When it got dark, Mr. Palfrey went back to his tent by the lake. He told us to watch the fire and pour sand to smother it when we were done. I wanted the fire to grow and sprout, like ivy or conifer, but it was contained by stones, dirt and our own sense of self-preservation. We were young, not stupid.
Palfrey didn’t wink as he disappeared, but he might as well have. Everyone knows what it means when the chaperone announces their departure. The counselors had already left, probably for their own last night hookups.
Moments later, Jennifer asked Jason to teach her the constellations. Of course, we knew that Jason could barely see with his thick glasses, and that Jennifer was the president of the Astronomy Club. Pretending is in vogue. If there were power couples here, they were it. Everyone looked to them—especially Jennifer—to be seen. I never would have thought she’d be the popular one, because her laugh was like an otter’s bleat. Her utter disregard for its sound was just one sign of her endless confidence.
Maybe someday, I would also care less.
After they left, Bobby C. and Kurtland said they were going to look for frogs and then Lisa and Gemma said that sounded like a good idea. Neither couple went toward the swamp, where one finds frogs. It was a steady stream, then; so many crushes about to consummate into first kisses.
I figured Burley would grab Spencer (and he did) because they had never said a word in each other’s presence and they were always, well, in each other’s presence. I noticed their proximity at meals and at water breaks. I watch a lot. There wasn’t much else to do when you turn thirteen three states away from everyone you know, and can only speak in your own head. During crafts and storytelling, or even morning yoga, when counselors asked me to share, I could hardly force my tongue to cooperate. My mind emptied and my lips wilted in light of my peers’ bored stares. Having thoughts and sharing them are different skill sets.
Kimi and her best friend Scout said they were sleepy and went back to the tents. Scout had been rubbing her eyes since S’mores, and Kimi was notorious for going to bed at the stroke of Light’s Out, so they were probably telling the boring truth. Not everyone has an ulterior motive.
Finally, it was just me, the Huxter twins, the Johnson step-siblings and Delilah. The twins muttered and giggled in unison, their blonde hair garish in the firelight. The girl twin walked over to the ginger Johnson boy and then both sets disappeared into the darkness.
Delilah and I sat across from one another, the fire licking the sky between us. Every time she shifted, I heard wood cracking and sighing. I assumed she could hear me, too, because even my breath felt like thunder. It was the first time I’d really regarded her and suddenly, I liked the curve of her cheek.
We’d spoken briefly while guarding the flag against the onslaught of the other half of camp. I’d gotten the impression she was as quiet as me, if for different reasons. She seemed more sparing of her words, not frightened to say them. When I’d run out of words, she hadn’t immediately jumped to fill in the gaps.
The fire crackled and hissed as I tossed a handful of sand into it, toying with the thought of endings. I opened my mouth and the wind tumbled out and turned into toads. My face grew red and my shoulders bunched and I wanted to die as I stared into the fire.
After a moment, I heard the crack of the log as Delilah stood. I couldn’t look. I heard footsteps fading because I knew she was leaving and of course, I couldn’t speak again to stop her and this is the price of my shyness, to be the only kid left wanting, but then the footsteps got louder and louder and I realized that, from opposite sides of a circle, in order to get closer, you have to move farther away.
Finally I sensed a presence, so I opened my eyes. “Hi,” Delilah said, her skin full of flames.
“Hi,” I croaked.
Delilah pointed at the log next to me and I scooted over and she sat beside me. I didn’t talk and she didn’t talk and I felt everything inside of me contracting into a tight little ball, like rubber bands bound together, their pressure keeping them from snapping, though God, they want to.
I was about to scream when I saw Delilah’s lightly freckled hand creep up next to mine. I closed my eyes and breathed and I took that imaginary rubber band ball and threw it into the embers, because I needed to say something, finally, because Jennifer didn’t get her self-confidence by worrying what she sounds like. I had to start somewhere, didn’t I?
I knew my talent at making bracelets and my stargazing knowledge; I could tell a robin from a hawk, and that’s something, isn’t it? It has to be.
“How was your summer, Delilah? Did you like it?” I asked. So inane, but at least I said something.
Delilah said, “I really liked when we played Capture the Flag.” I was surprised at how low her voice was, how succinct. After briefly mentioning mornings in the greenhouse, she quieted. I admired her comfort with silence, and wondered if that, too, was something I could embrace.
Eventually, we drew near one another and our bodies almost touched. Suddenly, the silence wasn't so loud anymore.
Michael B. Tager is a writer, editor and is mostly vegetables. Find more of his work at Michaelbtager.com.