Monday, November 06, 2006

Sweet Tooth

By Timothy Hedges

IT IS THE summer of my parents' divorce, and I have just found out how many licks it tares to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Travis, one of my campers, tells me the magic number as I stand by the yellow bus and wave my afternoon goodbyes. He heaves himself to the top of the steps before he turns and, with a sticky mouth, says, "Six hundred fifty-four." Some orange goo clings to the end of the wet candy stem in his hand, and I imagine the sugar I gave him working its witchcraft in his hyperactive body. I worry that he'll end up jabbing someone in the eye with this new potential weapon, something he did with a Capri Sun straw last year before he got kicked out of camp.

"That's cool, Travis," I yell, but he has turned and stomped down the aisle where he is small enough to disappear behind the high-backed plastic benches that are crisscrossed with duct tape patches.

As the bus revs twice and pulls away down the campus road, I see a small hand emerge from an open window and then a white stick cartwheeling to the ground.

Last month--as my high-school graduation present, I guess--my parents finalized their divorce.

"We're legal now," my dad said as he sat at our kitchen table and held up a piece of paper with fancy letterhead. Mom was hovering in the doorframe of the dining room, biting her nails and trying to look happy.

"Congratulations," I said. "What do we do now? Back handsprings?"

"Honey …," my mom said, running her hand along the chin-up bar she'd installed in March when Dad started to move his stuff out of the house.

"It's O.K.," Dad said. "We just felt it was important for all of us to recognize that it's official now. Signed, sealed, and delivered." He rapped his knuckles on the table in some sort of musical knock and looked at me. "It's better for everyone this way. You understand, right, kiddo?"

My dad had stopped calling me Amy when I was in junior high, fight around the time he accidentally saw me running to the bathroom in my training bra. After that, I became kiddo or slugger or ace, and he started buying me baseball caps for every birthday, even after I quit the JV softball team.

"I understand, Dad," I said. "We all understand." I looked over my shoulder at my mom. "Can't we just eat now?"

Mom nearly sprinted to the oven to remove the warming casserole.

Dad leaned his chair back on two legs. "Guess who shot three under par today?"

My mom held the casserole with a pair of yellow mitts. "Who?" she said.

I raised a glass of milk to my lips and waited for the story to end.

It is my first summer as a counselor at Camp Running Buck, though last year I was a counselor-in-training, running errands, getting meds, fixing snacks. Plus, I was a camper here, way back when I was one of the kids trying to make the longest boondoggle key chain in the history of the world, back when I would join my friends in calling the place Camp Run Amok--though I didn't really know what that meant.

Now, I am eighteen years old--legal, my dad might say, for thirty-nine-hour workweeks and voting the bastards out of office. The camp job's supposed to help me earn some spending money for my freshman year at Ohio State.

Running Buck is a day camp. I'm in charge of the eight-year-old boys, which means I'm in charge of Travis Trotwood, one of the camp's legendary troublemakers.

Today is Monday, a bad day for Travis. At the beginning of the summer, his morn sent a note saying that Travis sometimes skips his medication on the weekends he's with his dad.

When he gets off the bus in the morning, I greet him with my usual: "Travis, my man, how's it going?"

"Shut up," he says, crunching his face in a glare that looks painful.

Eric, the counselor who always cheats at capture the flag, slides up next to me as we continue to greet the campers. He nods toward Travis, who is drifting across the parking lot, kicking a rock. "That kid is a time bomb."

"Shut up, Eric."

"Whatever," Eric says. "You want me to nail him in dodge ball for you?"

"Nail yourself" I say and leave to gather my boys, two of whom are already sword fighting with tree branches.

By lunchtime Travis is missing. Last year, he ran off at least once a week before Todd, the camp director, finally kicked him out. This year, he's been better, though he still disappears. I usually break protocol by not telling anyone and just wait for Travis to let me find him.

"Travis," I yell across the soccer field in the direction of the woods. "It's time for lunch"

Malcolm, a boy with blue-tinted braces, is at my side, tugging on my shorts. "Do you like physics?" he says.

