It drizzled all morning, making the ground into a mud slushie and making it hard to walk everywhere there wasn’t wild overgrown grass to cushion steps. From the moment a slight particle of mist hit my face, I whipped out my trusty pink umbrella with the twisted support arm that still worked and the duck tape patch from seventh grade. A few of the older girls laughed at me- it must have been some unwritten camp rule that anything that wasn’t a plastic poncho from the dollar store wasn’t allowed, let alone a pink umbrella in the hands of a boy recently fallen into some weird cult.
I spent the day trailing the pinkies, mainly because all their older girls had been requisitioned to the kitchen to pump out gallons upon gallons of chicken nuggets since nobody would be able to start a fire and cook. And besides, today was cleaning day- nobody wanted to clean out a fire ring and then have to dirty it up and start all over. It was certainly lazier than years before, where the kitchen would reheat leftovers and then lay them out in a buffet-style fashion on a long table and then have a line form into the kitchen for a free-for-all. And then, after everyone had eaten, all the remaining food would be packed up for volunteers to take home or to compost and then the kitchen staff would set up an ice cream bar with all the toppings a girl could dream of.
I kinda miss the ice cream social. I wonder why they got rid of it.
But anyways, the pinkies needed some help, and so I stepped in, being the only person free to run around willy-nilly. There was supposed to be a climbing wall in the afternoon if the ground could dry up enough for it to be safe, so to kill time, the unit leaders and I marched the girls down to the archery range… where it really began to pour. One of the pinkies, a tiny little thing with two black ponytails, practically clung to my leg as we traversed the trails leading to the cabin that housed the archery range. She didn’t have an umbrella or a poncho or anything.
The archery range instructor- Tails, I think her camp name was- welcomed us into the downtrodden one-room cabin. The floor, while not the image of sterility, was relatively clean even though countless muddy shoes had pounded over it throughout the week and it was made of unsealed wood. I took a seat next to a fold-out table while half of the unit jostled for a seat on the one lone bench and half of them scattered throughout the remaining space.
“So how are you all?” Tails said, pulling a paper fan out of her pocket and fanning herself.
The unit chimed several variations of “I’m cold/wet/hungry.” One of the girls faked an exaggerated shiver, earning a few giggles. Another one took out a yo-yo and started playing with it, stealing the attention of the more mentally weary.
“Well, this rain should clear up soon-”
The yo-yo flew from the girl’s finger, accidentally smacking Tails in the jaw. She blinked for a few seconds and winced, massaging her jaw, and then shook her head and opened the hut door.
“It’s cleared up outside. I think we’re ready for archery.”
Archery went as usual- most of the girls had no idea how to use the dang bows properly, someone accidentally wandered out onto the range while others were firing, prompting the adults to freak out and order everyone to drop their weapons, someone got salty because they had to take turns and didn’t get onto the same team as their friends… the same tropes play out at camp at the archery range, year after year, after year. It’s the only part of camp that’s only changed once since I started going as a pinky, and that’s just because one year someone repaired the bows and donated a ton of arrows to make up for all those lost in the forest or broken because someone pulled theirs out of the target wrong. At long last, the girls grew tired, and then it was time for the next unit to trod down to the archery range, booting us out.
“Hey, Nino, where are we headed off to next?”
I sneaked a glance at my unit book, searching for the tiny colored rectangle that would tell us where to go. “Planetarium presentation.”
The pinkies cheered, immediately starting up several splintered conversations as we picked up our belongings and started off on the path to Houndbus. I’d heard something about a planetarium presentation before- damn it, I think there’s something missing from my diary. I could have sworn that I wrote something down about it before now. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places…
Quite a lot of years ago, when I was one of the normal campers at camp somewhere between second and fifth grade, I had this feud with the Director’s son, Mavis- he got so many special privileges at camp, not just for being one of the only boys there, but also for being directly related to the Director and thus able to skirt a lot of the same rules that everyone else got reprimanded for breaking. One year, behind both his and her back, I gathered with some friends that would soon stop being my friends a few years later and decided to take one of the Mavis’s beloved stories- “Jo Boo”, I think it was?- and start our own version, “Jo Boob.” Lots of toilet humor and ripoffs from other then-popular series ensued, resulting in more than one phone call to my mom and being forced to handwrite an apology to that awful boy who paraded around like a pompous and proud prince who could do no wrong.
I’m only bringing this up because he was leaving the lake area when I walked past on my way to Houndbus with the entire pinkie unit in tow.
“Hey, Nino!” Mavis waved his arm vigorously- he’d put on at least ten pounds since the last time I’d seen him. He’d always been overweight- and had always complained as loudly as he could whenever that resulted in him not being able to do some of the activities as the rest of us campers. “Petya said he’s got a surprise for you at Houndbus! That’s where you’re going, right?”
I rolled my eyes and ignored him, continuing to trod up the trail Houndbus was on. I wasn’t in the mood to get into a fight, especially not with the little girls under my care. Every single confrontation with Mavis had ended in a fight that was solely blamed on me. Because Mavis could do nothing wrong, see? Not if the Director had a say in the matter.
