Why am I even here? Performing arts camp was definitely not my idea. It was mom’s, all the way back in January. “Come on, Jayden! It will be fun! You’ll meet other boys, just like you!”
That was far from the truth. Although I do like performing arts, I’ve never been able to connect with any other kids, regardless of interests. They see me as an outsider, and I don’t even blame them. If I had the choice between talking to someone, or talking to no one, I would definitely choose the latter.
Every day here feels like it drags on and on, and the LED clock by the exit of the bunk has been a lifesaver. All I have to do is count the seconds until I get home, and maybe it won’t be that bad.
Tonight is performance night, which is where the five hundred kids at camp can choose between a couple different shows to watch. I play Coach Bolton in High School Musical, but my performance was last night and this morning. I was the only one who chose to go to Mean Girls, which I’m not even ashamed of. It’s better than going to Shrek, which for some reason was a common choice among the bunk. The show ended a lot earlier than the other ones, so I ended up heading back to the bunk by myself. That’s against the rules, since there’s no counselor in here, but I could care less about what happens to me at 9:30 P.M on a Thursday.
I grab my book, having little to no idea what to do. Diving into The Phantom Tollbooth sounds better than attempting to find anyone. Suspended on the top bunk, I look around the empty living quarters, seeing a tiny ant crawl across the wooden floor. The fourteen beds are all messed up, since literally no one cares about making their beds. The only ones that are somewhat clean are the ones closest to the exit, which are taken up by the two counselors.
After a couple of minutes of reading in low light, I hear the screeching sound of the door, which I assume is a counselor here to yell at me. But when I hear talking of pre-pubescent voices, I look up and see three thirteen-year-olds stumbling into the room, all acting as if they had shots of vodka.
I try to act like I don’t care, laying back down, but I notice my eyes constantly wandering over to the three. They’ve now sat on the floor, closeby the computer. I recognize the three boys. I can tell the one doing the most talking is Jamie, the go-getter who is always leading the bunk. The two sitting by him are Braiden, the shy one who’s always looking down, and Brock, the somewhat crazy but also really nice one. The three of them have been glued together since day one, and although I can tell they aren’t mean, they mostly just stick to their tiny group. I can’t really make out what they’re saying, but I can somewhat hear them talking about Beauty and the Beast, the show I remember them going to.
I try to avoid eye contact, but it gets harder by the second. Their talking gets louder and louder, and their laughing is ear-bleeding. Eventually, I pounce up from my bed, glaring at them. “Will you guys please quiet down? I’m trying to read!” I growl, a bit louder than I intended.
Not even seconds after I say that, they all go silent and whip their heads in my direction, all looking floored that I even said something. I watch their gazes as they all stare at each other shamefully, until Jamie finally speaks up. “Sorry about that, we didn’t mean to bother you. We were actually talking loud so you might ask to join us.”
Oh. I immediately feel the shame. I shouldn’t have snapped at them for talking that loud, especially since it’s just summer camp. I put my book down and sit up, changing my expression from annoyed to apologetic. “Sorry, that was overly rude.”
“Forgiven,” Brock comforts. “Wanna play with us?” He says, with a big smile on his face. He was always a big smiler, which I knew some of the other campers found annoying. I always thought it was funny.
Do I actually want to play? Nope. In reality, I just want to read my book in silence. At the same time, I feel bad for snapping at them. So, I reluctantly agree. “Sure,” I say, climbing down the wooden ladder on my bunk bed.
I walk over to the circle of boys by the room and look around to make sure there’s no counselors nearby. When I turn my head back, I see they have opened up a space for me, which I hesitantly slide into.
“You’re Jayden, right?” Brayden says, still looking down.
I feel that’s a stupid question, since we’ve already lived together for two weeks, but I answer it anyway. “Yep.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jamie says, laughing. “Even though we’ve seen you before.”
“Eh, it’s fine,” I say, joining in on the laughter. “I don’t talk to the bunk that much anyway.”
Jamie introduces me to the other two boys in the group, even though I already knew their names. I politely wave to them, witha small smile on my face. They feel very welcoming, as if we’ve been friends for years.
After a bit more small talk between us, Jamie finally tells us about the game. “Alright, we were playing truth or dare. I’m pretty sure you know how that works?” Jamie asks, raising a single eyebrow.
I almost laugh at the question, but I can understand where they’re coming from. From how shy they probably think I am, they probably think I’ve never heard of it. “Yeah, I got it.”
