During counselor training week, all the veterans talked about opening day with a strange mix of excitement and panic. For all us newbies, they made it seem like there was a bomb in the middle of camp, and the only way to avoid getting blown up was to get everything set just right. Training week turned out to be less about training and more about rushed manual labor disguised as team building.

The camp directors went to the other extreme. In the calmest possible tones, they painted a nice, orderly picture of how camper arrivals day would go. Everything would be fine, as long as everybody followed the process. All us counselors had to do was act as guides for the arriving campers and their parents. First, check them in at the office in The Lodge, then health check at The Infirmary, then take them up to the cabins and help them unpack their bags. Always be accommodating to the parents — but suggest firmly that this was the time to say goodbye to their kids. Finally, keep the campers occupied until everybody had arrived. Easy. The steps even formed a neat, orderly circle on the map.

In reality, a bomb exploding would probably have been less chaotic. Campers didn’t arrive in a nice, even stream. They clumped together. My co-counselor Alexis and I had nothing to do until lunch, then we were suddenly swamped as five campers in our cabin all came at once.

We were placed in Cabin 2, the second youngest age group. These were girls young enough to have infinite energy, but who had mostly been at camp a year already and were bursting with excitement unrestrained by nervousness. They dashed around us, running away to hug all their friends, wanting nothing to do with waiting in line for paperwork or the nurse and everything to do with having fun.

“Perhaps designing the process around holding kids still as soon as they get out of the car might not have been the wisest thing in the world?” I muttered to Alexis, as we watched our campers scatter. “Are we supposed to go catch them?”

“Maybe?” She shrugged, flashing me a resigned smile. “As long as we don’t let any of them get eaten by a bear, we’re probably fine.”

It was her first year as a counselor, but she’d been a camper for years, and I’d been leaning on her experience a lot. “Is it always like this?”

“Pretty much.” Her smile widened just a bit and she gave me a little nudge. “Tried to warn ya.”

I thought the unpacking part would be easy because parents would want to organize their kids’ beds and lockers themselves — make sure they were neat at least once during the summer. Surely it couldn’t be that much stuff. After all, how much can 10-year-olds pack? If left to their own devices, they’d probably have just come with the clothes on their backs. However, in today’s age of helicopter parenting? Every one of them had two tons of bags each.

Of course, it simply wouldn’t do to have the parents labor to carry it all up the hill. Alexis and I strained and sweat under bag after bag, all while trying to keep up enthusiastic conversation, get to know our campers, and reassure their parents that we weren’t crazy people.

It was overwhelming, but that was pretty much standard now. I’d been sprinting to keep up pretty much constantly since I got here. Trying to learn all the ins and outs of camp culture felt like trying to memorize an entire new language in a week.

Which was exactly what I’d wanted. It kept me so busy that I barely thought about Sarah the entire time, which was the whole point of taking this job in the first place. To force myself to stop agonizing over the confused knot of feelings I had for my straight best friend. It had seemed like a straightforward enough plan. I’d never gone to a summer camp before, but I’d always enjoyed sports and hiking, I got along well with kids. Teaching archery was perfect for me. How hard could it be?

That confidence didn’t even survive it all the way through the day. It was crushed by Lilian’s parents, who took Alexis and me aside as they were leaving. “We know she can be a handful sometimes, but she’s really sweet once you get to know her.” Her father shook both of our hands and I felt him leave something behind. “We hope you have an amazing summer, and we’re sorry.”

Then they left!

Alexis and I looked, dumbfounded, at the hundred-dollar bills in our palms. “We’re sorry? What the hell does that mean!?” We both turned to look at Lilian, who was sitting calmly on her bed smiling back at us. That wasn’t the smile of an 11-year-old. It was a smile that seemed to have ‘hail Satan’ written all over it.

