Aaron is always ready to fight.
Perhaps a summer spent in a less stressful atmosphere will allow him to relax.
The three boys walked back to camp together, all feeling pretty proud of themselves. Aaron asked the others, “You guys been here long?”
“Yeah, this is our second week,” Dewey said.
“You’ve done a lot then.”
“Not everything. Neither of us likes sports. You know, like the running-around-with-a-ball and bumping-into-everyone kind of sports. But we’ve swum and been on horses and out on the lake in boats. That’s what I like best.”
“Me too,” said Frank. He was large for his age, but his voice was as soft as his demeanor. Aaron found that surprising. He was used to bigger kids throwing their weight around. He’d also noticed Frank seemed to let Dewey do almost all the talking. He asked them, “Did you guys know each other before camp or just meet here?”
“Here,” Dewey answered. “But we’ve become good friends. I’m going to be sorry to go home. I don’t have any friends there as good as Frank.”
“Me too,” said Frank.
“What are you going to do the rest of the day,” Aaron asked, surprising himself. He realized he was enjoying being with these two and hoped maybe he could spend more time with them.
“We’re going out on the lake again. In kayaks this time. They’re really fun after you learn how to paddle them. Before that, you’re rocking all over the place and it’s funny, but then you get the hang of it. You want to come?” Dewey asked.
“I’d love to.”
“Great! You have to get okayed by Richie first. Johnny won’t let anyone out in a boat who can’t swim. Have you been checked out and approved yet?”
“No, but I can swim fine.”
“Okay. Lunch will be on soon. We can head that way when we get back to camp. Then, after lunch, why don’t we all go swimming, you can get Richie to okay you for the boats, and then we can all take one out together. You’ll like it. We’ll have a blast.”
“Good plan,” Aaron said, and grinned.
Lunch was a buffet like the other meals. Sloppy Joes seemed to get the biggest play, and new trays of them had to be brought out several times. Aaron saw that for this meal the dessert table was covered with different kinds of fruit, just like it had been for breakfast. He guessed they only got sugary treats at night.
When they were done eating, Dewey let out a soft belch and said, “I need to go back to my cabin and lie down for a few minutes. I think that third Joe was a mistake.”
“Or maybe it was the three cans of pop you put away with them,” Frank kicked in, and all three laughed. “But resting is a prime-time idea.” He looked at his watch and said, “Why don’t we meet back here at 1:30 and go to the beach then?”
The others agreed, and each headed back to his own cabin. Aaron lay back on his bed after picking up a book. But he ended up not opening it. Instead, he just thought about what he was about to do.
This was going to be his first time swimming here. He’d meant to go before but had been put off by Dylan’s appearance. This time, he was going to make it into the water. He’d do what Dewey and Frank did. If they wore trunks, he would too. If they eschewed them, so would he. He’d be nervous about them seeing how he looked, but they both seemed like very nice kids, the three of them had assumed a kind of camaraderie, and he doubted they’d make any negative or teasing remarks. Anyway, he’d made up his mind. He was doing this.
Both boys were already down by the dining hall when he arrived, and they walked together to the beach. Both boys were wearing bathing suits and carrying towels, just as Aaron was. They got to the sandy beach without saying a word, probably because they’d been doing this for a week and a half now, Aaron thought, and apparently it was no longer a big deal for them as they wriggled out of their suits and dropped them on their towels. Without pausing to think, Aaron did the same.
“I’ll get Richie,” said Dewey and left, never having given Aaron a glance. Frank, however, was looking at Aaron, and blushing. Aaron asked him, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just me. And all this nudity. I’m not used to it. Even after a week, it still makes me feel funny. I’d probably still be wearing a suit except for Dewey. He kept after me till I took it off. I’ll admit, it feels soooo good not wearing one in the water. But out here on the beach, I feel all exposed and embarrassed. Like I’m being naughty.”
Aaron lowered his eyes, running them over Frank’s body, then raised them again. “Why in the world would you be embarrassed?” he asked. “You look fine. Just like everyone else. I’m the one who should be embarrassed. I haven’t started to develop yet.”