"Not now, Malcolm," I say.

As I reach the woods, Travis emerges from behind a tree, giggling. He charges me with a Popsicle-stick switchblade, his third knife of the summer. He has perfected these weapons by using rubber bands and sharpening the blades on the blacktop parking lot. His curly hair bounces as he runs, and his tongue protrudes through a gap in his teeth.

He skids to a stop and points the knife at Malcolm's eye. I think about diving in front of Malcolm, like they do in slow-motion movie scenes.

"Gosh, Travis, we've been waiting for you," Malcolm says, calm as ever. "Don't you know it's lunchtime?"

"Shut up," Travis says, the smile vanishing from his face. He lowers the knife. "I was just joking."

"It's all right," I say. "But now we have to hurry."

I look over at the rest of my boys. Billy is sitting in a mud puddle. Ian, who suffers from mild autism, is spinning in circles with his arms outstretched. Nick is spread-eagle on the grass, staring through his binoculars at what appears to be nothing. William, who calls me "Teacher," is hopping around with his hands on his thighs in what I recognize as a pee-pee dance.

I raise my hand toward the switchblade. Travis looks down as if he doesn't know what he's holding, as if he can't remember the dozen conversations we've had about weapons.

"Travis," I say.

He takes the sticks in both hands and snaps them in half with the brittle pop of a dozen cracked knuckles. He looks up at me without blinking and throws the broken sticks into the woods.

After Dad officially moved out in May, Mom got herself diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. She doesn't want me to know that she takes pills for it, but I've seen that she hides her prescription bottle in the flour canister. When I see it there, I imagine her amongst the army of glassy-eyed campers who get escorted to the nurse's office every day at lunchtime, obediently swallowing in an attempt to help them--what?--stay focused on kick the can?

When I get home from camp, Mom is in the living room riding the three-speed bicycle she has propped up on cement blocks. She is still in her work clothes. The bike is part of her therapy, Dr. Mackovic's suggestion for helping her maximize her efficiency. She's supposed to stay active as much as possible, to ride the bike while she's reading her insurance reports at home. Today, though, she's reading People magazine.

She closes the magazine in her lap and looks up as I pause at the bottom of the staircase. A drop of sweat plummets down the swoop of her nose and drips onto Britney Spears's face.

"Shouldn't you change clothes?" I say.

Mom looks at her blouse and smiles. She stops pedaling, and the wheels continue to spin. "I know,' she says. "I was just …" She puts her hands up near her ears and makes chopping motions. "I had a day today. I just had to do something."

She points at a hand towel on the banister, and I throw it her way.

"How was today for you?" she asks, patting at her forehead.

I do not tell her about Travis shoving Malcolm into the pool or about the phone call Todd, the camp director, made to Travis's morn while Travis lay facedown in a beanbag chair in the office. I do not tell her that Todd used the phrase "strike two" or that he glared at me when he found out I'd been giving Travis candy to reward his relatively good behavior.

I want to talk about Travis, but my mom is about the last person I would ask about families or little kids. She's riding a bike in our living room. She has enough problems.

"Today was fine," I say.

Mom says, "Are you seeing Bob … your … are you seeing Dad this weekend?" Like my father, Mom has developed a problem of not knowing what to call people.

I tell her he offered to take me to an Indians game on Saturday, but I don't really want to go.

"Go, honey" she says. "It will be fun. For both of you." I shrug.

Mom starts pedaling again. "I should get a yellow jersey," she says. "I feel like it's the Tour-de-France in here."

"You should shut the drapes," I say and take the stairs three at a time.

I arrive at camp on Tuesday to find that Travis is serving a one-day suspension for the pool incident. When he comes back, Todd says, he'll be on serious probation. One more strike, and he's out.

I want to argue, to defend my guy, but, really, what can I say? The record speaks for itself.

