Genevieve and Jeremy have known each other since they were seven, and have been summertime best friends at Camp Meira, a Jewish overnight camp in the mountains. As campers, and then as staff, their friendship was a constant, something neither wanted to change, no matter how tempting those changes might be.
Then, last year, with little warning, Jeremy left camp early. After that summer, Gen left the country on a graduate fellowship.
Now, a little over a year since they were last at Meira, Gen and Jeremy are back together to help run a special Winter Camp during Hanukkah. Any water under the bridge is frozen this time of year, and with so much left unspoken and unexplained, this week may be their chance to rekindle their friendship, or turn it into something new.
More about the Story
SARAH: “As I mentioned in Podcast 119, I have a rule that if I complain about something twice, I either have to do something about it, or shut up already. And as you’ve probably noticed, every year, I get irritated with the lack of holiday romances that are about a holiday other than Christmas. I wanted to read more Hanukkah romances.
“So, I wrote one.”
“Hey Hallmark Channel! Here’s a Hanukkah romance to make into a holiday movie next year!” — Meg Cabot
5 Stars from Darlene on Goodreads:
“I loved this story. It was sweet, and funny, and about friends-to-lovers, and summer camp, and so much more.”
5 Stars from Julia on Goodreads:
“I love camp. I love a book with devout people of faith. I love a Hannukah story. I love the correct use of prayers and Jewish terms in this book. I laughed out loud…”
5 Stars from Jacob on Goodreads:
“This was such an excellent holiday read, and not least for the unique and entirely engaging difference of being a Hanukkah romance. Wendell does an excellent job of making that both an important part of the story and also ‘just’ the background to a fantastic romance between two friends who discover that they are more.”
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014—24 Kislev 5775
Jeremy Gold stood up from his sunscreen-stained canvas lawn chair, now anchored deep into a pile of plowed snow, and pulled Genevieve up to stand with him.
“A moment of silence for the shit-sucker, if you please.”
“It’s not the same when it’s this cold out,” Gen grumbled, rubbing her gloves together and stomping her feet. A small tanker truck rolled past them toward the slowly opening gate that marked the main entrance to Camp Meira. The driver waved at them both, then revved the engine to push through the snow on either side of the road. The plow hadn’t left a path quite wide enough for his truck.
Gen looked up from the pattern she’d been stamping with the treads of her boots, remembering something she wanted to tell Jeremy, but when she saw the side of the truck she started to laugh. The company had upgraded since the previous summer. A sign that had clearly once belonged to a Jiffy Lube now read, thanks to creative use of black marker and white duct tape, “Jiffy Latrine.”
“That must have taken some work,” Gen said, nudging Jeremy.
Jeremy had bowed his head in his typical gesture of respect to the Jiffy Latrine cleaning visit, which amounted to a twenty-minute drive to all three portable toilets in camp. When he raised his head and saw the sign, he began laughing so hard he could barely stand up.
“Now, Jer, that’s hardly respectful.”
“It’s Jiffy Lube!”
He bent forward, resting his hands on his knees to try to catch his breath between howls of laughter. His position brought his face down from his normal stratosphere, and Gen watched as tears curled his eyelashes before she looked away.
Then he silenced abruptly, his face serious. “I must have that sign.”
“I must. It is imperative.”
“You must aid me in pursuit of the shit-sucker’s Jiffy sign!”
“I will do no such thing. Sit your behind down in your chair and wait for the bus.”
“You dare question my authority? I outrank you.”
“You outrank me? In what dream?” Gen turned to face him, her hands on her hips. She was biting the inside corners of her lips to keep from smiling.
“I’ve been staff for longer than you.”
“Yeah, you and your long staff. So impressive.” Gen sat back down in her canvas chair, rolling her eyes. “And yet, you’re out here with me on freezing bus detail. Shouldn’t you have a more important job, oh highly ranked one?”
“Yes. And I do. Acquisition of the Jiffy Latrine sign.”
“You’re nuts. Have fun with that. I’m going to sit here and pretend it’s August.” Or July, when the air was thick and humid and relentlessly hot. When she never had a good hair day, no matter what her hair products promised. When she spent three straight months wearing a ball cap with a ponytail pulled through the back loop, leaving her with a nearly permanent crease across the back of her head. When it was never quiet or still, when there were campers everywhere and noise and laughter and the smells of marshmallows, campfires, and—depending on the direction of the wind—horse poop followed her all day. When all those things combined into the sensory distraction that felt like home. Since her parents had died, camp was the most familiar home she had within reach.
