I had never been camping before.
As the end of the school year neared, all the seniors had begun to gossip about the trip to the Hangman’s Mountain. It was annual, and it was something every teenager in Holland High looked forward to. A week away from parents and a chance to sleep and giggle with friends at night? Who wouldn’t be excited for that?
I didn’t like camping, even though I’d never been before, it just rubbed me the wrong way. Sleeping in tents on dirt grounds where there were bugs and maggots and worms crawling around? No thank you.
It didn’t help that the mountain we were going to was called ‘Hangman Mountain’. The name alone made me want to chicken out. I mean ‘Hangman’? Doesn’t that sound, I dunno, a foreshadow already as it is? Unfortunately, my friend, Isabelle, was having none of it.
“You are going.” She sated firmly in math class. I didn’t even look at her as I replied:
“No I am not.”
“Why not Nova? It’ll be fun!” She whined.
“Because I am not sleeping on the dirt ground with bugs and mosquito’s crawling all over my face.” I scoffed. “And Hangman’s Mountain? Seriously?” Isabelle shrugged.
“The name is a bit horrifying.” She agreed. “But they do this trip every year and everyone says it’s fun! Don’t tell me you’re chicken!” I gasped, affronted.
“I’m not chicken!” I defended. “I’m just cautious.” I scribbled the math problem that was being written on the board into my notebook, taking a swig of water from my bottle. “Besides, my parents will probably say no.”
“Says who? You didn’t even ask them!” Isabelle said. Our teacher tapped her notebook with his ruler, and she begrudgingly copied the question down. “What if they say yes?”
“But I’m still saying no, so it’s never gonna happen.” I said firmly. “I don’t like camping, and I never will.”
“But you’ve never even been, Nova! It’s so much fun!” Isabelle proclaimed dramatically. She leaned back in her seat, her blonde hair tumbling onto the desk behind her. She was lucky Adam wasn’t in class today, or her hair would’ve been history.
“Have you been camping?” I retorted. Isabelle nodded.
“Once. I went with my cousins because my parents made me. I didn’t want to go either, but it turned out to be fun! We told scary stories around the bonfire, roasted marshmallows, and in the daytime, we played in the river!” Isabelle sighed. “It was amazing.”
“What ever happened to the plethora of mosquito bites you showed me after said trip?” I asked. Isabelle flushed.
“It was only a few!” She squeaked. “Besides, we had cream and bugs spray for that! We’ll be prepared for anything Nova!” I shrugged.
“I don’t know...” I was swaying to go now, but some earlier apprehension held me back. The word ‘Hangman’ rang in my head constantly as Isabelle spoke.
“Why is the mountain called ‘Hangman’s Mountain’ anyway?” I asked.
“Legend has it that a man was killed by mysterious beings and was hanged. They left immediately after, but the story goes that the man never actually died. They say that to this day, he remains hanging there, limply. Moving and choking, still between life and death.” I grimaced.
“Eww! Gross Isabelle!” I exclaimed.
“You asked. Besides, it’s just a legend! It’s not real!” Isabelle waved my concern aside with a flick of her wrist. “Once you’re hanged, you’re dead. There is no ‘between life’, Nova.” I shuddered.
“Still. Can you imagine that poor guy? Writhing and moaning while between life and death? Eyes empty and tongue bleeding red? His retched gasps and-!”
“Ugh! Nova, stop!” Isabelle shrieked quietly. I snickered.
“What? It’s true! Have you never read ‘Night’ before? That’s how he describes the hanged man!” I said, still snickering.
“In all seriousness though, that is how Hangman’s Mountain got it’s name. I doubt it’s true, but then again, shit gets real all the time.” She shrugged. “Life’s a prick, you know?”
“Tell me about it.” I sighed wearily. I copied the last problem and answer down on my notebook and raised my hand. Our teacher hardly gave a glance at our work, and simply waved me aside, telling me I had the rest of the period free. The rest of a period. Last period.
On a Friday!
