Lolly." The tall, lanky boy hiking up the trail behind her spoke for the first time since they left base camp. "What the hell kind of name is Lolly?"
"The kind that's stenciled on the back of my shirt," she said, flipping a brown pigtail over one shoulder. To her dismay, she felt herself blushing. Cripes, he was just a dumb boy, and all he'd done was ask her a simple question.
Wrong, she thought, hearing a game-show buzz in her head. He was pretty much the cutest boy in Eagle Lodge, the twelve-to-fourteens. And it hadn't been a question so much as a smart remark designed to rattle her. Plus, he said hell. Lolly would never admit it, but she didn't like swearing. Whenever she tried saying a swearword herself, she always stammered and blushed, and everyone could instantly see how uncool she was.
"Got it," the kid muttered, and as soon as the trail curved around a bend, he passed her with a rude muttering that was probably meant to be an "Excuse me." He trudged on, whistling an old Talking Heads tune without missing a note.
They were doing a pairs hike, the first activity of the season. It was designed to familiarize them with the camp layout, and with another camper. They had been paired up as they'd gotten off the bus, while their duffel bags and belongings were being sorted and taken to their cabins. She had wound up with the lanky boy because they had both been last to disembark. She had folded her arms across her chest and sniffed, "I'm your new best friend."
He'd taken one look at her and shrugged, saying with an air of false nobility, "'Barkis is willing.'"
The show-off. Lolly had pretended not to be impressed to hear him quoting from David Copperfield. She had also pretended not to see the way some of the other boys snickered and elbowed him, ribbing him for getting stuck with Lolly Bellamy.
He wasn't the typical Kioga camper, and as someone who had been coming here since she was eight years old, she would know. This boy, a first-timer, was rough around the edges, his hair too long, his cargo shorts too low-slung. Maybe he even looked a little dangerous, with his pale blue eyes and dark hair, a combination that was both cool and disconcerting.
Through gaps in the trees, she could see people walking in pairs or foursomes, chattering away. It was only the first day of camp, yet already, kids were figuring out who they were going to be friends with this year. Lolly already knew they had ruled her out, of course. They always did. If it wasn't for her cousins, she'd be up a tree, for sure.
She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, and felt a dull thud of envy in her gut as she looked at the other campers, who already seemed totally at ease around one another. Even the new ones, like the lanky boy, seemed to fit in. Fresh off the camp bus, they strolled side by side, yakking away and laughing. Some of the girls wore their camp hoodies slung nonchalantly over their shoulders, their innate fashion sense evident even with the regulation clothes. Most of the boys had their Kioga bandannas tied around their foreheads, Rambo style. Everybody strutted about as though they owned the place.
And of course, that was kind of funny. None of these kids owned Kioga. But Lolly did.
Well, in a way. The summer camp belonged to her nana and granddad. Back when she was in the Fledglings, the eight-to-elevens, she used to lord her status over the other kids, but it never really worked. Most kids didn't give a hoot about that.
The tall boy found a hickory stick and used it to beat at the underbrush or to lean on as he walked. His gaze darted around watchfully, as though he expected something to jump out at him.
"So I guess your name is Ronnoc," she said at last.
He scowled and shot a glance over his shoulder at her. "Huh?"
"Says so on the back of your shirt."
"It's inside out, genius."
"It was just a joke."
"Ha, ha." He stabbed the hickory stick into the ground.
Their destination was the summit of Saddle Mountain, which wasn't exactly a mountain, more like a big hill. Once they finally reached the top, they'd find a fire pit with log benches arranged in a circle around it. This was the site of many camp traditions. Nana once said that in the days of the first settlers, travelers would make signal fires at high points like this one in order to communicate longdistance. It was on the tip of Lolly's tongue to share the bit of trivia with her partner, but she clamped her mouth shut.
She had already made up her mind not to like this kid. Truth be told, she had made up her mind not to like anybody this summer. Her two favorite cousins, Frankie—short for Francine—and Dare, usually came with her, and they always made Lolly feel as if she had actual friends. But this year, they were driving to California with their parents, Aunt Peg and Uncle Clyde. Lolly's own parents didn't do that kind of traveling. They only did the kind you could brag about afterward. Her parents pretty much liked anything they could brag about—trips, real estate, antiques, artwork. They even bragged about Lolly, but that was a stretch. Especially now, after sixth grade, the year her marks went down and her weight went up. The year of the divorce.
Now, there's something to brag about, she thought.
"We're supposed to learn three things about each other," said the boy who had no sense of humor, the boy she didn't want to befriend. "Then when we get to the top, we have to introduce each other to the group."
"I don't want to know three things about you," she said airily.
"Yeah, well. Ditto."
The getting-to-know-you fireside chat was always tedious, which was a shame, because it didn't have to be. The little kids were best at it because they didn't know which things to keep to themselves, and which to share. Lolly was a perfect example of that. A year ago, she'd blurted out, "My parents are getting a divorce" and had dissolved into tears, and her life had been a nightmare ever since. But at least back then, her admission had been genuine. In this age group, she already knew the introductions would be totally boring or phony or both.
"I wish we could skip it," she said. "It's going to be a complete drag. The younger kids are more interesting because at least they'll say anything."
"What do you mean, anything?"
"Like if their uncle is being investigated by the SEC or their brother has a third nipple."
Lolly probably shouldn't have brought it up, but she knew he'd bug her until she explained. "You heard me," she said.
"A third nipple. That's total BS. Nobody has that."
"Huh. Bebe Blackmun once told the whole group that her brother has three."
"Did you see it?" he challenged.
"Like I would even want to." She shuddered. "Ew."