Jeremy wasn’t being the distraction she’d expected, though. She’d hoped that during the few days of Winter Camp, their friendship could go back to being normal and easy, and she could pretend like he’d never kissed her, like they hadn’t been apart for more than a year with things unfinished and unsaid. They’d covered up the unanswered questions with a mountain of status updates, texts, e-mail, messages, and digital snapshots, which were meaningful since they kept her connected to Jeremy across oceans and time zones, but meaningless in that they didn’t talk about what had really happened, and what might have changed.
Jeremy seemed to be acting like his usual giant, goofy self. Maybe he’d forgotten that they’d kissed in the first place.
“You dream of August. I’ll dream of my new sign.” Jeremy folded his arms over his chest and grinned down at her. With her sitting and him standing at full height with his horribly perfect posture, it was like trying to look up at the sun—painful yet difficult to look away.
“You’re nuts, Jer,” Gen said, shaking her head and curling into a ball in her lawn chair, desperate for any kind of warmth. Maybe yoga would help. The kind of yoga where she lit her chair on fire, hid under four blankets, and drank from a flask.
“The Jiffy Latrine shall be mine! It will be epic!” Jeremy raised his arms and bellowed into the forest, startling two birds from their branches and causing snow to fall directly onto Gen’s head.
“What the—Jeremy!” With a growl, Gen launched herself from her chair, tackled Jeremy around the midsection, and drove him backward into a snow pile. His surprise gave her an advantage, but it was only momentary.
“You dare attack the latrine pirate? You shall pay!” Since he outweighed her by at least an additional person’s worth of pounds, it was no big deal for Jeremy to toss Gen into the snow pile beside him.
But he didn’t anticipate Gen coming up armed with chunks of very tossable snow and hurling them at his head with a yell. “Never! I defend the rightful signage of the Jiffy Latrine!”
“Rightful, my ass!” Dodging both of Gen’s snowballs, Jeremy built a mammoth snow missile of his own and fired at her. She ducked, rolled past him, and tried to gain her feet long enough to run past him to the chairs. He grabbed her around the waist, hauled her into the air and spun her around.
“You’re an ass!” She tried to escape, but he was too strong, and she was laughing too hard.
“And my rightful ass is incomplete! The Jiffy Latrine shall be mine, and you shall help me attain my booty!”
Jeremy moved to toss her into another snowbank left behind by the plow, but he lost his balance and fell. Gen landed under him, both of them buried past their shoulders in a slanted drift of snow.
“Oh, crap, Gen, did I hurt you?” Jeremy looked horrified, lifting his body away from hers. She rolled to her side, bracketed in the space between his arms, sheltered beneath his chest and suddenly in no need of a flask or any blankets. His proximity was enough to set her on fire.
Then his hands slipped and he landed on her again.
His face was so close to hers, she could only see parts of it at a time. His eyelashes, curled with tears from laughing. His beard, which he’d grown in the time she’d been away, a mix of red, brown, and gold, now with a frosting of snow.
He laughed, but it sounded strained. Jeremy’s cheeks above his beard were already red from the cold, but they burned even deeper when he managed to steady himself and caught her staring at him.
He opened his mouth, and she heard him draw a breath to reply, but he was cut off by the sound of another engine coming down the camp road. He stood up and quickly pulled Gen to her feet. Looking at the ground, at themselves, at the road, and not at each other, they pushed wads of wet, clinging snow from their arms and legs.
“Great. We’re going to welcome ten families into camp like we’re the abominable snow couple.” Gen closed her eyes, feeling her own face burn. Great. She’d just made things more awkward. But Jeremy didn’t seem to notice or care that she’d called them a couple.
“Excellent. Now you’ll have to help me score the Jiffy sign.”
“Why, spousal duties?” She gave up worrying about what she’d said. It was easier to laugh and joke they way they always had instead of thinking twice or three times about what she was going to say.
“You are so twelve.”
“Great! Then I get presents ’cause it’s bar mitzvah time.”
“Yeah, today you are a man. A snow man. Get your own sign, Frosty.”
Then she felt a touch behind her head. Jeremy had removed his glove and was pulling snow from her hair with gentle fingers. It felt like her hair had nerve endings, the feeling of him carefully removing ice from between the dark curls sending tingles over her head and down her back.
Sure, she’d be able to pretend like nothing had happened between them, while his touch made her jump like she’d scuffed her socks on the carpet and touched a light switch. No big deal.
She stepped back, out of his reach, and grabbed her hair with both hands, shaking the rest of the snow away. They almost looked like responsible staff members when a red SUV stopped in front of them.
