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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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6. 5 - ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT

Anna flicked through the illegible sentences scrawled in the dedicated boxes of my camper diary. It was my Thursday therapy session with Anna. Stupidly enough, the session was scheduled for 10AM, the second slot of the day lasting till 11. I was missing out on the raft racing, but I’d probably be back for when they launched them down the pond.

                Anna nodded, pleased at what she was seeing. “You’ve written enough – as I expected. I hear you like reading and writing?”

                I nodded, but followed with a frown. “Who did you hear that from, my mother?”

                Anna pretended like she didn’t hear me and moved on. “It’s great you’ve made friends with some other campers. I had Kiana in here yesterday and she was telling me all about you.” Great. Indirectly she had other tabs on me. “She tells me you’ve made friends with the other camp too.”

                I hoped to god she hadn’t elaborate on how – I wouldn’t put it past her to slip up and not realise. I nodded, confirming whatever Anna knew. “Yeah. Thomas and some of his friends – Dean and David.”

                “What about in your own camp?” She asked, writing some illegible sentences of her own down. “Anyone in camp Alan-Bridge who you like?”

                I shrugged, my attention diverted to the scene viewing straight eastwards into the forest. “Not really. I’ve said a few words to Andrew, but not much. I get the vibe people don’t like me in my camp.”

                Or, it was me who didn’t like them.

                Anna nodded in understanding and set her pen down on the table. “I can assure you, they don’t not like you – they just don’t know you yet. You need to get to know people.”

                I sneered slightly at her words, not liking at all what I was hearing. “I can’t be that bad if I’ve managed to make friends with the likes of those in Camp West-Bridge.” She couldn’t deny that. Not that I’d personally call them friends but I thought in a situation like this, acquaintance wouldn’t quite have the desired effect.

                She didn’t disagree. A small smile formed on her lips. “That’s true. I suppose it’s for the best. We combine most of the two camps together to balance each other out – you all have a bit of what the other needs. I’m glad it’s worked out this way.” I was sure she only agreed to save herself a shouting match that I was sure would occur. I was feeling cranky enough as it was.

                I nodded, not wanting to continue this any longer – and certainly not for a whole hour. It’d only been ten minutes. Anna persisted, though. “So have you told your parents about the open day?”

                “I don’t have a phone.”

                “Oh, really?”

                “Yup.”

                “You don’t have with you or don’t have at all?”

                “What does it matter?”

                “It matters because it means to me either you done it on purpose to avoid contact with the outside world, or because it was something you couldn’t control.”

                I snorted. “What about C, both?”

                Anna sighed, suddenly appearing tired and done. “You need to start co-operating. Even a therapist has a limit. I can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to help themselves.”

                I got up from the chair, knowing whether she wanted me to stay or go, she really had no say in what I done. “I don’t need help.” I felt guilty just slightly at how I was acting. This was Anna’s job – she wasn’t here on purpose to annoy me – but I couldn’t help it.

                Just before the door shut behind me I heard her mutter the words, “Denial.” I would have had a lot to say to that, but unfortunately Anna had invested in a lock that only allowed the door to be opened from the inside unless set otherwise. Probably for the best.

***

                I arrived by the lake (or pond, let’s be honest) about half an hour from then. In the time between leaving Anna’s office, I went back to my own cabin and changed into something I didn’t care about getting wet and took the five minute stroll towards the designated location.

                I could see some teams already in the water, making sure everyone knew how good their raft was. Some people who weren’t doing this activity the other day were lingering around, some of them knew exactly where they had to be, others like me tried to make themselves look as occupied as possible while doing nothing. I spotted someone exactly like that.

                Kiana had made herself at home with an array of fashion magazines – despite not looking the type – and was surrounded by the only other people in the camp I could put a name to. Dean, David, and Thomas were laying on their backs basking in the sun the furthest they could be from the banks almost lying in the tall grass.

                I stood over them, suddenly blocking their source of warmth as my shadow fell over them. Kiana was the first to notice. “Oh, your therapy is over that quickly?” She asked, sitting up and putting aside her ELLE magazine.

                Dean laughed. “Therapy?” He added on to that, “of course there’d be therapy. Camp Alan-Bridge for you.”

                Kiana curled her lip and kicked his ankle with her foot. “What would you know? I heard from our therapist that she’s only in Camp Alan-Bridge from Sunday to Thursday. She’s in your camp from Friday to Saturday to monitor you guys.”

                Dean’s eyes began to bulge. The other guys who were peacefully laying began to stir. “What!?”

                “I’m not going to any therapist,” David muttered, sitting up and shading his eyes from the sun.

                Kiana laughed at their reactions. “Have fun!” Her expression changed as she got up onto her feet and nodded down at a pile of sticks. “We were waiting for you to arrive. Mercy, meet our raft.” I glanced down at the pile of sticks once more and realised that was exactly what she was referring to.

                Disbelievingly, I picked up one of the twigs in my hand and tossed it around. “I thought they’d already been made?”