“It’s not about how I look,” Frank said, still blushing. “I’m just not very confident about much of anything, and being naked is something I’d never done before. I wish I was like you. You can just strip off and not give it a second thought. That’s what most boys do. Most guys aren’t concerned about how they look, I guess. I’m just too self-conscious.”
Wow, thought Aaron. That he was a late developer really didn’t make any difference at all to Frank, which meant probably not to a lot of or even most of the boys. And the thought that hit him suddenly was that perhaps most boys were much more concerned with their own appearance than that of others. Frank obviously didn’t care at all about what Aaron looked like. What a remarkable insight that was after all the worries Aaron had had about being naked.
Dewey was on his way back, accompanied by Richie, but still down the beach a ways. Aaron was surprised to see Dewey was just as undeveloped as he was. And according to Frank, he was the one who’d wanted them to go bare. This was turning out to be a day of great discoveries for Aaron.
Aaron smiled and told Frank, “Yeah, I’m too self-conscious as well. At least you’ve been doing this for a week now, and this is the first time for me. I never saw other kids naked back home. Not even in the showers at school. Everyone wore their underwear or didn’t bother to shower.”
While talking, he was covertly checking Frank out. He was large for a 13-year-old, and Aaron saw he was big all over, with a well-established bush as well. He was much larger than Aaron in that area. Aaron decided he wasn’t going to let it bother him. Seeing the kids when he’d showered the other day and the fact they hadn’t said anything about him had helped him feel less self-conscious. And now here was Dewey, and he was as undeveloped as Aaron was. Yet he thought nothing of it.
Dewey arrived with Richie, and Richie told Aaron he needed to watch him swim. They all went down to the water, and Richie asked Aaron to swim to the raft and back without stopping. That was easy for Aaron, and he got Richie’s stamp of approval, which turned out to be a colored poker chip. He told Aaron to keep it in his bathing suit, which was the normal attire for boaters. He also told him not to lend it to anyone; that would be a serious breach of safety rules, a violation that would get both the lender and the borrower banned from the lake for the rest of their time at camp.
When Richie had left, the three boys spent some time swimming together before deciding it was time to get a boat. By the time they got out of the water for good, Aaron had become so comfortable and happy he’d forgotten he was nude.
» » » »
Johnny Gross, the boat instructor/counselor, he of the white-hair and easy-going personality, checked each of the boys’ chips. Dewey said, “Hey, Johnny, you know us. Why do we have to show you these every time?”
“Because if you have them to show me, it means someone else doesn’t have yours. And because I love this job. I’d get fired if I didn’t ask.” Then he grinned and rubbed Dewey’s head. It would have been to ruffle his hair, but Dewey’s buzz cut made that impossible; his hair was unrufflable. The rub did earn Johnny a grin, though.
They got a rowboat first. Aaron had never been in any sort of a boat before, and when he took his turn rowing, he got the others laughing so hard Frank almost fell in the lake. Then he told Aaron to slide over on the seat and he moved up and sat next to him so they each had an oar. Then, with just a couple of pointers and catching only a few crabs and managing not too many splashes, the two began working well as partners and were able to move the boat easily through the water. Dewey sat in the prow, yelling out steering directions and thoroughly enjoying the breeze blowing into his face.
Soon, the three went back in and switched to kayaks. That was more of a challenge to Aaron. It took a certain coordination between arms and body and a good grip on the paddle; Aaron wasn’t all that coordinated or strong. But he learned from his mistakes, finally got the hang of how to bring the paddle blade into the water at the right angle on each side, and he ended up having what Dewey had predicted: a blast.
“How’d you like it?” Johnny asked Aaron when they’d brought the kayaks back.
“It was great. I’ve never done anything like this before. I loved it. But, you know, what I’d really like to do is learn to sail.”
Johnny nodded. “Wish I could take you out, but I have to stay here and man my post. You know who you could ask, though? Dylan. He’s not only a good sailor, he’s a great teacher. You should ask him.”
