"Your son?" Noelle repeated incredulously. Her head whipped back around so she could look closer at the boy. "Your son?"
The dark woman nodded mutely, unaware of the green eyes now fixed on her. Molly continued to stare at the boy, the shock evident on her face and in her eyes. Naked, raw pain radiated from her body, plainly visible to anyone who looked. It was a good thing everyone's attention was on Winky and what she was saying rather than on the two women standing in the background.
Noelle went back to studying the little boy. He still clung to the chaperone, his big gray eyes staring fearfully at everyone and everything. He never said a word, he just stared. Occasionally he reached a hand up to push his dark, shaggy hair out of his eyes, the gesture an unconscious, nervous one.
Finally, after Winky told the campers where to go and who to see, the chaperones began saying good-bye and heading back to the buses. The woman holding the dark-haired boy's hand bent down to whisper something in his ear.
Noelle watched as he turned those eyes to the woman and held tighter to her hand. She spoke to him again, and, with a resignation of someone many years his senior, he let his hand, and his head, drop. He didn't watch as the woman got on the first bus with the rest of the chaperones.
"Oh God," Molly whispered brokenly. Her first instinct, her mother's instinct, was to go to him, pick him up, and protect him. The sight of him standing there alone pulled at her heart. The thought of him feeling that deep, terrible loneliness was almost too much for her.
But her second instinct was totally different. "No."
Surprised green eyes looked at Molly. "No what? Molly? What's going on?"
"I won't I can't. I can't do it." The tall woman clenched her fists at her side; old scars, once buried deep, were torn open again and left bleeding. "I can't do it. Not again." With all of her strength, Molly tried to will herself not to care, not to get involved. She knew, deep inside she knew, that she wouldn't survive the pain and the loss another time.
She turned to leave, but stopped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the little boy get jostled roughly by the older kids as they went to their counselors. He didn't protest, he didn't speak or look up. He just stood there.
The small woman next to her, the one who could read her feelings so perceptively, gently touched her arm. Her soft voice spoke to her. "Go on. Go introduce yourself to him. He looks like he could use a friend right now."
Without realizing it at first, Molly found herself wading through the noisy crowd of kids to one lonely, quiet boy who stood by himself. When she arrived in front of him, she automatically crouched down to his level, an action she remembered doing for another small boy a lifetime ago.
She reached out a hand to touch him, then snatched it back. I can't. Not knowing what else to do, Molly looked back at Noelle. She looked for the strength she so obviously lacked.
Noelle didn't move until she saw the need and desperation in Molly's eyes. In a heartbeat, she, too, found herself kneeling in front of the boy. She wished, with all that she had and was, that she could hold Molly's hand right then. Since it wasn't possible, though, she did the next thing that came to mind.
She turned her attention to the child. "Hi," she said quietly. "My name is Fern. What's yours?"
The little boy looked up at her. On his face, Noelle saw the struggle he waged to keep himself from crying. His bottom lip trembled and tears filled his gray eyes. She knew the moment Molly saw it because she heard the sharp intake of breath.
When he didn't answer, Noelle smiled. "It's okay. I bet you're kinda scared, huh?"
He nodded, one lone tear trailing down his cheek.
The blonde woman reached out a gentle hand to wipe the tear away with her thumb, then scratched her head thoughtfully. "Hmm, I thought so. But it's a whole lot less scary when someone knows you, knows your name, you know?"
There was a pause as he tried to digest the information. Then, "Patwick Jewemy Pike ."
"Patrick Jeremy, huh?" Noelle repeated in surprise. Okay, that's a start. Didn't think the little guy would answer. "I like that name, Patrick. How old are you, bud?"
He held up 5 fingers. "My birt'day just was."
"Really? Well hot dog! Happy birthday, PJ ." Noelle grinned engagingly. "I can call you PJ, can't I?" It almost surprised Noelle how easily she came up with a nickname for the little man.
Again he nodded, not looking quite as scared as he had been. "Want to know what I got?" he asked suddenly, excitement just beginning to creep into his voice. It seemed that since he had a friend, the natural optimism of the boy was coming back in full force.
