“You feeling okay?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say to that, Wynonna.”
“M’sorry, Waves. I wanted to be there.”
“I know. It’s fine, it’s not your fault. You would have hated it anyway. Everyone was there, even the stupid tomato patch looked sad , and Old Eleonora made me eat her potato salad.”
“Was Gus… you know. Was she… mad?”
“You know Gus.”
“Wesh’d… We should help her out this year. Be there for the summer.”
“… Wynonna, are you drunk right now?”
“God bless duty-free.”
The end of June came with a promise of warmer days being right around the corner; even with the wind blowing scattered clouds across the sky high up above, temperatures were climbing from day to day. For Waverly, the true beginning of summer came with the crunch of gravel beneath her tires, the feeling of her Camp Purgatory shirt on her skin, and a 2000s hit blasting from the speakers. She’d forgotten how much it felt like coming home.
It was almost noon when Camp Purgatory came into view, a village of tents surrounding a large wooden building labelled Homestead in bold black letters. It stood against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance, rising from the forest at their feet, imposing and beautiful with their white crests in the morning sun. The dark blue and orange Camp Purgatory flag was waving high atop the flagpole in front.
Waverly felt something in her chest loosen at the sight. This had been her summer home for sixteen years; twelve as a camper, then junior counselor, then counselor.
To the left of the camp was the lake, glistening and still except for where the wind drove little waves into its surface. A few rowing boats sat by the dock, bobbing slightly, and the sturdy masts for cable skiing stood where they always had, reminding Waverly of the masses of shrieking children that would soon populate the camp.
The entire place was buzzing with maintenance crews as they were assembling camp beds, dressing the skeleton cabins with white, washed-out canvas, and unloading truckloads of supply crates. Down on the sports grounds to the far right, a lone figure was running laps – Waverly briefly wondered who would have the leisure time to go jogging right now.
Amongst the assortment of cars parked outside, Waverly spotted a rusty blue truck: Wynonna’s. With a flourish, Waverly parked her Jeep next to it and honked the horn twice, like her sister used to do whenever she rolled up at Gus and Curtis’s house. She didn’t expect anyone to take notice, but by the time Waverly had hopped out of the car, pulled on a sweater jacket against the chill, and retrieved her bag from the passenger seat, Wynonna was already strolling towards her.
She looked better, was Waverly’s first thought. Maybe it was the fact that she was eating an apple, and Waverly wasn’t sure if she had ever seen her voluntarily consume vitamins, but she felt like Wynonna looked healthier. Less thin, less… ragged. At the same time, the lines of her face had grown sharper. The bags under her eyes were still there, and... well, maybe she looked a little more serious.
Pulling one hand from the pocket of her leather jacket to shield her eyes against the sun, Wynonna smirked. “Hey, sis,” she called, paused, and made a gesture with her hands. “You grew out your... hair!”
Yeah. Still the same. Laughing, Waverly rolled her eyes.
“It’s been three years , Wynonna, God. Is that all you have to say?”
Waverly pulled her into a hug, and didn’t let go even when Wynonna stiffened for a moment before returning the embrace. Her voice sounded a little off when she spoke.
“Jeez, baby girl. We have all summer. There’s plenty of time to get mushy later. Come on,” she added, pulling away a little awkwardly, “Gus is waiting. And I have a surprise for you.”
Nicole had been driving for an hour, and Jeremy had yet to stop talking. It was a little exhausting, but Nicole didn’t mind too much, because it meant that her other passenger, Rosita, was occupied discussing the science behind luminescent water bugs with him.
Rosita and Jeremy’s flights had been too late for the shuttle from Calgary to camp, and Gus had asked Nicole to pick them up on her way through town – in return for the giant exception Gus was making for her. It was a pretty good deal, because even if Jeremy couldn’t shut up to save his life, everything he had to say was actually pretty interesting, and Rosita had a gift for combining science talk with scathing humor or insightful wisdom.
Nicole herself didn’t feel much like talking, but with every passing kilometer, the pressure on her chest seemed to ease. Seven weeks of camp lay before her. She was going to work under the open sky all day, and sleep like a stone each night, far away from the city. Far away from any city.
“Hey, Nicole,” Rosita interrupted her thoughts from the passenger seat, “you’ve been a counselor at this camp before, right?”
She nodded. “Last year.”
“So you already know lots of people.”
