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Carpe David

Chapter Text

It had been two and a half summers after the end of Camp Campbell when David received a very unexpected call. The day itself had started ordinarily enough, with the redhead waking up to a 7:30 alarm, and starting his day with a steaming cup of chamomile tea. He was out the door by 8:15 and to work by 9:00.

The building was a drab, grey concrete block, with few windows and high ceilings. To be honest, this sort of place wasn’t the 27 year old’s first choice of workplaces. However in the years since working as a camp counselor, he had found the world had become quite more cynical. Not many camps or daycare centers were tripping over themselves to hire a grown man, regardless of his experience in working with children. The day that the realization hit him, when he received his fifth rejection notice, he couldn’t help but think of a pair of snide jade eyes and a raised eyebrow, “I told you so.”

At first, it was very hard for David. He had returned to the camp, with Max and Gwen in tow, to find the place mostly deserted. The children were gone, Mr. Campbell was nowhere to be seen, and the only sign of life was a single light in the window of the counselors’ cabin. Gwen and David had shared a long look over the top of Max’s head, before the ten year old simply walked up to the door and kicked it in.

To David’s surprise, inside was one of Meredith’s dads-- an Agent Miller, if David’s memory was correct--sitting in David’s favorite chair. Slowly, he turned the chair to face the trio. David’s eyes were drawn to the stack of files on his lap, the topmost being a familiar manila folder, with a lone sheet of paper inside.

“Alright! What’s the meaning of this?!” Gwen called out, shaking David partially out of his stupor.

“At exactly 6:53 this evening, Cameron Campbell was taken into custody for several-dozen crimes against the United States of Amer—”

“Finally,” Max cut across loudly, snapping David back into reality completely.

“Wait a second, what do you mean Mr. Campbell’s been arrested?” he asked.

“Goddamit, David!” He looked down at the boy in the blue hoodie, “What’s so hard to understand? Campbell’s a shitty person who just happened to—”

“If that’s true,” Gwen interrupted, before David could remind Max to mind his language, “Then where does that leave us? And where in blue blazes are the kids?”

“The kids have all been returned to their families,” Agent Miller replied, moving the files on his lap to the desk, and patting the topmost one, “Save for one.”

At that, both Max and David blanched, before looking at each other. Where there was usually a cocky smirk or angry snarl, there was a helpless look. That look was surely, though slowly, being overtaken by realization. Before a word could come out of David’s mouth, the ten year old had attached himself, firmly to David’s skinny legs.

One small hand detached long enough to point to the FBI agent, before the boy started streaking at the top of his lungs, “You can’t take me! You can’t let them take me! You’ve got nothing! Nothing!”

Gwen looked at David, his new bushy haired growth, and then finally to the FBI agent.

“Where would you even take him? We didn’t even get a last name,” she asked.

“Yeah! Why not just leave him here with us, until you can get more information?” David tried, using his best upbeat voice, though the words and though of returning Max to his family tasted disgusting on his tongue. He looked down and tried to give a reassuring smile. “We watched him this long, what’s a few more days?”

“I’m sorry—I really am—but that isn’t an option,” Both David and Gwen’s heads shot up. Dread was starting to pool in the redhead’s stomach and he had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like what was going to come next.

“The camp is being closed and you two are being detained until we’re sure you didn’t have anything to do with Campbell’s schemes,” was the reply, as the agent got out of the chair.

“What the hell do yo—”

Through the ringing in his ears, he registered a soft strangled sound come from Max, before he felt the kid detach from his shins. Glancing down, he saw wet, though determined eyes. At that second, he knew the boy was going to run. Max was going to be dragged kicking and screaming, into the agent’s car and back to a family he didn’t love.

Max was going to run as far and as fast as his little legs could go and David was going to let him.

Realistically, he doubted the ten year would get very far. Even if he did, even with David’s instruction over the summer, he would never be able to make it in the woods, let alone the real world, and eventually he would be caught. He had to know that he didn’t just have to sit there and take what came at him, that he could fight, even if that fight only lasted an hour or two. He had to try.

“Go,” he mouthed.

Sneakered feet touched the floor and the sound covered by the sound of Gwen’s raised voice. She was still pelting the poor agent with questions.

David took a step forward, putting himself between the agent and the door. The movement caught two pairs of eyes and he launched himself towards the agent, just as the door slammed shut. The last thing he remembered was a sense of satisfaction that Max trusted him, even just a little, before his vision went black.

He woke up in the hospital, his name cleared, and with no news of Max.

Chapter Text

It was during his second day at the hospital that Gwen came to visit. She looked more tired than usual, if that was at all possible. She stood at the foot of David’s bed, with crossed arms, and simply raised her eyebrow. The situation nor the expression was not lost on the ex-counselor; only he could end up in a full body cast after running face first into Agent Miller’s fist.

Gwen’s expression didn’t change, although he tried giving her his usual enthusiastic grin. David could feel the muscles in his cheeks falter a little, though the smile didn’t disappear completely. He didn’t regret his actions one bit, even if he couldn’t exactly recall all of it.

 “I’m waiting,” she growled out.

“Well, Gwen, what can I say,” he replied, trying to give a little shrug, before remembering the full body binding and traction unit prevented it.

“What the hell were you thinking, letting a ten year old run off to fend for himself? Not to mention, obstructing a freaking FBI agent! You’re lucky he didn’t shoot you!”

“Come on, it’s not that bad,” he grimaced, wishing he could put his hands up in a soothing gesture.

“Not that bad?!” she repeated, her voice going up with each word, “You—you’re Mister I-feel-super-bad-for-accidentaly-hitting-a-kid-that-totally-deserved-it, David! What about that plan seemed like a good idea?! What if--”

“Ma’am, we’re going to need you to keep your voice down. There are other patients that need their rest in order to recover,” came the voice of a nurse, who was poking her head around the doorframe, with a disgruntled look.

“Yeah, Gwen, calm down,” he added, shooting the nurse an apologetic look.

“Don’t Gwen me, you idiot,” the other ex-counselor shot back, poking the cast on his foot with a finger. She took a deep breath and continued with in a lower voice, “It’s a good thing that they’re so focused on Campbell, or lord knows what they would have charged you with. Child endangerment would have just been the least of your troubles.”

“Everything will work itself out,” he tried.

“David, look,” she sighed, sitting at the edge of his bed, near his thigh, “We’ve been friends for a long time. Since college, in fact. I’m just trying to understand what went through that empty head of yours. That’s all. And do give me, ‘I wasn’t thinking anything,’ or ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’ I know there was something going through your mind. What was it?”

It was true that they had been friends for a while, before they worked at Camp Campbell. In fact, it was David who had gotten her the job in the first place, the summer after she graduated. Although he was almost a full three years older than she was, he had taken an instant shine to her, when they had met in a music history class. Since then, they talked about everything from music—which was David’s passion, outside of camping—to the psychology of why people do the things they do and why the children frustrated them—even David, from time to time, to what they wanted for their futures and the trash TV Gwen so adored.

“I had to—I had to do something, Gwen,” he said eventually. He shut his eyes against the headache that was forming between his eyes. The more he thought about it, the more he found himself agreeing with his ex-co-counselor about how ridiculous it was. But, at the same time, he could shake the look on Max’s tan face.

“You did,” she said quietly, patting his cast gently. “You ditched Parents’ Night for him. You talked to him, one on one without any of that forced optimism bullshit—don’t think I didn’t notice.”

“I felt bad for what I said earlier,” he countered. His voice was much softer when he continued, “Besides, he needed it. You saw him.”

“Yes, and you went above and beyond. You were his camp counselor, not his father.”

“I know that. I just wish I could have done more, you know?” Dull green eyes turned their way to the woman sitting next to him, “I’m not stupid, Gwen.”

The woman recoiled just the slightest bit, her hand leaving the plaster cast and hovering uncertainly. It wasn’t often that she saw this serious side of David, but she knew that when she did, she had best listen.

“I knew he wouldn’t get very far,” he said, “But he had to at least try. Otherwise it would have festered inside of him and he would forever be left wondering what would have—could have happened if he just tried. He doesn’t have much power over his life—what kid does—but if I could give him just a moment of feeling that maybe, just maybe, he had control over this, then it was all worth it.”

Silence fell over the pair, save for the heart monitor attached to David’s finger. Neither knew how to continue. It remained that way for some time before Gwen’s phone rang.

“You should probably get that,” David said softly, “It might be someone important.”

Gwen’s hand hesitantly made itself to her pocket to pull out the device. However, even after checking the caller ID, she made no motion to actually answer the call.

“Promise me something,” she said, just as softly. “Promise me you won’t pursue this. Promise me that you’ll go on with your life. Don’t look for him. Forget about Camp Campbell—and don’t give me that look—just keep going forward. Get a real job—hell, go back to writing music—and don’t look back. Promise me that, David.”

The pair made and held eye contact for a long time, neither saying anything. The phone started to ring again and Gwen broke away to look at the caller ID again. From his angle, David couldn’t see the screen, but he hoped that it was an employer calling to offer her a job. She never did like Camp Campbell and a small part of him felt that she only stuck around because of him, even after the whole job search fiasco.

Thinking of which brought his mind back to Max. He wondered how far the boy made it after he had his clock punched. He wondered if he made it off the camp grounds. Knowing the kid, he though, it was likely quite the adventure. Unfortunately, he realized that he would likely never be able to ask. He would likely never see the boy again and it was a shame.

“I have to take this,” Gwen said, standing up. “Think about what I said, I mean it.”

And he did. He thought about it for a long time, even after Gwen was gone. He thought about it while he was having his cast removed. He thought about it while he was picking up his belongings and making his way back to his parents’ place. He thought about it while he explained everything that had happened—with some parts left out to protect certain campers’ privacy—and also while he looked for his own apartment. He thought about it after he started his new job, in the dark concrete box with too high ceilings. He thought about it long after Gwen’s calls became less and less frequent and also after she stopped texting all together. He thought about it for over a year before he made his decision.

One February night he picked up his banged up phone and sent a message of only two words, to a friend who once meant the world to him, but had taken her own advice and moved on. It said only, ‘I promise.’

From then on, David’s life improved little by little.

He still clocked forty hours a week in front of a computer, much to his distaste, but now he went out with coworkers from time to time. His one bedroom apartment was starting to reflect his personality, instead of being a place to sleep and keep his belonging. He even received the occasional text from Gwen, though they were careful to never bring up Camp Campbell or any of the campers. David felt that he was making good on his promise.

So, when his phone started vibrating in the pocket of his khakis a few minutes after work, he thought nothing of it. He simply tapped on the receive icon and brought the device to his ear. The voice that came out of the line nearly caused him to drop his phone in shock. He did however let out a rather unmanly gasp of shock.

“Hey Camp-man, long time no speak.”

Chapter Text

It took David some time to work through his shock and in that time, the voice in his ear managed to call him nearly a dozen highly insulting names. Only two things went through David’s mind. One was, ‘how did Max get this number,’ and the other was, ‘he hasn’t changed at all.’

“Err, hello? You still there?” the boy asked.

“Max,” he started, sounding much calmer than he felt, “How did you get this number?”

“Oh, you ARE still there. Thought you might’ve fainted or something. That would’ve been funny,” answered instead. The ex-counselor could imagine Max, still wearing an oversized hoodie and idly picking at his fingernails, as he held a phone between his small shoulder and ear, waiting for a response.

“Seriously, Max. How did you get this number? As far as I was aware, I never gave it to you. I mean I was going to, at some point, if things didn’t turn out so—I’m getting off track.”

“You didn’t, dumbass. Remember when I stole your phone,” Max asked.

“Yeah, that’s when you set up that date with Bonquisha,” David answered, the memory turning up nothing more than a distant ache. For a second, he wondered whatever happened to the woman, and her not-so-new boyfriend--come to think of it. He did go a little overboard.

“I also sent a text to my phone,” Max said simply.

“But you didn’t have a phone—”

“No shit. I sent a text to my phone at home. Get with it, David.”

“Why?” From their past encounters, David was hard pressed to find a reason as to why Max would ever want to contact him. As far as he knew, Max was pretty intolerant of his very existence. Why would the kid ever want to talk to him unless absolutely necessary and why after nearly three years? For a moment, a cold lump settled in the redhead’s stomach.

“Max, where are you right now? Are you alright?” he asked, his voice entering dropping into there’s-something-very-wrong-and-I-need-to-fix-it-now mode. Before he registered what he was doing, he had started powerwalking towards his sedan, “I’m coming to get you, just tell me—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Calm the fuck down, David! I’m fine! What the hell’s lit a fire under your ass,” the boy yelled over the phone. Immediately, he stopped on the spot, feeling a little awkward.

“It’ just—you never did tell me why you called. It’s been… two years, five months, and about twelve days since…” he trailed off. “I was under the impression that you didn’t like me all that much, so I jumped to conclusions. Why else would you call?”

There was silence.

David started walking towards his car again, this time at a much slower pace. Now it was David’s turn to wonder if something had happened on Max’s end. He was about to start speaking again, saying anything just to get some sort of reaction from the boy, when Max spoke again.

“You’re right,” he said, suddenly sounding tired.

“I am?” David pulled the phone away from his ear, to look at the phone as if it would explain.

“I shouldn’t’ve called. This was stupid,” he said before hanging up.

For a long moment, David just stood there, staring at his phone. The call had ended and he still had no idea why Max had reached out to him after all this time. He didn’t sound like he was in trouble. Actually, he sounded like the same rambunctious kid that had given David such a hard time, save for the bit at the end of the conversation. To add to David’s confusion, Max said that he had kept David’s number since their time at summer camp.

Taking a breath, and telling himself not to look too deeply into this—part of him was flattered that Max had wanted to keep in touch—he closed the little bit of distance to his car and unlocked the door. David climbed inside the grey sedan and let his forehead fall against the steering wheel.

He lost track of how long he sat there, trying not to think.

There was a choice to make.

He could pretend that Max had never called him. He could keep his promise to Gwen and wipe his hands of all things Camp Campbell—go back to his boring nine-to-five job and a life that was frankly boring in David’s book—or he could see what Max had to say. However, if he chose Max, it was hard to say what would happen next. From David’s experiences, the boy was constantly at the center of a perpetual shit-storm. What was to say that aspect had changed over the years?

Part of David was too tired, to weathered, to deal with that. The aftermath of Campbell’s investigation and subsequent trial was to thank for that. At the end of it all, David couldn’t help but think that Max had gotten his wish after all, though at the time David was still somehow a little sad that the boy wasn’t around to see it.

Regardless of all the vitriol the boy had spit his way, David was still fond of the boy. He was impressed by the quick wit and sheer will to fight—even if it could be better called spite—the boy possessed, because Max sort of reminded David of himself.

The quiet was disturbed by a large growl from David’s stomach. David raised his head from the steering wheel with a slight huff and looked out over the mostly empty parking lot. He needed a hot cup of tea and something to eat. He would think more about this once he got home and got something into his stomach. His worst ideas were always the result of an empty stomach—an empty stomach, an empty brain, his dad used to say.

Shaking his head to dislodge the through, he turned the ignition and attached his phone to the hands-free cradle attached to the dash. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about such things. He had resolved years ago to try and be more positive.

It was just after he unlocked his phone—to start his playlist of farmer’s almanacs—that he saw the little red dot near the phone icon. He had missed a call sometime during the day. Before he could tell himself not to, his finger was already tapping the screen. It was the same number listed twice. Once was at 2:30 pm and one was at 5:12.

The 5:12 call had been Max.

There, staring up at him from the screen was Max’s phone number. David stared at it dumbly. The thought of deleting it flashed though his mind, followed by a quick thought of blocking the number. That’s what Gwen would have told him to do. She would tell him to let sleeping dogs lie.

He couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he saved it under new contact, as MAX.

Chapter Text

It took nearly four days before David gathered himself to call Max.

In that time, he went about his days as usual: waking up early, going to work, alternating between beings social or doing various household chores, and trying to sleep. Sleep and David always had a somewhat complicated relationship.

Ever since he was a child, David found it hard to mentally turn off. There was always something rolling around up there, much to the disbelief to many who knew him. If it wasn’t preparing for a day of camp activities or thinking about deadlines and quotas, it was something else. These days it was Max.

He still couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out what prompted the boy to call.

Dissecting it, while entering data, or cold calling hadn’t helped. In fact, it had made his job much harder. His mind was great at thinking but horrible at multitasking. David found himself sorely tempted to call Gwen for advice, though her advice would probably not be very helpful this time around. In fact, she would probably be pretty angry with him for going back on his promise.

So instead, he opted not to tell Gwen. Not yet anyway.

Who knew, maybe Max was just bored and trying to get a rise out of him. Maybe everything could be cleared up with one or two phone calls and Gwen would never have to know.

That thought didn’t sit well with David.

He didn’t particularly like lying, though he had done it numerous times under Cameron Campbell’s employ. And besides, this wasn’t like that time he and Gwen faked a trip to the moon for a kid, or the times he fibbed and said that some of mess hall ingredients were fresher than they actually were. This felt bigger than that.

And Gwen was such a great friend over the years. She didn’t deserve this dishonesty.

But Max also didn’t deserve to be ignored. Not until David knew he was doing alright, at least.

So it was on a Saturday afternoon that David found himself sat at his poor excuse of a kitchen counter, with a cup of chamomile tea, a memo pad, a half-chewed pen, and his cellphone. He hadn’t bothered getting dressed in anything more than a pair of shorts, an old t-shirt, and a pair of socks. A

Shifting his weight on the bar stool, he picked up his phone and stared at the wallpaper for a minute. It was a picture of his parents’ dog. She was an old basset, with droopy eyes and jowls that almost reached the floor. I reminded him of the Quarter Master and he wondered what the old man was up to. Did he still have his strange parties on Spooky Island, be wondered, before the shook the thought out of his head. He was getting distracted.

David quickly tapped the contacts icon and scrolled through the names. His list mostly contained work contacts and a few friends. There were even one or two numbers collected from women he had met over the years. Then, of course, there were Gwen and his parents’ numbers. He skipped them and continued on to the names starting with the letter M.

He bypassed Matt-from-HR’s number.

Before he could chicken out, he tapped Max’s number twice, brought the device to his ear, and waited.

One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four.

No answer.

He waited to be sent to voicemail, but there wasn’t one. David hit the end call icon and couldn’t help the little laugh that escaped him. He put the phone down and picked up his tea.

‘All that worrying was for nothing,’ he told himself. ‘Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill.’

He took a sip.

No sooner than having taken a sip of hot tea, his phone started to vibrate against the countertop. The screen lit up, proudly displaying that it was Max calling.

David nearly choked, having narrowly avoided spitting his tea across his tiny kitchen. He fumbled to put the mug down, while reaching for his phone. In his haste, he knocked the mug over, and spilt the contents all over the counter and into his lap. He managed to save his phone from the worst of it, but not so his shorts. The scream he let out was rather high and undignified for a man his age.

He cast a look around for a towel. There was one hanging from the refrigerator door.

Standing, he hit the answer icon after only a few rings, “Hey, can I call you back, Max?”

“Ugh, you called me first, dipshit,” the boy replied.

“I know, I know,” David sighed, grabbing the towel from half way around the counter. He thanked his parents for passing on long limbs. That changed once he felt the tea—now cooled a tiny bit—seep into his socks and warm his toes. He had made a bigger mess than he originally thought.

“I had a little… accident,” David rolled his eyes at the loud laughter from the other end, “I’ll call you back in about five minutes, okay?

He started pulling at the material of his sweats. The phone was balanced awkwardly on his shoulder, ready to fall at any moment.

“Ever hear of speaker-phone, idiot? Seriously, what did you do?!”

David put the phone down on top of the now empty mug, and activated the speaker icon. He started blotting the stain with the towel, “It was just a little mishap with some tea. Really though, can I call you back—agh, crap, crap, crap, crap!”

“You know, you’re supposed to drink it, not whatever the fuck you did with it,” came the snide reply.

“Oh, ha ha, Mister Wiseguy,” David dryly replied, once he managed to wick away most of the moisture from his clothes. He eyed the puddle of tea dripping to the floor and then to the cloth in his hand. He dropped it into the puddle. It did nothing to help soak up the spill, as he had expected. He would need something bigger.

“Wow, didn’t know you did sarcasm,” Max responded just as dryly.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” He said, grabbing the phone as he made his way towards the bathroom. It wasn’t a far walk.

“I know your social security number,” Max shot back. David grimaced at that. He had forgotten that Glen had sold his personal information to a ten year old for help dealing with a different volatile child.

“You have me there,” he conceded, “But do you know my birthday, where I live, or even my last name?”

There was a beat of silence and then, “Tch, I’m not a stalker!”

By that time, he had reached the bathroom and was about to grab the towel off of the shower rod, where he had left it the night before.

“Besides, you don’t know anything about me either,” Max added.

“I do know that your first name is Max, which could be short of Maxwell or Maximillian. I also know you’re… 12?” David replied, closing the bathroom door, and heading back to the kitchen.

“And a half! Also, why do you know that?” The pout was audible over the phone.

“It’s simple math, Max,” he answered. Throwing the large towel over the mess, David waited for the tea to be absorbed by the towel. “Which reminds me, what’s a 12 and a half year old want with an ex-counselor? Last we saw each other, I wasn’t really your favorite person.”

“You still aren’t, numb-nuts, but you suck a little less than my old man. He’s absolutely insufferable, when he is around. I just called for the address,” the now twelve and a half year old blurted.

For a moment, David’s heart stopped.

He desperately wanted to make sure everything was okay, to comfort Max, but he held himself in check. The last time he had done that, Max had hung up on him. He didn’t want a repeat, so he carefully measured his words and spoke in as neutral a tone as he could.

“Address,” he clarified.

“Yes, address. You go dead in your old age?”

Although it had been meant as an insult, it lacked the usual bite. It was almost teasing. It was the tone Max used when he was afraid to show how much he really wanted something. David knew he had to be careful. He gave one last look at his countertop, before toeing off his wet socks, and making his way to the worn brown couch. He sat down, took the call off of speaker, and put the device back to his ear.

“You want my home address?” he asked slowly. When he was met with silence, he tried a different approach—one he knew would get Max to respond. “Are you going to send me a present?”

“God no,” he answered, as if the idea insulted his sensibilities, “I want your work address, moron.”

“You’re not going to sign me up for any weird magazines are you?” David pressed with mock seriousness.

“If you don’t hurry up, I might.”

“Well, it’s 622 Penfield Road, suite number 2B. I’m not really supposed to receive packages there—”

“Hold up,” David could faintly hear fingers flurrying across a keyboard. “Nice try, asshole. What’s the real address?”

 “That’s it,” he replied, unsure what exactly Max wanted. He was a little worried that the preteen would get mad and hang up.

“But Google says it’s an office building,” came a soft, confused, voice. “Where’s the camp?”

Chapter Text

“What are you talking about? What camp?” David asked, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. It felt like it was trying to relocate itself somewhere in his feet. Something told him he wasn’t going to like where this conversation was headed, so he shut his eyes and laid an arm over the top half of his face.

“Your camp! Camp David or whatever,” Max answered, his voice rising, “I want to put in my application, so, where can I get the stupid form and where do I send it?”

A wave of realization washed over David and it felt like ice. “There isn’t one, Max.”

“Bullshit! I don’t know what sort of shit you’re trying to pu—”

“I’m not trying to pull anythi—” Frustration. Welling up. Faster than David ever expected.

“Yeah right! I see what you’re trying to do!” Why wouldn’t he listen?

“I’m not doing anything. I’m sorry that this isn’t what you wanted to hear but—” David could feel his face going red. He wanted to yell. Or cry. Or both. He felt himself reaching a breaking point. He had forgotten just how easily Max could get under his skin.  

“I get it,” and just like that, all of the fight seemed to leave the twelve and a half year old’s voice. It caused David to pause. Frustration aborted. He had only heard that tone once before. That had been on Parent’s Day. He didn’t like it.

“You just don’t want to deal with me again,” Max’s voice sounded so certain. Hearing it caused David’s frustration to vanish. Instead, when David tried to speak, he found his voice so distant, so small.

“That’s not—”

“Yes it is. I was horrible to you.”

