Agony in the Garden
By C.J. Lemieux (Warrior Kat)
Copyrights: Characters are all original. Do not use without my permission. They might remind you of a certain pair from a certain TV show though. (With liberties taken, of course—why does the Uber Xena character have to be the butch one all the time?)
Subtext: Yes, this story deals with gay issues. It also deals with homophobia, both external and internalized. Our heroines live in a conservative part of the United States circa year 1999/2000. Gay rights lag way behind here.
This is a coming out story. If you’re looking for it “hot and heavy” look elsewhere.
Religion: The dichotomy between religious dogma and personal feelings is a central theme to this story. Different characters react differently to this ordeal; if conservative Christianity or its criticism offends you, don’t read!
Violence: Of course. There is a scene that depicts an attempted sexual assault. (It doesn’t go into much detail.) Domestic violence is mentioned.
Self destructive habits: Eating disorders are mentioned here, as is cutting. I don’t go into detail here, and I do not recommend either as a coping mechanism.
I have used these websites to research various topics, especially those concerning conservative Christianity:
Some of the more outrageous scenes in this story, such as the Hell House, have been researched and are based on real events/things. (My mind isn’t sick enough to come up with this stuff!)
The original draft was written between May 2000 and January 2001. This is a rewritten draft, since the idea was good but the execution left a lot to be desired. I originally wrote it to come to grips with my experience in coming out. One character is how I would have ended up if I persisted in denial. The other character is what I became after I quit being in denial and knew the truth.
At the time I wrote the original draft, I was the same age as our two heroines. High school is a critical time for people coming out, and this is the reason I focused on this era of their lives. For legal purposes, these characters are of legal age, not that they’re doing anything that would really require them to be of legal age.
Well, he is a nice boy, Julia Williams reminded herself, glancing across the table at her boyfriend, Lucas Garner. He was a tall, handsome blonde, with the build of a quarterback. His hair was cut short, in a buzz cut pattern, and his blue eyes darted back and forth across the table, lively and full of humor.
She glanced at her hands, her fingers long and graceful, but with a hint of tremendous strength underneath her feminine hands. Her eyes darted around the high school cafeteria, accustomed to looking for the other two members of their lunchtime clique, but then she remembered they weren’t going to be able to make it today, leaving her alone with her boyfriend, Luke. She started fidgeting with her silver bracelet, stopping cold when Luke’s eyes met hers.
“Have you heard who is going to be in student council with us this year?” he asked. She shook her head. “Todd the pansy is now president, Jessie the Amazon is the vice president, Brendan the nerd is treasurer, and—get this—that bitch Natasha is our secretary!”
Julia sighed. Natasha was a controversial figure. She was plain enough her freshman year, but when she discovered the joy of black clothing, she stood out like a siren, and her attitude followed in suit. She thrived on trampling on other people’s beliefs, and Julia and her friends were always on the march, defending their faith against her heretical remarks. “I don’t know how she managed to secure that post,” Julia grumbled. “I nearly choked when I saw what she wore on the last day of school last year.”
Luke snorted. “Yeah, that upside down cross. Of all people at school, why does she to be the secretary in Student Council?”
“I have no idea. She’s nothing but an embarrassment to this school.”
“You know what Cassie told me?” Luke asked. Cassie Waterson was the third member of their clique, the most spirited one of their group. “She said she’s into tarot cards and Ouija boards, and talks to the dead!”
Julia laughed. “And the stuff she wears! I thought the administration banned that kind of stuff. Especially those super short skirts of hers! One day her booty is going to pop out of one of those things!”
“And her tops, too,” he said, his eyes gleaming with a hint of malice. “They’re so low cut that she’s going to pop out of those, too!”
“Luke,” she warned, “I know where you’ve been looking lately. Tsk, tsk!”
He put his hands up defensively. “No offense,” he said, his eyes suddenly transforming from predatory to fearful.
“I was only kidding, Luke. Lighten up.”
He shook his head. “It’s not funny. She’s such a distraction! Before you know you’re looking, you’re looking!”
Julia shrugged and nodded. Yeah, he has a point. Kind of hard not to look. “Maybe we ought to make a fuss. Most schools around here have already banned such provocative garments. Maybe we should follow suit.”
“We?” he asked.
“Why not? You said it was a distraction.”
“Yeah, it is, but Julia, I’d look like such a wuss if I complained about it!”
“And how would that make you a wuss again?” she inquired.
“I can hear the guys now. ‘We can’t check out her ass ‘cause Luke complained about it!’ I got to be careful, Julia! They might even accuse me of being a faggot!”
“Alright, alright,” Julia relented. “I’m sure Cassie and Audrie would back me up here, anyway.”
Luke sighed, relieved. “I can’t imagine there being too much opposition. Everyone else dresses normally. Well, mostly, except for that shy kid in the back, you know, the one we all thought was a boy but is really a girl?”
“Yeah. What’s her name?” Julia asked.
“I have no idea.”
“I don’t think she’d complain,” she said. “Haven’t seen much skin on her, I doubt the new regulations would get her hackles up.” She didn’t really remember who the tomboy was, she was so good at hiding in the back of the room. Not only did she not have a name, she couldn’t remember for the life of her what she looked like at all.
He looked at his food, dismayed to see only empty wrappers on the table. “I’m going to get something else from the snack bar. Can I get you anything?” he asked.
She eyed what was left of their meal. He had ordered a large hamburger, a huge order of fries, and a giant drink, and it was all devoured. Her eyes wandered over to her own meal, which was a measly cheeseburger. She would have gotten a salad, but Luke kept teasing her about it, and she caved into his pressure. “I’m good, but thank you,” she said. He left the table, disappearing into the throng of teenagers in the cafeteria.
Julia sighed, eyeing the last bite of cheeseburger warily. Her mind was at war with itself. The cheeseburger did taste a lot better than the salads she usually ate, and perhaps it would stick better. Then again, it was calorie laden, and she felt guilty about that. Her mother was always harping on her about her weight. She was always outgrowing her clothes at a rapid rate, which infuriated her mother, but she swore it wasn’t her fault she had grown so tall. Nearly six foot, in fact. She was lucky that Luke played football and basketball—few boys off the team would be taller than her otherwise.
The dilemma made her stomach hurt. Do I or don’t I? She pushed the cheeseburger aside, hoping that leaving the last little bit untouched would be enough atonement, but the guilt didn’t dissipate, and she felt a familiar ache travel up her esophagus. Time to pay the piper. She got up and left for the bathroom, the measly meal too much for her digestive system. Minutes later, she washed her hands, and couldn’t help but look in the mirror. Guess I don’t have to worry about that cheeseburger anymore, she thought, with a mixed sense of pride and shame. She didn’t see the beautiful tall girl with the dark locks and amazing blue eyes stare back at her in the mirror. All she saw was her weariness, and she felt even more unattractive. With a resigned sigh, she left the bathroom and returned to her table, where Luke sat, a happily slurping up the milkshake he had just bought himself.
She sat down and said nothing, diverting her eyes from his treat. I could kill for one of those, she idly mused, but she doubted it would mix well with stomach acid.
Her clueless date was too intent on enjoying his sugary treat to notice his girlfriend’s sad eyes.
The local Baptist church held a youth group meeting every Wednesday night. It was where Julia had met Luke; a mutual friend of theirs had hooked them up several weeks prior. The first half hour was unorganized, leaving the kids, who ranged from shy middle schoolers to high school seniors, to do whatever activity they pleased, and Luke was outside playing basketball with his buddies, leaving Julia inside, debating what activity she wanted to jump in. Or, more accurately, watching the activities everyone else was jumping into. She felt restless, so she decided to pace around the complex, which consisted of two large rooms, separated by a foyer. She was rounding a corner when she nearly ran into a girl coming from the other side.
Julia was quite startled. “Oh, I am so sorry, I—,” she started to apologize.
The girl was about a foot shorter than her, her hair a golden hue with a touch of strawberry threaded in. She looked to be significantly younger than herself, perhaps a freshman. She didn’t look rattled at all. “Hi!” she greeted. “Is this your first time here?” she asked.
“No,” Julia replied. She wasn’t in the mood for small talk, she was too restless tonight to stay still in one place.
The girl ignored her gruff manner, and extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Shana.”
I might as well be social, she sighed to herself, forcing a smile to her face. “I’m Julia.”
“Nice to meet you,” the girl said. Julia thought the encounter was nearly over, when the little girl’s eyes went wide. “You’re Luke’s girlfriend, aren’t you?” she exclaimed.
Julia merely nodded, perturbed that the girl was now trying to make small talk with her.
“Well,” the small girl said, “you don’t have to stand there all alone. Come with me.” There wasn’t really any valid excuse to stay where she was, so Julia followed her as they walked into the other room of the youth building.
“So, what grade are you in?” Shana asked.
“Senior,” she replied.
“Can you drive?” Shana’s eyes were wide, excitement dancing within.
“No, I don’t even have a permit yet.” Thanks to my parents—they still don’t trust me with a car! She looked at the girl, trying to figure out if she was getting at. She didn’t like being at the center of attention, so she turned the tables. “How about you? What grade are you in?”
“I’m a freshman,” she replied. “Do you have any siblings?”
“One,” Julia replied. “He went off to college already. What about you?”
“I have an older sister. She’s a senior.”
“Who’s your sister? I might know her.”
“Kelsey,” Shana replied. “She’s kind of quiet, like you.”
Julia shrugged. “I’ve never heard of her.”
“You’ve probably heard of her friends.”
Twenty questions, hmm? Do I care? Doubt I know her friends, either. Mmm, can’t hurt to find out. “Uh, who are her friends?”
“Jessie, you know, that really tall girl, and Natasha, that skanky ho…”
“The Natasha that wears all black?” Dang, I only know her friends too well!
“The witchy girl? Yep! Jessie’s nice enough, but that Natasha girl, she gives me the creeps!” the younger girl exclaimed. “She’s such a bad influence! They probably smoke weed out back or something between classes.” The activities around them started to wind down, meaning that the youth group was about to get started.
“Looks like it’s time,” Julia said. Shana motioned her to follow, and they ended up sitting near Shana’s friends, who all looked to be of a similar age to the short girl.
“This is Julia,” Shana introduced the newcomer, dashing all hopes Julia had of just tagging along inconspicuously. The response was mixed, from enthusiastic welcomes to reserved “hellos”—whether they were of shy acceptance, indifference or silent disapproval, she could not tell.
The youth pastor walked to the front of the group, trying to calm down his flock so the night’s activities could get started. Pastor Mark was a young man, not much older than the seniors in the group. He had just graduated from college, and was in his early 20s. His hair was a sandy blond, and his skin tanned from the amount of time he had spent outdoors over the summer. He wore khaki cargo shorts with a Hawaiian print shirt. “Guys, please settle down,” he urged his flock, quietly tuning his guitar. The rowdy teenagers started to settle down, and they were ready to sing along to his guitar.
Shana was startled by the beautiful voice that sang beside her. She looked up at Julia, confirming that indeed, the startlingly beautiful voice belonged to her shy companion.
Eight thirty came too soon. “I have to go now,” Shana said, her eyes downcast and sadness creeping into her voice.
“I’ll walk you out,” Julia offered, noting her new friend’s sudden change in demeanor. They left the building, and it was quite a shock going from the brightly illuminated rooms indoors to the dimly lit parking lot, but her eyes quickly adjusted to the shift in light intensity. Shana was walking towards a yellow pickup, a beat-up old Datsun. Leaning against the Datsun was a girl in black, her shirt baggy and her pants even baggier. She had her short hair dyed fire engine red, and she had her arms crossed, looking impatient. The streetlight overhead showed little of her face, but a trickle of light feel upon her cheek, outlining a sweet curve marred by the furrowing of her brows and clenching of her jaw.
“Kelsey, this is my new friend—” Shana started to introduce Julia, but was cut off abruptly.
“We got to get home soon before Mom locks up the house for the night. You wouldn’t want to be stranded, would you?” she growled.
“No,” Shana said, resigned.
Weird, Julia thought to herself. Her first instinct was to think what a rotten older sister this Kelsey person was. But there was something else to her. I’ve seen you somewhere before.
“Bye, Julia,” Shana said, waving out the passenger side window as the yellow Datsun sputtered away.
Julia stood there for a few minutes, musing. She didn’t feel like going inside, so she sat down on the curb, inhaling the refreshingly cool night air that late summer provided. What a rude girl, she declared to herself. But the tomboyish girl didn’t look malicious—her eyes looked tired and resigned, and Shana’s voice sounded much the same. Weird, weird, weird. I guess I can see why Shana said she’s a bad influence on her. What in the good Lord’s name would convince a young girl to dress up like a boy? She laughed to herself, a quick muffled laugh characteristic of realizations. The girl was very mysterious, and Julia couldn’t stop thinking about her long after the yellow Datsun had left the church parking lot.
The words the tomboy said kept repeating in her head. Stranded, stranded, stranded. Under the impatience was a touch of…fear? The word consumed her, repeating itself in her head, images of utter desolation and abandonment flashing through her head, disconnecting her from the present, hypnotizing her into a terrifying trance state. Stranded, stranded, stranded…A hand on her shoulder startled her, and she jumped. The hand was a menacing invasion, and she could only assume it came to harm her, so she let out a blood curdling scream.
Luke jumped back. “What the heck is going on?” he asked, terribly startled. It took him a few seconds to catch his breath; Julia’s scream had frightened him. “Julia, is everything alright?” he asked, worried.
The trance started to depart, and Julia felt herself settle back into the present. What had just happened? She vaguely recalled screaming, but she couldn’t remember what prompted it. “Yeah, everything’s alright.” She tried to think of what happened before screamed. “I had walked Shana out to the parking lot, and her sister said something about her mother locking up the house.”
“Oh, the ghost stories,” Luke filled in.
I don’t remember her saying something about a ghost, Julia thought to herself, slowly remembering what had happened prior to the trance. “Yeah.”
Luke sat beside her, putting his arm across her shoulders. “She’s always talking about how her mom locks up the house every night to keep the ghosts out. She sounds battier than a fruit loop.”
“Her sister came to pick her up, and she was nagging her to hurry it up so they didn’t get locked out for the night.”
“Do you think it’s hogwash?” Luke asked, curious.
Julia pondered it for a minute. “They certainly didn’t treat it like hogwash,” she replied.
“What’s that girl’s name again?”
“Which one?” Julia asked.
“I know Shana. The other one.”
“Kelsey,” she replied.
Life at the William’s house was usually a circus. Every member was heavily involved in community activities—her father Rhett was a local area businessman who spent a lot of time at work, and a significant portion of his non-working hours to community activities such as Rotary; her mother Katharine was a stay-at-home housewife who spent a fair deal of time outside the house participating in volunteer work for the various women’s clubs she belonged to. Julia’s own life outside of school was quite busy too; in addition to attending church meetings, she was a member of the varsity girl’s tennis team, which ate up most of her weekday afternoons.
Luke dropped Julia off at her house after church that night, and when she walked in, she noticed her father was sitting in his recliner, reading. The TV played in the background, but he paid it no heed, tuning everything out around him, and for a few seconds, he didn’t hear her. He was a tall man, with graying hair combed to the side, and his face was clean shaven; he wore a blue oxford shirt and khaki pants, his collar rumpled, revealing he had recently taken off the tie he had worn all day. After a few seconds, he became aware of her presence in the living room, and put his magazine down. “Welcome home, Julia. How was church?”
She set her stuff down at the base of the stairs, to collect later when she went to bed. “It was alright. Nothing terribly interesting.”
She picked up her bag and headed up the stairs before he could say anything further. It had been yet another long day, and she was tired of conversing with everyone. She was eager to check her email; one of the mailing lists she belonged to had a full scale flame war raging on, and she couldn’t wait to see what drama had unveiled itself during the course of the day.
She closed the door to her room and set her backpack down. She walked over to her computer and turned it on, crossing her fingers it would behave. It booted without a problem, and she moved the cursor and double clicked on the “Dialup” shortcut, prompting the modem to whine and carry on as it begged the local ISP for Internet access. After about a minute, it logged her on, and she opened ICQ to see if any of her friends were online. She was disappointed to see no green icons, so she opened her web browser to check her email online.
She perused the emails, relishing the flame war that had indeed gotten very heated during the day. One of the members had a cousin who wanted to marry his boyfriend, and since the list was open to all Christians, a vast array of responses came as various sect members debated the ethics of this action. She got the feeling that this member needed some real advice, but it had quickly turned into an onslaught of opinions and propaganda that she doubted really answered the poor chap’s question.
Why are we even debating this? she wondered. Don’t these people read the Holy Book? Don’t they know it condemns homosexuality? Why would anyone in their right mind be consecrating such a disgusting union in the House of God? She doubled clicked on the next message, and was even more disgusted. Damn Unitarians! Fag lovers aren’t even Christians! Where’s the moderator when you need him?
But she had made a vow to keep out of the flame war. It was fun to watch, but she wasn’t sure she wanted her inbox to be full of hate mail, which was surely what awaited if she chose to join. Besides, a lot of fellow members had voiced her exact opinion on the matter, she wasn’t too worried about trying to get her two cents in. But she still felt a bit bothered, as if she needed to join the fight for moral support. Pray on it, Julia, she told herself. If the Holy Spirit says they need another soldier in this fight, I shall join the fight.