Aaron scowled, not the reaction Johnny expected. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“We don’t like each other,” Aaron said, then turned and walked off before Johnny could answer. Dewey and Frank had to hustle to catch up with him.
» » » »
At the bonfire that night, Aaron sat with Dewey and Frank. Shaun had told him he was going to sit with some of the guys he’d met and played games with that day and invited Aaron to join them, but Aaron said he’d rather sit with the two friends he’d made, and that was how it ended up. There was singing, and Harry told a couple of funny stories. Then it was time for the younger kids to go back to their cabins. The 12- and 13-year-olds could stay up a while longer but not go into the woods. The beach, fire-pit area and open grounds around it were all okay, as was the dining hall where drinks and cookies were available.
Aaron and the other two remained sitting on their bales of hay, watching the fire burn down to embers. It was a soft, warm night, and just sitting quietly outside had a very comfortable and bonding feel to it. A few other small groups of friends did the same, but they were spread out around the pit so no one could overhear what was said by any group but his own.
“We’ve only got a couple more days here,” Dewey said, his voice expressing his sadness. “This is my best summer ever.”
“Me too,” said Frank, and Aaron chuckled.
“What?” Frank asked.
“You say that a lot, you realize that?” Aaron replied.
“No, I don’t,” Frank said, then grinned. “Well, if I do, it’s because Dewey says stuff all the time that I’d say myself if he hadn’t beat me to it. He seems to know how I feel.”
Dewey grinned. “Me too,” he said, and Aaron laughed again. He realized he’d miss these two when they were gone. Could he find another friend, or friends? He wasn’t sure. He’d sure lucked out with these two. It was a surprise, thinking about missing other boys, being lonely without them to hang with. He was never lonely at home, and he didn’t really have friends there. But being alone here, well, somehow he knew it would be different. He’d not be as happy as he was now with his friends. Why would here be so different? He wasn’t sure he could answer that. He did feel it, though.
» » » »
Aaron was disappointed the next day to find that Dewey and Frank were being shanghaied to go with their cabin mates to watch a softball game, maybe even be required to participate in it as their cabin had accepted a challenge from boys in the cabin next to theirs. This left Aaron alone after breakfast. There were activities he could join, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to do any of them. He’d expected to spend the day with the only two friends he’d made, and that wasn’t going to happen.
He sat down on the steps of the eating hall and considered his options. Swimming? Well, maybe later. It was still too early for that. Swimming was best when he was hot and sweaty. No, he needed to do something to get hot and sweaty first.
He remembered how he’d met Dewey and Frank: he’d been on an exploratory hike. Maybe that’s what he should be doing. No reason not to.
But now it seemed a bit, well, lonely. He remembered how he’d felt about that last night, projecting ahead to when Dewey and Frank would be gone, and started to feel a little down.
That was how he looked, slumped down on the steps when Harry walked by. He stopped, watched him for a moment, then walked over and sat down next to him. “Hey, Aaron, by yourself? Looking for some action? I have just the thing. Come along with me.”
As they were walking in a direction Aaron hadn’t yet explored, Harry asked, “You ever been on a horse?”
“Well, that’s about to change then.”
Aaron wasn’t sure that was something he wanted to do, but he was taking bigger steps than usual to keep up with Harry and wasn’t sure he could walk this fast and talk, too, without running out of breath. So, he just kept walking. Fast.
They eventually arrived at the stable, Harry having to slow down just a bit at the end. He’d learned something of Aaron and his makeup by now and knew if challenged too much, the boy would simply stop trying and go back to the camp, probably his cabin, and open a book. He’d been walking as he had in order to preclude any arguments. This was a delicate balance he had to play with a boy like Aaron, to keep him engaged while still not pushing him too hard.
He’d chosen the stables for a couple of reasons, but the most important at the moment had been that by going there, no one but the two of them would be around at this time of day. He’d known Aaron would balk at doing anything with the horses if he’d look silly or awkward to others when doing it. He knew Aaron hated being teased and so resisted doing things that might lead to that. But with only Harry to watch him as he got acquainted with the camp’s horses, no teasing would result no matter what occurred.
