Unmanned

We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.

Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.

It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.

The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.

Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.

Falling Off My Shoes

When Mr. Bingham asked, “Why did Nixon go to China?” I kept a straight face and raised my hand.

He nodded to me. “Ms. Morgenstern?”

“To make American Chinese food great again?”

Others laughed, but he didn’t. “After class, please. Now, serious answer, anyone?”

I raised my hand. When no one else did, he nodded to me again.

“Why am I in trouble, but Mark isn’t? His jokes haven’t even been funny lately.”

I knew the reason. Mark Williams was the teacher’s pet.

Morons hooted behind me. Bingham pursed his lips. “Everyone, Monday will now feature a quiz. Fifty words on the significance of Nixon in China.”

Marie

I met Marie in the hallway after school. “The race is tomorrow,” I said. “We should sign up.”

“The three-legged race?”

“Yeah.”

Running the three-legged race together was what seventh-grade couples did on the next-to-last day of school, at the Outdoor Games.

For two months Marie and I had sat together at lunch, in assemblies, and on field trips. Being a couple was way better than her poking me in the back with her pencil in Algebra. I’d never been so happy. I had already prepared something to write in her yearbook on the last day of school – right after the morning movie, where I hoped to hold her hand for the first time.

“I’m sorry, Kenny.” Her big, brown eyes matched her words.

“You don’t want to race?”

“No, I do.”

“I don’t understand.”

I thought I saw her chin quiver, and she looked down. “I already signed up.”

“Oh, good. I didn’t know. Think we’ll win?”

I liked her blond curls, her sprinkling of freckles, and her smile, but she wasn’t smiling now.

“Not with you. With Bobby.”

Maybe my heart didn’t stop, but it started to hurt – for two reasons. The second one was, Bobby was my best friend.