Finalist in the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award
I never thought I’d sneak out of the bathroom window to get away from Zach, but here I am. The wood on the Gals cabin windowsill has splintered over the years, poking into my soft stomach as I heave myself forward. Maybe going head-first toward a six-foot drop wasn’t the best idea, but I need to escape, to be alone with my thoughts, to figure out how I could be so reckless about the most important relationship in my life.
“Calla,” Zach says from off to my right, startling me. I turn my head and there he is. He’s supposed to be tucked up in the Guys cabin, not watching me humiliate myself even further. Any other time he’d be leaning against the corner of the cabin, feet crossed, smirking at me as he waited for me to get over myself and beg for help. That’s not going to happen tonight.
I sigh, embarrassed at getting caught. My voice is small, defeated, when I say, “Hi, Zach.”
I hate this. We’ve spent every summer together for our entire teens. Zach has been my best friend—camp or not—since we were assigned to the same cabin our first summer here at Camp Chosen to Love. Yet, somehow, this is the first time I’ve felt the hot twist of shame slither around up my throat and send a blush to my cheeks in front of him.
I can’t decide who I’m more frustrated with: myself, for getting into this mess, or Zach, for not throwing me a life preserver.
It’s second nature to grab Zach’s hand in my own. His skin is warm and comfortable against mine, but my heart still thrums with giddiness, knowing that no matter who else we might meet in our lives, Zach and I belong to one another.
“Time to go?” he asks.
“You know it,” I grin at him and wonder if he knows how beautiful he looks right now, cheeks flushed from the heat of the fire, eyes glinting as they reflect the flames.
We take off down the smooth dirt path that leads toward the cabins. There aren’t any lights, but the moon’s almost full and the sky’s devoid of clouds. We’ve made this same journey tons of times before.
A weathered tree, bark split and cracked from an old lightning strike, marks the point where we leave the path and turn into the woods. No matter how quiet we try to stay so none of the counselors notice us, it seems like every snap of a twig or softly-muttered cuss word as one of us stubs our toes is amplified.
Finally, we make it to the edge of the creek and climb up onto the rocks stacked against the shore.
This is the moment I look forward to all summer. All year, really. A night that’s just for me and my best friend.
It’s a good thing I’ve already packed my bags, because I’m more than ready to leave camp.
My foot slips on a patch of leaves, sending me crashing to my knees. I’m pretty sure I land on an acorn, but I heave myself up and keep power-walking away from where I left Zach, perched on top of our rocks by the creek.
Anxiety tugs at my lungs even though I’m not walking hard enough to be panting. I’m light-headed as I accidentally scrape my shoulder against a tree. I just need to focus on the next thing—getting to my cabin. There, I can take my anxiety medicine and curl up in my bunk and hide from the world—and Zach—until my moms pick me up bright and early.
There’s no way I’m showing my face again tonight.
Camp Chosen to Love is so small that there are only forty of us here on a tiny island off the coast of Michigan.
According to camp history, the founders built it that way on purpose, intent on keeping everyone out of the “real world” and inspiring cooperative living, intimate relationships, and all that—which seems like an odd choice for a camp whose target audience is teens of queer parents, but I didn’t design this place.
All of the campers fit into three cabins: Guys, Gals, and Non-Binary Pals.
The problem with such a small camp is that there’s nowhere to run and hide. Being surrounded by over a dozen girls who all know me better than my friends back home, it’s like living under a microscope. I want to curl into a ball, hide under my covers, and pretend I can float right up off the same top bunk I’ve slept in every summer since I was thirteen and disappear into the sky. But if I so much as sigh someone will clock it.
My first summer here, that person was Zach. He had the bunk below me in the Gals cabin. We bonded over putting Reese’s peanut butter cups in our s’mores and our sets of moms. After a few weeks, he could tell my mood by how our bed shifted as I tossed and turned. By our second summer, Zach had started to transition and moved into the Guys cabin, but we were still thick as thieves, stealing freeze pops from the mess hall and winning the mid-summer kayak race.
