In which we learn definitively that one is the loneliest number, two’s company, and three’s a crowd.
CHAPTER 10: BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Panting and sweating from a combination of heat and effort, the somewhat pudgy African-American boy tugged at the collar of his yellow blazer for relief as he banged through the door and into the shower tent. Instantly, the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses fogged up and he gasped as a fresh wave of heat hit him, only managing to choke out his first sentence.
“Okay guys, we need to talk. I’ve got news. I’ve got bad, bad news.”
“Heyo,” Jack called, popping his soaked head over the top of the nearest stall and giving him a lopsided grin. “Coming in hot, man. Get it? But what’s going on that’s so bad?”
“Nah, don’t pay attention to him,” Leo said dismissively, peering over the next divider in line. “He always says that. Jack, this is Quentin Townsend, Jackalope Troop commander. Our fearless leader. Well, when he’s not busy checking for snakes in his cot.”
“Ha-ha,” said Quentin, scowling as he took his glasses off and cleaned them on his pants. “Very funny, Scott. Now do me a favor and quit horsing around, okay? I’m serious. We need to talk about some of the stuff that’s been going on around here recently.”
“Like what?” Leo asked, pantomiming innocence.
“You know what. Flying Scoutmaster Hasselberry’s underwear up the flagpole? Letting bookworms into the camp files? Those choice edits to the Centaur Troop latrine schedule? It’s, what, like three weeks into the summer, and you jokers have already broken pretty much every rule in the book. You’re probably doing it right now, too.”
“What are you talking about, Quentin? Nobody’s breaking any rules in here.”
“Yeah, what he said,” Jack nodded. “Hey, Danny, beer me.”
Struggling with cradling his armful of beer cans, Danny waddled over to Jack’s stall, who reached out over the door and snagged a drink, popping it open and taking a swig before running his face under the water. Leo cackled with laughter, but Quentin looked unamused.
“Underage drinking, too?” he said, to no one in particular, as he pinched his nose between two fingers and sighed. “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Listen, you clowns, we all have to really start shaping up. Word on the crystal ball telegraph is that Hasselberry’s coming after us hard this summer, and this time my excuses aren’t going to be enough to stop him. So I’d appreciate it if you’d at least pretend like you cared right now. I am your acting leader, after all.”
“Right,” Leo replied, rolling his eyes. “We’ll act like we’re listening.”
“I care, bro,” said Jack, sticking out a dripping hand in friendship. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Jack—”
“Ferguson,” Quentin finished, interrupting him with a stern look. “And you’re Danny Falco.” He gave a nod in Danny’s direction, who gulped. “Yeah, I know who you are. You’d have to be pretty clueless not to at this point.”
“And that’s coming from the king of the clueless department,” Leo cracked. “Hey, Jack, pass me the soap, huh, buddy?”
“Sure thing,” Jack agreed, finishing with his own lather and handing over the bar as Quentin’s face grew red.
“Anyway,” he muttered, “I know who you are because you’ve been helping this guy with him and Mack’s stupid prank war. Well, that ends now.” He stamped his foot and drew himself up to his full height, which wasn’t very imposing. “Starting today, I expect each and every one of you to be in uniform—real uniform, I mean, not like what you usually do—and to conduct yourself with the proper decorum and respect for decency that all the other scouts in this camp have. And that’s an order.”
The three other boys just stared at him impassively. Quentin stared back, biting at his lip, before finally wilting under the pressure.
“I mean, if you guys could do that, I’d really appreciate it,” he said plaintively. “Please?”
“Uhh—yeah. Right,” said Leo, rolling his eyes and resuming his shower as his voice dripped with as much sarcasm as the water coming off his body. “Sure thing, Quentin. I’ll get right on that. Guys, as much as he tries to deny it, Quentin’s really not that bad. Every few months the doctor just has to tighten the bolts in his neck.”
Jack laughed, and Quentin glared at him.
