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he will take you

Chapter Text

He will take you

If you run

He will chase you

He will take you

Sufjan Stevens, from “Seven Swans”

 

Eric Bittle is well aware that showing up half an hour late to the first staff meeting of his new job is an awfully bad move, thank you very much. It’s even worse that he’s showing up with a Starbucks frappuccino in hand, but after the morning he’s had he thinks that it’s justified.

 

In his defense, he moved into his new apartment two days ago and he’s run into problem after godforsaken problem since then. Granted, he knew that he was going to be making some sacrifices for the unreasonably low rent he was paying, but this was something else. First it was a leaky window that absolutely drenched a pile of clothes he’d left on the floor nearby, and then it was the bedroom outlets that wouldn’t work, and just this morning he’d discovered that the oven took about twice the amount of time he’d expected to preheat.

 

Eric had figured it out eventually, of course-- he’s nothing if not resourceful!-- which is how he now has a cooling plate of brownies resting on the passenger seat on top of his program planning binders while he drives across town to Camp Samwell. He’s got of his favorite pump-up playlists turned up on the car stereo and he’s doing a pretty good job not freaking out over how awful of a first impression he’s going to make, showing up this embarrassingly late.

 

Deep breaths. That’s all he needs.

 

It helps once Eric’s made it onto the narrow road leading into the woods in which the camp is located. Today’s especially warm, even for early June, and he can’t help but relax when he rolls down the window to lazily drape his hand out of the car, basking in the warmth of the dappled sun that hits him from between the branches above.

 

Eric’s only been to the camp once before-- three weeks ago now, when he’d interviewed for the last minute position. That had been a horrifically dreary day, cold and drizzly, and he had felt distinctly uncomfortable when he’d walked into the camp’s office building, like he was being watched, despite the abandoned campground.

 

He’d taken the job anyway. After all, he needed something to help him keep making student loan payments during the summer before he started up his job at the high school in town this fall.

 

The gravel pops softly under his tires when he makes it into to the camp parking lot, but his brakes don’t squeak for once, thank God. He’s already going to disrupt the meeting by being late and it’d be even worse for him to attract more attention with his whiny old car.

 

He makes quick work of balancing his binders, the brownies, and his coffee in his arms and hurries up the front steps of the house. It’s old, sprawling, and Victorian, painted a fading blue with white trim. The front door is a little newer, but still a little ornate and archaic for a camp office.

 

Not that it’s bad. Eric’s just used to newer camps, is all. He’s worked at three, starting in high school with the one he’d attended himself as a child, and they’ve all been fairly new. Camp Samwell has been around for near a century, if the information on the website is to be believed.

 

Well. All that aside, he really does need to bite the bullet and walk into this meeting. He takes a deep breath, shifts his coffee so he has a free hand, and knocks.

 

He waits a moment, then hears footsteps from inside the house. They get louder and stop in front of the door.

 

Eric waits.

 

And waits.

 

He swears a full minute of total silence passes, not even a chirp from the birds or the insects out in the woods, while he waits for someone to answer the door. Again, he gets that awful feeling of being watched and he shivers despite the heat. Then he shakes his head to clear it-- of course he feels watched. He’s staring right at the peephole in the door, he’s already nervous, and he’s got about four windows facing him just on the porch. It’s a recipe for discomfort.

 

Just as he lifts his hand to knock again, the door flies open and he finds himself staring straight at the chest of a man who’s significantly taller than himself. He arches his neck to look up and meets the man’s eyes, an awful piercing blue that make Eric feel seen in a way he can’t say he’s used to. The man looks him up in down and Eric is acutely aware that he’s sweaty and wearing a tank top and denim cut-offs that are maybe just a little bit too short for a first meeting. This guy is wearing a dark gray polo that stretches nicely over a trim chest and defined arms. Oh, god. Eric is such a hot mess. He should have thought his outfit through better.

 

Eric drops his hand, which is just an inch from the man’s chest. “Lord, sorry! I didn’t-- “

 

“Junior staff meeting isn’t until next week,” the man says, with a subdued accent that Eric can’t quite place, and a moment later slams the door in Eric’s face. The sheer force of it pushes a waft of cool air into Eric and he finds himself shivering again.

 

He blinks. “Well!” he says to the empty porch. So much for redeeming himself.

 

Maybe this job was a mistake after all. It had seemed so perfect-- a position in the town he already needed to move to, great pay, and doing something he absolutely loved. This is just his luck. He should’ve known that something would go wrong.

 

Now he’s not sure if he should knock again or go sit in his car and cry for a minute until he calms down, but while he stands on the porch, a little dumbfounded, he hears raised voices inside.

 

A moment later the door opens again and he looks up, swiping the back of his hand quickly over his eyes to dry any tears threatening to fall-- Jesus, Eric, you’re 24 now-- you’re too old to be crying when someone’s just a little rude to you! This time, instead of Mr. Freaky Eyes, though, he sees Mr. Hall, one of the executive directors of the camp. He and one Mr. Murray had been the ones to interview Eric, and the sight of a familiar face is definitely a relief.

 

“Eric! Hi, sorry about that confusion. Come on in-- you haven’t missed much.” Hall steps back and Eric forces a bright smile as he walks inside of the house.

 

It doesn’t look much like the outside-- in fact, the first floor appears to be entirely converted into an office space, all light walls and warm lighting, and none of the ornate decor that the exterior of the house might suggest. Beyond the entryway Eric can see a large staircase, a hallway leading to what appears to be a kitchen space, and a wide doorway leading into a big room occupied mainly by a large table and some rolling chairs in which around a dozen people are seated.

 

The man who had first answered the door is standing still and watching Eric with a scowl, arms crossed.

 

“Sorry about that,” Hall repeats, leading Eric into the big room. “Jack, this is Eric Bittle. He’s not a junior counselor at all. In fact, he’s your co-program director. And Eric, this is Jack Zimmermann.”

 

Oh. Oh, wow. Eric hopes he hides his dismay, although he’s afraid that it’s evident on his face. This is Jack, then. Hall and Murray had told him that Jack would normally be involved in the interview process, since the new program director would be his partner in almost everything, but Jack was unfortunately out of town on a family commitment when the position had suddenly vacated.

 

Meaning, basically, that Eric is going to have to make nice with this grump for the next three months. He can’t say that he’s thrilled at the prospect.

 

Well. His mama taught him to treat people like he wants to be treated, and unfortunately he can’t see any other potential solutions, so even though he wants to be petty he steps forward and offers his hand to shake.

 

Jack looks at it for a second, then takes it. His hand is cool and his grip is firm-- Eric hates that he notices how firm.

 

Eric flashes him one of his patented warm smiles. “Sorry about that,” he says, even though he’s pretty sure he has no reason to apologize. “I get that I look young, but I swear I’m not a teenager.”

 

Jack drops his hand after a terse three shakes and nods. “You’re late,” he says, then turns to sit at one of the empty chairs.

 

Okay. No apology. It looks like Eric is just going to have to be the bigger person, so he takes another empty seat across the table and sets his things down. He can feel the eyes of everyone else on him and he knows he’s flushed but he does his best to hide it.

 

After a moment, though, the man to his right gasps. “Bro, are those brownies?”

 

Eric looks up. The guy is wearing cuffed jorts and a faded yellow Camp Samwell Senior Staff 2014 t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He looks to be around Eric’s age or so, which is a relief because he’s certainly been the youngest senior staff member by a significant margin at camps before and he much prefers having his coworkers be around his age, thank you very much.

 

Anyway. This guy also has shoulder length hair, a dandelion tucked behind his ear, and an impressive mustache.

 

“Those are absolutely brownies,” Eric says, nudging the plate in the man’s direction. “Have as many as you’d like. They’re nut-free but they’ve got eggs in them.”

 

“Don’t mind if I do,” the man says, peeling back the plastic wrap and taking a brownie from the top of the pile. The woman on the man’s other side reaches over for one as well.

 

Just as Eric picks up the plate to pass it around the table, the man lets out a loud, almost inappropriate moan.

 

“Holy shit! Dude, you said these were nut free, but I’m nutting right now. They’re so fucking good,” he says, through a mouthful of brownie.

 

“Retweet,” says the woman, who’s also already taken a bite.

 

Eric can feel himself flushing and knows that everyone at the table is certainly looking their way now, if they weren’t already before. “Aw, thank you,” he says. “I just whipped them up quickly this morning. I promise I’ll do something a little fancier for y’all soon.”

 

“I look forward to it, then,” the mustached man says, taking another brownie before passing on the plate. “I’m Shitty, by the way.”

 

“Pardon?” Eric asks, although he accepts the hand that the man offers to shake.

 

“My name’s Shitty. Well, I mean, not legally, but legal names are restrictive as fuck, you know?”

 

“I suppose so.” Certainly, he can understand the pressure of being Dicky Jr.. Things have improved since he went to college and started to be known by all of his friends as Eric, though, which he suppose fits just fine. “So is Shitty, a camp nickname, then?”

 

“Chyeah,” Shitty says. “From back when I was a junior counselor. The campers just know me as Knight, though. Last name. I’m the nature specialist.”

 

Oh, of course. Eric probably could have guessed this. Shitty gives off pretty major hippie vibes, or some fusion of bro and hippie that Eric has seen in camp counselors plenty of times before. “Good to know,” he says. “I’m Eric Bittle. Co-program director, I suppose.”

 

“Oh, baller,” Shitty says, offering Eric his hand again, this time for a fist bump “You’re kind of my boss. Nice.”

 

Eric nods, bumps his fist, and is just about to introduce himself to the woman next to Shitty when someone clears their throat.

 

It’s Jack, standing at his seat at the head of the table. “It would be nice if we could get this meeting started sometime today,” he says.

 

“Of course!” Eric says, settling back to face front. “Sorry about that,” he says.

 

Jack nods curtly and launches into a description of the junior staff training period that starts next week. Eric appreciates that he has an agenda and seems to very much know what he’s doing, but he does notice that Jack doesn’t take a brownie when the plate gets to his side of the table.

He’s the only one who doesn’t, though. When the official meeting ends two hours later, Eric finds himself absolutely bombarded with compliments and requests for his recipe.

 

Shitty’s the first to ask for the latter. “Bittle, bro, I can’t say I’m much of a baker in the traditional sense of the word, but I’d be willing to try my hand at these.”

 

“Of course! It’s a really simple recipe. I can get your number and text it to you.”

 

“Smooth,” Shitty says, grinning through the ‘stache.

 

Eric’s mouth drops open. “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that, sorry.”

 

“Nah, I’m just teasing. You should have all of our numbers, anyway,” Shitty says, already taking his phone out of his back pocket. “And we didn’t even do proper introductions during the meeting. Geez, no name games? What kind of camp are we?”

 

“Well, we had a lot of stuff to go over,” Eric says.

 

“Fair. Anyway-- you already know me, and I’ll introduce you to everyone else. Camp names first, and maybe you’ll figure out other names eventually,” Shitty chuckles as he waves over a few of the other staff members who have broken apart to chat in groups around the room.  

 

“Alright, this is Lardo. She’s our arts and crafts specialist,” Shitty says, hand on the shoulder of the woman he’d sat next to during the meeting.

 

“Yo,” Lardo says, bumping fists with Eric. He has a few inches on her, but she’s wiry and relaxed in a way that makes him feel intimidated. “Nice to meet you properly. The brownies were dope.”

 

“Thank you!” Eric says, then turns to the next set of counselors.

 

Over the next few minutes he’s introduced to the rest of the specialist staff. Ransom is the adventure specialist, in charge of the ropes course, archery, and some camping trips, and Holster runs the music and drama programs. They’re both large and hanging off each other when Eric is introduced to them and he absolutely cannot tell which one is which.

 

Camilla Collins, or Just-Cam-Please, blonde and just about Eric’s height, is in charge of sports. She’s a P.E. teacher during the rest of the year and Eric is thrilled to find out that they’re working at the same public middle school in town come fall.

 

After Cam, Eric meets the head lifeguard and the camp nurse, whose names he forgets almost immediately, although he vows to look them and all the others up on Facebook later using the camp directory so he can learn names quickly.

 

Eventually the others start to head out and Eric heads back to the big table to grab his binders. Shitty follows him over and clears his throat, so Eric looks up at him and cocks his head.

 

“Yo, Jack was kinda awful to you earlier,” Shitty starts, and Eric glances up and around the room to make sure that Jack isn’t within earshot. The room is empty, though, so they’re safe.

 

“I swear he’s not always that bad,” Shitty continues, “and this isn’t an excuse, but he’s had a real rough day.”

 

“Oh?” Eric says, because he does love some camp gossip.

 

“Yeah. I mean, this probably isn’t the best thing to be telling brand new staff, but you’re high up enough that you should know-- the camp’s been having some trouble lately.”

 

Eric nods and pulls out a chair from the table. “Sit,” he commands. He’s the co-program director-- basically the fourth in command, after the executive directors and Jack-- so if there’s trouble, he needs to know about it.

 

Shitty does sit and Eric takes the rolling chair next to him.

 

“I mean, it’s kind of a long story, but basically, this camp has had historically had some pretty awful luck,” Shitty says.

 

“You’re going to have to be more specific. Are we talking weather, or funding issues, or emergency situations?”

 

“Uh, a little bit of everything?” Shitty says, a somewhat hesitantly. “We do have ridiculously crappy weather here. And a couple of our regular sponsors and donors have pulled funding, but it’s because we’re getting less and less campers every year. Our clientele has dropped by, like, two-hundred kids in the past fifteen years.”

 

“Okay. I’ll definitely talk to Jack about changes that we can try to make, but there’s only so much I can do to fix long-term structural issues. It’s hard to advertise and get kids, I know. But if you don’t have the kind of stuff that appeals to them and their parents, then it’s not going to work.”

 

Shitty thinks for a moment, rubbing at his mustache. “But like, I promise you, brah-- that’s not really our issue? We consistently get rated one of the best camps in the state. The problem is that, like, weird shit goes wrong.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like, people go missing in these woods all the fucking time. Not campers, thank god, but hikers, outside of camp boundaries. A lot of pets, too. Counselors get injured every fucking year, and I know that’s normal for summer camp, but it feels like more than usual here. Kids find weird things on their hiking trips. Animal skeletons, abandoned camping gear, stuff like that.”

 

“That’s not that unusual. People litter. Animals die,” Eric says.

 

“Okay, fine. It’s mostly just like, regular camp stuff, but a lot of people who camp here or used to camp here just start rumors, you know? And they tell people, and it gets around and stories get exaggerated, and basically, Camp Samwell’s got a reputation for being mad creepy.”

 

“I see,” Eric says. “Bad reputation, so parents are afraid of sending their kids here.”

 

”Exactly. Another regular pulled all four of her kids out this morning-- and camp starts in two weeks. Usually Hall and Murray deal with all of the administrative stuff like that, but that family’s been here for a long time, and so has Jack, so he had to deal with that phone call. Dealing with all of that, and then Johnson quitting last minute and us hiring you to replace him-- it’s just rough on him, y’know? He’s been here at CSW since he was a kid. This camp means a lot to him.”

 

“Of course.” Eric says. He understands the nostalgia, for sure, for a place that reminds you of being a kid and excited to make friends and try new things-- he gets it. He feels the same thing when he visits his childhood summer camp back in Georgia, albeit with the tinge of discomfort when he remembers the kind of bullying he went through there between the good times. “I’ll do my best to work with Jack to turn things around, okay? I just hope his attitude improves a little bit.”

 

“Thanks, man,” Shitty says, patting Eric’s shoulder. “I promise he gets better once the kids get here. He’s a good guy, I promise.”

 

Eric nods. He really does want to believe Shitty. “Okay. I’ll text you that brownie recipe, alright?” he says, grabbing his phone and the list of phone numbers he has on a piece of loose-leaf paper from one of his planning binders.

 

“Thanks. I’ll see you in a few days,” Shitty says, then heads out the door.

 

Eric waves him off, then starts putting numbers into his phone. He stands as he nears the end of the list, absentmindedly closing and picking up his binders with the hand not holding his phone, when he’s overcome with a chill.

 

He looks up from saving the last number to his contacts and notices someone standing directly in front of him, almost too close to comfort, and finds himself staring directly at a gray polo again. He lifts his head up and up until he meets Jack’s blue eyes, then readies himself for any manner of criticism that may be coming his way.

 

“Hello,” Jack says. “I have a lot of stuff to get you caught up on. Could you stay for another hour or so and we can do some planning?”

 

“Oh!” That’s actually a lot better than what Eric was expecting. “I can do that. Do you want to just stay in here, or--?”

 

“We could go outside, if you don’t mind. There’s a picnic table out back behind the house that we could sit at.”

 

“That’s fine. I just want to run this plate out to my car, and then I’ll meet you back there?”

 

“Sure,” Jack says, and then turns and heads out of the room and into the depths of the house without another word.

 

Eric is frozen for a few moments. Truly, there was nothing rude about that entire interaction, but so far Jack has just left him uncomfortable in several different ways. He knows he should stay positive, since he needs to work very closely with the man all summer, but he just feels so weird down to his bones.

 

He’ll have to get over it, though. He shakes off the chills, grabs the empty plate, then heads back out to his car and grabs a pair of sunglasses.

 

When he heads out behind the house he finds himself absolutely overcome by the view. The backyard of the house is a clearing surrounded by trees, and it overlooks the entire rest of the camp, which is made up of acres upon acres of trees and steep, rocky hills that surround the lake that the camp is built up against. The trees around the rest of the camp make it hard to get a nice view of the lake, but from here Eric can see the clear water perfectly, surrounded by the almost nauseatingly deep green of early summer trees and brush. It’s such a deeply colorful and natural sight that Eric finds himself pressing one hand to his chest to still his beating heart.

 

“Oh, gosh!” he says, mostly to himself. “That’s gorgeous.”

 

“Isn’t it?” A gravelly voice says right behind him.

 

Eric jumps and his heart starts running again. “Jesus!” He turns and finds Jack standing a few feet behind him.

 

“Sorry,” Jack says, looking a little sheepish. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it?”

 

“It really is,” Eric says, then follows Jack as he steps forward and takes a seat on top of a picnic table a little bit farther away from the house. Eric sits next to him, a few feet away.

 

“I used to sneak out back here all the time when I was a camper and I needed some space,” Jack says, tapping his hand on the table to indicate it. “Gave my cabin counselors a heart attack a few times, I’m sure.”

 

“Oh, you were that kind of camper,” Eric says, hoping that a little teasing is okay.

 

It seems to be, if Jack’s small smile is anything to go by. “I was. I was always running off. Of course, all the older campers dare each other to do that all the time. Rumor has it that you can be able to stay at camp forever if you can spend a full night on the Big Hill.”

 

“I’ll have to watch out for campers trying to do that, then,” Eric says, grinning. Sounds like pretty generic camper shenanigans. “Which one is the Big Hill?”

 

Jack points at a hill-- almost a small mountain really-- on the far side of camp, to the right of the edge of the lake. It does seem to be the biggest hill for miles around, Eric supposes.

 

“Ah,” he says. “Makes sense.”

 

“We actually don’t generally let campers around that side of camp, even on hiking trips and for overnight tenting. It’s got some pretty steep cliff faces and stuff like that.”

 

“Good to know,” Eric says, and while he appreciates that Jack is sharing stories with him, he knows that he has a lot of stuff to get done in his new apartment, and he’s starting to get hungry, so he wants to get this done with sooner than later. “So, what do we need to discuss?”

 

“Oh, right,” Jack says, smile fading as he opens his own binder. “We’ve got a lot to go over. Let’s get started.”

 

“Yes, let’s,” Eric echoes. He has a lot to learn.

Chapter Text

Junior camp staff arrives for their training period about a week later, on a Monday. Senior staff members, however, get to the camp first, very early, and spend about an hour setting up in the quiet of early morning.

Eric buys two coffees on his way to camp this time. He plays Beyonce in the car and is mostly awake and singing along by the time he turns off of the main road and into the woods.

 

Now that he’s got his apartment straightened away, most of his stuff unpacked, and his binder full of all of the information he needs, he’s feeling a lot more prepared. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s got a fresh haircut, new khaki shorts, and a maroon polo with the camp logo (a well and the letters “CSW”)  and the year printed over one breast in white lettering. He’s feeling like he looks pretty smart, if he does say so himself.

 

Shitty even wolf-whistles at him when he gets out of his car in the parking lot.

 

“Damn, Bittle! You’re lookin’ fine. Haircut?” Shitty says. He’s perched on an inflatable pool tube that he’s lugged up into the bed of Jack’s truck, and Eric would probably feel a little bit weird about the long whistle Shitty does, except Shitty had made a point of liking several of Eric’s Facebook photos from Pride last week, so Shitty definitely knows that he’s gay and isn’t going to no-homo Eric.

 

Well. At least, Eric thinks that he won’t be that type of person. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and straight people are straight people. Either way, Shitty seems friendly for now, so Eric will give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

“Yeah, I just got it yesterday!” Eric sets coffee number one on the top of his car while he gets his backpack out.

 

“‘Swawesome, dude. Jack was gonna show you around the campground but then some stuff came up and he’s gotta deal with it, so I can take you around, if that’s chill?”

 

Eric slings one strap of his bag over his shoulder. “Yeah, that’s a great idea. Are you sure we don’t need to be helping set up, though?”

 

“Nah, Ransom and Holster have got most of the prep stuff covered. They can spare us for like, half an hour or so.”

 

And so Shitty and Eric take one of the two camp golf carts around so Shitty can give Eric the full tour of the grounds. They don’t cover everything-- it’s a big camp-- but by the time junior counselors start arriving, Eric knows where to find the dining hall, kickball field, camp store, waterfront, rope course, infirmary, flagpole, and most of the cabins for different age groups.

 

Well. Maybe he can’t find all of those things, but he’s got a map and a pretty good idea of general directions, so he can work with that. He resolves to walk around the campgrounds again after the day’s training so he can get things more cemented in his memory-- that is, as long as he feels up to it afterward. They have eight hours of training scheduled today, so he might just want to drive home and collapse into bed come evening when they’re done.

 

After the tour they drive the cart up one of the dirt camp paths back up to the big house-- which is actually called the Haus, as Shitty, still in tour guide mode, informs Eric-- just as junior counselors are starting to arrive. They’re supposed to check in with senior staff at the parking lot before they can bring all of their belongings to their cabins, and then everyone is reporting to flagpole for opening announcements.

 

Eric is glad he’s not one of them. He may be living at camp once campers actually start arriving, but for now he gets to spend the night at his apartment. And anyway, even when he does start spending nights at camp, he still gets to have his own room in the Haus. While he’s worked as a cabin counselor before and knows that the position has its bright moments, he’s old enough now that he wants a peaceful eight hours of sleep every night.

 

Eric pulls the golf cart neatly to park in the small space between Jack’s truck and his own car, then turns to Shitty again. He’s got got his back arched to turn and look around at the junior counselors milling about the parking lot, eyes roving back and forth like he’s looking for familiar faces.

 

“Uh, Shitty?” Eric prompts.

 

Shitty glances back at him. The motion causes jostles a lock of his long hair, held up by a bandana he’s using as a headband, into his eyes. “Yeah?”

 

“I still haven’t seen the part of the Haus where we live. Could you show me rooms quickly?”

 

“Oh, shit, yeah!” Shitty slides out of his seat and takes the steps two at a time up onto the Haus porch.

 

Eric follows, at a slightly more relaxed place. The air conditioning of the Haus is a pleasant relief on his already sweat-sticky skin, but the temperature difference is sudden enough that he gets goosebumps all over his arms. He hugs himself while Shitty leads him up the main staircase at the front of the house, then stops on the second floor landing.

 

“Here you are!” Shitty says, arms outstretched to indicate the general area. “Hall and Murray don’t stay on campgrounds because they’re real old and have families and shit. Me, you, Jack, Lardo, Cam and Chad live on this floor.”

 

Right. Chad-- that’s the head lifeguard’s name. Eric’s barely spoken to the guy. He looks around the landing and notices something. “Um, that’s six people. There aren’t six rooms.”

 

“Oh, right,” Shitty says. He waves one hand, inviting Eric to step forward to the first door. “You and Jack are the only ones with your own rooms. You guys are at the end of the hall,” Shitty says.

 

Eric looks down to the end of the narrow hallway. There aren’t any lights in this area, so the entire passage is lit by the light streaming in from a giant window at the end of the hall. He starts to head down to it, but before he can, Shitty grabs him by the arm and tugs him into one of the closer doors.

 

“This is my room,” he says. There are two beds, two desks, and two dressers. It almost looks like a college dorm room, but it definitely hasn’t been renovated as recently as the first floor of the Haus, so it’s a lot more ornate, with fancy moldings and peeling wallpaper and creaky hardwood floors. There’s also a carved walking stick leaning against one of the beds, and Shitty picks it up and dusts it off. “Shit, I forgot I left this here last year.”

 

“Are you staying with…” Eric thinks for a minute, looking at the other bed in the room. “Chad?”

 

“Abso-fucking-lutely,” Shitty says, giving the bed a harsh look, as it had personally done him wrong. “That bastard.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah, he’s just a douchey guy. You’ll see. Well-- hopefully you won’t, but I’m sure you’ll have to deal with him at some point or another.”

 

“Thanks for the warning, then,” Eric says, then glances back out into the hallway, which looks much darker than it had a moment ago. A cloud must have passed over the sun outside. “Where are the bathrooms?”

 

“Between the rooms,” Shitty says, stepping more into his room to open a door that Eric had barely noticed before. “Chad and I share with Jack, and you’ll share with Lardo and Cam. Ransom and Holster live in the attic and they’ll basically come down and use whichever bathroom is free when they need.”

 

“Good to know,” Eric says, and he ducks out of Shitty’s room with the intention of going to see his own when his watch beeps. He looks down and sees that it’s already 9am. “Oh, lord! We’re supposed to be in the parking lot to start check-in.”

 

“That’s right,” Shitty says, closing the door to his room. “Let’s hurry down, then, brah. Jacky-boy will probably explode if we get off schedule today.”

 

“Right,” Eric says, shooting one quick glance down the hallway again.

 

There’s a shape in the window, big and dark, covering up the sun.

 

Eric jumps, and when his foot comes down the ground isn’t there-- he’s stumbled off the ledge of the landing and down onto the stairs, and he feels his stomach plummet as he tips down, arms flailing to catch himself before he tumbles down the steep staircase.

 

He swears he sees his life flash before his eyes in the split second before another force is pulling him backward, up onto the landing again. Eric flinches at the contact, but also manages to regain his footing. When he looks back he sees that it’s Shitty holding onto the back of Eric’s polo.

 

Eric tips his head up to see over Shitty’s shoulder. The window is not, in fact, covered up. There’s just a tree branch outside that hangs partially in front of the window, and it seems that Eric was right about the cloud cover.

 

“Oh my god,” he says, when he catches his breath a moment later. “I am so sorry. I’ve been ridiculously jumpy lately.”

 

“No harm, no foul, little brah,” Shitty says, although he looks a little shaken as well. “Just be careful, yeah? Old house, steep stairs-- they’re not very forgiving. Ransom broke his ankle falling down these last year.”

 

Eric nods and is sure to grip the banister tightly while they head down the staircase and wills himself to calm down before he goes outside to greet the new staff.

 

Deep breaths. He’s fine. He’s just jumpy, is all.

 

By the time they get outside Eric’s pulse has slowed significantly, but the thick humidity of the air outside presents its own problem-- breathing is hard, and Eric definitely needs to sit down. He tells Shitty as much and Shitty makes a show out of leaping into the bed of Jack’s truck and grabbing a folding camp chair, which he brings to the edge of the parking lot, where all of senior staff has gathered, and sets it up.

 

“Thank you very much,” Eric says, taking a seat.

 

Jack is handing out clipboards to senior staff, and when he gets to Shitty and Eric, he frowns. “Is that my seat?” he asks.

 

Eric opens his mouth to apologize, but Shitty interjects before he has a chance. “Yeah, but Little Bittle over here nearly took a tumble down the Haus stairs, so I’m making the executive decision to let him sit so he doesn’t faint.”

 

“If anyone has the power to make executive decisions, it’s me,” Jack says, “but I approve that. Let me know if you need any water, Bittle. It’ll help you out a lot more than all that coffee.” He leans down to hand Eric a clipboard.

 

“I’ll grab my water bottle from my car in a few minutes,” Eric says, nodding, and glad that Jack seems to be in a decent mood today. “But I swear, y’all wouldn’t want to see me without my morning coffee.”

 

“I believe you,” Jack says, lightly enough that it feels like teasing, although he’s back in serious-mode when he turns back to address the senior staff at large. “Alright, each of your clipboards has a section of the junior staff last names, organized in sections alphabetically. Junior staff members should know the alphabet,” Jack says.

 

Everyone laughs like it’s a joke, although Jack doesn’t react, which makes Eric think that maybe it wasn’t. Eric looks down and at his clipboard and finds that he’s got last names O-S, and he’s just about to wave his clipboard and start calling those letters out to the crowd of junior staff members milling about, looking mostly like college-aged kids, when Shitty lets out a loud gasp from where he’s standing next to Eric’s chair.

 

“DEREK MALIK NURSE! GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!” Shitty shouts, loud enough that Eric can feel his ears ringing a second later when someone shoves their way through the crowd to meet Shitty for a hug that looks tight enough to break some ribs. The guy he’s hugging looks a little younger than Shitty, although he’s got a fairly impressive five o’clock shadow that tells Eric that he’s certainly no high schooler.

 

One of the counselors that this guy-- Derek, apparently-- had knocked out of the way makes his way over to Eric, scowling. His cheeks are almost as red as his hair, and Eric can’t tell if he’s sunburnt or just flustered.  “William Poindexter,” he says, and Eric looks at him a little blankly for a second before he realizes that he’s supposed to be signing him in.

 

“Oh!” Eric says, looking back down at his list and finding the guy’s name. “Alright, William, you’re the cabin counselor for Maple. That’s kids entering seventh and eighth grade,” he adds.

 

“I know. I had them last year,” William says, gruff. “Who’s the other cabin counselor?”

 

“Um.” Eric flips to the second page of his name sheet, but doesn’t see anyone else marked down for the cabin. “I don’t think I have that information.”

 

“Okay, that’s fine, thanks.” William says. “Are you Johnson’s replacement?”

 

“I am. I’m Eric,” Eric says, offering his hand to shake. William takes it. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Cool. Nice to meet you too. I’m Dex. I’m also one of the lifeguards. Do you know if Chad is still head of waterfront?”

 

Eric nods and Dex mutters something under his breath. His annunciation is awful but if Eric had to guess, it sounds a lot like he’s saying asshole. Eric looks back down at his sheet to make sure that he doesn’t have to tell Dex anything else, and then quickly signs off his initials to indicate that Dex is checked in.

 

“Alright, you’re all set,” Eric says. “You can bring your stuff to your cabin.”

 

“Thanks, man.” Dex turns to head back into the parking lot, probably to get things from a car, but he only makes it a few feet before Shitty’s friend, Derek, knocks into him and slings an arm around his shoulder.

 

Despite the buzz of people talking all around, they’re still just close enough that Eric can hear Derek say, “Hey, Dexy-- guess who’s your co-cabin counselor again?”

 

Eric only has a chance to see Dex, exasperated, put his head into his hands before Shitty is standing in front of him again.

 

“You see that?” Shitty says, nodding his head in the direction of the two cabin counselors. “Nursey was one of my CITs back when I was a cabin counselor, and now he’s all grown up and leading his own cabin. Truly an inspirational story.”

 

Eric nods. “Is he a college student?”

 

“Yeah. Studying English at a school upstate. We were just chatting about it. He’s in charge of a lit magazine up there. Sounds pretty fucking cool.”

 

“What about William-- Dex, I mean.”

 

“Oh, yeah. He’s at the community college in town, I think. This is his second year at camp. They keep putting those two together.”

 

“Interesting.”

 

“Interesting is fucking right-- oh, shit-- are you on my list?” Shitty says, turning to talk to a young woman who has approached him.

 

Once Shitty moves out of the way, Eric finds that several counselors are milling about in his general area. He’s feeling a lot better so he stands and steps forward into his crowd and starts waving his clipboard to encourage counselors to come over.

 

All in all, it takes about an hour to get all of the counselors checked in and moved into their cabins. Eric spends quite a bit of that time in a golf cart going back and forth between the parking lot and cabins, toting suitcases and sleeping bags and probably more counselors than are safe to ride at once.

 

When everyone is finally moved in, though, everyone seems to be in one piece as they head to flagpole, which is located in the middle of a slightly sloped field above the dining hall. Eric is one of the last to show up, having spent a little bit too long chatting with Chowder, one of the counselors in charge of Oak, the cabin for kids entering ninth and tenth grade.

 

Eric half-jogs across the field to slip in-between Shitty and Lardo, who are standing up front with the rest of the senior staff while the junior counselors sit in a half-circle spread out around them. Jack shoots Eric a disapproving look, but thankfully doesn’t verbally reprimand him.

 

Jack has a megaphone in hand, but he doesn’t need it after he initially gets the attention of the chatting counselors. He welcomes everyone to camp and goes over the training week itinerary, then walks down the line of senior staff members, introducing them one by one. Most of the staff seems familiar with each other, though, so this process goes fairly until Jack reaches Eric.

 

Jack barely has time to say, “And this is my co-program director, Eric Bittle,” before Shitty is rushing out from the line and stepping in front of Eric, still facing the entire junior counselor staff.

