“God, this is lame.”
“Aw come on, Max!” David, attracted like a bloodhound to the slightest hint of negativity, flocked to Max and gave him his most winning grin. (David rarely won anything, especially with that stupid smile.) “This is a very special experience for you campers!”
Max rolled his eyes. “A shitty waterpark in the middle of nowhere, full of screaming kids. It’s a dream come true.”
“Well, maybe if you went in the water you’d feel better! I could hold your sweatsh --”
“Touch it and die, camp man.”
“Seriously, Max,” Gwen said, coming up behind David with her arms already crossed in what she probably thought was an intimidating pose. Would probably be scarier if she wasn’t constantly trailing behind David like a duckling with an attitude problem. “This stupid trip cost us money we don’t have, so you better not ruin it.”
“Even if I wanted to run away, where would I go?” He threw his arms out to the side, making a dramatic show of looking around. “This place is more isolated and run-down than most Saw traps. Pretty sure I’ll die of tetanus just walking around.”
David looked like he wanted to say something inspiring (and dumb), but something over Max’s shoulder snagged his attention. “Mr. Campbell! Put those ‘No Running’ signs back!”
As the counselors ran off -- well, David ran; Max was pretty sure Gwen wouldn’t run unless a serial killer was chasing her -- he let his disinterested mask turn into an actual, evil-villain smile.
He’d only said he wouldn’t run away, after all. There were lots of things he could fuck up besides trying to escape.
He just needed his partners in crime . . .
“Max!” Right on time. He had a split second to brace himself before Nikki collided into his back, looping an arm around his neck and nearly dragging them both to the pockmarked cement. “This place is awesome! There are water guns attached to poles and I sprayed Preston in the face!”
“Amazing, Nik,” he replied, shrugging her off and readjusting his hoodie. “You really can find the bright side to even the shittiest things.”
Neil trotted up to them, already a little out of breath and wiping the sweat from his hairline. Max pulled an inhaler refill out of his hoodie pocket, but he waved it away and said, “I don’t think we can steal the guns. Not without a screwdriver, and I’m pretty sure I left mine in the tent.”
Nikki had already moved on. “The vending machine over there is broken! Neil and I got twelve packets of Cracker Jacks!”
“Do you even like Cracker Jacks?” he asked. Weren’t those just packing peanuts covered in caramel?
“I don’t know!” She tore a package open with her teeth and tossed the entire thing into her mouth. “Not really!”
Neil grimaced. “Jesus, Nikki, at least finish chewing --”
“Catch!” Nikki had already ripped into another packet and tossed a handful of Cracker Jacks in his face.
While Neil was spluttering and wiping peanuts off his face, Max said, “So what percentage of the water here d’ya think is pee? I wanna make sure I really emphasize the health code violations in my letter home. Maybe Mom and Dad will be so pissed off they sue the camp.”
(Not that they would; he was convinced his parents had learned English mostly by watching family sitcoms and cheesy coming-of-age movies, and they were convinced that garbage heaps like Camp Campbell “built character” and were part of the “true American experience.” No amount of common sense would get through to them. They were parents -- so, basically hopeless.)
Neil gave the pool a slightly nauseated look before shaking it off and turning back to him. “Even you have to admit this is a little fun.”
“I really don’t think I do.” He swept his arm up and over his head in a wide semicircle. “It’s a beautiful sunny day, everyone’s enjoying themselves, there’s some weird hipster shit playing over this place’s one broken loudspeaker. It’s picturesque. Disgusting .”
Nikki cocked her head to the side, listening to the tinny music crackling through the air like it was being played through a tin can. (And by a tin can. It sounded like a pile of tin cans in a clothes dryer that was also somehow tin cans.) “I kinda like it.”
“There’s a mandolin in this song. You know where mandolins belong? At Ren Faires and Scottish funerals.” Probably. He didn’t know much about Scottish funerals -- or what “Ren Faires” were beyond that Nerris liked them, and she seemed like the kind of weirdo who’d listen to tiny guitars -- but he doubted Neil or Nikki did either, so he was fairly confident he could get away with saying it.
His friends exchanged a look, one that set Max’s teeth on edge. “You’re doing it again,” Nikki said.
“Hating things,” Neil replied.
That wasn’t what Max had been expecting. “I mean . . . yeah,” he finally said, shaking his head. “It’s kinda my brand.”
“I know.” Nikki started chewing on the tip of one of her pigtails, the hair muffling her words. “And usually I like causing mischief, but it’s hot and I wanna go on the water slides!”
“She’s right,” Neil added, and Max began to feel like he was in some sort of intervention. “I know this place isn’t the best --”
“I’d rather be in Super Guantanamo.”
“-- but is it really more fun to just stand around being pissed off at everything?”
“Obviously.” The response was automatic, but the question actually threw him for a second.
Complaining was fun. He and Neil could spend an entire Saturday trading complaints and insults about the camp, their parents, even the weather if they were really running low on things that sucked. Max considered himself a champion at bitching about things, but Neil’s super-geek brain was so good at plucking out faults in even the most awesome things and somehow making these observations both stupidly obvious and even funny -- in his dry, “not entirely sure he’s actually joking” way.
And ruining things was fun: Nikki had the worst, impossiblest, batshit-craziest ideas, and buried in all that weirdness were some of the best pranks he’d ever pulled. Even when Max couldn’t shut her down on a bullshit scheme, it was fun watching his friends use science and Nikki-ness to make it work -- and fail, usually. It was even more fun when they were actually able to pull something off that shouldn’t have been possible (usually with his help and great insights; he was the best at causing mayhem and always would be) . . .