"Heck yeah, I do." The blonde stood up and offered her hand to him. As they turned to walk to the pile of assorted bags, Noelle caught Winky's eye and just nodded toward her escort. She smiled when the director nodded back.
She felt Molly's presence behind her, knowing that the woman was following them.
"I got it fwom my Nana and Pop. I live with them. My Nan loves me." The little boy kept up a constant stream of chatter until they got to the pile of bags and other luggage.
"Hewe's my bag," he said, dropping Noelle's hand to try to pick up a clean but very old bag. As he stood on his tiptoes trying to reach the bag, which was in middle of the pile, a much bigger, stronger hand reached over and grabbed hold of it, handing it to him.
Noelle smiled a grateful thanks before turning back to Patrick.
"Thanks," he said absently as they stepped away from the pile.
It was a small bag, not holding a lot of anything, but apparently something that was treasured by a little boy. Setting the bag on the grass, he quickly unzipped it and pulled out a new cloth doll by its leg.
The doll was small, about 8 or 9 inches long. It had long, fuzzy black hair that stuck straight up, gray eyes, and it was wearing a pair of yellow short overalls that had lots of brightly colored dots all over. Noelle could see from the heart-shaped tag that it was one of those new beanie things.
"Wow," she whistled. "He looks great. Does he have a name?"
"His name's Wocky."
"Wocky?" Noelle wasn't sure she heard Patrick right. "Wocky?"
He shook his head then pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. "No, Wo-o-o-ocky."
"Wocky?" she looked up at Molly for help. "What kind of name-"
"Rocky. His name's Rocky," Molly translated softly, not taking her eyes off of the boy.
Laughter bubbled up from the little belly. "Yeah, like what I said. Wocky."
Noelle threw back her head and laughed with him. She ruffled his hair as she laughed, and he looked up at her with shining eyes.
Watching the woman and small boy, Molly felt a smile sneaking up on her and she almost let it out. Then a feeling of desolation, of emptiness and heartache, swept through her. It's not fair. Oh God, it's not fair! Abruptly, she turned and strode off down the trail toward the waterfront.
Seeing how suddenly Molly left them, Noelle knew something must have happened. Instead of following her immediately, she decided to give the other woman some time.
The blonde turned back to the little boy who was once again talking to her.
"I got other clothes for him, too. He has a bad'ing suit, jammies, and a jacket. Nan wanted to make suwe he was warm. And me, too. I got some other stuff in my bag. Do you know how to swim?"
Noelle's head was reeling from the rapid topic changes, then she laughed again. It's like talking to me!
"Whatcha laughing at, Fewn?" Patrick stopped what he was doing and looked up at her, curiosity dancing in his eyes.
"You. You're silly and I like you, PJ," Noelle replied. "And, yes, sir, I sure do know how to swim. I'm in charge of the lake and everything that goes on down there. Why? Do you know how to swim?"
The dark head shook sadly. "No," the boy sighed. Then he turned hopeful eyes up to her. "But you do."
"Will you show me? Please?" He clasped his hands under his chin in a pleading gesture. He looked at her with big puppy-dog eyes.
The woman grinned at him and ruffled his hair. "Of course I will. I bet you'll be good at it."
"Me, too. Who's Fin? Ms. Winky said he's my counselor. I'm 'posed to go find him. Do you think he's nice?"
Noelle turned and pointed to a tall young man sitting with 5 little boys. "See that guy with the really red hair over there? That's Fin. And I know he's nice. You'll like him, PJ." She leaned down toward the boy conspiratorially. "But watch out. He'll make you eat spinach."
Solemn green eyes regarded the boy as Noelle nodded. "I know. Now what do you say we go meet him and the other guys in your cabin?"
She waited for the little boy to put his toy in his bag and zip it up, then they started toward the group. She looked in surprise when she felt a warm little hand slip into hers. Patrick smiled up at her and she returned it.
Hand in hand, they walked to the group of 5 boys. Noelle introduced Patrick to the group then introduced herself and spoke a few words to the 6 year-olds. She left Patrick with a quick kiss to the top of his dark head and a promise to the rest of them that she'd see them at the lake later and then again tomorrow.
