Summer didn’t last long enough, in my opinion. It never does. When you’re having fun, there’s no such thing as relishing it. It’s all gone by the time you thought of thinking of it.
Einstein said it right; time was relative. So relative that the ghost of Einstein shoved me right back into the National Youth’s Excellence Program. Since I started high school, the beginning of August was the end of summer for me, because I had advanced science and math fields to jump into at John Willock Preparatory, which was about an hour away from our house. It was a two-week long program filled with paperwork, labs, and mile-long equations that stretched across chalkboards. It’s not that I hated it - in fact, this was amazingly fun to me – no, it was just the fact that there was no time to just be a teenager anymore. I haven’t had much experience outside being the man of the house for a whole nine years and advanced classes to prepare me for Ivy League universities.
I was in my room packing my suitcase when Lissa knocked on my door and opened it. I turned to her, then grinned quickly.
“What’s up? Is dinner ready?”
She shook her head, her beguiling cinnamon curls shifting like the wind through a pocket of willows. As she pushed her glasses frames back up on her nose, she investigated my open dresser. “No,” she said simply. “Dad says that the car is out of gas, so he’ll be right back before he takes you.” She looked back up at me. “Do you really like the YEP?” Slight disgust was apparent in her scrunched up nose. However, it came with a respectful awe about it. I knew Lissa was never as judgmental as she looked, and often accidentally masked her real surprise and inspiration behind her curled up nose.
I sat down on my bed and shrugged. “I definitely like the areas it opens up for me,” I replied honestly. I may not have liked the scheduling, but if it boiled down to it, I wouldn’t quit.
I narrowed my eyes at her as she made another face of disbelief at me. “Well,” I began, a sort of evil smile in my voice, “come your freshman year next year, you’ll be joining me.”
Lissa all of a sudden looked like she sucked on a lemon, or a boy kissed her cheek. “Gross,” she said, but still laughed as she did. “I don’t want to join your dumb nerd program. Keep it to yourself.” She grinned at me like she was part of a conspiracy.
I laughed, then cocked my head. “Then what do you want to do, Lissa?”
She paused, and I could tell she was thinking. “I’d rather a summer camp dedicated to finding a cure to unicorn extinction than adding hydrogen atoms to an ionic compound, thank you very much.”
I grinned. “You did remember something,” I accused. “What’s it called?”
“Protonation! Leave me alone.” She slammed the door behind her as she fled my abode.
I went straight back to packing. The gas station wasn’t far from our house, and Dad would be home any minute. I neatly folded some shirts and sweaters from the closet into my suitcase, and selected a cap off the rack on my wall.
I wondered when Josh would be coming over. He would come with Dad and me to Easton and hang out with us for the two weeks of NYEP. My aunt had an apartment there she never used, so we inhabited it and converted it into our mancave. Goodness knows what Aunt LaDonna would say if she saw what state her apartment was in.
It was a good setup; hanging out with my stepdad and best friend in the mornings, hop over to the Prep for my classes, come back and eat pizza like there’s no tomorrow. Josh especially liked the forest trail outside of the neighborhood, which he walked while I was gone. He would tell me about the animals and leaves he found, and proudly present the pictures he took. I was relieved that he had a sort of therapy for himself, and I hoped that nothing would get in the way of that happening.
Someone knocked on my window, awakening me from my thoughts. From the vantage point of my bed, I turned to my window and opened the shutters.
Josh was there, on the tip of his toes, his nose barely skimming the sill. I opened the window and beckoned him in. Josh hefted himself into the window and rolled onto my bed.
“Hey,” I said, closing up my suitcase. “Ready to go?”
He was hardly dressed to be in a car for a chilly hour. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and a thin hoodie, and old jeans. His single pair of off-white tennis shoes were worn out at the toe.
I looked back up at his face. He sighed out, obviously tired. He hadn’t looked right into my eyes or said ‘hi’ yet.
