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Welcome to Camp Alan-Bridge, for the emotionally vulnerable and unassertive teenagers of North-West California. Building characters since 1975 *** Mercy Reid is being forced to attend a camp after her mother realises how socially awkward her college-aged daughter has become. She has no friends and has no desire to have friends. At Camp Alan-Bridge, she's forced into social situations on a daily basis, meeting people she'd never have looked twice at before. Sometimes it takes more than breaking out of your shell.

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11. 10 - GET OVER IT

Mom refused to look me in the eye. It was dark and parents were away home. My own family were the last to leave, only now ending their meeting with Anna who had looked like she was finished with this job as a camp therapist.

                “Mercy, be good,” my dad said quietly as he laid his hand on my short brother’s shoulder. My brother looked anywhere but my mother in fear of unleashing her wrath.

                I nodded and let my head fall to the ground. “Of course. I’m always good.”

                My dad snorted a bit of a laugh, now realising his daughter was capable of more than he’d imagined in the past. “Yeah, okay,” he replied.

                My mom had her back to me as she scuffed her shoes across the dusty ground avoiding anything we might have had to say to her. She’d considerably cooled, but I wasn’t risking a repeat and looked away too.

                “So,” dad said as he uncomfortably navigated through the awkwardness, “are we heading back now?” he asked, peering down at my younger brother who shrugged in response. My mom ignored him. I felt sorry for my dad, I really did.

                I raised my hands and gently nudged him away in the direction of the car park ahead of us where only our car was now parked. “Go,” I commanded. “I’m tired.” But, I wasn’t tired. My mom and dad looked the living embodiment of tired and they were the ones who had to drive the hours long trip home at this time of night.

                Dad nodded a little before he sighed and patted my brother firmly on the back. Jake began to choke. He signalled for the small teenager to follow him and left my mom to herself who seemed dead to the world. The two men left towards the car, throwing a small wave over their shoulder.

                They might have been finished here, but my mother wasn’t. She still had a fair deal to say that she hadn’t got in while she yelled at me earlier – which honestly struck me as odd. This was the same woman who, when I was nine, yelled the entire neighbourhood down in the middle of my first and last birthday party in front of all her friend because I ate two slices of cake. She never held back even if it meant hurting herself in the process.

                We stood there silently for a few moments as I waited for her to begin. If she didn’t let it out now, she’d bring it back two weeks later with twice as much strength at my next visit. Her anger would manifest itself so badly she’d become reminiscent of the incredible hulk, complete with her blonde mom haircut and white cardigans.

                “I hope I didn’t embarrass you too much,” my mom suddenly said as she lifted her head for me to see.

                Her expression was as usual – cold and static with no trace of apology. But having said that, it didn’t matter much. Her expressions meant nothing if you considered the fact that when I was twelve, my mom laughed all the way through her own mother’s funeral.

                I scoffed a little at her words as I looked back at the dark sky in thought. “I’d have to care about what people think of me in order to be embarrassed,” I replied looking anywhere but her.

                She pouted for a moment before clicking her tongue as she stuck her face out at me. “You know you care, don’t deny it. Anna told me a lot about what you’ve been doing here.”

                “Yeah, well, I’m sorry about what it is I’m doing here but I’m not going to stop. I actually like the people here and they like me,” I replied, perhaps jumping the gun in assuming that’s what she was getting at. She was predictable though.

                Mom nodded her head slowly, taking my attitude a lot better than usual. No, mom wasn’t processing this as attitude at all. “I’m happy,” she said, contradicting everything else about her at that moment. “You’re denying that you care, but you do… I know you do. That’s a step. You’ve made some friends. That’s great.”

                I couldn’t reply. Had she taken something she shouldn’t have? No, she wouldn’t have. She never lets herself slip, but why was she slipping right now and acting like this? My mouth fell agape as I watched her reach out and take a hand by my side. “Just don’t get too confident, okay?”

                Mom dropped my hand from hers as she taken a step back. She might as well have been crazy. This wasn’t my mom. What had she discussed with Anna for her to be so quiet and then so apologetic and then so… Not her!? I’d lost all ability to function as I found myself squinting at her retreating figure that didn’t turn back to say bye.

