Benny ran. His lungs burned and he was beyond exhausted, but he wouldn’t let them catch him. Not this time. He could see a clearing up ahead and knew he was close. Benny gripped his precious cargo in one sweaty hand, the other hand shielding his face as he raced through a thick patch of cedar trees toward safety. Almost there, he thought. A smile had just begun to creep across his face when he heard a familiar voice ring through the forest from close behind.
“I see him, boys!” the voice called out.
Benny didn’t look back. He knew who it was and he knew he was in trouble. He couldn’t outrun them and he certainly couldn’t defend himself once they caught up. Still, he ran, throwing one foot in front of the other until the footsteps behind him got so close he could feel their vibration. Benny managed to burst into the clearing at a full sprint before he felt a slap on his back and heard the eruption of cheers and laughter. It was over. He fell to his knees, panting and heaving into the tall grass.
“Nice try, Benny!” He looked up to see Fraser Owens standing in front of him, a hand outstretched and a grin spread from ear to ear. “We’ll take our flag back, please.”
Benny threw it as far as he could, which wasn’t very far, and rolled over on his back with his eyes closed, still gasping for breath. He heard one of the other boys – Jake, probably – walk over to where the flag had landed. “Ew!” he said. “It’s all covered in Benny’s sweat!”
“Make him carry it back,” said Fraser, giving Benny a nudge with his foot. “He has to come with us anyway. We’re taking him back to jail.”
A voice Benny recognized as Brandon’s piped up then. “Really, Fraser? Don’t you think we could let him go? There’s only, like, fifteen minutes left in the game. It’s almost time for lunch.”
Benny opened his eyes and squinted into the blinding sun. Fraser looked at Jake who just shrugged and threw the flag on the ground, wiping his hands on his shorts, which were filthy as well.
“Sure, whatever,” said Fraser. “Let him go. It’ll save us from dragging him all the way back.”
Benny looked at Brandon and mouthed the words thank you. Brandon nodded and looked back at Fraser, who was making a plan.
“Here’s what we’ll do, boys,” he was saying. “If we don’t take the flag back to our home base, nobody else can steal it and the other team can’t win, right? So Jake, you hold onto the flag and wander around in our territory until the game’s over. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell ‘em we captured Benny and you’re taking the flag back. Don’t cross into the other team’s territory, whatever you do. Brandon, you and I will keep trying to sneak down to the beach to get the other team’s flag. Let’s stick together, but not too close. I say we take the old path behind the boys’ cabins.”
Jake was nodding, but Brandon didn’t look too sure. “I don’t know, I feel kinda bad hanging onto our flag like that. It’s cheating.”
Fraser screwed his face up and shook his head. “No, it’s not!” he insisted. “Jake is going to take the flag back, just very slowly. Right, Jake? Just walk back instead of running, and maybe get lost in the woods a little bit. Who cares, anyway? It’s just a game. It’s not like we’re cheating on a test or something.”
Brandon shrugged and started walking across the clearing toward the boys’ cabins and Fraser chased after him. Jake picked up the sweaty flag and shoved it through a belt loop on his jeans before wandering back into the woods. Benny was left lying on his back in the grass, alone.
He hated summer camp. His mother had signed him up for two whole weeks at Camp Kitchie after his neighbour, Joey, went last summer and raved about it non-stop until Thanksgiving.
“You’ll love it,” his mother had assured him.
“No,” he’d argued. “I won’t. Why can’t I go to science camp at the museum instead?”
“Benny,” said his mother, “that’s not camp. That’s just a bunch of activities. It’s basically summer school. Camp is about sleeping in bunkbeds and having bonfires and wearing the same dirty clothes for two weeks straight. Camp is an adventure!”
“But I don’t want an adventure,” Benny had replied. “I want to sleep in my own bed. Joey said the food is gross there. He said they eat fish. I hate fish.”
“I’m sure you won’t have to eat fish,” his mother had said. “Anyway, it’s done. I’ve paid the deposit. You’re going to Camp Kitchie for two weeks in August. End. Of. Discussion.”
Joey was supposed to go for the same two weeks in August, but then he broke his wrist at hockey camp and his mom decided to keep him home. Benny had actually considered breaking his wrist as well to get out of going, but all of the things he’d have to do in order to injure himself sounded worse than summer camp so here he was, lying in a field all by himself, dirty and hungry, while a bunch of lucky kids with reasonable mothers were sitting in the air-conditioned museum back home, wearing clean clothes and building rockets.