Now it’s the end of our fifth summer together, and for the first time, I don’t know where we stand.
The lights are off, and I can hear Jade snoring on the other end of the cabin. There’s nothing but the wobble-whir of the ceiling fans and some muffled whispers. I want nothing more than for the darkness to swallow me whole, but I’m unnervingly present in my body, aware of everything.
Every time I close my eyes, I see Zach’s slack face staring back at me after he’d recoiled in surprise. I let my mouth run away from me—something Zach usually loves about me—and it’s ruined our friendship. At least, that’s what I have to believe, based on the way he stumbled away from me, giving me the only sign I needed to know that I’d accidentally terminated our friendship.
Should I go ahead and delete his number from my phone?
I turn over and punch at my pillow in an attempt to get comfortable. The whole bunk shifts. Chantelle, who’s been assigned to the bunk below me for the last four summers, doesn’t tap on the wood bracing my thin mattress on the bunk slats to get my attention, so I know she’s asleep.
There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep tonight, so I kick down my blankets and clamber down from my bunk, a move I can do by muscle memory alone at this point. The front of the cabin has been locked by our counselor to stop us from doing exactly what I’m planning, but the path to the bathroom is always clear. A tiny nightlight shines from the doorway, beckoning me closer. I wave off Meghan and Dani when they catch me tugging my sneakers on and pulling a crewneck sweatshirt over my head, but I trust they’ll keep this between us.
I jerk away from Zach, scrambling to put some distance between us, but the rock we’re perched on isn’t big enough to allow for it. My face is so flushed I’m practically a space heater.
The impulse to apologize pulls at me like a black hole, but I’m not sure I did anything wrong.
Zach hasn’t moved. Our knees are still pressed together where we sit on the rocks. Every second that ticks by without Zach moving or speaking or reassuring me that I didn’t just ruin our friendship eats away at my soul.
We’re in the middle of what must be the longest awkward silence in camp history. There’s nothing but the rustle of branches as other campers sneak around and the chorus of a million cicadas.
Until he says something, Zach and I exist in Shrödinger’s silence—until he tells me one way or another, I both have and haven’t ruined the most important relationship of my life.
Every year, the bonfire gets bigger.
I don’t know if that’s true, or just what my brain likes to trick me into believing, but I don’t care because it’s glorious. Gold sparks spiral up into the night sky like they’re trying to join the stars. The logs and kindling we’ve been collecting throughout the summer sizzle and snap as flames devour them. The distinctive scent of bonfire will sink into my sweatshirt, and I won’t wash it for weeks after I get home, trying to keep the memory of summer as close to my skin as I can.
The last night of camp is magical—everyone at their most carefree. Our last hurrah. It’s definitely my favorite night, an ending and a beginning all in one, full of so many possibilities. The bass of the music one of the counselors has set up blasts in time with my heart, sending my pulse thrumming against my skin, propelling the idea that anything could happen.
I slip away from my cabin-mates and our dance circle. I’ll have time with them later. My gaze skims the crowd, easily dismissing a few dozen people before I settle on Zach.
His head’s tipped back in laughter as the warm glow of the fire illuminates his tan skin. He’s got his lip clamped between his teeth and a quiet impulse in the back of my mind wants to tug it free and trace his cupid’s bow with my thumb.
The summer isn’t truly over until Zach and I have done a full post-mortem. Best summer memory. Worst summer memory. We make sure neither of us missed any of the hot gossip, from which counselors were caught hooking up, to new pairs of initials roughly carved into the floating dock out in the lake.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” I say, shifting so that one of my legs is underneath me and the other is propped on the rock so I can wrap my arm around it. My shoulder brushes against Zach’s as I get situated, and I’m going to miss the casual comfort of invading his space. “Unfulfilled summer bucket list items. Is there anything you wanted to do this year that you haven’t?”