And as much as David wanted to say otherwise, he really couldn’t disagree. Max had been pretty lousy. When he wasn’t trying to break David down mentally, he had been actively gunning for the man’s life. However, as the summer progressed, Max had warmed up to David in his own way.

“It’s no wonder you wouldn’t want me back,” Max continued. “You know, that first summer, I thought it was because you and Gwen were still getting back on your feet. Then, when I didn’t get a flyer the second year…”

“Wait, are you saying that you actually wanted to go camping?” David asked, confused. The mental image of Max, alone and waiting for the mail, came to his mind. It was followed his imagination conjuring Max’s decent into feigned disinterest. Day by day, his back would start to slouch more and more. Small hands would remain jammed in pockets for longer periods of time, picking at the lining, until there were small holes in all of his hoodies. Eyes would start to narrow and grow distant, with eyebrows slanting steeper downwards. His usual smirk would start to turn down at the corners.

Then one day, he would stop checking.

Hot wetness pricked at David’s eyes, but this time they weren’t born of frustration. David remembered how it felt to wait and wait for something that was never going to come. It was an awful feeling.

Max broke the moment by snorting loudly. David could tell instantly that it was a front. He had been a counselor for a while, so he liked to think that he could read people pretty well, after having to deal with all types. Of course, he wasn’t infallible, but Max was easy enough to read.

“No, but I thought you’d at least offer. I mean, I had nothing better to do. I would have probably went, even if just to annoy you,” David’s lips quirked slightly at that, “but I guess I was too much of an asshole the first time around.”

David’s lips thinned. He decided that he had enough sad-Max for one afternoon, “I… I don’t know what to say, honestly. Why didn’t you just call me? You apparently had my number.”

He was itching to argue the point, but he knew Max probably wouldn’t believe him. The boy could be as stubborn, if not more so, than a mule. Max understood actions and ignored words, for the most part.

“I thought about it, but your feelings about me were pretty clear,” Max spat.

“That you were my favorite camper?” David tried, keeping his voice light.

“What? No. Have you been listening to a word I just said?” As expected, the words were almost instantly brushed aside. David wondered if Max was just so accustomed to being yelled at or talked down to that he didn’t register kindness. “Anyway, it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Some shit happened with my mom and we ended up moving. West Virginia sucks.”

“I see,” David replied while wondering exactly what had happened. David could only hope that whatever had happened, it improved Max’s living conditions.

“So, when you called me before,” David started.

“It was to ask where Camp David is. And don’t give me that bullshit that it doesn’t exist, because I know that it does. I googled it.”

David had to try not to laugh, “That’s not my camp. How much did you… research it?”

“You’re the only David I know, so it had to be yours, right?” David found himself reminded that Max was still just a kid. While he was incredibly clever and showed an amazing maturity from time to time, he still operated on what David liked to call, ‘kid logic’.

“Not quite,” he said with a smile. He really missed working with kids, especially ones like Max.

“I’m sorry to break it to you,” the smile faded, “but the truth is I really don’t have a camp. I haven’t been a counselor since Camp Campbell. That’s why you didn’t get a flyer.”

There was silence. There was no sound of fingers hitting keyboard. There wasn’t even the sound of Max breathing. There was only silence and it made David uncomfortable. His arm came away from his face and he blinked away the brightness of his ceiling light. When the quiet continued, the redhead pulled the phone from his ear to check if they had been disconnected. They hadn’t been.

Finally Max answered with a small voice, “It’s not because you hate my guts?”

David let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, “No. I already told you, you were my favorite, even if you could be a handful at times, and unbelievably rude, and—”

“Okay, I’m going to stop you there. I get it,” just like that, the mood shifted. Gone was the gloom and heavy feeling of the moments before. It felt like they were picking up from where they left off, two and a half summers prior.

“Besides, how would I know where to send it,” he added. He wanted to keep Max talking.

“I don’t know. Ask Neil or Nikki?” Max sounded like his usual spitfire self and David felt at ease.

“They have your address,” he asked as he made a mental note to look into contacting the pair. He might not have been able to be a camp counselor anymore or solve all of Max’s problems, but he decided that he could try to be there for the kid.

“Well, no, but they do have my number. They could have asked me and then told you,” David could practically hear the shrug. Again, ‘kid logic.’

“That’s incredibly well thought out,” David said after a moment of thought. Max had always had a knack for coming up with incredibly detailed plans. Then another thought hit him, “and creepy. How would I have explained that to your parents?”

“Nikki’s mom probably wouldn’t bat an eye,” Max replied, though it sounded like something else had his attention. There was no sound of typing, so David assumed that whatever it was, it was going on in Max’s brain. “We’re getting off track here. O, if you don’t have a camp set up yet, then when can I expect you guys to be up and running?”

David’s mind blanked. Hadn’t they just been over this? “I don’t have a—”

“So you keep saying! But we both know that you live, breathe, and probably piss camp!” David couldn’t help it when his face scrunched up in disgust. “The question is a matter of when. Don’t deny it. You want to go back. Can you honestly say you’re happy with whatever you’re doing now?”

David stared at the ceiling. Max was right, he wasn’t happy. He hated working in an office. He hated being forced to wear boring plain-colored ties. He hated how his eyes hurt after staring at a computer all day. He hated the lack of imagination his coworkers had. But most of all, he hated being stuck inside all day with people who couldn’t at least pretend to tolerate him as he naturally was.

David had learned quickly to censor his words and enthusiasm during his first week at the office. Of course he had tried to bring a positive attitude into his workplace, but that had only resulted in several complaints and a stiff warning from his boss. If he had been himself, he would have been terminated. At the time, he was hard-pressed for work and couldn’t afford to be fired.

To tell the truth, he still couldn’t afford it.

But he wanted out of his boring routine and if he couldn’t have Camp Campbell, he was going to hold on to the next best thing. “You’re right Max, I do miss it.”

He could imagine Max’s smirk.

“But as things are, there’s no way for me to make it work. My job pays decently enough, so long as I do a solid 40 hours a week and am careful. That’s just enough to afford this apartment and the necessities. To open the camp alone would cost more than I make in a year, not to mention—”

David’s brain started running the calculations.

“So, you just need money,” Max said as easily as someone states the weather, catching David’s attention. “What if I just give it to you?”

Chapter Text

Monday morning found David in front of his computer, dressed in a pressed pair of khakis, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, and a dark green tie. As his fingers worked at the keys, he thought about what Max had said. It had been utterly ridiculous, but part of David refused to let the idea go and kept playing it back repeatedly.

“What if I just give it to you? I can get the money, no problem,” the boy had assured. That in itself wasn’t very assuring. When David had pressed for details, he only was only told, “I have my ways, don’t worry. Just tell me how much you’ll need and text it to me. Let me worry about the money, you just make sure it’s not lame this time.”

The boy had mentioned only one condition. He simply said, “Oh, and none of that racist Sparrows shit,” before ending the call.

Days later, David still had no idea where Max expected to get the money from. He was starting to worry what trouble the kid could get into trying to get said funds. David had of course tried to talk Max out of it, via text and voice message, but it was no good. Once Max decided on something, he stuck with it, and David had to give him credit for that. If only David could get the boy to focus on something more constructive.

David was tired, of work, and of thinking. He rubbed his eyes. Against his better judgement, he had calculated how much it was cost to start a summer camp. It took him hours, causing him to only get a few hours of sleep. Like he had thought, the final figure was too high for him to achieve through his current job, and certainly too high for a twelve year old boy to come up with. He hoped that seeing the figure would convince Max that it just wasn’t possible.

That morning, David decided to text the boy during his lunchbreak, which was still some time away. So, he tried ti concentrate on the spreadsheet in front of him. The numbers blurred. He was too tired and all he wanted to do was sleep. The less responsible side of David thought that catching a few winks in the third floor’s men’s room was a possible option, but his rational side knew that his body wouldn’t be satisfied with a ten minute nap.

Instead, he dug a hand into his pocket. His fingers closed around some change. Three quarters, a dime, and some pennies. He put the pennies back into his pocket and opened his desk draw. There were a few more coins mixed with the paperclips. Combined, it was just enough for a drink from the vending machine in the hall. Nervously, he cast a look around the office. Everyone was too focused on their own work, so he pushed his seat back and stood up.

“And just where are you going, Davidson?”

Had he more energy, David would have likely yelped, and maybe even flailed a but, but as he was he just tensed up. David turned his head to the side to look at his boss.

“Just getting a drink from the machine, sir,” he replied while making no moves to leave his desk.

“Ah, right. Did you finish the numbers for the Jones account?” his boss asked. The heavyset man was still seated at his desk. However, the man had a booming voice that would have made Mr. Campbell jealous. Most of the time, it just scared the bejesus out of David.

“No, not yet. I should have it done in another hour.”

“Alright,” the man replied, turning back to his own computer. That was one good thing about Mr. Martin, he was much more forgiving than any of David’s previous bosses. All three of them. “Oh, and by the way…”

David tensed again.

“Don’t forget to take lunch when you’re done. I swear you work too hard sometimes, Davidson.”

“Yes sir.”

It took David about forty minutes to finish the spreadsheet once he had some caffeine in his veins.

It took about fifteen to finish his lunch.

Afterwards, he excused himself from the breakroom and stepped outside. The weather was just slightly cooler than average, with an overcast sky. The air clung to David’s bare arms. The forecast had said that it would continue until Wednesday.

From his pocket, he retrieved his cellphone and turned it on. In the previous days, he had quickly learned that Max liked to call and text at all hours of the day—and night. On the weekends, that was fine, but not so much in the workplace. While his boss was fairly outgoing, even he would frown at a call going off in the middle of a presentation.

Once the phone was on, he opened up the previous conversation, and started to type.

David: Here are the numbers you asked for. They’re a bit high…

He looked at the message. Something wasn’t right.

David: Hope you’re having a great day! :) I know I am! Here’re the figures you wanted. They’re pretty high though :(

It still didn’t sit right. He held erased his message again. David took a deep breath and let it out. Max would probably appreciate it if he got to the point.

David: Hope ur ok. Here’s the numbers. Warning: they’re high.

He then added the numbers, counting at all the zeroes.

David: This is per month. Minimum.

He hit send, before he spent the rest of his lunchbreak writing and rewriting it. He was about to shut his phone off again, and go inside, when he got a repy.

Max: I’m surviving.

David waited another minute before a second message came.

Max: Done. Give me to weeks. To tell the truth, I thought it would be a lot more.

David stared at the screen in shock. He had expected and hoped Max would drop the idea once he saw how much it was going to cost. There was no way a twelve year old could get that kind of money, he tried to reassure himself. Right?

Bad idea after bad idea popped into the redhead’s mind of how Max might obtrain such a large amount. Each one was worse than the last. He berated himself for sending the message. He should have ignored that call. He should have never Max plant that idea in his head. He should have never even considered it. He should have never—

His phone vibrated.

Max: Calm down already. I’m not doing anything illegal, dumbass.

David blinked. Then he chuckled. Apparently Max knew him better than he gave the boy credit for.

David: Ok then, where will u get it?

Max: Wouldn’t u like to know ;p

David: Max :/

Max: Calm your tits, David. I’m getting it from my dad.

That surprised David a bit, though once he thought about it, Max had never shown signs of living below the poverty line, though the boy did suffer from neglect. From what David could recall, Max’s clothes had looked pretty new, and the few items he had brought with him to the camp seemed to be in good condition, save for his teddy bear.

David: It’s still a lot. How do you know he’ll give it to u?

Max: Cuz he already did.

Chapter Text

It was about an hour or two after David had finished work, when Gwen called. He had been sitting on his couch, with some Chinese takeout in hand, watching TV. He hadn’t been paying especially close attention to the program or his lo mein, when he felt the phone vibrate next to him. At first, he thought it was another message from Max, but when it continued to ring, he put his noodles down to pick up the phone.

“Hello?” he asked, holding the phone to his ear with one hand. With the other, he grabbed for the remote to mute the television.

“Hi, David,” Gwen replied, “It’s been a while. Thought I’d check up on you. How are things?”

David paused. He hadn’t expected a call from Gwen and was at a loss as to what to tell her.

“Well,” he said, trying to stall for time. Quickly, he weighed his options. On one hand, she could possibly provide some much needed advice about his situation with Max. She had time and again proven herself a valuable source of advice. David thought she might have even been able to give him some insight as to direct Max’s focus away from the let’s-start-a-camp idea.

But, on the other hand, he had promised to wash his hands of all things Camp Campbell—Max especially. Though, to his defense, he had not been the one to seek the boy out. In fact, David could argue the point that it had been the other way around. Still, he had continued communications with said boy, which David guessed made the point a moot one either way.

And while David still had the option of keeping quiet about his talks with Max, he didn’t like keeping secrets from his friends. Frowning, he continued to weigh his options.

“Spit it out already,” Gwen said dryly, causing David to wince. It was great that she knew him so well. But it could be a pain at times too.

He sighed.

He would tell her the truth and deal with whatever fallout that caused.

Not telling her would be worse, both for his conscience and for his health. Heaven help him if she ever found out on her own.

“I… spoke to Max recently,” he said, voice calm filled with a seriousness that he didn’t often use. He decided not to dance around the topic. As his mother often said, it was best to tear off the Band-Aid quickly and get the worst of it out of the way quickly, “You remember him, right?”

There was a beat of silence and David steeled himself for whatever was to come.

Another beat and then, “How the hell did that little shit get your number?! David, please tell me you blocked him.”

“Gwen, please calm down. He got my number when he borrowed my phone. Anyway, he called asking about my camp,” he said, trying to keep his voice level and calm. Standing up, he began to pace around his small living room.

“But you don’t own a camp,” she replied.

“I know,” he gestured wildly. He waited for another explosion from his outburst, but it didn’t come, “I told him that, but he didn’t believe me. He called to ask for an application form and the address.”

David shook his head. “When I couldn’t provide him with either one, he… he accused me of—he thought… he actually thought that he was being banned from our nonexistent camp.”

When Gwen replied, her voice was much softer, “I was under the impression that he hated your guts and that he hated camp.”

“I know. I couldn’t believe it either, but I think it’s true. Talking with him, texting, he’s been surprising… decent. Of course he’s as foul mouthed as always, be he hasn’t been at all spiteful or cruel. In the past couple of weeks, I think he’s opened up more—”

“Stop right there.”

He stopped in the middle of living room, “Gwen?”

“I don’t want to be the one to rain on your parade, David, I really don’t, but you need to hear it and if not from me… then well… Look, I know you wish you could have done more for him. You’ve told me so yourself. But,” she cut him off before he could argue, “He’s. Not. Your. Problem.”

David opened his mouth to say that yes he was aware of that fact, but she continued, “Hell, he’s probably setting you up for something. If you’re not careful, soon enough you’ll find Chris Jensen sitting in your kitchen. We both know you would never do anything like that, but...”

David blanched, “Good god, no, Gwen!”

“Good, you haven’t completely lost it,” she huffed good-naturely. “I just worry about you, you’re too nice for your own good.”

“I know, I know,” he said.

“So,” she began as he started to pace once more. “What else did the brat want? Besides getting you arrested or insulting you via text. What use are you to him if he’s not torturing you?”

“Ouch, and here I thought we were friends,” he replied somewhat sarcastically, plopping his weight back down on the couch. The springs squeaked in warning, but he ignored them, and pulled his legs up.

“We are, but one of us has to be the realistic one here.”

“Why can’t that be me?” he asked with a smirk. She seemed to think for a few seconds, before she burst into laughter, causing David to chuckle as well, “Yeah, yeah, I can’t imagine it either.”

There was a long minute of quite, although it wasn’t an uneasy one. It was if the heavy tension of only moments before had dissipated and left a comfortable feeling between two longtime friends. A weight in David’s chest eased. That hadn’t gone as bad as he had been dreading. Maybe everything was going to work out after all, he thought.

David leaned back against the cushions and stretched out as much as he was able to with his lanky frame and small couch. He tilted his head back a little and closed his eyes. He rarely had these types of moments anymore. The last time had been a few days before the end of Camp Campbell when he had awoken early and spent his morning sitting at the end of the dock, next to the lake.

He let out a tiny contented huff. He missed moments like these.

“You didn’t answer my question, though,” and the moment passed.

David opened his eyes. He was back in his living room and his situation came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. Over the phone, Gwen made a small irritated sound.

“Oh, right,” he said, his heart sinking. “He… wanted to know how much it cost to run a camp.”

“Okay,” her tone prompted him to continue. He knew that tone. It wasn’t a good one. He may have dodged a bullet before, but he knew he wouldn’t be so lucky again. This time, his was the center of ground zero. “Somehow, he got it in his head… to help me… start my own camp.”

“You have got to be shitting me.”

He knew that she didn’t need to see his face to see the guilty look plastered there.

“Hey! I’m trying to discourage the idea! I’ve been trying to talk him out of it all week, but nothing I say seems to be working! I’ll admit that the idea is… tempting, but I ran the numbers. It’s just too much and there’s no way that Look, I know it’s going to blow up in our faces! I know it’s crazy,” David could hear the frustration leaking into his voice. A big part of him regretted saying anything at all.

“David, listen to me carefully,” Over the phone, he could hear her take a breath and hold it. After working with her for years, he knew it was her way of calming down. She let it out, “Yelling at each other and getting frustrated isn’t helping anyone, so please just listen, okay?

“Let me say my peace and then I’ll drop it. I know… you are a grown-ass man and you can make your own damn decisions, but you are also my friend and I worry about you. There’s no nice way I can say this so forgive me for putting it bluntly…”

David braced himself, but kept his mouth shut.

You suck at discouraging anything. It’s just not in your nature. You are too damn positive and that’s both your greatest strength and your biggest flaw,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Then, there’s Max. I know you’re fond of the little brat and you probably can’t see it—or maybe you just want to give him the benefit of the doubt—but he’s a manipulative, selfish, foul-mouthed little bastard, not your friend,” she continued, her voice grave. Although it was hard to listen to, David couldn’t help but give her his full attention.

“He might be a little bit more tolerable now, but he’s not your friend and you’re not his. He wants something from you—though I have no idea what—and that’s it,” she added. “Sure, it sucks that his home life might not be the best, but that kid’s still a little shit. Don’t let him drag you down too.”

David found that he didn’t quite agree, but he made a small noise in the back of his throat to show that he was still listening. Gwen rarely ever voiced her honest feelings about anything, usually preferring to wrap a watered down version with a thick layer of cynicism and/or sarcasm, so he made sure she knew that he was listening without interrupting her too much.

“David, you’re in a good place now. While it might not be your passion, you have a stable job, our own place, a car that isn’t going to fall apart while you’re driving it, and a future. Maybe one day something might change and you’ll be able to something else—like own your camp or start up your own hippy commune or some shit—but don’t throw that away for some half-baked idea,” she advised.

“You may be naive and annoying as hell sometimes, and obsessed with nature, and too damn nice for your own good, but you’re also the best damn coworker I’ve ever had—and an even better friend. What I’m trying to say is, someone’s got to watch your back and tell it as it is, even if that person has to be me,” she said with a hint of fondness, before her tone changed to slight annoyance, “Seriously though, get a girlfriend or something so I don’t have to worry about this shit anymore.”

David laughed softly and blinked the light film of moisture from his eyes. While some of the words had certainly been hard to hear, David counted himself lucky to have such a good friend. He tried to contain the grin that pulled at the corners of his lips by biting the lower one. He imagined that it caused him to look a bit deranged and thanked heaven that no one was around to see him.

“Oh and wipe that stupid grin off your face. Like I said, someone has to look out for you, since you’re incapable of making important life decisions,” she said after his laughter died down. However, her words caused that little quarter smile to spread around his face into a full grin.

“What grin?” he tried unsuccessfully to sound serious, “There’s no grin here.”

“Right,” Gwen replied, sounding largely unconvinced. Though, knowing her, David suspected that was the whole point. He shook his head fondly. It looked like their friendship would survive another day.

David looked at his untouched noodles and felt his stomach growl. It seemed his appetite returned.

“David,” Gwen started, tentatively, as he stuck a forkful of noodles to his mouth. He grunted in reply.

“I won’t ask you to promise me anything, but do think about what I said. I know you well enough that you’ll do what you think is right, even if it comes back to bite you in the ass. Just don’t… let him talk you into anything that we’ll all regret. There, I’m done. There’s some smut online with my name on it so unless there’s anything else?”

“No,” he answered after swallowing. He brought the phone away from his ear slightly before a thought hit him, “I mean, I’ll… try.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”  

Chapter Text

David awoke the next morning surprisingly well rested. He had gone to bed early after his conversation with Gwen, and although he did try to unwind somewhat by watching some television and finishing his cold noodles, his mind had remained stuck on what Gwen had said. He really did want to believe that Max was reaching out with good intentions, David wasn’t naive enough to let blind faith overwhelm his better judgement. Not anymore at least.

Gwen’s words struck a chord in David, had knocked a nagging little thought in the back of his mind, that David had refused to think too deeply about before. He had been forced to acknowledge that while a sort of bond had grown between the two of them, he and Max were not friends. They hadn’t been two and a half years ago, though Max seemed to have come around to the idea that the former counselor was perhaps not as bad as most adults, and unfortunately they weren’t really friends now.

It was daunting to David, who still tried to see a silver lining to most situations, even if that ability seemed to dull a bit since his stint at Camp Campbell. He wanted to throw himself into the idea of starting a new camp with Max, of getting away from boring job, and doing something he enjoyed again. But experience had tempered him into a slightly more cautious individual.

At times he thought he was turning into his dad.

That was to say that his life before the dissolution of Camp Campbell was rainbows and butterflies, as Gwen had pointed out. He had arguments with his family, had lived paycheck to paycheck at times, and had on more than one occasion suffered through a difficult child or two-- even before Max and his friends entered the picture.

But David thought it wasn’t all bad either. However, even he knew that had to ponder things a bit more, before settling on anything.

Something told him it was going to be a long day.

Shaking his head, David brought himself back to reality. He had the unfortunate tendency to get swept up into his own thoughts, much to the chagrin to those around him. This time, instead of letting his mind wander too far, he took another sip of his tea and mentally listed all the small tasks he had to accomplish before setting out for work.

There was the matter of finding his left sock, for instance.

He took another sip of his tea.

The morning had found him sitting on his couch, tea in hand, despite the already warm weather. Tea had always been David’s go to drink. He especially liked the herbal varieties. During his time as a counselor, the mess hall-- as well as David’s personal quarters-- had boasted a modest collection teas and tea paraphernalia. The calming effects helped David to better focus on tasks at hand, as well as handle stress.

David was in the midst of raising his mug for another sip when he felt his phone vibrate on the cushion next to him. He debated whether or not to look at it.

After a long moment, he decided it could wait. Standing up, he balanced his mug on the arm of the couch, and went in search of his missing sock. Once it was found, and put on the appropriate appendage, David proceeded to throw together a quick lunch, and grab his wallet from where it was nearly forgotten in a pocket of the previous day’s pants. He made a mental note to do the laundry once he got home.

In that time, David’s phone buzzed with several more alerts.

All that was left was finish off his tea, which was still precariously balanced on the arm of the couch, when he caught sight of the clock placed about the TV.

8:16

“Dang it!”

If he didn’t hurry, he would be late to work.

Turning mid-step, David altered course, and headed towards the door. He was about to grab his keys, when his phone vibrated once more.

He smacked a palm lightly against his forehead. In his rush, he had almost forgotten his phone. Turning once more, David walked across the short distance to his couch, grabbed his phone, and shoved it into his pocket, before dashing out of his apartment with his keys in hand.

By 8:21, David was turning the key in the ignition, and getting ready to shift into reverse.

By 8:24, he was already on the road.

It took another five minutes to get onto the parkway, though it would take some time to reach the exit closest to his workplace. While the traffic was surprisingly light, there was still the chance that would be late, if he wasn’t careful.

David eyed the clock set into the dash and grimaced. He really didn’t want to be late. He couldn’t afford to be late. With a resigned sight that didn’t often escape him, he made the decision to take a slightly shorter route.

