“Do you think about life after this place, Blake? About what will happen?” Penny gazed over at me as if I was her world, causing my stomach to knot tightly.
I wanted to be—her world. I wanted to give her the moon and the stars and everything between. She deserved it and so much more. She deserved life; one better than the shit we put up living with Derek and Marie.
“All the time. Come here.” I looped my arm around her neck, not caring if anyone spotted us, and drew her in tighter as we lay beyond the yard staring up at the night sky. Tiny lights sparkled like diamonds on a smooth black canvas. It was beautiful. A little slice of heaven in our own fucked-up version of hell. “Eighteen more months, Penny, and then we’re free and it’ll be just you and me.”
Penny sighed beside me. It was full of hope. I felt it in the way her hand lightly squeezed mine, and how her body relaxed into the ground as the breath left her lungs. We both wanted more. More than the shit hand we had been dealt. We had dreams and hopes for the future, just like any other sixteen-year-old kid. Except we weren’t like most other kids. We had already lost so much… lived so much.
It was what brought us together in the first place, but now… now, things were different between us. Sometime in the last two years, my best friend had become my reason for breathing.
“Eighteen months. We can make that, right?” Her voice was unsure, and I hated them for taking away the last shred of fight she’d had when she arrived at the Freeman group home with just one bag and a shitload of nightmares.
I rolled slightly to face Penny, my eyes taking in her delicate features. Chocolate brown eyes set against pale skin with a peppering of freckles that covered her perfectly shaped nose framed by loose dark waves rolling over her slim shoulders.
Trying to push down all of my anger for the things she’d faced in this place, I choked out, “You’re my lucky Penny. With you by my side, we can survive anything.”
“It’s not you, Pen. It’s me.”
I winced at Cal’s words, but not for the reasons most girls would. Most people experienced being dumped in their lifetime, usually more than once. As a rite of passage, relationships began and they ended. Friends turned to lovers and fizzled back into the friend zone. Personalities clashed and partners decided the grass was greener. Or sometimes, the spark that was once burning so brightly simply flickered out into the darkness. Sure, they all lived to tell the tale, but that was usually after weeks of drowning their sorrows in a bottle of whatever liquor burned away the hurt or at the bottom of a carton of the sweetest ice cream.
Anything to forget.
Just for a little while.
But I didn’t wince because Cal had finally decided to cut me loose. My eyes weren’t pooling with tears for the loss of our love. No, it wasn’t that his words didn’t cut deep.
The truth cut deep.
And the truth was that it wasn’t Cal, it was me.
It would always be me.
After hugging me awkwardly, Cal held me at arm’s length as if he no longer recognized me. He offered me a weak smile and left. I watched him disappear into the distance before I strolled back through Tuttle Park. My arms held me together as I watched the world go by. It was a warm evening, which usually brought out a crowd. People walked their dogs, couples in love walked hand in hand making plans for their futures, and families played tag with their children. And here I was again.
Despite the sliver of regret stabbing at my heart, I knew it was for the best. I’d tried—really tried—to make things work. Cal was my third attempt at a normal relationship in the last four years. A year older than me, he had a steady job, a nice apartment in Indian Springs, and he was motivated. If Mom were around, she would have called him the perfect guy.
I knew there was something different about him when I had let him touch me. It had taken four months, a lot of persuasion, and two panic attacks, but we had finally managed to be intimate in ways I hadn’t been with anyone else. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. Cal had wanted more—something I couldn’t give. And although I’d seen the signs long before today, when Cal started to pull away, I let him. I couldn’t blame him. What twenty-four-year-old guy wanted a girlfriend who struggled with simple touch, let alone intimacy? And besides, I wasn’t planning to stay in Clintonville forever. Really, our relationship was doomed from the beginning.
Just like your life.