Scott, the camp director, lowered the window, and Gen saw his smile freeze with a coating of horror when he felt the cold air hit his skin.
“Ready for Winter Camp?” Scott’s voice was as awkward as the grin on his face.
“Think so.” Jeremy casually formed a snowball in his gloves as he looked toward the camp gate, a large metal barrier that kept people out more than it kept the horses and children inside. It had closed automatically behind the Jiffy Latrine truck and wouldn’t open again until it was triggered.
“Don’t even think about it, Jeremy,” Scott said, glancing at Jeremy’s hands.
“Me? Throw a snowball into your nicely appointed and very attractive car? After you made a special trip out to get snacks for our cabin? Never. I’d never do such a thing.”
Jeremy tossed his snowball from one hand to the other, grinning at Scott.
“Did you get the heat to come on?”
Jeremy’s grin didn’t falter, but he stopped playing catch. “Yup. All cabins closest to the dining hall have heat, and the thermostats are set to keep them warm. I have it on my schedule to check them every few hours.”
Scott nodded, glancing out the windshield as he pressed a button on the remote attached to his visor to open the gates. The metal arms of the gate made slow progress through the snowdrifts, but they were slow moving in the summer, too, when the road was clear beneath them.
“Gen, I got your supplies for s’mores.”
“You are such a chocolate snob.”
Jeremy looked between them, confused. “S’mores?”
“I’m staying in your cabin,” Gen replied.
“Our cabin?” Jeremy’s eyes widened, like he was horrified. That did wonders for her confidence, but she didn’t let it show in her voice.
“Water pipes burst in the girls’ bunkhouse. Everything is soaked.”
“One more thing to fix,” Scott said to no one in particular.
Jeremy still looked aghast at the idea.
“Why, is something wrong? Did you have someone coming to stay with you?”
“Stay? What? No. No one.” Jeremy tugged off his cap and rubbed the top of his head with one hand. Then he smiled, bright and eager. “This’ll be great. Assistance in pursuit of merriment and Jiffy!”
“Jiffy? You need peanut butter, too?”
“No, not peanut butter. Don’t worry about it, Scott.” Gen moved in front of Jeremy and when Scott looked away, she elbowed him in the side.
He opened his mouth to protest, but the low rumble and creak of the gates stopped, and the silence interrupted him. They all turned to look. The gates stood only half-open, but high ridges of snow had collected beneath each arm.
“Well, that’s not good,” Jeremy said, his voice dry.
“Come on, Mr. Snow Man.” Gen pushed past Jeremy, but took his arm to pull him along with her. They started clearing the snowdrifts from beneath the metal bars with their hands, kicking the heavy gates open bit by bit. When the gates were finally pressed into the snowbanks on the side of the road, they were both breathing heavily, but the gate motor didn’t restart.
Scott drove through but then parked his car in the road and got out. He stood, looking toward the top of the hill, where the dirt road hit the blacktop that eventually curled through the nearest town, then at the silent gate.
“Can you fix it?”
Jeremy shrugged. “Probably. But we’re supposed to get more snow tonight or tomorrow, so they’d likely get stuck again. They’re not meant to open against snow and ice.”
“They’re meant to withstand impact from a vehicle. Snow shouldn’t be a problem,” Scott answered, rubbing his hand on his face.
Jeremy wandered closer to the gatepost, examining the enclosure that housed the motor and the remote sensor. “I can take a look at it, but it’ll have to be later, since—”
Scott’s worry interrupted him. “If the families drive into camp and the gates are open and no one’s here, that’s a terrible first impression.”
“We’re already here to welcome them,” Gen replied, incredulous. Did Scott think they were hanging out by the road for fun, that they didn’t each have a to-do list with fourteen million things on it? “We’ll send the buses straight in, then close the gates manually. They won’t notice.”
Jeremy looked over his shoulder at her, his eyebrows raised in surprise. He was trying to pry the black metal cover off the motor, with little success.
“And we don’t need to leave once we’re here,” Genevieve continued. “If there’s an emergency, we can take the fire road, but we shouldn’t have to leave camp more than once this week. The gates usually stay closed anyway.”
Scott looked at Gen, then at the gates. He nodded slowly, and climbed back into his car. “The buses should be here in a half an hour or so.”
“Aye, sir!” Jeremy saluted as Scott started his car and drove away from them.