Fortunately, our other campers didn’t seem like devil spawn. They were cute, if endlessly energetic. Once we got them unpacked and their parents left, we sent them off to play soccer with the rest of the arrivals. Watching from a distance while trying to catch my breath, it looked more like a mad dash to tackle whoever had the ball than any kind of organized sport. There were at least sixty girls going at it, yelling and laughing hysterically, neither knowing nor caring who was on what team or which goal they were meant to be trying to score on.

I tried to pick mine out of the throng. The one with golden blond hair done up in pigtails was Nora, and the tiny mouse of a girl sprinting to keep up with her was Kim. Another of mine, I was pretty sure she was the one wearing the Taylor Swift shirt, was also named Alexis. We’d have to get a nickname for her soon. Following the trend of terrible music fans, Bonnie had One Direction’s faces printed across her t-shirt.

Note to self: no campers allowed to play DJ in the cabin.

There would be twelve of them all together once they were all here. I’d read a few advice guides before coming, and they varied wildly. Some claimed that young children are like wild animals, and you need to establish yourself as the alpha on day one or it’ll be too late. Others said that you should befriend them and gently guide them along the path you want. What little actual training we’d gotten during training week had been similarly contradictory, seeming to say both of those things at once. Alexis — co-counselor Alexis, damn, that was already mixing me up — and I had decided to divide the roles. I’d be good cop friend; she’d be bad cop disciplinarian.

One thing all sources did agree on, though, is that children love being read stories. No matter how old they are or how much they claim to be too cool for that, they all enjoy it. When we finally got them settled down that night, at least most of their teeth brushed, and into their beds, I laid out my trump card. If they promised to be quiet and well behaved, they could pick a book and I’d read it to them.

Of course, they all voted for Harry Potter. I’d brought a bunch of books — part of me thought they would have all read Harry Potter already and would want some variety — but I should have known better. After all, Nora had just been bragging about watching Frozen every single day for a year.

That choice did make it a bit easier for me, because I’d grown up listening to the Jim Dale narrated audiobook version of Harry Potter. I’m nowhere near his talent for voices, but I did my best to make Harry sound heroic and The Dursleys sound like selfish pigs. Sure enough, before I had to figure out how to drop my voice low enough to play Hagrid, my audience was all asleep. Even Alexis was out cold, snoring louder than all our campers put together.

I smiled to myself and sighed, tiredly. It was early by the standards of the rest of the world, but camp has its own timetable, and I was bone weary. Being surrounded by people constantly for all of orientation week plus today’s constant activity was tiring work for an introvert! I wasn’t used to having to be socially ‘on’ constantly. It was seriously draining.

Quietly, I put the book and flashlight away and stepped out onto the cabin porch. It was a dark, mostly overcast night, and the quiet felt warm and welcoming. There was a feel to the air — some sense of living freshness that seemed to combine everything together. The smells of the grass and forest all around me, the wind in the trees, the low hum of chirps and animal calls, the openness that contrasted so strongly with the cityscape I was used to. I tilted my head back and took a deep breath, feeling myself finally unwind.

Sarah would love it here. She was the extrovert who thrived on people. I felt like I’d only barely gotten to know about a dozen people during training week out of the forty something staff members. Sarah would probably already be friends with everybody. She’d be the bridge between me on introvert island and everybody else.

Back in Pittsburgh, pretty much every day after we’d finished classes, we’d get dinner together somewhere and tell stories about whatever we’d done. Even if it was nothing really eventful, we’d make each other smile and laugh with how the Data Structures and Algorithms TA had flubbed the live example, or how the high school football team that played on our field was actually better than our college team, or whether the dorm vending machine would ever be restocked. It didn’t matter what we talked about, it was about the ritual. Our time together goofing off.

There was so much I wanted to tell her now! A bittersweet lump rose in my chest. Sarah would be so proud of me for putting myself out there and trying to make friends here. She’d laugh and smile and hug me, listening and making me feel like the world was all ours together. If only she was here with me…

Except, that’s not really what I wanted. What I really wanted was for Sarah to be here, and for her to magically be just as gay as me.