Thinking back to last summer, Nicole suppressed a grimace. “I know some. I wasn’t in a great place last year, so I didn’t make a lot of friends.”
Rosita frowned, but thankfully, Jeremy jumped in before she had a chance to ask any further questions Nicole wouldn’t answer anyway.
“I saw they have a no screens rule that applies to counselors, too. How strict are they about that whole thing? Because going that long without the internet…”
Jeremy made a yikes face, and Nicole gave him a look through the rearview mirror.
“Very strict, I’m afraid. Sorry, bud.”
Pouting a little, Jeremy leaned back in his seat. “As strict as they are about pets not being allowed?”
Hunter, Nicole’s Border Collie, looked up from his space in between two seats in the back as if he could feel that he was being talked about.
Nicole shrugged. “Probably.”
Waverly inhaled deeply when she stepped over the threshold of the Homestead and into the gigantic mess hall.
There were some things from her childhood that Waverly never thought about until she encountered them again, like that one Daddy Yankee song, or glitter pens. The way the Homestead smelled was one of those things: like chlorinated water, citrus and pine, and freshly baked bread. Beyond the mess hall was the kitchen and the laundry room, and behind that, accessible from the other side of the house, the showers.
Wynonna took Waverly’s bag and let her lead the way between the chairs and tables towards where their aunt was standing. She was in deep conversation with John Henry, who had been the camp nurse for as long as Waverly could remember (and yet didn’t seem to look any different today than when Waverly was a kid), and Xavier, one of the other counselors. Xavier was three years older than Wynonna, and was well-known as one of the stricter authority figures around camp.
(Waverly had seen him with insecure or homesick children, and his cool demeanor didn’t fool her.)
Both men were practically family, but she hadn’t seen them in ages.
She was thrilled to see them, and flat-out ignored Xavier’s attempt to shake her hand in order to hug him; Doc slung one arm around her shoulders so hard she took an involuntary step forward. Gus took her by the jaw and looked her right in the eye as if she was giving her soul a once-over. She patted Waverly’s cheek a moment later, so her soul seemed to be fine.
“Glad to have you back on board, Waverly,” John Henry drawled, with a smile peeking out from under his moustache. “I thought the year before last was supposed to be your last ride on this carnival.”
Waverly shrugged. “Well, Doc, seems like I can’t stay away.”
“None of us can,” Wynonna added dryly. “It’s the Earp family curse.”
Gus snorted, and Waverly was about to comment on this when a voice behind her said: “Oh. You’re already here.”
Waverly’s blood ran cold.
She turned around; next to her, Wynonna was laughing quietly.
“Surprise!” she said, and then leaned forward to mumble into Waverly’s ear. “You should see your face right now. It’s priceless. Not as good as Gus, though. She dropped her beer when we got here last night.”
Waverly barely heard her.
In the doorway stood Willa. Older now -- not a gangly, angry teenager anymore -- but unmistakably the oldest Earp sister.
“Hey,” Waverly said, stupidly. “What are you doing here?”
Willa, clad in running clothes – so it had been her on the tracks earlier, Waverly’s brain supplied – crossed the room to retrieve a bottle of water from the lunch counter.
“The same as you. I’m going to be a camp counselor again.” She sauntered closer, and although she was smiling, there was an edge to her voice that Waverly remembered distinctly. “Are you not going to say hello?”
Feeling a little numb, Waverly took a step towards Willa, and looped an arm around her.
“Sorry,” she said, not feeling much of anything. “I’m just so… surprised. It’s been… a while.”
Hugging Willa was like embracing a metal pole. Her eldest sister pulled back quickly. “Just about. I’ve been away.”
Wynonna snorted. “Away as in, in jail . Didn’t call us once, can you believe that?”
“No,” Waverly replied flatly, but if Willa was uncomfortable with this being brought up, she didn’t let it show on her face.
Instead, she just clapped her hands together and pursed her lips. “Are we going to get something done today?”
For a moment, everyone was quiet, until Gus cleared her throat. “Wynonna, go help Shorty in the kitchen. Xavier, you’re coming to the office with me. I need to give you the lists. Waverly, go check with maintenance if they’re done with the units, and— Willa, you can go get changed and then distribute water bottles…”
By the time Nicole finally steered her Defender onto the gravel parking lot in front of the camp, the sun was high and beating down. Hunter jumped out of the car the second Jeremy cracked the door open, and immediately began chasing some flying bug as they unloaded the trunk. It wasn’t long until they made their way towards the main house, humidity rising out of the grass below their feet. The air smelled like grass, and a little bit like the canvas of the tents that had been packed away all year.
