Die-In-The-Woods. The annual survival-training camping trip, a long-standing tradition of MacDonald Hall. Boots had been distant ever since they got back from it and Bruno thought he knew why.
It was the worst Die-In-The-Woods in recent history. One coach badly injured, the other lost, their birch-bark canoe at the bottom of the lake along with all their food and half their gear, during a mid-spring that had decided it was still pining for winter.
That took Bruno by surprise. He’d forgotten to pack the night before so had done a whirlwind job of it in ten minutes at oh-my-god-o’clock in the morning, a good four and a half hours before he normally woke up, so he wasn’t thinking very clearly. At least, that’s what he told himself, and everyone else. But Boots knew better.
Bruno felt his roommate watching him and looked up, meeting Boots’s exasperated gaze. He looked away and sighed, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Boots shoved his laptop back with a frustrated sigh. “When are you gonna learn, Bruno?” he exclaimed, “You make your own problems! At first I thought I should’ve checked your bag after I saw you pack but you know what? - that’s not up to me. I’m not gonna spend my whole life holding your leash and doing your thinking for you. That’s not a friend, that’s a slave.”
Bruno didn’t look at him. “I just said you’re right,” he whispered.
Boots stared at him in silence. Then he slapped his laptop shut and got up with another frustrated sigh. “I’m going to see The Fish,” he announced and walked out of the room.
Bruno stared after him, dithering. Going to see The Fish? About him? He felt a sudden surge of anxiety twisting his guts. He went to the window and watched as Boots left Dormitory 3 and strode purposefully across the lawn towards the faculty building. Bruno shoved the window up and climbed out, hurrying his pace.
Boots stopped and waited for him to catch up. Bruno met his eyes, stomach churning with anxiety. He tried to smile but couldn’t. But whatever Boots was planning to do, Bruno was sure he deserved it, and he’d take it like a man.
Mrs. Davies’ eyebrows rose as Boots approached her desk. “I’d like to see Mr. Sturgeon, please,” he said in a low voice. She nodded and picked up the phone to announce them, then ushered them in.
MacDonald Hall students nicknamed their Headmaster “The Fish”, partly for his name but mostly for his cold, fishy grey stare. That stare fixed on them now. “Walton… O’Neal… To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Boots swallowed. “It’s about Die-In-The-Woods, sir,” he said, then took a step forward, “That can never happen again. Not like that. Most of that wouldn’t have happened if we’d had a proper boat, for one thing! And we were completely unprepared. Coach Flynn broke his foot and we had no idea what to do! We couldn’t help him! And Mr. Fudge didn’t know what to do either! Two staff on a camping trip in the boonies and nobody knows any first aid?! Die-In-The-Woods is a MacDonald Hall tradition, I get it, but my little brother is starting here next year and there have got to be some changes!”
The Fish continued to stare at him fishily. “Go on,” he said mildly.
Boots narrowed his eyes for just a second. Then he took another breath and continued. “The birch-bark boat is traditional, I get that. It’s also vulnerable! It’s sitting at the bottom of a lake with a hole in it! If we’re going to be sent out with a paper boat to learn survival, then we need to have proper survival training beforehand! We need first aid courses! We need foraging training!”
”If only to keep Wilbur from going ballistic,” Bruno muttered.
“Is it a camping trip or a survival trip?” Boots continued, “If it’s a camping trip, then we need modern equipment! A modern boat, modern mess kits, tents that don’t leak would be nice! But if it’s a survival trip, then we need proper survival training beforehand. We can’t be ‘learning to survive’ while we’re trying not to die of hypothermia!” Boots’s voice was nearing a hysterical edge. “It dumped down rain and the temperature overnight dropped near freezing and we only had summer-weight sleeping bags! We had to double up! Coach Flynn broke his foot! Mr. Fudge got lost! Calvin Fihzgart was talking about suing!” He slammed his fist down on the Headmaster’s desk, “This can’t happen again!”
“Are you finished?” said Mr. Sturgeon.
Boots stared at him and a thousand micro-expressions flew across his face. His jaw set and his eyes hardened. Then he stepped back and pushed his hand through his hair. “I guess I am,” he sighed.