I looked at Isabelle just as she was being told the same thing. She swirled on her seat to face me, flashing me a thumbs up. I couldn’t help but giggle, our class’ tempo slowly rising with each hand.
“So, are you gonna ask your parents?” She asked.
“Maybe.” I decided. “I’m still deciding myself.”
“If you chose to go, we can share a tent! It’ll be so cool!” Isabelle squealed. I laughed with an amused sigh laced in. Isabelle was one of a kind, one of the reasons she was my best friend.
“Do you think Christopher’ll come?” I asked playfully. Isabelle blushed.
“I hope so. If he does, maybe I can convince him to share a tent with me.”
“Hey! I thought we were sharing!” I mocked indigence and Isabelle giggled.
“If you don’t come, then I’ll ask him.” She rephrased. I smiled, but it was forced.
“Are you sure? Christopher doesn’t exactly...talk to any of us.” I drawled.
“So he’s an introvert. Big deal? He’s still cute.” Isabelle sighed. I glanced at the back of the room, where Christopher’s desk was. He had his head bent and was scribbling on a sheet of paper. He glanced up, and out eyes locked. I waved at him, and he just glared at me, looking back down at his paper.
“Yeah...totally cute.” I said, eyes wide in disbelief. Isabelle shook her head.
“Okay, then what about Adrian? He’s cute, isn’t he?”
“Adrian? As in, Adrian Wolfson?” I asked. Isabelle nodded, and a fierce blush covered my brown face.
“Uh...he is, I guess.” I stuttered. Isabelle’s eyes narrowed playfully.
“So...do you like him?” She droned. I debated lying to her, but I knew it’d be useless. Isabelle was like a serpent. They were quiet, but because they were quiet, they were able to collect a butt-load of information.
“I...Yes. I do like him.” I admitted. Isabelle began to laugh.
“I knew it!”
“You’re always looking at him and-!”
“Well what’s not to look at?” I asked. “He’s handsome. He’s fit. He’s every girl’s dream guy!” Isabelle shrugged.
“Most girls, really. But still.” She set about placing her books on her desk. I glanced at the clock, astonished at how quickly time had flown by. “You know, he’s going to the camping trip, right?”
“He is?” I asked, now very interested in going. Isabelle bemusedly chuckled.
“Yes, Nova. He was the first one to sign up, probably because he was born and raised in Maine, which is notorious for it’s woods.”
“I think I might go now...” I thought out loud. “I mean, it’d give me a opportunity to get to know Adrian better and maybe woo him.”
“I was thinking the same thing for Christopher!” Isabelle said. I opened my mouth to continue, but someone else beat me to it.
“Gah!” I yelped, almost leaping out of my seat. A deep, masculine chuckle rose above me and I froze. I looked up, dying on the inside, at the amused green eyes of Adrian Wolfson.
“You okay, Nova? I didn’t mean to scare you.” Adrian asked, blushing. He scratched the back of his head, swishing his black hair. I had to break my gaze away from him to reply in a proper sentence.
“I-I’m fine. You didn’t scare me, just startled me.” I said. Adrian sighed.
“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to frighten you.” He looked at the empty seat behind Isabelle. “Do you mind if I sit there and join you?”
“Not at all.” Isabelle answered before I could, gesturing to the seat behind her. I scowled.
“To the next blind person, it looks like you have a crush on Adrian.” I hissed. Isabelle rolled her eyes.
“Relax, Nova. I’m only helping you guys get comfy.” She said, winking. I grunted, but didn’t stay moody for long, once Adrian had sat.
“You guys talking about the camping trip?” He asked.
“Yeah. Trying to convince Nova to come.” Isabelle said. Adrian’s eyebrows shot up, surprised.
“You don’t want to go to Hangman’s Mountain? Is it because of that stupid myth?” He asked. I squirmed in my seat.
“Not really.” I lied. “Mostly the camping itself.”
“You’ve never gone?”
“No. I’ve only heard about the bugs and maggots.” I recoiled in disgust, causing Adrian to chuckle.
