The road into Camp Laguna was as narrow and winding as Roger had been warned, the hairpin turns restricting his speed to far less than the posted speed limit, the overhanging trees and boulders making him wonder if he was selling himself into white slavery.
He didn't think so. He'd been told this was the premier girls' camp in the Appalachians, the perfect retreat for a gay college student who wanted a summer free of the distraction of pretty boys. The camp director was male, but he was married and his wife worked at the camp too. Other than him, Roger expected to be the only male on camp property. Except maybe for the dogs. He was looking forward to that. He'd taken the job on a whim when he'd broken up with his cheating ex-boyfriend several months ago. The pain from that had faded, leaving him with the lessons learned and the strong desire to get away from all his friends who kept urging him to get back out and date again. He would eventually, but once bitten, twice shy and all that. He'd wait until he was sure he'd found a guy worthy of his trust instead of jumping into a relationship blind. And in the meantime, he could spend the summer with like-minded people who would hold absolutely no attraction for him on a relationship level. From everything he'd heard, the girls who came to this particular camp had a true love of the outdoors. No electricity, no hot water, platform tents instead of cabins. A lake instead of a pool. None of the pampered sorority types--or future sorority types--who were the bane of his existence until they found out he was gay, and then became his worst nightmare, always afraid he was out to steal their boyfriends.
He rolled his eyes as he checked his directions once more. As if he'd want the type of guy who'd be interested in them anyway.
Finding his turnoff, he drove carefully along a little road so narrow it didn't even have yellow lines down the middle. And then the pavement stopped altogether.
He almost turned around right then, but the sign proclaiming camp property caught his eye and lured him on. He smiled as he drove past the carefully lettered wooden sign:
"Take only memories. Leave only footprints."
It was a slogan he could live by and it bolstered his confidence. If this was truly the lesson the camp taught the girls who came here, he'd fit in fine.
He drove a little farther down the well-maintained gravel road until he came upon the first of the dark clapboard buildings. Seeing other cars, he pulled over and got out, hoping he had found the right place.
Climbing out of the car, he smiled at the rush of cool, fragrant air. It had to be at least fifteen degrees cooler here than when he'd left Charlotte a couple of hours earlier. He sniffed again, trying to place the individual fragrances. Sassafras, rhododendron... and a host of others he didn't recognize.
"You must be Roger."
Roger turned around, a ready smile on his face. "Yes, that's right. I'm the new outdoors specialist."
The woman threw her head back and laughed. "We'll see about that," she chuckled. "Welcome to Camp Laguna."
"What does that mean?" Roger asked defensively.
"It means," the woman replied, "that until you've made it through a summer, you're a newbie, no matter what you know about ropes courses and rappelling, because I'd be willing to bet Seuss knows as much as you or more about them--and about every other facet of the camp."
"Then why am I here?"
"Because neither she nor Spirit, nor Ricki, Rambler, or Yogurt would be willing to take a specialist job when they could be in a unit with the girls," the woman explained. "I'm Ginger, by the way. I'm the administrative assistant slash substitute anything here at the camp. And don't let the Amazons scare you. They're the nicest women you'll ever meet as long as you don't imagine for a moment that you know more about this place than they do."
"Have they been here long?"
"Since they were eight," Ginger replied. "They shared a tent that summer by coincidence and arranged to come back together every summer since. If there's an inch of this old place they don't know like the back of their hands, I've yet to find it."
"You'd think they'd be running the place," Roger mulled aloud.
"Oh, they do," Ginger assured him, "just not in name. Even Scruffy bows to their wisdom if they all agree on something."
Ginger laughed again. "Newbie," she teased. "We all have camp names we go by. You and all the other new people will have one by the end of orientation. Mine, obviously, is for the red hair. It's a great game with the girls, trying to find out our real names. Some people tell them at the end of a session. Other people keep it a secret."
"I've never been good with nicknames," Roger demurred.
