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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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9. 8 - THIN AIR

Sunday rolled around days later with not much free time in between. Thankfully, Sunday was a day-off, which turned out to mean breakfast wasn’t till 10 am – and by that point we were all starving, having been awoken a few hours earlier because our bodies still expected Kendra to open our door and wake us up. Today, no one woke us.

                After breakfast, Anna and John were waiting in the main parking lot for camp Alan-Bridge. Kendra and John were nowhere to be seen and Anna had been given responsibility over the West-Bridge-rs. To make things easier, we all congregated together in the one area.

                “We’ll run over this one more time!” Anna hollered into the crowd of rowdy teenagers. “We’ll get in the minibus and arrive in Georgetown for midday. We want you back on the bus for six that night leaving you kids plenty time to shop or go sightseeing. Don’t get lost, don’t be late. Are we understood?”

                There was a collective yes from the crowd, but I doubted anyone was taking her seriously – especially that group of guys at the back who hadn’t stopped pushing each other around since we’d all gathered together. Upon closer inspection, I realised one of them was David. Of course.

                Kiana to my left was bouncing like a hyper active bunny on her baby pink heels – the very ones I’d internally criticized her for when we first met. At least she’d get to wear them. In her bag I knew she had her trainers as those were what she wore around this morning out of fear she’d ruin the heels. Among other things, today she wore a short cardigan on top of a form-fitting, v-cut white shirt matched with light blue denim, high waisted jeans. I couldn’t say I had tried as hard with my sweatshirt and thick straight legged jeans, but it was a further effort from the norm. No one could complain. I had even left my hair by my face today.

                As we all buddle into the mini-bus once the time hit the top of the clock, we were off about five minute later. Thomas and Dean turned out to be roommates, as we’d discovered earlier this morning. I knew it was a toss-up between him or David, however. Naturally, the pair sat together however I got the impression without David, neither of them spoke much. Thomas didn’t give me any social vibes at all. I could only just see his tousled hair a few rows in front to the left.

                The town wasn’t far off from the camp, and in the opposite direction of that I’d travelled with my family to arrive there so I hadn’t passed it before. The town sat in a valley of the steep hill the camps were situated on in a dense thick forest that cascaded down said hill just towards the outskirts, slap bang before the sign welcoming us into Georgetown.

                I turned to Kiana and said, “Well, anything you want to do first?”

                Kiana shrugged nonchalantly as she gazed out the window, the bus driving at high speed. “We’ll need to check how much of a shit-hole this place is first.”

                I formed a small o with my lips and internally debated whether I should respond to that. Suddenly, she wasn’t so chirpy. “What’s up?” Nothing big could have happened between getting on the bus and now, right?

                She shook her head, not once turning to look at me. “Oh, nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

                I believed her, because nothing could have happened especially considering I’d been with her the entire time which led me to believe she was just thinking about things. “You can tell me anything, you know…”

                “And so can you, but you don’t tell me a thing,” she replied. I couldn’t even come back at that because it was perfectly true. What was going on?

                The bus came to a halt. Up front, John began to talk as loud as ever making sure everyone knew who was in charge, forcing me to shelf Kiana and whatever was wrong for another time.

                “We are here! All that’s left for you guys is to get off the bus and have fun. The bus will be parked here all day. The local police in the area are aware of you guys in town so if you have any trouble, seek them out – the town is a friendly place,” he said, followed by a pleasant smile. People began to get up to leave.

                “I’m not sure what’s wrong and I’m sorry if I’ve done something, but -.”

                Kiana shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I’ve just been thinking. Would be alright if you left me alone for today? I just want to be by myself.”

                Carefully, I studied her expression. She didn’t look any more annoyed or pissed off than what she usually was. She must hide things well. “Alright. Don’t go anywhere alone,” I said to her, knowing that with however she was feeling, going out and about alone wasn’t a good idea.

                She nodded in understanding, although I did doubt she’d listen to me. “I’ll see you later then,” I muttered quietly as I got off the bus – the bus already empty.

                When I stepped out the hot bus, I was immediately hit with a cool breeze and green visuals. We were parked in a central parking lot right beside what looked like a granite fountain surrounding a large statue. Surrounding the square were wooden beam houses.

                I sighed quietly to myself as I watched the many several figures disperse around several corners out of sight. Behind me, I heard Anna talking with Kiana – at least someone would look out for her.

                Someone nearby cleared their throat. I turned instinctively to the sound and there he was again. Thomas was leaning on the hood of the minibus, only just out of my peripheral vision. “Are you alright?” he asked, immediately picking up on my expression.