“Great!” Jamie exclaims, throwing his hands in the air. It seems too enthusiastic, which I don’t understand. “Now we can start. We left off at Braiden.” Jamie points his long finger over at Braiden, who finally looks up from his shoes. “Truth or dare?”
I watch as Braiden ponders the question, not knowing if he’ll say anything at all. After a few seconds of silence, I’m about to ask Jamie if this is a regular thing. Brock and Jamie look unfazed, like this is something that happens often. “Dare.”
Wow, was not expecting that. However tame this group may be, from what I’ve seen and heard of Braiden, he does not seem like a wild person. “Alright,” Jamie beamed, as if this was something new. “Cover your ears.”
The second he slapped his palms to his ears, Jamie and Brock gestured for me to come in a huddle, looking excited. I’m still having a bit of trouble understanding the vibe of the group, but I’m starting to comprehend their positive energy a little bit more. When I feel two arms around my shoulders, and reluctantly reach for theirs, Jamie whispers in desperation, “What do we do? We never have dares in this group!”
Wait, does that mean they only started because I’m here? Why is this group being so welcoming to me? Despite having a million questions, I bury them in the back of my head as Brock continues to be passionate. “What if we make him eat that banana peel on the floor?”
I quickly shake my head, removing my hands and putting them in front of my chest. I’ll tolerate truth or dare, but I’m not about to see someone vomit. Suddenly, an idea pops in my head. “What if we redo his hair?”
“What?” Jamie asks.
I look over at Braiden, who has his hands firmly pressed up against his ears. I stare at his dark skin, and medium length hair, which has curls in every corner. The inky black of the hair stands out the most, which looks as dark as night. “We can steal some hair products from one of the girls here, and redo his hair.” I cringe at the idea. It sounded way better in my head.
“I love it!” Brock yells, which makes me jump back. Quite an enthusiastic reaction. I was expecting him to laugh and/or make fun of me, but he seems to like it a lot.
I shift my gaze over to Braiden, who still has his hands glued to his ears, but now has his eyes open. I watch as Jamie gives a big thumbs up to him, and Braiden removes his hands. “We have a dare!” Jamie exclaims.
We manage to steal some hair product from the girl's side of the bunk, almost getting caught by one of the girl’s counselors. We have a bathroom connecting us, and some girl left hairspray on the dirty sink. We make our way back to our side, and as we style his hair, none of us can stop laughing. I still feel weird about hanging with this group, but it eventually gets easier. After a while of restyling, we make his hair super spiky and crazy, which looks hilarious. The idea turned out better than I thought. I stare at the LED clock near the door of the bunk, which now reads 9:43 P.M. No sign of any counselors.
The ice is broken, I guess.
We spent the next half hour or so telling truths and doing dares. Honestly, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had at camp. I learned so many things about these kids I’ve never known before. At first, the dares were pretty tame, such as the hair style one, but after a while, they got more intense. I was dared to hang on the top of the wood planks of the bunk. Brock was dared to spy on the girl's bunk, and was moments away from being spotted before moving at the right time. He also dared Braiden to make out with Jamie, which was definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve seen here, even for a performing arts camp.
After a while of playing, I stare at the clock again, which now reads 10:14 P.M. I would’ve be surprised that no one else is here yet, but I remember hearing from another camper that musicals like Shrek go on for a really long time. “I’m a little tired,” I utter, letting out a big yawn. Although it’s been great getting to know this group, I still have my limits. I look over at my bed, which still has The Phantom Tollbooth resting on the sheets. “I might go and read.”
“Oh, come on!” Brock hollers, putting a hand on my shoulder. “You can’t go now! We have to play until the counselors get back.”
“I don’t know,” I say, still looking at the book in the corner of my eye.
“One more,” Braiden says, still staring at the floor. Although he has definitely gotten more open since I’ve been playing with him, he still spends too much time staring at the ground. “We left off on you anyway.”
I don’t really want to play anymore, but I guess I can do one more round. Each of them is staring at me with hopeful eyes, and I can’t really say no to them. “Alright, sure.”
The group starts cheering, and that makes me feel a little warm inside. I don’t have friends like this at school, let alone at home. Even though I haven’t known them for long, I feel more comfortable with them than I thought I would. “Truth or dare?” Jamie asks.
“Dare,” I voice. That warrants some surprised faces from the group, since I’ve chosen truth almost every time.
“I got one,” Braiden announces, before they can huddle up. I watch as Braiden gets up and walks to his bed. Brock and Jamie look just as confused as I am. Braiden’s on the bottom bunk, so he has a little drawer to himself on the bottom. He opens the drawer and takes out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.