"Then we'll come up with one for you," Ginger said. "There's always something. Come on inside. C.C.'s been waiting for you to get here."
"Who's Cici?" Roger asked.
"The EMT--don't call him the nurse--and he also does maintenance around the place," Ginger said. "He's thrilled to have another guy on staff besides Scruffy. Last year, he was the only one and he despaired of us all. Too much estrogen, he said."
"Ginger!" a male voice shouted from inside the screened door to the building. "Stop hogging his attention and bring him inside."
"I told you he was impatient," Ginger said with a grin, leading Roger up the steps to the staff house.
"Hi, I'm C.C.," the guy at the door said immediately. C.C. was everything Roger envied in a man, blond, built without being bulky, confident in himself and his place in the world. "Welcome to Laguna."
"'Cici' like the pizza?" Roger asked, curious despite himself.
"No, like the letters. C.C."
"He still won't tell us what it stands for," another woman, easily the tallest the person in the room, said. "And this is his fourth summer. We've decided it's something horrible that he's afraid to reveal. Not that any of us have any secrets from him."
"Or each other," a third woman laughed. Roger couldn't help but stare at her. Even in cutoff shorts and a baggy T-shirt, she was stunning, her black hair a sharp contrast to very fair skin and blue eyes. Black Irish, his grandmother would've said. "Unless you've come up with one since last summer, Rambler. I'm Spirit. That's Rambler. Ricki and Yogurt are out back making sure the showers are working and Seuss should be here any time now. She had to stop and get beef jerky on the way up the mountain. I swear, she's addicted to the stuff. You've obviously met Ginger and C.C. Scruffy and Brook are down toward the crafts building. I don't think anyone else has arrived yet unless they snuck down to the units without us hearing them."
"I'd think that would be hard with the gravel," Roger said.
Spirit nodded. "It is. We like it that way."
"The girls tend to stay up here during Orientation because it's the only time all summer they get to be together, but I'm already moved into our tent," C.C. interrupted, drawing Roger's attention. "We can head down the hill and get you settled before the festivities start if you'd like."
"That would be good," Roger said. "I don't have much, but that way, I won't be distracted worrying about it."
"Not much like we can carry it from here?" C.C. asked. "Or not much like one trunk?"
"We can probably carry it from here," Roger said. "I've got a backpack and sleeping bag and one other bag of sundries."
"Get him one of those cedar trunks," Rambler suggested. "If all he's got is a canvas pack, the mice will be moved in before the week's out."
"For safety's sake, we have to kill the copperheads and rattlesnakes we find in the unit areas," C.C. explained, "and so we inevitably have a mouse explosion over the course of the summer. A hard suitcase, plastic bins, or a trunk are the only way to keep them out completely. The camp has some cedar trunks that have been donated over time that we lend out to the staff who need them."
"I guess we'd better get one of those then," Roger agreed. "I don't relish having to wear holey clothes."
"I'll tell Scruffy if I see him," Spirit said. "He can bring it down in his truck so you don't have to lug it all the way up to your tent from the crafts building. Those things weigh a ton."
C.C. waved his thanks as he led Roger out the door.
Shouldering his pack, Roger locked his car, handing C.C. the other bag when he offered to carry it.
"So, your fourth summer, is that what they said?" Roger asked as they walked down the hill.
"That's right," C.C. said. "Long enough that the Amazons have stopped double-checking everything I do. Now they only check half of it."
"Are they really that overbearing?" Roger asked, a little worried now.
"Not really," C.C. replied. "They're great girls and amazing counselors, but they know more than the rest of the staff put together about the camp as a whole and our individual areas of expertise in particular because they've grown up here. They could probably hike the trails blindfolded. I've seen them do bed checks in the dark with no flashlights and find every tent without stumbling once--and when you've seen the trails in the units, you'll realize what a feat that is. They can sail every boat here, build a fire with no matches and live off the land without thought. There really is a reason we call them the Amazons."
"Sounds like it," Roger said, more than a little intimidated.
