"Hey guys, take a look!" Hey-Guys-Call-Me-Chuck! shouted over the thundering rain. "There's Camp Algonkian Island!"
On Mike Webster's not-so-triumphant return, his first sight of Camp Algonkian was a blur through sheeting rain, as the camp's motor launch bounced over the choppy waves. Rivulets of water off the hood of Mike's rain poncho found their way down his nose, and he swiped at them gloomily. Beside him, the other two late arrivals, similarly strapped into PFDs, were huddled under a tarp by the bow. One, a weedy little kid in glasses, was clutching his knees and muttering to himself. The other, a teenager Mike guessed to be about fourteen, had dozed off within minutes of their leaving the dock, oblivious to the heavy rocking.
"Oh my gosh," murmured the tarp, "we're doomed."
Hey-Guys-Call-Me-Chuck!, their expedition's pilot, hadn't heard him as he was cheerfully bellowing a song: "I have lost the will to live! Simply nothing more to give!" It was, Mike realized with a start, the lyrics of to a heavy metal song that he knew. It was so off-key that he hadn't recognized it at first.
The lump of tarp moaned.
Mike sighed and clutched at his guitar, which kept sliding away along the wet deck. None of this had been his idea. He'd simply crumpled like tissue at his parents' disappointment, just like the last time.
The Takeout of Fear
When Mike got home around six o'clock from band practice in Yash's parents' garage, the first thing he saw was his dad sitting on the couch carefully unpacking cardboard food cartons from a huge paper bag.
Mike's heart sank. It was an ominous sign. His parents always supplied large quantities of takeout to fortify everyone when they intended to be the bearers of bad news or the deliverers of stern lectures.
He'd fled silently up the stairs to his room. There he'd stripped off his coat and begun to pace the floor, turning over recent events for potential clues, when his sister Vicky stuck her head in his open door.
"I smell kung pao beef," she said, glaring at him. "What have you done this time?"
"Me? Nothing!" he protested. Their last impromptu takeout feast—a peculiar combination of Doro wat, lamb curry, and poutine—had been for a lengthy discussion of budding eco-terrorist Vicky's haring off with her friends to a mass die-in at one of the colleges without asking permission first. "I figured it was you again."
"Nope," she said, spitting the 'p'. "It's gotta be you. The last time for Chinese, you were ditching PT."
"I don't have that anymore," he pointed out. The accident that had cut short his first term in grade 9—a car that spun out on the ice and jumped a city curb, bowling over other pedestrians at the corner and pinning Mike and a woman beside him to a building wall—had broken his right arm and leg as well as a few ribs. Naturally Mike's bad luck had carried through to an extended bout of pneumonia as well.
Mike hadn't had an ideal attitude toward tutoring while in traction—or toward physical therapy after he'd been released. In the end, he agreed that being held back a year in school was the most reasonable option.
From his perspective, the repeated year plus the expectation of eventual grade 13 made it seem like he would be a high school student forever. Worse, he now shared a grade with his sister. A few summers of Silver Lake Girl's Camp and a few years of high school had transformed his noisy little sister into a mocking monster of attitude. When they'd begun to share the same classes and classmates, in Vicky's eyes Mike had relinquished the respectful awe that was his right as an older brother. He'd become used to it, but it was depressing.
"Well, it's true you have good grades," she sniffed. "And aside from that racket in the Singh's garage—" She snapped her fingers. "Ohhh. Someone finally called the police on you losers, didn't they?"
"No!" He scowled at her. "We're not that bad!"
"Then it's gotta be an intervention for these delusions of yours."
"Stuff it," he said, flinging his pillow at her. "Your mouth's big enough.
"You will regret that," she promised him. Then she turned on her heel and thundered down the stairs. Mike congratulated himself on getting rid of her—until he realized he'd just given her a substantial head start on dinner. She was both greedy and ruthless in hoarding her picks. He shouted and scrambled to catch up.
Unfortunately, as usual, she'd been right. It was about him.
"Er, Mike?" his father said. "Are you still with us?"
Mike stabbed absently with his chopsticks at his fried rice as he reran the entire conversation in his mind. He'd missed something, he was sure. First, his dad said he'd gotten the parks surveying contract in Alberta for the coming summer. Then, his mother had said she was taking a summer sabbatical to join him. Then Vicky had said she was planning to head back to the Silver Lake girl's camp again. So that meant . . .
"Wait. What about me?" Mike said, looking up. "Everyone else is just leaving? I'll be here all by myself?"
"No, no, of course not," his mother said, and Mike sagged, relieved. He'd missed something after all.
"Mike, no," his father said, "that's not the plan." He paused and added quickly, "It's not that we don't trust you to be on your own—you'll be eighteen in August, after all. But technically you're still in high school, so—"
"Mike, we did consider taking you with us," his mother broke in. "But we're going to be out in the field, on the move a lot. Usually in tents. Well, actually," she smiled at him happily, "that's what gave us the idea. So when we called the director and explained your situation, that you'd be in grade 12 next year, he said . . . oh, you're going to love this!"
Mike gaped at them; he suspected his expression must have been less joy than horror, because both his parents' faces fell, and Vicky was glowering at him.
In that moment, Mike resigned himself to graceful acceptance that his doom was upon him. "So," he said. "Algonkian, right?" He tried to summon an enthusiastic smile and hoped it didn't look too ghastly. "I was just . . . surprised, is all. That's so great. I've always wanted to go again." It wasn't technically lying if it was what everyone needed him to say, was it?
"I'm so relieved to hear that, Mike," his mother said, watching him uncertainly. "We've signed you and Vicky up for all the camps' summer sessions.
But honesty might have been the better policy.
It wasn't as if Mike didn't have any good memories of Algonkian. Sure, he hadn't wanted to go at all that first time. And no, that summer hadn't started out promisingly. But then he'd fallen in with Rudy Miller and been swept up in Rudy's dedicated quest to escape the island. Mike's whole life had taken a vivid, dramatic turn. Even the punishment work details of hauling bags of garbage became exciting opportunities for mayhem and natural disasters in Rudy's hands.
And after Rudy had done an abrupt about-face—turning down a legitimate offer to go home and staying at Algonkian after all—Mike had never had a better time in his life, as Rudy devoted his full attention to driving everyone in the camp nuts.
In retrospect, Mike thought that was what had jinxed it. He'd enjoyed camp too much, so naturally he'd made his big mistake. On the town dock, right before they split off to follow their respective parents to their cars, Mike had handed Rudy a scrap of paper with his address. "Just in case," Mike had said. "You know. I mean. It's no big deal."
Rudy had given it a cursory glance and shoved it in his pocket. "Whatever." Then he'd frowned. "I guess you might as well take this." He dug into the backpack hanging off his shoulder. "It's not like I need it."
'It' turned out to be a wooden box with intricate, dovetailed corners, about the size of Mike's palm. The wood stain had a familiar hue. "Wasn't this a tie rack?" Mike said, turning it over in his hands.
"I don't wear ties," Rudy said.
"No, of course," Mike said. He wondered when on earth Rudy had found time to make it as they'd spent nearly all their time at camp together. Then Mike fingered open the tiny wooden latch, and looked inside.
"Dirt?" Mike said, disconcerted. "It's full of dirt. This is a saleté."
"Good eye," said Rudy dryly. With that, he shoved his hands into his pockets and trailed off in the wake of his parents and never looked back.
That was the last time Mike ever saw or spoke to him.
Mike would spend weeks brooding over that small box, a finer, miniature version of the one he and Rudy had made for Chip, their cabin's counsellor ("His Cloneship," as Rudy had called him). Had Rudy actually made it for Mike? If he had, what did it mean? Was it just to remind him of Algonkian? To remind him of Rudy? Or was it some typically oblique statement that Rudy considered Mike to be as thoroughly dull as Chip?
It wasn't as though Mike could ask. He had no idea where Rudy lived. Rudy had never been talkative, and he'd had even less to say about his home and family. Mike had learned early on that the only way to keep Rudy from shutting him out was to studiously avoid any topic Rudy considered off limits. Now Mike was left kicking himself over his own lack of curiosity.
Eventually, in frustration, Mike had chucked the box of dirt up onto the shelf in his closet—out of sight, out of mind was the only tenable solution.
Then a month later, the first postcard had arrived. According to its postmark, the card had been mailed in Moose Jaw. The front was a photo of a moose chewing reeds. Its face seemed to have a befuddled expression. On the reverse was Mike's address in curving script and a single line:
"HELLO MY NAME IS CHIP"
"That's not kind," Mike's mother had said, hiding a smile.
"It's a pretty good likeness though," said Vicky, who'd also met Chip that summer at parent's day. Mike had to agree: Chip often did have that expression while dealing with Rudy. And, like Chip, moose were probably as prone to random, accidental feats of destruction.
"So are you going to write him back?" Vicky had asked, lingering over the picture.
"Can't. He never gave me an address," Mike said, snatching the card back. When his mother offered to try directory assistance for Millers, Mike was ashamed to admit he didn't even know which town. "His parents had Ontario plates on their car. That's all I know," he said.
His mother regarded him with a puzzled expression, and Mike squirmed with shame.
A month later, another postcard arrived. Kakabeka Falls, this one said, the "Niagara of the North!" And on the back, in block printing, it added, "Our Niagara, the colour of diarrhoea." It was, as Vicky pointed out, a pretty accurate observation.
After that, a card would arrive randomly once a month, from a variety of locations in the country. In fact, Mike had been brooding over a postcard featuring the RCMP Depot in Regina ("Cop Clone Factory" the back said) when he'd found himself abruptly squashed by a Lincoln Continental.
And he'd still been in the hospital when his sister brought in the postcard of the CN Tower: "World's Tallest Building!" ("On a clear day, you can see
forever nothing of interest.")
"He was here in Toronto," Mike said numbly.
"Not necessarily?" Vicky had said hesitantly. "I mean, you can get cards like this at any—" Mike prodded his finger at the postmark. "Oh. Yeah."
"Toss it," Mike told her. "I don't want it."
She eyed him pityingly and tucked it into her book. She must have intercepted any others as well because he didn't see another card until he'd brought himself home from PT one afternoon and fetched their mail himself. This one was a postcard he'd seen before: "Summer Fun at Camp Algonkian!" He'd expected an ironic "Wish you were here!" on the back, but nothing was written there at all, apart from Mike's address.
"Well," Vicky pointed out later, "you know where he is now. If you wanted to write back."
"Not interested, don't care," had said Mike, tossing the postcard in the trash. If it had all been some elaborate Rudy Miller plan to educate Mike on Rudy's life perspective, it had succeeded. Mike now felt apathetic about the entire situation.
Rudy could suffer at Algonkian on his own.
The Doom of the Unknown Camper
As the yawning and stretching teenager shambled down the dock with his duffel into the rain, Mike turned to haul the little guy, Elliot, over the boat's rail on the slippery planks. Hey-Guys-Call-Me-Chuck! was dumping both their bags beside them. "Yeah, guitar," he said to Mike approvingly, handing it over. "Rad."
Before Mike could respond, Chuck was looking past him and shouting, "Pierre, you lazy bum, come get these guys!"