“You’ll recall that I asked for essays from each of you, on the topic of your trip.”
Boots closed his eyes and his lips tightened. “Yes sir.”
Mr. Sturgeon got up and went to the office safe. He withdrew a purple folder and set it down on his desk. He tapped it, “This is a record of every time I’ve gone before the Board of Directors to protest the budget cuts that have resulted in this experience. Back when I was a student on Die-In-The-Woods, we used to have all of those things, but over the years, they were cut from the program. I’ve warned the Board for years that this was an accident waiting to happen and here we are.” The Fish sat back and regarded them, “You’ll recall that I asked you to include every detail of your experience, including how it made you feel? And that I asked for those essays to be submitted by tomorrow?”
“That is because the next day, I shall be reading them before the Board. I believe we should be held accountable for the distress that these cuts have resulted in. We are very, very fortunate that a broken foot and a bad scare were all that happened. Nevertheless, some of the boys may require counseling, which MacDonald Hall will pay for.” His gaze finally softened somewhat. “Keep your anger, O’Neal,” he said gently, “Put it into your essay. You’re absolutely right and the Board needs to hear it.” Boots just nodded. The Fish leaned back and regarded them. “Coach Flynn had high praise for both of you - Walton, for your leadership; O’Neal, for keeping everyone mindfully on their tasks. You did well.”
“Thank you, sir,” they both mumbled. They turned and left.
On the way back to Dormitory 3, Bruno watched Boots out of the corner of his eye. He had never seen Boots that angry before and he was a little in awe of it.
“For a minute there, I really thought The Fish was going to brush me off,” Boots said finally.
Bruno nodded, “Yeah. I think The Fish saw it too. I don’t think he was, though, not if he’d gone after the board that many times.”
“And they still haven’t listened,” Boots sighed. He and Bruno looked at each other. If they hadn’t listened to the Fish that many times, would they really listen now?
Bruno nodded. “You’re right,” he said, “I’ll see how much money I’ve got. If we can get to Stouffville, we can catch the Go train to Toronto.”
* * * *
The Fish’s stare was colder and steelier than ever before. “There had better be a very good explanation for this,” he hissed, “What are you doing here?”
Bruno swallowed, “Well, sir, we were thinking, you’ve been trying to tell the Board of Directors for a long time and they haven’t done anything, so we thought maybe if we presented our essays ourselves, sort of put a face to them sort of thing, maybe they’d take it more seriously.”
“How did you get here?”
“Mr. Fudge brought us. He’s outside.”
Mr. Sturgeon looked up to see MacDonald Hall’s guidance counselor and Dormitory 3 Housemaster standing near the outer door, arms crossed over his chest, chin lifted defiantly. “I was driving back from Chutney and found them walking along the highway. They told me what they were doing and why, I told them to hop in. Just because they’re kids doesn’t make them wrong, William.”
“I am aware of that,” The Fish said icily. He turned his stare back onto Bruno, “Walton, I have told you before, there is a time and a place for your antics.”
Bruno’s jaw tightened, “Yes, sir.”
The Headmaster looked at the sheaf of essays in his hand. He handed half to each boy. “That time is now, and the place is in there,” he pointed to the door of the meeting room where the Board of Directors of MacDonald Hall had assembled. “Right now, you two are the voices of MacDonald Hall. You have a gift for oratory, Walton - try to use it wisely.”
“Yes, sir,” Bruno said, more confidently.
The meeting room door opened and a head poked out and frowned upon seeing the boys. “William? You’re up!”
“Thank you, Mark,” Mr. Sturgeon led the way, flanked by the boys, with Mr. Fudge bringing up the rear.
Mr. Snow, the Chairman of the Board, frowned, “You brought the students?”
“They brought themselves,” said Mr. Sturgeon, “They have come to us to deliver impact statements from the Algonquin incident and to offer some suggestions for improvement. I have to say, as these boys were directly affected by the incident, I agree with their decision.”
Jim Snow looked at the boys, recognizing them. He looked at his wife Jane, the current Treasurer of the Board, and nodded, “Alright then. Let’s hear them out.”