"Don't let it get to you," C.C. insisted. "They won't show you up in front of the girls. They're subtle about it when the campers are around, even if they tear you a new one later."
Roger laughed. "I'm not sure that's any better."
"Our tent's down this way," C.C. said, veering off the gravel road onto a narrow dirt path free of leaves but with roots crisscrossing it frequently, forcing Roger to keep his eyes on the ground.
The tent was exactly as Roger had expected it to be, a wooden platform with a canvas tent supported by a center beam. It looked like it would easily sleep four, but only two cots filled the space.
"Since it's just us, I got rid of the extra beds," C.C. volunteered. "No reason to have them taking up space."
"Definitely not," Roger said, setting his pack on the empty bed and eyeing the contraption over the other bunk curiously. "What's that?"
"Mosquito netting," C.C. explained. "I'm not allergic to them exactly, but I get really huge welts and the buzzing around my ears drives me crazy. A friend of my dad's, an ex-Army Ranger, hooked me up. They apparently use something like this in the tropics. I can see about getting you one if you want."
Roger shook his head. "Don't bother. I've got skin like leather. Mosquitoes avoid me like the plague."
"Lucky you. I do well if I get away with a Benadryl a day to keep the itching down."
"If it's so bad, why do you keep coming back?" Roger inquired.
C.C. smiled beatifically, sending a jolt of awareness through Roger's body. He pushed it aside. What were the chances C.C. was gay?
"Ask me that after you've been through the first session with campers. If you don't know the answer by then, nothing I say will explain it anyway," C.C. said.
"Do you want to unpack now or get the nickel tour?"
"Let's take the tour," Roger said. "If I'm going to have to move my gear into a trunk anyway, there's no reason to unpack now."
"Tour, it is," C.C. agreed. "Your Birks are fine for now, but you'll want tennis shoes or hiking boots before you head much off the gravel road. It doesn't take more than a few steps and you're deep in the woods with everything that entails: bugs, briars, snakes, poison ivy."
"I've got boots," Roger said. "Should I change now?"
C.C. paused, considering. "Might not be a bad idea. I heard rumors about a bonfire tonight to welcome everyone back, and that means hiking out to the Point. I also don't know what Scruffy has planned for this afternoon. I haven't seen the Orientation schedule yet."
"That sounds like fun," Roger said, digging in his pack for boots and a pair of socks.
"It is," C.C. agreed. "The Amazons put on quite a moving evening when they put their heads together, although tonight will probably be a lot less formal since the campers aren't here yet. I suppose that's the other thing I should tell you about. This place is steeped in tradition. As long as you appreciate that, you'll be fine, but there's a way to do pretty much everything from meals to flag ceremonies to hikes and campfires. Some of it's procedural, like getting food for cookouts, but a lot of it's more ritual to encourage the girls to invest in the place and the experience."
"I have a feeling I'm going to be making lots of mistakes," Roger muttered as he stood up.
"When in doubt, do what the Amazons do," C.C. said. "If you're doing that, you won't go wrong. Come on; let's go see the camp."
Roger followed C.C. back onto the main road and down the hill. As they rounded a bend, they came upon a wide, open field. "What's that?" Roger asked immediately.
"The flag deck," C.C. said. "See the pole? But it's also the games area and meeting place for all-camp activities."
Roger nodded, looking up at the unimpeded view. "I bet you could see an awful lot of stars out here at night," he murmured. "No light pollution."
"You're a stargazer?" C.C. asked.
Roger nodded, still examining the tree line. "I got my first telescope when I was eight. Astronomy has been my passion ever since."
"Astronomy, huh?" C.C. mused aloud. "Then I think we need to call you Astro. Unless you'd rather we call you Star."
Roger grimaced. "Not Star! I get enough flak as it is without having a girly name too." He turned Astro over in his head a few times, trying it on for size, a smile growing slowly. It fit. "I can live with Astro."