“Nino! Petya said you were gonna hook up with Memes?”
I halted in my tracks, glaring at Mavis. A few of the pinkies bumped into me before brushing past me and continuing to hike their way up the hill. “What did you just say?”
“A dark closet, a plausible excuse for delaying the planetarium presentation… Clearly this whole thing was staged so you and Memes could do-”
“Shut up, Mavis.”
“Oh!” Mavis whooped, covering his mouth. “You’re not supposed to say anything mean to me! I’m gonna tell Mom!”
I rolled my eyes, turning back around and following the pinkies up the hill. Mavis wasn’t worth my time.
Inside Houndbus was an art room, where the unit book said we needed to be. Once we’d all gathered inside and done head counts and such, I poked my head into the art room-
To find two hipster girls with puckered lips and bad fashion choices blasting country music.
I leaned back out of the room, turning to the unit leaders. “Maybe we’re early?”
“No, we’re here at the right time.”
I poked my head in the room again. This time, the girls were glaring at me, half upset that I was “barging” into their important creative time and half curious because, well, here was a presumably single boy in a midst of hundreds of girls. I turned back to the unit leaders, and they sighed and pushed the doors all the way open, leading us to the closet at the right side of the room.
“Right…” I halfheartedly giggled, embarrassed. “I knew that.”
“No you didn’t!” one of the pinkies piped up. The rest of the unit giggled. Because, of course, if Nino does anything wrong, it’s automatically funny.
One of the unit leaders knocked on the closet door. “You ready in there?”
“I’ve been waiting ten minutes for all y’all to arrive!”
We pushed the doors open- Memes covered her eyes, wincing. “Thanks, now I’m blind.”
The pinkies giggled. All of us squished into the art room closet- it was rather roomy, although those at the edges had to stand to let the little girls sit. Memes turned on the circular projection camera she had and switched it to the constellation slide.
“I’ve got a fun game for you all.”
“What is it?” the pinkies squealed, out of unison with each other.
“Here’s what you do. You take your right hand-” Memes held up her right hand, barely visible in the dim light of the projection camera pointed at the ceiling– “and you put it over your mouth.”
The pinkies followed suit, giggling muffled behind their fingers. Memes sighed, rubbing her strained eyes and slapping the ground next to her. “Get over here, Warm’n’Wet.”
“You. Nino. Like ‘El Nino’? It’s warm, and it’s wet.” She drummed on her legs. “Ba-dum tsss.”
“Oh my god.” I scooted over to sit next to her. The two adults clucked. “Don’t say that in front of the children. Or ever again.”
“Come on, I worked hard on that one! I saved it all week just for you.”
“And I’m sooo glad.”
“I love you too, Nino.”
Thankfully, in the dim light, Memes couldn’t see me roll her eyes or pretend to punch her. The pinkies did, though, because they started giggling as soon as Memes touched the projector to bring the constellations back to focus.
“What? What’s so funny?”
That just made the pinkies laugh more.
Memes started the presentation, pointing out every single constellation on the projection and making up stories on the fly- I could tell because she contradicted herself all over the place, saying that one constellation was another’s lover but then turning around a few seconds later and passing them off as mortal enemies. The pinkies didn’t notice, just giggled all the way through at her embellished storytelling.
Memes switched to the asteroid belt slide. The sun was just barely visible at the corner, shifting in and out of view as the projector rotated the image. The girls’ gazes followed the sun, clamoring when it disappeared, cheering when it came back.
“Y’know, from the weather all week, I’d have thought that you’d want the sun to go away for at least a few moments.” Memes shrugged. “Y’all have your priorities messed up.”
She switched to the planets slide, showing off a cloud-covered Earth, a hollow moon, a tiny Mars. As she began presenting facts about all the planets and then drifting off into a rant about how late she’d stayed up collecting them all, my thoughts drifted off, my eyes stuck on that one little red dot so far away.
I’ll tell Sully that I need a break, I decided to myself as Memes switched to a different slide, one detailing the sun in full flare. I’ll tell Sully that I need to clear my mind and figure out who I am and what I want from the world. Maybe I’d go researching, go find a place to take my GED early and find a college I might want to attend after I get everything in order.
I… I don’t have any obligations to Sully. Just because we used to talk to each other over the internet a long time ago doesn’t mean that I should let her influence what I do with my life. And the same with Liv- just because one society dictates that we’ve got to be together doesn’t mean that we have to be joined at the hip. If Sully wants to run around with Limberstein and try to change Miralay, then that’s her choice. That’s her problem. Miralay’s problems aren’t my problems.
And Liv… No matter what Liv wants to do…
I’m not the Providence.
I’m not Mordern’s property.
I’m not a ghost hiding forever in Heavestone.
I’m not illegal, and I deserve to exist, to live, to thrive.
I’m Eponine Westal, and I’m a citizen of Earth.