A final camping trip before college holds changes for Ainsley and Jesse.
Sparks flew as the fire snapped and crackled. Orange flames twisted and twirled around each other, climbing higher and higher until they faded away to nothing in the pitch darkness. I picked a flame and followed it from the orange tip, past the yellow layers, to the blue flame that flickered over the blackened log. Rectangles etched across the surface glowed an orangey-red, pulsing to an unheard beat, as if the wood had a heartbeat.
My parents had abandoned the fire half an hour ago, tired out from the hike we’d taken earlier today. While I’d enjoyed walking along the gorge and being sprinkled by the cool water from the cascades, something was missing. No, not something, someone.
Every year our families camped together at Watkins Glen State Park the first week of August. A tradition we started thirteen years ago. We’d hike the gorge, swim in the park pool, and roast marshmallows over the fire. My favorite part was sitting by the fire and falling into the hypnotic stare that came from staring at dancing flames. Like now, except it felt different tonight. Lonelier.
God, I couldn’t even last a day without him. How would I make it an entire semester? I should have applied to schools closer to home, or where Jesse had. Heck, he’d gone with me for tours of schools he had no interest in. No, his heart was set on Harvard and nothing would sway him. Just like nothing would sway me from Cornell.
When I saw the package from Harvard sitting on his kitchen table the week of graduation, the first stirrings of pain swept through me. The thick package meant only one thing. The MBA program at his dream school had accepted him. When I’d asked him about it, he’d shrugged and said he hadn’t decided yet. I’d rolled my eyes and snorted. Harvard was his thing.
But it wasn’t mine. I hadn’t even applied there. Instead, I’d put all my eggs into the Cornell basket and, thanks to my grades, I’d landed in my program of choice—Veterinary Medicine.
Everything was perfect, and yet not. Something was off kilter—missing. All my friends were excited about graduating and going off to college. But I dreaded the day I’d pack up my things and leave because I wouldn’t see Jesse until our first break, which would be months away. We’d never been apart for longer than a day. A week apart would devastate me, and a semester would probably kill me. Phone calls and Skype would help, but they weren’t the same as just being with him. I should have given this more thought before I signed the acceptance letter.
The log shifted and sparks flew in the air. I scooted back, the air cool on my overheated face. Behind me, twigs snapped as something moved through the woods. Probably someone from the site behind us looking for wood to add to their fire.
The cracking grew louder until it sounded like it came from right behind my chair. I jumped and turned, scanning the tree line, my eyes slow to adjust to the utter blackness behind me. Something— no someone—moved toward me.
My body poised for flight and a scream hovered in my throat. Before I released it, a hand slapped over my mouth. An arm wrapped around my waist, trapping me against a hard, warm body. I grabbed at the fingers covering my mouth, trying to tear them away, ignoring the words being whispered in my ear. The person’s grip gentled but didn’t release me.
“Ainsley,” a familiar voice whispered in my ear.
All my bones turned to jelly. “Jesse?”
His breath tickled my ear as he asked, “If I let you go now are you going to scream?”
I shook my head, not wanting him to mistake my muffled answer. His hand drifted away from my mouth, but his arm remained banded around my waist, anchoring me to him. I leaned against him, taking a moment to enjoy the rightness of being in his arms.
“I can’t believe you’re here. Pinch me.”
“What?” He chuckled, the sound rumbling through me, bringing goose bumps to life on my arms. “Why would I do that?”
“So I know I’m not dreaming.”
He spun me around, scooped me into his arms, and sat down in my chair with me on his lap. “You’re not dreaming.”
“But…” I frowned and shook my head. “You said your family wasn’t coming this year.”
“They aren’t. Mom and dad are in Pittsburgh. Dad has mandatory training.”
“Oh, so, why didn’t you go with them?”
He smiled and tugged on a lock of my hair. “Because I had to work. But, it’s the weekend, and I’m off now. You didn’t think I’d miss out on our yearly trip, did you?”
I settled against him and sighed. “Maybe, but I’m glad you came. Nothing’s the same without you.”
His entire body tensed at my words. “Ains, if you can’t make it through a weekend camping trip without me, how are you going to make it through a semester of college?”
Tears burned my eyes as he forced me to face reality. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll be forced to find someone else to hang with.” Not that it would help. No one could replace Jesse. “I don’t want to talk about it now. We have two more weeks until we leave. Let me worry about it then.”
He rubbed his hand up my back and threaded his fingers into my hair, using light pressure to twist my head until my face lifted. His green eyes stared down at me, looming closer as he pressed his forehead to mine.
“Or, we could talk about it now.”
I rolled my eyes. “Right because talking will change the future. You’re going to Harvard and I’m going to Cornell.”
His lips quirked up on the side as if he was fighting a smile. “I never said I was going to Harvard.” He leaned back and tapped my nose with his finger. “You assumed it when you saw the packet from them.”
“You’re going to Harvard. It’s your dream school.”
He shrugged, the movement shifting his hands in my hair, releasing me from his hold. “Not anymore.”
I hopped off his lap and paced toward the fire, needing its warmth to replace the sudden chill in my bones.
“Wh-why isn’t it your dream school?”
He stepped up behind me and wrapped his arms around me. Secure in his embrace, he leaned down, his lips brushing my ear as he whispered, “Because you’re not there.”
I turned in his arms, his hands still on my waist. His gaze drifted over my face, lingering on my lips. “So, where are you going to college?”
He leaned in and brushed his lips over mine so light, so quick, I wasn’t sure it had happened. “Where do you think?”
I slid my hands up his neck, twining my fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, tugging him closer. This time, when our lips brushed, I felt the touch all the way to my tiptoes. I wanted it to last forever, but he pulled away much too soon.
“Please tell me you’re going to Cornell.”
He swallowed my squeal of happiness with his lips, and this time, he didn’t pull away too soon.
This story is most like The Boyfriend Project, the first in a series of YA romantic comedy novellas releasing at the end of June. For more information, sign up for my newsletter at marywaibel.blogspot.com
YA author Mary Waibel’s love for fairytales and happy-ever fill the pages of her works. Whether penning stories in a medieval setting or a modern day school, magic and romance weave their way inside every tale. Strong female characters use both brain and brawn to save the day and win the heart of their men. Mary enjoys connecting with her readers through her website: marywaibel.blogspot.com