They came to the stables and stopped outside. “You want me to saddle one up for you?” Harry asked.
“No.” Aaron was still regaining his breath, and he resented what had caused it; he was using his sulky voice.
“Well, part of what we do here at camp is learn to ride, and everyone does it. When you go back to the city, that’s just another thing you’ll have done here, and it’s something you can be proud of. Just like swimming. You weren’t sure about that, either—at least not in the buff—but you enjoy it now.”
“How do you know that?”
Harry laughed. “I keep track of how kids are doing and what’s going on. You liked the water, you enjoyed the whole experience—if you know what I mean—didn’t you, once you got over yourself and just did it?”
Aaron didn’t reply. He knew he didn’t need to be defensive with Harry—knew it, yet being told about his failings always made him that way. Okay, truthfully, Harry hadn’t spoken about his reluctance to drop his bathing suit, but it was in Aaron’s nature to interpret what Harry had said, what anyone said that way, and really, that had been Harry’s point, hadn’t it? He was sure Harry was talking about how he’d been afraid to get naked. And that made his temper rise. He mentally skipped over the part about how he’d gotten over all that, how he’d done fine. Instead, he thought about the implied criticism, and he remained quiet.
Harry was watching him. He knew things were hard for Aaron; they were hard for any thin-skinned boy. But Aaron needed to be pushed, and Harry had a better chance for success doing that than anyone else. It was not his intention to allow the boy to spend the summer in his cabin reading. “Well, you and I, we’re going to go meet the horses today. You and me are gonna get up close and personal with them.”
He stopped and waited, then eventually laughed as Aaron’s silence continued. “Okay, another plus for you. You didn’t correct me! You’re learning a lot here, Aaron, and if you’re not proud of yourself, at least one of us is.”
What Aaron heard was more criticism. He began to fume, but still silently. If it hadn’t been Harry, he’d have stormed off. Somehow, he knew Harry was trying his best with him.
Harry could read Aaron’s posture and chose to ignore it. “Come on—oh, and grab some of those carrots in that bag there.”
They walked through the stable area. Many of the horses were outside in a fenced pasture, grazing, but there were some here, too, in their stalls. As the two humans came in, the horses moved to the front and stuck their heads out to see who it was, their interest spiked. Humans meant apples and sugar and carrots and were not to be ignored.
“Let me show you how this works, Aaron. You break the carrot up into two or three pieces.” He did that, then put one piece in his right hand. “Then you hold it like this and reach out to where the horse can sniff it and take it from you.” He demonstrated.
“See how that worked? Did the horse take half my hand along with the carrot? Huh? Huh? Do I still have ten fingers?”
Harry’s voice was jocular, and Aaron had to fight off the smile that threatened to cross his face. Harry’s enthusiasm made it hard to stay mopey. But Harry wouldn’t let the question go without an answer; he kept his quizzical gaze on Aaron’s face until the boy reluctantly said, “Yeah, I saw.”
“I’ll do it again, anyway, just to be sure you got it.” He fed another carrot to the animal, then said to Aaron, “Every boy I’ve ever had feed their first carrot to a horse, every single one of them, has jerked his hand away when he felt the horse’s lips on his skin. Not one boy, not one, has been brave enough to just hold his hand steady. Every carrot has fallen to the ground, the first time. With many boys, a second one has fallen, too. So I’m expecting you to show the same fear as everyone else, even though horses try hard not to bite. They like carrots. They don’t like hands. ‘Ugh! Meat!’ These horses have taken hundreds, maybe thousands of carrots out of boys’ hands. Not a single boy has ever been bitten. But the boys are still scared, at first, so I won’t tease you for being the same as everyone else. Okay, your turn.”
Aaron knew exactly what was happening: he was being played. Harry wasn’t exactly subtle. Still, Aaron’s competitive juices had been activated, and Aaron did see that Harry had held his hand steady and the horse had been careful to lip the carrot into its mouth; Aaron hadn’t even caught a glimpse of teeth through the entire operation.
