Editor’s note: an excerpt of this piece was published in our Fall 2020 Issue.
The car ride up the winding mountain road was sickening. Mei grimaced out the windshield at the passing pine trees, almost grateful for the car-sickness, as it distracted her at least partially from her memories. A sigh slipped out of her.
Her mother glanced over at her, then returned her eyes to the road. “A few summers ago, you couldn’t stop talking about how much you wanted to go back to camp.”
“Yeah, well, a lot’s changed since a few summers ago,” Mei muttered, still staring sulkily out the windshield. “Some camping trip won’t fix everything just because you want it to.” Almost instantly, she wished she could take her words back.
“Don’t speak to me like that,” her mom said. She drew a deep breath, her dark eyes glossed with a tearful sheen. “I know you’re hurt, Mei. But please, don’t — don’t take it out on me.” Voice trembling only slightly, Mei’s mom summoned a smile. “All I want is for you to be happy, 梅梅.” Mei-mei. Her little plum blossom. “This will be fun.” Mei’s mom sounded as if she were trying to convince herself just as much as she was trying to convince Mei. But neither of them was fooled.
It was Saturday, the Fourth of July weekend.
“So you went to this camp when you were little, Mom?” Leaning forward eagerly from the back seat, a twelve-year-old Mei gawked out at the towering sugar pines of the Sierra Nevadas.
“That’s right, after my parents graduated from Berkeley together.” Her mom beamed at her. Mei’s dad, sitting in the driver’s seat, smiled and patted his wife’s knee as they pulled into the long drive, up to the camp check-in.
Their cabin could barely be called a cabin; its wooden frame was covered by a canvas, and inside were bunk beds, a set of wooden shelves, and a single bare lightbulb hanging from the rafters crisscrossing the ceiling.
After laying her brand-new sleeping bag and duffel on the top bunk furthest from the door, Mei jogged back outside, her flip-flops slapping the worn wooden steps. Hands on her hips, she surveyed the camp. Sunlight filtered through the pine branches to paint bright patterns on the needle-covered dirt. Cabins were scattered among the trees. Further down the hill was the path to the bathrooms, and, beyond that, the rest of the camp.
“Mei!” called her dad, popping his head out of the cabin. “Where’re you going?”
“Just gonna look around,” she called back.
He protested, “You shouldn’t wander off in –”
“It’s okay, Mark,” Mei’s mom said from within the cabin. “Mei, go explore. Just take the map with you and meet us at the dining hall when the dinner bell rings.”
“Okay!” Mei pulled the map out of her pocket and unfolded it, giving it a quick once-over. The camp was huge — there was even a lake nearby.
“Why’s it okay for her to go off by herself if you say it is, but it doesn’t matter what I say?”
“I explored Camp Golden all by myself when I was her age,” her mother replied.
“Well, what about what I think?” Mei’s dad repeated, words now holding a tinge of anger that meant his pale skin was as red as his ginger hair.
Her mom’s voice held a note of impatience, and even with her back turned Mei knew her mom’s expression, as well — a false calm belied by tight lines around her mouth and a narrowing of her almond-shaped eyes. “It’s perfectly safe! There are people everywhere, and how is she going to become independent if we don’t–”
Mei sprinted down the path, her parents’ voices fading behind her.
Running until she was out of breath, Mei collapsed against the trunk of a pine, gasping the hot, dry air of the mountains. The air was thinner up here; she was out of breath faster than she normally was jogging down the street at home.
Still, the rush of blood pumping through her veins, the hard, fast thumping of her heart, and the aching of her leg muscles felt like freedom.
Now back near the entrance of the camp, Mei could see the tiny wooden building where they’d checked in, with the “Camp Store” sign hanging on it. Other cars pulled up the long driveway, carrying families away from their real lives for a week of relaxed camping. Or so that was the hope.
Mei smoothed out the wrinkles in the map, examining it more closely this time. Up the hill in the opposite direction that she’d come, behind the Camp Store, was a place called “The Lodge.” Behind her — she must’ve passed them on her run down the hill — were the “Dining Hall” and “Fire Pit.”
A chitter from a nearby tree captured Mei’s attention for a moment. It was a grey squirrel, with a big, fluffy tail, facing upside-down on the trunk of the tree above her. The squirrel was nothing like the fat, brown city squirrels Mei was used to in Sacramento. It skittered away up the tree trunk, around the other side, and out of sight.
The lake lay beyond The Lodge. Mei set off in that direction, kicking up dust behind her as she ran.
The lake was a crystalline blue, shimmering with sunlight. Mei panted, squinting out across the too-bright water. Trees grew all the way to the water’s edge in places, while in others the waves lapped at a wide, white stretch of sand. On these strips of beach, people sprawled out in the sun, soaking it in, or eating packed lunches at picnic tables under the shade of the trees. Towering mountains, capped with snow even in the heat of early July, surrounded the lake. A group of hikers dropped their packs on the ground, wiping sweat from their brows and taking deep swigs of water. A cluster of signs nearby pointed toward various hiking trails around the lake.
