Camp Catoctin, Pennsylvania
Twenty Years Ago
I don’t want to do this,” Holly Kazanov said half to herself as she stood on the lakeside next to the rickety wooden rowboat that Counselor Brittany was holding for her.
“Just go,” Brittany snapped. She was the worst camp counselor ever. Even though she was supposedly seventeen, she acted like she was twelve.
The boat was made of splintering whitewashed wood and had the name Fat Oxen stenciled on it in chipped blue paint. There was an old house in town called Fat Oxen, too; someone had said it meant “wealthy” because to the Pennsylvania Dutch, having a fat ox meant you could feed it well.
To Holly, and to everyone around her at the moment, it just meant “fat.”
In fact, just today, Sylvia had referred to Holly’s hair and eyes as cow brown when they’d passed a cow pasture while they were out on a trail ride. Ironically, Holly had just been thinking how pretty a color the cows were, and what a cool picture it would be of them spotting the green hill like chocolate chips in a cookie.
She didn’t think so now.
Now she just thought she was far too cowlike.
I am too fat, she thought frantically as the water slapped the side of the boat. I have terrible balance. The boat will tip over and everyone will see! I’ll die in front of everyone and they’ll remember me forever as the Big Fat Idiot who drowned falling out of the Fat Oxen boat.
Out loud she asked, “Are you sure it’s safe?”
The best she could hope for was that Brittany would roll her bluelined eyes and impatiently tell her to forget it and go back to the cabin.
She wasn’t so lucky, though.
“Sure,” Brittany said, tossing a glance— at least her fiftieth in the past fifteen minutes— toward Danny Parish, a counselor who was a year older than she was, had brown curly hair and blue eyes, and looked like Kirk Cameron. He had no idea all the girl counselors were panting after him with flying hormones. “It’s fine. Just get in it already!”
But Holly could see the water seeping in through waterlogged wood. It smelled like metal and rotting fish. Should it really be wet inside the boat? They’d only just put it in the water! And the fact that Brittany didn’t even look at it made Holly even more nervous.
“I don’t want to!” Holly cried, drawing the attention of several campers nearby. “Can someone come with me?”
Obviously Brittany was more interested in Danny Parish than she was in anything Holly did, including, like, not drowning, so Holly was on her own with this. “These are for one person, stupid,” she said to Holly, anger animating her body language, hands on the edge of the boat, her knuckles white . . . and her eyes . . . well, her eyes were still darting toward Danny. “Just get in the fucking boat.” Holly hated that she said fucking when no one was around to hear her. “Everyone else is doing it. You don’t get to cop out just because you’re scared.”
“I’m not scared.” Holly put one foot into the boat. It rocked madly beneath her Dr. Scholl’s sandal, and she drew back, immediately hitting her ankle hard on the edge. “I’m right. It’s leaky.”
“It is not leaky.” Brittany averted her eyes, and again they landed on Danny Parish for a
“God, you are being such a crybaby.”
Brittany was lanky, with bad skin and the thinnest brown hair that Holly had ever seen. She looked more like a camper than like a counselor. She’d been chasing after Danny like a dog in heat ever since camp began, and he hadn’t noticed her for so much as a second.
Even in her vulnerable state, Holly knew not to worry too much over what Brittany said about her.
“Do they inspect these boats for safety?” Holly asked, sounding, to her own ears, just like her overcautious father.
“Oh. My. God.” Brittany sloshed through the shallow water and gave Holly a push on the back so she toppled into the boat. “Danny just had Lexi and Sylvia bring this out of the boat house, which is where they repair anything that even might be wrong with it. Get in it!” She gave the boat a surprisingly strong shove, sending it rapidly into the deeper water.
“But—” Holly stopped. Anything she might say about safety checks or repair tickets would only be answered by another snipe about it having come out of the repair area of the boathouse.
Holly had very little faith in that.
For one thing, rumor had it that the boathouse was where the counselors had sex after everyone was supposed to be asleep. It was easy to imagine the counselors forgetting something as trivial as boat safety in the throes of passion.
And for another thing, Mr. Frank, the camp director, seemed to put way too much faith in the teenage counselors. He trusted them more than Holly did— that was for sure.