Noelle stopped to speak a few words with Winky, then she took the same path Molly had taken earlier. She found the other woman leaning against a tree at the edge of the small beach. The big hands were jammed into the pockets of her shorts, and she stared out across the lake.
It was beautiful there at the lake. The sun shone brightly overhead making the lake appear as if it glittered with silver sprinkles on top of the blue water. The weathered brown dock out in the lake looked right at home. The trees in the surrounding mountains painted a dark green background and the yellow sand made a bright foreground. A gentle wind rustled through the tree tops and birds greeted each other cheerfully.
There was sunshine and shade, serenity and motion. When it was necessary, Noelle, as well as every other staff member, used the quiet of the lake as a retreat from the riot of noise that was the summer camp.
"Hi," Noelle finally said. She leaned against the opposite side of the tree, mirroring the tall woman's posture. After a moment, she asked, "You okay?"
For several minutes there wasn't an answer. Noelle almost gave up hope of getting one when Molly spoke.
"I won't get involved," she said roughly. "I will not get involved with that boy. He's not my problem, he's not my child, and I won't do it."
"Okay, so he's not your son. But why not?" Noelle turned more fully to Molly. "Why won't you get involved?"
Molly just shrugged. "He's not my concern. There's nothing I can do to fix his life, anyway."
"Of course there's not. At least not outside of this camp. But there's a lot you can do here, this summer. He needs someone to show him that there's a better way of life. He's the youngest camper here, just barely 5, you heard that. Winky told me that she took him only because she knows his grandmother, and the old woman asked if he could come. The grandmother wanted him to be around kids his own age for a while."
"Why are you telling me all of this? I don't give a damn about that kid. Not now, and not later, either." The words were short, the tone loud and harsh.
"I think you can do a lot for him, Molly. He's a little boy who's scared and lonely. He-"
"I said forget it," Molly growled. "I'm not getting involved. He's not my kid," Molly repeated.
It was then that Noelle stopped treating Molly with kid gloves. Gone was the feeling of sorrow for the tall woman. She's doing enough self-pitying for the two of us.
The small woman stepped around the tree to stand in front of Molly with her hands on her hips. "You listen to me very carefully, Molly Cartwright," she said softly, intently. She waited until hard blue eyes connected with equally hard green. "I don't pretend to know what you're feeling. I don't. But I doubt that feeling sorry for yourself is at all the best way to handle it. But you can go right on feeling sorry for yourself if you want. That's your damned prerogative. But let me tell you this- there is a little boy up in that dining hall who needs someone, someone to watch out for him, someone to pay just a bit more attention to him, someone who cares." She paused again, waiting for the words to sink in, before continuing. "And here you are, needing that little boy as much as he needs you. Sure, go 'head. Feel sorry for yourself. But don't expect me to help you along." She started to walk away, but only got a few steps when she heard Molly speak.
"It's not fair," the dark woman whispered brokenly.
Noelle turned to look again at Molly. "You're right, it's not. And I'm sorry. But closing your heart, not caring, won't bring Eli back, Molly," the blonde whispered. "And it won't heal the wounds. Im no psychiatrist," Noelle reached a soft hand up to touch the tall woman's face gently, "but I can tell you what a very smart woman told me not too long ago: the only way to ease the pain is to deal with it head on." Another pause. "You might want to take her advice."
Noelle made her way back to the dining hall, stepping into the large room and smiling at the roof-raising din. She breathed in deeply the smell of Kernel's cooking, the coffee that was permanently perking, and the scent of summer that permeated everything else. It was good to have the hall filled with campers again. Everyone was engaged in loud conversation, and a snack of graham crackers with peanut butter and orange juice was on the tables.
She shook her head then found Winky. The director was talking with Fin, who was keeping an eye on his campers. Noelle approached the two of them, waiting a short distance away for an opportunity to talk to Winky. But she stepped closer when she saw the director wave her over.
"We were just talking about Patrick Pike, the little guy you were with earlier. I was telling Fin that his grandmother told me he still wets the bed some nights. We'll need to make sure he's not made fun of and that he gets his sheets washed if it happens."
The redheaded counselor nodded, his gaze falling on the little boy in question who was, at that moment, laughing at something another boy said. Then he turned back to Winky. "Isn't there anything we can do to help him not do it?"