She felt the exhaustion of the day catch up to her, so she disconnected from the Internet and turned off her computer. She changed into her pajamas and crawled into bed, sound asleep minutes after she had turned off the light.
She thought that working herself until exhaustion would surely keep her from dreaming, and it had worked for a while, but tonight, the dreaded dream was back.
“Julia!” a frantic, distorted voice cried. “Julia!”
She opened her eyes, to see a hand reaching out towards her, the figure but a silhouette against the swirling red mist threatening to engulf them both. “Julia!” the girl’s voice cried out again, this time more desperate.
She couldn’t resist the call. “Come closer!” she rasped, rushing towards the girl.
“I can’t,” the strangled voice croaked. “I…can’t…” her voice trailing off as a red whirlwind whisked her away faster than Julia could run, but she kept running after her, in hopes it would slow down and give her a chance.
The whirlwind left a coppery smell in the air, and she stood in the darkness, feeling sick to her stomach as the smell infiltrated through her nostrils and into her mouth and lungs. She heard an ominious laugh from afar, in the same direction that the girl had disappeared into, and she felt her skin chill, prompting her to shudder.
“No!!!” Julia wailed, feeling a sense of utter desolation as she realized she was alone to whatever malignant force had just whisked the girl away.
“No!!!” she cried out, thrashing about. She bolted up in bed, her heart racing, pounding so hard she thought it would pop out of her chest. It took her a minute to remember where she was, and she came to her senses. She was alone in her bedroom, a million miles away from the horrid nightmare that had just struck. She peered out her window, to see the waxing moon still high in the sky, and she swore it was grinning at her.
“Whew, that was a doozy,” she muttered to herself. “The moon thinks this is funny, eh?” she commented, absentmindedly staring out the window. “Now I can see where the term ‘lunacy’ comes from.”
She thought about crawling back under the covers to go back to sleep, but the nightmare was too fresh to let her even contemplate such a brave act. She rubbed her eyes, got up, and went to the bathroom. She poured herself a glass of water, and peered at herself in the mirror.
“Gee, I do look like I’ve seen a ghost,” she remarked.
The next morning, a white Volkswagen Beetle pulled into the school parking lot. It circled around once before settling on a spot towards the middle of the lot, and two passengers got out—one a tall, blonde young man and the other a tall, dark haired young woman. She gracefully slung her bookbag over her shoulder while he fumbled with the keys to lock it up. They then proceeded to walk onto the school grounds, where their friends were awaiting.
“Hey Luke, hey Julia,” one of their friends greeted. She was a short brunette with freckles on her face.
“Good morning, Cassie,” Luke greeted back.
“Good morning, Cassie,” Julia repeated, “Good morning, Audrie.” She tended to be a bit nervous during the first few minutes of school, but she usually calmed down after that. It was habit to let her eyes wander around the campus, perchance she find something amusing to focus on. Amusement wasn’t too far away—she quickly spotted Natasha. Cassie carefully watched her friend’s eyes and soon, she spotted her target as well.
“My, my—isn’t she scandalous today?” Cassie remarked.
“What, she’s wearing shorts?” Audrie joked. They all let out a short, cruel laugh.
“Looks more like underwear to me,” Luke snorted, earning him a light smack in the stomach from his girlfriend Julia. “Sorry,” he apologized.
Julia kept following Natasha with her eyes, to see her stop and talk to a certain young girl with red hair and baggy black pants. Now where have I seen her before?
Cassie looked at Julia, noticing her intense interest. “What’s so fascinating?” she asked.
“Scoping out the enemy,” Julia replied, trying to buy time. I swear I just saw that girl.
“I smell conspiracy. What’s going on?” Audrie asked. She was shorter than Cassie, with a slender build and very dark brown hair.
Luke replied, “You know Natasha’s going to try to turn the Student Council upside down and into the drain.”
“Now what is she up to?” Audrie queried.
Julia carefully watched their table, studying their group in close detail. The girl Natasha was speaking to laughed, leaning against the railing. In addition to baggy black pants, she had a black t-shirt on, and black boots. She maintained a disinterested look, briefly letting her guard down at moments to laugh with Natasha. She studied her face more closely. Her hair was a shaggy boy’s cut, and it was tough to tell what color her fire engine hair was naturally.
Right. Kelsey. She was the one who picked up Shana after church last night.
She couldn’t really remember what her friends were talking about before the morning bell rang. Her mind wouldn’t let go of this enigma the tomboy presented to her mind.
Student Council was held immediately after brunch. Julia and her friends had come in soon after the first bell, and were busy staking out their claim before the tardy bell rang. Most of the class had followed in on their heels, and Julia peered around the room to study them.
First, there was Todd, the student body president. His face was a mix between that of a boy and a man, typical for one undergoing the growing pains of adolescence. He was a senior, and his dark hair was in vivid contrast to his pale skin. He wore glasses, and looked like a bit of a preppy. He had a neat manner about himself, which Luke liked to poke fun at. He was a bit of an independent minded soul, and was rather progressive in his beliefs, which made him all the more attractive of a target for Julia and her conservative friends.
Jessie was the vice president. She too was a senior. She was a very tall girl, with reddish brown hair, and had a sturdy build. She played varsity volleyball and was one of their star players. She looked harmless enough on her own, but Julia had spotted her joking with Natasha and Kelsey earlier that day. It was enough to put her on their “questionable” list, since Julia and her friends (often called “The Fundamentalist Four” behind their backs) didn’t dare trust anyone who thought the evil Natasha was worthy of any measure of respect. Cassie had tried to provoke her a few times, but Jessie generally ignored her attempts, which sometimes led Cassie to humiliate herself in the process.
Brendan the treasurer was a complete nerd. He was a junior, and definitely more boyish than the elder boys in the class. He wore cargo pants and usually had an assortment of gadgets on his person. He took entry-level courses at the local junior college during the afternoon, and some people joked that he actually had two brains, he was so damn smart. But for all the brainpower he had, he generally didn’t pay attention to the politics and was almost always oblivious to the drama circulating around him.
Right before the tardy bell, Natasha dashed in. She was the controversial secretary of the council. Her hair was dyed pitch black, and her skin was very pale, enhanced with foundation that was many shades lighter than her natural skin color and lipstick that was very, very dark. She wore her hair down, parted down the middle, and she tended to look like a vampire. Sometimes, during her more humane moments, Julia thought perhaps Natasha’s abrasive personality was just an act, but it didn’t make harassing her any less enjoyable. You dress the part, you play the game.
There were a few others in the class, and Julia had no idea who they were, just that they tended to mind their own business. One of them was a freshman that Luke had trashcanned recently, Julia doubted he’d put up too much resistance to their agenda after that little show of strength. And way in the back, there was the tomboy with the baggy pants. So, Kelsey is part of this student council. Interesting.
The teacher, Mr. Eldon, was not quite ready to start class yet, he was busy trying to find materials. The students milled about class, and Julia only half paid attention to what her friends were saying while she watched Natasha pace around the room in circles. She stopped to talk to Kelsey, and while she couldn’t see Kelsey’s face, Natasha’s face darkened and she stormed off, Kelsey not twitching the least little bit despite the fact it was obvious she had just pissed off the mercurial goth.
Natasha continued to pace the room, and she stopped in front of Luke. While she didn’t look at him, it was obvious that she had purposely stopped in front of him, and the angle appeared to be carefully selected in order to show off her low cut blouse. He turned his head and looked at Julia, giving a helpless shrug that suggested that he might have appreciated having someone intercede to keep the temptress away from his hopelessly horny adolescent eyes.
Her antics weren’t lost on Julia’s girl friends. Cassie growled, “I should give that slut a big kick in the ass for doing that!” She quirked an eyebrow at Julia, as if she was giving her a dare. “It’s within your rights, you know that, right?” she reminded her friend.
Julia let a feral smile grace her lips, her eyes gleaming. “At the rate she’s going, I’ll be taking her up on that offer very soon,” she quietly growled, watching Natasha bounce away.
Mr. Eldon finally found the materials he was looking for, and he walked to the front of the class to get started. He was an older man, in his mid fifties, his hair a mix of gray and white, and he was fairly bald, a few stubborn hairs persisting to stay rooted on the top of his head. He adjusted his bifocals, and got out a pencil for the roll sheet. “Class, let’s quiet down.” He took roll, then put the sheet in the slot next to the door for one of the office aides to deliver to the school headquarters. He resumed his position behind the podium in front of the class.
“Todd, I’ll let you lead the discussion.”
The president took the papers Mr. Eldon held, which were materials the class had worked on several days earlier. “Alright, we had discussed school activities earlier this week, and one of the suggestions this class wrote down is that we should do something different during football halftime shows. Traditionally, we’ve had the band play at halftime, but someone suggested we should do something different this year. Class, let’s brainstorm on some alternatives.”
“How about a DJ for halftime?” Cassie suggested.
“The cheerleaders could lead a cheer,” Audrie stated.
“Not all of us are opposed to the band playing at halftime,” Natasha said, defending the status quo. Most of the class looked bored, but several sets of angry eyes bored into the back of Natasha’s head at his suggestion.
“Any others?” Todd asked. No one replied. “I’ll take a vote then. All in favor of a DJ, raise your hands.” He looked around the room and counted three. “All in favor of cheerleaders, raise your hand.” Two hands shot up. “All in favor of letting the band continue to play halftime shows, raise your hand.” Three hands shot up.
Todd shook his head. There were ten people in class, and since he led the discussion, he didn’t vote, meaning that of the nine people left, one of them didn’t vote. “Someone didn’t vote last time, so I’m going to redo this. All in favor of a DJ, raise your hand.” Three votes, again. “All in favor of cheerleaders, raise your hand.” Two votes, same as last time. “All in favor of the band continuing its halftime show, raise your hand.” Four hands shot up this time. “Band got the most votes.”
He was about to close that item on the list, when Audrie interjected, “What if we combine the cheerleaders with the DJ? They could do a routine to a song over the loudspeakers.”
Todd chewed his pencil. “Are you suggesting we revote, having the option of band versus cheerleaders?”
“Yes,” Audrie replied. “Does anyone oppose redoing this?”
A chorus of bored “no’s” filled the classroom, so Todd went ahead and did the recount. “Cheerleaders, raise your hands.” Four votes. “Band halftime show, raise your hands.” Five votes. It was clear that those who voted for the cheerleaders had split this round. “Band show it is.”
Todd moved onto the next item on the agenda, but Cassie silently fumed. What’s wrong with this council? Anything is better than our crappy tin can band!
Lunchtime was less sedate than it was the previous day, for all four members of the Fundamentalist Four were able to attend. They staked out their usual table in the noisy cafeteria. Student Council was still on their minds, despite the fact they all had a class afterwards.
“Stupid Natasha,” Cassie bitched. “We would have had our way if she hadn’t suggested the band was fine as is.”
“Well, us four were the only ones to vote for your proposal,” Julia noted. “It’s us versus them.”
“I’m sure someone could be persuaded to join our side next vote,” Luke said, deviously grinning. “Only takes one swing vote to turn things in our favor.”
“Good point,” Julia replied. “It is disconcerting to see that all the other items we discussed in class were divided along the same lines. Someone needs to be recruited to join us.”
Luke scratched his chin. “I could threaten to trashcan the freshman again,” he suggested.
“It’ll be pretty hard to get Jessie and Kelsey to vote in our favor, since they’re Natasha’s friends,” Audrie said. “I wonder how we can get Brendan to join us. He’s kind of hard to talk to.”
“I could try trashcanning him too,” Luke suggested, laughing.
“That may work in the short term,” Julia said, “but we got to think long term here.” The table quieted down and everyone looked at Julia. “Before class got underway, I noted that Jessie and Kelsey don’t always pay attention to Natasha. I don’t think they’re as cohesive as a group as we are. If we can manage to splinter their group, we should be able to have our way with the Student Council.”
Murmurs of agreement circulated around the table.
“So, Julia, when should we suggest having a vote on student prayer? You said we shouldn’t bring it up this week,” Audrie said, changing the topic a little.
“I think we should wait a little bit,” Julia replied.
“That’s chickenshit,” Cassie spat. “It makes it sound like you’re afraid to be a Christian. We should have brought it up this week! We might have even been able to cower Natasha a little bit with that one!”
Audrie laughed, but stopped when Cassie glared at her.
“It would have only made Natasha even more antagonistic,” Julia countered. “You remember how she was last year—she’ll surely dig her heels in on this one! We can’t afford to risk that until we get support. We don’t have that overwhelming support—yet.”
“Do you really think the others will support us on student prayer?” Audrie asked coolly. “That’s not a trivial issue. Halftime shows are trivial issues. Prayer isn’t. People do have strong opinions on that.”
“Who would find it offensive?” Cassie asked. “Besides the handful of heathens.”
“That’s a blanket statement to assume everyone else besides outrageous characters like Natasha must be Christian,” Audrie pointed out. “We do have Muslims and Buddhists. Our school is rather diverse.”
“I doubt that’d be a problem,” Luke replied. “I briefly mentioned it to my Laotian friend on the football team. He said it didn’t bother him at all.”
Julia’s attention span began to drift as her friends continued debating the details of executing their agenda. Her mind was made up that they ought to wait a little while, and she was getting increasingly sick of the argument. She let her eyes wander around the cafeteria, letting them fix on various students here and there, thinking, “Would they care about student prayer?” It was not a cut-and-dried issue. How they were going to do student prayer was another issue that was sure to bring out a fight. They could have voluntary prayer groups before school, or they could have a moment of silence. We got to watch out for the administration. They’re probably our biggest enemy by far.
“Julia?” a voice rang out, and her attention immediately snapped back to the conversation at hand.
“Hmm?” she asked.
“We’re talking about how to get the majority to vote in our favor,” Audrie said.
“In favor of?” She was still trying to figure out what they were talking about.
“We were discussing whom we should target for the swing vote.”
Luke said, “The freshman can probably be easily persuaded if we pay attention to him. Imagine how cool he’d feel if suddenly a group of seniors pays attention to him.”
Cassie suggested, “Maybe if we harass Natasha outside of class and make her friends suffer whenever they agree with her, we can pressure them into withdrawing their support for her.”
“Tread carefully on that slippery slope,” Audrie warned. “I wish there was a way to get inside of Brendan’s mind.”
“Do any of us know how to talk geek?” Julia replied. Three sets of blank eyes looked back at her. “Scratch that.”
“I wonder if Jessie can be gently persuaded,” Audrie mused.
Luke snorted. “Julia pointed out that she’s part of that axis of evil.”
“Wait, I have an idea,” Julia exclaimed. “We might be able to appeal to her jock side.”
Luke dismissed it. “Volleyball isn’t a sport. All the school cares about is football.”
“Hold on,” Julia said, putting a hand up. “It might not be much of a sport to the school, but it is to her. Feature the volleyball team during one of the rallies and she might be more willing to cooperate with us.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Audrie concurred.
“Wait a minute,” Cassie growled. “We can’t be giving her freebies here. Does it guarantee her vote of cooperation? I’ll be damned if I give something to her for free and not have the favor returned!”
“I don’t see how it could backfire too badly,” Julia defended. “If she doesn’t return the favor, we don’t do it again. We target someone else.” She took a breath, then added, “Ever heard the adage that you’re more likely to attract flies with honey than vinegar? She’s not going to go out of her way to agree with us unless we give her a reason.”
“So, who’s going to cross the line and try to suck up to Jessie?” Cassie snorted.
“I’ll do it,” Audrie volunteered.
After asking a few people what Jessie’s last class of the day was, Audrie figured out that she was going to have to race across campus to catch the tall redhead before she went to practice. True to plan, she literally ran across the campus until she spotted the redhead, who was pretty easy to spot in the throng of teenagers, since she was taller than almost everyone else on campus.
“Jessie, we need to speak,” she said, gasping for air. The redhead eyed her suspiciously.
“Why now? I got to go to practice.”
“Just a minute?” Audrie pleaded. “I’ll be quick.”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay. Real fast.”
“How would you like it if we featured your volleyball team during one of our brunch time rallies?”
Her suspicious eyes started to relax, letting down her guard. “That would be nice.” Julia had followed Audrie from a distance, and was watching the proceedings out of earshot. She noticed Jessie’s demeanor relaxed, but there was a hint of suspicion, her shoulders were not very relaxed despite the fact she dropped her icy mask.
“Cool! We’ll suggest it at tomorrow’s student council meeting then,”
Audrie announced. “Thanks for your time.”
Jessie left, and Audrie turned around to see Julia. “Guess what? She thinks it’s an awesome idea!” Audrie told Julia.
“That’s good,” Julia replied slowly. “But I think she knows we’re up to something.”
“How’s tennis going, anyway?” Audrie asked. “I haven’t heard you say anything about it.”
“It goes,” Julia replied, not wanting to go into specifics. The last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself.
“Maybe if we take turns featuring all the teams, we can make Jessie less suspicious of our motives,” Audrie suggested. “We can do girls’ tennis next!”