                You know what, I’d probably have preferred it if she’d gave me a scolding instead of whatever this was. At least then I’d know she was still her. She’d still be mom. I didn’t want to be responsible for putting her into a funk.

                I watched the car pull from the lot this time instead of storming off like when they’d dropped me off here two weeks ago. Although I couldn’t see most of the car, much less their faces, I liked to imagine that perhaps they were doing the same, looking in the reverse mirror trying to wave goodbye. The taillights faded quickly as the car disappeared from sight.

                I couldn’t help but let out an exasperated sigh.

                “So… That’s your mom?” A voice suddenly asked from behind.

                I didn’t jump in fright and instead turned casually to face Thomas – who I’d known was nearby since he shown off his own parents and waiting for me to finish up with my own. I nodded softly in response and taken my steps closer to his figure leaning back against a tree. I would have missed him completely if he hadn’t begun to talk.

                “She’s… interesting,” he commented as he kicked himself up off his post.

                I scoffed a laugh and nudged my elbow into his ribs. “She’s mildly psychotic topped with rainbow sprinkles, but only when something pisses her off. Otherwise, she’s just as bad as any other mom,” I replied as Thomas grabbed his side in pain.

                He shook his head in laughter and let his face fall towards the floor. “So she’s not always the human embodiment of Satan?”

                I didn’t have to reply as he held his arms out signally a hug that I gladly walked into with a hug of my own. For someone with an aversion to human contact, I was finding it a breeze with Thomas – perhaps the only person I’d found myself liking enough to let near me. I liked him enough despite knowing so little, despite our own personal rules as well as the rules of the camp fighting against us.

                His soft body against mines as his arms encircled me gently, holding me in place against the forces than mentally begged me to walk away and suffer in silence.

                “I heard most of your fight,” Thomas said, although that should have been a given considering the volume both my mother and I had argued at. Even when we’d left the mess hall. “You really weren’t exaggerating those few times you told me you guys didn’t get along.”

                I shrugged into his torso as I replied, “Yeah, well, it’s over now. At least I have a while to prepare for them visiting again?” I sighed into his chest. “What about you? I saw your mom and dad, but can’t say I was eavesdropping. Was a little busy.”

                His body shook as he tried to surpass a laugh before sobering up to talk about himself. “Mom and step-dad, actually. Although he really doesn’t deserve that title,” he sourly muttered.

                I playfully slapped his shoulder. “You shouldn’t talk shit about your family or people they love,” I scolded.

                He scoffed a bit at my words and replied, “Look who’s talking. And some people actually deserve it. He’s one of them.”

                I couldn’t recall much of the man beside his mom. The father to the twins in his mother’s arms? Why did he hate his step dad for reasons other than the obvious? “Were the twins your mom’s and step dad’s?” I asked him as a place to begin.

                He gently released me from his arms. “My younger sister’s. She’s… Not around.”

                His younger sister meant the twins belonged to a girl no older than 18. She wasn’t around? I had many things to ask but no right place to start in fear of saying something I shouldn’t. I knew better than anyone else how some don’t like to talk about their family for one reason or another.

                I looked up questioningly and he seemed to get to idea as he opened his mouth to speak and began to say, “She got in some trouble-.”

                “Oh! There you are,” A voice interrupted Thomas mid-sentence. Both Thomas and I stood apart and focused in the direction of the noise making sure no one saw us together. Under the cover of the night, we couldn’t see a thing. “It’s nearly curfew, what are you guys still doing out?” The voice asked as I almost immediately realised it was Anna.

                I jumped further apart from Thomas at the realisation and I could only just make out the confused expression on Thomas’ face. “Oh, Anna!” I said. “I just said goodbye to my parents and Thomas so happened to be close by.”

                Anna pursed her lips and looked between us suspiciously. “Thomas, does Julien know you’re here?” she asked him as she leaned on her hip and crossed her arms. Anna looked like she was searching for something to get angry at.

                He shook his head. “No, Ma’am.”

                “What time was he expecting campers back by?” she asked.

                “Half past eight.”

                “What time is it now?”

                Thomas looked briefly at his watch before his eyes began to bug out. “Nine, Ma’am.”

                “And how, exactly, do either of you expect to get back into your camp when the locking systems have been activated?” Anna questioned, looking between the two of us as if together our brain power amounted to a whopping ten brain cells.