Mei trekked along a trail that followed the shore for a while, skirting a group of giggling younger kids darting across the path. After following the trail for a while, she found a deserted boulder by the lakeside, crouching in the shadow of a giant tree. Clambering up the boulder’s side, loose pebbles digging into her bare knees, she collapsed on top of it, staring up at the pale, cloudless blue sky through the thatch of branches above her.
“Hello,” the tree called, rather shyly.
Mei jerked up, palms flat on the boulder on either side of her, peering around. “Who said that?”
“Up here,” came the quiet voice again.
Perched in one of the thick lower branches of the tree was a boy. His hair was black, like Mei’s, but it wasn’t straight and flat like hers. His poked out every which way from his head in untamed curls like a birds’ nest. His skin was a dark honeyed tan. Knobbly knees stuck out of ratty cargo shorts, his feet were fitted with sandals a size too big, and his gangly frame wore a faded blue T-shirt. He grinned shyly down at her.
Staring up at him in surprise, Mei shielded her eyes from the brightness of the sun and asked, “How’d you get up there?”
He gave her a bemused look. “Climbed.”
Eyes wide, Mei stared at the tree. The trunk was too skinny, the branches too far apart for her to climb. She was instantly impressed. “What’s your name?”
She hesitated, then asked, “Why don’t you come down here, Salim?”
He considered for a moment, before drawing his bony shoulders up to his ears in a shrug. “Yeah, okay.” Scrambling down from his branch as deftly as the squirrel Mei had seen earlier, he landed on the rocky surface next to her, rolling forward on the balls of his feet with his arms splayed at his sides for balance. Still sitting down, Mei had to crane her neck to look at him, and she felt a sudden rush of shyness.
Jumping to her feet, she brushed the pebbles and dirt from her palms onto her jean shorts. “I’m Mei,” she said quickly, offering her hand.
“Salim,” he replied, brown eyes wide as if he were surprised to be making a friend. Salim shook her hand, and when she offered him a tentative smile, he returned it with his own crooked-toothed grin.
Mei collapsed on the bottom bunk furthest from the door, next to her unpacked bag. The cots were thin, narrow, and uncomfortable, more so than she remembered.
She wondered where he was now. Salim. Her friend. A twinge in her heart told her she’d probably never see him again. It’d been too long. Four years since she’d last seen him, at the end of that perfect week that marked the happiest time in her life. Before everything had gone wrong.
Before her dad cheated on her mom. Before the constant arguing. Before Mei grew quiet and hostile at school and lost all her friends, turning to books instead because they were the only thing that made her feel less alone. Before her family split irreparably apart, rending her heart into two pieces so that she felt her love would never be complete again.
Mei’s best friend’s voice intruded on her mind. You didn’t lose all your friends, Drama Queen, Carmen said.
If Carmen were here, she’d tell Mei to look on the bright side. Here she was, with a week to do pretty much whatever she wanted — no homework or grades or chores to worry about. No empty rooms in her house to haunt her, no brittle tension ready to shatter at any moment. Just woods and squirrels, and plenty of fun ways to distract herself from her real life.
Mei had the sudden urge to call her best friend and talk about the whole thing, to hear Carmen’s chipper voice. It’d be so much more fun if Carmen were here. Checking her phone, Mei groaned. No cell service.
She’d promised to text, but it looked as if that was out of the question now.
Although, Mei wondered, thinking of the tall mountains, maybe if I could get high enough to get a good signal…. Would that even work? Well, she guessed, it beat sitting around feeling sorry for herself.
Mei grabbed a granola bar and an apple, an empty canteen — she’d have to fill it at the water faucet near the bathrooms — and of course, her phone, the key item in this mission.
“I’m going on a hike, Mom,” she told her mom, who was napping on the bottom bunk across the aisle. Tired. She always seemed to be, lately.
“Okay, have fun, 梅梅,” her mom replied groggily.
Prompted by a sudden impulse, Mei leaned over and gave her mom a quick peck on the forehead. Her mom’s lips curved upward happily in her half-asleep state.
Mei pulled her hair into a short ponytail, put on and tied her boots before slipping off down the dusty path toward the lake. The best hiking trails were over there. And before she did anything else, there was someplace she wanted to visit first.
Plunging her bare feet ankle-deep in the burbling water of the deep stream that ran through the forest, Mei gasped. The shock of the icy water made her feet almost instantly numb.
Salim waved at her, standing proudly on top of the thick log that bridged the stream. His cargo shorts were wet from wading into the water, but unlike Mei, he wasn’t shivering. “Come on,” he said, his voice barely carrying above the sound of the stream. Mei couldn’t understand why he spoke so quietly, but maybe that was because she was always so loud. Or so her dad often teased her.
