Chapter 1: Gwen & Nurf
It starts when Gwen mentions that she doesn’t have anywhere to live after the summer, that she’ll have to move back in with her parents unless she finds something better.
(“And, like, anything better. This old guy in the park asked me if I wanted a sugar daddy and I was thinking about it.”)
When David suggests she stay at the camp year-round like he does, he fully expects she’ll turn him down. When she half-smiles and says that it’s better than any of her ideas, he thinks she’s kidding, chuckles numbly and looks back down at his phone.
When she doesn’t make any more plans to move out, he wonders if maybe she’d meant it.
When she starts peppering him with questions about the rest of the year, how he makes money and keeps himself busy and keeps the place from falling apart and keeps himself from freezing or starving to death, he realizes that she’s completely serious, that she’s serious about living here, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek raw to keep from grinning. Because when she says it’s better than nothing she means he’s better than nothing, that she prefers his company at the very least to that of her parents or of strangers and up until this moment he hadn’t ever considered that she might think he was better than literally anything.
So when she critiques his plans and makes her own, when she buys two rattling space heaters for the cabin and when she leaves for a whole weekend and returns with the rest of her life’s belongings in the back of the campmobile, David is quietly, glowingly happy.
(He is even more happy when she finally muscles past the mean little voices in her head and kisses him. They’re in the middle of Rowing Camp and they’re supposed to be watching the campers but they’re in a child-sized rowboat on the lake under blue sky and fluffy white clouds, and when she kisses him he almost forgets all of those things and nearly topples them both into the water.)
(He is even more happy when he realizes that kiss wasn’t a one-time fluke, but apparently a pattern, something to be repeated so many times he loses count.)
(And he’s the happiest he’s ever been -- quietly again, though, a warm gentle bubbling kind of happiness because he knows how defensive Gwen gets when she’s embarrassed -- when she finally admits that it’s not because she has no other options and it’s not because she’s bored, but because she just happens to like him better than either of them ever realized.)
So it begins.
The predictable doesn’t happen, and Max’s parents show up at the end of the summer to take him home. Both David and Gwen let out a sigh of relief, because the boy’s constant mutterings that they don’t care about him and wouldn’t bother to show up had been getting to them, and until he’s safely ensconced in the back of a ratty green two-door sedan they weren’t fully convinced Max wasn’t going to be left behind.
They spent so much time worrying about the predictable, however, that the unpredictable slips completely under their noses until the hours grow heavy and golden and damp, the threat of mosquitos looming as the air cools, and they look around and realize that something has gone wrong, and a camper has been left behind. It just isn’t the one they’d been prepared for.
Mr. Nurfington, an impatient female voice tells Gwen over the phone, hasn’t lived at this number for three weeks. He’s wanted for possession and resisting arrest -- what they might elevate to aggravated assault, the landlady adds, the coolness dropping from her tone as the conversation turns toward gossip, and Gwen should just hear what the police found in his trailer -- “but nobody’s heard a thing from him. His lease expires in two months and as soon as it does, I’m putting all his stuff on the lawn and the coons can have it.”
(Gwen sincerely hopes she means raccoons.) “Did he leave any contacts?”
Just his wife, who won’t be released for another sixteen months -- longer, if she keeps starting fights with the other inmates. There’s an uncle, Gwen knows, but a little digging reveals that he was sentenced to twenty years less than a decade ago, on charges that turn her stomach.
She sets down the phone and puts Nurf’s papers away, and tries to figure out how to explain all this to the two redheaded children sitting on the dock. Two very different versions, she decides, and calls David inside to give him something almost indistinguishable from the truth except that some of the more unsavory details are politely omitted, because at least one of them deserves to sleep that night and for some reason Gwen feels like David’s faith in the world ought to be protected.
Grimy and sweaty from the cabin’s closed-in air, she goes to the showers to wash away everything she’s just learned and leaves David to tell Nurf the version of the story they’ve agreed upon: that his father is gone, nobody is coming to pick him up, but it’s okay because they have a second bedroom in the cabin and this will surely be all better by tomorrow.
It isn’t, and only David is surprised.
It’s a good thing they have a bus, because the Sleepy Peak school transportation system won’t come pick Nurf up all the way at Camp Campbell. Of course, he flatly refuses to let QM drive him to school in a full-sized bus, which neither David or Gwen can really argue. Which leaves her with two options: either dropping Nurf off at school in the campmobile every morning before killing a half hour reading fanfiction on her phone before her job at Camp Corp begins, or driving the exhaust-belching, dangerously clanking bus to work and getting a few minutes of extra sleep.
She decides David is less likely to get himself killed with the bus than with Nurf, and resigns herself to a deeply uncomfortable morning commute.
The most surprising thing she learns on these quiet, sullen mornings is that Nurf is . . . a morning person. Not like David, of course -- no one is quite like David -- but he doesn’t drag his feet, is always sitting by the flagpole with his backpack (new, cheap like it’s made out of old tarp, all they could afford) between his feet when she staggers outside with a to-go cup of coffee and a fistful of David’s trail mix. Nurf doesn’t talk, but he’s attentive; he draws nonsense patterns in the dew on the Campmobile’s windows, and after a few weeks of this strange arrangement he’s comfortable enough to flip through the radio stations.
He likes classical music. David will tell her that he once asked to turn up the Farmer’s Almanac.
(Gwen confesses to David one night that she’s halfway convinced he’ll become a serial killer or something. It’s one of the few serious fights they’ve had, though less a fight than her sitting in shock-stone silence while he gets splutteringly, hand-wringingly angry at her. Tells her that she can’t ever say anything like that ever again -- can’t even think it -- that they’re counselors year-round now and that means never, ever giving up on their campers -- that if -- that as a child -- that he knows what it’s like to be a lost cause and Nurf will never feel like that as long as he’s at Camp Campbell, and that he needs her to be on board because this is hard and scary and he can’t do it alone. Even if their campers weren’t . . . such unique individuals, he would need her, and she can’t ever -- ever -- )
(He’s red-faced and shaking when he runs out of breath or out of words, she can’t tell which, and she tugs him half into her lap and kisses his temple and tells him that of course Nurf will be fine, they’ll all be fine, and she didn’t mean it and it’s okay. And she listens to his breathing even out and, not for the first time, she hates David’s father with every ounce of her being.)
So she trusts Nurf, for David’s sake. And she tries to understand him, for all of theirs.
The seasons will change one more time before she finds herself truly liking him, but she thinks maybe that’s just because neither of them are as good at trusting or understanding as David is.
The fall settles into a pattern of quiet cars and loud buses, of Summer Camp Extended -- which is how David likes to think of it, maybe needs to think of it, because the alternative is that he’s become a father of an aggressive boy the rest of the world forgot about -- where the activities are school for Nurf and work for himself, where the afternoons are spent trying to remember seventh-grade math, buying groceries, waiting for Gwen to come home from a job that demands much longer hours than it offers pay. Sometimes there are regular camp activities, too, when he can cajole Nurf into going for a hike or learning how to fish (though they can’t eat anything they catch in Lake Lilac; the fish there have been declared dangerously mutated).
He spends his mornings as a bouncer at Muffin Tops -- Bonquisha got him the job, and he knows that he looks wiry and weedy and not all that intimidating but the crowd is much calmer during the day than it will get as the evening rolls around, and he believes he can take care of himself if he needs to. (And he has to admit, he enjoys the funny looks his school bus gets when people cross the parking lot.) The customers are polite, if not especially chatty, his coworkers are friendly, the job is mostly standing outside and enjoying the fresh air. It suits him -- strange, unexpected, but surprisingly well-fitting.
David isn’t nearly as adept at metaphors as Gwen, but he thinks quite a few things in his new life could be described that way.
This is the first time he’s able to take just one part-time job, and let the rest of his hours go toward fixing up the camp, and so every patched-up set piece and wobbly table leg repaired he considers a gift from Gwen, who is answering phones and fetching coffee so that he can make Camp Campbell his own, not just legally but in spirit.
He decides that this will be a healing year, a fixing and replacing and making-things-new kind of year.
They all need a little bit of that, he believes.
David isn’t used to devoting this much attention to a single camper. (Not even Max, who has always been a special case.) It’s surprisingly difficult, this one-on-one closeness; he finds he much prefers the scatterbrained chaos of a room full of children. It suits the way he thinks, bouncing frenetic energy, instead of this careful plodding observation and cautious trial-and-error.
It would probably be different with almost any other camper, he has to admit. Nikki, for example -- she constantly needs to be moving, and he would be running to keep up. Harrison would probably be causing trouble, fires he would literally have to put out. Nerris, who can talk for hours at a time about the things that interest her. Preston swanning around the empty Mess Hall, always trying to find an audience.
Nurf, however, isn’t like the children who are sparkling firecrackers that dance and blaze until they get tired and fizzle out. Nor is he like the quieter campers, who still get bored and act out in ways they undoubtedly think are random but really are more like predictable bursts. But Nurf doesn’t seem to have much energy; he goes from school to homework to whatever little activity David can talk him into to bed without seeming depressed or bored. Gwen suggests that maybe Nurf would act out and bully the other campers because he was overwhelmed by the constant noise and activity, and after a week or two of helpless observation, he decides she must be right and leaves the kid to his own devices. Maybe he just really is quiet; it occurs to David that he only ever really noticed Nurf when he was causing problems, and it pains him that this realization comes just as he makes the decision to step back.
“Of course you ignored the well-behaved ones,” Gwen tells him one evening, curled up against his side with her cheek on his shoulder. “What are we supposed to do, let the Problem Trio destroy the camp while we try to get Ered to drop the ‘too cool to talk to anyone’ act?”
