I. The First Summer
If it hadn't been for Sam and his "totally sick idea" that the two of them should be counselors together at his beloved Camp Nonantum this year, Josh would have had the nice normal last summer at home that he had planned. He would've worked at Baskin-Robbins, like last year, eaten a ton of BBQ, like every year, and spent all his free time at the beach with his friends and his family. Perfect.
Instead, he finds himself at the "Orientation Eve Shiiiiiindig" [sic] for the freshly-arrived staff of Nonantum, summer 2010. No Sam, of course, because the jerk bailed to go to Aspen with Caroline. No cell service, to add insult to injury, so he can't even text Sam vowing to kill him.
Middle of nowhere, upstate NY.
"Oh my god, Raquel!" someone literally shrieks nearby.
"Oh my god, Jen! Jen!! How are you, oh my god, your hair's gotten so long, oh my god!!!!"
Josh has seen more screaming tackle-hugs in the last hour than possibly in his entire life up until this moment. He edges away from Raquel and Jen. Maybe he'll get some more crackers.
There's something to be said for being good with a curveball, which Josh really is, 9 times out of 10. But orientation at Nonantum is a hundred times worse than just going to a party where you don't know anyone, or even moving from Kentucky to LA, which Josh did as a kid, and it was fine. Easy, compared to this, somehow.
In the mess hall, it's like he's the only person on the entire staff who didn't spend his whole life at this camp already. They all call each other things like "Misty" or "Griffin" or "Bubbles." Josh wonders if he'd better give himself a camp name - otherwise, at this rate, he feels like he won't even be able to introduce himself without sounding like an alien.
"Oh my god, do you remember that summer you got your period for the first time at the campfire?!" one girl reminisces, weirdly fondly, to her neighbor over breakfast. Nearby, Josh restrains himself from asking why anyone would ever want to remember that...and rethinks the ketchup on his undercooked scrambled eggs.
Later, he calls home for the third time in five days, from the landline in the lodge - just to hear a familiar voice, and assure his parents that, yes, he's still alive?
"I honestly don't know what you think's gonna happen to me out here, Mom," he says, trying to sound offhand, uncomfortably conscious of the knot of six or seven other counselors hanging out on the couch nearby. "Nobody would drive this far to murder me, of all people."
"...Honey, are you okay?" his mom asks, because moms - they always know.
"Yeah!" Josh says quickly, in that same horribly casual voice. "I'm fine."
It's like a godsend when the campers are finally dropped off - two hundred kids in four hours, so it's like the camp's hit by a plague of tiny screaming banshees, but. Compared to Josh's co-counselor, Baker, who calls him "Greenhorn" and always smells faintly - or not so faintly - of weed? They're friendly. They're funny. They give Josh something to do other than feel clueless.
Until his first day off.
After all that's happened so far, you'd think Josh would know better, but. Somehow he was still picturing some kind of group camp-out, kumbaya experience - half the staff chilling by the boat launch, lazily swimming, scrounging around for some food.
Instead, of course, he's told that he has to leave camp premises for 24 hours. "You can go stay at Bannick House if you need somewhere to go."
Bannick House, at the edge of the property, has three rooms and a kitchen so dirty Josh assumes it hasn't been cleaned in about ten years. He's the only one there when he arrives, toting his sleeping bag, sweating a little from walking the mile down the road in direct sunlight. He finds two dark rooms with cots and shoddily-built bunk beds. Josh puts his sleeping bag and backpack on one of the beds, unsure of what exactly bed-claiming protocol is at Bannick.
There's half a loaf of wheat bread and an opened jar of peanut butter in the fridge. He makes himself a sandwich and eats it in the living room. The ancient TV is hooked up to a VCR, of all things. It makes the whole place look even more depressing. Josh finds a worn John Grisham novel on the coffee table and reads two chapters before he's interrupted by people banging in.
"Have you been here the whole time?" a girl says - Josh thinks her name's Bridget. "We didn't know you had the day off too! You should've come with us. We got pizza."
Jeff, one of the rockclimbing guys, claps Josh on the back. "Sorry, man. Being stuck at Bannick sucks! We'll take you along next time."
Josh tries to imagine his next day off, with what's-her-name-maybe-Bridget and Jeff-the-rockclimber. "Thanks," he says to them, wondering if maybe this is the only job ever where working is way more fun than not working.
In a way, it's just dumb luck that Jen rescues him.
It's not because she's one of the counselors for Marigold, which turns out to be Moose's sister cabin. It's not because, when they have their first cabin afternoon together on Sunday, he keeps addressing her instead of her co- because her co- is one of the Zhang twins and for the life of him he's not sure which.
It's because, that night, she happens to be sitting next to him during their first staff meeting.
Everyone settles into the lodge, and Josh knows better than to ask by now - when Rob says they'll be starting with "landscape metaphors." He'll figure out what happens as it happens, rather than risk the Baker-and-Misty-types guffawing for half an hour at his uninitiatedness again.
As if cued by this thought, Misty goes first. "I feel like, after a long walk in the forest, I'm emerging into a beautiful meadow," she says, with the air of one polishing her halo.
Not a joke. Actually happening. Josh had thought it couldn't get more absurd than the mess-hall songs and the graces about recycling - but he was wrong.
Taryn feels like a babbling mountain stream... Mordecai feels like...
By the time they get to Josh, a good thirty metaphors later, he's not so much listening as focusing all his energy on trying not to laugh. Liam, the big friendly guy on his left who's just gone, gives him a nudge.
"Uh..." says Josh. Jen and a few other people who've been doodling around the room look up at the pause. He thinks he sees Misty smirk.
To borrow a phrase from his parents - Josh's mouth gets away from him.
"I feel like I'm lost in a desert," he says, "and there's an oasis on the horizon - but it's probably a mirage."