When he turned around, Mike spotted a figure in a bright-orange sou'wester trotting through the downpour down the clearing toward the dock, waving a clipboard wrapped in plastic. He intercepted the teenager who was halfway to the woods by then, and towed him back along to the dock.
Mike couldn't believe it. Arts-and-Crafts Pierre was still cloning away at Algonkian.
"Yes, I know," Pierre was saying as they came into earshot, "but you may as well come along. I have to get you all signed in first." To Hey-Guys-Call-Me-Chuck, he said, "Fashionably late as always, Charles."
"Hey, no one told me. I thought everyone was here!" he protested. "I headed back to town grab a beer, and I found these three sitting in cars with their folks at the dock."
Pierre sighed. "Our director. Why am I not surprised? All right, Lebois, could you help me with the others' luggage?" he said to the sulky kid he'd dragged along. With that, Pierre began bustling them off the dock, and to their smallest camper he said, "Elliot Parkins, yes? Are you going to be sick? No? Give me the other one, let's all head up to the first wash stand . . ."
After they'd trudged across the field, down the main trail, and reached the covered dryness of the wash stand, Pierre began to sort them out. "Right," he said. "You all met Charles already—Chuck, I should say. He maintains our waterfront and boats, and he'll be your swimming instructor as well. Our head counsellor this year is Eric, who will also be supervising the mess hall and all-camp events. And I'm Pierre—yes, Lebois, I know you already know all this. Please be patient—I teach arts and crafts, and I'll be relieving your regular cabin counsellors throughout the summer as needed."
He unwrapped the plastic from his clipboard and lifted off a thin, flat wooden rectangle on a leather thong, which handed the teenager. Burned onto the surface was "Stephane Lebois." Pierre said, "Lebois, you're back in Cabin 8 this year, and Joe is still the counsellor. You know the way. Also Cabin 8's on mess hall rotation tonight, and they may have already left."
The teenager trudged off down the main trail, and Pierre turned his attention to the kid. "Parkins, are you feeling better?" At the nod, Pierre dropped another name tag around his neck and said, "We'll be wearing these for a few weeks while everyone's getting acquainted. You'll be in Cabin 5. It's the first year for everyone else there as well, so that shouldn't be too strange for you. Your counsellor, Ahmed, should be along in a few moments to show you the way."
"Um. Can, can I use the washroom before he gets here?" the kid said, looking anxious.
"Oh. Absolutely! It's right over here," Pierre pointed. "Come back when you're finished."
As the kid scurried off, Pierre turned to Mike, consulting his clipboard. "All right. Mark Webster. You're our oldest camper this year, but since this is your first year as well, we'll—"
"Mike," Mike said quickly.
"Pardon?" Pierre glanced up.
"I'm Mike. Not Mark." He added, helpfully, "It's not the first time I'm here."
"Mike?" Pierre looked confused. The last tag he was dangling said, "MARK WEBSTER." As he tilted the clipboard into better light, and Mike leaned over to see for himself. Sure enough: "Mark Webster, 17, Toronto."
"Arthur," Pierre murmured, shaking his head ruefully and penciling in the correction. "I'm sorry about this, so are you also—" Pierre paused, and regarded him thoughtfully. "Wait . . . Mike Webster."
"Yeah." Mike recalled that he was still covered in a rain poncho, so he pushed back the hood. "Hi."
Pierre's eyes widened. "Oh. Good lord. I do remember you. Or at least a shorter version of you."
"Yeah?" Mike huffed a laugh, but he couldn't tell if Pierre viewed it as a good memory or not.
"This won't be awkward at all," Pierre muttered to himself. "Webster, I am sorry for this mistake. But welcome back to Camp Algonkian. These name tags are something we started using last year—I'll make you a new one tonight."
"No, it's fine, I guess," Mike said, tugging it free from Pierre's hand. "It's bad enough that I'm the oldest camper to ever camp, and that I'll be here the whole summer, but I'd feel even stupider as the Camper with No Name. I'll just keep correcting people."
"No need," Pierre promised, "I'll make a new one—just stop by the arts and crafts cabin to pick it up tomorrow. But I must say . . . well, I'm surprised."
"It's a long story," Mike said, sighing. "But long story short, this was my mom's idea, and she talked to the—uh, Director Warden, told him the long version, and here I am."
"I see. Maybe I can hear the long version another time?" Pierre said. "For now, it appears you're assigned to Cabin 13 again. Which you'll be relieved to hear is still standing and has shown no signs of falling over again."
"Same cabin? Really?" Mike felt an odd prickling of unease.
"Well, Director Warden does try put people back among familiar faces. I suppose this means he remembers you." Pierre frowned. "Even if he didn't remember your actual name."
Again, Mike wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
"And I'm sure you remember the trail that leads there. As for your counsellor . . . Cabin 12 had a bout of collective vomiting following their trip across the lake, and it's been requiring some assistance to clean up, so you may be on your own at first." He patted Mike on the arm. "Settle in, meet your cabin mates, and I'll leave you to it." With that, he rewrapped his clipboard and quickly set off for the toilets to retrieve Parkins, who'd yet to emerge.
Mike was halfway to the cabin when he realized that Pierre had forgotten to tell him who his counsellor was. He didn't suppose it mattered; Chip had no doubt moved on to a full-time job by now, so it would someone new Mike didn't know anyway. No, worse was that Mike was now remembering Pierre's initially words: since this is your first year as well.
The Warden hadn't remembered Mike and wasn't trying to put him back with friends—Mike figured most of their old cabin mates were working or getting ready for college, not hanging out in a summer camp. No, he'd been assigned to Cabin 13 because it was filled with first-year campers again.
The New Counsellor
The first thing Mike noticed was that Cabin 13 had all the mess of recent habitation but none of the inhabitants. The second thing he noticed was that he was wrong—the scuffling and hushed "stop it!" gave it away.
He'd been part of odd camp activities in his time, so he wasn't going to judge yet. But still, this one was weird. He cleared this throat. "Uh," he said, "am I interrupting something?"
A few moments later, a small brown hand crept from under the bunk near the wall; its owner's face followed. "Ohhh," the boy breathed. "False alarm!" At which point, a flurry of limbs and bodies erupted from under the lower bunks and over the sides of the top ones.
"Wow," said the first boy, whose name tag declared him 'Louis Smythe'—apparently the only one brave enough to serve as lookout, "we thought you were him!"
Mike would have asked who 'him' was, but he was being distracted by the discovery that few of his cabin mates topped five feet. "Is this someone's idea of a joke?" he muttered to himself. "How old are you guys?"
"Hey, I'm twelve and a half!" said the tallest one, 'Morris Gold.' He peered at Mike's tag and demanded: "How old are you, uh, Mark?"
"It's Mike," he retorted. "Too old for hiding under a bunk. What the heck were you guys doing?"
"It says Mark!"
"It says wrong," he told him, growing annoyed. "I know what my own name is."
Then a kid labeled 'Akande Layeni' yanked on his arm and blurted, "Are you our new counsellor, Mark?"
"Like I said, I'm Mike. And no, I'll just be living here. Apparently." Mike considered that, and asked, "What's wrong with the counsellor you have?"
Several stunned seconds ticked by, then the dam of dismay burst: "You don't know?" "He's scary!" "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh." "So horrible!" "He's the meanest counsellor in the whole camp!" "Everyone says so!"
"Woah." Mike scratched his head. "Really?"
A chorus of agreement and nods ensued. "He really really is," said a spotty, pale kid with the unlikely "Ellsworth Sprague-Dawley" burned onto his wooden tag.
Mike pointed at it. "Really?" he said.
The kid twitched and crossed his arms over it defensively. "Just 'Dawley' is fine. That's what I told him, but he keep calling me—"
"Sprague-Dawley!" came a roar from outside. "Are these yours?" The kid froze in place. Then he hit the floor and slithered under the bunk, followed immediately by all the others, variously climbing or crawling out of view.
Mike leaned back against the nearest bunk and bemusedly watched the last sneaker disappear, as the cabin's screen door slammed open. "Sprague-Dawley, I told you once, and I'm not telling you twice."
Mike gaped in astonishment: Rudy Miller stalked past him into the centre of the cabin and tossed down a handful of soggy candy wrappers.
By Any Other Name
"That's it," Rudy announced to the seemingly empty cabin. "When we get back, I'm searching everyone's stuff. Every candy bar I find is headed for the dump."
Mike gaped. Rudy Miller was wearing one of the camp's bright orange sou'westers over a white polo shirt, white shorts, white socks, and a pair of muddy rubber boots. Around his neck shone a silver whistle on a woven lanyard, and he clutched a bulging garbage bag in his other hand.
At a complete loss for words, Mike cleared his throat.
Rudy wheeled on him, eyes dropping automatically to his tag. "Mark Webster," he read off, and his gaze flicked up, "about time you—" Rudy broke off.
Mike was grateful for those few extra seconds he'd had to handle his own surprise, as it put him in an excellent position to enjoy, for the very first time, the sight of Rudy Miller looking utterly blind-sided. But then Rudy blinked, and Mike thought maybe, for a few fleeting instants he looked . . . hurt? angry? He wasn't sure because he'd never seen that expression before.
Whatever it'd been it vanished and was replaced by unmistakable, withering scorn. "Mark, is it?"
"Uh, the Warden goofed," Mike said weakly. "Pierre said he'd fix it."
"Pierre knew about this," Rudy said flatly.
"No—he was pretty surprised, too," Mike admitted, feeling sheepish even though none of this was his fault. "I didn't know you were here either. Uh, hey. How's it going?"
Rudy's eyes narrowed, and Mike spared a nervous glance to the room. The silence had taken on a distinctive, listening quality. Rudy must have noticed it too because he rapped out, "Saves me from repeating myself. You already know the drill, Webster. Pick an empty bunk, sort out your junk. As for the rest of you, prepare to face your doom." He took a breath and barked, "Line up!"
The reluctant but rapid reveal of his cabin mates would have been hilarious to Mike if he hadn't still been so bewildered on his own account.
"Here's what's going to happen next," Rudy said to them. "You will each take one of these." Rudy upended the garbage bag and a pile of folded rain ponchos hit on the floor. "Then you will each pick a buddy, and you will cling to your buddy as if your life depended on it because . . . you never know. I strongly recommend that you stay in line, and you do not wander off the trail into the woods, where no-one may ever find your bones. You will proceed in an orderly fashion to the wash station. There, you will use the washroom if you need it, and you will not think about what's underneath you in those pit toilets, down in the dark." He added, prosaically, "Everyone will wash their hands regardless." Then he put his hands on his hips and finished sternly, "Afterward, anyone who has survived will regroup, and we will proceed to the mess hall, where you will go directly to our assigned table, sit on the benches, and be quiet."
In the wide-eyed silence that followed, Rudy said softly, "Is that clear? Are there any questions?" A few heads shook. Then Rudy smiled. "Excellent."
