Watching her mother leave the cabin, Nellie was holding back tears and she didn’t quite know why. Maybe, she thought, it was because she was surrounded by a group of strangers that she’d have to eat, sleep, change, and poop with for the next three weeks—she hadn’t met a new person since kindergarten. Maybe it was because she was mad at her mother for forcing her to go to Camp Cadenza, Where Music Feeds the Soul. Or, maybe it was because the cabin reeked already of Pink Chiffon, a cheap perfume scent from Bath and Body Works that hijacked the hard-earned babysitting money of millions of tweens. After Nellie heard her mother start her Lexus for Stonington— or, as the rich boys across the Connecticut border liked to call it, “Stonedagain”— she started to unpack her belongings.
Nellie and her bunkmate, a blonde girl with a full face of makeup on and a trombone in her hand, were given one wooden dresser to share. After negotiating, it was decided that Nellie would get the extra dresser drawer, and Stacy would get the top bunk. Nellie saved the fitted sheets to unpack last, and rushed to make her bed before the counselor started to speak. Until now, she hadn’t realized that she had never put a fitted sheet on a mattress before.
“I need everyone to gather at the front of the room,” the counselor, Louise, said at the top of her voice. Nellie was too focused on smothering her mattress with flannel sheets to hear her. “Everyone,” the counselor pressed. With her words, the entire cabin turned around and looked back at Nellie. Spread-eagle on her bed, she was trying to hold the bottom left corner of the sheet down with her left foot as she flailed forward on her stomach to shove the sheet down on the top right. She grunted a little as she inched the sheet down, then realized that the room had gone silent. Nellie looked up and froze with embarrassment seeing the whole room gawking at her. She climbed off of the twin bed and joined the rest of the group at the front of the cabin.
“Girls, I’m going to start this off by saying that I’m on my period, so don’t even think about getting feisty during the next few days unless you’re prepared for my wrath. No boys, no sneaking out, and no staying up past curfew.” She went on to explain that the cabin would be making a Constitution. All of the girls groaned and rolled their eyes as Louise gave some examples of things the group might value: kindness, cleanliness, respect. Nellie started to drown out Louise’s nasal voice as if it were a false fire alarm, and Louise declared that she valued girls who go to bed on time.
While all of the girls listened intently to each other present, snapping in approval after each person ended, Nellie took in her surroundings. She didn’t know how she’d possibly make it through camp. Eighteen girls were locked away in a cabin smaller than her parents’ master bedroom. There were two toilets. On the stalls, paragraphs were written in sharpie telling girls like Nellie about how “absolutely life changing” Camp Cadenza is, and how she would leave camp with “lifelong friends, a head filled with memories, and possibly MRSA.” Nellie wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a joke or not, but it made her skin itch anyways. Showers were a few hundred yards away, between her cabin and the boy’s cabin. The tennis courts were right outside the showers. She imagined a towel mishap destined for her in the near future, involving a tennis ball flying towards her head. She would reach up to protect her face, her towel would drop, and all the boys would see her fully developed breasts and the layer of chub she’d acquired earlier in the year when her mother and father told her they were getting a divorce. Beyond the grounds of the camp, the land was barren. The nearest cell service was twenty minutes away, but that didn’t matter since Louise had taken the all the cabin mates’ cell phones before she even said hello and learned their names.
“Nellie, it’s your turn,” Stacy whispered, nudging her in the rib.
“For what?” Nellie asked, completely forgetting about the Camp Cadenza Cabin Constitution underway. Louise pointed to the whiteboard in her hand. “Oh. My name is Nellie Johnson-Brown and I think that personal space is very important.” Stacy and the girl on her left instinctively scooted a few inches away.
Camp Cadenza prided itself in being a “Work Hard, Play Hard” institution. While most kids would have considered the “Work Hard” the morning of music classes and the “Play Hard” the two hours of recreational time in the afternoon, Nellie felt the opposite. The “Play Hard” was the time she spent with her violin in Practice Cabin 28. Number 28 was the most secluded cabin, and it looked onto the water. It reminded Nellie of her room at home, where she had a view of Lambert’s Cove. Nellie chose the boating rec for her “Work Hard,” the only activity that wouldn’t make her sweat—no running, no lifting weights, and certainly no hand-eye coordination required.