The first important thing Josh learns about Jen, when she slings an arm around him after the meeting as if they've known each other a lot longer than somewhere between nine hours and two weeks, is that she L-O-V-E, loves Nonantum. She loves Nonantum so much that she can't bear the idea that he's not happy there. She loves Nonantum so much, she's certain she can make Josh love it, too.
She's a little overwhelming.
She smiles at him, and he thinks it'd be nice if not for the slightly frightening gleam in her eye, like she's hatched a plan for world domination.
"When I'm done with you," Jen proclaims, at the end of a long and enthusiastic monologue about camp that Josh only processes about 1/3 of, "you're gonna love it here so much you'll never want to leave."
At the beginning, Josh honestly isn't even sure if he likes her, exactly. Or if she likes him, or just feels it's her bounden camp duty to bring him into the fold, or needs an audience sometimes for her unfiltered thoughts and knows he's probably got nothing better to do.
"You know, I had this dream back during orientation that I got Apple - Apple Cabin, you know - and I had to go beg Rob to switch me with somebody. But of course he said he couldn't, because of the situation down by the creek. Which then I was like, what situation down by the creek? And you know, in real life we don't even have a creek unless you go all the way..."
"Do you ever see people who are so old, you think they must be drinking babies' blood every day just to stay alive?"
"How weird is it that South America isn't right below North America?"
For Josh, the rollercoaster of what Micah calls "Camp Time" gets all tangled up in Jen.
Before her Tasmanian-Devil entrance into his life, those first two weeks moved so slowly he could swear he'd been lonely and stranded for a thousand years already.
Then, over about three days, time speeds up and slows down and speeds up again, jerky and unpredictable, while Jen pops up everywhere, determined apparently to be his Best Camp Friend Ever. Josh learns more quickly than he expects to look over his literal and metaphorical shoulder, anticipating her, so she can't scare the living daylights out of him...much.
It's not till Wednesday afternoon that it hits him the reason she has such an easy time accosting him - or whatever she's doing that sure feels that way - they're scheduled into the same group for time off.
He's starting the trek towards Bannick House for his second free 24 hours, wondering if maybe Jeff and Bridget really will invite him to pizza this time -
"Get in, loser, we're going shopping!" Jen yells, pulling up behind him. She's driving an extremely battered Honda Civic with a Kentucky license plate. Bubbles is in the passenger seat, her bare feet propped up on the dashboard.
Josh walks back towards them. "Did you just quote Mean Girls at me?"
"Yeah." Jen grins. "Get in, dude."
He climbs into the back, which is packed full of camping equipment and trash. Literal trash - fast food wrappers and plastic silverware. Josh pulls a crumpled receipt out from beneath him, and buckles himself in as Jen takes off down the dirt road.
"Where are we going?"
It turns out that Griffin - not a camp name after all, actual name Griffin - has a ski house nearby. Well, not him, his family, but yeah, it's Griffin's. And since Griffin's been going to Nonantum since he was practically a fetus - Jen's words, not Josh's - and then became a counselor - his family's totally cool about the staff using the house on their days off. As long as they come back to a clean house.
"Griffin's pretty anal about it," Jen says over the blare of the music. "But it's a sweet house."
There's at least seven other people already there when they show up, and a few more trickle in as the night wears on. Jen helps him find a bed to sleep in, in one of the millions of empty bedrooms with bunks ("Griffin's whole family uses this place; there's like 17 cousins!"). Then she drags him outside to the deck, where Griffin's making burgers, and there are cold drinks. She pushes him down into a lawn chair and hangs over him, leaning on the back of his seat.
"Nice, right?" she says.
Josh starts to say something back - that yeah, it's really nice - but Bubbles presses an ice-cold beer against the back of Jen's neck and there's suddenly shrieking and chasing and Griffin yelling at them to respect the property, and Josh totally forgets.
Anyway, after that, Camp Time blurs.
"I wish I could call Sam," Josh finds himself confessing, a few days after Griffin's, "even if it's just to promise to kick his ass."
Jen makes a face. (She doesn't think much of Sam.) But - there's a spot in the corner of the apple orchard, she tells him anyway, where you can get one bar of service most of the time. "I talk to my boyfriend there for like an hour every night. Come on, I'll show you."
"Her?" Sam says, when Josh mentions who gave him the assist. "Ha. She's crazy."
"Yeah, a little," says Josh - feeling oddly defensive. Jen is helping him out, after all, while Sam is out skiing or whatever.
"A lot," Sam laughs. "Hot, though. When she's not being a nutcase. But she's basically always being a nutcase."
Their "friendship" turns into actual friendship, Jen taking up space in Josh's life almost before he knows it.
Some days, he thinks she's warm and generous and so, so funny. Other days she's spectacularly annoying, like when she finds out his birthday's in October so he's actually only seventeen - and chases him the rest of the way down the hill, laughing, asking if she can pinch his cheeks.
Some things they have in common:
"Wait, you're originally from Kentucky? I knew it! I knew there was something I liked about you. Where?"
"Union," he says, "up north near the border."
"The meaty part of the drumstick?"
"Like - where the skin flap would be?"
"Eugh, what's wrong with you?" he groans, while she laughs herself silly.
Some things they don't have in common:
"Did you say, you like triathlons?" she repeats incredulously, sounding like he's just told her he murders kittens in his spare time. "You like triathlons?"
"Yeah!" He wants to laugh, the look on her face. "Is that bad?"
"It's like, the worst thing I've ever heard."
Some things that are just - things:
"Tell me a secret," she develops a way of demanding, by week three or four - sometime after his second trip to Griffin's, anyway - whenever it's just the two of them and it's quiet. He always wonders privately if it's her way of saying, "I'm bored," but okay. He'll play.
"A secret?" he usually says. "What's in it for me?"
"I'll tell you a secret, too."
"What if your secret is bad?"
"My secret's not bad!" and then she'll get mad and try to hit him, more often than not.
Once, one night, he does say, "I don't think I have any secrets."
