The train pulled into a station and stopped with a slight jolt. The jolt was enough to waken Aaron. He stretched his slight body in his seat, straightened his glasses which had been pushed askew and wiped his mouth. He’d been drooling, he realized. Perhaps sleeping sitting up with his head against a window instead of lying down with his head on a pillow had caused that.
Stretching as he stood, he saw other passengers getting up and doing the same. A conductor walked through the car calling out, “Bakersville, five minute stop.” He repeated himself over and over as he walked down the aisle and left for the next car.
It appeared to Aaron that only two others besides him were getting off here. They were reaching into the overhead space pulling down suitcases just like he was doing. His bag was heavy, and he struggled not to drop it as it came off the shelf. It came down sharply, falling to the seat; Aaron was just able to keep it from bouncing off and hitting the car floor. Why his mom had packed so much stuff, he had no idea. But then he realized, it hadn’t been his mother. She’d packed what was necessary for a summer camp: some underwear, a couple pairs of shorts, a couple of tees, a light jacket, some toiletries and a bathing suit—that was all he’d need. Thirteen-year-old boys at camp certainly didn’t need anything more, did they? Well, he did. He’d been the cause of the heavy suitcase. He’d stuck several books in; he’d figured he’d need them.
Feeling a little uncertain, being by himself as he was and never having been alone on such an adventure before, he picked up his suitcase and carried it to the end of the car. There was a conductor there, and he took the bag from Aaron as the boy stepped off the train onto the platform.
“Thanks,” Aaron said as the conductor set his bag on the platform before raising a forefinger to his cap and then getting back on the train, stooping to take his portable step along with him.
Aaron stood for a moment. The platform was almost deserted, only a couple of porters in the distance loading some freight onto carts. The other departing passengers had already disappeared. He heard a cry from further back of “All abooooard,” the word ascending in pitch as it was sung, and the train began moving. In less than a minute the train had disappeared, leaving Aaron the only one remaining on the platform.
Taking a deep breath, in and out, he picked up his suitcase and headed for the double doors with a sign over them reading Bakersville Station. By the time he’d reached them, he’d noticed the heat. It had to be in the nineties, he thought. He gave a quick thought to where he was going. Would they have air-conditioned sleeping arrangements? It was now well into the Twenty First century. Surely they had minimal creature comforts, even at a boys’ camp. How was he supposed to be able to read, lying on his cot, when the day was hot and the room even hotter?
The train station was almost completely deserted, too. There was someone in a ticket booth who seemed to be sorting something, maybe schedules he thought. There were a couple of long wooden benches for people waiting for trains, but they were empty of people, too, except for one man who appeared to be asleep with his legs stuck out in front of him and his chin on his chest.
Aaron set his bag inside the doorway where it would be out of the way and wandered around the single, large room. There wasn’t much to see, especially the thing he most wanted to see. He was supposed to be met and ferried to the camp. What was he supposed to do if no one came?
The room was very quiet, and Aaron made his way to the front door, walked through it and looked around outside. The first thing he saw was an old, very old, antique even, elongated car with what looked like wooden sides. Painted on the side he could see were the words Terrace Lake Camp. And in smaller letters underneath, Bakersville, Connecticut, Est. 1985.
The car was empty. Aaron looked around and didn’t see anyone. Perhaps the driver was using the restroom, he posited, and walked back inside. He checked out the restroom. Empty. Damn, he thought. Then, feeling as though he were waking up, he went back into the large waiting room and walked directly to the sleeping man on the bench.
The man’s head was still slumped forward, and his long hair fell all the way to his shoulders. Aaron had no idea what the man’s face looked like; he could only see hair, worn jeans and well-worn, lace-up hiking boots. Light snores were coming from the man.
“Ahem,” Aaron said. Nothing happened. Aaron repeated it louder. Nothing.
Aaron kicked the man’s foot. Not hard, but hard enough. The hair moved, the head came up, and Aaron saw the man’s shirt had words on it: Terrace Lake Camp.
Aaron nodded, the hollow feeling in his stomach abating. He felt a sudden spasm of relief and far less uncertainty.
