When seventeen-year-old track and field star Jesse Collins’ dreams of a full scholarship are shattered after the sudden death of her dad, she leaves home to work as a summer camp counselor to escape the small town nosy stares… and her own secret guilt.
After a mix-up at registration, she’s put in charge of a boys’ cabin, and the head counselor, Kirk, predicts she won’t last the first two weeks. In the midst of fending off four twelve-year-old boys who are hell-bent on mortifying her and a growing attraction to Kirk, Jesse finds the inspiration to run again from an unlikely source. But getting her old life back isn’t that easy and soon Jesse will realize that a good pair of legs can take a girl far, but she’ll never outrun the truth.
Cool morning air hit my face. My sneakers kept count with a steady beat.
“Feet and lungs, Jesse!” Dad called out.
I pumped my arms faster, not even hearing the gravel crunch under my shoes. I wasn’t running, I was flying. I bounded through the air for a few more seconds before slowing down.
“Beat that!” I laughed between deep breaths.
But he wasn’t behind me.
“Dad?” My voice echoed through the empty park. A woodpecker knocked above my head. I looked up, but there wasn’t a bird. Then the park melted into darkness…into nothing.
I blinked and my bedroom came into focus. Someone knocked on my door. I pulled the covers over my head.
“Hey, Legs,” Grandma sang. “You up?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled into the pillow.
This was the worst time of the day. For a few seconds, I believed that life for the last four months had only been a dream, and that Dad was actually downstairs making breakfast.
Although Mom was the caterer, Dad owned the kitchen on weekend mornings. It was unusual to wake up and not smell bacon or hear the gurgles from the coffee maker. But that had changed, too. The familiar knot tightened my stomach. Reality packs a mean punch.
“Yup.” I pushed myself up in bed and rubbed my face. Grandma’s white spiked hair peeked around the doorframe. A big smile on her red lips made me return the expression automatically. She closed the door, then sat down on the bed and took my hand in hers.
“Oh, Legs.” She’s the only person who still calls me that without it feeling forced or sarcastic. Her silver bangles tinkled as she traced the lines of my palm with her wrinkled finger.
“Let me guess,” I yawned, “an unexpected romance.”
“Hmm,” she frowned.
“Good or bad?”
“Shh, I’m concentrating. This is very interesting.” She turned my hand and gently squeezed the flesh, making ridges along the side of my hand.
I knew what she was looking for. “How many kisses, Grandma?” I asked.
“More than you’ve had before, one in your very near future.”
“Someone special?” I played along.
“Someone who loves you,” she promised. Then she leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “How was your date last night?”
I groaned. “He kept calling me Jessica.” It was an honest mistake, I guess. Not many girls are named Jesse. I was supposed to be Julia, after Julia Child, but Mom was so dopey from painkillers after she had me, Dad got to choose. He was a sportswriter who worshiped Jesse Owens, and when I paired up with track and field like peanut butter with jelly, it seemed I was fulfilling my namesake’s destiny. Even Mom, food whiz extraordinaire, was excited to have a super jock for a daughter, and once the trophies started to pile up, she finally forgave Dad.
“Looked like you made up by the end,” Grandma teased. She’d been watching through the drapes, of course.
“Never kiss anyone goodnight after they’ve eaten a tub of flavoured movie popcorn,” I told her. I could still picture him sprinkling two full packages of the fake seasoning.
“He didn’t even flinch when I warned him about the MSG.”
She nodded like she was mentally cataloguing my advice. We sat quietly, and her gaze fell on my huge duffel bag, bursting with clothes.
“Chloe said she dropped off some outfits,” I said.
She smoothed out the yellow chenille bedspread. “I put in a couple of extra things for you too,” she said. I snuck a glance at the closet, wondering if she’d found my sneakers. My doubts about leaving for the whole summer began to creep back.
“I’m worried about Mom,” I confessed.
