It starts when Gwen mentions that she doesn’t have anywhere to live after the summer, that she’ll have to move back in with her parents unless she finds something better.
(“And, like, anything better. This old guy in the park asked me if I wanted a sugar daddy and I was thinking about it.”)
When David suggests she stay at the camp year-round like he does, he fully expects she’ll turn him down. When she half-smiles and says that it’s better than any of her ideas, he thinks she’s kidding, chuckles numbly and looks back down at his phone.
When she doesn’t make any more plans to move out, he wonders if maybe she’d meant it.
When she starts peppering him with questions about the rest of the year, how he makes money and keeps himself busy and keeps the place from falling apart and keeps himself from freezing or starving to death, he realizes that she’s completely serious, that she’s serious about living here, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek raw to keep from grinning. Because when she says it’s better than nothing she means he’s better than nothing, that she prefers his company at the very least to that of her parents or of strangers and up until this moment he hadn’t ever considered that she might think he was better than literally anything.
So when she critiques his plans and makes her own, when she buys two rattling space heaters for the cabin and when she leaves for a whole weekend and returns with the rest of her life’s belongings in the back of the campmobile, David is quietly, glowingly happy.
(He is even more happy when she finally muscles past the mean little voices in her head and kisses him. They’re in the middle of Rowing Camp and they’re supposed to be watching the campers but they’re in a child-sized rowboat on the lake under blue sky and fluffy white clouds, and when she kisses him he almost forgets all of those things and nearly topples them both into the water.)
(He is even more happy when he realizes that kiss wasn’t a one-time fluke, but apparently a pattern, something to be repeated so many times he loses count.)
(And he’s the happiest he’s ever been -- quietly again, though, a warm gentle bubbling kind of happiness because he knows how defensive Gwen gets when she’s embarrassed -- when she finally admits that it’s not because she has no other options and it’s not because she’s bored, but because she just happens to like him better than either of them ever realized.)
So it begins.
The predictable doesn’t happen, and Max’s parents show up at the end of the summer to take him home. Both David and Gwen let out a sigh of relief, because the boy’s constant mutterings that they don’t care about him and wouldn’t bother to show up had been getting to them, and until he’s safely ensconced in the back of a ratty green two-door sedan they weren’t fully convinced Max wasn’t going to be left behind.
They spent so much time worrying about the predictable, however, that the unpredictable slips completely under their noses until the hours grow heavy and golden and damp, the threat of mosquitos looming as the air cools, and they look around and realize that something has gone wrong, and a camper has been left behind. It just isn’t the one they’d been prepared for.
Mr. Nurfington, an impatient female voice tells Gwen over the phone, hasn’t lived at this number for three weeks. He’s wanted for possession and resisting arrest -- what they might elevate to aggravated assault, the landlady adds, the coolness dropping from her tone as the conversation turns toward gossip, and Gwen should just hear what the police found in his trailer -- “but nobody’s heard a thing from him. His lease expires in two months and as soon as it does, I’m putting all his stuff on the lawn and the coons can have it.”
(Gwen sincerely hopes she means raccoons.) “Did he leave any contacts?”
Just his wife, who won’t be released for another sixteen months -- longer, if she keeps starting fights with the other inmates. There’s an uncle, Gwen knows, but a little digging reveals that he was sentenced to twenty years less than a decade ago, on charges that turn her stomach.
She sets down the phone and puts Nurf’s papers away, and tries to figure out how to explain all this to the two redheaded children sitting on the dock. Two very different versions, she decides, and calls David inside to give him something almost indistinguishable from the truth except that some of the more unsavory details are politely omitted, because at least one of them deserves to sleep that night and for some reason Gwen feels like David’s faith in the world ought to be protected.
Grimy and sweaty from the cabin’s closed-in air, she goes to the showers to wash away everything she’s just learned and leaves David to tell Nurf the version of the story they’ve agreed upon: that his father is gone, nobody is coming to pick him up, but it’s okay because they have a second bedroom in the cabin and this will surely be all better by tomorrow.
It isn’t, and only David is surprised.
It’s a good thing they have a bus, because the Sleepy Peak school transportation system won’t come pick Nurf up all the way at Camp Campbell. Of course, he flatly refuses to let QM drive him to school in a full-sized bus, which neither David or Gwen can really argue. Which leaves her with two options: either dropping Nurf off at school in the campmobile every morning before killing a half hour reading fanfiction on her phone before her job at Camp Corp begins, or driving the exhaust-belching, dangerously clanking bus to work and getting a few minutes of extra sleep.