                Thomas and I shared a look before facing the ground.

                Suddenly Anna had thrust her hand out in front of me. Through the dark I could only just make out the cell phone in her hand – my cell phone. “Here,” she said, “your parents left it with me to give to you.”

                I only looked at the phone for a matter of seconds before Anna used her other hand to make me take it from her. She was grouchy and fed up, and I had no doubt that was due to the head roast that was my mom.

                I didn’t need this cell phone. As I tossed it around in my hands I wondered what they expected me to do with it. I wasn’t going to call them if I could help it and my cell phone was as much a dinosaur as my mom was because it wasn’t compatible with any apps other than a nice good old game of snake.

                “Call your mom,” Anna said.

                By my side I felt Thomas move dangerously closer, ebbing towards my side making me feel as sense of danger as if he’d forced into my hands a bloody steak in front of salivating tiger. Anna was waiting for something to get mad at.

                “Now?” I replied as I flicked a glance at Thomas that told him to back off.

                His fingers slipped slowly through my own, shrouded in the dark of the night hiding a secret from Anna right in front of her face.

                Anna sighed. “No, but make sure you call or text or let her know what’s going on. For all of our sakes, Mercy Reid,” she said before she turned on her heel and began to stalk off. “And you two!” she suddenly said, “You’re staying in Alanbridge tonight seeing as West-Bridge is on lockdown. Sleep in the office tonight and we’ll excuse you both from morning activities.”

***

                Thomas and I walked together down an unfamiliar part of the camp. Neither of us had been well acquainted with the area but when we both realised we were staying together in the office of camp Alanbridge, neither of us wanted to actually sleep. This felt like the time for adventure and doing teenager stuff – but in the middle of nowhere, north California, surrounded by forests and trees and shrubs and lakes there was little to do in the teenager adventure category.

                “I’m glad I met you,” Thomas said out of the blue, “if anything good comes out of being forced to this god forsaken camp every year, it’s you.”

                I laughed a little under my breath as we both fell into a comfortable walk. “Wow, calm down there. You’ve known me for little over a week. Don’t go regretting and taking back what you say,” I told him as my cheeks began to hurt from smiling. It seemed being around him done that to me.

                I felt him shrug by my side. “We’re only here for a matter of months. I don’t want to spend those months regretting not doing something sooner.”

                Ahead as we walked we saw a small pier opening up across a familiar lake. “Look,” I said, pointing ahead towards the illuminated landscape that reflected the glow of the moon.

                “It’s the same lake as before,” he laughed, “or pond as our group put it. Raft racing, remember?”

                Of course I remembered. That had reinforced my inability to swim and my distrust in the camp and its safety procedures.

                Thomas’ hands clutched mine as he pulled me ahead towards the small walkway creating a path over the water. I imagined there’d usually be boats here, but tonight, probably for the best, there wasn’t. He sat us both down together side by side on the damp rotting wooden surface.

                Sitting there with Thomas and the abnormality of our relationship had me deep in thought that never quite went away. We weren’t friends. We were dating. You couldn’t be friends and date at the same time. I wasn’t quite so socially dysfunctional that I didn’t know that.

                “Hey, Thomas,” I said.

                “Mhm,” he replied, his face the epitome of relaxation and serenity. He looked like he’d forgotten every worry he’d ever possessed.

                “Your parents…” I began to say which caught his immediate attention. The peace boke over him and his forehead began to wrinkle. I felt in that moment like I’d just shattered a china vase. “What happened?” I asked.

                I could have been referring to multiple things or one very specific thing, but Thomas wasn’t to know which. I could have been referring to his real dad. I could have been asking about the man he was forced to call step-dad. I figured whatever was most pressing for him, he’d start on.

                He opened his eyes but remained leaning back on his arms as his eyes filtered through the stars. “Nothing… Happened. My step-dad came in and everything went to shit. Doesn’t that happen to most families?”

                I wanted to agree and make him feel like he wasn’t alone, but I knew that a blended family wasn’t always a bad one. “No. Some kids really like their step parents,” I said with perhaps a lack of sympathy.

                He sighed quietly and let his hand slide over his face. “He’s just an ass. Never liked any of my mom’s kids, never had time or the effort to help make things easier for us despite living in our house. You know how these stories go.”