Flicking on his signal, David prepared to turn onto the off ramp. It wasn’t his usual exit, but he remembered there was a shortcut via local roads, though he really didn’t like taking it. Normally, he would get off one exit past his office, and then circle back due to the abundance of one-way streets. Through the shortcut, he could shave several minutes off his commute, but there was a good reason he didn’t like going that way.

His shortcut would take him through busy intersection that for some reason lacked a proper stop light. Although there was a yellow caution light dangling above the larger of the two roads making up the intersection, few cars actually yielded to it. What made it even worse was the fact that it was very close to a school, which meant school buses and heavy traffic between the months of September and June. However, it was summer, so David only really had to mind the intersection.

It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

---

Once David had put his briefcase under his desk, booted up his computer, and grabbed a mug of tea from the break room, he sat down at his computer. His hands shook slightly as he grabbed the mouse and opened up the spreadsheet he had started the day before. Throwing himself into the numbers and color-coded cells in front of him, allowed David to push the nervous energy cracking under his skin away, and the cold sweat that had coated his back and neck during his commute evaporated away.

David hated taking that shortcut.

Entering a new row of numbers, David felt another buzz from the phone in his pocket. It was short and quick, probably a text message. Fingers paused over the keys for a second, before continuing to type almost manically.

He had been getting messages all morning, though he had yet to open or respond to any of them. While he had made it to the office, with only a couple of minutes to spare, his mind was occupied by two major thoughts: today’s presentation and the near-accident he had been in while on the road. Anything else was white noise.

As row after row of data was filled in, the tension in David’s shoulders eased, the line of his back became less ridged, and his heart rate came down. Occasionally, a hand would reach out, and he would take a sip of his rapidly cooling tea. Before long, he combined the spreadsheet with several others, checked the results, and started distilling the information into something easily digestible for the PowerPoint presentation later that afternoon.

A few minutes after David started the mock-up presentation-- deciding a background color was much harder than it should have been, and David still didn’t understand why forest green was not considered a good color for business meetings— David’s stomach reminded him it was nearly time for lunch.

“Still working on those numbers, Davidson?” asked the voice of his boss from somewhere behind David. Startled, it took a lot to not scream in fright, as David nearly jumped out of the chair. Although his scream was muffled into a slightly more dignified, “eep,” his knee did make forceful—and rather loud—impact with the underside of his desk.

Reaching a hand under the desk to rub his smarting knee, David wheeled his chair a bit to the left, to give his boss a better view of his presentation, bare-bones as it was, “Yes, sir, though I’m now working on the presentation. With a little more work, I should be done in another hour or two.”

“That’s great news,” his boss said, laying a heavy hand on David’s shoulder.

“Just have to add some more charts, and maybe some explanations, oh and do you think we should change the color a bit, because it’s---”

“Take it easy there, Davidson. You can do all that after you take lunch,” his boss cut in, giving David a knowing look. When David only gave a non-committal noise, his boss shook his head and stared him down, saying, “You have to take lunch.”

David had the decency to look a bit abashed. “I can take lunch and work on the presentation, sir.”

“No, no. You’re thin enough as it is. I won’t have my most capable man passing out at his desk, or worse, during the presentation due to overwork. Your last job put some strange ideas about worth ethic into that head of yours. I can finish the presentation. Go eat.”

“…alright. Let me just send you the file--”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the cloud, right?” David nodded. “Go and eat, that’s an order.”

“…yes sir.” David replied, pressing control-S quickly, with his left hand.

“And just so we’re clear, I don’t want to see you for another hour. Got it?” his boss asked, using his stature, or at least trying to, to get the message across.

“Crystal,” David answered, with a slow nod, pushing his chair back a little bit to extract his lanky knees from their prison under his desk.

“Good,” his boss said cheerfully, “Now go.”

---
It took only a few minutes to grab his sandwich and bottle water from the breakroom refrigerator, though it took even more to decide where to eat. Normally, if he didn’t eat at his desk, he ate in his car. However, now that he didn’t have his spreadsheets or the presentation to occupy his mind, his morning was threatening to take up residence at the forefront of his mind. Although he had not been hurt, or his car damaged, he was still a bit shaken by nearly being T-boned while getting off the highway.

He shook the idea away. Dwelling on what could have been was the last thing he needed.

Looking around the break room, he found that there wasn’t anyone he was overly keen on spending his lunch hour with. While David was a rather sociable person most days, the dead—almost soulless—faces of his coworkers almost put him off his lunch. Instead, he turned and made his way towards the main entrance, deciding he would take his lunch outside.

Making his way out the doors, he glanced up to the sky. There were a few fluffy clouds, but nothing to indicate any oncoming rain. Casting a look around, David saw a couple of benches to the side of the building, where he could sit and eat his lunch. Pulling at the knot of his tie, David loosened it, before undoing the top two buttons of his dress shirt.

If there was one thing David hated about the corporate world above all else, it was business attire. What he wouldn’t give to wear a tee-shirt and a pair of jeans or shorts.

He settled on the wooden bench, leaning back, and resting his long arms along the back of the bench. He closed his eyes for a few minutes and just enjoyed the sounds of nature, as well as the sounds of cars going by on the road in front of the building-- at least, until some driver started honking and yelling obscenities at someone driving in front of him.

Taking a bite out of his sandwich, he felt the phone in his pocket vibrate insistently. A phone call. Shifting his weight, he reached the hand not holding his lunch into his pocket, and pulled out the device. He didn’t even check the ID before answering.

“Hello?”

“Where the hell have you been?” came the high-pitched reply. David winced.

“Oh, hey Max,” he started.

“No! Don’t ‘hey Max’ me! I’ve been messaging you for hours. Why the hell haven’t you replied? To any of them?” the twelve year old shouted.

David suspected the deluge of messages blowing up his phone was Max’s doing, but he honestly just hadn’t had time—or the inclination, really—to look at, let alone answer any of them. However, he doubted Max would accept that reasoning.

“I’ve been busy,” he said simply.

“With what?!”

“Life. Unlike some twelve year old I know, I don’t get a summer vacation with unlimited time to do whatever I want,” David said not unkindly. “I have to work, I have a life, I have stuff to do. I’m not always going to be available all of the time.”

“You’re available now,” Max shot back.

“Yes, I am,” David replied, taking a bite of his sandwich, chewing, and swallowing. “Because I’m on lunch. Now, what did you want to talk so badly about?”

“It’s almost two-thirty and you’re just now having lunch?” the boy asked, sounding absolutely scandalized.

“Yep. Today’s been… interesting,” David frowned. He took another bite.

“Uh-huh. Well, I was trying to tell you that I got some of the money. Not all of it, but some. It might take a bit longer than I thought—fucking return policies—but I should have all of it by the end of the month. Now, about activities---“

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,” David cut in, putting his sandwich down. “Say that again?”

“What? I said, it’s going to take until the end of the month. Are you even listening to me?” Max snapped back with a huff.

“No, not that. Before that. Return policies?”

“Oh, that,” Max said airily. David could imagine the kid leaning against whatever happened to be next to him at the moment as he twirled his hand.

“That’s one way I’m getting the money. I’m returning some junk my dad bought. But some places,” his tone turned sour, “Refuse to give cash back. Something about needing a credit card or some shit.”

David went very still.

“Max, what are you trying to return?” he asked with a small voice. He had a bad feeling about this, a very bad feeling. If Max’s dad caught him pawning their stuff… David shuttered to think about what might happen. Suddenly he wasn’t so concerned with his almost-accident or the presentation any more.

“Oh relax. I’m not trying to pawn the TV or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. Not his, anyway,” the twelve year old replied, as if reading David’s thoughts. “My dad bought me a bunch of junk last summer that I don’t need, and frankly, don’t really want anyway. So, I’ve been having Rosalita—that’s our cleaning lady, by the way—drive me to the stores to return it.”

David blinked, only slightly relieved, “and the things that can’t be returned?”

“Whatever I couldn’t get cash for, I’ve been hawking online. People are willing to pay money for some really weird shit. I sold this one PS4 for---” Max started, but David tuned the rest out.

Everything was finally starting to click. That’s what Max meant when he said that he would get the money from his father. David was glad that most of his assumptions were proven false, and a little touched that Max would go through so much hassle for David’s benefit, but the idea still didn’t sit quite well with David. Something seemed off.

“Max, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, I really do,” he began hesitantly, “But what’ll happen once your dad notices all the nice stuff he’s bought you is missing? Or when he gets the alert that money was returned to his credit card? Please tell me you didn’t take his card…”

There was a moment of silence.

“Shit.”

“Max?”

“They tell him when I try to return things using his card?” Max asked, sounding very worried all of a sudden, causing David to worry by extension.

“Most cards do.”

“Ok. Ok, ok, ok, okay, I can work with this,” Max relied, sounding very flustered. David could hear a slight tapping sound over the line. Maybe a pencil hitting against something, David guessed. It took a few minutes, filled mostly with David sipping from his now room-temperature bottle of water, but eventually Max threw down whatever he had been tapping and clapped his hands together.

“Alright. Most of the stuff, he probably won’t notice gone, since he rarely ever comes into my room. The other stuff, I can lie and say had to be returned because it was broken or whatever. Everything else…” he stopped to think again, though this time he was much quicker to continue his thoughts.

“I’ll have to see what was paid for in cash. Then, sell what wasn’t online. Craigslist has been pretty good so far, but I don’t want any strange assholes knocking at my door, ‘cause while my dad’s pretty oblivious to most things, even he’ll notice that.”

David found himself nodding along.

“I guess I’ll have to make an Ebay account tonight and--- Um, David, you know anything about not getting fucked over on Ebay?”

David blinked. That was oddly well thought out, though David had to admit that coming from Max, he really shouldn’t be all too surprised. The corner of his mouth perked up in a small smile.

“I can’t say that I do, but Max you really don’t have to---“ Picking up his sandwich, he caught a glimpse of his watch. “Shi—shoot!”

“Err, you alright there David? You don’t normally---“ Max started, actually sounding concerned.

“Yes—No, I—I have to go. Sorry Max.” David launched himself off the bench, grabbing the remains of his mostly eaten sandwich and bottle of water. Jogging back towards the entrance, David binned the sandwich and shoved the bottle into his pocket awkwardly.

“My lunch break was over a couple of minutes ago. I’ll call you back after work.”

“Oh..kay…”

David ended the call, feeling a bit guilty, before he shoved his phone into his back pocket. Bursting through the glass doors like a man possessed, he ran to the elevator. Seeing that the lift was on one of the uppermost floors, and knowing that it would take forever to come down, David ran towards the stairs. Remembering his tie, David took the stairs two at a time, while trying to straighten his appearance.

He arrived to his desk seven and a half minutes late, frazzled, with a tie too tight, and a sore very ankle. He threw himself into his chair, woke his computer, and clicked on his PowerPoint presentation.

“Davidson?”

This time, David didn’t manage to hold in his yelp, causing many of his coworkers to look up at him in annoyance from their desks.

“Y-yes, sir?” He asked, turning his seat around.

“Did you enjoy your lunch?”

“I-I-I’m sorry sir, it won’t happen again,” David tried.

“Huh?” his boss asked, blinking at the disheveled man.

“I… was a little late… getting back from lunch,” David confessed, wilting slightly.

“Oh, that,” his boss laughed. “Don’t worry about it. Just try not to make it a habit, alright?”

David nodded.

“I just came to say that I finished the presentation. Nice work on the data collation, by the way. The meeting’s going to start in about thirty minutes, in Room C. You look… a bit frazzled, so why don’t you run to the restroom and straighten yourself out a bit before we head over and set everything up,” his boss recommended.

David stood, trying to put less pressure on his sprained ankle.

“Oh and one last thing: take the bottle out of your pocket. Stuff like that’s murder on khaki.”

Chapter Text

It took about twenty five minutes for David and his boss, Mr. Martin, to set up for their afternoon presentation. While Mr. Martin connected their laptop-- an old model made in the early 2000s and used almost exclusively for running PowerPoint slideshows-- to the room's subpar Wi-Fi and sound system, David balanced on a chair and tried to get the projector up and started. It was a difficult task on the best of days.

Once David had the projector primed and pointing at a particularly dull patch of empty wall, he carefully climbed down from the chair. He was a tad surprised that he hadn't fallen off the wheeled monstrosity. He wanted to think it boded well for their afternoon, so he kept his fingers crossed until the start of the presentation.

Literally.

Doing so made some of his other tasks, such as separating and placing printouts at each seat, harder than it needed to be, and had also resulted in a good number of paper cuts.

Almost as soon the clients started trickling in to the small conference room, David took his place at the laptop, ready to energetically tap the spacebar at his boss' command. Mr. Martin took his place in front of the image on the wall, pretending to check a few last minute things, close enough to where David was sitting to be able to speak at a comfortable level. It put him at quite a distance from their guests.

"Davidson," his boss began in a hushed tone, "If this goes well, our company will be partnering with one of the industry's giants. That means a lot more work for us, but—through them-- access to even more lucrative deals in the future. If we are smart about this, corporate will have no choice to recognize our department’s---"

David nodded politely, tuning the rest out. He had already heard this speech a few times over, so instead he cast a glance around the room. The room itself wasn't anything special, just a drab white room, with two long metal tables pushed together and some cheap office chairs. Several chairs had broken wheels while almost all of them had faulty height adjust pedals, including David's. His knees protested the awkward angles they were forced into.

He watched a few business professionals take their seats, trying to make themselves comfortable with mixed results. The winces and pinched expression on one woman’s face told him that they would be working with one strike against them before they even said a word. It was hard not letting his own expression mirror theirs.

"Which has me thinking," his boss continued. David pulled his eyes away from the clients fidgeting with the well-worn office furniture. David managed a small and not-so-convincing smile, directing it at his boss.

"If this goes well, let's just say your salary may be seeing an increase," Mr. Martin said with a small grin and a thumbs up

Before David could clarify, Mr. Martin stepped closer to clients. He drew himself up, trying to invoke a powerful image. However, the man was short-- shorter than David at least-- and a bit soft around the center, top, and bottom.

One man raised an eyebrow.

David rested his fingers atop the spacebar, fighting a grimace.

All too soon it was time to start the presentation.

-----------------------------------------------------

Surprisingly, the presentation went off without a hitch. There were no equipment failures, no flubbed explanations, or poorly-timed spacebar hits on David’s part. After Mr. Martin finished presenting the data, along with their company's suggestions for ensuring future growth, they gave a short Q&A session before seeing the clients off. To David’s shock—and if he was being honest, his pleasure-- Mr. Martin allowed David to field the majority of the questions.

Once the clients were walked to the front door, and the conference room tidied up, it was almost time to go home. To kill time, David rearranged his paperclip collection, added to his ball of rubber bands, debated making a cup of tea as a reward for a job well done About five minutes before it was time for David to go home, a slight man with greying brown hair stopped by David's desk.

"I hear you killed it today during your presentation with Mel Corp," the man said with a grin, leaning against the cloth-covered particleboard the office liked to use for partitioning.

David grinned back. It took a minute to put a name to the face, but it eventually came to him; Matt, from accounting. They had met a couple of times at corporate parties and a poorly planned company barbecue that no one in the office dared to speak of.

"Yeah, it went a whole lot better than I was expecting, actually," David answered with a jovial tone. It was rare that he saw people from other departments. He couldn’t help wondering what important business had pulled Matt away from his desk on the sixth floor.

"Good for you, man. I heard from Kim—you know, the blonde from HR?-- that you've been kind of stressed out recently. Don't make that face, it's her job to monitor us underlings, you know?" Matt answered, with a wave indicating the office drones around them.

"I also heard, from a source that cannot be named," David chucked softly, but sobered a bit when Matt didn't laugh back, "that some big changes are coming. Not all of them good."

Nodding, David kept silent. Matt pushed himself off the partition and nodded in reply. In a low voice he added, "Always remember, shit rolls downhill, so watch where you’re standing when it comes to it."

David winced, both at the phrasing and the drudging up of old memories.

"Mind you, you didn't hear that from me," Matt added, before tilting his chin up at the approaching Mr. Martin. As the stout man got closer, Matt pasted a smile on his face and stepped away from David's desk, "Ah, Martin, just the man I wanted to see."

David watched in silence as the two men went back to his boss' desk. Then he glanced at clock, collected his things, and made his way to his car.

He wasn't sure what to make of that exchange.

-----------------------------------------------------

The drive home was uneventful. David took his time driving and picked up a little something for dinner from a local diner. Then, after he got home, he showered, reheated his takeout-- he swore to himself that he would cook more often-- and fell heavily onto the couch.

He took a minute or eight to veg out.

Blinking back to reality, he grabbed his sandwich.

David had just taken a bite from it when he remembered telling Max that they would continue their conversation after David had finished work. He put the sandwich down, stood up, and walked into his bedroom to riffle through the laundry bin for his phone. One day, I'm end up washing it with my pants, he thought to himself, as he pulled the device from a very wrinkled pair of khakis.

He returned, phone in hand, to his sandwich. With one hand, he unlocked his phone, called Max, and put the phone on speaker. His other hand sought out his dinner. He chewed while he listened to the phone ring.

On the sixth ring, Max answered, "Look, I thought I told you; you come and pick it up or no deal, you lazy fuck!"

An ineloquent string of vowels left David's mouth in reply.

"Oh, shit! David! Oh thank god. My phone's been blowing up with people trying to negotiate prices or get me to deliver to bumfuck nowhere, or..." he trailed off. "Anyway, what's up?"

David blinked.

"Um, I'm..." he thought for a minute. He wasn't exactly returning a call and he didn't have anything that he felt that he needed to say, but he had promised to call back regardless.

"I'm sorry for before. When I had to cut you off," he offered as an explanation.

He was met with silence.

"Err..." Max started, sounding rather awkward, as he sometimes did whenever David managed to throw him for a particularly nasty loop. He heard the sounds of typing. David wondered if Max was replying to some of the ridiculous demands from potential customers he had mentioned. Heaven help whoever was trying to pull one over on the boy. David had firsthand experience with just how devious and rude the twelve year old could be.

Max seemed to pick his next words carefully, "It's... no problem. You had to work. I get it."

"Still...it's not nice," David frowned at the snort he received in reply, "And I told you I'd call you back after I finished, didn't I?"

"I didn't expect you to actually follow through," he said, sounding surprised. The typing stopped, "Most people don't."

"Well," David said, raising his chin and squaring his shoulders, "I'm not most people."

It took a second, but he grinned a little at the laughter coming from the other line.

"No you're not," the boy agreed, double clicking on something, "Though I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad one."

"'It is my gift and my curse,'" he quoted, receiving more laughter.

"Ok, Spiderman," Max-- and by extension David-- waited for his laughter to die down. During that time, David polished off about half of his sandwich.

"Seriously though, how'd it go?"

David felt his eyebrows raise at the question. "Honestly?"

"Mm-hmmn."

More typing.

"Not bad. Pretty good actually. Was nervous as all heck, but it all worked out," he replied, somewhat shell-shocked.

"Why were you nervous? I mean you talked in front of large groups all the time... and most of the time while we were raving lunatics. Some old rich white guys should be nothing."

Two double clicks.

David could feel his jaw dropping open. That was practically a compliment. He felt himself going further into shock. He idly wondered if he had indeed fallen from that wheel-y chair, and was now lying in a pool of his own blood, dreaming. It would explain a lot, he acknowledged. And it wouldn’t be the first time, he though ruefully.

There was the sound of clicking, followed by some sort of notification chime. David shook himself from the thought.

Don't make it weird, he told himself.

"That's the nicest thing you've ever said about me," he gushed.

He heard a heavy exhale.

He made it weird.

"Don't let it go to your head," the boy muttered, continuing his typing.

The following hour and forty seven minutes was spent recapping their respective days. While David had been giving his presentation, Max had been blowing up his friends’ phones asking for advice on how to keep his father from receiving notifications from credit card companies. David assumed Neil and--- Nikki, was it?—had be consigned into Max’s plan, but begged off knowing any more of the details so that he could plead ignorant should things go south. While he wasn’t proud of it, he had learned a lot about accessory and plausible deniability since his time as a counselor. Meanwhile, Max had seemed impressed.

Of course, their conversation was mixed with a bit of semi-friendly banter, and when all was said and done, David was left feeling like the day had turned out to be a pretty good one. Soon after the call ended-- David had sternly (or as sternly as he knew how) told Max to go to bed after the boy had managed to yawn several times in a row in under a minute-- David decided to make an early night of it as well.

He washed up, set out his clothing, and dropped himself tiredly into bed.

Just before he fell asleep, a thought struck him: Something tells me that tomorrow is going to be a good day.

Chapter Text

It was incredibly early when David next opened his eyes. The summer sun was just starting to rise by the time he was sitting down to a breakfast of cereal, fruit, and a mug of tea. In the early morning quiet, David couldn’t help but feel unusually calm. He let that feeling settle over him.

It wasn’t often that the feeling came to him anymore.

When he had finished his meal, he began to prepare for the day. He took care of his morning absolutions, taking extra care to try and tame the wayward mess he called a fringe, to little avail. He then dug through his closet for clean work-appropriate attire, got dressed, and prepared a simple lunch to take with him to work. Once he was finished, he still had an hour before he actually had to leave.

Still, idleness had never sat well with David.

He grabbed his belongings and got into his car. The engine turned over easily and he was on the road just after seven. He was parked in front of work by a quarter to eight. Not wanting to bake in his car, David decided to stop into a small bagel-shop not too far away from his workplace.

After ordering a small tea, he sat himself at a table, and checked his phone. There was one new message received at 2:38 a.m.

He opened it.

Max: Got Ebay up and running. Neil wrote some sort of script that filters out weirdos and makes it the first thing that comes up on Google. Bad news: he wants a cut. Didn’t tell him what we’re up to, so if anyone asks, you know nothing.

David blinked at the text. A small grin pulled at his lips. So much for knowing nothing, he thought. He eyed the time stamp again, shaking his head. He had told Max to go to bed early.

It took only a few seconds for David to think up a reply.

David: That’s great and all, but this message alone destroys any plausible deniability. I’m going to assume you know what that means: I now need to burn this phone, change my name, and move to a foreign country…

He hit send and sipped at his tea.

It took a bit, but to his surprise, he got a reply.

Max: Why the hell are you up this early is beyond me, but u know what they say about assuming, rite?

David: It’s not nice? ;P

Max: That it makes an ass outta you & me >:(

David took another sip of his tea, before settling on his reply.

David: I might have heard that once or twice.

The reply came almost instantly.

Max: O.o

When David failed to reply, another message came.

Max: Alright, who is this? David would NEVER say that. So again, who is this?!

David: What makes you say that?

Max: His jokes aren’t that funny. Besides, he’s Mr.PG. Damn’s a curse to him.

David: I’m hurt. orz I can be hip when I want to be.

Max: Just the fact that you said that…

David: Yeah, it was pretty bad, wasn’t it?

A little more than half of David’s tea was gone in the time it took for Max to type out his reply. David was staring out the window when the phone vibrated in his hand.

Max: You going to work today?

David: Of course :)

Max: It’s an office right? Do you like it?

A minute later and a longer message followed. If David had been drinking his tea, he was sure it would have been covering the table.

Max: Is it filled with trees? I bet you totally have a tree on your desk. No—10 trees! Bet, you’d have like 50 trees if you could fit them all in your office. Do you have your own office? It’d suck if you had to share one. You’d drive your coworkers crazy!

David imagined his office filled with trees springing up between the desks and sticking out from various pieces of office equipment. Then he imagined the fauna replacing his coworkers and smirked. He couldn’t say the though wasn’t appealing; very appealing.

Another thought came to him.

He quickly glanced at the time. It was 8:37. He still had a little bit of time before he had to head to work, so he started tapping out a reply. Once he was done, he took a large gulp of his now cool tea, trying to finish it off.

David: The only trees we’ve got are the dead ones in the copier.

Again, the reply was almost instantaneous.

 Max: What the hell, man? Where was this side of you during camp? It’s like you’re finally starting not to give a shit. Getting jaded in your old age?

David: Hey, I’m not that old! Just wait till you get to my age…

Max: You’ll be dust by then. But anyways, you didn’t answer my original question. From a scale of ‘this is so fucking lame’ to ‘there’s a semi-automatic in my pocket right now’ how would you rate your workplace?