By the time The Oriental Garden came into view, daylight was disappearing on the horizon and taking with it the last shreds of my deteriorating mood. I’d lived above the takeout restaurant for almost two years, but it still didn’t feel like home. Nowhere ever did. When I’d viewed the supposedly renovated one-bedroom apartment in Clintonville, the owner had failed to mention the hand-me-down kitchen and touched-up damp walls. Add to that the lingering smell of fried egg rolls and the window that overlooked the back alley of the local student bar, dumpsters and all, and I wouldn’t call it homey. But it was all my meager wage from Vrai Beauté could afford, and it was better than the last place I’d lived—and the one before that.
I nudged open the stiff door with my knee and stumbled into the apartment, immediately assaulted by the scent of grease and lavender. The walls seemed to absorb it from downstairs. I’d tried everything I could find to mask the grotesque smell. Lavender was the only thing that seemed to make it almost bearable, but I still spent as little time here as possible. If I hung around for too long, I ended up smelling like Chinese takeout on legs.
After collecting the pile of mail on the doormat, I heated some leftover lasagna, turned on the small television in the corner of the room, and made myself comfortable on the threadbare couch. My fork poked and prodded at the congealed pasta and meat, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. Between seeing Cal and having to face my boss, Tiffany, tomorrow, I had no appetite.
At the thought of work, my eyes drifted to the calendar pinned to the wall by the refrigerator. Sixteen black crosses stared back at me, which meant fourteen more days and then I was out of here for the whole summer.
No more egg rolls.
No more damp, flaky walls.
No more being kept up all night by drunk students.
I was trading my less-than-comfortable surroundings for even fewer home comforts. But I had been looking for this chance. My fresh start. An opportunity to do something with my life. It was only one summer, but one summer could change everything. I knew that better than anyone did.
Only this time, I hoped it would change my life for the better.
“Penny, there are rails to organize,” Tiffany, the owner-manager of Vrai Beauté, barked disapprovingly. “You’ve been very distracted this week.”
I moved toward the rack of dresses and started reordering them with trembling hands, scanning the shop to make sure it was empty. Tiffany didn’t like chitchat when there were customers. The nerves somersaulted in my stomach again, but I inhaled deeply and recited my mantra. You can do this.
“Actually… there’s, hmm, there’s something I need to discuss with you.”
She glanced up from the counter and arched her eyebrow with a look that said ‘what could you possibly have to discuss with me.’ “Yes?”
I opened my mouth and spluttered my words. Irritated, Tiffany said, “Well, don’t just stand there. Out with it, Penny.”
“Well, I applied to work at a camp for the summer. Camp Chance out in Hocking Hills. They offered me a position, and I’ll be gone for eleven weeks.”
When I’d spotted the ad for summer work at Camp Chance, a camp for fostered teenagers situated in Hocking Hills State Park, I had applied with no expectations. With no experience working with kids and only a couple of childhood camping trips on my resume, I didn’t expect to make it past the paper application. But in less than two weeks, I would be packing my bags and leaving for the summer.
“Aren’t you a little old for camp?” Tiffany replied running her eyes up and down my body as if she was mentally assessing my age. “And eleven weeks? I’m not sure I can hold your job here for that long, Penny, if that’s what you’re asking.”
My shoulders sagged slightly. Of course, she couldn’t just congratulate me or show any interest in my news. It was exactly the reason I’d put off telling her until now.
“If you can’t hold it, I understand.” I gulped down the disappointment swimming in my stomach.
Tiffany pursed her lips into a thin line and looked like she might say something else, but obviously thought better of it as she dropped her eyes and continued checking over price tags.
It was silly really. Tiffany wasn’t someone I’d developed a friendship with—I didn’t develop friendships with anyone—and she only spoke to me when the job required it. I think she only hired me because she had felt sorry for me the day I interviewed for the job. I’d missed the bus and had to walk five blocks in the heavy rain. By the time I arrived, water was running off me like a river, but I’d insisted on continuing with the interview. I needed a job, and I didn’t like to rely on second chances.