“It’s actually pretty fun when you get the hang of it. I used to go camping all the time with-!” He paused, a flash of pain skimming his handsome features for only a moment before he coughed. I frowned.
“You okay?” I asked. Adrian nodded.
“Yes. Just a...tickle in my throat.” He said forcefully. “Anyway, yeah, it’s pretty fun. It’d be awesome if you came!”
“You...want me to come?” I asked, pinching myself behind my back. Adrian chuckled nervously.
“I mean...yeah? I’d love it if you came.” He said, fumbling briefly for his words. I couldn’t help the goofy smile on my face.
“I’d have to ask my parents.” I murmured. “But I’ll try to come.” Isabelle squealed and Adrian smiled, getting up just as the bell rang.
“Well then, I hope to see you there.”
“Mom! Mom! I’m home!” I yelled, slamming the door shut behind me. I walked into the kitchen slowly, petting Zinc on the way. She yawned, stretching lazily on the counter and purring for more scratches. Her white fur gleamed in the summer sun and her eyes drooped shut again, ready for her tenth nap that day.
“Home already, Nova?” Garret, my older brother, waltzed into the kitchen. He kissed my forehead and grabbed a cup as he did. He had his shirt off, revealing muscles he’d supposedly worked hard for. His jeans slacked against the tiled floor, collecting the stray dirt that Mom missed.
“Yeah. Is Mom home?”
“Any of them!” Garret laughed.
“Yeah. Yeah they’re home.” As if on cue, our Mom’s tumbled down the stairs together, pulling their clothes on as they did so.
“Nova! Sweetie you’re here already!” Our real mother, Evelyn, exclaimed. She kissed me on the cheek.
“And I’d bet you came home ten minutes ago, huh Garret?” Camilla, our step-mother, teased. Garret flushed.
“Yeah. It’s fucking hot outside!” He said dramatically. Mom glared at him, cocking her hip to the side.
“Garret...” She warned. Camilla laughed and kissed my mother placatingly on her cheek.
“He’s an adult now Evelyn.” She crooned. “He’s allowed to speak as he wishes.” Mom practically melted in Camilla’s arms.
“I suppose...” She said. Garret puffed up, as did his ego. “As long as he remains respectful.” And there goes his ego. Garret deflated, and I cackled.
“Serves you right.” I said proudly. Camilla shook her head.
“How was your day, Nova?” She asked.
“Not as good as yours, huh?” I teased. Mom blushed.
“Nova!” She yelped. Camilla kissed her cheek again.
“They’re old enough to know these things, babe.” She said. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” Mom sighed in defeat.
“I know. I just can’t help but see my small baby whenever I look at you two.” I smiled.
“We’ll always be your babies Mom.” I jabbed Garret in the gut. “Right?” Garret coughed sharply, nodding with me.
“Y-Yeah. We will.” He said while glaring at me. Mom smiled knowingly.
“I’m glad.” She said. I looked a lot like my mother. Same dark brown hair and thick eyebrows. The only thing I got from my dad was my eyes. Dark blue eyes, a contrast to my brown skin and dark hair. I winced just thinking about him.
“Uh, Mom, can I ask you something?” I asked. Both Camilla and my Mom looked at me, as did Garret. I refrained from rolling my eyes and my nosy brother’s antics.
“What’s up?” Camilla asked.
“There’s a school trip coming up...a week’s camping at Hangman’s Mountain. Can I go?” I asked.
“Hangman’s Mountain? That horrible place? No, absolutely not.” Mom said firmly. I deflated, and Garret noticed.
“Why not, Mom? Nova’s old enough, and she’s responsible enough to be on her own.” He countered.
“Yes, why not Evelyn? Nova’ll have time to make new friends and socialize some more. This camping trip can also teach her how to be responsible.” Camilla added. Mom began to tremble, her mood changing drastically. She shook and her lip quivered as she spoke.