David stared at the message, then at the time again. 8:42. He stood up and threw his mostly empty cup in the trash. Considering the time, David realized that he probably wouldn’t have been able to chat for much longer. However, before he could evade the question by ending the conversation or chastise Max on his rather crude sliding scale, his phone vibrated again.

Max: You don’t like it at all, do you?

He stopped and debated on answering at all. Although he may have been a bit friendly with his boss from time to time and the pay kept David fed—with a roof over his head—it didn’t mean he liked his job; though it was nice that his family was finally starting to get off his back about his life choices.

With a sigh, he decided to be honest and let things fall where they may. It felt nice to be able to complain a little and not get slack for it.

David: I friggin hate it.

He pocketed his phone and jogged back to the office, with a few minutes to spare. Once he was there, he quickly made his way to his desk and sat down. No one so much as looked up.

---------

The rest of David’s day was slow and not particularly exciting. When he was not entering numbers or formatting spreadsheets, David was checking the clock and counting the hours—first until lunch and then quitting time.

When lunch finally rolled around, David took some time to check his messages. In the hours he had been working, he had received a rather long message from Max, offering assistance in alleviating his workplace woes through a complex plan using a homemade explosive device and a daring escape via bald eagle (arranged and implemented by Max and his friends). To David’s mild horror, the idea stuck with him long after lunch, through the building of a macro-heavy excel file, and into collating several spreadsheets into color-coded graphs that would be used in an upcoming presentation. A small part of David debated whether this idea, or the mental image of all his coworkers being supplanted by trees, was more amusing.

In the end he decided on the latter, if only because it promised less chance of injury to his person.

David also wondered what happened to make him seriously consider such things in the first place, even if Max had been the one to suggest them. He wondered if his fuse really so short that his usually positive nature was relegated to the back burner. However, soon after deciding that yes, he needed a change, the voice of his boss called him over to the larger man’s desk.

He glanced at the clock for what seemed the hundredth time that hour; 4:42 p.m.

“Davidson, I know it’s almost five, but do you have a moment to talk?” asked Mr. Martin, standing up from his chair. David nodded from his place in front of the man’s large desk. “Let’s go into 2B to talk.”

David followed his boss through the maze of cubicles and to a small room to the side. It was a bit bigger than a closet, though not by much. The wall facing the cubicles was made of semi-opaque glass, while the door was made of wood with a frosted window. On the door were two stickers reading 2B. Mr. Martin opened the door, turned on the light, and motioned David to enter.

Inside were a small wooden table and three chairs. David took the seat furthest from the door and folded his hands on the table, trying to look at least a little professional. Under the table, his right knee bounced slightly.

Once he was inside, Mr. Martin shut the door behind him.

“Um, so, what did you want to see me about?” David asked.

“I’ve been monitoring your work recently, and I wanted to let you know that I’m very impressed by what I’ve been seeing. That, coupled with your performance yesterday, has me thinking about the future,” the man replied with a smile.

Mr. Martin sat down and leaned towards David slightly. The pleasant expression didn’t leave his face, though he tried to look a bit more serious as he continued, “Davidson, let me ask you a question: where do you see yourself five years from now?”

David’s knee stopped bouncing.

“You see, I think that you’re ready to take on more responsibility. In your last position, you showed great leadership abilities, which translate well to our field. You’re also able to think on your feet and have great people skills, though you can be a bit enthusiastic at times,” his boss chuckled. “You proved that you have what it takes to get things done, as well as play with the big boys, so I think it’s time we moved you out from behind your keyboard.”

His boss stood up and started to pace as much as the tiny room and his large frame would allow. “The truth is, we need more people out there, talking with clients and sealing deals.”

David felt the blood drain from his face.

“Of course, you wouldn’t be starting all that right away. I’m not that cruel. But in the next few months, we would be working towards grooming you to take on a more active role in the company. You would be doing what I’m doing now, but coupled with what you already do. And before you say anything, your salary will be increasing, of course—and by quite a lot, actually.”

“I…” David started, not entirely sure what he wanted to say. It was an amazing opportunity, to be sure.

“It’s a lot to take in, so you don’t have to answer yet. Take some time to think about it and let me know if you’re interested,” Mr. Martin raised a hand up to forestall any argument.

“Also, I looked at your file—and I hope you’ll forgive me for that—and I couldn’t help but notice that you’re still technically on a temp contract—although you do receive benefits and work a full 40 hours,” he added, watching David’s face pale further. “If you decided not to accept this position, which you can do—I won’t get upset—I will still try to talk HR into revising your contract to that of a permanent employee because you are one hell of a hard worker, Davidson. However, that final decision doesn’t rest with me.”

“So, that means I can be let go at any time,” David said, weakly. Something was uncomfortable was settling into his gut.

“Unfortunately. Still, I’ll see what I can do, and you think about what I said. I mean it; we do need more people like you, but really think about it and let me know what you decide. There’s no time limit, but there is one thing I’d like you to do for me. Let’s keep this between us for now, alright?”

He just nodded.

----------

David couldn’t recall anything that happened between the time he left 2B to the time he arrived home. He had made it home in one piece, but his mind seemed stuck in a relay loop, the entire time. He was hyper-aware of the implications of his conversation with his boss, with his brain attempting to pick apart every word, and every possible outcome of every possible choice.

At least the ones he could think of…

So deep was he in his thoughts was he that he barely even felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It had been vibrating for a solid minute before it registered. Blinking himself into the present, he dug it out of his pocket. It was still vibrating when he looked at the caller ID.

“Oh, hey, Gwen,” he greeted absently.

“Whoa, what’s up with you? You don’t sound like your annoyingly eager self. Something happen?” she asked.

“Kind of,” he replied, sitting himself down of his sofa, and stretching out. He threw his feet over one of the arms and settled his head against the other. David found that the sofa was just a little too small to fully accommodate his lanky frame.

“Alright, what’d the little shit do now?”

He shifted, trying to get a little bit more comfortable. Grabbing the thin blanket from the back of the couch, he wadded it up and put it under this head, “Who?”

“Max. I’m assuming that’s what’s got you in this funk,” she replied dryly. David could imagine Gwen rolling her eyes.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, he caught himself almost warning her against assuming. He rubbed his forehead with his free hand instead. He wondered if he was more tired than he though.

 “Nothing,” he said, putting the call on speaker.

“He was downright pleasant today,” he added, as he balanced the device on his sternum. Maybe what he needed was a new perspective.

“…right.”

“No, it’s nothing Max said. Work’s getting to me, that’s all. But I’ll be fine,” he rushed to assure her, hands waving frantically, even though she couldn’t see them.

“Bullshit.”

“No really, we chatted for a bit this morning and it was—”

“Not that, though I can’t really imagine the brat being nice. What’s going on with work? Is everything okay,” she asked.

David stared up at the ceiling. He noticed a spot of water damage that seemed to had been painted over at some point in time, before he had started leasing the apartment. He made a mental note to call the landlord about it whenever he had time.

“David?”

He blinked and tried to refocus.

“I got called into the boss’ office,” he started. “It was nothing bad per say—he’s not upset with me or anything like that—but he had a look at my contract recently.”

“…okay.”

“And apparently it’s still on a temporary basis. No one’s changed it, so…” he trailed off, staring back up at the semi-visible stain, waiting for her to make the connections. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Shit,” after a pause, “I’m so sorry David.”

“That’s not what’s bothering me, though. He also asked me if I was interested in starting a new position—one with more responsibility and I’m guessing more pay. He made it sound like some sort of… promotion,” he continued, in the same subdued tone.

“That’s great! Please tell me you said yes.”

“He told me think about it,” he said, swerving around the question.

“And you’re going to say yes, right?”

“Well, that’s the thing; I don’t know. I should want this, but I don’t,” he confided, taking a deep breath. He shut his eyes and folded his hands over his stomach, awaiting the backlash.

“David,” she started with a warning clear in her voice.

“Look, I know you don’t like your job—like at all—but you know you can’t just run off to do fuck all with some twelve year old, right? As much as I hate to say it, we’re not fresh out of college anymore, with our whole lives ahead of us. We’re getting closer and closer to the big three-oh. We’ve got to get our shit together,” she pleaded.

“I know, Gwen. And I’m trying, I really am,” he said, trying to dispel the tension.

“After everything that happened, I know I’m pretty lucky to have this job. Even if I really don’t like it,” he added. “Most days, I can find something positive to get me through the day…”

He didn’t say anything about how it had been getting harder and harder. He didn’t dare say another word. He just shut his eyes and waited for Gwen to say something.

It took a while, but finally David heard her let out a heavy sigh.

When she spoke again, it was with a much warmer tone. “Adulting sucks, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” he confirmed.

“Well, whatever you decide to do, keep me in the loop. If you take it, you can take me out for pizza. And if you don’t: I’ll bring you some Hot Pockets to get you through the week, the next time they’re on sale,” she said with finality.

David smiled. It was a wonderful feeling to have such a good friend.

He felt much lighter, having talked to Gwen.

He let out a breath.

Things were certainly starting to look up.

He had just opened his mouth to switch topics to Gwen’s favorite reality TV shows when he heard screeching tires, followed by the impossibly loud sound of crunching metal and shattering glass come from window overlooking the street below. He narrowly avoided launching himself off of his sofa, instead rolling off half-way and dropping his phone.

“David?! David, are you alright?!”

“I’m fine,” he said, as he scooped up the device and ran over to the window.

“What the hell happened?”

Throwing back the curtain, he nearly dropped the phone again.

“David?! David—where are you? I’m coming over there!”

Gwen’s panicked screeching continued, shooting question after question at David, though he didn’t pay it any mind. With a face white as paper, he just stared at the spot where his sedan once stood.

“David, answer me! What the fuck just happened?!”

He shook his head, but it did nothing to dispel his shock. He eyed mangled mess of steel and plastic, “I’ll call you back later...”

He did nothing to end the call.

Chapter Text

When David finally came back to his senses, he noticed one thing: whoever it was that had crashed into his car was long gone.

In their wake, remained what once had been David's faithful sedan. While a good portion of the driver's side of the vehicle was intact, almost all of the passenger's side was beyond repair. The rear bumper now resided around where the passenger seat should have been, while pieces of both windshields now decorated the street. The passenger side mirror laid in a twisted heap some distance down the road.

"David," came Gwen's voice, sounding small and distorted, even though she was still on speaker phone. He looked at the device in his hand, for a long second, before bringing it closer to his face. The distant sound of sirens barely registered with him.

"Yeah, Gwen?" he asked softly, turning and letting the curtain fall back over the window.

She paused before answering, eventually letting her voice settle into the same subdued tone as his, "What just happened?"

"My... my car just got... totaled," he answered, shock coloring his words. Even as the words left his lips, the ramifications failed to sink into his brain. Instead, his brain found itself stuck in a loop. One second everything had been fine. The next, he was staring at an absolute wreck of a vehicle.

He leaned back slightly, feeling his lower back settle against the windowsill and curtain. He blinked rapidly, brain still reeling. David felt the hand holding his phone lower a little.

"Were you in it?" She asked in an even voice. Startled, his hand jerked upwards, back towards his collarbone, where he had been holding the phone to answer Gwen’s other question.

Shaking his head, David tried to shake himself out of his shock. He thought about Gwen’s question, about both the words and her tone. That was the tone she used when bracing herself for an answer she didn't want to hear. David imagined that she was envisioning him, trapped in his car-- maybe in his final minutes-- somewhere far from anywhere she could possibly provide help.

The thought was terrifying.

"No. No, I’m fine," he assured.

The sound of sirens grew louder, but David didn’t move. Instead, he leaned back a little more, still being somewhat careful of the window—thankfully closed—behind him. He felt the back of his head knock very lightly against the curtain covered glass. He shut his eyes, but kept his phone at an appropriate height for conversation.

Soon after, he heard Gwen let out a large breath. "Good. Thank god for small miracles."

His lips quirked up slightly, although there was no humor in the situation. Small miracles indeed…

___

His and Gwen’s call didn’t last very long after he assured her that he was alright. Afterwards, David made his way downstairs, after taking a moment to slip into some thick soled shoes. He spoke to a pair of officers about the incident and what he had seen—which wasn’t a lot. He filed a police report, but as David had assumed, there was likely little the police could do. He was given a document with information to give to his insurance, along with a promise of a much more official report to be sent soon.

After returning to his apartment, David made himself a cup of tea, and tried to contact his insurance company. It took a very long time to get connected to a living person. It took longer to sort through the details of just exactly what had happened. In David’s opinion—and he wondered if maybe he was channeling a certain preteen he knew—the process took somewhere between too long and absolutely ridiculous, and left David absolutely exhausted. Thankfully, he wasn’t scheduled for work the following day. So, upon hanging up, David stumbled into his bedroom, shut the blinds, and fell into bed still dressed.

However, waking up, he only felt marginally better. He knew he still had to see about repairs—if in fact they were even possible, which he doubted—, look into alternate transportation to and from work, and relay the entire situation to his boss. The thought of spending his limited free time in such a way put a damper on David’s already subdued mood.

He hoped he would feel a little better once everything had been sorted out.

Making his way into the bathroom, he chanced a glance at the mirror. Had he more energy, he would have recoiled. Instead, he shucked off the previous day’s clothes, stepped into the shower, and worked on mentally preparing himself for the day ahead. He only got out once there was no more hot water.

Then, he focused on scrounging up some breakfast, even though he wasn’t all that hungry. He settled on some toast and a strong cup of tea. Spreading some strawberry jam on his toast, David thought about the contents of his savings account. He estimated the cost of repairs—making sure to highball the figures—and compared them to the costs of both a new and used car. While he did have the bare minimum of emergency savings, a sum covering about three months’ worth of expenses, he doubted it was enough. Anyway David looked at it, he was going to get into serious debt.

He let his head hit the counter.

Repeatedly.

Then, the first half of the afternoon was spent arranging transport to the mechanic, followed by the junkyard, for his poor mess of a car. Being laughed out of the garage had left David feeling a little agitated, so when the junkyard offered him five-hundred dollars, he was all too happy to accept it and head home.

The second half was spent trying to contact his boss. He tried the company line—which went straight to voicemail to no one’s surprise. He tried calling his boss’ cellphone as well, though that one didn’t have a voicemail option. He even tried calling his boss at home, but only ended up talking to the man’s three year old daughter—who hung up on him. Twice.

Sighing, David put his cellphone on the counter. He decided he would try again after eating a little something. He focused his attention on looking through his cabinets, which to his dismay did not contain much. He would need to visit the supermarket soon, he realized and winced. Without a car, something as simple as grocery shopping was going to become much harder.

He grabbed a frying pan from the cabinet above the stove and checked his small refrigerator. He took out a stick of butter and some sliced cheese. Checking the expiration date, he noticed the cheese was a day past the date. He shrugged and opened the deli paper. It looked fine, so he placed it on the counter, turning towards another cabinet in search of bread.

There were four slices left.

He decided to use all of them.

Making the grilled cheese sandwiches didn’t take long. Once they were plated, David poured himself a glass of milk and sat back at the counter to eat. Halfway through his second sandwich, his phone started to vibrate.

Swallowing, he answered, not bothering to check the caller ID.

 “Hello?” he asked, sipping his milk.

“Hey, lame ass.”

“Oh, hey Max,” he started as he put the glass down, “It’s not really a good time, right now.”

“Oh… OH! Damn, you got a woman over or something? Look at you,” the boy teased.

“What? No!”

“…A man?”

“No, no. That’s not it,” David answered, picking up his sandwich for a brief second, before putting it down again. He wasn’t hungry anymore. “I’m just having a bad day; a really, really bad day. I don’t think I’ll be such a fun person to talk to right now. And I’m also sort of waiting on a call…”

“Wow,” Max replied, sounding a bit concerned, “What happened?”

“My car got totaled,” he said for what felt like the thousandth time that day.

There was silence, followed by, “Were you in it?”

Both of David’s eyebrows rose slightly. That almost sounded concerned. Before he could think any more about it, a memory surfaced. For just a moment, David was reminded of an incident two summers ago.

It wasn’t probable.

But it wasn’t impossible…

“No, but Max, where are you right now?”

“Now? In my room, at my desk. I’m supposed to be studying,” he replied. David could faintly hear what sounded like rap coming over the speaker, although the volume seemed to be quite low.

“And you haven’t been… driving at all, have you?” David asked, feeling a little silly.

“No, why would I—you think I wrecked your car?!”

“I’m just asking.”

“Well, fuck you! I’ve got better things to do then---”

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry. I was just asking,” David took another sip of milk to fill the silence. “Look, I’m sorry for accusing you of destroying my car. Like I said, I’m not a good conversationalist right now.”

David swirled the milk around his glass while he waited for Max to respond. It took a while, but Max eventually did, “David, you suck at accusing people of stuff. I… overreacted.”

“Max…”

“Anyway,” Max cut in, turning the music down even lower, “What are you going to do about your car? Can you fix it?”

“I sold it for scrap. Unfortunately, it was too badly damaged. Hit and run destroyed the entire passenger side. I did try bringing it to the mechanic, though,” he said bitterly.

“And what did the mechanic have to say?” the boy asked, sounding genuinely invested.

“He laughed in my face. Told me he was good, but even he couldn’t perform miracles.”

“You should’ve punched him in the face,” Max replied, sagely.

“Believe me, the temptation was there,” David added with a slight smirk, although at the time, he had wanted to cry in frustration. But Max didn’t need to know that.

“Oh boy, I’ve seen you punch someone’s lights out—and even use a chair!” Max sounded very amused at the memory. If David was to guess, he would imagine a grin on the twelve year old’s face.

“Yeah, that wasn’t the best way to handle the situation…”

“So, do as I say, not as I do, right?” Max snickered, “So, you junked your car. Now what? Are you going to buy a new one? You should get a hydraulic suspension put in so it bounces when you listen to music.”

David imagined rolling up to work in a bouncing car. The idea got a chuckle out of him.

“Did you decide what color you’re going to get—who am I kidding?—it’ll probably be some god-fucking-awful shade of yellow,” the boy added. David winced.

“Why yellow?” he had to ask.

“Isn’t that your favorite color?”

David blinked, “I’m more partial to greens and blues, actually.”

“Really? Huh… Good to know, I guess.”

“But to answer your question, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t have enough money to buy a new car. A used car might be an option, if I can find someone who has one they’re willing to let go of, and it’s within my price range,” David said before finishing off his milk and looking at the remainder of his sandwich. It was practically untouched.

He decided he would wrap it in foil and throw it into the fridge. He could eat it with a can of soup later.

“What exactly is your price range?” Max asked as David fished the roll of foil out of a draw.

“Between seven hundred and two thousand, though I know that anything in that price range is going to be—let’s just say—a bit…” David put the phone on speaker, placed it on the counter, and began to wrap the sandwich.

“A piece of shit?” Max added, helpfully. David nodded, opening the fridge.

“I was going to say garbage,” He put the sandwich on the top shelf, next to the milk, “But I guess that works too.”

He smiled at the shout of triumph that came from the other end of the line.

“I just need something to get me too and from work until I can either afford a better car or to fix up that one. That should only take a few months, so long as nothing else comes up,” he continued, picking up his phone, and walking into his bedroom.

On a small IKEA desk was David’s old laptop. It was almost as old as dirt, as it had been a gift from his parents when he graduated college, but it still worked fine for general internet browsing and other daily tasks. He booted it up, “I’m going to look around on Craigslist for people in my area, maybe call around a bit tomorrow. I’d like to find something by Monday, but realistically…”

David opened a draw and rummaged around for a USB cable. Finding one, he plugged it into his phone, and then his computer. This way, he didn’t have to worry about a dead battery mid-call.

“What about a loan? Then you don’t need to buy a junker,” Max asked. Over the line, David could hear Max typing something at his keyboard. He guessed study time was officially over.

“My credit’s not exactly the best…” he trailed off. After imputing his password, David waited for the desktop to load, before opening up Internet Explorer.

“I’m surprised, David. You don’t seem the type.” Max sounded honestly surprised. There was more typing, a few mouse clicks, and the sound of a pencil eraser tapping against a desk?

“I’m not,” David opened his bookmarks and clicked on Craigslist. He then set about looking for used car listings, “But my credit score was ruin after Mr. Campbell opened all those credit cards and put half of the camp in my name. The debt was all wiped clean after the trial, and I didn’t have to pay any of it back, but it still left a mark on my credit rating.

“It didn’t help that I had very little credit or debt of my own before all that,” he explained nonchalantly. What was done was done, he figured.

David heard Max take a sharp breath.

“That bastard,” David was taken aback by the pure venom in the word. Fingers froze over the keyboard and touch pad.

“And you aren’t even mad?” Max exploded.

“If I were you I’d be so pissed off, I’d…” he couldn’t even finish the sentence.

David imagined Max, with his fists clenched tight, almost shaking in rage. The thought stirred something in him. He had never expected—or even imagined—Max being so indignant over anything having to do with himself. It was almost nice.

“I… I was, for a very long time after the trial,” he answered honestly, letting his fingers relax. “I was so hurt and disappointed. And very angry. It took a while, and a lot of late night talks with Gwen and my parents, but I moved on.”

David nodded to himself, opening a few links as new tabs. It did take him a long time before the hurt faded into something duller, “I’m not saying it was easy, or that it was okay—what he did—but I refuse to let it define my life. I have better things to do than be bitter and angry, Max.”

Chapter Text

“Yeah, well, you’re you,” the boy replied after a lengthy pause, “And you’re an idiot.”

“Maybe I am,” David conceded with a small smile and a nod. He went back to browsing Craigslist for a used car. Idiot or not, David was serious about not letting his anger at Cameron Campbell rule his life. It was like Gwen kept telling him, he was past that point in his life, even if he chose to retain pieces of it. Like his communications with Max or the wish to one day maybe open up a camp of his own…

“Though, if I ever see that guy I’ll knock his teeth in and shove my foot so far up his ass, he’ll taste it,” Max added, sounding very determined, and still very angry.

“You’ll do no such thing, Max,” David looked at a couple of cars, but not finding much that wasn’t a scam in his price range.

“Oh, yeah? Try and stop me!” Max shot back.

“I don’t have t. Your leg isn’t long enough,” he replied, closing the tabs he had opened, and opening more. He heard a scoff over the line, though he wasn’t sure it wasn’t a veiled laugh.

“I’ll make it work,” the boy promised. “Hey, you find anything yet?”

“No, not yet. Why?” David asked, looking at several other cars. The majority of them showed the picture of the same car. He closed out of those tabs and thought about how he might be able to expand his price range. If he skipped breakfast, he might be able to save a bit there, but each day without a car would be a day in which he would have to rely on public transportation—which cost money.

He opened another tab, but this time it was to search for a bus schedule. If he remembered correctly, the number 20 bus could get him to the 4, which stopped somewhat near his job. He would have to walk a few blocks to the 20 stop and about ten minutes from the 4 stop, but it was doable, if he had no other options. Paying for a taxi everyday would wipe out his savings in no time. He tried to remember if there were any buses that could take him to the train station, but his mind came up blank. He decided to open a tab and search for that too.

“I had a thought,” Max cut in.

“Wow, congratulations,” David teased, before blinking.

He hadn’t meant to say that, he really didn’t mean to say that, but it looked like he was spending too much time talking to Max. He had forgotten how easy it was to poke fun at people—although he usually tried hard to repress it, especially at work.

Before he could apologize, Max laughed, “Wow, I really do like this new David.”

“Err, thank you?”

“But anyways, before I was so rudely interrupted, I was going to offer you my mom’s old car,” Max replied, sounding not at all irritated. “She’s not using it. The only problem would be getting it to you, ‘cause I don’t think UPS ships things like this.”

David’s fingers again froze as his mind tried to wrap itself around the idea. It was incredibly tempting to say yes, he would love to have Max’s mother’s car, before the offer was rescinded. If they could find a way to get it from West Virginia to David’s place, without it costing an arm and a let, it would be an absolute godsend. David could feel himself getting giddily caught up in the idea. The idea caused a huge grin to bloom across his face, but he did try to temper the emotion. He was older now, with much more life experience, he reminded himself. It was best to take things one step at a time and breathe.