After Scott’s car disappeared around the bend and the silence surrounded them once more, Gen followed Jeremy back to their chairs, which, thanks to their battle, were covered with fist-sized tufts of snow. Gen tried to brush it off but ended up smearing white all over the canvas.
“He’s uptight about something,” Jeremy said quietly.
“He’s always uptight about something. Comes with the job, I think.”
Jeremy sat down, undisturbed by the cold clumps of ice on his chair. He folded his arms across his chest, one hand pulling at his beard. Gen watched his hand, her eyes following the line of his profile as he frowned, deep in thought. When he glanced over and caught her staring, he turned and faced her. His expression was serious, thoughtful in a way she hadn’t really seen him before.
“The gate not working shouldn’t be that big of a deal. He was really wigged about it.”
“The gate’s important. It keeps us safe, and sends a message that we’re paying attention to security.”
Jeremy shrugged. “There’s a cop outside our synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, too. He doesn’t do much. Not sure what message that sends, other than, Hey, we’re watching. With one dude.”
“That’s the point.” Gen repositioned her chair alongside his but didn’t sit down.
“Few people know we’re here in the summer,” Jer continued. “No one expects us to be here in the winter. What’s the big deal?”
“No idea. But either way, we’ll operate the gate manually. It’ll be our workout for the day.”
“Yes!” Jeremy’s roar made her look at him, and his silly grin made her smile instantly, like a reflex. After months apart, every summer they fell into the rhythm of the previous year. Maybe this week wouldn’t be so difficult. If she could stop herself from staring at him so much.
“My manly strength shall protect us all!”
“Just keep the heat on, big guy,” she said, shoving him in the shoulder.
“Wench! I have not forgotten!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her onto his lap. Even with layers of clothing, parkas, ski pants, and more between them, she could feel the firmness of his body, and without thinking about it, she grabbed onto his shoulders, holding tight.
His grin took over his entire face, and the muted sunlight behind the clouds didn’t stop the gold and brown in his beard from catching her attention. Then his smile began to slip, just a little. She forced her eyes up to his.
He was staring at her mouth.
She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue before she spoke. “You haven’t forgotten what?”
He shifted suddenly, almost like a flinch, and leaned away from her, his happy expression back in place. “You. Me. Sign. We must complete our mission!”
“That’s your mission, dude.” She pushed herself off his lap and moved to her own chair, telling herself that the cold wasn’t that bad, that it hadn’t really been that much warmer in the moment when she’d been on his lap, or beneath him in the snow.
“It is our mission.” He nodded with the kind of confidence told Gen he wasn’t about to forget.
Jeremy never forgot anything.
A little while later, Gen tossed her duffel inside the door of the room she’d chosen and started to unpack. Her wardrobe for eight weeks in the summer was easy: shorts, T-shirts, a few sweatshirts, a hat, sunscreen, and bug spray. Winter meant three times as many clothes for less than a week, including base layers, leggings, pants, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, and socks so thick she could only wear them with boots.
She pulled off one of her shirts and tossed it over a chair, one of the only pieces of furniture in the room. She and Jeremy had several physical layers between them now, in addition to the awkwardness that she felt lurking beneath their otherwise normal conversations. Maybe she was the only one who sensed the way they didn’t fit so easily together anymore. Maybe the awkwardness only existed for her because she still thought about the last time they’d been together at Meira. Last year, when he’d worked half a summer then left before the second session began.
The night he’d left, he’d found her in the art shack, where she worked and pretty much lived between June and August. She’d been sitting on a table, untangling a knotted lanyard that a first-year camper had made and woven incorrectly. She could fix it and show him the right way, but undoing what he’d done in frustration was taking forever.
She’d looked up when Jeremy entered, the screen door swinging behind him. He caught the door before it slammed shut, a sound he knew she hated. She’d turned her attention back to her hands and hadn’t noticed anything different until he stood in front of her, so close that his clothing brushed her skin. She could feel his tension and his unhappiness hitting her like waves knocking against the sides of a canoe.
“I’m going home,” he’d said, his voice quiet and level and sad.
Gen had sat up, staring at him in shock. “What? Did you get fired? Did they find out about the golf cart? That it was us? Oh, no, no. I’m going to talk to Scott.”
She’d dropped the lanyard on the table and reached out to push him back so she could jump off the table to the ground. Jeremy had grabbed her hand, and she’d stopped moving.
“I’m not fired. I got into this program. I was going to start in January, but…” He stopped, then started again. “Someone quit and a spot opened up.”
She remembered confusion and sadness and hurt, so much hurt, because nothing he said made sense. He hadn’t told her anything about a program, about school, about any of it.
