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Every Summer has a Story (so let's make this one ours)

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Suitcase. Backpack. Skateboard. Just the essentials. Max stands in front of her cabin door, staring at the little number 3 on the door.

Just as she is about to reach out her hand to open it, it swings open from the inside, revealing a small, curly-headed girl wearing yellow overalls.

“Hi,” she says, staring at Max. “Do you need help?”

“No, I. This is my cabin,” Max says, shrugging her backpack higher onto her shoulder. “The lady in the front office sent me here.”

“Oh, Flo!” the girl says. “She’s nice. Come in!” She steps aside to let Max drag her suitcase into the small room. Six metal bunk beds line the walls. To the left, Max can see the bathroom, where there’s a couple stalls and a dubious looking shower. The floor is a dingy brown concrete, and already dirt clusters in the corners and around the doorframe. On the windowsill, she spots dead flies, and old cobwebs.

“Pick any bed you want,” the girl says. “I’ve already claimed mine.”

Max nods and hauls her stuff to the bed in the corner, setting it down with a thump. She stands for a minute, unsure what to do next. The girl is still watching her.

A window A/C unit coughs to life, pressing into the awkward silence.

“You can set up your bed now,” the girl finally offers. “Or you can wait. I’m just about to head to the office. Everyone else is probably there. You can come with me, if you want.” She smiles hopefully. “I’m El, by the way.”

“Max,” Max offers, sticking out her hand. They shake, and Max says, “I’ll come to the office with you.”

“Ok!” El skips out the door, calling back, “C’mon! I’ll show you the shortcut!”

Max casts one last look over her shoulder at the dirty cabin. Well. It’s something. She has never been to camp in her life, and now here she is, spending her whole summer working at one. But it pays ok, and she gets to live there and eat there for free, and there’s probably a good skateboarding spot somewhere on the camp. At the very least, it’s a whole summer free of Billy. Max nods firmly, and shuts the door.

*

“Kill it!” Mike screams, covering his head with his arms.

“Don’t be a coward!” Dustin shouts.

“Fireball him!” Will says.

Lucas readies the towel in his hand. He takes careful aim, keeping his eyes on the target. With a well-timed smack, the wasp falls to the floor. Lucas crushes it under his shoe.

The other three boys breathe a collective sigh of relief.

“Why do I feel like that’s going to happen all summer?”

“Dude, these cabins are notorious for having wasps,” Dustin lisps, “It’s why the staff stays here. We get the worst cabins.”

Mike groans, flopping back onto his sleeping bag, which is the only bedding his has on his mattress.

“You’re the wasp warrior, Lucas,” Will says, grinning.

Lucas knuckle-bumps him. “Thanks, man.”

Will returns to tucking his sheet under the mattress. A faded quilt goes on top of that, and finally, his pillow, right at the head. Once he makes his bed, he pushes his suitcase underneath and pulls out a worn paperback that he sets next to the pillow.

Dustin’s bed is also sheeted, and a plastic tub is by the side of it. His stack of baseball caps, a thermos, and a deck of cards are on top of that.

Lucas’ bed has his camo sleeping bag, stretched neatly on top. He also has a plastic tub, but it is open, revealing the plethora of camping gear within. Sunscreen, bugspray, a compass, three water bottles, a swiss army knife, bandanas, coils of parachute cord, and an extension cord are among the things he brought.

Mike has the messiest bunk, his clothes and gear scattered haphazardly across the bed and floor.

There are two empty bunks in their room, which may or may not be filled by other staffers by the time the day is done. Secretly, the boys hope no one comes. These boys are veterans to camp Hawkins. They’ve been in each other’s cabins since third grade, their first camp. This year is no different. Staff Cabin 2 is for the boys this year.

*

In the office, El and Max find only a few other counselors, sitting on the dingy couches around the office. Most of them are near their age, sporting college t-shirts and baseball caps. A few look to be a couple years older. Max doesn’t recognize any of them, but that’s no surprise.

El flops on a couch, saying. “There’s snacks on the table.” She indicates the table with her head.

Max moves to investigate the cookie and chip packets on the table.

Only a moment later, four boys burst through the door to the office, seeming to squeeze through the frame all at once, clamoring about wasps. Max jumps, startled, as the boys make themselves at home, claiming an entire couch for themselves and throwing their backpacks and waterbottles onto the floor.

Boys. Rolling her eyes, she returns her attention to the snacks, finding there is only one packet of Oreos left. Just as she is about to take it, a boy swoops in and snags it, whooping, “Score! And it’s the last one, too!”

She clears her throat. “Excuse me. That was mine.” She extends a hand for him to return it.

He has already torn open the packet, and looks from her hand to the bag. “Finders keepers,” he says. “Sorry. They sell them for a dollar at the trading post.”

Max looks indignant, scrunching her brows, but the boy has turned away and returned to his rowdy friends.

She settles on Cheetos instead.

El moves closer to the couch the boys claimed, grinning at them. One of the boys has settled on the floor, leaning back against her shin.

Max sets next to El. “So who’re these guys?” she asks, unimpressed.

El grins. “These are my friends—Mike, and Dustin, Will, and Lucas!”

“Ah, hello!” Max tips her chin in greeting, smiling at all of them save Lucas, who is still chewing the Oreos. Her Oreos. To him she only gives a flat stare.

“We’ve been to camp together forever,” Dustin says. He appears to be missing his front teeth.

“Is this your first year?” Will asks, softspoken.

Max nods.

“Welcome to camp,” he adds.

Max smiles. She likes this boy.

As more staff fill the room, noise builds as the staffers introduce themselves and make small talk. Finally, the office door opens, and out steps director Hopper. Behind him are three people who look to be only a few years older than Max herself.

“Settle down!” Hopper barks, crossing his arms over his impressive chest. “Is this everyone?” He glances around the room, seeming to do a headcount with his eyes. “Steve, go round up any stragglers. The rest of you, let’s head to the fishbowl!”

In a mad scramble, the assembled camp Hawkins staff gather their things and charge camp grounds, whooping in the sunshine. A few turn cartwheels in the grass, and some break into a sprint out of excitement.

Max sticks close to El, as the group of boys bob around them, laughing and shouting. They pass some cabins and turn to a large concrete pit, that Max can only assume is the fishbowl. It is layered down the sides with steps to make a round ampitheatre, with a raised platform in the center. A canopy stretches tight overhead, casting some shadow into the fishbowl, making the concrete cool to sit on.

Hopper takes his spot on the platform, putting his hands on his hips and turning a slow circle to observe them. He spreads his arms wide and shouts, “Welcome to Camp Hawkins!

A cheer goes up from the gathered staff. Max cheers, too. The excitement is contagious.

As the cheers die down, one of the older staff—Steve, Max remembers—pulls up in a gator. He tries to drift it, but fails, and instead skids to a noisy stop just beside the fishbowl. Steve steps out of the gator, tosses his hair, and joins the back of the crowd, on the very top step.

Hopper rolls his eyes. “Let’s begin with some basic rules.” He spends some time talking through what they’ll be doing—some will be counselors, living in cabins with the kids all week. The head counselor is Robin—a bright eyed girl with a backwards ballcap. Some will work activities crew—maintaining and facilitating things like paintball, fishing, biking, and hiking. Steve is head of this department. And of course, there are the lifeguards, headed by Nancy, who is ridiculously thin and in shape, which makes her perfect for her role.

Then Hopper branches into a speech about camp. “Camp is fun, but it’s so much more than that. Camp is an escape. Camp is a safe place. You’ll have kids come through here where this is the only place where they get three square meals a day. You’ll have kids that feel like they can only truly be themselves at camp. Camp is about the campfires and the kayaks, sure, but more importantly, it’s about the relationships. And that’s where you guys come in. These kids will look up to you. They’ll think you put the stars in the sky. And you have to handle that responsibly. You will make an impact on a child’s life this summer. You will make a difference. That’s why you’re here. It’s not just about the marshmellows.” He smiles under his mustache. “Alright, enough talk. Let’s go have some dinner!”

As one, the staffers rise and cross the road to the mess hall. It really is a road—a county road, actually, that runs right through the middle of camp before turning off of the property. The speed limit signs are very low, but still the occasional car would trundle through. But Camp Hawkins is pretty far in the wilderness, so they remain mostly unbothered.

*

The mess hall is loud. Cinderblock walls rebound every sound made, and with fifty college students raising joyous hell, the building echoes with shouts and laughter and song.

Steve sets his tray down next to Robin and across from Nancy. “’Sup,” he greet conversationally.

Dinner tonight is hamburgers, one of the camp’s better meals. He takes a big bite out of his, tomato juice dripping down his chin and wrist.

Beside Nancy, Jonathan Byers sets down his tray and pulls out his camera. “Smile,” he says to Steve, and snaps a picture. “That’s for the instagram.”

Steve makes a face. “Really, my dude? You couldn’t let me comb my hair first?”

“Like that will make a difference,” Robin says.

Nancy giggles. “Let me see.” She peers at the phone. “It’s not that bad, Steve.”

“It’ll be great promo,” Jonathan says. “’Our camp counselors have started training and are hungry for more!’”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Very punny.” Byers doesn’t annoy him, exactly, but he doesn’t have a reason to like him, either.

Jonathan points at Steve with his fork. “Hey, I have the camera all summer long. Be nice to me, or I’m posting all the bad photos of you. I have blackmail.”

Nancy rolls her eyes. “Sit down,” she says affectionately.

The four leadership staff continue to joke through the rest of dinner. After dinner, they’ll have a campfire time, and then they’ll be free for the evening.

Among the younger counselors, there are rumblings of an ultimate Frisbee game. A few want to head to the game room. Others head off to their cabins to take a few moments of quiet before the campfire.

Steve stands up and stretches. “What do you say, guys, want to join me at the docks, watch the sun set?”

Nancy wrinkles her nose politely. “Thanks, Steve, but Jonathan and I are going for a walk.” She slides her hand into Jonathan’s who shrugs apologetically.

“Fair,” Steve sighs. “Robin? Romantic sunset watching date?”

Robin blinks at him. “Thanks, Harrington, but I’m gay.”

Steve blinks back. “Cool. I’m bi.”

Robin looks surprised, then a smile spreads on her mouth. She raises her hand for a high five. “That’s awesome. Love me some solidarity.”

Steve returns her high five. “Yep. Well. I’m going to go watch the sunset by myself, I guess.”

“You have fun with that,” Robin laughs.

Steve exits the dining hall, wishing his basketball shorts had pockets for him to shove his hands into. He’d been hoping to have a little fun this summer, romantic fun. It’d been a long time for him. And Nancy—well, that was long gone. It used to hurt a lot more, to see her with Jonathan, and now it’s just faded to a dull, habitual, ache. And Robin’s pretty, but obviously not interested. Steve sighs. Better luck next time.

He settles on the edge of the dock, feet dangling into the water. The sun is actually setting behind him. Steve has always been a little directionally challenged.

The water of the lake ripples. Crickets chip. Frogs croak. Katydids screech. A cool breeze brushes the back of his neck.

Steve lays back on the dock and watches the darkening sky.

*

Mike is the first of the Party to reach the campfire, already scanning for El. He finds her sitting on a log, next to Max. He sits next to her, hoping to be able to talk to her, but she seems deep in conversation with Max. He shuffles his feet in the dirt.

She elbows him. “Want a marshmallow?”

“Sure. Can do one for you, too?” She nods. He takes the metal stick from her, stacks six marshmallows on the prongs, and scoots closer to the fire to turn the marshmallows until they are browned to perfection. She has the chocolate and graham crackers ready when he returns to her.

Together they munch on their s’mores, and he passes off the other ‘mallows to the rest of the Party.

Across the fire, Lucas and Dustin are laughing at some joke Dustin made. Will is watching them from behind, grinning. Max stays next to El, quietly eating her own s’more. Mike wishes she would go somewhere else, but she isn’t moving.

The truth of the matter is, Mike has a crush on El. They’d kept in touch over the year between last year (their last summer as campers) and this year (their first year as staff). And he’d really started to like her, like really like her. But he didn’t know what to do about it yet. And there were a few complications regarding her…family situation and his job.

Jonathan moves around the group, snapping pictures of s’mores and smiles. Nancy toasts him a marshmallow, because he doesn’t like chocolate. He opens his mouth and she carefully feeds it to him, so that he doesn’t get his fingers or his camera sticky. She giggles at his chipmunk face as he chews.

Outside the circle, Steve sits in his gator, facing the fire. Campfire time was never really his thing, but he enjoys observing it. The dancing shadows, the smiles, the friends. The whole staff is there, sharing in the childlike joy of sugar and fireflies.

Robin approaches him, licking the last of a marshmallow off her thumb. “Want a s’more?”

“Nah, I’m good. Thanks, though.”

“Your loss, dude.” She slides into the passenger seat and puts her feet through the windshield space and onto the hood.

Hopper pulls up in his kubota. The staff greet him and motion him over. He turns down a marshmallow, and addresses the gathered staff. He explains that campfire time happens every night, and each age group will get a time every night for campfire and snack. The staff nods along. Most of them have been to camp before. They know the drill.

When Hopper is finished, he motions Robin over. She picks up her guitar from where she’d stashed in on the seat of her golf cart. She leads them in a few campfire songs—classics like “Baby shark” and “The bear went over the mountain.” Once done, she laughs at the gathered staff, who took far too much joy out of singing those earworm ditties.

“All done,” she says, and slings the guitar onto her back.

Steve breaches the circle of light around the campfire. “Hey, you’re pretty good.”

“Thanks,” she smiles. “I’m going to school for music, so I should be.”

“You ever write anything of your own?”

She tilts her head, a half-smile hovering on her lips. She really is very pretty, Steve reflects, and quickly banishes the thought.

“I have.”

“Can I hear?”

“Not yet.” Her lips purse in a smile.

“Fair enough.” Steve stretches his arms over his head, shoulders popping. “Well, I’m gonna get some sleep.”

Robin nods in agreement, setting her guitar in the golf cart and turning the key to on. She holds the neck of her guitar as she carefully steers her cart down the hill and onto the gravel path that leads to the road.

Other staff follow suit, bidding goodnights as they trail back to their cabins.

Chapter Text

The next day is the most important day of the entire training week, and quite possibly of the entire camp.

Sorting day.

On this day, every staff member will receive their work assignment and their tribe. This determines their fate for the rest of the summer.

They sit at the cafeteria tables, each with an index card in front of them. On the flip side is their work assignment.

Max puts her hand on top of her card and holds her breath.

Hopper says, “Activities will meet with Steve at the office. Counselors will meet Robin at the fishbowl. Lifeguards will meet Nancy at the pool. Work crew stays here with me. Ready, go.”

The sound of fifty index cards being overturned is shattered by chairs scraping on the floor as staffers scramble up to race out the door to their supervisor.

Max makes a beeline for the office, dashing across the small field, leaping the ditch, and dodging trees. She’s the first to Steve, and he rewards her with a high five. Panting, she watches as Dustin and Lucas saunter up. They hadn’t even run.

Max groans internally. Oreo stealer is going to be on her team for the whole summer. Great.

“Hey slowpokes, hurry up! Zoomer here has won the right to ride shotgun for today.” Steve socks her gently in the shoulder and she grins at the boys. They sigh and climb into the bed of the gator. Max settles herself on the yellow foam seat.

He takes them on a slow circuit around camp—past the game field to the field house, where they are in charge of keeping the balls inflated; to the mouth of the hiking trails at the north end of camp, because one of them will always lead the hikes; to the fishing trailer; and to the paintball shed, which is at the far southeast part of camp, and definitely the farthest from everything ever.

Once they’ve talked through all their duties, Steve brandishes a plastic tub. “Now we have to make our cart the coolest cart on camp.”

When they roll up to the game field twenty minutes later, the gator is sporting a massive inflatable eagle taped to the top, glittery blue tinsel wrapped around the windshield posts, red streamers off the back, and little American flags taped to every vertical post. Steve blares “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” from his portable speaker that he tied to the underside of the roof. Max stands on the side, holding on for dear life with one hand and pointing the other to the sky.

It’s an entrance to remember.

Hopper rolls his eyes as his three work crew members looks regretfully at the camo duct tape they used to wrap his kubota.

Nancy’s lifeguards did better, outfitting her cart with a pink tulle skirt and taping approximately twenty inflated flamingos to the roof of her cart. They also cut up pool noodles to cover the vertical posts.

But it is Robin’s cart that takes the cake. Every inch of her cart is covered in multicolored balloons, inflated and blowing in the breeze. It is a glorious sight. The counselors did well.

El bats an inflated yellow balloon at Mike. He bats it back, and they continue batting it back and forth and giggling until Mike misses it and it pops on the grass.

Jonathan takes pictures of all of them with their completed carts.

Then comes the most important part of the day.

Tribing.

Hopper makes the announcement, and suddenly half the staff is scrambling into two groups, one on either side of Hopper. Steve produces two massive flags out of nowhere, one blue with a falcon, and one green with a wolf, and each group takes a flag. Max’s coworkers are donning facepaint, putting patterns of stripes and dots on their cheeks and foreheads.

Mike and Lucas are using their fingertips to paint three blue stripes down one side of their faces, like claw marks. Nancy gives El a line of dots over one eye and under the other.

Meanwhile, Jonathan bends over so Will can give him simple green stripes under his eyes. Dustin has smeared green across his cheeks. Steve has painted his entire face green, and holds their flag, looking menacingly at the blue group.

“Long ago, this land was inhabited by tribes of Indigenous Peoples. Native Americans,” Hopper reads from a sheet of paper. “Our tribes occupied much of the land you stand upon right now.”

Max looks down at her feet, shifting them slightly.

“There were two boys from this tribe: Geraki—”

A massive cheer goes up from the assembled blue staff members. A few of them stomp their feet and slap their chests in rhythm, chanting the name over and over.

Hopper waits a moment for them to quiet down before continuing. “And Lykos.”

The green staffers hoot and holler. Steve lets out an animalistic howl, leaning back and pointing his chest to the sky. Dustin starts jumping, pumping his fist in the air.

Hopper raises his hands for quiet. “These boys were friends. They traveled the trails together. One day the path split, and the boys could not agree on which way to go. They argued fiercely, and decided to split. Both boys grew up and built tribes. One day, the tribes met again, and engaged in a fierce battle. Neither tribe could win, so it was decided that they would reach a peace treaty. Instead of battle, they would play competitive games. These tribes now live on in Camp Hawkins. In their spirit, we will engage in competitive games, but remain good friends. The tribes live on in you. Fight for your tribe!”

Both blue and green break into cheers and shouts. The blue group starts chanting again, which is kind of intimidating, Max won’t lie. The green group keep howling, which is chilling to hear.

Hopper holds out a bag. The untribed staffers line up and pull a token from the bag. Each time, Hopper shouts the tribe. Max is reminded of the sorting hat from Harry Potter. Hufflepuff! Gryffindor! Geraki!

Robin gets Geraki. Nancy and El cheer as she runs to her tribe. Instantly they descend upon her, smearing blue paint on her face.

There are only a few staffers left in front of Max. Blue. Green. Blue. Blue. A small lifeguard with bouncy braids and round glasses gets green. She jogs over as her tribe cheers.

