By Erin Haworth
Her flashlight swept over the dirt path, illuminating the way to her cabin. The chirp of unseen insects surrounded her as she looked up through the silhouettes of trees towards the sky — no — a river of stars. She closed her eyes to take in the moment as a cold breeze swept by her.
Turning toward the entrance of her cabin, she was met with a small figure sitting on the short steps of the cabin with a trampled sleeping bag in the dirt beside him. Even with his head nestled into his elbows, his mop of bright, blond hair gave him away. Sam was one of the youngest in her group, a kind and quiet boy.
As she made her way closer to the boy, the soft sounds of sniffles could be heard. “Hey kiddo, what’s the matter?” she asked. Sam tensed, but with a slight turn of his head he was relaxed again.
“Please don’t be mad,” he mumbled into his knees.
“I promise I won’t be,” she said. “But you have to tell me what’s going on.” She reached out for a gentle handshake, “Deal?” He wiped his cheek and gave her a small smile, his face still blotchy from crying, and extended a pinky. She smiled back, shifting her gesture and gave him a delicate pinkie promise. “Now a deal’s a deal, what happened?” she said. He looked down, tears welling up in his eyes again.
“Kyle made fun of my sleeping bag again,” Sam’s voice began to shake. “He said only girls were allowed to like pandas.” The cheerful chirps that had surrounded them sounded like they had gone out of tune.
The first few days of camp had been filled with Sam ecstatically showing off his new sleeping bag to anyone that would listen. The once brightly colored bag, covered in tiny cartoon pandas and cherry blossoms, was laying limp in front of them. Footprints covered the whole thing, having ground dirt and pine needles into the smiling faces that now stared back at them in the moonlight.
“Sam, I want you to be honest with me,” her voice was stern. “Did Kyle do this to your sleeping bag?” Her words were followed by a hollow pause, not even the crickets dared to be heard.
The silence was broken by Sam’s timid, whispered, “No.”
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to protect him,” her voice was beginning to grow louder. “If he did this—” Sam’s timid hand on her arm stopped her.
He looked up at her with regret, “I did it.”
The shock hit her first, crushing the words in her throat. He didn’t have to say any more, but it didn’t hurt any less. She reached over, pulling him into a hug.
After the tears had slowed, she stood up and grabbed the trashed sleeping bag. Taking his hand in hers, the two made their way toward the main lodge. Once there she began the work to bring the sleeping bag back to life. First, she tossed it into the camp washing machine, and 20 minutes later, it went into the old dryer. All the while Sam sat in the main office, staring at his hands, at the cracked concrete floor, at the overflowing binders piled on the desk.
He hadn’t said a word in the hour it took to clean his sleeping bag. She’d been talking though, telling him that everything will be alright and just 10 more minutes and don’t worry about what Kyle said, but not a word back to her.
“I present to you, your freshly cleaned and adorable sleeping bag.” She presented the panda covered bag, folded, to Sam. He looked at it, defeated.
“I can’t use that, it’s for girls.” His voice had become dull, numb. The vibrancy he had exuded had been extinguished with a single idea.
“I know what Kyle said but—”
“I don’t want it anymore,” Sam said. He then motioned to a couple of extra sleeping bags that sat, covered in dust, in the corner of the room. “Can I use one of those instead?”
She let her head fall, a cold sort of dread filtering through her veins. “Sure.” She sighed, “Grab one, and I’ll walk you back.” Placing the still warm sleeping bag down on a nearby table, she led him back into the night, the eyes of the pandas watching them all the while.