Mike had to wonder whether Rudy was aiming for 'benevolence' but was so unused to that idea—and to smiling in general—that all he could achieve was terrifying. His smile was stiff, and wide, and toothy, and called to mind less Cheshire Cat and more feral cougar. One of the kids whimpered, and the unfortunately named Ellsworth Sprague-Dawley began to clutch at the arm of Louis Smythe, who had lifted his chin and was doing his best to look undaunted.
"Is there some compelling reason you're still standing here?" Rudy asked them. As one, they broke formation and scrabbled for the ponchos as they ran out the door. "You know where we'll be, Webster," Rudy said in an aloof tone, then without even glancing Mike's direction, and he too was out the door, loping easily down the trail after his fleeing campers.
"Okay," Mike asked the now actually-empty cabin. "What on earth was that?"
Dinner for Eight
The set of bunks in the far corner—the very ones he and Rudy had once occupied—were still empty, so Mike grabbed Rudy's old bottom bunk for himself. He felt he was too old to do that undignified heave into the upper bunk every night for an audience.
And forewarned was also forearmed: if Rudy really did intend to search everyone's baggage for contraband candy bars, Mike might have a problem. He pulled the small saleté from his duffel bag. He wasn't sure why he'd brought it along—some passing notion of tossing it into the garbage dump that had originally inspired Rudy to make them. Now Mike wished he'd just left it in his closet. He carefully tucked it into the rail of the upper-bunk, underneath the mattress where it ought to remain invisible even if someone decided to jump up there.
In the mess hall, Mike slunk in late to Cabin 13's table. Rudy now sat at the head, the seat that had once belonged to Chip, and they'd left an opening on the bench for him—as far from Rudy as he could be. Clearly a conversation wouldn't be on the menu that night.
Unfortunately, Mike wasn't too late for the welcome speech, moved in from the usual baseball diamond location on account of rain.
"This is Camp Algonkian Island," intoned Arthur Warden, the camp director. "It was founded 34 years ago by my grandfather, Elias Warden. I like to think of Algonkian as the finest camp in Ontario . . ."
His six cabin mates fidgeted their way through The Warden's speech—word for word, exactly as Mike had heard years before—exhorting them all to new heights of summer fun and extolling the virtues of Canadian manliness. This time, no one was distracting Mike with commentary on The Warden's bow legs, so he used the time to covertly study Rudy—who was vacantly staring at the ceiling rafters.
The moment The Warden ran out of platitudes, Rudy creaked back to life, and every eye at the table snapped back to regard him warily.
"Algonkian mess hall procedures," Rudy said. "I explain. You do." His explanation was a marvel of curt efficiency—where to collect their table's servings, how to set their table—that once again left no one with any questions. He raised an eyebrow. "Again I ask: why are you still here?" The ensuing rush to get away from the table would have upset the bench if Mike hadn't still been planted on one end. Rudy settled back to survey their efforts, much like an escapee from a nature documentary planning its next meal.
"Rudy," Mike said, unsure even then what he was going to say to him.
"Webster," Rudy said, "shape up, or you don't eat." Mike gaped at him; Rudy was quoting Chip now? Rudy looked back dispassionately. "Fine," Mike snarled. He got up and went to help his cabin mates sort out their silverware.
"Acceptable," Rudy deemed their efforts, examining the table settings with critical detachment. Then he settled back again to stare at the rafters. "Now you may eat. Please observe the appropriate table manners, and feel free to talk amongst yourselves."
"Gee," Mike said. "Thank you."
"Not at all," Rudy said airily. "But be aware that if the noise here reaches an undesirable level, I have suitable deterrents in mind."
In the din that descended on the mess hall, no one at their table spoke, instead looking back and forth between Mike and Rudy with wide eyes. Finally, Louis cleared his throat and whispered, "May, may I have the potatoes, please?" Mike rolled his eyes as his table companions quivered.
Meet the Campers
Because the first night's campfire also had been called on account of sudden swamp, Rudy marched them straight back to their cabin. After he'd dutifully, thoroughly ransacked everyone's luggage as promised—not even Mike's was spared—Rudy gathered up candy, gum, a slingshot, and one rather lurid magazine and warned them that he'd be back later to enforce washing, tooth-brushing, and lights out.
Then he strolled out—leaving Mike to his fate.
Mike had no curtains for his bunk, and because he wasn't Rudy, he couldn't bring himself to help himself to someone else's bedsheets. So instead, after stuffing all his clothes back into his duffel, he pulled his guitar from under his bunk and pretended he didn't notice the gathering semicircle of campers beside him, composed of Louis Smythe, Morris Golder, Akande Layeni, Ellsworth Sprague-Dawley, Billy Macgreggor, and Les Bonhomme.
"So why are you so old?" Billy, the obvious youngest of the group, wanted to know.
"Why does your guitar have Beaver Boat painted on it?" Morris asked.
"Why did you pick this bunk?" asked Louis. "That one over there was empty."
And the question he'd been wishing he could avoid: "So how do you know Rudy?" which came quietly from Les.
Mike sighed and gave up. He held up his fingers and ticked them off: "Actually, I'm still in high school. It says Beaver Boat 'cause a beaver used it as a boat once. I picked this bunk because it was empty. And sure, but a long time ago. That it?"
"You know," Louis said admiringly, "nobody else would sleep under the serial killer bed. You're, like, a total beast."
"The what, now?"
Louis pointed to the bunk over Mike's, where Mike himself had once slept. "Up there," he said, "it's freaky. No one wanted it."
"It might be haunted," Billy informed him in a low voice. "My cousin's in Cabin 6, and he told me that if someone sleeps in it, they're cursed to—"
"Nobody's cursed." Mike said, setting aside his guitar. "I'll take a look." He boosted himself up to the top bunk as everyone backed away hurriedly. Then he saw what all the fuss was about. "Prison Camp Algonkian" had been carved on the wall beside the bed; underneath it were neat rows of tick marks—counting off several summers' worth of days, he knew. Around it were carved petroglyphs, what might be animals or monsters or both. By someone who'd had plenty of free time to think about the designs. Maybe while plugged into a Walkman.
"Okay," Mike breathed. "I can see the point." It definitely looked creepy.
"It's a count of the killer's victims," Ellsworth was whispering to Louis, as the others retreated even farther. Mike guessed the rumours would work to his advantage and decided right then he'd be storing his guitar above his bed instead.
When he dropped back down, he said, "I'll take my chances," and apparently won the admiration of everyone in the cabin as simply as that.
He wasn't off the hook yet though. "How long ago?" Les insisted. "It seemed like he knew you pretty well. Even though he wasn't paying any attention to you."
It was always the quiet ones, Mike thought, wincing. "I knew Rudy, but so did other people. I came here as a camper once before, y'know. He'd been a camper here for . . . a while"—apparently, he thought. "Just like you guys."
Their expressions were skeptical. "He was a camper? Rudy?" The idea seemed to confound them; and having seen Rudy in action, Mike could understand why. He wasn't sure he would have believed it either, and he'd been there.
Back in the High Life
As it turned out, and unbelievably, someone had thought it would be a good idea to put Rudy in charge of all the first-year campers. Each morning after breakfast, Rudy would slouch against the wall of the mess hall reading a book while the campers cleared their tables.
Then the residents of Cabins 5 and 13 would timidly cluster nearby.
Then Rudy close his book, tuck it in his back pocket, and wander out the door. They'd follow him, each clutching his buddy's hand.
Then Rudy would suddenly turn, stare at them for a few moments, counting heads; then he'd issue his commands and imperiously lead them to their designated activities.
But once Rudy had delivered them to the appropriate location, he'd don his sunglasses and Walkman headphones, and throw himself on the ground, and lapse once again into inactivity—until the end, when Rudy would rise up like a corpse from a slab, blow a single blast on his whistle, and the whole procedure would begin again.
Even as the campers got accustomed to Rudy's quirks, they continued to regard him with the same nervous awe. They'd watch his every move raptly, waiting to see what strange thing he'd say or do next. And they'd figured out quickly that whenever Rudy felt impatient or short-tempered, he is voice would go very soft, and then he would smile.
The potential of seeing Rudy's creepy smile again had them all jumping to obey whenever he ordered them around.
"You guys know he's not really going to, I don't know, eat you or something," Mike would point out, exasperated.
"We're not stupid," they'd tell him. "We know!" But they never acted like they were entirely convinced.
Mike didn't think Rudy disliked kids necessarily—he suspected that Rudy was mostly apathetic about the whole idea of them. And somehow that seemed to be making him one of the most popular counsellors in the camp.
All of which left Mike in a peculiar bind.
Unless the situation demanded that Rudy acknowledge Mike's existence, he looked right through him or more usually past him, like he was pretending Mike didn't exist. Because Mike was the 'extra' camper in their cabin with no buddy, he was responsible for no one but himself. The first few days at the camp, this had left Mike largely at liberty to wander wherever he pleased, and do whenever he wanted. When he lounged around in his bunk while everyone else left, Rudy didn't care. When Mike spent the afternoon strumming his guitar by the lake, Rudy didn't care.
Out of sheer boredom, Mike had wound up trailing along after the first-years like an oversized sheepdog, herding and cajoling by turns while Rudy ignored him.
Mike's life fell into exactly the sort of schedule he and Rudy had successfully avoided the last time he'd been at Algonkian—daily visits to the pond, a rotating succession of sports (baseball, soccer, track, field hockey . . .), and random 'special programming' like canoeing and knot tying and first aid.
The other Algonkian campers seemed to believe Mike was some kind of knock-off counsellor—an impression that wasn't helped by the actual counsellors pressing him into service to set up equipment, escort kids to the nurse's station, and even help with sports coaching.
So when Pierre shouted to him in passing on the fourth day, "Webster! You haven't stopped by for your tag!" Mike had waved—but he honestly hadn't had the time, and Cabin 13 wasn't officially scheduled for a crafts session until the next week. Later that same afternoon, as Mike jerked a kid from Cabin 5 out of the patch of poison ivy that Rudy hadn't bothered to warn them about, Mike began to wonder whether he should be going on strike for a paycheque.
"I'm grateful you lend a hand," Ahmed, the Cabin 5 counsellor who also coached soccer, told Mike when he'd had no objections to chasing kids around the field. "The first-years are always a handful."
"Doesn't Rudy's shirking bother you at all?" Rudy would deliver their kids to the field, then he would arrange himself listlessly on a nearby warm boulder like a lizard in the sun and don the headphones to his Walkman. Whenever Mike looked in his direction, Rudy's dark sunglasses would be pointed skyward; to all appearances he was asleep.
"This is my job, not his," Ahmed pointed out. "Besides," he added, "Rudy doesn't play soccer, you know."
Mike knew. Rudy didn't do a lot of things.
But not long after that, Mike figured out what Ahmed had really meant: because suddenly, startlingly Rudy had materialized in vicinity of a kid from Cabin 5 who having intractable problems with dribbling. Rudy competently corrected the kid's technique then drifted back to his rock to resume sunning. That was when Mike noticed Ahmed subtly begin nudging another of the most inept kids into Rudy's view.
"Basically you're tricking him into helping by annoying him," Mike concluded.
Ahmed laughed. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Rudy doesn't play soccer."