They're lying on the dock in the dark, trying to talk quietly so they don't get reprimanded like last Friday. Jen rolls over onto her stomach, the better to stare at him. "What?" she says. "Everyone has secrets."
"Nope," Josh says cheerfully, maybe extra-cheerfully because she looks so appalled. "Not me. I'm an open book."
"That is such a lie," Jen accuses. "You are a huge liar. A huge, huge liar with an adorable perfect face. I bet that's how you get away with it."
"...Uh. Thanks?" There's a funny stretch of quiet between them. "Hey, shouldn't you be headed for the orchard?" he says, to break it. But it's true - they've never hung out this long before, just the two of them. Mostly because she always calls her boyfriend earlier on her nights off, so they can talk longer.
"Adam's busy tonight," she says, finally.
It's awkward. He shouldn't have asked. Feeling strange and for lack of anything better to say, he makes a little cricket sound.
"Oh my god!" Jen says, bursting out laughing. "Was that you? The - "
Josh does it again.
"Oh my god, oh my god," she says, sitting all the way up. "That's amazing. I can't - stop it, oh my god, I can't even. Are you serious?! You should do that in the talent show."
Now he's laughing, too, her over-the-top delight a pleasant surprise. "What?" He puts an arm up over his face, even though it's so dark he doesn't think she can really see him anyway. "It's not a talent. It's just a - thing."
"It's amazing," Jen says again, and the weird part is, he's pretty sure she's serious.
"Easily amused," he tells her, shaking his head a little.
"Guilty." She pokes him in the arm until he moves it and looks at her.
"Will you do it again?"
When they have mornings off, they hang out in the lodge or drive to town sometimes, leaving very early. Sometimes it takes Jen a while to wake up all the way, so she makes Josh talk. He usually ends up talking about camp - things he still finds ridiculous, like the open-air cabins with only three walls each - but she doesn't seem to mind. She laughs.
("Seriously? If you're going to bother having a cabin, maybe you should finish it. What did they, run out of money?")
In the afternoons, when Josh volunteers to lifeguard Free Swim, Jen hangs around the dock, flicking water up at him and dodging the halfhearted swipes he makes at her with the rescue buoy. She talks about whatever she wants then - Adam, usually, or the talent show.
(Or both. He'll be in from New York at the end of the summer, Josh gathers from these mostly one-sided conversations, to visit Jen and see the show. Josh is almost interested to meet Adam at this point, this mysterious guy that she's so into, who's such a big part of the rest of her life.)
Sometimes Jen boosts herself up to sit next to him, dripping everywhere. He scoots over to make room, and she flips her wet hair back over her shoulder and sprays him with lakewater.
He wonders if he should tell her to go away and not distract him. Because she's definitely distracting him.
There's one afternoon off and one afternoon off only when Jen agrees to go on a hike with him.
She's not cooperative about it, not even after he's worn her down and it's happening. She wants to head back right away, pretty much, flopping down on a fallen log. It would be annoying if it weren't so hilarious.
"I guess I've found the one thing about camp you don't love, huh?" Josh teases. "Come on! Didn't you have to do this all the time here as a kid?"
"Yes," Jen says mutinously, "and I hated it. Why do you think I'm an Arts counselor now?"
He shakes his head at her, offers a hand to pull her up. "Okay, but you promised. And you wouldn't want to do anything to crush my camp dreams now, would you, Camp Yoda?"
She narrows her eyes at him. He grins back and waits. She peels herself up from the log, ignoring his outstretched arm, and gives him a little shove.
"I'm beginning to think I was wrong about you," she mutters, and stomps off ahead.
In the evenings, when enough people are around, there are campfires and bonfires and touch football and laptag. Josh gets thinky occasionally in the lulls - like one night in the middle of the summer when, sucking down a s'more, he realizes he's stopped counting the days till he gets to go home.
"Hutch, you in?" says Micah, rapping him lightly on the top of the head with a paper plate. "Ultimate, right now, the Meadow."
"Coming," he says. He gives Jen a smile and leaves her sitting with Celeste. It's almost time for her to go call Adam, anyway.
"So what're you doing for the talent show?" she asks sometime in week five, plopping herself down next to him at dinner. She reaches over and helps herself to a piece of carrot from his salad, even though he can see salad on her plate.
Josh tries to ward her off with a fork, but she bypasses him and takes some lettuce this time. "I thought the talent show was for the kids."
Jen chews rapidly and swallows Josh's lettuce. "No, it's for everyone at camp. Oh, I know - the cricket thing, right? You're gonna do the cricket thing. We totally talked about this!"
"That's not a talent - "
"You could do a triathlon. That's talent."
"I think that's gonna be hard to do - "
Jen finally, finally starts eating her own food - at an alarming pace. "You have to do something, Josh," she says with her mouth full. "I insist. Come on. You're gonna break my heart. I know you can do something."
It's an actual mystery. Her cheeks are bulging like a squirrel's, and he still finds her cute. "I can, uh, I can play the guitar."
Her fork clatters to the ground. "You can what?"
"It's not a big deal. I can't play as well as Griffin. I'm okay, but I'm not that good - "
"You've been holding out on me, Hutcherson."
"Don't do the mafia don voice at me."
She frowns at him. "You can seriously play the guitar?"
"...Yeah. But I - "
"All right," she says, blatantly talking over him. "You're playing the guitar then. Josh Hutcherson, guitar. You can't back out now. You've committed. My word goes."
He looks down at his plate and picks at the salad. "Okay."
"Pick a good song."
"Not Wagon Wheel."
"I wasn't gonna - " He totally was gonna. "Fine."
"Three weeks until the talent show. Have you been practicing?"
"Yes, of course." No, definitely not.
"Two weeks until the talent show. You know what you're playing?"
"Yeah, I decided weeks ago." No, he did not.
"One week until the talent show. Are you excited?"
"Um. Kind of?"
"I'm really excited. No one could be more excited than me."
"Tomorrow's the talent show, Josh!"
