Aaron didn’t mind being left alone. As long as he had a book, he was fine. He was disappointed that Shaun liked things he didn’t. Aaron could easily see the boy was smart, and he could have been the perfect companion this summer. But if that wasn’t to be, it wasn’t. So perhaps he’d be alone. He didn’t mind that. He’d been friendless most of his life. The prospect of it this summer didn’t bother him at all.
That’s what he’d always thought, at least. Now, the soft, aromatic summer breeze fluttering through the open windows of the cabin carrying mixed scents of the lake, the woods, grass and flowers; the sounds of happy kids running merrily around outside; the complete lack of sirens, heavy busses, screeching brakes and angry shouting; the knowledge that there were opportunities awaiting him if he’d simply put his book down and venture outside—these were all making it hard to concentrate on the words on the pages in front of him.
He knew he wasn’t in the South Bronx where possible mayhem awaited him outside his house. There were no gang members here to accost him. No druggies hanging out on corners. No drunks, no snatch-and-run artists, no bullies. This was a safe place, a place to be free from all the problems at home. A place where he didn’t have to stay inside to attend to his mother’s needs. A place where he could find happiness somewhere other than in a book.
He sighed and put the book down when he realized he had no idea what the last page he’d read had been about. He got up off the bed, stretched, then opened the door and stepped outside, blinking in the strong sunlight.
Too bad about Shaun, he thought. He liked Shaun well enough. The kid was laid back and easy to get along with and did have that pleasant drawl, but now it appeared that other than probably eating meals with him and sleeping in the same cabin, they wouldn’t be spending much time together. Shaun was a jock. Aaron was the epitome of anti-jock.
Aaron strolled down toward the fire-pit area. He could hear boys’ voices coming from the beach as he stood by the pit, and he found his feet moving in that direction without even having decided to go there.
The beach was protected by a number of trees growing around it, but it was easy to get there on well-used paths as it was only a short distance from the main camp area. He walked through the trees and stopped when he emerged from them. He stood facing the broad sandy beach and beyond it the lake. There were boys in the lake and boys on the beach, and almost all of them were naked. Aaron just stayed where he was, mostly still in the tree line, and watched for a few minutes. It was tempting to join them. There was no sign of Dylan. He could simply undress and walk to the water. The idea of being naked outside where others could see him was no longer such an extreme one. Embarrassing? Yes; impossible? No.
He knew what was missing. He’d thought, hoped in fact, he’d feel some sexual tension being around all that nudity. He didn’t. That simply brought worries he’d had for some time to the fore again. The fact was, when it came to anything that had to do with sex, he never had felt what he heard other boys talking about. He hadn’t had much in the way of crushes on anyone, he didn’t get excited by pictures of girls with scanty or no tops on, and he didn’t have any desire to see boys or men naked, either. None of that affected him. And he knew that wasn’t usual. He knew other boys reacted to those things. But he simply didn’t get those feelings. He knew this made him different, and it worried him. Was there something wrong with him?
He’d begun having those questions some time ago. So, he’d done what one did these days with questions that weren’t wise to broadcast: he’d gone onto the internet.
It had taken some time, but he was smart; he could figure out what questions to ask, and he’d found some answers. He had narrowed his situation down to two likely causes. One was that he was one of the few people who were asexual—only one percent of the population in some studies. The other was that he didn’t feel these things because he hadn’t started puberty yet, his hormones hadn’t kicked in, and he would feel what others felt when that happened.
He thought the second scenario was the more likely of the two. He at least had evidence to make him think that. He hadn’t had much genital development at all, which suggested puberty was still in the future, and when he’d tried what he heard other boys talking about that gave them great pleasure, it hadn’t worked for him—again a sign he was missing the hormonal kickstart to puberty. Oh, rubbing himself wasn’t unpleasant, and he did get hard, but there was no real enjoyment in it and he’d stopped, feeling very unfulfilled, the few times he’d done it.
He’d been hoping that when he came to the beach and saw a bunch of naked boys frolicking around, he’d feel something. But no. He stood staring at them, a whole herd of naked boys, and watched for a few moments. He became aware of something he’d never been in a position to see before. He saw older boys, ones in his age range, acting quite differently from the younger, pre-teen boys. Those young ones were simply gamboling together, acting entirely unconscious of the fact they were nude. In fact, their antics made it look like nudity was their natural state.