“Sorry about that,” the man chuckled. Aaron could see now that he was hardly a man. He didn’t look to be a teenager but seemed hardly much older than that. Aaron guessed he was perhaps in his twenties, his late twenties at the very most. His lengthy hair was an ash-blond color, and when the man rose, he appeared to be about six-feet tall, maybe an inch taller, and slender. “I’m Harry Bains. I’m the camp director, meaning all the nasty jobs fall to me.” He laughed, showing it was a joke, then explained his nap on the bench.
“We had a long night last night. Boys. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, but in any case it’s always something, and way too often it’s at night. For some reason, boys get into the strangest things just because it’s dark outside. And for some, their dreams aren’t the soothing sort. I didn’t get much sleep last night. Well, enough of that. You’re all set, I imagine? The car’s out front. Let’s go.”
He stood and picked up Aaron’s bag, grunted and said, “You bring anvils with you?”
Aaron frowned. “What’s an anvil?”
Harry laughed again as he headed toward the door; Aaron got the impression that the man must laugh a lot. “The things you sprouts don’t know these days. Probably never heard of ear trumpets or boot lace hooks, either.”
“Huh?” Aaron responded. “What’d you mean, you sprouts? You’re not that much older than I am!”
“Hah! I’m 27! That’s almost a whole generation older than you. You’re 13, right? I think I got that correct. Yeah, I know I look young; probably my beautiful hair is part of that. Aren’t you envious? Huh? No, I guess not. Anyway, I don’t feel like I’m 27, more like I’m a decade younger, and I keep my hair long to emphasize that. Maybe to prove it to myself.”
Harry said all this in an off-hand, light and breezy way, quite obviously not taking himself at all seriously. Aaron had the feeling he was going to like this guy. Aaron wasn’t one to trust adults much, but he liked what he saw at first glance with Harry. Still, he had to ask, “Aren’t you a little young to be in charge of a whole camp?”
“Fair question,” Harry said. “You’d understand, of course, if you’d give it some thought, that running a summer camp isn’t a year-round job. I don’t own the place, and I’m not in charge of the financial part of the operation. My father does all that. But I was here as a kid and know the job. Taking care of the on-site activities is my job, and I love it. I love all the campers, even the problem ones, though we have very few of those. During the rest of the year, I’m at school. I’m finishing up my doctorate in social work.
But I went to camp here as a boy and have been here every summer since I was six in one capacity or another. You can tell me when you leave whether I’m any good at running the place or not.” He smiled and wiggled his eyebrows.
They left the station and walked to the car. Harry opened the rear door to set the suitcase in. Then he said, “You can sit up front with me. You’ve probably never seen a car like this one, either. It’s what they had before minivans or SUVs. It was called a station wagon. Then people began to call it a woodie. I’ll bet that began with kids. Kids!” He laughed after saying that and winked at Aaron, as though he was sealing some sort of compact between them.
As they drove, Aaron looked at the unfamiliar car dashboard. It was entirely different from what he was accustomed to. There was no air conditioning, for God’s sake! To compensate, Harry rolled his front seat window down—he actually cranked it down using a handle in the door and asked Aaron to do the same with his window—and let the outside air blow in as they drove.
It was mid-afternoon on a fine summer day. Almost as soon as they left the small town of Bakersville, there were woods on both sides of the road, and the land was hilly. Aaron was surprised and said so. “It’s all woods! I thought most of Connecticut was like it is around the city.”
“That’s right, you’re from New York City, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, the South Bronx.”
“Well, the southwestern part of Connecticut is pretty much part of the city, but a lot of the rest of the state is much different. I’d guess over half the state is woods and hills, lakes and rivers. Just not around where you come from.”
Aaron nodded and didn’t reply, instead looking out the window. He’d never really seen forestland before, and it fascinated him. He could easily imagine this was what the earliest settlers had seen, land looking just like this. Without the highway, of course.
“So, Aaron, the Bronx, huh? Some of that’s pretty rough. Especially the South Bronx. That’s what I’ve heard.”
Aaron didn’t respond, so Harry took a quick glance over at him. The boy was staring straight ahead through the window, his face showing nothing. Harry took a breath, drove without saying anything for a time, thinking, then tried again. “I guess that’s where you’re from. Can you tell me about it? I like to get to know our campers as well as I can. And I keep what I learn locked up real tight up here.” He tapped his temple with one finger. He was keeping his voice light, too, trying to sound encouraging.