“Warn me so I won’t be there that day,” she groaned. I hate standing in front of crowds.
“C’mon, Julia, it can’t be that bad, can it?”
Oh, it can…trust me, she thought to herself.
The next morning, the Fundamentalist Four met outside to discuss how the previous day’s negotiations went before school.
Audrie said, “Jessie seems to be happy we suggested featuring various school teams at the rallies.”
“That should be a good thing,” Luke replied.
“But I think she also knows we’re onto something,” Julia warned. “We got to be careful to make sure it doesn’t look like we’re sucking up to her.”
“But that’s what we’re doing,” Cassie replied. “Sucking up to her! Gosh, I can’t believe we’re doing that! How pathetic are we?”
Audrie put her hand up. “She might not be so suspicious if we feature the other school teams at other rallies. I hear you’re pretty good at tennis, Julia.”
Julia shrugged nonchalantly but said nothing, feeling suddenly very nervous and self-conscious.
“I can’t imagine that would make us too popular,” Luke countered. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—no one cares about anything besides football!”
“We won’t get re-elected for spring term if we hold lame rallies,” Cassie added.
The morning bell rang, and the four regarded each other. “I guess we’ll all see each other at brunch, then,” Luke said, and they dispersed in their respective directions.
The stairs at the back entrance to the school was where the three girls staked their claim at brunch. Kelsey leaned against the brick building, while Jessie sat on the stairs and Natasha paced around, going up and down the stairs continuously. Neither Kelsey nor Jessie bothered to pay attention to Natasha while she yammered about the latest tragedy.
“You know those four have it in for us!” she wailed. Kelsey glanced up at her. She wasn’t any better dressed than yesterday, save the fishnet stockings she wore. “First they want to ax the band program. You know they won’t stop there! What’s next? Art? Theater? Dance? Sports besides football?”
Jessie shook her head. “Yes, we know. They give us all the creeps. Sit down, you’re making me dizzy.” Natasha gave her a dirty look, and continued pacing.
“Natasha, really. Stop it,” Kelsey growled. The tomboy closed her eyes, trying to shut out the bright rays of the morning sun. The glare was really bad during this time of year.
“I can’t believe you guys act like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal! Those four stick together like glue. They’re up to something, I just know it! And I don’t think we’re going to like it when we find out!”
Jessie turned to Kelsey and gave her a helpless look.
“I don’t know why she’s so worried,” Kelsey muttered softly to Jessie. “No one else voted with them yesterday.”
“I wonder if she smoked a joint before she got on the bus this morning,” Jessie replied. “She’s been acting really paranoid.”
“She’s continually paranoid,” Kelsey corrected her. “She’s always flying onto the defensive before she knows what she’s defending herself against.”
Jessie shook her head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She never used to be this way.”
Natasha finally gave up on her audience and stomped off, leaving the two of them alone.
“So, did I tell you what happened yesterday?” Jessie asked.
“Audrie came up to me before practice and asked me how I’d feel if they
held a brunch time rally featuring the volleyball team. It sounds like a good
idea, but something’s really fishy about the whole thing.”
“How many times has anyone from that clique gone up to us and spoken to us on civil terms?”
Kelsey nodded. “I see. Well, it can’t hurt, can it? It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them whenever they suggest one of their half baked ideas.”
Jessie pondered the idea for a moment. “Good point. It’s not like we’re committing to anything.”
“Oh oh, there’s the bell. Time to go see what’s cooking in Student Council today.”
Jessie and Kelsey tended to shy away from the cafeteria at lunch time, preferring to sit outside as long as the weather was nice, and retreating into one of the classrooms when the weather turned sour. It was nice enough to eat outside today, although there was a certain crispness lingering in the air that meant they were going to have to walk around soon to keep warm.
“So, can you believe they’re going to feature volleyball for our next student rally?” Jessie commented, in between bites of her sandwich.
“It’s part of their plan, isn’t it?” Kelsey inquired.
“Part of me thought they were pulling my leg,” Jessie admitted. “They probably think their plan is working, although to be honest, I had no reason to be antagonistic towards anything else on their list today.”
Kelsey nodded, agreeing. “I wonder if Natasha has a point though. What if they’re trying to butter us up for something big?”
Jessie didn’t seem concerned. “Unlike Natasha, we’re not trying to deliberately antagonize them. If we don’t agree, it’s from our hearts, not our egos. So if they try to pull off a big one, we’ll spot it.”
Kelsey slowly chewed her bite of sandwich, thinking. “I’m glad that the band thing didn’t get cancelled. There are a couple of talented musicians who ought to have a chance to get recognized for their achievements. That’s the only reason I dug in my heels on that one.”
“I think the lead trumpet player has a good chance at getting a scholarship. You don’t yank opportunities away like that for no good reason.” Jessie took a sip of her soda, then continued. “Did you hear what we’re doing next Friday?”
Kelsey shook her head. She hadn’t been paying full attention in Student Council lately. She preferred to sit in the back, but it meant she was less interactive with the group as a whole, and she felt quite bored half the time, so she didn’t really give the class its due attention. “No, what are we doing?”
“Mr. Eldon said there’s a retreat the Student Council goes on every year. It’s supposed to build team spirit.”
Kelsey arched an eyebrow. “Good in theory, but that sounds like a recipe for trouble.”
“It’s not a big deal. We did it last year, and we all had a good time.” She crumpled up the wrapper her sandwich was wrapped in, and took another sip of her drink. “But then again, neither Cassie nor Natasha were on the Student Council last year. This could get interesting.”
“My thoughts exactly. Do you think Mr. Eldon knows what he’s gotten himself into yet?”
Jessie laughed. “I bet he’s not going to sleep well until it’s all over!”
That night, Kelsey laid on her bed, reading the novel she dragged home from the library. While most of her peers had gotten the Internet not too long ago, they were a little bit behind the times at the Slevin household, meaning her and her sister had to content themselves with old fashioned forms of entertainment, such as books and magazines.
Kelsey had called Jessie a little earlier in the evening, and when she heard the knock on the front door, she knew she arrived. She flew down the stairs to go let her friend in, and was about to open the door when her mother let out an audible, forced cough.
“Kelsey,” she warned, “check the door before you open it.”
Right. She stood on her tiptoes to confirm it was the right visitor. “It’s just Jessie.”
“Let her in then,” her mother relented, walking back into the kitchen to finish what she was working on.
“Hey,” Jessie greeted.
“Hey,” Kelsey greeted back. “Glad you could make it.”
“There for a minute, I thought you weren’t going to get the door.”
Kelsey laughed. “I thought you were used to the routine by now. Got to confirm who’s at the door, you know.”
“You’re right, silly me. I should know the routine by now. How long have we been friends?”
“Since freshman year,” Kelsey answered.
“You think your mother is ever going to stop being paranoid?” Jessie asked, in a matter of fact tone.
“Until the prison sends her an official death certificate, probably not.” Kelsey felt a bit uncomfortable talking about it, despite the fact that she told Jessie about the situation quite a while earlier. She had faint memories of her father being nice as a small child, but when he began to drink, he became a completely different person, a very unpleasant, abusive person. He finally went to prison after trying to kill their mother, and she had terrible, terrible scars upon her face where he had attacked her with a knife. The sentence was designed to put him away for a significant period of time, but unfortunately, that period of time was nearing an end, he was going to be eligible for parole soon, and the tension was very thick around the house. While no one spoke of it, Jessie knew that everyone who lived under that roof must be terrified, even her friend, who tried not to ever let it show.
Jessie turned her attention to the book that was lying on the bed. It was a thick paperback novel, with a bookmark stuffed in it halfway through. “What’cha reading?” she inquired.
“The Grapes of Wrath,” Kelsey replied. “We have to write a report on some great American novel for my English class, and I was feeling bored, so I decided to get a head start on it.”
“Hmm,” Jessie said, picking up the hefty novel. “I haven’t been nearly so studious ever since we got the internet at my house,” she remarked, chuckling. “600 pages?!” she cried, looking to the last page of the book.
“That’s small,” Kelsey said nonchalantly. “A lot of the stuff I read for the heck of it is over one thousand pages.”
Jessie raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
“It’s not going to bite you,” Kelsey teased.
“No,” she agreed, “I just don’t know how you muster the attention span for it. I’d be bored after three pages.”
“You just haven’t found the right books to read yet.”
Jessie made a mischievous face and flipped back to the last page. “Isn’t it a little pointless to read the whole thing when you can find out how it ends by flipping to the end of the book? Let’s see…”
“Jessie!” Kelsey cried out. “Don’t spoil it for me!” She lunged to grab the book from her friend, but Jessie rolled over, evading her momentarily.
“Ooh, this ending is quite sad,” Jessie revealed. Kelsey lunged at her again, and tickled her. Jessie instinctively recoiled, trying to get away from the source of ticklish discomfort, and in the process, she let go of the book, which Kelsey immediately snatched.
“Teach you to spoil a book!” she growled playfully.
They laid on the bed, trying to catch their breaths, when the clock downstairs chimed.
“Jessie,” Kelsey said, “It’s 8:30. Mom’s going to be locking up the house for the night.”
“I better go then,” Jessie replied. “It’s good seeing you.”
“Good seeing you too. You ought to come over more often.”
“Don’t forget the Student Council Trip is tomorrow,” Jessie reminded.
“Oh shit! I forgot! Damn!”
“Damn is right. See you tomorrow.” Jessie reluctantly left so Kelsey’s mother could lock up for the night.
Friday—the last day of the school week. Usually it was universally welcomed by everyone, for it meant the week was done and there would be two days off. But this Friday, everyone in Student Council knew that instead of being crammed into a tiny space for only one hour, they were going to have to suffer in each other’s company for forty-eight hours straight.
The suffering started earlier than planned when Natasha set foot on the school campus that morning. She was wearing her controversial necklace again, and it was strategically placed to draw maximum controversy, for it dangled in her cleavage. Kelsey and Jessie caught sight of her, and grimaced.
She’s lucky she’s been a pal since second grade, Jessie groaned to herself. This really tests the loyalty of our friendship! She sighed, seeing that Natasha was prancing right towards them, a proud smirk on her face.
This would have stopped years ago if we didn’t back her up, Jessie thought as Natasha looked right at her.
“Well?” Natasha asked, gleefully showing off her outfit.
“Nice diplomatic move,” Jessie spat sarcastically. The proud smirk on Natasha’s face vanished.
“I thought you’d like it,” she spat. “Quite complimentary to my looks, if I say so myself.” She paused, and looked at Jessie intently. “It’s not my fault other people’s tastes differ.”
Kelsey jumped into the conversation. “It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?” Natasha demanded.
“Look,” Kelsey replied. “You know that certain members of our student council think that is grounds to pick a fight. We have to live with those bastards for the next forty-eight hours. Couldn’t you have toned it down just a little so they’d have less ammunition to after us with?”
“Why does that affect you?” Natasha hissed. “I’m the one they go after!”
“Okay, so if you’re the one they go after, why do you keep doing it?”
Natasha couldn’t think of a retort, so she stormed off, red in the face. Jessie turned and looked Kelsey, shaking her head.
“I just don’t know what we’re going to do with her,” Kelsey moaned. “I mean, yeah, I hate the Fundamentalist Four too, but damn, I’m getting so sick of these fights.”
“I probably should have never stood up for her when she started this,” Jessie agreed. “It’s so hard not to, we’ve been friends for an awfully long time. Defend your friends first, ask questions later.”
“That is an admirable trait,” Kelsey pointed out. “The problem is you’ve been exploited.”
Jessie frowned, not really wanting to concede that Kelsey had a point. They didn’t have time to reflect on what she just said, for off in the distance, discord could be heard.
Kelsey’s eyes followed Natasha’s path to see she was face to face with Cassie. “Are you ready to rrrrrumble?” Kelsey asked.
“Huh?” she replied, looking up. “Damn. Told her so.”
“I’m feeling pretty rotten about what I just said,” Kelsey admitted. “I hate how she gets in these fights, but I don’t think I could, in good conscience, leave her alone against them.”
“Same here,” Jessie confessed. “Let’s go.”
They walked over to where Cassie and Natasha were facing off.
“What’s this shit?!” the feisty freckled brunette screamed, lunging at Natasha’s necklace.
“Get your hands off me, bitch!” Natasha barked back, shoving her. Before Jessie and Kelsey could get to the scene, Luke and Julia were already there.
“What did you call me, you old whore?” Cassie spat, tensed and looking like she was ready pounce again. Luke and Julia stood right behind her, daring Natasha to try to pit her lone self against the three of them.
“Who do you think you are, grabbing for my breasts?” Natasha hissed. Cassie’s eyes widened, and she lunged at her.
“I think we’re about to have an all out fight,” Jessie muttered. “We better hurry.” They took off at a run to the scene.
Julia turned around when she heard pounding steps. “What do you think, Luke?” she said, pointing to the two figures. “Peacemakers or reinforcements?”
The two combatants were at war, pulling at each other’s hair. Luke stood by the sidelines, enjoying the show, while Julia nervously eyed Jessie and Kelsey. Jessie stepped in the middle of the mess and pried the two apart.
“Enough, you two!” she yelled. The two fighters momentarily sat on the pavement, panting heavily. Natasha’s eyes never left Cassie, and Cassie’s eyes burned brightly, the fires within merely stoked instead of soothed.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” Cassie screamed at Jessie, before lunging back at Natasha. The move caught Jessie by surprised and she stumbled out of the way a few steps before regaining her balance.
Kelsey stepped up to help Jessie. “C’mon guys, can’t we be civil just once?”
Luke jumped into the fray, shoving Kelsey. “And what you would you know about civil, huh? You’re always egging that nasty slut on!”
Julia rolled her eyes. She saw one of the campus monitors coming towards them, and she knew that they were all going to be in deep trouble if this brawl didn’t end immediately. She grabbed Luke and pulled him back. “Keep out of it, I’ll grab Cassie.”
“But—” he protested, but realized she had already jumped back into the fray.
“Cassie, Cassie,” she said, trying to alert her friend that it was just her and not an enemy grabbing her. “No need to get ourselves suspended over this,” she said, pulling her out of the fray. Natasha wanted to follow her over, but she was securely restrained by Jessie and Kelsey stood in the middle, acting as a second line of defense should anyone break free to restart the fight.
“That stupid—” Cassie sputtered, but Julia firmly grabbed her shoulders and walked her away towards where Luke and Audrie were standing.
“You can’t let her get to you, Cassie,” she reminded her. “Laura the campus monitor was coming over to break this up. She could have us all suspended!”
“But it was her fault!” she cried, pointing to Natasha.
Julia rolled her eyes, handing her off to Audrie. “Maybe you can knock some sense in her.” She left before Cassie could protest.
Jessie had walked Natasha away from the scene, leaving just Kelsey in the middle. Julia didn’t really want to admit defeat, so she walked over to where Kelsey was.
“You better watch your friend,” Julia growled. Kelsey turned, startled, to see fierce blue eyes glaring at her. “The next time she does this, you won’t be so lucky.”
Kelsey looked at her very intently, her green eyes just as fierce. Their eyes locked, and Kelsey felt a weird feeling shoot down her spine. She wasn’t sure what it was, and she didn’t have time to think about it.
“Don’t blame me,” Kelsey growled back. “This weekend will be a lot easier if you guys keep a rein on Cassie and we’ll keep a short leash on Natasha.”
They stared at each other, trying to intimidate each other. Finally, Julia growled, “Your butt was kicked and you know it.” With that, she turned and left.
Boy, what the hell was that all about? Kelsey asked herself, leaving.
“Here comes the bus,” Kelsey quieted noted, watching the noisy diesel monstrosity pull up to the curb, belching black smoke out of its exhaust pipe.
“Oh joy,” Jessie sighed, rolling her eyes. Neither of them were looking forward to the weekend retreat, especially after this morning’s fight between Cassie and Natasha.
“I hope you remembered your inhaler,” Kelsey said, her eyes widening in alarm as the bus continued to spew nasty black smoke as it idled in its bay. Jessie patted her jeans pocket, which revealed the faint outline of the inhaler. “Good,” Kelsey sighed, relieved.
They stood there for a few minutes, waiting the rest of their class. Jessie was watching the bus driver open up the cargo bay below for them to stash their stuff while Kelsey idly kept an eye out for her classmates. Kelsey involuntarily stiffened up as she saw the Fundamentalist Four approach.
“Here comes trouble,” she warned under her breath.
Jessie turned around to confirm the dire forecast. Indeed, the Fundamentalist Four were coming, four abreast. On the left was Luke; he was about Jessie’s height. To his right was Cassie, who was average sized, about five and a half feet tall, and then Audrie, who was about five feet tall, and last but not least, there was Julia, who was a lot taller than her diminutive friend. I bet she can’t wear heels without towering over her boyfriend, Jessie smirked to herself. She didn’t seem ungainly despite her height—she looked very comfortable in her skin. Jessie thought about some of the freshman on her volleyball team—they were tall, but awkward. Julia, on the other hand, seemed to be nothing but pure grace. Wonder how she looks on the tennis court. I hear she ranks pretty high within the league. I hardly think she’s awkward in her element. Hmm…I wonder what sport she’s doing after this. Coaches like tall girls.