“No! I can’t! I won’t let you go! I can’t loose you either!” I didn’t get time to ask what she meant, for she was already running out of the room, Camilla at her heels. After they were gone, Garret an I only looked at each other silently. He asked to see my permission slip, and I handed it to him wordlessly.
“Wonder why Mom’s so set against you going. It seems pretty safe.” Garret commented, his dark grey eyes still scrolling the page. “Camping to Hangman’s Mountain...groups of four...one director per group...yeah, this seems pretty safe.” I shrugged.
“Maybe it has something to do with Dad.” I said quietly. Garret hummed, his dewy eyes remaining with force on the page.
“Maybe...but I highly doubt it.” He said hurriedly, as if he was trying to dismiss that thought from our minds. I nodded with him, but I knew we both didn’t believe it. We were only saying that to make ourselves feel better.
“Are your friends going?” Garret asked. He gave me some jello and a tangerine to eat, which I graciously accepted. Most teenagers complained about their siblings, but I loved mine with all my heart, even if he was a prick in my side half the time.
“Yeah. I know Isabelle is. And...Adrian.” I blushed, and Garret noticed. He smiled.
“You like this guy, Adrian?” He asked. I nodded cautiously.
“Yeah. He’s a really nice guy, Garret.” Garret laughed.
“Never said he wasn’t. I know his brother. We go to the same college.” He said. “I’m happy for you sis, really.” I sighed.
“But he doesn’t know that.” I said.
“So? If we can get you on this camping trip, then maybe you’ll be able to ignite a spark with him!” Garret mentioned. I sighed again.
“I wonder why she’s so dead set against me going! I’m not a bad kid, am I?” I asked. Garret immediately shook his head.
“No. I’m the fucked up one in this family.” He said jokingly. I raised my eyebrow.
“Seriously?” Garret chuckled.
“Yeah. You’re the good kid here Nova. Don’t question that. Besides, I’m sure Camilla can convince Mom to let you go.” He said. I shrugged hopelessly.
“Let’s hope so.”
It was late in the night when Mom came back downstairs again. Garret and I were sitting at the kitchen table, talking about his new girlfriend. I had peeled my light jacket off by then, having no qualms about sitting in my sports bra in front of my brother. I was too hot to care anyway. We knew Mom had come when the lights in the dark room flickered on.
“Oh, good. You’re both still here.” Mom said, sighing with relief. Camilla was nowhere near her, or even behind her, so that meant that Mom had wanted to talk about something serious.
“Yeah, what’s up Mom? Aren’t you hot?” Garret asked. Mom smiled, shaking her head.
“No. I had a chance to cool down already.” She said. She picked the hairs off my discarded shirt, fanning herself with her hand.
“When they said 2020 was going to be a special year, they could’ve specified it heat-wise.” I grumbled. Mom chuckled.
“You have the same attitude as your father, Nova. Always the jouster, always the comedian of the family.” She sighed sadly. “Listen, my behavior towards the both of you was irrational and crude. I never should’ve yelled at you like that, Nova, and I apologize.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Mom. It’s okay.” I said. Mom waved me aside.
“No, no. I do. Do you have a pen and your permission slip, Nova?” My heart leapt and began to beat rapidly with excitement. Garret smiled and handed me my slip, which I eagerly have my mom. She skimmed over the paper, her eyes faltering for only a moment before she flattened the slip on the granite table and signed her name. She handed me the paper.
“Here you go. Stay safe, okay?” I was barely listening to her, nodding and holding the paper as if it was a diamond. “Are you listening to me, Nova?”
“Huh?” I asked. Mom rolled her eyes fondly.
“Stay away from the inner woods, okay? If you see stone steps that line up, run, hear me?” Mom snapped her hands in front of my face and I waved her away, as if it was an irritating fly.
“Got it Mom. Stay away from inner woods. Run if you see steps that line up. Got it!” I smiled with glee, stuffing the paper into my backpack. Garret was smiling, but Mom still looked apprehensive. I smiled reassuringly at her.
“I’ll be fine, Mom. How dangerous can some silly camping trip be?”