Two years ago, when he was six years old, Travis was suspended for two weeks for throwing a chunk of cement through a car window. Last year he went through a three-week stretch when he'd run from his group at every opportunity. We'd usually find him in the gymnasium or the girls' locker room, flicking the light switch on and off and laughing his hysterical laugh, kind of like Woody Woodpecker hitting puberty. Then last August, he earned his ticket out by slugging Edgar Heller on the ear and drawing blood. Todd says Mrs. Trotwood had to do some fancy footwork to convince the camp to give Travis another shot this year.

One condition of Travis's return is that we have imposed an unofficial restraining order to keep Travis away from Edgar Heller. Their groups are never supposed to be within one hundred yards of each other. Edgar is this round kid who suffers from Tourette's syndrome, which I guess makes it harder for us to kick him out of camp even though he once stuck a needle in another camper's leg.

But today, Travis is gone, and, what can I say, I miss him. I should, according to every other counselor at camp, be thankful for his absence. This is the first day all summer I've gotten my boys to Closing Circle without being ten minutes late. It's hard to say why I like Travis so much. It probably has something to do with the fact that after the first week of camp, Mrs. Trotwood requested that Travis be in my group all summer. That's why I've had the eight-year-olds for six straight weeks. I guess I took her request as a compliment rather than a punishment.

While the boys are swimming, I head into the office. I offer to hold the fort while Nurse Linda tracks down kids who skipped their lunchtime meds.

Aside from a girl with beads in her braids sleeping on a cot by the window, I am alone. I spin on Linda's swivel chair and let her oscillating fan blow loose hairs back toward my ponytail. Near my feet I notice the box of hanging files that contains every camper's emergency medical forms.

Though they'd probably let me look at these if I asked to, I glance around to see if anyone's coming before prying the box open with the toe of my Reeboks. Leaning down, I flip to the Ts. I'm not sure what I'm hoping to find, but I'm disappointed there's not much to see on the Trotwood form. It's filled out in shaky blue pen, and most of the Ts are uncrossed.

The right-hand side of Travis's emergency form is blank. All the boxes for the father--name, phone number, employer, insurance carrier--are empty.

On the back, Travis's medical conditions are checked off dutifully: asthma, allergies (peanut butter, bees), ADHD, depression. Prior history: chickenpox, scabies, broken finger.

The only other interesting item shows up in the space reserved for Notes. Mrs. Trotwood had written "Travis and his father," but crossed it out and wrote "Travis likes storybooks."

The girl with the beads sits up on the cot and says, "I want to go home. I want my daddy."

I slip the file back in the box and spin my chair to face her. "Your daddy's on his way," I say in my best doctor voice. "Your daddy's almost here."

In the seventh inning, the Indians take the lead on Omar Vizquel's suicide squeeze. My dad cheers so mightily that he spills beer on my shoes.

We have made it through "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and I am ready to go home, but my dad is one of those "we gotta stay until the end of the game no matter what" guys.

"Great game, huh, champ?" he says, holding out a bucket of popcorn so salty it cuts my lips.

I have never been the champ of anything, by the way, unless you count the third grade Math Olympics, which I'm pretty sure my father doesn't.

"Here comes the wave," Dad says, nudging me in the shoulder and laughing when it's our turn to stand and throw our arms in the air.

I run a finger around the sides of my cup of nacho cheese, and it comes out yellow. I put it in my mouth and watch as the scoreboard flashes a ghost, then reads "WALKS WILL HAUNT." My dad is totally into this scene.

In third grade he talked me into taking a father-daughter Saturday morning judo class. He was so happy when he showed me our matching white uniforms. I lasted three months before I broke down crying and told my mom I hated it, all that flipping and yelling for no good reason. She must have told my dad. He never said anything to me about it, just took down our white robes from where we hung them on the basement door and let me sleep in the following Saturday.

A curly-haired boy in an old oversized Albert Belle jersey stumbles up the aisle next to us, and I tell my dad he looks like a kid I know at camp.

"Camp" he says. "How's that going?" The Twins have put runners on the corners, and I know my dad doesn't really want to hear about camp, about Travis, about anything.

"Camp's fine" I say. "Good old Camp Run Amok."