She realized that, lost in her thoughts, she might have stared at them a little too long, and that was the last thing she wanted to do, lest any one of the four misinterpret her actions as being hostile and decide to go on the warpath. So, she turned around and asked Kelsey, “I wonder if Natasha’s going to be joining us.”
Kelsey tilted her head. “She’s not here yet?” She paused, thinking. “That’s right—it’s way too quiet here!”
Jessie laughed a little. “I know this is evil to say, but I sure would be glad if she decided to bail out of this trip.”
“Shh,” Kelsey reminded her in a hushed voice. “You might get their hopes up, and I’d hate give them that satisfaction.”
“Good point.” She paused, looking somber. “Natasha will be here. She’s too stubborn to give them a break.”
And true to form, Natasha showed up soon after, running with her bookbag bouncing all over the place. She came to a stop when she was about three feet in front of Jessie and Kelsey. “Did I miss anything?”
“Nope,” Kelsey replied. “I think we’re about to board though.”
Since Natasha didn’t have much, she decided to take her bookbag on board. She walked over to the front of the bus to start the line. This action didn’t go unnoticed by Cassie, whose hazel eyes started to glimmer with a hint of malice.
“Don’t even think about sitting at the back of the bus!” Cassie hissed.
“Here we go again,” Jessie sighed.
The teacher, Mr. Eldon, was the last to show up. He noticed the escalating conflict, and decided that perhaps calling everyone over would eliminate the fight over who was first on the bus.
“Class, come over here. I need to go over a few things before we get on the bus and leave for the retreat.”
Reluctantly, Cassie and Natasha walked away from the bus, keeping wary eyes fixed on each other.
They assembled in a circle, close but the lines between the camps clearly drawn. Kelsey stood at the back of the group, not really paying attention as usual. She subconsciously kept sneaking glances at Julia, who had no idea she was being looked at. That morning’s confrontation had been very intense, and she still wasn’t sure what had struck her. The young woman was definitely fierce, but there was something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She didn’t look at me the way Cassie would have, and I’ve certainly had my share of staring contests with Cassie. Cassie would be pure fire, but what was that I saw in Julia’s eyes? She snuck another look at Julia, from the side. Her face was strong, but not overly so; it was a balanced mix between strength and gentleness, with a bit of girlishness thrown in that testified to the fact that she was still a teenager, despite the fact she was on the cusp of becoming a legal adult.
Jessie was standing nearby, and leaned over to whisper something in Kelsey’s ear. “See something interesting?”
It immediately snapped Kelsey out of her trance. “No, no, just thinking.” She shook her head, trying to bring her attention to the here-and-now. Got to watch it. One of these days I’ll be off in my own world staring at someone and Jessie’s going to totally get the wrong message!
Her face blanched when she realized where that thought was going. She’s going to think I have a crush on Julia! Nothing could be farther from the truth! For heaven’s sake, she hangs out with the evil Fundamentalist Four!
She took a deep breath, trying to push down the panic the thought stirred. I’m making this into a bigger deal than it needs to be. I don’t have a crush on her, and this whole thing is getting out of hand.
Mr. Eldon dismissed the meeting, leaving the two most competitive members of the Student Council to race over to the bus, trying to see who could get the coveted back seat first. The rest of the Student Council paid little attention to them.
Maybe I’m seeing things. I could have sworn Julia looked at me totally differently than Cassie did. Cassie looks like she’s out to get me. Julia looked at me like she was trying to scare me, but I didn’t get the impression she was wanting to go any further with that. Those eyes! I see them and I can hardly think straight! She climbed on the bus, following Jessie. Oh oh, maybe this is escalating. Got to keep away from those eyes. She’s trouble from a thousand leagues away.
The angry voices at the back of the bus shook her from her contemplation. As expected, Cassie and Natasha were battling over who had the rightful claim to the back seat. What’s the big deal about it anyway? That’s where people go to make out. A hilarious image of the two of them doing just that entered her mind, and she bit her lip to stifle a laugh.
She noticed that Cassie’s companions had decided to sit towards the front of the bus. Guess what, Cassie? Your friends are just of sick of you as we are of Natasha.
“Jessie?” Kelsey asked. Her tall friend turned around and Kelsey pointed to several of the middle seats.
“Yeah, why not, let’s sit here,” Jessie concurred. They flung their backpacks down, and sat down, Jessie sitting in one seat and Kelsey in the seat behind her, leaving themselves plenty of room to sprawl out.
The angry voices behind them got louder, and Mr. Eldon finally decided he had enough. “Cassie, Natasha, give it a break.”
“But she started it!” one of them shouted.
Mr. Eldon rolled his eyes. “I don’t care. Cassie, come sit up here.” Reluctantly, the feisty freckled girl gave up her claim, but not without shooting a few daggers from her eyes as she slowly retreated to the front of the bus.
“Hey, guys!” Natasha exclaimed. “Come join me, the back seats are ours!”
“We’re settled,” Jessie said. “Enjoy.”
“You guys are no fun!” Natasha complained.
Once the warring parties were separated, the bus ride was quiet, albeit boring. The camp was out in the boonies, and the summer drought left the landscape parched and brown. I bet this is an absolutely beautiful drive once the winter rains come, Kelsey thought to herself. But I bet this road is closed in winter—I think we’re high enough to get snow here.
It was nearing dusk by the time the yellow-orange bus made it to its destination. They stopped at the main hall, where cabin assignments were posted. I hope I don’t have to share a cabin with any of the Fundamentalist Four, Kelsey thought to herself as she waited in line to find out where she was assigned. Or Natasha, for that matter.
“Hey, we’re in the same cabin,” Jessie said, having gotten in line earlier. “Let’s grab our stuff and go.”
The cabins were down the dirt road a little ways, and they noted that a number of other schools had sent students for leadership training. Good, maybe we won’t have to see anyone from our student council while we’re here. That would be awfully nice!
“This is it,” Jessie said, her voice flat. Kelsey looked up. The cabin was actually an outfitter’s canvas tent pitched over a foundation. It was the same size as a cabin, but it was still not what they expected.
“Gee, this is awfully rustic,” Kelsey commented.
They climbed up the handful of stairs and entered the tent. It held about twelve beds, bunked two high. “I don’t want to be climbing in and out a bunk, so I claim this one!”
“Hey, no fair!” Jessie protested. “You got the last lower bunk!”
“You should be been quicker on the draw, McGraw,” Kelsey defended herself.
“Besides, I’m tall,” Jessie whined. “It’s not nearly as easy to get in and out of a bunk for me as it is for you.”
“Alright, alright,” Kelsey relented, throwing her stuff up onto the bunk above. “Don’t complain if I step on your head in the middle of the night.”
They sat for a few minutes, before Kelsey’s stomach growled.
“I wonder when they serve dinner,” she mused.
Jessie pondered it for a second. “I don’t remember, but maybe we ought to go outside and walk around. Maybe someone knows.”
“Good point. Let’s go find some grub before it gets snarfed up by ravenously hungry teenage boys.”
Down the road further was the dining hall. Near the entrance was Natasha. “Where have you guys been? I’ve been looking for you all evening!”
“We were putting our stuff up.”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“Not much. Are they serving dinner yet?”
“Yeah, they are,” Natasha answered. “Menu is really disgusting though.”
“Oh? What is it?” Kelsey inquired.
“Sliced ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, apples, rolls and milk,” Natasha replied.
“What’s wrong with it?” Kelsey asked.
“Just…the whole thing! Eww!”
Jessie shrugged. “Let’s take inventory,” she said, entering the dining hall and grabbing a tray.
“Is ham supposed to be that pink?”
“I think I’ll skip on that, but the rest looks normal…there isn’t any bacon in the green beans, is there?”
Kelsey poked at it with the serving spoon. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“Give me a big helping of it while you’re there, then.”
She dished out a big portion. “All things considered, the menu isn’t too bad.”
“Bad? Bad? Don’t you know what’s in this?!” Natasha cried out. They looked at her plate, to see all she had was apples and green beans.
“It all has milk in it!”
This is going to be a long weekend, isn’t it? Kelsey groaned to herself.
The Fundamentalist Four entered the dining hall a little bit later. “Oooh, I’m famished!” Luke exclaimed, grabbing a plate and piling it high with everything on the menu.
Julia was next, and she looked at everything warily. I need protein. Ham has protein. But it’s also fattening. Better go sparingly on it. Mashed potatoes are carbohydrates and fats, I don’t dare touch that. Green beans—do they have any thing added to that? Nope. I’m pretty hungry, I better get a big helping of it. An apple would be nice, too. Rolls? Fat and carbohydrates, I’ll skip on that. And milk…I better get my calcium.
Her plate was a lot emptier than Luke’s, and her two companions behind her, Cassie and Audrie, looked at her plate, a little puzzled at her selection.
They found a table a ways away from everyone else and sat down to eat their meal without interruption from outsiders.
Jessie, Kelsey and Natasha were looking for a safe place to eat, as far away from the Fundamentalist Four as they could find. They over heard a lively table of five debating the merits of veganism, and knew they found their table.
“Hey, may we join you guys?” Jessie asked. “We were debating the same thing in the food line.”
“Sure, come join us,” a brunette in a sundress invited. “I’m Brittany.”
“I’m Jessie,” she introduced herself. “These are my friends Kelsey and Natasha.”
“Hey,” the other four members greeted.
The first one to speak was a very large guy who had very broad shoulders. He had dark, blue-black hair and a goatee. “I’m Dylan,” he said.
Goodness! Jessie thought to herself. He’s handsome! But there’s no way he could be still in high school!
A skinny lad with his hair in a ponytail introduced himself next. “I’m Kyle.” He looked like the type who would write poetry during recess.
The third young man in the group was a thin, boyish kid with strawberry blonde hair. Probably a freshman, Jessie thought to herself. “I’m Francis.” He looked rather embarrassed about his name.
The final member was a shy blonde girl. “I’m Holly.”
One of the camp leaders was walking around the tables, telling them that there was a meeting in the amphitheater in ten minutes. The group of now eight members decided to focus on eating, and all conversation came to a halt.
“That ham was so salty,” Audrie complained to Julia as they left the dining area.
“Yeah, it was,” she agreed. They stood by the trashcans, waiting for Cassie and Luke to join them.
Soon, the Fundamentalist Four were walking down to the amphitheater. “Hey, is that a guy or a girl?” Luke asked, pointing towards someone tall and skinny with a ponytail.
The person in question turned to speak to a companion. “Guy,” Julia replied.
Luke shuddered. “He gives me the creeps. Look at those hands fly! You think he’s gay?”
“Certainly plausible,” Julia agreed.
“Looks like a damn dirty hippie to me,” Cassie commented.
“Hippie?” Audrie asked, unsure exactly what they meant. “What are
“They’re leftist tree huggers,” Luke answered confidently. “They wear bright colors and drop acid. Keep the hell away from them!”
Julia nodded. “Sounds disgusting enough to me.”
“We better make sure they don’t overrun this camp with their ways,” Cassie said. “Think we ought to send him a message?”
Luke scratched his chin. “Yeah. Look who’s walking with him.”
“Natasha! The evil whore! They’re probably plotting against us as we speak!” Cassie declared.
They arrived in the amphitheater, with about two minutes to spare.
“That speech was so boring,” Audrie grumbled. Julia yawned, trying to fight off the sense of sleepiness that was overtaking her consciousness. The fact it was well past dusk was not helping matters any.
“I could have sworn this was leadership class,” Cassie fumed. “The last thing I want to hear about it how to cooperate with others!”
Audrie warily eyed her, thinking her friend probably needed to hear the message the most urgently of the whole class.
“I bet Mr. Eldon signed us up on purpose,” Luke grumbled. “We wouldn’t need a seminar on cooperation if stupid Natasha didn’t join the council!”
“I know,” Julia agreed. “A weekend seminar on class cooperation isn’t going to do jack if the other party isn’t willing to cooperate!”
“Speaking of Natasha, aren’t those two associates of hers?” Luke mentioned, pointing to the couple in the distance.
Julia squinted, focusing her eyes on the couple. “You’re right. That’s hippie boy, isn’t it?”
“I think so,” Luke concurred. “Want to have a little fun tonight?” he chuckled, grinning mischievously.
That could go several ways, Julia thought to herself, trying to interpret his mood. I hope it focuses on setting hippie boy straight, because the only other thing I can imagine he’s thinking about is making out and I really don’t want to be put into the position to sin.
Cassie eyed the couple carefully. “We can probably intercept them around the bend,” she pointed out. “They look rather oblivious to the world.”
“That’s a good idea,” Julia agreed. “This—” she said, pointing to a small trail that was about one foot wide “—should give us a chance to get ahead of them.”
They quietly plodded along the path, which was clearly one not authorized for travel by the camp. It was narrow, hilly, and the footing was less than ideal. Audrie trailed at the back, wondering why they were going to the trouble of walking along a less-than-ideal path in near darkness.
Julia’s predictions proved correct, and the trail ended back on the main road, ahead of the couple. It was clear they had no idea they were being stalked, and the Fundamentalist Four stayed in the shadows, awaiting their prey.
The road was fairly deserted, which meant there would be few witnesses. They let the couple get within several feet of their trap, before Luke emerged out of the shadows and the three girls circled around to trap them.
“What’s going on?” the girl, Brittany, asked, sensing from Luke’s feral blue eyes that they had nothing good in mind.
“Look what we have here,” Luke growled, stopping mere inches from the hippie, Kyle. “A dirty hippie and his dirty hippie girlfriend.”
“Hey!” Kyle protested. “What do you guys want?”
Luke smiled, his eyes malicious. He could see beads of sweat start to form on Kyle’s forehead, glistening greenish under the bright overhead lamps that lined the dirt road.
Julia came around from the back, and joined Luke in glaring at the hapless couple.
Without warning, Luke pushed Kyle, catching him by surprise. He lost his balance and stumbled, falling rear first onto the dusty road.
“Hey!” Brittany yelled, shoving Luke. Cassie snuck up behind her and yanked her away from Luke. She stumbled a bit in her sandals, but Cassie didn’t jerk her enough to make her fall. Kyle got back up, but didn’t stand up straight, instead preferring to stand at a crouch lest he have to act fast.
“You know what I want? I’ll tell you what I want,” Luke growled. “Keep your dirty Communist faces out of my sight, that’s what.”
“I think we’ve made our message quite clear,” Julia said. “Let’s go.” Luke didn’t want to budge, so she grabbed his arm and yanked him away. “I’m tired, and we have a long day tomorrow, remember?”
Luke started to grumble, but cut himself off before he could voice his complaint. “Good point, dear. We’ll have plenty more opportunities to harass them!”
Jessie and Kelsey returned to their tent cabin that night. Kelsey was feeling a bit apprehensive about sharing a tent with ten other girls, but was relieved to see that two of them they had already met at dinner. Holly, the shy blonde, had already gotten herself tucked into her bunk, but Brittany was far from ready for bed, trying to beat the dust out of her clothing.
“How’d you get so dirty?” Jessie asked, perplexed. “Activities don’t start until tomorrow morning.”
Brittany tensed up a little, and she didn’t say anything for a moment. “Well, Kyle and I were walking around after dinner when four people cornered us and shoved us into the dirt.”
Jessie shuddered. “Did you report them?”
Brittany shook her head. “We didn’t.”
“Why not?” Jessie asked. “There’s four crazy guys wandering around harassing hapless people, and you don’t report them?!”
“Jessie,” Kelsey interjected, “they’re probably still shaken up about it.”
Jessie sat down on her bunk, sighing. “It makes me really nervous to think they’re still at large.”
“Did you get a good look at them?” one of the other girls in the tent asked.
“I didn’t get a real good look,” Brittany admitted. “It was dark and we were scared.” She paused, trying to remember. “I might recognize them if I see them again though. They kept calling us dirty hippies and Communists.”
“Hmm,” pondered Kelsey. “We should probably warn our friend Natasha that there’s some crazies out there,” she said to Jessie.
“Your friend tends to find trouble?” Brittany asked.
“Oh yeah. She’s always finding herself in the middle of a fight with about half our student council.”
“She’s the one who dresses up in slutty black clothing, right?”
Don’t you call my friend’s clothing slutty—well, it is slutty, I can’t get too mad at her for being descriptive, can I? “Yeah.”
Brittany nodded. “The taunts were so weird. I don’t think anyone’s ever called us “dirty hippies” before.”
Jessie’s face lit up, and she put her hand out, index finger extended. “Here’s a wild guess. Were your tormentors tall, a guy and a girl? One blonde, the other dark haired?”
Brittany paused. “Yeah,” she replied, her voice fairly confident. Kelsey and Jessie shot each other looks of dismay. “You know them?”
“We should be so unfortunate,” Kelsey sighed. “That’s the other half of our school’s student council.”
“God, this is embarrassing,” Jessie remarked. “We don’t even spend a full night here and they’re already on the warpath!” She fished her pajamas out of her duffle bag, adding, “I’m sorry you ran into them. They’re not nice people. If it makes you feel any better, we’ve been in their crosshairs a few too many times for our liking. My advice is that you and your friends stay in one large group. They’re less likely to go after a crowd than if they single out one or two victims.”