The doorbell chimed, and I glanced up to watch a group of girls enter the store. They were laughing about something, and I immediately busied myself with the rail trying to ignore them. Over the last year, it had gotten easier. My job at Vrai Beauté was my first customer service position, all part of the heal Penny plan. You need to be around people more, you need to learn to live again, the therapist had repeatedly told me. He didn’t count my previous job at the university’s library working in the storeroom or the job before that where I worked in the kitchen of a busy hotel. I guess he had a point. I liked to stay hidden in the background. The spotlight was a place for perfectly primped girls like the ones currently cooing over the lingerie section at the back of the store.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
I inhaled deeply and turned around, plastering on my best fake smile. “How can I help you?”
“Do you have this in a four? There’s only sixes and eights on the rack.” She smiled back, and it seemed genuine. Not like some of the customers who came from all over the Columbus area to get their hands on the latest fashion trends stocked by Vrai Beauté.
I snatched the silky material out the girl’s hands and answered a little too abruptly. “I’ll go check for you.”
Tiffany shot me a questioning look as I hurried past the counter and into the back. I was restless about going to Camp Chance next month. Excitement laced with terror, and my head was an exhausting place to be. It would mean living in close quarters with the other counselors and getting to know them. People like the ones in the front right now. The last time I’d been around a group of people was five years ago in foster care. The day I walked out of the Freeman group home in Lancaster was the day I became truly alone. With the exception of Bryan, Michael, and most recently, Cal, I’d been alone ever since. I rarely made friends, not ones that stuck anyway. But my therapist was right. It was time to move forward and to let myself heal.
It was time to step out of the shadows and live.
On my last shift at Vrai Beauté, Tiffany barely managed to wish me luck, but much to my surprise, her parting words were that she would try to hold my job open. Kylie, one of the part-timers, was willing to pick up my shifts over the summer until she started back at school in the fall. It was better than nothing. I couldn’t find it in me to be relieved I still had a job, not with how preoccupied my mind was. An endless stream of questions plagued my thoughts. What would the other counselors be like? Would I survive the five days of intense training? Or would I be packing my bags before I had them unpacked?
The bus out to Hocking Hills was quiet, just me and a handful of campers taking the sixty-mile journey out of town. When we passed through Lancaster, my blood ran cold. Five years later and my fresh start had led me right past the one place I wanted to erase from my mind. I closed my eyes, turned up the volume on my iPod, and let the music force out the unwanted thoughts.
It wasn’t until the bus came to a halt that I dared to open my eyes again. The campers exited the vehicle with their laden rucksacks and headed toward the visitor’s center.
“Next stop is yours, little lady,” a gruff voice sounded from the driver’s chair.
I nodded up at the rearview mirror but didn’t reply as the engine rumbled to life, and we started moving further within the thick forest. The road cut through the dense green wall as trees swayed gently in the breeze. It was peaceful. Calm. Somewhere I could imagine spending time, despite having never visited this part of Ohio before.
After ten minutes, a crooked hand-painted sign welcomed us to Camp Chance, and the woods expanded into a clearing. A large wooden cabin stood proudly in the center with smaller cabins arranged off to the side. The driver parked in a dirt parking lot and opened the door. “This is you.”
“Thanks,” I murmured as he offered his hand to help me off the bus.
Clutching my bag tighter, I made no attempt to accept his courtesy… or touch. I silently scolded myself. Shrinks had been telling me for the last four years to face my fears. Baby steps, they’d all said. A graze or two of a pinky, shaking hands, holding hands, hugging, kissing. The cognitive behavioral therapist I spent six months visiting last year told me to focus on the person I was with at that moment, to hold onto the reality that their touch was not his. Easy for them to say sitting in the confines of their sterile offices. In practice, it wasn’t that easy, and while I didn’t intend to let the driver pucker up to me, I knew I should have accepted his offer of help. But my past had conditioned me to fear touch. To abhor being touched.