Quickly, before my feelings could overwhelm me for the thousandth time, I shoved them down. I’d finally gotten some space to decompress, and that’s the first place my mind went? Down that same depressing track of self-torture?

It would probably have been easier if I wasn’t so used to her company. If I wasn’t conditioned to remember all the funny and interesting things from my day so I could share them with her later. If she wasn’t such a great listener and she didn’t make me feel special just by caring about me. If she didn’t make my insides turn to mush whenever she smiled at me and–

“Your reading was amazing.” A soft voice in the darkness made me jump a foot in the air! “Quiet!” The voice whispered, stifling a laugh, “You’ll wake them up after all that effort getting them to sleep.”

When my heart stopped beating itself out of my chest, I realized there was a darker shadow sitting on the porch railing. “I — uh — I didn’t see you there,” I said, embarrassed.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s Jess, if you can’t see me.”

Jessica was one of the veteran counselors I hadn’t gotten to know much yet. Blake, my fellow archery instructor, had mentioned her a few times, and although she seemed friendly, I was a bit intimidated by the way the returning counselors seemed to look up to her. We were both regular cabin counselors, but she’d been coming to camp for ages, and the veteran staff seemed to respect what she said more than they listened to the head counselors and directors.

“Um–I’m Leah. It’s nice to finally meet you,” I said, wishing my eyes would adjust faster. “So… what brings you to my porch tonight?”

“They sent me and a few other senior counselors to see if you guys in junior camp needed any help with bedtime. You were fantastic in there, I didn’t want to interrupt it. Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

There were two sections of campers broken up by ages: juniors and seniors. The seniors got to stay up a bit later than the juniors. That’s what she meant by senior counselor — that her cabin was with the older age group, not that she was higher ranked.

“Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you.”

She seemed amused by that. “They hold me up as this pillar of experience, but I can’t do the babies for shit. They walk all over me. Getting them to bed on time is seriously impressive. Honestly, I have no idea what I would have contributed if you didn’t already have them under control.”

I sat down next to her, and she shifted so we could both lean our backs against the cabin wall. “It was nothing really,” I stammered, wishing I ever had any idea how to respond to compliments.

“You don’t think so?” Jess motioned to the lights still on in Cabins 1 and 3, each a little way away through the trees on either side of my peacefully quiet cabin. “Seems your neighbors can’t say the same. Want to go help them?”

“Oh god, please no,” I groaned. “I feel like I’m already about to fall asleep.”

Hopefully, she would think I was just tired, and my frustrating at having to stay socially ‘on’ even longer after thinking I was finally free wouldn’t be too obvious. Reluctantly, I braced myself for yet another round of the same introduction script I’d repeated far too many times:

Yes, this is my first time at camp. — I’m going to be mostly teaching archery. — Yeah, there’s clubs lots of places besides summer camps. There’s a club at my school. — Going into senior year at Carnegie Mellon. — I’m a computer science major. — Actually no, the gender ratio isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.

But Jess surprised me. Unlike pretty much everybody else, she didn’t seem interested in following her part of the script.

Instead, she gave a warm chuckle. “I’m glad I’m not the only one. If I didn’t have two campers still coming on the bus from the airport, I probably would have been asleep before all the kids.”

“Oh yeah, you’re definitely not the only one.” I jerked my head back to the cabin behind us. “Hear that snoring?”

“Yeah? Oh!” Jess’s smile split into a full toothed grin. “You’ve got fucking Alexis as a co-counselor, don’t you?”

“Yep!” I laughed, then quickly dropped my voice again. “I can’t believe that’s enough of a giveaway for you to instantly know it’s her.”

“Oh trust me, by the end of a summer sharing a cabin with her, that snore will be permanently imprinted on the inside of your skull.”

I groaned. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience?”

Jess’s smile turned slightly mischievous. “In fairness, Alexis has plenty of stories about me too.” She settled back, leaning slightly into me. “But yeah — she was a part of the L.I.T. group last year in my cabin. It’s awesome she wanted to come back as staff. She’s great.”

