The banner ripples across the front of St. Agnes Hall. WELCOME TO SCCWEE—SUMMERTIME CHINESE CULTURE, WELLNESS, AND ENRICHMENT EXPERIENCE! My chest twinges, which makes sense now that I know the heart is made up of muscle fibers. For an entire year, I’ve longed for camp with every single one of those cells. It’s like my heart is physically tied to this place and every day apart stretches those fibers more and more, until I feel like I’m going to snap.
Dad pulls into a parking space in front of St. Agnes Hall. The moment the car comes to a complete stop, I spring out and wrap my arms around Lyrica, who is waiting on the curb.
The tension I’ve been feeling for months unravels in an instant. “I’m here! Let the Squee times begin!” The camp’s name is so long, we all just call it “Squee.”
“Phee!” my best friend squeals, hugging me back. “You’re finally here. I can’t wait to set up our room!”
“Let’s go, then!” I spin around only to lock eyes with Dad. He’s standing next to the open trunk, his eyebrows raised. “Oh, right. I need my stuff first.”
My younger brother, Matthew, climbs out of the car and bumps fists with Lyr.
“Hey, Matty,” she says, using the nickname I gave him when he was born and that has stuck ever since. “First time at overnight camp. You must be super excited!”
He grins mischievously. “I can’t wait to break into the snack closet. Emerson said he’d show me how.”
Lyr leans closer to Matty. “Can you get me some White Rabbit candy?” she murmurs conspiratorially.
“Swedish Fish for me, please. And tell Emerson it’s not fair that he’s only showing you
how to get into the snack closet. He’s my big brother, too.”
Matty laughs. “I promise to tell you the secret so you can steal your own candy next time.”
“Phoenny!” Dad calls from the back of the car. He wrestles my giant suitcase out of the trunk, and it lands on its side with a loud thump
. “What is in this thing? Did you pack my old law books for some summer reading?”
I rush over, and Lyr helps me lift the suitcase onto its wheels. “How did you guess?” Dad’s fondest dream is for all three of his kids to follow in his footsteps, become lawyers, and join his law firm. I don’t want to burst his bubble, but I’d rather eat his huge legal dictionary than read it. Better yet, I’d tear out all the pages and make one of those paper dresses I’ve seen on social media. “Actually, it’s just full of clothes and props for camp activities,” I tell him.
It’s not exactly a lie. Other kids bring Rubik’s Cubes to show off their skills at the Variety Show. Lyr brings her digital piano, which must be at least four feet long. Me? I don’t go anywhere without my sewing machine if I can help it. I also packed a bunch of different fabrics, spools of thread, and all the tools I thought I might need. I’d love to make something for each of my friends if I have time. Without them, I might not have gotten through seventh grade. Even if I don’t have a bestie at school anymore, I still have my camp besties—the Squad.
Dad heaves my second suitcase out of the car and shakes his head in disbelief. “Well, I can’t imagine you forgot anything,” he says, “but if you did, give me a call.” He hands Matty his duffel bag and shuts the trunk. “Have a great two weeks. I’ll see you at the Showcase. In the meantime, do me a favor and look after your mom and brothers, okay?”
I roll my eyes at Dad. “Emerson is sixteen and a counselor-in-training. CITs are supposed to look after us
.” Nevertheless, I hook my pinkie around his to promise, hug him goodbye, and pull my suitcases into the building.
A boy runs into the lobby and skids to a stop. “Matty! Look!” He raises a hoverboard above his head like a trophy. “Come try it out!”
“Cool!” Matty says. He kicks his duffel under the desk, and the two take off without a backward glance.
Beside me, Lyr laughs. “Good luck keeping an eye on that one. Come on, let’s go get our room keys.”
I glance around the lobby. Our moms are nowhere to be seen, but their voices carry through a set of double doors to our left. Mom is the director of Squee, and Lyr’s mom, whom I call Chǔ Auntie, is the assistant director. Every year, they ask us to come early so we can help with last-minute errands. Once camp starts, they’re usually so busy we see them only in passing. Lyr and I peek into the living room and wave at our moms. Chǔ Auntie smiles and waves back, but Mom just nods and keeps giving instructions to the parent volunteers seated around her.
“Awesome. Looks like they’ve got it covered.”
We leave our luggage with one of the other volunteers and head over to the Student Center building, where there’s a big room Carmen College has helpfully labeled the “Multi-Purpose Room.” Campers have called it the Flex ever since one of the parents who’s also an interior designer described it as a “flexible room.” Squee uses the Flex for a bunch of different activities, including the big dance. Although the tables for check-in are set up, the room keys aren’t here. And there aren’t any counselors or CITs in sight.
“Do you think they’re still eating lunch?” Lyr asks.
I snort. “I bet Emerson is. He never stops eating. Let’s go check it out.”
It’s Emerson’s first year as a CIT, so he came to camp a couple of days ago for orientation. I wonder if he knows which group of campers he’s been assigned to. It better not be my group, or I’m going to insist that Mom reassign him. He bosses me around enough at home.
We head up a flight of stairs to the cafeteria, which is right above the Flex. Sure enough, Emerson is at a corner table with a bunch of other guys, a slice of pizza in his hand. He looks up as we come in and immediately checks the time on his phone.
“Hey!” he calls loudly. “You’re early. Check-in doesn’t start for another hour. Go back to your room and wait until it’s time.”
The boy next to him shakes his head. “We’re supposed to be nice to the campers, dude.”
Emerson scoffs. “Cooper. They aren’t normal campers. That’s my sister and her friend, Assistant Director Chǔ’s daughter.”
The boy catches my eye and quirks his brow. That’s Cooper Han? I didn’t recognize him, either. What happened to the skinny guy with bad skin? I scan the faces around the table, feeling my cheeks warm. High schoolers can really change a lot in a year.