One deep breath became two.

Calming, he pulled himself back to reality.

“Doesn’t your mom need it?” he asked cautiously. First, he would have to determine if the offer was real. He didn’t exactly doubt that Max was being sincere, but there was much more to gifting a vehicle, than saying, ‘here it’s yours.’ He wondered if Max knew what a title was.

“Nah, not anymore,” Max replied breezily, “It’s just sitting in the garage, gathering dust, taking up space.”

While it did seem that Max’s mother really didn’t use the car, it didn’t mean that she would just hand it over for free. Maybe they were keeping it for emergencies or parts. Come to think of it, did Max’s mother even know that her son was offering her things to ex-camp counselors, whom she may or may not want her son keeping in contact with? David’s face pulled up into a tight expression. That would make for an interesting conversation.

“How much would she want for it? Like I said, I can only offer two thousand maximum. Then there’s going to be a shipping fee…” David started, already thinking up a rough estimate for what that might cost. He was about to open another tab to look up estimates, when Max’s voice stopped him.

“Relax. While I could charge you for it, your ass is broke enough as it is, so consider it a freebie. I’m feeling generous today,” Max replied. David could hear more typing.

David really wanted to say yes. The word was on the tip of his tongue.

He stopped himself.

“Thank you Max, but I couldn’t possibly accept it without giving something in return,” he settled on saying, “That said…”

David regretted his next words before he even said them, “That car belongs to your mother. I appreciate the thought, but you can’t just give me her things without her permission. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but please talk it over with her. Ask her how much she wants and tell her to call me. Then we’ll decide how to get it over here and if it’s even worth it.”

David rubbed the spot between his eyes and waiting for Max to either say he was going to call back or say he was going to get this mother on the phone. With how long it took for Max to respond, David thought it was going to be the latter.

“I can’t. She’s… not here. Anything like that would have to go through my father and he’s not here right now either. He won’t be for another few weeks. He’s on a business trip,” he said instead. “I can put you on with Rosalita, but she doesn’t speak much English.”

A sinking feeling arose in David, “Who’s Rosalita? When’s your mother going to be back?”

“The house cleaning lady; she watches me whenever my parents are out. And my mom isn’t coming back. She’s gone, for good,” Max said with some finality.

“I… see,” The sinking feeling got even stronger. The airy feeling David felt before, at the thought of a new car, disappeared completely. Instead, listening to Max’s calm—if somewhat detached—explanations, made David feel hyper-aware.

David had always assumed that Max’s relationship with his parents was strained. Speaking with Max over the summer made David aware of the boy’s dislike of his father, but Max never spoke about his mother. David again assumed that no news was good news, though experience had taught him that it was not always the case. He cursed not realizing it.

Hearing Max talk about his mother’s departure raised red flags with David. While he had absolutely no idea what the woman was like, he did know that it was also not natural for Max to speak so aloofly. That was unless he was trying to hide how deeply he felt about something.

“Anyway, I’m sure my old man won’t even notice. He doesn’t really go into the garage anymore,” Max explained, still typing, “Actually he won’t go anywhere near it. He won’t touch any of mom’s things, either.”

David felt himself stiffen. There was something very not right going on, David was sure of it.

 “Some days, he wants to get rid of everything,” Max continued, still sounding nonplused, “But he has these days where we’re not allowed to even look at it funny. It’s a real pain in the ass.”

David wondered if Max’s parents split up. Maybe his mother had up and left? Maybe they were in the process of going through a divorce? That might explain Max’s father’s actions, he told himself.

“Hey Max,” he started, trying to put his questions and feelings into words. He knew he had to be careful how he worded his next question. He needed answers, not Max shutting him out again, “Why exactly did your mom not want that car anymore?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it, that I know of,” Max defended. He finally stopped typing.

“I- I didn’t say there was. I’m… curious. Did she get a new car or something?” he tried, opening a new tab, and setting his fingers over the keys. He stopped, unsure what exactly to type. David regretted not knowing Max’s last name. He quickly tried to think of more questions to ask. Would Max notice something amiss if he asked for his family name? Probably…

 “Look, I’m trying to do you a favor David,” Max deflected, his voice changing from disinterested to somewhat aggressive. David tried his best to calm the boy down, going so far as to raise his hands in a calming gesture, before remembering that Max couldn’t see him.

“I know that, and thank you, but I want to make sure that you won’t get in trouble for this, Max. Cars are expensive, plus there’s the title—er, ownership papers…”

“I know what a title is, dumbass.“

“So please, just think of it as covering your… backside.”

That got a chuckle and David relaxed a little.

“If it’ll make you feel better, David, she just doesn’t need it,” Max replied, still sounding a little annoyed. A couple of seconds later, David could hear the sound of typing again. He relaxed a little more.

He closed several tabs, leaving only two open. He was about to inquire about the two cars, since he didn’t really think he would take Max up on his offer, when Max spoke up again.

“She doesn’t need anything anymore,” he continued. David could tell that Max was trying to sound detached, “She’s dead.”

At David’s shocked silence, Max quickly added, “And last I checked, dead people don’t drive cars. At least, I don’t think they do? I’ve never seen a zombie in a movie driving a car. Have you?”

David could feel the muscles in his lower back straining from the uncomfortable chair he was sat in. He could feel his heart beating in both his chest and neck. He was acutely aware of his own breathing as Max waited for him to speak. David felt the silence pressing in on his eardrums and so he shook his head to shake him back into the present.

And here he was just idly wondering who would get custody of Max if there was indeed a divorce. The boy just confessed that his mother was dead, while David just sat in a daze. He wanted to smack himself.

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he replied weakly, “I—um, is there anything I can do for you?”

“Um, answer my question,” Max answered, sounding slightly put out.

“What question?” David asked, still shell shocked.

With a heavy sigh Max restated his question, “Have you ever seen a zombie driving a car?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Okay then. So, I found a website that’ll tow the car across state lines for a couple of hundred dollars. Should I send it to your job or what?” Max continued as if they had been discussing the weather.

“Max, please. If there’s anything I can do for you or your family—”

“Goddamnit, David!” Max yelled, before he took a deep breath, held it, and eventually released it. For a moment, it sounded like Max had managed to rein in his temper. “Look, I didn’t tell you to make you feel sorry for me.”

“That’s not---”

 “To be honest, I’m actually glad the bitch’s dead.”

David winced, “You don’t mean that…”

“I do! Living with her was hell. I’m glad she’s gone! You have no idea what she was like,” the boy shouted, “God, I’m here, trying to be nice and offer you a fucking car---”

David could feel himself quickly losing ground, but Max’s attitude was riling something up in David. He had forgotten just how frustrating Max could be, how easily the boy pressed his buttons. If there was one thing he knew about Max, it was that the boy loved to escalate things. If David continued to get upset, Max would too. That would help no one.

He willed himself to calm down. After all, he knew that he hadn’t the foggiest clue about Max’s mother, other than she helped raise one of the angriest—most jaded—children he had ever met.

He shut his eyes and counted.

One. Two. Three. Four.

Five. Six. Seven.

Eight. Nine.

Ten.

“You’re right. I didn’t know your mother,” he tried. “I didn’t mean to invalidate your feelings. I’m sorry.”

There was a long stretch of silence. David checked his phone to see if Max had hung up on him, but the line was still connected.

“The offer still stands,” Max said eventually. His voice was subdued, “Call me if you can’t find anything on Craigslist. I’ll see about my old man putting the car in Rosita’s name for now or something. No guarantees, though.”

And with that the call ended.

David planted his elbows to either side of the laptop and folded his hands. He let his forehead fall forward onto his knuckles. Almost immediately after, his phone began vibrating. Tilting his head slightly, he used one hand to it up and tap the accept call icon. Once the call connected, Gwen’s voice all but exploded out of the earpiece, “Great news, David! I found you a fucking car!”

Chapter Text

Part the Thirteenth

The car wasn't anything to write home about, but it still drove, and was within David's limited budget; if only barely. Still, David appreciated whatever strings Gwen pulled to get the title in his hand by mid-Monday afternoon. With title in hand, David called the office once more. After getting put on hold for the better part of an hour, David was eventually transferred to Human Resources, with whom he requested to use one of his precious few sick days. He then took the bus to exchange his plates and update said title. The rest of the day was spent at the DMV.

Stepping off the bus, David looked at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or at least at the squat off-white shopping center that just happened to also contain a DMV on its lowest level. He arrive a quarter past ten, but didn't leave until well after four. His phone died around eleven.

Tuesday was David's first day driving his not too gently-used car, and while the ride couldn't in good conscience be called smooth, it wasn't terrible. In David's experience, few cars could match the utter crappyness that had been Camp Campbell's deathtrap.

On Wednesday, David received a text from Max after work, while he was heating up dinner.

Max: Bad news. Might not b able to get u the car :(

Eyes wide, David put down the spoon he had been using to stir his tomato sauce. His fingers flew over the keys in his rush to reply and he nearly dropped his phone into the sauce in his rush. Twice.

David: It's ok. Gwen found me a used one. I really appreciate it, tho. It was a very nice thing to do Max.

He hesitated before hitting send. He read over his message again, before deciding to edit it. Erasing the last two lines, he tapped out a simple (and more importantly) to the point, "thanx for trying."

It was almost five minutes later that he got a reply. Thankfully, by that time, the pasta had been made and plated. It made the task of digging the device out of his pocket all the easier, and safer, since David wasn't sure if he could afford to buy a new phone on top of everything else.

Max: Oh ok. That's good I guess.

David placed his plate on the counter before grabbing a glass of water, a paper towel, and a fork. While doing so, he made a mental note to pick up another roll of towels the next time he stopped by the grocery store. It was only one of many things he had been neglecting to do, due to time and funds.

And speaking of funds…

David shook the thought out of his head. Provided nothing else happened, he should have enough to pay his expenses and buy groceries, if he stuck to the generic brands… and there was a sale. He decided to cross that bridge when he got to it.

David sat down at the counter. Placing his phone down—this time well away from his drink—he picked up some pasta with his fork. It's a good thing that pasta was one of David's favorite foods, as it looked like he would be eating a fair deal of it in the future, his mind supplied.

A minute or two later, his phone vibrated again.

Max: Pictures?

David couldn't help smiling around his forkful. Bless his little heart, Max was actively trying.

David sent two of the several pictures he took for his trip to the DMV. They were both of not so great quality, and had been taken as selfies, with David's beaming face taking up a good portion of the shot. The employees at the DMV were equal amounts annoyed and amused when he had presented them.

David: Now I know it's not the most glamorous, but it works. And more importantly, is in 1 piece.

Max: Not bad. What's wrong with it? This's WAY out of ur price range.

David swallowed before replying, It has a lot of miles on it and the suspension isn't the best.

Max: Ur sure it's safe? It ain't gonna fall apart round your ears is it?

David: I hope not!

David grinned and hit send, before an idea came to him. He took a sip of water and typed out another text, Worried about me?

The next two hours were spent in a not-so-heated text debate, where Max tried to persuade David that he in fact didn't care, and David played along rather unconvincingly. However, in David's defense, Max didn't seem to be trying very hard—not that David could really tell by text.

Thursday was the first day that David noticed something was off with his not-so-new car. As he tried to start the engine that morning, he felt an odd rumble, which thankfully stopped once he was on the road. It didn't happen again after that, but David filed that piece of information in the back of his mind. He was thankful that his car didn't decide to give up the ghost on such a rainy, miserable day.

That day, David also noticed an odd increase in company-wide emails. Information and bulletins that had normally been shared via word of mouth, or via quick memo between departments, now seemed to contain every—or almost every—employee within its CC. Included in one of those emails was an announcement up upcoming departmental meetings, slated to be held the following week—although the exact dates and times were yet to be decided.

He brought it up with his coworker, Emily, during his lunch break. Between bites of her three-bean salad, she explained how Miranda in marketing, who was dating Brad in payroll—who was a good friend of Jeff in HR—told her that there were rumors of changes being made in the near future.

"What kind of changes," he asked, once he finished chewing his bite of tuna sandwich.

"Dun'no," she admitted, with a shrug, "Restructuring, maybe? Heard that they might be opening another office, or something—but you didn't hear this from me, alright? Danny in Risk Analysis—the one with the blond hair, not the one with the undercut…"

By the time she finished, David's break was over and he was even more confused than before.

The following Saturday, he noticed that his check engine light was on. That afternoon, he spent more time that he would like to admit googling possible causes, until he received a series of texts from Max. After that, with the exception of the check engine light, the car gave David very little trouble.

The car drove perfectly fine Monday morning and David actually arrived rather early that day. Not wanting to go in, and face the drudgery waiting for him as soon as he booted up his computer, David decided to roll down the windows and relax for a bit in the parking lot. It seemed a little less crowded than usual, but he chalked that up to having arrived so early. It was Monday, after all, he told himself.

The rest of the day was spent sorting through spreadsheets and raw data until David had noticed that his computer read 6:40p.m. No one had told him to go home. When he looked up, he was the second-to-last person in the office.

It wasn't until the Thursday after that, that David noticed something else wrong with his vehicle. While stopped at a light, he had glanced at the fuel gauge to find the needle pointing worryingly close to E. David distinctly remembered topping off the tank the night before.

Shaking his head, he made a pit stop on the way to work to refill his gas-tank. By the time David arrived to his office, and parked his car, his watch read 9:13. He winced while he prepared an excuse for his boss—if he was indeed in the office. Mr. Martin had used a sick day the day prior.

David broke into a jog as he rounded the building. Slowing down to a power-walk, David made it through the main entrance and paused. It was much quieter than usual. He soon spotted why: there was no so-loud-you could-hear-her-upstairs-Grace sat behind the receptionist's desk. In her place was a girl who looked barely out of college. She didn't even look up when David entered.

Blinking away his confusion, and remembering that he was late, David briskly passed the desk and headed towards his department. On the way he passed the kitchenette, he noticed that there was no Kevin waiting with bated-breath next to the Keurig machine.

There was also absolute silence from Angie's office, a place where keyboards went to die a painful, acrylic nail induced death. Walking through the halls, he realized that he didn't even hear the telltale sound of Richie's mail cart.

"What the…?" Deeply disquieted, but not knowing what else to do, David quickly made his way down the long hallway that led towards his desk. Passing room after room, he peaked inside, to find many still had their lights off.

"This is getting weird," he said to no one in particular.

He stopped at the threshold of his shared office. He dug his key-card out of his pocket and raised it to the reader next to the door, but paused. The light was green even though David had yet to swipe his card. Without swiping, he tried the handle.

It was unlocked.

He stuffed the card back into his pocket. He wondered if there was a meeting that he had forgotten about, but nothing had come to mind. Last he checked, his department's next meeting wasn't until the next afternoon.

Slowly, he pushed the door open with sweaty palms. He called out a weak, "Hello?"

David was greeted by empty grey cubicles, bathed in stale warm air, and his heart sank into his cheap pleather shoes. Slowly, he stepped inside.

Weaving through cubicle after cubicle, he noticed that many were missing chairs. Almost all of them were devoid of computers. There was very little to suggest that this room had been used at all and the air was heavy, humid, without the aid of air-conditioning. It pressed and settled onto the bare flesh of his arms, face, and neck, like a film. The longer he lingered, the heavier it got.

He slowly made his way to what had been his desk, with dread pooling in his stomach, and realization dawning in his mind. He started recalling all the little signs, which by themselves didn't trigger alarm bells at the time—at least, not while he was preoccupied with his poor excuse of a car. But now, things were starting to make sense, and it wasn't painting a pretty picture.

Steeling himself with a deep breath, he looked over the grey partition which had separated his space from Paul's. Almost instantly, he felt his eyes glaze over with moisture, which he fought to contain. While he was mostly successful in keeping his watery eyes from leaking too much, he wasn't so lucky when it came to the whimper escaping his throat.

Gone were his knick-knacks and motivational posters. Gone was his nameplate. Gone was the little paper cutout of a tree that Max has convinced him to hide behind his monitor. Even the Ethernet cable that had been tethered to desk and bolted into the floor was gone.

All that remained on his desk was a small dust-bunny speared on a paperclip, way in the furthest-most corner. There wasn't even a cardboard box atop the desk containing his belongings. Frantically, David tore open the drawers with shaking hands, looking for something—anything—to prove that this had been his desk for the fourteen months. All were empty. Not a pen or penny to be found.

With nary a word, his hands fell to his sides, and David tilted his head back, letting the tears and mucus run down the back of his throat and away from prying eyes—if there was indeed anyone else but him in the office. He snorted, coughing almost immediately afterwards.

No one had even had the decency to call…

Chapter Text

Part the Fourteenth

David wasn’t sure how long he spent standing beside what had been his desk, but eventually the tears stopped and his breathing regulated. He stared at his desk, and the dust-bunny, before turning his attention back to the mostly empty room. Eventually, his eyes fell on the large desk, furthest from the door; Mr. Martin’s desk.

Like the other desks, all items identifying this desk to its former were removed. There was no nameplate or computer. However, this one still retained the large leather chair behind it. David vaguely remembered the day when Mr. Martin had requested it to be brought in. David had watched from his desk as three men from maintenance struggled to bring it in. David has been both amazed and horrified by their creativity in swearing—and he had thought that he had heard everything. Just getting it into their cramped space had been quite the ordeal, as the chair was much wider than the door frame.

David figured that was why it remained.

Numbly, David rounded the desk and sat in the over-sized chair. It was a big chair built to seat a large man, which David most certainly was not. It easily dwarfed his lanky frame.

David brought a hand to his forehead and rubbed at a pressure-point between his eyebrows, attempting to calmly assess the situation. A deep inhale, followed by a slow exhale, helped to center him. He repeated the exercise several more times before he heard the door open and shut. Looking up, he noticed that he had the perfect view of the door from between the rows of cubicles. Between them he could see as someone came in and shut the door behind themselves.

David cleared his throat and the person froze, realizing that they weren’t alone.

“I didn’t think anyone was in here,” the newcomer said, fidgeting slightly.

David narrowed his eyes, trying to get a better. He could tell that the figure was male, though not very tall or wide. The man was wearing a pale blue button-down shirt and dark smart fitting slacks. There was a chunky gold watch around his right wrist, but other than that, it was hard to be sure of anything else at that distance.

“Can… Can I help you?” David asked, standing up from his seat, but not coming around the desk.

“I, uh—David?” the man asked, taking a few steps forward, before scurrying a bit closer. At this distance, David noticed that the man’s brown hair had thick swatches of grey at the temples and a tiny bit of scruff on his chin. The man looked familiar, but David had yet to place the face. After a moment of staring, it clicked.

 “Matt?”

“What are you still doing here? I thought,” Matt trailed off uncertainly. He waved a hand around at the surrounding desks. At David’s confused expression, he continued, “HR hasn’t talked to you yet?”

“No. I… was a little late this morning. What’s going on? Where is everybody?”

“I… think you should head over to HR,” Matt replied, sounding not at all happy. Matt shoved his hands into his pockets, before motioning to the door with a slight tilt of his head, “C’mon. I’ll walk you there. We can talk a bit on the way.”

David followed Matt back towards the main entrance, where the elevators were. The entire time, the two men walked slowly—Matt with his hands deep in his pockets and David anxiously wringing his own. Neither was in any hurry, the pair making frequent stops to stop and gawk at the changes made to the office. David noticed that while one or two of the offices that had been empty earlier were now occupied, the majority of them remained dark.

While they were passing the lounge, Matt spoke up again, “I can’t say anything official, but… about thirty minutes before it was time to leave last Friday, they called us all into one of the conference rooms on the sixth floor.”

Matt looked up at the ceiling lights as he walked, “Talk about an aww shit moment.”

The two men walked a bit more, passing the reception desk, where the brown haired girl again failed to notice their presence. Neither said anything to even try to flag her attention as they passed. A few yards past the desk, stood two elevators with a panel of buttons between them. Matt pushed the upper button and the two waited in silence.

Once the door closed behind them and the elevator began to ascend, Matt continued, “One by one, they sat us down and asked a thousand questions about finances and payroll. At first, we thought they were going to fire us on the spot, but then they thanked us and told us to keep what had been discussed to ourselves, while they investigated things. We thought that was the end of that, at least for the time being.”

Unsure what to say, David nodded to show that he was paying attention. David felt he had an inkling of where the conversation was headed and he wasn’t sure he liked the direction it was going in. Things were starting to sound a bit too similar to what had happened during his employ under Mr. Campbell to be entirely comfortable.

“Tuesday morning, they called a few of us in, asking about overhead costs and how the other departments were using their petty cash,” Matt’s voice cut in, shaking David from his negative thoughts. “Apparently, the company’s been bleeding money, something fierce.”

David looked up at the antiquated wooden dial above the door. The arrow was nearly pointing to the number three. He bit his lip, eyeing the emergency stop button.

“Last night, just before quitting time, they started calling people downstairs. People were not happy about that, let me tell you. But, they were even unhappier being handed cardboard boxes,” Matt started before raising a hand and running it through his hair.

David tore his eyes away from the button and stared at Matt in horror. “When all was said and done, they laid off about half our guys in accounting. Who knows how many they plan on getting rid of by the end of the week.”

The ding of the elevator arriving at the fourth floor cut David off before he could reply. The door rattled a little as it struggled to open somewhat smoothly, but once it had, bright florescent lights stung David’s eyes, and he realized just how dark the majority of the building was—especially on the lower levels. It was only the second time in David’s entire fourteen months of employment that he had visited the fourth floor. The first time was when he had been hired shortly after an incredibly awkward group interview.

“Looks like this’s your stop,” Matt said from a little behind him, looking just a bit sullen. The man had a finger pressed into one of the buttons on the elevator’s control panel—probably the one that manually kept the door open.

David took a step forward, followed by another one, until he was out of the elevator.

“For what it’s worth, I didn’t mind working with you. “

He turned and looked at Matt. The man’s arm shifted slightly and then pulled away from the panel. The arrow next to the call buttons lit up, indicating ‘up’. The door jerked violently, before starting to close.

“Yeah, you too,” David replied, just as the door slid closed.

He turned and walked down the hall towards the Human Resources department.

It took only a few minutes to arrive at the department. It looked almost identical to many of the other departments, with a door locked by a magnetic card-key reader. Digging his out of his pocket, David looked hard at it, debating whether or not it might work. His musing was cut short when a short woman, with long dark hair opened the door, and poked her head out.

“Can we help you?” she asked, not opening the door any wider.

“Yeah, I’m—”

“We know who you are, Davidson. I’m asking why you’re here,” she elaborated, pointing to the spot on the carpet between herself and David. He already didn’t care much for the unknown woman, but as she was the one barring his way into where he needed to be, he tried to be nice. Also, he really doubted that he could out-mean her.

“Errgh,” David looked at the spot and then the woman, raising his eyebrows slightly and pasting a small smile onto his face. “I wanted to know what was going on? I got in a tiny bit late and my department looked…”

“You’re department’s gone,” she said matter-of-factly, moving to shut the door in his face. Noticing the movement, David’s hand shot out and grabbed the handle. The door rattled, but didn’t budge in either direction. David was stronger than he appeared, despite his lanky frame. The woman raised an over-plucked eyebrow, but said nothing. She tugged the door slightly. David felt his temper began to flare a bit, smile sliding off of his face.

“I noticed,” he said, voice becoming serious.

The two stayed like that for a beat. And then another. The door didn’t move and neither did the woman. Taking a deep breath through his noise, David decided to try a different tactic.

David rose up, balancing on the balls of his feet, leaning forward a bit. Using his height, he attempted to peer over the woman and beyond the door. He raised his voice, “Is there someone I can talk to--?”

Without warning, a stiletto heel collided with his toes and he couldn’t contain the shrill shriek that tumbled out of his mouth. He nearly let go of the door in surprise. That was one way to get attention, he thought.

He hadn’t even had time to feel embarrassed when a rough shout came from deed within HR, “Hey, Meg! Cut the guy some slack!”

Almost immediately, the woman’s skin blanched, and David shut his mouth with an audible click. The sound of heavy footfalls came through the Meg-sized crack in the door, before a meaty hand fell heavily on her petite shoulder. She nearly jumped a foot, if not for said hand holding her down.