                Dean chortled and picked one up. “Obviously not. But look at the size of the sticks – how are we supposed to make a raft out of these? They’re tiny!”

                David burst into full-fledged laughter and picked up another to compare to the one in Dean’s hand. “Sort of like your d-.”

                Before David could make any phallic connection to the stick, John interrupted with his whistle silencing the large group a few meters away. “Half an hour left to build your rafts. Racing begins at eleven!”

                That was all it took for the campers to burst into a frenzy, adding the finishing touches to their rafts before they presented their masterpieces… While our team had a pile of sticks.

                David and Dean stood together and playfully jabbed each other with their sticks, hard enough to leave a mark. “We’ll both look for some bigger branches. Some of you make the frames. As long as it floats, it’s a raft,” Dean said as they wandered backwards into the tall grass and trees. Below us still basking half in the sun, half in the shade was Thomas.

                Kiana pointedly looked down at him and then back at me. A small grin began to evolve, showing her pearly whites beneath. “I’ll just – uh – help them out.” She turned on her heel and sprinted away in order to catch up before I could get a word in.

                Of course she’d think there was something more going on here. Totally by coincidence, I was still wearing his sweatshirt.

                Realising it was better I get this done sooner or later, I dropped to my knees in the sand and let them sink into its warmth. I grasped the biggest branch out of the pile and then a second. The frame, right?

                Thomas grumbled quietly and sat up, rubbing his eyes like I’d disturbed him. “I really don’t want to be here,” he muttered.

                “I can tell.”

                He gave me an annoyed side eye before lazily slopping his palm onto the branch and clamped his fingers around it. He obviously hadn’t been totally sleeping. The string that we weren’t allowed to cut ourselves had been cut into meter long strips for us, tangled in a bundle behind me.

                “Pass one,” he said, throwing his hand out, wiggling his two fingers like he was summoning a dog.

                I wanted to comment on his rudeness, but I knew that’d cause an argument. Blindly, I picked up the whole lot and threw it between us. Thomas began wrapping one tie quickly around one cross section of the raft. I decided I should make a start on the other cross section.

                We sat in silence, securing the two ends in the space of five minutes. My thoughts trailed to how these two months were going to play out and I couldn’t find any good conclusion. I suppose the only good result out of any of this, was perhaps the fact I’d miss the first few weeks of college – oh wait, I hadn’t applied to any - and I’d also make one decent friend… and it’d be a first in a long time.

                Thomas appeared done with his side and sat there openly staring at me like I had something on my face. Whenever I glanced up to meet his eyes, he didn’t look away. I couldn’t hold my gaze any longer than half a second. “Need help?” He finally asked.

                I realised then I’d been spinning the string around the cross section in totally the wrong way for over ten minutes time. He’d been watching me fail for over five of those. I wanted to be angry…But I couldn’t.

                Sheepishly, I looked up and said, “Please?”

                He grabbed the furthest end and hauled it around to face him. He quickly unravelled with string with his boyish hands and reapplied it around the cross.

                “Sorry, I’ve never done anything like this before.” Although considering how well everyone else was getting on, it appeared like it was common sense rather than practice.

                Thomas began to smile absentmindedly, but it barely revealed his teeth. He didn’t look happy to me. “I went to boy scouts as a kid and I’m not lying when I say raft making was our favourite thing to do.”

                I laughed in return. “I can’t imagine that.”

                Thomas finished up his side with two tight knots. “Yep. Every month we’d make one and race down the creek. We loved it.”

                I tilted my head and for a second forgot who I was talking to. “And you don’t now?”

                He shook his head, not looking at me once. “Nope. Pass the other cross section for me?”

                We now had two cross sections forming triangular shapes – we just needed to join these together in the same way we – or he – joined the two pieces in the first place. His hands were too fast for me to follow.

                “So how is Julien treating you guys?” I didn’t even know why I was trying to make conversation with the guy – he obviously didn’t want to talk…

                Thomas shrugged. “I was prepared for a camp leader like him, so it doesn’t bother me – but if you’re going to compare him to John and Kendra over there, Julien’s comparable to a dictator.”

                “Prepared how?”

                Thomas paused for a few seconds, seemingly absorbed in his tying skills. He pulled off some knot I didn’t know the name of and dropped it to the ground. The entire frame rattled. “Should be strong enough,” he muttered before getting up with a groan. I had to crane my neck back to look at his full figure – almost blinded by the sun. He stretched his arms high above his head letting his shirt ride up his torso.

                Realising he was ignoring my question, I decided not to prod any further like I might have done without thinking otherwise. I didn’t know him well enough to ask anything personal… Or maybe it was okay to ask personal things… I really wasn’t up to date with social norms.

***

                “On the count of three-.”

                Somewhere in between finishing the raft with just minutes to spare and entering the water, I’d been slung a lifejacket and commanded to hop on the raft with a single paddle. It was all a flurry of panic and confusion, but somehow I ended up sitting there on the raft holding on for dear life just about to hear the countdown begin.