Then it’s Max’s turn. She plunges her arm into the dark of the bag. Her fingers close around a token. She hold her breath as she pulls it out. She thinks of Lucas and El on one team and Steve and Dustin on the other. She can’t decide what she wants.

Green.

“LYKOS!” roars Hopper, and Max jogs to the dancing tribe.

Steve whoops and beats his chest. Dustin grabs her chin with one hand and smears green under her eyes and across her forehead.

Lykos!” she screams, joining the dancing tribe.

Their first game is called Jailbreak. On each end of the field is a circle around twenty small dodgeballs. A line of cones divides the field in two. Each team must try to steal balls from the other team to put in their circle. However, if they are tagged on the enemy’s side of the field, they go to “jail” (a box of cones on the side of the field), and must wait for “jailbreak” to be called.

Simple enough. Max’s heart pounds. Lykos will win. The wolves will reign.

She catches Lucas’ eye and points at him. Going down, she mouths.

He bares his teeth in a fearsome grin in response.

The game is fast, pounding feet and ragged breaths. Max runs defensive line, tagging Geraki that cross it.

Lucas, however, manages to sneak right past her and snag a dodgeball from their stash.

Steve shouts a warning, and Max whirls, hair flying, to spread her arms to try and block him. Lucas is fast, but Max is smart, and she grabs him by the wrist as he tries to go by.

“Drop it,” she says, and Lucas lets go of the ball.

She walks him to the jail, as sweat drips off both their temples and noses.

“Good catch,” he pants. “You’re quick.”

“Zoomer,” she grins, echoing Steve’s earlier nick-name.

It isn’t until she’s walking away from the jail that she realizes she’d held onto his wrist the whole time.

*

After verses, they head to the mess hall for a tribe dinner. Blue Geraki take one half of the room, and green Lykos take the other. As always, the room is loud, echoing with laughter and shouts. Max sits with Dustin, and the dark-haired lifeguard, whose name turns out to be Suzie.

“They won the summer last year,” Dustin is saying. “But not this year, amiright?”

Max nods eagerly. Team spirit runs through her veins. She wants nothing more than to win every game and rub the victory gloriously in their faces. Especially Lucas’s face.

Steve leans conspiratorially close. “You know, technically the activities team is in charge of the flags.”

Dustin rolls his eyes. “They just stay in the field house.”

Steve widens his eyes. “But if the Geraki flag just happened to go mysteriously missing…”

“They’d know it was you right away. What, are you stupid?”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk, Henderson.”

“I could do it,” Suzie pipes up. “They’d never suspect a thing.”

Dustin stares at her. “You?”

“Sure. I’m a lifeguard. Why would I be over at the field house? And if they do question me, well—” She widens her eyes in an expression of faux innocence, “I don’t know where the flags are. I’m so sorry.”

Dustin laughs.

Max rolls her eyes, but she has to admit, the girl’s acting is impressive.

After dinner, the staff are free for the evening. Some seek out the game room. Others, the office, where the wifi signal is strongest. Max goes back to her cabin, in need of some quiet and a good book.

El is there, digging through her suitcase.

“Hey,” Max says.

“Oh, hey. How was your day? How do you feel about being on activities?”

“Good! I really like Steve and Dustin.”

“Not Lucas?”

Max pulls a face. “He’s ok, I guess. You’re a counselor, right?”

El’s face lights up in a grin. “Yeah! Me and Mike and Will! And it looks like we’ll be in the same age group, too! I’m sad I won’t have you as a cabinmate, though.”

“I’ll miss you, too.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll see you around.”

"Have you known these guys for a while?"

"Yep. Most of my life. I kinda live here."

Max chuckles at the joke. When you're at camp, everything else disappears into the background, and it feels like camp is the only thing that exists. It's actually kind of nice.

Chapter Text

The rest of staff training passes in a blur. They learn and play new games. They plan nightly activities. They forage for campfire wood. They run to town to buy endless cans of shaving cream, gallon jugs of blue and green paint, new fishing line, elmer’s glue (all in the craft house has dried up), and what feels like hundreds of boxes s’mores supplies. They learn all the emergency procedures by heart. They unpack t-shirts and merchandise for the trading post, stocking it with everything from cans of Coke to stuffed falcons and wolves.

They meet the camp nurse. Her name is Joyce, and she’s Jonathan and Will’s mom, and she will be in the infirmary all summer. She tells them to never hesitate to bring a camper to her, and to also come visit her whenever they need anything, too.

The activities crew untangle fishing lines, clear the hiking trails of debris, and learn how to fill the CO2 canisters in the paintball shed. Lucas catches on to that really quickly. Max, too stubborn to let him be the best, forces herself to figure it out. Steve, who has worked this job before, warns them that for some reason the activity crew is recognized as the exterminators, and shows them the stash of wasp spray in the fishing trailer. They nearly break their backs moving a pile of plywood for Hopper. After that, Steve gives them an afternoon to “test” the fishing poles, which is code for going fishing for a few hours.

The counselors decorate every single assembly hall, and the mess hall. El always seems to have crepe paper stuck to her back or in her hair. They iron out details for the theme night activities—a camp-wide activity every evening done with age levels. They’ll have a lip sync competition, spy night, messy night, and a dance. Each activity looks different for each age group. Robin keeps them busy, delegating and directing. She’s slowly going out of her own mind, but it’s fine, she promises herself. It’s all for the children.

The lifeguards swim and swim and swim, which sounds fun, and at least they’re in the water and cool, but really they are getting certified. They swim laps. They tread water. They hold their breath. They dive for drowning dummies. And then they treat the pools and clean the kayaks and clean the pool house. Nancy has to call in Steve to exterminate a small wasp colony that has taken up residence in the boy’s bathroom.

And Jonathan takes pictures of it all—catching smiles and sweat and sun. He’s not above helping, either. He jumps in whenever asked, usually with the counselors and Will. Will, although a counselor, will be in charge of the craft house all summer. He’ll be safely in air conditioning, which makes Jonathan happy. After all the health problems Will has had, the more he stays out of the sun, the better. In the evenings, Jonathan goes to the infirmary and uses the wifi to upload photos and videos and make social media promos.

By Saturday, camp is ready. It had better be. Campers come tomorrow.

The boys of Cabin 2 help Mike and Will pack up their things to move into cabins the next day. Mike takes a hot shower, knowing it will probably be his last hot shower for a while. Showering after ten small boys leaves much to be desired. As the hot water trickles over him, he hears an ominous buzzing. A red wasp flies over the curtain and into the small stall.

“Lucas!” he shouts. “There’s a wasp!”

Lucas the wasp warrior, who helped Steve take out the wasps in the poolhouse, sighs and grabs the wasp spray. “Get out of the shower!”

Mike wraps his towel around him and scurries out of the shower. Lucas takes careful aim and sprays the wasp until it falls from the air. Then he squashes it beneath his flip flop. “Quit squealing like a girl. It’s just a wasp.” He tosses the carcass in the trash, thinking about how Max had offered to help with the wasps. Maybe “squealing like a girl” wasn’t the best phrase to use.

*

Robin sits cross legged at the picnic table in the staff village. It wasn’t a village, not really, just a circle of cabins around the cul-de-sac, with the small pavilion and picnic table in the middle. She plucked idly at the strings of her guitar, humming to herself.

Steve pulled up in his gator, the engine drowning her guitar until he killed it. He walked up, swinging his water bottle. “Sounds good.”

“Thanks.” She plucked a few more notes before trying to play Hozier’s “Shrike.” It’s a hard song, mostly because Hozier is a magical creature from the Irish bogs and cannot be imitated.

Steve watches her as she plays—the way her fingers move up and down the neck of the guitar; the little bit of her tongue that sticks out when she concentrates. “What are you doin’ here?”

“Huh?”

“You could be—shit, you could be on tour or something with talent like that.”

“I’m not that good, Steve,” she says, with a little shake of her head. “There’s plenty of others out there like me.”

“I think you’re pretty good.”

“Sure, ok. But you asked why I’m here and—camp is important. I grew up with this sort of thing. Not this camp, obviously, but other summer camps. Girl scout camp. Band camp. Church camp.” She chuckles a little. “You name it, I was there.”

“Hm.” Steve dips his head.

“What brought you here?”

“Nancy,” he says, and instantly regrets it.

“Nancy?”

“Yeah. I—we’re friends, I guess. And we grew up going to this camp. So when she said she was working here—it just seemed like the most logical step, I guess.”

“Do you like working here?”

Steve meets her eyes, smirking. A sign that the conversation is over. “Ask me again after tomorrow. We have yet to survive opening.” He stands and walks backwards to his cabin.

“Gotta watch out for those kids, Harrington. They’ll eat you alive!” she jokes.

“What can I say? I’m irresistible!” He disappears into the shadows.

Robin laughs to herself, slings her guitar onto her back, and goes to bed.

The week starts tomorrow. Camp Hawkins falls into the kind of stillness that is never really still; the kind that hovers over the dark of nature. Bugs hum in the trees. Frogs keep up a continual chorus of croaks. Bats fly overhead, and mice skitter through the grass. Humanity sleeps. Nature awakens.

Chapter Text

Setting up for opening is one of the single most stressful tasks of Robin’s entire career. For the most part, the whole staff works together to set up the pop-up tents in the village, each with a poster board sign displaying an age level painted in colorful letters. Elementary (3rd-5th). Junior High (6th-7th). Mid High (8th-9th). High School. Finally, a smaller pop-up is labeled “Medication.” This will be the lifeguard station, where Nancy will be in charge of taking the meds, labeling them with the appropriate camper, age level, time of administration, and getting them sent to Joyce.

Meanwhile, there are streamers to wrap around posts, balloons to tape to buildings, carnival games to set up in the field, and nerves to calm. Her staffers are carting their bedding to their cabins, looking excited or nervous or both. Robin also has to go through all the nametags, and make sure that every piece of information is right. It’s a lot of work for one person.

Finally, though, the camp is ready, and all that’s left is for the campers to arrive.

They have a final huddle before Hopper has them put their hands in the middle.

“Steve, count us down.”

“Hawkins on three, one-two-three, Hawkins!

They break it up. Half the staff, including Robin, line the county road into camp, prepared to dance, cheer, wave, and welcome cars. Robin sets up speakers on her golf cart to blare upbeat music.

Nancy goes to her post, sharpie and Ziploc bags at the ready. Jonathan snaps a picture of her, grinning all the while. She looks down at her red shirt and khaki shorts, the same as he (and the rest of the staff) are wearing. “See something you like?”

“Oh, sure, I see lots of things I like,” he says softly. Flirting from Jonathan will always have a gentle edge to it.

Beside them, Suzie gags enthusiastically.

“Jonathan? Can I get your help, sweetheart?”

“Sure, Mom.” Jonathan takes the cooler from her.

“Thank you, there’s more in the infirmary. I don’t want the gauntlet getting dehydrated. Oh, here,” she reaches in the cooler and pulls out two red Gatorades. “Drink up. Will, honey?” she calls to the boy standing in the shade of the oak tree, “Drink lots of water, okay?”

“I’ll be fine, Mom,” he rolls his eyes.

“Okay.”

Jonathan trails after his mother as she flits from person to person, like an excited bird.

The road cuts through the village like a Western movie, arching smoothly behind the mess hall and back to the county road. Like the buildings of a western movie, the infirmary, craft house, trading post, and archery hall line the other side of the road. The boys hover in the road, waiting for the line of cars to approach so they can unload luggage.

The campers start to arrive, first a trickle, then a steady stream. The dancers on the gauntlet keep jumping and shouting, running beside cars. They keep drinking the water and Gatorade Joyce packed for them, and eating frozen watermelon.

The boys unload suitcase after suitcase, directing campers to get registered. There, counselors direct campers to their cabins. High School will stay in the Newby cabins, near the front of camp. Junior high stay in the Hammond cabins, on the south border of the game field. Mid high get Smirnoff cabins, which are down a gravel road, halfway to the paintball course. And Elementary get the Holland cabins, around the fishbowl.

Under the red Mid High tent, El stares down a yelling mother.

“You mean my son has to haul his luggage all the way back down the road where we came and up a hill to his cabin?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“You can’t drive it there? I see golf carts right there!”

“No ma’am. There are some staffers who will help—” she points to Mike and the boys, but is cut off.

“Those boys didn’t even unload my car.”

Your son is fourteen, El wants to say. He should be able to carry his own suitcase.

“Well.” The mother crosses her arms across her chest. “I want to speak to an adult,” she sneers.

El narrows her eyes and cocks one brow. “Ma’am. I am the adult.”

The mother’s face falls and she turns away with a huff.

El exhales. This is why she hates check-in.

*

Lucas opens a minivan trunk door. Three metal luggage trunks, one purple, one pink, and one light blue, sit in the back. He grabs one thin metal handle, and pulls. The trunk barely budges.

“Oh, shit,” he says under his breath, and pulls again. This time it comes out of the trunk, but it is too wide for him to carry by himself, and there are no wheels. And there is no way this tiny third grader can get it all the way to her cabin herself. He looks around for Dustin or Mike. They are occupied with other cars, pulling appropriately sized suitcases and duffle bags from cars. Lucas sighs.

Max jogs by, apparently on some errand. “Max!”

She looks frustrated to be stopped, so he motions to her to go on and turns back to the trunks. She looks from him to the trunks and calls, “I’ll come back.”

True to her word, she returns. Wordlessly, they each grab a metal handle, and between them walk it to the cabins. Neither wants to give up and ask for a break first, so they make it in one go, their arms and fingers screaming.

Max flexes her hand, examining the red indent from the handle. “And there are how many more of those?”

“Two,” Lucas sighs.

“Hm. Hang on.” Max jogs away, leaving Lucas to trudge back to the village in the hot sun.

By the time he gets there, Max has pulled Steve over.

“Nuh-uh. There is no way in hell I’m carrying those,” he says, and marches away.

“Steve!” she calls helplessly.

Without looking back, he holds up the keys to his gator.

Perfect.

*

Will sits on the pool deck, dangling his feet in the water and drinking from a water bottle. Check-in is officially closed, and all the campers are in their cabins. Elementary, the age group Will is with this week, is at the pool, taking their swim tests. This test determines if they can kayak and go on the flat-bottomed boat. All the campers have to do is swim from one side of the deep end to the other. Lifeguards are posted all around the pool. Every child is perfectly safe.

El settles herself beside him. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“How ya doing?”

“Already tired.”

Her eyebrows pinch. “Should I be worried?”

“No, it’s not—it’s not that kind of tired. Just regular tired.”

“Ok. How’s your cabin?”

Will smiles. “Going to be good, I think. I can already tell one’s a little stinkpot, but it’ll be okay.”

“There’s always one.”

They share a chuckle.

El’s eyes land on the multitude of knotted bracelets on his wrist. “Did you make those?”

“Yeah.” Will turns them, showing the patterns of chevrons, wavy lines, and stripes. “They’re super easy.”

“I love making those. I’m going to make one for each of my girls each week.”

Will grins. “We have a ton of embroidery floss in the craft house. You can take some, if you want.”

“Thanks! I have my own, but I’ll be sure and give it a look.”

Will smiles and takes another drink from his water bottle.

Across the pool, one boy makes as if to push another into the water. The second boy slaps the first. Nancy attempts to get between the boys, but they ignore her.

Will sighs. “Of course those are my kids. Duty calls.”

*

Holland Hall is the largest buildings on campus. It can hold something like a thousand chairs, lined appropriately. It’s stage makes it perfect for the opening ceremony. Cabins will arrive soon, filling the seats. Staffers settle themselves around the room, preparing to direct traffic. Max is near the back of the room, jamming as Dustin plays upbeat pop music from the sound booth.

The doors burst open, and several cabins of elementary campers pour into the room. Max whoops and jumps up and down. Dustin changes the soundtrack to “The year 3000,” a camp classic.

Standing much taller than any of the campers, Mike leads his cabin with a small boy riding piggy-back, and another clinging to his arm. El’s cabin are all wearing paper flower crowns. Will’s boys seem to be slapping one another on the arms. Will looks exhausted already. She waves to her friends as they pass.

The rest of the campers swiftly fill the room, and opening ceremony really gets underway. They have a dance party, play some large group games (gorilla, man, gun, anyone?), and then comes the tribing.

Much like the staff tribing, Hopper reads a story and campers get to draw a token from the bag. Unlike staff tribing, this is done with the assistance of blue and green lights (courtesy of Dustin), and with several staffers acting it out.

Steve has painted his entire body green, with a swath of white around his eyes. He wears brown leggings, very Indian-like, and has a leather headband in his hair. Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Lucas has painted blue stripes and patterns across his face and up and down his arms. The blue paint contrasts nicely with the white sheet he wears wrapped like a toga. Nancy seems to be wearing a bedsheet like a toga, which is a nice touch.

She spares a thought for the uncomfortable nature of white people embracing stereotypes for fake tribes with Greek words for names, and then makes a decision to let it go for now.

Once the story is told, campers split to either side of the room, congregating as other campers get tribed. Once everyone has been received into their tribe, the staffers teach the tribes different chants.

“Now. You have a chance to earn your first points of the week,” Hopper booms into the microphone. “We are going to have a cheering competition. In the interest of fairness, I’m going to call up Nurse Joyce to help me judge.”

Joyce, apparently, is a Geraki, while Hopper is a Lykos.

Funny, Max reflects, She reminds me of a bird, and Hopper of a wolf.

The Geraki give it their all with their stomp-slap-shout cheer, but Max knows Lykos is going to win.

She shouts right along with everyone else— Hoo! Ha! Lykos!--and joins in the exuberant howling. Her vocal chords strain with the volume. She’s been yelling and shouting and cheering literally all day, but that won’t stop her now.

In the end, Hopper and Joyce judge it a tie, and award fifty points to each team.

Max meets Lucas’ eyes across the room. At least they agree on one thing. The judging wasn’t fair.

*

El lays in bed, mentally reciting the names of her girls by where they are sleeping. She gave each of them a glow stick, so she can tell when they go to sleep. When the glow stick stops moving, they’re asleep. One of them stirs, and she opens her eyes, watchful for signs of homesickness. Or sneaking out. El’s been in this business long enough to know both are viable options. But the girls just digs around in a suitcase and pulls out a stuffed dog before returning to bed.

Outside, an owl hoots, and El wonders if it’s the barn owl that lives in the field house. She breathes deeply and knows that in the morning, when she wakes, it will be in this bed, in this cabin. She is safe here, at camp, and she never doubts that fact. And these little girls, they will be safe, too, under her care. Excitement fills her at the thought of doing all the camp things with these girls. She can’t wait for the week ahead.

Her thoughts turn to Mike. She’s seen enough camp staff to know that crushes can be problematic. The camp has a pretty strict no-pda policy, too, which is wise. But she likes him, she can feel it in her gut. And it’s only the first week.

It’s going to be a long summer.

Chapter Text

Morning sun forces Max to don her sunglasses as she waits outside the paintball shed. Lucas should be here by now. Hurry up. She jams her baseball cap further down her forehead.