“I think Jimmy has a crush on you,” Stacy told Nellie, as Jimmy waved at their canoe from the shore. Stacy and Nellie were about 150 meters out now, just past the far raft that Louise told them to stay away from. Generations of Cadenza campers had deemed the raft haunted. It certainly looked it. Stacy and Nellie paddled close to the raft and saw that the ladder was covered in spider webs. Stacy swatted at a web with her paddle, causing a spider the size of her fist to crawl out from the back of the ladder. It looked like it was challenging the girls to bother it again. Nellie didn’t take that challenge, and used her paddle to thrust the canoe backwards.
Jimmy was the cellist in Nellie’s quartet, and he somehow managed to find her at her favorite practice cabin, the game room, and the camp fire the day before. Whenever she saw Jimmy, she instinctually touched her hair, and her voice went up half an octave. Jimmy always used Nellie’s name when he spoke to her, which she had read was a sign a boy liked you in Seventeen Magazine a few months ago. His mother was a self-proclaimed psychic, which made Nellie more intrigued than annoyed, although she had never been one to believe in the supernatural. He told her about some of his mother’s theories after quartet one day. His mother believed in the spirituality of the moon, he told her. The moon had natural rhythms and symbolic cues that people could either sync up with or fight.
Everything about Jimmy was red, from his ginger hair to his constantly blushed cheeks and big puffy lips. He wore green cargo shorts, which Nellie thought were suitable. They complemented his color scheme beautifully. His mother must’ve picked them out for him; Nellie thought Jimmy seemed like the type of guy that would show up to school in two different flannel patterns if he had the chance. Jimmy claimed he liked the Yankees, but he told Nellie that he really just followed them so he would have something to talk about with his father.
“Really? I thought so too!” Nellie whipped around to look at Stacy, then realized she had been a little overenthusiastic. “That’s cool, I guess,” Nellie continued, dropping her voice back down to normal and shrugging to appear nonchalant. Jimmy waved again, desperate for recognition.
“Nellie, you have to wave back at him.”
“Oh, right.” Nellie waved, and shouted, “Hi Jimmy!”
“What?” Jimmy answered, trying to launch his voice across Moosehead Lake.
Nellie grunted in her brain. “Hi Jimmy!” she shouted again, instinctually bringing both of her hands to her mouth. She realized her crucial error just after the paddle left her hand, and just before it hit the water. Nellie stretched out to try and catch her paddle, but her boat tipped with her shifting weight. As soon as they hit the water, Stacy started screeching and sinking, as if the makeup dripping down her face were pulling her under. Actually, it was just that she was focusing more on wiping the shadow of mascara under her eyes than treading water. Nellie looked to the shore, hoping that Jimmy walked away just before the tip. Instead, she squinted to see three laughing boys pointing her out to Jimmy.
Nellie and Stacy swam the canoe back to shore, the long swim made longer by the pressure of campers and counselors laughing at them. Once they made it, arms and legs, and faces burning from lactic acid build-up and embarrassment, respectively, Nellie started walking back to Cabin Crescendo. Her white shirt stuck to her chest, revealing her green polka dot bra and the curves of her stomach.
Nellie’s legs locked in place at the sound of Louise’s voice.
“Where do you think you’re going? We still have another forty-five minutes of rec time,” Louise ordered, pointing at her watch to appear more authoritative than she actually was.
“I don’t know what you think recreation means, but I’m pretty sure it involves fun,” Nellie told Louise, trying to hold in her impending breakdown. “This was not fun,” she said, storming away.
When Nellie returned to her cabin, there was a postcard from her parents lying on top of her pillow. After opening the letter, she saw the entire note was in her mother’s handwriting. Nellie knew her mother wrote the entire letter and simply signed her father’s name. After they announced the divorce to Nellie, her parents stopped communicating with each other. Nellie’s mother would buy Chinese food for dinner when her father had already gotten pizza. Her mother would make her lunch to bring to school, and her father would give her money. One time, they both decided to go out for the night, and they both hired a sitter. Nellie told both the sitters that she was tired, and the sitters stayed up laughing, eating popcorn, and watching “The Bachelor.” Nellie had gotten used to inconsistency, and was tired of her parents’ constantly covering up the rift that divided her family in two, like the hyphen in her last name.
