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Fiction by Jeff Kinney
Illustrations by Kevin Keele
Jayden was heading to camp, but all he could think of was cousin Elijah.
A few hours earlier the two boys had been in Jayden’s room, and Jayden was stressed — for two reasons. For one, Jayden hadn’t finished packing, and his dad was already waiting out in the car. For two, Jayden’s older cousin, Elijah, was on Jayden’s bed, taking off his socks.
“Yo, what’re you doing?” Jayden said angrily.
Jayden picked Elijah’s sock off the floor, then dropped it when he realized it was wet with sweat.
“Making myself at home!” said Elijah, while tossing his other balled-up sock into Jayden’s hamper with perfect free-throw form. “’Cause that’s where I’m at.”
Jayden glared at Elijah as his cousin made a big show of wriggling under Jayden’s sheets and flopping onto his pillow, hands behind his head.
This was not good. Jayden was heading off to his first-ever Scout camp, and that was stressful enough. But in the middle of packing, he found out Aunt Elyana was going to be staying at his house while he was gone, and she brought Elijah with her.
The thought of Elijah sleeping in his bed while Jayden was in a sleeping bag on the cold, hard ground made him mad. Maybe it would be better to stay home so he —
It was Jayden’s dad, in the driveway. He didn’t like to be kept waiting.
Jayden realized that whatever the sleeping situation was at camp, it had to be better than sharing (his) room with Elijah. He kept packing.
“You better not touch any of my stuff while I’m gone,” Jayden said, cramming handfuls of underwear in his already-overstuffed duffle bag. He really stunk at this packing thing.
But Elijah wasn’t paying attention. He was reading aloud from a book.
“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient —” Elijah said in a nasally, obnoxious voice.
“Give it!” shouted Jayden, snatching his Scout Handbook from Elijah’s hands.
“Dude, that’s so corny! You don’t actually believe in that stuff, do you?” Elijah said, his eyes dancing with glee.
Jayden’s ears burned red as he struggled to zip his duffle shut. Sometimes he really hated having an older cousin.
“No. I guess. I don’t know,” Jayden said, slinging the bag over his shoulder.
Jayden knew the rest of the Scout Law by heart because he had to memorize it when he got into Troop 133. “… cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent.” OK, maybe it did sound a little corny.
“They’re just trying to control you. To get you to behave,” Elijah said as he twisted his pinky into his ear canal. “Just remember this, cousin. In the real world, you gotta look out for yourself.”
Elijah’s words were ringing in Jayden’s ears as he and his father made their way down the dusty road to the place he’d call home for the next week: Camp Massomet.
Boys were hurrying this way and that, pitching tents and unpacking gear under a canopy of tall pine trees. They looked like they knew what they were doing, and most of them looked a lot older than Jayden.
“You got this,” his dad said.
“Yeah,” said Jayden, not so sure. But he took a deep breath and got out of the car, and then grabbed his duffle out of the trunk.
As he watched his dad drive away, a familiar voice rang out behind him.
He spun around to see Farhan, a boy he’d met at his first Scout meeting, ambling toward him, struggling with his own overstuffed bag. Jayden instantly felt a little better about things.
“I brought peanut butter-filled pretzels!” Farhan said, pulling a clear plastic bag full of pretzel bites from his bag and holding them high, like a trophy.
But the zip lock wasn’t fully closed, and pretzels poured from the opening onto the dusty ground.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got extras,” Farhan said with a wide grin, patting his bag.
Being away from home for the first time was hard for Jayden.
Sharing a tent with Farhan (who snored) took some getting used to. So did using an outdoor shower and waking up at the crack of dawn. On top of that, Jayden was assigned to the same patrol as a kid they called Big Quinn, who always seemed to be in a bad mood, especially in the morning.
But the good stuff outweighed the bad. Swimming in the lake was a ton of fun. So was learning to kayak. And Jayden loved cooking meals on an open fire. Plus s’mores. So many s’mores.
By the third day, Jayden felt like he’d gotten the hang of camp life. He knew how to start a fire with a flint. He could hold his breath long enough to use the latrine. He could bait a hook, and he’d even caught a few fish.
The high schoolers in his patrol were better at just about everything, especially fishing. They knew all the best fishing spots on the lake, and they kept their secrets from the kids Jayden’s age. But that was OK. He knew he’d find his own secret spots eventually.
On the fourth night, some of the older guys came back from the lake, whooping it up. Big Quinn was at the center of the pack, holding something shimmering above his head. It was a fish, the biggest Jayden had ever seen.
Big Quinn was grinning from ear to ear, and Jayden realized it was the first time he’d seen him crack a smile. Everyone gathered around the picnic table as Big Quinn gently set down his prize.
Everyone else in the troop would be eating pork and beans tonight, but Jayden knew his patrol would be feasting on Big Quinn’s catch.
Things were buzzing that night. A cool breeze came off the lake. Someone had the radio cranked up loud, and kids were tossing a Frisbee between the trees.
Jayden and Farhan were setting the table. They were excited to have a bite of Big Quinn’s fish, which was sitting in a tray on the picnic table, freshly filleted and covered in foil. Farhan lifted a corner to take a peek.
“Dude!” said Jayden. “You’ll let the flies in!”
“When do you think he’ll cook it?” said Farhan, licking his lips.
“After the other stuff’s ready. He wants everything to be perfect,” said Jayden.