He flexes his sore fingers, the tips of them aching from practicing his song. "I know, Jen!" he mocks back at her.
"Don't be such a smartass." She flicks his forehead and leaves him on the lodge porch.
The last day and a half with the kids at camp - the talent show - the influx of parents Friday night to see it and Saturday morning to take their kids away - it's hectic. It's like one minute Josh is waking up to Nate and Mouse's excited whispers, and the next he's backstage, clutching Griffin's guitar and waiting to go on.
(He'll have to bring his own guitar next year -
Afterward, he exits the wrong way and almost bumps into Emmy and Liesl, up next. Jen, who's there to usher the girls on, catches his arm, grinning, and he blinks away the spots from the lights to focus on her face. It's the first time he's seen her all day practically, he realizes - ages in Camp Time.
"Wild Horses, huh?" she whispers, elbowing him, as Emmy and Liesl's scene begins. "Whose pants were you trying to get into?"
"Shut up," he says. "You were the one who said don't play Wagon Wheel."
Saturday night, after the kids are gone, they sneak away from the staff bonfire at its height, because Jen seems sad in spite of the revelry and the grand success of her talent show. Josh asks if she's okay, and she says, "Yeah." He asks if she wants to talk, and she says, "No. Well. Maybe."
They walk back to the cabin area, now deserted, and sit on top of a picnic table. She's quiet.
"What happened to Adam?" Josh asks, eventually, the first real opportunity he's had to since late last night, when it hit him as he was going to sleep that he hadn't met the mystery man, as expected.
"He broke up with me."
She says this so matter-of-factly that, for a second, Josh thinks he's misheard her. "What?" He shakes himself, puts a hand on her shoulder automatically. "When?"
"Thursday. On the phone."
"Oh. I didn't - "
"It's almost my birthday," she says, cutting him off.
Jen turns twenty at midnight, while they're still sitting on the picnic table, talking about things other than Adam, because she says that's what she wants. "Congratulations," Josh says, when he checks his watch and sees it's 12:02. "You've gotten through life without becoming a teenage mother."
"That's what you think," she says, waggling her eyebrows, and he laughs.
"I really wish I'd gotten you something," he says, for the third or fourth time. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's on the big calendar," Jen says, looking puzzled, "in the lodge."
"...There's a big calendar in the lodge?"
"Ooh!" she says - suddenly inspired - as she hops down to head back towards the bonfire. "You can make me a birthday crown. I mean. If you want."
Josh, still sitting on the table, stares at her for a second. "You mean like we do for the kids?" he says, laughing, recalling the rather crooked one he constructed for Cory back in July.
Jen is keeping a straight face, mostly. She jabs him in the chest. "Don't laugh," she says. "I love them!"
"Um." Josh presses his lips together into a serious line with some difficulty. "Okay."
He slides off the picnic table, and they walk.
"You are a very strange person," he says, after a minute.
She tips her head back and looks up into the dark trees, bumps her shoulder against his. "But you like it?" she prompts. He can hear the smile in her voice.
"Yeah," he says. "I really do."
II. The Second Summer
When Josh arrives for Staff Week the second summer, Jen greets him with an impressive tackle-hug.
He comes hiking up from the van with his pack and everything, and she's right there - standing in the middle of the cabin area, chatting with Alison, or maybe it's Tiffany (he still can't really tell them apart, from a distance). She looks great.
He gets to enjoy this for all of about two seconds. Then whichever Zhang twin it is points him out - and Jen turns, lets out an earsplitting sound, and almost takes him down, luggage and all.
"I did not!" she hisses, when he teases her about it later, sitting at one of the picnic tables, both trying to talk quietly because everyone else has gone to bed.
"It's okay," he says, grinning so hard he thinks he's going to be sore in the morning. "I think I'm really warming to the tackle-hug."
It's completely different, returning to camp. Orientation is fun. Everywhere Josh goes for the first day or two, it's, "Hutch!" and, "Oh my god, Josh!!" and, "So we're totally on for Backpack Hurdles later, right?" While the newcomers look shell-shocked and ask if they should be taking notes, he and Jen goof off and play silent Pictionary through two-thirds of Helen's lecture.
Josh gets assigned one of the youngest cabins this year, which he'd anticipated based on Rob's positive feedback last summer, but he's looking forward to seeing the crop from Moose again anyway. His boys'll be rising seventh-graders now - will Mouse grow half a foot before their eyes and wind up taller than Josh?
Jen is disgustingly pleased with her handiwork. "Didn't I always say I'd convert you?" she says in her most campier-than-thou voice, wiping blue glitter off her hands onto his T-shirt when he wanders up to Arts & Crafts to visit her and Raquel. "I bet you don't even think the cabins are weird anymore."
"No, I do," he assures her. "It's just now they're more like...old, toothless friends."
She laughs with her whole body, as usual harder than he thinks his wry observations deserve. Josh catches Raquel watching him watching Jen, and he wonders if this is the draw of camp - that it really is like picking up exactly where you left off.
After dinner that night, Micah tricks Josh into a race down to the waterfront, which (because Micah gets a head start!) he obviously loses. But then, without even discussing it, still clothed, they both make the shallow dives into the lake that they'd never do with campers watching. Josh surfaces first and realizes - without knowing it, all year long, he's been missing this place.
"You never answered my Facebook messages," Jen accuses, over dinner on their first day off.
"What?!" yelps Josh - because that is a bald-faced lie. "I think you never answered my Facebook messages."
"Oh, right, you're right, sorry," she says, laughing, not sorry at all.
He wants to kiss her, like, all the time.
At Griffin's, when she leans across him to grab a burger, the smell of woodsmoke in her hair. Down by the water in the early mornings, dead-tired but it's amazing. Sitting beside her at Staff Meeting, their elbows brushing as she doodles and he scribbles a note to Liam - she always says she'll sit on his left next week, but then they both forget.