A few days later, after Rudy had sorted out Louis and Les who hadn't been able to master a passing drill, he suddenly booted their ball into the air and leapt up after it. Rudy executed a sharp scissor kick that sent the ball sizzling into the top-left corner of the net, rocking the metal frame. His landing was a neat, tucked roll that left him back on his feet. Brushing off grass as he went, Rudy strolled back to his rock and his headphones.
Everyone looked after him, astounded.
"Oh. He's a soccer robot," Akande said worshipfully.
"Rudy doesn't play soccer," Ahmed said to Mike again, amused. "But once in while he does things like that."
Rudy didn't play any sports at all—so, after a while, all other counsellors appeared to be adopting to Ahmed's techniques. And sometimes, random home runs, goals, and other spectacular plays, which left the campers reeling, would occur. Some things never changed: Rudy didn't play sports. He was still eerily talented at them all.
But during the swimming lessons, Rudy would always disappear. Mike finally asked Chuck, "Where does he go anyway? Is this his break?"
"Who, Rudy?" Chuck scratched his chin. "Naaah, he says he'd rather spread his break over the whole day. He's got our chess nerds in the mess hall right now." He slapped Mike on the back. "Don't worry, Webster, your beauty will always be back for you!"
"He's not anyone's beauty," Mike said sourly. "I was just asking." But Chuck was already blowing his whistle and shouting, "No horseplay! You're out of the water!" and didn't hear him. So Mike sighed and turned his attention to more pressing matters: "Morris, no, not like that. You have to keep your legs straight while you kick."
So Rudy was playing chess. He hadn't even asked Mike if he wanted to as well. Mike felt a twinge of disappointment, but he couldn't say he was surprised.
Dear Parental Unit
"He knew I'd busted the faucet at the wash stand," Morris moaned. "He wasn't even there, and he just knew. How do you explain that?"
In Mike's opinion, low-flying aircraft could have picked up on that kid's guilt, so it was hardly a major feat of detection on Rudy's part.
Every night, without fail, his cabin would review Rudy's behaviour of the day and segue into speculation and debate about what he might do next. But even if Mike was forced to endure it, he didn't have to participate—early on, he'd shut down any attempts to solicit his opinions.
After that, feigning sleep had worked surprisingly well for him. Especially after Billy had shared with everyone his mother's words of wisdom: "Older people need more sleep, she says. And Mike's old, you know."
So after Mike had rolled over that night, the usual discussion started up shortly thereafter.
"It's because Rudy's an alien," said Louis, as usual. He was a science fiction nut, so aliens always came into it somehow. "They can read your mind. There's a secret government program—my uncle told me all about it. This camp must be where they allow them to roam, so they can observe their behaviour. For science."
It actually wasn't too far off Rudy's one-time theory about camp counsellors. Mike was pretty amused.
"You keep saying that, but you can't just say 'oh, he's an alien,'" Billy argued. "There's different kinds of aliens. I saw it on TV."
"I know there are," Louis shot back. "He's a Reptilian. His teeth, you guys. And you've seen him sleeping on that rock? That's the kind of thing they like. And that's why he wears those sunglasses all the time—it's to hide his eyes."
"I'll give you the teeth thing, but we've seen him without the sunglasses. They just look like eyes."
"They can camouflage them, but sometimes they don't. Probably they let their guard down when they're asleep or something."
"I still say he's a robot," Akande grumbled. "Nobody is that good at stuff like he is. Did you see how far that baseball went yesterday? It was out in the woods!"
"Aliens would be, too."
"No, they wouldn't. They wouldn't even care about baseball."
"Rudy doesn't care about it either. He said he doesn't play baseball!"
"This is so stupid," Ellsworth said. "Mike probably just told him about the faucet."
"Mike wasn't there either!"
"Besides," Les pointed out, in one of his rare contributions to the conversation, "Mike doesn't talk to Rudy. And Rudy doesn't talk to Mike."
"Not around us. You don't know, they might hang out all the time when we're not around."
"No," said Les, "they don't."
Mike felt his ears redden with this inclusion of him in the nightly rumour session, but he reined in the urge to tell them to be quiet. He didn't want anyone to know he'd been listening in on any part of a conversation about Rudy.
"Anyway," Billy said, finally. "I think it's because Rudy's really an American."
"There's nothing weird about Americans except the way they sound," Ellsworth said. "There's one in my class at school, and Rudy doesn't sound anything like him."
"So where's that kid from?"
"Atlanta, he said."
"It's in . . . Texas."
"I have an aunt and uncle and cousin in Texas," said Louis. "I've never met them."
No one apparently had anything to add to that, and Mike was glad that they were finally done for the night. His hope was premature.
"You heard what he said at lunch yesterday though?" Ellsworth said. "That we should let him know if we find any fingers in our stew? Because the cooks are supposed to take them out before they serve it?" Ellsworth said. "He could be . . . the secret camp killer." In the hush that followed, he said. "I saw this movie this one time, you guys . . ."
Mike genuinely did doze off during the convoluted rehash of the movie plot, but he woke again abruptly when Billy said, "That's probably why Rudy hates Mike. Because Mike knew him before, so Mike knows his secret."
"What's Rudy's secret?"
"What would I know? It's a secret, duh."
"Maybe Mike knows he's a robot."
"Or that he's the killer."
"Oh! He could be blackmailing him with it or something."
"Well," said Les scornfully, "if Rudy's the 'secret camp killer,' he'd just kill him, not ignore him."
Les continued, "They're just having a fight. They act just like my parents. They stop talking to each other and just stare at each other all the time. It's dumb."
Mike could feel himself flushing again. He didn't stare at Rudy. He didn't think.
"Yeah, they do do that. So you think they're just fighting?"
"So your parents, like, they never talk to each other at all? That'd be weird."
"No," Les sighed. "Of course they talk to each other. Just not when they're fighting. Like I said."
"So how could they stop fighting if they don't talk to each other?"
Mike was ashamed to find himself wondering that, too.
"Well, you know. Eventually they do . . . stuff," Les said. "After that, they start talking again."
"What kind of stuff?
"Stuff. You know." There was a significant pause. "Stuff."
There was a chorus of "eeuw," and one "Oh my gosh," and Ellsworth protesting, "What are you talking about? What's stuff?"
Mike had had enough. "Shut up," he groaned. "Geez."
"Do you think he heard—?"
He'd hoped that would finally put an end to it, but it wasn't long after a low voice said, "So what? You think Rudy and Mike should do stuff?"
"No, you twit. They're not married."
With that, the conversation really did shut down, and Mike did get some sleep. He woke the next morning irritable and contemplating a new career as the not-so-secret camp killer—starting with residents of Cabin 13. He'd had a painfully confusing, seemingly endless dream in which he and Rudy had been doing "stuff."
It made the whole idea of spending much time near Rudy that day oddly mortifying and unpleasant, to say the least. Mike was still trying to decide what he would be doing with himself instead that day, when Rudy looked up from his morning mess hall book—a murder mystery with a gory cover that had Ellsworth significantly elbowing everyone in his vicinity—to survey the shuffling first-years.
"First, letter writing," Rudy said. "Then nature hike." He pointed behind them. "Those two tables. Sit."
As Rudy distributed the stationery, pencils, and envelopes, he said, "Because part of the traditional Camp Algonkian experience is never having to think for yourself, I'll be happy to provide you with all the thoughts you need. Write this down."
Everyone exchanged glances, and put their pencils to paper.
"Dear parental unit or units," Rudy said, "Camp Algonkian is horrible. Last night our counsellor started a fire by our cabin and told us he would throw us all in. He tortured us by making us burn food on sticks and eat it. Now our teeth will rot and fall out of our heads."
It wasn't, Mike thought, an unreasonable summary of last night's campfire invitational with Cabin 5. So he mentally shrugged and copied it down. Mike glanced up when Rudy started to spell out "C O U N S—" and noticed that Billy beside him had already filled half his page with all that and more:
The cansiler for are cabin is Rudy and he made us writ all that becos he is weerd and maybe is a robot or an aylien. We stopd kikkin eech other so he dint throe us in so dont worry. I am playin soccer evary day and we go to the pond to. Yesturday at free swim Rudy showd me how to tred water so I wont drown and be a burdin by makin peeple reskew me. Chuck says I will lern how to swim. The food is OK but somores evary nite wood be beter and they do not rot my teeth wich are OK becos I brush them.
Now Rudy was loudly spelling "T O R T U—" In case Rudy decided that he'd need to inspect everyone's letters like their former counsellor Chuck had, Mike scrawled:
Just ignore the previous paragraph, which was dictated to us by our dictator. Not really happy with mom and dad right now for reasons I won't go into, but it's letter writing day, so someone has to get a letter. Lucky you. Now wishing I'd argued harder for option B this summer. Yours is probably going better than mine.
Mike quickly folded his letter and stuffed it in the envelope. On the front he wrote, "Vicky, c/o Silver Lake Girls Camp," and dotted the "i" in her name with a star. Thus inspired, after he'd completed the address, he began to decorate the entire envelope with pretty, girly hearts and flowers to enrage her. He was considering how to fit in a unicorn when Rudy dropped a stamp onto the table by his hand.
"Hang on, I'm done," Mike said. He licked the stamp, slapped it on, and held the envelope up for Rudy to take. When nothing happened, Mike glanced up—Rudy was staring at the envelope with a slight frown. Then, without further comment, he plucked it from Mike's hand and stuffed it into the mailbag.
Arts & Crafts
When Mike let himself into the arts and crafts cabin, Pierre was demonstrating some leather tools for a group of Cabin 9 kids. "Mike Webster?" Pierre said, looking up. His gaze shifted instantly to the schedule on his wall. "Is your cabin—?"
"Nope," Mike said. "I've just slipped my leash. They're all out communing with nature right now."
"Oh, so you've got the big hike this week," Pierre said. "But seriously, does Rudy know you're here?"
"He doesn't care," Mike said, "trust me." Mike wandered over to the far wall to look over a half-finished wooden lamp someone had left hanging there.
"I . . . see," Pierre said, in the tone of someone who really didn't. "I'll be with you in a moment."
"Hey, no rush." Mike made the universal sign for take-your-time, and Pierre turned back to their project.
"Well, you've all got this down, I think," he told them at last. "Keep practicing on the scraps if you're not sure, but you should be set to start on the belts now." To Mike he said, "Let me get that name tag for you."
Mike gave the lamp a final poke to set it swinging and dropped onto a near stool. Pierre brought him a new tag, more or less identical to the one he was already wearing though this one did say "Mike Webster."
As Mike switched his tags, Pierre asked, "So were you feeling artistic today as well? I'm already set up for leather belts here."
"Maybe later?" Since Pierre didn't seem disinclined to talk, Mike decided to assuage some curiosity: "I wouldn't have expected you'd still be working here."
Pierre grinned. "Food, shelter, payment, but above all—" he waved an arm to encompass the outfitted cabin, and his eyes took on a fervent gleam "—months of rent-free studio space. At the end of the summer, I must be dragged away."
"Oh, uh," Mike laughed, disconcerted. "I guess I never thought about it that way."
"Well, for some, such concerns are more pressing," Pierre said in a pensive tone. "I suspect some of my co-workers are in similar straits, though I have not asked."