I freeze. Cigarettes? How does he have a cigarette here? He walks back over to our circle, with a devious smile on his face. “I dare you to smoke this cigarette.”
I look over at Brock and Jamie, who look nervous and confused. I can tell they didn’t know he had this. “Braiden,” Brock says, his smile finally fading. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“You were the one who wanted to make these dares wild,” Braiden says, pointing at him with his thick finger. He turns his head towards me again, his eyebrows raising. “Are you gonna take it or not?”
I’ve always heard that cigarettes are bad. I’ve heard that they damage your lungs and they’re extremely hard to quit. At the same time, I don’t want to look like a wuss to this group. “Okay,” I reluctantly say, grabbing the box.
I take a single cigarette out of the box, and Braiden teaches me how to smoke it. I have no idea how he knows this, but I remember him saying during a truth that his brother was addicted to drugs. I light it, and place it in between my fingers, and do what I’m told. I suck in, and I immediately feel a burning sensation in my lungs and throat.
I start coughing and hacking, and I’m unable to stop. Braiden is laughing, but Brock and Jamie just look concerned. It feels as if I’m being suffocated. As I stop coughing, I’m about to scold Braiden for making me do that. Before I can do that, he’s already warning me. “A counselor’s coming! Put it away!”
“Where am I supposed to put it??” I panic, looking around. Braiden shrugs, and I roll my eyes. Having no idea what to do, I take the cylinder and blow out the end. It still looks orange, but not as much as before. I stick it under the wood planks, trying to hide it the best I can. By the time a counselor walks in, I have it hidden to the best of my ability.
As Counselor Joe walks into the room, with a couple campers trailing him. He raises an eyebrow, looking at the deformed circle we are sitting in. “What are you guys doing?”
“Nothing important,” Jamie says.
“Fire! Wake up!”
I open my eyes and spring out of bed, and immediately feel a strange amount of warmth. I look at the middle of the bunk, and my heart sinks into my stomach. A fire has spawned in the middle of the room! I am able to see through the smoke a clock that reads 1:13 A.M.
“Get out of the bunk!” Counselor Joe yells. He’s by the door, so he starts throwing kids by the exit out of the bunk.
I am less fortunate. There’s only two doors in the bunk, one to exit, and one connecting to the bathroom. My bed’s on the opposite side of the exit, and the fire prevents me from running out. I look from the top bunk, and see the kid below me jump out the window near us. I climb down from the ladder and frantically jump out the window, which luckily has grass below it.
The second I get out, I hear an announcement from the head staff telling everyone to evacuate camp. I stare ahead and see the multitudes of people running out the giant camp. I follow them and sprint out, allowing myself one look behind. The bunk is an inferno. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.
2:27 A.M. I read the watch of another camper, to see how long we’ve been waiting in the parking lot. Hundreds of campers are gathered in this huge space. Some are chatting, some have fallen asleep, some are calling their parents, but I haven’t done any of that. Instead, the instance of the fire keeps repeating in my mind. I caused this. This is my fault. I could have burned down the camp. What if someone got hurt because of me?
“Attention, everyone,” Ivan, the head counselor, commands. I turn my head to him, and he’s standing on the hill next to the parking lot, with a microphone and speaker system. “We would like to inform you that no one got hurt.”
I instantly breathe a sigh of relief. “Although,” Ivan says. “We did find the cause of the fire. It was a cigarette!”
I freeze. Even though I expected this to happen, this doesn’t make it any easier. I feel like I can’t breathe. I look over at the group, who are all standing next to each other. They all look scared, but Braiden looks petrified. Although I’m terrified, I can’t imagine how he feels right now.
“Now,” Ivan says, with an angry tone. “The rules are clear on smoking. It’s not allowed. We are not sure who did it, but if the person who did it comes forward now, the consequences will be less dire than if we find out who did it ourselves.”
Silence. All the campers look around at each other, with no one saying a word. I look over at Braiden, who somehow looks more terrified than before. I can’t let him confess. Even though he was the one who gave me the cigarette, I was the one who smoked it. I did it to fit in, despite how dumb that might be.
So, I walk to the front of the parking lot, and, staring directly at Ivan, announce, “It was me! I was the one with the cigarette.”
Hundreds of disproving eyes turn to me, and my heart sinks, until I see Braiden, who gives me the slightest grateful nod. That little gesture gives me hope for the terror that awaits.