“What if I fall in?” she gasped, windmilling her arms as she struggled to balance on the slippery rocks. Each hand held a flip flop.
“You’ll get wet,” Salim informed her, giving her a queer look.
“Yeah, well, I know that,” she replied in annoyance, her heel slipping backward off a rock into the water. Hurriedly, she shifted most of her weight to her other foot while swinging the first one forward to land on the next rock.“What I don’t know,” she admitted, a bit embarrassed, “is how to swim.”
“Oh,” Salim said. Apparently, that hadn’t crossed his mind. “Well, I guess I could, you know,” he rushed, then halted. Mei paused and glanced up at him. His face was flushed red. Or maybe he was just sunburned.“Jump in and save you?” he finished, his voice growing yet more quiet and questioning.
Mei avoided his gaze and hopped from the last stepping stone onto the larger, granite slab. Using that, she climbed onto the log next to him, far less gracefully than he’d done earlier. “Why don’t we just cross the stream using the log instead of wading in?” she’d asked when they’d arrived.
Salim had pointed at where their side of the log was lodged deep into the high mud bank, and the five-foot deep stream below that. “We can’t climb onto the log on this side. The only way to cross is by making it to that granite rock and getting onto the log from there.”
He started walking down the length of the log. She followed him, crawling on her hands and knees and letting out a squeak of fear every time she felt the log teeter a little under their weight.
As soon as Salim was across, he turned and watched her scramble forward and collapse on the opposite bank. “Did I forget to mention I’m also afraid of heights?” she panted.
Salim gave her a dubious look. “We were only six feet above the water.”
“I’m just being dramatic.” With a sigh, Mei got up and wiped her hands off on her already wet and dirt-streaked shorts. When they’d met at the lake he’d told her that he’d come up here every summer with his parents and four older brothers for the past five years. After skipping stones on the lake for a while, the shade of the tree wasn’t enough to keep the sun off them, and he’d invited her to come to his “secret hideout” with him. Whatever that meant. Mei perhaps should’ve considered the possibility of him being one of those serial killers she’d been warned about, but those warnings had only ever referred not other kids. “Where’s this secret hideout of yours?”
“Just a little further.”
Salim led her down the bank. Mei slipped on her flip flops, but they did little to shield her cold feet from the pebbles that were determined to gouge into her soles and were soon caked with mud anyway. The vegetation was thicker here than at the camp or even at the lake. Grass grew out of control, tickling against her legs, and unfriendly brambles scratched at her skin.
After a few moments of walking, he halted and turned around. “Here,” he said proudly.
Looking around, Mei noticed nothing out of the ordinary. “So?” she asked.
Salim’s face turned red again. No, it wasn’t sunburn. For someone so tan, she thought his blush was surprisingly noticeable. “Listen,” he said, and fell quiet.
“I don’t hear anything,” she muttered a few seconds later, and he waved her quiet again. “Shh,” he hissed.
Straining her ears, Mei tried to pick up some sound, but there was nothing beyond the burble of the stream nearby, birds chattering in the trees, and the buzzing of insects drawn to the water.
“I seriously don’t hear anything,” she announced, and Salim gave a triumphant grin.
“See? It’s a special place. No people. Just trees and animals. I picked it last summer for my secret hideout.”
“Isn’t it, like, not a secret anymore if you’re showing it to me?”
Salim gave her a look that reminded Mei of a puppy asking for a treat. “Well… what’s the point of having a secret hideout if… you don’t have someone…” He turned brighter red, and he scuffed at the dirt with his shoe, avoiding eye contact. “…to share the secret with?”
Mei stared at him. It was hard to argue with someone who had such simple, sincere reasons for doing everything, but she was difficult by nature. “I guess.”
He scratched his head, his dark hair falling into his brown eyes. As his mouth twisted a little in a way that told her he was disappointed with her answer, Mei felt a small stab of guilt.
“I think I see what you mean,” Mei conceded with a sheepish smile, and Salim returned her smile with one of his own.
Mei changed the subject. “So, uh, where’s the hideout? Have you got a fort or something?”
“There’s a cave right there. That’s why I chose it.” He pointed. A pile of boulders created a small shelter, barely large enough for one person to crouch under. It wasn’t much of a cave, Mei thought.
Eyes narrowed, Mei stared speculatively at the so-called ‘cave.’ “O-kay,” she enunciated slowly. “Your hideout’s lame, so here’s what we’re going to do.”
They spent every moment of their free time over the next week working on Salim’s secret hideout.
After acquiring a rope swing and a hammock — Mei had no idea where Salim had gotten them, but suspected thievery was somehow involved — and building a small wooden shelter out of large sticks and rope, the hideout wasn’t exactly awesome, but far less lame.
And at some point during that week, it became not just Salim’s hideout, but Mei’s, too. She even stopped being afraid to cross the creek.