She decides David is less likely to get himself killed with the bus than with Nurf, and resigns herself to a deeply uncomfortable morning commute.
The most surprising thing she learns on these quiet, sullen mornings is that Nurf is . . . a morning person. Not like David, of course -- no one is quite like David -- but he doesn’t drag his feet, is always sitting by the flagpole with his backpack (new, cheap like it’s made out of old tarp, all they could afford) between his feet when she staggers outside with a to-go cup of coffee and a fistful of David’s trail mix. Nurf doesn’t talk, but he’s attentive; he draws nonsense patterns in the dew on the Campmobile’s windows, and after a few weeks of this strange arrangement he’s comfortable enough to flip through the radio stations.
He likes classical music. David will tell her that he once asked to turn up the Farmer’s Almanac.
(Gwen confesses to David one night that she’s halfway convinced he’ll become a serial killer or something. It’s one of the few serious fights they’ve had, though less a fight than her sitting in shock-stone silence while he gets splutteringly, hand-wringingly angry at her. Tells her that she can’t ever say anything like that ever again -- can’t even think it -- that they’re counselors year-round now and that means never, ever giving up on their campers -- that if -- that as a child -- that he knows what it’s like to be a lost cause and Nurf will never feel like that as long as he’s at Camp Campbell, and that he needs her to be on board because this is hard and scary and he can’t do it alone. Even if their campers weren’t . . . such unique individuals, he would need her, and she can’t ever -- ever -- )
(He’s red-faced and shaking when he runs out of breath or out of words, she can’t tell which, and she tugs him half into her lap and kisses his temple and tells him that of course Nurf will be fine, they’ll all be fine, and she didn’t mean it and it’s okay. And she listens to his breathing even out and, not for the first time, she hates David’s father with every ounce of her being.)
So she trusts Nurf, for David’s sake. And she tries to understand him, for all of theirs.
The seasons will change one more time before she finds herself truly liking him, but she thinks maybe that’s just because neither of them are as good at trusting or understanding as David is.
The fall settles into a pattern of quiet cars and loud buses, of Summer Camp Extended -- which is how David likes to think of it, maybe needs to think of it, because the alternative is that he’s become a father of an aggressive boy the rest of the world forgot about -- where the activities are school for Nurf and work for himself, where the afternoons are spent trying to remember seventh-grade math, buying groceries, waiting for Gwen to come home from a job that demands much longer hours than it offers pay. Sometimes there are regular camp activities, too, when he can cajole Nurf into going for a hike or learning how to fish (though they can’t eat anything they catch in Lake Lilac; the fish there have been declared dangerously mutated).
He spends his mornings as a bouncer at Muffin Tops -- Bonquisha got him the job, and he knows that he looks wiry and weedy and not all that intimidating but the crowd is much calmer during the day than it will get as the evening rolls around, and he believes he can take care of himself if he needs to. (And he has to admit, he enjoys the funny looks his school bus gets when people cross the parking lot.) The customers are polite, if not especially chatty, his coworkers are friendly, the job is mostly standing outside and enjoying the fresh air. It suits him -- strange, unexpected, but surprisingly well-fitting.
David isn’t nearly as adept at metaphors as Gwen, but he thinks quite a few things in his new life could be described that way.
This is the first time he’s able to take just one part-time job, and let the rest of his hours go toward fixing up the camp, and so every patched-up set piece and wobbly table leg repaired he considers a gift from Gwen, who is answering phones and fetching coffee so that he can make Camp Campbell his own, not just legally but in spirit.
He decides that this will be a healing year, a fixing and replacing and making-things-new kind of year.
They all need a little bit of that, he believes.
David isn’t used to devoting this much attention to a single camper. (Not even Max, who has always been a special case.) It’s surprisingly difficult, this one-on-one closeness; he finds he much prefers the scatterbrained chaos of a room full of children. It suits the way he thinks, bouncing frenetic energy, instead of this careful plodding observation and cautious trial-and-error.
It would probably be different with almost any other camper, he has to admit. Nikki, for example -- she constantly needs to be moving, and he would be running to keep up. Harrison would probably be causing trouble, fires he would literally have to put out. Nerris, who can talk for hours at a time about the things that interest her. Preston swanning around the empty Mess Hall, always trying to find an audience.
