Fiction by John Connell
Brian and Priya were the last to step off the bus, both on shaky legs from sitting so long. They had left early in the morning so the sun was high in the sky by now, beating down on them both. Brian fanned himself with his faded baseball cap.
“This is the camp?” he asked, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
Priya nodded. “Yeah, it looks pretty much the same as last year. Come on, I’ll show you where the cabins are.”
She motioned for Brian to follow and started to walk down the dirt path cutting through the parched grass. Brian looked around to take in this place. The lake, huge and glistening, was the centerpiece here: all the shoddy little wood cabins were built around it. The late August heat and all the dying, brown plants made this place look like it had never even seen rain.
A second bus pulled into the dusty parking lot. Brian lingered for a moment, hoping to catch a glimpse of those getting off it. He saw Jason step off the bus first looking like a real professional, with his stupid perfect outfit and stupid perfect smile that made him seem like he hadn’t just come off a 6-hour ride on a bus with windows that don’t open. Brian felt a lump in his throat and turned around to hurry after Priya.
“I think it was a pretty big deal for you to come out here,” Priya said over dinner. “It’s brave, honestly.”
Brian and Priya ate in the big dining hall at the back of the campground. It was the biggest building around, somehow managing to just barely fit all the other young professionals. Brian kept his head down.
“I feel like everyone is looking at me. They all know Jason. I’ve only worked for the company a few weeks,” Brian said. “They’re probably all saying he’s the only reason I got hired.”
“No one here got hired that didn’t deserve it. If anything, they’ll sympathize. How can any of us respect Jason after he pulled a stunt like that?”
“It still doesn’t even make sense to me,” Brian said, not looking up from his meal. “This isn’t how things are supposed to be. I really had plans for us.”
“Well, I always knew he was an asshole.”
Brian woke up the next morning just as the sun was rising. He rolled over on his tiny, hard mattress and checked the schedule he had left on his bedside table. Every waking hour for the next week had been carefully planned by the company, filled with sessions on “maximizing teamwork and professional development.” Whatever that meant.
Brian threw some clothes on, washed his face, and took a long, critical look in the mirror. Not perfect, but he looked a little better than the day before. Would Jason notice? When Brian arrived, the dining hall was already packed. He looked around, hoping to find Priya, but it was difficult to pick anyone out amongst the crowd. Brian shoved his way through the throng towards the buffet.
Brian turned around. There was Jason, still looking perfect, holding a bagel. Brian felt his heart stop in his chest. He managed to get out a weak “hi.”
“You better hurry and get in line. They’re almost out of bagels,” Jason said.
“Uh-huh,” Brian said. Jason hadn’t spoken to him in weeks and the first thing out of his mouth was about bagels. Of course. “Jason, do you think we could, I don’t know, hang out or something while we’re here? There’s a little bit of free time scheduled for-”
“No way, bud. I’m way too busy networking,” Jason said. “Maybe once we get back I can pencil you in.”
“He actually said ‘pencil you in?’” Priya asked, incredulous. “What a douche.”
Brian laughed. “You seem angrier about this than me.”
“I wouldn’t say angry,” she said, “but I’ve known Jason for a long time. I never saw the personal side of him like you did, only the professional.”
“So,” Priya returned, “He’s not giving you the personal side anymore. Imagine, for a moment, that he’s a normal person. Would someone who spent four years supposedly being in love with you talk to you like that? You’re just another employee now. Your relationship is purely professional.”
Brian thought for a moment. “Why did it have to be now, though? He couldn’t just wait until after we’ve been forced to spend a week together at grown-up summer camp? Does he not find this weird at all?”
“This is awful to say,” Priya admitted, “but I don’t think it’s even crossed his mind. Jason only thinks about Jason. He probably broke it off now because it was convenient.”
“Hey, you would know better than me how unfeeling he is. You know his profile picture is still you two in Mexico, right? He hasn’t bothered to change it. Why? I bet he’s not even thinking about anything but work right now.”