Even when she wasn’t at the hideout, it was a constant presence in her thoughts, and whenever her parents started arguing about the smallest thing like whose turn it was to do the laundry, she knew that being at the hideout would silence those raised voices — and it was all thanks to Salim. She gave up other camp activities, from pottery to the pool, to spend time there with Salim, whom she hadn’t seen around camp at all. Not even in the dining hall.
Well, maybe Salim was lying about his family’s camp membership. Maybe he was a wild animal who lived in the forest. He looked the part, she thought, with his ratty clothes and messy hair.
It was the last day at camp. Mei lay in the hammock, long legs kicked up against the trunk of the supporting tree and reading a comic book. Her parents thought she was at a sketching class.
A soaking-wet Salim sprawled on top of one of the boulders, drying his clothes off in the sun. He hadn’t bothered to bring along a swimsuit, and Mei had protested his taking off any clothing to go for a swim. So, with a shrug, he’d climbed onto the rope swing and jumped into the water fully clothed. He resurfaced, laughed at her sputtering disbelief, and shook droplets of water from his hair like a dog. Recalling it made her want to laugh and roll her eyes simultaneously.
Mei must’ve let a little giggle escape, because Salim opened his eyes. He didn’t ask her what she was laughing at, only grinned back at her.
To her surprise, Mei felt a blush rising in her freckled cheeks. She lifted the paperback to hide her face behind it.
“I should teach you how to swim,” Salim announced suddenly, standing atop of the boulder.
“What? Why?” She was embarrassed, being twelve and not knowing how. She’d never liked the water.
“Because everyone should know how to swim.”
Mei sniffed and shuffled through the pages in her comic, trying to find her place. She should have brought a bookmark.
Hearing his footsteps in the sand approaching her, Mei paid him no attention.
At last finding her place, she was startled by the aspen leaf he thrust in front of her face. “All-natural bookmark,” he said, dropping it between the pages of the comic.
Mei craned her neck to squint at him. If she were standing, she’d be taller than him. (She liked being taller than people. Especially Salim, for some reason.)
Shaking her head to clear it, she answered his unspoken insistence: “You can’t teach me to swim in a day, anyway,” she reasoned. “My family’s leaving tomorrow morning. And, I don’t want to.”
He didn’t turn and stomp away as she expected him to. “Fine, I won’t teach you to swim,” he said, without even an edge to his voice. “I just thought you might like to know how, is all.”
Mei was slightly annoyed she not to have been able to get a rise out of him. Finally, she set her comic aside and climbed out of the hammock, stretching her limbs.
“Are you coming back to camp next year?” Salim asked, still hovering nearby.
“I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
Hands on his hips, Salim surveyed her. His hair and clothing were still dripping, his curls a soggy mess on top of his head. “Even though you’re a know-it-all and you think I’m weird, I like having you around.” Then he flashed that smile at her — and for the first time, Mei felt a fluttering inside her chest.
“Um,” she articulated, tongue-tied and blushing. She leaned forward and brushed a quick kiss to his cheek. “You’re adorable,” Mei told him honestly, and it was his turn to blush.
“I’ll see you next summer,” she promised hurriedly, and, grabbing up her backpack and comic, without bothering to put the comic inside, she rushed off, leaving him standing there, gaping after her.
She couldn’t keep the goofy grin off her face her entire journey back to her cabin.
That was the last time she saw Salim.
The hideout was different.
It wasn’t the same magical place as in her memory.
Everything looked smaller, somehow, though the hammock was still there. The rope swing was there. The boulders and the little shelter they’d built were there.
But Salim was not.
As Mei turned from the hideout, tears welled in her eyes. Stubbornly, she fought them, refusing to succumb to her disappointment and frustration. It wouldn’t change anything.
She’d promised Salim she’d see him the next summer, but she hadn’t kept her promise. She’d never see Salim again.
If only she could live that week again. She wouldn’t tease Salim for being weird. She’d let him teach her how to swim. She’d kiss him on the lips this time. Anything — if only she could get that week back.
The lake was as gorgeous as she remembered, blue and glittering like a shattered reflection of the sky. As Mei hiked along the trail, her heart lifted a little. Maybe Salim wasn’t here, but she hadn’t expected him to be, really. If he had been, what would she have said to him? It didn’t really matter anymore. She let out a little laugh and let the warmth of the sunshine and the cool mountain breeze transport her away from the past.
When the sun reached its summit, she rested her aching legs at a convenient bench alongside the trail and munched her granola bar and apple. Crinkling the bar’s empty wrapper in her fist, she gazed out across the lake. Her higher vantage point now gave her a breathtaking view of the lake, the white sandy shores surrounded by towering pines and snow-capped mountains. Sailboats and kayaks bobbed in the waves and motorboats cut across the water’s surface, looking as small and insignificant from this distance as water-striders on a pond.