The look on Neil’s face when his jerry-rigged hamster ball actually allowed them to roll around the camp without popping on anything, even Nurf’s knives, was priceless. And so was Nikki’s war cry that sounded like an Indian from one of those old racist Westerns, which she reserved for explosions big enough to singe off their eyebrows.
But they didn’t want to do anything like that today. They wanted to just . . . what, enjoy themselves? In this pathetic soon-to-be-abandoned-and-bankrupt pile of junk?
And he was supposed to just go along with that?
Why the fuck would he?
They could hang out without him, they did it all the time. When he was busy . . .
Hating things, usually.
“Okay, fine,” he finally said, letting out a long, beleaguered sigh like they were being too annoying for words. (What? Sometimes being dramatic was fun too.) “I’ll do things your way for an hour. And if it still sucks, we break something. Like David’s legs.”
He wasn’t surprised by the way either of them smiled; after the entire summer he’d gotten very used to both of them. Nikki’s grin, so wide it was almost scary, with a tooth that got chipped during Fighting Camp and another one she lost a few weeks ago (then immediately swallowed to see if the tooth fairy would come into her stomach after it), the way she tilted her head like an excited puppy: same angle, same direction, every single time. Neil’s tiny, shy of his barely-crooked teeth, the way his gaze would land somewhere in the vicinity of Max’s face but never actually his eyes -- forehead, nose, for some reason his left ear (but never the right) -- before flicking down to stare at his dorky T-Rex hands, which he’d twist together until every finger-joint cracked, this teeny little divot in his right cheek that only showed up when he laughed, too small to even put a pinky in.
Max hated people smiling, especially smiling at him . But he didn’t totally mind with Neil or Nikki; they were his best friends, maybe his only friends. It’d be weird if they were frowning at him all the time.
“Come on then, sourpiss!” Nikki cried, taking one of his hands and gesturing for Neil to grab the other.
“Sour puss ,” he corrected, his fingers briefly settling on Max’s wrist, elbow, and forearm before closing tight around a handful of his sleeve.
Max let himself be dragged forward, wincing at the sticky caramel still on Nikki’s hand. “I’m not gonna run away,” he whined, scuffing his toes along the ground before remembering that he liked these sneakers. “You don’t have to --”
“Our way,” she reminded him, breaking into a half-skip, half-run that left Max and Neil stumbling to keep up. “Oooh, look! Flowers!”
“We aren’t seriously stopping and smelling flowers right now, are we?” Max demanded, almost overcome by the lameness of it.
Neil just shrugged, ducking away from a bee that zoomed out of the nearest one. “Our way, Max.”
He sighed and breathed in a lungful of pollen. “Yeah, yeah,” he managed between coughs. “But just for an hour.”
“It’s gonna be a rose, but like . . . a black one. With thorns. And it’ll say ‘Too Cool’ underneath. Maybe in the vines or something.”
“Wow, Ered!” Nikki said, leaning against the rickety wooden railing that was keeping them from falling off the long line up to the tallest slide. “Your dads will let you do that when you’re sixteen?”
She tossed her hair. “Totally.” She turned to Max and Neil. “You gonna get a tattoo?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna get ‘None of your fucking business’ on my forehead.”
Nikki pouted, shooting Ered an apologetic look. “Max, our way!”
“It’s been way over an hour,” he said. His hair and sweatshirt -- which he still refused to take off, though he did dump everything inside into David’s backpack -- were soaked and beginning to steam under the sun, and he pulled his hood over his eyes and rested his head on Neil’s shoulder. “Wake me up when we get to the top.”
His friends were quiet, Ered having turned her attention to a surprisingly impassioned conversation with Nerris over the benefits of each class in DnD. After a moment Nikki said, “Well, the hour is over.”
“And he’s still here.” Neil smelled like sunscreen and chlorine, and his skin was burning warm like the sunburn he would inevitably still get. As a strong breeze shook the wooden tower they were standing on, a chill caused Max to lean more heavily into him for warmth and wind-blocking. (Not snuggling. Not even in the same neighborhood as snuggling.) “Better than I’d expected.”
He could hear Nikki’s smile. “Me too!” They shuffled forward, ignoring the alarming creak of the wood beneath them. “He’s a good friend, deep down.”
“Ehh, very deep down, I guess.”
“Oh yeah. Like, in his toes or something.”
“You know I can still hear you, right?” Max said without opening his eyes.
“Absolutely,” Neil replied.
“We were counting on it!” Nikki added brightly.
“Max!” They’d reached a bend in the line, and he realized with horror, opening his eyes, that they’d come into view of David, who was apparently accompanying Space Kid. Birds of an annoying, friendless feather . “I’m so happy to see you’re enjoying yourself! Isn’t it great having fun off the grid like this?” David’s voice was sincere, a little bit tearful, but with an underlying I told you so that made his blood boil.
Max turned to Nikki and Neil, who understood what he was thinking from his expression. “We’re not letting him get away with that, right?” he muttered.
“Of course not,” Neil said immediately, and Nikki nodded.
“Slide first, though,” she said, as though they were going to just leap off the side of the tower or something. (Which, considering her, couldn’t be ruled out.)
Max grinned, giving in to the oppressive sunshine and shrugging out of his hoodie. “Slide first,” he agreed. “Then we’re doing things my way.”