The retreat was broken up into a series of workshops, led in tiny classrooms in a building attached to the dining hall. Brian and Priya sat together for most of them. Brian was barely present, however. Every few minutes or so, he caught himself staring across the room at Jason. The worst part was watching him laugh and smile that stupid smile.
“Dude, are you okay?” Priya asked.
“Yeah, sorry. I keep spacing out today.”
“I know what’s going on,” Priya said with a raised eyebrow.
Brian laughed nervously. “How obvious am I being?”
Priya shook her head. “Stop doing it. You’re torturing yourself.”
As the workshop ended, Priya tapped Brian on the shoulder.
“Listen, I’ve got to go talk to Shannon for a sec. I’ll catch up with you at dinner. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she told him.
Brian gave a half-hearted wave to Priya as she turned and left. He started getting up to leave the classroom.
A man’s voice, but not Jason this time. Brian turned around to see someone he wasn’t sure he recognized. He was skinny, and hidden behind a thick pair of glasses. This guy came off as a lot more reserved than Jason and Brian heard a timidity in his voice. What department was he from?
“Were you staring at me during the workshop?” he asked hesitantly.
Brian let off another nervous laugh. “No, just spacing out. I’m Brian, by the way,” he said, offering a handshake.
“Cool. I think I saw you on the bus over here. I’m Max.”
“Max Driscoll? I think he’s an accountant.” Priya said over that night’s dinner. “You think he’s cute?”
“I’m not thinking about that,” Brian said. “I don’t want to get a reputation.”
“So you do think he’s cute.”
“I don’t know! Maybe!”
Dinner that night was a poor attempt at Indian food. Priya had more of an appetite for gossip.
“Maybe Max likes you! It would be a real middle finger to Jason. Don’t you want to piss him off?” she asked.
Brian scoffed. “Jason’s not going to care. Like you said, he only cares about work. If anything, it would probably make him happy that I won’t be interested in him anymore.”
“That is so gross, but you’re probably right. God, I’m starting to think Jason must be some kind of a sociopath,” Priya said. “But the important thing is, you should do what you want to do. If Jason weren’t in the picture, would you go for Max?”
“I guess that’s something I have to think about.”
Alone on the hard, little mattress, Brian was curled up in the glow of his phone. He swiped through photo after photo from an album just called “Mexico”. The trip wasn’t even that long ago. He stopped on a picture he took of Jason, sitting against a palm tree with his hands behind his head. What had he been thinking about?
Another picture: this time the two of them together, holding hands on a sparkling beach. Brian studied his own placid expression. It was a strange feeling to know what would come soon after that moment.
He couldn’t look at it anymore. Brian pressed the phone against his heart, wondering what Priya might say if she could see his self-flagellation. The walls in the cabin were thin, so his tears had to be silent.
Night was starting to fall, and the dusk had bathed the entire campground in orange and purple. Everyone else was in their cabins, but Brian was outside, alone, at the lake. He had taken his shoes off to dip his feet in the muddy water as he sat on the beach to watch the setting sun. What terrible forces had brought him here? For a moment, Brian envied everyone who had never met Jason.
“Can I join you?”
Brian turned around to see Max.
Max took his shoes off and sat down next to Brian.
“Can I ask you something?” Brian said, turning to face Max.
“Does everyone know about me and Jason, or am I imagining that?”
Max let slip a knowing grin. “It’s not exactly a secret. But for the record, I think Jason is a huge douche.”
Brian laughed at that one.“Not the first time I’ve heard that this week,” he chuckled.
“I can’t imagine this retreat is easy for you,” said Max.
“Not really. But I think I’ll be okay. Eventually.”
The two were silent for a moment. Max rested his head on Brian’s shoulder. Brian briefly returned the gesture.
Brian smiled at the sunset. “Jason’s going to hate this.”