“Thank you, Jim. Ladies and gentlemen of the board, I’m proud to introduce Mr. Bruno Walton, and Mr. Melvin O’Neal, who will present impact statements on behalf of the students who were on the trip.”
The Board of Directors greeted the boys and introduced themselves in turn. Finally, it was Bruno’s turn to speak. “Thank you for hearing us. Um, we’d like to start by reading the other boys’ essays first. I’ll start with Larry Wilson’s,” he said, and began to read.
At the back of the room, Mr. Fudge fought the urge to grin as the boys took turns reading the essays, because they were doing the voices. He didn’t have to fight very hard though - the content of the essays were raw. There were some darkly humourous moments, such as Wilbur Hackenschleimer’s focus on the food. But while Coach Flynn had described Elmer Drimsdale as being the calmest and least disturbed of the boys, Elmer’s essay revealed the depth of his fear, his decision to focus on science to stay calm, and his realization that the group were counting on him not only for entertainment but to alleviate their fears. Mr. Fudge had his phone camera out and was capturing it all on video. “Closure for the other boys,” he whispered to Mr. Sturgeon.
“Calvin Fihzgart’s parents are talking about taking him out of MacDonald Hall because of this,” Boots reported bitterly, “It’ll be a big loss for the Warriors football team, but I really can’t blame them. This should not have happened. Coach Flynn’s foot had to be re-broken and re-set, because not one of us knew first aid, not even Mr. Fudge!” He repeated his earlier rant, outrage again powering his voice.
“And Mr. Fudge got lost,” Bruno was saying, “He’s our Housemaster and he’s out there, alone, lost in the woods, alone! We didn’t know if he was hurt or if he found help or if he was even alive! He had no food, no first aid, no extra water, no tent! And he knew we were counting on him, like no pressure!” Mr. Fudge passed his hand over his eyes and wiped away moisture. Several of the board members were glancing at him.
Boots nodded, “He didn’t have survival training and he sure needed it! We’re lucky he’s still alive!”
“Boots is right, MacDonald Hall needs to decide whether this is a fun camping trip or a survival trip, and it needs to outfit us accordingly,” Bruno said, “If it’s a camping trip, we need modern equipment and it needs to be matched to the conditions. If it’s a survival trip, we need survival training, all of it, beforehand. If you don’t want to spring for all of the participants getting first aid certified, then at least make sure the staff are!”
Bruno continued to list all of the recommendations he and Boots had come up with. Mr. Fudge and Mr. Sturgeon exchanged a quick glance, understanding why the students went along with so many of the Walton boy’s mad schemes. Bruno had a natural gift for oratory and a knack for sweeping people up in his wake. He had hooked the board members with the stories and now he was skillfully steering them with the logic of O’Neal’s proposals. “I think our boys just became men,” Mr. Fudge whispered. Mr. Sturgeon nodded.
Finally Mr. Snow rose. “MacDonald Hall owes all of you a very large apology,” he said quietly, “We’d like to have a brief in camera to discuss this.”
“That means we have to leave,” Mr. Fudge whispered as Mr. Sturgeon led them out of the meeting room, “It doesn’t actually mean cameras.”
“Camera means ‘room’, right? It’s Latin?” said Bruno.
Boots stared at him, “You remember that?!”
Bruno rolled his eyes at him, “Well yeah, I got a B on that test!”
“Well, you’ve got an A+ on Die-In-The-Woods,” said Mr. Sturgeon, “Walton, that was very well done. O’Neal, your recommendations were well thought out and very hard to argue. I’m very, very proud of both of you.”
“Me too,” said Mr. Fudge. He placed his hands on each boy’s shoulder. “William, what do you say we take these boys out for dinner before we go home?”
Boots frowned, puzzled, “Aren’t we in trouble for leaving the Hall?”
Mr. Sturgeon smiled thinly, “You left under the care of, and with the permission of, your Housemaster. I believe that is considered to be a ‘school trip.’ No, Mr. Fudge is right, you’ve earned a reward. He will take you to wherever you wish. I still have to wait for the Board’s decisions.”