“And there’s a third one you probably didn’t notice that you really need to be careful of,” Kelsey warned. “She’s a brunette, about my height, and has freckles. She’s the worst of the bunch! She’s like a pit bull—once she grabs on, she doesn’t let go!”
The camp counselor had announced lights off, and Julia laid in her bunk, wide awake. She had been pretty tired until Luke suggested they harass the unlucky couple, which left her feeling wired afterwards.
It was kind of fun, she thought to herself, but now I don’t think I’m ever going to get to sleep! We better not make this into a nightly ritual!
She tried to shut her eyes again, but she felt too antsy to lay still. They looked so scared. I wonder if we went too far this time. She tried to force herself to breathe more slowly, hoping maybe that would do the trick. One of these days we’re going to push our luck too far and we’re going to be in deep trouble. Is it really worth it?
She was pretty certain that, by this point, her tentmates were asleep. These are really crude accommodations. She thought she heard a mosquito buzzing around, prompting her to throw the sheet over her head. It just gets better and better, doesn’t it? Monday afternoon cannot come soon enough!
“Blah,” Kelsey groaned, her eyes still heavy with sleep. She had been startled awake, and when she fully opened her eyes, she saw Jessie leaning over her bunk, her eyes dancing with mischief.
“Morning, sunshine,” she cheerily greeted.
“Ugh,” she groaned, turning on her side away from Jessie, which prompted the tall girl to tickle her again. “Gah!” she writhed, trying to squirm out of her tormentor’s reach.
“Wake up, sleepyhead, before all the boys beat us to the breakfast line!”
“What time is it?” Kelsey whined, sitting up.
“Only seven? I’m going back to sleep.”
“Oh no you’re not,” Jessie insisted. “You need to shower, eat, and all before eight, because that’s when today’s activities start.”
“I don’t want to do any of this,” Kelsey grumbled. “I’m assuming they’re going to split us up again for that?”
“They will,” Jessie said, remembering how things were done the previous year. “They’ll split us into ten teams. You’ll probably have someone else from the Student Council on the team with you.”
“Oh great,” she moaned. “Hopefully it’ll be you. I don’t think I could stand being around anyone else!”
Jessie nodded. “I know what you mean. They’ll have the groups posted when we get down for breakfast.”
Kelsey rubbed her eyes. “I guess I better go down to the showers and get ready. I’m pretty hungry.”
After breakfast, Kelsey went to the bulletin board to find out what group she was in. It was in alphabetical order, and first she consulted the master list to see which group she was in, then she consulted the sub lists to see who else was with her.
She passed the letters that Luke, Cassie and Natasha’s last names started with, and her hopes were up that maybe she’d be partnered with Jessie, since her last name started with a “V.” But it was not to be; the letter “V” was passed and the next last name was “Williams.”
Julia Williams. Damn. I’m stuck with one of the Fundamentalist Four! she groaned to herself. I guess I’ll stick to the back as usual. There are three other people to keep us separated, right?
But despite her apprehension, she also found herself giddy about the pairing. Now why on earth would I even think to look forward to that? Have I lost my mind? Oh well, having her in my activity group for a week ought to dispel any silly notions my brain has come up about her. The truth can set you free.
The first course their group was assigned to was a tight rope course. The first section was a cargo net that spanned partway up the pole, and then there was a ladder the rest of the way up the pole to a platform, which was twenty feet off the ground. At the platform, there was a thick wire to walk across, and a second wire that one would attach a safety harness lead to so if someone lost their balance, they wouldn’t fall to the ground. There were two sections of tight rope, each about twenty feet long, with a platform bisecting it. At the end was a slide for participants to descend to the ground.
It was not a big deal for Kelsey to get up the cargo net to the platform, but Julia’s expression from the ground was of pure fright. Her eyes were bugged out and her face a little paler than normal.
“Come on, Julia, you can do it,” Kelsey urged her. She seems a lot different when her friends aren’t around, she thought to herself, noticing the normally cool, calm and sometimes cocky façade had completely fallen by the wayside when she saw the obstacle course.
“I….I can’t,” Julia protested, her voice wavering.
“Why not?” Kelsey asked. If I can figure out what she’s thinking, maybe I can talk her through it. It reflects badly on our group grade if someone doesn’t participate.
She started up the cargo net, but her struggles made it nearly impossible to proceed up it. The higher she got, the worse she struggled. Someone doesn’t like heights. Fair enough.
“Julia,” Kelsey advised, drawing the attention of Julia’s blue eyes from the net to the platform, “the more you struggle against the cargo net, the harder it is to get up it.”
“This thing is evil,” she grumbled.
“Climb it slowly, don’t struggle,” Kelsey urged. She was a bit slow getting up the net, but as she willed herself to keep calm, the journey got easier, and she was past the cargo net section to the ladder. She didn’t seem to mind the ladder, and her athletic body easy scrambled up the ladder, her muscles flexing as she ate up the vertical real estate. Soon, she was at the top.
“See? You did it!” Kelsey congratulated her. The tall girl seemed to be proud of herself, but when she assessed the next leg of the route, she got frightened again.
I don’t feel steady up here, Julia thought to herself, feeling the platform sway slightly in the breeze. Panic started to course through her veins again.
Kelsey noted her panic. “Hey,” she said, trying to bring Julia back to the present. “Julia?”
Frightened blue eyes looked down on her. “It’s swaying up here,” she mumbled.
“It’s supposed to,” Kelsey reassured her. “You need to switch your safety line,” she said, pointing to the next section that ran parallel to the tight rope.
Julia stood there, frozen. She felt unsteady, and the last thing she wanted to do was to be looking up to switch the vital safety line when she was already feeling light headed and dizzy.
We’re not going to get anywhere if I don’t do something, Kelsey thought to herself. Before Julia could react, she swapped the safety line so she was hooked up to the line running parallel to the tight rope.
“I don’t want to cross it,” she protested.
“C’mon,” Kelsey urged her. “I’ll walk with you.”
“But won’t the two of us be too heavy?” Julia said, trying to make excuses.
“I seriously doubt it,” Kelsey replied. She shouted down to the counselor below, “How much weight can the lines take?”
“I think they’re rated to five hundred,” he mumbled, before shifting his attention back down to the girls below.
“See?” Kelsey said. “I doubt the sum weight of the two of us will even come close to that,” she assured her. “I’ll walk with you. C’mon.”
Julia took a very shaky step, Kelsey close behind. About three steps onto the line, she felt even shakier—all she could think about was running back to the platform and scurrying down like a mouse down a hole. But then she felt Kelsey behind her, and her nerves calmed down a little.
“I’m right behind you,” she reassured her. “And you have the safety harness on you, too. You’re safe.” After a minute of recomposing herself, Julia took another few steps. They reached the platform.
“Whew,” Julia exclaimed, then saw the next length of rope.
“Same strategy,” Kelsey advised.
While she had relaxed some, her nerves were still on edge. “Could you switch the rope for me?”
“Yeah,” Kelsey said, reaching up and swapping lines. “I’ll be behind you.”
After about ten minutes, they reached the end, and Julia never felt so relieved as when she hit the end of the slide.
“Took you guys long enough,” one of the team members snarled at her.
Kelsey looked at her friend, and noticed she was about to burst into tears. “Julia,” she said, “don’t listen to her.”
The girl didn’t like being dismissed, and she got in Kelsey’s face. “Don’t you dismiss me like that, you stupid—”
Kelsey gently pushed her back with one hand. “We’re being graded on cooperation, not rush times. Attacking fellow team members goes against the cooperation goal, don’t you think?”
The girl stood there and scowled, but said nothing more before deciding to turn and walk away.
The next activity was a short hike up one of the hills located on the campgrounds. It seemed pretty low stress compared to the previous activity; Kelsey wasn’t in the mood to have anything to do with the girl who got in her face earlier, so she hung to the back of the group alongside Julia. The three girls were happy to chatter away with the group counselor, who looked like he was of college age.
Girls are such flirts, Kelsey thought to herself, watching them interact with the counselor.
“Kelsey,” Julia said, shaking her out of her thoughts, “thanks for helping me with the ropes course. I really, really hate heights.”
Kelsey’s attention was fully focused on the tall, dark-haired woman next to her. You’d think at her height, she’d be used to heights, Kelsey mused to herself. “Not a problem.”
Julia quietly regarded her companion, who was watching the trail ahead of them and was unaware of her gaze. She had noticed Kelsey here and there during the past few weeks, but this was the closest she ever got to the quiet tomboy. Kelsey was wearing a black short-sleeved shirt, but had varied the color scheme by wearing sage green cargo pants. Julia noticed her new companion tended to wear a lot of black, gray and green—they were dark colors, but not gothic like Natasha’s wardrobe. Bleak, she realized, but the sage green she wore today broke the monochromatic assortment of clothes she regularly wore, an impression not unlike the sun coming out after weeks of rain and gray skies.
Black might not have been the color she would have chosen for her, but it did strangely complement Kelsey’s fair skin. It was a somber color, and it did seem to fit perfectly with the quiet girl.
Julia thought about what she herself was wearing. Today, she was wearing a light blue short-sleeved shirt, with khaki slacks. A lot of her clothes were lighter shades, but there was a lot of pressure from her mother to wear clothes a certain way, which limited her own self-expression. Self-expression? I have no idea what I’d wear if I had to make a statement about myself to the world.
They came to a bend in the path, and Julia knew there was no way she could continue studying her quiet companion without her noticing, so she averted her eyes. The counselor was now talking to one girl, and the other two were talking amongst themselves. No one had made a move to join her or Kelsey, but perhaps, she figured, the three girls went to the same school and would be reluctant to break up their comfortable clique to talk to two strangers.
Not that it was a comfortable thing being around Kelsey. Despite the cooperation between the two of them, there was still a history between them, namely because their allegiances were contrary to each other. Julia’s allegiance was with Luke, Cassie and Audrie; likewise, Kelsey’s allegiance was towards Jessie and Natasha. To broach that unspeakable barrier between them would be like suggesting that Cassie and Natasha could be friends—it was simply impossible.
The bend straightened out, and Julia regarded her companion again. Kelsey didn’t have to be nice to me, she thought to herself. Was it out of self-interest, or is she actually nicer than I ever gave her credit for? The hike was making her shorter companion hot, and Kelsey wiped the sweat off her brow, which ruffled her hair a little. She then wiped her sweaty hand on her cargo pants.
I wonder what her natural hair color is, she said, unable to not notice how artificial the fire engine red was on her. It was purposely artificial; that color just did not exist in nature. Her eyebrows appeared to either be a dark blonde or a light brown; she really couldn’t tell. Well, I know her hair isn’t as dark as mine, but I guess that’s as much as I’m going to find out on my own.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Kelsey joked, noting that Julia seemed to be awfully deep in thought.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, get your head on, Julia! Staring is rude! “Uh, sure?” she said, knowing she caught.
Kelsey quietly chuckled. “Thank goodness that hike was short—I’m famished!”
“We’re done?” Julia asked. In the distance, she could make out the main camp. “Yeah, so we are. This morning flew by!”
“Yeah, it did,” Kelsey agreed. “I wonder what they’re having today. Hope the menu is better than last night’s dinner!”
Julia grew pensive. There were no assurances they’d put something healthy out for her.
Kelsey noted her sudden change in demeanor. She scratched her head, trying to figure out what did it. The last thing talked about was lunch, but she doubted that was what would have set off whatever dark mood was now emanating from her companion. She simply shrugged to herself, and watched the group disband as they hit the lunch area.
Well, it was nice knowing you for the morning, she thought wistfully to herself. You might actually be a nice person after all. She saw Julia walk towards her boyfriend Luke and Cassie. So much for that.
As feared, the menu was junk. Julia grabbed a slice of pizza, since the hike had stirred up quite an appetite, but she could feel the grease slithering down her throat and it was making her gag.
Luke seemed very glad that they had something more normal on the table today, and he had three large slices piled on his plate. He was ravenously devouring the first slice, which was pepperoni and sausage. She could see the grease on it literally pool into the depressions of the pizza, and she put her own slice down and vainly dabbed at it with a napkin to soak up whatever excess grease she could.
He always sat next to her, but for some reason she couldn’t understand, his very presence greatly annoyed her today. For that matter, everyone at the table was getting on her nerves. Cassie had been paired up with Brendan, Luke had been paired up with Todd, Audrie got paired up with Jessie, and they were all badmouthing the poor souls that got stuck with them when Luke turned around to face her and asked, “Who did you get paired up with?”
“Kelsey,” she replied, staring at her pizza.
“You got stuck with the dyke,” Cassie remarked. “Let me know if she starts hitting on you or something, I’m sure Luke and I could set her straight,” she said, laughing.
Julia looked up, struggling to come up with a retort. All three faces looked back at her, laughing themselves hysterical.
“I don’t know why we didn’t see it sooner,” Luke wheezed. “We should have been calling her ‘lesbo’ from the start of the semester!”
“How could we have let such a big one slip by us?” Cassie asked. “That ‘Natasha the Whore’ thing is starting to get old, anyway. Wait till we start in on her next week!”
Everyone at the table was laughing. Everyone, that is, except Julia. She had been picking at her pizza before the conversation took its downward turn, and when they started taking potshots at her new friend, she had stopped eating all together. This is not funny! she fumed to herself. She could feel her stomach getting tense, and she regretted she even thought she could get away with eating that slice of pizza.
“Maybe Kelsey and Natasha are secret lovers,” Luke insinuated. “Boy, would that make a story!”
Everything felt like it was caving in on her that moment. So she did the only thing she knew she could do—she bolted from the table.
“What the hell’s her problem, anyway?” Luke asked his befuddled remaining tablemates, who had stopped laughing at their cruel joke.
Kelsey and Jessie were in the washroom, cleaning their grease off their hands. “I feel really bad for the vegans today,” Kelsey commented. “At least they had plain cheese pizza for us vegetarians.” She turned off the tap, and walked over to grab a paper towel. “So, who’s in your group?”
“Well, there are three boys from another school, and Audrie. She pretty much ignored me all morning, but I can’t say I’m too surprised. Thank God I got paired up with her and not anyone else from class!” she exclaimed. “So, what about you?”
“Three girls from another school and Julia,” Kelsey replied, drying her hands off.
“Aren’t you lucky,” she sarcastically commented. “She isn’t giving you any problems, is she?”
“Oh heavens no!” Kelsey laughed. “She’s actually pretty nice.”
“Pretty nice?” Jessie said, her eyebrow quirked, her face etched in disbelief.
“She’s quite a different person when you get her away from her friends,” explained Kelsey.
“Hmm,” Jessie replied. “That kind of surprises me, she’s so intense.”
“Yeah, surprised me too. But it’s a nice surprise.”
Just then, they heard some gagging in the stalls. “I guess the pizza didn’t go down well for everyone?” Jessie pondered. The stall in question flushed, and Julia emerged from the stall, her eyes puffy and red.
“No, it didn’t,” Julia replied, tiredly, although she knew the comment wasn’t really intended for her to reply to. “Ugh.”
“Hey, you okay?” Kelsey asked, concerned.
“Yeah,” she replied. “That helped a bit.”
Kelsey looked at her, thinking there was more to the story. Heaving might make your eyes red, but I don’t think they’d make them puffy. Hmm…should I try prying?
“You look pretty upset. Want to take a walk outside and talk about it?”
Julia looked at her, and pondered. I shouldn’t have been so upset with my table, she reasoned with herself. But I’m getting so sick of all this mean talk. Don’t we have anything better to do?
I really wish I could talk about this. But I don’t think it’d be proper for me to air out all the dirty laundry from the table. “I don’t really want to talk about it, but thanks for the offer.”
“Want to walk around at least? You look like you could use some fresh air.”
Yeah, I can, can’t I? That can’t hurt anything. “Sure,” Julia replied.
They walked along the dirt road, away from the dining area. Julia kept looking behind herself, hoping no one would follow her, since she was rather afraid that someone from the group might try to talk some sense into her, and they were the last people on the face of the planet she wanted to talk to in this state. Kelsey kept looking at her watch, knowing that they had about ten minutes to spare until lunch was over. Jessie had tagged along, and she looked rather uncomfortable being in such close proximity to someone she considered an adversary.
“Feeling any better?” Kelsey asked.
“The fresh air helps,” Julia replied. “That and moving around. You know how sometimes you just feel too antsy to sit still?”
“Yeah,” Kelsey agreed. She looked at Julia, but she didn’t seem like she was about to spill what had upset her so badly at lunch. She didn’t really recall ever seeing Julia looking upset; no, she only recalled seeing her in two states—calm and predatory—and her red, puffy eyes didn’t look like they belong to either mood.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to see them this afternoon. Are they the
same groups as this morning or are we going to get reassigned?” Julia asked.
“I have no idea,” Kelsey replied. “Jessie, you’ve done this before. What do they do?”
The tall brunette replied, “The counselors get assigned to different groups, but the groups stay the same.”
Kelsey laughed. “That’s a relief; the girls in my group this morning were really trying to lay the charm on that chap!”