I shrink a little as the group of guys watches us approach and force myself to just focus on my brother. “We can’t go back to our room, Emmy
. If you’d paid attention at Orientation instead of staring at the girls, you’d know why.”
The other boys laugh, and one says, “Oooh, burn.”
Emerson scowls. Lyr clears her throat and says lightly, “We’re trying to get our room keys. They’re not on the tables down in the Flex. Do any of you happen to have them?”
There’s a round of “nopes” and headshaking around the table. Then someone behind me says, “They were in the lobby last time I saw. One of the staff was sorting the envelopes.” The voice is unfamiliar, with an accent I can’t quite place.
A cobalt-blue Hydro Flask appears next to me. It’s being held by a boy in an open long-sleeved white button-down over his turquoise camp T-shirt. He’s definitely new. I wouldn’t forget someone who looks like he belongs in a boy band. His hair is on the longer side and swoops perfectly over the side of his face. My breath catches as I try to respond, and I end up coughing instead. Get it together
, I tell myself.
“Thanks,” Lyr says. “We’ll just go back to Agnes.”
Confusion flickers across the boy’s handsome face. “Um, it was actually a man. Sorry, but I don’t know his name.”
There’s a burst of laughter from the table. “Agnes isn’t a person; it’s the name of the dorm. St. Agnes Hall,” Emerson says. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn our nicknames for everything, H.”
“H? Like Hydro Flask?” I blurt. There’s another round of laughter, but now it’s directed at me. My face feels like it’s been scorched by the sun.
Hydro Flask Boy grins. “Well, yes, but in my case it’s H for Harrison.”
“Um, hi,” I stammer. “I’m Phee and this is Lyr.”
“Hello, Phee and Lyr. Nice to meet you.” Harrison’s hello
sounds more like haa-lo
, and I wonder if he’s British.
I can barely remember what I’m supposed to say. “Nice to meet you, too,” I finally manage, while Lyr just grins and Emerson shakes his head. I grab Lyr’s hand and practically run out of the cafeteria.
On the sidewalk, Lyr bumps my shoulder with hers. “H for Hydro Flask?!” She giggles uncontrollably.
I cover my face with my hands. “I know, I know. So cringe.” I take a deep breath and try to shake it off. “Now I’m going to have to avoid him for the next two weeks.”
Lyr and I pretend to fan ourselves on the path back to Agnes, giggling the whole way.
In the lobby, Chǔ Auntie hands us each a lanyard. She introduces us to Zhāng Uncle, who is holding a box of envelopes.
“Chǔ, Chǔ, Chǔ,” Zhāng Uncle murmurs, flipping through the box. “Here you are, Lyrica.” He hands Lyr a small manila envelope with her name, room number, group number, and roommate’s name printed on it. Inside are an ID card and room key card. Lyr slides them into the plastic pocket on her lanyard and hangs it around her neck.
“Look! We’re roomies!” She points to my name on her envelope and mimes surprise.
I press my hand against my heart and exhale dramatically. “Whew. I was really worried.” Sometimes it’s great that our moms are best friends, just like me and Lyr. They know that we’d be devastated if we weren’t rooming together. And that we’d make their lives miserable.
Zhāng Uncle finds my envelope, and I immediately scan it for our group number. “Group 13? Since when did we start having a Group 13? I don’t want our last year of overnight camp to be full of bad luck.”
Chǔ Auntie overhears me and laughs. “Phoenny, we also have a Group 4, so we are equal-opportunity superstitious. Or not superstitious, as the case may be. And we had to create an extra group because a lot of new campers joined us this year.”
Oh, right. I seem to remember Mom saying something about that months ago. I honestly hadn’t thought about it since. There are new kids every year, but they’re usually little and just come to Squee for day camp. I can’t think of a time when there were so many that a new group had to be created, though.
Lyr looks as puzzled as I feel. “I don’t get it. They’re all in overnight camp? Why did you have to make a whole new group? Aren’t there enough existing groups?”
Her mom thinks for a moment. “The Committee members that handle registration said a bunch of the new campers are all entering eighth grade in the fall, like you two. Since groups are created according to grade level, we could either have one enormous Group 12 or create a new group. We decided it would be too difficult for the teachers and counselors to manage a very large group, so now we have a Group 13.”
I’m the first person to admit that I don’t like change, especially after my circle of friends at school broke apart last year. I watched helplessly as they joined other groups without inviting me along, leaving me on the sidelines by myself. I never want to experience that kind of loneliness again. “Well, that sounds okay, as long as the Squad is still together.”
There’s a long moment of silence before Chǔ Auntie says, “About that . . .”
I give Lyr a look and we both start to talk, but Chǔ Auntie holds up a hand to stop us. “We had to place some of your friends in the other group to even out the numbers. I’m sorry; I know that’s not what you were hoping for, but we couldn’t keep all eight of you together this year. Five of the incoming girls asked to remain together, and since they’re new, we agreed.”
My head spins like an empty spool of thread left on the machine. Squee doesn’t take campers older than eighth grade. I’d been imagining my friends and I hanging out day and night, soaking each other up one last time and creating memories we’d never forget. Now we’ve been separated, and I’ll hardly see some of them at all after not seeing them for most of the school year. One look at Chǔ Auntie’s set face tells me nothing I say will change her mind about the groups. It’s no use asking my mom, either. I feel the sting of tears.
“Come on,” Lyr says, tugging on my arm and breaking me out of my thoughts. “Let’s go set up our room.”
Numbly, I grab my suitcases. They feel ten times heavier than they did before. Which of the Squad are in Group 13 with me? Which ones aren’t? I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that at least Lyr and I are together. I’m not totally on my own.
Copyright © 2024 by Andrea Wang. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.