If the driver was offended, he didn’t show it as he retrieved my other bag from the luggage hold and placed it on the sidewalk.
“I’ll be seeing you.”
He climbed back into the bus and pulled out of the lot, and I was once again alone.
My feet wouldn’t move. I don’t know how long I stood there glued to the sidewalk. A few people came and went from the central cabin, but no one noticed me. I was relieved. I needed more time to psych myself. The rational part of me knew this wasn’t the Freeman group home. There were no Dereks or Maries here. This place helped and nurtured teenagers who lived in foster care. To give them the kind of chance I never had.
Nothing will happen here.
But the little voice of doubt that kept me shackled to my past refused to stay quiet.
“Hey, are you here for the staff training?” A tall, slim girl joined me dropping her rucksack down at her feet. “I’m Marissa.”
I turned slightly to face her, stepping back instinctively to put a little more space between us. “Hi, I’m Penny, and yes, I’m here for the summer.”
“Me too. Counselor or activity instructor?”
Marissa smiled at me knowingly. “Nice. First year, I take it?”
I glanced around. Was it that obvious? Of course, it was. I nodded, and she laughed. “Don’t look so worried. You’re in for one hell of a summer. I hope you brought insect repellent. The bugs out here take no prisoners.”
“I brought everything on the list,” I replied, nervous energy vibrating through me.
“Shall we head inside? Troy and Tina will be waiting.”
I nodded, following Marissa’s lead as she moved toward the buildings. She wasted no time going inside, but I paused to give myself a few seconds to calm my erratic pulse.
“There she is. Get over here, Marissa. It’s been too long,” a male voice called.
I stepped inside to find a tall man with a fuzzy beard and a red bandana tied around his head smiling in our direction. Marissa was a few steps in front of me and jogged into the man’s open arms. “Troy, what in hell’s name has Tina been feeding you? You look like you gained twenty pounds.”
“Not you as well.” He laughed drawing Marissa into a bear hug.
“I told him to take it easy after his operation, but did he listen?” a woman called over from a table which was pushed against the wall.
“I listened.” The man I’d deduced was Troy released Marissa and stepped back shooting the woman—Tina—a goofy smile. She rolled her eyes with a smirk that caused her cheeks to dimple. “You did not. Wait until the regular kids show up. They’ll remind you every day.”
“Fine, fine, so I gained a little weight.” He rubbed a hand over his stomach. “But I still got it, right?”
I stood awkwardly watching their exchange. It was obvious that Troy and Tina were a couple—just something about the way they looked at one another—and Marissa seemed to know them as well.
“Oh, hey, you guys, this is Penny. One of the new counselors.”
“Penny Wilson, right?” Tina came to join us, smiling directly at me, and I felt my free arm come up around my waist. “Good to have you here. Come in. Don’t just stand there. We don’t bite.”
“She does,” Troy joked, moving to wrap an arm around her. “But only when she’s really angry.”
“Ignore him. The others are around here somewhere. A couple members of the team won’t get in until tomorrow night, but you’ll have plenty of time to get to know everyone. It’s your first camp, right? How are you feeling? Nervous?”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out, and I ended up standing there gawking awkwardly.
“She’s good. Right, Penny? I thought we could bunk together?” Marissa said.
“You got it. Marissa will show you around and get you settled. You’ll be part of the Chance family in no time. We’ll see you at the meet and greet.” Troy took Tina by the hand and led her away from us leaving me behind with Marissa.
“Thanks. I totally froze.”
“Hey, we’ve all been there, and besides, they can be a little full-on.” Marissa smiled and some of my nerves settled. “I guess I should include myself in that, but I’m good people. You’ll see. Now, let’s go get us a cabin.”