He knows she’s right, but it doesn’t make him feel any better about withdrawing. He throws himself further into camp rehabilitation instead, letting Nurf do homework and play on his phone (finally relinquished to him at the end of the summer) and do whatever else fills his afternoons, and tries to ignore the prickling panic that lingers at the back of his mind and tells him this is not okay, this is not how a Camp Campbell counselor should act.
The problem is, of course, that up until this fall it’s exactly how he’s always acted.
The other problem is that he and Gwen were wrong about the kind of person Nurf is; he isn’t a firecracker, no, and he’s not a Max-like schemer and instigator, a controlled burst of dynamite. But just because the tension bubbles under the surface doesn’t mean it’s not there, and eventually it has to boil over.
The tipping point appears to be David asking over the dinner table how his homework is going. He’s deemed it a nice, neutral topic of conversation, one that isn’t likely to veer into uncomfortable directions about his home life or the bizarre situation they’ve all found themselves in or what’s going to happen next. It’s safe and familiar ground, and whenever he’s grasping for something to talk about he returns to it gratefully, knowing it’ll never trigger a landmine.
Until it does.
“Sure, let’s just talk about homework,” he snaps, the hint of his slight damp lisp becoming more pronounced with irritation -- not that anyone would dare point it out to him. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Is my homework done? Do I need help with my homework? How was school, and what kind of homework did you get?” He slams his hands down on the table, making the dishes (and Gwen and David) jump. “Do you even consider the psychological ramifications of making an impressionable child feel like they are nothing but the sum of their academic achievements? And I am impressionable!” he adds, shoving his chair back and standing up; David notices for the first time that he’s grown a bit over the summer, enough to almost loom over them while they’re still seated. “I’m still just a kid, you know!”
He swallows, trying to find the right words (and keeping a careful eye on their silverware). “Well, of course you are, Nurf,” he begins carefully, with the distinct impression that he’s feeling his way through waist-deep water in the dark. “But it’s our job to make sure that you’re . . .”
How does he finish that sentence? ‘Okay?’ ‘Happy?’ ‘Safe?’ He’s not sure Nurf is any of those things, and the thought of being responsible for them makes his stomach coil and his fingers shake.
“That you’re engaging in an activity,” Gwen cuts in smoothly, placing her hand over David’s underneath the table. Her touch and the last-minute rescue both hit him like a lifeline. “Since camp isn’t in session, school is kinda your activity.”
Something flickers in Nurf’s expression, doubt cutting through the increasing red-faced belligerence, and David thanks whatever higher power might be out there for Gwen. She’s always understood the more difficult campers better than he does; it must be the Psychology degr --
Clouds roll in dark and heavy behind his eyes. “Why does everybody sign me up for activities I don’t want?” He picks up a napkin and began shredding it -- David wonders if he picked it up from Gwen, or if he’s always had that nervous habit. “I never asked to go to school, you know! My mom never went to school, and she’s only suffering from a lifetime of consequences made from bad decisions that she didn’t have the education or emotional framework to prevent!” He tosses the shreds of napkin to the table, the three of them watching in silence as the uneven confetti flutters over their food. “Everyone does that!”
“Well, that’s not . . .” David glances at Gwen, who shrugs. He felt less helpless when Nurf was throwing knives at him. “You have to,” he finishes weakly. “It’s good for you. And I thought you liked . . .” He wracks his brain desperately for scraps of what limited conversation they’ve had on their afternoon drives home from school, “history?”
“Ugh!” Nurf whirls around and pulls back his arm, then launches his water glass into the wall. It doesn’t break -- David bought shatterproof dishes for the camp long before any of his current campers started coming here -- but the sound is massive in the silent room. We should’ve had him sign up for Baseball Camp, David thinks wearily, watching the water drip down the uneven wood surface. “Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to not have the vocabulary sophisticated enough to express what you’re feeling?!”
David rarely considers himself helpless, but as Nurf reaches for his mostly-uneaten plate, face still dark with bottled-up impotent fury, he feels like he’s been attacked by Daniel again, limbs as weak and useless as if they were tied to his chair. “I . . . think you have a great vocabulary,” he begins, taking the first steps into this sentence without having any idea where the end of it is. But his instinct is always for positivity, and it’s true that Nurf’s intelligence impresses him; he may have taken for granted, in some ways, that this is the one camper who he can always rely on to be direct, his words and his fists both brutally honest. “Usually I just say I’m mad.”
“I AM mad!” he shouts, but he drops the plate to the table instead of throwing it. His voice is loud enough to blow Gwen and David’s hair back like a strong wind, and they’re both too surprised to even wipe off the bits of potato that flew up into their faces from the plate’s hard landing. “I’m mad because you don’t know what to do with me, and the state doesn’t know what to do with me, and it’s the end of summer but I’m still at camp because nobody knows what they’re supposed to do with me, which is the exact reason why I ended up in Boot Camp in the first place, and all I can do is do homework until someone decides what’s going to happen to me and I don’t know why everything is this hard!”
His arms drop to his sides and his shoulders slump, eyes widening and staring blankly into a spot above their heads.
“Wow,” he says after a moment. “That’s a lot of dark stuff for a twelve-year-old.”
The Quartermaster pokes his head into the Mess Hall. “Anyone died out here?”
“No, QM,” Gwen says, giving David a sideways glance before grabbing the butter, reaching over Nurf’s plate like it wasn’t sitting in a mess of food in the middle of the table, “we’re good out here.”
The Quartermaster grunts and disappears back into the kitchen, where an unsettling grinding noise David can’t quite place begins.
Nurf picks up his plate and sets it back in its place, stealing David’s napkin and settling it over the spilled food left behind. “I should, uh, clean up everything, shouldn’t I?”
“After dinner,” David replies, keeping his voice as calm and unaffected as possible. “You should finish eating before it gets cold.” As he sits back down and reaches for his fork, he continues, “If I help you get the Mess Hall back in shape, Nurf, do you think you’d be able to give me a hand with the canoes? I’m trying to get them ready for one last trip before the lake freezes.”
“Is this a punishment because I threw things?”
“Absolutely not.” David feels like he’s walking on a very narrow bridge, with horrible drops to either side but something warm and potentially wonderful on the other end. “You don’t have to say yes.”
Gwen, still keeping her gaze on buttering her roll, mutters, “You could always do homework instead.”
David freezes, giving her a look because what on earth does she think she’s doing? But then Nurf lets out a small, barking huff of laughter, and the evening settles back on its axis almost tangibly, a kind of metaphysical thump that he thinks they all feel, because in an instant the air is lighter than it's been since the end of the summer.
“For what it’s worth,” Gwen says after a few minutes, “even if it’s hard, I think you’re better at handling your feelings than you think you are.” Her eyes flick over to the empty glass and the water stain on the wall. “But maybe we should also buy you a punching bag over the weekend.”
“He needs a shrink,” Gwen declares later that night, then flops back onto the bed, covering her eyes with her arms. “We can’t afford a shrink.”
David is quiet for a moment. “I could . . . get another job,” he offers finally, the waves of reluctance rolling off of him, and she flaps her hand in his direction dismissively.
“No, shut up. This is your dream. Stop being stupid.”
He catches her arm, fingers closing gently around her wrist, and kisses her knuckles. “Thank you,” he says, not even pretending to argue. “I love you.”
She rolls onto her side to face him, feeling her face heat up. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters. “I know.”
(She’s not sure why being told she’s loved embarrasses her. She’s even less sure why it’s so difficult to say it back. Her degree could not be any more useless.)
David bundles her up in his long arms, pulling her to his chest and rolling onto his back so she’s sprawled on top of him. He kisses her nose, beaming. “It’s okay, Gwen.”
She buries her face in his chest and lets him pet her hair, lets herself be loved.
(By the time she finally gets the courage to tell him that of course she loves him -- has, in fact, been in love with him since before he offered to let her live at the camp year-round -- almost all the leaves have fallen and the air is ice-breath freezing and he laughs, not at her but with the kind of giddy joy that can’t be contained in a smile. He kisses her and wraps her in his coat and it gets dark and Nurf yells that it’s time for dinner before they’re willing to pull away enough to escape the bitter chill.)
He gets therapy, eventually. Mr. Campbell still has all that money tucked away, and when the Millers hear that he wants to put it toward bettering himself and learning from his mistakes, they’re more than willing to unfreeze his bank accounts, just this once. So when David takes Nurf to the small white-bricked building where his own infrequent therapy sessions are held, he brings Mr. Campbell along for the ride. It settles his nerves about lying, because it isn’t technically a lie; Mr. Campbell is going to counseling, he’s just not using it.
When Mr. Campbell came forward one evening and offered the idea, David was shocked by the generosity, and a little suspicious. As soon as he smoothly suggested that they kill time at, say, The Only Bar or Muffin Tops while the little tyke was in there getting his head straightened out, things became a lot clearer.
(He didn’t spend long thinking it over, though. At the end of the day, an hour a week in a darkly-lit bar or strip club isn’t much of a sacrifice.)
On non-therapy days, David continues fixing up the camp, making sure to go out of his way to ask Nurf if he wants to help.
And to his surprise he . . . does, more often than not. Even more surprising is the fact that he’s rather good at this kind of hands-on work. He’s a tinkerer, like David is, and understanding blooms warm in his chest as the camper-who-isn’t-really-a-camper-anymore settles himself among the detritus of the camp unprompted, sorting through broken and disorganized supplies with a touch that’s strangely delicate, like he’s used to accidentally -- or not-so-accidentally -- breaking things.