Lost in conversation, the three adults didn't notice a pair of blue eyes watching the little boy as he giggled and joked with the others.
Later that evening, after tours of the camp, dinner, and free time, Noelle and Molly drove home through the darkness. Each was lost in her own thoughts, the fatigue from the first day taking its toll.
"Well," Noelle began, cutting the silence and turning toward her partner. "Today went okay, don't you think?" Waiting for an answer, Noelle yawned and blinked her eyes.
Molly nodded, choosing not to answer verbally.
"Those older boys look pretty tough, but the rest of them will be okay, I bet."
Again Molly nodded, her eyes not leaving the road.
"Okay, since you're obviously not in a talkative mood, I'll just sit here and be quiet." The blonde turned back to the road, her eyes, and her thoughts, roaming the darkness.
Neither woman broke the silence until they were inside Molly's house kicking off their boots.
Shrewd green eyes studied the tall woman. "Okay, give. Spill it, pal."
"Spill what?" Molly asked in confusion. "What're you talking about?"
"We're not going to bed until you talk to me. And, let me tell you, I'm tired. Really, superly tired, so you better not sit in silence all damned night. Now let's go."
Noelle grabbed Molly's hand and led the reluctant woman into the living room. She shoved the bigger woman on the couch and pointed a finger at her. "You stay put. I'm going to get something to eat." As she walked out of the room, she tossed over her shoulder, "and be thinking about what you're going to tell me, Chump."
In the kitchen, Noelle quickly fed and watered the cats, who raced out of hiding at the sound of the food clattering in the bowl. After taking a moment to scratch each of them behind their fuzzy ears, Noelle grabbed a bag of microwaveable popcorn, tossed it in the microwave, and poured some pink lemonade in two glasses while the corn popped.
When the microwave beeped, Noelle found two paper towels, picked up the bag, the two glasses, and walked out of the kitchen. "Out of my way, cats. I'll squash you both flat if I step on you." She smiled when she heard them scamper into the other room.
Noelle stopped in the doorway, looking at the woman who sat on the couch. The tall woman's face was bathed in shadow and light, matching, Noelle imagined, her heart right about then.
"I love you," she said, moving to sit next to Molly on the over-stuffed couch. "You know," she mentioned, bouncing slightly on the cushion, "I really like this here couch. I'm glad you have it, now talk to me," she finished, propping her feet up on the coffee table.
"Noe, honey, there's nothing to talk about. Im tired, that's all," Molly said softly. She took a sip of the liquid in the glass then quickly set it down on the table and turned accusing eyes to Noelle. "You know I hate pink lemonade!"
Shrugging mildly, Noelle responded, "We didn't have any yellow lemonade."
"I hate lemonade, period," Molly growled.
"Oh well. It's good for you, all that vitamin C and stuff, now drink it. And don't think I'm falling for the change in subject, either, pal."
Molly held the glass in her hands, shaking her head when Noelle silently offered up the popcorn. "I thought," she began. "I thought I was past it. I thought I had dealt with it. But seeing him, seeing that boy that looks so much like Eli I don't know," Molly shrugged.
Then the tall woman was off the couch in a heartbeat and pacing the living room. "When I saw that boy, I saw I saw Eli again. I saw how he looked that morning when I sent him on his play date. And I saw how he looked that night when I held him. I can't do it," she ended in a whisper, her eyes staring out the window but her thoughts lost inside.
The woman on the couch put the snack down and moved to stand next to Molly. Both women looked out the window. Then Noelle slid her hand into Molly's.
"You don't have to do it alone. You have me, and I love you."
Molly turned and folded Noelle into a tight embrace. She closed her eyes and rested her chin on top of the blonde hair. "I know," she said softly.
They stayed that way for another few moments until Molly stepped back and held Noelle at arms' length. "You're something, you know that?"
"Molly, I can't claim to know how you feel, what it's like to lose a child, but what you told me way back when must still be true. It's not a scar inside, it's just a scabbed over, infected wound that will keep hurting until you just open it once and for all and let it heal properly. And I'm preaching so I'll shut up." There was a slight pause. "Just know that not only do I love you, but I'm your friend, too, okay? Now let's finish that popcorn and go to bed."