The older boys? As unconscious as the younger boys were of their nudity, these boys were super-conscious of their own. For the most part, when in the shallow parts of the lake, they stayed deep enough that everything below their waist was still under water. When they were sitting on the raft in a group, usually they had a hand covering themselves, and it was being made to look like that wasn’t intentional, just accidental. Sometimes, one of these boys would suddenly stand and dive or jump into the water or just fall in from their seated position, and Aaron would get a glimpse, a flash of the boner the boy obviously didn’t want others to see.
There were two distinct, discrete groups of kids: one very aware of their sexual natures and their bodies and one that wasn’t. And he knew he belonged in the second group. Well, that wasn’t entirely true; he did want to cover up like the older boys did but simply not for the reason they did. They were obviously feeling a sexual current running through them being with other nude boys, and they covered up accordingly. Aaron knew that, when he did go swimming, he’d cover up because he hadn’t developed yet and was very aware of how different he looked at 13, and because other boys that age at the very least had hair; he didn’t, he hadn’t grown enough for it to be seen at all down there, and he wouldn’t want other boys to see that.
He really hoped this would change soon and that he wasn’t asexual. The odds were with him, of course. Even in sex-ed the teacher had said some boys didn’t begin puberty till they were halfway through their teens. He was just beginning his. So he had that to help stem his worries. But worry he still did. He had enough things to be teased about: his small size, his glasses, his high voice, his plain appearance, his misfitting, shabby clothes, his lack of a father, his impecuniousness. He didn’t need to hand the bullies another thing to taunt him about.
The lake beckoned. It was a warm day, and it certainly did look inviting. What would it take to shrug off his clothes and join the crowd? He was tempted. But, the beach was too crowded, and the fact was that the urge to swim just wasn’t that strong at that moment. He decided he’d rather explore the camp on his own instead. He’d swim later. He’d simply do it, nervous or not. He wasn’t going to be here and never swim. Remembering that no one had laughed in the showers helped his resolve about that tremendously.
He headed back along the path he’d come on and shortly was back to the main camp area. The sun was warm on his back, and he decided to try a trail through the woods. There were many of them. He walked up past the washroom and showers and took a path leading slightly uphill that looked inviting.
He hadn’t walked far before he heard a cracking noise, which was repeated at odd intervals. Wondering what it was, he kept going and found the noises becoming louder the farther he walked.
He came to a narrow trail leading off the path he was following. There was a sign where the trail began. It read: Rifle Range — 100 feet ahead. Now Aaron knew what the sounds were.
He walked up the trail and eventually found Harry with two other boys about Aaron’s age. “Aaron! Glad to see you,” Harry greeted him. “These two are Dewey and Frank. Dewey’s the one like you—with glasses.”
Both boys had dark hair cut short for the summer. Dewey was short, shorter even than Aaron and skinnier, too. He had a round face which bore a broad smile as he met Aaron. Frank was taller, heavier, and he wasn’t smiling as much, but he was wearing a shy grin. Both guys said hi to Aaron, who returned the greeting and told them his name.
“I’m in charge of the rifle range,” Harry told Aaron, “and it’s only open to teenage campers. These two wanted to shoot, so I brought them up here. Are you interested?”
Aaron had never shot a gun, neither a pistol nor a rifle, but it looked interesting. There were paper targets about 150 feet away from where they were standing, and Harry was holding a rifle.
“Sure. Can I try?”
“I was just getting these two started,” Harry explained, “letting them watch how I did it.” Then he began again, this time with three boys, pointing out the safety requirements of the range and rifle. Then he told Aaron, “I was just shooting from the three different target postures you’ll learn, showing these two the prone, sitting and standing firing positions. This is a .22 single-shot rifle. It’s a great rifle to begin with, to learn to shoot with. Now, who wants to go first?”
The boys took turns. Both Dewey and Aaron had to keep their glasses on, which made it a bit more difficult, but neither could see well enough without them to aim properly. Perhaps that was why Frank ended up scoring better.
They shot for a half hour, rotating the rifle back and forth between them. Aaron had never been good with tools of any kind, but he found the rifle, once he had figured out how to shoot it comfortably, not awkward at all, and to his surprise, he loved it. He was quite pleased with himself, too, at being able to show some small skill at an activity like this with the other two boys looking on. In fact, they were as enthusiastic as he was. When they were finally resting after having worked their way through several boxes of shells, Harry had a suggestion for them.
“If you guys want to try it, I have a challenge for you. You’re all hitting the target now on every shot. Not the bull’s-eye very often, but at least within the outside ring. And that’s good enough for what I want you to try.