Nothing gets broken that autumn, though. And no dishes hit the wall, either.
(When he mentions all this to Gwen, she shrugs and says, “Sure, makes sense. He liked to help Preston and Dolph out with their theater shit sometimes, right?” and again he feels like a terrible counselor.)
It’s largely David’s responsibility to take care of Nurf, which he expected and doesn’t mind. Gwen works full-time, after all, and she has always been a bit hands-off around the campers; she’s . . . not exactly maternal, and the unusualness of their new situation makes her far more uncomfortable than him. Her support largely comes in the form of common sense, observations he’d completely miss and ideas that never occur to him. Though she has a wonderful heart, Gwen is all brain. It works well -- David isn’t all that brainy, but he’s better at throwing his heart utterly into something.
So he does, with the kind of squared-jaw hopeful determination that leaves him exhausted and unable to sleep each night, his brain running over and over with thoughts and hopes and fears and ideas, above all ideas that multiply and branch until they’re full-scale plans. Plans full of holes, plans perhaps doomed to fail, but that’s what Gwen is for, when he’s finally ready to share his plans. When the heart has hung up activities and topics of conversation and a thousand ways to get Nurf to open up, scaffolded with lunatic, reckless optimism, she listens and writes in her journal and shores up the weak spots, tugs down his excitement so that his hopes don’t rise so tall they’ll collapse in on themselves.
She’s the rope around his ankles that makes sure he won’t build something he can’t get down from, so he doesn’t have to worry about anything except building.
And what does building look like with Nurf?
Quiet, at first. For someone who can so eloquently describe his issues, he isn’t really very chatty, and most of the time they work on their respective projects in silence. (One of David’s plans, tentatively titled Get Nurf to Share More About His Day, gradually deflates under the realization that he just doesn’t like talking about his day, and pushing him to share about classes or friends is more likely than not to result in him shutting down -- or throwing something. He puts it aside for now.)
Other plans are more successful. Teach Valuable Real-Life Skills is one; he picks up on things like carpentry and plumbing with an adeptness that exceeds even David’s most extravagant hopes, and soon he’s scrambling to find more things that tap into that well of enthusiasm. Sports, Violent Video Game Nights (which Gwen largely participates in because David is a bit squeamish about such things), Hiking and Mountaineering that are so much easier with only one or two people to corral instead of a dozen, and he’s already making plans for winter: skiing and snowshoeing and maybe even snowball fights, if he can teach Nurf how to do so without getting anyone hurt.
Learn Nurf’s Languages is a trickier plan, constantly ongoing. The slight slump of his shoulders that means something went badly in school, and the way he either does or doesn’t want to talk about it based on how fidgety he is. The jutted-out jaw and sullen silence that means he’s stumped and doesn’t want to admit it, the habit of clenching and unclenching his fists when he’s trying not to get angry. The little questions and observations that seem to come out of nowhere -- “Is there enough wood for the winter?” “I think the draft is coming from QM’s store; there’s a hole near the foundation” “When will you find out who’s coming back this summer?” -- that all add up to the same thing: a kid who’s trying to figure out what their future is going to look like, and if he’ll be in it.
Whenever he’s particularly helpful, uncharacteristically so, David takes a few extra hours that day to do something fun. He doesn’t know how long any of this is going to hold together, but he wants Nurf to know in no uncertain terms that for as long as it’s his and Gwen’s decision, that answer is going to be yes.
Chapter 2: Harrison
CW: Some minor body horror
Harrison appears in the middle of dinner. Literally.
One moment Gwen’s debating Nurf about the finer details of the true-crime documentary they’ve been watching on her parents’ stolen Netflix account --
“Holy Jesus farts!”
“Oh my gosh, oh my god what is that --”
-- the next the room is filled with screaming, knocking-over-chairs-to-get-away-from-the-table pandemonium..
Quartermaster, somehow, is the one who recovers first. He’s not even in the room; the door to the Mess Hall bangs open -- a rush of icy air, screams starting anew at the sudden noise and the terrifying silhouette of a hooked figure in the doorway -- and he stumps his way in. He bysteps David, who fell backward at some point in the last twenty seconds and has just managed to get to his knees -- Nurf, holding his plate up like a shield, ignoring the sauce dripping down it onto the clump of spaghetti that covers his shoes -- and finally Gwen, who’s somehow still at her seat, sitting and staring at the middle of the table and the apparition that appeared on it -- and scoops Harrison up by his collar, holding him with his toes brushing the floor and the back of his shirt impaled on QM’s hook.
Quartermaster grunts. “Child’s here.”
She manages to find her voice somewhere in the airtight tangle of her vocal chords. “Yeah. Huh.”
“‘S’not the usual one.” He jabs his hook, Harrison dangling from it like a large Christmas ornament, in Nurf’s direction.
“No, that’s . . . Harrison. He was here last summer.” Despite everything, Gwen feels strangely calm. “You can put him down now, QM. Thanks.”
He grunts once more, inclining his head slightly toward her, and dumps Harrison onto the floor. He shuffles out without another word -- though no one really notices, not when their attention is so thoroughly arrested on the former camper, who pulls his knees up to his chest and buries his wet face in them. Startled silent by the Quartermaster (who has that effect on people), Harrison begins crying again, huge barking sobs that were drowned out by their screaming at first but are thunderously loud now that the room has gone silent.
Gwen realizes one hand is holding a wand.
The other is holding an arm.
David steps closer to Harrison, kneeling down after a moment and touching the boy’s shoulder with one shaky hand. “Um, h-hey, buddy --”
Harrison jolts from the contact like it’s a cattle prod, curling in tighter around himself with a damp gasp and shaking his head violently.
“I didn’t mean to -- I just wanted -- he was --”
Nurf moves until he’s standing next to Gwen. “He’s in shock,” he says, with the unflappable confidence of a kid. Lowering his voice so only she can hear, he mutters, “You’re supposed to slap someone when they’re in shock.”
“Don’t even think about it,” she whispers back, putting one hand between his meaty shoulder blades. It grounds her, makes everything seem a little less surreal. “Go get a blanket from the supply room.”
Nurf shrugs but looks thoughtful. “Guess that works, too.” As he heads off toward the back of the building, he adds quietly, “Probably not as well though.”
“It’s okay,” David’s murmuring. He tugs gently on Harrison’s shoulder, pulling him into an awkward half-hug and petting his hair. “It’s okay, shh, it’s okay . . .”
“I just wanted to bring him back for Christmas,” Harrison manages. The words sound like they’re choking him.
Unsure what else to do, Gwen starts cleaning up what’s left of dinner.
It takes a while to coax Harrison into a state calm enough to talk. He stops crying after they get him wrapped up in one of David’s knitted blankets, tucked in so thoroughly that only his head sticks out of the lumpy wool, but he’s pale and silent. He fought hard when they tried to take the arm, so it’s sitting on his knees like a sword.
(David pulls Gwen aside, vibrating with barely-controlled panic, and whispers that it’s not a mannequin arm, it’s bloodless and cold but it’s skin real skin and oh golly Gwen he felt hair on it -- )
(She tells him to go get another blanket, because she doesn’t know what to do with anyone and it’s either blankets or slapping and she wants to set a good example for the kids.)
Her kids, temporarily.
Her weird, violent, dismembered-arm-holding kids.
This is without a doubt the strangest year of her life.
She turns on the TV, partly to distract Nurf -- who’s been staring at Harrison with unabashed curiosity since everyone stopped screaming -- and partly just to have something to cut through the silence. When David returns laden with so many blankets that half of them are trailing on the ground, cold and soggy from their snowy trip from the Mess Hall, she tells him to hang the wet ones up to dry and goes into their bedroom.
There, sitting on her bed with David’s handwritten address book balanced on one knee and Woody, his dumb stuffed log, in her lap, Gwen dials the number for the Willis household -- one she rarely has to reach out to, because as much trouble as Harrison causes it’s rarely something a fire extinguisher and a stern talking-to (David’s words) can’t fix.
He’s a good kid.
Dangerous -- perhaps she didn’t realize how dangerous until he Apparated onto their dining room table with a severed limb -- but a good kid nonetheless.
His mother sounds tired and a bit harried when she answers, but not frantic. “He’s where?” she asks, when Gwen explains the situation (minus the arm and hysterical crying parts). “He said he was . . . when he practices his -- gifts we usually . . .” Her voice pulls away from the phone. “Claude, can you check on Harrison? He’s out back.”
He isn’t, Gwen thinks, but she keeps her mouth shut. She’s always on eggshells with Harrison’s parents; they both seem so fragile, and it feels like any wrong word could cause a meltdown.
She waits through a few minutes of quiet, then a quick, muffled conversation. Finally Mrs. Willis (Carol, reads David’s jagged handwriting in the address book) returns to the phone. “You say he’s there? Is he safe?”
“Uh . . . yeah. Sure.” Physically speaking.
“Can I talk to him?”
She glances at the closed bedroom door, gnawing on her lip. “Maybe not right now?” she says awkwardly. “He’s really tired from the, you know, journey.”
“I see.” There’s something heavy in her voice, a kind of knowing that sits like a weight on Gwen’s chest. “But he’s really all right?”
She decides she’s going to double down on the lying, though she’s not sure who she’s protecting. “Oh, definitely. Fit as a fiddle, or . . . something.”
“And you’ll have him call me as soon as he’s feeling better?” The earnestness in her tone is oddly touching.
She mentally prepares herself for signoff -- and for dealing with whatever’s waiting for her in the other room -- when Carol speaks again, almost too quietly for Gwen to catch. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
“Huh? What was that?”