From that perspective, Mike guessed Pierre wouldn't see him as unlucky to be stuck with two more years of high school. Which reminded him of his official excuse for avoiding the hike, which also had the virtue of being true: "Well, if it's no bother, mostly I was looking for somewhere to stay off my leg. I didn't feel up to today's forced march. I mean, it's been a while since the hospital, but I'm not used to being constantly on-the-go like this, and it's left me a bit sore."
"Hospital," Pierre repeated blankly.
"Yeah," Mike said, rubbing his leg moodily. "I guess I could have just gone to the nurse's cabin, but he'd probably want me to spend it on a cot—"
"Why were you in the hospital?" Pierre interrupted.
"My leg?" Mike said, confused. "From the accident? I mean, I got through the physical therapy fine, but it's just—"
"Webster, back up," Pierre said. "What accident?"
Mike blinked at him. "Oh, right," he said. "That's the long story, I mentioned when I got here. I was in an accident the winter before last." Pierre dropped onto the stool beside him with a listening expression, so Mike elaborated on his lost year. "My mom explained all this to The Ward--uh, the camp director when she wanted to sign me up. Both my parents are in Alberta on a project for the summer. So instead of getting a summer job like any other kid my age, here I am," Mike told him. "So the director really didn't tell anyone?"
"Hmm." Pierre shook his head wryly. "I'm sure Arthur concluded it wasn't needed, as fresh air and exercise can cure anything from a sprained wrist to bubonic plague. But we really should be informed of any camper's preexisting conditions as a basic safety precaution. I'll bring it up at the next meeting myself and be certain the nurse knows as well. I'll admit that I'm a little disappointed in Rudy—he also could have mentioned it before now."
"Rudy wouldn't have known." Mike blew out an impatient breath.
"No?" Pierre watched him steadily. "He didn't know before you arrived?"
"Last time I spoke to him was . . . well, the last time I was here. At Algonkian. Then we went home."
"You two made quite the impression at the time," Pierre said, dry understatement. "He sat at this very table making you a present during that last week. I would have thought—"
"Rudy made me a—" Mike stared at him. "Wait, you don't mean that box? Did he tell you it was for me?"
"He didn't give it to you?"
"No, he did, but he never said it was—" Mike threw up his hands, helpless to explain all things Rudy. "But it was just another saleté, y'know?"
"A sale—oh. He filled it with dirt?" Pierre laughed. "That's really all he put in it?"
"What else would there be? Saleté, right?"
Pierre laughed again and stood. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that you'd fallen out of touch, but at least you've gotten a chance to reconnect this summer, right? Everyone's noticed that you've settled back in as a pretty good team."
Mike gaped at him. Was he serious? Mike could count on one hand the number of times he and Rudy had exchanged words. But to anyone outside of Cabin 13's conspiracy club, how must it look? They'd see that Rudy was good at wrangling kids. Mike had to admit, Rudy did keep the kids engaged; they'd seen none of the usual flare-ups of homesickness with first-years so far. "But you know," Mike said slowly, "that has been bugging me. Since when does Algonkian hire high school kids as counsellors?"
"Who do you mean?" Pierre asked.
"Well . . . Rudy," Mike said. "I mean, he'll be in grade 13 next year, right?"
Now Pierre seemed genuinely puzzled. "No, Rudy isn't in school any longer. He took the fast-track."
Mike stared at him. "What?"
"But I would have thought that you and Rudy—" Pierre sat back, studying Mike. Then he said, "Well, it's none of my business, of course. Excuse me, but I do need to check the other campers' projects." Pierre shifted back to the Cabin 9 table, but he kept glancing back at Mike, brow creased.
Now Mike felt uncomfortable. So as far as the other counsellors were concerned . . . they'd see Rudy sauntering along in front of the group, and Mike dogging everyone's heels at the rear. A pretty good team, Pierre had said, when Mike had thought it was obvious something was amiss.
So what about Mike's other assumptions? That's really all he put in it? Pierre had said.
Rudy never did anything straightforwardly, did he? Mike was suddenly seized by a need to check that box again. He stood up quickly and headed for the door.
"Webster?" Pierre said.
"Forgot something back at the cabin," Mike called over his shoulder, already pushing his way out the door.
Pas Une Saleté
"What kind of a kid," Mike asked his empty cabin, "has his own business cards?" The cabin had no opinion on that.
But Mike was only asking it because he was avoiding the worse, far harder questions. Such as, What kind of a kid leaps to a stupid conclusion about the best friend he'd ever had? The best friend he'd ever wanted?
After Mike had freed the saleté from its hiding spot under the top bunk and dumped out the packed dirt onto the floor, he'd sifted through the dirt and found nothing of note. The inside of the box had been equally unrevealing until he'd noticed that the bottom wasn't wood—it was paper.
It was business card stock.
It was—when pried out and flipped over—a simple business card with the name, address, and phone number, of Rudy Miller, who lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Mike groaned. All this time it had been underneath the dirt. He had never bothered to investigate any further.
Now that he knew, it seemed to overturn everything he'd believed about his life over the past several years. He sat in a welter of confusion. Was he angry with Rudy for hiding the card? But had the card even been hidden?—was it his own fault for never looking? Had Rudy been angry with him for never responding to the gift? Had Rudy been angry at him for never responding to his postcards? But what about Rudy being in Toronto and never even looking Mike up? Or had he tried Mike's home when no one had been there, when everyone had been at the hospital with Mike?
And the biggest question of them all: Was there any way to answer any of these questions without the most mortifying conversation Mike could imagine? No—it went beyond his imagination. He couldn't do it.
Mostly, Mike wanted to go home. Thanks to Rudy, he knew how to get there.
Safe Boating Practices
Conveniently, Chuck wasn't anywhere around when Mike decided that the smaller of the camp's motor boats would suit his needs. To that end, Mike had managed to find the gas can stored in the boating shed—and he still remembered how Rudy had started the engine and piloted it last time. So far, so good.
Inconveniently—and on a par with Mike's luck lately—the last person he'd expected or wanted to see came trudging out of the woods on the lakeside path with Cabin 5's smallest camper, Elliot, clinging to his back, just as Mike was set to start to topping off the tank.
"Oh, that's just . . . great," Mike said.
At the first sight of Mike, Rudy stopped dead just clear of the trees, staring. Mike, his eye drawn to the movement, stood in the gently rocking boat staring back. He was suddenly far less confident about his plan than he'd been only a few moments before.
Just as the silence was beginning to become so strained and thin it might snap, Elliot leaned over to see around Rudy's arm. "Oh! It's just Mike," he informed Rudy. Then he waved and called, "Hi, Mike! What are you doing in the boat?"
"That's an excellent question, Parkins," Rudy told Elliot approvingly. "But let's assume he's borrowing it without permission. Now ask him whether he remembered his bailing bucket."
"Mike," Elliot said, "did you remember your—"
"Cut it out, Rudy," Mike snapped, a prickle of irritation running up his spine. "Ask me yourself. Aren't you done hiding behind little kids yet?"
Rudy's eyes narrowed. "Parkins," he said, "the actual problem with your ankle is that you didn't want to go on that hike."
"Um." Elliot shifted on Rudy's back.
"It's been miraculously healed."
"Good." Rudy slid the kid off his back to the ground. "I want you to go find Eric and ask him to come down here," Rudy said. "He'll be in the administration cabin."
"Elliot," Rudy said sternly, pointing over to the main trail, "Fetch!"
As Elliot high-tailed it up the trail without any sign of a limp, Mike sighed to himself, and levered himself out of the boat and back onto the dock. Rudy thrust his hands into his pockets and strolled down to the dock to meet him. Rudy's eyes were fixed not on Mike but behind him on the lake. He was the picture of studied nonchalance.
"You don't have to hide behind other counsellors either," Mike pointed out. "I'm standing right here."
"As it turns out," Rudy said, still pointedly looking beyond Mike, "property theft merits more attention than lowly me."
Mike felt a flicker of elation; at least Rudy actually was going to talk to him this time. "That's really rich, coming from you. I'm borrowing it," Mike said, "just like you did."
Rudy let that one slide. Instead, he said, "You know that campers aren't allowed to use the boats without adult supervision."
"Of all the, I cannot believe you'd—"
"So I take it," Rudy said, looking at him out of the corner of his eye, "you're dissatisfied with the quality of the customer service in this establishment, Webster?
Mike glared at him, wondering why on earth he'd been feeling so ashamed of himself only a half-hour before. "You could say that, Rudy, yeah."
"So how about you enlighten me, then?" Rudy said. "We must be pretty bad around here to have gotten your attention. I know for a fact that's difficult to get."
At that moment, Mike's temper boiled over. He lost it. He tugged the card free of his pocket and slapped it onto Rudy's chest. When Rudy stepped back, blinking, it fluttered down between them and lay on the planks. Rudy tilted his head to look down at it and seemed surprised for a moment—but the moment passed.
"Oh. Offer null and void," he said tonelessly. "I don't live there anymore."
"Rudy," Mike said, fighting down the frustration, "I found that card a half-hour ago. I didn't even know it was in there." When Rudy still didn't react, Mike shouted, "Why the heck can't you do anything like a normal person?"
The moment the words had left his mouth, Mike knew he might have said something unforgivable, even before Rudy looked straight at him for the first time and Mike saw that flicker of hurt pass over Rudy's expression.
And again it was gone so quickly Mike couldn't be sure it'd been there at all.
"Like a normal person," Rudy repeated tonelessly. "I should have realized you'd need an instruction manual with that box. No surprise though. Five months difference between us, but only one of us is an official adult. With a diploma and gainful employment. And that's not you, Webster."
Leave it to Rudy to prod Mike's sorest spots. Before he consciously realized it was happening, Mike's fist connected with Rudy's chin.
Rudy hadn't been expecting anything like it either—Mike wasn't the sort of person who hauled off and slugged people, after all. Rudy lost his balance and toppled over the side of the dock, his foot connecting solidly with Mike's weaker leg on the way.
As his leg folded, Mike fell as well—and the side of his head thudded on the sailboat tied there, knocking his breath from him before he hit the cold water. Or at least, that's what he figured out had happened afterward—at the moment, he'd well and truly had his bells rung.
Someone yelled, "Mike!" but Mike was no longer paying much attention at that point.
Mike hadn't been knocked out precisely, but events seemed a bit hazy at first. He gradually became aware that he was being held bobbing on the water in a fairly secure grip while others were conversing.
Eric, the Head Counsellor, was crouched on the dock over them. He said something about the nurse, and someone standing over him agreed—Paul, the counsellor from Cabin 2, Mike concluded.
Rudy, who was sculling water beside him, replied, "Eh. Called me a twit, so I think he's all right." Mike didn't recall saying that but it didn't seem unlikely—he was about to thoroughly agree with the sentiment when a small wave crested over his face. Instead, he blubbed and blew out a jet of lake water.
"We can talk about all this later. Right now, we need to get him—both of you—up on the dock."
"I'd like that, too," Mike said wetly. "Lemme go, Rudy."
"Shut up," Rudy said toneless. "You're the rescuee. You don't get an opinion."