Someone had hung a sign on the door that said Welcome ♥, and Nicole didn’t think it had been there the year before. Nicole let Hunter drink from a faucet by the side of the house and made him wait in the shade.
“Well then, here’s to our summer adventure,” Rosita commented dryly when they walked in and saw the long line of people waiting to register.
The guy behind the makeshift counter – it was actually just the lunch table furthest away from the door – seemed faintly familiar to Nicole. He had a serious face and an efficient manner about him. Xander, his name was, if she remembered correctly. No, Xavier.
It took almost half an hour, but eventually, it was her turn.
She watched his pen travel down the side of his clipboard. He flipped a page.
“Have you been a counselor here before, Nicole?” he asked conversationally, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Ah, here you are. You’re staying in unit—68.” He smiled a private smile when he saw the number, which confused Nicole, and handed her a map and a list of camp rules as well as a name tag. “Please don’t hesitate to address me if you have any questions. Orientation is in half an hour, dinner is at seven. Next!”
As she wandered away, Nicole checked her map.
She groaned. 68 was in the last row behind the house – pretty far away from everything. Maybe that’s why Xavier had smiled. What a dick.
“Hey, Nicole, you know who you are bunking with yet? Wait, can you help me figure out this map? You’ve been here before. I’d ask my tent-mate, but I’m sleeping with Xavier, and he’s busy right now. Oh man, of course I don’t mean sleeping with him. I just mean, we’re sharing a tent. Unit. Not that I’d mind. I mean, not that I want to, but he’s a very attractive guy, and—“
Nicole sighed, and laughed, and pulled the hood of Jeremy’s sweatshirt over his head, which thankfully cut off his rambling.
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
In the early evening, several buses had arrived and spat hundreds of children between the ages of seven and seventeen onto the camp grounds.
It had been madness as usual, and with the combined effort of counselors and more experienced campers, everyone had been herded into the mess hall, where sleeping arrangements, activity schedules, and all other formalities were taken care of.
Watching the crowd, Waverly had sat on the staircase at the back of the room. It led upstairs, where a conference room, storage, and the offices of the nurse and director were located.
There were a lot of familiar faces, and a lot she didn’t know. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have favorites, and she didn’t, technically, but there was one girl in particular she was glad to discover at a table to the right of the room: a lively girl in a mint green shirt. Her name was Madison, and she had been a new camper in Waverly’s second year as a counselor. Waverly remembered her being clever and eager for knowledge, but a little too glad to be away from home for seven weeks. When Madison discovered her, she gave a wide grin and waved with her whole arm. Waverly waved back.
Dinner was had, and eventually, the mess hall cleared out as everyone went to search for their units and explore the camp before curfew.
Waverly was on her way upstairs to get her bag from the office when, suddenly, someone shrieked . She turned around just in time to catch a solid body crashing into her.
“ You’re here! ” Chrissy Nedley all but screeched into her ear. She pulled back, only to swat Waverly across the torso. “I thought you’d be… backpacking in Europe right now, or something! Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Chrissy was squeezing the life out of her again.
“Because I was really looking forward to you yelling and hitting me?” Waverly joked, but she hugged back gratefully. Chrissy had been one of her best friends for ages, but she hadn’t been in touch with her as often as she’d meant to over the past year.
They snuck off into the office together.
“I thought I saw Wynonna earlier. Is she here, too?” Chrissy wanted to know, dropping onto the old, worn-out leather couch in the corner. Waverly sunk into the chair behind the desk and let her fingers trail over the cracks in the arm rests.
“Yeah,” she replied, a little late and without looking at Chrissy. “It was her idea for us to come back after…”
“After Curtis died,” Chrissy finished for her, voice soft. “I’m so sorry, Waves. And I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, I was in the middle of exams when I heard… My dad said it was a beautiful ceremony. I don’t think he mentioned either of your sisters being there…”
Waverly shook her head absently. “Wynonna tried to come over from Athens, but she got stuck. There was a blizzard in Reykjavík, and they cancelled her connecting flight. We were talking on the phone, and we promised each other we’d come back here this summer. I didn’t think she’d actually do it, but... well,” she raised her shoulders and smiled, “here we are.”