“Just row out into the lake with everyone else before it’s time to come back already, would you?” Brittany didn’t wait for an answer.
With enough eye rolling to make a lesser person nauseated, she stomped off to the shed, where Holly had noticed Danny going just a second earlier.
“But I can’t swim!” Holly yelled after her, taking her one terrible secret—the thing she hadn’t wanted to admit in front of anyone— out of her pocket and throwing it into the atmosphere with the hopes that the counselor would stick around to make sure she was safe.
But Brittany pretended not to hear.
Holly knew Brittany was pretending because she saw the counselor’s shoulders flinch when she yelled.
So Holly looked at the lake, where everyone else was paddling around like ducks in a carnival game. It was probably another ten yards to them and, thanks to the current, maybe twelve yards back to shore.
But was there anyone out there in the lake who would help her if she needed help?
There were a few people Holly didn’t recognize, so maybe they would help, but the other five girls consisted of Lexi Henderson—Queen Bitch of the camp— and her posse of suck-ups, including Sylvia Farelle, Tami Ryland, and Kira Whatsername, who pretended she didn’t mind that her mom sent Figurines diet bars in care packages from home.
Holly wished Nicola were here. Nicola was her new friend, also in cabin 7, and was way nicer than Lexi and her stupid friends. But she had arts and crafts this morning, and Brittany hadn’t allowed Holly to go to the director and try to switch to that because she was already in two other art classes. She wanted to be an artist, not an athlete, so why did Brittany care how many art classes she had?
She didn’t. She was just mean.
Holly’s best hope was to row calmly back to shore and just wait there until this particular exercise was over. Why not? It wasn’t like the counselors were going to notice at this point. They were too busy flirting in the boathouse.
“Okay,” Holly said to herself. “You can do this. Just paddle back to shore, and stupid Brittany won’t even notice.”
“Look! It’s the Fat Ox!” Lexi Henderson was so mean. Leave it to her— in a boat called Billy Idol— to point out the embarrassing name on Holly’s boat.
“Shut up, Lexi!” Holly shouted, clutching her oars hard despite the sharp splinters of wood that pushed against her skin. A cloud of gnats hovered around her face, and she was afraid to take a breath to say more, in case one of them flew into her mouth.
“Or else what?” Sylvia taunted, her eyes lit with pure spite. “You’ll come get her? Trample her with your big fat ox hooves?”
It was a stupid joke, it made no sense, but still the brownnosers who surrounded Lexi giggled.
And still Holly felt her face grow hot.
“You know,” Sylvia continued, gliding effortlessly in circles on the lake while Holly scrambled to row toward shore, “this isn’t a fat camp. I mean, look at the rest of us. You’re in the wrong place.”
“Yeah,” Lexi agreed, and her agreement was all the more painful because of how pretty she was.
Holly had been waiting for someone to pull out that little gem of truth. It was camp, but it wasn’t fat camp, and someone who looked like her would fi t in only at a fat camp. Fat girls at skinny camp sank canoes and died humiliated.
“What’s the matter, fatso?” someone asked. There was no way to know for sure who it was because Holly was too busy trying, vainly, to make her oars work, but she just knew it was Lexi.
It was like one of those nightmares where you’re running but not moving. Holly paddled fiercely, but the boat barely moved. She tried to keep her expression calm so Lexi and her friends wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing how freaked out she was, but the more she rowed, the less she seemed to move.
Then she noticed the water bubbling up into the bottom, like blood oozing from a deep wound. She glanced toward the shore, but it seemed miles away and there were no counselors there. They were probably in the boathouse. How long did sex take? If her boat was going down, would they finish before she went under?
“Um,” she said, her voice thin, as if too much volume would make things worse. “My boat has a leak.” No one responded, so she cleared her throat and tried again. “My boat has a leak!”
Of course it was Lexi who heard and answered, “You better put on your life vest!”
Right, like Holly had one with her. She hadn’t wanted to go through the humiliation of trying— and failing— to find one that fit around her chest, so she’d skipped that part. She dropped her oars and cupped her hands to bail the water out of the boat, but the effort was too small and the leak too big. “Help!” she called toward shore. “Help!”