Nurf, however, isn’t like the children who are sparkling firecrackers that dance and blaze until they get tired and fizzle out. Nor is he like the quieter campers, who still get bored and act out in ways they undoubtedly think are random but really are more like predictable bursts. But Nurf doesn’t seem to have much energy; he goes from school to homework to whatever little activity David can talk him into to bed without seeming depressed or bored. Gwen suggests that maybe Nurf would act out and bully the other campers because he was overwhelmed by the constant noise and activity, and after a week or two of helpless observation, he decides she must be right and leaves the kid to his own devices. Maybe he just really is quiet; it occurs to David that he only ever really noticed Nurf when he was causing problems, and it pains him that this realization comes just as he makes the decision to step back.
“Of course you ignored the well-behaved ones,” Gwen tells him one evening, curled up against his side with her cheek on his shoulder. “What are we supposed to do, let the Problem Trio destroy the camp while we try to get Ered to drop the ‘too cool to talk to anyone’ act?”
He knows she’s right, but it doesn’t make him feel any better about withdrawing. He throws himself further into camp rehabilitation instead, letting Nurf do homework and play on his phone (finally relinquished to him at the end of the summer) and do whatever else fills his afternoons, and tries to ignore the prickling panic that lingers at the back of his mind and tells him this is not okay, this is not how a Camp Campbell counselor should act.
The problem is, of course, that up until this fall it’s exactly how he’s always acted.
The other problem is that he and Gwen were wrong about the kind of person Nurf is; he isn’t a firecracker, no, and he’s not a Max-like schemer and instigator, a controlled burst of dynamite. But just because the tension bubbles under the surface doesn’t mean it’s not there, and eventually it has to boil over.
The tipping point appears to be David asking over the dinner table how his homework is going. He’s deemed it a nice, neutral topic of conversation, one that isn’t likely to veer into uncomfortable directions about his home life or the bizarre situation they’ve all found themselves in or what’s going to happen next. It’s safe and familiar ground, and whenever he’s grasping for something to talk about he returns to it gratefully, knowing it’ll never trigger a landmine.
Until it does.
“Sure, let’s just talk about homework,” he snaps, the hint of his slight damp lisp becoming more pronounced with irritation -- not that anyone would dare point it out to him. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Is my homework done? Do I need help with my homework? How was school, and what kind of homework did you get?” He slams his hands down on the table, making the dishes (and Gwen and David) jump. “Do you even consider the psychological ramifications of making an impressionable child feel like they are nothing but the sum of their academic achievements? And I am impressionable!” he adds, shoving his chair back and standing up; David notices for the first time that he’s grown a bit over the summer, enough to almost loom over them while they’re still seated. “I’m still just a kid, you know!”
He swallows, trying to find the right words (and keeping a careful eye on their silverware). “Well, of course you are, Nurf,” he begins carefully, with the distinct impression that he’s feeling his way through waist-deep water in the dark. “But it’s our job to make sure that you’re . . .”
How does he finish that sentence? ‘Okay?’ ‘Happy?’ ‘Safe?’ He’s not sure Nurf is any of those things, and the thought of being responsible for them makes his stomach coil and his fingers shake.
“That you’re engaging in an activity,” Gwen cuts in smoothly, placing her hand over David’s underneath the table. Her touch and the last-minute rescue both hit him like a lifeline. “Since camp isn’t in session, school is kinda your activity.”
Something flickers in Nurf’s expression, doubt cutting through the increasing red-faced belligerence, and David thanks whatever higher power might be out there for Gwen. She’s always understood the more difficult campers better than he does; it must be the Psychology degr --
Clouds roll in dark and heavy behind his eyes. “Why does everybody sign me up for activities I don’t want?” He picks up a napkin and began shredding it -- David wonders if he picked it up from Gwen, or if he’s always had that nervous habit. “I never asked to go to school, you know! My mom never went to school, and she’s only suffering from a lifetime of consequences made from bad decisions that she didn’t have the education or emotional framework to prevent!” He tosses the shreds of napkin to the table, the three of them watching in silence as the uneven confetti flutters over their food. “Everyone does that!”
“Well, that’s not . . .” David glances at Gwen, who shrugs. He felt less helpless when Nurf was throwing knives at him. “You have to,” he finishes weakly. “It’s good for you. And I thought you liked . . .” He wracks his brain desperately for scraps of what limited conversation they’ve had on their afternoon drives home from school, “history?”
“Ugh!” Nurf whirls around and pulls back his arm, then launches his water glass into the wall. It doesn’t break -- David bought shatterproof dishes for the camp long before any of his current campers started coming here -- but the sound is massive in the silent room. We should’ve had him sign up for Baseball Camp, David thinks wearily, watching the water drip down the uneven wood surface. “Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to not have the vocabulary sophisticated enough to express what you’re feeling?!”