David swallowed thickly. Another face appeared well over Meg’s head, this one sporting thick, bushy eyebrows over a set of dark brown eyes, as well as a thick black goatee. The brows and goatee seemed to make up for the lack of hair further north.

“Davidson, come on in. We missed you this morning. You’re probably wondering what happened. We sure were,” the man said, while bodily moving Meg out of the way. When the door opened, David stared at the mountain of a man. A meaty paw came through the door and David timidly shook it.

“Name’s Kyle. Can I call you David, or do you prefer Davidson?” the man asked, pulling David into the office, and letting the door close with a slam. Meg remained at the door, looking quite sour. David didn’t really blame her, even if she was a bit rude. Kyle’s personality seemed as big as—if not bigger than—the man himself, and he was a few good inches above six foot.

“David’s fine… er, sir,” he replied with a strained grin. “Um, sorry for being late...”

“It’s fine. You missed the waterworks, but that was probably for the best. Why don’t we have a little talk. Coffee?” David shook his head as he was lead into a small conference room made for meetings between two or three people at the most.

“You must be all shades of confused this morning,” Kyle began once inside. David was then instructed to take a seat. It only served to make Kyle seem even bigger.

“You see, we’re restructuring, and unfortunately that means that we’ve had to let some people go. A lot of people, actually. Some of those people worked in your department. I’m sure you must have noticed a bit of tension the past few days,” Kyle said, knowingly.

He paced in the small space, looking very much like an overgrown jungle cat, while David sat at the table. “Yesterday, we had a changing of the guard, you might say. We met with Martin on Tuesday to figure out how we could make your department more… financially viable.”

There was a beat of silence as David realized why his boss had not shown up to work the day before. There was another beat when he realized what he narrowly avoided walking into earlier that morning. A third came when what that all meant sunk in.

David allowed himself to curse mentally.

“You couldn’t, so you let everyone go…”

His head bowed slightly as his hands came up and crossed themselves atop the wooden table in front of him. He examined the faux-grain pattern—mind going a mile a minute trying to calculate his expenses verses how much he was owed in his last paycheck and oh, god what about food?!—and he tried to calm his racing pulse.

More silence, followed by the displeased groaning of springs of an office chair, “Not everyone.”

David’s head shot up and he stared at Kyle, who was sat across from him. The corners of the man’s thin mouth perked upwards. The edges of his eyes crinkled, displaying subtle crow’s feet. “We did let the majority of you department go. That’s true. However, we did make offers to several people—the same offer I want to make to you.”

Against his better judgement, hope was starting to pool inside of David, even though a part of him was trying to push it down. David pinched the skin near his knuckles subtly, trying to ground himself before his head could run away from him.

Focus, he told himself. David sat up straighter and nodded.

The corners of Kyle’s mouth turned up even more, “Now, one or two took it. A few did not. That being said, I will understand if you decide not to take this offer, and I won’t be insulted or hold it against you if you don’t. But hear me out first. Can you do that for me, David?”

“I’m listening.”

The next hour and a half was spent listening to Kyle’s offer. David played his part by asking a ton of questions and jotting notes down on a sheet of paper supplied to him by the HR department. The hour after that was spent hashing out job responsibilities and compensation in the event that David took the position. The sheet of notes—which were now three and a half pages long—were photocopied, with a copy going into David’s personal file. He was then instructed to call in his decision by Friday afternoon—4:25 at the very latest—given one of Kyle’s business cards, and walked to his car carrying a cardboard box that had his name scrawled along the side in green sharpie.

Chapter Text

Part the Fifteenth

David got home around 11:30 and the first thing that he did was throw his wallet and keys into the bowl by the door. The second was fall in a heap onto the couch. There he covered his face with his hands and resisted the urge to scream. Barely.

David remained like that for a good while—until the need passed. Once he felt better in control of himself, he let his hands fall from his face, instead folding them across his stomach. He let out a massive sigh, thinking about what it was he should do.

He thought about the offer he had received earlier that morning.  It had been laughable, if not downright insulting, even after negotiating a slightly better deal. However, when he returned to his car, he pulled out his phone, checked his bank account, and found that he had roughly three-hundred dollars left in his checking account. That was after purchasing his replacement vehicle and playing the necessary fees.

He then checked his calendar. His next and final check would not be deposited to his account for another week and he didn’t know how long those funds would stretch, especially since he will have missed three days of work: the Monday spent at the DMV, the current day, and tomorrow. With that in mind, David felt an acute pressure to accept Kyle’s deal.

But on the other hand, if he did, he knew that he wouldn’t be making nearly as much as he had been—not that it had been all that much to start. In addition, he would be losing his healthcare coverage and other limited benefits. He shuddered to think how much that would cost him in the future.

His fingers starting wringing the front of his shirt.

Then there was the lack of job security. His contract would change from that of a full-time—salaried—employee to what amounted to a part-time temp. A temp that could be let go at any time, for any reason. David had, in the past, heard horror stories about how poorly such workers were treated in their company. He wondered what 27.5 hours, sat in a dark basement—cut off from all socialization—would do to him.

His fingers wrung the material harder, causing a button to fly off, and roll under the coffee table. He hardly noticed.

He shot a look to his clock. It was nearly 1:00 and David debated whether or not to call Gwen for her opinion, before deciding not to. He really, really wanted to though.

‘That’s the thing about being a real adult,’ he mused, deflating even further. ‘Everyone’s at work at this hour.’

A moment later he shot up and turned to sit on the couch properly.

‘Not everyone,’ he thought, biting his lip. He dug his phone out of his pocket. The screen was dark and he didn’t try to unlock it. Instead, he rotated his mobile this way and that, debating.

‘I can’t believe I’m doing this…’ He dialed the number.

It rang and rang. He chewed his lip and bounced his leg while he waited. It continued ringing.

He disconnected before reaching the voicemail.

“Probably for the best,” he told himself. Relaxing back against the cushions, he continued to bounce his leg, as he thought further about his situation.

‘I can probably get another part-time job on the weekends,’ he thought, face screwing up slightly at the thought. ‘Maybe bussing tables or bagging groceries.’

Although it was not his ideas of a good time, he would need the extra cash and he doubted that he would manage anything better for a long while. It had taken a while for him to even be offered his last position, after all.

Besides, if he managed either position, it might cut down on his grocery bills somewhat. He was guaranteed at least one meal, if he worked at a restaurant, or leftovers at a supermarket. If not, there were probably employee discounts, he told himself.

He thumped the back of his head against the back of the couch. Then he did it again, this time a bit harder. He stared at his ceiling pensively. ‘Maybe I can get a roommate?’

He thought about it. His apartment was a single bedroom, but he guessed that he could relocate to the couch if need be. The difficult part would be finding a person that could tolerate his quirks. David shut his eyes.

Almost instantly, David’s phone vibrated, causing him to nearly have a heart attack. He fumbled with the device for several seconds.

“Hello,” he meekly replied, failing to check the caller ID. There were only so many people who would be calling him at this hour, he figured.

“Yeah, what’s wrong,” the sentence was punctuated by a loud yawn. David could hear some shuffling over the line, followed by a dull thump.

“Oh, hey Max,” he answered, awkwardly, suddenly feeling bad for calling earlier. The poor kid sounded like he had been asleep.

“Why are you calling me at—” There was a long pause where David assumed that the pre-teen looked for a clock, “1:16 on a weekday? Don’t you have work or whatever?”

“A-about that,” David started, wincing at the thought of having to rehash the entire story, and then some. Before, he had really wanted someone to talk to, but now that the adrenalin had mostly worn off, and he thought about the situation more, he was questioning his decision.

He put the phone on speaker and rubbed at his face rather aggressively. ‘What am I doing asking a twelve year old for career advice?’

“You finally quit?” Max asked, sounding rather hopeful. David’s eyebrows shot up, hearing the honestly excited lilt. He couldn’t help quirking his lips.

“Did you walk in, slap your notice down on their desk, and then tell them to take their shitty job and shove it up their ass? Or did you just call in and tell them to fuck themselves and the horse they rode in on? Or—or did you--”

“Whoa, slow down there,” David interjected, though he couldn’t keep the slight smile out of his voice.

“Oh my god, did you tie your resignation to an arrow and shoot it through the window?” he asked incredulously, seemingly ignoring David. Then as an afterthought he added, “Because you have some seriously wicked aim. That was one thing you were crazy good at, actually. Though now that I think about it, why are you so good at shooting stuff? And punching… aren’t you supposed to be a peace-loving hippie or something?”

“Um, it wasn’t anything as exciting as that,” David answered, avoiding the second half entirely.

There was a beat of silence, then another, as Max waited for David to elaborate.

“It was more like… I was… maybe fired?” he continued. There was another thump, but time it was much louder and followed up with a curse. “Alright there, Max?”

“How the fuck—maybe fired?! Either you are or you’re not!” More shuffling was heard as the boy sputtered out his question.

David leaned forward on the couch, picked up his phone and pushed himself onehanded off of the couch. He headed towards the kitchen. He had a feeling that this called for a cup of his strongest blend.

“It’s complicated.”

“No shit.”

David didn’t even try to correct the boy’s language. Instead, he opened up a cabinet, withdrew a mug, and pulled open the draw containing his tea collection. There were at least eight boxes jammed into the draw, with a few miscellaneous teabags packets stored on top. He set his phone on the counter before riffling through the draw. He settled on one of the boxes wedged towards the back of the draw. It took longer than he would like to admit to pry the cardboard out, using his fingertips, enough that he could open the flap and pull out a bag.

“So…?” Max prompted. When he was met with only the sounds of tea making, he added, “You can’t just say something like that and not follow through, David.”

David ran his tap for a few seconds before filling his mug and microwaving it, “It really isn’t exciting, Max. I got to work and…”

David swallowed around the lump in his throat, “And my whole department was gone.”

The microwave chose that time to ding loudly. David rushed to retrieve the mug and added the teabag. He busied himself as his eyes lightly misted over. He opened another cabinet a little louder than was necessary, looking for his bottle of honey.

“What do you mean, gone?” Max asked, hesitating slightly.

“Our department wasn’t financially viable enough,” David answered, spitting out the words like a curse. David heard Max suck in a sharp breath. “The majority of my coworkers were let go this morning. I got in late, so everyone and everything was gone already.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, pretty much.” David tipped the bottle—which was shaped like a bear—upside down and gave it a good shake. When the contents failed to dislodge, he shook it again, this time with much more force. It very nearly shot out of his hand. His face screwed up in frustration and he glared at the honey. He shook it one last time, but the contents still didn’t move. With a face turning pink in anger, he lobbed the bear in anger at the trashcan. It was incredibly satisfying when it fell in with a heavy thud.

David picked up his unsweetened tea and carried it to the counter, stopping only to grab his cellphone on the way. It was early afternoon and David already felt tired.

“I’m one of the lucky ones though,” he explained, telling Max about Kyle’s offer along the way and as he sat down. Max was quiet throughout.

“Tomorrow, I have to give my answer—and to be honest, I don’t see what choice I have but to take it,” David finished. He slumped over his tea and looked hard at his reflection in the surface. His eyes looked dull, with lines under them. His hair was a mess, especially his fringe. His lips were pulled down into a frown. He hardly recognized himself.

His blinked and raised the mug to his lips, taking a sip. It was bitter.

Max, who had been quietly listening to David the entire time, finally spoke up. His voice started off a tiny bit shaky, but David could hear the boy forcing confidence—and no small amount of his usual vitriol—into the words, “Well, fuck’em. They obviously don’t know shit and you’re probably better off without them.”

One corner of David’s lips quirked up slightly for a second or two, “It’s not that simple, Max.”

“Yes it is,” the boy argued, “You hated that job, so they did you a favor. Now you can do what you want to do! Now you don’t have an excuse.”

David put down his tea and ran a hand through his fringe, “And how am I supposed to afford groceries? And a roof over my head?”

“You won’t need to worry about that, once we have things up and running,” Max answered as if it was the simplest thing in the world. “Even if we have to sleep in tents for the first few weeks—until the cabins are done at least, because I am not sleeping outside any more than I have to!”

David’s hand froze in place as he felt his spine stiffen. He looked at the phone in alarm, eyes wide.

“We’re getting a coffee maker too. A Kurig, that way you can have your shitty tea and I can have my coffee. Also, forget all those stupid activities we did back at Camp Campbell—we’re doing what I want this time. Though, I guess we could do a few things you like too, but no arts and crafts! Got it David?” The boy continued, sounding more and more passionate with each word.

David, on the other hand, felt like he had been doused with ice water. Max wasn’t still fixated on that, was he? In all of madness that had been David’s job and car, he had completely forgotten about the pre-teen’s insane plan to open a summer camp. He had been half hoping that Max would forget all about it, but apparently he had not.

David stared at his phone, wondering how to proceed. It wouldn’t do to encourage this sort of behavior—David knew that—but it was incredibly rare to hear Max so enthusiastic about something, and David didn’t want to be the one to crush that. However, David also knew that leading the kid on was even more unkind. He had really, really wanted Max to forget idea, just as he had.

Shutting his eyes, he decided that he had to say something, even if it wrecked their relationship. It didn’t mean he was going to enjoy doing it—especially after the day he had. Still, David tried to be tactful—at least as much as was possible considering it was himself.

“Umm, Max? What are you talking about,” he tried to sound honestly confused.

“The camp, duh,” Max shot back instantly. “I told you, now there aren’t any more excuses. I’ve almost got the money together, so we just have to pick a spot, do the paperwork, and bam we have a camp. Wow, I never thought I would hear myself say that. Ugh!”

“That isn’t really how things work. It’ll take a long time for something like that to happen, I doubt we could get through it all by the end of the summer and—I’m getting off track.” David shook his head. Two minutes in and he was already failing at his self-appointed task. He mentally scolded himself.

“Max, that’s not really being realistic. You should save your money. Buy something you really want, or save it for college, or heck—invest it. You’re a smart kid,” he made sure to speak calmly, using the voice he reserved for irate clients and coworkers. In cases like these, it was best to sound professional but firm.

He hated using it on Max.

“But--!” Max interjected and David cringed. He was glad that Max wasn’t standing in front of him because David wasn’t sure if he could be able to do this, if he had been. His mind conjured the image of Max’s face as it had been on Parent’s Night two years before. Tears in the corners of downturned eyes—David forced the memory away.

“Max,” it was clearly a warning; a warning that David very much didn’t want to give. In his mind, he begged the pre-teen to drop the topic.

For a moment, David thought that he might. Instead, when Max finally spoke, his voice was filled with betrayal, which cut deeply into David’s chest, “What are you trying to say, David?!”

David’s head fell between his shoulders and he shut his eyes tightly. This was it then.

David wondered how he had found himself faced with this choice. He admitted, although only to himself, that his first mistake was reestablishing communication with the boy. There was no reason for it, he told himself. His commitment to the child ended once he was no longer an employee of Camp Campbell—no before that—it ended when he made the decision to tell the boy to run. That too had been a mistake.

Despite that, David wondered if his biggest mistake was allowing Max to entertain the idea in the first place. Now that David really thought about it, he realized that it was kind of his own fault for not shutting the idea down as soon as if left Max’s mouth, regardless of how he had felt about it at the time. David had invited—hell, maybe encouraged Max’s harebrained plan because he had wanted an escape.

It was no secret that David had hated his job. Just speaking to David, anyone could tell that he was being stifled in such an environment, so it would take very little for Max to realize just what mindset he was in. But it would be wrong to shift the blame onto the kid, David knew this, because at the end of the day: David was the adult and he was relying on a twelve and a half year old to solve his problems.

The thought made David sick.

Maybe Gwen had been right. David needed to get his shit together. He couldn’t help anyone, without helping getting himself sorted out first.

He put his head down on the cool countertop. When he finally spoke, he tried to keep his voice as neutral as possible. His voice was soft, but firm, “You know this isn’t going to work. Let it go.”

The near-silence was deafening. It lasted all of one minute before sound exploded from his mobile. A torrent of curses poured from speaker as Max raged and ranted. David just closed his eyes and let Max call him every name under the sun—and several he had never heard before. The verbal tirade continued for what seemed like forever, before the pre-teen seemed to tire himself out. Once he had, the silence returned.

This time, it continued for a while, and David fully expected the boy to end the call. Instead, the silence stretched until Max spoke up again. When he did, his voice was much softer and lacked most of the bite that David had come to associated with him. “Dude, what the hell?”

It hurt much more than any of the curses slung his way.

“Where—where the hell did that come from? I thought you were onboard.” Max continued, sounding tired and rather hurt. David cast his eyes up to look at the device, but didn’t move his head. David was somewhat impressed that Max was trying to talk things out, as the Max David remembered would have told him off seven ways to Sunday, and hung up on him. The sound of mattress springs creaking, followed by a grunt, was heard as the boy tossed himself presumably onto the bed.  

“I—I was,” he admitted.

“But,” Max pressed, his voice sounding closer. He must have taken the phone off of speaker, David realized. David was about to say: but it’s not going to work and you know it, when Max asked, “Did I do something to fuck it up?”

David quickly pulled his head off of the counter and sat up, “N-no!”

“I must’ve done something to change your mind,” he continued, ignoring David. “Look, I get that I can be a real little shit sometimes. And I get that you probably would rather do almost anything else than look after my annoying ass, but I thought this would be a win-win situation. You get your nature and camping and whatever… and I get to be somewhere that isn’t here.”

“Max,” David swallowed around the lump that was forming in his throat. He wanted to say something, but he really didn’t know what exactly. He knew he couldn’t take back his words or comply with Max’s wishes, which left David with a loss as how to improve the situation. David racked his brain for a something more, but nothing came to mind. Maybe simply listening would have to be enough.

“I guess she was right,” he laughed, though the sound was anything but happy.

David grabbed for the phone and took it off speaker. It felt too impersonal, too open. David got the distinct feeling that these words were for his ears only, “About what?”

“She always used to say how, if it weren’t for me, she could’ve been happy… that she wouldn’t’ve been tied down to that man—my father. Though she was just outta her head, you know? A crazy bitch, and maybe she was… but something she said stuck with me,” he replied like he was talking about talking about the weather, or a particularly uninteresting baseball game. Meanwhile, David wondered briefly about who SHE is, before being violently reminded of what Max had mentioned earlier about his mother. David’s lips formed a silent little oh.

“She said the only thing tha—that could have made me any more of a waste of space was… if I had been born a girl,” Max confessed. “When I was a kid, I didn’t really get it—and even now I only kind of get on how many levels that was a fucked up thing to say, but there are times when I have to wonder… wonder if she was on to something.”

David was speaking before he even realized that he had stood up, “Max! No! You’re not—”

“Of course, I also knew that she was bat-shit insane, sexist, and a terrible mother,” Max cut in. “It wasn’t until last spring that I started to wonder. I thought that she’d—hey, do you remember that time I thought that you’d gone crazy and followed you into town because I was sure that you were going to murder me?”

David blinked at the tonal whiplash. He wondered what in the world one topic had to do with the other, but answered anyway, “Yeah, vaguely.”

“Well, she was sort of the reason I thought that,” he explained, causing David’s brows to furrow in a lack of understanding. “I thought that with all the talk about how I ruined her life she’d, well…”

David closed his eyes and took a deep breath. David could feel the blood rushing to his face, turning it bright red in anger. He wasn’t an angry person by nature, but if he Max was saying what he thought the boy was saying, David really, really wanted to inflict bodily harm on said mother—regardless of the whole being dead thing. Which now that he thought about it, meant…

David’s eyes flew open. He felt the flow of blood reverse.

“Yeah,” Max continued, as if sensing David’s thoughts, “I got home from school and immediately I knew something was off. There was no smell of booze in the air… no angry tirade about my grades being shit. My first thought was to run and lock myself in my room, so that’s what I did.”

“Oh god, Max…” David rubbed his face with his free hand and began making his way to the sofa. Something told him that he would want to be sitting down, preferably on a solid surface with a backrest, for this.

“I stayed there until nightfall, but still, nothing. I was getting hungry and I really had to pee, so I sneaked out of my room. I expected her to descend on me like fucking Dracula, but she didn’t,” David sat down heavily on the sofa as Max continued his story. His voice was losing the feigned disinterest. The words were coming faster and faster, falling from his mouth like water, “I didn’t see her at all that night. Or the next morning… it was mid-afternoon when I found her in the garage.”

David cursed.

Max’s voice was soft when he asked, “Is it terrible that I didn’t even recognize my own mother?”

Chapter Text

“I-I don’t…” David trailed off as his mind struggled to process the information he had just been given. If what was implying was true—and David didn’t doubt that it was because even Max knew better than to joke about such thing—then Max needed much more than an ex-counselor’s ear and a few marshmallows roasted over a bon fire. The kid needed much more than David was qualified to give. He needed professional help, along with a support group, and he didn’t seem to be getting it. Instead—and now the pieces started coming together—the boy was left to his own devices, albeit with almost every distraction that money could buy.

David realized that Max must have been desperate to have reached out to him of all people. The weight of it caused his knees to buckle and he fell back onto the sofa. The force of his body made the springs creak loudly in protest and it was a miracle that it didn’t collapse around him.

“She looked so goddamned peaceful,” Max continued, as if David hadn’t spoken. “Sh—she…”

David closed his eyes tightly and tried to put his feeling into words. “Oh Max…”

“Will you let me finish?!”

David flinched.

“Look, I know what I saw’s probably going to fuck me up for life, but… I’m trying,” Max continued, as David let his body curl forward. His forehead came to rest atop his palm, elbow balanced on one knee, and he screwed his eyes shut. His other hand gripped the phone tightly.

“For once, I’m actually trying. If there’s something I can do—or say—that can make things go back to the way they were before, then tell me and I’ll do it. I swear, just… don’t take this away from me, David.”

Minutes passed as Max waited for David to give his list of demands and David wracked his brain for a way to salvage the situation. Slowly, the oppressive feeling seemed to get heavier, but David found himself no closer to a solution.

Finally, after what felt like hours, Max sighed loudly.

“Right, then that’s it then?” he asked, sounding absolutely exhausted. David could hear some rustling over the line and the sound of old bedsprings. Automatically, his head tilted up, though they were separated by many miles.

“Max,” David tried again, still unable to find words that might help. He knew on some level that he could never truly understand what Max had gone through, as his parents—even at their worst—had never been anything like Max’s. While they had pushed him at times, did so out of love and concern. To David’s memory, no one had ever told him that he had been a mistake and he had never had to deal with the aftermath of a suicide, especially that of a loved one.

He gave up trying to find the right words because there were no right words.

“Your mom… she had issues, issues that she’d take out on you… and that wasn’t right. It wasn’t okay. I’m not trying to excuse her… or say that your feeling towards her weren’t—aren’t—valid. But! Something tells me that she’d still have those issues even if you weren’t her son,” David said, finally.

Rubbing the delicate skin under his eyes, David continued, “What she did… that wasn’t okay either. And I wish, more than anything, that you didn’t have to be the one to…”

David gestured, uselessly.

A few more minutes ticked by.

“…me too,” Max finished for him.

David let out a breath.

“You said before that your dad’s out of town, right?” David asked.

“Yeah, why?” The suspicion entered Max’s voice once more.  David raised an eyebrow.

“Who’s looking after you?”

“Our housekeeper, but I can take care of myself.” Max replied, sounding slightly more like his usual self. The springs creaked again followed by a dull thump of something as it fell to the floor, “Been doing it for years now.”

David let his hand fall away from his face and straightened his posture, suddenly feeling very old, “You shouldn’t have to.”

David swore he heard his bones creak.

“I should have to do a lot of things,” Max replied, “But yeah, it sucks.”

“Are you seeing anyone, after… you know?”

“Nah, the old man doesn’t believe that mental health’s actually a thing.” Max answered nonchalantly, “Plus, he’s kind of in his own world right now. Working himself into an early grave, not that I really care.”

David just shook his head, declining to say anything. Instead, David attempted to stand, wincing when his knees protested loudly. Standing, the thought that it felt stuffy in the apartment entered David’s mind, though he wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination or not. He decided to open a window.

He was especially careful to step around the cup of half-finished tea, sitting on the floor, near the sofa.