Mr. Fudge nodded, “Where to, boys?”
Bruno scratched his chin, “Hmmm… the 360?”
Boots gaped at him, “Are you crazy? The revolving restaurant at the top of the CN Tower?? Wilbur would murder us if we went to the 360 without him!” He didn’t notice Mr. Fudge and Mr. Sturgeon exchanging a glance, then Mr. Sturgeon was called back into the board meeting.
Mr. Fudge looked up from his phone, “Good news, boys, they can fit us in. Let’s go!”
* * * *
Mr. Fudge brought them back to Dormitory 3 and walked them to Room 306. “Walton,” he said hesitantly, “Thank you for mentioning me. It…” he took a deep breath and admitted, “It hasn’t been easy, wrestling with the fact that I… I failed. You were all counting on me and I failed you. I… didn’t think anyone had noticed.”
Bruno and Boots looked at each other. “We don’t blame you for anything, sir,” Bruno said.
“Yeah, like, you did your best but if you didn’t have the resources to begin with,” Boots added, “We were more scared that you didn’t make it.”
“So was I,” Mr. Fudge admitted. The boys looked at each other again then reached out to hug their Housemaster. Mr. Fudge wiped his eyes then took their shoulders, “Boys… You’ve been riding on anger and adrenaline for a while but pretty soon that’s going to wear off. That’s going to let a lot of other emotions come up to the surface, and some of them might be emotions you don’t really know how to do deal with. There’s no shame in letting them out and there’s no shame in asking for help, either.”
“You too, sir,” Boots said gently.
Mr. Fudge paused for a moment then nodded, “Yeah. Yeah.” He clapped their shoulders, “Get some rest, you two. You’ve had a long day.”
“Thank you, sir. You too, sir.” Boots closed the door then turned and looked at Bruno for a long time. “Seriously, why the 360?”
Bruno stared out the window in silence. “I kinda wanted to make up for how much of a jerk and an idiot I’ve been lately,” he said quietly.
Boots arched an eyebrow, “By taking me out to dinner at a swanky restaurant?” But Bruno just nodded. Boots watched him. Finally he said, “Hey, um… Thanks for keeping me warm.”
Bruno had packed like an idiot but he couldn’t be held responsible for Algonquin Park’s latitude, altitude, loose interpretation of ‘spring’, or the fact that everyone had been issued a summer-weight sleeping bag. But though the ground in Algonquin Park had thawed, it hadn’t yet warmed. It had rained heavily all night and the temperature had dropped close to freezing and on top of it all, the tents leaked. Even wearing their heavy sweaters, the boys were getting dangerously cold and they knew it. So Bruno had suggested they double up their summer sleeping bags, one inside the other, and both crawled in. It was a tight fit but it was warm.
What it wasn’t was awkward. They had to cuddle up to fit inside the sleeping bags. Bruno usually slept on his back, snoring like a buzzsaw. Boots slept curled on his side. Yet more than once he’d woken during the cold nights to find himself spooned around Bruno, or Bruno spooned around him, or his head on Bruno’s chest, and it was surprising just how well their bodies fit together. And how natural he felt about it. It was… nice.
Bruno nodded, “Yeah. Yeah I… I gotta admit, you’re good at cuddling.” Boots sat on his bed and put his head in his hands with a massive sigh. “I gotta say, you were amazing today. And your imitation of Elmer Drimsdale was spot-on.”
Boots huffed a half-laugh. “I didn’t realize I was putting him on the spot like that when I started the guessing game with him. He was right though. His being able to identify what we were hearing really did relieve a lot of anxiety.”
“Up until the tundra leopard, anyways,” Bruno said.
Boots tipped his head, “To be fair, I don’t think he’s ever heard a fangirl screech before. I sure hadn’t.”
“I was unaware that the human throat could make that kind of sound,” Bruno agreed. He went over to sit on the bed next to Boots and put his arm around Boot’s shoulder. “I mean it though. You were really amazing today.”
“So were you,” Boots said, “It was really cool to watch you reeling them in. If you don’t win this one for us, I’ll be really surprised aaaaand also having a chat with my parents about my little brother.”
