The flag stood unguarded. It fluttered lazily in a grassy clearing 20 yards away, shiny green fabric glimmering in the setting sunlight. I could feel the damp earth soaking through the navy fabric of my T-shirt as I glanced over at Faith. She was prone on the forest floor like me, albeit with the misfortune of choosing a spot where the ground was particularly saturated; I could see mud squelching out from under her. She peered back at me through a curtain of dense, mud-plastered hair that obscured most of her face. I nodded to her, but she looked away. My eyes narrowed at the sound of leaves rustling. I didn’t need to look to know it was Robyn, standing upright, hiding ineptly behind an ancient-looking oak tree.
Irritated, I returned my focus to the flag. It looked alive, undulating in the evening breeze. Something crept up inside me as I watched it. A cold, disquieting feeling that had plagued me since the spring. My throat tightened. I pretended the feeling wasn’t there. I noticed Robyn flashing me a smile in my periphery, straining to make eye contact. I pretended she wasn’t there, either.
Ever since Robyn found out Gabriela wasn’t at camp, I’d felt her yearning to form a trio with Faith and me. The thing was, I already had a trio: me, Faith, and Gabriela. Gabriela met Faith during her first year at camp. The following summer, I came along with her and the three of us teamed up for the annual, camp-wide game of Capture the Flag. We won, and a tradition was born. Every year since, the game ended with one of us sprinting triumphantly across the boundary line. Usually, it was Gabriela. Now, we had Robyn, and things were off with Faith. I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t. My memories of that day — of the past few months — were fuzzy. I could recall most clearly my parents’ gentle persuasion that “spending some time away from it all might be a good thing.”
Immediately upon arrival at camp, Faith asked after Gabriela. I told her that she was visiting family in Colombia instead of coming to camp this summer. Faith said she hadn’t mentioned it in any of her pen pal letters. The same cold feeling returned. “Well, that’s what she told me,” I muttered. Faith looked at me strangely. We were quiet the rest of the way to our cabin. When another cabin-mate asked where Gabriela was, I offered a different explanation: Gabriela simply hadn’t wanted to come to camp this year. She said that didn’t sound like Gabriela. I offered a dispassionate shrug in response, keeping my eyes glued to the friendship bracelet I was working on. Later, down at the waterfront, a counselor approached me, sitting on the dock while my fellow campers enjoyed the water. Ria was a joyful, boisterous woman, always bursting with “camp spirit.” Today, her energy was different. She sat down next to me and laid a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t react. We sat in silence. I began to trail the tips of my bare toes across the water.
“Don’t feel like swimming?” she finally said.
I shook my head a little. “No.” We went quiet again. The gleeful squeals of the other campers splashing about in the lake filled the empty air. I didn’t see Faith among them. When I spotted her in an inner tube, floating separate from the group, she was already looking at me. I dropped my gaze. Ria cleared her throat.
“I’m really happy you’re at camp this summer.” She gave my shoulder a squeeze. There was another long pause. “How are you holding up?” she asked. I turned toward her, fighting the tightness returning to my throat.
“What do you mean? I’m doing great!” I said, quickly returning my gaze to the water.
Ria nodded slowly. She looked sad. “Do you want to talk about Gabriela?” she probed.
I flinched. “She’s not here this summer. Money issues,” I explained. My voice shook. “Fingers crossed she’s back next year!”
Ria gave me a small smile. “Okay,” she whispered. I shrugged her hand off my shoulder, then dropped off the dock and into the lake with a splash.
The sound of a twig snapping pulled me back to the present. There was movement ahead of Faith, Robyn, and me. A group of Green Team girls was combing through the woods silently. I frowned. Faith and I were well concealed, but if this scouting party looked hard enough, Robyn would surely be discovered and give us all away. My eyes darted to the flag. It danced leisurely in the wind, still unprotected. I glanced at Robyn. She was squeezed tightly against her tree, asking wordlessly: What do I do? I resisted the urge to look around for Gabriela; she would’ve known.
I put a muddy finger to my lips — stay still and stay quiet. It was getting dark; we might be safe. As the Green Team continued through the trees, my heartbeat quickened. I willed them to turn around. Suddenly, a tall girl in a lime green tank top brought them to a halt. She popped a hip out and scanned the trees. I’d seen her around; her name was Marissa. I studied her from my place in the mud. She was lanky, with high cheekbones and short, red-tinted, curly hair. Suddenly, I thought she looked a little like Gabriela. Maybe it was just a trick of the waning twilight. But weren’t her eyes that same, unmistakable, deep shade of brown? I let out a shaky breath. It took me a moment to realize that those eyes were looking right into mine. A smile crept across Marissa’s face. My stomach lurched.
“There!” She squealed, jabbing a finger at me.
“Run!” Robyn shouted, startling the Green Team girls, none of which seemed to have noticed her after all.
At that moment, I pushed off the ground hard, shooting a cursory look in Faith’s direction. It was up to me and her now. I was shocked to find, however, that Faith was standing still, hands up in surrender. She wouldn’t look at me as I took off, sprinting toward the flag. I crashed through the trees and into the clearing, yanked the flag free, and continued back into the woods at full speed. Shrieks rang out through the night air, which only made me run faster, my breath coming in short gasps. It dawned on me that I was running in the opposite direction of Blue Team territory, but I couldn’t stop. I ran until I was lost, then slowed to a halt, struggling for breath. I looked around. It was quiet. The evening breeze was gone; the air, still. I peered down at the flag in my hand. It hung limp in my grasp. Lifeless. The green fabric looked dull and gray in the darkness. The now familiar, cold, disquieting feeling washed over me without warning. I struggled against it, tried to push it away, but it overwhelmed me.