A group of hikers turned the corner, their chatter announcing their arrival. Mei sighed. Goodbye, peace and quiet. This spot was perfect for picnicking, with plenty of places to sit on the grass and granite rocks, not to mention the incredible view. Mei stood, collected her trash and her water bottle, and stuffed them back in her bag. Though she would’ve liked to stay longer, she’d have to keep moving if she wanted to get elevated enough for cell reception in the middle of nowhere.
The man leading the group — a hiking guide from Camp Golden, according to the back of his T-shirt — broke from his conversation with the woman next to him to raise his voice. “Let’s catch a break and stop for lunch here!”
Mei’s stomach gave a sharp jolt as the corner of her eye caught on his face. She spun around, and yes — it was him.
Shock and unexpected happiness jolted through her, stalling her feet on the path.
He looked older, but it was him. His skin the same shade of dusky gold, same narrow build, though he was at least several feet taller than he had been a few years earlier. And his hair, still that dark, deep black that shifted to a rich brown in the sunlight.
Mei’s feet carried her forward of their own accord, and, unable to stop herself, she grabbed his arm, turning him to face her. In surprise, his eyes darted to her grip on his arm, then to her face, the corners of his mouth downturned in annoyance before he composed himself.
“I’m sorry. Do I know you?” His smile was polite, but his brown eyes held no hint of recognition. His clothes were clean and new-looking. His hair was silky, well-groomed and shiny, nothing like the birds’ nest she remembered. And he certainly did look older — perhaps too much older, as if the years since she’d seen him had worn away everything childish about him.
Confusion rose up in Mei, disappointment curdling in her stomach. How could he not know her, when she remembered him so clearly? “Salim?” she questioned hesitantly, releasing his arm and taking several steps back.
At Salim’s name, the man’s surprise and confusion vanished, and something closer to hesitation etched a line between his eyes. “I think you’ve got me mixed up with someone else,” he said, after a moment. “Salim’s my younger brother.”
With a start, Mei recalled Salim mentioning brothers — four older brothers, she remembered. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Salim. I’m Mei,” she introduced herself, holding her hand out.
“Malik,” he said, gripping her hand firmly. “Nice to meet you. How do you know Salim?”
“We met here at camp a few years ago. This is my first time back, and I haven’t spoken to him since then. I was wondering if…”
“If you could see him again?” Malik’s eyes darkened, and he released her hand. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you there.”
Taken aback, Mei said, “Excuse me, I don’t –”
“Salim died a year ago.”
“He — what?” Mei felt as if all the air had been sucked from her lungs, and she was unable to draw in any more.
“Car accident.” Malik stepped away. He’d been blocking the sun from reaching her before, but now it shone directly into her eyes. She blinked and squinted, fighting the welling up of tears in her eyes.
“I didn’t know. I — I’m so sorry for your loss,” she responded numbly, her stomach dropping. Salim was dead? Those words didn’t seem real.
Malik shook his head, and, after laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder, left her standing there, dumbstruck, feeling as if the slightest breeze might knock her off her feet.
Arriving back at the cabin that afternoon, Mei was unable to concentrate on any thought for more than a second. She was weary, her head ached, and she just wanted to crawl into her sleeping bag and sleep for the rest of the day. She wondered if this was how her mom felt all the time.
She’d didn’t know which emotion was strongest. Sadness, yet how could she miss someone she’d barely known? Regret felt selfish, because this whole time, she’d only been thinking of herself. She’d wanted to see Salim because she thought he’d make her feel better. The possibility that he was gone, that he was never coming back… had never occurred to her.
Her mother was sitting on a fold-up chair outside the cabin, reading a mystery novel. “Oh, you’re back. How was your walk?”
“Fantastic,” Mei responded lifelessly. She hadn’t been able to call Carmen, and she’d just found out that her old friend was dead. Everything was the opposite of fantastic.
Choosing to ignore her tone, Mei’s mom turned her attention back to the book. But before Mei could ascend the steps of the cabin, her mother said, “I thought you should know I signed you up for volunteer work in the kitchen this week.”
Mei froze. “You what?”
“It would be a good habit for you to learn. Just a thought, 梅梅.”
Fuming, Mei stormed up the steps to the cabin and flung herself down on her bunk without bothering to take off her dusty hiking boots. Staring out the pinned-up flap of canvas that served as a window, Mei imagined the scraps of her sanity floating out and up into the clear, blue sky.
The next morning, Mei arrived at the dining hall. She’d considered not showing up, but figured she’d be in trouble with her mother if she did that. So here she was, eyeing the stacks of plastic trays, mugs, and silverware she’d been tasked to wash with distaste.
“You look like you’re having fun,” said a voice, and Mei jumped as Salim’s brother, Malik, appeared at her side, rolling up his sleeves.
Of course he was here — as if she’d summoned him with the effort of trying not to think about their encounter on the trail. “Doing dishes is my favorite thing,” she deadpanned.