“I was in ROTC back in my college days, and they trained us to shoot in an indoor rifle range on campus. We didn’t just shoot at targets, however. They wanted to show us what’s required in combat situations, and so they had various scenes painted realistically on backgrounds as wide as the building. The scenes had places where enemy soldiers were in hiding, and they were shooting at us. Not real soldiers and not real bullets, of course. Instead, they had lights that would blink at us from places on the scenic pictures; those lights blinking at us were supposed to be the flashes of rifle shots. Pointed at us.
“What the gunnery sergeant would do was have us get in a prone position, holding our fire, while a number of different ‘shots’ at us came from the scene. Our task was to memorize the enemy positions, wait till the shooting stopped—which in this case was when the lights stopped blinking—then remember where each enemy was located and return fire, accurately hitting each target area. That was done strictly by memory, of course, because there was no longer any incoming fire, meaning, of course, no more blinking.”
“That’s what I’m tasking you to do. I’ve more or less duplicated that training exercise. Except they had several backgrounds, and I only have what nature has provided us. But the challenge is this: there’ll be several shots, and I want hits on all the concealed targets where the lights come from. You’re a three-man fire team, but only one of you has an operable rifle at this point in the battle. You have one minute to hit all the targets. Who shoots, how you accomplish the task, how you pass the rifle around or don’t—it’s up to you, just like it would be in real life. We can do this three times, because there are three of you. But other than that, it’s up to you to take the enemy out.”
The three boys looked at each other, smiling at the challenge, their eyes eager. This was going to be fun!
Harry was smiling, too. “I’ve been doing this for years. With teams of three and four boys. The record so far is 7 hits. I won’t tell you in advance how many targets there are. That’s part of the challenge; you wouldn’t know in advance in combat how many people out there would be shooting at you, and you won’t know here. Oh, and for each of your three tries, I’ll light up different lights, so all three tries will be equally difficult. Ready?”
“No, wait, we have to discuss this,” Aaron said. The other two agreed.
They huddled together. Aaron looked at the other two, and they were returning the gaze, expecting him to speak. So he did. “Frank’s our best shot. Why don’t we let him do all the shooting? And then you and I, Dewey, we’ll try to remember where all the targets are and pass that along to Frank.”
“Hey, you guys both shoot well,” said Frank, even while loving the praise Aaron had given him.
“Not as good as you,” said Dewey, agreeing with Aaron’s plan. “Ready?”
The other two nodded and Aaron told Harry they were ready and asked him to give the rifle to Frank. Harry did, had Frank lie down on the middle shooting pad and put a box of ammo next to him. “You’ll have to reload after each shot. If there are ten lights, say, then you’ll have 6 seconds per shot. If you only see five lights, you’ll have 12 seconds to hit them. Knowing how much time you have is part of this. Now, remember, don’t shoot till I tell you all the lights are out permanently.”
Frank was nervous, as were the other two. Harry opened an electrical box that was mounted on a pole and normally kept locked. He turned a couple of dials, then said, “Here we go,” and flicked a switch.
Aaron was looking down range and saw a light blink at the base of a tree, then blink again. Then there was a blink by an outcropping of rock, then two more from a large tree stump. Then the first light blinked again, then two new locations. More and more lights lit, coming at different times and together. Altogether, the lights blinked for a minute and a half, and Aaron had counted nine locations in all.
“Your minute starts NOW,” Harry said. Frank began shooting right away, firing two shots at where the first light had blinked. He fired, scrambled to reload and fired again. “The base of that rock on the left,” shouted Dewey, while Aaron was saying, “by the stump, and then the bottom of that stunted pine tree.”
The boys kept giving Frank instructions, talking over each other, and about three-quarters of the way through their minute, Frank laid the gun down and began laughing. The other two looked at him, at each other, then were laughing themselves.”
Harry checked the sensors that went with that series of lights and told the boys they’d had three hits.
“Three? That’s all,” Frank asked, shocked it was so few.
“Yes, but that’s about normal for the first round. Ready for a second try?”
“Hold it,” Aaron protested. “We need to figure this out.” The boys gathered together again, and again Aaron seemed to have been tacitly appointed the group leader.
“This isn’t working at all,” Aaron said.
Frank agreed. “You two were both yelling at me and I was nervous anyway because there’s no white target to shoot at, just where I think I saw lights, and the pressure gets to you. Can you imagine what it would be like if someone was actually shooting at you and you could be hit any second? How in the world could you keep your aim steady?”