“Where are you going?”
“New York.” He’d been so vague, so unwilling to share anything, that the hurt had smothered every other feeling until all she could do was stare at him as he held her hand and watched her face.
“I leave for Iceland in August. Will you—”
“I won’t be back by then. I don’t come home until December.”
“Can I come see you before I go?”
He’d stilled, his eyes unfocused for a moment. Then he’d shaken his head slowly. “No. But I’ll see you when you get back.”
“Jeremy. I’ll be gone for a year. I won’t be back until next summer.”
“Then I’ll see you…then.” He’d tried to smile, but gave up. The grin that usually encompassed his face faded before it reached his eyes.
“I don’t get it. Why didn’t you tell me? What school are you going to?”
He’d stepped closer and dropped her hand, then ran his fingers down the side of her face, over her cheek, then down her neck. She’d been so surprised she hadn’t moved, the hurt dulled by the shock of feeling Jeremy touch her like that.
“I will tell you everything, all about it, once I get there. I didn’t plan this—it was a last-minute thing.”
She hadn’t been able to think of a word to say. She’d just stared at him. His hand had come to rest on her shoulder, and his thumb was tracing the edge of her neck where her pulse was beating in triple time.
“I promise I’ll explain it, but I—I’m sorry.”
He had leaned in, probably to kiss her cheek, but she’d turned her head and kissed him on the mouth. She was still unsure if it had been panic, or fear that she’d never get the chance, or if the changing feelings she’d been trying to figure out had rushed to the surface to direct her actions, but she had kissed him with no hesitation. She’d kissed him like she meant it, and he’d turned toward her and responded like he’d meant it, too.
Within the space of a few seconds, the air around them changed. The summer had already been too hot, but between them, it was scorching. His hand had ended up behind her neck, bringing her closer to him, and her hands had fisted in his shirt, holding on like the room had shifted underneath her. It kind of had.
Then he’d moved away slowly.
“I have to go. I’m so sorry, Genevieve.”
She found out all the details after he’d gone from one of his brother’s friends. He’d gotten into mortuary school. Jeremy’s dad, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and probably more great-great-greats going back ten or more generations, they were all funeral directors in one of the two Jewish funeral homes in their area. Jeremy didn’t like to talk about his family’s business, especially after her parents’ accident, but it hurt that he’d kept it secret, that he’d shut her out of his life outside of camp. She’d finished the summer without him, then gone to Iceland to finish her dad’s sociology research and begin her own postgraduate work.
Real life got in the way of many camp friendships, when distance and other obstacles created boundaries that only disappeared at camp. Deeper, limited-time friendships were normal for kids who spent their summers at Meira, or at any camp, really. There were so many campers who were the best and truest of friends but who only saw one another during the summer. She and Jeremy were like that. Since their first week as campers, through years as counselors-in-training, junior staff, and then senior staff, they’d been best friends. They didn’t see each other at all, hardly ever, in the real world. At camp, they were always together.
Then he’d left with barely any warning. She’d finished the summer, then flown away. The following summer, neither of them had been at camp. Gen had still been in Iceland, experiencing the mania that came with unstoppable daylight, and Jeremy hadn’t signed on as staff.
They hadn’t been together at all since then, for over a year, until now.
At the bottom of her duffel, Gen found the 2013 camp T-shirt and shorts she’d packed. She could wear the T-shirt as a layer beneath six others, but the shorts had no purpose. Still, it had seemed wrong to go to camp without at least one set of Meira clothing, so she’d tossed them in first, before anything else.
She found a place on the shelf for the last of her things and was nearly finished unpacking when Scott poked his head in. “You sure you’re okay with staying in this room?”
Gen looked at him. “Yeah, why?”
“It…doesn’t have a bed?”
This was true, but she didn’t have a lot of options. The bedroom by the back door had no heat and a cracked window besides, and there was no way she’d sleep on the couch in the living room. It was close to the fireplace, but it was also the scene of many staff hookups in years past.
The bedroom she’d chosen had windows that didn’t seep cold air, and it had heat. It also had a connecting door to Jeremy’s room, but the door could stay closed. All of her problems were easily solved—including the lack of a bed.
“It’s fine. I’ll go borrow a sleeping bag and air mattress from the OA shack. No big deal.”
“I don’t want you to be, uh, uncomfortable.” There was a wealth of definitions within that one word, none of which Gen was willing to sort through.
Scott nodded and went back to his room.