“I don’t find that to be such a rib-tickler, Ferguson,” he said. “I’m your troop leader, and I deserve some respect. I cover for you guys day in and day out with the scoutmaster and everyone else, and all I get are wisecracks and insults. I’d really prefer you didn’t do it in front of the troops. I mean, I don’t care if you make fun of me behind my back. It’s the in front of my back that hurts.”
“Nobody’s making fun of you, man,” said Jack, smiling at him. “You seem pretty cool to me. Oh, oh, I can call you Ice-Q. Get it? Because it sounds like Ice Cube?”
“Really nailed that one, pal,” Leo said, giving him a high-five over the stall.
“Great,” the troop leader sighed. “Another comedian. Now look, guys. As a friend, I’m begging you: just for this summer, let’s can the funny stuff, huh? Tone it down. Don’t make waves. No more pranks. Okay?”
“Quentin, we promise,” Leo replied, reluctantly raising a hand and placing it over his heart. “I solemnly swear to you, one of my better, if only, friends, that I won’t do anything for the rest of this term to embarrass you or Jackalope Troop in any way.”
“Try again,” said Quentin, his gaze growing steely again. “And this time, make it sound like you’re not in a hostage video.”
“Oh come on, Quentin,” Jack pleaded, as he and Leo put on matching bathrobes and marched out of the tent. “Relax, man. This isn’t about us: it’s about showing Hasselberry and the rest of those guys out there they can’t boss us around and tell us what we’re worth.”
“Yeah, sure. What he said. Whatever,” Leo agreed, gesturing down at his robe. “And besides, would I do anything to disgrace this uniform?”
Quentin groaned and followed him out as Jack shrugged and grinned helplessly.
“Admit it, dude. He’s pretty good. Him and Oliver.”
“About that,” Danny said, still grunting with the effort of carrying the beers, “does anybody else feel like they’re a little, you know, too good? With each other, I mean. They’re sort of close. Like, really close.”
“They’d tell you it’s because they’re best friends,” said Quentin, as they followed Leo back through Jackalope Troop toward his tent. “Frankly, it unsettles most people. But don’t worry. You get used to it. Mostly.”
“I think it’s funny,” Jack chuckled. “They’re so cute together. Did you know they shave each other?”
“Seriously?” Danny asked, looking appalled.
“Yeah. They say they wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it, and if you do it yourself, you could hurt your pretty face. Their words.”
“Whoa. That’s pretty intense.”
“Oh, sure,” Quentin muttered under his breath, a cloud of worry starting to move in around his face. “We’ve risen to a new low. But seriously, where is Mack, anyway? I think this is the longest I’ve ever seen the Gruesome Twosome apart in a while. What’s Scott doing hanging out with you, Ferguson?””
“I don’t know, man,” said Jack, unconcerned. “I think Leo just said that Oliver had some stuff to do or something. Asked me if I wanted to hit the showers. Actually, he’s been doing that a lot lately.”
“What do you mean?” Quentin demanded.
“Asking me if I want to hang out. Go down to the lake, watch the girls’ laundry day, that kind of thing.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
“Nah, I don’t mind. I mean, he may talk a lot sometimes, but Leo’s a hoot and a half, man. We’re having a blast.”
“Well, you are, anyway,” Danny grumbled. “I thought we were supposed to be best friends.”
“Oh, no,” Quentin groaned, his eyes widening with sudden horror and putting his hands over his mouth. “That’s it. That’s what’s going on. Not again.”
“What?” Jack asked, stopping and putting a hand on his trembling shoulder. “What’s up, man? You look like you’ve got a problem.”
“Yeah, we’ve all got problems if Oliver catches you together like this,” the troop leader shot back, giving him a shove. “Ferguson, do this whole troop a favor and just walk away before things get any worse.”
“Quentin, I don’t get it, bro. What’s going on?”
“Hey, Jack,” Leo called, turning around to see what was holding them up, “hurry up, man. If we don’t get changed and get out of here soon, we’re going to miss prime time at the—”
“Chow line?” another voice spoke up accusingly, and all the scouts looked up to see Oliver standing in the entrance of his and Leo’s tent, arms folded. “Was that what you were going to say, Leo? What is this?”