“Dear Nellie,” the postcard read. “Your dad and I miss you SO much! The house is very quiet without you. Your friend Sarah stopped by and asked for your address, so expect a letter from her soon. We don’t have much to report here. I hope you’re enjoying Camp Cadenza! Looking forward to Parent’s Weekend! Love, Mom and Dad.”
Nellie wasn’t sure if her mother wrote “Parent’s” on purpose. Parent’s implied one, single parent: her mother. Nellie was looking forward to being with her mother and father in a public place where they couldn’t get into a fight. She also wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle a whole weekend with just her mother. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d been alone together without getting into an argument. It must’ve been an accident, Nellie thought, and brushed it off.
Even though she knew it was far-fetched, Nellie imagined that her parents had written the letter together. Her mother would have the idea to write, and she would sit her father down with her at the kitchen table. They would brainstorm together and finish each other’s sentences, her mom would put the stamp on the corner of the postcard and put it in the mailbox and her father would put the red flag up. There was whistling and guitar music in the background of her day dream, with the whole image under the Valencia filter Nellie used on all of her Instagram posts.
Nellie had started to notice that her happiness usually correlated directly with her parents’—when there was an argument, her face drooped, and her forehead mirrored her mother’s before her dermatologist took all of her frown lines away. Nellie’s mother liked to take out her issues with her father on Nellie, meaning her life at home less than relaxing. Her parents were really only happy in her imagination. Nellie realized that Jimmy was the only one who had put a real smile on her face in a long time, and she knew that was worth pursuit.
Every morning, Louise woke the campers up with The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” Nellie was amazed at how quickly a song she loved could turn into one she hated. “Here Comes the Sun” meant Louise’s voice screaming “Chore time! Wake up! Chore time!” “Here Comes the Sun” meant using the Cabin Crescendo bathroom. Nellie felt she was at the worst stage of puberty. She wasn’t yet old enough for periods not to be a big deal, but she and some other girls in the cabin were having them. The constant complaining about cramps and needing Advil made Nellie guess that she wasn’t alone. The foul fish smell that pervaded the bathroom was the real tip off. Unlike the girls in the dormitory style cabin for the 13+ers, who had access to showers all day and trash cans that got emptied regularly, the girls in Cabin Crescendo were developing without the amenities to develop. “Here Comes the Sun” meant another day to navigate lessons, rec time, and Jimmy.
Camp Cadenza stressed relationships a little more than Nellie thought a camp should. The first week of camp was dedicated to making sure the members of boys and girls cabins for each age group knew each other really well. First there was speed dating, where the girls would stand in a circle facing outwards and the boys would stand around them facing inwards. They had a minute to get to know each other before Louise would ring a bell, causing the boys to shift over to the next girl. Nellie dreaded the inevitable match up with Jimmy, who was behind her in the circle, wishing they could get to know each other on her own terms. She counted ahead to see just how many minutes she would have until she’d have to fake needing a bathroom break. Next was the Camp Cadenza Camper Code, the handbook that campers received on the first day. In the relationship section, it read, “Camp Cadenza is known to form lifelong relationships—friendly or romantic. We hope you embrace each social opportunity provided to enrich your camp experience.” It seemed weird to Nellie that Camp Cadenza was so strict about their one camper per practice cabin policy, given that they were basically throwing campers onto each other. Then there was “Y time,” the strangest part of camp to Nellie. Every night, after the evening concert, the campers had ten minutes to get from the concert to their respective cabins. The road running through Camp Cadenza split like a Y, with the boys’ cabins on the right and the girls’ on the left. Counselors would avert their eyes for these ten minutes, and the boys and girls would “say goodnight” to each other. Nellie learned about Y time first hand, navigating her way through couple after couple as if she were an Olympic skier steering through obstacles.