Lucas saunters up the trail, swinging the keys in his hand. “Sorry I’m late. I had to track down Steve.”

Max rolls her eyes.

They open the shed and swing the wide door all the way open until it hangs against the wall. Inside, twenty paintball guns lay in a neat row on the low wide shelf. Above them, all the masks hang neatly, still clean from their recent wash.

Max jumps straight to work, ripping open a box of paintballs and scooping them into the chamber of the markers. Lucas follows at a much more leisurely pace.

“Dude, c’mon, we gotta get to work!”

“The campers won’t be here for another half hour or so? We’re probably fine.”

Max snaps her eyes back to scooping paintballs. Fine. She begrudgingly slows a little.

And Lucas is right. They are finished loading the guns in plenty of time for the first group of mid high campers to walk up to the door.

*

After lunch, Steve and Dustin drive back to the cabins to take a breather. Cabin time across the camp means everyone gets a short break. It’s not like it’s a long walk, but in the sun, any walk that can be avoided or shortened is a blessing.

Steve revs the gator and Dustin reaches up to hold onto the roof. With the way Steve drives, handholds are a necessity.

They pass the pool where Steve waves at the lifeguards. Nancy waves back, lounging on a pool chair with Jonathan beside her. Suzy is applying sunscreen to her legs and stops to wave.

Dustin’s head turns as the gator bumps along.

“What?” Steve asks.

“Holy shit,” Dustin says, sitting right again. “Holy shit.”

“What?” Steve repeats, more urgently.

“Did you see Suzie? Holy cow. That suit—”

Steve chuckles. “Be careful man, or she’ll get a hold over you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t show that you care too much.”

Dustin rolls his eyes. “Thanks for the advice, but this isn’t the 1980’s, Steve. I know how to treat a girl right.”

“Whatever you say, man.”

*

Will heads to the infirmary, his campers trailing behind him. When he enters, pleasantly cool air blows gently on his face. The infirmary is quiet, only Joyce and Hopper in there.

“Hi, Mom. Colin needs to take his medicine.”

“Ok, sweetie. Here.” Joyce pulls the medicine from the cabinet as Colin fills out the sign-in sheet. Joyce hands him the pills and he fills a paper cup with water from the little cooler on the counter. “How are you, sweetie?” she says to Will, cupping his face in her hands.

“I’m fine.”

“Sure?”

He nods, just as Johnny and Trip start slapping each other again. He sighs, eyes shutting, and says, “Boys! Be nice or you don’t get s’mores tonight.”

This brings a chorus of whining from the boys as he herds them back out the door.

“The nurse lady is pretty,” Colin comments to Will.

“That’s my mom.”

“Wait.” The little boy’s eyes go comically wide. “That’s your mom?

“Yep. That’s my mom.”

He stops in the road. “You have a mom?”

“Yep. Everyone has a mom.”

“Woah.” Colin continues down the road, burdened with this new knowledge of the world.

*

Suzie’s shriek could have broken glass. It shatters the Tuesday morning calm, piercing through the village. “A snake! It’s a snake!” She climbs onto the picnic table.

Nancy whips out her radio. “Nancy to Steve.”

The radio crackles. “Go for Steve.”

“We have a danger noodle at the pool, come help us.”

“We’re on our way.”

Moments later, Steve roars up in the gator. Dustin leaps out before it stops moving, sprinting to Suzie. “Are you hurt?”

“No!”

“Where is it?”

She points. It’s a copperhead.

Dustin snatches the hoe from the back of the gator and whacks at the snake. It writhes under him, but with a few more solid whacks, he beheads it, and leaves the pieces for Steve to dispose of.

Dustin turns his attention to Suzie, offering her his hand to get her down from the picnic table.

Steve looks at Nancy. “I taught him everything he knows.”

*

Tuesday is spy night. El helps her girls pick out black clothes and smear their faces with black face paint. Their goal tonight is to play capture the flag, but in the dark. Geraki verses Lykos.

Mike just happens to find himself near El as the game starts. “Hey. Want to sneak with me?”

“Sure.” She looks him up at down. He has black paint over every inch of his skin.

“You’re way too invested in this,” she says.

He looks down at himself. “Maybe so,” he says, giving her a goofy smile.

She bites her lower lip. “C’mon, we can take ‘em from behind.”

Giggling, they sneak through “enemy territory,” toward the Hammond cabins where the Lykos flag is bound to be hidden.

They find Will instead. He is sitting with his back to a tree, eyes open. For a moment, the two of them stand poised to run, but instead he just waves.

“I’m not going to tag you. You’re my friends.”

El takes in his pale face. “Are you feeling ok?”

“Yeah, my cabin is just made of little hellions.”

“You’re still doing craft house stuff, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve paired them up with other cabins but they’re exhausting. I’ll be fine.” He waves them away. “Don’t worry about me. Go have fun.”

“We can have fun with you,” Mike says, and they settle on the ground next to him.

*

“I hate this,” Max grumbles as she and Lucas gather their backpacks and walk from the paintball course to the hiking trails. “H-A-T-E hate.”

Lucas rolls his eyes. “Shut up, it’s just a hike.”

“Shut up? Shut up? I’ll show you to shut up.” Admittedly, not her greatest comeback. “It’s just walking. What’s so exciting about that?”

“The enjoyment of nature! The wonder of the outdoors! Try to have a good attitude.”

Max crosses her arms and vows to not speak to him for the rest of the hike.

When ten junior high campers have arrived, they start on the trails, through the open gate and to the east. This trail will take them around the back of the lake, through the hammock trees, and down back to camp proper. A nice, easy hike.

At least it’s not too hot. Clouds had obscured the sun for most of the day. Max still wallows in grumpiness, mostly ignoring the campers and bringing up the rear. Lucas leads the way, pointing out different trees or animal tracks as they pass.

A few moments into the hike, thunder rumbles. Glancing upward through the trees, Max can see that the clouds have darkened. A raindrop hits her forehead.

“Lucas?” she weaves through the campers to the front where he is.

“I know.” He checks his watch. “Let’s keep going.”

Max nods. She won’t disagree. It would be bad to be caught in the rain, but really, it would be worse to drag the whole group back to camp and then there be no rain.

Unfortunately, they’re wrong. Moments later the sky opens up and it begins to pour. Lucas opens his backpack and pulls out two disposable ponchos and hands one to Max. Campers complain loudly and huddle under trees. Max and Lucas usher them quickly out, knowing that if lightning strikes they won’t be safe.

“Keep going!” Lucas shouts over the storm. “There’s a gazebo up ahead!”

Max nods, pulling up the hood of her poncho.

They push onward, the dirt trail turning to mud under their feet, until they reach the gazebo. It’s a little run down, a few windows broken, but it will hold all of them. Water drips from a leak in the roof, but it’s mostly dry. The campers hurry in, whining about wet clothes and shoes.

“What are we gonna do?” one asks, clinging to Max’s arm.

“We’ll be okay,” she assures the girl.

As soon as the girl is out of earshot, Max turns to Lucas. “What are we gonna do?”

“I wish I had a radio,” he says. “Then we could hear what protocol we’re under.”

“I guess we just stay here.”

So they wait, as the rain keeps falling. For a while, they do nothing, but then Max starts a game of ninja. When the joy of that wears off, they move on to games like concentration. Lucas pulls out his deck of cards and starts a big game of go-fish.

Thankfully, the rain slows and stops, and they make their muddy way back to the Hammond cabins, dripping and sniffling. The sun comes out and starts to dry them, sparkling on tree leaves and puddles. It’s a nice end to the hike.

After they drop off the kids, they walk back to the staff village for dry clothes. Technically she’s schedules for versus, the big group game, and he’s supposed to be fishing or something, but they aren’t doing either of those while damp.

“Thanks for the poncho,” she says. She holds it out to him.

“Keep it,” he says. “You might need it again.”

“I hope not.” She scrunches it in her hands. “Hey—uh—If I had to get trapped in the rain on a hike—I’m glad it was with you.” She offers him a smile.

“Same. Quick thinking back there with the games and stuff.”

“Thanks.”

They split for their separate cabins. Max decides that maybe working with Lucas won’t be so bad after all. They made a good team, back there. Come to think of it, they always make a good team.

Chapter Text

“Hey, you want to come with me for cookie raids?”

Robin, across the office from him, looks up from her paperwork. “Sure. I already hid the cookies.”

“I know. Let’s go.” Steve motions her to follow him to his gator. He cranks it and they bump their way up the road to the docks. With darkness cloaking camp, Steve’s driving his worse, and Robin finds herself clinging to the roof, in the absence of a handle.

“There’s one by the trailer, right?” he shouts.

Her answer is lost to the noise of the engine, but he gets the message. When they are shadowed by one of the big trees by the trailer, he shuts off the engine and lights. And then they wait.

“What’s the story, again?” he whispers.

“I hid the cookies, but no one else knows. They can’t get caught by other staffers.”

“Got it.” Only Mid-high does this, with only two or three cabins going per night.

They don’t have to wait long. A troop of Mid-high girls walks toward them.

“They don’t look very sneaky,” Steve comments.

“Give them a break, they’re fourteen.”

Steve waits until the groups has clearly found and snagged their cookies and are heading back the way they came. He chooses that moment to rev the gator’s engine, but something goes wrong with the janky old wreck, and the gears get caught.

Instead of making an engine noise, his gator makes a sound like a revving chainsaw.

The girls scatter.

Over the roar, he makes out the sound of one girl screaming, “Oh my God we’re gonna die!

Steve yanks the shift, and the engine catches and the headlights come on. They bounce up the hill to the road in pursuit of the fleeing girls. Once on the road, he kills the engine to laugh so hard tears come to his eyes.

Robin has doubled over, clutching her stomach.

Yep. Cookie raids are officially the best part of the summer.

*

The last day of week one wraps up pretty smoothly, if Steve does say so himself. Aside from the little rain shower yesterday, most things had gone according to plan. He heads up the trail to the campfire clearing, knowing Robin will be setting up for the evenings campfire times.

Sure enough, as he rolls up, she is carrying a tub of s’more supplies to a white plastic table set up to the side.

“Need any help?”

“Nah, I’m good.” She sets the box on the table and starts unloading. He moves to help her but she waves him away. “If you really want to be helpful, go build a fire.”

“Okay.” He builds a pyramid of the logs, pulling from the pile off to the side. When he’s ready, Robins comes over with matches and lights it up.

“Perfect,” she says. They settle on a log to wait for campers. “Best part of this week?” she asks.

“Probably running around with Henderson. That kid’s hilarious, y’know? And he’s smart, too. Blow my mind with the stuff he knows.” She’s watching him with a funny look. “What?”

“It’s just sweet!”

“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes he’s pretty dumb, too, but like. Aren’t we all?”

She laughs, a raspy sound. “For sure.”

“How about you?”

She wraps her arms around her knees and rests her chin on them. “I think seeing how much fun these kids have. They really love this stuff, y’know?”

“Yeah.”

“That and making that cabin pee their pants last night!”

They dissolve into laughter at the memory.

*

In Holland Hall, the elementary campers are jamming out to various upbeat songs. The lights are off, but neon and blacklights are set up around the room. Some counselors are dancing, but most are leaning against the wall.

El had worn her black romper, the one with multicolored shapes and designs. It’s not really the sort of dance to get dolled up for, but she wanted to feel pretty. And anyway, there might be a slow song.

And Mike will be there.

There isn’t a slow song. Instead, most of the activities crew (Lucas, Dustin, and Max) crash the dance. They come to congregate with Mike, El, and Will.

“You can start dancing now,” Dustin says. “The party has arrived.”

This is met is affectionate derision from the rest of them. Yeah, yeah, Dustin, you think you’re hot stuff. They stand in a circle, unable to really talk because of the volume of the music. They get into dancing instead, flailing or bouncing in time. Mike cannot dance, but El doesn’t care. She matches him flail for flail, and they both laugh.

They have their own little party, right there in the middle of the campers. It’s moments like these that make El remember they’re really just children looking out for other children, and nothing more.

*

Closing ceremony is much like opening, only shorter. Hopper announces the winner of the weeks competitions (Lykos), and announces the campers of the week from each age group, and they sing some camp songs lead by Robin. Then they are dismissed for checkout.

Max helps direct traffic to pick-up points, and feels the back of her neck and calves sunburn. Once every camper is gone, the exhausted staff drag themselves to Holland Hall for closing remarks. Hopper doesn’t have much to say—just good job and get some rest and things of that nature.

Then staff is dismissed until Sunday at 10am. Max heads back to her cabin. She’s not going home for the weekend, that’s for sure. She sees other staffers throwing duffel bags into cars, but she can’t find it in herself to care. She’s going to sleep and read. The cabin is nice and quiet.

El finds her in the cabin. “So I have to move back in here for the weekend.”

Max sits up. “I missed you!”

“I missed you too! I have so many stories to tell!” She plops her pillow back on her old bed. “Listen, the boys are coming over to my house for a little party tonight, you down?”

“Sure. Where’s your house?”

El blinks at her. “Max. Hopper’s my dad. We’re going to the director’s cabin.”

*

The Party sit around Hopper’s living room, and technically El’s living room, swapping stories from the week. Hopper and Joyce had gone to dinner, so they had the cabin to themselves for a while.

Max and Lucas talked about getting caught in the rain on the hike, Dustin talked about killing a snake, and Will related tales of his cabin of demons.

“I’d gone to the bathroom, and then in came Trip, holding his nose. I thought he had a nosebleed, so I was trying to help him wash it out, but when I asked him what was wrong he just said, ‘you know that thing where if you put a lot of pepper up your nose it makes you sneeze? It doesn’t! It burns!”

They laughed. Kids were dumb. Camp grants a front row seat to shenanigans.

Will laid back down fully on the couch. He looked tired.

Mike leans to whisper to Will. “You doing ok?”

“Just tired.”

“Look, we can talk to Hopper about getting you transferred—”

“No! I’m fine!”

Mike didn’t push. He knew better than to push when Will got stubborn. Instead, he settles on the floor beside El. “Can I get you a refill?” He takes her blue solo cup.

“Sure.”

He takes their cups to the counter. They aren’t drinking alcohol tonight because 1) they aren’t of age and 2) if Hopper catches them, they will all be immediately fired, which would be really inconvenient, seeing as El is his daughter. Instead, they play board games and swap camp tales, which, honestly, is probably a better time than alcohol. Board games don’t leave hangovers. Board games just leave good memories, and a time to sit close to El and sneak glances at her Catan cards and show her glimpses of his and be secretly in cahoots.

Will gives him a look over the board. He chooses to ignore it.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning is cloudy and grey.

“Please don’t rain, please don’t rain,” El chants to herself as she hauls her suitcase to her cabin. She is with Mid High this week, putting her in the Smirnoff cabins.

“El!” Mike calls from behind her.

She stops on the trail to wait for him to catch up. He has a duffel on his shoulder and a pillow under his arm.

“Can I help you with your suitcase?”

“Nah, I got it. I’ve been traversing these trails forever.”

“I’d guess so. I can’t believe I didn’t know Hopper was your dad.”

El shrugs. “I just never mentioned it. I just wanted to be a normal staffer.”

“That’s…fair, I guess. I’ve just been coming here forever, you think I would have figured it out by now.”

“During the summer, he’s always so busy that we don’t really see a lot of each other. I just joined in camp fun.”

“Was it cool to grow up on camp?”

El ponders that. She didn’t really grow up here; she didn’t move here until she was fourteen. “I…guess? It was pretty isolated, except for summer. I was homeschooled, too.”

“Oh. But did you get to have free range of the camp and things?”

“Oh yeah, anywhere on camp I wanted. I know every secret this place has to offer.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. All the best fishing spots, all the best tent camp sites, the best stargazing spots…”

They stop in front of the assembly hall, about to split to their separate cabins.

Mike shrugs with one shoulder. “Would you…would you show me, sometime?”

El cocks her head, studying his messy dark hair down the curve of his forehead and slope of his nose. “Sure,” she says softly. “I’d like that.”

Mike smiles, a small and fragile expression. “Ok. Ok, I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah. Later.”

*

Check-in goes…as well as can be expected, Max supposes. Nothing goes wrong, per say, but there are always things that can go better. It’s the truth of camp work: things can always go better. She hears through the grapevine that one of the elementary boys came with one underwear and two socks for the entire week, and some junior high girl’s luggage ends up on the other end of camp, but other than that, things seem to go pretty well.

Monday opens with glaring, hot sun. Max is sweating the moment she leaves the mess hall and makes her way to the paintball shed. She watches her feet as she goes, watches the little puffs of dust that rise with every step.

Which is why she doesn’t see Lucas until she almost runs into him.

“Whoa! Geez, don’t you have something better to do than just stand here?” she says playfully.

Lucas slowly extends the keys toward her. “Max. I need you. To go set up a paintball gun. As quickly as you can.”

She wrinkles her nose and scrunches her brows, but takes the keys. As she steps around him, she sees the snake.

It is red, yellow, and black, and from the pattern, it’s a bad snake. Red and black, friend of Jack. Red and yellow, dead man’s fellow.

Right now, it’s just laying there. Maybe it’s sick. Maybe it hasn’t noticed them. Either way, Max opens the door with focus and snags a gun. Spinning on her heel, she grabs a CO2 canister from the “full” shelf and pinches the body of the gun between her knees so she can screw the canister onto the body. Then she grabs a handful of paintball pellets and throws them into the compartment on top. Finally, she throws off the protective fabric “sock” that is stretched over the muzzle.

Breathing deeply, she steps down out of the shed and inches a wide berth around the snake to hand Lucas the gun.

Lucas takes wide steps forward, straddling the snake. He points the gun directly down, and fires.

Yellow paint explodes on the dust. The snake writhes, and then stills.

“Holy shit,” Max breathes. “You paintballed a snake to death!”

Lucas stares at the snake’s exploded corpse. “I did. I paintballed a snake to death.” He meets Max’s eyes and begins to laugh.

She laughs back, purely at the ridiculous nature of the thing. They killed a snake with paintballs.

“And that’s why we tell the kids to wear close-toed shoes,” he says.

She points to his chacos. “You rebel.”

They dispose of the snake body and began set up for their first group of the day. When the campers arrive—a group of Mid high boys and two girls—Lucas talks them through the rules. Being the second week of camp, he has the speil down to a science, and he quickly explains that they would only fire on the course, must wear their helmets at all times, and getting shot meant elimination. He also explains the surrender rule, saying that if they got close to another player, not to shoot, but to shout surrender.

“Don’t shoot anybody close. That really hurts,” he concludes.

One of the boys raises his hand. “How much does it hurt?”

Lucas shrugs. This is their most common question. “Not that much. It stings, so you know when you’ve been hit, but then it stops.”

From the depths of the shed, Max shouts, “Suck it up!”

“Right. Grab a team band and we’ll hand you your gear.” With his foot, Lucas pushes the crate of Velcro team bands to the entrance of the shed. As the campers wrap the bands around their biceps, thighs, or wrists, Max tosses helmets to them. Lucas hands out guns, each with a full CO2 canister and a full compartment of paintballs.