 

Eric cocks his head at Shitty’s back, unsure of what’s coming.

 

“As you may have noticed, Eric here doesn’t have a camp nickname yet,” he says, voice booming, partially through the sheer volume he shouts at, and partially because of the acoustics of the surrounding area. He waves his walking stick at the crowd. “Who thinks we should change that?”

 

The counselors are hesitant for a few seconds, but then Chowder, sitting in the front row, lets out a loud whoop, and a cheer starts up throughout the crowd.

 

“Good!” Shitty says, then turns to face Eric. “Itty Bitty Eric Bittle, I gotta say-- you’re not actually that small of a dude, but you just look so tiny next to Jack, ‘cause he’s a giant. Therefore I dub thee Bitty,” Shitty says, and taps the walking stick on Eric-- no, Bitty’s-- shoulder.

 

Bitty realizes that this entire performance, like much of camp shenanigans, is for the purpose of getting counselor enthusiasm and spirit up, so he quickly ducks his head at Shitty, as if he’s bowing to him.

 

“Oh, no. Other way around, good sir,” Shitty says, then drops to his knees to lay himself out in front of Bitty, in child’s pose, arms outstretched. “My liege,” he adds.

 

By this point, nearly every member of the camp staff is either laughing outwardly or at least stifling some giggles. Bitty can see why Shitty is such a popular senior staff member-- he’s got an excellent personality for camp, boisterous and loud and not afraid to make a fool out of himself for a joke.

 

“Alright, that’s enough from you two,” Jack says, voice stern.

 

Eric frowns. Maybe that’s the root of the camp’s issue with declining numbers-- Jack not realizing when it’s time to have a little fun. When he looks up, though, he realizes that he’s mistaken, because Jack is smiling at them. Shitty lifts up from the ground and throws himself and his walking stick at Jack, wrapping his arms around the other man in a big hug.

 

“What about you, Jack Zimmermann? Is this going to be the year you finally let me give you a nickname?” Shitty asks, and they wrestle for control of the walking stick for a moment.

 

Jack ends up victorious, which makes sense-- he’s got a few inches and probably forty pounds on Shitty. He lifts the stick above his head and brandishes it at Shitty. “Absolutely not. Begone,” he says, and gently whacks Shitty’s shoulder.

 

Shitty falls to the ground and splays out, pretending to choke and die, and Bitty realizes that Jack’s graveness is part of a well-practiced dynamic between the two men. Bitty can’t wait to see them do skits.

 

Jack uses the stick to nudge Shitty back into the line up front and introduces the rest of the senior staff members and then turns back to Bitty and nods at him.

 

Bitty finds himself caught up for a second in Jack’s gaze. Bitty doesn’t mean to hold eye contact for more than a second, but he can’t seem to look away-- it’s those ridiculously beaming eyes. He feels pinned down, almost paralyzed by them.

 

“Bittle,” Jack prompts.

 

Shit. That’s Bitty’s cue to take over going over camp rules, which he’s spent the past week memorizing. “Oh, right!” he says, stepping forward and reaching out his hand for the megaphone that’s still hanging loosely out of Jack’s hand. He lifts it up and turns it on. “Alright, Camp Samwell! I know a lot of y’all are returners, so I’m going to be giving candy to anyone who can correctly answer my questions about the staff rulebook.”

 

Around a dozen hands raise, and Bitty laughs, since he hasn’t even asked the first question yet. It’s a good sign, though-- if the staff is enthusiastic and ready to participate, there’s not much that can go wrong.

 

***

 

Of course, things do go wrong almost immediately at the end of the training week, on the Sunday when campers start arriving for the first session. Bitty’s phone alarm is set to go off at 7am that morning so he can head to camp early and help Jack with some final preparations. He forced himself to close out of Netflix and head to bed at 11pm the night before, but he spent about four hours just lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, too buzzed up with beginning-of-camp energy to sleep.

 

At some point, though, he passed out, and now he’s being woken up not by his alarm, but rather by his phone ringing. He fumbles around in his sheets for a minute and the phone goes flying, but he manages to catch it before it slips off his bed.

 

It’s a number he doesn’t have in his contacts and an area code he doesn’t recognize, but in his sleep-addled state he doesn’t really think before answering. Instead of saying hello, he manages a tired mumble into the phone.

 

“Hey, Bitty?” It’s a man’s voice, but he doesn’t recognize it. “Could you get to camp, like, right now?”

 

It takes a good five seconds for Bitty to figure out how to speak like a human being, but when he finally gets there, he asks, “Who is this?”

 

“Oh, shit-- it’s Dex. They gave us senior staff phone numbers to call if we needed and Jack spent the night here at the Haus but I can’t find him so I figured you’d be the next person to call.”

 

Eric sits up in bed, blood running cold. “What happened? Is someone hurt?”

 

“Oh-- no, no one’s hurt, thank God. But I couldn’t sleep so I went for a walk and I saw that one of the big old trees on the side of the road leading into camp fell down. It’s completely covering the road. No one’s going to be able to drive in if we don’t move it.”

 

Of course Eric’s first day wouldn’t go smoothly. He tries not to think about how this is an awful sign for how the rest of the summer is going to go. “Okay, okay,” he says, just to say something while he thinks about how to go about fixing this. “I’m going to come over right now. Can you meet me on the road where the tree is? I’ll work on calling some other senior staff to come help move it, and maybe you can grab some of the junior counselors who you think might be up for some heavy lifting?”

 

“Yeah, of course. I’ll be there in a few,” Dex says, then hangs up.

 

Eric’s phone screen goes dark and he stares at it for just a moment. Then his alarm goes off and he flinches in surprise.

 

He sighs and turns it off. This is already looking to be a long day, and he’s going to need coffee if he’s ever going to get through it.

 

***

 

Because the small road that leads through the woods into the camp narrow and made of gravel, and because Bitty’s car is a piece of crap, he has to drive slowly. After about five minutes of carefully squinting ahead at the road to make sure he doesn’t run over any staff members, he finally finds the tree, on he road only fifty yards or so before the big camp sign above the entrance into the parking lot.

 

Bitty pulls his car to the side of the road a few feet away from the tree while the staff members gathered wave at him. Dex is there, as expected, and he seems to have recruited Ransom, Holster, Nursey, Cam, and Chowder.

 

Bitty gets out and is immediately glad that he thought to throw on an old hoodie. The sun has risen already, but its low in the sky and barely doing anything to warm Bitty through the trees. He hunches his shoulders up a little in an effort to stay warmer, reaches in to grab the coffee from his cup holder, and then shuts the car door. The slam is unnervingly loud, since the only other sounds are quiet birdcalls and Ransom and Holster quietly chatting.

 

“Alright,” Bitty says, clapping his hands. At this moment, he’s a little too uncomfortably aware that even though he’s technically in charge, he’s younger than all of the senior staff members present. It’s a weird feeling, and it makes him feel pretty unequipped to deal with this situation. He hopes his nerves don’t show on his face, though, and he fakes a smile. “I think this looks worse than it is. Do we have any ideas about how to move it?”

 

Bitty approaches them while he talks and leans down to examine the tree. It’s pretty large-- he could probably fit inside of it three times over. He’s not even sure how it could have fallen over, unless it was already starting to be uprooted. Probably the result of years of erosion, if he had to guess, and just picked a pretty darn bad day to finally kick the bucket.

 

“Rans and Holster have been trying to lift it for the past twenty minutes. It’s not going to happen by hand,” Cam says. She’s wearing a hoodie and a pair of pajama sweatpants with tennis rackets all over them, and Bitty feels a little bad about waking everyone so early. Better to get this dealt with sooner than later, though.

 

“Guess we’re just gonna have to hitch it up to someone’s car and pull it off,” Dex says.

 

Bitty glances back at his own car. Even if it wasn’t on its last legs, it’s a pretty compact vehicle, and he doubts it has the power to move a tree of this size. “Do any of you have a truck?”

 

“God, I wish,” Dex says, while everyone else shakes their heads.

 

Nursey, quietly swaying like he’s about to fall asleep on his feet until now, snorts. Dex shoots him a look, and Bitty can barely follow their brief exchange of glares before he has to interrupt.

 

“Okay, do we know how to get access to one?”

 

“Jack’s pickup is pretty big,” Ransom says. “I think it’d work if we used it.”

 

“I already tried to call Jack. And text him. And call again,” Dex says.

 

“Oh, yeah--” Holster starts, then checks his watch and nods. “He’s definitely out on his run right now. Bro’s wild about keeping his schedule.”

 

“He always brings his phone, though,” Ransom adds.

 

Cam makes a soft, disapproving noise. “He’s also notoriously bad at responding to texts.”

 

“Oh, you would know about that,” Holster says, voice low, clearly with a bit of a joking edge. Cam punches him on the arm for it, and Holster groans and rubs at the spot she hit, although both of them seem good-natured about it.

 

“Why don’t we just take his keys?” Chowder asks. “I mean, that might be crossing a line? But also, I think he’ll understand, you know?”

 

For some reason, they all turn to Bitty. Oh, right-- because he’s in charge.

 

Bitty sighs. “Okay, y’all. We can try to find Jack’s keys. I’m not gonna be the one to break into his room, though. I barely know him.”

 

“Not it,” says Nursey, putting his finger on his nose. Dex and Chowder look at each other, then do the same.

 

Cam sighs. “I’ve got it. Stay put. Don’t try to do anything dumb while I’m gone.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Bitty says, then sits down on the tree trunk while she gets up and starts off toward the Haus at a half-jog.

 

Bitty chats with the junior counselors about their cabins-- they already have their first session rosters, and apparently they know many of the campers from last year-- for about ten minutes before they hear the quiet rumble of an approaching truck.

 

When she rounds the corner and drives under the big camp sign, Bitty feels himself relax considerably. Bitty knows that Jack keeps rope in the bed-- he’d used it for a few activities during the training week-- and now that they have the truck, he’s certain they’ll be able to get this tree moved in under an hour. He’s feeling confident.

 

That is, he’s feeling confident until Cam backs up close to the trunk and Bitty hops up to step next to the driver’s side window. She rolls it down and she’s pale as a sheet-- she looks like she’s seen a ghost. Bitty’s heart plummets. “What’s wrong, hon?” he asks, leaning against the door.

 

She shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says, voice shaky.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I’m positive.” She tosses her shoulders back and lifts her chin, as if trying to force herself to be more relaxed. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

 

Well. She’s an adult. If she says she’s fine, Bitty will just have to believe her, or at least pretend that he does.

 

It worries Bitty that he doesn’t.

 

***

 

Camp Samwell’s summer program is divided into four two-week sessions, each with a unique theme. Some campers stay for one session, and some for the full summer.

 

It’s all very standard camp procedure, in Bitty’s opinion. He’s in charge of making sure that each member of the specialist staff has fun and educational programs planned for the kids who attend their activities throughout the session, and he and Jack are also responsible for planning campwide activities around the themes. Eric’s been in fairly senior positions within camps before, but this is by far the most responsibility he’s been given. It’s a lot of work, but he does like feeling that he can be in control of how things go down.

 

As much as he can be, of course. Obviously, this morning proves that there are definitely things out of his control, but he’s doing his best not to let that ruin his mood.

 

Jack returns from his run about an hour after they move the tree to the side of the road, out of the way of cars, and finds all of them in the kitchen of the Haus while Bitty whips up pancakes. He’s mad at first-- junior counselors aren’t supposed to hang out in the Haus unless they have business to do in the office-- but once Bitty explains what happens, he relaxes, even apologizes to the junior counselors for snapping at them, and joins them at the big kitchen table.

 

Bitty notices that Cam avoids him, but he’s so preoccupied with last minute preparation that he has to resolve to do some snooping and figure out what’s going on there at a later point in time.

 

The entire day is a bit of a blur after that. Bitty finds himself crossing camp back and forth non-stop, sometimes in a golf cart, sometimes on foot, as he runs errands and relays messages back and forth. He instructs junior counselors on what feels like a million various tasks that need to get done and he only gets a chance to relax about half an hour before the first campers are supposed to start arriving.

 

This is a bad thing. Bitty doesn’t want time to relax, because now he has time to worry.

 

Here’s the thing: Bitty loves working with kids, obviously-- he’s a teacher for a reason. He likes helping kids learn and figure out their strengths and how they can improve, and he likes being an adult they can confide in while they figure out all the confusing parts of growing up.

 

What Bitty absolutely hates, though, is interacting with the parents, and he’s going to have to deal with a lot of them today.

 

He can’t be his complete unfiltered self around the kids, of course, but things enter an almost painful stage when he has to deal with parents, and it’s because he feels like he just can’t safely be himself around them. He knows that stereotyping is harmful and he does his damn best to teach kids not to do it, but at the end of the day, he also knows that based on the way he acts and behaves and just the way he exists in the world, a lot of people have a pretty good idea that he’s gay.

 

Parents pick up on it more than kids do. They notice his behavior, and sometimes they’re completely fine, but there’s still enough of them who will assume things, whether consciously or subconsciously, about how they don’t want a gay man near their kids.

 

So Bitty changes how he behaves when he meets parents. He takes up a little bit more space when he walks and talks, he drops in a few conversation starters about hockey or football, and he even deepens his voice a little. He does all of that and he hates himself for it.

 

It feels like a step backward, always, like he hasn’t made any progress at all from when he was a teenager and did all of that stuff because he thought there was something inherently wrong about the way that he was. Now he recognizes that he does it to gain respect and preserve his career, but he still wonders sometimes. Maybe he doesn’t have to do it, but at this point it’s a habit-- purely a survival mechanism that he hasn’t grown out of.

 

He’s sat at the check-in table they’ve set up for campers and parents to come get their cabin assignments, mulling over all of this, when Ransom and Holster come up and sit at the empty chairs on either side of him.

 

Bitty tenses up a little. They seem like absolutely fine young men, but still-- they’re both big, they always seem to know what each other are thinking, and Bitty’s a little intimidated by them.

 

“What’s up, Itty Bitty?” Holster asks.

 

“Just, um. Going over the lists again,” Bitty says, tapping the pen he’s been clicking on one of the camper lists that he definitely hasn’t been reading.

 

Ransom leans back in his chair, and it creaks a little. “Need a distraction?” he asks.

 

“Absolutely,” Bitty says.

 

“Alright. We’ll use this opportunity for some last minute camp shit talk. Anything you need to know about the camp that we haven’t told you yet?” Ransom asks, turning his baseball cap around so the brim covers his neck. The sun has risen behind them, and it’s beating down fairly hard.

 

Bitty’s sweating. “Um,” he says. The two of them have been giving him tips and tricks all week, so he struggles to remember something they haven’t talked about yet. He remembers one of the many things he’d thought about last night, though. “Oh-- any camp stories I need to know? I know we said we’ll be doing some stories at campfire tonight, but I figure I should know all of the local lore so I can keep up the illusion if any kids ask.”

 

“Absolutely!” Holster gestures in the direction of the lake. Eric can’t see the lake itself from their current location-- the Haus blocks it from their view-- but he can see the gap in the trees and hills where he knows it’s located. “We’ve got sharks in the lake. They eat campers who don’t follow the rules at waterfront.”

 

“Oh, please,” Bitty says, drily. “Every single camp I’ve worked at has had lake sharks. Please tell me you have something more unique than that.”

 

Both men are silent for a minute, then Ransom says, “The Haus is haunted.”

 

“Bro, that’s just you who thinks that,” Holster says, leaning his large, sweaty body over Bitty so he can jab his elbow into Ransom’s chest. Bitty finds himself with a face full of the maroon camp polo they all have to wear for camper move-in day. They scuffle for a second like two puppies at play while Bitty tries to stay out of it.

 

“Yeah, right!” Ransom says when he finally shoves Holster away and leans back so Bitty is free. “Like there’s any other explanation for how Spotify keeps opening to my 90s playlist on my laptop while I’m asleep.”

 

“I’ve told you a million times, bro. You probably sleepwalk. And sleep-DJ.”

 

Ransom shakes his head, determined. “Nah, Bits. Don’t believe him. It’s for real haunted.”

 

Bitty nods, willing to accept this. Every camp has a building that’s old and creaky enough that people start rumors that it’s haunted. It’s just a fact.

 

“Oh-- I’ve got another one,” Holster says. “There’s a nasty pair of shoes tied to the top of the zipline in the woods. Legend has it that a counselor put his harness on wrong and when he tried to zip he tipped upside down and fell right out of his sneakers,” Holsters says, gesturing wildly for some sort of emphasis that does nothing to illustrate what he’s saying.

 

“Those are definitely your shoes up there, though,” says a voice from directly behind Bitty. He turns around in his chair and sees Nursey, arms crossed while he walks up to the table.

 

“Fuck you, Nurse,” says Holster. “That’s my own personal mythology you’re destroying. Have some respect.”

 

“I’ll have some respect when you make up better stories,” Nursey says. He’s got the sleeves of his polo rolled up to his shoulders and a bandana tied around his bicep, just above a tattoo. Bitty’s a little jealous of the look-- Nursey’s arms are impressively large. “Did you tell the old one about the Big Hill?” he asks, and Bitty forces himself to tear his eyes away from Nursey’s arms and up to his face.

 

“Kids hardly ever tell that story anymore,” Ransom says. “Bigfoot stories are more popular at the moment. Alien abductions, too. We’ve got a spreadsheet that tracks the trends.”

“Plus, like, as camp stories go it’s pretty boring,” Holster adds.

 

Nursey rolls his eyes, then turns to face Bitty directly. “It’s good to know ‘cause it’s true. It happened, like, nearly a hundred years ago. The kid of one of the camp directors climbed the Big Hill on a dare and then he was never seen again,” he said.

 

“Oh.” Bitty nods, although he privately agrees with Ransom and Holster. It’s a fairly lame story as far as they go.

 

“If we wanted boring history stuff, we’d talk to Jack,” Holster says. “He works with the town historian a lot. They’re working on a book about the history of the whole area,” he tells Bitty.

 

Bitty’s never met anybody under the age of sixty that interested in local history, but it sounds like something Jack would do. He’s about to ask about more stories when he sees the first car pull into the parking lot.

 

“Okay, shoo!” he says to Nursey. “Go find Jack and send him out here. Looks like some campers are early. It’s time to get started.”

 

***

 

Somehow, things do go fine. Bitty talks to a million too many parents, and he feels awkward and fake the whole time, but within two hours they’ve all left, and he’s left with a camp full of kids ready to get their camp experience started, so his adrenaline returns.

 

He’s not the only one in high spirits, either.

 

At campfire, when Bitty’s finally done leading the opening program activities, and tired out from acting in his fair share of introductory skits, he sits down with one of the cabins to have some smores-- Pine, he thinks, or whatever the cabin for girls around fifth-grade age. He’s just biting into a perfectly toasted marshmallow when he spots Jack out in the field beyond the fire pits, surrounded by yelling kids.

 

Bitty almost does a double-take, because Jack is hardly unrecognizable. He’s actually not scowling and yelling for once-- in fact, he’s laughing at the antics of the kids he’s gently roughhousing with. They seem to be mostly members of Dex and Nursey’s cabin, maybe about twelve or thirteen years old, and he’s got about five different kids hanging off of him.

 

One’s even on his shoulders. He’s smaller than the rest but definitely still far too old to be carried, but old enough to be a nuisance and try anyway. Jack’s doing an impressive job not dropping him while he messes with the others.

 

Bitty watches him for a minute, unable to keep a smile from his face. It’s nice to know that Jack’s in charge of camp for a reason-- he clearly loves kids, and does a good job entertaining them, too.

 

Of course, the moment passes quickly when one of the girls he’s sitting with starts complaining of an upset stomach and Bitty has to grab a buddy to bring with them to the infirmary. Thankfully, it appears to be more of a first-day-nerves plus too-much-sugar issue and nothing serious, so after a short visit with the nurse he brings the kids back to their cabin and finally gets to head back to the Haus so he can get to bed.

 

He feels like he’s half-asleep while he gets into pajamas and brushes his teeth, all wrung-out from a hard day’s work. When he finally, finally is done getting ready he’s about to collapse into his bed and pass out when something catches his eye at the big window above his bed.

 

It’s on the same wall as the window at the end of the second floor hallway just outside his room, so he’s got the same view-- it looks out into the backyard of the Haus, and as such has an excellent view of the lake as well. What caught Bitty’s attention is the way that the moonlight reflects off the lake. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and Bitty spends a few minutes staring up at the sky and enjoying how many stars he can see. He lived in Boston for a couple of years for school, and then New York City for a bit during his first year of teaching, but being out here in the country reminds him of where he grew up, even though he’s certainly quite a bit more north.

 

When he lets his eyes drop from the sky, he’s equally impressed with how well the Big Hill is lit by the light of the full moon. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but it also makes it easy to see how craggy and steep various rock outcroppings are. He can certainly see why they keep campers away from there. It looks like an accident waiting to happen, in his humble opinion.

 

Eventually his eyes droop and he falls back onto his bed, reaching a hand out to flick off his lamp. Tomorrow is going to be a long day, and then the day after that is going to be long too, and-- well, basically, he needs whatever sleep he can get.

Chapter Text

Bitty finds himself constantly on his feet resolving issues for the next few days. His phone vibrates with new alerts every few minutes as counselors and other senior staff members ask for his advice, his presence, and on one occasion, for him to get pushed into the lake, fully clothed, during a waterfront safety demonstration.

 

It’s late Wednesday morning when things finally settle down somewhat and Bitty has a chance to just wander the camp and check in on various activities. Bitty’s spent the past half hour in the dining hall dealing with an allergy scare, and now that he’s determined that the camper in question hadn’t actually consumed anything she was allergic to, all he wants to do is rest somewhere shady and take a little while to catch his breath.

 

The arts and crafts pavilion is just a short walk into the woods from the dining hall, so Bitty heads in that direction. Mornings at camp are divided into three sessions, during which cabins of the older campers get to travel to three specialty sessions, which they choose at the beginning of each week. As Bitty approaches the pavilion, he quickly identifies this age group as the seventh and eighth grade cabins, because he recognizes several of the kids who Nursey and Dex are in charge of.

 

They’ve been a bit of a troublesome cabin so far. Bitty has quickly learned to watch out for their shenanigans.

 

Lardo is standing on a picnic table at the front of the pavilion while she demonstrates how to create a terrarium in a jar. She’s got a fairly small group of campers scattered around the tables, and it appears that some of them are much farther ahead than the others, and have already moved on to breaking out embroidery thread and creating friendship bracelets.

 

Bitty chooses to sit at this table, between two of the girls who had been following him around during open ballfield time after dinner the night before. “Hey, ladies. Got any thread to spare for me?”

 

The girls are thrilled at the prospect of Bitty participating in their activity and push thread toward him while arguing over who he should make a bracelet for first. Bitty humors their discussion and when Lardo finishes going around the tables and making sure that everyone has finished their terrariums, she joins them.

 

“How’s my favorite cabin?” Lardo asks as she sits at Bitty’s table, high-fiving one of the girls while several members of the boy cabin boo her. Lardo and one of the girls chat about what they’re doing tomorrow-- abstract painting, which Lardo seems very excited about, even though everything Lardo does is conveyed with a deep layer of nonchalance-- so Bitty decides to check on the boys.

 

Bitty gets up and walks between the other tables, bending down to look closer at terrariums that a few of the campers show him, absentmindedly working at the friendship bracelet he’s started while he does so.

 

He’s just considering moving on to check out another session, maybe Holster’s music lesson down in the amphitheater, when he notices that one of the kids isn’t sitting at a picnic table at all, but rather perched on edge of the cement floor of the pavilion, feet on the dirt outside. He doesn’t appear to be working on any sort of craft at all, so Bitty glances back at Lardo. She’s still busy with the other campers, but Bitty assumes that she’s been keeping this one in her eyesight-- after all, even though they do try to push kids to try new things at Samwell, they also know that some kids have off days, and sometimes don’t want to participate in group activities.

 

Bitty figures it’s probably best to check up on this boy, so he sits next to him and glances over to see what he’s occupied with.

 

The kid is pale and small, with somewhat big ears and a bad haircut that look dorky, but probably something he’ll grow into eventually. Bitty’s seen him a few times, usually hanging off of Jack, but doesn’t know his name. He seems fairly content with tracing shapes in the dirt with his fingers, which makes Bitty’s heart hurt a little. He really does have a soft spot for the kids who end up all on their own more often than not.

 

“Hey there,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced yet. I’m Bitty,” he says, offering his hand to shake.

 

The kid eyes him, a little suspicious. “I know who you are. You’re in charge.”

 

“Well, it’s still polite to introduce myself anyway!” Bitty says, with a little bit of a chuckle. “And your name is, mister?”

 

“Henry,” the boy says, taking Bitty’s hand loosely and shaking once before dropping it.

 

“Very classic!” Bitty says. “Nice to meet you, Henry. Is this your first year at camp?”

 

“Nah,” he says. “I’ve come here for ages.”

 

“Well, maybe you could teach me a thing or two. Is arts and crafts your favorite session?”

 

Henry shrugs and draws another line in the dirt. He’s fairly drawn into himself, with the hand not drawing hugged around his knees, which are drawn tight against his chest.

 

“It’s certainly okay if you don’t have a favorite!” Bitty says. “Heaven knows I wouldn’t be able to choose. Did you want to make a terrarium?”

 

“Not really,” says Henry.

 

“How about a bracelet?” Bitty asks, offering the one that he’s halfway-done with.

 

Henry looks at it, then holds his open palm out. Bitty drops the bracelet onto it, and he draws his hand back to look at it.

 

“I like the colors,” he says.

 

Bitty had chosen greens and browns, mainly since it matched the green camp t-shirt he’s wearing today. “I’m glad,” he says. “Do you want me to show you how to keep it going? It’s not too hard.”

“Okay,” Henry says, handing the bracelet back, then scoots a few inches closer to Bitty so he can see while he Bitty demonstrates.

 

Bitty manages to keep his smile small and contained, although he loves the feeling of getting through to a camper. The next step, he thinks, will be getting Henry to hang out with some of his cabin buddies, but for now, this is good.

 

***

 

Of course, Bitty’s break from constant trouble doesn’t last long, because yet another catastrophe strikes a few hours later, after lunch while all the campers are at Open Waterfront, as he sets up for their evening activity. It’s a campers vs. counselors dodgeball game, which several people have informed Bitty is a huge hit every year.

 

That means that it’s high stakes. Jack had specifically asked Bitty to bring all of the dodgeballs up to the big field, so Bitty’s going to make that happen.

 

The problem is, there are five large plastic bins full of the balls and some cones to mark the field, and they’re currently down close to Waterfront, where the lifeguards had been using them for morning swim lessons. There’s no way Bitty’s going to be able to drag all five bins all the way through the woods and up several hills to the field, so he brings one of the golf carts down.

 

The bins are heavy-- so heavy that Bitty is pretty sure he’s going to find them full of rocks or something when he empties them out. It’s camp, so he wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. He manages to get two of them perched on the back of the golf cart and secured with bungee cords, then leaves the others stacked near the storage shed they’d been in by the lake.

 

The cart’s engine groans as he tries to start it, but it finally sputters to life after a few seconds. Bitty hesitantly hits the gas and finds that it’s still functional, albeit a bit slower than normal. It’s better than nothing, he supposes.

 

There are a couple winding dirt paths that lead up from Waterfront to the north side of camp, but Bitty’s not sure if the cart has enough life in it to make it up the most direct one, since it’s pretty steep. While he pulls away from the shed, looking around constantly to make sure no campers are nearby and in danger of getting hit, he mulls over his mental map of camp.

 

He’s fairly certain that the most level path is the one runs alongside the Big Hill, then eventually hooks back around to head to the main part of camp. It follows a gradual slope at the base of the hill, but nothing too bad for the cart to handle, he thinks, so he heads in that direction and drives slow.

 

The path is surrounded close on either side by trees and the shade is a delicious respite from the awful beating sun Bitty had been standing under down at Waterfront. He’s been dutifully applying sunscreen every hour but he’s sure that his cheeks are still going to pink-tinged by the end of the day.

 

This is a lot better, although the sudden difference in temperature makes him chilly in his sweat-soaked camp t-shirt. He takes one hand away from the wheel to rub his other arm a bit in an attempt to make the goosebumps go away, but when he looks back up there’s a big rock in the middle of the path and one hand on the wheel isn’t enough to swerve the cart out of the way in time, so he slams the brakes and--

 

With one last shudder and a weird grinding sound, the golf cart comes to a halt right before the rock. Bitty gets out and gently kicks the rock out of the way, then climbs back in and hits the gas.

 

The cart stalls.

 

“Shoot!” Bitty says, then looks again to make sure that no rogue campers are around, and more quietly says, “Fuck.”

 

He attempts the gas a few more times to no avail, then sighs and gets right back out of the cart and heads to the back so he can check out the engine. He’s by no means an expert at car repair, but he did drive an awfully mercurial old pickup truck back in Georgia, so he knows a couple quick fixes.

 

It takes a few minutes for him to get the bins off the back, but once he does he’s able to pop open the back of the vehicle and check it out. He squats in front of it and uses his phone flashlight to peek inside for a few minutes, but he cannot for the life of him figure out what’s wrong with it.

 

Okay, then.

 

He knows that Dex is handy with mechanical things, since he’s already fixed the Haus washing machine, the dining hall water fountain, and Ransom’s car, and he’s been at camp for less than two weeks. The problem is that Dex is currently mid-lifeguard shift and they’re short enough on trained lifeguards that Bitty isn’t sure that he’d be able to find someone to replace Dex.

 

What’s becoming obvious is that Bitty’s running out of options. He’s gonna have to find the other golf cart.

 

Bitty hasn’t seen Golf Cart #2 since early that morning, when Jack drove it away from where they stay parked overnight behind the Haus. He’s seen Jack since then, at breakfast and lunch, but he’s not sure where the cart went.

 

Bitty sits back down in the cart while he turns off his phone flashlight and pulls up his most recent texts list to find Jack’s name. Their last texts had been the night before, around midnight when Jack texted Bitty from across the hall to tell him to turn off his music.

 

Which is fair-- every day at camp is an early day, so it’s pretty important that they catch up on sleep whenever they can. Bitty had just lost track of time after talking on the phone with his mama for an hour, and turned on his relaxation playlist while he got ready for bed.

 

Jack was very particular about his daily routine, so his texts were terse. Bitty thought that it wouldn’t kill him to throw in an emoji here and there, but, well. He supposes it isn’t his place to criticize.

 

He hits call now and waits for a moment, but the call goes straight to voicemail. He tries two more times to no avail, and then, with a long and exaggerated sigh, pulls up the senior staff group message.

 

Bitty (3:48): yall does anyone know where Jack is right now??? Did he take the other cart?

 

Holster (3:48): hes not at waterfront??

 

Ransom (3:49): i havent seen him since lunch

 

Holster (3:49): surprising bc usually u can see his giant ass all the way from across camp

 

Shitty (3:49): yo bits he went to replace some of the no trespassing signs on the big hill

 

Bitty (3:50): Thank you for actually being helpful, Shitty!

 

Shitty (3:51): tru about the ass thing tho. It’s magnificent.

 

Bitty laughs a little at that, because yes, of course he’s noticed how large Jack’s posterior is. And his arms. And his thighs, sweet Jesus. It was no surprise, though, considering how committed Jack was to working out every morning before first wake-up call for campers.

 

Anyway. That’s decided, then. Bitty looks up beyond the side of the path where the hill starts to slope up. It’s steep, but he’s been hiking around camp for the past few weeks that he’s pretty sure he has the endurance to trek up it. The problem is going to be finding Jack in the huge expanse of trees covering the hill.

 

He grabs his backpack from the cart and slings it over his shoulder. It’s got his water bottle and a first aid kit, God forbid he needs it.

 

He starts walking and within ten minutes the back of his shirt is soaked with sweat where his backpack rests heavily upon it. The hill was steeper than he’d anticipated and he’s breathing shallowly. He’s been stopping and looking around every few seconds to see if he can see any trace of Jack, but so far he’s had no luck.

 

Hell. This is ridiculous. He pulls out his phone to try to call Jack again when he hears a sound that stands out from the background noise of birds and cicadas and a gentle breeze stirring the leaves of the trees overhead.

 

It’s the solid clunk of wood on wood, and then the sound of branches breaking, and Bitty’s fairly certain the sound is coming from a more level area just a little above where he currently is. The hope of finding Jack and giving him a firm talking to about disappearing in the middle of the camp day motivates Bitty to jog the last few yards, and when he finally makes it up to the clearing he sees that he was right, and Jack is there.

 

Except he isn’t replacing “no trespassing signs” at all. He’s clearing branches from a circular patch of the ground, and it appears that he’s already been working at it for a while, if the mounds of dry leaves and stones and even a few logs surrounding the circle are anything to go by.

 

“Jack?” Bitty asks, his voice up a few octaves up from it’s usual pitch. Everything about this is strange and it’s absolutely freaking him out.

 

Jack is turned away from Bitty and he freezes. Bitty can see his entire shirt is soaked through with sweat and he’s flushed startlingly red, and his shoulders tense up at the sound of Bitty’s voice, muscles rolling underneath the fabric.

 

There are a few beats of silence. When Jack finally turns around to face Bitty, he’s got an unidentifiable expression on his face. Blank, Bitty would say, if he had to put a name to it.