When she returned from the Outdoor Adventure shed a few minutes later, the light in Jeremy’s room was on, and she peeked inside looking for him. There were piles of clothes, muddy shoes, cross-country ski equipment, and ropes spilling out of a backpack, but no Jeremy. He’d jumped onto the arriving bus to welcome families to Winter Camp, and he must’ve stayed with them to help unload luggage.
She couldn’t even see his bed under all his stuff. He’d arrived right before she had, too. How did he make so much of a mess in so short a time?
Gen went back to her room, tossed the air mattress she’d borrowed onto the floor and unrolled the sleeping bag, causing a flirtatious hint of pot smoke to fill the room.
“Why does it smell like marijuana?”
Scott stood in the doorway, frowning at her.
“Borrowed gear from the outdoor shack,” Gen said, looking up at him. “Guess all the heat this fall baked in that fresh pot smell.”
“Great.” Scott rubbed a hand over his eyes.
“I can wash it.” Gen shrugged one shoulder. “And if the smell doesn’t come out, we’ll roll the sleeping bags into big vinyl doobies and make brownies out of the stuffing.”
“Light and airy brownies? Let’s do it!” Jeremy’s voice carried in from the hall.
Gen laughed. Jeremy stuck his head in the room over Scott’s shoulder. “I can has brownies?”
“Gen, you are cruel. Tempting people with mentions of fine baked goods.” Scott backed out of the doorway and Jeremy ducked his head to enter the room. She watched him from the corner of her eye, and when he was within striking distance, Gen pulled a towel out of her bag and snapped it expertly through the air toward him.
“Attacked!” Jeremy feinted to one side and grabbed the towel, pulling it from her hands. “I will defend my honor!”
“Truce!” Gen raised both hands as Jeremy spun the towel into a cord. Instead of trying to snap her with it, he coiled it into a figure eight with flared edges, like an oversized napkin sculpture at a formal restaurant. Then he tossed the bundle back to her.
“So, fair lady. You’re making yourself comfortable in the Jiffy Cabin?”
Gen looked around. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me you already ripped off the Jiffy Latrine guy.”
“Not yet, but he’ll be back. And I will be ready.” He looked at the adjoining door to his room, then back at Gen. She unzipped her sleeping bag all the way, then shook it to dislodge any potential bugs or pebbles left inside.
“Whoa.” He crouched down next to her. “Gen, that really smells like a massive joint.”
“Maybe there’s one in here,” Gen said, inspecting the edge.
“That would be…something.” Jeremy grabbed the coiled towel and shook it out. Then he began folding it, flipping one edge over and matching the corners precisely. “Why’re you using an air mattress?”
“You see a bed in here?”
“Good point.” His ears began to turn red, and he looked down at the folded towel in his hands before he shoved it quickly back into her duffel.
Gen looked closer at the sleeping bag, then sniffed the fabric. “Good grief. Seriously, does no one wash these things?”
“Not really. They’re not used for, ahem, sleeping after the end of camp, and no one does that laundry until the start of summer.”
Jeremy hadn’t been at camp this past summer, and neither had she. But he had been on the OA staff the year before, and her imagination picked that moment to torment her with fantasies she’d imagined since then and had tried to forget. Fantasies involving secluded areas in the forest, sleeping bags, and, like he’d said, a distinct lack of sleeping.
Now it was her turn to blush.
“Gross. I turn down sleeping on the nooky couch and end up with the nooky bag.” Gen zipped up the fabric and rolled it into a tight bundle. “I have to go back to OA and find another bag that’s not crusty, doesn’t smell like a joint, and isn’t coated with weird stains. That’ll be easy.”
“Nah, don’t worry. I got it.” Jeremy stood up and scratched his head with both hands. When he finished, his brown hair stood up in a fuzzy halo around his head, making him seem even taller.
“Nice wolf do.”
“Thanks.” Then he grinned at her, his face lighting with inspiration. “Follow me, Red Riding Hood, to the storage pit!”
Too small to be a bedroom or an office, the closet at the end of the hall had become a giant pit of random crap over the years. Jer walked toward it, peeking in the other rooms to see if there was anything useful lurking in the empty corners.
Gen followed him. “I can promise you, anything you pull out of the pit is going to smell worse than what I’ve got already.”
“Oh, ye of little imagination.”
“I don’t need imagination to know that the stuff in there smells.”
Jer pulled open the door and looked inside, reaching up to pull the string on the lightbulb and leaning his arm against the door frame above her head. He frowned. “I know I put an old bed frame in here.”