“Nothing? Aww, too bad,” Max didn’t sound too disappointed. “So what now?”

David blinked.

“Well,” he drawled, gathering his thoughts, and shifting from foot to foot. “I still don’t think starting a summer camp is a very realistic idea… as appealing as it might be—”

“Even after all that?! I bared my soul to you, David!” came an indignant reply.

“Yes, you did and thank you for trusting me enough to share it with me. I know it wasn’t easy—”

Max made an unhappy sound before announcing, “This blows!”

“And if you’d let me continue—nothing? Alright—I’ll explain myself. Just hear me out first,” David cradled his mobile between his shoulder and ear as he undid the latch and opened the window. When he received nothing more than a slight grumble, he continued, “Thank you. Besides the obvious life, well, stuff on my end… I think you should save that money—and before you begin, yes, I know I said it earlier, but look at it this way—every dollar you save now is one more towards getting away from your family.”

David looked out of the window as he talked. Being a weekday, there weren’t many people out, save for a few elderly folks. The odd car drove by from time to time, but otherwise the neighborhood was quiet. David felt that it was a pretty good place to raise a family, all things considered.

Shaking his head, David turned around, and rested his lower back against the windowsill. The warm breeze swept across the back of his neck. The sun warmed his shoulders. “When you’re old enough, you should look into emancipation. But to do that, you’ll need to prove that you have the means to support yourself.”

Without thinking, he added, “Heck, I’d offer to help you, but we both know…”

“You can barely take care of yourself,” Max finished for him, although not unkindly. The twelve year old sounded like he was seriously considering David’s words, which in turn made something warm bloom inside David’s chest.

He couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice even as he replied, “Yeah. Trust me when I say adulating is way harder than it looks.”

“You’re like the role model in what not to do,” David ignored the jab. “And after I emancipate?”

“Use that money towards getting yourself a place or furthering your education. Make something of yourself, Max.”

A few seconds passed before Max asked, “Do you really think I can?”

David’s answer was almost instantaneous, “I never doubted it.”

When Max spoke again, his voice was back to normal, but David imagined that the youth’s face bore the tiniest of smiles. “What about you then?”

 “What about me,” David asked, pushing off of the sill. As he moved towards the kitchen, he made sure to grab the now cold tea, with the intent of dumping it out into the sink. This time, only one of his knees popped as he swooped down to grab it.

“What are you going to do? I thought camping was your passion. You’re just gonna give it up?” Max sounded honestly perplexed and David couldn’t really blame him. The persona David had typically adopted while working at Camp Campbell was a bit over the top, now that he looked back on it. Of course Max would remember him that way, even if David was slowly beginning to show his true colors this summer. 

David just shook his head. No wonder it took so long for the two of them to get along, David thought. He had been willfully wearing blinders back then, but things had changed.

Maybe it was time for David to too.

“It is,” he started as he dumped the contents of his cup down the drain. “I’m not going to talk down to you and say something like ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’… but maybe it’s time I finally walk away from all that.”

And he meant it.

“So…” David heard springs squeak again followed by silence.

“This is goodbye then?”

Auburn eyebrows raised, “Do you want it to be?”

“…no.”

“Alright then.”

David nodded, even if Max couldn’t see it. He then ran his cup under the faucet.

“Really? That’s it?” Max asked, his voice colored with surprise. It caused David to smile.

“I don’t know what you were expecting,” he said, shrugging. He lightly shook the cup upside-down and placed it on the rack to dry, before drying his hands on a tea towel.

“You’ve changed. In a good way,” Max commented. Over the line it sounded like he had flopped backwards onto bed. “But if you tell anyone—”

“You’ll murder me in my sleep?”

“Hell no! I’ll sell your social and personal info to everyone who’s ever claimed to be a Nigerian prince,” Max shot back. If David didn’t know better, Max almost seemed insulted. David’s grin grew.

“Oh, that’s not so bad then.” He quickly moved the phone away from his ear.

Max made a high pitched sound that should have been well beyond anything a human could produce. David would have been impressed, if he wasn’t worried for his hearing. “David!! Seriously!!”

“I know, I know. I won’t tell a soul,” he replied hastily.

David hung the tea towel from a bar on his refrigerator, his ears still ringing a little. While doing so, he caught sight of a takeout calendar affixed to the door with an array of crudely-made magnets. Taking a closer look, he realized that it still read July although it was clearly August. He yanked the offending page off.

Summer was flying by.

“So, what now,” Max asked for what felt to David like the hundredth time that day. Since camp is out of the question… I mean, I was really banking on you getting me out of this shit-hole.”

David thought about it. Studying the calendar, David marked off the first week and five days. There really wasn’t much summer left. Soon enough Max would be returning to school, probably leaving him little time to talk to David, save for weekends. Also, money would be getting tighter in the future, so who knew when he would have the chance to have a bit of fun.

He flipped the page and for just a moment, David felt a spark of genius. He eyed the three little red circles he had drawn many months prior.

“Hey Max?” There was a grunt of acknowledgement, “When does your school start up again?”

“The eighth. Why? What are you planning?”

“And when will your dad get back from his business trip?” David tried his best to sound innocent. He felt that he managed it pretty well.

“…the fourteenth. Again, why?” Max’s voice was dripping with suspicion.

David grinned widely, “Oh, you know…”

He paused for dramatic effect, “I always wanted to go hiking in West Virginia.”

He waited for it to sink in.

3

2

1

“You crazy son of a—that’s brilliant!”

“I mean, if we happen to bump into each other while I’m enjoying my Labor Day vacation…” David let the sentence trail off, knowing that Max would easily understand.

“Damnit David, where was this side of you way back when? I wouldn’t’ve given you half the trouble I did. Looks like old age has been good to you,” Max laughed, the noise starting from deep inside his—unassumingly—small frame.

“Careful,” David teased lightly, the jovial mood getting the better of him. “You might make me change my mind.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Max yelled, between laughs, trying and failing to sound appropriately scandalized.

David nodded, “You’re right.”

“So, you in?” he asked, pinning August’s page with his wrist, as he looked again at September.

“Of fucking course I’m in! I’ll be there, you can count on it!”  

Chapter Text

Part the Seventeenth

For the most part, work continued to be just as uneventful—though maybe twice as boring—as it had been before the disbandment of David’s department. David still woke early, clocked his forty, and went home almost as soon as the clock struck five, like he had done before. However, the atmosphere was much different.

After returning to work, David had been assigned to the newly created ISD or Inter-organization Support Division—which upon meeting his rather unenthusiastic team, David almost immediately realized was his company’s fancy name for their temp pool. Their new office was in the basement and was made up not of cubicles, but of two long plastic tables pressed together to make one large desk, surrounded by a handful of mismatched office chairs. The ISD’s everyday tasks included anything from making copies to running coffee, with everything being done at a snail’s pace and in near silence.

It drove David crazy.

Still, he found that having something to look forward to really helped to maintain a bit of his usual positivity, as did his ongoing communication with Max. The pair texted often—sometimes several times a day—and spoke at least twice a week. Max had also taken it upon himself to send what David could only describe as sarcasm-heavy (de?)motivational posters each morning for David to look at during his now half-hour long lunch.

It was in this way that the next couple of weeks passed.

----------------------------------------------------------------

The evening of the 27th wasn’t a particularly hot or humid one, so far as David was concerned. Having spent years as both a camper and a camp counselor, far away from such luxuries as air conditioning or even a working box fan, tempered David into someone mostly unaffected by the elements. In fact, if asked, David might have called the evening a pleasant one.

Exiting the supermarket, David tried his best to balance a bag of canned beans and frozen pot pies on a bony hip, while simultaneously fishing out his keys from his pocket one-handed. He scanned the sizable parking for moving vehicles and made his way to his car as quickly as he could. Opening the passenger’s door, he placed his purchases inside—making sure to secure the seat belt around the goods, for good measure—and then sat himself on the driver’s side.

He turned the key and waited for the car to start. There was nothing; not even a slight rumble.

He tried it again.

And again.

…and again.

“Oh no, no, no, no, no,” he begged, though whether it was to whatever deities saw fit to bestow their blessings over the owners of vehicles, or the car itself was unknown. “Don’t do this to me. Come on…”

He pulled the key out and jammed it back in, but still, the car did not start.

“You have got to be kidding me,” he whined, getting out of the car, and opening the hood. He stared for a moment, not really sure what he was looking for exactly. Although he knew most of the basic parts of an engine, he couldn’t tell what could be wrong on sight. But after a few minutes of checking various fuel levels, he turned his attention the one other part he knew something about. Locating the battery, he checked the connections, and after seeing that they were good, he pulled a pair of jumper cables from the trunk.

He didn’t have to wait too long before a lovely woman, toddler in tow, offered to try and jump his car. Two unsuccessful tries later, as well as an offer of a ride to the nearest bus stop—that he politely declined, he wanted to kick himself for not having the car looked at sooner.

David wished that he could say that he was surprised—well, he was in a way, since he had thought that he a bit more time—but there had been signs that his not-too-new car was not quite right. First, there had been the near constant check engine light—which in and of itself wasn’t too troubling. Then, there had been the issue with the fuel gauge on the day his department was let go. Not to mention the odd rumble here or there—or the multiple tries to restart his engine at times.

He smacked a palm over his forehead as he let the hood fall closed. The lot was almost completely deserted and his pies mostly melted. He fished his phone out of his back pocket and sat down on the edge of the hood. He pulled up the number for a tow truck.

“Max was certainly right about one thing,” he said to no one in particular, pressing the call button, “my ability to intentionally ignore things is going to be the end of me one of these days.”

He waited.

It only took him two hours to get home that night.

The next day, in contrast, was an incredibly muggy day. Unable to drive to work, David debated going in at all, before thoughts of how much the car repairs might cost him flooded his mind. So, he took the long commute by bus, arriving at work at a quarter past, not that anyone seemed to notice or care. The whole time, he kept checking his phone, though he knew that the repair shop didn’t open until ten.

He was dialing the shop as soon as his department broke for lunch.

“Yeah, about that,” the mechanic said, sounding rather sympathetic, “It’s going to cost you, like a lot, to get this fixed.”

David put down his lunch and rubbed his face with a hand, ‘Figured as much…’

“H-how much?” David asked, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat that had nothing to do with his rather dry cheese sandwich. He steeled himself as best he could, curling the hand not already gripping the phone into a fist atop the table. ‘I already know I can’t afford it.’

“At least twenty five hundred. I wish I could say that this was just a leak or something like that, but it looks like the whole damn transmission’s gone bad. What the hell d’you do to this thing?” the man answered. David imagined the mechanic’s eyebrows to be somewhere close to his hairline.

“Tw-twenty five hundred?! Is that for a new transmission?”

The mechanic barked out a laugh and then became serious again, “Nah, that would put you over five grand. I’m talking about a rebuild. Salvage what we can and then cobble together the rest. Since yours’s an import, that adds to the price too.”

“I… see. And if I could somehow, say, scrape together that much money,” David ventured, honestly unsure how he was expected to find a few grand on such short notice, especially with a credit score like his. The thought of asking his parents entered his mind before he dismissed it. He sincerely doubted that they had that much on hand, without dipping deeply into their savings.

“Then how long would the repairs take? I’m supposed to drive down to West Virginia this weekend…”

“Yeah, not going to happen. Like I said, we’d be rebuilding, but to do that, we’ve got to take her apart and test each piece to see what we can save, and then order what we can’t.”

David resisted the urge to bang his forehead against the table. “Is there any way to get another one, from the junkyard or something, and replace it that way?”

“I mean, technically we could, provided we could fine one. Your car’s a bit—how do I say this?—old. It might take a while to find one in decent shape. Either way, this thing ain’t going to be ready by the weekend,” the man said, his voice softening a touch. David wondered if this was a conversation that he had had many a time before.

“Take a bit to think about it and let me know by tomorrow night,” he urged. “Me and mine are taking off for this weekend too, so if you want us to put in the order for anything, it’s got to be by Friday. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to wait.”

Waiting was not something that came easily to David. It never had, though he could accomplish it if he set his mind to it, but it was anything but easy. However, that evening, David—for the first time in his life—found himself stalling.

Multiple cups of untouched tea littered his apartment. Dinner, as well as the next day’s lunch, was made, packed, and shoved haphazardly into the refrigerator for later. Laundry was done, folded, and put away. And the worst part was that the clock still read only eight thirty-four.

So when eight thirty-seven rolled around and his phone started to vibrate, David closed his eyes, took a breath, and prepared for the hale of fire and vitriol that would soon be hurled his way, “Hey Max.”

“Hey Campman, almost ready to go take a piss in mother nature?” the pre-teen greeted, sounding much more chipper than David was used to hearing when the topic of nature was involved, though the choice of words left much to be desired.  

“Yeah, about that…” David started, expression turning bleak. He felt as his body curled in on itself.

“Not getting cold feet, are you?” Max asked, his voice still sounding playful, “Cause, if you are, then—”

“It’s not that,” he promised, “I was really looking forward to seeing you—”

“Was?” There was a beat of silence, and then two. All hits of playfulness were erased from the twelve year old’s voice, leaving it closer to the guarded tones David was more familiar with, “What do you mean was?”

‘This is it,’ he thought.

“There’s been a problem, and well… it,” his voice went soft; remorseful, “…it looks like I won’t be able to make it down there this summer, after all… I’m sorr—“

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” came the snarl from the other end of the line, causing David to physically wince. When Max spoke again, his tone was much less severe, sounding mostly concerned. The tonal whiplash was strong enough to give David neck strain. “What the hell happened? Did—are you okay?”

It took a few seconds to answer, “I—I’m fine. My car, not so much.”

“You wrecked another one?”

“No! Not exactly. You know that used car I bought,” David asked, surprised by the turn in which the conversation had gone. “Well, apparently it was more of a fixer-upper than the previous owner let on. And now that transmission’s shot and I’m not sure when or if I can get it fixed.”

David listened as the sound of thumping came over the line. If he had to guess, David would say that it sounded like Max was running up a flight of stairs, and quite quickly at that. The sound was followed by a few squeaks of sneakers against flooring and a door slamming shut.

“… how much are they asking for?” Max finally asked calmly and not at all out of breath.

“Max…”

“How much?” he asked again, throwing himself into a soft computer chair, if the creaking of springs was any indication.

“Twenty five hundred at minimum. Probably more,” David answered, trying to figure out just what the former camper was up to.

He heard the click-clack of a keyboard and a few clicks of a mouse. “That’s more than the damn car!”

“I know… they also said it might take some time to do the repairs, since they can’t just take the old one out and put in a new one. They have to make it,” David continued, wondering if Max was using his computer to look into car parts. It was a touching thought.

“How are you going to get to work, then?” Max asked, sounded preoccupied as he continued typing away. There was more mouse clicking and even a couple of muttered curses.

“Bus. I’ll have to wake up a bit earlier, but that’s not really a problem. You know me, I’m Mister Morning-person. I’ll manage,” David tried to lighten the mood, despite it not being as awful as he had been dreading. He smiled and chalked it up to how much Max had changed over the summer.

“How are you going to get the money?”

The smile faded.

“I don’t know. I’m---“

“Since I know you won’t take it if I offer it to you,” Max started, sounding bored, “how about a loan?”

The typing continued while Max waited for an answer.  

“My credit score’s—”

“I mean from me, numb-nuts,” David’s brain screeched to a halt.

“I’ll loan you the money. You pay me back, with interest. If you miss a payment, I come and break your legs. But you get the money, in cash, in person once you get your ass over here. Whatever you don’t use on the car, use for shit like groceries and rent.”

“Max— I couldn’t—!”

“Let me finish. I’m buying you a plane ticket so you can get your lame ass down here and back. And before you start, yes, I’m buying the cheapest one I can find—trust me I’ve been tracking the prices a while, since driving down would take forEVER. But to do that, I need your email address—one that you actually check—and your driver’s license info. Don’t worry, I’m not doing anything illegal with it. For once…”

David blinked and then blinked again.

‘That explains what he’s been doing on the computer’, he thought before his mind processed what his former camper said. David was left highly impressed, if a little worried about the legality and ethics of it all. ‘Heaven help us all if he ever becomes a lawyer or a businessman.’

“Do we have a deal,” Max asked, sounding bored once more. David noticed that the sounds of typing had ceased.

David opened his mouth and then shut it, having nearly said yes without thinking. It was the camp and car situation all over again.

“Thank you, Max,” he began. “But asking you to do all this for me isn’t right.”

There was a loud groan from the other end of the line and then, “Well, good thing you aren’t asking. Look, David. You’re not some asshole hitting up kids for cash and I’m not some idiot offer my money to some shady ass hack on the internet. And this isn’t some sort of freebie either, it’s a business deal, if anything. But who the hell, besides you and me needs to know? Cause, do you know how much damage my street cred would take if anyone knew I was helping you?”

David frowned at the jab. “But I would know, Max. And I don’t feel right about this. It feels… like I’m taking advantage of you in some way. I know you’re a lot smarter and mature than most people your age—and probably my age too—but… I don’t know. It feels…”

“Wow,” Max interjected, sounding honestly astonished, deepening David’s frown. “What’s it like having your head so far up your own ass, David? I knew you could be a prideful bastard, but just… wow! For a guy that lectured me about asking for and accepting help, you fucking suck at it.”

 “…”

“You… as much as I hate admitting this, you… helped me a lot… Not just this summer, either. Even when I was being a little shit to you – and let’s face it, it’s a surprise you didn’t pop me one—you still tried and that’s a lot fucking more than most people have done. Now let me return the goddamn favor.”

“… you don’t owe me anything, Max. It was never about that.”

“I know. So take the damn money and think of me as the nastiest loan shark you’ve ever met,” he replied, voice much less serious. As an afterthought he added, “I was serious about breaking your legs. I know a guy in Jersey that makes a living off roughing people up.”

David smiled weakly, “I’m guessing the interest will be around fifty percent, huh?”

He could hear the grin in the pre-teen’s voice as he answered, “I was thinking more like seventy five, but you know what, I can do sixty since I know you’re good for it.”

“Thanks,” he replied dryly.

“But breathe a word of this to anyone else—”

“And I’ll sound like an awful excuse for a human being?”

“Err, that’s… that’s a lot better than what I’ve got, actually. Let’s go with that.”

David heard fingers tapping against a keyboard once again.

“But don’t forget to text me a picture of your license, as soon as we hang up. I’ll order the tickets tonight and send the confirmation to your email, that way you can check in with your phone. Since you can actually function—SOMEHOW—during the morning, I’ll get an early morning flight so you can be down here before noon. We’ll pick you up at the airport. That work for you?” Max explained, continuing to type what David assumed was his personal information into whatever site he was using to order the tickets. It was a little frightening how savvy and easy it all was.

“Uh, yeah. That’s… that’s great. Anything else I can do on my end?” David asked, feeling a bit drained.

“Just show up,” Max replied.

“Alright, and Max?”

“Umm hmm?”

“Thanks… for… helping me out…”

A snort, followed by, “well, somebody fucking has to.”

Chapter Text

Part the Eighteenth

David readjusted the duffel bag on his shoulder, for what felt like the twenty seventh time that day, as he made his way through the airport. Looking around, it was hard not to notice the lack of travelers, both on his flight and near the gates, despite the holiday weekend.

‘I guess West Virginia isn’t really on the top of most people’s travel lists,’ he mused to himself, walking past the luggage carousel. Even with the sparse number of travelers around him, David realized that bringing his camping equipment—like he had originally planned, before Max had talked him out of it—would have been a bad idea.

Once he was closer to the lobby, David pulled out his phone.

“Hey Max,” he greeted with a smile, again adjusting his bag. White it was not overly heavy—it only contained some necessities, like a few sets of clothes and his lightweight sleeping bag—the length of the strap made it awkward to carry at times.

“About damn time,” Max answered, “I’m waiting by the car rentals.”

“Ah, got’cha. Is that by the big yellow sign?” he asked, looking over the second floor railing. Though he could kind of make out a sign with the letters UGET CA, he couldn’t see a service counter or anyone matching Max’s description—at least, not from his angle.

“Yeah. Can you hurry it up? I’ve been here for hours,” the pre-teen complained.

“Almost there,” he said, jogging down the escalator.

It didn’t take long at make it to the service counter, where there was a bored looking young woman staring at her phone, and a pile of camping equipment stuffed into an airport trolley. However, there were no signs of Max. Confused, he looked from the gear to the woman, who still didn’t acknowledge him in any way.

“Err, Max? I thought you said you were—”

“Behind you, idiot.”

David paused mid-turn and only half felt his arm return to his side, phone still on and call connected.

The boy looked very different from the last time David had seen him. For one, he was taller than expected—much taller. While David doubted that Max would ever reach his own height, Max was now at least as tall as his chest. Upon further inspection, Max also seemed to hold himself straighter—his shoulders far less rounded—than David remembered.

 “Close your mouth. You look dumber than usual,” Max continued, before he ended the call and shoved the phone into the pocket of his unzipped hoodie. In the hand not holding the phone, there was a cardboard tray holding two cups of coffee. “You ready to go?”

“Uh,” David replied, pocketing his own phone.

Logically, David knew that there would have been some changes since the two of them had last met, but he was still having difficulty processing what—or who—he was looking at.

In addition to the acquired height, Max had seen fit to shorn off the majority of his hair, only leaving a wild mess of curls at the very top of his head. The sides were cut with a fade, which made Max look closer to fourteen. However, the annoyed expression, along with the heavy bags under Max’s eyes had remained the same.

“Err, yeah.” David answered, shaking himself out of his stupor. “You got everything?”

Max gave him a long unimpressed look, rolled his eyes with a quiet huff, and then tilted his head in the direction of the trolley. He then walked past David without another word and approached the counter.

“License and credit card please,” said the woman, who still hadn’t looked up from her phone.

Max turned around with a look that said ‘well?’ before he pulled a card from the pocket of his jeans. Not waiting for David to fish out his own wallet, he tossed it on the counter with a flick of the wrist. David then placed down his license, albeit more gingerly and with an apologetic wince.

It took a while, and a few not so subtle threats of blackmail on Max’s part, but their gear was loaded into a 2016 Honda without too much trouble. Afterwards, the coffee was transferred to the in-dash cup holders, and then they were on the road.

For a long time, the only sounds were the engine, the wind against the windows, and Max’s occasional sips of coffee. Eventually, Max thumped his head against his headrest and said, “Ugh, enough with the side-eye already. If you’ve got something to say, spit it out already.”

“Well, I’m just… surprised, is all. I know it’s silly, but—for some reason—I expected you to be, oh I don’t know…” David replied, keeping his eyes on the road. It felt silly for being so unbalanced by the change. Looking back on the past two and a half years, a lot had changed in David’s personal life, so he wondered why it was so surprising that the same might be true in Max’s case. During the entire summer, David had never stopped to consider it, because then it would mean… David still wasn’t sure. It bugged him.

“Ten?”

“… yeah.”

Max snorted.

They were coming up on a stop sign.

Slowing, David tried to put words to his thoughts, “I mean, I know you’re almost thirteen—gosh, it’s so strange to say it out loud—I guess, it really puts things into perspective…”

Just over two and a half years since Camp Campbell. Those years felt both incredibly short and insanely long for David. But at the same time, life kept moving forward, and for a while David had felt that he had been moving with them. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

Two steps forward, one step back.

Or was it two steps forward, three steps back?

He gripped the steering wheel a little bit tighter and felt corners of his mouth turn downward slightly.

“You know,” Max said, changing his hold on the cheap paper cup from a two-handed hold to a single handed one. After a fair amount of shifting, Max managed to wedge his spine into the corner between the seat and door, despite still wearing his seatbelt. Satisfied, he tucked one leg under himself and wrapped an arm around the headrest—all without spilling a drop of coffee.

David turned his head to keep Max in his peripheral vision.

“You really haven’t changed that much,” he said, taking another sip, “Like, yeah, your insufferably positive attitude’s gotten a bit more… tolerable…”

David couldn’t help feeling amused at both the statement and delivery. Was that Max being tactful?