Malik quirked an eyebrow. “Well, that’s good, then.” He swept his arm toward his pile of dishes in the sink next to hers. “Care to do mine?”
“Don’t push your luck,” Mei said, and he laughed. A little while later, when they were up to their elbows in soap suds, she couldn’t help asking if he had a sadistic parent, too.
“Actually, my parents are investors in this camp. We have a private cabin near the lake. During the summer, I work here as a hiking guide, a bus boy, whatever.”
No wonder Salim had been running wild on the camp four years ago. Her stomach clenched with grief. But she’d only known Salim for a week, and that was years ago, so she didn’t have the right to speak to Malik about him. Malik, who’d known Salim his entire life. She couldn’t begin to know what Mailk was going through.
“Malik,” she said, her voice questioning. He glanced over at her, and Mei realized she didn’t know what she’d planned to say, only that she couldn’t talk about Salim again. “Maybe you can show me around then. Show me some fun things to do. It’s been a while since I was here.”
A smile lit his face.
When all the dishes were done, Malik leaned back against the sink, not bothered by the fact that water was soaking into the hem of his shirt. Mei had just finished and was washing the suds off her arms, letting the cold water from the faucet rinse the soap bubbles from her hands that were red from the hot dishwater.
Malik’s face had a thoughtful look when Mei glanced over at him, and she tensed, preparing for the questions about Salim, questions that she wasn’t ready to face. But he only asked, “Would you like to go get some ice cream?”
Relieved, Mei agreed, and the two left the kitchen together.
At the Camp Store, Malik bought two Haagen Dazs bars while he chatted with the clerk, while Mei browsed books to pass the time.
They sat on a bench and Malik handed over her bar. “Thanks,” she told him.
“No problem. I get a discount.” A few moments of silence passed before he spoke again. “How’d you meet Salim?” he asked, and Mei tensed — this was the question she’d been waiting for. She was glad her face was turned away from him.
Simplifying their history as much as possible, Mei admitted, “We met by the lake a few years ago. He conned me into building a fort in the forest.”
To her surprise, Malik chuckled, though his voice held a tinge of sadness when he responded, “Sounds like Salim.” Leaning toward her, he lowered his voice. “Would you mind showing me this place?”
Clouds passed over the noonday sun, painting the forest in shadow. Mei led Malik across the log — not nearly as scary as she remembered it being — and through the overgrown forest, until they arrived at the site. “This place…” Malik said, gazing around, before shaking his head as if to clear his thoughts. “So you built this place together?”
“Yeah,” Mei responded. She flipped the hammock over, dumping the leaves out, and sat down in it. Her feet hurt. That was what she got for walking in flip flops again.
“What did you two talk about?” Malik sat down on the boulder and folded his legs up to his chest, peering at her with warm brown eyes.
Mei frowned, taken aback by the intensity of his curiosity.
He hesitated a little. “It’s just that… Salim and I were pretty close, but he never told me about this place. Or you, a friend that I never knew about. And I feel like maybe if I get to know this new part of him, he won’t feel so gone. Maybe I can still get to know my little brother a little better.”
Mei’s heart constricted, and she found herself speaking. “All right… Well, we didn’t talk a lot. Salim was really quiet. I usually brought a book here, and I helped him build the fort… He’d go swimming in the creek, and sometimes we’d skip stones. I think we both just liked the quiet. And when we did talk, I kind of teased him.” She felt bad about that now.
Malik nodded and closed his eyes. Mei stared at him. He reminded her so much of Salim in that moment that she couldn’t believe they weren’t the same person. The moment stretched out like warm taffy in the afternoon sun.
“If you don’t have anything better to do tomorrow…. maybe we could meet here?” he asked suddenly.
Mei didn’t see why not. Her volunteer schedule the next day only listed kitchen duty for after dinner. Otherwise, she had no plans.
The rest of her week was spent in Malik’s presence. They went on long walks, worked together at the kitchen, and talked. Around Malik, long stretches of quiet never seemed awkward. She never felt the need to fill the silence with meaningless chatter. And she was glad.
On Tuesday, they were at the kitchen, loading up carts with the dirty dishes people had left at their tables. She was getting tired of washing dishes.
Malik hummed along with the tune playing on the speakers, some crappy pop song Mei had heard at least five times already that day. When they were finished, Malik rapped his knuckles against a table to get her attention. She’d been spacing out. “Wanna go on a hike?” he suggested.
Mei agreed, glad that she’d decided to wear her hiking boots for a change. She even had her phone in her pocket. Maybe she could call Carmen.
“Is there anywhere with service in the mountains up here?” Mei asked as they set off toward the lake.
Malik laughed. “You can hook up to the wifi at the lodge and make phone calls from there.”
Embarrassed by her stupidity, her face turned red. He chuckled, but softened it by bumping her shoulder with his and giving her a kindhearted smile that reminded her all too much of Salim. “We can go there together later,” he offered. “But while it’s still light outside, I want to show you something.”