***** ***** *****
"His sheets were wet, Winky. I tried to get them off as quickly as possible, I really did, but some of the other guys in the cabin saw and teased him. Hes outside now. Hes pretty upset."
Fin and Winky were deep in conversation the next morning at breakfast when Noelle and Molly came into the dining hall. Molly went to grab a cup of coffee for herself and hot chocolate for Noelle and met with the small group. She handed Noelle her cup and greeted the others. Then she noticed the general look of concern on the other faces.
"Whats up, Fern?" she asked, immediately lapsing into camp names.
"Patrick was wet this morning and some of his bunkmates teased him," Noelle answered quietly. "Hes outside. Seems he doesnt want to come in, doesnt want to be teased anymore."
Mollys eyes shifted to look at the table of 5 young campers, one little boy conspicuously absent. A sudden feeling of anger came over her, and she recognized it at once for what it was- a mothers defense of her child. That poor baby.
"What can we do? I mean, can he wear a diaper or something?" Fin was asking.
"Absolutely not. Hes a 5 year old, not a 5 month old," the tall woman answered automatically. Molly realized the young man was only trying to help, but it didnt make the words any less harmful. She turned to the director. "Winky, let me talk to him. Ill be right back."
It was with surprise that Noelle and the other two people watched Molly stride out of the hall.
Winky looked at Noelle. "Is there something I should know? Does Snow have experience with children that someone forgot to tell me?" The short director tucked her clipboard under her arm and waited expectantly.
Noelle sighed. "Can we talk privately?" she asked, stepping further away from the campers and the noise. Not until Fin went back to his table did Noelle fill Winky in.
Outside, the tall woman quickly located the boy. To the eyes of a mother, the little boy looked so lost and forlorn sitting there under the tree outside the big hall. "Poor baby," she said again.
"Hi," she said as she lowered herself to the grass next to him. She mimicked his position, crossing her long legs and settling her hands in her lap.
"Hi," Patrick whispered. He picked at the grass beside him, not looking at the counselor next to him.
"Heard you had some problems this morning," Molly said gently. Her arms ached to hold him, even as her heart ached with the memory of holding another little boy so very long ago.
"Those mean kids made fun of me. I hate them. I want to go home." He scowled, his grey eyes filling with tears.
"Now hang on, bud. You only got here yesterday. Lets see if we cant come up with an idea so you can stay. Its fun here, PJ, I promise it is." Without knowing why, Molly had a sudden, strange desire to keep the boy there, to make his weeks at camp exciting and memorable.
"I dont want to. They laughed at me," he whispered, his little voice breaking.
Molly reached out a hand, wanting to comfort him. But she hesitated.
Until she heard his next words.
"I miss my Nana and Pop."
"Cmere, PJ. Let me give you a hug, okay?" She opened her arms to him, hoping that he would accept.
The boy launched himself into her lap, skinny little arms wrapping around her neck and hugging her tightly. She held him tight to her, too, crooning a soft, soothing tune under her breath. She rubbed his back softly, the motion calming her as much as it calmed Patrick.
With the boy in her lap, Molly felt the unfamiliar pain of an awakening. An awakening of something she thought was lost to her forever, something she had prayed would be buried. It was the pain of a hard shell cracking, a deep, soul-shaking pain; yet it was tempered with the hope of the small seed of happiness and joy inside.
She sighed deeply, memories flooding through her. It was some time before she sat him up straighter and looked into his eyes. "I wish you would stay. I know you miss your Nana and Pop. I bet they miss you, too. But they want you to stay here and-"
"How do you know they want me to stay?" he asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"They sent you here in the first place, didn't they?" Molly replied with a smile. "And you can call them this weekend, how 'bout?"
Patrick's dark little brow furrowed in concentration for a moment. "And I could wite them notes,wight?"
"Sure!" Molly exclaimed. "That's a great idea. I bet they'd like that."
"Well, I can't wite vewy good yet. But I can spell my name. Will you help?"
Do I want to get involved? God, I don't know. "We'll see, bud."