He didn’t move until he heard the lunch bell ring, letting everyone know the game was over. They were serving mac and cheese for lunch today and he didn’t want to miss it, so he went straight to the dining hall and stood in line with the rest of the boys from his cabin as they waited for their counselor to come and let them in.
They were still waiting when Fraser arrived, at which point his cabin started cheering and giving him high fives. He had Benny’s team’s flag and was waving it high in the air. Apparently, their plan had worked. Fraser caught Benny’s eye and raised the flag even higher in the air, sticking his tongue out for dramatic effect. Benny turned toward the front of the line, which was starting to move, and made his way inside.
It was Benny’s duty of the day to set the table for his cabin, so he headed over to the counter by the kitchen and began counting out dishes and cutlery in groups of twelve. Beside him, he noticed a girl from his swimming group named Kelsey. She noticed him right back and smiled. Benny focused on the plates in his hand and began recounting them, his entire face turning the same colour as the ketchup bottles the cook was setting out on the counter. Kelsey didn’t seem to care if he was paying attention or not, and chatted away while she collected her own pile of dishes.
“Don’t you hate setting the table?” she asked. “It’s my least favourite duty. Like, if I wanted to be a waitress I’d stay home and get a summer job, right?”
Benny had no idea what to say to this. He didn’t hate setting the table and he was too young to get a summer job. In fact, he was pretty sure everyone at camp was too young to get a summer job, including Kelsey, who he knew for a fact was only thirteen.
“Yeah,” Benny lied. “Lame.” He was overheating. Benny never talked to girls. Girls never talked to Benny. It was fine. This was awful. Benny would rather have been back in the woods getting chased by Fraser Owens than standing in the dining hall talking to a girl.
“You’re Benny, right?” Kelsey said. “I’m Kelsey. I think we’re in the same swimming group. You’re in Level 5?”
Benny nodded and began to head back to his table. He suddenly felt nauseous and was scared he might be sick. Kelsey walked beside him and kept babbling on about swimming or something – Benny could barely hear her because he had a pounding in his ears and thought he might be having a heart attack. He was almost back to his cabin’s table when he felt her hand on his arm, at which point his mouth went dry and he was sure he would faint.
“You should come,” she said.
Benny didn’t know what she was talking about and certainly had no intention of going wherever she was inviting him to go, but he needed to sit down and so he nodded his head and placed a large pile of dishes in the center of his cabin’s table as he took a seat.
“Sweet!” Kelsey replied, waving as she walked away. “Bye, Benny!”
Benny filled a glass with red juice and drank the entire thing in three gulps.
“Dude,” said Matt, his bunkmate. “How’d you DO that?”
“How’d I do what?” Benny asked. He was starting to feel better already.
“How did you get Kelsey to invite you to the beach party this afternoon?” Everyone at their table, including their counselors, was leaning in, looking at Benny.
“Beach party?” Benny replied. “Um, I don’t know. I just… we were just talking by the dishes.”
“You’re a legend, Benny!” said Matt, slapping him on the back.
“Ow,” Benny said. “I’m not going to a stupid beach party with a bunch of girls. Besides, it’s not like the beach is private property. Who needs an invite? Why don’t you guys just go?”
The rest of the table laughed at a joke Benny didn’t realize he had made.
“That’s creepy,” Matt explained. “You can’t just walk over to a bunch of girls sitting around reading magazines and listening to music at the beach. You gotta have an in with them, you know? A connection. You, my friend, just made a connection.”
“Well, I don’t want a connection,” Benny said. “I’m not going.”
Matt took Benny’s face in his hands the way mothers do when they want you to listen carefully.
“Benny,” he said, calmly, “you are going. You’re going and you’re bringing me with you. I’ll do whatever you want. You name it. You want the top bunk? Done. It’s yours.”
Benny groaned. He did want the top bunk and he didn’t know how to say no to Matt. This was shaping up to be the worst afternoon of his life.
“Fine,” he said. “I guess it won’t be so bad if you’re there too.”
Matt laughed. “Not so bad? Benny, my man, you need to change your attitude. Think of it as an adventure! Boldly going where no Benny has gone before!”
Benny couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe Matt was right. Besides, he was probably going to have to talk to girls sooner or later. He refilled his glass with juice and did the same for Matt and the rest of the boys at the table.
“To adventure,” he said, toasting the group.
“TO ADVENTURE!” they cheered.