She sniffed, determined to appear unimpressed by his swearing. "I bet you have an extra one." She didn't know why she said it. She knew the chances of him having three nipples were zip.
"Yeah, right," he said, stopping on the trail and turning. In one graceful motion, he peeled off his T-shirt right there in the woods, in front of her face, so fast she didn't have time to react.
"You want to count 'em?" he demanded.
Her face lit with a blush and she marched past him, staring straight ahead. Idiot, she thought. I am such an idiot. What was I thinking?
"Maybe you have three nipples," he said with mocking laughter in his voice. "Maybe I should count yours."
"You're crazy." She kept marching.
"You're the one who brought it up."
"I was just trying to make conversation because you're totally, one hundred percent boooring."
"Uh-huh," he said. "That's me. Boooring." He sashayed around her, mimicking her walk. He hadn't put his shirt back on but had tucked it in the back waistband of his cargo shorts. With the First-Blood headband and the shirt hanging down like the back half of a loincloth, he looked like a savage. Very Lord of the Flies.
He was a total show-off. He—
She stumbled over a tree root, and had to grab for a nearby branch to steady herself. He turned, and she could have sworn she'd seen his arm flash out to keep her from falling, but he quickly resumed walking without touching her. She stared at him, not to be rude or nosy but this time out of concern.
"What's that on your back?" she asked bluntly.
"What?" Mr. Lord of the Flies scowled unpleasantly at her.
"At first I thought you forgot to bathe, but I think you have a really huge bruise." She pointed to the back of his rib cage.
He stopped and twisted around, his face almost comically contorted. "I don't have any stinking bruise. Man, you're kind of creepy. Extra nipples and now phantom bruises."
"I'm looking right at it." In spite of her annoyance at him, she felt a small twinge of compassion. The bruise was healing. She could tell by the way the color bloomed in the middle and faded at the edges. But it must've really hurt when it happened.
His eyes narrowed and his face turned hard, and for a second, he looked menacing. "It's nothing," he stated. "I fell off my bike. Big deal." He whipped around and kept going, hurrying so that Lolly had to rush to keep up.
"Look, I didn't mean to make you mad."
"I'm not mad at you," he barked at her, and walked even faster.
That was quick, she thought. Her first enemy of the summer. There were sure to be many more to follow. She had a knack for bringing out dislike in people.
Even though Connor said he wasn't mad at her, he was mad about something. There was fury in his taut muscles, his sharp movements. Big deal, so he hurt himself riding a bike. Usually when you fell off a bike, though, the casualties were elbows and knees, maybe the head. Not the back, unless you went tumbling down a hill and slammed into something really hard. Unless you were lying about what really happened.
She was both intrigued by and disappointed in this boy. Disappointed because she desperately wanted to dislike him and not have to think about him again, all summer long. And intrigued because he was more interesting than he had a right to be. He was kind of edgy, too, with that too-long hair, low-slung pants, high-tops repaired with duct tape. And there was something in his eyes besides the usual stupid boy stuff. Those same ice-cube eyes that had read David Copperfield had probably seen things a girl like Lolly couldn't even imagine.
They hiked around a hairpin bend in the path, and a loud, steady rush of water greeted them.
"Whoa," Connor said, tilting back his head to look at the hundred-foot waterfall. It gushed from some unseen source high above, tumbling over rocks, droplets turning to mist on impact. Everywhere the sunlight shone through, rainbows glowed. "That's awesome," he said, his cranky mood apparently forgotten.
"Meerskill Falls," she said, raising her voice over the roar of the falling water. "One of the tallest in the state. Come on, you can get a good view of it from the bridge."
Meerskill Bridge had been constructed in the 1930s by a government work crew. Dizzyingly tall, the arched concrete structure spanned the gorge, with the falls crashing wildly below. "The locals call this Suicide Bridge because people have killed themselves jumping from it."
"Yeah, sure." He seemed drawn to the cascade, which misted the trail on either side, cultivating a carpet of moss and lush ferns.
"I'm serious. That's why there's a chain-link fence over the top of the bridge." She scrambled to keep up with him. "It was supposedly put up, like, fifty years ago, after two teenagers jumped off it."
"How do you know they jumped?" he asked. The mist clung to his dark hair and his eyelashes, making him look even cuter.
Lolly wondered if the mist made her look cute, too. Probably not. It only fogged her glasses. "I guess they just know," she said. They reached the bridge deck and passed under the arch formed by the safety fence.
"Maybe they fell by accident. Maybe they were pushed. Maybe they never existed in the first place."
"Are you always such a skeptic?" she asked.
"Only when somebody's telling me some bullshit story."
"It's not bull. You can ask anybody." She stuck her nose in the air and marched to the end of the bridge and around the bend without waiting to see if he followed. They hiked along in silence for a while. By now, they were seriously lagging behind the rest of the group but he didn't seem to care, and Lolly decided that she didn't, either. Today's hike wasn't a race, anyway.
She kept stealing sideways glances at him. Maybe she would experiment with liking this guy, just a little. "Hey, check it out." She lowered her voice to a whisper as the path skirted a sloping meadow dotted with wildflowers and fringed by birch trees. "Two fawns and a doe."
"Where?" He craned his neck around the woods.
"Shh. Be really quiet." She beckoned, leading him off the path. Deer were not exactly rare in these parts, but it was always amazing to see the fawns in their soft-looking spotted coats and their big, shy eyes. The deer were in an open glade, the little ones sticking close to their mother while she browsed on grass and leaves. Lolly and Connor stopped at the edge of the glade and watched.
Lolly motioned for Connor to sit next to her on a fallen log. She took a pair of field glasses from her fanny pack and handed them to him.