The Tribe turns a double play, adds an insurance run in the eighth, and holds on for the win. Dad high-fives strangers. As we're leaving, he stoops down to pick up cheap plastic souvenir cups that have been left behind. He stacks a half-dozen.

"For your dorm room," he says and winks. "These might come in handy."

How can I tell this man that no one at OSU will want to drink from a crummy used cup with C.C. Sabathia's face on it?

On the way home, doing eighty on I-71, my dad turns off the radio postgame report and tells me he's found a new condo in Dublin near the Applebee's. He makes it sound like the setting for an old cheesy prime-time soap, like Melrose Place. He is way too excited about the pool, which he says I can use anytime I want.

When I don't say anything, he says, "I know this is all pretty hard. Your mom and I."

For the last six months, ever since Mom and Dad sat me down in the family room and blew me away with their divorce announcement, he's been trying to talk to me about it, like that's one final piece of the puzzle, like he's making sure he has my approval or something.

I shift in my seat and roll the window down another two inches. We're passing some farms near Medina, and the air is ripe, but I lean my face into it anyway.

"We love you," Dad says and reaches for my knee without taking his eyes off the road. He hits some skin near the hem of my shorts and quickly retracts his hand.

"Remember judo?" I say.

"I remember." His hands are stiff now, at two and ten, keeping us inside the white lines.

"I'm sorry I hated it."

He clears his throat. "It's O.K. I always thought you liked it. At first, I mean."

"I wanted to," I say. "I did want to."

"Well," he says.

We're back in the silent darkness of the interstate. Not a headlight in sight.

"I still use some of those moves," I say. "When a guy gets fresh."

"Who's getting fresh with you?" Dad says, hands tightening on the wheel.

"Kidding, Dad. I was just kidding."

Dad spends the next five miles humming the Ohio State fight song and tapping his thumbs on the wheel.

We pass the exit for Mansfield. My parents lived there for a year right after they got married. Years ago, whenever we drove to Lake Erie, we'd stop for ice cream near their old neighborhood. My parents as newlyweds is an image I can't picture.

"Dad" I say carefully, like I'm defusing a bomb, "what happened to you and Mom?"

"Wow," Dad says. "That's a tough question, little lady."

"I was wondering."

"Me, too, actually," he says with a chuckle that annoys me. "I mean, it's not like I got up one day and decided that I didn't want to be a husband anymore. It was more that I just stopped being one."

"But why?"

Dad has the Malibu on cruise control, and we lurch a little as we head up a hill.

"Life's not easy to predict, kiddo. This wasn't part of a master plan."

"H'm," I say.

"This isn't helping, is it?"

I say nothing.

Then Dad hits me with his line of lines, his trump card, the credo I wish he would just tattoo on his forehead and get it over with: "The divorce is best for everyone," he says.

"Trust me."

It is another steamy Monday, and Travis is cranky.

Since he returned from suspension, I've continued to bribe him with candy. A good day (no spitting, scratching, running away, dumping William's lunch in the pool, threatening to kill Malcolm's mother) earns Travis a sandwich Baggie full of candy. Travis has a sweet tooth, and I'm playing it for all it's worth.

I feel guilty about pumping Travis full of sugar before sending him home, but it sure beats spending the day waiting for rocks to be thrown at my head. The first day he earned a Baggie, I challenged him to count how many licks it would take to get to the chewy center of the Tootsie Pop. He cocked his head at me as if to say, "What the hell would I want to do that for?" But later that afternoon, I could see him thinking hard as he sucked on the candy.

Today's assignment is to come up with a group name that we can put on a poster and decorate during Arts 'n Crafts Hour.

William suggests Buttsniffers, Malcolm insists on Centrifugal Forces, and Ian murmurs that he would like to be a Little Mermaid. After Nick's Bird Watchers gets shouted down, Billy raises his hand and says, "Ninjas." Travis perks up and starts a voting snowball by grinning at Billy and saying, "Yeah, ninjas are cool."

Within minutes, the boys have wrapped their T-shirts around their heads to simulate ninja masks. As the mock battle escalates, I see that Travis and Billy are working side by side, showing each other moves, mimicking each other's yells.