Jessie laughed alongside her. “What are they, freshmen?”
They both laughed, and even Julia had to chuckle a little. I guess it is a little immature. I remember when all my friends became boy crazy—you couldn’t get them to talk about anything else in the universe!
She looked at Jessie and Kelsey, and realized, There are people out there who have other things to think about besides boys. They seem well adjusted and level headed. But wait—didn’t they say Kelsey is a lesbian?
She pondered the point for a minute. She doesn’t seem girl crazy, either. Nah. I think my friends were just making stuff up.
“Hey,” Kelsey said, shaking her out of her thoughts. “We need to get back to the dining area for afternoon activities.”
“Oh joy,” Jessie groaned. “Another couple of hours of cold shoulders. I swear the retreat was nothing like this last year!”
They were back in their assigned groups, and they listened to what their counselor had in store for them this afternoon. The three other girls were disappointed that the guy was switched with a girl about the same age, and they kept amongst themselves, leaving the counselor at the head of the group and Julia and Kelsey at the back.
She considers me pretty nice, hmm? Julia thought to herself. That’s a relief. Maybe we can be civil to each other after this trip. She seems pretty nice herself. She didn’t have to help me with the ropes course, after all—I wonder if I would have done the same thing if the roles were switched.
She pondered the situation. Gee, that wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do, but I’d probably have a hard time being that nice. She kept thinking about the conversation at lunch. This whole gossip thing is really starting to bug me. That’s all they do! And isn’t that what the Bible says not to do? What business do I have hanging around people like that?
Her mind raced to find a good answer to why she still hung out with them. Because we go to the same church? It used to be a satisfactory answer, but this time, the reasoning felt shaky. Do not be yoked with unbelievers, she reminded herself, trying to justify why she hung out with her friends. They go to my church; therefore they must be believers. And seriously, can I picture Kelsey going to church? She tried to draw up an image of the tomboy in a dress, sitting daintily in a pew, but the image eluded her. Not really.
Kelsey noticed the dark, tall girl was quiet, and she looked up at her face to see if she could gauge what was on her mind. Her blue eyes appeared to be more intense than usual, and her brow was furrowed. Hmm. Whatever is on her mind, really must be on her mind. I’d probably scare her half to death if I tried to speak to her right now. The silence was a little unnerving, but since the tall girl didn’t make any move to get away from her, she assumed that at least, she must not be the source of whatever was plaguing her friend’s conscience.
Her eyes became warmer and less intense, and she looked down to see Kelsey looking at her. “Hey. Sorry about that. I wasn’t trying to purposely ignore you.”
“It’s okay, you were thinking about something.”
“Yeah, I was just thinking about lunch,” she admitted. “Considering I sit with them every day, you’d think I’d be used to all the gossip.”
So the topic was something of a gossipy nature. That’s pretty vague, Kelsey thought to herself.
“But every once in a while, they find a whopper to tell—I guess I just let it get to me today.”
“It happens,” Kelsey consoled.
“Hey, I have a question,” Julia said, in a lighter tone of voice. “Luke told me your sister said there’s a ghost in your house. Is it true?”
Whoa, that came out of left field, Kelsey thought to herself. Ghost stories? “Ghost stories?”
“Yeah, he said that you have to get home at a certain time every night before the ghosts come in.”
Ha ha, very funny. You think you’re going to get an answer out of this? “I have no idea where that came from.”
“But that night you picked your sister up from the youth meeting, you told her she needed to hurry up before your mother locks up for the night.”
“She has a curfew for us. We get in deep trouble if we don’t make it,” Kelsey replied, carefully sidestepping the other half of the story.
“My parents used to set a curfew for me, but it got screwed up with tennis and all that,” she replied.
“You’re on the tennis team?” Kelsey replied. “I hear you guys are pretty good.”
Well, not really, but I’ll take a compliment all the same. “Thanks,” Julia said, blushing a little.
She looks so cute when she blushes! Kelsey thought to herself. Don’t go there, she promptly scolded herself.
“You have any other siblings, or just Shana?” Julia asked.
“Just Shana,” she replied. “You?”
“Yeah, a brother.”
“Younger or older?”
“Older. He’s graduating from _________ this year.”
“Much older, then.”
“Sort of, yeah.”
“How long have you and Luke been going out?” Kelsey asked innocently.
Argh, he’s the last thing I want to talk about right now! “About three months now, but we’ve known each other since sophomore year.” She paused, then asked, “What about you? You seeing anyone special?”
Kelsey laughed. “Nah,” she replied. “I don’t really have time, anyway. I got a pretty heavy workload this year.”
“That is the downside of dating. Boys think they ought to have all your time. I come home exhausted after practice and all Luke wants to do is go out or talk on the phone when I got a mountain of homework awaiting.”
Lucky for me, I don’t have to worry about that! Kelsey thought, but in a sarcastic manner. She had to admit it was a very isolating experience when all her friends started to date, and since she really didn’t care for any of the boys, she found herself increasingly alone. If it wasn’t for the fact Jessie had absolutely no luck with the boys, she would have no one to hang out with after school. Earlier in high school, she wished she’d be struck by Cupid’s arrow just like everyone else, but once she realized why Cupid’s arrow had eluded her, it became all the more bitter. It was like Cupid purposely had it out for her. She looked at her tall companion, and had a bad feeling Cupid’s sadistic side was much darker than simply denying her the stirrings of attraction.
“I miss the days before dating,” Julia continued, oblivious to her friend’s increasing discomfort. “When you had time for your friends, and you went out and did fun stuff, instead of having all your free time being monopolized by one person.”
Yeah, I missed those days too, you know, the days before it became obvious that I was the only girl not struck by boy fever, she grumbled to herself. Of course, she couldn’t really confess that, so she tried to put herself in Julia’s shoes. Yeah, I’d hate to have all my time being monopolized by someone I felt pressured to go out with, but I doubt that’s how Julia is feeling, considering she’s straight and all. It’s like comparing apples to oranges!
“What would you do if you had more free time?” Kelsey asked, shoving her uncomfortable thoughts away.
Julia thought about it. “I wouldn’t mind more time to myself. And I miss hanging out with Audrie and Cassie. Cassie used to be a lot of fun to be around.”
Cassie? Fun? You got to be kidding me! But Kelsey kept her thoughts to herself. Why did she ever bring this up? Wait, I’m the idiot who brought up the topic! I’m soooo dumb sometimes! I really didn’t want to think about any of this!
Julia sensed that the conversation got awkward, and stopped talking about the subject. They were silent for a few minutes, until Julia thought of something better to talk about. “Hey, I heard what you said about me during lunch in the bathroom. You’re pretty nice yourself,” Julia mentioned.
Kelsey looked at her, and couldn’t help but smile back. Me? Bad mood? What bad mood?
The sun was in its final hour of shining by the time they got back from their hike. It was a pleasant walk, but a lot longer than their morning excursion. Kelsey could smell the food cooking in the dining hall, and her stomach rumbled, as if it had just been cued.
Their group was one of the first groups back from their afternoon activities. They went through the line, picking and choosing what they wanted to dine on for dinner. “Where do you want to sit?” Kelsey asked, then realized she assumed Julia wanted to sit with her. “I mean, uh, I shouldn’t have assumed you’d want to sit together, sorry about that, I’ll mind my own business,” she stammered, looking down at her shoes.
“Hey.” Julia looked at her, and noticed she was staring at the ground. “Kelsey.” She kept her head down, but her eyes lifted up a bit. “I’d love to sit with you. Don’t worry; I’m in no hurry to listen to the latest gossip. Over there looks good,” she said, pointing. “We’ve usually been eating over there,” she said, pointing in the opposite direction. “Maybe they’ll think I’m late,” she said, a small smile on her lips.
They walked over to a picnic bench at the edge of the dining area. Kelsey immediately dug into her dinner, which was a large helping of macaroni and cheese and a piece of corn on the cob. Julia couldn’t help but watch her dig into her food with gusto, and felt a little envious that she could dig into her chow like that without seeming to worry about her weight or that it might decide to rebel on her.
After devouring the first couple of bites like a hungry wolf, Kelsey looked up, to see Julia start in on her meal. She had a small portion of meatloaf, about two bites of macaroni and cheese, and a piece of corn on the cob, unbuttered. “That’s all?” she asked, surprised at how small her meal was.
It was hard not to jump on the defensive. “Well, I have to watch what I eat.”
“Watch what you eat?” Kelsey cried. “It sounds like you’re on a diet!” She extended her hand out and touched her wrist. “I’d think the last thing you need is to diet.”
Julia sighed. Kelsey removed her hand, and she felt her wrist tingle warmly where she had just touched her. She thought for a minute, trying to figure out how to safely dance around how things came to be the way they did. “Well, if I eat too fast, it makes me sick to my stomach,” she started. “And if there’s too much on my plate, I get tempted to eat it too fast and oops!” She said it with a little laugh, trying to cover up the fact that she struggled to keep her meals down was starting to scare her.
Kelsey looked at her, concerned. Julia helplessly shrugged.
“Sorry. I probably shouldn’t have said anything about it,” Kelsey apologized, feeling sheepish.
“Don’t worry, you’re not the first to worry,” Julia reassured her, patting her hand. Then she heard a loud cough to the side, and she jerked around to see Cassie glaring at her.
“Hi, Julia,” she greeted harshly. “Change of scenery this evening?” She then looked to the other side of the table, where Kelsey was sitting. “Look who’s eating with you!”
Kelsey’s shoulders stiffened, and Julia felt herself do the same. She looked up past Kelsey’s shoulders to see Audrie and Luke were right behind, and they stopped right behind Kelsey. Kelsey could feel their eyes boring into her head, and she instinctively turned around, to see she was surrounded.
Obviously they want me gone, Kelsey concluded.
Luke walked around and sat next to Julia, wrapping his arm possessively across her shoulders. Audrie sat next to Kelsey, leaving Cassie as the only one standing.
“You’re sitting in my spot,” Cassie growled at Kelsey, who was frozen in her spot. She started to get in, and gave her a sharp jab with her hip. “You don’t belong here!”
“Hey!” Julia shouted, incensed at how they were treating her new friend.
“I’ll go,” Kelsey said, grabbing her food. And in a flash, she was gone.
“Consorting with the enemy, are we?” Cassie growled. Julia looked at her plate, and couldn’t stomach the thought of another bite.
“Want more meatloaf? It’s nice and processed, just the way you like it.”
Kelsey struggled to keep her anger in check. The last thing she wanted to do was lose her cool in front of the Fundamentalist Four, but once she determined she was out of eyesight and earshot, she found a hapless tree and started kicking it for all it was worth. “Goddamn son of a bitch!” she started cursing. “I’ve never met such a useless collection of shitheads in my life! That asshole of a boyfriend and that obnoxious bitch, I wish they’d all just fall off the face of the frigging earth!” She gave the tree an extra good kick to make her point, then sat down, her fists clenched, shoulders hunched, body shaking. “I don’t know what’s worse, having her hate me, or having her like me and having her friends be extra mean to get even!”
Feeling a little better, she decided it was probably best to find her friends, lest someone come looking after her. It took about two minutes to find her friends, and she quietly slipped in at the end of the table, unnoticed amongst the loud conversation Jessie was having with Dylan, Brittany, Kyle and Holly.
“I wonder where Natasha is,” Brittany asked. “She seems to be a lot of fun, but I sure haven’t seen her around much.”
She’s probably out necking with some boy, Kelsey thought to herself. Jessie answered, “She doesn’t usually stay in one place long,” she replied. “Heck, I don’t know where she is half the time, and I’ve known her for years!”
Kelsey sank in her seat, feeling increasingly invisible. While on the one hand, she was in no mood to talk about what had just happened; she also felt a need to be validated amongst her own kind.
“Where’s Kelsey?” Kyle asked.
Jessie was silent. “Gee, I probably should go looking for her. She should be here by now.”
“She’s right here,” Dylan said.
“Hey,” Jessie said, leaning over so she could see her friend. “Didn’t hear you come.”
Kelsey shrugged. “I know, I’m late.”
Jessie shot her a concerned look when she realized she didn’t come with a plate, but said nothing.
Dinner was coming to a close, and Kelsey watched them, wondering if maybe she ought to get a second plate, since she didn’t get to eat much of her dinner before the Fundamentalist Four shooed her away. But her stomach was in knots, and she thought maybe it was just as well she didn’t eat too much, she hated to think how much sicker she would be if she was full.
The group got up, and Kelsey followed, sticking to the back of the pack. Jessie saw her, and pulled her aside as the rest of the group walked to the amphitheater.
“Hey, where were you?” she asked, concerned.
Will she think I’m nuts if I tell her? Kelsey pondered. Probably, but it’s just Jessie. If I can’t tell her, I can’t tell anyone. “Well, we got back early, so Julia and I decided to eat together.”
Jessie nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“We had just sat down and started eating when her friends came to the table and told me to fuck off.”
“How rude! She invited you, right?”
“Yeah, she did.”
Jessie shook her head. “I don’t know why it had to be a problem, then. If any of us brought someone over to eat with us, it would imply that someone trusted this person enough to eat with us and we should extend the same courtesy.”
“We live on a different planet than Julia’s friends,” Kelsey reminded her.
“What did Julia do about it?” Jessie asked. “That would be terribly rude to extend an invitation and then revoke it! She better not have done that else she’s going to get a piece of my—”
“Jessie,” Kelsey said, putting a hand on her arm. “I don’t think she’s too happy about it herself. She yelled at them as I was leaving.”
“Good for her. Maybe she is human.” She put her fingers up, amending her statement, “But just a little.”
“The next time we decide to eat together, maybe I ought to bring her to this table. I’m sure between the six of us, we can kick some ass if the Fundamentalist Four comes over.” Jessie laughed at the idea of Luke facing Dylan, who was clearly a lot larger and stronger. “But,” Kelsey amended, “I doubt that’s going to happen now that her friends are giving her such a bad time.”
“Never say never,” Jessie said, trying to encourage her friend, but secretly, she wondered the same thing.
She stood there, towards the back of the amphitheater, arms crossed, absorbing the chaos down below. She was grateful for the cover of darkness; it had been quite a struggle to lose the crowd that had been suffocating her all throughout dinner. Granted, the crowd was only three, and one of them was her boyfriend, but a crowd was a crowd, and a rude crowd at that.
She shook her head, thoroughly dismayed about the recent sequence of events. She liked Kelsey. She was a refreshing change of pace from her gossiping buddies. I can guarantee that was all blown to hell after that little display, she thought to herself dejectedly. They won. Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t come back to face that again!
The thought made her feel really depressed, and she was grateful she was at the back, hidden in the shadows. No one could see her here. No one would find her. No one would see how upset she was over the whole thing. She felt safe back here, and nestled further into the shadows, blending in very well.
She didn’t really hear anything the announcer on stage said, but it wasn’t because it was too soft in volume. No, she was too busy watching the crowd, making sure she wasn’t discovered.
She realized too late that she wasn’t doing a good enough job trying to keep out of sight. “Hey,” a soft voice asked, “why are you standing alone?”
The voice was almost too soft to identify, but Julia had a hunch. She turned around, to see Kelsey had joined her in the shadows.
Julia felt a wave of mixed emotions wash over herself. I don’t deserve to be spoken to, Kelsey. So why did you speak to me? Didn’t my friends scare you off? Aren’t you mad at me? Don’t you hate me? She wasn’t sure she could keep a straight face, and she knew that if she said anything, she might have to cry, which was part of the reason she hid in the shadows—if the dam burst, no one would see it.
“Guess,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. She didn’t want Kelsey to pick up on the fact she was quickly coming unglued again.
Although the light was dim, Kelsey could see enough to see she was upset. She
wasn’t sure what Julia was upset about it—was it her fundamentalist friends
or did she herself do something? Was her presence for the better or for the
worse? She tried to remember what she saw last. Well, if she hates me, this
can’t hurt anymore, can it? “Hey, Julia?” Kelsey softly whispered. “Need
She felt herself drawn into the arms of the taller girl, and she gladly reciprocated, pulling herself in closer. Julia pulled her in very close, and wrapped her long arms around her shoulders, resting her chin on Kelsey’s head. Kelsey didn’t fight it, and let her head rest on Julia’s chest, wrapping her arms around her waist. She could feel her sobbing through the erratic movement in her rib cage, as her lungs spasmed with sobs.
She rocked her crying friend side to side gently, letting her cry. She could feel the tears running off her face into her hair, and it felt rather weird to feel warm little wet spots on her head.
After a few minutes, Julia pulled back but still held her from a distance. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she tried to explain. “I haven’t cried in ages!”
“You’ve had a tough day,” Kelsey replied. If I had friends as lousy as yours I’d be off crying in a dark corner too!
The escalating noise of the crowd indicated that the meeting in the amphitheater was coming to a close. Kelsey looked down, to see people were starting to leave their seats.
“We probably shouldn’t be caught here,” she pointed out. “Your friends are mad enough at me!” She said it with a half grin, trying to sound like she was joking, but they both knew that if they were caught together by Luke and Cassie, they would never, ever hear the end of it.