Nellie wondered how her mother had felt about “Y time” when she was a Camp Cadenza camper. Obviously, she would have had to have known that it existed. Every aspect of the camp was a tradition: every morning, the campers would wake up and attend the flagpole ceremony; every meal they would sing a prayer before eating—she wasn’t sure why, as it was a secular camp; every year they’d have the same activities: a beach day, a carnival, a recital, a banquet; and every night they’d have “Y time.” It was hard for her to picture her mother— who had won the Honors Musician award and the Honors Camper award two years in a row when she was a camper—kissing her banquet date goodnight at the Y every night. She realized that she would probably have to get used to the sight of her mother kissing other men. Her classmates were always teasing her about how beautiful her mother was, and she and her father were in the process of finalizing their divorce papers. In general, Nellie thought the idea of people over the age of thirty kissing disgusting. Her mother was not an exception, but rather a cruel addition to the clause. Nellie concluded that it was okay when her mother kissed her father. That was what was supposed to happen. But she knew that people weren’t supposed to get divorced, nor were they supposed to have an aggressive family dinner with their child every night.
Nellie came to hate the way her parents argued about money. She knew it drove her father crazy that her mother made more money than he did. While her mother moved from company to company directing their engineering departments, Nellie’s father stayed at home each day to raise her. After she turned twelve, Nellie’s father took up a part time job managing an art gallery, which her mother claimed was not a job, but a hobby. Her mother’s job allowed her to bring home Nellie’s Parkside Prep tuition, while her father’s got him out of the house while Nellie’s mom took her shopping. Nellie was starting to see where her father was coming from when he asked her mother for a divorce—between Nellie’s mother’s being the main earner, her having four inches on Nellie’s father, and her refusal to change her last name, masculinity was a sore subject in the Johnson-Brown household. Nellie predicted that her mother would get right back at the dating game, while her father would regain the weight he had before her mother made him start playing tennis at their country club. Her father had always resented their membership; Nellie couldn’t remember the reason exactly, but recalled that it either had something to do with white supremacy or income inequality.
One night, during the faculty concert, Stacy and a friend of Jimmy’s thought it would be funny to squish Nellie and Jimmy together at the evening concert. Nellie glared at Stacy as a different cabin mate, one by one, asked Nellie and Stacy to move over until Nellie was forced next to Jimmy. While her Orchestra teacher was deep into Fauré's Élégie, Nellie leaned over to whisper in Stacy’s ear.
“I think we would’ve gotten the death part without him naming it ‘Elegy,’” she joked. Her teacher was scowling. It looked like pushing the notes out of his cello was physically draining. Nellie coined a term in her head: musical constipation. Jimmy used her leaning over as a chance to scoot closer to her. Then he placed his hand, palm up, on her leg, expecting.
“Nellie, don’t leave him hanging,” Stacy pressed, jolting the doubts out of her mind. Then she bumped Nellie’s arm so hard that her hand practically fell into Jimmy’s. She pretended to be reluctant. Stacy had told her the night before that in every relationship, there’s a reacher, and a settler. All the Cabin Crescendo girls agreed that Jimmy was the reacher, claiming that Nellie was at least an eight while Jimmy was no more than a six. Although Nellie could care less about what Jimmy looked like—she even sort of liked his red hair—it was obvious to her that she would have to pretend to be settling.
By the climax of the song, Nellie noticed that a few of the other campers were staring and giggling at her. She even saw Louise get a chuckle out of her PDA from across the room. When she heard her teacher approaching the end of Élégie, Nellie knew what she had to do. After his last note, she plucked her hand from Jimmy’s and rose to give her teacher a standing ovation. When she sat back down, she made sure to scrunch up towards Stacy’s side of the chair, and to place the concert program in her left hand. “That was gross. His hand was a sweat lodge,” Nellie whispered to a giggling Stacy.