The warmth of the fire licked my face, but I welcomed it as I leaned in closer. It had been a crazy day and every part of my body ached with overuse. Even if it wasn’t for my sore muscles demanding proximity to the heat, something about the flames captivated me. The hypnotic flicker of orange, the crackle of the wood snapping under the pressure of the heat, even the charred smell drew me in.
“Okay everyone, bring it in.” Troy stood up in the circle and tipped his bottle to the rest of us. “Welcome to another summer at Camp Chance. I hope we didn’t push you too hard today?”
Heads shook and a couple of people called out, but Troy ushered them to silence. “I look around the fire and see some familiar faces. In some cases, I see some very familiar faces, but I won’t mention any names, Marissa.” He coughed under his breath, and Marissa grumbled something from her seat beside me while the rest of the circle broke out in muffled laughter.
“And I also see some new faces. But old or new, it doesn’t matter because do you know what else I see? I see people who want to make a difference to the kids who will pass through those gates this summer. Kids who need to remember that being a teenager can be fun. The next few days will be intense, but you’ll need it because these ten weeks won’t be a walk in the park. If you think that, then now’s the time to pack your bags and get the hell out. Some of the kids we will work with this summer will test your patience until you want to throw in the towel. But they need this, they need us…”
I didn’t take my eyes off the fire, but I heard every word coming from Troy’s mouth, and each syllable punched me in the chest. Risking a glance around the campfire at my colleagues, I didn’t know their stories, but I knew my own. I’d been the kid Troy was talking about, except there had been no Camp Chance for me.
“We get two weeks with these kids. Fourteen days to give them an experience they’ll never forget. One that will stay with them forever. One that could put them on the right path in life. One summer, a lifetime of possibilities. Let’s make it count, people.”
Someone clapped and another joined until the whole circle was clapping. I joined in, but I wasn’t in the moment. I was too lost in my own thoughts. I knew my past was going to affect my present, but until now, I hadn’t realized just how difficult it was going to be to separate the two.
“Hey, everything okay?” Marissa nudged me and smiled. I nodded and forced my lips into a weak smile, but I saw her skepticism.
The epitome of athletic, Marissa had a toned body, broad shoulders, and lean, muscular arms. But despite her build, Marissa was still very feminine. I envied her. She was comfortable in her own skin, confident, and even though I’d only known her a little over twenty-four hours, I instantly warmed to her. She didn’t give you any other alternative.
After showing me our cabin yesterday, which was actually one room with two cots, a small bathroom off to the side, one dresser, a wardrobe, and a couple of chairs, Marissa and I had hung out for a little while. Thankfully, she liked to talk, and I’d sat and listened while she filled me in on everything there was to know about Camp Chance.
A year younger than I was, this was Marissa’s fourth summer in Hocking Hills. She was qualified for everything from canoeing and abseiling to knots and orienteering and had just graduated from the University of Akron with a physical education degree. I was already glad she had been the person to find me standing in the dusty parking lot.
“I think we’ve all heard enough of Troy’s voice for the evening, so I’d like to switch things to serious for just a second.” Tina stood up next to Troy and a chorus of boos echoed in the warm air.
“Okay, okay, this won’t take long. Firstly, you’re here to work. This isn’t a vacation. The days are long and the pay sucks, but work hard, be the best you can, and you’ll be rewarded. Secondly, tonight is the exception. Enjoy the food and lukewarm beers because starting tomorrow there’s a zero tolerance rule. Anyone caught with alcohol or drugs in camp will be marched out of here quicker than Troy gained his twenty pounds. Lastly, this isn’t prison. Make the most of your downtime between camper groups, but no funny business. And, yes, I mean what you think I mean. No screwing around with each other. Not in your cabins or out by the lake where you think no one can see you.”
Someone wolf whistled and Tina’s eyes narrowed in their direction. “Trust me. It won’t be the first time or the last time. It’s only ten weeks, people. Save it for after the summer camp.”
