It was the end of a hot summer day, close to the end of summer itself. The kind of day nostalgic movies are made about. There were six of us listless as lizards in the sun, sprawled on the dock, heads resting on backpacks. It was our one-hour break between overseeing activities, like frisbee and friendship-bracelet making, and dinner. It was basically the only time we weren’t on our feet all day. Someone would lift a head occasionally to check that the camp director wasn’t approaching, to more impactfully deliver the punchline to a story, to glance unobtrusively at the mysterious hollows and outcroppings of another adolescent body.
The water lapped quietly against the poles supporting the dock. I had been lying on my stomach, tearing up a strand of grass and dropping the tiny pieces between the wood planks. Watching them float down, land on the dark water, pitch and sway in the tiny ripples as I listened to the conversation. I rolled onto my back and covered my eyes with a forearm. Even with them closed and my arm covering them, my eyes watered. I felt like I was staring directly into the sun.
I lifted my head and glanced towards Andy. His curly brown hair lay on his green JanSport backpack. He carried that thing everywhere. I had developed the habit of searching for it everywhere I went. If I spotted it, I might casually detour down that path or pick that table for dinner in the hopes of accruing more minutes in Andy’s presence. Andy was funny and affable. He smiled at me frequently, and every time he did it felt like a spotlight, like every movie cliché. The problem was he smiled at everyone like that.
Camp was drawing to a close, and despite imagining confessing my feelings to him every night as I sweated restlessly in my bunk, I had yet to actually work up the nerve to do or say anything.
Molly and Andy were both senior counselors and even lived in the same city, though they went to high schools on the opposite sides of town. In my darkest moments, I had suspected they might be together or at least have kissed a few times that summer. I was a lowly junior counselor, but Andy was so kind to everyone. His eyes sparkled whether he was helping the littlest campers make popsicle stick sculptures or chasing my boat during canoe tag. And Molly was outgoing, funny, and loved an audience. The two of them were somewhere between surrogate parents and love objects for almost all of the junior counselors.
“Juniors, cover your ears! I was so mad when the orthodontist told my mom I didn’t need the electric toothbrush anymore since I got my rubber bands off. It had so many different settings if you know what I mean. It was by far the best part of having braces. It’s just like my mom to ruin my life without even trying,” Molly said.
Cue the laughter. I heard Ian, the quietest and nerdiest of the senior counselors, choke on his saliva. For weeks, I had been watching him watch Molly the same way I watched Andy.
I had learned a lot about laughing that summer. With things I found funny, I waited a beat, suppressing the exhalation of air a moment, denying myself the release, until I was sure that others would laugh too.
“It has to be almost dinner,” Bobby, another junior counselor, said.
“I can hear your stomach growling, so I guess so,” Molly said.
The group started to stir and slowly make their way to their feet. I sat up, feeling disoriented from opening my eyes. Andy looked at me and smiled. I noticed how his dark brown eyes glowed almost amber in the sunlight. The heady feeling of sitting up too fast plus a hunger that couldn’t be satisfied overcame me. As he rose to his feet, I darted my arm forward and grabbed the strap of his backpack from where it sat on the dock. And then I ran, giggling as I went.
This is it, I thought. I’d given him a reason to chase me, to follow me. I would run, and then he would catch me with his long, athletic strides. He would playfully tackle me and we’d tumble, limbs intertwined until we came to a graceful stop in the grass. No one would pay us any mind as they headed to the dining hall. He’d be above me, resting on one elbow, looking down at me like in the movies. And he’d give me a gentle, shy kiss. My first kiss.
My heart was beating hard. I didn’t actually run that often. I had run along the dock and then onto the gravel path toward the dining hall. But my plan required a grassy expanse and some privacy. So I made a sharp left and headed down the hill near the gazebo with its peeling white paint.
I heard pounding feet growing ever closer. Sensing a pursuer behind me––even as I picked up speed on the downhill, even though I thought it was Andy––instinct overwhelmed me. I was irrationally scared of being caught. The adrenaline coursing through me had turned from flirtatious to flight mode. I ran faster.
The hill didn’t look steep until you were running down it. I was no longer having to work hard to run fast. The momentum of the hill was propelling my feet faster and faster in a way that seemed out of my control. I sensed another body hurtling down the hill right behind me. I imagined Andy running over the top of me like a character in a video game.
