It was another lazy Saturday evening, and Max, Neil, and Nikki were hanging out in the mess hall. Supper had long been over, but the trio wanted to spend the last hours before lights out somewhere with air conditioning. Or at least the camp's closest approximation.
Nikki lied on a table, gazing, mesmerized, into the wobbling blades of the struggling ceiling fan that hung crookedly from the rafters.
"Wonder where everyone else is?" she said, voice sleepy and distant.
"Who cares?" said Neil, idly wedging a fork between the table's wooden planks, "As long as they're not bothering us with their bullshit."
Max groaned, the sound muffled by the pillow of his arms. Of course that was the mess hall door, because God forbid they ever get a whole Saturday to themselves.
"Way to jinx it, Neil." He sat up to see who'd be ruining his day this time. "Hey, Gwen."
"Hey…" Gwen cast a look over her shoulder as she sidled toward them.
"Hi, Gwen!" Nikki sat up so fast her curls bounced. "Cute purse!" Neil gave her a look. "What? I can tell."
Gwen did have a purse hanging off her shoulder, one Max was pretty sure he'd never seen before. Hell, since when did she carry any purse around here? It was fucking camp.
"Yeah…" Gwen muttered, finally reaching their table.
"You're acting weird," said Neil.
"Yeah, what the hell is up with you today?"
For the first time since she came in, Gwen looked directly at them, her eyes suddenly steely.
"Okay listen up, you little shits, this is a one time thing."
"Oh?" Max's eyebrows rose. "Care to elaborate?"
Instead of answering, Gwen gave one last anxious look around. Once she was satisfied the coast was clear, she zipped her "cute" purse open and flipped it over, spilling the contents all over the table.
"Holy mother of…"
"Ohmygod! You've been holding this whole time and didn't tell me?!"
It was a candy stash. A good candy stash, the kind of shit grown-ups could get: The fancy chocolates with the gold foil wrappers, a movie-theater-size box of those spicy cinnamon things, a bag of just red gummies…
"How long has this been going o—" Max started to ask.
"Can I have one?" Nikki piped up, "Please please please?"
"Yeah, go wild, all of you." Gwen waved her hand. To Max's question: "A while, okay? You really gonna act surprised that sometimes I need a little something to take the edge off?"
"Holy crap, even the wrappers taste good!"
"You're doing it wrong, Nikki!"
"Don't tell me what to do, Neil!"
"Don't tell me what to tell you!"
"…fair," said Max, "So why the sudden generosity?"
"David was starting to get suspicious, and you know how he is about candy. Figured it'd be best to unload everything and lie low for a while."
"Unload it on us."
"So if someone gets caught, we'll all go down."
"Wha?" said Nikki around a suspiciously shiny mouthful of chocolate.
"Diabolical!" Neil declared, already elbow-deep in the movie theater box.
"Whatever," said Gwen, "If you don't wanna get caught, then don't get caught. You seriously turning down free candy?"
Nikki and Neil looked to Max.
After a beat of contemplation, he shrugged and reached for the red gummies. "Good point."
"Must be nice to see a me-related plan go right for once, huh?"
"Psh, get over yourself. I knew you guys weren't shitty enough to rat me out to Dav—oh shit."
Beyond the cloudy glass of one of the windows, David had emerged from the woods, guitar in hand, smiling wide, and headed straight for the mess hall.
"Oh man, he got his guitar out…" Neil moaned.
"I can't take another singalong!" Nikki cried, hopping off the table, "The last one, it, it… just. Wouldn't. Stop! How can one person know so many camp songs?! How?!"
"We're gonna have bigger problems than a singalong if he sees all this shit." Gwen flailed an arm over the candy outbreak on the table. "You guys know what we gotta do?"
"Yeah," said Neil, "One of us needs to distract David while the rest of us get out with the goods."
"Exactly." Gwen touched her nose. "Also, not it."
"Not it!" Neil and Nikki chorused, fingers flying to their noses.
