Max’s day had been going great so far, if you must ask. You see, David—the peppy redhead, the annoying camp counselor, the bane of his existence—made a fool out of himself today.
The best part wasn’t even David busting his ass and dropping all seven balls—no, the best part was Preston’s impersonation of the event. Max doesn’t usually dole out complements, but Preston’s act was one of the funniest fucking things he’s seen in a hot goddamn minute. So, excuse him for wanting the moment of joy to last as long as possible.
The other campers, however, become tired of Preston’s charade rather quickly. Everyone minus Preston walks back to the mess hall at David’s annoyingly-loud call for lunch. Max sits with his friends at their usual table and pokes at his food as they chatter amongst themselves. The food is bland and Max can’t seem to focus on any of the words they’re saying. The thought of the joke is a persistent fly buzzing around in the back of his mind and he desperately wants to hear it again. He likes the way Preston pronounces the onomatopoeias at the beginning. He loves the fwoosh of sound when Preston hits the ground, followed by the tink, tink, tink, of the balls hitting his head. It’s so satisfying and funny at the same time. He’s been mouthing the sounds under his breath all morning when no one is looking, but it’s just not as funny when Max does it. He needs to hear Preston do it again if he wants to re-experience that rare, fluttery feeling when he laughs.
Max makes up his mind. He might not get another chance like this again. The other campers are occupied, and Preston is by himself on the stage. Max can indulge himself without being embarrassed by what the others think. Realizing how creepy his plan sounds when he puts it that way, he shakes his head and rephrases his justification.
He just wants to hear the joke. It’s not even that big of a deal. Preston should be happy with him since he’s the only person interested anymore. The dumb theater kid always loves a good audience. If Max snags food for him, there’s no way the kid can say no. It’s a win-win for both of them.
A small smile stretches across his face. He starts his plan off by bullshitting his friends with some excuse of going to the bathroom. Then, he asks David if he can go bring a sandwich to the resident theater kid. David, of course, happily obliges. He doesn’t suspect a thing. Gwen gives Max a strange look, to which he responds with a swift middle finger.
With the sandwich acquired, Max slinks out of the bustling mess hall and heads out to the activities field. The transition from loud to quiet makes his head spin. He shakes it off and keeps walking until he spots the person he’s looking for.
Preston is clad in a ridiculous cowboy outfit with lots of leather fringe. He’s sitting on the stage, one leg outstretched, trying to shimmy on a too-small cowboy boot. Max shuffles up the front row of the scratchy wooden bleachers and finds a perfect spot in the middle.
“Do WCC again, Preston!” Max shouts suddenly, cupping his hands around his mouth. Preston startles and drops his boot. It makes a loud clank on the stage.
“Max?” He asks, narrowing his eyes, “What are you still doing here? Why aren’t you at lunch with the others?”
Max glances back in the direction of the mess hall. “Already went. Got you a sandwich. So, do the thing again and I’ll give it to you.”
Preston stands up and peers at the Ziplock bag on the bleachers. He rubs the back of his neck and winces. “Uh, yeah, about that…” He starts, “I’m not doing WCC anymore. It’s just not me. You understand, right?”
Max blinks. A bolt of lightning runs through his body. No, he thinks to himself, I don’t understand. Preston has an attentive audience member dropped right into his lap and he still won’t do the thing?
“Listen,” Preston continues, “You can stay and watch me practice for my Cowboys in Love performance. It’s really good! I just don’t want to do the counselor act again.” He shifts his eyes.
Max feels his blood boil. He clenches and unclenches his hands in his hoodie pocket, leaving moon-shaped indents in his palms. Is Preston fucking stupid? No one wants to see his dumb 4-hour cowboy chick-flick.
“Why not?” Max grits his teeth. The tree leaves rustle way too fucking loud and it only adds to his urge to deck Preston in the face.
“I’m just not having fun with it anymore.” Preston raises an eyebrow and takes a step back.
“Well, I am,” Max spits, “So do it!”
“Absolutely not!” Preston lies a hand on his chest, “David said that I need to do what makes me happy. I don’t have to do what the audience wants!”
Max doesn’t know how to respond to that. Why does Preston get to be happy, and not him? It’s not fair. Max is always the one in control; why can’t Preston get that through his thick fucking skull? This is his camp. Preston doesn’t get to make the rules. He just wants to hear Preston say the stupid fucking joke! It’s not that hard! Max can feel the signature electricity running through his veins and knows he’s two seconds away from a meltdown.