The thing he wanted to show her happened to be a secluded waterfall flowing into a natural pool of crystal clear water. After a difficult hike across rocky terrain, Mei wanted nothing more than to jump right in. Only… “How deep is it?” she asked, biting her lip as she watched Malik take off his shoes and socks.
In response, Malik flashed her a feral grin, and with a running leap, jumped into the pool. A moment later he emerged, flinging water droplets from his dark curls. “Trust me,” Malik called to her.
Mei hesitated. She’d taken swimming lessons the summer of her thirteenth year, upon her dad’s insistence, but hated every moment of it. Something made her brave now. She jumped.
The shock of the icy water brought her sputtering to the surface in a few seconds, gasping and laughing. She’d done it. Her legs kicked out beneath her, keeping her afloat. Malik swam up to her. “Feels good, right?”
“Yeah,” Mei agreed, staring at the beautiful boy next to her, for the first time truly noticing that he was beautiful. “Feels good.”
Later that day, she called Carmen using the lodge’s wifi.
“Hi, stranger,” her best friend’s voice said. “It’s been days and you haven’t called or texted. What’s up?”
Mei shook her head. “I’m sorry, it took forever to find reception in this place.” Next to her, Malik raised his eyebrows teasingly. She shooed him with her hand in a way that said, “Shut up, go away.”
“Well, how are things?” On the other end of the phone, high-pitched laughter and screams burst through the connection like static.
“Um, where are you? Are you watching a horror movie or something?” Mei joked, knowing the answer already.
“Babysitting.” Carmen held the phone away from her mouth, but Mei still heard her yell at the kids — probably the niece and nephew she always got stuck babysitting for free — to be quiet. Mei waited until the other end calmed down.
“Anyway. Things are pretty much the same here. What about you? Are you having fun? Any cute guys?”
Mei would ordinarily roll her eyes at the obligatory girl-talk, but then Malik’s smile appeared next to her, hearing Carmen’s question. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“I’ll tell you if I find any,” Mei replied, and Malik clutched his chest as if broken-hearted, making her grin.
“Bummer,” Carmen said.
Mei found herself smiling, missing Carmen and wishing she were here. She wondered what Carmen would think of Malik, and then wondered why she cared. Would she have mentioned Malik to Carmen if he hadn’t been sitting right next to her? What would she have said?
When the call ended, Malik was still sitting next to her on the couch in the lodge, now drinking a cup of steaming brown liquid. “Your friend talks a lot.”
“You shouldn’t have been listening in,” Mei replied. “Hot chocolate?”
“Want some?” Malik held up the styrofoam cup.
He handed his cup over to her, and she blushed but took a sip. He gestured to the chessboard. “Do you know how to play?”
He shrugged. “Neither do I.” They didn’t bother to read the rulebook, making up rules as they went along, and completely butchering the respectable game of chess. Not that they cared; they were having too much fun.
Thursday had dawned cloudy and windy, and kitchen duty after dinnertime caught them in a rainstorm in the quickly falling light.
“It’s July! Why’s it raining in July?” Mei exclaimed, holding an arm over her head to block the large, strangely warm drops of water from falling on her head. The wind kicked up, stirring the branches of the trees, and several large, foot-long pine cones fell nearby.
“Run!” Malik said, grabbing her hand. They managed to make it to the lodge, drenched and with hearts racing, without either of them being clobbered on the head by a giant pine cone.
They stood on the threshold of the lodge, soaking wet and dripping rainwater on the wood floor. Mei’s hand still clutched Malik’s as she looked up at him, both of them panting and laughing a little hysterically. “I never thought I’d be so terrified of giant pine cones.”
“I have memory problems already. I don’t need any more,” Malik said, but she didn’t understand.
It was Friday, mid-afternoon, when Mei got back from kitchen duty to the cabin. She and Malik were planning to meet up at the campfire that night, and Mei felt nervous. Should she wear that yellow sundress she’d brought, or would that seem too much like a date?
When was the last time she’d worried about what she was going to wear to see a boy? Mei had only gone on a couple dates before, but those guys had been more friends than anything else to her. This unfamiliar fluttering of butterflies in her stomach unnerved her, and suddenly, she felt awful. At the beginning of the week, she’d been so excited to see Salim. It occurred to her just how wrong it was for her to have liked Salim, and, only days after finding out he had died, to be feeling these things for his brother.
Disgusted at herself, Mei decided to wear jeans and a sweatshirt. The nights were cold here, anyway, and there was always the nuisance of mosquitoes. It’d be dumb to wear a dress.
Coming into the cabin wrapped in a towel from her shower, Mei’s mom said, “Let’s do something together tomorrow morning.”
“Like what?” Mei questioned flatly, not looking up from painting her toenails.
“Whatever you want. A hike, a spa-day, exercise class. There’s tie-dye –”
“Fine, let’s do tie-dye.” The chirring of insects outside filled the silence that fell between them.