Now the crunch of the carrot in those teeth, that was a bit unsettling. It very much sounded as Aaron assumed bones would sound when being crunched and masticated, but that noise did come after the horse’s head was up and away from Harry’s hand.
“He’s waiting,” Harry said, sounding impatient. A quick glance at him convinced Aaron it was more subterfuge. Harry’s voice might have been impatient, but his eyes were soft and encouraging.
Aaron broke one of his carrots in half, then took a tentative step forward. The horse looked enormous up close, its head feet above his own. A quick glance at Harry, and then Aaron held his hand out, carrot on his palm, fingers rigidly flat out, and raised his arm.
The horse’s head came down, and its lips touched Aaron’s hand. He almost, almost, flinched, but held still as the horse gently removed the carrot.
“Amazing!” Harry cried. “I don’t believe it! The first one. You’re the first boy ever who was brave enough not to jerk away! Incredible!”
Aaron smiled. He didn’t believe Harry for a minute, but he still smiled. Then he offered the other half of the carrot to the horse.
“That’s the horse you’re going to ride, Aaron, now that you’ve made friends with her.”
Aaron forgot about his sulk, even forgot to be defensive, suffused with more joy than seemed possible for what had just happened, at how the large animal was responding to him. He fed it another carrot, and then had the temerity to reach up and stroke its neck. The horse had moved closer to the barrier, obviously enjoying the contact.
“She’s awfully big,” Aaron said, sounding his age for once.
“She’s the gentlest horse we have, she likes you, and she does this amazing thing when you’re up on her. She adjusts to the rider. She’ll know you’re a little uncomfortable being up on her, she’ll sense how tense you are, and she’ll move as easily as she can, making sure you’re safe up there. Come into her stall with me and we’ll both take her outside.”
Harry opened her stall door and took a bridle with him when he walked in. Aaron followed, and while Harry was tacking her up, he patted her on the side, feeling her warmth and her smooth coat.
Out in the corral by themselves, Harry explained what he and Aaron would be doing, told Aaron to watch as he saddled the horse so he’d be able to do it himself sometime down the road, and then, with a minimum of fuss, with Aaron doing instead of overthinking, he boosted the boy into the saddle.
Aaron was surprised and a little rattled, seeing how high off the ground he was, but Harry kept up his encouraging chatter and Old Bess, the horse, was as helpful as Harry had said she would be. She’d shift her weight to keep Aaron balanced, so he never felt like he might fall off. They spent fifteen minutes walking around the corral, and Aaron became used to it all.
“Another accomplishment,” Harry beamed when they’d put Old Bess away after rinsing her off and brushing her out. “I’m so proud of you, Aaron, I could spit! You showed no fear! But mostly, you were open-minded about it all, and you tried. That’s a great step forward for you.” For once, Harry sounded sincere, and Aaron had no problem recognizing the difference.
“Okay, I admit I lied a little, not all boys are afraid of the horses when they first meet them, but most of them? You really, truly outshined most of them today; no bull. Soon, maybe even tomorrow, you’ll go on a trail ride. It’ll be with the younger kids because they just walk, and that’s your speed right now. You’ll be ready for more than that very soon, but for a first time, it’s best not to push it too fast. Do fine tomorrow, which I’m sure you will, and then we can start in learning how to ride different gaits.
“You know, Aaron, when I drove you to camp, I could see a boy with his defenses solidly in place, a boy quick to anger, a boy with a jaundiced view of the world. What I didn’t see was a relaxed, outgoing, much happier boy. Today, I’m seeing something that’s different. Okay, you were a little down this morning, but you snapped out of it. Instead of walking away from Old Bess, you gave riding her your full effort. You’d never have done that at first here. You were so set in your ways. You’re loosening up some. I can see it in the way you were with Dewey and Frank and what you did today.
“I just want you to know, that’s what this camp is for, and you’re beginning to feel that. I can see it in you. I really like what I’m seeing. You’re doing awfully well, Aaron.”
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