The boy's dark brow furrowed. "But what about those mean kids?" He turned big gray eyes up to her. "What if it happens again?" he whispered fearfully.
"Listen, I know something that will take care of that. I'll make sure you get it before bed tonight, okay?"
"What is it?"
"Well, they're called Goodnites, and they look just like underwear, but they're waterproof. So if you have an accident, your sheets won't get wet. Isn't that great?" Molly grinned at the small boy again.
There was a small pause, then suddenly Patrick jumped up from his seat on Molly's lap. "I'm not a baby! I'm not weawin' a diaper!" He put his hands on his hips and glared at her.
He held his stand even when Molly stood up and towered over him. She folded her arms and looked at him appraisingly. "Is that right, Little Man? You're not wearing a diaper?"
He stamped his foot. "No I am not."
In a sudden flurry of movement, Molly scooped the little boy up and squeezed him just hard enough to make him giggle. "And it's a darned good thing you're not," she laughed. "These aren't diapers," she explained as she settled him on her hip.
It occurred to the tall woman that it felt so natural to have him perched on her hip with his long legs wrapped around her waist and one arm over her shoulder. She supported him under his backside with a forearm.
Molly turned and walked toward the dining hall. "They look just like plain white underwear, so no one will ever know. They go on and off just like underwear, too, so you can put them on yourself. And in the morning they go right in the garbage. See?"
Solemn gray eyes came close and looked into bright blue. "Pwomise?"
"Promise what, bud?"
"Pwomise they don't look like diapers?" He hugged her closer with the arm around her shoulder. "Huh? Do you pwomise?"
Molly stopped when she felt his little hands cup her cheeks and turn her face to look at him. He had leaned around her to peer directly into her eyes. He was practically nose to nose with the tall woman, not a trace of fear in his gray eyes.
She bumped his nose gently with her own. "I promise," she whispered. "Now, Kernel's cooked up some flapjacks and bacon for breakfast. Let's go eat."
"What're flakjaps?" Patrick asked as Molly set him on his feet. He took her hand and walked with her inside the dining hall. For a moment, the little boy seemed overwhelmed by the roof-raising din, but he got over that quickly.
"Flapjacks," Molly repeated correctly, "are pancakes. Flapjacks are just another word for them."
"Ooooh," he breathed. "I like flak flapk I like pancakes. 'Specially if they got sywup."
"It's a darned good thing there's syrup then, isn't there? Now," Molly finished, "you go eat breakfast. The first activity is coming up right after you eat."
"I getta go swimmin' with Fern. She pwomised to teach me how to swim."
"Attaboy, PJ. I get to ride bikes with some of the older kids before lunch." She smiled down at him, her deep blue eyes twinkling.
"Cool," he breathed, pulling out a chair and climbing into it. When his eyes connected with the other boys at the table, he fell suddenly quiet and dropped his eyes to the table.
Molly's heart ached at the reaction to his bunkmates. She knew he was dreading the teasing and laughter, so she went with her first instinct. Carefully, slowly, Molly leaned over the table, making certain that each of the boys' eyes were on her before speaking.
"Morning," she said seriously, making eye contact with each boy. "My name is Snowflake," she mentally rolled her eyes at the camp name, "and I'm the bike counselor. I'm also in charge of kids who misbehave, you might say. Teasing another camper is misbehaving. I certainly hope I don't see any of you doing that." After she finished speaking, she straightened up and smiled. "Have a terrific day, guys."
The tall woman turned on her heel and strode to where Noelle and Winky were talking. She picked up her coffee, not noticing the new look that the director gave her.
"How'd it go?" Noelle asked her.
A far away look came into Molly's blue eyes. She sighed after a moment, then looked at her partner and the director. "Winky, if it's okay with you, I'd like to run out at lunch and grab some Goodnites for Patrick. They're a disposable underwear that, I believe, will take care of the problem. They go on and off like regular underwear and he can just put them in the garbage if they're wet. Otherwise, he can keep saving them."
"Well," Winky answered, "it sounds like a good plan to me. I can give you some money from petty cash-"
"You don't need to. I'll take care of it." She tossed her empty coffee cup in a nearby garbage can. "We can work on the bedwetting thing throughout the summer, and hopefully it'll be taken care of. Now," Molly paused, "I'm heading over to the bike barn to get the equipment ready for the first crew."
