakdowns that are why we lost the ropes course today.”

“A total butthole!” She thrashed her legs inside the sleeping bag angrily, and even in the dim light he could see the fire in her eyes.

“Oh, I’m being a butthole? I’m the one being a butthole?”

“The buttholiest! It’s like suddenly you’re mad at me all the time-- it’s like you don’t even like me!”

“Don’t even like you-- Eliza, I--” All he ever did was lose his words, lose his nerve, and suddenly, something inside Henry snapped. He surged forward in the sleeping bag and pressed his lips to hers, his free hand skimming her hip, along the dip of her waist and up across her ribs. She let out a little gasp as soon as their lips touched, and after a moment that was simultaneously too long and infinitely too short, he pulled back.

He sighed, squeezing his eyes shut to avoid catching a glimpse of whatever look was on her face. He sucked in a breath to collect himself, then spoke, his eyes still closed. “Maybe I’m the bad communicator, if I’ve made you think I don’t like you, Eliza, when literally the opposite is true. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at myself. I’ve been trying to talk myself into doing that for weeks. Longer, really. And all I seem to do is get in my own way.”

“Henry.”

“I shouldn’t have done that. Or maybe I should’ve done it months ago. Or, no, I probably should have just kept it to myself--”

“Henry.”

“You’re right; I’ve been impossibly rude today, and I can’t imagine what you must think of me after that flagrant display of--”

“Henry!” He shut his mouth at her impatient tone, and after a long moment, hesitantly opened his eyes. She didn’t look mad at him anymore. In fact, she looked… “You’ve been teaching me lessons all year,” she murmured. “Just please, stop it and let me teach you one.” Her gaze on his, she reached out and slid her hand along his bicep, skimming his shoulder and threading through the hair at the nape of his neck. Her fingernails scratched lightly, and he shivered.

“What’s that?” he asked thickly.

“How to stop thinking,” she said, her voice low. As close as they were in the sleeping bag, she somehow managed to press even closer. “And just do.” Her eyes slipped shut, and she pulled him down into an slow, heated kiss.

His mind went blissfully blank, and he tugged her closer to him, his hand sliding around to rest at the small of her back. When he pulled away, it was just far enough to look her in the eyes. She smirked up at him.

“For a smart guy, Henry, you can be--”

“--kind of an idiot. I know.”

He leaned in to kiss her again, but pulled back at the last second. “Are you sure this is what you want? As terrible as I’ve been at communicating with you, I just want to be completely sure that--”

“Henry!” She rolled her eyes, and he shut his mouth. Leaning in close enough to whisper in his ear, she said, “Believe it or not, I do own a sleeping bag. Why do you think I didn’t bring it?”

 

---

 

KinderKare Team-Building Event Follow-Up Survey

Associate Name: Henry Higgs

Department: Marketing

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Comments: In spite of my own hang-ups and shortcomings, I learned a number of valuable things on our camping retreat. I would highly recommend it to any KinderKare associate in need of a swift kick in the ass.