“Oh, hey Oliver,” said Jack, waving at him as he strolled up beside Leo, who looked like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Leo and I were just over at the showers and—”
“Why are you wearing my robe?” Oliver demanded, taking a step forward and jabbing a finger at him. “Leo, why does this guy have my robe? You want to quit pretending to be a sock puppet and actually say something?”
“Hey, that’s low, man,” said Leo resentfully. “You know I don’t wear socks. You weren’t around, so I asked Jack if he wanted to come with, and he didn’t have one. I figured it wasn’t a crime for a guy to borrow another guy’s clothes.”
“What do you mean, I wasn’t around? I stepped out of the tent for, like, five seconds, and you just split. I was worried about you!”
“Well, breaking news, I’m fine,” Leo shot back, walking forward and going toe to toe with his angry friend. “Happy now? What’s your deal?”
“Wait, this is Oliver’s?” Jack picked at the fuzzy sleeve of his robe and sniffed at it, recoiling. “Ugh. I thought only girls let each other borrow their clothes.”
“Uh-huh,” Quentin observed dryly. “Looks like you hit the nail pretty much on the head, Ferguson. Scott and Mack are like a couple of old ladies. Just wait till they really get going.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
“What’s my deal?” Oliver fired back at Leo, incensed. “What’s your deal, man? You’ve been acting weird this whole week. Every time I want to go somewhere, you either bail or you want to bring Jack, too.” His eyes widened. “Oh, wow. Seriously? Are you friend-cheating on me?” He gestured wildly at Jack. “With him?”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to—” Jack began, annoyed by his tone, but Leo interrupted him with a scoff.
“Lay off Jack, okay? We’ve been over this. Friend-cheating isn’t a real thing, dude. I’m allowed to hang out with other people if I want. Besides, at least Jack laughs at my jokes.”
“Maybe I’d laugh a little more if you’d gotten some new material in the last two years,” Oliver said accusingly. “You can’t just tell the same ones over and over again and still expect them to be funny.”
“Screw you. They are still funny!”
“Are too!” Leo shouted back. “Oh, and while we’re on the subject, just because I go do something without you doesn’t mean I’m dead. Remember last week when you called the Centaurs in to come find me?”
“Hey, in my defense, you were gone for the latrine a really long time,” said Oliver, but his friend shook his head vehemently.
“Like fifteen minutes. I got sidetracked talking to some girl. And then I think we made out in the tool shed before the goon squad busted it up. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“What?” Oliver exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “Now you’re cheating on me with girls, too? What is this? Oh, and you’re welcome, jerkwand. I’m sorry I was worried about you.” His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Wait a second. How do I know you’re not lying? What was her name?”
“Fifteen minutes of extreme making out, and you think I made time to get her name? What am I, Superman?”
“Yeah, right. That is just classic you, Leo. You know what I think? I think you’re a—”
“Guys, guys, chill out,” Jack chuckled, raising his hands and trying to step between them. “Look, I know I’m super cool and everything, but you really don’t have to fight over me. If you want, the rest of us can give you some space so you can, like, get a room or something.”
He snickered and snorted with laughter, but Leo and Oliver froze instantly at his words, staring at each other is shock. All the other scouts walking by, as well as Quentin, pretty much did the same, stiffening and turning to watch what was going on.
“What do you mean?” Leo asked slowly.
“Come on, bro,” Jack laughed, oblivious to the tension surrounding him. “Quentin totally called it. You guys really are like an old married couple. You can’t spend any time apart, you wear each other’s clothes, and you even finish each other’s sentences.”
“Nuh-uh,” said Oliver, his brow furrowing under his mop of red hair. “We don’t do that. It just that sometimes I’ve got problems with—uhh—”
He snapped his fingers as Leo gave him a resentful look.
“Words? Is that what you were going for?”
“That’s embarrassing, man. You really need to expand your vocabulary. Get hooked on phonics or something. How do you even dress yourself in the morning?”