Max leads them the ten yards or so to the course, directing them to throw their fabric “socks” into the cardboard box tossed on the edge of the course. The course is bowl-shaped, higher on three sides, with a slope running to the middle. Most of the course has trees, but the underbrush is cleared, and various pieces of junkyard scraps are scattered strategically across the course. On the far side of the course, there’s even an old school bus.

Max stands on the high side of the course, waiting for the teams to stand behind their bases, which are just three pallet boards propped on trees to create a small hiding place.

“Red team, ready?” she shouts, projecting from her stomach.

They flash thumbs up.

“Yellow team, ready?”

They whoop in response.

“Ready…Go!” She gives her whistle a long blast.

Watching paintball is genuinely one of the most entertaining parts of Max’s job. And, given that it looks like Hopper is scheduling her to spend most of her time out here, that’s a good thing.

The teams battle it out, and when the yellow team has successfully eliminated everyone on the red team, she blows her whistle again. She directs them back to the shed to grab a drink and refill their ammo. The group plays one more round (red wins this time) before their time is up, and they send them back to Smirnoff for assembly before lunch.

She and Lucas tackle the mess that is the paintball shed. Each CO2 can has to be checked, and some have to be refilled, and all the compartments need to be emptied, and the paintball muzzles have to go off and the bazooka ball muzzles have to go on. Bazooka ball uses most of the same supplies as paintball, but it is played with foam balls the size of golfballs that do not hurt when shot. Only the jr. high kids get to play bazooka ball. Unfortunately, their shift comes right in the middle of the day, which means Max and Lucas have to roll over the gun’s assembly twice in every single day. It’s the most inefficient scheduling system, but there’s not much they can do about it.

As soon as they finish rolling over the guns, jr. high kids arrive at the shed. They both choose to referee this time, and when a kids gets hit, they make them dance the hokey pokey or sing the abc’s backward to rejoin the game. It’s light-hearted and fun, and the most difficult part is standing in the hot sun the whole time.

When the campers leave, they stare at the pile of masks and guns on the shed floor. Bazooka balls roll through the dust.

“Lunch?” Lucas asks.

Max gives a firm nod.

“Lunch.”

*

“What does he mean, the fishing shed needs ‘attention?’” Steve grumbled. “It was fine last week!”

Dustin shrugs. “He’s probably just being mean.”

“Yeah, but did he have to go and tell Hopper? He should have come to us.”

“Troy’s a butthole, man.”

They pull up at the fishing trailer and open the doors. Fishing poles lie in heaps. Tumble weeds of tangled line roll across the floor. A tackle box lies open, neon fake fish scattered in an awkward rainbow.

Steve groans, “Holy mother of God.”

It takes them at least thirty minutes to set the tiny trailer to rights again. Steve throws poles and bait into their homes while grumbling curses under his breath (“Why the hell is the broken pole on the wall and all the good ones are on the floor?” “The fuck are the needlenose?” “Kids are shitholes. Shitholes!”). Dustin sits morosely on the edge of the trailer, slowly untangling fishing line. He salvages what he can, but ends up cutting most of the lines and tying on new hooks.

“Whatcha doing?” Suzie appears around the side of the fishing trailer. She is wearing a large Camp Hawkins tank top over her red lifeguard suit, and tiny Nike shorts. She must have come from canoeing.

Dustin jumps, and hooks himself in the thumb. “Ouch! Jesus, warn a guy!” He yanks the hook free (not his best move, he’ll admit) and puts the thumb in his mouth.

“Don’t do that,” she says, and pulls a bandaid out of her fannypack.

Dustin lets her wrap the bandaid around his thumb, her fingers brushing against the back of his hands and over his knuckles.

“Better?”

He flexes his thumb. “Thanks.”

Her voice drops, suddenly shy. “Do you want me to kiss it better?”

His heart triples in speed, and he cannot form coherent words. “Uh—uh, yeah—”

“YEP, that’s a no,” Steve says, “accidentally” prodding Dustin in the back with a pole.

“Hi, Steve!” Suzie grins.

“Hi. Would you like to untangle fishing rods?”

“You know, I think I’ll pass! Have fun though!” She gives a cheeky wave as she goes.

Steve rolls his eyes as Dustin stares at her retreating form. “You’re disgusting.”

*

“Fuck.”

Max looks up sharply. Lucas didn’t swear that often, at least not in front of her. “…what.”

“The nozzle broke.” He holds up the tube that connects the CO2 tanks to the canisters to fill them.

“So fix it,” she says, the heat making her unsympathetic.

“No, like it’s broke-broke.” He shows her the nozzle and the tube, and she understands.

“Shit.”

“Yep.”

“So what does that mean?”

“It means,” Lucas sighs heavily. “Refilling cans just got a whole lot harder. It’ll be harder to turn.”

Max winces, thinking through the amount of turning involved in filling a canister. She meets his eyes for a second, then looks down at the gun she has pinched between her knees. She’s sitting on the edge of the shelf, a crate of Bazooka ball muzzles on one side, and paintball muzzles on the other. “What…are you gonna do?”

Lucas sets his jaw and focuses on his hands as he tries to continue filling the canister. “Keep working. Tell Steve. Maybe we can replace it.”

“I hope so.”

“Mm.”

Max finishes her job long before Lucas finishes with the canisters. Sweat is trickling down his temple. Max is sweaty herself, and it tickles her ribs as it runs down her side. The paintball shed is nothing more than a hot shadow, stuffy and suffocating. She moves to sit in the doorway, swinging her leg just above the ground. The air outside is cooler than the air inside.

“We need a fan,” she mumbles.

“And a radio,” Lucas adds. “That way they could tell us why the high school group is still not here!” He grunts the last bit, working to unscrew a canister from the tube.

She checks her watch. High schoolers were due ten minutes ago, and none have shown.

“You know, I could go check, but I don’t really want to.”

“If they aren’t here in ten minutes, I’m calling it.”

“Sounds good to me.”

He keeps twisting at the nozzles on the canister and tube, little puffs of CO2 being released and drafting over Max cooly.

“So how you feeling about camp? Is it anything like you thought it’d be?”

She looks over at him, surprised, but he’s focused on the canisters and the broken nozzle. “I don’t think I expected there’d be this much grunt work.”

“You more of a kids and friendship bracelets type?”

“Actually, I think I like this better. I feel…useful.”

“The counselors are heckin’ useful. Imagine all the campers without them.”

Max makes a face. “Ew.”

“So what made you apply?”

She thinks that one over. The truth is, she was looking for a job somewhere away from home, away from her messed up family, and far, far away from Billy. Scooping ice cream or waiting tables just wasn’t going to cut it. And a small, isolated summer camp in the middle of nowhere? Sounded perfect. “I…needed a job.”

He looks at her under his brows. “Others pay plenty better.”

She tosses her answers around in her mind before settling on the truth. She trusts him. It’s ok. “I needed a job that was far away from my step brother.” She sets her jaw.

He yanks the canister free of the nozzle, sets it on the “full” section, and sits down on the floor. He looks at her evenly for a long minute. “Can you tell me more about that?” he asks, softly.

“Billy is…Billy is my stepdad’s son. He’s a few years older, Steve’s age, I think? Anyway, he’s always in trouble—drugs, usually.” She pauses, throat tight. “And he’s abusive,” she lets out in a quiet rush, her throat burning.

Lucas doesn’t say anything. She can feel his eyes on her, but she refuses to look over.

“But it’s life, y’know, you learn to live with it and—” She doesn’t notice it, but she’s grabbed her wrist and started squeezing, digging her nails into her own skin.

“Max.” Lucas whispers. Gently, he sets his hand on top of hers and she releases the hold she had on herself, revealing sharp red half-moons. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

She looks at the little red divots in her skin. “It’s ok. I—I trust you.”

“I’m honored.” He gives her a silent nod, holding her gaze for a second.

Something slips off of her in that moment, leaving her feeling like she can breathe with her entire lungs again, be free in a way she hasn’t been in a long, long time. She sniffs and looks away. Not crying, no, just overwhelmed in a good way. She is safe. Lucas is safe. And it’s so freeing to know she doesn’t have to carry this knowledge alone.

He sits back, taking measured sips from his Nalgene.

Steve roars up in the gator, sending up clouds of dust. “The high schoolers had a special activity. You are free to go!”

“Oh yeah?” Max stands. “And where am I going?”

He shrugs. “Versus, trading post, your cabin, I don’t care. Wherever you want.”

“You driving me, Harrington?”

Steve doesn’t look even remotely surprised. “Yeah, get on here.”

Max offers her hand to Lucas and pulls him to his feet. “You know, you never told me why you came to camp.”

He snorts. “Me? I’m a boyscout. This is the perfect job for me.”

“What, sweating your ass off in a shed full of fake artillery?”

Lucas laughs, warm and open. “Like I said. Perfect.”

Chapter Text

Steve promises he’ll order a new nozzle and tube right away, but it won’t come in until the end of the week. They’ll just have to make do in the meantime. Which is alright, Max guesses. She and Lucas take turns filling the canisters, and things are going ok. It’s a hot, brutal week though, the sun relentless in driving away even the smallest scrap of clouds. So come Wednesday night, Max is ready to get soaked. Specifically with paint. It’s paint war night, and she is ready.

She gets to the field by the lake as the mid high cabins are filtering in. She spots El almost immediately, surrounded by three girls, all wearing flower crowns.

“Hey!”

“Oh hey! Girls, this is Max.” The girls give her a wave, and return to gossiping. El steps away from them and latches onto Max’s arm. “I have something to tell you.”

“Shoot.”

“I think Mike might like me.”

Max allows herself to smile. To everyone else, the boy’s besotted looks and smiles would be confirmation enough, but El is just oblivious. “That’s wonderful. Did he tell you?”

“No…but Monday night was the lip sync competition, right? And he got up there and sang “Classic,” and looked at me the whole time.”

“Promising.”

“And then today, he ate lunch with me, and one of my girls asked if we were dating, and he said no, but then he winked at me.”

“Hmm.”

“I just wanted to tell you.”

“Thanks. How’s everything else?”

“Great! I have a really sweet cabin! But, oh god, if I have to hear one more vine reference…”

Max laughs. “Sounds wonderful.”

El nods in agreement. “Tell me about your week!”

Wow, she really is in a good mood. Max won’t spoil it. “Mostly good. It has its ups and downs.”

El steps back from Max to stare into her eyes. “I can tell you’re lying. Friends don’t lie.”

Max sighs. “Some stuff broke and it’s making my job much harder, but it’s fine.”

“Is there anything I can do? Anything I can get my dad to do?”

“Nah, Steve’s got it covered.” She hears the roar of the approaching gator. “Speak of the devil.”

Steve doesn’t stop, just slows enough that Dustin can jump out. Then he whips the gator away, throwing up a huge cloud of dust.

Max waves to Dustin, who nods in their direction before coming over. He has two snowcones in his hands.

“Aw, Dustin, is that for me? You shouldn’t have!” Max teases.

Dustin flushes, and glances over to wear Suzie is standing near the docks. “You wish,” he mumbles.

El giggles and teases him a bit more before shooing him toward Suzie.

Just then, one of the girl counselors (Max thinks her name is Stacey?) grabs the megaphone and starts shouting instructions.

“Alright campers! Divide into your tribes and we’ll get this started!” She directs them to opposite sides of the field, across which are set several 5-gallon buckets. Each bucket is full of watered-down paint and sponges.

El tugs on Max’s arm. “C’mon, you can be an honorary Geraki for tonight. For some reason we’re really small this week.”

They head to their team, just as Lucas jogs up. “Paint war?”

El nods.

Yes!” Lucas pumps his fist. “I love this!”

At the sound of a whistle, the teams rush forward to grab sponges out of the buckets. And for the next few moment, cheerful chaos reigns. Max is rapidly covered in blue and green splotches, rivulets running down her arms and legs.

The next game is mostly the same, except they have to partner up. El grabs Mike without a second’s hesitation, so Max links her arm through Lucas’s.

“Hey, partner,” he says, flashing her that warm smile.

She smiles right back, and the game is on.

By the end of it, everyone is soaked, blue and green paint covering every inch of their bodies, soaking their shirts and running down their legs to tint their socks or chaco straps. The ends of Max’s hair are decidedly blue, and Lucas’s ball cap is probably permanently green. When he smiles at her, there is green on his teeth.

Jonathan runs up to them, snapping a picture of them with Lucas’s arm draped over her shoulder. I want a copy of that, Max thinks.

The campers start to clear out to get cleaned up before campfire time, trekking down the road to their cabins. Robin pulls up in her golf cart and hops out, shouting, “How’d it go?” She is covered in shaving cream, mostly around her face like a beard.

“It was great!” Mike shouts, grinning brightly. He throws a stray sponge at Will, who giggles and fends it off.

He looks pale, Max notes.

“How about you, Will?” Robin asks. “Still feeling bad?”

Will shrugs. “Eh. I think it’s mostly heat. I’m fine.”

“You sure, buddy?” Robin asks.

Jonathan is giving them both piercing looks.

“I’m gonna get you some cool water. Don’t come to campfire tonight. Mike can watch your kids.”

Mike nods in affirmation. Will looks relieved.

Dustin and Suzie come back from the lake area, presumably where they had been staying out of the way of the paint. Suzie was only there to make sure no one jumped into the lake.

Kids, man.

“Hey, Dustin!” Lucas shouts, hauling up a bucket that has (miraculously) managed to not be completely emptied. Lucas throws it over Dustin, who yelps and swears. Lucas laughs with unholy glee, about to run.

And that’s when Will drops to the ground and begins to seize.

Chapter Text

“WILL!” Jonathan and Robin both lurch for him. Jonathan gets there first, and kneels to cradle Will’s head.

Robin whips out her radio. “Infirmary, I need you at the fishing trailer right now, please.” Her voice is calm, but tense.

Joyce crackles in. “We’re on the way.”

Robin looks around at their pale, panicked faces. “Ok. Ok. Mike, El, I need you to get back to your cabins. I’ll text you as soon as we know anything.” She looks between them. “Please.”

Mike is pale and drawn, but El gives a stiff nod. She tugs gently at his elbow and leads him away. Sometimes, in a crisis, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

Suzie is on the ground with the Byers boys, holding Will’s hand. She knows first aid, but this is too much. All they can do is wait.

Will gives a final spasmodic jerk, and falls still.

Max looks at Lucas to find she’s grabbed hold of his hand, hard. He’s squeezing back, his face drooping and sad.

Dustin has walked away, whispering, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” on an endless loop.

“We need to clear a path,” Max says.

Lucas jerks and looks at her, his eyes taking a half second to focus.

“They’ll call an ambulance,” she says. “We need to clear a path.” She looks to Robin, who gives a nod.

Dustin, Lucas, Max and Robin jog across the field, grabbing buckets and sponges and throwing them onto Robin’s cart.

Joyce speeds in on the infirmary cart, and when she sees her sons, she leaps out of it, letting it roll to a stop on it’s own. “Will, honey, speak to me.”

Hopper roars in on his Kubota, followed by Steve in the gator. Hopper parks right next to the huddle on the ground, but Steve pulls up by Robin’s cart and his clustered activity crew.

“It’s Will, isn’t it.” It’s not a question.

Robin gives him an affirming nod.

“Dammit!” He runs a hand through his messy hair. “Ok. Ok. Here’s the plan. I’ll go up front to lead the ambulance. Activities crew, keep campers off the road. Suzie, go tell Nancy at the pool.” He looks to Robin.

“I have to get up to the campfire. Unless you need me.”

Steve shakes his head. “Ready, break.”

They scatter, Steve leaping into his gator and roaring down the road to the front of camp. Suzie books it to the village, and Robin follows Steve in her golf cart. The other three station themselves along the road, watching for any campers. Nancy speeds past in her cart, and Suzie joins them in sentry duty.

It’s not long before the ambulance comes onto property, following Steve’s gator. They stay stationed, keeping the road clear for its return journey. From where she is, Max can make out the figures of the EMTs lifting Will onto a stretcher and into the cart. Joyce gets in with him, and Hopper speeds away on his Kubota, presumably to get a car. The ambulance drives back down the road, followed slowly by Nancy and Jonathan in the golf cart and Steve in the gator. They congregate outside the mess hall, exhaustion on their faces.

“He’s going to be ok,” Jonathan says. “They just want to keep an eye on him overnight.”

They breathe a sigh collectively.

“If you don’t have anything you need to do, you can go,” Nancy says softly, looking to Steve for confirmation that his crew is off duty.

He gives them a nod. “I’m going to head up to the campfire to talk to Robin. Anyone coming with?”

They all shake their heads.

“Ok. Good job, team, quick thinking. Get some rest.” He drives away.

Nancy tugs gently at Jonathan’s hand. “C’mon, let’s go to the office,” she says.

Max knows they’re going to cuddle on a couch, so taking refuge in the a/c there is out for her.

Suzie shifts on her feet. “Dustin…will you…walk me back to my cabin?”

“Sure.” He gives her a toothless grin. “Lucas, I’ll see you at the cabin?”

“Yeah.” Lucas turns to Max. “You gonna be ok?”

“I’ll be fine,” she says, raising her chin. “He’s going to be ok.” Still, the image of Will’s tiny body seizing on the ground is branded on her eyeballs.

“Ok.” He looks at her for half a second more, then reaches for her and pulls her into a fierce hug. She returns it, squeezing her arms around his broad chest. When they pull away, she doesn’t say anything, just nods, and heads back to her cabin.

*

Mike sits on a log, both hands covering his eyes.

El places one arm over his shoulder. “He’s going to be ok, Mike. It’s all going to be ok.”

“I wish I’d noticed he wasn’t feeling well,” Mike mumbles. “I wish I’d paid more attention.”

“Shh, it’s going to be ok,” El says. Mike sniffs, and she knows he’s trying not to cry. She gives him a gentle rub down the back. “It’s going to be ok.”

He sniffs again, and pulls his face from his palms. “Yeah. It’ll be ok. I just. Needed a second.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.” He plasters a smile on his face. “Let’s go reassure those campers.”

*

When Dustin gets back to the cabin, Lucas is laying on his bed, staring at the ceiling.

“You good, bro?” Dustin asks.

“Fine.”

Dustin rummages through the tub by his bed. “Sonofabitch!” Plunking down on the edge of his bed, he tosses his ballcap onto his pillow. “You hungry?”

Lucas shrugs.

“I’m outta snacks, and I’m starving.”

“So?”

“Wanna raid the kitchen with me?”

Lucas stares at him, unblinking. There is a pause. “Sure.”

“Bring your slingshot.”

“Wrist rocket!”

“Whatever, bro.”

This is something they have done before. Once, as campers (and quickly caught by a counselor), and once, during training week. They would never steal from the trading post, but the kitchen is another matter. There are always leftover snacks from the evening campfire. The kitchen people don’t even notice they’re gone.

Sneaking through the dark in the trees is easy enough, and they stay low and away from the road as they cross the field. They make it to the back of the mess hall, and hunker down in a shadow to plot.

There are no lifeguards at the pool, and even though the street lights are on, there are no people in sight. They dash down the gravel road to leap up the steps to the kitchen door. It’s not locked yet, which means Robin hasn’t brought the supplies back from campfire. They slip inside.