“He seems so happy there. Like he can be himself without . . .” She sighs, and there’s a world of misery in it, a story Gwen can barely begin to guess at. “Maybe things would be better if he . . . Never mind. Please have him call.”
Gwen hangs up the phone, wondering if she just witnessed something profound, something that looking back will seem like a turning point.
“Don’t be stupid,” she mutters, climbing out of bed. At the last minute she grabs Woody and brings it into the living room with her.
David somehow managed to get both Nurf and himself into blankets, and the three of them sit facing the TV in a neat row on the couch. The light from the screen washes out their faces, making them look like ghosts wrapped up like burritos -- or in straitjackets. She sets Woody on David’s lap and takes a seat in an adjacent chair. David’s arms are bound too tight to pick up the log, but he beams at Gwen and then smiles down at it, wiggling slightly to get it more securely settled in his lap.
Nurf’s eyes dart from the TV to Gwen, an obvious question in them. She shakes her head slightly; Harrison hasn’t looked away from the television -- though she suspects he’s not actually watching it -- but his posture went stiff and still once she entered the room.
She clears her throat uncomfortably. “So, uh. I talked to your mom.”
Harrison flinches, his eyes dropping from the direction of the TV to his feet.
“She wants you to call when you’re up to it.”
He nods at the floor, his shoulders drooping.
“There’s no rush,” she adds, surprising herself -- because if there’s one thing they don’t need and she certainly doesn’t want, it’s another kid to deal with in her off-season. But Harrison looks like he’s wilting under the pressure of something she can’t fathom, and apparently David’s softened her, because she can’t help but think the Willises could all use a break. She leans forward and reaches out toward the arm, drawing back before Harrison can worry she’s taking it away from him (or she has to touch that apparently-real skin). “But we should also probably talk about that.”
His gaze flicks up to hers suddenly, anguish she’s scared she could drown in. “It was gonna be a Christmas present,” he whispers, his voice barely cutting through the soft fuzz of the TV. “I thought Mom and Dad . . . and after everything I’ve learned here, I thought . . .” He looks down at the arm and his voice wavers. “I just wanted to bring him back.”
Tears drop on the pale, dead limb.
“This was all I got.”
“You should think of it as good news,” David says the next afternoon. They’re in the food court of Sleepy Peak Mall, hunched over lukewarm Chinese. As holiday shoppers stream past, parting around their small island of a bolted-down table and the small pile of shopping bags at their feet, he and Harrison could be in their own little world. “Your powers are getting so much better!”
He doesn’t add that he’s sure Harrison will be able to summon the rest of his little brother in no time. Even he isn’t quite optimistic enough to try and encourage something so dangerous.
After a conversation with his parents, it is quietly agreed that it would be for the best if Harrison spends the rest of the school year at the camp. David watches the panic grow in Gwen’s eyes at the thought of their little family growing, and throws himself into preparations, reassuring them both that this will be easy and fun. He doesn’t even let her take the day off work, shooing her out the door like any other morning. He knows she’ll be more comfortable somewhere familiar and grown-up, and he has the day off, so he’ll be just fine! (Nurf isn’t thrilled about suddenly having to share the other counselors’ bedroom, but he surprisingly doesn’t complain -- just shoves all of his things to one side of the room and reminds David that they’re keeping the spare cots in the supply shed, and to check for bugs and mice before bringing it in. David has to blink and look away to keep from tearing up with pride.)
A quick shopping trip for clothes and supplies, and David’s feeling like he has quite the handle on things.
(If his heart rate has been a little high all morning and he can’t stop his leg from bouncing, that’s just the excitement. Certainly he has nothing to be anxious about!)
It’s only been a few hours but he’s already reworking his Nurf Plans, altering them for Harrison and developing new ones that more closely fit the boy’s personality. Harrison is much more talkative than Nurf, even now, and David finds that a few well-placed questions and words of praise perk him up whenever he starts looking gloomy. He’s a very open person in a way that Nurf isn’t -- eager to please and even more so to talk about magic (illusions, right. He has to remember they’re called illusions ). Even when there’s tension crackling at the edges of the conversation, landmines that David does his darn best to step widely around, there’s still conversation and that’s a world of difference from the first weeks, let alone days, with his other year-round camper.
Now, though, with shopping done and nothing but a few minutes’ worth of orange chicken in front of them, he can’t stop Harrison from worrying at the thought that’s been stuck at the front of his mind all day. “He doesn’t have an arm anymore,” he mumbles, prodding at his food with the wrong end of a chopstick. “Wherever Dyl is, he’s missing an arm and it’s my fault. Nurf says people can die from losing an arm.”
David sighs. He’ll have to have a stern talking-to with Nurf about when thoughts should be kept on the inside instead of spoken out loud. “Oh, I’m sure he’s all right!” he replies, looking down at his chicken. Queasiness lurches his stomach and he quickly returns his gaze to Harrison’s downcast face. “That’s usually from . . . well, from blood loss, and there wasn’t any! I’ll bet Dylan is right as rain.”
Harrison just shrugs and takes a reluctant bite, and they finish their food in silence.
It isn’t until they’re driving back home that it occurs to him that he overlooked something important. “Hey, Harrison?” he says, glancing away from the road to put an uncertain hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault, bud. Whatever happens.”
He doesn’t say anything back, but the quiet between them feels a little bit lighter.
They can’t depend on Campbell for any more shrink money -- the Millers already think he’s seeing a counselor, and it’d be hard to explain why he’d need two -- but Harrison’s parents are surprisingly generous. “We had him speak to someone after Dy -- after his brother . . . after the incident,” his mother says over the phone, “but he always seems so confident, when he said he didn’t need to go anymore we believed him.”
Harrison is confident, especially that he doesn’t need therapy. Once the check comes in the mail, Gwen sets up an appointment, and he spends the entire week before arguing that there’s nothing wrong with him except that he needs to control his illusions, and if they really wanted to help him they would sign him up for some real magic classes.
Gwen snaps back that it’s not like there’s a fucking Hogwarts to send him to and they’re doing the best they can, and he backs off immediately -- not apologizing, but going quiet and shrinking like a bad dog. After that they don’t bring up the subject again, and he goes with Nurf to counseling without an argument.
Does it help? It must.
Or maybe time just works its own form of magic.
Because by the time the grass begins to peek through the gray-dirty snow, Harrison is like he was at camp: arrogant, a showoff, unshakably confident in his own excellence yet also needy for attention and validation. He surprises both counselors (and delights David) by being snuggly; he’s self-conscious like any other preteen boy, especially when Nurf is around to make fun of him, but he sits too close on the couch and instinctively hugs them goodnight.
(One evening Gwen returns to the cabin to find Harrison sleeping on Nurf’s shoulder while the older boy plays on his phone. He gives her a challenging look -- not quite angry, but a fierce “what of it?” that chases the smile from her face until she’s safely out of view.
Later that evening he gives Harrison a wedgie and David worries that they’re not getting along.
She tells him they’re getting along as well as brothers can be expected to.)
The money continues arriving, more or less on a monthly basis. Each check is bundled with a letter, usually from Harrison’s father -- “He expresses his feelings better in writing,” Carol Willis explains to Gwen and David, in phone calls that begin daily, then gradually become less frequent until by the time Harrison is in high school he only speaks to his mother once or twice a year.
But in all that time the checks keep coming like clockwork, and so do the letters.
Neither of them know what the letters say; Harrison’s usual chattiness dries up when it comes to his family, and they’ve made it a point to respect their campers’ privacy. Although once when David is rummaging around the boys’ room for their most recent report cards -- he’s making a gold-star system for the new quarter, and he wants to set reasonable-but-optimistic expectations for each of them -- he finds the last page of a letter. He doesn’t deliberately read any of it but his eyes snag on the last line like a fishhook:
“I want you to remember it’s okay, Harrison. It’s not your fault.”
He sets it aside and resumes his search, finding another letter at the bottom of a pile of drawings (costume designs for Harrison the Magnificent). And at the bottom, the same final words.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
A bookmark in one of his comic books:
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
Fallen behind his dresser. Under his bed. Crammed into his backpack.
“It’s not your fault.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It’s not your fault.”
By the time he finds the report card he can barely read it, the letters swimming and blurring together. He wipes his eyes with his sleeve and quickly abandons the room, holding the slightly-crumpled paper to his chest.
He wonders how many times a child can be told something’s not their fault before they become convinced it must be.
As Harrison’s collection of letters grows, so does his comfort with the new situation. Gwen notices her book collection being slightly rearranged -- things keep disappearing, and when she finds them again she swears they’re never in the place she left them -- but it isn’t until Quartermaster knocks on her door one evening, Harrison dangling by the collar from his hook, that she realizes just how bored the kid is. He and Nurf can use Gwen’s laptop for homework when the ancient camp computer breaks down, but otherwise that creaking old machine is his only non-school connection to the outside world; and he doesn’t take to the camp like Nurf does, listlessly exploring the empty stations and the surrounding woods but never able to entertain himself with it for more than an hour. He helps David out with repairs when asked, but he also tries to speed things up with magic (with results ranging from “kinda cool” to devastating).
Then QM interrupts -- well, it doesn’t matter what he interrupts but suffice it to say, David is incredibly embarrassed and Gwen is not in the mood for any bullshit -- to deliver Harrison back into their care. It takes a few minutes (that she’s still very much not in the mood for) to wheedle out of him that he’d been “looking for supplies” in the Quartermaster’s Store, and a few more to get him to admit that he’d just been curious, and bored, and looking for something to read.