“Don’t let them get you down,” Kelsey told her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow,” Julia replied, reluctantly letting her go. Kelsey slipped away via the shadows. Julia wiped her eyes to try to get rid of all the evidence that all was not well with the world, then slipped back into the light.
Kelsey quickly found Jessie and their newfound friends. She felt a little weird—a mix of sadness she had to leave Julia, but she also felt a little giddy. It was with much reluctance that she had broken off their embrace, but she knew it was a good sign that the tall girl could stand her presence in that close of quarters. And it felt oddly right that she seemed to have fit in under Julia’s chin just perfectly.
I know I should feel bad about this, Kelsey thought to herself. I know I’m just setting myself up for disappointment. But damn! It felt so good to be in her arms…I wish she could feel the same way about me. The thought threatened to put an abrupt damper on her good mood. Don’t think about the future, Kelsey. She hugged you and you’ve never felt better.
At the head of the pack was Kyle and Brittany; they were holding hands and laughing about something, but they were too far away to hear. Jessie was talking to Dylan and Holly, and she tagged close behind, not wanting to spoil her good mood with conversation, but not wanting to lag so far behind that she could become easy pickings. She knew she had stepped on some toes today, and she was worried that Luke and Cassie might come after her now that she was becoming friends with Julia.
She could hear footsteps behind her, and she felt her breath catch. Her heart started to race; she turned around, fearful that Luke and Cassie were there to get a little vengeance for overstepping the boundaries during the day.
Instead, it was Julia, and Kelsey felt the tension drain from her body. “Whew, it’s just you,” she exhaled.
“Yeah, just me,” she replied, looking cheerier than she had earlier. “I ought to take more lessons about sneaking off from you. Tonight’s lesson seems to have worked. They didn’t see me at all!”
Kelsey smiled; she was secretly very grateful Julia had managed to sneak away too.
“So, what are you all up to?” Julia asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Kelsey admitted. “It’s a little risky wandering alone in small groups though, so we got to keep together.”
Julia nodded; she recognized the boy at the head of the group as being the poor fellow her and her mean spirited friends had harassed the night prior, and she felt the jibe was in reference to that. She felt a bit guilty about it; it seemed like such innocent fun last night, but it was not so fun or innocent to see how the other half had to live due to their actions.
Julia watched the other members of the group. Her and her friends had singled out Kyle earlier, but now that she was up close, she could see the others in detail. Jessie was talking to a very big and handsome young man, and she kept touching his arm and laughing with him. She had to admit he was devastatingly handsome and probably had girls falling over him left, right and center. And probably enjoys having his pick, too! The thought made her a little sick to her stomach. He certainly has the looks to be the loves-them-and-leaves-them type.
“What’s that I hear?” the tall, dark haired man who was talking to Jessie asked. The group froze, as everyone tried to figure out what he just heard.
“Sounds like a fight,” the hippie boy replied.
“Weren’t we asking where Natasha was during dinner?” the girl standing next to him asked.
“Yeah, we were,” the tall, dark haired man answered.
“That guy looks like the dick who was harassing us last night,” Kyle spat. “But that’s not the same girl.”
“She’s short and freckled,” Brittany replied. “Wasn’t Kelsey warning us about some little spitfire last night?”
“Yeah,” Jessie replied. “Let’s go see what they’re up to now,” she said, with an aggrieved sigh. “I see Audrie off to the side, but where’s Julia?”
Kelsey silently looked at Julia, knowing that no one had any idea either of them were trailing behind the pack. Julia looked really guilty.
“Man, they’re really going at it!” Brittany exclaimed. “We can’t just let her get ganged up on like that!”
The group gravitated to the scene of the fight, but no one looked like they wanted to jump into the middle of the fray to pull the combatants out. Everyone stopped and looked at each other, trying to figure who was going to cave in and volunteer for some very unpleasant duty.
Jessie turned around and gasped, not expecting to see Julia standing next to Kelsey.
“Guess the word’s out, isn’t it?” Julia weakly said. “If one of you could go in with me, we can get this stopped.”
“I’ll go,” the dark haired man volunteered.
“You take the small one. She shouldn’t be too hard to pull off,” Julia directed.
“But you can’t take him on!” Dylan protested.
“Oh yes I can. Watch.” She walked over and pulled on Luke’s arm.
“What the fuck?!” the blonde haired boy cursed, forgetting about his victim momentarily and preparing to wheel around and punch whoever just interrupted him. But moments before he could deliver the punch, he saw who it was. “Julia?” he cried out. “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Don’t you think you’ve tormented Natasha enough for the evening?” she sweetly replied, while Dylan pried Cassie off.
“Since when did you care about slut girl?” he spat.
Julia grabbed him by the arm, and said, “Don’t you think we’ve scared the piss out of enough people to last us a weekend?” He looked flabbergasted, and she continued, “C’mon, let’s go. Surely there are better things to do before bedtime than torment misfits.” She started to lead him away from the fracas, and Audrie grabbed Cassie’s arm and led her away, behind Luke and Julia.
The remaining people were speechless.
“What the hell just happened?” Natasha cried out, confused. “Where’s Mike?”
“Who’s Mike?” Jessie asked, giving her a hand up.
“He was the boy I was hanging out with,” she replied.
“He probably pissed his pants and ran,” Kelsey answered. “Come on, Natasha, let’s get you cleaned up. Looks like Luke and Cassie got you pretty well.”
“Where’d they go?” Natasha asked.
“We convinced them to leave,” Dylan replied.
Natasha shot back, “You don’t convince those leeches to leave! You got to pry them off!”
“Well, someone had an ace up their sleeve. Who was that girl, anyway? I’ve never seen her before.”
“Long story,” Kelsey said, evading the answer. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“You guys are confusing the hell out of me!” Natasha protested.
“That girl acted awfully familiar with that blonde haired boy,” Dylan continued. “I wonder if she’s his girlfriend.”
“Yeah, right! Like Julia would do anything charitable for me!” Natasha exclaimed. “How dumb do you all think I am?!” she ranted. “You’re treating me like I got knocked silly!”
I guess pigs do fly, Natasha, but I won’t mess with your head tonight, Kelsey thought to herself, leading her to the girl’s washroom to get her cleaned up.
It had exhausted her greatly escorting her troublesome boyfriend back to his cabin, and he had guilt tripped her into saying that she still loved him and she didn’t hate him, even though she was a little doubtful about how she felt about him now. He had insisted on a goodnight kiss, and it was rough and aggressive, bordering on desperate. She was relieved when she was able to return to her own cabin, away from everyone and everything.
She got out her pajamas and changed into them, her eyes heavy with sleep. She was about to crawl into bed to sleep when Audrie came in.
“Going to sleep so soon?” she asked.
“Yes, I am. Today has been too long,” Julia replied.
“I need some advice, Julia,” she said.
Great, now what? Julia thought to herself, sitting back up so she wouldn’t be tempted to fall asleep listening to Audrie.
“You know how we’re grouped into fives for our daytime activities?” Audrie asked.
“Yes,” Julia said, encouraging her to speak further.
“In my group, it’s Jessie, me, and three guys. Jessie pretty much ignores me but those guys really give me the creeps.”
“That sucks,” Julia commented.
“They really give me the creeps. When I walk towards the front, I literally can feel their eyes on me!” Julia looked down on her petite friend and had to admit she looked genuinely upset. “I’m scared, Julia. I’m thinking about feigning illness for the rest of the trip just to get away from them!”
“Have you said anything to Jessie?” Julia asked. “She might be willing to walk with you if you mention that they’re being creeps.”
“Have you lost your mind? You know how Jessie feels about our group! Do a favor for any one of us? I don’t think so!” she cried out. “I’m just grateful that tomorrow morning is unscheduled time! I got my bible packed so if you wanted to do prayer group with me, we can.”
“That sounds like a good time. It’s a little weird not going to church on a Sunday,” Julia admitted. “How about we do breakfast, prayer group, and then the two of us will track down Jessie and talk to her before lunch. I don’t think she’d leave you out in the cold if she thought you needed help.”
“She’ll probably think I’m full of—it!” Audrie cried.
“Can it hurt to talk to her?” Julia reasoned.
“No,” Audrie replied.
“Stick close to me tomorrow and we’ll get something worked out, okay?”
“Thanks Julia. You’re a champ.”
She had the hardest time falling asleep, despite the fact she was dog-tired. This has been a weird day. It’s been pretty horrible. But yet, there were some real high points. I might have found someone I can talk to that isn’t a gossip.
She thought about her group, and wondered how much trouble she was going to get into for opposing them. Luke did seem pretty upset about me not supporting him. She thought about why she didn’t support him that day. Let’s face it: this whole harassment thing is getting out of hand. It was fun taunting Natasha, but this is getting to be a habit! It almost seems that our group activities now revolve around Bible study, gossip, and taunting!
She swallowed hard. Good God, how can we justify ourselves in calling ourselves Christians?!
It will be good to do some Bible study tomorrow morning. I think we all could use a refresher from the Good Book!
“It’s nice to have a break this morning,” Kelsey mentioned over breakfast to Jessie. “Yesterday was so long, it’s nice to be able to sleep in a little.”
Jessie nodded. “I bet a lot of these people weren’t used to that much physical activity in one day. Those were some long hikes!”
Kelsey speared another section of scrambled egg and chewed it. It had a funny texture, like it had been chopped off a coarse bath sponge. And the shape—she didn’t ever recall seeing scrambled eggs being served in flat little squares before. “So what are you going to do with your free morning?”
“Hmm, I’m not sure. I’m going to see if I can find Dylan. He might be interesting to hang around.”
Kelsey looked up, and saw her friends face. Interesting look you have there, girl. She took a bite of toast, then took a long sip of her orange juice to wash it down.
“So, Kelsey, what’s up with Julia?” Jessie asked. “She was acting a little funny yesterday.”
I agree with you there, thought Kelsey. Not that I’m complaining.
Jessie continued, “It really threw me for a loop when I saw she had tagged along with us last night. And since when did she care about Natasha? That was just too weird.”
“Yeah, it was pretty weird,” Kelsey admitted. She had a good idea why Julia had been tagging along with them, but she wasn’t sure it was something she should share, at least yet. “I think her friends said something to piss her off, she seemed to have been avoiding them for most of yesterday.”
Jessie nodded. “That would make some sense. She looked awfully upset at lunch.” Jessie had finished her breakfast, and put her silverware down on the tray. “Be careful, Kelsey,” she warned. “I was laying there last night thinking about how you two seemed to hit it off, and I got a little worried about you. When this whole thing with her friends blows through, she may revert to her old self, and I’d hate to see you hurt.”
Kelsey reluctantly nodded. I hope she wasn’t insinuating too much, she worried, thinking maybe Jessie picked up on something she’d rather not have revealed. “I’ll try, Jessie, I’ll try to be careful.”
“Hey, there’s Dylan and his friends. Want to join?” Jessie offered.
“Sure,” Kelsey replied. Would be nice to get tall, dark and dangerous off my mind.
Kelsey was happy to soak up the conversation at hand at the table. Jessie sat next to Dylan, and she kept touching his arm. Hmm…that’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen Jessie act like that around a guy before, she mused to herself. Kyle and Brittany were sitting very close together, which didn’t surprise Kelsey, she knew they were a couple, and Holly was just as quiet as she was herself. A thin boy had joined them, and she vaguely recalled he had hung out with them on Friday night. Francis, she guessed, not really remembering the lad too well.
It was about midmorning when she spotted Julia and Audrie in the distance, bibles in hand. Of course! Some people on this planet actually believe in going to church on Sunday mornings. She had to admit it was a pretty foreign idea to her; her own family wasn’t terribly religious. And it was just as well, Kelsey thought many times to herself; she couldn’t imagine getting away with the things she did if she lived under that kind of lock and key. Not that she was wild or anything of the sort, but she would certainly have not gotten away with her wardrobe choice.
She saw that the two of them were approaching their table, and she felt a bit apprehensive. It looked like they were walking over with a purpose, and she felt sick to her stomach wondering what purpose it was they were coming over for.
Jessie spotted them out of the corner of her eye. “They’re coming over here?” she asked, pointing to them.
“Yeah, just them.”
“I wonder what they want,” she scoffed, seeing their bibles in hand.
The rest of the table noticed them approaching, and picked up on the strange vibes Kelsey and Jessie were feeling. They looked like the last people who would ever come to the table just to chat.
“Kelsey? Jessie?” Julia asked, her voice a little unsure. “Could we possibly talk to you two for a moment?”
Do I see Luke and Cassie anywhere near? Kelsey thought to herself. If it’s just her and Audrie, we can probably handle them ourselves. “I can spare a minute. Jessie?”
“Uh…” her tall friend looked reluctant to leave the group.
“Please?” Audrie asked. “I need to talk to you about our assigned group.”
Jessie relented. “Alright.”
They walked a little ways down the path uncomfortably. “So, what is it about our assigned group?” Jessie asked, trying to ferret out why they had approached the table.
“You know the three guys in our group?”
“They’re really giving me the creeps,” Audrie confessed. “I don’t think we should be walking alone when we’re around them.”
“What should we do then?” Jessie replied.
Kelsey understood what Audrie was hinting at, and Jessie was purposely being obtuse. “Jessie,” she said, “maybe you two ought to walk together. You were telling me the same thing earlier about those guys.”
Jessie sighed, shrugging her shoulders. She really didn’t want anything to do with Audrie. But the petite girl really hadn’t done anything to her, save hang out with some nasty people. She didn’t ever recall Audrie being an active participant in any of the melees, though. I guess I can just suck it up. Kelsey did a good job sucking it up for Julia and she has a lot more reason to hate Julia than I have to hate Audrie.
“Sure. I’ll watch your back.”
“Thanks,” she shyly replied, smiling.
Jessie and Kelsey returned to the group after their little discussion, while Julia and Audrie went back to their tent cabin to change into more casual clothing. Kelsey wasn’t sure when she nodded off, but she a little startled when she felt a hand on her leg. “Kelsey,” a husky but feminine voice purred in her ear.
She felt goosebumps as her vivid imagination paired up those hands to a certain face. “Kelsey,” the voice repeated.
She blinked her eyes, slowly lifting her head from the table. It took a few seconds longer to regain her sense of time and space, and she turned to her side to see whose hand was touching her leg. It was Jessie, and she was giggling.
“You perv!” she scolded, smacking her on the shoulder a little harder than she meant to. “What are you trying to do to me?!”
“Nothing,” Jessie innocently replied. “Hey, lunch line’s forming. How about grabbing some grub? You know we’ll need every calorie they’re offering for whatever they got planned for us this afternoon.”
“Yeah, we probably will,” Kelsey said, getting up and rubbing her eyes. “How long was I out for?”
“About twenty minutes,” Jessie answered.
They sauntered over to the dining hall, to see what was on the menu today. “Spaghetti and meatballs. I have a feeling we’re picking out parts of this meal.”
Jessie nodded in agreement. “I think we ought to fill out a couple of those comment cards and ask for a little more diversity in this diet! I feel really bad for the vegans.”
They each grabbed a heaping plateful, and joined Dylan and his friends. Kelsey quietly ate her food, noticing that from this particular section of the dining area, they could see down to the basketball courts. She noticed that Luke was playing hoops with three other guys, and to the side, Julia and Cassie were sitting on a bench, talking.
It seems like yesterday didn’t happen, Kelsey thought to herself, watching Julia act like her normal self around her friends. She felt a little jealous, but laughed at herself when she realized it. As far as you’re concerned, yesterday did not happen. Julia was just being nice, she has no intentions of being your friend, and you knew that. You know that! So stop moping around, this is what you get for playing with fire. If this is all you get for playing with fire, you’re damn lucky!
She had been watching them for quite a while when she realized that Audrie was not going to be sitting with them at all. Hmm, that’s interesting.
Jessie noticed that Kelsey was watching something off to the side, and she leaned over to see what had grabbed her friend’s attention. “What’cha looking at, hmm?”
Kelsey turned around. “Just watching people.”
Jessie peered down. “Julia’s down there, isn’t she?”
Kelsey blushed. “I guess she’s over whatever tiff she had with her friends yesterday,” she stiffly commented.
Jessie’s eyes moved from the bench to the basketball court. “Ah, that’s what she’s watching. Her boyfriend,” she noted. “Wait!”
Kelsey jumped at Jessie’s exclamation. “What?”
“Those are the three creeps in our group!”
“The ones playing with Luke?”
Kelsey shook her head. “No wonder Audrie isn’t hanging out with them!”
“I wonder if Julia has any idea,” Jessie said. “Maybe she’s too busy watching her boyfriend to care.”
“I bet she wouldn’t be there either if she knew her friend’s tormentors were right in front of her face!” Kelsey declared.
Jessie looked at her and shrugged.
They met in their groups after lunch. Julia looked a lot happier today than yesterday, Kelsey noted, and she enthusiastically came over and greeted her. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Kelsey replied in kind. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much,” Julia said. “What are we doing today?”
“I have no idea. We’ll find out in a minute.”