 

“Bittle,” he says, voice hoarse. His hair is a mess and he’s got awful dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept in days. The poor man looks wrecked.

 

Bitty cautiously moves closer, the only sound around being layers of dried leaves crunching under his hiking boots. He stops at the edge of the circle, unsure if he should step inside. He feels overwhelmed with some sort of protective instinct. “Are you okay, honey?”

 

Jack looks at Bitty for a second, then looks down at the rock he has in hand. Bitty has half a mind to hold his hands up and duck, but thankfully that’s just Bitty’s past trauma speaking, and not actually rational, because Jack drops it. Bitty flinches as it hits the ground and watches it roll a few feet, coming to a stop on the edge of the circle closest to Bitty.

 

A shadow falls over Bitty and when he looks up Jack is standing over him, just a foot away, like he’s never heard of personal space in his life. “Lord, Jack!”

 

“Get out,” Jack says. Any vulnerability that Bitty had sensed before has vanished and he’s watching Bitty with narrowed eyes and a hard frown.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Get out. Right now.”

 

“Jack, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where’d you leave the other golf cart? I need it to get ready for dodgeball. In fact, I’ve been needing your help all day, but you haven’t been around. I get that you have your own way of doing things, but-- what are you doing?” Bitty says, stopping his babbling as Jack steps forward, forcing him to back up.

 

Jack doesn’t stop moving and Bitty takes another step backward, but something goes wrong and his foot slides from underneath him. He falls hard on his bottom and some muscle in his thigh twinges. He really hopes he didn’t pull anything. He yelps as he hits the ground. His hands sting from the contact with the ground.

 

Jack has stopped moving forward, but he looks down at Bitty. Bitty isn’t sure if the correct thing to do here is scream or try to crawl away or what. He just braces himself to prepare for whatever’s coming.

 

Jack stares down at him, those ridiculous droopy eyes looking a lot more intimidating than they usually do. Finally, after a minute, he says, “You should leave,” turns on his heels, and steps back into his circle.

 

Well. Bitty doesn’t have to be told again at this point. He slowly gets up and tests his weight on the leg. It doesn’t feel great, but he’s fairly certain it isn’t sprained or anything, so he takes off at a fast-walk and heads back down the hill, shooting a few glances behind him while he goes.

 

Jack is back to clearing the damn circle. Bitty can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a firepit or a place to put a tent or something else, but he doesn’t want to stay to find out.

 

He finds himself on the verge of tears and has to pause to take a few breaths. He’s confused and he’s still reeling from being absolutely terrified. More than that, he has no idea what to do.

 

Then his phone starts ringing. Bitty is hesitant to take it out of his pocket, worried that it’s going to be Jack calling, but when he finally musters up the courage to check it, it’s Shitty.

 

“Hello?” Bitty says, hoping that his fear isn’t evident in his voice.

 

“Hey, Itty Bitty-- did you find Jack?”

 

“Yeah,” Bitty says. He’s not sure how much he should tell Shitty what happened. Shitty and Jack seem close-- they went to college together, after all, as Shitty had told him during one of his many campfire rants. Maybe Shitty won’t even believe him.

 

Then again, maybe this is normal Jack behavior that Shitty can explain.

 

“Did he have the cart?” Shitty prompts, since Bitty’s been silent for far too long.

 

“Oh, no, he didn’t tell me where it was.” Bitty takes a deep breath. “He was acting really strange.”

 

Shitty hums. “Oh, he’s doing weird shit in the woods again?”

 

“I guess so. He told me to get out.”

 

“Oh, shit,” Shitty says. “Brah, I’m sorry he said that. Sometimes he, like, has weird moments? And he says stuff he doesn’t mean? I think it's stress about the camp. He never used to this bad about manners and stuff. I can talk to him about it if you want. That’s really not okay.”

 

“That would be nice, yeah,” Bitty says. Now that he’s going downhill and high on adrenaline he’s moving at a much faster pace, and he can already see the path where he left his golf cart. “But for right now, could you get Dex to come up on the path near the Big Hill? I need help fixing my cart.”

 

“Chyeah, of course. I’ll get him right now. You good to wait a few minutes while we walk up?”

 

Actually, Bitty isn’t. He’s scared and he’s still imagining Jack sprinting down the hill after him, brandishing rocks or a spear or something nightmarish like that. But he knows he’s being irrational, because surely there’s gotta be an explanation here, like some sort of weird camp tradition he’s unfamiliar with.

 

At least, he hopes. For now he just has to be a mature adult until he figures it out. “I’ll be fine. Just be quick. We need to get the dodgeball field all set up before dinner.”

 

Shitty promises that he’ll hurry and then hangs up, so Bitty settles down on the seat of the cart again and perches where he can face the hill and keep an eye up on the slope.

 

Just in case.

Chapter Text

Despite everything leading up to it, dodgeball goes very well. Campers win-- mostly because they have a couple CITs on their side to even out the odds-- but Cam puts up a very good fight, staying on the field completely on her own for about ten minutes as the last counselor standing. When she finally gets hit in the ankle with a dodgeball she makes a big show of collapsing to the ground, and Ransom and Holster hoist her into the air while Bitty announces the defeat over a megaphone.

 

Once the game is over some campers stream back over to the ever-popular camp store for popsicles and refreshments while others head to the other side of the field to play kickball or tag or sit and make friendship bracelets. Bitty is walking to the campers partaking in the latter activity, wanting to keep an eye on them since they’re sitting close to the edge of the woods, when Jack jogs up beside him.

 

Bitty tenses up and doesn’t say anything, so Jack slows until he’s walking at Bitty’s pace, then darts forward and stands in front of him. Bitty has no choice but to stop, since the alternative is ramming right into him, and Bitty would rather stay as far away from him as possible right now, thank you very much.

 

“What do you want?” he asks, since Jack isn’t saying anything. He feels a little bad because his mama didn’t raise him to be rude, but also, his mama didn’t take him to accept people treating him like he’s shit, so.

 

Jack looks down at Bitty. He looks a little bit better than he had earlier, cleaned up and looking warmer with the evening sun lighting up his face, but he’s still got those awful dark circles under his eyes, almost as dark as bruises. His brows are knit together while he looks at Bitty as if he’s confused. “Are you okay?” he asks.

 

Well! Maybe that would have been a good thing to ask earlier in the woods, but it’s a little late now. “I’m fine,” Bitty says. He glances beyond Jack at the campers, then side-steps Jack and heads off in another direction, toward a picnic table that’s currently unoccupied.

 

Jack gets the idea and follows. Bitty sits on the top of the table and is glad when Jack sits on the bench. The little bit of height he has over Jack right now gives him some confidence to say what he’s been thinking about for the past few hours.

 

“I want to know what your problem with me is,” Bitty says, watching a group of girls play-wrestling off in the middle of the field.

 

Jack is silent for a minute, which is a pretty obvious warning sign, in Bitty’s eyes.

 

He hates to do this, even if he knows that he should be putting up but discrimination, but still. Better to say it now than to wait and wonder all summer. “Do you have a problem with the fact that I’m--”

“Oh!” Jack interrupts, eyes widening in what seems to be horror.  Bitty is immensely thankful he didn’t have to actually say it. “No, of course not. You definitely aren’t the only staff member in the community, either,” he says.

 

Well. Jack saying that he doesn’t have a problem with Bitty being gay doesn’t mean that he’s telling the truth, but still-- it’s nice to hear. “What’s your problem with me, then?”

 

Jack cocks his head at Bitty. “I don’t have a problem with you.”

 

“Yes, you do.”

 

“No, I--” Jack trails off and shakes his head. “I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable. I didn’t meant to do that,” he says.

 

It’s a sincere apology, and it’s better than many that Bitty has received in the past, but it’s still strange. Maybe what’s unnerving him is the fact that Jack doesn’t offer up any explanation as to why he was so rude, or about what he was doing. Bitty supposes that Jack’s not obligated to tell him everything, but that doesn’t mean he’s not curious.

 

“So you do want me here at camp?” Bitty asks, carefully. “If I’m not welcome here then don’t expect me to stick around.”

 

“No! No, Bittle, you’ve been great so far. The campers love you. The staff does, too.”

 

“Mm,” Bitty says, because he still hasn’t gotten the answer that he wants.

 

Jack cuts off for a second and looks out at the field, then up into the sky, raising a hand to shield his eyes. When he looks back down, though, he’s still blinking from the brightness of the setting sun in his eyes. “I was wrong to assume that you were too young for the responsibility of this position. I was in a bad mood when we met and I let that spill over into my first impression of you. You didn’t deserve that.”

 

And that, well. That’s actually a very mature apology, and Bitty is surprised but pleased. “Well. Apology accepted, then. But I do think you need to stop disappearing in the middle of the camp day. And keep your phone on.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Jack says. “I don’t like when it goes off when I’m trying to talk to campers. They always ask me if I have games on my phone.”

 

Bitty laughs. “I’m sure they’d leave you alone if you just tell them that you don’t have any games.”

 

“I don’t want to lie. I have Candy Crush.”

 

“Candy Crush? What is this, 2012?” Bitty asks, laughing a little. This boy, honestly.

 

Jack ducks his head, but Bitty can see from his eyes that he’s smiling.

 

Bitty’s a bit worried that Jack’s good mood will suddenly disappear again, but he decides to take advantage of it right now while has has Jack alone.

 

“Speaking of things that are dated,” Bitty starts, “I was on the camp website earlier to check the calendar, and I got to looking at the archived calendars, and I noticed that you haven’t changed anything from the past few years?” Bitty asks. In fact, he’d looked at calendars for the last ten years, and every year the camp has the exact same five session themes and what seems like the same activities for those sessions. As in, Camp Samwell hasn’t changed anything about its programming for at least a decade, although Bitty suspects that it’s been longer than that.

 

Jack frowns. “Why would we change anything?”

 

“Because plenty of kids don’t want to do the same thing year after year?” Bitty says, slowly, because Jack clearly doesn’t understand what he means.

 

“The whole point of the camp is tradition,” Jack says. “It’s always been that way.”

 

“Oh, I understand that tradition is important,” Bitty says. “I’m just sayin’, you can keep old things but also add new ones too. Like, maybe some new themes, or speciality activities. We did a little filmmaking workshop at the camp I worked last year. And a science exploration week. Or we could do a talent show! Just a little something to change things up.” He cuts off there because he knows that he’s rambling, even though he has many more ideas.

 

Jacks hums noncommittally, clearly not convinced.

 

“I think it’d really do a lot for retention and attracting new campers,” Bitty adds. “And then you could spend less time stressing about that and more time enjoying camp.” He’s going out on a bit of a limb, but he’s noticed how unhappy Jack is whenever Hall and Murray are in camp for a bit and pull him away from camper activities to talk to him. It seems like he wants more time to actually spend with the kids.

 

“Who told you about that?” Jack asks, voice sharp, a shadow falling over his expression.

 

Bitty doesn’t want to throw Shitty under the bus, but he thinks he’ll be forgiven. “Shitty told me you’ve been losing campers.”

 

Jack shakes his head and stands from the bench. “It wasn’t his place to say anything. That’s an administrative issue. It’s not your problem.”

 

“I think it certainly is my problem, Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty says, a little coldly. “I want to keep working here next year, and I can only do that if there’s still a camp to work at.”

 

Shitty hadn’t exactly told Bitty how bad the problem was, but Bitty can tell by Jack’s crestfallen expression that maybe it’s not that out of the question to assume that this might be the camp’s last year. Bitty had noticed that there certainly weren’t enough campers to fill up their cabins, and that they were cutting corners with supplies, but he hadn’t been sure how bad it was.

 

“We’re not changing things this year,” Jack says, finally, gritting his teeth a little. “It’s too risky. Parents want what they already paid for, and we don’t have the budget to buy a whole new set of supplies.”

 

“Just one or two activities, then,” Bitty says, trying not to sound like he’s begging.

 

“Maybe. Talk to Hall and Murray. I need to take care of something,” Jack says, then turns on his heels and leaves without another word.

 

Bitty shakes his head. Just when he thinks he’s gotten through to Jack, he’s right back at square one again.

 

***

 

That’s how they leave it-- with a hesitant peace built mostly on the fact that they kind of have to be on speaking terms to do their job. Bitty makes sure to never be left alone with Jack if he can help it, and as far as he can tell, nothing else strange happens.

 

In fact, for the most part, Jack acts friendly. He’s still awkward, but he jokes around with Bitty and the other counselors. He teases Bitty about his farmer’s tan when it gets so hot that he chops the sleeves off a few of his camp shirts, and he always has a couple kids hanging off of him, and he constantly ambushes counselors with water guns, which all the kids get a kick out of. It especially warms Bitty’s heart that Jack is very good with Henry, who loves to follow him around and try to get piggyback rides.

 

They manage to get through the first session without any other major disasters. Well-- there are a couple behavioral issues in Chowder’s cabin, which is not surprising for young teenagers, but Chowder is pretty good at keeping things under control. There’s also the issue of the fifth-and-sixth-grade girls’ cabin that complains about weird howling noises outside their cabin at the middle of the night, but after some failed investigation the senior staff chalks it up to overactive imagination and too much candy.

 

After the last kid leaves on the Friday of the second week, the staff members run through some quick cleanup duties, then get two nights free before campers start arriving for the next session. Bitty spends his Saturday morning sleeping in until early noon and it feels amazing. He then spends the rest of the day getting ahead on some of his lesson plans for when school starts in the fall, and then goes out to a bar a few towns over with some of the rest of senior staff that evening. All in all, come Sunday afternoon when the next session starts, Bitty’s feeling sufficiently well-rested and ready for campers to arrive.

 

This session is USA-themed, since the Fourth of July falls near the end of the first week, so their first evening activity is a barbecue. Shitty and Jack man the grills and the kids seem to have a fairly good time.

 

That night, soon after everyone retreats into the Haus to get ready for bed, Jack sends a text to the senior staff group chat, which is rare enough that Bitty reads it as soon as he gets the alert.

 

Jack (10:01pm): Might get a little rainy tomorrow. Be ready for rain plans. Shouldn’t last more than an hour or two in the afternoon.

 

Tomorrow’s evening program is a regular campfire night, which can be easily changed into evening cabin time, so Bitty’s not too concerned. He’ll just have to check in with all of the specialists to make sure their rain plan activities are going smoothly. One day of rain is annoying, but all in all, no big deal.

 

***

The rain starts at lunchtime that day with a gentle drizzle and quickly increases to a downpour. The campers enjoy splashing around in the mud and cooling down by running outside like the sky is a sprinkler. Some of the specialty sessions can be done outside and Bitty encourages those counselors to carry on as usual. Others are moved inside without too much of an issue.

 

That is, there’s no issue until the rain continues through the next day.

 

And the next day.

 

It’s Wednesday, in fact, when the thunder starts. Although campers had already gotten sick of the rain, whining about being damp and bored from too much cabin time, they still could go outside when it was just raining. Now that there’s lightning, though, they have to keep all of the kids inside-- no exceptions. It’s one of the strictest camp rules.

 

Problem is, Wednesday night’s evening activity is a camp-wide game of Fort Knox, and campers have been asking Bitty about it all week. Apparently it’s one of the camp’s biggest hits. Bitty does not want to deal with pissy campers whose favorite game got cancelled for rain.

 

It’s not the kind of activity that can be done inside-- there’s way too much running, and even the dining hall, the biggest indoor space in camp, isn’t big enough for the game to be fun.

 

Bitty tracks down Jack while he helps CITs wash dishes after lunch. Shitty is hanging around, too. They’re taking advantage of a brief break in the thunder to get the kids from the dining hall back to their cabins, so the specialist senior staff are free for a bit until they head to the cabins to help entertain.

 

Jack’s stacking plates high up in a CIT’s arms when Bitty finds him.

 

“Tango, hon,” Bitty says, “You don’t have to carry all of those in one trip. Jack’s just messing with you.”

 

“Oh,” the kid says. “Where am I bringing them, again?”

 

Another CIT, previously collecting forks, elbows Tango in the ribs. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

 

“Thanks, Whiskey,” Tango says, then follows him off into the kitchen.

 

Jack picks up a leftover bowl of an unidentifiable substance and gives it a sniff, then makes a face. He offers it to Bitty to sniff, and when Bitty shakes his head he shrugs and sets it down. “Did you need me for something?”

 

“Yes,” Bitty says. “What’s the rain plan for if the thunder lasts through Fort Knox?”

 

Jack very quickly averts Bitty’s eye contact and looks back down at the bowl. That’s not a good sign.

 

“Dear lord. Please tell me you have alternative programming,” Bitty says. “Haven’t you been doing these same plans for decades? What do you do when there’s thunder during the big camp-wide activities?”

 

“Um,” Jack says, then stiff-arms Shitty, who’s just returned from the kitchen and tries to tackle Jack.

 

“I’m sorry, you don’t have a rain plan?” Bitty asks. In all his years working as a camp counselor, he can’t remember a single time he’s ever written up an activity plan without also including a backup plan for rain.

 

“Johnson always got all the kids together in the dining hall during thunderstorms and told stories. Dude was great at them,” Shitty says.

 

“They were weird,” Jack adds.

 

Shitty shrugs. “Kids loved them, though.”

 

“Maybe we could call him and put him on speaker to tell a story, eh?” Jack says, and Bitty’s not sure if he’s serious or trying to make a joke.

 

“Absolutely not,” Bitty says.

 

“Let’s hope that it clears up,” Jack says. “The forecast shows that the thunder should be done by then. If it somehow isn’t then we’ll move Fort Knox inside.”

 

That’s a logistic nightmare and Bitty’s not going to let it happen. “I’m going to think of backups,” he says, and then turns to leave. He’s planning on bringing some board games around to different cabins, and he has to get moving. He’ll brainstorm while he drives the golf cart around and hope he doesn’t get stuck in the mud.

 

***

Bitty spends the next few hours criss-crossing camp and gathering supplies. The thunder doesn’t return, though, so he’s hesitantly hopeful that they’ll be able to play Fort Knox as planned.

 

Then, during the middle of dinner, while rain continues to beat down outside, a huge bolt of lightning lights up the entire dining hall. A few campers scream, and one or two of the other ones start crying after the ensuing booming thunder rocks the building.

 

No Fort Knox, then-- that’s for sure. The dining hall erupts with nervous chatter and out of the corner of his eye Bitty can see Jack striding up to the front of the room, megaphone in hand.

 

Bitty stands up the table where he’s been chatting with a couple girls about a pirate game they’ve been playing and speeds up to the front of the room, leaping over a bench and a few dropped hot dogs to do so. Just as Jack lifts the megaphone to his mouth Bitty grabs it out of his hand.

 

“Bittle, I need to tell everyone that we’re going to do Fort Knox inside,” Jack says, holding out his hand for Bitty to hand the megaphone back.

 

Bitty maintains his grip on it. “Change of plans,” he says, then climbs onto one of the serving tables and turns the megaphone on. “Camp Samwell, if you can hear me put your hands on your head!”

 

The chatter slowly dies down and the room gets quiet enough for Bitty to continue. “Who’s ready for the camp’s brand new, first ever, Samwell Olympics?”

 

Everyone is silent for a minute, and Bitty makes a pained face in the direction of a few counselors, who get the idea and start cheering. Most of the campers burst into conversation then, which Bitty takes as a good sign. If they’re curious, then they’ll at least be willing to try this.

Bitty gets them quiet again after a few moments and announces that they’ll be moving all the tables to the sides of the room after dinner, and asks a counselor from each cabin to come see him for more directions. Once he’s done talking the campers hurry to finish their meals and get started.

 

Bitty turns off the megaphone and gets ready to dismount the table he’s been standing on, only to find Jack in his way. “Um, excuse me?” he says.

 

“We didn’t discuss that at all,” Jack says.

 

“No, we didn’t,” Bitty agrees.

 

“I have no idea what we’re doing,” Jack says.

 

Bitty gently pats Jack’s arm to get him to move to the side and then steps down. “Good thing I wrote up some notes about what each senior staff member has to do, then. You’re going to help me with the announcing. Know anything about sports?”

 

Jack scowls. “Very funny,” he says.

 

Bitty cocks his head. “What do you mean?”

 

“Was that a joke about me, or my dad?” Jack asks.

 

“Jack, I genuinely have no idea what you mean.”

 

Jack is silent for a few seconds. “Do you not know who my dad is?”

 

“No, I have no idea who your dad is. Should I?”

 

Jack shakes his head. “Not necessarily. He was in the NHL. I thought you were making a joke.”

 

“Oh, I would never!” Bitty says. “I didn’t realize. That’s very cool, though. I actually played a little hockey in college, on my club team.” He wasn’t that good-- he really never could take a check-- but it was fun. “Did you play?”

 

“Where are those notes you were talking about?” Jack says, in such an abrupt subject change that Bitty is left reeling for a few seconds before he can think about what Jack’s asking.

 

“Oh! Yeah, in my binder, right over here,” Bitty says, and leads Jack over to where he’d left his binder. He’s got all of the supplies in the storage room of the dining hall already, but they still have plenty to set up, and quickly, before kids start getting antsy.

 

***

Samwell Olympics are, to Bitty’s delight, a huge hit. Cabins take turn competing against each other in a variety of activities while their cabin counselors coach and all the other campers sit in a huge circle around the middle of the room and watch. They do bowling with plastic bottles and a few tennis balls, a paper airplane race, badminton with a balloon, and a couple other activities. The seventh-and-eighth-grade girls cabin wins in the end, and Bitty and Jack award them with construction paper crowns during the gold medal ceremony.

 

When the event is done and it’s time to get the campers to bed, the thunder has been gone just long enough that they can rush them to their cabins. After that Bitty and the other senior staff members return to the dining hall to clean up and Bitty finds himself showered with praise for his quick and creative thinking.

 

Bitty shrugs off the compliments, although they certainly make him happy, and urges everyone to get back to the Haus and head to bed. Eventually most everything is boxed up and ready to be returned to various storage sheds across camp tomorrow when it’s light out, and Jack and Bitty are the only ones left.

 

They’ve been silent for the past few minutes, so Bitty jumps a little when Jack says, “I’ve got one of the golf carts pulled up out back. We can drive back to the Haus without getting soaked.”

 

Bitty can’t answer until he’s done trying to stifle a long yawn. “That sounds delightful.”

 

Jack leads Bitty out through the kitchen to the back of the dining hall where the cart, recently repaired by Dex, is waiting.

 

Bitty gets into the passenger seat because he’s feeling too tired to be driving right now. He hugs his binder tight to his chest and shivers. It’s cold and wet and he only has his camp t-shirt on so he’s got nothing to protect him from the elements.

 

That is, he’s got nothing until Jack shrugs out of his hoodie and drops it on Bitty’s lap.

 

“Put that on,” he says.

 

“Aren’t you cold?” Bitty asks.

 

Jack shrugs.

 

“Oh, right. You’re Canadian. How could I forget,” Bitty says, and pulls the hoodie on. It’s big, but that makes it all the better for Bitty to snuggle down in like a blanket. It’s warm from Jack’s body heat and smells like aftershave and the woods.

 

Jack chuckles at that. “Right. You’re not as well-suited to this temperature, and we can’t lose our favorite Olympics commentator.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Bitty says, while Jack starts the cart and backs away from the dining hall. “I’m glad it wasn’t too risky.”

 

“I was wrong,” Jack admits, plain and simple. “It went very well. It was great, and it even went along with the session theme.”

 

“Damn straight it did,” Bitty says.

 

“I’m thinking maybe we can add a few new activities after all,” he adds.

 

“That sounds great,” Bitty says. “We can brainstorm some plans another time? Right now I’m just about asleep on my feet.”

 

“On your butt, actually,” Jack says, just as he pulls up in front of the Haus.

 

Bitty slides off his seat and out of the golf cart, landing right in a shallow puddle that splatters his shoes and lower legs. “On my feet now.”

 

“I guess so.” Jack stops the cart and follows Bitty inside, then locks the door behind them. “Off to bed now?”

 

“Absolutely.” Bitty heads upstairs with Jack close on his heels, then pauses in the hallway when they get to their rooms and glances back at Jack. “Goodnight,” he says, softly.

 

“Goodnight, Bittle.” Jack nods and heads into his room.

 

Bitty heads in and makes quick work of brushing his teeth, then drops right into bed without getting changed. He just barely manages to kick off his shoes before he falls asleep.

 

He sleeps peacefully for a few hours, then suddenly jerks awake with no warning. He’s bleary and exhausted and confused, and it takes him a few minutes to find his phone in his tangle of sheets. He hits the home button and blinks unhappily at the too-bright light, but when his eyes adjust he sees it’s just past three in the morning, and he’s unsure what woke him.

 

Then a loud creak sounds from the hallway. The Haus is old enough that it can let out some impressively loud creaks and groans. Bitty sits up and stays very still while he listens for more noise.

 

Silence for a second, then a soft thud, followed by another creak, and then another, and another, and it sounds like it’s right outside of Bitty’s door.

 

Whoever’s out there is seriously messing with Bitty’s head. He figures it’s probably Ransom or Holster come down from the attic, so he gets up, bare feet freezing against the hardwood, and pads over to his door. He’s a little bit afraid of what’s awaiting on the other side, but he takes a deep breath, then throws open the door.

 

Someone’s standing right outside and it’s not Ransom or Holster at all.

 

Bitty clamps his hand over his mouth to keep from screaming as his pulse jumps to an alarming rate, because for a moment he doesn’t recognize the large shape lumbering in front of him, but once his vision clears from the panic of the first glance he realizes that it’s Jack.

 

He’s not facing Bitty, thank god. Instead he’s looking out the window at the end of the hall in between their rooms. What’s more than that, Bitty notices after a few seconds of staring, is that he’s absolutely soaking wet, dripping from his clothes and hair onto the threadbare hall carpet.

 

As Bitty watches he takes another step closer to the window, staring outside like he’s entranced. Bitty must be visible in his peripheral vision, but if Jack notices him he doesn’t say anything.

 

Eventually, Bitty clears his throat. “Jack,” he says, quietly, since he doesn’t want to wake anyone else.

 

Jack doesn’t answer.

 

“Jack!” Bitty says, voice now at more of a stage whisper. Jack still doesn’t respond, doesn’t even acknowledge him, so he steps forward and tugs on Jack’s damp sleeve.

 

Finally, Jack responds-- in fact, he flinches like he’s been struck. His eyes lose the strange glazed look they had before and he looks down at Bitty. “Bittle?” he says.

 

“Oh, honey.” Bitty pats his arm gently. He’s freezing. “Do you sleepwalk?”

 

Jack nods, looking a little sheepish. “Sometimes.”

 

“We oughta start locking your door so you can’t get out!” Bitty says.

 

“Maybe,” Jack says, then yawns. “I should try to get back to bed.”

 

“Me too,” Bitty says, but neither of them move.

 

Jack looks down a little, and Bitty realizes with a start that he’s still wearing Jack’s hoodie. “Oh-- I’ll give this back to you!” he says, already starting to tug it up over his head. “This might warm you up a little bit. Thanks for letting me borrow it.”

 

“No problem,” Jack says. “Well. Goodnight for real now, hopefully.” He disappears back into his room and Bitty is left standing on a wet carpet, shivering a little without the hoodie.

 

Before he heads back into his room he takes a glance out the window. He’s a little worried about what he’ll see, but it’s dark enough from the overcast sky that he can’t see much, only the vague smudgy outlines of the Big Hill and the other mountains and hills beyond it. No-- there's something moving in the sky, just above the hill. Bitty leans forward, far enough that his nose bumps into the freezing glass, and squints out into the darkness.

 

There's nothing there. It's just a moving cloud, almost indiscernible against the dark sky and the other dark clouds moving around the area. Bitty can't imagine what it was that Jack was looking at, if he was able to see anything at all while sleepwalking.

 

Poor Jack. He’s going to be exhausted tomorrow, Bitty thinks, yawning again as he returns to his room and falls back into bed.

 

It isn’t until he’s just on the edge of sleep, snuggled tight under his many blankets, that he thinks to wonder how it is that Jack managed to get down the Haus stairs without falling while sleepwalking.

 

What a strange man. A good heart, Bitty thinks, but strange.

Chapter Text

When the first week of the session passes and the rain still hasn’t let up, Bitty starts to get to the end of his patience. The kids are getting horrifically antsy. His voice is hoarse from shouting at them, he’s shivering and chilly all the time, and all he wants is a warm bed, Netflix, and a bottle or two of wine just for himself.

 

What he gets instead is the beginning of a cold (which is totally unfair because it’s July ) and an increasingly irritated set of cabin staff who don’t seem to realize that he’s running out of ideas on how to entertain the kids.

 

Today it’s Maple-- Nursey and Dex’ cabin. They’ve been having behavioral issues since the beginning of the camp season and they haven’t improved much this session, since most of the kids from the first two weeks are signed up for the whole summer. All of the cabins are supposed to have extended cabin time after lunch because it’s still been thundering too much for Open Waterfront to happen. The problem is that this feels like the millionth time that Camp Samwell has had extended cabin time this week, and these kids are getting bored enough that basic mischief isn’t cutting it anymore.

 

Bitty already has his hands full, but when both Nursey and Dex come up to him during lunch and beg him to help out for the afternoon, he agrees-- he’s never seen the two of them agree on anything before, so this must be serious.

 

Bitty instructs them to lead their boys through lunch cleanup as usual, then wait at their table in the dining hall. While the building fills with the sounds of campers clearing tables and using mops and buckets to make more messes than they started out with, Bitty goes to chat with kitchen staff for a few minutes.

 

Eventually, the big dining room clears and Bitty returns to Maple’s table. He’s always a little intimidated by this group, although he sure as hell knows not to show it. He’s just a little bit too intimately familiar with how pubescent boys can make life living hell for anyone they decide to target.

 

“Alright, gentlemen!” Bitty says, clapping his hands together. “I asked your cabin counselors to keep you around because I have a job for y’all. Do you think you can handle it?”

 

Two of the boys nod while the others stare blankly at Bitty or fiddle with their water bottles and backpack straps. Right. Bitty’s been working with the youngest campers at CSW all morning, so he’s still operating as if he has a group of little kids who will eagerly respond to anything shouted in the right tone. This age group seems like it might requires a slightly different approach.

 

Or maybe a little bit of teamwork. Bitty glances at Nursey and Dex, who are sitting at the back of the table, and gives them a very pointed look.

 

“What’s the job, Bitty?” Nursey prompts.

 

“Gee, I thought you’d never ask!” Bitty says. “The dishwasher in the kitchen has been broken for a few days and if we don’t get it fixed soon, we’re going to have to start making all of y’all wash dishes by hand, which I’m sure none of you want.”

 

Dex facepalms, because he already knows what’s coming.

 

“I’m sure all of you handy young men want to be able to know your way around a toolkit, so you’re going to help Dex fix it. I want everyone to at least check it out, but if you’re not interested in that kind of thing--” Bitty cuts off, realizing that he hadn’t planned this far. These kids are too old for paper and crayons, unless you trick them into thinking they’re doing something cool. Hmm. “If you’re not interested in fixing stuff, then I’m going to teach you how to make a paper airplane that can do flips.”

 

He doesn’t get the enthusiastic response that he hoped for, but the resistance is more in the form of mild eyerolls than actual outrage, so Bitty counts this as a victory. He sends Dex off with a little more than half of the cabin and then leaves Nursey with the other campers while he runs to grab his binder, where he always keeps a little loose-leaf paper stashed in case of boredom-related emergencies. Usually the paper ends up as another victim of Bitty ripping and tearing and fidgeting because ADHD can be a challenge during long staff meetings, but it’s nice that it’s being used for its actual intended purpose today.

 

Bitty spends the next ten or so minutes walking the campers through folding a set of fairly respectable paper airplanes and then sends them off to test them out in the middle of the big dining room. The ceilings are high enough that getting planes caught in the rafters shouldn’t be  concern. At least, Bitty hopes so.

 

While the campers are occupied, Bitty sits down at the cabin table next to Nursey. He and Dex may be co-counselors, but Dex seems to be dragged away from his cabin more often than not because of his lifeguarding duties and also the fact that the camp couldn’t fit a maintenance staff in the budget this year. Basically, if Bitty’s going to be getting any sort of answers about what’s going on with Maple, then Nursey’s his man.

 

“How’s the book going?” Bitty starts. He doesn’t get the chance to chat with cabin staff nearly as much as he’d like, but he does try to know at least a little about each counselor so he can make conversation when the moment strikes. He knows that Nursey is working on a novel right now, jotting notes down in a notebook he keeps by his side at all times and typing them up during the short breaks between sessions.

 

“Eh, so-so. I’m at a bit of a block right now,” Nursey says, looking past Bitty. His eyes move in a lazy circle while he watches a paper plane loop somewhere over Bitty’s right shoulder.

 

“Anything that would help?” Bitty asks.

 

Nursey hums. “I really think I just need to find the right music for the tone I’m going for. It’s hard because being here at camp just makes me want to listen to Sufjan. You know what I mean?”

 

Bitty doesn’t, and he shrugs and admits it. “I’m more of a Beyoncé guy myself, but I understand. Have you asked Dex if he has any ideas?”

 

Nursey snorts. “Bits, you wouldn’t believe the kind of music he listens to. It’s all either fu--” he cuts off, realizing that their are campers in earshot. “It’s all either freaking awful I-Wanna-Bang-My-Truck country, or else bad 80s dad rock. It’s so extra.”

