Immediately the sounds of the crowd hit him; talking, laughing and the occasional shout being thrown across the room. Nate found himself temporarily frozen in place as it all registered. Any minute they would go quiet... take notice of him... begin to stare. Any minute now they would come and hurt him. Because that's what crowds did; they hurt...
I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this.
He braced himself for physical contact, but none came. After a tense moment Nate's muscles eased and he took a step forward. Nothing happened as he did. He ran a hand through his hair, letting in a breath of relief. Still noth-
No, right then the door opened behind him. Nate turned to see a tall boy holding a pair of drumsticks. For half a second Nate's instinct told him to run, yet it faded as he noticed the boy's hesitant expression and the way he was using the drum sticks to tap uncertainly against his legs as he hovered in the doorway.
Not a threat. There were no threats; no one here wanted to hurt or leap on him. It was just his nerves again. He certainly had developed his fair share over the years. Nate stepped to the side so the boy could make his way past. His eyes scanned the room hoping an idea would come. Most of the campers had already gotten their food and were sitting at the various tables, yet some were still waiting.
You can do this. Nate walked over and stood behind the last person in line. His eyes continued scanning the room. You're okay. Slowly he began to relax more. He wasn't completely comfortable here, but he wasn't as tense as assumed. That thought caused the slightest hint of a lazy smile to drape across his face.
Then for the second time that day Nate's eyes sensed copper brown. He blinked and turned so it would become more visible. Sure enough he had seen it. Jake was here, sitting at one of the tables across the room from where he was now. She was facing away from him, her straight locks being the only thing he could see. Strange; Nate could have sworn there was curl to her hair. She was locked in conversation with another girl, this one with toffee colored hair and bright eyes who was facing Nate's direction.
He didn't realize he was staring until he felt the sensation of someone tapping his shoulder. A male voice called out, "Hey, man, step ahead. Line's moving forward."
Nate turned to find a young man around his age behind him. For a second he wondered what this guy was talking about but soon remembered where they were standing. Looking back ahead he found the person he had once been standing behind now about five yards in front of them. Nate hurriedly stepped forward to catch up, grabbing one of the red trays sitting in a stack as he did.
"S-sorry," he stammered to the guy behind him.
"Don't sweat it," was the reply as they took another step forward. "You were just zoned out. I respect that."
Nate quirked an eyebrow at the weird answer he had just received, although he kept his eyes forward.
"Name's Barron by the way. My pal Sander's over there." Barron pointed to the table Nate had just been watching where another guy had joined the two girls.
"Oh, um, Nate. I'm Nate," he responded to his new acquaintance, knowing that was usually how conversations went.
"Nate? You mean like that guy from Connect 3? You know, the brother nobody's ever seen," Barron continued casually, not noticing Nate freeze at the mention of his identity. Nate snapped himself out of it as the pair stepped forward again, Barron still talking. "... I mean, he's freakin' famous and all. Shouldn't be want to brag? I would."
Nate swallowed, not sure how to take the ramble. He decided just to shake it off; at least Barron didn't doubt something like if it was Nate who was really playing or singing the band's songs like members of the media did. A pause followed. Nate realized Barron was probably waiting for some sort of response.
"Yeah, I've heard of that guy," he stated simply. Nate only hoped that his words were coming out casual and not reflecting the uneasiness in his gut. "But my last name's... Baines."
"Ah, cool." Barron nodded. "So-"
But Nate wasn't listening. Instead he found the back of his mind wondering why that had been the name he'd uttered. He forced a swallow before repeating. "Yeah, Baines. Nate Baines."
"Right. You said that already."
Nate blinked, suddenly aware there had been more to the conversation. He followed the path Barron's outstretched arm led back to the table. His chest heaved with a mixture of excitement and hesitance. He was being asked to join them. Dread came next, for which almost immediately Nate reprimanded himself. Each table looked to only have the capacity for eight. Surely he could handle eight people, especially since he was at least somewhat familiar with one. "Um, yeah I thi- sure."
"Cool." Now Barron seemed to have some hesitance, or maybe even second thoughts about the invitation. Nate bit the inside of his cheek, suddenly feeling rather twitchy.