When the next faculty member, a balding man with a cross hanging from his neck who seemed to think blowing into his saxophone was his divine calling from God, began his concerto, Nellie began to zone out. She wondered how her mother had felt when her father initiated their relationship. They were both working as cashiers, Nellie remembered, at their local grocery store. She thought it was strange how the same college could produce two people of such vastly different levels of success, but notioned that the lectures her mother gave her about working hard for success were probably more valid than her father’s talks about following a passion. Her father had told her that back then, he used to save every penny he made at the market for his college fund. Nellie thought her mother couldn’t be more different than her father. Born wealthy, her summers as a cashier were a punishment by her parents for the time she drank a little too much at a family reunion and bumped into her grandmother, causing her to fall and break a hip. Nellie wasn’t exactly sure why her mother was attracted to her father in the first place. The only reason she could think of was that maybe he displayed alpha male tendencies as he bagged women’s rotisserie chickens. Nellie chuckled a little at the thought, and made a note to ask her mother why she fell in love with him when she came on Parents’ Weekend. The sound of squeaking chairs jolted Nellie back to present, as she realized that everyone around her was starting to stand for the camp song that ended every night.
It was halfway through camp, and Nellie thought Jimmy was going to try to kiss her soon. She supposed she was okay with it; Jimmy was sweet, and she’d rather get her first kiss over with on someone she’d never see again. If she forgot to close her eyes, it wasn’t as if the entire world would be talking about it the next day, just a few campers who would be out of her life after a week and a half. No matter how much Nellie liked the way Jimmy said her name, she would never put up with her mother’s coercion to return to the camp again. Nellie was going to get kissed. The only thing that stood in her way was not knowing how to kiss.
Nellie had a predicament. On one hand, this was her first kiss. Expectations weren’t high, so it didn’t really matter if she didn’t know what she was doing. On the other hand, this was her first kiss. Nellie wanted it to be memorable—not the “oh my God my lip is caught on your braces” kind of memorable, but the “who knew two people’s mouths could fit together so perfectly,” kind of memorable.
Lying in bed one night, she made a list of all the resources she had. There was Louise, who, no doubt, had kissed a lot of boys before. Nellie assumed Stacy probably had too; Nellie noticed Stacy always carried a pack of breath mints with her to the concert before Y time. Nellie could never ask either of them for help, though. After ridiculing Nellie, Louise would probably teach her that the first step to kissing a boy is wearing two bras. Nellie once asked Louise why she always did that. “One’s a push up, the other’s a sports bra. It really perks the girls up.” Nellie wasn’t sure if Louise’s referring to her breasts as “THE girls,” or Louise’s subsequent squishing of them made her more uncomfortable. Nellie could ask Stacy, but she would probably want to orchestrate the whole kiss, and Nellie couldn’t handle that. Then, Nellie remembered Anna.
Anna was the cool girl in Cabin Crescendo. She had black hair with dip-dyed red highlights; Anna offered to dye Nellie’s hair too if she could find a packet of Cherry Kool-Aid. Nellie’s mother had always told her to beware of girls that dye their hair.
By the fourth day of camp, Anna had already given herself a tattoo on her big toe with ink from a pen and a needle, and a second ear piercing with a thumb tack. Anna had already lost her virginity, or at least she claimed she had. Nellie wasn’t sure if she believed it because her story didn’t exactly line up. One day she said it was with a sixteen-year-old boy, and a few days later she said it was with an eighteen-year-old. Either way, it freaked Nellie out. Any time she pictured some tall, stubbly guy crawling all over Anna, a wave of ick spread throughout her body.
From across the room, Nellie could see a familiar glow coming from Anna’s bed. Anna didn’t strike Nellie as a midnight letter writer, so she figured Anna had somehow snuck her cellphone past Louise on the first day of camp. Nellie needed it desperately. If she could just get access to Anna’s phone, Nellie could spend the night researching to prepare her kiss with Jimmy. She wasn’t sure what to do with her hands or her tongue, and couldn’t figure out if she was supposed to wear chapstick or not. Nellie knew she could settle it in about three Google searches.
The cabin was quiet except for the sound of a girl’s snoring two bunks over. Nellie leaned forward to peek into Louise’s room. The counselors’ rooms in each Camp Cadenza cabin were strategically placed right next to the entrance to prevent kids from sneaking out at night. Louise was lying in her bed, fast asleep, with an issue of Cosmopolitan on her chest and a bulk box of Twizzlers by her side. Nellie crept out of her bed and sought out Anna’s bunk, cursing the creaking in both the floor and her knees.