As much as I was concerned about his apparel, I knew better than to offer some loans for him. Nothing I had fit him, anyway- I was almost twice his size, and broader too, like a football player. Josh, on the other hand, could be described as a scarecrow wearing grandpa clothes.
“Yeah, I’m all packed,” he muttered, “but not for Easton.”
I frowned. “What’s up? You okay?”
Under the curtain of his black hair, Josh shyly looked up at me. Again he looked empty, spread too thin. There was purple underneath his eyes. He didn’t sleep last night.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said slowly, evaluating himself, “but Miss Hampton called, and said that she signed me up for an empowerment camp for poor kids. I have to go because the school’s paying.”
I raised a brow. “Wait,” I began, “the dean called and said that?”
Dean Susan Hampton was Principal Telles’ minion. She was perkier than that vulture of a man, but all she really said and did was what Mister Telles said and did, only nicer.
Josh nodded quietly and picked at his thumbnail. “I’m going this afternoon. I didn’t want to tell you earlier because it sounds horrible. It’s like a whole camp filled with nothing but pity.” He huffed to himself and avoided my attention. “I don’t want people to pity me. I don’t want people to notice me for nothing other than being poor and underprivileged. I want to not be noticed if that's all people'll look at me for.”
I shrugged and leaned back on my bed. “Well, you never know, Josh. Maybe it’ll be good. Maybe it’ll help you.” I paused. "Maybe it can be a real good experience."
I know it was a weak argument, mainly because I knew nothing about this camp. I knew nothing about needing to be empowered. I knew nothing about being as poor as Josh. Sure, I’ve seen the deeper end of middle class, but that’s just about it. I’ve never struggled like my friend.
I guess I should’ve just not said anything, because Josh looked at me with this expression of skepticism. He breathed in then looked back at his nails.
“I don’t think it'll be,” he finally said. “Miss Hampton also said who else is going.”
I paused, and braced myself. “Who?”
Josh pushed himself further onto the bed. “Alan Weinstein.”
I chewed my lip with concern. Alan Weinstein was among Josh’s tormentors, and I often thought of him as the worst. I had assumed through middle school that he was the richest kid in Bentley’s Cape, because he always talked about new video games he got for his birthday and that his parents were always on vacation somewhere else. Only recently did I learn that it was a coping method for the fact that his parents were in prison.
But Alan wasn’t someone I pitied. He fell right into the hole his parents had made, and he was content to lie in it. He partied all night, drank sometimes, and did worse things that I couldn’t imagine. And to add on to it, he chose Josh as a specific target of ridicule and torture.
Somehow this made him popular. Didn’t make him rich, but it made him popular.
I nodded slowly. “You need to talk to Miss Hampton about him.”
Josh quickly shot down that proposition. “Levi, please don’t make me. After all, she assigned us as roommates at the camp. I don’t want to start up anything now.” His eyes were wide with fear.
“What can I do, Josh?” I said, my voice raising a little with fear. “Will you be okay?”
Josh stood up from the bed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I’ll figure it out,” he said, forging a perk in his voice. “I hope you have a great time this week.” He grinned slightly at me, then hopped back on my bed to crawl out the window again.
“Wait,” I called, and he paused in the middle of the flower bed he stood in. “Josh, I hope you have a good time, too. I hope you're safe, and that you're okay.”
The boy smiled at me again. This time, I knew he meant it. I smiled and closed the window as he walked away from our property.
But my smile faded as I sat back down.
Josh. With Alan. A whole week.
This was a set-up for disaster.
I wished I had a way to contact Josh.
I already missed him, and it was only half an hour after he left. I already felt concern and fear, but also my confusion and reserve towards the situation. I felt sorry for my attempts to make him feel better. I shouldn't have said anything; I really knew nothing about what he needed, and so it was stupid of me to think it would help.
I wanted to call him and apologize, to say to keep in touch, to tell him to contact me if he needed anything. But Josh didn't have a phone or anything of the like.