Farhan strutted off to get the plastic utensils. Jayden set out the paper cups at even intervals around the table.
Jayden didn’t feel like walking all the way around the table to set out the last few cups. So he stretched his body across the table to put the cups in place. But when he pulled his arm back, his elbow bumped the tray holding Big Quinn’s fish, knocking it off the table.
As the tray started to fall, Jayden snagged it out of the air, and he breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
But then came a moment that felt like it was happening in slow motion. The fish fillet slipped out between the foil and the tray. Jayden watched in horror as it tumbled once, tumbled twice, and fell with a wet SPLAT onto the dusty ground.
Jayden’s eyes darted from the dirt-caked fish to Big Quinn, who was firing up the grill 10 yards away. Then he looked at Farhan and the other guys who were getting things ready at the prep table.
NOBODY HAD NOTICED.
Jayden panicked. He kicked the fish under the table and covered it up with dirt and pine needles.
Then Jayden set the tray back on the table, the foil still in the shape of a fish that wasn’t there.
“Hey!” Farhan said, startling Jayden from behind. “Just one more peek at that fish –”
Jayden swatted Farhan’s hand. “Cut it out!” he said, gesturing to Big Quinn, who was headed their way.
Big Quinn approached the table, taking big, clomping strides toward them. Had he seen what happened?
Big Quinn picked up the tray with two meaty hands. “You know, you guys don’t deserve this!” he said to the younger boys.
“We know!” Farhan said cheerily. Jayden gulped.
Big Quinn made it halfway to the grill before he noticed the tray seemed a little light. He peeled back the foil.
“HEYYYYYYY!” he shouted. “Where’s my FISH?”
Big Quinn turned to face Farhan and Jayden. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
Luckily, Jayden and Farhan weren’t the only people Big Quinn suspected of stealing his fish. He thought someone from the other patrol must be pranking him, giving some payback for their sleeping bags getting strung up in a tree the night before.
Once or twice, Jayden thought about coming clean, getting this over with. But he kept hearing his cousin’s words in his head: “In the real world, you’ve gotta look out for yourself.”
That night, Jayden’s patrol ate pork and beans along with everyone else. And Jayden couldn’t bring himself to lift his head and look Big Quinn in the eyes.
That night, it rained. Jayden was happy for it, because the big, wet splats of rain on the tent drowned out Farhan’s snoring. But the rain kept Jayden awake, and just now, he didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts.
Jayden tried to make himself feel better about what he’d done. It was an accident, right? And there were= plenty of fish in that lake. With a little luck, Big Quinn could hook another prize-winning trout.
Jayden drifted off to sleep with the image of Big Quinn holding a fish aloft, grinning. And when he woke up, he was soaking wet.
At first, Jayden thought his sleeping bag was soaked with sweat. But when he opened his eyes, he discovered that the tent was filling up with water.
Soon, the whole camp was filled with shouting from Scouts and leaders.
Rainwater was pouring down the hill, into the lake. Everything that wasn’t nailed down was getting swept away in the downpour, including some plastic utensils someone had dropped on the ground.
Jayden’s eyes went to the area under his patrol’s picnic table, expecting to see a white fillet of fish, washed clean by the rain. But it was gone, carried away in the flood.
That was the moment Jayden knew Big Quinn would never know what he did.
He was off the hook.
It rained for two straight days, but after that, the sun came out just in time for the last full day of camp.
The guys made the most of it, doing their favorite activities and wrapping up final requirements for merit badges. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, even Big Quinn. So why did Jayden feel like he still had a raincloud hovering over him?
That night, there was a ceremony to celebrate the Scouts’ accomplishments throughout the week. Merit badges were handed out in handfuls.
Jayden earned his Cooking and Swimming patches. Sure, he had a long way to go before he earned his Wilderness Survival merit badge like Big Quinn, but still … he was on the right path.
Or was he? As the accolades were handed out to other kids that night, something was gnawing at him. And he knew that if he left camp tomorrow, that gnawing feeling was only going to grow stronger.
After the Scoutmaster gave a final speech and the assistant Scoutmaster told everyone the steps they’d need to take to clean up camp in the morning, Jayden got the courage to speak up.
“Excuse me,” he said, his mouth dry. “I’ve got something to say.”
Everyone turned to look at Jayden, including Big Quinn. Jayden kept his eyes fixed on the ground.
There was no turning back now.
“It was me,” he said.
All eyes were on him in the glow of the campfire.
“The fish,” he stammered. “I dropped it.”
Everyone in camp gasped. Jayden kept going.
“It was an accident. But I covered it up. I didn’t —”
He didn’t get any further because suddenly, there was a big, meaty hand on his shoulder. It was Big Quinn.
Jayden looked up, barely mustering the courage to look Quinn in the eye.
“Accidents happen, little man,” he said. “It takes guts to step up and tell the truth. Most people never do.”
For a moment, there was silence. Jayden lowered his head in shame. Big Quinn put his hands on Jayden’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes.
“But you owe me a Fillet-o-Fish when we get back home. Got it?”
Quinn smiled from ear to ear, and then let out a big laugh. And there was nothing for everyone else to do but laugh right along with him.
“So, do you feel different?” asked Jayden’s dad as the car pulled away from camp, down the dusty road.
“I don’t know, I guess,” he said.
But he knew the answer. Yeah, he did. He was.
Jeff Kinney’s latest book is Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories, now available wherever books are sold.