Only the emergency light in on, and they relax as they move into the pantry. Sure enough, there are leftover nacho chips and s’mores supplies on the shelf. Lucas debates his options. Dustin has disappeared further into the deep recesses of the kitchen.

That’s when the door opens.

Lucas dives into the empty cardboard box in the middle of the room, crouching and holding the flap shut over his head. It smells like stale tortilla chips.

Someone—Robin, probably—sets some things on the shelves, mumbles a few things to herself, and leaves. He hears her footsteps fading, and finally the door shuts. The key turns in the lock. They’re clear.

Lucas pops up from the box.

“Lucas!” Dustin shouts. “I found chocolate pudding!”

Dustin comes out of the walk-in cooler and meets Lucas in the kitchen. “Best kitchen raid ever,” he says.

They take as much as their arms can hold, sneaking back the way they came. Once safely in their cabin, they feast. Possessing no spoons, they eat with their tongues and by squeezing the pudding cups. This leaves them, naturally, quite messy, so Dustin calls first shower.

As the water runs, Steve enters their cabin.

“Guess who’s getting put into cabin?” he sing-songs toward the shower. “You better hurry, man, Will’s kids are waiting.”

“Fuck you, Harrington,” Dustin calls, but the water shuts off. He takes a pudding cup with him when he goes.

Chapter Text

Thursday crawls by. With Dustin in cabin, the work load is harder on the other three. Max misses morning paintball to go on a bike ride with junior highers. And after setting up Bazooka ball, Lucas leaves to go on a hike. Steve drops him back off just before afternoon paintball.

“And here’s this,” he says, handing them the office’s spare radio. “Got permission from Hopper. Just in case, you know…” He gestures vaguely with a pointed finger, other hand on his hip.

“Thanks,” Max says. She and Lucas have been begging for a radio since the hike in the rain.

Steve shrugs it off like it’s nothing, but Max knows it’s not nothing, not really.

There is still no word about Will.

After the final paintball, she and Lucas clean their shed. They disassemble the guns and set canisters to be refilled once the new nozzle gets in. She empties all the guns of paintballs, and sorts through the masks to find ones that have paint on the visor and need to be washed. They break down paintball boxes and stack them to be carted to recycling. They work in relative silence, with only Max’s early 2000’s punk music to keep them going.

As always, the shed is nothing more than a hot shadow, and sweat quickly soaks through the sleeves and back of her t-shirt. She fans herself with a broken down box.

Lucas looks at her and nods in grumpy agreement. In a swift motion, he pulls his shirt over and off his head. “Sorry.”

Max swallows. She knew Lucas was fit and all, but this is a new level, seeing the even planes of his chest and the ripples of muscles on his back.

“Max?”

Nope, she definitely is not staring, and he definitely did not just startle her out of her thirst-moment. Nope. “What?”

“Nothing.” He’s looking away too, but he is extra slow in his movements as he picks up gun and spins it in his hands.

Unintentionally or not, he’s tormenting her, and she won’t stand for it. “You’re such a show-off,” she says, giving an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Grr, look at me, I’m Lucas and I’m super muscular.” She flexes her own muscles in a dumb imitation of him.

Lucas pretends to flip his hair over his shoulder and says in a high-pitched voice, “Ooh, look at me, I’m Max and I’m too pretty to play paintball!”

Offended, Max gapes at him. “Excuse me? I will play you in paintball any day!”

“Oh really? How about right now?”

“Oh yes right now!” Max is already reaching for a gun.

They are saved from carrying out their war by Steve roaring up in the gator. “I’m here to take your trash.” He gives Lucas a funny look. “Put on a shirt, dingbat, who do you think you are, the Hulk?”

They load the trash in the back of the gator.

Max, still fuming slightly, claims shotgun and makes Lucas ride with all the rest of the trash. It wasn’t fair of him to strip like that, right in front of her, and then insult her ability to play their own game. Whatever.

But yet, he had called her pretty.

Hm.

*

Steve sits at dinner, spinning his radio on its end by the antennae. Robin sits down across from him, her tray full. Thursday is chicken fried steak night, which is one of his favorite meals, but he finds he’s not hungry.

Robin notices his full plate. “You good?” She shovels a large bite of salad into her mouth, leaving a smear of ranch dressing on the corner of her lip.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine. You overheated?”

He shakes his head, but she nudges his water glass toward him anyway. He drains it. “Why do I feel like the camp solution for every problem is drink water?”

Robin laughs. “Maybe because most of the problems are caused by not having enough water. I’ve had at least ten kids this week spend a day in the infirmary because they got dehydrated.”

“Hydrate or diedrate.”

“That’s right.”

Steve’s thoughts turn again to Will. Had Will been dehydrated? If he’d had more water, would he be okay?

Probably not, whatever was going on with the kid was more than just simple dehydration. The last official word had been that heat exhaustion and physical labor had caused a resurgence in his childhood brain trauma.

Steve doesn’t ask about where that trauma came from, specifically. It’s not his to know. All he knows is he’ll be keeping an eye on Will for the rest of the summer.

Steve clears his tray and takes it to the kitchen. Across the crowded cafeteria, Steve spots Nancy and Jonathan eating with a couple other lifeguards. He stops at their table and leans his hands on either side of the napkin holder.

“How’s Will?”

Byers looks up in surprise. “He’s fine. They said they’ll bring him home before closing tomorrow.”

Steve nods. “That’s good. Did they figure out any more of what was wrong?”

“Stuff with medication, some of it’s exhaustion.” He spins his fork between his fingers, not looking at Steve.

“Will he come back to work?”

“Maybe. Mom’s pretty shook up.” He shrugs.

“I’m sorry about it all, man. It sucks.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Nancy smiles at him. “Thank you for your help last night.”

“Anything.”

She smiles again, and it’s a little bigger this time. Whatever has gone on with Steve and Nancy in the past, he’s glad they can be friends now. Their jobs are more important than rejected romance from previous summers. And she’s happy with Byers, so he’s happy to be their friend.

He is worth more than what Nancy Wheeler thinks of him.

*

Max squints in the sun, pulling her ballcap lower on her face. There is no dancing gauntlet on closing days, just a few sentries posted to direct pick-up traffic. As it is, she’s the first to see Will and his mother driving up the road. Sunlight forgotten, she waves her whole arm at them, grinning. Will waves back, a little weaker than normal. Her antics attracted Lucas’ attention down the road, and he whoops in greeting.

Will is pale and shaky, but okay. He slips into the closing ceremony to say goodbye to his cabin and reassure them he’s alright, and then he goes to his cabin to rest.

At closing meeting, Hopper says he’ll be hiring a new counselor to take Will’s place, and Will has craft duty all the time. Dustin is relieved to hear he will no longer be in cabin.

No one has big plans for the weekend. Most of the staff clears out, headed to Stacey’s family’s lake house. Neither Max, nor any of her friends, is cool enough to get invited. So Saturday, Max goes hammocking down by the lake, tipping her cap over her face and swaying in the hot breeze. She’s wearing as few clothes as possible—a tank and very short shorts—and the shade is at least a bit cooler, and she drifts to sleep.

When she wakes, another hammock hangs beside her. Max blinks at it for a moment before recognizing the camo. Lucas hung his hammock right next to her. Maybe, when he wakes up, she’ll pretend to be grumpy about him sneaking up on her, but for now, she just smiles, and settles back for a nice calm afternoon.

Chapter Text

“Last week was one of the hottest on record. This week is projected to be just as bad, so keep your kids hydrated. Programs, we’re going to double down on filling coolers. If you kid gets overheated, send him to the infirmary. I don’t want anyone getting dehydrated this week. Am I clear?” Hopper casts his eyes over the assembled staff, who nod along dumbly. “Good. Lastly, I hired a new counselor to take Will’s place. He should be here any minute. If you see him, be sure and welcome him to camp. That’s all. Steve, let’s break it down.”

They stand and circle up. “Alright,” Steve shouts. “Hydrate on three. One-two-three, hydrate!

Max turns to head to the village to make sure all the pop-up tents were situated for opening. Just as she is about to walk through the door, she nearly steps into someone’s chest. She runs her eyes up the chest to an all-too familiar face.

She swallows.

“Hello, Maxine.”

Billy.

Shit.

*

“El, I—I filled your water bottle for you. I hope that’s ok.” Mike slides the water bottle back into the mesh pocket on her backpack.

She finishes tying a streamer onto the corner of the tent and smiles down at him. “Thank you, Mike. I didn’t notice it was gone.”

Mike reaches his hand up to step her down off the chair. When she reaches the ground, they both look at their clasped hands for a moment before letting go, then giggle in sync.

“So, Hopper asked if I’d help tell the story for tribing tonight.” He blinks at her for a moment.

She tips her head. “Congratulations?”

“Thank, but uh—that’s not what I meant to say.” He scrunches up his face, then spits out in a rush, “Would you help me paint my face?”

“Oh. Sure! I have some face paint, if you want to use that. Instead of the paint jugs stuff.”

“Yeah! I’d—yeah. That stuff cannot be good for our skin.”

“Probably not.”

Wheeler!” Robin barks from down the road. “Quit flirting and help with luggage.”

Mike flushes. “Well—bye. See you later.”

El gives him a small smile. “Yep. See you later.”

*

Max stumbles into the sunlight, heart pounding. Billy is here. Billy is here. And he’s going to be here for the rest of the summer.

Shit.

Shit shit shit.

He is busy talking to Hopper and getting settled in his cabin, so she made her escape to what will hopefully be luggage duty. She’s pretty sure Hopper didn’t intentionally hire him, like, seek him out and ask him to come work, so he must have just found out somehow and come specifically to anger her.

That sounds a little extreme, but she wouldn’t put it past him.

Fuck everything, honestly.

Either the sun is too bright or she is too distracted, because she bumps directly into a chest for the second time that day.

This one, thankfully, belongs to Lucas. “Whoa, hey, Max, you okay?” He cups her arms gently, steadying her.

She stares up at him. “Billy,” she spits out. “He’s here.”

Lucas’ face darkens, like a whole cloud just passes right over his expression. “Why?”

“Hopper hired him.”

Comprehension bleeds into Lucas’ face. He settles back onto his heels, dropping his hands from her arms. “Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Look, if there’s anything I can do--anything--let me know, okay?”

She nods, wondering what the hell he’d be able to do. There is nothing to do with Billy. It’s just survival. “Okay.”

“You’re looking pale,” Lucas says, and hands her his Nalgene.

She takes a few sips before handing it back. “Thanks.”

“It’s nothing. Are you on luggage?”

“Am I ever on anything else?”

He chuckles wryly. “Why don’t you go sit under the tree until campers get here. And if you want—you and I can talk to Hopper later. I’ll go with you. If you want.”

“Sure.” She doesn’t know how talking to Hopper will help, or what his presence will do, but it’s a sweet gesture nonetheless.

Lucas steps inside Holland hall just as Billy comes out. Billy glances down at him. “You talking to my sister?”

“Max? Is she your sister?”

“Yes.” The word is heavy, weighted, somehow a threat.

Lucas swallows. “Yeah—she’s. She’s pretty cool.”

He bends slightly, sticking his face right into Lucas’. “Stay. Away. From my sister.”

Lucas holds his gaze, lifting his chin ever so slightly, but he can think of nothing to say. Seconds tick, and sweat rolls down Billy’s temple from under his hair. Lucas watches it go in his peripheral.

Billy straightens back up and walks away.

*

Arms around her knees, Max pushes her back against the corner of Holland hall. Here, shadowed by a stack of chairs, maybe no one will see her, and she can escape opening ceremony in peace. Her thoughts are a never ending loop of Billy Billy Billy. Hide. Fight. Run.

Abuse is a funny thing, and PTSD is even weirder. The effects and symptoms are constantly changing. She’d been talking to her therapist during the school year, but now Billy was invading her safe space.

El, entering with her cabin, spots her in the corner and heads her way.

Max wills herself to shrink even further, to disappear, but nothing happens.

El kneels by her, reaching for her knee. “Can I touch you?”

Max nods, and El settles warm fingers on her kneecap, gentle and soft.

“What’s going on?”

“Billy—he’s here. And I don’t know what to do.”

El nods slowly. Billy’s come up between them once or twice, but only as a nuisance, never as the truth. “This upsets you?”

“Yes. He’s abusive, El. And he’s here in a cabin. What if he hurts those kids? What if he hurts you or Lucas or Will or someone?”

El holds up a hand to stop her. “Take a deep breath with me.”

Shakily, Max inhales and exhales again.

“Ok. Thank you for telling me. The first thing I want you to know is we can talk to Hopper tonight. Right after the ceremony, if you like. The second thing is, Billy would be stupid to do something to the campers, because he could go to jail.”

“Right. That’s good.”

“As for the rest of us, you don’t have to protect us.” She tilts her head, holding her gaze steady. “It’s not for you to fix.”

“I know, but—”

“No buts. This is not yours to worry about.”

Max takes another deep breath. “Okay.”

“Okay. Do you want to stay sitting? You can go to the back room.”

Max eyes the swarm of campers pouring in through the doors. “I’ll go to the back room for a couple minutes. Then I’ll be okay.”

“Okay.” El offers her hand and they pull each other up.

“Thanks, El. I feel like—well. You knew just want to do. You should be a counselor or something.” Max makes a face, “I don’t mean camp. Like a real counselor, you know?”

El tilts her head to the side. “Something like that.”

“I’m serious! You’d be good at it.”

“I’m good at it because I’ve learned,” El says softly. “Because I know.”

Slowly, comprehension dawns in the back of Max’s mind, wiggling through her own fog of distress to understand. “Oh. Oh.

El shrugs, gives a little hint of a smile. “It’s okay, it was a long time ago. And Hopper’s my dad, end of story.” She gives Max’s shoulder a little squeeze. “Go take a break. I’ll see you later, okay?”

Max jerks her head once in a firm nod, and seizes El’s hand to grip it in return. El is more than her friend, now, there’s something new, something firmer, there. Comrades in the same battle, on different front lines.

*

El ducks out of Holland to the fishbowl where Mike and handful of other coworkers are painting themselves. Dustin and Suzie are mostly green, and she notes how close the two are sitting. Shouldn’t be surprising, really, but El feels a twinge nonetheless. Perhaps it’s more about how much she wants that with Mike. It’s a deep want, one she can’t ignore anymore.

And suddenly she is face to face with him.

“Hi,” he says, smiling. It’s almost shy, more than Mike normally is.

“Hi,” she replies, and slides her backpack off her shoulder to fish out the blue facepaint pot. It’s just the cheap round ones that can be bought at any large store around Halloween. El stocks up every fall. She uses at least two each summer.

Looking up at him, their height difference is more apparent. His chin is just over the top of her head. If she stood on her tiptoes, she could kiss him.

“Should I…?” He bends his knees in a sorority squat, putting him more level with her.

“Oh. Yes.” She points him to the steps of the fishbowl and stands in front of him. He tips his face up to her and closes his eyes. So trusting.

Again, if she bent down just a little, she could kiss him.

Smearing the paint across someone else’s skin, especially his, is harder than she thought. When she puts it on her face, it doesn’t matter if her cheeks smush every-which-way and she presses hard on the forehead or chin. She wants to be gentle, with him.

El is not always a gentle person. Life has made her that way. It has made her determined and smart and kind, but not always gentle. Brushing her fingertips across the bridge of his nose, across the splash of freckles, over the thin skin of his cheek—it’s new it’s different. Her breath catches in her chest.

“You can press harder,” he mumbles. “I don’t mind.”

El says nothing, only nods to herself and gathers more blue on her fingers.

When she is finished, Mike has a superhero mask of blue around his eyes, outlined with black. It’s fierce. It’s awesome.

Holding up her phone as a mirror, she says, “You can open your eyes now.”

He blinks at himself. “Wow. El—that’s. That’s great. Thanks, I—you’re amazing.”

She shuffles her feet. “Thanks.”

“No, really.” He grabs her wrist gently, circling it with his fingers. “You’re amazing.”

The sincerity in his voice stills her, and she gazes into quiet brown eyes. The corner of his mouth is drawn up in a half smile, and his thumb rubs the inside of her wrist.

She’s not sure she remembers how to form words. “I think you’re…amazing, too.”

He smiles fully, and she is privy to watching his network of dimples appear around his eyes and crease the blue paint. “Thanks!”

“Yo, Mike! Let’s go!” Dustin shouts, shattering their moment.

Mike jerks his head toward Holland, standing. El follows him into the building, not really understanding the small twinge of sadness she felt when Dustin yelled.

The screaming crowd of campers is playing a massive game of rock, paper, scissors. El spots Billy, standing to the side with his arms crossed; Lucas, standing up front near the stage, cheering; and Max, eagerly playing a girl from El’s cabin.

El joins Max in playing the classic game.

Problems and feelings can be handled later. For now, all that matters is whether she’s going to pick rock, paper, or scissors.

*

Hopper doesn’t speak when Max has finished explaining about Billy. Her instincts had said to leave well enough alone, she could handle Billy, but she was more concerned for the campers. Plus, there was no way Billy would have been able to pass a drug test. And finally, even though she hadn’t told Hopper about the abuse, she felt like she could trust him. Just saying that Billy did not seem like a good candidate for a counselor felt like a good idea.

Finally, Hopper rubs a hand over his mustache. “Well. There’s not much I can do now. He’ll have to stay for this week, and I’ll work on finding another counselor.” He leans forward, resting his elbows on his desk, and making eye contact. “Thank you for being honest with me. I’m glad you feel you can trust me.”

Max knows this technique, they talked about it during training. He’s validating her vulnerability, and cementing the idea she can trust him. “Thank you for listening. I just—” she debates telling him about the abuse she endured when they were younger, before she moved away to school. “Yeah. That’s all. Thanks.” She stands to go.

The desk chair creaks when Hopper leans back. “I’ll keep an eye on him. Thanks, Max.”

“Welcome. Goodnight.”

Lucas is waiting outside the office. “How’d it go?”

“Fine, I guess. I didn’t tell him everything, but he said he’ll try to find a replacement.”

“That’s good.” Lucas falls in step beside her, headed back to the staff village. “Anything you need, I’m here for you.”

“Thanks, Lucas. Really. It means a lot.” She flicks a quick smile to him, which he returns.

Just before they split to go to their cabins, he throws his arm over her shoulder in a quick hug and mumble, “Goodnight, Max. Sleep well.”

She doesn’t reply, but his words tumble endlessly in her mind until she falls asleep.

Chapter Text

El is so relieved to be with high school this week. For the most part, high schoolers can take care of themselves, and most of them have been coming to camp long enough that they don’t need much help from her. But they are still young enough that they will appreciate the friendship bracelets she makes them.

Monday morning, the Geraki take verses, much to El’s disappointment. They head from verses to lunch, and her girls scatter across the cafeteria to eat with friends or flirt with boys they find cute.

El and Mike find themselves in the lunch line together.

“How’s it going?” she asks.

“It’s hot,” he says, “but I’m cool.” He pulls his sunglasses down from his mess of curls to emphasize his point.

