Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Terrible Minds Challenge: Labor Day

Chuck Wendig will not run, and if elected, will not serve. This week's challenge is about a picture on his website of a woman holding a torch, and my story is called "Labor Day".

They really didn't know what to do with us. We were too old for the kid programs, and too young for the adult programs, and our parents weren't brave enough to leave us at home alone all weekend. So when Labor Day Weekend rolled around, we went up to the lake and the Family Conference anyway. We wandered, sitting on the beach where it was too cold to swim, or watching the softball game we were too cool to participate in. We played frisbee, or congregated around an electrical outlet to listen to each other's collection of tapes. We complained about how boring it was, but we still managed to fill every minute.

There were six of us: moody Goth Victoria, straightlaced Susan, happy go lucky Kelly, aimless Jim, troubled Mark, and me. 3 boys, 3 girls: perfectly symmetrical. We all either had special someones back home or were too disaffected to care, so by some unspoken agreement, we didn't talk about it. We talked about sports, or our plans for the fall, or whether the Smiths were better than the Cure. We had been coming to this same old campground for years, so we knew each other, but only for these four day stretches once a year.

It was late Sunday night, and we had all gathered around a campfire. Every group of cabins had an assigned "babysitter" who sat by the fire and kept warm while the parents were off at some seminar or other. They were basically in charge of being around, comforting children with bad dreams until their parents returned from yoga, or Movie Night, or the book group. We were sitting on the end of picnic tables, on rocks, on stumps, all aware that the long weekend was about to end, and our regular lives beckoned.

Susan was tall, unusually tall for a girl, with short, intensely curly hair that always looked wet. She had the gift of looking well put together, somehow more formal than everyone else, even when wearing teenager chic. She was fairly quiet, but when she spoke, everyone listened. If she laughed at something I said, my heart leapt. I had been in love with her more and more each year. Becca, the pig tailed teen whose fire we were gathered around, stared at her as rapturously as I did.

"Everybody back next year?," cheerful Kelly began. There were a chorus of yesses, including mine, except for Susan. She was sitting, chin on her knees. She stood up. There was dirt on the knees of her jeans, which was unusual. She seemed like the sort of person who would change pants after dirtying the knees.

"Susie Q?," Kelly said, a little softer.

Susan stood close to the fire. The licking tongues of orange made flashing patterns on her face. I wanted to cry out, tell her to back away, that it wasn't safe. She wasn't looking at any of us. Without warning, she stuck her hand out and took the butt end of a stick that was in the fire, holding it aloft. The other end burned unsteadily, a nub of flame separated from the larger body. She held it up above her head, watching it sputter and glow in the moonlight. I looked at her brown eyes, her perfect face, looking for an answer. Was she looking for an honest man?

She brought it down and held it close to her lips.

"No," she said softly. "This is my last year." She put the stick back into the fire again.

Nobody said anything. I knew I was never going to see her again now. It was time. Get up, I thought. Tell her. You have to let her know how you feel. Now. Don't wait.

"That's too bad," Kelly said. "I'll miss you."

I looked up at her, standing too close to the fire, the ember by her lips. If you don't say it now, you're never going to.

"I'm going to go to bed," Susan said. I watched her walk across in front of me, dirty knees almost at eye level. Reach out, I thought. Stop her. Tell her you need to stay in touch.

"Good night, everybody."

"Good night," we echoed.

She walked off into the night, and I stared at the fire. It was cold.

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