“Oh, you want to talk about who dresses who, Mr. I-Can’t-Figure-Out-What-Clothes-Match-Like-Ever?” Oliver shot back, rolling his eyes. “You’ve got no fashion sense at all.” He pointed at Leo’s ratty anarchy t-shirt underneath his blazer. “You really think that goes with plaid shorts? Stupid.”
“Shut up, Martha Stewart,” Leo snapped, jabbing a finger into his chest. “I’m not stupid. You’re stupid.”
“You shut up. Where would you be without me? When I met you and you told me you were six-two, I didn’t realize you meant that was your IQ. I’m the one that comes up with all the ideas. You want to talk about who’s what in this group? I’m the brains. And the looks. And pretty much the muscle, too, you scrawny tool.”
“Oh, yeah?” Leo challenged him, lunging right up in Oliver’s face until their noses were almost touching. “Then what am I, huh? The wild card? No way.”
“You’re right,” said Oliver, his face deadly serious. “You’re nothing. God, why do I waste my time with you? You’re such an ungrateful jerk.”
“And you’re a stuck-up moron, so I guess we’re even.”
“Ferguson,” Quentin hissed, grabbing Jack by the shoulder as his face got paler by the second. “Quit screwing around. Fix this. Now.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get all excited, man.” Jack sighed before turning back to address Leo and Oliver, who had pulled their respective wands out and pointed them at each other’s throats. “Hey, it’s cool, alright? I’m sorry I said anything. It’s totally a hundred percent normal for two grown guys to need each other this badly. I was just trying to say, I don’t know, maybe you need some time off from each other.”
“What?” Quentin looked terrified and waved his hands in a panic. “No, no, no. Not like that. Don’t say that.”
But it was too late. Leo and Oliver glanced blankly over at Jack for a moment, and then glared anew at each other.
“You know what?” Leo said, his lip curling as he shoved his wand back into his pocket. “Jack’s right. You’re smothering me, dude. I need to branch out. I’m going to go make some new friends, because I actually can. That’ll show you.”
“Yeah, right,” Oliver said, doing the same. “You just see who’s going to put up with all your annoying crap other than me. You’ve been slowing me down for way too long. I bet I make more friends in a day than you have in your whole rotten life.”
The two boys stormed off in opposite directions as Quentin and the other bystanders, looking horrified, turned to Jack. Jack, in the meantime, just dusted his hands off with a confident grin.
“Nice. Okay, there you go. Problem solved. Anyone else hungry?”
“But—you—how—” Quentin stammered, livid. “Ferguson, what was that? Are you crazy? Why in Merlin’s name would you want to split those clowns up? This troop just finally recovered from the last time it happened.”
“What do you mean?” Danny piped up, looking around to try and find the problem. “Everything looks fine to me.”
“Sure. After we rebuilt the whole place, everything was fine.” Quentin gave Jack a hard look. “Okay, Ferguson, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to fix what you broke, and you’re going to do it now, before they have the chance to do any long-term damage. And if you’ll excuse me, I have to go declare a state of emergency now.”
“Dude, I think you’re blowing this way out of proportion,” Jack said dismissively. “Honestly, I think it might be good for Leo and Oliver to meet some new people. You said it yourself: they’re really codependent. It’s pathetic. I mean, I’m pretty open-minded and stuff, but come on.”
“You don’t understand,” Quentin insisted, throwing his hands over his head in frustration. “The whole reason Scott and Mack are so hung up on each other is because literally no one else can stand them. They drive us all nuts. I mean, they do that to me anyway when they’re together, but apart, they’re a whole different animal. A really, really annoying animal that makes you want to pull all your hair out and jump in the lake with rocks in your shoes rather than keep listening to them.”
Many of the Jackalopes within earshot nodded and muttered in agreement, staring daggers at Jack as their troop leader took a deep breath and gathered his courage.
“Yep. Things around here are going to get really dark, really fast.”
Chilling with his feet up on the corner of Quentin’s desk, Jack leaned back against the tent-post and took a long swig of the beer in his hand.
“Man, it’s a hot one today. Hey, Danny, you want some?”
He offered the bottle to Danny, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground and looking miserable.
“No, thanks,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Alcohol makes me dizzy and feel funny.”