Zach chuckles softly. There’s a self-deprecating tinge to it. He runs a hand through his wavy brown hair that’s in need of a trim and clasps the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve got one of those.”
“Come on,” I say, swaying into him just a bit, urging him on. “Spill.”
He tips his head back toward the star-dappled sky and sighs like I’m dragging this out of him, even though he’s allowed to pass, and I won’t ever bring it up again. Finally, he says, “All right. It’s not like it’s a big deal or anything, but I thought I’d kiss someone this summer. I’d built it up in my head and everything, like, this was the summer I’d have my first kiss. But there’s, what, less than twelve hours until pick-up? It’s safe to say I’ve failed.”
It doesn’t seem possible that Zach’s never kissed anyone. That information enters my brain, but it will not compute. Zach? How could someone not want to kiss him? He should be fending suiters off with a lightsaber. He’s cute as hell and so funny he’s made juice come out of my nose twice this summer alone. Beyond that, he’s just a good guy. What’s not to love about him?
“Well,” I say, “a lot can happen in twelve hours.”
“Sure, but I don’t see anyone lining up to get a piece of me, do you?” He cranes his neck around like he’s looking for anyone and everyone who’s been harboring a crush. As if, any second, they’ll sneak out of the forest and jump him.
For some reason, the words stick in my throat, like they don’t want to come out, but suddenly, I need to know. “Is there anyone here you want to kiss?”
If there is, maybe I can set it up for him. Zach deserves this. I want to make all his wishes come true.
His cheeks flush as he rolls his lower lip between his teeth. “Pass.”
Weirdly, “wake up on the dock at dawn” didn’t fit into my plans for the summer, but that’s exactly what happens. I take my time sitting up because so many parts of me hurt in new and different ways. When I’m finally upright, I look around to make sure I wasn’t startled awake by a search party of camp counselors or something. But there’s no one in sight, except for Zach.
He’s on the dock next to me, our hips just barely touching through our shorts. His eyes are still closed. He looks soft. I want to lie back down next to him, curl up close, and go back to sleep. But the counselors will be up soon, campers will drag their bags out of the bunks and toward the far side of camp where the ferry that shuttles parents and caregivers will dock.
“Zach,” I whisper, and nudge his shoulder. “Wake up.”
He lets out an adorable little snuffle-grunt and his eyelids flutter before he raises a fist and clumsily wipes sleep from his eyes.
“What, Calla?” He still hasn’t opened his eyes.
“Come on, we gotta get back to our bunks. Up and at ‘em.”
Zach frowns but lurches upright until his shoulder bumps into mine. His hand falls to the dock, and he loops his pinky over mine.
“What time is it?”
“How should I know?” I struggle to my feet and stare down at him. “Early. Now let’s move, I’m cold.”
He grumbles but clambers to his feet next to me—I reach out to steady him without thinking about it—and we start back toward the cabins.
“Uh,” I say, “I’m realizing now that I never thought about how I’d sneak back into my cabin.”
“Of course,” he mutters. “No one will notice if you don’t wake up there, just show up at the mess hall for breakfast.”
It’s a reasonable suggestion, but… “What am I supposed to do until then?”
He shakes his head at me. “Go back to the woods. I’ll meet you in a little bit.”
I look at him, assessing. “This isn’t a long con to get me stranded in the woods, is it?”
“Calla,” he says, and it’s enough.
“Yeah, fine,” I say. “See you out there.”
My feet dangle off the edge of the dock, skimming the cool water. It’s enough to keep me present in my body rather than whirling into an anxiety spiral.
Zach’s sitting next to me. I am viscerally aware of the few inches separating us, the gap between our bodies is noticeable only because of its usual absence. We’re both physically affectionate people, and over the years it’s like our bodies have merged together, one of us always leaning their head on the other’s shoulder or letting our feet tangle under the dining table. All of our friends here are like that and the sudden lack of comfort gnaws at me.