I think how popular I would be if I showed up at camp later this week wearing my dad's old judo robe, the one he left in the back of his closet, the one I suddenly wish I'd kept. Mom and I discovered it last month when she asked me to help her clear out some stuff. "Things we no longer need,' she said. Almost all of it was my dad's.

Travis, in his fearsome mask, rushes my way.

"Hey, Amy, you want me to show you my death grip?"

"Death grip?" I say. "Will it kill me?"


I do one of my crazy judo stances to scare him off. "No thanks," I say. "I'd prefer to live."

That afternoon, Travis announces that he hasn't brought his swimming trunks. They're usually crammed into his pint-size Igloo cooler along with his lunch and some Matchbox cars. He doesn't bring a backpack like the rest of the campers.

"Do you want to get a suit from the lost and found?" I say.

Travis makes a gagging face. "Can't I just sit by you on the side?"

I nod. "Why don't we get some stuff from the office? Books or cards or something."

While Ian splashes happily in the shallow end and the other boys hold a cannonball contest off the diving board, Travis shows me the book he picked out, the story of Peter Rabbit.

"You wanna read it?" I say.

"You read it," he says, shoving the book into my hands.

"Don't you know this story?"

"Read it," Travis says, and I hear frustration in his voice.

I read slowly and make sure Travis's eyes are done traveling across each page before I move on. I stop reading a few times and pretend to let Travis help me with the difficult words.

"Naughty," he says and waits for me to repeat it.

"You're faking,' he says. "You know these words."

I shrug. "It's a hard book."

When we're done, Travis looks up and says, "You know what we learned in school this year? How to write letters." He wipes his hands on his shorts. "Can I write one?"

I go to the office for crayons and paper.

"Who's the letter to?" I ask as Travis begins writing.

He looks up from his work. "Peter Rabbit."

I lean over his shoulder to get a peek.

"I know it's not real," Travis says. "Peter, I mean. But somebody should tell him to stop getting into trouble."

A little while later, Travis hands me the letter with a picture of a rabbit across the top.

"Dear Peter," I read, "I dont like vechtables. How dos it feels to be a bunny? If it means you have to eat vechtables, I woldnt want to be one. Why didnt you listen to your mother? You shoud always listen to your mother. You were bad for going into Mr. MacGregors garden when your mother told you not to. If you did that in America you coud get put in the lectric chair I hope you learned your lesson. Your frend, Travis."

"You can have it,' Travis says, pointing at the letter. He hands me the crayons.

"Thanks" I say. "Maybe I'll mail it."

"You're dumb," he says, smiling at me. "Rabbits can't read."

That afternoon we're all in Pinecone Forest terrorizing the eight-year-old girls. I have been banned by the Ninjas, and I demand to know why.

"You don't have a penis," Malcolm says and races off into the trees.

In addition to my banishment, Travis insists that I be punished.

"I'm going to eat your hands off," he says. Then he whispers, "It's just pretend. I won't really do it."

I am left to fend for myself, handless and alone. I join the girls and vow revenge. Today's war is called Royal Animals versus Dinosaurs. The girls, of course, are the Royal Animals. We race around pretending to be unicorns and Pegasuses. One strange girl named Anastasia says that she's a vulture. My boys, the Ninja Dinosaurs, carry guns. We raid each other's forts for an hour, stealing wood, calling names, taking prisoners.

The Royal Animal-Dinosaur battle ends when Travis knocks Anastasia down Bear Mountain, a steep incline of tree roots and shale that's not really worthy of its lofty name.

One minute we are all yelling happily, the next Travis and Anastasia are playing tug of war with a tree branch, and then Anastasia is all elbows and knees, cartwheeling down the mountain. Anastasia screams at the bottom of the hill, and I race past Travis, whose face is so clenched up, he looks like he's trying to make himself explode.

"Stay there," I say to Travis as I skid down the slope. "It's O.K. It was an accident."

I pinch myself for not staying on his team, for not watching him more closely.