The next morning she borrows the campmobile to get their strange little family a library card, and comes home with the backseat full of magic-related books, children’s fiction, and anything else that seemed like it might appeal to a ten-year-old boy with a tendency to accidentally blow things up.
To her surprise, all three of her housemates divvy up the books with enthusiasm. She’s also surprised when Nurf and Harrison nearly come to blows/firefight over the biography of Richard Potter, and even more so when it abruptly ends because The Hobbit catches Nurf’s attention. (She is not even remotely shocked when David uses the kids’ argument to snatch up a couple sappy-looking children’s novels. Or when he spends the next several minutes deliberately avoiding eye contact once he realizes she saw him.)
There are a lot of almost-fights as the boys get used to sharing a living space. Gwen would never in a million years have put Harrison and Nurf in the same tent -- if she could, she’d put them in separate campgrounds -- but now that they’re stuck sharing a room, she and David are always on-call to referee, break up fights, and patch up physical and emotional injuries. The first few weeks are a constant backdrop of yelling children.
Gwen looks into the cost of getting her tubes tied more than once. (She can’t afford it.)
Then one evening Harrison’s moping dramatically in their small living room, draped across the back of Gwen’s chair as he wonders aloud (again) why Nerris doesn’t seem to like him. Without looking away from The Fellowship of the Ring, Nurf says, “She feels threatened that you can do tangible magic, and the way you’re always showing it off makes things worse. It makes her feel ineffectual as a high elf magic user.”
Harrison lifts his head, scrambling to keep his hat in place. “Really? Did she say that?”
Nurf does glance up then, fixing Harrison with an incredulous glare (David insists he picked it up from Gwen). “No, fart-face. I have keen observational skills, which you should seriously consider developing.”
“Be nice!” David calls, looking up from the beaker he’s whittling to frown at them. Nurf scowls and returns to reading, his finger slowly moving across the page.
After a few minutes of silence, Harrison sidles over to the couch, perching next to Nurf’s feet like he’s worried about being kicked (which isn’t an irrational fear). “So,” he mumbles, shooting him a sideways glance before exaggeratedly inspecting his fingernails, “you can just . . . tell things about people? By looking at them?”
Nurf doesn’t respond, though his finger stops moving and his scowl deepens.
“Can you teach me?”
“You’re self-absorbed, Harrison. It probably won’t work.” He sighs heavily. “But my therapist says it’s good to be helpful instead of always resorting to violence, so . . . yeah. Fine.”
Suddenly his leg shoots out, kicking Harrison in the thigh and knocking him from the couch with a yelp.
“What was that for?” Harrison demanded, climbing to his feet and rubbing his leg.
Nurf shrugged, returning to his book. “You can’t expect me to improve all in one day. I’m just a kid.”
Summer rolls around again. David, after a few conversations Gwen’s surprised to find Nurf takes seriously, takes it upon himself to sign Nurf up for two camps: Football and Carpentry, one of the handful of new activities they’re trying out. Harrison remains in Magic Camp, which he never really needed an official “camp” for anyway; he so far outstrips Gwen and David in terms of talent that they can’t look up anything online or in a book that he couldn’t, so they leave him, like last summer and the rest of the year, to teach himself. He can now summon water as well as fire, which makes both counselors much less worried about leaving him to practice alone, and is very excited about something called “transmutation.” (He’s tried to explain it to both of them several times, but they still don’t really understand what it means.)
He hasn’t mentioned anything about trying to summon his brother again. They haven’t asked.
Most of the campers, to their surprise, return. Neil returns complaining about Science Camp (though he begrudgingly admits that the conditions are somewhat less dangerous than last year). Ered returns despite what the Millers assure David and Gwen are “very serious misgivings about the state of the camp,” and with the understanding that they will be under very close federal inspection. Nikki returns and immediately tries to pee on the flagpole to “mark her place,” and Space Kid, just like last year, falls trying to climb off the bus and gets his helmet coated in mud.
Max returns, too. David has been fluttering with nervous anxiety ever since they received his camp application form, but his most challenging camper greets him like no time has passed, responding to his “Welcome back to Camp Campbell!” with rolled eyes and a tired “suck a dick, David” before immediately seeking out Nikki and Neil.
(David tries not to get emotional when Nikki sweeps the other two up in enthusiastic hugs. He fails, and quickly turns his attention to helping Nerris untangle her cape from the bushes to recover himself before Max can notice.)
It feels just as endless as it always does, and just like always, it ends far too soon.
The predictable does happen, and Max’s parents don’t pick him up at the end of the summer.
Max scowls in the corner of the Mess Hall, glaring out the window and pretending to ignore Harrison and Nurf as they also very clearly don’t show any signs of leaving. He knows, just like the rest of the campers, that these two live with Gwen and David full-time, but it must be a little unreal to watch them unpack their tents and transfer their belongings to their bedroom (David was firm on that; as campers, the two boys had to actually be campers, which meant the counselors had the cabin to themselves for the summer).
There are four phone numbers squished onto the application form as emergency contacts. One of them goes straight to voicemail, and the other three lead to retail stores that impatiently tell Gwen that yes, there is someone named Sahni who works there, but no, they’re not in right now; they took the day off to pick their son up from summer camp, and aren’t expected in until tomorrow.
The first number continues to lead nowhere.
“They’re not coming,” Max mutters when Gwen returns once again with no news. Despite his usual pessimism, there’s something like shock beneath his tone, because even the predictable can be unexpected. “I told you they don’t care.”
David looks at her helplessly, and she returns to the back room to try calling again.
Sal comes by around midnight, looking haggard and drawn. In his hand is a flip phone with a cracked screen and a dead battery.
There’s been an accident. An unexpected snowstorm that just missed Sleepy Peak caused a handful of accidents up and down the highway.
Max doesn’t say anything. He just looks down at the phone, and after a moment asks if they have the charger.
(Gwen goes back into the supply room in search of blankets. She’s not sure what else to do.)
When she comes back Sal is still sitting next to Max, carefully walking him through a series of questions. David is perched on Max’s other side, trying to keep still even though he’s fluttery with nervous energy; he keeps almost touching Max’s shoulder, pausing, and then settling his hands back in his lap, twisting his fingers together and trying not to bounce his legs. Gwen drapes a blanket over his shoulders and he smiles up at her with heartbreaking gratitude, wrapping it close -- the air is a little chilly from the just-missed storm -- and fiddling with the loose threads.
Unsure how to approach Max, she just stands there with the blanket until he and Sal look up at her, then drops it in his lap and hurries across the room to blanket Harrison and Nurf. She’s surprised to find their presence comforting, and sits between them as Sal continues with David and Max.
He has no other family, they find out; apparently his grandparents were going to come over when the Sahnis had raised enough money, but no one lives stateside and Max tells Sal that he’s never met any of his Indian relatives. “So are orphanages, like, a thing, or am I gonna go into a foster home or something?” he asks matter-of-factly, his tone betraying nothing but mild annoyance.
David gives her a pleading look, and she knows immediately where Max is going to end up. She starts trying to figure out where they’ll get another bed, and how it will possibly fit in their small second bedroom.
“Bunk beds,” Nurf mutters, making her jump. “David and I were talking about it to make more space in our room. I think I know how to make ‘em.”
“I’ve figured out how to create a pocket dimension,” Harrison adds in a too-loud whisper, leaning toward them. “I’ve been using it as a closet. I bet I could show Nurf and Max how to get things out of it!”
She glances between them, raising her eyebrows. “You guys would be cool with that?” She isn’t sure she’s comfortable with adding another person to their yearlong camp of four.
Nurf shrugs. “It’s gonna happen. You know how David gets.”
“You did it for us,” Harrison says, almost at the same time and nearly too soft to hear.
Gwen doesn’t know how to reply, so she tightens the blankets around the boys’ shoulders and tugs them closer.
“It’s not the best,” Gwen says, poking at a spring in the couch cushions until it disappears from view, “but we can bring a cot in when we pack up all the tents tomorrow.”
Max flops down onto the couch without looking up from the charging phone. “Neil and Nikki are in here,” he says, scrolling through the contact lists. “I never got to use it, but since it’s mine now . . .” He’s quiet for a second, tapping out a text message with a skill that impresses David, considering how Max probably hadn’t even been born when that phone was made. Afterwards he looks up, seeming surprised that they hadn’t left. “Well?”
David clears his throat, glancing over at Gwen. She’s usually so much better at these kinds of things. “Um, well . . .”
“It’s two in the morning,” she cuts in, tossing Max a flashlight. “Tomorrow’s gonna be a big fucking day, so if I don’t go to bed right now I’ll be useless. You know where we are if you need us.”
Her fingers close around David’s upper arm, tugging him back a few steps. He frowns at her, trying to resist without looking to Max like they were fighting. How could she expect him to abandon a camper, especially one who is so obviously grieving and --
“We’re just down the hall,” she says, slowly and deliberately without looking away from David’s eyes. “But since it’s way past bedtime, we’re gonna leave you alone for now.” Max doesn’t reply, and after a few seconds of internal struggle, David lets her pull him back to their room. “You did good,” she murmurs once the door closes, pressing a soft kiss to his shoulder before pulling away to change into pajamas.
He glances over his shoulder, wishing he could see through the wall to where Max is hopefully falling asleep on the couch. “Are you sure? I don’t know if he should be alone --”
“I think he needs to be, David.” She takes his hands in hers, pulling him around to face her. “You know how you always want me to tell you when you’re pushing too hard? Because you’re doing that.”
Well, sure he said that, and he does appreciate her input, but obviously circumstances are far from normal, and so the protocol should be reconsidered . . .