The pair finally reached where the food was located. As they began filling their trays Nate snuck a peek towards Jake again. She was still facing the other direction. It suddenly dawned on him the danger he was in. He was alone in a room full of strangers minus one; a girl who could easily tell every last one of those here just who he was. Why hadn't he thought of it before? All it would take was one word; one word and his secret would be out. He could imagine the crowds that would form... the questions... the stares and inevitable...
"- from, man?"
Nate jumped. Right; he was still in conversation with someone. Based on the look on Barron's face, it was going south quickly.
"You alright?" Barron asked.
Nate nodded while at the same time allowing his eyes to move towards the back doors. He wondered just how many steps it would take to reach it, and how fast he could go. Easy, Nate. He scooped some coleslaw onto his plate slowly."Um, sorry... just... um, what- what did you ask?"
Slowly Barron repeated himself, "I said, where you from?"
Okay, he could answer that one truthfully. "New Jersey."
Barron led the way out of the line and towards the table, rattling off about random things. He waved as the two approached, which gained a wave back from his friend. Nate kept his eyes focused on them and tried his best to ignore the growing volume surrounding him. You can do this... His knuckles began to ache from the grip he had on the tray.
He'd nearly reached the destination when he suddenly side-swiped a girl sending his lunch all over the plastic of the tray. His muscles froze even more as the girl huffed and tossed her blond hair then placed a hand on her hip. Nate braced himself to give an apology when suddenly she completed the turn needed to face him. A giant smile swept over her face.
"Well, hello there," she said boldly. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Tess Tyler."
Nate raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Tyler, as in-?"
"Yep," she replied, glancing down at her nails a moment. She must have gotten that reaction often.
"Oh." Nate made a move towards the table again.
Unfortunately, Tess held out an arm to stop him. "And just what is your name, stranger?"
One of her eyebrows rose as she looked Nate from head to toe then back to head. Nate squirmed under her rather intense gaze. He also felt his vocabulary slip, leaving him to mutter, "Um, Nate?"
"Silly." Tess's face broke out in another smile and her voice swayed towards sickly sweet. "Why are you saying that like it's a question?"
Nate cleared his throat. "It's- I'm Nate."
Now it was Tess's eyes which widened. "Really? Nate Gray?"
Maybe it was only in his head, but to Nate the question came out almost at shouting level. Those within hearing distance turned their direction. Nate's gut began panicking again as he sensed their eyes widening. No... God, please, no...
"No, no, no," he rattled off hurriedly. To his distain a few people continued to stare. Letting out a cough, he added, "It's Baines. Nate Baines."
He added an unsure grimace for effect. The faces turned away, with an occasional glance being thrown back where he and Tess were standing. Tess's face fell.
"Oh," was all she said, obviously losing interest.
It was then he felt something sticky on his fingers. Looking down Nate caught sight of the spilled juice cup which had gone all over the rest of the meal. "I gotta... clean..." he started. He started to turn in order that he might walk away, but she grabbed his arm before he could go anywhere. He nearly yelped as his stomach lurched.
"You know, Nate," she began, "in our group, we have important people, like the VIPs of the camp. And we usually don't let just anyone join. But you could be an exception."
Nate glanced over to the table in question where two other girls sat giggling furiously and waving. He gulped, wondering what was so funny.
"Well, um, that's- really, really nice of you, but I'm, you know, gonna go sit with some guys - over here- there, you know," Nate managed, slipping over the words slightly.
"Whatever." The smile was gone and Tess's tone changed to haughty faster than a light switch. Despite the indifference Nate still sensed she was attempting to salvage some dignity in having just been rejected, although he really didn't know why. "Come on, Mitchie."
Nate's ears perked at the name. Mitchie; the girl at the lake. He had to force his face not to fall when the girl only moments before he'd believed to be Jake turned their way. Even then he couldn't stop his thoughts, which at the moment were in a rushed panic.
Oh sh- now what?
The two girls talked yet he heard nothing. The tray also instantly felt insurmountably heavy; Nate's hands shook. Slipping out as quickly as he could, Nate headed back towards the food line. He took his time throwing away the now-ruined lunch. As he grabbed a new tray, the thought of leaving became very appealing. There was no reason for him to stay, after all. It wasn't like anyone would notice.