Anna had her zebra print covers tucked over her head, so Nellie wasn’t quite sure how to approach her. “Anna,” Nellie whispered, knowing the obnoxious snoring would cover her voice. Anna didn’t respond, so Nellie whispered to her again. Frustrated at the lack of acknowledgment, Nellie put her arms on Anna and shook her, causing her to jump and scream.
“Jesus, Nellie! I thought you were a rapist!” Before Nellie could even bring her first finger to her mouth to shush her, the lights snapped on, and Louise pounced.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I just wanted to use Anna’s cell phone for—”
“Nellie!” Anna screamed. Nellie cursed herself in her head. She had always been too honest. Louise ran to Anna’s bed, threw her covers up, and snatched her phone away.
“We’ll talk about this in the morning, ladies. Now apologize to the other campers for waking them up.” Anna muttered under her breath that it was Louise’s turning the lights on that woke everyone up, and Louise emitted a glare that made Nellie feel sorry for all of Louise’s past boyfriends.
“Sorry,” Nellie said, directed at Anna rather than the other campers. Anna gave her the Louise glare.
“Nellie, are these your parents?” Anna asked, walking through the Cabin Crescendo screen door with an artificial smile. Nellie hadn’t seen a real smile from Anna since before the cellphone incident a few nights earlier. There her parents were, faces plastered with the same artificial smiles. Looking around the cabin, Nellie thought her parents looked utterly out of place. Nellie’s mother was wearing a new dress, which she found odd considering Parents’ Weekend was filled with outdoor activities to give them the rustic Camp Cadenza camper experience. Her father was wearing a pair of khakis that she knew her mother had forced on him. Nellie was certain that, if her father could, he would wear pajamas for his whole life.
“Yeah,” Nellie told Anna with a sigh.
“Rhetorical question! I could tell from the bickering about finding the cabin,” Anna dug, and Nellie felt the words hit her. “I was just telling them all about you and Jimmy!”
It amazed Nellie how easily Anna could break her. Her stomach immediately felt queasy: a mix of guilt, resentment, and the weird Cadenza breakfast that her parents would never experience because all the Parents’ Weekend meals were catered.
“Nellie, that’s so sweet that you’ve found a little friend,” her mother told her, touching her arm. She guessed the opportunity to finally hug her parents had washed away due to Anna’s interference. Nellie wasn’t sure if she should tell her mother that Jimmy was more than a little friend, or less. Truthfully, Nellie thought she might be in love with Jimmy. She had only the Seventeen Magazine “Is he the one?” quiz she had seen a few months ago in the back of her mind as a reference point, but was pretty sure the changes she saw in herself when Jimmy was around signified love. Regardless, Nellie assumed her first love interest wasn’t what her parents would want to hear after they’d trusted her to be on her own at sleepaway camp for three weeks, and shrugged her mother’s comment off. Her mother started badgering her with questions, which seemed odd to Nellie, given that her mother had the chance to ask these questions in any of the letters she sent. Eventually, her father chimed in, asking how the music was going.
“That is the reason why we sent you here,” he snickered, but she could tell he wasn’t really joking. Nellie assured him that it was going well, which it was. She was proud of herself for earning a coveted spot for the Parents’ Weekend Honors Recital, and hadn’t even lost focus on her music the past few days despite all of the drama with Anna and Jimmy. When she told her parents, their eyes lit up simultaneously.
“That’s amazing, sweetheart!” her mother assured her, and told her an unrequested story about the time she won the concerto competition and performed with the entire faculty orchestra. Her father rolled her eyes. Sometimes, Nellie thought her father was lucky. Since they were divorcing, he could get away with anything.
Since Louise’s period was long gone, Nellie figured her sneaking out wouldn’t be a problem. With only one day left of camp, she knew the consequences wouldn’t be dire even if she got caught. She and Jimmy had already attended the banquet together, the pinnacle of the Camp Cadenza experience, so it wasn’t as if Louise had any events to suspend Nellie from. She doubted Louise would call her parents and make them pick her up from camp a day early, and, even if she did, they would both be too busy packing to pick her up. Nellie’s mother sent her a postcard a few days after Parents’ Weekend explaining that, with the divorce papers through, her father would be moving out shortly. The first few months would be chaotic, Nellie thought, but after a divided life became normal, she’d be stuck spending more time with her mother than she ever thought she’d have to. It was Stacy’s idea that Nellie and Jimmy should sneak out together—she thought Stacy might be more frustrated that they hadn’t kissed yet than she was—and a few hours with Jimmy, alone together, sounded perfect to her. After waiting a few hours past lights out, Nellie slid out of her bed.