I smacked the trunk cover of the car back down and hopped into the driver’s seat of my truck. Dad was already buckled in the co-pilot, with his laptop case at his feet. He rolled down his window as Aunt Kiesha ducked her head in. She was holding Miles, while Lissa stood at the driveway.
“Have a good time, you two,” she said, like she always did. I smiled and nodded. “And get good grades, Levi. Remember the MIT scholarship that’s waiting for you.”
I nodded again, laughing. “I will, Aunt Kiesha. I’ll see you soon.”
“Thank you, Kiesha,” Dad said, waving to Miles. “We’ll see you in a week.”
My aunt nodded and waved to us as I backed out of the driveway, and we waved back as we went off down our quiet street.
Dad sat back in his seat and sighed in a small, content sort of way. He was a pretty quiet guy who expected people to do what they should, and that made people want to live up to him. I admired this sort of quiet existence, that wasn’t authority so much as standard. He made people want to live the life they should. That was why he was the counselor at the local community college.
He also sat with this air of having expectations. Even in the car, he sat with his ankles crossed, his back straight. His hands were laced in his lap.
It was funny, that this man ever dared to approach my mom. She was a sort of lady who was untouchable, who never let anyone get to know her too quickly. It would take away the fun of it. Men chased, but she outwitted them the moment their eyes settled on her. She was mysterious, alluring, and joyful. Quick-witted and whip-smart, too. I could see how much Dad missed her.
My hands tightened on the wheel.
Dad noticed, and his eyes rested on me. “You never answered why Joshua isn’t with us,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry I asked in front of the others. I should’ve known better.” He leaned back, his elbow rested on the cup holder in between us. “Is he all right? Did he explain it to you?”
I immediately felt a weight off my chest. I nodded as I sighed out deeply. With my eyes on the road ahead of me, my brow furrowed. “What are underprivileged empowerment camps like?” I asked. I felt silly asking him, and also kind of oblivious. Innocent.
Dad looked ahead again, and nodded his head. “I’m not very sure, as we didn’t have things like that when I was Josh’s age.” He raised a brow. “Is that where he is?”
“Yes. The principal paid for him to go.” I glanced at him. “What will they do there?”
He shrugged. Somehow he even made that look regal. “As I said, Levi, I’m not certain.” He paused. “You’re worried?”
He knew me in and out. “I guess so. I shouldn’t be, I know.” I turned onto the on-ramp for the freeway. “He’s his own guy and I shouldn’t be hovering over him.”
Even I didn’t believe that. Josh was scared. He didn’t want me to worry.
“It’s your first YEP trip that you haven’t been together, and he’s going to an unfamiliar place with people he doesn’t trust nearly as much as you. He’s not with people he feels safe with and may even be with enemies. Is that true, Levi?”
“How did you know?” I kept a soft laugh of surprise back as I merged into the next lane.
“I know you and Josh very well. He didn’t stay around long enough to make me think he felt compromised by his father, and you also didn’t seem to angry. You were obviously confused and concerned, so I assumed something was the matter that you couldn’t figure your way out of.”
“’Out of which I couldn’t find my way’, Dad. Get your grammar right.” It was a running joke whenever someone missed an important rule of grammar. But, I wasn’t in the joking mood. It was a force of habit and sounded worse than I meant it. My face immediately grew hot.
Dad narrowed his eyes, evaluating the situation. “I trust that you sent each other off with the confidence that you’ll both need. I have full faith in you, and in Joshua, too.” He straightened in his seat and said, “You'll want to get on the I15 North. Cross over now.”
Since I'm writing this story at the pace the characters are telling it to me, this chapter kind of surprised me. Something else was supposed to happen in this chapter, but I suppose it's meant to happen a bit later. Levi tends to tell me things in kind of a slow burn, while Josh hands it out as it is. I'll have to balance them out sometime.