“My wife, everyone. The country’s solution to birth control.” Troy stood up beside Tina and grinned. “Now that we have that out of the way, how about a song?” He lifted a guitar off the ground and slipped the strap over his neck, letting his fingers strum the strings gently.
Troy led the campfire in song, and I lip-synced along to the ones I knew. The self-conscious person inside of me wanted to sink back into the shadows and remain hidden, but that wasn’t why I was here. I was here to heal. To move forward. So I wrapped my arms around my waist, holding myself together, and started to sing along quietly with the rest of the group.
I was busy humming to an unfamiliar song when I noticed two figures approaching the campfire. Tina, noticing them as well, leaned over to Troy and whispered something in his ear. He nodded, all the while strumming the strings. Tina rose from her seat, an overturned tree trunk, and went to greet the two shadows. The song ended and the three of them came to join the group. The two guys sat across the fire, opposite Marissa and me. There was something vaguely familiar about the taller guy, but it was dark and I couldn’t quite make out his face. It seemed my heart didn’t need the light, though, because although my eyes couldn’t get a good enough look to recognize him, my heart knew him. I felt it with every fiber of my being.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Penny.” Marissa nudged me again, only this time when I turned to face her she was wearing a look of confusion while I was trying to fight back the panic rising in me.
“I, I’m not sure. The tall one, he looked familiar.”
“You mean Blake?”
My heart beat in double time.
And then crashed.
And for a moment, I was certain it stopped beating.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t swallow.
I couldn’t get out the words almost choking me.
My eyes snapped up at the sound of Marissa’s voice, and something caught my attention. Through the flames, I saw the two guys talking. The one I thought I recognized was listening to the other guy, but he wasn’t looking at his friend. His blue eyes were set firmly on me.
Eyes I’d spent days and nights dreaming of.
Eyes that had kept the nightmares at bay.
Eyes I thought I’d never see again.
“Penny, you’re freaking me out a little over here.”
Marissa’s voice deflected off my impending meltdown. I came to Camp Chance to heal. Not to have every scar ripped open again and laid bare.
But my past and present had just collided.
I never thought I’d see Blake Weston again, but he was here, sitting across the fire from me.
A ghost from my past.
Looking right at me.
The second the music stopped and Troy packed away his guitar, I fled into the woods with Marissa calling after me. For the last three songs, I’d managed to avoid looking across the fire again, but memories I’d fought hard to forget over the last seven years assaulted my mind.
“Penny, wait up.” Marissa’s voice was closing in, but I pushed harder, pain throbbing in my already tired legs with every pound of my feet on the ground.
I hadn’t planned to run; it just happened. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in, and flight had won. Lucky for me, because I was in no way ready to face Blake. Not yet. So here I was, running in the darkness through dense woods with absolutely no idea where I was heading.
“Penny, will you just slow down for a second? We can talk. I’m here for you.”
Marissa’s words brought me to an abrupt halt, and I dropped my hands onto my thighs and tried to get a handle on my ragged breathing.
I’m here for you.
No one had been there for me in a long time. I dealt with life’s curveballs on my own. Alone. Yes, I’d had a therapist. Yes, I’d dated three guys over the past three years, but I had never had someone to really talk to, to confide in. Not the way friends talked to one another. But somehow, here I was sprinting through Hocking Hills like a crazy person while a girl I’d only known a little over twenty-four hours chased after me because she cared.
Leaves rustled behind me, but the hand landing on my shoulder startled me and sent me into a blind panic. I lunged forward, shrugging Marissa off me.
“Hey, my bad.” Her voice was laced with regret. I turned slowly expecting to see the confusion on her face, but all I found was concern as she held up her hands in a peace offering. “Geez, you run fast. I almost lost you back there. I covered for you, by the way. I blamed it on Troy’s grilling skills.”
An unexpected laugh bubbled up and tumbled out of my mouth, but as quickly as it had arrived, it disappeared into the night.
“Ready to talk?”
