Toby didn't like to talk to people or look them in the eye. He didn't need friends. Or did he? Shipped off to summer camp, Toby had more new things to get used to than he could deal with. Could his cabinmate, Noah, offer the support he so desperately needed?
Toby straightened his books up on his new dresser for what seemed like the hundredth time. It was actually the sixth, though -- he'd been counting. If there was one thing Toby had been looking forward to about summer vacation, it was being alone. He didn't have friends. Didn't need them, wasn't very good at making them, so it worked out. His foster parents, unfortunately, disagreed. That was how he'd ended up at summer camp.
Or maybe they had just wanted to get rid of him, just like his real parents had. Nobody wanted a kid who wouldn't look at you, would only complain on the rare occasions he did speak because things weren't just so. Who would get inconsolably upset over seemingly insignificant things.
The one saving grace of this whole ordeal was that Toby would only have to share the tiny cabin with one other boy. Or perhaps that was a bad thing. No witnesses. Toby had always been an easy target for bullying and, because of his poor communication skills, had a tendency not to report it.
The door banged open loudly and Toby leapt backwards, landing on his bed, his hands reflexively going to cover his ears. He hated loud sounds.
A boy around Toby's age -- sixteen -- stomped in, his eyes on Toby but his path taking him towards the opposite side of the room where the empty bed lay. For a moment Toby met his gaze, took in ice blue eyes and short brown hair, before averting his eyes back to the bed. It came as a surprise when his dark brown hair didn’t fall down to conceal his face. He kept forgetting he’d had it cut.
"Noah," the other boy said.
Toby stared down at his bedspread, a faded blue thing covered in cartoonish white stars, as he decoded the meaning of the word. "Oh. Toby."
Noah made a sound of acknowledgement before dumping his things at the end of his bed. "So, what are you in for?"
Toby glanced up because he didn't want to make a terrible impression, not really. Look at people when they talk to you, that's what the psychologist he saw every month was always saying. "What?"
"Why are you here?" Noah clarified, an edge of impatience in his voice. "You don't look any more excited about this whole summer camp thing than I am."
"Oh," Toby said again. He hadn't spoken this much in weeks but he was trying, really trying, to make Noah not hate him. "Because nobody wants me around."
It was the more melodramatic answer, Toby supposed, but it was the shortest one he could think of. The right one, too, perhaps, because Noah grinned. "Hey, me too!"
That was, apparently, the end of the conversation, as Noah turned away and began unpacking. Toby straightened his books again. He'd knocked them out of alignment when he'd been startled by Noah's entrance.
By the time the lunch bell rang, Toby was thoroughly absorbed in a book and Noah was doing something on his phone. Texting, Toby thought. They seemed to have made a silent agreement that socialisation was unnecessary. Still, when they left for lunch they left together.
The cafeteria was large, noisy, and lit with fluorescent lights. Toby was tempted to walk out the moment he walked in. He could not deal with this kind of thing when he was already overloaded. Noah was behind him, though, nudging him through the other teenager boys congested around the doors, leaving Toby with little choice but to continue inside. Reluctantly, he joined the queue for food.
Somehow Toby had managed to forget one of the biggest issues with this whole ordeal until it was right in front of him. Food. It looked as bad as the food the cafeteria at school served, but Toby had never actually had to eat that. Every day for lunch he'd had an apple and the cheese sandwiches his foster mum had made him on bread no more than a day old. That had been the way he’d liked things. He didn't want mac and cheese. He didn't want chicken nuggets. He grabbed a fruit salad and found his way out of the queue and to a table.
He didn't know why he was surprised when Noah sat down next to him. They'd hardly talked, of course, but somehow Toby had still expected Noah to prefer a random stranger over him. It was the way things had always been.
"No wonder you're so skinny," Noah said over the ruckus, jabbing his plastic fork in the direction of Toby's fruit salad when all Toby did in response was stare.
Toby's gaze shifted to his food before, after a moment of contemplation, he folded his arms on the table and buried his face in them. That blocked out the light, at least, and a little bit of the sound if he hunched his shoulders up to cover his ears.
"Hmm," was all Noah had to say about that.
Someone stood up and made an announcement at some point, but the words were nothing but more sounds in the chaos that surrounded Toby. It was probably important, but Toby felt too wound up to care.
When the person stopped speaking Noah tugged Toby's arm, tugged him up, and he went without complaint. Toby didn't really want to be touched just then, but the guiding hand around his wrist simplified his passage through the cafeteria so he didn't complain.