If Josh thought his thing for Jen went into hibernation over the winter, it's awake now with a vengeance. During meals, she makes a total idiot of herself inventing new verses to "Baby Shark," and he's into it - he's so into it. He sings along right away like the most adventurous kids, fumbling the words because he's not paying enough attention, and bangs his cup against the table for emphasis.
Jen catches his eye and smiles.
Camp Time is passing too quickly this year, almost invariably. There's the occasional moment when things seem to freeze, of course - always when he's with Jen (and once, just once, Josh catches himself actually thinking this and thanks God no one else is in his head to hear it) - but, mostly, Camp Time flies.
Week one turns into week two, and week two fades into week three, and everyone knows. Another change from last year, one he can't decide whether he likes or not: his friends don't even have the decency to pretend they're oblivious anymore.
"Man, you've got it bad, huh?" Micah laughs, one afternoon out on the dock, breaking what had been comfortable silence between them.
Jen's not even around. "What?" Josh says, coming back into focus, feeling what he's pretty sure is color rushing into his face. He puts a hand to the back of his neck automatically, wonders if that's sunburn he's getting or just intense humiliation.
"You must be the worst poker player," Micah says. "I can always tell when you're thinking about her."
By the end of week three, Josh realizes half the campers must know as well. Not his and Pippin's 9-year-old boys in Raccoon, of course (who wouldn't notice, he suspects, if he made out with Rob, who's in his thirties and has little kids his wife sometimes brings around) - but Jen's girls in Bluebell, for sure. Nate-o. Mouse. Pretty much anyone who's ever seen them together and has some middle school under their belt.
"Any special gals out there in Ca-li-for-nia?" she asks, poking Josh hard in the ribs.
"Ow," he says pointedly, more so she'll quit that than because it actually hurts.
"Oh my god, there is." Jen sits bolt upright on the couch, giving him a look like, if he doesn't tell her, she might laser her way right into his brain and find out for herself.
One of her bra straps is peeking out from under her tanktop again, bright neon purple. His fingers itch to fix it, or - or something.
"You have to tell me," she says, grabbing at Josh's shirt and basically crawling on top of him. "Don't make me beat it out of you."
"I'm not - would you just - "
Her mouth is inches from his nose. He can't think.
"What'sthebigdealyoudon'tevenknowher," he bursts out, closing his eyes, his heart thumping like the last ten meters of a hard sprint. Now it really is like middle school.
"Oh," Jen says, soft. She backs off - he feels her settle back onto her end of the couch.
When he opens his eyes, just for a second, he could swear she looks disappointed.
Last year, except maybe at the very end, Josh often felt like a hostage on Jen's no-seatbelts careen down Best-Camp-Ever!!!! Freeway. "Not in a bad way, if that makes any sense."
"Mean," Jen says anyway, muffled, smushing her face into his shoulder.
Josh pulls away slightly to look at her and sees she's smiling, drifting off to sleep a little, her hand resting warm curved just above his wrist.
Last year, the cabin staff had a "secret" pool going about whether Annalise and Liam would hook up. (They did.) This year, Josh assumes that he and Jen must be the juicy question of choice, mainly because no one's mentioned a word to him about anyone else. He wonders what the prop bets are: anyone gunning for "by the end of first session," for instance, is losing some money this weekend.
Week four becomes week five.
That Wednesday night, Griffin wants to pick up Vietnamese food from this town an hour in the opposite direction from the ski house. Raquel and a couple others go with him, so Jen and Josh drive up to Griffin's alone.
When they get there, it's silent, of course - deserted except for a stray Twix wrapper that drifts across the dim hallway like a tumbleweed when they open the front door. Jen and Josh exchange a look and grin, a little, nervously. Jen takes a step into the foyer like somebody might jump out at her any second.
"I've never been here when it's this quiet," she says, sotto voce, surprising him.
"Why are you whispering?" Josh says, laughing. He shuts the door behind them and picks up the Twix wrapper, leading the way into the kitchen.
The fridge is empty except for condiments and two six-packs of PBR. Josh finds some ground meat for burgers in the freezer, but a cursory check of the cabinets reveals no buns or anything - just a small jar of Craisins and the half-eaten bag of marshmallows from s'mores two weeks ago.
Jen takes both out and pops a marshmallow into her mouth. It's stale, as she pronounces immediately - trying to make a face around it and almost spitting it onto the floor.
Josh isn't sure what she was expecting.
"Want one?" she asks, chewing hers with some difficulty as she holds the bag out.
They end up lying on the living room floor with the beer - Josh "drinking illegally on an empty stomach," as he summarizes cheerfully, and Jen insisting, louder and louder each time, that he not be so picky and try a marshmallow-Craisin sandwich already - and also, won't it be awesome next year, when she's 21 at the top of the summer instead of the end, and she can maybe buy them something less gross to drink?
"I don't think it's that bad," Josh says honestly, turning over onto his back and staring at the vaulted ceiling above them. (He seriously wonders, sometimes, how much money Griffin's family must actually have.)
Jen pulls a face and breaks out that weird foghorn-growl she likes to use sometimes, pitching her voice very low. "Freshman..."
"Oh, shut up," says Josh, rolling his eyes. It's the first time she's said anything about him being a baby in weeks.
There's a pause. Jen hums a little something beside him, something Josh doesn't recognize. The carvings in the dark wood overhead seem to swim slightly before his eyes. He decides that's enough of that -
"What do you want for your birthday?" he asks her, propping himself back up on one elbow, facing her. She's very pretty, even breaking apart yet another stale marshmallow and poking Craisins into the middle of it.
"Whaaaat," Jen says, flatly, although she can't quite keep a straight face. "You didn't get my present already, Josh? I expected you to have been thinking about it all. Year. Long."
(Maybe it did cross his mind once or twice, like when the pictures from last August popped up on Facebook. His arm slung around her - that dumb paper crown about to fall off her head.
Maybe he's also thought once or twice about what he'll play at the talent show this year, if she asks.)