Tears stream onto Anastasia's shaking body as she clutches her bleeding knees to her chest. I put my arm around her shoulders and tell her it'll be all right, she's fine, there's not much blood. If I can convince her she's O.K., maybe I can avoid taking her to the office, where I'd have to fill out an accident report. Travis would be done. "Strike three," Todd would say, holding the report triumphantly.

Eric, the camp's most obnoxious counselor, yells down to me from atop Bear Mountain. "Want me to take this kid to the office?" He has Travis's arms pinned behind his back, and Travis is doing his best to kick him in the shins.

"Let him go," I say. "I'll take care of it. It was an accident, right, Travis?"

"Sure," Eric says. "An accident." He gives Travis a little shove as he lets go.

"Don't run," I say to Travis. "Please. You can help me."

"She started it," he says, and this makes Anastasia start crying again.

I stare at Travis. All I have to do is report him to Todd and the rest of my summer could be so much easier.

I get Anastasia to calm down by talking to her in my British accent. I've got two Band-Aids in my fanny pack and I stick them to her knees, figuring that Todd won't notice the injury as long as Eric keeps his mouth shut. I know it's stupid and irresponsible not to report it, but for Travis, I'm willing to take a risk.

By the time I get Anastasia back on her feet and to the top of Bear Mountain, she's laughing.

My boys are seated on a log, comparing rocks, except for Travis, who is leaping at tree branches, trying to snap them off.

I pass Anastasia off to her counselor, Megan, who says, "Thanks. You know how I get around blood." She sticks her tongue out like she's just bitten into a lemon. "Your boys are being good. Except for … you know."

"It's O.K.," I say. "Anastasia's tough. Right, kiddo?"

Anastasia is picking at her Band-Aids and ignoring me.

"I'll take care of the accident report,' I lie, looking around the quiet forest. "I guess the war's over. Who won?"

Megan shrugs. "Nobody ever wins these things."

This, I think, may be the truest thing I've heard all summer.

That afternoon, Dad's Malibu is in the driveway when I get home.

I find him in the den putting golf balls at a tipped-over Indians cup. The rest of the stack is on the coffee table.

"Hey, champ," he says, lining up his shot. "You left those in the car last week."

"I didn't know you still had a house key," I say.

He holds up the magnetic key box that we keep underneath the gas grill out back. "I lived here for fifteen years," he says.

I kick a ball back his way. "Thanks for the cups."

"No sweat" he says, doing a fist pump as his ball disappears into the cup from ten feet away.

"Mom know you're here?"

He slowly follows through on a putt, raising the club until it nearly shatters a track light near the TV. "I'm here to see you. To talk."

He sits in the rocking chair, placed where his La-Z-Boy used to be, and takes a deep breath like he's about to jump into a pool.

"O.K.," he says. "This has been on my mind since Saturday." He clenches a fist, each finger making a popping noise.

"Here it is. I just wanted to tell you … I'm proud of you."

"Thanks," I say. "Do you want a lemonade or something, because I could …"

"I just want to talk, Amy. I want you to listen."

I sit on the couch and hold a pillow on my lap. I would very much like to take a shower, wash the finger paint off my forearms, remove the knots I let Nick tie in my hair.

"Your mother and I did the best we could for you," he says, hunching toward his knees like a basketball coach drawing up the winning play. "You knew we weren't happy."

"No" I say. This makes him sit back in his chair.

"No, what?"

"No, I didn't know you weren't happy. I was."

"But that's the point" he says. "We wanted you to be happy."

"Thanks" I say. "Good job."

"You know when the first time we talked to a lawyer was? You were eight years old. Eight." He talks like he's just reminded the jury of the crucial evidence. "We always said we'd get you through high school, but sooner or later we'd have to stop pretending."

"How was I supposed to know that, Dad? I was just a little kid." Something is rising in me, the same frustration I felt when I was trying to explain to Travis why pushing Anastasia down the hill was not O.K. "So now I'm off to college, and you can make your big getaway? That's what you wanted to tell me? You want me to make you feel good about it?"