“Huh. How about that. It does the same thing to me,” Jack chuckled, taking another drink as Quentin shot him a venomous look from his own seat behind the desk.
“Making yourself comfortable, Ferguson?” he asked, his baritone voice dripping with sarcasm. “Enjoying my beer? Maybe you’d like me to get you another one while you’re at it.”
“Nah, man, I’m cool,” said Jack, flashing him a carefree thumbs-up. “But if you wouldn’t mind, I saw that bottle of rum under your bed that I’d actually like to crack open.”
“Fat chance,” the troop leader growled, swiping Jack’s sneakers away despite the scout’s groan of protest. “Off the desk. Okay, Santos, tell me again. Mack did what, exactly?”
“You heard me, ese,” the tall, lanky boy on the other side of the desk growled, wearing only the gold chain around his neck and the towel around his waist, dripping wet. “I’m just taking a shower across the compound, minding my own business, when that hombre loco Oliver just busts in on me. He tells me that bros don’t let bros shower alone, and so he sits there talking at me for a half an hour. I’m telling you, man, that kid just don’t shut up. He says he wants to share my soap. I tell him no. Then he takes my clothes and runs out with them because he says he’ll go wash them for me. Doesn’t want the pollen to irritate my skin or something. And that’s the last I see of him. That bastardo’s got all my threads, man. It’s crazy, you know?” Not getting an answer, he blinked. “Quentin? Hey, ese. Hey!”
He smacked his hands on the desk angrily, startling the troop leader’s eyes open just as he was beginning to snore and jerking him upright in his chair again.
“Huh? Sorry. You were saying?”
“I knew it,” Santos said, rolling his eyes and fuming as Jack cracked up. “You’re not taking me seriously.”
“Uhh—I mean—sure I am,” Quentin mumbled, trying unsuccessfully to appear good-humored. “I mean, I’m really trying. But you have to admit, it’s kind of tough when you’re only wearing that.”
Santos stamped his foot and had to grasp at the pink towel with purple hearts on it as it nearly fell off his body.
“You’re a real jerk, you know that, Quentin?” he snapped. “Some leader you are. Why can’t you keep Leo and Oliver under control? Personally, I’d take a chupacabra right now if I thought it might not fall asleep on me.”
“First of all, Santos, I’m your troop leader whether you and I both like it or not,” Quentin replied, giving him an irritable look. “So you should show me some respect. Secondly, chupacabra? Really? Trying coming up with something reasonable and real, like, you know, a jackalope. And thirdly, give me a break, will you? It’s bad enough people have been running in and out of here for the past three days yelling at me about Scott and Mack and what they’re doing and keeping me up all hours of the night. I can’t control those lunatics. What do you want from me, blood?”
“Maybe I do,” the scout threatened him, balling up a fist and raising it before turning to glare at Jack. “And you too, holmes. You messed everything up in the first place, and pretty soon, people out there aren’t going to take it anymore. You better keep one eye open when you sleep at night. That’s all I’m saying.”
Gathering his towel around himself and puffing out his chest, Santos strode out of the tent as Jack gave a long, low whistle.
“Wow. That went well. Quentin, sounds like you’ve got some problems, buddy.”
“Really? You think?” Quentin snapped, turning his full ire on Jack. “What was your first clue, genius? Yeah, I’ve got problems. You know what they are? The two of you. And Scott. And Mack. It’s because of you guys that I don’t have any respect around here. You people have walked over my head so many times I think I’ve got athlete’s scalp. You ignore my orders, forge my signature, or just bully me into doing whatever you want, and you make me look like a pushover and a bad guy in front of the other scouts. I have to sleep with a loaded wand under my pillow. Half this troop spends their free time sticking pins into little Quentin Townsend dolls.” He stopped his rant, breathing heavily and wincing as he touched his aching back. “No wonder I get these stress pains all the time. So you tell me, Ferguson, do I have problems? Huh?”
Jack and Danny both just stared at him, like deer caught in the headlights.
“Uhh—wow,” Danny said, stunned. “That’s, like, pretty heavy stuff, sir.”