I have no clue how long we’ve been out here, how long we’ve been reacquainting ourselves with one another in this new, post-kiss world. Every word I could possibly say sticks in my throat, a phantom lump like I took a pill without any water to ease it down. I keep my eyes glued on the distorted reflection of the moon on the water, something simple to focus on. It only feels right to keep my mouth—my problematic, impulsive mouth—shut and leave the ball in Zach’s court.
The wind cuts at me, sending wisps of my hair fluttering around my face. I tug my sweatshirt sleeves over my hands and curl my fingers into the soft fabric. It’s nice to hold onto something.
“So,” he says. His voice is jarringly loud in my ear over the water lapping softly at the shore and the chirping of cicadas.
I brace myself. “So.”
My blood sings in my veins, like it’s rushing to get closer to Zach. He’s eating up all of my senses, the dry brush of his lips against mine, the lingering scent of campfire and burnt sugar, my eyes can’t focus because his face swallows my entire field of vision.
But then I realize: he’s not kissing back.
“Hey,” I reach across the rock we’re perched on to where Zach’s hand rests on his thigh and squeeze his fingers briefly before retreating. I want to wrap him up in a blanket and play with his wild, fluffy hair, but that’s not an option right now. “It’s going to happen,” I say.
“Yeah.” Zach sighs, reaching over to squeeze my fingers back. “I just hate waiting. It’s like the more time that goes by, the less likely it becomes. At this point, I probably have a better chance at going to the Olympics.”
“You could totally medal in capsizing your kayak,” I say.
“Like you’re any better,” he laughs. “It’s fine, I’m just psyching myself out. Oh! I do have another summer bucket list item, though.”
“I’m gonna steal, like, four camp blankets. They’re perfect. I’m gonna make a nest in my room back home.”
It’s easy to imagine Zach’s slender frame engulfed by blankets until nothing but his unruly hair and wide eyes peek out.
“If you remain quiet in your approach,” I say in a terrible Australian accent, imitating a wildlife documentary commentator, “You can see a wild Zach in his natural habitat,”
He laughs, his head tipping back a bit, and his smile is radiant, enthralling. He has the best smile, I’ve always thought so. I want more of it, so I lean in, closing the space between us on the rocky outcrop we’re on and just… kiss him. Like it’s the only way I could’ve possibly responded. Like it’s natural.
For the few seconds our lips are pressed together, it doesn’t matter that I’m twisted in a weird position or that my hand’s braced on cold, jagged rock, because I’m kissing Zach. How have I never thought about kissing him before? His lips feel right against mine. My world tilts a few degrees, like an optometrist has dialed the correct prescription into place and, suddenly, everything is clear.
“I’m sorry.” The words hurtle out of me, propelled by a combination of regret and shame. It’s not like I dragged Zach into the woods just to kiss him, but that’s still what happened. His reaction made it clear that it was a Bad Idea, but that’s the thing, it never even fully formed into an idea. One second I was sitting next to my best friend, and the next I was kissing him. My brain had fully left my body, leaving me to operate on instinct alone.
It’s just, I look at Zach and I think home. All of the best experiences I’ve ever had, the lightest moments in my life, have been with Zach. I’ve never questioned that I love him, not for a second, but I guess I’d never really inspected what kind of love that might be.
“We were talking about kissing, and you were sitting there, looking extremely kissable, and then I just did it, and I didn’t even ask you if that’s something you wanted, and now I’ve ruined our friendship, and I’m talking way too much, and making this all about me, and it’s not about me. Oh my god, I’m double sorry, and I’m shutting up now. Sorry.”
“Calla,” Zach says in the exasperatedly fond way he seems to reserve for my name. “Take a deep breath.”
I scrunch my eyes shut and take a deep breath. Then another. After a moment, my breathing’s returned to normal, but my heart is still pounding a billion times a second like it’s trying to burst out of my chest and drown itself in the lake.