He's not sure if it's a few seconds, or maybe a minute, before he realizes he hasn't said anything. But Jen seems to have caught his mood now - she puts the Craisin-mallow sandwich down and scoots in, shifting onto her side to mirror his posture. "What?" she says, smiling, and then, probably kidding:
"Tell me a secret."
"Okay," he says, very warm, very close.
The door opens.
She's going to kiss him.
She's going to kiss him, or he's going to kiss her. Either way, their mouths are going to touch. Jen would be lying if she said she hadn't thought about it - she's not blind. She's seen the way Josh looks at her. It's even more painfully obvious this summer than it was the last. Mostly she tried to ignore it because of, well, Adam and how Josh was barely out of diapers (so to speak), but this summer has just felt different all around.
At some point between Josh getting to camp and the two of them lying around in Griffin's empty house alone is the point where Jen started liking him too.
The door opens just as she's inching forwards to meet him, her eyes fluttering closed. She jerks back just as Griffin bellows something unintelligible through the house, his voice echoing up to the rafters. Her heart beats a steady rap, like a sped-up drumbeat, and she's not sure she can look Josh in the face. She stands up, makes for the living room door.
"Dinner," she says over her shoulder to Josh.
He makes some sort of assenting noise behind her, but she doesn't turn around to look. She doesn't turn around until she's in the kitchen with the others. When Josh does show up, Jen makes some joke about the spring rolls, and blushes all the way up to her ears when he smiles.
It's by some unspoken tacit agreement that they don't bring it up. They go to sleep drunk after video games and beer, Jen taking a bottom bunk in one of the guest rooms, and Josh passing out on the carpet next to her. Jen wakes up with the taste of stale alcohol in her mouth - gross - and a hangover pulsing against her ears. She stumbles to the bathroom to rinse out the taste first, and fumbles through the medicine cabinet to find aspirin.
"Fuck," Josh groans from the bedroom. Jen pockets the bottle of painkillers for him.
It's a low-key day. They eat brunch - Raquel cooks omelettes and cinnamon toast. Jen sits with Josh on the edge of the hot tub, dangling their bare feet into the water. She feels like she's operating at ninety percent of her usual capacity - no, ninety-five. Almost good as new. It's at least good enough that she's back to making fun of him, as subdued and miserable-looking as he is.
"Stop, stop, too loud," he says, putting a hand over her face when she starts warbling Angel From Montgomery into his ear. "My kids won't stop singing that. Don't you start."
One of his fingers brushes her mouth, and they both stiffen. She stops singing; he withdraws.
"Ready to head back?" she asks after an awkward pause.
Josh nods." Yeah."
She thinks about how they can't drive back like this, uncomfortable, not talking about last night. So she reaches down into the hot water and flicks a handful up at him. He sputters, the front of his t-shirt splattered with wet.
"You're the worst," he says, grinning.
Jen grins back. "I know."
This year there isn't any need to remind Josh of the impending talent show. She talks about it almost every time they sit down together. The campers want to do a 1950s theme, and she's more than happy to step back and let them do the bulk of the planning. Sometimes she has to step in because Henry, one of the older boys, can get strident, but mostly she's been in the background. They design the set and make their costumes and Jen just okays things. A group of them are writing parody skits of Twilight and Harry Potter; Jen has to go through and make sure there's no cussing.
Josh listens patiently when she goes on about it. She can tell he's bored. Sometimes his eyes glaze over. But it's sweet of him to sit there and listen.
There hasn't been an opportunity since that day at Griffin's to do anything - every time they go back it's teeming with people - and it's not like Nonantum offers much in the way of privacy. Jen lies on her stomach on the dock, wishing she had just taken the chance and kissed him. She thinks she should whenever he looks at her, his eyes half-lidded. She feels the tug, low in her stomach.
"Why haven't you guys macked yet?" Raquel asks, quietly, during one of their co-led afternoon activities (gnome hunting, which means they've taken the littlest kids into the forest and let them go wild).
Jen shrugs, leaning back against the tree she's sitting by. "Bullshitty reasons."
"He wants you so bad."
"Okay, cool it," Jen says, rolling her eyes. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, then…"
"I've never known you to be so chill about anything."
Jen shrugs again, picking at a blade of grass. "I really like him, okay?"
Jen jumps to her feet, brushing dirt from her shorts. "I think I see one this way!" she calls out to the campers, grouped a few yards away around a rabbit warren. "He's wearing a red hat!"
"He's not Santa," she hears one of the girls mutter as they march by. Jen has to stifle her laugh.
Jen hasn't seen the talent show since she's taken it over. She probably could, if she wanted to, but the kids seem to like her "backstage" - standing off to the wings with them as they wait to go on. She waits with Josh too, when his turn comes around. He's wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and she keeps getting distracted by the sight of that - and him holding his guitar. It's doing something for her, that's all.
He's not really a singer, but she likes to listen anyway.
She turns twenty-one after the kids leave. It's good timing, the staff debriefing and cleaning up their cabins - going through the camper files and making sure they're ready for next summer. They plug in someone's iPod into the speakers on the lodge porch, blasting music across the camp. Jen finds Josh in his cabin, sweeping up, and she forces him to put down the broom and dance with her. They're laughing hysterically when Raquel finds them.
"Come on. We have to go to the lodge," she says.
Jen suspects something's up - Raquel is insistent - but they follow. The staff is gathered with cake and ice cream and yell congratulations at Jen. Raquel leans over her shoulder and whispers that they've got booze too, stashed back in the kitchen, but Jen's already being swarmed by friends.
She comes back around after twenty minutes, and finds Josh eating cake and talking to Griffin. She slides up behind him, hooking her chin on his shoulder. He reaches up, his hand brushing her cheek.
"You haven't wished me happy birthday," she says.
He turns around. "Happy birthday, Jen. I got you something."
"You better," she grins. "What is it? Gimme!" She makes a grabby motion at him.
