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Finding Camp Campbell (Secret Santa 2018)

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Life continues to happen.

Of all of their campers, Max continues to be the most frequently infuriating, though the other two give him a close race: Harrison’s tendency to practice magic in the middle of the boys’ bedroom makes their camp’s address one of the most frequent stops for the Sleepy Peak Fire Department, and Nurf’s anger flare-ups, while less frequent, are still something only the Quartermaster knows how to reliably stop in their tracks. 

But they’re smart kids (mostly), and they’re good kids (sort of), and Gwen has to admit that they seem to be holding things together better than anyone could have reasonably expected.


No one’s sure how Nurf befriends Dirty Kevin -- Gwen just hopes it isn’t because Kevin was sneaking around trying to steal her sex toys again -- but in his first year of high school he hits it off with the weird older man, and neither she or David are sure how to deal with it. David tentatively suggests that it’s nice Nurf has a male role model in his life, and Gwen thinks he couldn’t possibly have picked a worse influence if he’d tried. But they’ve also never really figured out how to establish rules and actually enforce them with any success, so for the most part they fall back on the classic “let them make their own mistakes” mantra.

(Gwen does show up at Kevin’s trailer on one of her lunch breaks, fully prepared to threaten him into compliance. That plan is somewhat dampened by the appearance of David, who shows up halfway through her very intimidating speech and cheerfully informs her that he and Dirty Kevin now make a habit of getting lunch once a week, and “he’s really a very nice gentleman once you get to know him” and “it’s nice to have someone to talk to about how Nurf’s doing!” Which means she has to put the hook she’d borrowed from QM back into her purse and play nice with the friendly neighborhood drug dealer.)

She supposes it could be worse. 



Time passes.

Nurf is the first one to age out of camp, and it’s David’s idea to revive the Junior Counselor program. It means stretching their paper-thin budget just a little bit more for another paycheck, but Gwen can’t deny the benefit of having another pair of hands, and Nurf is surprisingly good at wrangling the campers (probably because most of them are terrified of him). His presence makes it possible to run some of the more intensive camps, ones they’ve abandoned because there weren’t enough adults to handle the campers and keep them from accidentally getting themselves killed, and David’s excitement at finally being able to have Blacksmithing Camp for the first time in over ten years is almost enough to make Gwen happy they didn’t cut that very stupid camp from the roster ages ago.

Max and Harrison have no interest in being ordered around by their defacto brother, and for the first few weeks of that summer it’s a bit like watching two rival gangs battle it out. However, Nurf picks up a thing or two from the Quartermaster (another questionable role model, but Gwen’s not complaining), and manages to intimidate them into something vaguely resembling compliance.

Besides, after spending the rest of the year watching — and sometimes helping — David painstakingly get Camp Campbell ready for another summer, none of the boys seem as enthusiastic about tearing the place apart anymore. (Especially since they know Gwen might make them fix whatever they break or destroy.)

They’ve grown up. It happened so slowly, none of them really noticed.

Time passes, and they learn how to live together.

Nurf’s parents don’t send money as regularly as Harrison’s do, but occasionally they’ll get decent chunks of cash, often accompanied by some sort of illegal substance. (They aren’t sure if these “gifts” are supposed to be for Nurf or for them, but Gwen jokes that they’re the ones who need drugs the most.) Obviously they decide to throw the drugs away—despite Gwen’s half-serious accusations that David’s being a buzzkill—and when these gifts disappear they both assume the other took care of it.

They didn’t, and Max’s very brief career as a drug dealer begins. It lasts only a week before Nurf finds out and beats him up, in a well-meaning but violent attempt to keep his baby brother from making the same mistakes as his old pal Dirty Kevin.

Nurf doesn’t rat Max out to David or Gwen, to the latter’s surprise. Instead, he drags Max to his high school debate team, which he joined a few months after starting his sophomore year. Nurf isn't especially brainy, but he’s methodical and does a ton of research for the debates; unfortunately, his short temper leads him to frequently explode at the competition and get his team disqualified. Max, on the other hand, is a smooth talker and a fast bullshitter and the two of them are actually really good together. As a freshman and at least six inches shorter than everyone else on the team, Max becomes the team’s secret weapon, spinning circles around the competition while Nurf sits there silently. Most of their competitors think Nurf is just there as intimidation, but he does at least 80% of the work; though Max does help out more as he becomes dragged into the action, first as reading over the notes ahead of time so he sorta knows what he’s arguing about, then proofing and poking holes in the argument, then as actually helping. 

They both enjoy winning, it turns out, and they happen to be quite good at it.

(They briefly play with the idea of roping Harrison into it as well, but his combination of egotistic and easily flustered makes him a terrible member of the team. Harrison prefers performance to debating anyway, and spends his afternoons most often with Nerris and Preston.)

Time passes, and life happens. They move on. 

One morning Gwen receives a call from Harrison’s parents that none of them were prepared for:

His little brother, Dylan, has been found and returned home. He was wandering around the southern coast of Vietnam, dazed and scared, and spent the last few years living with a local family before the Millers were able to track him down.

Nurf asks if he can now speak Vietnamese, and Gwen tells them she doesn’t know. (But probably, right? Kids were supposed to be good at picking up new languages.)

Harrison sits in silence while she shares the news; his mother didn’t seem interested in telling her son directly, and while she can tell David is one second away from calling her and sternly expressing his disappointment, they’re both trying to focus on keeping things as positive as possible.