From the corner of his eye Nate watched as Mitchie made her way over to the table where Tess and the other girls were sitting. He turned back to the food. His mind was running full speed yet he stared at the line of options blankly, wondering just what the hell he was supposed to do now.
"It's not really my place to answer that question..."
She should have asked why, or at least asked Brown something. It would certainly have beat fumbling around in the complicated mess that was the internet. Jake closed the browser on her phone before slipping it back into her pocket. The attempt had been in vain, anyway. Just like her last search she'd found nothing beyond Shane's favorite movie (The Four Feathers) and what alternative career Jason would choose (an astronaut), none of which was very useful.
'That'; he'd been referencing something by his choice of word. An event maybe. Jake frowned thoughtfully. There was a meaning behind what Brown said yet she really had no focal point. She was going at this blind. She sent her hand back into the pocket where her phone sat only to pull it out again. Brown hadn't been issuing her clues; he had been warning her away if anything. Still the curiosity was killing her.
Jake grabbed her phone again and opened the browser. She had a feeling that by the time this was over she'd know more about the band then Mitchie. Footsteps approaching from downstairs foiled any plans, though. Jake quickly grabbed a rag. The last thing she needed was her mom to catch her slacking.
"Oh, Mom, I was-" she started.
"Nice try, mija." Jake's cheeks burned. Connie motioned to the open container nearby. "But that last batch of coleslaw isn't going to finish itself."
Jake groaned. Not even the fact that it was her mom's recipe could make her anxious to stick her hands into coleslaw. She grabbed a new pair of gloves slowly. "You sure we even need this?"
"You don't know the eating skills of teenage boys. And besides, the staff hasn't gotten any yet," Connie calmly retorted.
Jake worked in silence mashing together the sloppy mess. An idea came as her mom walked closer. Jake held out her hands as if she were going to smear the slaw in her mom's face, complete with letting out the best growl she could manage. It didn't work, however; Connie simply chuckled and swiped away Jake's hands. Jake smiled as well, which seemed to make her mom pleased.
"Feeling better I see."
Jake nodded. Tossing the gloves into the trash she added, "Guess smashing the crap out of stuff was what I needed. How'd you know?"
"Mom's intuition." Connie grabbed a nearby spoon to inspect the coleslaw. "Well that, and Mitchie informed me about the pictures."
Jake let out a groan. "Don't remind me, please."
"Oh mija, believe me when I say that standing next to a car with a boy isn't the worse thing to be caught doing. Like back when I was in school there was a girl who went to this party and had to much to drink. She fell over in the yard and-" Connie abruptly stopped and shook her head. "-just, worse things."
Intrigued, Jake raised her eyebrows. "Aw, Mom, now don't leave me hanging."
Connie just kissed her daughter's forehead. "Get that coleslaw out there already."
"Aye aye, boss lady." Avoiding the rag her mom swung her way, Jake picked up the container and headed towards the door.
"Hey, you alright?" Nate hadn't even realized Barron had stayed close throughout his encounter with Tess. He'd have thought Barron would surely have made his way to the table already. The other young man now approached Nate and watched him grab a new tray.
No. His throat had gone dry, allowing Nate only to manage a simple nod.
"Okay." By his tone Barron didn't sound convinced. Still, he turned. "I'll be at the table."
Nate nodded again and approached the food. Barron took a step to go, then suddenly changed his mind and waited. The action shocked Nate. He couldn't understand why someone would be this, well, considerate towards a stranger. He filled his plate as quickly as possible. His hand stopped at the coleslaw. There wasn't any left.
"Someone usually comes to refill stuff 'round this time," Barron offered. As if on cue the swing door of the kitchen began to open. "Probably them right now."
Her back had just leaned against the door when Jake heard her name being called again. "Yeah, Mom?"
"Be sure and put some of that on a plate for Shane before you put it out there, okay?"
Jake groaned. "Right. Heaven forbid he have to go out there and eat with everyone else."