“When was that?” Gen ducked under his arm and moved into the closet. Her hand brushed over the softness of his shirt as she slid past him, and she caught a trace of his scent. The familiarity of it made her press her fingers against him, against the firmness beneath the faded cotton of his shirt. It was no big deal to touch him. They hugged, they sat arm in arm by the fire, and they pushed each other in and out of windows in the middle of the night, pulling off pranks that campers still talked about. It should be no problem to touch him now.
Except it was. His shirt and the skin beneath it were very warm, almost hot, probably from lifting luggage and helping families unpack. The muscles beneath her fingers were hard, and there were curves she’d never met before, ridges she wanted to explore and see for herself. He’d changed in the last year and a half—and not just by growing a beard. He seemed more solid, stronger and more at ease with his height and size. He’d never been small, not even as a kid, but when he hit his teenage growth spurt, he’d grown in all directions and kept going. Once they were staff members, he was always the tallest out of everyone, and one of the few people strong enough to move canoes in and out of the dining hall in the middle of the night by himself.
Well, Gen had helped. She hadn’t grown much as a teen, so she was small enough for him to lift so she could crawl into windows and unlock doors. She couldn’t carry a canoe over her head by herself, but she could help him arrange canoe Stonehenge in the dining hall.
Her hand remained on his side, and though she was looking into the closet, she didn’t see any of it. Her attention had been transferred entirely to her fingertips, and they wanted to explore. She yanked her hand away and looked up at him, embarrassed.
He was watching her, a surprised expression on his face. But his eyes were narrow, and his attention felt like she was standing too close to a bonfire.
She moved away, pulling her focus back where it should be. What had they been talking about?
Right. A bed.
Just what she should be thinking about at that moment.
“You put a bed in here? Really? When?”
“About two years ago.”
She nodded, turning to face him. “The old wood bed from the cabins down by the lake?”
“Firewood. Last year. Second session.”
“Crap,” Jeremy said, one hand in his hair.
“Yeah, it did make crap firewood.”
“There has to be a bed somewhere close by that we can move.”
“Why? I have an air mattress,” she replied.
Jeremy shook his head. “Sleep on the floor? There’s, like, icicles down there. Penguins could live in your room. You can’t. No way.”
She blinked at him.
“Gen. The floor of this cabin isn’t well insulated, if at all. There’s no way you’re sleeping on the floor, and definitely not in a bag that smells like spliff and spooge.”
She was trying not to notice the expression on his face, the way he looked at her with concern that made her feel both warm and nervous inside. “Good name for a band,” she said.
His grin erased the seriousness. “Totally. See? This is why you’re my first choice for partner in crime.”
She felt a hot twist in her stomach. “I’m still not helping you steal that sign.”
“We can find another sleeping bag.” He put one hand on her shoulder and, she noted, ignored what she’d said. He closed the closet door behind them, and his touch brought her with him down the hall. “I have spare blankets in my car, and there are more in the linen supply by housekeeping.”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
“This is going to be great, Gen. Instead of sneaking out with bug spray, we can stay in and plot world domination.”
“Or camp domination. Either way.”
He grinned at her, his face happy and relaxed, and she felt guilty for her hesitation around him, her almost instinctive need to push space between them.
“I’m taking this pot-reeking thing back to its pot-reeking friends, and I’ll find a less grody sleeping bag on my way back,” he said, grabbing the offending coil of fabric and tucking it under his arm.
She watched him through the window. He marched through the snow, her ex–sleeping bag under his arm. Her smile faded slowly, and she didn’t look away until he was out of sight.
Even with separate rooms and a shared door, and no intentions between them, this was not going to be easy.
Gen was folding one of her shirts for the third time when she overheard Scott and his wife, Rebecca, enter the cabin. Rebecca sounded angry.
Gen dropped her shirt on a shelf and went to close her door to give them some flimsy particleboard privacy when she heard Rebecca say, “Yeah, and this time next year you might not have a job.”
She froze, waiting to hear Scott’s response as they entered their room across the hall.
“I know…” she heard him say, but the rest of his response was muffled when the back door opened. Then the sound of footsteps down the hall covered up everything else. Gen was still holding her breath, wondering if it were possible to hear anything through the walls between her room and Scott’s when Jeremy walked in.
“Yo!” His voice boomed out, echoing off the walls and ending any audible conversation in the next room. Gen gestured at him to be quiet, then grabbed his arm and pulled him down the hall.
He tried to pull his arm back. “Gen.”
Gen held her finger to her lips and dragged him to the back door.
“Genevieve. I just took my coat off and I’m—” He was silenced by Gen’s hand over his mouth. His eyes widened.