“Don’t push,” she says, standing up on her toes to kiss his forehead. “He doesn’t need us hovering over him.”
After another moment of indecision, he sighs and gets ready for bed.
He doesn’t sleep much at all that night, but Gwen is warm against his chest and her hair dries the tears from his face, and he’s able to think that eventually, someday, things are going to be all right.
For a few weeks it feels like walking on jello. Max refuses to talk about what happened, and in fact doesn’t act like the summer has even ended, aside from school starting back up again. He’s as sarcastic and indifferent as ever, although without his friends to hang out with he’s much more solitary; he has no interest in helping David and Nurf around the camp, or pulling pranks on the others; instead he carelessly dashes off his homework (almost flawlessly; he’s an excellent student without trying, which is for the best because he probably wouldn’t try) and fiddles with his cheap phone, and works his way through Gwen’s collection of scary movies with something resembling enthusiasm. He shuts down most attempts at conversation, like he always has, but he snickers at the films’ cartoonish violence and picks at his dinners and acts like the rest of the camp’s residents are beneath his notice.
They follow his example. They’re not sure what else to do.
David frets and hovers and fills their pillowtalk with speculation about how Max is doing. Is he handling this properly? Are they handling this properly? There haven’t been any fights, but maybe there should be. Does she think so? Does she --
She tells him she thinks they’re doing the best they can, and they probably can’t break the kid worse than anyone else, and they’re going to have to be okay with that until they have a better idea of what to do.
David doesn’t like that -- he feels, like he’s always felt, that Max needs him, that Max above all his other campers can be the most helped by him and he always wants to help, especially a child who’s so very much like he used to be . . .
He doesn’t like sitting and waiting; he never has. But he sits, and he waits, and he trusts that eventually there will be a breakthrough.
There is, but it isn’t his breakthrough. It happens while his back is turned, and it opens up a crack in the paradigm for David to begin to fill with the same kinds of plans and ideas and affection that he continues giving Harrison and Nurf. Max is trickier than his other boys -- and maybe it’s weird, calling any of them his like he’s building some kind of family, but it becomes a habit -- but David knows that he has just as much to offer, no matter how much extra work he takes to open up.
But regardless, it isn’t David who makes the first step. It’s Gwen.
And, oddly enough, the Millers.
They should’ve seen it coming, honestly.
Besides Harrison, none of these campers arrived with the blessing of their parents or the government, and eventually someone had to notice the two semi-missing children who go to school and then leave but never give too many details about where they live.
The catalyst, it appears in hindsight, is Mrs. Nurfington being released from prison and realizing that her son has been gone for over a year. This leads to a sharp-eyed detective noticing that Nurf’s last known location, a rundown camp out in the sticks, is also connected to another kid who kind of dropped off the map, some orphan who was supposed to go into foster care but slipped through the cracks.
The Millers don’t specialize in these kinds of cases, of course, but they keep a close watch on everything related to Mr. Campbell and his shady camp, and one evening Ered’s cleaning the scattered remains of the daily newspaper off their table and sees two names that ting a very faint bell of recognition in the back of her mind, something about a couple of uncool-but-still-sort-of-pretty-cool kids she hung out with a bit at summer camp, and she mentions it to her dads that evening over dinner.
They arrive at the camp with Nurf’s mother the next afternoon, and David immediately feels the blood rush all the way down to his feet, taking his stomach and his heart for a ride along the way. He stumbles back against the flagpole, feeling like he’s going to faint, and then as casually and nonchalantly as he can, he . . . turns around and sprints around the camp yelling for Gwen, because she’s bad with confrontation but he’s so much worse, and Mrs. Nurfington is very large and scary and he could really really use Gwen standing next to him, because just her presence makes him feel better.
Gwen is, of course, at work, but it takes him a few minutes of frantic searching to remember that. He calls her, and she promises to be home as soon as she can -- and she says that, calls it “home” and under different circumstances David would be lighter than air but these are very bad circumstances so instead he feels dizzy and sick and like his limbs weigh a thousand pounds -- so he sends Quartermaster out to greet their guests and offer them his special tea, then rounds up the kids and tries to give them a pep talk while also doing his best not to hyperventilate.
(Eventually Nurf puts his hand on David’s shoulder and says it’s all going to be okay, and after being walked through a couple deep-breathing exercises he feels much better. Nowhere near good enough to face the Millers and Mrs. Nurfington without Gwen, obviously, but enough to sit on the floor with his campers and plaster on a smile and wait for her to tell them all what to do.)
She makes it home so quickly that David is sure she didn’t drive safely, but he can’t bring himself to comment on it, not when the Millers and their guest have been sitting with QM in the Mess Hall for almost half an hour while they waited (“cowered,” as Max declared before flopping on the couch and tugging out his phone). Instead he just wraps her up in a hug, resisting the urge to cling to her until all of this blows over, and scurries back against the wall to give her plenty of room to fix things.
“Hey, Max. Nurf.” The two of them glance over at her, Nurf looking like he doesn’t know how he should feel about this whole situation, and Max looking like he’d really rather just be left alone and that other people are universally an inconvenience he’s forced to suffer (so pretty much his standard expression). “I don’t think we’re gonna be in too much trouble, not since the Millers owe us for putting up with Campbell. Which means if they’re not here to arrest us --” David covers his mouth to muffle a squeak of terror, because oh goodness he’d thought this was bad before the idea of being arrested had even occurred to him, “-- they’re here to decide where you’re going. Like, officially.”
She smooths her skirt and throws a quick glance over her shoulder at the Millers’ car, which is sitting hearse-like and visible from the window, and takes a deep breath.
“You guys . . . listen, I don’t know what you want to do. We’re not great at this parenting shit.” (David resists the urge to point out that he thinks they’re doing quite well considering the circumstances, and that she should really watch her language around the kids.) “The point is, if you want to stay with us, you can do that. You started school here, anyway, so if you wanna finish out the year before having to move out or whatever, and then we can figure out where to go from there.” Gwen lets out a heavy breath, puffing out her cheeks and blowing a wisp of hair away from her face, and David can’t believe how unbelievably perfect she is. “I just -- we’re going to make sure you guys get as much of a say as you want. Whatever that means.”
Nurf nods, while Max just rolls his eyes and climbs off the couch. “So are we doing this now? Or is David gonna give a worthless pep talk, too?”
Frustration flashes across Gwen’s face, and David steps forward, lightly touching the small of her back. “All right, then,” he says with as much cheer as he can muster. “Let’s just go have a nice, friendly chat!”
It isn’t much of a chat. It isn’t especially nice or friendly, either -- though Mrs. Nurfington’s anger defuses under the calm rationality and obviously-not-dead-ness of her son, and they’re able to talk without coming to blows. It helps that Gwen is still in her work clothes, which means that aside from the Millers, she looks the most like a grown-up.
Both campers elect to stay. Gwen isn’t sure which surprises her more; Nurf has a real parent he could go home to, instead of settling for their improvised childcare, and Max seems to hate everything about the camp, so she’d kind of figured he would settle for basically anyplace else.
Nurf’s mother takes it better than she’d expected -- but Nurf’s also grown so much in the last year that maybe it’s just become clear that he’s bound for a different kind of life than the rest of his family. So she just shrugs and cuffs him on the shoulder, saying brightly, “It’s better than your father, anyway!”
“You realize that neither of you are remotely qualified to serve as foster parents, right?” one of the Agents Miller asks dryly, looking from Gwen to David with an unreadable expression. “The amount of paperwork alone is --”
“-- Something we can take care of,” the other agent interrupts smoothly, exchanging an equally incomprehensible -- though presumably meaningful -- look with his husband. “Considering your continued services to the United States government, it shouldn’t be a problem to organize some sort of arrangement.” (Gwen imagines the paperwork is less of a headache than finding other ways to ensure their cooperation, as far as Mr. Campbell goes.)
“You be good,” Mrs. Nurfington says on the way out, ruffling Nurf’s hair. “Visit your momma when you can.”
And then they’re gone.
And the five of them are left to figure out what comes next.
A few weeks later the Millers return, this time with a lawyer, to discuss Max’s parents’ will and funeral arrangements. Gwen takes over these as well as she can, considering her full-time job, and both she and David do everything possible to keep as little of the burden from reaching Max.
Some things, though, can’t be avoided. Which is why Max is forced to sit down at a creaking wooden table in the Mess Hall one evening as his parents’ executor reads over the few possessions that have been left to him. Most of the money he inherited has to cover the funeral expenses, with the rest being put in a tiny college fund he can access when he turns eighteen. Max accepts this with a dismissive shrug. “What else is there?”
What else is a tiny apartment crammed with things, which one weekend she and David take Max to sort through. Most of it is trash, the kind of useless clutter only considered worth hoarding by the desperately poor, and Max barely sets foot in the apartment before declaring that they can just throw it all away, disappearing into his old room before they can object. David immediately moves to go after him, his mouth already opening with dozens of things that probably shouldn’t be said. Gwen catches his arm and tells him that they should give Max a minute.
They sort through the Sahnis’ belongings as best they can, setting aside anything they think might interest Max and separating the rest to either sell or throw away. They work mostly in silence; it just doesn’t feel right. The lived-in-ness of the place weighs heavy in the air, the way books lay half-open and dishes sit rotting in the sink, a thousand tiny reminders of a return that was expected and planned and never came.
When they break for lunch, David takes food to Max and doesn’t come back for ten minutes. When he does, he sighs and says that he’s just packing up his bedroom. “He seems . . . fine. But he can’t be fine -- can he, Gwen?”
