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This submission is significant to me because it explores my fear of things ending before I am ready. This fear is present in many aspects of life, whether it is something small like a vacation or much more significant such as relationships or milestone events. To explore this fear, I wanted to anchor it in a lighthearted tone of nostalgia and friendship because anxiety often creeps in delightful moments. If I am not careful, it can build to an overwhelming amount and sour what should be a beautiful memory. In this piece, Milo can throw off this fear and enjoy the moment for what it is. I hope to embody this state of mind as well, be present rather than focusing on the quickly approaching finish line.

The steady trill of the river mixing with the hypnotic light of the campfire enraptured Milo. She watched the tiny sparks dance to the heavens to find rest among the stars. The heat of the fire was a warm cat purring against her shins while the twilight air nipped at her neck. Milo snuggled into Indi and pulled the quilt tighter around them. They probably should have grabbed sweaters like the boys, but it was too late to go back now. Besides, she refused to let a little chill rob her of this moment. For a few hours, they managed to shrug off the responsibility of cabin leaders and bundle up in each other's company instead.

As soon as their little campers were settled into the bunks, each cabin leader extinguished the lights and slipped out of their cabins. Usually, they only left for a few minutes to get ready for bed. But on the last night of camp, they concocted a plan. Instead of heading to the washroom, Milo and Indi used their kitchen key to smuggle some leftover desserts. Earlier that day, Casey chopped extra wood during the smores activity to avoid the risk of thundering cracks late at night. And Jasper brought the key to the wood shack, applying minimal effort as usual. Reed didn’t have much to offer besides keeping their secret from the camp director, his mom. Somehow he had caught wind of their plan, but at least he was tolerable compared to the other junior leaders. Otherwise, everything went perfectly, and they indulged in the fruits of their labor, well, the brownies and layered jello of their labor. Surely the junior cabin leaders could handle the campers for a few hours. The terrors of the day couldn’t harm them while they were asleep.

“To a perfect summer and the best cabin leaders I know,” Jasper said as he raised his cup

and slurped up the jello. “Well, almost perfect. There is one more tradition we haven’t finished yet.”

“If you mean star-tipping, forget it, Jasper,” Indi said. “Chef Carly’s brownies are too good to end up as vomit.”

“No, I’m talking about the customary skinny dip in Kelpie Corner.”

Milo scrunched up her nose. “Gross.”

“You can keep your clothes on.”

“Still, gross.” Kelpie Corner was a deep bend in the river, making it a perfect but dangerous swimming spot. In an attempt to discourage young campers from wandering too close, the staff named it Kelpie Corner years ago. They even created the legend of Lil Kellie, the camp's resident kelpie. But hardly any campers understood the reference now. After all, kelpies weren’t popular bedtime stories. Instead, the campers lovingly dubbed the bend Pee Corner since at least one boy cabin always found it hilarious to pee off the ledge into the river below. Last year, Casey’s cabin poorly timed their attempt during the scavenger hunt.

“You’re allowed to have your opinion, but it's an honest tradition,” Jasper said, selecting another jello cup from the tray. “Just ask Reed.”

“Mom discourages it, but it is pretty common.”

“Fine, then what are you waiting for? Go take a swim, Jasper.” Casey said as he threw another log on the fire, sending up a shower of sparks.

“I would, but,” Jasper waved his neon purple cast. “Can’t get this bad boy wet. And we all know Reed can’t swim. So that leaves you three.”

“Actually, two,” Indi said. When Milo glared at her, Indi leaned in and whispered, “Our favorite Aunt Flo visited this morning, so….

“How fitting, our childhood sweethearts will carry on the tradition,” Jasper said, causing Milo to blush. Of course, that stupid rumor still clung to her. When she and Casey were little campers, they had disappeared in the middle of capture the flag, and naturally, their cabins assumed they were somewhere in the woods kissing. No one cared if it was true or not, and, to Milo’s chagrin, the story surfaced every year. “If you don’t, we’ll be cursed until next summer.”

“What is this, some pseudo-sacrifice to appease the camp gods?” Milo said.

“Pretty much. Look, I don’t care what you do over there, whether you make out with Casey or Lil Kellie. As long as you take the dip.”

To Casey’s credit, he did begin to protest, but Milo’s voice was louder. “Fine,” the blanket fell from her shoulders as she stood. “Let’s go for a swim, Casey.”

As she stared at their wavering forms in the water, Milo knew this was a mistake. Compelled by her stubbornness, she dove headfirst into this ridiculous dare, disregarding the consequences. If it were only her, that would be one thing. But with Casey? Alone? No doubt, more rumors would sprout. Or she would manage to embarrass herself, and this would be Casey’s last memory of her, circling in the back of his mind like the bitter aftertaste of burnt coffee. She dug her bare toes into the cool mud, wrapping them in an earthy blanket. Next to her feet, Casey’s white university sweater lay with their discarded shoes. Rightfully so. It would be a crime to soak it in the murky waters of Pee Corner. Milo considered pushing him over the ledge and running back to the fire with Jasper’s tradition fulfilled. But she dismissed the thought at the prospect of more ridicule from the boys. Because who was too scared to take a small dip? No, she couldn’t live with that mark on her reputation. The only way out was together- both jump or both leave.