"No—goddammit." Max narrowed his eyes at Nikki. "For fuck's sake, you're supposed to touch your nose, not start picking it."
"She's right," said Gwen, "Now get out there before he comes in looking for…" She shuddered. "'Singalong buddies.'"
"I'll save you some of the good stuff," Neil promised, snatching the gummy bag from Max's hand.
"Wha—you'd fucking better! How the hell am I supposed to 'distract' him?"
"I dunno." He gave Max a nudge toward the door. "Just ask him a stupid question."
"Say you wanna know which campfire song's his favorite!" Nikki suggested as she grabbed Max by the wrist and dragged him the rest of the way outside.
"Fuck no," he said with a shudder as she dove back through the doorway.
"Whatever you do, do it fast," were Gwen's parting words before slamming the door behind him.
Max cast a glare at the closed door before turning to—
"Well, hello there, Max!"
Shit, he'd gotten here fast. Max's mind raced as he stared up into David's stupid smile. Shit, the guy was already sidling past him, toward the mess hall door. Desperately, Max whirled around.
"Hey!" he half-yelped at the counselor, "I, uh, got a question for you."
"Really?" David turned to face him, putting his back to the door. Good. "What is it?" Fuck.
Max's eyes darted around in search of inspiration, landing on the guitar in David's hand.
"I wanna know whose bright idea it was to give you a guitar. Dumbass owes me hours of my life back."
"This guitar?" Talk about stupid questions. "I bought it myself."
"Yep, had to mow a lot of lawns to earn this baby." David gave the instrument an affectionate pat.
"Well I was about your age at the time. After my first summer at Camp Campbell, I wanted to come back the next year able to play all the camp songs!"
"David, if you start strumming, I swear to God."
"I'm serious, put the pick away."
"Would you like to try?" David suddenly held the instrument out to him.
Max blinked at the guitar looming into his space. The childhood-relic-earned-by-untold-hours-of-manual-labor guitar.
"I—really?" He rubbed his neck and looked away. The cowards in the mess hall still hadn't made a break for it. Probably waiting for him to get David farther from the door. "I mean, if it'll keep you from playing…"
"It just might," David said with a wink. Jesus. "Come on, let's sit down."
They headed down the path a ways and picked out a sunny patch of clear ground near the trees. Well, this had taken a turn. One minute he was just trying to keep Gwen's half-assed candy op from going pear-shaped, the next he was sitting criss cross with a lap full of guitar. David settled down next to him, taking hold of the… skinny part.
"This is called the fretboard."
"And you see these sections? They're the frets. They basically show you where to put your fingers. Can you reach the ones toward the top here?"
Okay, so they were really doing this. Max cut a glance toward the mess hall as he awkwardly stretched his arm up the length of the guitar, just in time to see the door open. Nikki popped out with Gwen's purse slung over her shoulder and bounded into the woods with the urgency of Balto rushing medicine to dying children. One down, two to go.
The door didn't open again, though. Looked like they were staggering their exits to avoid suspicion. He supposed he shouldn't resent that, since he'd do the same. He resented it anyway.
"Oh good, you can!"
"Huh? Oh. Yeah." By some miracle he could reach the top of the huge-ass monstrosity that barely fit in his lap. Bit of a stretch, but, still.
"Let's start out with some easy chords, then. It may not seem like much, but just knowing a few chords can get you through hours of strumming around the campfire!"
"Because that's what I've always wanted to do."
"Try bringing your hand about here, and putting two here and three here." David pointed at the frets.
"Oh! Right. Sorry." David held up his left hand and wiggled his fingers one at a time. "Those numbers are fingers! One, two, three, and four."
Pointer, birdie, ring, and pinkie respectively. Made sense.
"So I put one…"
"Put two here, and three here. Or I guess if that's hard you could try one and two instead."
"Nah, I can do it." Chrissake, he wasn't a baby. "Like this, right?"