Josh fumbles through his pockets. "I didn't have time to wrap it," he mumbles, looking embarrassed, putting it in her palm.
It's a necklace with two delicate drama masks as charms. Jen untangles the chain, shakes it out so the silver masks catch the sunlight streaming in through the window. She's wordless, for once. It's beautiful, and - perfect. She thought maybe he would just make her a card, like everyone else does, stuck here at camp with nothing but the arts & crafts cabin with their glitter supplies. Jen undoes the clasp and puts the necklace on herself.
"It's amazing," she says, sincere.
He blushes. "Glad you like it."
She throws her arms around him and squeezes, tight. "Don't be stupid. I love it." She feels a sudden pang - already missing him. "Hey. We're gonna stay in touch this year, right?"
"For real this time," she says, pulling back.
He's still a little pink. Josh smiles at her. "Yes. Definitely for real."
She makes them shake on it, and he makes fun of her.
He should just be glad she didn't make them prick their fingers and swear a blood oath.
III. The Third Summer
Jen's immediate reaction to Josh telling her he's not going to be at camp this summer is to laugh. It's a not-very-funny joke, but she can get behind it. Plus, he says it with such a straight delivery that she's kind of impressed - he's not a very good actor. She concentrates on painting her right index fingernail with aquamarine polish while he rumples his hair over Skype. He looks good, even through the grainy pixelated image. Jen regrets not doing anything the previous summer, but.
But, well, it's her last summer, and if not now, when? Not that she's going to tell Josh her plan, but yes, she has a plan and it's to make out with his face.
"No, Jen, I'm serious. I got an internship in London," Josh says. "I'm not gonna be at camp this summer."
She knocks the bottle of nail polish over, spilling it across her desk. Fuck.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"I have to go," she says quickly, and ends the call.
Fuck fuck fuck, Jen thinks as she cleans up the polish with tissues.
She can't stay mad at him for too long. They talk all the time - it'd be weird. Besides, Jen's spent most of her life at camp without Josh, so it'll be fine. She'll go and have a great time, just like always.
She manages to maintain this attitude until she pulls onto the dirt road leading to Nonantum. Shit, how's she gonna survive without him?
Her parents would call it a first, and so would Jen. It's the first time she's ever driven into camp and hasn't wanted to be there.
Josh isn't the only person not there.
Most of her favorite people have left - onto bigger and better things. Griffin's still around, but he's like an institution by now. Jen wouldn't be surprised if he gave up on everything else and made Nonantum his all-year-round job, staying on as a groundskeeper or apply for a more administrative position. Jen used to tell her parents that when she grew up, she wanted to be director of Nonantum.
She's got the oldest girls this year - Ash Cabin - where Jen's favorites from last year have hit puberty and mostly want to lounge on the docks during cabin afternoons, reading glossy magazines and talking about guys. Jen tries a few times to get them to do something else, but she gives in. Whatever, if they just want to sit on the docks, she can do some reading.
"You've, like, checked out this summer," Bridget whispers to her at staff meeting. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Jen says.
Misty snorts on the other side of Bridget. "It's 'cause Hutch isn't here."
Jen's about to reply with something that's probably unkind, but it's her turn to give a landscape metaphor to the group.
Even Griffin's house isn't the same. They're still having parties with shitty beer and barbecue, but Jen misses watching Josh play Ultimate Frisbee in the yard, or when he hid with her in the master bathroom for five hours, just talking. God, London, what's so great about London?
Mostly - why would he go to London when he could've had her?
Last summer they put in shitty wireless in the office that barely worked. It was only useful if you were sitting in a specific chair by the window, and everyone who had to use the internet had to wait their turn. This year the wireless is still shitty, but marginally less shitty. Jen can get her phone to connect to it if she hides behind the lodge, leaning against the wooden wall.
She calls Josh at 11, after most of the girls have fallen asleep. Selina's still reading her book by flashlight when Jen sneaks out of the cabin, but she's so absorbed that Jen's pretty sure a bomb could go off and she wouldn't notice. Jen fumbles her way up to the lodge in the dark, and breathlessly connects to Skype. Shit - what time is it in London - ?
"Erg?" Josh says, picking up.
"Hey," she says, looking down at her toes. "Hi. It's me. Sorry. Were you asleep?"
There's some shuffling. "Jen? It's...4 in the morning."
"Oh fuck, I'm so sorry. No, go back to sleep. I'll try to call another time - "
"No, it's fine. I'm awake," he yawns. "I'm awake now. What's up? How are you calling?"
She tells him about the wireless situation. And then about the new assistant camp director, and how he sort of sucks but he's so nice that no one wants to say anything. She tells him about his favorite camper, Mouse, and how all the kids are asking where he is this year. She tells him about the new waterfront staff and the first-year cabin counselors and her girls in Ash. She tells him what she's planning for the talent show, but it'll suck since he won't be around with his guitar. Looks like she'll just have to get Griffin.
"So you miss me?" he jokes.
Jen laughs, this kind of thick laugh because she's started crying without realizing it. She wipes the snot from her nose with the back of a hand.
"I do, I really do," she says.
Jen starts sneaking out to talk to him every night. He's always asleep when she calls, but he says he doesn't mind. Josh tells her about London - the twisting streets and crowds of people - and what he's doing at his internship (something business-y that she could care less about, honestly, and really she only understands about 20% of what he tells her). They joke about stupid things, like how Ruby - one of the younger girls last year - clearly has sustained her crush on Edward Cullen. She's come back this summer more Twilight-ed than ever.
"She's only wearing black and purple this year and telling everyone she's a vampire," Jen says.
"Wow, what does she do when she has to has to go into the sun?"
"No one's figured that out yet, including Ruby." Josh laughs at that.
They talk until Jen's sleepy and Josh has to go to work, usually around 2 for Jen. She goes back to Ash feeling like she's drunk, her fingers cramping from where she clutched the phone - the battery drained - and collapses in her bed. One time she finds Selina asleep over her book, the flashlight still on in her hand. Jen gently slides the book out from beneath Selina's cheek, and clicks the light off.