“This is stupid. Jasper’s just spewing his usual bullshit. Let’s make a splash with some rocks and head back.”

“We won’t be wet through,” Casey said. “We’ll jump in quick and climb right out.” Milo crossed her arms and wished for Indi’s quilted embrace.

“You seriously believe Jasper’s prophesied curse?” She tried half-heartedly as Casey matched her obstinacy and rarely backed down.

“Not at all,” Casey said. “But it’s the last chance to do something stupid and harmless this summer? Do you really want your last memory to be chickening out?” He held out his hand and wriggled his slender fingers expectantly. Milo knew this wouldn’t end well. And she locked her hand in his anyway. His skin held the lingering warmth of the fire they left behind. With no countdown or warning, he pulled her along, and the mud squelched as her feet tore free. She tried her best not to, but a small squeal escaped her lips as they fell. Their flight lasted mere seconds before plunging beneath the water.

It was colder than she expected. Silly, she’d taken this plunge many times before while the summer sun kissed the water, and it was fucking cold then. But the water pinched her cheeks, and her limbs sat in shock. Eventually, the chill soothed her nerves with a lullaby, and peace washed over her. The water distorted the starry sky, and Orion’s belt danced teasingly above. Despite her previous aversion, Milo wished she could stay here for a while and let the water freeze at this moment in time, preserving a perfect image of summer.

The moment shattered when her focal point of warmth slipped from her hand, and Casey left her for the surface. With a mental sigh, Milo followed suit and kicked up into the night. A few feet away, Casey smiled giddily and swept his dripping hair out of his eyes. It had grown a touch too long without his mother around to trim it. Milo felt the sway of the water by her legs before she saw him shift closer. Oh god, was he leaning in? The sour scent of earthy river water already coated his skin, and her nose crinkled as he brought it closer. But his childlike joy radiated vibrantly, and Milo conceded to reflecting his glow.

Until it faded. In an instant, Casey’s smile fell flat, and his eyes widened.

“Did you touch my leg?”

Milo frowned at the question. In a lake, almost anything could be brushing past their limbs - the snotty strings of algae, clods of dirt churned up in their wake, even a curious fish. But the night had a funny way of steeping familiar sensations with fear. And while Milo knew for a fact not an inch of her skin touched Casey’s, it also was not her own hand wrapped around her ankle.

Exchanging a look of understanding, Milo said, “Lil Kellie isn’t real.” While she stated it as a fact, the words tasted absurd on her tongue. She stared into the depths, unsure if she hoped to spot the culprit or not. Milo flinched when Casey’s hands landed on her shoulders, his fingers clawing at her soaked shirt. Before she protested, he pushed her forward and cowered behind her like a shield. He extended an unsteady finger, and her eyes nervously followed its path. The water rippled and shook, disturbed by something beneath the surface. Something dark. Something fast. Something… small?

Milo cocked her head as the creature approached them, its beady eyes glinting in the moonlight. Shrugging off Casey’s grip, she snatched up the creature before it swam any closer. Holding it out at arm’s length, she spun around to proudly display her catch.

“It’s just a garter snake.” The snake writhed in her grasp, and its red tongue flicked in protest. To her surprise, Casey shot back with incredible speed, reacting like Milo’s campers to a boy taunting them with a handful of worms.

"You’re still scared of snakes?”

“No,” Casey said indignantly. But his tense muscles melted into relief when Milo tossed the snake into the bushes.

"Maybe.” Unable to contain them, nervous giggles spilled from Milo’s throat. To her surprise, Casey joined in. Laughter seemed to be the only appropriate response to such a ridiculous situation. Better than focusing on the unknown, still tickling their feet at least.

“Don’t mention it to the others?”

“Only if you stop telling your campers I’m secretly Lil Kellie.”

“Deal.” Before something else could twist around their legs, they clambered out of the river and mud-caked onto their knees. While Milo squeezed the fowl water from her hair, Casey unsuccessfully shook himself dry like a dog. Gathering their things, they ran back to their friends with giggles still bubbling out. In the corner of her eye, Milo thought she caught the shadow of a deer or maybe a horse trotting through the pine trees. But she chose not to mention it. When they finally reached the fire, Milo realized too late that she had accidentally pulled on Casey’s sweater. She chastised herself for opening the door to more rumors.

But maybe that was ok. If this started a rumor, at least it also placed the ammunition of a secret in her own pocket. The soft fabric stuck to her damp skin. The sweater only smelled marginally better than the river water, and it was hard to tell if it was Casey’s sweat or the baked-in scent from a cabin full of pubescent boys. Though Milo doubted any of her clothes smelled like roses and vanilla at this point, either.

Slumping back into place under Indi’s quilt, Milo shared a smile with the group, and the night went on. No mention of the dip. No teasing comments. Only the sweet smoke of the campfire and the intoxicating laughter of friends. Maybe Casey’s mood towards her shifted. But between her lingering shiver and the dark of night, she couldn’t really tell, and it didn’t matter. Summer’s curtain was quickly falling. Soon they would part ways for a normal life. If they were lucky, they’d all return in a year's time. Maybe next summer would last longer, and its warmth lingers far past its initial touch. Milo settled to solve the puzzle Casey then. Now, all she wanted was to soak in a healthy portion of joy to carry her through to next year.

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