All of which led to Mike sitting beside a table in the administration cabin, wrapped in a blanket and studying a plate of cookies. Mike had been cleared by the tutting nurse, but Eric had 'just wanted a word' before Mike was returned to his cabin to change.
"We'll be talking later," Eric had promised Rudy, and he'd been sent off to change and rejoin the tail end of the nature hike with Ahmed, who'd been left coping alone. Mike had watched Rudy trudge off to the counsellor's cabins with slumped shoulders that looked oddly defeated.
A Sensible, Adult Discussion
"So Mark," Eric said. "I thought we should discuss this."
"Mike," Mike said, biting back the usual annoyance. He needed to look reasonable if he was going to make it through this talk in one piece.
"Mike, sorry," Eric conceded. "Mike, I'd been the Head Counsellor at Cedar Ridge for two summers when Arthur Warden offered to let take over from Frank," Eric said. "For a lot of reasons, it seemed like a good deal. I knew that Algonkian had its own ways of doing things—every camp does—so I've relied on the returning staff to let me know about any problem areas. I was more than willing to take Frank's advice."
He pushed the plate of cookies across the table, and Mike cautiously took one, wondering where this was going.
"At any rate, Frank recommended hiring Rudy if he decided to apply as a counsellor this summer. Until now, I haven't seen any reason to regret that. But I didn't realize that Rudy had some . . . extended history with Algonkian. I didn't realize that you had some as well." He frowned. "Apparently there was a lot I didn't know about the two of you until Pierre mentioned in passing today that he'd had what he called a 'troubling conversation' with you."
"I wasn't trying to—"
Eric waved that off. "I know, I understand that. What I'm saying is that after Pierre brought it up, it suddenly seemed like everyone was telling me things I didn't know about you two." He added, dryly, "And somehow all of that has resulted in the two of you skipping the nature hike and diving into the lake."
Mike flushed and studied his cookie. He tried a diversion. "Okay, so I probably should have waited for Chuck to—"
"Mark—sorry, Mike, two days ago I asked Rudy to let you know you were invited along to the dance at Silver Lake this evening, if you wanted go."
"Silver Lake?" Mike looked up, startled. He sensed trouble looming on the horizon. "I thought that dance was next week."
"It was." Eric sighed and leaned on his chin. "The weather has been creating some scheduling conflicts for everyone, including Silver Lake's participation in a field hockey competition. So I agreed to move the date of our inter-camp dance. Now it's tonight." Eric continued, "I've decided it ought to be reserved for the older campers. The rest of your cabin will be having a sleep-in with Cabins 5 and 12 in the mess hall, but I thought you'd be happier going with the older boys to the other camp."
"I . . . yeah," Mike said. "That sounds more . . . interesting."
"So Rudy didn't talk to you about it as I'd requested."
"He probably just forgot?" Mike hazarded.
"He didn't forget," Eric said. "He's supposed to be one of the supervising counsellors at the dance. His day off is tomorrow, and as far as I know, he wasn't planning to come back to camp afterward."
"Oh." Mike felt a surge of disappointment, but at what, precisely, he wasn't sure.
"So why don't you tell me what's going on here?" Eric said. "Rudy's been a good counsellor—he's had a lot of great ideas for activities, the kids seem to like him, and he keeps to the schedule well. As for you, from all appearances, you didn't seem to resent being placed in one of the junior cabins. You seemed to get along fine with that cabin's counsellor—you were even helping him with the group activities," Eric said.
"But now I'm getting the impression that you weren't fine with staying there. That Rudy was actually taking advantage of his position as being in charge of you to settle some old scores from a previous summer. That he's been dumping his own responsibilities on you. That you thought you had no choice but to put up with it."
"No!" Mike said. "It's not . . . like that." The horrible thing was, Mike might have agreed with some of that assessment not so long ago. But Mike's views had undergone a dunking in the lake since then. He took a deep breath, and went all in.
"I did know Rudy before. If you heard about the Big Beaver Flood, that was the first year for both of us." And we had a lot to do with kicking it off, he didn't mention. "But I didn't really talk to him after that," at all, he didn't say, "so I didn't know he was a counsellor here. And vice versa, I found out. As for the, uh, performance review? Rudy's always been kind of . . . unusual, but the kids enjoy it a lot." Mike rolled his eyes. "Believe me, I get to hear in excruciating detail every night about how much they're enjoying it."
Eric smothered a smile, so Mike continued, "I've spent a lot of time helping out with the kids, yeah, but no one's been making me do it. If anything, Rudy's been . . . looking the other way? I guess he could have seen me as, uh, a high-handed busybody. He could have been ticked off about it. But he hasn't been."
As soon as he'd talked it all out, Mike realized that it had the ring of truth. Rudy had clearly put some thought into How to Be a Better Clone—everything he did seemed like a funhouse mirror version of Chip. The result was that, like everything else Rudy put his hand to, he was a great counsellor. He kept the kids on their toes, nervous and energized and never bored, and at night they were usually too exhausted to stir up trouble. The kids couldn't seem to get enough of his brand of offhand, careless attention. He was their favourite topic of conversation.
And as much as Mike had been feeling put upon, Rudy hadn't asked him to do anything. Mike had been the one silently judging Rudy's performance and stepping in to deal with what he'd seen as deficiencies. It had been a situation of Mike's own creation. Rudy had been giving him the cold-shoulder all along, but Mike poking his nose into Rudy's job hadn't been the reason why.
"And how about your dip in the lake?" Eric prompted.
Mike hesitated. When asked, Rudy would undoubtedly tell the truth—he always had in the past, and probably always would—but Rudy used to always put his own spin on the story. Mike could try that, too. "We had a . . . constructive dialogue of our concerns in which we . . . aired our grievances but resolved to work through them. Pretty much." That was now Mike's plan, anyway. He added quickly, "But the lake thing really was an accident—I fell off the dock."
"And hit your head?" Eric said.
"Yeah, on the sailboat," Mike said, rubbing the lump with a sigh. "But I had a trained life-guard on hand," that he'd just punched in the face, "so I wasn't outside camp regulations or anything." Not in that respect, anyway.
"I suppose that's a good point," Eric said, squeezing the bridge of his nose. For some reason, Mike thought, the Head Counsellors at Algonkian always seemed to get that verge-of-a-headache look. "But I'm still concerned about your deciding to take out the boat. You were trying to leave, weren't you?"
"Uh," Mike thought furiously for a moment for spin, but Eric was shaking his head.
"Mike, the point of a summer camp like this is that you enjoy your time here. That you'll want to return. It's not a prison. If you're not enjoying it here, we're not providing what your parents have paid for. That's our fault."
Mike couldn't summon the words to lie about it: he'd adjusted to being in the camp again, but he hadn't been happy here. In the end, he just shrugged.
"I was afraid of that." Eric sighed. "All right. We're not unreasonable about this. Your file says your parents may be unavailable for extended periods, but they have an emergency contact number. We'll give them a call tonight. You'll be eighteen in August, so if they decide that they'd prefer that you return to Toronto on your own, we have no objections either."
"I—" This was now moving too fast for Mike to follow.
"In the meantime, I see no reason why you should have to miss the Silver Lake Camp's dance tonight. If take your things along with you on the bus, we can arrange the transport if your parents decide that's all right."
Mike sat searched for something to say, and came up empty. Eric was completely different from Frank—he wasn't cajole Mike into staying, he was sending him off. This was exactly what Mike had wanted on a silver platter; but now he felt conflicted.
Back home, Mike would have plenty of time and space to think about how to deal with Rudy—without any risk of another confrontation. Maybe it was the better plan after all.
But he couldn't shake the sensation he was making a mistake.
Invitation to the Dance
"Mike," Louis demanded, "why are you packing your stuff?"
"Yeah, and where's Rudy?" Billy said.
"Reporting to the mothership," Louis muttered, and elbows and scuffles briefly ensued.
Ahmed gave Mike a questioning look, but all he could manage was a wry shrug. "Mike's staying over in town tonight," Ahmed said smoothly. "And Rudy left early for his day off. Does everyone have their flashlights and bedrolls? Dawley, do you have your tissues? Well, go and get them."
"I don't see why we can't go to the other camp," Morris groused.
"You'd have to dance with girls, if you went," Ahmed said, which was exactly the right thing to say—they all shuddered. "We get to watch a movie, so I think we're coming out ahead."
"Mike, they'll make you dance," Akande said, lingering. "You could come watch the movie with us."
"It's all right. I know how to keep girls away," Mike told him, which was a sad fact. "I'll be fine."
Mike got more pointed, questioning looks when he showed up with his duffel bag and guitar to wait for the next run of the motor launch, but no one actually asked him anything.
So Mike found himself in the Silver Lake dining hall, wearing the nicest clothes he'd brought with him, holding up the wall. He wasn't alone in that—most of the Algonkian boys had yet to work up their courage; the Silver Lake girls had gathered in packs, eyeing them all and apparently forming plans of attack.
Mike was using the time to ponder how his summer had taken such a wrong turn—when his wrist was seized and his first partner jerked him forcibly out on the floor.
"Get out here," Vicky demanded. "Dance! Look like you're into me, stupid!"
"That's gross," Mike pointed out, scowling. "No one would be into you."
"See this?" She pointed at her own smile. "This is my lack of caring, illustrated. Nobody here knows you're my brother, so this puts me, like, twenty points ahead." She paused to wave in a queenly manner at someone behind his back. "Besides, you owe me for that stupid hearts-and-flowers envelope. You would not believe the amount of crap that won me."
Mike snorted and savoured his victory. He guessed he'd been tired of wallflower time anyway, so he attempted a few moves.
"So which one is he?" Vicky asked. "You're my inside track here."
"Which one is who?" Mike said.
"You know, Mr. Postcard," she said. "I only met him that one time, y'know. I don't even remember what he looked like. But from that bizarro letter you sent, and the way you're acting right now, I'm guessing he's around here somewhere." As he gawked at her, she crowed, licked her finger, and sketched a mark in the air. "I was right! I'm so right! Tonight, I'm a winnah!"
"How the heck did you—"
"If I explained it to you, you still wouldn't get it," she said loftily. Then she added in a kindly tone, "That's because you're a dumbass. But I don't hold it against you. Most of the time." She patted his arm, lifted it, and attempted a twirl. "So? Point him out. Since you were skulking over in this corner, he's gotta be one of those guys over there."
Mike sighed hugely. "You can't see him from here."
"There's, uh, a lot of . . . people. Around him."
"Holy shit." Now it was Vicky's turn to be slack jawed. "You don't mean . . . Mr. Tall, Dark, and Beauty? The one every counsellor we've got is trying to bag? Now the points make sense."
Mike rolled his eyes. Whenever his sister had extended contact with Silver Lake, she always came out this way.
"Looks like someone slugged him though," she commented. "That bruise might have deducted some if they'd known about it. On the other hand, rugged, eh."
Mike winced again, and she gave him a long, thoughtful look. "Oh ho."
"What are these points you keep talking about?" Mike said desperate to divert her attention.