The tall woman smiled gently at Noelle, her blue eyes drinking in the sight of the woman she loved. She caught her breathe at the dazzling smile her partner gave her, but the spell was broken when Noelle winked cheekily.
"Have fun, Snowy, my girl," Noelle grinned.
Noelle watched as Molly strode out of the dining hall and down the wide trail to the left of the clearing. She turned to Winky. "Well, I suppose I'll gather my guards and head down to the lake. See you at lunch."
Before leaving the hall, Noelle stopped to talk with the two other lifeguards. Once that was done, she left the building and took her time getting down to the lake.
The trail was narrow, not allowing for more than two people to walk side-by-side. In some places, the mountain laurel, a cousin to rhododendron, grew across the path. At the head of the trail was a rustic wood sign with "Lakefront" etched on it, pointing toward the water. At another intersection, a sign pointed in 4 different directions, one toward the water, one toward the dining hall, one toward the boys' camp, and the last toward the nature hut.
Noelle breathed in deeply, the scent of the evergreen forest surrounding her filling her lungs. She loved that special "summer" smell, the hot, piney smell of the camp. Since the very first summer she worked at the camp, Noelle loved every single minute she spent there. The rainy days, the slow days, the parent days, everything.
A memory suddenly came unbidden into the small woman's mind, making her smile. She was 21 and she had only been at the camp for a week and a half.
The darkness surrounded her as she left her cabin in Reindeer's care. It was her free time, and she hoped to get a few minutes in at the lakefront. On silent feet she walked down the path and onto the beach. She stopped long enough to draw in a deep breathe before running to the water's edge. Looking around once, Noelle quickly shucked her clothes and ran into the water naked.
She swam with powerful strokes to the dock in the middle of the small lake and looked back again at the beach before climbing the few rungs to the wooden platform. She rested on her knees, precariously perched on the edge of the dock, her hands combing through her long blonde hair. She felt the night air cooling her wet skin as water dripped off her naked form.
"Jesus!" Noelle yelped, falling off the side of the dock with a splash. She surfaced, spluttering and muttering, the shock at finding another person on the dock throwing her for a loop.
Noelle grabbed hold of the dock, pulling herself slowly up, just enough to peek over the edge to see who was there.
It was the waterfront director, a short, plump woman named Winky who was quite a few years older than Noelle.
"Hi. Fern, isn't it?"
Noelle nodded cautiously, not sure what to make of things. The other woman was on her belly, her arms crossed and her chin resting on them. There was a friendly smile on her face and it almost made Noelle forget the predicament they were in.
But the absurdity of the whole situation, each woman naked and wet on a dock in the middle of the lake, struck her and the nervousness she felt came back threefold.
"Uh, hi. You're Winky, right?"
"Yeah. I'm the waterfront director."
"Girls' 10." Noelle looked around uncomfortably, not wanting to look directly at the other counselor in case she thought Noelle was you know, looking at her.
"It's okay, Fern. I won't bite you," she said with a chuckle. "You can come up here if you want. We can talk," she finished, a wicked gleam in her eyes.
"No, no, that's okay. I think I'll be getting back now. It's, umm, late. Nice talking to you." She pushed off the dock and struck out for the beach. She wasn't sure, but she thought she felt Winky's eyes on her as she swam to the beach.
Shaking her head at the memory, Noelle smiled at what ended up becoming a years-long friendship.
Finally the trail opened to the beach. The sun blazed brightly overhead and Noelle knew it was going to be a hot one. She walked to the swim shack and unlocked the padlock. She threw the door open and stepped inside the tiny space. It was no larger than their bedroom at home, but it held a summer's worth of waterfront equipment. She looked fondly at the dusty neatness; on closing day last year, she and the two other lifeguards had tidied up the shack.
Now, it was easy to find everything she needed for this first day with the campers. Noelle tugged the buddy board, with its many small hooks, out of the dim shack and into the sunshine. Before anything else, she would explain, and stress, the importance of the board and how it worked.