 

Bitty laughs a little at that. “He could probably share a playlist or two with Jack. That kinda thing is all he listens to in the shower. I swear I’m gonna switch out everything on his iPod for some modern stuff while he’s not looking.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Nursey says, raising an eyebrow. He’s clearly waiting for Bitty to go into more detail about the Haus, which is treated by all junior staff with a mix of reverence and curiosity.

 

“Hon, I could rant for hours about who uses all the hot water and who leaves dirty dishes in the sink, but we don’t have time for that. I need to know what’s up with your boys,” Bitty says, as much as he does want to gossip. There are already enough senior staff rumors, though-- he shouldn’t add any more fuel to the fire.

 

Nursey raises his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, I’ll stop fishing for the hot gossip.” He lowers his voice so only Bitty can hear him. “I mean, at this point, we’re mainly dealing with a couple boys who egg each other on to do dumb shit.”

 

“What kind of dumb shit?”

 

“Pulling pranks on each other. Throwing rocks at squirrels. All those things that 12-year-olds think make them cool. Plus, now that they’ve been stuck inside so much, they’re starting to argue with each other.”

 

Bitty cringes. “And you’ve been following camp procedure for de-escalating conflict?”

 

“Yeah, man. Word for word. It’s helped a little, but like, they’re still going to keep doing it.”

 

Bitty nods. He wishes, not for the first time this summer, that he was at the camp in Massachusetts he worked at during his undergrad summers. They’d truly had a full camp staff there, including a child psychologist. Bitty’s certain that a little bit of expertise would be helpful in determining what the root problems were here, and what sort of programming solutions they could execute.

 

As it is, he’s got a hundred other antsy campers to deal with, and he worries that he doesn’t have the time to dedicate to talking one-on-one with each camper to figure that out. At least for this summer, he’s going to have to settle for doing what he can to prevent any major problems.

 

“Is there anything they’ve been doing that you think could cause any safety concerns? Other than the rock throwing?” he asks. He’s mainly worried about potential bullying, since that could have severe consequences, both physically and psychologically.

 

“Um,” Nursey says. Bitty can’t tell if he’s hesitant to tell the truth or just unsure of how to word his answer.

 

“I’m waiting,” Bitty says, after a second, teacher-voice fully employed.

 

“It’s the dares,” Nursey says. “We caught a couple of them trying to sneak out last night.”

 

Bitty narrows his eyes. “You had campers sneaking out of the cabin after dark and you didn’t tell me?”

 

“We caught them before they even got out the door!” Nursey says, quickly. “And we were going to tell Jack, but then he was busy helping Ransom with the zipline all morning, and you were busy helping Holster with the play, and we just didn’t get around to it.”

 

“Thank you for telling me now,” Bitty says, because he figures he ought to say it. “I’d really prefer you tell me right when it happens next time, though. That’s a big safety concern. Do you know what they were aiming to do?”

 

Nursey shrugs. “It’s an old camp-- there’s a lot of dares. I’ve only been here as a CIT and a counselor, so I don’t think I’ve even heard the half of it.”

 

“Any you’ve heard your campers discussing?”

 

“Dex and I have been trying to eavesdrop, but they’re getting good and talking when we aren’t there to listen. Getting in one of the rowboats and rowing to that mansion across the lake is one. And like, every dare about the Big Hill.”

 

“Do you know the details of those?”

 

Again, Nursey shrugs. Bitty’s going to have to do some more snooping around to get to the bottom of this, he thinks.

 

After a minute Nursey rubs his thumb against the stubble on his chin, and says, “It’s all for the sake of being the coolest boy in camp, you know? Not backing down even though you’re scared, just for the sake of looking tough. It really sucks how early toxic masculinity gets its grips on them, you know?”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Bitty nods. “Believe me-- I know.”

 

They sit in silence and think for a few moments until a hand on Bitty’s shoulder knocks him out of his own thoughts. It’s one of of the kids who had opted to fold airplanes-- Brendan or Brandon or Brennan or something along those lines. “Yes?” Bitty asks.

 

The kid holds up his airplane. The nose is completely smashed in. “Do you have any more paper?” he asks.

 

Bitty reaches for his binder and finds that he does not, in fact, have anymore. “I don’t think so,” he says, because he likes to be honest to campers, “and I can’t promise I’ll find any, but I’ll go check to see if there’s any in the storage closet. Can you help moderate the airplane contest until then?”

 

Brendan nods vigorously, then turns to do his newly-assigned job with enthusiasm.

 

Bitty gives Nursey a pained smile, then gets up and heads to the back of the dining hall, past the bathrooms, into a musty hallway that contains several doors, including ones leading into the kitchen, basement, and several that Bitty isn’t quite able to identify.

 

He’s pretty sure there’s a storage closet at the end of the hallway where they keep some extra arts and crafts supplies. He hums to himself while he walks down the hallway. There’s a little bit of water pooled in some crevices in the ancient concrete floor, which is probably a structural concern that Bitty should tell the administrators about at some point. He files that knowledge away in the back of his head and carefully toes his way around a puddle, and that’s when he hears it.

 

A sniffle. Bitty freezes and tilts his head, ears at full attention now. A few seconds of silence, and then what is undoubtedly a choked sob.

 

Bitty steps right in the puddle, socks soaked instantly, as he strides toward the nearest door. It resists him at first, jammed most likely because of age and poor maintenance, but his adrenaline is a damn strong force and he eventually manages to give a hard enough tug to pull it open. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim closet, but he finally manages to focus on a small moving dark shape tucked between a broom and a cardboard box.

 

“Henry?!” Bitty exclaims.

 

The kid looks up, and Bitty’s heart falls because he looks less like a little boy and a lot more like a frightened animal. He’s always looked small for his age and pale, but it’s even more obvious right now, and although this entire scene is incredibly troubling, what bothers Bitty the most is that for a second he feels like he’s both of them-- both the crying child trapped in the closet and the adult come to save him.

 

Henry doesn’t move toward the light, but Bitty doesn’t blame him. He’s probably terrified.

 

Bitty quickly drops down to kneel. The smaller and less intimidating he looks, the better. He glances back over his shoulder. Camp Samwell, like most childcare businesses, has a strict Rule of Three-- counselors aren’t supposed to be alone with campers. This is an extenuating circumstance, but still. Bitty needs to get him out of there as soon as possible.

 

“Hey, Henry,” he says. “How long have you been in here?”

 

Henry shrugs. “A few minutes,” he says, after a moment.

 

Part of the weight that Bitty hasn’t been aware was on his chest lifts. Okay. “I’m glad I found you, then!” he says. The next few questions are a little bit more difficult, though, but he decides to be blunt. “Did someone lock you in here?”

 

Henry shakes his head no. Thank god. “I came in here to hide, but the door got stuck.”

 

Another gentle sigh from Bitty. This is still bad, but this isn’t what he experienced. It isn’t happening again, as much as it still feels like he’s reliving that awful moment from middle school.

 

“Why were you hiding?” Bitty asks, once he manages to clear his thoughts enough to remember what he’s doing here.

 

This time, Henry ducks his head and speaks into the front of his shirt, mumbling, “The other guys were being mean.”

 

“Which guys?” Bitty prompts.

 

Henry shrugs again, and Bitty doesn’t expect that he’ll be able to get a more specific answer from him immediately. Fear is a strong weapon, and Henry is old enough to know what happens to a tattletale. It breaks Bitty’s heart.

 

“What did they do, Henry?”

 

“Pushed me around,” Henry mumbles. “Wouldn’t let me hang out with them.”

 

Bitty nods. Henry doesn’t look visibly hurt, just shaken up, but that doesn’t mean damage hasn’t been done. “Okay, thank you for telling me. I’m going to talk to your cabin counselors and we’re going to figure something out, okay?”

 

“No!” Henry says, lifting his head quickly, eyes darkening. “Don’t tell them.”

 

Bitty raises his hands in the universal motion for a surrender. He doesn’t want to make Henry’s life more of a living hell than it already is. “Okay. I promise that I won’t tell them who it was that told me that there’s bullying happening, okay? I’m just going to make sure everyone gets a talking to. I won’t name names, so they won’t get mad at you. And if they do, then they have to answer to me, okay?”

 

Henry seems doubtful, but he nods.

 

“Do you want to come out now?” Bitty asks. He offers a hand to help Henry up.

 

Henry looks at Bitty’s hand suspiciously for a moment before he takes it with his own cold hand and lets Bitty tug him to his feet. The kid goes bow-legged and for a moment it seems like his legs aren’t going to be able to support him. Something deep in Bitty’s body, young and scared and all too familiar with this, tenses painfully.

 

Once Henry’s on his feet, he pulls away from Bitty, determined to walk on his own despite how shaky he is. Bitty follows close behind as they walk back down the hallway and into the main room, and Henry takes a seat at the table while Bitty heads over to Nursey, who’s helping a kid color in the wings of his plane with a crayon.

 

“Nursey,” he says, voice stern. “A word, please.”

 

Nursey leaves the kid to finish his drawing on his own and stands up, brushing the knees of his denim cut-offs. “What’s up?”

 

Bitty takes Nursey by the arm and marches him a few yards away, where the kids can’t hear. “There’s definitely very blatant bullying going on in your cabin. The kid they’re targeting didn’t want me to name names,” Bitty says, in a whisper, with a very subtle nod in the direction of the table where Henry is now sitting, “but you need to deal with it.”

 

Nursey swallows once and nods. “Um. What kind of bullying?”

 

“Physical, and a lot of exclusion, it seems like. I’m thinking maybe I’ll send Ransom to you guys tomorrow and work on team building adventure activities with y’all. And I need you to keep an eye on everyone and work out who’s the cause. Then me and Jack will talk about disciplinary action.”

 

“Alright,” Nursey says, nodding. Then he tilts his head and looks down at Bitty, brow furrowed. “Are you okay? You look really pale.”

 

Now that the adrenaline of the moment is gone, in fact, Bitty’s feeling worse than a little pale. He’s feeling like there’s a lump in his throat that’s never going to go away and he needs to sit down. “I need to be alone,” he says, because he absolutely cannot have a panic attack in front of campers. “I’m sorry-- I need to go.”

 

“Let me know if you need anything!” Nursey calls out while Bitty rushes to grab his binder and head out of the dining hall through the main door.

 

Once outside he drops to his knees, then back to sit down on the pavement right outside, with his back against the wood siding of the hall next to the doors. He can’t breathe. Jesus Christ, he can’t breathe. He curls up and clenches his eyes shut and tries to remind himself that he’s not trapped in an equipment closet in his middle school, waiting for his daddy’s boys to open up the door and tell him that they were only kiddin’, it’s all a joke, Dicky, relax.

 

That doesn’t happen. Bitty’s 24 years old and he’s not trapped anywhere.

 

Eventually, the fog clears from his brain, and he feels less like he’s being crushed by a pickup truck. He lifts his head and takes a few shuddered breaths while he listens to the gentle rain falling just a few feet away where he overhang of the dining hall roof ends.

 

He’s safe. Everything’s okay. Isn’t it?

 

Just then, his phone goes off. Bitty’s hands are still shaky while he fumbles for it in his pocket. It’s a text alert, from Jack. Bitty swipes it open and it only takes two tries to type his passcode. He sees that it’s not a text to the senior staff group, but rather one just to Bitty. Jack’s been doing that more and more recently.

 

Jack (1:58 pm): What does dabbing mean? Why do campers keep asking me to do it? Is it a drug?

 

Bitty can’t help but laugh at that and the feeling lifts something in his chest. He can’t wait to tease Jack for his later. Maybe things are okay after all.

 

***

 

Gradually the rain begins to let up. Constant thunderstorms fade into scattered showers and light drizzles, and by the last day of the session the clouds clear and the campers have a few hours to blink up at the unfamiliar sunlight and run around in the puddles all around camp before their parents come to pick them up. Bitty helps to oversee the entire process of escorting parents around to find their kids and make sure no items get left behind. He keeps a bright, toothy smile pasted on his face the entire time, but when the last kid is finally driven away, he collapses onto the (very wet) grass in front of the Haus and splays his arms and legs out.

 

“You okay, man?” Lardo asks, giving Bitty’s ankle a gentle kick.

 

“I think I’m dying,” Bitty says.

 

“Oh. So the cold hasn’t gone away?”

 

Instead of answering, Bitty groans. The sniffle he’d developed over the past week has only gotten worse, and now he’s dealing with not only a constantly runny nose, but also a nasty cough and a sinus headache that no amount of hydration and DayQuil seems to be helping.

 

A loud and wiggly body lands in the grass next to Bitty and engulfs him in a hug. It’s Shitty, and he rumples up Bitty’s hair despite his protests. “Does that mean you’re not coming out with us?” he asks Bitty while they wrestle gently.

 

“I don’t think so,” Bitty says, then sneezes on Shitty before he has a chance to cover his face. This proves more effective than pushing him, because he immediately grimaces and backs away.

 

It’s a shame, really. Bitty doesn’t consider himself a heavy or frequent drinker-- his undergraduate days of partying with his club hockey team are far behind him-- but he was really looking forward to having a chance to get a little tipsy and dance. It’d be a nice way to unwind after the week he’s had. All of the senior staff members had planned this trip since day two of the rain, and they’re driving forty minutes to another town to reduce the chance of being seen by anyone who might recognize them as camp staff.

 

It’ll be a lot of fun, but all Bitty wants at this point is to sit on the couch in the Haus in a nest of blankets with the heat turned up and maybe drink a nice warm mug of hot cocoa. Ideally, he’ll be in bed by 10pm and he’ll be able to sleep peacefully without worrying about any troublesome kids.

 

Well. Maybe he’ll worry a little bit, but hopefully he’ll be able to fall asleep with ease, because he really needs to rest and recuperate before the next session starts.

 

“You know, Jack isn’t coming out with us, either,” Shitty starts, and Bitty already doesn’t like his tone.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Bitty sits up. He can feel that some of the still-damp grass is stuck to the back of his neck and t-shirt. “I’m sure he’s going to be very busy all night romping around the woods and acting like a serial killer.”

 

“Yo, Jack’s definitely not a serial killer,” Lardo says. “I thought that my first year working here, too, but like, he’s not that kind of person.”

 

Bitty isn’t thoroughly convinced, even though Lardo does seem to be a fairly good judge of character. What would she know, though? Jack might be a very polite Canadian psychopath who does an excellent job hiding bodies in the woods.

 

Bitty files that possibility neatly into the back of the brain. He may not want to go out searching for human remains, but he doesn’t think the local police will take too kindly for him running into the station with some wild accusations about a coworker. Maybe he’ll just need to confront Jack eventually-- surely he must have a rational explanation for all of the sneaking around he does.

 

“Maybe so,” Bitty finally says. “But I’m sure he already has something to do tonight.”

 

“As of about twenty minutes ago when I was talking to him, he didn’t,” Shitty says, like the smartass he is. “You two should hang.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know if I’ll be very nice company tonight,” Bitty says. “I just wanna watch a movie and go to bed.”

 

“Jack loves movies,” Shitty says.

 

“And beds,” Lardo adds. “Probably.”

 

Bitty’s not sure what she’s trying to imply, but he flushes a little either way. “We’ll see. I don’t think Jack likes me very much, is the thing.”

 

Shitty mock-gasps. “Itty Bitty! You wound me with your false words!”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Jack really likes you, brah!”

 

Bitty stares Shitty down. “I don’t think so. He just likes telling me when I’m doing something wrong. And glaring at me. And pretending he hates my ideas.”

 

“Nah, man,” Lardo says. “He talks to me about you all the time. He loves your ideas once he thinks about them. It’s just a lot for him to get used to, I think. He’s not used to change.”

 

“Yeah. Like, I know he was harsh at first, but he’s really warmed up to you,” Shitty adds. “He was never this close to Johnson. They worked separately usually.”

 

Hmm. Well. All of this may be true, but it’s certainly news to Bitty. “If he likes me then he sure has a funny way of showing it,” Bitty says, then gets to his feet and brushes some more wet grass off his bare legs. “Well, I’m soaked clean through and freezing now, so I’m going to take a warm shower before I catch my death. Y’all have a nice time at the bar, okay?”

 

Shitty and Lardo wave him off and he turns to go into the Haus. He’s got about an hour to use all the hot water he wants before everyone comes inside to shower before they leave for the bar, and he’s hoping to be snuggled in bed for a short nap while they get ready. As soon as he’s upstairs he locks his door and heads for the bathroom he shares with Cam and Lardo.

 

The thing is, the warm shower is a lot more relaxing than Bitty expected, so by the time he’s dried off and dressed in comfy joggers and a hoodie, he’s sleepy enough that he collapses into bed without setting an alarm.

 

He sleeps peacefully for nearly three hours, and only wakes up when the loud sound of the front door being slammed shut reverberates throughout the Haus. The sound jerks him out of his sleep and he’s almost overcome with rage at being woken up until he props himself up on his elbows so he can lean to see the clock on his nightstand and realizes that it’s dinnertime, so he might as well be awake anyway.

 

Lord. Bitty hopes he didn’t completely wreck his sleep schedule by napping too long. He untangles himself from his sheets and pads out of his room through the open door into the hallway, then grips the railing tightly while he heads downstairs.

 

A quick walk-through of the first floor shows him that the Haus is empty. Whoever slammed the door must have been heading outside, then. It’s been a few minutes, so they’re probably gone by now, but curiosity gets the best of Bitty and he heads out the front door, treading lightly with his bare feet on the damp, weathered wood of the porch. It hasn’t started raining again, but the sky is still gray and overcast with cloud cover, so the air hasn’t warmed up very much. Bitty is grateful for his soft hoodie.

 

He stands on the edge of the porch and looks around, but the camp is empty-- only a few cars are in the parking lot, and the only ones that he recognizes are his own and Jack’s. Oh, right. Jack is probably the one who was in the Haus, he figures.

 

Just as Bitty turns to head back inside, an awful metallic screech breaks into the previously quiet evening air. Bitty cringes at the sound. Whatever it is, it sounds like it needs a generous helping of oil, and maybe entirely new hinges.

 

Bitty turns and heads down the porch steps. The sound came from the side of the Haus, he thinks, so he rounds the corner to make sure that some poor animal hasn’t gotten itself stuck in machinery or something. What he finds isn’t a racoon or a squirrel, however, but Jack, climbing up from the Haus basement through the exterior metal doors built into the ground next to that side of the Haus.

 

“Jack!” Bitty says. “Gosh, I’m surprised those doors aren’t completely rusted shut.”

 

Jack freezes with one foot on the stairs leading down and another up on the wet grass, as if he’s a deer in the headlights. Looking closer, Bitty realizes that he’s got an armful of papers, some bound together with twine or stuffed in yellowing folders, others loosely stacked.

 

When it becomes clear that he either didn’t hear Bitty properly or just isn’t going to answer, Bitty asks, “Do you need help carrying any of that?”

 

Now, Jack shakes his head no quickly. “Could you close the door, though?” he asks.

 

Bitty nods and heads over to the metal door. It’s heavy and he’s hesitant to grip it tightly because he’s a little bit worried about getting tetanus or something, but he manages to gently grasp the handles and heave it shut. He glances down into the basement while he does so. It’s pitch black, and he gets a deep whiff of must that wafts out as the door closes. He can’t imagine how Jack was able to see at all down there, but he doesn’t really want to ask.

 

When he turns back away from the door, Jack is already walking around to the front of the Haus. Bitty has to half-jog to catch up to him. As he does so, he remembers what Shitty had told him.

 

“Are you doing anything tonight?” he asks.

 

“Not really,” Jack says. “Just thinking about making dinner.”

 

“I was gonna whip up some pasta and a pie, then maybe watch a movie. Would you want to join me?”

 

Jack considers this for a moment. “Sounds like a lot of carbs.”

 

“Oh, trust me. You’ll live.”

 

“Okay, then. As long as I get to pick the movie.”

 

“You strike a hard bargain, Mr. Zimmermann,” Bitty says. “I think I can work with that, though.”

 

And so Jack brings his papers upstairs and gets changed out of his camp clothes and into something more comfortable, and they spend the next hour making dinner together. Bitty enlists Jack to help him with the pie-making process and although Jack protests, he’s not all that bad at baking. He’s a little devil, though, flicking water at Bitty when he isn’t looking and purposely grabbing a wooden spoon when Bitty asks for a rolling pin.

 

Eventually, despite Jack’s antics, they manage to sit down in front of the Haus television with steaming plates of pasta and a pie in the oven. Jack sorts through the Haus DVD collection and settles on Titanic.

 

“Do you want to see my cry?” Bitty says, with mock dismay.

 

“Maybe,” Jack says. Then, straight-faced: “I love Celine Dion.”

 

Bitty gives in and they pop the movie into the player and settle down. By the time the opening credits have ended, Bitty’s curiosity is back full force. “What were all of those papers for?”

 

“Oh, uh.” Jack shrugs, which isn’t an answer, and then amends it, saying, “We keep a lot of old camp records down there. Pictures and camp yearbooks and stuff.”

 

“Camp yearbooks?”

 

“We don’t do them anymore, but we used to hire a camp photographer and get them printed for families of campers every year. We don’t have the budget for it anymore, so usually I just take some pictures and put them up on the camp website now.”

 

That makes sense. Bitty has seen Jack wandering camp with his fancy camera a few times, and has been the subject of a few of the photos, much to his dismay, since he’s usually awfully sweaty and a hot mess whenever Jack photographs him.

 

“What are you doing with all of them, then?” Bitty asks.

 

Jack shrugs again. “Just researching camp history. I, uh, work with the town historian a lot. We’re working on a book about the town and I’m going to write the chapter about the camp.”

 

“That’s very cool!” Bitty says. “Is that, um, what you do during the year?” He hasn’t really had a chance to ask up until now, but it’s definitely a little strange that he doesn’t know what Jack does for a living when camp isn’t in session.

 

“Sort of?” Jack says, seemingly unsure of his own answer. “I teach some classes at the community center, and I volunteer at the library, and I shadow the historian. I’m taking over when she retires from the job.”

 

“Sounds like you’re very involved in the community!” Bitty says, which is true, although part of his brain is automatically doing the math and is unsure how Jack makes a living off of that.

 

Then again, he knows who Jack’s dad is now, since he’s done a little bit of Googling since Jack admitted that his dad was in the NHL back in the day. Bitty supposes that Jack is independently wealthy enough to do whatever he wants, really and that makes him wonder why Jack still works at Camp Samwell. He’s struck again by how much Jack really, truly loves the camp. He seems to have dedicated a very large portion of his life to it.

 

“And you teach, right?” Jack asks.

 

“Yes!” Bitty says. “Home Economics over at the middle school. I start this fall.”

 

“Sounds fun.” Jack goes silent, and they watch the charmingly boyish Leonardo DiCaprio on screen.

 

“How’d you end up going to camp here, anyway?” Bitty asks a few minutes later. Even if he hadn’t read Bad Bob’s Wikipedia page, he’d be able to tell from Jack’s accent alone that he spend most of his childhood in Canada.

 

“I lived near Montreal during the school year. My parents have a summer home here on the lake and they had to find something for me to do over the summer, so I came to camp. From when I was eight to when I was-- the summer I turned fifteen, I think.”

 

Jack’s a few years older than Bitty, he’s fairly certain. That’s about twenty years of Camp Samwell experience, if Bitty’s doing the math correctly, if he went straight to being a CIT after aging out of being a camper.

 

He’s not sure if that’s exactly what Jack did, though. “That must have been fun!” Bitty is just starting to think of how to phrase a follow-up question, but at that moment, the oven buzzer goes off. “Our pie!” he says, rising to his feet.

 

Jack stands as well, and for a moment they’re standing inches away from each other. Bitty finds himself staring at Jack’s chest, so he lifts his head and gives Jack a playful smirk. “You’re just trying to get in my way now, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes,” Jack says, using his arm to box Bitty off from stepping around him to get to the kitchen.

 

Bitty gives him a little shove and Jack gently pulls Bitty into something that’s half headlock, half hug. He’s warm and pliant and Bitty can’t help but sink into his arms, just for a moment, because he’s so comfortable there. He can feel the heat of Jack’s skin underneath his thin t-shirt, and if he leans his head back just so he hears the gentle thud of Jack’s heartbeat. The rhythm alone could lull him to sleep, he thinks.

 

He’s head over heels for Jack Zimmermann.

 

A second after he realizes this, he jerks away from Jack’s arms, sudden enough that Jack stops playing around and lets him go. Bitty spins around, ignoring Jack’s confused look. “I don’t want the pie to burn,” he mumbles.

 

Jack follows him to the kitchen and Bitty is very committed to avoiding eye contact. Sweet Jesus, he cannot be falling for Jack. He’s been so busy getting his career started that he hasn’t had time for a real relationship in years, so he’s undoubtedly far behind everyone else in his age group as far as emotional maturity. Besides, dating a camp coworker is a huge mistake, especially when they’re both in charge and supposed to be setting a good example for the rest of the staff. And it’s Jack, who Bitty hardly knows a thing about! Bitty still doesn’t trust Jack not to snap at him at the drop of a hat!

 

In fact, as far as Bitty knows, Jack is very straight. Bitty’s had his fair share of crushing on straight boys in his lifetime. He should be experienced enough to know by now that it’s a big mistake to even dream about it.

 

This is a mistake. This is a huge mistake. Bitty’s just going to have to do a very good job at ignoring this little crush and hope that it goes away. It’s the safest way to proceed.

 

He plates them each a slice of pie and they return to the living room, where Bitty is careful to leave a roomy three feet between Jack and himself on the couch, although it seems like Jack is getting closer and closer as the film goes on. Bitty never catches him moving, though, so he’s sure he’s imagining it. He’s just hyper-aware, is all.

 

They’re silent for maybe half an hour before Bitty gives in. He always has been a nervous talker, after all. “So, are you excited for next session’s theme?”

 

“Color Wars?” Jack confirms, then continues after Bitty’s nods, “It’s my favorite.”

 

“Have you had a chance to look at the weather for the week?” This is a bit of a pointless question, since out of all the senior staff, Jack is the one who dutifully checks several local weather channels and apps every morning and texts updates about temperatures and precipitation. He’s a little bit neurotic about it, especially after last week.

 

Surprisingly, though, Jack just shrugs. “We always get good weather for Color Wars,” he says, with a level of irrational assuredness that feels strange.

 

“Well. If you say so, then,” Bitty says. He has no real reason to believe Jack about this, but he’s starting to get the idea that Jack knows a lot more about what goes on at camp than anyone else.

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning Bitty steps outside to start setting up for the next session and finds that, despite the odds, it’s charmingly sunny out. The Haus has been chilly so he’s wearing an old college hoodie over his camp shirt, but the moment he steps off the Haus steps and into the sun he finds that he’s warm enough to take off the extra layer.

 

It’s a good sign, Bitty thinks. He and Jack spent Saturday going over plans for Color Wars, and although Bitty considers himself to be a fairly creative and innovative person, he knows there are plenty of camp traditions for the session that he’d never be able to adapt to be done inside. Even with decent weather, Bitty’s still more nervous than he’s been since the first day of camp. This is Camp Samwell’s most popular session, and more kids are signed up than any other session during the summer. The stakes feel a lot higher.

 

Basically, Bitty has to be the best color team leader possible, which is a challenge, because his competition is Jack. The co-directors lead the two teams and Bitty has already been warned by several seasoned staff members that Jack goes hard for Color Wars. Bitty has a lot to live up to.

 

That’s the main reason why Bitty is now dressed head-to-toe in red clothing-- red Samwell shirt, red bandana, red sunglasses, red face paint, red converse, red knee socks, all of it. His shorts, regrettably, are maroon. He’d looked for more but the Walmart in town didn’t have any in the firetruck shade he was going for.

 

It’s fine. He’d ended up raiding the women’s section for some red leggings, but he’s not breaking those out until later in the session. He figures he has to hold off somewhat and really peak during the final Color Wars competition, which is a campwide Capture the Flag tournament next week.

 

Bitty heads across the parking lot to clamber up onto the back of Jack’s truck, since they’d picked up a few more color decorations from Walmart as well because they’d found yesterday that some water damage in one of the storage sheds had destroyed some of the decorations from last year. Bitty had watched their shopping cart fill with more and more items during the trip and kept a mental calculation of their total. He knew they didn’t have the budget to cover that much.

 

Then at the checkout, just when Bitty had reached alarming levels of panic, Jack whipped a credit card out of his wallet-- one that definitely wasn’t the faded old camp card.

 

“Jack,” Bitty had said, eyeing the card in Jack's hand.

 

Jack had simply shrugged and gave Bitty a sheepish little smile.

 

Bitty wrinkled his nose at that, since Jack clearly was ridiculous, and Jack took this as an opportunity to grab a blue baseball cap out of the cart and slam it down on Bitty’s head. They’d scuffled for a minute and ending up in Jack’s arms with his hands in Jack’s hair while he tried to get the hat on Jack’s head had done absolutely nothing to decrease the frightening strength of Bitty’s crush.

 

“Bitty? Hey, Earth to Bits?”

 

Bitty is shaken from his brief fantasy as Shitty waves his hand in front of his face. Shitty is standing behind the truck bed and leaning against it because Bitty has been sitting in the bed for a few minutes now, definitely not doing the camp session preparation he’s supposed to be doing right now.

 

“Oh, sorry! Completely zoned out for a minute there. What’s up?” Bitty says, rising to his knees to pull a big inflatable red pool floatie up from under some pool noodles and hand it to Shitty.

 

Shitty takes it and sets it on the gravel parking lot ground, but when he straightens up again he’s looking at Bitty, eyes narrowed. “You’ve been spacey all weekend. Everything good?”

 

“Good? Of course I’m good!” Bitty says, aware that his voice is about an octave higher than usual. He needs to change the subject, ASAP. “Do you think you have a chance at being the judge?”

 

Senior staff had spent the entire weekend explaining the intricacies of Color Wars to Bitty. While the camp directors are designated color team captains, other senior staff members don’t receive a color designation the first day of the session, because the entire camp votes for one senior staffer to be the impartial judge, who assigns points to the teams and ultimately determines who wins at the end of the session.

 

It’s for this reason, Bitty supposes, that Shitty is currently dressed in an entirely purple ensemble. Bitty’s not sure where he got lavender cargo shorts, but he’s definitely going to have to figure that out at some point when he’s not busy trying to make the camp setup perfect.

 

“I doubt it,” Shitty says. “Everyone knows that Jack’s my best bro. They probably don’t think I could be unbiased enough. I probably couldn’t, T-B-H. I really can’t imagine anyone other than him winning.”

 

Bitty hops down from the truck bed and lifts the pool float onto his shoulders. He frowns. “Really? And here I thought I had a pretty good chance.”

 

“Oh-ho, you’d be sorely mistaken, then. You gotta be careful around him this week, Bits,” Shitty warns. “Jack goes real hardcore for Color Wars. There’s a reason that blue team has won eight years in a row.”

 

“Let me guess-- is it because Jack’s worked here for eight years now?”

 

“Bingo!” Shitty grabs a bag of colored party streamers. “Like, if you were even within a hundred points of blue team? I’d be mad impressed.”

 

Well. That’s a challenge, if Bitty ever saw one. If he can’t beat Jack, then he’s determined to at least put up a good fight. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says. “Those are going in the golf cart, by the way. We’re bringing them down to cabins so counselors can decorate. Want to come?”

 

“Chyeah, absolutely.” Shitty takes off in a gleeful skip toward the golf cart at the other end of the parking lot.

 

After a second Bitty follows, albeit at a slower pace, but still smiling at Shitty’s antics.

 

“Hey, Bits-- can I drive?” Shitty hollers from where he’s already dropping his plastic bags onto the floor of the golf cart.

 

“You bet your ass not,” Bitty says. Shitty doesn’t even have his regular driving license. “Get out of that driver’s seat, you menace!” he adds, as Shitty tries to climb into the cart. When Bitty gets over there he’s forced to shove Shitty out so he can direct him to stand on the platform on the back of the cart and hold the pool float to keep it from falling off of where they strap it to the roof.

 

“Hey, Shitty?” Bitty asks, as he attempts to start the vehicle. It sputters angrily.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Will y’all go easy on red team? Since this is my first time?” Bitty widens his eyes and gives Shitty his best innocent please-take-pity-on-me look.

 

Shitty laughs in his face. “Absolutely not, brah! No going easy on anyone. That’s the first rule of the session-- all’s fair in love and Color Wars.”

 

Bitty laughs and finally gets the golf cart running. He throws it into reverse to pull out of its parking spot and takes off down the path to the rest of camp. The sun is shining warm on his skin, he’s got a smile on his face, and things are definitely looking up for this week. He can definitely ignore whatever is going on with Jack and keep things purely professional. It’ll be fine.

 

***

 

Bitty’s been staring at Jack’s thighs for about twenty minutes now.

 

They’re just so big. Bitty’s not completely positive, but he thinks that the circumference of one of Jack’s thighs might be bigger than that of Bitty’s own waist. How is that even possible? Why is Bitty thinking about this while he’s at a work setting? It’s so inappropriate. He’s going to get caught staring and lose his job and everyone’s going to laugh at him.

 

At least there aren’t any campers around. They’d all been sent to bed half an hour ago, leaving senior staff and a few non-cabin staff junior counselors to put out the first night campfires. Everyone’s taking their time doing this, though, and instead sitting around the dwindling fires and finishing off the last of the marshmallows. Jack’s sitting on a log on the other side of the campfire from Bitty while he talks to Lardo and his athletic shorts have ridden up a little, exposing more of his lower thigh than Bitty’s ever seen before.

