Rosa stood on Leo’s front porch, giving herself one last moment to breathe deeply before she rang the doorbell. She hadn’t realized when she came to camp this year, that she would end up flying to New Mexico, spending the night in a hotel, and navigating her way through Santa Fe in a rental car. She didn’t even like driving around DC, and she’d lived there her whole life.
The time change had also thrown her for a loop. The clock in her rental car may have said it was 8:30 in the morning but her body knew it was still 6:30 in DC.
She raised her hand to ring the bell, then let it fall at her side again. What was she going to say to him? Dr. B should have sent Jesse to do this. He was Leo’s team captain. Or in the very least he should have sent Dirk, who could talk anyone into anything.
Why had Dr. B sent her?
She had never even been able to talk Leo into liking her back. Not that she’d tried very hard. She hadn’t ever told him how she felt. She’d just hoped he could see it in the way she smiled at him, in the way she stood by him at so many of their exercises, in the way she didn’t ever try to win the races up to the Easter Grounds—she just tried to keep up with him.
Rosa pushed the doorbell. She was afraid if she waited any longer someone might look outside and wonder why she was standing on the doorstep.
The seconds ticked by. She heard movement in the house. The door opened and a middle-aged woman in jeans and a t-shirt stood in front of her. So this was Leo’s mom, Mrs. Collins. She didn’t share Leo’s sharp nose or angular cheekbones. Her hair was light instead of Leo’s was rich brown.
“Can I help you?” the woman said, which is when Rosa realized she hadn’t said anything yet.
“Is Leo at home? I’m a friend of his.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Collins’s eyes swept over her again, more thoroughly this time. “Yes, just a second.” She turned away from the door and yelled, “Leo!”
She heard footsteps, and then a guy came to the door. It took her several seconds to realize it was him. Leo’s hair was longer this year and dyed black. He’d pierced one ear. He was thinner too, more wiry.
“Rosa!” he said, and the note of happy surprise in voice was encouraging. At least he sounded the same. “What are you doing in New Mexico?”
She forced a smile and a shrug. “I was in the area and wanted to talk to you.”
“Wow. Great.” He turned to his mom. “Rosa is one of the girls from Dragon Camp.” Then to Rosa he said, “Hey, hasn’t that started already? Are you skipping out this year too?”
And this was exactly why Dr. B shouldn’t have sent her. Rosa was supposed to talk to him about camp, but what could she say while his mother stood there and listened to them? Dr. B should have sent Lilly. She could lie in that offhand way popular people always excelled at. Lilly would know what to say to get rid of Leo’s mother.
Rosa smiled. At least Mrs. Collins would think she was cheerful. “No, I’m still going. I’m just going late. Um, can I buy you breakfast somewhere?”
“I already ate,” he said. “But do you want to come inside? I have an hour before I have to go to work.”
Work. He had a summer job. The sentence hit her like a blow to the stomach. What was he thinking? “Why don’t we take a walk?” Rosa said. “You can show me around your neighborhood.” To Mrs. Collins she said, “I think New Mexico is so pretty.” Rosa was lying about that, and hoped Mrs. Collins couldn’t tell. The desert around her seemed sparse and desolate. People had rock in their yards instead of grass. The cactus, instead of striking her as exotic, seemed standoffish and unwelcoming. And even at 8:30 in the morning it was already too hot.
“Sure,” Leo said. “Let’s take a walk.” He stepped outside to join her and his mother called after him, “Pay attention to the time. You don’t want to be late for your job again.”
As they walked to the sidewalk, Leo lowered his voice. “Can you believe how uptight my mom is? It’s a stupid summer job, not a career.”
“What is it?” Rosa asked. “Your job, I mean.”
“I’m a life guard.”
“A life guard,” she repeated.
“Yeah, you know me, always working on my tan.”
Last summer both cabins had a who-can-get-the-best-tan competition. They disqualified Rosa because she was Latina and had darker skin then any of them to begin with. But she wouldn’t have tanned with them anyway. She’d spent the entire month lecturing them about skin cancer. Which everyone thought was wildly funny. She wasn’t worried about dragon burns, just sunburns.
“You think I’m going to live long enough to see wrinkles and skin cancer?” Dirk had asked her. “I tell you what. If cancer gets me instead of a dragon—you can all throw a party at my funeral. It means I kicked butt while I was alive.”
Rosa couldn’t argue with that logic, but had still tried to force sunscreen on them anyway. Perhaps being a healer ran too deeply inside of her.
She couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask Leo about his absence so she just came out and said it. “Why didn’t you come to camp this year?”
He shrugged. “My parents wanted me to get a job closer to home, and I figured it was time to try something new anyway.”