Kelsey had to admit it was a little weird to be back in her presence. She had been pondering whether yesterday had happened, since Julia was back to her old self with her friends, and the thought gave her the creeps. She really needs to lose those friends, she insisted to herself. They’re a bad influence. Of course, I think I’m a little bit jealous here, which is silly, look at all the cool people we’ve been hanging out with.
But it was even stranger to know things went back to normal yet Julia was in a chipper mood around her. Can you have your cake and eat it too? Surely there’s a catch somewhere.
The counselor assigned to their group today announced that they were hiking out to the lake, but it was going to be to a dock on the opposite end than the day prior. Once there, the group would row around the lake.
“That sounds fun,” Kelsey cheerily commented.
“Yeah,” Julia agreed. They walked in companionable silence for the first half mile, until they came to a narrow point in the path.
“Oh boy,” Julia sighed. She could see where the path dodged between two rocks, and then hugged the side of the mountain narrowly. “I don’t think we’re both going to fit,” she commented.
“Here, we’ll walk single file,” Kelsey said, going first. She slipped through the rocks, and then plodded along the narrow section of trail, taking in the view. The slope was very steep, and there was a thin guard rail along one side. From this section of the trail, one could get a very crisp view of the lake, shimmering in the early afternoon sun.
“Wow,” Kelsey sighed in wonder. She turned around to point it out to Julia. Her face was pale and she was shaking.
“I don’t like heights,” she wheezed.
“There’s a guard rail to protect you,” Kelsey reassured her. She looked up the trail to see the counselor and the three other girls in the group were well ahead of them. I have an idea. “Here,” she said, extending her hand.
Julia took it, and grasped it tightly. Damn, she has a tight grip! Kelsey thought to herself.
The gesture seemed to reassure her, and Kelsey could feel that she was less resistant to forward progress. She could still feel her friend shaking, but it was much less pronounced, and when she turned around to check on her, her skin color looked less pallid. Good, I think this worked.
They got through the tight section, and when the trail reached a small meadow, the path widened. Kelsey went to remove her hand, but Julia maintained her tight grip.
Okay, we’re within eyesight of the group now. They take one look back here and they’re going to be assuming bad things. It wasn’t that she wanted to let go voluntarily, though.
“You can let go of my hand now.”
Julia arched a brow, noticing that Kelsey sounded really nervous. “Uh, alright,” she reluctantly conceded, dropping her hand down to her side. “Why are you nervous?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Kelsey dismissed.
“Suit yourself,” Julia said sadly.
“Hey, hey, I didn’t mean it that way,” Kelsey tried to reassure her. “It was just…uh…didn’t want people assuming things,” she stuttered.
“What’s the harm in holding hands? We did it at church camp summer all the time,” Julia replied. “Well, my friends did. I was going out with Luke by then.”
Buy a clue, Julia! Kelsey fumed to herself. On the second hand, don’t! I know it’s wrong of me to enjoy those little touches when I know you have no idea how I feel about it, but maybe it’s just as well I’m aware of the potential impropriety of it! Kelsey simply nodded. You’d think that church camp would be the last place you’d get away with something like that. But then again, I doubt people who look like me go to church camp in the first place!
“Hmm?” Blue eyes glanced back at Kelsey.
“At lunch today, who were those guys who were playing basketball with Luke?”
Julia paused, forming an answer. “Luke introduced me to them, but I honestly don’t remember their names. He’s played basketball with them a few times over the past two days.”
Kelsey nodded. “I got bad news for you.”
“Those are the jerks who have been giving Audrie a bad time on the trail.”
“What?!” Julia cried out, blindsided by the news. Her face was first one of outrage, then thoughtfulness as a realization hit her. “That would explain why Audrie didn’t join us for lunch then.”
“Wow, that is quite some view!” Julia exclaimed to herself upon reaching the lake.
“Looks like it’s two to a rowboat. Let’s claim one before they split us up!” Kelsey exclaimed. The three other girls were grumbling a bit, and looked rather reluctant about claiming a boat.
There was a gravel road leading to the dock, where service vehicles could get in and maintain the boats and dock. It made a distinctive crunch under their feet, a sound and feel much different than the packed dirt that they had been hiking on.
They were near the dock when Kelsey misstepped, slipping. Julia was right behind her, and before Kelsey could fall to the ground, Julia grabbed her.
Damn, she’s strong, Kelsey realized as she felt her arms grab under hers. I may not be heavy, but I’m certainly not lightweight! She placed her feet on more solid footing and stood up. “Hey, thanks,” she thanked Julia.
“No problem,” Julia replied, with a lopsided smile. “Let’s take this boat. It looks like it has the most leg room.”
She certainly needs it, Kelsey thought to herself, eyeing the distance between Julia’s ankles and her waistband. She picked up the two life preservers and tossed the larger one to Julia.
“Thanks,” Julia replied, slipping it over her head and cinching it down. Kelsey likewise did the same to hers.
The other girls reluctantly followed suit, but it was obvious they wanted nothing to do with the rowboats. After the camp counselor briefed them, three boats left the dock, Julia and Kelsey being first. There was a dock on the other side of the lake they were to row to, and the hike back home was going to be different than the one they used to get there. Thank goodness, Julia thought to herself upon hearing the news. That little narrow section really freaked me out. She thought about the charitable gesture Kelsey made to ease her fears. I’m really lucky I got paired up with her and no one else from Student Council!
As they rowed further into the lake, it became obvious that Julia and Kelsey were the fittest by far of the group, for they had lengthened their lead from the rest of the group. Julia studied her companion, noticing how it didn’t seem terribly strenuous to her to keep rowing. I wonder what hides under that clothing, she thought to herself. It’s so baggy, it’s hard to tell if she’s thin, chubby, muscular…
Yet another mystery, to go along with what color her hair is.
“Hey, do you play any sports?” Julia asked.
“Yeah, soccer,” Kelsey replied.
“Ah, a winter sport,” Julia noted.
“Yeah. Jessie does soccer too,” Kelsey continued. “I really hope I make the varsity squad this year. Some people were telling me I was supposed to be on the varsity squad but they were hurting for goalies on the JV team, so I got held back last year.”
“I’m surprised Jessie would do soccer,” Julia commented. “She looks like a basketball player to me. What position?”
“She’s a fullback, and a backup goalie when they need her. She’s pretty formidable in the backfield.”
Julia nodded, having a vague idea what Kelsey was talking about but not terribly much.
“You do any other sports besides tennis?” Kelsey inquired.
“Not really,” Julia replied. “I did track my freshman year, but it bored me to tears.”
“No softball? You look like you’d make a good first baseman.”
Julia laughed. “Oh heavens, I suck at softball. Every time I play in church league, I get stuck out in right field, and if I’m real lucky, I get stuck behind the backstop.”
“You catch?” Kelsey asked, a little confused about what she meant about “behind the backstop.”
“No, no, in church league we don’t have catching equipment, so the catcher has to stay behind the backstop until there’s a play,” she explained. “Not that the catcher gets to do anything during a play. Usually the third baseman takes over,” she said, with a harsh laugh. “I think the catching position is simply so someone can go shag foul balls.”
“That doesn’t sound like any fun,” Kelsey said.
“No, it isn’t. I don’t bother anymore. It’s a guy’s game, with a few women to annoy them.”
Kelsey shook her head, not liking what she heard, but keeping her comments to herself.
“Besides,” Julia added, “I always strike out.”
Why do I have a hard time believing that? Kelsey wondered. She looked at her companion, who looked like anything but a klutz. She plays varsity tennis, she remembered. You don’t reach that level without hand-eye coordination. I bet she’s better than she realizes. Heck, the way she describes the game, I bet you they sabotage her turn at bat so she can’t do anything BUT strike out!
Hmm. I should hang around after school sometime and watch one of her tennis matches. That might be interesting.
Wait, she might think I’m a stalker if she sees me there. And I did promise Jessie I would attend a few of her home games.
“I did softball my freshman year,” Kelsey volunteered. “I was the catcher that year. Boy was that hard work! You get stuck in this hot, sweaty equipment, and since the varsity and JV teams steal all the pitchers, we got stuck with the girls who couldn’t find the damn strike zone. I swear I spent all my time chasing wild pitches!”
“Doesn’t it get better once you move up?”
Kelsey shrugged. “I went to tryouts my sophomore year, and I was still chasing a lot of dirt balls. I got sick of it, I guess. I wanted to play baseball, not fetch.” She could see they were getting close to the dock. “Besides,” she added, “that mask trapped all the dirt and rubbed it into my skin. I had the acne from hell that year!”
Julia looked at Kelsey’s face closely. Her face didn’t appear to be pockmarked, and she would have never guessed that she ever had a pimple. She was grateful that Kelsey was concentrating on maneuvering the boat to the dock; she seemed unaware that her friend was looking at her.
They got the boat angled in so it was close and parallel to the dock. There was a camp counselor on the other end, who helped them anchor the boat to the dock, and they climbed out.
“Wow, they’re really far out there,” Kelsey noted. The camp counselor looked dismayed.
“You were supposed to travel as one large group,” he started to scold.
That would have been the smart thing, wouldn’t it have? I don’t think I could stand those girls another minute, though, Kelsey thought to herself.
“We didn’t hear anything about it,” Julia explained.
The camp counselor grumbled to himself, but said nothing further about it to Julia and Kelsey. “Wait for the rest of your team to come in,” he instructed.
The hike back was a lot shorter than the hike to the boats, and when they got back, it was dinnertime.
“Hey, Kelsey?” Julia asked shyly.
“Mind if I eat with your friends tonight?”
“Not a problem. Feel free to join us.”
“Are you sure? They probably all know I hang out with the bullies,” she said sadly.
“Nevermind. Forget I asked.”
“Julia,” Kelsey said, gently grabbing her arm. “Don’t put yourself down. They know it couldn’t have been easy to stand up to your friends like you did last night. I don’t think they’d have a problem with you sitting with me.”
“Alright, I’ll take your word for it,” she said hesitantly.
Kelsey added, “Besides, if anyone gives you a bad time, I’ll take them on!”
Julia smiled. “Let’s eat then!”
Julia and Kelsey sat at the end of the table, next to Dylan and Jessie. Next to them was Kyle and Brittany, and there was space for about two more people at the end.
“At last,” Brittany said, spearing a carrot, “green vegetables are on the menu tonight!”
Julia had a large salad on her plate, and seemed to attack it with gusto. “It’s nice to see something more balanced,” she replied. “Everything’s been so greasy.”
“It has, hasn’t it?” Kyle replied, scooping up a spoonful of baked beans. “I’m pleasantly surprised by these beans. Usually it tastes of diluted bacon.”
Brittany saw someone in the distance and waved them over. Julia glanced over and saw it was Natasha, with some random boy. I hope she doesn’t see me. But if she does and has a hissy, I guess it’ll be just desserts, Julia thought to herself. The goth and her boy of the day came over and sat next to Brittany and Kyle.
“Finally, they have something edible!” Natasha exclaimed.
“Yeah, we were just talking about that,” Kyle agreed.
Julia saw Audrie pass by in the distance, alone. I wonder where Luke and Cassie are, she thought to herself. I probably ought to apologize for hanging out with those jerks earlier.
“Kelsey, I got to go for a minute. Audrie probably thinks I’ve totally abandoned her.”
“Alright. See you later.”
Julia left, the rest of the table oblivious to her departure. “Audrie?”
Angry brown eyes looked at her. “What?” she snapped.
Damage control sorely needed! “Hey, I’m sorry about what happened at lunch.”
“You should be!” Audrie spat.
“Yes, I should. But I swear I had no idea those were the jerks giving you a bad time! If I had known I would have never gone down there.”
Audrie nodded, seeming to have accepted the explanation. “I’m sorry, Julia, I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I didn’t realize you didn’t know.”
“It’s alright. If I were in your shoes I’d be incensed too.”
“So, looking for Luke and Cassie? I think I saw them headed the other direction.”
“Luke is probably eating with the creeps. So, no.”
Julia nodded. “I need to go straighten him out after dinner. I don’t think he knows of any of this.”
Audrie nodded. “So, are you two going to the dance this evening?”
“Dance?” Julia asked, surprised. “Um, I didn’t know about it.”
“You do now,” Audrie replied. “It’s a little weird being the only one without a date.”
“Since when did Cassie get a boyfriend?” Julia asked, perplexed.
“She mentioned something about going with someone, but I have no idea who,” Audrie admitted. “But I have suspicion it’s one of the creeps.”
“Par for course, of course,” Julia said. She didn’t like the idea of this dance; if Luke wanted to go, she’d feel obligated, and she hated having to do things for other people. The idea of running into the creeps in the flesh didn’t really appeal to her, either.
“Did you get any dinner?” Julia asked. “They got good stuff tonight.”
“I’m famished. Let’s grab a plate!”
Kelsey noticed that Julia had been gone for quite a while. I guess she’s not coming back, she thought to herself. Most of the table had finished their food, and everyone was looking a little restless.
“Anyone up for seconds?” Dylan asked.
“You bet,” Kyle replied. The two boys left, and Kelsey tagged along, since she was still hungry.
“We’re going to get going,” Natasha replied, her boyfriend of the day following her close behind. Only Jessie and Brittany were left at the table, which had been full mere moments earlier.
“Hey, Brittany, I have a question for you.”
“Yeah?” the girl replied. “Shoot away.”
“Do you know if Dylan is seeing anyone?” she nervously asked.
“I don’t think he is,” Brittany replied.
The ball was in her court. Jessie pondered her next move. “I wonder what his type is. Does he prefer small girls, big girls, skinny girls, hefty girls?”
Brittany could see where the line of questioning was going. “You have a crush on him, don’t you?”
Jessie blushed, and gave a nervous laugh. “Yeah,” she admitted in a higher than normal voice.
Brittany paused for a second. “You seem to be open minded,” she finally said. “But this is between this table only.” She paused again, then said, “He’s gay.”
If it had been anyone else who heard it, they would have laughed, for Dylan was probably the last person anyone would think of being gay. But for Jessie, it wasn’t funny at all. She just sat there, a blank expression plastered to her face, and she didn’t hear everyone come back.
“I guess we’re the only one who likes their vegetables,” Dylan remarked, sitting right next to Jessie. “There’s tons of leftovers!” He dug into his food with zeal, oblivious to everyone else.
Kelsey wasn’t so oblivious, and could see that something had greatly upset her friend during her absence. “Jessie?” she asked.
The tall girl bit her lip and abruptly left the table. Whatever it is, it’s a big one! What’s up with everyone being emotional this weekend, anyway?!
“I’ll be back later,” Kelsey said, chasing after her friend.
It took her a few minutes to catch up with Jessie. She had been running at full speed, and Kelsey decided she must have been really out of shape not to be able catch up to her for a while. Some halfback I am! I’m going to get ran over this season if I don’t start running again soon! “Jessie!”
The tall girl slowed down and stopped a sufficient distance away from the dining area. Tears were running down her face, and she looked very embarrassed.
“Jessie, what happened?”
Her tall friend opened to say something, but instead a sob came out. “I should have known it was too good to be true!” she blurted out.
“What was too good to be true?”
“That a tall, handsome guy like that was available!”
She was partially surprised, but not completely, that Jessie had a crush on him, and that he of course wasn’t available.
“You know what the kicker is?” Jessie continued.
“It’s because he’s gay!” she declared, crying again.
Gee, that makes life a little interesting, doesn’t it?
The dance was scheduled after dinner. Luke and Cassie were laughing with their newfound buddies, which caused Audrie to hang back when Julia approached them. “Luke?” she said.
The blonde boy looked up. “Hey, Julia! Long time, no see! Care to join us?”
“I need to have a word with you. Alone.”
“Uh, alright,” he said, a little surprised by her tone. They were out of earshot before Julia continued.
“I got some bad news about your new buddies.”
He looked at her quizzically. “Huh?” he sputtered.
“They’re in Audrie’s activity group. She says they’ve been harassing her. Now that you know, you might want to think twice about spending so much time with them.”
Luke laughed at her. “Harassing her, hmm? Puleeze! That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! She must be imagining things.”
Julia glared at him. “No, she’s not the only one who has noticed. Audrie’s not coming back to our group until they’re gone, and I’m not leaving her alone. So if you want to see me again before we go home, you better think long and hard about what I just said.”
He stood there, grinding his teeth a little. She gave him a little time to consider the facts, but as the time dragged on and he continued to gnash his teeth, she began to suspect that his answer wasn’t the one she was looking for. I guess this is the difference between guys and girls, she thought to herself. I think the answer is quite obvious. If you’re hanging around someone who is bothering your friends, you don’t hang around them anymore! Group loyalty!
She watched him intently, like a hawk. I think he knows what I’m thinking, and I think he’s not going to answer me because he knows he’ll be wrong. If he was going to agree with me, he would have by now.
“I’ll see you later,” she said, leaving him.
“Wait!” he cried out immediately.
“I said I’ll see you later,” she firmly stated.
“What about the dance?” he asked.
“Later,” she replied, turning on her heel and walking away. He followed her behind, and grabbed her by the arm from behind a little more roughly than he realized.
“Come on, Julia,” he pleaded. “I’ll never hear the end of this if you don’t go with me!”
She stood there, hands on hips. After a few tense moments, she answered, “Alright. I’ll go.”