Chrissy smiled back. “It’ll be just like old times, then.”
Looking around the office that had once been her uncle’s, Waverly let herself think about Curtis for the first time since her arrival. The office chair she was sitting in still smelled like his cologne; she didn’t know how Gus would bear it every day.
“Well,” she said loudly, swallowing past the lump in her throat. “Maybe not just like old times.”
When Chrissy’s face softened in sympathy, she added: “Wynonna brought Willa.”
That earned her a shocked look. “Excuse me? Could you repeat that, because I think I just heard you say that Willa is here.”
Waverly shrugged. “Yeah. Apparently she recently got out of jail. I think she was in for stealing something, which we didn’t even know about. and needed a job. She contacted Wynonna, and Wynonna talked Gus into letting her work here again.”
Letting out a slow breath, Chrissy sank back against the couch. “Phew. That’s going to be interesting.”
“Yeah.” Waverly got to her feet. “Come on, Nedley. Let’s go find our units. Maybe we’re bunking together? Just like old times?”
Her friend groaned, but got up, too. “Unfortunately, we’re not. I already know I got Steph . I’m telling you right now, Earp, never crush on the same guy as your tent-mate, because if you’re really unlucky, your tent-mate will be a bitch and make your life living hell forever.”
Nicole had taken Hunter for a walk around the lake after dinner, and it had ended up being a longer trek than she had anticipated. By the time she got back, the tents in the last row were aglow with the orange light of the slowly setting sun, and Nicole could see someone moving inside unit 68 – her new tent-mate, presumably. She approached nervously; hopefully whoever it was would be okay with Hunter.
Nicole startled a little when a sharp hiss and a small scream came from inside the unit just as she pulled back the flap of canvas.
By the small table at the far end of the platform-tent stood a woman, bathed in the warm light of the late evening sun that made the waves of long hair flowing over her shoulders look soft and golden.
She was tiny, and pretty muscular, and she looked far too graceful for someone whose water bottle had evidently just exploded all over her.
“I didn’t know Purgatory had wet T-shirt competitions,” Nicole heard herself say, and immediately rolled her eyes at herself. Well done, Nicole . She moved quickly to her cot, reaching for her bag to get her tent-mate a towel, who accepted it gratefully before setting down the dripping water bottle on the floor.
“I keep telling Shorty to switch to still water. It tastes better, and doesn’t give you involuntary showers,” she muttered. She dried off her hand and held it out. “I’m Waverly. Hi.”
Nicole took it. “I’m Nicole. Nicole Haught.”
Maybe it was the light, or the effects of the swift walk she had just taken, but when they shook hands and Waverly smiled at her, Nicole suddenly felt warm.
“Hi,” Waverly said again.
A little too late, Nicole realized they were still shaking hands, and quickly stepped back to reveal her dog, who was currently sniffing the pocket of her bag where he knew she kept treats.
“Oh, and – this is Hunter. I had to bring him when the person who was supposed to take care of him cancelled pretty last minute; I’m afraid you’re sharing your tent with two others this year, I hope that’s alright… with… you…”
Nicole trailed off when she realized that Waverly was no longer listening, but instead solely focused on Hunter. She held out the hand that wasn’t holding Nicole’s towel to let him sniff it, and then, when he faintly wagged his tail, began to idly pet him.
“Of course it’s alright with me,” Waverly murmured, more to the dog than to Nicole. “Who wouldn’t be? Hm?”
Hunter, being his most charming self, dropped to the floor and let Waverly scratch his belly, his hind legs kicking slightly to keep from rolling over in either direction.
Nicole rolled her eyes at him fondly, and waited until Waverly, with a final pat to Hunter’s ribs, got up again.
She was standing a little closer than before, still clutching the towel to her chest.
“Hey, are you still thirsty?” Nicole asked, going for casual. “Because I saw some folks getting together by the fire pit. I was thinking about heading over there – I’m sure we could find you a still water, if you’d like to join me?”
“Oh, no,” Waverly said quickly, her cheeks reddening. She threw up one hand and gestured to herself. “I mean, God, look at me. I’m sopping wet. I’m gonna… get changed. But you go on ahead!”
She discarded the damp towel into Nicole’s hands and moved away. “Um, thanks for the towel. I’ll see you around, Nicole.”
She grabbed a few items from her bag as she spoke, and then she was gone.
Nicole stayed behind, confused.