He must sense this. “It’s okay…I don’t share most of my lyrics and writing with anyone.”

“It would be like letting someone inside me.” I immediately regret my choice of words and feel my face go hotter than the sun.

“Exactly,” he replies, glancing away.

After the run and a shower, my sketchpad catches my eye. I smile, pick it up off my bed, and finish what I was working on before.

Maybe the Chickasaw Tribe was right. Maybe this land is where heaven meets the earth.

The last things I draw before going to meet my campers are the laugh lines around Matt’s eyes and mouth.

first day of camp

monday, june 4 ~ week 1 of 7

The sun is boiling me to bits by the time campers start arriving.

Mark my words. By the end of summer, freckles will have won the battle against my skin.

Megan checks campers’ names off on a clipboard and sorts them into groups. Since I’m at Cardinal this week, I’m waving a red flag. Several girls head my way, carrying satchels and sleeping bags. Campers range between eight and twelve, but this week I have a group of ten older girls. All twelve-year-olds.


Some of them are chatting a mile a minute and others look nervous, like they are about to sing a solo during the school musical.

I swallow the frog in my throat. “I’m Kate,” I tell them, and I begin passing out nametags. The nametags haven’t changed since I was little: they are circular wood chips, and campers write their names in permanent marker right on the wood. Then we string colorful plastic cords through the holes in the chips, so the nametags can hang around necks.

I glance over at Parker. She’s sitting with two adorable younger girls, both of whom are playing with her plaited hair.

“Look, it’s the King!” a boy says, rushing toward Matt.

“The King?” I mouth at him, and he grins and shrugs. He shakes hands and gives high fives to his fan club. Like, twenty boys have gathered around him to talk.

“Matt is sooo cute,” a girl named Sophie says. She used purple marker to write her name on the wood chip. She also took the opportunity to draw big purple hearts on the backs of her hands.

“Why do they call him the King?” I ask her.

She slings her satchel over her shoulder. “I dunno. He’s just the King.”

Ian appears next to me and whispers, “Last year, kids started calling me the Princess. It was humiliating.”

I burst out laughing.

Brad and I lead our group back to the Cardinal cabins. The boys are checking out the girls and the girls are checking out the boys.

Brad rolls his eyes and whispers, “I prefer working with the younger kids. Puberty scares me.”

I smile and climb the porch to Cardinal and open the screen door so my campers can file in. Much squealing and screaming ensues.

The girls all fight over who gets the top bunks and start unpacking clothes and draping them all over the place. Claire, a quiet, tall girl with big, open eyes, stacks a pile of books next to her bed, then begins applying lip gloss. She and Sophie appear to be best friends, but while Sophie is loud and authoritative, Claire hangs back. They remind me of Emily and myself.

Brad and I go over rules with our group and play the introduction game. Brad is Bison Brad and I decide on Koala Kate this time.

At lunch, the campers form a long line in the cafeteria, where a humongous wall fan blows warm air throughout the room. It should be really hot in here, but somehow it’s comforting. The counselors form a cluster behind all the campers and start gossiping.

“I’ve got that little hellion, Cara Dawson, again,” Andrea complains to Matt. “Last year she got up, like, ten times a night to use the bathroom.”

“Taj is in my group,” Matt boasts. “And he’s gonna teach me to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on guitar tonight.”

“Wait,” I say. “A kid is gonna teach you guitar?”

Matt plays with the cross hanging around his neck and scratches one of his feet with the other. I still haven’t seen him in a pair of shoes yet. “You should hear this kid play. He’s gonna be performing at the Grand Ole Opry one day.”

Andrea ignores me and focuses on Matt. “I can’t wait to hear Taj play again.”

“Maybe you and Taj could be in the talent show together,” I suggest to Matt.

He points at me. “Good idea. That’s the only chance I’d have of winning.” He puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles. “Taj, wanna be in the talent show with me?”

Taj adjusts his ball cap. It’s turned around backward. “You owe me, King!”

Matt clicks his tongue and points at the kid, and I laugh. I pull the talent show sign-up list and a pen out of my back pocket and write their names down. In addition to being the arts and crafts director, I’m in charge of arranging the weekly talent show.

A boy with a tray of food passes by us. “Yum, we’re having chicken o’ rings,” I say, peering at the ringed nuggets. “I remember those.”

“They’re a hot commodity,” Matt says, moving to stand next to me. So close, I can smell him: a mixture of soap and sweat. It’s nice. Andrea gets edged out and is now standing behind us. I don’t want to look at her face ’cause I’m sure she looks like the Hulk when he’s angry.

He goes on, “I was gonna see if you’d trade me your green beans for my chicken o’ rings.”

My stomach grumbles. “I remember loving those too.”

“So it’s a deal?”

“Absolutely not. I want both.”

He smiles at me sideways. We take a step forward in line. “Do you use honey mustard or barbeque sauce?” he asks.

“Both,” I reply. “I never can decide.”