“Yeah,” Jack added. “Sorry, dude. I was just going to tell you I had a something that was going to fix everything.”
“You—I—what?” Quentin spluttered, unable to believe his ears. “You have a plan, Ferguson? Seriously?”
“Sure do, boss. I’ve been working on it all week.”
“Okay. And when were you planning on telling me, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Right now seemed like a good time.”
“Typical,” Quentin muttered, throwing up his hands and stalking back behind his desk. “I don’t know why I expected anything else. Nobody around here ever tells me anything. I’ve been miserable for the past week and a half worrying about the million different ways Scott and Mack could burn down this troop, and now he tells me he’s got a plan. You’re unbelievable, Ferguson, you know that?”
“Hey, thanks,” Jack grinned, again missing the point completely as another curly-haired scout poked his head through the tent flap.
“Quentin, sir? There’s someone waiting to see you.”
“No kidding,” the troop leader sighed, putting his palms on the desktop and hanging his head. “I was born with someone waiting to see me. Do me a favor, would you, Ross? Tell whoever it is to get lost. I died yesterday and didn’t leave a forwarding address. If I did, people would be sending me hate mail six years after they put me in the ground.”
“You can whine about how hard your life is some other time, Quentin,” Tessa said coolly, pushing past the Jackalope as she strode into the tent. “Right now, we have to move if we want to make the main event. Jack, you ready?”
“I was born ready, Tessa,” Jack replied, jumping up and turning his baseball cap around. He gave her a sweet smile. “So does this mean we’re going on our first date? And I didn’t get you anything.”
“Quit messing around, okay?” Tessa groaned, waving at the three to follow her as she marched back outside again. “Leo and Oliver are both headed for the mess tent, just like we planned. We’ll have to hurry if we want to beat them there.”
“Hold on a second,” Quentin puffed, struggling to keep up with her, Danny, and Jack as the afternoon sun beat down on him. “Anyone actually want to fill me in on what’s going on here? Stone, how did you get involved?”
“Nice to see you, too, Quentin,” the girl shot back over her shoulder. “Ask Jack. He’s the mastermind here.”
“Yep,” said Jack, looking supremely proud of himself as he straightened his yellow blazer. “I told them both I was setting them up on a date. You know, to take their minds off things.”
“Are you kidding me?” Quentin seethed, his fists clenching unconsciously. “That’s what you came up with? The old blind-date-bait-and-switch routine? That won’t work, you idiot. It never, ever works.”
“Yeah,” Danny moaned. “That’s what I said. You know, my brother Sam and I would fight all the time when I was little. I mean, we still do now, but back then it was worse. I remember my mom would always make things better by baking pies for us. They always tasted so good, we just forgot about whatever else was going on. Especially that one time when Sam held me down and tried to bury me alive in the sandbox.”
“Well there’s no way I’m doing that for those ungrateful creeps,” the troop leader muttered, shaking his head. “When I made by bacon mac and cheese for the troop potluck last year, Leo told everyone it should be considered a war crime. And anyway, shut up, Falco. I’m not all that happy with you, either.”
“Hey, what did I do?” the shorter boy whined. “How come you always lump me in with Leo and Oliver and Jack and them? I don’t want to do any of this rule-breaking stuff. They just make me.”
“They make you, huh?” Quentin said, looking skeptical. “How?”
Danny’s narrow face turned red.
“Well—you know—by asking. I’m not good with peer pressure.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Jack continued, enthusiastic. “This is the good part. I did a little research, and I found out about this illusion spell thing I can do. It kind of tricks people into seeing whatever you want them to see. So when Leo and Oliver get there and I cast the spell, they’ll both think the other one is a cute girl, right? Once they get comfortable and talking and stuff, I’ll let the magic go and they’ll realize it was each other the whole time.”
“There’s one thing I’m not clear on, though,” Tessa spoke up again as they neared the mess tent. “Why did you need me there when you talked to Leo and Oliver about this and set it up? Plus, who’d you say they were going on a date with?”