I threw the backpack to the side as a diversion. I thought if I didn’t have the bag anymore, he wouldn’t have a reason to chase me. I was running so fast, I knew one misplaced step and I would fall and tumble down the rest of the hill. And maybe that thought was a distraction, or maybe it was an idea my body grasped onto.
I don’t know if I tripped, or throwing the bag threw me off balance, or maybe I just wanted to stop hurtling down the hill. I was on the ground. And then there was a stinging pain in my leg.
Gasping for air, I heard a guttural sound: part yelp, part scream. I looked up and Andy was rolling down the hill in front of me, clutching his shoulder. My heart thudded in my throat, which felt rough and raw as I drew in ragged breaths. I never knew whether Andy tripped over the discarded backpack or over me, or whether he’d fallen on his own and just kicked me as he fell. I never told anyone I had intentionally thrown the backpack; I said I had tripped, just in case he’d fallen over the backpack.
Andy stumbled up the hill, holding his shoulder. I followed, my jaw clenched, carrying his backpack. Something was very wrong. There was a lump along his collarbone, just next to the collar of his red t-shirt, like an egg, or a snake who had swallowed a mouse. Andy actually growled at the camp director, our boss, when he tried to examine him.
He perched uncomfortably on the edge of the deck in front of the administrative office while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. I paced back and forth.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything? Are you cold? Or I could run and get you some water?” I said for probably the fourth time.
He had long ago stopped answering. My deep anxiety and guilt about my role in the situation, my knowledge that I had caused it at every step, from stealing the backpack to hurling myself on the ground, was mistaken as overzealous concern or a desire to claim some of the attention Andy was receiving. Once the ambulance sped through the gates, the camp director shooed me away with a curt, “Aren’t you supposed to be at dinner?”
I wrote Andy a get-well card; the whole camp sent them. Every inch of mine was covered in apologies in the tiniest script I could manage. I included my address at home with my note, but I never heard from him. I never saw him again.
The first couple of days after the accident, campers would ask where Andy was, when he was coming back. And even after that, the counselors would discuss it amongst ourselves sometimes. I felt proprietary of the story because I had been a central player in it, but no one else saw it that way. In their eyes, Andy and I had nothing to do with each other. He faded from conversation despite my efforts, and eventually he even faded from my daily thoughts.
I thought of him occasionally over the following year. When a new superhero action movie came out that I knew he would be excited about, when I saw some other kid at my high school with a green backpack. I wondered where he was, what he was doing. If he saw me would he be mad or would we share a laugh about our tumble down the hill as he pulled down the collar of his shirt to show me his healed collarbone? I thought of him for a moment when a trumpet player in the marching band with a slightly crooked smile finally kissed me as we walked to get Slurpees after school.
I returned to camp the next summer, finally an esteemed senior counselor myself. One night around the bonfire after the campers, sticky with s’mores and bug spray, were finally in bed, the conversation turned to those stories that are barely believable yet unforgettable. A girl whose prom date disappeared the night before prom and was never heard from again. An alleged serial killer found hiding in the woods behind camp years ago. And then someone, a junior counselor I recognized but barely knew, spoke up. The sparkly hair ties on the ends of her French braids glinted in the light from the fire as she spoke. She told the story of a former counselor from this very camp who had lived in her town. He’d gotten hurt in some kind of accident at camp. Gone to the hospital and gotten painkillers and a sling. The accident had upended his freshman year of college. He’d missed the first two weeks of school when everyone had found their friend group, and the injury had cost him his place on the tennis team.
The loosely prescribed painkillers, the freedom of college, and the injury had combined, and by Christmas break his parents had to show up to his college to retrieve him. There were rumors he had stopped going to class entirely, a water bottle of vodka had become his faithful companion on school day afternoons. He was seen slouching around the girl’s town over the holidays. His hair was shaggy and bedraggled, and his eyes never rose from the ground. And then he disappeared again, allegedly for a stint in a rehab clinic out east.
I felt guilty and a little ashamed. But there are two kinds of shame: the kind that you cannot speak the words to, even in your head, and the kind you can’t stop talking about. I told the story for years. College parties, ice breakers, two truths and a lie.
“I broke a guy’s collarbone once. Accidentally of course.”