                I smiled reassuringly, showing my teeth. “Perfect.”

                “Where’s Kiana?” He questioned as he took a step forward. Behind us, the door to the bus slid shut cancelling out any conversation I may have been able to eavesdrop on.

                With an unsure expression, I passed a glance through the glass to my right and saw her back pressed against the window. “She’s not feeling too good.”

                “And you? Are you not feeling good? I don’t want to catch anything-.”

                I shook my head followed by a laugh. “No, it’s not like that. Just, I think she needs a break.” Although I wasn’t too sure why.

                Thomas pulled his lips in an unconvinced smile. He dropped the subject, but I knew he wanted to know more – not that I’d be able to help with that.

                “You want to go this way with me?” with him? Why the hell not?

                His hand reached out as we took our first few steps and for a second I thought he’d maybe put his arm around my shoulder. Instead, I felt his fingers pinch the shoulder of my jumper. No, his jumper. Sheepishly I looked down. “Sorry, I’ll return it soon,” I muttered.

                He shook his head as he puckered his lips. He looked away and dropped the jumper. “No need. Keep it. It looks good on you anyways.”

                A small red blush began to appear on my cheeks – a first for me. It seems this entire situation being at camp had brought up a lot of firsts. My first real friend ever, my first friend I could call a friend back, first time raft racing, first time camping, first time sleeping in the same room with another teenager, first time being friends with a boy, first time having feelings for a boy…

                I really was crazy now. I was even beginning to admit I was attracted to Thomas – I mean, sure, that easily could be down to the fact he’s a male. When you’re like me and you’ve never had a proper friend in your whole life, a male friend is bound to confuse you – after all, girls and boys can’t be friends, right?

                No, they totally could be friends… But in my head Thomas wasn’t the same as Kiana. They felt different to me. That brought me back to the same observation – I was somehow attracted to Thomas in that way.

                I never thought I’d see that happen, however from the questionable amount of romance novels I’ve read I was sure I’d be an expert in all things love and Thomas would never be able to question my social awkwardness... In theory.

                I peered up shyly and finally said, “Thank you.”

***

                We wandered into town and bumped into a few groups on the way. Most people who said hi were friends of Thomas – or at least, people who knew Thomas. Anyone from my camp either didn’t recognise me or didn’t want to recognise me reminding me of how much I was beginning to hate my summer.

                “You know your way around here quite well, then?” I asked him.

                He pursed his lips in thought and swung his head back and forth. “Not really. I mean, for the past few years I’ve been into town on the day trips but doesn’t mean I know the place. The locals wouldn’t recognise me, anyways.”

                I nodded. “It’s only one pm. Is there anywhere you’d like to recommend?”

                “There’s a diner right down this way near the residential area of town,” he mentioned, “if you’d like to go there?” He seemed a lot more talkative today. In fact, the more I saw him, the more words he’d add on to his replies. He’d be talking in paragraphs soon.

                “Mercy?” He asked suddenly, breaking me from the spiel of thoughts. “Are you in there?” He waved his rough boyish hands in front of my face.

                I stopped firmly in my tracks to avoid being hit. “I’m fine. Sorry. The diner sounds good.”

                A small grin began to appear on his face. “Great. It’s close by.”

                We walked in silence towards a quieter part of town. We didn’t bump into anyone from camp as most of the lingered around the town centre. I soon realised I had no idea how to get back I knew I’d be relying on Thomas 100%. That did nothing to reassure me.

                The diner looked old and worn down as it came into sight, but not any more than the ones my family made me visit with them back home. I had no idea what I’d eat, but I wasn’t hungry. With not eating lunch for the past week in camp, I’d became used to the near enough starvation.

                I was sure I’d be able to fit in some pancakes or waffles. Whatever looked the tastiest… and was the cheapest.

                As we entered the diner, I took note of how dirty it looked on the outside compared to the inside – spotless and pristine. I didn’t have a problem with that. Thomas gently guided me with his hand behind me towards a booth in the far corner. “I always sit here,” he said.

                I didn’t reply, too hauled up in thought. I hadn’t been nearly as picky with food or germs since I arrived… I had the extra shower slot but I rarely ever used it, and I was beginning to overlook the grease in the mess hall when all I could think about was silencing the insatiable hunger pains in the morning. I smiled gently to myself.

                A waitress was quick to spot out arrival and made her way over through the few other tables in the way. The place appeared deserted, especially for lunch time.

                Thomas looked at me from across the table. “What do you want?”