“See, that’s kind of the thing—” Jack said hesitantly, giving her an apologetic look that instantly made Tessa furious.
“Oh, no. Me? You told them you were setting them up with me? Jack, what did you do?”
“I’m sorry! It was the only way I thought they would do it. Besides, I totally didn’t lie or anything. I never actually said it was you. You were just with me when I did it, so it’s not my fault if they assumed stuff.”
Banging through the door and sitting down heavily at the nearest table, Tessa narrowed her killer blue eyes at him dangerously.
“You know, Jack, you and I are going to have a nice, long talk about boundaries and using people after this is over.”
“Oh, I’m down for that. Over drinks, maybe?”
“Hey, cut out the flirting, love-birds,” Quentin hissed, nudging them as he took a seat on the other bench along with Danny. “Here comes Tweedle-Dee now.”
The other scouts in the tent all looked up as Leo banged through the door behind them, striding enthusiastically toward the small table set for two in the nearby corner, complete with a checkered tablecloth that looked like it was made from sewn-together pieces of old blazers, lumpy candles, and half-dead flowers in a tin cup. He saw the little group as well and gave them a wave.
“What’s happening, guys?” he said, looking sunnier than he had in days. “Fancy meeting you here. Seriously, it’s kind of funny you all showed up at the same time as my date.” He shrugged. “Oh, well. Whatever. Did you know I’m going on a date?”
He gave Tessa a knowing look, but the girl just jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
“Sorry, Leo, but don’t look at me. I hate to break it to you, but I’m not the one.”
“Yeah,” Jack spoke up quickly, seeing the older boy’s face fall, “but don’t worry about it. I got someone better. You’re going to like them, I guarantee it.”
“Thanks, pal,” Leo said gratefully. Jack smiled back, but it turned into a wince as Tessa threw a sharp elbow into his ribs.
“Someone better?” she hissed. “That’s what you’re going with? You really know how to treat a lady, Jack.”
She got up and stalked over to the food line as Jack turned to look at Danny, baffled.
“What? What did I say?”
“Quentin, my man,” Leo said, approaching the troop leader who instinctively shied away from him as he extended his arms, angling for a hug. “I knew you had something to do with this. You’re always looking out for us. You know, we may not always get along, but we’re basically buddies, right?”
“I swear, Scott, if you touch me I’ll curse your sorry can before I file the restraining order,” Quentin muttered. Jack once again sensed the need to interject, jumping up and catching Leo by the arm, pulling him toward the other table again.
“Well, you don’t want to be late, man,” he said. “You better get over there.”
“Good point. Thanks, Jack.”
Leo trotted off toward the table and pulled the chair out, taking a seat, as Quentin turned a baleful eye on Jack and the door.
“Oh, joy. Here’s Tweedle-Dumb,” he said, nodding as Oliver entered the tent, brushing down the freshly-laundered dress shirt under his blazer. “This plan better work, Ferguson, or when the angry mob finally decides to come for you, I’ll be the one handing out the torches and pitchforks.”
No one had the time to say anything else, however, as the other scouts in the tent fell silent and all watched attentively. Arriving at his side of the table, Leo and Oliver froze, regarding each other for a moment in uncertainty. Then, Oliver slowly took his seat, not noticing the collective sigh of relief from all around him.
Leo, swallowing nervously, was the one to speak first.
“Hey,” he said, licking his lips. “So—you come here often?”
He chuckled, and after a moment Oliver followed suit.
“Umm—yeah,” the red-haired boy said, looking shyly down at his place. “Well, I used to, at least. I’ve been trying to stay away recently, but the catering around here is really lousy.”
“Tell me about it,” Leo said with a laugh. “I’ve actually been kind of the same. What’s your excuse, then? Oh, and you look good, by the way.”
“Aw, thanks,” Oliver replied, blushing a bit. “So do you. I mean, it was totally on purpose. I didn’t go all out because I wanted to give you a fighting chance. But seriously, I’m trying not to run into this friend of mine. Well, former friend. But you probably don’t want to hear about that.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” said Leo, smiling kindly and leaning forward over the table. “What’s going on? Seems like you’re taking this whole thing pretty rough.”