 

“Your marshmallow’s on fire,” says a voice from his right, quiet and close.

 

Bitty jerks out of his reverie and quickly turns his head, trying to look innocent, as if he hasn’t been staring at Jack for who knows how long.

 

It’s Camilla. She’d been wearing a neutral white outfit until voting results were announced and she was placed into Bitty’s team, so she now has a red bandana tied as a headband in her hair. She’s got one perfectly shaped brow raised and her arms crossed. Oh, shit. Judging from the look on her face, she definitely saw Bitty staring at Jack.

 

“What?” Bitty says, because he really doesn’t remember what Cam had said to him in the first place.

 

“Your marshmallow. It’s on fire,” she repeats, nodding at the stick Bitty’s been dangling in the fire for the past few minutes.

 

“Oh, lord!” Bitty lifts it out. His marshmallow is, in fact, consumed by flames. There’s really no hope for it, so he shakes it until it drops down into the fire with a gooey plop. Bitty pulls his stick back and sets it aside. He doesn’t need any more sugar, anyway.

 

“Something on your mind?” Cam prompts, as if she doesn’t already know what’s going on.

 

Bitty knows he’s just gotta get to the point. Best to try to save his ass now, because he lives in fear of the predatory gay man myth being applied to him. He's usually so hypervigilant about this sort of thing. He doesn’t want to lose his job over a ridiculous heterosexual-made myth. “It’s a purely aesthetic fascination,” he says, quickly. “He has nice legs. I swear that’s all. I’m not gonna hit on him,” he says, quickly and quietly, so no one else can hear.

 

Cam shakes her head. “Relax, Bittle.”

 

Bitty does, minutely. He takes a deep breath and concentrates all his brainpower into not babbling another excuse at Camilla.

 

“I know it’s not just physical,” she adds.

 

“No, you most certainly do not know that. How would you know that? If that were true?” Bitty says, quickly.

 

“Please. I saw how you were looking at him when he stole Holster’s guitar earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever seen heart eyes that big.”

 

It’s true. Holster normally sings campfire songs in his big, booming voice, but Jack had nabbed his guitar for a little bit earlier and sung quietly to a group of campers at one of the smaller fires. Bitty had overheard and nearly fainted. It wasn’t that Jack had a particularly well-trained voice, because he didn’t-- his voice had just sounded so delightfully deep and smooth. Plus, he was singing in French. Bitty didn’t understand a word of it, but it sounded nice.

 

Basically, Bitty doesn’t have anything in defense against Camilla, because what she said is true. Bitty was totally in a daze until Jack set down the guitar and went back to patrolling the campfire area for safety hazards.

 

But that was then. It’s been an hour since that had occurred, and Bitty was totally over it until Jack sat down and Bitty caught sight of those legs.

 

“Maybe so,” Bitty says eventually, trying to keep his tone neutral. “I’m not going to do anything to make him uncomfortable, though! Heaven knows it would probably be a little weird to date a co-worker, yeah?”

 

“I dated Jack for a year,” Cam says.

 

“Oh. Well. I didn’t mean that it would always be weird. Just weird for me, personally, I think. I’m sure it was fine when you did it!” Bitty babbles.

 

“No, it was weird for sure.”

 

Cam is silent for a minute, and Bitty’s not sure if that’s all she had to say or not. “Oh. Um. Okay?”

 

She reaches over Bitty to grab a marshmallow from the plastic bag on his other side, and while she’s leaned over his lap, she says quietly into his ear, “He’s not what he seems.”

 

Bitty tenses, suddenly feeling the chill of the evening. The hair on the back of his neck is standing up. “Let’s go inside,” he says, standing.

 

Camilla stands as well and turns to the rest of the group, raising her voice so everyone sitting around can hear. “Bitty and I are heading in for the night. You guys all good to clean up without us?”

 

Lardo shoots her a thumbs up and most everyone else still sitting around the fire mumbles a chorus of ‘goodnights’ in their direction. Jack stays silent, head ducked. Bitty wonders how he hasn’t noticed Jack’s awkwardness around Camilla before now. Maybe it’s because Jack is a little awkward with everyone. This is another level, though. He’s completely ignoring her.

 

Bitty and Camilla step away from the campfire field and head for the path that leads up through the woods up to the Haus at the top of camp. They’re quiet for a few minutes, the only sounds other than the noises from the woods being their soft footsteps on the dirt and stone path.

 

Finally, once they’re out of earshot for sure, Bitty can’t wait anymore. “What did you mean-- not what he seems? He wasn’t-- manipulative, was he? Did he hurt you?”

 

He’s not even sure if these are appropriate questions to be asking. He and Camilla have hung out a bit, but they’ve still only known each other for about a month, and in a work setting. He’s worried, though. Jack always acts like he’s hiding something.

 

“No. No, not at all.” Cam shakes her head and hunches a little bit in her hoodie, trying to stay warm, most likely. “I don’t want to talk about it out here.”

 

Bitty doesn’t understand. “Out here-- in the woods? Nobody can hear us.”

 

“I’m not sure,” Cam says. “Just wait ‘til we get to the Haus, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Bitty says, a little hesitantly, but stays true to his word and doesn’t ask more questions for another few minutes, until they’re safely in the Haus.

 

Camilla takes him by the arm and leads him up the steps, keeping her other hand tightly clamped down on the railing until they’re at the top of the stairs on the second floor landing. She brings Bitty into her and Lardo’s room, sitting on her bed and patting the mattress next to herself to invite Bitty to sit down as well.

 

Bitty does. This time, he waits for her to speak first, because she seems like she’s right on the edge of saying something.

 

“He’s hiding something,” Camilla says.

 

Bitty shivers, because isn’t that exactly what he was just thinking about? It felt like such an absurd thought, and an awful thing to accuse his coworker of, but if Camilla thinks so too then maybe there’s some truth to it. “Are you sure?”

 

“Yeah. He can turn on you in a second if he thinks you’re onto him. I’ve heard you talking to Shitty about him snapping at you. I know you know exactly what I mean.”

 

Bitty nods. He does know exactly what Cam’s talking about. He’s reminded of how terrified he was in the woods on the Big Hill earlier in the summer. “Do you think he’s a serial killer?” he asks, because, well. It’s always good to be sure.

 

Cam laughs, and some of the nervous energy Bitty hadn’t even noticed building bleeds away. “No, I don’t think he’s a serial killer. I think he’s a man and he’s repressing some sort of feeling or something in an unhealthy way because he wasn’t socialized to talk about his frustrations.”

 

Bitty nods again, because he understands that, but he’s not quite sure if that’s all of it. “Is that why you broke up?”

 

Camilla shrugs. “Mostly that. He’s obsessive about something but he would never tell me what it is. He’s always sneaking around and claiming that he’s doing research, but I just can’t believe him. He's an awful liar and he missed, like, three dates in a row because he was at the city library looking at old newspaper clippings.”

 

“Oh, that does sound like something he’d do,” Bitty says. “Did you ever try to talk to him about it?”

 

“Yeah. He’s a master at avoiding a straight answer, though. And then it just kept getting worse and worse until I couldn’t put up with it anymore.”

 

“Did you tell anyone else at camp?”

 

Camilla nods. “Yeah, and it’s a big point of tension, so I wouldn’t bring it up again if I were you. There are a lot of people here who are very determined not to see that he’s getting more fanatic about it.”

 

“Mm. Shitty,” Bitty says. It’s both a response to that and an example.

 

“Exactly. Shitty went to college with Jack, and Jack wasn’t nearly as bad back then. I guess it’s hard to see someone you know so well change so much.”

 

“I understand.” Bitty runs his fingers along Cam’s comforter for a moment. He gets a weird feeling and jerks his head up to look out of the dark window on the other side of the room. There’s nothing out there, but he shivers. “You don’t think it’s anything that would hurt anyone, do you?”

 

“I don’t think Jack would deliberately hurt anyone,” Cam says, but she trails off a little at the end, and Bitty can almost hear the but.

 

“What?” he asks.

 

“If you tell someone I said this, I’ll kill you,” Camilla says. “But I’m afraid.”

 

Bitty nods and reaches out to take her hand, because he it’s the most comforting thing he can think of doing right now. Her hand is shaking, or maybe his is, or maybe it’s both of them. He doesn’t even need to ask what she’s afraid of because he gets it.

 

He’s afraid too.

 

Cam eventually pulls her hand away. “Okay, enough of being a wimp. That feels gross. I’m going to be tough now and you’re going to forget I ever said that.”

 

“Said what?” Bitty says, and she laughs. He leans forward to give her a quick hug, then stands and heads to her doorway, where he turns around and looks at her. “Thank you so much for telling me. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels weird about him.”

 

“You’re definitely not. It’s such a shame. He’s a sweet guy-- this camp means everything to him.”

 

Bitty nods. “He’s so passionate about it. But it’s fine. I’ve gotten over straight boys before!”

 

Cam cocks her head at Bitty for a moment while rubbing her arms to stay warm. Bitty might need to check the thermostat-- it’s cold in here. “You know, Jack’s not straight. He’s open about being bi-- told us last year that he’s fine with camp staff knowing. I guess it just hasn’t come up in conversation with you yet. He forgets how to talk to people a lot.”

 

Oh. Well. A million daydreams in Bitty’s head reconfigure themselves around this piece of knowledge, but still-- they’re just daydreams. Cam literally just warned him that Jack is not a great boyfriend, and Bitty respects what she has to say.

 

Bitty nods. “I don’t know if that changes anything for me, but it’s nice to know.”

 

Cam gives him a sad smile. “No problem.”

 

Bitty takes her in for a second, shivering and looking oddly young and tired on her bed. “Are you doing okay?” he asks. He doesn’t get the impression that she still has feelings for Jack, but she still seems uncomfortable.

 

She brightens somewhat and it seems genuine to Bitty. “Oh, yeah. I’ve got a girlfriend now and she’s never set foot in a summer camp her entire life. It’s great.”

 

Bitty laughs. “That sounds nice.” They’re both silent for a minute, then he says, “I’m glad you’re on my team. I’m sure you’re good at all of this Color Wars stuff.”

 

“Yeah, I’m a powerhouse,” Cam says. “But I’ll be better if I actually get some sleep tonight. You gonna actually go to sleep instead of listening to music in the shower for an hour?”

 

“Oh, you shush!” Bitty says. “I’m exhausted. It’ll probably only be half an hour tonight.”

 

“I guess that’s an improvement. Night, Bitty.”

 

“Night, Cam.”

 

***

 

When Bitty finally settles into sleep about an hour later, it’s a restless one. He finds himself waking up with a start several times, and then when he finally gets into a deeper sleep he dreams that he’s in the lake and he’s drowning because there’s some sort of plant wrapped around his ankles and pulling him under. He kicks and screams but his mouth fills with murky water and eventually he’s pulled under and everything he goes dark. Things blur. The next thing he knows, he’s back on the shore of the lake, but he can feel that the plants are still in there in the water waiting for him, so he gets to his feet, legs scratched up from the rocks on the beach, and starts running barefoot into the woods, up in the direction of the Big Hill.

 

He doesn’t get far before it gets dark. He’s shivering and cold and he doesn’t know where he is and he jumps when he hears the crack of a stick being broken somewhere ahead of him.

 

He looks up and there’s big dark shape, almost a shadow, standing over him, close enough of that Bitty backs away and falls to the ground. The shadow leans over him and Bitty can only make out light, watery eyes sunken in the depths of its face.

 

“You shouldn’t be here,” it says, and it speaks with Jack’s soft, accented voice. “You need to get out of camp.” It’s similar to what he said that day on the Big Hill a few weeks ago, but this time, it feels less like a threat and more like a warning.

 

Bitty blinks and he’s gone, and he’s alone in the woods, and the darkness is creeping around him, eating trees and bushes and eventually enveloping him in a suffocating, blind silence. Bitty can’t see or hear or breathe. He’s going to die--

 

But that’s the last thing that happens, because that’s when Bitty wakes up as he sits straight up in bed, breathing heavily and heart beating a mile a minute.

 

His room is discordantly bright, though, sun seeping in from behind the curtains. He didn’t remember leaving the window open, but it is, just a crack-- enough that he can hear the gentle chirp of birds outside. His phone is vibrating on his nightstand while his alarm plays.

 

“Sweet Jesus,” Bitty says, leaning back against his pillows. He’s sweating and his throat feels dry, so he reaches for a mostly empty glass of water on his nightstand and finishes it off in one gulp. When it’s empty he sets it back down and stands to look out his window.

 

The sun has just risen and the view of the lake and the hill is as beautiful as ever. It almost takes Bitty’s breath away and it only takes him a few minutes to relax. How can he be scared when camp is so beautiful? He shakes his head, disappointed in himself. He hasn’t had nightmares this bad in years.

 

He steps across to the other side of his room and knocks on the bathroom door to make sure it’s empty, then heads inside. He needs a cold shower to wake himself up and clean up the sweat after all of that, he thinks. As he hums quietly to himself and starts up the faucet, he catches sight of himself in the mirror.

 

His hair is awfully mussed up, but that’s his own fault for falling asleep before giving it time to dry. The collar of the oversized t-shirt he slept in is too big, and the one sleeve has slid down off his shoulder. It’s a cute look and he preens a little in the mirror before he notices it.

 

Scratches, peeking out of the collar just where it’s slipped down. Bitty presses his fingers against them. They’re shallow, clearly from fingernails, and fresh enough that they still sting a little.

 

He whips off the shirt, strips so he’s just standing in the bathroom in his underwear, and leans close to look in the mirror. His entire torso is criss-crossed with light scratches, some short, some long enough to stretch from one shoulder to the other hip. Bitty lifts his hand to his mouth to stifle his gasp.

 

What happened? Did he do that in his sleep? How didn’t he wake himself up?

 

It looks like they’ll heal in no time, but still. Bitty’s heard of people grinding their teeth in their sleep, and certainly sleepwalking, but he’s personally never done anything like this before. Maybe it’s a result of stress and nightmares? He resolves to google it later to figure out what to do to keep it from happening again. For now he’ll just be sure to wear collared shirts and not swim shirtless until these heal.

 

He makes himself take a deep breath. It’s just stress, he tells himself. It’s just scaring him because he was already in a frightened state of mind from his nightmare.

 

It’s easier this way. He doesn’t want to think about what this means if he’s wrong.

Chapter Text

Bitty finds that throwing himself into Color Wars competition is an excellent distraction from whatever’s been going on at night. He works nonstop during the day to encourage his team members to do their best and nearly collapses with exhaustion each night when it’s bedtime. It takes a toll on his body-- he’s not sure how he’s ever going to get rid of these dark circles under his eyes-- but it does a nice job at keeping him from thinking too hard, and being too tired to have nightmares is a nice plus.

 

Another benefit is the fact that by the end of the first week, Blue and Red team are tied. Bitty is absolutely thrilled.

 

Campers can get points for their teams in a variety of ways-- having the cleanest cabins, answering trivia questions during meal times, successfully completing challenges-- everything’s a part of the game. Bitty thinks that he’s doing a very good job getting team spirit up, but he definitely has Camilla to think for a lot of their success. She’s been practically glued to his side all week when she isn’t busy with her duties as Athletics Specialist, and she has tips and tricks for everything.

 

Everyone’s warnings were correct, though: Jack is absolutely brutal when it comes to winning. He almost looks like he’s going to cry when Red Team wins a scavenger hunt on Saturday night, and he spends the rest of the night shooting Bitty dirty looks until Bitty makes a peace offering of pie back at the Haus before bed. They spend an hour sharing the whole tin and watching shitty late-night television, giggling over stories about campers doing silly things, but still. Bitty doesn’t trust Jack not to turn on him as soon as competitions start back up again the next day.

 

It’s a weird place to be at, basically, and Bitty thinks he’s going to need a massage or something for how tense he’s been all week, always on his toes and keeping an eye out for Jack or one of his teammates trying to get ahead.

 

Open Waterfront on Sunday afternoon, thankfully, is a brief respite from all of this. Waterfront the only time during the session when Color Wars are paused, and during it, no points can be given or taken away. Lardo, who had been appointed the Color Wars judge, patrols Waterfront to make sure no one argues about the competition.

 

Bitty takes the opportunity to relax in the sun for a bit. The warm weather has continued, and the day is uncomfortably warm, so he alternates between wading into the shallow water and sitting in the shade and watching some younger campers attempt to play beach volleyball.

 

Then, of course, Chowder’s campers from Fern decide to prank him with a nifty little maneuver involving a beach ball and a very full bucket of water dumped over Bitty’s head. Bitty ends up soaked with chilly lake water, his red camp shirt stuck uncomfortably to his skin. He’s very glad he changed into his swim trunks, but still. His shirt is soaked. It’s better for him to play along, though-- he’s fairly certain this was Chowder’s idea anyway, and cabin Fern is on his team-- so he laughs it off and heads back to the shore to dry off.

 

The scratches from earlier in the week were entirely healed when he checked himself in the bathroom mirror that morning, so Bitty just sucks it up and peels off his wet shirt. He drops it to the ground while Shitty wolf whistles at him, then spreads out his towel on the grass and lies down on it to dry off in the sun.

 

It doesn’t take long for him to warm back up, and he has to say that this is pretty nice to close his eyes and soak up the sun. He think he might actually have a shot at getting rid of his godawful farmer’s tan, although he vows to put on sunscreen in a moment to keep from burning. He’s not quite that committed to representing Red Team.

 

Then a minute turns into five minutes, and ten, and he finds himself dozing off in the sun, tuning out the shrieks and laughter of campers swimming and splashing around in the water. He’s almost entirely asleep when he feels a shadow fall over him, which is an absolute travesty. He was so comfortable.

 

“Yes?” he asks, without opening his eyes. The fifth grade girls from Pine are convinced that Bigfoot lives in the woods next to their cabin and all week he’s been dealing with constant questions about animal tracking and identifying strange noises. He’s positive this is the ringleader Rachel come to rope him into another round of their investigation.

 

“Pay attention to me,” is the answer he gets, and he opens his eyes because this is not Rachel but rather the voice of a pubescent boy. In fact, it’s Henry. He’s standing over Bitty and frowning at him and he’s got Jack’s blue shutter shades perched on the tip of his nose.

 

“I’m paying attention, Henry,” Bitty says, blinking up at him and propping himself up on one elbow.

 

“Hi, my name is Jack Zimmermann,” Henry says in a poor approximation of a Quebecois accent, while trying to make his voice sound deep. “It’s against the rules to be at Waterfront without a swim buddy. This is the five-hundred-millionth rule you broke. You’re getting kicked out of front.”

 

Bitty can’t help but laugh. “You’ve really nailed the voice.”

 

“Thanks!” Henry says, in his normal voice.

 

Bitty tilts his head to blink into the sun above and see Henry better. He’s in a regular pair of khaki shorts and white t-shirt, so it looks like he doesn’t intend to swim today. Bitty’s not sure if the poor kid even has a swim buddy. “How has this session been? Have the other guys been giving you any trouble?”

 

Henry shrugs. “Not really. Different group this week.” He crosses his arms and deepens his voice again. “Today’s flagpole is, unfortunately, brought to you by Red Team’s captain.”

 

It’s exactly how Jack had started his flagpole announcements this morning. Bitty laughs again and sits up properly. He leans to see around Henry and look around at the scattered campers and staff around the lakeshore. Jack is currently within shouting distance, chatting with one of the lifeguards, so Bitty gives him a wave and shouts, “Jack!”

 

Jack looks up and around for a few seconds before he sees Bitty and says something to the lifeguard before heading over in their direction. When he’s a few yards away, Bitty nods his head in Henry’s direction.

 

Jack looks at Henry in his shutter glasses, with his arms crossed over his chest in a charming imitation of what Jack does every day at flagpole when he’s losing his patience, and scowls.

 

“Give those back,” he says, holding his hand out for the sunglasses. “And leave him alone.”

 

Instead of handing the glasses over, Henry sticks his tongue out at Jack and dashes off in the other direction, toward a group of campers gathered in the grass and making flower crowns, looking to show off his stolen prize, no doubt. Jack is left standing over Bitty and looking a little dumbfounded. Bitty is suddenly aware of how much height Jack has over him right now and sits up a little straighter.

 

“That wasn’t very polite, Jack,” he says. “He was just playing around.”

 

Jack looks at Bitty for a moment and Bitty gets the very strange feeling that Jack isn’t seeing him, but instead looking right through him.

 

“Jack,” Bitty repeats, a little more firm. “You ought to apologize to him.”

 

No response, again. Damn this man. Just when Bitty thinks they’re becoming friends he just has to be an asshole again-- this time to one of Bitty’s favorite campers.

 

Seemingly unaware to the fact that Bitty is now almost seething, Jack turns and heads back over the waterfront docks to continue patrolling the area. One of the laces of his ugly blue Sketchers is untied, but Bitty doesn’t bother telling Jack this as he walks away. If he trips over it and falls into the lake, then it’s his own fault.

 

Bitty sighs and shakes his head, but doesn’t even have time to sprawl back out on his towel before Henry has returned, this time with the sunglasses pushed up on his head.

 

Bitty’s not sure what to say to him, so he’s thankful that Henry speaks first. “Jack’s mean. Why are you friends with him?”

 

Which-- is a fair question. Bitty almost corrects Henry to tell him that they’re actually just coworkers, but now that Henry has pointed it out, Bitty realizes that he’s right. He and Jack have, somehow, become friends over the past few weeks. Of course they’re constantly chatting and collaborating while they work on camp stuff, but they’ve also been hanging out nearly every night before bed as well. When he’s not being a jerk, Jack’s always willing to help in the kitchen or tease Bitty about his media consumption habits. Even though Bitty fears that his mild crush has become obvious by now, Jack still seems to be enthusiastic about hanging out.

 

Sweet Jesus, Henry is definitely right. They are friends. And though Bitty is not thrilled with Jack’s behavior right now, it might just be one of those little Jack things that he has to put up with.

 

Bitty has to be the bigger person and a good role model here, he realizes. “Jack is a good person,” he says, somewhat to reassure both Henry and himself of the fact. “Everyone has different ways of communicating, and sometimes Jack says things that seem mean, but it’s just because we misunderstand him.”

 

Henry seems doubtful. “He’s a dick, though.”

 

Again, Bitty sighs. He has to remind himself that he still needs to scold Henry, even if he understands what it’s like to be twelve and confused and suspicious about all boys who might be bullies. “No swearing. Do I need to talk to your cabin counselors?”

 

“Sorry. No.” Henry shakes his head for emphasis. “Jack doesn’t like you, though.”

 

Okay. Bitty takes a deep breath and reminds himself once more to put himself in Henry’s shoes. The kid doesn’t seem to have many friends within his own cabin, and he doesn’t seem to be very well-developed when it comes to social interaction. Hence why it’s especially important that Bitty be a good example.

 

“Jack does like me. We’re friends,” he says. “We tease each other a lot, and we’re competing this week because it’s Color Wars, but it’s because we’re both comfortable doing that. Got it?”

 

Henry shrugs, drops his sunglasses back down over his eyes, and walks away. Bitty’s left alone and mostly dried off, looking out at the docks where Jack is yelling at campers to not roughhouse in the water, and wondering if Henry is right after all.

 

***

 

Once the seed of doubt is well and truly planted, Bitty can’t stop thinking about it. He realizes that maybe he’s been ignoring things a little bit too much. As friendly as Jack seems, and as gorgeous as he may be, he’s still hiding something.

 

When he and Jack stay up making brownies and watching old music videos a few nights later, Bitty never turns his back on Jack. He’s not sure why, but he feels like something bad will happen if he doesn’t.

 

When Jack asks if Bitty wants to go for a walk with him the next morning, Bitty bullshits an excuse about how he promised Holster he’d help out with a skit he’s running and needs to go rehearse with him.

 

When Jack slings a friendly arm around him the day after that while they set up an obstacle course in the big field, Bitty flinches away immediately as if he’s been hit. He has to laugh it off as skittishness, and even though Jack looks hurt, Bitty doesn’t feel that bad about it.

 

Bitty thinks he understands what Camilla meant now.

 

He’s scared.

 

***

 

The final competition of Color Wars happens on the Friday of the second week of the session, and it’s a campwide game of Capture the Flag. All campers and counselors participate, and the boundaries of each team’s territory extend well into the woods and various fields around camp. There are so many places that the flags could be hidden that they’ve scheduled the game to last for three hours, if need be.

 

As of that morning, Bitty’s team is 80 points behind Blue Team. The prize for winning Capture the Flag is a whopping 100 points, so if Red Team manages to pull through for the win, Bitty will shockingly win and end Jack’s reign of camp terror.

 

Bitty’s invested, to say the least.

 

It starts simply enough. Bitty’s entire team-- nearly 70 campers and counselors-- meets promptly at 9am in the dining hall. Blue Team meets at the same time, but down the hill and through the woods at the lakeshore, well into their own territory. The line between the two territories cuts through the middle of the big field, so Red Team gets all the woods and fields and cabins above that point on the hill.

 

After a bit of debate, Red Team decides to hide their flag in one of the many canvas platform tents in a clearing in the woods deep within their territory. The flag guards will hide in the other tents surrounding the flag, and other decoy guards will be posted in other locations around their territory to confuse Blue Team. The whole plan is Camilla’s idea, and Bitty is very impressed with her ingenuity. The woman knows a thing or two about strategy. Again, Bitty is reminded of how thankful he is that she’s not on Blue Team.

 

At 9:30, both teams meet at the center line, where Lardo is waiting with a megaphone. She explains the rules and then blows her whistle to signal the start of the game.

 

Immediately, chaos breaks loose. Counselors do what they’re supposed to-- most of them are assigned defensive zones to protect on the edge of the territory boundaries to make sure no campers go wandering too far-- but campers abandon all plans and gleefully hop over the center line to sprint into enemy territory. Within a minute, well over a dozen are captured on either side.

 

Bitty holds back. He and Camilla are waiting on their side to form new plans as the game develops. Eventually, should all else fail, Camilla is going to sneak into enemy territory and see if she can get the flag. She has the advantage of being the fastest runner in all of camp-- other than Jack, maybe, but he’s currently nowhere to be found.

 

An hour passes with no victories. Some well-coordinated Blue Team attacks come over the center line, but they fall for the decoy flag locations and get captured fairly quickly. The most exciting development occurs when Ransom and Holster, who are on Red and Blue teams respectively, end up wrestling right on the center line. When they finally give up after five minutes, Lardo has to be called in to determine who tagged who. She ultimately decides that neither tagged the other, and officially suspends them from the competition. They gladly drop their colored hats and bandanas and join her in patrolling the center line.

 

At 10:30, finally, some of the girls of cabin Willow return from their intel mission with information: they’d overheard some Blue Team defenders talking guarding their flag in the amphitheater, which is located between the dining hall and lakefront.

 

Camilla thanks them for their hard work and gathers a few nearby campers and counselors to formulate a plan. They decide to scatter and cross the border into enemy territory at several different points to disperse Blue Team defense. The first to cross will be distractions so Camilla can sneak over and sprint to the amphitheater.

 

Bitty, of course, is chosen to be a distraction. The campers think it’s a hilarious idea, so he has to do it. He resigns himself to being captured, but that’s fine-- he’d rather get a chance to sit down than sprint all the way down and then back up the hill while being chased.

When Camilla signals, they disperse. Bitty finds a fairly isolated area of the woods to cross over into the enemy territory, but it isn’t long before a CIT catches sight of him and begins to head his way.

 

It’s Ford, which is very bad news. She knows what she’s doing, and Bitty has no idea what she has up her sleeve. He freezes, pressing himself against a nearby tree.

 

She creeps forward a bit, then stops about five yards away. Bitty thinks he can outrun her and safely make it back across the center line without getting tagged, but her smirk suggests that she has a plan.

 

They stare at each other for a few seconds. Then Ford lifts her hands to her mouth to amplify  her voice and yells, “CODE GREEN! WEST QUADRANT C!”

 

Bitty makes a face at this. “What?”

 

Ford just smiles and turns, walking away from Bitty again. Bitty has just a moment or two to puzzle through what her code might mean before he catches sight of three other CITs sprinting in his direction. They’re coming from uphill, meaning that there’s no way he can get around them and safely return to his territory without getting tagged.

 

He could give up and get tagged, but now that he’s already in Blue Team’s territory, his adrenaline is pumping and he wants to win. After all, he’s supposed to be a distraction, anyway. He takes a deep breath, then pulls away from the tree he’d been hugging and starts running deeper into enemy territory.

 

Blood is rushing in his ears and it’s pretty much all he can hear, but he thinks that the CITs have caught sight of him and are yelling for him to give up. He pays them no mind and continues running. He may not go on daily runs like Jack does, but he’s still in pretty good shape from walking up and down hills all summer, so he lasts a few minutes before he has to stop and take a little breather.

 

Okay, maybe a big breather. He’s gasping for air and getting a little lightheaded, so he leans forward, hands on his thighs, and struggles to catch his breath. It takes a minute, but once he doesn’t feel like he’s about to pass out, he straightens up and looks around.

 

He managed to lose the CITs back in the woods, so he’s safe for now. The downside of this is that he has absolutely no idea where in camp he is. The trees around him are intimidatingly large and unfamiliar, and he can’t see any camp buildings, or for that matter, any signs of camp life he could use to get his bearings. Come to think of it, he’s not even sure which hill he’s on. The camp is built on several, and they’re all connected to each other.

 

There’s nothing to do but keep walking, he supposes, so he does, at a slower pace this time. He keeps his eye out for a path or a sign or something to help him find his way, but doesn’t see anything until he reaches a clearing. At the the center of it is an old fire pit that probably hasn’t been used in years, and next to it, a small tree.

 

Blue Team’s flag is hanging from the lowest branch, flapping gently in the breeze.

 

Bitty grins. Decoy for decoy-- Blue Team pulled the same trick as them. They probably didn’t expect anyone to stumble this far back into the woods and find their flag. He steps forward into the clearing and jumps so he can catch his hand on the frayed edge of the flag and tug it down. It takes a few tries, but within a minute he has it bunched in his hands.

 

Now he just needs to find his way back to his territory without getting tagged and Red Team will be victorious. He’s filled with pride and a little bit of unbridled glee as he turns away from the tree and back in the direction he came from--

 

And sees Jack standing at the edge of the clearing and watching him.

 

Bitty freezes, flag bundled in his arms, caught red-handed. He feels like a deer in the headlights-- a prey animal trapped by a carnivore. Jack isn’t frozen at all, though. He’s running toward Bitty.

 

A second before impact, Bitty thinks to himself, I really need to stop ending up alone in the woods with Jack Zimmermann.

 

Then he’s knocked over with the force of a two-hundred pound camp director running at full speed.

 

At the moment of impact, Bitty is stunned. He goes from standing upright to hitting the ground in a split second, and the wind is completely knocked out of him. He finds his mouth gaping but no air entering his lungs and he’s filled with panic. Jack is on top of him but he can’t tell what’s going on because he’s seeing stars.

 

Then he gasps, and his vision clears, and Jack is attacking him-- shaking Bitty and prying at his arms, which are currently raised above Bitty to protect him. Bitty is so caught off-guard that he can’t figure out what Jack wants for a second. Then he remembers that he’s still hanging onto the flag, so he loosens the grip and lets the flag fall out of his hands. The problem is that Bitty is sprawled out on his back, so the flag just drops down onto his chest.

 

This means that Jack is now grabbing for Bitty’s chest, and he’s not doing it nicely. His movements are clumsy and violent, and rather than grabbing for the flag, he acts like he’s clawing at Bitty’s arms to get to it, grunting while he does so.

 

For a second, Bitty thinks he’s going to die. This is not Ransom and Holster’s brand of play fighting-- this is animalistic aggression, and Bitty feels more like he’s being attacked by a bear or  wolf than another person. His thoughts are clouded with fear, and he doesn’t know what to do.

 

Then Jack’s hand misses his arm and crashes into Bitty’s face. The shock of it jerks Bitty to attention again.

 

“Jack!” Bitty chokes out. “You’re hurting me!”

 

Jack blinks at Bitty for a second. His pupils are blown so wide that his eyes are almost entirely black. Then he collapses.

 

He goes limp on top of Bitty, which is almost worse than before. He’s significantly bigger than Bitty and a complete deadweight, and for a second Bitty thinks that he’s going to suffocate right there, his lungs completely crushed, but another pulse of adrenaline gives him just enough strength to slide out from under Jack and crawl a foot or so away.

 

Bitty is on his hands and knees, wheezing, when he hears Jack moving behind him. When he turns he sees that Jack is on his knees now, and starting to stand. Bitty scoots a little further away from Jack and holds up his hands.

 

“I surrender,” he says, weakly, very much not ready for Jack to come at him again. Maybe he’s just not very good at play-fighting-- he never has been-- but he’s also genuinely scared right now. He closes his eyes and swallows some of the bile in his throat, then braces himself for impact.

 

He hasn’t felt this helpless in years.

 

Nothing happens, though. When he opens his eyes again, Jack is towering above him and extending a hand to help him up. “Are you okay, Bittle?” he asks.

 

Bitty can’t even answer that. All he can manage to do is take a few shallow breaths while he tries to calm down the panic attack threatening to take over.

 

“Hey, you’re okay,” Jack says. “You found the flag! I’m impressed. I tagged you, but it’s still really impressive, Bittle.”