“Here,” Stacy whispered as her arm hung down from her bunk. In her hand, she had a roll of Life Savers breath mints.
“Thanks,” Nellie replied as she secured the mints in her pocket. “Wish me luck.”
Her previous evening excursion had taught her which floorboards to avoid as she snuck into the bathroom. Both Nellie and Jimmy were now in phase two of the plan, dependent on their confidants to initiate a distraction. Nellie’s heart raced as she waited for Stacy’s cry for help. As soon as Nellie heard her scream, Nellie ran out the other exit of the bathroom which deposited her in the other half of the cabin.
“What’s wrong Stacy,” Louise moaned, as if she already knew Stacy’s cry wasn’t a real emergency. As Stacy told Louise about the made up nightmare they had crafted earlier as they schemed, Nellie snuck through Louise’s lair, and out the screen door of Cabin Crescendo.
They had decided to meet near the Hill House, a secret cabin at the top of a path through the woods that most campers didn’t know existed. Nellie had overhead Anna talking about it with one of the boys she liked to lead on, and made a mental note of it as things heated up between her and Jimmy. As she crept her way through the quiet campground, Nellie noticed how oddly comforting the empty air was. During the day, silence was rare. At the bottom of the path waited a smiling Jimmy with a handful of dandelions he must’ve picked on his way. Now that’s a real smile, Nellie thought, as she took his hand and walked up the path. As they made their way to a bench along the path, they sat. From their seats they looked out onto a glassy lake bordered by trees, lit up by the moon.
“That’s called a waning gibbous,” Jimmy told Nellie. “It’s an intermediate phase that’s less than a full moon but more than a half,” he added, and Nellie decided that that was what she liked about Jimmy. He was romantic, but had personality quirks just like she did. Nellie melted into the nook of Jimmy’s neck, and they sat in silence as they gazed at the view, except for the occasional theory about the universe Jimmy spouted out. She noticed he was beginning to shake slightly, both legs vibrating like the prongs on Nellie’s tuning fork.
“Is everything okay?” Nellie finally asked him after she noticed his wiping his clammy hands against his legs—she recognized the behavior because she tended to do the same before a performance.
“Yeah, it’s just…the moon,” he pointed. “My mom says the waning gibbous reminds her of life’s impermanence,” he told her. “It gives us a sense of urgency, you know?” As Jimmy closed his eyes and leaned closer to Nellie, he told her that he’d be really disappointed if he didn’t kiss her tonight. Nellie closed her eyes, too, and wrapped her mouth around the ridge of Jimmy’s bottom lip.
Kissing came more naturally to Nellie than she thought it would. She instantly regretted the practice she’d been doing on her hand for the past few nights as she and Jimmy’s kiss progressed into a make-out. When she felt him inch his tongue into her mouth she decided that would be a good time to stop the kissing and talk, so she pulled away. But now, they didn’t talk. They sat quietly, together, enjoying the silence.
“Look at the two cool kids, sneaking out after dark,” Nellie heard and her eyes flashed open. She had fallen asleep as Jimmy stroked her hand, making a pillow out of his shoulder. A man was shining a flashlight into her eyes from the bottom of the path, Nellie figured it had to be a male counselor or music teacher. “You guys are in so much trouble,” he warned, as Nellie and Jimmy bolted up the path. She calculated in her head that they had about two minutes of leeway before the man made it up the path to catch them, and decided that the consequences of getting caught were more frightening than she had anticipated now that they were real. As she ran, Nellie pictured her entire cabin teasing her about her night out. She wanted Stacy and Jimmy’s friend to be the only other campers who knew about her night out, and hated the thought of so many of her peers knowing about her exploits. They’d assume she went further with Jimmy than she actually did, and Jimmy’s cabin mates would surely exaggerate whatever Jimmy told them the next morning. Nellie knew that finding a hiding spot was her only option, and after arriving at the Hill House, she knew this option wasn’t realistic.