“Of course,” Grandma said. “But your mom needs this time too. Her grief is different from yours. She needs to go through all of his things, get rid of his clothes, organize papers—”
“But I can help her do that!”
“No, Legs, she needs to grieve without you watching or listening.” She let me sort out what she had said. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Didn’t I do all my real gut-wrenching crying when I was alone?
“She needs to cry, without being worried I’ll hear her,” I finally said. I hadn’t been the only one in the house pretending all these months. I drew up my knees, hugging them under the bedspread.
Grandma looked at my door as if she expected Mom to walk in on us. “Can I give you some advice?”
My eyes flicked between the door and Grandma. “You’ve never asked before.”
Then she leaned closer and made her voice soft. “Kiss as many boys as you can.”
“Is this the same advice you gave to Mom when she was my age?”
“Of course not, you’re completely different girls.” She paused, and then brushed a stray hair away from my face. “Therefore, you get different advice.”
“Anything else I should know?”
She pursed her lips and looked to the side. “If you’re ever in a sticky situation, especially with a boy—”
“This sounds kinky.”
“—and you need a quick getaway, there are two courses of action that never fail.”
“Mace and kicking?”
“No,” she waved her hand. “Crying and talking about tampons.”
“Grandma,” I moaned. “I think you just set feminism back by thirty years.”
“It always worked for me.”
“So…kiss lots of boys. That’s your advice?”
She laughed. “Because someday you’ll be an old fool like me, and no one will want to kiss you.”
I circled her tiny frame with my arms, inhaling her familiar scent of lavender skin cream.
She leaned back and patted my cheek. “Legs,” she said, “take this summer for you. Go skinny dipping, curse out loud in a quiet room, eat French fries and ice cream for breakfast…”
“That’s more your style than mine.”
“Doing things outside of your comfort zone helps you grow,” she said matter-of-factly.
But I was terrified. What if I couldn’t do it? My commitment to training and running had kept me focused. Without it I was floundering and clueless, completely lost. Maybe doing some- thing brand new wasn’t the best idea. “What if…” I started, then my voice caught in my throat.
What if I never feel like me again? What if I stay this loser forever? What if I ruin everything at camp too?
“What if this is a mistake?” I finally asked.
“That’s how you learn. I didn’t get this smart from always making the right choices.
Besides,” she squeezed my hand, “the mistakes are the best stories.” She laughed and a little bit of my worry melted away. “Now get up. Scarlett O’Hara has called twice already.”
Chloe squealed so loudly, I had to pull the phone away from my ear. “So?” she giggled.
“Is the Kissing Clause a myth or did the hot lifeguard bring you back to life?”
“His name is Ben,” I reminded her. “Last year he worked as a camp counsellor, so he gave me some advice—don’t let the kids drown. Profound, huh?”
She let out a disappointed sigh. “Another one bites the dust.”
I squirmed on the spot. “It’s me that’s the problem. I feel like I’m letting everyone down.”
Chloe made a surprised sound. “The only one you’re letting down is Old Jesse.”
“Yeah, remember her?” she sassed. “That girl was always smiling and laughing, but she was a real bulldog on the track. She’s the one who never gives up.”
Bulldog on the track. I never used to back down from a challenge. The dirtier, the better. But that girl left town four months ago and was never coming back. I was watching life from the sidelines now.
My finish line vanished the day I threw my runners in the closet.
She was quiet, then she said, “Hey, at least tell me how the kissing was.” Her tone was so hopeful it made me smile.
I wanted to tell her that I’d felt it all the way to my toes. That kissing Ben was like tasting honey over vanilla ice cream. But I couldn’t. I pictured the tiny molecules of flavored MSG sliding off of his tongue and into my mouth. The kiss could be summed up in one word—well, actually, one flavour. “Dill pickle,” I said, dully.
After promising to email Chloe regularly, Mom, Grandma, and I piled into the van. The scenic drive through the valley was a little over two hours. There wasn’t much talking; instead we let the radio break up the silence. Soon the wooden sign announcing we had arrived at Kamp Krystal Lake came into view.