“Me too. I usually throw ketchup in there too for a little excitement.” He elbows me. “Watch this.” Matt lifts his hands above his head, forms an O with his arms, and yells, “OOOOOOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOOOOO-OOOOOOHHHHHH-HHHHHHHHHHH.”

The campers join in, and Matt mutters to me out of the corner of his mouth. “You’re leaving me hanging here. Would you bow to the almighty o’ rings already?”

I start laughing and lift my arms over my head and scream along.

It feels good.

At the pool after lunch, Brad doesn’t take off his T-shirt when we’re in the water. Some people who aren’t comfortable with their bodies wear a shirt over their bathing suits, but I can see Brad’s six-pack through the thin cotton.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I whisper to him, nodding at the bruises on his arm.

“Drop it, okay? Please?” His eyes plead with me. He glances around. What happened to him? He seems like a very normal guy. He takes his job seriously and everyone likes him. Did he get into something bad? Does Megan know? Should I tell someone? Am I the only one who notices he’s wearing a shirt in the pool?

I skim the top of the water with my hand. The regional conference wouldn’t hire someone questionable. I decide to drop it, like Brad wants me to.

I peer up at Matt sitting in the lifeguard stand. He salutes me and smiles, and his eyes go back to scanning the pool.

“Are you going to college?” I ask Brad.

He scoops water up with his hands and wets his face. “Not sure yet.”

“Did you just graduate from high school?”


A boy from our group suddenly does a cannonball, making a huge splash, drenching me and Brad. When the boy comes up for air, Brad playfully dunks him under the water. The boy jumps on Brad’s back, trying to dunk him back, but Brad doesn’t budge except to pluck the kid off his back and toss him into the water as if he were weightless.

“What are you doing this fall?” I ask Brad, wiping water off my face.

He shakes his head. “If I manage to save enough money this summer, I’ll take a road trip across the country.”

“I’ve always wanted to do that!” I smile, skimming the surface of the pool with my fingertips. “I’d love to drive the entire California coast.”

“I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon…and Yosemite. I maybe want to become a park ranger…”

“So working here is sort of like training to become a ranger?” I say with a laugh.

He chuckles. “I’d much rather deal with snakes and bears than kids going through puberty. Seems easier.”

We laugh together.

Brad seems like a really good guy. A normal guy. So what’s going on with him?

Before dinner, while the kids are forming a rowdy line, Megan pulls me aside. We sit together on a boulder outside the cafeteria. “How’s your first day going?” she asks with a smile.

“Good so far,” I reply.

“I really liked the candles you made in arts and crafts this morning. The campers’ parents are going to love them. I took some pictures to send to the regional conference.”


“Keep up the good work.”

I smile to myself, happy that everything feels a bit lighter today. Keeping busy keeps the bad thoughts at bay.

On Tuesday afternoon, when we’re walking back from kayaking at the lake, a kid from our group, Marcus, falls and cuts his leg open on a sharp stick. He bites into his lip as blood gushes out, coating the blond hairs on his shin. The cut looks totally tetanus-shot worthy.

Brad picks the boy up and throws him over his shoulder. “I’ll patch him up. Can you get the fire and burgers started?” he asks me.

I swallow and nod, not sure if I’d rather deal with burgers or blood. They both sound equally terrible. I lead the group of nineteen kids back to Cardinal by myself. While the campers change out of their bathing suits, I begin taking the spatula and frying pans out of the milk crates, and glance at the fire pit. Glance at the fire pit some more. I pick up sticks for kindling, narrowly avoiding a patch of poison ivy. Poison oak? Which is it?

I drop the wood in front of the pit. Set my hands on my hips. The sun is setting lower and lower, and I only have about an hour to get this fire started, cook the food, and get my campers to Great Oak before the talent show starts. Not to mention I have to set up for the talent show too.

I kneel in front of the pit, matches in hand, and arrange the logs and kindling the way Matt showed me on Saturday morning. Glancing to make sure no one’s watching, I smash some paper towels up under the logs and light them.

Fire whips through the paper towels. I smile. But then the flame goes out and I have to start over. This happens three more times. I have no idea what to do. Where’s Brad? Was Marcus’s cut that bad? What if Brad doesn’t come back in time for dinner?

Two boys from our group, Rick and Michael, walk out of Cardinal cabin and head my way, and then I see Sophie and Claire too. The four of them start talking about the sign. Sophie says that she heard that God spoke to a boy through a campfire last year.

Is God trying to tell me something here? Is that why the fire won’t start? I doubt it. I just stink at all things camping.

“Is it time for dinner yet?” Rick asks me.

“Be right back,” I tell him.

Matt is two cabins away at Bluebird. About a minute walk. I wring my fingers together and follow the path up to his cookout pit, where a fire is roaring. The kids are already eating burgers and sipping lemonade, and he’s lounging in a lawn chair, plucking away at his guitar strings, playing classical music for them as if these woods are a cafe. He’s like the epitome of the perfect counselor, and I can’t even start a fire.

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