David rarely considers himself helpless, but as Nurf reaches for his mostly-uneaten plate, face still dark with bottled-up impotent fury, he feels like he’s been attacked by Daniel again, limbs as weak and useless as if they were tied to his chair. “I . . . think you have a great vocabulary,” he begins, taking the first steps into this sentence without having any idea where the end of it is. But his instinct is always for positivity, and it’s true that Nurf’s intelligence impresses him; he may have taken for granted, in some ways, that this is the one camper who he can always rely on to be direct, his words and his fists both brutally honest. “Usually I just say I’m mad.”
“I AM mad!” he shouts, but he drops the plate to the table instead of throwing it. His voice is loud enough to blow Gwen and David’s hair back like a strong wind, and they’re both too surprised to even wipe off the bits of potato that flew up into their faces from the plate’s hard landing. “I’m mad because you don’t know what to do with me, and the state doesn’t know what to do with me, and it’s the end of summer but I’m still at camp because nobody knows what they’re supposed to do with me, which is the exact reason why I ended up in Boot Camp in the first place, and all I can do is do homework until someone decides what’s going to happen to me and I don’t know why everything is this hard!”
His arms drop to his sides and his shoulders slump, eyes widening and staring blankly into a spot above their heads.
“Wow,” he says after a moment. “That’s a lot of dark stuff for a twelve-year-old.”
The Quartermaster pokes his head into the Mess Hall. “Anyone died out here?”
“No, QM,” Gwen says, giving David a sideways glance before grabbing the butter, reaching over Nurf’s plate like it wasn’t sitting in a mess of food in the middle of the table, “we’re good out here.”
The Quartermaster grunts and disappears back into the kitchen, where an unsettling grinding noise David can’t quite place begins.
Nurf picks up his plate and sets it back in its place, stealing David’s napkin and settling it over the spilled food left behind. “I should, uh, clean up everything, shouldn’t I?”
“After dinner,” David replies, keeping his voice as calm and unaffected as possible. “You should finish eating before it gets cold.” As he sits back down and reaches for his fork, he continues, “If I help you get the Mess Hall back in shape, Nurf, do you think you’d be able to give me a hand with the canoes? I’m trying to get them ready for one last trip before the lake freezes.”
“Is this a punishment because I threw things?”
“Absolutely not.” David feels like he’s walking on a very narrow bridge, with horrible drops to either side but something warm and potentially wonderful on the other end. “You don’t have to say yes.”
Gwen, still keeping her gaze on buttering her roll, mutters, “You could always do homework instead.”
David freezes, giving her a look because what on earth does she think she’s doing? But then Nurf lets out a small, barking huff of laughter, and the evening settles back on its axis almost tangibly, a kind of metaphysical thump that he thinks they all feel, because in an instant the air is lighter than it's been since the end of the summer.
“For what it’s worth,” Gwen says after a few minutes, “even if it’s hard, I think you’re better at handling your feelings than you think you are.” Her eyes flick over to the empty glass and the water stain on the wall. “But maybe we should also buy you a punching bag over the weekend.”
“He needs a shrink,” Gwen declares later that night, then flops back onto the bed, covering her eyes with her arms. “We can’t afford a shrink.”
David is quiet for a moment. “I could . . . get another job,” he offers finally, the waves of reluctance rolling off of him, and she flaps her hand in his direction dismissively.
“No, shut up. This is your dream. Stop being stupid.”
He catches her arm, fingers closing gently around her wrist, and kisses her knuckles. “Thank you,” he says, not even pretending to argue. “I love you.”
She rolls onto her side to face him, feeling her face heat up. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters. “I know.”
(She’s not sure why being told she’s loved embarrasses her. She’s even less sure why it’s so difficult to say it back. Her degree could not be any more useless.)
David bundles her up in his long arms, pulling her to his chest and rolling onto his back so she’s sprawled on top of him. He kisses her nose, beaming. “It’s okay, Gwen.”
She buries her face in his chest and lets him pet her hair, lets herself be loved.
(By the time she finally gets the courage to tell him that of course she loves him -- has, in fact, been in love with him since before he offered to let her live at the camp year-round -- almost all the leaves have fallen and the air is ice-breath freezing and he laughs, not at her but with the kind of giddy joy that can’t be contained in a smile. He kisses her and wraps her in his coat and it gets dark and Nurf yells that it’s time for dinner before they’re willing to pull away enough to escape the bitter chill.)