“You didn’t ruin our friendship,” he says. “It’ll take something way bigger than a kiss to do that, okay? Like, zombie apocalypse kind of stuff.”
“Okay.” I sigh. My biggest fear’s been decimated, but my intestines still writhe like a pit of snakes.
Zach keeps his brown eyes fixed on the lake when he says, “I didn’t mind it.”
My brain skids to a halt. It takes a second to reboot and process. “But,” I say numbly, “I stole your first kiss.”
He huffs and extends his arms behind him, propping himself up on the dock, then swivels his head to look at me.
“Calla,” he says, like emphasizing my name will help get anything through my thick skull. “I’m glad it was you.”
“Hurry up, kiddo!” My mom yells from the other side of the pile of suitcases, duffle bags, and backpacks lumped together near the ferry. “Two minutes.”
I wave at her to acknowledge I’ve heard her, but I can’t tear my eyes away from Zach. I’m bouncing on my toes, thrumming with excitement, because Zach.
“I’m gonna miss you,” I say.
“I’m going to miss you, too,” he says, just like he does every summer.
This is my least favorite part of camp: saying goodbye and watching the cabins fade out of view. It’s like the farther I get from camp, the blurrier my memories of the summer become. I’ve never wanted to cling to my memories more than I do right now.
I don’t know what else to say, so I fling my arms over Zach’s shoulders. He reels me in until we’re pressed together from the tips of our toes to our cheeks as they brush together while we hug, tight, tight, tight. Like, if I just hug him hard enough, I’ll be able to remember the imprint of his body against mine.
“Come on, Calla!” Ma calls, and I reluctantly pull away from Zach. Since our second summer here, our parents always plan a big group vacation for the six of us over winter break, but that doesn’t matter. There’s only one way to end the summer.
“See you next summer,” Zach says.
“See you next summer,” I say, but this time I change things up just a little and press one last kiss to his cheek before running off to join my parents.
My limbs are heavy with exhaustion, but I managed to climb up onto our rock. I’m starting to think Zach’s not going to show when I hear the crunch of leaves behind me. I glance over my shoulder and he’s there, arms full of blankets. He shoves the bundle at me while he climbs up onto the boulder next to me.
“What are these for?”
He shrugs, taking a blanket back, and wraps it around himself like a cape. “You said you were cold. I said I was gonna steal camp blankets. Win/win.”
I huff a laugh and hurry to wrap myself up as well. The sun will burn away the few wisps of fog around us soon enough, but for now, it’s chilly.
“So, I kinda realized something,” he says.
“What’s that?” I’m distracted, trying to find the edge of my blanket.
“We never really finished our conversation on the dock.” He’s right. The rush of relief I’d felt when he said I hadn’t ruined our friendship took the rest of my energy.
“Okay,” I say, unsure where he’s going with this. My brain, which had still been a little muzzy from sleep, is suddenly laser-focused.
“I meant what I said, I’m glad you kissed me.”
There is absolutely nothing in my head other than those words on a loop. He’s glad I kissed him. He’s glad I kissed him.
“That’s—” I lick my suddenly-dry lips, “that’s good.”
“Yeah,” he says. “And I figured if you could be brave and do that, then I could be brave and tell you I’ve kind of wanted you to for a while.”
“Oh,” I say. That’s all I’ve got.
“Which, if you don’t want to, that’s fine. Or don’t want me, or whatever, but—”
“Zach.” I lean into him since extracting a hand from my blanket to touch him seems impossible. I don’t know what else to say other than, “Of course I want you.”
“Yeah?” He sounds fragile in a way I’m not used to.
“Yeah,” I say over the sound of blood rushing in my ears. “I really, really like you. And I liked kissing you. I just…”
“Okay,” he says, pulling in a deep breath. “Me too.”
The smile I give him feels softer than any expression I’ve ever made. “So,” I say. “Can I kiss you again?”
Zach swallows and nods. I lean in. He meets me halfway.