"Nothing for you to worry about. Hang on, lemme get a better look." With that, she wrapped her arms around his neck and bodily hauled him in a circle on the floor so that she could peer around his arm. "Huh. Very sullen, very Byronic, very . . . very looking this way, yow!" She flinched back and buried her face in his chest, she said indistinctly, "Hide me, or I'm a goner."
"What's that supposed to mean," he huffed, trying to unglue her, but it was a bit like wrestling with an octopus.
"I mean, I was looking right at him, then he was looking back. Now I'm, like, marked for death," she muttered. "And I'm pretty sure if I didn't remember him, he's not gonna remember me, y'know? Danger, danger Will Robinson!"
"I'm sure this makes sense to you," Mike told her patiently. "Look, if you wanted me to introduce you to Rudy again for some reason, that's going to be a problem."
"Yeah, bad idea, bad bad idea," she muttered. "No, wait. I've got a better one." And with that, she stepped backward and hauled him stumbling after her, right though one of the swinging door sets to the kitchens. Inside, they both flailed a bit before righting themselves.
"Evasive maneuvers," she said, pushing him back against a counter. "Pretty sure no-one else noticed me do that. I can work this." She planted a hand on the silver metal counter and swung easily up. "So, my brother. You want an apple while we wait? I know where they keep 'em," she said pointing down at a storage bin underneath her.
"Waiting for what? Vicky, we're not supposed to be in here," he pointed out. "What are you pulling here?"
"Hiding from our oppressors!" she proclaimed wide eyed. "But trust me, we're not going to be here long. Get me one while you're down there."
"Whatever." Mike huffed. He yanked out the bin handle and leaned over to search the back of the bin. "I don't feel any apples in here. Look, is this about one of those other girls bugging you? Is that why we're holed up in the—"
The other set of swing doors slammed open with a bang. "Webster!" Rudy yelled. "Break it up, this area's . . . you're. . ."
Rudy trailed off. Mike looked up, and Rudy's glare was focused on Mike's butt, where he was still leaning over the bin. Mike rubbed his abused head, where he'd beaned himself again, this time inside the bin. Beside his shoulder, the heels of Vicky's cheerfully swinging sandals thump-thumped a counterpoint to the still flopping doors.
"Seriously? What the hell are you two doing in here?" Rudy demanded.
"Excellent. Target confirmed," Vicky sang out over his head. "Let me sum it up for you. Me, Vicky Webster. This," she kicked Mike on the backside, "dumb brother. You, 100 points. So you and me, time to dance."
"What?" Mike said. They both stared at her. "Wait a minute . . ."
She ignored him. "I'm in it to win it, and you are my ticket," she said, pointing at Rudy.
"I don't dance," Rudy said coldly.
"You mean you don't want to dance, which is not the same thing," she shot back. "The only one even in the same point range is that Pierre guy, but he'd never in a million years dance with a camper. So you, sir, are mine."
"I don't think so," Rudy said, eyeing her narrowly.
"Wait, when we were dancing, when you said something about twenty points . . ."
"Don't worry about it," she told Mike. To Rudy she said, "Fine," she said. "Let's negotiate, Mr. Postcard. I'll make it worth your while." With that, she kicked Mike in the shoulder again, and Rudy's hard glare wavered down with the motion.
"Vicky, cut it out." Mike pushed her foot away. "Rudy, just ignore her, she's—"
"Deal," Rudy said suddenly, holding out his hand. "But if I'm not satisfied, you'll regret it."
"Oh, I'll hold up my end," she said airily, grabbing his hand and launching off the counter. "Oh yeah, Mike, I remember now. The apples are in the bin on the other side." She licked a finger and sketched another phantom line as Rudy dragged her back through the door.
His sister had lost her mind, Mike thought gloomily, retrieving an apple that was, as advertised, in the bin on the other side. He hadn't had a chance to even tell her that he was probably headed back to Toronto, if Eric called the director here.
He chucked the core into the trash and headed out through the same door the other two had used only to be brought up short by the sight of his sister waltzing—waltzing—in the middle of the crowd with Pierre, of all people.
How did she even know how to waltz? As he gaped at this wonder, someone yanked hard on his arm, and once again he found himself stumbling out a door, this time in the grip of Rudy Miller.
"Leggo," he snapped.
"Shut up," Rudy said. "You wanted a ride, you've got one."
"Yeah? Eric called?"
"Called about what?" Rudy said. Then, "Oh, that. Sure."
"Woah," Mike said. "Wait a minute."
"Look, it's my day off," Rudy said. "I'm driving you to Toronto myself. It's not as though I don't know your address. You can clear it with your parents later." Which left Mike wondering what the heck Vicky had said to him.
Rudy hauled him up short by the camp bus they'd arrived in. "Get your stuff. My car's over there."
"That is the ugliest car I've ever seen," Mike said admiringly. It was an old VW camper van that someone had painted with rainbows, swirls, flowers, peace signs, and maple leaves. The windows sported Grateful Dead stickers. "No More War, Please," the side nearest them requested. "Keep on Truckin'!" the rear encouraged fellow drivers. It was a rolling request for a drugs search. It was wonderful.
"It is unique," Rudy agreed. "But I don't suppose it meets your standards." Mike bit back a retort, even as Rudy said, in a completely different tone, "Will it be a problem, Webster? It's perfectly safe. I'm a good driver."
Mike reddened. "I wasn't worried," he said, but even to his ears it sounded unconvincing, so he added, "I don't have a problem with, with cars. Not really."
Rudy just nodded and opened the side door. "Toss your stuff in here."
Mike stared. He saw curtains. He saw a rolled up mattress. He saw webbed down pots and pans. He a camp stove. He saw clothes hanging from a rod, and neatly tied stacks of books. He saw a cooler and a plastic tub labeled "WATER." "Rudy," he said, "are you living in this van?"
"We need to leave now," Rudy said, ignoring the question. "It's only a few more hours before it gets dark."
Once they were on the road and Mike had had a chance to inspect the interior, he could see all the signs of careless previous ownership, yet it was immaculately clean and a number of dials and other parts had the sheen of recent replacements.
Rudy really was a good driver, but Mike hadn't expected anything less. Rudy, after all, was good at everything—except being willing to make awkward small talk, but that had always been the case.
Mike was willing, but he running short on ideas. He settled for a simple statement of truth: "My sister would kick you to the curb and steal this van, if she saw it."
"She does seem to be a . . . forthright person," Rudy agreed neutrally.
"Silver Lake is a terrible influence on girls," Mike said, feeling put upon. "If you were taking your day off early, why'd you even stay for their stupid dance?"
"I thought," Rudy said, and after a moment, continued impassively, "I thought I'd offer to drive you myself." In Rudy's universe, 'offer' was apparently meant the same as 'kidnap,'" Mike reflected. "But I thought you'd want to see your girlfriend before you left."
"What girlfriend?" Then, as Rudy grimaced, he figured it out: "Oh, gross. You thought Vicky was my girlfriend?"
Rudy huffed. "I've been known to make mistakes, Webster. It's vanishingly rare, but it happens."
Mike rolled his eyes and let it go. "So what did she talk with you about?"
"She didn't talk with me," Rudy said. Before Mike could say a word, he added, "She talked at me—which is not the same thing." Mike grinned over the accurate imitation, but now he was a bit worried. Vicky under full sail could be a fearful thing. Not mention it made it hard to get a word in edgewise: "She didn't even give me a chance to tell her I was headed home."
"I mentioned it."
"Pierre said he'd tell Eric I was driving you home," Rudy added. "There's a map on the dashboard—I don't feel like playing tag with deer in the dark, so we'll stop at a one of the park campgrounds until morning."
Mike figured Rudy knew exactly where they were going, but he gratefully accepted the attempt at distraction.
The Fresh Air Cure
They arrived after the firewood shed had closed, but Rudy thought someone might sell them their extra. As they slowly rolled their way through the provincial park campground—at the height of the season, they couldn't be too picky about sites, Rudy told him—Mike laughed. "This road has as many twists as the street I live on."
"I think yours may have a few more," Rudy said absently, as he pulled up near a campsite with a huge pile of wood.
Mike sat speechless as Rudy climbed out and asked buying the campers' extra wood. Rudy knew about Mike's street; had Rudy been on it? Had Rudy come to see him when he'd been in Toronto? But Mike wouldn't have known—his family had been spending most of their free time at the hospital with him.
They drove away not only with free firewood but a sixer of beer as well. Mike, whose sole experience with camping had been Algonkian, was impressed.
"People tend to be give me things," Rudy said casually. "They like the van." Mike wondered how much time Rudy spent cruising the parks. He seemed like such an old hand.
The VW camper, as it turned out, had an awning that rolled out from the side over the door, which Rudy propped on weighted poles. He even had fitted it with netting fine enough for blackflies and had a single chair to set under it.
When Rudy had quickly, expertly set up camp to his personal satisfaction, they had a campfire, logs to sit on, and eventually dinner. After that, he even produced marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. "I keep extras on hand," Rudy said. "In case."
"What? In case you have to fend off feral children?"
"It's been known to happen," Rudy said, shrugging. More evidence, Mike thought, that Rudy had too much park experience. Mike wondered about it.
After Rudy had strung up the remains of their meal overhead in a bag, it left them both at loose ends. Rudy was already fingering the headphones of his Walkman, when Mike had an inspiration: Rudy liked music, so . . . "You want me to get out my guitar?" he tried.
The headphones dropped back into Rudy's pocket. "Do whatever you want, Webster," he said indifferently. Which was, Mike knew, Rudy's version of passionate endorsement. So far, so good.
"Beaver Boat," Rudy said, looking over the face of Mike's guitar. He was the one person Mike would never have to explain it to. "Ha."
"I still keep this one for practice," Mike informed him. "I do have a better one at home. I'm, um, in a band."
"Really." Difficult as it was to continue in the face of Rudy's apathy, the fact that he was bothering to respond meant he was interested. Mike used to have the knack for decoding Rudy—he'd just let it lapse.
"Yeah," Mike told him. "We meet in our drummer's garage. I think we're improving steadily." Mike picked out a few tuning chords, then launched into an instrumental.
"Improving steadily over what?" Rudy said.
"Yeah, okay. My sister says we suck. Don't ask her." He'd never win any awards, Mike knew, but he wasn't completely amateur hour either.
Rudy didn't look impressed, but he didn't look like he was hating it. "You don't sound terrible," Rudy opined at last, which Mike took as high praise.
"So, Rudy," he said. "You ever play any instruments?"
Rudy's face closed off. "No."
So maybe he did, maybe he didn't; even if Rudy had, he'd never admit it. Mistake, Mike thought, and one he knew better than to make. He sighed to himself and tried a different tack. "But I guess you travelled a lot," he said. "You see any good bands?"
"No," Rudy said, now sounding bored. Then he unbent enough to add, "Wanted to, but not much time for it."
"I've meant to ask," Mike said, knowing it was chancy. "Why'd you wind up in so many places?"
Rudy shut down visibly. "I told you before," he said repressively, "my parents like trophies."