I began to cry, softly at first, standing amongst the trees. Then, louder, dropping to my knees, tears falling freely as choked sobs escaped my lips unimpeded. Minutes passed and I cried harder still, curling up tightly on the damp ground and clutching the flag to my chest. I wept and wailed, wishing for what I knew the world could not give me back.
I don’t recall when I got to my feet, or when I began to trudge back the way I had come through the forest. When I emerged from it, I was faintly able to register my name being called from the woods somewhere far behind me. Flashlight beams flickered through the trees; looking for me. I backed away from them involuntarily, not yet ready to be found. Wandering along the outskirts of the camp, I ended up at the waterfront. I faltered for a moment when I spotted Faith sitting on the end of the dock, head bowed. Almost involuntarily, I took a careful step backward, glancing over my shoulder. She hadn’t noticed me. I could go. I wanted to go.
Just as I took another step away from her, Faith let out a faint sob. I froze. A new kind of guilt washed over me. It propelled me forward. Faith whipped around as I approached her, then tried to hide her tears as I sat down beside her with my knees pulled up to my chest. Aside from her sniffles, we were silent. Finally, she turned to face me.
“Where’s Gabriela?” she choked out. Her face looked anguished. Pleading. I didn’t know how to answer her. My silence hung in the air. “Why won’t you talk to me?” There was desperation in her voice.
“I … don’t know,” I whimpered. “She just … I …” My chest started to cave in; dots swam across my vision. I squeezed my eyes shut and instantly I was standing on the rural highway behind my house. No crosswalk, but it only took a few seconds for us to run to the other side, especially when incentivized by slushies from the 7-Eleven across the way. I remember that Gabriela was wearing blue that day — a royal blue 76ers sweatshirt, periwinkle shorts, navy UGG boots. She always wore blue in the months leading up to camp, in preparation for our next Capture the Flag win. I bet she would’ve gotten a blue slushie, too.
Without warning, my memories of the blue were interrupted by red. I felt my body start to tremble, but I couldn’t stop remembering. There was so much red. I could see her now, lying there. So still.
My eyes snapped back open. I shuddered, gasping for breath. I nearly forgot Faith was sitting next to me. She reached out and hesitantly rested her hand on mine. Something burst inside of me.
“She’s gone, Faith,” I bawled, curling into her. “I miss her so much.” Faith’s sobs intensified; she wrapped her arms around me. “And I didn’t want to lie, but when I saw you it just reminded me that … she’s not here,” I gasped out. “I’m so sorry.”
Now Faith was shaking. “How?” she whispered.
I told her. About the road behind my house. About the slushies. How Gabriela ran ahead of me that day. How I gave chase. I had just barely scrambled up out of the ditch when I caught her ankle with one hand, keeping her from getting farther ahead of me. She was only a few feet out on the road, teetering on one leg. Our laughter had left us breathless. Heedless. Neither of us saw the pickup truck coming around the bend. All I saw was Gabriela, her smile lighting up her whole face. One moment she was there, the next, my hand was grasping empty air.
A small crowd gathered in the minutes that followed — neighbors, a few passersby, and the pickup driver. They stood about 20 yards away from me, where she had landed. I didn’t move. I didn’t think. I barely breathed.
The arrival of the police shook me from my trance. I approached the first officer I saw, pushing my way through the crowd. He rushed toward me when he noticed me, mumbling something urgently into his radio. My eyes locked onto his badge. “Officer Mariso,” it read. He started speaking to me. His tone was soft, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It was as if he was speaking gibberish. He knelt down with his arms wide and tried to sort of herd me back the way I came, but I pushed him away.
“I did it,” I croaked out. “I did it. It was my fault.” He shook his head. Talked more gibberish. He didn’t get it. I tried to bolt past him, but he was quick, hugging me from behind before I could get away. In the instant before he swung me back around to face the other way, I saw her. Gabriela’s body was splayed out on the asphalt. Her body looked all wrong. She was covered in blood. It was too much for me. I collapsed, unconscious, in Officer Mariso’s arms.
I told Faith all of this.
She was quiet for a long time after. I listened to the calls of two loons echoing back and forth across the lake to keep myself from crying again. Eventually, I felt her take a sharp breath. She turned to look at me. I shrank away from her gaze. “Where did you go tonight?” she asked, softly.
“I … got lost.” I looked at my feet.
She nodded. Another loon joined the chorus.
“Can I hold it?” Faith pointed to the flag, still firmly in my grip.
I looked up; I wasn’t expecting her to ask. I tentatively held it out to her.
She took it with two hands, handling it more delicately than I. She nodded slowly as she stared at it, pressing her lips together, breathing shakily as she tilted her head up to the stars. Fresh tears trickled down her cheeks.
“I should have come with you,” she croaked. The loons were silent now. “Gab would be happy you kept our streak.”
I shook my head as tears returned to my eyes. “I didn’t.” It had only just occurred to me. I had the flag, but I never actually crossed back into Blue Team territory. The Waterfront was supposed to be no-man’s-land. When I explained this to Faith, she stood up, wordlessly. I followed her lead.
We crept back up the dock the way I had come. Sure enough, we were still in Green Team territory; even in the dark, the bright pink boundary painted across the grass was visible. Together, we carried the flag over the line and placed it gently in the grass. For Gabriela.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now