Aaron was a boy who kept his feelings pretty much to himself. Telling anyone about his life just wasn’t something he did, having learned that the more people knew, the more he was open to teasing and ridicule. He lived in a tough neighborhood, went to a tough school, and keeping to himself had proved to be his best defense.
But Harry seemed nice enough, and Aaron didn’t see the harm in opening up a little. Kids his age and a little older were the ones that he’d come to grief with throughout his short life. Keeping as low a profile as he could around them had been learned behavior. Adults were not usually much of a problem, unless, of course, they were in positions of authority. Then he had to be more careful. But mostly he related to them better than to kids, and as he wasn’t a troublemaker, even the authoritative ones tended to find him invisible.
“It’s just my sister and me and my mom, and she’s sick,” he said, his voice not showing any emotion. “I look after them the best I can. Mom’s going into the hospital for a few weeks for tests and like that. Anyway, my principal got me hooked up with your camp while Mom’s away. Mom was happy with that. Me, not so much. I’ve never been out of the city. What do you have there, a bunch of rich kids? Ones who go to private schools and in the summer go to rich kids’ camp? I’m going to fit in there real well.”
Harry heard the sarcasm and ignored it. “The kids there are just kids, like you. To tell the truth, I have no idea if they come from rich families or not. They’re just kids. And it’s a summer camp; you’ll all be doing the same things, fun things, all outdoors. There’s a lake, and we have kayaks and row boats—even sail boats—and a swimming area with a beach. There are horses. Maybe you’ve never been on a horse. You will be at camp. There are all sorts of activities; you’ll be one of the older campers this summer; you’ll fit in fine.”
Aaron shook his head. “Yeah, sure. I’ve never done any of that, and these kids have done them all their lives. They’ll be laughing at me. I don’t take well to that.”
Harry took another quick glance at Aaron and saw the tight look on the boy’s face and the somber eyes behind his somewhat oversized, wire-framed glasses. Shaking his head, he said, “It isn’t like that. As long as you try to fit in, you will. These boys come from all over. A lot of them have never been anywhere near a horse, and if you can’t swim, we’ll teach you how. You have to have an open mind, though. Please don’t go in looking for trouble.”
“I won’t look for it, but I can handle myself. You don’t survive in the South Bronx if you can’t.”
“You’ve been in fights?” Harry already knew that; he actually knew as much about the boy’s background as Dr. Rodriguez could tell him, but he didn’t want Aaron to know that. It would be better if Aaron thought he had a completely clean slate here. But Harry was not liking what he was hearing. By asking about the fights, maybe he’d learn more.
“Sure. Not a lot, but you have to. If the kids there know you won’t fight back, you’re done for. Hey, I don’t like it, but I can do it.” Aaron’s voice was showing some emotion.
Harry looked at him for a moment, seeing how thin he was, how imposing he wasn’t. The kid wasn’t what you’d call cute; the term ordinary fit him better. He had medium-brown hair, very little meat on his bones, and looked very much like he was waiting to grow into whatever he’d look like a couple of years down the road. Harry couldn’t imagine this kid in fights; he wasn’t big enough. He had to wonder how successful any of those fights had been for him. Perhaps, though, for Aaron, success meant he’d shown enough spirit and willingness to preclude fighting from becoming a daily necessity.
Harry decided he’d better change the direction of the conversation. After a moment that hopefully would allow Aaron to calm down a bit, he asked “What do you like to do, Aaron?”
Aaron didn’t answer right away but actually turned away from Harry and spent some time looking out the side window. At that moment there were no trees blocking the view on the right, and low hills fell away from the road. A small village could be seen in the distance. It was a picture-postcard view and a setting completely strange to the boy.
Harry didn’t think the boy was going to answer his question and was thinking of asking something else, or just talking a little more about the camp, when Aaron turned back so he was looking out the front window again, and he replied to what Harry had asked.
“I told you I take care of my mom mostly. She’s in bed a lot, and I’m there for her. So I’m home, which isn’t bad because it’s safe there. What I do when I’m not doing stuff for her or my sister is read a lot. I like reading. It’s better than TV.”
Harry smiled. The boy had sounded softer, less defensive, when answering. “What do you read?” he asked, wanting to stay with a subject the boy obviously felt better about.