Her comment got a disapproving glance from her mom. "Just do it. And if you see Brown, tell him I'm in the back."
"Brown?" Jake walked towards the counter and grabbed a plate. "Brown's coming here?"
Connie nodded. "We need to discuss tomorrow's jam- thing."
"The Campfire Jam." Jake corrected. Or was it Bonfire Jam? It didn't really matter anyway. "Okay."
"Then take out the trash. Please," Connie finished instructing as she headed out of the room.
Grabbing a spoon, Jake plopped a mound of the disgusting goop onto the plate. Unfortunately she missed the container when trying to throw the spoon back into it, sending the utensil to the floor. Jake made her way to the second counter and grabbed a rag. She bent down to clean up the mess she'd caused. As she did, her hip managed somehow to clang into the collection of bowls and other metal containers on the underneath shelf, sending many to join her and the mess.
"What in the- good lord, child, what did you do?"
Still on all fours, Jake snapped her head upwards towards the doorway where her mom's assistant now stood. She gave the best forced smile she could as she uttered, "Hi, Ms. Lenore."
"Here, let me..." Lenore began making her way to the mess. Jake flagged her away.
"I can get it." Jake stacked together a couple of the bowls, all of which would now need to be washed.
Lenore stopped just shy of the counter. She motioned to the container Jake had minutes before been carrying. "This for lunch? I'll take it out there for you."
"Oh, yeah, thanks." As Lenore made her way out to the cafeteria, Jake wiped the coleslaw from the floor. She made a face while dumping it into the nearby trashcan; gross. She stacked together the rest of the bowls and such, setting them on the above counter. It appeared she'd now have twice as many dishes to clean before getting started on dinner.
"Thanks," Nate muttered towards the lady who had brought out a container of coleslaw. His mission accomplished, he headed back towards the table, this time sticking closer to Barron. The hesitance from earlier returned as they made their way. The others already sitting looked up as they approached.
"Hi," the girl with toffee-colored hair focused her attention on Nate. "I'm Caitlyn."
Nate hesitated, stopping just shy of the table. He felt his mouth go dry which was the usual reaction for when he was alone among strangers. This was such a bad idea, but it was the only one he had now. The tray he was holding shook as he attempted to extend a hand for Caitlyn. He cleared his throat, set down the tray and tried again. Surprisingly she seemed hesitant as she shook it. "Na-"
"Yeah, we heard you talking to the queen bee over there." Nate followed her motion to where Tess was seated. Queen bee?
"Don't let cynical Caitlyn scare you off." Nate looked towards the other side of the table and found a tall, thin young lady. This girl gave him a friendly smile and gave a playful jab to Caitlyn's arm. "Really, she doesn't bite. I'm Lola, by the way. And these two goofs are-"
"Barron and Sander," Nate finished for her, finally taking a seat.
Lola blinked. "You know-"
"Yeah. Um, Barron pointed him out." Lola gave a similar response to his hand shake. Somehow he was missing something.
"That's cool," Sander responded in much the same attitude as Barron. He took a bite of food while Nate began to extend his hand. "Naw, dude. Handshakes are too formal, unless you do them right."
Oh; now he understood. Nate lowered his hand and fought the urge to apologize. He wasn't aware there was a right or wrong way of shaking hands. He turned his attention to the sloppy joe occupying his plate.
"So, how come I haven't seen you around here before?" Sander asked.
Nate took his time chewing, needing the extra few moments to come up with an answer. He'd hoped the questions wouldn't come so soon. "I- just arrived. Yes- um, last night I mean."
"Who you rooming with?" Sander continued.
Mentally Nate flinched. "Well... I don't have any. Roommates."
"Really? Wow." Barron spoke this time, clearly impressed. "How'd you get so lucky?"
Nate looked back at his plate, that being all he could think to do without telling another lie. He didn't want to do it, but if they were going to keep asking questions there was no other option. Why were they asking him so much, anyway? His eyes wandered over to the table where Mitchie and the other girls were sitting. She almost looked bored. He diverted his gaze just as she glanced his way.