Max, for better or for worse, bolts the fuck out of there. He knows if he stays, he might hurt Preston. Which he really fucking wants to do, by the way, but not while his body is out of his control. Max runs to the forest and when he’s sure he hasn’t been followed, hides behind a tree. He pants and runs his fingers through his hair, not even caring if he messes it up. He tries rocking, but the repetitive motion isn’t helping as much as it usually does. Maybe it’s because he’s sitting on the base of a tree with the texture from hell, or maybe it’s the fact that all he can see is green, green, green, stretching for miles in his line of vision, swaying back and forth and allowing glimpses of bright sunlight to assault his eyes like laser beams. Or maybe it’s the fact that he can’t stop thinking—His mind is racing one-hundred miles per minute—and it all seems to come back to this one thing: Preston is awful and this is all his fault.
Max isn’t sure how much time has passed, but he hears three loud crunch, crunch, crunches that cause his hands to fly over his ears. If it’s a bear, Max hopes it eats him. Anything is better than dealing with his current emotions.
It takes Max a second to recognize the voice, but once he does, he runs towards it and flies into the arms of his wacky camp counselor. The real one this time.
“Max?” David scoops the boy up into his arms. Max hums loudly and digs his face into David’s vest, internally begging that he’ll get the hint.
Max nods into the fabric, appreciating the nice smell and rough-but-not-too rough texture. It’s nice and dark in vest-land, which gives him the sudden urge to curl under some heavy blankets.
“Okay,” David says, “Let’s sit down, okay?”
David takes the spot where Max was previously sitting, making sure not to jostle the boy as he moves. He runs his hands through Max’s hair in the pattern he knows calms the boy down. The texture of Max’s curly hair brushing against David’s fingertips makes the man cringe, but he sucks it up. Max needs him.
Max flaps his hands wildly and hums, trying to expel the anger from his tiny body. David sits quietly and continues to brush until there’s a lull in the humming.
“A little better?” David asks. Max bobs his head.
“Do you want to talk about it?” David prods. He moves his hand to rub Max’s back in soothing circles instead to give his senses a break.
“Preston,” Max spits, not even moving away from the comfort of the jacket to answer. David has to strain to hear him.
“Preston’s the one who told me you ran off. I’m glad he did, or else I might not have found you!” David says cheerfully.
“What was that, buddy?” David asks. Max pulls away and rubs his eyes. He cracks them open and readjusts himself to the light.
“Said ‘tattletale,’” he mumbles. “He’s dumb.”
David frowns, “Well, that’s not a very nice thing to say about your fellow camper! Why don’t you explain why you two had a disagreement and we can work things out?”
Here it comes. David’s going to think he’s a big drama queen. Everyone else does. No one understands that small things to them are big things to Max. If David of all people makes fun of him, though, Max just might jump into the lake and drown himself to avoid the embarrassment. Max takes a deep breath and signs his death wish.
“Wanted him to do the joke again. Wacky counselor. He didn’t want to. I got mad and yelled at ‘im”
“Well, I can certainly see why you were frustrated,” David soothes. Max wants to cry. “However, I also understand Preston’s side. He’s not just some puppet to be ordered around.” David chuckles. Max lowers his eyes and twists his hands together. He knew that deep down, didn’t he? He just didn’t want to see it. See, when Max wants something, he does everything in his power to get it. It’s a skill he learned at the group homes to get the best bedrooms, the best toys, the best chores…He’s not used to caring about other people.
“I think you should apologize, later,” David adds.
“I know,” Max sighs. “Just sounded nice. And was funny.” David hums. Max moves to fidget with the zipper on David’s vest pocket. The redhead doesn’t seem to mind.
“Well, I could do the wacky counselor bit if you’d like! You can even record it so you can watch it whenever you want!” Max lifts his head and makes eye contact for a moment before looking away.
“Really? You’d do that? You don’t think I’d use it to blackmail you?”
David chuckles and ruffles his hair. “I don’t really care. As long as it makes you smile, I don’t mind doing something silly like that.”
Max grins. He grabs his phone out of his pocket and gives David a look. “Do it now?”
David winks. “Sure, Max.”
If the other campers see Max grinning at his phone, mouthing sounds to himself later that night, they don’t say anything.