After that would be swim tests for the youngest campers. Most of them would be tadpoles, their lessons consisting of simple water-acquaintance activities and wading during free-swim. Only a very few of the 6 year-olds would be polywogs, the next level up. The last two levels, frogs and then super frogs, were the only ones who could go out to the dock. Among all the campers, usually only a handful made it to these levels.
Thinking about the schedule for the day, Noelle went about preparing for the first group.
Molly, too, was lost in thought as she strode up to the bike barn. She had been in the barn several times during training week, but this was the first time she would be able to spend any extended time there. She pulled a key chain from her pocket and unlocked the double doors of the little red building.
The tall woman swung the doors open and stepped inside, giving her eyes several minutes to adjust to the dimness. When she was able to see clearly, the first thing Molly saw was tiny dust motes dancing and whirling in the sunbeams that came in from two windows to the left of her. Noelle would say it looks like fairy dust, or something. Then her eyes went to the many bikes that stood throughout the barn.
Pulling in a deep breath, Molly took a clipboard from a hook in the wall next to her head and looked at the day's schedule. The 12-year-olds. Great. This oughta be great fun.
Smiling suddenly, Molly heard Noelle's voice chastising her gently. "Now, Molly, don't go stereotyping them already. You haven't even met any of them yet. Give them a chance. They're good kids."
"Forever the optimist ," Molly said out loud, shaking her head with a rueful smile.
Blue eyes cast about for a place to put the clipboard that would keep it close. When she could find none, Molly shrugged and reached behind her, slipping the clipboard into the waist of her tan shorts. "That'll keep it handy."
Then the tall woman reached for the first bike, bringing it out onto the dirt in front of the barn. Molly started to crouch down by the bike, wincing as she felt the pull in her groin. Moving slower, she adjusted her body to make her leg more comfortable. Testing the tire, the dark woman was swept back to another time.
"Now you take real good care of that bike, Molly-girl. If you want bigger things someday, you gotta show me you can take care of smaller things."
"I want a calf, Gramp, a bull calf. I want to raise it and show it, like the other kids."
The old man looked at his granddaughter fondly. She was a tall girl, even at just 10. Her long dark hair was pulled back in two old-fashioned braids and she wore cut off jeans and a faded t-shirt.
"Well, Mol, this here bike is a start. You show me you can take care of it right, and I just might think about giving you your own calf out of this fall's crop."
"Yes, sir. I'll take real good care of it. You'll see," she replied earnestly, her big blue eyes looking up at him seriously. "I can do it."
He ruffled her hair with affection. "I know you will. Now get on inside. Gram has lunch ready for you."
Molly remembered how she kept that bike in top form until, true to his word, her grandfather had given her her own calf to raise. She had shown it in 4-H and taken home a couple of ribbons before selling it to a breeder. It was a good memory, and Molly promised herself to share it with Noelle.
She didn't do that often enough, share stuff with Noelle. It occured to her that she had never taken Noelle to her grandparents' farm... her farm now. It was something she'd have to do.
Finally, the bike instructor turned her attention back to preparing for the day. It didn't take long to get 8 bikes ready, one for each of the campers, one for their counselor, and one for her. She was hanging a helmet on each bike's handle bars when she heard the group coming very noisily up the path.
"Here we go," she muttered to herself.
She waited until all of the boys came to a halt in front of her, their counselor standing behind the group.
"Yo, we're here, Bikey," the tallest boy said.
"Yo, watch how you talk to me, man, or we're going to have big problems," Molly said, staring at the boy straight in the eye. Then she looked at the rest of them. "Any of you tough guys know how to ride a bike?"
There was some uncomfortable shuffling before Big Mouth, as Molly now referred to him, answered her. "Like, yeah, man. It ain't like we ain't stolen 'em and stuff before. We know how."
"Stolen them, have you?"
"Hell yeah. And it ain't the only stuff I stole, either, man. All kinda junk. This bike ridin' stuff's for babies. We drive cars."
Molly suddenly grinned evilly, seeing through the act. "Okay, Hot Shot, let's see you hop on and ride this baby, then." And she folded her arms and stepped back, content to watch him do as she instructed.
CONTINUED PART 4
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