She can feel the weight of his hopeful, silent pleading as they pick at their food. The you have a Psychology degree, Gwen and you and he have so much in common, Gwen and I’ve just about run out of ideas and out of rope and I need you to make things better because that’s what you do, Gwen.
She’s never been able to say no to him, not really. So after she’s made a decent attempt at eating she gets up and tells David to keep going, that she’s going to check on Max and see how he’s doing. She can feel the gratitude in the way he kisses her cheek, the heartbreaking optimism that of course she can fix things.
David believes in her -- he always has.
Gwen uses that belief and wraps it around herself like a blanket, to replace the belief she never has in herself, and knocks on the door.
“They didn’t care,” Max says casually, going through a shoebox he found under his bed. It seems full of useless junk, baseball cards and ticket stubs and the like, but he sets it all aside to bring back to the camp and she packs it away without comment. “They only ever cared about work.”
She’s heard this before from Max, more than once, and she’s brought back immediately to Parents’ Day, when they returned to the camp after their pizza and found an additional car parked next to the one that took Mr. Campbell away, one that David mentions he vaguely remembers seeing drive by while she was ordering their food. In the mayhem of the arrest and the parents’ uproar it was hard to notice two small, quiet strangers hovering in the corner, and it wasn’t until Max said “ Dad? ” disbelievingly that either of the counselors took notice.
Max and his father immediately devolved into an argument -- the family resemblance was startling, from their wild black curls to their tiny stature, but it crackled most to life in the way they tossed frustrated words Gwen couldn’t understand at each other, a temper and a bite that was turned on David the second he tried to get involved -- and Mrs. Sahni sidled up to Gwen’s side, reaching timidly for the paper she’d been holding onto all evening. She let her take it, distracted by the commotion, and didn’t really pay the small woman much attention until she tugged on Gwen’s arm.
“This is Max’s application,” she said. Her English was heavily accented but clear and precise. “I remember seeing it in the mail . . .”
“Oh? Yeah.” She took it back and smoothed it out. “We needed it for some . . . stuff.” She wasn’t sure if lecturing Max’s parents was her place; it seemed like something David would do, but he was fumbling with his phone (undoubtedly trying to pick up enough phrases to plug into Google Translate and figure out what on earth is going on).
“Where’s his activity?” When she didn’t respond Mrs. Sahni moved closer, pointing at the empty lines as though Gwen couldn’t see. “Why is it blank?”
“You didn’t fill it out . . .” For some reason she felt judged, which made her draw the application closer, her shoulders hunching defensively.
She stared down at the paper, her brow furrowing. Then her head popped up, swiveling toward her husband and son. “Max!” Unlike the other two, her voice wasn’t angry, but she gently pulled the application from Gwen’s hands and strode over to them with a confidence and purpose she hadn’t shown so far. “Where is the activity?”
Max rolled his eyes. “I didn’t want to come here! I wasn’t gonna pick some bullshit activity!”
“Language!” David and both Max’s parents said in unison.
He ignored all three of them. “You didn’t even bother to check!”
“Because I trusted your decision!”
As the conversation continued, David shifted closer to Gwen, holding his hands to his chest. “It was hard to tell what they were saying,” he murmured, glancing down at his phone, “and harder to spell it, but . . .” He held it out to her, where she saw a translation box filled mostly with misspelled, incomprehensible gibberish, until:
काम. Work. (“There was another spelling that meant . . . um, grown-up feelings,” David whispered, “but I don’t think that’s what they’re talking about.”)
हटा दिया. Removed.
सड़क पर. Outdoors.
Back in the present, Gwen picks up a beat-up baseball glove, cracked and pale around the fingers and shiny and dark at the palm. It’s huge, too big to fit right (though she tries, out of some childish impulse she can’t explain to herself), but when Max sees her playing with it he snatches it off her hand, placing it in the box on top of his other belongings. “Be careful with that,” he snaps, turning back to his closet quickly. “God, Gwen, make yourself useful.”
She resists the urge to roll her eyes, grabbing an empty box and setting it down next to Max. “Do you play baseball?” she asks, as though it isn’t obvious the glove is way too big for him. “We could’ve set that up as your camp.”
He groans, tossing clothes into the box without looking. “It sucks. It’s too long and nothing happens. But Dad likes -- liked -- cricket, and it’s hard to find that here so he kept bugging me to teach him how to play baseball. So fucking backward, right?” He snorts. “He’d wear that stupid glove all the time. Not just to games or whatever, but watching TV or at the dinner table. Mom hated when he did that.” He pauses, glancing at his closed bedroom door thoughtfully before dashing out, returning a few seconds later with a Yankees jersey almost as tall as he is. He chucks it in the box without comment, and she decides not to push him.
“Did you see a lot of, um . . . games?” She isn’t quite sure what the term is: matches? Ball-fights? Despite living in view of Yankee Stadium, she hasn’t set foot near a sporting event since high school.
“Twice. Once Dad’s boss gave us some tickets, and a couple years ago he won this radio contest. Stayed up all night to get them. For my birthday.”
Gwen, carefully folding the clothes he’s tossing haphazardly into the box, pauses with the jersey in her hands, looking down at the worn fabric. “Even though you hated baseball?”
He rolled his eyes. “Now you see what I have to deal with. Had,” he adds quickly, scoffing. “Whatever.”
“Seriously, Gwen.” He turns and fixes her with a glare that could freeze lava. “Whatever David sent you in here to do, just . . . don’t, okay?”
He turns back to the closet without waiting for an answer -- but not before snatching the Yankees jersey back and spiking it into the box again.
“Okay,” she says, so quietly she’s not sure he even hears, and leaves him to it.
David does an excellent job getting the rest of the apartment in order by the time Max and Gwen finish with his bedroom, and when they emerge, there are piles of boxes and garbage bags sitting on the furniture and floor, taking up the space life used to fill. “I, um, was going to order something to eat,” he says with an almost apologetic shrug, “but then I thought it might be nice to get some fresh air. Max, are there any places nearby you’d like to --”
“Down the block.” Max drops to his knees, ripping open one of the bags directly from the center, ignoring where David carefully tied it. “Little Mediterranean place. Get me whatever, I’m not hungry.”
“W-well, buddy, we thought maybe it’d be a good idea for you to --”
“Shut up,” he says, not even sounding especially angry. “The only ‘good idea’ is for you to leave me the fuck alone while I make sure you don’t throw out anything important.”
David turns to her, eyes wide and pleading, and she sighs. “Max, we can’t leave you alone. And you really can’t go around ripping shit open --”
“Really?” he snaps, turning to her with a hateful expression she hasn’t seen very often, even at his most misanthropic. “Because I think my parents are dead, and I can do whatever I want.” He goes back to rifling through the bags, shoving any little things he wants to keep in his sweatshirt pocket.
They exchange a look; even Nurf has never been this openly hostile. “Okay,” David says after a moment, taking a step back. “I’m just going to go down the street and Gwen will stay here with you to --”
Max shoot them both a venomous look, and she loses her patience. “Listen, we’re not letting you hang out in an apartment all by yourself, so just figure out how to deal with it.”
David puts his hand on her arm. His expression is too gentle to be truly admonishing, but she knows she’s disappointed him anyway. (Funny, she thinks, how much disappointing David suddenly matters to her, after years of not caring.) “How about you catch up on your reading?” he suggests with a smile. “I’ll go get us dinner.”
She perches uncomfortably in one of the chairs -- threadbare and decrepit, all the furniture in this house looks like it came off the side of the road (or from Camp Campbell) -- and pretends to scroll through Tumblr. Max steadfastly ignores her, going through the bags and seeming to deliberately make as much of a mess as possible.
“God, what junk,” he mutters, setting aside a few things he clearly can’t fit into his sweatshirt. “Why is everything they owned so shitty? They worked all the time.”
Gwen isn’t sure if he’s talking to her or not. She opts for saying nothing, deciding to feign as little interest in Max as he’s pretending to have in her.
After a while he sits back on his heels, looking around at the detritus of his life. The expression on his face is so small, so desolate, and for the first time in a while she sees him not as the little goblin sent from hell specifically to annoy her, but as a little kid. She clears her throat and his eyes flick towards her momentarily -- the look in them, for just a flash of half a second, resembling hope. “My parents work all the time, too,” she says, still swiping at her phone without taking in anything on the screen. “Dad less so, because he’s mostly retired, but even with all the royalties from his music, Mom won’t stop working. These stupid long, like, twelve-hour days. And she doesn’t even like her job.”
He glances over at her, his eyebrows twitching upward. “But aren’t your parents rich as fuck?” he asks, frowning. “It’s one of the reasons you’re so pathetic. One of many,” he adds, catching himself.
She rolls her eyes; it’s hard to take offense when she’s mostly just relieved the overt hostility has passed. “Thanks,” she mutters, mostly for show. “But they used to be really poor, before Dad made it big. Like, they used to live in Mom’s car for a couple years. Really poor.”
Max’s eyes widen, and she notices him glancing around the apartment. “Jesus.”
“I think they were . . . traumatized, kind of. Don’t make fun of me, I have a fucking point,” she snaps without much venom. “They were always going over stuff, though, when they thought I wasn’t around. Bills, taxes . . . all that stuff I didn’t really understand.” (Stuff she still doesn’t really understand, but she doesn’t need to give the kid any more ammunition.) “The way they talk about money, even now . . . it’s like they’re scared of being poor again, even though it’s never gonna happen. Like there isn’t a big enough safety net to ever feel safe.”