"That's right! What you've got now is D Major. Almost."
"The real D is harder—"
"—but this one sounds about the same. Think of it as the easy version!"
"Y'know, this just turned into a parent's worst nightmare."
"Camp counselor takes a kid aside and shows him how to handle the D."
"That's not funny."
"It's a little funny." Frankly he was surprised David even got it.
"I don't think so. Now why don't you try strumming?"
"Fine." Max looked down to where his right hand dangled near the strings. His left hand already felt stiff and weird from—heh—holding the D. Well, strumming was the easy part, right?
Oh, come on, what the fuck was that sound?
"You can hit the strings a little harder than that," David advised, "You're not going to break them."
"Is that a challenge?"
Huh. That actually sounded about right.
"Very good, Max!"
"Yeah, yeah, I made the guitar make a guitar sound. Big deal."
"Alright, now why don't you play that a few more times? Get comfortable with it!"
"Whatever." Damn, Neil and Gwen sure were taking their sweet time leaving the mess hall, weren't they? Max strummed the D a few more times, hard, but not trying to kill the strings again. It sounded… nice. …which was to say it sounded like a fucking guitar. What else did he expect?
"You're doing great! You wanna try another chord now?"
"Why not?" Max let go of the D—yep, still funny—and flexed his stiff fingers.
"Now put two here and one here…" David pointed to the frets again. "…and you've got an E Seven!"
"Seven?" Strum. "That mean it's another 'easy version'?"
"Kind of. If you want E major you add three here."
"It's not that hard."
"Do you think you can switch between D and E?"
It was tricky at first, but he could. And when David added a third chord—A—he could handle that too.
D-E-A-D… D-E-A-D… Wish I was D-E-A-D… Was he going nuts, or was there something familiar about this progression? A nagging suspicion took hold.
"Wait a minute…"
"Shut up." Max played the D once more and hummed a few annoyingly familiar notes. There's a place I know that's—yeah, that sounded right. And then E… A place where you and I ca—yep. A… Where we can go to—motherfucker.
"You're making me play your dumbass song, you monster."
"Well, that's certainly one song that uses those chords. Great ear, Max!" David was beaming.
"I really am impressed! I thought we'd at least make it to the end of the verse before you noticed."
"I mean it. And I'm sorry I tricked you." Max could tell he meant that too. "Would you rather try a different song now?"
"You can pick any song you like." David dug his phone out of his pocket. "If I don't know the chords, we'll find them."
"Any song. If the chords are too tricky, I've got a capo we can use."
Max had no idea what a capo was, but David sounded serious about using it. Any fucking song, huh? Did David really think he was gonna win this game?
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Neil creeping out the mess hall door, but Max didn't give a fuck anymore. He was on this now.
Once Neil was safely out of potential-singalong-buddy radius, Gwen risked poking her head out the door. From a ways down the path came the sound of strumming and humming, a little hesitant, stumbling here and there, but growing more confident.
She slipped out the door and closed it gently behind her. Looking down the path, she could see them together: Max barely keeping the guitar in his lap as he played, David sitting close by to steady the instrument, periodically point at the strings, offer encouragement…
She had to admit, it was pretty fucking adorable. Nice to see a Max-related plan go right for once.
Still, it'd probably be less adorable if she knew what song they were playing, right? There was something familiar about it, but, without any words to go on, Gwen couldn't place it. Knowing Max, though, the little shit picked whatever had the nastiest lyrics he knew in an attempt to throw David off. Like he was gonna win that game.
Before creeping away, Gwen caught David's eye over the top of Max's head and flashed him a thumbs up. He responded with a wink. Jesus.
She hadn't made it out of hearing distance yet when, all of a sudden, they hit the chorus, with gusto: Volume doubled, singing-not-humming, like they wanted to make sure she heard…
Well, it was kind of an accomplishment, wasn't it?
Miles away from decent Wi-Fi, the sons of bitches managed to rickroll her.