The water came in faster now, and the boat was being dragged down quickly. Panic hummed through her, but her movements felt useless. She was vaguely aware of voices calling out, though she couldn’t tell whose they were or if they were laughing at her or trying to help.
“Put on your life vest, stupid!” someone shouted.
“I don’t”—panic took over—“have one!”
It was impossible to say how long it took— a few minutes or maybe even just a few seconds— but the boat dragged downward and pulled away from her. For a moment, as she and the wood parted ways, she thought she might float, but almost immediately she went down, water bubbling up around her mouth and nose as she paddled crazily, her limbs moving every which way without propelling her anywhere but down. “Help!” she cried again, but that one staccato syllable was interrupted by water filling her mouth, thick and dirty, tasting like mud.
With a new burst of energy, her arms sprang up and pinwheeled while her legs ran on ground that wasn’t there.
She went under again.
And this time, despite her spastic efforts to save herself, she only went down faster. She opened her mouth to scream— an instinct she couldn’t help, and the lake rushed into her, pushing her farther down. Then she felt an arm hook under hers and lift her through the water at warp speed.
She was pulled up and she gasped at the air like an old woman grabbing her chips at a slot machine, taking it in and reaching for more, more, more. She coughed and water came through her mouth and her nose.
She didn’t care. When she drew breath in, it was air that came, not water. She wasn’t drowning anymore.
“Are you okay?” a male voice asked.
She couldn’t focus on Him.
What she did see, out of the corner of her eye, was Lexi Henderson staring at her, wide-eyed.
So she was either alive or . . . not in heaven.
“She’s just being dramatic,” the voice went on. “She wants attention because—”
“Shut your mouth, Brittany.” And then he came into focus: Danny Parish, her savior.
Well, her rescuer, anyway.
“Call nine- one- one,” he said to someone over his shoulder.
“I’m okay,” Holly said, weak and with a lot of coughing.
“Deep breath,” Danny said to her, staring into her eyes with an intensity that, under other circumstances, would have made her heart skip a few beats.
As it was, though, her heart was just trying to catch up.
She took a deep breath and felt water percolate in her lungs. The next thing she knew, she was throwing up all over his Dockers.
“Ew!” was the consensus of the girls around her.
She’d never live this down.
But, impossibly, Danny said, “Good. Feel better?”
And, improbably, she did. She nodded feebly. “Lot of water,” she said, like that would explain things and somehow help her save face.
“That’s what happens when a moron sends you out in a boat with a hole and no life vest.” He tossed a pointed glance at Brittany, who first looked shamed and then shot a hostile gaze at Holly.
Like this was more embarrassing for Brittany than for Holly.
“Can you sit up?” Danny secured his arm behind Holly’s shoulders and eased her upward. “Feel okay?”
She looked into his vivid blue eyes— the same color as the sky behind him— and fell just a little bit in love. “Yes.” She nodded.
“Cool.” He smiled. It was a bright white surfer smile.
“So she’s gonna live?” Lexi asked, peering down at Holly as if, for some reason, she needed to see it for herself.
“What’s your name?” Danny asked Holly.
“Holly’s fi ne,” he announced, “so back off.” Then, to Holly, he added, “Why don’t you go back to your cabin and lie down for a while? This probably really sucked for you.”
She nodded. It had sucked, all right.
“Thanks,” she managed, and sat up. She felt magically strong and capable. As long as they didn’t put her back in a boat. “I think that would be good.” She hauled herself up, aware of her bulk and of the fact that plenty of people here would probably blame that for the boat going down.
But at the moment, she didn’t care.
She was alive.
And she’d met her soul mate: Danny Parish.
“. . . he saved your life?” Nicola Kestle grabbed Holly’s care package from home—a cardboard box containing 3 Musketeers bars, a Marathon Bar, Ho Hos, Wacky Packages, gum, and a Teen Beat magazine. She put her hand over the top to block Holly’s view and get her attention.
“Danny Parish saved your life?”
They were sitting on the top bunk, enjoying a few minutes as the only two in the cabin since everyone else had gone to the campfire sing after dinner. The only light came from a small battery-operated lantern hanging from the post of the bed, and it cast their shadows, large and dramatic, on the wall next to the open window.