Partly because she’s pretty sure that if she thinks too hard about Harrison’s parents right now, she’s going to give them a phone call and it won’t be nearly as polite as David’s would be.

“Is Dyl missing an arm?” Harrison asks dully, startling all of them. He’s staring at the ground, slumped over like his batteries have run out.

She glances at David, who gives her an encouraging nod and a small smile. “Uh, yeah, apparently,” she says, wishing that she hadn’t been unofficially designated the bearer of this particular news. “But he doesn’t seem hurt or anything, so that’s good, right?”

He just sighs and stands up, leaving the room without a word. Max rolls his eyes, sitting back in his chair.

“Good job, psych major,” he says, before giving Nurf a pointed look she can’t read; somehow the three kids have developed a language all their own. “Very tactful.”

Before she can ask him what the fuck that means, he and Nurf get up from the table, snagging all three plates and disappearing in the direction Harrison had gone.

“I don’t get them,” she says with a sigh, shaking her head. “Do you?”

David watches Nurf and Max catch up with Harrison, jostling him with their shoulders and pelting him with undercooked dinner rolls. “I . . . think they’re helping.”

It never comes up again, but a week later the letter from the Willises includes a thick packet of notebook paper, the handwriting crooked and childish. She doesn’t have the courage to ask Harrison what it says, but the letter puts him in a good mood for days afterward.

Life happens. And not just their lives.

Camp Campbell becomes a place where campers -- current and former -- can appear all year round. Fights with parents are the primary reason, but sometimes it’s nothing more than nostalgia, and the desire to see a friendly face. Which isn’t something Gwen had ever thought the camp had in spades, but it becomes clear as the years slip away that David is like a lighthouse for some of the campers: a beacon, warm and welcoming, that means a return home. It’s why so many of the campers return each summer, and why some appear on their doorstep when the camp is officially closed.

Neil is the most frequent visitor after Nikki, something that increases exponentially after he comes out to his parents; neither of them are homophobic, he assures Gwen and David -- in fact, quite the opposite. It turns out Carl is extremely supportive of his son . . . and, being himself, can be somewhat overbearingly enthusiastic. Apparently their home looks like a gay pride merchandise store, and the number of times he’s been set up on dates with any eligible bachelor in a fifty-mile radius -- regardless of silly things like if they have anything in common or if Neil is actually interested in a boyfriend. Neil says he suspects that his dad set up Grindr on his phone specifically for this purpose.

(Gwen suspects there’s another reason Neil frequents the camp so often, and that it’s less to do with his irritating father and more to do with Max and Nikki’s presence. She has twenty bucks against David that the three of them will be a thing before they finish high school. David, who would prefer none of his campers ever experience anything resembling puberty, insists she’s getting carried away.)

Ered visits once during middle school; she and Nurf are decently close, being the only two a full year older than the rest of the campers, and after she and her dads get into a massive argument about tattoos and navel piercings she shows up at their door with a duffel bag over one shoulder and a skateboard under her arm. This would be fine if two hours later the Millers hadn’t swarmed the camp with a SWAT team, terrifying everyone except their daughter (who mostly just seems embarrassed that they’re being “ so extra”). After that Gwen and David develop a strict rule that anyone under 21 -- or whose parents own guns and/or access to the federal government -- must call home and explain where they are immediately.

Preston visits for a few weeks after high school graduation, and crashes on the couch just long enough to eat all their food before flitting off to chase a career on Broadway. Dolph takes an internship during college at the camp, painting everything from Lake Lilac to Sleepy Peak Peak and sleeping in a tent. Nerris somehow ends up joining the Peace Corps, and spends the month before she leaves convincing Harrison to join her. (Which he does, making him the first of their permanent residents to leave “home.” Gwen expects David to take it hard, and he does; what she doesn’t expect is how much she misses the awkward little weirdo and his disastrous magic tricks.)

Nurf takes a few years between high school and college, throwing himself into fixing up Camp Campbell, which he seems almost as invested in as David himself. She’s not sure if he needs a break from school for a while (she gets it), or if he’s just not ready to say goodbye yet. Either way, the house goes quiet and empty when he leaves -- for child psychology, of all things -- and she’s prouder of him than she suspects she’d be of her own children.

Max . . . well, Gwen wins her bet, and he and Nikki more or less follow Neil to his college of choice. Max has always had the grades to get in anywhere, and Nikki is such a killer on the basketball court that she’s offered dozens of scholarships, and somehow their most destructive and obnoxious campers all end up at goddamn Yale of all places. It’s ridiculous, and insane . . . and makes perfect sense.

And then . . . it’s just her and David again. Their “kids” return every couple of months, of course, with a revolving door of others who pop in and out as they please, and with Campbell and the Quartermaster the place is never truly empty, but it takes time for them to get used to being the only ones in the tiny building that stopped being just “the counselors’ cabin” years ago. (Gwen mostly celebrates by walking around naked. David has zero complaints.) She knows it’s hard for David, who’s always preferred a room full of people to an empty one, but for her it’s a bit of a relief to have a space to herself again.

She loves the little shitheads, she really does. And she’s happy to know they’ll never be gone for too long, or too far away. What was supposed to be a couple months of convenience crashed headlong into responsibilities she wasn’t even remotely prepared for, but she knows how lucky she is. She wouldn’t trade her weird, fucked-up life for anything.

And . . . well, she has to admit: David was right about Camp Campbell. 

It really is the best place in the entire world.