“You’re a dork, is what you are.” She cranes over camper’s heads to get a view of lunch. “It’s chicken strip—what are you doing?”

Mike drops his hands from her backpack. “Your pocket was open.”

“Oh, thank you. It’s chicken strips.”

“That’s what I thought. I might go for a sandwhich.”

El agrees. Chicken strips are not the mess hall’s strongest meal. Wednesday’s pasta, however, is a different story.

They take seats at a table full of campers, both boys and girls. They engage in conversation, talking about verses or the evening activity or the heat.

“You full?” Mike asks, gesturing to her half-finished salad. She had torn up a chicken strip to make a pseudo grilled chicken salad.

“Yeah.”

“Feeling ok? Not overheated?” He presses his hand to her forehead.

She laughs and pushes his hand gently. “I’m fine.”

“’Kay.” He picks the bits of chicken out from her lettuce and eats it.

“Awww, you guys are really cute,” one of the campers croons.

Mike flushes red, and El figures she doesn’t look much different. But she notices neither of them move to deny it.

As they leave the mess hall, Mike veers into her so she stumbles and giggles. She hip-checks him, causing him to splutter on his drink of water. He trips into the end of a table, shaking it.

“Sorry!” he apologizes to the table at large. The campers wave it off, but the counselor stands.

Billy looms over them, seeming taller than he really is.

El swallows.

“Now why did you do that?” he asks quietly. Dangerously quiet.

Mike looks him in the eyes. “It was an accident.”

Billy runs his lip between his teeth. “Uh-huh. Watch your step next time.”

Mike steps around him, reaching for El’s hand. “Have a good day, man.”

She squeezes his hand tightly, hoping to offer comfort. Once they are in the sunshine, he wrinkles his nose. “What was his deal?”

“That’s Billy. He’s—he’s Max’s brother. He’s not a good person.”

“Clearly. Why’d your dad hire him?”

“Probably because we really needed a counselor. He’s going to replace him next week I think. I hope.”

“Yeah. Did you notice he smelled like weed?”

“No, but I trust you.” She snorts. “He needs to relax, geez.”

“Yeah.” He looks down to where they’re still holding hands. “Oh, sorry, I—”

“I don’t mind. Really.” She flashes him a quick smile and squeezes his hand again.

They’ve reached the cabins, and have to go separate directions. Each gives a little tug on their joined hands. “See you later!” Mike calls.

“Of course!” she answers.

When she gets back to her cabin, she sets down her backpack by her bunk and notices a corner of paper sticking out of the front pocket of her backpack. Curious, she pulls out a lime green index card. On it is scribbled, in messy scrawl:

Hi El!

This is just to say that I think you’re awesome and cool and pretty. Really pretty. I’d like to go out with you, if you’d like. And I know it’s hard because of your dad and out jobs, so you don’t have to tell me anything. If you’d like to go out with me, at the dance on Thursday, ask to dance with me during the last song. If not, you don’t have to do anything at all.

That’s all.

Ok. Bye.

Mike

El breathes out, heart pounding. She clutches the index card to her chest for a moment before tucking it under her pillow. She’s going to say yes, of course. Why wouldn’t she? She likes Mike, and he—well, it seems he likes her too.

There are no girls back from lunch yet, so she stands and does a little twirl. Of course she’ll dance with him. Thursday can’t come fast enough.

*

Tuesday evening, junior high girls come in for the last slot in the craft house. Because it’s junior high, it’s loud and chaotic and a can of beads spills across the floor, the plastic tinkling a sound that will haunt Will’s dreams.

He asks the campers to clean up before they leave, and they do, sort of. But the beads remain rolling across the concrete floor.

Will sighs. It’s his job. It’s his job and it keeps him in indoors and cool and getting enough sleep and keeping his brain functioning normally, which is really all he can ask for right now. But he really hates beads.

But he gets down on hands and knees, crawling around on the floor and picking up plastic pony beads that have rolled under tables and into corners. The beads elude his grasp, and tedium sets in. He is completely laid flat on the floor under a table, resting his forehead on the concrete and contemplating existence, when the door opens.

“Hello?” Robin calls.

“Hello,” he says to the floor.

For a moment there is silence, then footsteps, then Robin’s chacos appear in his peripheral. They have rainbow straps. He hasn’t noticed before.

“You good there, buddy?”

He rolls his head to the side to look at her. “This is the third time this week I’ve had to pick up beads. And it’s only Tuesday.”

She drops to sit beside him. “That bad, huh?”

“Not really. I like the craft house.” He pulls himself up to sit cross-legged beside her.

She scoops a few errant beads into her palm and dumps them into the jar. “I just came to check in. I miss having you as a counselor.”

Will chuckles and looks down. “Thanks.”

“I like your bracelet.” She taps the rainbow-striped bracelet he’d made during the first week. Privately, he thinks of it as his “tiny pride.”

“Thanks. It’s—uh. It’s a pride flag.”

Robin’s face lights up and she sticks out her foot. “Me too! There’s my pride!”

“I figured.”

“Really?”

“Well, sure, you have rainbow chaco straps, a rainbow enamel pin on your backpack, and you wear backwards ball caps all the time. You have very strong lesbian energy.”

She blinks at him. “Well, in that case, your jorts are very gay. Just so you know.”

He looks down at his mid-thigh cutoffs. “Yeah, I know.”

“Perfect. I’m going to consider you my gay padawan from now on, ok?”

“Ok.” His heart warms a bit. It’s nice to have gay friends. The Party is nice, but sometimes they just don’t understand. “How are you, Robin?” He glances up at the fly-aways of her hair, spilling from under her hat.

“Tired. That guy they hired to replace you? He’s a real asshole. And I swear he’s smoking pot sometimes, but I haven’t been able to catch him.”

Will winces. “Yikes.”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. I can handle him.”

“Sure. You’re Robin the lesbian knight, no one can stop you.” A cartoonish image pops into his mind—Robin as a D&D character, in full pink armor.

She laughs, startled and happy. “Thank you, Will. I really needed that.” She glances around at the floor. “How about I be Robin the bead fetcher for a second.” She snatches a few more beads off the floor and puts them in the jar. “There. I helped.”

“Every bit counts.”

Standing, she offers him a hand to pull him up. “Hungry? It’s taco night. And you’re not a counselor, so you can get dinner early.”

He takes her hand and lets her pull him up. He misses being a counselor, but this is nice too.

*

Taco Tuesday is one of the best meal nights, Max thinks. It is reliable, tastes good, and she can eat three tacos at a go and no one stops her. Between her table (Lucas, Dustin, and Steve) they have consumed fourteen tacos. Dustin ate five all on his own.

Billy saunters by the table, carrying his own tray. She ignores him, which is how they’ve been going about the week thus far. He hasn’t shown up at paintball, for which Max is thankful.

He stops at the table. Max sighs. Great.

“Maxine. Who is this?” He motions to Lucas.

“My coworker and friend, Lucas.”

Billy eyes him up and down. “I thought I told you to stay away from her.”

Lucas quirks his eyebrows. “That’s really hard to do. We’re always working together.”

Billy turns to Steve. “Do you schedule them?”

Steve’s brows climb halfway up his forehead. “Me? No. But even if I did, you think I’d separate them just because you’re a neo-nazi?”

Billy’s face goes red, and for a moment, Max thinks he’s going to slam his tray over Steve’s head. Instead, he breaks into a charming smile, runs his tongue over his upper lip, chuckles, and says, “This isn’t finished.” He leaves.

Max sighs. “Sorry guys. Just ignore him.”

Lucas mutters something into his leftover taco meat, and Dustin snorts into his elbow.

“Not your fault he’s a dick,” Steve says.

“I bet he brought marijuana onto property,” she replies. “Keep your eyes open.”

“For sure.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, dingus!” Robin sticks her head into the office. “Are we doing cookie raids or what?”

“Yep.” Steve heaves himself off the couch, tossing the controller to Dustin. “Beat the boss for me, Henderson.” Ignoring Dustin’s whines about being left alone with the hardest part, Steve heads outside and takes a seat on Robin’s cart.

The balloons had deflated halfway through the first week, and now all she had was a few streamers forlornly wrapped around the base of the poles. They used to go all the way up, but had slipped. Steve’s gator is not in better shape—the streamers had fallen off, and the giant inflated eagle proved a hindrance when driving in the woods, so the eagle now sat on the empty bed in his cabin. An unofficial mascot.

“Docks, bridge, or gazebo.”

“Mmm. Let’s mix it up, gazebo.”

“You would pick the hardest one to get to,” Robin huffs, but she turns the key to “on,” and sets her foot to the pedal.

They ride in silence, headlights illuminating the road ahead and casting weird shadows to the side. Cookie raids had become somewhat a nightly ritual, if Robin was free after campfire and Steve was tending to some supply-related emergency (like the time one of the junior high campers had managed to sneak pockets full of dud paintballs into his cabin. He’d apparently forgotten, and sat on them, and they had burst everywhere). They go on cookie raids to get a laugh, vent about campers or coworkers, and have some relative quiet.

Once at the gazebo, Robin turns off the cart and they stakeout in the dark.

“I had a kid get a fish hook in his face today,” Steve says under his breath.

“Holy shit, no way!”

“Yeah, it was right by his eye, too. I told him he was really lucky.”

“Yeah, geez. Is he ok?”

“Oh yeah. Maybe some minor fishing fear, but nothing serious.”

Robin chuckles. “The worst thing I had to deal with today was confiscating like twenty phones from the high schoolers. They want it to take pictures, but we sell disposables in the gift shop. It’s not that hard!”

“Kids these days,” Steve snorts. “When I was going to camp, we didn’t even have phones.”

“Shh.” Robin points to a figure moving down the path.

At first, it looks like it could be a counselor for the mid high campers, leading his cabin to cookies. As the figure moves furtively on the path, though, it becomes apparent that he is alone. And in a heartbeat, Steve knows.

It’s Billy.

He nudges Robin, and she nods that she’s figured it out, too.

They watch as he enters the gazebo and shuts the door behind him. It’s too dark to really see what he’s doing, but pretty soon it becomes apparent that he’s smoking, fogging the glass windows and seeping out the broken frame.

“Oh my god,” Robin breathes.

“Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“No, me either, but I have kids coming. And the cookies are in there! Has he been doing this every night?”

“I don’t know. We have to tell Hopper.”

“No shit, but we have bigger problems.” She motions to the path, where bobbing flashlights are approaching.

“Ah shit. Alright, I’ll get the cookies, you handle the kids.”

They scramble out of the gator. Steve opens the door to the gazebo and coughs at the wave of sweet smoke that billows onto him. Apparently the broken window did little to keep the gazebo from getting hotboxed.

“Harrington!” Billy looks up with hooded eyes.

Steve coughs. “Fuck off.” He grabs the box of oreos to discover it was mostly empty. He sighs. “Look, I don’t have a problem with you smoking, like, in general, but did you really have to eat the kids’ oreos?”

Billy shrugs. “Not my problem.”

Steve sighs. He doesn’t have a problem with weed in general—he’s tried some himself—it’s that camp has a strict drug-free policy, for obvious reasons. He probably wouldn’t even care that much if Billy just smoked on the weekends, but this is taking it too far. And if he’s here, who’s in his cabin?

“Where’re your kids?”

“Hell if I know. They’re all old enough to take care of themselves anyways.”

Steve’s mouth falls open. “This is your job. You are getting paid for this.”

“Pretty shit pay, if you ask me.”

“Why’d you take the job if you don’t care?”

“You know what, Harrington?” Billy stands, bowing up to Steve. “Why are you so nosy, huh?”

“Maybe I actually give a shit about this job and this place and these kids.”

Billy nods, running his tongue over his upper lip and staring down his nose like he would at dog shit on his shoes.

“If you can’t get with the program, maybe you should go home.” Really, Steve should shut up now, but he’s not known for his restraint.

Billy snorts. “Let me ask you this. You gonna tattle on me? Go running to the big man because you’re too chicken-shit to take care of this on your own?”

Steve grits his teeth. It’s bait, and he knows it. He refuses to rise to it. “Take a walk, Billy.”

“If you tell, I will know, and there will be no corner of this camp where you can hide from me.”

“Okay, calm down edgelord.”

Billy growls and slams his hand into the wood next to Steve’s head. Steve flinches and jumps away. Billy laughs, and ugly sound. “Or maybe I’ll go after your friends. Like the black boy. He’s already spending too much time with Maxine. Or what about the queer boy?”

It takes every bit of restraint Steve has not to deck him right there. He grunts, meeting Billy’s eyes. This is a standoff. Billy wins. Steve lowers his eyes and leaves the gazebo and heads to where Robin is talking to the disappointed cabin. He shows her the mostly empty box.

She looks from it to the campers. “Alright friends, guess we’re taking a trip to HQ.”

They get the kids another box of oreos, which seems to placate them, at least, though there are still plenty of discontented rumblings. Once they are safely back in their cabin, Steve blows out a long breath and looks to Robin.

“We gotta do something,” she says.

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“Fuck off, Watson.”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just…let it be for now. It’s not like Hopper can send him home in the middle of the week.”

She sighs. “Roger that.”

*

Max rolls out of bed Wednesday morning already dressed in Nike shorts and her tank top. Sleeping in her clothes is a trick she learned very quickly lets her get a few more moments of precious sleep in the mornings. She brushes her teeth and hair still mostly asleep, and stumbles into the mess hall just in time to catch a between age-levels gap. She skips the French toast sticks (they’re reheated every week) and instead gets a bowl from the cereal bar and snags an apple and a banana. When she sits down at the table with the activities crew, Lucas slides her a cup of coffee.

“You got me coffee?” her voice comes out gravelly and rough.

He nods. “One creamer, two sugar packets. Did I get it right?”

She takes a grateful sip. “Yes,” she sighs.

“As cute as that was,” Steve says, “we need to talk.”

She sets down her coffee. “What did he do?”

Steve relates to her about Billy smoking up the gazebo (unsurprising), stealing the oreos (also unsurprising), and his threats (slightly surprising).

“I thought weed chilled you out,” Lucas says.

“It does,” Dustin replies.

“You would know,” Max snaps. “Sorry, that was harsh. I’m just frustrated.”

“It’s not your fault,” Steve rushes to say. “I just wanted you to know. And ask if he would actually do anything.”

“Yes.” Her answer is swift and decisive.

“Alright then.”

“I could tell Hopper,” she says. “I’ve already said I don’t think he’s a good candidate.”

“Maybe don’t push too hard. Hopper’s not the biggest fan of people trying to force his hand.”

Max pushes her cereal bowl out of the way and sets her forehead on the table. “All I wanted was some peace.”

Under the table, Lucas gropes her knee before finding and grasping her hand. “It’s going to be okay, Max. We’ll figure it out.”

“For now, I think we just carry on as normal, and maybe keep an extra eye on Will.”

Dustin looks to Lucas. “We need to tell Mike.”

*

The thing about being in cabin all the time, El reflects, is you never know what is going on. For example, she had no idea that Billy was becoming this much of a problem. Any time she saw him in assemblies or something he mostly just looked bored or pissed off.

Mike crosses his arms over his chest. “I’ll head over to the craft house during our free time today.”

“Mike, you’re a string bean. There’s no way you can take Billy,” Dustin deadpans.

“No—I’m just—” Mike uncrosses his arms in offence. “At least I’ll be there.”

Dustin chuckles. “It’s cool, bro, I’m just messing. Look, just—” he pauses to let two junior high girls exit the mess hall doors and get out of earshot. “Just keep your eyes open. You’re closest to him.”

“We got it,” El says. “We’ll be fine.” And she means it.

*

Turns out, it wasn’t Will they needed to be worried about at all.

Wednesday’s verses game is sportsball, a conglomerate of many sports, involving multiple different balls and rules like, “you must shout YEET when throwing the ball” and “You can only kick with your left foot” and “the referees can announce new rules at any time.” It’s one of Mike’s favorite games.

Geraki are doing very well this round, pulling ahead, and then Billy (team Lykos, too bad for Dustin and Max and the rest) comes running up the field toward El.

Mike sees it happen in show motion.

Billy takes a massive kick at the basketball and sends it straight into El’s face.

Her head snaps back, and she falls to the ground as blood starts to pour from her nose.

Mike is running for her, but he’s not very fast, and the game doesn’t stop. Billy shouts something Mike doesn’t hear. He skins his knees sliding the last few feet to her, but he doesn’t care. “El? El, are you okay, shit, shit, El?”

She opens her eyes and closes them against the sun, mumbling, “Ow.”

“Yeah. Yeah, ow. Can you sit up? Is anything broken?”

She manages to sit, hunching over herself like she’s going to puke. Blood runs from her nose. He cups her face in his hands, her blood smearing his palms and over his fingers.

“Hey. Do you know what day it is?”

She furrows her brow. “It’s…it’s…I can’t remember. It’s pasta day?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s pasta day. Do you know where you are?”

She looks around, dazed. “Home?”

“Ok. What’s my name?”

She turns her eyes to him, pupils large and wrong. “You’re…you’re…” Tears fill her eyes. “I…”

This is bad. This is really, really bad. Mike motions at another staffer, who gets his drift and sprints toward the nurse that stays on the verses field. The nurse is busy watching the children, which is technically their job.

“Mike,” El says finally. “You’re Mike, and I like you. That’s who you are.”

Mike turns back to her, still cupping her face. She grabs his wrist.

“Mike.”

“Yeah, El, I’m here.”

“Okay. Don’t go?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

The nurse sprints up, nudging Mike away. “Joyce is on the way.”

El keeps holding his wrist, and she doesn’t let go, even as the nurse tries to push him away.

Chapter Text

Max tosses a handful of clothes into the middle of her bed, and strips the sheets to make a giant bundle. She tosses it over her shoulder like Santa, and leaves the cabin.

Steve is outside, gator engine idling. She drops into the front seat, holding the bundle on her lap. They let the roar of the engine cover their silence as Steve drives her to El’s cabin.

The concussion was severe, they were keeping her overnight, and she’d need lots of recovery time. Hopper hadn’t come back from the hospital. Joyce had, but she was only staying through the evening meds rotation and then going back. The rest of the nurses could handle things, and she didn’t want Hopper to be alone.

Max carries through the evening activity in a daze, and the rest of the party fares to better. Mike is the most distraught, going so far as to sit out the paint war. Only a week ago, it had been Will. Now it was El. They were simply too damn tired for this.

At campfire, Max sits by Mike on a log. She offers him one of her perfectly toasted marshmallows—crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside. Mike waves it away. Max shrugs, and fixes herself a s’more with two marshmallows.

“How can you eat at a time like this?”

“Because s’mores are reliable. They taste good, they get goop everywhere, and they don’t give their little sister’s best friend a goddamn concussion!

Mike flinches. “Sorry.”

Robin squats behind them, putting hands on their shoulders. “Hey. Look. We know you’re in cabin, but we wanted to tell you that we’re going to get pictures of Billy smoking weed in the gazebo tonight.”

Max swallows a massive bit of s’more whole. “What? He’ll kill you!”

“Not if he doesn’t catch us. We can show them to Hopper, and Hopper can show them to the police, if he chooses.”