She stood on her toes and leaned in close, her hand and a fraction of air between their mouths. She saw him glance at her lips, but she didn’t remove her hand. She could feel the ice clinging to his beard, and the cold softness of his cheeks beneath her fingertips. His lips twitched beneath her index finger.
“Come with me,” she said in a bare whisper, the warmth of her breath covering her hand. “I need to talk to you.”
He nodded. She removed her hand, slowly, watching his eyes, but then she lost her nerve and looked away.
Jeremy stood perfectly still as Gen pushed her feet into her boots, put on her parka, and handed him his own, still covered with snow that hadn’t melted yet.
“I so do not want to go outside.” He spoke on the exhale of his breath, quieter than a whisper, like they’d done so many times sneaking out during the summer. He’d leaned down so his mouth was close to her ear, and when she turned her head to answer, her nose brushed against his. He stood back.
“Just for a second,” Gen mouthed at him.
He pointed at two crumpled wads of fabric resting in a puddle. His gloves. The edges were almost steaming as they curled over the front of the baseboard heater.
Gen shook her head at him, then zipped her coat, flipped up the hood, and stepped out onto the back porch. It wasn’t much of one, barely big enough to hold the two of them.
He faced her once he closed the door, his mouth drawn into a tight line beneath his whiskers, his eyebrows low over his eyes. “Okay, so tell me: Why do we need to go stand in the snow right now? You needed more cold?”
“Ha. No.” Gen was trying to find a place to stand where she could look up into his face and keep her voice quiet, but not so close that she was…too close. She gave up. Jeremy started to push his hands into his pockets, but Gen grabbed his arm and pulled him closer. He stilled the minute she touched him.
“Remember those rumors we heard last year? Before you went home? That camp might close?” Gen whispered, keeping her voice quiet. Her words formed a white cloud and she looked down for a second. She didn’t want to see them.
“Yeah. I thought everything went fine this year. I wasn’t here, but I didn’t hear anything bad.”
“I didn’t either, but I just overheard Rebecca say something to Scott that maybe next year he wouldn’t have a job.”
They stared at each other, no clouds between them. She shivered. Jeremy lifted Gen’s hand from his arm and put it into his pocket. His fingers covered hers completely, but she could feel how wet his pocket was, the fleece within soaked like his gloves. What had he been doing, rolling in the snow like a puppy?
Gen shook her head, then tucked their joined hands into her own pocket, which was dry and very warm from being above the heater for so long. Doing so caused him to lean down closer to her, but her hands weren’t cold, and his weren’t, either.
“What can we do?” Gen asked, staring at precise line of snow on the railing.
“Dunno,” he said on a sigh, forming another cloud that blew away from them.
“You think that’s why Scott had this crazy idea for a winter camp?”
“Maybe.” Jeremy leaned back against the wooden banister. Their hands were still joined, tucked into her pocket, and she allowed herself to be pulled by his movement until she stood next to him, leaning against his arm. “I figured part of it was to prove that the facility had revenue potential in the off-season.”
“Can’t be much revenue,” Gen said, still looking at the snow. “It’s got to be expensive to keep the cabins and common areas heated.”
“I was just thinking about that.” He took a slow breath, and she felt the movement of his body beside hers. “Some of Scott’s assignments make more sense now.”
“One of the things I had to do today was hang signs in the cabins. A reminder on each door to turn the heaters down to a lower temperature when the activities are going on.”
“You think families will do it?”
“No, but Scott asked me to go around and check that they’re set.”
“Watching every degree and every penny?”
“Yup. And keeping everyone safe. People put wet stuff on the heaters.”
“You don’t say.” She glanced at him with a smile.
“Plus, there’s other little things, like only opening two staff buildings instead of three—and now there’s one with broken pipes and a ceiling to fix? Ouch.”
Gen felt a tightening sensation in her chest. “Camp can’t close,” she said, her voice equally tight and strained.
“I agree. Let’s think about it and see what we can find out.” Jeremy put his other arm around her and pulled her closer, leaning his chin on top of her head the way he always had. The weight of his arm and the scent of his hair were so familiar, she could have closed her eyes and imagined it was summer. But the icy cold of his hand tucked into hers told her it wasn’t.
And on the heels of that realization came the awareness of how much had changed. Those changes filled in the space between them, and what had been easy and familiar became stiff and awkward, and she had to move away. Jeremy squeezed her fingers, then pulled his hand out of her pocket. He held the door open for her, and they went back inside without saying a word.