He didn’t check the mirror to see, but something in David’s expression shifted, causing Max to raise an eyebrow. David focused back on the road. It was almost time to turn off of the main road. He slowed the car to a halt and turned on his blinker.

“But…I think, maybe—and this is a big maybe here,” Max continued, “I just got to know you better this summer.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Max took a large swig of coffee, using the raised cup to hide his face.

David took the pause in traffic to make his turn. David felt his body relax once they were on the side road. He thought about what Max had said.

Moments later, Max tapped the side of the cup with a finger. David watched from the corner of his eye as Max brought it back down, removed the lid, and checked the inside for more coffee. Max’s eyebrows furrowed in indignation at what David guessed was an empty cup.

It was returned, now with the lid stuffed into the cup, to the cup holder.

“But looks-wise, it’s freaky how much you haven’t changed!” Max said, crossing his arms. He made no move to sit properly. Instead, he aimed a critical look at David that made the back of the ex-counselor’s neck heat. “I mean, you’re not some immortal forest spirit are you? Because if you are, turn this car around. I don’t want any part in your weird Druid Voodoo shit,”

“I’m pretty sure those are two entirely different things,” he replied, slowing his speed a little. It was a straight run from that point out, so he rolled his shoulders and tried to relax a bit.

The rest of the drive was spent in easy conversation, with Max eventually stealing the cup of coffee on the driver’s side of the dash. He had tried to be sneaky about it, though David didn’t really care either way, so David pretended not to notice. After all, it wasn’t his job to dictate how much caffeine Max was or wasn’t allowed to have, or when he was supposed to go to bed, or anything anymore.

They both seemed happier by the shift in the power balance.

Forty five minutes later, the pair was settling into their own quiet corner of campgrounds. The weather was pleasantly warm and there weren’t many insects lingering, which made Max happy. It didn’t take long for them to set up, so they spent the rest of the afternoon foraging for ingredients to add to their dinner, during which David introduced Max to blackberries, and Max kept trying to get David to partake in some mind altering mushrooms they came across.

That evening, however, Max was unusually quiet.

Dinner was done and the scraps were done away with by David in a way as to not attract local wildlife. There was a small fire going in front of the tent, supplying light, and a small bit of warmth after the temperature had gone down—though luckily not to an uncomfortable degree. David was leaning backwards against a log that they had together pulled closer to the tent, enjoying a cup of tea made on the campfire. A few feet away, Max stared up at the night sky from a thin blanket on the ground with his arms tucked under his head.

David listened to the soft sounds of nature. The three-or-so crickets near the tent were rather active, along with the last of that summer’s cicadas, and a few other airborne insects. The buzzing of their wings, chirps, and movements through the foliage made the campgrounds feel alive in a way that was hard for David to describe. The trees rustled around them slightly with the slight breeze. It was peaceful in a way that cities—or even suburbs—just weren’t. David felt his entire body slowly start to relax, starting from his brow and ending in his toes. Letting out a breath, he rolled his neck and shoulders. He was relieved not to hear anything crack.

“So, what do you want to do tomorrow?” David asked, idly swirling the contents of his tea around his tin cup. The warmth felt great against his hands. “I know you don’t really care for swimming, but I thought we could check out the river east of here and maybe try our hand at catching some fish?”

When there was no response, he tilted his head back and looked up at the sky. It was just beginning to truly darken and stars were starting to appear in greater numbers. Looking away, he shifted his attention to Max. Grinning, he tried to sweeten the deal by adding, “We might not have fishing rods, but I can show you how to make a spear, if you promise not to try to stab me with it.”

David tilted his head a bit when there was again, no response. He wondered for a moment if Max had fallen asleep, before recalling a hint of a memory—one that he couldn’t be a hundred percent sure about—but felt true enough, considering the bags under the pre-teen’s eyes. Hadn’t Max suffered from insomnia when he was younger?

David shifted his weight so he was sitting a little straighter. He decided that he wouldn’t freak out or be too put off by the lack of response just yet. Besides, a lack of reply beat a negative or obscenity filled one any day, right?

With a little more attention on Max, he continued, “Or, we could go hiking along the trail to the west. I read that the view is quite good this time of year, if that’s something you’d be into?”

Instead of answering, Max sat up with his back to David, and fiddled with his hoodie.

 “You alright there, Max?” David asked softly, setting his tea to the side. In a fluid movement, David pulled his legs up and rolled forward onto his knees, leaning forward. Soon after, he was pushing himself to his feet, intent on making his way over to the blanket where Max was sitting. This time, there was a pop of protest from his knee—thankfully not a painful one, much to David’s dismay.

“Yeah, I’m… fine. You were saying?” Max asked, shaking his head, as if dispelling a thought. The pop seemed to snap him back to reality. He turned slightly, so he could look at David.

“Something you want to talk about?”

“No,” Max tilted his head back to keep David in his line of sight once David was standing beside the blanket. David could see the tension in the set of Max’s shoulders. One of Max’s hands was withdrawing itself from inside the hoodie, leaving a slight lump over Max’s left side. If he had to guess, David would have said he had put something into an inner pocket of the garment. The other hand rose up and David pretended to be preoccupied by a wrinkle in the blanket when Max scrubbed the edge of his sleeve over his face.

 “Look. We’re here to have a good time, right? So…” Max trailed off, avoiding eye contact.

David had a moment to think, ‘Classic Max,’ before he was haphazardly dumping himself in a mess of too long limbs onto the corner of the blanket, next to the boy. Max, realizing what was happening, recoiled, and scooted himself over to the edge of the blanket with an unhappy look. He then shot a glare at David, though David ignored it and pointed up at the sky.

“Right. Well, do you know what that is?” he asked, pointing north-west.

“A star?”

“Alright, smart guy,” David threw what he assumed to be an unimpressed look over his shoulder at Max. He doubted that it was at all effective, but continued anyway, “Which star?”

“How should I know,” Max replied, looking less tense, and more perturbed. “Err, what’s with the quiz all of a sud--?”

“That one there’s called Schedar, or Alpha Cassiopeiae,” David continued, as if Max hadn’t spoken. He turned his attention to the sky, which was slightly darker. It made the stars a little easier to see, “And that bright one there, that’s Gamma Cassiopeiae.”

He gestured to the stars above, all the while narrating calmly. Out of the corner of his eye, David noticed that Max seemed more interested in staring at him rather than the stars. Pointing to the stars again—this time waiting until Max had found the stars in question—he moved his finger right, left, and then into a vaguely squiggle-like shape. “Those two, along with the ones next to it—see, they sort of make a W shape?—make up a constellation called Cassiopeia the Queen.’

“Stars can also help you navigate if you ever get lost in the woods or at sea,” David said, tilting his head towards a nearby tree. “It’s a shame we never got to covering it at camp. I mean we did go over a few of the stars when we taught you kids about the planets—still not sure where that idea that the sun goes around Jupiter came from…”

David shook his head and turned his attention back to Max. “So, any ideas about what you want to do tomorrow? It’s all up to you, Max. If you want to do something out there—that doesn’t include eating questionable mushrooms—cool. If you want to just lounge around here—that’s cool too. If you decide and then change your mind, guess what.”

“You’re too damn accommodating, you know that, right?” Max said, standing up and adjusting his hoodie. With David sitting, Max actually managed to tower over him. He seemed to delight in it.

Putting his hands on his hips, Max brought himself to his full height, with chin up and shoulders back. He looked David in the eye and announced, “What if I wanna sit around and look at my phone all day?”

“Seems a waste to me, but I’m not going to stop you,” David replied. He made absolutely no move to stand up. Max seemed to be enjoying being the tall one for once, so David let him be.

 “A waste of perfectly good nature, you mean?” Max threw his arms up and out, gesturing to the trees around them. Max’s face held a small smile rather than his usual sardonic smirk.

“Of electricity,” David shot back, attempting to make himself comfortable on the blanket. Something told him that he would be there for a while, so he arranged his legs and arms in a way that was somewhat comfortable. “You know there isn’t anywhere to charge your phone around here, right?”

“I brought an external battery, David. There’s no way that I’m going without my phone any longer than I absolutely have to. Speaking of which,” Max pulled the device out of his hoodie pocket, and tapped a few buttons to wake it from sleep mode. As he fiddled with it, David couldn’t but notice the photo of three very familiar faces shoved haphazardly under the clear plastic case.  

David startled at the sound of a camera’s shutter going off.

“There we go. Captured your derpy smile and everything,” Max said, pocketing the phone once more. Adjusting the hoodie once again, he turned on his heel, and directed a wave over his shoulder at David. He then proceeded to walk into the tent without so much as a glance back. “Night, David.”

Surprised, David muttered a soft, “Night, Max,” and stared blankly in the direction of the tent. Rubbing his own eyes, David decided that it was just about time for him to turn in for the night as well. Wanting to give Max some time to get settled, David went about rolling up the blanket, finishing his tea, and putting out the fire. Then with a quick check to see if Max was sleeping—which he was—David grabbed his stuff from the tent, quickly brushed his teeth, and rolled out his sleeping bag in front of the tent. He feel asleep under a blanket of stars and surrounded by the sounds of nature.

Chapter Text

Part the Nineteenth

The weather Sunday morning turned out to be much wetter than the days before. David had been awoken early in the morning by droplets of water hitting his face. At first he was confused—having forgotten that he had decided to sleep outside—but once he had gotten his bearings, he brought his now damp sleeping bag into the tent and dug through his things for a towel.

“Five more minutes,” grumbled Max from within his sleeping bag. From his position, David could only make out a few dark curls and the back of a hand peeking out from the opening.

“Sleep as long as you like,” David responded, drying his hair with the towel.

There was a long beat of silence, during which David listened to the rain hitting the outside of their tent—he had really been fortunate to wake up when he did, as the rain seemed to be picking up. Then, Max’s head popped out of the sleeping bag and looked at David in sleepy disbelief. “Wait, what?”

“Go back to sleep, Max,” David said with a chuckle. “It’s still pretty early. Sorry to wake you up.”

Max continued to stare at David, “You… really have changed, haven’t you?”

“I… guess so,” David said, looking away. Rubbing his thumb over the towel in his hand, David went to work drying off his sleeping bag, still feeling eyes on his back. When he was done, he turned to look at Max. The boy was still awake, now with both arms out of the sleeping bag and crossed under his chin, watching him.

“Really Max, it’s okay to go back to sleep, if you want. It’s,” David checked his watch, squinting in the dim light. “Not even five thirty. I can wake you up again in a few hours.”

“There isn’t really much of a point, is there? I’m already up,” Max shot back. One hand moved up to rub at his eye and then fall limply back to the pillow.

“If you’re sure…”

Max grunted in reply.

The two spent the next few minutes listening to the rain continue to beat against the sides and top of the tent. Eventually, Max shifted about in his sleeping bag so that it remained around his stomach and legs, and reached for his backpack. David watched silently from the other side of the tent.

“I’m guessing a fire’s out of the question,” said Max as he dug through the contents. Soon after, he pulled out what looked like a black plastic square that was just a little smaller than a laptop computer. Turning it over, David noticed that edge of it was slanted slightly and had buttons. Max put it down on in front of him and resumed rummaging through the pack. He then pulled out a pack of batteries, followed by a metal water bottle.

“Here, fill this,” Max said, tossing the bottle to David, who fumbled it a bit.

Max then set about putting the batteries into a compartment in one side of the square. He flipped it over and placed it in the space between them while David filled the metal bottle with some water from his pack. When the bottle was seventy five percent full, he handed it carefully back to Max and watched him put it atop the square, which he now noticed looked like an electric burner of some sort. Pressing a few buttons, Max asked, “You drink tea, right?”

“Uh, yeah. What made you think of bringing a hotplate?” David replied, examining the device, rather impressed. Meanwhile, Max opened a side pocket of his backpack and pulled out a packet. Satisfied, he tossed the bag back into the corner of the tent.

“Unlike someone, I actually checked the weather forecast before we left,” said Max, giving David the same look mothers sometimes gave their children. Rubbing his face again, Max asked, “Did you clean out those cups we used last night?”

“Oh, yeah,” David placed two metal mugs next to the burner. They listened to the rain while waiting for the water to boil. It didn’t take long.

Max pressed the power button and then began tugging his hoodie—now a bit crumpled from sleeping in it—off. He rolled it up before using it like a makeshift potholder to pick up the metal water bottle and pouring some of the contents into the cup closest to David.

“I hope you brought your own teabags,” he said.

David fetched one from his bag, along with a couple of protein bars, watching Max pour both water and the contents of the packet into his own cup. Quickly, the smell of coffee filled the tent.

“Here,” He handed a bar to Max. “Sorry it isn’t something more substantial.”

“It’s fine. I used to eat these all the time back home,” Max replied, tearing into the wrapper. He brightened when he saw the chocolate coating. He bit off a large bite and chased it with a mouthful of steaming coffee. “Glad you brought the good ones, though. Not those granola abominations.”

“Yeah, those are pretty awful, aren’t they,” David agreed, sipping his tea.

Max shoved the rest of the bar into his mouth greedily. Once it was gone, he tipped his head back and shook out whatever contents lingered within the wrapper. A couple of crumbs fell out. Then, he shoved it under his sleeping bag.

“Never been big on granola, to be honest. Tastes a bit too much like cardboard, you know?” David continued, grabbing another bar from his pack and passing it over. Max looked surprised for a tick, but quickly took the bar from David’s hand and ripped into it. It was gone even quicker than the first.

Doing the same with the second wrapper, Max pinned David with the most unbelieving stare, before stating, “I’m surprised.”

David took another sip of tea, waiting for Max to explain.

“Isn’t granola, like, the health-nut’s wet dream or some shit?”

Very nearly spitting out his tea, David did his best to swallow it down, but promptly choked. He hit a fist against his chest as he fought to stop coughing. Doubled over, he wondered if anyone had ever died by tea-related drowning. Finally, he managed a great big breath and the coughs began to die down.

Face burning with embarrassment, he waited for laughter. It never came.

Looking up, he noticed a look of genuine concern on Max’s face. During his coughing fit, the boy had managed to climb out of his sleeping bag and now was kneeling in front of David. One hand hovered uncertainly in the air.

“Oww,” David managed, sniffling.

“Shit,” Max said softly. Resting back on his hunches, he placed his hands on his knees, before apologizing.

 “Please, never say anything like that again,” David begged.

----

The rain tapered off around early afternoon, but the sky remained overcast for the rest of the day. By this time, the pair had decided how best to spend the rest of their day, with both agreeing that a trip back to the car for additional supplies was in order first and foremost. The trip would take roughly twenty five minutes each way, provided they didn’t find themselves distracted and the weather didn’t grow any worse than a light shower.

About ten minutes before the two were due to reach the campground’s small parking area, David—who was contentedly taking in the lush greens around them—was startled by the first few notes of a song he couldn’t immediately recognize. Despite that, his hand automatically reached for the phone in his pocket.

“Yeah, hello,” Max asked, phone already at his ear. He hadn’t even broken stride.

David’s hand fell back to his side as he watched Max carefully, trying to determine if the call was a good thing or not. He checked the boy’s posture and expression, but only saw the same bored look the pre-teen usually wore.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I know, I did,” Max rolled his eyes and turned to David. He opened and closed his hand several times, mimicking someone talking—or maybe it was a duck, David wasn’t sure.

“Look, you want to talk to him?” Max asked, looking at David quickly.

David took a step forward, ready to accept the phone if need be, though he had absolutely no idea as to what he would say or even as to whom he would be expected to speak to. His first though was that it could possibly be Max’s father, though the tone Max was using sounded a little familiar.

As Max listened, David shifted his weight from foot to foot. How was he supposed to explain this whole situation, come to think of it? The more he thought about it, the more complicated it became and the worse it looked. He wondered briefly if what he was doing could be considered kidnapping, even if Max had gone along willingly. David eyed a nearby tree and debated banging his head against it.

“Didn’t think so,” David tuned back in to see Max making the gesture for hurry up. Not for the first time, he wished he could hear what the other person was saying.

“We’re in the middle of something, so can I call you back later?” He barely waited for a reply before continuing, “Great. Bye.”

Hanging up, he put the phone back into the pocket of his hoodie. They shared a beat of silence before David asked with unadulterated amazement, “You get reception out here?”

Right away, he wanted to kick himself. He willed the heat away from his face, though he wasn’t too sure how successful he was. Likely, not very.

That’s what you took away from this,” Max asked in disbelief. After the words were out of his mouth, the corners of his lips tugged upwards, as if on their own accord and with much protest from Max. Soon after, he let out a huff, and began to laugh. Max’s laughter escalated until he was bent double, clutching his stomach.

When Max managed to look up, David asked with a mostly straight face, “What? It was a valid question.”

The answering snort of amusement was worth the temporary embarrassment, David decided.

Continuing their walk, Max explained, “That was Neil, calling to check up on me. I forgot to text him earlier and you know how he gets.”

“He knows you’re here?” David asked.

They were nearly at the edge of the parking area. Separating the campgrounds and unpaved parking lot—if it could indeed be called one, since it was more of a clearing devoid of trees or grass—was an ancient wooden fence. Most of the posts had been hit sideways at one point or another, so the majority of the fence was crooked or broken entirely. In the places it remained standing, it was easy enough for someone of David’s height to swing a leg across without too much trouble.

“Uh yeah. I’m not rushing off to go camping in the middle of nowhere without telling someone,” Max answered, rushing forward and jumping the fence. “I’m not stupid, David. I know there’s a lot of freaky shit that happens in the woods.”

David made it over the fence easily. Seeing Max already at the car, he fished the key from his pocket and tossed them to Max, who caught them and unlocked the trunk.

“Ah, and here I was starting to think you didn’t trust me,” David replied.

“It’s not you that I’m worried about. You’re fucking harmless.” Max said, fishing out a tube of oatmeal and a few more bottles of water. He also grabbed a few packets of dried fruit and an extra towel before leaning against the side of the car. “It’s people like Quartermaster that I stay away from. Why the fuck anyone thought it would be alright to let him work near kids—or people in general—I have no idea…”

“He was there when I was a kid, come to think of it.” David informed him, also grabbing a few things, and shutting the trunk. He then walked past Max, holding a hand out for the key, and opened the driver seat door. “Hadn’t really changed much either by the time you were a camper.”

“That’s not creepy at all,” Max added sarcastically.

David could only shrug. Pulling out his phone, he plugged it into the charger he had set up the day before, and started the engine. He let it idle briefly.

“You know, if you wanted to charge your phone, I would’ve leant you my spare battery.” Max stated, coming to stand in front of David, who was sat sideways in the driver’s seat.

David smiled and stretched his legs, causing Max to move to the other side of the open door. The arm not holding supplies draped over the top and Max slouched enough to rest his chin atop it. He was careful not to put too much weight against it.

“Thanks for the offer. I might take you up on it later, but I thought since we’re here, you know?”

Max tilted his chin down slightly in a nod.

“Anywho, how are your friends doing? Been a long time since I last saw them,” David continued. He wondered if the two had changed as drastically as Max had over the years since they were campers. They probably had, he told himself. He also hoped that their strange friendship with Max would continue for years to come because as much of a handful as they were, they did make a good team.

“You mean Nikki and Neil? Um, they’re siblings now, sort of. They share a half-brother, even though their parents aren’t together or anything,” Max said. Rolling his eyes upwards, he took in the cloudy sky above them, seemingly in thought. “I talk to them pretty often now-a-days. It didn’t start that way, though. Because of the whole clusterfuck at Camp Campbell, we never got around to exchanging numbers or anything like that, so imagine my surprise when I get a call from Neil out of the goddamn blue.”

“Still, it must’ve been nice to talk to them again,” David trailed off, also looking at one group of dark clouds in particular. Judging by the wind speed and direction, David knew it wouldn’t be long before the rain started up began. He wanted to be back at the tent before then.

Hearing Max shuffling, David looked down in time to see Max let go of the car door. Max then crossed the short distance to the front of the car, braced one foot against the tire, and awkwardly hoisted himself up onto the hood with one hand. Afterwards, he lent back against the windshield.

David watched the leftover rainwater soak into the boy’s clothes. Grabbing his phone off of the charger, he cut the ignition, before pulling himself out of the car and locking the door behind himself. He hesitated only a second, before putting down his supplies, and joining the pre-teen on the hood of the car. Almost immediately, water started to soak through the back of his own clothes. He successfully fought back the full body shiver at the uncomfortable sensation.

“You still talk to Gwen, right?” Max asked, still staring at the sky. One arm was holding the towel and foodstuffs he had retrieved from the trunk to his stomach while the other was tucked into the pocket of his hoodie, “What did she make of all this?”

Turning his head, David looked at Max, “Yeah, we still talk. Not as much as we used to, but we talk. I haven’t exactly told her about my little vacation just yet. Last time we talked, she was telling me about the new car.”

“The piece of shit that just died on you? Some help that turned out to be.” Max fidgeted, pulling the hand out of his pocket. David watched as Max worried the hem of the sleeve between his fingers. He rolled it this way and that, even going so far as pulling at a few fraying threads. However, after a while of watching the clouds, he softly asked, “Hey, David?”

“Yes, Max?”

Turning his head to look at David, he slowly asked, “Do you… I mean, are you… having fun?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?” David replied, confused. So far, there hadn’t been any arguing or insults, beyond their usual friendly banter. Thinking about it, David realized that Max had gone out of his way to be helpful the day before—helping with dinner—along with that morning. “Does it seem like I’m not?”

“No, not exactly. I guess, what I’m really asking is…” he trailed off. He finally let go of his sleeve to rub at his forehead in frustration, “This is stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” David argued. “Are… you asking if I’m having fun being here with you?”

“When you put it that way…” Max’s face scrunched up. “Look, I was going to wait to give you this… trying to sweeten the deal and all that… make sure you didn’t bail on me, but here,” Max reached into a secret pocket sewed into the lining of his hoodie and pulled out a non-descript envelope. It crinkled as he withdrew it. He handed it to David.

The sides of the envelope bulged slightly, “What’s this?”

Max rolled his eyes and sent a look of exasperation David’s way. When he explained, he spoke as if explaining something simple to a dull-minded child, “Your loan. Don’t tell me you forgot our deal.”

Recoiling, David tried to hand the envelope back, but Max simply stuffed his hand back into his pocket and refused to take it. Not sure what to do with an envelope filled with a large amount of cash, David folded it to the best of his ability and carefully pocketed it.

“Aren’t you going to count it? Make sure it’s all there?” Max asked as he watched David carefully.

“I trust you. I’m more worried about why you thought I would leave once you gave it to me. You should know by now that I’m not… I wouldn’t…” David gestured uselessly while he tried to put his feelings into words, “I’m here because I thought we were friends.”

“But I know I can be a real asshole---” Max shot back.

“Yes, but you’ve also grown up a lot this summer. You’re not the same person you were at 10. And even if you were, you deserve to be happy. I’m not going to lie and say you’re suddenly an angel, but you… you don’t need to… give people a reason to want to spend time with you. That’s not how this works and I’m sorry if other people made you believe otherwise. Your friends and I, we like you, imperfections and all. So, the only way I’m going anywhere is if you tell me that you want to go home.” David explained. He turned his upper body enough to place a hand on Max’s shoulder and squeezed it briefly, “Do you want to go home, Max?”

Drawing back some, Max glanced between the hand on his shoulder and David’s face, “No.”

“Okay, then.” Removing the hand, David scooted forward enough that his feet touched the ground. Then he stood up, walked back to where his supplies were waiting, and picked them up. Once they were balanced comfortably under his harm, he extended his free hand out to Max. Max being Max, ignored it in favor of jumping from the hood. The pair exchanged a look of understanding.

“Ready?” David asked, tipping his head in the direction of where they had set up camp. At the nod of agreement from Max, the pair began the trek back, with Max lingering a couple of steps behind the former camp counselor.

When they were a few minutes away, Max reached out a hand to snag the back of David’s shirt, causing him to stop. “Hey, David?”

Turning around, David rearranged to supplies in his arms and waited for the pre-teen to speak. Stepping forward, Max smiled the tiniest smile, “Thanks… for giving a shit.”

Smiling back, David threw an arm around the boy’s shoulders and gave a small squeeze, “Anytime.”

The elbow to the gut was totally worth it.