Holly kept thinking it would be a cool painting, and she wished they’d let the campers work with oils in art instead of primary- color tempera paint. There was no way to capture the colors of the cabin at night with blue, green, red, orange, and purple tempera.
“Yes.” Holly nodded, proud. Her shadow echoed the motion big against the wall, like a shout. “So doesn’t that mean I, like, owe him my life?”
“Well”—Nicola frowned, and the light emphasized her nose, which she was very self- conscious of—“in some cultures. Though I have to say I’ve never really understood that. I mean, it could be a drag to save someone’s life and then have them hanging on you forever, offering to be your slave, getting in the way of everything all the time.”
The door opened and Lexi walked in, took one look at the two of them, and rolled her eyes. “What are you guys doing?”
“Just talking.” Nicola pushed her coppery hair back, the way she always did when she got self- conscious.
“None of your beeswax!” Holly snapped, sounding braver than she felt.
For a split second, Lexi looked shocked. Obviously she didn’t think Holly had it in her to confront the Great and Powerful Lexi Henderson. Good. Maybe she’d think twice before tormenting Holly again.
“Just shut up and go back to pigging out,” Lexi said, going to her drawer and getting something that she put into her front pocket. “It’s what you’re best at.” She tossed her head— and her light golden hair bounced like she was on a shampoo commercial—then she flounced out the door, letting it bang behind her.
“What ever.” Holly opened a Marathon Bar and wished it were frozen, so she could whack it against the wall and break it into a hundred pieces, as the packaging suggested. Instead it was just like a chewy 3 Musketeers. “So back to Danny—I wouldn’t mind following him around forever.”
Nicola snorted, and both she and her shadow threw up their hands. “Then you better get in line behind Emily Delaney.”
Nicola peeled the thin chocolate off her Ho Ho. “You know, the blond counselor who just came in a couple days ago? The one who wears really, really short shorts?”
“There’s no new counselor!”
“Uh- huh. She was at crafts today. She had the coolest shell necklace I’ve ever seen.” She popped the Ho Ho chocolate into her mouth.
Holly, on the other hand, was beginning to lose her appetite. “And she’s pretty?”
Nicola nodded and started to unroll her now- bare Ho Ho. “She looks exactly like Stacy on T.J. Hooker.”
Now Holly felt genuinely sick. “Heather Locklear?”
Holly grabbed Nicola’s wrist, making her drop what was left of the Ho Ho. “Are you serious?” Her shadow looked fat and formless on the wall, a stark contrast to Nicola’s wiry, thin one.
“Hey!” Nicola objected. “Now you need to give me another one!”
“Fine. But does Emily really look like that? Is she really that pretty?”
“Yeah, why? I’d think you’d be glad someone has come along to rub Brittany’s stupid face in it.”
There was that.
The problem was that Holly felt exactly the way she hoped Brittany would feel: hideously ugly, incapable of ever being able to compare in any way to a girl who looked like Heather Locklear. Suddenly the romantic fantasies of Danny that had carried her along like a gentle wind all day felt like embarrassing words tattooed on her forehead.
Outside the open window, the crickets and frogs seemed to amplify their echoey songs.
“I’m glad,” Holly said weakly, then looked at the Marathon Bar in her hand.
It wasn’t helping anything. It, along with the Ho Hos and the Juicy Fruit gum and every other favorite thing her mom had packed for her were all serving to keep her from the one thing she really wanted: Danny Parish.
“You know,” she said as casually as she could, “I don’t think I want this after all.” She dropped the chocolate over the side of the bed into the wide tin bucket they used as a trash can.
“Are you crazy?” Nicola looked over the side, clutching the bed rail with both hands like she might jump for it. “I would have taken it. It’s better than corned beef, which you totally know they’re going to serve again tomorrow night.”
“Then I won’t eat anything,” Holly resolved right then and there. People always told her she had “such a pretty face,” sometimes even adding, “if you could only drop a few pounds.”
She hated the part of herself that kept on eating anyway. She hated how she felt when people looked at her with pity and scorn, and she hated, even more, how she felt when she ate a Twinkie or something after that. It was stupid of her, and she knew it. She had to change.
Now she would. She was determined.
She’d drop a few pounds, even if it killed her, and see if maybe—just maybe— she could be pretty enough to win over a guy like Danny