I shrugged, my eyes darting from side to side. How did I even begin to explain things to Marissa? A girl I barely knew.
“Okay, well, you might be quick, but you have a crappy sense of direction. The cabin is back this way.” She motioned to a path behind her. “Come on, let’s get back. I have a whole summer’s supply of Reese’s.”
I followed her, my breathing slowly returning to normal, and we walked in silence for a few minutes. Laughter and chatter from camp carried through the air but was quiet enough that I knew I’d ran further than I thought.
It didn’t take long for Marissa to break the quiet between us. “So I’m going to go out on a limb and say your little stunt has something to do with seeing Blake tonight?”
“What is he doing here?”
It wasn’t supposed to be a question for Marissa. That question had consumed my thoughts ever since my eyes landed on him across the fire. Why here? Why now?
Why does the Universe hate me so damn much?
“He’s here every summer, Penny.”
“He is?” I slowed down, unable to digest what Marissa was saying.
She nodded. “Next to Troy and Tina, Blake is Camp Chance’s longest serving summer counselor. This must be his sixth or seventh summer.”
I didn’t respond as we started to walk again, but I felt Marissa watching me out of the corner of her eye as she tried to piece together the puzzle. The pieces obviously fell into place quicker than expected because she said, “You went pretty pale when Blake arrived. You two have a bad history?”
My whole body tensed. If only she knew how Blake Weston was a part of the worst time in my life, a time I wanted nothing more than to erase. But it wasn’t that simple because he was also a part of some of my most treasured memories. The kind that, no matter how hard you tried, refused to go away. The kind that had hit me like a home movie running through my head the second I’d recognized him. Stolen kisses in the yard when no one was looking, and sneaking out to the lake at Cenci Park. There had been a time when Blake was my world.
But that was then, and this was now.
And now we were nothing but strangers.
When I didn’t answer, Marissa said, “Fine. I get it. We all have pieces of our past we would rather keep to ourselves, but your past is Camp Chance’s golden boy, Penny. He’s not going anywhere. Can you deal with that?”
That was the million-dollar question.
When Troy had said the training would be intense, I expected long days and some challenging teambuilding exercises. I didn’t expect crash courses in everything from first aid to fire starting, how to deal with aggressive behavior to how to deal with wild animals, and how to tie the perfect knot to how to feed eight campers on basic rations. My hands were sore, my head was pounding, and my shirt was stuck to my body with a fine layer of sweat.
I was exhausted.
On the upside, I’d managed to avoid Blake for the whole day. He had been assigned to the other group, which was fine by me. After spending the whole night tossing and turning, I’d decided that Marissa was right. Blake was here to stay… and so was I.
I needed this.
And besides, maybe having him here was a sign—my one chance at full and complete closure. Maybe my luck had finally turned.
Marissa assured me that once the first round of campers arrived, there would be little time to worry about bumping into Blake. Each counselor had a small group of same-sex campers assigned to them and would live in one of the cabins with their group for thirteen nights. There were six counselors, three male and three female, and six activity instructors. Troy and Tina handled the day-to-day camp management, and a team of ‘behind-the-scenes’ staff helped everything come together. Meals, cleaning, maintenance—that kind of thing. There was another full day of training followed by a team debrief on Friday, and then a day off before the first group arrived on Sunday.
“Intense, right?” Marissa breezed into the cabin as if she hadn’t just spent the last eight hours paired with me. My lack of coordination was apparent when it came to pretty much anything that involved rope, paddles, or maps.
I nodded as I peeled the damp t-shirt off my body and grabbed my wash bag. “I’m going to take a quick shower.”
“Great, then we can head to the campfire. We managed to talk Troy into grilling out again.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure. Is it mandatory?”
“No, but what are you going to do instead? Hang out here alone?” Marissa’s eyes bunched up.
Actually, that was exactly what I planned to do. Blake would no doubt be there, which meant I would not.