"Astro it is then," C.C. declared. "Now we just have to get the other newbies' names taken care of. I've done my part. That's the dining hall down a ways, if you're ready to walk on."
"Sure," Astro agreed. "The stars won't be out for a few hours yet."
The dining hall was a larger version of the staff house, with the same dark clapboard, screen-covered windows and metal roof, set into the side of a hill. "We store equipment downstairs in the trail house," C.C. told him. "Your ropes and harnesses are all down there when you're ready to check them out. So are the pup tents, extra packs, etcetera, for when the girls go out on overnights. We can poke around in there later but for now, let me introduce you to everyone's favorite people."
C.C. led Astro up the concrete stairs into the back door of the kitchen. "Sugar? Spice? What's for dinner?"
"Nothing for you, you scamp," a graying woman in her fifties scolded, "until you come give me some sugar."
C.C. grinned and gave the woman a big hug and a smacking kiss on the cheek.
"And who's this doll you've brought in with you?" the woman asked.
"Sugar, this is Astro, our new ropes specialist. Astro, this is Sugar, one of the two most important people here. Spice is hiding somewhere."
"She went home to get some cinnamon," Sugar explained. "The truck hasn't brought all our supplies yet and we're making cobbler for desert. Can't make cobbler without cinnamon."
"Definitely not," Astro agreed. "I'm sure I'll meet her at dinner."
"We'll be there," Sugar promised. "If you've got any allergies or anything, or if you've got any special favorites, let us know. We try to keep treats on hand for the staff."
"I love a good cobbler," Astro said immediately. "And I've never met a cake I didn't like."
Sugar grinned. "Then you'll fit in just fine 'round here. Anything you can't eat?"
Astro shook his head. "I'm a regular garbage disposal."
"Spice is gonna love you. Now, y'all finish whatever you were up to. I'm gonna get this chicken in the fryer."
"Fried chicken and cobbler?" Astro asked. "I think I'm in love."
"Everyone is by the end of the summer," Sugar said with a laugh and a flounce that made her look twenty years younger.
"So what else is there to see?" Astro asked as they left the dining hall.
"From here, the road goes down past the units and the craft building and then out to the lake," C.C. explained. "There's a trail out to the ropes course and rappelling areas, and of course all the hiking trails. We don't need to worry about any of those right now. We'll hike them all at some point during orientation. I don't know what order Scruffy--or the Amazons--have decided to do them in, but they usually start with the easier ones and work up. You'll be able to skip some of it since you aren't unit staff. That'll to give you a chance to go out to the ropes course and check out the cliff face and that sort of thing."
"Are you a climber?" Astro asked curiously. "You seem to know a lot about it."
"I've learned," C.C. replied with a smile. "That's what you do around here. When you've got downtime, you pick something that sounds fun or interesting and participate along with the girls. I'd never sailed a boat before I got here, but now I take a boat out on the weekends sometimes because it's so much fun."
Astro smiled. "It does sound like fun. Do we have a lot of downtime?"
"It varies," C.C. said, shrugging. "Some days you won't get away from the course even for lunch. Other days, you may only have one group, or even none. It also depends on the age and interests of the campers. We try to give everyone a variety of experiences, obviously, but the groups of young girls, the eight- and nine-year olds, don't do a lot of the adventure stuff. With them, it's more hiking, some canoeing, crafts, basic conservation stuff. The older girls, though, come for the adventure aspect. They want the caving, the sailing, the rappelling and climbing, the survivalist aspect. You'll be a lot more involved with those groups, obviously. Either way, the evenings are pretty much free because they tend to do things in the units as the evenings wind down. You can always drop in for a visit. The other thing we do is help cover for the unit staff at times. They get a two-hour break every day, but there have to be two adults with the girls at all times, so sometimes we'll cover so they can all get their breaks in."
The sound of a bell tolling drew their attention. "And that's Scruffy, calling everyone to the dining hall," C.C. said. "I guess enough people are here for him to get started."