Mei felt the mattress shift as her mom sat down on the edge. “梅梅. Look at me.”
Glancing up from her work, Mei stared at her mother, feeling defensiveness rise in her. “What?”
“Do you know why I brought you back here? To camp?”
At a loss, Mei shook her head. Her mother’s eyes shone with emotions Mei couldn’t name.
“It’s because this was the last place I saw you truly happy. I thought this would give you a chance to escape, to think and heal. Has it?”
“Y-yes,” Mei stuttered. “I…” Her mom watched her so intently that she wasn’t able to speak for a moment. “I remember this being one of the last places you and Dad were happy, too. I thought you were trying to ignore that.”
“I’m not trying to ignore anything. I’m always here to talk about things with you. What happened is between him and me; your dad still loves you. He agreed bringing you here was a good idea, you know.”
“You talked to him about it?”
“We might not love each other anymore, but we’re both still your parents.”
Mei let this sink in. “Thank you, Mom.”
A brilliant smile spread across Mei’s mother’s face, and her mom leaned forward and wrapped her arms round Mei.
It’d been a while since Mei had seen her mother smile like that. The tension in her chest loosening just a little bit, Mei returned her mom’s hug. “Love you, Mom,” she murmured against her mother’s hair, her words muffled. She was surprised to feel a couple hot tears trickle out of her eye and down her cheek.
“I love you too, 梅梅.” Her mom ran her hand over her daughter’s hair soothingly.
“I met a boy.”
Mei’s mom continued petting her hair gently. “I thought something like that might be going on. Is he nice?”
Mei blushed. “Very.”
The Friday campfire threw sparks into the starry mountain sky and cast a glow upon the faces of the gathered families settling into benches surrounding the fire on three sides, the fourth side a stage. Searching the crowd for Malik, Mei was startled by a blanket settling over her shoulders. She glanced up into Malik’s smiling face, illuminated with the firelight.
“Hey, Mei.” He sat down next to her and pulled the other side of the blanket over his own shoulders.
The performers came out onto the stage, making all conversation impossible, but the warmth of Malik’s shoulder mirrored the heat of the flames on her face. She linked her fingers with his.
On Saturday, Mei found Malik at the hideout. “Hi, Malik,” she said, plopping down on the rock beside him. “You’re here early.”
“Mm,” he muttered, staring out at the forest.
So he wasn’t in a talkative mood. Mei shrugged, leaned back, and closed her eyes against the warmth of the summer sun.
“What was the last thing you said to him?” Malik asked, the first question after days of leaving the topic of Salim alone. But Mei instantly knew who Malik was referring to.
“I…” Don’t remember. But that wasn’t true. “I remember… He wanted to teach me how to swim, but I said no…. And the last thing I said, in that conversation…. It was, I’ll see you next summer,” she said, finally. Not sure why, she admitted, “I also kissed him on the cheek, I think.”
When there was no response, she cracked her eyes open. Malik was staring down at her in surprise. Feeling defensive, she waved her hand in the air. “But none of that matters now, does it?”
“Yeah… Yeah, it does.” He sighed, rubbing his knuckles over his forehead as if he had a headache. “There’s something I should’ve told you. Right from the start. But didn’t,” he admitted, his voice heavy with guilt.
Mei frowned. “What? What is it?”
“Malik… died a year ago in a car accident.” He paused, long enough for her to process that statement. “My name’s not Malik.”
“Huh? Then what…”
Malik took a deep breath, as if preparing to jump into an icy lake. “Salim was also in that car accident, and suffered permanent amnesia… Salim’s not dead.” He pinned her with his eyes. “I’m Salim.”
Mei searched his face. His eyes spoke truth, but the words coming from his mouth took longer to understand. “Why… why’d you lie to me?”
“When I woke up in the hospital, I couldn’t remember my name, or anything that had happened during my life… It was like everything that made me myself was gone. In a sense, Salim did die. I thought that if I could recover this piece of my past, I might have a better idea of who I am. Or who I was. And I lied to you because I didn’t want to see the look on your face when you realized that I didn’t remember anything about you. I saw the same miserable expressions on my parents’ and brothers’ faces, on the faces of my old friends… I didn’t want to see it again. So I pretended to be someone else… to get to know myself better.”
Mei gaped at him, confusion replaced by indignance. “Salim. You should have told me.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Embracing Salim in a rib-crushing hug, she mumbled into his shoulder, tears pricking her eyes, “I’m so sorry, too. And I’m… so glad you’re alive.” She drew away just enough to press her lips softly against his.
Salim gazed hopefully down at her when she pulled bacl. “So that means you forgive me?”
“Of course I do, silly.” Mei smiled up at him.
“We’ll stay in touch, right?”
“I promise.” She linked her fingers with his, and together they listened to the forest that was quietly living all around them.