"I'm not trying to get any extra-credit dad points or anything. I just want you to know that we always wanted you to be happy. Even if we weren't. Your mother and I … we

… I just don't want you to hate me. I don't want you to be angry all the time."

"I don't hate you," I say.

"We just want you to be O.K. We were always pretty pleased about how you turned out--in spite of the awful parenting, I mean."

"O.K.," I say. He wants me to tell him he wasn't an awful parent, but I won't do it.

"O.K.,' he says.

"So do I tell Mom you were here or what?"

Dad shakes his head. "Just give her a hug when she gets home. She'd probably like that."

I follow him out to the car with his putter in my hands. He bounces a golf ball on the driveway and catches it in his shirt pocket. He raises his eyebrows at me, and I can't help grinning.

Inside, I scoop up the souvenir cups and put them in the dishwasher. I line them up so that all the Indians are staring at me upside down, smiling their spring-training smiles, looking forward to sunny doubleheaders, each of them dreaming of winning the pennant.

Friday is Cookout Day at camp. Each kid brings in an assigned item, and we burn hot dogs and s'mores at the campfire pit near the pond.

We're in the woods looking for good roasting sticks when Malcolm rushes over.

"William wants to know if you'll marry him. He wants to be married and have babies with you."

"Tell him I'm free next Monday at two o'clock. But I'm not ready for babies yet."

Malcolm runs off screaming, "She said yes. She said yes."

This will be my ninth marriage of the summer, though no one ever asks for a divorce.

Later, while the other Ninjas take turns guzzling from a two-liter of generic soda called Dr. Ahh, I take Billy and Ian down to the fire to roast some hot dogs. Ian is turned sideways with an arm up to his face to shield himself from the heat. I have to wrap my hand around his as a guide to make sure his hot dog ends up near the flames.

Up near the rest of my boys, I See Edgar Heller come out of the trees, and from the grin on his face, I know something bad is about to happen. I let go of Ian and take off running, but I'm too late. Edgar grabs Travis's Igloo cooler and races across the open field toward the pond. Travis is right behind him. I yell at both of them to stop.

Edgar and Travis disappear down a trail behind some six-foot cattails. I skid around the corner and freeze when I see Edgar pitch the cooler ten feet into the pond. Travis stares at his Igloo bobbing in the water, then charges at Edgar. Travis takes a swing just as his feet hit the gravel, and he loses his footing in a spray of rocks. Edgar is off again, ducking into the trees. I yell at Travis to stay put and then I'm hot on Edgar's tail.

Edgar is extremely fast for an overweight eleven-year-old, and he's good at navigating the woods. I can't close in on him and after five minutes I head back to see what I can do with Travis.

I'm in sight of the campfire when I spot Travis throwing Edgar's backpack into the flames.

"Holy shit," I say, not caring if anyone hears. Where the hell is Todd? I think. He's usually guarding the fire against clumsy campers.

The plastic and synthetic fibers of the backpack catch fire with disturbing quickness, and foul black smoke billows over the sea of marshmallows on sticks. Then I see Edgar. He's at the opposite end of the field, looking at the fire and moving his feet like a bull about to charge. Travis notices Edgar and fishes into the flames with a long branch. He pulls the flaming backpack from the coals and turns, laughing, to face Edgar.

Little kids are running everywhere. Counselors are grabbing campers left and right, pulling them away from the action. Eric is crouched near Travis, looking like the guys in my old judo class who never knew when or how to strike. Travis swings his stick, and some burning pieces flake off and land in the grass. I see Todd racing across the field and know that Travis's summer camp is over.

"Put the stick back in the fire, Travis," Todd yells in his best "I'm an adult do as I say" voice.

"Put it down" I say, trying to be the good cop, walking forward, hands squeezed together as if in prayer.

"Tra-vis" Todd says, pronouncing each syllable like he's in super slow motion.

"Give me the stick," I say. "I saw what happened. It's Edgar's fault."

The entire camp is staring at us, one hundred and fifty campers with their jaws open, completely silent for the first time in the history of children.

"Come on, Travis," I whisper.