“You noticed?” Oliver asked, with gentle sarcasm. “Yeah, I guess I am. I mean, we’ve been best buddies for, like, forever. I don’t know what to do without him around. I’ve been trying to hang out with all kinds of other people, but it’s just not the same. I mean, obviously a lot of people like me—that’s kind of a given—but they don’t like me like me, you know? That probably doesn’t make any sense.”
“Actually, it totally does,” said Leo. “I just had a fight with my best friend, too. And it was really stupid. I let some other guy get in my head about it. You know what he said? He said we were—”
“Yeah, exactly! And weird. And other stuff.” Oliver shook his head. “What a bunch of crap, right? You know what? Anybody who wouldn’t want to have a friend like that is weird. How can anyone stand shaving themselves? You never get close enough.”
“Right,” Leo agreed. “And who else is going to share their soap with you when you forget it? And let you borrow some underwear when you run out?”
“For sure. I say you get back together and go rub it right in his face.”
“Yeah. His face is stupid.”
The two boys stared at each other for a moment, and then burst out laughing.
“Hey—” Jack started, bristling as he rose to his feet in irritation, but Quentin and Tessa seized his arms and dragged him back down again before he could ruin the mood.
“Oh, man. Nice,” Oliver gasped, wiping tears out of his eyes. “You hungry? I actually don’t have much of an appetite right now. I’m too busy thinking about all the amazing pranks I want to pull on Hasselberry and the rest of his trained monkeys this summer. It’s going to be great.”
“What do you say we get out of here and talk about it more?” Leo asked. “I mean, we should at least pretend like we’re trying to be sneaky here. Otherwise, where’s the fun in that?”
The two boys shared a knowing chuckle, getting up and pushing in their chairs before walking side by side out of the mess tent, chattering excitedly and not noticing the disbelieving stares of everyone else around them. At the other table, Quentin’s mouth just hung open while Tessa blinked several times, trying to figure out if she was seeing things.
“Uhh—okay, then,” the Jackalope Troop leader finally managed to blurt out. “Did anyone else just see that? I can’t believe it really worked. I owe you an apology, Ferguson. I think I underestimated you.”
“Yeah,” Danny breathed. “That was pretty tight.”
“Don’t worry about it, man,” said Jack good-naturedly. “I didn’t. I guess all’s well that ends well, even if they did insult me a little to do it. No biggie. And yeah, people seem to underestimate me a lot around here. Well, you know what they say: no good deed makes the heart grow fonder. Or is it absence goes unpunished? I’m not really good with those things.”
“Uh-huh,” Quentin muttered, his shoulders sagging and looking both incredibly relieved and incredibly tired. “I wonder why they keep underestimating you.”
But Tessa turned to Jack with suspicion in her eyes.
“Umm—Jack?” she asked. “Quick question. Tell me again about the whole plan to get Leo and Oliver back together. You were going to cast a spell on them, right?”
“The whole illusion thing? Yeah, that’s pretty crucial.”
“I figured. And so when exactly were you planning on doing that to them?”
“Oh, when they both sit down and see each other. I mean, I really couldn’t do it any earlier than that. Otherwise I don’t think it would stick. At least, that’s if I was reading those books right, which is pretty much always a fair question.”
Danny and Quentin snapped their heads around to look at him as Tessa repeated the question flatly.
“Tell me again, Jack. When were you going to do this?”
“I said as soon as they sit down. I’m going to—” Jack trailed off, his differently-colored eyes widening in realization. “Oh. Right. I didn’t do that.”
“Excuse me?” Quentin demanded, thunderstruck. “Ferguson, what are you talking about? You didn’t cast the spell?”
“Sorry. I guess I just kind of got caught up in all the intrigue and stuff and I forgot.”
“But then,” Danny said slowly, “they both totally recognized each other and knew who the other guy was, and they still did what they did anyway?”
Frowning and scratching his head through his baseball cap, Jack looked in confusion from Danny toward the doors of the mess tent, and back again, completely at a loss for words.
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!