Dewey nodded, thinking about it, and Aaron said, “That’s to consider later. What we need now is to figure out how to get the info of where to shoot to Frank without all the noise and confusion.”
“It’s just difficult, remembering all those places, and then passing them on to Frank while he’s trying to reload,” Dewey complained.
That gave Aaron an idea. “Okay, why don’t we do this, then. You remember half of the locations, I’ll remember the other half, and after every shot, one of us reloads while the other tells Frank where to shoot next. Frank won’t have to remember anything, which will take some of the pressure off, and not having to reload himself might save a few seconds as well.”
They decided that would be better and figured out how to work the reloading and passing the target information to maximum effect and minimum confusion. Then they told Harry they were ready.
Harry switched locations on his panel, then turned the system on. Aaron was memorizing all the locations left of center, Dewey learning the right half. Frank was looking at them all just to have a general idea. Then Harry cried, “Now!”
This time went more smoothly. No confused shouting, no fumbling for ammo because the loading boy had it picked up and held ahead of time. The only problem was telling Frank exactly where to shoot; just saying ‘to the left of the bridge’ didn’t provide an accurate picture of where his shot needed to go.
“Better,” Harry said, after reading the sensor output. “Five this time. One more try.”
“And one more conference,” Aaron said. Harry laughed.
This time, he didn’t wait for the others to urge him to speak. “Okay, guys, I think I’ve figured it out. Each round there’ve been nine targets. There are three of us. So, all we have to do is memorize three target locations each, and we have a minute and a half to do it. Piece of cake. Also, communicating them hasn’t worked, but we don’t have to communicate squat if we each shoot our own targets. We’re all decent shots. So Dewey will go first. He’ll lie on the right-hand pad and shoot the three targets farthest on the right, then pass the rifle to Frank who’ll take the middle three targets and then pass the rifle to me on the left for the last three. Each of us will take five shells. That way we’ll have them right there laid out for us, and if we drop one, it won’t matter. We’ll each have twenty seconds to shoot, load, repeat, repeat, and pass the rifle. What do you think?”
Dewey was shaking his head, and Aaron was worried till he saw Dewey’s eyes; they were gleaming; the head shaking had been in admiration. “That’s a great idea! Wow! Bet no one else has ever thought of that. This should work! And look, guys, if you think you missed, don’t shoot again for it. We don’t have time for that. Shoot three times and you’re done. Okay?”
“Perfect,” said Frank, and Aaron just nodded, thinking that if he had time, since he was last, he could shoot a fourth shot, but probably not a fifth. There wouldn’t be time for that. Then he thought of one last thing. “Guys, don’t rush. We have plenty of time. Aim, shoot your targets and pass the rifle. No need for rushing.”
Then he turned around. “Okay,” he said to Harry. “When we’re all lying on our pads, let her rip!” Then he was the one who laughed.
It was the first time Harry had ever heard Aaron laugh. He realized he’d rarely seen him smile. Enjoying that, he turned to his box, and from the corner of his eye saw the three boys all lie down on shooting pads. Dewey, on the right, had the rifle. Hmmm, he thought.
When he said, “Now,” this time, a shot came only about a second later. Then Dewey reloaded, aimed carefully, and fired again. It had only taken him four seconds. And in another three, he’d shot again and passed the rifle to Frank, who had a shell ready, loaded the gun, and shot the first of three shots. After the third, he said, “Shit. Missed that one.” But he didn’t shoot again; he simply handed the rifle off to Aaron.
Aaron had more than enough time for his three shots, and did take a fourth, aiming at Frank’s missed target. He was pretty sure he’d hit all three of his. He hadn’t felt rushed, he’d known exactly where to aim, and it had just felt right.
Harry checked the sensors, then looked at the boys, all standing now, and then the sensors again. Then he slowly closed and locked the box before turning to the boys.
“Well done, boys,” he said with a blank face.
“How’d we do,” Dewey chirped.
Harry couldn’t help but smile then. “Eight hits. Best ever. New record. No one’s ever had all three team members shoot before, either.”
“That was Aaron,” Frank said, beaming at his new friend. “Who did we beat? How long has seven been the record?”
“Only three years,” Harry said. “Dylan, one of our current counselors, set it when he was still a camper. He took all the shots himself, and he told me later he didn’t even listen to his teammates, that they were just confusing him. He memorized the locations and, well, he’s a very good shot. But this just shows something. A good team is almost always better than a good individual. You three guys working together were something else!”