                I tilted my head in thought before naming something I knew they’d have. “Pancakes, please. And water.”

                The waitress turned to Thomas. “I’ll have the same.”

                As the waitress walked off in a hurry, I said, “You should have picked what you wanted.”

                “And who says I didn’t want pancakes?”

                I rolled my eyes and leaned back. We both just calmly stared at one another, before Thomas said, “Not going to lie, I don’t tend to talk to people at camp… They’re all usually tremendously stuck up or not interested in communication. This year, David and Dean have been alright, and then there’s you who somehow just keeps coming my way.” He finished with a teasing smile.

                “Excuse you, I haven’t once purposely sought you out,” I replied.

                Thomas’ bottom lip began to trip in an exaggerated scowl. “I didn’t say that, did I? I was joking,” he laughed. I didn’t find it very funny. “Truth is, I think it’s me that’s been following you.”

                I spat an incredulous laugh and said, “Is that so?” Deep down, I felt all mushy and my hands under the table were beginning to sweat.

                His serious face transformed into buckets of laugher pouring from every surface. He seemed to find this funny. “Well, I’m not standing outside your cabin at night – but I do think about going to find you sometimes and seeing if you want to hang out.”

                I shook my head but couldn’t help but crack a smile. “I don’t think Julien would let you.”

                He composed himself by running his hand out his face. “Oh, I think he’d let me.”

                We both seemed to remember the same moment from a few days ago making us both grin. I still hadn’t found out the little secret.

                “Are you ever going to tell me his secret?”

                “Nope.”

                “Why?”

                “Because then it’s not a secret and it’s only mines to use.”

                Around then, the waitress arrived back with our plates. There were three pancakes on each with a healthy serving of maple syrup dribbled over them. I could almost feel myself salivate. I licked my lips and without a word the two of us began to dig in.

***

                On our way out, Thomas and I headed towards the counter with our money ready to pay an hour later. It was only coming up for half two, so we had plenty time. The waitress who served us was the waitress who gave us our bill. “That’ll be 9$,” She told us, holding her hand out for the money.

                Thomas without a work handed her a ten dollar bill and muttered, “and here’s a tip,” he said, handing her a few more dollars.

                I nudged him in the ribs, feeling my hand tighten around the cash in my hand. “I was going to pay for myself, you know.”

                “I realised, but that’s not how I do things,” he said back. “Don’t worry about it. Already paid for.”

                I narrowed my eyes at him in suspicion. He knew how to woo a girl without realising it.

                The waitress began to talk as she put the money in the register. “Just let the guy pay for your dates, us girls aren’t complaining,” she said with a knowing look on her face.

                I began to correct her, “Oh, no, we aren’t dating-.”

                “You should listen to her,” Thomas replied, looking almightily casual about the whole situation. “She’s right, you know.”

                I tilted my head to the side in confusion and watched him pointedly as he was handed a receipt. We left the diner quickly after being wished a good day and made our way back into the main square of town.

                “Hey, what was that?” I asked, confused as we crossed the road. Was this a date to him? How I wish it was.

                No.

                Thomas shrugged and began to peel him hoody from his back – the sun beating down on both of us. I’d already tied my jumper around my waist due to the heat. “Not too sure myself.”

                “But you just told her -.”

                Thomas stopped in his path and turned to look at me in the middle of the street. “I told her it was a date. Do you want it to be a date?”

                Sceptically, I said, “You’re beyond the bluntest person I’ve ever met. But selectively blunt. It’s weird.” My cheeks were heating up fast, my limbs turning to jelly.

                Thomas didn’t look phased in the slightest and fished his phone from his pocket as if someone had messaged him. “Only around you. I mean, we only have the summer – not enough time for wordplay.”

                My heart began to thump in excitement. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

                He pushed out his chin and nonchalantly looked over me. “It’s a date. We’re dating. But only for this summer.”

                We’re dating? “Why only for this summer?” I chose to ask.

                A small care-free smile began to evolve on his face. He looked like a completely different person. He was acting like a completely different person. “So we are? You accept?”

                I looked down at my toes not knowing what to say. “I-I don’t know what to say. You’ve been so shy and… you didn’t seem to like me at all and then you pull this.”

                He chose not to comment on that and turned around to begin walking back towards town. I stared at his back incredulously and narrowed my eyes. This wasn’t real – this was some cruel prank. I’d known him a week at most, I’d barely seen him through the day. We barely knew if we liked each other as friends, but what could I say when he was right – we only had the summer.

                Despite all that, I kept thinking about it and feeling excited. We’re dating?

 

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