 

He moves to put his hand on Bitty’s arm, but Bitty flinches away again. Jack frowns and looks at his own hand as if he’s unsure how it could be so repulsive to Bitty. He pulls it away, though, and backs off a step to give Bitty some space, then crouches down to be more at Bitty’s level.

 

“Hey, bud. Focus on breathing. What do you need? Space?”

 

Bitty still can’t find words, but he manages to nod.

 

“Okay. I’m going to be right over here. You take your time, and when you feel up to it, I’ll walk you to where we’re keeping Red Team prisoners.”

 

When Bitty doesn’t respond, Jack stands, picks up the flag from the ground, and hangs it back up in the tree before heading a few feet away to sit on a fallen log on the other side of the clearing.

 

Bitty watches him the entire time, alternating between sheer panic and brief moments of clarity while he tries to calculate how he’ll get away if Jack comes at him again.

 

It doesn’t happen, though. Five minutes pass and Jack does nothing other than look worried every time he and Bitty make eye contact. When Bitty finally manages to catch his breath and clear his head a little, he stands.

 

He wants to get out of here as soon as possible.

 

“I’m okay now,” he says, which is a lie, but he’s as close as he’s going to get to okay.

 

“Alright,” Jack says. He comes back toward Bitty, but walks right past him, careful to keep a few feet of distance between their bodies.

 

Bitty’s supposed to follow, he realizes, and he has no choice but to trust Jack to lead him to safety. God, he wishes he had his phone on him, or one of the camp walkie talkies, or something he could use to call for help if something happens again.

 

Jack pauses at the edge of the clearing and turns back toward Bitty. “You coming?”

 

“Yeah, sorry,” Bitty says, still a little dazed, and follows Jack.

 

They walk in silence for a few minutes before Jack reaches into his backpack and pulls out a water bottle and a granola bar, which he hands to Bitty without a word, although he still shoots Bitty another worried look to make sure he’s still keeping up.

 

It’s around now that Bitty realizes that Jack is just as confused as he is.

 

In fact, he doesn’t think that Jack doesn’t remember what happened at all. He’s so baffled by this that he doesn’t even recoil away when Jack reaches over to give his hair a ruffle once he’s in the dining hall with the other captured Red Team members. He just blinks at Jack, and Jack gives him a sad little smile.

 

Interesting.

 

Bitty needs answers, and he’s not going to get them from Jack.

 

***

 

It’s hours later when Bitty puts his half-shaped plan into action.

 

His afternoon is spent mourning Red Team’s defeat with his campers and making a big show of being offended as Jack receives a plastic crown from Lardo when she declares Blue Team the winners of Color Wars. Bitty’s distracted, but the campers don’t seem to notice, and they laugh when Lardo presents Bitty with a tiny plastic consolation trophy.

 

Bitty’s mind is elsewhere. He goes through camper pickup and the end of session camp cleanup tasks in a daze, but by the time he returns to the Haus in the early evening, he knows what to do.

 

Most of the senior staff is scattered around the Haus living room, exhausted after the long day. Ransom and Holster are both sprawled on the couch, which is too small for one of them to lay down on, let alone both. Camilla is sprawled on the floor and stretching, and Shitty and Lardo are tangled on the loveseat.

 

Jack has pulled one of the chairs from the kitchen table into the living room. He’s looking down at his phone with a furrowed brow.

 

Bitty claps his hands to get their attention. “Alright,” he says. “I don’t have the energy to make dinner tonight, but since I lost, fair and square, I’ll treat y’all to pizza.”

 

He gets a tired cheer in response, as he expected.

 

“My car’s not starting again, though,” Bitty says, which is not true. “So one of y’all is going to have to pick it up.” This part is fair-- all the pizza places in town refuse to deliver to the campground. Apparently, Bitty’s been told, the woods freak out all of their delivery drivers. “Would you be able to drive into town to grab it, Jack?”

 

Jack looks up. “What?”

 

Bitty uses his sweetest voice to repeat, “Could you drive into town to pick up the pizza I’m ordering, Jack? Please?”

 

“Oh, yeah. Of course,” Jack says.

 

“I’ll come along!” Shitty says. “We can pick up beer, too.”

 

“That sounds perfect,” Bitty says. “I’ll call to order right now, then.”

Bitty heads into the kitchen and calls to make the order, then fishes out enough money to cover it from his wallet and brings it to Jack. Jack fights with him for a minute and tells Bitty that he could buy it himself, no problem, but Bitty insists. He can be very persuasive when he needs to be, so within twenty minutes he’s ushering Jack and Shitty out the door with the money and firm instructions to not return without ample beer and soda options along with the pizza.

 

This leaves Bitty with at least forty minutes before they’re back at camp-- maybe a full hour, if he’s lucky and Shitty is being picky about beer, which is doubtful, because that man would drink anything. Either way, Bitty needs to get going right away. He makes some flimsy excuse to the other senior staff about needing to make a phone call, then leaves the Haus.

 

Ducking to make sure he isn’t visible from the front windows, Bitty heads around to the side of the Haus to the rusty metal doors leading to the basement. There’s a padlock on the handles, but Bitty has a ring full of keys that he gets access to as a camp director, and he tries several of these until he finds one that opens it.

 

“Ha!” he says, as he swings the doors open and the musty smell of old basement wafts out into the warm summer evening air. It smells rank, but he’s going to have to tough it up and go in.

 

He takes a deep breath, turns on his phone flashlight, and steps into the basement. A short set of worn stone steps lead down into the room. The dim light of his phone illuminates a boiler and the furnace of the Haus, which is to be expected, but past that he sees boxes stacked all over the place, and several plastic bins arranged neatly on utility shelves. Their sides are labeled with sharpie, and they appear to be organized by years.

 

Truly, there might as well be a sign that says Jack was here. Bitty heads over to them and checks each one until he finds the set of years that correspond to when Jack would have been at camp as a child and young teenager. He pulls the bin marked for that decade off the shelf and drops it to the ground. It’s heavy, and Bitty’s not surprised when he opens it and finds it full of thin, hardbound camp yearbooks.

 

Exactly what he was looking for.

 

This has to be around the right time period. Bitty grabs around ten years worth of yearbooks  and sets them aside, then closes the bin and returns it to its shelf. He then grabs the whole stack of his books in his arms, but this leaves him unable to hold his phone flashlight up to light the room. For a second he’s drowning in pitch black darkness and his heart leaps up into his throat.

 

For the second time today, he’s frozen.

 

The basement is silent, of course-- unless that’s a shuddery breath coming from right behind him, and then an exhale that blows cool air onto the back of his neck? Bitty scrambles to shift the yearbooks into one arm and lifts his phone again as he spins around and holds the light up.

 

The room is empty-- nothing but old boxes and a few bins. Bitty’s alone. Well-- there are probably rats and cockroaches in here, but other than that, Bitty is definitely alone.

 

He still wastes no time in speeding up the stone stairs back up into the safety outside, though. He’s glad that the sun hasn’t set yet, because the fact that it’s still light out does wonders to clear his mind and calm him down. Sure, he’s skittish, but he needs to stop imagining that every little breeze is something breathing.

 

Jack’s not even at camp right now. He’s safe.

 

Still, he’s not sure exactly when Jack will get back, so he wastes no time hurrying back into the Haus and bringing the yearbooks up to his room. Once there, he locks the door behind himself, drops the books on his desk, and sits down.

 

He starts at the first year he’d picked up and moves forward chronologically. Jack’s nowhere to be found in the first few, but he does appear in the third one in the stack.

 

Bitty only recognizes him in a photo of the youngest boys’ cabin because of the caption under the photo that lists the names of all the campers. If Bitty’s doing the math right, Jack is eight years old here at his first summer at Camp Samwell. He’s frowning in the photo, and Bitty’s worked with kids long enough to identify the mopey look of a kid who hates to get their picture taken.

 

Despite this, young Jack is, quite frankly, adorable. He’s chubby, and he definitely didn’t grow into those droopy eyes until adulthood, but he’s still a cute little kid.

 

Bitty leaves the yearbook open to this page and slides it across the desk while he opens up the one for the next summer. He finds the correct cabin, and there Jack is again, looking about the same age-wise, but with slightly longer hair falling messily past his ears, and this time smiling shyly.

 

More than that, he’s got his arm slung around another kid’s shoulder, this one blond and smaller than Jack and looking like trouble with a half-smirk on his face.

 

Bitty keeps this yearbook open as well and slides it next to the other one.

 

When he goes through the next few yearbooks, he finds this boy next to Jack in each and every cabin photo, always standing together, and frequently hanging off each other as well. In fact, when Bitty looks back at the yearbook from Jack’s first year, he finds this kid standing next to Jack there as well-- he just hadn’t noticed him before. It’s not just cabin photos, either-- every single time there’s a photo of Jack at lakefront, or on the ropes course, or building a tent, or anything, this kid is there too.

 

According to the cabin photo captions, his name is Kent Parson. All evidence suggests that he was Jack’s best friend, and continued to be his friend all through the awkward transition into their teen years. Bitty flips through the photos and watches as Jack sprouts up and grows out of his baby fat, and while Kent gets braces on and off and then gets taller as well, although he never quite catches up with Jack.

 

Then Bitty gets to the yearbook for what would be the last year of camp before Jack aged out, and Jack isn’t there.

 

Kent is, for the first week. He stands alone in the cabin photo, apart from the rest of the tenth-grade guys in the cabin, arms crossed, refusing to look at the camera.

 

He’s not in any of the photos for the other sessions that summer. Clearly, as soon as Jack stopped going to camp, Kent did too. Bitty thinks that must be some sort of lead, but he has no idea what it might mean.

 

Bitty abandons this last yearbook and goes back to the one before it-- from when Jack and Kent would have been around 14 or so, he thinks. He looks through this one again, and finds that Kent is also alone in the cabin photo for the last session of that summer. This is unusual because Jack had attended every single session all the summers before that one.

 

The only thing that Bitty can conclude is that something happened during the session before the last one of that summer, and it kept Jack from returning to camp-- and his best friend, presumably-- for years.

 

Unless Bitty’s just overthinking this, which is also very possible. Bitty flips the pages to look at photos from Jack’s last session as a camper a Camp Samwell and looks closer.

 

The first time he’d flipped through, he thought that Jack looked a little pissy, but he’d attributed it to him being an angsty teenager at this point. Now, Bitty’s not so sure he was right. For one, Jack looks exhausted in all of the photos from this summer, paler than he should be for spending his summer outside, with dark circles almost dark enough to look like bruises under his eyes.

 

And-- Jesus, Bitty doesn’t know how he didn’t notice this before-- he’s surrounded by shadows in every photo. Even in photos that seem to be taken on bright summer days, Jack is somehow in the shade, shadows over his face and body, obscuring him and making it hard to see his expressions.

 

In some photos, the shadows are their own shapes, almost Jack’s height, as if someone is standing right next to him but only shown in silhouette. Bitty doesn’t really know much about photography and lighting and how any of that works, but he gets the very uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach that there’s no normal explanation for this.

 

His eyes catch on the last cabin photo of Jack. He’s angled away from Kent in this one, avoiding looking straight on at the camera again. He looks so exhausted that Bitty thinks he might be sick. Between him and Kent is a shadowy form darker than all of the others. If Bitty squints, it looks almost like a person.

 

Something creaks behind Bitty, and he jumps a few inches and turns, but no one else is in his room. He tries to tell himself that it’s just the old Haus settling, but something deep within him knows that isn’t true.

 

He leaps out of his chair and gets out of there as quick as he can, gripping the railing as he takes the stairs two at a time and heads back down into the living room, where everyone is still chatting and laughing, blissfully unaware of what’s going on-- what’s been going on-- around them.

 

“Cam,” Bitty says, voice shaky. “Could you come help me with something for a sec?”

 

Camilla sits up from where she’s been using a foam roller on her legs. She raises a brow at Bitty, gets a good look at his face, and drops the roller. “Sure,” she says, standing.

 

She follows silently as Bitty leads her upstairs. Once they’re on the second floor landing and out of earshot of the others, Bitty turns around to face her.

 

“I was looking through camp yearbooks from when Jack was a camper,” he starts.

 

“Yes?” She crosses her arms, but Bitty thinks it’s less because she’s skeptical about what he’s going to say and more because she wants to hide her own unease.

 

“I can’t really explain it-- you’re just going to have to look.” Bitty reaches for his doorknob, then yelps and pulls his hand away because the metal is freezing.

 

He cradles his hand and glances back at Cam. “Sorry. It’s cold,” he says.

 

“Oh, let me do it.” Camilla reaches out, and though she tenses at the temperature of the metal, she swings the door open and steps inside the room.

 

Bitty follows close behind and finds that it’s a disaster. His room hadn’t been the neatest it’s ever been when he’d left it a few minutes ago, but it was at least mostly clean with only a little bit of clutter. Now his belongings are strewn about as if a hurricane had hit while he was gone: his bedsheets crumpled and on the ground, his desk chair pushed on its side on the ground, and worst of all, every single yearbook tossed around the room and their pages are torn and scattered. His window is wide open, and the breeze from outside is just enough to make the loose pages gently skitter around the hardwood floor.

 

“Oh my god,” Bitty says. “It wasn’t like this a minute ago.”

 

Camilla stoops down to grab one of the pages. It’s one of the cabin pages from when Jack was around ten, and she frowns at it for a second before handing it to Bitty.

 

Bitty takes it and looks closely and finds that that the edge of the page has been ripped a few inches, and the tear extends just far enough into the photo that Kent, standing on the edge of it, is torn in half. Bitty hands the page back to Cam and picks up another that’s ended up on his bare mattress. This one is from Jack’s first year and it’s also torn, but not from the edge. Rather, it looks like someone stabbed holes right through the center of the page.

 

Again, Kent is at the epicenter of the rips. One obscures his entire face.

 

“Oh, no. No, no, no,” Bitty says. He grabs another handful of pages, but what he already suspected is true. Every single photo of Kent is torn or ripped or otherwise maimed. He gathers these and shoves them at Camilla, and when he finds the photos from Jack’s last year of camp, they don’t even seem like the creepiest thing going on anymore.

 

He shows them to Cam anyway. “Look at the shadows,” he says.

 

She does. “Jesus.”

 

“Right.” Bitty hugs himself, trying to warm his freezing skin, and looks back at Cam. “I swear I didn’t do all of this. I’m not making it up. I wouldn’t do anything like that-- I promise. I don’t--”

 

“Bitty,” Camilla says, interrupting his babbling. “Relax. I believe you.”

 

Bitty takes a deep breath, puts his hand over his chest to relax his fluttery heartbeat, and nods.

 

“What do you want to do now?” Cam asks.

 

Another deep breath. Then he says, “I think we need to find Kent Parson.”

Chapter Text

Needless to say, Bitty and Camilla both spend the rest of the night on edge, even after they go back downstairs to join their friends as they wait for Jack and Shitty to come back with dinner. They’re jumpy enough that both of them flinch at the sound of the front door of the Haus opening.

 

“You guys good?” Lardo asks, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Fine!” Bitty says, voice pitched higher than usual.

 

Cam doesn’t say anything, and instead just gives Lardo a look. Lardo narrows her eyes, but then gives a minute nod. Bitty has no idea what they’re communicating, but Lardo drops the subject and stands up to grab a slice of the pizza that Jack has just set on the coffee table.

 

“Sorry for the wait, everyone,” Jack says, wiping grease from the box onto the sides of his jeans. “Shitty was being disruptive and almost got us kicked out of the pizza parlor while we were waiting.”

 

“Slander!” Shitty interjects. “Jack started it.”

 

“Whatever, I don’t care,” Lardo says. “Just beer me.”

 

Shitty obligingly gives her a can of beer from the box he’s been cradling. That’s a good idea, actually. Bitty needs a beer or two or seven right now. He doesn’t even like beer, but he’s going to be skittish enough to draw attention to himself all night if he doesn’t start drinking right now.

 

“Could you pass me one too, please?” he asks.

 

Shitty hands him a can and Bitty pops open the top, then does his best to gulp it down fast enough that he doesn’t taste it. It’s slow going. He’s not done with his first can by the time most everyone else is finishing their pizza and setting aside greasy paper plates and napkins, but he manages to tip it back to get the last dregs as Ransom and Holster pull out the Monopoly board to start a game.

 

After three beers, Bitty is ejected from Monopoly because he’s just that bad, or something like that.

 

“You can’t lay across the board, Bits,” Holster tries to explain. “You’re moving all the pieces around.”

 

Bitty pouts and is exiled to go sit on the couch, where he can safely watch the game without getting his hands on any of the game pieces.

 

After beer number four, Bitty realizes that Jack is cheating. The only method he can think of to alert everyone to this is to slide off the couch and sling himself onto Jack’s back. Jack doesn’t bother shaking him off and instead leans forward and lets Bitty wrap his arms around him so he doesn’t fall off. Bitty forgets about whatever it was he was trying to tell everyone because this is a lot more comfortable than he expected.

 

He keeps drinking while he watches Jack play Monopoly, and he's tired enough that he’s dozing off during beer five, but he’s determined to finish it, dammit, so he does.

 

Jack cuts him off after that and deposits Bitty onto the couch, where he does in fact fall asleep while the game finishes and everyone cleans up. He’s not completely passed out, though, so he wakes up easily when strong arms surround him and lift him up, bridal style.

 

“Let me sleep,” he mumbles.

 

“You can,” Jack says, and even though Bitty’s eyes are closed, he can hear the smile in Jack’s voice. “I’m just bringing you up to bed.”

 

“Mmkay,” Bitty says, turning to nuzzle his face into the front of Jack’s soft t-shirt, listening to the creaks of the old Haus stairs and the second floor hallway.

 

He whines a little bit when Jack tucks him into bed and pulls away, but Jack just laughs softly and teases Bitty for being such a lightweight. Bitty grumbles and turns into his pillows, then hears the soft clunk of a water glass being set on his nightstand, then the click of the lights turning off when Jack leaves the room to head across the hall.

 

He's just so exhausted. Within a few seconds, he's just about to slip back into a deep sleep.

 

Then there’s a creak from one of the floorboards on the other side of Bitty’s room and all of Bitty’s tipsy exhaustion disappears as he shoots out of bed and out of the room, all while forcing himself not to look at the far side of the room, because whatever it is, he doesn't want to see it. He’s tense and freezing and he feels like he’s having a heart attack, honestly.

 

He doesn’t stop moving until he’s at the door to Camilla and Lardo’s room, and he doesn’t knock-- just throws the door open, slams it behind him, and jumps onto Cam’s bed.

 

Cam is sitting at her desk on her laptop and she watches him do this without arguing.

 

Bitty wraps himself up in her blankets because that feels safe, then pokes his head out at her. “Can I stay here tonight?” he asks.

 

“Absolutely,” she says. “I was thinking that I don’t know if it’s safe for you to stay alone in your room, anyway.”

 

There’s another creak from behind them and Bitty yelps, ducking back under the blankets.

 

Cam doesn’t react, though, so it only takes a few second for Bitty to turn cautiously and look at the other side of the room. It’s just Lardo, in fact, stepping out of the bathroom and watching them both with her arms crossed and her toothbrush hanging out of her mouth.

 

“It’s cool if Bitty stays in our room tonight, right?” Cam asks.

 

Lardo raises her brow and takes her toothbrush out of her mouth and spits into the small trash can next to her own desk. Wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, she says, “Yeah. But only if you guys tell me what’s up.”

 

Cam looks over at Bitty, and Bitty looks at Cam. Bitty shrugs.

 

They probably shouldn’t be keeping this to themselves, anyway. It seems bigger than that.

 

So they tell Lardo while she gets ready for bed, and when they’re done relaying all their clues and questions, she flicks off the light and jumps into bed.

 

“Rans and Holster will help us,” she says to the dark room. “We’ll figure out the Parson thing tomorrow and then we can all brainstorm what to do from there.”

 

***

 

Lardo’s right, of course. She tells them that she’ll take care of telling the guys what's going on, and they all agree to meet at a Starbucks in town at noon to start their search. It feels safer to be doing all of this away from camp. For one, there’s less of a chance that Jack or Shitty will catch them conspiring. Plus, Bitty can’t do anything on campgrounds without feeling watched, and he has a feeling that whatever’s watching him doesn’t want to be discovered.

 

At 12:30 (Bitty admits that he has a somewhat complicated coffee order that takes a while to make, okay?) the five of them pull some chairs over to arrange themselves around a too-small table where Cam and Ransom have already taken out their laptops.

 

Lardo takes a sip of her smoothie, then clears her throat. “As you all know, we’re gathered here today to solve the mystery of why Jack has been being really fucking weird lately, and also if we need to do anything about it.”

 

“It’s probably ghosts,” Holster says.

 

Ransom immediately lets out a groan. “Ghosts aren’t real.”

 

“They are too! One literally pushed you down the fucking stairs last year!”

 

Bitty feels a chill go through his body, but also he has brain freeze from drinking his frappuccino too fast, so it’s probably just a side effect of that. He’d been afraid to say the G-word, but now that Holster brought it up, well-- it certainly feels like a lot more of a possibility than it had before.

 

Ransom, though, doesn't seem as convinced as Holster. “No, it didn’t,” he says. "You don't know what you're talking about."

 

He gives Holster a shove, and Holster shoves back, and within a second they're scuffling and arguing quietly.

 

“Jesus, shut up,” Cam interrupts. “Let’s not make any assumptions until we have proof. Right now all we have is a name to start with. Do we have any ideas on how to find Kent Parson?”

 

Everyone's silent for a second. Bitty hums and takes another sip of his drink.

 

“Do we know what he looks like?” Ransom asks, after a moment.

 

Bitty reaches into the pocket of his denim cutoffs and pulls out one of the cabin photos he’d torn from the last yearbook Kent was in. It's ripped like all the others, but not too badly, so most of Kent’s face can still be seen. He slaps it down on the table between the laptops and the others lean in to look at it.

 

“Pissy blond white boy. Got it,” Lardo says.

 

“That’s enough for us to go off on,” Holster says, hunching over Ransom’s laptop and typing quickly. “Ransom and I were talking in the car on the way over and we have a very refined method to find this dude.”

 

“It combines the power of Excel and our vast friend networks,” Ransom adds.

 

“Basically, we can start a sheet with all the counselors or other adults we know who might have been at camp during that time period, and then we use that to get more connections, and use those connections, and hopefully eventually some of the connections will know the guy,” Holster rambles, all while typing into what Bitty sees is the aforementioned Excel sheet when he leans over to peek at the laptop screen.

 

“Or we can, like, use Facebook,” Lardo says, nodding at Cam’s laptop.

 

“Genius,” Cam says, typing. Then: “Got him.”

 

Ransom and Holster share a distraught look while Bitty scoots his chair back over to Lardo and Cam’s side of the table. Cam has, in fact, pulled up a profile of one Kent V. Parson, and while the fact that he’s wearing a snapback and sunglasses in his profile picture makes it hard to verify that he looks like the photo on the table, his page shows that he graduated from the high school here in town in a year that would make him around Jack’s age.

 

Bitty skims his page quickly. He posts a lot of photos of his cat, but once he clicks around and finds the photos Mr. Parson has been tagged in, he’s convinced.

 

The half-smirk, the messy hair, the murky eyes-- it all matches up.

 

“It’s him,” Bitty says, nodding.

 

What’s weird is that, for some reason, he felt like this would be a dead end. In fact, he hadn’t realized it until just now, but somewhere deep in his brain he was convinced that Kent Parson was dead, or maybe just vanished from the face of the Earth. 

 

Now he can see that Kent Parson is alive and well, and he doesn’t know what that means. “Now what?” he asks.

 

“What do you mean, now what?” Cam says. “We still find him and ask him questions. Easy.”

 

“How do we find him, though? Do we just shoot him a DM?” Lardo asks. "Might be weird."

 

Cam makes a face at that, but Ransom lights up. “Check if his profile shows where he works!”

 

Bitty switches back to Kent’s home page and looks at the side bar. “Oh, an accounting firm. Boring.”

 

“What’s the name?” Ransom asks, leaning over Holster to type on his laptop again.

 

Bitty reads off the name, and Ransom types it and clicks around again. Then he says, “It’s right here in town. That’s perfect.”

 

“So we just march up on into his place of work and ask him invasive questions about something that happened fifteen years ago?” Bitty asks. It sounds pretty suspect, and possibly something that would be frowned upon.

 

“Yup,” Lardo says, and everyone else nods in agreement.

 

So that’s the plan.

 

Unfortunately, there’s not much more they can do right then because the accounting firm Kent works at isn’t open on weekends. They spend the rest of their time in Starbucks going through the rest of Kent Parson’s Facebook feed, which doesn’t tell them much other than the fact that Kent went to college at a nearby SUNY and that his cat is adorable.

 

It doesn’t tell them much at all, and before long Bitty zones out, drink abandoned, and thinks about how much he’s hoping that whatever is happening, Jack is innocent.

 

***

 

Their plan goes into effect Monday morning when Bitty pulls Jack aside after morning flagpole and tells him that he needs to leave camp for a bit that afternoon to go to a doctor appointment.

 

Cam thought up of the excuse, and they all decided it was the best option. It would probably be illegal for Jack to demand details about Bitty’s figmented medical issue, so they wouldn’t have to come up with too complex of a story for Bitty to lie about.

 

“Are you okay?” Jack asks after Bitty tells him, reaching a hand out to touch Bitty’s arm gently. His brow is furrowed and his mouth open in a half-frown.

 

“It’s nothing too serious,” Bitty says. He hates that he’s worrying Jack. “I just need to get it done quick and then everything should be all good.”

 

“Okay,” Jack says. “Is your car still broken? Do you need a ride? I could drive you.”

 

“Oh, gosh, honey!” Bitty says, smiling. “Thank you for offering, but we can’t have both our camp directors away at the same time! And Dex helped out with my car, so it’s up and running again.”

 

“Alright,” Jack says, although he seems doubtful. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

 

“I will,” Bitty says, and he really means to just leave it at that, but while he’s looking at Jack standing there like the sweetest boy in the world, he can’t help but worry that this is the last time he’s going to look at Jack the same way, and he wants to hold onto the ignorance. He wants Jack to be a good person.

 

“You’re good to me, Jack. I care about you a lot,” he says, which sounds like it should be stilted and awkward, but somehow isn’t.

 

If Jack is caught off-guard, he doesn’t show it. “I care about you too,” he says.

 

It breaks Bitty’s heart. He has to leave now before he says anything that would compromise the plan, so he dashes off in the other direction to hide out at the ropes course with Ransom. It’s safer this way-- he can’t get this attached to Jack without knowing what’s really going on.

 

***

 

Kent Parson’s accounting firm is on the opposite side of town from camp. Bitty follows the directions on his phone and drives out of the woods, down Main Street, and past the library and the Walmart and the community college campus before he finds the place. He parks and heads inside quickly because the sky is gray and overcast and he’s worried it’s about to start to rain.

 

The firm shares a relatively new brick building with a dentist and a physical therapist. Bitty accidentally walks into the former and is very confused for a minute before a tired secretary points him to the correct door.

 

Oh, right-- this one has the name of the firm on a plaque outside. Bitty takes a deep breath and summons his best smile before stepping inside, where a bored receptionist looks up from the magazine he’s holding.

 

“Do you have an appointment?” the receptionist asks in a monotone.

 

“Oh, naw,” Bitty starts. “But I’m a friend of Kent’s and he said he’d be in today. Is he with anyone right now? I wouldn’t want to interrupt.”

 

The receptionist looks at his computer monitor, presumably at a schedule, and sighs. “Doesn’t look like it. His office is at the end of the hall.”

 

“Thank you so much,” Bitty says, dashing past the front desk and into the hall behind it.

 

That was easier than he expected. He hopes that’s a good sign of what’s to come, but he doubts his luck will continue for much longer.

 

Even if he hadn’t been given directions, Bitty thinks he would have been able to find the correct room easily, since Kent Parson is listed on a nameplate outside the door. The door itself is open a crack, and while Bitty feels a tiny bit guilty for interrupting this stranger in the middle of his workday, the guilt isn’t enough to stop him from nudging the door open enough to slip into the room.

 

Kent Parson is sitting at his desk in the small office. It’s a clean room, Spartan, with minimal decoration-- just a desk, two chairs, a bare bookshelf, and a fake plant. The shutters are open so Bitty can see that the one window in the room looks out at a 7-Eleven across the street, and something about the whole environment is so starkly different from camp that Bitty feels very safe. It’s a whole different world here.

 

Kent Parson himself doesn’t notice Bitty enter the room-- he’s got a pair of fancy headphones on while he taps away at his equally sleek and expensive-looking computer, and he’s humming quietly to himself-- so Bitty clears his throat.

 

Kent tilts his head at the noise, but doesn’t look up. “No, you can’t have the sushi in the fridge,” he says, brisk. “Go away.”

 

“Um,” Bitty says, because that’s not what he expected.

 

Finally, sensing that his visitor hasn’t left, Kent looks up. Bitty hadn’t noticed before, but he’s got a pair of thick-framed glasses perched on the end of his nose. Bitty catches the flash of a logo that suggests they’re designer.

 

Kent looks Bitty up and down and Bitty is suddenly sheepishly aware of how sweaty and grimy he must look in his dirty hiking boots, shorts, and camp polo. Bitty thinks he catches Kent sneering for just a split second before he schools his features into a blank stare.

 

“You’re not Mark,” he says. “Are you here for an appointment? You’re in the wrong office.”

 

“I’m not here for accounting stuff,” Bitty says. “I’m Eric Bittle. I work at Camp Samwell.”

 

Ah-- Kent’s stare turns into something a lot colder as he narrows his eyes at Bitty. Bitty watches his eyes flit over the CSW logo on Bitty’s polo.

 

“No. Get out,” he says. Then, when Bitty doesn’t budge: “Get the hell out of my office, man.”

 

Bitty expected as much. “I’ll promise I’ll leave you alone if you just answer a few questions.”

 

“No,” Kent repeats. “No questions. And I’m not setting foot in that hellhole, thanks, so don’t ask me to do that, either.”

 

“I’m not going to ask you to come to camp if you don’t want to,” Bitty says, even though that had been part of a half-formed theory that had been simmering in the back of his head. Maybe bringing Kent to see Jack again would solve something, but he sure as hell doesn’t know what.

 

“Sure you aren’t,” Kent says. “You say that now but you’re probably going to steal my body and bring me there as soon as I blink. How do I even know if you’re real?”

 

Bitty stares at Kent, because he’s clearly deranged. He’s never been asked to prove that he’s real before, so he’s not quite sure how to satisfy Kent’s anxieties.

 

Kent seems to have an idea, though. He picks up a stapler from his desk and chucks it at Bitty, moving so fast that Bitty doesn’t have time to jump out of the way. It collides with Bitty’s elbow and falls to the ground while Bitty yelps. 

 

“That hurt!” he says, nursing his elbow. Jesus. It’s smarting enough that it might bruise.

 

Kent, however, looks pleased with himself. “Real person,” he says. “Cool.”

 

Bitty really doesn’t like this guy. “Happy now?” he asks. “Will you talk to me about Jack Zimmermann now?”

 

Kent stands up and slams his hands down on the surface of his desk quickly enough that Bitty flinches. He glares at Bitty, wild-eyed, with his hair standing in a hundred different directions. “Don’t say his name.”

 

“Jack Zimmermann,” Bitty repeats, just to piss him off.

 

“Shut up!” Kent says. “I don’t want to talk about him.”

 

“Jack Zimmermann, Jack Zimmermann, Jack Zimmermann,” Bitty repeats, feeling like a middle schooler chanting ‘Bloody Mary’ into a mirror. Each repetition seems to make Kent bristle more.

 

Kent reaches for the office phone on his desk. “Does this count as trespassing?” he asks. “Do you think I can call the police on you?”.

 

Bitty stops saying Jack’s name and shrugs. “I don’t think that’s much of a threat if you’re not sure.”

 

Kent lets the phone dangle from his hand and scowls. He drops it back down onto its stand. “Whatever.”

 

Then he steps out from behind the desk and approaches Bitty.

 

Bitty really, really wants to just leave now. This isn’t productive at all. The thing is, though, that one time he watched Spotlight five times in one week because he went through a weird thing where he had a crush on Mark Ruffalo, so if he remembers anything about investigative reporting, it’s that persistence pays off.

 

So he just steels himself and stands there while Kent steps closer and tries to physically intimidate him, standing less than a foot away from Bitty. It feels like a face off, but Kent only has a few inches on Bitty and he doesn’t look very threatening in his khakis and checkered shirt, so Bitty stands his ground.

 

“I’m worried about Jack,” Bitty says. “I care about him a lot and I want to help him with whatever’s going on.”

 

“You shouldn’t care,” Kent says. “He’s not the guy you think he is.”

 

“I’ve already been warned about that, and I think I can make my own judgements about him, so no thanks.”

 

Kent blinks at him. Bitty stares back.

 

“You’d be safer if you just left camp and never went back,” Kent says.

 

“I’m willing to risk it,” Bitty says.

 

Kent is close enough that Bitty can see and hear him swallow. “It won’t be happy until you’re dead.”

 

Bitty wants to ask what it is, but he's hoping that they'll get to that. Instead, he just says, “I said that I’m willing to risk it.”

 

They maintain eye contact for a few seconds.

 

Then Kent sighs and backs off, stepping backward a few steps and sitting on top of his desk.