He snorts. “Deep.” She flushes, but before she can retort he says, “Definitely not like my parents, though. It’s not like they had cool jobs that would make them lots of money. And they could’ve, but they just kept saying they didn’t want me to be ‘spoiled.’ Bullshit.” He picks up a cheap replica of the Statue of Liberty and tosses it into the air, catching it and throwing it back into one of the mutilated bags. “They should’ve just gotten jobs that paid more. But they just wanted an excuse to not be around.”
“You mean, like I just want an excuse to waste the best months of the year working for a crook like Campbell?” Gwen asks. “You said it yourself, Max -- the economy is really bad right now.”
“Yeah, for you, ” he says dismissively, waving her away with one hand. “You’ve got all those useless degrees. My dad is like, smart though. He’s better at math than my teachers. Was.” He clears his throat, almost angrily, like he’s mad at his body for creating mucus. “He was smart. He could’ve gotten a job anywhere. Like NASA. Not some convenience store or shitty summer camp.”
Gwen takes a moment to let it all sink in. Max is usually something of a closed book when it comes to any emotions beyond “hating everything,” but these are pretty unusual circumstances. She supposes that, if she was the orphan kneeling in a pile of her parents’ old stuff, she might want to open up, too.
Of course, now she has to decide what to try and unpack for the ten-year-old first: the capitalism thing, the immigration thing, or the racism thing. “I’m sure they tried their best,” is all she can say in the end, because she isn’t good at this. She barely passed Psychology enough to get her degree, and her advisor told her she was “probably best suited for a position that doesn’t require direct counseling”; her few attempts to incorporate it into camp have been a disaster. Maybe David will want to play at being a grief counselor for a very angry child, but she’s just fine with her own role as the one who gets them enough money to not die.
Max pauses, holding a salt shaker shaped like a banana. “If money was such a problem, why didn’t they just say that? They always talked about ‘values’ and ‘experiences’ and stuff like that. Why not just say, ‘hey, son, we’re poor as shit and the world sucks.’ Did they think I was too dumb to get that? Because I get it.”
“Maybe they didn’t want you to think the world sucks.”
He snorts. “Well, they did a pretty bad job if that’s what they were trying to do.”
She doesn’t know how to respond, so she just gets up and grabs a new garbage bag, cleaning up the mess he left behind.
After a few moments -- and with a glare like he’ll kill her if she says anything -- he gets up and begins to help.
Here ends the last of what I think is actually pretty good in this fic. The rest is . . . well, it's wrapping things up in a nice snuggly bow. And sometimes we need snuggly bows.
(And yes, I'll continue to believe Max's parents are good people until I'm forced not to. Fight me.)
Chapter 4: Max, Part II
Max gets an extra chapter because he's a little shit and demands extra attention.
Max settles into the rhythm of life at Camp Campbell as reluctantly as anyone would expect, but he does settle. Nurf and Harrison are surprisingly essential to this process: they barely seem to interact, but more than once she catches Max watching them navigate their bizarre new world, as though he’s taking cues.
There’s a funeral. Max doesn’t cry, but David does. His parents’ ashes are kept in a small urn that none of them know what to do with, so it lives under Max’s bed for years. (In college he’ll learn of the practice of turning ashes into glass jewelry; liking the morbidity of it, he sends them out to one of these small companies and receives back a pair of thick black-and-teal spiral gauge earrings. Once the holes in his ears are large enough to fit them, he never takes them out. It’s the only shred of sentimentality for his parents he ever allows Gwen and David to see.)
Max’s parents didn’t leave nearly enough money to cover therapy, so Gwen pulls long hours and calls on every shred of goodwill she’s managed to build at Camp Corp to finagle a slight raise, and somehow they manage to scrape together enough money to send all three of the boys to counseling (though they have to drop Nurf and Harrison down from once a week to twice a month, and she just hopes they’ve become emotionally stable enough to handle the change).
At first, Max steadfastly resists; it takes David and Campbell to drag him out of the car the first time, and Gwen can’t imagine what the sessions must be like. But . . . slowly, there’s a softening. Nothing dramatic, nothing that makes her worry they’ve accidentally signed the kids up for some sort of Daniel-esque cult -- nothing that stops him from being Max. He just . . . slowly stops complaining about the whole thing. And after a few months she realizes he hasn’t made a jab at her Psychology degree in a long time.
Changes are small, because they’re interspersed with life happening. But they do happen, and it’s bizarre to watch them move in with the same gradual wonder of the seasons changing.
Unlike Nurf and even Harrison, Max never expresses even a shred of interest in Camp Campbell or any of the activities involved with its upkeep. But Gwen does learn she can get him to help out with clerical work if he’s short on cash (which he always is, since he’s a kid). She jokes once that he can put this on his resume, and his response is instant and predictable: “Why, has this job worked out well for you?” She just shrugs and says, “More than you’d think.” And for the rest of the afternoon things are quiet, the way they usually are between her and any of the campers.
Gwen never gets more maternal. She still has panic attacks over what her life has turned into, she still shudders at the thought of pregnancy and parenthood, and she still insists they’re simply doing a long-form version of their old jobs, just with even less money and fewer vacation days. David is . . . perhaps a bit more realistic, in some ways, but he loves being a camp counselor just as much as he loves it when Harrison slips up and mentions “my brother David” out loud, and mostly he’s just happy that Camp Campbell is full of children and joy the entire year round.
(It’s . . . not always full of joy. But David believes in finding joy wherever he looks, and he finds it in the sunrise over Lake Lilac and in the sleep-rumpled bedhead of his girlfriend and in every small interaction he has with Harrison, Nurf, and Max, no matter how strained they sometimes are.)
Their family -- such as it is, and despite whatever any of them insist on calling it -- doesn’t acquire any new members. At least, not any new permanent ones.
“How many times do I have to tell you, you can’t have girls stay overnight in your room?!”
Max rolls his eyes and shoves past Gwen to the coffeemaker. “She’s not a girl, she’s Nikki. Doesn’t count.”
Gwen turns to David for support, and he clears his throat and sits up straight, trying his best to look imposing. “Max, I know you two are close, but . . .”
“Harrison and Nurf were there the whole time!” Max snaps, tossing Nikki a Pop-Tart and opening a second package with his teeth. “What the fuck do you think we’re gonna do with them around?”
“For what it’s worth, I am a very light sleeper,” Nurf says, seemingly to reassure Gwen. “They’re very quiet and respectful of our shared space.”
“That’s not the . . . for god’s sake.” She pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs. “Nikki, it’s been three days. Isn’t your mom worried about you?”
“Nope!” she replies cheerfully, smearing jam across her Pop-Tart.
For a moment Gwen and Max just look at each other over the top of Nikki’s head, having a silent but intense argument. Finally she shakes her head and drops onto the exhausted, sagging armchair they still haven’t been able to replace. “Fine. But she sleeps on the couch. She’s probably slept on worse things --”
“I slept in a tree once!”
“-- and Nikki, you have to call your mom at least once a day while you’re here. Camp hasn’t started yet, and we’re not hosting runaways.”
As the kids pile into the campmobile (which is starting to seem less and less ideal for transporting the sheer number of campers they seem to keep acquiring like Pokemon), she lets David pull her into a hug and rests her forehead against his shoulder. “They’re not even teens yet,” she moans, gratified at the way she can feel his laugh through his entire body. “I thought they were supposed to be awful after they became teenagers.”
He kisses her and hops into his ridiculous giant school bus, and another day begins.
“Oh, god.” Gwen groans, letting her head fall forward and smack against the wooden door frame of the counselor’s cabin. “Why are there more children in my house?”
“Welcome home, Gwen!” David chirps, looking around guiltily at where Max, Nikki, and Neil huddled in a corner, playing something complicated with cards and dice. “How was work?”
She loves David more than life itself, but he’s not worming his way out of this one. “Neil, Nikki, what are you doing here? It’s a school night.”
“I told you we couldn’t stay over,” Neil mutters, setting his cards aside. Since when is Camp Campbell a place kids try to sneak into?
“Gwen, come on!” Max actually bothering to use her name is a clear sign he’s hoping to wheedle compliance out of her, as is the look of exasperated pleading on his face. “His dad is being really weird and annoying --” (this doesn’t strike Gwen as anything out of the ordinary) “-- and he wanted to hang out for one night. And Nikki’s mom . . .” He shrugs, like that should be self-explanatory.
She sighs. “Please at least tell me everyone knows they’re here, Max,” she says, because after eight hours of mind-numbing paperwork she couldn’t be less in the mood to argue with a kid who’s turned arguing into a fine art.
All three of them glance awkwardly at each other. “We were gonna get to that,” Nikki says with a shrug, “but we kinda forgot.”
Gwen snatches David’s phone from his hand -- he already had it outstretched in preparation -- and tosses it to Nikki, handing her own to Neil. “Go. Call them. Now.” As they trudge off to the kitchen she turns to Max, putting her hands on her hips. “We can’t literally just kidnap all your friends, for fuck’s sake! That’s not how any of this works!”
He rolls his eyes, but she catches the barest glimpse of a triumphant smirk before he turns away, because sometimes she’s convinced he’s smarter than both her and David combined, and they are utterly outmatched.
Chapter 5: Lifetimes
Because we all need a fluffy happy ending sometimes.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
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.
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.
Yeah, this last chapter makes me wanna die, because I think it's pretty bad. But you know . . . maybe you think it isn't pretty bad? That'd be neat. I'd like it to not be bad. And sometimes we need fluffy indulgence around the holidays, which is what this is. Everyone's been through a lot of pain, anyway, and it's important to get to the other side and take a look around and what's waiting there.