In the dark, Jen can feel her heart pounding in her chest, loud and fast.
"What're you doing for the talent show this year?"
Jen jerks herself awake. She wipes a little bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. "What?"
"You fell asleep again, didn't you?" Josh sounds amused.
"No," she protests. "I heard everything you said. About…"
"About the talent show."
"Yeah. About that. The talent show."
There's a pause.
Josh clears his throat. "So…?"
"So what're you doing for the talent show?"
"You were totally asleep! You lied to me!" he laughs.
She's tempted to hang up on him right there and then.
Every year Jen likes to stage a scene from a famous play. This year she's doing A Midsummer's Night Dream with some of her favorite kids. She's got a new girl, Juliana, playing Puck. She's only 10, but she's has actual talent, and a way of saying her lines that makes everyone want to stop and watch. Jen's looking forward to everyone seeing her perform, but mostly she wishes there was some way to let Josh see it too.
"I wish you were coming," she says to him.
He sighs. It makes a crackling sound over the phone. "Me too, Jen."
The things she doesn't tell him could fill a book.
How she thinks about him when she's doing - well - anything. How Bradley, this new guy, obviously has a thing for her and tried to kiss her at Griffin's. She almost gave in, out of, god, loneliness and missing Josh, but she pulled away before their mouths touched. Bradley was nice about it, but she felt bad. She doesn't tell Josh how much she really misses him - that camp doesn't even seem like camp anymore without him.
Sometime during week five she lets Bradley kiss her on the front steps of the lodge, after everyone's gone to bed. He twines a hand through her messy hair and his lips are chapped. She kisses him back, feeling desperation flutter in her chest.
"I'm sorry," she blurts out, pulling away. "I can't do this."
"Oh," he says, obviously disappointed. "Well. It's okay."
Jen puts a hand against his chest. "I'm not really - I like someone else."
"Yeah, I sort of guessed."
Bradley looks sheepish. "You talk to some guy named Josh on the phone every night. I can sometimes hear you when I'm walking to the bathroom."
She blushes hotly. It's not like she can contest that.
"It's cool," Bradley says. He pats her on the shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow."
The end of summer sneaks up on her, the way it always has. This year surprises her more than usual - maybe because she's actually been looking forward to the session ending. Jen shuffles around the talent show acts. It's the usual sort. Monologues and singing. At least five kids want to play Wagon Wheel on the guitar, so she gives them the option of playing together or choosing another song. She's proud of her Midsummer kids. They've taken to draping themselves with musty, worn sheets they found in the camper library. Jen helps Kevin - Oberon - and Nim - Titania - make crowns out of dandelions.
Griffin and Bradley rig the lighting for the stage, and Jen walks through with her checklist, making sure everything's in place. Her heart isn't in it this year, so she doubles her efforts to make it good. She feels almost normal by the time the performance rolls around, and she's telling hyperventilating campers backstage to breathe and not to peek through the curtains at their parents.
"Mouse," she says, "I'm going to throw you into the lake if you don't get backstage."
He points out into the audience. "But Jen - "
"Seriously, dude. You know how this goes."
He scrambles backstage obediently, giving her this little look that she can't read as he does so. She makes sure the curtains are closed, and goes to do last-minute checks on the kids. They do shake-outs and vocal exercises and she tells them all how proud she is (tearing up, like she always does). Most of the kids cry, smudging their makeup, and have to go get it redone.
"I thought you said last year you were gonna give the speech before they're in makeup," Bridget says, helping wrangle George Philips into his costume.
"I say that every year," Jen says.
The kids are awesome.
Jen loves that part - when they blow her away. They always do. Juliana is incredible, electric (she told Jen after rehearsal the other day that she wants to be an actress). Jen crowds onto stage with them for the big group bow at the end, their hands grabbing at her.
And when Jen lifts her head at the end, the very end, she finds him in the crowd.
"Oh my god!" she yells, and claps a hand over her mouth.
Josh starts cracking up in the audience. He makes a shushing gesture with his finger, but Jen could care less. It's her last summer, and it's the last night, and there are parents everywhere, but. Fuck it. She climbs off the stage, almost tripping over Mouse, who gives her a wide, delighted smile (she suddenly realizes what he was going to say to her earlier). Josh meets her halfway up the center aisle, pulling her into a tight hug. She squeezes back hard, tears springing to her eyes.
"You're here," she chokes out.
"I'm here, yeah, I'm here," he says, his tone soft and warm.
"You smell like plane," she says into his hair.
Josh laughs. "I did just get off one about three hours ago."
"I can't believe you didn't tell me."
"I wanted to surprise you. Are you surprised?"
She pulls back, wiping her eyes, and nodding. "Definitely surprised," and he laughs again, so she punches him on the arm. "That's for not telling me."
He rubs it, grins. She probably didn't hurt him at all. "Fair enough."
They just stare at each other for a minute, smiling, and Jen's completely forgotten about the audience around them - the kids still onstage.
Mouse yells, "Are you gonna kiss her or what?!"
Josh goes very red, very fast. It's impressive. Jen has to smother her laughter, but the crowd does no such thing. She takes his hand.
"We'll be back!" she calls out, and drags him out of the lodge.
"What Mouse said - " Josh starts saying as soon as she's closed the doors to the lodge.
Jen kisses him. Without thinking about it, because she's done thinking. She tugs him close, her arms around his neck. He's got dark stubble around his jaw, and it burns her skin. Her heart's going so fast she thinks it might wear itself out. Josh's mouth is soft on hers, but he kisses her back fiercely enough to bruise. She laughs into the kiss, and he breaks away.
"Am I terrible?" he asks, looking a little unsure, but mostly happy.
"No," she says. "I'm just glad you're here. London had nothing on me, huh?"
"London had nothing on you," he confirms, and kisses her again.
Twenty-two is a good year.