After peeking inside, Nellie knew she couldn’t hide in the hill house; that was the first place the flashlight man would check, and the bed didn’t look high enough off the ground to squeeze under. There weren’t any big storage cabinets behind the screen door, just a rocking chair, a bed, and a book case. Outside of the cabin, Jimmy reported, all of the trees were too skinny to hide behind.
“We’re going to have to hide under the cabin,” Jimmy told Nellie, motioning towards the grimy area underneath the raised cabin.
“Where?” Nellie asked, shocked at the idea of having to crawl underneath the s***-hole at the top of the hill. The dim moon lighting was enough to illuminate the plentiful spider webs, whose makers Nellie assumed were on the ground Jimmy suggested she sit on.
“Under the cabin,” Jimmy insisted, and dove beneath the building.
It was worse than Nellie thought it would be. Besides the beer cans and what Nellie really hoped wasn’t a joint, the cabin was only raised a few feet so she and Jimmy both had to put their heads down in the dirt and let the spiders crawl through their hair. She pictured what her mother would do if she were in this position, and decided that her mother would take a little slut-shaming over getting bugs in her hair any day. As they were getting settled, she heard the footsteps of flashlight man arrive at the top of the hill. Nellie’s legs began to shake like Jimmy’s as they held hands and hoped not to sneeze. The man’s steps creaked on the floor above her as he investigated the Hill House, and she heard him let out a grunt after he found the place to be empty. While they stayed still, Nellie tried to avoid looking into Jimmy’s eyes, as every time she did she almost let out a giggle. Instead, she thought about her parents, knowing that would be the best way to keep herself from giggling.
Nellie’s life was moving from full to empty like the moon above her. She thought about Jimmy’s words carefully; he told her that this was the phase to break bad habits or bad addictions, to end bad relationships. This was the phase to review endeavors and correct mistakes, to settle disputes and to make amends. She couldn’t help thinking about what her life at home would be like as her camp days came to a close. Her house would be divided, her parents would negotiate which furniture stayed at her mother’s place and which would go to her father’s. She’d have to spend most of her time with her mother, trapped into the country club culture she didn’t want anything to do with. She knew if her mother heard her thoughts right now, she would tell Nellie to stop feeling sorry for herself. She tried making a list of everything great in her life, but, as Jimmy drew figure eights with his fingers on her arms, all she could think of was him.
Lying underneath the cabin with Jimmy, Nellie felt like the world was giving her a hug. Her body filled with a tingling sensation every time Jimmy’s hands moved along her body, making her feel so safe in his arms. Maybe, she thought, her life was actually waxing from empty to full. She had never experienced the warmth of another body, or felt the flood of that love hormone her mother told her two people get when they love each other. She imagined most girls felt it when their mothers brushed their hair, and wished her mother did the same. Camp Cadenza was the first time Nellie had truly been independent, though she’d been on her own emotionally since her father started working at the gallery. It was the first time she’d been surrounded by a body of people who cared about her, who worried when she came back from lessons late and asked her about the highlights and lowlights of her day, every single day.
Above her, Nellie heard the man give up the stakeout after a grunt. Jimmy and Nellie crawled out from underneath the cabin, and laughed as they brushed the dirt off of each other. They walked back to the bench they started their night on and sat together once again. As Nellie looked up at the moon one last time before returning to her cabin, she thought it looked fuller. She realized that she couldn’t actually tell whether it was waxing or waning herself, because she hadn’t been paying close enough attention to it. Even though she felt like things were looking up, she made a few resolutions in the spirit of the cycle of the moon to take with her back home. “I’ll be less argumentative,” Nellie thought. “I’ll spend more time with my family.” Jimmy picked pine needles out of Nellie’s hair, and Nellie wished that her mother was looking at the moon the way she was. They walked back to the cabins together, holding hands before separating at the Y in the road for the last time. Nellie wondered if love was temporary, an emotion influenced by time and place. Somewhere inside of her, she wanted to believe that it was permanent, just cyclical like the moon.