Bruno stiffened and a sudden shock of anxiety locked his throat for a moment. “What about you?” he managed.
Boots looked surprised at Bruno’s strangled voice. He put his arm around Bruno’s waist and snugged. “The Fish said we passed so it’s not something I have to worry about again. I’ll be here to graduate.”
“Good,” Bruno nodded, “Good… That’s… good… ‘Cause if you…” he struggled to keep his voice steady, “If you… leave…”
“Hey,” Boots said softly. Throughout all of Die-In-The-Woods and the whole day in front of the Board of Directors, Bruno had kept it together, but the thought of losing Boots was pushing him to the edge?
Bruno looked at him and his dark eyes were shiny with the tears he was struggling to hold back. “When you handed me that pan… I… “
Boots nodded, “Yeah. I know, Bruno. Me too.” He wrapped his other arm around Bruno and they hugged each other tight, losing control of their tears.
They cried on each other’s shoulders for a long time. When they finally ran dry, they stayed together in silence, unconsciously rocking each other, for nearly as long. “I guess that’s what Mr. Fudge was talking about,” Bruno whispered eventually.
Boots nodded. “I hope the other guys have shoulders to cry on. These are quality shoulders.”
“Thanks man, I got ‘em for hockey. You got good hugging arms.”
“I got snot all over your shirt.”
“It is a mutual snot situation,” Bruno agreed. Boots grinned. “You gonna be okay?”
Boots sighed, “Well… I don’t think I ever want to go camping again.”
Bruno nodded, “I won’t miss eating lake trout.”
“That’s good, your fish farts were devastating.”
Bruno started giggling. “My fish farts? I heard the army’s looking into weaponizing Wilbur’s!” They both broke into laughter.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Boots whispered.
Bruno hugged him fiercely, “I’m not leaving you again.”
* * * *
Eight pairs of eyes stared worriedly at the Headmaster. Elmer Drimsdale, Calvin Fihzgart, Mark Davies, Larry Wilson, Wilbur Hackenschleimer, Boots O’Neal, Bruno Walton, and Pete Anderson had all been summoned. They were too many for the Headmaster’s office, so they sat at the long table in the staff meeting room.
Then the Fish gave them one of his rare smiles. “Congratulations,” he said, “You’ve won. The Board of Directors has authorized to contract for a survival specialist to come in and audit the wilderness survival trip program and make recommendations on equipment, procedures, and preparations. To compensate, we will be losing the glee club, which I’m sure you’re all very sorry about.” There were nervous chuckles around the table. “And as a token of apology and a reward for your excellent work, we shall be treating you to some fine dining. Walton has suggested the 360 revolving restaurant in Toronto-” Wilbur and Mark both gasped. “Will that be satisfactory to everyone?” There was a babble of agreement. “Excellent. We will be ordering from the prix fixe menu so that you may have access to the look-out and glass floor levels. Wilson will inform you when the arrangements are made, so that you may have appropriate clothing made ready.”
“Yes, sir.” “Thank you sir!” “Thank you, Mr. Sturgeon!” “Oh my God, the 360!”
A soft voice whispered, “You guys okay?” Bruno and Boots turned to see Larry Wilson, looking at them with concern. “You guys looked a bit… when you answered the door when I gave you The Fish’s message.”
A bit red-eyed and covered in snot. A bit obviously been crying, Bruno thought. He nodded, “Yeah, we’re… We’re better than we were, let’s put it that way.”
Larry nodded, “Yeah, I get it. Mark, Elmer and I all did the same thing.” He glanced back at the others. “To be honest, I… I think I’m going to take up the offer of counseling. Just to make sure I’m alright, y’know?”
“Yeah… That’s probably a good idea,” said Boots thoughtfully, “We were worried about you guys. I mean, Bruno and I have each other but…”
“Yeah, I’m cool. Believe it or not, I talk to Wilbur lots,” Larry touched Boots’s shoulder and bumped fists with Bruno. “Thanks for going to bat for us, you guys.”
Bruno grinned at him, “Hey, anything for MacDonald Hall!”