Rosa blinked at him. His words had an eerie quality to them, as though he was someone else, someone completely different than the Leo she’d known. Both last year and this year Dr. B had told all of their parents that they were working as camp counselors. Dr. B even paid them so their parents wouldn’t get suspicious. And Leo had just spoken about it like it was the truth.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Leo said. “I’m really going to miss hanging out with all of you guys. But I’ve got to start saving up for college. Being a life guard pays better per hour and it’s not something I have to do 24/7 like being a camp counselor is. I mean, I can go to the movies or play X-box, whatever I want—how many more summers am I going to be able to do that for?”
She didn’t answer. Her stomach felt like it had been hollowed out in one swift motion. She wanted to stop him from speaking, to force him to say something different.
“Besides,” Leo said. “Don’t you think that whole dragon theme is getting a little hokey? My friends gave me all sorts of grief for going to Dragon Camp every summer. Like I must be a huge fantasy nerd.”
“It isn’t hokey,” Rosa said. “It’s important. Lives are at stake.”
“Yeah, I know. A camp counselor has to make sure no one wanders off and gets lost, get’s trampled by a horse, or drowns in the lake. All the really important stuff. But hey, this summer I’ll be saving lives by telling kids not to run by the pool or hang on the rope. Plus I get to hang out with hot girls in bikinis.” He smiled at his own joke. “You can see it was a tough call.”
She didn’t even know how to reply to him, didn’t know where to start or what to say. In the space of a few minutes he’d gone from someone who understood her deeply, who shared part of her soul, to a stranger, an outsider. Slowly, she said, “Do you remember why we even went to camp? Why it was important?”
“To have fun,” he said, as though there was no other answer.
The hollow feeling in her stomach grew. “Do you remember what we did at the Easter Grounds?”
A grin spread across his face. “Yeah, we used to pretend we were superheroes up there, climbing trees and stuff. My mom would have flipped if she’d known Dr. B let us do that.”
“We pretended?” Rosa asked. “That’s all you remember?” Without giving him a chance to answer she said, “Come back to camp. We can figure this out. Everything will work out if you come back to camp.”
“I’ll tell you what else I remember.” Leo stopped walking and the smile dropped from his face. “I remember Jesse getting us up every morning and making us run with him. It ticks me off now that I let him boss me around like that. He was like a control freak or something, always telling us what to do. I should have stood up to the jerk. I should have flattened him.”
Rosa felt tears press against her eyes. Her throat grew tight. All of his memories were twisted now. Wrong. She wanted to ask Leo what had happened. What had been the thing that had turned him away from all of them? He wouldn’t have been able to answer that question though, not accurately anyway.
Leo turned and resumed their stroll down the sidewalk again and she followed, keeping pace beside him. “You look different than you did at camp.” Her voice came out dull. “The hair and the earring.”
“We all change,” he said.
“Do you smoke or drink now? Do you do drugs?”
His head tilted in surprise. “Why? Are you offering?”
She couldn’t tell if he was joking. “No, I’m worried about you.”
He let out a grunt. “Right. At camp, you were always worried about us getting hurt, always hovering over us like our own personal nurse.”
She’d healed their wounds. How many times had he grimaced in pain until she’d reached him? She’d felt his wounds too, not physically but deep in her heart, and she’d always criticized herself for never being fast enough while she cured them.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he said. “I don’t smoke or do drugs and the only time I drink is when I’m out with friends and somebody else is driving.”
So it had been alcohol then. Alcohol and peer pressure. She wondered what he’d thought about when he took that first drink. Wondered what had gone through his mind when he put the cup to his lips. Did he think a little bit wouldn’t matter? That it would be out of his system and his powers back by the time camp rolled around again? Or had he just not cared that much about the rest of them? She would cry about this later, she knew, but she wouldn’t do it in front of him. “You shouldn’t drink at all.”
His gaze swept over her and his voice grew softer. “I know why you’re really here asking me to come back to camp.”
“Do you?” she asked.
He stopped on the sidewalk again. “Look, I knew you had a crush on me last year at camp. I don’t know why I didn’t act on it. I thought about it, but I was shy back then and I guess I figured we’d have time later—and now we live on different sides of the nation and won’t see each other at camp this summer. Stupid, huh?”
“Yeah, stupid,” she said.
He put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “I’m not so shy anymore.”
“Come back to camp,” she said.
He leaned over and kissed her. She had daydreamed about this happening last year—and if she was being honest, the year before that. Even the thought of his lips on hers had whipped her insides into foam. Now she barely felt them. The words, “Come back to camp,” repeated in her mind over and over again, each time more insistent until she felt nothing else but their rhythm pounding in her ears.
He lifted his head. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out between us before.”
“Please, come back,” she said. And then her voice cracked even though she was trying not to break down in front of him. “I don’t want things to end this way.” She searched his eyes for recognition. For any sign of the old Leo.
“I’m sorry.” He ran a finger across her cheek, then let his hand drop.
And that was it. She knew he wasn’t going to say any more, wasn’t going to budge. She’d failed.
“I’m sorry too,” she said, then turned and walked back to her car on legs that didn’t feel like they belonged to her anymore.