                Thomas grudgingly got on beside me. I didn’t have any time to ask what he was doing and why he was here – surely Kiana would be more suited seeing as she was lighter?

                “3, 2-.”

                And I currently felt almightily sick.

                “-1, GO!” John yelled at us all, one after the other down an invisible line. We had to cross from one side of the lake to the other. It didn’t appear that long, but knowing my luck I knew we’d come last – also because our raft wasn’t in the slightest designed to float.

                Other teams sprinted ahead of us, while our own team on shore there waiting, cheering us on. I must have looked a right state – I was soggy and my feet were forming blisters. Last thing I wanted to do was race our destined to sink raft down a lake filled with as much algae as my family’s outdoor pond which hadn’t been cleaned in years. Any pond fish died within a week.

                “We’ll come last at this rate,” Thomas said between laboured breaths as a raft came storming from behind and slowly rounded us off.

                My paddle was serving little use – gradually making my arms weaker and weaker. I realised beneath our legs, water was beginning to seep in. Other teams has stuffed leaves and dead dry foliage between the hundreds of weaved branches and twigs to make theirs more waterproof. Sadly, we didn’t have the time.

                “I’m trying my hardest,” I shot back with perhaps a little too much attitude. Thomas cursed under his breath as we both heard the audible snap of a few of the strings. I could both envision us now, stranded on a desert island in the middle of a huge ocean after our boat capsizing… However my day dream was soon flattened when I realised this wasn’t an ocean, this was no boat, and I could see the other side of the lake as clear as day.

                He threw his paddle across the lake in frustration, and the few seconds less he paddled and the harder I dug the water with mines, the further off course we went. Ashore, Julien was enraged, waving a clipboard in the air and blowing his whistle at us like a mad man, shouting something about the cost of the paddle and wanting Thomas’ address. Thomas ignored him completely.

                Suddenly, with only a third of the lake to go and almost everyone else ashore, the level beneath us began to groan. This wasn’t going to be good. I’d be dunked into the diseased waters of a disgusting lake, bathed in germs I couldn’t scrub harder to get off. I’d sink to the bottom and I’d drown. My parents would be banned from my funeral and my only relative allowed to attend would be my hermit aunt – the only person I’ve known to understand me. Maybe my dog, Paul. No one else would be there but our priest, because I had no friends… and even then, the priest would be a stretch considering that incident I didn’t want to recall three years ago.

                “Calm down!” Thomas yelled suddenly, who had apparently abandoned all hope of reaching shore and had laid a firm hand on my upper arm. “You’ve got a life jacket on. You can swim, right?”

                I shook my head, no.

                “You’ve lived by the coast your entire life, and you can’t swim?” He asked, disbelieving, suddenly a bit more talkative and interested in my wellbeing.

                I didn’t have an answer to that because suddenly the shouting on shore got too much and my stomach began to turn. Before I had the chance to unload my guts all over Thomas and our slowly disintegrating raft. I peered around us and I saw half of the frame about five meters behind us.

                “Lets say we’re pirates,” I begin, comparing this situation to one of my many books at home on my shelf. “Our pride and joy is about to sink. Do we go down with it too or try to live?”

                Thomas was already waist deep in water, the raft beginning to tip. “What are you talking about!? It’s raft racing, Jesus Christ.” He screwed his eyebrows together, reminding me of his brooding face when we first met in the darkness by the campfire. The screaming on shore hadn’t stopped.

                Maybe it was a stretch – okay – a really big stretch to compare this to a pirate ship and its captain, but in all seriousness and in a moment of madness, I really wanted to know the answer. “But what would a pirate do?” I prodded, finally grabbing onto Thomas’ arm as well, holding onto each other for dear life – my own paddle drifting back down the way we came.

                Thomas looked around for help – whether to save himself from the crazy lady spouting talk of pirates or of the impending dunking - but realised we were nowhere near shore and ready to capsize. Concerned, he turned back around and moved his other arm under my armpit and hauled me closer. “I say they’d abandon ship.”

                Beneath us in a split second, the raft capsized completely and we were both plunged together into the vile water, holding together skin-to-skin. Our legs entangled as we were sucked deeper but tried to fight back with frantic leg kicking. I could feel Thomas’ calloused hand reach up and glide along my neck for whatever reason – I wasn’t complaining as long as he didn’t let me go.

                My non-swimming ability was of no use and instead served as a weight. Our life jackets were a help and quickly I felt the cool wind against my cheek. Thomas broke the water, holding tightly onto my waist.

                Never had I been so thankful for someone else’s help. His hair was plastered across his forehead, eyes wide, and mouth agape as he panted – out of breath and slightly panicked. His hand reached out to swipe the long tufts of damp hair obscuring my vision, letting his palm rest on my shoulder. As he opened and closed his mouth for a few seconds as if he was going to say something, reality began to seep in, my ears becoming aware of Kiana’s yelling on the shore, although she really didn’t sound worried at all.

                I turned back to Thomas who hadn’t let me go. Unlike Kiana, he seemed concerned. He finally asked me,

“Are you okay?” 

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