                I found my arm reaching up to touch his shoulder. “What has he done? To you, specifically?” The hate Thomas had for his step father wasn’t unwarranted. There had to be a wound.

                He shook his head and refused to reply. This was as far as Thomas was letting me go. “Thomas?” I asked again.

                His body was visibly shaking as he breathed in and out. Anger or fear? Thomas bit on his bottom lip as his eyes sunk shut. “When will this ever go away?” he suddenly muttered as he pushed himself up until he sat dangerously close to the edge.

                I sat up after him and stared at the reflection of his face in the water. His hands covered his eyes as he sank into them in defeat. Something had just snapped.

                I looked curiously in his direction. My hand wanted to grasp him and hold them tight. I wanted to see his face and know ever emotion that filtered through. “Will what ever go away?”

                Below him, the lake began to ripple in neat overlapping circles effected by the tears that slowly began to fall down his face. “This… feeling.”

                I shook my head, unable to connect what was happening. “I don’t think I understand, Thomas.”

                “This feeling. This feeling that I’ll amount to nothing more than the scum in this stagnant pond,” he replied. His voice cracked mid sentences as he gradually lost his words to the emotions he kept hidden away so often for so long.

                His hand raised and swiped at his face, erasing any evidence of tears leaving only the red skin. “You wouldn’t let that happen to yourself, because you’re Thomas. We never realise our own greatness.”

                “Don’t say that,” he muttered, “Don’t lie to me.”

                My hand fell onto his shoulder, firmly grasping him making sure my point was known. “No, you don’t lie to yourself. Never mind what anyone else has ever had to say to you… or even what your step dad has had to say to you. He’s the liar.” I was assuming it was his step dad. Who else could it have been? It was all my fault for bringing it up.

                He turned slightly to the side and had a small smile peak on the corner of his lips. He sniffled. “You’re always there even when I don’t ask… and that’s more than I could ever want from someone,” he suddenly said.

                I looked away. The wind between us tousled in the air and carried everything unspoken in the distance. We could both see it despite it being unsaid. “Yeah, well… That’s what friends are for,” I replied, however my own record with friends was so small, limited, that I really had no idea what I was talking about.

                Thomas looked up and away from me. He still appeared visibly upset. “I wonder if this is what love feels like… Whatever that is.”

                A ball began to form in my throat. Blush stained my cheeks under the moonlight. “Friends typically love each other.” Right? But I didn’t feel love for anyone but my pets. I could scrape an ounce or two of love for my parents on a particularly good day.

                Thomas shook his head and came to face me. His face was tear streaked, but he looked sure of something. “I don’t tend to jump into things without thinking them through first, Mercy, and believe me I’ve thought a lot about us since the other day.”

                Concerned, I reached out and took his hand. “About what?” I asked, playing innocent to the game he had begun. I could feel where this was going.

He shook his head a few times. “I’ve never felt like this about someone before…” he muttered quietly to himself.

                My mind knew what he was ebbing at, but my mouth thought for a different result. I was scared but thrilled, understanding but misinterpreting every word that poured from his mouth. “But, Thomas… I don’t love you,” I suddenly said, feeling as if I’d just put my foot in it. Of course I didn’t love him. I knew nothing about him.

                Thomas cracked the tiniest of smiles. “You really are something,” He muttered. His eyes gently caressed my face understanding before he replied, “And I don’t love you either.”

                Thomas narrowed the gap between our faces. He looked carefully into my eyes before he went any further and I saw those vulnerabilities. The emotions just there behind a thin veil of tears. His weakness and his heart – the very things he had shut off, giving everyone the impression he was incapable of feeling. He was a man made of steel encasing the real innards of Thomas and everything he was. I felt like I’d fractured a hole in his armour very close to his heart.

                He seemed to find what he was looking just as I’d found Thomas. We both knew we didn’t love each other but this felt more than right. This felt like an adventure – the teenage rebellion that was so hard to find in a camp like this where we could act against our parents who weren’t here to witness us together so we could both feel victorious. Sitting there together, we let ourselves get carried away as we sank into each other’s arms and let us kiss for the very first time.

                Nothing had ever felt so exhilarating.

 

 

 

 

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