Max thinks on that. “I want to be there.”

“You don’t need to be. We’re getting Jonathan to take the pictures, and the smaller the group, the less attention we get.”

“I’m coming,” Mike says. “I’ll get someone to keep an eye on my boys.”

“As your head counselor, I really cannot condone that. As your friend, I absolutely support you. Max, if you want to come, I want you to come. I just…don’t want you to freak out or anything.”

“Trust me. I won’t.”

Robin nods and gives them each a final pat, before heading over to her golf cart, where Will is sitting in the passenger seat. She relays some message, and he simply nods before sliding over and driving the cart down the trail.

*

Max knocks on the door of the cabin next to hers. Stacey opens it, crimped hair up in a messy bun, looking unimpressed. “Stacey, I need to ask a favor.”

Stacey raises one brow.

“I need to leave my cabin for a second, can you please keep an eye on them for me?”

Stacey rolls her eyes. “You really don’t want to be in cabin, do you?”

“That’s not it, I—” she huffs. “Look, if you do this, I’ll buy you a something from the gift shop. Please, Stacey.”

Stacey rolls her eyes. “Yeah, whatever.”

If Hopper caught her, she’d be in big trouble. It shouldn’t surprise her that Mike is also sneaking out of his cabin. She whispers, “Your kids?”

He shrugs. “They’re big kids, they can take care of themselves.”

They hurry down the road to the hiking trail. Halfway there, Lucas appears, wearing a camo bandana around his forehead and carrying two paintball guns. He nods at both of them, and hands one gun to Max. She cocks a brow.

“Just in case,” he says.

She doesn’t question it.

In the woods, cicadas screech, and crickets chirp. The only other sounds are the thuds of their feet on the hard-packed earth. Though it is completely dark, humidity lingers like an oppressive blanket. Sweat sits sticky on skin.

The gazebo appears on the horizon. Inside, fog makes flashlight beams murky. So Billy is there, smoking, and he has company. The trio slip into the underbrush.

“What are you doing?”

The sharp whisper makes Max squeak, and Lucas clamps a hand over her mouth. Nancy peers at them through the darkness, from where she and Jonathan are crouched behind a bush. Max pulls Lucas’ hand from her mouth but doesn’t let go.

“You can’t make us leave,” Mike says, and Nancy first looks frustrated, and then resigned.

“Technically I’m higher ranked than you but whatever.”

“Technically you’re my sister and you can’t make me do anything but whatever.”

“Shut up!” Lucas snaps.

The Wheelers fall silent. They all direct their attention to the gazebo.

“Who’s in there with him?” Max whispers.

“I can’t get a clear shot,” Jonathan mumbles, lowering his camera.

Nancy lets out a frustrated grumble.

Max doesn’t question why Nancy is here. Jonathan, to take the picture, sure. Mike, because of El. Lucas, because of her (because of her). She doesn’t know where Steve and Robin and Dustin and Will are right now, and it doesn’t matter, because this is her mess, her brother, and she needs to be able to take care of it.

“I can go open the gazebo. Maybe help you get a clear shot.” Max is already moving.

Lucas snags her wrist and pulls her back down. “Not yet. Where are Steve and Robin and Dustin and Will?”

Nancy waves her radio. “At the mouths of the trails. Keeping watch. They told us when he was coming and they’re going to tell us when it’s clear again. They told us you were coming.”

Max chews her lip. “All we need is a picture. It can’t be that hard.” She thinks for a few moments longer. “Ok. I’ll go open the doors and see what’s going on. Jonathan, you get the shots you need. Lucas, cover me?”

Nancy opens her mouth to protest, but the others are already agreeing.

Max crosses the distance to the gazebo, her heart pounding. She sets down her paintball gun beside the door. Opening it armed seemed like a bad idea. She hesitates for just a second, then opens the door. A waft of weed smoke drifts over her. Billy looks up at the intrusion, as do…his entire cabin? Well, shit. This was worse than she thought.

“What are you doing?” The question is involuntary, brought on by the fact that Billy is smoking with underage campers, which is about seven kinds of illegal.

“What are you doing?” Billy asks, low in his throat.

Max swallows. “I—”

He rises to tower over her. She hopes Jonathan has his pictures, because this seems like it’s about to get ugly.

“If you tell a single soul—”

She shakes her head. “This isn’t right, Billy. This is really, really bad.”

He grips her upper arm, tight enough to bruise, and she flinches. “Maxine,” he sighs.

Behind her, there’s a rustling in the bushes. “Max!” Lucas shouts, and she turns at the sound of his voice calling her name, just in time to wrench out of Billy’s grasp and to the side to avoid a neatly aimed paintball.

The yellow paint splatters across Billy’s chest, and he looks at it, uncomprehending, for a moment. Then, “Oh, you’re in trouble now.” He starts toward the bushes. His campers watch from the gazebo in a stoned haze.

Nancy and Mike scramble out of the way as Jonathan continues to take pictures. Lucas stands his ground, even as Billy grabs him by the arms and lifts him off the ground. “What’d I say about being around my sister?” he growls, low and dangerous.

Lucas knees him in the crotch, hard.

Billy drops him, and he darts back into the undergrowth.

Angry and snarling, Billy starts for Max again.

Distantly, she hears shouting, and a vague roaring sound, but her world has narrowed to Billy rapidly approaching.

Then, just as she feels she is about to scream, Billy falls to the ground, and Steve stares at his crumpled body, still clinging to the steering wheel of Robin’s golf cart. In the passenger seat, Robin, pale and shaking, clings to the O.S. handle.

Under normal circumstances, being hit by a gold cart probably wouldn’t hurt that bad. But Steve had been going very fast, and had even taken some air at the top of the hiking trail. At any rate, it was enough to level Billy.

Max trots over and waves her paintball gun in his face. At this distance, a paintball would really hurt, break the skin, and maybe even take out an eye. “Stay away from my friends. Do you understand?”

Billy groans, rubbing his hand over where his head met the ground.

Do you understand?

“I…understand.”

“Good.” She backs away from him.

The rest of the group crowds around, shaken and unsteady. Nancy raises the radio to her lips and says, “Dustin, Will…stand down. You’re clear now.”

Over the radio, Dustin says, “Roger that. Headed up the trail.”

“You get it all?” Max asks Jonathan. He nods.

Lucas is staring at her in some kind of awe. She steps to his side, and he places a gentle arm over her shoulders.

The older staff discuss what to do next, and in the end, Max misses most of it. Lucas walks her back to her cabin with the knowledge that Billy and his cabin will face separate disciplinary meetings with Hopper for different crimes. Campers could get sent home for smoking on property, but Billy was the one who convinces them to do it, so his punishment will be much worse. Robin is handling things now. The rest of the staff disperse to various locations.

Lucas stops at the door to her cabin. “You gonna be ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“What you did…was really badass.”

She smiles. “You…you too.”

He gives her hand a final squeeze. “Goodnight, Max.”

“Goodnight, Lucas.”

*

Dustin approaches the picnic table in the staff village where Suzie is waiting.

“How’d it go?”

“Great! Super dangerous. I was totally a hero.”

“Really? Tell me all about it.”

He sits beside her on the table. “I got to drive Steve’s gator.”

She eyes him skeptically. “Steve never lets anyone drive his gator.”

“Ok, I…sat in his gator and kept watch,” he mumbles.

“Close enough for me.”

Chapter Text

“You know what I realized this morning? We’re past the halfway point,” Max says, scooping paintballs into a gun.

Lucas pauses changing barrels. “Huh. You’re right. I guess that was yesterday.”

“Yeah. Kinda makes me sad.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”

“Okay.”

They continue working in silence. The day is overcast, the sky a smooth grey, and as Steve said, “too hot not to rain.” Max’s cabin was left mostly to fend for themselves while she worked, but high school students were generally pretty good. She hadn’t seen Billy or his cabin this morning, and she hadn’t seen Steve or Hopper until lunch time. Or Jonathan, for that matter. Nancy was posted at the pool, per the norm.

Whatever had happened, she didn’t need to know, and that was okay with her.

Thunder rumbles in the distance. Max leans out the doorway, smelling the humid air. A fat, cold raindrop hits her on the forehead. She giggles.

The raindrop turns to a downpour, pounding the parched dirt and cleaning the sides of the shed. Their radio buzzes with lifeguards talking protocol, and Max hears Nancy and Suzie both. Robin says something about moving verses indoors, and Hopper says the forecast predicts rain all afternoon.

Max settles herself in the doorframe of the shed and watches it fall. The sound on the tin roof drowns other noise peacefully. Lucas joins her on the other side, putting his feet on the floor of the shed with his knees bent.

“You were pretty badass last night.”

She chuckles. “Thanks.” It had all felt very overdramatic afterwards, but in the moment it had been thrilling.

“I mean it. You’re…amazing, Max.”

She looks at him, head cocked. He’s looking back, expression kind and warm.

The radio crackles loudly, causing them both to jump. “Steve to Max?”

Max grabs it, eyes shut. Dammit, Steve. “Go for Max.”

“Can you come give us a hand in Holland? We’re a little overwhelmed.”

“Okay. Do you want Lucas to come too?”

“Negative, ghostrider, I’ll come pick him up in a little bit.”

“Okay. I’m on my way.” She drops the radio to her lap and tilts her head back against the doorframe. “Welp. Guess I better go.”

“Yeah.” He sounds bummed.

She throws her backpack over her shoulder and steps into the rain.

“Just gonna have to watch you walk away!” he calls. “Like a sad movie! Don’t leave me, Max!”

She laughs and hears his answering peal.

When she arrives in Holland, she’s dripping wet, bill of her cap soaked. Dustin sizes her up. “Is it still raining?”

She fruitlessly wrings out the front of her t-shirt. “Take a guess.”

*

Mike sits glumly on a chair in the corner of Newby hall, watching as high schoolers moved to the beat. Mostly a bunch of girls crowded the dance floor, and clusters of boys observed or goaded each other into asking girls to dance. If a slow song ever comes on, the dance floor clears while a few couples sway. Usually he’d be out there, convincing boys to dance and pairing them up with eager girls. Tonight, his heart’s just not in it. El’s not here, and he knows it’s because of a concussion, but he thinks of his note and his heart falls to his toes. He’s probably missed his chance with this.

The DJ—another counselor—changes to a slow song from the 80’s. Time after Time, Mike thinks. A good song.

He looks at the door again, hopeless. As far as he’s heard, El came back and went straight to bed at her house.

But then the door opens.

And El walks in.

Mike’s mouth falls open, his heart dancing a jig.

She flinches at the noise, covering her ears, but she doesn’t leave. When her eyes land on him, she smiles.

He hurries over, opening the door and guiding her back outside. “El? How are you feeling? What are you doing here?”

She nods, saying softly, “I’m fine. Still pretty out of it, but I’m okay. I can see straight, so that’s an improvement.”

He guides them to a bench and eases into it. He can’t seem to stop trying to shelter her with his hands, to soften everything around them.

The music still comes outside, muffled.

“Mike. I’m not feeling good, but I knew it was important to come. Because of your note.”

“I’m so sorry, you can forget all about it—”

“No. I came to ask you to dance. Even though it’s not the last song.”

Mike stares at her, and she blinks back at him. A smile hovers on her mouth and she gently takes his hands in her own. “Dance with me?”

He nods, and she pulls them up. He gathers her in his arms timidly, still being as gentle as possible. She leans against him, shutting her eyes. They sway gently, lit by the streetlamp and serenaded by frogs and cicadas. Cyndi Laupner sings muffled, through the wall.

Time after time.

*

The week wraps up quickly, for camp Hawkins. Billy has been dismissed and will not be returning. Closing ceremony goes well, if a little less spirited than usual as exhaustion sweeps the staff.

Hopper tells them the next week is smaller, because it’s the fourth of July, and Max has the sudden realization she’s completely lost track of time. She didn’t know the fourth was coming. Time does not exist outside of camp, and inside of camp it is measured in paintball shifts, Geraki/Lykos points, and what they eat that day. She should probably give her dad a call, just to say hello.

Because the registration numbers are down, they don’t need to hire another counselor. A few counselors don’t have to go into cabin, and they’ll get assigned to things like “all-day verses duty” and “craft house help” and “cleanup crew.” El also will not have to go back into cabin, and will continue to rest and heal at her house.

The staff disperses for the weekend. Nancy offers to open the pool for those who’ll be on camp. Max declines, and instead goes skateboarding. She goes up and down the country road and through the village—the only roads paved enough to use. As the wheels spin on the pavement, she releases all the stress and tension from the week. Two hours later, sweaty and panting in the twilight, she is calmer.

She steps into the office, making a beeline for the minifridge with bottled water.

“You smell worse than Steve after a dip in the lake,” Dustin says.

“Thanks!” She drapes herself on him. “Have some sweat.”

Gagging and shoving her off, Dustin leaves the couch to Max, and she lays flat on her back.

Lucas, in the armchair, chuckles at her. “Good ride?”

“Absolutely.”

Steve sticks his head in the door. “I’m going to town for a slushie. You guys want anything?”

Dustin springs to accompany him.

“I’ll text you,” Lucas says.

“Same,” says Max.

“Cool.” The door shuts behind Steve and Dustin.

“How’re you feeling?” Lucas asks.

“Better. Like a lot better.”

“Good. So, there’s something I need to warn you about next week.”

Max frowns, unsure if she should be worried or if he’s just playing a prank. “What’s that?”

“My little sister’s coming.”

Chapter Text

You know, Dustin doesn’t really mind kids. He love kids, actually, loves them so much he’s working at a summer camp when he could be watching Netflix and reading the latest spiderman comics. But this. Little. Shit. Is going to be the death of him.

Dustin’s having a Monday.

“So what do you do when you’re not at camp?” It’s a normal question, but somehow her voice makes it sound…so annoying.

“I go to college.”

“College? That’s so boring.

“Actually, I find it rather interesting.”

She pulls a dumb face. “‘Rather interesting.’ Pfft. You’re such a nerd. What’s your major, nerd?”

Dustin sighs. “Biochemistry.”

“That’s such a nerdy answer,” she laughs.

Jesus. Middle schoolers are annoying. “Alright campers, from this fork in the trail, it’s only a mile back to camp. Now would be a good time to take a drink. Stay hydrated, people!” His flock of campers groan and complain about the heat, but take a drink willingly enough. He took them on the longer hiking trail—after all, they’re mid high, they can handle it. If only this kid would stop being so sassy.

Roughly forty minutes later, when they come back into camp proper at the Hammond cabins, that same sassy girl walks in pace beside him.

“That was two miles,” she says.

“What?”

“It takes the average human person twenty minutes to walk a mile. That was forty minutes, so either you walk really slow, or you lied. And I know you weren’t walking slow. I counted your steps and did the math. You were walking about average.”

Dustin blinks at her. “You did the math?”

“Yep.” She pops the ‘P.’

“Well maybe I lied, just to keep people from complaining too much. But you know something? If you knew all that stuff about math and pacing and put that all together in your head, I have something to tell you. You’re a nerd.”

She looks offended, eyebrows sassy and mouth open. “I’m a nerd? This is from the biochemist!”

Dustin counts off on his fingers. “Knows a random fact most people don’t, can do math in their head, Harry Potter pin on her backpack…yep, that’s a nerd.”

She reaches to cover the round pin on the front of her backpack, sputtering. “How would you know?!”

Dustin raises his brows matter-of-factly. “Takes one to know one. I’m a nerd.”

The girl sinks into silence as they reach the village. Lucas is coming out of the gift shop, bearing two dripping coke cans. “Hey, Dustin!” His grin fades to be replaces by a flat scowl. “Hey, Erica.”

“Hey fartbrain!”

“Wait, you know each other?”

Lucas sighs, “Unfortunately, she’s my sister.”

Erica sticks out her tongue at him and he reciprocates.

Dustin comments, “Real mature, guys, real mature. May I remind you we are at work.”

“Last week Steve put a plunger on his head and said ‘call me king Parcheesi,’ so I don’t know that ‘work’ is your best argument.”

“Steve sounds like an idiot,” Erica snorts.

In union, Lucas and Dustin chorus, “He is.”

*

Week four is going well for Max. On Monday, she and Lucas did paintball and he bought them both 50c cokes from the gift shop. She sat in on senior high’s lip sync and got to watch Robin dance with a giant paper donut a girl’s cabin had made as their prop. Their song was “Starving,” by Hailee Seinfeld. Apparently, due to the “suggestive nature” of the song, the counselors had been reluctant to put it in, but when Robin offered to dance with the donut, it was cleared very quickly

On Tuesday, Erica Sinclair had come paintballing. She sassed Lucas endlessly the whole time. Because there were so few campers at paintball, Lucas and she joined in for a round of capture the flag. Erica and Max ganged up on Lucas. It was the best. After, she high-fived Erica and said, “Sorry, Lucas, Erica is my best friend now.” He took mocking offense that resulted in him shooting her with Bazooka balls.

On Wednesday, Steve had, for reasons unbeknownst to Max, worn decorative superman boxers over his shorts. This, by itself, would not be weird. However, he had somehow gotten Robin to wear Batman boxers, which were longer than her Nike shorts, so they pretty much just looked like shorts. It got even weirder when Jonathan was wearing Flash boxers. Quiet, shy Jonathan was laughing and chasing Steve with a water gun. But the crowning glory, the real kicker, was Nancy Wheeler wearing Wonder Woman boxers over her bathing suit while sitting in the lifeguard chair. Dustin took enough pictures to fill up almost his entire camera roll.

And on Thursday, Hopper gives her fireworks.

Thursday is the fourth of July, so instead of the usual weekly event, Hopper splits up some of the staff into four teams, and tells them they will go to four different locations on camp to set off fireworks, one by one. The goal is that the campers will get a big show and that the four teams would compete just a little for the best “show.” Hopper’s given them each identical boxes, so no one’s deck is too stacked. Steve, Robin, Nancy, and Hopper are the team leaders. The campers will vote for the best show.

Steve gathers his crew. “Alright crew, we have to make the best show there ever was.”

Dustin nods, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes. “We totally got this. We’re gonna blow their minds. Get it? Blow their minds?”

“Yes, Henderson, we get it. So here’s what I’m thinking…” Steve lists off their fireworks in order, and with some debate, they all agree. They have the best launching point, probably, because they’re going from the lookout point. The campers will all be on the field by fishing, with a good view of all four shows.

By the time their little planning session ends, Max is practically vibrating with excitement. This is going to be the best fourth of July ever.

*

Week four is not going well for Mike. On Monday, one of his campers had wet the bed. Elementary camp hadn’t seemed so bad when El was there to talk to, but now she was gone, and he was left alone. He lurked at the back of the assembly hall, clutching his stale coffee and grumbling about the noise levels.

On Tuesday, he fell asleep during cabin time, slept through the alarm he’d set on his phone, and his boys didn’t wake him. When he did wake up, they were late to fishing. While there, one of his boys hooked themselves in the finger, and, terrified at the sight of his own blood, screamed like a banshee until provided a bandaid. On top of that, the same kid wet the bed (again).