Okay, mental camp glossary… open up to the L’s… I was pretty sure L.I.T. stood for Leaders In Training. The oldest camper group, who were entrusted with a bit of responsibility. Without thinking, I found myself saying, “maybe it says something about me, but whenever I hear that, I always think it means Long Island Iced Tea at first, even though there’s no second I.”

Jess looked questioning for half a second, then made the connection. This time, she had to stifle her laughter. “Wishing you had one right now?”

“Would kill for a few.”

Jess cocked her head to the side slightly, her eyes meeting mine. “Rough day?”

I paused, almost reflexively giving the usual one word answer people always give to questions like that, but something about Jess stopped me. She’d sounded like she wasn’t just asking for the sake of being polite. She sat quietly, waiting for me to respond, her barely visible eyes meeting mine in a way that seemed like she genuinely cared about the answer.

“You really want to hear about it?” I asked, hesitantly.

Jess nodding encouragingly, playing with her hair as it fell around her ear and waiting for me to go on. Shadows played across her face as her hair shifted, making her smile dance in and out of sight in a way that was a little distracting.

Well, I couldn’t exactly pat myself on the back for becoming a socialite, then tell Jess to fuck off, could I? Besides, hadn’t I just been wishing my best friend was here to listen to me vent? A perfect stranger was a shitty substitute for Sarah, but beggars can’t be too picky.

“Okay, but please, stop me if I’m boring you.” And, feeling more than a little self-conscious, I spilled my guts to her. Not everything, all the stuff about Sarah felt far too personal, but I vented about camp culture shock and feeling like I was drowning. Jess was an attentive audience. She nodded encouragingly, asking the occasional question and making some comments, but she never tried to interrupt or hurry me along.

It felt good. Relieving. Like, simply giving voice to all the things that had been trapped in my head made me feel less tense. Somewhere along the way, I forgot I was talking to a relative stranger. I forgot the disappointment I’d felt having solitude snatched away from me. I even forgot to feel disappointed it wasn’t Sarah by my side. Well, at least a little.

“I don’t mean to sound like I’m not having a good time here. I am! It’s just… I don’t know.” I shrugged, helplessly. “It’s like, we’re only eight days in, and not even a full 24 hours with our actual campers. On paper, the job has only just started, but I already feel like I’m miles behind everybody. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound like a downer with all this complaining.”

“You don’t, I totally get you,” Jess said reassuringly. “It’s just all a bit much to absorb all at once.”

“Honestly, it isn’t even really that. At least I’m used to a steep learning curve. Every semester at school feels like a whole new mountain of information to climb. The difference is, there, I’ve got my whole life already set up.” I signed to myself, willing Sarah’s face not to flash through my mind, and failing. “Here, there’s so many veterans and everybody seems like they’ve already been bonding for years. You’ve all got so many stories about what happened last summer, that one time at wherever, that time she did that, you know what I mean. It’s hard to build up to all that shared history and comradery in a week.”

Jess nodded, thoughtfully, making her hair do the cute shadows thing across her face again. Fireflies danced around us, creating little pinpricks of light in the trees. A warm breeze gently rocked through the branches around us, and everything seemed to sway. It was hard to focus on anything for too long, my eyes kept drifting with the motions. “I think you might be selling yourself short,” she finally said.


“Like, the story you told about the demon camper. What was her name?”


“Yeah! You and Alexis will remember that moment forever. Her own father basically poisoning your first impression of the poor girl, plus her look making it perfect.” Jess chuckled, “maybe she’ll turn out to be actually evil, who knows. The point is, you and Alexis have already started bonding. Years from now, if you decide you want to come back, you two will relive that story, and you’ll sound like just as much of a nostalgia junky as we must seem to you.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, a warm ball of happy gratitude filling me up inside. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I more than half believed her, but that didn’t matter. Jess hadn’t blown me off or given me some stock ‘it’ll be okay!’ bullshit! It didn’t really matter what she’d said, the feeling that she really wanted to make me feel better was more than I could have possibly hoped for.