A man held out a hand to prevent them from stepping outside. "No food outside of the cafeteria."
Toby looked down at the fruit salad in his hand. He hadn't realised he'd taken it with him.
"Well?" the man said expectantly.
Those were incomplete instructions. No food outside the cafeteria, okay. So what happened to the fruit salad? He couldn't make words to ask, not right then.
"Just let him take it, man," Noah spoke up. "He hasn't eaten yet."
"That was his decision. Next time perhaps he'll make a better one."
Toby still wasn't sure what to do with the fruit salad, so he held it out to the man. Apparently that was the right thing to do, or a right thing, because the man took it without complaint and let them past.
They didn't speak as Toby followed Noah across camp, heading in a direction that was not back to their room. Where they were going and why were questions Toby would have liked to have known the answers to but couldn't ask just then. Words were even more difficult than usual when he felt like this.
It was mostly quiet outside, at least, and that helped calm Toby's mind a little. Trees and grass, a wide open space. Toby preferred to stay inside because he didn't like people, not because he didn't like the outside world. If everything else hadn't been so terrible he might have been able to enjoy the natural beauty surrounding him.
Toby picked up a pinecone and pulled scales off it as they walked. If he focussed on the pinecone he could block out at least a little of the rest of the world. The sharp scales dug at his skin, the small amount of pain grounding him further.
By the time they reached the clearing at the edge of camp filled with other boys, Toby had settled down enough to lean against a tree and watch at a distance rather than simply run back to their cabin. Noah stayed with Toby for a few moments before wandering out to join the more social boys.
Toby studied Noah carefully. The way he quickly inserted himself into a game of hacky sack with no more than a few words to complete strangers, his easy smile, his friendly laugh, his careful and graceful movements as he took part in the game. Though Toby had always told himself he didn’t want friends, it still made him feel unpleasantly isolated.
Someone blew a whistle, long and loud, and Toby's hands flew up to clamp over his ears. The little bit of calm Toby had regained was immediately shattered. He focussed his attention on his pinecone again, tugging and twisting at the scales.
"Okay, boys, we're going to do trust falls!" the camp counselor shouted over the dwindling ruckus. "Can I get a volunteer? Okay, come here, let's show everyone how it's done."
Toby kept his eyes firmly on the pinecone. He knew what trust falls were and he knew how they were done. He also knew he wasn't going to do it. He didn't want anyone touching him just then and he didn't want to touch anyone else. Besides, who could he actually trust? Noah, maybe, but people had deceived him with false kindness before.
"Hey!" the camp counselor called after the demonstration was over and the others had begun pairing up. "Are you going to participate or are you just going to stand there?"
Toby flicked his eyes up just long enough to confirm that the counselor was speaking to him before returning his attention to the pinecone. No, no, no. He wasn't doing this and nobody could make him.
"Toby, come on, I'll do it with you," Noah called to him, but Toby ignored him just as much as he was ignoring the camp counselor.
"Unless you have a medical certificate, you have to participate," the camp counselor said, closer now.
Toby felt a flash of anger run through him and had to force himself to resist throwing the pinecone at the counselor. His psychologist had taught him two things: that he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to, and that it was not okay to lash out at people.
"You can go up to administration if you don't feel like cooperating," the counselor warned.
Toby didn't want that. He hadn't been there before, he didn't know the procedure, and he couldn't explain himself. He was well beyond words. Toby leant forward and the rocked back so that his back hit the tree, did it again and again, creating a soothing rhythm.
"Is he retarded?" Toby heard someone ask, and someone else laughed.
"Toby," Noah's voice said gently from beside him. "It's not a big deal."
"No!" Toby said, shouted, the word coming out louder than intended. "No."
"Is he your cabinmate?" the counselor asked, his voice lowered now as he addressed Noah. Noah must have nodded, because the counselor continued. "Take him back to your cabin."
Toby wasn't sure what had happened to being sent to administration. He followed close behind Noah as they headed back, his eyes tracking Noah's shadow on the ground instead of watching where he was going. They arrived back quicker than Toby had expected.
"Do you want to tell me what just happened?" Noah asked as they walked into the cabin.
Toby sat down on the wooden floor and began picking his shoe laces undone. "No."
Noah let out a frustrated sigh. "Fine."
Toby flinched as the door slammed shut behind Noah, his hands leaping up to cover his ears too late to block out the sound. Well, that was it. He'd driven away the one person who had been nice to him without being paid for it. Somewhere deep inside, beneath the fog that clouded out his thoughts, Toby cared.