On Wednesday, he fell asleep on the floor of the assembly hall, right in the middle of the exuberant chaos of elementary campers. Robin shook him awake as they disbanded for activities.

“If you need a break, I can take your kids for a while.”

Mike shakes his head, thinking of how disappointed El would be. “No, I’m fine. I’m just really tired.”

“It’s okay, Mike. This is week four. You’re allowed to be tired.”

Still, stubborn, he pushed through. Robin caught him dozing off during evening campfire, and shook her head at him.

(The kid wets the bed again. Mike is slowly going insane.)

By the time Thursday evening rolls around, a little cartoon stormcloud has taken up residence over his head. He gets his kids on the field, surrounded by the entire camp. There’s about five hundred campers this week, smaller than normal, but still pretty big.

They settle on the grass. Some have brought blankets or towels to sit on. Counselors are passing around cans of bug spray, to deter the malicious late-summer mosquitoes. Mike tries to occupy his boys with a game of concentration, but they are squirrelly, and Mike is so tired his brain keeps drifting away from the game at hand.

He’d really, really, like a nap.

“Who wants a glow stick?”

Mike looks up into the face of his saving angel. He must be hallucinating. He’s barely seen El all week, and now she’s here, in the flesh, pressing glowsticks into small grubby grasping hands.

“What’re you doing here?”

Will steps close enough that Mike can see his face reflected in the glowsticks. “Robin told us you were having a rough week. So here we are.” He drops cross-legged beside Mike. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ve got your kids.” He fastens a boy’s glowstick bracelet.

Mike looks at him full of gratitude, hardly feeling like things are comprehending.

El settles beside him, stretching out her legs. She sets a folded blanket in her lap and pats it. “Here.”

When he doesn’t move, nearly delirious at the prospect of actual rest, she tugs on his arm gently, coaxing him to lay down with his head in her lap. She cards her fingers through his hair, dull nails massaging his scalp.

He’s asleep in minutes.

*

In the beam of the flashlight, Steve double-checks their meticulous firework arrangement. “Alright team, this looks perfect.” He’s the only one allowed to touch the restricted materials right now.

Max, Lucas, and Dustin, each stationed at a different group of fireworks, nod. When the time comes, one by one, they will light their groups, and run. As soon as one finishes, the next will start, so it flows smoothly. There are multiple groups of explosives for each. It should all work like a well-oiled machine.

Their crew has been pulsing with patriotism all day. Regardless of their stance on the government, there’s something delightful about wearing tacky star-spangled gear and blaring “Fourth of July” or “Party in the U.S.A.”

Steve has a red, white and blue bandana tied around his head, holding back scruffy hair. He grins evilly at them in the beam of the flashlight. “Now we just have to wait.”

As if on cue, the radio crackles. “Hopper to Steve?”

“This is Dustin, but Steve can hear you.” He holds the radio in Steve’s direction.

“We’re just about set. You guys can go in two minutes.”

“Two minutes,” Max says, pulling out her phone. “Got it.”

With the timer running down, they wait in excitement.

Under his breath, Lucas sings, “Baby, you’re a firework! C’mon show ‘em what you’re worth!”

Max rolls her eyes. He’s been singing this all day.

Dustin joins in. “Make ‘em go oh, oh oh! As you shoot across the sky-y-yyyy!”

As they loop back to the verse, Steve starts beatboxing. Max rolls her eyes, but she cannot stop her smile.

Her phone vibrates. “Guys!” she shouts over their noise, “It’s time.”

Dustin cackles and strikes his match.

It is all over too fast, moments of flame and sprinting and watching the explosions above them. The lookout point looks right over the fishing field, and if she listens hard enough, Max thinks she can hear the smattering of “oohs” and “ahs” from the assembled campers.

A few moments pass, then Robin’s fireworks start going off. She’s out by the Hammond cabins. She’d chosen a counselor from every age level to help her. Theirs is fine—they saved all the sparkly ones for the end.

Nancy goes next, stationed in the village. It looks like they’ve lined up their fireworks and set them off in one big line. But Nancy, ever determined and calculated, carefully timed everything to be extra beautiful. Max can’t put her finger on how it’s different from those before, but somehow, she knows it’s just better somehow. Nancy is still the queen.

Hopper goes last, and it looks like he just went, “eh, fuck it,” and shot off all the explosives as he chose.

When it’s clear the fireworks are done, the campers start applauding and cheering before gradually dispersing to their cabins. Nancy is the clear winner, so her lifeguards will probably get free snacks next week or something.

Steve and Dustin hop into the gator with practiced ease. “You guys walking?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, we’ll be along,” Lucas says, waving them on. He motions with his head for Max to follow, and goes back to the tip of the lookout point. He leans on the fence that keeps campers from slipping down the steep hill/cliffside.

She leans next to him, and they watch the lines of campers trailing back to their cabins. For a moment, they are suspended between heavens and earth. Night is settling on the camp, bugs raising their evening lovesong and the moon gradually rising.

Lucas breathes out slowly. “What’s your favorite memory of camp?” he says it softly, not breaking the gentle evening song.

Max hums, taking time to think. The time Dustin had dumped a bucket of green paint on Steve had been good. When Will gave her a friendship bracelet was sweet. Hanging out with El on the weekends, painting toenails and comparing chaco tans. Nailing Mike with a water gun drive by shooting. Playing volleyball in the pool with the staff. Hammocking with Lucas. Paintball with Lucas. Teasing Lucas in the paintball shed. Lucas, Lucas, Lucas.

Finally, it settles in her, the memory of the time they’d been trapped in the gazebo during a rainstorm. She remembered him laughing, water droplets clinging to his poncho and on his face and eyelashes. She remembers the sound, the look on his face, and the safety of being there with him.

She’s been quiet for a long time, she realizes. “The rainstorm. Way back at the beginning,” she says. “You were—you were laughing. At something a camper said, probably, I don’t know, but—it was just a really good moment in time.”

Lucas smiles, teeth flashing in the dark. “That was a good day.”

“Yeah.”

“I think mine might be when I snuck up behind you and shot you with a bazooka ball.”

Max giggles. She had jumped approximately three feet in the ear, screamed at him, and started chasing him around the outside of the paintball shed. “That’s a good one.”

They lapse into silence again, still leaning on the fence.

Lucas breaks the silence, taking a quick breath and turning to face her. “Max, there’s something I’ve—I’ve been thinking about.”

“Yeah?” She turns her head to look at his face.

“I just—I think you’re totally cool and strong and awesome, and so funny, like, I think I laugh more when we’re working together than I do any other time, and um, I’m, uh…” he pauses, seeming unable to go on.

“Are you trying to tell me you like me?”

He nods. “Yes. Yes, Max, I like you. I like you a lot.”

Her voice comes out soft, gentle. “I like you, too.”

“I’ve liked you since—the first day probably.”

Incredulous, she laughs, “When you stole my Oreos?”

“Yeah.”

She shakes her head. “I don’t…I don’t really know if there was a moment, or a thing you did, I just—it’s you. I like you.”

He ducks his head, and when he looks back up, his expression has gone serious and gentle. He leans forward, reaching for her, stopping at the last second. His voice has gone a little raspy, when he murmurs into the space between them, “Can I—may I kiss you?”

“Yes,” she whispers, her lips already starting to brush his.

He is slow, gentle, his hands cupping her cheek and finding her waist. She wraps her arms around him, and when they break apart, she rests her forehead against his.

“That was very nice,” she says softly. She feels, rather than sees, his answering smile. Tucking her head into his shoulder and leaning on him, she feels safe and happy and loved.

“Ok,” he says after a moment, “Max, you’re great, but it’s really hot.”

She laughs, letting go of him and stepping back. He’s right—despite the sun going down, the air is still warm and sticky.

“I don’t want to go down yet,” she says.

“Then we don’t have to.” They go back to leaning on the fence, staring into the dark, at the pools of light shed from the streetlights in the village.

“Baby, you’re a firework,” Lucas sings softly, sending her a wink. “C’mon show ‘em what you’re worth.”

She giggles, joining in. “Make ‘em go ah, ah, ah, and you shoot across the sky-y-y.”

And they sing their duet into the dark.

Chapter Text

“Don’t drop my suitcase, you overgrown toothbrush!” Erica snaps as Lucas lifts her suitcase into the back of their van.

“You know what, Erica? Eat my shorts.”

She tugs on the hem of his basketball shorts and he yelps, leaping to preserve his dignity and smack her hands away.

She blows a raspberry at him.

“You’re my least favorite camper,” he grumbles.

“Well, she’s my favorite camper,” Dustin grins, resting his elbow on her forehead.

“That’s right.” Erica crosses her arms and gives him a shit-eating grin.

Lucas rolls his eyes to the sky and groans.

“Well, you’re my favorite counselor,” Max says, passing by.

Lucas smiles at her, even though she’s not looking his way.

“You’re disgusting,” Dustin groans.

“Like you’re one to talk,” he scoffs.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Erica, has he mentioned anything to you about Suzie?”

“Suzie?” Erica raises a brow, turning to Dustin.

“Suzie’s my…camp girlfriend, I guess.” He shrugs. “It’s no big deal.”

Erica’s mouth drops open. “How could you betray me in this way? I thought I was your one and only!” She sticks out her bottom lip in an exaggerated pout.

“Aw, Erica, it’s not like that!” Dustin says.

“Don’t ever speak to me again!” She climbs into the van and slams the door.

Dustin looks to Lucas and shrugs.

Rather than sticking her hand out the window to say goodbye, she flips them off as the van drives away.

*

The opening for week five is somehow one of the most energetic. It’s the last week, and no matter how exhausted they are, they can hold nothing back. Leave everything on the floor, Hopper had said, so they did.

It was a smaller camp—closer to three hundred campers. Mid high and high school would combine, so it made their schedules (and the mess hall) less hectic. Steve found himself able to relax and enjoy the week, for once. Funny how almost every week had required something difficult. But not this time.

He took himself fishing, after his duties were done, drinking in the sunset and the calm water. The fish weren’t biting, but that was okay. It was enough to be here alone. Six weeks ago, he might have wished Nancy beside him, but not anymore. If he really wanted a person, he’d ask Dustin or Robin or one of the others.

They’d grown on him.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Robin drives down the hill and parks her cart beside the gator. “Hey dingus!” she calls, but it’s gentle, affectionate. “Catch anything?” She heads his way, guitar in hand.

“Yeah, a big one, big as my head.”

“That has to be really big.” She sits beside him, dangling her feet off the dock. “I’m beat.”

Steve nods in agreement. “I’m doing nothing but sleeping for the rest of the summer.”

“What a weird thought. I forgot the world existed out there.”

“Funny what a lack of wifi does to you.”

“Mm.” They sit in silence for a moment. “May I play?”

“Yeah, sure.” He reels in his line—the hook is empty, so maybe the fish were biting after all. Just sneakily.

Robin absentmindedly plucks arpeggiated chords, humming quiet harmonies.

“Sounds good,” Steve says, pointing vaguely.

“You always say that.”

“I mean it!”

She swats at him, ignoring his protests.

“I do, though! You’ll make all the girls at your school swoon with that.”

“Hm. Maybe,” she silences the strings with the flat of her hand. “I’m really going to miss you.”

He looks down at her, eyes big and dark in the twilight. “I’m going to miss you too.”

“Don’t know what I’m going to do without you, dingus.”

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere. I have a phone! And social media! We live in the modern world.”

She laughs, a graceless snorted chuckle. “You’re right, sorry. You know, back in the beginning, I would’ve never guess you’d be my best friend by the end of this.”

“Really? You weren’t instantly charmed by my illustrious personality?”

“Really.” She lays the guitar flat on her lap. “I thought you were too hung up on Nancy and like, getting a girlfriend.”

He shrugs in agreement. “I was. But then this snarky weirdo lesbian came along and reminded me how much I like having friends.”

She tilts her head, face gone soft. “Aw, Steve—”

“Don’t flatter yourself, of course. There’s also like, seven idiot kids.”

“They’re not that much younger than us,” she laughs.

“They sure seem like it. And I’d probably jump in the lake if Dustin told me to.”

Please tell me you’re kidding. There’s snakes in there!”

“I’d do it right now. All the snakes are asleep.”

“Steve, no—”

“Too late!” He pulls his phone out of his pocket and leaves it safely on the dock, then jumps into the lake, sending a spray of water over Robin. She squeals, moving her guitar out of the way.

Treading water, Steve shakes his dripping hair out of his eyes. “You know, it’s not as cold as I thought it’d be. Or as deep.” He hauls himself back onto the dock. “Well, I’m going to go shower now.”

“Please do.” He opens his arms to her and she pushes her hand at him. “No—no—don’t you dare, Steve Harrington!”

“What, don’t you want a hug?”

“No, I don’t—Agh!” He grabs her, damp lakewater seeping into her shirt and hair. “Ew.”

*

Because camp was so much smaller this week, Mike was not in cabin. He had moved back into Staff Cabin 2, where the Party was reunited. And, though the wasps still buzzed around the ceiling and there were spiders in the corners, these would probably be some of the best memories of the summer.

The boys stay up too late, swapping tales and playing games, or just talking. Dustin waxes disgustingly poetic about Suzie, and Mike has to roll his eyes, until someone asks him about El. Then he flushes and stammers his way through saying that she’s amazing. Lucas is far more chill, much more cool and collected, shrugging, saying, “Yeah, Max is awesome. I like her a lot.”

Will just sighs and rolls his eyes, saying, “You’re all gross.”

Mike spends a lot of time on the versus field, re-painting his face every round and screaming his heart out. With El in cabin again, he gets to sit with them at meal times and slips into their evening activities. It’s a good week, he decides.

And then, suddenly, it’s over.

*

Hopper gathers his exhausted and sweaty camp staff in Holland Hall. They sit or lie on the floor, some of them leaning on each other.

“Ok team,” he says, “Tomorrow we’ll meet for breakfast at eight.”

His staffers groan.

“We have to take down all the decorations, rearrange the storage closet, put away all the supplies and games, and clean all the spaces. The paintball and fishing sheds need to be cleaned. Steve, you’re in charge of that, and Nancy, you take the guards and do whatever you need to do. Tonight, you are free. Just be back by 8 tomorrow.”

As they scatter to go, Mike slides up to El. “Do you have plans tonight?”

“No. I know some people are going into town to, like, party or something. I saw Stacey with a fake.”

Mike frowns. “I hope they don’t get caught. But I—well, I was hoping we could hang out.”

She smiles. “Sure, Mike.” They walk in silence for a few steps. “I never did take you stargazing, did I?”

He shakes his head.

“Ok. Meet me at my house at…eight. It should be dark-ish by then.”

“Sure, ok.”

So at eight, he shows up at the director’s cabin, freshly showered and in nicer clothes than his typical basketball shorts and staff tee. El meet him at the door wearing a sweet pink sundress, and carrying a basket, which Mike promptly takes.

They walk up through camp, past all the cabins and onto the hiking trail. They’re both wearing converse, which are not the greatest hiking shoes, but once the reach the lookout point, El suddenly turns off the path onto a side trail Mike’s never been down. They have to push through some brush, but eventually they reach a cleaning at the top of the hill.

“I didn’t even know this was up here,” he says.

“We don’t use it. It was cleared for a ropes course, but then that got put other places.” She walks to the middle of the clearing and motions him over. Taking the blanket from the basket, she spreads it out on the ground and drops to it.

They unpack the picnic from the basket—cold roast beef sandwiches and fresh fruit and chocolate chip cookies and rootbeer in glass bottles.

They enjoy their time in the golden hour, but it quickly fades into a midnight blue sky. The stars come out one by one, peppering the sky with silver. So far from civilization, there is very little light pollution, and the stars are brighter and clearer than Mike has ever seen them. He rolls onto his side to look at El, who is simply gazing at the sky.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asks.

Looking at her, he answers, “Yes.”

*

It does make the most sense for her and Lucas to be the ones cleaning the paintball shed, but now Max wishes it really didn’t. She can’t really be angry, though, because all the mess belongs to them. The broken down boxes on the floor, various empty soda cans and water bottles, dud paintballs, and candy wrappers all belong to her and Lucas. They spend most of the their time gathering trash, in no hurry to finish. If they hurry, they’ll just get assigned to trash sweeping the camp, and that’s no fun. It just means walking over every inch of the camp and picking up every single piece of trash, which—gross. And hot. And boring.

They sort all the canisters and clean all the paintball guns, and wipe paint off all the masks. Lucas has some 80’s classic rock going, and they mostly work in silence, speaking to communicate and little else. They don’t need to. They’ve been doing this so long now, working as a team, they just kind of know what to do.

When it’s all done, they drop to the floor in the doorway, dangling their legs and catching any whiff of breeze that comes their way.

“Well,” says Lucas. “I guess we’re done.”

Max pats the doorframe with her palm. “I don’t think I’m quite ready to say goodbye.”

“You’ve been a good shed,” Lucas adds.

“Favorite paintball memory, go!”

“Definitely the time we beat that whole team of high schoolers.”

Max grins at the memory. “When they challenged us? For sure!” The group of campers had wanted to play against just Max and Lucas, but they knew every stick, every leaf, on the course, as well as being able to aim very well. (It helped that they had both brought extra ammo just to prove a point, but that was neither here nor there.)

“Yours?”

“…maybe the snake. I still think that’s so badass. Or the time Steve borrowed a bazooka ball gun.”

Lucas wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know. I gave him twenty balls and he came back with five.”

She laughed. Apparently Steve had done drive-by bazooka ball shootings at other staffers, because of course he had nothing better to be doing.

She sighs. “I’m sad it’s over.”

He reaches for her hand, and she takes it. “Me too.”

She scoots closer to him, despite the heat. “I’m really going to miss you. You have to promise me you won’t, like, drop off the face of the earth or something.”

“How could I?” He gives her hand a squeeze. “I’ll call you every day, if that’s what it takes.”

“Maybe not every day…”

He snorts. “We’ll figure it out. And we’ll have wifi and cell service out in the real world.”

Laughing, she reaches for their radio and pretends to use it. “Can you imagine being like, Lucas, I miss you, over.”

He takes the radio. “Max, you’re beautiful, over.”

“Thanks,” she says softly, and leans against him, hands still clasped.

“We’re going to be ok.”

“Yeah. And—maybe we can come back next summer.”

“I’m already planning on it.” He nuzzles into her hair a little bit. “You know, I’d like to do this professionally one day. Do what Hopper does, you know? Or maybe like a full-time activities person. Leading hikes and stuff.”

“I think you’d be really good at that.”

“But whatever the case—we’ll be fine.”

“For sure.” She leans her head onto his shoulder. “You were the best part of this summer, Lucas. I mean it.”

“Thank you, Max. I couldn’t imagine this summer without you.”

It’s been a long summer, Max reflects. Long, but good. She’s learned a lot and grown a lot and had so much fun and even the hard times weren’t the worst. This summer has been the best of her life.

And now it’s time for them to go—back to the real world, back to separate colleges, back to families and homework and comfortable mattresses. And that’s okay. Wherever they go, whatever happens, they’ll always have the camp. They’ll always have the memories, whether or not they return. No matter how long they’re gone, camp will always be there to call them back home.

-fin-

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