Travis keeps stepping backward until he's near the edge of the pond. His chest is heaving, and, for once, I can see inside his head. It's like wheels spinning in quicksand.

The backpack continues to burn at the end of his stick. He's waving it in figure eights like a magic wand. We're all just standing there.

Then Travis makes a motion like he's hitting a home run and lets go of the stick. The backpack flies off, and Eric hot-foots out of the way. When I look up, Travis is sprinting. He's around the corner of the pond and into the woods before any of us can move.

"That's it," I say. "He's gone."

Todd stomps on the flaming backpack, and the fire goes out. "That little bastard," he says, loud enough that I'm sure some campers can hear. "That little piece of shit."

"Did you see that?" Eric says. "He tried to hit me with

that shit. He's dead." He looks down the trail where Travis disappeared and breaks into a run. When he gets to where I'm standing, I stick out my foot, and Eric goes flying.

Three hours later, we haven't found Travis. Every counselor is on alert, but there's been no sign of him. Though the buses are arriving to take the kids home, Todd is holding off calling Mrs. Trotwood as long as he can.

I am in the office with Todd. He hasn't talked to me since I tripped Eric.

"I went out by the freeway," I say. "Just to check."

Todd runs both hands through his hair. "If this gets bad," he says, "we're all going down. That includes you."

Nurse Linda looks like she might cry. "Maybe we should call the police."

Todd checks his watch. "Let's give him another hour. I'm going on one more round."

I follow Todd into the woods, and we split up. He heads down Bear Mountain toward the creek, and I make my way through Pinecone Forest for the third time.

I've already walked every inch of this place, calling Travis's name, yelling that everything's cool if he'll just come back. I keep telling myself that Travis is messing with us, that he really is fine, that Todd will change his mind, and Travis will step off the bus on Monday morning, frowning and telling me to shut up.

I am sitting on a tree stump when Travis lets me find him. A quiet laugh gives him away.

I look up, and there is Travis, perched in a tree, twenty-five feet off the ground, half hidden by leaves.

"Travis," I say, trying to act like this is no big thing, "time to come down. Buses are here."

Travis shakes his head. "Not coming down."

"Then I'm coming up."

The lowest branch is above my head, and I wonder how Travis managed to scramble so high. Like a gymnast, I heave myself up, testing the branches as I go. They seem sturdy, but I take my time.

When I get to Travis's level, he moves out on a limb to make room for me, so I slide into place, one arm wrapped around the tree trunk and the other moving about awkwardly, unsure of where to land. Travis is looking at me like I'm in a zoo.

"How long you been up here?" I say.

"Since the whole time."

"What have you been doing?"

"Laughing at everyone," he says.

"Everyone's looking for you."


"They're worried," I say.

"I don't care," Travis says. "They just want to be mean to me."

"What happened today wasn't your fault. You know how Edgar is."

"My swim trunks and goggles were in my cooler."

"The goggles might be gone," I say. "But we got the other stuff with that big, long net from the pool. It was pretty funny. Eric almost fell in."

Travis peels some bark from the branch and flips it into the air. It looks like it's floating on the way down.

"So," I say, waiting for Travis to make the next move.

"So what?"

"When are we going down?" I say.


"We can't really stay up here forever."

"I can."

"What about if we have to go to the bathroom?"


"What about when we get hungry?"

Travis squirms a little so he can reach into the pockets of his jeans. I picture him floating through the air and grab him by the elbow. He glares and twists away. In his hand are two Tootsie Pops.

"Want one?" he says, offering the grape one.

We sit quietly and eat the candy. I look at Travis and wonder if I'll ever see him again. No matter what I say--to Todd, to Mrs. Trotwood, to my mom and dad--there are things I just can't change. Maybe Travis is right. Maybe we should stay in this tree forever.

Travis nudges me and points. Through the leaves I see Todd jogging along the path. His head is down. We are safe.

"Travis," he yells, using a singsong voice usually reserved for lost pets. "Amy!"

Travis looks at me and smiles. His head bobs happily, and I can't even picture his angry face. He puts a hand over his mouth to cover his laughter, and I do the same.


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