 

“Sit down, I guess,” he says.

 

Bitty takes a seat in the bland chair that faces the desk. Now he looks past where Kent’s sitting and sees two framed photographs on Kent’s desk. One is of the cat in most of Kent’s Facebook photos, and the other is a photo of Britney Spears in a frame that looks bedazzled.

 

Interesting.

 

“What do you want to know?” Kent asks, and Bitty blushes a little because Kent has caught him staring and doesn’t look pleased.

 

“Oh-- one sec.” Bitty pulls his phone out of his back pocket and opens up the Notes app to check the list of questions that they’d come up with. “When did you first meet Jack?”

 

“At camp when we were-- uh, going into third grade, maybe? Could have been fourth. I don’t remember.”

 

“How many years did you know him?” Bitty reads.

 

“These are dumb questions,” Kent says.

 

Bitty sighs. “Would you rather just talk?”

 

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Better than sitting through this shitshow.”

 

Bitty doesn’t justify that with a response.

 

Kent waits a second, looking out the window at the 7-Eleven outside, where it has started to rain, and then starts to speak. “I grew up here in town and my mom wanted me to have, like, a traditional summer camp experience. I got kicked out of Cub Scouts so she signed me up for Samwell.”

 

“And Jack?”

 

Kent snorts. “Jack’s rich-ass parents have a vacation mansion here on the lake and they probably got sick of finding nannies to watch him all summer. And they wanted him to mingle with us common riffraff, I bet.”

 

“I don’t know if common riffraff usually wear Gucci glasses, but okay,” Bitty says.

 

Kent looks caught off-guard for a second, but his smirk quickly returns. “Sometimes it’s worth living on fast food and staying in a shitty apartment so you can save up for a few luxuries,” he says, tapping the frames of his glasses. “Anyway, these were a gift.”

 

“I’m sure.”

 

“Fuck off, man. This is my story.”

 

“Fine.”

 

Kent toys with a paperclip that was on his desk, then continues. “Anyway, both Jack and I were annoying asshole kids, so nobody wanted to be friends with us and we had to hang out with each other. Then when we were teenagers he decided he was too fucking good for me and left camp forever. The end.”

 

There’s a beat of silence, other than the sound of gentle raindrops against the window. Bitty frowns. “You’re not telling me everything,” he says.

 

“Smart,” Kent smirks. “You a student or something?”

 

“Teacher, actually,” Bitty says, coolly. “Tell me the rest.”

 

Kent shrugs. “I don’t know how to explain it in a way that doesn’t sound batshit crazy.”

 

“Trust me when I say I’ve seen some weird stuff this week,” Bitty says. “I’ll believe you. What happened?”

 

“He got fucking sent home, is what happened,” Kent says. “He was my best friend and we were going to do the Big Hill dare and he got sent home before we could.”

 

“What dare?” Bitty’s heard people talk about this dare several times now, but never in detail.

 

“There’s like, a bunch of rocks at the peak of the hill, and then a ravine, and then a bunch of other rocks, I guess. Glaciers made it like that a million years ago or something-- Jack would tell you all about it, but it’s boring science shit. It’s just rocks, basically, and legend has it that if you manage to jump from one side of the ravine to the other, you’ll be king of the camp, or live forever, or you’ll never have to go back to school. Something like that.”

 

“Sounds like a huge safety hazard.”

 

“Oh, absolutely. But we were 14 and desperate to be cool, you know? We both hated the rest of the year. We thought if we did it we’d be able to stay together forever. At camp, I mean. As friends. Endless summer. It sounded great.”

 

“Right,” Bitty says, then lets Kent continue, because he’s getting into his story now.

 

“We also really wanted the other guys to think that we were cool, so we had to do it with an audience. Our whole cabin was going to sneak out the last night of the last session that summer and do it together. But Jack fucking Zimmermann went out before that and tried to do it all by himself.”

 

“Lord,” Bitty says.

 

“Yeah. He didn’t even make it all the way up the hill, though. He twisted his ankle or something when he was near the top and we had to have a search party to find him the next day.”

 

Then Kent goes silent, like the story is done, but Bitty still has what feels like a million questions.

 

“And he got kicked out of camp for sneaking out?” Bitty asks.

 

“Yup.”

 

“Is that it?!”

 

“I don’t know!” Kent says, sharp. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you-- that he spent the whole night alone and he was never the same again? That something happened out there in the woods? I don’t fucking know. He hasn’t spoken to me since.”

 

“I thought you were best friends?”

 

“Yeah, so did I. We used to call each other nearly every night when we weren’t at camp. My mom used to scream at me for the phone bills we’d rack up. We had all these plans about how we were gonna play in Juniors together and then go to the NHL and be legends, or something like that. Stupid kid dreams and stuff.”

 

It doesn’t sound stupid, though. It sounds like Jack and Kent were dedicated to each other. Bitty can’t imagine how they could have completely lost contact.

 

“Do you know what he was doing? When he didn’t come back to camp the next summer?”

 

“I mean, yeah. His parents still have their house here. They invite me over for dinner sometime. And, like, Google exists.”

 

“And?”

 

“And Jack did play in Juniors for a bit, but he wasn’t as good as everyone expected him to be. He was partying a lot and shit, if you believe the gossip forums. Ended up fucking overdosing on something and dropping out of the Q. It was big news in the hockey community for a bit but it got swept under the rug eventually, you know?”

 

“I suppose,” Bitty says. Part of him wonders if he and Kent are even talking about the same person, because this doesn’t sound like the Jack he knows at all. “Then what?”

 

“Then he went to college and came back here, I guess. Don’t know much after that. I’ve been doing a pretty good job avoiding him since he moved to town and I’d like to keep it that way.”

 

“Why?”

 

“What?”

 

“Why do you still avoid him? It’s been years. I’m sure you could get along now. And why didn’t you go back to camp after Jack left?”

 

Kent gives Bitty a look that Bitty can’t quite interpret. “You’d be an awful reporter,” he says. “You can’t ask that many questions at once.”

 

“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m a camp counselor. Not a reporter.”

 

Kent drops the paper clip. “I can’t go back to camp because something there wants me dead.”

 

Right. This is probably the part that Kent thought sounded crazy, then. Kent looks up and stares at Bitty and Bitty realizes that he’s trying to see if Bitty believes him or not. The room is silent for a moment, other than the hum of the AC and the gentle patter of rain outside.

 

Bitty keeps his expression blank. “How do you know that it wants you dead?”

 

“It drowned me,” Kent says. “I went back to camp for just the first session the next year. I thought maybe Jack would come back. It was dumb. I should have known he wouldn’t.”

 

“Sorry-- could we go back to the drowning?”

 

Kent scowls. “A couple of the guys in my cabin snuck out to go smoke on the docks. One minute I was just sitting there with my feet in the water, and the next I was in the water and something was pulling me under by my ankles. I thought it was just plants or shit and I kept trying to swim up, but it wouldn’t fucking let go. I couldn’t see for shit and eventually I just had to give up struggling, you know? And then it just kept pulling.”

 

“How'd you get away?”

 

“The guys I was with jumped in and managed to pull me out. They thought I was just stoned enough that I fell in, I guess. If I’d been alone, I just would’ve died.”

 

Bitty tries to stay calm and collected, but the air conditioning of the room suddenly feels just a tad too cold. “And you didn’t go back to camp after that?”

 

“Fuck no. I made them call my mom to bring me home and I haven’t set foot in those fucking woods since. I know when I’m not wanted somewhere.”

 

Get out, Bitty remembers being told. He feels a strange kinship with Kent Parson. “Why do you think the-- whatever it is-- doesn’t like you?”

 

“I don’t know how it works. I just know that it has to do with Jack. It doesn’t like that me and him were--” Kent cuts off and takes a few seconds to think. “It doesn’t like that me and him were close.”

 

Bitty takes a deep breath. “Kent, do you believe in ghosts?”

 

Kent’s brow raises. “Nah,” he says.

 

Well. That goes against nearly all of Bitty’s current theories.

 

Then Kent says, “Demons, though-- I believe in demons. Or evil spirits. I don't fucking know what to call it. It's definitely not Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

 

“Do you think that Jack--” Bitty starts.

 

“Do you think that something evil is going on with Jack?” Kent shrugs. “All I know is that Jack was fucking weird that entire last year at camp. He was always sneaking off and acting weird. Like, one minute we’d be, uh, wrestling like friends do, and the next he’d be acting like he didn’t know me.”

 

“I know exactly what you mean,” Bitty says, truthfully. “I think that whatever it is, it’s still a part of him now, and it’s getting worse.”

 

Kent nods like he’s not surprised.

 

“Are you sure you won’t come back with us? Maybe seeing you would help him. Maybe it would remind him of what it was like to be his old self. At the very least, it’d be helpful when we confront him,” Bitty says.

 

“Confront him?” Kent repeats, incredulous. “Don’t think that’s going to do shit.”

 

Fine. That’s fair, Bitty supposes-- Kent has no reason to want to help him, a total stranger. He tries a personal angle. “I think that talking to Jack would help you. For closure’s sake.”

 

Kent snorts. “It’s about ten years too late for closure.”

 

“What if we--”

 

Bitty’s phone, still sitting in his lap, buzzes. Bitty glances down at it and-- speak of the devil. It’s a text from Jack.

 

Jack (4:59): Liar

 

Again, Bitty feels cold down to his core. “Sorry-- one second,” he says to Kent.

 

Bitty (4:59): What?

 

He has a feeling he knows what happened though. Jack-- or something that acts like Jack-- has discovered that he’s not actually at the doctor’s. Before he has too much time to think about it, though, his phone buzzes repeatedly as new texts pour in.

 

Jack (5:00): Liar

 

Jack (5:00): Liar

 

Jack (5:00): Liar

 

Jack (5:00): Liar

 

Jack (5:00): Liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar liar

 

“What is it?” Kent asks, and Bitty jumps because he forgot he was with someone.

 

“It’s Jack,” Bitty says, showing Kent his phone.

 

Kent reads squinting a little through his glasses, then frowns. “Oh, fuck.”

 

His words are perfectly accompanied by a burst of lightning outside. The skies open up, and what had been a gentle rain before turns into a downpour in a matter of seconds.

 

Bitty’s phone buzzes again and he’s afraid to look, but when he does, it isn’t Jack at all. It’s the senior staff group message, buzzing every few seconds with new activity.

 

Chad (5:01): What the fuck just happened?

 

Holster (5:01): where is Jack going wtf

 

Ransom (5:01): can someone bring the girls from Pine to the nurse? I need to get Fern out from the canoes

 

Shitty (5:01): i got it but we need to get Jack i dont know what happened but something must be wrong

 

Bitty (5:02): Can someone tell me what on god’s green earth is happening?

 

Lardo (5:02): chaos.

 

Cam (5:02): a tree fell and Jack bolted. it’s pouring. kids are screaming.

 

Bitty (5:03): Ok. I’m coming back right now. Chad-- end waterfront early. Everyone else-- get the kids in their cabins ASAP. Then meet at the Haus.

 

Once Bitty sends the last message, he looks up from his phone.

 

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I know it’s happening tonight,” he says, with confidence that surprises even himself-- but he feels it deep in his gut. It’s true. “I think this is our last chance to get Jack back.”

 

“I think you’re insane,” Kent says.

 

“I feel like he’s going to die if we don’t do something now.”

 

“Someone’s going to die, alright. Probably everyone,” but he’s standing up from where he’s been leaning against his desk, and Bitty can see that he’s reaching into one of its drawers.

 

When he straightens back up, he’s holding an umbrella and his own cell phone. Bitty realizes that Kent is coming back to camp with him.

 

“Let me text someone to feed my cat and then we can go,” Kent says.

 

Despite the fear coursing through his veins, Bitty can’t help but give Kent a wry smile.

 

It looks like Kent still cares about Jack. That’s good. They need as many allies as they can get.

 

Bitty wants to dislike Kent, but mostly he just pities him. See, he’s pretty good at reading people, and he’s fairly empathetic, too. He thinks that he’d be just as bitter if he’d been in love with Jack Zimmermann for fifteen years, too.

 

***

 

Bitty drives back to camp in record time and somehow manages to get there safely without getting into a car accident, despite the wet roads. Kent yells a few time at the sharp turns he makes, but really, it’s fine.

 

As soon as they park, they rush out of the car, and Bitty leads Kent up the steps to the Haus.

 

Kent hesitates at the front steps, and as Bitty turns around from the porch to look down at him, he’s struck by the fact that Kent hasn’t been to Camp Samwell since he was 15. Standing there below Bitty, messy hair wet enough that it’s plastered against his head, his button shirt soaked through, Bitty thinks he looks just as young and lonely as he must have then.

 

Then Bitty blinks and Kent looks like a young professional in his late 20s again. Jesus. Bitty needs to get a grip. “Come on,” he says. “You’re not a camper anymore. You’re allowed to come in here.”

 

“Shut up,” Kent says, but follows Bitty up.

 

Things are quieter once they enter the Haus and shut the front door behind them, although Bitty can still hear the rain and rumble of thunder, albeit muffled by the Haus walls.

 

“Hello?” Bitty asks.

 

“We’re in here!” calls Holster’s booming voice from the living room.

 

Before they can head in, though, Cam appears in the doorway to the kitchen. She’s also soaked, and nearly half of her blonde hair has escaped from her usually pristine ponytail.

 

She looks Kent up and down. “Kent Parson?” she asks.

 

Kent nods. He’s got a blank, somewhat aloof look on his face, but the way he’s shifting back and forth between his feet and shaking a little betrays how nervous he is.

 

Cam whistles. The sound startles both Bitty and Kent, and she laughs at their fear.

 

“Damn, look at all of us,” she says. “Jack has a type.”

 

Bitty scoffs and Kent makes a choking sound. Jack doesn't like Bitty like that, so he's not sure what Cam is talking about. Really. It doesn't make any sense.

 

Bitty’s in charge right now, though, so he can’t dwell on this. “What’s the plan?” he asks.

 

The amused smile falls from Cam's face as she gets serious again. “All of the campers are safe in their cabins and accounted for. Now we’re discussing how we’re going to split up to search for Jack.”

 

“No one should go out alone,” Bitty says.

 

“Already ahead of you. We’re using a buddy system.”

 

“Have you called the police?”

 

“Not yet, but we will if we don’t find him within an hour." Cam crosses her arms as she leans against the railing at the bottom of the staircase. "What did you find out? Do you think he’s dangerous enough that we might need the police?”

 

Bitty and Kent share a look.

 

“We might,” Bitty says.

 

Cam takes this in stride. “Okay. Oh-- I thought of somewhere else we could look. For clues, I mean.”

 

“What is it?” Bitty asks.

 

“Jack’s room. He, well. You’ll understand when I show you.”

 

“Lead the way, then,” Bitty says.

 

Cam does, heading up the stairs and glancing back every few seconds to make sure they’re still following. When they reach the landing, Kent shivers and hugs himself.

 

“It’s fucking cold,” he says.

 

“Get used to it,” Bitty says, dry. Then, to Camilla: “How are we going to get into his room?”

 

“Breaking and entering,” Cam says, reaching into the pocket of her cargo shorts for a pocket knife.

 

She kneels down in front of the door and starts to work at the lock.

 

“You know, I could have lived without the knowledge that you’re capable of picking locks,” Bitty says, as a soft click indicates that she’s been successful.

 

“Lardo taught me how to do it,” Cam says. She stands back up and brushes off her knees. “So, I figured we should check in here because Jack’s an obsessive researcher, and since he’s been collecting camp records for the book he’s working on, maybe he’s got something that can help us.”

 

“You’re a genius, Cam,” Bitty says, and pushes the door open.

 

This is the first time he’s ever been in Jack’s room. He’s struck by how accurate the word obsessive is in describing the mess inside.

 

For a second Bitty thinks that Jack’s walls are wallpapered, but he quickly realizes that they’re actually covered in loose paper from floor to ceiling. Bitty steps closer to the nearest wall and sees that it’s a collection of old photos and documents. Some of them look like pages torn from camp yearbooks much older than the ones Bitty had been looking at. Others look like handwritten letters and postcards. Some of them are covered with Jack’s scratchy handwriting in red pen.

 

“Fucking Christ,” Kent says, stepping next to Bitty to get a closer look.

 

Cam steps to the other side of the room. “God-- he’s always liked to put stuff he’s researching up to see it better, but it never used to be this bad. He used to just stick to one wall,” she says.

 

“It’s creepy as fuck,” Kent says. “I feel like I’m in a horror movie."

 

“Same,” Bitty echoes.

 

Then Cam gasps.

 

Both Bitty and Kent turn around from the newspaper clipping they’d been reading-- something from the 1930s about a new dining hall being built at the camp.

 

Camilla is on the other side of the room, bent over a little to look at the wall above Jack’s desk. She looks back at them, her hand clasped over her mouth and her eyes wide in shock.

 

“Bits, you don’t need to see this. Let’s head back downstairs. This was a bad idea.”

 

Bitty freezes. “What is it?”

 

“Come on, we need to get searching for--”

 

Bitty steps over to Cam before she can stop him. He gently pushes past her and leans down to look at the area of the wall she’d been staring at before.

 

He quickly understands why this part of the wall caught her attention. All of the photos here stand out from the others because they’re colorful and glossy, and all the documents are white and smooth rather than yellowed and crumpled from use and time.

 

They’re photos from this year, and Bitty quickly deduces that they must be some of the ones Jack’s been taking all summer with the camera he lugs around camp most days. There’s dozens of them, maybe close to a hundred, layered over each other and occupying several square feet of wall space. 

 

It looks like a shrine of sorts. Every single photo is of Bitty.

 

Some of them are ones that Jack had asked for permission before taking, like one of Bitty with a young camper on his shoulders, or one of Bitty laughing while on the zipline.

 

Then there are others that Bitty doesn’t remember Jack taking--  ones where Bitty is standing in the background while campers play kickball or build fires, and ones clearly taken from a large distance, zoomed so far that Bitty is a blurry shape and barely recognizable.

 

And just like with Kent’s yearbook photos, nearly every single picture of Bitty is torn, stabbed through with scissors or a knife or maybe fingernails. A few look like someone has taken a match to them. Interspersed with the photos are documents that Bitty filled out when he was hired-- Bitty can see a copy of what looks like his I-9, and print-outs of emails he exchanged with Hall and Murray earlier in the summer.

 

That’s not all, though.

 

Bitty leans in closer and squints. It’s hard to see distinctly, but in every single photo, along with his own shadow, there’s also another indistinct shadowy form, blurry and faint, but always there. It's been following him all summer.

 

Bitty closes his eyes and rubs at his temples.

 

Then he turns back around and looks at the others.

 

“Okay,” he says. “We need to find Jack now.”

 

 

Chapter Text

All of senior staff has gathered in the Haus living room by the time that Bitty, Camilla, and Kent come back downstairs. It looks a little bit like their regular weekend hangouts, except no one is laughing and joking around. Instead, everyone is grim and silent. It looks like they’re gathered for a funeral.

 

Bitty hopes that isn’t the case, but he’s not sure what’s going to happen. He has to stay optimistic, though-- he’s in charge.

 

“Alright,” he says to the room, squeezing between the couch and an armchair to go stand in front of the television, which is turned off. “We all know that we’re looking for Jack, right?”

 

He gets nods and mumbled agreement.

 

“Good. Now, I know this might seem obvious, but have we tried calling and texting him?”

 

Shitty nods, holding up his phone as if to prove his case. “I’ve called him, like, fifteen times. It goes straight to voicemail.”

 

Bitty nods. “Thank you, Shitty. Could you keep trying to call and update me if anything changes?”

 

Again, Shitty nods. He’s quieter than Bitty’s ever seen him during his time at Camp Samwell. It’s unnatural and very upsetting.

 

Bitty hopes that his fear isn’t too glaringly obvious on his face. “Okay, y’all. We don’t have time to go into too much detail, but we have reason to believe that Jack might be in a dangerous situation right now. That danger might extend to anyone who finds him, so I’m not going to be forcing anyone to go out to search. We’ll need some people to stay at the Haus, anyway.”

 

“I’m staying,” Chad says, immediately.

 

“Oh, fuck you, Chad,” Shitty says, and the venom in his voice is enough to break the mood just enough to get Bitty to smile, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about Shitty’s readiness to defend Jack at all costs. It reminds Bitty why they’re doing this.

 

“That’s fine, Chad,” Bitty says, voice smooth, hoping to cool the tension before Shitty and Chad actually go at each other. “Anyone else?”

 

Kent raises a hand, hesitant, shooting a look at Shitty to make sure that he also won’t be ostracized. “I don’t think I should be out there,” he says.

 

“I agree,” Bitty says. “Is that all?”

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Lardo cross her arms, so he looks over at her. She looks at him for a second, then says, “Kent’s not registered as a visitor, so he’s not even legally allowed to be on camp premises right now. I’ll stay and keep an eye on these two.”

 

“Ouch,” Kent says, “But fair.”

 

Lardo shrugs, not caring.

 

“That’s settled, then,” Bitty says. “These three will stay at the Haus, and if you find anything, you relay that information to them. The rest of you need to split up into pairs, and then we’ll divvy up the campgrounds between the groups. Can--”

 

He’s interrupted as his phone starts ringing in his pocket. He thinks he can physically feel his blood run cold, and he can’t breathe until he fishes it out and sees that it’s not Jack calling, but Nursey.

 

He holds his breath while he answers, “Hello?”

 

“Hey, um. We have a bit of a situation,” Nursey says, less chill than Bitty has ever heard him.

 

“What kind of situation?”

 

“A couple kids keep trying to run out into the storm. Dex managed to get them to come back into the cabin, some-fucking-how, but they’re all still antsy. Is there anyone you could spare for backup?”

 

“Yeah-- one sec,” Bitty says.

 

He scans the room, then makes a decision. “Chad, I’m sending you to Maple. They’ve got runners. You can stay inside, but they need backup to keep the kids inside.”

 

Chad doesn’t look thrilled, but Bitty’s I’m-The-Boss voice has gotten a lot more intimidating over the past few weeks, so he doesn’t put up a fight. Instead, he just sighs and pulls up the hood of his rain poncho.

 

On the phone, Nursey is humming in agreement. “Thanks, Bits,” he says.

 

“Oh,” Bitty says, before Nursey has a chance to hang up. “Who ran? Was it Henry?”

 

“Henry?” Nursey asks. “We don’t have a Henry in our cabin this week.”

 

Bitty feels relief wash over him. Fine, he probably shouldn’t be playing favorites, but he has to admit that he’s connected with Henry, and he’s glad he’s not here this week. It’s safer that way, he thinks, especially if they’re already having issues with their cabin.

 

“Alright,” Bitty says. “Chad will be with you soon. Stay safe,” he says, then hangs up.

 

He then takes a deep breath and turns back to the rest of the room. “Shitty, I’m going to have you and Holster search through the north side of camp, starting at the parking lot. Ransom and Cam, y’all can search south side starting at the lake. Sound good?”

 

Cam raises her hand, but doesn’t wait for acknowledgement before she asks, “Where will you be?”

 

“I’ll stick with you to start,” Bitty says, “but I have a feeling that we’re going to end up at the Big Hill.”

 

Cam and Ransom both nod in agreement.

 

“Okay,” Bitty says. “Time’s a-wastin’. Let’s go.”

 

And so they do.

 

***

 

If the rain outside was bad before, it’s only gotten worse. It’s coming down in sheets, and even though sunset isn’t technically for another hour or so yet, the cloud cover is thick enough that visibility is as poor as it would be in the middle of the night.

 

Conditions are miserable, basically. Bitty, Cam, and Ransom pile onto one of the golf carts and the roof gives some cover from the elements, but as soon as they park at waterfront and get out, Bitty’s clothes are immediately soaked through in the downpour. He wishes he’d had time to change into a raincoat, but all he’d managed to do is grab a hoodie to throw on over his camp polo. He’s still wearing his denim shorts, and they’re wet enough that they’re already starting to chafe.

 

He toughs through, because it’s the only thing he can think to do. “Okay. Waterfront first,” he says.

 

The three of them trudge through puddles toward the shore of the lake. No one says anything, but Bitty is positive that they all have the same fear as they get close enough to see the water.

 

They don’t want to see a body.

 

Bitty can’t forget what Kent told him, so he keeps a safe ten feet away from the shore and stands on his tiptoes while he squints at the surface of the water. Ransom has a flashlight that he pulls out of his pocket and flashes it at the water, but it doesn’t do much. The surface, punctured by what seems like a million drops of rain, is black. He doesn’t see anything that looks human-like, but he’s not sure if that means anything.

 

They’re just going to have to hope that Jack isn’t here. There’s nothing else they can do right now.

 

“Let’s move on,” Bitty says.

 

“Up the hill?” Cam asks.

 

Bitty nods. It makes the most sense. Jack’s always had a tendency to end up on that side of camp, and now that he’s heard Kent’s story, he’s pretty sure there’s something dark there that’s drawing Jack closer and closer.

 

“Lead the way, then,” Cam says.

 

They leave the golf cart by waterfront. The path up the Big Hill is notoriously rough on a good day, and Bitty is certain that the addition of mud will make it impossible to drive through. The only option is to scale the hill on foot.

 

The three of them walk along the path for about five minutes before it actually starts to slope upward. As Bitty predicted, the path is horrifically muddy. His hiking boots squelch loudly with each step, and there are a few points at which he has to stop and jerk his foot out of a particularly sticky patch.

 

“Ransom,” he says, while he wiggles his shoe out of a puddle. “Could you yell Jack’s name? I think you have the loudest voice out of all of us.”

 

“Yeah, of course,” Ransom says. He folds his hands in front of his mouth to amplify his voice and starts to shout, “Jack? Jack! Jack Zimmermann!”

 

He’s loud, for sure, but Bitty has a feeling that the sound of the rain and the thunder drown him out too much to be heard from far away.

 

“I feel like we’re trying to find a lost dog,” Cam says. “I guess I don’t have any better ideas, though. Are we just going to head uphill?”

 

“That’s the plan,” Bitty says. “And if we still don’t find him, then I think we should call the police. I don’t want him to get into trouble, but--”

 

For the second time in the evening, Bitty is interrupted by his phone ringtone. Beyoncé sings the chorus of “Single Ladies” for a few moments while he fumbles to answer.

 

“Hello?” he asks, stopping in his tracks. Cam and Ransom stop as well and turn to face him.

 

“Hey,” Lardo says. “What was the name of that camper you asked about? In Maple?”

 

“What?” Bitty says, caught off-guard. That conversation feels like it happened years ago.

 

“The camper you asked about earlier. Was his name Henry?”

 

“Yes,” Bitty says. He’s not sure why this is a concern right now. “Little guy? Hangs out around Jack a lot?”

 

Lardo is silent for a few seconds-- long enough that Bitty pulls his phone away from his ear to check that the call hasn’t been dropped. The screen is very quickly obscured with droplets, but the call is still going on, so he lifts it back up quickly.

 

“Bits,” Lardo says, slowly. “I went through the registration roster. We haven’t had a camper named Henry this year.”

 

“What?” Bitty must have heard wrong. “That’s not true. He’s been here at every session. Check the roster for Maple again."

 

“He’s not there,” Lardo says.

 

“I need to sit down,” Bitty says.

 

Cam and Ransom have been watching him this whole time, and now Ransom takes a step closer, and says, “Bitty, there’s not really anywhere to sit--”

 

It’s too late, though. Bitty has already sat down in the mud, because the alternative is passing out. He feels dizzy. “How?” he says, although he doesn’t necessarily expect Lardo to have an answer.

 

“Uh, I’m not sure. But I think I know who Henry is.”

 

Cam has stepped close enough to set her hand on Bitty’s shoulder. It’s comforting, and when he looks up to see her worried expression he flashes her a small smile. He recognizes that he’s sitting in a puddle in the middle of a thunderstorm, which is probably concerning. He’s just a little preoccupied to do anything to fix it right now.

 

“Who?” he asks.

 

“He used to go to camp here. Before you guys left Cam told me about the research Jack’s been doing, so Kent and I went up to his room and looked through all his documents.”

 

“And you found Henry?”

 

“I think so. I mean, on the one hand, it would be fucking ridiculous if this is the same Henry, but on the other hand, I think it would make a lot of sense.”

 

“Why?” Bitty asks.

 

“His name is Henry Samwell,” she says, “And he went missing 80 years ago.”

 

Bitty drops his phone and it falls to the ground with a quiet, wet thud. He can’t really see through the tunnel vision, and breathing isn’t going very well either.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Cam moves to pick up his phone. A second later a figure is kneeling in front of him, just a foot or two away. Bitty looks up to see that it’s Ransom.

 

“Hey,” Ransom says, voice lowered. “Deep breaths. You’re going to be fine.”

 

Behind Bitty, Cam says, “What did you tell him?”

 

Cam is quiet while Lardo answers. Bitty breathes, somehow. They all stay that way for a minute or two.

 

Then Cam crouches down to join them, so they’re all on the ground. “Are you ready to hear the rest?” she asks, holding out Bitty’s phone.

 

“There’s more?” Bitty asks, but he takes the phone. “Lardo?”

 

“Hey, sorry to shock you. But, yeah. I don’t know if anyone’s told you the old camp stories, but Jack’s got a bunch of old newspaper articles about how this kid went missing while he was at camp one summer. All of the other kids in his cabin told the police that he’d been talking about running away, but they never found any kind of evidence.”

 

“So he might still be at camp?”

 

“I guess so,” Lardo says. “And still the age of a middle schooler, somehow.”

 

“And that’s what Jack’s been researching for years?”

 

Lardo hums. “I mean, he has a lot of other information, too, but that’s what he has the most info about.”

 

Bitty doesn’t say anything to that. He has no idea what he has to say about any of this, actually. He just listens to the rain pouring down around the woods, and the sound of the wind, and the sound of all three of them breathing somewhat heavily.

 

Finally, he says, “Thank you for telling me. Are there any pictures of him? Just so I can make sure?”

 

“Yeah, I’ll text you one in a second. Do you need us to do anything else right now?”

 

“Nah, I think we need to get back to searching. Thank you so much, Lardo. Stay safe,” he says.

 

Then he hangs up and slowly gets to his feet, ignoring the fact that his legs and shorts are now caked with mud. As he stands, his phone buzzes with an incoming text.

 

He types in his passcode, opens his text messages, and clicks the photo Lardo just sent so he can zoom in. It’s a black and white photo of a group of guys dressed in old-timey clothes standing in front of a cabin.

 

Henry is standing in the front row.

 

This time, Bitty doesn’t feel like he’s about to pass out. As soon as Lardo had said that Henry wasn’t a camper this summer, he’d had an idea of what was going on. He’s processed it now.

 

Suddenly, a lot of this summer makes more sense. He gets the odd feeling that maybe they’re not a search squad after all, but a rescue squad.

 

The only thing left to do is to find Jack-- and Henry.

 

“I need to go up alone,” he says.

 

“What? Fuck no, you don’t,” Cam says. “You know what happens when people split up in horror movies?”

 

“Bad shit,” Ransom says.

 

“Life isn’t a horror movie,” Bitty says, even though he’s not quite sure that’s true. “Listen-- for whatever reason, Henry has been following me and Jack around all summer. He doesn’t want you guys. He wants me.”

 

Cam is silent, but Ransom nods. “It checks out.”

 

“I’m calling the police,” Cam says. “They should be here within half an hour and they can come after you if you need help.”

 

“That’s fine,” Bitty says. “Could you--” he cuts off.

 

He’s not sure what he means to say. For a split second, he considers asking Lardo to tell his mama that he loves her, but that sounds ridiculous. Dramatic. Pessimistic.

 

Or maybe it’s realistic.

 

In the end, he just says, “If the police get here before I come back down, could you tell them I went up to the peak?”

 

Cam and Ransom nod in unison.

 

“Okay,” Bitty says. “I guess I’ll see y’all on the flipside.”

 

***

 

In the end, Bitty was right about needing to go alone.

 

He only has to walk up the hill for ten minutes before he finds something unusual.

 

It’s holes, and he has the misfortune of finding them by stepping right into one. One second he’s trudging uphill through the muddy woods, and the next second his foot is fails to make contact with ground and he stumbles, nearly twisting his ankle in the process.

 

“Sweet Jesus,” he says once he realizes what’s happened, and grabs onto the trunk of a sapling to pull himself out. The hole is about a foot deep and fairly fresh, if the soft mound of dirt piled next to it is anything to go by.

 

He keeps walking and finds another hole a few steps farther uphill from the first. Then, a few feet to his left, another one, shallower.

 

They’re not perfectly in a line, but there does seem to be a general area that they encompass, so Bitty sticks to these few yards of woods as he walks uphill. Before long, he makes it to a clearing that feels familiar-- a round area where most of the dried leaves and branches have been cleared away.

 

It’s the place where Jack had told him to go away when Bitty found him the first week of camp. A chill runs through Bitty’s spine, and all of his senses seem to be telling him that he’s not alone right now. A voice in his head-- his own damn common sense, probably-- tells him to run the other way.

 

He’s not going to, this time.

 

He trudges onward and finds more holes, and then another, smaller clearing like the other one. And then another one. And another, although they’re becoming less circular and more irregularly shaped as the hill gets steeper. If it’s true that Jack has been clearing all of these, Bitty can’t imagine how many hours he’s spent on them, but he’s sure it’s a lot.