The table talk continued among the rest of the occupants. Nate listened as they discussed camp activities and traded stories from school. Chewing food gave him a good excuse to avoid speaking. It wasn't as if he had anything to say really. Well, unless they wanted to hear about the new song he and his brothers- Scratch that; they just might. But in no way would he be offering.
"Oh wow, what happened to your hand?" Caitlyn suddenly asked, giving his arm a nudge.
Oh, crap. He'd almost forgotten about the bandage. Nate gulped. He looked at it before responding. "I-well, punched-" Punched? - "well, hit a..." His eyes glanced out the window nearby. "... tree."
"A... tree," Caitlyn repeated unconvinced.
His stomach lurched again. Nate rubbed his pants leg with his good hand, trying to come up with a better explanation. His tablemates were looking at him, waiting. Staring... Instinctually Nate looked up again, this time at the door. It was only a few feet away; if he made a run for it now...
"Yeah, um, stupid." His voice nearly gave out on him, yet Nate managed to let out a nervous laugh. His tablemates continued staring. Nate didn't bother saying anything else, but rather got up and headed towards the front of the cafeteria. He forced himself to keep an even, calm pace as we went. He feet took him towards the side door, yet he fought the urge and instead went to where the drinks were kept.
Idiot. Why'd you do that? Placing his hands on the counter, Nate looked over the selections while biting his lip. Why did he always do this? Why'd he always panic? Those people back there had meant him no harm. It had only been an innocent question, yet once again he'd turned it into an interrogation.
Nate let out a long, shaky sigh. This whole 'being social' thing was definitely harder than it looked.
"Oh, hello there."
"Hey, Brown." She recognized the voice without needing to see him. Jake stood, the last of the fallen bowls in her hands. Almost cautiously Brown approached and patted her shoulder. Jake offered back a thankful smile. She knew the reason for his action. "I'm better, thanks."
"Good." Brown stepped back. He motioned to the items in her hands. "Got a lot of baking planned?"
"Huh? Oh, no." Jake shrugged and grabbed another of the stacks she'd formed. "Just clumsy."
"Want some help?"
Jake shook her head. "I've got it, thanks."
"Right, well, if you're sure." Seeing Jake's nod of affirmation he then changed focus. "Well then, do you know where your-"
"She told me to tell you she's in the back." Jake pointed towards the door before heading that way herself. Despite her earlier comment, Brown joined suit with the rest. As the two made their way to the dishwashing area, Jake wrestled with whether to say anything. She found herself biting her lip as she set down her load. Clearing her throat, she faced the older gentleman. "Thanks."
Jake nodded and grabbed the apron from its hook. The earlier curiosity flashed through her mind. She shouldn't say anything. If she were smart, she wouldn't ask.
"Brown?" Obviously she wasn't very smart. Jake waited for a response before turning to face him again. "Just one more thing, please."
"Sure," he replied while stopping in the doorway.
It took her a moment or so to formulate how to lead into her question. "What you were talking about in the cabin this morning, that stuff about which you said it wasn't your place to talk about..." Okay, that made no sense Jake swallowed. "How bad was it?"
It took only the briefest of seconds for him to swing back, yet Jake still saw it. The question made Brown slip somewhere else; his face showed her that. The blank, sad look caused her to feel very uncomfortable. It felt like forever before he actually spoke. When he did, he needed to clear his throat. "I'll- see you later today, alright?"
He left her there then. Jake swallowed. It may have been inadvertent, yet he had just answered her question with that reaction. No explanation required. And what it told Jake was that whatever he wasn't discussing, whatever that 'something' was, it had been bad. Very bad.
"I'd go with apple," Mitchie suggested upon reaching the beverage counter.
To her surprise the young man she was speaking to visibly jumped. He also seemed to pale, although she couldn't think of a reason why. Recovery took a few moments, yet in a small voice he managed, "Oh."
Mitchie waited until it became obvious he wasn't going to say more. He didn't move, either. His hesitance caused guilt to slip into her gut. "Sorry. Am I bother-"
"No," he replied a little too forcefully, his eyes never looking towards her. He cleared his throat and tried again, this time softer. "Course not."
"Okay. I'm Mitchie, by the way," she offered while also leaning forward slightly to at least attempt looking him in the face.