“All sorts of things. I get books from the school library, from the public one during the summer. I like adventure stories, especially if they have boys in them, but I read all sorts of stuff; biographies, history, mysteries, young-adult literature, most anything at all.”
“So you’ve read Huckleberry Finn? Oliver Twist? Tom Sawyer?”
Aaron laughed. “Please! Those are old-fashioned ones.”
“Hey,” Harry said, pretending to be offended, making sure it was obvious he wasn’t, “those are classics! You should read them.”
“I have. I read them ages ago—when I was ten and eleven. Today’s books are more exciting. I like all kinds. Sci-Fi, thrillers, romances, too, but mostly adventures where a boy has a problem and has to work it out. You probably don’t know any of the ones I’ve read. An Abundance of Katherines? The Maze Runner? Skink — No Surrender? You’ve probably heard of The Hunger Games trilogy. Those were great!”
Harry loved the passion in Aaron’s voice. This was so different than when he was talking about surviving where he lived! To keep him going, he asked, “Harry Potter? What about those?”
“They were okay. The Hunger Games was better.”
Harry was impressed. This was a different boy from the more sullen one he’d been riding with earlier. So the kid reads a lot, he thought. Perhaps he’s smarter than your average kid, like Dr. Rodriguez had said. Or maybe he’s only interested in the adventure and misses a lot of what is underneath that.
He decided to test him just a bit. “So do you like dyspotian novels?”
Aaron turned to look at Harry. Harry kept his eyes on the road in front of them. “Oh, that’s right,” Aaron said. “You probably never read it. I mean The Maze Runner, which I mentioned. It’s dystopian, like Hunger Games.” Aaron slightly stressed the word Harry had mispronounced and kept his eyes on him a few moments longer before turning away, and Harry had the distinct, unsettling impression that Aaron might have realized what he’d been doing.
It was a mile later before either one spoke again. Then it was Aaron who broke the ice. “I’m sorry. That’s a bad habit I have, correcting someone who’s said something wrong. I know not to do it but can’t help myself sometimes. I’m a little thin-skinned. It’s gotten me in trouble before. But one thing you learn in the South Bronx: stand up for yourself or you’ll have to get used to lying flat on your back, hurting.”
Harry spent time talking about how the camp worked, living and sleeping, bathing and eating arrangements, how the days went, and the nights. “Don’t worry about being the only newcomer. Boys are coming and going all the time. Some spend the entire summer here, some only a week. We were told you’d be here at least four weeks, with a good possibility that your mom would be in the hospital longer than that and so we’d have you longer than just a brace of fortnights. He did an arm pump and grinned triumphantly at Aaron. “See, I know some words, too!”
Aaron smiled at him. Harry was surprised at how that improved his looks. He’d been just any boy before. Now one might actually say he was on the brink of being cute with a curl of his long hair hanging over his forehead, his slouch looking demure rather than defensive. “Anyway, we have a few boys who just arrived yesterday. They’ll be just as worried as you are about making friends. I’m temporarily putting you in a cabin with one of them along with another kid who’s going home tomorrow. I’ll introduce you. I’ll leave it up to you to make friends, but hopefully you’ll do that with your cabin mate. I’ll check to see you two are getting along fine. And you can come to me anytime if you’re having any problems at all. That’s what I’m there for. Any time, day or night.” And then he yawned, winked at Aaron, and laughed.
“Who said anything about being worried?” Aaron replied, his prickly defensiveness back in play just that suddenly. Harry shook his head; out of everything he’d just said, that was what Aaron had heard the loudest.
It was another forty-five minutes before they turned off onto a dirt road, drove some distance on it and finally came to the camp. During that time, talking about the camp and the boys he’d be meeting, Aaron had been getting more and more nervous, no matter what face he was trying to put on it. But he fortified himself, thinking about how he’d learned to get by at home, mostly by staying away from other kids, living in his own world of made-up characters and universes. Here, though, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to do that. His safety net had disappeared.
Just because there’d be other new boys there in the same boat he was in didn’t mean they’d make great shipmates. He didn’t make friends easily, and he didn’t need any, when it came down to that. His bag was heavy because he’d brought his comfort zone with him: his books.