Ouch, Mike thought. Really wrong topic. He'd forgotten until now Rudy mentioning, in his offhand fashion, his parents' garage with its shelves of trophies. He wished he could ask what the sport was—whether it was more than one, even—but Rudy really did hate sports. They were the last thing Rudy ever wanted to talk about—ranking down there with his parents and his younger brother.
"Sure," Mike told him, "I remember." And when Mike didn't ask any of the questions Rudy was obviously bracing for—he seemed to incrementally relax. Soon he was listlessly poking at the fire with a stick, and Mike felt like it was safe to try something else.
"Sorry about my sister," he said. "No way to stop her though. When she wants something, she steamrolls over anything in her path." Like you used to, Mike didn't say.
Rudy shrugged. "I guess she's all right," he said, proving that like apparently called to like, but he showed no evidence of being smitten with Vicky's questionable charms. Mike felt obscurely relieved.
"She'll probably tackle you again at the next dance," Mike said. "Forewarned and all that."
"Webster," Rudy titled his head and looked at Mike curiously. "Did you actually think they weren't going to fire me?"
Mike's fingers slipped off the strings. "What?"
"I was involved in a physical altercation with a camper," Rudy pointed out calmly. "One who's now being returned home by his own request. Eric has no choice if he wants to head off potential legal action."
"But—" Mike was appalled, "—but that's not fair! Chip kicked down our cabin! He broke one of those big wooden tables. He even put his foot through the dock the week we left. And now he's, like, a camp legend."
"He did have some anger management issues, didn't he?" Rudy said, unconcerned about being the person who'd prompted every one of those incidents. "But he never actually hurt anyone."
"Defuse, do not escalate," Rudy said with the air of quoting something. "I escalated."
Mike couldn't argue with that. Rudy really had. He sighed.
"It's not that big of a problem," Rudy said. "They probably haven't hired a replacement yet at the garage. I can get my old job back."
"You work . . . at a garage," Mike said.
"That van wasn't going to fix itself," Rudy said with a tepid gesture to it. Then he smiled, wide and gleaming and terrifying. "Now I'll have more time to work on it. I am looking forward to that."
Mike swallowed, resisting the urge to crawl off his log and run. It made a horrible sort of sense, if he considered Rudy's parents. He'd only met them the one time, but he'd been struck by how ordinary they were—as unlike Rudy as imaginable. Mike wondered what it might be like for them with a son like Rudy, who was eerily gifted, smart, manipulative, and plain odd. They'd probably latch onto anything to keep him constantly occupied, and encourage him to keep improving, and take a lot of pride in his accomplishments. Like normal parents would.
Rudy had probably heard a lot about what was normal. Now that he was a legal adult, Rudy could be as disappointing as he'd ever wanted.
"I'm sorry," Mike blurted.
"For what I said to you on the dock," Mike said. "It was stupid, and I didn't even mean it."
Rudy's smile blessedly vanished. "I know you didn't," he said levelly. "You'd already told me that."
"When we were at camp before," Rudy said patiently. "You apologized to me after you asked me for batting tips. So I knew that you got it."
Mike blinked. He'd forgotten all about that. But now that he searched his memory, Mike remembered thinking the whole thing was a funny as well.
Rudy apparently hadn't.
And now he remembered that he'd told Rudy that he must be as nuts as him, that Mike understood. But he hadn't, had he? Because only now was he catching a glimpse of how much it had meant to Rudy, what Mike had regarded as a casual comment.
Then Rudy had continued to send him those postcards, long past the point anyone else would have bothered. It must have hurt him a lot when Mike had seemed to drop him the moment they'd parted ways.
Maybe as much as Mike had been hurt when Rudy had seemed to be mocking him with a box of dirt and postcards to which he had no means to respond.
So now Mike was left with a quandary.
Unlike Rudy, Mike wasn't cursed with effortless perfection and control; he could—and did—screw up, as much and as often as he liked. In fact, the only thing he'd known Rudy to fail at—spectacularly, consistently, repeatedly—was escaping from Camp Algonkian.
Lake patrol, the wind, work detail at the dump, the entire world had conspired against him. Or so it had seemed at the time.
Mike thought that maybe he'd figured it out, an actual thing Rudy was terrible at: himself. Self-reflection would never be Rudy's long suit. Rudy was so used to smothering his true feelings about everything, his own motives would probably always be a mystery to him.
So Rudy hated Algonkian, which meant . . . Rudy wanted to be there. So Rudy was looking forward to going back to the garage, which meant . . . yeah.
If Mike really had lost Rudy this job, he'd never forgive himself. Worse, Mike might lose Rudy along with it—just as he'd a hope of getting him back. Rudy could probably come up with a viable solution, but he obviously wasn't intending to try.
It was up to Mike to fix it.
Mike strummed a few more chords, and as he took in his surroundings an odd notion struck him. Darkness, fine weather, firelight, beer, food, music, privacy, and in the distance laughter from a low-key party, just loud enough to diffuse the silence but not enough to annoy.
It was like Rudy had taken Mike on an ideal date. As with all things Rudy did, it was effortless, perfect, romantic—and unintentional.
"Huh," Mike marvelled.
Rudy glanced up briefly, then went back to poking aimlessly at the fire.
So maybe that was a big clue for what Mike needed for his solution. Mike knew he wasn't stupid, but people like Vicky and Rudy would always be ten steps ahead and halfway up the mountainside while Mike was still picking his way down the trail with everyone else. He admired that like anything, and was content to be dragged along in their wake.
It just meant they sometimes had to wait for him to work things out for himself. Like now, for instance. He fingered his way automatically through a song as he considered that.
And it also meant they were so easy to catch off-guard when he did something totally unexpected. Like, Mike figured that, on some basic, instinctual level, Rudy had worked out a long time ago what was going on between the two of them—long before Mike had, at any rate.
But, as usual, Rudy was oblivious to what it actually meant.
So it was up to Mike make that clear. He stood up, set aside his guitar, and sidled over to stand over Rudy.
"Say, Rudy," he said. When Rudy looked up with his usual lack of curiosity, Mike shoved him backward off the log and followed him down.
Now Rudy looked mildly astonished—point to Mike!
"Rudy," Mike said, holding him down by the shoulders, "is this a date?"
"What?" Rudy said, and Mike was certain his bewilderment was genuine. "Have you lost it, Webster? Get off me."
Mike shifted his hold to the arms that were trying to shove him off. "Is this a date?" he asked again.
"I don't date, Webster," Rudy ground out.
"You mean, you didn't plan this as a date," Mike said. "That has nothing to do with right now. So I just need an answer. One word's fine: yes or no. Is. This. A date."
Rudy blinked, and Mike was rewarded with the sight, up close up and personal, of Rudy rapidly working out events. "Maybe," Rudy decided cautiously.
That wasn't a no—but it defaulted everything back to Mike. He felt a welling of joy, the cork of tension that had been bottling up all summer popping off into the trees. Mike lowered his lips to Rudy's, brushing them together lightly as he said, "Rudy? This is a date." He lifted up and added, for good measure, "Uh, in case you were wondering, I do put out on the first—oof!"
Rudy had rolled them, and now Mike was flat on his back—with Rudy's hand square in the middle of his chest, holding him down. "Webster—Mike, you . . ."
Rudy always knew what to say, but he seemed to have run out of words. Rudy was shaking as well, Mike felt. This was not good. "Rudy. Rudy, hey," he said, and patted his face gently, right where he'd slugged him earlier. "Mosquitoes. Ticks. Random bears. Could we move this inside your hippie sex van?"
Rudy snorted, and that seemed to do the trick to calm him down. "It's not a sex—"
"Or we could wait for a ranger to suggest it," Mike pointed out.
"Sex van it is," Rudy said, hauling him up to his feet.
Mike smelled coffee. The good-morning handjob had it all over Algonkian's morning bugle, in his personal opinion, but now he wanted food. He rolled over and propped his elbows on the edge of the open door. Outside, a woman in a ratty bathrobe shuffled by on the road, clutching a toothbrush. Rudy, already concealed behind sunglasses, was poking at a skillet of pancakes over the campfire.
All Rudy's inattention seemed to be directed at his cooking, but the light caught on the lenses, and Mike had an odd sensation of being under observation. Les in Cabin 13 had been right, he realized—Rudy probably had been staring at him a lot, and Mike hadn't even realized.
"So it's not a hippy sex van?" Mike said. He scratched an unfortunately placed mosquito bite on his rear. "That's hilarious. You know what else is hilarious? That I'm getting relationship advice from a twelve-year-old. " Though getting relationship advice from Vicky would have been even worse—so Mike figured he wasn't as bad off as Rudy.
Rudy looked away. "I'm not interested in the weird obsessions of that cabin," he said. Mike was about to tell exactly what they obsessed about, when Rudy added in an unenthusiastic tone, "So you'd call this is a relationship?"
Anyone else might have stormed off at that point, but Mike knew how to handle this: "Yes, Rudy. I'm into you, too. We're in a relationship."
Rudy flipped his pancake turner in his hand. Once. Twice. Then he nodded. And just like that, they were good. Mike resisted the urge to lick his finger and sketch a point. "You know," Rudy said diffidently, "I really didn't think you be up for that kind of thing."
"Oh, more than," Mike said. "You may have noticed." Rudy visibly blushed. Mike had never seen that before—he was delighted. "I did have a steady girlfriend last year," Mike admitted. "She dumped me after a few months—told me that it was great for her ego that I always found her brilliant, but the expectation got awfully tough to live up to."
Rudy frowned. "You're not like that."
But in retrospect, Mike figured she was right. Crushing hard on Rudy from an early age had ruined him for normal people. Naturally Rudy wouldn't have noticed anything odd about it. "So it's your day off," Mike said. "Maybe we can hike a few trails or—uh, whatever. Before we go back to camp."
"I'm taking you to Toronto," Rudy pointed out.
"Yeah, eventually you're taking me to Toronto," Mike agreed. "Once you're settled, you'll like living there, too." Rudy stiffened and started to respond, but Mike wasn't finished. "But tonight we're going back to Algonkian. We'll get our stories straight, then talk over the situation with Eric. He's going to be pretty happy about this, Rudy—you wouldn't have been easy to replace, y'know."
Rudy didn't like other people setting his agenda, and Mike watched the inner struggle attentively. Mike decided to help it along: "Later we can hit the secondhand shops. Find a moose head to mail to your parents. Brighten up their garage, eh?"
Just like that, Rudy surrendered—it was such a subtle shift of posture that it was barely noticeable, but Mike knew what to look for. Then Rudy shrugged, and flipped over a few pancakes. "So you want to hike a few trails," he said in a bored tone.
"Or whatever," Mike corrected. "See, I've got this summer of manly abstinence ahead at the finest camp in Ontario, so you better make this afternoon worth my time."
"Well, I've got clear eyes, strong back and straight limbs," Rudy said, in a dead-on, deadpan imitation of Arthur Warden. "Let us see what they can accomplish for this, our great Canadian nation."
"Ohhh, Canada," Mike warbled breathily, and Rudy responded with a quirk of the lips. Mike's breath caught. It was Rudy's real smile, tiny but genuine, and seldom seen in the wild. From now on, he promised himself, he'd find some way to lure it out every day.