Along the winding dirt road, trees to either side gave way to expansive grounds. The area was teeming with kids. In a flash of red, one kid ran right in front of the van, then something slapped against the door.
“That little bastard threw mud at the car!” Grandma announced from the back seat.
“What kind of place is this, the delinquent hall?”
My heart began to beat faster. What did I know about delinquents? The only kids I babysat were the Turner triplets, and they were angels. I gripped the edge of the seat.
“Don’t worry, Jesse,” Mom soothed. “I’m sure he’s full of nervous energy. Besides, girls are always better behaved.”
The parking lot was a sea of buses and cars. All around us kids were hugging parents goodbye while teenagers high-fived each other.
“Wow,” Grandma said. “I bet she’s pop, pop, popular!”
Standing tall among a giggling group of kids, a platinum blond ponytail armed with a clipboard showed off a brilliant smile. Everyone else was a tray of stale graham crackers, and she was the cupcake with pink fluffy frosting. She ushered the group away from the buses, clearly their newly appointed summer queen.
“Are you all right?” Mom asked, studying my face. “Have you changed your mind?”
I snuck a look at Grandma in the backseat. “No, I need this time too, Mom.”
My armpits got sticky and my fists, full of vinyl, started to cramp. I couldn’t move.
Grandma leaned forward and put her head between me and Mom. “When I was seventeen,” she began, “I spent my summer at a resort. There was one nerdy boy who was a terrible flirt. One night he asked me to help him carry some watermelons up to a private function. I expected some bridge club meeting, but it turned out to be this wild party for staff.”
Grandma sighed and her voice became dreamy. “And that’s when I saw Johnny. He was hired to teach the rich old ladies the fox trot. I fell so hard for him. He taught me about dancing, and love and well…it was a summer I’ll never forget. And all because I helped carry watermelons to a party.” She stared out the windshield, lost in her thoughts.
“Grandma! That’s Dirty Dancing!”
Mom closed her eyes then pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and finger. “I think the point Grandma is trying to make is that someday, you may have your own daughter at camp.” She paused for a moment then gave me a slight smile. “Do you want to tell her about a movie, or a real story—maybe one that might happen here, this summer?”
My mouth fell open. “Are you telling me to have sex?!”
Grandma exploded with laughter from the back seat. “Oh my god, Maria, if Stevie was still alive he’d have a heart attack all over again.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the car. Slowly our sniffles punctured the quiet air.
“I’m sorry,” the three of us said together. Grandma reached for our hands.
“That was a good movie,” Mom finally said.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “Especially the ending, when he catches her in the air.”
Mom cleared her throat. “Next year you’ll be getting ready for university, and you’ve always spent so much time training. It’s good to slow down sometimes, Jesse,” she said.
“I’m worried you’re missing out on being a teenager.”
I stared down at my lap. My little summer camp experiment had become a test. A test to see if I could learn to live without running. Without Dad.
“But don’t do anything stupid,” Mom said, suddenly pan- icked. “Don’t lose your head in a false romance.”
“Have fun, but don’t come home pregnant,” Grandma said.
“That’s it!” I screeched. “Any more talk of sex from you two, and I’ll be in the monastery for life!” I jumped out of the car and grabbed my duffel bag from the trunk.
“Nuns go to the convent,” Grandma called out.
We had discussed earlier that I would walk away on my own. No goodbyes, no tears— well, none outside the car. I shouldered my duffel bag and followed all the other kids.
The Cupcake ran by me, her perfect ponytail swinging from side to side, a clip- board tucked under her arm. I reached up and tried to smooth out my own hair, still somewhat straight from Chloe’s make- over last night.
Grandma had taken my seat, and was leaning out of the passenger window of the light blue van as it pulled away, and I suddenly wished I was going with them. “Just remember,” she called out. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Then she laughed and blew me a kiss.