 

Another puzzle piece slides into place. All those times he heard Jack leaving his room in the middle of the night, he must have been coming out here in the middle of the woods to clear brush away to do whatever it is he’s been trying to do, all alone.

 

Or maybe not. Again, Bitty is struck by the feeling of being watched. Now that he’s aware of it, he realizes that he’s been feeling this way almost constantly all summer. It’s not even the feeling of him being watched from a distance, because he thinks that would feel a lot less strong, intruding, invasive.

 

Almost as if someone is standing with him, or right behind him, breathing down his neck.

 

Because someone is.

 

He turns around. “Hi, Henry.”

 

Henry grins.

 

He doesn’t look like he’s been dead for decades. He’s not translucent, or floating, or even particularly pale. If anything, he just looks like a regular little boy who’s been out in the rain for too long. He’s soaked through, just like Bitty is; white t-shirt stuck to his torso with dampness. He’s still small for the age Bitty had presumed he was-- the top of his head is around the height of Bitty’s shoulders.

 

He looks innocent. Bitty doesn’t trust him.

 

“Hi, Bitty,” he says. “You found out?”

 

“Yeah,” Bitty nods, “I did.”

 

“Figured you’d get there eventually,” Henry says, with a little shrug. He starts walking, uphill, and Bitty follows.

 

“Where’s Jack, Henry?” Bitty asks.

 

“Around,” says Henry. “You should probably go back inside. It’s pretty rainy. You might catch a cold. My cabin’s pretty close by, if you need somewhere to go.”

 

Bitty doesn’t let himself be deterred. “That’s not your cabin. It hasn’t been for a long time.”

 

“It’s still mine,” he says. “I tell all those boys what to do.”

 

Right. The boys who have been itching to sneak out in the middle of the night to get into God knows what sort of trouble. “So you lied to me about them bullying you? That’s awfully mean, Henry.”

 

Henry stops in his tracks, and before Bitty has time to brace himself, he’s standing inches away, on his tiptoes so he can look straight into Bitty’s face. Bitty knows that he didn’t blink in the split second before Henry turned around, but somehow he didn’t see the movement in-between. It’s almost as if he’s watching a video that skipped a few frames.

 

Henry’s breath is ice-cold on Bitty’s face. “Kids are mean,” he says.

 

Bitty forces himself not to flinch. “Kids can be mean,” he agrees. “But sometimes they’re not. I thought you were really hurt and I was scared for you.”

 

“Scared like you wished someone was when it happened to you?” Henry asks, then turns around again and continues walking.

 

Oh. This, too, makes sense. Bitty is motionless for a moment and falls a few feet behind, so he has to quicken his pace to catch up. “Have you been in my head all summer, Henry? To figure out what scares me?”

 

“Nah,” Henry says. “Just to figure out how to get you to leave.”

 

“And why’s that?”

 

Henry slows at an outcropping of rocks, considers it for a second, and turns to the right before he starts walking again. “I’m helping you, I think. You haven’t realized that Jack is mean.”

 

Bitty shakes his head. Even though Henry is walking ahead of him and facing away, he’s pretty sure he can see it, because if the cold that Bitty can feel down to his bones is any indication, Henry is also physically with him right now. “That’s not true. I told you that he’s a good friend.”

 

“He doesn’t care about you,” Henry says, snide. “He doesn’t care about anybody, and now that he’s been so mean, nobody cares about him, either.”

 

Bitty bristles, because that is certainly not true. “Bullshit.”

 

“Should you be swearing in front of campers?” Henry asks.

 

“One, you’re not a camper,” Bitty says. “And two, fuck you. Jack has an entire team of people who love him searching for him right now.”

 

He considers continuing, because he’s got a hell of a lot to say to this kid about how Jack is valued and loved, but he has to pause so he can follow Henry, who’s just climbed up a naked rock face. Now that there’s more rock and less soil, there are a lot less trees, and Bitty can see very close uphill where the slope seems to level off.

 

When he gets to the top of the rock face and regains his footing, Henry is standing in front of him, arms crossed.

 

“Jack’s mine,” Henry says.

 

“You can’t have him,” Bitty says. “You’ve had him for a long time, but I’m not letting you keep him any longer. He deserves to have a life without you.”

 

Henry gives a deep, long sigh that makes him sound a lot older than a twelve-year-old would. “Sure, whatever. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He gives Bitty a wry smile. “After all, you’re still alive. You’ve got a lot to lose.”

 

Bitty gets a deep feeling of dread that suggests he’s running out of time. “Where’s Jack, Henry?” he asks, again, more urgent this time.

 

“Isn’t it obvious?” Henry asks. “He never finished the dare.”

 

And then he’s gone.

 

That’s right-- the dare that started this whole thing. The one that Jack had never completed, for whatever reason. Bitty hasn’t been up to the peak of the Big Hill before, but he had suspected right-- only a few yards uphill from where Henry had disappeared, Bitty emerges from another wall of rock and undergrowth and finds himself at the top of the hill. On most sides the drop-off is gradual, but as Bitty nears the middle of the clearing, he can see that the far side falls away into a deep ravine.

 

Bitty has to walk slowly to avoid slipping on the wet rocks, and it’s still raining hard enough that visibility is low, but as he walks toward the drop-off, it becomes clear that a figure is standing at the edge.

 

He’s tall and broad, and when Bitty gets close enough, he can see that he looks scared.

 

“Jack,” Bitty says, softly, once he’s a few feet away. He’s close enough that Jack hears and turns to face him, shivering and soaked and looking like a wreck.

 

His eyes don’t seem to focus on Bitty, though, and after a moment he turns back to face out over the edge again. As Bitty closes the final few steps between them, he can see the rest of the peak on the other side of the ravine, a few yards lower than the side they’re on. The gap is maybe fifteen feet wide, but it could be more.

 

When Bitty gets close enough, he reaches out a hand to touch Jack’s arm. He’s freezing, but he doesn’t react to Bitty’s touch, so Bitty says, “Am I talking to Jack or Henry right now?”

 

Jack still doesn’t say anything, but a few seconds later, Bitty can hear Henry’s voice, clear as day, saying, “You can have him for a minute.”

 

Bitty can’t identify where the voice is coming from. Maybe it’s inside his own head. Either way, he’s not sure how literally Henry is talking, but he doesn’t dare wait to find out. “Jack, honey.”

 

Jack turns to face him. He hasn’t been doing anything to wipe the rain off his face, so streams are dripping down from his hair into his eyes, and Bitty reaches up to wipe the water off of Jack’s forehead with the back of his hand.

 

Jack blinks a few times at Bitty, then frowns. “Bittle?”

 

Relief washes over Bitty. There’s still hope for them, if Jack is aware of what’s going on. “Sweetpea, something’s going to make you want to jump, but you can’t jump. You hear me?”

 

Jack looks past Bitty, down into the ravine. Bitty follows his gaze and squints down, but he can’t see the bottom. He has no idea how far it goes. It could be a few yards, but it could also be the entire height of the hill.

 

“I don’t want to jump,” he says. His voice is a little hoarse.

 

“That’s good, Jack. You shouldn’t jump. I need you to come back down to the Haus with me, okay? We’ll get you all dried off and tucked in with some warm soup and blankets and then we’re never coming up here again,” he says, in the most soothing voice he can muster.

 

“No,” Jack says, voice suddenly clear. “I need to stay.” He takes a step closer to the edge.

 

Of course he’s going to resist. Henry’s spent years controlling him. What does Bitty have against that?

 

Nothing, except sheer, dumb hope and an obstinance that’s always gotten him into a little bit of trouble, now and then.

 

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann,” Bitty starts, firm. “I know I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be resisting that awful mean boy in your head, but I need you to try harder than you ever have before. All of the staff is out looking for you right now because we care about you and want you to be safe. Even Kent is here, Jack-- even though he’s scared.”

 

Jack pauses from edging closer to the ravine. He turns back to Bitty with a strange, unidentifiable expression on his face. “Kent?”

 

“Yes, Kent!” Bitty repeats

 

Jack squints at Bitty, biting his lip. “And you,” he says, unsure, as if he’s not positive that Bitty is truly standing there in front of him.

 

“And me,” Bitty says. “Jack, we all love you so much. We want you to be free from this. Just come to me, honey, and we can leave. I know you’re strong enough to do it.”

 

Jack steps back in Bitty’s direction, which puts him at a safer distance of nearly two feet from the edge. Bitty takes a step in that direction, because he knows he’ll feel safer once he can touch Jack, and maybe pull him back down the hill to safety, if that’s what it takes.

 

He’s a few inches away from Jack, looking up at him, when Jack smiles down at him. “Bits,” he says.

 

Before Bitty can respond, something pushes him from behind, hard enough that he falls right past Jack, far enough that one of his feet makes contact with the loose dirt and stone at the edge of the drop-off, and his hands grasp at air, looking for something to grab that isn’t there.

 

His other foot, though, has gone over the edge, and when it comes down, he plunges.

 

The funny thing about falling into the ravine is that he doesn’t really have much time to think about it, because by the time that he realizes that he’s falling, his direction and speed change as another strong force hits him from behind. This one isn’t disembodied and malicious, though.

 

It’s Jack, who must have jumped after him as soon as he realized that Bitty was falling.

 

Bitty didn’t pay much attention in high school physics class, but he does remember that a body in motion will stay in, like, the same motion unless another force acts upon it. Jack is the other force, so instead of falling straight down, he and Bitty fly forward and collide with the hill on the other side of the ravine. It’s still a drop, but this side isn’t quite as steep as the side they were on, so they don’t freefall the whole way so much as slide along face of the ravine, limbs colliding with branches and rocks and each other, until they come to a stop at what seems to be the bottom.

 

The fall is over in a matter of seconds, and the impact knocks the wind out of Bitty so quickly that he’s certain that he puncture a lung and is now dying. He’s face down in a mess of muck and leaves and he tries to tilt his head and gasp for air, but none is coming. His mouth opens and he tries to will his lungs to do their job, but no air comes until Jack realizes what’s going on and nudges him onto his side.

 

Finally, he gets some air, and he gulps it down eagerly like he’s been starving.

 

The second thing he notices is the angle at which he’s fallen on his left leg. It’s not an angle that he’s ever seen it bend before, and he realizes with a sort of sickening sense of fascination that it’s broken. He almost can’t look away, but when he does, he finally looks at Jack.

 

Jack also looks worse for the wear. He’s got a deep, bloody gash across his forehead and when he scoots closer to Bitty and lifts his arm to steady on Bitty’s shoulder, Bitty can see that it’s covered with scratches.

 

“Oh my god,” Bitty says. “We’re alive?”

 

Jack breaks out into a smile. “Looks like it,” he says.

 

And now, only now, does the pain of the broken leg truly hit Bitty. He can’t help but let out a groan, because it’s excruciating. He needs to get his weight off of it, and he doesn’t know if moving will help or hurt the situation, but his mind isn’t clear enough to put much thought into it, so he flails his hands out onto the ground behind himself to crawl into a different position.

 

That’s when he hears a crunch.

 

It’s almost a pop, actually. The sound is so strange that Bitty jerks around to look at what he’s just broken, and he sees the body.

 

Or, more accurately, the skeleton.

 

Bitty’s hand has fallen right onto the ribcage and as soon as he realizes what he’s touching, he yanks it away and holds it close to his own living, breathing chest and shuts his eyes, willing this to all be some awful, sick nightmare.

 

Then he opens his eyes, and it’s not a nightmare, but worse, because this is real life.

 

Unlike the skeletons he’s seen in science classrooms and Halloween decorations, this one is neither clean nor complete. It’s also not laid flat, but rather curled up somewhat, muddy skull on its side a foot or two away.

 

It also becomes evident, after Bitty stares for a few more seconds, that it’s the body of a child.

 

“Oh my god,” Bitty says, wheezing. “Oh my god.”

 

He clasps his hand over his mouth, too shocked to say anything else. He can’t even breathe. It feels like the whole world is closing in on him.

 

And then Jack’s arms circle around him, and that doesn’t change much, but he can feel the steady beat of Jack’s heart and the warmth of his body.

 

“Bittle-- Bitty, it’s okay,” Jack says, quietly, warm breath tickling Bitty’s ear. “I have my phone. I’m going to call someone to come get us. Just stay awake, okay? We’re going to be okay.”

 

But Bitty can’t stay awake, as much as he wants to. The pain and the shock of it all is just too much, and he can feel his consciousness slipping while he turns to look up at Jack. The last thing he sees before he passes out is Jack’s eyes, bright and blue and clearer than Bitty’s ever seen them before.

 

Then Bitty closes his eyes and everything goes dark.

Chapter Text

Bitty can’t really feel much, can’t even think much, and has no idea where he is. His eyes don’t seem to want to open. Everything is wet.

 

He might be floating? He’s definitely floating, because as he starts to come to his senses he can feel that he’s moving, rocking back and forth a little. This lasts for a while, he thinks, but he isn’t really sure how time is working right now. Gradually, he becomes aware of sounds, too-- people talking. He can’t tell what they’re saying, but he knows that they’re talking.

 

The floating feeling stops and he gets a sick feeling in his stomach as his body falls a few inches.

 

Then, finally, he’s able to open his eyes.

 

His vision is assaulted by bright lights, blurry at first, then clearer as he blinks a few times. They’re ambulance lights, he realizes, and when he looks down at himself he sees that he’s strapped to a stretcher. He’s pretty sure he’s in the camp parking lot, but all of the emergency vehicles around are lit up and making everything look different. He looks down at himself again. Something about his leg looks very wrong, and the pain is now starting to set in. It’s excruciating, and it might have been what woke him up, he thinks.

 

“Jack?” he asks, unsure if he’s actually speaking out loud or just thinking it. He tries to sit up, but he’s strapped down, so it doesn’t work.

 

“Hey, you stay still, okay?” A face appears over his body, and it takes him a few seconds of squinting to realize that it’s attached to a person. A paramedic. “We’re getting you into the ambulance in just a second.”

 

“Where’s Jack?” he asks.

 

“He’s talking to the police right now,” says another voice.

 

Bitty turns his head-- it’s Shitty, thank god, in his raincoat and soaked and looking like he’s seen a ghost.

 

“Shitty,” he says, because he can’t really manage anything else right now.

 

“Hey, man. Your leg looks fuckin’ nasty right now.”

 

Bitty nods as best he can from his position. “Where is he?”

 

Shitty squats down next to Bitty and points off to the left of the stretcher. Bitty turns his head and squints out to see a few yards away in the parking lot, where two police cars are parked, and Jack is standing, looking damp and cold, a shock blanket wrapped over his shoulders while he talks to a few uniformed officers.

 

Bitty can hear them, in fact, once he actually concentrates on it.

 

“Alright. And you stayed out in the woods for what reason?” asks one of the officers.

 

“I, uh, didn’t really think that the rain would last that long. I figured I’d just stay up near the top of the hill and wait for it to clear up. I was worried I’d slip if I tried to go down while it was pouring.”

 

“Well, that didn’t work out very well, did it?” The cop asks, then shares a chuckle with Jack.

 

Bitty doesn’t understand what’s going on. It doesn’t seem like Jack’s in trouble, but there are a lot of police here, and Bitty doesn’t really remember what happened. He remembers falling, sure. That explains the leg, and probably the scratches and rips in Jack’s clothing. Everything else other than the fall seems blurry, though.

 

Wait, no.

 

The body.

 

That’s right. Bitty tries to sit up again, to no avail, but this time the paramedic isn’t there to scold him for moving, because she’s rushed over to the police cars and taken Jack by the arm to drag him over to the ambulances.

 

“I think you’ve gotten enough out of him,” she says. “Both of them are in shock. They need to go to the hospital.”

 

Jack seems a little torn, hesitant about leaving the police until the officer he was talking to shrugs.

 

“Yeah, alright,” says the officer. “I mean, the body’s clearly been here for ages. It’s not like they were involved. You boys go get checked out. We’ll be in contact if we need anything else.”

 

“Right,” Jack says, then acquiesces to the paramedic and lets himself be dragged over to the ambulances.

 

There’s a brief moment where Bitty can see him process things a little bit more, now that he’s no longer distracted by the police questioning. Jack goes pale and deflates, no longer pretending that everything is okay.

 

“Jack,” Bitty says, weakly, and Jack finally hears him and looks down to see that he’s awake.

 

“Hey, bud,” Jack says, bending down to be closer to the stretcher. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Like I’ve been through hell and back,” Bitty says. “You?”

 

“I think my wrist is broken,” Jack says, a little sheepishly, holding out his right wrist. It’s swollen, nearly double the size than it usually is.

 

“Jack!” Bitty says. He’s sure he’s not very intimidating right now, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to shame Jack for ignoring his own injuries. “Listen to the nice lady and get in the damn ambulance.”

 

“I will in a minute,” Jack says, then leans down closer to Bitty, looks around quickly to make sure that no one else is within earshot, and says, quietly, “He’s gone.”

 

“Who’s gone-- Henry?”

 

Jack nods. “I don’t feel him here at all. It’s weird. He’s been with me for so long-- I kind of forgot what it feels like to be alone with my thoughts.”

 

Bitty can’t even imagine what Jack’s going through, but he does have some idea of what he means. After all, he also feels the absence of something. A chill, maybe, or the feeling of being watched-- something that’s been with him all summer, and that he didn’t really notice until it was gone.

 

“Is it lonely?” he asks Jack.

 

“A little bit,” he says, then leans down to kiss Bitty.

 

It’s just a peck on his lips, and it happens so fast that Bitty isn’t quite aware that it’s happening until it’s over, and he’s lifting his head to try to follow Jack’s mouth as he pulls away, but only making it a few inches before he’s stopped by the straps on the stretcher.

 

“Jack,” he says, and of course paramedics are just now grabbing either end of his stretcher and lifting him onto the ambulance.

 

“I’ll see you at the hospital,” Jack says, waving at Bitty with the wrist that isn’t hurt. “I promise.”

 

“Okay,” Bitty says, as the back doors of the vehicle close, and things suddenly get a lot quieter. “See you,” he says, to the door.

 

His mind feels like a broken record, alternating between Jack Jack Jack and body body body.

 

His own body, though, has other ideas. He can’t seem to keep his eyes open, and something tells him that if he just lets go and passes out again, he won’t have to feel this awful, searing pain anymore.

 

So he does let go, and sleep takes him quickly.


***

 

He wakes up a few times and makes some medical decisions in a state of bleary confusion. Then he’s asleep again, this time artificially, induced by anesthesia while they operate on his leg.

 

When he wakes up again after that, it’s because of the warmth and brightness of the rising sun against his face. He makes a few displeased noises as he wakes, unhappy that his very peaceful slumber has been disrupted, and slowly opens his eyes.

 

The sun is low on the horizon out his window, and directly in position to continue rising in Bitty’s face. He sits up with the intention of getting up to close the curtain, but his lower body resists the movement.

 

Ah-- broken leg, right. His leg is now encased in a light blue cast that extends from above his knee down to his foot, ending just before his toes. He tries and fails to wiggle them. They feel numb.

 

“Oh,” he says, a little dully.

 

He sees movement next to his bed out of the corner of his eye and turns to see Jack, slouched and lilting to one side on a chair next to the hospital bed. He blinks blearily at Bitty for a second, then springs to his feet.

 

“Hey,” he says, watching Bitty blink at the sunlight. “Want me to close the blinds?”

 

“Yes, please.”

 

Jack does this, then returns to Bitty’s bedside, pulling the chair as close as possible and sitting back down. “How are you feeling?”

 

“I can’t feel my leg at all, so I think that’s good,” Bitty says.

 

“You’re on a lot of painkillers. Nice to see you’re making sense, now. You were in and out of it for a bit.”

 

Bitty hopes he didn’t say anything too regrettable, then-- he can’t remember much after arriving at the hospital. He looks back down at his leg, then back up at Jack, now noticing the smaller light blue cast on Jack’s wrist.

 

“We match,” Bitty says, nodding at Jack’s arm.

 

Jack looks down. “Yeah, you insisted we get the same color.”

 

“Oh. I definitely don’t remember that at all.”

 

“You said it would match my eyes,” Jack says, with a hint of a smile.

 

“Oh my God! I did not,” Bitty says, although he does lift his gaze from Jack’s wrist to look up at his eyes and see if it does match well, and somewhere along the way his eyes catch on Jack’s lips, a little chapped but still looking perfectly kissable, and--

 

Shit. Right. That happened.

 

“You kissed me,” Bitty says.

 

Jack nods, but offers no other explanation, so Bitty takes a deep breath.

 

“I recognize that emotions were a little high last night and you were probably in pretty intense medical shock,” Bitty says, because maybe if he babbles about this for long enough, it’ll make things less awkward, “So I completely understand if that kiss didn’t mean anything to--”

 

“I kissed you because I like you a lot,” Jack interrupts.

“Oh.”

 

“I thought you knew,” Jack says, brow furrowed in a way that is, quite frankly, adorable. “I’ve been flirting with you for weeks.”

 

Bitty lets out a little nervous laugh. “Honey, I thought we were ignoring the fact that we both knew I had a crush on you. I didn’t know that you liked me back.”

 

“Sorry,” Jack says, blushing a little. “In my defense, I was possessed.”

 

In spite of himself, Bitty bursts into laughter at that, and then keeps going until he’s gasping for air and even Jack has his hand over his mouth to try to hide some rogue chuckles.

 

And then Bitty’s heart skips a beat again as the rational part of his brain catches up. “Is that what it was, sweetheart? A-- possession?”

 

Jack shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess so. He was with me, usually. I didn’t always know when he was, though. And if I thought about it too hard, things got hazy.”

 

“So he had control over your mind, too.”

 

Again, Jack shrugs.

 

Bitty ponders this. “And he was with you since you were a camper, right?”

 

“I started seeing him when I first started going to camp. Everyone thought he was my imaginary friend at first, because I was still young enough for that kind of thing, but I figured out pretty quick after then that I couldn’t tell anyone that I saw him.”

 

“But was he-- you know, with you? That early on?”

 

Jack makes a face. “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it’s hard to remember. I mean, there were a couple years I didn’t see him at all, but I think that was mostly because I was so busy with Kent that there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else. But then when I was a teenager, I used to sneak out of the cabin a lot at night, and then he was there again.”

 

“Oh, honey. Why were you sneaking out?”

 

Jack makes a vague grunt. “I was anxious about a lot of things. There was a lot going on at home. I was having trouble fitting in with all the other guys, other than Kent.”

 

“And he was there to talk to you about it?”

 

“Yeah. And he told me things would be better if I could show them that I was-- you know. Brave. Cool. All that.”

 

“By doing the dare, you mean.”

 

Jack nods.

 

“And he made you go out alone in the woods to try to do it? Because that’s what he was doing-- when he died?”

 

Jack is silent for a second. Then he says, “Oh-- he wasn’t alone. They made him do it.”

 

“Who made him do it?”

 

“The other kids. In his cabin. They wanted to see if they could get across, and they made him go first because they hated him. He told me.”

 

“Oh my God,” Bitty says. He can feel himself going pale, he thinks. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

 

Jack springs to his feet. “Do you need, uh-- a bucket?”

 

Bitty doesn’t think he can safely open his mouth to answer Jack, so he stays very, very still for a second and wills his body to relax. It’s hard, to process the fact that other kids pressured a fucking twelve-year-old to jumping to his death, and then managed to get through the rest of their lives without telling anyone what happened.

 

Jesus. Some of those other kids might still be alive. Old as hell, but still.

 

“He was angry,” Bitty says. “But why take it out on you?”

 

“I mean, I figured out that he wanted me to find him. I tried. But yeah. He was angry.”

 

Right-- the holes in the woods, and all of the cleared areas. How many years had he been searching the woods for the body, losing sleep and energy while Henry used him?

 

“I understand that he just wanted to be found, but he didn’t have to try to kill us in the meantime. And Kent, too, for that matter.”

 

Jack makes a face, and Bitty realizes that he had no way of knowing what happened to Kent. They haven’t spoken. “I don’t think he really knew what he was doing. When I could feel what he was thinking, it wasn’t really rational. Just angry. And sad. And frustrated.”

 

“And you were the only person he trusted to do what he wanted.”

Jack nods. “I think so. He hated when I liked anyone else. He just wanted me to concentrate on him.”

 

Bitty supposes that makes sense. He wants to hate Henry for what he did, but also, he knows what it was like to be that age and scared. He can’t imagine how angry he’d be if his own bullies had killed him. “He wanted you to understand him,” he says.

 

“Yeah. I mean, he was just a kid. Or-- he was a kid a originally. I don’t know what he was by the time he got to me. I just don’t know why he picked me.”

 

“Oh, come on. He picked you because you knew what it was like,” says a new voice.

 

Both of them turn sharply to look at the doorway, where Kent Parson is standing, bouquet of flowers in one hand and an envelope in the other. For a second, Kent and Jack just stare at each other. They recognize each other, for sure, but neither says anything. After a few seconds, Kent steps inside and drops the flowers down on the small table next to Bitty’s bed.

 

“‘Sup,” he says, when neither of them respond to him. “It’s, like, six in the morning. I kind of assumed you’d be asleep.”

 

“He woke me up,” Jack says, nodding at Bitty, who now narrows his eyes at Kent.

 

“What do you mean by that? What you said before,” Bitty says.

 

“Oh, right. Jack didn’t fit in. He obviously didn’t either, if he got bullied bad enough that he jumped off a fucking cliff.”

 

Bitty bristles, indignant as he can be while stuck in bed. “If you just came here to be mean, I suggest you leave.”

 

“Wow, relax. I’m not saying it was okay. I’m just saying that it was what happened. I’m sure the kid would’ve loved to possess me, too, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t know what it was like to have big shoes to fill.”

 

“Oh,” Jack says, and sits up. Bitty can’t help but let out a tiny whine as he loses Jack’s body heat. “I understand. Other campers didn’t like him because his dad ran the whole camp.”

 

“Sounds familiar,” Kent says. “Right?”

 

Bitty supposes that’s fitting. “I suppose so.”

 

“Anyway,” Kent says, dropping the envelope into Bitty’s lap. “I just stopped by to drop this off. I’ll see you around town, I guess.”

He moves to go, but hovers in the doorway again. He’s motionless for a second, and then he turns around slowly, as if he can’t stop himself. When he looks up, he makes eye contact with Jack.

 

“Hey, Zimms,” he says, all nonchalant, even though Bitty can see that his hands are shaking. “Would you want to maybe get coffee sometime? Get caught up?”

 

Jack stares at him for a second, then nods. “I’d like that, yeah.”

 

“Cool,” Kent says. And then he’s gone.

 

Jack still seems to be processing the entire action, so Bitty turns to the envelope in his lap and carefully opens it. Inside is a card with a photo of a fluffy little kitten hanging from a branch. Glitter-covered text next to the kitten says “Get well soon and hang in there!” Except the “hang in there” has been crossed out with sharpie, and Kent has written “Thanks for getting rid of the evil spirit that wanted me dead.”

 

Bitty opens the card. It’s blank inside, other than the bottom of the page, where Kent has signed his name.

 

“I really can’t get a feel for him,” Bitty says, shaking his head.

 

Jack doesn’t answer this for a few second. Then he says, “Will you go out with me?”

 

The shock of it makes Bitty drop the card back into his lap. “Jesus,” Bitty says. “You really don’t do anything halfway, do you?”

 

He grins up at Jack, because really, this boy is so sweet, and then sees that Jack is still looking very distraught. Oh. Right.

 

“Yes! Yes, I’ll go out with you, honey. Once we get out of this hospital, we’re going on a real date, far away from camp. No ghosts allowed.”

 

“That sounds nice,” Jack says.

 

“In the meantime, we might as well take advantage of being alone,” Bitty says, wrapping his hand around Jack’s healthy wrist and pulling him down for a long kiss.

 

Jack kisses back for a minute, then pulls away to look at Bitty, expression soft, pupils blown a little. “Do you think your nurses will yell at me if I try to get into this bed with you?” he asks.

 

“Oh, honey,” Bitty says, laughing. “Doesn’t matter if they yell. We’re sure as hell going to try.”

 

And so they do.

 

***

 

Wednesday, August 4

 

CAMP COUNSELORS FIND BODY AND SOLVE DECADES-OLD MYSTERY

 

Two senior counselors at Camp Samwell, located in the woods a few miles east of town, stumbled upon a body of a child after falling in a hiking accident on Monday. Police say that the body has been in the woods for at least several decades, and have reason to believe that it is the remains of Henry Samwell, the son of the camp’s founder, who disappeared over seventy years ago.

 

Jack Zimmermann, 29, and Eric Bittle, 24, are the co-program directors at Camp Samwell. Other camp staff reported that Zimmermann had been hiking when a thunderstorm struck, and Bittle went to find him. While descending a hill, the two men slipped on wet rocks and fell down a ravine, where they discovered the body. Both counselors sustained injuries from the fall.

 

Zimmermann, who also works as assistant to the town historian, has been researching the history of the camp for an upcoming book, and had been searching the camp based on his theory that the child died at the camp and was still located somewhere on the grounds.

 

The chief of police reported that the body likely resurfaced due to recent heavy rainfall and flooding.

 

“It’s a wild coincidence that they stumbled upon the skeleton,” the chief said. “Almost like it was meant to happen, I’d say.”

 

At press time, Bittle was still in the hospital and unavailable to comment, but coworkers report that he is in good condition and expected to make a full recovery.

 

Zimmermann, the son of NHL legend “Bad Bob” Zimmermann and a former athlete himself, is glad that this mystery has finally been solved.

 

“It’s nice that we can finally put an end to this,” said Zimmermann. “I just hope that this doesn’t harm our camp’s reputation at all. Samwell is a great place for kids, and it’s always been safe.”

 

Despite abundant rumors, Zimmermann seems to be right. Several families of current campers that we interviewed for this story had good things to say about the camp, and police inform us that although they will not know anything for sure about what happened to the boy before a full autopsy is completed, they are positive that the camp is safe.

 

“You look cute in this picture,” Bitty says, pointing at the photo of Jack in article, which made it on the front page of the local newspaper a few days before. Shitty had somehow gotten his hands on about a dozen copies, and had been distributing them around camp. This one had been sitting on the coffee table in the living room of the Haus.

 

This is the first morning Bitty’s been back at camp since the night of the fall. Despite both the camp directors and Jack having qualms about Bitty coming back to work so soon after breaking his leg, Bitty insisted, and put senior staff to work setting a cot up in one of the downstairs offices in the Haus to be his temporary bedroom. Getting up and down the porch steps is a pain, for sure, but Bitty is starting to get a hang of doing it on his crutches.

 

He’s been advised by his doctors to mostly stay off his leg for now, though, so he’s on minimal duties for a bit. He made it out to flagpole for morning announcements this morning, but has spent the rest of the day in the Haus doing paperwork and otherwise trying to make himself useful.

 

In reality, though, he’s been very bored, so he’s glad Jack stopped by the Haus to hang out with him while the rest of the camp is busy with Open Waterfront. He’s sitting down on the couch while Bitty lays down on top of him, head in Jack’s lap while he reads the paper.

 

“I don’t know why they picked that picture, though,” Jack says. “You can barely see my face in it,” he says, motioning at the photo. It’s a photo from the camp website, showing Jack from the side in his camp polo and khaki shorts while he tells a story to a group of kids.

 

“Oh, honey,” Bitty says. “They definitely weren’t focused on your face.”

 

Jack makes a face. “Is that another joke about my ass?”

 

“Absolutely,” Bitty says, reaching up to give Jack’s cheek an affectionate pat. “Could you get up and close the window, sweetpea? It’s getting a little chilly in here.”

 

“Yes, your majesty,” Jack teases, carefully getting up, trying not to disturb Bitty too much.

 

“Oh, you shush. You know I’d get up and do it myself if I could.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Jack says, closing the window and returning to the couch, which he kneels in front of.

 

Bitty turns his head to the side to look at him. “Yes?” he asks.

 

Jack grins at him and tilts his head to kiss him. Bitty makes a soft little noise of surprise before kissing back, eager. They kiss for a few minutes before it starts to escalate, and Jack rises up to try to fit with Bitty on the couch to get a better angle. This is easier said than done, since Bitty’s cast is in the way and Jack is hesitant to put his weight on Bitty. They haven’t done anything like this yet, mostly because Bitty’s only just gotten out of the hospital and they’ve both been tired and busy.

 

Now, though, Bitty’s in the mood. It’s a little bit bad, because they’re both technically on duty, but this is probably the only alone time they’re going to get for a while, at least until this session is over, so Bitty doesn’t feel to bad about it.

 

“I think we’re going to have to move to my bed, sweetie. Help me up?” Bitty says, pointing to his crutches, which are resting on the coffee table.

 

Instead of helping Bitty stand, Jack grabs onto Bitty and picks him up with ease while he squeals.

 

“Jack! That’s not what I meant!”

 

Jack ignores his protests and instead meets his lips for another kiss, with silences him very effectively. When he pulls away, he’s flushed and panting and looks just the perfect amount of wrecked. “Bed is a good idea,” he says, and hoists Bitty again.

 

The new position raises Bitty up just enough to see above Jack’s shoulder, and he happily presses his face in the crook between Jack’s shoulder and neck, then smiles against Jack’s t-shirt.

 

As Jack carries him out of the room, though, Bitty catches sight of something else, and he gets the most awful feeling of déjà vu.

 

“Honey,” Bitty says, after a moment. “Wasn’t that window just closed?”