I padded into the small bathroom ignoring my roommate’s pleas. She didn’t understand; I hadn’t given her any reason to. All Marissa knew was that Blake and I had some kind of history. If I was going to survive the summer here, I needed my past to stay just that—in the past.
The hot water lasted five minutes, cutting short my plans of a long soak under the trickle of soothing warmth. I wouldn’t even have this luxury come Sunday when I moved into my camper’s cabin. Campers had to use the communal block for washing. There was one for staff and one for campers.
After drying myself and brushing out my hair, I pulled on my shorts and tank top and rejoined Marissa.
“That didn’t take long,” she said with a knowing smirk.
“Let me guess. You knew the hot water would last a full two minutes?”
“Something like that. Besides, it means you can come with me now.”
“Marissa,” I warned.
“What? You can’t hide in here all weekend. We can avoid him, I promise, but you’re going to have to face him eventually.”
Marissa wasn’t the only one surprised by my reply. Maybe it was my sense of achievement from the day—the fact I’d let Marissa support my body weight twice—that had me feeling determined to not only survive the summer but to also make the most of it.
“Really?” A smile formed on Marissa’s face, and I found myself smiling back.
“Yes, really. Now, come on, before I change my mind.”
Everyone gathered around the campfire. Troy and a couple of the other guys—Malachi and Liam, I think—grilled burgers and hot dogs on a smaller fire contained within a huge steel drum. Tina seemed more relaxed than she had last night and made sure to go around to all of the new staff to see how we were doing. And, of course, Blake was there. I had felt him before I saw him. One brief look and now, I was forcing myself to look anywhere but in his direction. It was hard; harder than I thought it would be. But apparently, what the head let itself forget, the heart did not, and every time I heard his voice, my heart flipped violently in my chest.
As the night wore on, I became less and less comfortable. Everyone seemed more than at home making new friends and reacquainting with old ones, and I sat on the periphery unsure of how to edge my way in. Marissa tried her best to include me, but people gravitated toward her. She pulled them in without even realizing. Me, not so much, and eventually, I slipped away and wandered down to the lake. It was close enough to still see the campfire, but far away enough that I wouldn’t be disturbed.
The water rippled gently, deflecting the moon’s glow. It was beautiful. Serene. I sat down at the water’s edge, and my hand searched the ground for a flat stone. When I found one suitable, I rolled it in the palm of my hand, over and over, feeling its smooth surface. It was perfect. Drawing my hand up, I tilted it slightly and gripped it with my thumb and forefinger. With a snap of the wrist, I sent the stone flying across the lake. It landed on the water’s surface and skimmed across. One. Two. Three. Before disappearing with a small splash.
“Nice,” a voice called from somewhere behind me, and a deep sigh reverberated in my body.
“Do you mind?” Blake dropped down next to me, his shoulder almost touching mine.
The proximity should have bothered me, but I couldn’t breathe, let alone move. His voice had pinned me to the very spot in which I sat.
“It’s really you. Fuck, Penny, I can’t believe this is real.”
I heard his words, but my eyes remained on the lake glistening before us.
“Say something, anything.”
“It’s beautiful out here.”
Those words were safe. Detached. If I said any of the things I really wanted to say, I risked falling apart into irreparable pieces.
Neither of us spoke again. The silence hung between us, thick and heavy, and I felt sure it was going suffocate me.
After what felt like an eternity, Blake said, “There’s so much I want to say. Things I want to explain, but I… this is, shit, I’m messing all of this up. I didn’t expect this.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Blake swept a hand through his hair and ran it across his head.
“I’ve missed you so damn much. It’s really you, Penny. My lucky Penny.” The pain in his voice was almost tangible. Something I could reach out and touch.
A single tear formed in the corner of my eye and rolled down my cheek.
And just like that, Blake Weston pieced together the broken parts of me, all while tearing them back down.
For the second time in my life.