There was no confirmation. This guy certainly was something else. What Mitchie couldn't figure out was if it was in a good or bad way. She couldn't help but notice the look he'd given when they'd first spotted each other; strangely confused or perhaps even disappointed, an odd thing considering they'd never before met. Then there was the conversation he and Tess had shared. Shortly after he'd jumped up from the table he'd been sitting at as if his seat were in flames. It all seemed off-setting somehow. Even now he appeared on-edge about something. The young man took his hands out of his pockets and rubbed his arm. Despite Mitchie's effort, his focus remained off to the side somewhere.
"Haven't seen you around here before," Mitchie tried again. "When'd you arrive?"
Her words jump-started a reaction. He reached a hand towards the row of cups on the counter. It took a second for Mitchie to notice he wasn't actually grabbing one of them, but rather just letting his hand stay out stretched.
"Um, last night," he answered slowly in a way which suggested he was debating what to say. Something was clearly bothering him. Mitchie decided to shake it off; he was probably just shy. Yeah, that was it. No reason to go into her usual conspiracy mindset about it. Coming to camp late had to be intimidating.
"Oh." Just because he was shy didn't mean she wouldn't try again to get him talking. "How are you liking it?"
As if sensing her motive, the young man simply shrugged his shoulders. However, a pair of deep eyes met hers for the briefest of seconds. Before her mind could stop itself, Mitchie blurted, "Huh. Brown."
He paused again, giving her a quizzical look. This was beginning to get awkward. Letting out her best smile, Mitchie motioned to him. "Your eyes. Brown."
Mitchie felt her heart sink again as yet another pause followed. Obviously it was a sign she should give it up and go back to her table. Tess and the other girls would have plenty to say about this anyway. Then, just as she began to turn, a quiet ghost of a chuckle escaped his throat. "Right."
Mitchie looked at him. Was that a smile on his face? The faintest of one in the corner of his mouth appeared. She felt her shoulders relax. Just as quickly they tensed again as Caitlyn appeared. However, the other girl paid no mind to her right off; instead it was towards the young man that she directed her first sentence. "Hey. Why'd you run off like that?"
The smile disappeared. He rubbed the back of his neck a moment then answered. "I... drink."
I... drink. It repeated in Mitchie's mind. He sounded like a caveman or something. Thinking that made her feel bad, which was why she stayed silent. Caitlyn too seemed slightly taken aback by his answer, although it seemed for a different reason.
"You already had one on your tray." She motioned towards the table from which they both had come.
"I... Right." He offered no further explanation.
Caitlyn seemed to take this as her cue, first shaking her head towards him then looking towards Mitchie. "You; what are you doing with her?"
Mitchie blinked back surprise. "What?"
"With Tess. What are you doing with her? I thought we were your friends."
Inside Mitchie cringed, while also wondering from where this outburst had come. "We are, Caitlyn. It's just-"
"Just what?" Caitlyn interrupted. "You love borrowing her fancy accessories?"
"No, she doesn't let us touch them." She hadn't meant to say that out loud. Caitlyn's eyebrow shot up, prompting Mitchie to try again. "I-"
"You're good at singing, right?"
Now Mitchie was really confused. "What does that-"
"Word of advice." It suddenly became obvious Caitlyn wasn't in the mood for listening, but rather talking. Mitchie should have known leaving the table to join Tess and the other girls was a mistake. "Tess doesn't like anyone being better than her. There can only be one star. Keep that in mind."
Turning her heel, Caitlyn marched back towards the table. Mitchie shuffled, torn. Caitlyn was probably right, after all. At the same time, she had made a promise. And as unpleasant as Tess was, Mitchie still felt Ella and Peggy were good people if not friends. Sighing she turned towards the young man again. "Sorry about-"
She found herself talking to air, as no one was standing nearby. The young man was gone. Mitchie looked around the room yet found no sign of him. What she did see, however, was the side door making the usual repeat action of banging against the frame it did when someone let it swing close. He must have left through it
Well, Mitchie thought to herself. She may not have known much about this kid, not even his name. But there was one thing she knew for certain; he was very, very odd.