He gets therapy, eventually. Mr. Campbell still has all that money tucked away, and when the Millers hear that he wants to put it toward bettering himself and learning from his mistakes, they’re more than willing to unfreeze his bank accounts, just this once. So when David takes Nurf to the small white-bricked building where his own infrequent therapy sessions are held, he brings Mr. Campbell along for the ride. It settles his nerves about lying, because it isn’t technically a lie; Mr. Campbell is going to counseling, he’s just not using it.
When Mr. Campbell came forward one evening and offered the idea, David was shocked by the generosity, and a little suspicious. As soon as he smoothly suggested that they kill time at, say, The Only Bar or Muffin Tops while the little tyke was in there getting his head straightened out, things became a lot clearer.
(He didn’t spend long thinking it over, though. At the end of the day, an hour a week in a darkly-lit bar or strip club isn’t much of a sacrifice.)
On non-therapy days, David continues fixing up the camp, making sure to go out of his way to ask Nurf if he wants to help.
And to his surprise he . . . does, more often than not. Even more surprising is the fact that he’s rather good at this kind of hands-on work. He’s a tinkerer, like David is, and understanding blooms warm in his chest as the camper-who-isn’t-really-a-camper-anymore settles himself among the detritus of the camp unprompted, sorting through broken and disorganized supplies with a touch that’s strangely delicate, like he’s used to accidentally -- or not-so-accidentally -- breaking things.
Nothing gets broken that autumn, though. And no dishes hit the wall, either.
(When he mentions all this to Gwen, she shrugs and says, “Sure, makes sense. He liked to help Preston and Dolph out with their theater shit sometimes, right?” and again he feels like a terrible counselor.)
It’s largely David’s responsibility to take care of Nurf, which he expected and doesn’t mind. Gwen works full-time, after all, and she has always been a bit hands-off around the campers; she’s . . . not exactly maternal, and the unusualness of their new situation makes her far more uncomfortable than him. Her support largely comes in the form of common sense, observations he’d completely miss and ideas that never occur to him. Though she has a wonderful heart, Gwen is all brain. It works well -- David isn’t all that brainy, but he’s better at throwing his heart utterly into something.
So he does, with the kind of squared-jaw hopeful determination that leaves him exhausted and unable to sleep each night, his brain running over and over with thoughts and hopes and fears and ideas, above all ideas that multiply and branch until they’re full-scale plans. Plans full of holes, plans perhaps doomed to fail, but that’s what Gwen is for, when he’s finally ready to share his plans. When the heart has hung up activities and topics of conversation and a thousand ways to get Nurf to open up, scaffolded with lunatic, reckless optimism, she listens and writes in her journal and shores up the weak spots, tugs down his excitement so that his hopes don’t rise so tall they’ll collapse in on themselves.
She’s the rope around his ankles that makes sure he won’t build something he can’t get down from, so he doesn’t have to worry about anything except building.
And what does building look like with Nurf?
Quiet, at first. For someone who can so eloquently describe his issues, he isn’t really very chatty, and most of the time they work on their respective projects in silence. (One of David’s plans, tentatively titled Get Nurf to Share More About His Day, gradually deflates under the realization that he just doesn’t like talking about his day, and pushing him to share about classes or friends is more likely than not to result in him shutting down -- or throwing something. He puts it aside for now.)
Other plans are more successful. Teach Valuable Real-Life Skills is one; he picks up on things like carpentry and plumbing with an adeptness that exceeds even David’s most extravagant hopes, and soon he’s scrambling to find more things that tap into that well of enthusiasm. Sports, Violent Video Game Nights (which Gwen largely participates in because David is a bit squeamish about such things), Hiking and Mountaineering that are so much easier with only one or two people to corral instead of a dozen, and he’s already making plans for winter: skiing and snowshoeing and maybe even snowball fights, if he can teach Nurf how to do so without getting anyone hurt.
Learn Nurf’s Languages is a trickier plan, constantly ongoing. The slight slump of his shoulders that means something went badly in school, and the way he either does or doesn’t want to talk about it based on how fidgety he is. The jutted-out jaw and sullen silence that means he’s stumped and doesn’t want to admit it, the habit of clenching and unclenching his fists when he’s trying not to get angry. The little questions and observations that seem to come out of nowhere -- “Is there enough wood for the winter?” “I think the draft is coming from QM’s store; there’s a hole near the foundation” “When will you find out who’s coming back this summer?” -- that all add up to the same thing: a kid who’s trying to figure out what their future is going to look like, and if he’ll be in it.
Whenever he’s particularly helpful, uncharacteristically so, David takes a few extra hours that day to do something fun. He doesn’t know how long any of this is going to hold together, but he wants Nurf to know in no uncertain terms that for as long as it’s his and Gwen’s decision, that answer is going to be yes.